Sat. Oct 16th, 2021

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week saw us experiencing the full consequences of catching up with One Piece, as hours upon hours of dedicated One Piece time were instead all poured into feature films. We watched a tremendous number of features this week, and I even finished She-ra alongside them, so this week’s gonna be something of a cinematic lightning round. There were old films, new films, red films and blue films, with everything we watched ranging from at least passable to genuinely fantastic. We’ve got a lot of Content to get through, so let’s not waste any more time, and charge through another Week in Review!

First up this week was Good Time, the film the Safdie brothers directed prior to Uncut Gems. If you’ve seen Uncut Gems, you’ll recognize Good Time’s formula pretty much immediately. Like its successor, it is a shot of adrenaline straight to the vein, a thriller about a doomed man who’s already far past the edge, negotiating with devils to dictate the terms of his sentence. Also like Uncut Gems, it is an intensely New York City film, as Robert Pattinson roams the boroughs in search of escape for both him and his handicapped brother.

Pattinson is terrific, as you’d expect. It seems the lingering tendrils of Twilight-related suspicion have faded, and he is now being correctly identified as one of the best actors of his generation. And along with the finely tuned thrills you expect from the Safdies, Good Time is also an unabashedly angry film, focused on characters who were rejected by society from the start. Though Pattinson’s actions in this film are at times deplorable, it’s always clear how his desperation is tethered directly to his brother, and his fear of losing him to an uncaring public health system. The film’s end is a punchline as impactful as Uncut Gems, but with a ferocious edge of social commentary. As its final song states, “the damned always act out of love.”

After that, we checked out a film which pleased on a surface level while infuriating me conceptually, Jon Favreau’s Chef. In Chef, Jon Favreau himself plays Carl Casper, an acclaimed LA chef who’s sick of just playing the classics, and wants to rediscover his passion for cooking. After exploding at the city’s most distinguished food critic, he ends up quitting his job and starting a food truck, reconnecting with both his love of food and his estranged son along the way.

Chef is an unabashedly feel-good movie, full of soft passes and easy layups for its generally likable cast. The movie wants you to feel good about Casper’s story, but the whole time, I couldn’t shake my astonishment at the audacity of one of the men most responsible for our current cinematic desert complaining that he doesn’t get to express himself enough. As Casper manically defends his bland cuisine from criticism, it feels like Favreau is divorcing himself from blame for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, claiming that he’s only making what people want, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And what does Favreau create when he actually has the opportunity to make an interesting, personal project? A movie where he stars as a brilliant but misunderstood artist, with both Sofia Vergara and Scarlett Johansson hanging on his every word. Nah, fuck you, Favreau. You made cinema demonstrably worse, you don’t get to forgive yourself for it.

After that was The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood plays a southern farmer, a man who is driven to action after bandits riding under the Union’s auspices kill his family. Along with a cadre of other victims, Wales roams the countryside dispensing justice – until the war ends, and the thugs who killed his family are pardoned into official service. Though his band of allies lay down their arms, Josey alone maintains his fight for justice, fleeing the law in a country that has left him behind.

Josey Wales is just a big ol’ steak of a western, full of thrilling gunfights and desperate chases and ornery yet lovable characters. Eastwood is a fine director, and Wales is stuffed with beautiful vistas and energetically conducted action scenes. As a revisionist western, Wales exists in clear conversation with its genre predecessors, taking the classic “old soldier” narrative in compelling new directions.

The general trajectory of these stories sees a former soldier clinging to his old, violent ways, and eventually proving incompatible with an era of peace. In contrast, Josey Wales proves capable of change and even forgiveness, while acknowledging how our past scars still bind us in a variety of ways. The presence of Chief Dan George as Lone Watie provides a welcome tempering effect for Wales’ rage; with Watie sitting there reflecting on the wholesale fleecing and destruction of his people, it becomes harder and harder for Wales to feel justified in his violence. Plus George is also a just-plain-excellent comedic actor, providing the perfect deadpan counterpoint to Eastwood’s smolder. A very satisfying watch.

Next up was A Fish Called Wanda, a comedic caper about some variably competent jewel thieves. In it, George Thomason (played by Tom Georgeson, which I’m not sure is an intentional joke or just how British names are) plans a jewel heist with his partner, Ken Pile (Michael Palin). The two team up with Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto (Kevin Kline), an American con artist and weapon specialist respectively. Things quickly go south, and soon Thomason is in prison, being defended by Archie Leach (John Cleese). In order to get the location of the loot, Wanda sets to work seducing Leach, with a variety of surprising results.

As you’d expect from its cast, Wanda is a treasure trove of absurd and hilarious scenes, as Kline makes a manic nuisance of himself and Cleese embraces the freedom of American thinking. Although the film stars two Pythons, Kline’s bizarre behavior tends to steal the show; his interpretation of a “weapon’s expert” is basically a mall ninja, and scenes of Cleese and Curtis schmoozing are frequently interrupted by him staring wide-eyed through a nearby window. Curtis also puts in a terrific performance, convincingly driving the drama and holding her own comedically against some of the funniest actors in history. The film might be a touch too mean-spirited for some (Kline’s character is a genuine bastard, so you need some tolerance for hilarious bastards), but I was laughing all the way through, and was delighted to learn that Curtis and Kline are such comedic powerhouses.

