Flicks, fists, guns, and guitars.
CW: discussions of suicide attempts and depression.
So, it’s been a bit longer than “next week,” I know. Pro tip for any aspiring writers out there: never promise anything in the month surrounding a house move. It’s a vastly more intensive process than you assume it will be. Bright side is that I’m jabbed and the cats are here now too. Here’s a picture of them in their new favourite hiding place cos everything’s so strange and scary!
Anyways. Last time, I told you about the fact that, at the beginning of March, my Dad had tried to kill himself and how my complicated personal reactions to that stemmed from my own long history of depression and suicidal thoughts in a way that made me perhaps the best equipped in the family to talk to him about this whenever the mental health institute would let me see him. Because, unlike everyone else and their patronisation or victim-blaming ways of handling ‘fusses,’ I understood why he did what he did, and that this would be the first thing I told him when I went.
Given the still-ongoing plague circumstances, I was shocked that Great Oaks even let me visit during that week he was there for. The only real notifiers that their closed ecosystem was in any way aware of COVID were the requirement for me to wear a mask at all times (and even then I don’t think it was a requirement since many staff and patients I saw about weren’t wearing any) and that my talk with Dad occurred in a semi-sealed-off hallway rather than any specialised visitors’ room due to space and lack of resources. It was weird, easily the weirdest part of our whole conversation. I had spent all week playing out what I needed to say and hear in my head so immediately shut down his initial ingrained attempts at deflection and not talking about the elephant in the room by telling him the structure of how our (supposedly one-hour but they never actually came to shut us down so it was closer to two) conversation was going to go. I would listen to what he had to say without interruption, then I had to tell him three things. And so, I and he did.
He told me about how this had been a long time coming, the result of several years of unaddressed misery and trauma rather than just about his accident, starting with the death by suicide of his last girlfriend a little over two years ago. How he set unreasonable goals for himself in his recovery timeline and was crushed when he was unable to meet them, blaming himself more than anything and feeling utterly useless as a result. How he now feels like a burden that myself and Connor don’t need because he can no longer help us the way he used to. How he chose the day for the attempt not because it was a year to the day since his accident, but because he knew that myself and Connor weren’t going to be then and he didn’t want his death and our mourning to put our own plans or commitments at risk. He told me that he never talked about any of this with anyone or sought out any professional treatment for his mental issues because of his upbringing and his generation being of a time when men just didn’t talk about that stuff and that he both envies and is proud of me for taking those steps and seeking out treatment myself in my own life. And, crucially, he told me that he would never try to take his own life again. That he was mentally out of that fog after a week in the care of mental health professionals and that he never wanted to hurt myself or Connor through his actions.
To my knowledge, this was the most open Dad has ever been with me about his mental state, and definitely the longest to my memory that he’s talked about it directly instead of passively addressing it then trying to change the subject. It was disarming but something I greatly appreciated and do still appreciate. For years, I’ve been reticent to fully open up around him about everything to do with my mental state rather than just cherry-picked bites on account of that self-admitted “from a different time” mindset he has. And although I have tried, both with myself and inquiring on how he’s really doing (especially post-accident), his continued passive refusal to discuss these things had led to me feeling that isolating distance from him for many years. To have him finally be fully honest and open and vulnerable, even if it were just those near-two hours, was… “relief” doesn’t feel like the right term, but it’s somewhere around there.
So, I listened, uninterrupted. Then, I told him the three things I needed to tell him. The first being that I understood; truly understood, the best I could, and how I managed to finally get to a position where such thoughts aren’t as debilitatingly constant as they used to be. (Yes, this involved a Season 6 BoJack Horseman reference. No, I’m still not ready to write about that yet.) The second was that, despite what he may have believed (and in as non-lecture-y way as possible since I promised this wasn’t going to be a Nan-style lecture), Connor and I still need him, in ways that go beyond the financial and physical labour support he seemed to quantify that “need” as. The third… Because we were going to be living together in the new bungalow, I needed him to commit to complete honesty regarding his mental health and anything else with me going forward. That, if I was going to demand that of him, I would return that in kind and, as such, there was something I had been hiding that I needed to tell him. My being non-binary.
