Daft punks, street gangs, amateur spies, and hot messes.
I promise I’ll do an actual catch-up/explainer/vent/ramble/whatever-you-call-these-one-sided-status-updates in the next one of these, most likely at the end of the month since I want to get at least 10 WIBWs out in a year for once. I have been sorta busy, at least in terms of stuff happening around me and to my body, so it’s not depression and/or laziness that’s slowed things down throughout February and I want to fill you in. However, I am very conscious of the fact that I wrote over 1,000 words on Wonder Woman 1984 alone and there are five other entries in this post, each individually consisting of a minimum 450 words. Plus, I got other stuff to get on with, both in terms of writing and life-stuff, so I’m gonna boot the proper update one more entry down the line into a post-Cuphead-write-up world. (That one is now finished at post-time, you’ll see it Monday.) It’s the good kind of booting for once, at least; the kind where I am finally on antidepressants and the initial side-effects have worn off so now I have some semblance of energy I intend to use whilst it’s still good!
For now, here’s what I’ve been watching this week and also a thing I’ve been watching as it released over the past two months cos I didn’t squeeze a film in on either Thursday but the gimmick of this series is it’s supposed to cover at least a week.
Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem [Friday 26th February]
Dir: Kazuhisa Takenouchi
It was me. I’m the reason why Daft Punk split up. Turns out I have developed the uncanny ability during this pandemic to manifest activity in artists who haven’t done anything in a while as a direct result of my relistening to their music a whole bunch in the fortnight or so before the news breaks. I know, it sounds crazy but it’s also happened enough times now that it’s all more than a bit eerie! The major drawback to this, however, is that my powers don’t seem to be able to control whether or not said activity is good activity. Sometimes, we get new drops or announcements from SZA or Wolf Alice or The xx members or St. Vincent. Other times, Tom Meighan violently assaults his ex-fiancée and Kasabian have to get in the bin. So, I am willing to take full responsibility for Daft Punk’s dissolution since my listening to their material significantly increased in the month leading up to the news is definitely the only reason why they broke up and nothing any more plausible.
Dug my Interstella 5555 Blu-Ray that gets weirdly temperamental out of the collection to mark the news, though didn’t get the time and energy to do so until the Friday, coincidentally when Discovery turned 20 in its native France! The anime blows my mind significantly less now than it did when I was a teenager, it being one of my first exposures to anime proper since I never much cared for Pokémon and Dragon Ball, but it does exactly the job that it needs to, provide some fantastic visuals and striking designs to back one of the greatest albums of all-time, so I can’t really complain. The narrative does hang together with some mildly affecting moments, decent pacing, and relative ambition in spite of having to squeeze every beat into the strict running order and runtime of Discovery without the luxury of dialogue. I’m less taken by the really unsubtle allegory for the callous evils of corporate music labels now than I was over a decade back. But I was somewhat moved by the optimistic spirit towards human societal generosity and camaraderie on display through “Face to Face,” cos that’s a trait shared by much of my favourite sci-fi.
…my lawyer is informing me that this signed contract I have from Thomas and Guy which states that they are legally barred from breaking up or retiring until I have been able to see them play live isn’t valid because “it’s written on a cocktail napkin” and “those aren’t even Thomas and Guy’s signatures” and “‘contrakt’ is spelt wrong.” Rats. I’ve tried everything I can, folks.
Coffy [Saturday 27th February]
Dir: Jack Hill
In case you’re wondering how long into Coffy it took for me to start loving the thing, the answer was about the 30 seconds it took for the classic funk score by Roy Ayers to dig into its first of many tasty grooves. I am a huge sucker for films like this, both Blaxploitation specifically but also 70s low-budget crime cinema at large, because I love the aesthetics of it all and can often settle into the vibe pretty quickly. But Coffy is also a legitimately really fucking good movie with continued radical, somewhat feminist (in spite of the blatant fanservice) resonance today and a sharper socio-political eye than a lot of more recent and more ‘serious’ pieces of media that examine the same subjects.
In spite of its modest budget, this is a film of bigness. Big ideas – the ways in which illegal drugs function as different arms of White supremacy, normalised police corruption, and how capitalism (though never explicitly named or condemned) turns Black people against their own race – big characters, big declarations and crowdpleasing payoffs. That’s a winning attitude which is also reflected in just how fun Hill’s film ends up being. I preferred this to Foxy Brown, Hill and star Pam Grier’s follow-up the next year, on account of it lacking the meanness of that latter movie, where the last third turns up the exploitation a little too high for my tastes. The lynching of King George should have a similar film-breaking effect here, but I feel it’s treated with the appropriate horror and righteous disgust to avoid that. Also, the movie ends with Pam Grier shotgun-blasting the dick off of her misogynist traitorous ex-boyfriend and that’s the kind of thing which can redeem even the most disastrous or abhorrent movie in my eyes. Stuff Citizen Kane, that’s Cinema!
