Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Psychomagic, a Healing Art

August 9, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 3.45.03 PM It has been odd, of late, to see the provocateur extraordinaire Alejandro Jodorowsky ripen from an assaultive artist to a kindly, avuncular guru who lays hands on the psychologically pained and “heals” them — or at least makes them feel heard, validated, worth something. Jodorowsky spent roughly the first half of his career spelunking in his own imagistic caves, photographing his findings (Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain). Perhaps his most famous film was one he never got to make; the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune told all about it. In recent years, Jodorowsky has pivoted to autobiographical psychodramas (The Dance of Reality, Endless Poetry) in which he often appears, drifting through re-enactments of his life carried out by his own sons.

Now there is Psychomagic, a Healing Art, in which the notorious auteur receives “patients,” if you will — people made miserable by past traumas, mostly having to do with inattentive parents — and, in effect, turns them into colorful performers in another of Jodorowsky’s cinematic journeys. His clients are asked to strip naked and be massaged by male and female therapists; they are encouraged to indulge their neglected inner child; they are directed to walk about in public dragging chains behind them or wearing their father’s jacket or covered head to toe in gold paint. They all seem, or claim, to feel better after the Jodorowsky therapy. I am rather more skeptical than they are, but who am I to judge? If they say Jodorowsky helped them, then he helped them.

It’s when Jodorowsky brings a cancer patient onstage and directs the audience to aim their healing energy at her throat that I feel less live-and-let-live about what Jodorowsky is selling. (There is no talk of fees in the movie, but I presume Jodorowsky doesn’t just work his magic on people in exchange for a warm feeling of accomplishment.) Jodorowsky offers to try to help this woman “without promising anything” — well, at least there’s that. Ten years later, the woman is still alive, and feels that Jodorowsky has something to do with that. I’m aware of the placebo effect, and it could be said that Jodorowsky guides his clients into a mental state that triggers … something that we don’t understand. It’s one thing when Jodorowsky’s technique shocks someone into a fresher way of looking at their pain; it’s another when a movie more or less implies that the man can cure cancer.

Most of Psychomagic, though, deals with the myths and archetypes that must be unlearned or learned in order to move past anxiety and depression. On this point, I’m prepared to give Jodorowsky the benefit of the doubt and say his method is about as valid as anyone else’s. He draws on lots of ancient tribal knowledge, role-playing, scenarios designed to push someone out of guilt, shame, self-loathing. Jodorowsky is a multifaceted artist, and it’s significant that he calls his way a healing art and not a science. Once or twice I caught myself seduced into going along with Jodorowsky, with his beatific smile and white guru beard; I reflected that perhaps we’re not ready to marry art and science as Jodorowsky has. It could be something only a small subset of people have access to.

But then the skeptic in me kicks in and I can’t help noticing that everyone in the movie is a success story, that nobody reverts to despondency after a while. Not that we hear about, anyway. The couple who go to Jodorowsky with individual bugaboos blocking their relationship are handled rather ambiguously; we don’t know if they stay together or if part of their revelation is that they don’t belong together after all. Some of Jodorowsky’s therapy seems to boil down to people with trust issues being touched intimately but nonsexually; this seems to give them back ownership of their bodies. How, then, given their issues, do they come to trust Jodorowsky and his assistants enough to let them cup their breasts or testicles in their hands? We don’t find out. After a while I wished Psychomagic were more of a fictionalized narrative in which the hero does what we see Jodorowsky doing — going around performing psychic miracles, something like his Alchemist in The Holy Mountain — but we’re free to interpret or question it because it’s art. Psychomagic, sadly, isn’t art; it’s advertising.

Before the Night Is Over

January 26, 2020

before night is overIf there’s anything you can be sure of, it’s that any film offering a clip from the indescribable silent oddity Dementia/Daughter of Horror has its cult-flick priorities squared away. That was true of The Blob back in 1958, and it’s true of Before the Night Is Over, the new horror film by Rhode Island director Richard Griffin (Flesh for the Inferno, Code Name Dynastud). There’s a bit when confused protagonist Samantha (Samantha Acampora) sits in the living room of an all-male bordello, watching Dementia on an old Sylvania TV, and she is joined by one of the house’s studs (Ricky Irizarry), who puts his silk bathrobe on her. Since this is also an erotic mood piece, wherever you think this act leads is probably correct.

