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Midwest Film Journal

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.

Natalie’s Rap Sheet: Jackie

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Can anyone understand how it is to have lived in the White House and then, suddenly, to be living alone as the President’s widow?

– Jacqueline Kennedy

Is there a harder job in the world than President? In his English-language film debut Jackie, Chilean auteur Pablo Larraín suggests that the role of The Widow may be even more difficult. When John F. Kennedy’s life was cut short in November of 1963, his wife Jacqueline placed her deceased husband’s head in her lap as the presidential motorcade sped away to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Almost two hours later, the former First Lady stood in her blood-stained pink Chanel suit next to Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One as he was inaugurated as the next President. “I want them to see what they have done to Jack,” she insisted to “Lady Bird” Johnson when it was suggested she change her clothes before the inevitable photographs were taken for the historical swearing-in.

An exploration of both grief and legacy as they play out on the world’s stage, the film gives us an unconventional portrait of Jackie Kennedy’s mindset surrounding that tragic day in November. The events before and after are framed around a hazy Hyannis Port morning the week after, when Life journalist Theodore White (played by Billy Crudup) knocks on the door of Kennedy’s new home. Jackie (played by Natalie Portman) demands editorial control over her interview before inviting him in for their emotional exchange about her late husband’s legacy. It’s a traditional lynchpin for biopics, allowing the director to show flashbacks that line up with the subject’s recollection of events. But Larraín eschews the sign-posting to which we’ve become accustomed, scattering the chronology like a nightmare half-remembered after waking up.

We see her public image being molded before our eyes, as she shoots her Tour of the White House CBS special, with White House Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (played by Greta Gerwig) instructing her behind the camera on how to smile. We watch her deplane in Texas in that iconic Chanel suit, greeted by Vice President Johnson (played by John Carroll Lynch) and First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson (played by Beth Grant) amid cheering crowds. After the assassination, she grieves with John’s brother Bobby (played by Peter Sarsgaard) as they process what happened and try to sort out the details of the highly-anticipated funeral. Most intimately, the film includes conversations Jackie had with an unnamed priest (played by John Hurt) shortly after her husband’s death.

Just like Jackie when she was in office, all eyes are on Portman as she attempts to transform into who is most likely the most well-known First Lady of all-time. The first thing that’s impossible to ignore is Portman’s accent work while recreating Kennedy’s highly unique dialect. She goes for a spot-on recreation of her specific timbre, nailing nearly every inflection and catch-breath that the real Jackie exhibited in her many public appearances. Centering around a fashion icon, the movie’s attention to detail in the costume design is almost as important and Academy Award nominee Madeline Fontaine adorns Portman with stitch-perfect wardrobe in every scene. Though Portman doesn’t exactly look like Jacqueline, her voice and outfits go a long way in terms of weaving together the fictional with reality.

But does her performance transcend a fine-tuned impression? I would argue that it almost always does. It’s tricky because she’s playing a character who is always keenly aware of how she is being perceived, so it’s something of a performance of a performance. Portman shines most in the moments that we haven’t seen play out in public view before, specifically her scenes with Hurt’s priest character. It’s here that she’s most candid and most vulnerable, allowing herself to meld most with her tragic character. There are times that her portrayal can feel a bit too mannered and self-conscious for its own good (typically in the historical recreation sequences) but on the whole, this is some of Portman’s finest work. For it, she scored her third Best Actress nomination but lost to temporary Best Picture winner Emma Stone.

Early on, Jackie tells the journalist, “when something is written down, does that make it true?” The entire film grapples with the notion of who writes our history and how we’re to be remembered but more specifically, how little the actual truth might matter compared to the appearance of things. Through TV and print, the Kennedys came to epitomize American excellence and majestic opulence, even though there were plenty less than wholesome things under the surface. There are allusions to Camelot, a musical said to be JFK’s favorite whose line “don’t let it be forgot, that for one brief, shining moment there was Camelot” came to eulogize a Kennedy presidency cut short of its full potential. Was John really that big a fan of the musical? Maybe not but to paraphrase Jackie, the American people love their fairy tales.

The strongest elements of the film collide in its most potent scene, which depicts Jackie aimlessly marching through Arlington National Cemetery on a gloomy fall day while cabinet members argue about the location of his grave. The camerawork from Stéphane Fontaine is full of nightmarish conviction, tracking along with the traumatized widow as the snares of Mica Levi’s music score gallop along with her. She doesn’t know where she’s going but she doesn’t want to waste any time getting there. Jackie fumbles in high heels through the mist of the myth that she and her family have worked to create and preserve. It’s a haunting and indelible image, one of many that make this uneven but unflinching look at fame and misfortune a memorable showcase for Portman’s refined talents.

Game On: Super Mario Bros

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

By the early 1990s, Super Mario could seemingly do no wrong. The portly plumber had starred in 5 platform games from 1985-1990, culminating in Super Mario World, whose 20 million+ copies worldwide make it the best-selling SNES game of all-time. After dominating the video game market, it only made sense to spread to other media, resulting in TV shows like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, to coincide with the video game sequel of the same name. But the Mario machine simply wouldn’t stop there and in 1993, he finally had a live-action Hollywood movie to his name: Super Mario Bros.

