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Summer of ’85: Tickle Us, St. Elmo’s Fire

I think the only thing it validates is itself, and the decision to give the Brat Pack the celluloid equivalent of a Reykjavik summit.

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Summer of ’85: Tickle Us, St. Elmo’s Fire
Photo: Columbia Pictures

St. Elmo’s Fire, viewed before its release as a Woodstock of sorts for ‘80s-film supergroup the Brat Pack, turned into the beginning of the end for said Pack the minute it hit screens—and not just because the entire Brat Pack concept was a media chimera. The film’s sole reason for existing was evidently to put Brats Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe and Ally Sheedy in the same movie together; the only bigger afterthought than Mare Winningham is the brittle, stagey script, which fails to descend to the level of campy badness and merely bores instead.

Ali Arikan, Sarah D. Bunting and Matt Zoller Seitz took a look at St. Elmo’s Fire and tried to diagnose the main cause of its dull malaise. Read on for their conclusions—or, if you’re short on time, scroll to the end for some self-portraits of their time in the trenches.

Sarah D. Bunting: I hadn’t seen St. Elmo’s Fire in years, and I remembered it as bad, but it’s not just bad. It’s criminally boring and contrived. Only Jules (Demi Moore) is someone I might find even faintly amusing in real life, and that’s only because she’s a train wreck.

Matt Zoller Seitz: Whenever I see almost any mainstream Hollywood film made from the mid-‘80s through the mid-‘90s, my formative movie-going years as an adult, I’m slightly amazed that I mustered up enough affection to write about movies for a living.

Ali Arikan: When I saw that first shot of the seven of them in their graduation gowns, walking towards the camera, I just wanted to be friends with them right away. So that I could lull them into a sense of false security and then murder them in their sleep.

St. Elmo's Fire

Sarah: The by-numbers composition of the group of friends is one of the more enervating aspects of the film. I have no sense of their personalities; they just have jobs and tics, and based on those, I’m not clear on why, for example, Billy (Rob Lowe) even knows these other people. This isn’t unique to St. Elmo’s; film is full of groups of friends that, in real life, would have nothing to do with one another.

Matt: Movies really sucked during that period. My friend Marilyn thinks that all the cocaine people were doing at the top levels of the industry seeped into the storytelling, or non-storytelling. It might also account for the overwhelming arrogance displayed by so many of these characters. They all think they’re the center of the universe and the film rarely bothers to correct them. Characters keep behaving in atrocious and/or illogical ways, and the movie validates them. Like Emilio Estevez’s character, a preppy stalker.

Ali: Here is the funny thing about it. And this would be the sort of simplification that would run through all of Hollywood’s product for “young people.” The characters are defined by one quirk and one quirk only. In real life, people become friends for a variety of reasons, and no plausible group of buddies has a “funny one,” “preppy one,” “Demi Moore,” etc. This is not your typical dramatic archetypes—this is basically piss-poor writing.

Sarah: Friends also do not generally feel the need to shoehorn museum-placard notations on character beats into conversations with each other for the benefit of the audience. “Whatever happened to that Alec Newbary political conviction I fell in love with?” Whatever happened to organic dialogue? They’re trying so, so hard to convince us that these people are interesting and friends with each other…it’s just DOA as a result. And Schumacher’s idea of what a 22-year-old writer’s life is like…

Matt: That said, there are germs of psychological reality to all the characters—it’s just that the film never really develops them. I’ve known guys like the Judd Nelson character, and the Demi Moore character, and Lowe’s character (who, along with the film, might have been singlehandedly responsible for making the saxophone permanently unsexy). Codependency is, or maybe should have been, the theme of the movie, if it had anything going on upstairs, but that’s just a sidelight.

Ali: This is it. I think the film is interesting as a showcase for Joel Schumacher: kind of like The Portrait of the Fuckwit as a Young Man. I love the way he shows sleaze by having neon lights. Of course, this approach would find its apotheosis in Schumacher’s 8MM, a “dark” film about the sleazy world of snuff movies that was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Sarah: I did enjoy that the Billy Idol mural in Jules’s apartment had a neon-light earring.

