Sun. Jan 23rd, 2022

Alright folks, pile in, pile in. It’s technically the new year from where you’re standing, but I’m currently starting this article on 12/28, and doing my best to keep the weekly content flowing while also catching up on 2021’s best anime. Turns out it might not have been wise to leave like three quarters of the year’s most highly acclaimed shows unwatched, but hey, at least I’m eating well right now. I’ve already stormed through Ranking of Kings, will be following up with Heike Monogatari, and should have Sonny Boy finished by some time this weekend. To be honest, you’ll probably be seeing the fruits of this watch grind within a few days of this very article – but for now, we’ve got other fish to fry. Let’s charge through an eclectic collection of films, as we run down the new year’s first Week in Review!

First up this week was an easy layup for our viewing party, as we watched the delightfully spooktacular Howling Village. Howling Village takes all of the mainstays of J-horror and turns the volume up to eleven, veering from mysterious suicides to haunted phonebooths to drowned terrors, and garnishing the whole with a light sprinkling of found footage sequences.

Rather than marinating in the slow-burning tension or use of implication that frequently accompanies J-horror, Howling Village possesses the crowd-pleasing instincts of a slasher film, and wastes no time in amassing a formidable body count. Meanwhile, the film’s spacious cinematography evokes the elegiac beauty of its central tragedy, counterbalancing the bloody indulgences of the narrative’s path. The film on the whole feels like an easy recommendation for folks who’ve found other J-horror films a bit too slow or subtle for their tastes, but would still like to sample the style of ghostly presentation endemic to the genre. It may not possess the intellectual complexity of something like Cure or Dark Water, but it’s a very entertaining time at the movies.

After that, we checked out Disney’s latest animated production, Encanto. I’d been intrigued by Encanto’s advertising right from the start, as its story of a Colombian family who all have unique magical powers made it seem very much like a quasi-adaptation of one of the greatest novels of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Solitude follows its own Buendia family across a hundred years of rage and love and renewal, accenting their personal stories with fantastical details that make it one of the defining works of magical realism. Solitude is staggering in its formal poetry, endlessly generous in its creativity, and poignant beyond measure in its portrayal of the intersection of time and humanity. It’s one of the books that inspires my love of fiction, and demonstrates in its every page the staggering peaks of creative expression. So yes, I was pretty excited about a film that seemed loosely based on Solitude’s premise.

Well, Encanto certainly isn’t a Solitude-tier achievement in the history of storytelling, but it is still a damn fine Disney movie. The film’s most obvious, immediate asset is its exuberant art design, as it brings its remote Colombian village to life with a sumptuous array of vivid colors, along with a careful attention to cultural detail. The work Disney’s team put into realizing the specificity of life in this village is apparent and welcome; you can tell the team loves this reality as much as its characters, and that love makes for an inherently joyous journey.

Encanto also benefits greatly from its perfectly cast lead actress. Stephanie Beatriz has more than proven herself as a high tier comedian through her work on Brooklyn 99, and she instills Encanto’s Mirabel with a spontaneity and specificity of expression that greatly elevates the character as scripted. Also, there are songs, and the songs are good! I generally find Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smol beans new sincerity affectation intensely grating, but the man can clearly write a tune, as basically all of Encanto’s tracks are catchy, funny, and cleverly structured. I’m absolutely a sucker for interweaving vocal melodies, particularly when those melodies exploit language’s percussive qualities to essentially serve as each other’s rhythm sections, and Encanto’s tracks are all about that shit.

And yes, it has a story! Though to be honest, I was actually sort of impressed with how little story there was – that is to say, Encanto’s conflicts emerge so naturally from its premises that there’s no real need for an antagonist. Encanto understands that learning to coexist with your family is a full time job in itself, and that familial pressures can destroy us even if everyone involved has the best of intentions. A thoughtful family drama with a dynamic lead, beautiful art design, and great songs – Disney really nailed it with this one.

We followed up that feel-good adventure with a deliberately feel-bad one, as we checked out Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. After spending the first part of his career directing slapstick comedies and the second part directing cynical biopics, McKay has at last crossed the streams, and delivered a satirical takedown of the climate crisis we’re all committed to ignoring. Gone is the alternately slick and sorrowful presentation of something like The Big Short; McKay is furious, the gloves are off, and y’all are gonna have to sit for a while and think about what you’ve done.

It was an odd experience watching Don’t Look Up, as the film’s politics felt so obviously correct as to be banal, and yet I had to keep reminding myself that some of these points are genuinely controversial in the larger political sphere. Has television’s centralization of “entertainment” as the fundamental purpose of all information ruined our ability to think critically, or engage with uncomfortable truths? Of course it has – that’s the point Network made in ‘76, Amusing Ourselves to Death expanded on in ‘85, and even Al Gore pointed to with his title “An Inconvenient Truth.” Of course, simply making this point doesn’t reverse the point’s impact, and so here we are in 2021, with films still underlining how people who’ve grown up on television generally lack any ability to think critically, and merely run towards whatever sensation feels good. This film will come and go, and the infantilization of society will continue at its regular pace, with Donald Trump only sounding the most recent salvo of cretinism as a broad political movement.

