review

Review of HBO's Sharp Objects (has spoilers)

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I'll lead with the positive: the main reason to watch this show is not the murder mystery, but for the execution of how the story is told. (In a weird, obverse opinion of my last review of The Blackkklansman). 

Positives: the performances were incredibly strong all around, but in particular Amy Adams (Camille), Patricia Clarkson (Adora, her soft-spoken but histrionic southern belle of a mother), and Eliza Scanlen (Amma, her not-quite-right wild-child half-sister). I loved the Southern Gothic feel when Camille returns to her hometown, complete with a lovely-but-creepy house with a wraparound porch. 

The thing that kept me intrigued, and the thing I admired about it the most, is the way it was filmed to resemble human memory, as opposed to linear storytelling with breaks to make it easier for the viewer: ie, Camille sees the hingey-thing on the back of the toilet, then we stop the story for a liner flashback of that entire memory so that it's easy to digest. Even though I think they didn't do this because Camille is a damaged, fractured person, I think stylistically how they actually did it is closer to how people experience memory. A scene is interspersed with brief flashes with no explanation, sometimes so momentary we can tell that she's thinking of two things at once. Or even more than two. This felt literary to me, which is why I didn't need tons of intrigue to the storytelling aspect. I'm rewatching the first episode right now and they just showed a brief cut of Camille looking at the hingey part of the toilet--a full 6 hours before we actually see the story of why that matters. I hadn't even noticed it the first time around. 

Negatives: I never thought the show was boring like other viewers apparently did (I didn't mind the somewhat unnecessary Calhoun Day diversion), if you put the entirety of the show together, there's about 20 minutes of Camille driving, listening to music, or drinking vodka out of a water bottle. We get it--she's an alcoholic. I don't think people need to be shown more than two or three times. 

I was a wee bit frustrated with the (first) climax which occurs in the house. Ultimately, Camille is incapacitated with whatever poison her mother has given her, and is feebly trying to cry out to once-lover/cop Richard while she is prostrate on the bathroom tile. Ultimately it is Richard & co who rush in to save the day, arrest Adora, and spirit the sisters away for medical treatment. Was this not agentic enough? Just before this, Camille had made the discovery (..or rather, was given the information by Richard) that Adora had probably been poisoning Marian, Camille's younger sister who had died of a mysterious illness when she was younger. Death by munchausen by proxy so Camille rushes to the house, realizing that Amma--currently "ill" in the care of their mother--is in danger. She encounters a bizarre dinner tableau: a sickly Amma dressed in a white nightgown and a crown of flowers, her mother setting up a massive feast to her and her creepily silent husband. In an interview, Gillian Flynn mentions that she wasn't bothered by the show's decision to have Richard rescue Camille, more or less, because Camille did do something agentic: she takes her sister out of the line of fire by pretending to be sick and taking on her mother's "care" (ie, poison) herself. The action has the duel duty of both proving her suspicion, and giving Amma some time to recover. So she did do something agentic, but I realized this morning what really bothered me:

She runs into the house, thinking that her mother killed her little sister, and is possibly in the process of killing her other little sister... but she enters the house and silently sits down at the table? How about forming some distraction, grabbing your sister by the arm, and running off? What's to stop her? Her mother's in her 60s, and Camille is young. How hard would it have been to overpower her? How hard would it have been to grab that blue bottle of whatever noxious "medicine" and throw it across the room? Flush all the pills down the toilet?

Two practical things: can we please please please retire the female reporter who sleeps with people involved with her investigation thing? And did Camille really have no where where she could stay except for with Adora? No per diem from the paper? How much is a hotel in that small town? Given the high psychological price of staying in a home filled with trauma... why stay there rather than the Motel 6?

My only other problem was with the ending. It bothered some people, but I liked it. I was definitely not expecting an ending that abrupt, but stylistically it made sense to me. And I had already taken my eyes off the screen when the cut-scene appeared during the credits. If the entire story is through Camille's perspective, it wouldn't make sense for the cut scene of the murders to appear in the normal timeline of the show. My problem was that the scene itself was so fast it was sort of incomprehensible. I rewound and watched it 2 more times. While I think the images were great (particularly that really disturbing ending one of Amma) I actually misinterpreted what I had seen. The girl getting killed by the river I got, but I definitely didn't think that the image of Mae, Amma's new friend, gripping the fence was supposed to be her getting killed. I got that something violent was happening, but didn't necessarily think it was murder until I read recaps this morning. 