Being the first feature-length adaptation of a video game, the film obviously wasn’t made with a template in mind or genre restrictions of what a video game movie could be. Lightmotive, the production company behind the project, went through several ideations with multiple Hollywood scribes, including a self-referential take from Harold Ramis and a script pass by Oscar-winning screenwriter Barry Morrow so similar to his Rain Man that it was dubbed Drain Man. Somehow, the project ended up in the creative control of Max Headroom creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. The duo would never work on another project again after the overwhelming critical and financial failure that was Super Mario Bros.

The movie stars Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Italian-American brothers Mario and Luigi, respectively. Like their video game counterparts, the pair work as plumbers but instead toil in modern-day Brooklyn as opposed to a fantasy world filled with brick blocks and shiny coins. After a meet-cute with archeology student Daisy (Samantha Mathis), Luigi goes with her to a bone site under the Brooklyn Bridge, only to find it being flooded by faulty water pipes. With Mario’s help, the plumbing pair fix the leaks but, in the process, get knocked into an interdimensional wormhole that spits them into a strange city called Dinohattan.

It turns out the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years actually split the universe into two dimensions, creating a world where the ancient creatures spawned their own civilization. Somehow, Dinohattan is even more congested and overpopulated than its Earthly analog, being run by the ruthlessly tyrannical President Koopa (Dennis Hopper). We find the portal was opened because Daisy, who was kidnapped and also transported to Dinohattan, wears a necklace with a fragment of the meteorite that will allow Koopa to reassemble it and merge the two worlds together. It’s up to the Mario brothers to navigate the strange parallel city and avoid Koopa’s Goomba henchmen to stop Earth from going down the tubes.

Though Super Mario Bros. is based on a hugely popular video game franchise, it’s difficult to categorize the film as a “kids movie”. While the plot lifts the broad objective from the video games — to rescue the princess from the evil overlord and save the day — the road to get there is presented in stark contrast with the bright colors of the preeminent side-scroller. Even before we get to the fungus-covered town of Dinohattan, the inescapable humidity of summertime Manhattan is captured with similar oppressiveness to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. There’s a de-evolution machine that produces nightmarish images when one’s head is placed inside it and a mafia subplot bound to go right over the heads of children.

Speaking of heads, the enemy Goomba creatures are known in the video games for their mushroom-shaped heads and little feet but in this movie, they have comically undersized dino heads atop ridiculously large frames. In the game, a stomp on the head will do them in but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to handle combat with these cinematic Goombas. The Mario brothers don’t seem to know either, which is why they trick the Goombas into swaying and dancing to polka music whenever they encounter a group of the oversized subordinates. One of the Goombas is supposed to be a de-evolved version of Toad, who sports a harmonica rack and resembles a slightly creepier version of Michael Rooker. The only kid-friendly aspect of the creature design belongs to Yoshi, an amiable dinosaur aimed to give the species a more benevolent reputation two weeks before Speilberg shut all that down with Jurassic Park.

Though the production design of Dinohattan isn’t necessarily meant to impress the younger members of the audience, it remains one of the film’s most memorable artistic statements. Head art director David Snyder, who won an Academy Award for his work on Blade Runner, brings back the rain-drenched neon and murky alleyways of that neo-noir to his conception of a parallel version of downtown New York. He references other dystopian films, from the bureaucratic congestion of Brazil to the timeline-corrupted version of 1985 from Back to the Future Part II. Like that film, Koopa rules over Dinohattan in a similar way the super-wealthy Biff presides over Hill Valley. Both characters play as veiled facsimiles of then-millionaire Donald Trump; incidentally, Koopa’s opening line has the megalomaniac referring to his city as a “pithole”.

The movie doesn’t feature any triceratops but still remains inexplicably horny. Though Mathis isn’t particularly sexualized in an overt manner, nearly every male character besides the Mario brothers objectify Daisy even in brief exchanges with her and Koopa even unrolls his lizard tongue within a minute of meeting her. One sequence takes place in the Boom Boom Bar, a seedy nightclub where Mario retrieves the meteorite necklace with his teeth as it hangs off the buxom Big Bertha. In another scene, Koopa bathes in a tub of mud, commenting that it’s “clean and dirty at the same time” with an overly pleased look on his face.

No one exactly looks “in their element” in Super Mario Bros. but Hopper looks especially out of place in his villainous role. Not that he’s a stranger to antagonistic roles but this was the same year he delivered a world-class monologue in True Romance and a year before he directed his seventh movie. Dozens and dozens of credits to his name and yet, here he is with blonde cornrows and spiked leather. According to a 2010 interview with Conan O’Brien, Hopper confessed that he did the movie to impress his six-year-old son but that it wasn’t even worth it to fulfill that goal. Upon rewatch, I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t yell “I’ll flame anything that moves!” when yielding a flamethrower during the film’s finale.

