Fri. May 27th, 2022

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. How are you all doing this week? Personally, I just got back from my first jog of the season, so I’m feeling genuinely physically healthy for the first time in about four or five months. My ability to will myself into exercising is tenuous at the best of times, and in the cold of winter, there’s basically no way you’ll convince me to go outside for anything. As a result, my body tends to mirror that of a hibernating bear, as I grow rotund and lethargic over the winter months. This admittedly imperfect cycle will likely continue until I finally stop saying I’m leaving New England and actually do it, but in the meantime, all those days indoors have left me with plenty of time for film screenings. Let’s run down a fresh grab bag of cinema selections!

With Elden Ring still commanding prime time attention, we munched through some lesser horror features as afternoon fare, starting with the altogether disappointing Mirrors. Mirrors stars Kiefer Sutherland, an actor whose only mode of expression is “incoherent male rage evoking an implicit threat of violence.” This made him the perfect protagonist for 24, America’s cultural vehicle for the worldview of Bush’s America, and it also makes him reasonably well-suited to Mirrors’ profoundly unlikable ex-cop protagonist. Spending time with Sutherland is a chore, and unfortunately, Mirrors lacks any meaningful technical craft, innovation, or really effective scares of any kind. The sole exception is one imaginative and seriously gruesome death scene, but if you just google “Mirrors bath scene,” you’ll have covered this film’s contribution to the horror canon.

After that, we checked out The Deep House, a far more effective slice of horror ephemera. The Deep House has a very simple premise: “what if we took your usual haunted house narrative, but set it in a house that’s at the bottom of a lake?” The results are both technically impressive and dramatically satisfying, with the film’s series of admittedly familiar horror beats feeling thoroughly invigorated by their watery venue.

First off, the very fact that this film all takes place underwater makes it a noteworthy exercise in filming technique. The Deep House must have made for one hell of a shoot, and the resulting film capitalizes on the inherent, elegiac beauty of a house trapped in time, with candelabras floating majestically through abandoned dining rooms. There’s something inherently discomforting about deep water; that bracing vulnerability of being out of our element, in a place our bodies aren’t meant for, with no idea what secrets the darkness might hold. Limitations on our ability to function like air supply or decompression concerns make for natural dramatic hurdles, and even surrendering to panic comes with the threat of gobbling your remaining air. The Deep House doesn’t extend far beyond the inherent combination of haunted house and deep water, but it doesn’t have to: these concepts are resonant in the abstract, and their combination elevates them both.

We then continued our run through Dennis Villenueve’s filmography, by checking out Bladerunner 2049. I’ll confess, I wasn’t really a fan of this film. Perhaps it’s because I’d just seen Villeneuve’s Dune, a property where his austere sensibilities made perfect sense for the material, but Bladerunner just doesn’t seem like a proper vehicle for his talents.

The original Bladerunner was messy – a sweaty work of neo-noir, centered on cramped city streets bustling with foot traffic. There were certainly stunning, alienating works of architectural scale in its cities, but those elements essentially served as counterpoint, the veneer of austerity draped over the all-too-human complexity of the city underbelly. And this dichotomy was crucial: Bladerunner was about the unstoppable inevitability of humanity seeping into our every attempt to surpass it, and thus it found a joy in the messiness, in the contrast of faceless futurism and colorful humanity.

In contrast, Bladerunner 2049 is spotless and gray, a testament to Villenueve’s severe aesthetic preferences. Almost none of the original’s lived-in street squalor is captured in this film; like Dune, this feels more like the realm of gods and monsters, where larger-than-life figures stride between massive ziggurats. There’s an appeal to that aesthetic, but it’s many miles removed from Bladerunner, and the resulting film feels both ponderous and emotionally hollow as a result. Villenueve directs with the tempo of fate and prophecy; his instincts are aligned more with 2049’s villains than its heroes, and thus there’s a perpetual disconnect between the scrappiness of its leads and the scale or trajectory of its drama.

This is not to say Bladerunner 2049 is a bad film. On the contrary, it’s aesthetically quite impressive, flirts with the original’s ideas in interesting ways, and is full of excellent performances. But as an emotional and intellectual experience, I felt there was a continuous disjoint between the original Bladerunner’s strengths as a template and basically everything Villenueve values or is good at. The one exception was the film’s romance between its protagonist and his apartment AI, which felt messy and vulnerable and colorful in all the ways the film otherwise lacked. I’m aware this is partially the point (Villenueve’s clearly using color as a metaphor for rising out of your programming), but I’m not sure it was the right point to make with this particular film. Still, interesting – it’s a film I disagree with more than disrespect, which is a rewarding place to be. 

After that we took a hard turn in the other direction, turning on full No Thoughts Mind Empty mode for Lake Placid. Lake Placid bills itself as a horror-comedy about a thirty-foot crocodile, but it is unfortunately neither scary nor funny. Additionally, its direction is so incompetent that the film manages the dubious honor of looking like it was all shot in front of a green screen, in spite of actually being shot on location. The film’s only saving grace is its absurdly overqualified cast: I hope Brendan Gleeson pulled in a solid paycheck for appearing in a feature like this, and Betty White basically steals the entire film in her turn as the big croc’s adopted mother. Bless you Betty White, for elevating even the humblest of creature features with your delightful presence.

Our last feature of the week was RUNNING, a recent short film written by and starring Danny Pudi. Pudi’s star has been rising consistently over the past decade, as his phenomenal turn in Community has been parlayed into a sturdy role in Mythic Quest, as well as consistent film work. He’s one of the funniest actors currently working in TV comedy, but my experience with his dramatic chops is more limited, so I was delighted to learn his first project as a writer would be all about his thorny, ambiguous relationship with his father.

Pudi’s father left the family when he was only two years old, leaving a son of Polish and Indian immigrants with no dad and no connection to half his heritage. They had recently started to reconnect, but in the wake of his father’s sudden death, Pudi is left with far more questions than answers. Over the course of RUNNING, Pudi charts his attempts to finally stop running, and to shade in a portrait of his missing parent to share with his own children.

RUNNING’s wildly self-reflective narrative and gamified approach to psychological interrogation actually felt quite reminiscent of his Community character, making me suspect Pudi has been contributing to writing his own projects for quite some time now. But after the attention-grabbing introduction of his “memory quest” is complete, what remains are a thoughtful series of personal interviews, interspersed with diverse reflections from Pudi himself. Even the narrow distance between his personal and professional poise plays into the narrative itself; it’s clear that as a boy who could not explain his identity, Pudi saw taking on the roles of other characters as a way to validate himself. In the film’s most devastating moment, Pudi quietly asks himself “I wonder what my unmemorized voice sounds like?”

There’s no clear answer to the questions Pudi is asking in this film: our lives don’t often trend towards storybook endings, and our identities are too mutable and complex to ever be easily defined. But through its journey, RUNNING offhandedly articulates a great deal of truth regarding family, loss, and the loneliness of the perpetual outsider, performing that reliable artistic trick of finding the universal in the deeply personal. A fine film, and an exciting next step for an actor with talent to spare.

By admin