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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Float On

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My main problems against the idea of Andrés Muschietti’s smash hit horror film It were things that weren’t out of the control of the people making the film, but it doesn’t reflect my feelings on the movie outside of the context of its source material. Those problems were inherent in the producer’s decision to split the giant tome of Stephen King’s perhaps most popular book into two movies and to move the time periods from 1950s and 1980s to 1980s and (I’m guessing for the inevitable second film) 2010s. It is impossible to miss the logic behind both decisions: production costs* and narrative integrity of a modern classic. But it means you lose the pointed criticism of Rockwellian Americana nostalgia by taking away the very basis of said nostalgia and it means that the second movie has to do a lot of hard work cut for it to accomplish narrative momentum – something both the miniseries’ adult storyline and frankly the book’s don’t do well without cross-cutting – or give depth on the theme of trauma and memory without deferring to clunky stock footage from the predecessor.

Anyway, these are concerns I’ve had with the production, still have long after seeing the film, and I wouldn’t mention them if I didn’t think they’re valid, but that’s not the movie itself. Talking about the movie itself is recognizing that it’s a pleasant and enjoyable experience depending on which angle I’m coming from.

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King’s childhood half of the novel is brought to life by a draft of Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s script redone by Gary Dauberman following the disappearance of 7-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) one rainy October night in 1988 as he left to float a paper boat made by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). The following summer shows that Bill, who suffers from a stutter, is still affected by his lack of answer for Georgie’s well-being but we know the full story because we watched as Georgie lamented his boat’s departure into a storm drain and peeked in to find the grinning ghostly visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who deliberately lures Georgie into a shockingly violent end.

Meanwhile, Bill and new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are independently noticing an accelerated amount of disappearances happening in their town of Derry and slowly The Losers’ Club, an alliance of young outsider kids, prepares to fight against Pennywise’s historied terrorizing of the town.

Here’s my main gripe with It: I think it’s a bad horror movie on the constructed elements. Its scare scenes are not only repeated setpiece remakes from Muschietti’s breakout short film Mamá kid looks behind him or around the corner to face a deformity and get chased out of the space – telegraphed frequently by Benjamin Wallfisch’s obnoxious score, but the first hour or so of the film keeps feeling busted in pacing by arranging itself as occasional, nearly unrelated first act vignettes of these jump scare moments as each member of the Losers’ Club encounters Pennywise at least once until they meet each other**.

But Skarsgard IS scary. Taking a different approach to King’s monster than Tim Cutty’s 1990 miniseries performance, Skarsgård adopts an exaggerated stance like he’s a big sock puppet or balloon animal extension of some other bigger monster. His clowniness feels like a costume, right down to the primal growl underneath his floaty voice. He’s so off in presence that it’s impossible not to feel threatened by his stare, a broken attempt to warmly make contact with his prey disorganized by the fantastic eye movements Skarsgård provides. Even underneath a sheen of CGI, Skarsgård’s screen presence creeps in as the sole motor to the horror angle of It.

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Whereas It can still work phenomenally well as a movie about a group of kids growing brave in one terrifying summer instead. Not that the script does them any favors – Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) are practically hosed on paper with how much character is removed, though Oleff himself has one of the best heart-breaking freakout moments late in the film – but the actors themselves are so full of personality that they’re able to embody the puerile, excitable youthfulness of 1980s kids in a genuine unfiltered way. Sure, the way loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t shut up and keeps making dumb sex jokes bemuses me as much as his hypochondriac foil Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), but it bemuses me in the way that all kids from the 80s do and it feels honest.

It may be contradictory to what It‘s attitudes on nostalgia are, but that’s nevertheless its strength – portraying small-town childhood memories in warm timelessness (aided significantly by Chung Chung-hoon’s soft outdoor cinematography, doubled down on darkness in the horror moments). The cast of It makes that movie, breaking out of shallow characterizations to provide lived-in relationships and friendships that not even the best writing could provide. It even deviates away from the notoriously bad final beat of the book to something more innocuous. This despite the fact that the only character that’s fleshed out well is tomboy Beverly Marsh in how much screentime is dedicated to her sexually (much more explicit here than in the book) abusive homelife and so it’s no shock when Sophia Lillis comes out with arguably the best performance in the movie, one where all her fears and anxieties inform every second of her screentime and she’s able to use that as a basis on every emotional decision. Personally, my favorite is Taylor, whose attempts at casually hiding his sense of dislocation in the new town and consciousness of the evil within it come off as kind of charming. Plus, his ability to visually emote the crush Ben has on Bev is so adorable.

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But anyway, the town of Derry as a location is built on the cast’s response to it. Muschietti and company don’t really do much to help us feel like people are disappearing around us because we don’t have time to know the town before it jumps into spooks mode and its personality feels only slightly less anonymous than the cobble of locations in Stranger Things, but it still feels grounded in time enough to have some tangible atmosphere as living memory***. And I mean, that’s where the darker moments in the kids’ lives gets to have some real punch: interrupting their camaraderie to divide them emotionally is what helps It work out its main premise of small-town horror, despite the handicaps the movie gives itself.

It could be a much better horror film (I honestly yearn for the alternate universe where Fukunaga stayed on as director – though there are elements of the script that had to go), but as an adaptation of a moment in a boy’s life where he has to face the anxiety surrounding him, there’s little improvement possible.

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*Though it seems like even on that end, the movie skims the price tag. There’s a hilarious tweet of a guy nitpicking a single Lego block used in the background, but I’m thinking of a character beat of a wide shot towards a wall of tampons that all have noticeably 2016 packaging. Incidentally, talking about this in public with a friend led to an eavesdropping teenager who asked how I’d recognize that and we (alongside another eavesdropping woman) subsequently informed him that he’ll come to the day when his girlfriend sends him for tampons.
**The miniseries is inferior to the film in most ways, but they at least got this structurally downpat by making each initial encounter a kid had with Pennywise function as an extended flashback of trauma after they receive Mike’s call.
***Most especially aided by the fact that the movie removes all the cosmic elements of the novel – which work well for the book but seem overkill as a cinematic story – and makes the terror localized into Pennywise. But from what I understand, Chapter Two has intentions to involve the cosmic elements. Ugh.

25 for 25 – Everybody Comes to Rick’s

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” -George Carlin

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Casablanca is to me the quintessential example of Hollywood alchemy and it comes right at the very point where the studio system was beginning to drop off from its golden years in the 1930s, explaining how the production was so hands-off from the Warner Bros. superiors to director Michael Curtiz and producer Hal B. Wallis’ involvement. And yet such a tossed-off afterthought to the movie is now one of the most firmly entrenched entries in film history. Which makes it feel somewhat like a last hurrah to a kind of movie-cranking style that you simply don’t see anymore these days, much as cinema today still seems indebted to nostalgia towards those eras – what easier way to spur that nostalgia than Dooley Wilson’s sweet voice serenading “As Time Goes By” – and try to imitate it in homage form. You can’t recreate Casablanca by any means, no matter how much you try to ape from it. It is a product exclusively of its time and of its situation, only the right combinations at the right moment could have coalesced into this perfect form of cinema, the way Casablanca gets to be formed.

So, for God’s sake, stop aping from it, Foodfight!

Anyway, I’ve been going through quite a phase in my life over the past few years where two movies altogether struggle within me for my top spot of My Favorite Movie of All Time and I think they both have to do with how powerfully each one speaks to me, so it’s time for another extremely subjective review where I just square with what Casablanca says to me about myself.

And that means getting into the root of what is, to my mind, one of the most perfect narrative works of screenwriting that all started when Hal B. Wallis of Warner Bros. purchased the rights to husband-and-wife team Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. In the end, the real MVPs of the story – notoriously writing it and re-writing it over and over until the bitter end – are Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein (other notable writers were Howard Koch providing more political elements while the Epsteins worked on another piece of agitprop Why We Fight and Casey Robinson touching up on several meeting scenes). The cobbled together aspect of the story, throwing in further and further dramatic reveals and shading characters with more dimensions on each page, can be seen in the urgency of every development in the script. But, it’s still incredible how flawless the story cogs work within it and how quotable it remains on top of it.

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But I still didn’t elaborate on what those story cogs are: The Nazis have arrived and occupied Morocco and Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has been stationed there in order to see to the immediate re-capture of concentration camp escapee and resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who would have to go to Casablanca en route to salvation in America. At the center of this is the apathetic Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) Cafe Americaine, a hot spot where incidents are always happening and the latest one of which is the sudden arrest of the ill-fated criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre) over the death of two German couriers with MacGuffin-esque can’t-fail letters of transit out of Casablanca. Only problem is Lorre left those letters in Blaine’s hands and while Laszlo would very much like those letters, Blaine has complex history with the woman Laszlo is fleeing with, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).