Despite the persistent mention of “de-evolution”, Mark Mothersbaugh doesn’t serve as the film’s composer, even though he’s responsible for the theme song for the Super Mario World TV series. Instead, the task fell to industry veteran Alan Silvestri, whose wacky and zany score feels ripped from a Hulk Hogan family comedy. It doesn’t implement any of Koji Kondo’s iconic video game music, except for the original 8-bit theme that plays over the opening credits. Understandably, a cover of the Was (Not Was) funk classic “Walk the Dinosaur”, credited to The Goombas feat. George Clinton, plays twice in the film.

While the genre-spawning Super Mario Bros. had a rough go of it at the box office and in the press, the vast majority of video game movies have fallen victim to a similar fate. It wasn’t until 2019, which saw the release of Detective Pikachu, that such a film would receive a positive Rotten Tomatoes score, despite dozens of entries in the genre. Currently, Universal Pictures and Illumination are allegedly hard at work on a more faithful animated reboot of the Mario property with a tentative 2022 release. Like a frustrated gamer, Hollywood seems bent on finding a measure of success, even if it means playing the same game over and over again.

C’mon, Mann: The Insider

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

“In ‘The Insider,’ I had violence – lethal, life-taking aggression – all happening psychologically, all with people talking to other people.”

– Michael Mann

It’s easy to think of Michael Mann as an action filmmaker. When I hear the director’s name, my mind immediately goes to the all-timer of a street shootout from Heat, with Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer raining hellfire on outmatched police squads. From iconic shots like Kilmer flawlessly reloading his Colt 733 rifle in that film or Tom Cruise quick-drawing on two alleyway thugs with lightning speed in Collateral, Mann has earned a reputation for training his actors to represent tactical precision in their weapons handling. As exciting and visceral as his action movies can be, his most engrossing work for my money is The Insider, a docudrama where no guns are fired or even shown in its 158 minute runtime.

Based on a true story, the film begins with a shroud over the camera and the proverbial wool pulled over our eyes. The face covering belongs to CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who’s being harshly transported to the founder of Hezbollah, Sheikh Fadlallah, in the back of a Middle Eastern van. He hopes to convince the Sheikh to sit down with Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) for a 60 Minutes interview that may change the way American minds view the burgeoning Islamist movement. It’s not an easy task but it’s obvious from the outset that Bergman doesn’t mind the challenge of a potential new story, as long as he feels the work is meaningful and can change the world around him.

It’s this tenacity that draws Bergman closer to Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a tobacco executive who staunchly refuses to consult with Bergman on scientific documents from cigarette conglomerate Philip Morris. After pressing Wigand, Bergman discovers that he’s bound by a confidentiality agreement that seems immensely restrictive in its scope and vicious in its potential repercussions. Bergman spends a large portion of the film working through numerous loopholes that allow Wigand to break through the robust non-disclosure and eventually gets him to sit down for the 60 Minutes interview. It’s only after taping it that Bergman learns the higher-ups at CBS plan on airing a highly abridged version of the segment for fear of litigation from Big Tobacco.

Around the halfway mark, The Insider slyly expands from a film about the intense lobbying power of the tobacco industry specifically to a movie about the sweeping influence of media conglomeration on how information is distributed. Adapting from the incendiary Variety Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Mann and legendary screenwriter Eric Roth poured an incredible amount of detail and journalistic rigor into their Oscar-nominated script. Beyond just being well-researched and steeped in hard-hitting truth, it’s a screenplay packed with loaded dialogue and quotable lines that read well but play even better when coming out of the mouths of high-caliber actors.

Mann’s previous film Heat famously paired De Niro with Pacino as the crime and justice sides of the same coin, so much so that it’s difficult to determine who between the two is the protagonist. The Insider similarly brings Pacino back for a character who certainly isn’t the antagonist but also goes about things very differently from Wigand, the film’s underdog hero. We’re used to seeing Crowe as an imposing figure — he would star in Gladiator 7 months after The Insider‘s release — but before his days of schooling strangers on the value of the courtesy tap, Crowe shined in smoldering roles like this that kept his rage simmering under the surface. At the beginning of a tense meeting, Wigand’s ex-employer faux-dotes on him in front of higher-ups by remarking “it’s spooky how much he can concentrate” and Crowe does an incredible job of capturing Wigand’s fiery intellect.

Conversely, Pacino externalizes all of Crowe’s fear and paranoia by lashing out on executives over pay phones and new-fangled mobile phones but really, is there an actor in the 90s that we collectively trusted to do bigger better than Pacino? Equally at home in an authoritative role is Plummer as revered journalist Mike Wallace, who steals nearly every scene that he’s in with his impossibly smooth confidence. After a confrontational meeting with a member of CBS’ legal team, Wallace reassures Bergman with a quick tap on hand and cooly reminds him, “don’t worry; we call the shots around here.” The presence of character actors from Philip Baker Hall to Stephen Tobolowsky further drives home the notion that indeed, we’re in good hands here.

Watching the movie 20 years after its release, the most “dated” aspect of the film is how much concern is given towards a 60 Minutes report but really, that says more about how poor the state of investigative journalism is now rather than the actual narrative seeming antiquated. It’s a time capsule of a quaint era when journalists worked hard to present matters of public interest in the most objective terms possible and the American people trusted the news to keep them informed. Now, hard-hitting exposes are typically buried under mountains of infotainment (a term this film may have actually coined) and knee-jerk headlines, while the rise of social media has made getting to the truth seemingly impossible at times.