Dementia is in there, I think, because it proceeds almost entirely through stark image and twisty dream logic, and that seems to be the direction Griffin increasingly wants to go. Before the Night Is Over is chockablock with more mystery and heavy breathing than anything this side of a David Lynch thriller, and I think I need to see it again to catch some of the plot. Or do I? The story here is not nothing — it’s firmly in the tradition of southern gothic, with intimations of the inferno — but I suspect Griffin tells the story as much because of the eerie tone it affords as anything else. It’s possibly no coincidence that many of the men who live in or frequent this house are contending with the shame of the closet in various ways. When one of the young studs goes missing, so does everything in his closet, as if…as if he’d never existed (spooky laughter).

What’s real in the movie and what isn’t? If you need that nailed down for you, I’m not sure this is your cup of mint julep. The movie’s influences include ‘70s made-for-TV horror, but it feels to me like the sort of R-rated ‘70s horror film you used to see on TV in the afternoon (on Dialing for Dollars, say), cut for time and content. Before the Night Is Over runs just 73 minutes, including credits, and I wonder if it could’ve stood to be a reel or so longer, if only to luxuriate in the morbid decay of the setting, with its locked rooms and peeling wallpaper. Samantha Acampora makes a solid, wide-eyed navigator through the sinister goings-on, and when the madams of the house start cooing over an imminent guest by the name of Wheatstraw, we have a better idea where we are. This bordello is a place of shadows where secrets — sexual or homicidal — squirm and fester. There’s a whiff of the eternal here, as in The Shining, and it seems as though the houseful of figurative vampires and zombies are here solely for Samantha.

The rare filmmaker equally indebted to Lucio Fulci and James Baldwin, Griffin has, in recent years, felt himself pulled towards more queer-positive subjects, in answer to the current regime. The horror in Before the Night Is Over, as in William Friedkin’s Cruising, has less to do with gayness than with the type of violence to body and soul that a closeted atmosphere makes possible. The movie is set in 1973, and well-to-do men show up at the door to scratch an itch they can’t legally scratch out in the world (sodomy laws were big and bad in the ‘70s, especially down south). There may or may not be a murderer picking off studs and clientele, and the house itself may or may not be a limbo for the unquiet dead, but all of the narrative uncertainties drive towards the subtext of secrets guarded with steel and blood. This is the sort of gothic that, back in old Tennessee Williams’ prime, might have been coded so that the hot action was nominally hetero but in spirit very much not. Griffin gets to promote the subtext to text and empty the closets.

The Lighthouse

January 12, 2020

lighthouse2 Among about 51 other things, The Lighthouse may be Robert Eggers’ idea of a stoner comedy. This writer-director, who debuted with 2015’s indelible The Witch, has decided this time out to move away from severely pious 16th-century Puritans and shake hands with severely strange 19th-century “wickies,” or lighthouse keepers. The excessively bearded Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is in charge — “I tend the light,” he growls — and the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is his assistant, charged with such chores as swabbing the floor and making sure the cistern is free of human waste and seagull carcasses. The two men quarrel and drink and share many sullen meals and drink and fight and drink and dance. Eventually they run out of drink and get into the turpentine, which Ephraim cuts with honey. Shit gets trippy.

The Lighthouse was shot old-school — like, ancient-school — on black-and-white 35mm film, in the square Academy ratio of 1.19:1. So it looks like an experiment from the silent era, except that it isn’t silent; a foghorn rattles and hums throughout the proceedings as it might in a David Lynch movie, and indeed The Lighthouse might be one of the few films imaginable on a plausible double bill with Lynch’s Eraserhead. In both movies, the universe — a shared, understood reality — seems dizzyingly akilter, the world a lump of Play-Doh shaped by incomprehensible and inhuman hands. Both are works of gnarled beauty, rooted in the muck and runoff of human industry, almost atremble with fierce sexual impaction. You could say that The Lighthouse is the story of men driven mad by the encroachment of post-humanity, and Eggers might be fine with that. You could say it’s about repressed homosexuality and how it surfaces as fear of women — mermaids, seagulls, tentacles — and Eggers might nod at that, too.

With a few brief exceptions, the whole movie is Dafoe and Pattinson, who dig hungrily into the situation and the opportunities it affords to go hog-wild. Dafoe’s Thomas is a blustering, one-legged stereotype of a sea dog, but the actor burrows into it and makes Thomas a man of guttural poetry. Pattinson counters with an almost entirely physical performance (“I ain’t much fer talkin’,” says Ephraim) that ramps up into fear and loathing. Both men, Eggers hints, may or may not be dangerous. When they come to blows, we fear for Ephraim the most, even though Thomas is older and disabled, because Dafoe is traditionally intimidating. But Pattinson’s Ephraim has the edge in terms of delusion fed by horror and guilt. The creatures of nightmare around them may be supernatural or psychological, but the implication is that the men, individually, have played this battle out before, and were only awaiting each other so that the lunacy could come to full fruition. A thousand thousand slimy things live on, and so do they.

