A Review of Spotlight

It’s important to understand what Spotlight is and what it is not. This is not a film about the priests in the Catholic Church who molested children. (2008’s Doubt already masterfully covered that topic.) This is also not about the church hierarchy covering anything up.

This is a film about reporters who realized they had a massive story but realized the community around them may not want to hear it. It’s also about how the publication they worked for had the information around the scandal about a decade before they published the article.

The film manages to create a tremendous energy as the reporters run to find public records and answer phone calls. The casting is also tremendous and the performances great. But Spotlight is great for the same reason All The President’s Men is great. In a cynical age of deep distrust in our institutions, Spotlight is an encouraging movie that demonstrates not everything is hopeless. The fact that the film is about the Catholic Church sex scandal is almost irrelevant – what matters is the fact that there were people willing to question their worldview and find the truth for themselves.

From every technical aspect, Spotlight is a good film. The cast members appropriately play their characters as dogged people who have to fight against themselves and the world to find what they’re looking for. There’s Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the head of the Spotlight team. He’s the one who appears the most conflicted about what’s happening. He is eager to learn all about the scandal, but not sure what to do with the information. Robinson also realizes that, while he’s tearing down cultural institutions, he’s a part of one that initially helped cover everything up. It’s subtle, but there are moments when Keaton lets the mask slip and his true feelings show.  Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes and Rachel McAdams plays Sacha Pfieffer, two other reporters at the Boston Globe who join the research for the article. They have the same determination but I never got a sense of the same internal conflict. Keaton is the actor who sells the movie and emphasizes what the filmmakers are trying to say.

Spotlight is also shot and edited like a gripping thriller. This is of course exactly what the film is, but one would not expect this sort of material to have more urgency and better pacing than, I don’t know, The Hunger Games. This is because Spotlight easily drew me in with its subject. I knew, as everyone else does, the result of this reporting. Still, it was exciting to see what would happen and how the reporters were blocked at almost every turn. It’s a good reminder of how ingrained the institution was in Boston. But it’s never overt – just a few images of churches across from playgrounds.  In an age where directors feel the need to put more and more on the screen to attract our attention, Spotlight’s imagery is simple but effective.

But it’s also a film that stays with you and forces you to confront what it brings up. The journalists are interested in finding the truth no matter what the effects it has on the community are. Several people talk about how damaging the Catholic Church would damage the city. Several of the journalists grew up Catholic and Robinson even went to Catholic school. They are fighting against what they were raised to believe in. Even the victims are fighting against themselves to come forward. One gay man talks about how the priest was the only person in his life who told him it was OK to be gay – before pressuring him for sex. Moments like that still have the power to shock people, because those institutions still do hold a lot of sway. Not just the church – and beloved cultural figure accused of such actions is treated with disbelief.

There are no villains in this movie and the clergy is barely shown at all. Yes, the cardinal who helped cover everything up is shown, but it’s not long enough to set him up as the sort of film noir villain. Only one brief scene is set in a church and few priests are shown. Those that are have far more complex stories than one would imagine.

One scene has Pfeiffer confronting a retried clergyman at his home. He openly admits to “fooling around” with young boys. He does so in a quiet tone with no sign of remorse. It’s shocking, but far more shocking is how he justifies his position that he never raped anyone.

“I would know the difference,” he says.


“Because I was raped.”

The conversation ends when the priest’s sister slams the door in the journalist’s face, but it’s a scene that demonstrates what the film’s purpose is. The scandal goes deeper than anyone guesses. So, to, do the emotions and circumstances surrounding the accused. It would have been easy to make the Catholic Church unambiguously evil, but that also would have been too simple. By placing the institution in the background and only hinting at the people involved, Spotlight can focus on its unique strengths.

The ending of Spotlight is one of triumph as the Spotlight office is overwhelmed with calls about the story the team had spent months preparing. But it’s not a story that’s over – the final text reads how the Globe continued to run stories on this for 600 stories. And that cardinal who covered everything up was simply reassigned and never faced any charges. That revelation caused a few audible groans at my screening. Still, the team opened a giant box and the film is a reminder of how it was impossible to put everything back in the box.


But, as I continue to think about it, I realize that Spotlight is a tragedy. It’s not about the Catholic Church and how the scandal affected their leadership. It’s a tragedy about how this sort of careful reporting about something that can have a big impact doesn’t exist in today’s world.

There are still investigative reporters who do great work, but the impact they have is nowhere near the impact that the people at the Boston Globe did with this story. So many stories today are not reliant on slow gathering of facts and methodical checking, but about making sure that the blood boils a little bit and that “the feels” of the audience are touched in some way. It leads to nothing substantial and when people try this approach to traditional investigative journalism, the consequences are dire.

I’ll give you a famous example – Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” story. Much like the reporters in Spotlight, Sabrina Rubin Erdely thought she had uncovered a vast story involving sexual crimes and a powerful institution that was trying to cover them up. The quotes in the original story describe a fraternity that frequently conspired to rape women and an administrative staff at the University of Virginia that basically shrugged their shoulders at the victims. It was a story that could have had a massive impact in the way the Boston Globe’s story did and, had it worked, may have led to a feature film like Spotlight. 

But the writer and editor’s at Rolling Stone were all focused on the immediate impact of their material and making sure that the blood was appropriate boiled. This mean rushing the story to print without verifying anything and without appropriately investigating what happened. As a result, the story unraveled quickly as it became apparent that what their source described could not have possibly happened. Instead of being a triumphant moment for the magazine, Rolling Stone was disgraced with editors resigning, money having to be paid out to settle defamation and libel lawsuits, and the knowledge that no other publication will ever try to seriously investigate allegations of rape on a college campus ever again.

There’s a scene late in Spotlight that highlights this mentality well. Rezendes has gotten the documents via a public records request that proves there was a cover up in a very high-profile case. Robinson doesn’t want to go to print yet because he knows there is a larger story there. What follows in a temper tantrum from Rezendes (which will likely be Ruffalo’s Oscar clip) about how unfair this is and how the story has been written. Robinson’s only response is, “Are you done?”

I can’t imagine that conversation taking place at a publication today – we’ve all seen too many stories that leave us with more questions than answers. Spotlight will hopefully demonstrate that it’s not too late. There are stories out there that involve some powerful institutions hiding things that the public has a right to know. But that’s why the Fifth Estate exists. Spotlight is a great film not because of the excellent craft, the great performances, and the tight screenplay but because of its reinforcement of that message. Nixon is long dead, but All the President’s Men still resonates with audiences. Hopefully Spotlight will find itself in a similar position as time marches on.

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A Review of Spectre

Note: I saw this a few days ago but came down with a bad head cold immediately after, delaying my review. I apologize this isn’t as timeline as I would like. Still, Spectre looks to have a strong second weekend so hopefully this will still serve its purpose.

If I could select one word to describe the James Bond franchise, it would be “cirrhosis.” If I could pick another word, it would be “inconsistent.” There have been plenty of classic Bonds (Goldfinger, Goldeneye, Licence to Kill, Casino Royale, The Spy Who Loved Me) and plenty of unwatchable messes (Man with a Golden Gun, Moonraker, Live and Let Die, Die Another Day, Quantum of Solace). What’s frustrating is when a Bond film falls right in the middle of the two. You’re thankful that the film isn’t as bad as it could be, but you know Bond can indeed do it better.

Spectre unfortunately falls in that category. It’s entertaining and has some great moments. (I loved the pre-credits sequence in Mexico City. It’s an amazing mini-Bond film with Daniel Craig gliding through the scene as if he’s dancing on a stage.)  It also has some good ideas, particularly involving the huge new data bank in London that is being set up to replace the double 0 program.

