Spring 2021 – Week 6 in Review

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Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. I ran through a diverse grab bag of films this week, including a few recent features, an old horror classic, and some genuine bullshit. I generally prefer silence when I’m not actively watching something, but one of my housemates is most relaxed when there’s some sort of background noise in the environment, so we tend to compromise with films that categorically could not command our attention: The Meg, G.I. Joe, etcetera. Along with that, I’ve also been surging ahead through One Piece, and have now blown entirely past Thriller Bark. It was a productive week and I’ve got plenty to talk about, so let’s get right to it and dive into the Week in Review!

First up, we watched a film that I’d been told punched a fair distance above its weight class, the British feature Kill List. Kill List is about a pair of former soldiers named Jay and Gal turned hitmen for hire, who are beginning to age out of their chosen profession. Jay, haunted by a disastrous prior mission, wants to hang up the towel – but a hitman sitting on the couch can’t support a middle-class family, and so tension is brewing between him and his wife. When Gal stops by with a lucrative job opportunity, Jay is forced to consent – but this job is a little unlike their previous ones, with a strong aftertaste of occult ritual.

Kill List is billed as a thriller that transitions into horror, but to be honest, if you’re looking for straight horror you’re likely to be underwhelmed. The film is at its best as a character study, an exploration of a former soldier who believes he missed his chance for a “righteous war,” and now stews in resentment and insecurity that frequently erupts into violence. Jay is simply a very angry man; not angry in the way narratives tend to frame it, with a specific cause and solution, but angry because there is a lot of anger inside him, and because life promised him more than this.

Narratives tend to frame violent feelings in specific contexts, because narratives demand structure and payoff. But in real life, many people simply carry a lot of violence inside them, whether they were born with aggressive instincts or adopted them over time. Kill List’s exploration of Jay’s anger is unflinching; he comes across as a dangerous and ugly man, but still a clearly human one. And through its overarching structure and eventual “twists,” Kill List offers a pretty sound metaphor for the nature of this “shapeless violence” on a larger, societal scale. If our social superiors train us to be monsters, can we truly be condemned for exercising their will? For generations taught that war is honorable and man expresses his dignity through inflicting his will on others, can we expect anything other than broken homes in their later years?

So yeah, I found Kill List pretty darn interesting, both as a character study and argument. Additionally, Jay and Gal possess a compelling odd-couple chemistry: half suburban dads (they make sure to grab all the shampoo from their various motels), half merciless killers. It is a very violent film, and I felt the last act rushed us through the payoff a little too quickly, but it was interesting to watch a Scorsese-style broken man film about a character a little closer to my own experience. Not a universal recommendation, but I’m glad I watched it.

Next up, we watched some absolute bullshit, as Jason Statham battled a prehistoric shark in The Meg. The Meg is not going to win awards for scripting, cinematography, or basically any element of a film that contributes to that film being good, but Statham is always a fun presence on film, and he utterly commits to The Meg’s toothy nonsense. Sadly, the film is short on genuine blockbuster setpieces; the CG environments generally feel too contrived to evoke a sense of being “out there in the water,” and the actual kills are witnessed from a distance and few in number. Whether it’s Jaws, Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea, or whatever, I expect my mega-predator movies to have some tense, gruesome kills, and The Meg comes up short on that front.

Ultimately, what was most interesting to me about this not-very-good movie is that it potentially represents the future of B movies in the global cinema era. Where prior eras of B movies were produced with a shoestring budget and campy practical effects, The Meg is driven by Chinese investors, meaning it has luxurious CG effects, Statham falls in love with the excellent Li Bingbing, and the villain is an American billionaire played by a clearly checked out Rainn Wilson. B movies get a lot of flack for their admitted narrative and artistic limitations, but schlocky action is something that transcends language or cultural barriers, making it perfect for international co-productions. While I’m not thrilled with Hollywood’s general tendency of simplifying works to a form that has no potentially distancing cultural odor (this is why Marvel films have no message beyond “be a good guy, not a bad guy”), B horror and action movies seem like one place where this trend doesn’t undercut the final result. So yes, bring on The Meg 2, I am here for it.

After that, we checked out even more bullshit, as my housemate put on G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I’ll be honest, I expected G.I. Joe to be worse than it was. With an all-star cast, an appropriately over-the-top plot, and a clear sense of reverence for its source material, the end result isn’t exactly good, but is undeniably, earnestly G.I. Joe.

