Sunday, November 11, 2018

The specificity of nostalgia

Stranger Things opened the floodgates for delivering us 1980s nostalgia, and as with any kind of nostalgia, the idea is to get the details just right -- a toy you really played with, a poster you really had on the wall, a wardrobe choice you really made.

I was just surprised to see the makers of Summer of '84 focus so specifically on getting the details right for one particular viewer: me.

Overall their film is only a mild success for me, though that success is definitely bolstered by a turn at the end I was not expecting. I mean, I think it's bolstered by that -- I'm still chewing it over.

But in terms of trying to make me relate to the film, well, including my actual name in the film was certainly a step in the right direction.

I'll get to that in a minute.

Let's start with the differences. I wasn't as old as these kids were in the summer of 1984, as they are supposed to be 15 and I was only ten going on 11. I also didn't have a serial killer in my neighborhood, or at least not that I knew of.

The first thing that had me nodding along was the lead character's shelf of Hardy Boy detective books in his bedroom. I had a shelf exactly like that, with the blue spines all lined up together in a bit of aesthetic beauty we never would have noticed at the time, but now seems gloriously emblematic of that era.

Then there's all the standard stuff that Stranger Things introduced, like kids on bikes with flashlights and walkie talkies. I did at least two of those things. For some reason, my friends and I never had walkie talkies.

But a couple other things really got me.

One was that the main kid had a paper route, and there are some scenes of him collecting money from the neighbors on his route. I did that. I was a terrible paper boy, and I think I mostly walked my route rather than doing it on a bike like this guy did, but I had those weird exchanges with neighbors who couldn't pay me when I came to the door, asking me to come back later, as well as the occasional snide remark about why the Sunday morning paper didn't arrive until 9:30 a.m.

Then there was the fact that around 1984, I was messing with neighbors in a way similar to the kids in this movie. I had a weird and inexplicable period in which I vandalized my neighbors' mail and mailboxes, ultimately leading to police intervention, my dad taking me around to apologize to everyone, and me getting grounded and denied the right to go trick-or-treating that year. The lead kid's dad takes him on a kind of neighborhood apology tour in this movie as well.

But the thing that really got me is that the kid had my name.

Not my exact name, but close enough.

I wouldn't have noticed it at all except that his parents get addressed as "Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong" late in the movie. Those are my parents' names.

My first name is Derek, and it so happens that this kid's first name is Davey. Both of us D. Armstrongs.

You could say it's just a coincidence and ... well, you'd be right.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Confirmed: Shea Whigham is in everything

If you've seen a movie and you didn't think Shea Whigham was in it, chances are you weren't looking hard enough.

Avengers: Infinity War? He's one of the Children of Thanos.

Halloween? That's him behind the Michael Myers mask.

A Quiet Place? One of the monsters.

Isle of Dogs? One of the dogs.

Crazy Rich Asians? Yes, he's in that too.

Don't try to disprove the theory because you will fail. Shea Whigham's IMDB page is a complete listing of all the films that have been made since he started working as an actor. And strangely, even some from before he was born.

Beirut, which I saw last night, was just the latest.

Why do you think he never has a lead role? It takes a lot of time to appear in every movie that's in production at any given time. The best way to accomplish it is to have between 12 and 20 lines of dialogue in each. Get you in and out as fast as they can.

Fortunately, I've heard that Whigham can nail all his scenes in one take. His fellow actors are paid an incentive to be at their absolute best in those scenes as well.

Then whooosh! He's gone.

That's part of the reason he plays the same kind of character in every movie. In order to accomplish these incredible feats, Whigham is in permanent method actor mode.

They asked Whigham if he would play Pennywise the Clown in last year's IT movie and he was like "Nope! No can do. Let me play one of the cops." So he did.

"Now Vance," you'll say. "There is an inconsistency in your argument. You just said Whigham always plays the same kind of roles, but above you talked about him playing a monster, an alien and a dog."

That's true, but did you notice how he played those roles with the same gruff, clipped, no nonsense manner that he plays those cops, government bureaucrats and low-level criminals? That one alien in A Quiet Place was, I thought, particularly to the point and decisive in his, you know, murdering of human beings.

When asked in a recent interview how long he thought he could keep this up, Whigham said "How long have you got?"

The reporter then raised the practical consideration that one day Whigham would die, at which point he could no longer appear in every movie every made. Whigham just laughed.

"You think I don't have a plan for that?" he said.

Clones. It's gotta be clones.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Not for everyone

In my continuing trend of watching movies that should have more appropriately been viewed in October …

There’s a common critical phrase I’ve used plenty of times that I’ve just realized I hate:

“Not for everyone.”

The realization that this phrase bothered me came as a result of seeing it used in relation to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which I just saw last night. Eager to get a sense of the critical consensus before I wrote my own review – which will be mixed leaning negative – I took a glance at Wikipedia’s “Critical Response” section on the Suspiria page. The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus reads “Suspiria attacks heady themes with garish vigor, offering a viewing experience that’s daringly confrontational – and definitely not for everyone.”

What I don’t like is that if you don’t like this film, it implies you are part of “everyone.”

I don’t want to be a part of “everyone.”

I’m no snob – in fact, I proudly trumpet my affection for certain low culture. But I suppose I have something else regrettably in common with the MAGA crowd: I don’t want to be told that I’m not sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate someone’s artistic intentions. Put more plainly, I don’t want to be told I’m not smart enough to get something.

The phrase “not for everyone” seems to suggest that. You could expand it to “It’s not for everyone – only the people who like cool things done well.”

Hey, I like cool things done well! I just don’t think Suspiria was done particularly well, for reasons I will try to explain when I do write my review.

“It’s not for everyone” seems always to be said or written by someone who does think it’s for them. If they didn’t think it was for them, they might not think it was for anybody, and they’d just say it was bad. It’s a way for a critic to hedge his or her bets while engaging in the politics of exclusion. “Because I’m smart and savvy, I really love this, but you with your tiny little brain probably won’t.”

Of course, “not for everyone” can also be a useful way of intentionally excluding people based on their tolerance for things like graphic sex, violence or gore. Some of that could apply to Suspiria, as there is plenty of violence, some of which is combined with a kind of grotesque nudity. But that’s not what the “not for everyone” above implies. It implies that not everyone can handle a “daringly confrontational viewing experience.”

There are some out there who willingly acknowledge that they are squeamish or that they like their entertainment to hew closer to the mainstream. Most of us, though, do not. Most of us, especially if we classify ourselves as cinephiles, believe that we can stomach anything, and that any variety of artistic expression is palatable to us. Even if the only movies you have genuinely loved in 2018 are superhero movies – even Venom – you still don’t want to be told that a movie is “not for you.”

