Thursday, November 5, 2020

Movie and Graphic Novel Review: "V for Vendetta"

 

The downside of being alive for five decades is that it's really easy to notice when certain once-implacable standards have been lowered beyond imagination. Gone are the days when someone's political career could be threatened by a weird yell or if you misspelled "potato." But we now live in an era when half of the American population can sleep soundly after voting for the sort of autocrat that would give Alan Moore waking nightmares.

Four years before Moore revolutionized comic books with Watchmen, he wrote V for Vendetta as a direct challenge to the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. Trends of crony capitalism, environmental disdain, overt nationalism and rampant, widespread surveillance, topped off with a generous dollop of racism, homophobia and xenophobia, had Moore legitimately concerned that the U.K. was tipping into despotism. 

Although V for Vendetta was a critical and commercial hit for DC's adult-themed Vertigo line, it didn't get a movie adaptation until 2006, five years after 9/11. Given the prevailing political climate in the U.S. at the time, Moore's cautionary tale was suddenly looking pretty friggin' relevant again. As a result, the Wachowskis, looking for something to do after The Matrix trilogy ended with a resounding thud, wrote and produced a screen version with director James McTeigue at the helm. 

Say what you want about the final result, but even the most hardened critic has to admit that their collective vision is distressingly relevant when viewed by contemporary audiences. 

The year is 2027. After the U.S. has fallen into a state of civil war (!) and a pandemic (!!) has devastated Europe, the fascist Norsefire Party now holds sway over England, with the demagogic Adam Sutler (John Hurt) installed as High Chancellor. We're introduced to Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young employee at the state-run television network, as she gets accosted by a gang of "Fingermen" secret police. Just in the nick of time, she's rescued by the titular "V" (Hugo Weaving), a vigilante, political anarchist, alliteration junkie and Guy Fawkes cosplayer.

To reveal more about the plot would be a disservice, so I'll just say that the story mainly concerns itself with slowly revealing V's elaborate plan to topple Sutler's regime and how Evey fits into all of it. We also cut back and forth to a pair of Scotland Yard Inspectors, Finch (Stephen Rea) and Stone (Rupert Graves), as they try and puzzle out V's real identity and snare him. In doing so, they discover how the terrorist's origins are linked to the dark conspiracy which sent the country hurtling towards authoritarianism. 

Famously, Alan Moore has disowned any cinematic adaptation of his graphic novels, claiming that his stories are exclusively designed for the medium of comics, any motivation to adapt them into movies is strictly mercenary and the end results will always be disappointment. Admittedly, in the case of something like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he's pretty much spot-on, but I'd argue that Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen is reasonably good and V for Vendetta is even better.    

I admire Alan Moore's stalwart integrity, which remains resolute, even when a massive financial carrot is dangled in front of him. Having said that, when something as important as V for Vendetta is clanging around in your brain, it makes sense to me, as a writer, to try and disseminate these messages as prolifically as possible. Sure, the results might not be as good as the original source material, but it's not as if film adaptation is the equivalent of Wrath of Khan's Genesis device and will destroy the original graphic novel "in favor of its new matrix."

Moore would likely argue to the contrary, and, admittedly, there's ample evidence to support his stance. After all, I'm sure there are plenty of people who've seen the film and aren't even aware that it's based on a graphic novel. The film makes a myriad of changes, some subtle, some major, and I'm sure that Mr. Moore is salty about every single one. In a perfect world, the original writer should be given complete oversight on these interpretations but, given DC Comic's draconian take on creator's ownership rights, I wouldn't be quick to play ball with them either.    

Here are some of the changes between the original graphic novel and the film adaptation:

  • When we first meet Evey in the graphic novel, she's a 16-year-old munitions worker who desperately turns to prostitution for financial survival. She's also more immediately helpful to V, voluntarily working with him to ensnare the creepy Bishop Lilliman. In the film, she's a lot older and more self-possessed, but she gets cornered by the Fingermen, not out of desperation, but simply because she's looking to visit Gordon after curfew. I think? I honestly don't know since it's not exactly made clear. She also volunteers to help V catch the Bishop, not because he's a creepy pedophile scumbag, but to create an opportunity for her to escape. In the end, I think novel Evey's personal journey is a lot more sympathetic, harrowing, and engaging.  
  • As the "Voice of Fate" in the original novel, Lewis Prothero is strictly a radio voice for the "Fate" computer, dispensing audio comfort food to keep listeners mired in the status quo. In the film, actor Roger Allam portrays the "Voice of London", a hyper-charged Fox News-style television pundit. Although I like the "disembodied voice of Fate" idea, as a screenwriter, I don't know if I could  resist updating this for parody purposes.
  • With changes like the latter, the film has clearly drifted away from the book's original "anarchy versus fascism" approach and it's now more of a liberal treatise against Objectivism and Bush-era Neo-Conservatism. And, honestly, considering the current day threat that this has grown into, it's hard to dismiss this warning outright.
  • Racism was pretty prevalent in the U.K. back when Moore first wrote V for Vendetta but, as the Black Lives Matter movement will attest, it's just as insidious and widespread as it's ever been, maybe even more so. Sadly, all that remains of Moore's original exploration of this are a few clips of the fictional Storm Saxon show playing in the background and a couple of post 9/11 shots thrown at Muslims.   
  • In the original novel, a limited nuclear skirmish results in the dire conditions which give rise to the Norsefire party. Moore now admits that the concept of  a limited nuclear exchange being survivable is pretty much ludicrous, so the film's lab-engineered virus is a helluva lot more realistic, not to mention oddly prescient. The funny thing is, neither the book nor the film got it right since it's pretty clear that the average idiot doesn't need an over-arching, fear-based reason to vote for a sociopathic despot. They can do it for much more frivolous, odious,ignorant and / or selfish reasons.     
  • Sutler uses the virus as a "Reichstag fire"-style event to seize power but, in the novel, it's a much more insidious, subtle, creeping process. Which, let's face it, is more in line with the modern fascist play book.
  • John Hurt does his usual great job as Sutler (Susan in the novel), but he's also playing a Mussolini / Hitler-esque caricature here. In the novel, the Norsefire party leader is quite cold, calculating and sedate. In fact, his complete and utter apathy towards his fellow human beings  leads him into a really odd obsession with the omniscient "Fate" computer; a weakness that V learns to exploit.  
  • The original novel dedicates a significant amount of time exploring the lives of prominent party members and their partners. In other words, they're not just depicted as simplified thugs like in the film, they're presented with a lot more subtlety and nuance. They've largely convinced themselves that what they're doing is right and normal and they treat their roles like it's any other job. This is definitely more in-step with what most cogs in fascist wheels end up doing in order to assuage their conscience. 
  • The explanation of how V procured the chemicals to escape the internment camp is omitted from the movie, making for a pretty glaring logical plot hole. Later V somehow manages to mail a metric crap-ton of Guy Fawkes masks out to thousands of London residents. Um, okay.  
  • A subplot where Evie is abandoned by V and she shacks up with a random guy named Gordon might do well to explore her daddy issues, but it isn't a huge loss from the screenplay. The film's Gordon, played by Stephen Fry, is Evey's trusted T.V. station colleague who later confides his personal secrets to her. 
  • V is a lot more "wild card" in the book, reminding Evie that the chaos resulting from his actions isn't "anarchy" and that anarchy actually means "without leaders, not without order." One big feather in the film's cap is getting Hugo Weaving to play V. He communicates a staggering level of emotion and verbiage while never once showing his face. Truly impressive.  
  • Since V is a much more ruthless and morally ambiguous figure in the novel, Finch doesn't just abandon his life's loyalties at the end of the story. 

Technically, the film is quite accomplished, with first-time director James McTeigue offering up some great visuals and some decent set pieces. As a hold-over from The Matrix-style "bullet time", some of the action sequences are in slo-mo, a technique which was already over-used, even back then. McTeigue and editor Martin Walsh keep things moving along at a brisk pace, but, as the script's perspectives and 11'th hour machinations become increasingly complicated, the cutting seems to get more muddied and whiplash.

