Spring 2021 – Week 1 in Review

Hey all, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. I watched a grab bag of horror movies this week, along with continuing my journey through the Ghibli catalog. I’m frankly getting a little anxious about that Ghibli journey at this point; I now only have one Miyazaki left, two Takahatas, and then a light scattering of their non-royalty productions. That’s not enough movies! Like my dive into Mamoru Oshii, I’m realizing that what initially felt like an intimidating library of canon classics actually comprises just a handful of films, and when I’ve watched them, that’ll be it. Anime is extremely young among art forms; if you’re judging from Tezuka onwards, its birth is actually still within living memory. Fortunately, there are still plenty of other mountains to climb – I certainly need to watch the pre-Ghibli Toei Doga films, I’ve got a bunch of key ‘70s and ‘80s series to examine, etcetera. But it’s an odd feeling to realize a once-imposing slate of historical context is now largely behind me, and when I’m done, there will be no more Miyazaki or Takahata films to enjoy. I guess you can’t really have a journey without a journey’s end.

Anyway, enough of that melancholy nonsense. Let’s break down some films!

We returned to the horror well this week, starting off with the excellent Tigers Are Not Afraid. The film is set in a town ravaged by Mexico’s gang wars, and centers on a group of children who’ve all been orphaned by gang violence, and are now trying to survive in the rubble. On top of this heavy premise, the film layers a blanket of magical realism that evokes something like Pan’s Labyrinth; the heroine Estrella is given three magic wishes, ghosts creep around the margins of their crumbling homes, and a graffiti tiger might just get bored of its stasis, and start ambling down a city wall.

The overall effect is gripping, with the film’s fantastical horror elements often seeming like an escape from its mundane terrors. But ultimately, this film’s greatest assets are the outstanding performances of its child actors, who rally together into an incredibly endearing family unit. Through their impressively naturalistic performances, the human cost of this situation becomes achingly clear – but they always feel like distinctive, endearing people, not simply objects of pity. With a great cast, strong cinematography, and consistently well-executed fantasy embellishments, Tigers Are Not Afraid is simply an excellent horror/drama, ideal for any fans of emotionally resonant spooky stuff.

After that, we checked out Relic, a recent horror picture about an old woman who’s becoming less and less self-reliant, prompting her daughter and granddaughter to return to the family home. The majority of Relic is a lot of slow-burning emotional drama that frankly doesn’t really go anywhere; we lack the context into these characters’ lives to piece together the roots of their current resentments, so it’s mostly just a lot of the three generations smoldering at each other in moodily lit rooms. I’m generally a fan of horror movies driven by dark emotional tides (like The Babadook, or both of Ari Aster’s films), but Relic’s characters are never sketched out beyond a surface level, making it hard to care about their grudges.

Things briefly but dramatically pick up near the end, when the film finally embraces its “this house is a prison of dementia” conceit with gusto, and sends one of its heroines crawling through an Escher-like labyrinth of endless corridors. That sequence is terrific, but it’s a small and discordant payoff for an otherwise disappointing experience, leading into an equally flat conclusion. I dunno, I might just lack the perspective to relate to this film’s drama, but it felt underwritten and dramatically inert to me.

I then returned to my Ghibli march, checking out one of the final Miyazaki films I hadn’t seen: Ponyo. Ponyo is altogether Miyazaki’s lightest film, proceeding with the whimsical pacing and gentle unreality of a children’s fairy tale. Light on story, it mostly just focuses on two kids (one a fish) enjoying their time together – first in the mundane yet charming world of Sosuke’s island life, and then in a mystical quasi-aquatic world, courtesy of Ponyo’s fishy powers.

Ponyo embodies a fair number of Miyazaki’s passions: the ugliness of man’s pollution, the sheer joy of children at play, the sturdiness of machines and value of honest labor, cool old ladies, etcetera. In fact, at this point, even the echoes within his imagery are starting to become familiar; Miyazaki has a fairly specific idea of what constitutes a fairy tale, and it’s interesting to see how those assumptions are laid over a variety of narratives.

At the same time, all this Miyazaki-watching is also helping me to differentiate the unique strengths of each production, beyond those qualities which are strictly Miyazakian in origin. In Ponyo’s case, while I loved the film’s ambitious, imaginative underwater animation, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the almost colored pencil-styled background art, especially in comparison to the painterly beauty of early Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and Pom Poko. The reason for that seems simple enough: Kazuo Oga, art director for both of those films, only served as a background artist on Ponyo, while relative newcomer Noboru Yoshida took over this role for Miyazaki’s later films. Of course, for a film like Ponyo, the background art is an inherently secondary concern; as an admitted celebration of traditional animation, much of what might be painted as background in another film was here fully animated, from ships at sea to the dancing flora of the ocean floor.

Anyway, the long and short of all this is that Ponyo is solid, but not among Miyazaki’s best, and also it feels really nice to recognize my ability to parse these art distinctions improving. I spent the first fifteen or so years of my post-childhood life obsessed with narrative and literature specifically, so while I feel somewhat confident in my perspective on writing, I’m still building up my visual storytelling muscles. Considering that coming to understand and appreciate art is a process that could span any number of lifetimes, it can sometimes feel like I’m not really getting anywhere – so it’s nice to experience a simple reminder that Hey, you can recognize a lot more than you used to.

Finally, we ended this week with an unimpeachable classic of any era: Leprechaun, the horror movie about a leprechaun. Leprechaun is not a good movie in most of the traditional senses – it’s not well-directed, it’s largely not well-acted (for scale, a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston is one of this film’s better actors), and it’s absolutely not scary. What Leprechaun does have an abundance of is its titular leprechaun, played with absolute relish by Warwick Davis. Davis is the life of this film, bringing 110% commitment to an absurd comedy-horror villain, and making Leprechaun a pretty fun movie in spite of itself. Davis’ performance and the fundamentally non-threatening nature of the leprechaun itself make it hard not to root for the guy, as he lays bear traps and bites hands and makes up songs about how stupid his enemies are, and how horribly they’re going to die. Leprechaun is dubious, but Davis kicks ass, and makes me think we need some kind of award for actors who single handedly make bad films compelling.

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