A still from 'The Thing'.
October 22, 2018
By Joshua Ray

The Director's Complete Filmography, From Worst to Best

In a 1999 Film Comment piece celebrating John Carpenter, the director memorably quipped to Kent Jones: “In France, I'm an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain; a genre film director; and, in the U.S.A., a bum.” After 20 years, it could be said that America has finally caught up with France, at least in this regard. Although he hasn’t made a feature film since 2010’s The Ward, the “Prince of Darkness” and his style have surfed a wave of nostalgia to attain a new prominence in the 2010s. Carpenter is currently on a world tour showcasing his trademark synthesizer scores; he has released two Lost Themes albums to moderate critical acclaim; and his fingerprints are all over contemporary genre filmmaking as far-reaching as the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things and notable art-horror films such as David Mitchell’s It Follows (2015) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). The horror master has recently produced and scored director David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), the next installment in a Carpenter-birthed franchise as undying as its masked, malevolent Shape, Michael Myers.

However, it’s Carpenter’s cinematic work as a director that is ultimately worth revisiting, recontextualizing, and reevaluating. The filmmaker has asserted that he draws from two wildly disparate filmmakers in critic Andrew Sarris’ pantheon: Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Although a mixture of those directors’ unique visual languages and thematic preoccupations might seem an unsettled thing, their heir apparent long ago cracked the underlying mutant chemistry. Carpenter retains the perfection of Hawks’ unadorned and unfussy genre cinema to examine people in their communal environments, while also deploying the Master of Suspense’s moralistic and downright experimental formalism to explore humanity in extremis. This marriage finds itself beautifully sprawled across Carpenter’s trademark widescreen Panavision images – a horizontally stretched fisheye viewpoint that demands exacting composition and world-building from the director. Almost all of his works employ this technology-cum-aesthetic – save for his made-for-television work, his debut feature Dark Star (1974), and The Ward (2010) – and even his worst films contain images of stunning confidence. 

22. Ghosts of Mars (2001)

The occasionally compelling Ghost of Mars demonstrates the law of diminishing returns. Palpably divested of the charm or character of Carpenter's previous Rio Bravo (1959) riffs – Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), this is not – this ersatz rendition is a film in search of a point. Even with a bigger budget to realize the science-fiction veneer on the material, the film doesn’t hang together as a whole. (Perhaps illustrating that imitation is indeed flattery, Rio Bravo's own director, Carpenter hero Howard Hawks, attempted to retool his classic Western to mixed results in his later works El Dorado [1966] and Rio Lobo [1970].) Ghosts’ tedious, gory action demonstrates the unfortunate dulling of Carpenter's cinematic edge, while the B-list cast (Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham) mirrors the director's near-boredom with the film’s space-horror nonsense. Still, the film's sociopolitical exploration of group dynamics – ever-present in the director's oeuvre – provides some engaging ideas, especially in its reversing gender and sexual-orientation norms to explore how cishet male characters behave when they're in the minority.

21. Elvis (1979)

Having just wrapped production on Halloween (1978), Carpenter took the helm of this made-for-television biopic without knowing the cultural and financial cachet his slasher flick would soon afford him. The director's usual supreme control over blocking and composition are present in Elvis, but the miniseries' script is DOA hagiography. The storybook presentation works when it covers the King’s early years, but as the narrative creeps achingly slowly into his adulthood, the style wears paper-thin. The film's nuance-lacking plotting and characterizations are so elementary that it feels like a template for future, equally mundane musician biopics like Walk the Line (2005) and Ray (2004). Kurt Russell nails his impersonation of Presley, but it would be future teamings with Carpenter that would give the actor his most indelible and swaggering performances.

20. “Cigarette Burns” (2005) / “Pro-Life” (2006)

Showtime's Masters of Horror series was a second chance for many of Carpenter's genre brethren – Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, and Stuart Gordon, to name a few – to create new work on a small scale and thereby re-introduce themselves. Carpenter, arguably the most recognizable name of the group, seized the opportunity himself after spending four years in the creative wilderness. With "Cigarette Burns" and "Pro-Life," the director wastes no time in presenting an increasingly cynical worldview – one without the careful contemplation of people and their habitats and containing even more bloodletting than ever before. "Pro-Life" is the more "fun" of the two, combining the hot-box setting of Assault on Precinct 13 with Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), contemporary political paranoia in tow. Similar to Sutter Cane's novels in In the Mouth of Madness (1995), "Cigarette Burns" centers on a lost French film that serves as a gateway for evil. Thanks to its meta-movie narrative, the episode gets a lot of love from Masters of Horror fans, but it's one of the most needlessly gory, unrelenting, and dumbest works in Carpenter’s filmography.

19. Body Bags (1993)

Made for Showtime as the seed for an unrealized anthology series, Body Bags is a largely tossed-off affair for its two directors, Carpenter and his contemporary Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [1974]). Carpenter contributes not only by directing "The Gas Station" and "Hair," but also appearing onscreen as the segment presenter, a devilishly perverse morgue attendant. "Hair" is by far the lesser of his two shorts (and, really, all three), with Stacy Keach as a middle-aged yuppie who finds a dangerous solution to his receding hairline. A visually and thematically stale opportunity to present some stomach-churning special effects, this segment is particularly disappointing when paired with the return to slasher territory that is "The Gas Station." Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) and Halloween in miniature, the latter segment borrows equally from those earlier Carpenter films. Anne's (Alex Datcher) first night working at a filling station just off a desolate highway presents her with a cavalcade of moronic and skeezy male customers, including a possible serial killer on the loose. If "Hair" is a bad extended joke about fragile masculinity, "The Gas Station" is a superior metaphor about the leering male gaze and its owners' micro- and macro-aggressions.

18. Dark Star (1974)

As odd as a beach-ball puppet made to look like a space alien, the charmingly off-kilter Dark Star is Carpenter with training wheels – an opportunity for him to freely experiment with camera placement and movement and to create his first incredibly detailed environment in which he and his players can roam. Equal parts Arthur C. Clarke and Monty Python, Carpenter's debut feature – co-created with Dan O'Bannon, writer of Alien (1979) – probably would have gone the way of most student films if it weren't for its pedigree.

17. The Ward (2010)

Carpenter hasn’t exhibited the steep quality decline in his late work that has affliected Italian horror maestro Dario Argento over the past two decades. He also hasn’t been as prolific, which makes the more enticing aspects of The Ward disappointing, considering its gestation time. No, this as-of-now last feature for the American filmmaker doesn’t reach the highs of his earlier work, but it is nevertheless a sturdy “haunted house” asylum thriller, and the director once again dips a toe into imbalanced gender power dynamics. It lacks any real depth, however, devoid of the Hawksian exploration of the group that became a Carpenter trademark. Instead, it more closely resembles a cheap, William Castle-style spook-fest made by an analog master exploring his new, unfamiliar digital toys.

16. Vampires (1998)

Carpenter's nastiest concoction before "Cigarette Burns" only a few years later, Vampires is also the closest the director has come to making an actual Western. Everyone's favorite conservative Twitter bots, James Wood and Daniel Baldwin, star as bounty hunters-cum-vampire slayers who roam the Southwest attempting to save the world from eternal damnation via bloodsucker. The rich desert landscape is expertly mined for near-apocalyptic ends, and its opening – a film-in-miniature à la Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – is promisingly well mounted. Save for other occasional moments of visual splendor and the appearance of the sublime Sheryl Lee, however, this gorefest is largely a laborious journey. It's a death rattle of a film and a final grasp at relevancy before the rock-bottom that is Ghosts of Mars.

15. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

Ostensibly a for-hire work, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is Carpenter's North by Northwest (1959), a cross-country "wrong man" thriller with its own inventive setpieces and blond romantic foil (Daryl Hannah). Unfortunately, star Chevy Chase is not Cary Grant, and while Chase's well-publicized smarm works in step with the director's condemnation of yuppie culture, the performer's inability to balance that with likeability undermines the film's central romance. Although at times Memoirs feels like it exists solely to exploit nascent computer-generated special-effects technology, the calibration and execution of the film is prime Carpenter. Shifting perspectives from its lead's state of confusion to the objective view of the director’s cinematic eye allows Carpenter to comment on an element of his exacting visual style: the precision in choosing what to include or exclude in his immersive widescreen frame.

14. Village of the Damned (1995)

Village of the Damned is a litmus test for an audience unacquainted with Carpenter's melodramatic high style. In every aspect of the film – from its turned-up-to-11 performances, to its unnatural computer-generated effects, to its radical compression of time – the director doesn't hold back in pushing Village to extremes. Any style removed from its era takes on a sheen of camp for a viewer without a working knowledge of that time, but Village might have seemed hokey to an audience even in 1995. The film is, indeed, a reworking of a 1960 cult hit of the same name about an immaculately conceived brood of psychic aliens. Updated with notions of populist conformity, a condemnation of the nuclear family, and hints of gender role critique, the wildly uneven Village would make for an off-putting first and last stop for those uninitiated with Carpenter. For others, it makes for a fun diversion.

13. Someone’s Watching Me! (1978)

Sure, the of-its-era title is corny, but Someone's Watching Me! emerges as a meta-joke about voyeurism and cinema. Lauren Hutton is the “Me,” a verbose, quirky television director new to Los Angeles. The “Someone” is a peeping Tom terrorizing her from a dueling high-rise building across the street. However, given that Carpenter privileges the audience with this information early in his television feature, they take on the role of the “Someone,” too. This isn’t particularly new territory for the genre – Michael Powell unleashed his camera-as-weapon thriller Peeping Tom 18 years earlier – but Carpenter relishes the opportunity to explore the limits of vision and audience complicity. Elements of the mise-en-scène betray the film’s cheap television-production mode, but the deft direction makes this portrait of sexualized violence against a woman all the more palpable and empathy-inducing.

11 - 12. Escape from New York (1981) / Escape from L.A. (1996)

It might be considered heresy to attribute the much-maligned Escape from L.A. with the same level of greatness as its predecessor. They are, however, equally good versions of the same film, albeit for different reasons. Escape from New York itself is the logical extension of the murky waters Carpenter waded through in Assault on Precinct 13, carrying the earlier film’s moral complexities into a dystopic future and deepening the divide between the powerful and powerless. This trash-infested, more fantastical vision presents a more expansive worldview that doubles down on its filmmaker’s mistrust of authority, depicting the moral currency exchanged in order to keep its criminal ecosystem alive. Elegantly structured and shot, even New York’s more leaden passages can be forgiven due to the doses of pure adrenaline it more often than not provides. 

Carpenter’s “sequel” is the grimy rave-up remix of his original post-punk cult classic, utilizing almost exactly the same plot mechanics and structure. Therefore, L.A. could be seen as a cynical joke on the cynical riff: Years later, not only is the system still rigged, but it’s gotten even worse. This Escape is even more over-the-top than its predecessor, but sublimely so, ratcheting up the action to the point of abstraction and reaching higher highs along with its unfortunately dated lows. To the benefit of both films, at the explosive heart of everything is capable anti-hero Snake Plissken, brought to iconic realization with equal parts repugnancy and enviable cool by the inimitable Kurt Russell.

10. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

The legacy of Big Trouble in Little China is fraught with accusations of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and racism. The film is hardly defensible as a satire about the white person's view of Chinese-Americans – it does contain multitudes of regurgitated cultural falsities covering the narrow spectrum from the Good Asian to the Bad Asian. The key to this joyful mess of a movie is the audience's role in vaulting Jack Burton (Russell) to a heroic position, ignoring the fact that the white, largely hapless goon is there merely as an entry point into the utterly insane fantasia Carpenter has manufactured. Culled from Shaw Bros. kung-fu films of the 1970s, classic comic books, and ancient myths, Carpenter rightfully invited his largely Asian cast to join him in rendering their own cultural fantasies in an act of righteous re-appropriation.

9. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Carpenter's supposed paean to H.P. Lovecraft is actually closer to the Hitchcock parody-cum-homage of Mel Brooks' High Anxiety (1977). Insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neil) and his gal Friday, literary agent Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), enter the "fictional" town of Hobb's End to find missing horror-fiction phenomenon Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). In the process, they endure a litany of monstrosities that allow the director to work himself up in a fanboy frenzy, deliriously dishing out New England horror tropes like a kid in a Stephen King-themed candy store. What Carpenter is truly after, however, is Lovecraft's philosophical determinism. The flashback framing device not only recalls the aforementioned Maine novelist’s work but also that of film noir classic Double Indemnity (1944). Trent is the in-over-his-head fall guy here, analogous to Indemnity’s Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). That makes Carpenter – and his meta-stand-in Cane – the Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) of this con, pulling an already-doomed goon's strings to his inevitable end. With this, Carpenter's dissection of authorship – and therefore auteurism – affords him the opportunity to indict himself as the perpetrator of trauma à la Dario Argento in Tenebre (1982). What doesn't work as well is the entanglement of these notions with the critique of cultural monomania and mob mentality – ideas fleshed out better in the equally gonzo They Live (1988).

8. Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness owes much more to Howard Hawks – and Christian Nyby's, according to the credits – The Thing from Another World (1951) than to Carpenter's direct 1982 remake of that film. Hawks' feature is a contemplative and talky affair, focusing on the interpersonal and professional relationships of an Antarctic base camp where alien visitors run amok. Similarly, Prince collects a group of physicists, linguists, and theologians in a long-abandoned church to figure out just what the hell is in a Lovecraftian gold-and-glass cylinder filled with gravity-defying green goo. To some viewers, the college-dorm-room discussions about metaphysics and spirituality might wear thin over the course of the film, but they're always in service of characters who are facing down oblivion. In fact, Prince is imbued with such a great sense of urgency that the film proper can't help but keep interrupting its own opening credits. By the time Lucifer himself begins to reach into Carpenter's frame, the director has already manufactured one of his most detailed worlds – aided by eye-popping practical effects that actualize the blurring lines between reality and its sinister underbelly.

7. They Live (1988)

The establishment gave the punks the keys to the city, and after nearly a decade of trying to conform to the establishment’s ideals, one punk turned on his own. Carpenter, at his wit's end with the Gordon Geckos of the 1980s, ripped down a veil to reveal the insidious nature of American consumerism. Arguably, They Live's central metaphor becomes as bludgeoning as its notoriously protracted alleyway fistfight – the film squeezes every last drop of comedy from its truth-telling X-ray sunglasses – but this woke cultural object is still as deliriously fun as they come. Casting wrestler Roddy Piper as the lead was the director’s first middle finger to mainstream convention, but Carpenter also relishes the opportunity to hold the other one up to his audience – the sleeping masses lapping this crap up. Thirty years' time has revealed that Carpenter's warning was not heeded. Everyone has the sunglasses now, but unfortunately large swaths of the public have merely come to "chew bubblegum and kick ass."

6. Christine (1983)

Christine definitely contains the strains of sexual fetishization for which it’s probably most remembered – Arnie (Keith Gordon) asking the titular vehicular menace to show him what she’s got remains the most brazenly sexual moment in Carpenter’s oeuvre. Exactly what the film is fetishizing is an open question, however. There is some unbreakable bond Christine forms with her owners, but the director is largely concerned with the masculine fixation with Americana and American myths. Slyly using 1950s signposts like early rock ’n’ roll, Arnie’s James Dean-style glow-up, and the testosterone-driven ethos of teen-rebel flicks of the era, Carpenter equates Arnie’s dangerous and ultimately fatal obsession with post-World War II capitalistic lust for American power and supremacy. Arnie is a victim of a system that preys on the weak but also forces them to perpetuate its rules in order to gain dominance. Intentional or not, Christine is Marxist to its core, while still retaining an insidious sheen compelling its viewers to root for mayhem and destruction. In its details, however, this underrated Stephen King adaptation – lagging only slightly behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) in greatness – is remarkably forthcoming about both toxic masculinity and male sensitivity, eventually emerging as a heartbreaking parable about addiction and those who are swallowed whole by it.

5. The Fog (1980)

The Fog is distilled from discrete influences synthesized to maximum effect, like a campfire ghost story culled together from the greatest of urban legends. Seaside hamlet Antonio Bay is a direct lift of Bodega Bay from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), not only in their matching coastal terrain but also in the way that both towns' inhabitants are assaulted by unfathomable forces. The details of the residents’ lives – namely their work and where they fit within a specific ecosystem – resemble the tight-knit communities formed in Hawks' films, Carpenter's other perennial cinematic touchstone. While Hitchcock and Hawks' DNA can be found throughout Carpenter's filmography, The Fog is distinctive in its debt to the phantasmagorical melodramas of Italian horror master Mario Bava. When the revenge-seeking pirate ghosts drift into town, saturated primary colors mix with the expressionistic chiaroscuro of blinding white lights against utter blackness. These visual schema are a Bava trademark, as is The Fog’s theme of inherited communal trauma, and Carpenter shapes his parable around America's original sins – allowing for a faceless mob to righteously settle a century-long score.

4. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

The director claims that his first true "Carpenter" film, Assault on Precinct 13, is apolitical. This is not only unequivocally false for Assault, but also for much of his subsequent work. A lean and mean violence machine, this Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Rio Bravo mashup places its audience squarely in the heart of darkness that is racial politics in the United States. The escalation of gunfire and blood between the police and a Los Angeles "gang" may have ambiguous origins, but the film proper begins with a racially diverse group of civilians being mowed down at the hands of the L.A.P.D. – a chilling moment that reverberates throughout the film and within the history of the country.

In describing it as "apolitical," Carpenter may be pointing towards his mostly distanced eye that leaves the viewer to question the film's moral and political ambiguities. The director tips his hand, however, when the previously absent police discover the survivors of the night in the precinct station from hell. The conflicted black cop (Austin Stoker) and his two white cohorts (Laurie Zimmer and Darwin Joston) have abandoned their socio-political stations in a fight for survival, and a shot lingers on them as they stare blankly at the policemen; the system in place to protect and serve did anything but.

3. Starman (1984)

Starman has earned a footnote in the Carpenter filmography as being the only film of the genre-oriented master to earn awards acclaim. Jeff Bridges garnered a deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing the titular character, a role that requires the actor to physicalize both alien nothingness and transcendent human compassion. The recognition reaped by this almost Spielbergian heart-breaker shouldn't come as a shock. By skimming Carpenter's oeuvre, it's entirely possible to miss the fact that, at its best, his work is deeply humane. His cinematic apparatus is always keenly aligned to maximize the effect his images have on their viewers, and Starman, like all his greatest stories, is concerned with complexities of people and their mortality, spirituality, and aching to belong.

Yet the cult following that most of the Carpenter greats have attained over time has eluded this mournful and giving film. This might be attributable to the economy with which the director sketches his characters, which could be mistaken for sentimentality. A simple shot introducing the widow Jenny (Karen Allen) as she watches 8mm home movies of her and her deceased husband packs the same emotional wallop of the much-lauded prologue in Pete Docter’s Up (2009), and its compression of the alien both learning and teaching humanity from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is far more efficient and affecting here. Tightly constructed around typical genre movements – the comedy of behavioral errors, the cross-country chase, and the inevitable blossoming romance – Starman magically repurposes them to perfection, creating a unique and swoon-worthy portrait of humankind’s greatest qualities: mercy and empathy.

2. Halloween (1978)

If Starman is about the ultimate good in humanity and The Thing is about the complete dearth of it, then Halloween is perfectly situated as that spectrum’s midpoint. Carpenter's breakout depicts the battle between good and evil in their purest forms, a conflict so elemental that it arguably created the blueprint for every horror film that followed it. Not to diminish that (un-)holy trinity of modern American horror – Psycho (1960), Night of the Living Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – but Halloween’s imitators are arguably much greater in number, largely due to its narrative elegance and deceptive simplicity. It’s perhaps a fool’s errand to compare such disparate, masterful films, but Halloween has an influence advantage in bringing its savage monster into a much more relatable framework than does its predecessors.

It isn't simply that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her fellow babysitters are in the midst of a common American experience: high school and all of its inherent sexual and political horrors. It’s the specificity of their characters and their mundane existences being torn asunder that create close identification with them. Halloween is sometimes cited as dictating the rules for subsequent slasher flicks – the Untouchable Virgin and the Final Girl, for example – but such codification was really the business of the film’s sub-par imposters, which missed the point of Carpenter’s feature altogether. There are no rules in Halloween. As rigid and exacting as Carpenter’s compositions and storytelling can be, they still allow for the chaotic unknowable, turning something as “traditional” as trick-or-treating into an act of adrenaline-fueled self-survival against an unstoppable being that knows only one commandment: Thou Shalt Kill.

1. The Thing (1982)

As marketing titles go, John Carpenter's The Thing is one of the more obvious in Hollywood's history. As efficient and ambiguous as the film itself, the title also gives appropriate ownership to the adapter of Hawke’s 1951 Red Scare metaphor, The Thing from Another World (and, by extension, its source material, Robert W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?). Notwithstanding its lineage, the resulting film is wholly Carpenter's. In fact, The Thing represents the perfection of all the (still relatively new) filmmaker's preoccupations: political dynamics of the group, humanity's most basic instincts, dogmatism versus pragmatism, and the capacity of the camera to convey worldviews in flux.

The Thing's alien infection in human hosts is so vividly rendered, mutating into uncanny forms sprung forth from the darkest corners of their creator’s subconscious, that the shock and awe of its effects tap into the viewer's own buried-deep phobias. To that end, the film is subject to myriad readings: Cold War paranoia parable, prescient AIDS-epidemic metaphor, missive to hetero-masculinity, or an assault on Reagan-era individualism-centric values. Those metaphors aside, Carpenter's precise filmmaking behaves just like a live wire to a petri dish, explosively uncovering the extremes to which humans will go for survival. The Thing is a barn-burner of a masterpiece that transcends its cult following as a humane work of art, worthy of endless study no matter what shape that takes.