But Spectre also fully utilizes the James Bond formula that the Daniel Craig era movies had wonderfully ignored. Back are all the gimmicks with the car, the comic opera villain who is more interested in talking than executing their plans, and women who are back to staying in the film for the obligatory sex scene and then disappearing.

This is the same formula that had already been endlessly parodied before the franchise was rebooted with Casino Royale in 2006. With Spectre, that exact formula comes back without a hint of irony.

The idea of bringing back the villainous Spectre organization was an interesting one, as was the idea that it’s the last assignment the former M (Judi Dench) gave to James Bond (Daniel Craig). The current M (Ralph Fiennes), is dealing with the plans of C (Andrew Scott) to essentially replace all of the world’s intelligence organizations with a giant data cache. So Bond has to go over the heads of his bosses to see how the two things could be potentially linked.

The biggest problem with the film is that the filmmakers tried to link everything from previous installments to this new one. They include repeated call backs to the villains in the previous entries and insist that it was all part of some long plan.

How is that even possible? Take Skyfall, where Silva was an ex MI6 agent seeking revenge and did nothing for any plan beyond that. How does he fit into Spectre’s structure? The film never says. It also never says exactly what their end game is. Are they hoping to control every single rogue group in the world? Do they want money? The scene in which Bond infiltrates their group sure feels like a board room meeting. What?

I know that the answers may lie in previous films, but that kind of defeats the purpose of a reboot. Spectre was yours to do anything with. Instead you give us a weak villain with a weak twist. Christoph Waltz supposedly plays a man named Franz Oberhauser, but we all know what’s really coming. And the idea of this organization that wants to take over the world just feels outdated

You can probably already sense my frustration with the formula Spectre has. It was the same as any Bond formula of the past – the formula Casino Royale spent so much effort deconstructing. Even the characters are falling back into their stereotypes. Q (Ben Wishaw) is the same fusspot Desmond Llewlyn was who is hoping that Bond can return some of the equipment. M doesn’t like Bond’s methods but recognizes his ability to get the job done. At least Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) is not just a secretary but a fully realized character.

But the thing is the film follows that formula very well. The heavy henchman character Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, from Guardians of the Galaxy) is a whole lot of fun. It brought to mind the campy fun that Richard Kiel brought to Roger Moore’s Bond outings. I even liked Lea Seydoux’s Bond girl Madeline Swan. (Monica Bellucci is in this movie for maybe two scenes so doesn’t really count for much.) As much as the concept of a Bond girl is growing increasingly outdated, she at least had an established character to her and a connection to Bond’s past. Also, maybe it’s just me, but I do like seeing Bond dressed in whatever the height of current fashion is. It’s the one element I’ve never seen overtly parodied and it does make for an interesting time capsule of the era it takes place. Spectre’s design embraces that aesthetic.

And I liked the master plan. The whole “nukes destroying the world idea” is no longer scary – ironically because Bond has saved the world from that threat. But the massive data collections that threaten to utterly destroy the concept of privacy and may not actually save anyone is far scarier to us. In the wrong hands, what would your browser history or text message record say about you? That is an idea that a modern spy thriller needs to approach. Does Spectre have an answer for that? No, but at least it recognizes the threat that’s present. And that finale in the new office, which doesn’t even focus exclusively on Bond, is a real white knuckle thrill ride.

Spectre is still a wildly entertaining Bond film, but it doesn’t feel as effective as the other ones. That’s because movies like Skyfall and Casino Royale treated Bond as a person. They believed in him and wanted to show what would happen if he was placed in an emotionally engaging situation. In Spectre, Bond is just a character again, going through the motions of another situation. It may be fun, but I felt the series had finally reinvented itself. Spectre ultimately feels like a con is being revealed and that the whole “reboot” idea was temporary. But that’s what the series needed and I hope future installments don’t forget the reasons Casino Royale needed to exist.

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A Review of Room

I really enjoyed the original novel and was very worried about how it would be translated to the screen.

Author Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation) was inspired to write the novel after reading about the terrifying Fritzl case and imaging what it would have been like for children to have to grow up buried in a cellar and how their world would have been shaped – and the shock they must have faced when they finally emerged from their captivity/

She succeeded in creating that image with the five-year old Jack, a child who was born in a cell after his Ma (as he calls his mother) was kidnapped, raped, and imprisoned by a man named “Old Nick.” The novel is told from Jack’s perspective, as he explains the world as he understands it, in which only “room” exist and everything he sees on TV takes place on another planet. He speaks with odd compound words and refers to everything in his and Ma’s cell as though it has a proper name. I’d call it Hemingwayesque, but I doubt Hemingway ever used the phrase “SillyPenis” as Jack does in the novel. Above all, there’s real terror in Jack as he realizes that he’ll have to leave Room and adjust to the outside world.

The novel works because it’s about Jack and his experiences. Ma and other characters are presences in his world. We learn about them, but he never truly understand them. It puts the reader in Jack’s position, which makes the situation far more tragic.

But that approach would be impossible to translate into film. Yes, it would be possible to recreate the events that happen in the novel quite easily – which Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson does without deviating far from the source material. But a film is implicitly told in the third person, which would betray the point of Room. If we can’t truly get inside Jack’s head, then what are we left with?

Luckily, the film solved this dilemma beautifully. The film’s emotional center is not Jack (Jacob Tremblay) but Ma (Brie Larson). In the novel, Ma was a presence that Jack loves but couldn’t understand. In the film adaptation, we finally understand Ma’s struggle as she has to cope with what’s happening to her and how she can still find a way to care for Jack.

Brie Larson plays Ma as completely worn out. There is no glamour in Larson’s appearance and she’s frequently yelling at Jack as she’s trying to get him to understand how the world really is. All of this was implied in the novel, but it was above Jack’s understanding. Ma looks practically like a zombie, who is just going through the motions in Room because she knows that’s what her child expects. After her situation changes, can she really find it in her to still care for Jack in the same way? There were times I began to doubt it, particularly after she started screaming at her own mother (Joan Allen) and came close to blaming her for her capture.

Normally this would come across as melodrama, but it works because there’s a natural build up to it. Larson never plays Ma as depressed or having nervous breakdown. It’s only in private moments where her mask slips away. The entire film is like that, where we’re shown Ma tearing up as she looks at her old high school year book photos.

There are moments we hear Jack’s narration from the book, as he laments the hurry that everyone seems to be in now that time is spread a lot thinner than it was outside Room. Those scenes have a Terence Malick feel, as we hear Jack philosophizing while we see a montage of him playing in his new home. He’s obviously far more able to adjust to his new environment than Ma is, which introduces some new elements to the work. Where most adaptations dilute the point of the original work, Room expands it with new comments on childhood, motherhood, and the effects both have on the world.

Room the movie does what Room the book did so well – it takes us on a convincing emotional journey with people trapped in a situation almost beyond comprehending. It’s a soul-searing film that lingers with you long after the lights have gone back up. After reading the novel, my biggest question to myself was, “what would I have done in that situation?” After seeing the film, I think my question is the far more appropriate, “

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A Review of Crimson Peak

Once again, I find myself disappointed in everyone.

Guillermo del Toro has released a masterful horror film just in time for Halloween, but people are ignoring it in favor of Goosebumps. While Goosebumps is a missed nostalgia opportunity, del Toro has revived a dead genre and has shown everyone why he remains one of the great working effects filmmakers in the same vein as Peter Jackson.

