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As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets: That's all for now...
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Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as always, I'm excited to participate. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, Professor Dewey Finn, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, Professor Abraham Setrakian, Mr. Dadier, Professor Abronsius, and Professor Moriarty are also available. Let's get to it:

1) Most obnoxious movie you've ever seen

Lots of candidates, but I keep coming back to Batman & Robin, for what I must assume are obvious reasons.

2) Favorite oddball pairing of actors

For some reason, this answer quickly resolved into a question: Which Robert De Niro pairing should I choose? It's also a tough one because the writing and story can accentuate differences that might not be there if just comparing the actors themselves. Ranging from not so great movies like Flawless (De Niro with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a drag queen) and Showtime (De Niro and Eddie Murphy) to good movies I'm not so fond of like The King of Comedy (De Niro and Jerry Lewis) to that Goldilocks zone: De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run.

Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run
Ah, just right.

3) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ken Russell?

I would be curious to see Russell's take on Alejandro Jodorowsky's films like El Topo or The Holy Mountain. I mean, sure, it'd probably still end up as an indulgent mess, but it would be a different type of indulgent mess, which is interesting. (The other idea I had was Dune, but I suspect that would have ended up as... an indulgent mess.)

4) Emma Stone or Margot Robbie?

Emma Stone for now, but only because I feel like she's more established at this moment. Robbie certainly has the potential to overtake and is charging hard, but has not quite reached that level just yet.

5) Which member of Monty Python are you?

I will not presume to insult any of the members of Monty Python by comparing myself favorably to them (also, I have no friggin idea).

6) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Vincent Minnelli?

Minnelli is famous for his musicals, a genre I am not overly fond of, so this is a weird one for me as I'm not sure I'd pay money for him to remake a musical (or to turn something else into a musical).

7) Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte?

The trick here is that I like Volonte's spaghetti westerns better, but he was not the lead in said films (that would be Clint Eastwood), whilst Nero was often the lead (as in his most famous role as Django). I will go with Nero for that reason, but it's close.

8) Your favorite Japanese monster movie

The original Godzilla, and it isn't even close.


Lots of Kaiju movies are fun and I certainly haven't seen all of them, but they mostly due pale in comparison to the original. Also, I feel like it's unfair to pick a MST3K version of these movies (I'm particularly fond of their Mothra takes).

9) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Stanley Kubrick?

Kubrick is one of my favorite directors, but the open endedness of these questions makes them really difficult for me. My first thought was A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but maybe that's too obvious since it's the film he was working on when he passed away. I really would be curious as to how different his version of the film would have been though.

10) Hanna Schygulla or Barbara Sukowa?

I am sadly not familiar enough with either actress and must thus take a mulligan on this question.

11) Name a critically admired movie that you hate

I feel like I've answered this question before, so in the interest of not repeating myself with Easy Rider, I will go with Breathless. Undoubtedly important and influential, but really unpleasant to watch (could be a contender for #1 question above) and kinda a slog.

12) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Elia Kazan?

Alright, so Kazan is famous for drawing great performances out of actors ("he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins"), so I'm thinking something like a big ensemble piece that doesn't quite click. My first thought was something out of David O. Russell's filmography. Another director who is known for getting good performances from his actors (and getting folks nominated for same), his movies never quite get to where I find them fully successful beyond the performances. Maybe a dumb choice, but let's just say Joy.

13) Better or worse: Disney comedies (1955-1975) or Elvis musicals?

Having already confessed my distaste for musicals in general, I feel like the answer reveals itself readily enough: Disney comedies. Son of Flubber, The Parent Trap, The Love Bug, and lots of other fun choices.

14) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Alfred Hitchcock?

The streets are littered with the bodies of Hitchcock imitators, all of which made movies that would be rather fascinating if Hitch actually took them on. I feel like Brian De Palma's early stuff, which was strongly informed by Hitch, still stands well on its own and doesn't really need to be remade. Richard Franklin made some movies that might have been interesting if Hitch remade them (how about Patrick?) It might be interesting to see what Hitch would do with a M. Night Shyamalan flick. Or we could go the other way, and see what Hitchcock would do with a remake of Diabolique (a film I believe Hitch had a lot of respect for...)

15) Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum?

Another tight race, but I'll go with Channing Tatum, who seems to have a little more charisma and range on his side at this point...

16) Bad performance in a movie you otherwise like/love

Most of the performances in Phantasm technically qualify, even if I still love that movie to death and would never change a thing about it in a million years.

17) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Howard Hawks?

Hawks was pretty damn versatile, which means I'd pay money to see him remake almost anything, though preferably something that has a good idea that needs the elevation a great director can bring. That still leaves this pretty open-ended. Damnit, I can't think of anything (or rather, every movie I think of works, to the point where none do). If I cheat and look at other people's answers, the two the jump out are True Grit (but that already has a great remake) and Captain America: The First Avenger (whose second and third acts could use some work, for sure).

18) Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak?

This may be controversial, but I like The Birds more than Vertigo, so I'm going Tippi Hedren. Plus, she also brings Marnie and the inspired lunacy that is Roar to the table.

19) Best crime movie remake

Everyone is probably going for The Maltese Falcon, so I'll go with Ocean's Eleven, which is a better movie than both the Falcon (sorry/not sorry) and the film it was remaking.

20) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Preston Sturges?

I don't hate Intolerable Cruelty like a lot of folks do, but I suspect Sturges would be able to whip it into better shape than the Coens managed.

21) West Side Story (the movie), yes or no?

Despite my repeated statement of indifference to musicals, yes. Just because I don't like a thing doesn't mean it has no right to exist, and I generally find myself answering "yes" to all of these types of questions (of which, there is always at least one on these quizes).

22) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luchino Visconti?

Not having seen any Visconti movies, I'm going to have to take another mulligan here.

23) What was the last movie you saw, theatrically and/or on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming?

Theatrically (and ironically given the seeming theme of this quiz), it was Lady Bird, which was delightful, well observed, moving, and funny, just like everyone sez (though I suspect we'll see backlash soon enough - it's a very good movie, but let's not get too carried away).

At home, it was a rewatch of Elf. What can I say, I've been battling a head cold and ear infection, so I was in the mood for some holiday season comfort food. Like a lot of Will Ferrell movies, it's the sort of thing that somehow improves with multiple viewings.


24) Brewster McCloud or O.C. and Stiggs?

Alright look, it's not like I haven't seen any Robert Altman movies (I've seen many of them!), it's just that I haven't seen these two particular Altman films.

25) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Luis Bunuel?

I feel like I already wasted a decent answer to this in question #3. I must admit to being not terribly familiar with Bunuel either, and aside from his reputation for Surrealism, I'm not sure where else to go (um, Doctor Strange?)

26) Best nature-in-revolt movie

I mean, it's Jaws, right? That's the answer.

27) Best Rene Auberjoinois performance (film or TV)

Look, I'm sure most would go with one of those Altman movies and it's also true that I never really got that much into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but he will always be Odo to me.

28) Which movie would you have paid to see remade by Ingmar Bergman?

Boyhood is talky enough might benefit from something more hefty that Bergman can certainly bring, but then, I probably still wouldn't love the end result.

29) Best movie with a bird or referencing a bird in its title?

Hitchcock's The Birds is far too obvious and has already been mentioned, so let's try to find something else. Maybe Three Days of the Condor, but really I want to go with Where Eagles Dare, though it's a film I should probably also revisit.

30) Burt Lancaster or Michael Keaton?

I certainly enjoy some Lancaster performances (big fan of The Killers and I just got sucked into Field of Dreams yet again the other night), but as a child of the 80s, I'm kinda obligated to go with Keaton on this one. Beetlejuice, Batman, and lots of other favorites...