The thing is, as critics, we do have to think of “everyone” when we write reviews. “Everyone” is, in fact, our core audience. Joe the Plumber (wow, that’s a dated reference) may not know anything about Suspiria, but he does like those Blumhouse horror movies. He needs to know that, in fact, Suspiria may not be “for him,” and we need to find a way of saying that. “Not for everyone” is a way of saying “don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

So I guess as I grapple with my feelings about “not for everyone,” I need to remember that “not for everyone” is not for me. I’m only a part of “everyone” in that universal sense that all critics should strive for, which means divorcing yourself from your own particular preferences and biases and inserting yourself in the shoes of the person for whom a particular film may be intended.

I can have legitimate critical complaints about Suspiria that can’t be reduced to me not understanding what Luca Guadagnino was trying to do. Or even if it is that I don’t understand what Guadagnino was trying to do, that could be a fault of his as an artist and not of mine as the recipient of his art. It doesn’t have anything to do with my capacity for appreciating his art.

Suspiria was for me. The original is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. But Guadagnino did not deliver it to me, or at least not in the way I wanted.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Late Halloween

I didn't watch a single horror movie in the last nine days leading up to Halloween, an obvious consequence of traveling abroad and the fact that they don't tend to program horror movies as choices for your in-flight entertainment. Apparently, it's not such a good thing if you're a child trying to sleep on a 14-hour flight and you see someone's head getting cut off on the screen next to yours. (I do remember watching the horror movie Lights Out on a flight I took in early 2017. It must have passed some threshold of minimum gore.)

I made up for this with a day-night double feature on Sunday, my third day back, after returning from a family-oriented music festival at which we camped on Saturday night. (Which cannot have helped with my jet lag, now in its fifth glorious day.)

The first was a selection that was reluctantly mutually agreed upon by my kids, to pass the late afternoon as we recovered from the festival. The second was a Sunday night viewing of a movie assigned to me in a movie challenge for the month of November, teasingly missing its target month of October by the narrowest of margins.

Monster House is a movie we own on DVD, but as often happens, it took seeing it as an option on Netflix to promote it to an actual viewing. My older son wanted to watch a movie that for some reason the younger one didn't: Madagascar 2: Back to Africa. I was sort of rooting for this one as I have actually not seen it. The younger one wanted to watch Dinosaur Island, which I am absolutely not going to sit through a second time. I was surprised to see the older one agree to this compromise, because Monster House (or as he used to call it, Spooky House) was something he could never fully sit through because it was too scary for him. Apparently he was willing to give it another shot.

For a time. And then he remembered why Spooky House had disturbed him so much the first time, and promptly relocated to another part of the house. (He had his Minecraft so he didn't really care.)

It turns out the younger one is made of tougher stuff (no offense, older one). He didn't cop to being afraid at any point of the movie, and he asked questions that I thought were useful rather than bizarrely fixated on unimportant details. My baby's all grownsed up!

The older one also returned for the end, and didn't seem too concerned with it at that point either. Then again, their aunt just showed them Jurassic Park the other night, knowing the younger one's love of dinosaurs, so I guess they've had their skin toughened recently.

Trick r' Treat is a movie I had never credited with much more than "anonymous horror movie" status until I started to hear it spoken of in really glowing terms over the past few years. In fact, such is the regard for it that it was eligible to be chosen in this movie challenge I'm doing in my Flickcharters group on Facebook. Each month you are randomly paired with another person in the challenge, and you are assigned the highest ranked movie on their chart that you haven't seen yet. Trick r' Treat was somebody's #31, and that somebody commiserated with me the poor timing of not drawing his name a month earlier.

Although there is a lot to recommend in Trick r' Treat, I suppose I was expecting something a bit more sublime for a movie that was this guy's #31, and highly ranked by others in the group as well. It's reasonably clever in its intertwining of four stories that take place on one Halloween night, each of which has a surprising reveal and each of which kind of involves this guy you see in the poster above. But I find it more of a solid entertainment than something sublime that either clearly rises above its brethren or falls into the category of outlandish camp. I guess solid genre fare is worth celebrating in its own right.

Happy Halloween, even though it is no longer Halloween even in the most far-flung of time zones.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Back from whence I came

I wouldn't ordinarily go two weeks without a post on my blog without telling you why, but this time I had a special reason.

See, last Friday I executed an international, in-person surprise birthday greeting, and in the weeks leading up to it, I was increasingly worried that something, anything, would spoil that surprise.

My blog is an easy "something, anything" that could have done that.

I don't think my Mom actively reads my blog anymore, because her computer is a bit under the weather and has been for the better part of a year, leading her to use it only minimally. But the chance was there, and I just couldn't risk it.

That's right, last Saturday my Mom had a landmark birthday -- for the sake of her vanity I won't reveal which -- and the day before that, her son appeared on her front porch in Bedford, Massachusetts, when he should have been in Australia as far as she knew.

The desired effect was achieved. After looking at me for a few moments with a small amount of confusion -- you don't expect to answer the door and randomly see your son standing there -- she slapped her hands over her mouth and shouted "Oh my goodness!" And much reveling was had by all.

It took a bit to get there. Because it was a surprise, we couldn't actually be sure my Mom would be there when I showed up. My sister, who lives nearby, thought she would be going out for an early birthday lunch, but also that she had a potentially conflicting plan in the morning. My sister thought she was canceling that conflicting plan, so I thought arriving at 10:30 would allow me to catch her getting ready for lunch.

Well, her car was there, but she wasn't. I eventually determined this after calling four times in the space of 20 minutes and getting no answer, which ruled out the possibility of her being in the shower. My plan was to call her, as though I were calling from Australia, and then ask her to hold for a minute, at which point I would appear at her door. Better to put me in her mind so the eventual reveal was not so much of a shock. But she didn't pick up, meaning that even though her car was there, she was not.

Or she was lying hurt on the floor. It was a remote possibility, but I did consider it. So I went and peered in a window, but indeed it was quite dark in there.

To make a long story short, she did not come home for nearly three hours. I walked off to get a bite to eat and back, read my book a bit, and then was going to walk off again. I had just started up the street when I saw her approaching as the passenger in a car. It turned out she had done her morning thing after all and postponed her birthday lunch.

I let her get inside the house before finally knocking on the door and revealing myself.

Anyway, we had a really nice visit and I also saw other friends in the Boston area, other family in Maine (my dad and his wife), and friends in Los Angeles. A whirlwind nine days gone, but really more like a practical week when you factor in all the flying time.

And now I am home and can blog again.

