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You, the Horror: Halloween II

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You, the Horror: Halloween II

Seeing it during a holiday-themed re-release on October 30th, 2009 (as opposed to the day itself), I encountered Rob Zombie’s Halloween II> with the intention of burying the director, whose Devil’s Rejects remains one of the few films out of which I didn’t just walk but stormed. (I endured most of it, almost out of a kind of “can’t let the terrorists win” spite, but left just prior to the Skynyrd-scored finale, which my date at the time told me was “awesome.”) As remakes go—and I’m not confident that a shoestring-budgeted sequel to an estranged and equally bargain-basement “reboot” can properly qualify to be called “a remake”—I can’t say that Halloween II> tried any harder than Rejects to charm its way into my heart. Sure, it lacks the “let’s hire some kick-ass film school grad to run this popsicle stand” braggadocio that earmarks certain of its kin; neither is it underpinned by J.J. Abrams’ “Always Be Closing” school of event filmmaking.

Zombie is (or would have you take him for) a blue-collar, steak-and-potatoes-and-Heineken kinda guy, and he doesn’t subscribe to Penthouse Letters but rather some garage-pressed Bible-belt titty rag of ill repute. He is (or would have you take him for) the trucker with the Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes) caricature peeing into the distance emblazoned on his mudflaps. He is (or would have you take him for) the real Red State nightmare. He loves him some carnage and seems to view everything else either as a pause between meals or as a necessary appendage. Yet within Halloween II>, among its cornerstones and arches, there exists compelling, even hypnotic imagery and cutting that suggest a film artist of formidable ability, either trapped or validated (who can say?) by his own leering, butcher-shop hedonism. This is not a new story, since it is practically one of the basic tenets of auteurism that the seeds of artistry often flourish in grounds that are ostensibly the least fertile.

Judging by Zombie’s output since he turned to filmmaking in 1999 (the year he began production on House of 1000 Corpses) the 44-year-old musician-producer-director is a shrewd businessman, but, like a handful of his colleagues, he is also a film student. Movie references abound, casual and explicit. The Devil’s Rejects stops dead in its tracks for what feels like an eternity while a Gene Shalit lookalike jabbers poetic on the subject of Otto Preminger’s underappreciated ‘60s output, including Skidoo and Exodus. In Halloween II>, Malcolm McDowell’s Professor Loomis quotes Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge verbatim. The filmmaker himself has hosted a special series on Turner Classic Movies called “TCM Underground,” in its inauguration serving up two battered and bruised classics by Ed Wood, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster.

All that aside, he also appears to expend considerable effort making his films look like he couldn’t care less. About anything. Giving John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s source material a wide, wide berth, Halloween II> shares nothing with the original’s sequel except a revelation about the heroine’s family tree and a significant amount of screen time devoted to a post-traumatic stay at the hospital. Essentially a film about a monster who wanders around making work for the city morgue, it looks and feels fast and crude, as if shot for pocket change over the course of a busy weekend. (It may have actually helped that I saw it at New York’s dingy City Cinemas Village East, with its wallet-sized projection, ever so delicately out of focus, instead of waiting—as is my preference—for tack-sharp, you-are-there, commodified Blu-ray.) While Zombie’s budgets are modest, his revenue stream is always wider. He spends a nickel and earns a dime, like clockwork. (According to the publicly-maintained Internet Movie Database, the budget for his Halloween sequel was actually smaller than the 2007 original.)

Such is the age of the cinema of fast, cheap and out of control. Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project and, most recently, Paranormal Activity, headline the age when feature-length narratives of YouTube pedigree (by stylistic choice or by necessity) compete against multi-million dollar corporate franchises. Compete and, often as not, prevail. Halloween II> is not a work of hi-def or standard-def video. It was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition, already a destabilizing move that resembles decomposition, but its overall aesthetic proves to be that of the YouTube era. It looks to have been shot on butcher paper, the dialogue is abysmal, and it is practically avant-garde in its slack efforts towards erecting character arcs with which to span the lengths between one elaborate setpiece and the next. (It has this in common with John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, but this is not an exclusive set by any means.) And given the treatment of the mustachioed film buff in Rejects—wasn’t he pistol-whipped?—one is not merely reluctant to read anything artistically worthy in Zombie’s calculatedly crude horror-sideshows, one is downright terrified. Begone, critics, you have no power here!

Preminger—with his supple, long pans and 3-D space—it ain’t. Nor is it methodical, screw-tightening Carpenter: You could easily claim that Zombie rebels against his professor (I hesitate to say “master”) whose fringe-to-rock star success with the 1978 Halloween easily ranks with Citizen Kane in the annals of “you can do it!” self-pep talks for indie filmmakers. Recall, however, that Carpenter’s The Thing was a gravestone rubbing of the Hawks original that the uninformed deemed disrespectful, bordering on nihilistic. Kind of the same thing occurs with Zombie; if you can get past his crumpled cum-sock aesthetic (which is tonal as well as visual), you are likely to see that the manner of his homage goes the route of pagan vandalism and cannibalism, rather than strictly Judeo-Christian exaltation. Where Carpenter juiced the setup to the max, and used the blood & guts as relief, Zombie’s film remains amped at all times, always occupying a space of severed bone, the screams of its owner, and the hands that got us there, if not always the mind. The same aesthetic dominates porn—any shots that aren’t money shots are bullshit.

