Category Archives: Midwest Film Journal
The Elfman Cometh: Beetlejuice
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
35 years ago, macabre maestro Tim Burton directed his second feature and what would still remain one of the finest achievements of his career. The horror comedy Beetlejuice set up many motifs that Burton would continue to explore for years to come: gothic imagery, creepy visual effects, spooky setpieces and the sending-up of all things “normal”. The film also continued Burton’s collaboration with composer Danny Elfman, with whom he had teamed up three years prior for his feature debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was the first time Elfman, who led new wave band Oingo Boingo at the time, had written music specifically for a movie but he seemingly got a hang of things quite quickly. Since then, he’s gone on to score nearly every project in Burton’s filmography and Elfman’s music has become a significant part of the director’s idiosyncratic brand.
Beetlejuice begins with lovebirds Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) on a two-week vacation at their home in the New England countryside. Things take a turn when their car swerves off a bridge during a trip back from town and neither of them end up making it. Slowly coming to terms with their transition into the afterlife, the Maitlands watch in horror as their residence is overtaken by New York yuppies Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia Deetz (Catherine O’Hara). Though they aren’t able to see the phantom Maitlands, their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) is somehow able to confer with the apparitions and wants to help them adjust to their altered state. Along the way, the Maitlands get in touch with Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a boorish “bio-exorcist” who offers to scare the Deetzes away from Adam and Barbara’s earthly abode.
From the first frame — the production logo for The Geffen Company — Elfman is front and center as one of Beetlejuice‘s brightest stars. As Burton and cinematographer Thomas E. Ackerman take us through a bird’s-eye tour over the fictional town of Winter River, the score undulates with a busy tuba bass line and a manic trumpet melody to match. The half-time percussion along with the bouncing piano figures recall the exhibitionist novelty of a carnival barker, a prelude of kookiness with promises of the freakish delights to come. It’s off the wall and triumphant at the same time, a ghoulish amuse-bouche that also serves as one of Elfman’s most iconic pieces of movie music. “Main Titles” is a perfect sonic introduction to this strange and singular world but Elfman doesn’t stop there.
The upbeat “Travel Music” makes for a peppy counterpoint to the deadly car crash that ends our protagonists’ mortal lives early in the film. The lopsided tango of “Obituaries” suggests that the Maitlands’ dance with death has only begun, while “Enter…’The Family'” underlines the buffoonish nature by which Burton regards the new well-to-do homeowners. Composer Michael Andrews must have had “Lydia Discovers?” in mind when he wrote “Liquid Spear Waltz” for Donnie Darko, another film about a troubled teen communing with the dead. “The Incantation” coincides with the film’s climax and appropriately pulls out all the stops, weaving together haunting harp lines and wondrous trombone fills with a creepy organ under all of it.
Of course, Beetlejuice fans will also note the indelible mark that the music of the recently-departed Harry Belafonte have on the movie as well. We hear Adam listening to two of Belafonte’s calypso classics when he’s working on his model city in the attic, which sets up how two more of his songs will be used later on. During a dinner after they’ve completely transformed the house, the Deetzes and their snobby guests become supernaturally possessed to sing and dance along with “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”. Originally, the forlorn “If I Didn’t Care” was selected for the scene but the rowdy “Day-O” is clearly a much better pick. “Jump In The Line (Shake, Señora)” was eventually selected as the song that Lydia would dance along to during the film’s conclusion, wisely replacing the Percy Sledge serenade “When a Man Loves a Woman”.
Beetlejuice is such a bizarre concoction of lavish morbidity and offbeat humor that it’s somewhat surprising the movie found a big audience. Grossing just under $75 million in the US alone, its box office take puts it in the top ten of 1988’s highest grossing films. It also has the distinct honor of being the first disc shipped via Netflix’s soon-to-be-defunct DVD-by-mail service when it launched 25 years ago. Naturally, talks of a sequel have been circulating since the film’s initial success but have just recently begun to pick back up again. Warner Bros. has announced that a follow-up is officially underway, with Burton and Keaton set to return along with Elfman as well. In fact, the iconic composer even quelled fears regarding Keaton’s age difference between the two movies. “That’s the beauty of the Beetlejuice makeup,” Elfman opined. “He already looked like he was 150 in the first one!”
Ew, David!: Videodrome
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
In the age of endless streaming services with innumerable films and series a tap away, it’s difficult to imagine a home viewing experience that was limited to TV and tape. When writer/director David Cronenberg made Videodrome 40 years ago, long before the internet and smartphones existed, he was able to extrapolate the temptations of televised images and make what is still the most prophetic and prescient movie of his career. It’s also the film that could be described as “definitive Cronenberg”, given that it incorporates so many of the themes that he has explored throughout his filmography: graphic violence and its effect on the psyche, the allure of sadomasochism and the Kafkaesque notion of flesh melding with the horrifying unknown.
Our conduit into Videodrome is Max Renn, a seedy TV producer played by James Woods in one of his very best performances. The tagline for Renn’s Canadian-based TV station CIVIC-TV is “the one you take to bed with you” and it specializes in sensationalized and sleazy programming designed to shock and titillate. Always on the lookout for something edgier, Renn’s eyes widen when CIVIC-TV’s satellite operator Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) picks up a pirate signal that depicts torture and murder. Where the average person may be repulsed by such images, Renn sees it as the next new thing in subversive content and begins broadcasting this show dubbed “Videodrome” on his network. The decision to air the feed draws him deeper into the rabbit hole and becomes an all-consuming force in Renn’s life.
His new girlfriend Nicki Brand (Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry) becomes so enamored with a taped episode of Videodrome that she travels to Pittsburgh, the origin of the broadcast’s signal, with the intent of auditioning to be on the show. In her absence, Renn seeks out media studies personality Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) to try to dig up more about who makes Videodrome and how they make its ultraviolence look so convincing. He also meets O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits), who runs a sort of halfway home called Cathode Ray Mission, where vagrants are encouraged to watch non-stop TV as a means of rehabilitation. The lines between television and reality start to blur for Renn and we’re treated to his nightmarish hallucinations in the process.
