Winter 2021 – Week 2 in Review

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Week in Review. It was a strange and bountiful week in films for my house, as we ran through ‘70s and ‘80s classics, modern thrillers, and also a pile of mostly mediocre children’s films. I’ve been getting back into Monster Hunter World lately, and my housemate generally enjoys keeping some sort of show on in the background, so the number of films I half-watched over my shoulder are frankly too numerous to break down. Fortunately, if any movie was good enough to demand attention, I’d generally shift my focus in its direction – so without further ado, let’s run down every film this week more interesting than hitting monsters with a giant hammer!

Coming in hot with this week’s top discovery, my house screened Saturday Night Fever, the ‘70s classic that essentially made John Travolta’s name. I expected a lot of Bee Gees and a lot of dancing, and wasn’t disappointed on either count; the film’s soundtrack is a rundown of all the most enduring disco hits, and Travolta’s dance sequences are absolutely stunning. Disco has been uncool for so long that I’ve basically never seen it used as anything but a cultural punchline, but Saturday Night Fever offers a convincing encapsulation of its entire worldview, making its thrill and glamor seem obvious. Simply as a time capsule into an entirely different cultural world, Saturday Night Fever is a fascinating object.

The film is far more than just that, though. Travolta’s Tony Manero is a nineteen-year-old Italian kid with no prospects, dancing not just because he loves it, but because it’s the only place in his life where he feels genuinely in control, and earns praise for his efforts. But he knows this life is a dead end, and through Fever’s ferociously naturalistic conversations, we explore all the fear and longing of his larger cultural position, marooned in a decaying Brooklyn, staring across the bridge to the shimmering city. Though it certainly succeeds as a dance drama, Fever is also a pointed character study, and an exploration of class identity in ‘70s New York, elevated through dialogue that embraces all the clumsy repeated tics and talking-over confusion of genuine, human conversation. The film’s just a flat-out masterpiece, and a far more serious experience than you might guess by its title.

Following that, we checked out Beetlejuice, a Tim Burton film from before he mostly designed films to be turned into Disney World attractions. Beetlejuice was precisely as weird as you might hope, centering on a recently deceased couple played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, who are determined to stop a new family from utterly ruining their haunted home. Their journey takes them through the afterlife and back again, in an adventure that made marvelous use of prosthetic costumes, as well as lots of clever integration of live action and stop motion animation (you might recognize the film’s sandworms as a precursor to Nightmare Before Christmas’ “Beast Lurking Under Your Stair”). That said, while I greatly enjoyed the film’s visual design, its script felt lacking; a lot of lazy slapstick gags, and no real sense of narrative focus or momentum. An interesting visual design curio, but not a film I’m likely to return to.

Next up we checked a recent production, the Amazon-produced The Vast of Night. The Vast of Night is essentially framed as an episode of The Twilight Zone, opening with a variation of its famous intro as we pan into an old-fashioned TV, through which we are ostensibly watching the story unfold. The film’s slow-burning exploration of a strange signal in the night sky, tracked by a switchboard operator and radio DJ in the 1950s, does indeed match the cadence and allure of a great Twilight Zone episode. But along with that, the film also feels like a salute to the unique magic of radio dramas.

The film is roughly cut into twenty-minute segments that each feel like their own radio play, and the camera will at times linger on a cut for ten or fifteen minutes, refusing to let the audience take a breath as we listen to some caller explain their relationship with the signal. A film designed like this demands an incredibly strong script, and The Vast of Night doesn’t disappoint; the two leads’ conversations are a delightful blend of personality and ‘50s slang, and the film understands precisely how to build tension over a spoken ghost story. Great performances, bravura cinematography, a punchy script, and an aesthetic that embraces ‘50s horror convention to arrive at something totally new – The Vast of Night was a highly satisfying watch, and a film I’d recommend to most anyone.

From there, we checked out one of the Studio Laika films I haven’t seen yet, Paranorman. Laika are one of the world’s last inheritors of stop-motion animation, having created marvelous films like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. Their films are always visual delights, and beyond that, they tend to be messy and scary in a way children’s films too infrequently get to be – I’d say they operate a role similar to Don Bluth’s ‘90s output, offering a sharper counterpoint to Disney’s simplified struggles. Paranorman didn’t disappoint on either of those counts; the film made a dazzling visual tapestry of my own native Massachusetts, featured a scene where its protagonist must slam a dead man into a table until his rigor mortis gives way, and ultimately offered a tidy illustration of how fear can make anyone surrender their humanity.

I felt the film’s secondary cast were underused, in that they were more just filling out horror movie archetypes than actually essential to the narrative, but I was frankly too enthralled by the film’s visual design to quibble too much over its tightness of structure. Paranorman is neither as beautiful nor as poignant as Coraline and Kubo, but it’s still a solidly entertaining watch, and a winning demonstration of an animation style like no other.

Finally, as I said, my housemate ran through a wide variety of low-tier children’s animated films, springboarding off our Dreamworks expedition to sample the vast proliferation of mediocre CG movies. Lots of these can be tossed off in basically a sentence or two – like Rango, whose extended Hunter S. Thompson parodies surely went over great with the kids, and which basically possessed no praiseworthy qualities at all (in spite of winning that year’s Best Animated Picture award, sigh).

Other pictures at least found some refuge in the charms of their voice acting cast, like Surf’s Up’s surprisingly effective chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Shia LaBeouf, or The Croods’ enthusiastic turn by Nicholas Cage (not to sell that one short, it also has great visual design). Likely the “best” of these films was Animal Crackers, which leaned heavily on the actually-married-in-real-life chemistry of John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. Not only was it refreshing to see one of these films center a couple who are already solidly in love, Animal Crackers was also absolutely overstuffed with voice acting talent. Seriously, this film features Danny DeVito, Gilbert Gottfried, Wallace Shawn, Patrick Warburton, and Ian McKellen – it’s a goddamn who’s who of top shelf character acting talent, complete with Sylvester Stallone in a role that just involves him saying “Bullet Man!” over and over. All of this still doesn’t add up to a genuinely good film, but oh my god, why are these movies always so deliriously overcast?

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