The Lighthouse has echoes of Melville and Lovecraft as well as Coleridge and Greek mythology, all stirred together in a psychedelic stew, or a cup of turpentine and honey. The honey is the film’s sumptuous aesthetic — Jarin Blaschke’s sharp, finely grained photography; Mark Korven’s score, shrieking like seagulls or booming like a kraken; Craig Lathrop’s unfriendly-to-human-consciousness production design. (The lighthouse itself, it surprises me not at all to learn, was built for the film.) There is also fart humor — I told you this was Eggers’ stoner comedy — and squalor involving human and seagull scat, and a prosthetic that, we are told, was “based on shark labia.” If, by this point in the review, The Lighthouse sounds like your thing, it most assuredly is; if not, then boisterously not. By the end of the film, when we see the lighthouse’s working Fresnel lens — historically accurate, we are assured, though it looks like a spaceship engine — the luminescent awe and horror recall the soul-blasting finales of 2001 as well as Eraserhead, before the very final shot, which evokes the legend of Prometheus. The Lighthouse is like an entire literature-and-film course whittled down to an hour and forty-nine minutes, but fun as all get out, capped off with an (of course) authentic shanty that will corkscrew its way into your temporal lobe for a day or so. Go look for this thing, or don’t; you know where on the spectrum you fall.

Rabid (2019)

December 8, 2019

Rabid-2019-3If you’re going to remake a David Cronenberg film, you’d better not try to ape his ideas, because Cronenberg’s ideas are inextricable from his filmmaking. They are the source of the horror: in much of his work, a disease is a misunderstood monster, just doing what it has to do to survive. Jen and Sylvia Soska, who like Cronenberg are Canadian, have now remade Cronenberg’s 1977 cult favorite Rabid, and they have filled it with their own notions about surgery and transhumanism and fashion. The Soska sisters don’t try to be Cronenberg, but they sure pay tribute to his films throughout their own. Their Rabid, a project that was offered to them and possibly would have been made with or without them, expresses more than anything their deep and abiding love for Cronenberg’s work. As Cronenberg is one of my movie gods, I’m on board with that.

The new Rabid takes off from a premise similar to the original. A woman, Rose (Laura Vandervoort), is badly disfigured in a motorcycle accident. Her case is taken up by a surgeon (Ted Atherton) who applies experimental skin grafts. Rose’s looks are restored; the procedure even smooths out scar tissue from a previous, less extreme accident. But Rose is also left with a craving for blood, and when she feeds off of a victim, that person in turn is infected with the blood delirium. It all boils down to the doctor trying to cheat death (aren’t they always?) by developing this grotesque parasite that perpetuates itself violently. But in the Cronenberg aesthetic, the horror is that this new thing — this new flesh — brought to life is not in itself evil. It just evolves incidentally into a threat to humans. In the Soska playbook, it’s simply one of many things that twist mind and flesh, generally to the detriment of women.

The script, by the Soskas and John Serge, puts Rose to work for a fey, decadent fashion designer. The Soskas seem to liken the fashion world to the moviemaking world: in both, art and transgression are possible — a post-infection Rose produces some tormented gothy dress sketches that her boss flips over — but so are body dysmorphia, drug abuse, and a self-destructive quest for perfection. The Soskas’ interests and emphasis deviate from Cronenberg’s own, but the end result honors his work. There are any number of Easter eggs for Cronenberg fans, such as a wink to the famous “college of cardinals” scene in Dead Ringers, and others I will leave you to discover. Eventually the action leaves the realm of Cronenberg and incorporates elements of, if I’m not mistaken, Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Like many young filmmakers, the Soskas like to pile everything they’ve been obsessing about into the latest film because there’s no guarantee they’ll be granted the keys to another.

Ultimately, Rabid has a warmer center than the original — Cronenberg had to make do with adult-film actress Marilyn Chambers as Rose (he’d wanted Sissy Spacek), and about the most you could say about Chambers was that she was surprisingly competent. Laura Vandervoort brings a lot more vulnerability and pain and spiky anger to Rose, and when the action around Rose gets outlandish, Vandervoort grounds it all in credible female angst. When Rose feeds on a loutish, abusive man, it’s partly you-go-girl revenge, but it’s also pragmatic: a dude this stupid and single-minded makes the perfect prey. Vandervoort doesn’t play it like Zoë Tamerlis in Ms. 45; Rose is driven by her need for blood, and this idiot makes himself known to her.