Tags: Ranked Joshua Ray

A still from 'Halloween'.
October 18, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

I Am the “Who” When You Call, “Who’s There”?

2018 / USA / 106 min. / Dir. by David Gordon Green / Opens in wide release on Oct. 19, 2018

Director John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is not the first modern English-language slasher film: That honor goes to Bob Clark’s eerie sorority-house bloodbath Black Christmas (1974), or perhaps Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) if one is inclined to bend the definition a bit. (One probably shouldn’t, given that Hooper’s singular, radically nihilistic film leaves so many of the genre’s traditional boxes unchecked.) Although Carpenter missed the thin, leading edge of the slasher wave by a few years, he unquestionably perfected it with Halloween, cementing his historical standing as the Bram Stoker to Clark’s John Polidori. While Black Christmas is a groundbreaking film – chilling and ambitious, if a bit uneven – Carpenter’s film is a stone-cold masterpiece.

Commendably lean in the manner of many great American indies of the 1970s, Halloween is the Platonic ideal of the slasher form: impeccably executed, bracingly stylish, and brutally straightforward. It’s just as admirable for the things it lacks: no convoluted backstory, no superfluous characters, and no narrative wheel-spinning. Just an escaped criminal sociopath named Michael Myers (Nick Castle) – famously dubbed simply “The Shape” in the film’s credits – and an unsuspecting (although not helpless) teenaged babysitter named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Five minutes into the feature, the director has already offered up those essential talismans of the genre, spilled blood and naked breasts. Nothing about Halloween is perfunctory, however, and everything serves its raison d'être. Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill essentially fashioned every last aspect of their film – dialog, composition, cinematography, editing, and landmark electronic score – around the raw, elemental terror of a masked maniac with a knife.

Even filmgoers with an aversion to slasher flicks are likely aware that Halloween spawned a plethora of sequels and remakes, including the strange, standalone tangent Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and a misguided but fascinatingly deranged, double-feature reimagining from director Rob Zombie (2007; 2009). To say that the 1979 original outshines these myriad cash-ins and reboots would be gross understatement. Accordingly, a horror aficionado could be forgiven for approaching a new Halloween feature with some trepidation.

The latest filmmaker to confront the unstoppable Mr. Myers is David Gordon Green, a maddeningly mercurial director whose filmography includes both an acclaimed coming-of-age indie landmark (George Washington [2000]) and a stoner comedy set in the Middle Ages (Your Highness [2011]). Although his more violent psychological dramas Undertow (2004) and Joe (2015) certainly have their grisly elements, horror is a genre that the director has not previously tackled. Green’s Halloween – which is a direct, 40-years-later sequel to Carpenter’s original, disregarding all the other films in the franchise – was co-written with his regular collaborators Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, the latter known as the star and co-creator of the HBO comedies Eastbound & Down (2009 - 13) and Vice Principals (2016 - 17).

The indefatigable Curtis has returned once again to the role of Laurie Strode, 16 years after her previous re-return, in the inexcusable Halloween: Resurrection (2002). And Carpenter himself has composed the score for the new feature, alongside his son Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies, reworking his indelible synth themes from the original film. Given this strange and seemingly ill-fitting lineup of talent, it’s hard to say what one should be expecting from this new take on Halloween, beyond the stock components of Michael Myer’s pale, shapeless mask and a hefty tally of stabbing victims. What director Green delivers is, rather surprisingly, something akin to a Halloween fan film on a Hollywood budget: a winking, reference-dense appreciation of Carpenter’s masterwork that, while capable and modestly entertaining, has little of the original’s sinewy clarity or spine-tingling power. In short, Green’s feature is The Force Awakens of Halloween films.

A slasher enthusiast can likely recount the film’s backstory from memory: In Haddonfield, Illinois, six-year-old Michael Myers stabbed his own adolescent sister to death on Halloween night in 1963, ultimately resulting in his incarceration in a mental hospital. Almost exactly 15 years later, he escaped from said institution and returned to his hometown, where he proceeded to stab, strangle, and bludgeon his way through a (surprisingly modest) gaggle of random victims, most of them high school students. His rampage was cut short by 18-year-old Laurie Strode, who outsmarted him long enough for Michael’s own psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), to show up and put six bullets into the seemingly unstoppable killer. Whereupon Michael vanished into the night.

That’s Carpenter’s Halloween in all its dreadful elegance, and one of the immediately irksome things about Green’s new film – one of the irksome things about every post-1978 Halloween feature, really – is that it undercuts the almost folkloric tone of the original’s ambiguous conclusion. In this case, it does so by insisting that Michael was recaptured and re-institutionalized shortly after the end credits rolled. Now 60-ish but still physically imposing, Michael (James Jude Courtney) has kept up his previous silent streak by not saying a word for the past four decades of his confinement. One day, British true-crime podcasters Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees) arrange for a visit with Haddonfield’s most notorious native son. Rather foolishly, Korey has brought along the original rubber Halloween mask Michael wore during his 1978 killings, dangling the now-ragged thing in an unsuccessful effort to elicit some sort of reaction. Astonishingly, this act of naked provocation doesn’t much distress Michael’s current psychiatrist, Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), marking the physician as a bit more sanguine than the late Dr. Loomis, who flat-out claimed his patient was Evil incarnate.

Korey and Haines have an equally disappointing encounter with Laurie Strode, now living like a paranoid doomsday prepper on the outskirts of Haddonfield, where she’s hunkered down in a house equipped with security cameras, booby traps, a basement panic room, and a stockpile of firearms. Laurie is pragmatic enough to take the $3,000 offered by the podcasters in exchange for an interview, but savvy enough to reveal virtually nothing of value before throwing them out on their ears. Of course, Korey already knows that Laurie is twice-divorced and estranged from her adult daughter Karen (Judy Greer), whose upbringing revolved around preparing to one day defend against and hopefully kill Michael Myers when – not if – he escapes and returns. Spoiler: He does. Not to question the wisdom of the Illinois Department of Corrections, but why would they arrange for the prison transfer of a notorious Halloween-night killer on a foggy October 30 evening, 40 years to the day since he last escaped and murdered several people? Why tempt fate like that?

The screenplay problems are self-evident at this point. The podcasters Korey and Dana are slick, hollow non-characters, and Korey in particular is something of an arrogant wanker, the sort of prick who is practically begging to be butchered in a 2010s horror feature. This only serves to highlight that the pair have just two purposes in the story. First, their presence allows Dr. Sartain and Laurie to spout exposition regarding everything that’s happened during the past 40 years. Secondly, the podcasters bring Michael’s iconic mask within physical proximity of Haddonfield, so that he can easily retrieve it once he escapes. It’s dreadfully results-oriented writing, and its most immediate effect is that when Korey and Haines are inevitably (and brutally) murdered, their deaths barely register as anything except obligatory tasks to which Michael must attend.

This points to what is perhaps the fundamental failing of the new Halloween: Until the admittedly nail-biting climax, it isn’t especially moody, tense, or emotionally fraught. One of the brilliant, often overlooked aspects of Carpenter’s original feature is the slow-burn way it establishes a sinister atmosphere, withholding its most shocking violence until the back half of the film. Setting aside the 1963 prelude and a motorist who is killed off-screen, Michael’s homicidal rampage doesn’t truly get going until the 45-minute mark or so. Up to that point, he’s just a lurking presence that gradually grows more menacing; the nameless Shape that Laurie glimpses across the street, behind a hedgerow, or amid the laundry hanging in the backyard, seemingly always disappearing in a swirl of dried autumn leaves.

Michael Myers has become such a familiar horror villain, it’s probably impossible to completely replicate that spooky atmosphere of encroaching, predatory Evil. However, Green and company barely even attempt to do so, structuring their story in such a way that the gore starts gushing relatively early in the film, and then continues to do so at a steady rate. The effect is to render scenes of gruesome murder plodding and dutiful rather than shocking, as if a Halloween film’s primary obligation is to gracelessly serve up as many scenes as possible of Michael bashing skulls and knifing abdomens. Admittedly, these murders are often presented with striking formal flair. For example, some of the early slayings are captured in long, eerily impassive Steadicam shots in which the camera peers through pumpkin-bedecked windows or wanders down shadowed driveways. In isolation, these scenes are unquestionably stylish and giddily enjoyable in a “He’s-right-behind-you!” funhouse way. However, they don’t add much to either the mood or the story of the surrounding feature, feeling rather like Green has created a series of abstracted Halloween-themed short films.

Next to Laurie and Michael, the film is most focused on Karen’s daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), a bright, popular high school senior who has recently become eager to reconnect with the “crazy” grandmother she’s been shielded from for most of her life. (In a work that’s otherwise such a mash note to the 1978 original, the filmmakers make the odd choice to explicitly not saddle Allyson with a babysitting gig on Halloween night.) This family drama doesn’t amount to much in practice, which is consistent with pretty much everything else plot-wise that doesn’t involve Michael stabbing people. This applies to both Allyson’s relationship angst with her asshole-in-sheep’s-clothing boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold) and to the faintly antagonistic banter between the wary Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) and his glib colleague Sheriff Barker (Omar Doresey). Incidentallty, the law enforcement aspects of the screenplay are a hopeless muddle, in the fine tradition of most 1980s slashers; the film seemingly can’t decide if Hawkins is a part of the county or municipal sheriff’s department.

There’s a certain purity to how little all the character details matter in the end, since – in keeping with Carpenter’s original – Michael’s path is essentially random, and he ends up pursuing Allyson largely by happenstance, much as he did her grandmother. Indeed, there’s no explicit evidence that he’s searching for Laurie to finish her off these 40 years later, her paranoia to the contrary notwithstanding. When three generations of Strode women wind up facing down Michael at Laurie’s fortress-house in the third act, it’s mostly due to a series of arbitrary decisions and chance encounters. This echoes Michael’s pinballing trail through the 1978 film somewhat, but it also underlines how much meaningless padding there is in the new screenplay, especially compared to Carpenter’s fat-free original.

More than anything, Green’s film feels like a big, sloppy act of fan-service: It’s replete with references to the original film and the sequels, even to red-headed stepchild Halloween III. Some of these nods are little more than a line, shot, or sound cue, but they’re rarely subtle, especially for the devoted horror hound who has seen Carpenter’s film multiple times and absorbed its every detail. These sorts of jokey allusions are eye-rolling more often than they are clever, although it’s all much more good-natured and tolerable here than it was in the shamelessly “ironic” Halloween H20 (1998). At least Green, Fradley, and McBride are joyously, obsessively focused on the Halloween franchise itself, rather than taking a piss on other franchises or making clunky meta-jokes. The closest the film comes to the latter is a line that disposes of Halloween II (1981) with a swipe, dismissing the rumor that Laurie was secretly Michael Myers’ long-lost sister as pure urban legend. (One is inclined to forgive anything that un-rings that particular bell.)