Though Videodrome was generally well-received by critics during its initial release, the paltry box office — about $2 million against a $6 million budget — was indicative of the film’s divisive reaction from audiences. Infamously, a reaction card from a test screening of the movie found one participant scrawl the word “SUCKED” in large letters under the section pertaining to what they disliked about the film. Time has certainly been much kinder to the movie and not only has it achieved a sizable cult following but also a penetrative sphere of influence as well. Recent films that interpolate body horror and technology like Titane and Annihilation owe a debt not only to Cronenberg’s work overall but specifically to his 1983 classic.
It’s downright shocking how much Cronenberg got right in Videodrome with his vision of how television could “evolve” and permeate every facet of our lives. “The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye,” Brian O’Blivion opines during a talk show appearance. “Of course O’Blivion is not the name I was born with; that’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names.” To reiterate the obvious, this film preceded usernames, online personas and social media but somehow, Cronenberg knew that’s where we were headed. For better or worse, he understands human nature and how quickly we would put the “vice” in “personal devices”. After all, cybersex is about as old as the internet itself and if you haven’t heard, pornography can even be accessed on one’s phone now! But you didn’t hear that from me.
The characters in Videodrome talk often about not being able to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake on television and, eventually, in real life. Renn’s instinctual cynicism tells him that what he’s seeing on Videodrome is a production and that it couldn’t actually be just genuine beatings and killings on repeat. With years of reality television under our collective belts, we now have similar levels of distrust about what we see on our menagerie of black mirrors. With deepfake technology getting more sophisticated by the day, it won’t take long before the unreal may not be discernible from the real when it comes to the media we all consume constantly.
Aside from being forward-thinking as all get-out, Videodrome is seductive and hypnotic as its own twisted blend of dystopian science fiction and gross-out horror. The grotesque practical effects come courtesy of inaugural Best Makeup Academy Award winner Rick Baker, who helps personify the blurred line between flesh and machine in unnerving fashion. There’s a third act kill that’s not quite as brutal as the iconic “mind-blowing” scene from Scanners but it’s not too far off. To aid in the uneasy mood that envelops the film, Cronenberg consulted fellow Canadian and personal friend Howard Shore to craft a synthesizer-heavy music score that rocks the sonic landscape throughout. Within the first two sub-octave notes over the title card, we know we’re in for an otherworldly experience.
Each player in the cast lends something special to Videodrome but James Woods is perfect for this lead role as someone that the audience can simultaneously be repulsed by and be drawn in by. Skulking around the seedy streets of Toronto with a trench coat and frequently alit cigarette, he’s like a private eye seeking out softcore porn – Sam Smut, if you like – for his insatiable viewers. As he examines new footage with potential clients, he considers its merit by asking, “can we get away with it? Do we wanna get away with it?” But as we get drawn into the mystery with Renn and his sanity deteriorates, he’s our audience surrogate whether we like it or not. Woods has always had a dangerous and.unpredictable quality as an actor and Cronenberg utilizes it perfectly. As long as humans are around, there will be new screens close by and the relevancy of the messages embedded in Videodrome will remain evergreen.
No Sleep October: Goodnight Mommy
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
More than any other movie genre, horror tends to benefit most from sensationalist headlines recapping hyperbolic audience reactions from initial screenings. Terrifier 2, which is still playing in theaters at the moment, has reportedly been making viewers faint and vomit at the cinema. Earlier this year, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future was, according to one source, expected to cause walk-outs and panic attacks in moviegoers. When Goodnight Mommy premiered at Venice Film Festival in 2014, it didn’t provoke responses quite as extreme as those other films but by the time it was released in the US over a year later, the Austrian import had nevertheless developed a formidable reputation for itself as a disturbing tour de force in familial horror.
The film begins with twin brothers Lukas and Elias (played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz) racing around playing games outside their home in the countryside. Their mother (played by Susanne Wuest) soon returns from a cosmetic surgery procedure that has left her face and hair covered in creepy bandages. Aside from her off-putting appearance, her demeanor is more strict than usual and her punishments on the boys seem to be more severe too. The changes are drastic enough that the twins become obsessed with the notion that this woman may not be their mom and may instead be some kind of imposter who has taken her place. Determined to learn the truth, Lukas and Elias take drastic measures to find out what is really going on.
Goodnight Mommy is psychological horror in the most pure sense because it chiefly concerns how one idea, no matter how strange or unlikely, can consume our thoughts and our minds. The seeds of doubt beg for water to grow roots and watching the tree blossom as an outside observer can be a terrifying process. By the time the twins realize how far they’ve been taken with this conviction that a stranger could be posing as their mother, it’s already far too late. This certainly isn’t the most violent horror film out there but the context of its bloodshed makes it more squirm-inducing than movies where random bystanders meet grisly ends. We know these three characters so well before the acts of violence begin, which makes it more difficult to sit through.
This is a testament to the steadfast trio of performances at the movie’s heart that draws us further into the excruciating mystery at the center of the story. Wuest and the Schwarzes play characters that have quite a few ugly traits; Mother is often sullen and stern after her arrival home, where the boys are often mischievous and disobedient even before they begin their nefarious investigation. The unsettling material that comes later in the movie doesn’t work unless we already have empathy for these people first and the performers put in the work to give us those emotional stakes. For some, this family may just be too cold-blooded to garner much sympathy but I found their struggle to be as enthralling as it was heartbreaking.
Goodnight Mommy is the fictional feature debut for Austrian filmmaking duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala after a documentary they made together two years prior. The influence of fellow Austrian director Michael Haneke, specifically his psychological thrillers Funny Games and Caché, can be felt throughout Franz and Fiala’s unshakable chiller. Like Haneke, the pair understands that absence of stimulus can be much more frightening than too much. The rural lake house that serves as the film’s primary location is devoid of any decorative sentimentalities on the inside or outside that would seem even vaguely comforting. The set design is stark and utilitarian, with every edge of the interiors being cut with the kind of clinical precision that was presumably used during the inciting surgical event.
