Demons, dragons, witches, and wolves.
CW: discussion of failed suicide attempt, cancer.
One of the few… I really hesitate to use the term “benefits” since, y’know, he’s still paralysed from the accident. So, err… as an unexpected consequence of my Dad’s motorbike accident last March which left him in a month-long coma and unable to do anything from the waist-down was that his body had to have all sorts of scans and tests he normally wouldn’t have gotten or thought to get. The various doctors and healthcare professionals working on his recovery needing that in order to know how best to proceed without exacerbating the injuries or setting unrealistic goals. In one of those scans, they found a small cancerous tumour around my Dad’s lungs. Thankfully caught so early that he could have it removed hopefully relatively painlessly with a better than average chance of it not recurring in the future. Dad and the doctors agreed that, once his lungs and internal organs had recovered enough from the accident, he would undergo surgery on that tumour.
A year later, Dad was back in emergency following his bungled suicide attempt. More uncommon scans and tests ensued. Resultantly, we got an update on the growth of his cancerous tumour. 0.5mm over the course of a year, still nothing actively pressing to worry about, at least for another 5 to 10 years anyhow, but concerning to us all nonetheless and obviously best addressed ASAP. This is why it came as a surprise when, after I came out as non-binary to him at Great Oaks, Dad told me that he was no longer going to undergo surgery on the cancer. He plans to let it fester until it one day takes him. Since we were having an actual conversation for once instead of talking around difficult subjects, I sat silently and let him explain his reasoning why. Dad’s a very logical person, sorta like me, who doesn’t make decisions like these lightly so I had to hear him out.
Much of his reasoning was based around practicality. The past year of his recovery has demonstrated just how badly he messed up his lungs in the crash, to a degree that the usage of anaesthetic in major operations on him poses a genuine potential health risk. It’s not just the cancer, he’s deliberately limiting all non-essential operations going forward in an effort to minimise the chance that some kind of potentially-fatal reaction may occur. There are only so many operations his body will be able to take going forward. Building off from that, as mentioned, at its current rate of growth the cancer likely won’t cause any seriously debilitating effects for at least the next five years if not longer. And building off from that…
Dad’s a very insistently self-sufficient man whose mental health and sense of pride requires he be able to do as much by himself as possible. Being dependent upon other people crushes him, makes him feel truly worthless and he’s self-admittedly too old and too far-gone to be able to change that mindset. Much of his recovery process, even now, has been focussed on getting him as self-sufficient as possible, able to do almost everything by himself besides the morning routine. That means grabbing things himself, picking up and putting down things himself, moving himself into bed without assistance, etc. These are all things which require upper-body strength to perform, upper-body strength he’s in the process of trying to regain but also upper-body strength which naturally disappears as one gets older. Dad will be 51 in August. He thinks, in his professional medical opinion, that he has maybe a decade before that necessary upper-body strength decays and he becomes wholly reliant upon others for most of his daily tasks.
So, in his mind, the choice comes down to this. Get the surgery to remove the cancer now, risking potential death on the operating table from anaesthetic complications, successful operation of which would allow him to live longer but have those additional years be spent truly miserable due to that inability to be self-sufficient. Or don’t get the surgery and let the cancer continue to grow, near-guaranteeing he’ll die from it at some point before the decade’s out but able to take full advantage of the time remaining to enjoy what he has with some semblance of autonomy. To him, it makes completely logical sense to go for the latter and he seems really at peace with the idea, at least right now. Weirdly, I kind of am too. His reasoning makes logical sense to me, so I don’t really sense it as something objectionable or selfish. If anything, I find it kind of admirable, particularly how calm and accepting he was of the prospect; it’s the kind of certainty I envy in my constant existential terrors over the unavoidable fact of death. And I’d rather have a few good years where he sees me as I truly am and is some semblance of happy than risk none due to an operation failure or double that but he’s thoroughly miserable for most of them.