Whether or not for-the-fans exercises like this new Halloween are harmless R-rated fun or cynical pandering may be a matter of the individual viewer’s visceral response to such things. On a shot-for-shot level, Green and his crew are simply too accomplished at what they do to dismiss the film as pure hackwork. It’s perhaps unfair to compare cinematographer Michael Simmonds’ efforts here with that of Dean Cundey’s evocative work on the 1978 original, given the latter man’s legendary warping of the film’s color scheme – an allegedly practical tweak meant to conceal that “autumn in Illinois” is clearly summer in California. Simmonds mostly keeps the new film within the boundaries of a conventional 21st-century horror aesthetic, but his use of obfuscating darkness is truly marvelous stuff. These are not the Expressionist-style stabbing shadows of Carpenter’s film, but something closer to a clinging, pitch-black mist that plays tricks on the eye. It provokes the viewer to constantly, anxiously search the squirming darkness for the faint ghost of Michael’s hollow-eyed mask.

Holding the whole film together – and connecting it more solidly to the 1978 feature than all of Green’s visual callbacks – is the phenomenal score. It’s not a retread, but rather an elaboration on the original film’s two or three jittery, synthesized themes, with the Carpenters and Davies using the full breadth of the present-day digital toolkit to create and rich, menacing soundscape. If Carpenter’s original score was haunting in its skin-crawling simplicity, the new compositions are more overtly hellish and terrifying. There’s a particular blast of demonic rumbling in many of the chase sequences that is somehow shrill, even though it pulsates deep beneath the familiar tinkling of the main Halloween theme. It’s a terrific contribution from Carpenter and his collaborators, easily his best work as a film composer since Prince of Darkness (1987). It’s also a welcome dose of vigorous creativity in a film that often feels like it’s coasting on fan goodwill and the superficial appeal of a well-staged cinematic murder.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'First Man'.
October 11, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Agony and the Ecstasy

2018 / USA / 141 min. / Dir. by Damien Chazelle / Opens in wide release on Oct. 12, 2018

The 1950s - 70s heyday of the United States’ manned space program has been a relatively successful (if strangely infrequent) source of compelling cinematic stories, inspiring both rousing dramas (The Right Stuff [1983], Apollo 13 [1995]) and engrossing documentaries (For All Mankind [1989], In the Shadow of the Moon [2007]). The saga of America’s feverish mid-century push into the unforgiving void of space is so fascinating – and so improbable – all on its own, a filmmaker could be forgiven for taking the easy route and leaning into the story’s inherent grandeur and triumphalism. This makes it especially impressive that director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer have taken such a non-intuitive approach with First Man, a harrowing, brooding dramatization of Neil Armstrong’s journey from experimental aircraft pilot to historical immortality. Armstrong, after all, was a notoriously private individual, a man whose humility, reticence, and level-headedness – his terminal blandness, one might say – were precisely the qualities that prompted NASA to select him for the command of the Apollo 11 mission.

Such characteristics are not normally the stuff of captivating cinematic heroes. However, rather than crafting a rip-roaring space adventure that would sharply clash with his subject’s personality, Chazelle has instead fashioned his film around Armstrong’s renowned opacity. Admittedly, Singer’s screenplay indulges in some glib armchair psychoanalysis. The death of the Armstrongs’ two-year-old daughter Karen by a malignant tumor is portrayed as the seminal event in the man’s personal life, a bottled-up dose of radioactive grief he figuratively and literally carries to the moon’s surface. For the most part, however, First Man depicts Armstrong as an inhumanly stoic individual, possessing both adamantine focus and a sphinxlike inscrutability. Chazelle has accordingly constructed a defiantly clenched and suffocating story that harmonizes with that characterization. In the director’s conception, the space race becomes a cramped, hellish ordeal of rattling terror, physical agony, and outright blood sacrifice. When the audience is allowed glimpses of the humbling majesty of space, it's mostly in fleeting faceplate reflections and though tiny, fogged-up windows – until the film’s breathtaking climax, when the weight of all that suffering is expelled in a rush with the opening of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module hatch.

Crucial to the film’s success is its leading man, Ryan Gosling, who invests this fictionalized iteration of Armstrong with an almost synthetic tranquility that would come off as unfeeling, were the actor not so skilled at suggesting the bruised, hunched human resolve underneath the chilliness. It’s the sort of restrained-yet-cavernous mode of performance that is Gosling’s forte, also evidenced by his masterful turn as the android anti-hero in last year’s Blade Runner 2049. His Armstrong is quietly fervent, unfailingly modest, and occasionally prickly at the intrusion of something so impractical as human interaction. When fellow astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke) approaches a visibly distressed Armstrong, who is standing alone in the nocturnal gloom of his backyard after a colleague’s funeral, Gosling quietly glowers, “What makes you think I’m out here because I want to talk?”

Most of the time, it’s Armstrong’s long-suffering wife Janet (Claire Foy, excellent in the typically thankless “worried spouse” role) who is obliged to decode her husband’s stony silence and endure his buttoned-up remoteness. These become more pronounced following their daughter’s death early in the film, a loss that Armstrong never again discusses with his wife. He prefers to secret it away much like Karen’s beaded infant bracelet, which he places with moist-eyed finality in a desk drawer on the day of her burial.

First Man never uncritically lionizes the stripe of dutiful, taciturn American masculinity that Armstrong embodies. On the eve of the Apollo 11 mission, all of Janet’s resentments at his emotional inaccessibility come pouring out in a cold, spitfire torrent that carries the sting of truth. However, the film also illustrates that the qualities that made Armstrong an at-times-difficult husband, father, and friend also made him the right man for an unprecedented job. Chazelle often contrasts the man’s reserved professionalism with the voluble boorishness of fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), a characterization that feels facetious, albeit germane to the film’s proposition: Armstrong’s all-business distaste for the spotlight made him an ideal choice for mission commander.

Except for a few flickering, impressionistic flashbacks, First Man unspools in a scrupulously chronological manner, following Armstrong from a test flight in a X-15 hypersonic aircraft in April 1962 through the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. Chazelle’s approach to the story is akin to a nitty-gritty procedural, wherein engineering jargon is rattled off with a naturalistic absence of explanation. John Sturges’ similarly wonky but comparatively turgid 1969 feature Marooned is an obvious touchstone, and viewers who are not space exploration junkies or NASA history enthusiasts may be a bit lost at times. The director tightly constrains the action to Armstrong’s perspective, with supplemental snippets depicting events as Janet experiences them – often from the vantage point of the family’s living room, where a squawk box relays the audio feed from Mission Control.

Accordingly, First Man is not so much an exhaustive dramatization of the U.S. space program in the 1960s as it is an attempt to conjure the subjective experience of Armstrong’s journey. Appropriately enough, the film focuses primarily on the missions that he experienced firsthand: the near-catastrophic Apollo 8 and the momentous Apollo 11. Tellingly, Chazelle also makes time for those incidents that resulted in the deaths of Armstrong’s colleagues, such as the demise of Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) in a training jet crash in 1966, or the disastrous Apollo 1 launch rehearsal that claimed three astronauts’ lives in 1967.

This emphasis on loss, grief, and the sheer lethality of the NASA program is of a piece with First Man’s approach in depicting space exploration, which in Chazelle’s conception has the dread-drenched sensibility of a horror film. The director places the viewer directly inside the claustrophobic confines of the Gemini and Apollo capsules, where the astronauts are strapped in like death-row convicts and their field-of-view is limited to a bewildering array of analog dials, switches, and gauges. Liftoff and re-entry are presented here as blind gauntlets of enervating noise and vibration, akin to riding a rickety roller coaster into the depths of hell itself. There’s little room for awe underneath the roar of millions of pounds of exploding rocket fuel and the constant, nerve-fraying squeal of metal. Chazelle often flashes in extreme close-up on individual screws and seams in the spacecraft assembly, as if to emphasize the paltry, mundane materials that separate the crew from certain death.

In First Man, nothing about the space race seems measured, thoughtful, or scrupulous. Indeed, it feels rather like madness: a careening scramble from one wobbly Hail-Mary gambit to the next, with the charred bodies of good men strewn in its wake. “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood,” Janet scoffs in disgust at one point to Astronaut Office chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). “You don’t have anything under control.” Whatever nobility exists in NASA’s endeavors feels distant and immaterial when, for example, the Apollo 8 capsule inexplicably malfunctions and begins to tumble end-over-end towards Earth at blackout speeds.

Proximally speaking, Cold War anxiety over Soviet achievements in both unmanned and manned space flight is what lends the film’s events such life-or-death urgency. However, Armstrong himself points to a more expansive, philosophical view of NASA’s mission during his first interview to join the Astronaut Corps. Asked why he thinks manned space exploration is vital, he responds matter-of-factly that it presents humankind with the opportunity for a new perspective, regarding its own history and its place in the cosmos. This sentiment is echoed in the film’s sharp stylistic shift during the climactic Apollo 11 mission. For most of First Man’s running time, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren employ grainy 16 mm and 35 mm physical film to give the feature a vintage look. They rely on jittery, vérité close-ups to an almost perverse extent, given that this film is ostensibly about outer space. During the moon landing and walk, however, the filmmakers switch to the sharper, widescreen majesty of IMAX 70 mm film, reflecting the epochal change in human history that attended Armstrong’s first step into the lunar dust. It’s heavy-handed as hell, and it works wonderfully.

First Man categorically embraces the view that setting foot on the moon is one of the pinnacles (if not the pinnacle) of human achievement, and as Gosling’s Armstrong stands alone on the rim of a lunar crater, regarding what Aldrin memorably termed the “magnificent desolation”, it’s easy to imagine the swell of uncanny awe he must have felt. For all the film’s nerve-wracking, unromantic verisimilitude, First Man has a starry-eyed, even old-fashioned ethos that heralds space exploration as an innately worthwhile endeavor. Occasionally, Chazelle’s attempts to convey this point feel clumsy and tone-deaf, as when he contrasts the rock-ribbed determination of NASA’s astronauts and engineers with an afroed rabble-rouser whose protest poetry laments the expense of putting “whitey on the moon” when the U.S. has so many earthbound problems.

Overall, however, First Man feels less like a triumphant paean to America’s past accomplishments than a reaffirmation of the intrinsic value of human struggle, in whatever form it takes. Although Chazelle’s jazz Passion play Whiplash (2014) might seem light-years apart from his latest feature, both are absorbed with the allure of the (seemingly) impossible. First Man’s privileging of the forbidding reality of the space program – every drop of toil, sorrow, and failure that preceded Armstrong’s one small step – points to a kind of anti-triumphant masochism, a belief that the destination is less important than the grueling misery of the journey. While wandering his post-mission quarantine quarters and marveling at the suddenly-surreal banality of his surroundings, Armstrong’s attention is drawn to an archival clip of John F. Kennedy on television. Undeniably on-the-nose and yet still stirring, the late President’s renowned 1962 words could be First Man’s thesis statement: “Why, some say, the moon? […] We choose to go to the moon… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard.”

