The Rocky Horror Picture was remarkably ahead of its time. This bizarre burlesque of science fiction and monster movie tropes, by way of the musical, anticipates an entire subculture of sexuality and entertainment. Screenwriter Richard O’Brien was a genius and an outside whose unique vision was perhaps too far ahead of its time in 1975 when the film was released to modest acclaim.
O’Brien would continue to show how ahead of his time he was with his follow-up feature Shock Treatment which presaged the era of reality television by a couple of decades. But it remains Rocky Horror Picture Show where the genius of Richard O’Brien shines through. The film is a bizarre, spectacular and groovy musical populated by wild characters and an even wilder and unconventional story.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show tells the story of Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), a pair of newlyweds whose car broke down outside of a strange looking mansion somewhere in Texas. Seeking to get out of the rain and get some help for their car, Brad and Janet attend to the mansion to find it in the midst of a swinging party where oddballs in outlandish costumes are engaged in a remarkably well choreographed dance.
Brad and Janet are eventually ushered into the laboratory of their host, Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), a cross-dressing madman or madwoman, who, on this night, proclaims that he/she is bringing new life into the world. He’s created a perfect specimen of manhood that he is calling Rocky (Peter Hinwood). However, Rocky’s big reveal is nearly ruined by the arrival of Eddie (Meatloaf, in his feature film debut), a delivery boy whose brain, Dr Frank stole and gave to Rocky, or, at least part of it.
Eventually it is decided that Brad and Janet must spend the night at the castle. The couple is separated into different bedrooms and are each seduced by Frank. Janet then ends up in bed with Rocky and all heck begins to break loose with the arrival of Brad and Janet’s college professor who is also Eddie’s uncle and an alien hunter. All of this comes together with a series of songs as Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical that adheres to tropes of classic Hollywood musical by way of the punk underground.
Rocky Horror Picture Show is a dizzying spectacle, a vibrantly strange and alluring movie with a punk-pop edge. The songs are catchy and exciting, especially The Time Warp, the song that transcended the movie to make it on to pop radio, even as the movie was not an immediate hit in theaters. Time Warp is a novelty song but it is a great novelty song, a wildly catchy and alive tune with an absolutely awesome hook.
By all accounts, Rocky Horror Picture Show should have arrived and left theaters with little fanfare but few movies tapped the subculture in the way Rocky Horror did. The embracing of outre subjects like Transsexuality, homosexuality, and the beguiling performance of Tim Curry made the film an object of obsession amongst an underserved minority audience eager for movies that stood apart from the norm.
Rocky Horror Picture Show could not be further from mainstream tastes and that is exactly what made it so iconic on the midnight movie circuit. The film is at once a safe alternative to the grindhouse terrors of the 70’s horror genre that dominated the circuit and yet still outrageous enough to keep the squares away. That plus the unique invention of audience participation at screenings have kept Rocky Horror in the culture far longer than most movies that have attempted to tap this subculture.
I came to Rocky Horror Picture Show almost by accident. I was trying to impress a girl who was a fan and we watched it together on Halloween night nearly 20 years ago. The girl did not remain impressed with me but the movie impressed me with how bold and unique it was. Being of mainstream taste at the time, I was drawn in by how unconventional Rocky Horror Picture Show was while at the same time being recognizably conventional in structure.
The film is an easy to follow musical with great songs and unique characters. The counter-cultural touches, the wide ranging sexuality of the movie may put off some more conservative movie lovers but for people like me who remain desperate for movies that break traditional molds, it was and is a revelation. The film is weird and wonderful, it’s filled with colorful characters and a blinding charisma.
Rocky Horror Picture Show is just so darned unique and fascinating and yet homey and familiar in a strange way. It’s a glitzy, glorious musical that happens to be about transsexual aliens from a transsexual planet. I watch Rocky Horror Picture Show every Halloween like clockwork and I can’t wait to watch it again this year.
When Slender Man was release in theaters I was told that it was wrong of me to accuse the film of exploiting the murder of a teenage girl because the story of the movie Slender Man is not the same as the story of the film which casts the Slender Man another in a long line vaguely ill-defined supernatural villains ala the nonsense of The Bye Bye Man or whatever the creature was in the Sinister franchise.
That doesn’t deter me however, from once again calling out the makers of Slender Man for what I feel is an egregious and sleezy bit of exploitation. In 2014 a pair of girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin repeatedly stabbed a 12 year old friend and left her for dead. The girl somehow survived and when the two girls were questioned as to why they had stabbed someone who was prior to this attack, their friend, they claimed that the fictional character, Slender Man had directed them to do it.
The movie Slender Man does not purport to tell that story, that would require some actual care and sensitivity and attention to detail, on top of getting life rights from grieving families. No, the movie doesn’t come from that story but without that near murder in Wisconsin, Slender Man the fictional movie character doesn’t exist. Before the attempted murder in Waukesha brought the name brand recognition of Slender Man to the masses, Hollywood wasn’t interested.
But with a controversy to exploit and a genre audience that forgives a great deal for their supposed scares, Slender Man gets made into an assembly line, machine tooled horror movie complete with a star bad guy with name recognition that could stand him alongside the stars of the horror genre. Slender Man may not be Freddy Krueger but with enough market muscle behind him, and a real life tragedy to exploit, perhaps he could be a hit like The Strangers was a hit, low budget and low ambition.
Low is the operative word for every aspect of Slender Man. Low ambition, low art, low expectations, though not low enough for the film to reach beyond what you expect from such a by the numbers bit of horror nonsense. It worked, they rode their low ambitions and tragedy exploiting title to a significant profit that will no doubt lead to a sequel down the road, as long as they can keep the budget low as the spineless original.
Slender Man tells the story of four friends who get bored and decide to conjure the legend of the Slender Man, a faceless, suited menace with long arms, legs and spindly fingers. It is said that if you look directly at Slender Man he could drive you completely insane and naturally, that ends up happening here. One of our four female leads opens an eye during their conjuring and disappears into the forest not long after.
The three remaining friends set about calling on Slender Man to help them bring back their friend and naturally this leads to another of these tiny brained teens to open her eyes and begin to go mad. Eventually it is determined that Slender Man is bent on killing on anyone who calls him forward and that looking at him, I guess, doesn’t matter. He sets after each of the girls and bumps them off in a family friendly, PG-13 fashion, in cases you weren’t already painfully aware of Slender Man as merely a product.
Even if they hadn’t used a real life tragedy as the jumping off point for the movie, Slender Man would still be terrible. The performances are a bore with even the radiant Jamie King coming off muted and bored by the movie. The characters have no forward momentum of their own, they are simply made to wait impatiently for Slender Man to come and wait for him to finish them off. Does he do that? I think so, his plan appears to have something to do with turning his victims into tree bark and that got rather confusing late in the movie.
I loathe Slender Man both for it’s ugly exploitation of a tragic near murder and for being one of the lamest examples of Hollywood canned product in recent times. The company basically adopted the character of the Slender Man not because it had a built in cache of recognition from it’s YouTube origin to, whether you like it or not, the near murder of a 12 year old girl that brought the character fully into the mainstream of culture for better or worse.
Night of the Living Dead is a flashpoint in film history, one of the most successful and influential horror movies of all time. The success of Night of the Living Dead can be credited with the horror boom that followed in the decades after it was released. For the first time, Hollywood executives, especially those in the world of film distribution were forced to sit up and take notice of the horror genre for the first time since the heyday of the Universal monster movies of the 1930’s.
What George A. Romero did with a few thousand dollars, some chocolate, some ham and a few really good friends, changed the horror genre forever. He made the genre vital again beyond the grindhouse and the drive in. He paved the way to bring horror back to the mainstream and inspired other film directors to use the genres tools to explore social issues just as he does with the extraordinary ending of Night of the Living Dead that still feels bracing and vital 50 years later.
Night of the Living Dead stars Judith O’Dea as Barbra. Barbra is at a cemetary with her brother Johnny when the dead begin to rise from their graves and menace the two of them. Johnny is killed and perhaps consumed by the zombies while Barbra makes a hasty escape. Arriving at a farmhouse nearby a shell shocked Barbra is then rescued by Ben (Duane Jones) who uses a shotgun to keep the bellowing undead at bay.
Locking themselves inside the farmhouse, Ben begins to barricade the windows only to be confronted by the Cooper family. The Cooper’s arrived at the farmhouse not long before Ben and Barbra and planned to hide in the cellar, their daughter was bit by one of the creatures and has fallen ill. Ben refuses to join them in the basement fearing being trapped without escape. The group is soon joined by a young couple, Tom and Judy ((Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley) who help Ben by fortifying the upstairs area.
Eventually, a radio and a TV are located and we are informed that the dead have risen and are feasting on the living. Shelters are being created in nearby towns and it is decided that the group will attempt to get treatment for young Karen Cooper at one of these facilities but when that plan results in a fiery death for two of our friends, the claustrophobic terror of Night of the Living Dead truly comes into focus.
George Romero made Night of the Living Dead on a shoestring budget using nameless actors and simulating the eating of flesh by covering ham in chocolate and having zombie extras take a big bite for the camera. It’s all low tech charm, good makeup and exceptionally smart direction that keeps the tension high at all times so that the low budget effects are barely noticeable because you’re more terrified by the anticipation of the zombies than you are of actually seeing them.
Romero ratchets the tension up and down before settling into an oppressive and fearsome third act that rarely lets up. Karen Cooper is an especially ingenious creation, she’s like a ticking time bomb of zombie terror. She goes from on the brink of death to full on zombie killer and when she is revealed finally as a zombie the shock comes as much from the visual as from our anticipation of the moment. We knew this was coming but we’re still in awe of the moment.
Then there is that incredible ending. Ben, an African American man, holed up with a lot of dead people around him finds himself thinking he’s about to be saved only to find that even the zombie apocalypse can’t keep the racial tensions of the late 1960’s from rising up from the ugliest depths of American society. It’s a powerful moment and one that many have tried to pretend isn’t meant to be political but I find the message and the impact impossible to ignore.
Night of the Living Dead may look cheap and a tad silly by today’s standard but if you accept it for the limitations of budget and effects, it’s impossible not to recognize just how awesome the movie is and why it has remained such an influential and essential part of popular culture. Zombies existed before George Romero but he perfected the concept and his legacy lives on in every subsequent zombie movie, and even television where The Walking Dead wears the influence of George Romero in every episode.
Hunter Killer stars Gerard Butler as submarine commander Joe Glass. Glass has just been handed his very first command, aboard the USS Arkansas at a most inopportune moment. It is Joe’s task to take his hunter killer class sub crew into heavily guarded Russian territory and find out what happened to another hunter killer class sub which was sunk in the area, assumedly by a Russian sub that was also downed in the fight.
What Joe and his crew find is something quite unexpected, both subs appeared to have been attacked not by each other but by a third sub which subsequently begins attacking Joe’s sub. The Arkansas survives this encounter but having just sent another Russian sub to the bottom of the ocean, the international incident they were investigating may be exploding into World War 3 unless Joe can quickly figure out why this Russian sub has gone rogue.
Meanwhile, back in Washington D.C, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) has tasked Rear Admiral John Fisk with sending a team of Green Berets into Russian territory so they can get close to where the Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) and his top military secretary, Admiral Durov (Michael Gor) are holed up near where the subs have been downed.
What the Green Berets, led by Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) finds is that there is a coup in process, the Russian President is the hostage of his top military secretary and the secretary is bent on starting World War 3. Now three arms of the American military, along with an advisor from the NSA (Linda Cardellini) must work together to come up with a plan to rescue the Russian President and avert World War 3.
I must admit, that sounds like a pretty great description of a first person shooter video game. Sadly, Hunter Killer is a movie and thus not nearly as much fun. Hunter Killer is the latest in a long line of lunkheaded military rehashes from Millennium Entertainment, the group that rescued Gerard Butler from the Hollywood ash heap and given him a second act as the purest example of lunkheaded, ill-conceived 80’s action movies, the new millenium Michael Dudikoff.
For those not among the 10 people who got that Michael Dudikoff reference, Dudikoff was the bargain action hero of Cannon Films, the group behind such glorious 80’s cheese as American Ninja, Avenging Force and the Missing in Action Franchise. Those examples should give you a good idea of the quality of Hunter Killer, we’re not talking high end action here, we’re talking about the kind of slapdash trash that used to go directly to drive-ins and eventually, directly to VHS.
Hunter Killer is supremely dumb and not in a fun way. Rather, Hunter Killer is dumb in the most boringly competent ways imaginable. Hunter Killer was directed by a newcomer named Donovan Marsh who is just inexperienced enough and just talented enough to miss the point of the movie he’s making. He doesn’t appear to understand that Hunter Killer is cheesy and thus he commits to the idea with all his talent, not realizing that everyone in the cast knows they’re working on something cheap and disposable. They know the company they’re working for.
Butler and Oldman have worked with Millennium Entertainment for years. Butler is there because Millennium was the only company willing to touch him after his toxic run of bombs from 2008 to 2011 that culminated with him playing a leprechaun in an almost career endingly bad segment of Movie 43. Oldman worked with Millennium because his name was just big enough to work on the box cover of a direct to DVD crime movie and their checks weren’t bouncing.
No surprise to learn that Hunter Killer was on the shelf for a while before Oldman re-established himself among the Hollywood elite with his Academy Award winning performance in Darkest Hour. Hunter Killer is the kind of movie that if it had come out around Oscar time last year it might have cost him Best Actor just as many speculated that Norbit cost Eddie Murphy Best Supporting Actor by arriving around the time he was nominated for Dreamgirls.
We know Hunter Killer has been moldering on the shelf for a while because one of the supporting actors, Michael Nyqvist died more than 18 months ago. It’s tragic that a fine, under-recognized pro like Nyqvist has Hunter Killer as the last thing on his resume but at least he was gone before the world had seen what a terrible film he’d closed his fine career with. Here’s hoping he was well compensated.
I realize that some people enjoy this stinky cheese of a movie but it’s definitely not for me. Butler is his usually dopey self, swaggering about spitting nonsense dialogue in his god-awful American accent. He doesn’t appear to care that he’s not acting but caricaturing American swagger in the most unfunny way possible. It’s hard to know if I pity Butler his complete lack of talent or if I am meant to laugh at his dimwitted burlesque attempt at bringing back the 80’s action movie.
Hunter Killer is bad in a most bland and peculiar fashion. It’s not shot poorly, it’s inoffensive in that the jingoism is tempered by having so many foreigners lead the cast of this American action movie, Butler, Oldman, and Toby Stephens, are not Americans and appear to have no interest in selling America f*** Yeah attitude that a true 80’s action movie would. Had this film actually starred Michael Dudikoff it would have ended with him planting an American flag in the heart of the dead foreign secretary while American jets flew over head dropping tiny American flags.
I guess, in that sense, we can consider Hunter Killer restrained. Not any good, but restrained. Unfortunately that restraint keeps the movie too tasteful to be bad in a fun way. Instead, the film is bad for being deathly dull, populated by bored actors either over-performing or under-performing masculine military cliches and spouting nonsense jargon that sounds cool but comes off like boys playing with toys and not serious-minded military adults.
Robert Redford recently announced his retirement. That means that his final performance is likely to be in this movie we are talking about today, The Old Man & the Gun. If that is indeed the case, he goes out on a pretty great note, playing a character that suits him. The consummate charmer, Redford plays bank robber Forrest Tucker with the kind of half-smile, glint in his eye which marked his all time greatest performances.
Forrest Tucker (Redford) was always a troublemaker. Arrested for the first time at the age of 15, Forrest’s restlessness would drive him to 16 different prison sentences and escapes from the age of 15 into his late 70’s. He quite famously escaped from San Quentin Penitentiary in a boat that he built in his spare time behind bars. He was 67 years old at the time. When we meet Forrest Tucker, he’s in Texas plying his trade by very politely robbing banks.
Forrest’s M.O was simple: be old, be polite, show the gun but never use it. His age was his greatest asset as no one suspected a man in his late 60’s with a giant hearing aid and a dapper suit to be a bank robber. Watching Redford hold up banks as Forrest is utterly delightful as he approaches very politely, smiles, reassures and walks out with the calm of a man who simply had made a transaction.
The hearing aid is the best asset, it’s actually a modified police band radio tucked into his jacket pocket with an oversized hearing aid connecting to his ear so he knows if the bank teller hits the silent alarm and where the police are as he makes his escape. These scenes are a real treat, it’s very easy to forget that Forrest is a criminal because the comedy of his burlesque as a polite, old, gentleman bank robber is so charming.