On the topic of Amma being the murderer (which I suspected the entire time), one plot-holey thing. They find the bloody pliers in Adora's house and it's assumed she was involved in the murders. Yeah, but fingerprints--whose fingerprints would be on those pliers? Amma's, not Adora's. (I doubt she wiped prints off if she didn't bother cleaning the blood off.) This made it a bit unrealistic to me that Camille would be the one to discover Amma, rather than physical evidence catching up with Amma. (who is arrested in the book, and her friend Mae's death is more in view.) 

And really smart to put the trailer for True Detective with Mahershala Ali right after.. It looked so good that I was sold before they even said the words "True Detective" (good advertising, considering I didn't like the first season, and skipped the second.) 

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. 

Give Poldark's George Warleggan the plot he deserves

A couple of weeks ago, I blew through all three seasons of Poldark in one weekend, or maybe close to it. I had it on in the background as "period piece background noise I didn't expect to really capture my attention," but it totally did. (Apparently I also weirdly forgot my fetish for 18th century men's fashion.)

Not only is the show filled with lush scenery (waves crashing on rocks beneath dramatic cliffs, people riding horses in haste, etc.), but the writing is really, really good. Particularly in Season Two, with the infidelity plotline, every single character involved responds in a way consistent with their character, and in ways that highlight both their positive and negative traits.) (Well, I'm not sure Elizabeth has any positive traits, but whatever). 

Season 3 had me pondering the fact that the writer's haven't entirely taken advantage of villain George Warleggan. The WETA blog says he is a flatly evil character, one step away from twirling a mustache; I don't entirely agree, but they do have something of a point.  Over the course of the series, George shown himself to be cold and conniving when it comes to both business and life--sometimes playing unfairly. He is weirdly obsessed with taking Ross Poldark down--and what is this based on other than the fact that he basically hates Ross for having what he doesn't: the support of the townspeople, actual love from his wife Elizabeth, a sense of honor. Ostensibly, he has beef with Ross because Ross is "responsible" for inciting the riot that led to the shipwreck being looted (the shipwreck containing some of George's property). But we all know that he 2% cared about the property and 98% just wanted Ross to be tried and hanged--which seems a bit extreme. 

But I just rewatched Seasons 1 and 2 and took a closer look at him. The development of his relationship with Elizabeth is a weird mixture of creepy and pitiable. It's clear he likes her when she's married to Francis Poldark and is already attempting to put the moves on her. When he first propositions Elizabeth, more or less, unless I'm wrong, she didn't seem repulsed but genuinely caught off guard. Surprised, but not "oh God how do I get out of this." I think for her it came out of left field. I do believe, in his own strange way, George loves Elizabeth. (I'm not sure why, because everyone seems to fall in love with her based purely on looks...?) 

Maybe there was a world where Elizabeth and George could have been happy--this makes me sad. Her decision to marry him was both practical and eyeroll worthy. She's a widow and her mom has just had a stroke. Standing beside the drooling mother's bed she asks the doctor, "But who will take care of her--?" then a look of distain comes over her face when she realizes that the caregiver could be her. God forbid we don't have servants to do something, or have to get a job, or figure shit out for a while before she might actually fall in love with a man who wants to marry her. Okay, I realize that's unfair--the aristocracy didn't work back then. Although I did wonder how hard it would have been to scrimp and pinch for a while--sell off some of her crap and let some servants go. Instead, she spots George through the window getting rid of some pesky serfs who want to work her land, which apparently by law is their right. He could take care of her, and she wants to be taken care of. And I never go the sense that he was disingenuous in his offer to take care of her; someone purely evil wouldn't do that. 

She marries him, quickly, and for his money basically, but I got the sense that she had some hope that maybe it would work out. George quickly ruins any chance of this, mainly through his desire to get rid of his Poldark stepchild. Really much of her hatred of him stems from actions he does solely out of his obsession with Ross. (It's more like he himself is a worser enemy than Ross is.) It didn't have to be this way, but he does several things that destroy any hope between them: getting the governess and wanting to send the stepson away, and the trial against Ross which was overkill. A really unexpected turn for me at least was that Elizabeth and George start to become an evil couple together--which was relieving because many many many shows/books/movies fall into the trap of "the first love is the only-est, best-est love." Her turn toward the evil was somewhat satisfying because her unhappiness brought out the nastier parts of her personality and I didn't find much about her redeeming anyhow. 