Maybe the problem lay in the marketing. Peak has been endlessly promoted as a ghost story. It’s not. Peak is a highly stylized remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca. Like the unnamed character in Rebecca, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a would be author, falls in love with a mysterious aristocrat. Tom Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) marries her and takes her to live with him in his dilapidated mansion on top of a red clay mine. The house is sinking into the clay and gives the unmistakable image of bleeding walls. But thanks to visions of specters, Edith finds that there is more to Tom and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) than they have let on.

Maybe the other problem lay in the fact that, like Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak is meant to be an examination of a genre that no one but horror fans thinks about anymore. Peak is probably the most overt gothic film since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.

Most people, if they think about the gothic aesthetic at all, think about women wearing black laced clothes and dark lipstick or offensively skinny men who lack the ability to brush their hair. But that’s not what the genre truly examined. Gothic fiction gained popularity in the 19th century as the old aristocracy was dying. What had once been powerful families were increasingly living in the remains of their own past, surrounded by decay. It was the perfect opportunity to point out that, no matter how long they clung, they were as susceptible to death as those members of the “lower classes.” What made them even more prominent is that they introduced the idea that the monsters of peasant folk tales (ghosts, vampires, werewolves) were equal threats to the dying upper class. It made for effective social commentary in a rapidly changing world – changes that we’re still going through.

Rereading that last paragraph, I realize I accidentally summarized the artistic point of Crimson Peak. del Toro revives the genre by ensuring to include everything about it that made those previous works so effective.

He also gets the visual cues just right. The film’s editing is very quick, with abrupt jump cuts to different characters in completely different settings. There are irises onto important objects and there are wipes like there were in old Italian horror. It has the same feeling as reading a Victorian penny dreadful, which is the whole point. It’s the first time I can recall that a film has felt like reading a novel, and I mean that as a compliment. The film is rooted in the old pulp horror fiction that inspired the first generation of horror filmmakers and it’s appropriate that del Toro used that approach in his film.

The mansion the Sharps inhabit is also a wonderful exercise of design. It has the appropriate look of a decayed Victorian mansion and also suggests a place much larger than we could imagine. It’s the sort of playground del Toro loves to create and strikes the appropriate tension between what’s visible and what’s not visible.

But a film should not live on its aesthetic, and Crimson Peak also has great performances to support its themes. Jessica Chastain’s Lucille was the standout for me. Her actions speak volumes about the sexual subtext between her brother and her. It’s very reminiscent of the performance Hitchcock or Lynch would demand, where the actor could convey a deep sense of pain without saying a word. Wasikowska also fits the Mina Harker role nicely. She’s not just a victim but a strong woman who’s very aware of what’s happening to her. That makes the film scarier as we try to see her get out.

del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a successful horror film that reintroduces audiences to a lot of tropes and techniques that great directors used to scare audiences. It’s an artistic triumph that captures some of the great horror techniques of the past. But I guess audiences are ignoring it because of how traditional it is. As the last five years have demonstrated, they would prefer jump scares on YouTube than actual scares that explore the complexities of people and their desires. Perhaps del Toro’s biggest fault lies in his inability to take a look at the future. Still, those of us who respect the evolution of the horror genre will forever be grateful to people like del Toro.


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A Definitive Ranking of the Halloween Films

For many years, it was a tradition for October to have at least one sequel to a long running horror franchise in which people are sliced and diced by any number of monsters. The idea of long running horror sequels is not unique – Universal put their staple of monsters in endless sequels and re-imaginings. But most people seem to associate Halloween boogie men with creatures like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kreuger. Saw kept the tradition alive until just a few years ago, but now the whole idea seems to have gone the way of the Cenobites’ victims.

There is a reason this died out – about 90% of the films were unremarkable. The creators seemed to take on the role of a car manufacturer rather than the role of a filmmaker. They started with the same basic body and just wanted to see what weird gimmicks and gruesome exercises they could add. All the films remained the same at their core – the monster would meet this year’s group of barely-clothed teenagers, sharpen his knives, and off we went. And when all else failed, the monster could always be sent into space to douse someone in liquid nitrogen.

Several people, including some filmmakers, have tried to look for some sort of artistic merit. They’ll either claim that the films were either a satire of Reagan era hatred for youth culture and its inability to completely replicate the social and sexual repression of the 1950s or revise them to be a feminist empowerment statement about how the women who refused to be treated solely as sexual party favors would overcome societal pressure to just join the herd – inevitably, that herd would be destroyed and only the pioneers and nonconformists would survive.

I do like that last theory, but that’s obviously a sack of lies. The filmmakers had no great intent as they were shooting Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Does Dallas or whatever. Usually, it would just be a launching pad with a series that everyone knew would be successful. At best, these are a nice distraction to remind audiences that another year has passed.

There was one exception to this – the Halloween franchise. Not that it didn’t fall prey to all the errors and cheap tricks of other major horror franchises, but the sequels at least tried to tell a longer story. It also had more artistic ambition than any of the Friday the 13ths and even tried to experiment between the different sequels.

So, in the spirit of the holiday, I finally finished watching all of them. And, because the Internet needs more list-based articles, I decided to rank them in order of their quality.  Some will be obvious, but in revisiting these films, I was frequently surprised. Maybe there is an artistic ambition I’ve been missing in other sequels. Or maybe Halloween is the one exception to sequelitis.

1) Halloween – Was there any other choice?

For a while, Halloween was the most successful independent film ever released. It made Jamie Lee Curtis a star and spawned the slasher craze of the ’80s. Next to probably The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead, Halloween is probably the most influential horror film ever.

That’s usually a bad sign for a modern audience. A film that is heavily quoted will have no surprises left. People may also wonder why the film has none of the modern conventions they’re used to. There’s little gore in Halloween, a minimal body count, (only four people are shown dying), and a prolonged first act.

But Halloween, the story of a psychotic killer named Michael Myers who breaks out of an insane asylum to kill teenagers in his home town, remembers the most important thing about horror. It’s not the violence that’s scary – it’s the anticipation of violence that’s scary. That’s why there’s such a long first act and why Myers remains a cypher. It’s irrelevant why he’s doing what he’s doing and the longer he takes, the greater the anticipation is and the more urgent the teen protagonist’s actions become.

Laurie Strode (Curtis) remains among the best horror protagonists. She doesn’t just exist to scream and survive – we get scenes of her with her friends about the boys they’d like to date. It’s become a very troublesome tend now, but horror has always had a sexual subtext. Laurie is a very frustrated character, eager to join her friends on the same Halloween hanky-panky. But, of course, her friends are the ones who fall victim to Myers.

I’m not so sure that director John Carpenter was moralizing. He was acknowledging that horror is about exposing potential dangers in the real world by applying them to supernatural creatures. Myers exists as a creature to punish irresponsibility. The characters who die by his hand are negligent and narcissistic in their pursuits, caring little about the people around them. Laurie survived by being able to think about someone other than herself, in a way that the other teens never do.

There is one major flaw with the film No one ever mentions – Dr. Loomis. His character does not exist to accomplish anything. He stands around, talking about how Michael is “pure evil” and then pulls a deus ex machina out of his trench coat to save Laurie. He’s an unnecessary distraction from the main purpose of the film.

Still, Halloween executes everything else so well that it’s easy to overlook the flaws. It’s one of the few times a cinematic slasher character was ever believable. Halloween remains one of the greatest horror thrill rides ever put on celluloid.

2) Halloween H20 – After years of increasingly weaker sequels and diminishing audience interest, the filmmakers finally realized what made Halloween work.

