Archive for February 2022

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)

February 20, 2022

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Have the people who made Netflix’s new Texas Chainsaw Massacre ever used a chainsaw? The tool wielded by Leatherface (Mark Burnham) cuts through flesh, bone, wood, and metal with magically equal ease, like a hot knife carving an ice-cream cake. Not bad for a weapon that’s been literally sitting plastered up inside a wall for years. If, however, you’ve used an actual chainsaw to cut actual objects, you’ll know this thing is more akin to a lightsaber or Excalibur — a pretty funny concept, if only the movie weren’t so dour and unpleasant. Yes, I know a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film has every right to be unpleasant, but I mean its mood as much as its content. Tobe Hooper’s original was hell on earth to shoot, yet it has an artful, almost playful vibe. The new one feels bitter and miserable, with a side order of red-state resentment of entrepreneurial urban zoomers that I can’t tell if the movie sympathizes with or is just exploiting.

This movie, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, is a direct sequel to the original film and disregards any other sequels/prequels/remakes. It’s been fifty years since the donnybrook at the ol’ Texas house, occupied by Leatherface and his family of cannibals. The family is never spoken of here; we’re told Leatherface went to live at an orphanage (implying he was a very large teenager in the original film, which still puts him at least in his sixties here) and has stayed there for years, cared for by a very forgiving woman (Alice Krige). But the aforementioned zoomers roll into town, having bought up property to auction it off. The kids say they own Krige’s house. She disagrees. The cops come, she has a heart attack, and Leatherface — who presumably has been peaceful all these years — crushes that olive branch in one beefy fist. 

The gory kills — the MPAA must really have grown lax about movie violence over the last decade or so — may be the only thing keeping us connected to the film. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an angry film — angry at well-to-do zoomers, angry at the bank, angry at killers who are still out there somewhere. Taking another page from Green’s Halloween, the film brings back the original’s Final Girl: Sally Hardesty (Olwen Fouéré, in for the great Marilyn Burns, who passed in 2014), who escaped Leatherface and went on to be a Texas ranger obsessed with hunting him down. What’s weird is that we’ve been half-rooting for Leatherface, because the rich kids are mostly annoying and we feel bad he lost his caretaker, and then Sally comes in and talks about him like a mad dog who must be put down. Olwen Fouéré sells Sally’s righteous fury, pulling us over some of the dumber stuff Sally does, like insisting Leatherface acknowledge who she is when she should just be shotgunning him into the next phase of existence.

That’s a bothersome little detail. Sally must figure or hope that if she has to die, she might as well die while killing Leatherface, and if he doesn’t know her, he’ll at least know she was the one who killed him. But this is a horror movie, so she isn’t guaranteed that kind of send-off or closure. This Texas Chainsaw Massacre offers no one any slack except maybe a redneck handyman (Moe Dunford) who acts like a red-hat stereotype until he develops some shadings of sympathy. The kids, except one (Elsie Fisher, from Eighth Grade) who survived a school shooting, are obnoxious in ways that will sting unexpectedly. These little pricks call the cops to kick a disabled old lady out of her home — tell me again why we shouldn’t revel in their chainsaw vivisection?

Other than a brief bit appearance (played by Burns) in 1995’s awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, we haven’t seen Sally Hardesty in almost fifty years. A movie with more curiosity about what she’s been up to might have been nice. It could have centered Sally more, played up the death-match angle. Instead, we get a bunch of little snots for Leatherface to turn into fine red mist, while Sally stomps around on the film’s margins, finally thrown away like blood-soaked trash, like almost everyone else here. And this sequel dares to evoke the original film’s masterful final shots without having a thousandth of their impact. It doesn’t convey freedom and hysteria, it conveys helplessness and grief. The whole movie is like that — depressing, despairing. 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

February 6, 2022

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SPOILER ALERT:

It’s useless to deny it: near the end of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, when the spectre of Harold Ramis stepped in to help save the day, it got a little dusty in the room. Soft and warm where the original 1984 Ghostbusters was sharp and cool, this legacy sequel is all about continuing the work of our elders and honoring their memory — doubly so, since it’s directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original’s director Ivan. So it’s made with palpable love and nostalgia. I fell for it while not being all that interested in the story: it’s Gozer again, setting ghosts on the loose, this time in a rusty town in Oklahoma. 

Taking the Ghostbusters franchise out of an urban environment (even the unpopular 2016 Ghostbusters, which I liked, unfolded in New York City) isn’t as jarring as I would have thought. The new setting of Summerville gives us nifty places for ghosts to hang out: a spooky mine (whence came the metal that built the haunted building in the ’84 film), a dilapidated farmhouse once owned by the recently departed Egon Spengler. Egon’s ignored daughter Callie (MVP Carrie Coon) heads to the house with her two kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), who takes after her grandfather in her fixation on science. Throw in Paul Rudd as a geologist/summer-school teacher, who develops a snarky but genuine interest in Callie, and you have a recipe for a gentle, good-hearted comedy with more emphasis on family ties than on loud laughs.

As everyone knows by now, the surviving three original busters — Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson — turn up at the climax to finish their business with Gozer. Aykroyd’s Ray Stanton appears before then, fielding a late-night call from Phoebe. At first, Ray is hostile about Egon, but when he learns Egon has passed, he softens and saddens. I’m probably the only one who remembers the moment in Blues Brothers 2000 when Elwood Blues gets out of jail after 18 years and finds out, at a respectful distance from the camera, that Jake has died and nobody told him. I reflected on that here, when Aykroyd yet again must convey mourning for a fallen comrade. He doesn’t owe us this kind of thing, but it gives Afterlife some texture and emotional shading.

Unlike 1989’s Ghostbusters II, which re-introduced our heroes struggling to entertain at kiddie parties, this sequel puts the old-timers pretty much where we want them to be after all these years. (Oddly, Murray’s iconic character Peter Venkman has not only left ghostbusting but science itself, though Venkman always seemed like the type who shrugged and nodded at a quasi-scientific career because the work seemed easy.) Meanwhile, the young new cast, including a motormouth self-named Podcast, sometimes edges the movie closer to another ‘80s movie that followed Ghostbusters a summer later, The Goonies (though, thankfully, it’s not nearly as loud and obnoxious). Whenever possible, Reitman apes the slick aesthetic of his father’s film — Rob Simonsen’s music bites big chunks from  Elmer Bernstein’s original score (with the help of Bernstein’s son Peter: more family ties!); Eric Steelberg’s cinematography tries for László Kovács’ dynamic lighting, big on horizontal lens flares bisecting the frame.

Carrie Coon is wonderful throughout as a frazzled but sarcastic mother on her uppers, and when Zuul takes over her body she seems ready to take off into orbit as the possessed Sigourney Weaver did in the first film. But Reitman, perhaps trying to bring the movie in at not too much longer than two hours, turns her into a terror dog too soon. I’d like her to return for more Ghostbusters, if there is any (if there should be any). Ditto Mckenna Grace, who carries on the recent tradition of female ghostbusters. (Finn Wolfhard doesn’t register much except as the driver of the old Ectomobile.) But this film puts an effective period on the saga, for me at least. Unless the writers can come up with something other than riffs on the original, I’m afraid the bittersweet nostalgia of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the sort of thing that can only work once.