A Review of Anomalisa

What does Charlie Kaufman do to make his films work?

I could describe scenes from his animated Anomalisa and they would sound like the most boring, pretentious scenes imaginable. The studios probably thought so too, which is why Kaufman had to raise funds on Kickstarter. (And, if the credits are any indication, got help from Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon.)

But this is a mistaken approach. The film is wondrously beautiful even at its most banal. Anomalisa showcases how Kaufman’s films follow their own internal logic that makes the absurd seem perfectly normal. The idea that an entire population would share the same voice seems to be the logical conclusion for Michael Stone’s (David Thewlis) world.

Stone is a motivational speaker and author. He has apparently been very successful giving lectures and writing books about customer service. In fact, the film opens with him flying to Cincinnati to give a speech and checking into one of the nicest hotels in the city. But he hates his existence with a passion.

This is probably because every single person he meets speaks with the voice of Tom Noonan. Every single person. Whether this is one of Michael’s own delusions or whether this is how reality is in Michael’s universe is never fully explained.

But it calls to attention a person’s ability to filter out the weirdest aspects of the world. All of Noonan’s characters are puppets going through the motions of their day without stopping to think about their role in the world. Michael’s taxi driver from the airport is not focused on his job or his family as much as he is focused on making sure Michael tries the chili in Cincinnati. (As an aside, I’ve eaten at Skyline and the chili is fantastic.)

But Michael notices such things, which is why he becomes immediately infatuated with the titular Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She’s a woman who’s come to see his lecture with her friend. He had drinks with her and takes her up to his room, convinced she’s a person who, like him, can see the world the way it truly is.

Kaufman’s films have always followed their own logic to make the fantastical seem sensible. After watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if I knew someone who went to Lacuna. And the bizarre scene of a woman literally buying a house that was on fire was darkly hilarious because the buyer didn’t seem fit to ask about the fire until the very end of the scene. Anomalisa has numerous scenes like that. The film is animated because it makes sense that the people Michael encounters would be nothing more than dolls going through the motions. One scene that I found funny was the scene in which Michael tries to order room service. The clerk repeats every single item back to Michael with enthusiasm, as Michael becomes increasingly annoyed that this person would dare be happy to serve him.

The reason the film works is that Michael is a terrible human being. Kaufman does not want you to like him or feel sorry for him. Michael is a man who is paid a lot of money to give a speech only to suffer a severe nervous breakdown onstage. He cheats on his wife, he insults the people around him, and despite working in customer service he treats CSRs with no patience. Being John Malkovich worked for the same reason. Greg Schwartz was a pathetic loser who could not relate to any being not attached to strings.

And like Schwartz, Stone becomes trapped by his own neurosis. He is unable to stand the woman who may solve his problems, and instead focuses on how she talks with her mouth full. In the end, the only other different voice he can hear is on a mechanical toy.

Still, I also have a feeling that Anomalisa would have worked better as a short film than as a feature. It clocks in at 90 minutes, but most of what the film has to say is done in about 45 minutes. It’s well paced enough that the film is not boring, but the point of the second act is well established. And perhaps it’s just me, but a sex scene between dolls will always be awkward.

Anomalisa’s only crime is that it is not as inventive as some of Charlie Kaufman’s other films. But few films have ever matched those levels. Anomalisa is still a revealing portrait of a man who thinks he is stuck in a prison but in reality has earned his fate. The most shocking film about the movie is that someone of Kaufman’s caliber had to beg for money to get the film made. But then, it’s necessary for a film as uncompromisingly honest as this one.

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A Review of The Revenant

By the fourth scene of Leonardo DiCaprio eating a raw animal, I found myself saying, “Yes, yes. But what does it all MEAN?”

The Revenant has grand ambitions it never lives up to. I think director Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu thought he was making a Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog film and had something profound to say about man’s relation with nature.