But George is more interesting to me. Sometimes there's this one grain of humanity in him that makes me feel sympathy or want him to have a turn of character. He suspects that "his" baby with Elizabeth--Valentine--is actually Ross Poldark's but you get the sense that he's almost tricked himself into thinking the baby is his. At least until stonecold Agatha tells him the truth. He seems really broken by this, and I don't think it's just because of Poldark. No matter how despicable George is, Elizabeth wronged him and continuously lied to him. Sure, there were various strictures on women that made life hard for them, but I can't see Demelza making that series of decisions. Sure-- George is pathetic--he gets all sniveling when Elizabeth (lying about the paternity issue) threatens to leave their home, and let's be clear George is dishonorable and nasty and single minded. I don't know why he seems to love Elizabeth, but he does. I truly wondered if he actually loves Valentine and this was a serious blow to him (he doesn't have an heir after all). I love the moment that followed: Ross going out to look for Demelza in the dunes--of course we think he's about to catch her in the act of cheating--but instead he comes upon George, who is dazed with the realization about Valentine. For a split second George is a human, but then he goes back to being George. This moment echoed back to the moment when George found out that Ross's baby had died and for a split second was at a loss. 

Don't blame George for the infamous toad incident in season 3. Oh damn, this show got dark. What started as a funny prank against George--Demelza's brother Drake putting toads in George's ponds--gets hella dark when Morwenna has to marry the gag-reflex-inducing Reverend Osborne Whitworth. At first the Reverend just seemed like a pervier version of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice--funny, foppish, and gross. But then it gets much darker than the tone of Poldark generally with him being physically abusive and a rapist--I kept waiting for Morwenna to be rescued at the last minute. And it's George and Elizabeth--who has now drunk the evil George Kool-aid--who have pushed this marriage into existence. Because it's a "good match." (There's one weird misstep in the plotting here: when Morwenna's weird sister showed up, I thought for sure she would pretend to try to seduce the Reverend and then murder him . . . but instead seemed to like boffing him??) [Another tangent, how on earth is the guy on the left played by the guy on the right??] 

Here's the thing: George has no idea how bad the Reverend is. He knows Morwenna isn't crazy about him, but how many women got to marry someone they were crazy about? You know who does know just how bad the Reverend is? The good doctor Dwight. And while he does try to press the pause on the Reverend's appetites for Morwenna after giving birth--that's all he does-- presses the pause button. George's sin, really, was that he wanted to control Morwenna and family wealth by marrying her off--Dwight's sin strikes me as worse (albeit not outside of what would have been typical male behavior back then.) 

It's clear that Poldark is headed towards more political storylines, and that both Ross and George will be players. The only two things George cares about are himself and Elizabeth and I'm not even sure about the second part. His political identity could easily get tied into his sense of honor; if Poldark wants to keep treading the same waters, we could have Ross and George square off again and again. Or . . .

Make George the villain he deserves to be. George should be smarter than he is on the show. He's made his wealth rather than inherited it, so it's a little unrealistic that his deviousness is pretty consistently ham-handed. I wish they would let him be as full blown smart as maybe a man who's made his own wealth might be. And while Ross clearly has flaws, sometimes he falls too hard on the "good guy who's always right" side (at least when it comes to the shows political plotlines.) Moving the show towards increasingly political plotlines leaves a lot of room for complex machinations--I would love to see George pull off some Cersei-level political maneuvering rather than say, printing slanderous pamphlets. I would love there to be something Ross and George could agree on--a common foe where they would have to work together despite despising each other! Someone who offends George's honor and Ross' political sensibilities-- but I'm not sure the show has that sort of sensibility, particularly after what happened with Morwenna. If Morwenna isn't going to save herself, it would be nice if we just didn't default to Ross saving the day. Too often shows default to "good guys save people, bad guys hurt people, and if bad guys save people they are redeemed." There's a few other options-- like bad guys doing the "right" thing for an entirely different reason. Bad guys responding with a level of retaliation that the good guys wouldn't "stoop" to in a way that is more satisfying to viewers. Bad guys outmaneuvering other bad guys because they are more clever.

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

 

The Absurd Economic Fantasy That is 50 Shades And Why Doesn't Anyone Ever Want to Write About Work?