Scream is ultimately responsible for giving us a new Halloween sequel. The franchise was creatively dead, but after the first film was placed on a pedestal in Scream. That film’s success created a nostalgia for the first film. That nostalgia may have gotten to Jamie Lee Curtis, who signed on to reprise her role. And, in the wave of horror revival, all we needed now was a tongue-in-cheek sequel where the characters are fully aware of Myers and how they can outsmart him.

But Halloween H20 ignored that late ’90s horror approach and is stronger for it. Instead, it focused on what the film needed to focus on to be scary.

First, for the first time in a long time, we care about the potential victims of Myers.  Most slasher films treated the inevitable deaths as exercise of style. It was a way for makeup artists to show off their trade. Most of these artists were highly talented individuals and it’s amazing on a technical standpoint to watch them. But there was no emotional connection with any of the characters.

The film cheats a bit by reintroducing Laurie Strode (Curtis), now the headmistress of an elite private school in California. She’s a functional alcoholic who still has nightmares about her experience from the first two films. She also keeps her teenage son John (Josh Hartnett – remember that guy?) on a short leash while she tries to form a relationship with a new beau named Will (Adam Arkin).

What’s great is we spend a majority of the film’s run time on these characters and little on Myers as he makes his way to the prep school. We get to know Laurie, Will, and her son. There was no opportunity for them to sarcastically comment on the situation. They were scarred of Myers.

But, and this is the second reason that the film works, the experience means something. Laurie is forced to confront her demons in Myers and finally grow up. Most of the scenes with her have her acting like a teenager, where she makes out with Will on a couch and sarcastically talks to her son. She is still the same person that she was at the start of the first Halloween. The climax changes that, as she’s able to let go of her past – more dramatically and with a fire axe, but the point remains.

Horror films are a way for people to confront their own fears. Not too many people have a knife wielding maniac in their past – I hope – but everyone has something in their past they wish they could avoid. It’s a horror film that meant something, which makes it effective.

3) Halloween 4 – Whats great about Halloween 4 is that it’s the film in the series that feels the most like a sequel to the first Halloween. 

The film is less about Myers mayhem and more about the effect the events of the first film had on the people of Haddonfield. They treat him as a legend and are still afraid of him long before he actually shows up. Of course, like all legends, they don’t really believe he could ever return. Of course he does, but that attitude creates a similar suspense that existed in the first film.

It was also wise to bring in a new protagonist in the guise of Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris). She is Myer’s niece, who is coping with the death of her mother Laurie Strode and is haunted by nightmares of Michael. These dreams are as scary s the stabbings because they actually have a prolonged effect on a character. It’s also very easy to sympathize with Jamie and then grow concerned as she chooses to wear the same clown costume that Michael wore when he stabbed his sister to death.

What also works about the film is how it manages to respond to people who claimed violent horror films of the 80s were degrading to society. Some people in Haddonfield start a mob to kill Myers, only to kill an innocent person. So, to, does irrational fear against something vague and unknown.

Even the ending manages to leave audiences wanting more. It’s a great idea about how Myers’ influence on others is far more important than the actual bodies he’s left in his wake. That’s a far scarier message to leave people with, and a confident one. Halloween already realized that had introduced characters that had transcended beyond the screen, and Halloween 4 works because it embraces that new status.

4) Halloween 2 – I remember being profoundly disappointed by this sequel when I first saw it. It was unnecessarily violent compared to the first one, the plot twists were terrible, and the whole idea of a direct sequel taking place on the same night seemed wrong.

Halloween 2 picks up right where the first  Halloween left off, and even includes the final scene of the previous film as the opening. Laurie then goes to the hospital and Michael follows her. Audiences also find out that Laurie is Michael’s sister and he broke out of the mental asylum to finish what he started.

Part of the problem with Halloween II is just how much more violent it is compared to the first. One scene that always stuck with me involves a nurse having her head shoved into boiling water. It’s not any more graphic than any other ’80s horror film, but it just felt more unnecessarily brutal compared to the first film. Again, the first does not contain a lot of graphic violence and certainly nothing in the way of gore. So why was it turned up?

As I pondered this, I realized that Halloween II was a victim of the first film’s success. The first one had already been imitated by all other horror films in such a short time frame that everything seemed like an imitation. This meant that the filmmakers had to change their approach, and they figured that more gimmicky kills would hopefully solve the need to remain groundbreaking.

What’s left doesn’t feel as urgent or necessary as the first film. It feels so committee designed and generic that it loses a lot of thrills. The idea that we needed to find out what happened “the rest of the night” only invited comparisons to the first film, which made the tonal shift more obvious. Still, compared to the others, it still feels more like a Halloween film. Jamie Lee Curtis still does a great Laurie Strode – we even get to see her finally “get the guy,” resolving her frustration in the first film. The ending is great and did a good job of closing Myer’s story before the producers decided they needed to bring him back.

But it also shows that, far too early in the series, Halloween wanted to emulate the lesser films in the genre it helped create.

5) Halloween 3 – The third entry in the Halloween entry is, depending on who you ask, the most misunderstood or the most inept in the franchise.

When it was originally released, the complaints boiled down to one central idea – “Where was Michael Myers?” Yes, this is a film that ignored what was already established as the main plot line for the series. In fact, there is a scene of someone watching the original Halloween on TV, implying we had all been duped and that Myers was just a fictional boogeyman to distract us.

But if you listen to John Carpenter (who produced this film) the whole idea was that Halloween was always meant to be an anthology series, each delving into different aspects of terror. Halloween as a holiday was to be the only connecting theme.

It was a bold move, one that still hasn’t been tried outside of random anthology pieces. Plus, Halloween 3 wasn’t just going to be a horror film. No sir, it was going to be a horror film with a message. Predating They Live by six years, Halloween III is an indictment of American consumerism and how mass communication is turning us into dimwitted monsters.

Does that sound a little too ambitious? It is. The film’s basic plot involves a factory run by witches mass producing Halloween masks that will be triggered by a spell on Halloween night. The kids wearing them will die. How is the spell triggered? Through a TV commercial.

The social commentary is obvious, but then so is a lot of successful commentary. Plus, it is scary. I do like the ending, as a man is screaming into a phone trying to get the evil signal yanked off the air. Additionally, children rather than teenagers are the targets of the homicidal maniacs. That’s far worse, as children are more innocent characters than the horny teens Myers had been killing.

But the more you look at it, the more it falls apart. First, I don’t think anyone’s particularly concerned about ruining the “spirit of Halloween” through commercialism. Halloween is and always has been a commercial holiday. Second, why are kids all dressed in the same costume? Again, costumes and masks have never been a particular fad, and even when kids dress up as the same character, it’s not done in quite the same way. Also, I know that the whole thing is based on Celtic folklore, but the film depends far too much on Irish stereotypes in its villains.  Finally, the protagonists are not particularly memorable. I could describe Laurie Strode’s sexual frustration, her clique at high school, who she wanted to ask to the dance, everything. I could not tell you the first thing about Daniel Challis or Ellie Gimbridge. This may not have been a death-blow, but the first film had all of these elements and did them well. Maybe the solution was to not release it as a Halloween film. It still wouldn’t have much of an impact, but there would have been something.

So that’s why I put Halloween 3 right in the middle – it was the last time anyone tried to make a point in a mainstream horror film during the ’80s. Sure, it doesn’t work, but that’s what happens in experiments sometimes. And the fact that it bombed is a little tragic, because no studio really tried the same thing again until Scream was released. I can understand why people like it and I do share their sympathy. Still, it’s not a film I’m really enthusiastic about. Right at the halfway point is a good spot for this entry.