Next up was Kate, a recent John Wick-style action vehicle starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate, a professional assassin. When Kate learns she’s been fatally poisoned by the associates of a recent target, she decides to make the most of her last few hours, and kill basically everyone involved with the decision to poison her.

Kate’s narrative beats are all quite familiar: the doomed assassin turning good, the unlikely partnership with a local kid, the escalating series of interrogations and shootouts. Like all of these films, it’s really the seasoning that dictates their quality, and Kate is fairly well-seasoned. Aesthetically, the film’s embellishment on the formula is that it is soaked in the neon lights of Tokyo, celebrating crowded arcades and tiny street carts, and taking great pleasure in the fact that Kate murders people in a My Neighbor Totoro shirt. But more crucially, the film benefits from its frankly over-cast secondary roles. Winstead’s handler is played by Woody Harrelson, who brings both gravity and sleaze to his ambiguous character, while Winstead’s ultimate target is played by Jun Kunimura (The Wailing, Chihayafuru), whose expressive finesse is second to none. With them holding down the poles and the capable Winstead between them, Kate elevates itself just a smidge over the Wick-derivative standard, while serving as an easy recommendation for anyone who’s a particular fan of the subgenre.

After that, things got spooky, as we set out into the woods for In the Earth. In the Earth follows a pair of scientists living in the wake of some unspoken biological catastrophe, who are heading out into a forested exclusion zone to check in on a missing collaborator. After enduring the dubious hospitality of the locals, they eventually find their target, and learn she is attempting to communicate with some spirit in the forest. Using a speaker and lighting array, she hopes to make contact with this presence – though whether our minds could survive the experience is another question altogether.

In the Earth keeps its cards close to the vest, hiding its threats so carefully that it’s initially hard to tell what we’re even dealing with. Early on, an ominous drawing of a woodland god had me excitedly chanting “folk horror! Folk horror!” (seriously, I fucking love folk horror), only to be blindsided by a swerve into kidnapping and ultraviolence. Then the characters break free of that, and stumble into a different movie, one more concerned with psychedelia and cosmic menace. By the end, it’s clear we’re dealing with something like The Endless, a force beyond our imagination that could destroy us without even trying.

Of course, most of that has to be inferred from the data. Rather than actually giving away its ghouls, In the Earth delights in conducting a ritual dance around them, contrasting the scientific and aesthetic methods as paths towards true enlightenment. Its genre bends result in a somewhat disjointed feeling, and people looking for traditional horror payoffs may feel a bit unsatisfied, but I personally found its approach to cosmic horror novel and compelling. “Eldritch horror” often seems to translate as big monsters with lots of tentacles, but I much prefer this sort of approach, where we tread carefully among the old beings’ markers, lest a glimpse of their knowledge blind us forever. Speaking of blinding, anyone with any risk of epilepsy should not watch this film – it uses flashing shots and strobe lights to a fault, so maybe keep some shades handy.

Along with all that, I also charged through the second half of She-ra and the Princesses of Power. I quite enjoyed the show on the whole, though by the end I was certainly feeling the disconnect between the show’s alleged conflict and actual content that one reader mentioned. In spite of centering on a war that’s being waged across the planet, She-ra’s world feels oddly empty, with only a handful of teenagers representing each side, and no real sense of urgency between battles. By the end, me and a housemate were joking that the only jobs adults qualify for in Eternia are Guard This Door or Move This Package, because everything else is too important for anyone but teenagers.

Additionally, the show feels just a tad overstretched at five seasons, with the fourth season in particular basically spinning in dramatic wheels before the actual finale arrives. I’m all for shows that prioritize character emotions over narrative busywork, but She-ra’s characters felt like they went in a fair number of emotional loops, with it sometimes feeling like Adora or Bow would be ravaged by self-doubt purely to give them something to do.

That said, the show maintains its core strengths all through the end: an eminently endearing cast, reliable sense of humor, and gleeful celebration of queer relationships. Catra’s journey of fearful self-destruction is compelling throughout, the middle act of the show has a whole bunch of engaging one-off episodes (“the D&D episode! the murder mystery! the musical!”), and the final season is a gripping ride from start to finish. The very insubstantiality of the show’s war narrative actually somewhat helps it in the end, making it easy to forgive all the show’s ostensible early villains. And all along, standout characters like Entrapta and Scorpia keep the energy high, with Lauren Ash’s stage comedy experience making Scorpia the show’s not-so-secret weapon. There were some messy elements here and there, but I had a great time with She-ra overall, and would recommend it to any fans of Steven Universe or the like.

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