movie

Review of Midsommar (spoilers abound)

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On a scale of 1 to What in Sam Hill, with 10 being Mother! and 1 being Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog, Midsommar probably ranks at about a 9. I wish I could say I recommend it, but I can’t.

My expectations were super high because it came from the same Writer/ Director as Hereditary, possibly the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, but also one I have enormous respect for for its writing, acting, and thematic content—I didn’t even care that the plot actually isn’t that interesting.

The first thing I heard about this movie was that it occurs almost entirely in daylight (this isn’t exactly true—only the Sweden parts are) which was certainly intriguing. The movie has the same slow pace as Hereditary and The Witch—it takes its time to unfurl, focusing a lot of attention on atmosphere. In the first twenty minutes, I definitely felt like I was heading toward something like Hereditary—I felt like something equally horrifying was around the corner and was cringing in preparation for it. The film opens with Dani (Florence Pugh) dealing with her douchcanoe boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor, who eerily looks like a young Chris Pratt). I liked that the movie was willing to spend the time to show their relationship dynamic: he’s already checked out of the relationship but is the sort that stays in it because he’s too cowardly to break up. Dani is in exactly the sort of relationship you are in during your twenties: trying to cajole emotional support about of someone with low emotional intelligence who is fundamentally selfish but unwilling to admit it. She tries to get comfort about a disturbing email she received from her sister who has a history of bipolar. Just as Douchcanoe is talking to his friends about how he has to break up with her, he gets a phone call from Dani.

I thought this was handled well— filmed in a way that was disturbing, tense, and well choreographed—Dani’s sister has killed both their parents and herself with carbon monoxide from their car. Although this is not the most violent way to die, its filmed in a way that is visually disturbing. You get the sense that you are seeing it from Dani’s imagined perspective. This makes the phone call to Christian appropriately disturbing: Dani is just screaming. Cut to him trying to comfort her as she is just primally screaming—this reminded me of the epic mourning wails of Toni Collette in Hereditary (for which she should have won an award). So … awkward.. not the best time to break up after all.

Rather than displaying any sense of emotional honesty, Christian lets Dani tag along on his bro-trip to Sweden, led by his so-nice-he-must-be-creepy Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Pelle is the only one who is actually nice to her, which immediately makes you think he is three steps away from putting them in an industrial-sized Vitamix. They are accompanied by Christian’s anthropologist grad school friend/ rival Josh (William Jackson Harper) (who, other than the floral arrangements, provides the movie’s only color), and Mark (William Poulter), the comic relief.

At this point, the movie moves away from a lot of the super atmospherey stuff that made Hereditary and The Witch so great and turns into the standard cult movie I’ve seen dozens of iterations of. You get to the isolated cult location. Everyone’s super nice. Something mildly disturbing happens, but because it’s a horror movie nobody Nopes the fuck out of there. Then people start to disappear one by one, and then it all comes to a head. I was kind of hoping for more than this, and ultimately the film doesn’t deliver more than this. It definitely makes its time to move through the trope though. We get to see a lot about how the commune that Pelle grew up in functions—more than we need to, because I’m not sure if it matters how they function, or that their holy book is written by a deliberately inbred prophet (who ultimately has some Chainsaw Massacre tendencies). The nope moment occurs when the outsiders are viewing a cultural ceremony which results in a man and a woman jump off a cliff to their deaths. Some of the outsiders are horrified, although more interestingly Christian and Josh really aren’t—they see the anthropology grad student equivalent of dollars signs in their eyes.

The movie probably is fundamentally about the relationship between Christian and Dani. He doesn’t really see her. He doesn’t, as Pelle manipulatively but rightly points out, make her feel held. This was a super interesting thematic aspect that I wish was tied more to Dani’s trauma. We know her sister’s action has basically orphaned her, but I felt like the movie was on the verge of saying something interesting about romantic relationships that ultimately it didn’t say. Christian is selfish. He doesn’t think, wow, we just witnessed two violent suicides while my girlfriend is still suffering from PTSD after her entire family was killed— maybe we should get out of here and eat comforting Toblerone at the airport ASAP. There always has to be some compelling reason why people in horror movies stay in bad places: haunted houses, creepy asylums, communes where people smile a little too widely. The reason in this case is that Christian and Josh have decided they want to do anthropological research at the commune. (One thing that felt spot-on about Christian was that he was lagging in trying to figure out what his thesis would be—ultimately his idea is derivative of Josh’s).

A lot of the foreshadowing is so direct that it isn’t even really foreshadowing: we see historical renderings of a woman feeding a man pubic hair and menstrual blood (Josh is then fed such a . . . meat pie. . . by a witchy ginger who wants his sperms); we see a bear being set on fire (Josh eventually goes out tauntaun style in a bear). This made things less tense. We know that people are going to get up in the middle of the night and do unwise things and get caught. I was more interested in Dani’s nightmares, which connected to the horror of her family’s death. Lately I’ve been thinking about how all horror, fundamentally at its core, is about the fear of death. We’re terrified of monsters, but we’re never going to encounter them—the only real terror is the very probable terror of having the deal with the death of loved ones (and ourselves, eventually).