Or maybe both of us just think a decade’s so far away that our brains are incapable of comprehending just how bad things will get when the cancer progresses to debilitating levels, so have an unconscious “that’s for Future Us to worry about” mindset. In any case, I respected his decision, still do, and we finished our conversation at Great Oaks having said everything which needed to be said to each other. I didn’t feel great coming out of it, any kind of heavy conversation with one’s parents doesn’t exactly lift weights off of one’s shoulders since there’s a lot to process, but I was glad it happened. We told each other verbally “I love you” for the first time in a long while that I can recall. A month and a half later, we moved into our new bungalow together. The cats joined a week after.
I’ll make a proper post about this on Monday, but this site will be moving domains on Friday! Joys of naming your site and URLs after yourself instead of coming up with some kind of #brand, you get kinda inconveniently screwed if you, say, have a rather important gender-identity revelation six years and over 850 posts into things which necessitate not going by one’s deadname any more. I have bought calliepetch.com, the transfer will happen on Friday and the site’s gonna be real temperamental for at least a month following as I go back through the copious archives fixing the thousands of inter-site hyperlinks and URLs. Bookmark in advance and I hope you stick around! Unless you’re reading this after the switch happened, in which case hello and know that it was definitely a badly-planned pain in the arse I don’t recommend! Be creative, folks, don’t default to your name!
So, for the final time on this domain, here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Those Who Wish Me Dead [Saturday 29th May]
Dir: Taylor Sheridan
Those Who Wish Me Dead is very mid-90s for both good and bad. This definitely feels like a throwback to those kinds of mid-budget R-rated star thrillers which used to premiere every third weekend and eventually find their true home as Saturday night schedule fillers of Channel 5 after 10PM. Actual name stars not exactly slumming it but also giving just a bit better than the somewhat hokey material deserves, jarringly visceral violence which actually earns the 15 rating, a noticeable budget with quality location shooting; that sorta thing. Less positively, that also means a very magpie screenplay which smushes up three different films that don’t come together wholly satisfyingly because it doesn’t seem to have decided on any specific focus besides the overall tone. The first third is particularly awkward in that regard, especially since a giant shrug is presented in place of proper external stakes, and Sheridan’s direction, much like in Wind River, is still just kinda competent aside from the not-great-looking fire effects. This is easily the messiest and least-focussed Sheridan work to date.
But it’s engaging enough with a few great little beats strewn throughout and tense finale. All the main actors bring their compelling gravitas including Jolie who is unduly robbed by the screenplay’s uncertain focus – there are long stretches where she and the kid she’s supposed to protect and bond with as the film’s emotional core are barely a factor – but still commands the screen regardless whenever she’s on it with palpable prickliness and hurt. Also, really good villains. More movies should remember that ruthlessly competent villains (not omniscient ones but pragmatic smart ones) for scrappy heroes to match wits with are an instant tension-generator and do a lot of legwork to distract from underwriting elsewhere. Nothing special but a decent enough time at least.
Wolfwalkers [Sunday 30th May]
Dirs: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
OK, I think I may have wasted that Mic the Snare “wow” gag from last time a touch too early. Legitimately in awe of this one, folks. I don’t really know where to begin, frankly, and talking about it in this quickfire review format feels unduly restrictive. I just know that I’ll get into some kind of flow and find myself jumping from topic to topic without stopping because there is just so much to discuss about Cartoon Saloon’s fourth feature. It, just like the best animation studio in the world today’s three other movies prior to this, is a stone-cold soulful masterpiece. Awe-inspiring animation which magnificently replicates Irish storybooks and cloth tapestries via beautiful visual designs and inspired boarding. Compelling, lovable, understandable characters. Defiantly and proudly Irish to its core, and completely unafraid to both textually and subtextually explore England’s destabilising colonialism of the country in the 1600s. Movingly (though clearly unintentionally) queer in ways that spoke to me. That score! I feel like I could write three thousand words alone close-analysing Robyn’s first wolf transformation, it’s that enrichingly dense a film!
