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Fall 2023 – Week 10 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week I’ve been continuing my efforts to catch up on all of the year’s outstanding, er, outstanding anime, following up on Vinland Saga and The Witch From Mercury with the recently released adaptation of Pluto. I’ve been quite enjoying the production, and will likely have full thoughts on that one for next week, which will hopefully leave me with enough time to sneak in Scott Pilgrim before the year’s end. Anything else I’m missing? I’m already mostly through MyGO, and happily munching through Skip and Loafer whenever a new episode is funded, so I suppose the last question is whether Freiren is worth a viewing. But recent anime aside, my house has also been storming through a variable hodgepodge of feature films, ranging from ‘70s thrillers to horror hot off the press, and they’ve all left me with some urgent thoughts to share. Let’s burn down a fresh collection of films in the Week in Review!

First up this week was Killer Book Club, a recent Spanish feature about a group of university students who are all aspiring novelists. After the writer’s block-stricken Ángela is assaulted by her teacher during a private conference, the group craft a scheme to get revenge on their teacher by spooking him while concealed in clown masks. Of course, the prank goes fatally wrong, the group swear never to speak of it again, and secrets are unsurprisingly revealed as the pranksters are then picked off one by one.

So yeah, it’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, or Scream, or Prom Night, or The Burning, or any of the other multitudinous slashers built on this simple revenge premise. “Prank gone wrong” is simply an easy way to not just establish motive while retaining a sense of innocence among the victims, but also to tease at the inherent tensions and emotional weaknesses of a given cast, forcing them to reckon with whether that mistake was a moment of weakness or a rite of ascension. And Killer Book Club knows it’s not reinventing the wheel; it introduces each of its key players alongside their slasher victim title, and includes class discussions debating the merits of both horror stories and derivative sequels.

Unfortunately, self-awareness does not inherently elevate familiar genre staples; as the Scream franchise well knows, you have to do something with that awareness of genre, or else you’re simply reproducing cliché from a further emotional distance. So it sadly goes for Killer Book Club, which does absolutely nothing with its aspiring horror writers twist on convention, and proceeds so predictably that the true killer was obvious to my viewing party from the moment the full cast had been revealed. What’s more, the kills are largely perfunctory, and the thrills are entirely absent; I certainly didn’t care enough about this cast to feel afraid for them, and the cinematography did little to convey a sense of horror through staging and atmosphere. An entirely obvious and eminently skippable feature.

We then watched The Parallax View, a ‘70s thriller by Alan J. Pakula, starring Warren Beaty as investigative reporter Joe Frady. Three years after the assassination of a presidential candidate, Frady is visited by an ex-girlfriend who witnessed the murder, and is terrified that she’ll be the next target. Frady initially thinks nothing of it, but after his informant dies of an alleged drug overdose, he begins to uncover a vast conspiracy related to the ominous “Parallax Corporation.”

Like Pakula’s later All The President’s Men, The Parallax View reflects on an America haunted by a superior class of conspirators, before folks like Trump realized they could just outright declare their intent to Do A Treason before doing precisely that. Closely following the Kennedy assassinations, I imagine The Parallax View initially struck with a great sense of urgency, its proposal of a veiled league of psychopaths seeming little more ominous than the truth of political violence in America.

Unfortunately, absent that ripped-from-the-headlines electricity, I can’t really say it’s a superior thriller. The Parallax View is fundamentally unfocused, with too little connecting its component sequences beyond “and then Frady met with another guy.” It feels less like a spiraling towards an inevitable collision than a leisurely walk through a park with conspirators lurking in every bush, its momentum further blunted by Beaty and his employer’s lackadaisical indifference to the gravity of their situation. 

When Grady is outmaneuvered, I feel less “oh no, they outsmarted him” and more “yeah, of course he’d get caught doing that” – he’s too witless for a battle of wits, which has the secondary effect of making it hard to care or feel frightened for him. The film possesses a scattering of exceptional sequences, the most significant being his Ludovico technique-reminiscent induction into the Parallax Corporation, but they are distributed in such a way as to create little sense of momentum or inevitability. With a story so unfocused and conclusion so abrupt, one is left to wonder if the bookending framing device was added after test screenings, to inform the audience that yes, the movie is over.

Having affirmed my housemates’ general stomach for body horror, we next checked out James Gunn’s directorial debut, the horror-comedy Slither. The film centers on a town that comes under attack by a mysterious alien presence, when a meteor-borne parasite infects and takes over local resident Grant (Michael Rooker). Driven by his twin needs to consume meat and propagate, Grant proceeds to make one of his neighbors into a grotesquely bloated larva container, which eventually leads to slug-like monsters infecting the entire town with the consciousness that is Neo-Grant.

Slither definitely leans more towards comedy than horror, though its practical effects conveying distorted human bodies are commendably discomforting. As a sendup of both ‘50s scifi features and ‘80s Carpenter/Cronenberg movies, the film is saved from the realm of pure pastiche through its strong lead performances and the genuinely unsettling course of Grant’s infection – Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks turn in solid performances, while the image of every infected human collectively speaking in Grant’s accusatory voice runs a well-earned shiver up the spine. Nothing essential, but altogether a perfectly recommendable horror-comedy.

Last up for the week was Colombiana, a revenge thriller about a young Colombian woman named Cataleya (Zoe Saldaña), whose parents are killed in front of her by the enforcers of her father’s drug baron employer Don Luis (Beto Benites). Fleeing to Chicago, she is taken in by her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis), who raises her into a professional assassin. Years later, she begins to supplement her hired killings with murders intended to attract the attention of Don Luis, precipitating a maelstrom of violence that ultimately leads all the way to the CIA.

The best way I could describe Colombiana is that it is a product of the House of Besson, the quasi-collective that French director Luc Besson established across the ‘00s. Besson has a habit of collecting action unit directors and furnishing them with scripts and budgets, often for films that bear a striking resemblance to his own Léon: The Professional. Both Louis Letterier’s Unleashed and Olivier Megaton’s Columbiana fall squarely into this tradition, and if you’ve seen Léon, you more or less know what to expect from Columbiana: lots of slick assassination sequences, handsomely soulful ruminations on attempting to leave the killer’s life, and a climactic battle involving a killer unleashed on as many goons and ne’er-do-wells as the budget can stand for.

Columbiana runs through all these standbys with confidence, though it is unfortunately hampered by the editing proclivities of its director. Megaton’s other films include both of the Taken sequels (also products of the House of Besson), which are perhaps best-known for this preposterously cut articulation of Liam Neeson climbing exactly one (1) chain-link fence. Columbiana isn’t that bad, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark; most of its physical action scenes are cut to ribbons, greatly diminishing the impact of Saldaña and her costars’ committed stunt work. I don’t know why Megaton believes keeping the energy high via rapid cuts is more important than just Showing A Cool Stunt, with, you know, a single camera setup that actually illustrates the coolness of that stunt, but Columbiana nonetheless suffers greatly as a result. Still a perfectly watchable action-thriller, but simply worse than it could have been for no defensible reason.

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