Fri. Dec 3rd, 2021

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. With the immediate pandemonium of the Playstation 5’s arrival cooling into a calmer epoch of peaceful coexistence, we were able to sift through a generous variety of films this week, with selections ranging from acclaimed new films to unimpeachable classics to the usual algorithm-driven outliers. There was also Nicolas Cage in one of the most gloriously ill-fitting wigs of his entire career, but I’ll save that for the end. I know, I know, you’re all hungry for the Cage… you know what, I’ll start off with a different Cage performance, and then we can work our way towards the power metal hair. Let’s get to it!

Our first selection this week was Prisoners of the Ghostland, where Nic Cage plays a prisoner who is tasked with rescuing a wealthy baron’s daughter. To accomplish this, he must journey across a post-apocalyptic world that combines cowboys and samurai in an insane Mad Max-derivative stew. Prisoners of the Ghostland is the first english-language film by Sion Sono, an enigmatic Japanese director known for films like Love Exposure. I’d been quite interested in diving into Sono’s work, but unfortunately, Prisoners of the Ghostland has provided me with an atrocious first impression.

Prisoners of the Ghostland is emphatically not a character story, theme piece, or even really much of a narrative at all. It’s mostly just a medley of crass yet visually dazzling Stuff Happening, a montage of images from movies Sono apparently likes, possessing little connective tissue or emotional impact. What narrative does exist is articulated so clumsily it seems like it must be tongue-in-cheek: the title drop follows the heroine screaming “I am not a prisoner!,” and her sister prisoner’s behavior never coalesces into a recognizable human being, while the ‘worldbuilding’ such as it is seems to scorn the very idea of coherence. The film is best enjoyed as a series of beautiful yet inexplicable culture-clash images, but even then, Sono’s love of vulgarity kept me from caring much for its aesthetic. If his other work is as hollow as this, I don’t think his films are for me.

Fortunately, we rallied back from Ghostland with a genuine classic, The Sting. The Sting stars Robert Redford as a young con artist, whose partner ends up killed when he accidentally robs a mob boss (Robert Shaw). Seeking revenge, Redford teams up with a legendary con man played by Paul Newman, and the two conspire to take Shaw for all he’s worth.

Like many ostensibly imposing classics, The Sting is actually just an exciting, propulsive viewing experience, surging forward on the strength of its intensely charming lead performers. Through its rigorous 1930s set design and flourishes like its piano motifs or play-by-play title cards, The Sting constructs a convincing internal world of gangsters and con men, a mirror society existing just adjacent to ours, like the alternate society evoked by John Wick’s Continental. The process of recruiting capable allies, the convoluted methods of assaulting Shaw’s pride, the larger-than-life fabrications they employ to ruin him; it’s all delightful stuff, with the film’s narrative echoing its stars’ talent for enthralling showmanship. With great dramatic chemistry between its leads and an absolutely killer screenplay, The Sting is simply a terrific time at the movies.

We then checked out a recent horror film, the ambiguously named Spell. In the film, a successful lawyer named Marquis (Omari Hardwick) learns of his father’s death, and thus flies with his family back to Appalachia. Marquis bears both emotional and physical scars from his father’s brutal parenting, and as an adult is determined to define himself apart from his rural past. But when the family’s plane goes down, Marquis finds himself trapped in the care of an ominous old medicine woman (Loretta Devine), in a place where the old ways still hold sway.

Spell seems determined to draw some meaning out of Marquis’ rejection and then return to his roots; his initial status as a lawyer is explicitly framed as a rejection of his racial identity, and Devine has more than a few comments about the distinctions between city and country folk. But the film’s exploration of this contrast felt a little muddled to me, with its second half in particular dispensing with metaphor in service of horror spectacle. Fortunately, Spell succeeds and then some as a pure horror vehicle, playing very much like a voodoo-transposed playthrough of Resident Evil VII. There are creepy dolls, ominous rituals, and a generous helping of body horror, as the film makes thorough dramatic use of its dilapidated farmhouse. If you’re not put off by the thought of a railroad spike or two being placed in an unorthodox location, Spell offers a satisfying horror ride.

After that we watched a film I hadn’t seen in many years, the improbable Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker buddy cop vehicle that is Rush Hour. Watching this for the first time in decades, it was kind of stunning to see the degree of casual anti-Asian racism that still played as comedy; Tucker’s racist comments are relentless, and the degree to which he is redeemed by Chan’s friendship will likely not impress modern audiences. That said, Tucker and Chan still possess tremendous chemistry, and this film still works on a fundamental level – Tucker is the best he’ll ever be, Chan is infinitely charming, and at this point he’s still able to do his own impressive stunt work. Sequences like Chan desperately scurrying to save a priceless vase, only for a bullet to shatter it the moment he succeeds, would be at home in any of his Hong Kong classics. If you can at least tolerate Tucker and the script, there’s a fair amount that’s still effective here.

We next checked out Bo Burnham’s film debut, the frequently painful Eighth Grade. Eighth Grade is an inescapable prison of adolescent anxiety, a film where Carpenter-style synth tracks are used to accompany the abject horror of attending a classmate’s pool party. It’s as anxious and well-observed as his standup specials, with both the convincingly uncertain dialogue and genuine youth of the actors pulling back the veil of theatricality that tends to accompany film renditions of adolescence. “My life is like that feeling when you’re waiting in line for a rollercoaster, but I never get to the feeling after the rollercoaster” confesses our heroine Kayla, plainly speaking to anyone who suffers from chronic anxiety.

Along with its general merits in terms of scripting and performances, Eighth Grade was also interesting to me as a snapshot of modern adolescence and its unique attendant quirks. I can remember a time prior to the internet, and though I spent my teenage years browsing GameFAQs and SomethingAwful, I didn’t get a smartphone until after college. As a result, my experience of adolescence is vastly different from someone like Eighth Grade’s Kayla, whose media diet is mostly composed of twelve-second videos made by other teens, and who is perpetually performing an idealized self for her theoretical followers.

That urge to turn your every waking thought and action into Content is something I’ve come to despise as an adult, and it was at times hard to watch Kayla shield herself with such flimsy coping mechanisms. Ultimately, it seems like Burnham agrees with my belief that no degree of online validation could ever equal one earnest friend. But I wonder if Eighth Grade’s own prescriptions are still a product of this transitional moment, and whether the following generations will possess a similar separation between self-promotion and self-expression. 

Finally, as promised, we finished this week with Con Air, a Jerry Bruckheimer production about Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage), a former Army Ranger who’s sent to prison after accidentally killing a man in a bar brawl. In spite of his tough exterior, Poe possesses a heart of gold, and writes constantly to his wife and darling daughter. But on the day of his release, Poe finds himself on a plane taken over by dangerous convicts, with only his heroic spirit and flowing locks standing against them.

Con Air is gleefully ridiculous, the kind of film that takes every opportunity it can for a slow-mo pan of its hero’s hair extensions. Cage is the perfect lead for this kind of self-consciously silly action vehicle, and he is supported by a truly absurd secondary roster. John Malkovich chews through almost as much scenery as Cage as criminal mastermind Cyrus “The Virus,” John Cusack and Colm Meaney bicker beautifully as Cage’s ground support, and even Steve Buscemi turns up for an inspired second half turn as one of the worst murderers in history. Everyone seems to be having fun, the film never suffers from a moment of downtime, and just when they’ve run out of plane-specific action setpieces, we land at a plane graveyard and turn it into a war zone. If you like movies that turn stupidity into entertainment jet fuel, you will love Con Air.

By admin