West Side Story [Sunday 28th February]
Dirs: Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Wow. Just, wow. That’s really all I can say. I will admit to being a little worried at first since the opening establishing shots and the general lead-in to the introductory dance battling between the Jets and the Sharks started booting up alarm bells with how Hollywood adaptations of Broadway musicals often try to undermine the core abstract campy appeal of the medium by situating the action in a more tangible ‘realistic’ visual language. (See the Lindsay Ellis video essays on Cats and “The Death of the Hollywood Movie Musical” for more on that.) But those thoughts quickly turned out to be unfounded since the on-location shooting is relatively minimal and is merely used to enhance the social messages already inherent to the play via the tangible seedy grit of pre-gentrification New York. Besides, this was made during the still-bright (if waning) days of the old spectacle-driven studio system, so there’s so much of that old Hollywood romantic heart that fits the ‘big emotions expressed bigly’ nature of Broadway. By the time “Jet Song” kicked into gear, I was hooked.
Since, as you can probably deduce, this was my first experience of West Side Story to any degree, let’s also tick off a few other notes every other person has already made yet are nonetheless true for me anyway. It might still be the very best Shakespeare updating ever? The playwriters get that balance of sophisticated classical framework, fun and trashy melodramatic storytelling primarily aimed at the cheap seats, and empathetic lower-class social commentary which was the key to the bard’s works – the latter two parts being something upper-classes and academia have spent decades sucking out to the best of their ability – and successfully translate it all into a then-modern (and arguably still-relevant) context with not only aplomb but also taking full advantage of the similarities shared across mediums. The compressed broad-strokes nature of many a musical does much of the heavy lifting in selling Tony & Maria’s star-crossed lover infatuation despite the story taking place over two days, it’s the kind of thing a viewer buys into the severity of a little easier due to the inherent artifice of the medium (plus the character work in the killer songs). Even something like the opening dance battles between the two gangs are the musical equivalent of Montague and Capulet insult back-and-forths.
Good lord, the choreography! I don’t really have much more to say on that front, just “good lord, the choreography!” And those songs! There are like five different showstoppers here and I love how Leonard Bernstein plays around with expected melodies and toplines to create something that’s often complicated but always memorable – the alternating time-signature changes in “Something’s Coming” are a great example of that. And those performances! I’ve read that he’s not a fan of his work here, but I really liked Richard Beymer as Tony. Just listen to the tone in his voice as he calls out for Chino at the story’s end; it’s not anger or vengeance, it’s not even really sadness, it’s just complete despair and that adds such a subtle but vital dimension to the sequence if noticed. And the editing! So clean, so purposeful, so in sync with the story and offering sometimes-uncomfortable moments of intimacy. West Side Story is just an absolute masterpiece. Couldn’t get enough of it.
And, yes, it would also have been significantly improved were the Puerto Rican characters actually played by Puerto Ricans instead of White people very obviously bronzed up and putting on exaggerated accents. Thank God for Rita Moreno.
Wonder Woman 1984 [Tuesday 2nd March]
Dir: Patty Jenkins
This… does not work. Like, at all. It’s an absolute mess… and yet I didn’t hate it, which seems to put me in the minority. There’s a fair bit I did like or at the very least appreciated.
I loved the look of the film, with such vibrancy in the production design and costumes and overall colour palette that’s indicative of the 80s whilst remaining pleasing to watch for two-and-a-half hours. In fact, in general, I really dug how completely Jenkins and her team went in on the 80s-ness of the project overall in ways deeper than just pilfering the era’s surface aesthetics and cueing up a NOW! That’s What I Call the 80s compilation. There’s the super earnest and admittedly-cheesy tone found in many kids’ movies of the time with additional cribbing from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, although it does sometimes cross the line into full “I know writers who use subtext and they’re all cowards.” The plot and its attempted (we’ll get to that) exploration of capitalism’s narcissistic excess is specifically rooted in Reaganomics to a degree that you can’t tell this story this way outside of that period, which justifies the decision to do a period piece (unlike Captain Marvel). Less positively, it also shares some of the more troubling social attitudes of the era’s blockbusters which I guess I respect the accuracy of even whilst they curdle things (we’ll get to that too).