This chilly aesthetic also applies to the brilliantly sparing music score by Olga Neuwirth, which allows the terror to build organically in every scene and doesn’t give into easy moments to jolt the audience. The sound design follows suit, giving us enough space between the sonic peaks and valleys to fill our own interpretation to what could be happening behind a door or on the other side of a wall. Some horror movies indulge overly quiet moments to set up a jump scare but Goodnight Mommy follows a different rhythm that may throw American audiences off. Not all European horror films are this patient but the ones that are can be unbearably tense.
It’s no surprise that an international horror movie as effective as this one would generate an American remake but it’s a bit surprising that it wasn’t released with a bit more fanfare behind it. Matt Sobel’s Goodnight Mommy was unceremoniously dumped just last month onto Amazon Prime, a service that’s still working on building up the quality of its original films. Naomi Watts, who, fittingly enough, starred in the US remake of Funny Games, plays the maternal role while Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti play the twin brothers. This new take may work for those who haven’t seen the original but after being so thoroughly taken with it seven years ago, it was hard for me to see the redo as anything but inferior by comparison.
Sobel’s film simultaneously pulls punches where it counts and overplays its hand when it could stand to be more subtle. The thornier subject matter has been cut back so much that it robs the story of its visceral impact and misses the point of what made the original so shocking. The broad strokes of the narrative remain the same but it follows a more Americanized arc that rushes to console us when things get a little too scary. The overbearing music score by Alex Weston supports this notion, telling us exactly how we should feel instead of nudging us into the dark corners to explore. The ending of this new version is meant to leave audiences with the sentiment that “hey, everything might be okay after all!” Comparatively, the final shot from the Austrian original is so eerie that it still haunts me to this day.
Recurring Nightmares: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
As with many aspects of American culture, the early 1990s proved to be a hangover of sorts for the indulgent excesses of the 1980s and the A Nightmare on Elm Street film series was not immune to this trend. A Nightmare on Elm Street 6, the fifth sequel to 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, premiered in 1991 and promised “Freddy’s Dead” right in the title. New Line Cinema threw out gimmicks like 3D presentation and a mock funeral for Freddy Krueger at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to juice up the box office but our long national Nightmare seemed to be over. The charred boogeyman’s fedora was getting floppy, his sweater more tattered than usual and Freddy needed some new blood. It was time to go back to the street where everything started and to the man who darkly dreamed up this film universe in the first place.
1994’s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare represented the iconic horror director’s return to the series after his pitch for what would become A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 was rejected by the studio. Similarly, the idea of taking this world and making it metacinematic is one that Craven first brainstormed when A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 was being conceived but it, too, was also shut down at the time. Apparently 10 years after that initial Nightmare was the right time to get Craven back to the franchise and dream a little bigger. New Nightmare is different enough on the surface from the previous entries in the saga, taking place outside the cinematic universe they created and stepping out of the big screen as Last Action Hero did the year previous. While the film’s metatextual touches were ahead of their time, they’re grafted onto a story with the fedora-furnished Freddy that’s truly old hat.
The movie sets up the movie-within-the-movie premise quite well, echoing the opening shots of the 1984 original and then pulling back to show Wes Craven (playing himself) directing how Freddy’s claws should move for the shot they’re trying to get on-set. He calls “cut” and Heather Langenkamp (playing herself) is shown to be on the shoot along with her husband Chase (David Newsom), who is overseeing special effects on the film. While working with the mechanical claw, Chase and his SFX crew are brutally dispatched by Freddy’s animatronic claw, which moves around with a murderous mind of its own like an even more deranged version of Thing from The Addams Family. But as is far too often the case in New Nightmare, this scene is revealed to be one of Heather’s many bad dreams.
We then see what Heather’s waking moments are like as an alumni from the Nightmare franchise, where she gets prank calls from creeps imitating Freddy and where limo drivers recognize her from that scary movie with the guy who has knives for fingers. Heather goes to the offices of New Line Cinema, where recurring Nightmare producer Robert Shaye (also playing himself) attempts to sell her on reprising the role of Nancy Thompson from the first film for a new sequel. Now that her son Dylan (Miko Hughes) is at an especially impressionable age, she doesn’t feel the time is right to come back to the horror movie scene but Freddy doesn’t seem to want to take “no” for an answer. A series of murders and eerie happenings suggest that his evil presence has somehow manifested into the real world and Wes makes it clear to Heather that the only way to put an end to it is to star in a Nightmare movie that will end Freddy for good.
The main issue that hampers New Nightmare is its reluctance to fully commit to the premise that it sets up for itself. This idea of trying to get Langenkamp back for a fictitious sequel should be a fun way to pull back the curtain and see how New Line feels about the series responsible for so much of their success. But Shaye is only in one scene and beyond the opening dream sequence, Craven doesn’t pop up again until much too late in the film. The “how the sausage is made” Hollywood insider material largely takes a backseat to Heather and her family issues, particularly with an increasingly disturbed Dylan. The movie falls into a redundant pattern of depicting Dylan in peril one scene and then Heather having a gory nightmare in the next until it begins to feel like we’re on a blood-soaked treadmill.
Of course there are a smattering of cameos from Robert Englund to John Saxon that pop up as the film world and the real world start to collide. Likewise, there are major and minor callbacks to the original film and its sequels; I particularly enjoyed a hospital-set scene that somehow weaved in the “screw you pass!” line Nancy uttered 10 years prior. But New Nightmare spends too much of its paunchy 112-minute runtime as a “next generation” Nightmare movie instead of an entry that exists outside the franchise’s traditional canon. Freddy gets a makeover that obscures his striped sweater with a slicker and makes his facial burns more polished in comparison to his disfigured face from the other movies. Englund still gives a good performance as Freddy but I don’t find his look as menacing as it is in other Nightmare entries. The makeup and prosthetics were too fussed-over for my liking, calling to mind the cackling Mighty Morphin Power Rangers baddie Ivan Ooze.
