Archive for October 2022

I Didn’t See You There

October 30, 2022

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Reid Davenport is a filmmaker based in Oakland, California. He has made several short films (a few of which can be watched on the library-affiliated streamer Kanopy) about disability; his feature-length debut, I Didn’t See You There, turns the camera around to the world around him. As someone with cerebral palsy who requires a wheelchair to get around, Davenport is unhappily accustomed to being, as he says here, looked at but not seen. Disabled people, Davenport knows all too well, are often objects and seldom subjects (the moment here when he politely but firmly asks wannabe-helpful abled people “Please don’t touch me” will ring a sharp bell for many disabled viewers).

When a circus tent goes up near Davenport’s apartment building — making it well-nigh impossible to avoid the tent in many scenes he films near his home — he folds it neatly into the movie he’s making and the point he’s making with it. Davenport grew up in Bethel, Connecticut, hometown of P.T. Barnum. For a mordant disabled artist like Davenport, this is a happenstance almost too sweet to ignore; he reminds us that Barnum popularized the “freak show,” which pressed the often severely disabled into service to be gawked at in a context of horror. The circus tent is a constant reason for Davenport to muse on his town’s most famous son and how Barnum might have found employment for Davenport.

But largely this is a first-person account, literally, the audience seeing what Davenport sees. The camera, turned away from its wielder, looks at abled people the way they look at disabled people. Sometimes they’re oblivious to Davenport; sometimes they’re solicitous, whether genuinely or merely performatively it’s hard to tell. For a stretch or two, the movie successfully depicts a day in the life of a disabled person as a constant mosquito-hum of microaggressions (sometimes not so micro). People leave power cords dangling across an accessibility ramp, not out of ableist evil but because, unlike disabled people, they don’t have to devote a big chunk of their everyday time to thinking about the realities of disability.

It’s enough to make someone do what Davenport does at one point: get home and loudly drop an F-bomb. But it’s not enough for Davenport to turn his camera into an empathy machine, to put abled viewers in his position of literally being looked down on all the time. He also records the sidewalk under his wheels and the walls that blur past as he rolls, turning them into abstract visuals that go on a bit (impatient viewers may have to recalibrate accordingly). I found those bits sometimes lulling, sometimes bleak, never just empty pictorial poetry. When Davenport goes back home to Bethel to visit his family, the neighborhoods are very nice and full of flowers and spacious back yards. What they aren’t is accessible. It’s easier for someone like Davenport to get around in a big city, which despite a rep for crime also has good public transportation and long stretches of sidewalks, than in the suburbs, which are designed more for walkers and car owners — the affluent and abled.

Davenport has an eye — the movie isn’t visual broccoli, the camera locates beauty and stillness amid the urban bustle and the bumps in the sidewalk. He’s also quick to advocate for himself, again politely but firmly. He’s witty enough to win over abled viewers as well as the perhaps tougher audience of skeptical disabled viewers. Possibly what works most in his favor is that he speaks only for himself; he doesn’t position himself as inspiration or as a voice for every disabled person everywhere. He just shows us what he sees. That makes the film closer to subjective art than to a “documentary.” It uses the leveling power of cinema to put us in Davenport’s chair and let us experience the insults and indifference he faces. That may sound like a bummer, but I’m happy we have the film.

Nope

October 23, 2022

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With Nope, his third feature as writer-director, Jordan Peele solidifies his status as one of the most exciting new American filmmakers now working. He has a steady command of mood and suspense, and he knows enough to let subtext be subtext and not overexplain it. I can’t tell you how relieved I was, for instance, that the sad and terrifying story of Gordy the trained chimp, which opens Nope on an ominous note, doesn’t turn out to be connected in some way with the larger plot.¹ Yes, we meet a survivor of the incident as a grown man, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), but Peele has the sense to let the event linger and fester in the back of our minds while we watch what certainly appears to be an alien-invasion thriller.

Ultimately, Nope shakes out as a comment on Hollywood and how people are wasted, swallowed up, disfigured in the name of entertainment. But it’s also foreboding and spooky as hell, like Peele’s previous thrillers, Get Out and Us. The movie is set mostly on a ranch dedicated to training horses for use in TV, movies and commercials. The ranch is owned and run by OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who takes care of the horses and occasionally sells one to Jupe, who now manages a Western theme park and low-key ghoulishly dines out on his traumatic experience with Gordy. 