We’ll pick up on that next time. Let’s say a fortnight from now. Still a bunch of work to do around the house, a backlog of articles to get out, and Kofi’s yelling at me for not having watched any Falcon and the Winter Soldier yet. Again, I promise this is not cynical traffic dragging-out; I’m genuinely uncomfortable with solely personal blog posts.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Creed [Monday 26th April]
Dir: Ryan Coogler
So, this was the film designed to properly break the ‘movie-watching with Dad again’ cherry after having passively re-seen about a third of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the Saturday prior whilst having and cleaning up from tea. Also, I had been trying to get him to watch Creed for literal years since he, like I, is a big Rocky fan but his (not exactly unearned let’s be honest) scepticism towards reboots/re-awakenings of nostalgia properties meant I could never get him across that starting line when he was living solo. But he has now seen it and, despite (again not entirely incorrectly) noting out loud amused once those “Gotta Fly Now” horns hit before the 12th round that “it’s just the first Rocky again, innit?” enjoyed himself greatly! Got the coveted “that was better than I expected” seal of reserved Dad approval, which is seemingly the highest a non-Tarantino/Guy Ritchie project can get nowadays. Bonding!
As for actual criticism… this movie is a masterpiece and Coogler is a legit once-in-a-generation talent. He just gets storytelling and how to best utilise filmmaking to maximise the delivery of that storytelling. Hell, you can even see that in something as unconscious to the viewer’s understanding as the visual presentation of the three big bouts. Tijuana has harsh artificial indoor lighting which shrouds most of the set in a deliberately ugly colour grading and shadow, with a camera which only cuts once during Adonis’ entire time in gloves yet spends most of the fight somewhat passively revolving around the action of this tiny dive; wordlessly demonstrating the relative illegitimacy of these fights but also Adonis’ raw natural talent that allows him to effortlessly breeze through these chumps. The Sporino fight gets a notable establishing shot from the rafters, emphasising the growth in size and legitimacy from before, then famously spends the fight itself locked into a tightly-controlled and closely-framed one-take inside the ring; establishing the threat of an Olympic-level athlete like Sporino and how Adonis needs to focus all his attention in order to pass his greatest challenge yet.
Then, of course, Goodison Park’s establishing shot is outside the stadium rather than inside and I think maybe just once has a shot where you can see more than half of it all at once. Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti then return to the unbroken-shot walk to the ring from Tijuana, camera again bunched deep into Adonis’ back, as a means of clearly communicating the oppressive scale of the biggest fight of his life only this time being flanked on all sides by his supportive team in stark contrast to his solo Tijuana walk. Much of the fight presentation is very much in that professional glossy HBO Sports vibe befitting a world title fight, but the middle rounds make effective usage of montage and bloody slo-mo as both a way to elide time but also to show how surprisingly evenly matched both fighters are; it’s often hard to tell whose blood is actually being spilled which is entirely the point. And that’s without even referring to everything to do with the 11th and 12th rounds which I think I have rewatched out-of-context dozens upon dozens of times since that cinema release yet still feel that exact same emotional exhilaration at all of those big moments each and every viewing.
It’s a masterpiece, that’s all I can really say, and Coogler is a prodigious master of his craft. Genuinely, this is a top ten movie of the entire decade, for me.
VEVO Presents: The 1975 Live at The O2, London [Wednesday 28th April]
Felt ill and dog-tired after a day inadvertently double-screen staring (and residual exhaustion from sorting the move) so punted the next film to Friday and threw this on to zone out to instead. As a critic of filmmaking, this is a really, really, really solid little concert film. Lacks the presentational flash and pizazz of the true greats (and the not-greats who at least take big swings), but does a very strong job at immersing the viewer in this specific gig rather than just homogenously stomping it down to look like any other gig in the last 20 or so years. (I’ll stop taking opportunities to shit all over the BBC’s substandard and generic festival coverage when they start fixing their shit.) Shot choices, camera placements and editing rhythms all combine to effectively communicate the maximalist intimacy of the band’s music – where they want to be the world’s biggest band but without sacrificing being somebody’s favourite band in the process, if that makes sense.
