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PROFESSOR BIRDMAN’S WING-FLAPPING, PLUMAGE-FLAUNTING, BEAK-BUSTING THANKSGIVING WEEKEND MOVIE QUIZ

Obviously I’m late on this quiz, but Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule always seems to have the perfect ones just coming out at a point where I feel I need to recharge before getting back into gear with writing about movies. So here we goooooo!!!

1) Most obnoxious movie you’ve ever seen

Do I get to say Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, even though I couldn’t finish it (and I was like 5/6 of the way in) because it was so fucking shrill? If I don’t get to say that, then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Fucking noise pollution that one is.

2) Favorite oddball pairing of actors.

Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis Jr. in Bubba Ho-Tep and I sure am glad to have seen them together.

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3) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ken Russell?

Fifty Shades of Grey. There’s gonna be some really occultist moods rising out of it with Ken Russell behind the camera, something that brings suddenly more camp value and artistic merit out of the material. And just imagine: Oliver Reed as Christian Grey.

4) Emma Stone or Margot Robbie?

I’m kind of mad that Margot Robbie isn’t already a HOUSEHOLD MOVIE STAR, even though she’s given performance after performance that steals scenes from movies that don’t deserve it (FocusThe Wolf of Wall Street, even fucking Suicide Squad). So no slight to the talented Stone, but Team Robbie until she gets her due.

Looking forward to I, Tonya on the praise of certain friends.

5) Which member of Monty Python are you?

Terry Gilliam. We like animation and visual art, we get into hissy fits over filmmaking, we’re petty over artists we don’t like (though I’d certainly battle him over his attitude towards Spielberg), and we’re both broke as fuck.

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6) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Vincent Minnelli?

High School Musical because if we’re gonna be inaccurate to my high school experiences, why not go for broke?

7) Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte?

Franco Nero because his charm is of the grizzled heroic sort, while Volonte is of the slimy villain sort. I wanna be one of the good guys, man.

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8) Your favorite Japanese monster movie

It’s cheating to say Godzilla, even though it IS my answer. I guess Daimajin can take over, given how he don’t play no games.

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9) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Stanley Kubrick?

Forrest Gump. I don’t need to say why.

10) Hanna Schygulla or Barbara Sukowa?

Schygulla. The Marriage of Maria Braun, yo.

11) Name a critically admired movie that you hate.

There are so many, obviously. Bur I feel like nobody will try to stop me right now if I say American Beauty, a movie that already felt creepy and pretentious and misogynistic well before it turned out it was starring a creep.

12) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Elia Kazan?

Glengarry Glen Ross. Character and tension driven drama, that’s right on his wavelength.

13) Better or worse: Disney comedies (1955-1975) or Elvis musicals?

Excuse me? Are we implying Elvis musicals are bad? Fuck outta here.

14) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Alfred Hitchcock?

The Book of Henry, oh my fucking gawd.

15) Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum?

Ryan Gosling has hella talent and often picks more interesting projects, but I’m sorry, my heart goes Channing Tatum who continuously charms the shit out of me and has moves like Jagger.

16) Bad performance in a movie you otherwise like/love.

Y’know, I just rewatched Blow Out and Nancy Allen’s performance has got some less than ideal connotations so I’m gonna go with that one. Still that shot of her screaming.

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17) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Howard Hawks?

The Last Man on Earth/The Omega Man/I Am Legend. Basically re-adapt Matheson’s book with less moving parts than Hawks is used too but probably more incisive to the lonely masculinity of the lead. If John Wayne stars, that’s a plus.

18) Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak?

Kim Novak. Doesn’t get enough credit for Vertigo.

19) Best crime movie remake.

John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, but who the fuck even thinks about the original?

20) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Preston Sturges?

Le Million. I mean, the movie’s already a perfect masterpiece, let’s be damned well honest and I don’t like international films being remade in America but I really would have loved to see a Preston Sturges musical and this premise is exactly the sort of heart he knows how to work with.

21) West Side Story (the movie), yes or no?

Eh. I don’t think it’s a bad movie but I’ve never been as in love with it as anyone else. I think the much better Robert Wise feature musical is 4 years later.

22) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luchino Visconti?

Le Samouraï. We already he has a love for Alain Delon based on how he used Delon in The Leopard. And man, the design would probably be less sleek but more lavish. But again we’d be remaking a perfect masterpiece.

23) What was the last movie you saw, theatrically and/or on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming?

Theatrically: The Disaster Artist

DVD: Kuroneko

Blu-Ray: Blow Out

Streaming: Riley the Cop

One of these things is not like the other. One of these movies sucks.

24) Brewster McCloud or O.C. and Stiggs?

I’ve only seen Brewster McCloud.

25) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luis Bunuel?

Olympia. I know it’s a documentary that’s unsubtly Nazi propaganda but YOLO, Buñuel would DESTROY that shit.

26) Best nature-in-revolt movie.

“Best” is a false term, but I get the most joy out of the idiocy of 2012.

27) Best Rene Auberjoinois performance (film or TV)

My man, that wonderful voice cameo in The Little Mermaid where he nearly murdered my dawg Sebastian to song. What a horrifying villain.

28) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ingmar Bergman?

3 Godfathers. I can’t imagine what Bergman would want to make this movie and I’d love to see him rip it apart.

29) Best movie with a bird or referencing a bird in its title?

The Bird with the Crystal Plummage. Only because it is the first movie that comes to my mind.

30) Burt Lancaster or Michael Keaton?

Burt Lancaster and you have no idea how hard this was.

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31) In what way have the recent avalanche of allegations unearthed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal changed the way you look at movies and the artists who make them?

It really took me aback to recognize the scale of sexual violence in the industry (especially with #MeToo) and insisted that sweeping things under the rug and “separating the art from the artist” is not good enough anymore. We can’t allow these sort of people to be put in a position of power and the complicity is with everyone – co-workers who work with the perpetrators, audiences who pay to see his work, everybody, man.

We gotta do better.

Also that it’s probably every industry, not just film, that has this abuse of power.

32) In 2017 which is “better,” TV or the movies?

Twin Peaks: The Return is easily the best audio-visual work I saw since Mad Max: Fury Road and I’m slightly considering putting it as number one on my end of the year list not in claim that it’s a movie (which no, it’s fucking not. It’s a TV series) but as declaration of how much I now fucking hate movies.

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Sofia Coppola’s Tenchi Muyo

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I don’t think I can blamed for feeling that sometimes feminine-focused storytelling is better understood by women. While of course Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood did fantastic work with their adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Devil back in 1971 under the title of The Beguiled, but Sofia Coppola’s remake of their film is a lot more relaxed and confident about the complexities of its characters in a way that Siegel and Eastwood couldn’t be. Indeed where Siegel had to grab every incident in the plot and squeeze out the most melodrama he could possibly stomp out of a story that feels alien compared to the rest of his work (save for possibly another Eastwood collaboration – Two Mules for Sister Sara, though I have not seen that one), Coppola’s treatment of this material is more chilly and sleepy. And that’s appropriate since she’s a lot more familiar about the malaise shuttered women feel in a singular location for an indefinite amount of time, surrounded by the harsh masculine violence (portrayed by a brilliant sound mix just distantly implying the battles occurring).

