Fall 2020 – Week 1 in Review

3 months ago 44

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. It’s the end of an era this week, as for the first time in seven goddamn years, I haven’t actually watched all of this season’s new anime premieres. In fact, I’ve only watched one – Jujutsu Kaisen. It was pretty good! I might watch another episode.

Contributing to Anime News Network’s preview guide was certainly a rewarding experience, and it’s been interesting to see trends in the medium evolve over the last half-decade or so. But ultimately, saying “this wasn’t particularly good” has always been the least interesting part of criticism to me, and so I’m happy to be at a point where I can invest more in the shows I’m passionate about, and less in the shows that are an affront to any sense of taste or decency. So without further ado, let’s dive into a regular old Week in Review, and take a few swings at some interesting art!

This week I got back in the horror saddle again, beginning with a viewing of I Trapped the Devil. I Trapped the Devil is a tight, tidy production in all respects, taking place largely in a single house, and building out of the escalating tension between just three characters. The premise is simple: when Matt and his wife Karen go to visit Matt’s grieving brother Steve for the holidays, they find him in worse condition than they expected – and convinced he’s caught the devil in a room in the basement.

In terms of its overt storytelling, I Trapped the Devil is a little underwhelming. The film uses its pressure cooker setup well, but fails to establish a convincing contrast between the perspectives of the two brothers; their feelings always feel a little out of frame, and their arguments frequently boil down to “why don’t you believe me” versus “because I don’t.” It felt like the movie was trying to say things about both grief and faith, but neither Matt nor Steve were convincing enough as either characters or debaters for their arguments to land with much impact.

However, in terms of set design and use of its monster, I Trapped the Devil shines. Steve’s depressing Christmas decorations set the entire film in an eerie unreality, making viscerally apparent the sense of liminal space and compressed time you can feel as an adult in your parents’ empty house. And the devil’s presence in the basement is portrayed as a delicious, corrosive menace; he torments Steve with visions of his lost wife in television static, and speaks in a voice that’s just short of convincingly cowed, yet somehow already delighting in his inevitable victory. He actually reminded me of The Witch’s devil, which is an enviable reference point – and at a lean eighty minutes, the film goes by too quickly for its faults to blossom into unforgivable weaknesses.

Speaking of The Witch, my second viewing also contained shades of that film: The Wretched, centered on a creature who’s equally comfortable stealing away children and hiding within their parents’ skin. Nothing about The Wretched’s storytelling is likely to surprise you; in fact, the film seems to be deliberately hearkening back to an ‘80s slasher style, where context and thematic significance are less important than racking up a satisfying kill count. Characters frequently make very stupid decisions to keep the plot rolling, and nobody is given any sort of personality beyond their familial connection to the other characters.

But as a sort of modern take on an old formula, The Wretched succeeds quite well, building off the “woodland witch” mythos of films like The Blair Witch Project or The Witch itself, and pairing those signifiers with a monster who’s far more willing to get up in people’s faces, or creepily adjust its human skin. Top that off with excellent cinematography (which may well be the single most important aspect of a horror film), and you end up with an altogether filling creature feature, with a strong monster and no wasted space. If A24 has cornered the market on prestige horror productions, it feels like IFC Films are doing similarly with throwback B-horror, and I’m glad both of them are keeping us so well fed.

After that, I continued my journey through Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado trilogy, with the middle act that also serves as its namesake. After the incredibly low-budget El Mariachi made a reasonable American splash, Rodriguez’ resources went through the roof for his followup, resulting in a film that trades Carlos Gallardo for Antonio Banderas, and Gallardo’s supporting cast for a host of Hollywood regulars that includes Steve Buscemi, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, and even Quentin Tarantino.

The differences between El Mariachi and Desperado actually strongly reminded me of the differences between Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 1 and 2. Like Evil Dead 2, Desperado essentially feels like a remake of the original El Mariachi’s narrative, blessed with a much larger budget, and tightened by a more precise understanding of what genre the director is going for. The end result actually feels a fair bit less original than El Mariachi; gone are the major tonal and aesthetic shifts, replaced by a consistent action comedy tone that feels far more Hollywood-familiar.

That said, the action scenes are quite entertaining, and it’s fun to see Banderas, Hayek, and Buscemi as relatively young stars, already crafting larger-than-life personas with ease. With the original El Mariachi’s surrealism and gentle farce tuned down, I can already see Rodriguez developing in a direction that doesn’t really suit my interests – but that itself is an interesting, compelling feeling, and it’s not Rodriguez’ fault I’m not much of a straightforward action fan. But if you are an action fan, Desperado is an altogether solid piece of work.

