Spring 2022 – Week 5 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. I’ve currently got a post-Covid spring in my step, as well as a quiet sense of embarrassment about how much work I got done while I was trapped in quarantine. It turns out when you’re not allowed to socialize or even really leave your room, it’s not hard to keep working from the moment you wake up to the moment you lie back down. As a result, my article buffer has never looked healthier, I’ve finished my latest ambitious weekend project, and I even made some progress on cleaning my room. Well, a little progress. Look, if you’d seen it before, you’d appreciate it looks better now.

Dubious lifestyle habits aside, I’ve also got a fine stack of film reviews for you all, freshly plucked from my massive bag of takes. Let’s see what we’ve got in the latest Week in Review!

First up this week was a semi-classic ‘80s slasher, Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. Hooper would never recapture the acclaim he received for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but The Funhouse emphatically reaffirms him as a horror maestro of singular power, with a uniquely grimy aesthetic sensibility, and a keen understanding of narrative economy.

The Funhouse sees four gravely misguided teenagers visiting a traveling carnival, whereupon they decide to spend the night hiding out in the titular funhouse. While canoodling among the sleeping puppets, they accidentally witness a murder through the floorboards beneath them. With both a nefarious showhand and his monstrous son hunting them, they must seek an escape from the funhouse, or risk becoming its latest attractions.

You can tell how much confidence Hooper has in this material by how long it actually takes for the monster to show up. The inspiring murder actually takes place at least halfway through the film; before that, The Funhouse is content to luxuriate in the inherent horror of a traveling circus. The genetically mangled side shows, the leering carnival workers, the dolls that seem all the more frightening for their state of disrepair; cheap traveling circuses provide plenty of their own terrors, and this film’s initial light touch provides that much more opportunity to bond with our poor doomed teens.

Of course, as the man already responsible for possibly the most shocking lurch towards violence in film history, Hooper damn well knows how to flip the switch. The film’s last act is a parade of manic chase scenes and just-this-side-of-tasteful deaths, making terrific use of both violent implication and the funhouse’s doll inhabitants. The intermittent neon lighting of their prison is exploited to vivid effect, while the compositions exploit every sharp angle and shadowed mask to amplify the sense of danger. Hooper seems to possess a unique knack for combining southern gothic with exploitation cinema, his camerawork evoking the grainy discomfort of a night spent on dirty floorboards. I’m glad such a fine and non-Texas Chainsaw example of the form exists.

Our next feature was one of this year’s Oscar hopefuls, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as Phil and George Burbank, brothers and co-owners of a Montana cattle ranch. Though Phil seems deeply enamored with their cowboy lifestyle, George is distant, and his marriage to a local widow named Rose drives further distance between them. Phil takes out his resentment on George’s wife, but when her delicate son Peter arrives at the ranch, he sparks up an unlikely friendship with his new uncle.

The Power of the Dog is cruel, sad, slow, and oh so good. It is most fundamentally a character study centered on a profoundly unlikable man, the complicated Phil Burbank. Though he prides himself on his toughness and ranch-hand prowess, neither Phil nor George grew up poor or rural; in fact, Phil graduated from Yale with a degree in the classics. But at some point in his past, Phil abandoned the trappings of his birth, and now clings to a masculine frontiersman ethos with all the ferocity he can muster.

Even just the information in that paragraph is hard-extracted, with knowledge of Phil’s origins only coming up during an offhand mid-film argument with his brother. For most of the film, we only know Phil as his performance relates to the world: a man of low interests and great unkindness, who chides others for their “softness” while possessing the most bruisable ego of all. Phil is mean to his brother, cruel to Peter, and absolutely inhumane to Rose, driving her into alcoholism with his constant needling judgment. When Peter comes to the ranch for the summer, it seems likely that Phil might just kill this boy. Instead, something very unexpected happens.