In Coppola’s The Beguiled, she explores that malaise through the tale of Martha Fansworth’s (Nicole Kidman) girls school in the middle of Civil War-torn Virginia as one day her young student Amy (Oona Laurence) brings the wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Bringing a smoldering and helpless man into these four walls obviously sends a shockwave through Farnsworth, her teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and the five students, including and especially Alicia (Elle Fanning).

Young women locked in four walls and that empty time and space informing them. This is exactly the type of material she’s been working with for much of her career – her first three features The Virgin SuicidesLost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette especially. And while probably more plot-driven than either of those three films, Coppola ends up finding a way to let The Beguiled simmer into just watching all these characters who don’t know how to respond to each other bounce off the walls emotionally. Gorgeous walls they are too, designed by Anne Ross in light pinks to feel like a pale ghost of a house trying to dress itself up for company but giving way to beiges failing to hide the school’s emptiness. And captured in lyrically soft lights by Phillipe Le Sourd that let those colors blanket the scenes in bored yet distinct ways. It’s a lovely film to look at and thereby a lovely one to live in despite the characters we’re living with, all vulnerable in some way, all trying to hold control over the situation so they’re not obliged to one another. So that I find Coppola’s Beguiled better, by a sly margin, than Siegel’s Beguiled should not be a surprise to anyone who knows me except for maybe those whose opinions usually align with mine and diverge at this point by disliking the movie.

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Can’t bring myself to blame them. If there’s one place Coppola fails in Siegel’s stead, it’s that her Beguiled is so lax that it doesn’t bother to scrounge up any momentum as a thriller*. While that might add to a violent jar when the third act escalates, at no point in the movie – even at that first act – does it feel like it’s anymore than a really spiteful character drama without the slightest hint of danger. That’s probably not aided by fact that in an ensemble almost entirely personified by different levels of repressed female sexuality (this feels a lot sexually heightened than Siegel’s film, but it’s still there – especially in Farrell’s chemistry with Dunst) and varied in responses to that repression, the odd man out is Farrell. Maybe this is just as a unfortunate result of having seen the original first, but Farrell – extremely attractive as he is – does not have an ounce of the sexual charisma that Eastwood had as McBurney. Nor does his about-face around the second half of the film feel much dangerous as it is presented like a kneejerk response to misfortune. And that’s troubling, given Farrell has shown all throughout his career that he’s capable of both sex appeal and heightened antagony (I particularly think, funny enough, of another remake performance – Fright Night – combining both). In any other movie, Farrell’s muted performance would have been adequate. In the context of this heightened conflict of sexual wiles and manipulation, it’s an outright liability.

As for liabilities in the ensemble, the biggest one is not who is on-screen, but who isn’t. The black slave character of Hallie, previously a grounded presence that suspected McBurney early on, ends up removed on Coppola’s part (explained as her feeling unqualified to talk about slavery). Ignoring the evident collapse of the third act’s tension by taking away a character apprehensive to McBurney’s presence and thereby straining the already pretty languid pacing, I don’t really find much argument against the fact that deciding to make a Civil War film while consciously removing a pre-established black character is erasure (although Ira Madison III – among others – argues otherwise). In either case, the drama has to be entirely rearranged by Hallie’s presence and so Coppola as writer and director has more heavy-lifting to do.

I think she pulls it off and earns her Best Director Award from the film’s 2017 Cannes premiere, providing a film that balances the atmosphere in an uncanny way between the funereal and the flowery and brings a shudder to me while she also composes a forceful clash of charms from at least three different powerful personas on-screen (Seductive Fanning, Matriarchal Kidman, Erotic Farrell; on top of the brilliantly withdrawn Dunst and the impressive informal arc from innocence to complicit darkness in Laurence provides. I only regret that an actress as talented as Angourie Rice doesn’t get much to do). It’s not as overt as its predecessor, even in the carnality of certain relationships. I find that a boon, letting The Beguiled wrap around me into an ennui relatable to the characters on screen and nestling itself nicely into the output of a director I’m always ready to revisit.

*The guy I watched Coppola’s film with was actually surprised after-the-fact to find out that it was supposed to be considered a thriller. He hadn’t seen any advertising of course, which angled Coppola’s film as a horror film (I probably wouldn’t have convinced him to see The Beguiled with me if he saw those trailers).

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Send Me a Sign

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Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (and oooh baby do I love that title) has an unfortunate sin within it that I wish it didn’t have. Something certain people would argue is present in last year’s big Best Picture frontrunner* La La Land, but in a more direct and frankly unpleasant manner. Before I can get into what that is, I gotta lay out what it’s about.

The premise of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s screenplay begins eight months after the investigation (ten months after the crime itself) of the rape and murder of teenage Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) and setting the film that far ahead of the crime establishes it within the film as a long cold case that McDonagh is not concerned with solving. This is not a mystery. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is instead about the aftermath of a town’s lack of closure from it and the woman at the center of it all is Angela’s misanthropic hard-headed mother Mildred (Frances McDormand), who in her frustration tries to light a fire under Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by renting three billboards close to her home with a message on each one: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”.

Obviously, that’s going to inflame a lot of outrage in such a small town as Ebbing (where most of the action takes place in only three locations). It stresses the hell out of Mildred’s depressed son and Angela’s sister Robbie (Lucas Hedges) to continue to be reminded of her awful death, it infuriates Mildred’s ex-husband and Angela’s father Charlie (John Hawkes) with his history of violence and stone animosity to his ex-wife, and it especially puts Mildred on the wrong side of the largely corrupt police force. It certainly upsets Chief Willoughby despite his understanding of Mildred’s pain and wish to solve the case and in the context of a personal development that feels too much like a spoiler to let on, but it’s the alcoholic and unruly Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who takes it the hardest and tries to abuse his power unrestrainedly to make the life of anybody even slightly involved with Mildred a living hell. This is not particularly new to Dixon, considering how quickly Mildred throws his history of racially charged police brutality at him and that’s where it becomes a little less kosher for me.

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Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri does not want to be about racism. In a town full of bigots in every corner (McDonagh’s dialogue is chock full of some very unfortunate phrasing about race, sexuality, physical deficiencies, mental deficiencies, and so on), it just so happens to have to deal with a local police station in a town where it reflects all of the flaws and problems with the people inhabiting it themselves. And unfortunately there is no possible way to make a film revolving around police officers in such a toxic environment that doesn’t identify brutality and racism without being painfully naive. That those things play as window dressing to the subsequent interiority of characters who partake in them is untimely given this day and age of BlackLivesMatter (especially since the only three black characters in the film have little to no characterization, which is just awful) and that’s enough to hold it against Three Billboards, but I don’t see that as the sum of its parts.

