Spring 2020 – Week 12 in Review

Another precious week has slipped through our fingers, but fortunately, by collecting my thoughts on the movies I watched, I can still affirm those lost days truly existed. I plowed through a pretty diverse set of features this week – one ’70s classic, one acclaimed recent feature, an off-the-beaten-track horror film, and the latest film by one of my favorite directors, Mamoru Hosoda. I’m actually getting pretty close to the point where I’d be comfortable writing an overall “best anime films” list of some kind, which is something people have been asking about for years, but which I haven’t felt well-watched enough to attempt yet. In light of that, feel free to recommend any essential anime films I should check out, and please enjoy this latest Week in Review!

This week, my journey through American film history continued with the classic Badlands, Terrence Malick’s directorial debut, starring Martin Sheen as the unpredictable rambler Kit, and Sissy Spacek as his teenage lover Holly. Structurally, Badlands fits closely to the model of films like Bonnie and Clyde, as a dashing yet dangerous young man swoops a bored girl off her feet, only to carry her into a world of violence she was thoroughly unprepared for.

Though Bonnie and Clyde itself surprised me with its consistent melancholy, Badlands feels both harsher and more honest; its violence is sudden and unpredictable, often even surprising the man holding the gun, and Holly’s internal monologue is so fantastically distant from the actual substance of her experience that it’s clear from moment one how much trouble she’s really in. Both the fantasy of her internal voice and mundanity of her actual words are completely convincing; and Kit, lost in a vision of himself as an intrepid adventurer, feels both vulnerable and dangerous at all times.

For all that, what most struck me about Badlands was neither its excellent script nor its lead performances – it was its visions of the American wasteland, a vast sea of desert and brushlands that its heroes could never hope to conquer. Badlands’ cinematic vistas are both lonely and thrilling, a splash of true, undeniable beauty that lends a ringing voice to its characters’ sense of longing and displacement.

I normally find things are bad on purpose simply tedious, but I checked out Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace this week, and it turned out to be a magnificent exception to the rule. The show’s conceit is that the invented character “Garth Marenghi” is a successful horror writer in the vein of Clive Barker or someone, who’s been asked to record introductions and commentary on “Darkplace” – a show about a spooky hospital that he wrote, directed, and starred in back in the ’80s, but which was shelved at the time for being “too radical, too dangerous, for the powers that be to let it air.”

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is thus a combination of incredibly cheesy hospital/horror drama, sublimely wooden acting, and self-important commentary by Marenghi himself, who consistently offers gems like “I’m the only author you’ll met who’s written more books than he’s read,” or the popular “I’ve met writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards.” With an all-star cast including Richard Ayoade and Matt Berry, Darkplace is well-equipped to offer a constant stream of structural and expectation-based jokes without obvious punchlines; jokes that play into the audience’s understanding of effective dramatic form, and how infrequently Darkplace resembles it. Ayoade looks at the camera constantly, resulting in frequent jarring cuts whenever he’s speaking, and is also prone to start scenes by announcing he is about to commence the conversation the scene is actually about (“I’m just going to go tell Dagless that I think he did the right thing.” beat “Dagless, I think you did the right thing.”)

As someone with a perhaps overbearing interest in the root mechanisms of effective drama, I found Darkplace goddamn hilarious. Garth Marenghi is an idiot, but the show he created is actually quite entertaining – and even more than that, Marenghi’s own clumsy perspective is always so blindingly apparent that Darkplace works as a satire of basically every belief and self-important author quirk he represents. It’s absolutely a hidden gem, and considering the future careers of Ayoade and Berry, probably has a lot of potential fans waiting to enjoy it.

Having greatly enjoyed Darth Marenghi’s Darkplace, I was surprised and delighted to learn that “Marenghi” himself, Matthew Holness, was actually the director of a film I’d been meaning to see for some time – Possum, a terrifying feature that Holness describes as a “modern silent film.”

Holness is right – Possum’s minimalist narrative, overbearing soundtrack, and focus on recurring pieces of imagery all brought to mind early black-and-white features. The film is a work of atmosphere so consistent, oppressive, and sad that it can feel almost painful to watch, but if you can bear it, it’s also one of the most effectively frightening films of recent years. The titular monster in particular is just an absolute nightmare to behold, and I found myself suspiciously glancing around corners for a good hour or so after the film was over. And while the narrative is minimalist, it’s certainly not lacking in any way – the film actually uses its lack of overt explanations to terrific advantage, creating a world that at first feels almost surreal in its nightmarish details, then shifts to intriguingly ambiguous in terms of its central mysteries, and at last reveals itself to be a personal story of trauma and redemption. A tough watch, but highly recommended.

I also finally got around to watching Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film, Mirai. Like his prior The Boy and the Beast, Mirai is a strange film, with a narrative looseness seemingly reflective of Hosoda’s inexperience solely writing the films he directs. The film is about a three-year-old boy named Kun coming to terms with the arrival of his new sister, the baby Mirai. Kun’s extreme youth is captured very honestly by this film, but it also serves as an inherent dramatic limitation – as a three-year-old, his thoughts and emotions just aren’t terribly complex, and so the film sort of has to build its complexity around his simplicity.

It does this in a variety of ways, from letting Kun meet an aged-up version of his sister and anthropomorphized version of his dog (Hosoda’s furry tendencies are beyond dispute at this point), to drawing in his ancestors through the portal of his home garden. Ultimately, it is these ancestors that provide the film’s strongest emotional punches; while Kun’s feelings are pretty simplistic, Hosoda’s reverence for family ties of all kinds made it easy to cheer for his great-grandfather, or enjoy the thoughtful give-and-take of his mother and father. I frankly still don’t think Hosoda is a great writer, and his films since ending his collaborations with Satoko Okudera have suffered as a result, but Mirai is still a very endearing film.

Finally, I checked out Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a film whose ambiguity and looseness of narrative form feel deliberately intended to defy categorization. The most punchy way to describe The Master is as a fictional account of an L. Ron Hubbard-style cult leader rising to power, told through the perspective of a traumatized WWII veteran he takes on as a ward. But to be honest, the shifting fortunes of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Hubbard analogue are rarely in focus; instead, we see him largely as Joaquin Phoenix sees him, a figure steeped in untruths, but clearly, intimately connected with him, and offering a level of earnest companionship and love that is absent in all other aspects of his life.

Hoffman and Phoenix are two of our greatest modern actors, and the strange, knotty chemistry developed between Hoffman’s genial showmanship and Phoenix’s raw pain is The Master’s heart and soul. I’ve heard it described as a battle between pre- and post-Brando acting styles, and I like that – I’ve also heard it described as a conversation on the shifting nature of the archetypal “American man,” and I like that too. The Master supports such diverse interpretations because it tells us nothing, offering only its tormented love affair between two men who are wildly different, yet can each see the other’s vulnerabilities with perfect clarity. Whether their collisions echo the soul of America or nothing at all, there’s enough humanity in their bond to make it impossible to look away.

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