The Movies of January 2024

I’m not entirely sure why I started using Letterboxd at the end of last year; I think it was because more and more people I know were using it and sharing their posts, and also because I liked keeping track of my comic reading in 2023. And so: here are the movies I watched in January. Or, really, the ones I remembered to keep track of — I’m pretty sure there are other ones I just didn’t put in the app because I didn’t have a device to hand at the time, but I guess they’re better off forgotten.

Anyway: the worst of the month was easily Species, an objectively shitty movie that both hasn’t gotten any better with age and is far worse than Lifeforce, a British movie it kind of rips off more than a little in its high concept. Best of the month was probably Guys and Dolls, a favorite that I rewatched on a Saturday night when it felt like an important thing to do. (I was right.) Of the movies I hadn’t seen before during the month, I think Pina is the one I’m going to be thinking about the most — a weird, self-indulgent documentary that’s mostly extended dance performances that are genuinely beautiful.

Meanwhile: 20 movies in the one month? Considering all the TV I watched that same month — thanks, Real Housewives of Salt Lake City — it feels pretty good, in a “I guess I watch a lot of stuff, huh?” kind of way.

Species, though; that was a mistake.

This Was

Awhile back, I watched This England, a dramatization of the UK government’s response to the earliest days of COVID. It was a big deal when it aired in the UK last year, in part because no-one could seem to agree on whether or not it was too kind to those in power; the left-wing press thought it was too soft, the right-wing press that it was very fair. So it goes.

For my money, I think accusations of it being too soft were off-base, just as the “very fair” belief betrays biases in another direction. It’s clear that the government were unprepared and incompetent, and that Boris Johnson himself unable to connect with the gravity of the situation even before it was clear how deadly the virus really was.

A bigger problem for the show, though, was how uncomfortably shallow it proved to be, and unable to properly communicate the scope of what was happening. On the one hand, that’s to be expected given how impossibly overwhelming everything was — how can any show sum that up? — but the methods the show attempts feel trivial and tacky: overlapping audio from newscasters offering exposition, while a graphic ticks up the number of cases in big red letters.

More than anything, it reminds me of Years and Years, the Russell T. Davies show that kept jumping ahead in time as things got progressively worse. It’s a weird parallel, because that show — made in 2019, before all of this happened — was something I thought of repeatedly throughout 2020 and 2021, as if it had been soothsaying rather than entertainment.

This England’s inability to live up to reality transformed art into life into art again, in the broadest terms. In its own way, the journey might be the most interesting thing about it.

Wheeeeeee Biddly-Bum, etc.

I’ve been trying to unpack my joy at watching the recent return of Doctor Who, the “Star Beast” episode that pretended to be an anniversary special but was, really, just an old romp of silliness that took up an hour of television.

Part of it is, simply, that I really love Doctor Who, and have missed seeing the show for awhile; even before the recent break in broadcasting/reboot, I’d kind of lost touch with the show during the Jodie Whittaker era due to a combination of Big Life Events and not feeling particularly enamored with the writing at the time. (Really, I feel bad for Whittaker for that very reason; she was very charming in the role, but the scripts weren’t there for her.)

There’s also the fact that, in a lot of ways, “The Star Beast” was a joyful restatement of intent: a declaration that Doctor Who as a show is going to be silly, sentimental, and kind, all of which are increasing rarities in science fiction television. Russell T. Davies has plenty of failings as a writer — particularly as a writer of Doctor Who, where he tends to overindulge in the silliness and sentimentality, judging by past experience — but his focus on characters, and his affection for his characters is something that everything from The Mandalorian to Star Trek: Discovery could learn from.

It helped that “The Star Beast”’s gimmicky ending relied on something that is (unfortunately) political, especially in the UK: a non-binary character and their self-belief and the power that comes from that. Does that make me “woke,” or a “SJW” as they used to be called, to say that element appealed to be so much? So be it, but it did, especially imagining the more uptight, conservative parts of fandom getting upset as a result. It was a small moment of seeing Davies realize the power of the platform that Doctor Who grants him, and perhaps part of his (to my mind, far superior) Years and Years or It’s a Sin coming to the fore, unexpectedly.

Whatever the reason, watching Doctor Who with the family on a Saturday evening made me impossibly, excitedly, happy. Here’s to feeling this over and over again as the show continues its run in the coming years.

