Fall 2020 – Week 4 in Review

3 weeks ago 28

I’ve got episodic articles on both Oregairu and Adachi and Shimamura coming, so it was back to the film grind this week, as I explored a pair of intermittently effective comedies and one genuine horror classic. To be honest, this week was one of those “I watched what my housemates were watching” installments – I picked American Werewolf myself, but I watched both these comedies because someone put them on in the background while I was grinding Hades again. Did I mention I like Hades? I’ve beaten the game’s ostensible campaign over fifty times now (current best time: 18:23), but I’ve still got quests to complete, challenges to overcome, powers to unlock, and relationships I’m progressing purely because the game’s characters and dialogue are so dang good. So yeah, the specter of the Hades grind is still haunting my weekly productivity, but I did my best to fit in some media criticism in the margins. Without further ado, here’s the Week in Review!

We began this week with the lesser-known Will Ferrell picture Stranger Than Fiction. In this film, Ferrell plays a mundane IRS employee named Harold who one day finds his daily actions being narrated by a disembodied voice, a voice that only he can hear. At first, this is just a source of psychological consternation – but when the voice predicts that he’ll soon die, he decides it’s past time to hunt down the author of his own story.

Stranger than Fiction’s strongest moments are easily its first twenty or so minutes, when Ferrell is mostly just ineffectually swatting at the voice following him like it’s a particularly stubborn mosquito. Ferrell conveys Harold’s slow descent into paranoia with relish, making excellent use of his substantial comedic talents, and generally reveling in the base comic potential of being narrated by a hostile voice.

It’s a great conceit, but unfortunately you can’t really make a whole movie out of Ferrell being harassed by a disembodied voice, and so eventually the movie turns in a more fantasy-drama direction, as Ferrell connects with a literature professor (played by a ridiculous overcast Dustin Hoffman), develops an improbable romance with Maggie Gyllenhaal, and seeks to overturn his narrator’s death sentence. All of this is pleasant enough, but rarely that funny, and the film’s attempts at imparting wisdom regarding either life or literature feel alternately clumsy or banal. It never regains the energy of those first twenty minutes, and is not a great film on the whole, but still a largely pleasant one – it’s a 6/10 execution of an interesting concept with a charming lead cast, and sometimes that’s all you need.

I also checked out a horror classic I’ve been meaning to get to, An American Werewolf in London. Before this, I had never seen a genuinely effective werewolf movie, and was actually struggling to think of any acclaimed werewolf films beyond this one. The reason for that seems pretty obvious: the werewolf mythos is both kinda silly and not that frightening, more amenable to goofy coming-of-age metaphors like Teen Wolf than genuine terror. So how would you make a werewolf film that’s effective as a genuine horror film?

An American Werewolf in London resolves this question through a couple of angles. First, it actually embraces the inherent silliness of the werewolf mythology, maintaining a tongue-in-cheek tone that helps disarm the audience’s inherent mistrust of this narrative. There are lots of groan-worthy “wolf among the sheep” visual motifs, and the protagonist’s youth and displacement within his situation offer some natural strains of thematic unity between the film’s mundane and paranormal drama. Even the climactic transformation takes place in a porno theater, where the patrons are viewing a porno that stands alongside Cheddar Goblin as one of the funniest movie-in-movie horror vignettes I’ve seen.

But perhaps more importantly than its tone, An American Werewolf in London is absolutely carried by its fantastic practical effects. Careful makeup and prosthetic work make it easy to feel the excruciating pain of the protagonist’s transformation, while the specters of those killed by werewolves return as ghouls so realistically shredded, it’s hard to even look at them. It’s a tidy time bomb with an explosive finale, and while it’s not actually that scary, it’s still an excellent work of horror, and the first time I’ve seen werewolves done right.

Lastly, I also checked out the new Borat film, lured by the promise of Rudy Guliani’s abject humiliation. Sacha Baron Cohen is a smart comedian who uses his talents to create very stupid-seeming humor, but Borat 2 reminded me of the careful intention behind all of his gags. The original Borat served as a reflection of America’s George W. Bush era moral rot, and essentially reflected all of America’s worst qualities back, by mirroring and elevating all of them.

In 2020, Cohen understands that merely echoing America’s horribleness doesn’t really work as satire anymore. There’s no veil to be lifted – conservative Americans have proudly embraced how cruel, ignorant, and xenophobic they are, and would at this point see Borat’s views as reasonably tame, outside of the obvious “cage your wife” gags and whatnot (though even those find ample purchase among this film’s stooges). In light of that, Cohen has constructed a film that is more focused, more angry, and absurdly current, using the introduction of Borat’s daughter to essentially rehabilitate him, and contrast his newfound wisdom against the vast inhumanity of the American psyche.

In practice, this all means that Borat 2 somehow manages to feel timely in an era where all news is old news, and we’re beset by fresh horrors every single day. Borat 2 categorizes and catalogs those horrors, drawing the direct line between Trump’s behavior and the ethos of his supporters, and interrogating them with a ferocity that feels genuinely personal. From the base hatred and ignorance of anti-mask gatherings to the rotting old money smiles of a debutante’s ball, Cohen attacks Trump’s American with a focus and anger that outstrips most of his earlier work, critiquing with purpose while simultaneously building a genuine, even sympathetic narrative around Borat and his daughter. There are plenty of clumsy gross-out gags and other comedic misses in this film, and the Borat character himself feels pretty tired at this point, but it’s still nice to enjoy some righteous anger.

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