two bowls of popcorn with red and white checked towel

What I Watched: January 2023

Alongside my monthly book wrap-ups, I want to include wrap-ups of the movies, series, and documentaries I watch. For the most part these will match the book theme (so watching murder mysteries while reading the same) but since series take a lot longer to get through, these wrap-ups inevitably will be a bit of a mixed bag. Here we go for the first month.

West Side Story
This musical is a special one for me. I watched it on stage with my uncle and brother and grew up loving the 1961 film version. The 2021 film adaptation received high praise and a stack of awards. As a result of this vaulted praise, I expected a lot, yet it failed to sweep me away. Perhaps it’s just that I am so familiar with the story and music and was expecting something new or different when I should have known that it would be very similar.

Look: hearing all the familiar songs was incredible, the costumes are gorgeous, and the supporting cast is fantastic. The inclusion of Rita Morena (who played Anita in the 1961 version) and how they included her is inspired. However, I was not fond of the leads who are meant to be driving the whole story’s heart. It must be said though that Rachel Zegler’s voice is stunning, and she excels beyond imagination on that point. Maybe if I had watched it at the time of its release, on a big screen, I would have felt differently, but ultimately it felt like an unnecessary remake.

Werewolves Within
A goofy horror comedy, I enjoyed this cabin in the woods meets werewolf tale. Sam Richardson plays the lead, a forest ranger assigned to a remote, snow-swept town with a deadly presence. I thoroughly enjoyed Richardson’s role and performance and for the life of me could not remember where I had seen him before. Afterwards I looked him up and realised it was Veep:  a series I love, and his character in it is one of the best. He is just as comfortable in a lead role, and he owns his part here. Snappy, smart, and silly, the movie is wrapped up with a twist that felt earned and unexpected.

Downton Abbey: A New Era
This series, its Christmas specials, and feature films always deliver exactly what you expect: melodrama, wit (the best of it dryly delivered by the magnificent Maggie Smith), and lots of emotion. Set in 1928, the costumes are gorgeous and the music amazing. This second Downton film, much like the rest of this franchise, is an absolute comfort watch with familiar characters, neat resolutions, and plenty of heart. It does always inject something a little new too and here there are new characters, one in the fabulous form of Laura Haddock, whom I adored in Da Vinci’s Demons. As for the familiar faces: I was so happy that Thomas finally got a happy ending – he’s one of my favourite characters, and he really deserves it. With that said, I sincerely hope we get at least one more feature film from this British staple, with (pretty please, Mr. Fellowes) a glimpse of Thomas’s happy new life too.

Good Witch
Season 5
If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be watching Hallmark series and movies, I don’t know that I would have believed you. This series attracted me because of its title. It hooked me because it is redolent of everything I love about contemporary cosy mysteries (this is not a mystery series, but it is certainly cosy): small towns, female-driven stories, and strong female friendships. Cassie, the good witch of the title, is never explicitly called a witch, but she certainly practices what many would identify as contemporary witchcraft. It’s wonderful seeing witches cast in such a positive light and very surprising coming from Hallmark, which has always been viewed as a conservative channel. This season starts with Cassie and Sam finally getting married and ends with Grace and Nick graduating, with the middle filled with all the usual small-town quirk and charm and a rotating cast of guests at Grey House.

Season 1
It’s been a while since I binged a series and I almost watched all eight episodes in one sitting. I loved this, times a million. Everyone had been talking about it, which usually puts me off, but this is the Addams family and I loved them growing up, so I had to watch it. As the title tells you, this series focuses on Wednesday, played to perfection by Jenny Ortega. In a fun and nostalgic touch they also cast Christina Ricci, who played the character in the ‘90s. I also loved Gwendoline Christie’s performance as the school principal, but it really is the young cast who owns this show.

I had completely forgotten that Tim Burton was involved, but it is evident immediately and even has a Danny Elfman score firmly in place, along with cello renditions of Paint It Black and Nothing Else Matters and gorgeous inclusions of work by Vivaldi, Elgar, Saint-Saëns, Satie, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

If you’ve ever read or watched Harry Potter, you cannot fail to notice that this series is 110% the Harry Potter story and vibe, specifically The Goblet of Fire – think boarding schools, bullies, tournaments, magic, friendship…it’s all there. But through the specific characters, the costumes, the production design, the music, it is also 110% its own thing. I can’t wait for season 2…and totally wish I still had my grandfather’s typewriter.

A Classic Horror Story
This Italian horror film is about being its title (a classic horror story) by working its way through all the genre tropes from a road trip gone wrong and a cabin in the woods to torture porn and teenagers buying the farm. But it’s also about sending up and paying tribute to the classics in this genre, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Midsommar. It then goes on to flip the script with a great twist that sends this film from the realm of the referential to that of the self-referential. If you’re a horror movie fan, it’s a must-watch.

Kiss the Ground
Narrated by Woody Harrelson, this documentary focuses on soil health and regenerative agriculture, and their role in combatting climate change. I’ve read and written a lot on these subjects, so I can’t say I learnt anything new. It’s a decent enough primer and at least tries to be positive at the end, although sometimes I can’t help feeling more like the Woody who opens the documentary rather than the one who closes it.

The White Princess
I can’t remember what drew me to this series. Maybe because it looked like it had a Merlin vibe. It’s not fantasy though, but historical fiction based on the books by Phillipa Gregory. I enjoyed this a lot and now find myself wanting to read Gregory’s novels, even though I’ve never had the desire to before (this inspired March’s reading and viewing theme: historical fiction). It also made me fall in love with Jodie Comer, so perhaps I should check out Killing Eve too.

Tali’s Jo’burg Diary
Oh my GAWD! I loved this show so much. South Africans excel at comedy – especially when it’s comedy about themselves. This show is a prime example. And good art is specific. Stanislavski said, “generality is the enemy of art” (or as Oscar Wilde put it, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation”) and this show, in its glorious specificity of characters and places, proves them right. If you are South African, you must watch this. If you have ever lived in Jo’burg, you definitely have to watch this. And if are not and have not, there is still so much heart that you will surely love this show. I am working backwards with Tali, because this is actually the third season of her mockumentary series, but it was so funny and ridiculous and brilliant and sweet that I have now hopped straight to the beginning, watching the first season: Tali’s Wedding Diary.

Hocus Pocus 2
My birthday present to me was subscribing to Disney Plus and this was the first movie I watched. I loved the 1993 film, and this is a fun and fabulous sequel. It stays true to the look and feel of the first film with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy reprising their roles as the Sanderson sisters and witches. They are still bad as all heck (I was really worried they’d make them nice) and the three new leads are great, providing more positive representation of witches. And hello Sam Richardson, always good to see you: he was in this too.

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