31) In what way have the recent avalanche of allegations unearthed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal changed the way you look at movies and the artists who make them?

I've always tried to separate the art from the artist, but it's only natural that in some circumstances this will become more difficult. For instance, Roman Polanski is a filmmaker whose films always call to mind the whole "fugitive child rapist" thing, even if they're sometimes really good films. I totally understand the impulse to avoid these sorts of movies, even if I don't always do so myself. I will say this though: the prospect of memory-holing huge swaths of film/TV because one member of the production did something despicable makes me uncomfortable. I'm not the censorious type, as partially evidenced by my answering "yes" to every question like #21 above, and while I don't blame anyone for not especially wanting to view some of these movies, I also think the option should still be available. Context matters, and censorship won't solve anything. That said, these assholes absolutely need to go down, and while many have lost jobs and whatnot, some should be facing much stiffer penalties (I'm looking at you, Weinstein). I suspect we'll see more house cleaning in the coming years, which is apparently as it should be.

32) In 2017 which is “better,” TV or the movies?

I don't watch enough TV to give a good answer here, but I will say that a scant 20 years ago, there would be no question that movies were better. I've seen enough TV this year to say that you could probably make a convincing argument that TV is better, which is, again, something that wasn't possible not all that long ago. So TV is most definitely much improved, while movies seem to be treading water. I still prefer movies, but I still watch more TV than I ever used to...

Phew, that was a tough one. But these quizes are always great, and I'm already looking forward to the next one...

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Recent Moving Pictures

I've been battling a cold recently, which has allowed me to catch up on a whole slew of 2017 movies, and even check out a few in the theater:
  • Brawl in Cell Block 99 - S. Craig Zahler's follow up to the gruesome Western/Horror mashup Bone Tomahawk, this one is perhaps not quite as great, but is still a very well done film. Vince Vaughn plays a surprisingly badass drug-runner with a sense of honor who gets caught, goes to jail, and gets caught up in a scheme to kill a prisoner. Like Bone Tomahawk, this one takes its time to get going, and you don't even really get to the eponymous Cell Block 99 until late in the movie, but Zahler has a talent for making this sort of slow burn work. I mean, yeah, there's a bout a half an hour of plot here that is drawn out to over two hours; something that rarely works for me, but Zahler pulls it off. Perhaps by punctuating the film's beats with some severely gruesome action, he kept the pace moving just fast enough without overwhelming with gore (but keep in mind, I'm a little jaded on that front, so it's worth calling out that this is not a film for the faint of heart). Vaughn plays the part well, a little disconnected but full of rage. It's a physical performance such that we haven't seen from him before, and the action is staged and choreographed well. This ain't no martial arts movie though, the title's "brawl" is a more apt descriptor here, with the fighting being a sort of sloppy mix of boxing and MMA brutality. It's again very gory, especially towards the end of the movie, but it all works well enough in the end. Well worth checking out for those who can stomach this sort of thing. ***
  • The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) - Noah Baumbach's tale of a dysfunctional family, oops, well that describes a lot of his movies, um, this one is in New York and follows three children of a moderately talented sculptor and teacher who gather in New York. As these things go, it's a well done story, perhaps because Baumbach isn't as interested in just wallowing in the dysfunction as he is with letting some of the characters at least attempt to find a way out. It's still not exactly my favorite thing to watch and these aren't really characters I love spending time with, but it wasn't as excruciating as some of Baumbach's earlier efforts. Dustin Hoffman plays the smarmy, judgmental patriarch well, of course. Adam Sandler (one of the brothers) always manages to surprise whenever he shows up in a movie like this because he actually seems to be trying, something that's not exactly true of his other Netflix efforts. Ben Stiller (the other brother) is his usual self, sort of reprising his role from Royal Tenenbaums only not as neurotic. Elizabeth Marvel is fantastic as the sister, and she's not given nearly enough to do (though she does at least get a monologue, she is mostly dismissed throughout the movie, which might be the point). And the supporting cast is also pretty great (of particular note, Sigourney Weaver in a cameo as herself, and Adam Driver has a funny little cameo too). This sort of aimless day-in-the-life (or months-in-the-life) story isn't really my thing, but this movie moves along at a reasonable pace and is leavened by enough humor and goodwill (amidst all the angst and ennui) that I found myself playing along well enough. I know Baumbach isn't particularly happy with Netflix's rollout of this movie (they are notoriously bad at theatrical releases), but I'd probably never have watched this if it wasn't on Netflix (and if I didn't get sick). **
  • Okja - Another Netflix release from a well respected arthouse director, this one comes from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, a filmmaker I've never managed to fully connect with. He's certainly talented and puts out interesting movies, but something about the way he mashes tonal inconsistencies together never really flows right. I gather this is part of his appeal, but I also tend to find his messages delivered in a clumsy, ham-fisted way. This film about a little girl's relationship with a "super-pig" owned by a corporation who hopes to use it to launch a revolution in food or somesuch. This touches on a lot of themes that Joon-ho has explored in Snowpiercer and The Host (environmentalism, class, etc...), and it's pretty rote and didactic on those fronts, but the story is at least well executed and moves quickly enough that it didn't feel overbearing. That tonal weirdness is certainly here in full force (especially in Jake Gyllenhaal's manic performance) and some of the elements don't feel like they fit, but this is par for the course here. I had a good enough time with the movie and it does have some entertaining set-pieces and the kid's relationship with Okja (the super-pig) is endearing, so I'd say this is worth a watch if you're looking for something rather odd to watch. **1/2
  • Justice League - DC's struggles continue with this latest, but it's also a much more enjoyable experience than most of their other offerings in the cinematic universe era and they appear to be improving, which is a good thing. It comports itself well enough as an action packed spectacle, actually, but it still can't shake the feeling of being an inferior also-ran. It feels like a lot of these DC movies try to pull out a template from a previous success, without actually understanding why that previous success, um, succeeded. For instance, Man of Steel was very much patterned after Nolan's The Dark Knight. Use the more ominous moniker, go darker and more brooding, and so on. But this doesn't really fit with Superman, at least, not yet (it's the sort of thing you do when you run out of ideas and people are sick of Supes). Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (the actual title they used, guys) doubled down on this darker, grimmer approach. This time around, they're looking to emulate The Avengers. Villain with horns and an army of faceless flying monsters is seeking power cubes to take over planet earth. Sounds familiar, eh? Now, this isn't exactly a new thing, nor is it unique to DC. As I understand it, comic books are rife with blatant copies of popular superheroes, and this sort of thing can be fine. But DC didn't do the legwork that Marvel did, they just delved into the team-up without actually establishing a bunch of the characters (and no, Diana Prince watching trailers in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (the actual title they used, guys) doesn't count), and the result feels a little weightless and half-baked. That being said, all the right elements are here, and the movie hits all the beats it needs to. It's so close to a really good movie that it's a little frustrating that it only manages to be an entertaining way to spend a few hours. The cast is great though, and the new folks are all good additions (if only we knew more about them before the movie started!) Credit where credit's due, this is still a huge improvement over previous installments (Wonder Woman aside), but the troubling thing is that this movie isn't doing so well, and DC always seems to cave to complaints about their films, so I'm just hoping they keep the tone here and maybe let the next few movies work as standalones so that the next teamup can feel justified. In the end, this was actually quite enjoyable and well worth checking out, even if it's flawed and a little lacking. They're trying, people. **1/2
  • A Cure for Wellness - Gore Verbinski's trippy tale of an ambitious young executive sent to retrieve his company's CEO from a mysterious wellness center in the Swiss Alps. As per usual, the remote wellness center is more menacing than expected. Dane DeHaan plays the lead here, and is much more suited than he was as the Han Solo type in Valerian. His gaunt, sleepy face is perfect for his creepy descent into possible insanity. The rest of the cast does an admirable job selling a rather overwrought story and the movie is visually beautiful. It's about an hour too long though and it hits a lot of standard tropes along the way. It does so well enough to recommend it though, so there is that. It's all a bit much, but fun enough in the end. **1/2
  • Wheelman - Another Netflix original, this one stars Frank Grillo as the wheelman and the movie is mostly presented as an in-car view of him driving around and talking on the phone, trying to resolve a job that went awry. It's sort of like that movie Locke, but with a crime and action component. It's perhaps less ambitious than the previous few films in this post, but it hits its mark better than they do as well. It's not going to win any awards or anything, but I greatly enjoyed it. ***
  • Murder on the Orient Express - Kenneth Branagh's take on the fetted Agatha Christie mystery manages to carve out an identity of its own while leaving the core of the mystery intact (I think; I've never actually read the book, but this matches up well enough with what I already knew from cultural seepage). His performance as Hercule Poirot is memorable and the character is well established with the opening mini-mystery. Once the film settles in on the train, with all its flashy opulence, things pick up well enough. The solution to the mystery is well presented, and I gather that Branagh added a little moral conundrum to the ending that adds a little weight to the proceedings. Very well done, if a tad staid. ***
  • King Arthur: Legend of the Sword - Guy Ritchie's take on King Arthur is certainly interesting, if not as successful as the previous movie on this list. Ritchie puts an epic fantasy spin on the proceedings that is welcome, and adds in a sorta crime component (early Ritchie style) that is perhaps less successful, but still functional. You already know the King Arthur story, and this does an admirable job hitting the basic beats while adding plenty of complications and tweaks along the way. Jude Law is great as the villain, and Charlie Hunnam manages well enough as Arthur, and it's all very well and good. This movie got savaged by critics and audiences alike, but I rather enjoyed it and find it underrated (even if it isn't exactly my favorite movie of the year). **1/2
  • Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show - It's all right there in the subtitle. I do remember the Dana Carvey show's short run from when I was a kid, though I clearly didn't watch all of it because I don't remember a lot of the bits referenced in this documentary. I had no idea about the talent involved though (Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell both started there, amongst others) and the film gets all the appropriate talking heads (except Luis CK, for some reason). The show was perhaps not as great as everyone is saying (all the episodes are on Hulu now if you want to check it out), but the show was singular and unique, clearly ahead of its time in some respects. The bit where they show the commercial of a very special episode of Home Improvement followed by the ad for the Dana Carvey show is priceless. Otherwise, this is pretty standard Oral History of a TV Show type documentary territory. Enjoyable enough. **1/2
  • The Belko Experiment - Eighty Americans are trapped in a high rise in Bogata, Columbia and ordered by an unknown voice on the intercom to participate in an escalating series of murders. A hoaky premise, to be sure, and somewhat derivative, but reasonably well executed for what it is. There's not really much to say about this, but it's an enjoyable enough diversion for horror fans. **1/2
  • Thor: Ragnarok - I've always enjoyed the Thor movies, much more than I gather most people do (I even liked the second one!), and this third entry in the series is indeed very good. Thor discover's Loki's trick from the previous film and the set off in search of their exiled father, who it turns out is ready to pass away. Once he does so, Thor and Loki's sister, Hela the goddess of death, is freed from her bonds and seeks to, I don't know, take over the universe (or the 9 realms or whatever). Along the way, Thor gets captured and has to fight in a gladiator battle on a trash planet. The extent to which the movie works is the extent to which Taika Waititi’s goofy sense of humor goes on display, which mostly happens in the second act. The first and third acts feel mostly like franchise-service (both Thor and larger MCU) and are a little disconnected and perfunctory. The action is a bit weightless and while Cate Blanchett is clearly relishing her role, the character simply isn't given enough meat to fully work (but I attribute the entire extent to which it does to Blanchett's performance). The humor is much more successful, especially in the second act, which feels like the part where they let Waititi do whatever he wanted. Jeff Goldblum brings a lot to another thin villain, and is hugely entertaining, and some of the new side characters work well too (especially Korg, voiced by Waititi himself). Mark Ruffalo returns as Hulk, who is always great, and Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie is a welcome addition (and has a fun little relationship with Hulk). It's not quite top tier Marvel, but it's maybe top of the second tier? Very entertaining and funny. ***
Lots of movies to watch before the year is out, so stay tuned...
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Martin Scorsese on "brutal judgmentalism"