There was a certain way-before-its-time non-binary/intersex thread in Cronenberg’s Rabid — his Rose was left with what read as male and female sex organs in her armpit (!), with which she fed on blood. We see a bit of that in the new film, but since it deals far more organically with a female point of view, the threat is mainly and viscerally phallic. The Soskas’ 2012 body-horror original American Mary showed they had more on their minds than grrl-power snarls and splatter, and Rabid confirms it. It ends on an image comparable to the bleak nihilism with which Cronenberg sealed his film, only with a distinct nightmarish Gilead tinge to it. As in Alien: Resurrection, perhaps the most Cronenbergian (and most underrated) of the Alien films, a woman isn’t even going to be allowed the peace of death if her existence will benefit men.

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

November 11, 2019

Apr 05, 1978 - Boca Raton, Florida, U.S. - National Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope oand copy of the photo of Elvis Presley. Pope died at 61, GENEROSO P. POPE JR., the millionaire owner and publisher of The National Enquirer, suffered a heart attack yesterday at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was pronounced dead on arrival at the J.F.K. Medical Center in Atlantis, Fla. He was 61 years old. Mr. Pope, whose father founded Il Progresso, the New York City Italian-language newspaper, bought a weekly newspaper, The New York Enquirer, in 1952 for $75,000. It had a circulation of 17,000 copie A gore-soaked tabloid, whose publisher had mob connections, was ultimately involved in helping install the President of the United States. This story, worthy of James Ellroy, is at the heart of the documentary Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. Aesthetically, the movie is both cold and cheesy, a weird combo platter. Various interviewees (Carl Bernstein is probably the film’s biggest “get”) sit in lonely, swanky rooms or in dimly lit bars, and the interviews are broken up by vintage news footage — grainy film stock, bleary video. It’s ugly, but then so is the subject; director Mark Landsman means to show that the tabloid that’s been an unavoidable patch of the American cultural wallpaper for much of our lives has left a mostly corrosive footprint wherever it has stepped.

Or stomped. By 1997, the Enquirer’s reputation as a ghost haunting the closets of celebrities was so entrenched that the paper went through a period of disfavor following the death of Princess Diana. The paparazzi who chased Diana to her death were not working for the Enquirer, but the association was made anyway — the paper was a synecdoche for all other intrusive tabloids. (For what it’s worth, the paper’s then-editor Steve Koz made a performative violin solo of refusing photos of the wreckage and called on other tabloids to do likewise.) Before then, the Enquirer had actually been gaining a rep as an unexpected source of hard-nosed journalism during the O.J. trial. But the sacrifice of Diana at the altar of enquiring minds that wanted to know seemed to shame, for a while, the supermarket gobblers of tabloid burgers.

What Scandalous makes clear is that the paper, for decades, reported all the news that was printed to fit — it was custom-made to slake the public thirst for lightweight squalor. The Enquirer’s original goodfella-in-chief, Generoso Pope Jr., gradually shifted the rag’s angle from sub-Weegee shock-horror to “Why Jackie/Liz/Oprah is as miserable as you are, Jane Q. Public.” That formula held for a long time, until, in those more innocent times when such a thing could still happen, Gary Hart was captured on film with Donna Rice on his lap and his political career was generally acknowledged to be toilet-bound. The Enquirer’s vampire fangs had drawn a new kind of blood, and it liked the taste. Bill Clinton found himself similarly drained. But all along, in Scandalous, we also hear about stories Jane never saw — contemptible behavior by Bob Hope, Cosby, etc. We’re told that the Enquirer kept mum about certain stars in exchange for access. That will take on grim relevance later, when what Ronan Farrow has recently exposed as the “catch and kill” mechanism (he’s in the film briefly) was employed to keep Donald Trump’s mushroom out of the pages of America’s favorite tabloid. Hillary stared zombie-eyed and pallid from many an Enquirer cover, contrasted with the insensate orange vigor of the MAGA who would be king. The paper that had followed America’s lead was now leading America.