He doesn’t succeed because he does not examine the larger themes of the story. It’s a vengeance thriller at its core, and its successes as a vengeance thriller should not be ignored. But the film constantly reminds you of its ambitions to be something greater than it really is. I didn’t look forward to beautiful nature scenes because I realized they were working against the film.

The story of Hugh Glass  (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio) certainly does make for riveting cinema. After a bear attack, he was left for dead by his fellow pelt traders in the woods. He survived after crawling for two hundred miles to the nearest fort. The film adds additional motivation to Glass’s trek by having John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) murder Glass’s fictional son. He’s seeking to not only survive but to punish Fitzgerald.

A film like this really puts my criteria of a good film to the test. So, I’m going to answer each of my three questions in succession.

First, does the movie provide a satisfying emotional experience that I could not ever have in my own life? The Revenant passes this test with flying colors. Starting with the shocking, sanguine bear mauling scene, it’s impossible not to feel Glass’s struggle as he tries to get back to civilization. There are scenes of Glass cauterizing the wound on his neck with gun powder, scenes of him catching fish and eating them alive, and endless scenes of him trying to crawl up mountains with an injured leg. Each time, I believed that DiCaprio was actually undergoing these struggles. The bear mauling scene in particular deserves examination. Glass is completely helpless against the bear as it repeatedly sinks its claws into his body. The camera does not focus on the attack (we see Glass’s wounds later) but on his face as he tries to fight against death is an incredible piece of cinematography supplementing an incredible performance.

So, gold star Revenant.

The second question I have on my test is, “What is this film trying to do?”

And here’s where I hit a wall, because I cannot answer that question.

On its surface, the film is a tribute to the works of Jack London. It’s about how there are times when man must embrace his primal nature if he hopes to survive against all odds. But at the same time, Glass fights against becoming an animal. He still thinks of his duty and shows kindness to the Native Americans he meets. He also comes across as far more human and caring than some of the French soldiers who openly execute the Native Americans they meet. There’s a subplot of a tribal chief who is attempting to recover his daughter from French soldiers. DiCaprio manages to assist them, even in his weakened condition. We get a definite hero faced with impossible odds and want him to succeed in his quest.

But there are numerous dream sequences that show the film has ambitions beyond a simple adventure story. These sequences are where Inarritu decides that he is trying hard to make a Terrence Malick film, examining the beauty of nature while trying to understand the ugliness of man. But Malick always keeps that idea first on his mind when he makes a film. Inarritu does not here. At the very least Inarritu never contrasts the shots between man and nature in the same way that a Malick does. And he never lets Leonardo philosophize about his predicament. Everyone in Malick’s films has something on their minds as they tried to figure out what was happening around them. Not Glass and nothing we see in the film supports anything else. Fitzgerald does have a story about a friend who found God in the forest, but it’s treated as a joke and is meant to talk about his character, not any larger themes.

Because I do not know what the film is trying to do, I cannot answer my third question – “Does this film succeed at what it set out to do?” But there were several moments that undermine Glass’s story, so I’m not sure if it even works as an adventure.

For one, I actually found Fitzgerald a more engaging character. He is given more of an opportunity to talk about his place in the world and about his desires. He is greedy, yes, but there is the sense that he arrived at that conclusion on his own and was not forced into it by the demands of a screenplay. Also, his action of killing Glass’s son was an accident rather than a malicious action. I almost wanted the film to give him equal focus as it did Glass.

Additionally, the film has subplots that never really go anywhere. I mentioned earlier that scenes follow a chief trying to find his daughter. This subplot is only tenuously linked to Glass’s story and has no real emotional impact on the overall work. Yes, it does lead to an amusing shot at the end of the film, but it’s the equivalent of waiting a month for a restaurant reservation only to learn that they only have pulled pork available on the night you visit.

Given these, I guess I can overlook my fourth question – “Was that thing the film set out to do worth doing in the first place?” There’s obviously a great story here, but given how unsure I am about The Revenant’s ultimate goal, I don’t think I can begin to tackle this question at all.