Here’s to Swimmin’

I’d never, until yesterday, realized how utterly ruthless Jaws is when it comes to getting the viewer’s attention in the first place.

I’ve been watching a host of 1970s movies over the last year or so, filling in a decade’s worth of blanks in my cinematic education and finding a long list of new favorites in the process. (Most recently, Klute, which feels impressively contemporary in its approach to sex work in some respects, and shockingly old-fashioned in others.) Filled with a new appreciation for what’s apparently called the New Hollywood era by those in the know — and remembering the season — it felt like a reasonable idea to revisit the movie that arguably ushered in the blockbuster vogue that would dominate the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond; a favorite of mine as a kid.

When I was a kid, though, I like Jaws for the idea of it: the exciting threat of John Williams’ theme, the visual of the poster, and the polite remix of the horror monster concept at the heart of the movie. It wasn’t really liking the actual movie at all, which is a shame; it’s such a fun, well-crafted piece of movie-making, and such an odd beast, as well.

As a kid I’d not realized, for example, that the first death comes within five minutes of the movie’s opening, wasting no time to tell the audience, “this is what we’re watching, get in or get going.” All of the movie’s metaphors about how America reacts to terror — the bravado and belief that nothing bad will happen to us — was lost on me entirely; similarly, the quiet exploration of masculinity in the second half, when everything slows down and it’s just Brody, Quint, and Richard Dreyfus’s character (who can ever remember his name?) on the boat together.

Maybe all of this is what makes Jaws so good; that it can make the kid me so excited with nothing but the tease of undersea terror and some great music, and the old man me sees it as something else entirely, and neither of us are wrong. Maybe none of that really matters, and I should just stop overthinking and promise myself that Jaws becomes a July 4th staple just because it’s a good movie for whatever reason.

Let’s Go Back, Let’s Go Way Back

Entirely accidentally, I’ve spent a bunch of time recently revisiting media from a decade or so ago; it wasn’t something that I’d planned, or even actually noticed I was doing until after the fact, when I was talking about what I’d been watching and reading to various people and the idea came up, again and again: “Oh, you know that’s ten years ago now, right?”

What’s funny is that, thankfully, I didn’t have that moment of thinking, it feels like just yesterday that I think can sometimes happen with the passing of time; everything in the past three or so years feels especially like a jumble of potential moments that could be entirely interchangeable, especially. (Since the pandemic started, I don’t think I’m the only person to have a particularly skewed idea of time — there are things that, objectively, I know happened in a particular order, but it feels very much as if some happened last week and some happened years earlier, even though the order is entirely wrong.)

Instead, it was just the opposite: each of the things I’d been revisiting had happened almost because they felt far, far older than the reality turned out to be. Maybe this is because I have a significant life shift in between then and now — literally almost in the middle, if you consider that I split from Kate five years ago this fall — almost creating a very definitive THEN and NOW in my head. Because of the way my memory works, I can remember specific images and details about where I was when I was reading something, or watching something, and my memory almost instinctively goes, oh this happened at this point so it must be some time ago, and even ten years feels… almost too soon in some sense…?

And yet, a decade has indeed passed since these things I’m now going back to. It’s fun to see where my tastes have changed, what things I’m now kinder to, what things make less sense to me now. It’s a worthwhile exercise, if an accidental one, to revisit art and culture and use it as a mirror to remind yourself what’s happened to you. It’s nice to realize you can still change, even when you don’t think it’s happened.

Throw to Weather

I’ve been watching the first season of The Morning Show recently. Mostly, I started because (a) Chloe’s been traveling, meaning that I can’t watch any of “our shows” which leaves me needing to find something else to entertain myself while she’s gone, and (b) I like the idea of the show in theory; I’m a sucker for stories about the media that try to tread that fine line between drama and comedy and feel as if they have things to say about The Human Condition as well as The Media. That it’s informed by Top of the Morning, a book about U.S. morning shows and the politics that go into their making that I particularly enjoyed way back when, just helps matters. On paper, The Morning Show is very me.

In practice, that’s not so true. It’s clear that the show means well, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into good drama or good television, especially when the meaning well overshadows everything else onscreen. Watching The Morning Show feels, repeatedly, like the work of people who watched Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom and thought, “Wait, what if we just did that, but stripped out the attempts at comedy? What if we just did the bits where they’re very convinced that they’re making Grand Statements About Life Today?”