Me, I just happen to think it’s a really well-sketched story of three people who have to deal with grief and failure in their own ways and all three of those people are portrayed in tragic and bitter shades by McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell (preferred in that order), spitting out McDonagh’s venom like a second language. McDormand especially makes the profanities that come out of her feel effortless with a clear amount of hurt and self-preservation behind them to inform us enough of the character within her first few scenes. Harrelson and Rockwell approach their own characters from an opposing spectrum of sensitivity and vulnerability that softens the edges of their characters in a way that helps the subsequent third act feel natural and less objectionable (Harrelson’s Willoughby is absolute soft edges and diplomacy, Rockwell’s Dixon an unfortunate shit of a person).

McDonagh’s script is obviously not perfect. In fact, I would call it the weakest element of the whole film. It’s thematically clumsy on those elements and there’s missteps on its structure – such as the decision to include a flashback that doesn’t really tell us anything about Angela we wouldn’t already learn later and imbue some eye-rollingly contrived dark irony – but it’s much closer to McDonagh’s brilliant feature debut In Bruges to his merely fine sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, full of a mechanical domino effect in incidents and character motivations that ends up slowly billowing to a fire before it just exhausts itself with energy (in a very good way) in the final act and mostly keeping this up with a muted but present sense of bitter black humor for palatability and unexpected sympathy for characters that one might argue doesn’t deserve it.

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And that still leaves enough praise for how McDonagh as a director works so well to keep the small scale of the town established (with the help of an ensemble that honestly has little to work with but make the best of it – Samara Weaving, Jon Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, and Caleb Landry Jones all feeling lived-in) by containing most of the primary action to three major spots, one of which must have been a miracle of location scouting in having the police station and the publicity office where Mildred rents the billboards, setting the stage for one very wild and violent long-shot sequence as well as a little experiment in paced cutting by Jon Gregory as we witness Mildred take out her fiery wrath in the middle of the night unknowing of her shocking victim. Ben Davis’ photography and Carter Burwell’s score provide a sarcastic rural Americana feel to the proceedings (including the bluest nights one can dream of with a brilliant wide shot of Mildred rushing in between two blazing fires in the middle of an otherwise vacant field) all of which give the full package to diving deep into these characters’ sense of their lives being broken by a rape-murder and their inability to find closure from it all.

In the end, it’s all the McDormand/Rockwell show and McDonagh seems to want to arrange all the best elements of his film to compliment their presence. And in Rockwell’s case especially, this depends on how your mileage may vary because it’s impossible to pretend Three Billboards does not put itself right in the crosshairs of those who would rightfully call it out as giving interiority to racists and homophobes and general bullies and we live in an age where some people might not want to see that. But there’s something pretty comforting about its willingness to see the clumsy sloppiness in anger and hate and how people just don’t know how to square with their problems. Some use it to attack and blame, some use it to abuse and beat down and Three Billboards doesn’t pretend to have an answer to that, just a very sad lens to the people who think they found it.

*While it’s probably not THE frontrunner this year – I don’t think there is a “THE frontrunner” yet – Three Billboards is certainly A frontrunner.

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Our Hospitality

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It’s already shocking enough to imagine Clint Eastwood as the centerpiece of a film about female sexuality… kind of. The fact that he’s the smoldering handsome slab of manliness that women are all over is completely expected of Eastwood, but that he’d be willing to play that objectified role in a movie more indebted to the perspectives of the women surrounding him and how they respond to his presence rather than just how much of a sexual dynamo he is is what makes me surprised at the man’s involvement at the peak of his grizzled masculinity.

That this generous ensemble look into the shuttered lives of frustrated women in the depths of the Southern summer heat like a Tennessee Williams work went gothic is directed by Don Siegel, Eastwood’s regular collaborator and who probably surpassed Sergio Leone as the biggest hand in coding Clint Eastwood as a lonely tower of violent machismo, is fucking mind blowing.

Because The Beguiled, adapted into a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (pseudonymed due to Maltz’s blacklisting into “John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice”) and based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, is frankly successful at shading in dark the stresses of these women in their humid prison, something the qualifications of both of its most prevalent authors (Eastwood being the one who introduced the material to Siegel).

Those women being Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), the sophisticated and maternal headmistress of a girls’ school run in the middle of the Mississippi woods and one of only three adult figures around, the others being frail teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman) and weathered slave Hallie (Mae Mercer). The school is surrounded inescapably by the chaos of the Civil War and that chaos leaves in their midst one day the near-dead Union Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood), who young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) finds and helps bring to the school even after McBurney alarmingly kisses the twelve-year-old girl – ostensibly to hide from Confederate troops seeking him, but in an unmistakably sensual manner.

From McBurney’s entrance into the walls of the school, The Beguiled becomes most interested in simmering the sexual tension slowly to a boil based on the various ways every single inhabitant responds to the sudden presence of this rugged piece of virility healing in their comforts. Martha quickly announces her intentions to relinquish McBurney to the Confederate troops once he heals, but clearly finds McBurney an entertaining replacement for her late brother. Edwina is positively smitten by him in an unhealthy pushover way. The eldest teenage student Carol (Jo Ann Harris) is lustful and attempts to seduce McBurney. Hallie is reasonably conversational but more than a bit wary of McBurney’s intentions.

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This is a story that could easily develop into “guy trapped among libidinous woman must escape these crazies” and to be fair, I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what Siegel’s picture is. While the movie is interested into what brings the women into such malaise, it’s hard for Siegel to make a movie starring Eastwood not mostly interested in Eastwood and The Beguiled feels most tonally engaged when it gets to function as thriller with the women, but I’ll get to that soon. Still it is clear early on that McBurney is more than a little bit manipulative (though his injuries are legitimate and life-threatening) and he’s aware of the carnal inhibitions he is ripping out of the women all around him. As Eastwood’s chilly and smug inhabitation of the role informs us, McBurney’s certainly trying to turn those things to his significant benefit and the movie is only waiting for it to blow up some explosive manner, which it does in the third act thanks to the unhinged high-scale performances of cold and deliberate Page and especially Hartman, who gets to take hold of the conflicted feelings of lust and rage that Edwina has beaten over her in an explosive scene connecting the second and third act and spins between them in a deliriously pitiful yet vicious way.

Page and Hartman are supported by Don Siegel’s possibly most nakedly heightened work to date, indulging in flashbacks to the potentially sordid affair between Farnsworth and her brother to punctuate the ugliness behind Page’s facade (as well as certain ones introduce to us how clearly McBurney is not above dishonesty or self-preservation), the occasional double exposures on images to establish a meditative mood that still manages to hold an edge on the characters, or Lalo Schifrin’s score rising like steam in a boiling pot to warn us of the duplicity still in delicate choral strings. And we still don’t get to the most outrageous element yet, Bruce Surtees’ use of shadows into sculpting scorned female gargoyle faces on Page and Hartman at their most enraged. Up until that climactic sequence, Surtees is restrained in framing the house as anything more than an innocuous yet prison-like cage for the women, partly funereal with just enough delicacy in its soft tones to give the visuals a lilting feel. Mind you, there are those who might consider these elements hokey or overwrought and they do handily seem dated in a manner that feels less digestible if you aren’t quite into it. For me, I eat that right up and find it utterly compelling as thriller.