The Revenant is certainly not a bad film. It works as a pure Jack London-esque wilderness adventure and is well made. But I was constantly distracted by the film insisting it was more ambitious than it really was. It was perplexing how much the filmmakers insisted that they had something more important to say than they really have. It makes the good elements of the film still seem like failures.

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The Ten Best Films of 2015

What better way to help ring in the new year than by looking back at the previous year and wondering what everyone could possibly have been thinking?

2015 was a more difficult year for films than 2014 was. There were a lot of huge hits, but many of ones I saw felt shallow and lifeless. They were all, with one notable exception which you may find on the list below, content to hit the same beats as the superior films that have come before.

What’s also been unusual is there is no one film that everyone has rallied around as the definitive film of the year. Usually, there is a movie that everyone agrees will pretty much sweep the Oscars and will define what the year was all about from an artistic standpoint. I can’t think of that landmark film for 2015 the way I associate 2012 with Gravity or 2014 with Boyhood. That’s not to say everything released this year was bad, but I do believe that we’re going to have a hard time determining what strides were taken in the medium and what filmmakers are doing to inspire the next generation of artists based on what we saw in 2015.

Of course, this may also be my own failure. I was not able to see all of the films I wanted to see throughout 2015, including Straight Outta Compton, The Martian, and Bridge of Spies. I plan to watch them as soon as possible, but the fact that I didn’t feel a need to see them immediately in theaters is telling. That experience is slowly dying and there is very little filmmakers are doing to address it. I’m not talking about theaters installing recliners and serving beer at the concession stands, although that is a plus. I’m talking about the need for audiences to experience something together when a film is released. Think about the television shows you watch and how quickly they are consumed and discussed. Everyone wants to see them as quickly as possible so they can join their peers in discussing what they just saw.

Now think about the last film you saw.  Was there some cultural conversation you were trying to join? The only thing I can think of that fits this criteria is the new Star Wars entry and that’s definitely an outlier. Films need to be community experiences for fans and the medium is ignoring that aspect. Without that, then film communities are going to become more and more fragmented until someone will declare the “best film of the year” to be a cat video they saw on YouTube. You laugh, but I do think that viewing experience is the wave of the future and that films need to adapt rather than insisting we all pay a price that too expensive for a single film that is just going through the motions in a way that no longer excites people.

Despite all this, there are still some filmmakers who created great works. Even better, there are filmmakers that are able to reinvent themselves and show audiences something new. I hope this list rewards them.

As with last year, I’m going to rank the top three films and then list the rest alphabetically. I liked this format because it does show some competition but also recognizes there is not a way to label certain films  as being “better” than others. If you can, please check the films on this list out. I think you will be greatly rewarded.

The Best Film of 2015

It was fortunately easy to pick best film of 2015, but I was still surprised that this film turned out as well as it did. This is a sequel to a franchise that had been dormant for decades. Its production was a disaster and the idea behind it is what produces some of the artistically bankrupt hits of today. Look at films like Jurassic World. That was a fine distraction but was very shallow and already feels about as fresh and inviting as week old sushi.

This film not only rebuilt its franchise, but did so when no one expected it to accomplish anything. The director could have just remade a previous entry, gotten fans excited, made a lot of money, and moved on.

But this film explored new ideas with new techniques. It’s a tribute to old westerns, samurai films, and to a time when special effects were not just built on a computer. But it also introduces modern ideas to make sure that we’re on board with what it has to say. It feels fresh while still engaging those nostalgia obsessed portions of my brain. My pick for the best film of 2015 creates one of the most exciting, thrilling, and action-packed films in years.

Mad Max: Fury Road (director: George Miller)

The Road Warrior is one of the greatest action films of all time. The entire film is one long car chase, but the plot requires that and the film does not use its basic idea to be lazy with its material. It never repeats an idea or a crash.

Fury Road also uses its material to explore themes that resonate more with audiences today. There are critiques against sexual slavery, warfare, and the idea that the perfect society may never be attainable. It’s all done so effectively that I almost didn’t notice any of its deeper poitns when I first saw the movie. This means that Fury Road needs to be seen multiple times to understand everything.

