First Watch: January 2024

Hayao Miyazaki, Jake Johnson, Emerald Fennel, Pipelines, Gamestop, Mean Girls, Little Women, and Denzel...

First Watch: January 2024

Some thoughts on movies I watched for the first time last month, more or less in descending order of enjoyment or appreciation...

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

From an upcoming episode of Stereoactive Presents...

How to Blow Up a Pipeline essentially plays like a heist movie where the object of the heist is a future that otherwise seems so futile and bleak that to not successfully execute the caper is simply not an option. Propelled along by a bustling, plaintive, largely electronic score composed by Gavin Brivik, we follow our cast of characters from several walks of life as they converge on the representative object of their derision. 

That object is the titular pipeline – somewhere in arid West Texas. And the relative isolation only aids in the film’s success at making the viewer feel immersed in the microworld the group of characters have chosen to now exist in, away from a society that may judge their actions separate from their meaning and, at least as far as they’re concerned, necessity. This immersion through isolation makes it all that much easier for us to feel as if we’re a part of the plot ourselves.

The result is a vital commentary on the state of our world – a world where the idea that we may actually be able to make a difference for the sake of humanity’s very future can seem not only daunting, but often impossible.

The Wind Rises

My enjoyment and appreciation of Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron last month, led me to check this one out. I've heard it described as, essentially, a Miyazaki film for people who may not usually enjoy the director's other work – or in other words, a good gateway film. And I guess I can testify to that because I'm now ready to hit up my next entry in his filmography.

The surreality and beauty of the dream sequences (or are they portals of connection?) and the pure emotion and tragedy of the love story are overwhelming if you can just let yourself tune into the emotional frequency and style of the film, which is certainly pitched.

Battle Royale

I got a 4K Blu Ray player recently and have slowly begun to build a collection of physical media. But since 4K discs are rather pricey, I'm happy that Tallahassee happens to have a really great independent video rental store, and this was one of my first rentals.

I'd always heard that The Hunger Games was basically a rip off of this. Of course, The Hunger Games traded out the vast majority of the social satire of Battle Royale for something much closer to melodrama, but, yeah, it's definitely hard to deny it's almost certainly a rip off of the basic premise, at least. And the thing is, I'm not quite sure what part of Japanese culture and society this film is satirizing, but it's compelling as hell, nonetheless.


I was just the right age when this came out to both think I was too old for "cartoons" and to be over the Robin Williams schtick, so I never saw it. Having a two year old, though, means I'm revisiting or catching up on plenty of movies now. She seemed to really enjoy it, and I liked it a lot more than I ever thought I would.

American Fiction

I really appreciated that there's something of a shaggy dog element wrapped around the social commentary of this film. It makes the premise seem a little more lived in, as if it could actually happen in the world in which we live, rather than in a high concept silo a bit divorced from reality.

Jeffrey Wright does great work as the highbrow author who decides to write something "more black" to prove a point about the exploitation of a certain image of blackness that's seen as more commercial to mostly white gatekeepers in the publishing and literary world. I just wish the craft of the filmmaking was a bit more dynamic because as is, it doesn't quite rise to the level of the performances or writing. That said, I'm happy to see the film get recognized in the recent Oscar nominations and will certainly check out the next thing from writer/director Cord Jefferson.

Self Reliance

I've previously enjoyed Jake Johnson's work in The New Girl, Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, and as the voice of one of the many Peter Parkers in the Spider-Verse movies. So, I think that if you, like me, have enjoyed him as an actor, you'll probably enjoy his high-concept, lo-fi debut as a writer/director. There may be a couple of points where the story gets a bit wobbly, but it seems like he's following his interest and doing it more than ably. My only major objection about it is that I wish Anna Kendrick's character didn't disappear for quite so long because the two of them have great chemistry together.


From an upcoming episode of Stereoactive Presents...

Since we’re recording this a couple of months after the film’s release and even longer since it first began playing at festivals and reviews of it started coming out, it may be worth mentioning that there seem to be a lot of critics who do not like Saltburn. In fact, I pretty much avoided watching the film until now because so many critics I follow had so little good to say about it. 

So, perhaps my low expectations played a part in this, but I found it mostly pretty compelling to watch. I mean, it’s pure pop melodrama trash playing at being deep and sophisticated, and I think another couple of passes on the screenplay may have leveled it up from that to either the true satire or social commentary it strives to be – something more along the lines of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Rules of the Game, Gosford Park, A Place in the Sun, or something more recent like Parasite. But the talent and craft brought to the film from other quarters certainly elevate it into something more than it would be otherwise.

Barry Keoghan not only swings for the fences as the class interloper at the heart of the film, but he also more than proves his ability to lead a high profile movie with a top notch cast. And whether some of his choices pull you in or make you cringe, it’s impossible to deny his commitment to his character and the themes of the film.

For his part, between this and Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, Jacob Elordi is fast becoming an actor whose presence in a project is going to make me more interested in checking it out. That said, I do wish he had more to do at times in Saltburn – especially after his character, Felix, first shows Keoghan’s Oliver around the estate and introduces him to the other residents, then seems to melt into the background or wholly disappear for quite some time. 

Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike, as Felix’s staggeringly British parents, are both bright spots when the film allows them space to shine and Archie Madekwe, as Felix’s cousin Farleigh, certainly does all he can to make his character as unlikable as the script requires.

Add to all that, the striking visuals delivered by the cinematography and production design, and I’m honestly more excited now to see director Emerald Fennell’s next film, than I was after I had mixed feelings about her last one, Promising Young Woman.

Mean Girls

Hey look, the daughter from The Nice Guys is now in Mean Girls! I wouldn't say I exactly went in with low expectations – maybe more like no expectations? I suppose I'm always going to be at least a bit skeptical when something is a remake of a remake... or more specifically, an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation. But honestly, I had a lot of fun!

Dumb Money

On one hand, I'm glad this movie about a guy who upset Wall Street from his basement while eating chicken "tendies," drinking beer, and wearing a bandana and shirt with a bunch of kitties on it didn't go full Big Short. But on the other hand, I think Craig Gillespie's depiction/interpretation of recent history didn't quite live up to how he handled less recent history in I, Tonya and Pam & Tommy. Somehow he managed to thread the needle of those two stories more satisfyingly than he did this one. Still, worth a watch if you were on the outside of the whole GameStop stock thing back in the earlier days of the pandemic and are curious to know a bit more about it.

Little Women

Dear fellow-90s kids,

Please do not come at me, but Greta Gerwig's 2019 version of this is better.


The Equalizer + The Equalizer 2

I had Covid the first week of the year and these were both available on streaming as I was quarantined from the rest of my family/home. Also, I'd heard it said on several podcasts that these movies are, to paraphrase, "actually pretty good."

The first one is okay. Nothing special, really. But the second one is utter trash, and not in a good way. I was honestly starting to get angry the more I watched it, it was so f**ing nonsensical. But hey, I had Covid, and I kept hearing the recent third film is good, so I thought I needed to finish the second.

Reader, let me tell you, I finished the second, then got bored trying to watch the third and still have not finished it weeks later.

But hey, I'm glad Denzel is getting that $$$$$$$$$$$$. And some people like these, so what do I know?

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