There are even ways in which 84 improves upon the first movie. I loved how the pacifist (or at least non-lethal) ideology of Diana is actually incorporated into the events on-screen this time instead of dissonantly monologued at the viewer in the climax. Ditto having Diana infrequently need to break mid-flow to save bystanders from potential death, which is something I’ll never tire of seeing in my superhero movies. (And, yes, both elements shouldn’t be so worthy of note, but that’s a longer more depressing conversation about superhero movies at large we don’t have space for here.) The villains are significantly better than the last time around, both Barbara Minerva and Max Lord being compelling characters with interesting thematic baggage and contrasting dichotomies to Diana. And the performances overall do a lot of the heavy lifting, especially Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal who run away with the film together even if Barbara gets the shorter end of the stick when all’s said and done.
But, oh doctor, that screenplay. The biggest and most obvious problem is that of everything to do with Steve Trevor, to a degree where it is tempting to pin all of the film’s failures on him and not just for the Gender Studies 101 reason – “are you really gonna make Diana’s whole character for her first two solo films be about her simping over a man?” – or the giant horrifying consent elephant in the room that the movie can’t stop bringing up but also won’t bring up meaningfully enough. Even if Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham had just made the Dreamstone conjure up a new Steve Trevor out of thin air instead of having his consciousness override another actually-living man’s body, I think his presence in the film fundamentally breaks something in terms of both focus and story. Taking time away from other characters, trapping Diana’s character in arrested development, and making the overall storytelling world feel small and somewhat lifeless, even if Chris Pine is uber-charming and some of those scenes are fun and/or sweet.
Yet, at the same time, I’m not sure that simply deleting his character entirely then giving most of his scenes and general role in the story to Barbara, in order to properly build her and Diana’s relationship so that it doesn’t end up making exactly the same mistakes as Spidey/Electro did in Amazing Spider-Man 2 six years prior, would fix things either. For one thing, their dynamic, for as much as the film amps up its open feminist bona fides, carries a worryingly conservative undercurrent as to how empowered women should act, especially when most of Barbara’s scenes involve men degrading or trying to assault her and pinning the big “maybe she’s turning evil” scene on a second run-in with her attempted rapist. Yes, it’s verbally explained as the Dreamstone literally taking Barbara’s empathy but I’m not sure that’s better, honestly. On a larger scale, I think the film’s general points about capitalism and humanity’s latent potential for destructive selfishness are undermined by having almost all wishes occur, effectively, accidentally and nobody on the creative side being aware of or willing to properly explore that murky grey area, instead working in privileged absolutism. And so many of the film’s biggest moments just don’t connect like they’re clearly supposed to due to a lack of set-up, that constant seemingly unaware self-undermining, and various other interconnected reasons I’m yet to fully untangle but just don’t know how you sufficiently salvage.
This is the inherent risk you take when making a movie filled with almost nothing but biiiiiig swings, I guess. When even one of those swings completely fails to connect, the fix is never as simple as pointing to the most glaring miss and saying “well, if they didn’t do that, everything would’ve worked out.” But I really don’t know with this one. I was engaged all the way through, even at 151 minutes I never felt like the thing dragged or was truly bloated, never bored and liked certain stretches of it. Even the more baffling/problematic creative decisions didn’t turn me off whilst watching, Jenkins is that good at the craftmanship spell of a fun popcorn movie. Like, when it finished, I didn’t have the same empty deflating sensation as I did with the Civil and Infinity Wars. But also, even at the film’s most locked-in stretch (that first hour other than Steve showing up), WW84 never once came close to recapturing the transcendence the first WW managed for 10 glorious minutes in its film. Conversely, I also don’t think that WW84 ever bottoms out into boredom the same way that WW1 (nope bad abbreviation delete that) did during the latter’s entire third act. It doesn’t feel like a step forward, backward, or even sideways. Wonder Woman instead still feels locked into the same spot she was beforehand, her full potential with this same team remaining frustratingly unfulfilled.
Good usage of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, at least.
The 39 Steps [Wednesday 3rd March]
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Appreciate this one more for its place in and as a piece of film history, one which acts as a precursor to spy thrillers on film and the sorts of black comedies Hitchcock would better perfect later in his career. Was pretty fascinating to witness Hitchcock struggling against the technological limitations of early sound cinema to realise his vision, trying audio-based match cuts and translating the expressionist flashback overlays of silent French cinema into a medium at the mercy of imperfect sync, and to see where so much film noir and British spy movies started taking inspirational notes from. As a movie on its own merits, there are just a few too many problems to make this one great. The structure is very awkward, particularly the strange decision to keep its two stars separate from one another (bar one midpoint scene) until the last 25 minutes, as is the pacing. The mish-mash recipe of genres – it’s part spy thriller, part comedy, part chase movie, part screwball romance – isn’t quite there yet so the shifts end up a tad confused. A few too many glaring plot holes somewhat undermine the tension, and all the casual sexism/harassment which is meant to pass for burgeoning romantic banter has aged exactly how it sounds.
