Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I have some lamentable news: every single film I watched this week was great. No grand failures, no experimental misfires, not even any random nonsense my housemates dredged from the depths of Netflix. Every single movie was great, and that means I actually have to provide meaningful commentary for all of them, rather than tossing them aside with a terse summary and a jab at the director’s mother. On the other hand, I suppose this is actually good news for all of you, as you get to enjoy my cinematic ramblings for that much longer. So let’s get to it, ya animals, as we run down a worryingly distinguished Week in Review!
Our first film this week was The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, an early Dario Argento offering about a man who witnesses an attempted murder, and subsequently finds himself caught up in the hunt for a serial killer. As Argento’s first film, Crystal Plumage maintains a closer touch with reality than anything from the Three Sisters universe, though his eye for color contrast and alienating scene-setting are already apparent. Though not honed to the beauty and terror he’d reach in Suspiria or Deep Red, Argento is already capable of capturing a sense of anonymous terror in his urban environments. With the camera pulled back and the characters lost in architecture, his cinematography feels like a perfect visual representation of Lovecraft’s thoughts on the city: a maze of terrors indifferent to your humanity, or your suffering.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is full of the ornate layouts and demented flourishes you’d hope for from Argento, while also offering the twists and general momentum you’d expect of a sleek thriller. Tricks like his extended perspective shots and preoccupation with murderous hands appear only briefly, gesturing towards the confidence of aesthetic he’d solidify with films like Deep Red. On the other hand, his understanding of set design and architecture as a malevolent force already feels almost fully mature, with this film literally culminating in a sequence of the protagonist being attacked and constrained by the environment itself. On the whole, while I prefer Argento’s later work, even a film where he’s not yet fully on his bullshit makes for a delightful viewing experience, and reaffirms his status as one of my absolute favorite directors.
After that, we watched the absolutely incredible Sorcerer. After directing The French Connection and The Exorcist, William Friedkin took his cameras to the jungle, for a bleak, gripping exercise in the inevitability of fate. Roy Scheider stars as a small-time New Jersey crook who is forced to flee the country, eventually ending up in an impoverished Columbian village adjacent to an American oil well. There he runs into other exiles who’ve fled their first lives: a French banker who sank his firm, a Palestinian freedom fighter, and a mysterious man with a cold look and a gun in his pocket. All four of them wish to escape this purgatory, and see their opportunity when local guerillas blow up the oil well. In order to stop the fire, six cases of fragile, nitroglycerin-leaking TNT must be trucked across two hundred miles of rough terrain: if they survive, freedom awaits.
The film sets up each of its leads with a vignette establishing their flight from the world, but beyond that, there is little personal discussion and less sentimentalism between them. Friedkin explicitly designed his protagonists to be somewhat hard to root for, and for this film to be devoid of “heartfelt moments” – what relief we find comes largely through the push and pull of their struggle, our ability to empathize with the desperation and yearning that drive their impossible quest. Rather than the bombast of a traditional Hollywood epic, Sorcerer is shot with the realistic solemnity of a documentary, with sequences like the oil explosion and its aftermath playing more like war footage than theater. By stripping his story of dramatic artifice, Friedkin builds the same sense of vulnerability and desperation in his audience as in his characters, sharing with us the white-knuckle fatigue of two hundred miles spent with a volatile bomb.
And oh my god, what a journey it is! Sorcerer possesses an understanding of environment-as-conflict that rivals anything in cinematic history, with each bump in the road possibly spelling the end for our heroes. Through the oil administrators’ increasingly desperate efforts to stop the fire, we are clearly informed of the stakes of this journey, and the profound volatility of our heroes’ cargo. After that, it’s just one horrible escalation after another, as their rickety trucks trudge down untended jungle roads, carefully weaving between errant rocks and washed-out gulleys. With even a task as simple as “drive down the road” reframed as a bet with God, further obstacles like heavy rains or unreliable bridges feel like biblical plagues, trials sent either to temper or torment our lost souls. I’m not sure I’ve seen the experience of true hopelessness captured so completely as when Scheider steps out of his truck to gaze at a fallen tree trunk, so vast and implacable it might as well be God’s verdict on their soul.
There are no actual religious references in Sorcerer, and the title itself refers to one of the trucks rather than any supernatural being. But it feels hard to talk about this film without dipping into mysticism and fate. Sorcerer is an old Hollywood epic constructed by a New Hollywood genius, possessing all the scale of its predecessors, but bathed in the world-weary cynicism and broader cinematic vocabulary of Coppola and his contemporaries. Its significance as a statement on human ambition, the wrath of nature, and the will of fate needs no external contextualization; it is a perfect articulation of one of our oldest and darkest fables, the eternal bartering of what we can or cannot control. Its portrayal of grand struggle is so gripping that countless moments from the film keep crossing my mind; its articulation of human fallibility is so acute that I keep framing my thoughts in the model of its philosophy. I believe I’ve found another of my favorite films.
