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Winter 2024 – Week 9 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. This week I am riding high on the conclusion of various personal projects, which most notably include my entire goddamn DnD campaign. That’s right, we finally toppled the scions of hell this monday, and my players all seemed to have a pretty good time of it! With no future adventures left to balance, the inspirations and “sure, I’ll allow it”s flew freely, allowing for some truly preposterous setpieces and combo attacks. With a final battle set atop an actively crumbling helltower against essentially the devil himself, the session certainly didn’t lack for spectacle – and I also made sure everyone had a suitably satisfying epilogue, tying romance, family reunions, and future ambitions into our requisite post-credits sequence.

Anyway, my pride in my courageous party members aside, this has also been a plenty productive week in terms of media viewing. I’ve now charged about two-thirds of the way through ZZ Gundam, and accompanied that with both a healthy selection of films and the recently released Hazbin Hotel miniseries. Let’s run down some new features in the latest Week in Review!

First up this week was Orion and the Dark, a recent animated film starring Jacob Tremblay as the titular Orion, an eleven-year-old boy who’s frightened of basically everything. Orion longs to join his crush Sally on their school’s planetarium field trip, but cannot imagine overcoming his fears of bees, bullies, and especially the dark in order to accomplish it. Fortunately, Dark is perfectly capable of making its own case, here anthropomorphized as a big cowled creature voiced by Paul Walter Hauser (Cobra Kai’s Stingray, among other roles). Alongside Dark’s fellow nighttime companions (Sleep, Insomnia, etcetera), Orion will go on a fantastical adventure, and hopefully gain some courage along the way.

If Orion and the Dark were your usual adaptation of a presumably film-unfriendly children’s book with more pictures than plot, I imagine my takeaway would be “jeez, this story’s conception of day and night gods is painfully strained.” “Unexplained noises” as one of the scions of the night, really? How can you have both that and “Quiet” on the same team? Fortunately, Orion is blessed with one singular, inexplicable, and greatly appreciated advantage: its adapted screenplay is written by Charlie Kaufman, who’s quite likely the most creatively self-reflective and downright impressive writer in cinema.

On the usual level of plot and payoff and whatnot, Orion and the Dark is a perfectly reasonable children’s story. But with Kaufman writing the script, Orion naturally expands to include his inescapable obsessions: the fascinating miracle that is storytelling, and the inescapable horror of oblivion. Orion digs several layers deep, soon revealing that its surface-level narrative is actually a bedtime story told by an adult Orion to his young daughter, and frequently engaging in meta-commentary on the course of the narrative. And ultimately, the fears Orion faces gain far more substance than darkness or bees – he ends up challenging the very idea of not existing at all, and coming to a greater appreciation of each moment shared with his loved ones in the process.

Though I still think the film’s fantastical mythology is kinda suspect, Kaufman is nonetheless able to elevate the raw substance of its picture book source material into something poignant and insightful. Even on a line-by-line basis, Orion possesses a greater understanding of art’s value and the contradictions of human nature than you’d generally expect from a children’s film. Upon arriving at Orion’s beloved planetarium, his daughter reflects on the sadness of humanity building cities that blot out the stars, then recreating the stars in miniature. She swiftly apologizes to her father for critiquing his passion, to which he responds, “no, you’re right. I like that. I like your idea, and I like the planetarium – both things.” The world is more complex than easy morals and happy endings can account for, and Kaufman manages to distill such truths into a form that will undoubtedly impact any precocious kids in the audience.

Next up was Satanic Hispanics, a recent horror anthology featuring five Latin American directors, each with a ghoulish story to tell. The film is framed around a raid in El Paso, wherein the police find a horrific massacre and one seemingly unharmed survivor, a man who refers to himself as “The Traveler.” Though he warns the detaining officers that they must free him or suffer a terrible fate, they nonetheless demand some sort of explanation, prompting him to regale them with a collection of horror stories that kinda sorta maybe explain the situation.