In an era defined by repeating what’s been done before, Fury Road uses the Mad Max franchise’s past success to take risks and share something new with audiences. That makes Fury Road stand out to me. It’s a film that means even things you loved in the past can still be used to show you new things. I wish more populist blockbusters did that.

Silver Medal

Most films these days are obsessed with adapting popular novels into films to exploit the built in fan bases. And most people feel they’re being good critics by pointing out every single “difference” between the book and the movie.

That’s the wrong approach. Novels and films are different mediums and what matters is how an adaptation kept the themes of the author while also exploring other elements of the work that may have gone overlooked. In other words, the filmmaker answers the question, “Why did this novel need to be a movie?”

This adaptation did answer that question. While every plot point is shared with the original work, the film took risks and introduced new ideas to the material that would have been impossible to have done in the novel. The film explained why it needed to exist and why people should watch the film.  The fact the lead actress deserves to win the Best Actress Oscar is icing on the cake.

Room (director: Lenny Abrahamson)

Room was an incredible novel about two people stuck in an incomprehensible situation. The novel followed the child who would show the reader what his life stuck in a 7 x 7 bunker was like. The film followed the mother, which helped audiences relate to the story by showing us what her life was like and how she’s trying to adapt to a situation virtually no one will ever experience.

There are moments that showcase  Jack’s monologues and observations, but his Ma is never out of our minds. We see everything through her eyes and come to understand her plight.

Room is a great adaptation of a novel I really liked.  It’s an adaptation that depends on what the filmmakers add and what they have to say when they adapt the novel. Brie Larson also gives the performance of her lifetime as Ma.

Bronze Medal

Once again, I struggled a bit to determine my “bronze medal” winner. It was between this and Spotlight. Both are excellent films about stories that have had a huge impact on my generation.

But then I realized that the film that manages to explore new ideas in a new way is the film that deserves to be recognized. This film uses unique narrative techniques to affect audiences by having reality TV stars explain what’s happening in simple terms that anyone can understand. And for the story that the film wanted to tell, this approach ensured everyone could understand why the story it had to tell is still important.

The Big Short (director: Adam McKay)

I haven’t written my full review for this one yet, but I admired how the film made its point. It criticized the celebrity obsessed media that didn’t acknowledge the housing bubble, then watched as that same media finally picked up on the story as it became more relevant to the American people. The scenes in which Margot Robbie explain how the housing crisis happened may seem gratuitous to some, but that’s how the modern audience is going to respond to these sorts of things. Fox News has been taking that approach for almost 20 years and it doesn’t have the honesty to admit its programming is only “based on a true story.”

Additionally, The Big Short never loses its desperation. It’s a film about accounting and stock market speculation that is as exciting and breathtaking as an action thriller. Finally, it’s a film that made me question my own viewpoints and ideas.  While I always thought that the bank executives who royally screwed up the American economy were pathetically stupid, immature, and undeserving of government bailouts, I never realized how their actions amounted to felonies that should have put a lot of people in prison for the rest of their lives.

Other artists had tried to explain it to me, but The Big Short was the film that convinced me that viewpoint was the correct viewpoint. Most people are too afraid of being “biased” and alienating their audiences to relay their message. How many filmmakers, especially filmmakers that have stuff like Step Brothers on their resume, are brave enough to take risks like that?

The Rest

These films also deserved to be watched and examined. I know there are omissions based on what I didn’t see in theaters, but I believe this list still highlights some of the best work 2015 had to offer.

Black Mass (director: Scott Cooper)Black Mass may very well go down in infamy. It was released to big buzz that has not translated to any award recognition. That’s a shame, because Black Mass is more than just about Depp returning to his roots as one of the all time great character actors. Black Mass treats the story of Whitey Bugler seriously and examines what his presence in the world meant for a lot of people. Even Martin Scorsese took the easy way out and treated Bulger as a figure of comedy. Black Mass confronts his story and paints a portrait almost as relevant as The Big Short for demonstrating how institutions repeatedly fail the people they’re supposed to serve.