I'm sure I have a lot to tell you about in terms of my movie consumption (I watched 13 movies while I was gone, all but two of which came on various flights), but for now I'll just explain my two-week absence as a means of updating you and getting me back in the swing of things.

Hope you had a good Halloween and watched some movies that scared the dickens out of you. Me, I watched On Chesil Beach, The Death of Stalin and The Insult on Halloween, which gives you a little idea of how topsy turvy everything has been.

Looking forward to stabilizing and resuming my normal routine.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Hong Sang-soo

This is the ninth in my 2018 monthly series acquainting myself with acclaimed directors whose work has thus far eluded me.

In my continuing desire to venture outside Eurocentric directors in this series, I've dipped back into the realm of my 2017 monthly series, the ill-defined and problematic Asian Audient. My consciousness of Hong Sang-soo was not sufficiently forefronted in my brain to watch one of his movies for that series, so I'm making up for it with two of them in this one.

I actually started to watch a Hong movie once, which was 2012's In Another Country when it was on Netflix. But it was a total false start for reasons I don't remember. I watched fewer than two minutes before thinking better of the decision and changing course, or more likely, not watching anything that night at all. It was probably that I started too late in the evening, though it could have also been that it was a Saturday night, and I decided something more pulpy and genre-associated was more up my alley that night.

I wasn't aware of Hong as the director when I started watching that one, but I've heard his name mentioned a number of times on the various film podcasts I've listen to ... enough different times on enough different podcasts that he breached that undefinable barrier that causes a person to be considered for a series like this one. The size of his filmography -- 27 directing credits in 22 years -- clinched his inclusion in Audient Auteurs.

I'm not digging back very far in the Korean director's filmography though, as both fims are from the past three years. Which is less than a third of his output from those years. Yeah, the guy is prolific, which made sense to me once I started watching and saw that he uses many of the same actors, with relatively few sets. I can imagine they shot most of these in under two weeks.

What else do I know about Hong? Well, there's one big thing but I'll discuss it in context as I get into discussing the films. The basic bio stuff is as follows. He was born in 1960 and is a comparatively late bloomer as a director, not having directed his first feature until age 35. He was educated both in South Korea and the U.S., where he attended California College of Arts and Crafts and School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His films have never been commercially successful as they have always dealt realistically with low-key relationships between regular human beings, but they have consistently garnered critical acclaim and awards at film festivals.

Shall we dig in?

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

This was the film I thought I most needed to see from Hong's filmography, as it got a lot of chatter a few years back -- the chatter was probably in 2016 as we typically get foreign films for our consumption a year after their release in their country of origin. I didn't remember what I'd heard about it at the time, but the title seemed to suggest there might have been something high concept about it.

As it turns out, Right Now, Wrong Then is indeed a high-concept film, but delivered in a low-concept package. I'll explain.

The film documents a chance meeting between a film director and a young woman, who strike up a conversation in a temple of some sort, though one that people visit casually as tourists, not for religious reasons. They decide to get a cup of coffee and end up ambling around and spending the day together, during which they seem like they might be falling in love. He's from out of town, and is present for a screening of his film, at which he will also speak.

The setup might put someone in mind of a film like Lost in Translation, only unlike Sofia Coppola, Hong doesn't do anything to inflate the romanticism of the scenario. In fact, certain proclamations of sentiment strike the viewer as quite sudden, given that the film has not been using the typical filmmaking techniques to indicate growing attraction -- profound exchanges of intimacies, close-ups, an inadvertent touch. No, this is proceeding forward in comparatively mundane ways.

As in Translation, it turns out the man is married, though only the man in this case. As some alcohol enters into the proceedings in the evening at a dinner thrown by some of her friends, things start to go bad, but again in comparatively low-key ways. Like, there's no fight, physical or otherwise, just increasing recriminations over emotional usury and drunken sorrow.

I won't tell you how it turns out because I suppose that's a spoiler, but I will tell you that it's only half the movie. The second half begins where we started the first half, with the director wandering into the temple and spotting the woman. We quickly realize we're about to be subjected to the same series of events again, only with small modifications that change the outcome.

A high-concept setup for a film, you would agree. But what makes the execution low concept is that there's no single moment in their interaction you can point to that causes the day to pivot from one trajectory to another. A Hollywood film of this subject would be obsessed with the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings halfway around the world and the events turning out differently. That Hollywood filmmaker would concentrate on the mechanics of these differences in ways that would be so overt they would hit you over the head. When something went differently, you'd know exactly why it went differently.

That's not Hong. Hong doesn't care why two competing versions of a timeline for a particular random day in history might have gone differently. He recognizes that the difference is largely internal, one of free will. If I watched the two versions side by side, which would be quite a useful exercise if it were feasible, I might actually see a moment where the director chooses one line of inquiry with his companion rather than another, and that subtly changes the effect on her psychology in a way he couldn't have envisioned. But really, these decisions are made in his head, or her head, as maybe she was the one who caused the exchange to go differently. They aren't due to some factor outside their control, like a butterfly in South America.

As much as I sound refreshed by Hong's creative choice in the previous paragraph, initially it kind of annoyed me. There was enough of the narrative traditionalist in me to demand a satisfying explanation for the differences between the two iterations of events. As it went forward, though, I grew to appreciate what he was doing, in part also because it builds toward a very satisfying climax that does restore some of my associations to a film like Lost in Translation. Which is one of my top 50 films of all time.

At this point I need to tell you that thing about Hong I knew before but was waiting to discuss. The lead actress in this film is Kim Min-hee, and only after the film was released did anyone realize how autobiographical the film really was. The fact that it's about a director makes it quite obviously autobiographical on some level, but the fact that it was a director considering an extramarital affair mightn't have been part of that autobiography. Later we would come to realize that not only was that part true also, but the affair Hong had was actually with Kim -- a fact that would be acknowledged during a press conference for the second film I saw, with Kim sitting right next to him.

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)

So Kim and Hong made the decision to reveal their affair while doing press for On the Beach at Night Alone, which also contextualizes On the Beach at Night Alone, in which she once again appears as a character who had an affair -- past tense this time -- with a prominent director. For a while I thought it might have been the same character, and this was either an actual or functional sequel to Right Now, Wrong Then. But later in the film the director appears, and it's a much older man than the director character in Right Now. The character is not played by Hong himself, but at this point I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been.

It was also at this point that I thought Hong crossed over from curious about his own history and psychology in a way that was aesthetically justifiable to just plain self-indulgent.

Perhaps if he had never admitted his affair with Kim we wouldn't have been so confronted with his obsession with this affair, though if I have my chronologies correct, the first movie was a case of life imitating art, where the second movie was the one engaging with what had actually happened in Hong's real life. I've probably also got a skewed perspective because I am seeing only these two films, which both happen to deal with this, while the other five films he's made during the same period are probably about other things entirely.

