Winter 2021 – Week 12 in Review

Oh my god, have we got some shit to wade through. My house began this week in film with an awful mistake, as I actually joined my housemates for a genuine hate-watch. I’ve on the whole stopped seeking out things that I know are going to be bad; there is infinite great media out there, which is all great in a variety of new and enriching ways, whereas bad media tends to be predictable, familiar, and dull. It doesn’t feel fulfilling to flex on something that’s bad; it’s too easy, and generally I’d rather just enjoy something good. Well, I broke that rule this week, and I duly paid the price for it. Fortunately, the rest of this week’s viewing experiences were much more compelling, so let’s just take the medicine first then, as we plow through another Week in Review!

We opened this week with a truly terrible idea, as we attempted a screening of the Cats film. My friends knew going in that the film was going to be terrible, but none of us were really prepared for just how miserable of a viewing experience it is. Cats isn’t “the craziest thing you’ll ever see,” and it’s not so endearingly inept that it could fall into “so bad it’s good” territory – it’s just a series of terrible base decisions and utterly artless execution, barraging you with such consistent, obvious failure that the only reasonable takeaways are tedium and shame.

First off, I haven’t actually seen the musical Cats, but my impression based on this film is that it falls into a popular musical theater category: entertainment for people too wealthy to have either problems or taste. There is basically no narrative to the film; it’s essentially just a montage of different cats singing their This Is Me song, running down a variety of potential cat types. The lyrics are as obnoxiously twee as they are insipid, the melodies are just plain atrocious, and the film veers from one musical number to the next with no real sense of pacing, drama, character, suspense, or payoff. Nothing ever happens, and the route to nothing happening is paved with deeply obnoxious musical numbers.

Though I’ve seen good works of musical theater, the medium often seems like it’s graded on a substantial curve. The lyrics never seem comparable to the poetry of great albums, and the stories tend to be simplistic, as songs frequently occupy a dramatic pause in the narrative, thus leaving little time for anything more than archetypal drama and character development. While I love musical theater conceptually, I have significant problems with many of its popular properties (much like my relationship with visual novels), and Cats basically embodies everything I dislike about the art form.

All of that is to say that basically any adaptation of Cats would likely disappoint me – but that shouldn’t be taken as giving this particular adaptation even one ounce of credit. Every element of Cats as an adapted production is uniquely terrible, from the fact that basically no one in the film can act (the lead singers are mostly pop artists, including the ambitiously overcast Taylor Swift), to the awful, consistently disorienting quality of the CG cat bodies. Because the “costuming” is done by CG rather than practical effects, the characters never look like a convincing visual whole – their faces swim around their CG heads, offering a grim impression of tiny humans wearing skinned cat suits. The reliance on CG also means there can’t be any genuinely compelling dance performances, and what’s more, these largely greenscreen tableaus are nonetheless shot terribly. I don’t know who told Tom Hooper he could direct, but they have done the world at large a profound disservice; Cats’ clumsy layouts and bizarrely chosen camera swoops consistently undercut any sense of visual splendor, making the film feel cheaply produced, in spite of its massive CG expenditure.

On the whole, there’s nothing I could recommend about this movie, even as a curiosity. The film feels like a weird byproduct of Hollywood’s algorithmically determined greenlighting process – Tom Hooper has had successes, Cats has a certain level of cultural clout, and these pop stars all bring substantial markets, too. Surely this equation must resolve into a successful movie, right? We’re in a bad place, folks.

Fortunately, the week’s next film screening helped to lift our spirits a bit, as we skipped back to watch the first feature in Legendary’s MonsterVerse universe: the 2014 Godzilla film. Having previously enjoyed Kong: Skull Island, I was expecting a similarly modernized revamp here – a film balancing genuine respect for the source material with a punchy modern narrative, with more stars studding it than might frankly be necessary. That all proved true enough, to the extent that I almost felt disappointed when monsters started showing up, as that signaled the end of Bryan Goddamn Cranston’s role in the film. 