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After all, it’s what heightens the film enough to melodrama so that Siegel and company into slapping one in the face with the toxicity of the situation, from McBurney’s smug ability to take hold of these women in a creepy manipulative way unconcerned with their well-being (or any principles at all, one of the most horrifying moments late in the film where he goes on edge and threatens to rape the characters now that he’s much once he’s asserted his masculinity at gunpoint), Edwina’s helplessness in her own self-destructive path throwing away the security she previously had in this aristocratic home, Carol’s excitement at exploring her newfound sexuality with a tall male object to aim her open blouse at, Hallie’s necessary resilience to the cruelty of McBurney and the Farnsworth clan (another flashback cutting into a sinister exchange as through triggered by past trauma to Hallie), and above it all Miss Farnsworth herself psychologically fencing with McBurney to contain control of her girls for completely selfish reasons as McBurney attempts to put her under his wiles and avoid being further under her mercy as he already is.

But perhaps the true indicator of there being no moral center in The Beguiled, only culpability in human darkness, is the young child Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), who is our first character – the one who finds the half-dead McBurney – who is kissed on the lips, who remains so smitten by McBurney that she spends an amount of the runtime his biggest advocate against being turned over to the Confederates, and at the end has a very key involvement in the lethal finale of such a sharp and moody descent into the vices and violence of repressed sexuality.

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Hey guys, it’s me, videogameDunkirk

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This late after its initial release (though there is indeed the possibility of an Oscar season rerun given its certainty in the Best Picture slate at this point in a weak year), it doesn’t really matter to housekeep what format exactly I saw Christopher Nolan’s World War II picture Dunkirk or what I’d recommend it in. But just for formality’s sake, I may as well state I was lucky enough to catch it in both regular 70mm projection and in IMAX digital format*. And celluloid purists be damned, after watching it in IMAX, I cannot imagine living without bigger format accommodating the full breadth of most of the imagery (one of the storylines most obviously was not shot on IMAX due to the clear logistics of the scene and so it’s in a 2.20:1 format opposed to the rest of the IMAX 1.90:1. The switch may be jarring to some, but what isn’t kind of jarring about Nolan and editor Lee Smith’s choice of editing style, anyway? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I just want to point out that while most of the imagery cut by the popular 70mm 2.20:1 version of the film is essentially empty space of sea and sky, that goes a long way in implying the length and distance our characters have from safety. Which ratchets up the tension in an anxious way.

That tension coming from portraying the real-life 1940 evacuation of British soldiers from the French shore of Dunkirk as the unseen German forces surround them during their invasion of France in World War II. And being a Christopher Nolan film, one of the mainstream filmmakers most fascinated with playing around narrative structure, the story of Dunkirk’s desperate waiting game and evacuation is told through three different strands and timespans: The Mole, following a week of the novel-named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find a way out of the mass of sitting ducks that is British soldiers trapped on the beach with on-edge private Alex (Harry Styles) and the uncommunicative Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The Sea, following a day of the civilian ships commissioned from Weymouth to help the evacuation effort, amongst them Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who end up finding a shell-shocked soldier stranded in the ocean (Cillian Murphy) who tries to force them to turn away from Dunkirk. And the Air, following three spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and an uncredited Michael Caine in order of importance) as they fly for an hour to give air support to the departing ships and protect them from the hawking German stukas.

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The intention is clear – Nolan wants a comprehensive look at the experience of the fearful lives in one of the most fearful moments in European history – made all the more clearer in the fact that none of these characters have much to inner life within them except the desire not to die, leading more to audience proxies for experiential intensity than any deep entities. Such was the source of much criticism towards Dunkirk and while they’re entitled to their opinion, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m sure most audiences can relate to not wanting to die.

I’d be lying if I said I found the exercise a complete success, though To begin with, I can’t really read a logic to Lee Smith’s cross-cutting between the timelines. There’s not enough incident to the Mole storyline to believe the whole thing spans a week without narratively jumping a few days while the Air storyline is just an extended flight sequence with occasional interruption by Stuka fire. Neil Fulwood at Agitation of the Mind made mention of peripheral moments in the Mole storyline such as the bodies returning with the changing tide that could have been given more room to allow a tapestry of experiences, rather than just keeping it entirely restrained to two points of view – Tommy or the frustratingly patient commanding officer Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Smith doesn’t lose all that much momentum, but the temporal parameters just aren’t well-suited by his cutting.

That said, there is payoff. Significant payoff, one of the highlight sequences in 2017 summer cinema where the film is aware of the exact timepoint where the three storylines will be colliding and not only is the moment heightened and intense, but the movie’s anticipation of this begins to double down on pacing into the moment like a quickening perception of time, the sort of “holy shit!” fright you get entering a car crash. And boy oh boy does somebody have to give Smith all the credit for that.

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Credit as well given to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in providing the sober reality of the entrapped situation with sandy greys and browns and blues without ever losing the sharpness of the imagery with the delicacy of a war photograph. The blues only inhabit the empty distance when Bolton declares how easily he can see home from the port. And aiding that photography in filling in the atmosphere is a sound mix of distant booms and explosions to jolt the viewer’s heart for every time the Germans thwart the desperate British troops’ runs for safety for punctuation or promise an endless chaos even beyond our characters’ occasional apparent safety. Or the stuka sirens alone signifying the dread growing in the coming gunfire to rain on our helpless subjects, doing a better job of that than the atonal paste of noise that Hans Zimmer’s score attempts to provide and then tries to pile on the hamfisted nature by establishing a progressive beat click. Beyond Zimmer’s work, Nolan and company have provided a comprehensive observation of the terrors of Dunkirk that pulls every clear technique short of gore to interject anxiety and stress into the film.

Dunkirk is truly not a waiting game of a movie, it’s full of motion and energy in a despairing and dire premise. And that energy forces the sort of violent shakes that an audience must respond to. It’s the sort of detached presentation that you forget the whole context until its second-to-last note of a bored reading of Churchill’s speech, but it’s not devoid of sentiment when it opens with a character who we are meant to assume will wipe his ass with Nazi propaganda or a character who we sadly witness die is venerated by his local paper. And it’s not as though the actors don’t do what they can to allow their sense of self shade the characters’ response as human (best performed by Rylance, Styles, Branagh, and Keough in that order). But it is a schematic adaptation of a historical event transformed into a vehicle for audience fright without any nationalism or patriotism (probably ideal in the context of Brexit). Some may find that a bit exploitative, but for me, at least on my first two viewings, I found it thrilling enough to bring me to empathize with every single face in the crowd of soldiers on that beach.

*I was indeed frustrated that the sole South Florida IMAX at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Science and Discovery didn’t have it in IMAX 70mm, but there’s a very embarrassing rumor that explains why.

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Ragnarok n’ Roll

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Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, STinG isn’t in love with the new Taika Waititi-directed film the way he wanted to and has to reckon with whether or not it was as huge a disappointment as he expected.” How did we end up here? Well, it’s kind of a long story.

