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Spring 2024 – Week 3 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome on back to Wrong Every Time. This week I come to you in a state of shame and disgrace, as I have to admit I mostly sorta liked an Uwe Boll movie. I know, one of the chief cinematic punching bags of the ‘00s actually entertained me – although truly, my increasing appreciation of his oeuvre can likely be ascribed as much to the ensuing degradation of Hollywood action movies as to the quality of Boll’s own films. The era of full greenscreen has essentially destroyed Hollywood’s capacity to create an action movie, and the streamers are if anything even worse – films like Jungle Cruise, Red Notice, and The Grey Man all testify to the death of the traditional action vehicle. Anyway, that aside, I’ve mostly been enjoying the fresh spring air while channeling my natural instincts into the anxiety attacks of my poor goblin cleric, which has been an altogether liberating experience. Let’s burn down the week’s features in the latest Week in Review!

First up this week was Popcorn, a slasher falling at the tail end of the original slasher bubble, meaning it’s unsurprisingly injected with a bunch of proto-Scream metacommentary. The film stars The Stepfather’s Jill Schoelen as Maggie Butler, an aspiring screenwriter suffering from recurring dreams of a girl named Sarah being pursued by a mysterious stranger. Maggie initially sees these dreams as no more than material for an eventual screenplay – but when her film department’s horror marathon is invaded by a mysterious killer, she begins to realize they reflect her strange connection with the masked murderer.

Popcorn is a charming ode to multiple generations of horror traditions; its film-literate cast frequently riff on spine-tinglers of all eras, its overall structure is a tongue-in-cheek take on slasher convention, and its film-within-a-film festival features offer a sendup of the ‘50s horror gimmick era, complete with 3D glasses, “The Tingler”-style electric seats, and an Odorama-enhanced smellathon. These sub-films might actually be the best part of Popcorn; apparently original director Alan Ormsby was fired for being too meticulous about filming them, and I can only salute his service.

Those flourishes aside, Popcorn is an altogether reasonable slasher whose reverence for horror history helps it punch just a bracket or so above its weight class. The sequences of the killer chasing Maggie actually seemed giallo-influenced, and when the killer’s identity is revealed, he proves a delightfully self-effacing madman much in the style of a Freddie Krueger. Popcorn probably won’t scare you, but that’s a high bar for any seasoned horror veteran; it nonetheless charmed the heck out of me, and that’s really all I can ask for.

I then checked out Robot Carnival, an anime anthology from the glorious bubble era with a loose “robots should be somehow involved” creative mandate, featuring an impressive assortment of acclaimed directors and animators. Seriously, we’ve got Katsuhiro Otomo, Studio 4°C cofounder Koji Morimoto, the enigmatic Yasuomi Umetsu, Char’s Counterattack animation director Hiroyuki Kitazume… it’s quite a roundup on the whole, offering a distinctive portrait of both the established and rising stars of the late ‘80s.

The shorts themselves are an eclectic bunch, ranging from action-adventure spectacles to shoujo romances to pure feasts of mechanical animation. I quite enjoyed Umetsu’s melancholy Presence, which possesses a dramatic restraint that sets it apart from his later work, and was otherwise impressed by the fusion of animation and sound design that makes Robot Carnival feel much like a mechanically preoccupied Fantasia. The concluding “Chicken Man and Red Neck” embodies this appeal at its most pure and alluring, offering a revision of Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” festooned with glorious mechanical monsters. On the whole, Robot Carnival is an essential watch for anyone interested in what will likely stand as anime’s golden age.

We then screened The Abyss, a recent Swedish disaster film about the ill-fated town of Kiruna. Tuva Novotny stars as Frigga Vibenius, the security manager of a local silver mine who is one of the first to realize her coworkers have dug too greedily and too deep, disrupting fault lines and precipitating the wholesale collapse of Kiruna into the abyss. And if that weren’t enough, Frigga also has to deal with the tension of her estranged husband meeting her new lover, as well as the mystery of where her teenage son’s gotten off to while all this disastering is occurring.

The Abyss frontlines its human element nearly to a fault, ensuring the audience is fully invested in the bonds of Frigga and her family before the demolition gets underway. The gambit pays off; by humanizing its characters so completely that it’s easy to sympathize with both Frigga’s former and future husbands, the film is able to conjure a tension that does not demand apocalyptic visual payoff, with simple challenges like “can we cross this ravine” weighted with our emotional investment. And when the collapse does arrive, The Abyss doesn’t skimp on payoff; streets are obliterated, lives are lost, and rebar does some truly unfortunate things to a few unwilling human bodies. Family drama first, disaster movie second, success in both fields.

Seeking out more fantasy fare in both high and low places, we then screened the much-maligned In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. The film is directed by Uwe Boll, a man who has become synonymous with atrocious game-to-film adaptations, and who thrived in an era when licenses were cheap and German film production laws were exploitable. In the Name of the King likely stands as the peak of his ambitions, boasting a sixty million dollar price tag and an array of worthy actors. And it’s… not actually that bad at all?

I mean, it’s not a great film. Its narrative is lacking in focus and direction, its action cinematography could stand to be a lot clearer, and the script never seems sure what to do with alleged heroine Leelee Sobieski. Additionally, it cribs from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy so flagrantly that it verges on outright stealing – the enemy fortress is clearly Izengard, the villain is clearly Saruman, and the last act features a wizard duel that is simply the precise wizard duel from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Back when the film was released in 2007, I imagine a shameless and emphatically lesser imitation of Lord of the Rings was considered an embarrassing spectacle. But now, in an era where CG mud has replaced any sort of large-scale battle scenes, and the idea of a totally earnest fantasy adventure would never survive Hollywood’s producers? It actually feels like a breath of, if not fresh, at least refreshing air, elevated by its ambitious action setpieces and frankly preposterous cast.

The ever-welcome Jason Statham commits fully to his role as our humble adventurer, and the cinematography actually embraces and celebrates his martial arts prowess. He is here surrounded by a commendable crew of supporting stars: Statham’s best friend is played by Ron Perlman, the Gandalf-esque wizard is the lovable John Rhys-Davies, our villainous not-Saruman is friggin’ Ray Liotta, the good king is Burt Reynolds… Even Matthew Lillard is here, turning in a delightfully contemptible performance as the king’s simpering nephew. If you ever wanted Lillard’s take on Denethor, you should check out In the Name of the King – and really, if you’re in the mood for a light afternoon adventure, you could do a lot worse than this one.

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