Next, we finished our run through Cartoon Saloon’s catalog with The Breadwinner, their 2017 adaptation of the acclaimed novel about a girl named Parvana, who disguises herself as a boy to support her family in Taliban-controlled Kabul. As you might expect, The Breadwinner’s tone is a shade darker than Cartoon Saloon’s Irish folklore trilogy, with its portrayal of Kabul capturing the intense paranoia of living under Taliban rule. Through Parvana’s eyes, we see the Taliban’s mandate help realize the ambitions of the cruel and the callous, where a young boy who “doesn’t like the look in your eye” can destroy the fortunes of an entire family.
The Breadwinner’s frank, unflinching portrayal of violence and oppression grants it a great sense of urgency and tension, dispelling any sense of narrative safety we might feel accustomed to. Instead, what relief The Breadwinner offers is shared by both cast and audience, contained in the charmingly illustrated stories that Parvana tells to her infant brother. Through these harshly delineated aesthetics, The Breadwinner effortlessly makes its case for the moral necessity of stories, both in how they let us escape from the concerns of the day, and also in how they let us reframe the intolerable, shaping it into a form we can understand and accept. And through the horror of life under the Taliban, the Breadwinner’s moments of simple kindness shine that much brighter, celebrating people of profound and tragically necessary resilience. A compassionate pressure cooker of a film, with just enough of a sentimental streak to leave me in tears.
We followed that with the conclusion of a distinguished trilogy, as we at last checked out Robert Rodriguez’ Once Upon a Time in Mexico. This film stands as the third in Rodriguez’ Desperado trilogy, though it’s a bit of an odd collection of films; after all, Carlos Gallardo is replaced by Antonio Banderas after the first one, and the second one is more or less a remake of the first with a much bigger budget. But in this third one, Rodriguez seems entirely untethered by the demands of continuity, and free to make an action film as wild and weird as possible. And oh boy does he ever jump at the opportunity.
With my introduction to Rodriguez coming first via From Dusk til Dawn and subsequently by Sin City, I’ll hope you forgive me for having long assumed that he’s not really my kind of director. His work in those films struck me as ineffectively silly and unpleasantly mean; fortunately, the Desperado trilogy has corrected my perspective, and demonstrated he is truly one of the titans of action cinema. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is silly, sentimental, and staggeringly action-packed, demonstrating a director with a keen understanding of the action/farce dichotomy, as well as a sense of surreal bombast all of his own.
You can pretty cleanly align Rodriguez’ proficiency in these two schools with two of Once Upon a Time in Mexico’s protagonists. On the one hand, you’ve got Antonio Banderas, an actor who can switch from a devilishly convincing smolder to an absurd pratfall in a quarter second, and look equally comfortable in both modes. Many of this film’s action scenes feel like the choreographic equivalent of Banderas’ whole career; sequences like him and Salma Hayek escaping off a balcony, swinging on their handcuffs to avoid a hail of bullets, embody the farcical fun of action comedy.
And while Rodriguez is clearly a master craftsman of traditional action-comedy, his irrepressible weirdness is fully captured in Johnny Depp’s CIA spook character. Depp speaks largely in an incoherent collage of out-of-date aphorisms, seemingly only wears clothes he bought at random from tourist stands, and kills people almost at random throughout the film. When his character literally has his eyes gouged out, he reacts with the same distracted nonchalance that he assigns to every other turn of fate, calmly bartering with his child guide as he proceeds through a hail of gunfire. Featuring a secondary cast brimming with welcome faces like Danny Trejo and Willem Dafoe, Once Upon a Time in Mexico offers an extremely generous time at the movies, demonstrating how much craft and personality popcorn entertainment can exhibit.
We finished off the week with a samurai classic, as we checked out Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. I actually watched Yojimbo for a class back in college, but with so many more movies under my belt since then, I could far better appreciate how well this film draws on Westerns as influences, and how Kurosawa makes their cinematic language his own.
Yojimbo is one of the best “high noon” films not literally called High Noon, as nearly the entirety of the drama concerns two rival gangs staring menacingly at each other, huffing and stamping their feet at opposite ends of their main street. Kurosawa’s graceful cinematography turns this patch of street into an entire universe, resulting in an exercise in narrative economy that never feels constrained by its narrow scale. Instead, the audience becomes acquainted with every notch and angle of this territory, as our hero stares out through the shuttered windows of the local inn, and effortlessly plays each group against the other.
Along with Kurosawa’s incomparable gift for visual drama, Yojimbo also features one of Toshiro Mifune’s essential performances, as he lays out the mixture of grit, ambivalence, boredom, and keen attention that Eastwood would study in constructing his Man With No Name. Mifune’s performance in this film typified a style of cool that has endured ever since, with his smirking, laconic disposition inspiring gunslingers, bounty hunters, and bodyguards for decades to come. Couple all that with a crisp crime drama narrative and phenomenal use of Exactly One Gun, and you end up with not just one of the best samurai films, but simply one of the best movies of all time.