Forrest Tucker was a real person though how much of The Old Man and the Gun is real is unknown. The film, directed by David Lowery, the auteur behind last year’s A Ghost Story and the previous year’s Disney adaptation Pete’s Dragon, is based on a news article from the New York Times in 2003 so much of it is fact based. However, the film throws in a romance for Forrest in the form of Sissy Spacek’s Jewel who is clearly an invention of the story.
The romance is quite good despite not being based in fact. Sissy Spacek and Robert Redford have an unforced chemistry as strong as any pair of young actors working today. The charm isn’t from the awe isn’t it cute that older folks having romance, it’s from the genuine, real life talent and chemistry of a pair of brilliant actors still fully in touch with their powers. There is a genuine smolder here at times that is just fantastic.
David Lowery is a director who is impossible to pin down. He came to prominence in music videos and shorts before hitting indie success with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints before going mainstream in the most explicit fashion by working for Disney on Pete’s Dragon. Then he made the indecipherable indie, A Ghost Story and is now headed back to work for Disney on yet another adaptation of Peter Pan.
Lowery is definitely talented but it’s impossible to place him in a context for further understanding. He doesn’t appear to have a ‘style’ in the auteurist sense. His work is varied but consistently strong. He’s definitely unique and stylized, but also chameleonic. The Old Man & the Gun is nothing like any of Lowery’s other work, aside from a supporting role for Casey Affleck, a frequent collaborator of Lowery.
The Old Man & the Gun is both an indie movie in terms of how small scale and stylized that it is and mainstream in that it has Redford in full movie star mode and a familiar romance. Like it’s director, it’s hard to place The Old Man & the Gun in a typical genre fashion. The film is delightfully funny and romantic with deeply compelling twists and turns in the story, especially at the end of the film which had me smiling and resigned to the fate of our lead character.
I highly recommend The Old Man & the Gun. It’s stylish and funny, with charm to spare. Robert Redford remains a major movie star, a guy who can seemingly flip a switch and radiate star power with just such an effortlessness. The Old Man & the Gun is a lot of fun and yet artfully and carefully crafted by a very good filmmaker and his team. See this movie when you have the chance.
No one would have predicted that the foul-mouthed teenager from Superbad and Knocked Up would grow into a two time Academy Award nominee and genuine auteur. And yet, here we are with actor-writer-director Jonah Hill whose roles in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street forced us to take notice his acting talent and now Mid 90’s where we learn that he is a true and noble artist behind the scenes as well.
Mid 90’s stars young Sonny Suljic as Stevie, a 13 year old boy making his first steps toward defining himself as a person. Stevie is shy and doesn’t have many friends. He idolizes his brother, Ian (Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges), despite Ian’s more than brotherly bullying and violence. Early on, we see Stevie sneak into his brother’s bedroom so he can try on his brother’s life, looking through his clothes and hats and especially his collection of hip hop records.
Ian doesn’t make it easy on his little brother, their 5 year age gap may as well be 10 or 20 years given how distant Ian is toward his little brother. Unable to connect at home, Stevie heads to the streets of Los Angeles where he falls in with a group of skateboarders. First, there is Ruben (Gio Galicia) who invites Stevie into the sphere of this tight clique as he seeks a small sidekick. Then there are Ray (Na-Kel Smith), a budding professional skateboarder, F---S--- (Olan Prenatt), a rich kid who rebels through skateboarding, drugs and alcohol and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) a wannabe filmmaker.
Stevie’s first experience with deep friendship becomes a little dangerous as begins smoking, drinking and other experimental behaviors. It’s nothing that a lot of us didn’t get into at 13 but as presented here, with writer-director Jonah Hill’s raw honesty, it has the power of a cautionary tale without coming off as a scolding buzzkill. Hill’s work is wonderfully non-judgmental and observant and if you’re uncomfortable, you’re supposed to be.
Many assume that a movie called Mid 90’s is intended as a nostalgia piece but what Jonah Hill has actually created is a thoughtful and quite funny observation of youth and identity. Stevie is on the search for his own identity for the first time. He is making the first tentative steps toward defining himself outside of his family, his mother (Katherine Waterston) and his older brother. His choices aren’t the best but they are his and they give him the opportunity to find himself.
This search for identity is all in subtext but it is nevertheless the crux of this story being told in Mid 90’s. There is a wonderfully small scene in the film between Katherine Waterston and Sonny Suljic that captures the separation of parent and child, in terms of identity, not physical location, that I found remarkably powerful. It’s a simple exchange where mom says to Stevie “It’s Blockbuster night, what should we watch?” Stevie rejects his mother and their tradition so he can go out on his skateboard and for a moment you can see hurt ripple across Katherine Waterston’s face.
The hurt in this scene does not come from Stevie being insensitive, he’s not, but he’s unaware of how his mother sees this moment, how she’s just witnessed the first step in her son defining himself apart from her and her expectations and plans for him. She likely doesn’t realize the significance of the moment completely but that moment of minor rejection is palpable and Katherine Waterston plays the moment beautifully.
The other standout scene, in movie that brims with top notch moments, comes late in the movie and I will leave you to discover it. It’s a moment between Stevie and his older brother that is charged with emotion. As someone who grew up with a much older brother who was out of High School before I got to High School, I felt this moment so deeply and so personally that I was completely overwhelmed. You may have to have an older sibling to understand why this moment is so powerful but if you remain aware of the signifiers, you may just feel the effect as much as I did.
If you idolized an older sibling the moments between Ian and Sonny will hit you like a ton of bricks. I had forgotten about my longing as a child to be friends with my older brother. Like Stevie, I used to sneak into my brother’s room and would pay the price in brotherly violence. I wanted to hold his guitar and feel for a moment what it was like to be him. He didn’t know it, but he was my idol but part of growing up was coming to see him as human and Mid 90’s nails that similar moment for Stevie, a moment where his brother becomes human and not the embodiment of youthful ideal.
In his very first directorial effort, Jonah Hill has delivered a genuine masterpiece of style and character. Mid 90’s is funny, heartrending, thoughtful and observant. The characters are vital and lively and the story flows from scene to scene beautifully. The sun-baked cinematography and the laid back tone come together brilliantly to underline the ongoing tension of the story of Stevie coming of age and finding out who he is.
I adore Mid 90’s. This is one of the best movies of 2018.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is more than just a movie, it’s a marker in time. The film is a flashpoint of American history, a cultural capper on 10 plus years of some of the most uncertain and tumultuous moments in American history. Between 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was murdered and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered on live, national television and the release of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 we saw multiple assassinations of famed leaders, the start and pathetic beginning of the end of the Vietnam War and dozens of other cultural upheavals that would play a role in the creation of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Tobe Hooper’s horror masterpiece reflects the moment it was created in ways only legendary films do. The comparisons are limited because so few movies are a near perfect reflection of their time. James Cagney in Public Enemy No.1 comes to mind. One could argue for Gone with the Wind or, more recently, Get Out, Jordan Peele’s remarkable look at modern race relations, as genuine moments when art crossed over into political culture and reflected something important.
Despite its place in the bargain genre of the slasher horror movie, I believe completely that Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those movies. It’s a film thick with metaphors of the time in which it was created, metaphors that reflect the moment in time in which it was made flawlessly. You can argue that I am inferring a great deal more than what director Tobe Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel had in mind but whether intentional or by accident, they made the most of the moment movie of the 70’s.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre stars Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty. Sally is a hippie, one of the last of a fracturing sub-culture beaten down by war and the old guard establishment. She and her friends put on a good face about it, traveling the countryside in a VW Bus, smoking marijuana and talking about peace and love but reality is creeping in on the hippie mythos as we join the story. Sally is joined by her brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who is in a wheelchair.
Franklin is just home from Vietnam and his bitterness is the first warning of the beginning of the end of the good vibes that the hippies had been living off since the mid-to late 60’s. While the rest of the group, including Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Alan Danziger) and their couple friends, Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) do their best to ignore Franklin, his presence is a black cloud in their otherwise sunny view of the world.
That sunny outlook, smile on your brother, everybody get together and try to love one another, is about to face an even bigger challenge than Franklin’s bitterness. Part of the hippie ethos is picking up strays, helping those in need. It’s a wonderfully positive quality but as the hippie generation grows up and the world begins to change not in the positive way they had hoped, that worldview slowly matures from Peace and Love for all to the Me Generation of the late 70’s, a selfish worldview influenced by the growing negativity of the culture.
That change is embodied by a hitchhiker that the gang picks up along the way, a malevolent weirdo without a name and played with icky glee by Edwin Neal. While the hippies think they are doing a good deed, the Hitchhiker appears eager to punish their naivete. He’s rude, obnoxious and threatening. Eventually, the hitchhiker pulls a knife and the group is forced to throw him out of the van. He’s not gone from the movie however, as we will see, he’s only the appetizer for the horrors to come when the van runs out of gas and the group seeks the kindness of strangers at a nearby farmhouse.
In the 1950’s it was commonplace in small towns for people to welcome others into their homes. In small towns, doors were left unlocked and folks knew the names of almost everyone in town. A community used to be a real community and even strangers could find temporary open arms as needed. However, the spectre of Charles Manson and several other high profile murders along with a precipitous and breathlessly reported on rise in crime began to permeate small towns in the late 60’s and early 70’s and by 1974 places that used to welcome a visit were now growing paranoid and insular.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre signifies this change with a violent and grotesque display that reflects a definitive end of such openness. When one of our hippy friends approaches the farmhouse of a stranger he has no compunction about simply opening the stranger’s door and introducing himself. There he is met by the terrifying visage of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) who acts as much in psychopathic rage as he does in fear, a paranoid fear of the unknown that he feels he must meet with extreme violence.
The symbology could not be more clear. The reflection of a society growing desperately more fearful is demonstrated bluntly and shockingly by the swing of Leatherface’s meat tenderizer. No longer could strangers expect open arms from small town strangers. Wariness, and deep suspicion, especially of those hippy types, was now the order of the day in 1974 and whether intentional or not, no movie captured that moment of change in American culture better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Oh but the significant metaphors don’t end there. While the ending of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is arguably the single most iconic image in horror history, the dinner scene at the start of the 3rd act is nearly it’s equal. At this point, Sally Hardesty has been captured and tied to a chair at the head of a horrific layout from the Sawyer family, the family of Leatherface including his nameless, hitchhiker brother, his frightful father, Old Man (Jim Siedow) and his corpse-like grandfather (John Dugan).
What’s missing from that group? What role is Sally being forced to play as she is being menaced and tortured? It’s a mother, of course. There hasn’t been a female presence in the Sawyer home in decades. The lack of a mother character reflects the moment of 1974, a time when women were shaking off traditional gender roles and were moving into the workforce. In their wake were a group of angry and confused husbands and sons bereft, in their minds, of the comforting presence of a woman at home.
That’s not to say that violent men are the result of the absence of women, though that is an argument to be had, the point is not to set blame on women. The satire of this moment in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is on the male characters. It’s a reflection and deconstruction of the misogynist mindset that women belong in a certain role in a man’s world and what happens if they are not in that traditional role.
In this case, the lack of a female presence leads to filth and violence, the most extreme behaviors standing in as the best kind of satire of old school male mindsets regarding women leaving home for the workforce. It’s hard to see this metaphor today with women so well ingrained into the modern workforce but in 1974 this image was frightfully powerful and potent and the dinner scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre captured it brilliantly.
On top of being thick with metaphor, the scene is remarkably scary. Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl and editors J. Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson put this series of shots together remarkably well. The scene is shot and edited with remarkable care with the camera doing as much as the scenario to build the gripping horror of Sally Hardesty’s dire situation. As the shot movies closer and closer on Marilyn Burns’ eyes the horror turns the tension like a screw tightening in your mind. It’s incredibly powerful and would be even without the thick metaphor to give it meaning.
Then there is that iconic ending. Sally Hardesty running through a field, covered in blood, screaming and being chased by Leatherface who is carrying a violently loud chainsaw. As Sally flags down a passing truck and climbs inside she is a near perfect reflection of America having survived the previous 10 years screaming and covered in blood, behind us a fearsome swirling tornado of terror that represents what we’re coming out of, escaping from.
There is Sally in the back of that truck, bathed in the blood of rioters, assassinations, Altamont, Kent State, Vietnam, staring back at the incredibly frightening recent past and looking toward an uncertain but surely less fearsome future. By the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if your like me and Sally, you are spent. You’ve been through the ringer of a horror movie that isn’t merely a visceral, gut wrenching exercise in slasher formula, but one of the most thoughtful and terrifying movie experiences of all time.
Attempts to remake Universal Pictures’ iconic horror movie The Mummy fail repeatedly because they cannot come close to topping the artistry or the popcorn movie excitement of the 1932 original starring Boris Karloff. If I were a filmmaker and my assignment was to make another version of The Mummy I would probably retire and take up another profession because you’re asking me to do the impossible: there will never be another Mummy movie that can top this.
Director Carl Freund was a master of silent horror having come up in the ranks of the early German Silent Film community and co-directed, The Golem, arguably the most influential silent horror movie of the early 20th century. Freund’s mastery of silent filmmaking made him the perfect choice for The Mummy which makes exceptional use of silence in the creation of the lead character of Imhotep, Boris Karloff’s iconic character.
The Mummy begins with a stellar sequence in which an archaeologist has uncovered the final resting place of the legendary Imhotep (Karloff) and discovered that he unlike any Mummy previously discovered. Imhotep was punished when he died and unlike most other Mummy’s, he was wrapped and buried alive. Inside the grave with Imhotep is the accused Scroll of Thoth. When the archaeologists assistant attempts to interpret the Scroll aloud he brings Imhotep back to life and in doing so, drives himself mad on the spot.
It’s a charged and completely awesome scene told with some of the most spot on bits of editing in history. The cuts between Imhotep slowly coming back to life and the unaware assistant reading the scroll are incredible and Freund’s choice to turn the camera away from what the assistant is seeing so that all that we see are shadows and hearing the mad laughter of the assistant, are as powerful as any horror image in history and better than any gory death in modern horror.
Cut to 10 years later, Imhotep, fully restored to life though still quite eerie looking with his strange wrinkled visage, visits the home of the archaeologist who discovered his tomb years ago. Convincing the man that his name is Ardeth Bey and that he can lead him to a legendary tomb, Imhotep hatches a plan to resurrect his long lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep intends to use the scroll to bring his love back to life but first he needs a human form for her to inhabit, unlike him, the Princess was not buried intact.
Details of The Mummy, mere description almost makes your skin crawl. That’s how remarkably effective the movie is. Add to that Boris Karloff’s remarkable presence and innate charisma and you have the makings of a genre classic. Karloff is effortlessly imposing and the makeup work by the legendary Jack Pierce is impeccable. So many used to write off the Universal monster movies as just monster movies, but The Mummy is as detailed a work of art as any movie released in the first half century of film.
Boris Karloff was always a remarkable actor of impeccable style and talent. That he came to be associated with the grim, almost wordless, character of Frankenstein’s Monster is a testament to his innate appeal and to the public’s limited imagination. Once he became The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster audiences trapped him in those roles and while he never complained and gave his all in each and every B-movie he appeared in, I find it hard to imagine all of the greatness we missed out on by pigeonholing Karloff as a monster.
That said, he was pigeonholed by the two greatest monster performances of all time. Imhotep and Frankenstein’s Monster as iconic a pair of roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones are for Harrison Ford or Don Corleone and Colonel Kurtz are for Marlon Brando. Admittedly, the cinematic crimes of Brenden Fraser and Tom Cruise have perhaps damaged the brand of The Mummy but perhaps if you follow my recommendation and watch The Mummy this week we can restore Karloff and this iconic character to its rightful place in the pantheon.
Carnival of Souls is one of the great anomalies in film history. For many reasons, this movie should not have happened and even if it did get made the chances of it being seen by a mass audience and remembered for 50 plus years is some kind of miracle. Carnival of Souls was conceived by a filmmaker from Lawrence, Kansas, Herk Harvey, who had a miniscule budget and zero experience in anything outside of industrial films and educational film strips.
Had it not been for the inspiration that Herk Harvey took from independent film legend Robert Altman, simply Altman’s proximity in nearby Kansas City, Missouri, Herk Harvey might never have thought to make an independently funded feature film. Harvey attributed his decision to make a movie to the success Altman had garnered with his 1957 feature debut The Delinquents and his successful foray into documentary filmmaking all from his hometown of Kansas City.