Though Peter’s initial lack of ranch hand knowledge makes him an easy target for derision, the boy learns quickly, and takes a genuine interest in Phil’s passions. And as Phil deploys more mean-spirited jabs at Peter’s “softness,” he soon realizes that Peter truly possesses the strength of spirit that Phil can only evoke through his play-acted cowboy nonsense. A callous jab at Peter’s father’s alcoholism is returned with a sober-faced “he sure did drink until the end, when he hung himself and I had to cut him down.” Phil’s evocation of masculinity as surly performance is a thin sheet stretched over a vast emptiness; in spite of his gangling posture and interest in hula hooping, Peter is already a “man” in ways Phil covets, but can never possess.

Eventually, we come to understand the roots of Phil’s religion, and the contradiction of identity which drives him to hate both himself and everyone around him. And yet, as The Power of the Dog is eager to remind us, simply “understanding” Phil does not justify him, or make up for all of the hurt he’s caused. In the leadup to this film’s conclusion, it is easy to believe this is some kind of redemption narrative, where a new philosophy will be borne of old passions laced with new flecks of kindness. But in the end, it is Phil who trusts in a softer world, and who is undone by how hard the world can truly be.

Next up, we saw a pair of top class directors each tackle a traditional genre feature, starting off with David Fincher’s Panic Room. In spite of its home invasion structure, Panic Room slots neatly into Fincher’s generally moody thriller wheelhouse, with its equal focus on the house’s invaders and defenders creating an engaging cat and mouse experience. Jodie Foster brings a convincing fraying intensity to her role as a newly single mom, while Kristen Stewart shows clear early promise as her young daughter. But it’s undeniably Forest Whitaker who steals the show, finding a nuanced humanity in his role as their most sympathetic invader. Panic Room is basically just a page-turner on the whole, and definitely a lesser entry in Fincher’s catalog, but it makes for a satisfying enough watch.

We then watched Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, a film that dances between a crime procedural and an outright buddy cop film, as Michael Douglas pursues a yakuza heavy through the streets of Japan. Black Rain feels like a love letter from Scott to both yakuza cinema and the cacophonous beauty of bubble-era Japanese urbanity. If you’ve played any of the Yakuza games, you’re in for a treat; Scott initially tried to film in the Tokyo district that inspired Kamurocho, and eventually settled for the Osaka district where Majima plies his trade. As a result, Black Rain is saturated in the neon lights of Dotonbori, making profound visual theater out of its grand plazas and labyrinthian alleys.

I appreciated how this film didn’t overly preoccupy itself with culture clash nonsense between Michael Douglas and his Japanese partner, Ken Takakura. The film embraces the friction that would naturally emerge from their differing methods of police work, but the tough-talking Douglas is otherwise entirely respectful of Japanese culture, and the film is smart enough to contextualize its violence with the inescapable shadow of American occupation. Meanwhile, Takakura is a delight as always, his chemistry with Douglas is excellent, and the film features all the fun setpieces you’d expect from a master like Scott. An overall excellent watch.

Our last feature of the week was a silent era classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Caligari is renowned as the defining work of German expressionist cinema, and is indeed a marvel of visual design. Straddling the boundary line between cinema and theater, Caligari turns its lack of overt camera movement into a strength, by constructing a series of elaborately painted and richly layered sets. The film’s choice to bill three separate art directors before its starring cast basically sums up its approach to cinema: Caligari’s spiraling backdrops and elaborate makeup work establish a world unlike any other, where rooftops steeple towards impossible vanishing points, and clerks dwell on looming perches in the irregular halls of the city.

Caligari’s visual design is astonishing, and makes me wish more films were willing to abandon the pursuit of aesthetic realism. The feeling of wandering through its geometrically absurd corridors is an experience more common to anime than live action, evoking the moody dreamscapes of Casshern Sins or Madoka Magica. The closest successor to this aesthetic I can think of is The Nightmare Before Christmas, though there are also shades of this approach in the work of directors like Jean-Pierre Jeunet or Terry Gilliam. Ultimately, my struggle to think of clear parallels is a testament to how singular and effective Dr. Caligari truly is – a must-watch film for anyone interested in the aesthetics of film.