There’s a real balance in this film with the desires of the screenwriters and director Curtiz, as it’s clear that the screenwriters want to focus on the melodrama of the scenario – every single motivation is covered and staked and communicated clearly with no room for ambiguity except in the very perfect ending – but Curtiz wants to up the romantic element which is probably why if the scene can spare as much framing as it can on Rick and Ilsa, with poor Laszlo nearly out of the picture, it can. The movie sells the chemistry between Rick and Ilsa as dynamic and interesting (while Laszlo and Ilsa are still sweet together, thanks to their performances) and that’s what makes it easy to be convinced Rick may be off to the deep end with what he does with the letters of transit. I mean, I don’t think anybody doesn’t know what happens in Casablanca at this point. But in the moment, Rick’s actions and statements are so very grey and cynical that I’m not convinced he knew 100% what his decisions were going to be until the end and Bogie himself does oh so much to sell that indecisiveness (the only thing he does better than tease the possibility of being a villain in his career despite earning our trust is play drunk and hardboiled and sharp-edged and… ok, he does everything great) while Bergman embodies a need to square her romantic history and bravery in trying to spare her husband of any pain in the truth. Frankly, I don’t think Casablanca is generous on paper to Ilsa as anything more than a gendered second MacGuffin between two men, but Bergman stands tall and proud in that thankless role that it’s not a surprise to find why she was a star afterwards.

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This doesn’t mean Casablanca doesn’t take seriously its political elements. They’re a continued presence that OF COURSE pay off in the final product and the movie’s second most memorable scene is not a political Laszlo scene for no reason. “La Marseillaise” drowning out the vain singing of the Nazis overtly uplifts and tugs at the heartstrings and I don’t give a damn. Those are real immigrants fleeing from German occupation right there in the scene singing along in defiance at the moment the world needed it most. Julius Epstein claimed the movie was full of corn, but that’s dismissive of the sincerity and genuine emotion on the film and the most invested usage of extras I can imagine in any film. If THAT’s corn, then I don’t know what’s real in movies.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be too real. Casablanca fills me with a romantic feeling, every element of it perhaps due to the artificiality of it. I’m not gonna be fooled by the production design of this B-movie-in-all-but-name when I’m actually from the Sahara and have been to Morocco myself, but it gives the film such an exotic atmosphere (something we’re pulled out of during the sophisticated Parisian flashbacks in the end of the first act) that heightens it as manufactured but convincing romanticism. As much romanticism as isn’t already provided by the fact that World War II is to our minds the last war to actually have clearly defined heroes and villains and thus making us yearn for more moral conflicts than the ones in our day and age, so having a movie not just made in that time period but actively pushing towards an attitude for the war that desires we get right to Europe and fight the Nazis head-on. It’s essentially the mythologizing of history right before our very eyes and I can’t imagine getting to have that sort of retrospective attitude toward this movie that fuels its battle for my Favorite Movie of All Time without being born 50 years after its existence. And yet there’s no distance in its mythologizing because of the immediacy of World War II. That very direct inspiration somehow is able to transcend time and its dated context to the very writer of this post every time I watch it. It’s a weird paradox of time of reception that is hard to explain, but it’s there.

Anyway, I’m a cynic, an exhausting cynic that curses and makes sardonic cracks and teases indifference and selfishness same as Rick on the screen. I make sarcastic quips when I don’t need to, I keep to myself deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, I get angry easy, these are all things people attribute to me. And it’s honestly not something I want to be, much as I doubt anybody wants to be a cynical angry person. Casablanca is certainly THE movie that helps to convince me I’m a romantic, just as much as the charmingly corrupt Capt. Renault (Claude Raines threatening to steal the whole damn movie from an already stacked cast) implies in his gamble with Rick Blaine. Blaine’s ability to make a decision by the end of the film for the fate of Laszlo and take a side for the war after the film shakes him angrily and demands it… that’s illuminating. It means there is something he’ll fight for, something to believe in within the war, and seeing myself in Rick means that maybe I want to be a romantic too which brings out my attempt to be the best version of me I can be whenever I can be aware of my actions. Which fuels a much better feeling in myself and yeah, a form of confidence. It’s not for nothing that this inadvertently became the movie I keep showing any girls I date.

It’s so that when we inevitably break up I can look them in the eyes and send them off with a “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid”.

Holy shit, that is cynical. Maybe I should watch Casablanca a few more times.

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25 for 25 – Hard-Boiled Gumshoe

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Full Disclosure: If there is ever going to be a movie that makes me highly jealous, it’s Rian Johnson’s Brick. It’s not just the sort of movie I wish I wrote, it’s the sort of movie I wish I had made.

Which is more true than you think, since I spent a portion of my senior year in high school trying to re-adapt the script which I found online (and with Johnson’s knowledge and blessing) as a sort of therapeutic exercise and a chance to stretch out my filmmaking skills and while that never came to fruition or completion, the creative ideas that I came up with about the script are still so stuck to my mind that I usually picture them first when I think of Brick before I think of anything. Anyway, here we are today with Johnson directing the new Star Wars film and the most-acclaimed Breaking Bad episodes and me just kicking myself for never using that correspondence to try to work as an production assistant or something.

C’est la vie, because no matter what, once I actually watched the movie for the first time after scrapping the whole thing (I think it’d be around 2011 or 2012, half a decade after the film premiered), it ended up being a compelling, enjoyable work of neo-noir high school drama and the worst part of all is that it actually feels kind of effortless in Johnson’s strapped-cash lo-fi yet aesthetically interesting direction. Like TV shows like Veronica Mars are eager to showcase their detective yarns and while I haven’t watched Riverdale, I can’t possibly imagine that sort of movie not trying hard.

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Johnson’s film is relaxed and unassuming in a way neither of those two works could be, despite being no less heightened (maybe even more heightened) in its noir trappings than certainly Veronica Mars at least is. The very dialogue of the movie is not the sort of talk a high schooler goes through, all sharp and angry snaps with old-school hard-boiled crime novel slang, the kind that would make language feel dangerous back in prohibition era but now just feel dated in a very classical way. Which is very easy to do when your movie is essentially Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

This is not a secret Johnson hides or is even ashamed of. In interviews, he’d openly state The Coen brothers’ own pseudo-adaptation of Hammett’s works Miller’s Crossing as the biggest influence on Brick, Hammett’s book is the blueprint, no question. The character relationships, the dialogue, the plot structure, entire scenes are verbatim taken from the book and they just change phrases like “arrest me” or “administrative hearing” to “suspend me” or “parent-teacher conference” to fit the context.

In case, that Maltese Falcon slip doesn’t let loose the plot: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt back when he was making interesting indie and pseudo-indie role choices and as a result giving the best and most challenging performances of his career) gets in contact from his long-estranged ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravine) where she sounds completely frightened and stressed, but when he tries to ask what her call is about, she uses phrases and terms that Brendan can’t make heads or tails of, though Em is not intending to be cryptic. Clearly, trouble is up and Brendan tries to get a pulse on it but before he gets half an idea, she’s killed. And now Brendan’s hanged up on trying to find out who put her on the spot to for that bullet, getting himself embroiled in the drug trade of the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas) and a femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) who is so obviously tangled in this without Brendan being able to figure it out at first.

Now you can’t tell from that very small synopsis, but when you watch the movie, if you know your noir, you can map it out: Em is Miles Archer, Laura is Brigid O’Shaughnessey, there’s a missing brick of heroin that’s essentially the Falcon MacGuffin itself, the very self-aired Pin is Gutman, the hot-head enforcer Tug (Noah Fleiss) is the young gunsel by Gutman’s side, Em’s current druggie boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) gets slapped about enough he’d have to be Joel Cairo. But while Brick can’t hold a candle to John Huston’s masterpiece adaptation, Johnson really isn’t trying to.

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Brick uses Hammett’s book as a launchpad for having and eating its cake at the same time. Most high school movies, even the ones that are entirely generous to their characters’ viewpoints like the John Hughes works, they have a narrative context that high school is itself this little microcosm of behavior, that the characters are in their own world separated from reality. And Brick is no different, essentially establishing that from the very first hallway locker scene with a ring of the school and keeping that going in almost entirely setting itself at Johnson’s former high school in San Clemente, California and Richard Roundtree’s authoritative vice principle popping to remind us that the weight given to these situations are not really much once they leave school, let alone the way they talk barely jiving with high school lingo* in the early 2000s (I was still in middle school in the year of its 2005 Sundance premiere and was just a month away from going to high school when it got its 2006 US release). And yet they still have oh so much weight and part of it is just the hardened dignity the cast provides every single one of their roles (except Haas knowingly establishing the Pin as an absent-minded pathetic and disappointing figure from the moment he goes into a tangeant about bats and horses; it’s also not for nothing that the only parental figure we see is for the one character that’s obviously in his 20s compared to all the teenagers).

Cliques and gangs are just a staple of modern high school and have been since before I went to high school. It’s not something to scoff and pretend doesn’t happen and most importantly there is a murder at the very center of it of a very troubled girl (and that’s only the first murder; the body gets a boost by the finale). And while Johnson’s script cares very much about this matter as does Brendan (and visually gives it infectiously moody lo-fi shadows accented by his cousin Nathan’s score), potentially the most cold-souled person in the whole movie (Gordon-Levitt gives him a harsh jaded cynicism that is very unproportional for any teenager and easily explains why he’s always the most hated person in the room, but obviously it’s an attempt at Humphrey Bogart cool that also makes him fascinating and in control), it also establishes the lack of awareness on the school’s part, let alone the police. That’s possibly the most nihilistic approach you could ever provide for a high school movie, where there are no adults to care even if you disappear for a good week and you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone go to class.