Matt: Speaking of sleaze, what’s up with all the stalker/rapist behavior by the guys? Judd Nelson’s control-freak womanizing sadism, Lowe trying to rape Demi Moore and the film treating it like just a speed bump in their relationship, and Estevez acting in ways that would prompt a restraining order in life. And again, the movie treats this as if it’s just normal movie behavior. It’s cokehead producer self-justification.

Sarah: And let’s not forget the greatest going-away present a frump like Wendy (Mare Winningham) can bestow: her virginity! Then again, this is a film that believes Rob Lowe drinking bourbon on a rooftop is the height of bad-assery.

Ali: I love that going-away present thing. Usually, you get a snow globe—Rob wants a quick pick-me-up before heading off to NY. I tell you how that scene could have been immensely improved upon. He asks for his going-away present, then CUT to a shot of him, outside in the rain, looking forlorn, holding her granny panties. “You want a present, here’s your present, bitch.” …Funnily enough, the way Schumacher treats his male/female relationships reminded me of the way Aaron Sorkin approached them in The West Wing.

Sarah: Alec’s whole “I cheat on you because YOU won’t commit” self-justification is particularly revolting. But the movie treats it like a quirk. Um, no. It’s a personality disorder, guys.

Matt: Okay, I just have to vent for a second about Estevez’s character.

Sarah: The floor is yours.

St. Elmo's Fire

Matt: He becomes obsessed with Andie McDowell at the hospital, in that shot where she picks up that little African-American boy and the hallway doors open to reveal a blast of white light, as if she’s going through the gates of heaven. It’s a Scorsese touch, cool in another movie but really weird here. And then he just becomes obsessed with her, irrationally obsessed. Then comes that scene where he follows her on a bike…in the rain!…to the restaurant and stares at her through the window. I thought, “Okay, we cut away from this and we see him coming to terms with how badly he’s lost it.”

But then…he barges into the restaurant and we get that Friday the 13th POV shot from his perspective, and he talks to Andie McDowell, who’s rightly flummoxed…and then…cut to…her apartment. She’s invited him home! What the fuck? What the holy living fuck? What…the…FUCK? Seriously? Okay, done for now.

…What the fuck? Sorry.

Ali: Speaking of WTF, I’d forgotten all about Jules’s neighbor (Matthew Laurance). How do we know he’s gay? Well, he’s holding a giant cocktail glass filled to the brim with a pink drink: the universal symbol of male homosexuality.

Sarah: And he’s a decorator.

Ali: Double queer.

Matt: Schumacher is gay, and has always been about as open about it as a director can be and still keep a spot on the A-list. Was there a streak of self-loathing there? Or is it just that it was the ‘80s, where the sensitivity of the ‘70s was violently rolled back and machismo was in again and movies had to take potshots at gay people wherever they appeared?

Sarah: Getting back to the Kirby/Dale Biberman subplot for a sec…can’t you give the dream girl a last name that doesn’t sound like “Beaver”? Also, can’t you cast someone who doesn’t speak in a monotone?

Ali: I love the way her date in that mountain cabin is so welcoming of this stalker guy who’s ruined their weekend. He asks to take a fucking photo of them? What the fuck?

Sarah: Ali: I assumed that was to show the police when Dale ends up dead, but the movie seems to think Kirby’s stalking is heroic. Dale’s roommate is giving him the stink-eye when he’s standing there SMELLING DALE’S PILLOW, and I was like, “Seriously.” But the movie makes it out like the roommate is just a big old unromantic buzzkill. Um, HER ROOMMATE INVITED HER STALKER INSIDE.

Ali: AND TOLD HIM WHERE SHE WAS THAT WEEKEND AFTER HE THREATENED TO KILL HER!

Matt: Yeah, that pillow bit was mind-boggling. Total disconnect from reality.

