Hello folks, and welcome on back to Wrong Every Time. Surveying the takeaways of this last week in films, I am forced to admit that this is indeed something of a Garbage Week, boasting three separate films that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. That’s alright, though; the release of all those Sight & Sound polls also led me to one of the best films I’ve seen this year, so hopefully that will somewhat balance the selection. I’ve also been rushing to catch up on all the key anime I’ve missed – I’ve raced through both Chainsaw Man and My Hero Academia, and am having a great time with each of them. The work never ends, so I’ll leave off here for now, and let you all enjoy my latest assorted movie gripes. Let’s get to it!
Our first film of the week was The Butterfly Effect, an Ashton Kutcher vehicle about a young man who suffers through a terrible childhood, then eventually discovers an ability to go back in time and alter the events of the past. He swiftly sets to work using this power to right all the wrongs committed against him and his childhood friends, only to discover that toying with fate might invoke some nasty unintended consequences.
You can pretty much guess where The Butterfly Effect is going right from the moment its time travel conceit is introduced. Kutcher attempts to fix things, fucks other things up, attempts to fix those things, fucks further things up in turn, etcetera. The film plays loose to the point of internal inconsistency with its time travel rules, meaning it’s really more a melodrama than a scifi feature, and a particularly mean-spirited one at that. The Butterfly Effect attempts to make up for in intensity of cruelty what it lacks in depth of characterization, meaning its characters run through the gamut of sexual abuse, drug abuse, animal abuse, maiming, madness, and murder, all while learning very little in the process. It revels in darkness without finding insight there, content merely to gawk at the ugly spectacles it has created. Not recommended.
Next was Cruel Intentions, a ‘90s romantic drama about two atrocious New York teen socialites (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe), who hatch a plan to have Phillippe seduce and discredit the famously chaste daughter (Reese Witherspoon) of their school’s new headmaster. The film is certainly gleefully trashy, but it doesn’t have all that much else to recommend it, beyond Gellar’s delightful procession of outrageous, practically Cruella de Vil-esque ensembles.
Though the film frames them as legendary tricksters of the New York social scene, neither the script nor the lead performances sell Gellar or Phillippe as convincing masterminds or seducers. They’re simply camp villains, and while there’s a certain rush in seeing beautiful people do ugly things, it’s a thin payoff to build a whole film around. In spite of being the film’s dramatic centerpiece, Phillippe’s evolving relationship with Witherspoon is also completely unbelievable. Their characterization is inconsistent from the start, making it impossible to chart how either has an influence on the other, or feel like the characters are progressing in any sort of meaningful way. Top it all off with an impossibly contrived ending, and you have a film that feels mostly like a scriptwriting cautionary tale.
We then watched Only Angels Have Wings, a ‘39 Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant as the head pilot of a South American shipping agency, and Jean Arthur as an entertainer who just so happens to stop in at his port town of Barranca. Sparks fly between them immediately, and further complications arise when a new pilot arrives with wife in tow, each of them possessing their own history with Grant’s company.
I was inspired to check this one out by its repeated appearances on the recently-released Sight & Sound lists, with many favorites like John Carpenter listing the film as one of the greatest of all time. Having watched it, I can both see why it’s so acclaimed generally, and also why a director like Carpenter would specifically appreciate it. Like many of Carpenter’s best works, Only Angels Have Wings is simply A Great Time At The Movies, a full package of action, adventure, romance, comedy, and remarkable stunt piloting. Though it came out almost a century ago, the film feels propulsive and ageless, with consistent hooks and standout performances across the board. It requires no patience or preparation; it aims squarely to entertain, and succeeds in that with its every aspect.
Cary Grant puts in great work here, matching the airman’s devil-may-care philosophy with just the right dash of wounded vulnerability, and ably selling the pain of essentially announcing death sentences for a rotating procession of young pilots. But it’s Jean Arthur who steals the show, proving in every scene her absolute mastery of romance and comedy. Whether it’s a rapier-sharp exchange of retorts or a splash of physical comedy, Arthur feels utterly in control of her performance, directing the rise and fall of laughs or sobs with a conductor’s ease. Between her performance here and in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s clear she’s one of the best who ever traveled the intersection of romance and comedy, and I’ll absolutely have to see more of her hits.
And oh, the urgent script, the lovable secondary characters, the dazzling flight sequences! Only Angels Have Wings’ sequences of aerial photography are its most unimpeachable proof of concept, shocking not through what they narratively imply, but directly through their on-screen danger and daring. The mid-film rescue from an isolated bluff had my heart in my throat, and the final flight is constructed around a brilliant dramatic device that incidentally, gracefully resolves two major character arcs. In this era of oversaturated CG, it’s a remarkable thing to see scenes like these and marvel that the production team really did that, really accomplished those feats of daring. The tactile effort of the production seeps right through the screen, making me feel that much closer to the craft of construction and the hands behind it. A movie that reminds me why I love movies.
We then checked out Pathfinder, a film that can quite easily be reduced to “Vikings versus Native Americans,” starring Karl Urban as the son of a Viking warrior who was raised by American natives. When a new troop of Vikings arrive fifteen years later, Urban and his companions rise to stop them, leading to one hundred minutes of grim, unblinking action scenes. The film is clearly a product of its era, boasting a sort of inherently ponderous, faux-Lord of the Rings approach to lighting and staging, while its action scenes are all undercut by panicked, Bourne Identity-derivative rapid cuts. It’s a shame; the film’s non-action photography can actually be quite striking, but with its central purpose largely undone by bad editing, there’s very little here to recommend.
Having greatly enjoyed Ti West’s recent X, we continued on with its prequel Pearl, which charts the early days and youthful dreams of X’s unlikely killer. As in its predecessor, Mia Goth absolutely dominates the screen here, driving headlong towards disaster with an unhinged smile on her face and dreams of Hollywood glory in her heart. Even if you haven’t seen X, it’s clear that Pearl’s fantasies of dancing among the stars is a thin veneer over something much uglier, but knowing in a vague sense what’s coming does little to diminish the impact of her final rampage.
If I have a major complaint with Pearl, it’s that the film seemed perhaps a little too proud of its kitschy “serial killer as silver screen diva” conceit, which ultimately fostered a sense of ironic detachment between Pearl, the life she was living, and the audience watching her. This was to some extent purposeful and inevitable, as most of Pearl’s behavior in this film is an exaggerated performance of self, but I felt just a touch more sincerity in illustrating her feelings early on would have gone a long way to make the film feel more tragic than farcical. Still, as is, Goth’s monologue near the end of this film is one of the most astonishing sequences I’ve seen this year, and the film overall is an easy recommendation to any horror fans. Just short of greatness, but still quite good.
Last up for the week was Bullet Train, a recent action-comedy starring Brad Pitt as an unlucky smash-and-grab contractor who finds himself on a train full of assassins, all with their own grudges and objectives in mind. The film is irreverent to the point of cloying (based on your own preferences for this sort of Guy Ritchie-esque self-awareness), and a bit less clever than it thinks it is, but its parade of charming actors and generally witty script keep things mostly on the rails. Pitt is charming as ever, and his preoccupation with therapy-derivative answers to problems like “I am going to kill you with this knife” is one of the film’s better bits. Brian Tyree Henry also triumphs here, giving the film an unlikely emotional heart, and proving again that basically every member of Atlanta’s cast is meant for the movies. It’s light, it’s energetic, it’s brimming with stars; Bullet Train doesn’t ask much of its audience, and provides plenty of fun tricks for their trouble.