Martin Scorsese recently penned an oped for The Hollywood Reporter where he expounds on the nature of criticism in the digital age, with particular scorn heaped on obsessing over box-office results, Cinemascore, and Rotten Tomatoes. There is, of course, a nugget of truth to what Scorsese is talking about here. Discussions of film are too often sidetracked by box-office numbers or aggregate scores. On the other hand, it's 2017, and a lot of this article comes off like Scorsese has only now discovered that the internet is a thing that exists.

He even mentions that Cinemascore started in the 1970s (almost 40 years ago) and it's worth noting that Rotten Tomatoes isn't exactly a recent phenomenon (it began in 1998). And Scorsese isn't alone. Hollywood had a really poor summer, with many big tentpoles flopping or at least underperforming. Their scapegoat? Rotten Tomatoes. This makes no sense. Several highly rated movies (War for the Planet of the Apes and Logan Lucky are both at 93% fresh) still managed to do poorly at the box office, while many "Rotten" films found audiences (The Hitman's Bodyguard is at 39% and yet it's the only film to be #1 at the box office for three weeks in a row).

Even Darren Aronofsky's ambitious and divisive mother!, ostensibly the movie that drove Scorsese to write the oped in the first place, ends up certified "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes (albeit, not overwhelmingly so at 68%). Of course, Scorsese seizes on that film's "F" Cinemascore in that instance, but most of what I've seen about this dreaded score is that while it's devastating for a movie to get that grade (as it means the marketing wholly failed to represent the movie and thus pissed off audiences, usually resulting in poor box office), it's also something of a badge of honor. If you look at why this movie received some polarizing scores, you find that most people are responding to exactly the sort of things Scorsese values in the film.

It was so tactile, so beautifully staged and acted — the subjective camera and the POV reverse angles, always in motion … the sound design, which comes at the viewer from around corners and leads you deeper and deeper into the nightmare … the unfolding of the story, which very gradually becomes more and more upsetting as the film goes forward. The horror, the dark comedy, the biblical elements, the cautionary fable — they're all there, but they're elements in the total experience, which engulfs the characters and the viewers along with them. Only a true, passionate filmmaker could have made this picture, which I'm still experiencing weeks after I saw it.
Most reviews, even the harsh bloodsport ones, don't deny the skill and craft of the film. I certainly don't! I'm super happy that the film got made at all, and that I got to see it at a local theater (rather than making the long and expensive trek to an art house theater). I have a lot of respect for a filmmaker who swings for the fences like this, and again, the skill on display is astounding, but the film still falls into the realm of "interesting failure" for me. That doesn't mean it shouldn't exist or that you shouldn't watch it though, and it's probably worth checking out over many of the bland pixel stew blockbusters out there. It doesn't surprise me one iota that this film did poorly. It's a difficult film to watch, almost by design.