6) Halloween (Rob Zombie Remake)– What’s the scariest thing? The unknown. The feeling that the seemingly normal situation can go far out of hand. And the feeling that there may be no savior coming to help you.

That’s what worked for the original Halloween movie and what has worked for Rob Zombie’s better films. I’ve defended him when I felt he deserved it. Zombie has made some very scary films like House of 1000 Corpses. But he was dismissed because people felt he was too reliant on old horror techniques and gore.

Well, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was far scarier than The Exorcist. The reason is simple – demonic possession is not real, while weird serial killers are real. There is also the knowledge that the victims probably waited for a savior to come and that it’s impossible to every know what goes on in the mind of a serial killer.

Rob Zombie could have made a great Halloween film. But he ignored what he knew worked and spent about half the movie explaining exactly where Michael Myers came from and what made him kill. Spoiler: He had an unhappy home life. That’s it.

So of course we have to spend the first half of the film completely immersed in that home life, with Michael killing bullies while his stripper mom (Sheri Moon Zombie, who looks like she aged 20 years between House of 1000 Corpses and this) performs her trade. These scenes are boring and ruin the rest of the film. Yes, the back half does have some good moments, but they’re already familiar and the film doesn’t build to them. Myers isn’t so scary once we realize he’s not driven by “pure evil” so much as “I hated my mom’s boyfriend.”

There was one element of this film that improved on the first – its characterization of Dr. Loomis. As played by Malcolm McDowell, Loomis is a much more sympathetic character who wants to help his patients. He’s not the mad Greek chorus screaming at the residents of Haddonfiled, but someone traumatized by his personal failure. When he tries to take the blame and seemingly suffers his fate at the hands of Myers, it worked for the same way the Frankenstein monster’s proclamation that “we belong dead” worked.

I’ll give the film credit for fixing the biggest problem the original had. Too bad it ruins everything else by taking away the mystery of Myers.

7) Halloween 6 (Producer’s Cut) – I’m cheating with this one in that I’ve never seen the original theatrical version. I can imagine that’s for the best.

Halloween 6 was a production disaster that nearly killed the franchise. There were endless rewrites and reshoots while the director, original writers, and stars all disowned the work. It’s the sort of battle that was usually reserved for a Michael Cimino film or a Star Wars prequel. How pathetic is it when the producers turn Halloween 6 into a cautionary tale?

Despite the theatrical cut bombing and earning the series’ lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film refused to die. This was because of the rumored superior cut, which was finally released after almost 20 years on the bootleg circuit.

It’s still not a highlight of the Halloween franchise. It features some of the worst acting in any of the films, courtesy of Paul Rudd. And the plot is nonsensical. Once again, it tries to explain what motivates Myers. In this case, it’s due to some sort of Druid curse that forces Myers to kill his family because of crops or something.

I actually did like that but because it does embrace the cheese that exists on Halloween night. The holiday is not about being disturbing, but rather offering a little thrill without creating any lasting damage. But it comes across as a comic parody of a satanic ceremony. As Spinal Tap can attest, adding the Druids to anything will often go wrong.

At least the ending is OK and Donald Pleasance gives a fine farewell performance as Loomis, who is for once the protagonist of the film rather than a useless side character. (The film is dedicated to Pleasance’s memory. He died before it was released.) But the film still suffers trying to balance too many ideas and no clear goal. No one knew what to do with Michael or even what makes Halloween movies work. For once, I wanted a slasher movie to stop trying so hard.

8) Halloween 5- I’m placing Halloween 5 below Halloween 6 because many of the problems with 6 were set up in this film. All of the supernatural ideas and the whole “curse of thorn” bit were introduced here. It also doesn’t feel so much like a film than white noise. It’s something to play in the background of a Halloween party. There’s no tension, no real plot, and nothing particularly shocking or scary.

After the successful Halloween 4, Halloween 5 should have been a fantastic entry to the series. But the end result is too short on ideas to have an appropriate impact. The filmmakers tried to do what Halloween 2 did – make a direct sequel to the previous entry without looking at what that previous entry worked. Gone is the discussion of the impact Myers’ story had on Haddonfield. Gone is all the more believable terror, replaced with psychic bonds and mysterious men in black boots. Gone is even the protagonist, who is rendered a mute after her traumatic experience with Myers in the previous film.

Gone also is any sympathy we had with the series’ other de facto mascot, Dr. Loomis. Loomis has never been a bigger boor, frequently screaming at a mute child in his dogged pursuit of Michael Myers. With this film, Loomis officially went away from Captain Ahab and closer to demented lunatic.

This film does have one good scene, in which Loomis tries to talk to Michael and get him to give up his weapon. It’s very late in the film, but it works. But the film ultimately cannot escape its feeling of redundancy. It doesn’t seek to do anything else but repeat 4. At least 6 tried to justify its existence with the new plot points.

I’ve completely forgotten what film I was talking about. Let’s move on.

9) Halloween 2 (Rob Zombie sequel) – When the best part of a Halloween movie is the part where Weird Al Yankovic shows up for a cameo, it’s not going to rank high on this list.

Rob Zombie’s sequel to Rob Zombie’s remake adds something to the franchise I would have never guessed – confusion. More than once I had to ask myself, “what in God’s name is going on?” The film presents several cheats and horror clichés, like when the protagonist is about to be murdered only to wake up in a hospital bed – and, in the case of this movie, waking up from the only scene with any legitimate tension.

What’s strange about this sequel is that there is some attempt to add something new and there are many scenes that are skillfully made. I liked the setup of Laurie and her friends going out (dressed as Rocky Horror characters) to some rock show on Halloween night. That could be the first act of a much better movie. I don’t necessarily even hate Sheri Moon Zombie reprising her role as “Mother Myers,” in this case as a hallucination Michael has about the need to “bring the family back together.”

So it’s at least trying something new, but nothing works because it’s the completely wrong tone. Nothing about the chase is thrilling and the psychological elements that are added make the film less scary. The less we know about Myers, the greater a presence he is. Somehow, it’s hard to be scared of a mama’s boy who keeps hallucinating white horses.

Even the improvements that Zombie managed to make are ruined. Dr. Loom is becomes a misogynistic jerk who is worried about his book deal. He treats his agent with contempt and can barely stand the people who are buying his book. It’s completely unnecessary for him to go back to Haddonfield and Loomis could have ended up on the cutting room floor.

Halloween II was an unnecessary follow-up to the remake. Perhaps it would have been better if the reigns were handed over to another filmmaker. Zombie presents some interesting ideas, but they would have been a lot better had they not been applied to these existing characters.

10) Halloween Resurrection – It has Busta Rhymes and Tyra Banks in it. That should be all anyone needs to say.

What was also bizarre was the fact that the entire story of the Halloween films is concluded in the first ten minutes. Jamie Lee Curtis is killed by Myers, and then there’s another 80 minutes of movie.

That’s right – Michael’s motivation is removed at the start of the film and the only protagonist that was consistently interesting is gone.

What we have left is just…odd. The whole “webcam show in Myers’ house” thing (Webcam shows were what kids had to use before YouTube came along) is meant to be a gimmick to attract the youth back to Halloween. This makes sense – the Gen Xers who made slasher films so popular were aging out of the youth culture. Additionally, The Blair Witch Project had become the sort of huge hit the original Halloween had been in the 70s. Finally, the idea that Internet houses all sorts of bizarre horrors has been proven to be all too true.

But nothing works because the film never goes anywhere with those ideas. It’s the same sort of standard slasher film that felt dated the week after it was released. Nothing was thrilling, the set up led nowhere, and that knowing meta commentary fell flat. It could pass for a sequel to I Know What You Did Last Summer if not for the William Shatner mask.

