Jurors, fingers, gold, and CINEMA.
“…where the fuck have you been, then?”
It’s a fair question. The whole point of my turning WIBWs into a monthly thing was to ensure a consistent stream of film-writing content even for the dry spells where I don’t end up writing or watching anything. And I couldn’t even make it six months before missing an entry and then ghosting almost the entire second-half of 2022. I was laid up at home for six entire weeks unable to go anywhere due to a broken hip and still didn’t get a single WIBW out! What gives? How lazy/depressed could I possibly have been?
Well, see, I wasn’t actually. Admittedly, at the end of August entering into September, I was. About two days before August wrapped, the Win Butler abuse allegations broke out and proceeded to hit me right where it hurt. Arcade Fire having been a well-documented really vital band for me over the years, so finding out that Win was an (alleged) abusive creep/monster, a week before I was gonna see them live for a third time, knocked my mind out of whack for a good while. More to the point, I hadn’t actually done any WIBW work for August before the story broke, so it was easy for my brain to go “eh, we’ll start that tomorrow” until suddenly we were in mid-September and it became kinda pointless to work on it at all. That’s how depressive spirals get you on work that’s not actively tied to a deadline from another editor, an endless string of “I guess I don’t need to do this”s until any lingering desire or drive has been fully extinguished.
But from late-September onwards? I actually got really busy. Had to organise London Film Festival plans and arrangements, especially once Universal Credit threatened to screw with getting paid. London itself was both mad hectic and the most wonderfully relaxing go-around yet, busy in the amount of screenings and plans and networking I was doing but also relaxing because I for the first time did not have to write up absolutely everything. Recovering from a broken hip is hard, exhausting work, you might be surprised to hear, doubly so when you have so much leftover work from LFF to turn in that also starts to bleed into non-LFF work you’d made the naïve dumbass commitment to pre-hip breakage. Then I dropped down to one crutch at the start of December and life hasn’t much slowed down since. Paid work, Set the Tape work (both writing and admin), non-paid work, friends, films, gigs… It’s almost like I have an actual workday, right now.
In an effort to get back on track, I had intended to get one of these up for December, a month when I watched way more films than I normally do and had lots to write about… but, yeah, Listmas got out-of-hand, exhausting me, and it’s just been non-stop throughout January. Therefore, we’re resetting here and trying again. As per usual, anyone who follows my Letterboxd – @CalliePetch, it’s better than most of the garbage that gets 2000 likes on that platform! – will get a little déjà vu with these entries, since they’re mostly just expansions and clean-ups of the thoughts I scribbled down there in an effort to keep productivity up as efficiently as possible. For February, the BAFTA nominations rundown will return after a few years off, I’m being paid to write about Jackass Forever, and I plan to run my Top Films of 2022 list the week of the Oscars albeit only as one article rather than a series cos I need a break. Stray has sat un-started in my drawer for over a month now! That’s UNACCEPTABLE!
So, here’s what I’ve been watching this month.
The Banshees of Inisherin [Tuesday 3rd]
Dir: Martin McDonagh
Yes, Banshees is McDonagh going back to basics after a decade of hot messes from punching above his weight. Not just in the obvious of reteaming with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for a tragicomedy, but also in its explorations of existential depression that are as screamingly funny as they are deeply upsetting. Yet that reset very much seems to have re-energised McDonagh. In many respects, this is the version of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which doesn’t keep drunkenly stumbling into social issues and historical parallels he is not in the least bit qualified to tackle. The Irish Civil War metaphors are obvious, maybe a little simplistic given actual history, but not belaboured and, crucially, don’t distract from the character work which is the most compelling and clear he’s done since In Bruges.
Colin Farrell and Kerry Condon really are as phenomenal as everyone says. Farrell has a golden retriever energy to his performance as Pàdraic which is both a source of great comedy and sells the character’s descent into despairing revenge all the more tragically; of the Best Actor crop I’ve seen at time of writing, he’s the one I’d most like to take the trophy. Whilst Condon is both fierce and vulnerable, the kind of charisma which makes a whole room swirl around her as its centre and tangibly chafes at the stifling stillness of Inisherin. Meanwhile, Ben Davis’ cinematography is at once gorgeous and lonely, intimate yet cavernous, communicating the tight-knit nature of a tiny village as well as its misery-inducing isolation for those on the outside of it; this is easily the best-looking McDonagh movie to-date. Really glad to see that he finally managed to dislodge his head from his arse and make his second great film! And no pointless dwarf jokes, this time! He’s improving!