That said, The 39 Steps is still Hitchcock so there is some very good stuff here. It took literally the very first frame after the title cards for me to mentally go “yep, this is a Hitchcock film, alright!” so immediately distinctive is his visual style. If anything, I think his shadowy, tight, atmospheric signature is enhanced by the compressed visual real estate of a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and filming in black-and-white – this is my first film of his I’ve seen that uses both, and I feel like Rope had been altered for the Blu-Ray release. There’s a still-unique vibe to the story which comes from being mostly set in the Scottish countryside that adds to the off-kilter paranoia of proceedings, I’d love to see more films try that. And, even if the story at large never fully got its hooks in me (I never found Richard to have the baffled everyman characterisation required to sell proceedings), Hitchcock does manage to get two great reveals in which made my eyes tangibly light up with cinematic glee in the ways a great mystery reveal or twist always does.
Not sure I’ll ever seek it out intentionally again, especially since it really does feel like a dry run for North by Northwest limited by the technology (and British film industry) of the time, but it’s a breezy watch.
WandaVision [Friday 5th March]
Dir: Matt Shakman
Allusions to SPOILERS
That inadvertent enforced year-long break really has done the MCU a world of good because even in its weaker moments, mostly revolving around the one-dimensional imbecilic dickery of S.W.O.R.D. Director Hayward (the latest in the MCU’s long and storied history of interchangeable incompetent corrupt oversight bureaucrats), I found myself really enjoying WandaVision on a pure base level of just being back in that world again. So, when the show was firing on all cylinders – nailing the exact visual and substantive styles of multiple classic sitcoms, right down to the exact colour grading and film stock used; utilising that premise to comment on the unattainable domestic fantasies they peddle to impressionable minds; exploring unresolved trauma and grief with a shocking insight and unwillingness to shy away from being kind of a bummer – it was some of the best work the MCU has yet done.
I kinda want them to shift over to almost exclusively making TV shows now, actually. For one thing, it gives them the legroom to properly develop characters and allow their arcs to progress at a natural pace instead of having all the hard work occur off-screen between movies but telling the audience they should still care anyway. I didn’t think much of Scarlet Witch or Vision and their romance prior to WandaVision because the films never had the time or space to make me care, but by the end of this series I was on the verge of tears thanks to the character work on display and I’m now invested in seeing where they may go from here. All of the best MCU movies have been smaller-scale character stories significantly more focussed on personal growth and conflict rather than fate-of-the-universe superpower slamdowns, and large stretches of WandaVision are exactly that – presumably for logistical/budgetary reasons but who cares as to the exact why if it brings that focus? And when everybody focusses on that character work first and foremost, it makes the admin of moving pieces around so later Phase entries can happen (mostly everything to do with Monica Rambeau) feel natural and the more conventional Marvel sequences/resolutions less disappointingly formulaic. I’m glad Jac Schaeffer gets that.
One big note of contention I will make, however, and this is gonna be as vague as possible cos I’m trying to avoid major spoilers out of consideration for those who haven’t seen the finale yet, is that I think the MCU’s human problem is starting to reach critical mass which cannot be put off much longer. By that I mean: there’s a very protagonist-centred morality to the MCU, even when those protagonists cock up, and precious little attention or weight given to ordinary non-powered civilians nowadays, even when those sworn to protect them keep putting them in harm’s way inadvertently or no. This means that our sympathies are always meant to lie with our heroes, collateral damage is always an unavoidable reality of the job, and anyone who speaks up against that even when completely justified ends up brushed off subtextually since we understand the heroes more and know that they didn’t really mean to hurt anyone so why should they be punished or shunned or sanctioned. It’s the one nagging flaw I have with how the show wraps up, that it can’t meaningfully hit that nerve like it really ought to, especially when the perpetrator in question is given an out by another hero (and by extension the MCU as a whole).
Again, it’s not quite enough to take away from everything else the show does right – a compelling focussed mystery that satisfies and makes thematic sense, genuinely funny sitcom stretches and genuinely creepy drama stretches, Kathryn Hahn who deserves all the Emmys available – but it’s something to bear in mind as the MCU keeps rolling on. I feel it’s an issue Kevin Feige needs to get on top of ASAP, lest things curdle for the worse again. But, as we all know, they’ll never stop the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Have no fears, they’ve got stories for years.
Callie Petch might just fade like those before them.