Instead, for now, I just want to brag about/state how lucky I felt having my first viewing of the film be in a cinema. Wolfwalkers is an Apple TV+ Original Movie and debuted on the Milhouse of streaming services last December. But a combination of my then-barely-stable mood and semi-hiatus from really keeping up with movies due to the plague meant that I never got around to watching it until just now when my VUE gave it a dead-of-the-morning Kids AM slot, presumably out of desperation due to not a lot of new movies being out in time for cinema re-openings. For once, my Disaster NB nature really paid off because this was a film made for cinema viewing. The definition it provides the animation, drawing attention to the contrasting rigidity of occupied Kilkenny and rounded freedom of the woods beyond in both character designs and boarding, the impeccable sound design. All of it sings so greatly in a theatrical setting and I wish it had gotten a proper full release like that for as many people as possible, rather than being cordoned off on the Derby County F.C. of streaming providers. Put some respect on Cartoon Saloon’s name, dammit!
Raya and the Last Dragon [Wednesday 2nd June]
Dirs: Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada
Significantly more than Avatar and Korra (although they are very obvious inspiration points for Disney’s primarily non-Asian creative staff just as much as actual East Asian mythology and spiritualism), Raya instead reminded me of Disney’s uneasy semi-experimental phase of the early 2000s. That period from Fantasia 2000 through to maybe Bolt where Walt Disney Animation Studios kept trying to break free of the Renaissance formula they’d fallen into as the 90s wound down. Like those, it’s very messy and over-ambitious to a degree which may have been better suited to being a full series of TV rather than something constrained by a feature-length runtime. There’s a supremely inelegant first act; much too busy plotting overall which can lose the central threads in ways that harm the climax somewhat (Raya’s relationships to both Sisu and Namaari); and an inability to resist or break fully from The Disney Formula and commit totally to the tone, genre or culture. You can actively feel this straining under the weight of the constant mid-production retooling at times.
However, like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, it does come together well enough in the end, even if as mentioned not as strongly as it could’ve, with an affecting and unexpectedly resonant central message. The journey, once it properly settles in (specifically at Talon), is good fun, presenting a diverse series of gorgeously-rendered environments staffed with highly enjoyable characters – both having the Big Hero 6 ‘problem’ where I just want to spend more time in this world with these characters watching them live and hang out rather than battle fate-of-the-world stakes. There are some phenomenally composed shots here which marry the Disney aesthetic smoothly with wuxia staples to great effect, although I think the fight sequences lack a certain intensity. Kelly Marie Tran is really good, too – Rian, where’s her Knives Out 2 role at? Overall, messy but enjoyable, and the con baby is easily the studio’s best joke-but-not-really since Zootopia.
Earwig and the Witch [Wednesday 2nd June]
Dir: Gorō Miyazaki
Oh nooooooooooooo. Earwig is bad, folks. In fact, honestly, it’s worse than bad. It commits a cardinal sin for Studio Ghibli: it’s boring. Extremely boring. Given that the prestigious Japanese studio made their name on wonderous, often-magical and deeply-affecting movies which, even when they did misfire, were always at least engaging on some level, Earwig being tryingly boring is the most damning thing one can say about their first foray into CG animation. Even Ghibli’s smaller, more intimate and deliberately paced films still manage to captivate either from jaw-dropping animation, strong lovable characters, or a mesmerising sense of place and life; usually all three. Yet, incredibly, Gorō’s third time in the director’s chair lacks all of those qualities. I’m not surprised to learn this originally premiered on Japanese TV cos it definitely feels like a low-quality TV pilot.