That was under the jurisdiction of Trump pally David Pecker, who has since sold the Enquirer, after the paper’s attempted sliming of Trump foe Jeff Bezos backslimed. Today the paper sits in its usual point-of-purchase slot, itself zombie-eyed, a mewling wisp of its former robust ghoulishness. It continues to harass celebrities and the Royal Family just like the good old bad days of 1985, but having ended and expedited presidential dreams, where else can it go? It seems a spent force. And yet the hunger for the Enquirer’s stock in trade remains, only it’s filled elsewhere. For what is Fox News if not tabloid journalism at its slickest and most dangerous, speaking to an audience of the fearful and incurious? The network’s serpent-in-chief, Rupert Murdoch, of course slithered from the brackish waters of British supermarket rags. As James Ellroy knew, America is a tabloid country, and so Scandalous is not just a movie about that thing Grandma reads at the hairdresser’s. At its “best” and worst the paper is a souvenir from our national shadowland; we want to think we’re better than the Enquirer but we kind of know we deserve each other.

Brightburn

September 1, 2019

brightburn “I never said, ‘The superman exists, and he’s American.’ What I said was, ‘God exists, and he’s American.’” – A character in Alan Moore’s Watchmen

Well, what if Satan existed and he were American and a superman? The sensationally effective horror movie Brightburn meditates on that. A low-budget production by today’s standards, it’s horrifically violent at times — at least two bits made me gasp and/or avert my eyes, and this ain’t my first time at the gore-movie rodeo. The premise mashes up Superman’s origin story with that of Damien Thorn (of the Omen series). A young couple living on a farm in Kansas are trying for a baby. Soon enough, they find one — in a spaceship that crash-lands in the fields outside. The couple raise him as their own, and when he hits puberty he starts manifesting strange abilities and weird obsessions. Except that the abilities include flight and super-strength, and the obsessions boil down to an unearthly voice instructing him to “take the world.”

The notion of a superpowered being who’s more psycho than hero is not new, of course. Even discounting the throngs of supervillains in comics over the last 81 years, stories like Marshal Law, The One, the above-mentioned Watchmen, and The Boys (recently treated as an Amazon Prime series) have tackled the existential threat of creatures who are physically heightened but morally bankrupt. Brightburn just takes its Juvenalian-satirical approach directly to the source — the genesis of Clark Kent, raised as an unassuming, righteous farm boy who eventually leaves Smallville for Metropolis, where he’s needed more. Here, the Clark is a 12-year-old named Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), and his parents are Tori (the ubiquitous Elizabeth Banks), an artist, and Kyle (David Denman), who works the land and raises chickens. When the chickens all turn up mutilated one night, a wolf is suspected. But it’s not a wolf.

If you agree to overlook a couple of plot infelicities, such as Brandon leaving a Zorro-style signature on his crimes and the cops somehow not figuring it out until far too late, Brightburn is an intelligently made thriller whose director, David Yarovesky (The Hive), knows how to draw out dread with silence and turn it up to 11 only when necessary. As Brandon starts to slip into homicidal madness — though it seems the spaceship hidden in the barn activates his demons in some way — he makes a creepy costume for himself, although I’m not sure if superheroes even exist as a fictional concept in the movie’s universe, so Brandon probably isn’t emulating any comic-book outfit. (Perhaps the spaceship gives him the costume design.) The violence, when it comes, is startlingly vicious and ugly, toying with the outer limits of an R rating. This movie about an alternate-world Superboy is decidedly not for children.

Is the story a metaphor for how a lonely, smart kid, bullied by peers and rejected by a cute girl, explodes into mass murder of the sort that’s become so grindingly familiar in recent years? Could be, but then stories like this predate our current horrors (and Brandon’s victims are mostly adults, anyway). Its commentary seems pointed more at the superhero-messiah narrative; during the end credits, an actor who turns up often in the work of this film’s producer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) cameos as a raving conspiracy theorist who gives examples of other weird threats. This seems to promise sequels unfolding in a shared universe with Brightburn, though the film probably didn’t do well enough at the cash registers.

The problem is, this sort of thing is probably only good for one movie. It turns out that it’s roughly as difficult to write about a villain who can do anything as it is about a hero who can do anything. The structure becomes predictable, almost like a slasher film: Someone draws Brandon’s wrath, then spectacularly becomes an ex-someone. Maybe we should just be left to imagine the expansion of the Brightburn-verse. Not everything needs to be a franchise (although I won’t be surprised if an outfit like Dynamite or Avatar, specialists in profanely gory comics, puts out a Brightburn line). Though horror has its own needless-franchise problems, it’s better to think of Brightburn as supernatural, or übernatural, horror. If we’re being honest, the superhero genre — with its costumed gods who could as easily incinerate as save us, due to one frayed wire in their brain — should always have been horror, anyway.