Satanic Hispanics’ unusual emphasis on its framing device is actually quite effective; The Traveler’s story is an excellent riff on the classic “man who cheated death” myth, and Efren Ramirez puts in an charismatic performance as our unwillingly detained storyteller. The other stories are more variable in quality, with the best coming first, offering a twist on making contact with the afterlife that finds fresh allure in its unique take on ritual summoning, as well as its satisfyingly juicy practical effects. The film’s two comedy entries also more or less hit their mark, though with the balance of shorts so tilted towards laughs, it’s unlikely you’ll find much to genuinely chill you here. As most of you likely know, I’m perpetually on the lookout for a new film that will actually scare me – Satanic Hispanics didn’t quite manage that, but it’s still a perfectly commendable anthology.

We then checked out the esteemed ‘74 adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring an all-star ensemble cast including Ingrid Bergman, Lauran Bacall, and Sean Connery, with Albert Finney serving as Hercule Poirot. The story involves Poirot attempting a journey from Turkey back to Europe on the titular express, only for the train to be waylaid by snow drifts somewhere in Yugoslavia. Fortunately, this delay provides him ample time to address another problem: the sudden and inexplicable death of one of his travel companions, who appears to have an ominous connection with several of their fellow passengers.

Murder on the Orient Express is pure mystery comfort food, a story and film that understands the importance of both a suitably squirrely mystery and an emphatically likable investigator. And Finney’s Poirot is certainly likable as heck, with Finney embracing the process of deduction and distribution of clues like a pastry lover delighting over a procession of cupcakes. Having watched two of Kenneth Branagh’s Christie adaptations, I was much amused by Finney’s significantly less gallant take on Poirot – he’s a weird, over-enthusiastic little mystery nerd, and I found his probing and riposting of his companions’ stories immensely endearing. A charming sojourn that makes effective use of its remarkable cast.

Alongside our various film screenings, we also checked out the first season of Hazbin Hotel. I’ll admit, I didn’t have high expectations for this one; the show seemed to fall into that suspicious genre space of “stories by people who watched Invader Zim and never got over it,” and whenever a franchise’s fandom-to-source material ratio is so heavily skewed towards the fandom, I tend to assume it’s beloved more for its aesthetic than its dramatic content, or for what fans put into it rather than what they receive in return.

The show took a little while to prove me wrong. Hazbin Hotel does not put its best foot forward; in fact, its two biggest weaknesses are basically the first thing it introduces. First, the show’s characters are almost uniformly overdesigned, festooned with extraneous details that make them look like amateur OCs, which makes it that much harder to break through the visual artifice and engage with their emotional drama. And second, Hazbin Hotel is preposterously enamored with swearing as one of the fundamentals of comedy, substituting fuck words for wit with such frequency that its cast often trend towards a tepid “aren’t I scandalous” collective voice.

Fortunately, if you can bear with the show for an episode or two, you’ll find an altogether charming comedy-drama that’s deeply invested in the feelings and personal trials of its cast, and willing to grapple earnestly with tough questions of identity and redemption. The idea that heaven and hell are meaningful arbiters of decency is skewered as ridiculous from the start; what is more important is if this cast can learn to forgive and love themselves, and thereby start making the choices that will make both them and the people they care for happier.

The fact that I felt so invested in this cast in spite of their initially off-putting designs is a testament to the show’s character writing, its ability to invest classic tales of regret with personal nuance and unusually sharp edges. And when it comes to the show’s song sequences, the show transitions from the standard sitcom “mid-distance shots in front of a flat background” compositions to frequently ambitious storyboards, offering dynamic action setpieces and lots of fluid character acting. Plus the songs are actually good! Not every song’s an equal hit, but personally I’m still humming “Loser, Baby” and “Whatever It Takes” to myself days later, their melodies juiced by the poignant bonds informing their lyrics. Hazbin Hotel eventually proved as difficult to put down as it was easy to initially disregard, and I am absolutely on board for season two.

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