Still, I couldn't help having the impression that this guy is openly struggling with his own infidelity and making the rest of us watch it, and adding an extra layer of perversion to it all by making the very actress with whom he had the affair act in a movie that occurred after the end of their affair, about the impact on her character of the end of the affair. And then talking about it with her sitting next to him at the press conference.

I'm not going to do a lot of additional googling to sort out the exact chronology, to what extent Kim was willing participant, and whether they're still in a relationship, which theoretically might make it all less bad (or possibly more, depending on your perspective). I will say that the whole thing strikes me as a wee bit icky. Maybe more than a wee bit.

All of this might not be such a problem if On the Beach at Night Alone were a better film.

I saw it only a few days ago, but I was looking for help from Wikipedia with a plot refresher anyway. Unfortunately, this is all Wikipedia has on the plot:

"Young-hee is a washed up actress who is stressed by a relationship with a married man in Korea. On the beach she wonders: Is he missing me, like I miss him?"

Thanks, that's helpful.

And also, though I'm sure the director had nothing to do with how the plot was characterized on Wikipedia, makes me think even less of Hong's motivations for making the film and his sense of narcissism.

What I can tell you is that the film is divided into two chapters called "1" and "2." Unlike Right Now, Wrong Then, they are of very different lengths (the first about 20 minutes, the second the rest of the running time), and don't seem to have that much to do with each other. In the first one, Kim's character is walking around a city in Europe with another Korean woman. They talk, mentioning the affair with the director, and interact with some Europeans, including buying some books. These scenes were actually in English. In the second chapter, Kim is back in Korea, her traveling companion nowhere to be seen. Here she interacts with other local friends, having meals, and coming into contact with some of the crew for the director's new movie. They in fact discover her lying on the beach in the same town where they are shooting the movie. Ultimately he comes in at the very end.

I just didn't get what the point of the film was, and that's why I wondered if Hong's artistic sensibilities were being hampered by the extent he was staring at his own navel. It kind of lurches around and lurches forward, with Kim spending a fair bit of time staring out at the sea. Most of the conversations with friends are mundane, though she obviously has conflicting feelings about the director, speaking of him in dismissive terms but continuing to kind of pine away for him. (Self-indulgent, I tell you.) The eventual interaction with her ex at dinner near the end of the film does get intense, but not in a satisfying way, since the director had not been previously established as a character. The insertion of him at the end, then the expectation that a useful emotional denouement is going to arise from it, is just more evidence of the way Hong seems deluded about the value of giving us a front row seat to his private life.

I suppose to get a real take on Hong's larger body of work, I need to see a film of his that is not either the direct precursor to or the immediate aftermath of his real-life extramarital affair. Though I must say, I don't feel particularly eager to get to that.

Okay, only two months left of Audient Auteurs. I don't know who I'll finish with, but I've got November all lined up. I haven't seen a single film by the acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman, and Kanopy has just about all his films. So there'll be a bounty of choices that has been largely absent from this series so far -- a Thanksgiving feast worth of choices, you might say.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A strange match of composer and subject

When I learned that there was a musical version of the Richard Linklater movie School of Rock, I thought what I always think when I see there's a stage version of a popular movie: "Of course there is." Melbourne is being hit by a spate of them right now, with musical versions of a couple Aussie classics (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel's Wedding) and some other popular Hollywood stuff (The Bodyguard) having recently played, now playing or soon to be playing the city's premier stage venues. That's in addition to School of Rock.

When I saw who composed the music, I thought something that I do not always think in these situations:


When I think of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- the composer of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Evita, the latter of which is also having a local revival starring Tina Arena -- I think of someone who is gothic, dramatic, operatic in nature. All of those terms quite explicitly describe Phantom of the Opera, which I still think of as the most Webbery of Webber musicals.

They do not describe School of Rock.

The canvas on which he's painted has always been massive, whether it's Bible epics (two of them), a florid Beauty and the Beast story, a fantastic feline flight of fancy or a historical epic about the Argentinian first lady.

That is not the canvas of School of Rock.

If a single person may be the personification of a non-Webberian character, it might be Jack Black, an overgrown boy with his shirt untucked who relates to kids in a comedic manner that is only a few years removed from landing in Dad Joke territory. Sure, Black has an after hours gig as a singer in the band Tenacious D, which is plenty operatic in its own right. But the essential Black seems a bit anathema to Webber.

So how did Webber get on this project?

The internet is not being particularly forthcoming about that. But I will say that if it's a weird project for him to be doing generally, it's an even weirder project for him to be doing in his mid- to late-60s. (The show premiered in 2015, and Webber just turned 70 earlier this year.)

This quote highlights this odd disconnect between Webber and his material, in talking about what he wanted from this stage version of the movie:

"It has to be a bit more rounded. I'd like to know more about the children and their parents."


This is not the Andrew Lloyd Webber I think I know.

The Wikipedia article on School of Rock also includes this funny, sort of obvious quote, in which Webber is apparently answering the question of whether they would just use the soundtrack from the movie:

"You can't do heavy metal for hours and ours in the theater. Everyone would be screaming. So there have to be theatrical songs too."

I would say this falls into the "duh" category. Besides, if you don't have original songs, you don't really need a composer, now do you?

If Webber's involvement in this project is not weird enough, consider also who wrote the stage treatment: Julian Fellowes. Name sound familiar? Yeah, he's the guy who wrote the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park, and probably more famously, Downton Abbey. What the hell is he doing here?

And yet I'm sure the show is good. It did well on Broadway, it did well in the West End, it toured the U.S. and now it's touring Australia, or at least coming to Melbourne.

I'm not going to see it -- I save my $150 theater tickets for genuine new classics like The Book of Mormon -- but I sure am curious about how the hell it all mashes together.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: True Grit

This is the fifth and penultimate installment in my bi-monthly 2018 series revisiting Coen brothers movies I didn’t think were so great the first time I saw them.

True Grit had a distinct disadvantage over the other movies in this series, as it was the first I’ve revisited for this series (though not the last) where I was struggling to stay awake when I first watched it. December 2010 saw the release of two high-profile movies starring Jeff Bridges, and I watched both of them as part of a theatrical double feature (which I discussed here if you’re interested). Tron: Legacy was long (125 minutes) and a bit stultifying, so the 9:30 or whatever show of True Grit was a tough slog for me. I remembered the fight against my drooping eyelids better than any fight in the movie.

So what do I do when I watch it again in 2018?