Ali: Nice parenting, Martin Sheen.

Sarah: Your boy stalks robots. “See, I’m. Not. That great. I don’t even. Remember to. Take. Out the trash.”

Ali: “Is it raining? I hadn’t noticed.” Sorry, wrong film.

Matt: Let’s go back to Rob Lowe for a second, and Demi Moore. I felt like these two were the Hollywood A-list’s fantasy self-justification. “I’ll shit all over you, and you’ll indulge me and keep loving me no matter what, because I’m so amazing.”

Ali: Oh, by the way, I’d totally forgotten that the scene in Love, Actually where Keira Knightley realizes her husband’s best friend is in love with her is a total rip-off of the one in this movie.

Sarah: Didn’t Schumacher make Moore go to rehab during filming?

Matt: I wasn’t aware of that. If so, good for him.

Ali: My favorite line in the whole movie belongs to Moore: “I only speak a little bit of Arabic, but I think I heard the word for ’gangbang.’” And I think there was something rather disturbing—and not in a good way—about Rob Lowe trying to deflower a virgin, considering his sex-tape antics.

St. Elmo's Fire

Sarah: I will give Lowe this: he is giving 110 percent. It isn’t usually working, but he’s trying. The sax-playing is really unfortunate and looks like he’s on the losing end of a Man vs. Boa outtake, but look at what he’s got to work with. That character is married and has a kid? And then he’s…divorced, and his ex remarries some nice man who…will raise the kid, and that’s the end of it?

Matt: Speaking of rehab, it was rather stunning to see so much liquor consumed, so many cigarettes smoked without a lecture about cancer, so much cocaine casually snorted (there’s a reason it’s ordered up via the euphemism “party favors”). In a better movie I would have applauded this as a dose of nonjudgmental realism. They are hard-driving twentysomethings. But in this film it seemed all of a piece with the raging, unmediated narcissism, the film’s lack of awareness that behavior has consequences.

Ali: I think there is some interesting stuff—the fact that the passage of time is assumed, and never overtly stated—no montages, cue cards, nothing. Schumacher also plays around with his camera; sometimes it gets in the way, but it’s commendable the way he tries to have so many tracking shots. Some work—like the one in the party—most don’t, but still.

Sarah: I would have appreciated it more if the vodka weren’t so obviously not vodka. It drives me nuts when movie characters just drink booze like it has no taste.

Ali: It’s not just the alcohol that is obviously not real. The Korean guy is also obviously not Korean. But he’s called Kim, so, every cloud…

Sarah: It’s hard for me to applaud any of the visuals when the writing feels so much like a middle-school-drama-club improv exercise.

Matt: Okay, this is probably going to sound strange considering how we’ve been slagging the entire movie, but I thought Andrew McCarthy was quite good in this part, especially considering what he was given to work with. And the character appealed to me. He and Ally Sheedy were the only ones with moral compasses. McCarthy also got the only lines in the movie that I thought rang true, or that at least were worth engaging with and arguing with, overwritten as they were. “You know what love is? Love is an illusion created by lawyer types like yourself to perpetuate another illusion called marriage, to create a reality of divorce and an illusionary need for divorce lawyers.”

Also, “The notion of people spending their entire lives together was invented by people who were lucky to make it to 20 without being eaten by dinosaurs.” Obviously cavemen and dinosaurs weren’t alive at the same time, but I still enjoyed the line.

Ali: Regarding Ally Sheedy’s character—I think, again, as Matt said, in a better film, I would have enjoyed the way she decides to play the field a bit before settling down.

Matt: There again, though, the film is just so clunky in dealing with it.

Sarah: I found Sheedy’s reactions utterly bogus.

Ali: The problem is McCarthy’s “arc” ends with his sleeping with Sheedy and then discovering the meaning of life, which, obviously, is boning Sheedy in the shower (which might very well be true). By the way, that sex scene has put me off sex. And pearl necklaces.