Wide shots and arena-length long shots are used refreshingly sparingly, with a greater premium put on tighter close and medium-shots, oftentimes at crowd’s-eye level that has the band just slightly above many a centre-frame. It allows an O2 gig to retain the closeness of a Nottingham Rock City gig with the infrequent wider and more distant shots utilised as accentuations designed to remind a viewer that “holy shit, this band managed to ascend to the UK’s biggest non-stadium venue without losing themselves!” Same deal with the crowd shots. Sparingly used, often in tight close-up with those featured looking past the camera enraptured at the band or euphorically at their friends sharing the moment rather than mugging at some dipshit operator’s cue (BOOM, ANOTHER BBC ROAST), sometimes capturing genuine little reactions unique to this gig. Also, notably, almost every single featured crowd shot is a young woman, borrowing a similar creative decision from traditional boyband concert films as a subliminal thank you to their initial hardcore fanbase (which were heavily young women) for getting them to that point in the face of critical resistance.
As for those still here looking for The 1975-specific hot-takes: I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is one of the 2010s very best albums, “Milk” is indeed that good to experience live, and both times I’ve seen the band they have been better than this. Sober healthy Matty puts on a show without noticeably having his voice fail somewhat twice pre-encore, just saying. That said, this setlist bangs as hard as one without “Menswear” or “Pressure” can bang and the film provides plenty Ross MacDonald shots which is what the Real FansTM come to see. Obligatory “I miss gigs so fucking much” comment.
Hail, Caesar! [Friday 30th April]
Dirs: The Coen Brothers
I know that this is one of the more divisive and lukewarmly-received Coen Brothers films by most non-critics, and I get it. Hail, Caesar! is a very niche picture, one where the Coens’ usual anticlimactic wry seeming-pointlessness ends up being paired on material that’s super-inside baseball on Golden Age Hollywood trivia and Cold War politick with no interest in explaining many of its funniest gags in both topics to anybody not already in the know about either. There are precious little ins, here, particularly since the deadpan absurdist tone endemic to Coen comedies can make it seem like Eddie Mannix, whose real-life analogue was a piece of work to put it mildly, and his period-appropriate conservatism (with all the ‘-ist’s that implies) is being uncritically venerated. And it is self-indulgent as all hell. Sure, many of the extended classic Hollywood picture homages do kinda foreshadow the eventual climax and I do really enjoy then all, but it’s still self-indulgence, particularly when “No Dames” runs for almost three minutes.
(Also, personal gripe, but it bugs me that, despite the Coens and production designers Jess Gonchor & Nancy Haigh working so hard to recreate the aesthetics of 1951 Hollywood, the movie doesn’t look like it’s been shot on film. Until I did my research here, I genuinely thought that Roger Deakins had shot this digitally. Everything looks too clean, too processed, too modern-day artificial to fully sell the illusion; especially the in-universe films which only very rarely even use the correct aspect ratios of the time. Not exactly a dealbreaker, I’m not asking for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood commitment here, but it’s just something I am mildly irked by.)
So, I get all that, but I am also somebody who falls exactly into the niche Hail, Caesar! aims for and I would gladly have taken a runtime that’s double the length. Honestly, my single biggest issue with the film is that it’s not A Serious Man which tackles a lot of the same philosophical and theological topics and character arcs as Caesar but with greater substance. Even then, it’s not really an issue since A Serious Man remains the best Coen film I’ve yet seen and any movie which taps into that vein is doing something right. I love how often gags end up being hidden in the background either visually or audibly whilst still-funny stuff is happening in the foreground, such as the “CAW!” after every dramatic proclamation of On Wings as Eagles; it’s one of my favourite comedy techniques and the Coens are great at it. Even if most are barely in it for more than two scenes, every character and every actor makes an impression with convincing interiority for a day-in-the-life snapshot. And I fully admit to only this time around having gotten that the reason why the last in-film-Caesar speech seems to resonate so much with its star, until the line slip-up, is because of the subtextual communist messaging; that’s very clever and does a lot to dissuade accusations of the Coens ideologically venerating old capitalist virtues through Eddie for me.
Chick Fight [Saturday 1st May]
Dir: Paul Leyden
Chick Fight is the kind of bad movie whose badness comes from a stubborn failure to follow through on anything. A version of this female fight club story which fully commits to being a self-improvement character study of a messy vulnerable woman getting her shit together. A version which fully commits to exploring the possible shift or non-shift in gender dynamics that comes from flipping this typically masculine premise and normally-reductive explorations on violence as gendered. A version which fully commits to being an underground MMA sports movie with all the tropes and often-winsome beats that entails. Hell, even a version which just fully commits to the trashy and/or cheesy exploitation take on this idea. All of those would be significantly better or at least more interesting than the bland perfunctory half-measure of self-satisfied faux-feminism #strongnotskinny emptiness we unfortunately get. Raze could be nasty, but at least it committed, y’know?