On a fateful trip to and from California Harvey came up with the story that would become Carnival of Souls. The specific story inspiration came from seeing the dilapidated and shuttered Saltair Amusement Park in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the most pivotal and memorable scene of Carnival of Souls is set. Sadly, the place where that scene was filmed in 1962 burned down in 1968 but regardless, it was an inspiring sight, sitting empty and creepy in the midst of a barren salt flat. A perfectly inspired setting for a nightmare and one day iconic horror scene.
Carnival of Souls stars the utterly brilliant Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, a teenager who nearly loses her life in a car accident that killed two of her friends. Mary somehow survived being submerged in a lake in a car that her friends could not escape from as easily. Mary almost immediately leaves town after the accident and accepts a position as an organist at a small town church. Along the way, Mary continues seeing the strange face of a seemingly disembodied soul who appears in windows and mirrors and haunts her dreams.
This creepy, white haired, pallid faced figure appears at random in Mary’s waking daydreams and in her nightmares, all of which lead her to believe she needs to travel to an empty pavillion in the Salt Flats where she hopes the answers to her nightmares may be. Is Mary going crazy from her visions or is she really being menaced by disembodied souls. Are they demons? Are they ghosts? What plans do they have for poor Mary?
Carnival of Souls is one of the great spine chilling creep fests ever made. Herk Harvey may have been an amateur when it came to feature filmmaking but his instinct for the job is natural. Perhaps his time in educational and industrial film was just the right training because his choices of when to hold on a shot, how long to hold and where to place the camera have a very basic quality but a quality that serves what the story needs.
I love the framing of scenes in Carnival of Souls, the lengthy takes, the patient build of each scene. And I especially love the black and white photography which, though it was in part a budgetary choice, plays perfectly into the dread atmosphere of Carnival of Souls. The face of the character only referred to as ‘The Man,’ and portrayed by Harvey himself in an uncredited performance, is made even more ghostly and effective by the lack of color.
Then, of course, there is the famous dance in the Saltair Pavilion and that remarkably creeptastic ending. Carnival of Souls reaches a filmmaking crescendo that even great filmmakers would envy. Watch the way Harvey uses a static camera shot to increase the tension as Mary disappears among the ghostly, demonic dancers. It’s clearly a dance of the dead with that stunning organ score that plays throughout the movie contributing to the dread atmosphere. These characters having been performing this deathly waltz forever and will forever more.
The gutsy choice to bring that scene back for an encore in the final moments of the movie is absolutely brilliant. The rising tension of Mary in this moment is remarkable and as she attempts her escape we can’t help but be filled with the same terror she feels. It’s hard to imagine that a young George Romero didn’t see Carnival of Souls and pull some influence for his eventual triumphant Living Dead franchise, Carnival of Souls has the same eerie dread that Night of the Living Dead delivered six years later in 1968.
We can thank low watt TV stations across the country, before the arrival of cable television for keeping Carnival of Souls alive for so long. The film was bought up by low budget TV stations for Saturday afternoon and late night filler fair and because of that a small but powerful cult formed around the movie. It was that cult that eventually brought Carnival of Souls to the midnight movie circuit of the 70’s and 80’s and eventually to the DVD generation.
Carnival of Souls is now forever apart of the Criterion Collection which assures that anyone in future generations will get to see this remarkable, ingenious and inspiringly low budget masterpiece. The Criterion Collection DVD of Carnival of Souls has been remastered and includes bonus features on how the film was made, information about the remarkable, one time feature director Herk Harvey and many other wonderful closer looks at this incredible movie.
It occurs to me that I have probably oversold Carnival of Souls based on my zealous love of this movie and the story of how it came to be made and how it perservered to become a classic. The reality is, you probably won't love this movie as much as me because that is probably not possible. Lower your expectations a little, watch for the fact that the film is gloriously creepy and you will at least enjoy yourself, if not fall completely in love with the movie as I clearly have.
I’ve long had problems with zombie movies. I had tried to couch these problems in aesthetic issues or complaints about the lack of believability in the dead rising from the grave but I was aware that that was a silly argument. The reality of my issue with zombies is quite simply knowing that I am the last person who would ever survive the zombie apocalypse. I am hopelessly, woefully unprepared for any apocalypse really, let alone one that involves the dead rising from their graves.
Thus, I fought for years against watching George Romero’s movies. I stayed away from his legendary, Night of the Living Dead and its follow-up Dawn of the Dead until well into my 20’s so I wouldn’t have the depressing realization once again that I have no hope should society begin to crumble. It’s why I am also not a big fan of Mad Max either; much like comedian Patton Oswalt, I fear my head would end up being on someone’s mantel in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and I don’t enjoy the reminder.
When I finally did give Romero a chance I felt even dumber than before. All that time, I had missed out on two of the greatest horror movies of all time. We will get to Night of the Living Dead later this week, I am driving to Davenport, Iowa on Thursday night just to see that classic on the big screen for the third time. Today, we’re talking about the even more successful follow-up to that legendary indie movie, Dawn of the Dead.
Dawn of the Dead stars Ken Foree as a cop trying to survive the apocalypse. Sure, there’s another cop, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and a reporter named Francine (Gaylen Ross) and helicopter Pilot named Stephen (David Emge) but Foree’s Peter is the star here. All four of these characters exist in a time right after the events of Night of the Living Dead in which zombies rose from their graves and began attacking the countryside.
Now the zombies are in the big cities and taking big bites out of the citizenry as society begins to collapse. Our four heroes attempt to escape certain death in a helicopter but with scarce fuel, they end up putting down on top of a shopping mall in Pittsburgh and set to work on fortifying the place against the hordes of zombies attracted by the sound of the whirring helicopter blades, blades that will come in to play in a scene later in the movie that is one of my favorites for being remarkably, charmingly goofy.
The helicopter is also what grabs the attention of local bikers who hone in on the mall with the intent of breaking past the zombies and our heroes to get to that copter. This comes after our heroes have cleared the mall and fortified the place, creating a minor, if ever so brief, utopia in retail paradise. Unfortunately, the peaceful respite from the zombie horde is upended by the bikers and by one of our heroes suffering a fatal bite that takes a while to take hold.
Where Night of the Living Dead was a fearsome potboiler of a single room suspense thriller, Dawn of the Dead is far less tense but just as fearsome comic drama. Dawn of the Dead has a sense of humor to it that is as dark as it is glorious with much of the humor coming from the idea of dead eyed zombies in a mall. You can’t help but see the crush of zombies at the door as reminiscent of recent black Friday sales where people are ready to stomp each other to get the best deal.
The humor also comes from the film’s low budget aesthetic. Romero knows his movie is cheap and his zombies look funny, it’s part of the humorous charm of this horror classic. Our goodwill toward Romero and his skill in crafting tense scenes in amidst the goofy setting and goofier zombies that make Dawn of the Dead creepy and even occasionally scary. Romero knows that making us care about the characters is where the real tension and horror lives.
Modern horror went too far in the wrong direction over the last couple decades. Since the late 90’s, horror movies deliver characters who are so desperately unlikable that we long for a zombie or a slasher like Jason Voorhees to violent finish them off. Romero, on the other hand, mines our decency and humanity to make Dawn of the Dead work as a genuine scare-fest. He gets us to care about the core four, even the one who is slowly going insane.
Ken Foree is a big part of our audience identification. There is something lovable and yet badass about Foree that makes us really care about whether he will survive. The tenderness he shows toward Roger as he is about to die is heartbreaking and the moment when Roger begins to come back to life as a zombie is heartstopping. Romero’s cuts in this sequence could not be better timed and while some have asked why doesn’t hold on Roger’s death and Peter’s hand in that moment, I found it to be the best possible way to keep the scene from being overwrought in what is after all not the most serious zombie movie ever.
Dawn of the Dead is one of two genre masterpieces from director George Romero. On Friday, we will talk about why Night of the Living Dead for as different as it is from Dawn is nevertheless the equal of Dawn of the Dead as a horror masterpiece. Both films brim with subtext and lively characters and great suspense. Night of the Living Dead may not have much of a sense of humor but it makes up for that with gripping suspense.
Tomorrow, another, quite unusual horror classic, Carnival of Souls, part of a full week of reviews of classic horror movies.
The Sisters Brothers stars John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, bounty hunters for a man known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer). Currently, they are on the trail of a chemist named Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is wanted by The Commodore because he claims to have a formula that makes panning for gold as easy as picking up rocks out of the stream.
Ahead of the brothers, also on Warm’s trail, is John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) a detective who works for The Commodore and acts as tracker for the brothers who do the hard part of kidnapping, torturing and often killing the people The Commodore sets them after. This chase however, is a little different. Morris is wavering over whether he wants to do his job and turn Kermit over or join up with him and runoff.
As for the brothers, Eli is thinking of this run as his retirement. He’s fallen for a school marm and wants nothing more than to return home and open a store. Charlie, on the other hand, only concerns himself with the job and getting very, very drunk. Charlie likes killing people as a profession and hopes one day that he can become The Commodore so he can order other people around to kill on his behalf.
Much of that plot description is inferred from scraps of dialogue in The Sisters Brothers. This an eloquent and brilliant movie for what is not said as much as what is said. The characters indicate things about themselves and we sort of fill in the blanks based off of their characters. Each character is so wonderfully colorful that you can’t help but want to fill in the blanks and get to know them more.
John C. Reilly is perhaps the standout as Eli, the practical, yet tougher of the two brothers. Charlie makes up for his slightness with risk taking while the quieter Eli is genuinely the kind of guy you can look at and know not to mess with him. Deep down he’s a man who wants to be a respectable gentleman but as we come to see as the movie plays out, he’s a skilled and menacing killer when he needs to be.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance will divide audiences. Gyllenhaal chooses to play John Morris with a quirky vocal affectation that gives the impression of being pompous without being insufferable. Morris is a thoughtful character, a pragmatist and a dreamer in one. He never really wanted the life he has and appears to have a longing to be a writer rather than a detective, a skill he claims is honed and mastered, even as Warm figures him out with relative ease.
As for Riz Ahmed, I enjoyed how little is made of his ethnicity. It speaks to the way people could get by in the west for a time before civil society brought the class system to the west and with it the inherent racism of such. I don’t believe the invention Warm has come up with for getting to the gold is real but it is used brilliantly in the film’s tremendous third act which travels unexpected places among the four lead characters.
The Sisters Brothers was directed by Jacques Audiard, a French director who also co-wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Thomas Bidegain. Audiard’s best known film is likely 2005’s A Prophet which was nominated for a foreign film Oscar that year. That film was a wrenching drama about Arab man desperately alone in a French prison and slowly drawn into servitude for a French criminal. Like The Sisters Brothers, the film is unpredictable and uncompromising.
Audiard loves his characters and he especially likes following his characters to unpredictable places. You may think you know where his stories are headed but he’s ready for you in the end. The ending of The Sisters Brothers will undoubtedly divide audiences who may want something more conventional and western-like. Remember, this is a mood piece, it’s about tone and character and the violence in the story extends from circumstance as much as it does from these remarkable characters.
The Sisters Brothers is one of my favorite westerns of recent memory. It’s a moody, atmospheric piece with strong violence but stronger characters. It’s a bloody western but also a witty one with smart characters and an unpredictable, perhaps a bit strange story. The story unfolds in a conventional fashion but nothing of these characters is typical or easily predicted. The film is funny and yet, when it needs to be brutal, it can be brutal.
The Sisters Brothers ranks as one of the better movies of 2018.
One last note about The Sisters Brothers, it has one of the best musical scores of the year. Alexandre Desplat provided the score for the film and it is an elegant and sparse mood piece that fits brilliantly into the narrative of the movie. The deep strings and stark piano riffs are abolutely gorgeous, especially early on as the story is developing and the music reflects the sun drenched mountains and dry deserts of the film's stark visuals. It's completely engrossing and I was lucky to be listening to it as I wrote this review.
The Hate U Give is a powerfully, deeply felt drama of earnest intent and honest anger. Director George Tillman Jr. directs the fiery rage and passion of this story in an incredibly smart and human fashion by staying steadfastly within the confines of the character of Starr played by Amandla Stenberg. Stenberg has struggled to find herself in lesser vehicles such Darkest Minds and Everything, Everything, but here, her star qualities are fully unleashed.
For Starr, there are two versions of life. There is the side that attends a toney, suburban Catholic School where she pretends as if she doesn’t live in a crime-addled ghetto and the other where she’s more herself, among family and friends who have a hard time imagining the what a struggle it is to maintain identity for Starr. The film is about Starr’s journey to unite herself even more than it is about the desire to unite everyone.
On a weekend away from here white Catholic School friends, Starr attends a party at which she reconnects with her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith). The two leave the party together in a hurry after gunshots go off and Khalil gives Starr a ride home. The two reminisce, share a romantic moment and then are pulled over by a white police officer. Starr has been prepared for this her whole life by her parents Lisa and Maverick (Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby) but there is only so much preparation that can be done in a situation like this.
Starr’s parents taught a lot of things but their version of ‘The talk’ is not one most parents would recognize. The talk for the Carter family is about police violence and not sex. It’s a talk about making sure the kids know exactly what to do when, not if, crucially, when they get pulled over by a police officer. Sadly, Khalil did not have a similar talk with his family. Khalil does all the wrong things in that fateful traffic stop but it is reaching for a hairbrush in the front seat that sets the plot of The Hate U Give.
When Khalil is shot and found to not have have a weapon in him, it sets off a firestorm of controversy. Starr is at the center of that story, troubled by various forces surrounding the shooting such as not being able to trust the police and the justice system to being warned by a long time drug kingpin in her town who doesn’t want anyone knowing that Khalil worked for him. Then the question becomes: Does Starr risk her life to make sure people remember Khalil or should she protect herself from potential harm from all sides.
George Tillman Jr makes this central conflict incredibly powerful. Tillman has a seemingly innate instinct for the right moments in The Hate U Give. He has masterful control of the pace, flashback choices and especially on the roiling emotions of the town surrounding Starr and the roiling inner emotions of Starr who is torn between revealing herself for the sake of speaking out for Khalil or keeping quiet in order to be safe.
The Hate U Give is exceptionally evenhanded for a movie that deals frankly and honestly regarding police violence in the inner city. The film even pauses for a moment so that Common, who plays Starr’s uncle Carlos, a police officer, can explain how an officer might end up killing an innocent, unarmed young black man. He doesn’t side with the police but being an officer himself, he understands both sides very well.
It’s a bold decision by director George Tillman Jr. to offer understanding to officers who do what the officer in this movie does serves to add even more depth and seriousness to the discussion at the heart of The Hate U Give. The film is among smartest and most thoughtful examinations of race relations I’ve seen outside of a documentary feature and this powerhouse scene is given weight and emotion to go with the heart-rending realism of the moment.
The Hate U Give is required viewing. It’s a powerful, of the moment movie with not just a theme of Black Lives Matter but the sensitivity to get audiences to understand what Black Lives Matter truly means beyond its nature as a slogan. This a vital movie, one with compassion, soul and guts, and a core of smart filmmaking that boils these complex and uncomfortable conversations down to human terms via smart and thoughtful character-work.
The Hate U Give is among the best movies of 2018.
What is there to say about a sequel to a movie I spent 2000 words tearing down a day ago? Reaction to my review of Halloween (1978) has not surprisingly been negative. I would say Michael Myers is more beloved in Haddonfield, Illinois than I am among horror movie aficionados today, but I meant what I said, I don’t care for the faulty premises of John Carpenter’s supposed masterpiece.
Halloween 2018 does away with nearly all of what has come before it and after the 1978 original. In this timeline, Michael Myers, aka ‘The Shape,’ portrayed by James Jude Courtney has been locked away for 40 years and studied by Doctor Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) who carried on the work taken up by Dr Loomis (the late Donald Pleasance) years earlier after Loomis passed away. In that time, he’s learned almost nothing from Michael who does not speak.
Meanwhile, Laurie Strode (Curtis) has spent the past 40 years readying herself for the day Michael escapes the asylum, something she feels is inevitable. The film layers in the backstory of Michael and Laurie with the lamest possible device, a true crime podcast dedicated to providing exposition for those who haven’t bothered to watch the first movie. The podcasters, played by Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees are merely cannon fodder for Michael’s eventual escape, a way of padding the body count while placing the film in a modern context.
No surprise that Michael escapes while being transported from his current facility to a new, supposedly more secure facility. Whoever had the sense of humor to transfer Michael Myers on the day before the 40 anniversary of his famed massacre should probably be fired. Of course, we know that Michael is headed back to Haddonfield where he will search for Laurie Strode and her family on a path of revenge(?). Still upset about getting stabbed by Laurie, I assume.
