Murder mysteries, murder sprees, murder in musicals, and murder for love.
Hello, there. It’s been quite a while since I’ve done one of these. I think I laid out most of the reasons adequately enough in my big year-end vent, but here’s the short version for folks who don’t wanna crawl through that 3,000+ word mess. I crashed pretty hard post-London Film Festival due to having had a mixed time on the work-side of things. A giant backlog of work took forever to get through, I got in a really miserable self-pitying cycle about that very fact, came down with umpteen numbers of colds (though none of them COVID) cos my immune system is a dick, couldn’t come up with anything to sell to commissioning editors which compounded said cycle, and then everybody got COVID over Xmas so I was pre-occupied. Not really a surprise I retreated into video games… that yes, I immediately felt bad about for not writing up, either. (Hopefully by the end of Feb; I’m holding Deathloop and Life is Strange: True Colors hostage until I get some game write-ups done.)
So, getting the energy to do things has been… hard. Even now as I try to brute force a workday schedule designed to make me feel less shit about not having tangible evidence of time well-spent, I’m still struggling to do stuff for more than 30 minutes before my brain gets restless/tired and instead wants to spend an afternoon watching classic panel show highlights cos it saw “Carrot in a Box” on TV that morning. Getting in the headspace to sit and watch enough films in a week to justify a WIBW has similarly been hard, since I don’t want to half-ass the critical process or catch myself reaching for my phone. Film-watching now lives in this uncomfortable halfway house between work and recreation, perhaps encompassing the worst of both worlds, no matter how hard I try to just ‘switch off’ and vibe with something.
Which led to a shower idea, always the best place for ideas to spring from. I want to keep doing WIBWs, primarily because they’re the most reliable outlet for mid-length sincere film criticism I have at the moment. But getting into the mind-space required to watch at least five films across seven days, ideally without them all being from my near-weekly cinema trip, is stifling and often self-perpetuating when forcing myself to say things about films I don’t have much content for. Instead, let’s tweak the formula into something hopefully less constricting, less intensive on the work-side, and ultimately more regular in the posting since I still want to put at least ten of these out a year.
With any luck, WIBWs are going to start being monthly affairs rather than arbitrarily delineated weeks of crammed viewing. This provides several benefits. First, as mentioned, I don’t have to force myself into the frame of mind required to intensively watch and critique films across a week’s span. Second, piggybacking off from that, it means that I don’t have to structure my viewing habits around WIBW; intentionally trying to make myself watch films I haven’t already written about, are/aren’t thematically similar, or more than one film by the same director just to ensure the piece has enough variety. It’s frankly not a great way to go about deciding on movies to watch, especially since ‘not being in the mood’ for a ‘required’ film equally as often leads to just skipping the watch-slot entirely. Film-watching shouldn’t be an obligation. It should be fun or at least interesting! Which brings me to Third, WIBWs will no longer be a tome of every film seen within the period. Space reasons, yes, but also picking and choosing what I want to write about, the kinds of things I feel strongly enough to crack open this document of my own volition, should hopefully lead to a better WIBW overall.
We’ll see how this goes. I’ve crammed this month’s entry on account of it being a late-breaking shower idea – yet have still managed to be late on account of diabetes complications landing me in hospital for a spell, meaning I missed an IDLES gig I was extremely excited for, but that’s a moan for next month. Starting today, I’m instead going to just take it as it comes. Maybe the results will be more consistent. Maybe they’ll be copy-pastes from my Letterboxd. Maybe I’ll inadvertently write entire articles I can’t sell for entries. Maybe I’ll write so much in a month that I have to split the articles up into two or more! Or maybe I’ll just go into a depressive rut, push off working on it, and then eventually junk the whole thing like so many other series of mine. It’s quite possible! Let’s wait til end of May, though, for assessment.
In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been watching in January.