And thus, Halloween, the film that spawned a thousand imitators, limped to its conclusion by imitating those films. Part of the fact this was the last real Halloween film had to do with the tragic death of long time series producer Moustapha Akkad, who fell victim to a suicide bomber in Jordan. But from an artistic standpoint, Halloween could not adjust to new horror trends and its attempts to incorporate new media trends came across as insultingly stupid. There was no way to effectively turn a Halloween movie into The Blair Witch Project and there was no reason to try.

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A Review of Black Mass

People seem to forget what Johnny Depp’s biggest strengths are. It’s understandable – for the last decade, Depp has slowly descended into the same self parody that his former mentor Marlon Brando became at the end of his legendary career.

Throughout the 90s, Depp was the best character actor in the world. He worked not just with Tim Burton but other oddball directors like Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, and Roman Polanski to disappear into strange characters. They were all different odd balls trying to make some sense about a worlds where everyone is in deep denial about how broken and pathetic reality is. But by the time The Lone Ranger came out, Depp was uninterested in exploring the characters he was playing. Putting on weird makeup and talking in a funny accent seemed to be enough for him –  he was getting huge paychecks out of the deal. But those who remembered his glory days couldn’t help but feel sadness during that stupid “futterwacken dance” in Alice in Wonderland.

It’s why Black Mass is refreshing; Depp finally seems to care again. Now, this film is completely Depp’s show. There are flaws with the story’s structure and in a lot of the other performances. Plus, the film is thematically confused at times, particularly in the first two acts. But Depp’s performance makes Black Mass worthwhile and the third act is so well done that it’s going to entertain a lot of people.

Most have heard that Mass stars Depp as the notorious mob kingpin Whitey Bulger, a man who terrorized South Boston and got away with it because of his status as an FBI informant. Bulger has already been referenced in films before – Jack Nicholson played a version of him in The Departed. But Depp doesn’t treat Bulger as an object of fun but one of fear. He’s a man trying to be a chameleon, able to joke about his mother beating him at cards but then shooting a friend in the back after promising they still had a good relationship.

Depp’s Bulger is not a charismatic Don Corleone. There’s never a deep introspection into why he does what he does. Even when he agrees to rat for the FBI, he’s using the flimsiest of excuses. There’s no doubt that he’s a man capable of extreme violence who hates putting on a costume to pretend like he has to justify himself to his gang. But even in the few moments where humanity does threaten to seize him, Depp never waivers from the monster. I do believe it’s a performance that deserves comparison to Anthony Hopkins’ in Silence of the Lambs. Like Lector, Depp is a classic monster who reflects humanity’s darkest points. The fact that Bulger was a real man who was given a virtual blank check by the U.S. government to terrorize Boston makes it even worse.

This is the real Whitey Bulger

But one performance should not carry a film, so I can’t ignore the problems Black Mass has. The film is not really an examination of Bulger’s crimes but about Bulger slowly turning FBI Agent Connolly into a villain. Connolly’s story is the traditional gangster story of the man who sells his soul by convincing Bulger to rat out rival gangs for an easy short-term gain via promotion and recognition in the FBI. Mass did have a good twist of making Connolly the cop and thus making his defense of Bulger far more devastating to his career and his life. But I never found Connolly to be an engaging character by himself, mostly because I never believed that Connolly would get away with covering up Bulger’s crimes for so long. And I couldn’t believe that Connolly was in such deep denial about what he was doing. Did he ever stop to justify the bodies turning up in the marsh? Or about how Bulger was destroying the Boston neighborhood Connolly grew up in? And what about Bulger’s brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch – yes, really)? What did HE think about his brother’s crimes and how it could impact his political career? The film wasn’t really forthcoming in those details.

I also felt that there were some moments in Bulger’s story that didn’t have the proper emotional impact. There’s a scene toward the end of the first act where Bulger’s son becomes incredibly sick and his wife talks about pulling him off life support. The moment abruptly ends with Bulger kicking over the table in the hospital cafeteria. That’s pretty much the last we see of this important moment in Bulger’s life that, possibly, cemented his ability to take a human life so casually.

I supposed it read well in the script, but the way it’s shot seems to give us the desire for one more scene with the child for that emotional closure. I don’t know. That approach can be very mawkish, but for some reason I felt it was a necessity. What’s strange is that Black Mass is usually very economical with its scenes and pacing but still delivers the appropriate impact. The famous “Bulger tracked down a man who bought the winning lottery ticket from a convenience store he owned and proceeded to scare him into splitting the winnings” gets about thirty seconds of screen time but gets its point across. Why that important moment failed is something I still don’t understand.

I’m aware these stories are true and I could read any number of news articles to fill in the missing pieces. But films are about feelings and I think I didn’t get the appropriate one in that scene. It does dilute the impact until at least the third act.

With its flaws, Black Mass is still a great picture that shows an artist finally caring about his craft again. Depp’s performance is an effective one that shows us why Bulger is someone we should still care about.

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Rotten Tomatoes and Buzzfeed – A Reminder of how Criticism Works 

I came across a Buzzfeed post about Sister Act 2 and its low Rotten Tomatoes score. It currently sits at a 7 percent “fresh” rating, which Buzzfeed points out places it below Catwoman and only one point above Gigli.

This is apparently a travesty. (I haven’t seen Sister Act 2, but that’s not important for this piece.) After all, “the sequel is phenomenal” and “all your favorite nuns are back.” Lauryn Hill is also used as a selling point, something that hasn’t been done since her Unplugged album flopped 13 or so years ago.

How many of you bought this? Quit lying.

What strikes me is how the writer Mat Whitehead of the article did nothing to back up his point that Sister Act 2 is some sort of misunderstood gem that the critics got wrong. No, it’s about how the critics are wrong because they don’t conform to their “feels.”

I thought we went over this, but it looks like we’ll have to go over it again.

There is a difference between your “favorite” film and the “best” film. Your favorite film is something that’s used to describe you and your personal beliefs. Your favorite film may conjure powerful memories of a time you miss. It can provide a connection to someone you loved that is no longer in your life. Or it can just entertain you no matter how many times you see it.

Sister Act 2 may fit that bill for someone. I can’t take that feeling away. But that does not mean the film is automatically a good one!

Say Whaaaaaat?

It’s really hard to explain how something is good in a way that other people can understand. This is especially true of art (like movies) because it does hit people at a personal level. But I think I’ve figured out a way. To be good, a movie must do three things:

1) It must give us, the audience, a credible and emotional experience that we could not experience in our lives. This is why I think Boyhood is a great film – I felt as though I had experienced that boy’s life even though I never will. This is also why I didn’t like Frozen, because I never once felt like I was sharing the same emotional experience as the characters, no matter how often the film insisted that I was.

2) The film must skillfully accomplish the goals it set out to accomplish. The fairly recent Dredd movie was a good one because is was so incredibly executed. Ditto Mad Max: Fury Road, which is essentially a prolonged chase scene but one so breathtakingly awesome that no one cares about its flimsy plot.

3) The goals in the second item must be something worth doing in the first place. I call this the “Picasso Toilet Painting” test. Sure, Picasso could paint a picture of a toilet. In some ways, it would be a beautiful painting. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be full of crap no matter how Picasso executes it. He can’t turn around and say, “Well, I painted a toilet. What did you expect?”

It’s the same with filmmakers who waste their talents on a bad subject. I’ve stopped counting the number of times I hear people say, “Well, it was supposed to be a big, dumb comedy for teenagers!” It’s not a good goal to play dumb and you don’t deserve praise for achieving it. The goals you begin with should be worthwhile to both yourself and your audience.