While New Nightmare isn’t entirely successful in what it’s trying to achieve, it set Craven up beautifully for his next film: the postmodern slasher Scream. In hindsight, that film’s self-aware characters and their investigation of prevalent horror tropes have their genesis with this Nightmare entry that first attempted to close the gap between our world and the cinematic realm. With a fifth Scream sequel due out next March, it’s possible that franchise will eventually have more chapters than the Nightmare series but whether it’s Ghostface or Freddy who is scaring up audiences throughout the decades, filmmakers like Craven will no doubt find new ways to scare us for generations to come.
It’s Gonna Be Bay: The Rock
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
They say that no man is an island but Michael Bay seems to stand alone in the realm of action movies. Not only is he one of the most well-known directors of the genre but his explosion-heavy style of filmmaking is so recognizable, it’s colloquially known as “Bayhem”, as to convey the controlled chaos exhibited in his films. Even before his Transformers pentalogy, the one-two punch of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor codified Bay’s penchant for star-spangled pyrotechnics and chest-puffed melodramatics in indiscreet fashion. If these two films sum up Bayhem, then 1996’s The Rock could fittingly be seen as “proto-Bayhem”, where the director was still figuring out how he wanted to commit action to celluloid without having the same tricks on which to fall back. Most consider it his finest achievement and I’d be hard pressed to disagree.
After a title card with emblazoned letters shooting towards the screen, the movie opens on Ed Harris’s Brigadier General Francis Hummel as he suits up in full military garb to set flowers on his wife’s headstone. As he walks among the tombstones, an American flag is being carefully folded in slow-motion as the rain beats down on a soldier’s casket. The color grading is so blue in this opening sequence, it makes both Ozark and Tobias Fünke envious. It turns out Hummel has a dangerous plan in place: to steal a cadre of missiles loaded with a deadly nerve gas known as “VX” and threaten to launch them on American soil unless the US government pays reparations to the families of fallen Marines with whom he served. Along with a band of new recruits, he plans to set up shop on Alcatraz Island (whose nickname gives the film its title) and take tourists hostage as a contingency.
Amid a $100 million demand and tight timeframe to complete the deal, the Department of Defense calls forth an unlikely pair of foils for Hummel. The first is Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage), a self-described “chemical superfreak” who helps the FBI defuse “care packages” loaded with goodies like C4 explosives and sarin gas. The second is John Mason (Sean Connery), an off-the-books inmate who is allegedly the only person to ever escape The Rock during its days as a prison. Their combined knowledge of how to neutralize the VX-loaded missiles and how to move about the island undetected by Hummel’s men, backed by a Navy SEAL team, represents the US government’s best shot at stopping Hummel before time runs out.
The Rock succeeds where other Bay endeavors fail because he properly sets up the characters, the scenario and the stakes before the inevitable action setpieces kick into gear. The fundamentals of an action classic are set up beautifully in the first act: an empathetic villain, a credible threat, a ticking clock, a pair of underdogs and men desperate to one-up each other in the machismo department whenever possible. Pushing the urgency is an iconic musical score from Nick Glennie-Smith and Hans Zimmer, which has moments of reverence with snare taps and mournful trumpet but also pulsates with intense strings and crashing cymbals. It’s the kind of soundtrack that’s difficult to listen to and not feel like whatever mundane activity you’re doing is the most important task the American people have ever asked you to carry out.
There are plenty of stock military characters in The Rock, from the no-nonsense commander of the Navy SEAL team to the no-nonsense Major who plays sidekick to Hummel on the island. What allows the movie to distinguish itself among scores of actioners is in the unique characters that it sets up outside the standard tough guys. Cage’s Goodspeed is such a wimp, he chooses “friggin'” and “a-hole” over traditional curse words, even in situations when it makes no sense to censor oneself. He’s a Beatlemaniac who we first see wasting time on a mildly incendiary Rube Goldberg contraption before being called to investigate a suspicious package. Bay even throws in a pregnant fiancee who has literally no agency in the movie but makes Goodspeed’s survival to the very end even more of a priority than it would have been already.
Then we have Mason, a charming and ruthlessly intelligent codger whose agreement with the FBI feels tenuous and secondary to his desire to become reacquainted with his estranged daughter. We get the sense early on that he’s been a pawn between governments for decades and would probably be a free man if he wasn’t so important for political gamesmanship. Since he’s played by Sean Connery, it’s also fun to hear him say things like “successfully” and “San Francisco” in his quintessential Scottish accent. At one point, Mason requests “a suite, a shower, a shave and a suit” and I can only assume uncredited screenwriter Quentin Tarantino won a bet against the three credited screenwriters about how long an alliteration he could sneak into the script.
Of course it comes down to Goodspeed and Mason defeating these highly-trained Marines on their own and Goodspeed would be thrilled with the chemistry that Cage and Connery have together. It’s a classic pairing of opposites: an eccentric wuss who revels in a life of beige-tinted boredom and a hardened Army man who’s looking for action after toiling away in prison for most of his life. Goodspeed schools Mason in exactly how VX can waste any living organism in 90 seconds while Mason shows Goodspeed how to prep scuba gear without fumbling around with it. Cage gets the talkier role and we’re all the better for it: at one point, he invokes “Zeus’s butthole” while lamenting their imprisoned state as Mason quietly works to spring them from their jail cells. Nevertheless, Connery ends up with the film’s most memorable line about the difference between winners and losers. If you don’t know it, that’s reason enough to see the movie right away.
But at the end of the day, this is an action movie and it delivers the goods time and time again with brutally effective setpieces that make excellent use of their geography. A lengthy car chase through the hills of San Francisco is the most recognizable as a Michael Bay speciality, with rapid-pace editing, demolished cars and explosions whenever even remotely possible. There’s more than a little Indiana Jones influence on two specific sequences on the island, one in which Mason deftly navigates a barrage of timed flame bursts and another that involves a cart chase through a mine shaft. It’s odd to think of this movie as modest in any regard but the excesses of Bay’s mega-blockbuster output after it almost make this seem like an indie by comparison. If Bay on a budget means that we get more gems like The Rock, then I say tighten up the purse strings and let it rip.
