Winter 2023 – Week 3 in Review
Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I’ve got a diverse selection of films for you all, including a pair of Disney features prompted by my house’s recent Kingdom Hearts adventures. We’ve currently got three separate housemates running through the franchise, for which I humbly assign myself only partial credit: after one of those housemates abandoned the first game in disgust, it took my patient wading through that game’s countless crimes against game design to reach the fulfillment of its excellent combat system, and thereby convince the house to follow in my slipstream. We’re now happily plowing through the generally superior Kingdom Hearts 2, and our traversal of those worlds has gotten my whole house in a Disney classics sort of mood. All that and more, as we charge through the latest Week in Review!
Our first viewing of the week was Happy New Year, a 2014 Bollywood film starring Shah Rukh Khan as the head of a band of thieves, who plot to steal the diamonds of their nemesis during a new year celebration in Dubai. Incidentally, the only way they can get at the diamonds is to secure a green room at the World Dance Championship, so they will also be learning the finer points of group dance in order to secure that position.
You might think Happy New Year’s contrasting narratives would make for a somewhat disjointed experience, and indeed, it does feel a bit like the film slots an hour of dance competition drama in the midst of a two hour heist movie. But to be honest, this is actually one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Bollywood films: with their assumed three hour runtime and freewheeling approach to genre, they can often fit tone-establishing or character-building short films into the context of some larger narrative, evoking the fragmentary, meandering pace of life itself. Happy New Year essentially has three distinct thirds (slapstick assembling of the crew, romantic comedy dance drama, action heist), and rather than jostling for space, the three build on each other naturally, each victory implying the next narrative turn.
Structure aside, Happy New Year also boasts a strong cast and plenty of off-kilter dance performances. I was long overdue for a Shah Rukh Khan feature, considering his long-time Bollywood box office domination, and he unsurprisingly proved to be as commanding of a presence as expected, in spite of occasionally being undercut by the script’s lousy comedy. But the real surprise for me was Sonu Sood, who has mastered the art of combining an imposing physical presence with a teddy bear-like affectation to exceedingly charming effect. The film’s comedic and heist elements are too weak for me to offer a full recommendation, but I certainly had a fine time hanging out with this likable cast.
My house’s full-scale charge through the Kingdom Hearts franchise then prompted a rewatch of The Lion King. I found a lot to like in returning to this childhood favorite: the remarkable economy of its script, the excellence of its songs, and the enduring terror of that gorge scene. Oddly enough, what I didn’t particularly care for was the animation, particularly in the film’s second half.
It’s certainly a fluidly animated film, and I enjoyed whenever they really contorted the character expressions to hit that “human emotion as expressed by animal face” combo, but the film on the whole felt more “professional” in its animation than creative or inspiring. I get the feeling all these years of committed anime viewing have gotten me expecting to see animator idiosyncrasies in everything I watch, rather than the strict uniformity often assumed of Disney films. And what the heck was up with that hideous smear effect for Simba and Scar’s final clash? Anyway, still a fine film, but also an unexpected reminder of what ten years of anime criticism will do to a motherfucker.
Our next viewing was Rocky II, which sees Rocky briefly embracing the good life, losing track of who he is, and spiraling through an era of hatred and self-doubt before rallying to face the most dangerous man in the world. It seems like there are essentially two kinds of Stallone movies: the kind where he appears on the cover with rippling muscles and an assault rifle in both hands, and the kind where he offers a harrowing character study that briefly erupts into senseless violence. Confusingly, these two kinds of movies actually both appear in both of his major franchises: Rocky I/II and First Blood are all character studies, while the subsequent Rockys and Rambos are all hoo-rah adventures. I can appreciate both sides of the Stallone enigma, but I have to admit I was happy to learn Rocky II falls on the sensitive side of the spectrum.
Rocky II is both written and directed by Stallone, and you can feel his own misgivings about fame bleeding into Rocky’s story. Like the film itself, Rocky’s ending title match propelled its lead into stardom, but neither Rocky nor Stallone seem happy performing the role of a glamorous celebrity. Scenes of Rocky arguing with an ad director about his voice, or wondering why he can’t do normal work now that he has “a reputation to uphold,” ring with the impact of sincere reflection. But this meta-level commentary is unnecessary to appreciate the film on its own merits; Stallone has never been better than he is here, facing the potential end of his fighting career like a statue crumbling in the wind. All that plus an exhilarating final bout makes this quite possibly the best Rocky movie, and certainly a highlight of Stallone’s career.
Driven onward by the relentless crack of Kingdom Hearts’ whip, we then checked out the original Tron, starring Jeff Bridges as a programmer who gets sucked into the digital world, and must do battle with the Master Control Program in order to save his reputation and possibly the world. I found Tron’s conception of programs as sentient beings that see their creators as parental or godly figures quite intriguing, but the film’s plot is largely a mishmash of adventure tropes, more interested in laser disc battles than the religions of our digital successors.
Instead, the film’s reason for existence is clearly its bizarre, almost collage-like visual aesthetic, wherein CG objects are combined with desaturated live-action photography, digital glow effects, and even some traditionally drawn backgrounds. The film must have looked even more astonishing when it was released, but its simple geometric battlefields have by now traveled all the way from “outdated” back to a sort of iconic retro appeal, reminding me of the games of my early youth. This far removed from the cutting edge, the clear seams of Tron’s multimedia images feel almost intentionally ostentatious; paying no attention to unity of form, the film challenges our expectations of aesthetic holism with its compelling, otherworldly approach. Could have done with less spinning CG objects and flashing lights, though; I imagine this film caused more than a few fits of epilepsy during its theatrical run.