Is he there to kill Laurie though? How does he know that Laurie Strode is still around? Oh, there’s a twist that kind of explains this aspect but it’s rather lame and predictable. I will say however, Michael’s first kills upon arriving in Haddonfield carry a bit of a surprise and shock factor. Director David Gordon Green does a much better job of making Michael menacing as opposed to laughable. At no time does Michael pull his now I am here, now I am not schtick that I found so silly in the first movie.
This version of Michael Myers has a purpose, he’s here to kill and while he is somewhat picky over who he decides to kill, the initial random murders have more tension and suspense than what is generated in the first movie, aside from the late third act where the original comes close to reaching the supposed classic status some have placed upon it. That’s not to say that the new Halloween comes any closer to being a classic, just that a few things about this version improve on the most obvious flaws of the original.
Jamie Lee Curtis has, in press materials for Halloween 2018, made allusions to her Laurie Strode as a heroine for the #MeToo movement. I’m in no position to argue that point. Laurie is a woman who was stalked and nearly killed by a crazed maniac and the attack wrecked much of her life afterward, consuming her and her family and affecting the lives of two generations of Strode women after her, Laurie’s daughter, Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).
The allegorical connection to #MeToo is strong even if we have to assume it from Jamie Lee Curtis’ interviews and not from anything in the actual movie. The movie itself doesn’t dwell much on the relationship of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode as anything other than hunter and the hunted. That, plus we still don’t actually no what drives Michael Myers as a killer. Carpenter’s allegorical notion was Michael Myers as a figure of urban menace invading small town America but that is also an assumed metaphor, as the movie is far too narrowly drawn for us to get that metaphor without Carpenter plainly stating it after the fact.
The new Halloween lacks the focus of the first film. I may not think the original is a classic but Carpenter does have a narrative focus that this film lacks. There is some fat on this one, such as everything to do with Laurie’s granddaughter. We suffer scenes of her and a boyfriend who has nothing to do with the plot and a plot for two male teen characters who exist solely to pad the film’s body count.
I mentioned the podcasters already and how clumsy and unnecessary they are. I will admit, their death scenes had a gruesome, fearsomeness that nearly redeems the way the film uses them as a cheap form of exposition. Green, much like Carpenter, has a solid instinct for these kill scenes where inevitability and timing coalesce to raise the dread level. Why Michael Myers felt the need to show-off with a set of busted teeth is weird but also par for the course in the bizarre portrayal of Michael Myers. At least he didn’t throw a bed sheet over himself like a wacky, psychotic prankster.
Halloween 2018 still stinks about as much as the original but in slightly different ways. Where the first film irked me with continuity errors that ruined what little good there was in the final act and in Carpenter’s skillful direction, Halloween 2018 is disappointing for narrative shortcuts, like exposition podcast and narrative flab like the boyfriend subplot. Neither film gets around to making Michael Myers a believable character. He’s fearsome but he remains an obtuse figure whose motivation is nebulous at and negligible at worst.
If the filmmakers don’t care why Michael Myers does what he does, then why should I care
Controversial opinion: I don’t think John Carpenter’s Halloween is a classic. I know, horror fans are clicking away from this review with a large groan but it’s how I feel, it’s not a classic. Director John Carpenter is a legitimate legend of the realm of horror but Halloween is too full of holes to be considered in the same arena as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Nightmare on Elm Street, superior contemporaries of the genre.
With another new take on the legend of Michael Myers now hitting the big screen I decided that reviewing Halloween and confronting the flaws of this giant of the genre was worth a full write up. I understand that this is not a widely held belief and that many will say that I am picking at nits but that’s kind of what we all do when it comes to criticism. What you see as nitpicking, I see as legitimate criticism of what is supposed to be a high example of the form.
In a flashback to 1963 we watch the murder of 15 year old Judith Myers through the eyes of her killer, 6 year old Michael Myers, Judith’s brother. The entirety of the sequence is shot from Michael’s perspective as if we were watching through his eyes. We watch him spy on his sister and her boyfriend through a window, we watch him pick up a knife, we listen to his breath as the boyfriend escapes the seen unaware and we watch as Michael puts on a Halloween mask. Through the eye holes we watch Michael rain the knife down upon his terrified sibling.
15 years later and we have no idea why young Michael did this. We are stuffed into a car with with a psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and a nurse who are traveling to the institution where Michael has been locked up all of this time. It’s a rainy night but in the distance we can make out patients in gowns wandering aimlessly and we know something terrible has happened. Soon, Michael attacks and Dr Loomis and the nurse flee as he takes their vehicle.
Cut to Haddonfield, Illinois, Michael’s hometown where he’s presumably headed in the stolen vehicle. We meet Laurie Strode, 16 years old and a perfectly normal young woman. We see Laurie with her friends, Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J Soles), and planning for babysitting kids on Halloween night. What we know and Laurie doesn’t is that the creepy figure she sees repeatedly on her way to and from school is Michael Myers, he’s settled on her and her friends for his Halloween victims.
Why did Michael Myers choose Laurie, Annie and Lynda? Who knows, the film doesn’t care to give Myers a motivation beyond what we assume to be an obsession with sexually active women of a similar age to his sister, Judith. We know that he saw Laurie that morning when she went to the abandoned Myers’ house to drop off a key under the mat for her father, a real estate agent, but beyond that, Michael’s motivation appears unimportant to the filmmakers.
The opening scenes of Halloween are cherished among horror fans even if that fascination is something of a mystery to me. I find Michael’s murder of his sister to be remarkably clumsy and oddly filmed. Does it look kind of cool to shoot from the eye perspective of Michael Myers? Yeah, kind of but it creates awkward issues of continuity as well. For one, how tall is 6 year old Michael? The scene makes him appear to be nearly 6 feet tall if we account for the furniture height in the Myers’ home.
Then there is the strange perspective of the murder. At a particular point mid-stabbing, Michael turns his head to watch his own hand bring the knife down on his sister. How this is possible given the angles involved is anyone’s guess but my guess is this was done so that the film didn’t receive an X-rating. After-all, Michael’s supposedly 15 year old sister is topless in the scene and if the camera spent time lingering too long her being stabbed in the chest, an X-rating might have been the least of the film’s problems with censors.
Then there are Michael’s apparent supernatural qualities. Michael Myers, on top of being a psychopath, has supernatural qualities that allow him to appear and disappear on a whim. One moment he will be off in the distance, the next he has vanished into thin air. I can’t be the only one who chuckles at the idea of a giant, masked psychopath dodging through bushes and backyards so he can remain spooky to a pair of teenage girls.
Also, what is with Michael Myers and his bits of business. What exactly does Michael Myers accomplish from appearing and disappearing? Why not just get down to business and start in tih killing? Who taught Michael Myers to drive a car? Why does he use that ability to drive around following teenage girls? Why did he steal his sister’s headstone and set up an elaborate display around Annie’s body after he killed her?
Why did Michael Myers throw on a bedsheet and a victims glasses before killing a girl? What was the point of that? Suspense? Was that suspenseful? Was it supposed to be funny? Is Michael supposed to have a sense of humor? You may call it nitpicking but I am calling it all of the many reasons why I was unable to emotionally invest in any of the action of Halloween. My suspension of disbelief was broken far too often during the film.
Halloween does pick up some steam once Michael turns his attention to Laurie Strode but by then it is far too late. For me, Michael Myers is a figure that I mock far more than I ever fear. The film fails in every way to lend a believable context to the character and I am not specifically talking about the film being unrealistic by a real life standard. The film fails entirely to create a universe where Michael’s abilities make sense.
Let’s, for instance, take a character remarkably similar to Myers, Jason Voorhees. By no standard is Jason Voorhees a realistic character but what director Sean Cunningham and subsequent directors do, rather than ask us to simply suspend disbelief, they establish Voorhees in a universe where he functions as a demon-esque figure whose supernatural qualities are a built in part of his character.
Sequels to and remakes of Halloween have attempted to create backstories for Michael Myers but that’s an entirely separate conversation. We are talking about the original movie and that original, 1978 Halloween is a movie far too flawed to deserve classic status even within the genre it is believed to be iconic within. Michael Myers is simply not the equal of Leatherface or Freddy or even Jason Voorhees.
Feel free to disagree. It will be interesting to see if the new Halloween 2018 is able to paper over some of the holes in the original. We will find out for sure, tomorrow.
Reach is an at times awkward, always earnest new teen drama that deals with depression, suicide and teen drug use. It’s a movie with good intentions if not top notch filmmaking or style. Sometimes a movie just has its heart in the right place and that’s enough for me to nod along and recommend it and that is definitely the case with Reach. I could decry issues with the look of the film, the awkward acting and the fumbling obviousness of some story points but I was genuinely compelled by some of the characters, enough that I can say I liked Reach.
Reach stars Garrett Clayton, a veteran of the Disney Channel among other teen oriented products, as Steven, a depressed High School Senior. As Steven begins his return to High School for his Senior year he is also pondering suicide. He knows what is waiting for him at school isn’t merely the pressure of academics but the heart-rending struggle with bullies, one in particular who has had it out for Steven for years, for very personal reasons.
Nick (Jordan Doww) is that bully, a former friend who turned into a bully following an incident between Steven and Nick’s parents, specifically their fathers who are former police partners. Nick’s father is now an abusive alcoholic and Nick appears ready to continue the cycle of violence. Nick however, is interrupted by Clarence (Johnny James Fiore), who decides to adopt Steven as his new best friend and defends him when Nick starts in on the bullying.
Though Steven tries to escape him and get back into his depression spiral, Clarence won’t let Steven alone and eventually the two are inseparable and Steven appears on the road to recovery. The tenuousness of that recovery is the driving force of the plot of Reach through the middle and into the final act. Anything could tip Steven back to the dark side and we come to find that Clarence himself is no angel, despite a name that rings a bell, if you know what I mean. (Hint: It’s a Wonderful Life)
Reach is Steven’s story but first time director Leif Rokesh does occasionally crowd out his star with a lot of plot threads. I mentioned Nick and his father, they pop up repeatedly throughout Reach pulling focus from Steven and his story in order to set up the final act. Then there is an overarching mystery plot surrounding the suicide death of Steven’s mother and what that had to do with something that Steven’s dad may have done. It’s not hard to figure out but the film is clumsy in inserting this plot point.
All of that said, the clumsiness, the awkward acting, none of that takes away from the strong center of Reach which is the story of depression and recovery of recognizing your demons and confronting them and a story about seeking and finding acceptance amid deep seeded discomfort. Reach tells Steven’s story well and young Garrett Clayton does a tremendous job of communicating Steven’s heartaches and triumphs.
The main triumph is his friendship with Clarence which is portrayed exceptionally well. Johnny James Fiore is not what I would call a natural. He’s awkward and his part is written in a way that makes him seem too old for the part of a High School Senior. But, Fiore and Clayton are good together. The two have a natural friendly chemistry that comes to the fore as they work through the initial, awkward phase of getting to know each other.
Many of us have had friends like Clarence, force of nature types who insert themselves into the lives of people they decide should be their friend. Good people, maybe a tad obnoxious and not entirely self-aware but with a good heart and a soft spot for underdogs like Steven. This part of Reach is so good that it is why I recommend the movie. I love the way in which Clarence’s empathy defines his character and the good natured, good hearted way that Fiore plays the role.
Reach is far from perfect, as I mentioned already, but for a low-budget drama with a big, tough subject like bullying, teenage sexuality, drug use and family trauma, it works surprisingly well. The film has a lot of heart and cares about the subject of teenage suicide and depression and cares to get to the root of a character who is suffering. Not everyone has a friend like Clarence who can cut through your defenses and help you back on the right path but maybe seeing someone model that behavior will inspire someone to be that person, to try to be like a Clarence. That makes Reach a valuable movie and one I can recommend.
Reach is available to rent via online streaming services starting Friday, October 19th.
Yes, despite having reputations as critics as hating all movies, we do have favorite movies. Every one of us critics has a movie that makes us as giddy as every other movie fan on the planet. Sure, for some of us more esoteric critics that favorite film can be something foreign or obscure but there are many critics who share a taste for the mainstream just like everyone else. For me, my choice bridges a particular cult-status bridge between the mainstream and the obscure.
The Big Lebowski was not a hit when it was released in 1997. It was met with lukewarm reviews and in the blinding glare following the Coen Brothers’ award winning and critically beloved Fargo, The Big Lebowski was seen by some to be a step down or a step backward for the beloved directors. Then, home video happened and a group of passionate individuals began to form an appreciation for the strange world of The Dude. That little world has become one of the most loyal unique cult-fandoms in existence today.
The Big Lebowski can seem impenetrable to audiences that are not on the film’s unique wavelength. It begins with a voiceover and music that is something out of an old western, if westerns ever began with narrators. Sam Elliott is the voice of someone who may be God, may be a ghost or just some omniscient figure whose fascination with The Dude we will come to adopt as the movie goes on.
We meet The Dude, AKA Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) in this humorous prologue wherein our narrator makes him out to be a folk hero for the late 90’s, a bathrobe clad layabout takin’er easy for all us sinners. The Dude arrives back at his humble apartment to find a pair of thugs who assault him, having mistaken him for another Jeffrey Lebowski (David Hiddleston), whose wife Bunny owes money to their employer.
The thugs soil The Dude’s prized rug before realizing they’ve grabbed the wrong guy. After the assault, The Dude goes bowling with his buddies, Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). It’s Walter who suggests that the real Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire, should pay for The Dude’s soiled rug and though The Dude may prefer being lazy, smoking weed and drinking white russians, with Walter’s prodding he does seek out the real Jeffrey Lebowski.
Here is where our plot kicks in like something out of a stoner Raymond Chandler novel. The Dude bungles his way into a scheme by Jeffrey Lebowski to make some money disappear. The Dude is made the bagman on a deal with some kidnappers who claim to have kidnapped Mr. Lebowski’s wife, Bunny (Tara Reid). Naturally, The Dude gets Walter involved and the whole plan goes sideways.
Among fans of The Dude, there is an unspoken rule that it takes three viewings before you finally get The Big Lebowski. This proved to be true for me. On my third time seeing The Big Lebowski, some time in 2001, the film stunned me by coming to life in ways I didn’t notice the first two times I saw it, in theaters in 1997 and on VHS in 1999. Seeing The Big Lebowski for the third time I picked up on layers of story and coincidence that eluded me the first two times through.
First and foremost were the little tricks of dialogue. The Dude, as brilliantly lived in by Jeff Bridges in his finest performance, soaks up the world around him and uses what he hears as a way of fitting in with the rest of the world. He hears President Bush utter the phrase “This aggression will not stand” in reference to Iraq and Kuwait, the film is set in 1991, he incorporates the phrase to express his anger at the soiling of his rug.
The Dude doesn’t express anger so much as parrot the way others demonstrate anger. He recognizes his own discomfort and through the words and actions of Walter or Mr Lebowski or the Police, he is able to express something similar from some selfish place in his weed addled psyche. It’s a fascinating way to build a character and it comes to full flower when The Dude is with Julianne Moore who plays his sort of love interest and the daughter of Mr. Lebowski, Maude Lebowski.
Moore, for her part, is doing a pitch perfect impression of Katherine Hepburn as a sexually voracious artist so painfully self-aware that her perfect diction and blunt directness make for the single funniest performance in any movie of the last 20 years. She delivers absurd line readings with the crisp perfection of a trained thespian and makes it appear effortless. It’s one of the finest and most underrated performance by an actress I have ever seen.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally distinctive in smaller roles. The glorious Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Mr Lebowski’s weaselly assistant Grant and his tightly coiled anxiety plays a similar high comic note to what Moore is playing with her unique voice and manner. Each actor is an instrument in this strange and loose comic symphony including Steve Buscemi as the perpetually put-down Donnie and John Turturro as the spiciest note, The Jesus, a rival bowler to The Dude and his team.
Ben Gazzara shows up for a couple of scenes playing a porn producer who worked with Bunny Lebowski and like everyone else, his oddly laid back performance plays yet another specific note in this comic symphony. Gazzara’s Jackie Treehorn functions as a part moving the plot of The Big Lebowski but like the rest of the supporting cast, he’s not merely existing on screen, his Jackie is filled with comic invention in his few moments of screen time.
I could go on for days and days about the layers of meaning throughout The Big Lebowski. The way dialogue seeps from one scene to the next taking on new comic meaning each time. The employment of a phrase played as another symphony note in this comic opera cum dimestore detective story. It is a divine work of genius, a true masterpiece in the guise of a shaggy dog detective story from the 1930’s.