The Neutral Ground [Saturday 1st]
Dir: CJ Hunt
Mine and Kelechi Ehenulo’s interview piece with director/star CJ Hunt and producer Jane Geisler from LFF at long last went live for the BFI this month. It’s a really good one and working on the write-up for it was a bit of a minor confidence boost for me, finally listening back to that long-ass audio file and hearing us all spark so well off of each other. A helpful reminder that I’m not completely terrible at this. Especially vital with regards to interviews since I’m still… rough at them. My personality and social awkwardness mean I prefer looser discussions where both I and interviewee exchange insights, rather than a journalistic straight Q&A thing. It relaxes me and, in the best of situations like with Hunt here or Charly Bliss waaay back when, I think it leads to a much better rapport which in turn leads to a much better article. Problem of course being that not everyone is open to that. But Hunt and Geisler clearly were, so the ‘oh god, this is shit, I’m shit, I’m blowing this’ phase only came about in the last third of writing rather than any time else! Yay for small victories!
Anyways, go check the piece out if you’re yet to. It also somewhat functions as a review of the film, which I was unable to get out separately in full on account of the aforementioned depression + flu + existentialism. The Neutral Ground is available digitally now in the UK and is essential viewing, btw. Don’t miss it.
Clue [Tuesday 4th]
Dir: Jonathan Lynn
Been wanting to give Clue a rewatch for yonks. Thanks to IMDb TV, a service I had no idea existed and am still not entirely certain as to the purpose of – it appears to just be another tendril hanging off of Amazon Prime Video’s abysmal obfuscating UI, except it plays ads and somehow has exclusive content – for finally letting me rectify that since nobody can be arsed to release a UK Blu-Ray. As for Clue, unsurprisingly, still an absolute blast. An excellent synthesis of late-50s whip-smart innuendo-laden farce with mid-80s smart-alec counter-culture comedy. Dialogue ricocheting off in all directions at ridiculous speeds like an old-fashioned screwball, Stooges-esque intricate physical comedy routines which pop with expert timing, and just the right amount of self-aware in-jokiness keep that parodic rhythm afloat without ever acting smug or above the genre it’s lampooning. Love how Lynn even borrows the shot design and filming style of those classic whodunnits and mid-era Hitchcock; this visual authenticity greatly enhances the effectiveness of the jokes (because considered direction always turns decent comedies into great ones).
Loses points for the mystery being rather an afterthought which is, by design, impossible to follow and ultimately just a vehicle for lots of really funny jokes. That’s partly due to the over-ambitiousness/gimmick of trying to pull off multiple viable endings but, because of that intentional vagueness in the steps of the mystery, none end up satisfying narratively. They play significantly better when bundled together, revealing the multiple endings gimmick to itself be a joke since none of this matters, but ignoring the meta-joke instead shows the kind of mystery which actively cheats and withholds on the viewer instead of cleverly distracting or partially-obscuring. (That’s where spiritual-successor Knives Out has it beat, working both as a hilarious comedy and a narratively satisfying whodunnit.) Gains points, however, for putting Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, and Lesley Ann Warren into a glorious Ham-Off where the unanimous victor is the audience. Also, when watching the one with all possible endings playing back-to-back, it has one of the greatest final lines in cinematic history. I genuinely pity those viewers in 1985 who didn’t get Ending C.
West Side Story [Saturday 8th]
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Allusions to SPOILERS
There is so much great here. It took a little while at first for me to gel with the more grounded and often-visceral choreography and production design that Spielberg is going for. Further foregrounding the gentrifying rubble of the West Side that the Sharks and Jets are fighting over to make more textual how much both sides and their attitudes are products of their environment, systematically oppressed by the unsympathetic/manipulative rich White ruling classes. (Much as the Jets reject such hypotheses in “Officer Krupke.”) Resultantly, fights are more immediate and violent than the semi-abstract dance battles of old and stage, which also makes the racially-charged nature of the conflict a lot more… uncomfortable, for lack of a better term. Deliberately so, of course, but Broadway walks a razor-thin line when depicting subjects like this in a crowdpleasing manner thanks to its heightened nature, so this kind of grounding can risk creating a cognitive dissonance.
