Spring 2021 – Week 4 in Review

1 week ago 12

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. I’ve once again got an oddball collection of films for you all this week, along with more reflections on my ongoing journey with One Piece. I’ve learned over time that you really have to tune down the amplitude of praise people apply to their favorite properties, as they’re generally speaking from a position of deep emotional attachment, and more expressing that than anything essential to the property itself. Because of that, claims of One Piece being some uniquely spectacular shonen kinda faded into the din of claims that every show is uniquely spectacular – thus, I have been completely blindsided by the fact that One Piece actually is as good as everyone says it is. It’s doing stuff in shonen that I’ve associated with Hunter x Hunter and literally nothing else, and I’ve found myself hooked on it with precisely that same HxH intensity, a need to barrel through episodes like I’m stuffing my face with delicious, narratively nutritious popcorn. But we’ll get to that soon enough – let’s first start off with some films, as we bound through the Week in Review!

First off this week was Willy’s Wonderland, a film whose elevator pitch is clearly “Five Nights at Freddy’s starring Nick Cage.” Cage plays a drifter who ends up roped into spending a night cleaning the titular Wonderland, which is actually packed full of bloodthirsty animatronic monsters. Throw in a truck full of well-intentioned but deeply stupid teenagers, and you’ve got a recipe for an irreverent, bloody good time.

Willy’s Wonderland offers pretty much exactly the grindhouse spectacle you’re expecting, while making a few inspired choices that give it a genuine personality. While the film’s teenage characters fit neatly into slasher archetypes, and are disposed of in all the various ways you’d expect, Cage’s character is deliberately played as an endearing cipher. Cage never says a goddamn word in this movie; he communicates entirely through raised eyebrows and fatigued looks, as he beats malevolent circus machines into scrap, loads all that scrap into trash bags, and diligently resumes his cleaning duties. Every hour on the hour, he chugs a beer, spends five minutes playing pinball, and gets back to his bloody business. Rapid cuts and aggressive lighting filters amp up the surreal atmosphere of Willy’s lair, while Beth Grant unsurprisingly puts in a great, scenery-chewing performance as the town’s sheriff. This film is pure popcorn, embracing the silliness of its premise, and driven by actors who know precisely how to enliven material this camp. It’s a bloody good time.

My housemates also continued their ill-fated journey through the dregs of children’s animated features, this time watching Rio. Rio is a largely indistinct coming-of-age story about a macaw named Blu, who travels from his owner’s home in Minnesota to Rio de Janeiro. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of these CG films (Animal Crackers, The Croods), but Rio unfortunately does not count among them – its songs are close to tuneless, its narrative is trite, its side characters are obnoxious, and its visual design doesn’t hold up at all. My main takeaways from Rio were that I don’t want Jesse Eisenberg to play any more cartoon animals, and also that Jemaine Clement seriously deserves more work. I know he’s a weird-looking guy, we can work around that, it’s fine to cast him as a cockatoo if you need to.

After that, we checked out a Korean found footage horror movie, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Gonjiam doesn’t really break any new ground in terms of found footage materials, but that’s clearly not its goal – instead, it serves as an exemplary rundown of the genre’s greatest tricks, as a crew attempt to livestream their investigation of a spooky asylum, and run into far more than they bargained for.

One of the natural tensions of the found footage drama is the uneasy relationship between classic cinematographic form, and the need for “realistic” camera use that gives the genre its intimate, unvarnished bite. Gonjiam resolves this in a way many of the best found footage films do: by centering itself on a crew of genuine film professionals, who go around the asylum setting up a bunch of monitor cameras beforehand. Because of this, Gonjiam is actually full of great shot compositions, using shaky or face cam sparingly, and consistently capturing the environmental horror of its asylum venue.

The film’s cast and script also help to elevate it above the found footage crowd. Rather than feeling like disposable victims, Gonjiam’s crew are distinct and likable, with a variety of unique motivations and tolerances for creepy shit. And with the need for a successful livestream hanging over them, the crew’s increasingly anxious journey feels both understandable and oddly self-reflective; as their director yells at them over the headset, the cast are forced to narrate their own increasing terror, and investigate ominous noises for the sake of ad revenue.

Finally, the film’s actual scares are terrific. Drawing on a variety of found footage, J-horror, and even recent online horror trends, Gonjiam offers plenty of both tension and release, rewarding the audience’s patience with a rollercoaster of second-half setpieces. I’ve seen too many horror movies to scare easy at this point, but there was one sequence in this film that had me feeling genuinely unsafe, in that thrilling way that’s so hard to capture. Gonjiam isn’t a game-changer, but it is found footage at the top of its game.

And yes, as you might expect, there was a whole lot more One Piece. We’re currently surging through the last phases of Water 7 and Enies Lobby, arcs which have seen Oda both polishing his core proficiencies, and adding even more strengths to the overall One Piece appeal.

At this point, Oda’s combination of fundamental narrative craft and rampant inventiveness seems basically unmatched within shonen. One Piece is a far cry from the escalating boss rushes or aimless group wandering that tend to characterize the genre; it constructs ambitious, urgent narratives that make unique and essential use of its characters, managing a variety of distinct threads as the cast weave around each other. At times, the necessity of isolating or temporarily containing certain members of the crew is executed a little clumsily, but the underlying purpose of these actions is clear – One Piece is committed to telling ensemble stories in a variety of forms, which sometimes requires keeping a force like Zoro or Luffy off the board for a while. In a genre where storytelling frequently amounts to throwing twelve characters against each other in a clearing, One Piece’s confident embrace of alternative narrative forms feels incredibly refreshing, and prevents the show from ever feeling slow or repetitive.

Along with refining his existing storytelling strengths, Water 7 also saw Oda significantly improving his character writing chops. After the early highlight of Arlong Park, One Piece hasn’t really been hitting similar character-driven emotional peaks in the arcs since, as Oda focused more on the ambition of his overall narrative structures. In Water 7, One Piece undergoes a profound character writing upgrade, with the conflict between Luffy and Usopp standing as the show’s finest piece of character drama to date. Usopp in general has proven himself to be a character of significant complexity and relatability to carry an emotional arc – and what’s more, the specifics of his conflict are borne out of the undeniable shifts in the relations of the crew, and the escalating stakes of the Grand Line. Every scene with him has been a treat for two arcs now, and it actually feels like the other members are following suit – Sanji is still a big character-writing weak point, but the other crew members are gaining steady texture, and Franky is hitting that level right from the start.

Finally, I continue to be flabbergasted by how genuinely funny One Piece is. I’m so accustomed to finding shonen comedy simplistic and abrasive that it seems hard to believe a shonen’s comedy could be one of its core strengths, but episode after episode, One Piece pulls off conceits like the sentai-flavored introduction of Sniper King, or an extended debate on the coolness of giraffes. Oda understands not just joke construction, but also the specific rhythms of comedic patter, meaning he’s frequently able to use jokes to humanize even his villains in a few brief scenes. 

All told, I’m enjoying One Piece so much that I think it’s actually teaching me something about my own tastes. I do enjoy shonen adventures, and stories that put an emphasis on fantastical worldbuilding – I’m just pretty picky about them, and if I don’t feel a particular incarnation’s writing is up to task, I won’t get anything out of it. But if a property as gigantic as One Piece was somehow evading me, it stands to reason that equally fertile shores might await further down the line. These are exciting times!

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