Much of this comes down to a matter of perspective. As a filmmaker, much of this data is used against someone like Scorsese. He mentions how preview screenings can give studios license to meddle, which must be frustrating. I assume he gets slapped with other aggregate measurements used to undermine his efforts too. I'm not sure if it's still a thing, but there was a time when Video Game companies would actually judge their employees based on their game's MetaCritic score, which seems like an awful idea. But as a viewer, I'm able to recognize the usefulness of something like Rotten Tomatoes. It's true, those scores shouldn't be treated as absolutes, but as a starting place, there is indeed some upside here. Similarly, people are interested in things like Box Office performance because they want to see more of what they like, and if a movie they like does well, it means that perhaps we'll get more of that (or conversely, when a movie they don't like does poorly, it hopefully means we'll see less of that). This summer has been brutal for huge franchise efforts (that aren't superheroes, which seemed to be the lone bright spot for Hollywood), but a lot of smaller or more ideosyncratic films like Dunkirk and Baby Driver found audiences. I think it would be great if we saw more of those sorts of movies next summer, rather than yet another Transformers or Pirates of the Carribean movie.

Scorsese's rumblings are nothing new. Indeed, much of the current marketing landscape around films has evolved as a way to combat once-powerful critics. Back in the day, you could argue that movies were made or broken by the thumbs of two critics, Siskel and Ebert. Hollywood reacted to powerful criticism and growing online sentiment by front-loading movies and leaning heavily on marketing, so much so that many movies that severely disappoint audiences still manage to do well at the box office because the film was released in 3000 theaters and word of mouth couldn't spread fast enough, even in the digital age. Rotten Tomatoes is partly a response to that, and Cinemascore is a purely marketing-focused metric.

Criticism has been around since the dawn of art itself. Find a 30,000 year old cave painting, and there was probably some moron named Grog who complained about it. The state of criticism today is probably different than it was ten or twenty or a hundred years ago, but there will always be great critics and worthless hacks who just want to tear things down. In the end, audiences just want to watch a movie they'll enjoy. Scorsese doesn't seem to care about audiences though:

Good films by real filmmakers aren't made to be decoded, consumed or instantly comprehended. They're not even made to be instantly liked. They're just made, because the person behind the camera had to make them.
Personally, I don't think you need to be so narrow in defining what is "good" in film. When I first consumed Taxi Driver (99% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!), I instantly liked it. That doesn't mean that after years of rewatching it and decoding various aspects of the film, I didn't find additional depth there. Yes, some of these things can't be instantly comprehended (I had to decode them first!), but not everything needs to be that way, does it? There's not one type of good movie, is there? It's possible to make art with the audience in mind, right? Sometimes it feels like movies have bifurcated into Hollywood fluff and heavy, artistic slogs, with that middle ground of well-crafted entertainment suffering as a result. Of course, they're still there, you just have to hunt them down. Hey, maybe if enough people supported those movies, we'd get more of them. Let's go check Box Office Mojo...

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Link Dump

As per usual, some links I found interesting whilst perusing the depths of ye olde internets:
  • Teller Reveals His Secrets - Always fascinating to see what the guy who doesn't speak has to say. Some neat observations about misdirection and magic, this one being my favorite:
    Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.
    This sort of thing doesn't just apply to magic. How many people assume security in situations when someone could painstakingly figure out a workaround? Think about those tedious CSI recreations or even how the Allies were able to identify German radio operators based on each operator's distinctive style of transmitting Morse code. It seems like more trouble than its worth, but it turns out that such machinations are worth quite a bit.
  • Why is there cardboard in Dracula? - I never noticed this before, but there's an ugly piece of cardboard attached to a lamp in a series of shots in the movie. It was always assumed to be a mistake, but it's hotly debated, and there's a surprising amount of discussion about why it would or wouldn't be a mistake...
  • Matt Talbot's Horror Movie Posters - Every year for Halloween, this artist does a bunch of alternate movie posters for horror movies, and they're fantastic.
  • Come on, Stranger Things, no one ever got that far in Dragon's Lair - This is so very true:
    In a premiere episode that saw titanic hellbeasts looming over a fire-choked horizon, a young boy perilously trapped between reality and a grim alternate dimension, criminal teens evading the cops with their psionic abilities, and a high schooler driving a bitching Camaro, Stranger Things’ second season has already strained credulity with a single, ludicrous scene: There is no fucking way anyone ever got that far in Dragon’s Lair.
    Damn straight.
  • Why I keep being concerned about the rise of streaming services - MGK went through Edgar Wright's list of his 1000 favorite films to see how many were available on streaming services. Spoiler, only 200-300 are available on a service, with another 400-500 or so available for "rental", leaving a couple hundred completely unavailable. A couple of caveats: This is in Canada, and things are a little better in the US. And it's worth noting that Wright's taste can be somewhat... eccentric. I'm sure some of those movies aren't even available on DVD. However, none of this changes the original point: Streaming services are nowhere near comprehensive, even when you add them all together (and trust me, the fragmentation and difference in quality between the top tier of these services and the rest is pretty high). We are still a long, long ways off from a comprehensive service.
That's all for now...
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6WH: Speed Round