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years [Sunday 8th]
Dir: Ron Howard
Did not intend to watch this one all the way through – I just threw it on because there was literally nothing else on TV whilst Dad and I were having tea, and I’m apparently the only person in the world who doesn’t need the TV on in the background all the time – but Howard’s documentary is just really damn watchable. Something you can easily find yourself sucked into thanks to Paul Crowder’s jovial editing that swoops from performance to performance with the same relentless forward momentum and energy as The Beatles’ own touring schedule. Does Eight Days a Week have much in the way of revelatory insight or essential (then-)new footage of the world’s most famous and documented band? Not really. But what Howard’s film does do, maybe better than any other Beatles doc, is arrange his footage in a way that communicates to the viewer an idea of how thrilling then exhausting then hellish it must’ve been to be John, Paul, George or Ringo during the height of Beatlemania. Particularly with the clear progression of how their press conferences go from joking and energetic in 1964 to contentious and miserable by 1966; real “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” vibes.
Corsage [Wednesday 11th]
Dir: Marie Kreutzer
I keep thinking back on this pair of shots near the two-thirds mark. Elisabeth returning to her Austrian chambers after a trip overseas where, inexplicably and without comment, the room is more like a dollhouse that she’s much too big to fit in, her head awkwardly tilted to the side as the space constricts her. A blatant Alice in Wonderland reference, sure, but it’s also a burst of visual playfulness that effectively communicates a character’s state of mind way better than the dryly formal and washed-out monotony of the rest of the film. Maybe if more of Corsage were presented like that, I’d have been engaged and Vicky Krieps would’ve been required to do less Vicky Krieps things in an effort to carry the film solely on her back. And yes, I get that that is supposed to be the point, but you can in fact depict such stifling depression without making the act of watching a numbing drag. What a total bore this turned out to be. Would also genuinely like to know what everyone else is on about when they refer to the “humour” here, cos I personally found Corsage relentlessly dour.
The Mask of Zorro [Saturday 14th]
Dir: Martin Campbell
I’ve said it before, somewhere, and I’ll say it again and again until my untimely death in 30 years: The Mask of Zorro is the best superhero film of the 90s and maybe one of its best blockbusters period? I’m just not sure what more you can want out of a blockbuster. You got a compelling story of vengeance, romance, honour, and learning to stand for something greater than yourself. You got charming and lovable heroes going up against properly evil bastards who are both gloriously hammy yet just nuanced enough to take seriously. You got Antonio Banderas giving one of the all-time great Star turns as Alejandro – funny and sincere and smokingly HOT – alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose chemistry threatens to burn down any screen the film is being shown in. (Seriously, bring back protagonists in blockbusters who clearly FUCK from the instant their eyes lay on each other. I watched the love scene between Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connolly in Top Gun: Maverick and kept waiting for the Toblerone or Hallmark card product placement, it was so chaste and heatless.) You got Martin Campbell, fresh off of GoldenEye, in his mid-90s action filmmaking prime so these action scenes are properly intense, dynamic, tangible, and tell fun physical environmental stories.
OK, you also gotta deal with Anthony Hopkins trying to pass for Mexican and the sexual harassment of the Alejandro/Elena duel doesn’t fly with today’s more enlightened view of consent. But that’s really about it for blemishes. I feel like we criminally underappreciate just how great The Mask of Zorro is.
12 Angry Men [Thursday 19th]
Dir: Sidney Lumet
Rewatch (10+ years)
Y’all know me, I don’t do New Year’s resolutions or anything like that. I have a hard enough time sticking to non-friend commitments made in the same week, let alone keeping up something for an entire year. That said, I am making a go of one resolution for 2023. Over the last decade, I’ve picked up a lot of Blu-Rays, enough that I’ve almost filled up my entire wardrobe with them, and a large percentage have been from second-hand entertainment store CeX. Some are films I had already seen before picking up the Blu-Ray, others were ones I hadn’t seen in close to a decade but picked up anyway cos I remembered liking them, and others still were ones I’d never seen before but grabbed cos I heard good things and they were cheap. I… have not watched most of the ones in my collection and, frankly, that’s starting to become a bit indefensible. So, in 2023, I’m aiming to try and get at least one CeX Blu-Ray watched per-week, work permitting, if nothing else so I can finally get those goddamn shitty stickers off the boxes.
So, first on the docket was 12 Angry Men, one of the “not watched in a decade” ones, and oh hey that’s a pretty alright film, what a surprise. A thrillingly tense, empathetically insightful, and still relevant examination of how personal prejudices influence our views on those being shuttled through the criminal justice system. Undoubtedly, a version made today would dig even deeper into the racial aspects of the case and jurors – likely more usage of actual racist epithets, or acknowledgements of how the institutionally racist police force enabled the prosecution – but this version is still rich with righteous commentary. Juror 10’s rant, the framing and staging of it, and the powerfully direct shaming conclusion has lost none of its potency, to pick just the most obvious example. It also works as an absorbing ensemble character drama, since the philosophy and ethics debate is tethered to specifically-drawn people all performed magnificently. Lumet’s direction of what should feel like a stage play is very cinematic. The usage of light and shadow are so artfully-drawn, and the angled close-ups add greater urgency to the increasing animosity and emotional venting of the deliberations.