This brings me back to the Mat Whitehead’s post. Sister Act 2 may have merits that critics did not acknowledge and may fulfill each of the three qualities listed above. But Mat doesn’t try to do to examine the film at all. It’s a statement about how this movie MUST be good because it’s supposedly better than universally loathed films like The Room but has a lower Rotten Tomatoes score.

Films are not math problems. It’s not about finding what quantity is larger than the other. It also shows Mat doesn’t know how averages work. There are 194 reviews of Catwoman compared to 28 reviews for Sister Act 2. Catwoman has far more negative reviews than Sister Act 2 but the fact that there are more reviews means that its average score is likely to be higher. But anyway, if you are going to examine a film, you need to examine the qualities the film has and the goals it sets out to achieve.

From all appearances, Sister Act 2 was an unnecessary sequel that was not made for artistic reasons but made to cash in on what the studio hoped to be a new franchise right before Whoopi Goldberg’s status as a leading lady sadly and suddenly vanished. It was a cash grab. The bar was already set low and there doesn’t appear to be a great need to examine it. Again, I haven’t seen it, but Mat’s post isn’t the sort of glowing recommendation that’s going to make me seek it out.

Now look at something like The Room, which Whitehead mentioned. That film was ineptly made; it has terrible performances, appalling production design, and a script seemingly written by an eight year old who had been left alone in the woods with nothing to eat but a jar of paste. And yet, it is so demented that it becomes an accidental commentary on Oscar bait dramas. The performances are bad and the plot is garbage. But I could say the same thing about a lot of Best Picture winners. (Looking in your direction, Crash.) That’s a worthwhile goal and it even created the appropriate emotional response. I sit there watching the film and I feel the actor’s pain as they are forced to march through another of shooting this incoherent nonsense. It’s a feeling I’ll be unable to capture any other way. Had Tommy Wiseau set out to deliberately make The Room in that way, it would be a comedic masterpiece.

It is possible to find merit in a bad film. And I haven’t even gotten into how much “fun” I think it is to watch The Room or how good a time I had with my friends when I showed it to them for the first time. That’s a personal experience, one that cannot be rated.  And that’s the difference.

So, Mr. Whitehead, if you’re going to launch into a diatribe about how misunderstood a film is, come to the table with something more than pictures of a young Jennifer Love Hewitt. Those are easy to find and add nothing to an article.


On a final note, I know it’s been forever since I wrote a review of a new release. I’m really, truly sorry about that and will correct that next week when Black Mass gets released.

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Retro Review – The Lost Boys

Before Joel Schumacher took his rightful place as the most disgusting creature history has ever produced, he was famous for two things. The first thing was his apparent addiction for directing films based on John Grisham novels. Much like the author, Schumacher’s adaptations were neither good or aggressively awful. They just sort of exist as a way to measure how much time has passed in your life. (One Grisham = the length of one U.S. domestic flight.)

The second was for The Lost Boys. It was a cult 80’s teenage film that everyone insisted was not that bad. Sure, it’s a direct lift of the plot to that OTHER (and better) cult 80’s teenage film Near Dark, but it still was a sort of calling card for Schumacher and got him all sorts of work. Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, was impressed enough with the film’s “use of music” that he hand picked Schumacher to direct the Phantom of the Opera musical adaptation.

Everything about that last sentence makes me want to throw up in retrospect. But still, was there anything to Schumacher before we all learned that he really, really wanted to see Batman’s nipples and was willing to make us all suffer for it?

Well, the answer is, “almost.”

I include the opening scene to show the amazing promise The Lost Boys has. In fact, I almost see what Andrew Lloyd Webber saw in the “use of music.” The film is a wonderfully stylized work that actually uses vampires for symbolic purposes.

Vampires, like all monsters, are a symbolic representation of something deep inside man. Ever since Dracula’s brides and his preying on Mina Harker, the underlying point of vampires was about how sex and sexuality can change people. And no matter the benefits, sometimes the cost is too much.

That’s the case with Michael (Jason Patric) who is lured into becoming a vampire by David (Keifer Sutherland) and Star (Jami Gertz). He is a “new kid” who is offered a chance to belong with a group. Star entices him to join her, only for him to later realize what he’s getting into.

You may recognize this as the plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s classic Near Dark. That’s true, but Schumacher is able to create his own style around these characters. Plus, exploring homosexual themes in an ’80s blockbuster was still incredibly taboo.

David, for example, is obviously a gay character who is obsessed with Michael. He’s also profoundly upset when one of his male vampire cohorts is killed. Finally, the only reason Michael became a vampire was because he (accidentally) drank David’s blood – a stand in for an alternate fluid.

The symbolism is obvious, in the way all vampire symbolism is obvious. Michael is experimenting with David and Star and and is not sure what he prefers. That sounds mawkish, but The Lost Boys makes it seems fresh. I liked those moments in the film. It’s what horror is meant to be at it’s core – a revelation of the human experience.

But what if I told you that this is not a film about puberty or sexual experimentation, but rather another slapstick vehicle for the two Coreys? And that the main plot involves them trying to thwart a man’s attempts to date their mother because they believe he’s a vampire? You would think that I’m lying, but there’s so much screen time given to those two that the fact they aren’t in front of Keifer Sutherland on the poster is a form of false advertising.

And it’s about as dumb as you think. I don’t need a dinner scene in which the kids try to force feed a suspected vampire garlic or spill water on him for the sake cinematic shenanigans. It’s not even that funny or that exciting. You know that none of the boy’s techniques will work and he’ll just end up embarrassing his mom. These scenes don’t work and are just a distraction from the more interesting elements. But of course the film decides the two Corey’s subplot is the climax to ensure that the prudes are not offended. It’s such a weird cop out for what had been an interesting horror film.

Part of me wants to unequivocally praise The Lost Boys. It has the air of a director who started off strong but ended up corrupted by the studio system. At least it demonstrates Schumacher knew what he was doing in the 1980s. It wasn’t until Phone Booth that he made a good movie, and even that had no personal experience involved in its viewpoints. The Lost Boys could have been a stepping stone for a gay horror auteur. Too bad both the film and Schumacher’s career went wrong.

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Goodbye to Jon Stewart

On August 6, legendary The Daily Show host Jon Stewart will step down from the show that made him an American icon.

This shouldn’t be a big event. People retire all the time, leaving behind holes that may never be properly filled. It’s happened on TV shows, it’s happened in bands, it’s happened at your job.

But Stewart wasn’t just that receptionist that got transferred to a new department. Since 1999, Stewart had been the yard stick by which our greatest cultural and historical moments were measured. His voice came through our TV screens, condemning politicians and celebrities for their deaf ear to the world. This seems like nothing revolutionary now – every talk show includes segments about political figures who are so hopelessly out of touch that they may as well be living on a different planet.

But Stewart was the first person to really give a sense of desperation to that humor. He was not just content to point and laugh at the politicians who insisted that God hates gay people. He was pointing to us as a society to allow such a person to be placed in the seat of power. Stewart, along with the rest of us, watched as the nation went mad and became increasingly obsessed with trivial matters and was one of the few who could make you feel just as worried as he always was.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Stewart. I think it was around the time Ohio congressman James Traficant was expelled from the House of Representatives. (Thanks to Comedy Central’s extensive archives, you can see a clip here) Most people probably don’t remember who Traficant was or why that expulsion mattered.

I didn’t really know the full extent of Traficant’s corruption either. But Stewart managed to make me care in three minutes. It was so simple and depended on such basic sound bites. (Of course, a Congressman from Youngstown, Ohio will offer you a lot of bizarre sound bites.) But it was also such an indictment of a man who should not have been wandering the halls of Congress. He did it without words. Look at Stewart’s gestures as he becomes increasingly befuddled by Traficant. Listen to his tone in that clip. Watch Stewart’s gestures as he tries to find something to compliment the disgraced Congressman.

That was the core of what made The Daily Show work. There was spoken comedy there, but it was almost overshadowed by what Stewart wasn’t saying. He was crying out for help in the middle of a storm. And, despite what his critics at Fox News say, it was a storm that reached both sides. Stewart was equally willing to criticize Democrats when he felt they were in the wrong.

He could also be a sober voice of reason who knew when not to make jokes. The best example is this speech that needs no introduction.

Many people are surprised that Stewart was sometimes informally voted the most trusted news person in America.  I’m really not. I grew up in an age where news seemingly didn’t matter as much as punditry. It didn’t matter if people spouted facts. It mattered if they sounded good doing it. Take a look at Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rachel Maddow. They are people who have built multimillion dollar empires without ever being honest with their audience. Stewart was both honest and had material to back up what he was saying. He wasn’t some huge talking head. He was like a funny dinner guest who had bothered to read the news before spouting off about the day’s events. I always had the feeling he was honest His protegé Stephen Colbert came close, but was always stuck behind a mask. Colbert the character overshadowed Colbert the man. Stewart was always himself, never bothering to hide behind a character to make his point.

Stewart was an important man for people my age. He was our nightly voice of reason, whose bug-eyed, silent gestures spoke volumes in ways that other talking heads could not equal. Stewart was our voice of reason, the man who would always be there to try to make sense of our world. I sound like I’m eulogizing the man. That’s not fair. Stewart will hopefully return with a new movie he’s directed or a cameo that he will make on some sitcom or on some other talk show. Maybe he will return to stand up and continue to entertain smaller audiences with his unique insight. I’m sure he will have no trouble finding something he wants to do. But it won’t be quite the same for the millions of people who used Stewart as the barometer for their own sanity. In an age where cultural experience has been hopelessly divided, Stewart was one of the few uniting forces left. I’m not sure if there will ever be anyone who can replace him as a cultural icon. Maybe that’s as it should be. There was only one Johnny Carson and, for the people who laughed at his antics while depending on him to say what they could never articulate, there will only ever be one Jon Stewart.

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A Review of Wet Hot American Summer

We’re deep in the middle of summer, which means everyone’s staying inside watching Netflix to beat the heat. Which means, to respond to the increased demand, Netflix is launching new shows.

One unusual pick for development is a revival of Wet Hot American Summer. The film is gaining a Lebowski-esque cult following but is still a risky gamble for anyone to resurrect. The film was critically savaged and bombed. The creators (Michael Showalter and David Wain) are veterans of The State, an amazingly funny 90s sketch show. However, follow ups to that film have ranged from spectacularly funny hits (Reno 911) to the quickly cancelled TV oddities (Stella and Michael and Michael Have Issues) to unfunny messes (Balls of Fury, aka that dumb ping-pong movie that had Christopher Walken).

Maybe Netflix sees something in Wet Hot that demonstrates a revival? Whatever it is, it’s not something I saw rewatching the original film.

Now, the film was a lot funnier than I remembered. I don’t understand why it was roundly dismissed as completely unfunny, especially when grotesque sex comedies like Van Wilder were all the rage. But don’t expect me to join the cult.

The biggest problem with the film is that it never finds the appropriate tone or style of humor. It’s ostensibly a parody of Meatballs (which, excluding Bill Murray, was a much worse movie than this one) but seems to have anticipated the sweeter, gentler comedies that Judd Apatow would start making four years later.

This is where the film is at its funniest. One scene has Michael Ian Black walking into the booth where the child is delivering the morning announcements on the last day of summer camp. (The film takes place over the course of one day during the summer of 1981.) He orders the kid, repeatedly, to take a shower.  It’s a scene with two lines, but the delivery makes it hilarious. Black is increasingly aggravated by the kid as he repeatedly promises to bathe himself. It’s obvious that this tension has been going on for a while and what’s unsaid makes it work.

That’s the sort of humor I liked in Red Hot American Summer. It’s simple but also honest about the sort of people who went to summer camp in the 1980s – or, these days, about the kids who are watching Ernest Goes to Camp while their middle-aged parents remember their sexual escapades from 1981.

The film, as it must, explores the fact that getting teenagers together in such close proximity is bound to lead to all sorts of sexual tension and soap opera like declarations of love. I don’t fault the dumb dialogue during the scenes where counselor Coop (Showalter) declares his love for Katie (Marguerite Moreau). It leads to a great payoff where Katie declared she’d rather be with the hot guy than with the love struck loser. This was such an obvious joke that I’m surprised it had never been made before.

I also admires that the film never devolved into a T & A affair that was less interested in exploring adolescence and more interested in bikini tops and the taking off of same. In a movie that is meant to satirize those teens movies that hire nubile stars just so we can see their breasts, that would have ruined the joke. There are plenty of counselors who are at the camp to make out, but they’re the object of mockery. Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay was my favorite. She was a character so desperate to make out with Paul Rudd she didn’t care about the fact that her face was covered in barbecue sauce. She also doesn’t seem to notice that two young campers manage to take a motorboat while she’s on the dock with Rudd.

So, where exactly does the film go wrong?

The biggest problem was that there was no straight character to play off. In a camp where everyone is independently weird, there is no one to ground the audience.

The camp director Beth (played by the insufferable Jeanne Garofolo) comes the closest to being a voice of reason.  But she’s just as obsessed with a crush as any of her teenaged employees. She breathlessly follows the professor (the far funnier David Hyde Pierce) on whatever nonsense he spouts. What’s odd is that she repeats it with the slight whiff of sarcasm, as though she wants to point out how insane he is. One scene late in the film involves the professor trying to save the camp from a crashing Skylab. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds. But Beth still follows him to see it through.

She’s an inconsistent character, but at least she’s developed as a character. Several of the more interesting characters are not even given names. The kids suffer the most, which is bad for a movie about summer camp. One kid, introduced at the beginning as a huge Dungeons & Dragons fan, but he’s only listed as ” boy with cape” in the credits. Doesn’t he have something he wants from the camp? Does he get tired of living in a fantasy world? The movie never says anything about most of its characters.

Also, the comedy changes on a dime when the scene requires it, especially in the third act. The Skylab plot point is a good example. It could be a nice isolated moment of comedy and drama. The whole point seemed to be to give the misfits of the camp something to do. But the thing is, they’re correct and Skylab nearly DOES destroy the camp.

It doesn’t work as comedy because it feels far too fantastical compared to what came earlier. There is a way to make it work, of course. It could be a hoax that brings the misfit kids together, and the end could be that their friendship is more important than their being duped. That would fit in the “stupid teen movie trope” parody the film was going for, especially if the kids decide they hate each other after all.

It also makes no sense for one kid to create a hurricane at the climactic talent show. Equally nonsensical is the talent show’s emcee, who tells bad jokes and gets huge laughs. Is that meant to be the joke? I hope not because that’s pathetically stupid. The film started off doing so much right but ended up doing wrong.

Wet Hot American Summer is neither the unfunny mess it was labelled upon its release nor the spectacular gem that many cult fans would have you believe. It exists somewhere in between as a film that would be fine to fill time on Comedy Central but not something necessarily worth celebrating. Still, there are some good ideas here and maybe the Netflix revival will focus on those and ignore Skylab.

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