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'A Star Is Born'.
October 4, 2018
By Joshua Ray

The Song Remains the Same

2018 / USA / 135 min. / Dir. by Bradley Cooper / Opens in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018

Not long into A Star is Born, it's become apparent that Bradley Cooper will be a real contender as a filmmaker. His visual influences are evident: Martin Scorsese’s gliding and orchestral tracking shots; Terrence Malick’s unencumbered camera with its awe-inspiring focus on people in their natural habitats; and the stoic classicism of Cooper's American Sniper (2014) director, Clint Eastwood, also an actor-turned-filmmaker. While such divergent aesthetic modes may seem at odds with one other, Cooper – who also stars and co-wrote A Star Is Born with Eric Roth – fuses their syntaxes into his own distinctive schema, revealing the director’s real interest: melodrama and its built-in ideas about identity and human behavior in extremis.

The traditionally feminine-associated melodrama informs all four previous versions of A Star is Born, but here it rubs shoulders with the more masculine drive of the aforementioned cinematic influences. In fact, Cooper’s version recalls a less precious and more relaxed version of Terrence Malick’s elegiac rock-and-roll feature Song to Song (2017) by way of the aesthetically lush and sociological astute “women’s pictures” of Douglas Sirk (e.g., Imitation of Life [1959]). This isn’t an inherently unworthy way of working through a story absorbed with the way people perform gender-associated qualities, but, by the film’s end, the director largely squanders the opportunity to express a fresh vision of a familiar story.

A shot early in the film encapsulates the thematic potential. Country singer/songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) drunkenly stumbles into a gay bar on drag night. While he’s not entirely condescending to the patrons and performers of the bar – he's just looking for nightcap, after all – he’s still a good-ol’-boy mega-star in an outwardly queer communal space. After the electrifying Edith Piaf-impersonating performance of Ally (Lady Gaga), he easily ingratiates himself backstage in order to meet her, and eventually charms his way into a drink with her. While she readies herself, he does an impromptu unplugged performance for the queens (RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Willam Belli and D.J. 'Shangela' Pierce) in the now-closed bar. Maine stands left of frame, performing in the brightly-lit disco-themed bar to the offscreen queens, one of whom is reflected – seemingly staring directly at the viewer – in a mirror in the shot's background.

It’s the kind of gorgeously glittery and ironic tableaux that Sirk and his acolyte Rainer Werner Fassbinder so often constructed in their films. The cisgender man sings “Maybe It’s Time” – a song ostensibly about the cultural shift away from traditional norms – to a queer audience that the frame elides, while the compartmentalized reflection of the subversion of those norms stares directly at the film’s audience. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it act of confrontation, the shot’s irony ripples outward through the first half of Cooper’s Star, two acts of cinematic magnetism carried by the filmmaker’s ability to stir the audience’s emotions, while implicating them as a part of the system he criticizes. 

By using melodrama’s innate exploration of the ways in which people craft their identities, Cooper further elucidates the already-present themes about relational and public personas. Maine’s drug and alcohol addiction seems to stem from the gulf between his public self and the self he’s created from the disparate parts of his powerful, masculine older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliot), and their deceased father. Even Bobby recognizes this when he chastises Maine for adopting his trademark voice. Cooper – in a monumental but quiet turn that resembles the repressed anguish of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005) – has done exactly the same kind of vocal duplication in mimicking Elliot, adding a metatextual layer about the crafting of performance.

Ally’s physical appearance is the hindrance between the obviously talented singer/songwriter and true success. Maine imbues her with the confidence necessary for her destined breakout, to the point of almost fetishizing her nose, the feature she internalizes as her most conspicuous weakness. When Maine forces Ally onstage to sing the Oscar-bound “Shallow,” the director slyly nods to Maine’s own objectification of Ally, showing the male half of the duo staring up in awe at his partner’s face on the large screen behind them, rather than looking at her directly from just feet away. Maine later criticizes the Hollywood machine-crafted pop seductress persona Ally adopts, in a move that highlights his own idealized down-home version of her. 

In casting Lady Gaga as Maine’s female counterpoint, the director imports even more metatextual information. Ally’s father – Andrew Dice Clay in another supporting role as an aspirational blue-collar man, similar to his great turn in Blue Jasmine (2013) – discusses public image-making in the same manner as the industry people in the film's more obvious Hollywood-demonizing second half. The tastemakers want Ally to be platinum blonde – a Gaga trademark – but she opts for a neon orange hue instead. These scenes carry the weight of Gaga’s own self-heralded rise to fame, her transcendence of harmful beauty standards to become the “Mother Monster,” and her audience’s obsession with their own ideals of her. Onscreen, the luminous Gaga is acting light years beyond her leaden Golden Globe-winning turn in American Horror Story: Hotel (2015-16), but her eyes – and the film’s careful editing – still betray the novice actor’s seemingly paralyzing fear of the camera.

In adhering to a now 81-year-old narrative, Cooper’s film pivots towards more outwardly plotty material halfway through its running time. It thereby loses its near-mystical sheen, taking on the more traditional, plasticky tone of the Barbra Streisand-starring 1976 iteration, starkly opposed to the mournful fogginess of George Cukor’s 1954 version featuring Judy Garland. To this end, a Grammy Awards ceremony gone awry is embarrassingly mis-staged and a wasted opportunity to further the ideas of public performance from earlier in the film. Furthermore, the feature’s denigration of the pop genre is grossly old-fashioned, undermining its Gaga-borrowed musical ethos. 

Finally, as a portrait of codependency, this Star further falters due to the framing of Ally’s success as occurring concurrently with Maine’s downfall. Given that the film shifts largely to his point-of-view, it also asks the audience to sympathize with a man whose failures are dangerously equated with a woman’s success. Although this conceit is built into the fabric of the material, it’s nevertheless a problematic move that repurposes the entire film as an ode to “traditional,” heteronormative values. Its audience-rallying, tear-jerking finale therefore falls flat, made all the more disappointing by the film’s previous goodwill in mounting subversive acts that it ultimately ends up wasting. 

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Venom'.
October 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Down Came the Rain and Washed the Spider Out

2018 / USA / 112 min. / Dir. by Ruben Fleischer / Opens in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018

Undoubtedly, Sony Pictures’ decision to produce a new film centered on Spider-Man’s icky alien nemesis Venom – sans the Web-Slinger – seemed like a clever idea at the time to the studio’s financially-minded executives. Although Sony essentially leased Peter Parker’s alter ego to Disney, where he’s presently employed for a crowd-pleasing (and heartbreaking) stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the myriad Spidey-adjacent characters under the umbrella of Sony’s film rights remain ripe for exploitation. Of all the baddies in Spidey’s famously colorful rogue’s gallery, however, Venom is among the most conceptually baffling choices for a standalone film. An amorphous extraterrestrial “symbiote” of malevolent intelligence, Venom’s first host was Spider-Man himself. Like most supervillains conceived as dark reflections of their do-gooder counterparts, Venom doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense in the absence of Spidey – first and foremost because his visual design is explicitly based on the Web-Slinger’s distinctive costume. To make a Venom film without Spider-Man is akin to making a Bizarro film without Superman.

One likes to think there’s no high concept so ill-considered that it can’t be salvaged by solid filmmaking. Sadly, Venom doesn’t possess much of the latter, although the feature’s problems have less to do with director Ruben Fleischer’s journeyman efforts than with the sloppy writing, schizophrenic tone, and palpable confusion about Venom’s characterization. Some of the blame plainly rests with that dreaded hobgoblin of all blockbuster filmmaking-by-committee: studio meddling. In a presumed effort to attain the coveted PG-13 rating – and thereby maximize its opening weekend box office take – Venom has been discernibly bowdlerized from the more vicious, ghastly, and bonkers film it plainly could have been. This strategy is doubly nonsensical, given that Fox’s Deadpool films have already established the profitability of the crude, R-rated superhero flick, and the fact that Venom fans who were enamored with the character in his late-80s / early-90s comic heyday are now approaching (or well into) their 40s.

What the viewer is left with, then, is a film that’s been lethally disarrayed for reasons that are wholly illogical. This lends the entire endeavor a bitter aftertaste that frequently overwhelms the sensibility of mad spectacle that Fleischer and his performers strive to tease from the material. That, ultimately, is what’s so disappointing about Venom: Squint hard enough and one can discern the film that might have been, a darkly funny riff on superhero tentpoles, steeped in the visual vocabulary of mad science and body horror. That feature might not have been good, but it would be a damn sight more coherent and fascinating than the dreary Mad Libs blockbuster that’s resulted from Sony’s fiddling.

When a private spacecraft owned by the bioengineering and pharmaceutical corporation Life Foundation crashes in Malaysia, CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Amed) is more concerned with the integrity of the cargo than the survival of the crew. The ship, it turns out, was carrying four blobs of animate goo sealed inside containers, three of which remain intact and are quickly secreted back to Life Foundation’s San Francisco laboratory. These blobs – allegedly harvested from a passing comet – are Symbiotes, parasitic extraterrestrial organisms that need to bond with other life forms to survive in Earth’s atmosphere. A slick futurist whose neo-liberal concern for global ecological ills conceals a messianic sociopathy, Drake is convinced (for some reason) that these alien slimes are key to the practical colonization of space, and therefore to the long-term survival of the human species.

Neither Drake or anyone else at Life Foundation seems all that concerned with the missing fourth Symbiote, or, for that matter, with the sole surviving astronaut that is pointedly pulled from the wreckage of the company’s spaceship. This is just one of the early, dispiriting signs that the film’s gaggle of screenwriters can’t be bothered with a little thing like story logic. Wondering why a Big Pharma corporation is sending rockets into space in the first place? Or how Drake knows his critters are parasitic organisms before scientists like Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) conduct even one experiment on them? Sorry, but no explanations are forthcoming on these points – or many, many others. Shortly after the crash, the xenomorph sludge that is hiding inside the surviving astronaut proceeds to body-jump through a succession of victims, slowly working its way to the United States based on little more than the Life Foundation logo.

This is all presented with the dull breathlessness of a sci-fi film that is plainly interested in hasty table-setting rather than plausibility or lucidity. It’s obvious that Venom wants to plow through its setup as quickly as possible to get to the Good Stuff (i.e., a monster made of black goo biting people’s heads off). What’s inexplicable, then, is why it spends so much time wallowing in the pre-monster life of its hard-luck protagonist, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist with a laughably implausible gig covering Bay Area politics, business, and corruption for a national news network. Hardy, who can be a spellbinding performer, is horribly miscast here as a self-righteous, rule-bending muckraker. He rather bafflingly buries the hardboiled, “anything-for-a-story” characterization that seems to be the film’s intention for Eddie underneath a slathering of clammy slouching, wise-guy mumbling, and eccentric outbursts.