I completely adore The Big Lebowski and will be getting the new edition of the DVD even as it doesn’t contain many new special features. There is a new case for the Blu Ray, upgrading from the plastic bowling ball of the previous special edition DVD release. There is also the inclusion of a documentary made about the fans of The Big Lebowski who turned this near forgotten follow-up to Fargo into a phenomenon that, arguably, surpasses the Coen’s Oscar nominated masterpiece in terms of beloved esteem, if not pure filmmaking.
The Big Lebowski is my favorite film of all time.
The trailer for the new thriller Bad Times at the El Royale impressed me by how it revealed so little about the movie. The marketing was quite close to the vest, giving us little detail as to where this newest effort from Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard was going to take us. Well, it turns out, he wasn’t taking us very far. The reason the trailer for Bad Times at the El Royale was so coy was because there wasn’t much of a story to share to begin with.
Bad Times at the El Royale features a terrific cast headed up by Jeff Bridges as Doc, a bank robber posing as a Priest. Doc has arrived at the El Royale in search of a room that his late partner had stayed in a decade earlier and stashed the loot from a bank robbery. In the room next door to Doc is Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), the one truly innocent person staying at the El Royale. Darlene is on her way to a singing gig in Reno.
Two doors down from Darlene are Emily and Ruth Summerspring (Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny), though the rest of the guests aren’t aware of Ruth’s presence. Ruth arrived in the trunk of Emily’s car and is now tied to a chair in Emily’s room. How do we know this? Because our final guest at the El Royale is Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) and he’s discovered the the Hotel’s secret, a series of hallways in which the guests can be viewed through two way mirrors.
What makes the El Royale so special? It’s set directly on the border of California and Nevada. You can sleep in California or Nevada but beware, California costs one dollar more per night. This we learn from Miles (Lewis Pullman), the Hotel’s lazy but informative front desk clerk who is required to deliver a spiel about the two states Hotel for each new guest. Lewis is full of all kinds of information, especially secrets regarding the management of the Hotel that he’s not entirely comfortable with.
There is an awful lot going on here in theory but as Bad Times at the El Royale plays out it becomes more theory than practice. Director Drew Goddard has a story that is simply spinning its wheels with seemingly no direction. Characters have motivation but there is no uniting arc to anything. One seemingly important character is killed off in a fashion that stops the plot nearly as dead as he is.
This character appears to have the one arc that could push Bad Times at the El Royale forward but he’s used as device for splattery violence instead. So what do we get? We get a story that apes the style of Quentin Tarentino with its flashback structure ala Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill 1 & 2 and title cards, a repeated favorite of Tarentino. What it lacks however, is the narrative drive of Tarentino. Regardless of how unusual Tarentino’s approach seems, it’s going somewhere and Bad Times at the El Royale appears to be going nowhere.
Much of the narrative of Bad Times at the El Royale turns on the arrival, late in the movie, of Chris Hemsworth as a nasty killer named Billy Lee. Hemsworth’s arrival at the El Royale indicates the start of the 3rd act of the movie but if you think it is going to lead to an interesting revelation or drive the plot somewhere, you’d be wrong. I’m desperately trying to recall incidents in this movie that add up to a story but none of them connect.
It’s as if Drew Goddard assembled pieces of other thrillers and placed them in Bad Times at the El Royale. Each of the characters here seem as if they are in their own mini-movie and when they cross over each other violence breaks out as if the stars were fighting for the screen time. That sounds like it could be what happened here but I honestly, made that up on my own. If something that esoteric was what was happening in Bad Times at the El Royale, the film doesn’t do a very good job of communicating that.
I think Drew Goddard is an incredibly talented director. His Cabin in the Woods is the best meta--horror movie I’ve ever seen, a wildly clever and inventive shredding of horror movie cliches. He subverts genre brilliantly in Cabin the Woods and I kept hoping that perhaps he would subvert the thriller genre and deliver something unique. Bad Times at the El Royale is unique but it is unique in the wrong way, it’s unique in how it never coalesces toward any recognizable narrative momentum.
Is there tension? Sure, you never know when a character is going to be killed. There is no real central character though, that person who carries us forward in the story. I chose to lead with Bridges’ Doc as the focal point of my paragraph starting my plot description, but none of the characters functions as a lead actor or actress. Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene is the closest thing to an audience surrogate but her character is rather remote, distant, and lacks the colorful qualities of the characters around her.
Erivo is a singer by trade and the film allows her to rely on her background to make up much of her character but beyond her beautiful voice, the character lacks depth, she’s fighting for her life at the end of the movie but her passivity fails to indicate the danger that is in play. Erivo does have one impassive moment, one where she sticks it to Hemsworth’s misogynist killer but the moment is fleeting and by then I was exhausted by the film’s flashbacks and disconnected narrative circuits. And that’s not to mention its unnecessary 2 hour and 20 minute run time.
Colette is a sexy, smart and informative story about a real life figure who deserves a proper remembrance. Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was incredible, a writer, an actress, a pure iconoclast in a time when iconoclasts were some of the most brave people on the planet. Those willing to stand up and be different faced jail, poverty, even death in Colette’s day, even in the supposedly freewheeling Paris of the 19th and early 20th century.
Keira Knightley portrays Colette as a young woman who had the luck of actually falling in love with the man she was promised to. At the time, most people in Paris loved Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier Villars (Dominic West). He was a massive personality. Willy was a cultural gadfly, a charming, thoroughly gregarious man of means who never failed to pick up a check and make eyes at every woman in the room, all part of endless cycle of marketing himself as a brand name writer.
Willy wasn’t really a man of means however. He was actually mostly broke due to his dedication to drinking, gambling and his many attempts to impress women, including his beautiful, much younger wife. Desperately in need of more writing product in the pipeline, Willy finally turns to Colette, the one writer he doesn’t have to pay and won’t hold him up for a payday. When Colette delivers an immediate smash called “Claudette,” their problems should be solved.
Colette however, isn’t interested in writing, especially in writing something that Willy would eventually take credit for. She wants to have her own life and as their two lives chafe against each other’s needs and desires, the story picks up into a whirlwind of sex and recriminations. When Colette falls for an American woman, Willy encourages it as a way to justify his own infidelity and as a cudgel to get Colette to continue writing. When he decides that he to must sleep with this woman, things begin to get nasty.
Colette is an exceptionally well told story about young country girl, slowly becoming the woman she was meant to be. Keira Knightley is wonderful with her huge, expressive eyes and effortless wit, she brings forth a Colette that you could never doubt was meant to be a star. If there is one issue with Knightley’s performance it is that she is so much better than co-star Dominic West, an actor inferior in every way to Knightley.
West’s performance works only in particular context. Willy is intended to be portrayed as a spineless shell and West definitely portrays that aspect. Unfortunately, he’s so lacking in every other aspect that I found it hard to believe that he was this beloved society gadfly. I especially found it hard to believe a woman as incredible Colette could stand this guy for more than a minute. We’d be talking about one of the best movies of 2018 if an actor half as talented as Keira Knightley were playing opposite her.
Colette was directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous film was also a showcase for an incredible leading lady. Westmoreland directed Julianne Moore in her remarkable Alzheimer’s drama, Still Alice in 2014. That film could not be any more different from Colette but, what they share is a dedication to showcasing a leading lady in a remarkable performance. Westmoreland has a tremendous eye for moments and both Still Alice and Colette have moments of remarkable power.
Colette features a moment in which Keira dresses down West’s Willy so much you feel like the actor might not survive. Knightley’s fury is righteous and the emotion is a wallop. Knightley has been accused of being slight as an actress, a shot at her body type more than her acting in my opinion, but here, wow, she is ferocious. Her acting power is devastating and even though West is giving her little to work with, Knightley’s power still resonates.
Colette is a brilliant showcase for an actress too often underestimated. I can’t claim to have always valued her but in looking back, I can’t think of a single film where she hasn’t impressed me. Even in her best known role, the Oscar nominated Atonement, I didn’t like the movie, but Knightley, I absolutely adored her. She makes movies less than her better and great movies like Begin Again or the criminally under-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, she makes transcendent.
The real life Colette was a remarkable woman, a brilliant bestselling writer and openly gay at a time when such things weren’t safe. In England she could have been prosecuted for living openly with the woman she eventually came to fall in love with and the two struggled in France, though less than they would have in other parts of the world at that time. Colette persisted and her talent won the day and the movie based on her remarkable life is a loving tribute.
See Colette for Keira Knightley and appreciate Wash Westmoreland, a director who doesn’t work all that often but when he does, he knows to work with the right leading lady.
One of my favorite mni-trends of 2018 at the movies is the number of times a bad looking movie exceeds expectations. It’s happened a few times for me this year, more often than it has happened ever before. A good example is The House with a Clock in Its Walls. By all accounts, that film should not work, it’s a kiddie horror movie directed by the guy behind Hostel, not exactly a recipe for greatness. It turns it however, the idea and the cast are brilliant and it works.
I had similarly low expectations upended by Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. The film is a sequel to an only okay first movie which starred Jack Black as R.L Stine, watching as his dark kiddie horror stories came to life and having to write them back to safety, Goosebumps 2 arrives without Black in the lead, without any of the other human characters from the first film and a new creative team behind the camera. It should not work but Goosebumps proves to be such a good idea in its own right that this movie works in spite of the circumstances.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween stars Madison Iseman as Sarah, big sister to Sonny (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and babysitter to Sonny’s best pal Sam (Caleel Harris). Sarah just wants to finish her creative writing assignment but Sonny and Sam can’t stop getting in her way. They’ve started a business recovering what they hope will be valuable junk from abandoned houses and their first big find is a doozy.
In the abandoned childhood home of author R.L Stine, Sonny and Sam have uncovered a book that unleashes Slappy the Dummy (Jack Black). Slappy initially seems like a friend, he helps them fight bullies with his magic and appears eager to insinuate himself into the family dynamic. Unfortunately, Slappy’s motives have a murderous edge and when Sarah and Sonny’s Mom (Wendi McLendon-Covey) appears to get in the way of the fun, he sets out to get mom out of the picture.
The kids begin to fight back against Slappy and feeling betrayed, the dummy decides to use his powers to raise an army to create a new family. With the help of a giant Tesla coil, Slappy brings Halloween decorations to frightening life and it’s up to the kids to try to stop him with their plucky ingenuity and with an assist from their weirdo, Halloween loving neighbor Mr. Chu, played by The Hangover star Ken Jeong.
Honestly, no joke, the film is much more clever than the way I describe it. Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween has big laughs that come from these terrific kid actors and their genuine commitment to the gags. A favorite of mine is an absurd battle with gummi bears that come to life. The scene features some really fun special effects and I just loved the silly notion of big, dangerous gummi bears.
The film has minor little touches like that just kind of charmed me throughout. I liked the slight element of danger that the film wrings out of something silly like gummi bears or the various decorations that are brought to life unique and silly, fun ways. Slappy the Dummy is the creepiest part of the movie but that works great as well. Jack Black gives the character an energetic voice with a genuine sense of menace if you’re a little kid.
Black also makes a cameo as the only other character to return from the original movie, author R.L Stine. It makes sense that since the Goosebumps books are an anthology that the original cast isn’t really needed but Black’s Stine coming back makes sense and the way he’s used in the story makes for a terrifically funny throwaway gag. The return of Jack Black to starring roles thanks to Jumanji and The House with a Clock in Its Walls is something I didn’t even know I wanted.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween isn’t a great movie, I can see where most adult critics aren’t wrong in disliking it, it’s a little eager to please and the direction isn’t anything memorable but I enjoyed it enough and compared to most other young adult products we get at the movie theater, I will take a Goosebumps anthology series over something like Darkest Minds or The Maze Runner series any day.
As a kid growing up in Iowa I attended school in a district where all of the grade schools were named for Astronauts. I attended Virgil Grissom Elementary School fully unaware of who the crew-cutted man in the space suit was until I was several years into school attendance. When we visited other schools in our district we visited Ed White Elementary, John Glenn Elementary and Neil Armstrong Elementary.
Growing up, I assumed all schools were named for famous astronauts and I was surprised to learn that wasn’t the case in most other districts. I mention this as a way of leading into just how ingrained in our collective culture our astronaut heroes were. The movie First Man, much like 1983’s The Right Stuff, illustrates that that fascination has not waned even as the wonder of space travel has diminished.
First Man stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the Moon. We pick up Neil’s story as he grazes the top of the atmosphere in an experimental aircraft. This opening sequence is aimed at setting you up for the twisting and turning, borderline violent, way in which director Damien Chazelle captures the action. The opening scene is visceral, queasy and scary insight into the dangers we will face as the space race gets underway.
It’s not just the queasiness of space travel however, we also experience the ups and downs of marriage and family life. Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife, a tough as nails lady who refused to let Neil off the hook for his stoic, guarded and standoffish manner. Janet’s love comes through in her toughness and not through a lot of teary bleary worrying. She has a confidence in her husband that is rarely rattled.
When that confidence is rattled however, as we see in a brilliant scene in which Janet confronts Neil’s NASA boss and former astronaut, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), we witness a fearsome and brave moment. Commander Slayton ordered the radio on board Neil’s first space flight silenced to the world outside the control room and an upset Janet drove to Cape Canaveral to make him turn it back on. Claire Foy is ferocious in this moment and director Chazelle smartly lets her shine.
Directors live for scenes like this, moments where their actors capture a moment in time so perfectly. Claire Foy is so natural, so authentic, and unforced in this moment. It's a small scale scene but nearly as breathless for me as the Moon landing moment. The line 'you're just a bunch of boys' hits like a sledgehammer as, like it or not, she's not wrong. For all the know how and ingenuity on hand at NASA in the 60s and into today, space travel is never mundane, it's a razors edge between glorious achievement and horrific disaster.
All of First Man is leading up to the trip to the Moon. But first, Neil has to train and the program has a lot of tests to complete before the first manned mission to the Moon can get off the ground. The middle portion of First Man is taken up with training scenes and the strain at Neil Armstrong’s home stemming from the death of Neil and Janet’s two year old daughter, Karen, whose spectral premise is something Neil tries desperately to keep at bay while maintaining the stoicism he comes to be known for.
The final act of First Man is the Moon landing and it is remarkably well-captured. The style employed by director Damien Chazelle is intimate and claustrophobic. There are no cutaways back to NASA, few cutaways back to Janet, for the most part, we are trapped in the capsure with Neil and Buzz Aldrin and their pilot Michael Collins and it’s breathtaking to witness. This is a remarkable recreation of an event most Americans have seen in some form or fashion, either having lived it or watched it in documentary form, but Chazelle somehow makes it feel new and vibrant.
You will feel as if you are on the Moon during the Moon landing scenes of First Man. The incredible rumble and noise of the rocket, the fiery burst through the atmosphere into outer space, and the desolation of the lunar surface are all brilliantly captured and while we can’t ever really know what it was like ourselves, First Man brings us closer than we’ve ever been to this momentous piece of history.
Controversy surrounded First Man from its festival debut earlier this year. It became known that the movie does not depict the famous planting of the American flag on the Moon which led to rumors that the film was downplaying patriotism in the race to the Moon. That’s not the case; flags are prominent throughout First Man and Neil Armstrong was inspired by America continually getting beaten by Russia to make sure that an American made the first tracks on the Moon.
That said, yes, the flag being planted is not part of the Moon landing sequence. The idea is not to minimize America but to remind everyone that as much as this was an American achievement, the first steps on the Moon were a global moment that all people came together to witness and take pride in. The world paused to see man’s first steps on the Moon and so not depicting the flag planting is a style choice intended to demonstrate that this was more of a human accomplishment than merely an American one.
I absolutely adore First Man. Ryan Gosling delivers a brilliant performance, one that flies in the face of his previous personaes. Gosling is an actor of tremendous wit and charm and here, stripped of those assets by a real life figure that people recall as anything but witty or charming, Gosling demonstrates range. He focuses his performance on the dignity and carriage of Neil Armstrong. Armstrong was a deeply guarded individual who rarely showed emotion. That makes it all the more powerful during a pair of scenes where the mask falls away as he mourns his daughter and his fallen friends in the space program, Ed White, Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Elliott Sea.
First Man is a first rate movie made by a visionary and deeply talented director. Damien Chazelle is developing a mastery of form that places him among the most talented directors in the world. He’s a consistently entertaining and thoughtful director who follows his muse to unique and fascinating places. His world’s are filled with small details of manner and conversation that invite you into strange, obsessive conclaves like the Jazz-perfectionists of Whiplash or the entertainment industry inside La La Land, inside which we share in the earnest fascination of outsiders.