I’m not saying these were the worst possible circumstances to give it a second shot, but I did start the movie after 9 p.m., after a beer, and after I’d gone out running in the late afternoon, which basically left me for dead once I got home. (I’m not in as bad shape as that suggests, but I usually do my weekly run at night, after the kids are in bed, when nothing else is required of me in the hour or two before I go to sleep myself. When I still had two more hours of children before their bedtime, and they wanted to walk down to the park after dinner, I think that was what nearly did me in.)

The benefit of this second viewing was that if my drooping eyelids won, there was something I could do about it. When you watch something at home, you have access to a pause button, a luxury you don’t enjoy in the theater.

I did have to pause True Grit twice for naps – it’s something I do even during movies that are really good – but I made it through in one night, which I count as a victory.

Why didn’t I save it until I wasn’t so tired? Well, for one, it’s a movie I’ve already seen, so better in a way to watch something you’ve already seen when you’re tired, than something whose details are entirely new to you. Secondly, I’m out of the country for the last week of this month, and I have lots to do before then, so I just need to keep powering through my various viewing appointments before I leave.

And I think True Grit ended up being the most better of any of the three I’ve rewatched previously that I didn’t love the first time. (You may remember I started the series with a movie I have always loved, Miller’s Crossing.) In fact, it’s probably the only one out of O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading where I would say there was an appreciable uptick in my feelings toward it. So, in the end, a second sleepy viewing was not a mark against it.

Of the five movies in this series that I didn’t really love (the fifth of which I’ll watch in December), True Grit is probably the one where I’d have the hardest time articulating what it wasn’t I didn’t like about it. (Leading to my theory that sleepiness had a lot to do with it.) Although I liked it better this time, I think this viewing also helped me articulate what I didn’t like about it the first time.

Simply put, this narrative does not proceed forward with what I would consider to be cleverness. The key to a good chase movie – which many westerns are – is that the reason the pursuers stay hot on the trail, or lose the trail, is because of something essential about them: tracking ability, ingenuity, instinct, or on the negative side, maybe a fatal flaw.

Nothing is gained or lost in True Grit because of anything the characters do or don’t do. It all feels pretty random. They are tracking Tom Cheney based on some smartly collected intel, but then they lose him without any real reason – one day two of the three main characters just declare that the trail has gone cold. So without any reason you can point to, the mission has gone from trending toward success to trending toward failure. It’s the end of the second act, the moment of the characters’ greatest crisis, but as no result of anything they did or did not do.

Then when Mattie does spot Tom in the river, it’s just completely random. Through nothing they have intentionally done, they stumble across him, and she even wounds him (though he ultimately drags her off). A few of the other twists and turns at the end revolve around similar dumb luck, almost – dare I say it – deus ex machina, which is a dirty word in narrative storytelling. Confusingly, Rooster Cogburn is kind of part of a different climax with Ned Pepper, that’s occurring alongside the one with Tom Cheney. Cogburn, nominally this story’s hero (it’s really Mattie), does not even participate in the Cheney portion of the climax, though he does help save her from that very unlucky snake bite (deus ex machina again – or maybe devil ex machina in this case?).

If the Coens’ point is that the apparent grandeur of the old west is indeed so illusory, then that would certainly be consistent with other downbeat and cynical endings of theirs (I’m looking at you, No Country For Old Men). Heroes are drunkards, and spend time on trial for the people they killed; villains are basically just dumb hicks who get caught in rivers with their pants down. I get it. It’s just pretty unsatisfying.

Except as I said, it did satisfy me more this time. It may have satisfied me a whole star more. In looking back in Letterboxd, I see that I gave True Grit 2.5 stars the first time around, probably because I felt that much of what was supposed to be distinctive about it was the suspiciously underdeveloped personalities of Cogburn and LaBoeuf (Le Beef as Cogburn says), whose name is only the first way in which his character is played for comedy. Yet if doling out stars for this movie today, I might go as high as 3.5.

As much as I was at a loss to tell you what I didn’t love about it the first time, I’m equally at a loss to tell you now what has dramatically improved. One thing is surely that I have a much greater appreciation for Hailee Steinfeld, who was in her first feature film role here but has since blossomed into one of our most promising young actresses. I actually thought at the time (and still think) that she delivers some of the Coens’ dialogue awkwardly, or maybe that they wrote dialogue that was too awkward for her to deliver naturally – which is interesting because she actually received an Oscar nomination and her performance was one of the film’s most praised elements. But I do like her a lot more in general now, so being reminded of her origins was undoubtedly a positive thing.

I guess I’m also a bit more predisposed to the Coens’ nihilism. If I was bothered that the film is essentially a collection of random stuff that results in a positive outcome, I’m probably a bit less bothered by that now.

I still don’t think the cinematography, from frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, is one of the greatest examples of his work, either, though he was also Oscar nominated (one of his infamous 13 nominations before he finally won for Blade Runner 2049). There are some good vistas, but I noticed other moments when the lighting seemed blown out, almost like the celluloid was bleached. I don’t think it’s fair to automatically credit a western for its cinematography just because of the landscape in which the photography occurs. I suspect a little of that was going on here.

But like I said, I was more favorably disposed toward this movie than I was the first time, and no longer need to look sideways at people who say they love it. It’s definitely pretty good. I just wish there were a little more there there.

Okay, wrapping up this series in December with the film that is the Coens’ most recent, though won’t be by the time I watch it. I’ll watch Hail, Caesar! for the second time two months from now, and probably before then, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which debuts on Netflix on November 16th. A post on that, but not under the Re-coen-sidering banner, may also be forthcoming.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Getting what you pay for at free outdoor screenings

Coco was my fifth ranked movie of 2017, and the affection has lingered enough for me to consider it a serious contender for my top 25 of the decade, which I will formulate in about 14 months.

So seeing it for the second time for free on one of those inflatable outdoor screens, on a blocked off side street, when my kids couldn't get comfortable and were both making noise about going home, but that was nothing compared to the noise everyone else was making, was probably not the best idea in terms of examining its candidacy.

It was maybe six weeks ago that I first saw the event in a neighboring community advertised, and it immediately put me in mind of the similar scenario in which I saw Zootopia for the second time. My son's school hosted such a screening in their gymnasium in early December of 2016, when I was finalizing that year's rankings and wondering if the movie was deserving of its third slot in my rankings. It was.

Sure, some of the obstacles to an unfettered viewing were still present -- squirmy kids, random noise, obstructed views. But at least having to pay for admission kept out some of the riff raff, and some of the riff raff was indeed to blame for the decidedly fettered viewing of Coco this past Saturday night.