Crimson Peak  (director: Guillermo del Toro) – The fact that Crimson Peak bombed depresses me. Maybe the fault lay in the marketing. This was not a ghost story and the film was very clear about that. Rather, this is a film that serves as a tribute to early Alfred Hitchcock, where building the atmosphere was the most important element to building a thrill. The production design is also the best of the year. This is the first film in a long time that treats the sets as characters. Removing them would be a disaster for the film. If you want a creepy experience, then Crimson Peak needs to be seen.

Ex Machina (director: Alex Garland) – These days, intelligent science fiction films are few and far between. Ex Machina reclaims smart sci-fi by asking what it means to be human and if it’s possible to create an intelligence from the data that we no longer notice. The film, about a robot that wants to escape its prison and seduces a human to help her accomplish this goal, feels like a documentary rather than fantasy. Ex Machina reminds us how close we as a society are from answering the big questions that it asks.

Going Clear (director: Alex Gibney) – I know I’m cheating when I include this film. Although it was released in theaters after its premiere at Sundance, it was more famous for airing on HBO. But I figured, so what? This film had a huge impact on the public conscious, with articles and threatening letters written in response to the film’s points. Alex Gibney, who has directed some amazing documentaries, examined how some very successful people can join something as nonsensical as Scientology. It’s not that that adherents to the religion are dumb. It’s that people are looking for something meaningful in their lives and want to join something they feel will have an impact on the world. Scientology is not necessarily what’s being examined. L Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige could be replaced by any religious figure and the film would have the same message. It’s about how people are so desperate to look for a group they can belong to that they don’t ask the larger questions about what they’re doing.

The Hateful Eight (director: Quentin Tarantino) – It’s saying something about a filmmaker when even some weaker films in your filmography are still among the best of the year. The Hateful Eight Roadshow tour was treated like an event, with programs literally handed out before the screening.  But The Hateful Eight is not an epic Leone-esque western. It’s a tense chamber drama that slowly builds up its tension like a stew cooking over a campfire. It requires patience, but the payoff is so rewarding and shocking that it’s worth it. Tarantino remains a master of dialogue who can coach amazing performances with unique dialogue that would destroy any other director. The Hateful Eight is the one film that addressed my bigger question about why films need to be scene in theaters.

Spotlight (director: Tom McCarthy) – Spotlight is the biggest reminder of what the media can do for society. It can take down institutions that have been considered untouchable for centuries. But it also reminds people why they need to be responsible with information and how important it is not to react immediately. The film is ultimately not an indictment of the Catholic Church. That film has already been made. Spotlight is an indictment of people who still pounce on whatever headline catches their attention and makes them feel informed. If only Sabrina Erdely could have watched this film before embarking on her infamous Rolling Stone article.

What We Do In The Shadows (directors: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
Flight of the Conchords was one of the funniest TV shows of the past 10 years, and What We Do In The Shadows has very similar humor. It shows sad people who could do great things but let the world pass them by and never bother to try anything to make a difference in the world. What We Do In The Shadows is about vampires, but it does not treat them as figures of fear. Rather, it ends at the logical question of how people would react if they actually became supernatural creatures of the night. Take what you know about the people you hang out with at the local bar. Now imagine their insecurities about having to live for centuries. Finally, What We Do In The Shadows revives the mockumentary as a genre capable of great insight and great humor.

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A Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

As I think about the new Star Wars, I think about Mad Max: Fury Road.

Like The Force Awakens, Fury Road was an entry in a franchise that was virtually dead. Both come from franchises that were hugely influential on the generation of filmmakers that grew up watching them. (Although, unquestionably, Star Wars had the bigger impact.) And both films had an enormous hype surrounding their respective releases, with a new era of nostalgia driven audiences waiting in anticipation for the respective films.