And those are just the stories we see. What makes The Insider so powerful is that for once, we get to sit in those boardrooms and high-rise offices and hear the conversations that the rich and powerful work hard to withhold. Technology, and big data specifically, has allowed for the news to be curated for individuals more finely than ever but without the right people above the keyboard fighting to publish the unvarnished truth, for-profit reporting will gladly take its place. It’s unlikely that many of us will get in a post-robbery gunfight with the cops or confront a duo of armed bandits but as long as you have a smartphone in your pocket, you’re almost guaranteed to be an unwitting victim of behind-the-scenes corporate control on a daily basis. Perhaps that’s what makes The Insider the most unexpectedly bruising film of Michael Mann’s career.

Deck the Gyllenhaals: Enemy

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

One of the most heartening transitions in Hollywood over the past ten years has been French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s ascension from indie darling to big-budget auteur. What’s even more promising is that the progression has led to very few, if any, compromises to his artistic integrity along the way. After breaking out with the Oscar-nominated Incendies in 2010, it didn’t take long for him to graduate to thoughtful mid-budget films like Sicario and Arrival and to eventually command Christopher Nolan-scale projects like Blade Runner 2049 and the forthcoming (sigh) Dune.

2013 was an important year for Villeneuve, as it saw the release of two films that would exponentially speed his career along. The better remembered of the pair is Prisoners, a morality-based thriller with a star-studded cast which included Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal that captured the attention of audiences worldwide to the tune of $120+ million. The lesser known of the couple, Enemy, is a decidedly smaller profile picture with a fraction of Prisoners‘ budget, even though it also stars Gyllenhaal in the lead role. Villeneuve has done plenty of great work the past decade and while Blade Runner 2049 is arguably his most accomplished movie, Enemy remains my personal favorite in his oeuvre.

The film is a loose adaptation of José Saramago’s novel O Homem Duplicado, Portuguese for “The Duplicated Man”, although it was retitled The Double when translated into English in 2004. Fittingly, Enemy had a doppelgänger of its own in 2013 by way of Richard Ayoade’s The Double, based on the unrelated Dostoyevsky novella of the same name. Since that title was already in use and presumably because the title The Two Jakes was already taken by some other movie, Villeneuve went with the title Enemy instead. It turns out to be the most apt title of all, as this is a movie chiefly concerned with a man at odds with himself, which is to say in conflict with his own desires and vices.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a reclusive history professor who rents a movie on the advice of a fellow teacher and spots an extra in a bellhop outfit who looks identical to him. Curious, Bell discovers the actor is Anthony Claire and after confirming his likeness based on two other film appearances, Adam becomes obsessed with his apparent twin and eventually makes contact with him. After the men come together and remark on the impossible similarities, they diverge and search for answers on their own. Adam reaches out to his girlfriend, played by Mélanie Laurent, for advice, and to his mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, to see if it’s possible that he could have an identical twin that he doesn’t know about. Meanwhile Anthony’s wife, played by Sarah Gadon, becomes aware of Adam’s existence and is bewildered when she meets him face-to-face.

As one may expect, the central mystery of Enemy does not lead to a straight-forward conclusion and reveals more layers of psychological complexity as the story moves along. Without giving too much away about the details of the plot, it’s enough to say that the film’s primary theme is infidelity and what it takes to finally and fully commit to someone. Much like David Lynch’s erotic thriller Mulholland Drive, this is ultimately a puzzlebox movie where characters from both films literally stand with a key in their hands during pivotal moments in their respective storylines. Similarly, it’s difficult to watch Villeneuve’s film just once and grasp the entirety of its symbolism.

The reactions of those who have seen Enemy tend to fixate on one aspect, which is the film’s deliberately challenging concluding scene. Each person I’ve seen the film with for the first time tends to cycle through the same feelings of shock then amusement then befuddlement, though the implications of its meaning have made it more terrifying for me than anything else. When discussing authoritarian rule in a lecture hall during the opening scene, Bell says of systemic suppression that “this is a pattern that repeats itself throughout history.” I won’t share my interpretation of the ending here but I would urge first-time viewers to consider this early line in the film when sussing out the ending.

Regardless of how one reacts to the last scene, there’s no denying the benefit of getting two Jake Gyllenhaals for the price of one. Like all of the best dual roles, Gyllenhaal establishes credibility early on by crafting two distinct personalities that allow us to tell the difference between what is essentially the same person. He also does plenty with body language to establish distinguishing features of the two men, plaguing the meek Adam with a perpetual slouch while dignifying the coolheaded Anthony with the posture of confidence. One of my favorite shots in the films crawls in on a helmeted Gyllenhaal as Anthony as he sits on his motorcycle with his legs perched out like a spider waiting for prey while the web-like streetcar wires of urban Toronto lie overhead.

As Dune is presumably finished at this point and just waiting to be released at a time when a pandemic isn’t mercilessly ravaging the populace, Villeneuve’s next project has already been announced. Collaborating with Gyllenhaal once again, both as actor-director and co-executive producers, Villeneuve will head up The Son as a limited series for HBO. Based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbo, the show would seem to focus on an escaped convict who can’t remember his past and finds himself on the run while dealing with opioid addiction. It would seem that Jake and Denis teaming up is a pattern that repeats itself and I personally hope for a fruitful continuation of their reign.

