Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

"A Woman Directed the Scariest Horror Movie of the Year, Maybe of the Decade."

So reads the headline to Laura Parker's New York Magazine interview with Jennifer Kent, the first-time director who helmed this year's indie Australian hit "The Babadook."

I've skipped a lot of this past decade's horror movies, but of the ones I have seen... yeah, "The Babadook" is definitely the scariest.

That doesn't necessarily mean the best. To my way of thinking, that honor still goes to Tomas Alfredson's 2008 Swedish vampire flick "Let The Right One In." Kent will have to settle for second best. But a VERY CLOSE second.

As great as it is, I'm not sure being scary was ever Alfredson's primary concern when he made "Let The Right One In." At its heart it's a dark coming-of-age story and a tragic romance. The scares are there, and they're effective, but Alfredson never really pushes them up beyond a high simmer. To mix metaphors, I wouldn't say he pulls his punches, exactly...but the punches he delivers are really just warning taps. He's not interested in hurting you.

But, with "The Babadook," Kent doesn't bother with punches at all. She simply goes for the throat. She not only wants to hurt you, she wants to make you bleed.

The first two-thirds of "The Babadook" are utterly terrifying, and they're terrifying in the way that I like things to be terrifying. The film is deeply psychological — rooted in the damaged psyche of widow and single mom Amelia (Essie Davis) and her possibly disturbed six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). It sports all those familiar haunted-house/boogeyman-movie tropes that we're so familiar with — the deep shadows, the thumps and thuds from the hallway, the phantom whispering and the slowly opening doors. But Kent just handles all these tropes better than almost any other film in the last 25 years or so. The atmosphere of dread that permeates this movie is thick and at times almost suffocating.

Amelia is struggling to raise Samuel alone after her husband was killed driving her to the hospital to give birth. Six years later she's still grief-stricken, as well as exhausted and at a loss to explain Samuel's pervasive (and increasingly dangerous) obsession with monsters

Things go south when Samuel picks a mysterious pop-up book called "Mr. Babadook" off his shelf for Amelia to read to him at bedtime. Amelia doesn't know where the book came from, and neither it seems does Samuel. She begins to read, and at first the book seems harmless enough, if a little odd.

But as the story continues, it takes a turn beyond the slightly scary and toward the utterly traumatizing.

For those of you who — like me — grew up with the works of Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, or the infamous "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series, you will remember that thrill of reading something that, while ostensibly for children, felt inappropriate.  Too scary, maybe. Too dangerous. Those books largely flew under parents' radars, and there was a very real sense of menace to them. Something wrong. You got the feeling that the authors — adults, for God's sake — really and truly wanted to give you nightmares. It was like a creepy old neighbor up the street whispering something vaguely horrible into your ear and then daring you to run home and tell your parents about it.

"Mr. Babadook" is like that, but on steroids.

Of course, from that point forward Samuel's monster obsession takes an even darker turn. As the movie proceeds, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell if "The Babadook" is at core about a dangerously disturbed child, a mother losing her mind, or a bonafide supernatural boogeyman. Or perhaps all of the above.

I was legitimately frightened for the brunt of the movie — and for me, that's really saying something. It takes a lot for a horror movie to scare me anymore. This one did. It got under my skin, took me back to when I was six and was convinced that there was a creature living in the tree outside my bedroom window. At one point an usher opened the theater doors and I almost screamed.

Unfortunately, as "The Babadook" moves into its final act Kent loses control of the material a little bit. The film becomes increasingly histrionic and way too on-the-nose with its themes (there's some truly cringe-inducing dialogue in the last twenty minutes or so). The movie starts to feel a little show-offy — crazy for the sake of being crazy. And Kent doesn't quite know where to stop. She tries to pack about four conclusions into a ten-minute span, and then somehow still manages to end on one of the movie's flattest scenes.

But these are nitpicks. The film has its flaws, but the stuff that works REALLY works. And the performances are pretty incredible. Davis gives the movie a solid foundation for Kent to build upon, and she somehow manages to singlehandedly keep the wheel on the truck even as she's asked to do increasingly preposterous things.

But the real revelation is Wiseman. This kid gives one of the most powerful, naturalistic, and nuanced performances I've seen in a very long time. It's not just a great performance for a child actor (perhaps the best I've seen in, well, basically ever). It's a great performance, period.

I'm not kidding and barely exaggerating when I say Wiseman is almost Daniel Day Lewis-level good here. I predict that, if he doesn't go off the rails like so many child stars do, in 20 years he's going to be the actor of his generation.

If I was to grade this movie, I'd give it an A-. And Kent is now THE director to watch.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #1 "Apocalypse Now" (Francis Ford Coppola)

This is a movie that absolutely should not have worked.

The stories behind the chaotic making of this film are now the stuff of Hollywood legend. Books have been written. Documentaries have been made. I don't need  to repeat it all here, but here's a bullet list of just a few of the catastrophes that beset the film's production:

• A massive typhoon wrecked the sets in the Philippines, causing a months-long delay.

• Star Harvey Keitel was fired after just a few days and replaced by Martin Sheen... who promptly had a heart attack.

• After pocketing a million dollars, co-star Marlon Brando showed up fat and out of shape, without having learned his lines. Production shut down for a week while Coppola worked with him.

• Dennis Hopper was... well, Dennis Hopper.

• The Philippine government allowed the use of their military and vehicles in the film, but constantly had to pull them away to fight an insurgency in another part of the islands.

Director/co-writer Francis Ford Coppola was spending his own money before the movie was finished. He had everything on the line. The film ultimately went months and millions of dollars over budget, and this was before Coppola had even managed to write the ending. The original script by John Milius (a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" set in the midst of the Vietnam war) was too "rah rah America!" for Coppola's taste. Kurtz and Willard go down in a blaze of glory at the end, falling under a barrage of American bullets. That was not the story Coppola wanted to tell.

The problem was, Coppola didn't know what story he wanted to tell.

"My movie is not about Vietnam... my movie IS Vietnam," Coppola said at the film's Cannes premiere, in his typically grandiose way. "There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money. And little by little we went insane."

I already mentioned in my "Taxi Driver" review the cataclysmic impact my high-school video productions teacher, Mrs. Duran, had on my movie-going tastes. It was in her class that I discovered all those great, gritty, and dark masterpieces of the 1970s New Hollywood. All those great directors plowed their way into my brain pain during a roughly six-month period when I was fifteen years old: Scorsese, Friedkin, Penn, Malick, Bogdanovich, Peckinpah... and, of course, Francis Ford Coppola.

I watched the "Hearts of Darkness" documentary before I actually saw "Apocalypse Now" (I'm trying to remember if Mrs. Duran showed it in her class). I remember thinking no way is that movie any good. 

When I actually sat down to watch the movie, I couldn't even begin to wrap my head around it. But I knew I loved it, with a passion that became almost all consuming for the next few years. The sky cracked open for me with "Taxi Driver," but the lightning didn't hit until "Apocalypse Now." And it basically exploded my eyeballs and cooked my brain.

I watched that movie maybe six or seven times that year. And maybe ten the next year. And ten the year after that. All in, I've probably watched "Apocalypse Now" more than 50 times. There was a code in there I felt like I had to crack.

It's 20 years later, and I still don't think I've cracked it.

"Apocalypse Now" is number one on this list for a lot of reasons. It's definitely my favorite film, but let's establish right now that it is a deeply flawed piece of work. Given the sheer madness of the production, there's no way it could be otherwise. It's often referred to as a "fever dream" view of the Vietnam War, and as clichéd as that is it's pretty apt. I had pneumonia in college and my temperature spiked to about a hundred and five degrees. The delerium I felt then was roughly equivalent to my first experience watching this movie.

If you get on its wavelength, it'll change you.

My first feature, "Dead Billy" was almost exactly .0001 percent the budget of "Apocalypse Now." Still, for us, it was a pretty massive undertaking. And I was keenly aware going in that we were trying to do something fairly narratively ambitious. It was going to be a weird, personal movie that likely would not work for a lot of people. There was a very real chance that I would fail.

A month or so before we began shooting — after we had raised our money on Kickstarter and had put together the majority of our cast and crew — I began seriously second-guessing myself. Maybe I should have just written a horror movie, I thought. Something I knew I could sell. Vampires were still super popular, and I even have an idea for a vampire movie. Zombies were still huge, and I have a zombie script a wrote a few years ago. Maybe I should have just done one of those. It would have been a whole lot safer.

