Signing off on – to say the least – my least productive year ever, is the first writing for this blog in months. They do say killing productivity is a slippery slope. Let my slump be a testament to that.
One of the only legacies that this blog had managed to maintain since its founding was my yearly long-winded reflections on the best of film music, video game and screen media soundtracks. So, despite how I watched fewer movies, TV shows and listened to less albums this year (MUCH less in fact), I saw fit to at least write a bit about everything I listened to, watched and played.
(This WILL be a multi-post, multi-part affair. If I really am going to write about everything I’ve consumed during a year of NEET-ing, I prefer to stretch that out instead of writing and dumping a whole novel at once).
What I watched in Film and TV (Hint: No, I Did NOT Enjoy Tenet)
Let’s start in Easy Land: For many who live in countries where governments didn’t see a need to quickly and decisively plug a fast-spreading virus, travel became gambling with their own and other people’s lives. Living in Sydney, I was kind of in the middle ground: while my extended family endured one to two months of heavy to soft lockdowns and had their lives in the various Sichuan-situated cities soon returning to normal (saving me a lot of heartache and worry), I was in a city where the pandemic never reached alarming levels, and most people nevertheless took half-decent precautions without reaching the level of hilarity that ensued in the likes of US and UK anti-maskers. Which is to say – the atmosphere was noticeably wary, but no hard lockdowns ever happened.
How else would I cope but to reach for ways to alleviate this new cramped stay at home lifestyle. In my case, it was rediscovering and finding belated appreciation for the car trio in The Grand Tour; a cultural set piece exported from Top Gear that I never really got into until now (hint: I am not a car person). So read on, I guess, as I talk about that plus a few other notable outings with movies and TV.
Rewatching The Hobbit Trilogy (With Commentary, But Not Peter Jackson & Crew)
A rewatch session I never thought would happen.
I owe The Lord of the Rings trilogy on informing much of my taste in films. Most may cite the old-school practical sets, timeless story, gritty and grimy action set pieces. I would cite Howard Shore’s music above them all. In fact, more so than Star Wars, The original Middle Earth trilogy’s legendary scores would go on to be a lasting benchmark for me on how music ought to function in a piece of screen media; the heights of ambition and potential film music has locked within itself waiting to be unleashed, should it be properly utilized as a tool and arbiter of drama.
The Hobbit films were never received as darlings compared to their siblings, hobbled by the backend mess, with widely voiced allegations that even Peter Jackson himself was no longer fully dedicated to the increasingly bloated, commercialized project as its production went on. That, plus the revived 50s arm race farce where cinemas sought to test audiences with new flashy technology that were meant to make the big screen experience ‘unique and irreplaceable’. Hence, 48 frames/second and 3D. We all know how that went.
However, having then watched The Hobbit films in the cinemas in their regular format, and never really caring about the technical enhancements – middle school me still enjoyed the films for what they are. Coming back in 2020 to rewatch them; albeit as part of a live commentary, has reminded me why I did: the beautiful music were still there. The beautiful cinematography were still there.
When author Doug Adams announced this live commentary, I was more than happy to take part. While this isn’t something I’d really recommend to this blog’s readership (it can get a bit dry), I can at least attest that as a regular listen of film scores – this was a valuable, enriching way of re-experiencing the films.
This may be the first time ever that I fell asleep in the cinema. During one of the loudest sequences of one of the most obnoxiously loud movies I’ve ever watched, to boot.
Now, I can’t blame all of this on Tenet – I do remember fighting through an abnormally persistent sense of drowsiness even before the film started. I had hoped the film’s excitement would wake me proper. Guess having no idea what is even happening, what everyone was saying or why, kinda did the opposite where the brain would just…expire and gives up trying to comprehend anything, and doubles down on rendering me unconscious.
So that’s it, I guess, my anticlimactic reaction to the supposedly most anticipated film of the year – I fell asleep in the cinema.
Birds of Prey (and the Fabgastically Long Subtitle I Won’t Bother to Look Up)
Huh. Guess I DID watch this film in 2020. In that case Birds of Prey should pat itself on the back for being the better of two 2020 Hollywood superhero films I watched.
Perhaps what I appreciate the most here is a grimy and soiled visual language that’s as musty as the character it follows. Girl power is here in its usual strides, but presented with enough in-tongue snark that it wouldn’t immediately emasculate the Every Man (note the tired sarcasm).
The film was great when it was in the mind of Harley. Less so when it was back at the most unspectacular of modes that the DCEU portfolio tends to flat line on.
Jiang Ziya (& Another Unfortunate Subtitle)
Now, there is nothing wrong with the word ‘Deification’. In fact in literal terms, it is a functional translation of what the film is depicting: the passing of Chinese literary icon Jiang Ziya into legend as he achieves godhood.
But let us throw away all pretence of maturity on our part and be honest without ourselves: doesn’t ‘deification’ just look and pronounce a bit too similar to ‘defecation’? Curse the English language!
Anyhow, with that out of the way: there are some genuine intense artistry on display in this animated epic, much of it front-loaded to the stylised prologue, where the film rushes us through a brief backstory with deliciously beautiful animation that feels organically hand-drawn and traditional, yet undeniably a demo of technical prowess. This isn’t to say that the more conventional CG animated body of the film isn’t beautiful in its own right – in fact there is much to enjoy for the eyeballs there too.
What sets Jiang Ziya apart from the off-the-shelf Disney/Dreamworks production would have to be the foregrounding of the divine – the unexplainable dimensions of history on display and the timeless landscapes that engulf the characters. A feast for the senses. Jiang Ziya certainly assumes a lot of prior knowledge as it races through motivated action sequences and parable cameos, making viewers including myself who are not/no longer in tune with China’s enduring tapestry of deities and literature scramble to make sense of exactly what is taking place.