Rather than attempting to make a standard hard boiled international thriller with a G.I. Joe coat of paint, this film gleefully embraces the silliness of the Joe universe, presenting narratives like the emerging rivalry of Black Ninja and White Ninja with absolute self-seriousness. The end result evokes a charming enthusiasm somewhat like Speed Racer, though obviously without the Wachowskis’ absurd eye for cinematography and visual drama. I am a lot more forgiving to works that strike me as earnest than ones that strike me as cynical, and G.I. Joe is silly in a way that feels too unmarketable to be insincere. Not a good film, but a fine background watch, with plenty of fine actors committing to some very goofy drama.

Fortunately, we also watched some genuinely good films this week. First up was The Mitchells vs The Machines, which premiered to rave reviews just a few days ago. The film centers on a family whose daughter Katie is about to head off to art school, feeling utterly disconnected from her art-oblivious father. Desperate to salvage their relationship, Dad decides to sell Katie’s plane tickets and treat the family to one last road trip – that is, until not-Apple’s latest tech presentation goes haywire, and an army of robots begin rounding up humanity.

The Mitchells is absolutely brimming with visual creativity, and feels like perhaps the first “post-Spiderverse” animated film. Spiderverse’s near cell-shaded aesthetic is neatly replicated, giving the Mitchells themselves a sense of cartoonish volume, along with the earlier film’s aggressive, eye-catching use of color filters and heavy neon tones. On top of this, The Mitchells frequently layers a final set of scribbled doodles, annotations in the style of Katie’s Jamie Hewlett-esque comics. This visual mix does a great job of conveying Katie’s distinct perspective, and the film shines when it’s roaring through its action tributes to Dawn of the Dead, Tron, and a grab bag of other genre classics.

The Mitchells is also quite funny, and while its central conflict and theme are a bit clumsy in their directness, that might just be reflective of its younger intended audience. Which leads me to my final takeaway from The Mitchells vs The Machines: holy shit, I’m old now. Absolutely no aspect of Katie’s life experience resonated with me, from her twee “so that happened” sense of humor, to her Youtube Poop style of videos, to the simple fact that she kept in touch with others through video chat. I fell far more on her dad’s side: eager to support his daughter, but unable to see the value in the work she was creating. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I can’t really relate to the youth experience of people twenty years younger than me, but The Mitchells feels “of its cultural moment” in a way that made that even clearer than most family films. I feel like the rise of Youtube was probably the precise moment when what “it” is became weird and scary to me; it’s an odd feeling to watch a breezy family film and see your mortality staring you in the face.

After that, I watched ‘60s horror classic Carnival of Souls, centered on a woman who miraculously survives a car crash, only to find herself haunted and slowly detaching from the mortal world. Carnival of Souls is a tense slow burn of an experience, as the heroine’s daily activities are gradually subsumed into the terror of her situation. The film has a fair number of jump scares which are unlikely to spook a modern audience, but its focus on an abandoned carnival ground hiding dark secrets maintains every inch of its evocative power.

Scattered, repeated images gesture towards a violent past, but never coalesce into a clear story; there is simply a presence at the carnival, and those destined to arrive will be drawn to it without question. Carnival of Souls also paints a tidy portrait of ‘60s-era modern alienation, as well as the flimsiness of the “support networks” that are allegedly supposed to care about us (the heroine is abandoned by her suitor, her pastor, and her landlord the moment she becomes “too difficult”). But ultimately, it’s that image of the distant fairground that sticks with me, with its stark power lines and dilapidated attractions. Evocative, isolated images of horror, a dark history, and a living monument that calls more souls to its altar – Carnival of Souls resides within a vivid horror tradition that also includes films like The Ring, as well as some of my favorite SCPs. It’s a great aesthetic!

And of course, there was One Piece. After the glorious pandemonium of Enies’ Lobby, Oda wastes little time in ramping up for another big arc, as the crew visit the horror-themed Thriller Bark. Thriller Bark exemplifies a few of the talents Oda’s been developing over the last few arcs – its methods of separating the Straw Hats put the full crew to excellent use, its strong focus on the castle’s architecture allows for the same scale of satisfying destruction as Enies’, and it embraces its horror motif to the fullest possible effect. I greatly enjoyed the arc, while also feeling frustrated that it dove more deeply than ever into Oda’s disappointing approach to gender.

I suppose a One Piece horror arc was always destined to have an invisible man antagonist, but Thriller Bark leans heaaavily into the “it sure is easy to sexually assault people when you’re invisible” trope, while simultaneously introducing a second crewmate whose initial gimmick is sexual harassment. I tend to just roll my eyes at Oda’s old-fashioned, essentialist perspective on “what it is to be a man,” but when the show starts actively harassing its female characters, it’s a genuinely unpleasant experience. Oda getting more confident in his writing has been great for One Piece in a variety of ways, but Oda embracing his horniness is not one of them.

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