Fury Road was a massive artistic success, but that franchise didn’t suffer the hiccups Star Wars did. I remember the same sort of anticipation surrounding the prequels that surrounded The Force Awakens. Two of those films were complete artistic failures while Revenge of the Sith (which I still like) suffered from huge flaws that are impossible to ignore.

I treated The Force Awakens with some interest, but remained skeptical, especially when I learned JJ Abrams was directing it. I hated Star Trek: Into Darkness and viewed it as an extended bout of fan service rather than an actual film. The entire script was set up to make cheap references to the Star Trek films that had come before, even when it made no sense and took all tension out of the flimsy plot.

The last thing I wanted to see was the same fate befall Star Wars. This is a franchise that needs to look forward and not focus on its past successes. So, does J.J. Abrams take that vital approach?

Well…not really. He does introduce some great new elements, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that The Force Awakens is content to recycle a lot of the same beats as the original trilogy.

This sounds like I’m going to pan The Force Awakens and that’s far from the truth. We’ve seen how bad this franchise can be and The Force Awakens is much better than a lot of what’s come before. I loved the great new protagonists (who outshine the returning vets), the wonderful action scenes (particularly the climatic lightsaber fight), and the fantastic new visuals that stir the imagination. But I can’t help feeling like I’ve seen most of what The Force Awakens has to offer me.

Now, in the interest of preventing any spoilers from getting out (even though I’m late reviewing this movie), I’d like to warn everyone that this review will get into specific plot points. Just know that my review is basically going to conclude with “Go see it, it’s leagues better than the prequels and addresses all their narrative shortcomings. But it doesn’t do anything new, which is going to cause problems down the line for the franchise, especially as Disney fast tracks production of the sequels. They have the potential to get very lazy with the material.”

I’m serious. If you don’t want spoilers, turn back now. Here is a funny image from Darth Vader and Son to break the page.

 

 

OK then.

Star Wars is probably the most examined and discussed film series of all time. Everyone has an opinion on what works and what doesn’t work about all six of the films. It’s also a series that has run the gamut of narrative successes and failures.   As Red Letter Media pointed out, the prequels did not have a protagonist and told us about the relationships the characters had rather than showed us.

It means that The Force Awakens has an easy way to succeed. Luckily, it does by introducing us to not one but two engaging protagonists. The first is Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger stuck on the planet Jakku who dreams of seeing her family again. We’re with her throughout the film and learn about her goals and see her transformation into a potential Jedi. The second is Finn (John Boyega), a former Stormtrooper who doesn’t want to kill.

These characters meet as they are trying to reinvent themselves. Finn tries to impress Rey, but what’s great is that this is not some sort of romantic quest. Both people realize that they are in a place they don’t understand, but understand its importance. It’s satisfying to see them go through their quest.

Already, based on a very simple start, we have two characters we care about. Their arcs are clearly defined but still present a challenge for them. And best of all, these arcs are the most important component of the film and not rendered a subplot as the were in the prequels.

But even that background political structure in the film makes sense, even if it’s not given a prominent place in the film. Even though Emperor Palpatine died in Return of the Jedi, this film has a subsect of the Empire that’s still standing. This works because we see the impact the Empire has on the normal denizens of the world as they massacre a village.

Finally, we have Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is the new Darth Vader, but we see his humanity early. Unlike the stoic Vader, Kylo Ren is an emotional person. He gets angry, he slices up computer consoles with his lightsaber, and he takes his frustration out on his subordinates. It makes him a far more frightening villain because we don’t know what he will do. We also see him struggle as he wonders why he’s committing these evil acts and wondering if he’s making a mistake.

Every Star Wars film has the climatic lightsaber fight, but the one in The Force Awakens is among the best in the franchise. That’s because Kylo Ren and Rey don’t know what they’re doing and are fighting for survival as much as anything. There’s none of the acrobatics from the prequels and both parties land blows on each other. There is an emotional heft to the scene and the result is far more thrilling than that Darth Maul fight.

So, we have characters we care about, clearly defined and complex villains, and exciting moments as all the characters interact with each other.