Time flies when you're terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought. Six weeks in, and as usual, there are a whole slew of movies that I've watched that I didn't write about. Maybe because it didn't fit in a given week's theme, or perhaps I just didn't have that much to say about it. As of this writing, I've seen 48 films during this year's marathon, which means I've already outpaced last year's efforts (only by one, to be sure, but still), and I haven't even gotten to the big day yet (at least two or three more films are forthcoming). And that's not counting TV viewing, though that's somewhat lessened this year. So here are some quick thoughts on the bevy of horror movies I've seen, but not covered yet:
  • The Void - Carpenter-esque tale of a police officer who escorts a blood covered man to a hospital, only to find that it's been surrounded by weird cult-like people wearing triangle masks. Also, people are starting to transform into... something. Enjoyable enough with solid practical effects (none really beat the classics though, and at least one doesn't work as well as it could), but the story is half-baked and can't really support the film proper. There's hints of depth involving loss and grief, but it never fully achieves those ambitions. Still worth a look. **1/2
  • The Girl with All the Gifts - A half zombie girl goes on the run when the full zombies attack her secret military hospital home. Mild spoilers, I guess. I'm not a huge zombie fan, but this one puts some interesting twists on the formula, and I think the ending is surprisingly good (the legacy of Matheson's I Am Legend looms large...) **1/2
  • Chopping Mall - Post-Terminator, pre-Robocop tale of mall security robots running amok, I definitely remember seeing this on late night cable in my youth, and it's actually pretty great 80s schlock.
    Killbots on the loose
    The robots deal out ED-209-esqe quips while shooting lazers that sometimes blow a head off, and other times just sorta lightly singe their clothes. The heroes are mildly resourceful and represent a good mix (they go shopping at a sporting goods store called Peckinpah's!) It's all in good fun, and the Amazon Prime transfer is shockingly good (as you'll see below, this is often not the case). **1/2
  • Chastity Bites - Mildly diverting take on the whole Countess Bathory legend. The spin this time is that an immortal serial killer that survives by bathing in the blood of virgins has taken up residence as the local abstinence councilor. A little hamfisted in its politics, but again, diverting enough. **
  • Frenzy - Minor Hitchcock about a serial killer who strangles his victims with a necktie. The police have an obvious suspect, but this being Hitch, he's the wrong man! Solid stuff, not top tier Hitch, but that's a high bar. This is worth checking out... ***
  • Scream 4 - I watched this for the 6WH a few years ago and really enjoyed it, and still do. I think it's my favorite of the Scream sequels, and while some of the tech stuff has aged really poorly (and frankly wasn't much of a thing even then), some bits land really well (I particularly love the fakeouts at the opening). **1/2
  • Messiah of Evil - Woman tries to find out what happened to her dad in a weird town with quasi-zombies. Or something. It's totally nonsensical and hallucinatory and my copy was pan-and-scan crap, so it didn't even look that great. I would love to try sleeping on that suspended bed thingy though. **
  • Death Spa - One of the two seminal fitness themed horror films of the 80s (the other being Killer Workout, a film I now need to track down), this one has a sorta ghost in the machine vibe to it, as the spirit of a woman wreaks havoc on a partially automated fitness club. Fun 80s cheese. **1/2
  • Severance - Slasher-esque story of a company retreat that gets sidetracked into a murderous compound or some such. Has some nice darkly comedic elements, but it isn't quite a full horror comedy (as it's sometimes billed). Uneven but enjoyable. **1/2
  • Ms .45 - Quintessential rape revenge movie about a mute seamstress who is assaulted and raped not once, but twice in one afternoon, after which she goes on a murderous revenge spree. First heard about this in Carol Clover's essay "Getting Even" but at the time, it was hard to find. Then Drafthouse films did a restoration a few years ago, and it now looks great.
    Ms 45 deals out some revenge
    Really stresses the uncomfortable male nature of the city, and gets you into the revenge, and Zoƫ Lund does a great job. Lots to chew on here. **1/2
  • Happy Death Day - The notion of a horror version of Groundhog Day has been done again and again, but this one is actually pretty darned good, with some slasher-like elements (great mask on the killer) and some decent enough twists on the normal formula. **1/2
  • Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI - I've opined on this film often enough, I think, but it's my favorite of the franchise, and it holds up pretty well. So when an actual Friday the 13th came around, I figured I had to watch it. ***
  • Video Nasties: Draconian Days - Watched this after the Video Nasties themed week, and it gives a good overview of the whole situation that lead to the nasties and censorship in the UK, as well as the underground VHS scene. Directed by Jake West, who made a couple of great, trashy horror films himself, but has been suspiciously quiet the last few years. Would love to see more from him. In the meantime, this is interesting enough. **1/2
  • What We Do in the Shadows - This comedic mock-documentary still works absurdly well, and is one of the movies I was really excited to revisit this year. ***1/2
  • Friday the 13th Part III - This one kept showing up on TV and I caught it one random night. It's the sort of thing that I genuinely wonder what it would be like in a full 3D theatrical performance, as the movie is so shamelessly and blatantly pointing objects at the screen and so on. And the ending is so derivative of itself that it circles back to being kinda interesting. **
  • Primal Screen - Short documentary about the creepiness of ventriloquist dummies and dolls made by Rodney Ascher (who made the great Room 237 and The Nightmare), it's pretty good. I'm not entirely sure what the deal is though, as it's listed as a TV series, but this appears to be the only episode. **1/2
  • Gerald's Game - Damn, there's been a lot of new Stephen King adaptations this year, and this appears to be one of the better ones, which is interesting because the story doesn't seem particularly cinematic. Director Mike Flanagan has proven himself again and again of late, though, and at this point anything he makes is a must-watch. A woman (played by the always great Carla Gugino) is handcuffed to her bed for some kinky times with her husband, but he (a shockingly ripped Bruce Greenwood) promptly dies, leaving her trapped. Again, works surprisingly well. ***
  • The Manitou - A vaunted selection for Kaedrin's Weird Movie of the Week, this one has a great summary: "A woman gets a weird growth on her shoulder. As is often the case, it turns out to be a fetus." Not the most culturally sensitive film, but it has enough batshit elements and goes completely off the rails (in a good way) towards the end. **1/2
  • Mother! - Darren Aronofsky's divisive latest, this is an amazing display of talent in service of a rather uninspired biblical allegory. It's an audacious effort and a good counter-example of Hollywood's normal tendencies, totally worth checking out, but it's kinda ugly and not very easy to watch. Adventurous stuff, even if it didn't really rock my boat. **1/2
  • The Mutilator - Slasher comfort food, kids go to a beach house are stalked by one of the kids' absentee father. Or something like that. Really good gore and kills, but little else distinguishes this film (also, transfer on Amazon Prime is pretty bad and pan-and-scan), but that's kinda the joy of the slasher film, amiright? **1/2
  • Jaws - Stone cold classic, and you shouldn't need me to say anything else about this. ****
  • Curtains - More slasher comfort food, this one has much more meat on the bone and it feels like one of the more underrated efforts on the sub-genre. An actress gets herself committed to an asylum because she's a crazy method actor. Lo and behold, her partner (the director of the movie) up and abandons her, and then sets up a weird casting call of six actresses in a remote mansion. Naturally, a masked killer shows up. The final girl isn't immediately obvious (or, at least, the obvious choice feels a bit like a red herring), which is appreciated, though by the end, you probably have a pretty good handle on what's going on. Standout performance from John Vernon (best known as the crusty old dean from Animal House) as the sleazy director, but all the performances stand out for the genre. Craptacular Amazon Prime video is at 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but then there's visible boom mikes in several shots, making me think that instead of doing pan and scan, they just didn't mask to 1:85:1 or something like that. It's crappy, but it was free. And the movie is an above average slasher with less focus on gore, but still creative enough to keep things interesting. ***
  • The Third Eye - A contender for the Erika Blanc themed week, I caught up with it later because Blanc's role was comparatively small here. This is a pretty blatant remix of Psycho, with some additional Hitchcock elements thrown in for good measure. Domineering mother, taxidermy, surprising early deaths, lookalike blondes, there's lots of familiar stuff here. Blanc's role is relatively small though, and Franco Nero is only barely managing to sell the premise. **
  • The Love Witch - Anna Biller's gorgeous and well composed tale of a witch who is determined to find a man who loves her, but ends up driving them all crazy in the process. Interesting and visually stunning, it ultimately feels a bit hollow and pointless, though there's a lot of threads to chew on here if you look for them. **1/2
  • The Babysitter - A boy who is in love with his babysitter finds out she's some sort of satanist murderer and has to escape her cult of teen followers. Goofy little tale, decent amount of humor, nice gore, but not exactly scary. Still, its a diverting little movie, dumb fun, and worth checking out if you're in the mood for such a thing. **1/2
  • Scream: The TV Series (Season 2) - I really enjoyed the first season of this show last year, but this second season leaned into the series' worst habits. Lack of communication, never talking to the cops, people constantly splitting up, a nigh omniscient killer, and a bunch of dumb, repetitive subplots that are repetitive. The last few episides liven things up a bit, but it all feels a little too outrageous at this point. Looks like it's coming back for a third season, and the cliffhanger is kinda interesting I guess, but I suspect the series has worn out its welcome. Part of why the first season worked so well is that it completely jettisoned all the normal Scream mythology and started from scratch. This sequel is so beholden to the mythology that it's starting to fall apart...
  • Slasher (S2, E1) - It looks like this series is going the anthology route, with season 2 having nothing to do with season 1. This time around, a group of camp counselors reunite five years after they murdered another camp counselor. Only had time for the first episode, which was ok, but nothing to write home about, and some pretty dumb cliches. Still, I might have to check out more...
  • Stranger Things 2 (S2, E1-4) - I was a big fan of season 1, and so far so good on season 2. I'm only four episodes in, and it seems a bit unfocused, but still entertaining. Some strain is showing here, but this could still turn out great, depending on where they go. So far, there's been a few dumb bits (like, really, you find a tiny creature that doubles in size every day and you think it's cute?) and they've done that thing again where a bunch of characters are separated, but I'm betting things will get back on track quickly. Each episode has a great cliffhanger ending that just begs you to watch more, such that I suspect I might even finish this thing before Halloween is done...
  • Trick 'r Treat - Haven't watched it yet, but will probably check it out before/on Halloween! ***1/2
  • Halloween - Duh. ****
I'm probably going to watch a couple of other things before the big day, but this is basically the end of this year's festivities. Already looking forward to next year!
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6WH: Season's Readings