By all appearances, the viewer is supposed to identify and sympathize with Eddie. He wears hoodies and drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, after all, and he’s chummy with a neighborhood homeless woman and the Chinese-American owner of the bodega around the corner, movie-reality signifiers that he’s One of the Good White Guys. However, the only “reporting” that Eddie does on-screen is profoundly stupid and unethical. His attorney fiancé, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) just happens to work for a firm that is representing Life Foundation in a series of lawsuits, and when Eddie’s editor saddles him with a puff piece on Drake, he steals a document from Anne’s laptop as ammunition for the interview. Predictably, Eddie learns nothing substantive from Drake when he ambushes him about the corporation’s questionable human drug trials, and he’s then summarily fired by his editor for insubordination and dumped by Anne for his betrayal.

Six months later, the jobless Eddie is scraping rock-bottom – a situation that, it bears repeating, is entirely his own fault – when a conflicted Dr. Skirth approaches him and offers to show him first-hand evidence of Drake’s unethical experiments. She then sneaks him into the Life Foundation lab, where Eddie eventually witnesses imprisoned human subjects who have been exposed to the Symbiotes. One of the blobs abruptly escapes and possesses Eddie, and we’re finally (finally) off the races. The tarry slime inside Eddie’s body aids his flight from the Life Foundation security goons by bestowing him with superhuman strength, agility, and resilience, and by lashing out with its gooey tendrils at anything it perceives as threatening.

Now on the run from Drake’s thugs, Eddie suspects that he’s been infected by some sort of genetically engineered contagion, but the truly dire weirdness of his situation doesn’t become apparent until a guttural, monstrous voice in his head begins growling “FOOD” and “HUNGRY”. Soon Eddie is having entire conversations with his sinister parasite, which calls itself Venom, although these exchanges mostly consist of the Symbiote bullying him to consume more calories, mocking his sad-sack life, and musing impishly about whether to annihilate Earth or savor its amusements. Unluckily for both Eddie and Venom, there’s the little matter of the fourth Symbiote, a more powerful entity named Riot with much clearer ambitions of interplanetary conquest. (That said, Venom is overall a refreshingly small-bore superhero film, with nary an apocalyptic crisis in sight.)

So: Venom is a Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of sorts, although it also borrows a bit from Darkman (1990) and Willem Dafoe’s spin on the Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002), both directed by Sam Raimi. Not incidentally, Venom is at its most unselfconsciously entertaining when it aims for a Raimi-like sense of sweaty absurdity and gross-out nuttiness. The CGI is hardly cutting-edge, but there’s a cartoonishly magical quality to the way that Venom’s ropy black pseudopods emerge from Eddie’s body to mangle opponents, flip over cars, and scale sheer buildings. It’s not convincing, exactly, but it’s comic-book astonishing in the manner of now-dated but innovative digital effects such as Terminator 2’s (1991) liquid metal horrors. Fleischer fumbles the execution of the action sequences as often as he succeeds – there’s a centerpiece chase involving a motorcycle-riding Eddie/Venom and a swarm of flying drones that’s curiously lifeless – but, as with the Jurassic Park franchise's dinosaurs, there’s something giddily awesome about the film’s hulking, grinning goo-demons, such that the sight of them never grows tiresome.

Unfortunately, both the director and Hardy lack a firm sense for the film’s overall tone and for Venom’s motivation, which leads to clunky gear-changes between comedy, thrills, horror, and pathos. For an alien parasite without a central nervous system, Venom has a persona that’s (surprise!) suspiciously akin to a foul-mouthed, nihilistic villain from a 1990s comic book. (The tell: He chides Eddie as a “loser” and a “pussy”.) There’s some insinuation that Venom’s personality is derived from Eddie’s id as a side effect of their merger, but the film never develops or explores this notion, instead returning repeatedly to a clumsy buddy-comedy dynamic between man and flesh-eating parasite. Venom’s scene-to-scene mood swings between ravenous monster, juvenile wisecracker, gaslighting abuser, and soft-hearted accidental hero are jarring in the extreme, and a sure sign that the filmmakers had no idea what do with an iconic Spider-Man villain when Spider-Man is nowhere in sight.

Hardy’s performance is unabashedly twitchy and bug-eyed, which might have worked well in a feature that was similarly cranked up to 11, but here it just clashes with Venom’s humdrum familiarity: the earnest stupidity of the sci-fi gobbledygook; the tiresome, under-nourished anti-heroic arc; and the uninvolving relationship melodrama. Williams looks lost early on, mired in a stock ex-girlfriend role, but she sharpens over the course of the film, ultimately turning Anne into a strong, witty character. She alone has the insight and courage to unequivocally call Eddie out for his shitty, self-owning actions. Every other actor is shamefully wasted in substance-free roles, especially Amed and Slate, normally welcome additions to any cast. (To say nothing of Woody Harrelson, who appears in a mid-credits cameo that comprises one of the most idiotic and ungainly sequel teasers in memory.)

While Venom is not without its Bad Movie charms, the film as a whole just comes off as insultingly stupid and slipshod, an amateurish knock-off of the smoothly engineered assembly-line superhero product pumped out by Disney and Marvel Studios. (A knock-off that somehow cost $100 million to produce.) Whatever their individual flaws, the consistently good-not-great MCU features succeed admirably as works of pop entertainment and serialized storytelling. Also-rans like Venom throw into sharp relief that flinging mismatched genre ingredients haphazardly at the screen and hoping that something sticks is not a reliable recipe for good-not-great.

Rating: D+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mandy'.
September 28, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Recent Video-on-Demand Offerings in Horror and Horror-Related Cinema

The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Slice 

2018 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Austin Vesely / Premiered online on Sept. 11, 2018

Slice is definitive proof that indie distributor A24 is not the bastion of peerless, auteur-centric curation that its fans (including this writer) imagined them to be. The feature film debut of music video director Austin Vesely, this misbegotten horror-comedy is a chintzy, all-over-the-road mess of supernatural and slasher flick tropes, served up with piping hot unfunniness. The problems are obvious from the outset, as Vesely’s screenplay attempts to cram an entire TV season’s worth of nonsensical occult world-building into the opening 10 minutes. The plot, initially focused on the murder of pizza delivery drivers in a haunted town, is just an excuse for Vesely to stage indifferent, hackneyed scenes where stereotypical characters exclaim 10th-grade-level “humorous” dialog at each other. The only positive blip to emerge from this train wreck is Chance the Rapper’s over-hyped appearance as a “Chinese food werewolf”. The hip hop artist’s acting isn’t “good,” exactly, but his suave nonchalance – which clashes horribly with the rest of the film – is almost endearing. Rating: D-  [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Mandy

2018 / Belgium, USA / 121 min. / Dir. by Panos Cosmatos / Premiered online on Sept. 14, 2018

The sophomore feature from Italian-Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, Mandy feels like a frenzied escalation over his narcotic Cronenberg riff Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010). Just as baffling as the director's first film but suffused with an ineffable air of doom and madness, Mandy is a straightforward revenge tale at bottom, rendered with all the subtlety of a Heavy Metal magazine cover. The first hour proceeds dreamily yet ominously, as lumberjack Red (Nicholas Cage) and artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) enjoy an offbeat marital bliss in their forest hideaway. Unfortunately, a local doomsday cult leader (Linus Roache) has set his eye on Mandy, and when the dust and ashes clear, the left-for-dead Red sets out to spill blood and cleave heads. Like the PCP-addled love child of a prog rock concept album and a doom metal music video, Mandy eschews rationality for the Rule of Cool, but Cosmatos presents every splatter of batshit weirdness with such ecstatic panache, it’s hard not to be seduced. Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Land of Steady Habits'.
September 28, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Stuck Between Stations

2018 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Nicole Holofcener / Premiered online on Sept. 14, 2018

The title The Land of Steady Habits may be misleading. It suggests portraiture of a menial but well-meaning life, and to some, it reads as pejorative against a perceived life not lived. For filmmaker Nicole Holfcener’s characters, the idea of this state of being actually represents an end-game to the emotional and familial upheaval they are undergoing. Achieving stasis — whether it be emotional, financial, relational, or even physical — is preferred to the purgatorial space they currently inhabit. 

The film’s title is, in fact, a term used for the Connecticut setting in which the characters reside. This northeastern United States milieu is familiar enough to anyone who’s read John Irving or seen films such as Todd Fields’ wonderful In the Bedroom (2001) or Lasse Hallstrom’s less successful E. Annie Proulx adaptation The Shipping News (also 2001). Works like these present sunny autumnal surfaces populated by middle class (usually white) people whose simmering resentments eventually erupt as the season changes into an icy winter. 

Land doesn’t stray far from this common representation, taking place almost entirely during a wintry holiday season in which its central character, “retired” financial trader Anders Harris (Ben Mendelsohn), attempts to navigate his newfound singlehood. Much has been made about Land being Holfcener’s first foray into a male-centric story. While her adaptation — also a first for the writer-director — of Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name doesn’t preclude critiques of masculinity, Anders is a character who fits in snugly with the female self-destruction that is front and center in the director’s previous works such as Walking and Talking (1996), Please Give (2010), and Enough Said (2013). 

Anders’ floundering and posturing are best characterized by an early scene with his therapist, Howard (Victor Williams). The patient reluctantly reveals he smoked PCP-laced pot at a friend’s party with a group of teenagers, one of whom, Charlie (Charlie Tahan), survives an overdose shortly thereafter. After Howard confirms his own presence at said party, he confronts Anders about his actions. Anders sees this as an interpersonal setup, chastising Howard with “Way to bury the lede,” before justifying his actions and rejecting any blame for them. He then storms off, stealing a stack of his counselor’s coffee table books. 

This range of reactionary forcefulness allows Mendelsohn — a supreme performer in danger of being typecast as the insidious villain he’s played so well in films as disparate as Killing Them Softly (2012) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) — to perform in shades of grey. His Anders is both a victim and perpetrator of a patriarchal machine keen on masculine authority alongside financial dominance, a system at the fore of Holofcener’s criminally underrated Friends with Money (2006). Anders has been chewed up and spit out by that system, but his self-deprecating charm and wit have kept him afloat when he’s been all but ostracized by the society that surrounds him. 

Those impossible standards create other victims, too, as Land becomes an ensemble piece about personal actions and their consequences within a community. The strength and temperament of Helene (Edie Falco), Anders’ ex-wife, are consistently tested by the men in her life: Anders himself; their 27-year-old slacker son, Preston (Thomas Mann); and her live-in fiancé, Donny (Bill Camp), who happens to be a former colleague of her ex-husband. There’s an analogous family, the Ashfords, in the Harris’ social circle. Never without glasses of red wine in their Home and Garden-ready estate, Sophie (Elizabeth Marvel) and Mitchell (Michael Gaston) are also contending with a burnout son, the perpetually high Charlie. 