Anyway, I’m making it sound dark and serious and I think that’s essential for explaining how Rian Johnson’s Brick made understand just how versatile noir is as a genre template for application, because Johnson’s that smart of a writer and that inspired as a director, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch somehow through this darkness. It’s one of the most deliberately funny non-comedies I’ve ever watched and I know that’s tough to believe but the way Johnson stages Gordon-Levitt beating information out of Segan is its own screwball comedy there, Meagan Good as the vampish ex Kara stands out as such an outrageous and dangerously sexy cartoon that you can’t help wishing she had more screentime, Brendan’s deflections of Roundtree like a Howard Hawks film, football jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) is a punching bag acting how every picked-on kid in high school must have imagined their big dumb quarterback bully (it also has to be said how both that character and Brendan are exaggerated caricatures of high school tropes and noir tropes and yet it’s obvious Brendan is cool to the movie but not to the crowd and Brad is cool to the crowd but not to the movie).

Rian Johnson wants you to fun with Brick more than he wants to find it dark and he’s capable of pulling it off without removing any what makes it a compulsive mystery. If that’s not a sure sign of his tonal skills and the ability of noir to at once darken and ridicule subjects within the same context (something he experimented with later on in the 2012 time travel noir Looper), then I don’t know what is.

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*The very moment I decided to can my version was when a collaborator during pre-production complained that “people don’t talk like this” and trashed the whole script. It was seriously discouraging to have a guy so thoroughly miss the point.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

Man is Measured by Moonlight in Him

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One thing that bugs the hell out of me about Brokeback Mountain back in 2005 when it was breaking out a brand-new visibility for LGBT stories in all of its Oscar attention is how quick people were trying to spin Brokeback Mountain as NOT a gay story because its topics about the relationship between its two leads were “universal” and could apply to any heterosexual relationship. This made me mad – rather than just being a simple “I don’t agree with this” situation – because well… duh. Did you really believe that there’s a great divide between gay and straight relationships? There’s certainly things a gay man goes through that I’ll never experience being straight, but it should not be a surprise that in terms of romantic tragedy, one can find the story of Brokeback Mountain supremely relatable and it’s reductive to see people pretend this disqualified it as an LGBT story.

So, as Moonlight begins its much-earned run of critical acclaim leading up to its certain Oscar nominations, I’m gonna be really damn annoyed if I go on to find people try to dismiss it as a Queer cinema (something I don’t apply to the Ang Lee-directed Brokeback, but absolutely do here considering the film’s basis in an unproduced play  by MacArthur Fellow Alvin Tarell McCraney, who is openly gay) simply because it’s… again, frankly an incredibly relatable tale from my perspective about more than just the life of a gay man – we don’t get many tales of black LGBT people (last year’s Tangerine was a breath of fresh air, even while I was not overall crazy for the film) and a little more – but also a severe drought – allowing us to accept the concept of a child considering his or her sexuality at a young age, something that still seems taboo for people to deal with. These are clear matters that Moonlight shines on and considers and yet it also uses those three subjects as the groundwork to provide an overwhelmingly dense study on masculinity, identity, silence, fate, and isolation. And all this while holding in themselves the fingerprints of McCraney and writer-director Barry Jenkins’ personal backgrounds within the neighborhoods they depict in Miami (both born and raised), though I feel given the re-writing Jenkins makes in the material, Jenkins has a louder voice in the film than McCraney.

The tale of Moonlight is the kind of structural exercise that absolutely makes me all sorts of excited even without watching the trailer of the movie. To sum it up, Moonlight follows three different turning points in the development of Chiron. The three different segments are painstakingly compact – they strictly begin those three events in Chiron’s life at the very start of their rising and they end immediately at their conclusion without the implication of how they affected Chiron except in that we can suddenly see the subtle yet notable difference in the personalities child Alex Hibbert, adolescent Ashton Sanders, and adult Trevonte Rhodes embody in their respective years towards Chiron. They don’t act as surrogates to those years in Chiron’s life either, they’re pretty clearly just part of a greater development, but Jenkins and McCraney don’t want to waste time with the in-between. They just want to show WHAT happened to Chiron and I think that’s what really makes it easier to find Moonlight so surprisingly moving, that people will input their own idea of what strung together these moments in his life to such a painfully restrained ending that could only come from a movie interested again in blunt emotional strokes than making things easy.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself talking about the ending. The WHAT of what happened in Chiron’s life is identified not only by his age, but by the name he goes by. As laconic and insulated “Little” (Hibbert), he is found and semi-adopted by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his infinitely generous girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) after Juan witnesses “Little” being chased viciously by bullies. Together, the couple are one of the only refuges Little has from his tumultuous home life and intense mother (Naomie Harris), the other refuge being his sole friend Kevin (Jared Piner) advising him on how to get tough without losing any warmth towards Little. The sanctuary Little finds amongst this loving couple he found crumbles away as he makes an induction towards the circumstances of his mother’s condition towards Juan (in a scene that swears Ali will be at the least nominated for an Oscar), one that Jenkins and McCraney had the delicate ability to show humanize the trap culture in a manner white filmmakers simply refuse to do while recognizing the repercussions of what a drug dealer like Juan does.

As he grows out of the name Little in high school, everything that troubled Chiron (Sanders) as a child escalates. He’s rarely staying at his home anymore, Juan has died at some point between the first and second segment with not even the hint of whether it was as a result of his trap life or otherwise, the bullies have grown much more violent and inescapable, and his feelings for Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) have exploded into romantic feelings that are briefly reciprocated. It doesn’t help that Sanders’ performance adopts Hibbert’s refusal to speak while making it a lot more clearer how many emotions Chiron is knowingly swallowing and how it makes him look like he might just faint from all the effort from the very first frame Sanders takes over. And then the comfort Kevin gives Chiron with his sexuality is absolutely demolished once again in a more assaultive manner and it’s clearly breaking Chiron beyond his own power (having had my own habit of ending up in the principal’s office or police station after a fight, the scene where Chiron is badgered by an official to report it was where the film hit me hardest. I swear to Odin, my fingers were digging into my palm with how real that scene felt to me again). This time however, Chiron retaliates to the world in a manner that doesn’t feel as triumphant as it should…

… probably because by the time we return one more time to Chiron, he’s now completely shed all his outer vulnerability into the hardest blackest motherfucker out of the cell block (another thing that no other white director would be able to do – put the mass incarceration of young black men on the table for discussion without calling attention to it) under the name of “Black” (Rhodes). And he’s doing a great job at letting this persona be his shield to stifle and suffocate the boy we met earlier in the film, but not as well as Rhodes is at letting glimpses of him show up all around the first half of the segment before it starts really struggling to breakout when he gets a surprise phone call from Kevin once again (Andre Holland) and that brings back all the complex emotions he wanted to pretend weren’t there in the first place. And this is inarguably the strongest segment of the film, largely because after the first two segments, we have a feel for the pacing and structure of each segment and know in advance exactly which beat this third (and the film entirely) will end, making its choice of ending point still more frustrating in the best way possible.

The things demanded of Rhodes to play both a shadow of the actors who played Chiron before him and to balance that with a muted gangster facade is surprisingly complex acting from an actor I didn’t even know existed, let alone was capable of providing possibly my favorite performance of the year (and I’m excited to see what he does in Terrence Malick’s next film Weightless) and he drives the third act by letting his inner commentary map out the growing emotional tension with his reunion with Kevin. Holland for his part fills in the silence Rhodes gives their scenes with his charm and smile, but it’s not his hour – it’s Rhodes’ and it’s only on Rhodes’ final word that the movie feels like it’s brought the story of Chiron’s reckoning with his attitude about who he truly is where it needed to reach.

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The entire cast is why the movie works so well. Even in the arch stage-driven manner of not only the dialogue between characters, but in the blocking of those dialogue scenes (including the same scene that’s gonna get Ali the Oscar nomination), the cast brings a respect to a side of African-American culture that is constantly relegated to caricature and stereotype and even the small size of the primary cast doesn’t stop the Miami of Moonlight from feeling lived-in and surrounding. And the three Chiron actors do a really impressive sleight, they make it three segments feel like one long stream without trying to pretend we’re not watching three different segments. It’s funny how every review I’ve read has had a different attitude on how little they look and like who looks more like who (personally, I feel Rhodes looks nothing like the young actors while I can see how an Alex Hibbert could grow into an Ashton Sanders). The screening I saw Moonlight at had all three actors (as well the two younger Kevins, one of the bullies, McCraney, and Jenkins) in attendance and they looked nothing alike, but they still got me thinking they were the same person. Their consecutive performances and how they only changed patiently over segments brought more smoothness to the structure of the film than all the crafty editing possibly could.