As expected, both Christian and Dani are made to succumb to the cult. Dani feels some terror and confusion and gets drugged out of her mind, but in an interesting scene (that brought to mind the remake of Suspira) she connects with them emotionally as they mirror back her screams in a moment of emotional distress. She dances in an endurance contest, losing sense of reality and her identity. Ultimately, and as you suspect, she is named queen of the festivities and is given a choice to pick the last of the human sacrifices. Shall she pick Jorgen-or-whatever-blond-anonymous-dude, or Christian, whom she has just discovered having sex with the ginger witch? (to be fair the sex was bizarre and not exactly consensual—on the other hand, Christian is a douchecanoe, and you get the sense that her decision to select him isn’t entirely about that particular act, but her disappointment with him in general).

So . . there’s the movie. For all its flaws and ridiculousness, I liked Suspira for the thematic content about women, about power, and maybe even about dance. Midsommar felt like it started to kind of be about something (Dani’s orphaning) while also being about something else (her relationship with Christian), but then veered into something else (a LOT of showing things about the cult which ultimately don’t matter) without dipping its toes back into the first two things enough. What, then, is the movie saying — that douchcanoes are disappointing—? they are, but is the cult just a vehicle for demonstrating this? Texas Chain is not a movie about the relationships between the kids who eventually run into Leatherface—it’s a story about a family. Hereditary is a story about mourning; The Witch is a story about the control and repression of women. I think Midsommar is missing the final stitch or two that would have tied the whole thing together.

Review of Blackkklansman

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I hate to say it, but here is a thing which started with a great premise, but then failed in its execution. It had everything working in its favor: a great hook and timeliness. A black cop who pretends to be white over the phone in order to infiltrate the KKK. Even the pre-setup: he's the first black cop in this particular precinct, and they warn him that he is going to to have to "be the Jackie Robinson."

It's based on a true story, so I can't fault the story for going where it does which is to say to pretty expected places once you know the premise. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) enlists Flip (Adam Driver) to play the part in person, Flip is conflicted, Stallworth starts a relationship with Black Power activist Patrice (Laura Harrier) only she doesn't know he's a cop (and yes, she would mind.) 

This movie was startlingly long. When I was sitting there I was thinking, crap I wanted to get to bed at a reasonable hour. I left the theater and looked at my phone, expecting it to be 11 (the show started 7) and was surprised to see that it was only 9 pm. How on earth does a movie feel two hours longer than what it actually was?? Even while watching it I kept being pulled out of the story by thinking "this scene is much longer than it should be" and I found myself wondering about how established artists can get away stretching their arms and taking up space and making work that is too long but emerging artists have to trim their work to be beyond super-lean. 

So if it felt too long, I have to wonder if there was enough story to fill out two hours. Surely there should have been, but yet it didn't feel like it. The movie could have gone more into depth on both Stallworth's and Flip's characters. What's Stallworth's background, what did he study in college (there's a point to mentioning that he avoided Vietnam because he was in college), what is his family like, and what made him want to be a cop? For about ten seconds, the movie touches on the fact that Flip, while Jewish, grew up without really "being Jewish," and maybe an interesting conversation about identity could have been had here. We are given bonked-over-the-head examples about why Patrice might have been driven toward the Black Power movement, but this movie painfully, painfully lacks in subtlety. What, for example, distinguishes Patrice from any prototype of a young student involved in the movement? (Nothing). Maybe the heavy-handedness of the movie was intended to make it more easy to digest for people who don't know much about that time period. But I would have rather seen scenes putting everything in context than scenes that felt like 40% of them could have been cut without sacrificing anything. 

The unsubtleness of this movie is a mismatch with the sort of audience that goes to see a movie like this. The parallels to modern day America are really obvious--enough so that the obvious nods to the present day could have been written a bit more obliquely or even not at all and we still would have seen them. But if you didn't feel like everything was spelled out in enormous billboard-sized capital letters, there's the ending.. After the movie ends there's a few minutes of documentary footage ramming home the parallels today. As if it needed to be stated. This included the graphic footage of the people being murdered/injured in Charlottesville by a white nationalist plowing a car into them. We've seen that footage--everyone sitting in that theater had. It isn't news to us, and felt weirdly misplaced and jarring, like being hit over the head with a bat while hanging up anti-bat-hitting posters. 

A spoiler-ridden review of Hereditary

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Hereditary falls squarely in the center of what I think is an exciting development in horror movies: horror that leans more towards the literary. Reviews of this movie had a lot of "Not since The Exorcist..." language which made me skeptical, along with my friend's text along the lines of "Have you heard the hype about this movie? People are saying it's traumatic." Well that was enough to sell me. 