You were allowed to get there as early as 6 p.m. for an expected 8 p.m. start. If this had been last Saturday they could have started it at 7, but we're a week into daylight savings now, meaning the sky is not truly dark enough for a movie until about 8. (As it turned out, they started at about 7:53, which was one of the evening's comparatively few blessings; seven minutes can be a big deal when you're talking about children up after their bedtime.)

The reason to get there early would have been to secure one of the bean bags the council provided, which were not the smaller bean bag chairs you traditionally think of when you think of bean bag chairs. These were the Rolls Royces of bean bag chairs, large and capable of accommodating multiple people, and able to be easily fitted in a particular direction, more like an easy chair than an amorphous blob.

We knew we were not likely candidates for those. Getting there two hours before the movie is all well and good if you're an adult, or have older children. Two hours early with younger children (mine are 8 and 4) and they turn into pumpkins before the movie even starts.

So when we arrived at just after 7, things were looking pretty bleak. Because these Rolls Royce bean bags were so big, they took up a disproportionate amount of the real estate in front of the screen, leaving less room than we needed for our improvised viewing outpost. This was going to consist of pillows, an inflatable beach lounger and a camping chair, if the camping chair would not be blocking anyone's view. But because the bean bags were so big, and claimed by only a single person in many cases, we were left looking for thin landing strips that would seriously encroach on the others who had gotten there earlier enough to stake legitimate claims.

Here we did have a bit of luck. Just as we were planning to stuff ourselves into a space that was about eight feet by three feet in the middle of four other bean bag chairs, and preparing to withstand the dirty looks of our neighbors for the entire night, I found an inexplicably unclaimed plot of land off to the side a few rows back. It was about the same depth but twice the width, and better yet, its positioning on the side allowed the camping chair to be erected in a spot where it would not block anyone's view. Glad I found it when I did, too, because two other groups descended on it just after I got there.

As the sky darkened we went to retrieve dinner from a local food establishment (yummy burgers!) and set up camp. Part of setting up camp involved the inflatable beach lounger. I'm not sure if you've seen this kind of thing before, but it's essentially a large wind sock that gets filled up with air by you running around in a circle while holding it open, and then trapping the air inside. When we first bought it, it took a long time for me to figure out how to do it. However, I've gotten a bit better and I got the air inside it, trapping it by rolling up the opening and clipping it off. It develops kind of the shape of a pair of lips, and you can then plunge a couple people into it as you would a bean bag chair.

The issue turned out to be that it's much different when you use one of these things on the beach and on the asphalt. My four-year-old's first instinct was to play in it like he would at the beach, and of course a bumped head was not long in the offing. It also turned out that in my rush to get ourselves set up, I probably rolled it up before it had as much air in it as would be ideal.

This became a problem over the course of the evening as every combination of the four of us tried to get comfortable in it in a way that also allowed our heads to be properly oriented toward the screen. Ultimately I ended up being in it with my older son for the lion's share of the running time, while my wife, the only one of us who hadn't seen the movie, took up residency in the camping chair with the younger one on her lap. But as the thing steadily deflates over time, by the end we were basically lying directly on the pavement, while I was clutching at the fabric to billow out as much of the air for a pillow as possible.

The problem was that my four-year-old kept going back and forth between this and the camping chair, only he couldn't get himself into the lounger without making a big ruckus. Any shifting causes that rustling noise of the fabric that is also disturbing. Let's just say it was barely controlled chaos for much of the movie.

So I'll be clear that many of our problems were self-inflicted. I can imagine we were quite the disruption to our neighbors, though they didn't show it in the slightest. And though our camping chair was on the curb and was not directly blocking anyone who was positioned on the street, the use of camping chairs was fairly limited overall, and I can imagine we might have been blocking somebody who was trying to take up position outside one of the store fronts, if they hadn't already had to give up the spot because of a total lack of visibility.

All that said, we at least tried to limit our noise, motion and visibility pollution. Others, not so much.

There were any number of others near us talking freely in normal tones of voice. One particular couple with their ten-year-old daughter bothered me to no end. They were completely unsettled, taking up and abandoning a spot in front of us several times during the movie, and at one point recognizing someone from one of the groups next to us. The mother of this family had no problem trying to maintain a conversation with the mother of that family. Not consistently, but enough that it struck me as highly disrespectful to the others around her. Didn't seem to strike her that way at all.

This is to say nothing of the people streaming out of the restaurants. Sure, they had not signed up for a free street screening of Coco, but they seemed to demonstrate no awareness whatsoever of the fact that others had. Instead of curtailing their conversations for the ten seconds they were picking through us on the way to or from their cars, they just continued whatever conversation they were having and didn't seem concerned whatsoever about unleashing bursts of laughter at whatever the other had said.

But the thing that bothered me the most was this woman who happened along during the film's emotional climax. You know, the part where young Miguel plays "Remember Me" to the title character. In this scene Miguel calls her "Mama Coco" a number of times. I didn't see where this woman had come from so I didn't know if she was a person leaving the movie early, or from one of the restaurants, but as she walked by she kept imitating him -- "Mama Coco!" -- and laughing afterwards. Not only was it obnoxious, it was also weirdly racist.

Most of what made the viewing so challenging, though, were things you would expect, inevitable parts of the experience. People getting up. People picking their way through the crowd. People rummaging through bags, and blocking the view as they did so. People having to quiet crying babies. People leaving a stroller or some other obstruction in a way that they didn't realize was blocking someone else's view.

Some of this I tolerated with relative equanimity. But other times it would annoy me to no end, for a reason I can tell you because you are also a movie fan.

There are two types of people in this world. There are those who feel like they should watch a movie start to finish with as much of their attention as they can reasonably muster. This group includes you and me. Then there are those who feel like they can drop in and out of a movie. They don't care if they arrive late or leave early. They don't care if something they choose to do during the movie prevents them from hearing everything or understanding every plot nuance. They think of a movie as, essentially, background, and as much or as little of it as they get, it's all the same to them.

A free outdoor screening is probably tailored to the second group of people, and if I'm going to attend it, I probably need to realize that.

But you know what?

Even with all this -- with my kids needing me to go buy a bottle of water (which I'd forgotten to pack), with my older son needing a chocolate ice cream from a vendor at the back of the seating area, with my older son talking about wanting to go to bed only ten minutes in (he later settled in), with large amounts of light pollution from street lamps, with the lower half of my view of the screen looking more like a city skyline of heads and strollers, with having to exert a huge physical effort to crane my neck in the right direction, with regular noise pollution from trains passing on the tracks above -- I still had tears standing in my eyes at the conclusion. They weren't rolling down my cheeks like they had in the theater, but that's also the difference between any first viewing of an emotional movie and its second viewing. Having tears even standing in my eyes was a major coup.