As we were hurtling toward our start date, I decided to clear my head by spending an evening rewatching both "Hearts of Darkness" and "Apocalypse Now" for the first time in a few years. And I realized something... if Coppola managed to wrestle that movie to the mat, there was absolutely nothing for me to be afraid of. "Apocalypse Now" is one of those works of singular, bizarro vision that existed simply because the filmmaker had to make it exist. Damn the consequences. Coppola was driven by something irrational and, for him at least, deeply profound. Some of it was ego, sure. Maybe even most of it. But the movie infected him in a way, and he needed to purge it.

That's what "Dead Billy" was for me.

Before you roll your eyes: no, I'm not comparing my movie to "Apocalypse Now." But watching Coppola almost lose everything to bring his vision to the screen made me realize that for me to back out then would have been an act of extreme, unforgivable cowardice. Coppola committed to his vision at all costs. The least I could do was commit to mine.

After all, I wasn't mortgaging my house and my vineyard to make it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #2 "Night of the Living Dead"/"Dawn of the Dead" (George A. Romero)

As I said in my earlier review of "Shaun of the Dead," I'm kind of a hipster about zombie movies. I was into them way before they were cool.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if I never see another zombie movie in my life, I'll be okay. Zombies have seized the zeitgeist in a way that I find fairly unfathomable. And now we've been given every permutation on the concept we could possibly conceive of. We've got fast zombies, slow zombies, funny zombies, sad zombies, romcom zombies, Nazi zombies, even zombies as pets. We've got zombies as a political interest group. We've got zombie livestock. Now every city has its own zombie walk. Even Nerf is making zombie-themed toys.

Aside from their ubiquity, the most maddening thing for me as a classic Romero zombie fan is how much the new stuff tends to get wrong. Here are the two biggies:

1. Fast zombies suck. I'm sorry, but if you disagree with me you're clearly a dilettante and I encourage you to quit out of this blog post and go read "Twilight" or something.

I'll let zombie godfather George A. Romero explain it to you: "[I prefer] these plodding, lumbering guys from whom you can easily escape unless you fuck yourself up somehow and are too stupid to do the right thing. That’s just more fun for me.”

This is the point, and why Romero's original zombie films were so haunting. The zombies were the catalyst for the conflict, but they were not the source of the conflict themselves. In a fast-zombie universe, your characters spend so much time running away that they don't have time to think about anything else. In a slow-zombie universe, they have just enough time to get complacent and let all the petty ego-driven parts of their nature take over. They have time to argue and to second guess. And in the end, they become the agents of their own destruction.

Look at "Night of the Living Dead." The neat trick of that film is that Mr. Cooper, our antagonist, was right the whole time! If they had just gone into the basement, they would have survived! Our "hero" Ben fucked up and, essentially, got everyone killed. This isn't because Ben is a bad guy (neither is Mr. Cooper, really... he's just an asshole). It's because he's a human being and he made a mistake. In "Night," the real conflict is the dick-measuring contest between Ben and Mr. Cooper, not the struggle between the group and the zombies. This is what makes "Night" a fundamentally more human story than, say, something like "World War Z" (I speak of the movie, not the book, which is actually a pretty superlative piece of work).

There's also something more viscerally terrifying about the relentless implacability of the slow zombie. It's easy to fool yourself — one or two are easy to kill or escape. But the problem is they just keep coming...and coming...and coming. What Romero did was give us the time necessary to reflect on that.

2. Zombies are not caused by a virus. Even stories that mostly get the zombie thing right ("The Walking Dead" and Max Brooks's original "World War Z" novel) screw this one up. In our current epidemiology-obsessed culture — where we're all required to have our scheduled bird flu or Ebola freakout every year or so — we simply cannot seem to conceive of a scenario where zombies AREN'T the result of some sort of determinable, measurable contagion.

But this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of what Romero was trying to say with his original films.

Horror is fundamentally about the inexplicable. As soon as it becomes explicable, it becomes science fiction. Sure, Romero made a weak attempt in "Night" to justify his zombies as being the result some sort of "strange radiation" emanating from a returned space probe to Venus. It's such a lame explanation that I don't think Romero ever really meant for us to take it seriously. He was still trying to figure out the mythology behind his walking corpses, and the Venus-probe crap was a nod toward prevailing trends in sci-fi and horror at the time. By the time he got to "Dawn" ten years later, he pretty much did away with all of that.

In Romero's universe, the laws of physics as we understand them simply stopped working. It reminds me of something an old astronomy professor in college once said about the nature of science in general. I don't remember the exact quote so I'll have to paraphrase: Nothing is ever proved in science. We simply develop theories and evaluate the evidence and come up with the best understanding that we can, until something new comes along to show us that we were wrong. We believe in gravity because if you drop a rubber ball 10,000 times in a row, you can be reasonably certain that the ball will go down. But what if on the 10,001st time you drop the ball it goes up? Well, then you have to radically re-evaluate your entire understanding of how the universe works.



There's a reason why Ken Foree's famous "when there's no more room in Hell..." line from "Dawn" has become so  iconic. It's as good an explanation as any, and it perfectly sums up the inexplicable nature of Romero's zombies. Romero is much more interested in the questions than he is anything resembling an answer.

But look at how it's used in the (pretty good but flawed) 2004 remake:



Foree's cameo is meant as a little gift to the fans, but unfortunately what director Zak Snyder does here is invert the original meaning of the line. Now we see it coming from a rabid, homophobic Jerry Falwell-style preacher/pundit. Whereas in the original we think Peter may be right, here we're supposed to immediately roll our eyes and KNOW that the preacher is wrong. Peter's statement is one of possible profundity. The nameless preacher's is meant to be tossed aside and forgotten. The cosmic and spiritual mystery has been drained completely out of the idea. Because germs, I guess.

I discovered both "Night" and "Dawn" in the early-1990s, back when zombies weren't really a thing. I used to watch "Night" almost every night as I went to bed... it became my equivalent of chilling out to "Dark Side of the Moon" to relax (I did that too, by the way). Something about these movies spoke to me on a fundamental, visceral level.

I can't really separate the two (hence the dual entry). "Night" is the undisputed the classic, the Patient Zero for the whole genre. But "Dawn" is, overall, probably the better movie. Its world is more sharply defined, its characters richer, its thematic concerns much more sophisticated.

What floored me about "Night" the first time I saw it was how well written it is. For a drive-in movie, it almost comes off like a piece of theater. Just check out this scene at about 20 minutes and 40 seconds into the movie.



After a long sequence where Ben and Barbara board up the farm house, Ben launches into a long monologue about his first experience with the zombies and how he learned — after watching a truck explode in flames — that they are afraid of fire. We hear the tremor in his voice and can see the pain of what he saw written all over his face. Seconds after he is finished, Barbara — in her stilted, post-shock delivery — tells him the story of how she and her brother were attacked at the cemetery. As she slips deeper and deeper into the story, she begins reliving it as someone who has experienced PTSD might relieve a traumatic experience. She eventually works herself into hysterics, and the scene culminates in a vicious punch from Ben to knock her out (a moment which, to a 1960s audience, would have been utterly shocking in its racial implications).

The entire sequence goes on for about seven minutes — which, in a movie with a 95-minute running time — is a lot of narrative real estate to use up. You simply don't see stuff like this in most horror movies, particularly those created for the drive-in circuit.

Indeed, most of "Night" is comprised of conversations — often shouted — between the various characters. The zombies themselves become almost incidental as Ben's conflict with Mr. Cooper escalates. And it is that conflict that drives the ultimate tragedy of the conclusion.

"Dawn" does largely the same thing, but on a much bigger scale. Both films (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, their 1985 followup "Day of the Dead") are concerned with an almost neo-realist sense of verisimilitude (the goofy music notwithstanding). This isn't the gritty, almost doc-style realism of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Both "Night" and "Dawn" are elegaic, almost lyrical in style.

Critics who sing the praises of "Dawn" tend to focus on the 1970s consumerist satire. That element is there, of course, but it seems to me that it is brought up so often because it gives the snoots a way to justify their appreciation for the film. They can't just like a horror movie. It has to be a commentary about something.

