Spring 2021 – Week 2 in Review

3 months ago 47

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. We ran through a wild grab bag of films this week, touching on fantasy, action, comedy, and even a Musical Filmic Journey that more or less defies characterization. Along with these various films, I actually have been watching a fair amount of anime in my free time, though I haven’t even started with the spring season yet. Instead, I’ve mostly just been gorging myself on One Piece, powering through Skypiea as I work on Monster Hunter Rise, and having an altogether terrific time with it. Did you folks know One Piece is good? Niche property, I know, but probably deserves a second glance. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll dig into that at more length, so let’s dive right into the Week in Review!

We continued our journey through Legendary’s MonsterVerse this week, catching up on Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I enjoyed Godzilla 2014 and thought Kong: Skull Island was genuinely excellent, so I was looking forward to this one – unfortunately, it proved to be the weakest entry in the franchise by far, making me a little nervous for Godzilla vs Kong.

Part of King of the Monsters’ problem might be structural. With so many monsters to introduce, the film lacks the humanity-focused setup of its predecessors, failing to provide any sort of emotional connection to the action on-screen. It feels like the studio took the worst possible lessons from Godzilla’s reception – they heard “more monsters, less boring humans” and entirely cut out the human side of the conflict, resulting in a procession of monster fights that all feel weightless and pointless.

But even more of an issue than King of the Monsters’ structural problems is its plain limitations in terms of acting and scripting. Godzilla and Skull Island were blessed by top-shelf talent like Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and Samuel L. Jackson; in contrast, King of the Monsters is led by Kyle Chandler, a man with no real acting ability to speak of. Watanabe’s still there, but his role is relatively secondary – and what’s worse, all the characters are let down by a script that embodies the worst qualities of ‘00s disaster films and modern Marvel movies. I’m guessing the studio also heard that Godzilla was “too grim,” and thus this film is littered with excruciating quips and mind-numbing “explaining what’s happening” dialogue. I really, dearly hope the low point of this franchise overall is when one character turns to another and says “bad day to be a Red Sox fan” as two kaiju rampage through Fenway Park.

So yeah, not good. Still some satisfyingly epic imagery, but with a weak lead, worse script, and no real structure or emotional grounding, King of the Monsters doesn’t really offer much else. Given the film’s rightfully negative reception, I’m hoping the studio understood this to be an oversized course correction, and am still holding out for Godzilla vs Kong.

After that, we followed up on their recent Wolfwalkers by screening Cartoon Saloon’s first film, The Secret of Kells. Kells was an interesting followup to Wolfwalkers, as the two share fairly similar narratives (a sheltered child is told to follow their duty and remain within the walls, but forges a connection with a creature of the forest, all in the shadow of looming catastrophe). Because of this, it was unusually easy to recognize Cartoon Saloon’s evolution as a studio.

Many sequences that would have been traditionally animated in Wolfwalkers were here conveyed through CG; by framing the approaching antagonists as a force of ominous silhouettes, the film is able to mitigate the visual disruptiveness of CG crows and warriors. And out in the forest, creatures that appeared in multiples tended to be cut copies arranged in symmetrical patterns – a decision that’s easy to pass as an aesthetic choice, but which undoubtedly reduced the animated labor of the film. Animation is so damn labor-intensive that finding ways to turn labor limitations into aesthetic strengths is an essential part of the process, and it was fascinating to clearly see how Cartoon Saloon mitigated their humble origins while defining their “house style” all at once.

As a film in its own right, Kells is still a visually arresting watch, full of the neat perspective tricks and beautiful background art that make Wolfwalkers so compelling. The narrative is a bit messy, but to some extent that seems intentional; combining competing origins of a legendary illuminated manuscript, it possesses the narrative infidelity of actual history, with once-prominent characters receding with the tides, and an epilogue that stretches decades into the future. I have a soft spot for storytelling that emphasizes the often anti-narrative shifts of actual life, and while I think Kells could have cleaned up its core adult rivalry, as well as the use of its magical elements, it was still a consistently compelling watch. A messy film, but well worth a viewing.

After that, my housemates demanded we watch Thunder Force, a film that seemed wildly outside of my wheelhouse. My understanding of Melissa McCarthy’s career was that she fell somewhere around Kevin James’ tier of comedy, and Thunder Force’s trailer-worth of jokes like “I think I broke my groin” and “help, I’m too fat to get out of the car” didn’t help that impression. But ultimately, while Thunder Force was far from great, it ended up being a lot more reasonable than I expected. Basically all of the film’s worst jokes were celebrated in the trailer, while the actual film had a lot more jokes about, say, a rambling metaphor that evolves from “you must be brave and skip the stone” to “oh no, you killed a pregnant salmon,” or an awkward, deadpan deconstruction of a knock knock joke.