Babylon [Sunday 22nd]
Dir: Damien Chazelle
A wild, full-tilt, indulgent, maniacal swing for the fences. Chazelle at once de-glamourising and criticising-by-depiction the supposed Golden Age of studio production, whilst nonetheless proving incapable of not being enraptured by the magic of the products they put out. The seedier, mid-tier, budget side of the industry with little aspirations towards making high-art, regardless of what people like Jack Crawford wish otherwise, that nonetheless is still worth value. The stars who burn bright for a short-time, flame out or fade away almost as quickly and ignominiously as they arrived, yet live forever but will never get to understand that fact for themselves. An energy matched by Chazelle’s whip-pan drunk camera, cocaine-frenzied editing, and the high-strung flop-sweat performances of his entire perfect cast. Ever wanted to see what Hail, Caesar! would’ve been like if it were done in the vein of Whiplash? Then just watch the 15-minute sequence dedicated to filming Nellie LaRoy’s (Margot Robbie who is a whirlwind of charisma) first sound scene; it’s hilarious, agonising, intense, bitter, cathartic, and maybe the best stretch of film in Chazelle’s career to date.
Sure, you can cut this thing down to a less excessive runtime – though, honestly, it doesn’t always feel that length which is a real testament to Tom Cross’ exemplar editing – but I don’t think you’d get a better film by doing so. Babylon feels like exactly the film Chazelle set out to make, a fairground ride constantly threatening to fatally decouple yet operated by a skilled conductor working with total controlled confidence. Wolf of Wall Street in late-20s Hollywood where the hangout indulgence before the fall is the appeal, and the divisive ending is arguably the entire point of the piece. It’s the natural endpoint of Chazelle’s fixation on the relationship between great art and the often-exploitative means used to realise that art, how he can hold those two ideas in his head at once of acknowledging the meat-grinder abuse of the system whilst nonetheless loving what comes out of it. As with Whiplash, as with La La Land, arguably even with First Man, he’s aware of how inextricable both aspects are and, whilst he is not justifying the system’s abuses, he also can’t quite bring himself to condemn the art either.
Also, best score of 2022 by a country mile. Justin Hurwitz absolutely freaked it.
The Fabelmans [Saturday 28th]
Dir: Steven Spielberg
I like it. It’s Spielberg in Munich mode. Which is to say, a lot more cynical and regretful than the optimistic magic he normally infuses his movies with. That’s still there in fits and starts, but he’s also a lot less romantic about the movie camera than one might expect. Fabelmans is a deeply sad work about filmmaking as an attempted form of control, of trying to organise the chaos in one’s life to rewrite or delete the parts which cause too much pain, and how that control often comes with disassociation from reality and a general sense of futility. The camera catches all and, even if you try to edit things into a rosier picture, the footage will still stick with you, and that’s when you’re not using it as a means of craving validation from others. The Ditch Day screening is a masterclass of Spielberg twisting his crowdpleasing techniques to demonstrate a sort of hollowness, the lie/manipulation at its centre, and the way Sammy utilises those same techniques for complicated emotional catharsis even he is only partly aware of. The worn Super8-esque film grading, and Janusz Kamiński’s nostalgic colour tint photography, are almost ironic; there’s precious little rose-tinting here.
I don’t love it, however. For one, the ending’s a bit of a dud. The last shot, in particular, has a lot in common idea-wise with The Souvenir Part II‘s and I don’t care for the cuteness of it in this much-better movie either. For two, John Williams’ score feels a little too forced for the kind of film Spielberg’s turned in, a little too emotionally loud and unintentionally disingenuous with its efforts to be playful. Mainly, though, I kept being roadblocked by Michelle Williams’ distractingly phony performance. In a movie otherwise filled with actor putting in rich, often-underplayed turns – Paul Dano, especially, is phenomenally absentee in a way that frequently hurts – Williams is practically mugging with studied hysteria. It’s less like Mitzi has an undiagnosed mental illness/depression and more like she’s forever auditioning for an insufferable vaudeville act. Williams never convinces and that’s a big problem when so much of Fabelmans‘ juiciest drama hinges on Mitzi. Supposedly, her performance isn’t too far off from what Spielberg’s mother was like which, if true, gives me similar feelings to Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana in Spencer: you can tell me it’s an accurate imitation all you want, but that doesn’t mean much if I still don’t buy the emotion of the performance.
I’m hoping a future rewatch tips me over into the ‘love’ camp for this one. Fabelmans is really damn good, tangibly detailed, and has some achingly moving scenes. But I never fully fell for the thing, again mostly down to Williams and how much she has to dominate the movie. This marks three straight Spielberg films where the top-line star has been horribly miscast and it’s nearly sank the movie around them. I’m worried about the extent of this trend.
Callie Petch don’t need that drama.