Nun of our Business: The Little Hours
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
It’s an idea so rife with comedic possibilities, it’s a wonder Mel Brooks hadn’t thought of it years ago: what if 14th century nuns acted and spoke like 21st century women? Thus is the anachronistic guiding light of The Little Hours, a sex-fueled comedy based on a selection of stories from The Decameron by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. Despite the obvious differences in how the characters speak to one another, writer/director Jeff Baena sticks to the main plot points and even some of the subtext from the centuries old source material. I’m not extremely well-versed in nun-based cinema but I would imagine this is the only one that opens with a scene where a nun yells “hey, don’t fucking talk to us!” and then shows up to Mass in the following scene.
Nominally set in 1347 Garfagnana, the film is centered around a trio of nuns: Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Their peaceful countryside convent is shaken by the new presence of Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile servant on the run from his master Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) for sleeping with Bruno’s wife. Since nuns have berated the help routinely in the past, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) takes Massetto in as a gardener for the grounds, on the condition that poses as a deaf-mute. It turns out Alessandra is so desperate for a potential suitor that she throws herself at Massetto without even being able to argue that he’s a “really good listener”. Meanwhile, Fernanda and Ginevra manifest their own plans for the new resident himbo while Lord Bruno searches furiously for his lost property.
The Little Hours is the rare comedy that not only doesn’t wear out its welcome but actually gets better as it picks up momentum. Baena makes the mistake of dedicating a bit too much of the paltry 87-minute runtime to setting up Massetto and his agreement with Father Tommasso, which swallows up the entire first act. I would have preferred more time to have been dedicated to setting up the trio of nuns, whose personalities have overlaps that it would have been nice to distinguish before Massetto hits the scene. Marta, a lascivious friend of Fernanda’s played by Jemima Kirke, also shows up in the second act around the same time as Massetto and pushes things where they need to go comedically. Fernanda unleashes some serious nihilistic leanings while Ginevra reveals deeper secrets about her sexual and religious preferences and Alessandra pursues her affair with the duplicitous Massetto.
As with his 2014 zom-com Life After Beth, Baena brings John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon back as romantic partners, although the stakes are higher for their partnership in The Little Hours. Since the latter is Mother Superior of the convent, Father Tommasso faces excommunication if his relationship with Shannon’s Mother Marea was to be discovered. The hushed exchanges and guarded flirtations between Tommasso and Marea give a sweet counterbalance to the more abrasive and bawdy interactions between the other nuns. Speaking of familiar faces from the comedy world, the always funny Fred Armisen shines in the third act as a visiting bishop who’s arrived just in time to see the convent devolve into a den of iniquity. When allegations of witchcraft and sexual impropriety spread around the community, the bishop naturally calls a tribunal and Armisen is perfect as the flummoxed arbiter of proper conduct, who claims “this is the longest list I’ve ever had for sins!”
By the time things started to wind down in The Little Hours, I confess I had urges to watch several more hours of these sinful characters in this most pious of settings. Given that the film did less than $2 million at the box office, the possibility of a sequel or spin-off was slim to none, which is a shame given the amount of comedy gold that could still be mined from this premise. Had it performed a bit better in theaters, I could see it having a similar trajectory to What We Do in the Shadows, the hilarious vampire mockumentary that only did a few million domestically but was greenlit as an FX series in 2018. 4 years later, it’s on its way to a fourth season and has remained remarkably consistent in terms of comedic quality across the 3 seasons that have aired already. Given how much Paramount Plus is investing in original content to compete with the other streamers these days, I’ll keep the hopes for a The Little Hours spin-off series in my prayers.
Bats on the Brain: The Lego Batman Movie
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.”– Batman, The Lego Movie
When Phil Lord and Christopher Miller unveiled their “Legoized” version of Batman in their surprise smash The Lego Movie, it was two years after Christopher Nolan’s trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises and two years before the Caped Crusader debuted in the DCEU with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Voiced by Will Arnett with his signature brand of haughtiness in full effect, their iteration is a send-up of the moody mythology that’s inextricably linked with the iconic superhero. His theme song is just him shouting things like “darkness!” and “no parents!” over a crushing industrial beat. He’s a lush, a braggart and terrible at concealing his secret identity of Bruce Wayne. His character was such a hit, the spin-off The Lego Batman Movie arrived two years prior to the proper sequel for The Lego Movie itself.
Batman doesn’t even wait until after the production logos finish before starting his voiceover. Hell, he doesn’t even wait until the first of the “really long and dramatic logos” comes up to hype up his own movie. “Black. All important movies start with a black screen,” he declares as the urgent music starts to bubble up. After describing DC as “the house that Batman built” and stealing lyric credit from Michael Jackson, the film commences with a riff on the opening plane heist from The Dark Knight Rises. Lego henchmen traverse and hijack the Macguffin Airlines aircraft, led by Joker (Zach Galifianakis) this time around instead of Bane. The pilot is more bemused than intimidated by the Clown Prince of Gotham’s presence in the cockpit, since Batman has batted 1000 when it comes to foiling Joker’s plans in the past. Another Dark Knight trilogy reference drops when Joker hotly defends his new plan: “this is better than the two boats!”
We soon find out why the pilot was right to be unconcerned. After unleashing an impressively deep roster of supervillains, including hilariously obscure DC Comics foes from Gentleman Ghost to Condiment King, Joker watches them all go down one by one once Batman hits the scene. But Batman saves his most devastating violence for last, when he refutes Joker’s claim that he’s Batman’s “greatest enemy” and says there’s “nothing special” about their relationship. While the broken-hearted Joker goes back to the drawing board yet again, Batman switches into Bruce Wayne mode for a ritzy gala where he meets cherubic orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and incoming police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) as she announces new policies for the police force. As a graduate of Harvard For Police, she’s clearly qualified to make such decisions.