First Man is in theaters nationwide this weekend.
It surprised many in 1983 when The Right Stuff debuted in theaters and promptly flopped. The film was based on a very popular subject, the beginning of the American space program and it portrayed brave men who were beloved public figures. These men had remained part of public life and they had, for the most part, endorsed the warts and all story based on the reporting of Tom Wolff who was on the front lines of reporting on the space race.
And yet, the film failed to find an audience despite its high profile subject and glowing reviews. The film earned 8 Academy Award nominations and brought home 4 Oscars and still was not able to draw a crowd. Roger Ebert, in his Great Films review of The Right Stuff, pegged the failure to audiences simply not being ready for a movie to make our outer space legends into real men. Despite the primer of Wolff’s bestseller of the same name, audiences didn’t want to see these legends as anything less than legends.
It’s a shame, because those audiences really missed out. The Right Stuff is a remarkably compelling piece of historical fiction. As directed by a Philip Kaufman from a screenplay adapted by William Goldman, that was subsequently credited to Kaufman after the two famously fell out, The Right Stuff captures the urgency and excitement of the space race while making these outsized heroes into regular size, flawed but lovable, everyday heroes.
The story begins in the late 1950’s. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is, perhaps, the best pilot on the planet. With developers eager to push the envelope of what a plane can do, Yeager is the man who volunteers to try and do things people didn’t believe were possible. It was Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier and eventually was the first man to travel at Supersonic speed, Mach 2.3. He even travelled higher in a plane than anyone in history.
You might be wondering why, if Yeager was the best pilot and arguably the bravest, why wasn’t he an astronaut. Simply, he declined the chance to tryout, viewing it as a suicide mission. The earliest version of what we now know as NASA wasn’t exactly keen on having Yeager anyway, or indeed, humans in general. The first thoughts of NASA engineers under famed German scientist Werner Von Braun, was to send a chimp into space.
Nevertheless, thanks to the demand of President Eisenhower, American test pilots and members of each military branch were brought in to be tested and 7 brave men were finally chosen for what would become America’s first trip into space in 1961. Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) became the first to go into space. He was followed by Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). Eventually, the man everyone assumed to be America’s best and brightest astronaut, John Glenn (Ed Harris), would go and the template would be set for the American space program going forward.
The film goes from 1957 to 1963 when Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) became the last man to fly solo in space. After him came the multi-man missions, with the goal of getting to the moon. Regardless, the story told in The Right Stuff is deeply compelling. Even at 3 hours and 13 minutes, arguably the real reason the film failed at the box office, the film flows like a much shorter movie. The Right Stuff never feels long, it’s not padded by unnecessary scenes.
The length though, must be viewed as a factor in why The Right Stuff did not make back it’s 27 million dollar budget. Three hours is a lot to ask of an audience, not to mention how much that length cuts back on the number of times per day the film could be shown in theaters. I’m spending a lot of time on this because fighting the idea that The Right Stuff was a failure is part of my strategy of getting you to see it.
I do believe that Roger Ebert had a good point about how people didn’t want these legends of space to be too real for them. Humanizing them is one thing but portraying them as boys will be boys playboys, aside from the goody two shoes likes of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, gave audiences a glimpse they did not want behind the curtain of what had been sold to them 20 years earlier as a great American triumph.
Indeed, it likely shocked audiences to hear their heroes talking about branding and marketing, how they are commodities to be used to sell the space program to the American public as an expenditure. Then there are the depictions of our many failures and setbacks, real history which saw billions of dollars lost in crashed rocket after crashed rocket before we had to sit by and watch as Yuri Gagarin of Russia, our Cold War enemy, became the first man in space.
Audiences wanted the glory of the space program they were sold by Life Magazine. They wanted the white bread heroes who loved their wives and went to church on Sunday. The Right Stuff gives you everything, the heroism and the personalities and the less than noble qualities of our famed heroes and it would make sense for audiences to reject that. Tom Wolff’s book was both blessing and curse, a bestseller but perhaps something that preceded the movie enough that it allowed audiences to know what was coming and reject it on principle.
Nevertheless, I hope you go back and give The Right Stuff another chance. The film is exceptional. Philip Kaufman many not be remembered as a genius director, but he is a fine film craftsman. The film is exceptionally well put together. The pace is brisk, and the big scenes impact as big scenes. The film film soars and never feels like a drag even at 3 hours and 13 minutes. The Right Stuff is deeply nostalgic but it’s nostalgic for something more real and lasting than the hagiographies of the original stories about our heroic astronauts.
The Right Stuff is available to rent on Amazon Prime and would make a smart primer for the new Ryan Gosling space drama First Man which opens nationwide this weekend.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot stars Joaquin Phoenix in the true life story of cult cartoon artist John Callahan. John Callahan achieved cult fame in the 1980’s for his darkly humorous take on touchy subjects like gender, race and most often, being handicapped. Callahan was in a car accident which left him almost complete paralyzed from the neck down. He eventually regained some of use of his arms and hands, enough to allow him to draw in a unique style, similar to the cartoons some might recognize from Playboy Magazine.
Interestingly, John Callahan was rejected by Playboy for being too extreme; he was however, published in Playboy’s edgier rival Penthouse Magazine. Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a title that indicates Callahan’s irreverence. The single panel cartoon depicts a posse mid-chase stopped in the desert behind an empty wheelchair with the caption quote “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.”
We meet John Callahan through a series of flashbacks and flash forwards that can be highly confusing if you aren’t paying attention. We begin with John being thrown from his wheelchair after striking something on a sidewalk while traveling at a high rate of speed for a wheelchair. He’s helped back to his chair by a group of kids who see his drawings and ask him about his inspiration. We then flashback and flashback again and we are in an AA meeting.
Eventually, we find that John was an alcoholic dating back to his early teenage years as an orphan; he was surrendered by his mother at birth. John was set for a life of partying everyday and barely holding down a job when one of his binges nearly gets him killed. In a car, very drunk, with a new drinking buddy, Dexter (Jack Black), who is also very drunk and driving, John is in an accident and thrown from the vehicle.
It’s the late-1970’s and medical technology is primitive compared to today and we watch as John is put through a hellish looking recovery. His only solace is a woman named Annu (Rooney Mara) who works as a therapist and visits John weekly during his recovery. John eventually receives a motorized wheelchair and sets about going back to drinking almost immediately. It takes a few months or a year before he finally decides to seek help.
In a scene that shocked me with how strange and beautiful it is, we watch as John, desperate for another drink but left home alone without his caretaker, has a conversation with his absent mother. Actress Mirielle Enos appears as the ghostly visage of what John imagines his mother looks like and the two have an emotional, if only imagined conversation. It’s a flight of fancy to be sure but I found the scene as deeply moving as it is out of place in this otherwise straightforward biopic. The scene is John's catalyst to quit drinking.
The acting in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is superb with Joaquin Phoenix delivering the kind of performance we’ve come to expect from one of the finest actors on the planet today. Phoenix may be cantankerous, strange, even off-putting in publicity settings, he famously melted down on David Letterman then claimed it was all a stunt for his documentary art project, but his acting has always been of the highest level and he’s incredible here.
Phoenix is matched in his supporting cast, especially by Jonah Hill who transforms more than ever in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Hidden behind a fuzzy beard, a long blonde wig and significant weight loss, you might find it hard to recognize the star of Superbad and Get Him to the Greek but it’s him. Hill’s turn from comic actor to serious thespian has been a delight to watch for those of us who’ve always noted just how hard comedy acting is and how people like Jonah Hill don’t get their due respect.
Hill is heartbreaking in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. His character beautifully walks a tightrope of being sensitive and caring and brutally blunt. Hill’s Donnie is John’s AA sponsor, as well as the leader of a small group of people that he is sponsor to, whom he calls his ‘Piglets.’ The conversations during the AA meeting are at times humorous but most of the time they are raw and lacerating. These are powerful scenes, exceptionally orchestrated by Hill’s performance and by Gus Van Sant’s direction.
The film is not perfect, some of the R-Rated aspects of the movie are a tad forced or clumsy. The frankness of the characters can be funny but it can also feel pushy and awkward, such as the character of a nurse tasked with helping John understand sex as a quadriplegic. There is a problematic quality to this series of scenes that, though they appear honest and in your face, they are far from comfortable in that space.
Then there are the female characters in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot. Three exceptional women play standout roles in the movie but none of their roles feel fleshed out. It’s a long time criticism of Gus Van Sant that he doesn’t direct women well and this film highlights that flaw. Kim Gordon, from the band Sonic Youth, plays one of John’s fellow AA attendees and is given only one moment where she delivers a rather tossed off monologue.
Carrie Brownstein, the exceptionally funny sketch comedy veteran and star of Portlandia, gets short shrifted as a shrewish officiant constantly on John’s case and threatening to cut off his disability benefits. Then there is Rooney Mara, essentially the female lead in the movie. Van Sant botches her introduction as he introduces her as an ethereal ghost, a male fantasy of a benevolent beauty built to take pity on our ostensible hero.
I was surprised that Mara’s Annu didn’t wind up being a figment of John’s imagination as she is depicted as a saint who is ready to take care of his every need, shares his dark sense of humor, and though he is not the most charming guy, falls into bed with him as if he were the most handsome and charismatic guy alive. The character has seemingly no inner life that doesn’t involve catering to John’s needs and thus she never feels like the real person we’re intended to believe she is.
That’s is a significant flaw in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot but it doesn’t sink the film entirely. Too much of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is too good for me to dismiss the film. Phoenix is a rare talent, an authentic, raw performer who slithers into the skin of his characters in a way that only the great actors do. With this performance and his performance as a hitman in Lynne Ramsey’s exceptional You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix has authored two of the best performances of 2018.
That combined with Jonah Hill’s remarkable, transformative performance, forces me to recommend Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot despite my reservations regarding the female characters and a rather confusing flashback structure that many will find hard to follow. I was taking notes and I still struggled with where in time the characters were from time to time during this movie. That said, the movie is rewarding in big moments with big emotion that make all of the other more trying aspect worth the struggle.
Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot is available now on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand.
Hotel Artemis is one of the great missed opportunities as a plot that I have ever witnessed. Writer-Director Drew Pearce had a great idea for a movie and squandered it with poor pacing, a lack of colorful characters and a lack of overall ambition. Settling for a generic action movie, Hotel Artemis failed a really great central premise that reads like something out of the John Wick universe. Of course, I shouldn’t mourn the movie Hotel Artemis is not but it’s hard not to think about how good it could have been.
Hotel Artemis stars Jodie Foster as The Nurse, we eventually learn her name but most everyone at the Artemis is known by codenames. The Nurse is in charge of the Artemis, a hidden hospital in a seemingly abandoned Los Angeles Hotel. This hospital caters to a specific, high-end clientele of very rich criminals who maintain access via a monthly fee. With a riot brewing outside the hotel, it’s about to be a very busy night.
First arriving are Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) and his brother Lev (Brian Tyree Henry). They just robbed a bank and in the aftermath, Lev was shot. Lucky for them, they’re paid up on their Artemis bills. Lev is hurt bad but much worse for him is what he’s stolen from the bank. In the midst of the robbery, Lev took an expensive looking pen from a very angry henchmen. The pen is actually a mini-vault carrying millions of dollars in diamonds belonging to a man known as The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum).
Just the idea of a movie where Jeff Goldblum plays a character named ‘The Wolf King’ would be enough to recommend but sadly the movie doesn’t have much to do with these characters. Instead, the movie introduces several other unnecessary characters who consistently get in the way of the action. Sophia Boutella plays Nice, another Artemis client who has an agenda but plays more like a love interest for Sherman than a character necessary to the plot. At the very least, Boutella is sultry and badass but the character isn't particularly well-rounded.
The most egregious addition to the cast however, is Charlie Day who has zero to do with the plot of Hotel Artemis. Day plays a patient given the codename Acapulco and is basically on hand to act like Charlie Day. If you’re familiar with Charlie Day’s style you know what you’re getting here. I like Charlie Day but his schtick is entirely unnecessary. His character could be completely removed from Hotel Artemis and have no bearing on the plot. He just consistently gets in the way.
Jenny Slate and Zachary Quinto also play entirely unneeded characters. Slate is a cop with a connection to The Nurse whom The Nurse breaks the rules of the Hotel to rescue. Slate is on hand to provide backstory but it’s clear that the same backstory could be layered in via the flashbacks the film employs even with Slate on hand to provide the same information. The character is a clumsy addition to an already overstuffed movie.
I can’t imagine why Zachary Quinto was chosen for the role of The Wolf King’s doofus son. Perhaps he had a lifelong goal of being insulted by Jodie Foster and Jeff Goldblum while he acts like a complete buffoon? It’s a weird motivation but it would be one I could understand. I can’t understand it any other way because the character is atrociously written and badly performed. Quinto plays the role as an over the top, whiny man-baby and while I assume it’s supposed to be humorous, the laughs never come.
If the intent is to force humor into Hotel Artemis with Day and Quinto, it’s a complete failure. The only actor who manages to get a legitimate laugh is Dave Bautista who employs a little bit of his Drax deadpan from Guardians of the Galaxy to get the only laughs to be had in Hotel Artemis. Bautista is completely wasted in the role of a archetypal good-hearted thug. He's a tremendous presence with well-honed charm from his Guardians role. Little of that charm potential is tapped in Hotel Artemis.
Bautista’s Everest is a badass killer who works for The Nurse because he cares about her. He’s perhaps a big blunt instrument whose job is hitting people and enforcing the rules of the Artemis but in minimal screentime, Bautista paints an entire picture of Everest as a sensitive soul who could smash you to tiny, tiny pieces with his bare hands if he has to. Bautista has charisma to spare in Hotel Artemis but Writer-Director Drew Pearce has overstuffed the movie so much he doesn’t have time for him.
Hotel Artemis has such a killer premise. It’s something right out of the John Wick universe, a secret hospital for criminals. I imagine it much like the hotel in John Wick where killers all stay under the same roof but aren’t allowed to kill while they stay there. Hotel Artemis is the same idea but with a hospital. Something like this would have to exist in the John Wick universe and Hotel Artemis could have tapped that unique spirit and failed miserably.
Again, I should not review Hotel Artemis for what it isn’t, I know that. It’s just such a great premise though! Sorry, as it is, Hotel Artemis is sloppy and clunky, overstuffed with characters and especially with characters of no consequence. The film wastes its best assets like Dave Bautista or Jeff Goldblum’s weirdo qualities, which are sorely missed in a character called The Wolf King, and thus my review of what Hotel Artemis actually is, is simply that is a bad movie.
Hotel Artemis is on Blu Ray, DVD and On-Demand services this week.
Cabaret may look like a jazzy, fizzy, Broadway to Hollywood musical, but secretly, Director and Choreographer Bob Fosse was making a horror movie. That’s not me being sarcastic and saying that Cabaret horrified me in some negative fashion. I mean this as high praise. Behind the fashion, the makeup, the music, Cabaret is about the frightening rise of fascism and the way something as horrific as Nazism can seemingly happen while you’re focused on you.
Liza Minnelli stars in Cabaret as Sally Bowles, a lounge singer in Berlin in 1931. Sally is a hedonist who lives by night, smoking and drinking and loving at the Kit Kat Club where she is a featured performer. By day, Sally sleeps it all off and starts all over again at a Berlin flophouse, home to has beens and never-was’. It’s here that Sally meets Brian Roberts (Michael York), an English academic looking for a room.
Brian appears to be taken with Sally but their relationship doesn’t unfold like you might expect it to. Berlin in 1931 is a fluid place, fluid of gender, sexuality and politics. The culture is in flux and while so many Germans and ex-pats are using this chance to experiment and find themselves, they have their heads turned from the reality rising around them; the Nazis are slowly rising and the spectre of fascism is in the backdrop of every scene.
This comes into stark reality in the form of Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies. Grey’s perpetually snotty MC of the Kit Kat Club appears to take nothing seriously, mocking everything with a garish glee. But, watch his eyes, watch his manner. The mocking is filled with dread that occasionally comes right to the surface. This is especially true of his performance of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” which appears like a comic treat but slowly becomes terrifying until a gut-punch of a final line.
The romance between Sally and Brian is filled with tragedy and misplaced affections. They have their heads firmly planted in the clouds while all around them the world is slipping away. All they seem to do is focus on themselves though Brian offers some contempt for the Nazis, his opposition however, comes from a place of privilege, the ability to know he can get out of Germany before things get really bad. This is thrown into relief as Brian and Sally's friend Fritz comes out as Jewish so he can marry a Jewish woman he's fallen for from a rich Jewish family.