I was expecting a Taika Waititi movie. Well, that’s not such a long story after all, never mind.

And to be fair, Thor: Ragnarok – the third film in the Thor series and 17th in the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – is not not a Waititi film. But it’s interrupted by the side of it that’s a Kevin Feige-produced MCU film. There’s no reason to hold that against Thor: Ragnarok since the result is still roundly the best Thor film and the out-and-out funniest MCU picture in their whole lineage, but the fact that it’s unfortunately short bursts and portions does leave me a bit disappointed with the result.

For one thing, it takes its sweet ass time getting to the good stuff. The previous Thor film, The Dark World, and the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, left so many threads open ended that co-writers Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost had no choice but to address and resolve from square one the threat of Ragnarok – the end of Norse home world Asgard to be brought by demon Surtur (mo-capped by Waititi, voiced by Clancy Brown) – and the absence of Thor’s father and ubergod Odin (Anthony Hopkins) replaced by Thor’s trickster step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who has now reached the sort of casual obligatory tone in playing this character as Robert Downey Jr. in playing Iron Man), neither of which are the main conflict of the story for our thundergod himself (Chris Hemsworth). For a movie where Waititi claimed in an interview that his modus operandi was to ignore the previous (and frankly) mediocre Thor films, Ragnarok is certainly happy to do a lot of clean-up.

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Now granted, the movie is still joyful and funny at points, as Hopkins does a hilarious job imitating Hiddleston and we witness a cult of personality formed around Loki with a wonderful play featuring three brilliant cameos I must remain mum over for the poor souls who haven’t seen Ragnarok yet. But the fact that we also get the obligatory MCU character cameo before Odin can proper introduced us to the villain in a very clunky monologue is quite frankly annoying and a nuisance in storytelling.

The villain herself is Hela – Odin’s firstborn daughter and the goddess of death – and played by the brilliant Cate Blanchett in full ham and scenery-chewing glory commanding every fucking shot she gets to appear in effortlessly and the sad thing is that Hela is the only reason I enjoyed the Hela/Asgard end of the story. Because quickly after her appearance the film splits based on her expulsion of Thor and Loki and her subsequent conquest of Asgard and attempts to expand her realm being thwarted by the brave Bifrost guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). That’s her side of the story and it’s mostly just a reminder that evil stuff is happening that Thor must stop, while meanwhile, Taika Waititi is making a Taika Waititi movie (that just so happens to be a low-key adaptation of the “Planet Hulk” story) on the industrial trash planet Sakaar where Thor and Loki have landed.

Ruled by the flamboyant Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster (but it may as well just be recognized as Jeff Goldblum himself), Sakaar turns out to be home to a vicious gladiator deathmatch tournament that Thor is shanghaied into participating in against the grand champion: The Incredible Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo). And this reunion is the catalyst to Thor’s attempts in building a team to save Asgard with Hulk and his troubled scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner, the comfortably lucky Loki, an alcoholic and disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, best in show that’s not Goldblum and a born action star), and a failed revolutionary yet infectiously friendly rock monster gladiator named Korg (Taika Waititi) and his robotic sidekick Meek.

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Sakaar isn’t necessarily the stuff of brilliant visual craftsmanship – the lighting is mostly as muted as any other MCU film beyond a mindblowing flashback sequence and this is not the best effects work of the franchise – but the physical design of it is absolutely fun to look at in all of its shapes and mounds and kitchiness, full of a mix of tones between bazaar and industrial and nightclub. It’s clear that Waititi himself walked into this production ready to make a space opera and he sure as hell gave his all, providing a wonderfully colorful and bouncy world full of a variety of bipedal alien races. All of which tuned into a vibrant weirdo tone that takes a few leafs out of the 1980s thanks to Goldblum’s absolute relaxed rock star of a performance and Mark Mothersbaugh’s techno epic of a score. And with a hangout atmosphere courtesy of Waititi’s wonderfully amiable brand of humor, best personified in Korg’s lovable presence even when in the middle of a fight trying to act polite. It’s exactly the MCU film I was waiting for and unfortunately it only lasts as far as the movie spends time in Sakaar.

This is not to say Asgard is a slouch in design, but Waititi’s heart is so obviously in Sakaar and not Asgard that returning to Hela’s storyline where she has literally no momentum thanks to Heimdall’s efforts feels a severe buzzkill to what is otherwise an extremely fun movie. That doesn’t override the fact that the sum of it all IS that is a poppy concoction that’s even able to make the best of the usually unbearable Hemsworth, who proves so much more capable at comedy than he is at drama. Nor is it unclear that there are full consequences to Ragnarok, ones that feel a lot more permanent than the last few times in the MCU where it seemed like consequences of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier were just brushed aside. Whatever obligatory MCU drama we have to push through, it’s rewarded by a much more engaging film than at least half of the MCU preceding it and while it seems like a good illustration of how studio interference obstructs with auteurism, the biggest thing I took away from Thor: Ragnarok is that we should give Waititi money for science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas that have really personable talking rock creatures in a Kiwi accent.

P.S. Rachel House from Hunt for the Wilderpeople (my favorite Waititi film) is also in this playing no less a psychopath than her character there and I’m rooting for her to be in, like, everything now.

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I Believe the Children Are Our Future, Teach Them Well and Let Them Lead the Way

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I live in a very weird bizarre limbo attitude with Sean Baker’s latest film The Florida Project. Like real Mr.-Krabs-meme type of deal. On the one side of it, the majority of Florida-based critics I had been hearing from leading until its availability to me on the tip of that terrible state, Miami, have been… alarmingly hostile*. Including many friends whose opinions I not only trust, but who had a lot more enthusiasm and praise for Baker’s previous film Tangerine. I did not share that same love for Tangerine (partly because it toes the line between laughing at its characters and laughing with its characters salvaged by two phenomenal leads, partly because it’s ugly as hell), so it only aided my hesitancy to see The Florida Project.

Meanwhile, those critics’ antagonism towards the movie is drowned out by the mountains of praise the film has ben receiving since its premiere at the 2017 Festival du Cannes and its continued run in North America, essentially securing at the very least a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe and there’s still enough time in the year for A24 to ride that good will to get either The Florida Project or Lady Bird even more nominations (anything but The Disaster Artist, please). And far be it from me to always ride with the majority opinion, but I like to think there’s actually a reason when people seem to really like a movie.

That movie being a slice-of-life-in-poverty through the perspective of wild and mischievous six-year-olds, not unlike the Our Gang series of short films from the early 1930s that get a special thanks credit. This particular gang of little rascals isn’t a large one, beginning with just Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) who live one floor away from each other in the Magic Castle hotel in Kissimme, Florida, and early on rounding itself up to include Jancey (Valeria Cotto) from the Futureland hotel across the street after one of spitting on and then cleaning her mother’s car. Apparently Mooney’s license to explore with her friends is enabled by her financially unstable and immature young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Baker and Chris Bergoch’s script spends most of its 115 minutes observing the hotel residents and the events alongside the kids, but only slowly developing a narrative involving Halley’s volatile lifestyle intruding on Mooney’s wide-eyed wonder.