Pet Sematary (2019)

July 14, 2019

pet-semataryStephen King’s Pet Sematary has now had two whacks at film adaptation — one in 1989 and one this year (well, three if you count the sequel to the ’89 film). It may be that, through no fault of the respective filmmaking teams or the medium itself, King’s book is just one of those novels that resist translation. For me, it remains perhaps the closest thing in King’s catalog to a “serious work”; he approaches his greatest fear, that one of his children will die, in a sidewise manner that recalls the way Kurt Vonnegut took the traumatic material of his own World War II experience and made it easier to engage with as an author by way of genre tropes (in Vonnegut’s case, the nonlinear story and space-alien digressions of Slaughterhouse-Five).

King’s story is animated by dread and grief — the kind of powerful, deranging grief that will drive a mourning parent to do anything, anything, to make the agony stop. That sort of impact is nearly impossible to replicate in a film that also has to make room for plot and character detail and Saturday-night seat-jump scares for teenagers. Pet Sematary exists most effectively on the page, where it can enter the mind, the bloodstream, the soul with minimal interference. There are just too many factors, mostly having to do with maintaining an extremely demanding tonal balance, that make any attempt to realize it in another medium little more than a riff, a brief visit to a house of horrors instead of moving in and living with them.

I can say that Pet Sematary ’19 is better-acted than its predecessor thirty years ago. Fred Gwynne was fine and avuncular as old Jud Crandall, the son of Maine who introduces our protagonists to the Monkey’s Paw terror of the true “pet sematary,” but most of the other cast members were instantly forgettable. Here we have Jason Clarke as Dr. Louis Creed, Amy Seimetz as his death-haunted wife Rachel, and a terrific young actress named Jeté Laurence as their nine-year-old daughter Ellie. These three do as well as they can in the somewhat degraded context of a mass-market horror movie, and then there’s John Lithgow, sometimes seeming off in his own film, as the new Jud, sickened and aged by decades of guilt and grief.

The new directors (Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer) and screenwriter (Jeff Buhler) don’t hesitate to alter King’s original story to make it work as a movie. I applaud this: Many of the best films based on King (including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) take large liberties with the source. So I won’t get into a book-movie comparison of events, except to note that the new film avoids the ’89 film’s biggest tonal blooper, the visual of a toddler happily walking around waving a scalpel. The workaround here is far more plausible and facilitates some chilling “came back wrong” acting. The problem is that the newly imagined climax goes back to the well, so to speak, once too often. (The original scripted ending is much subtler and sadder; it can be seen on DVD and streaming.)

I’ll also say that the new film gives a bit more time to King’s conception of the pet sematary beyond the deadfall as a sour-soiled, godforsaken place ruled by the Wendigo, which feeds on people’s grief and compels them to feed it their dead. But at one hour and forty-one minutes it can only do so much. As in 1989, Rachel’s fearful memories of her stricken sister Zelda amount only to red meat thrown (in the worst bad taste, too) at the grumbling, impatient carnivores the film studio assumes the horror audience is. Pet Sematary ’19 has left me with a strong urge to revisit the novel, with all its hints of ghastly afterlife and irrational fear: “He realized he was afraid, simply, stupidly afraid, the way you are afraid when a cloud suddenly sails across the sun and somewhere you hear a ticking sound you can’t account for.” What’s missing from any film version is that ticking sound, the dread and terror of strangeness invading a bright afternoon for a moment, and then disappearing but taking something near and dear along with it. What’s missing is the poetry of nightmare.

The Perfection

June 9, 2019

perfection Netflix’s new thriller The Perfection (with its impossible-to-remember title) relies on the type of screaming twists and turns on a dime that can stymie a reviewer. How can you talk about a movie like this to people who may not have seen it without nuking its surprises? You can’t, so I am obliged to sketch and suggest. The Perfection is about two cello prodigies, Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning). The menacing artsiness and female trauma that inform the movie’s tone put it in the same small folder as Suspiria (either version) and Black Swan. It seems to switch not just gears but genres, several times. I would recommend going into it completely cold, and not even watching the trailer, which prankishly sets a viewer up to expect a vastly different film than it turns out to be.