Yet, even with its successes, there is a huge problem with the film. I’ll describe the major plot points of The Force Awakens to illustrate.

The film opens with a droid, BB-8, having data uploaded into his memory that is important to a resistance group. Sound familiar?

The droid finds a human stuck on a desert planet. They dream of doing something more with their life. Sound familiar?

The two characters get off the planet via the Millennium Falcon and are assisted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who is in debt to some dangerous characters. Sound familiar?

The protagonist meets a diminutive alien (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) who offers to impart knowledge on the protagonist about the ways of the Force. Sound familiar?

The giant government organization they are fighting destroys a planet that is important to the resistance with a giant battle station. Sound familiar?

The Rebels stage a counteroffensive to destroy said weapon. Sound familiar?

The main villain turns out to be a relative of a major character and the two characters confront each other in a climatic fight. Sound familiar?

All of the film’s biggest moments and plot points come from the original trilogy. The characters, locations, and emotional moments are all derived from some part of the original trilogy. Even the characters seem aware of this as they speak about Luke Skywalker in hushed tones and are in awe to see Han Solo. I expected this – after all, those individuals were involved in a major event that would have touched generations across the galaxy. But after a while, it becomes a hindrance to the film as characters from the original films are reintroduced to the narrative and plot points are hit with no reaction.

The destruction of the Senate is one prominent example for me. It’s meant to mirror the destruction of Alderaan from the first film. But the Alderaan scene had an appropriate emotional weight to it. We see Leia begging for it to be saved and saw Obi-wan’s reaction to feeling all of those people die.

We get none of that in The Force Awakens. Yes, it’s a scene with much better effects as we see the laser beam destroy the planet, but there’s no emotional heft to the scene. Everyone forgets that it happened, almost as if the event was just a check box for the fans rather than the characters.

What’s strange is that The Force Awakens is at its best when it focuses on the new characters rather than the returning vets. Besides Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who is barely in the movie), none of the other characters needed to come back. The new characters have a much better connection with the audience and their climatic battle is one of the best moments in the film. We feel for them and know this is what the film has been building to. I didn’t need Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) showing up to distract me from these new characters I want to see.

The Force Awakens is an effective movie that knows why people fell in love with Star Wars almost two generations ago. But it also doesn’t really move the franchise forward. There is potential here and I am looking forward to the next film. Still, Star Wars can’t keep hitting the same emotional beats and expecting audiences to respond positively. Besides, there’s nothing left after The Force Awkanes borrowed everything from the original trilogy. Perhaps this means that we’ll focus more on the great new characters in  the future films.

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A Review of Trumbo

I will start this analysis with a full disclosure – I am not too familiar with Dalton Trumbo’s work.

I knew who he was and about his placement on the Hollywood Blacklist. The blacklist was a list of screenwriters who could not get hired by any major studios due to their  affiliation with the American Communist Party. It last throughout the 1950s and ended when a few big stars (specifically, Kirk Douglas) finally hired Trumbo and insisted he be credited for his work.

It’s an important piece of history, but Trumbo has not gained a modern audience. Many of Trumbo’s techniques have become outdated as films became less and less conservative. For example, Trumbo wrote and directed an adaptation of his novel Johnny Got His Gun, which was later used by Metallica for a music video. If I had to guess, that music video is one of the few items related to Trumbo that causes any sort of excitement with an audience today.

Still, even if time marches on, artists still capture the era that they lived. Trumbo certainly did. His work captures the last generation of the classic studio system. The films Trumbo wrote were not necessarily personal stories, but gigantic epics that created community events for their audiences. Additionally, Trumbo’s story paved the way for more politically motivated films that became popular through the 1960s and the 1970s. He and the rest of the blacklisted writers deserve a film that will tell their story.