"Dawn" is certainly that (the way "Night" is an almost accidental commentary on the Civil Rights movement), but at its heart I believe it's meant to be a character piece, concerned more with the connections people attempt to forge in an extreme crisis. The humor, as it is, is fairly sparse. The moments that resonate the most are these:



It's these genuine human interactions that, I'm afraid, most of the current crop of zombie stories miss altogether. This is what makes "The Walking Dead" and Brooks's "World War Z" (and even "Shaun of the Dead," in its way) stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. They get it in a way that "Fido" or "Zombieland" or "Warm Bodies" simply cannot.

I'm afraid the zombie is basically done as a legit source of existential dread. They've become neutered, made goofy by a pop culture obsessed with irony. Even Romero's recent crop of films have slipped into a nearly grotesque self parody of what he used to do.

But "Night" and "Dawn" remain classics. Untouched.

Cut through the noise and go back to the source.




Sunday, November 16, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #3 "Unforgiven" (Clint Eastwood)

"It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."

Clint Eastwood's 1992 western "Unforgiven" is a very nearly perfect film.

I'm speaking largely from both a writer's and a teacher's perspective. I use this movie in my class all the time, and I find that it's consistently one of the best examples of story structure, dialogue, subtext, and characterization available. I try to mix things up occasionally and use other examples, but nothing works as well. I always circle back around to this one.

Eastwood bought David Webb Peoples' script (originally titled "The Cut-Whore Killings") in the mid-1970s, at the height of his status as a Western icon. But he held onto it for nearly 20 years until he was old enough to play William Munny, a reformed outlaw and gunslinger struggling to raise two kids as a subsistence farmer. When a brash young wannabe who calls himself The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) appears out of nowhere to enlist him in a murder-for-hire scheme to take out two cowboys who cut up a whore in a little town in Wyoming called Big Whiskey, Munny reluctantly signs on with one condition: he wants to include his former partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman). 

Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, Sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) has gotten wind of the scheme, and will stop at nothing to "protect" his town from "assassins."

The genius of "Unforgiven" is the way that Peoples' screenplay inverts the classic Western archetype — in another era, Little Bill would be our hero and he would have been played by John Wayne as a classic "white hat," and Munny would have been our classic black-hatted villain, probably played by someone like Yul Brenner — without ever falling down the post-modern rabbit hole. We don't think about this inversion until it's over, when (SPOILER) Little Bill protests his own upcoming death with "I don't deserve this! I was building a house!"

In his mind, Little Bill is the hero. It's simply inconceivable to him that it could have ever been otherwise.

The problem with most of these meta, post-modern inversions is that they become so concerned with what they're trying to say about the form and the genre that they forget to tell a genuine, heartfelt story with real living, breathing characters. "Unforgiven" doesn't make that mistake. Nobody in this film feels like a type or a commentary on a type. You believe every single one of them, from Munny and Ned to the Kid and Little Bill, all the way up to to rival assasin English Bob (the great Richard Harris in one of his greatest roles) and his biographer, Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Each character serves a specific narrative purpose but still manages to maintain his or her own inner life that seems to exist beyond the confines of this particular story.

Stylistically, this is by far Eastwood's best film as a director. There's nothing showy about it, but practically every shot looks like a painting. The level of precision both in style and substance is incredible. Nothing is wasted. This is true of Peoples' script as well, which knows when to be spare and when to let some air out and be baroque. Everything — no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential — pays off. The movie ebbs and flows like a river, slowly picking up speed until it hurls itself headlong into a stunning whitewater rush of a climax.

This film was pretty acclaimed at the time, but I'm not sure if it's as appreciated now as it should be. Eastwood's admittedly spotty record as a director might have tarnished the movie's legacy a bit.

If it's been awhile since you've seen it, please rewatch it and remind yourself how amazing major Hollywood cinema can be when it's done right.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #4 "John Carpenter's The Thing" (John Carpenter)

Like most horror directors of his generation (George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, etc.), John Carpenter's track record is...well...pretty spotty. For every classic ("Halloween," "Escape From New York," "Starman") that he's made, there's a solid stinker ("Village of the Damned," "Escape From LA," "Vampire$") that serves as an unfortunate counterweight on his legacy. And, like most of his contemporaries, its his more recent work that tends to skew the batting average way down. David Cronenberg is the only one from that generation who seems to have made it out of the 80s pretty much intact.

So I don't know that I would call John Carpenter my favorite horror director, exactly. But I would say that his best movies come the closest to representing the type of horror movies I want to make.

This is likely because he draws largely from the same wellspring of inspiration as I do. His influences are my influences. He's as much a student of 30s-50s pulp fiction as he is of modern cinema. He's one of the first major directors to pull liberally from Lovecraft (obliquely in "Prince of Darkness" and  more overtly in "In The Mouth Of Madness") and Lovecraft-inspired work like "Quartermass and the Pit."

"The Thing" is Carpenter's undisputed horror masterpiece, and it's perhaps the best example of this somewhat literary bent. Ostensibly a remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks film "The Thing From Another World," it's actually a much more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell's original 1938 novella "Who Goes There?."

What Carpenter understands — and what too many horror filmmakers simply don't get — is that what made the classic pulps so effective is what you don't see. Done right, suggestion and atmosphere can get under your skin way deeper than splatter. "The Thing" is often categorized as a gross-out film, and it's true that  effects artist Rob Botin's work is stunning, nauseating and visceral. But Carpenter knows when to hang back and show us just a piece of the shape-shifting creature — a distorted leg lost in shadow, a twisted mouth in the beam of a flashlight — and let our mind fill in the rest. What we create is way more terrifying than anything they could show us.

In Carpenter's and Botin's hands, the Thing itself is an almost perfect representation of Lovecraft's notion that "...all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." Lovecraft was all about twisting reality into the impossible. He wrote often of "wrong geometry," impossible angles in alien cities that could drive a human being mad simply to look upon them.

Carpenter's Thing is an ickier version of that idea. It isn't a guy in a rubber suit. It's a Thing that simply should not exist.

Carpenter's best movies are known for their bleakness (see also "Prince of Darkness"). "The Thing" pushes that to an entirely new level. It was a box-office failure at the time, and many critics believe that was because it came out the same year as Spielberg's "E.T." and people simply weren't in the mood for Carpenter's nihilistic view of the universe and what might be out there waiting for us.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review - "Revival" by Stephen King

I know that just yesterday I said I was going to power through the last five entries in my nearly forgotten "50 Days 50 Films" marathon (picking up with my review of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver"), but I just finished Stephen King's latest novel "Revival" in a white heat at three a.m. this morning, and I simply had to write about it.

So if you're still interested in the marathon, I'll be picking it up again tomorrow with my thoughts on my Number 4: John Carpenter's "The Thing."


For anyone who reads this blog or even casually follows my Facebook feed, you know that Mr. King is basically my spirit animal. He's the writer who, when I was 11 or 12, served as my introduction to the horror genre, and he was my gateway drug to pretty much all my other favorite writers (Thomas M. Disch, Phil Rickman, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and — more recently — Justin Cronin and Nick Cutter). He's the first writer whose work crystalized for me my own desire to write scary stories for a living. He's my alpha and my omega.

That said, however, I've never been slavishly uncritical of his work. Even as a kid, I knew that I had an active dislike for certain books — "The Tommyknockers" in particular. It didn't take me long to realize that, as great as he can be, other writers (Disch in particular) were very often better. My devotion to King has always been levened with a healthy dose of skepticism.

This has become even more the case over the last 15 years or so. I think the last King novel I really embraced without any reservation was 1998's "Bag of Bones," although I'm way out by myself in the weeds in thinking that his oft-maligned "From a Buick 8" (2002) deserves a solid critical reappraisal. I've liked most of his post-2000 output — the only absolute stinkers in there are "Dreamcatcher" (2001) and "Cell" (2006)— but I haven't really loved most of it. His recent work has trended longer and with less focus, less precision of detail, and far broader characters. He's always had a bit of a sentimental streak, but that has become much more pronounced in recent years and it can balance quite awkwardly with the darker elements he's known for.

The one real beacon of light was "Full Dark No Stars," his 2010 collection of four novellas that featured his darkest and most incisive work in years (the opening story, "1922," is a particular standout). It felt like the lean, mean Stephen King responsible for such genuine horror classics as "The Shining," "The Dead Zone," and "Cujo" was back, and in force.