(There are many things that The Newsroom did wrong — not as many as Sorkin’s earlier Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, admittedly, but that’s not saying much — but the shitty comedy was honestly not one of them for me. Did the jokes always land? Oh God no, not in the slightest. But did I appreciate the effort? Every single time.)

Worse yet, The Morning Show‘s attempts to share Grand Statements are handled clumsily, leading to a season-long #MeToo storyline that includes a scene where the abuser in question rails against his former best friend and co-host of the titular TV program at the heart of the series that America isn’t ready to “accept women’s complicity” in men’s abuse. That’s right! Not all men, some women too, get it? (Steve Carrell, bless him, tries his best with some genuinely bad material throughout.)

And yet, I stuck with it. Partly because, what else am I going to watch, and partly because, well, the show might not be great, but I really am a mark for the source material. That’s going to keep me there for some time… even if the prospect of a second season about the COVID outbreak feels a little daunting, as I head into it.

Everything We Know And Less

For better or worse — spoilers, it’s worse — I’m still thinking of Infinity Pool days after seeing it. It’s not necessarily a movie that I was looking forward to, per se; I’m unfamiliar with Brandon Cronenberg’s work to date, but my quasi-crush on Mia Goth after the double-header of X and Pearl last year had me curious, and the trailer had enough in it that I was more than ready to head to the theater when it arrived, especially as it also meant a chance for a date with Chloe, who was far more into Cronenberg, Goth, and the trailer, as well as the movie itself.

Unfortunately, the movie turned out to be… hollow might be the best way to describe it. So many of the ingredients are there — it looks good, and the sound mixing and design and music are shockingly good, carrying multiple scenes all by themselves — but there’s nothing new or interesting being said by the movie, despite a palpable smugness to the contrary. It’s the cinematic equivalent to talking to someone so convinced not only if their moral superiority, but also that their intellectual superiority, even as they’re making the most boring and meaningless statements possible.

For example: did you know that rich people are monsters that dehumanize others? Did you know that, when people go on vacation, they do things that they never would in their everyday lives? Did you, though? There’s a science fiction gimmick at the heart of Infinity Pool that unlocks the potential for existential dread, but it’s only ever clumsily used, and never explored, as if the mere hint is somehow enough in and of itself; it’s not, and the lack of that exploration feels like a signifier of the movie’s disinterest in anything other than itself.

It’s not even that I disliked the movie; there’s not enough there even for that. Instead, I just… was disappointed by it, and saddened that, given the potential for anything that lived up to its own self-belief in its transgressive qualities, my main takeaway from the whole thing was my unhappiness at Mia Goth’s real accent finally being on display.

That I Keep Calling It “Don’t Worry Baby” Doesn’t Help, Either

Somehow, I’m still thinking in the back of my brain, half-heartedly, about Don’t Worry Darling more than a week after watching it. On some level, I’m sure, some would take this as a sign of the movie’s artistic value — if it can be thought-provoking so long after viewing, especially considering that I’ve watched another handful of movies since, then surely that says something about the movie’s power, the argument might go — but the sad truth if it is, the reason I’m thinking about it remains that I’m mystified that it got released in the form that it was, without someone in some position of authority stepping in and going, “Maybe we should try and fix this…?”

The core of the central idea, after all, isn’t a disaster, even if it is shockingly derivative: the picture-perfect mid-20th century society the protagonist lives in is a lie, constructed by what is, for all intents and purposes, a cult of tech bro incels. It’s a twist on The Stepfird Wives, with a dash of The Matrix and Mad Men to boot; it’s not anything special, but it’s solid enough. 

The execution of this idea, though…! Ignoring the fact that it’s never quite clear how the fake reality works — the wives have all been… given electroshock therapy in the real world, and then implanted with fake memories but basically given the same fake memories, even though they spend all day together, talking…? — or, for that matter, why it exists, given that those responsible apparently still have to spend the majority of their time in the real world to support their captive wives’ lives of leisure, suffering exactly the same indignities and upsets as before, but with added responsibilities and costs added on, there’s the fact that the movie would rather offer trailer-ready moments than anything making any narrative sense.