That actually might be my biggest complaint about Godzilla – that in spite of also starring actors as talented as Cranston, Elizabeth Olson, and Ken Watanabe, the film’s central human character is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an absolute non-presence of an actor. But in spite of the focus on him presenting a slight drag, Godzilla on the whole offers a bountiful, beautiful array of kaiju battles, elevated by consistently inspired cinematography and a clear reverence for Godzilla’s mythic aura. I was cheering and shouting “fuck ‘em up, Godzilla!” by the end of this one, which is probably the best Godzilla-specific assessment you could ask for.

After that, I couldn’t help but try the profoundly absurd Slaxx, purely because its premise is so very ridiculous. Here’s the pitch: Slaxx is about a pair of killer pants that come to life in a high-class boutique, and proceed to murder the staff over the evening before their grand product opening.

The best part of this film is, if you can believe it, the murderous pants’ origin story, and how that story is conveyed to the main cast. The worst part of it is, sadly, pretty much everything else. The movie is never scary, and the kills aren’t particularly creative, but it also generally fails to take refuge in absurdity, either. The main cast are neither funny nor endearing – they’re actually really obnoxious, but more in a “ugh, that coworker” sort of way than a “they have earned their bloody deaths” sort of way. It’s unpleasant spending time with them, but also not satisfying to watch them die, because the kills feel neither earned nor interesting. And when the pants actually started standing up, I just felt secondhand embarrassment for everyone involved in the production.

Overall, while Slaxx clearly has its heart in the right place in terms of its theming and whatnot, it fails to demonstrate that its premise can actually support a film. There might be a great pants-focused horror movie somewhere out there, but Slaxx’s fit is just a bit too tight.

We also returned to Cobra Kai, checking out the second season of Karate Kid’s improbably good revival series. Cobra Kai’s first season offered a surprisingly nuanced exploration of how class, masculinity, and self-image intersect, presenting a repentant “villain” in Johnny Lawrence, whose “no mercy” philosophy had essentially destroyed his whole life. Through rebuilding Cobra Kai, Lawrence was able to come to grips with many of his past demons – but at the same time, the toxic elements of his philosophy ended up filtering down to his own students. By the end of that season, Lawrence is beginning to realize how a philosophy of absolute strength will only lead to self-destruction, and that embracing mercy might be the only way to reconnect with his lost son.

Cobra Kai’s first season works quite well as a self-contained reflection on masculinity, and it seemed like Lawrence himself was arriving at a real turning point. That’s precisely why I groaned in exhaustion at season two’s immediate introduction of Lawrence’s own sensei Kreese, the broken Vietnam veteran who first turned him into a heartless killing machine. The second Kreese entered Lawrence’s dojo, I could see the entire arc of season two illuminated over his head, as Lawrence attempts to reconcile with his master, is burned for the effort, and ultimately ends up betrayed by his own compassion. It was like Lawrence had spent the first season on an exciting journey, and now the show writers were instead putting him on a hamster wheel, and promising that next season, he’d once again get moving for real.

Season two played out pretty much exactly as I expected, but the odd thing is, I can’t really fault the show for going in an obvious, dramatically frustrating direction. Bringing in Kreese was precisely the right play for further exploring Lawrence’s history, psychology, and future journey – it provided a strong contrast for Lawrence’s own growth, offered a variety of natural emergent conflicts, and highlighted the weaknesses in his modern approach to training. It also provided a number of natural thematic parallels, in a season where “how can we earn forgiveness, and how can we learn to forgive others” was interrogated across half a dozen character bonds. It set up a clear season three trajectory, forced Lawrence to reconcile with his greatest weaknesses, and sprinkled in just enough friction to maintain the Cobra Kai-Miyagi Do rivalry. I’m frankly left a little stumped in my assessment of the season – I know I enjoyed it less because Kreese was there to keep Lawrence static, but as a critic, I cannot deny that his entrance was the correct narrative play. It’s an odd feeling!

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