So, where do I stand?

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I dunno. I think it’s mostly ok. There are two things about The Florida Project I feel strongly about and they’re both on the opposite sides of my reaction spectrum: I love Dafoe’s performance’s as the hotel’s manager Bobby, a character’s that’s just an occasional satellite to the story full of humane frustration of the gang’s hijinks but also obligatory paternal warmth in understanding their youth and vulnerability. His Oscar chances look promising and I can’t say it’s undeserved, making the most out of every small moment he appears in such as dealing with a predatory old man or amicably moving a group of Sandhill cranes off the property or failing to talk with his son.

Meanwhile, there’s the thing I really hate about The Florida Project, which happens to be the ending so I can’t be as descriptive about it except in saying it felt like an extremely dishonest moment and looks no less ugly than any shot in Tangerine, though there’s also the logistical answer of why The Florida Project chose its look. A scene isn’t made or broken by one scene ideally, but you do pick your ending note for a reason and Baker’s choice of note for The Florida Project feels disastrous and kind of confirms the naysayers’ accusations of exploitation.

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It is very tough for me to hold exploitative nature of the film preceding that ending against it, for very shallow reasons of mine. The Florida Project IS poverty porn but in a visually pleasant way. Florida is the fucking worst, I feel qualified to say after living most of my life at this point in the state, and the Orlando area is just grossly tacky and overcrowded with tourists. Magic Castle and Futureworld are the most normal buildings we see all through the film and they’re both sickly purple concrete constructs in a sweat, but cinematographer Alexis Zabe doesn’t see that. He sees a big vibrant block color interrupting serene glade horizons capturing the light so softly, you’d think it’s fragile and defining the blues and greens and violets. He sees an assuring geometry and symmetry to the floors and doors from the exact right angle, like relaxed clockwork.

And because Zabe sees it, it’s so clearly translated into how the kids themselves see Kissimmee and in turn how the audience is stuck visualizing it. This sort of transformation of a soft serve shaped ice cream booth into the most miraculous sanctuary from the truth of Mooney’s living situation is exactly where The Florida Project hits the target on its ideal. It’s unfortunate that at times the movie sometimes makes decisions that pull away from her perspective in an untethered manner. The most obvious bit is a moment between Bobby and his son (Caleb Landry Jones), but the moments that really grate on me are the ones focused on Halley, who turns out to be so much more shrill than any of the kids possibly could be. Especially when the film takes a character turn with Halley that makes it impossible to sympathize with her in the final act of the film, even while it’s desperately asking for us to feel so. Which only butters me up into being frustrated and annoyed by the ending to the point of asking “What the fuck was that?” as the credits rolled.

But up until that point, The Florida Project proves itself to be quite a success at the things Sean Baker wanted to capture. It’s not the cleanest tone and it’s not a game-changer (the return of child-centered realism isn’t brand new. Beasts of the Southern Wild was less than 5 years ago), but something that might have earned my respect and admiration to the level of Tangerine. It’s not much, but it’s something and as The Florida Project has proven both in content and in reception, not much can be the world to the right eyes.

*To be quite honest, the majority (but NOT entirety) of those people are from South Florida and we are decidedly not some unimpeachable authority on Central Florida, no matter how many times we went to Walt Disney World.

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American Vampire

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I haven’t been the first nor will I be the last to point out how Kathryn Bigelow, famed action filmmaker turned political filmmaker notable for being the very first woman to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010, got her in at the industry by focusing almost exclusively on the masculinity of genre action films and proving herself just as capable of working with that machismo as any other man behind the camera at the time. Indeed, given despite the fact that one could reasonably claim she only really made one pure action film (Point Break which might also be her best film), her ability to provide incredibly ambitious setpieces that matched or even outdid whatever Renny Harlin or John McTiernan was going around at that time sure as hell proved her to be top of the “Boys’ Club” and know how to bring testosterone to the screen in an unconscious way that ought to make other genre filmmakers really insecure about themselves.

And yet, her 1987 film Near Dark is possibly the only film that feels… aware of that masculinity – for is there any genre more manly man as the Western – existing in a very outwardly dangerous way. After all, her script co-written by Eric Red starts in an extremely libidinous way for its young Oklahoma cowpoke Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who spots attractive pale drifter Mae (Jenny Wright) and pursues her in an uncomfortably aggressive manner. After a night of wrangling her in a very uncomfortable manner, especially in her fear of getting “home” before dawn, Caleb tries to coax her into kissing him and in frustration and attraction, she responds by biting Caleb’s neck and running off.

That bite is apparently enough to make it so hard for Caleb to walk down the morning horizon, his child sister (Marcie Leeds) and father (Tim Thomerson) witness in horror as he begins smoking and crisping black in the bright Oklahoma sun until he’s forcibly yanked into an RV inhabited by Mae and her fellow vampire drifter gang – sadistic psycho Severin (Bill Paxton), maturely sinister child Homer (Joshua John Miller), burly beauty Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and cold leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) – ready to slice his neck wide open until Mae points out he turned Caleb, saving his life and beginning their relationship with Caleb’s family racing to his rescue.

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Certainly both Point Break and The Hurt Locker are both self-aware of their masculinity, but both of them seem to be in sheer intoxication of the adrenaline rush that comes from asserting their manly selves and The Hurt Locker is an introspective study of how it’s kind of bad for the individual. Near Dark thinks that masculinity leaves nothing but a vile bloodbath and corpses in its wake. Hooker and company are essentially trying to push the reluctant young Caleb into killing alongside them, out of necessity for their survival and also frankly out of enjoyment for the bloodletting. It’s essentially a companion piece to The Lost Boys from the same year.

While The Lost Boys is a lot more light (being a semi-comedy) and the energy of the film is homoerotic between Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric, Near Dark is extremely harsh and unforgiving, ominous thanks to the tonal soundscape provided by Tangerine Dream, and very heterosexual in nature. Caleb’s young lust for Mae is what got him in the situation in the first place after all and it’s established very clearly that Homer is the character that hates Caleb most (his first move is to grab Caleb’s scrotum and threaten him if Homer’s name is mispronounced) and that hatred is established by Homer originally laying claim to Mae as a mate*. The juxtaposition between a child trying to claim a grown woman as his prize is unsettling enough, the knowledge that Homer’s much much older than the 11 year old body he’s in becomes more alarming when his new prey is on Caleb’s little sister. And Mae is the only source of Caleb’s relief from trying to kill others, letting him drink from her wrists rather than the truck drivers and street punks the rest of the gang find.