All of this is background, and it’s a slow but compelling burn until we recognize what’s going on: a creature of unknown origin is feeding off of local life. I was reminded of Stephen King thinking about him and Louis L’Amour having separate ideas while standing at the edge of a pond: “His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep . . . and horses . . . and finally people.” It’s OJ’s vibrant sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) who figures out what should be done about it: get it on video and get rich. For a while, nobody else comes up with any more productive notions, like how to kill it, because it takes a while to learn what might kill it.

There is one beautifully simple yet brilliant callback: the impact of a balloon popping. It’s a shame one particular character isn’t there to appreciate the second instance. Nope goes on a bit, slightly north of two hours, but is never boring, not with the amount of character and world-building detail Peele packs into the story. The people in the movie are written as utterly unique, including a Fry’s tech clerk (Brandon Perea) who helps set up surveillance and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott, with his usual gravelly growl) who rises to the challenge of capturing the thing on real film at magic hour. (Cinematographers — what are you gonna do?) Kaluuya gives us a stoic and almost comically unflappable figure — a classic Western hero — and Palmer crackles and pops as a firecracker with innumerable side hustles. 

Nope even tucks in some film history, telling us that the Black jockey who rode a horse for Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1887 Animal Locomotion Plate 626 was the ancestor of OJ and Emerald. That’s a claim they make to boost their business; it’s also accurate inasmuch as the rider — to this day no one actually knows his name, though the fucking horse was identified — is, in a way, ancestor to all artists of color unnamed, dismissed, and ignored while they added to the history of cinema. The more we think back on Nope, the more depth it takes on; it is the work of a specifically Black sensibility fed by decades of Hollywood, for good (the influence on his own art) and ill (the reality of being non-white in the white dream factory). And Peele has fed well, and knows which bits are nourishing and which not, and he also knows the dangers of consuming too much filled with too little.

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¹Without getting into spoilers, what I mean is that Gordy doesn’t figure into the threat later on; it doesn’t turn out that he was controlled by the menace, or something. Other writers would try to tie those elements together in a neat, cheap little bow instead of allowing Gordy his own power as subtext.

Halloween Ends

October 16, 2022

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We certainly can’t say that Halloween Ends, the last of the new trilogy supposedly putting paid to the struggle between superslasher Michael Myers and survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), does the same old same old. It diverges so wildly from what most fans might expect of a Halloween film that I’d like to give it points on that basis alone. This leg of the franchise has taken the story deadly seriously, layering on subtext after subtext, which is fine if the text itself engages and entertains. But Halloween Ends, like its 2021 predecessor Halloween Kills, comes across more annoying and depressing than scary. 

A nerdy kid named Cunningham with an overbearing, forbidding mother runs across an avatar of evil and loses his moral bearings. John Carpenter made that movie in 1983, from a book by Stephen King, Christine. Well, it also describes the key conflict here. David Gordon Green, who has directed all three of these Halloween movies, and wrote this one with three other guys, has possibly placed this as an Easter egg for the fans. Okay, neato. But the kid here, Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell), barely makes sense as a human being. Notoriety has followed him from an incident in which he accidentally killed a kid he was babysitting, and after he’s bullied and meets Michael in the sewers, Michael seems to recognize himself in the kid, and vice versa. 

Meanwhile, Corey also falls for Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), but if we’re supposed to root for him to reach out towards love and sanity and break from the “dark path” he’s trudging down, we don’t. We don’t like him and we don’t care. Green and his co-writers have made Halloween movies more fit for analysis than for seasonal scares. Everything in the movie only makes sense symbolically; taken literally, the plotting is stupid, depending, once again, on people doing the absolute dumbest things they can do. If Halloween Kills was “really” about the deranging power of fear, this one says that evil never dies, it just changes faces under the mask.