Happily, much of his work since then — like last year's "Dr. Sleep" and this year's "Mr. Mercedes" — has tended to be shorter and more focused. Still, as good as those books were, neither reached the heights that he used to seem to hit so easily when he was in his prime.

I will always buy each new King book on the day of its release, and I will most likely disappear for a day or two while I devour it. Chances are, I will enjoy the experience. But I've long ago given up on expecting to be blown away the way I used to be.

Which brings me to his latest novel, "Revival," which was released this week in hardcover.

I don't want to overstate my case here and suggest that "Revival" deserves to be mentioned as part of the King pantheon. It's too early to say this is a classic on the level of "The Shining" or "The Stand" or "It."

But this is by far his best book in two decades. It's certainly at least as good as "Bag of Bones." Probably better.

For one thing, this is only the second Stephen King book that I can say really scared the shit out of me. As much as I adore his best novels, I've never found them to be particularly frightening. "Pet Sematary" is the one (before this) that truly rattled me. Many — like "Cujo" and "It" and "The Dead Zone" and especially "Misery" have moments that are profoundly disturbing, but I can only think of those two novels ("Pet Sematary" and "Revival") and a handful of short stories and novellas ("Gramma," "Children of the Corn," "You Know They've Got a Hell of a Band," "1922") that actually kept me up at night.

At just 399 pages, the narrative of "Revival" spans a period of more than 50 years in the life of a second-rate rock guitarist and reformed drug addict named Jaimie Morton, and his twisted relationship with a charismatic "pastor" named Charlie Jacobs. We start with Jaimie and Charlie's first meeting, when Jaimie is a typical six-year-old kid in the small town of Harlow, Maine (a town that bears an obvious resemblance to King's own home town of Durham). Charlie is the charming and youthful new pastor of the town's single Methodist church. We pick up with Jaimie sitting in a dirt pile in front of his house, playing with his toy soldiers, when a shadow falls across him. The shadow, of course, is Charlie's. The image is striking and the metaphor is obvious — Charlie's shadow is going to stay with Jaimie for the rest of his life.

But before your ick-factor goes into overdrive, let me assure you that King has no interest in exploring the pedophile-priest phenomena. It's not a spoiler to say there's nothing sexual or abusive in Jaimie and Charlie's relationship. In fact, Charlie is presented as a genuinely good man, a well-meaning man of the cloth with a beautiful wife and son. King drops enough hints as to where things are going to create a palpable but very quiet sense of dread in these early chapters — we're waiting for the shoe to drop...and drop it does. We're introduced to Charlie's odd hobby of tinkering with gadgets and electricity, and we can see the seeds of a flowering obsession there. Yet Charlie and his family are universally loved amongst his parish, and Jaimie seems to see him as not so much a father figure but as a friend.

The other shoe falls with a resounding thud three years later, when both Charlie's family and faith are torn asunder by a shocking and meaningless tragedy. Charlie delivers a blasphemous sermon in the wake of the event, and promptly loses his job. He piles his gadgets into his car and disappears, seemingly forever.

We spend a few years tracking Jaimie's teen years, when he simultaneously discovers girls (in the form of his beautiful classmate Astrid Soderberg) and the guitar. The two are inextricably linked, and there's something genuinely exhilarating about experiencing Jaimie's awakening talent and the all-consuming passion of his first love.

Being a King novel, this doesn't end prettily. Jaimie spends the next decade throwing his life down the crapper as he descends into a spiral of addiction. It's when he's at his quite literal rock bottom as a 36-year-old washout abandoned by his bandmates in a seedy motel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that his path crosses with Charlie — now a carnival huckster going from state fair to state fair — once again. Charlie's obsession with electricity has turned into a mania, and his experiments have become much darker and more profound.

Things just get weirder and weirder from here on out. King's narrative takes us all the way up to the present day and beyond, as Jaimie and Charlie keep circling in and out of each others' life in more disturbing ways, and it all culminates in King's most existentially horrific conclusion since the devastating tragedy that made "Pet Sematary" so chilling.

This isn't a balls-to-the-wall horror novel like "It" or "The Shining." The more overtly supernatural elements are kept largely at bay throughout most of the narrative. We know there's something going on with this "secret electricity," but we don't know what it is. It's all doled out in hints and suggestions up until about the final third, and King wisely keeps his focus on the characters and their relationships through the brunt of the story. He tightens the screws subtly but implacably, and it's not until you're nearing the end that you realize your heart is skipping a beat with every new revelation.

And then...bam. He delivers his knockout punch. The less said, the better.

This isn't a perfect novel, and King's portrayal of Charlie Jacobs in the back half is unfortunately the book's biggest weakness. What makes Charlie's arc so compelling early on is how much we empathize with him. He's a good man twisted by tragedy and madness. But, unfortunately, as the story progresses King begins to slip into some of the same broad characterizations that have marred so many of his more recent novels. Charlie devolves into a sort of James Bond supervillain/cartoon mad scientist. It's the book's only real misstep, but it's a big one.

Luckily the rest of the book is so tight and the characters so richly defined that this misstep doesn't manage to derail the rest of the good work King has done here. Jaimie is one of King's best lead characters in years — good-hearted but fundamentally flawed — and we stick with him even as he starts making some understandible but truly dreadful choices in the last few chapters.

Likewise, the secondary characters — from Astrid to Jaimie's sprawling family and his first high-school bandmates — come flying off the page as living, breathing human beings. King's biggest strength in his prime years had always been his willingness to take time away from the plot to develop his characters and the specific textures of their lives, and he shows in "Revival" that he hasn't lost that ability. Like in "From a Buick 8," the horror — when it comes — is so devastating precisely because of our investment in these people and their fates.

King also throws in a few nice little bones for the horror geeks in his audience, with subtle but specific references to Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and Robert Bloch. Previous knowledge of these writers' work is by no means necessary here, but for those of us in the know, the easter eggs are a lot of fun. There's something charmingly old-fashioned about this novel; it's classic horror of the pulp/"Twilight Zone" school, and reads almost as the type of book you might have expected Bloch or Richard Matheson to turn out in the 60s or 70s.

I'm not going to make any grand pronouncements about a "comeback" or (ahem) a "revival" here. We'll have to see if King can sustain this newfound focus with whatever he comes up with next. But, in the meantime, I'm just so grateful to have once again had the exhilarating experience with a new King book that I used to expect as a matter of course.




Thursday, November 13, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #5 "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese)

I just realized I never finished this list. Inexplicably, I quit right before I got to all the REALLY good stuff. So here goes. Gonna marathon this thing to the end over the next few days.

It was when I was fifteen years old that a lot of things started to change for me in terms of my creative sensibilities. I'd been a pretty hardcore horror fan already for a few years at this point, and through my love of horror novels I was slowly but surely becoming a serious fan of the movies. But I was far from what you would call a cineaste.

When I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school, I took a video productions class. The teacher was Mrs. Duran, and she LOVED movies and managed to impart at least some of that love to the rest of us. Sure, we learned about cameras and got a rudimentary sense of scriptwriting and editing, but the part of the class I remember most was sitting around and simply talking about movies — what made them good and what made them important.

One of the ways you could get extra credit in this class was to watch movies and essentially write the equivalent of a book report about them. So I started raiding the local video store. Mrs. Duran dropped the names of a bunch of films in class, mostly things I'd either never heard of or had never really been interested in before. Turns out, a large number of those films were classics from the 1970s "new Hollywood." So, in a pretty naked effort to suck up, I wrote most of my "book reports" about the ones she mentioned.

And it was like the sky opened up for me.

There was "Apocalypse Now" (never heard of it). There was "The Godfather" (heard of it, but was convinced it would be insufferably boring). There was "The Wild Bunch" (a western, so yuck). There was "Midnight Cowboy" (rated X! Score!).

And, of course, there was "Taxi Driver."

It's hard for me to articulate the impact these films had on me . I was gripped by an incredibly dark imagination and had been for most of my life, but at this stage I was still pretty wrapped up in fantastical stories about monsters and vampires and ghosts and your typical things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. Stephen King had marked my transition away from the D&D-inspired fantasy I had been reading for most of my life and into something more "adult" and grounded in a world that at least superficially resembled our own, but his stuff was still fundamentally operating in the relative safety of a speculative ghosts-and-goblins-based universe.