It’s not Miike Takeshi here, but it’s the bloodiest and most violent movie in Kathryn Bigelow’s entire corpus. And the casual manner in which bloodletting occurs in the movie only refuses to aestheticize or romanticize the chest-puffing attitude that brings an unglamorous body count with it. The blood’s dark and dirty, like nasty spit erupting that you feel like you have to wash off your screen. Adam Greenberg as cinematographer provides an unrefined duskiness to every shot that accentuates the grunginess of the gang’s attire and the darkness surrounding them – my favorite shot being an ominous backlit high-angle silhouette of the group against a wispy smoke screen – while the Oklahoma daylight horizon is at times given such a blown brightness to make it as hard to look at as it is for Caleb to walk within it. It doesn’t even need to get bloody for things to get alpha-male, for a throwaway moment of Severin and Hooker aiming pistols at each other cards feels like a joke that’s hard to laugh at in context.

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Greenberg’s texture to the visuals also grants Near Dark an tired and weary attitude that reminds us how badly it would love to be a great manly Western, but reminds us that demands blood. Henriksen’s Hooker is exactly the sort of wandering cowboy we’d expect to be full of wisdom and practicality except there’s also the clear indication that he likes killing and especially making those who he kills suffer horribly. In Near Dark‘s central bar massacre, he tries to toy and lure the server’s company signaling his sinister intentions immediately before Diamondback glibly slits her throat and Hooker fills a beer mug with her blood in excitement and informs everybody in that room they are going to die. When Hooker also charismatically declares that he was a Confederate soldier and his pride that they lost, it’s just another in a long line of chaotic evil expressions from an apparently collected individual.

Meanwhile, Severin’s the “life” of the massacre. He asserts his toxicity from the moment he steps foot into the bar, insulting everybody in the room, deliberately spilling drinks, causing fights (and goading Caleb to get into his own), and stalking the bartender on the very bar into a desperate corner (again a wonderful moment of Greenberg’s framing). It’s the most accomplished scene in the late Paxton’s life. He gives the sort of shitheel turn that feels full of danger and apathy that it’s impossible not to hate him at first appearance but it’s also just as impossible to tell him how much you hate him out of fear.

Unfortunately, as a result of Bigelow and editor Howard E. Smith’s no-nonsense action thriller pacing (which is mostly a strength), the nihilistic dive of Near Dark is cut short at the 3/4 mark when part of Caleb’s predicament is resolved, it feels like a shortcut to the climax than anything organic. Bigelow still has the sense to mostly soften the blow by using her sensibility of spectacle and newfound studio involvement to craft a great big dark Western streets showdown involving the heavy momentum and explosive outcome of a truck and preclude that with one more cowboy image of Caleb riding off tall to save the day on horseback, so Near Dark can stay on its feet until the final minutes. A couple of scenes of resolution doesn’t easily shake off the visceral nightmare that Caleb had to go through earlier.

*Funny enough, Miller – 11 years old at the time of filming – has grown up to be a successful screenwriter/show runner and is in an openly gay relationship with his writing partner, M.A. Fortin. Also coincidentally, he’s half-brothers with Jason Patric, the lead of The Lost Boys.
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Every Dead Body That is Not Exterminated Becomes One of Them. It Gets Up and Kills! The People It Kills Get Up and Kill!

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R.I.P. George A. Romero
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So, it’s no secret that Night of the Living Dead is one of the movies that so viscerally changed my life as a film and that it is reserved that most esteemed seat in my heart as my favorite horror film of all time. I feel like the things Night of the Living Dead did for the genre were never bettered in the slightest since. And yet, common consensus seems to lean on its 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead being one of those rare cases of a sequel outperforming its predecessor and if I can’t really bring myself to love it more than Night, I still might just lean on the idea that Dawn is kind of the “better” movie in a sense.

Part of it is having to just come to the conclusion that, despite being some scraggly ol’ hipster who loved the genuine lo-fi work of Night of the Living Dead and the way Romero squeezed atmosphere out of every single limitation he had and from sheer creativity, Dawn of the Dead is objectively more polished and thus a lot more focused as a horror film and as a social commentary. For of course, like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead in itself is a very dedicated commentary ingrained inside the presentation of a zombie movie and unlike Night, it does take a good amount of digging into it to find audiences looking into a mirror about how the then-alarming growth of suburban shopping malls as a hub for community interaction deteriorates human interaction and turns folks into mindless followers of blind consumerism and BTWTHEREISNOETHICALCONSUMPTIONUNDERCAPITALISM… *clears throat*.

But there’s just so much more ambition in Dawn of the Dead that Romero gets to act upon from square one that distinguishes the movie from the very first shot with a wash of bold and textured red – distinguishing itself from Night‘s black and white – that widens and focuses to reveal it was simply a close-up of the carpeted wall of a local Philadelphia news station already three weeks deep in the outbreak and shutting off its broadcast soon. It’s here where producer Francine (Gaylen Ross) and traffic pilot Stephen (David Emge) decide to steal one of the helicopters for their own personal escape, which… guys, a helicopter! Romero gets to use a helicopter and gives his characters more mobility (and thus the zombie infection more scope) than in the claustrophobic trap of Night‘s isolated house (though again… I prefer Night in that sense, I just find Dawn‘s approach impressive!).

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During their escape, they also pick up SWAT team member Roger (Scott Reiniger) in the middle of his brutal and consciously racist police raid of a housing project. During this raid, we get to witness the full extent of the zombification of the dead and the escalating violence in no time introduces us to Tom Savini’s landmark zombie makeup and gore – comic book greys to neutralize any details in a person’s face without losing their aged look (this becomes clearer as characters we see die and return as zombies), vibrant red blood so we know somebody is maimed and the gore is the first thing our eyes target, and an all-timer of a head explosion. The sort of violence you get in a 70s cop picture put now to a darker context that demands you reckon with the amorality of the SWAT’s fascist exercise of power on the poor and cold disposal of their bodies in a practical sense. In a moral breakdown atop the building, Roger meets the hardened but humane Peter (Ken Foree) and invites him in the escape group, thereby rounding their aimless flight out of the city.

After finding out staying in the air is easier said than done, they make their personal base out of the Monroeville Mall, a huge construct of shops and restaurants and other resources that they take much time turning into their own fortress of personal goods. And at first, it’s relatively fun as a bonding exercise to have them figure out plans and ways to maintain the whole location for a long time, but soon after it becomes frighteningly insulated and the activities they try to indulge in – now that they have everything they want locked away from the world – like Stephen and Fran’s makeshift restaurant date (with a shockingly dark punchline cut to it), just feel like attempts to pretend the world isn’t dying outside those walls, even despite Peter’s steely residence near screens to illuminating the insanity going on with psychotic talking heads and Fran’s insistence that the mall won’t last. It’s a weighty portrayal of the apathy privileged people have to others’ suffering when it’s distanced and the way that Romero shoots the even the maintenance hallways and vents with plenty of space between the cameras and characters sells Monroeville Mall as just as openly empty as the lives of our four.

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That’s without recognizing how effectively uneventful Dawn of the Dead becomes very quickly. From the moment the news duo pick up the SWAT duo, the movie doesn’t really have a narrative object or target outcome. The characters have few places to express anything beyond sheer survivalism (though they’re all embodied by great performances) and until maybe the 2/3 moment – punctuated by a stressing waiting game turned into a headshot – their detours are almost strictly utilitarian. And so they earn the R&R they take in Monroeville, but it still feels sheltered and naive to do so in their condition and their personalities are clearly clashing enough to promise their eventual exile from the shelter they found. It’s almost the Tokyo Story of horror films in how much time you understand is wasted watching these folks try to deflect the inevitable.