For example, the first signifier that reality isn’t what it seems is when Florence Pugh’s character is baking, and discovers that all the eggs are hollow. Why is that the case in what’s later revealed to be virtual reality? What’s with the scene where she’s cleaning and suddenly the house starts to contract, crushing her? Why, when she’s watching a swimming display on television, does she suddenly find herself drowning? All of these make sense if her reality was responsive to her state of mind, but it’s not; it’s a virtual reality world controlled by external forces, right…? 

Again, there’s nothing so wrong with the writing that a second pass couldn’t have at least addressed, but it never happened, even as the multi-million dollar enterprise chugged along with some truly terrible performances in the process. (Harry Styles is as weightless as the reviews argued, but not enough was said of director Olivia Wilde’s lifeless performance as the lead supporting character.)

Maybe what’s sticking with me is the wasted potential, the idea that it could have been better with just a little more effort in specific areas. Maybe I’m stuck on something that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. I should just take a cue from the title and quit caring, perhaps.

Do You Really Wanna Do You Really Wanna

After running out of episodes of The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City to binge — the season is continuing, but we caught up and now find ourselves restricted to one episode a week like commoners — Chloe and I have moved on to our next television obsession: HBO Max’s Peacemaker.

It should come as little surprise to anyone who knows either of us that we both loved The Suicide Squad last year; nevertheless, I know that I went into Peacemaker with no small amount of nervousness. Sure, the character had been entertaining enough in the movie, but did I really want to watch him be at the center of a show for eight hours? Was there really enough there for the series to be anything other than a bunch of meathead jokes made to diminishing returns, over and over?

The answer for both questions, as anyone who’s seen the show is already aware, was a resounding “yes.” I’ve been consistently surprised by the heart the show has, and the way in which it wants to examine what’s going on underneath Peacemaker’s annoying, none-more-bro shield (as well as others, but predominantly its title character, understandably); I’ve also been impressed by the kindness shown by the series when it calls him out as a bully and asks us to have sympathy for the reasons he is a bully at the same time.

The empathy at the center of Peacemaker was, of course, one of my favorite things about The Suicide Squad, as well as something I really love about another HBO Max/DC show, Doom Patrol. I know that snarky one-liners and far, far too many character in one story are the in-thing for Marvel right now — which is to say, the actually popular superhero movies and TV shows — but, the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I want out of my superhero stories in 2022 is that feeling of empathy and kindness towards those that deserve it. Isn’t that superhuman enough for you all, dammit?

Blazing A New Trail

In an attempt to come down from the insanity of the past few weeks — none of which has been bad, per se, as much as simply overwhelming and seemingly relentless — Chloe and I have unfortunately fallen down a hole called “Binging The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”

I’d like to blame our friend David Wolkin for this disaster, mostly because the very idea came up when he texted to suggest that we try it, claiming that just a few episodes in, “I’m convinced that our entire society needs to be rebuilt from scratch.” That kind of schadenfreude is difficult to resist for both of us, coming as we are from the guilty pleasure that is Below Deck, and so we succumbed before too long. (Not immediately, though; we binged HBO Max’s Finding Magic Mike first, finding it an unexpectedly wholesome, uplifting show. I genuinely recommend that one.)

It’s safe to say that, if you also like watching terrible people being terrible to each other in a way that can be genuinely shocking at times — how do people like this actually exist, and how can they talk to each other like that? — then The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City is a must-see. It’s the only Real Housewives I’ve ever watched, but it feels like the only one I’d ever need, given the curious combination of horror and comedy almost very interaction provides in any given episode. Again, that this is at least some form of reality, feels almost impossible, given how tonally perfect the show manages to be in its analysis of embarrassment and awkwardness. Armando Ianucci only dreams he could have made this.

As with all televisual obsessions, however, it’s started seeping into my everyday in unexpected ways; the opening titles feature each of the housewives saying an introductory, ridiculous phrase. For one, she spend the entire first season saying, “Like my pioneer ancestors before me, I’m trying to blaze a new trail,” and now I can’t help but think like my pioneer ancestors before me ahead of any random sentence in my head, as if that somehow makes the sentence more meaningful. The unexpected thing is, it works. Like my pioneer ancestors before me, I suggest trying it for yourself.