By the time of the gym dance, however, I was very much won over. Spielberg’s direction and production design are largely just a 60-years-later interpretation of the same techniques Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise used in the 1961 version. Consequently, that grounding makes the West Side its own tangible character (yes I know ha ha) capable of multifaceted emotional experiences. Hard and cruel violence sits alongside beautiful kinetic expressions of communality, choreographed to riveting perfection by Justin Peck, shot with fluid and vivacious life by Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. The re-done “America” embodies this duality exquisitely, in turn making its satire that much more potent.
A lot of the reorganisation of the musical numbers do a great job at making the film flow better, as well as adding stronger agency and conflict to Tony’s relationship with the Jets – the reworked “Cool” arguably fits better here than it did in the original. I love Spielberg refusing to subtitle the Puerto Rican dialogue, taking away an Othering technique and subliminally saying that the Spanish language is just as normal as English . All but one of the major performances are fantastic: Ariana DeBose as Anita (effortlessly holding down the tradition of Anita being the best part of the play), Mike Faist as Riff (all squirming undirected anger), David Alvarez as Bernardo (prideful and pained from America’s total lack of respect for himself and his people). Rachel Zegler as María is utterly sensational and by far the best female performance of the year; a commanding voice, earnest sweet naivety by the boatload, and heart-wrenching during the second half’s big emotional beats. She has to be due for big things.
Some of my drawbacks come mainly from personal preference. Kamiński and Spielberg should’ve better controlled the natural light sources on some of those sets because the lens flares can get distractingly out of control. Moving “I Feel Pretty” to post-Rumble makes for too jarring a tonal shift even with the excuse of dramatic irony. Including the original score for some of the fight scenes, especially the fatal ending of the Rumble, creates a disconnect with the visceral grounding Spielberg otherwise aims for that can be a little distracting/silly. Making Anybodys explicitly trans, played by a non-binary performer (iris menas), is cool from a representation standpoint but means that the vast majority of his screentime involves active misgendering (albeit thankfully played for drama) that I, as a trans/non-binary person, am kinda tired of having to see in mainstream films.
One immutable truth, however, is that Ansel Elgort is dreadful as Tony. Setting aside those allegations, I think Elgort is alright as an actor, albeit a very limited one with a specific set of skills. West Side, and especially the role of Tony, is completely antithetical to those skills. He has a believable physicality as somebody capable of violence, but he doesn’t convince as a hopeless bleeding-heart romantic. There’s little softness or warmth to his Tony whilst much of his soul-searching and guilt comes off as moping. When he actually tries to emote, in the suicidal despair of the finale, it’s actively embarrassing 5th Grade Drama bad. Worse still, for both actors, he has no chemistry with Zegler. Trust me, it is not for lack of trying on her part, but there is zero spark in their interactions particularly when Elgort’s blank expressions are put up against her heart-on-sleeve passion. His singing is significantly weaker than hers, especially when they have to harmonise, and Spielberg keeps having them shot in a way that has Elgort tower over her which comes off a little predatory. The big post-Rumble reconciliation already asks a lot of a viewer dramatically; putting that weight on the shoulders of such a miscast Tony is tantamount to tying a cinderblock around the neck of the musical’s grand emotional payoff.
So much greatness is here, and I really hope that Elgort doesn’t kill Zegler’s deserved Best Actress nom. But, man, that greatness becomes hard to fully appreciate when one half of your leading couple is this badly performed.