Sarah: I actually liked Wendy the best; I thought Winningham did really well with that part. Her relationship with Billy was kind of interesting, and then the others trying to stage interventions on it with her felt relatively real. Although I don’t buy that Wendy would still know any of these dipshits ten minutes after graduation.

Matt: And does it logically follow that a young woman who hung out with sexually active people and routinely drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes in their presence would maintain her virginity until age 23 or so? Especially if her constant companion was Rob Lowe?

Sarah: But anything proceeding from the idea that Alec is the reliable “leader” of that group of friends, I can’t get behind.

Ali: That is the key problem with this film. As we’ve said, these guys would not be friends in real life. At least, from what we see of their interactions, they seem to have nothing in common. I realise that uni friends tend to drift apart into their own caves yet still keep in touch, but these guys are from different worlds.

Sarah: And Alec in particular is from Planet Judgy Asshole.

Matt: I hadn’t seen the film since it came out, so a lot of this was new to me again, and my reactions were colored by all the movie-going I’ve done since then. The Alec stuff reminded me of Bully or Roadhouse. He’s such a raging asshole, so controlling and hateful to everybody, that there were a few points where I hoped it would turn into a revenge thriller, the kind of movie where they spend the last act figuring out how to dispose of the body.

Ali: Me, too.

Sarah: “WASTED LLLLOVE!”

Ali: But what is the message here, I wonder? Because there is that scene right at the end of the film where Rob Lowe is comforting Demi Moore, as a giant clown doll leans against the wall. Halfway through his spiel, he looks at the camera and says: “We’re all going through this.” Was this an indictment of Reaganite youth, who felt so entitled that they believed a whole pile of money would just land on their laps and they would live the life of riley forever?

Sarah: You know, Ali, I didn’t understand that speech at all. Even if his explanation of St. Elmo’s Fire is accurate—“sailors just made it up”—I don’t understand how that applies to post-college anomie.

Ali: There’s also that line at the beginning where Alec tells Billy, “It’s been four months since graduation, and you’re still living like you’re in college.” What does this mean? You grow up the second you get your diploma? Should you?

Sarah: And of all people to cop that attitude, too. “I, who play-act at adulthood by arguing over sofas with my cuckolded girlfriend, will now lecture you on how to behave.” Fuck off.

Ali: There is also the problem with the jokes. Schumacher seems to realise his gags are fucking trite, so whenever someone makes a joke, another character says “ba-doom tiss” or something. Being aware of how crappy your dialogue is does not improve its quality. It just makes it shit and self-aware.

Sarah: It reminded me of Punchline, with the myriad reaction shots of the audience LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY, as if that’s going to sell it. The forced-in-joke “boogela boogela” thing, same thing. I felt like I was watching a social-hygiene film about college friendships.

Matt: Also rather stunning: the ethnocentricity of every moment in the film. It was like Sex and the City white. Between Mr. Kim, the black hooker, the black servants, and the coke-snorting, sex-crazed Arabs, yeeesh. This movie reminded me quite a bit of the SATC films.

Sex, violence, language and potentially disturbing images or situations never bother me in and of themselves. What offends me is when a movie endorses a blatantly false sense of life, or worse, validates a limiting or destructive attitude or ideology and never examines it in any meaningful way. St. Elmo’s Fire is guilty of this, as were a lot of ‘80s Hollywood movies. Watch American studio movies from the late ‘70s through the mid-‘80s in chronological order and you really can see the nation shaking off the dreams of the ‘60s as if they were hallucinations preventing them from getting out there and making money so they can buy shit.

St. Elmo's Fire

Sarah: I think you’re giving St. Elmo’s too much credit. I think the only thing it validates is itself, and the decision to give the Brat Pack the celluloid equivalent of a Reykjavik summit. I remember it being a big effing deal when it came out, that so many of them were in one movie, and then: stillbirth.

Ali: It’s easily the worst of the eighties Brat Pack movies. It takes the dreams of the sixties, as Matt says, and distills it into some sort of Prozac-and-coke-based nightmare.