So it goes with Don’t Look Up’s other points, whether they’re skewering the grotesque media circus of political celebrity, humanity’s ability to turn even our base survival into a tribal issue, or how the will of capitalism trumps any human costs in our political calculus. The ways in which Don’t Look Up are right seem almost tragically obvious, and with the film generally aiming for the cheap seats in terms of its characterization and punchlines, it’s hard to imagine this film actually changing anyone’s mind. Of course, McKay probably understands that. Like most sober assessors of our current moment, he doesn’t see a way for us to overcome our entrenched self-destructiveness, and instead urges us to love each other for whatever time we have left. But ultimately, Don’t Look Up’s broad comedy often undercuts its political acuity, while its attempts at profundity leave little room for much comedy, either. I’ll be interested in revisiting it if we ever escape this moment, though – ineffective as it may be as political propaganda, Don’t Look Up sure does capture the felt experience of living through the televised apocalypse.

After that we screened another classic epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Based on the life and writings of T. E. Lawrence, the film chronicles his adventures as a British soldier during the Arab revolt, where both his loyalties and very identity were tested by the relationships he formed with the Bedouin people.

Given this film’s larger-than-life stature in the history of epic cinema, I expected Lawrence himself to be a suitably larger-than-life figure, perhaps in the lines of Ben-Hur or similar characters. I was thus delighted to discover that the Lawrence of this film is an absolute weirdo, disrespectful and absentminded and quietly obsessed with self-destruction. The film sets up Lawrence’s unusual personality in his very first scene, when he slowly allows his fingers to devour the flame of a lit match. When a fellow officer asks “how do you keep it from hurting,” Lawrence replies with a telling answer: “the trick is to not mind that it hurts.”

This exchange articulates one of Lawrence’s key ambiguities, complicating his motives from the very start. When Lawrence boldly declares that he’ll claim a city by traversing an impassable desert, there is already a question in the audience’s mind as to whether this choice is a result of his moral character, his belief in his own destiny, or his plain desire to test his body against the elements. Lawrence himself is less aware of this conflict than many of his companions; though some of his allies do see him as a messiah-like figure, more understand he is simply a crazy white man, but one with the authority and determination to potentially move mountains

Lawrence’s dream is impossibly ambitious: to unite the antagonistic Bedouin tribes, reify their rule under a modern parliamentary system, and somehow defend them against the same British invaders who are currently supplying their weapons and ammunition. His plan is doomed to failure, and yet his conviction and personal talents are so great that he still achieves plentiful miracles on the way. Close collaborators like Prince Faisal or General Allenby seem to gauge the sum of his character from their very first interactions, seeing him as a fireball of youthful ambition – and as the film continues, their assessment of both his talents and his limits come to fruition, as he discovers that some dreams truly are impossible, and some pains don’t go away simply because you’ve decided to ignore them.

Lawrence of Arabia is a fascinating character study of an ambiguous yet undeniably great figure, focusing far more on Lawrence’s failures and regrets than his hard-won victories. And in David Lean’s hands, both the majesty and inhospitality of the desert is realized on the grandest possible scale. As in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean’s direction never feels ostentatious, though he pulls off plenty of incredible tricks of perspective and scale. His persistent long shots allow the desert itself to become an active character, crafting conflicts out of the fundamental size and nature of the terrain, and using the horizon line to emphasize both the loneliness and terror of a rider in the distance. Through Lean’s camerawork, we learn to love the desert for the purity that Lawrence idolizes, while perfectly understanding Faisal’s amusement at the idea of loving such a desolate place.

In spite of its substantial running time, Lawrence of Arabia still feels like only a brief snapshot of a man too complex for any clear adulation or condemnation. Lawrence was larger than life, and yet he was persistently defined by human failings. He treats his ambitions as if they were written by God, and yet he is driven largely by personal desires, with his great victories rarely bringing him much happiness. The film begins with a soldier at his funeral, speaking proudly of how he once shook Lawrence’s hand – it ends with us learning that soldier’s true nature, despising Lawrence when he mistakes him for a native, only to applaud him when he recognizes him as a British officer. Lawrence never becomes the man he wishes to, but through his actions, he demands that allies like Faisal be treated as the great men they already are. A fascinating character, and an incredible film.

My last watch of the week was Duck Soup, one of the Marx Brothers best-known films. The plot of Duck Soup involves Groucho Marx becoming the new president of “Freedonia,” a fictional European country, but Duck Soup is less of a narrative than a series of politics-centered gags and pratfalls. For an hour and change, you get to watch Groucho, Chico, and Harpo make general nuisances of themselves, as the actors around them attempt to make sense of their lunacy.

I’d never seen the Marx Brothers in action before, so this was quite the instructive experience for me. The film’s humor seems closer to a vaudeville stage act than our current conception of a comedy film; one-liners fly freely, the brothers themselves are constantly winking at the camera, and each new scene basically just serves as an excuse for them to mock and destroy everything around them. Groucho is a master of quick-witted wordplay, Harpo is a top notch physical comedian, and Chico lies somewhere in the middle, playing something like the “wise fool” in his over-the-top Italian accent.

To be honest, I had to take a lot of pauses while watching this film. Duck Soup is less a coherent film than a series of discrete gags, and with nothing to invest in or look forward to, I found myself only engaged enough to consume the film in five or ten-minute doses. None of the other actors really interact with the Marx Brothers in any way that’s meaningful for the comedy; they instead act as if the leads had done something upsetting but not unexpected, as their clothes are cut through and their identities scorned. The film’s best moments are easily those when the Marx Brothers actually interact with each other, allowing for far more comedic interplay and escalation than with the straight-faced secondary characters. I’m happy to have watched it, but this viewing felt more like homework than pleasure, and so I’m probably set on my understanding of the Marx Brothers shtick.

By admin