That Fritz's ultimate declaration of love conquers all is a death sentence is something we know and he doesn't. He's not naive, he knows that he's asking for trouble from the Nazis, trouble that he avoided when he arrived in Germany pretending to be a protestant. He's far more aware than Sally or Brian and yet he runs toward doom because such a move reflects the worldview of Cabaret in which even the purest intentions are portents of doom.
Sally meanwhile, has blinders on in all aspects of life. She’s wanton and narcissistic. She doesn’t appear to care who is in the audience when she performs because, for her, the performance, the stage, that’s all that matters. Grey appears to attempt to warn her with his sharp witty tunes and jabs but Sally is too far gone. Sally is an American and, much like Brian, she has the temporary privilege of ignorance.
It is important to note that Sally is an American and Brian is British. In 1931 and into the early 1940’s most Americans reflected Sally’s self centered worldview. The Brits were more engaged but easily distracted something well reflected by the character of Brian. It’s a large metaphor and perhaps an easy one to portray but Fosse portrays it with a sharpness using Joel Grey as a way to presage how our divided attentions are fomenting a disaster.
The musical elements are brilliantly crafted bits of chaos. Each musical number has a manic energy to its presentation, an energy brimming with equal parts dread and merriment. The songs are happy but spiky, sprinkled with a bitter irony. Fosse wills us in one moment toward feeling for the romance of Sally and Brian as it begins to blossom and then plunges us to the depths once Sally meets Maximillian (Helmut Griem) and is immediately on stage delivering a bizarre, mechanical, iteration of “Money, Money,” a bitter rebuke of romance.
Fosse works hard to keep us off balance. We are not allowed to be comfortable or comforted. Something disquieting is around every corner whether it is the shambles of the love affair we thought we were promised or a terrifying vision of the future when we witness an Aryan youth singing a spine shattering rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a song so affecting that the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb were accused of using an actual Nazi song. Kander and Ebb, by the way, are Jewish.
Even the famed showstopper title song “Cabaret” has a bitter aftertaste. Out of context, Liza sings it like a classic Broadway showstopper. In the context of Cabaret however, the title song announces that Sally has put her blinders back on and is ready to pretend the world isn’t changing around her. Joel Grey brings it home with a cheeky call back to the start of the film only this time the reflection Grey mournfully stares down is filled with Nazis in the background. The party is coming to a close.
"Cabaret" is kicky and energetic and filled with the panache we love Liza for but Fosse's arrangement of the song has a darkness to it. There is a curdled quality to the backing track. It sounds as if Sally is trying to will us into believing life is a Cabaret filled with sex, booze and cigarrettes but the real world is beginning to edge in. That's what the final image of the film is all about, the funky reflection of reality slowly coming into focus as if a boozy party led to a fascist hangover.
Bob Fosse famously beat out Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director in 1972 when Coppola was up for The Godfather. The Godfather and Coppola would have the last laugh by winning Best Picture but it’s still rather momentous. Fosse was not a movie director, he was a broadway choreographer and stage director. His talents however, melded perfectly to the world of Cabaret. Fosse's sense of dark humor and devilish style could find no better home on screen than Cabaret.
Though I am a devotee of The Godfather I can honestly say, as a piece of direction, Cabaret is slightly more impressive. A first time director making a supremely complex and dense musical, one that is tightrope walk of tone and sensitivity; that deserves recognition. One false move and Fosse’s film career was over with Cabaret but he makes no false moves. Instead, as a first time director, he pulled off the trick of making a rare horror musical, a film of mounting existential terror and dread wrapped in the tinsel and shine of a Broadway show. It’s a marvelous trick.
Cabaret is available on Tuesday, October 9th on Blu Ray from the Warner Archives Collection.
Director Debra Granik has a particular milieu she prefers. As a director, Granik finds the backwoods to be a place of comfort and fascination. She likes small enclaves that the rest of the world doesn’t realize even exist. Her Winter’s Bone was gritty and filled unique details of the last places in America seemingly untouched by the modern world. Drugs gave that film a sense of danger that her new film, Leave No Trace, does not have.
That said, Leave No Trace doesn’t need danger to be compelling. Though it is similarly set away from the modern world, the story of Leave No Trace is family drama that employs unique characters and settings to tell a relatively familiar story. Ben Foster, one of the most interesting and singular actors working today, could not be more perfect for a Debra Granik movie. His quiet intensity drives the plot when seemingly nothing is happening.
Leave No Trace stars Ben Foster as Will, an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who has found a little peace living far from everyday society. With his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), he’s become a survivalist capable of surviving on scraps of necessities and sleeping under the stars in the forests of Oregon. Occasionally, they go into Portland, the nearest city, where Will gets drugs for his PTSD that he then sells for cash to buy food in an underground economy operated by other vets living in a similar fashion.
Will and Tom’s idyll is upset when a jogger spots Tom hiding in the woods and calls the local sheriff to check on her. When the cops find their small camp they immediately arrest Will for trespassing and place Tom in a juvenile home. It takes a few days but eventually Will demonstrates that he’s not crazy. The law says they can’t stay in the forest so social services place them in a home and find Will a job.
Before Tom can get comfortable in regular society however, Will is looking for a way to escape. Unable to return to their place in the woods, they head for Washington state and hopefully a place far from the long arm of Oregon law. What they find, I will leave you to discover but I have no problem believing such a place exists. It’s a fascinating place with colorful characters and a pace of life most of us would not be able to withstand.
Debra Granik is a remarkably patient and thoughtful director. She never rushes her characters, even when such a rush might seem reasonable. Granik is content to give scenes time to play out at their own pace. Some may find it slow, I would call it deliberate. It works when you have thoughtful and fascinating characters, the kind Granik is adept at creating. In Winter’s Bone it was Jennifer Lawrence delivering a brilliant and original character. Here, Thomasin McKenzie has a similarly breakout performance.
Thomasin McKenzie is remarkably compelling. At 18 years old she comes off so much younger and though she is originally from New Zealand, you would never no it from her wonderfully measured line delivery. She has the curiosity and thoughtfulness of a character who has spent a life away from the regular world. Part of that has to do with Debra Granik’s exceptional screenplay but McKenzie really does deliver in Leave No Trace.
Ben Foster is an actor who has missed out on the Academy Awards because he’s just not well known enough. That’s the only excuse I can think of because his work has had a consistent excellence since he was in 2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. He deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in Hell or High Water in 2016 and he deserves a look for Best Actor for his work here. He has a fierceness in his eyes that only the best actors can deliver.
Foster has the kind of quiet intensity that can move a plot along just because we find him so fascinating, In Leave No Trace, it’s hard not to get caught up on what Will might be thinking or preparing to do next. He’s a loving father who has kept his daughter educated and fed all while keeping her from the real world. Is he wrong to do what he does? It depends on your perspective. His daughter is safe and fed but also intentionally homeless.
Foster makes Will’s choice strangely appealing and understandable. When I look around at the world I can definitely see the appeal of going off into the woods and forgetting the modern world. Keeping a child away from the modern world of social media and the consistent ugliness of things like bullying does certainly hold an appeal but Granik smartly reminds us of a few of the good things she’s missing as well like friends.
Leave No Trace is a tremendous movie. A deeply compelling family drama that challenges you to try and judge Will and Tom. Do you think Will is wrong to intentionally remain homeless? Is Will so sick from PTSD that perhaps he’s not making good decisions? You will have to make up your mind. At times I was screaming inside for Will to stay in the home the government provided but I can understand his desire to run away.
Leave No Trace is uniquely challenging and yet has a very relatable, rather familiar story of a father and a daughter and the forces at play that could divide them. This film is both deeply original and yet easy to follow and be compelled by. It’s also just a really great showcase for one young actress on the rise and one of the most unknown but consistently brilliant actors working today.
Leave No Trace is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and and On Demand rental.
After four days straight of writing about tragic romance, Venom, the new superhero adventure from Sony’s bargain bin of Marvel oddities, is not a bad palette cleanser. While I enjoyed much of my time spent in tragic romance-land, getting a big, silly CGI gutbuster is just the way to give me a little distance from that world. Nothing could be more disposable and usefully vacant than Venom, a movie where the hero is subsumed by an alien parasite and fights other alien parasites.
Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, a crusading reporter in Silicon Valley who exposes corruption in government and industry. Eddie gets himself into hot water when he begins investigating a supposedly benevolent billionaire mogul named Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). First, Eddie steals information from his girlfriend Anne’s (Mchelle Williams) computer, her law firm works for Drake’s company. Then, on live TV he uses the information to attack Carlton Drake mid-interview.
As should happen, Eddie is fired from his TV gig for his unsubstantiated claims and Anne dumps him for getting her fired along with him. Cut to 6 months later and Eddie’s finances are running low as no one will hire a disgrace. This is when Eddie gets the biggest scoop of his career. A doctor at Drake’s company, Dr. Scurth (Jenny Slate) decides to tell Eddie that what he reported initially was true, that Drake is experimenting on homeless people.
It’s way worse than that though, homeless people are being killed in this experiment by an alien lifeform that Drake’s people retrieved from space during a private space exploration project. Scurth is able to sneak Eddie into the facility and while there, Eddie gets attacked by the alien and infected. Lucky for him, the experiment works, the alien Symbiote, as it is called, bonds to Eddie. Eventually, the alien reveals itself to be named Venom and it has plans for Eddie.
Venom is a seriously crazy movie. The tone of the film is all over the place as it struggles with wanting to be very violent and very broad while staying in the lines of a PG-13 movie. Venom eats people, specifically their heads, but we can’t see that in a PG-13 movie so director Ruben Fleischer has to do a lot of tap dancing to show how fearsome Venom is while not crossing the line into R-rated territory. Strangely, this approach worked for me.
Unable to be as nasty as it wants to be, Venom is essentially forced to be funny. Director Fleischer and star Tom Hardy work hard to amp up the comedy with Hardy throwing his full body into the performance as he slowly discovers what Venom can do. The comedy moves to the fore when Venom starts talking inside Eddie’s head and mocking him for the most part. Tom Hardy is a total pro and he throws full crazy into his performance and damned if it isn’t hilarious at times.
That’s not to say that Venom is a laugh riot, or that it is even a really good. It’s not bad, it’s strange and I rather enjoyed this strange approach to a superhero movie. One of the things that all superhero movies struggle with in the glut of their own film genre is finding their own unique voice. Fleischer and Hardy found Venom’s unique voice rather quickly. This feels completely different and fresh from every other superhero movie in the genre.
It’s not without flaws, the weird can go too far and Riz Ahmed’s performance is a tad too bland for someone of his talents, but for just being different and for Tom Hardy’s singularly unique and committed performance, I enjoyed Venom a great deal more than I expected to. That’s also a function of lowered expectations as my critical brethren really set out against this movie but nevertheless, I found Venom odd but entertainingly so.
Having spent this entire week immersed in the world created by William Wellman, tales of fame and romance and tragedy, I was fully prepared to fall in love once again with the remarkable characters of Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine. Those are the original names anyway, the names of these characters have changed over the years to include Vicky Lester, Esther Hoffman, John Norman Howard, and now Ally and Jackson Maine. The names change but the story is as romantic and tragic and beautifully moving as ever.
Bradley Cooper takes up the mantle of bringing A Star is Born to a new generation, taking up where William Wellman, George Cukor and Frank Pierson have tread before. It’s a daunting challenge for a first time filmmaker, as this is one of the greatest screen stories ever told. That Cooper proves to be up to the challenge says alot about his talents. That he also comes up short in some areas also speaks to his inexperience.
Lady Gaga stars in A Star is Born as Ally, a Los Angeles hotel worker who moonlights singing torch songs in a drag queen bar. That’s where by chance she meets rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper). Maine is just off the stage at the L.A Forum and, having run out of alcohol in the limo, he decides to make a stop at the drag club. Here, Jackson listens as Ally swoons her way through a breathtaking, all French, performance of La Vie En Rose.
The two spend the night talking and even writing music while sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store. Ally has no idea but in less than a week, the lyrics she pulled out of the air in that parking lot, would be sung live on stage in front of a football stadium size crowd at Jackson’s concert. Jackson is completely taken with Ally and when she blows away the concert crowd, the die is cast and Jackson Maine is deeply in love.
What a shame then that his falling in love is coinciding with beginning of the end of his career. Jackson’s drinking and opioid addiction are catching up with him. More urgently however, he’s struggling with tinnitus, and maybe losing his hearing and thus his livelihood, his very life blood, music. Will Jackson deal with his problems and be there for Ally as her career begins to take off or will he fade away like so many before him.
If you’ve seen the other A Star is Born movies, you know where this is headed. This is arguably the most famous tragic romance in film history. How we get there is far more important than where are heading and in that journey, Bradley Cooper does well to get us to where we are going. As both actor and director, Cooper is deeply compelling. He has a terrific singing voice, or at least a voice that is good for the kind simple songs crafted for him by the team behind Willie Nelson who went out of his way to help with the making of the movie.
It was at Willie Nelson concerts where Bradley Cooper got many of the live performance shots that we see in the movie. The authenticity of those performances is reminiscent of what made Barbra Streisand’s version of this story so powerful. Something about a real life live crowd interacting with the actors, treating them like their characters are as big and important as the story tells us they are, aids the experience of A Star is Born.
I have a lot of praise for Bradley Cooper’s direction in A Star is Born but I have a few issues as well. Some of the choices that are made in the movie, especially related to the music performed by Lady Gaga, are rushed and ill-explained. At one point Gaga’s Ally goes from singer-songwriter at home at a piano with a live band behind her to an overly processed pop star complete with choreography and dancers in the blink of a scene or two.
I assumed this was going to become an issue, that part of Ally’s journey was going to be fighting to be the kind of artist she first set out to be. It appeared that Rafi Gavron’s slick music producer was going to be the foil for Ally to get burned by the business and rediscover her art form but in the end, though he is a villain, we are to believe that the music she created for him is good and frankly speaking, I was not a fan of the dull, bleating, pop music produced for his character.
The film is quite confused on this point. At one point an angry and drunk Jackson calls out Ally for her sell out pop songs and says he hates them. We assume that’s leading somewhere but it goes nowhere and as he gets sober again he doesn’t say anymore about how he feels about her new musical direction. It’s a jarring choice and one that undermines the character of Ally who quickly loses the authentic quality that Streisand had especially built for her version of this character in ‘76.
This leads to an ending that rather than building to monster closing number that blows the doors off the building as Streisand did, instead ends with Gaga crafting something closer to Candle in the Wind, not a bad tribute but a rather bland one compared to Streisand’s rocker. I really wanted to see Gaga belt one out but the ending of this A Star is Born is a great deal more muted, surprisingly more staid. It has Gaga in front of an orchestra rather than a band.
As for Lady Gaga the actress, she’s quite compelling. She’s better than Kris Kristofferson who mostly acted in poses. She’s in the upper echelon of singers turned actors, she has the poise and self-possession of a superstar, thanks to her years of practice as one of the biggest music stars in the world. But it’s her quiet confidence that stands out here. Free of all of the gimmickry and oddity, we can finally just hear that voice and it is as stunning as ever, most of the time.
Perhaps Lady Gaga’s music isn’t my taste, though I do like many of her songs. If she was the one who conceived the pop songs in A Star is Born that we are supposed to like, especially one she performs on Saturday Night Live in the movie, she was way off. The song is terrible and the lyrics are utter nonsense. I was sure that the story was set up to reject the pop pastiche version of Ally and instead the movie appears to want us to buy into that version just because she’s really Lady Gaga and not the rootsy, singer-songwriter character we meet early on.
It’s night and day between the terrific music Ally makes with Jackson and the pablum she produces with the evil record producer. Granted, the same disconnect happens in the 1976 version when Streisand goes for a showtune/disco presentation opposed to Kristofferson’s classic rock god but the film set her up in that world before John Norman dragged her into his world and she never tried to be anything other than the singer we eventually hear.
Attempting to meld a piece of Lady Gaga into Ally instead of melding Ally into Gaga proves to be a mistake. The shift from the character to something closer to the real Gaga is too jarring and poorly plotted. It lacks context, we don’t get a progression from the pop rock of the soundtrack hit Shallow to the god awful electro-pop of Why Did You Do That To Me. For the record, Why Did You Do That sounds better on the soundtrack to the movie than it does in the movie but the shift in musical style is still a major issue for the film.