Sarah: Actually, maybe you’re right. There are repeated references to what a sucker Wendy is for working at the welfare office (but then her rich daddy is pimping her out to Howie Whoeverberg for a Chrysler LeBaron).

Matt: It’s there in the movie. Alec switching from Democrat to Republican, the obsession with getting a good job or a better job. Mare Winningham’s relationship with her dad. And most of all, that astounding bit in the welfare office where Winningham is trying to have an authentic human connection with the welfare mom, and she just repeats, “Give me my damn check.” She’s got three kids, two obviously from non-white fathers. And then Schumacher cuts to a wide shot, revealing that she’s got TWO MORE KIDS. Talk about “ba-doom tiss”! It’s a Reaganite sight gag. The message is, “What’s the point of caring about the less fortunate? They’re just greedy assholes like everyone else. So why not be a greedy asshole yourself?”

Sarah: But Wendy’s the only one who’s happy at the end, kind of. I mean, she’s sad that Billy took her hymen and went to New York. (That’s my first country album.) But that particular “just give me the check” scene annoyed me because nobody else in the welfare office at the time seemed to be non-white.

Matt: And don’t you just know that they cast a white woman as the welfare mom to deflect accusations of racism? They might as well have just made her black and have her pull up to the welfare office in her Cadillac. Why dance around it?

Ali: I think she should have had a rainbow of children: not only is she poor, but she’s fucked the whole neighbourhood. Black, White, Cuban or Asian. Party in the city where the heat is on, etc. One of them has pointy eyebrows and pointy ears. The other one’s a fish.

Matt: One of the children is Inuit, and is wearing a furry parka and holding a small harpoon with a fish dangling on the end.

Sarah: And the fish is made of crack.

Matt: “Mommy, can we go now? I ate all my crack fish. I need another crack fish, Mommy.”

Ali: Was this before or after the sex tape, by the way? Rob Lowe’s, obviously. Not Matt’s.

Matt: Before.

Sarah: Op. cit. Bad Influence.

Matt: I had two sex tapes. Lowe’s was in between.

Ali: I am taping one now.

Matt: Wow. Great minds!

Sarah: In between your two sex tapes?

Matt: I was wearing a parka in both. It’s my signature.

Sarah: Oh, that’s your signature.

Matt: My porn name was Nanooky.

Sarah: You are fired.

Ali: Mine is Colonel Knob.

Matt: You were promoted!

Ali: I am touching the screen with my nipples. “BILLY!”

Sarah: Any closing thoughts? Besides that Keith is going to have us all killed?

Ali: Always take off your two-metre-long pearl necklace before Andrew McCarthy fucks you in the shower.

Sarah: Crack is wack.

Matt: Stay in school, kids.

St. Arikan's Fire

Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication. He is a regular contributor to The House Next Door, Edward Copeland on Film and Roger Ebert’s website.

St. Bunting's Fire

Sarah D. Bunting talks movies, baseball, and baseball movies at TomatoNation.com.

St. Seitz's Fire

Matt Zoller Seitz is a Brooklyn-based critic and filmmaker and the founder of The House Next Door.

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Review: Ophelia Wants, and Fails, to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon

Transforming Ophelia’s abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of Hamlet.

1.5

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Ophelia
Photo: IFC Films

Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein of the same name, Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of the troubled Danish prince’s would-be betrothed. Here, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) is a tomboy forced into court-life femininity, her tragedy rewritten as a triumph, but it’s hard to say that she comes out, in the end, either as a more full-blooded character or as a girl-power icon.

Given Hamlet’s sustained cultural influence, Ophelia might be described as the original “refrigerator woman,” the girlfriend or wife whose shocking death serves to motivate the male main character to action. In Shakespeare’s play, the vengeance-obsessed Hamlet callously drives her to suicide, first by spurning her as part of his insanity charade, and then by accidentally murdering her father, Polonius. Gone mad due to her lover’s too-perfect performance of madness, Ophelia drowns herself in a river, her death exacerbating both Hamlet’s anguish and his simmering feud with her brother, Laertes.