No Sleep October: The Blair Witch Project

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I remember spending more time than I’d care to admit getting lost in the woods. As someone who wasn’t especially outdoorsy, I still couldn’t resist the urge to go over to friends’ houses during summer break and waste hours and hours going through whatever nearby forests we could find. There was something about exploring “uncharted” territory away from adults and the endless possibilities of discovery that never seemed to get old. But no matter how deep in we went, we always found our way out. It never even occurred to me that one day, maybe we wouldn’t.

This simple but haunting notion is just one of many that permeates the brilliantly effective and rightfully iconic The Blair Witch Project. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 1999 and later scaring up almost $250 million that following summer, the film remains one of the most profitable horror movies of all time. The concept of a fictitious Blair Witch was first developed by co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez back in 1993 but as we all know now, the movie’s most salacious marketing hook was that audiences didn’t know the legend was entirely made-up. Shot on a combination of 16mm and VHS in October of 1997 (their last day of shooting was, appropriately, on Halloween), the largely improvised project featured three unknown actors — Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard — going into the woods to document the seemingly real Blair Witch legend.

While The Blair Witch Project didn’t create the found-footage technique, it gave it terrifying renewed potential. If you go into the film ignoring the indelible cultural impact that it’s had over the past 20 years and try to approach it as a factual account of these three student filmmakers getting in way over their heads, it remains one of the sub-genre’s crowning achievements. Its credibility starts early, with Heather haphazardly holding her ever-present camcorder as she meets Mike and recruits Josh for their new project. “I really want to avoid any cheese; I want this to be as straightforward as possible,” she forewarns her male cohorts as they pack the video gear into their car. Myrick and Sánchez wisely apply this thesis statement to their approach for the film’s simple and subtle scares.

After setting the table with some terrific naturalistic acting of Maryland locals recounting stories of the Blair Witch legend, the movie follows Heather, Mike and Josh as they begin their hike through the leaf-covered Black Hills forest. The first few days go about as well as planned, as they capture footage of a creepy graveyard and the equally creepy Coffin Rock while Heather narrates in a perfectly overwrought film student manner. What Myrick and Sánchez do so shrewdly over the remaining runtime is show how little it takes to psychologically break these people down and erode their very sense of being. It’s as if the filmmakers studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and thought “what if we slowly chip away at all of these from the bottom up until there’s nearly nothing left?”

First, it rains and the chilly autumn breeze turns into a stiffer and more unforgiving wind. After the fourth day, food and water become scarce and random noises throughout the woods make certain that a good night’s sleep is nigh impossible. Their bags are raided in the night and cairns are insidiously placed right outside their tents, indicating that they won’t be safe wherever they choose to camp out. Trust and whatever notion of “friendship” these three have slowly erode as they become more lost in their treacherous surroundings. Josh is seemingly kidnapped and tortured as Heather and Mike fruitlessly attempt to locate him amongst the array of identical-looking trees. After all of these awful events, we finally get to the top of Maslow’s pyramid when Heather tearfully admits to Mike “this is all I have!”, realizing that her dreams of becoming a revered filmmaker will never come true.

All of this leads to a spellbinding finale set in the abandoned house of a hermit who allegedly kidnapped and killed children under orders of the Blair Witch. The production design is terrific as Heather and Mike investigate the bloody handprinted walls and decrepit condition of the building. Myrick and Sánchez deftly juggle between Heather’s 16mm camera and Mike’s camcorder, ratcheting up the tension as Mike hastily makes his way to the cobblestone basement ahead of Heather. My favorite detail of the film’s chilling final minute is how we’re seeing the footage from Heather’s camera but hearing the audio from Mike’s camcorder, even though it hits the ground once he finally gets to the basement. That way, Heather’s shrieks become louder and louder until she finally gets to the room and sees Mike standing horrifyingly still in a corner of the basement.

It should go without saying but the mystique of The Blair Witch Project will likely never again be replicated in film history. Thanks to the ever-watchful entertainment industry, spoiler-ridden trailers and constant chatter on social media, we practically know everything about a given movie before it’s even released. This film’s marketing campaign went viral before “viral” was even a concept, utilizing the internet in ways that Hollywood hadn’t even begun to think about. Sure, Space Jam had a website (that, for some reason, still exists today) but it didn’t have nearly the depth of content of Blair Witch’s link-heavy web index. The convincing narrative that the site put forth even had message boards buzzing, long before the days of Reddit and 4Chan when internet conspiracy culture wasn’t an embarrassing hellscape of alt-right propaganda.

Indeed, there may never be another horror movie quite like The Blair Witch Project but that’s all the more reason to get lost in its wilderness when fall rolls around each year.