If there is any real gripe I could possibly have, Moonlight feels just as little less mechanical – but still mechanical as every other indie breakout picture of the 2010s has been. I nodded to how obviously this is still a stage script however Jenkins tries to beat it to film form, but Moonlight wants to be recognized for how it does the things it does, rather than just letting itself get away with the trick. Visual flourishes like surrounding circular Steadicam shots revolving around characters and the deepest blues to telegraph what’s happening in moments and overt usage of classical music with slow-motion where its better to let the audience sink into the moment without realizing it. But even that feels like a stretch – these aren’t creative decisions by Jenkins that are illiterate towards film vocabulary and they’re not decisions made flippantly. In a lot of the visuals, we get a much more David Gordon Green atmosphere to outdoors Miami – besides the two slickly shot beach scenes – that show both a love for the city Jenkins and McCraney come from (they’re more affectionate for Miami than yours truly, but that’s not a tall order) and a knowledge in how conditions are in the humid city. They’re just not nearly as delicate as the film requests.

But then Moonlight just as well sits between a spot like Chiron in toughness and vulnerability that it doesn’t have quite the need to grapple with. Losing more of the arch staginess of the dialogue scenes, I think, would lose more of McCraney’s authorship and I think that’s pretty important to retain as Queer cinema. And I’m not sure if Moonlight could be any more restrained about itself before the different branches of its themes become invisible. The Moonlight we have is still a moving work of visual poetry and if I were even half as capable of the things Jenkins does in the movie, I’d probably flaunt each at least at one point. No need to try to shut himself down and pretend to be any other director, that’d probably go against the moral of the film to begin with, no?

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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 27 – The Black Halo

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. 

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I’ve already previously talked about how much expressionism has informed most of modern horror cinema, but let’s briefly just go over it. Germany’s expressionism style from the beginnings of their film industry had a way with shadowplay and overdramatics that really made for compelling genre storytelling as it was direct and blunt, with a very hard hit to the sensibilities of the audience and a clear communication of what the intention of each scene is. If they wanted you to laugh, their physical comedy would be the biggest thing you’d see, if you wanted to be scared, they’d make the shadows that are most scary the biggest on the screen and so on.

But it also could make for particularly compelling melodrama. The play with the amount that we see on the screen and what we don’t see gives a sort of gap for the audience to fill in, involving themselves into the story and investing themselves outright in the story. Murnau arguably had created the greatest melodrama put to celluloid in 1927, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which I dare you to watch and not feel compelled emotionally by the plight of the characters. However, I want to move backwards one year, right before Murnau left Germany to America, his very final film for his home country.

The 1926 film Faust is an incredibly interesting look into what makes expressionism as a style so moving and touching as it plays with both the elements of the style that make it genre filmmaking – primarily a horror film, but other genres get used in here as well – in addition to melodrama – as the tragedy of Doctor Faustus is a fable of old consideration in European culture.

It’s also pretty much one of the greatest possible toybox films ever put to screen, considering that Murnau, who was again in the midst of leaving UFA, probably just wanted to burn his skills out as much as possible (which, thankfully, he did not as his next two films were brilliant). He pulls out all of the possible stops that a film demands out of a filmmaker, making the production the most expensive that UFA had dealt with.

… at least until a little guy named Fritz Lang came around and demolished the company with his own masterpiece called Metropolis the next year.

But in the meantime, Faust… the most recognizable parable on deals with the Devil even if you don’t know that you know Faust. Doctor Faustus (Gosta Ekman) has been carrying the weight of his land’s plague in his hands, trying desperately to provide a cure for it and prevent any further dying at his hands. This pursuit leads him to extreme desperation that challenges his faith in God. Unknown to Faust, the plague is in fact a concoction of God and Mephisto (Emil Jannings giving a polar opposite performance from his work in The Last Laugh and fucking nailing it), who have a wager that Faust will never truly go astray from his humanity and fall into Mephisto’s clutches, regardless of the circumstances. With Faust at his weakest and most vulnerable, Mephisto approaches Faust to seduce him with the possibility of having license over life and death and, as a damned bonus, youth and all the great shit that makes you enjoy youth. Faust considers it and so the struggle truly begins.

I’ve always had a fascination with the tale of Goethe’s Faust, not just generally as a tragedy that easily tugs at heartstrings of guilt, shame, and mistakes, but as a compelling discussion of how far one goes towards his or her passions and how is he or she willing to deal with the consequences of this pursuit. Faust as a film, however, is interesting in that it dilutes much of these themes to a very streamlined tale that is easily consumptive to the film. Gone are much of the verbose prose of Goethe’s piece, as well as the entirely abstract philosophy preaching of the second half of the tale. The ending is fixed up and there’s even some Hollywood-ish inserts into the story, like UFA wanted to match the true titan they were currently competing against. It’s enough to understandably get under the skin of the real Goethe purists and while I do enjoy his work, thankfullu I’m not so much a purist that I would dismiss the movie (but I’m sure the band Kamelot would not be pleased to discover that I usually watch the silent film using their double album concept Epica and The Black Halo as my soundtrack to the film. They seem like Goethe purists.)

However, the true crown jewel of the film goes beyond its treatment of the tale of Faust and instead in the treatment of its spectacle. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, surrounding like Mephisto at the iconic opening scene where he wraps himself around the city and steals away the sunlight from the poor townspeople.

Let’s use that shot as an example. You goddamn well know it’s a model, you know it’s just a painted background that got progressed upon, you basically don’t see the strings to this puppetry but you know how it’s done and it’s there, similar to how we discussed with House. But this time it’s that the imagery is so chilling, so captivating that we don’t care… it doesn’t matter how it says what it’s saying, what matters is what it says and it says “Be afraid.”

This approach is the absolute pinnacle of German Expressionism by using the entirety of its production to present the effect of the image. That means large makeup on Jannings face as he portrays the Devil, that means giant worlds invented with the paint and the lens, that means larger than life actions…

Speaking of larger, the fact that the story – which is not bad but never really the forefront – is just incidental to the imagery that Murnau elicits, the globe-spanning that Mephisto induces in order to cater to Faust’s pleasures similar to the ambitious D.W. Griffith production Intolerance but without the fat, is just further proof in the end that actions will speak larger than words, especially in a visual medium like film. Even though the film gets pretty long by the end of it, Faust has never faltered as a hidden gem of visual artistry from one of the finest filmmakers ever to walk the earth.

I actually do take a moment to wonder whether or not Carl Theodor Dreyer or Ingmar Bergman were themselves influenced by Murnau’s work here, as the environment that the black plague-era villagers give off brings accessibility, both in the level of detail brough to build the village up and have it afflicted with all of these different effects Murnau gives them and with its familiarity to the audience after seeing The Seventh Seal or Ordet. But that’s just me thinking out loud.

In the end, the film historians don’t talk as much about Faust as they do the other films of Murnau and I personally find that a severe shame. Because dammit does Faust have a visual language that I personally feel is only surpassed in Murnau’s career by the brilliance of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. And that comes once more from Faust‘s complete dominance over the genre elements of Expressionism… providing a chilling mentality, a grand adventure, a moving tragedy, and a compelling drama before making us come around to leave the movie going

“Well damn, they don’t make it like that no more.”

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 5 – Shadowplays

AUTHOR’S NOTE, December 2018: I’m going to be re-reviewing Nosferatu at some point in the future. I have been unfairly harsh to the film based on my previous exposure to it being the many lesser public domain copies running around. It has risen significantly in my esteem and I expect there is much of this review I no longer agree with.

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Tonight, we’re going to really take our examinations of sources back in time to the very beginnings of film. In fact, we would have to daresay claim that this is not going to examine the very origins of horror cinema, but in an origin of cinema in general. And it’s all thanks to those crazy Germans…

Cinema is a medium of expression, just like any other. There is very little that separates it from another medium, but one of the major distinctions is how it is a visual medium, making it kin alongside the likes of Fine Art and Theatre, but certainly separating it from, say, music or literature. In fact, as everybody knows – even children who were raised by wolves, even fucking wolves know – cinema was a strictly visual medium until The Jazz Singer shouted out “mammy!” and changed that all around.

But there is that era still of the “strictly visual” and through adversity and limitations, we ended up with some of the most stunning visuals made yet in the history of film. We got the visual aspect pulled to the edge so that a story could be told in the one thousand words of pictures, rather than the one word of… a word…

Ok, let’s get my midnight lack of eloquence back in the bushes for a moment while I finally state my thesis: One of the reasons movies are half as effective as they get to be is because of the German Expressionism movement. Prior to the introduction to sound and color, Germany knew damn well how create an engulfing experience and that was by upping the shadows and heightening the drama, through very artistic stylizations of sets in fine art manner that implies artificiality without becoming fake and having the actors overact with their faces and gestures and movements so much that modern audiences would probably go “Ok, ok, we fucking get it, I’m starting to miss Kristen Stewart’s stone face.” Sure it is melodramatic, but you can’t look at a scene in The Last Laugh and tell me you missed what you were meant to be feeling. Make it as highly symbolic and stylized as to be hardened upon the mind’s of the viewer and burned in their eyes well after the movie finishes. Try to design absurdity in a communicative manner, that was the goal of German Expressionism. Don’t make it real, just make it feel.

And it works. Not only does it work, but it is the basis of emotive filmmaking and began to seep into the manner of expression for most films well after we were accommodated to sound and color – most notably with film noir (but that is a story for another day… or more specifically the next Motorbreath video) – and every filmmaker who tries to communicate an idea or theme or just a really emotional story, from Carl Dreyer to Charles Chaplin to Michel Gondry to David Fincher have some thanks to give to the German film industry in the early 20s for providing the answer to how we can make audiences become moved by pictures deliberately.

This in particular worked out best with the two genres of film that were most defined by the reactions of an audience – Comedy on how the audience could be cajoled to laugh and Horror on how the audience could be frightened to their wits. But this series is not the 31 Nights of April Fools (because that wouldn’t work out, since April Fool’s is like… on the first?), so let’s jump into two of the most definitive silent horror films of the era, the movies people most associate into the idea of how to scare people without making a sound. And we’ll get two because I don’t think I have too much to say in the end for either film that has not already been said by film historians and critics best-spoken and more intelligent than I.

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (translated from German to “A Symphony of Terror”, but I really just love how it sounds in German that I rarely refer to the translated title) is a movie forever immortalized by Spongebob that kind of deserves to get a chance to stand on its own for this generation. I mean, it did inspire more than the hash-slinging slasher. How about Tobe Hooper’s look for Kurt Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot? Or the Master – my favorite villain that Buffy the Vampire Slayer got? What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said simply by looking as the ghastly ugly makeup work transforming Max Shreck into a heinous creature of the night? That fucking rat face that would provoke disgust if it weren’t on the same body as those wide fixated eyes suggesting a one-track mind straight for the throat. That tall rigid stance with fingers that extend like the branches of the trees that terrorize Snow White, the tip of the nails so pointed as to suggest your heart is pierced just from looking at them? Don’t you just want to duck your head under the covers like poor Thomas having to sleep right next to that thing? The atmosphere around this figure, this inhuman monstrosity that stuns me to see on the screen, is rich with dread and darkness. For how absolute is the screen evil that is Count Orlock (Shreck) that it seems to parallel the stature of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s masterful make-up work? How powerful is Orlock’s essence on the film?

Quite frankly, so powerful that every time I watch the movie I get bored for the 72 minutes he’s not on-screen. Don’t get me wrong. I said earlier it is an essential I’d recommend to anyone, anywhere. And I’d certainly call it a great movie. I mean, for one, it has some pretty solid compositions for even simple moments as Thomas (Gustav von Wagenheim) leaving Ellen (Greta Schroder) and it’s not a more that really lulls one to sleep, but I’d more waiting for the good stuff with Shreck creeping inch by inch in front of my eyes than anything else the movie has to offer.

For one, F.W. Murnau… let’s get down to brass tacks, Murnau is a fucking genius. He was a master storyteller who brought tears in your eyes within one minute of a masterpiece like Sunrise or Tabu. But, I feel like this is the most amateur and uninspired work I have seen yet in his career. And again, it looks great. Not a single shot seems unnecessary nor does he absolutely lack flair or personality with moments, though it’s very obvious in the end that the night scenes were shot in the day and given a blue tint. But it’s his least expressionist film. The shots are straightforward and more feel like a D.W. Griffith work than a Murnau (and not knocking Griffith’s pictures, again, that man could shot competently). The movie is a brisk 81 minutes, it is not long nor boring by definition. But the movie’s lack of heightened shadow and atmosphere, except in moments where Shreck is either on-screen or providing several dark and threatening scenes like the famous crawl up the stairs or the tragic ending, both makes me kind of watching my clock waiting for Orlock to come back than get into the story too much. It’s just that Shreck outshines everything.

Well, that and the plot is not… very inspired or original. I barely mentioned it, so I’ll sum it up. Thomas Hutter gets a chance to go to Transylvania to sell land to the mysterious Count Orlock. When he gets there, Orlock takes a fancy to Hutter’s wife, Ellen, and leaves Hutter trapped within his walls. It is obvious at this point that Orlock is a vampyre and it is a race against time for Hutter to make it back to save his wife!

Sounds familiar? Yeah, I thought so. It’s because it’s Dracula. It is the first screen adaptation of Dracula and it pretty much is a beat-by-beat account of Bram Stoker’s novel. And, given that it is one of my favorite books and an annual read, I am a stickler for how it is presented, so this uninspired fashion of adapting the movie, causes me to consider Nosferatu the second most sterilized adaptation of the book I have ever seen. And if that shocks you, wait till later this month when you find out what I think IS the most sterilized.

It apparently didn’t amuse Stoker’s estate either, who took immediately to a lawsuit on Murnau and left his studio, Prana, bankrupt. As a result, all copies of Nosferatu were to be destroyed shortly after release and for a long while, it seemed they all were. It is by some miracle that we still have a chance to look at the glory of Nosferatu. Even if I am spoiled by Shreck, there are some wonderful moments coming out of von Wagenheim and Schroder that herald expressionist acting, bringing out the most terror on your face when Orlock approaches you or the joy when you receive a letter from your love, calculating your movements on screen so as to entrap the audience in what you are doing.

It’s certainly again amateur green-behind-the-ears Murnau before he actually got to be Murnau and shelled out his true brilliantly expressionist works like FaustThe Last Laugh and Sunrise, but it’s truly a moment of involved storytelling, if not inspired, and worthy of its place among the firsts in cinema… the first to make a character so scary as to make us pray he doesn’t pop out of the screen.

Now, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari… That’s inspired. It’s a mind-bender of a film. It is to the silent era what The Usual Suspects must have felt to the audience of 1995 (my feelings about The Usual Suspects being overrated and a distractedly entertaining film with one of the stupidest endings of all time notwithstanding). But it’s certainly coming from a place that means something to the filmmakers…

At least meaning something to the writers of the film. Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz knew that they wanted to make a horror film, so they decided that they would touch upon the things about their lives that make them shiver the most. For Mayer, it was all the psychological problems he felt he still suffered as a result of his excruciating service in World War I and the military psychiatrist that terrorized them. For Janowitz, it was his suspicion about a recent incident where he associates a man he saw exiting bushes near a fair and a bit of news the next morning that a woman was found dead in that same spot. For both, it was definitely the affrontive atmosphere of fairs, somewhat imposing in their happiness to extremes. Certainly something that would call for an expressionistic approach.

And an expressionistic approach of course meant something to the producer Erich Pommel, who didn’t have much light to use and was all for a movie made out of shadows. And to designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann & Walter Rohrig, who finally got a chance to use their artistic intuitions to create an angular world that would have fit better in a nightmare than any haunted house or “school in your underwear” moment ever dreamt up. And to director Robert Wiene to prove anybody can do “Fritz Lang” and work well with designers who have an eye for lines. In fact, this is a movie that it is very hard to establish authorship for. Everybody on the visual side of things seemed to have a hefty hand in making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari what it is.

And what it is happens to be the story of a couple Francis and Jane (Friedrich Feher and Lil Dagover, respectively) who visit the local fair to witness a somnambulist named Cesare (The uncanny Conrad Veidt) controlled by the hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Cesare insists that a friend of the couple’s will be dead by dawn and sure enough, Cesare proves to be right. But said death causes Francis’ suspicions and he begins to investigate what truly is the story behind Cesare and Caligari, finding himself sucked into a world of kidnapping, murder and madness.

And madness is just what the doctor prescribed. All this world is is haunting and artistic, the shadows mattering just as much as the strokes of paint of the crooked buildings, and there is nothing like this movie, not at all. It may not at all be an accurate representation of the social or medical results of psychopathy, but man oh man, does it feel like it and in the end, that is what most matters with Expressionism. Making your audience feel like they’re in the madhouse itself, with walls and rooms that just aren’t really there, even in the world of the film.

And the performances all sell themselves. At the forefront is a restrained and measured Veidt showcasing an outstanding expertise in pantomime and facial lock so as to make his very pale made-up face a beacon of terrors to come. Nevermind right behind him being von Twardowski becoming the stereotype of a mad doctor and making right due by it for how the movie calls for that deranged mad look all over, a pretentious bastard who wants to world to recognize and hearken just how brilliant this catastrophe he built is. Feher is an able leading man and Dagover is kind of loopy in her presence, but hell, that’s just exactly what the story needs out of their characters and the two of them are not nearly as uninvolved as von Wagenheim and Schroeder kind of were in Nosferatu.

Don’t ask me about the ending, though. I won’t say a damn word about it except that I love it and it really hammers the theme and main mood of the film right home while establishing it in a more grounded form for the audience to leave thinking about the social effects this movie might have had. That’s it. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. Johnny Tightlips is what I am.

These movies aren’t the only horror films in the German Expressionism (I like to think of Paul Wegener’s Der Golem and Murnau’s later Faust – the latter of which I prefer to both of these films by far), but they are the cornerstones of the movement and how it affected cinema in the many decades afterward. Becoming the emotion, more than just telling you what the emotion is. Less realism, more feeling. The world can be just as much painted with shadow as it is with light and sometimes it’s just as black and white as you think. You just need to see for yourself…

Gaze into the abyss. And find the darkness gazing back at you.

31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 3 – De-Loused in the Miskatonic – Re-Animator (1985/dir. Stuart Gordon/USA)

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Last night, we talked over both a remake and a prequel and how they tried oh so very hard to marry itself the concept of its original source, to overall lackluster results. What about when we get to a movie that doesn’t just lack that determination to be mistaken for its originator, but bounces off the walls in complete disregard for anything that isn’t as frivolous as the world it lives in, leading to both laughs and screams? In addition, I had been playing around for the first two days with starting with this movie and after a friend of mine mentioned every time he thinks of Lovecraft, he thinks of me, I thought “what the hell?”

If I didn’t know better – and I honestly didn’t until I saw the Masters of Horror episode “Dreams in the Witch-House” – I’d swear Stuart Gordon has never read an H.P. Lovecraft work. Now, not only do I know better, but I seem to have a hypothesis on why Gordon approaches his many adaptations of Lovecraft all throughout his career. When I got into Lovecraft, I was already in high school and reading his stories and novels on an approach very much inspired by my love for the novel Dracula… the idea of a scientific failure to rationalize the irrational events of horror really really intrigued me, especially at a time when I was being forced to read books on Anatomy, Physiology, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and other sciences by my strict dad (like most Arab fathers, he spent a great amount of raising me in the goal of making me a doctor).

It wasn’t until college when I learned that there are other kinds of fans of Lovecraft, in fact, a greater deal more than the type I was. There are fans of Lovecraft who are not as amused by the pseudoscience as the gory, grisly details in the descriptions of all the monstrous imaginative terrors Lovecraft conceived of on the page. And these are the same camp into the EC Comics and monster films like Godzilla and the show Tales from the Crypt and the zombie films. And I don’t doubt Gordon falls into both types of Lovecraft fans, but it’s very clear who he was catering to when he made Re-Animator.

If you don’t know Lovecraft, I don’t care how many horror movies you have claimed to see or how many Edgar Allen Poe poems or Stephen King novels you read, you do not know horror. He’s certainly not the most definitive name in the whole spectrum, but he is probably one of the most influential, the one most horror driven artists owe themselves to. He’s been graced with many an adaptation and much more a reference to his works in. He’s inspired nearly every worthwhile name associated with horror since him from Blue Oyster Cult to Garham Harman, and then some stinkers too. But a lot of those adaptations have proven to not entirely be faithful and there’s kind of a point to that.

Lovecraft, for all his imagination and for all I love him and use to eat him up in high school, was not a good writer. Even giving him the doubt of his stories trying to re-enact the tedium and verbose manner of science journals and other diagetic documents (which honestly did not even hurt Stoker’s Dracula one bit), the man’s prose is not half as engaging when it’s trying to continue the narrative as it is when it is illustrating some horrid visuals and expressing some fatalistic philosophy. And he doesn’t have a sense of coherent structure or pacing when a good storyteller. If any of his books were made word by word into the big screen, it would feel like Atlas Shrugged in movie form. It would be kind of boring.

But that doesn’t change just how shocking and expansive his horror ideas were and how easily they could attract the pulp crowd that was growing at the time he wrote, even when it became a chore for them to finish his works.

And so we get to Stuart Gordon, who loved Lovecraft so much that most of his movies are based on Lovecraft’s works. Gordon, however, knows Lovecraft’s modern audience a lot better I certainly did the first time I saw his cult hit Re-Animator – that is to say, he knew they were more into the grisly than the rationale behind the grisly – and took as much of the original story as he felt necessary and began to sew in as much as he could a better and more genuine sense of storytelling while really bringing out the comic book and pulp elements that the concept just fucking begged for. That, to me, is one of the smartest approaches to making an adaptation of any work whatsoever and so the problem isn’t the execution in itself so much as where Gordon felt satisfied.

So, let’s jump into the concept of this idea: Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has returned to New England and enrolled Miskatonic University after having recently worked his medical studies in Switzerland. He’s clearly causing a ruckus in his presence as he clearly interests Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), the student whom he is renting a room from, yet disturbs Dan’s fiancée Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). In the meantime, Megan’s father and Miskatonic Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) is not having any of West’s shit since, in addition to his peculiar behavior, West has been accusing one of the professors Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) as first a plagiarist and then afterwards incompetent in general as a professor. It is not elaborated on whether he was kicked out or if he left of his own volition, but what is clear is that his time in Switzerland left him with a very effective reagent and that, after a humorous incident with Dan’s cat that convinces him of West’s genius, the reagent is in fact able to reanimate the dead. Of course, the consequences of West’s deranged drive begin to bring consequences that threaten the personal life of Dan and outright threaten Miskatonic’s both literal and social standing…

It’s an out-and-out zombie movie with a bit of mad scientist to it, which is pretty much fine. That’s how Lovecraft’s serialized short story “Herbert West – Reanimator” went about and it was able to carry a sort a little more sober a weight and he still hated it (I’m not very sure Lovecraft had much of a sense of humor – one of a few qualities alongside his pretentious defense of racism making him an artist I do not find myself wanting to be in the company of). Gordon doesn’t need that sobriety. It’s a ridiculous concept, why not make it ridiculous in tone? Why not have a great deal of tentacles shooting out to strangle people or giant naked cadavers with very comic book colors of blue and pink on their skin resembling a bloated Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein (in fact, the music video for the Misfits’ “Scream” resembles heavily the climax of Re-Animator). Why not have it with wacky leaping undead cats and heads that express bloody hatred even though they have no windpipe or lungs any more? Hey, it’s not like the movie doesn’t earn this ridiculousness. It provides a world that harkens at both science-fiction and horror influences with its sustained use of shadow and cold interiors, not to mention that the reagent itself is a very gorgeously glowing alluring green that stands out in every single moment it is pulled out. But are the actors willing to play around with it as well?

Well, the actors are honestly hit and miss and some of it comes from a lack of effort or understanding how to go with these characters and some of the failings come from how you can write these lines, but really you can’t say them. Robert Sampson makes a much more exciting dead person than a living being, where he comes off as just inconsistently stuffy or doting depending on the scene. David Gale is not entirely ineffective as a villain as he pulls out the diabolical to 11 with trying to discredit or ruin West, but his more intimate moments of hatred are stone-dead looks without much else behind them. Again, Gale makes more exciting performances dead than living. And Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton are both pretty much the weakest link in the whole movie’s line-up, particularly in the scenes that diverge from the storyline to just have Dan and Megan express their uncertainty and display their romantic relationship. Abbott gives a deadline performance that just doesn’t convince me that he knows how ridiculous the movie is and yet doesn’t seem to realize this performance wouldn’t pass in a soap opera either, while Megan has not much else to her personality except getting the creeps from West and while Crampton is eager as all hell to play the screaming waif as the movie proves, it’s very undeserving of any actress.

Instead, let’s get to Jeffrey Combs as West. It’s very impossible for me not to associate an actor who appeared in any Star Trek related work with Star Trek. When people will try to argue that Combs really played a plethora of characters in the Star Trek franchise, dude, you don’t know how far my Star Trek obsession goes. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Trekkie as I just in general avoid labels, but it doesn’t matter how big or how small the role is – you’re in Star Trek, you’re Star Trek guy to me (in the last 31NoH article, I refrained from noting I immediately recognized Paul Rae as a bartender in an episode of Enterprise. A fucking bartender nameless and shit!).

Combs breaks past my association with Star Trek to make Dr. Herbert West, his own. He lives in the peculiarities and never once gives a sign of enjoyment like most camp performances would indulge in, but instead just makes West such a genuine essence that is the center of all of this madness and chaos that unfolds that in a performance that should by all rights be as hammy as the film it takes place in, he is not caught acting once. Not once. All the brilliance, all the narcissism, the struggle for Dan’s attention from Megan, the amorality, the relentlessness, it’s all stolen, not captured, by a very restlessly energetic but subdued performance out of Combs. He’s the mania of Dr. Pretorius with the casualness of… I don’t know how to put it, but the fact that such a crazed performance can restrain so much but give its personality away through mere speech in dialogue scenes astounds me. Combs is not Weyoun or Brunt or Shran. He’s Dr. Herbert West to me.

Anyway, the rest of the movie carries on as is for the first… maybe hour and ten minutes. The movie’s plot boils on as West and Dan continue to run through their unethical experiments until every once in a while an “Oh shit!” moment happens and West ends up using a solution that makes the situation even worse, affecting Megan, Dan, Dean Halsey and even Dr. Hill, who continues meddling into trying to find a way to ruin West’s career. Every once in a while, we’d get another unnecessarily banal moment between Megan and Dan, but to our comfort, they don’t last half as long as they could have if the movie didn’t realize we care less about their relationship as we do about West’s misadventures.

All the while these gory, speechless moments of hysteria and madness encompassed in shots of flailing bodies, both living and dead, trying to come to terms with the things they are going through that should not be really sell this movie’s source as a horror-comedy. If we choose to laugh, we can. If we don’t, it’s fine the movie is still doing its job by making us uncomfortable. It’s however unfortunate that it doesn’t play with this horror-comedy dynamic as smartly as, say, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, another movie that holds this same “slapstick from Hell” feel in spades, because it’s still based on a Lovecraft and since Lovecraft’s sense of humor was lacking, it was clear that Gordon really had to work for that tone to be fit into moments of West’s grandeur that would probably be melodramatic under another director. The comedy works along just well, though, and is very pleasing for the most part.

And then there’s the really infamous part about this movie. Which will be added with a spoiler and NSFW image, so I’m just gonna put this sentence as a warning.

Now, before I move to this scene, let me recount the moment I tried to show this movie to a group of my peers. My hand to Odin, not a one of them was paying attention to the movie up until this point except me. Nobody really cared, rather doing dishes, on their phones, or doing homework. Nobody was really engaged by the movie as they all had better stuff to do.

Lo and behold, this moment came up and all of them were paying their fucking attention immediately with disgust and bemusement and it’s pretty obvious why.

A horror movie likes to play on shock factor and many of them will try it safe, while a lot will try to push the edges. In an era where we have The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film, movies are going to tear the envelope to shreds to open it and go “Ta-Da!” for it.

I honestly don’t know my stance on this moment, though. It’s obvious that they all worked a whole lot on it and its touches on the near pornographic fascinations that adults would, in the old days, condemn on the EC comics for their alleged perversity. This scene obviously goes to extremes to go there, though obviously. Megan is being sexually assaulted by Dr. Hill’s severed head in the middle of a zombie movie while the plucky heroes of West and Dan are going over there to rescue her. It’s a perverted mix between softcore indulgence and damsel in distress fantasy. And considering the rest of Barbara Crampton’s work, I don’t doubt she was very very into the scene anyway and wasn’t opposed. But, while I wouldn’t call myself a feminist (only because again, fucking labels for me, I completely agree with all mainstream feminist ideals I am familiar), this raises Sam Peckinpah levels of objection out of me. Was it really necessary? I don’t fucking know or care. It doesn’t disgust me, it doesn’t make me feel horror, but my main shock is simply out of saying “Wow, you went there, Gordon.”

It brings what was a pretty swell movie a few notches down for me and if that seems unfair, well, deal with it. I can’t possibly proudly say a movie that is so desperate for a scene like this has earned a glowing “IT IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER”.

But anyway, at any rate, we get past this quick scene to what might be one of the most rushed finales I’ve ever seen a movie go through after being patient enough to build itself up, a battle between Dr. Hill’s undead army (among them Megan’s father also reanimated) and West, Dan and Megan. And it’s a pretty crazy moment, where physics and logic go flying right the fuck out of the window as West’s secret weapon happens to be “OVERDOSE!!!”, but it isn’t the most level pay-off for everything else the film was promising. Just more extended scenes of moments of struggling with a large muscular zombie that we kind of got enough of in the middle of the film. It’s enough to keep me moving with the story, but really not as much fun or as interesting this time around and it’s clear Gordon’s imagination has run out.

Shortly after this action setpiece of contained tensions, we get a very brief scene of one character desperately attempting to resuscitate another as a casualty of the hijinks that ensued in Miskatonic and in said character’s desperation, we get one more gag that is a literal screamer. It’s a pretty effective ending that played very predictably but ended the movie on that very comic book “what have we done” note.

I don’t entirely get why Lovecraft hated “Herbert West – Reanimator”. It was indeed among the best structured of his works, the one where he felt most like a writer, but I’m sure he wouldn’t exactly go gaga for Stuart Gordon’s film. And he can go fuck himself probably for that. I myself wouldn’t go gaga, but I’m still somewhat satisfied by what we got: a decent hunk of story, a decent hunk of great performances, and a decent hunk of setpieces that come straight out of a Romero set.

But it’s still the wholly great deal it could have been. Sometimes moments falter, sometimes scenes shouldn’t exist, sometimes emotions aren’t convincing and sometimes we get to seeing that Gordon didn’t think the whole movie through (one of the biggest signs of this is the score “by” Richard Band… except it sounds exactly like every score Bernard Herrmann ever wrote for Alfred Hitchcock and it doesn’t fit the movie’s style at all). It’s not a great movie in spite of its intentions and efforts and it barely makes it by to the good movie category by the additional weight the good parts have to carry.

But again, we are lucky among those good parts happens to be Herbert West and when I have to smile and explain to mortified peers why I own this movie, it’s because of the revelation of a performance that comes out of Jeffrey Combs. And of course, we are also lucky that for Gordon’s understanding lack of dedication to Lovecraft this time around, we get a very very very fun movie for its first hour. It doesn’t get nearly enough credit for itself, but “hey, better it live unrecognized than stolen by a talking head that should get a job at a sideshow… ” I say in my mind…

“… and that forces itself on a young maid.” I tell myself as I keep skipping that 1 and a half minute moment.

Tonight, Tonight

I so so so so mean to boost my usage of this thing, after being beaten down to only using it once a month. So, when I have to reboot my output in anything, I always figure to start from the beginning…

No. No. No.

… not the very beginning. Because, what the hell can you say about Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon other than that it’s a bunch of guys leaving a factory.

No, you want to be shown something you’ve never seen before. Something fantastic. It’s why people want to be told stories. They want to be surprised and amused.

But hell, you run that same risk in the likes of A Trip to the Moon. It’s so short and straight and to the point, not so covered in nuance and theme deliberately, that the idea description is just to say it is about scientists who happen to go to the Moon and fight aliens before returning. That’s the main content of the film and essentially the only thing it is about.

But its imagery is unforgettable, completely engrained into the idea of what science fiction film and what a dreamlike surrealism film allows to be a “reality” for the viewer. I mean, an image from cinema that is as engrained as that of Death and the Knight Playing Chess or Harold Lloyd Hanging Out of the Clock Tower lies below…

atriptothemoon

BOOM!!!!

With a little touch of the fantastic and the magic, the moon is a face with a rocket ship sticking out of its eye. This is undeniably unforgettable imagery and this was well in the beginnings of celluloid, something which is practically cinema’s endangered species now.

You see, it’s the little technicalities like that that truly make it easy to love Une Voyage dans la Lune. It’s fun and pretty to look at. It’s such an obvious little fantasy, even when you ignore the fascinating magic tricks Melies obviously put together to bring it to life… the falling of the rocket ship, the costumes of the Moon Aliens… Those are eye-catching, but also eye-catching is the obviously novel aspects – the woman in short shorts being the workers to shoot the moon out, the professors being such long-bearded old men in robes that make them look more like Wizards than Scientists, oversized ships and rocket guns and staffs and one large-eyed moon…

What more can I say beyond that without going into the intricacies that bore my friends whenever I talk about them? When you’re wowed by magic, you don’t immediately find out the magician’s secrets. So, why should I ruin a magician’s secrets this time around just because I happen to be writing a film blog?

It’s human nature to dream and Une Voyage dans la Lune happens to be the first dream captured in film and shared with everyone.

Why don’t you check it out?

Pure Magic…

FLASHBACK: Two Movies I Really Tried to Like That I Couldn’t.

Author’s Note, July 2017: Remind me in a bit once I’m done writing about Raimi’s trilogy and the new Spider-Man Homecoming to actually write a REAL review for The Amazing Spider-Man, because while my feelings haven’t changed much on the movie… man, reading 20-year-old me’s writing is fucking awful. I sound like an idiot. And 2400 words?! What the fuck am I, Charles Dickens here?

In 2012, I didn’t really have many movies I was looking forward to. I had taken to watching more classics and oldies than looking out for any coming attractions. I was surprised to realize that Ben Affleck and Paul Thomas Anderson came out with new movies, though I jumped on them immediately. I was not excited about The Avengers as such a concept of a film sounded unwieldy (though I was pleasantly surprised upon seeing the movie) and The Dark Knight Rises as I knew the movie would not be worth the hype that occurs. In fact, the upcoming Spider-Man reboot was the only movie I had expectations for. I thought it was way too soon to do a movie on the Osama bin Laden search, despite being under the direction of Kathryn Bigelow. And although I had been following Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s next collaboration after BrickLooper was not a movie that I was going to rush to see if I had no time.

The only three movies I was legitimately anticipating were two movies whose pre-production and production I had been following out of rabid fandom: Prometheus (out of my rabid fandom for Alien), Django Unchained (out of my Tarantino fandom) and a movie I had been surprised to find was being made… John Dies at the End.

My expectations to John Dies at the End were foolish. I won’t say it was a bad movie, but Don Coscarelli, a director whose made movies I have undying love for like PhantasmBubba Ho-Tep and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, is a guy who can only make movies that are good enough. Not great, not fantastic, but good enough to pass off the story and maybe have a bit of style and humor to it. It’s a result that probably has to do with unwieldy yet ambitious production and budget problems. Coscarelli is probably at best a more independent Terry Gilliam without the reputation.

It may work for the other films, but when reading the original book by David Wong, John Dies at the End is a tale that requires larger than life, fantastic elements. It’s a tale about two guys basically finding a gateway to a darker world through a drug. You cannot just half-ass that. The Coscarelli humor is somewhat adequate, but it’s not the humor of the book – the absurdity, the banality, the true invincibility of the titular character’s jackassery. At the same time, it has to be legitimately frightening. It’s part of the atmosphere. It can’t be hallucinatory, because the things David and John encounter are real. The threat is real, not in the mind.

And the bigger thing is just that the story is more serial-esque but with an arc. If anything, it fits more as a TV series, but how do you really pitch such a series?
Very small changes are forgivable, a dog who is the central character of the story has been changed in sex and renamed to a punny ‘Bark Lee’. A significant battle in the Luxor casino at Las Vegas has been removed – disappointing but understandable because of budget.

Other changes are pretty hurtful… They take out a huge twist in the story that defines the book, they made the lead female character Amy more of a love interest than anything else and there ARE NO CHAIR JOKES!!!! None!!!

These are not story changes that Coscarelli should take all the blame for himself, but David Wong as well, who has taken responsibility and explained why he insisted on the changes from book to movie. I’m only having a problem with it due to my attachment to the book to be honest.

As a strength to the movie, even though they had less time to flesh out the lead characters of David and John, the actors who played them really understood who they were. I didn’t feel like I was watching an attempt at recreating David and John, I felt like I was actually watching David and John.

My advice to those interested: Watch the movie and then read the book if you liked the movie. You won’t be as disappointed with the movie as I was if you read the book after the fact and it will really fill in the details for a lot of other things that had to be shortened for movie’s length.

Now get ready, because a rant is about to ensue…

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The Amazing Spider-Man on the other hand, I was initially disappointed. I was intrigued by the idea of a new Spider-Man film and was intent on seeing it. When I first saw it, I thought it was whatever, but not a terrible movie. But the reviews came in, lower than the first two Spider-Man films, but higher than the terrible Spider-Man 3. And all my friends were seeming to like it. And then, they started saying the movie was better than Raimi’s trilogy – they started claiming Raimi’s trilogy always sucked. Nevermind the sudden internet about-face, I thought there was nothing spectacularly good or bad about the Amazing Spider-Man. But I figured, I’d give it another shot… I’d see if I could catch what I was supposed to be missing and they were catching.


The Amazing Spider-Man is not just an overhyped movie, it’s a very bad movie. There’s in actuality, after watching it again and again, nothing whatsoever of cinematic merit in it. My attempt to watch it again to find the good in it backfired. I only found more bad.

I’ve had times when I went against the public opinion to not like a popular movie… I was not a fan of CrashTransformers (albeit the 2nd and 3rd movies were bad and everyone knew it) or a good portion of Tim Burton’s work (though I have lightened up on him)… But I understood there was at least some merit in these films that allowed for their legacy, even The Dark Knight RisesThe Amazing Spider-Man does not have that. At all. It does not have anything of quality in it. There has never been another time I was so certain people were eating up shit since The Walking Dead TV series started and everybody claimed it was the best show ever made.

So, let me start with the obvious…
1) The most underdeveloped romantic story I’ve seen in films. I haven’t seen From Justin to Kelly or Gigli yet, and I have no intention to, so I’ll be fair and not say it’s THE most underdeveloped romance in all films but giggling and staring at each other does not constitute chemistry.
2) Peter Parker is a brooder all around the movie. Before Uncle Ben even dies, he’s brooding like a punk. People all around me say that this is the Spider-Man they’ve been waiting for, but that’s not Spider-Man. They say Spider-Man has to be an asshole, Spider-Man has to make jokes…

Look, Spider-Man is not Spider-Man because he makes jokes. If you get mad, Raimi’s Spider-Man didn’t make jokes, you may as well be mad at Christopher Nolan’s Batman because he didn’t do that Dracula thing he always does with his cape…

 

Pictured: That Dracula Thing… I can English!

You know what makes Spider-Man Spider-Man? The fact that he’s not an asshole. The fact that he legitimately means well everytime. He’s human with faults, but Uncle Ben taught him to be a better person and his death spurs him into taking on hefty responsibility in life. He doesn’t love his life, but he doesn’t brood 24/7. A gritty Spider-Man would not work, just as a gritty Fantastic Four does not work. Peter Parker’s a legitimately good guy who wants to do the right thing.
Anybody who claim Spider-Man is an asshole or his only defining feature in persona is his smartassery (which is done to offset the weight he feels put under)… These people don’t know what they’re talking about at all.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, in my opinion, are better actors that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst… But man, Andrew Garfield’s acting in this film, he made me want to punch Peter. Every damn time… they barely glance over his scientific knowledge and they make him look like a modern Edward Cullen.

3. The story was rushed. The origin was rushed, Flash Thompson was inconsistent in his treatment of Peter, the chase for Ben’s killer went nowhere, the romance was rushed… and when they killed Captain Stacy, I just went ‘Wow, that already happened?’… Then, I look at who wrote the script and I figure out why… James Vanderbilt: his portfolio does not seem to understand development or pacing. Zodiac is the one credit that actually seemed satisfactory. Alvin Sargent wrote all Spider-Man scripts… that’s fine whatever, but he made mistakes too. And Steve Kloves wrote the Harry Potter films… which I despise with a passion for their lack of understanding how to properly adapt works of literature into cinema (Granted, I really really love the books, like anybody who grew up reading them, and I have a warm reception towards the movie of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – So, I’m not anti-Harry Potter at all).

The Amazing Spider-Man could’ve went into places Raimi never went to, it could’ve brought new life to the comic book film, but instead it played out as a lifeless script treatment of a high school drama.

The biggest gripe I have is with what The Amazing Spider-Man claimed they were bringing to the table turned out to be absolutely empty promises. Norman Osborn’s disappearance was laughably obvious by the sudden showcase of the shadowy bust they had in the OsCorp tour.

Are you fucking kidding me? Is that a whole obnoxious ‘I’m gonna deliberately not show you the face because I want to be incredibly mysterious as a picture’ instead of being unassuming about the whole deal and letting the ambiguity flow naturally?

Curt Conners’ transformation into the Lizard was actually a well-treated part of the story, particularly with his being ridden on by Irfan Khan’s character, but then his whole plan to flood the city with that mutation cloud was once again, worse than the more cliche comic book villain schemes I’ve seen since I was a child… At least the Green Goblin, despite a bad design, had a personal vendetta with everyone he targeted.
The worst part, the biggest crime, was the sudden focus on the parents. There’s three reasons why it was absolutely appalling to use.

1) They don’t say anything about his parents. They act like they’re a big part of the story, but by the end of the movie, nothing is known about them except Richard worked for OsCorp with Connors. Nothing jaw-dropping out of that. Then they make the mid-credit scene in prison to laugh at us, teasing like they have more to say… when there was nothing said to begin with. By the end of the movie, I polled all of my friends who loved The Amazing Spider-Man (ie. Everyone who saw it for some reason – including my brother who I saw it with) to name the parents of Peter Parker. Half of them were able to name Richard as the father, nobody except one guy could name Mary as the mother.

2) It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t. Richard and Mary Parker left Peter’s life and they never returned and it never affected Peter in the comics (it had weight in the Ultimate Spider-Man universe, but never so severe). For all intents and purposes, Ben and May Parker are Peter’s parental figures. They were the ones who shaped Peter into the man he became, not his parents… which leads me to the third reason.

American Gothic… it is not.

3) They downplayed Ben and May’s role at this point. Their importance to Peter’s life was absolutely nullified. Instead of feeling the pull I felt when I saw Ben die in 2002’s Spider-Man, I instead thought ‘Huh, they shot him already?’ in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man.

It was an bloodless picture that thought just from its existence it was going to change the Spider-Man game the way Batman Begins did to the Batman game and instead, it came off as movie that was all the bad parts of the Ultimate universe and the Harry Potter stories. It was created only to make money and retain the Spider-Man copyright for Sony Pictures and everybody fell for it and ate it up. It’s very insulting to the intelligence of the audience because it’s obvious they half-assed this movie.

At this point, it goes far beyond I just don’t like The Amazing Spider-Man. It goes far beyond Raimi’s Spider-Man 1 and 2 being my favorite movies. I’m trying to avoid comparison.
I’m making a certainly childish move to a degree, but one I feel completely justified in… The Amazing Spider-Man was a bad movie. A very bad movie. It has it’s hype phenomenon going for it, solely because it’s the new version… Everybody’s going to eat it up because they like teenage angst and think it equals cinematic emotion. I’m that guy trying to explain that Soylent Green is people and whatever… I’ll be the pariah, but everybody’s wrong if they say there’s something of quality in The Amazing Spider-Man.
I will forever fight this until it dies down.
It’s not like you can say The Amazing Spider-Man was more accurate to the comics – that’s not the case. In fact, it goes a lot backwards in comic book accuracy than forwards or makes the same leaps that Spider-Man made. The only accuracy added was the web-slinging device. That’s one item of accurate delivery and even then, Parker steals it in TAS as opposed to building it.
You certainly can’t say it’s because it’s the Untold Story. It wasn’t. It wasn’t everything told in Spider-Man as an origin.

At least John Dies at the End was funny.

Wait, no, The Amazing Spider-Man was better because 3D!

EDIT: So, I just read that the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man will feature Jamie Foxx as Electro and possibly Paul Giamatti as Rhino. DEAR ODIN, this series fucking reeks of stunt casting – Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Denis Leary, C. Thomas Howell, Irfan Khan, Rhys Ifans and now this… this is only done to use big-name stars without respect for character.

Okay, I’m done now, I promise.