In the film, Ophelia recounts her side of the story in voiceover: how she, the common-born daughter of an advisor to the Danish crown, was taken in by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and raised as one of her handmaidens; how she became privy to Gertrude’s affair with the king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, glowering throughout from within a villainously matted Severus Snape wig); and how she fell in love with Hamlet (George MacKay), the crown prince with the awful bowl cut. But first, the film opens with a fake-out, the camera skimming along the water of a river until it lands on Ophelia’s floating body, surrounded by water lilies and other vegetation in a vision of tragic, all-natural femininity. It turns out that she’s alive, and that floating peacefully in the river is just a habit of hers, which has the unintentional effect of fooling us into thinking the film’s about to end every time Ophelia slinks into the water.

Ophelia looks and feels like a syndicated ‘90s television special, with its blandly lit sets, skeletal romance between the girlish Ophelia and its bro-ish version of Hamlet, and haphazard imagining of 15th-century speech and customs. The film can never quite decide whether it should be exploding or paying homage to Shakespeare’s text. What we see isn’t simply the events of the play from Ophelia’s perspective, but it also isn’t something radically new. Unintentional humor results: In the well-known scene from the play in which Hamlet first maniacally spurns Ophelia, they whisper secret messages to each other between simplified Shakespearean lines—margin notes as dialogue. Rather than an alternate take on the play, such moments simply shoehorn new material into the old. Other lines clumsily rewrite the play’s sexism by turning Hamlet’s verbal abuse into lovers’ code: When Hamlet advises Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s just telling her to hide out from the coming violence.

McCarthy’s film concocts an original plot involving a medicine woman in the woods outside the castle who’s a dead ringer for the queen (and is also played by Watts), which ultimately places Ophelia in the Danish grand hall as the bloody climax from Hamlet plays out. In this moment, Ophelia, who’s been known to everyone in the court since childhood, improbably passes as a male page because her shock of red hair is a few inches shorter. It might be argued that resonant whispers and unlikely misrecognitions are a part of the Shakespeare toolbox, but Ophelia otherwise makes few pretentions to replicating the tropes of the Elizabethan stage. Early in the film there’s some woeful faux-Shakespearean banter between Hamlet and Ophelia, but the filmmakers quickly abandon a dialogue-driven approach in favor of a plot-heavy structure of court intrigue and scandalous revelations.

Ophelia, in fact, ends the film at a nunnery, a twist which completes the process of transforming Hamlet’s abusive words—symbols in the original play of the blurry line between cruelty and its simulation—into the signs of true love. In the end, Ophelia’s no longer defined by her victimhood, but transforming her abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of English literature’s most well-known drama.

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George McKay, Tom Felton, Dominic Mefham Director: Claire McCarthy Screenwriter: Semi Chellas Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up

The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

1.5

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Annabelle Comes Home
Photo: New Line Cinema

The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.

Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.

In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.

Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.

The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.

Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family

The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

2.5

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Three Peaks
Photo: Greenwich Entertainment

Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?

At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.

The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.

Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.

One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident

Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.

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The Other Story
Photo: Strand Releasing

Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.

It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.

As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.

While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.

Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón

Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.

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Chulas Fronteras
Photo: Argot Pictures

Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.

Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.

Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.

If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.

Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.

Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.

More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.

And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”

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Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects

Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.

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Maiden
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.

The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.

Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.

By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.

Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018

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The Best Films of 2019 So Far

Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.

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Transit
Photo: Music Box Films

In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.

And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.

But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.

That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown


3 Faces

3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)

Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac


Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)

The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac


The Beach Bum

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg


Birds of Passage

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)

A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti


Black Mother

Black Mother (Khalik Allah)

Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray

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Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same

By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

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Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.

The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.

It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.

Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.

The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.

As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.

Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.

The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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