Keanu World Order: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

“Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!” It’s a simple sentiment, sure, but something about this thesis statement from the cult comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has resonated with audiences since its release and perhaps right now even more than ever. Strip away the surfer dude parlance and you basically have calls to empathy and self-care that may not have seemed profound back in 1989 but have proven to be especially illuminating in overwhelmingly distressing times. Aside from the use of a homophobic slur by the main characters, I was surprised while recently rewatching Bill & Ted just how little of it feels dated by today’s standards and fittingly, the experience of seeing it again made me feel as if I was traveling back to a simpler time.

I’ve probably seen Excellent Adventure in full about 5 or 6 times but I doubt more than half of those viewings were for the entire film in one sitting. Growing up as a teen in the early 2000s, I remember Comedy Central playing the movie seemingly every week. When I was flipping through channels, a practice I’m mildly nostalgic for as I’m typing this sentence, I would often stop to catch wherever it was in its runtime. It was like loading scenes of a movie onto an iPod Shuffle, another reference that instantly dates me, and seeing what comes up. If it was the shopping mall montage of historical figures running amok or Napoleon shouting “merde!” as he slides down the bowling lane, you can be sure that the channel would remain unflipped for at least several minutes.

For the uninitiated, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure involves two amiable California dudes who use a time-traveling phone booth to abduct important figures throughout history and pass their final school presentation. Though comedy is often a game of opposites, the characters of Bill and Ted are remarkably similar, to the point where they often make the same exclamations like “bogus!” and “gnarly!” in unison. Naturally, the key to making the relationship work is timing and chemistry, both of which leads Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have a most magnificent amount. Their performances are harmonious and complimentary in a way that really sells the kind of kindred spirits these two slackers have become to one another.

Although Winter has mainly stayed out of the limelight since his breakout role as Bill S. Preston, Esq., Reeves has since become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars with huge franchise hits like The Matrix and John Wick. Due to the once popular “Sad Keanu” meme and his introverted personality, Reeves’ persona has typically relied heavily on the actor’s seeming stoicism, so it’s especially fun going back and watching him essentially be a goof for 90 minutes. I especially love how Reeves imbues Ted with the most laid-back temperament imaginable, even when pressed with trying circumstances. After ribbing Bill about his new stepmom, Bill seems genuinely upset when he tells Ted to shut up, to which Ted pauses a moment and then lights up a dopey grin to diffuse the tension. In a relatively low stakes movie, that brief confrontation has a surprising amount of impact because we recognize how strong of a friendship these two have with each other.

Excellent Adventure also has a playful spirit about the nature of time travel and just like its central duo, really doesn’t bother to take things too seriously. If you ask the movie if it operates on a fixed timeline or alternate timeline, it would answer “yes.” My favorite comedic paradox in the film is when the pair need a set of keys belonging to Ted’s police chief father to get out of a predicament. Ted has a bright idea: why don’t they go back in time after the history report is over, steal the keys and plant them near the police station at that moment so they can find them? Before we even have time to figure out if that makes any sense at all, Bill pulls the keys out of the grass near a sign where their future selves presumably placed them.

Catching up with the film now, it’s still a bit too broad and cartoonish in certain respects but even the bits that don’t work still skate by on good-natured charm. The plotline essentially operates as a feature length version of the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen manifests the media theorist out of thin air to show up a chatty intellectual in a movie line. Here, Bill and Ted nab famous historical figures throughout time as if to say to their teacher “see, we do know something of their work!” While Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure isn’t quite up to Annie Hall caliber, it’s just the kind of sweet and affable comedy that we could all use right about now.

Tilda Break of Dawn: Burn After Reading

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

We’ve all been there. You’re with your bros, ranking your favorite Coen Brothers’ movies, and things get tricky. You have 18 films with nary a stinker in sight, at least half of which could justifiably be in the top spot. Thoughts like “is there really no room for Barton Fink in my top 5?” and “can anything besides Intolerable Cruelty go in the bottom slot?” occupy your head. As someone who recently tried and failed to come up with such a daunting list, I’ve come to respect any attempt to conjure up a cogent Coen pecking order. However, one trend continues to befuddle me: the consistent underrating of the screwball spy comedy Burn After Reading.

Saddled chronologically between Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men and existential parable A Serious Man, Burn After Reading came in 2008 like a bit of respite between two pillars of heavier fare. I like to think of it as the loosening of the belt between plate one and plate two of Thanksgiving dinner. At a lean 96 minutes, it’s as tightly edited and efficiently rendered as anything the Coens have committed to celluloid to this point. But most importantly, the film is laugh-out-loud hilarious no matter how many times you’ve seen it, which I mark as a true test of a great comedy.

Of all the roles in Tilda Swinton’s career, her character in Burn After Reading would likely qualify as one of the more “normal” people that she has portrayed. She plays Katie Cox, the uptight and unrelenting wife of John Malkovich’s Osbourne Cox, a CIA analyst who gets sacked in the film’s opening scene and unwittingly sets into motion the comedy of errors to come. We discover early on that Katie is pursuing an affair with the likewise married US Marshal Harry Pfarrer, played with zig-zagging charm and kookiness by George Clooney. Her plan is to divorce “Ozzie” provided Harry can break it off with his wife Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), who Katie affectionally refers to as a “cold, stuck-up bitch,” a term that Harry’s wife coincidentally uses to describe Katie.