The kills are as brutal as ever, accompanied by stylized sounds of squelching, spattering, and slicing. The dirty secret of the slasher subgenre is that its structure allows us to enjoy the murder and mutilation; they’re the crescendos in a musical piece. To his credit, Green wants to do something different, uglifying the deaths. But without the fun or suspense or even the morbid curiosity that makes us want to look at the blood and brains on the floor, where’s the entertainment? I wound up not being sure what Green and his cohorts wanted to accomplish with this trilogy. Here, there’s more boring stuff about how violent tragedy can deform a whole community; we learn that some folks in Haddonfield, Illinois, the sleepy death town where all of this unfolds, blame Laurie for the new Michael murders. This is an example of how the script wants to Say Something Important — in this case, about victim-blaming, I guess? — but completely fumbles it as a plausible thing that happens in the story.

Rohan Campbell has been coached to play the faux-Michael as a sullen, misunderstood kid who kept reminding me unhelpfully of the irritating Caleb Landry Jones. There’s not much of a shift between Corey when he’s “normal” and Corey when he’s gone off the deep end. As for Jamie Lee Curtis, who has been riding a media blitz surrounding her last dance with Michael Myers, she gets a Big Moment near the end but otherwise can’t do a lot with Laurie as (inconsistently) written. I can read Curtis’ loyalty to this diminishing-returns trilogy — she’s said she owes her career to Laurie Strode and is grateful to the franchise’s fans for the life she’s had — far more easily than I can read anyone’s motivations in the film. I will always be fond of Curtis, but the Laurie in these films is beyond my understanding. Green’s 2018 Halloween famously proceeded from the 1978 original and disregarded any of the sequels. By and large, I would like to disregard Green’s sequels, too. His first effort was solid, and he should have stopped there and resisted the temptation to Say Something Important.

Hellraiser (2022)

October 9, 2022

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Try as I might, I’ve never quite snuggled up to the Hellraiser franchise, a gory series of movies, comics and other media derived from Clive Barker’s 1986 story “The Hellbound Heart.” Why this particular tale, among dozens of others in Barker’s portfolio, wound up being his gravestone work is a mystery to me, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. It is, as noted, bloody and nasty, with a side order of cautionary horror about being careful what you wish for. If what you wish for is experience and sensation beyond anything imaginable, the punctured and harrowed angels/demons known as the Cenobites will oblige you — bloodily and nastily. Maybe it’s just a reflection of what scared the openly gay Barker himself during the peak of AIDS — a vision of blood-bound wrath drawn to hedonism.

Barker, who wrote and directed the first Hellraiser film in 1987, returns here as producer but leaves the footwork to other hands: director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. What they come up with is sort of the same old story. The wealthy Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) acquires the mystical puzzle box that summons the Cenobites and, so they claim, eternal pleasure. Gory things happen, and six years later the box finds its way into the hands of recovering addicts Riley (Odessa A’zion) and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey). The box is supposed to draw Riley’s blood, but instead it drinks from her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn); he disappears, and Riley determines to find him.

Anyone who’s seen the original Hellraiser probably remembers, with a sick laugh, the movie’s famous line “Jesus wept,”1 which in its context is just what the narrative needs at that moment. The new Hellraiser contains no jokes nearly as good, or indeed many jokes at all. I’m not saying every horror movie should be The Munsters (or even The Re-Animator). But moments of dark levity like “Jesus wept” are what keep the 1987 film warmly thought of after 35 years, and what is there in the new film to compel any affection, either from newcomers or old fans? Not a lot. And even though the acting is fine — Odessa A’zion, daughter of Pamela Adlon, makes Riley touchingly vulnerable, and Jamie Clayton as the Cenobites’ leader “Pinhead” has an icy, mordant way with her lines — unless you’re heavily into watching blood flow and flesh ripped and taffy-pulled, there’s not much entertainment value here.

Better minds than mine have likely analyzed where the Hellraiser concept fits into gay literature. Those who watched lovers and friends fade in the hospital during AIDS’ heyday in the mid-‘80s, watched them become human pincushions and their flesh mottle and melt off the bones, will see more in the torments devised by the Cenobites than others will. And here, in the interest of inclusion, we have a gay male couple, and a trans woman playing Pinhead. Thus the franchise seems queerer than ever, but a Pride float is not the quietest and therefore most deadly vehicle on which to convey the original subtext. “The Hellbound Heart” was a gay male horror artist telling a scary story to other gay men, saying “Look, I get it, but the pursuit of too much pleasure leads to death.” People in other demographics took other things away, of course. It was a big crossover success.