The set design and costumes are all top-notch, though at times certain environs get over-lit and photographed like a cheap sitcom. Dario Marianelli's soundtrack is functional but devoid of anything memorable, a fact made even more glaringly obvious with the inclusion of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and a few notable contemporary cover songs by Julie London and Cat Power.

But, when it comes right down to it, the original graphic novel wins the duke because Moore's singular vision trumps (no pun intended) the committee that made the film version. Whenever the film's script strays from the graphic novel, I get shades of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss desperately trying to write something Game of Thrones-y after running out of  George R.R. Martin's original material. The dialogue is particularly glaring; I swear the Wachowskis drunkenly peppered the word  "bollocks" into the script just to make the characters sound more "British."  

It's not just the dialogue that's lunk-headed. In a particularly ham-fisted sequence, Gordon presents a broad, farcical Benny Hill-style open parody of Sutler and then blithely dismisses the possibility of any repercussions. His stance is so naive that you begin to suspect that the script made him do it just so  Evey gets captured. As for Natalie Portman, she's a tad wooden throughout and her accent isn't 100% convincing to me, but she does shine during the imprisonment / rebirth scene. 

After that pivotal moment, the plot gets increasingly convoluted, with V posing as an informant named Rookwood. This ruse is so blatantly obvious that I almost laughed out loud when Finch freaks out later when he realizes that he fell for it. If you think about it for just a second, you quickly realize that all of this Rookwood stuff exists just to explain the conspiracy, which didn't even exist in the novel. Speaking of, Moore's original denouement, which has Evie adopting a logical evolution, is a helluva lot more satisfying than the film's conclusion.   

Yes, I think the graphic novel is superior, but I don't want to make it sound as if it's perfect, 'cuz it ain't. It's one of Moore's earliest writing jobs, and it betrays some pretty puerile, sophomoric and "edge-lordy" material. Beyond the aforementioned "nuclear winter" gaff, I find the characterization of Conrad Heyer's bitchy wife Helen to be laughably one-dimensional. Heyer is depicted as the sort of raging, power-hungry harpy that's more at home in an EC horror comic. 

Then there's Rosemary Almond's husband Derek, who is shown to be a mentally and physically abusive piece of shit. After he's killed by V, Rosemary inexplicably pines over him. In fact, her despair grows so deep and her financial woes so dire, that she ends up publicly humiliating herself in some sort of perverse public vaudeville act. I don't buy it at all and it just seems to be planted there as a lazy way to "crush the head of the snake" without V's involvement.    

As a writer myself, I really bristle at the suggestion that this story should be dust-binned merely  because V's actions and methods are ethically and politically shaky. Frankly, I find that aspect of the character to be legitimately fascinating and I relish any opportunity to ponder the myriad of shades on display here. Increasingly so, people seem to want their heroes, even antiheroes, to be perfect paragons of behavior so that they can get behind them unquestionably. I think V is characterized with an appropriate level of complexity, leaving room to debate the eternal question of whether the means justify the end. Like Evey, there are times when my hatred for V is palpable while I'm reading V for Vendetta. There are also times when I adore him...or her.

Regardless of what form you experience this story, I think there's no better time than the present to seek it out, digest it and reflect on how much life is currently imitating art.

The graphic novel:

 Tilt: up

The movie:


 

      Tilt: up.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Movie Review: "Halloween" (1978)

 


How have I managed to avoid talking about John Carpenter’s Halloween all this time? Huh, weirdOh, well, no better time than the present! 

What follows is a deep-dive exploration of this over-forty-year-old-movie, so copious spoilers abound. If you haven’t seen it yet, then go watch it first and then come back here. I’ll be waiting...muh-HA, HA, HA, HAAAA!!!

Ahem, sorry. Honestly I don’t know if I can say anything particularly original about this classic horror movie, except that it’s by no means a sacred cow. Yes, it’s an iconic seasonal thriller, which exhibits a surprising amount of restraint and suspense, but it’s certainly not a perfect film. In fact, Carpenter and company make some downright bizarre choices during its peppy 91-minute runtime.

The story is very simple; a decidedly appropriate choice when forging a modern addition to the “bogeyman” urban legend, typified by stories like “The Hook” or the “Backseat Killer." Out of the blue, six-year-old Michael Myers (aka “The Shape”) murders his sister on Halloween night. Then, 15 years later, he escapes from the booby-hatch, makes his way back home to Haddonfield, Illinois,  encounters Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and inexplicably becomes obsessed with killing her and her friends. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis, played by Donald Pleasance, tries to warn local authorities that “death has come to your little town.”       

Right from its opening credits, Halloween grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Between the iconic John Carpenter score, the classic orange font and the slow zoom towards the crudely-carved pumpkin, the movie sets up the perfect tone right from the jump. This is carried into the prologue, which sees a crowd of exuberant, costumed trick-or-treaters reciting the following traditional poem:

Black cats and goblins and broomsticks and ghosts,

Covens of witches with all of their hosts.

You may think they scare me, you're probably right.

Black cats and goblins, on Halloween night.

Trick or treat!

Needless to say, Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill crammed so much atmospheric, creepy, seasonal tropes into their movie, it virtually guaranteed that Halloween would become the de facto flick that gets played ad nauseum this time every year.

What follows is another visually-stunning moment, especially for a movie made for under $400 K. Using the newly-developed Panaglide steadicam, Carpenter forces us into the perspective of the pint -sized killer as he sneaks through the house, dons a mask and stabs his older sister Judith to death with a butcher knife. It’s a truly chilling scene with squirm-inducing implications.

This introduces the first of many oddities. While l’il Michael is doing his best Norman Bates impersonation, our point of view suddenly moves away from Judith and over to the knife as it rises and falls out of frame several times. At first I thought 'Man, that is so dumb, if you were trying to kill someone with a knife, um, in theory, you’d be a fool to take your eyes off the intended victim for fear they'd try and escape.' But then a really chilling thought suddenly hit me: what if this kid is really enjoying the sight of the knife in his hand as he murders his poor sister in cold blood? In a precursor to a famous future scene, he’s already admiring his handiwork!

The prologue ends with a dazed Michael, dressed in his creepy clown outfit, standing on the front lawn holding the bloody knife. His parents rip the mask off of his face and they just stand there and stare at him as a crane shot slowly pulls away. This simple scene raises about a million questions in the eternal debate of "nature versus "nurture" and, contrary to what Rob Zombie may think, it's all of the origin story we really need to establish “The Shape.”

We then flash forward from 1963 to October 30’th, 1978 and meet Dr. Sam Loomis, played to absolute perfection by a twitchy, irritated and clearly-haunted Donald Pleasance. Loomis and his driver, Nurse Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), are en route to Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to oversee the transfer the now-adult Michael to another institution. Even though Loomis is supposed to be Michael’s shrink, talks openly about keeping his patient doped up to the gills, refers to him as “it” and then declares that “the evil is gone” after he escapes. Delivered by a lesser actor, these lines would come off as melodramatic and cheesy, but, in Pleasance’s capable hands, we’re instantly convinced that Michael Myers is nothing short of evil incarnate.                 

During all of this, the film's low-fi aesthetics help rather than hinder. Some of these shots look like they were captured by Carpenter himself while he was sitting in the backseat of the car, creating a nice sensation of claustrophobia. When the vehicle pulls up to the sanitarium and we see several spectral-looking escaped mental patients drifting around in the distance through the rain-soaked windshield, the effect is super-eerie and sets a really discordant mood.