And my wife, who had to deal with regular shenanigans from the four-year-old more than I did, and whose comprehension of plot details was more crucial because she had never seen the movie, was reaching for her tissues at the end as well. More than anything I wanted her to see it and realize she also loved it, and somehow, she did.

I think a great movie is a great movie is a great movie, and even having some idiot mock it during the climax is not enough to ruin it.

Even when everything else was conspiring against it, Coco's greatness shone through.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Horror schlock extraordinaire

Remember when I said I was looking for October horror options outside of my standard streaming services?

Kanopy to the rescue.

Kanopy, the free streaming service some people can access through their library membership, does not have what you would call a comprehensive collection, nor I suppose would you expect it to. It's free, so any damn thing it has is a bonus, and it does have a lot of useful stuff.

And in this case it blew open the doors of the possibilities of horror for October. In fact, I'm not sure if I'm going to fit in all the ones I want to watch, especially since I'm heading to the U.S. for the last week of the month and I have a lot of viewing priorities unrelated to horror that I also need to squeeze in.

Not only is there some of the good classic horror I've been looking for, such as the 1959 Vincent Price-starring House on Haunted Hill, but they've also got an essential 1980s horror text I have yet to experience from an essential horror director, David Cronenberg's Scanners. Then you've got something that just looks like great exploitation, Abel Ferrera's The Driller Killer. They've also got a couple movies I'd love to revisit this month, including Carnival of Souls and Beyond the Black Rainbow.

And, of course, they have Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

That one I actually watched on Friday night, and boy.

I must say I spent a lot of the time asking myself how bad this 1977 low budget horror was. There were times that I thought it was Manos: The Hands of Fate bad, then there were other times I convinced myself that it's so bizarre it might be great, and that the various visual concepts were executed to the best of the ability of this minuscule budget. I ultimately went with a 1.5 star rating on Letterboxd as a compromise that erred on the Manos side of things.

Either way, you've got to see this movie.

Essentially it's about a canopy bed in an abandoned mansion that has been possessed by a demon, and this means it can eat people. In my mind I imagined the mattress actually morphing into a kind of mouth and going chomp chomp on its victims, but that kind of thing is hard to do on a small budget without looking ridiculous -- and say what you will about George Barry's film, I don't think he wants it to be ridiculous.

Instead, the bed exudes this kind of foaming acid that causes its victims to sink down into the mattress and be dissolved by the equivalent of its stomach acid. Of course, it's not just human beings that might be eaten. The bed also eats an apple (amusingly, only down to the core), some fried chicken (amusingly, just the skin and meat) and even a full bottle of wine (the bed that drinks).

The fact that the bones are still left creates certain moments that do seem to be intentionally hilarious, and though the following picture constitutes a "spoiler," it may also entice you to see the movie:

To quote Chief Wiggum: "What're you going to use, skeleton powers?"

The acting is so incredibly bad as to defy explanation -- the woman in this picture, despite being in peril throughout, rarely sees her expression change from some small variation on the one you see here. The guy's reaction to having his hands dissolved by the bed is similarly detached.

One of the funniest things about the movie is that it is narrated by a man who has been cursed to live inside a painting on the wall of the room with the bed. We seem him from time to time, sitting in a small enclosed space that is meant to represent the inside of the painting. The funny thing is, this guy is a different actor who does not actually provide the narration himself. I suppose you need to actually see this character to understand that this is what's supposed to be going on, but it just kind of makes it all the more hilarious.

Thanks Kanopy. Now instead of despairing over the paucity of good horror streaming options, I'm licking my chops for Saturday night.

Sunday, October 7, 2018


October is, of course, the month when cinephiles, and even some non-cinephiles, prioritize watching horror movies. The difference is that non-cinephiles might think to watch one or two horror movies leading up to the 31st, while cinephiles pride themselves on watching at least 20, if not one per day.

I'm not going to get to that level this year -- in fact, I've probably never watched more than ten. The horror offerings on my various streaming services are fairly pathetic, and in many cases have not changed significantly year over year, meaning that I've already scrubbed them pretty clean in past Octobers. I think on Stan, our Australian streaming site, there are literally fewer than five movies they've classified as horror that I haven't seen.

I did find one, though, even though it's not the type of "thing that go bump in the night" horror movie that I usually think goes hand-in-hand with Halloween. That was Eli Roth's The Green Inferno, which is about South American cannibals and is mostly set in the daytime, and had been on my radar the year it came out. In perusing my options, I noticed there were also two other Roth horrors available that I'd already seen, those being Hostel and Knock Knock (the latter being more of a home invasion thriller than a horror movie, though you could call it "domestic horror").

So having watched The Green Inferno on Friday night, I decided to make it a Roth weekend by watching Hostel on Saturday night for the first time since I originally saw it (at a screening in which Roth spoke afterward in a Q&A) in 2005. (And in looking this up in my records, I see this screening was only six days before Christmas -- strange timing indeed for such a thing. I ranked it with my 2005 films, but others may have ranked it with 2006 as it was formally released on January 6th of 2006, and likely did not receive an Oscar-qualifying run -- heh heh -- the year before.)

But my real Roth reckoning began a few weeks ago when I saw his latest, The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which is about as different from Green Inferno and Hostel as a movie can be. I haven't read into why Roth would decide to direct a family-friendly haunted house movie starring Jack Black, but suffice it to say it was not a good fit. That's a weird ass movie, but not in a good way. You can read my full review here if you like, to save me going over the failure of that movie a second time. (One thing I'll spoil that wasn't in that review: There's about five minutes of this movie where Jack Black's head is on the body of a baby.)

Roth is someone I generally think of in a positive light -- I like Knock Knock quite a bit -- but Clock was not the first movie of his I hated. In fact, I really did not like his debut, Cabin Fever, which I saw after I'd already seen Hostel. Learning he also made the much-reviled remake of Death Wish earlier this year, which I have not seen but may see just for his involvement (this month, even, to continue the theme?), it started to make me wonder if the "real" Roth is talented or a hack.

Seeing one movie I hadn't seen, and revisiting one movie, seemed like a good way to interrogate that.

Which brings us to Green Inferno. This one worried me right away. The opening credits are in this cheap typeface that could have been made on the same titling machine my friend bought when we made our own 30-minute kung fu movie back in 1990. As they fade in and out they appear to pixelate. The early scenes of the movie are in New York, where the interiors need to be lit. And the lighting is awful. The whole thing looks like bad TV, or possibly even homemade TV.

