Los Angeles, Tokyo, Newark, and back again.
Bit of a longer delay than I’d planned between these WIBWs. Turns out that trying to institute a sorta-work schedule means that my writing productivity goes up but energy to watch and fully write about non-work films goes waaaaaaay down. It’s like raaaaaaaaaiiiiiin, and all that. We’ll get there, it’s been a while since I’ve had a good balance on shit but this is the closest it’s been to that sweet spot since the mythical Summer of 2019 when I was locked in. Just need to get my sleep patterns under control so I’m not napping for two hours every afternoon around 5PM and getting locked ever more in that vicious cycle.
Anyways, A LOT (comparatively for me) has happened in the month since we last spoke in this series. Came out to my mother at last, did a few more gigs, written several massive articles like I used to, watched a wrestling PPV with a friend like it’s 2014, restarted the Box Office Reports, applied and prepared for the London Film Festival next week, roped my friend Katie into making me look all pretty and shit for a mini-photoshoot cos my old photos kept giving me minor gender dysphoria, publicly came out to everyone else who wasn’t already in the loop, and most importantly of all bought the Tekken 4 soundtrack on vinyl. That’s all without even getting into the progress Dad has been making with regards to getting around and out of the house. Shit’s happening! Exciting times!
Which brings us to some news. As you hopefully know, either by the yearly tradition of my intentionally cranking out a WIBW the week before to announce the fact or just because I mentioned it about four sentences ago, London Film Festival is next week. After having skipped last year because the pandemic and everything else absolutely wrecked my mental health, and also because it was all virtual which would’ve only compounded said mental health struggle by reminding me of my isolation, I am once again upping sticks for a fortnight to go pretend like I’m a real and proper writer. But things are going to be different this year, and I’m not talking about the inevitable (much-welcomed) presence of masks and (hopefully) other virus preventative measures. For the two weeks that the Festival does run, the pieces I write won’t be showing up here. They will eventually, once I’m back and wrapped up, but I’m representing Soundsphere Magazine this year and they normally demand exclusive publication rights. I’m fortunate that I was able to work out a deal with the editor to let me repost these write-ups to my site once done for this series only, but they get first publication. So, go bookmark that site and look out for those whenever they go up.
Eagle-eyed long-time readers may have noticed I’m not saying “daily” this time around, and there’s an important reason for that. At the advice of my bestie, Lucy, I tried applying again for the BFI Critics Mentorship opportunity I failed to get back in 2019… and I got it. I got one of the eight slots. I’m going to be spending a lot of this year’s Festival under the guidance and mentorship of people who write for some of the UK’s biggest film publications – the BFI, Empire, Little White Lies, etc. – and, if all goes well, getting something Festival-related published on one of their sites. Yes, I am freaking out for both good (“HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING YES”) and bad (“HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT THIS IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING DESPITE THE FACT THAT I’M A TALENTLESS FRAUD AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA”). But what this means for you, the reader, is that I’m not sure how my usual LFF content routine is going to go this year. Hell, I still need to get through to my editor to log this development with him and chat about how things are gonna proceed. This is probably going to involve my doing a lot of backdating and maybe even post-Fest catch-up writing where I’ll only know what I’ve managed to push out once the smoke of the upcoming fortnight dissipates. It’s exciting! But also a tad frustrating, both for you (I imagine) and me cos I like planning LFF stuff ahead of time. But also also exciting! Let’s focus more on the “exciting” part of the equation!
Times like these I probably could’ve done with having a Twitter account again, so y’all could get easy up-to-the-minute indicators on what writing I’m doing and where for. But then I take a peek on that site when having to pimp my Soundsphere work on their social channels, see the place being constantly overrun by transphobic dipshits masquerading as “leftists” and “progressives,” and feel quite content in staying far the fuck away. To summarise: London Film Festival starts next Wednesday, I’ll be there (feel free to say “hi!” if you are too), dispatches will first be going to Soundsphere Magazine during the Fest and reuploaded onto here afterwards, this Critics Mentorship Programme will likely impact how many diary entries I can do but will (fingers crossed) see me published in a major outlet before October is done. Get hyped!