These films were something else. They were grubby. They were hard. They were stark and unflinching. And they felt real. "Taxi Driver" most of all. It wasn't my favorite discovery of this time period (that would be "Apocalypse Now," and there will be more on that one in a later entry), but it was the one that I identified with the most. It operated 100 percent on my wavelength and spoke quite directly to the horror fan in me — Travis Bickle is an utterly terrifying creation — but it came at it in a different way and gave me some new tools through which to approach my own imagination.

I was also just starting to discover punk rock around this time, and there was something about the nasty, don't-give-a-fuck energy to this film that excited me on a purely primal level. When Scorsese himself appears and delivers his infamous monologue, I was in. I found everything about the scene utterly reprehensible and profoundly upsetting, and yet it awoke something dark and carnivorous in me that had been nestled there for a long time and that I had no way to fully comprehend or express. Now I think I get it, at least a little bit. We all have "wrong thoughts," things that we know are wrong and that we understand society requires us to surpress. And yet, here's a guy just saying it, damn the consequences. The monologue is an anarchic expression of reptilian id, and Scorsese (and screenwriter Paul Schrader) simply don't give a fuck what you think about it. They're not only inviting your disapproval, they're reveling in it.

As an adult who has spent the greater portion of my life studying film, I can now discern intellectually what it is that I find so frightening about that scene (and, indeed, the entire movie), and it's not the monologue itself. Rather, it's the inscrutability of Robert DeNiro's silent reaction to it. He's not blank — we can see that he is reacting (he adjusts the mirror to get a better look at Scorsese, his mouth twitches, etc.) but we can't quite figure out what he's thinking. Is he disgusted? Is he aroused? We simply don't know. And Scorsese cuts viciously away before we come anywhere near an answer.

This isn't a movie about answers. Fuck answers, Scorsese and Schrader are saying, you don't deserve them and we're not giving them.

The realization that you could do that simply blew my mind.

There's a berzerker bravery to this film that is nearly unmatched in American cinema, and to fifteen-year-old me, that bravery — that willingness to simply not give a fuck — was like a clap of thunder in my head. I realized that it's easy to simply "scare" people. Creaky footsteps in a dark room will do it every time. A cat jumping out of a closet (accompanied by the appropriate "sting" on the soundtrack) will always work. One and done, moving on.

But to truly disturb someone — to crawl up into their skin uninvited and make them think and feel things they know they shouldn't be thinking or feeling — is a profound act. It's almost religious in its power.

I still love horror, and Stephen King will always be my literary security blanket.

But "Taxi Driver" opened me up to all sorts of possibilities I hadn't even glimpsed before.

Friday, August 22, 2014

An Open Letter to Henry Rollins about Robin Williams' Suicide

UPDATE: Henry Rollins apologized.

One of these days I might actually finish the last five entries of my 50 Days 50 Films Countdown. But not today.

Today I want to talk to you, Henry Rollins, about the article you wrote for LA Weekly.

First, let me start by saying I'm a fan. I fell in love with Rollins Band when I was a high school student in the mid-90s and your video for "Liar" was in constant rotation on MTV. I dove into the spoken word albums and Black Flag immediately after, and I've been with you ever since.

So I'm willing, at least for the sake of argument, to give you the benefit of the doubt that you mean well and that you're not simply engaging in some narcissistic exploration of your own mind. I don't know why the focus of your article had to be about what YOU feel about suicide, but I think that's maybe your problem here.

You think that this is about you.

As someone who came very near to the place Robin Williams ended up, I'm here to tell you that it's not about you. At all. Not even a little bit. What you feel is completely irrelevant here.

You say you've known people who've suffered from depression and who have committed suicide, and yet you think it should mean something to the rest of us that you feel "disdain" for the "choice" these people have made. It stuns me that someone as thoughtful as you can be possesses such a glaring empathy blind-spot.

But, again, I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. I really do think you mean well. I just think you have no goddamned idea what you're talking about.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you've probably never experienced clinical depression yourself. So I imagine you don't actually know what it's like to live inside that experience. You're trying to apply logic and rationality where logic simply doesn't exist.

You don't understand how Mr. Williams could have made the choice to do this to his family. I can tell you that there is a strong likelihood that Mr. Williams had convinced himself he was doing what he did FOR his family.

When I nearly flung myself off a building, it wasn't because I was sad. Or weak. Or selfish. It was because I had lost touch with reality. Were there things going on in my life that were causing me stress? Sure. I had just graduated from film school and was interning at a major Hollywood studio with no earthly idea of how I was going to repay my student loans. My grandmother had just died. I had just gotten my heart broken by a girl.

Basically, life.

None of these things were what caused me to try to kill myself. What was going on in my head was a conviction -- a CERTAINTY -- that there was something wrong with me. Not wrong in a self-esteem sense. Wrong in a physical, mental, and spiritual sense.

I felt like I was a monster. I felt like the people around me felt like I was a monster. I felt like I was dangerous to be around.

I felt like my grandmother had died because she had been close to me.

I felt like the people who I loved were either lying to me or were somehow being shredded by my very presence in their lives and didn't even know it.

I felt like the end of the world was coming. Not in a figurative sense. In a literal, we're-all-gonna-die-in-a-ball-of-fire sense.

I felt like one of my roommates was trying to poison me.

Mostly, I felt like everyone around me -- friends, family, coworkers -- would be much better off without me. That I was a cancer and I needed to be cut out.

Now, keep in mind there were NO rational reasons for me to be feeling these things. Something simply went haywire in the chemistry of my brain. Now, with a lot of hard work, I've come through the other side and I can look back and see how off the reservation I was. But in the moment, I simply couldn't see around it.

Depression isn't about feeling sad or sorry for yourself. Depression is about drowning. It's about a complete and total loss of perspective.

I didn't know Mr. Williams any more than you did, so I don't know what was going on in his brain. Unlike you, I wouldn't ever presume that I do.

You think I'm weak, and that Mr. Williams was weak. I know, you didn't use that word. But I can read between the lines.

Mr. Rollins, you're the weak one. The "disdain" you feel is evidence of that. You're afraid of us and what we represent.

Let me ask you, Mr. Rollins, what good you think this article you wrote did beyond servicing your own ego and interjecting yourself into a family's grief? Let me present a hypothetical: What if one of your fans is feeling even a few of the things that I was feeling when I tried to kill myself? What if that fan read your piece? Do you think your tough-talk stance is going to snap this person out of it?

Or do you think that maybe...just maybe...finding out their hero looks upon them with contempt on top of everything else might only add fuel to the fire?

Mr. Rollins, I'm still a fan.

But, please, for the love of God, get it the fuck together.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #6 "Moon" (Duncan Jones) ... also, why Woody Allen won't be on this list

Okay, before I talk about Duncan Jones's "Moon" (2009), let me address an impromptu, oddly hostile message I got from someone reading this blog who asked if, now that I'm coming to the end of my list, I would "put [my] prejudices aside" and cover a Woody Allen movie.

Short answer: No.

Long answer: I have engaged in a couple Facebook debates about the child molestation allegations against Allen, and I think it's been pretty clear that — without knowing anything — I tend to at the very least remain suspicious. Do I have any information that Allen is guilty? No. Do I think he's creepy and gross? Yep.

Do I feel hypocritical because I included a Roman Polanski film on this list? Yes, I do. Can I justify it? No, not very well. When it comes to Polanski, I've drawn a somewhat arbitrary line in my brain between the films he made before his rape conviction and the films he made afterwards. I fully admit that the distinction doesn't really hold up to any sort of objective logic, but I cling to it because I do enjoy those earlier films and I can't completely toss them out of my heart. The most I can do now is try to avoid the later ones, because they (and he) ick me out.

Which is basically how I feel about Allen. He just icks me out.

I do not deny the quality of some of his films. But this isn't meant to be a "greatest films of all time" list. These are my personal favorite films. And, ick factor aside, Woody Allen just isn't my thing. I can kind of appreciate a film like "Annie Hall" or "Hannah and Her Sisters," but I can't say they provoke a strong emotion in me one way or the other. Whatever. I'm just not a fan. So get off my dick, rando.

Okay, with that out of the way, let me get to "Moon."

I'm not very often floored by movies anymore. This is probably a result of having gone to film school and then continuing to pursue this whole filmmaking thing as a vocation. A lot of the magic is frankly gone for me. Like most film students, I can sort of see the proverbial Man Behind the Curtain whenever I see a movie, and it has become harder and harder for me to simply let myself go and get swept up the way I used to.