Just catching up on some of this Halloween season's readings. I've already covered Stephen King's Christine and Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs (and their corresponding filmic adaptations), but here's the rest of what I read:
  • Death Count: All of the Deaths in the Friday the 13th Film Series, Illustrated by Stacie Ponder - As a big fan of the recently revived Final Girl blog and Stacie Ponder's associated offerings, I was happy to see that she decided to collect her artwork from the Death Count blog into a fancy schmanzy book.
    Jason in his high school yearbook photo
    Ponder's artwork is distinctive and generally fun, even when depicting horrific scenes of terror (some choices are absolutely inspired), and her short writeups of each movie are well done. Most of the actual content is still available online, but fans of the Friday the 13th series might want a copy all for themselves.
  • Deep State by Christopher Farnsworth - I've long been a fan of Farnsworth's Nathaniel Cade books, particularly Red, White, and Blood. For the uninitiated, Cade is a vampire who is magically bound to serve the President of the United States. It's ridiculous, of course, but a whole lot of fun. The series has been on a bit of a hiatus since Farnsworth switched publishers, but he's published a couple of novellas, including this most recent one, which actually picks up after the cliffhanger at the end of Red, White, and Blood. A nuclear missile silo has gone dark, and the president calls in Cade to resolve the matter. The only problem is that he needs a handler for the vampire, and no one seems up to the task since Zach Barrows was unceremoniously fired during the events of the previous book. So the president finally admits his mistake and rehires Zach, then they go fight some vegetal monsters and save the world. Again. Spoilers, I guess, but Cade is kinda like a superhero - you know he's going to win. It's great to see the duo paired up again. This wasn't quite the continuation of the story I was expecting, but the greatest part of these stories is the esoteric bits and pieces of horror lore, not the overarching meta-story. Someday I hope Farnsworth can free himself from whatever legal bonds are preventing him from a proper, novel length Cade story. In the meantime, this is a decent story (and better than the previous short offering, The Burning Men) and worth checking out for fans.
  • Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon - This is a hard one to talk about without spoiling anything, but if you like Sturgeon and horror-adjacent psychological stories, it might be your bag. It doesn't seem like much at first. Told in an epistolary format, it initially covers a sort of auto-biography of George Smith, followed by some correspondence and documentation from his psychiatrist, who manages to deduce Smith's true nature. It makes for a good companion piece to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, only instead of focusing on physical explanations for vampirism, Sturgeon goes into psychological reasons, positing a non-supernatural vampire. It takes a while to get there, but overall the story is very short and strays considerably from whatever you might expect from the description above. It's slow and oddly structured, but I kinda appreciated that and ultimately really enjoyed the book for what it was.
  • Final Girls by Riley Sager - I originally picked this audiobook up because I thought it was the next book on this list (the titles both involving "Final Girls" in some way), but I immediately realized my mistake when I started listening. But hey, both are literary takes on my beloved slasher sub-genre, so that's fine by me. The story follows one Quincy Carpenter, lone survivor of the Pine Cottage massacre that claimed the lives of five friends. The ever considerate media thus associated her with two other women who had survived similar ordeals, thus dubbing them "The Final Girls". Ten years after her traumatic experience, Quincy is doing ok for herself. A popular food blogger with a loving boyfriend and a support network that includes Lisa (one of the other Final Girls) and Coop (the cop who saved her life that fateful night), she almost feels normal. Then Lisa turns up dead, an apparent suicide. And Sam, the only other remaining Final Girl shows up at Quincy's doorstep. Is someone trying to finish off the Final Girls? It's a neat premise that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, Quincy isn't the greatest protagonist, constantly filled with self-doubt (understandable!) and getting herself into obviously dumb binds (not so understandable). Sager does a great job implicating just about everyone we spend time with in the story, such that any of them could turn out to be the killer in the end... but there aren't enough characters for this to entirely work, and she makes these ambiguities so conspicuous that by the time she actually does reveal the killer, it's not as surprising as it could be, since we've already been considering that person the whole time (and we're never quite able to really rule anyone out). Still, despite dragging a little in the second act, the finale works well enough. I admit I was hoping for something more slasher-esque, but this doesn't really deliver on the potential of its premise, even if it was a diverting enough read.
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones - Lindsay, homecoming queen, has just survived a typical slasher movie style massacre at the hands of a madman wearing a Michael Jackson mask. But the killer's body was never recovered, and it seems like the replacement homecoming court is in for a bumpy ride. Now this is more like it, a story that is drenched in slasher tropes and explicit references, sorta like Scream on hallucinogens. The prose style is unusual though, and I'm not entirely sure it works. It's kinda like a hybrid movie script and novel; explicitly specifying camera movements and cuts, but adding a little literary flare too. It does imbue the story with momentum, but clarity suffers a bit. There's not a ton of exposition, so some stuff feels a little unexplored, and it's hard to keep the characters straight. Stephen Graham Jones clearly knows his stuff though, and not just the big names of the sub-genre. And so do his characters, who all know they're in a slasher film and have seen enough to know the ins and outs. The final revelations are, perhaps, a bit too twisty, but this is definitely better than the previous book on the list in that respect, and this one's a lot shorter too. Fans of the sub-genre could enjoy this, assuming they can get past the odd formatting... I certainly did.
  • Shutter by Courtney Alameda - Micheline Helsing is one of the last descendants of the Van Helsing line, and she continues their monster hunting ways. Her weapon of choice? An analog camera, which can capture spiritual energy on film. A seemingly routine haunting turns complicated when her entire team (including herself) is infected with a curse that could kill them all in seven days if they don't exorcise the ghost that infected them. Cut off from the Helsing organization, they must find this powerful ghost and figure out a way to defeat her. A decent, light YA novel with some creepy atmosphere and imaginative creations, it also struggles a bit with exposition (not a huge deal in my book, honestly) and there's simply not much here that we haven't seen before. It's a little formulaic, but well executed and generally fun. Not something you need to rush out and read, but it'd be a good introduction to many of the tropes it relies on. Those of us already steeped in those tropes might find it a bit staid, but you could do worse.
We're in the homestretch now, stay tuned for a Speed Round of short reviews of all the movies that didn't make it into the weekly (usually themed) recaps...
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I've been pretty good about cobbling together themes for a given week over the past few years, but every once in a while inspiration fails me and I end up with a week like this where I've watched a bunch of movies with no discernible theme. These things happen.
  • Don't Do It (short)
  • Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (trailer)
  • Green Room (trailer)
  • Murder Party - On Halloween, a lonely schlub finds an invitation to a "Murder Party" just lying there on the street and decides to attend. Unfortunately, it seems that he's the one who is deemed to be murdered by a bunch of struggling, pretentious artists hoping to secure grant money from a sadistic academic. On the other hand, art isn't easy and it turns out that killing this guy is besot with mishaps and accidents. This was Jeremy Saulnier's (of Blue Ruin and Green Room fame) first full length feature, and it's a bit of a hoot. Sure, it shares a certain dark streak with his other films, but this also introduces quite a bit of humor into the mix, making for a generally enjoyable experience. It's clearly low budget and visually not up to par with his later efforts, but you can still see the same DNA in the structure and unfolding of the story. It's got some nice horror elements to it, lots of practical effects that mostly look great.
    Baseball Fury and his murder party
    The villains are fantastic snobs (and their costumes are great, particularly Pris and the Baseball Fury); one gets the feeling that Saulnier spent lots of time around pretentious artists, as this film is a pretty scathing look at that whole world (even the "normal" artists we see later in the film are pretty douchey). But it's all in good fun, short and sweet, it never wears out its welcome and has a pretty good finale too. Most enjoyable and it works as a Halloween night watch if you're on the lookout for something new or different that has the right holiday atmosphere... ***
  • Village of the Damned (trailer)
  • Children of the Popcorn (Robot Chicken)
  • Bloody Birthday (trailer)
  • Cathy's Curse - A young girl is possessed by her aunt's spirit and proceeds to go on a profanity laden rampage. What a bizarre little film. It's, well, not very good, but it sorta rockets past its limitations and eventually lands well into So Bad It's Good territory.
    Cathy using her doll as a weapon
    It's always fun seeing a little girl curse, and I'll admit that the actress portraying the eponymous Cathy does a great job conveying the campiness of the story, in an unintentionally humorous way. There are lots of weird choices here and the plot, such as it is, is borderline incoherent, but it somehow still manages to entertain. I can see why this film has garnered a bit of a cult following, as it is really something to behold. I'm not sure if I'm entirely sold on it, but it seems like the sort of thing that would get better and better every time you watch it. **1/2
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: Nightmare Cafeteria
  • Ravenous (trailer)
  • No Power (Robot Chicken)
  • Raw - A teen raised as a vegetarian goes to a veterinary school, meets up with her sister, befriends her gay roommate, and gets a taste for meat. Human meat! Alas, the film is not as schlocky as my description makes it sound. Impeccably crafted and shot but a little slow and aimless, the film has a surreality to it that works well enough. That, or French veterinary schools are way more intense and borderline abusive than most other schools. I mean, it is filled with French people, and they're the worst (I kid, I kid, I am actually the one who is the worst), so there is that.
    A vegetarian who eats humans
    The cannibalism theme mostly bubbles under the surface, as our heroine is slow to even try animal meat. The first time she tries human meat is a really strange sequence that doesn't seem to have much in the way of consequences (well, a trip to the hospital is involved, but then nothing, strange). Indeed, consequences seem beside the point in this movie. At one point someone causes a car accident that kills two people, but we just sort of cut away. It's all a bit incongruous and confusing for most of the film, though the ending clears things up a bit and that last coda did score back a few points the movie had lost in my book. Not really enough to make me love the film though. So it's got some positives, but it's ultimately not really my thing. **
And we're in the homestretch. I seem to have mistimed things a bit, as we'll have a few extra days at the end of the marathon before Halloween (Six and a Half Weeks of Halloween doesn't quite flow well...), but next weekend I'll finish things up with the traditional Speed Round of stuff not covered in the weekly roundups. Also, look for some season's readings reviews on Wednesday...
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6WH: The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs has slowly but surely established itself as one of my favorite movies and it's something I've rewatched far more than I would have expected when I first saw it (around 25 years ago, sheesh). Despite loving the movie, I had never read Thomas Harris' novel until recently. Last week, I looked at John Carpenter's adaptation of Stephen King's novel Christine, a typical instance of the book is better than the movie even if the movie is worthwhile on its own. This time around, Jonathan Demme's filmic adaptation of Thomas Harris' book is one of those rare the movie is just as good as the book, if not better type situations.
Silence of the Lambs First Edition Hardcover Artwork
The film follows the novel very closely, so much so that a detailed comparison isn't particularly useful. True, the novel does go into more detail, but while the film streamlines some components, it doesn't feel like anything is lost. There's a subplot involving Jack Crawford's sick wife (not in the movie at all), more detail on the transexual elements (or rather, the lack thereof, which is the point), some additional tension around the possibility of Starling missing too much class time and being "recycled", more sequences with Senator Ruth Martin and a bunch of other side characters like Barnie, Starling's roommate Ardelia Mapp, or their firearms instructor, and, um, in the book Lecter paired an Amarone, not a Chianti, with his census taker's liver. If that last one didn't tip you off, all of these are minor changes and snips, and in fact their removal might actually have improved the movie.