Road House [Friday 14th]
Dir: Rowdy Herrington
Oh, hey. This is actually just the late-80s take on a Western! One crossed with East Asian action cinema of the time, in the same way that classic samurai films and Westerns would recursively influence each other. Sort of like if The Man with No Name entered a version of the village from Yojimbo that was really into Reaganomics and swapped a six-shooter for ropey karate. As a result, I wouldn’t really say it’s “cheesy” like everyone else does until the last half-hour when that late-80s Schwarzenegger cheese goes into overdrive making up for lost time. Maybe there’s an inherent silliness in transplanting the values and archetypes of Westerns into a then-modern era, plus some truly stupid dialogue sold with the kind of poker face that’d make Victoria Coren Mitchell envious, but I also think it’s genuinely earnest to a degree that the drama works. Characters are solid, performances are good for what the film’s asking, and there’s the personality that one finds in almost all Silver Pictures productions. If Elizabeth were better written and the action choreographed less stiffly, I’d call Road House genuinely great. As is, still pretty good!
Of course, film could’ve had none of those things and I’d still rate it the same given that there are double-digit scenes of sweaty shirtless Patrick Swayze doing martial arts. I’m not made of stone!
Titane [Thursday 20th]
Dir: Julia Ducournau
Right… y’all could’ve warned me this was actually a highly-triggering allegory for being non-binary. I’m sure that what Ducournau is doing here primarily taps into cis-female anxieties about their biology and body whose subtext is flying way over my head because, like with Raw, I don’t have the necessary context and she’s not making this film for me. But, for me and whether intentional or not, I couldn’t stop seeing the parallels to trans-ness and specifically non-binary dysphoria all through her second feature and they have severely coloured my ability to love Titane like everyone else. Especially with where that journey ends up.
There’s a lot I outright love about Titane, at least. Ducournau’s direction is high-tension squirm-inducing nastiness heavily indebted to French extreme horror and executed with virtuosity. The depicted violence and body horror are relatively small parts of the movie overall, but oh boy does Ducournau know how to make them look repellent, disgusting, and alien when the time comes. And all without having to go over-the-top, either; all of the bodily decay and scarring on Alexia/Adrien is distressingly bruised and plausible which only increases the horror and sense of dysphoric tension. Speaking of, Agathe Rousselle is a commanding and deliberately inscrutable lead presence; a genuinely brave turn. Vincent’s blinding grief manifesting as outright delusion to the “truth” (such as it were) is massively compelling in its own right, threatening to render Alexia/Adrien unnecessary to their own film. Titane is willing to get gonzo-nutso in a way I wish more arthouse horror had the Dereks to. I not only understand this better than I did Raw, I also think it’s a legitimately better film.
But the ending sours things for me, the person who cannot stop reading Titane through a non-binary lens. Again, to some degree, I think it’s unintentional, especially since I’ve only heard two other pieces of commentary about reading the film in a trans-lens – Jude Dry’s excoriating takedown for Indiewire, and Sasha Geffen’s more-positive examination for Them. But, one, mainstream film criticism obviously has a problem with trans representation so the fact that there aren’t many trans reads out there in major publications isn’t indicative of anything. And, two, both writers’ reads are more in fixed ideas of direct transness rather than the non-binary-ness that I saw, which makes me think Ducournau is playing more with a simple female-to-male kind of body horror rather than the horror of neither sex accurately reflecting your humanity. Yet that non-binary read is how the film makes the most sense to me.
Obviously, there’s the fact that efforts at passing and the fear of being found out factor into the plot – Alexia being a wanted serial killer who disguises themselves as Adrien, a boy who went missing 15 years ago and still hasn’t been found, in order to avoid police attention. Titane’s reliance on grotesque body horror and lingering shots of self-harm/hatred for character beats and the overall oppressive atmosphere turn a body into a ticking timebomb of uncomfortable dysphoria, particularly since Alexia/Adrien has a rapidly-evolving pregnancy threatening to give them away. Their proclivity for having sex with cars mirrors non-binary folks’ often binary-rejecting fluidity regarding sex and sexual attraction – albeit arguably by playing into dangerous “attack helicopter” style jokes. And the usage of Ace bandages, their awkwardness when trying to fit in with cis men, plus bringing up of young Adrien’s proclivity for gender non-conformity, feeds a lot of cultural baggage into the subtext. Hell, it’s arguably the only way in which the serial killer trait of the first 30 minutes makes any sense; a metaphorical representation of how an NB’s dysphoria can cause them to lash out with self-destructive behaviour because of pain they have trouble understanding.