Will this one follow suit? Even if it hadn’t been sent direct to streaming and condemned to an eternal fate of being subsumed into Hulu’s back catalog, Hellraiser ’22 would be too dreary and sober-sided to go over with the mass audience. It’s blandly unpleasant, and even the flesh-ripping scenes pack neither the sting of authentic pain nor the surreal excesses of Barker’s original story. It just sits there, not daring to be remarkably bad or, heaven knows, remarkably good. Like other recent horror “reboots,” its tone is tepid, never showing any personality, and taking the material deadly seriously because the filmmakers think that’s what the fans want. Jesus wept.

1 Yes, I know the line was ad-libbed.

The Munsters (2022)

October 2, 2022

 

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Why does everyone have their knives out for Rob Zombie’s The Munsters? It may be his most endearing feature film. Zombie, of course, is notorious for his grubby grindhouse exploitation throwbacks (The Devil’s Rejects, 31, etc.), but The Munsters is a PG-rated mad-lab goof full of dad jokes and neon colors. You’ll know within the first five minutes if it’s for you, but I took it as a relaxing, cornball Halloween party of the sort I might seek out when I’m sick, as a bowl of cinematic chicken soup or orange sherbet. It sparked warm childhood feelings, and I’m not all that big a fan of the show (The Addams Family has more going on). 

My hunch is that Zombie made this movie — a passion project for a couple of decades — for kids secondarily, and for himself as a kid primarily. There’s even an autobiographical element. The Munsters is a prequel of sorts, outlining how Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Lily Munster (Sheri Moon Zombie) met and how they came to live on Mockingbird Lane in Hollywood. Lily, who hasn’t had much luck on the dating scene, happens across the newly-created Herman at a Transylvanian dive where he’s setting his awful puns to punk-rock music. She sees him onstage, and it’s eternal love; she visits him in his dressing room, and the feeling is mutual. What we’re watching is the courtship of Sheri Moon and Rob Zombie through a Saturday-afternoon, groovie-ghoulie filter.

This movie, which minds its language and only floats a couple of jokes that’ll go over kids’ heads, is surprisingly good-hearted coming from a director who’s built his empire on profane nihilism. Far from being a sell-out, Zombie’s The Munsters takes him in a polar opposite direction, and it reads to me as a risk. After all, fans of the Munsters TV show will likely hate it, as will Zombie fans who just want him to do the gore-drenched adventures of the Firefly family over and over. It will appeal to a slim Venn diagram encompassing people with no strong feelings about the show and people who’ve been waiting for Zombie to change his pitch up a little. Well, he does; it’s loony and doofy, a full-color Mad magazine parody as well as a heartfelt tribute — Zombie very obviously loves these characters, and I responded to that. You may or may not. Like I said, you’ll know soon enough whether it’s a comfy chair you can settle into or a torture chair.

The script is pretty episodic; the plot motor has an obscure character, Lily’s ne’er-do-well werewolf brother Lester (Tomas Boykin) — who only appeared in one episode of the show — sucker Herman into signing over the Transylvanian castle owned by Lily’s vamp father the Count, aka Grandpa (Daniel Roebuck). That explains why they move to Hollywood (along with Herman catching a bit of a horror host on TV and figuring he could do that, too). I found the story didn’t matter (did it ever matter on the show?). I was content to hang out in the tacky haunted-house sets with a cast that seemed fully into it. Even the usually dour Richard Brake camps and vamps it up in two roles here; I was happy to see him smiling and cackling and departing from the sullen bad-asses he’s played for Zombie.

Zombie shares that spirit. I felt him having fun in his best previous efforts (The Devil’s Rejects is some kind of grotesque masterpiece and easily the pinnacle of his greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic), but this is a different flavor of fun; again, it’s a colorfully wrapped gift from adult Rob Zombie to young Bobby Cummings, who cut his teeth on Famous Monsters and Aurora monster model kits and, well, The Munsters. I can’t put it any other way: The movie made me feel good. Do I want a Munsters franchise from him? Probably not, assuming Netflix would even let him anyway (although the performances, particularly Jeff Daniel Phillips as the dense but jolly Herman and Daniel Roebuck as the caustic Count, are amiable enough to warrant revisits). I’d rather see him move on to other things that light him up, perhaps even an original idea that doesn’t involve the Munsters or certainly the Fireflys.