What you get for your trouble is a handsomely photographed (by Vanja Černjul, who also shot Crazy Rich Asians), feverishly written (by director Richard Shepard with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) thriller that gets you hating one character, then another, then someone else, until finally balance is bloodily, poetically, and somewhat ludicrously restored. The Perfection is therefore not the nicest movie or experience. It exists to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, until you mistrust the rug and the floor under it. Is it pleasurable? Here and there. It’s more gripping than entertaining; it squeezes us, it pulls on the short hairs of our temples. It establishes and maintains control — bullying control. Like most thrillers great and poor, it essentially takes a rapist’s attitude toward the audience. It gets you alone and has its way with you.

The redeeming factor here is that, ultimately, The Perfection shakes out as a #MeToo revenge thriller. Its brutality and manipulations come to seem necessary in order to convey the wounding tone required to get us, in the end, on the side of victims who at first seem like aggressors. We may feel betrayed at certain points, but so have its characters. The movie also ladles equal amounts of beauty and rancid ugliness into its hermetic aesthetic, breaking away from that only during a cold roadside scene that packs the most painful violence, which comes to be seen as an act of mercy. The events leading up to the scene — like much else in the movie, and indeed in most thrillers — won’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. The plot depends on a hostile bus driver behaving as a character secretly wants him to. I imagine there’s a deleted scene involving the close study of bus routes so as to guarantee winding up in a desolate area.

The Perfection also contains the following: a tender same-sex lovemaking scene; a few lovely if stressful music performances; a performance by Steven Weber that confirms my longstanding suspicion that he’s aging into William Fichtner; a laughable flashback (or rewind, really) that explains how a cooking instrument comes into a character’s possession (almost as funny as the preceding scene in which the character just randomly seems to produce said instrument — the movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers that can’t possibly take themselves seriously and don’t want us to, either); a bit that had me thinking we were in Romeo Is Bleeding territory and on the exit into Long Jeanne Silver turf; a quaint confidence in various medications to have exactly the effect on someone that one hopes they will have.

There’s more, but I grow tired of avoiding writing about the story. I can finish by praising the intense performances of Williams and Browning, or the way a cello performance that must proceed without error elicits more sympathetic wincing than does the sometimes graphic violence, or the film’s nearly Cronenbergian reliance on body horror and disfigurement. The Perfection is strongly made, scene for scene, and it ends on a note of serene unity of soul through music in the face of ghastly oppression. But I can’t say I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when it was done squeezing my soft bits. I won’t claim it doesn’t have the right to play with sensitive themes and elements to get its effects; I think, ultimately, it earns that right and shows itself to be compassionate. You do have to navigate a whole lot of bear traps to get there, though, and you may not agree that it’s worth the journey, with all its hurt and vomit and maggoty visions of sickness. I can raise a glass to the skill of all involved but I’m in no hurry to feel all those things, see all those things, again any time soon.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

January 13, 2019

the-man-who-killed-hitler-and-then-the-bigfoot“It’s the Bigfoot, Ed. They want me to kill it.” That’s ol’ Calvin Barr (Sam Elliott) talking to his brother (Larry Miller) over a cup of powdered cocoa and mini-marshmallows. Some forty-odd years prior, Calvin also pulled the trigger on Hitler himself, hence the title The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, that title promises something different from what the movie delivers. A feature debut by Robert D. Krzykowski (who co-produced Lucky McKee’s The Woman), Hitler/Bigfoot has unexpected pathos and gravitas, and the titular killings are anti-climactic, almost beside the point. Calvin lost what was really important in the war — his innocence (a killer is something you can never un-become) and the love of his life.

Why did Calvin never track down his stateside sweetie, schoolteacher Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald)? Probably because he felt stained by killing a man, even if that man was Hitler. As Calvin explains to the two government suits who recruit him to deal with Bigfoot, killing Hitler didn’t matter because his words survived him; like the deadly virus that the Bigfoot carries (which is why it urgently needs killing), Hitler’s hateful ideas radiated outward from his corpse and infected millions. Hitler and the Bigfoot both turn out to be smaller and less impressive in the flesh, and more easily killable. Killing them doesn’t make Calvin any happier or even more heroic. As he says, he just did what he was told.