I wanted to love A Star is Born, I really did. I wanted this movie to have the same transcendent qualities that the original had. I wanted it to have the power of the Streisand version and the story of the 37 version. I wanted this to be one of the best movies of 2018. Perhaps my expectations were just too high. I like this movie, I recommend this movie, but if you expecting too much from it, prepare to be disappointed.
As a kid, I could not get past the idea that Barbra Streisand was mom’s kind of movie and music star. Her music, to me, sounded dull and dreary, like elevator music but with words. That perception held far longer than I like to admit, mostly because I made no effort to look into Barbra Streisand’s career. I was stubborn and dismissive of the idea that I could ever enjoy anything that Barbra Streisand ever made simply as a way of rejecting things my parents enjoyed.
It’s a typical part of the process of growing up, you love and rely on your parents but at a certain point your personality begins to form and rejecting things your parents loved is a simple minded form of rebellion against their values. That’s a long way of saying I just didn’t like Barbra Streisand and I came up with many justifications as to why I should not have to investigate her career and form an actual, defensible position regarding the quality of her work.
That lasted until I saw Yentl a few years ago. Yentl was a revelation. As much as I may not care for Barbra’s broad showtunes and moony balladic music, I cannot deny that her performance in Yentl was compelling, it was deeply moving. It didn’t cause me to seek out something like Hello Dolly, baby steps here people, but it did make the idea of exploring Barbra Streisand’s work a great deal more palatable.
This brings us to 1976’s A Star is Born, my third exposure this week to the remarkable story of a woman named Esther and a man named Norman, or John Norman here, two people going in different directions on the road to and from fame. The 1937 take on this story starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March and written and directed by William Wellman remains the gold standard for how this story is told and acted but, unlike the 1954 version, I have a lot of nice things to say about this reimagining of this classic Hollywood story.
Kris Kristofferson stars in A Star is Born as John Norman Howard, an aging rock star whose bad habits are getting the best of him. He’s drinking too much and using drugs and forgetting the lyrics to his songs. He’s angering fans, bandmates, producers, and radio hosts with his cantankerousness. He appears content to go down in flames until he hears the voice of Esther Hoffman (Streisand) at a nightclub in L.A.
Esther’s voice awakens something in John, and after a series of misadventures trying to connect with her in the midst of the appalling chaos of his life, the two manage to connect in a deep and meaningful fashion. Eventually, while he’s failing to entertain crowds at his own concert, he turns the show over to Esther who blows everyone away. Her style of disco showtunes doesn’t exactly mesh with his brand of stoner rock but the audience doesn’t appear to care.
As Esther’s star rises, John’s falls further and further but they manage to stick together until the inevitable end. A Star is Born is a romantic tragedy and thus you know what’s coming, it’s not a spoiler at this point, it’s an inevitability. What happens afterward however, is where a legend is made and even I can’t deny Barbra Streisand’s legend status after seeing her blow the doors off of the ending of A Star is Born.
I really enjoyed this take on A Star is Born. Shifting the background from the film industry to the music industry was a smart choice but even smarter was the decision not to crowd out the story with musical numbers. The music is there, some of the best music of Streisand’s career undoubtedly, but it’s melded into the story of A Star is Born which director and co-writer Frank Pierson takes great pains to balance.
It is Hollywood legend that Streisand and producer-boyfriend Jon Peters and Kris Kristofferson clashed heavily with Frank Pierson but the final product of A Star is Born doesn’t appear to show the strain. The final cut of the movie is a tight 2 hours and 12 minutes, it doesn’t contain any of Streisand’s famed ego shots, the movie never comes second to Streisand showing off her vocal virtuosity. It’s a really solid movie with a central performance from Streisand that transcends in a far more effective way than what Judy Garland did in the ‘54 version.
The 1954, George Cukor version of A Star is Born could very easily be written off as a Judy Garland ego trip or someone’s monument to her greatness, whether she wanted it or not. Frank Pierson is not building monuments to Barbra Streisand’s greatness in the 1976 version of A Star is Born. Yes, he knows to get out of the way at the end and let his leading lady loose to do her thing, and boy does she, but this is no ego trip, that moment especially is fully ingrained to the heart of the movie.
If I do have some issues with this version of A Star is Born, they are with Kris Kristofferson. I had no idea how much I was going to hate his voice. He’s not great in this at the one thing I assumed he was known for. His singing voice is a raspy, nasty howl that I can’t imagine ever having had a hit record. Perhaps it’s meant to be part of his ongoing downfall, maybe he used to be able to sing beautifully but there is little evidence of that here.
Kristofferson’s acting isn’t bad, he has an authentic quality that keeps him from being one note. Streisand definitely makes things easier for him. She’s magnetic, she could make anyone seem better just by how well she sees them. That she’s falling for him helps us to appreciate him more. That, and the character is superbly written. Pierson along with the brilliant Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are credited with the screenplay and it’s some kind of shame they didn’t receive an Oscar nomination.
This version of A Star is Born is filled with transcendent moments from Esther’s first time on stage, to the hothouse romance of her recording the hit song “Evergreen” to that ballsy, brilliant, teary ending that I adore so much. It doesn’t quite reach the emotional or romantic heights of what Janet Gaynor and Fredric March reached in the 1937 original but it’s far closer than the Judy Garland movie.
Plus, this version of A Star is Born only serves to make me even more excited about the newest iteration of this story. If Bradley Cooper can create the moments, we already know Lady Gaga can blow the doors down with her voice. If she’s set for an ending like the one we got in 1976, get ready for the waterworks, have some tissues on hand because we are in for some classic emotional rollercoaster rock n’roll romance.
George Cukor is a legendary director. I praised his work on The Philadelphia Story in this very space not all that long ago. I own both Gaslight and Born Yesterday, just two of the many iconic films Cukor directed in his 40 plus year career. I have George Cukor bona fides, so I feel I am in a position to offer a critique of one of his most well remembered and should be forgotten efforts, his remake of A Star is Born in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason.
A Star is Born (1954A) takes the story of Ester Blodgett, so brilliantly and memorably played by Janet Gaynor, and makes it a vehicle for a Judy Garland one woman show. What once was a classic Hollywood tragic romance is now commandeered into what amounts to a Judy Garland concept album that occasionally pauses for some dialogue. The music and the design is spectacular but the story is a complete non-starter and considering it’s one of the greatest stories Hollywood has ever told, that’s not merely a shame, it’s a downright crime.
Judy Garland plays Ester as a singer performing with a big band at an event at the Hollywood Bowl. She’s on the stage when a drunken movie star, Norman Maine (James Mason) wanders on stage looking worse for wear. Ester improvises and dances with Norman making it briefly seem as if he’s part of the act and her move, temporarily, rescues Norman from another in a string of public spectacles that are slowly sinking his career.
So intrigued is Norman by Ester’s remarkable voice that he tracks her down to a late night club where she and the band are allowed to perform their favorite songs and sip on cheap booze. When Norman walks in, he's carried away by Ester’s performance of “The Man Who Got Away.” Norman then sweeps Ester away to talk and eventually convinces her not to go out on tour with the band but rather to take a screen test with him for the chance to become a star.
Ester takes that chance and after a few stumbles and a brief Norman disappearing act, he gets her a big shot with the big shots. Ester lands a lead role and wins the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. All this as Norman, her lover and her mentor slowly begins to fade away. With his star on the wane and hers on the rise, can Norman overcome his insecurities and ego for Ester or will he burn out like the great star that he was.
Flowery prose aside, the story is there but the team of Cukor, Garland and Mason have no interest in it. This version of A Star is Born is dedicated not to storytelling, not to an iconic Hollywood tale, but to the ego of star Judy Garland. That’s not to say it’s Judy Garland’s fault that I don’t like this version of A Star is Born, but she’s the one whose singing constantly interrupts and upstages the story.
It’s the dedication to showing Garland perform entire songs that likely explains why James Mason’s performance as Norman Maine has none of the energy or wit of Fredric March’s Norman in 1937. Mason appears completely checked out, he makes no attempt to connect with Garland romantically and without the romance, the tragedy doesn’t resonate as strongly as it should. No one seems to care however, because Judy Garland is hoofing and singing her heart out.
I genuinely do appreciate Garland’s talents. She’s an incredible performer, much better than the rest of the movie around her. The problem is, she’s so good and so talented, that this amazing story is buried beneath the monuments that George Cukor builds to her talent. Because of the fact that we see her perform so many full length songs, this version of A Star is Born is a punishing three hours long. I could get the same effect from a Judy Garland concept album as I got from seeing A Star is Born (1954).
The only part of the story that Cukor gets right, and that still remains from the exceptional, all time classic, 1937 version of A Star is Born, is the depiction of just how fragile the male ego can be. One of the few moments that works in the ‘54 version is a scene where Norman signs for a package and is referred to as Mr. Vicki Lester. Mason registers the pain in his eyes beautifully and given that the scene before was a lengthy, playful song, his turn of mood is really effective.
That one scene however, is not enough to overcome the miscalculations of this version of A Star is Born. This story is too great, too iconic and too deeply, romantically, tragic to turn into a simple minded star vehicle. William Wellman created a remarkable story with the help of some of the finest writers of his day and for a remake to trample that work as George Cukor does here is a crime against storytelling.
It's fair to say that I am bagging on this take on A Star is Born because of my love for the original. I'm not intending to ignore the good about the remake, I just can't get over how much I love this story, and these characters as they were played by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. I think Judy Garland is wonderful and her singing is rather divine, it's just badly misplaced here. This is a romantic tragedy, not a one woman show. It needs leads with chemistry and not a checked out leading man who's shoved out of the picture in favor of songs that only serve to lengthen the movie to an ungodly length.
A Star is Born is among the most iconic stories Hollywood has ever told. There are few things that Hollywood people love more than stories about Hollywood and what is a better Hollywood tale than a romantic tragedy about a young, up and coming, starlet and a fading film icon. Doomed romance against the glamorous backdrop of old Hollywood. That producer David O. Selznick didn’t stop at the premise and added to it with, arguably the finest writer of her time in 1937, Dorothy Parker, only serves to make the original, A Star is Born the truly iconic version of this iconic tale.
A Star is Born (1937) stars Janet Gaynor as Ester Blodgett, a small town, North Dakota gal with stars in her eyes. She loves to go to the picture show and dreams of seeing herself on the big screen next Garbo or Harlow or her dreamboat, Norman Maine (Fredric March). Her family wants her to keep her head of the clouds and get married, all except her granny (May Robson), who cashes in her funeral fund to send Ester to Hollywood.
Once in Hollywood, Ester struggles like most young starlets trying to stand out in a sea of starlets. There is little encouragement for her, save for Danny, the wonderful Andy Devine, a down on his luck assistant director who becomes Ester’s closest friend. It’s through Danny that Ester gets her first job in Hollywood, as a waitress at a Hollywood party. Ester however, seizes the opportunity and in a terrifically funny scene, Janet Gaynor throws herself into impressing people at the party with impressions of Garbo and Jean Harlow.
It’s here where she meets Norman Maine in person for the first time and their chemistry is off the charts. Norman is the epitome of the Hollywood libertine. We hear legendary stories about his exploits via his friend and studio head, Oliver Niles played by the sublime Adolph Menjou. Oliver has spent the past few years protecting Norman from the press but with his box office numbers dropping, he may not be able to protect his friend much longer.
The romance of Ester and Norman leads to Ester getting a big screen test and landing a bit part. That bit part bursts into a lead part opposite Norman in which her star power blows him off the screen. Suddenly Ester, renamed Vicki Lester, is the toast of Hollywood and though she and Norman marry, his fading star is set to be the downfall of their romantic bliss. While the going is good however, Gaynor and March light up the screen in one of Hollywood’s greatest on screen romances.
I completely adore A Star is Born (1937). William Wellman’s direction is superb and the script, though authored by a committee, has just the right committee to make it work. The legendary wit of Dorothy Parker is present throughout A Star is Born. Listen close and you can hear her wit coming from March’s Norman as he cuts through the B.S of the Hollywood system before his ego becomes too much for him to bear.
Janet Gaynor is the picture of innocent, loving, romance. She’s brilliant and beautiful and she simply radiates with elegance and talent. Then there is her talent for comedy, though underplayed here, I adored the few moments when her comic side comes out. I mentioned the party scene and her wonderful impressions but even a much smaller scene in which she’s traveling in a camper while Norman is driving and she’s singing and burning a steak, she has comic gracefulness that only a true star has.
Fredric March is charisma personified. He’s completely fearless, with zero care as to whether we like him or not. March is fully self-possessed and exceedingly confident. That’s what makes him such a great character for a romantic tragedy, a man who believes he’s impervious finds pain for the first time and can’t bear it. March is witty and handsome and unafraid to allow us, if no one else in the movie, to see him be wounded, vulnerable and eventually, deeply tragic.
A Star is Born (1937) is like a chemical reaction; all the pieces come together for this brilliant explosion of romance, glamour, laughs and heartache. That final line in the movie, “Mrs Norman Maine” is one of the most incredible final lines in movie history. It sums up a journey for Janet Gaynor as Ester and for us in the audience who now have this gloriously cathartic moment of joy and empathy, sadness and triumph.
A Star is Born (1937) is now among my favorite movies of all time. It’s available now on Amazon Prime and for subscribers to the FilmStruck app. It’s the first of four versions of A Star is Born that I will be writing about this week and I predict it will be the best of the bunch.
Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is downright diabolical. This brilliant dark drama about a reporter who’s hit rock bottom and sees his ticket back to the big time in a dying man, trapped in a hole, is a masterpiece of cynicism and shock. Kirk Douglas gives a ripping performance as a man whose poverty and boredom overcomes his basic human decency and with Wilder’s witty direction, Ace in the Hole becomes an all time classic.
Kirk Douglas stars in Ace in the Hole as Chuck Tatum. Chuck’s been fired from numerous jobs across the country, his biggest gig in New York City where his drinking cost him a really great life. Now, Chuck’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he charms his way into a job writing for a local newspaper. Chuck is a slimeball, an arrogant jerk who has charm but little care for the feelings of others.
In New Mexico, Chuck begins to turn his life around. He gives up drinking and commits himself to writing news stories. Things are working out relatively well but Chuck is bored, he’s eager for a story to break. He gets his chance at a big story when a local man named Leo Minosa gets trapped in a cave while searching for artifacts. Chuck insinuates himself into the plan to rescue Leo and pushes the story to last longer, before turning it into a national obsession.
Things get uglier when Chuck gets into an affair with the trapped man’s wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling). Chuck also disillusions a young, local photographer whose innocent observations become consumed by Chuck’s obsessive, greedy, desire to keep Leo Minosa trapped in the cave to keep his now national scoop going and keep the accolades and cash for his writing rolling in.
The cynicism of Chuck Tatum is the defining trait of Ace in the Hole. Douglas rages and roils with petty, cynical diatribes. Douglas carries a vicious intelligence and frightful wit that he uses against the small town New Mexico folks any chance he gets. The gleam in Douglas’s eyes when he sees Leo’s predicament for the first time is chilling. He senses that this is the story that could win him prizes and his big ticket back to New York City. His calculations are villainous and yet, because it is Kirk Douglas we hang in with him far longer than we might with a lesser actor.
The story of Ace in the Hole is based on a true story. Floyd Collins of Kentucky became trapped in a cave collapse in 1925. The story of how so many people failed and and made terrible choices in their attempts to rescue him were the basis for a tremendous episode of the history podcast The Dollop. Ace in the Hole takes the perspective of a reporter, just as a reporter was at the center of Floyd Collins’ story, only he was more blundering and less malevolent than chuck.
Billy Wilder is a genius director. His compositions are basic yet brilliant but it’s his characters and dialogue where the legend forms. There is a nasty bite to Douglas’s dialogue that comes from a before its time level of cynicism and calculation. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award for Wilder and co-writers Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman. For Samuels it was a second consecutive Oscar nomination following his script for No Way Out in 1950.
It’s a reflection of just how harsh and abrasive yet bracing Ace in the Hole is that the Academy snubbed the film for Best Picture and Best Director in 1951. The film was just to ahead of its time, too nasty, too sardonic for the era of the Hayes Code which forced the film into an ending that, though true to the characters, betrays just how down and dirty the story is for most of its running time.
Ace in the Hole is available on Tuesday, October 2nd, for the first time on a Criterion Collection Blu Ray release. The Blu-Ray has terrific special features for hardcore film fans including academic commentary tracks, multiple interviews with the late director, Billy Wilder, and a video essay featuring director Spike Lee. I highly recommend picking it up for yourself or your favorite film fan.