The subsequent scene where Michael steals their car is kind of lame, though. Loomis and Chambers are so easily overcome they might just as well have stepped out, left the keys in the ignition, let Mikey take the wheel, said “watch your elbow” and then gently closed the door for him. It doesn't help that the passenger side “window” that Michael shatters looks like a cheap piece of plastic and we then see a scrawny looking guy dressed in a hospital gown jacking up the car GTA-style. Sorry, but the concept of a mental patient who’s been locked away for 15 years expertly navigating a car is so patently ridiculous that Carpenter felt the need to include a ham-fisted throw-away excuse from Loomis later on in the movie.

We then switch scenes to Haddonfield on Halloween day. Just like in Friday the 13’th: Part III, California doubles for an easterly locale, but thanks to the excellent cinematography of the masterful Dean Cundy, everything looks appropriately dreary and washed-out here. The producers even went so far as to import bags of dead leaves to fling around the locations to give them the illusion of a midwestern fall. It’s a nice distraction from the fact that the weather and wet ground continuity here is pretty atrocious. 

We now meet Laurie Strode, earnestly portrayed by the delightful Jamie Lee Curtis. Even though she was actually 19 at time, her grandmotherly attire and mature countenance really strain her believably as a high schooler, perhaps even more so than “Michael Andretti’s” driving skills. This was Jamie Lee’s first role and, although her performance does oscillate between over-expressive, self-conscious, comatose and / or shrill, she’s boundlessly charming and does a marvelous job overall. As a classic “final girl”,  you like her, you care what happens to her and, frankly, that’s all that matters.

Laurie and her babysitting cash cow Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) pass by the old Myers house, abandoned since that fateful night. Carpenter does a masterful job filling parts of the frame with “The Shape” as he peers out the window at them. Since Halloween II got shit-canned and is no longer part of canon, I can’t help but wonder if Michael’s sole motivation to kill Laurie is just because she had the temerity to step on his porch?   

Whatever the reason, Michael starts popping up everywhere like a Jehovah’s Witness. He’s in Laurie’s back yard, skulks behind the bushes, scares the fertilizer out of some elementary school kids and cruises around town like he’s gotten hydraulics installed in his low-rider. The scene where he stares at Laurie while she’s in class listening to a lecture about fate is particularly effective. Since a slew of folks technically played “The Shape”, it’s tough to credit one specific person, but, by all accounts,  Nick Castle deserves a lot of the credit for establishing the iconic slasher’s walk, body language and presence.     

Around this time we also meet Laurie’s nominal gal pals. Lynda is played by P.J. Soles, who, at age 27, really strained the definition of “high schooler.” Lynda is written to be gratingly annoying, so it’s quite the testimony to P.J’s charm that I still kinda like her. Her penchant for saying “totally” every four to five seconds quickly gets old, however, and I can’t help but wonder if Carpenter and Debra Hill thought this is what teenagers sounded like back in 1977.

Then there’s Nancy Kyes as the sardonic, deadpan Annie Bracket, who, at age 28, really puts the "senior" in "high school senior." Look, I know what Kyes was going for here, but you can’t convince me that this is a good performance. Her sarcasm comes off as stilted and between her expressionless eyes (the blackest eyes?) and her odd delivery, I always feel as if she’s reading her lines off of a cue card. Oh well, at least the three female leads are visibly and audibly distinct from one another, which is more than I can say for most modern horror films. 

Around this same time, not co-incidentally, you might start to notice just how idiotic some of the dialogue is. Witness these l’il chestnuts:  

Lynda: The only reason she babysits is to have a place to... 

Laurie: Oh, shit!

Lynda: (indignant) I have a place for that.

***

Annie: I hate a guy with a car and no sense of humor.

***

Annie: Now you hear obscene chewing. You're losing it, Laurie.

***

Laurie: All right, Annie. First I get your famous chewing, now I get your famous squealing?

Yeeesh.

But for every stupid scene, there’s cinema gold, which normally involves Dr. Loomis in some way, shape (heh, heh) or form. I love the wonderful graveyard scene where the groundskeeper, Taylor, blabbers away at an increasingly-annoyed Loomis:

Taylor: Hey, you know, every town has something like this happen. I remember over in Russellville. Old Charly Bowles. About fifteen years ago. One night he finished dinner and he excused himself from the table and he went out to the garage...he got himself a hack saw and then he went back into the house and he kissed his wife and his two children goodbye and then he proceeded...

Loomis: (irritated) Where are we?

The scene’s big reveal of Judith’s missing headstone works as a simple, macabre little set-up that really pays off in spades later on.

Anyhoo, despite all of the creepy Michael sightings, Laurie still packs up her knitting needles and oversized pumpkin and heads out to meet up with Annie. NOTE: sharp-eyed viewers will notice the work “EVIL” spray-painted on a wall at the 28 minute mark as Laurie walks by. After Annie picks up her bahd, the two drive around for a bit, share a joint and talk about boys. Then, when they spy Laurie’s dad Sherriff Leigh in the distance, they inexplicably drive right towards him and voluntarily pull over, just so we can get an expository scene to explain how Michael got all of his accesories.

Carpenter finally starts cooking with gas as the pair drive towards their babysitting gig. But first we have to excuse the fact that neither Laurie nor Annie notice that they’re being blatantly tailgated by the same weirdo in a white Bill Shatner mask driving the same asylum-tagged station wagon from earlier. Nice use of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, though.

By shooting on location in this real, relatively-boujee neighborhood and firmly establishing the film's "geography", Carpenter keeps building a realistic mise-en-scène. This,in turn, does wonders for audience immersion. Around this time, Carpenter’s soundtrack also starts to incorporate some really eerie musical stings, sustained notes and plodding, dirge-y piano, making it one of the most effective scores in horror film history.         

We then cut back to the Myers abode, where we learn that, unlike Jason Voorhees, Michael apparently has no qualms about killing and / or chowing down on house pets. This is also a warm up for what "The Shape "does to poor Lester the German Shepherd later on.  As if all of this verboten, unsanctioned animal murder isn’t bad enough, Donald Pleasance single-handedly creeps us out with this iconic speech to the skeptical Sheriff Brackett:

I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding, in even the most rudimentary sense, of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six year-old child with his blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes, the Devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply...evil.”

Pretty chill-inducing, but this gives way to a head-scratching moment when Loomis unwisely pish-toshes Brackett’s solid plan to go to the media and alert folks that a homicidal maniac is in their midst. In retrospect, this is a pretty egregious error, especially in light of who the first victim turns out to be. Loomis also doggedly clings to the idea that Michael is going to return to his family home, which he never does. Nice going, Sherlock.

Oh, well, at least this sets up a delightfully-oddball scene later on where Donald Pleasance scares the shit out of aspiring bully Lonnie Elam by doing a weird Idris Elba impersonation and then adopting the sort of “I’m amused by my own fart” facial expression that I’ve only ever seen Brent Spiner do a handful of times while playing Data on Star Trek.  

Mere moments after Loomis gives his terrible advice, the bodies start dropping. If you're anything like me, there comes a point where you'e practically begging for Annie to die, if only to stop Nancy Kyes from warbling on incessantly about Paul. Nevertheless, her demise is well set up and executed, no pun intended. As for Bob’s death, it’s one of the greatest slasher kills of all-time. Between the superhuman strength exhibited, the “butterfly board” end result and Michael tilting his head back and forth to admire his handiwork, this scene instantly became the grist for endless speculative playground conversations in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Before we go any further, I just wanted to make a quick observation about the movie’s tremendous sense of mood. By using liberal clips from classic movies like The Thing from Another World, Carpenter is clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve. In fact, the scene where Tommy gets a glimpse of Michael carrying Annie’s body is a direct homage to Invaders from Mars. That unnerving, theramin-esque music from Forbidden Planet playing in the background just sells it to the hilt. Given all of the trick-or-treaters, pumpkin carving and horror movie marathons on T.V., you couldn’t make a more Halloween-y movie on your Halloween-iest day with an electrified Halloweenification device.            