Most obviously, it’s shockingly ugly. There’s an admirable effort to try and translate the hand-drawn house style of Ghibli into CG, but the team’s relative inexperience in designing for the medium makes itself known by just how strangely nightmarish and uncanny many of the facial expressions pulled by every character end up being. Those mischievous grins, determined grimaces, and pontificating stares make everyone appear doll-like, Annabelle doll-like, particularly at the angles and heights they get shot at. Earwig herself has these two upwards-sticking braids which would probably look quite cute in hand-drawn animation but in CG, especially when paired with questionable facial expressions, she looks demonic. Colour palettes lack vibrancy, lighting is flat, sets look airless, shots are basic and repetitive with little compositional flair, and animations themselves are stiff and unconvincing. Put simply, this is not ready for prime-time and stings all the worse coming from the Ghibli name.
Despite being centred around magic, and based on source material by Dianna Wynne Jones of Howl’s Moving Castle, there’s precious little to be found in Earwig. No sense of true wonder or discovery, warmth or good humour, or ways to creatively envision the servitude of Earwig’s new adopted existence. The pacing is atrocious with not only almost no forward momentum during the compressed 83 minute runtime, but individual scenes and even shots don’t seem to flow properly, there’s so much dead air and so many jarring shifts from line-to-line. (The dub, by the way, is poor and inconsistent with atrocious lip-sync.) Most damningly for a very character-centric bottle story, not a single one of the three main characters are the least bit likeable or compelling. All of them being unrepentantly abusive, selfish, static irritants who never actually warm up to one another despite the film’s ending trying to insist otherwise and a strange mish-mashy backstory which doesn’t gel with what’s otherwise depicted. Earwig, in particular, is a tyrant whose head-strong-ness can more accurately be described as an unlikeable entitled bully.
This is not to say there aren’t decent ideas here – I’m particularly fond of the background detail that magic and witches in this universe are more like mail-order specialty items people use as quick-acting solutions for mundane issues rather than usual flashy covens of unnatural mysticism. It’s not like Ghibli were operating outside of their usual wheelhouse, they’ve done unconventional broken family fantasy-drama before and Gorō himself helmed the affecting From Up on Poppy Hill. And this studio giving CG animation a try isn’t some kind of unforgivable betrayal like I’ve seen many try to peg it as, especially when they’ve gone the Aardman route of trying to translate their unique aesthetics into the new medium like the British studio successfully did for Arthur Christmas. But just… nothing works about this. Earwig and the Witch is just joyless to sit through, there’s almost zero spark or life to any of it, right down to the bizarrely sudden and unresolved manner with which it cuts to credits. Literally the only salvageable piece from this is the music by Satoshi Takebe which properly slaps and deserved a better Ghibli movie to be attached to.
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway [Wednesday 2nd June]
Dir: Will Gluck
I would just like to take back my semi-complaint from late 2018 about the first Peter Rabbit not even having the common decency to be an outright disaster. After suffering through its sequel, I clearly did not understand just how good I had it. Turns out what was missing from the original to make me truly, madly, deeply pissed off about a bunch of “idiot Americans” doing a “soulless cynical money-grab of a movie” on Beatrix Potter’s wonderful timeless creations was the movie itself getting defensively self-aware about that fact and making the entire human plot (plus much of the Peter plot) an openly meta author tract admitting that they don’t care. And those quotes I just used aren’t me being mean or personally insulting, they are actual lines from this movie. I hated this. HATED this. I wish meta-commentary/comedy had never been invented. Look for this to be high on my Bottom Films list at year’s end, I’m storing my bile reserves until then.
Also, I just found out that the awful tuneless warbling squirrel who keeps popping up to ruin a bunch of pop songs with unlistenable levels of off-key autotune was played by Tim Minchin. My disappointment is immeasurable and my day is ruined.
