Winter 2021 – Week 7 in Review

Hello all, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. I had quite the productive week in terms of film screenings, as we knocked off another Hitchcock production, a pair of quasi-notable ‘90s features, and one of 2021’s most compelling new films. It’s frankly nice just to be able to talk about new films at all, given the times. Cultural production kinda ground to a halt for most of 2020, and while I’m certainly not thrilled that Covid will likely destroy the movie theater economy, I’m thankful that new films are at least again being released, and giving us something to look forward to in these dark times. Speaking of which, have you seen that new Shin Ultraman trailer? It’s another Higuchi-Anno joint like Shin Godzilla, and considering how fantastic Godzilla was, I’m eager to see how this one plays out. For now though, let’s explore a fresh catalog of films in the Week in Review!

As mentioned, my house continued our exploration of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, this time checking out the high-concept balancing act that is Rope. If you know anything about Rope, you know that it’s essentially constructed as one unbroken cut. Based on a stage play, the film takes place entirely within a single apartment, proceeds in real time, and only cuts maybe half a dozen times, each of them concealed by a close pan behind someone’s back. As a result, the film possesses a remarkable sense of claustrophobia and building tension, while still somehow demonstrating Hitchcock’s gift for layouts and (obviously) staging.

All of that serves to explain how Rope is distinctive in a technical sense – but while I was watching it, I was far more concerned with its gripping narrative, and electrifying contrast of characters. The film opens with two young men named Brandon and Phillip strangling a third, then placing his body inside a chest in their apartment. Having agreed they would attempt a “perfect murder” just for the thrill of it, Brandon is elated by their act, while Phillip is terrified of the consequences. Unfortunately for Phillip, Brandon has already decided that the “finishing touch” this artistic murder requires is a dinner party conducted directly over the recently deceased, attended by their murdered companion’s parents and girlfriend. And so the film proceeds, with Phillip slowly collapsing and Brandon exulting in his victory, as their old professor (played by James Stewart) circles in on the truth of what they’ve done.

Fun pitch, eh? And Rope makes the most of it in the way only Hitchcock can, drawing every ounce of tension from its powder keg premise. John Dall plays Brandon as an utterly convincing psychopath, while the spinning plates of the dinner party offer consistent moments of overwhelming suspense. And having watched both Vertigo and Rear Window, that “starring James Stewart” acted as its own sort of dramatic hook; the moment the two leads committed their crime, I knew that eventually Stewart would come knocking, and slowly dismantle their tower of lies. On the whole, Rope packs an absurd bounty of thriller excellence into a lean eighty minutes.

After that, we checked out one of Sam Raimi’s lesser-known films, The Quick and the Dead. Apparently, Sharon Stone requested Raimi as director after watching Army of Darkness, and also fought for both Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio to be given their parts, even going so far as to pay DiCaprio’s salary herself. The results of her conviction are clear to see: Crowe and DiCaprio already possess all the charisma they’d bring to their leading man careers, Raimi directs shootouts with all the bombast and swooping camerawork of his Evil Dead films, and Stone herself maintains a steady, smoldering fury through the entire film.

All of these delightful gunslingers are tied together by Gene Hackman, who unsurprisingly ends up stealing the show as his town’s protector-slash-extortionist. I’m not sure Raimi could effectively direct a traditional, slow-burning western in the style of Once Upon a Time in the West, but The Quick and the Dead is emphatically not that; the entire film is constructed around a tournament between fabled gunslingers, meaning it’s essentially the equivalent of a “western tournament arc.” If that sounds fun to you, or if you’re intrigued by the film’s absurd roster of talent, or if just watching Raimi bring his comic book affectation to a new genre sounds interesting, I heartily recommend giving it a watch.

Seeking something light for a late-night screening, we then checked out The Faculty, which my housemate Neil assured us was a ‘90s classic, and that we were the weird ones for never having seen. Well, having watched The Faculty, I can confirm that it is certainly extremely ‘90s, but “classic” is probably pushing it.

The film’s pitch is essentially “The Breakfast Club plus Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and involves a group of mismatched high school archetypes discovering their teachers and fellow students are being replaced by pod people. While there’s certainly the potential for a compelling film there, The Faculty possesses none of the strengths of any of its predecessors. Its characters are too one-note for it to possess any of The Breakfast Club’s poignancy, it has more of a “general air of levity” than any actual jokes, and it’s never even slightly scary.

Even though Robert Rodriguez directs, the film possesses very little of his usual flair, with only the final battle offering much visual energy. And while Elijah Wood puts in a pretty solid performance, the film also stars Josh Hartnett, who has likely never been convincing in any role in his life. Ultimately, I’d only recommend this film if you want to see Jon Stewart get stabbed in the eye by a ballpoint pen, which you can probably find on youtube somewhere anyway.

Finally, we finished off the week with one of 2021’s most acclaimed films so far, the absolutely searing The White Tiger. Based on an acclaimed novel, The White Tiger tracks a boy named Balram’s journey from a remote north Indian village to Delhi and beyond, as he attempts to rise above his caste-determined destiny, and truly be the once-in-a-generation “white tiger.”

The easiest way to describe The White Tiger is probably “it’s Parasite, but specifically about India’s brutal caste hierarchy.” Balram eventually secures a job as a driver for the son of his village’s landlord, leading to a crash course education in the lifestyles of the upper caste, and plenty of opportunities to explore the nuances of exchange between their worlds. Like in Parasite, the oblivious lives of the Haves leaves no time for considering the humanity of the Have Nots; while Balram’s master can occasionally offer him a kind gesture, he cannot see him as a human being. And ultimately, even those who express sympathy for Balram’s circumstances are most loyal to class. One scene, the American-raised wife of Balram’s master is telling him “you can’t let them treat you like a servant!” – the next, she’s waving off her husband’s concerns about kissing in the car, because “no one’s there, it’s just Balram.”

The White Tiger is consistently insightful without feeling didactic, and its fury is tempered by a beauty of execution and playfulness of voice that actually makes for an oddly charming watch. But at all times, the vast inhumanity of India’s “rooster coop” system is in full focus, as we see how the caste system poisons all manner of potential relationships, even between those of the same caste. It’s a terrific film, an essential addition to our current Class War Renaissance, and also a stark warning for the future. I can’t recommend it enough!

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