Hereditary very much reminded me of The Witch and It Comes at Night with some echoes of The Exorcist. I suppose I would consider The Exorcist literary horror, but it does lean more towards overt horror (ie, looking at horrifying and explicitly unpleasant things for long scenes.) The way this movie was filmed--as if the camera is lurking--and the excellent score reminded me of all three: unnerving drones, unpleasant prickly noises, indistinct sounds you can't quite pick out. With the exception of The Exorcist I generally don't find literary horror scary, but I do enjoy it. 

What I found most horrifying in this movie wasn't the supernatural elements, which I doubted the existence of for maybe four-fifths of the movie. There's some indication in a very Rosemary's Baby way that the recently deceased mother of Annie (Toni Collette) was a witch. The narrative does feel like it's headed for supernatural elements, particularly in the way it focuses on Annie's profoundly creepy daughter Charlie. She's unnerving (amazingly well acted by Milly Shapiro), but I thought she was headed for either demonic possession or a diagnosis of psychopathy (there's a scene where she finds a dead pigeon and cuts its head off to keep). But it was easy for me to push the supernatural to the side for most of the movie because an unexpected turn. 

This is the scene I keep thinking about even days later. The teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolf) lies to his mother that a party he wants to go to is more of a school BBQ and she makes him take his sister. He takes her, and leaves her alone for a minute so he can smoke pot with the girl he likes. Charlie eats some cake with nuts in it and starts going into anaphylactic shock. Peter puts her in the family car and hurries her to the hospital, and of course you can see the accident coming. But I was 1000 percent not expecting the way it would go down and how it would be depicted. The accident is horrifying, and it both is and isn't Peter's fault. You could see a teenager getting into this situation from being mildly irresponsible, but not outrageously so. We don't see exactly what happens and it isn't clear that Peter has. There's an incredible scene of Peter just staring straight at the camera for at least a full minute, stunned, and the sense of horror and dread and there's no going back from this is palpable. Alex Wolf, the by way, who I've only ever seen in Jumanji nailed this scene. He heads home, in a daze, lies down in his bed, and there's an extremely painful scene of his blank face as he can hear his mother's off-camera screams as she discover's Charlie's body. Toni Collette's screaming here was more disturbing than any piece of violence or weirdness that occurs in this movie. 

For almost all of this movie but the end, you could interpret it as being about the impossible task of the family dealing with this death. How does a mother then relate to her son? How can he possibly cope with being responsible for the accident? When supernatural things seem like they're happening--Peter and Annie seeing apparitions, Peter's self-injurious behavior--this can all be explained away by hallucinations they are experiencing from intense grief and guilt. There's also the issue of mental illness: Annie's family tree is rife with it, and she rather casually mentions at a grief counseling meeting that her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder. Personally I don't believe in DID, and wasn't sure how I'd feel if the movie turned out to be about it. Abrupt changes in Annie's behavior--ostensibly from possession--could be explained by DID if you wanted to take a non-supernatural interpretation of this movie. It was this aspect of the movie--grief as the supernatural--that I found most intriguing. It could have ended ambiguously, and I thought the movie was headed this way, but then it goes full Black Phillip.  

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Black Phillip, if you haven't seen The Witch, is the family goat who at the end of the movie, starts speaking in the voice of Satan. The talking goat is the point of no return, and the same thing happens in the last fifth of Hereditary

We then get firmly grounded in the idea that the witchcraft angle is real. This leads to an ending that was very similar to The Witch with a dash of Rosemary's Baby thrown in. The one thing that left me a little puzzled is why--possessed or not--Annie bizarrely kills herself. Whatever entity that has taken her over (and it isn't clear who exactly) already has possession of the body, so why it needed to end her life was unclear (unless, I suppose, it was a human sacrifice). Overall, grounding it in witchcraft didn't take away the emotional complexity--much like how The Witch was still about all these strictures that were/are put on women. It still raised interesting questions-- was Annie's sleepwalking actually sleepwalking, some supernatural thing, or some form of mental illness? Was what Peter did something he could ever come back from? (I desperately wanted him to just leave the house and not come back.) How can the husband (Gabriel Byrne) draw the line between indulging his wife and allowing her outbursts while also being wary that she might be in the middle of a psychotic break? How can he balance dealing with his own grief while the tension between his wife and his son is becoming worse and worse? 

There is one thing about this movie that I did not like and found unfairly gratuitous: WHY WHY WHY the dog. Come on man. Any horror movie or thriller where there is a family dog, it is basically there for four-legged cannon fodder. Towards the end of the movie the dog isn't particularly present and I probably would have forgotten about it . . . Except then there is a one second scene that just shows the dog's body cast aside in the garden, it's murder, apparently, occurring off screen. By someone. For some reason. THIS WAS A SENSELESS DOG DEATH. WHY. It did nothing for the plot, and the dog did not get to fully develop his character arc as a result. 

Review of Picnic at Hanging Rock

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1. What in god's name was this show?

2. I could not stop watching it. 

There aren't too many things I'm willing to watch that are willfully confusing--or artsy for the sake of artsy. But this definitely falls into this category. 