I won't cover all the well-trod territory that has been written elsewhere about how ridiculous this series is. I just watched the second movie because, well, it was there and it was raining outside.  I wanted to talk about money, but first one small sidebar: how on earth do you make a movie about sex where Jamie Dornan is hotter as the serial killer in The Fall than he is as the male lead in the aforementioned sex movie (which is to say, not at all)? 

So here's the "economy" of these movies. You stumble out of college with ostensibly no real skills and accidentally come upon a job opportunity (unearned) interviewing this business guy. Despite you being exceptionally bad at this interviewing gig, business guy falls in love with you, and is of course fabulously wealthy (never mind the stalking and stuff). You would never have to work. You would never have to worry about making decisions--about what to eat, what to wear, how to have sex--because he likes to control everything and your only question is whether or not you're down with that. 

--Short interlude--you break up because you dislike and felt emotionally abused by his main way of getting his kicks. You've got a job at a publishing house--you go girl! Movies/book like these never seem to have any comprehension of what work, let alone work in publishing, is. Work is generally a topic that is often glossed over in fiction, which is crazy if you think about it. People in America work 40, 50, sometimes even more hours a week. We spend more time at work than we do at home, if you subtract the time we spend sleeping. Depending on the week, sometimes I see colleagues more than I see my friends.  Work, that is, what we do with the majority of our lives, is such a huge part of who we are. It is, at a minimum, the thing we occupy our minds with most of the time, and at a maximum, is heavily tied into our identities. I wish there were more compelling stories that were focused on work, rather than work being the background for "grander" stories--about romance, about mystery, or whatever else. I don't think there is a word for it in English, but I've noticed that people really enjoy watching other people be really competent at the thing they excel at--it doesn't matter what that thing is, but the level of expertise and interest of that person is for some reason fascinating. I recently watched The Post, and rewatched All the President's Men and Spotlight, three movies about journalism that despite their dark content, are a joy to watch. You see people at work, and the relationships they have with people at work, and it's incredibly compelling. 

End tangent, back to this bad movie: 

But in this thin fantasy, your job involves vaguely doing office work for an attractive and obviously about-to-to-sexually-harass-you older man. (No sense of the long hours of work that actual people in the publishing industry have to work.) You move papers around a desk, because the person who created you has no idea of what this sort of work is, or how someone might actually care about it or be engaged by it. Your paramour doesn't want you to have a job so he can control your economic independence. Your paramour buys the company you work for. 

That scary work situation? The sexually harassive boss? Don't worry, you'll barely have to deal with it, because your paramour will get him fired.  Somehow, you will just fall into the position of senior editor to replace him, because, gosh, no one else knows what to do with the empty slot, or with your untrained unqualified ass, for that matter. (Never mind that under these absurd rules of "well someone has to take this job lol" the black woman in your office was there for longer and has more work experience.) How terrible fiction sadly attempts to address the topic of work: newbie sits at the meeting with the big guys and makes a startlingly brilliant observation that NO ONE has ever had before. You mean we should publish the big sellers AND take a chance on new authors?? MIND BLOWN!  The other way bad fiction deals with work, specifically people who are supposed to be billionaires: they sit in fancy offices and they have very attractive female receptionists. You might get some jargon thrown at you if the author spent a few minutes on Wikipedia looking up "hedge fund." 

Work is there, humming in the background. There when you need a B plot. Your biggest problems will instead be relationship problems, which we all know are more interesting than all other problems in life. (This is not to say that relationship problems are not interesting, but that I would prefer to see a more holistic view of a human being.) 

You know what I would wish someone would write? A literary novel like The Office only not a comedy, a really character driven saga that follows however many unrelated people working in an office and how they change over time. Can someone do that--? Thanks. 

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). 

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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: The Dinner

TLDR: Don't bother. 

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This was a surprisingly bad execution of Herman Koch's novel The Dinner, which I read a few years ago. I enjoyed the book--this even despite it employing one of my least favorite tactics. The novel centers around two couples going to a fancy dinner--a former teacher and his wife, and a promising candidate for governor and his wife. I liked how the book rolled into the scene, quickly making you think that the main conflict is between Paul (the teacher, who is antagonistic towards his brother), and Stan (the politician). As the seemingly unendless dinner unfolds, you find out what the real conflict is: that the couples' children have done something really awful, and now they must figure out what to do about it. There are some reversals here which are interesting. 