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Wolfwalkers [Tuesday 21st]
Dirs: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
Even if the rest of this placement experience goes terribly, at least it gave me an excuse to watch Wolfwalkers again. As part of the interview stage of the application process, I had to prepare a little three-minute presentation on a film from last year’s LFF programme. Since I have only seen a grand total of three films from last year’s line-up – the other two being Mogul Mowgli and Nomadland, both I hadn’t seen in ages and therefore remembered little about – I went with the option which was most #onbrand for myself. Picking the underappreciated Cartoon Saloon masterpiece to talk about how the animation visually communicates themes of Irish subjugation, enforced English colonialism and religious crusading which puritanically and capitalistically tries to stamp out and demonise Irish culture at every turn, and the completely unintentional but impossible to ignore (if you’re me) trans and non-binary subtext running underneath the whole thing. I completely earnestly used the word “proletariat” because I am a walking self-parody at this point.
In any case, it somehow worked and I somehow managed to not bomb an interview stage of a job/position offer for the first time in my entire life, so Wolfwalkers is now my #1 Film of All-Time no biases or favouritism Objectively the Greatest Film Ever Made. Seriously, though, as a side effect of needing to script out my presentation and keep it under the three-minute mark – cos brevity has always been a Callie Petch strong suit – I now have a Wolfwalkers essay about the ways in which tyrannical capitalistic power structures designed to oppress nebulous “others” transfer seamlessly into oppressing queer people that, to my eyes, is about halfway finished. If it weren’t for my being on the hook for three new release reviews before I get down to London, plus prepping for said Festival, I’d be spending this week polishing it up for posting on here. Waste not perfectly good material, after all. Instead, it’s gonna have to wait until I get back. And it’s definitely going to be done, unlike those other times I announce stuff only for them to never appear, since it’s half-done and I don’t like leaving articles half-done. One to look out for.
Also, Wolfwalkers is an underappreciated masterpiece. Not sure I’ve said that enough times yet.
Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles [Wednesday 22nd]
Dirs: Robert Rodriguez & Patrick Osbourne
As a conceptual concert film, Happier Than Ever is uncommonly half-baked for an artist who is normally so meticulous and thought-out in everything she sets her mind to (as the excellent World’s a Little Blurry demonstrated). The animation and L.A. tourist wrap-arounds don’t really add anything to the experience besides nebulous vibes – unless the meanings they’re supposed to be conveying are so L.A. specific that I (a Midlands Brit) am simply ignorant to them, which fair dos if so. Sometimes the editing, filming order, and transitions take full advantage of the artificiality in not even trying to pretend these are full singular live takes. “Oxytocin” in particular has very David Mould/Nova Dando-esque energy in its rapidly intercut circular edits reminiscent of the videos for Blur’s “Popscene” and Bloc Party’s “Octopus” (respectively). But then Billie’s sporadic narrator chatter tries to go against that and act like this is one performance. Her insights themselves are more like jarring interruptions, so irregular in their appearances that they break the spell and lack any actual, well, insight into the songs being performed aside from explaining the “GOLDWING” sample and choir. Nobody seems to be on the same page creatively with this; it’s quietly a mess.
As live music, however, it’s really good. Billie is a relentlessly charismatic performer who clearly has an infectious level of fun on stage, the camerawork gets some great shots of her cracking giant smiles over the mere act of performing especially on the first few songs. The already great Happier Than Ever material gains an extra oomph with the addition of live drums and Billie getting swept up in the moment to go BIG – “Oxytocin” really fulfils its seedy sex dungeon nightclub remit with that extended build before the outro, whilst “Lost Cause” goes from a coolly confident 90s R&B kiss-off to a righteously venomous 00s R&B kiss-off with that extra muscle. And the Philharmonic additions surprisingly work. Other than on “Billie Bossa Nova,” they never overpower the arrangements or come off as surplus, elevating the album’s middle stretch real nicely. Those live additions work best on “Therefore I Am” which, with the orchestration, turns into a lost Disney villain number and is therefore absolutely perfect.
Mixed bag, then. Will be much better served by the inevitable OST release at some point since the music is the selling point. Still technically the best Robert Rodriguez movie in a decade. Does FINNEAS have it in his contract that he must get [x] many close-up shots during every song even when he is the least interesting thing on that stage?