The Lego Batman Movie came at a time when the character desperately needed laughter and levity to be attached to his name, one way or another. The Dark Knight trilogy was a sorely needed realization of a comic book character that the movies hadn’t quite gotten quite right up to that point but like most of Nolan’s films, the jokes were dry and brief. Even more humorless was the DCEU version, portrayed by dead-serious conviction and no Bat nipples by Ben Affleck. 1997’s Batman & Robin was so poorly received for trying to add camp and humor to the mix that it would take a filmmaker 20 years to even attempt it again. The director ultimately brave enough to do so was Robot Chicken alum Chris McKay, the perfect choice for a rapid-pace, reference-heavy parody of a pop culture icon using facsimiles of plastic toys. He and his five screenwriters pack an overwhelming amount of clever in-jokes and laugh-out-loud lines into their script but also pack some pathos that hits deeper than some of Batman’s live-action counterparts.
This isn’t the first film to bring attention to Batman and Joker’s symbiotic nature — The Dark Knight still evokes this concept the best of any Bat Tale to date — but in pushing their relationship into the realm of romance, McKay and crew illuminate new depths of meaning within these characters. Instead of making jokes, this Joker is constantly the butt of jokes due to everyone’s complete lack of fear and respect for him. It’s actually pretty easy to empathize with him and his plan, while still diabolical, points to a void in Joker’s heart that will likely never be filled. Batman’s arc from selfishness to selflessness may be a bit more obvious from the outset, given how arrogant he is from minute one, but his transformation from unwitting adoptive parent to devoted father is powerful and sweet. Robin has appeared in live-action Batman films before but the connection between the two characters as orphans trying to find their path has never been made more clear in the cinematic realm.
But let’s not bury the lede: this movie is very, very, very funny. I laughed so hard when Gotham’s cavalcade of villains were introduced. Doug Benson spoofs Tom Hardy’s portrayal of coat-donning Bane with dopey deliveries of lines like “Bane is feeling warm and fuzzy!” Zoë Kravitz will be appearing as Catwoman in The Batman but she actually played the character here first, bookending all of her lines with a spirited “meow meow!” Lord Voldemort shows up later but since Ralph Fiennes, who voiced the Harry Potter foe in the film series, was busy elsewhere in the film voicing loyal butler Alfred, Eddie Izzard takes over the vocal duties of the noseless You-Know-Who. When Joker lists a new brood of supervillains and ends on the more obscure Daleks of Doctor Who, he appeals to the uninitiated in the audience: “ask your nerd friends.”
The Lego version of Batman appeared again in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part but that may be the last time we see him for a while, since the franchise is now in the hands of Universal instead of Warner Bros. Perhaps it’s for the best. As outstanding as The Lego Batman Movie is, maybe this sort of send-up is a lighting in a bottle effort that would have been tougher to generate laughs from in future chapters. It’s comforting to know that no matter how dark (thematically or visually) future Batman films may go, we’ll always have this goofy gem as a beacon of light piercing through the night sky.
Bond Voyage: Live and Let Die
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
Diamonds may be forever but after Sean Connery’s sixth outing as James Bond was released, it was clear that his time as the dashing and deadly Brit was coming to an end. Connery reportedly turned down a then-unheard-of $5.5 million payday to return for one more Bond film, causing United Artists to approach American actors like Adam West and Burt Reynolds as replacements. But it was producer Albert Broccoli who was insistent that the role be portrayed by a British actor and pushed for TV star Roger Moore, whose spy series The Saint bore certain resemblances to the Bond film franchise. Moore would go on to reprise the role six more times following his 1973 debut: the strange but satisfying Live and Let Die.
We meet 007 at the tail end of an Italian rendezvous, of sorts, as he’s briefed by M (Bernard Lee) about three MI6 agents who were killed in action within a day’s time. Though they don’t understand the connection just yet, the murders seem to be tied to one Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto), the secretive prime minister of the Caribbean country San Monique. He has also drawn the attention of CIA agent and Bond confidant Felix Leiter (David Hedison), due to Kananga’s connection to a Harlem-based drug kingpin known as Mr. Big. Bond’s pursuit of Kananga and Big leads him first to the seedy streets of New York, then the sweaty swamplands of New Orleans and finally, the treacherous jungles of the Caribbean Islands.
The outline is standard-issue Bond but it’s all the peculiar wrinkles that make Live and Let Die an intriguing entry in the franchise. Its cold open is the only one in Bond movie history that doesn’t feature Bond himself, instead depicting three bizarre deaths of characters with whom we’re unacquainted and will never meet again. First, a UK diplomat receiving in-ear translation at a United Nations hearing gets blasted with an apparently fatal high-frequency noise in his earpiece. Then, in a bit that would kill on Corncob TV, a man is stabbed while watching a solemn New Orleans processional and the music turns joyous once his body is sucked up into the coffin. Finally, a death ritual is carried out against a man tied to a stake as he receives a deadly snake bite surrounded by celebrant voodoo worshippers. It’s an odd and ominous trifecta of death that sets up each of the film’s primary locations while keeping the audience on their toes like any good cold open should do.
Sandwiched in between blaxploitation classics like Super Fly and Three The Hard Way, Live and Let Die is also notable for its implementation of racial politics present both in film and real life during the early 1970s. Bond’s first lead sends him to the heart of Harlem, tracking a pimpmobile to the Oh Cult Voodoo Shop while being tracked himself as a “cue ball” in the predominantly black community. It’s a funny juxtaposition of how we’ve come to expect James Bond and most on-screen secret agents to conduct an investigation, seemingly unaware of how little discretion is being utilized. Watching the newly-minted Moore snoop around in a tailored suit like the out-of-touch “honky” that the Harlemites literally call him to his face is a bold showing of uncoolness for a character who is meant to epitomize cool.
Being a crime movie, the roles filled by African-American actors don’t have the most sophisticated range of characterizations — most are either villains or henchmen — but the diversity is still laudable for a franchise that was previously dominated by whiteness. The criminals each have their own idiosyncrasies that makes them just memorable enough: Julius W. Harris plays a metal-armed merc named Tee Hee, Earl Jolly Brown is a softly-spoken lackey known as Whisper and Geoffrey Holder portrays the tophat-wearing witch doctor Baron Samedi. Though his height made him an unpopular pick in the N64 game Goldeneye, his striking makeup and chilling cackle make him an unforgettable presence. As Kananga, Kotto puts forth a combination of intelligence and intimidation that all the best Bond villains possess.