Alright, back to the mayhem. As far as I’m concerned, Lynda and Bob deserve to be killed, not because they had sex, but because they boned in some strangers bed. I mean, rude, am I right? I’m almost 99.9% sure they had absolutely zero intention of washing those sheets before they left. Slightly less scary than that thought is Michael dressing up like a spoopy ghost and donning Bob’s “Aunt Selma” glasses. I really like Michael’s penchant for disguise here and I kinda wish he’d explored this budding hobby a bit more in future entries, but I guess the producers of the series wanted him to exclusively use the ol’ “hammer versus nail” approach.  

Speaking of Michael, we finally start seeing some stingy glimpses of him, accompanied by that labored “I’m-slowly-smothering-to-death-underneath-this-cheap-Halloween-mask” breathing sound that everybody recognizes. The mask itself, a deformed Don Post Captain Kirk head sculpt, painted bone-white with the eyebrows removed and the hair all fucked up, is genuinely unsettling. I don’t know if future changes were made for legal reasons, but every subsequent mask that appeared in the series was a pale imitation of the first.

What follows is an absolute master class in suspense. When Laurie discovers Michael’s “murder tableau” at the Wallace house, you can almost hear the last puzzle piece of the slasher genre fall into place. The whole set up is so weird and disjointed that it legit feels like the product of a diseased mind. Then, at the 1:16 mark, Dean Cundy’s brilliant cinematography comes through again, with "The Shape" suddenly materializing from out of the darkness. It is, without a doubt, one of be the most iconic shots in horror film history.  

Jamie Lee Curtis absolutely shines in the harrowing finale, particularly when she’s banging on the neighbor's door and begging for help. When the porch lights wink out, it’s not only a heart-rending moment, it's also a pretty damning commentary on trend of modern objectivism. Granted, she does lose the audience a little bit when she voluntarily discards Michael’s trademark butcher knife instead of using it to protect herself. Granted, the whole “false ending” cliche was actually established here, but when she chucks the weapon away for the second time at the 1:24 mark, theater-goers back in 1978 must have collectively screamed “WHAT THE FUCK YOU DOIN', BISH?!?” so loud that the entire country heard it.

We then get our last supremely-stupid script convenience as Loomis realizes that it might be a good idea to look at something other than the Myers house and, lo and behold, he finally notices the abandoned Smith’s Grove Sanitarium Scramble Wagon™ parked ten feet away. He then lopes to the rescue as Laurie’s two babysitting charges run screaming out of the house.   

This leads us to another truly unsettling moment as "The Shape" sits up and slowly turns his head, Nosferatu-style, in the background behind a traumatized Laurie. Mikey fails another point-blank stabbing attempt, his mask gets wrestled off (for no good reason) and then Loomis appears, emptying the contents of his service revolver into him. Sadly, this intense scene is undermined by the sort of pantomimed jig that only a toddler would do if you aimed a finger gun at them, which is then followed by the most cliche "body hits the ground" sound effect in cinema history. 

But then the movie ends perfectly. Loomis looks over the balcony to confirm what he already knows: that Michael has vanished into the night and the resulting 'Well, d’uh’ reaction from Pleasance is completely priceless. Carpenter then finishes up with a montage of establishing shots, overdubbed with Michael’s omnipresent breathing. The connotation is effectively and disturbingly communicated: evil is everywhere...and it never dies.    

Halloween was by no means the first slasher movie, that particular distinction likely belongs to either Bob Clark’s Black Christmas or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Carpenter was the first film-maker to codify everything so successfully that this budding sub-genre dominated the world of horror for almost a decade.  

Sure, the movie is by no means perfect, but it’s classy, restrained, stylish, atmospheric, tense, genuinely suspenseful and deserves to be ritually revisited around this time every single year.


Tilt: up.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Movie Review: "Friday the 13'th: Part III"

Although Jason Voorhees finally achieved Pokemon-style middle evolution in this entry, Friday the 13'th: Part III suffers from a draggy first half, some really annoying and unlikable characters and a lot of goofy and distracting visual conceits that resulted from the whole "3-D" gimmick. Mercifully it picks up considerably towards the end, giving fans some promise that the best may be yet to come.

To no-one's surprise, the plot is only a slight variation of what's come before. Traumatized Chris Higgins (Dana Kimmell) decides to confront her demons by visiting her family's isolated cabin close to Crystal Lake, a place where she was attacked by a stranger a few years earlier. Unfortunately, she also brings along a pack of triggering "friends", including horny couple Debbie (Tracy Savage) and Andy (Jeffry Rogers), tag-along Vera (Catherine Parks), annoying prankster Shelly (Larry Zerner) and stoners Chuck (David Katims) and Chili (Rachel Howard). 

As Chris inexplicably tries to re-connect with her pushy ex-flame Rick (Paul Kratka), the group runs afoul of a local biker gang (???) who siphon gas out of their van and case out the nearby barn for what I can only assume are flip-able antiques. Unbeknownst to everyone, Jason Voorhees has not only survived his confrontation with Ginny in Part II, he's also working on some personal makeover goals and a myriad of creative ways to murder every single living thing within a hundred mile radius.

Just like in the previous installment, viewers have to sit through a tiresome recap of the previous film. On one hand, I kind of admire this superficial adherence to continuity. Unfortunately, the whole thing drags on waaaaay too long, especially if you're watching these movies back-to-back. Oh well, at least we aren't subjected to some idiotic scene where Jason follows Ginny back to her flat in downtown Stroudsburg, waits for her to retrieve a comforting pint of Häagen-Dazs and then stabs her in the head with a dry-erase marker.

Oh, before I go any further, I think it should be noted that everything that happens in this film occurs on Saturday the 14'th and Sunday the 15'th. #truthinadvertising #themoreyouknow 

Anyhoo, although we're spared the sort of epic level idiocy that kicked off Part II, we get something here that's almost as bad. Keen on updating his look from hillbilly couture to business slayable, Jason visits a nearby corner store presided over by the gross, schlubby Harold (Steve Susskind) and his gratingly-annoying shrew of a wife, Edna (Cheri Maugans). IMHO, Jason can't murder these two assholes fast enough.

About around this time you begin to realize that returning director Steve Miner isn't just content to create a normal field of depth within the frame to take advantage of the 3-D process like a normal director of movie-type things. Nope, he's also gonna stick a bunch of random shit into the camera lens like Count Floyd's Monster Chiller Horror Theater. By the time this flick is over, the audience has practically fellated the following objects:

  1. A clothesline pole.
  2. A T.V. antenna.
  3. A rubber snake on a wire.
  4. A rat.
  5. A bat. Um, of the baseball variety.
  6. A joint.
  7. An eyeball.
  8. A haybale.
  9. A wallet. 
  10. A chain-covered fist.
  11. A yo-yo.
  12. A pitchfork.
  13. Flying popcorn kernels. 
  14. Jason's grasping mitts.
  15. An axe handle.
Hey, kids, you too can play along at home! What gratuitously-lame visual 3-D stunts did I miss? List 'em in the comments below to win a chance of me giving a fuck! Seriously, though, every time I see this shit it just jettisons me completely out of the movie. 

Only slightly less annoying is the introduction of (very) broad comedy to the series, with sad-sack Harold being mercilessly hen-pecked by his repellent wife Edna. Hell, even their names are as basic as you can get, giving me the impression that screenwriters Martin Kitrosser, Carol Watson and (the justifiably uncredited) Petru Popescu are barely trying here. Humor is a really tricky element to balance in these movies, with Part V completely sunk by broad, obnoxious, over-the-top characters but, in the hands of a talented director, Part VI's comedy soars. But, hey, more on that later...

So, yeah, as far as I can tell, this intro is there just to burn up some run time and get Jason into some sleek new duds. I guess one plus is that we finally get to see him out of the environs of Camp Crystal Lake, but even that turns out to be a detriment. Y'see, the production team moved Part III 's shooting location from the atmospheric East Coast (Warren County, New Jersey in Part I and New Preston and Kent, Connecticut in Part II) to friggin' Saugus, California. 