Is Trumbo that film? For me, no. I can’t point to any specific thing that it does wrong on its own terms. Bryan Cranston gives the performance of a lifetime as the titular Dalton Trumbo. The film is well cast, well photographed, and fairly well written. But it’s also too shallow to really have a lasting impact or to explain what motivated the writers to continue in their craft after they were shunned by Hollywood. That’s the story I think the film owed Trumbo, but that’s not the story they told.

Bryan Cranston’s performance as Dalton Trumbo is nothing short of miraculous. He embodies Trumbo not just as a character, but as a man. This is Cranston’s performance of a lifetime as we goes from making grand speeches to quiet moments in his bathtub as he tries to write. Cranston plays Trumbo as a sort of reverse Norma Desmond. His films haven’t gotten small, but he is. He’s trying his best to live up to his own lofty expectations and change the world.

The blacklist ironically gave him the opportunity to be the huge rebel he always dreamed he would be, and Trumbo spends most of the film coming up with a convoluted plan to cover up the authorship of his scripts, with specific drops and specific times. He gets his children involved and there’s an almost obligatory scene where he won’t come down for his daughter (Elle Fanning’s) birthday celebration.

The film has the appropriate emotional impact with the villains Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) jumping at the chance to ruin the writers while Trumbo’s patient wife (Diane Lane) and colleagues like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) try to support him as they wonder why. Trumbo works on that level. I felt for him. I wanted to cheer for him and was hoping his films would all turn out great – even if the real Trumbo had a spotty record. And he did win based on his talent and his desire to see his name back on the screen one day. It sounds like a typical comeback kid plot, but Trumbo is at least subtle about it. I can see how the film will leave a lot of people smiling, happy that Trumbo overcame.

Where the film falls short is in its ideological examinations. That is to say, Trumbo has no ideological examinations. It never takes the time to examine why Dalton Trumbo joined the Communist Party in the first place and how it affected his work.

We do get one tiny explanation from Trumbo, who explains to his daughter that he just thinks everyone should share with people who are less fortunate. (Trumbo says this while living on a giant ranch next to a lake he had built, but whatever.) I’m pretty sure Trumbo’s glossing over one or two details – details which have one or two details themselves. The film also never explains why, exactly, the U.S. became so paranoid about identifying communists in the first place.

Does it sound like I’m complaining that the film is not addressing what may be my own biases? You are probably correct. However, Tumbo doesn’t bother to explain anything about Trumbo’s ideology and by the end of the film, communism is barely even mentioned.

There are moments that could challenge Trumbo. When he goes to jail for contempt of Congress, one of the inmates he meets is a poorer black man. It sounds like the person Trumbo would support, but this man openly calls him a traitor and threatens him. How does Trumbo react to that? Does he ever question his resolve and his beliefs? The film never says.

With any biopic, it’s important to examine these motivations. Ed Wood, probably my personal favorite film biopic, accomplished this by always reminding us of the fact that Wood was on the brink of financial and personal ruin but was far to optimistic to realize what was happening around him. He made films because he had to – he felt he was living a great dream and could not bear to watch what happened to him if he let go of that dream. I never understood Trumbo. He wrote because he had to, but his films as described in Trumbo weren’t overtly political until the end. So what was his motivation? The film never says. It could be rebellion but, as I said, Trumbo’s communism isn’t mentioned after the first act. And Trumbo isn’t a starving artist – he’s still able to afford a nice home with a pool for his family. Did Trumbo ever question himself and his ability to continue writing?

I think that’s the biggest failure of Trumbo for me. I admired the craft, Cranston’s performance, and I absolutely agree that this was a story that needed to be told. But I left the theater no wiser about Trumbo and what motivated his work. Everything interesting slowly faded away as the film became focused on the formulaic David and Goliath plot. The Hollywood Blacklist era was a terrible time and probably the closest the U.S. has come to punishing thought criminals on a large scale. That’s a gold mine of material for artists to examine. But Trumbo, for everything it does right, only scratches the surface of that massive ideological battle. I can’t fault Trumbo for not accomplishing its goals, but I also can’t help but feeling the film should have aimed a lot higher.

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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.

“How?”

“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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