When they get to South America, lighting is no longer a problem and the actual cinematography improves overall. However, this is when the cultural insensitivity kicks in. The tribe of cannibals are bloodthirsty (literally) and without any measure of pity or remorse. Among all of them there is only one small child who shows enough humanity to try to help the protesters whose plane crashes while returning from a protest to save the rainforest. The rest of the tribe eat them with relish -- eat some of them, anyway.

Someone with whom I discussed this online argued against this charge of cultural insensitivity, and since he has a point I'll give his position a platform here. He argued that everyone here is either an asshole or an idiot, both the natives and the protesters, and there's no doubt he's correct about that. The protesters are so caught up in their own deluded sense of importance, in their ability to change the world, that they appear as guilty of usury, a different kind of usury, as those who would bulldoze these natives' homes. His argument is that the whole thing is a bit of a comedy -- a very grotesque, bloody, dismembery comedy -- and that Roth is in on the joke.

His thoughts allowed me to elevate the film from 1.5 stars to two stars on Letterboxd. But really -- blecch. It's not good.

But I decided to give Roth another shot the next night. It'd either be a chance at redemption or a realization that maybe he'd never really had anything worth celebrating in the first place.

I started out a bit skeptical about the enduring value of Hostel, one of the earliest of the torture porn movies. (I tend to think of that genre as having begun with Saw the year before, though of course there would be earlier examples). I found myself critical of technical elements like lighting and cinematography, and the movie also felt very dated with a lot of douchebaggery and gay panic humor, including the use of the word "faggot."

However, as I kept watching and as we got to the actual hostel, I felt most of my original grisly affection for the movie return. For a film that is indubitably an entry in the torture porn genre, and a seminal one at that, it's lighter on the actual torture part than I would have thought. Each individual scene of torture is relatively short and more discreet than it could have been on graphic detail, as we get more of the before and the after, leaving the rest up to our imaginations.

It's the details within this, however, that require us to give Roth credit. Two moments stand out for me. For one, there's the part when (spoiler alert) Derek Richardson's character is getting his Achilles tendons sliced open. A less imaginative filmmaker would have gone right in on the knife sawing the skin, to show us how effectively they could recreate a man's tendons being sliced. Instead, all we see is Richardson screaming in an unimaginable agony, the exact nature of which we only know when he tries to stand up. It allows us an uncomfortable few moments when our imaginations are indeed more powerful than the visual stimuli being provided to us.

Then there's the moment when Jay Hernandez' character pleads for his life with the German client. One thing I like about this movie is that Hernandez' character speaks German, something our preconceived notions about his ethnicity might prevent us from considering likely. I mean, it's not like a man of Latino descent would never learn German, it's just that this movie is reasonably creative for giving him that unexpected trait. Anyway, we think his impassioned pleading for his life -- which goes untranslated -- is the thing that might actually save him, and gives Hernandez a moment of real dramatic power within a tawdry genre movie. When the German client slaps him and leaves the room, we figure he's been successful. Instead, an attendant enters with a ball gag so he can no longer talk. In another clever reveal, we see that the attendant has been applying something to Hernandez' face, but we don't see it's this ball gag until the camera pulls back.

I do have one question about the ending of the movie, since we're into spoilers anyway, which I think is a plot hole but I can't say for sure. So Hernandez is on the train at the end and hears the client who tortured and killed his friend eating his grotesque meat salad in front of a couple other unwitting travelers. He then disembarks the train to go kill him in the train station toilet. Does he actually know that this man was his friend's torturer? All he really knows for sure is that they were sitting together at the bar, isn't that right? It's one of those cases that I'm sure are fairly common if you look for them, where the screenwriter gets confused about whether his characters know a piece of information, or only the audience knows it.

Some of the shock of Hostel was certainly due to its concept and the comparative infancy of the torture porn genre, and the fact that it "went there" on things we hadn't allowed ourselves to imagine, cinematically. However, its tension and its underlying sense of horror are still effective 13 years later, long after torture porn has become passe. Combine that with the mood setting and mystery of the rest of the scenes in that town, and you've got a portrait of a demonic Eastern European milieu that adds portent to the already exotic endeavor of traveling off the grid far from home.

Come to think of it, the punishment meted out to the American tourists here is similar to that meted out to the American do-gooders in The Green Inferno. In both cases these are kids with an overdeveloped sense of their entitlement to traipse around in places they were never invited, without worries of the consequences of showing less than the proper respect for their surroundings.

There's comedy in both of these movies -- don't forget the part when the girls get run over multiple times by Hernandez in his car -- but Roth varies in his ability to deliver the right tone. He succeeds in Hostel and doesn't in Green Inferno, just as he didn't in Cabin Fever but did in Knock Knock. Perhaps I should have realized this was Roth's MO before now, and perhaps if I watched Green Inferno again and viewed it through this lens from the start, I'd "get it" a bit more.

But there are too many other horror movies to watch this October to worry about that right now.

Well, some, anyway. If I want more, I might have to go beyond my streaming services.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Upgrade downgraded

I had a weird sense of deja vu while watching Venom Thursday night, and it didn't take long for me to figure out why that was.

It's not that it's derivative of other superhero or comic book movies, which of course it is. It's not even that it shares things in common with many other trainwrecks that I've seen, which it does.

It's that there was a far better movie with many of these same elements earlier this year, called Upgrade.

And Upgrade's not even all that great, so if it's far better than Venom, you know how bad Venom must be.

For starters, let's take the stars of the two movies.

Upgrade stars Logan Marshall-Green. Venom stars Tom Hardy.

If you're not familiar with Logan Marshall-Green, you may know him as that guy who looks almost exactly like Tom Hardy.

There are no fewer than 516 side-by-side shots of Hardy and Marshall-Green on the internet, but I find this one probably the most illustrative of their similar appearances:

Bonus points to you if you know which one is Hardy and which one is Marshall-Green.

Then you've got what's happening to their characters in these movies. Both come under the control of a parasite of sorts that bestows them with super powers. For Marshall-Green, it's a computer chip that helps him walk after he's paralyzed in a car accident -- and also run really fast and kick a lot of ass. For Hardy, it's an alien called a "symbiote" that merges with him, causing him to shoot tentacles out of his body to defeat foes, and turn his head into a black mask with rows of sharp teeth.

In both instances the symbiosis is initially played for comedy, as the hapless host looks on in semi-horror as his own body does things that his brain is not telling it to do. Oh, and these parasites both speak inside the heads of their hosts, though only the hosts can hear them.

The conventional wisdom would have been that Venom was the contender and Upgrade the pretender, as Venom has the bigger star, the better known director and the muscle and brand name of Marvel behind it. Yet this movie is shit and Upgrade is actually kind of clever, though ultimately preposterous.

If you haven't seen Upgrade, do it! Why not?

If you haven't seen Venom, you're lucky.