Worth watching for Natalie Dormer's wardrobe alone. 

Picnic tells the story of a sketchy woman, Ms. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer) who flees from a mysterious background to start a finishing school for troubled girls in an absurdly beautiful estate. Like when you have fantasies of living in some Harry Potter boarding school, this is the estate you're thinking of. Three girls disappear during a picnic and the rest of the series attempts to cover what swirls around this scandal. Were they murdered, did they disappear, or did something mystical happen? 

Honestly, the plot is interesting enough to keep things moving, but the plot wasn't really why I kept watching. The series has interesting themes about the ways in which women are bound, sexuality, and class. But ultimately I watched this for the visuals and an arresting score. The visuals are dreamlike at times, and the scenery varies from this sumptuous estate where the school is, to these scenes from the landscape at Hanging Rock itself. The score is sometimes intense and deliberately unnerving (reminiscent of The Witch). 

I think the lower reviews of this show (currently 6.3 stars on IMDB) are due to the fact that the show didn't really ever intend to be about a neatly tied of mystery when people wanted it to be. The original Picnic at Hanging Rock was a popular Australian novel which the author occasionally implied was actually a true story. The novel's last chapter wasn't published with the original book, leaving it with an inconclusive ending. An . . . interesting decision. (In case you want the spoiler: the ending which was pulled from the book, then published later, also has a somewhat inconclusive ending. The girls disappear into some sort of void and time travel or another dimension may be implied.) 

 

Review of A Quiet Place

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This was a solid horror movie, very much not about the thing at the center of it--whatever beasts they may be--but much more about how humans would attempt to survive such a thing. It isn't a It Comes At Night sort of movie (literary horror movie where nothing much happens) but there is more heart to it than a standard horror movie where the characters are more or less cannon fodder for whatever hunts them. It's both well-filmed and acted. This was like the movie Signs was trying to be with some of the better elements of Don't Breathe (except without that extremely fucked up turkey baster part). 

The background isn't so much important: creatures have arrived that are blind but apparently very good at hearing. You make a sound and that is enough to bring them (quickly) to hunt you--and there's no fighting them. One of the most interesting parts of this movie is the inclusion of a deaf character--the daughter. I'm very curious to hear what deaf people think of this movie. The family already knows how to sign because of her and there are some interesting shots that contrast how the other characters perceive the world vs her. (In some ways, she has an advantage: if she can't see it, it doesn't frighten her into making sounds, so she's safe as long as she's quiet.) One of the horror tropes I love is the "hiding from the beastie but you're terrified and have to keep from breathing too loud or screaming." There's a lot of that here, obviously. 

While this is a great movie to see in a theater, it is NOT a great movie to see in a theater if people are talking, whispering, or crinkling wrappers. Like at all. It is largely a quiet movie--there's very little dialogue and long stretches without any loud sounds. (But when there are loud sounds, they are definitely loud.) I actually wish I could have seen this in a theater but with noise-cancelling headphones. (On the one hand, I don't want to be That Guy who shhhhs people, but on the other hand, STFU.) 

Sidenote, whenever I watch something dystopian I can't help "but couldn't they have...?" In this case, placed a speaker in a quarry or large hole, surround it with explosives, turn the music on remotely, press play. Beasties run there, then get killed. Explosion sound draws other beasties who are killed by the secondary ring of explosives. 

Anyhow, I definitely would recommend this movie--I'm frequently disappointed in horror movies because they're the same dumb thing over and over (Insidious, any knockoffs of Japanese horror movies--although I will say I have a soft spot for Paranormal Activity, even though it isn't actually good). I do think something new was brought to the table. 

Recommended watching: 

Don't Breathe

Hush

Review of Ready Player One

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It took me a while to articulate exactly why I thought this movie was dumb. (spoilers)

Arriving to the general conclusion wasn't hard: I felt myself thinking this several times during the movie itself, sort of cringing in vicarious embarrassment for everyone sitting in the theater. Some particular things that piqued this: The cartoonish villain. The shoe-horned in romance with a John Green-style "cool girl." (The "hideous secret" of her true appearance outside of VR is, eek, that she has a birthmark.) The fact that a massive corporation funding professional full-time game players can't seem to get any players who are better than cannon fodder, or can solve mysteries that a teenage boy can despite all their resources and the fact that some working there might actually have been alive during the 80s--critical for understanding the mysteries. That Wade's aunt gets murdered along with dozens or perhaps hundreds of other people and it's sort of his fault and he has zero reaction to it, moving quickly to the next scene where all he can think about is this chick he likes. 

Yeah I guess it is fun to see a bunch of references to pop culture . . . but nothing particularly clever was done with them. I'm a huge fan of The Shining and yup, it was fun to go into the Overlook Hotel. But like, why? Living in the references felt like bad fan fiction like "We're here for the sake of being here" rather than "we're here because we have something interesting to say about The Shining." Here's some glitter--I'm going to throw it directly into your eyes. 

This is exactly why the movie felt really off to me: it was a middle grade story, starring teen actors, with tons of references to things from my childhood (and I'm almost forty). It didn't have the complexity or emotional depth of young adult/ teen fiction, or even more complex middle grade, so you were left with this weird sense of being at middle grade simplicity but with older actors. But then there are all these references that older people would get--The Shining, Child's Play, that would totally be lost on people who were 8 to 12. Actually, maybe even 15. Naturally, the good guys win in the end. And they share their wealth . . . across the five of them, and everyone else continues to live in abject poverty in stacked trailers in a world that pretty much feels like Idiocracy? Sure, we'll turn off the virtual reality two days a week, but not address anything about how life is so terrible that people want to live in fantasy worlds instead. I don't really expect something intended for middle schoolers to deal with complex issues like class or how corporations hurt culture and government in and endless quest for profit, but I do expect that to be addressed in works for slightly older people. 

Is this depth asking too much in movies that are just supposed to be fun? I don't think so actually. In the past month I just watched Toy Story 3 for the first time, in addition to the Lego Batman movie (for the 4th time). It's really hard to do what these movies did really well: tell stories with heart that are funny and enjoyable for both kids and adults. Nothing in either of those movies made me roll my eyes, despite the former being pretty sentimental. Why exactly is Toy Story good? Well, its unabashedly earnest. It really tries to imagine what it would feel like to be these toys. And seeing their secret world is fun and clever. Any adult watching that movie knows that the toy paradise day care center they end up in is of course going to turn into a hellscape--it was funny anticipating how this would pan out. Lego Batman is a perfect example of how you can reference things, but do it in a meta way that ends up being cute rather than thin. The Joker acknowledging that his longtime antagonistic relationship with Batman is in fact a relationship. The whole "it works at multiple levels" thing. 

Highlight of the movie: Philip Zhao. Lowlights: For the love of god, why would you have the Delorean from Back to the Future and never drive it to 88 miles per hour, throw off sparks, and activate the 1.21 gigawatts of energy needed to travel through time??? (And yes, I know that the answer to this is addressed in the book, but it isn't in the movie). 

Review of Unsane

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TLDR Review: Don't bother--not even sure if't it's worth a 3 dollar cable rental. 

Unsane is a study in how certain people can make mediocre work, have it funded and mass distributed, and have it peacefully go away when it turns out to be unremarkable, not even leaving a blemish on their career. 

The movie's main point of interest is that it was filmed on an iPhone. Um . . . so? the basic heart of storytelling--character and plot--will always be more important than how it's filmed. If Steven Soderburgh's main interest was playing with the iPhone idea, he could have easily plucked a better screenplay of the pile of hopeful manuscripts. This movie is pretty disappointing if you saw Soderburgh's Side Effects and were expecting something of that caliber. 

Unsane focuses on a young woman, Sawyer, who is settling into a new job in a new city. She's fled a stalker and still remains jumpy, frightened that she'll run into him just around every corner. She goes to a psychiatric facility for therapy, only to unknowingly sign forms to voluntarily commit herself. 

What follows it basically a higher-end Lifetime movie. Sawyer is trapped in a hellish hospital written as fairly unsympathetic to anyone who might be in such a hospital for any reason. The patients are played as standard koo-koo extras (violent, laughing and talking to themselves--why do portrayals of institutions never include self-aware people who check themselves in because they're suicidal and want help?) Everyone is consistently unreasonable, from the nurses to the orderlies who seem to think it is appropriate to put men and women in the same collective bedrooms and lock the doors. Everyone, that is, except for the handsome black dude patient, Mark, who turns out to secretly be a reporter. 

Mark provides the plot with a good excuse for a hospital to lock up "sane" people: it wants insurance money and spits out patients once their coverage ends. (This could have been the more interesting focal point--the horrors of the American insurance industry. We trust Mark's story until--twist--we find out with Obamacare half destroyed, there is no insurance coverage for mental health anymore, and Mark is just a crazy patient who thinks he's a reporter pretending to be a crazy patient. )

I digress. Instead, the movie plods down more familiar paths. Is Sawyer crazy, or is her stalker now an employee at the hospital? I never hemmed and hawed about whether she was crazy--I always assumed the stalker was in fact there. There have been a lot of stalker movies but I'm not sure I've seen any that really dig into the most fundamental issues that are the most psychologically interesting. That is, man's entitlement to women and how frequently this leads to violence. (I could be wrong, but I could have sworn I read a review of the movie in The New Yorker right when it came out and it erroneously referred to David, her stalker, as her ex-boyfriend, which he most certainly is not and it is blatantly clear in the movie that they never dated and she had no interest in him whatsoever at any point. I wonder if someone corrected them.) He is a near-stranger Sawyer meets when she is volunteering at a hospice and he takes a liking to her. We don't see a lot of the stalking, but it's clear: she doesn't like him that way and he doesn't know her, but insists that he loves her. This last part often appears in stalker narratives whether real or imagined. The love interest constructed to some extent, which is how she can be the perfect love. The construction is easier to deal with than the reality of a flawed, imperfect woman. 

How quickly things go from I love you I love you to I'll kill you. Sounds a bit like borderline personality disorder to me--funny because people tend to think of that more as a "female" personality disorder. I think women, when humiliated, turn their hatred inwards more often than not. Men don't sometimes. Sometimes the rejected man turns from "I hate myself" to "I hate myself and you're all going to go down with me." (insert reference to any one of the hundreds upon hundreds of shootings that have taken place in the past two decades.) 

The struggle continues on fairly obviously in the movie. Could Sawyer's elderly mother turn out the be the knight in shining armor? No--god forbid and elderly person be portrayed as anything but a victim. 

Sawyer manages to get a weapon and stab David when he traps her in a padded room and then there is an extended chase scene. Why is it that in these scenarios the would-be victims stab once, leave the knife behind, and then scramble away in an uncoordinated run reminiscent of a drunk, newborn giraffe? They never think "this person is actively trying to kill me, maybe I better stab them repeatedly in the brain just to make sure they won't get up with a knife sticking out of them and still run pretty quickly after me, because I am, after all, a newborn giraffe." (The only one who ever handled this right was Jamie Lee Curtis, the original final girl:

Recommended reading:

Loner, by Teddy Wayne

Enduring Love, by Ewan McEwan, or the very capable film adaptation staring Daniel Craig

 

Review: The Disaster Artist

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Every now and then you're at a movie and you can just feel the joy of the audience in the air. This was one of these movies. This movie currently has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes--beaten out only be Coco, which apparently makes people openly weep in their seats (I've been meaning to get to that one this week.) 

This was a movie that was clearly made by fans, for fans. The Disaster Artist is fiction, based on a nonfiction book, about the making of a movie called The Room. The Room, if you haven't seen it, is quite possibly the worst movie every made. It was written, directed, produced, and stars this guy Tommy Wiseau, who then featured a huge picture of his face on the movie poster. The Room is badly written with a hackneyed plot that doesn't really make sense, badly acted, awkward, bizarre, unintentionally funny--but strangely, has a high production value. It presumably was intended to be serious, but then turned into a cult classic. DC is one of several cities that has midnight showings where people interact with the screen ala Rocky Horror. You drink, you throw spoons, it's good fun because it's so ridiculous, especially after a few cocktails. 

The Disaster Artist tells the story of how the film was made, starting with how Greg Sestero, a hopeful actor, meets Tommy in acting class. Tommy has long black hair, a clearly eastern European accent that his claims is from New Orleans, and massive amounts of money with mysterious origins. Greg gloms on to Tommy's relentless pursuit of an acting career despite not having any talent, and the two agree to make a movie. 

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Ultimately, the film is about the friendship between a relatively normal guy trying to make it in the acting world (Greg), and a bizarre, emotionally needy, possibly borderline possessive friend (Tommy). There is real emotional content in the movie--about friendships, about how hard it is to make it as an artist, about what happens when your friends pass you by--but really, it also explains how this incredibly weird movie got made and it's just so funny. It's probably funny even if you haven't seen The Room, but my theater in particular (this was a limited release screening in DC) was filled with people who clearly had seen it and could quote from it. 

The film has tons of throwbacks (stay for the clips at the end!) and a surprising number of celebrity cameos. James Franco is amazing and needs to win all kinds of awards. He embodies this person in total--the weird unplaceable accent, mannerisms, even physically (I can't tell if Franco was squinting one eye for the entire movie, or if maybe they injected him with something, but in either case, damn.). After a rough weekend, this movie was just pure joy. 

Review of Justice League: "It's not that bad."

The couple next to me in the theater said this just as the credits began to roll, and I agreed. 

If you walk in with the expectations of seeing a mediocre big budget movie where not a lot of care went into planning it, you'll be fine. The movie had so many things working against it that I almost feel sorry for it. It's not the movie's fault it has to live up to these enormous expectations set years ago when people read the Justice League comic books. Related to this, one of the issues I continue to have with superhero movies is that sometimes things just don't translate well from the pages of a comic book to the big screen. (eg, Apocalypse in X:Men Apocalypse was ridiculous in every way, but mostly in the way he looked).  I don't know how they could have rendered parademons in a way that didn't look stupid. We're told the end of the world is coming and it's in the form of mechanical demon fairies? Um, okay. The Big Bad--Steppenwolf-- is rendered entirely in CGI. And not good CGI, but the distracting kind. Probably a better decision that having a person with tons of prosthetics on their face, but maybe they could have went another direction. In contrast, Hela in Thor has full blown antlers but somehow pulls it off. 