Both the portrayal of the characters and the dinner itself are very good. Sad when you have a really competent cast and then give them crappy material. Steve Coogan plays Paul so effectively that I don't think I've ever wanted to scream "Shut the fuck up and let him talk!" at a TV more. He is the obnoxious relative that just can't keep his mouth shut when he has some political opinion, or wants to distract the argument from the point someone else is trying to make. You start out almost being sympathetic with him--a more humble man that thinks going to an ostentatious tasting menu (and then asking for a better table) is what's wrong with society. But then he spirals down from there. The other three actors are also good, Richard Gere in particular. 

The dinner itself is appropriately portrayed in a way that is infuriating. Occasionally you glimpse these super-bougie dishes and have to sit through the long explanations of the dishes. (This reminded me of the incredibly tense scene at the Mexican restaurant toward the end of Breaking Bad--where threats abound until an oblivious waiter pops in to offer guac.). You kind of want to pull your hair out because no one attending the dinner can actually sit in their goddamned seat for more than two minutes: someone is always taking a phone call, storming off, or just wandering away. (I hope they left a very, very large tip.) The dialogue is also good-- people talk over each other, things are alluded to but not explained for the sake of the reader. 

But the movie definitely falls flat when it comes to the fundamental skeleton of the story. For one, it's too long and there are parts where you wonder "why is this here?" There are also parts where I wondered "why did they cut this out from the book?" (SPOILER: mainly, they definitely made it seem like Paul had some mental health issues, but did not explicitly draw the connection to his son via the test results. Also the movie version of his wife says that his medication makes him "numb" and that she prefers the real him, but in the book this definitely comes off as more sinister/ fucked up, and less like "maybe we should try a different prescription. Also the ending, ie, the book had one). There's some scenes about the Civil War that were so long that I fast forwarded. 

Then the end, where it falls flat. It literally ended in such a place that when the credits started rolling I went back and rewound, thinking there was something wrong with my TV. A movie with no ending is worse than a movie with a bad ending because at least you feel like you got to a destination. 

Review of Thor: Ragnarok

Worth seeing. This is what big budget movies like this are supposed to be: fun. 

Cate Blanchette steals every scene she's in--it's worth seeing just for her. The movie is self-aware and makes fun of the franchise. Also makes Thor less boring (let's face it he's one of the more boring Avengers.) Chris Hemsworth is legitimately funny and I don't think he had a chance to show it off in the previous movies. (also, it was recently brought to my attention that there is more than one Hemsworth. I thought they were all the same person and just dyed their hair sometimes. Mind blown. I do not read US Weekly unless I'm lying on a beach, which hasn't been for a year or more.) 

I'm a little skeptical about what's over the horizon for Marvel. One of my issues with the Avengers, however fun it is, is that it's a hodge podge of people (or beings) with grossly different levels of power. So when they're fighting I'm not sure what meaning there is. Like if a dinosaur steps on Thor, and he's a god, does he actually get hurt? (Clearly he CAN get hurt.. but what exactly does it take if he's a god? Does Odin actually die, or is a more like an Elves leaving Middle Earth by sailboat kind of thing?) 

Yet again had to sit through the trailer for Justice League. I'll show up just for Jason Momoa and Wonderwoman, but I'm super skeptical after the cringefest that was Batman V Superman. (Oh Henry Cavill, can someone please give you some good material??) They also showed the trailer for The Last Jedi, which I have never seen before. I guess Oscar season is rolling up, which means I will be hitting the independent theater a lot more. 

Review of Alias Grace

We're living in an awesome time where both Margaret Atwood and Stephen King--two of my favorite writers--are getting tons of love. 

I completely forgot that Netflix was turning Alias Grace into a series until it popped up on my TV. I originally read the book in 2002 and apparently I devoured it so quickly that I forgot the ending. One thing I love about Margaret Atwood is how lovely her prose is--she can take even outlandish premises and deliver them seriously. But the thing I love more is that she is the antithesis of what I'm currently disliking in literary fiction: a hyper focus on delivering a true representation of "realistic" life. (If I have to read another book about an upper middle class marriage falling apart with no larger commentary about the world, I may die on the spot). Writers like Atwood and King seem to have no bounds to what their imagination can dredge up. 

The series is incredibly well-filmed and acted. Grace is rendered with enough depth that she keeps you wondering. Like the Handmaid's Tale, you can't walk away from this series without thinking about all the constraints women are forced to live under. Creepy bosses, creepy neighbor boys, the complicit woman who sabotages you because the creepy boss you're not even interested in wants you. The bed as a place of violence. The ending of this killed me. I mean, of course it wasn't going to have a happy ending--I should have known better. (I went to go see Thor: Ragnarok after, mainly because I heard it was funny.) 