At the heart however, is an achingly familiar story of human struggle between conviction and duty – a celebration of individual spirit that nonetheless is dedicated to the survivorship and dignity of the many. A unmistakably Chinese story, nestled in an animated fantasy epic that stands proudly as an artistic statement.
As for the other concentrated burst of artistry: having confirmed the ambitions of a Fengshen Cinematic Universe (by giving Nezha a cheeky cameo), the film’s post credit sequence also dropped a teaser for the next entry, Deep Sea. Holy Mother…there are no words for me to describe what I saw, other than it was astounding; some of the beautiful imagery I’ve ever seen animated and presented on screen.
Jumanji: The Next Level
Swinging back to the first film I watched on the big screen last year, before the new reality really sunk in. The first Jumanji reboot back in 2016 was a functional popcorn muncher, where the script is evidently using baby speak to get the regular folk on speed regarding gamer antics. Jack Black being the usual MVP of playing the vain selfie-obsessed high school dumb blonde – not discounting the brain-swapping efforts put in by the rest of the ensemble – and a cheese-on-cheese survival adventure story that rips from every Hollywood high concept fad imaginable,
The Next Level is a…less functional remix of this formula. Everything tried to be more, and ends up being all the lesser for it.
(Hey, anyone still remember that other The Rock vehicle involving leg prosthetics and jumping between skyscrapers?)
Certainly one of the prettiest live-action films I’ve watched in a while.
I have come to expect a certain – shall we say – tone with these kinds of prestige literary adaptations, and while I’ve yet to find the words to describe it, let’s start with the problems (more so mine, rather than the film): I haven’t read enough of books from this era, genre and catalogue to fully appreciate; much less understand, the style of prose and speech patterns that the film faithfully lifts paragraph upon paragraph from the book.
However – what I can appreciate with no less certainty, is the aesthetic. Watching Anya Taylor-Joy frolic about in (idealistically) era-appropriate attire as she match makes and meddles may as well be flicking through a photo book – images of discerning timbre and beautifully realised cinematography.
What the film achieves is capturing the unappealing sides of Emma, whose unconscious privilege and the luxury that surrounds her livelihood frees her to develop questionable tendencies of elitism and boredom; one which she alleviates through the era-usual gossiping and the disaster-inviting fiddling of others’ dating lives. And how’s a film supposed to be complete unless the protagonist unknowingly trips onto a road to romance as well?
You’ve seen this kind of film before. You’ve read this kind of book before. What may keep your attention however, is Taylor-Joy, and whatever the camera is pointing at. Like I said – this is a very pretty film.
Violet Evergarden: The Movie
My history with this character – this series – is a strangely incomplete and jumbled one, much of it due to how school life and the pandemic have wrecked havoc on every last semblance of scheduling in my life – I am only around halfway through the original 2018 TV series, despite really enjoying the show & appreciating everything it had to offer. Indeed, Violet Evergarden is a fragile masterclass in melodrama and how such motivated storytelling isn’t a simple class of cheap manipulation and short-cutting empathy, as much as the realism, detachment-worshipping crowds may try to convince you otherwise.
However, despite never finishing the original TV series and the accompanying OVA, I did make time to visit the cinemas for the Gaiden side story film, which really is a three-episode, two-story arc that is (skillfully) glued together into a 90 minute feature. I loved that film, just as much as I loved this one.
I’ll paraphrase from my tweets the moment I walked out the cinemas: I can’t remember the last time a film had such guts and confidence in its ability to make the audience bawl. To make sure no pair of eyes left even remotely dry, the film managed to co-currently introduce, develop and conclude multiple narrative in a very small time-frame; character arcs that have become a calling card for this series, all ending in their usual melodramatic manner. What’s different here when compared with Gaiden however, is instead of being neatly episodic short stories that happen in their own dedicated runtime, Violet Evergarden: The Movie ties three character stories into one giant timeline, cutting and waiving them across one shared cinematic frame, and concludes all three stories on a single compressed, tears-inducing bang, as an island-stranded, rain-soaked Violet – separated by an entire ocean, worked with colleagues to complete her final job as a young boy’s final moments of life slowly ticked away. Tearful goodbyes were delivered in time through the miracle of a telephone call, and the boy passes away peacefully as his family put on their bravest smiles. Somehow, it all works.
The 2-hour plus film served as the conclusion of Violet’s journey and passing into legend, and takes upon itself to depict the ghostwriting Doll’s final job, as the world starts to move on from handwritten and delivered letters to an age of telephones and Morse Code. Such a narrative beat is well-travelled and is fittingly nostalgic, and the film manages to utilise this in a genuinely touching way. An ode to the human sentiment of handwritten letters, and a hopeful look towards the future, as technology helps to deliver unspoken feelings that even letters cannot.
I loved this film. I loved the heart, I loved the masterfully composed music score, I loved the ludicrously beautiful background art, world building and the usual intricate and human touch the legendary team at KyoAni provided the character animation, and I can never fully comprehend what completing this film must have meant to them, having endured their own tragedy even before the difficult year 2020 was to become.
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I think that about does it for the first batch of retrospectives. Thank you to any old-school readers who have followed this blog since its messy beginnings. I refuse to let this little space of mine online die, despite how close it came to be last year. I hope I can find the will to write more again this year. Even if its more short-form notes and less long-form essays (which I really do enjoy compiling and researching for, despite the tedium).
Look forward to the next part, where I reflect on a few TV shows I’ve watched, sampled. Maybe a few games too. As people may note – I’ve yet to write anything of length on video games beyond music. Games analysis/writing is new territory for me. So fingers crossed.