The film undergoes a jarring shift in the third act, when when a character makes a ghoulish discovery. Scenes of confrontation and revelation, scored to maudlin orchestral cues, undermine Land’s already precarious serio-comic tone, and the acute behavioral nuances of the characterizations dissipate. With this descent into overwrought American Beauty (1999) territory, the film begins to manifest its own existential crisis as if to mimic its characters’, but in ways that become increasingly obvious and devoid of the care with which Holofcener is commonly — and rightfully — associated. 

She is a director whose critical esteem has risen with each subsequent film. Holofcener also has many for-hire television directing credits to her name — as many women directors in Hollywood do for the sake of survival — between her all-too-infrequent, modestly-scaled big screen work. To its detriment, Land feels like the first feature she’s made in a more staid televisual style. Never one for cinematic pyrotechnics, she nevertheless crafts films that have always been involving and imbued with a lived-in sensibility. However, save for some choice camera movements (such as in its opening shot), the filmmaker's latest feature arrives feeling hastily directed and sloppily edited. 

Still, Holofcener’s talent for assembling a grade-A cast is on full display here. Falco buttresses her character’s strong will with her innate performer’s power. Marvel plays the polar opposite of of the nebbish sister in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), but with the same sensitivity she showcased there. Connie Britton gives Barbara, the single empty-nester who may be the only shining light for the depressed and impotent Anders, equal parts resolve and resiliency. Even with its milquetoast aesthetic and tonal inconsistencies, these players in their prime make The Land of Steady Habits a worthy place to visit. 

Rating: C+

[Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Blaze'.
September 27, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright

2018 / USA / 129 min. / Dir. by Ethan Hawke / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018; locally on Sept. 28, 2018

The whiskey-soaked Outlaw Country biopic Blaze is Ethan Hawke’s fourth feature film as a director, and the second that entails a deep dive into the life and times of a professional musician. Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke’s 2014 documentary about classical pianist Seymour Bernstein, is less a traditional non-fictional portrait than a joyous and intensely earnest artistic statement. As a filmmaker, Hawke was able to efficaciously translate Bernstein’s hard-won, commendable worldview – about creation, performance, instruction, integrity, and life itself – into glowing cinematic form.

At first glance, Blaze appears to be the director’s foray into what is frequently a tired narrative subgenre: the True Story™ of an under-appreciated artist’s incandescent emergence, followed by their all-too-soon passing due to substance abuse and other self-immolating behavior. Often, the message in such films is essentially one of bittersweet tongue-clucking, a glib lament that such raw talent was so wastefully snuffed out in such a trite manner. Hawke is both too ardent and too astute for such facileness, however. Blaze is a conflicted film, as uncertain about its thesis as Seymour was clarion. This, oddly enough, works to the film’s immense benefit, invigorating an otherwise musty set of biopic tropes.

In recounting the short, fraught life of country music singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (born Michael Fuller), Hawke asks the viewer to wrestle with the uglier aspects of creativity and mythmaking. If Blaze doesn’t provide much in the way of easy answers – or even a clear position on the matter of Foley’s artistic legacy – such ambiguity is mostly a feature rather than a bug. This is not the sort of biopic that is all that concerned with convincing the viewer of its subject’s creative genius and enduring importance. Blaze’s methods are more poetic than proclamatory, focused primarily on transforming the raw facts of Foley’s life into an elliptical and heartsick dive bar epic, its arias picked out on an acoustic guitar in the wee hours of the night. Between the lines of this lyrical portraiture, however, is a sticky attempt to grapple with the havoc wreaked on lives and relationships by the toxic trifecta of art, commerce, and personal demons.

Blaze Foley himself remains a bit of an enigma throughout Hawke’s film. Touchingly portrayed by newcomer Ben Dickey with an easy, enviable authenticity, Foley is a hungry, lumbering grizzly of a man, eager to etch his name among America’s country legends. Limping from a childhood bout with polio, he doesn’t project the usual slate of artistic insecurities, or the devouring narcissism often cultivated to compensate for such self-doubts. Foley is comfortable with his talent, and the respect he demands from colleagues and strangers alike is that owed to any performer, not just Great Artists.

Unfortunately, Foley also has numerous weaknesses – primarily alcohol, cocaine, and the unresolved angst of an abusive childhood – as well as a hot-headed, allegedly principled streak that leads to a stalled career and ultimately to his death. Partly owing to Dickey’s relaxed-yet-reserved performance, however, there is a distinct backwoods guardedness to Foley; he speaks bluntly, but only in a vocabulary of country-fried adages and self-pitying gripes. It’s in his melancholy songs and his rambling postcards to his wife Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) that a more effusive and honestly confessional Foley emerges.

Combined with the film’s time-hopping structure, these factors give Blaze the feeling of an observer’s conflicted recollections of Foley, rather than a work of headspace portraiture centered on the man himself. Which is eminently fitting, given that the Hawke co-wrote the film with Rosen, adapting her 2008 memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. (Rosen even has a cameo in the film, appearing as her own mother in an awkward meet-the-parents scene that’s ripe with affable redneck vs. middle-class Jew culture clash.) It’s easy to envision how Rosen might have erred here, turning the screenplay into either a sour, self-serving work or a swooning act of hagiography. With Hawke’s assist, however, she’s crafted a script that is diligently focused on her troubled lover while also consistently mindful of her perspective – with the occasional despairing head-shake at her own youthful stupidity. Blaze might be Foley’s story, but it is (mostly) Rosen’s version of the tale, filtered through Hawke’s palpable zeal at portraying the artistic life, warts and all.

The film’s structure is a darting and looping thing, but Hawke’s approach here is not digressive – the occasionally indulgent two-plus-hour running time notwithstanding. Nor, strictly speaking, is it loose and impressionistic in a manner that aims for a sensibility of jumbled reminiscence. There is a clear narrative, albeit one that’s been cut-and-pasted into a form that allows for evocative, time-tripping juxtaposition. Hawke nests roughly chronological scenes of Foley’s musical career and his romance with Sybil within not one but two framing sequences. The first concerns Foley’s last day on Earth, the centerpiece of which is a rancorous and poorly-attended afternoon appearance at a roadhouse, a performance that Foley records for a notional live album. (In the process, the tape captures not only Foley’s on-stage ramblings, but also the chatter and heckling of the indifferent bar patrons.)

Secondarily, Hawke layers in snippets of an interview given by Foley’s friends Townes (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) to a guileless and mostly unseen radio DJ (Hawke), some indefinite time after Foley’s death. “Townes” would be fellow Outlaw Country legend Townes Van Zandt, a figure whose artistic import was similarly overlooked in his lifetime but has been posthumously recognized in a way that has generally eluded Foley. Although the interview is ostensibly about Van Zandt, he quickly diverts the discussion into a glowing testimonial about his departed friend, an endeavor that Zee regards with a kind of befuddlement that slowly evolves into angry annoyance.

This second framing device is the most conspicuous indication that what Blaze is up to is something thornier than the standard biopic ambition to give a neglected artist their due. As Townes waxes on in an authoritative “I Knew the Man” way about Foley’s hidden reserves of kindness and spirituality, Zee is visibly taken aback – and then begins to outright seethe – at the contradiction between this depiction and the drunken, belligerent reality that he recalls. Some of this may be sheer resentment: Zee is painted as the least successful of the trio, often more akin to an over-enthusiastic fan and enabler than a fellow artist. (In one memorably bitter flashback, Townes tells a wonderful anecdote-joke whose aim is entirely to humiliate Zee in front of Foley.) However, some of Zee’s irritation plainly stems from a rumbling of integrity, an understanding that the unglamorous truth matters more than the gauzy, obliquely self-serving myths that Townes is pushing.

Of course, the truth about Foley likely lies somewhere between the poles of the tender artistic soul and the self-destructive alcoholic, a middle-of-the-road cliché that nonetheless feels credible given what Sybil’s viewpoint reveals about the man. It’s easy to see why she fell in love with Foley, who is portrayed as a sweet and soulful partner whose unassuming, whiskery bulk conceals the deep reserves of emotion that she craves. (Pointedly, their first encounter occurs at an actor’s commune, where his set-building interrupts her rehearsal of a monologue about the all-consuming nature of a woman’s love.) It’s also understandable why she ultimately finds it impossible to love him and simultaneously maintain her self-respect and sanity. Once the couple moves from their Edenic starter shack in the Texas woodlands to the relative bustle of Austin so that Foley can pursue his music career, the cracks in his easy-going, sensitive hillbilly schtick begin to appear.

Gone for weeks and weeks at a time while Sybil waits tables to pay the rent, Foley succumbs to all the usual temptations – booze, drugs, and women – while also trying to maintain his artistic voice in a world that doesn’t have much patience or interest. Unfortunately, this latter impulse largely manifests as a propensity to drunkenly provoke music producers, venue owners, and random audience members. (As Inside Llewyn Davis demonstrated, there are few things more intolerable than a starving musician who equates self-inflicted failure with integrity.) Sybil is willing to make sacrifices for her husband, to a point, but Hawke and Shawkat portray her as more actualized and self-aware than the stock wife character in similar artist biopics. Shawkat, who is quite good here, uses her usual cool, mumblecore-ish style as an affecting counterpoint to the film’s melodramatic beats; in those rare moments when her countenance splits into a slow, shuddering sob, the authenticity is all the sharper.

When Sybil finally throws up her hands and leaves Foley, it’s a clean break, made without much regret and for reasons that are entirely understandable. For Foley, however, the loss of the woman who was the Love of His Life haunts him for the rest of his days, dragging him even deeper into the abyss. Blaze, then, is a film about the Hemingway Myth, the notion that great art (usually produced by a man) requires great suffering, and that that suffering is best elicited through vice. Townes himself is shown explicitly peddling this poisonous idea when Foley’s record label bosses – a trio of Texas oil wildcatters turned dilettante music producers, played by Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, and director Richard Linklater – furiously lay into the drunk musicians after yet another fiasco performance. “We’ve got everything under control,” Townes slurs, gesturing around at the empty bottles and snoring, streaked-mascara groupies. “This is what we do. This is research for us.” While Hawke’s film never denies that great art can be made by addicts, it sharply critiques the notion that such behavior is essential to great art, or even particularly conducive to it. (Van Zandt himself was a notoriously ravenous alcoholic and heroin addict who likely suffered from bi-polar disorder, and much like Foley he died relatively young, at the age 52.)