Also, slight aside: books often translate better to series than they do to movies. They have more room to stretch out and give people some backstory. 

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.

 

Review of Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!"

There is my 10 minutes, spoiler-ridden review of this movie. In short, don't go see it.

I loved Black Swan and had a lot of respect for Requiem for a Dream, so as soon as I heard this movie was coming out, I bought tickets to see it without even seeing a preview or reading about it. I only heard that there were some controversial aspects.

I'll save you the trouble of seeing it: the main thing that probably bothered people is that there is a scene where a baby is taken away by a crowd, killed, ripped to shreds, and then eaten as a form of communion. Maybe I've watched too many horror movies, but this didn't disturb me that much. The scene immediately after, when the crowd turns on Jennifer Lawrence and starts beating her, kicking and stomping on her when she's on the ground, was more disturbing to me, but mainly because I thought it was headed towards a rape and that they were going to show it. (at that point, I would have thought they were depicting a rape for the sake of being shocking--more on that later.)

It's hard for me to articulate why this movie bothered me, and it appears that some of my reasons don't line up with what others are saying.

I do agree with the general puzzlement that most reviewers, mainly, WTF is this movie about. First it's one thing: this woman is rebuilding her husband's house after it had been burned down while he bitches and moans about the fact that he can't write (poetry) anymore. Then a rando stranger (Ed Harris) shows up, and it turns out he is secretly a huge fan of Javier Bardem's poetry. Bardem invites him into the house despite what Jennifer Lawrence feels comfortable with, then his creepy wife shows up. So maybe this story is about the accommodations we make for our spouses when we really don't want to when their egos need stroking.  Then their two kids show up fighting about a will and one son kills the other. Reviewers have posited that maybe it's a Cain and Abel story.

Then some uninvited guests start showing up for the wake. This is where the movie seems to take a turn from what had originally felt like maybe a creepy home invasion movie, or maybe something like The Invitation (2015). Here it turns into an increasingly ridiculous conceit. The wife decides she wants to have a baby. They make one and this seems to have unblocked the husband's writers block. He demands a pen immediately and takes out his inkwell to write poetry! Within minutes, his publisher calls him, and then you hear that his poetry book has sold out. (this guy incidentally, apparently makes a full time living as a poet who doesn't write and his wife also doesn't appear to work and they can afford a nice house without having to teach or anything. also, a poetry book selling out....lol) Fans show up and the wife gets increasingly disturbed as the party gets more and more raucous, eventually descending into chaos, war, violence, destruction, etc.

Here's where I differed from other people's reaction to this movie.  Hollywood continues to be so white that the casting of minorities feels really intentional. When the uninvited guests start showing up for the wake, I couldn't help but notice that a lot of them were minorities- maybe it was only thirty percent, maybe it was twenty percent. But the guests start destroying the house essentially, literally tearing down the walls and breaking things, while Jennifer Lawrence is screaming, "What are you doing, this is my house!" I started to feel uncomfortable that the movie was making an awkward point about immigration. Because the "uninvited" guests are certainly terribly and entitled, making themselves at home while a white Aryan woman is disturbed by their presence. But because she is the protagonist, and the guests are absurd, the viewer has to side with her.

I kept getting pulled out of the movie with scenes like this.  There are scenes where riot police and these uninvited guests (many of whom were minorities) are clashing-- I cannot watch that and not think about the current sociopolitical context of both protestors and Black Lives Matter. There are scenes where people in the house who are desperately trying to escape the war that has broken out are locked behind barbed wire gates. I can't see that and not think about the current refugee crisis. The most disturbing scene from me wasn't the baby supper, but a scene where people lying on the ground with their bags over their heads are shot point blank one by one. I was completely pulled out of the movie because I thought about how I have seen real videos like that. All for what?  The closest thing this movie comes to being about something is about how the male artist can take and take and the woman keeps on giving even though it is her undoing. I am okay with the depiction of violence, but when it touches close to reality, it's only worth it if it brings something to the table about that issue, or if it doesn't, at least that it treats it with respect.  Sexual assault survivors have been making the same argument about the depiction of rape in TV and movies--that it not be for the sake of shock value, or shoddy storytelling, but that it actually respect the people who have been through this trauma. I don't take depictions of war lightly.  I think you can make silly movies that you're not supposed to take seriously that involve "war" (eg, any superhero movie), and you can make serious movies that are making points about war and its costs (eg, Born on the 4th of July). But to use all these extreme acts of violence as a metaphor about how male artists are self-absorbed struck me as a mismatch between very real geopolitical conflicts and the stupidity that is the idea of a poet who writes with an inkwell and somehow has an income that supports a wife who doesn't work.