Copshop [Thursday 23rd]
Dir: Joe Carnahan
Allusions to SPOILERS
Oh, this kicks arse. A high-quality, lean, old-school, pulpy constrained thriller with solid character work, a rollicking sense of fun, and just enough style to be constantly engaging without overcooking the broth. Definitely feels like a back-to-basics work for Carnahan after a decade of creative flameouts and unrealised projects, a chance for him to re-learn his craft and demonstrate how much he’s come on in this kind of action-thriller since Smokin’ Aces and his failed attempt to leap to blockbusters with that A-Team adaptation you forgot was a thing. It’s significantly tighter than Aces, less prone to edgy efforts at provocation, with a much stronger grasp of tone. This hops all over the genre mash-up spectrum, ala obvious inspiration Assault on Precinct 13, but a combination of Carnahan’s cohesive visual palette, with strong usages of deep blues and dark horror-esque shadows throughout the entire movie, and a script much more aware of this being a genre exercise rather than some great tragedy makes for a much more effective thriller than Aces.
A lot of that is also thanks to the quartet of leads tasked with carrying this four-hander. They’re clearly relishing the opportunity to tear into the kind of hard boiled but just self-aware enough to not be exhausting macho dialogue that Carnahan prefers, and they do so whilst being able to make each of their characters distinct from one another. I confess to buying Frank Grillo’s act despite the many obvious clues as to his true nature thanks to just how convincing his weaselly 70s cokehead conman performance was, the smooth-talker in over his head saying anything to save himself. Long-time character actor Toby Huss is just a blast as the requisite psychopath, elevating an expected trope into something magnetic with a sensation of unpredictability the instant he walks on screen. Even Gerard Butler is good! Genuinely good and a fun enjoyable screen presence for the first time since RockNRolla (his work in Den of Thieves is off-putting by design and also good)! But the real star is Alexis Louder who just oozes charisma and coolness with every single frame; confidence and control and badassery even when her character fucks up. She is a real find and I hope we see more from her real soon.
As I mentioned in the BOR, this feels like the kind of film that people are going to discover on Netflix or Channel 5 on some random Saturday night 18 months from now and wonder why they didn’t see it sooner. Dug the hell out of Copshop. I’d ask to make it official law that Gerard Butler can only appear in Joe Carnahan movies from now on, except that it seems like Carnahan and he (plus Grillo) have got some BEEF going on that means nobody’s really happy with the great film they put out. Shame.
A Clockwork Orange [Thursday 23rd]
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Allusions to SPOILERS
I get it. I think it is staggeringly well-crafted with Kubrick’s perfectionist and meticulous fiddling approach to camera placements and production design doing a wonderful job of selling the glum authoritarian dystopia which might enable somebody like Alex. I think Malcolm McDowell is hypnotic. Whenever the film isn’t trying to remind me that this obvious grown-ass man is supposed to barely be 17 – which, by the way, I also understand since having actual teenagers do half the stuff Clockwork Orange has McDowell do would probably get everyone thrown in jail – he’s blood-chillingly sociopathic in such a convincing manner, the kind of juvenile monster who hides behind a mask of big words and classical art to make himself seem more sophisticated and therefore palatable to society in a manner which theoretically allows him to get away with his sprees. I think the movie is capable of sequences of great, still-uncomfortable horror (the “treatment”) and unbearable tension (the dinner scene). I get what it’s about, how the political and social climate of the time informs its bleak borderline-nihilistic worldview and satire, and I think those land as intended more often than they don’t.
I also, however, found A Clockwork Orange perhaps too bleak and nasty and nihilistic to ever want to go back to it. It’s so relentlessly pessimistic and cynical in a manner which wears me down and makes me feel a bit ill. This nihilistic insistence that everybody, especially every man, is a self-centred piece of shit on the lookout for themselves and nobody else whilst women are ineffectual non-factors, exquisite corpses to be inevitably defiled. That reform is ultimately useless since violent offenders will always be innately violent and the only way to change them is to violate their human rights, not that the outside world will offer them the slightest of mercies or chances for forgiveness anyway. This is why I said that the satire only mostly lands, things get very dicey in that tragicomic second half post-prison release since there’s too much ambiguity regarding Alex and his attitudes towards “reformation” for that messaging on reformation to be clear. Not really too surprising an outcome when trying to find political and social messaging in a novella its own writer has disowned as not really being about anything other than “raping and ripping.”
