Winter 2021 – Week 6 in Review

Hello all, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. I’ve once again got a pretty varied grab bag of reflections for you all, including a few mismatched movies, one of last year’s most acclaimed videogames, and a show that’s generally considered one of the best modern sitcoms. As far as anime goes, I’ve continued to power through Wonder Egg Priority articles, and should have my fifth post arriving on Friday. Until then, I hope this varied assortment of media takes, with no real continuity or cohesiveness of any sort, at least provides a glimmer of entertainment in the interim. Look, I’m trying to consume All The Media, some of these weeks are going to be less coherent than others. Let’s get to it!

This week started off with Mars Attacks, another Tim Burton feature from his pre-Disney-assimilation phase. Mars Attacks is a supremely weird film in the abstract, but ultimately, I felt it fit pretty naturally into the overall Burton filmography. The film essentially feels like Burton’s stab at something like a Robert Altman film; a wildly overstuffed ensemble drama, where the focus is less on any one character’s story, than the mass human reaction to a central event. In this case, that event is an attack by martians – thus Mars Attacks spends its first third essentially just introducing characters, and its second half incinerating those characters with laser beams.

Along with paying tribute to Burton’s New Hollywood influences, Mars Attacks also exemplifies many of his thematic bugbears and aesthetic fascinations. Though the film was released in the ‘90s, all the aesthetic touchstones of Mars Attacks call back to classic ‘50s and ‘60s Americana, from the outfits and architecture, to the hokey designs of the aliens and their flying saucers.

Between this film, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and his various other forays into this territory, it seems clear that Tim Burton has a vast, abiding antipathy for squeaky-clean Americana; it is a perpetual veil over a perpetual underbelly of cruelty, perpetrated against anyone that fails to obey its strictures. I can vividly see Burton as a young boy in Scissorhands-esque suburbia, being inspired by early scifi and horror movies, and also being punished for his weirdness by the conservative world around him. Mars Attacks is on the whole a pretty bad movie (I found it shapeless, repetitive, and juvenile), but also a highly informative piece of the overall Tim Burton picture, and so unusual that I almost recommend it based on that alone.

Next up was Triple Threat, a martial arts film that’s clearly just an excuse to get its titular threats on screen together: Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak), Iko Uwais (The Raid), and Tiger Chen (Man of Tai Chi), along with the always-impressive Scott Adkins (The Debt Collector). Triple Threat assembles an absurd glut of top tier martial arts talent, with its very production feeling like a testament to the collaborative, multinational nature of modern martial arts cinema.

Triple Threat has more than enough tools to build an astonishing martial arts film, which makes me very sorry to report that it consistently fails to make use of them. Every sliver of martial arts in this film is excellent, because its stars are the absolute best in the business – unfortunately, the film doesn’t actually let them perform too many martial arts, and frequently sticks them in boring gunfights or tedious “who can be trusted” reversals. I have rarely seen a film be given such a clear route to victory, yet do everything within its power to seize defeat; if you had just placed these four martial artists in a generic tournament shell, you’d have a profoundly better film than Triple Threat. What a waste of some of cinema’s finest kickers of ass.

Along with films, I’ve been trying to work through the best American television shows as well, from animated hits like Avatar and Steven Universe, to “prestige dramas” like Breaking Bad. This week I checked another of these properties off my list, after finally finishing The Good Place.

I’m generally not a big sitcom fan, as my frequent poo-pooing of anime comedy likely attests. I’m certainly not anti-comedy or anything, I just don’t get much of a buzz off jokes that don’t actively surprise me. Comedy added lightly tends to just bore me; I’d rather a show go fully into “let’s stress-test the form and function of comedy” (like Nichijou or Community), or stick to conveying a warm tone, rather than canned gags (like K-On!). The only American sitcoms that I’ve really enjoyed are the first three seasons of Community and Arrested Development – and now, I suppose we can add The Good Place to that list.

The Good Place has a significant leg up on your standard sitcom in terms of appealing to me: it’s constructed as a long-form interrogation of human morality, and the impossible task of being a genuinely “good person.” The heroine Eleanor (Kristen Bell) finds herself waking up in “The Good Place,” the part of the afterlife where good people go, but quickly realizes she’s been placed there by mistake. Enlisting the help of fellow Good Place resident/ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Eleanor thus sets about attempting to become someone who truly does deserve eternal paradise, while trying to avoid getting caught in the process.

I mean seriously, how much better is that than your average sitcom premise? We’ve got a fantastical high-concept setting, perfect for all manner of episodic conflicts and visual gags. We’ve got a clear narrative hook, with a sense of tension and progression built into the core conflict. And we’ve got the perfect stage for an exploration of some of the hardest human questions, with Eleanor’s stated quest essentially demanding we directly investigate the history of moral philosophy. What a promising position to start from!

Fortunately, The Good Place actually makes good on all that promise, balancing sharp gags, charming character beats, and interrogations of morality right from the start. The show has a strong writer’s room, and the quirky nature of The Good Place itself offers plenty of humor, but the show’s strongest feature turns out to be its cast. Bell walks an impossibly delicate line between lovable, hateable, and hilarious, while Ted Danson turns in an absurdly good performance as the “architect” of her Good Place neighborhood. Seriously, Ted Danson would be The Good Place’s “breakout star” if he hadn’t already starred in one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time; and it’s clear the public agrees, given he’s already starring in a new show where he essentially reprises Michael’s role.

The show dabbles in some of the cheap, circular character drama you expect from a Michael Schur production; each of its four seasons could be shortened to a crisp ten episodes, and the show outright flounders in its third season before recovering for the finale. But on the whole, The Good Place is funny, endearing, and genuinely invested in the complexity of moral philosophy. It earns a solid recommendation from me.

Finally, the property that truly dominated this week was Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I am ashamed to admit took this long for me to get to. There’s no real reason for that, beyond “it came out at the same time as Persona 5 Royale, so that kind of sucked up all the oxygen.” But if I were to give a reason, it might have been fear: fear that Final Fantasy VII might not be as special as I remembered, or fear that modern Square-Enix are incapable of making good Final Fantasies anymore.

Well, I’m delighted to say the Remake has demolished those fears. Rather than sanding down the weirdness of Midgar, or the quirkiness of VII’s cast, Remake has embraced them. This game’s ability to expand on the script of the original, in a way that actually makes me feel like I know the original’s cast even better than before, is simply remarkable. To be honest, after playing XIII and XV, I had simply assumed Squaresoft no longer cared about the quality of their writing – both of those games featured atrocious dialogue, simplistic characters, and worlds that felt like they’d been put together during a lunch break. And now here comes the FFVII Remake, featuring genuinely charming banter, lots of poignant little character beats, and a clear, distinctive voice for each cast member? These are the characters I loved in my childhood, realized with all the personality and chemistry of my nostalgic memories.

In terms of gameplay, Remake hews pretty closely to the XV model of modern Final Fantasy combat, though it manages to integrate materia, unique weapons, and a quasi-ATB system in such a way that it still feels very VII. The game maps are likewise fairly straightforward, though the richly detailed architecture of Midgar offers a far more alluring and convincingly lived-in setting than XV’s nondescript fields. Seeing Wall Market realized in glorious 3D sent a shiver up my spine, and even incidental screens like the abandoned Sector 5 industrial park are recreated in loving detail. Remake understands just how much of an impact this game had on a generation of players; it is absolutely brimming with love for the original, yet expands on that original in bold, inspired ways that consistently pay off. I’m not quite finished with Remake yet, but I’m already dying to play the next one.

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