Elsewhere I saw a reviewer say that the movie seemed tonally off and I agree. Barry Allen (the Flash) is mainly there for comic relief.  There were one-liners that took away from what should have been a darker tone for a movie which is about the destruction of the world after its protector has been killed, plunging the world into darkness. Sidebar: actions/adventure movies in the past ten years have grown consistently bigger so that every single movie is about saving the entire world. It starts to be meaningless as an individual act if that's always the scale. Often because it's missing that component of heart: when the stakes are "save the person you love" we get it, maybe even the city you love, but saving the world over and over, especially when we know that of course it will be saved, then threatened in the sequel, starts to feel meaningless.  

Everyone got some time to shine here, but Aquaman and Cyborg felt somewhat incomplete. The former barely had any backstory and the actual concept of Aquaman is so ridiculous that I don't know how it can be sustained for more than 5 minutes. (Fundamentally Jason Momoa serves as a strong guy who can fight with a trident, rather than having any specific power related to the fighting). Cyborg's back story is jammed in--we don't even see how he dies, and YES there is a scene where he says Bu-Yah.

I've never been a Batman fan and Ben Affleck plays him sort of passively. Occasionally, it seemed like the movie was trying to tap into the current zeitgeist of "we're all going to die and there is so much inequality in the world" . . . except that doesn't quite work when one of your characters is Bruce Wayne. His superpower is being a rich white guy, which maybe would have been a funny joke 5 or 10 years ago, but not right now when Congress is voting to raise everyone's taxes but Bruce Wayne's. He also highlights the same problem I have with the Avengers: heroes that are grossly uneven in their powers. Diana is a god right? So, can she die? Does she ever actually get hurt? Wouldn't picking up a nuclear weapon and flying into the bad guy be more effective than a sword if you can't really get hurt? If you think hard enough Barry Allen is a person who could be nearly unkillable. Anything that could kill him would never get to touch him if he would always be faster. (almost)

TOTAL SPOILERS FOLLOW: 

Superman's death doesn't have any real meaning. One because we know he's going to come back, and two because Batman V Superman was so terrible. I wish they had done that moment better.  I remember when the comic book came out with Superman dying when I was a kid and it was a huge deal and there were segments on the news about it. Death in fiction is always handled so briefly that it never has the depth and sharpness that it does in real life. And it certainly doesn't when we know they're going to come back. 

BUT: what made this movie totally worth it for me is the five minute segment when Superman comes back and for 5 minutes, evil and shirtless, kicks the shit out of the entire Justice League.  So satisfying to finally have it acknowledged that Batman is in no way shape or form capable of taking Superman down. Particularly satisfying: Barry Allen tries to get the better of him in his everyone-else-is-in-slo-mo and Henry Cavill turns his head at normal speed and smiles at him evilly. It's unfortunate that this movie was mediocre, Batman V Superman was terrible, and most people didn't seem to like Man of Steel: I like Cavill as Superman. I do hope we get more evil Superman though. (It was also fun back when Christopher Reeve did it). 

Preview corner

Pitch Perfect 3: not sure what this is doing at this movie. I do love a cappella though. Not that I would pay to see this in theaters. 

Star Wars Episode Whatever: apparently I'm the only regular moviegoer that doesn't go ape over these movies. I'll go see it, but I'm not more excited than I am for any other movie. I wish the preview had actually gotten to some of the plot. 

Roman J. Israel, Esquire: A Denzel Washingtion vehicle that shows the entire plot in the preview, which I hate. 

Review of "The Houses October Built" 1 + 2

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Two days ago, I would have put "Houses" in my top three in a list of movies that ended up punching themselves in the face at the end. Part of the reason it was so disappointing was just how good the setup was, only to fail in the last act. However, interestingly, it might have redeemed itself in its sequel, which I saw last night. Unlike most sequels which follow "and here's another chapter in the same vein," it felt more like part two of a two-part movie.

Houses 1 automatically scored points for a premise that I loved: a group of five friends (one girl, four guys) drive around America in an RV, looking for more and more extreme versions of haunted houses. My original experiences with haunted houses ranged from the one at Disney World (fun but laughable) and to the kind schools put on in the gyms. Two years ago I drove to the middle-of-nowhere Maryland to attend a higher-end haunted house that took place in an old mansion from the late 1800s or early 1900s. It was insanely fun. We first had to traipse through a cornfield in the dark (naturally we ran into some people), then we were forced to pass through a trailer, which really upset the hillbillies who owned it. The house itself was a maze, each room a different theme. The actors, who might have been high school drama kids, must have had an awesome time jumping out and scaring the shit out of people, but they were also really clever in directing traffic so that you didn't run into other groups or go the wrong way. The second best part was the basement, which involved traveling through cramped, dark hallways and pushing past construction sheeting and not being sure what would be on the other side. The absolute best room was a large one that was filled with mannequins--some were wearing outfits, some not, some were just torsos or sets of standing legs. You had to walk through the room knowing, just knowing that at least one of them was going to start to move. The actors quickly picked up on the fact that one of my friends was easily scared and targeted her. (I let the guy with the chainsaw catch me because I was curious about the chainsaw , but she ran away screaming). Not only as it fun to go through, but the whole way back we talked about how fun it must have been to plan and execute.