There's that whole adage that if you love working on cars, you probably shouldn't become a mechanic. As soon as something becomes your job, it ceases to be your escape.

So it is with a very palpable sense of shock, relief and utter joy that I can say "Moon" completely and utterly grabbed me. Seeing this film for the first time was a rapturous experience. I haven't been this caught up in a film in fifteen years, maybe longer ("Let the Right One In" and "Rust and Bone" come close).

Duncan Jones is, of course, the son of David Bowie. But don't let the implied Hollywood nepotism sway you. This is probably the most self-assured, exquisitely crafted science fiction film in two decades, and it's unthinkable to me that this a debut. It's an instant classic, destined (I believe) to be mentioned in the history books right alongside "Blade Runner" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" forever.

On paper, it's not the most wholly original concept. And certainly the overt nods to earlier films in the genre have garnered the film its fair share of criticism. But just set that aside and let yourself fall into the story. Sam Rockwell delivers one of those powerhouse performances that come along maybe once in a generation. Daniel Day Lewis couldn't have done better. I've screened this film multiple times in my classes, have broken it down scene by scene, and I have still not found one false note in his portrayal of Sam Bell, a lone technician going slowly insane in an isolated mining base on the moon.

Rockwell carries the film entirely on his shoulders, but he gets a strong assist from Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY, a sentient computer that is very deliberately meant to evoke memories of HAL-9000. But Spacey manages to find odd little emotional nuances in his soothing robotic monotone that give GERTY shades of life and, dare I say, humanity that you would never expect. He creates a character that transcends the classic influence and becomes iconic on its own.

"Moon" and "Let The Right One In" are recent films, and they arrived late in my development as a cineaste and filmmaker. So rather than provide a bedrock influence to my own work (the way, say, "Jacob's Ladder," "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," and "Blue Velvet" did), they raise the bar and show me a way forward.

These are films — "Moon" especially — that I wish I had made.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #7 "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (Tobe Hooper)

There is one specific moment in Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974) that immediately elevates it way beyond the confines of the slasher genre that it helped create.

Up to this point, we had been pretty much exclusively following a fairly anonymous group of teenagers as they continue to inexplicably wander into your average everyday scary farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, where they are systematically slaughtered by the human-face-masked Leatherface (Gunner Hansen).

After the second teenager wanders in to be unceremoniously snatched up and hung from a meathook in perhaps the movie's most infamous scene, we think we know exactly what this movie is going to deliver. Leatherface is a classic movie monster — faceless, brutal, and inhuman.

But when yet another teenager wanders in to be summarily dispatched, Hooper makes the startling choice to stay with Leatherface. We see him freaking out, searching through the house and looking out the windows before sitting down to contemplate what's happening. Suddenly, we understand what he's thinking: "where the hell do they keep coming from?" He's just as freaked out as the kids.

And, just like that, Leatherface becomes a human being. It's a quiet moment, subtle and easily forgotten amongst all the carnage. But it makes the film incalculably more frightening, because with that single gesture Hooper has reoriented this film within something resembling a real world.

I was way too young when I first saw "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," maybe nine or ten at a friend's slumber party. I've always had a high constitution for horror movies, then and now. It takes a LOT to scare me. But this film terrified me then, and it still terrifies me. There's a batshit brutality to this film, not in the violence itself (it's fairly tame by today's standards) but in the film's entire sensibility. It's got a grubby, lived-in documentary feel that was completely new to the horror genre at the time (this was decades before the "found footage" genre hit its stride).

"The Texas Chain Saw" massacre seems to be a movie made by crazy people. There's a sense of danger in its very presentation that is deeply unsettling. You actually worry about the actors, not the characters, because Hooper seems to be legitimately traumatizing them (and, if you read anything about the making of the film, you realize this isn't far from the truth).

This is a feature of many horror movies from the 70s, where filmmakers were given maybe more freedom than they responsibly knew what to do with. Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left" does a similar thing, and in some ways it manages to be even more disturbing than "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" because you get the sense that Craven had no idea how fucked up his movie was. He cuts away from all the rape and carnage to give us odd interludes of slapstick comic relief or lilting folk-rock interludes.

The difference between these films and Hooper's masterpiece is that, through all the insanity, you realize that Hooper has complete control over the material. He knows exactly what he's doing. The movie devolves to sheer lunacy in its last half hour, but it gets under your skin right from the start. The sequence with the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) in the van toward the beginning is as suspenseful as anything Hitchcock ever accomplished on eight times the budget, and the single chiaroscoro shot of the Cook (Jim Siedow) sadistically tormenting Sally (Marilyn Burns) in the pickup truck is bloodcurdling in its simplicity. Hooper knows enough to play the scene off of Siedow's reaction — the vicious leer that erupts on his face — rather than the violence itself. The fact that we can only hear Sally's muffled screams makes the scene way more excruciating than it would have been if Hooper had indulged the impulse to show too much.

This movie has been remade, rebooted, and parodied so often that it's a true testament to Hooper's berzerker vision and his sense of craft that the original holds up as well as it does. Unfortunately, he would never be this good again.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #8 "Barton Fink" (The Coen Bros.)

Here's another one of those Sophie's Choice situations that lists like this always create. Knowing I'd eventually have to cover the Coen Brothers at some point, I've been vascillating daily between this film, "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing," and "Raising Arizona." Except I also wanted to write about "The Big Lebowski." And I think "The Man Who Wasn't There" is totally underrated and deserves some love. And, of course, there's "Burn After Reading," and "A Serious Man," and "Blood Simple," and...and...and...

So I'm going with "Barton Fink" not because I necessarily think it's the Coens' best film (although an argument could be made for it), but because it, to me, encompasses all the various Coens in one truly weird film.

It's got the funny Coens. Almost everything with Tony Shalhoub as producer Ben Geisler and Michael Lerner as studio boss Jack Lipnick is laugh-out-loud hilarious. And the stuff with John Goodman is side-splitting... in more ways than one.

It's got the poignant Coens. John Turturro perfectly captures both Barton's extreme arrogance and his crippling insecurities. Any writer watching this move will be able to relate.

It's got the scary Coens. When Barton discovers Audrey's corpse on the blood-soaked mattress next to him, you'll feel a genuine shiver up your spine.

And... it's got the fucked up Coens that we all love. The movie takes an infamous turn (SPOILERS in link) in the last 20 minutes that will leave you reeling and had critics sharply divided when it was released. When I saw this as a teenager, I knew I loved it but I had absolutely no idea what to make of it.

Like most Coen Brothers films, this is a movie I can watch over and over and over again and still discover something new. Maybe just a prop, or a specific tic on Turturro's face. Doesn't matter. Nothing in this film is misplaced. Everything has meaning.

It would be inaccurate to say that this is the Coens at their peak, because they've been pretty much at their peak for 25 years. They're probably the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the last quarter century, and this film is just one more startling example of that.

Friday, July 18, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #9 "Ghostbusters" (Ivan Reitman)

The first film I remember seeing in a movie theater was Steven Spielberg's "E.T." (1982). I was four years old and the thing I remember most was my dad holding me in the lobby of the DeVargas Mall theater in Santa Fe while I cried my poor little eyes out at the end.

I was maybe just old enough to kind of understand what a movie was — i.e. a story that I got to watch — and I remember seeing TV interviews with Spielberg and somehow comprehending that this goofy bearded guy in the baseball cap made "E.T." What that meant, I didn't know. He was just the boss. I think, at that time, I thought Spielberg was the guy whose job it was to make all of the movies.

It was a couple years later when I saw Ivan Reitman's "Ghostbusters" (1984). The TV trailer scared me — which, of course, meant I wanted to see it. I remember my mom explaining to me that it was a comedy (watching that trailer now it's so obvious, but at the time it was the spooky stuff that grabbed me). I can't remember if my parents took me or someone else did, but I know I saw it in the theater as well.

The experience was seismic. I loved it, of course — it was scary, to my delight, but it was also really funny — but, even more important, I think it was the first movie I saw that made me say "I want to do that."

I was either six or seven, so by then I had just enough awareness to not only understand what a movie was in vague terms, but to have at least a fundamental understanding of how a movie was made. Someone sat down and wrote a story, and then someone else took a camera and filmed other someones pretending to be in the story. The someone with the camera was a "director" (it would be years before I understood the difference between a director and a cinematographer) and the someones  pretending were "actors."