Kananga’s final devious act, to slowly lower Bond and his love interest Solitaire (Jane Seymour) into a shark tank while revealing every detail of his evil plan, was immortalized by its inclusion in 007 send-up Austin Powers. While the sharks in Live and Let Die also don’t have frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads, Kananga does use an unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism and doesn’t pay attention to Bond as he utilizes not one but two functions of his Q-issued gadget watch. Speaking of dangerous water creatures, the film also features a stunt where Bond jumps on a series of backwoods-dwelling crocodile heads to get to safety, attempted over 6 takes by stuntman Ross Kananga (seemingly so impressive, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz named the film’s villain after him).
Even by today’s standards, the stunt work involved in the bayou-based boat chases is quite remarkable. Shot across a series of Louisiana lakes, the lengthy action setpieces feature speedboats zipping through land, air and sea at top speeds. They’re also marked by the inclusion J.W. Pepper, a hilariously sweaty Southern sheriff played by Clifton James in a very tongue-forward performance. It’s a complete caricature and one that director Guy Hamilton seems to fully embrace. I’ll admit to tugging at my collar during his introductory scene where he calls a black character “boy” but then he proceeds to call everyone else he meets, including white characters, by the same name. Oh, I’m sure he’s racist but the fact that he’s a bumbling moron who no one in the film respects makes his character just ridiculous enough to enjoy.
Moore would go on to do Bond movies that were even more campy than this one and while there aren’t any sights as goofy as 007 clowning around in full carney attire or bumbling around in a space suit, Live and Let Die is a fine foreshadowing of corniness to come. There are awful puns about “sheer magnetism” and Felix Leiter’s name being homophonous with a cigarette lighter (the number of gadget phones in this movie is staggering, I should note). Bond gets duped by two different trap doors but Moore remains calm and coiffed after both embarrassing incidents, cracking wise in the face of a bunch of armed thugs. Baron Samedi may get the last laugh in this entry but Moore’s use of self-deprecating comedy would go on to define his era of Bond pictures, for better or worse. It’s in that same spirit that I would recommend watching his first outing as Bond: don’t take it too seriously.
No Sleep October: Sinister
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
At this point, I think it’s a bit of an understatement to say that COVID-19 screwed a lot of things up. Somewhere far down that list is the fact that Host, the screenlife Shudder exclusive that takes place during quarantine, knocked 2012’s Sinister off as the “scariest movie of all time”, according to Science of Scare. The BroadBandChoices project, which measured heart rate changes in 250 audience members during 40 renowned horror movies, previously crowned Sinister above modern favorites like Insidious and The Conjuring for the top spot. While any such study is a bit silly and doesn’t quite measure exactly what makes a movie “scary”, it’s no fluke that such a terrific horror entry would top the list.
Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt, whose pulpy sagas like Kentucky Blood and Cold Diner Morning have scored him national attention. Desperate for another hit, he moves his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and their kids Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael D’Addario) to a Pennsylvania home where a family was murdered nearby. Early in his research for the book, he happens upon a trove of Super 8 reels stashed away in the otherwise vacant attic and fires up his film projector to investigate. What he finds is a series of gruesome “home movies” where a happy family is murdered in different ways during each film. Further sleuthing allows Ellison to conclude that something supernatural (and perhaps…sinister…?) binds the footage of each of these accounts together.
With co-writer C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson sets up a properly compelling foundation around a man who’s willing to put his wife and children at risk just for another round of success. It’s a potentially difficult protagonist to pull off but Hawke, one of the most amiable actors around, makes us believe in Ellison’s drive and struggle to taste the spoils of victory one more time. Tracy throws everything she has into her support of him and his work — “when you’re happy, we’re all happy,” she acknowledges — but makes no secret that she’s at her wit’s end with his selfish determination. We learn that the fallout from his previous book made them pariahs in the town where they previously resided, a fate that Tracy understandably can’t bear to relive.
It’s a believable setup of pressure and expectation that puts Ellison in a compromised position even before the first frames of the formidable films flicker. With seemingly innocuous titles like “Pool Party ‘66” and “Sleepy Time ‘98”, it doesn’t take long for their opening scenes of familial bliss to turn grisly in a hurry. Derrickson adds a nice directorial touch in the form of a progression (or regression, of sorts) of Ellison’s dependency on alcohol to cope with the violence he observes in his line of work. By the time he watches the second movie, he breaks out the whiskey. By the third home movie, gentleman’s on-the-rocks sips have devolved to desperate straight-up guzzles. By the fourth, the rocks glass is out of the equation entirely and it’s just Ellison vs. the bottle.
It’s not hard to see why. The Super 8 segments are masterfully crafted bits of nightmare fuel — “Lawn Work ‘86” is my personal favorite — scored to supremely unsettling music from composer Christopher Norr. None of the home movies have audible dialogue but Norr’s warbly pianos and muted guitars do all the talking that’s necessary. The terrifying sequences, which were shot using real Super 8 cameras and film stock, have a grimy quality to them that chillingly recalls the aesthetic of actual snuff films. The single point light source limits our perspective and forces urgency on the already horrible images, drawing our focus away from who is shooting these awful films and why. The same morbid curiosity that drives audiences to slasher movies time and time again will keep them glued to the screen during these stretches of Sinister.
The other sections of spookiness in the film are a bit more rote but still quite effective, mainly comprised of Ellison chasing after bumps in the night while having too much pride to turn some damn lights on. The sources of noise turn out to be traceable to tangible objects at first before eventually giving way to apparitions that pop up with increased frequency. These ghosts could probably just float around casually but let’s face it: it’s much more fun when their presence is a bit more demonstrative. The film’s finest jump scare, which caused my wife to make a terrified noise so embarrassing that she still remembers it almost 10 years after we first saw the film in theaters, occurs at such a moment.
