Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. It is now officially too cold to comfortably go outside, which signals the beginning of my six-month griping session about the misery of living in New England. I believe I’ve basically had enough of seasons all together at this point, and would move to someplace nice and perpetually temperate like Los Angeles – it’s just, you know, all my stuff is here. But fortunately for you all, the advent of the Suck Months has also left even more time for movie screenings, which I have dutifully translated into an unwieldy tower of random reflections. Let’s warm ourselves with the magic of the cinema, as we ramble through another Week in Review!
Our first film this week was Last Action Hero, a ‘93 film where Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Jack Slater, a larger-than-life film character beloved by children worldwide. A young boy named Danny lucks into an early screening of Jack Slater IV, but through the magic of his mysterious golden ticket, soon finds himself inside the world of the film, riding alongside Slater on his death-defying adventures.
Last Action Hero is a relentlessly meta love letter to ‘80s action movies, with Schwarzenegger playing your archetypal loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules but he gets results, goddamnit. Much like Behind the Mask, it’s a film that’s clearly meant for genre enthusiasts, and sends up the specific quirks of Die Hard or Lethal Weapon-like stories with acuity and love. The movie is brimming with generous, detail-rich setpieces like LA’s Ultimate Movie Cop Police Department (where you might get partnered up with an animated cat voiced by Danny Devito, or perhaps the holographic projection of Humphrey Bogart). It’s delightful to poke at the walls of this world alongside Danny, as he tests the limits of his invincibility as a comic relief sidekick, or assures Slater that no matter what happens, he won’t die until the franchise grosses go down.
The film could easily come across as more cloying or self-satisfied than dramatically engaging, but it’s saved from such a fate through the genuine chemistry of its leads, as well as Arnie’s total commitment to Slater as both a sendup of his usual characters, and a human being in his own right. Arnie can sell a line like “of course Cartoon Cat is here, he was only suspended for three weeks” with absolute conviction, and yet you also feel him when he reflects on the exhaustion of living through a continuously accelerating action franchise. Anyone who writes fiction likely feels some degree of paternal affection for their characters; when Slater bitterly reflects on how his writers “threw my son off a roof for ratings, gave me nightmares for life,” his words evoke the genuine weight of authorial responsibility, and our hope to do right by the lives we invent. Plus, Charles Dance stars as an assassin with a rotating collection of glass eyes! Just a great time all around.
After that, we checked out the generous Korean western/action drama, The Good The Bad The Weird. Kim Jee-woon’s film takes only loose inspiration from Sergio Leone’s original, offering fresh interpretations of a couple iconic scenes, but mostly just doing its own thing. This is to the good – rather than attempting to directly echo Leone’s iconic atmosphere, he simply uses Leone’s broad plot beats to offer a rip-roaring action adventure, driven by outrageous action choreography and consistently stunning set design.
Set just months before the beginning of WWII, Jee-woon’s film sees us racing across the Manchurian wilderness, as our three antiheroes desperately compete for a treasure map. Song Kang-ho is well acquainted with playing larger-than-life clowns, and keeps energy high as the Weird, while Lee Byung-hun revels in the over-the-top devilishness of his villainy. And Jung Woo-sun soars above both of them, wielding a shotgun like a sniper rifle as he vaults across shanty rooftops, or leaps from a horse to a moving train and back. From the grand drama of an explosive train robbery to a battle stretching through the alleys and roofs of a sprawling market, Jee-woon sets up spatially complex and visually ornate venues for each new setpiece, culminating in a wild chase starring a full army platoon. The Good The Bad The Weird’s early action is so exciting that the inevitable standoff finale frankly can’t live up to it; still, the film is an outrageously generous experience for any action fans, or anyone who appreciates great set design.
Next up was Jacob’s Ladder, a horror film starring Tim Robbins as a Vietnam veteran who begins seeing strange visions after he returns to the states. With mysterious, faceless creatures haunting him at every step, Robbins must race to find what is truly happening to him, and whether these monsters are of his own creation.