This was crazy to me. It was essentially what my friends and I did on the playground at school every day. I couldn't then — and cannot now — fundamentally see the difference. It was doing "let's pretend" for a living.

As the painfully shy, proto beta-male that I was at the time, I knew right away I didn't want to be an "actor." That seemed way too scary. But I had just enough burgeoning alpha in me to think I could maybe be a "director." Certainly, I could be a "writer."

But I wanted to hang out with the actors. They seemed fun. I love Bill Murray as much as anyone else, but the guy I wanted to get to know was Dan Ackroyd. He seemed approachable, like the sort of goofy uncle who would take you to the amusement park and let you eat as much candy as you wanted until you threw up, then give you a Tic Tac and tell you not to tell your parents. I didn't really have a sense of celebrity at the time, so it just seemed to me that he was a guy you could hang out with.

"Ghostbusters" made the whole process of making a movie seem really fun. It seemed like a bunch of friends hanging out, coming up with something crazy, and then just going out doing it. I couldn't believe that this was an actual job that grownups could do. It seemed so silly, but that revelation was profound.

As a movie, "Ghostbusters" holds up remarkably well. As with some of the other films on this list, I don't have a whole lot to say about it. You all know how great it is, and I suspect I don't have to convince you.

As a personal fork in my own road, however, it's absolutely priceless.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #10 "The French Connection" (William Friedkin)

If Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" created the New Hollywood of the 1970s, then William Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971) perfected it.

There are only few movies — "Birth of a Nation," "Citizen Kane," "The Wild Bunch," etc. — that you can truly say pushed the narrative cinematic form forward in a single leap, and "The French Connection" is one of them. It completely redefined the Hollywood action movie, creating a template for the genre that is still used today.

Like "Citizen Kane," this is a hard movie to talk about because it is so iconic that pretty much everything that can be said about it has already been said. It's big, bombastic, gritty, and brilliant. All I'll add to the conversation is to say that, from my perspective, Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle is perhaps the greatest movie cop in the history of ever, and that final shot has never been bested by anyone.

And that car chase. Holy shit. It still holds up.

Friedkin went on just a couple years later to similarly redefine the horror movie with "The Exorcist," before sadly descending into a morass of alternately over-ambitious and hackily forgettable movies over the next several decades ("Sorcerer," his 1971 remake of Clouzet's 1953 French classic "Wages of Fear," is a mess... but a big beautiful one). He managed to make two of the best films of all time, however, so he still has to be reckoned with.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #11 "Let The Right One In" (Tomas Alfredson)

In my review of Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me," I talked at length about how powerfully I identified with the character of Gordie Lachance as a kid.

Well, Tomas Alfredson's superlative Swedish vampire film, "Let the Right One In" (2008), had a very similar — although admittedly much darker — effect on me.

As much as I was Gordie, I was also Kåre Hedebrant's Oskar. Bullied. Brooding. Lonely. Seething with rage and impotent fantasies of violent retribution against all the other kids who, in my mind, had done me wrong. When Oskar takes his little pocket knife and mutters "squeal like a pig" while stabbing the tree in his courtyard, I shuddered. 

Because I've been there.

(This sense of identication, by the way, made watching the American remake, "Let Me In" — set in the 1980s and filmed in my home town of Los Alamos, NM — a singularly surreal viewing experience).

I can't tell you how much I would have loved to have a little vampire girlfriend to watch my back when I was a kid. Maybe rip off a few heads. There's some powerful wish-fulfillment at work here.

The genius of "Let The Right One In" is that, scary as it is, it is a truly haunting love story. You know that Oskar's newfound bond with Eli (Lina Leandersson) is bad news. You only need to contemplate her relationship with Håkan (Per Ragnar)— a middle-aged, broken man who does her murderous bidding for her — to see where things are going. And yet, you root for them. Alfredson allows us to feel the "love" between Oskar and Eli, to identify with it and experience it right along with them. But he gives you just enough remove to also be able to see its truly horrifying implications. You want to tell Oskar to run away with Eli, but at the same time you want to scream at him to run away from Eli. This cognative dissonance is where the movie's true tension lies.

Everyone talks about the swimming pool scene. And, yeah, it's a showstopper. But, to me, the most disturbing shot of the film is the last — Oskar on the train with the box, sitting there with that serene smile on his face. It almost make me nauseous now just thinking about it.

NOTE: Do NOT read John Ajvide Lindqvist's source novel. It is terrible and, dare I say, it actually gets everything wrong. Alfredson saw the potential in the pile of Lindquist's dung, and wrung his own story out of it. Just stick with his vision.

SECOND NOTE: Actually, "Let Me In" is better than you might think. I have some problems with it, but they managed to put together at least a serviceable remake. But watch the original first if you can.

 


Friday, July 11, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #12 "Shaun of the Dead" (Edgar Wright)

I really kind of resent the whole funny zombie thing.

When I first saw "Night of the Living Dead," it struck a very particular nerve for me. I followed it up very quickly with "Dawn of the Dead" and after that I just couldn't get enough. I watched all the zombie movies I could find. Most of them, frankly, were terrible. Nobody got it the way Romero got it. But I was still entranced. There's just something fundamentally terrifying about the zombie to me in a way that vampires, werewolves, serial killers, etc. never will be. It's all about entropy and decay, the slow strangling death of the human species. It's about the end coming not in a great redemptive ball of fire (either through an act of God or nuclear fuckery), but right down in a gutter where your dead mom is chewing on your entrails. It's a dirty, foul way to shuffle off this mortal coil.

It was the early/mid-90s when I discovered Romero, so zombies weren't really a thing back then. They were my monster. Romero and his legion of the living dead belonged to me.

This, of course, all changed in the early/mid-2000s, and now we're caught up in the midst of a great zombie Renaissance that, to me, is as unwelcome as it is utterly baffling. I hate to be a whiny hipster about it, but I was into zombies before they were cool.

Most of the new zombie stuff is pretty terrible (to be fair, most of the old zombie stuff was pretty terrible, too). But it's terrible in a new way — self-aware and ironic in a way that I just find insufferable.

I refuse to read "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," because fuck that shit. There's even a book I see on the horror shelves at Barnes & Noble that's all about the Beatles as zombies. I mean, come the fuck on.

Zombies have been neutered.

They're, like, cute now.

Ugh.

Granted, there has been some good stuff over the last few years, stuff that does honor the zombie for the horrible nightmare it is. Max Brooks's "World War Z" is as good as everyone says it is (the movie not so much). Justin Cronin's "The Passage" is technically about vampires, but he captures the melancholy spirit that typifies the best of the zombie genre. I have a love-hate relationship with "The Walking Dead," but I appreciate that they're interested in exploring the essential tragedy and sadness of what a zombie apocalypse would really look like.

And then there's this short film, which does in seven minutes what "The Walking Dead" struggles to do over the course of a season.



But the funny zombie thing is the worst.

EXCEPT. "Shaun of the Dead."

I can't even begin to express the level of love I have for this film. When I think of the movies I've laughed at the hardest over the last, I dunno, 15 or 20 years, "Shaun of the Dead" is way up at the top of the list.

What makes this film different? Well, for one thing, it pretty much invented the modern funny zombie thing ("Return of the Living Dead" doesn't count. It's funny in a very 80s, camp way which is markedly different from the current trend). What has become so annoying to me in the decade since was completely fresh and original at the time.

But it's also just better. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are absolute comic geniuses with an impeccable sense of timing that is pretty much unmatched by anyone else working today. In fact, there isn't a weak spot in entire cast. Everyone is working at the top of their game. The writing is incredibly sharp, each joke funnier and more quotable than the last.

Edgar Wright's direction is the real revelation here. It's hard to believe this a debut film (granted, he had been honing his craft in British television for years before). It's remarkably self-assured. Every shot and every edit is meaningful. Fully half of the laughs in this film come from what he's doing with the camera rather than the performances.

But, as silly as this film is, it manages to transcend parody and work as a legitimate zombie film. I wouldn't call it scary, exactly. But they get it. Shaun isn't just a bundle of comic tics and clever one liners, any more than Ben from "Night" is a stock horror-movie hero. Wright follows Romero's lead in using the zombies as a catalyst for personal crisis and growth. Shaun is a real person, with genuine desires and very human flaws. The movie is about growing up. It's about friendship. It's about family. It's also about clubbing a zombie to death with a cricket bat.