The story is centered on Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster in the movie, and her enlistment of the menacing but imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in trying to hunt down another serial killer. Again, the movie follows the book closely, hitting every major beat, and mostly leaving the story alone.
Starling in an elevator Starling surrounded by gawking policemen
It does, however, make ample usage of the visual medium. Starling enters an elevator at the FBI academy and is immediately dwarved by taller, broader men. Starling, alone, surrounded by gawking local police officers at a funeral home. I'm not usually one to comment on the concept of "male gaze" but it's apt here, both almost innocently, as when some classmates turn their head during a jog, and much more menacingly, as Buffalo Bill stalks his prey with night vision goggles. The role of gender in the film could easily have been overplayed, but maintains a good balance. Hannibal Lecter's reveal, seen from Starling's POV is perfectly executed. The production design of Lecter's cell and they way he is later transported on a handtruck with custom restraints, all unforgettable details that you don't really get on the page. Lecter's garish staging of his victim. And one key addition to the movie (that would probably not work in a written medium) is the way Demme cross cuts from an FBI raid to Buffalo Bill hearing the doorbell. It's a cheat, maybe, but the best kind of cheat.
Hannibal the Cannibal reveal Hannibal in his travel gear
For her part, Jodie Foster does an exceptional job portraying a woman making her way through a man's world who nonetheless manages to project more confidence than she probably feels. She's clearly intelligent and knows exactly what she's getting herself into, but sometimes self-conscious of her background, a point immediately seized on by Lecter. Speaking of whom, Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter is an enduring creation, despite not having nearly as much screen time as Starling. Cold and calculating, you never really know how much you trust him, but because of Starling and Lecter's relationship, you find him almost likable (he's helping her, after all, and seemingly understands her plight better than anyone else), despite the fact that he's quite literally a monster. Comparatively, Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill is perhaps not as chilling, but still represents a more deviant threat. There are some who laugh off his performance with a sort of ironic hipster detachment, but he does a good job. Most of the other supporting performances, even itty bitty ones like Frankie Faison as the competent orderly Barnie or Anthony Heald's slimy turn as Dr. Chilton (his bumbling, inappropriate attempts to proposition Starling are particularly relevant at the moment, I think, as is his generally self-serving demeanor, actually), turn out to be surprisingly memorable. This is no accident.
Starling in night vision
Despite being so similar, I also enjoyed the book quite a bit. Perhaps it's just my fondness for rewatching the movie that made reading the book (well, listening to the audiobook, actually, which did have a great narrator in Frank Muller) so enjoyable. Ok, maybe some of the expanded bits were interesting too, but I honestly don't see them as necessary. Harris' prose is straightforward but well suited towards the story. As Ted Demme's visual style is not showy or grandstanding, yet still extremely effective, so too does Harris' prose work to keep the story moving without calling too much attention to itself.
Lecters ghastly staging of a victim
Plus, it's not like the movie didn't inherit Harris' well constructed plotting, which is what gives it such a propulsive pace. Clocking in at nearly two hours, it never feels like it's too long, and yet Demme finds time to linger on the certain elements of the story in a way that helps generate a generally unsettling tone. This isn't a traditionally action-packed story (though there are a couple of solid set pieces), so these more restrained approaches fit, while still keeping the viewers and readers engaged. This movie hits that goldilocks zone. Red Dragon was a little too lurid and sloppy, Hannibal way too ugly and disturbing (though, I will note, I'm only going by the Ridley Scott adaptation on that one), Silence of the Lambs is just right. A combination of high and low in perfect proportions. Lurid and disturbing, but leavened by insight and depth. Involving and frightening, Silence of the Lambs will probably outlive its siblings, and will almost certainly join the ranks of the horror classics (if it already isn't there, which it should be and certainly is in my book).
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6WH: Week 5 - Found Footage

Is Found Footage dead? For the uninitiated, it's a sub-genre in which a film appears to be assembled from actual camera footage recovered from an event. More broadly speaking, I suppose you could slot it in as a type of fake documentary (mockumentary) as well. While its origins run deep (the ur example usually cited is the 1980 Italian schlock-fest Cannibal Holocaust), the genre didn't hit the big time until The Blair Witch Project became a sensation around the turn of the century.