Jacob’s Ladder unapologetically commits one of my personal greatest narrative sins: centering your drama on “is this really happening,” and presenting consistently unreliable information to your audience. When a story won’t commit to whether its drama is real or imagined, it feels like its writer is essentially asking us to care about nothing at all, and to be engaged simply because events are transpiring. There is nothing to grab onto emotionally in a story as unreliable as that; we can’t draw emotional inferences from subtle details of acting or presentation, because it’s just as likely that what we’re seeing currently is another misdirect. Like many mystery narratives, such stories replace artistry with “gameplay,” treating their films as toys to be solved, rather than emotionally or thematically cathartic experiences.
Jacob’s Ladder does not somehow overcome the inherent dramatic downsides of dreamlike or otherwise unreliable storytelling. Its ambiguity is a source of constant irritation and emotional distance, and though the ultimate ending is “logically sound,” it possessed no emotional impact, because these stories sacrifice emotion for rubix cube bullshit. That said, though the film’s overarching narrative is mostly a wash, its individual horror setpieces are fantastic. The sequences of Jacob being pursued by faceless figures in the subway, or dragged through a mental hospital that melts into a shapeless nightmare (Silent Hill’s beasties were directly inspired by this film) are dynamite, and more than justify the price of entry for anyone with an appreciation for distinctive horror. I’ll stomach some narrative flimflam for monsters this good!
After that, we settled in for a genuine epic, as we watched William Wyler’s Ben-Hur. Charlton Heston stars as Judah Ben-Hur, a prosperous Jewish merchant in the city of Jerusalem. When his Roman childhood friend Mesalla returns to rule over the city, each hope their friendship will be rekindled – but with each of them bound by allegiance to their own people, they instead come to blows, and Ben-Hur is soon banished to the depths of a Roman galley. However, an unexpected turn of fate allows Ben-Hur to become an adopted son of Rome, leading into a complex revenge plot, and perhaps the most impressive race ever captured on film.
Ben-Hur is extravagant and luxurious in every single regard, and lord is it glorious. The perpetual intricacy of set design, the absurd bounty of extras, camels, and horses, and the variety of locales Ben-Hur visits all impress a sense of majesty and scale upon its every moment. The film truly feels like a biblical story brought to life, with all its pomp and circumstance – yet at the same time, its mastery of cinematic spectacle and keenly economic script grant it the effortless watchability of can’t-put-down entertainment. Though the film is long, it never feels slow – drama progresses swiftly, not a scene is wasted, and if the runtime feels ominous, well that’s just because we’ve got so many exciting adventures to get through.
Heston’s character travels from riches to rags to riches to rags again, serving as the fraying and emphatically human centerpiece at the heart of a world-shaking storm. As Jesus Christ literally performs his miracles a few hills away, Ben-Hur rages against the whimsy of the gods, and almost loses himself in his lust for vengeance. The film has a satisfyingly ambiguous perspective on the grace of the gods, especially for one featuring at least one literal miracle, and Ben-Hur’s fallibility as a hero allows for an equally ambiguous meditation on the nature of justice and Great Men. Plus, that chariot race! An unimaginable accomplishment of skill and scale, demonstrating the glory of golden age Hollywood at the height of its powers. Ben-Hur is a film I’d recommend to anyone who appreciates great films.
We finished the week with another allegedly venerable horror film, The Amityville Horror. In spite of its continuing cultural footprint as a horror franchise, it turns out the original Amityville Horror kinda sucks as a movie. The film is simply boring, relying on underwhelming bumps in the night that lack either the creativity of design or finesse of execution to entertain, much less genuinely scare you. The last ten minutes ramp up the excitement a bit, but the road there is tedious, and the payoff far from worth the price of entry. If you’ve watched any of James Wan’s ghost stories, you’ve seen a version of this film that’s infinitely more effective than the original article.