I realize I’m not delivering this as humorous, but that’s one other thing about Dawn of the Dead. Its sense of levity and personality – most largely supplied by Italian prog rock band Goblin**’s iconic score overselling the eerie nature of a giant empty mall (the most iconic musical cue of Dawn, “The Gonk”, is in fact not Goblin’s creation) and a climax that precludes its intense horror and hopelessness with a disarming amount of pie fights – is what prevents Dawn from turning into an overwhelmingly nihilistic film in spite of all its observations about humanity, especially in consideration of the alternate ending it was forced to shelve due to budgetary restrictions*. And this is probably where I especially end up preferring Night as a film, because it’s fearless in selling its themes angrily and with vicious bite. Dawn still finds itself watchable and insightful due to its craft and survives the theatrical ending turning out to be the film’s only flaw.

There’s only so much you can stretch out of the budget and narrative constraints of a single-location story that demands its characters, save for Fran, refuse to evolve due to their egos, but Night already made good on Romero’s promise to deliver on that and Dawn of the Dead is the result of him trying to push it further and build as a filmmaker. When one recognizes that the driving force of the zombie genre has to be its characters cooped up, Dawn of the Dead is the ultimate zombie film to bring that out. And being made in the ultimate middle ground between the updated budget of an esteemed filmmaker but the creative freedom of an independent feature, Romero ends up with the ultimate movie to show his heart, his ideas, his glee, and even the city he came from that he clearly loved for supporting his dreams and letting him shooting in malls and airfields and news stations. There’s probably no better film to remember and revisit him by.

*Allegedly, the particular dummy needed for the grim final note of that alternate ending was considered unfinished and couldn’t be used so they just had it the target of that famous head explosion in the housing raid.
**Goblin was of course at the time collaborated with Italian giallo icon Dario Argento, who also famously helped Romero with the development of the film.

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You Blow That Candle Out, We’re Gonna Kill You. Kill You.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slasher film as pleasant as Happy Death Day and I doubt I ever will. The only true contender for that spot is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and there’s definitely a bit more viciousness in its third act than there is in the entirety of Christopher B. Landon’s third feature film. For most people that might be quite the dealbreaker, especially in the expectation that a horror film has to… y’know horrify kind of. But I’ve never been one to consider slasher films a subgenre to hold to for its scariness and the fact that Happy Death Day takes full pleasure in stretching out the novelty of its premise in a manner that’s kind of genial doesn’t make me regret the number of times I laughed and enjoyed myself during the whole thing.

That very premise being how nursing student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) has been living her life in flippant antagonism towards everyone and everything around her and her hedonistic life has found her at the end of a butcher’s knife the night of her birthday. Only she wakes up again on her birthday morning in the same boy’s dorm of Carter’s (Israel Broussard) and a bit more wary of what she might assume was a dream that felt too real, tries to deviate her path slightly only to once again find herself stabbed to death by the same BabyFace Masked. And with that death, she wakes once again understandably freak out by the time loop she’s stuck in – enduring her birthday over and over with the same violent end, trying to find a way to circumvent the loop and stop her murderer.

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Or the elevator pitch version “Groundhog Day as a slasher”. There’s even a button of a scene where they name-drop Groundhog Day as a “yeah, we totally ripped off that movie” statement without adding the weird attitude of “… And because we said it, you can’t call us out for that” that most self-aware horror seems to want to adopt as bet-hedging. Happy Death Day‘s script by comic book writer Scott Lobdell is less concerned with pointing out the absurdity of its premise and more concerned with finding a way to make it fun without being the butt of a joke. And it certainly has a sense of humor about itself, but one that gets to exist side-by-side with Tree’s frustrations at waking up, being killed, and repeated and how that affects her day-to-day mood. It’s that dissimilar from the idea that we’re all different people every time we wake up, though I’m doubtful that was on Lobdell or Landon’s mind and that they merely wanted some semblance of a character development arc as Tree recognizes just how arbitrarily she was treating her sorority sisters, her father, Carter, and the professor she’s having an affair with and see how much of her problems she can shelve in the hopes that she survives to the next night.

It’s a lot shallower than that on paper but Jessica Rothe is pretty much a miracle of a performer, an exhausted and sarcastic pillar of charisma that gives this movie all she can to have some semblance of momentum based on the way she evolves and learns about herself. And despite indulging at points in the sort of shallow catty bitchiness that outs movies like this as obviously written by a guy who saw Mean Girls once and didn’t get it, it also has the same sort of forgivability as Mean Girls. We don’t really hate Tree on the first loop and by the middle of the film, we feel her annoyance at every single slip-up that lands her in bloodless mortem (the editing takes advantage of the PG-13 nature of the film to make smash cuts play as punchlines a la Edge of Tomorrow and Groundhog Day, especially in a Demi Lovato-tuned montage and a ringtone allegedly created for the movie that actually sounds creepier than anything in Bear McCreary’s cliched score), and by the time she’s kind of figured it out, her joie du vivre is pleasantly earned in the face of how Rothe takes every new step differently (Broussard kind of follows up with different responses to the same event, but even at second-best in show – partly because he just shows up the longest – he’s just not on Rothe’s level). Maybe it’s partly in the aftermath of having just finished binging The Good Place, which accomplishes similar things but honestly better, but Happy Death Day‘s intention to see a miserable unhealthy person grow into something better makes me more willing to see it all the way through, even in spite of Lobdell’s ethic lapses. It certainly has some obvious Eszterhas-level attitudes about women (especially in its third act which feels like the weakest element of the script), Macklemore-level naivete about sexuality, and the in-sorority bullying of the one non-murderer character we’re meant to hate is clearly racially coded. But none of those things pop their heads long enough for me to not have fun.

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And this is all sounding like I’m not really interested in it as a horror film and I don’t want to pretend I think it’s a bad horror film. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but its treatment of the blue cold hospital, the tall cavernous clock tower, and a creepily cartoon killer mask based on the college setting’s mascot (by the way, who would possibly find a football team called the Babys intimidating?) is at the very least on the better side of Blumhouse cliches as possible and Happy Death Day certainly wants you to know that even if Tree’s never truly in danger, she still feels threatened and trapped in slowly canting angles and surprise light blowouts. But it also isn’t very much concerned with elevating itself as horror. Honestly, if it weren’t for the comedic tone which isn’t even all that unique, Happy Death Day would feel entirely like just another forgettable horror film that happens to work enough that you don’t demand a refund.

Still and all, Happy Death Day can’t help sharing its enjoyment of digging into a hat of tropes and using its horror identity as a source of things beyond the genre. Like It, the bigger horror film of the year, I’m not singing its praises high and far but I am more than willing to relive it like Tree did (given that I literally walked out of a second screening before I could finish this review) and it’s not freaking me out that I did.

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