Review of Stephen King's IT

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TLDR: Go see this.

Like most people I was skeptical when I heard they were rebooting this. While I had some fond memories of the miniseries people seem to love, it had some serious issues, like not having the space to spread out, or the awful claymation spider. Tim Curry, everyone insists, is unbeatable as Pennywise.

First off, the movie focuses solely on the childhood events--the best part of the book in my view--which gives a good amount of time for the story and more importantly the characters to develop. The childhood timeline has been updated from the 50s to the 80s-- not sure why exactly but it does place their childhood right in the time frame of when my childhood was when I read the book.

The narration adheres pretty closely to the plot and mood of the book opening with the Georgie scene. About Pennywise-- I think Bill Skarsgard did an excellent job of making the role his own, which was good considering people keep talking about how awesome Tim Curry was in the original. After I got back from the theater I rented the original miniseries to compare--here's the thing, it's worse than I remember. Like really bad. Awful overly dramatic music, terrible acting. John Ritter isn't a bad actor but he's acting badly in this movie. Tim Curry was just a bright spot in a bad piece of art. The overall feel of the miniseries is pretty cheesy and laughable.

The movie relies more on creepiness than it does jump scares--pretty refreshing considering how stupid horror movies have gotten. Throwing something at the audience and making a loud BWHWAAAAH! sound effect isn't particularly clever. A lot of the fear in this movie is based on atmosphere, visuals, or this feeling of being unnerved. The wall-eyed seemingly otherworldly clown in the sewer drain talks to Georgie long enough that it's the feeling of unnerving dread you that makes you really uncomfortable, not the feeling of being startled. There are several scares in this movie that did this particularly well. Some things were swapped out from the book--the mummy and the werewolf--which I think makes sense because people tend to not find them scary these days. I thought it was dead-on that Stan had an odd fear of a painting in his father's office that he would block out with his hand when he walked by. That was something I would have done as a child, much like how Georgie is afraid of nothing in particular and huffs it up the stairs like something is chasing him. (Okay I still do the latter thing).

The movie was far more successful than the miniseries in establishing the kids' friendship and the barrens looked EXACTLY like I pictured them. I was initially skeptical of the casting (I thought the kids looked to similar) but I stand corrected. They are what makes this movie. Eddie and Richie's banter is hilarious. And the shit talking and humor that filled the book was conspicuously missing from the miniseries. Ben was so tender and adorable, Beverly was one of the strongest characters and the pain in that love triangle was palpable. One of the thing that It does particularly well is show the callousness of adults. They literally can't see It, but they also turn their heads aside when kids are being bullied right in front of them. The kids are left to face these horrors on their own because nothing else will protect them. Anyone who's been bullied as a child can tell you about that callousness.

While I still overall had a really positive opinion, a couple of omissions were questionable. First the slingshot and the battery-acid inhaler are left out... which means the kids show up at the first confrontation with It unarmed. Mike, at least, has the sense to pack some heat in the final confrontation. Also, in the book, it is blatantly obvious that the reason Mike is hated (by Henry Bowers and others) is because he is black (like, the N-word abounds, which does all the more to flesh out Henry). It's clear that the movie intended to have Mike be the victim of racism . . . but it's never actually spoken. Henry calls him "an outsider" while beating him and tells him to stay out of town. Why dance around it? Just say it. He's black--this is racism. Just say it. Yes, racism still existed in the late eighties. It's even more relevant because of the terrible way his parents died.

The writers made a rational decision and left out that Infamous Scene. When I originally read the book, I never really blinked at that scene--it made sense to me. They're still at that age where sex is mysterious to the level of being mystical-- it is literally referred to as "doing it." Of course it then takes on a magical symbolism. That said, it's not like I wanted to watch that scene and it would have been a really weird, awkward way to end the movie.

I'm looking forward to the next chapter, which hasn't been cast yet. Is there any way they can get Amy Adams, because the current Beverly Marsh looks just like her. Also, Jerry O'Connell as adult Ben.

Looking forward to seeing Mother! next weekend, and hopefully an end to this awful summer of mostly bad movies.