So needless to say, I was totally sold on the first movie's premise. The friends visit several haunted houses (they call them "haunts") and through their first person camera, we see what it might be like to go through them. At the beginning they're pretty tame, run of the mill sorts of things. But then the houses get creepier and more dark.  The scenes are interspersed with interviews with people who either work at or run the houses. These were clever because to this day, I'm not sure if the interviews were real or not (they looked like they had been filmed differently, as if by the local news or cut from separate documentary tape.) In the interviews, managers admit that they don't do background checks on the temporary employees who work in the houses scaring people.  One guys admits that he would do anything to scare someone.  Another says that some of the houses have gotten really extreme, including grabbing the attendees, fake kidnappings, simulated rape.

One of the things both movies does really well is the gender dynamic between the one female friend-- Brandy--and the others.  As they do some further investigating, they find out about this really "extreme" haunt that doesn't have a stable location and you sort of have to be invited. At one (particularly good) point, they see a scare actor at a location that they recognize from a previous house in another state--had he followed them? We see film from the perspective of someone getting into their RV at night and staring at Brandy. As things get weird, Brandy is more alarmed than the other friends. At one point they are at a bar, and when she goes to the bathroom a male stranger accosts her and refuses to let her out.  When she finally does get out, she keeps asking her friends "Can we please leave?" but they just don't get it. It really highlighted that she sees risk that they don't, that she is at risk in a way they are not.

When they do get to that final "extreme" haunt, this is where the movie falls apart. They get separated, bags put over their heads, and led to different locations, although it is never really clear why.  They get buried alive in coffins and SPOILER that's the end of the movie. At the time when I saw this, this just didn't deliver a satisfying punch. I think this is the explanation for the movie's low reviews, which would be higher if based on the first 4/5ths of the movie. So it wasn't an elaborate haunt, but just a random murder. That makes it a lot less fun. I wanted it to go the route of The Game, but instead it was just, "Okay, now you'll die."  You don't find out anything about the killers.

This is why the second movie felt more like Part 2.  It opens a year later, with you finding out that there was video of the five friends when they were buried alive, and that millions of people watched the live stream of Brandy. Brandy (in a car's trunk) is driven to the middle of no where and dropped on the road with a bunch of tapes from the events that had occurred.  So it was just a scare. (Why couldn't the last movie just end that way?)

The four male friends want to go back at it with the RV, because this time they are getting paid to make appearances and promote the houses on social media.  They really, really want Brandy to go with them, who at first refuses. They go to a couple haunts and it becomes apparent that these places really want Brandy to be there, because she is "Coffin Girl." Then they really start strong arming her into coming.  The movie exploits some of the subtext from the other movie in a clever way--they gaslight her.  She says she doesn't want to go. They say, come on, it'll be fun. She says she was buried alive, and no it would not be fun. They said they'll only be going to tame places (which they are lying about). She says she doesn't care. She says she was buried alive and this was traumatic. They say they were too, and it was just a joke and it wasn't real. She says people handle things differently. They dismiss what she's saying and make her feel bad, saying the one of the guys really needs money. (get a job or sell the RV bitch!) She relents.

The movie then spends too much time with them at some of the more tame haunts, but then finally gets to the key ending scenes. The friends are clearly trying to go to another extreme haunt, without telling Brandy that it is extreme. They are gassed in the night and driven to another state where the haunt is, and wake up confused. (Rather than driving the hell out of Dodge because this is a total violation of personal sovereignty, they decide to stay. This requires some suspension of disbelief, particularly for Brandy. But horror movies rely on extremes in suspension of disbelief.) 

They enter the haunt, which looks like an abandoned factory or industrial plant of some sort. They are separated inside, and Brandy then sees the four other male friends being tortured and murdered in terrible ways. At this point she is convinced this is not a haunt, but a bunch of homicidal crazies hunting her. She runs away outside, but gets cornered by several men in skull masks who present her with a tiny coffin. She opens it--it's a gun. She points at it the men who quickly pull of their masks, shouting in panic, and reveal that it's her four friends. She's stunned-- they can't calm her down, she puts the gun in her own mouth and pulls the trigger.

The story rewinds a bit and we find out that the scare actors directed Brandy to a room to inform her that her asshole "friends" had actually planned this whole thing for money (and presumably fame.) They had never been killed and there was supposed to be a check inside the little coffin for her. The actors replaced it with a gun (presumably not shooting real bullets) and a blood packet.  Brandy then gets up from her fake death and confronts her awful, awful friends. (Turns out these actor people are Blue Skeleton--the coffin people from the first movie, and were filming the whole thing, and this too goes viral.)  I liked the trickster element to this movie--that the Blue Skeleton people weren't exactly good or bad, and the movie played out some of the gender dynamics from the original film. There's too many horror movies these days that depend almost solely on jump scares or graphic violence--neither of which are the intelligent type of scary. There's only been a couple horror movies in the past ten years that I thought were genuinely original these two stood out to me.