Since then, the sub-genre has waxed and waned a few times, at least in the mainstream, as low-budget contenders come and go, with the occasional revitalizing effort keeping the concept alive. The J.J. Abrams produced Cloverfield hit a solid 8 years after Blair Witch, but it was Paranormal Activity that really kept this approach on the radar. All through that time, though, Found Footage has remained a constant in the horror niche. The reasons of this are varied, but they aren't going away. The unending march of technology, social media, and our compulsion to document everything we do goes a long way towards answering one of the frequently begged questions of the sub-genre: why the hell were they filming this crap? The approach can lend a sense of verisimilitude to an otherwise hoaky concept (though let's be honest, that's still easier said than done). It's a low budget aesthetic that will continue to be a mainstay of horror cinema.

The approach doesn't come without its challenges. The aforementioned issue of motivation still remains a key question (why would you keep filming!?) For the most part, you have to be willing to cut the filmmakers a little slack when it comes to this sort of thing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it emphatically does not. The handheld aesthetic, while imparting a sense of realism, is also easy to overdo. I can't think of anyone who really likes shaky cam, even if you can occasionally justify its use. Funnily enough, I think a big part of the Paranormal Activity series' success is its innovation of using a tripod through the majority of the films. Another thing this approach tends to rely on is improvised dialog, which often turns out abysmally. I think it was fine in the original Blair Witch Project (though I get that a lot of people hate it for that), but they walked a fine line in that movie, one that most found footage can't pull off.

Found Footage may not be making current waves at the box office, but it continues to be common amongst indie horror offerings and is here to stay. For this installment of the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, I caught up with three lesser known examples of the sub-genre, so let's dive in:
  • Willow Creek (trailer)
  • The Bay (trailer)
  • The Last Broadcast (trailer)
  • The Poughkeepsie Tapes - The FBI discovers hundreds of video tapes in an abandoned house in Poughkeepsie, NY. The tapes depict decades of a serial killer's exploits, especially focusing on one victim. Last year, whilst revisiting The Blair Witch Project, I mentioned that it was odd that most found footage movies simply consisted of the footage itself and no context, no interviews with experts, etc... Well this movie is exactly what I was talking about. It's a mock documentary that is roughly split evenly between the eponymous tapes and talking head interviews with investigators, experts, victims' family members, etc... For the most part it's an effective approach, and the film is genuinely unnerving.
    Talking Head Interview in The Poughkeepsie Tapes
    It does come off a bit disjointed, but that's to be expected given the conceit and actually serves to reinforce the feeling that what we're watching is real (I mean, it's not, but still). Some of the individual episodes are very well done. At one point, the killer approaches the mother of one of his victims and tells her to "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help" and at first, the woman just politely responds, but then you see something dawning on her face and the killer runs away, giggling. Some of the stalking and torture sequences got under my skin as well. There's one segment in which 9/11 plays a part that is surprising and effective. One bit with a victim that was recovered after years of being the killer's slave is very disturbing and sticks with you. There's no real jump scares or gore, just a general tone of dismay that serves the film well. There's lots to like here, but some flaws drag it down a few pegs. The actual video footage is very poor quality. I realize this is supposed to be VHS from the 90s, so the quality isn't going to be great, but I think they overdid the wavy VHS distortions. Also, every clip is preceded by an annoying audio buzzing click noise that is distracting. I get what they're going for here, but it's just weird. For one thing, the video is presented at 1.85:1 (just like the rest of the movie), while most video cameras of the era would be 4:3. Why do that, but keep the quality so crappy? Some of the acting in the interviews is a bit off as well, but nothing too jarring. Sometimes it feels like we're being told to be scared than we're actually seeing something scary, but on balance, the film works. It's a genuinely unnerving film, even if it doesn't feel particularly satisfying in the end. **1/2
  • Paranormal Activity (trailer)
  • Paranormal Pactivity (Robot Chicken)
  • The Last Exorcism (trailer)
  • Lake Mungo - A young woman disappears and her grief-stricken family begins to think she's haunting their house. Another faux documentary comprised mostly of talking head interviews and various other recordings. The proportion is more focused on the interviews than the actual footage that was found, and since all of this has clearly happened in the past, there's not much tension (and some of the footage turns out to be less reliable than originally thought, which also puts a damper on things). The video footage is mostly better here, though it's still quite unclear at times (but at least that has to do with zooming in on an image rather than the whole thing being manipulated to look poor quality).
    The family from Lake Mungo
    Unfortunately, most of this doesn't add up. The film is well made, but lacks a bit of focus on what it really wants to get at. It does a reasonable job exploring the grief the family is going through, but there's a lot of tangents that open more questions than they answer. In fact, the titular Lake Mungo doesn't even show up until pretty late in the movie, and while we do get a couple of interesting developments there, it still feels anticlimactic. The movie never really coalesces beyond the grief plot, despite trying for some supernatural angles (that can get mildly creepy at times, but are almost always undercut by some other development, with the notable exception of the ending which attempts something kinda weird). On the other hand, I suspect that this will stick with me more than originally thought. Only time will tell on that front though, for now I'll just stick with this is a decent exploration of grief with some neat supernatural speculation. **1/2
  • The Blair Witch Project (trailer)
  • How the Blair Witch Project Should Have Ended (short)
  • Troll Hunter (trailer)
  • WNUF Halloween Special - Imagine discovering a long lost video tape of one night's local TV station's Halloween broadcast, complete with a full news program (with the anchors in costume and everything), commercials, and a "special" where a film crew enters the infamous Webber house, the site of a gruesome local legend. This is a fascinating format for a movie and a novel approach to the sub-genre. It captures the 80s-style local broadcast shockingly well. I doubt it'd really convince anyone it was real (too much of a focus on the local environs and businesses with no mention of anything else), but on the other hand, they did an astonishing job imitating the period and its tropes and excesses.
    WNUF Halloween News Broadcast
    A certain type of viewer will definitely appreciate this nostalgic tone; the types that go hunting for cheesy old commercials on YouTube will also get a kick out of it. Some of the news segments are great (the one with the dentist is pitch perfect), the commercials are dead on, and the trumped-up exploration of a supposed haunted house is a good idea. Unlike the previous two films, this one takes a more comedic tone. Local television personality Frank Stewart is fantastic and mostly hilarious, all while playing it straight. The husband and wife paranormal team and priest are a little less successful, but Stewart keeps this all on track, even as unexpected things start happening. There are, perhaps, a few too many commercial breaks, the video quality ain't great (still better than The Poughkeepsie Tapes though), and the finale goes a bit off the rails, but everything fits together in the end. This is a unique, nostalgic take on the Found Footage genre and worth checking out. **1/2
Maybe I was being too hard on these movies, but I had a lot of fun with this weekend. These weren't perfect, but they were certainly interesting... Up next is another book/film adaptation combo on Wednesday, followed by, hmmm, I don't have a theme for next weekend yet (and frankly, I haven't done a "no discernible theme" week in a while...)
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