My house has also started screening The Boys, which I’ve been thoroughly enjoying, in spite of my own certainty I’d hate it. I mean, on paper, the show looks like a combination of a bunch of things I generally dislike: superheroes, excessive, gleeful ultraviolence, and a cynical, “we’re this other genre but dark” worldview. And yet, here I am six episodes in, eagerly awaiting whatever mayhem is next.

Most fundamentally, I likely enjoy The Boys because I share its perspective on superheroes. Superheroes are symptoms of fascist mythology, they do lend themselves to complacency and idolatry more than personal achievement, and they are ultimately tools working in service of capitalism, not the people they ostensibly protect. Everything The Boys postulates as true of superheroes within its world already feels true of superheroes within our own – but this show, at least, is starting from a productive framework of assessing them, rather than simply wallowing in the personal emotional problems of people who are essentially nuclear weapons with fandoms.

The Boys thus defuses my general suspicion of superheroes by actually treating them realistically, and acknowledging they’d be a horrifying threat to public safety and civilian autonomy, as well as essentially the endpoint of capitalism’s union with the military-industrial complex. In that context, the show’s ultraviolence actually feels natural, and perhaps even essential. Superhero narratives have a tendency to disarm the inherent horror of violence and bodily harm, as it’s all just punches between attractive people in colorful suits. In The Boys, that image is what you see on television, while the reality is ugly and brutal and terrifyingly fast – the series opens on the image of a Flash-like character accidentally running through a civilian, and doesn’t let up from there.

The show quickly teaches its audience to treat superheroes like bombs with hair triggers, who could at any moment grip your shoulder a little too hard, and rip your body fully in half. Because of that, basically any scene with a superhero in it feels naturally tense and uncomfortable, with head super Homelander in particular using his inherent threat to masterful effect. Also, the cast is great, the story is well-paced, and the show’s faded aesthetic is a perfect match for this material. I’m having a great time!

Finally, I also picked up Hades this week, the latest release by Supergiant Games. I’ve never seriously played any of Supergiant’s previous releases; I tried but wasn’t hooked by Bastion, wasn’t enticed by Transistor’s aesthetic, and heard questionable things about Pyre. Ultimately, I ended up falling into Hades via a predictable route: my feed wouldn’t stop talking about how its opening sequence was a gorgeous debut by Studio Grackle, through which I learned Hades was actually a roguelike, and thus almost certainly My Jam.

Readers, Hades could not be any more my jam if it tried. First off, this game has some of the best character designs I’ve seen in years, featuring gorgeous art that’s rich in personality and detail, paired with a slew of gods that feel like genuinely fresh takes on the Greek pantheon. Their personalities and relationships are fleshed out slowly, over the course of repeated runs that make the best narrative use I’ve seen of a roguelike’s gameplay mechanics.

In general, roguelikes are built around repetition – you run the dungeon, you hopefully retrieve some materials to make your subsequent runs easier, you die, you run the dungeon again. A repetitive loop like that doesn’t naturally lend itself to a continuous, ongoing narrative – but here, Zagreus’ repeated attempts to escape his father’s prison are acknowledged in-game as a perpetual, ongoing rebellion, and thus each time you return to the start in Tartarus, you share the latest news with your various associates, and develop their relationships accordingly.

The way Tartarus evolves across your runs isn’t unprecedented or anything (Hollow Knight did a less pronounced version of the same thing), but it’s integrated so gracefully into your experience that it’s hard to find a meaningful comparison point. Rather than an arbitrary, system-based understanding, you come to an emotional understanding of Zagreus’ failures, with repeated runs and overheard conversations consistently expanding your understanding of your world and its inhabitants. Crucial to this is Hades’ incredibly generous slate of unique and context-specific dialogue; everyone always has something new to say, and frequently, they’ll be responding to the immediate conditions of your latest run.

But great art design and structural elegance can only go so far – ultimately, it’s Hades’ phenomenal gameplay that makes it impossible to put down. Hades plays like Diablo if it were designed for players raised on Dark Souls and Hollow Knight – the combat is fast and incredibly precise, with a relatively low floor, stratospheric ceiling, and plenty of ways to demonstrate your personal flair. The game hits an incredibly satisfying balance of run-specific resources and permanent gains; you could do ten runs in a row and never use a similar build, while still feeling like you’re making steady progress via your accumulating upgrade resources. Victories are simultaneously hard-earned and inevitable, which is a hard balance to strike, but incredibly satisfying in practice.

In total, Hades has been dazzling me on all counts, and even now I’m mostly just thinking about playing more of it. You know what, I think I’m actually going to go do that. Have a good week, everyone!

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