Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. The fall season has officially started, meaning we’re gearing up for another bout of seasonal depression, or as I like to call it, depression. I’m not the most cheerful of souls at the best of the times, but the dreary winter weather certainly doesn’t help. Like many folks, I often write to intellectualize my feelings, and through defining them hope to resolve or at least come to peace with them. Like Dobu says, most people don’t think about themselves all that much; writing at times feels like an act of therapy, so I hope you all forgive me for taking advantage of my platform to mumble about my feelings.
Of course, one of my most sure-fire ways to get out of my own head is to get into someone else’s head, and explore their take on the world for a while. Thus this was a fairly productive week, as we knocked out a mixed bag of films, along with a couple of acclaimed streaming series. Let’s break ‘em all down in the Week in Review!
First up this week was Battleship Potemkin, a 1925 Soviet silent film about a mutiny on the titular battleship. Potemkin is a mainstay on “greatest films of all time” lists, and it was easy to see why. This film is an absolute banger, a righteous call for revolution that uses the strengths of silent film to marvelous effect, and contains sequences that dazzle even today.
As with many silent films, in the absence of overt dialogue or sound effects, the orchestral sound design ends up taking a much more prominent role in the drama. Potemkin’s action is buoyed along by the rise and fall of its soundtrack, its orchestra equally adept at capturing the frantic mechanical energy of a steamship’s internal workings, or the piercing death rattle of an innocent’s final gasp. At times, the sound design is the drama, like during the buildup of the film’s nail-biting final confrontation, where repeated shots are built into a frenzy of anticipation through the strings’ ascent up the scale.
Potemkin’s visual feats are even more impressive than its soundtrack. The film has a tremendous sense of scale, featuring hundreds of background characters, and through this effectively preaching its faith in communal solidarity. Standout sequences like the army’s march down a step littered with civilians perfectly marry visual and aural design. The soldiers’ march is timed to ominous, driving horns, while further down the step, a baby carriage’s helpless flight is matched by frantic piano keys. Exciting, aesthetically thrilling, and suffused with collectivist anger, Battleship Potemkin is an easy recommendation. Turns out The Sum Of All Critics might be on to something.
After that we checked out Excalibur, a 1981 rendition of the story of King Arthur. This one caught my attention during the Green Knight buzz, as various folks on my twitter feed reminisced on the film as one of their introductions to high fantasy. Personally, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t actually read the stories of King Arthur, so I was happy enough to embrace this film as a cliffnotes version of the overall Arthur mythos.
Excalibur is rambling and unfocused, but that’s essentially an unsolvable problem; it is adopting a series of rambling, unfocused stories, tales that span the course of an entire lifetime. Rather than one concise adventure, Excalibur offers a grab bag of anecdotes from the life of Arthur, ranging from jousts to duels to epic quests. The costume design is excellent, and the cinematography consistently evokes a sense of larger-than-life majesty, which effectively contrasts against the practical costumes and coarse desires of the central characters.
Though the film features a fair number of soon-to-be-acclaimed British and Irish stars, it’s undoubtedly Nicol Williamson’s Merlin who steals the show. His performance spans the full emotional range of a powerful, crackpot wizard, and he’s also the only actor allowed to be funny, rather than just stoic and forlorn. On the whole, while I’m happy I watched Excalibur, I can’t recommend it as a genuinely good film – the cast feel more like statues than people, which combines with the film’s rambling structure to basically negate any sense of emotional investment.
Next up was a recent animated feature, Hiroyasu Ishida’s Penguin Highway. Penguin Highway is based on a book by Tomihiko Morimi, who is without question one of the greatest writers associated with the anime industry. Between The Tatami Galaxy, The Eccentric Family, and The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, he has proven himself a reliable crafter of magical realist fiction with a poignant human center. His characters are eloquent and distinctive, his worldbuilding is enchanting without feeling overbearing, and his stories are all grounded in universal concerns of purpose and young adulthood. He’s one of the few adult novelists who’ve become anime mainstays, and we are lucky to have him.
All that said, Penguin Highway is definitely not Morimi at his best. I get the feeling that Morimi is most comfortable writing about some version of himself – wide-eyed, neurotic, and anxiously determined to make the most of his life. All three of his prior adaptations have centered on or featured some version of this character – and in Penguin Highway, he attempts to slot his personality into the head of a fourth grader, with mixed results. Penguin Highway’s Aoyama is supposed to be precocious, but there’s a limit to what I can believe is a child’s perspective, and this film frequently crosses it. And when you combine that with the fact that Aoyama’s “love interest” is the same ephemeral twenty-something woman Morimi is always chasing, you end up with a pretty weird character journey.
Fortunately, while Morimi’s character writing is somewhat undercut by this story’s structure, his sense of whimsy is maintained in full. Penguin Highway’s inexplicable story of transforming penguins is a delightfully weird adventure, and Ishida does a fine job as director on his first feature film. Aoyama’s town feels cozy and familiar, while the penguins are brought to life with an applause-worthy bounty of penguin character animation. Penguin Highway is a bit of a mess, but its many strengths make for a rewarding ride, even if it doesn’t quite come together.
