Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week I’ve got an offering of surprisingly timely features for you all, as we actually watched a couple new releases alongside the usual temporal grab bag of selections. I still haven’t checked out Nope, but the film’s universal acclaim is really testing my plague-era aversion to theaters; I compromised for The Northman, and I might just have to compromise for Peele as well. Along with that, I’ve got a wildly impressive action film, a scattering of the usual horror fare, and also a political thriller that prompted some feisty/fatigued reflections on our terrifying political climate. It’s a very strange thing, watching films from back when people had faith in our political institutions, and those institutions were kept in check by a free and respected press. But we can save those reflections for later – let’s start off with something spooky and satisfying, as we burn down the latest Week in Review!
Our first film of the week was The Black Phone, Scott Derrickson’s latest horror feature. The film centers on Finney and Gwen, two siblings in a town haunted by “The Grabber,” a mysterious predator responsible for several children’s disappearances. After Finney is abducted, he finds himself in a dungeon featuring a black phone, which he soon realizes can connect him to the ghosts of the previous victims. While Gwen uses her psychic gifts to track him, Finney will have to make use of all the wits and spectral allies he can muster in order to escape a terrible fate.
I greatly enjoyed Derrickson’s earlier Sinister, and thus was looking forward to another team-up between him and Ethan Hawke. The portions of this film featuring Hawke are indeed electrifying; as an unstable murderer behind a ghoulish mask, he evokes just the right combination of childlike madness and bubbling fury. The conceit of the black phone is also used well, with the ghosts’ mangled appearances effectively implying the Grabber’s full nature, and the conceit of ghosts slowly losing their memories adding a poignant melancholy to their guidance. I was thrilled to see the black phone conceit never receive any textual explanation – it’s simply one of those lingering supernatural slivers in the universe, its very mysteriousness implying more than a monologue could ever explain.
Unfortunately, all the material featuring Gwen is basically a wash. This is no fault of actress Madeleine McGraw; she has an extremely strong presence for someone so young, and establishes a convincing rapport with her brother prior to his disappearance. The problem is that she’s given very little of substance to do, with her psychic visions of the killer’s activities rarely leading to any actionable conclusions. Gwen’s visions frankly seemed more like a way for Derrickson to indulge in his love of creepy home movie-styled horror vignettes, which were truly terrifying in Sinister, but lack much punch when applied to a normal guy with some black balloons. The Grabber is only frightening in the context of that prison cell, when Ethan Hawke’s presence can truly fill the room – as a dude half-glimpsed in shaky cam footage, he is greatly lacking in impact.
Still, as two-thirds of an effective thriller welded to one-third of an indifferent one, The Black Phone is ultimately a perfectly compelling watch. It’s not really that scary, but it’s tense and imaginative, with strong performances from Hawke and all the child leads. A fine effort from Derrickson.
We then checked out the Russo brothers’ recent Netflix feature, The Gray Man. Ryan Gosling stars as “Sierra Six,” a super-secret CIA-adjacent assassin sent on the most off-book of missions. When Six realizes his latest target is actually Sierra Four, and that his handlers might actually have been lying to him (shock!), he goes rogue. In order to stop him, his superiors call in the most rough-and-tumble private assassin they can find (Chris Evans), and the two proceed to shoot and punch each other all across the globe.
The Gray Man’s plot is basically nothing, and only gets more ridiculous the more closely you look at it. Its attempted gradations of what the CIA should or shouldn’t do are laughable; it seems the film wants to appear serious without actually saying anything politically, and so its politics are a handwave of “the CIA can commit murders, but not those kinds of murders,” positing a “step too far” threshold that is given no meaning within the text. This insubstantial political background is supplemented by Gosling’s theoretical attachment to Evans’ eventual hostages, a connection that is implied over one quick montage and never referred to again. Additionally, neither Gosling nor Evans’ characters have actual personalities; they’re just “quippy action men,” spouting the same generic witticisms you’d expect from, well, any of the Russos’ terribly scripted films.
But obviously the plot’s not the key in a movie like this – it’s all about the action! Unfortunately, The Gray Man’s action is atrocious, suffering greatly from the Russos’ inability to either choreograph or shoot a compelling action scene. Every single shot is obscured with fog and dust, distorted through blur, and dissected into a series of sub-Bourne micro-cuts. These choices are presumably designed to somewhat mask the film’s reliance on CG, but they result in a film that’s ugly and indistinct, too afraid of revealing its seams to offer any compelling visual compositions.
The constant reliance on panning drone shots further undercuts the film’s visual appeal, muddling the visual clarity and betraying a lack of faith in the action’s ability to stand on its own. The Russos’ are right not to trust in their ability to conceive or choreograph interesting action setpieces, but making it impossible to see anything clearly doesn’t really solve that core problem. On the whole, The Gray Man reveals the emperor bereft of his Iron Man suit, demonstrating the fundamental lack of filmmaking craft that undercuts the Russos’ work for anyone not already invested in their characters.
Our next feature was a lesser Raimi selection, his 2009 horror film Drag Me to Hell. I remember seeing this in theaters and not particularly caring for it, and unfortunately, this second watch didn’t really improve my impression. I would ungenerously describe the film’s pitch as “what if Raimi made a new Evil Dead sequel, except Bruce Campbell’s not there, all of the practical effects are now CG, and it’s PG-13.” So, not ideal.
To his credit, Raimi does everything he can to make an entertaining film within those limitations. The man’s ability to turn visual drama into a comic-derivative roller coaster is second to none, and Drag Me to Hell’s best scenes see him whipping up a delightful tempest of visual chaos, like the big seance scene (featuring a cameo by a clear deadite), and the scene where its heroine wrestles a corpse in an open grave. But there’s just only so much Raimi can do with gusts of wind, jump scares, and gross-out moments; Drag Me to Hell simply isn’t scary, and retreads its few tricks far too many times before the conclusion. It’s a reasonable enough introduction to the Raimi aesthetic, but can’t compare to his better films.
Next up was an acclaimed South Korean action film, The Villainess. This one barrels out the gate with a truly jaw-dropping opening sequence, as we bear witness to a first-person rampage through an entire apartment complex full of gang members. Our heroine Sook-hee shoots, cuts, and stomps her way through around sixty men, all of it captured in glorious choreography and vivid hand-cam cinematography. While many films use shaky cinematography to blur what they can’t actually portray, The Villainess actually uses hand-cam for the opposite effect: absent the need to respect an ornate setup, the cameraman often feels like he’s dancing back-to-back with Sook-hee, capturing each slash and blow from the closest possible angle.
That opening sequence is one of the most impressive action scenes I’ve ever seen, standing toe-to-toe with recent masterpieces like The Raid or The Night Comes For Us. That bravura display is eventually buttressed with two more equally staggering setpieces, offering violent high-speed chases that feel almost too dangerous to have actually been filmed. In the film’s mixture of violence, physical commotion, and visual clarity, it feels almost like we’re seeing incidental crime scene or disaster footage, elevated through Sook-hee’s breathtaking agility and singularity of purpose. Unfortunately, most of the material between those grand setpieces is dedicated to melodramatic-bordering-on-nonsensical conspiracies, cross-betrayals, and weightless reveals. But in the context of action scenes this good, The Villainess’ frankly terrible script is a price well worth paying.
Our last feature of the week was a classic ‘70s thriller, All The President’s Men. The film follows Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward through their investigation of the Watergate scandal, providing a vivid portrait of the news reports that ultimately culminated in Richard Nixon’s registration.
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Woodward and Bernstein respectively, and All The President’s Men’s greatest pleasure is undoubtedly watching two such talented actors seeking the truth with equal measures of charm and ferocity. The sequences where either of them cajole a potential witness into offering more details are masterclasses in manipulation, demonstrating two distinct but equally valid paths towards corralling an unruly interviewee. Over time, the two become intimately comfortable with each other’s methods, leading to dual interviews where, again and again, they gracefully drag their target into seeing the situation as more a conversation than an interrogation, with bombshell reveals soon to follow.
As a thriller, All The President’s Men is tightly paced and phenomenally acted, making convincing drama out of what is ultimately a long series of conversations and article headings. As an exploration of the political calculus near the end of Nixon’s reign, All The President’s Men feels familiar in ways that depress me, and foreign in ways that, well, also depress me.
What is familiar in this film is the sheer amoral depravity of the republican party; their utter disregard on all levels for the importance of political legitimacy, and their willingness to commit any evil act in pursuit of greater power. I actually wasn’t aware just how much the Watergate investigation was merely the tip of the iceberg – the conspiracy Woodward and Bernstein uncover actually spans back over years, encompassing electoral sabotages and character-assassination propaganda across the United States. It was shocking to me to see just how little the fundamental character of republicans has changed, as well as just how little their public reputation has suffered for this. It appears we have simply come to accept that around thirty percent of Americans are selfish, untrustworthy, and cruel, and there’s nothing we can really do about that.
On the other hand, what has changed since Watergate’s time is the existence of a free and reliable press. Back in Woodward and Bernstein’s era, newspapers were vital and respected, and a damning article could genuinely topple the most powerful man in the country. These days, in our post-truth era of 24 Hour News Snippets and online propaganda, the idea of a “paper of record” seems quaint and idealistic. Having once been burned by the eventual light of the truth, it seems republicans came to understand that the truth is their fundamental enemy, and have waged war on the concept of objective reality with incredible success. No Woodwards or Bernsteins could save us from modern republicans; their base has been fully transformed into conspiracy-driven cattle, and “political independents” are as likely to trust a deep investigative report as they are to trust Aunt Mabel’s facebook rants. Though at the time it must have felt like an inspiring ode to the undeniable power of the truth, All The President’s Men now plays as a sobering reminder of how completely republicans have destroyed this country, its institutions, and the individual minds of its people.