Grossing $87 million against its budget of $3 million (a proud Blumhouse tradition), Sinister went on to generate an inevitable sequel that doubles down on its ultimate baddie much in the way the Cars franchise went all-in on Larry the Cable Guy for Cars 2. Without giving too much away, the monster in Sinister is frightening in his own right but it’s the atmosphere and build-up that ultimately make his presence menacing. In the sequel, he looks like someone cosplaying as a member of Slipknot. The focus on the backstories of the ghostly children doesn’t give the film extra depth either; it just drags everything down. Sinister II isn’t the first horror sequel to miss the boat when it comes to what made its predecessor work so well but its failings may actually make the original’s successes even more pronounced by comparison.
After directing another horror film with 2014’s Deliver Us from Evil, Derrickson got sucked into the MCU to helm a little indie called Doctor Strange, whose recently-delayed sequel will arrive next Spring. Fellow horror director Sam Raimi taking the reins on that franchise freed Derrickson to team up again with Cargill and Hawke for The Black Phone, another supernatural chiller arriving next February. I’m doing my best to avoid trailers these days but on the strength of their work together on Sinister along with the news that Hawke will be portraying the villain instead of the hero, I’m in line for it already. No matter how that turns out, I’ll always have this 2012 classic to revisit each year when the leaves start trembling and darkness creeps up a little earlier every night.
13 Fridays: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives
Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal
I don’t know much about the Friday the 13th series. I know the main character is Jason Voorhees, who wears a hockey mask while he hacks horny teens with a machete. I know “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” and that the camp where Jason was “born” is called Crystal Lake. I know that Jason’s mother (not Jason himself) being the killer in the first one has been an old chestnut of movie trivia geeks and the “Well, actually…” crowd alike in the decades since its release. I remember seeing Freddy vs. Jason when I was about 14 or 15 but I couldn’t tell you the outcome of their fight or much else about the movie, other than I thought the lead was pretty when I was a teenager. It’s with this baggage and/or lack of baggage that I proceeded to watch Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.
The film opens, fittingly, on a dark and stormy night. Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) has just been released from a mental institution and is headed to the grave of Jason Voorhees (C.J. Graham) with his friend Allen (Ron Palillo). Haunted by paranoid hallucinations centered around Voorhees for years, Jarvis intends to see Jason’s corpse in the hopes of finally putting his nightmares to rest. Things don’t go quite as planned. Trying to “kill” Jason once and for all, Tommy impulsively impales Jason’s lifeless body with a metal fence post. In a tragic twist of irony, a lightning bolt strikes the pole and reanimates Voorhees, not dissimilar from the way Dr. Frankenstein gives birth to his monster in Mary Shelley’s classic tale. Jason makes short work of Allen while Tommy gets away, dons his trusty hockey mask once again, and we’re off to the races.
It’s at this point that Jason Lives reveals its title card and with it, its ace in the hole: a cheeky sense of irreverence and metahumor to presumably shake up the series. Parodying the infamous and often skewered gun barrel sequence from the James Bond franchise, the frame narrows to that iconic circular shape while Jason makes his way to the center of the shot. Instead of shooting a gun at the camera like Bond, Voorhees chucks his signature machete at us instead, with blood running down the screen just as it does in the Bond movies. Taking this with the over-the-top opening, it’s clear that even for a slasher movie, Jason Lives isn’t interested in taking itself particularly seriously and is all the better for it.
Jason’s mission is pretty simple: go back to Camp Crystal Lake (renamed Camp Forest Green since Voorhees attended) and lay waste to the new crop of camp counselors who now work there. He doesn’t even make it to the campgrounds before taking out poor youngsters Darren and Lizabeth as they drive through the woods. “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that any weirdo in a mask isn’t friendly,” Lizabeth whimpers before Darren unloads a series of seemingly useless bullets into Jason. Darren gets dispatched a bit quicker than Lizabeth, who hilariously tries to bribe the resurrected killer with a pocketful of $20 bills and a shiny AmEx card. It’s made clear that it’s going to be quite difficult, if not impossible, to take Jason out, but it would also be quite dull if no one tried.
Tommy tries to warn the local sheriff of Jason’s monstrous return, only to be thrown in a cell for his efforts. The sheriff’s daughter Megan (Jennifer Cooke) sticks around at the station long enough to hear Tommy’s warning and takes the threat more seriously when Darren and Lizabeth don’t report to camp. It’s not enough to stop a now superhumanly strong Jason from breaking up a game of paintball between 5 counselors, some of whom literally sport headbands that read “DEAD”, with more murder and mayhem. The final victim, whose face is slammed into a tree, leaves a bloody smiley face upon impact with Jason is reunited with his beloved weapon of choice: the machete.
If only this all could’ve been avoided. In a cutaway to a B-plot where the sheriff goes back to Jason’s grave site, a gravedigger laments “why’d they have to go and dig up Jason?” before addressing the audience with “some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment!” Perhaps we do. But writer/director Tom McLoughlin reminds us why we keep coming back with strongly choreographed slayings shot handsomely courtesy of DP Jon Kranhouse. Consider the brilliant shot of Jason standing triumphantly atop an overturned RV with two fresh victims inside, with fire rising up below him and smoke billowing behind him. When Jason finally descends upon the campers, another outstanding shot frames his enormous figure as it enters a cabin against the rustling autumn tree branches.
The 80s was a time of excess and as such, a perfect breeding ground for the often excessive slasher genre. The soundtrack doesn’t let you forget it, pumping out multiple hair metal headbangers from artists like Felony and Alice Cooper, including the film’s theme “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)”. Of course, we also get all of the loud 80s fashion trends and weird niche insults like “does he think I’m a farthead?” that could only live inside a movie from the 1980s. Oddly, the only place it doesn’t go overboard is in the nudity department. Sure, there’s sex but I don’t recall any toplessness or bottomlessness or any combination therein. I’m not complaining; just noting.
So, is Jason Lives a good movie? I have no idea. Did I have fun watching it? Absolutely. I’ve seen my fair share of slasher movies but not very many slasher sequels and it’s to this film’s credit that I felt right at home, even though I haven’t seen the first Friday the 13th in at least 15 years. I can’t imagine the movie reinvents the wheel in the context of the franchise but it seems to provide enough of the familiar while introducing some comedic elements that really liven things up. I can imagine it joining Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Fright Night in my lineup of schlocky spookfests to stream around Halloween each year.