That Hitler/Bigfoot is more subdued, humanistic and poignant than the title indicates doesn’t mean it’s a cult classic like Bubba Ho-Tep, though. It’s a little underdone, with an elaborate flashback structure that sometimes confuses us — we’re watching Calvin (played as a young man by Aidan Turner) during the war, then as a nail-tough codger in the ‘80s, then as a young man again before heading off to war. I suppose this structure is justified by being a tall tale about a man looking back on an eventful life. Krzykowski, though, either neglects or forgets about narrative beats we’re expecting. What happened to Maxine? Why does Calvin fake his own death if he’s just going to be seen publicly with Ed later on? And what’s that in his shoe that bothers him for the whole movie? A tracking device, I’m guessing — how the government keeps tabs on him. (It’s also implied there’s a painting in his parlor that’s bugged.) But Krzykowski has Calvin dump it out of his shoe in a medium shot, and we never get a good close look at the thing. For all we know, it’s the ring he never got a chance to give Maxine.

Still, if you enjoy Sam Elliott and his rich baritone, there are worse ways to spend your evening. Calvin is the sort of flawlessly ethical American who finds a $100 scratch ticket on the sidewalk but refuses to collect the winnings himself; who lives modestly with his trusty ol’ dawg and kills brain cells at a bar, saying he’s thinking about giving up the booze but knowing he won’t. Elliott puts all of this across effortlessly — he’s an iconic presence playing an iconic man who would rather just be obscure. “This is not the comic-book story you want it to be,” he tells the somewhat starry-eyed younger agents who pull him back in. The unemphatic directorial style promises that much, but it’s Elliott — his sad, measured voice the sound of a bruised soul who has seen more blood than you — who really delivers on the promise.

Bird Box

January 6, 2019

birdbox The news informs me that, having watched the new Netflix film Bird Box, people nationwide are taking the “Bird Box challenge.” This involves wandering around wearing a blindfold, copying the characters in the film. Sadly, it does not involve aping the film’s other following behaviors: carrying birds around, listening to upbeat Dionne Warwick oldies, or taking pity on refugees escaping from terrifying hazards. It would be nice if more of us took that last Bird Box challenge in the weeks to come. Anyway, if you don’t expect it to make literal sense on a scene-by-scene basis, Bird Box is a fairly tense metaphorical thriller, though with a fatal structural flaw.

Well, since you asked so nicely: When a narrative has fancy flashback architecture — if it goes back and forth between what we understand as “now” and what we’re told was “five years ago” — it’s very hard for any of the flashbacks to pack any suspense. We begin with our emotionally prickly artist heroine, Malorie (Sandra Bullock), preparing two children we assume are hers for a dangerous rowboat trip down a river. We then go back to five years earlier, when the apocalypse comes in the form of creatures who drive their victims suicidally insane if looked upon. Malorie, who is pregnant, makes her way through the chaos to a house holding several other survivors. Right off the bat, we figure Malorie had to survive whatever threatens her in the flashbacks we see, and we figure she lives to have at least one kid, too. But wait, one of her fellow survivors is also pregnant. So either Malorie ends up having twins, or this second pregnant woman is destined for the dirt and Malorie has to adopt her kid, and…

Well, like I said, it’s metaphorical. Bird Box was directed by Susanne Bier, who has made several acclaimed, even Oscar-nominated dramas in her native Denmark and elsewhere. If Netflix is to be believed, Bird Box has been watched 45 million times, which, even if we buy only a third of that number, represents millions more eyes than have been on any of Bier’s previous features. Bier isn’t really interested in the monsters, or in survival either; she seems more intrigued by how people in extremis treat one another. To that end, we get a fair number of scenes dealing with the tension, or relative lack thereof, between the survivors in the flashbacks. This has the unfortunate effect of making the few characters all seem to be symbolizing something or other — John Malkovich’s unhospitable character, for instance, reps callous paranoia — and there’s a potentially distasteful element wherein the mentally ill, immune for some reason to the monsters’ influence, become violent predators who want the unafflicted to look at the monsters and die. Then again, that may be part of a subtler point that we must empathize with the mentally ill or suffer accordingly.

Anyway, the film continues to flip back and forth, without many surprises. Since kids are involved, we have a hunch there’s a limit to how dark the story can get, and we are correct. Bird Box has been around in a variety of forms for decades. The most we can do is look under the hood of this year’s model, kick the tires, and see how it runs. The characters are basically delivery systems for the film’s metaphors, and the actors can’t access much beyond the basics — fear, love — in the moment. I most enjoyed the sequence dealing with the crisis finally arriving in America, which provides a cascading chill of mores and taboos exploding everywhere we look. But even here, we get Sarah Paulson as Bullock’s acerbically pro-social sister — for all of five minutes. I would cheerfully have swapped a few of the gray, cold, repetitive rowboat scenes for a few more minutes with Paulson.