As an unbiased observer, I may have to side with Sandy on this one. Adorn with outfits that scream “old money” and a hairstyle modeled after Edna Krabappel from The Simpsons, Katie is certainly not the most approachable person. In her mind, everyone constantly acts in an embarrassing manner and there’s nearly no situation that can’t be sped along with an exasperated “for fuck’s sake!” When her bumbling divorce attorney urges a “day of reflection” before pursuing legal action, she scoffs and quickly feigns a one-sided smile. Trapped in a storyline where characters make increasingly dubious decisions, she serves as the stern captain aboard this ship of fools.

Despite her seeming superiority, Katie is begrudgingly smitten with one of said fools. There’s something about Harry, be it his post-coital running routine or his penchant for high-quality flooring, that has captured the modicum of affection that she has to offer. That doesn’t mean she’s not willing to push him around too though. When Harry accuses Katie of forcing him to hastily split with Sandy, she assures him “I do *not* hammer!” as she punctuates each word with a pounding finger on the restaurant table. But the Coens save the funniest detail about Swinton’s character until the hour-and-twenty minute mark. The late reveal of her profession, which flies in the face of everything that we’ve come to know about her up to that point, is one of my favorite low-key punchlines in the entire film.

It’s a testament to how well-organized and tightly compiled this madcap comedy is. There’s not a single extraneous moment or wasted line and many scenes seem to rhyme with the scene previous to it. Take the opening, in which Ozzie gets ousted from his CIA position due to his alcoholism. After an outburst, which he mockingly echoes the “I have a drinking problem” accusation of his superior, we cut right to a close-up of Ozzie cracking a fresh ice tray for his first of many Cuba Libres. The Coens also intersperse the propulsive storyline with hilarious interjections by CIA higher-ups, played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, who are desperately trying to untangle the messy story that is unfolding before them. Like a pair of puzzled Greek gods profanely presiding over their subjects, their scrambling to try to “resolve” the situation is a brilliantly funny way to recontextualize the labyrinthine plot.

Strange to go this long talking about Burn After Reading and not mention the gonzo performances by Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as a duo of hapless gym trainers who get in way over their empty heads. Pitt alone has a litany of silly face expressions and goofy dance moves to inspire pages of reaction GIFs on his own. He had done a little comedy before and has done some comedy since but I don’t think I’ve seen Pitt cut quite as loose as he does here. But for all the “foolishness” (to borrow a term from Katie) that’s on display, Burn After Reading works as well as it does because it’s balanced by factors like the straight-laced and tightly-coiled performance by Tilda Swinton.

All We Do Is Vin: Boiler Room

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Before he was Dominic, Riddick, or Groot, he was just Chris. When we think of Vin Diesel, we think of leave-your-brain-at-the-door actioneers but before the one-two punch of Pitch Black (well, technically it came out the same weekend) and The Fast and the Furious, there was 2000’s Boiler Room. Written and directed by Ben Younger, the film stars Diesel as Chris Varick, one of the many money-hungry brokers at the crooked firm J.T. Marlin. It is there that Chris and his cohorts spend their days in the titular location barking at potential clients about stock opportunities with the bravado of young bulls. The scene is strikingly similar to the one set by Martin Scorsese 13 years later in The Wolf of Wall Street, sans the midget tossing and stripper parades.

Revisiting Boiler Room after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street, it almost seems quaint by comparison. Even though both are based on the Wall Street exploits of the infamous Jordan Belfort, the former uses his story as a jumping off point where the latter is more of a warts-and-all biopic. Boiler Room’s version of Belfort, Michael Brantley, played by That Thing You Do’s Tom Everett Scott, is decidedly the much more tame version of his real-life counterpoint and only pops up a few times in the film. The story instead focuses on Giovanni Ribisi’s Seth Davis, a street-savvy college dropout who ditches his home-based unlicensed casino and climbs his way up the ladder at J.T. Marlin.

One thing I love about Boiler Room is how much it takes a page from the Glengarry Glen Ross playbook of allowing specific actors to take a scene and run with it. The most obvious example is the trio of training monologues from Ben Affleck, mirroring the same venomous intensity of Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry character. “They say money can’t buy happiness? Look at the fucking smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby!”, he hisses at the wide-eyed recruits after bragging about the details of his millionaire status. Later, he coaches them on his “act as if” philosophy with similarly colorful language. He’s arrogant, callous and greedy beyond measure but we can still understand the appeal of the world that he’s pitching for these young newcomers. In just a few scenes, he epitomizes the timbre of the calamitous yet vaguely enticing environment in which he inhabits.

Diesel gets his own spotlight moment, jumping over desks to beat out fellow brokers for a hot new phone lead. The chaos on the floor stops as they put his call over the speakers so they can hear the master at work. The victim on the other line is a hapless doctor who took the bait on an pharmaceutical tip and has no idea he’s about to buy 2000 shares in 2 minutes. Diesel’s line readings drip with prevaricator’s poison as he rakes this poor guy over the coals. “That great doc, if you want to miss another opportunity and watch your colleagues get rich doing clinical trials,” he says poised with a rebuttal for any objection. After he closes, he greets the applauding crowd of dazzled traders with a Diesel signature move he would re-create a year later in The Fast and the Furious: arms stretched out wide with shrugged shoulders and shit-eating smirk. “Diesel is interesting,” Ebert remarked in his review. “Something will come of him.”