Instead, we just get a bland often-cheap-looking pop psychology comedy that’s not funny, has too many thinly-developed characters, a central protagonist whose flaws and arc remain weirdly ill-defined for a premise as basic as this, and a severe lack of focus or decent structure. It’s very much the embodiment of cis male allies who want to be seen as ‘one of the good ones’ by launching into diatribes about LGBTQA+ representation and yelling about feminism at every opportunity, but don’t actually do the substantive work to earn that badge. The sassy black best friend stereotype, the crowbarred-in and sparkless romance subplot with a male star, having the mentor for some reason be a completely disconnected-from-the-club man (played by an Alec Baldwin who very clearly does not give a shit about any of this) instead of the mysterious woman who hangs out at the club with a personal connection to our protagonist, the villains being cartoonish mean girl millennial stereotypes, seemingly every seventh word being “bitch,” etc. Also, the fights may be good but I honestly couldn’t tell you since they’ve been shot and edited like a WWE match; ultra-tight close-ups, relentless bobbing and shaking, cuts on every impact that just make hits impossible to see or feel no matter how much overtime the foley artist puts in.
Aside from Baldwin, there are some decent somewhat-likeable performances which keep things watchable, though not fun, at least. Bella Thorne really excels at that specific insufferable high school bully niche I’ve seen most of her best performances in and she convinces as someone who wants to throw down and dominate – again, though, the garbage shooting means I can’t tell whether she can throw convincing strikes. Might be worth putting her in a schlocky action movie and seeing what happens. But otherwise, yeah, no reason to see this.
Rango [Sunday 2nd May]
Dir: Gore Verbinski
Pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this, actually. Gore Verbinski’s highly specific heightened visual style makes a remarkably smooth transference into the realm of highly-detailed computer animation, which I guess makes a sort of sense given that his films prior to this were those ridiculously extravagant CGI nightmares of Pirates sequels but Rango displays a much greater control of spectacle, scale and tone than those unwieldy monstrosities. A large part of me wants to credit that to the work of Industrial Light & Magic and their animation director Hal Hickel for providing likely invaluable guidance and, I imagine, overriding control when called for. But, in addition to the fact that Verbinski shot a rudimentary live-action version of almost the entire film beforehand to provide reference for the animators, the grimy, dusty, occasionally grungy and casually grotesque look of the thing, slavishly faithful to the spaghetti western genre aesthetics his movie at large is riffing on but with an eye-catching surreal bent, is unmistakably that of the man who would go on to make A Cure for Wellness. Film still looks stunning and sounds fantastic, too; this is easily one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores.
Aside from the main mystery being far too easy to work out and my general feeling that the movie would have been better served by just being a spaghetti weird western with animals instead of infrequently reminding us that this is meant to be taking place in our world somehow, my big hold-up stopping me from truly loving Rango is Rango himself. He, and I know this is somewhat hypocritical of me to say given that I really like the physical performance which borrows heavily from those live-action references, just feels too Johnny Depp-y for my tastes. A few too many of Depp’s unfunny tics and hammy mannerisms break through for me to fully get behind the character for at least the film’s first half. Yet maybe the issue was also there being a fundamental problem with writing (and subsequently playing) the Man With No Name archetype as an asocial egotistical goofball rather than a straightforward mythical enigma? Cos when Rango finally becomes the persona instead of pretending at it, his whole character clicks for me. But when he’s blundering and blathering his way through the early stages, he skirts right up to the line of being a reject from more traditional also-ran kids’ animation at odds with everything around him to detrimental effect.
Fortunately, he does get better, I guess its an effective arc if the payoff works, and the resoundingly great supporting cast pick up the slack until then; Rattlesnake Jake is absolutely as scene-stealing as everyone and the movie itself builds him up to be. The setpieces are great, that animation really is still jaw-dropping, and I shall always ride for an animated film or TV show gleefully willing to play in the macabre and display such a casual predilection with death.
Callie Petch knows they’re kind of a bummer.