On the filmmaking end, a lot of the first third in particular plays too close to the sun regarding camp to unsettle like it’s supposed. The invented youth slang and intentionally overwritten dialogues Alex unloads on most everyone he meets early on do have a thematic and character point for being so, but still come off in execution as needlessly obtuse and faintly ridiculous. Kubrick’s juxtaposition of violent acts with classical music, in particular, just comes off as silly to me in ways deeper than five decades of lesser filmmakers/parodies ripping the bit off. I actually don’t think the film becomes great until after Alex gets arrested when that campness mostly goes away. Also, lots and lots of homoerotic coding regarding the gangs especially which I feel plays into harmful criminal deviant stereotyping that jars badly to a new modern viewer like myself.
To reiterate: I get it, it’s very good/great technically and narratively, glad I saw it in a cinema, but I’m unlikely to ever watch A Clockwork Orange again.
Ghost in the Shell [Thursday 23rd]
Dir: Mamoru Oshii
Allusions to SPOILERS
Each time I watch Ghost in the Shell, and that’s been quite a few times over the last decade, I’m constantly struck by just how… meditative it is. It’s more like an extended thought exercise and philosophy argument than a narrative feature. A vessel for proposing ideas about transhumanism, the nature of the soul, secretive governmental self-interests, the fallibility and conditioning of memory, what we consider a life form, Japan’s increasing reliance on technological industry. Right down to the end, it never really provides any answers to these questions, either, instead just letting them sit in the air. Long stretches where nothing really happens, a plot whose mechanics are vague and obfuscated, characters who are more cool designs that function as theme expositors than fully dimensional beings. I always remain amazed that this movie became so massive since it’s so inscrutable at points.
I also don’t consider any of the above a negative. Although I think Ishii’s landmark has been surpassed by the Stand Alone Complex spin-offs – which go even deeper into said themes but marry that exploration with actual developed characters, a cop show sense of pacing and some much appreciated moments of levity – their improvements do come from sacrificing the languid flow and dreamlike atmosphere of the original GitS which remains wholly unique today. The visual designs, the green-tint colours, the stillness of the editing, Kenji Kawai’s sensational score. Those combine with said philosophical conversations to keep me coming back time and time again, especially whenever it’s in cinemas. There’s a reason why the parts of the movie I most remember aren’t the ultra-violent action and pulse-pounding car chases, but instead the Major & Batou’s conversation on the boat and the truly haunting montage of the Major travelling through Neo-Tokyo as she stares at so many other augmented beings with bodies identical to hers.
Dub > Sub in this case, tho. Especially when trying to watch the film in IMAX, a format I honestly am yet to personally jive with. I like my movies to envelope me, but IMAX almost suffocates me; it’s too big a screen no matter where I sit.
Free Guy [Sunday 26th]
Dir: Shawn Levy
Allusions to SPOILERS
This is so close, ever so close, to being great. There’s a great, perhaps even excellent sci-fi comedy here earnestly tackling questions of existentialism, the nature of digital life, free will, and the ethics of computer programming in gaming with anti-capitalist pacifist ideals powering them along. Sure, it’s all rather derivative of The Truman Show but there’s enough of an understanding of digital and gaming culture to carry a specificity of its own. Levy makes good use of the uncanny artificiality which springs forth from modern blockbuster filmmaking’s over-reliance on CGI to create a suitably off digital facsimile of a GTA-esque sandbox city, with exceptional costume work too, and the screenplay goes much deeper and earnest on those aforementioned topics than I was initially expecting. It’s never overwhelming in those examinations but nor does it feel like it’s skimping out on that affecting weight for accessibility, either, which is precisely the sweet spot you want a blockbuster version of this story to land in.
But that version of Free Guy keeps being interrupted by or forced to rub up against the dispiritingly mediocre PG-13 Ryan Reynolds tentpole family blockbuster half of the equation. Jokes that The LEGO Movie already did way better. Tiresome IP recognition pops and star-fucking cameos which outstay their welcome. The Ryan Reynolds Character – which is not his fault, he’s just being asked to play to type and he at least attempts to hit some notes of earnest naivety in spite of that direction, although he can’t rekindle the incredible spark he found with his work in The Voices. A plot which seems determined to strip the female lead of all agency by repeatedly making her a romantic pawn on the narrative shuffleboard of nerdy men. (Also, really unintentionally problematic racial optics regarding hero/villain balance and Lil Rel Howery’s Black best friend stereotype.) All parts of the fast-food movie I expected Free Guy to be before sitting down, basically.