This tricky balancing act has become a trademark of the trio's "Cornetto Trilogy" ("Shaun," "Hot Fuzz," and last year's "The World's End"). I'm consistently stunned by Wright, Pegg and Frost's ability to balance silliness and absurdity with grounded, personal storytelling. Pegg and Frost are as good when they're being serious as they are when they're hamming it up, and they're able to make that shift on a dime, sometimes three or four times within a single scene.

For my money, "Shaun" is the best of the three, but all three films are works of comic genius and truly stellar filmmaking. I don't need any more funny zombies, but I'll be watching and rewatching "Shaun of the Dead" until the day I die.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #13 "On The Waterfront" (Elia Kazan)

Elia Kazan's 1954 classic "On the Waterfront" has kind of a storied history.

During the height of the Red Scare, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the anti-Communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kazan and "Waterfront" screenwriter Budd Schulberg created a firestorm of controversy (and a lot of enemies) by testifying before HUAC and "naming names" of supposed Communists working in the industry.

The stigma of that decision dogged Kazan and Schulberg for pretty much the rest of their lives. Do you remember when Kazan was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999 and some in the audience (including Nick Nolte) refused to applaud for him? It was because of his testimony 50 years previous.

Incidentally, I met Schulberg in the mid 2000s when he came to talk to our screenwriting class at Boston University. The man was near the end of his life, terribly frail, but still sharp as a tack. He told wonderful stories about his career and graciously answered all of our questions. But we were told beforehand, in no uncertain terms, that we were NOT to bring up the Blacklist.

Honestly, I'm not interested in sitting judgment on these guys. The Red Scare ruined a lot of lives, but if I had been at that Oscar ceremony, I would have applauded. It's hard for me to know what choice I would have made if I had been in their position, and I just don't believe that one decision under tremendous pressure, no matter how potentially damaging to the careers of others, invalidates an entire lifetime of artistic achievement. Kazan and Schulberg were not Hollywood hacks. They were  the cream of the crop, artists at the top of their game who not only told powerfully compelling stories on film but also consistently used their voices to pursue issues of social justice. We all love "The Wire," right? That show wouldn't exist without the foundation laid half-a-century before by "neorealist" filmmakers like Kazan and Schulberg.

If we can make excuses for Roman Polanski, it seems to me there should be room in our hearts for Kazan and Schulberg.

"On The Waterfront" — the story of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a dock worker and washed-up boxer who, under enormous pressure, decides to turn against a corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb) and his own brother (Rod Steiger) — is often seen as apologia for informing, where the act of testifying is presented as a heroic act. Indeed, the film came very shortly after the Blacklist scandal, so it's hard to imagine that this wasn't in some way on Kazan and Schulberg's minds.

That's an interesting question for film history debates, but it kind of misses the point. The fact is "On the Watefront" is a great fucking movie. The assuredness of the storytelling, the depth of the characters, the quiet intensity of the performances, the whipcrack dialogue and the steady turning of the screws — all of this makes "Waterfront" a movie that still feels strikingly contemporary. It's a powerful, near perfect film.

Brando was never better, before or since. But the big stunners for me are Steiger as Terry's conflicted, corrupted brother Charley the Gent, and Karl Malden as seething priest Father Barry, who has made bringing Johnny Friendly (Cobb) down a religious crusade. Eva Marie Saint approaches the potentially thankless role of the angel-on-the-shoulder love interest with a grounded sense of melancholy, transforming the role from a plot device into the emotional heart of the film.

Terry is pulled in a hundred different directions throughout, and at no point does his final decision feel inevitable. We feel the tug of war going on in his soul, right up until the end.

And of course, there's this oft-parodied scene. "I coulda been a contender... I coulda been somebody." It's easy to snicker at that, but in context, it's still heartbreaking.



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #14 "Alien" (Ridley Scott)

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.
Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.
Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.
—"Cassilda's Song" in The King in Yellow Act 1, Scene 2

Some of you "True Detective" fans  might recognize that poem, which comes from Robert W. Chambers's seminal book of weird horror fiction, "The King In Yellow" (1895), which I read for the first time when I was probably twelve or thirteen. I watched Ridley Scott's "Alien" not long after, and as soon as I saw that derelict spaceship pictured above, I immediately thought of Carcosa.

This is not an original observation by any means. Chambers was a huge influence on Lovecraft, and you can draw a pretty direct line between "The King In Yellow" and Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. And people have been saying for years that "Alien" is pretty much the most Lovecraftian of all horror movies (this came up in a discussion on my Facebook page just this week).

It's hard to look at "Alien" — particularly the creature designed by H.R. Giger — with fresh eyes these days. It has become such a font of iconic images that it's easy to forget how truly weird and, well, alien everything in this movie was. The alien itself is almost a cartoon now, and the same goes for the facehugger and the chest burster.

But if you were able to go back in time and see this movie without having all these decades of pop-cultural associations to draw on, I can guarantee it would pretty much melt your brain.

Even now, with all the sequels and spinoffs we've been subjected to since (the nadir being "Prometheus," which managed to drain pretty much all the mystery out of this concept), there's still an odd, hypnotic power to that first film. You really do feel like you're crossing some sort of threshold when you watch it — catching a vision of some primordial hell where the natural laws we take for granted just don't quite apply anymore. Scott and Giger crafted a work Lovecraftian horror in the best sense of the term — giving us a quick glimpse of a vast, black cosmos that is as hostile and incomprehensible as it is insane.

Other movies have dipped into similar territory from time to time, with varying degrees of success. Only John Carpenter's "The Thing" managed to do it better. That film will be coming up later on this countdown. I'll leave off here, because I'm sure all this will come up again.

NOTE: I know a lot of people think James Cameron's sequel is the better film, and in many ways it is. But this is the one that still sticks with me.

50 Days 50 Films - #15 "Zodiac" (David Fincher)

People always give me a quizzical look when I tell them that "Zodiac" is my favorite David Fincher movie.

I guess "Se7en" would be the obvious choice, or maybe "Fight Club." And, for sure, those are two bonafide classics from one of my favorite eras of modern filmmaking. "Zodiac," on the other hand, dropped during the dog days of 2007 and sort of vanished without a trace. Those who noticed it at all were left scratching their heads.

This is not "Se7en Part 2," which I think people were sort of expecting when they heard Fincher was doing a movie about the Zodiac Killer. Rather, it's a very stately 1970s-style procedural and newspaper movie — not a genre that, in this day and age, is really poised for box office gold.

I had already read Robert Graysmith's book (upon which Fincher's film is partially based) so I had an idea of what I was going to get. And the movie basically delivered exactly that.

You need to understand that I was a journalism major in college, and I — like a lot of erstwhile journalism majors — was drawn toward the profession because of the mythology established by such films as "Ace in the Hole," "The Paper" — and of course "All the President's Men," which loomed large over all the others. There was something impossibly romantic about the whole thing — the clatter of typewriters, the constant ringing of phones, the grizzled editors barking orders out of glassed-in office doorways, the men in rumpled suits who chain smoked and talked fast, the women in pumps and red lipstick who, er, chain smoked and talked fast. The cynicism. The snark.

It didn't take me long to figure out that the reality was far afield from the fantasy, but even now the notion has its hold on me. And "Zodiac" hits that sweet spot like no movie has in years.

I wanted a newspaper movie. I didn't need another serial killer movie.

It doesn't hurt that the actual story is endlessly fascinating (I won't go into it, because it's all right up there on Wikipedia). We do get a few murders early on. Fincher stages them expertly, eschewing most horror-movie dramatics and presenting the crimes with a flat and deadly realist eye. After that, it's all give and take between the various police departments piecing together their incomplete sets of clues, the intrepid newspaper men trying to tie it all together — and the lone cartoonist, Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lets his fascination with the killer and his desire to prove himself to his superiors tip over into obsession.

The Zodiac Killer has never been found (spoiler), so the film can't deliver the expected satisfaction of some sort of final showdown. Instead, we just get Graysmith stink-eyeing a likely suspect in a hardware store. Other characters simply fall away, die or move on with their lives. That's just the way things go, Fincher seems to be saying. Considering that this is a true story, that's more haunting than the head in the box from "Se7en" could ever be.