And it really shows. We see palm trees in the distance on Vera's street, the grounds of Higgins Haven look arid and sun-baked and "Crystal Lake" is now a tiny, muddy-looking swamp. All of the chilly, atmospheric, "summer camp" visual qualities of the previous two movies has completely drained away, only to be replaced with blue skies, sandy shorelines, green pond scum and dusty paths that look more at home in a friggin' cowboy flick.  

So, between the protracted Part II recap and the Edna / Harold mercy kill, we're forced to sit through  the screenwriting equivalent of Donkey Kong throwing barrels at Mario. I guess, by this point, Steve Miner and his screenwriters were just like "Well, fuck it, people seem cool with the formula, so let's not fix the unbroken!" As a result, the characters in Part III feel like empty tin cans and Jason is the  pellet gun. 

Soooo, when your goal is just to knock off a bunch of walking corpses, an elaborate plot is actually kinda anathema to this goal. Unfortunately, it also means that Miner and company are forced to dick around a lot in order to achieve a modest run time of 95 minutes. 

And dick around they do, mainly in the barn. That fucking barn. First we get a scene where Rick pointlessly hefts bales of hay, then Fox auditions for American Pickers by slooooowly walking around, taking an inventory of everything she comes across. And, if that wasn't enough, Chuck n' Chili also meander around the place, prompting Shelly to go looking for them. It's all so phreakin' dull

Padding the scream, er...screen time is one thing, but Miner and company also throw continuity under the bus as well. At one point, Chris tells Rick about some creepy weirdo she encountered in the woods a few years back and, no, I'm not talking about Mitch McConnell. Anyway, during the flashback that follows, Jason should look like he did in Part II because, need I remind you, the events of that film happened just days ago. But nope, he looks identical to the unmasked Jason we see at the end of this flick, and they didn't even bother to dress him up in denim overalls, a blue plaid shirt and a burlap sack. This whole scene reeks of pure laziness.

Speaking of Jason, he's played here by British stuntman / brick shithouse Richard Brooker and, thank gawd because (controversial hot take inbound), he's actually my all-time favorite Jason. He's just this big, hulking, lanky, simian-limbed, hunchbacked monster with a practical, workmanlike attitude towards killin' folks. The first time we see him in all of his goalie-masked splendor, he just casually strolls into frame, aims a spear gun at Vera, skewers her skull, throws the weapon down in disgust and then looks back at Higgins Haven as if to say 'Fuck, now I've gotta come up with seven more distinctly different kills for all o' dese annoying motherfuckers. *Sigh*, I'm gonna be up all night!'          

Most of the kills are pretty pedestrian and, even worse, a lot are meant to take advantage of the whole 3-D gimmick, like the hatchet, knitting needle, pitchfork, the aforementioned speargun and the eye-poppin' head squish. The latter two, plus the laughably-bad 3-D snake attack from earlier, are all hampered by the sort of blatantly fake-looking string work that's usually reserved for an Ed Wood Jr. movie. 

At least some of the kills are decent. In fact, one of my all-time favorites is when Andy gets a machete to the crotch while he's showing off, walking around the cabin on his hands like a doofus. And, despite the obvious string work, I do love that speargun kill, as well as the call back to Kevin Bacon's death when Debbie gets perforated while reading Fangoria in the hammock. And, hey, at least the film-makers went through the bother of showcasing Jason's creepy penchant for leaving corpses strewn around the camp to freak out the remaining survivors and ramp up their terror level.  

As soon as Jason "borrows" Shelly's goalie mask...

WARNING - SIDE RANT: Oh, please, for the love of everything holy, can we please stop calling it a "hockey mask"? Y'all sound like Americans when you say shit like that. Do catchers wear a "baseball mask"? Fuck, no! It's a goalie mask, plain and simple! Jezis! 

...and lumbers on screen for the first time, you can actually witness a horror film icon being born in real-time. And, mercifully, the film's pace finally picks up from there on in. 

The heightened action is augmented by yet another great score by the legendary Harry Manfredini. Not only does his usual suite of bangers entertain and thrill here, I love the little touches, like the stings he throws in when Chris is desperately slashing at Jason with a knife. Also, bonus props to Manfredini and co-writer Michael Zager for giving us the gloriously-dated main credits disco theme, which they recorded under the appropriately-cheesy moniker of "Hot Ice." Seriously, this is probably the best piece of spoopy Halloween music ever recorded: 


So, as you've noticed, I've left the character for last, mainly because they were clearly an afterthought to the screenwriters as well. I think the biggest issue is that my brain really can't reconcile how Chris knows all of these random dipshits and why she'd invite them to her family's cabin, especially if she's in such a fragile mental state. Particularly inexplicable is the presence of "Cheech & Chong with the serial numbers filed off": Chuck and Chili. Seriously, how would Chris even know these two yahoos? Chuck is, like 40, at least. 

Next up is Shelly, who has since become a fan favorite, which I can sorta understand since Larry Zerner is perfectly cast as the prototypical horror movie prankster. You gotta remember that, back then, casting directors would often pluck awkward looking nerds out of obscurity, sometimes right off the street, for roles like this. Nowadays, directors always seem to use generic, pretty-looking underwear models and then splotch a lame strawberry birthmark on their face to make them feel self conscious and "ugly." Lame.

Anyway, I think Zerner does a great job as Shelly, but he's also completely sold down the river by the screenwriters. This is a real shame since he's only one of two characters to get any sort of development at all. Sadly, the script fails to generate any sympathy for Shelly...just witness:
  • He scares the shit out of his "friends" by stalking them in a creepy, see-through plastic mask a la the killer in Alice, Sweet, Alice. Please note that one of these people is Chris, who is clearly traumatized by some undisclosed event.
  • When Andy encourages Shelly to "be himself" he replies "Would you be yourself...if you looked like this?" and then lifts his mask off. Like, seriously, who would want this morose motherfucker around?
  • He introduces himself to his potential date Vera while wearing the aforementioned creepy mask...and then fucking apologizes to her when he takes it off. Falking hopeless
  • Since he's depicted as a sad, pathetic, man-child / attention whore who doesn't learn anything, Shelly singles out assault victim Chris by faking his own death with a prop axe to the head. For the record, he thinks its hilarious, but everyone else thinks he's a cunt. Sorry, but I'm with the majority on this one.
  • He pretty much flat out asks Vera if she wants to bone and then, when she has the unmitigated gall to say "no" (but reassures him that she's willing to chat when she gets back to the cabin!), he calls her a "bitch" under his breath. So, I gotta ask, do incels have a picture of this twat up on their chat boards?
  • While Vera is sitting lakeside, Shelly pops out of the water wearing a fucking goalie mask and carrying a speargun. Which, let's face it, is definitely the inspiration for this scene from The Simpsons. This subsequently lowers her guard when a similarly-attired Jason shows up later and kills her. 
  • While snooping around in the barn, the little creep actually says: "Chuck? Chili?  What're you guys doing in there? You guys doin' somethin' I shouldn't see?"...and then proceeds to keep poking around. Ew.
  • Shelly is such a notorious "cry wolf" POS that when he eventually shows up with a slashed throat, Chili understandably assumes that he's faking it again. This delays her reaction, lowers her guard and sets her up to be killed by Jason as well. Thanks, you putz.  
So, yeah, I'm definitely pro-Dead Shelly. Notwithstanding his flirtation with heroism RE: the biker gang and his safety-related contribution to Jason's iconic look, I'd say good riddance to the annoying prick. 

Paul Kratka's Rick Bombay (?) doesn't fare much better. Despite the fact that Chris is clearly rattled about something, he's constantly begging her for sexual table scraps. Kratka is charismatic enough, but he just comes across as a whiny, self-absorbed meathead. Ergo, my favorite scene featuring Rick is when Jason hurls him through a window in a nice homage to Brenda being medicine balled into Alice's cabin in Part I.   

There really isn't much to be said for Tracie Savage as Debbie and Jeffrey Rogers as Andy. Tracie is fine, although her performance feels stilted and self-conscious. As for Jeffrey, he nails the whole cocky fuck / discount Scott Baio thing. Of all the main cast, I'd say Catherine Parks as Vera is the most appealing character in relation to her woefully-low screen time. 

Speaking of low screen time, I just need to bitch about the presence of David Wiley as Abel. I'm not gonna slight Wiley here, it's more of a rant about how Steve Miner inexplicably killed off poor Walt Gorney's Crazy Ralph in Part II...only to introduce yet another insane local soothsayer. Walt Gorney is a gorram international treasure, Steve...why'd ya murder my boi and then introduce a virtually identical character in the follow-up? This was another squandered opportunity to build on the lore of the series, ya hack!  

But the thing that really cracks me up about Part III is the incongruous biker gang that's apparently terrorizing this virtually-deserted stretch of rural New Jersey. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that this trio was the product of lazy, creatively bankrupt Californian screenwriters who think that it's a good idea to make the first two black Friday the 13'th characters be criminals. For the record, Nick Savage and Gloria Charles are fine as Ali and Fox respectively, but I really can't take Kevin O'Brien seriously as "Loco", mainly because he reminds me of Scott Thompson's Buddy Cole posing as a gay biker, a thought which always makes me giggle.

Then, last but not least, we have Dana Kimmell as Chris Higgins. Following up from Amy Steel's Ginny in Part II is a pretty unenviable task, and Kimmell definitely suffers in comparison. Although she's definitely the ultimate "(final) girl next door", Dana's performance feels really labored, like she's trying too hard to sell every line. Still, she's plucky, winsome and the script mercifully treats her as innovative, quick-thinking and resilient.

After Rick abandons Chris like the asshole that he is, our girl proves to be more than a match for Jason, an aptitude that start to border on unintentionally funny. At one point, she rains the entire ENGLISH 418 - 19'th Century Novel required reading list down on Jason's fiberglassed noggin' and then wards him off with a knife. Then, after noticing that his mask offers precious little protection from the back, she smokes him right in the ol' cue-ball with a double-handed junk of wood. 

Equally amusing: Jason suddenly starts limping after Chris stabs him in the leg...in contrast to THE MASSIVE MACHETE INJURY HE SUSTAINED TO HIS LEFT SHOULDER just hours before. This wound was so deep and grievous that it would have completely shattered his clavicle and upper ribs, but, hey, no biggie. 

Much to my chagrin, we soon find ourselves back in the barn for the big climax, but at least Chris uses her familiarity with the environment to get an upper hand on Monsieur Voorhees. Pretty soon the hunter has become the hunted and it all leads up to a legitimately thrilling and tense finale. The very end of the film also earns more brownie point from me, mainly because it pays homage to the fake-out finales of the first two flicks wile honoring Betsy Palmer's Pamela Voorhees as the alpha and omega of the series. 

All told, the movie starts out shaky, brings Jason into the realm of horror icon, and then ends with a thrilling denouement. And, although the producers original intended for this to end the series, Part III did so well that a sequel was soon green-lit!

But let's save that campfire tale for another time!  

      
Tilt: up


    
 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Movie Review: "The Wicker Man" (1973)


Sadly, if you mention The Wicker Man in polite conversation nowadays some chuckle-head will invariably drop to their knees and start doing their best scenery-chewing Nic Cage impersonation:


But long before Neil LaBute's ill-conceived, meme-a-licious remake was crapped into existence, the  original Wicker Man from 1973 not only birthed the "folk horror" sub-genre it eventually became a celebrated cult classic. Star Christopher Lee even went so far as it call it the "best film he ever made."

The story centers around the investigations of an Uber-religious Police Sergeant named Howie, played by Edward Woodward of The Equalizer fame. After learning about the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison, Howie travels via seaplane to isolated Summerisle off the west coast of Scotland. Once there, he discovers that the locals are being pretty cagey about Rowan and pretty soon their collective stories are rife with inconsistencies. 

Seemingly even worse for the Puritanical cop are the villager's ethical and spiritual views. To Howie's horror, they've collectively veered away from Catholicism and fallen back into their old Pagan beliefs. Their pub songs are overtly ribald and cheeky, folks bone outdoors right in front of each other and the fetching daughter of the innkeeper, Willow (Britt Eklund), enthusiastically attempts to seduce Howie with a pretty alluring nude dance / spell combination. 

Sounds like an awesome getaway to me, but, for the repressed police officer, it's a worst case scenario. Between his palpable disgust over the "heathen's" libertine behavior and the hubris that stems from his false sense of moral and spiritual high ground, Howie soon finds himself at odds with the island's ancestral leader, Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee. Eventually the officer starts to unravel the mystery surrounding the girl's disappearance, leading to one of the most shocking and powerful twist endings in cinema history. 

Unlike most modern horror pictures, the setting, performances and the music are all top notch here. Shot on location in a series of small Scottish towns, the film's mise en scene is completely convincing. The various shops, the Green Man pub, Summerisle Castle and all of the exteriors really sell the illusion of authenticity. 

This is augmented by a soundtrack that  starts off deceptively innocuous, via folksy tunes like "Corn Riggs"; a song I suspect only makes sense to people who own a disproportionate amount of sheep. But then, thanks to bangers like "Maypole Song" and "Fireleap", the movie's aural presence starts to veer into increasingly esoteric, odd and unsettling territory. "Willow's Song", for example, is hauntingly- evocative of both the scene where it's used as well as the film's overall cock-eyed tone.


Equally convincing are the film's off-kilter performances. Edward Woodward plays Detective Howie with stick-up-the-ass perfection, bringing the perfect balance of pent-up distaste, Catholic arrogance and patronizing bravado to the role. He shows tremendous range, especially when things start to go sideways, upon which time he's forced to pivot from square-jawed swagger to twitchy, sweaty desperation.    

As for Christopher Lee, he shares some great "OooOoo...snap!" exchanges with Woodward, such as the following:

Howie: Oh, what is all this? I mean, you've got fake biology, fake religion...Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?
Summerisle: Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.
(Howie suddenly looks visibly shaken)
Summerisle: Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent.

Even as a rational, modern viewer who knows full well that the medicinal properties of toads are limited at best and blood sacrifices can be messy and complicated, Lee's portrayal of Lord Summerisle is so cool, confident and self-assured that I'm tempted to call up my travel agent and rent a B&B there  next May Day weekend. 

Genre fans will certainly appreciate the brief, albeit welcome, presence of penultimate Hammer horror Scream Queen Ingrid Pitt, who plays the tightly-wound town librarian, who we later see um,...unwinding in the bathtub. Diane Cilento is also wonderfully flinty as Miss Rose, the local schoolteacher. I love her verbal sparing match with Howie and how genuinely perplexed she seems to be by his obstinate, and abstinent, ways.

Then there's the impossibly-gorgeous Britt Ekland who, by all accounts, didn't have the best time filming The Wicker Man. Even though the Swedish actress was dubbed by two other women to sound convincingly Scottish, but I think she was perfectly cast as the ethereal Willow and her performance is still downright mesmerizing. Also deserving mention is her on-screen pops, Alder, played by Lindsay Kemp. There's a wonderfully slippery, besotted and vaguely degenerate quality to Kemp's demeanor, which sets off alarm bells whenever he's on screen.

But, honestly, the film's two greatest strengths are its script and the escalating parade of oddities that we bear witness to, leading up to a finale which I can only describe as the cinematic equivalent of being struck in the head with a surfboard. Between the discordant tone, quirky performances and the increasingly-inexplicable conveyor belt of visual and aural oddities, the film maintains a gloriously sustained atmosphere of creeping dread throughout the entire run time.

The Wicker Man might be the great-grandfather of the "folk horror" sub-genre, but it's also still one of the best.     

 
Tilt: up.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sixteen Things That Annoy Me About "The Last Jedi"

 
This past Friday, I sat through a corporate event for the privilege of watching the latest corporate Star Wars movie: The Rise of Skywalker. How apropos.

To prepare for this, I re-watched The Last Jedi, which re-assured my unpopular opinion that the movie isn't terrible. In fact, if you're one of those people who thinks that TLJ is the worst Star Wars movie, then I'm afraid that your aesthetic is broken and we really can't be friends.

Because, for all it's fuck ups, at least The Last Jedi isn't a color-by-numbers soft reboot of A New Hope like The Farce Awakens was, nor is it a well intentioned, but otherwise artistically-bankrupt, pile of garbage like The Phantom Men-Ass, Attack of the Clowns or Revenge of the Shit.

But to paraphrase Yoda: "a perfect film, it is not." After my re-watch I noted sixteen things that ranged from irksome to downright idiotic. Granted, some of these are kinda nit-picky but they all take me out of the film in some way.

So, strap yourselves in, folks...we're about to make the jump into hyper-waste.

(16) The First Order Reigns...In Your Mom 


This one's actually a carry-over from my rant about The Force Awakens, which I'll just repeat right here...

"What exactly is The Resistance? And who are the First Order? When we last left the Rebels, they'd struck a decisive blow against the Empire. We felt content that the story was told and the good guys had won the day. So, what the hell happened in the galaxy over the past thirty / forty years?!? 

"Maybe the remnants of the Imperial fleet retreated to some distant corner of the galaxy, re-branded themselves and eventually came back with a vengeance. And maybe the New Republic, weary of conflict, just let them do their thing, underscoring the dangers of capitulation. Maybe the Resistance sprung up because Leia recognized the impending threat and could see where things were headed.

"Unfortunately, everything I just typed is an assumption. I've never read any supplemental Star Wars books and I flat out refuse to. Frankly, if I gotta buy and then read an effin' novel just to give this movie some badly-needed context, then things are clearly flawed."

The sad fact of the matter is: the most interesting part of this story, I.E. the rise of the First Order and the corruption of Ben Solo, has already happened by this point and what we're getting now just feels like table scraps.

Back when I reviewed The Force Awakens I wrote the following:

"Yeah, yeah...I know, I know...we're just getting started and it's likely that these questions and many more will be answered in the next installment."

Ah, 2015. It was a more innocent time for me. Poor, naive sap...

I didn't know it at the time but The Last Jedi would brazenly double down on these vagaries. In fact, the gorram title crawl has the audacity to declare that "THE FIRST ORDER REIGNS."  But why? How? In light of the good guys blowing the shit outta Starkiller Base, this is particularly baffling.

Since these sequel  movies have given us zero context and stakes, the First Order is less a concrete threat and more of a generic fabrication designed to validate the existence of Disney-sponsored Star Wars product.

Which leads me to my next point...

(15) The First Order? More Like The WORST Order


Kylo Ren is my favorite sequel trilogy character because he's a parody of edgelord Star Wars dudebros who worship Dark Side shit. And I'm all about making fun of sad fucks who fetishisize villains over heroes.

The only problem is that everyone in the First Order is equally pathetic. Hux is a complete ass-hat and there's nothing scary or intimidating about him at all. In fact, the only Resistance officer with any gravitas, Captain Canady, well-played by Mark Lewis Jones, gets dispatched almost immediately. Pissing away such a great character is a pretty clear indicator that Rian Johnson isn't concerned with giving us any intimidating villains.


And, let's face it, a movie like this is only as good as its bad guys. Hey, I don't mind if one or two of them are depicted as mooks, but there's zero tension if every one of them are a bunch of incompetent yahoos.

(14) Finn the Forgotten 

 
I know I'm supposed to judge a movie based on what it did as opposed to what I wanted it to do but, in Finn's case, I really can't help speculating. In my opinion, Rian Johnson had 152 minutes to explore Finn's character and he didn't even try.

I really liked Finn in the first movie. He went AWOL from the First Order because he hated what he was being asked to do and he was also a bit of a scaredy-cat. Despite his clear attraction to Rey he was still willing to walk away from her because of shame and cowardice but, ultimately, he came back because he clearly has feelings for her.

In fact, as soon as Finn "comes to" in The Last Jedi, the first word out of his mouth is "Rey!" Clearly she's paramount in his thoughts, soooo...why not let him go find her?

How about this: Finn discovers that all troopers have L'il Anakin-style 'splody homing beacons in their noggins, which is how the First Order is tracking the Resistance. So he goes on a solo mission to try and remove it and /or find Rey to warn her of danger. Somewhere along the way he gets captured by Phasma, which would have given Johnson the perfect opportunity to explore their adversarial relationship as well as his origins.

But nope, instead, his quest it undone by a superfluous, hitherto unknown partner and then gets side-tracked in a pointless sub-plot. What a waste!

(13) Luke: "How Did You Find Me?" Rey: "Um...Google Maps?"


Does anyone else think that Luke's reaction to Rey's appearance on the island is a tad "methinks thou dost protest too much?"

Look, all I'm saying is that someone put the missing map piece in R2's memory banks...and it wasn't Ponda Baba.

(12) ♬♪ "Your Best Friend's Dead and Your Gonna Say 'M'eh' Now" / "Hey, Ya...Hey, Ya...Your Best Friend's Dead!" ♫♩

 
Luke chucking his lightsaber away is a level of subversion that makes sense to me. But as soon as he  hears that his sister is in dire straits (the condition, not the band) and his best friend is dead, I'd like to think that he'd march right back, shoo the porgs away, pick up his lazer sword and spring into action. If not at that point than certainly when R2 replays Leia's original holographic plea to Obi-Wan.

After years of wallowing in defeat, it makes sense that Luke is a bitter, disillusioned, depressed, broken martyr. The unfortunate thing is that we didn't see what bright him to that point. The last time we saw Luke at the end of Return of the Jedi he was resolved, triumphant, and resolute.

Maybe if we'd actually witnessed some of the events that made him borderline suicidal, than his appearance in The Last Jedi wouldn't have been so jarring to fans.

(11) That Battleship Is About As Impregnable As A Parking Garage!


You know what would improve the design of these military starships? Make it so that you can't fly directly into their super-structure and blow 'em up! It's as if the half-built second Death Star in ROTJ caught on as some sort of galactic, avant-garde hipster design ethos.

(10) General Leia Does Her Captain Marvel Impersonation

 
I love the idea of Leia finally displaying her Force powers...but the way she does it is unintentionally funny.

After her cruiser got hit, it would have been great to see her instinctively whip around, form some sort of protective barrier and prevent the explosive decompression which would allow the bridge crew to escape. Sure, it's not as OP as what we got but it's also not patently ridiculous to watch.   

(9) Vice-Admiral Who Now?



First off, I'm still not entirely sure why Poe takes so much heat in this film.

You can't blame him for the bombers getting creamed because the concept of sending a fleet of ponderous, poorly-armed, virtually-defenseless, meandering ships hurtling directly at a dreadnought is inherently stupid. I guess Poe's refusal to obey Leia's order to retreat forces the fleet to stick around and cover his insubordinate ass. Unfortunately, other than Leia briefly looking at a tactical display, Poe's role in the squandering of the Resistance fleet is very poorly conveyed.

After Leia is incapacitated, Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo is summarily introduced from out of nowhere. Sorry, but Holdo is nothing more than Rian Johnson's hubris at work. And, hey, this is coming from someone who absolutely adores Laura Dern. Unfortunately, the character's caustic attitude and Dern's appropriately-flinty performance make for one condescending and repellent package.

In order for Poe's arc in the movie to work, he has to be in the wrong. And since we already know, like and trust him, our sympathies automatically lie with him as opposed to Holdo. Especially when she acts like a shifty, snarky, uncommunicative twat-waffle. This would be like Yoda ordering Luke to go kick Vader's ass in The Empire Strikes Back and responding "if your opinion I wanted, beat it out of you, I would" if Luke expressed any doubts at all.

(8) Rose. Just...Rose 

 
In The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson acts like a petulant child that hates the outdated toys left to him by his big brother J.J. I actually visualize him crossing his arms, stamping his feet and muttering "I want NEW stuff!" within earshot of Kathleen Kennedy.

Unfortunately that new plaything turned out to be Rose Tico.

Before I proceed, lemme get one thing straight: Kelly Marie Tran is a lovely and delightful human bean and doesn't deserve any of the nasty treatment she was subjected to. It's important to stress that the only people who can't distinguish creator from actor are slack-jawed troglodytes.

It's not her fault that the part was ill-conceived and poorly written. Between Rose directly spoiling Finn and Rey's early reunion and her batshit insane motivations towards the end of the film, most audience members found her to be alternately preachy and / or annoying. If you don't believe me, head over to your nearest discount department store and see how many Rose Tico (in)action figures you can buy for twenty bucks.

Hint: it's twenty of them.

(7) "Lupita Nyong'o Is Asking For Black Panther Money Now? Okay, We'll Fix Her Little, Red Wagon..."

Maz Kanata should’ve been the "master code breaker." It would’ve given this already-established  character some much-needed screen time, scrapped her dumb-ass cameo in the flick and, most importantly, jettisoned all of that pointless Canto Bight nonsense.

Plus maybe she would have had the time to explain this cryptic and infuriating bullshit...


(6) "Rey, Meet The Locals: Jab, Streex, Big Slammu, and Ripster."


Speaking of toys, Rian Johnson was 21 when Street Sharks debuted in 1994. And although he was clearly too old to collect them, I still think he was a fan, cuz' the lanai, or the caretakers that live on the planet of Ahch-To, look like whtat would happen if a street shark fucked an ostrich.

The way these natives are introduced in the film is really jarring. They just kinda pop in, milling around the stone village as if they suddenly phased in from another dimension. It's like they all collectively shrugged of their Harry Potter-style invisibility cloaks...and the effect is really jarring.

Every time I watch this scene I feel as if I'm experiencing some sort of weird, communal, audience participation-style acid flashback with Luke and Rey.

(5) "Yeah, Right Here Is Fine!" 


Consider this: everything goes wrong on Canto Bight just because Rose and Finn are too cheap to pay for parking.

This would be like abandoning your Hyundai Accent on Miami Beach and then wandering through the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel. C'mon, Rian...no one is that stupid! 

(4) Phasma Is Back...And Not In A Detention Cell

 
I don't know what's worse: that Rian Johnson bothered to bring Phasma back with absolutely no repercussions after sold out the entire First Order in the first flick...or that her character's motivations and connections to Finn are completely ignored. This is fucking unforgivable.

(3) The Real Mary Sue Isn't Rey...It's BB-8 


For two dyer balls stuck together, that droid is 'effin dynamite. Not only can BB-8 turn slot machine tokens into dangerous projectiles, she's also mobile enough to steal and pilot a scout walker by herself. Jesus, why doesn't the Resistance just put a bulk order into Boston Dynamics and be done with it?

(2) Save-Us Interruptus  

 
Between John Boyega’s awesome performance and the stirring music from John Williams, Finn's run at the surface cannon could have capped off a decent arc for the character. Instead Rose intervenes, nearly killing both of them. Again...who the fuck would even think to do that?!?

Finn's self-sacrifice could have single-highhandedly saved his new friends and fired up their will to fight on. Instead we get the following inane conclusion:

(1) Luke: "The Force Isn’t About Lifting Rocks!" Rey: "Okay, Boomer!" 

 
If the script hadn't done poor Luke dirty at every turn, this could have been a cute moment. But since our beloved hero was written as a contender for the "Worst Cinematic Mentor EVAR" award, this sage advice comes across as yet another example of his failure.

***

So, there you have it. Keep an eye on this space for my review of The Rise of Skywalker, coming soon. Will it finally justify the existence of the Disney Star Wars trilogy or will the whole thing be revealed as little more than perfunctory entertainment product shit out to recoup an investment?

Place your bets, folks!


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Movie Review: "Knives Out"


I can't help but think that Knives Out is Rian Johnson's giant middle finger to all of those neck-bearded Star Wars fanboys out there who called him a hack because of The Last Jedi. If anything, this modern whodunit proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Johnson is a terrific film-maker who just got caught up in the pop culture equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru test.

With just about every recent release being a remake, reboot or falking superhero flick, Knives Out feels quaint, like a film-noir detective story or a classic Western not helmed by Quentin Tarantino. Even though the film brings to mind movies like Clue or an Agatha Christie novel, Johnson quickly dispenses with the core keep-away that's driven every single murder mystery since time immemorial. So, not only are we getting a fun modern example of a sadly-defunct genre, we'r also getting a fresh spin on the whole thing.

Having said that, all of the key elements are here. Christopher Plummer plays Harlan Thrombey, a writer who's successful mystery novels have built an empire that his vapid and selfish relatives are consciously leeching off of. Between his adult children and various other hanger-ons, the line up of suspects various from slightly sneaky to downright reprehensible. As such, Harlan decides to clean house just before his 85'th birthday, giving everyone in this toxic inner circle some motivation to end him.

Clearly there isn't anything particularly original about this hoary old elevator pitch. This extends to the hackneyed setting, which looks like stately Wayne Manor packed with overflow stock from The Travelling Antiques Roadshow. But what takes Knives Out from novelty to something truly special is how this stock scenario plays out.

First up, there's the stellar cast. The aforementioned Plummer is his usual charismatic self, essentially acting as the bedrock on which all of the other players can tap-dance. Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic as Harlan's flinty, non-nonsense elder daughter Linda, Don Johnson is dodgy and slimy as her skeeze-ball husband Richard and Chris Evans is wonderfully smarmy as the bratty trust-fund grandson Hugh.

A hippy-dippy Toni Collette is also stellar as Joni Thrombey. She's so convincingly fake that she actually loops back around to authentic again. Props also go out to the always-awesome Michael Shannon who plays Harlan's son was Walt. As the opportunistic overseer of his dad's publishing empire, Shannon really brings out the character's desperation as his station is threatened.

It's tough to stand out among all of this talent, but two performers in particular really hit it out of the park. The first is lead protagonist Marta Cabrera, played by Ana de Armas, who was last seen as dream girl Joi in Blade Runner 2049. Here she's asked to carry the entire film, which she does with considerable wit, pathos and humor. 

The other top performer is Daniel Craig, who's clearly relishing his role as the southern-fried private dick Benoit Blanc. I'm just gonna ask Rian Johnson this right now: please, please, please bring this character back every few years for a series of  unconventional modern mysteries. At first, it's downright weird hearing that particular voice coming out of James Bond's mouth, but Craig's enthusiasm is so infectious and he delivers the purposefully over-wrought with such aplomb that I stop worrying and just went with it. 

Johnson's achievements aren't limited to the twisty-turny script or the dark humor inherent in the material. He also brings tremendous energy to the picture, directing the proceedings with considerable verve and artistic flair. Coupled with some crackerjack editing by Bob Ducsay and an appropriately-jaunty and string-heavy soundtrack by Nathan Johnson, you've got yourself a lively little crowd-pleaser.

I sincerely hope this film is successful and it kicks off a revival of the entire genre. Frankly, I'm at the stage where I'd take twelve of these things over one more mediocre Star Wars or Marvel movie.               
Knives Out scores four stars out of five with a healthy tilt up towards the widow's walk.