Winter 2021 – Week 8 in Review

5 months ago 50

Hello everyone, and welcome to another week on this cold, lonely rock. This week in non-anime media started, as many of them have tended to, with Martin Scorsese. Not because I watched another Scorsese film (I’m actually running kind of low on those, which I’m a little proud of), but because he released another terrific essay, articulating both his love for cinema and his fear regarding what’s become of the artform. Let’s start off with that article then, and carry on into my week in cinema!

Scorsese’s main point is frightening and unambiguously true: the algorithm-driven “curation” used by services like Netflix is driving people into narrower and narrower holes as film consumers, rather than expanding their conception of what film can do. Netflix can only suggest you watch more things exactly like the things you watched before; it can never replace the role of a genuine enthusiast, or a culture that actively celebrates great film. And what’s more, even if Netflix were somehow redesigned to encourage artistic diversity, the service simply lacks the films necessary to provide any sort of art education.

Though people often say “you can find anything on Netflix,” the reality is that its catalog depth is both narrow and shallow. Netflix generally has a random scattering of maybe the last five to ten years of film releases, with a slant towards easily-licensed action films. If you want to learn anything about classic films, or follow the trajectory of a single great director, or explore more indie or arthouse releases, or get more into foreign films, you will find yourself almost instantly disappointed.

If you’re working within legal streaming, or even legal streaming plus purchasing physical releases, you’ll be barricaded again and again by the ways film is imprisoned as “content,” rather than celebrated as art. And since most people aren’t fanatically driven to expand their conception of art, their horizons of art experience eventually become shaped by the algorithm – to the point where they actually get angry at film enthusiasts for suggesting they explore outside their lane. The cruelest irony of Scorsese’s perspective is that it is film fans themselves who are getting mad at him for defending them, because he dares to acknowledge that film can possess greater aspirations than two hours of colorful distraction.

All of that was a long walk around my actual point, which was that along with his doomsaying regarding Content and The Algorithm, Scorsese’s piece also doubled as a loving tribute to Frederico Fellini. In light of that, I finally hunkered down and watched my first Fellini film, the acclaimed La Strada.

La Strada tells the story of a girl named Gelsomina, who is sold off by her mother to a traveling strongman named Zampano. Affecting a loosely fable-like tone, the film follows them through trials and triumphs, as Gelsomina learns to accompany Zampano’s act with song and dance, and encounters a variety of strange characters along the way. The film is dominated by Giullieta Masina’s incredible performance as Gelsomina; drawing on the best of Charlie Chaplin’s mannerisms, Masina creates an icon of innocence and curiosity, conveying through her vivid expressions all the joy and wonder of setting out into a wider world.

With Masina’s vivid vitality at the center, La Strada constructs an evocative tale of human longing, a story that feels like the light and darkness within all of us writ large. It’s an absurdly generous film, brimming with poignant vignettes, and constructed with a precision of cinematic form that makes each shot feel both timeless and effortless; like that shot was always sitting there, waiting to be captured. Gelsomina is a flickering candle in a cold world, yet even La Strada’s tragedy contains so much beauty. It’s a tour de force of a film, and a clear indication I need to watch a lot more Fellini.

Next, inspired by Rope’s structural gimmicks and my housemate’s profound love for Bruce Campbell, we checked out Running Time. Running Time is a ‘97 independent crime drama built around the same restrictions as Rope: it’s all constructed as one continuous cut, and it proceeds in real time, never “jumping forward” to the next moment of drama.

The film tracks Bruce Campbell’s (his character has a name, but he always plays Bruce, so I just call him Bruce) first day out of prison, as he immediately tries to pull off a heist with an old friend and some variably reliable accomplices. As you’d expect from a conceit like that, it’s basically a long-form exercise in rising tension, as more and more fault lines appear in Campbell’s plan, and his relationship with his old friend rapidly deteriorates.

The central safe-cracking scene is an absolute barn-burner of nervous energy, and also one of the most effective applications of the film’s unflinching cinematography – but the film is also able to find some pathos in its characters, and it was quite nice to see Campbell playing a role straight, rather than somewhat winking through his performance. I wouldn’t call it a truly “great” film, but it was quick, interesting, and entertaining, which is more than enough for me.

Next up, we screened the Last Film of the Pre-Pandemic, which by some quirk of fate turned out to be Sonic the Hedgehog. I have no childhood nostalgia for Sonic (I was a Nintendo kid), and frankly just find the character kind of annoying, so my expectations were pretty muted going into this one. But Sonic the Hedgehog actually managed to win me over, and at this point I’m genuinely looking forward to the second one.

The film actually rehabilitated more than just Sonic, for me at least. I’ve generally found Ben Schwartz as best “tolerable” and more often “actively obnoxious,” so it was a surprise to hear him voicing Sonic with such a carefully balanced tone. They presumably cast Schwartz for Sonic because Schwartz tends to specialize in that kind of smarmy comedy Sonic is known for – but while Sonic has plenty of one-liners in this film, his genuine child-like enthusiasm and vulnerability also came through clearly. Along with a script that tried its best to be Cute But Not Too Cute, Schwartz managed to not just make me like Sonic, but also reconsider my conception of his talent in general.

Schwartz wasn’t the only one looking unusually good here. I generally haven’t seen much out of James Marsden aside from “stoicism,” based on his performances in Westworld and the X-Men films. But here, he develops a genuinely charming rapport with Sonic, making the often perfunctory “human companion to a franchise character” role into one of the highlights of the film. Considering how utterly fatigued I am with Chris Pratt playing Chris Pratt in everything, I wouldn’t mind Marsden claiming some of those comic-adventure leading roles in the future.

Of course, there was one element of Sonic I was sure I’d love, and Jim Carrey didn’t disappoint. Carrey throws himself into the role of Robotnik with all the ferocious, brittle self-love he can muster, painting a delightful portrait of a manchild with an enormous chip on his shoulder. It always feels like a shame to me that, after starring in the terrific The Truman Show and all-time classic Eternal Sunshine, his dramatic film career kinda petered out. With Eggman, he brings both precise physical comedy and a real wounded-animal intensity to a role that demands both. He’s fun, the other leads are fun, the script is solid, the film’s a fine time. It’s nice to have arrived at an era where videogame adaptations are made with some genuine love for the material!

Lastly, we watched the third installment in J.J. Abram’s vaguely connected Cloverfield saga, The Cloverfield Paradox. As a film, Cloverfield Paradox is mostly just a lukewarm PG-13 retread of Event Horizon, centered on a space station that ends up teleporting into another dimension entirely. The crew must band together to make their way home, but they do not belong in this dimension, and so weird shit happens etc etc. There were a couple neat horror ideas (the idea of dimensions “fusing” is taken in some messily literal directions), but the movie overall felt unfocused, lacking in any real highlights, and too beholden to its clear inspirations.

That said, while The Cloverfield Paradox is kinda underwhelming as a film, it’s pretty interesting as the third film in what’s ostensibly a franchise. Rather than following a single group of characters through a series of adventures, each Cloverfield film has instead explored the same overarching catastrophe from a different angle, and also a different subgenre. The first film is a found footage kaiju movie, the second one is a claustrophobic psychological drama set in a fallout shelter, and the third is a scifi thriller. It’s a very unique approach to a “cinematic universe,” and likely only possible because Abrams is essentially an industry unto himself: he can buy up spec scripts, add some Cloverfield embellishments to their initial pitch, and then get them greenlit without too much fuss. While I’m not really a fan of Abrams’ own filmography, it’s quite interesting to see him experimenting with what constitutes a franchise!

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