All this evidence therefore makes the cruel twist of the ending massively unfortunate when it rips away a cathartic moment of acceptance in order to satisfy decades-old transphobic narratives of tragedy. If the film ended on that moment where Vincent sees Alexia/Adrien in their most vulnerable state and accepts them without hesitation, I’d be a lot kinder with regards to Doucorau’s prioritisation of emotional pain and bodily trauma because it all builds up to that beautiful moment of self and wider acceptance, one that I feel it earned. (This, not coincidentally, is why the first, third and fourth Matrix movies all work sensationally as transgender allegories; the pain always gives way to cathartic unreserved pleasure by the end.) Instead, as Dry rightly points out, killing Alexia/Adrien in childbirth reveals the same conservative played-out transphobic tropes that I thought we’d gotten past by now. Where trans/NB narratives have a fetishistic fixation on our pain, our suffering, our fear of being found and the violent consequences for doing so, packaged in a way that characterises us to general audiences as either predatory monsters or things to be pitied – both ultimately dehumanising. It’s a sour note to go out on once the “ayo wtf” shock of the surface-reading is overcome.
Or, y’know, she’s merely being provocative for the sake of being provocative. In interviews, Ducournau fully admits making Alexia/Adrien a serial killer just because rather than any specific narrative reason – how very French – so maybe I’m reading way too much into things. In any case, tweak that ending just slightly and I could fully forgive all the other MANY triggering moments to be found in here to join the “this thing fucking rules!” train. As is, so very close.
D.E.B.S. [Monday 24th]
Dir: Angela Robinson
Exceptionally cheesy. Has production values and visual aesthetics below those featured in an episode of K.C. Undercover. The acting is all over the place. ULTRA mid-00s in vibe, comedy, and casual usage of slurs… and I honestly wouldn’t change any of it. It’s not even a “so bad, it’s good” kinda deal. D.E.B.S. is just plain good, often because of those very strikes which caused it to be unfairly written off by critics (and the awful male-centric marketing) at the time. All of those flaws kind of balance each other out in a strange harmony that creates the film’s specific charm – in particular those Nickelodeon sitcom-level sets and effects, like Robinson is thrillingly subverting and queering at-the-time conservative hetero entertainment.
I’m most struck on this viewing by how Robinson has her cake and eats it regarding that queerness. Everything about the set-up – goody-goody spy tempted into deeper relationship with misguidedly-bad villainess – reads like a barely-concealed metaphor for discovering one’s queerness in an intolerant hetero society, and that the execution should be all thinly-veiled subtext. Except that said intolerance towards lesbianism is also outright text fuelling much of the conflict; Janet getting heavily hung up on it, Ms Petrie dismissing Amy & Lucy’s love as “a sorority lesbo phase,” Amy’s complete chad of an ex-boyfriend who is just the worst.
D.E.B.S. plays into surreptitious queer-coding of the kind that was required to get narratives like these into cinemas at the time, like making the aptitude test be about a person’s natural ability to lie with Amy getting a perfect score because closeted queer people are forced to lie every single day til it becomes second-nature. Yet, simultaneously, the film puts its lesbianism on full proud display from the very start with passionate romance montages and making Amy’s arc be her gay awakening. If Robinson weren’t such an earnest filmmaker, if she played any of this with more of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink, then I reckon this could’ve soured the resulting concoction. A safe metaphorical space being frequently interrupted by unwelcome reminders of how risky being openly Out in the mid-00s was. But, somehow, it works, which is also true of D.E.B.S. as a whole.
The “A Little Respect” montage is pure Cinema and more people need to recognise that fact.
Callie Petch will be the house that allows you to fail.