Certainly, there’s an undeniable familiarity to the narrative beats in Blaze – right down to the doom-laden scene depicting Foley’s faintly absurd death at age 39, at the hands of a friend’s thieving son. Hawke never manages to completely banish that whiff of staleness from his feature. Yet the film’s insistence on complicating the biopic form with skeptical, grounded observations about art marks it as bolder and more distinctive than other works in the subgenre. Frustratingly, Blaze never articulates a conclusive stance on its subject, and that reticence leaves the film feeling somewhat hollow, lacking as it does much insight about a purportedly overlooked artist. (One essentially leaves the theater with the takeaway, “Boy, Blaze Foley sure drank a lot, died young, and wrote songs that some people think are great.”) In its favor, however, Hawke’s film isn’t aiming to inform or argue – Kevin Triplett’s 2011 documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah functions well enough on that score – but to deliver a lyrical, wholly cinematic meditation on creativity, with Foley as its tragic case study.

Essential to the film’s novelty is the nonlinear structure that Hawke employs, which he elaborates on with all sorts of fascinating stylistic gestures. Often, his camera will wander among the anonymous bar patrons as Foley mutters thickly over the microphone, observing them passively but not without empathy in their routines: staring at the television, popping bar peanuts, kissing in hallways, making phone calls, smoking in the alley, snorting a key of cocaine and primping in the restroom. At times, Hawke’s mise-en-scène jumbles the timeline almost magically. Early in their relationship, Sybil goes to clinic in a shabby strip mall to end an unwanted pregnancy – and yet across the street is the dive bar where Foley is currently muddling through his final performance. Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens give tge film a yellowish, muddy look, half faded Polaroid photograph and half cigarette smoke stain. (A fitting aesthetic, given the feature’s embrace of both wistfulness and grime.)

Blaze doesn’t have much of substance to say about it its titular musician, but it’s a poetic and touching exemplar of the biopic form, unafraid to use its subject to ruminate provocatively on the trials of being (and living with) an artist. In its low-key way, if feels like Hawke’s most accomplished directorial effort to date, a poetic work full of sneaky intelligence and acidic pessimism about the creative life.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'We the Animals'.
September 26, 2018
By Cait Lore

Parting from the Pack

2018 / USA / 94 min. / Dir. by Jeremiah Zagar / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018; locally on Sept. 14, 2018

In queer film studies, one must accept that the definition of the central concept of interest — “queerness” — is perpetually in flux. It simply gestures toward meaning and is not confined to the same empirical categories that are associated with “gay” and “lesbian,” as Eve Kofsky Sedgwick has claimed. Instead, it is a word of radical openness, actively defying objectivity, while directly addressing the disenfranchised — sexual or otherwise — whose marginalized identities are realized, or even liberated, through ineffable expression.

As a visual medium, cinema possesses the ability to translate queer experience into something palpable. Consider, for instance, the early films of Terence Davies, which directly address the queer experience through mise-en-scène, often eschewing expository dialogue. Director Jeremiah Zagar seems to follow along with this spirit of queerness in his newest feature, We the Animals. Tapping into both documentary and coming-of-age modes, this is a film about memory and re-creation, gesturing towards some fluid state between them. 

Of a piece with films like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and Davies’ own The Long Day Closes (1992), We the Animals takes place at a transitional moment in a young boy’s life. The boy, Jonah (Evan Rosadon), is about to turn 10. He has two brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), slightly older, but still in the throes of youth. Together they live in Upstate New York, in a small working-class home with Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo). The parents do their best to make ends meet, but this often results in them being unavailable to their children. That seems to be fine with young Jonah, though; he has his brothers, after all. The three share a bond that is almost tribal, complete with all the rituals and private languages that term implies. 

In Jonah’s voiceover narration, he speaks of “we,” referring to himself and his brothers as if they are one entity. That titular pronoun is somewhat misleading, though, as this is ultimately Jonah’s story. A passive protagonist, Jonah’s gaze wanders from father to mother to his brothers, but the film itself never strays far from Jonah’s point of view. When Jonah turns 10, his perception of the world expands, and the film adapts accordingly. Paps is not only charismatic and tender; he’s also volatile and aggressive. Ma takes to her bed for days, maybe even months — the timeline is intentionally muddled here. Jonah can no longer connect with his brothers as easily as he used to. As they grow more like his Paps, taking on conventionally masculine attributes, Jonah begins to turn inward and away from his family, differentiating himself from the tribe. 

We the Animals is an elliptical film that often shies away from classical narrative techniques, favoring impressionistic storytelling and voiceover narration. Admittedly, there are moments in the film where the narration undermines the power of the film’s images. Occasionally, these monologues are too on-the-nose, but such incidences are few and far between. The film more than makes up for these moments with its wild use of form. For example, when Jonah starts to turn away from his family, he becomes even more focused on his drawings. Trying to understanding himself through art, he scribbles with anxious fury, reveling in a melancholic ecstasy of sorts. In these moments, the film breaks into animated sequences, composed of Jonah’s own art, where he tries to reflect the world back to himself, grasping for something for which he can’t yet find the words.  

Another high mark for Zagar’s film is in its approach to eroticism. There is a high-strung ecstacy, undoubtedly frightening and almost brittle, that runs through many of the sexual scenarios that young Jonah encounters. In capturing this elusive feeling, Zagar transports the viewer into Jonah’s headspace, into the mind of a child wrestling with his first sexual stirrings. For these scenes alone, We the Animals earns a spot among this year’s best films.

Notably, We the Animals differentiates itself from the recent Lean on Pete (2018). That is to say, Zagar’s film actively avoids delving into poverty porn or presenting itself as a morality play. When Jonah’s perspective widens and shadows are cast on the film’s other characters, it deepens their portraits, presenting these family members as being equal parts nurturing and destructive. Zagar challenges viewer to see these people as multifaceted, perhaps even paradoxical, and thus rooted in the real world.

Some films ask questions, whereas others make statements. Every once in a while, films like We the Animals sneak onto local arthouse screens. Such films find their truths in the visceral. Turning away from language, they reflect life back to the viewer through expressions only possible in cinema.

Rating: A- 

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'The House with a Clock in Its Walls'.
September 21, 2018
By Joshua Ray

If These Walls Could Tock

2018 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Eli Roth / Opens in wide release on Sept. 21, 2018

Eli Roth’s directing credit follows soon after Steven Spielberg's Amblin Studio logo, and it comes as the first surprise of the YA horror-novel adaptation The House with a Clock in Its Walls. The director’s debut feature, Cabin Fever (2002), is one of the goriest works of the new millennium, rendering leg-shaving a traumatic ordeal for viewers, much as Psycho (1960) did for shower-taking. He followed up his first film with the torture-porn “classics” Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007) and hasn’t relented on the blood-letting since, including remaking the revenge saga Death Wish earlier this year. What horrors would Roth now present to House’s theoretical audience of children and families?

Always capable behind the camera, Roth makes films that are rarely dull but also rarely politically or thematically cogent. Cabin Fever hinted at a parable about the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s. The filmmaker used one of that decade’s favorite horror tropes – sexually active young people meeting their ends deep in the woods – as a jumping-off point to explore mass hysteria and the increasing divide between the urban and rural United States. As with the Hostel films and the W. Bush-era American exceptionalism and jingoism that Roth attempted to satirize with those features, Cabin Fever ultimately falls short in producing any interesting ideas with respect to its real-world parallels.

Accordingly, in adapting John Bellairs’ book of the same name, one would be rightfully leery about what Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke might smuggle into this family frightfest. Whether inherent in its source or not, The House with a Clock in Its Walls has coherent and surprisingly heartfelt ideas about trauma, loss, and the ways that human communities process such experiences. It achieves this while also being a mostly delightful, minor-sized gothic mystery complete with seed-spewing possessed pumpkins, a topiary lion with a case of leaf-induced irritable bowel syndrome, and Cate Blanchett and Jack Black as an unlikely pair of platonic partners. 

As Lewis Barnavelt, young actor Owen Vaccaro gets an opportunity to be a film’s focal point and exhibit a wide range of emotions after playing one of the Daddy’s Home (2016) children opposite Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Lewis oscillates between grief and wonder as the newly orphaned nerd moves into the ornately spooky mansion his tightly wound uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), inherited from an old magic partner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). After noticing the stained-glass windows moving and his uncle ax-chopping at the walls (with a fun visual nod to The Shining [1980]) in search of some mysterious ticking, Lewis forces Jonathan and his stately yet somehow still-bumbling next-door neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) to come out as magic-makers

Under the tutelage of Florence and Jonathan, Lewis begins to cast his own spells with only minor misfires. The filmmakers mostly avoid the puberty allegory – a la Spider-man learning to shoot webs – instead using the magic as a way for the young warlock (“boy witch,” as Lewis keeps telling his uncle as if to puncture through fragile masculinity) to work through his grief and form a new family unit with the elder dark-arts-doers. Being the new kid in town, he has to contend with his share of bullying from schoolmates, but when he attempts to show off his nascent skills to a potential friend, Tarby (Sunny Suljic), he inadvertently awakens Izard, the recently deceased mechanic of the titular timepiece, causing pure hell to break loose. 

The post-World War II milieu of the fictional town of New Zebedee, Mich. enriches the film’s already-present ideas of trauma, collective and personal. Indeed, all the characters within this narrative are either sublimating their loss or displacing their shock. Izard created the clock after time spent in wartorn Germany. The mysterious ticking presence is actually a doomsday device, as it turns out, and obliterating the human race entirely is his personal reaction to the horrors witnessed in fighting the Nazis. After losing her family, Florence’s magical purpose is misplaced – often creating havoc for Lewis and Jonathan – but she self-actualizes as she finds new purpose in saving humanity. Jonathan is looking to reverse the wrong-doing his deceased cohort created after the two separated ways. Although he still has a proverbial hole in his heart from their personal and professional split, he gains confidence and rebuilds his spirit as he teaches Lewis. 

The heavy-handed material isn’t handled quite as deftly as the cultural critiques in the supreme Paddington films, but House is closer to the light-touch spirit of those film than such dramatic currents might suggest. Blanchett relishes the opportunity to elicit the laughs Ocean’s 8 (2018) didn’t allow. Her screwball abilities are showcased in her character’s magical misfires and in scenes of Jonathan and Florence bickering like a long-married couple who’ve spent way too much time together. Here, Black is more than serviceable, but elsewhere his hammy performance undermines the grandiosity that would credibly provoke the awe and wonder that Vaccaro displays. Black is often one-upped by his relatively inexperienced co-star in terms of comedic delivery.

Roth’s film is in tune with vintage Disney-produced dark fantasies like Watcher in the Woods (1980) and Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), and the director takes the opportunity to induce nightmares in his youngest viewers – just as those films did for their contemporary audiences. Kid-sized jump-scares like a springing cuckoo from a clock abound, and Roth even wrings some dread from set-pieces like a room full of re-animated evil dolls. Largely due to the overstuffed production design Roth is committed to showcasing, his direction overall lacks clock-like precision. To that end, the film’s final act is a mess of poor action directing – experience Roth admittedly lacks. It does, however, give viewers the opportunity to see Blanchett head-butt a pumpkin, and it’s moments like this that make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a worthy entry in the children’s chiller canon. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray