Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I am delighted to report that we finally locked down a new apartment, after far too many weeks of searching and touring and failing to pull anything together. The place won’t be available until the first, and I’ve got plenty of move-in tasks still ahead, but it nonetheless feels amazing to once again have a room of my own awaiting me. I am a furtive and solitary creature, and though I enjoy sharing a common space with friends, I also need a cozy den to which I can retreat, particularly during these key months of hibernation. It’s a profound relief to know I’ll soon have a slice of personal space again, and in the meantime, I’ve been continuing to both munch through films and catch up on the year’s outstanding anime releases. Let’s break down some fresh stories in the Week in Review!
First up this week was 2012, a Roland Emmerich disaster flick starring John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Noble Civilian and Noble Government Man, alongside Amanda Peet as Estranged Wife, Woody Harrelson as Unlikely Truthsayer, and Danny Glover as the president. If you would like to know how it plays out, imagine any other Emmerich disaster movie (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, Moonfall), and slot the actors indicated above into their respective assigned roles. The progression of destructive setpieces is satisfying and the leads all commit successfully to the material, so if you’re looking for a lazy afternoon spectacle and want to see overqualified actors making grave faces at each other, 2012 is a fine watch.
Next up was Volcano, another cheesy disaster movie, but this one sadly lacking the reliable craftsmanship of Emmerich’s disaster oeuvre. It’s at least got Tommy Lee Jones and Don Cheadle, who do their best to add a sense of gravitas to the idea of a volcano erupting in Los Angeles, but Volcano is otherwise lacking in basically all respects. Beyond those two leads the characters range from paper-thin to actively aggravating (like the subthread of a racist cop and a black man learning that maybe they’re not so different after all), but even more crucially, the film just utterly lacks in disaster movie payoff.
Outside of one tense sequence in a molten subway car, there is little sense of urgency, no particularly compelling action scenes, and none of that grand theater you’d expect from “Los Angeles versus a volcano.” The volcano only sends lava down one goddamn street! What kind of disaster is that!? Anyway, watch Dante’s Peak if you want to see a competent volcano-centered disaster movie from the spring of 1997, which was apparently a weirdly generous era in volcano-centered disaster movies.
Our next viewing was The Conference, a recent Swedish horror-comedy about a public works division sent out on one of those odious team-building retreats by their irrepressibly chipper manager. Stuck in creaky cabins and treated like naughty campers by the retreat employees, tensions soon flare regarding the groundbreaking on a new prefab community and its attendant shopping center. Suspicions turn to certainty concerning the shady dealings of various coworkers, only for a man in a Jollibee-style mascot head to arrive intent on mulching the entire department.
The Conference is confidently constructed and handsomely furnished, building up an alternately charming and relatably aggravating dynamic between its main cast long before the killer makes his appearance. The film’s signature strength is its understanding of the mundane aggravation of forced workplace camaraderie, and the sorts of characters who thrive in a situation where your job is treated as your life, as opposed to labor you endure in order to live your life. So we’ve got the perky, Michael Scott-esque manager who seems to believe her employees are her children (never mind that several of them are actually older than her), the perpetual go-getter with a skin-deep smile and a profound nasty streak, and the ever-yukking yes-man who seems to have found his passion in saying “you tell ‘em, dude” to his tedious alpha buddy.
There is a skill in illustrating characters who are contemptible yet fun to follow. The Conference’s worst characters are all people you love to hate, and beyond them, the rest of the cast are genuinely charming, weathering the quiet indignities of patronizing retreat nonsense with fatigued solidarity and wit. The cast is so likable that I actually found myself hoping the killer would stop hunting them down, which is a rare and welcome feeling in the often mechanical, kill-driven slasher space. Nonetheless, The Conference also deftly avoids the most common failing of comedy-slashers (one I was just griping about regarding last week’s Slotherhouse), offering plenty of kills that would sit comfortably in any straight-laced slasher. Smart writing, endearing performances, tense mortal faceoffs, and an underlying thread of righteous rebellion against soulless suburban sprawl – The Conference proves an accomplished horror-comedy on all fronts, and an easy general recommendation.
Alongside movie screenings, I’ve also spent the last few weeks steadily catching up on Vinland Saga S2, which proved far superior to the show’s first season. Not to say the original Vinland Saga was lacking in some way – season one was already a uniquely thoughtful exploration of the quest for peace in a land wracked by violence, with richly illustrated characters like Askeladd and Thor providing unique, poignant perspectives on the senseless inevitability of conflict. Having spent the show’s whole first season desperate to avenge his father, the fruition of Thorfinn’s hopes proved hollow and hopeless; only with his first father avenged did Thorfinn realize he’d lost his second father, the man who’d shepherded Thorfinn through his adolescence, consistently trying and failing to teach him a better way.
In season two, condemned to slavery for his attempt on the king’s life, Thorfinn finds himself facing a very different set of challenges. Set to clearing a field and establishing a farm with fellow slave Einar, he comes to appreciate the profound challenges inherent in building something rather than destroying it, and the countless ways the world pushes against our attempts to nurture a brighter, kinder future. So much of anime is dedicated to realizing “wouldn’t it be awesome to be powerful,” but such fantasies have little to teach us about how to interact with our fellows. Instead, Vinland Saga’s second season focuses on an articulation of just how maddening, how dispiriting it is to be weak, to be beholden to the desires of people who care not for the lives they trample, the dreams they crush underfoot. To keep pursuing the slow, uncertain pursuit of civil prosperity and peace, even as your efforts are carelessly undone by those who embrace violence – that is true strength, true courage, and Vinland Saga takes care to illustrate just how imposing such a course can be.
Through the slowly building brotherhood of Thorfinn and Einar, Vinland Saga demonstrates the hard course of reinvention and forgiveness, as Thorfinn struggles to set aside the instincts that keep him awake at night. Every village Thorfinn destroyed would have left in its wake dozens, hundreds of hopeless Einars, whose entire worlds were devastated over the course of some warrior’s productive but largely routine afternoon. And through the lives of the other men and women who work, protect, or even own this farmland, Makoto Yukimura demonstrates the capacity for both violence and forgiveness that rests within all of us, how our morality is malleable and conditional, how no conflict can be easily reduced to heroes and villains. Characters who seemed the most straightforward in their charity or villainy would often surprise me with their flexibility, proving time and again Yukimura’s far-seeing humanist insight. I have long loved Thor’s insistence that “you have no enemies. No one has any enemies,” but season two realized the truth of those words with a clarity and understanding of human frailty that shocked and moved me time and again.
There is nothing harder than seeking the peaceful path, but there is also nothing more worth pursuing. Vinland Saga’s second season is rife with tiny victories and grand tragedies, with moments of community shared within the belly of a rapacious, bloodthirsty beast. The injustices and tragedies of Vinland Saga are as devastating as any I’ve experienced in fiction, but through it all, that hope of a better way – the prayer that is Vinland, a land beyond slavery and war, beyond our petty striving for personal advantage – endures. Between Planetes and Vinland Saga, Yukimura has proven himself one of the great scribes of human nature, speaking frankly of cruelties ranging from chattel slavery to global capitalism while maintaining his faith in our ability to change, to rise above, to learn cohabitation and love are greater than personal wealth or public adoration. His dogged humanism and economic philosophy have genuinely helped me become a better person, and I can only hope his works will similarly touch as many seekers and dreamers as possible.