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train [Wednesday 2nd June]
Dir: Haruo Sotozaki
Very important information that’s going to explain the surface nature of this entry and hopefully pre-emptively get any rabid Demon Slayer fans off my back. I made the very smart decision to watch Mugen Train despite having had no prior knowledge of, read a single chapter of, or seen even so much as the opening to a single episode of Demon Slayer beforehand. And, in defiance of standard anime movie spin-off protocol, Mugen Train is not only not a standalone adventure, but a supposedly vital bridging block between the show’s first and soon-to-premiere second seasons which assumes everybody watching already knows everything required. So, not only does it not bother explaining anything to the uninitiated – who any of these people are, what their deals are, what their overall wants and goals may be, how anything works – it also takes that as license to seemingly payoff a number of I’m guessing important character arcs whilst using its elongated final half-hour once the demon-of-the-week has wrapped to move apparently game-changing pieces into place for season two. As an unsurprising result, I understood maybe 50% of what was going on and felt nothing at any of the big mildly-over-indulgent emotional beats.
I also had a pretty decent amount of fun, so let’s get the flaws out of the way first. Even setting aside the fact that I had absolutely no idea who any of these people were, I didn’t really care too much about the non-Tanjirō characters, especially since the dub involves a lot of YELLING REALLY LOUDLY AT PIERCING FREQUENCIES FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME AND IT’S A LOT ON THE EARS. (Before anyone asks: I intended to watch it subbed but the Cineworld cordoned off subbed screenings to IMAX only and like hell was I paying a £5 surcharge on something I thought may have been insufferable.) The overall planning structure could’ve done with a substantial reworking, I feel. As is, the conclusion of the Mugen Train conflict comes off like the true end of the film only for the aforementioned last half-hour, which isn’t bad conceptually and has an awesome fight, to warp in without warning and inelegantly drag things out to mild exhaustion. I also found Mugen Train to at times run right up to my upper threshold tolerance for Shonen Anime Nonsense – you know: overly theatrical repetitious endless monologues over every on-screen action, emotions being at 14/10 all the damn-time, creepy boy comic relief, wildly see-sawing pacing – but that’s part and parcel of the medium and everyone’s own levels are different.
Aside from those and my neophyte confusion & emotional distancing, I found myself rather enjoying Mugen Train even if just on very surface-level spectacle-based reasons. All that visual style really grabbed my attention, I’m enamoured by all of it. The usage of slightly angular sometimes sketch-like designs filled in with thick black outlines, and also having these bright bold colour schemes contrasting with the muted drab ones of the environment and demons, creates striking and somewhat unique-looking protagonist designs whose eventual combat moves have a reverential awe to them. The demon designs are delightfully grotesque and creative in ways that I found actually quite unnerving, whilst the conspicuous CG which infests the film’s latter half stylistically fits arguably because of its noticeable roughness. Action sequences looked spectacular, there’s a real care to both their general composition and the depiction of violence, never gratuitous and so always impactful. And, even if I wasn’t particularly moved, I was taken by the philosophical debate at the story’s core, hopeful and affirmative without being simplistic or sans true danger.
To put it in TL;DR terms: the best that Mugen Train as released could’ve hoped to achieve in complete beginners such as myself was to make me actively want to try out more Demon Slayer, even if only to acquire the required knowledge that Mugen Train assumed I would have already had. And, yeah, that’s exactly what has happened. I might check out some Demon Slayer in the near-future, particularly since that first season is all on Netflix UK. Mission accomplished, I guess.
Shiva Baby [Friday 4th June]
Dir: Emma Seligman
Can’t actually talk properly about this one since it’s something I’m reviewing for Set the Tape next week and our arrangement means that they get exclusive rights to pieces and the thoughts within for the first fortnight of publishing. Rather like First Cow last time, this is here more because I needed to get this article up to seven days so I can say the line Bart which kicks off each post in the series and I didn’t watch anything else either side of the window. Anticlimactic way to end our time on my deadname URL, I know. I do think I’m allowed to say, however, that Seligman’s feature debut is really fucking great and highly recommended for those who loved Uncut Gems but wished it were queerer, less violent, and half the length. For more detailed thoughts, check back on Set the Tape this Monday (if you’re reading on post-time). Or wait a few weeks on the new URL here. I’d prefer you take option A, though; they’re good people who deserve more readers.