It’s not that the second half of the equation is bad – it’s extremely “eh,” but it’s not “bad.” Rather that I am significantly more excited by, interested, and invested in the much better first half. The Ready Player One side of Free Guy to me feels less like a trojan horse, a way to smuggle the deeper and more enriching movie it wants to be into blockbuster cinemas because that’s how movies get made now, and more like a confidence crutch. Like Levy and his team weren’t certain that they could pull off or that audiences wouldn’t be into the existentialist leftist sci-fi comedy, so pulled back into non-threatening kinda half-hearted comfort food tropes as a safety measure, most encapsulated by an eyerolling runner involving (get this) an obnoxious scruffy overweight streamer who (get this) lives in his mom’s basement despite being in his mid-20s. It’s a shame, this feels like a compromised work of art unable to trust itself.
The Many Saints of Newark [Sunday 26th]
Dir: Alan Taylor
Dead boring, does not work at all. Has no idea what it wants to be or what story it’s even telling. Is it a Tony Soprano origin? Then why is young Tony barely in the thing? Is it a character piece which just happens to feature Sopranos cast members who were sorta influenced by Dickie Moltisanti’s presence? Then why is Dickie so damn one-note as a protagonist, all barely-suppressed rage with no hint of the depth or understandable thought processes that even secondary characters in random episodes of the show were granted. (Poor Alessandro Nivola, whom I had just sang the praises of for Art of Self-Defense in the last one of these, is hopelessly stranded in a role he should’ve crushed and it’s entirely down to thin writing.) Is it a period crime drama about racial and social unrest in 60s/70s New Jersey between the traditionalist Italian-American mafia and upstart African-American crime rings? Then why do we keep getting dead-end scenes depicting young Tony, a character who never once intersects with this storyline, in high-school counselling and, worst of all, completely forget this entire plot line in the last half-hour, resultantly lacking any resolution despite so much time focussing on it?
Just a total indecisive mess where nothing lands emotionally because everything lacks the depth, interiority, and dark comedy of even the pilot to the show. When it finally decides to commit in the final 20 minutes to being a Tony Soprano origin story, what is meant to be the big affecting punch does not land for the very obvious reasons outlined above. Young Tony is barely in the thing, Dickie is a one-note unremarkable protagonist, and not enough time has been spent on both characters and their interactions with each other to make the result feel like some defining moment in either man’s life. Frankly, it kinda feels like an insult when the film finally cuts to black with the old theme song acting like it’s accomplished something meaningful instead of wasting time I could’ve more satisfyingly spent watching two episodes of the show. Again, this is not for lack of trying by Nivola and Michael Gandolfini (who has curiously compelling screen presence which goes beyond the resemblance to his departed father), but there’s only so much they can do with a screenplay this unfocussed. Ironically, it feels like a mediocre season TV playing on fast-forward.
Also as culpable, though, is the terrible uninspired direction by Alan Taylor. The man has not come on in the slightest as a director since 1998 pay-cable. There is no artistry to his arrangement of almost every scene. It’s just basic block coverage, usually from a low-angle to signify power in a way that makes nobody look powerful, but with the desaturation filter turned way up like when YouTubers try to make “cinematic” shorts. Many Saints of Newark genuinely looks worse than many episodes of The Sopranos, including those that Taylor himself directed, in spite of the bigger budget and technological advances.
Collateral [Monday 27th]
Dir: Michael Mann
I really need to give Mann’s Miami Vice movie another shot. I first watched it back in 2007 at home with my Dad and we shut it off after about half-an-hour cos we were so turned off by the ugly overwhelming look and sound of the thing. But I feel like, now that I’m older and more learned, I might appreciate the visual and sonic noise of that movie better, especially after finally watching Collateral. The photography on this is incredible. Filthy and noisy thanks to the digital grain, often voyeuristic particularly in the aerial shots, yet simultaneously clean and meticulously composed. Each extreme close-up and reversion to that intentional artificiality – most especially those intermittent staggered zoom-in skips during Felix’s big speech – works to discombobulate and unsteady in the best way, selling the seedy nihilism that the L.A. criminal underworld runs on. But a seedy nihilism which Mann himself, much like Jamie Foxx’s Max, doesn’t agree with since he keeps finding strange beauty in the lonely uncaring L.A. night-time. The relaxing melancholy of neon lights streaming by set to Groove Armada, the reverence with which the jazz players are filmed jamming out, the lone wolf whose eyes initially have those devilish blots which come from digital flashes but soon soften into a moving example of nature living amongst the concrete jungle.
Callie Petch woke up this mornin’, the world turned upside down.