Thunder Force is rarely hilarious, but it’s quite warm – it’s clear the characters and cast like each other, and it’s pleasant seeing them enjoy each other’s company. I feel like that slice of life instinct is rarely valued in American comedies – comedy successes are framed in terms like “you’ll bust your gut laughing,” “outrageously funny,” etcetera. But sometimes I want something that’s perhaps quietly or wryly funny, and mostly just sincerely appreciative of its characters’ friendships. Melissa McCarthy puts in a good, convincingly vulnerable performance here, the chemistry between the leads is charming, and some jokes land very well. That’s certainly enough for me.

Finally, we checked out the improbable, delightful Interstella 5555, a film I hadn’t seen in about fifteen years. Interstella 5555 is an anime film with no dialogue at all – instead, it’s a scifi drama set entirely to Daft Punk’s “Discovery,” one of the greatest albums of all time. With designs courtesy of Leiji Matsumoto, Interstella 5555 stands as a one-of-a-kind fusion of artistry, demonstrating how clearly one can convey narrative and drama purely through visual and audio design. The film makes it easy to appreciate the subtle, shifting compositional choices that help provide a sense of emotional progression even to a classic dance track – the nuances of a track like High Life become obvious, while legendary tracks like Digital Love, Aerodynamic, and Something About Us are all given sumptuous visual accompaniment, and Crescendolls feels more menacing and mechanical than ever. With a simple narrative and not much fluid animation to speak of, it largely comes down to Daft Punk to carry the film – but fortunately, they’re motherfucking Daft Punk, and this is motherfucking Discovery. A very satisfying watch.

Moving outside of film, I’ve also been watching a metric shit ton of One Piece. While I’d gotten around eighteen volumes into the manga, my housemate prefers anime, and so we began from the very beginning of the show itself. For the first fifty or so episodes, it was extremely rough going. Oda’s early talents are largely visual rather than narrative, and the East Blue episodes lack much animation or background art entirely, so there was very little to keep us going – by the end of that sequence, my housemate was at the point of actively resenting the show for wasting his time. Fortunately, Arlong Park is genuinely well-written, and the show’s production begins picking up at around the same time. By the time we reached Alabasta, One Piece wasn’t just watchable, it was gripping even in animation – and since then, things have only gone up.

There’s no single “secret trick” that makes One Piece such an exemplary shonen. It excels in a variety of ways most of its peers don’t even attempt, starting with its perpetual insistence on a truly ensemble drama. One Piece is never “Luffy’s story,” though the moment when he comes in for a save is always great; it’s the Straw Hats’ story, and Oda is careful to constantly develop even the less physically-inclined members of the team, split them up into amusing subfactions, and make sure everyone is contributing to a larger ongoing narrative. That ensemble feel doesn’t just add a sense of scale and diversity to its conflicts – it also creates a strong slice of life core, where simply spending time with the team is satisfying, because they rally off each other in such endearing ways.

Oda is partially able to use his mismatched cast so well because he draws from such wide narrative influences. Many shonen essentially construct themselves as a series of scaling battles, with “the next fight” always serving as the audience’s motivation to keep watching. Oda understood from the start that perpetual escalation is an unsustainable sucker’s game, and so he sculpts conflicts out of mysteries, out of exploration, out of negotiation, and out of basically anything else he can craft into a challenge for his heroes. I don’t even particularly care about fight scenes, but One Piece is so diverse in terms of its drama, and so dedicated to the emotional clashes of its characters, that there’s something for me to hang onto in basically every episode. Frequently, what is tested is not the Straw Hats’ strength, but their flexibility – this not only allows the actual heavy-hitters to feel unimaginably powerful (since the story isn’t really about that), but also means every new episode is likely to introduce an entirely new type of drama.

That flexibility of drama ties in with what might be Oda’s signature strength: his pure creativity in terms of worldbuilding invention. I feel like a lot of fantasy writers go about worldbuilding the exactly wrong way – they think “what are the limitations of this world, what are the rules it abides by?” In contrast, Oda seems to think only in terms of “what are the possibilities of this world, and where can my imagination stretch to next?” After the Alabasta arc, I was eager to see how Oda would maintain momentum, given how many arcs were coming to a close – and of course, he surpassed my expectations, by dropping a ship out of the goddamn sky, and offering a dramatic hook as gripping as any I could imagine. Since then, Skypiea has rambled from terrifying sky geysers to seas of clouds, from ominous police states to imposing sky forests, from ancient ruins to the belly of a snake, all while maintaining a coherency of focus that makes these setpieces feel natural, but no less dazzling. Like Dorohedoro, the most fundamental brilliance of One Piece is something that is utterly irreplaceable: a uniquely curious, uniquely imaginative mind.

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