After that was the original Frankenstein, a film I’d seen enough as a child to remember it quite well. Frankenstein still kicks, and at a lean seventy minutes, you don’t have much excuse to miss this essential slice of horror history. Watching this film, I was struck by the realization that while creatures like the Wolfman or the Mummy are more associated with a general aesthetic, “Frankenstein” in popular imagination is very specifically Boris Karloff, dressed up like this, setting the standard for one of horror’s most enduring creations.
Frankenstein is littered with plenty of other inescapable cultural touchstones, like its introduction of a hunchbacked assistant to aid its mad scientist, along with quintessential reads of lines like “it’s alive!” and “I created it by these hands, I must destroy it by them as well.” The film proceeds energetically through grave robbing and vile experimentation, and big setpieces like the reanimation sequence or the final chase are genuinely thrilling, with the finale in particular making terrific use of black-and-white photography’s interactions with darkness and fire. An easy recommendation, and a film that’s bound to offer a couple “oh, so that’s where that’s from” revelations to anyone who grew up within Universal’s sphere of influence.
Along with films, we also checked out some of Netflix’s recent series this week, starting with the just-released Squid Game. Squid Game seems to have caught on in the discourse at this point, so you likely don’t need my contribution, but nonetheless: Squid Game kicks ass. Directly inspired by properties like Kaiji, the show centers on a gambling addict name Gi-Hun, who lives alone with his mother, and is drifting apart from his separated daughter. In his desperation, he is tempted to sign on for a game with an undisclosed prize, where he and hundreds of other desperate souls compete in deadly variations of children’s games.
Squid Game impressed me from the start, mainly through how its first two episodes focused less on the death game conceit, and far more on the day-to-day indignity of Gi-Hun’s desperate life. The first episode felt a bit like a Kore-eda film for a while, capturing the brief highs and stifling lows of poverty and addiction, and presenting Gi-Hun as a man who can’t stop making mistakes, but nonetheless deserves more happiness than he’s been afforded.
It’s that keen human element that makes everything that follows so horrifying. Though Squid Game possesses plenty of gore, its horror is never in the intensity of violence, but rather the cavalier manner in which these contestants “social betters” turn them into meat for entertainment. Squid Game is as furious about capitalism’s injustices as its genre forebears, with the course of its games subtly articulating the broken promise of capitalism itself. Though the contestants are promised a fair chance at glory, many of the games are designed to trick and trap them, or even punish them for attempted solidarity. The show develops a varied and endearing cast, and when the hammer falls, we feel just as much rage at this injustice as Gi-Hun himself.
Along with its successes as a theme piece and character story, Squid Game is also one of the most engaging death game narratives I’ve ever witnessed. Great structural sculpting and character writing certainly help there, but the show also benefits from its truly dazzling set design. The world of Squid Game is one of flat block colors and Escherian nightmares. Dehumanizing costumes and disorienting single-tone rooms collide, offering some of the sharpest visual compositions I’ve seen in live action, and clearly evoking the sense of a children’s show gone horribly wrong. I felt the writing got a little sketchier in the show’s last act, but that aside, this is one of the best shows Netflix has ever put up. Highly recommended.
We also checked in on Amazon Prime’s productions, screening out the superhero series Invincible. I was mostly curious about this one because its memes have become inescapable, and having watched the whole series, I am glad I now understand the memes. That aside, Invincible is a generally so-so experience, offering a superhero narrative whose only real hooks are its mystery conceit and tendency towards ultraviolence.
Invincible’s cast are fairly one-note, though at least somewhat unusual as far as superheroes go. The main character is frankly one of the show’s weakest; all of his conflicts felt tediously familiar, and his relationship with his girlfriend basically repeated the same note all season. More interesting are the young replacements of the “Guardians of the Globe,” who develop into a pretty charming family over the course of this first season. Still, you’re not gonna find much in this show to excite a character-focused viewer, particularly given its proclivity for murder as shock value.
In aesthetic terms, Invincible is a total wash. The show’s character models look extremely stiff, and there’s no real character acting – they move like characters from Archer, more like two-dimensional puppets than genuinely animated figures. The backgrounds are also generic, and there’s no real sense of composite between the characters and background, or that the two are being arranged for a purposeful compositional effect. Invincible’s characters might as well be standing in front of a greenscreen, for all they actually seem like a part of their environment. Even the battle scenes feel quite stiff, with little fluid choreography, and again, no integration between characters and their environment.
On the whole, Invincible served as an easy popcorn watch, but possessed nothing substantial in terms of characters, themes, or even just aesthetic strength. The show mostly made me realize just what a paucity of animation American audiences are willing to expect – compared to even the average seasonal anime production, Invincible looks decades behind the curve in terms of its animation, cinematography, and composition. You can get away with stiff talking heads for a sitcom, I suppose, but it sure is weird to see that style applied to an action drama.