Shady business practices and four-letter words aside, Boiler Room doesn’t quite dive as deeply into the same Wall Street culture vices as something like The Wolf of Wall Street. The film is largely sexless, with the exception of a sweet romance between Seth and a receptionist played by Nia Long. Thanks to some truly garish product placement, there’s more Coke addiction than coke addiction on display. And yet, the movie evokes a specific time and place quite brilliantly, even if the cringey, scratch-heavy music score by The Angel hasn’t aged quite as well as everything else. With a sound script and confident direction, Boiler Room is a high quality look inside the low quality world of chop stocks.

Oscar Gold: American Beauty

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

What did we do to deserve a year in film as excellent as 1999? By this point, most cinephiles and critics are at consensus that the final year of the 1990s is one of the finest when it comes to consistent cinematic output. Just ask a group of movie buffs what their ‘99 favorite is and you’ll likely end up with a variety of laudable choices. With available titles like Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix and Being John Malkovich, among a list of plenty of worthy contenders that could fill the rest of this column, there really are no wrong answers. However, one answer has been seemingly grown more “wrong” in the 20 years since it took home Best Picture: Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.

By the time the 72nd Academy Awards arrived in March of 2000, the film was a critical and commercial hit, grossing over $350 million worldwide against a $15 million budget and scoring rave reviews in the process. It was a heavy favorite to take home the majority of the 8 awards for which it was nominated and indeed that came to pass, as it won in 5 categories including the top prize. When you look at the rest of the Best Picture field that year (The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense), it’s not difficult to see how a film like American Beauty would stand apart. In a group of films helmed by seasoned directors, with Shyamalan as a notable exception, it was the rabble-rousing new kid on the block that Academy voters were eager to champion.

So what’s become of American Beauty’s legacy since then? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the cultural conversation turned against its favor, aside from its initial detractors. As early as 2005, Premiere Magazine cited it as one of the “20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time,” even though that list also included truly unimpeachable offerings like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantasia. Since then, social media has allowed for a total relitigation of the film, years removed from the rapturous response from revered film critics like Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. It also goes without saying that after September 11th, the Great Recession and the country’s continuing political polarization, American Beauty’s concerns may read as trivial in retrospect.

But aside from the cataclysmic cultural shifts that have transpired, perhaps the most damning contribution to American Beauty’s decline has been the 2017 sexual misconduct allegations against Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey. With 15 accusers in counting, 3 of whom were victims of suicide last year alone, the assertions are troubling to say the very least. This along with a pair of confounding YouTube videos, in which Spacey gives cryptic advice as his House of Cards character Frank Underwood, has all but guaranteed that Spacey will never work in Hollywood again. Ridley Scott even scrubbed Spacey entirely from his 2017 film All The Money In The World, replacing him with Christopher Plummer merely a month before the release date.

These revelations about Spacey’s conduct make the film more difficult to revisit, especially given that much of the plot centers around Spacey’s Lester lusting after an underage girl. Recently rewatching the film for the first time in many years, I did my best to set the current context aside and watch as if it were 1999. In doing so, I was quite surprised with how much of American Beauty does hold up 20 years after its release. In his first screenplay for a feature film, Alan Ball shrewdly etches each of the main characters with a sardonic humor that still gives each of them their own unique voice and perspective. Its takes on middle-age malaise and suburban strife may not seem especially novel today but few films were investigating these themes as boldly as this one at the time of its release.

In his feature debut, Sam Mendes (who won Best Director back in 2000 and will likely do so again for 1917 on Sunday) showcases an impressive command of the form in the film’s opening moments. He lays out the plight of his put-upon protagonist along with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane with cutting cynicism and economical editing. I was struck with just how much Mendes juggles thematically in this film, between the exploration of sexuality, materialism, homophobia, loss of identity and mortality. These are obviously touchy subjects for American cinema and Mendes pulls off the balance even better than I remembered.

Even if Mendes’ tale of middle class ennui doesn’t resonate with viewers, there’s enough technical prowess behind the camera to keep one engaged throughout. Thomas Newman’s still iconic musical score utilizes sensitive tuned percussion and lilting piano to counteract the dispassionate and glib tone of the film. In one of his last films before his passing in 2003, cinematographer Conrad Hall does career-best work with beautiful shot compositions and a sedate color palette that allows the color red to pop. He also throws in clever visual metaphors, as when Lester’s computer monitor at work captures his reflection against lines of code that resemble bars of a jail cell.

From Fight Club to Office Space, corporate imprisonment and subsequent liberation was a popular theme among 1999 films and it’s not difficult to see why. We were at the brink of a new millennium, with a host of new fears and anxieties at our doorstep. Y2K put us on high alert and in some ways, it feels like we never came down from it. The only escape, the film posits, is finding purpose and beauty in this world, even if its in observing an innocuous plastic bag dancing in the wind. Perhaps American Beauty is more pretentious in investigating this philosophy than some would like but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a closer look.