Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Our house was back on the movie train this week, as we screened an unimpeachable classic, a dubious new release, and a vague point in between. I’ve also been watching just as much One Piece as ever, which in New World terms means I’ve broken the halfway point of Dressrosa. With a good fifty or so episodes left to go as our heroes race towards the villain, I’m guessing the other shoe is about to drop; for now, I’m happy just to marvel at Oda’s ever-evolving ability to weave multiple narratives, and dedication to ensuring all the Straw Hat crewmates feel genuinely valuable. Without further ado, let’s storm through the Week in Review!
We opened this week with another film classic, as we watched one of the most acclaimed and influential westerns of all time, The Searchers. Starring John Wayne as a former soldier attempting to hunt down his kidnapped niece, The Searchers is a full course action-adventure meal, and actually felt far more modern than most ‘50s films I’ve watched. My idle assumption is that that’s a reflection of its influential status; much like how Jaws would solidify the blockbuster formula decades later, it seems like The Searchers helped define the structure and tone of cinematic adventures.
The Searchers succeeds and then some as a polished slice of pure entertainment. John Ford’s direction is distinctive without feeling ostentatious, with plenty of elegant layouts and camera pans, but also a clear understanding of the environment’s own emotive power. The film’s wide shots and location shooting emphasize both the grandeur of its stars’ environment, and also the hopelessness of their cause. Battle scenes consistently impress in their grand scope, while John Wayne and costar Jeffrey Hunter develop a convincing, endearing bond over the course of their journey. The film’s dips into shades of romance or comedy are nowhere near as compelling as its central hunt, but do help to balance what would otherwise be a largely bleak and contemplative hunt.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the bleak and contemplative stuff that I loved. John Wayne’s character Ethan is a man out of time, an old soldier who feels like an outcast even within his brother’s home. It actually seems like the burning of that home is the only thing giving him purpose; he comes most alive as either predator or prey, and you get the impression that his niece’s disappearance is the only thing keeping him from disappearing as well. Ethan is bound by hatreds old and weathered, and seems to understand this fact; but rather than attempt to change with the times, he pins his hopes on this rescue and his adopted nephew Martin. In contrast, Martin’s Cherokee heritage positions him to earnestly grapple with his society’s poisoned race relations, and push back against Ethan’s fury. Ethan only seeks revenge for old wounds; Martin seeks renewal, and though Ethan cannot believe in peace, he can believe in Martin.
All in all, The Searchers is remarkably compelling whether you approach it as a character study, a snapshot of mid-century Hollywood innovation, or simply an entertaining cinema experience. Its racial perspective will obviously seem a little outdated to modern audiences, but to be honest, I was consistently impressed by how clearly the film framed Ethan’s violence as his own, a racial resentment that damned him to a fading past. There’s a lot of Travis Bickle in Ethan, along with the confident drawl and crack shooting talent. The Searchers is not a glorious fantasy; it is a portrait of a man possessed, and far stronger for it.
After that, we screened the sequel to a solid semi-recent horror feature, The Conjuring 2. The original Conjuring came out during an interesting period in horror cinema. Nine years after the release of SAW, the genre had largely recovered from the awful torture porn wave that film inspired – in part because SAW’s own director James Wan had returned, directing first Insidious and then The Conjuring, and prompting a new wave of more traditional horror fare. The Conjuring was one of the best exemplars of this wave, boasting an excellent cast, plenty of effective scares, and a general sturdiness of execution that made it feel more like a successful “movie movie” than simply a delivery vehicle for fear or violence.
Since then, we’ve entered an even newer era of horror cinema, with directors like Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers heralding a new age of art horror. These days, horror films have returned to being some of the most inventive, distinctive, and transgressive pictures available; in contrast, The Conjuring 2 is simply a damn good time at the movies, with more solid lead performances and some truly terrifying monsters. Seriously, the film’s spooky nun is such a good monster that it’s no surprise she inspired her own film spin-off, while the “crooked man” offers a scene I’ll be thinking about for quite some time. The Conjuring 2 is high quality popcorn entertainment, and reaffirms that though he may have inspired a whole bunch of dubious cinema, Wan himself is clearly a real talent.
Next up, we watched #Alive, a new Korean zombie movie about a young man named Joon-Woo, who ends up trapped in his apartment block during a zombie outbreak. As days and weeks pass, Joon-Woo must ration his supplies and rally his spirit, maintaining his castle as society collapses around him.
There’s definitely the potential for a good film in #Alive, but unfortunately, the film’s weak script and mediocre direction keep it from ever getting there. The brief moments of zombie action never feel genuinely threatening; the film conveys them with a campy tone that make them all seem like jokes, the cinematography is incapable of building any sense of threat, and the main characters randomly demonstrate ludicrous physical skills whenever they’re in a real jam. But it seems like #Alive’s real focus is more on the emotional experience of living through such profound despair and isolation – and in that regard, the script’s inability to sketch a convincing character is even more damning.
The circumstances that brought Joon-Woo to his current isolation are never discussed, and his relationship with his family is never dug into, so there’s never really any sense of emotional connection with him. It also seems like the film wants to say something about youth alienation, but it never actually constructs a convincing argument in that direction, and instead ends on a wildly unearned twist that seems intended to retroactively justify its title. Even as a pure “survival in difficult circumstances” adventure, Joon-Woo never demonstrates much cleverness or ingenuity, with the film mostly just proceeding through a series of canned monster attacks with made-for-TV tier execution. Yoo Ah-in is a tremendously talented actor (see Burning if you haven’t already), and does his best to carry the film, but ultimately #Alive is so lacking in its writing and inconsistent in its tone that I felt bored for most of the viewing.