As he employs his editors, Zombie doesn’t just fail to pay respect to narrative pacing, he obliterates the very concept of pacing. You get the sense that, if he had his druthers, everything in the movie would happen at once, rationalized by arguing: Let’s face it, all this in-between shit is boring, and we’re all here for the skull-stomping and the gut-spilling. In the cutting room, Zombie’s style is closer to a good friend’s characterization of John Cassavetes—that of a mad TV producer barking orders to switch to Camera B or C or whatnot during a live telecast. Yet even with an itchy trigger-finger, an aesthetic can bloom, sometimes counter to the brain’s stated intentions. He’s the only director I can think of, offhand, who so frequently cuts between swaths of coverage (i.e. scene-setting wide shots) without a hint of Soderberghian, temporal ellipses. The most striking cuts in the film are, in terms of serving a conventional narrative purpose, the most anonymous: My favorite example, early in the film, involves a basic, unadorned wide shot of the Brackett residence that cuts to an even wider shot (but not that wide) of the same subject. Zombie will also employ the same effect , giving practically no notice, in medium framing, eerily confident (and correct) that his audience will not be shaken out of the narrative by the risk of mismatched performances. These choices lack the busy-busy-busy affectation of Michael Bay and his progeny, nor do they lend themselves to the invisibility of “professional” editors. In his own way, Zombie finds a distinctive voice using devil-may-care editing and coverage that can otherwise blight the work of most self-taught writer-directors.

In fact, Zombie’s editing within a sequence seems to elongate the action, or inaction, suggesting stasis rather than forward narrative motion. His characters seem merely to inhabit one waiting room or another while Myers’ bearded, mountain man killer wanders from homicide to homicide, each one creatively different than the last. The poorest section of the film is the one where Zombie “tries” the hardest: an extended fantasy-hallucination sequence that requires the kind of Maddin-esque decision-making that doesn’t really come naturally to him. But the rest of the film, even with other, more casual depictions of Michael Myers’ white-horse visions (an image that is both Lynchian and Coulterian, i.e. the “Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos), is played at an insistent register of both dread and disgust. Even when it details the mundane, not-yet-bloody-again lives of Strode, Brackett, Loomis, et al, the Zombie aesthetic displays a consistently mildewy, liquor-store atmosphere. Faces typically fill the frame at oblique angles and show off a decay of their own. Myers eats a dog’s viscera and Zombie cuts it against Sheriff Brackett (a “straight” Brad Dourif) unknowingly mocking the same act with a slice of pizza. In an early, utterly mesmerizing shot, a crash victim pukes blood and utters “fuck” over and over and over and over again in what appears either to be the onset of brain damage, or a word of talismanic power, to protect him from the temptation to appraise the spilled brains of his partner.

If television changed our relationship with movies by making our attendance more casual, by encouraging a sense of “change the channel” in our social behavior, then the Internet continues to refine these instincts with the hypnotic pull of surfing. (Try watching an entire movie on your handheld device, front to back, without taking a break.) The movies, in general, responded to television by upping the “event” ante. CinemaScope, 3-D, stereophonic sound. One offshoot was the increased explicitness of horror, because you can’t argue against the logic that wherever there’s a horrible car accident, people stop and stare. You can’t take horror’s bloody, gooey book of business and expect to make it pay on television. Zombie understands that about as well as the next guy, and Halloween II> barely exists if not to survey the warpath of giant-ghost-thing Michael Myers. Sequences of shots that do not contain violence, i.e. the “in-between shit,” share the slaughter setpieces’ abandoned-parking-lot visual aesthetic: cold, stone-gray, industrial—bad things happened here. On a meta-, cultural level, he also seems to intuit that “You can’t stop what’s coming,” and that his audience may find it easy to look away from his images, elegant and inelegant alike, not necessarily out of disgust or boredom, but out of a ’net-derived inattentiveness. Disinterest rather than resistance. Or they’re texting to tell their friends whether or not the movie is awesome, or sucks.

Like the work of horror writer Thomas Ligotti, who put the image of “gas station carnivals” into our minds, Zombie’s rot and degradation feels continuously, stubbornly vital—if “alive” isn’t quite the word we’re looking for here. Ligotti, a Michigan-born writer unknown even to most fans of horror fiction, doesn’t share much with Zombie in terms of agenda or style. His protagonists, luckless as they often are, are frequently the dregs of urban and/or academic spheres, educated but wearing second-hand coats, obsessing over myths or disreputable objects. (He would not feel at home valorizing a redneck band of outlaw cannibals.) The back-alley pharmacist’s assistant in “The Clown Puppet” cannot get over himself and his unique lot in an incessantly phantasmagorical life even when he intuits correctly that he’s just a bystander in someone else’s nightmare. Yet, connecting strands abound.

Zombie’s version of Loomis shares with Ligotti’s author character, Alice (“Alice’s Last Adventure”), a deep sense of entitled, bourgeois discontent, as they are both impatient with the scaffolding required to keep the gears of their financial liquidity in motion, drawn perhaps not unwillingly back into the abyss to which they truly owe the debt of their success. Most horror writers and aficionados are familiar with the concept that fear isn’t fear, and horror isn’t horror, unless the attraction is as strong as the repulsion. In terms of setting, physical and spiritual, the careworn shop at which Laurie Strode is employed is precisely the kind of “not quite a coffee shop, not quite a vintage bookstore” setting we might expect to find in Ligotti’s “Teatro Grottesco,” “Gas Station Carnivals,” or “The Bungalow House.” And there’s the small matter of her nightmares pursuing her into daytime.

Zombie’s elevation of the Myers killer into the supernatural is prime Ligotti. The vehicle of Laurie Myers-Strode’s fate appears in one Ligotti story after another, as device, conclusion, casual offing, or theme: not merely to be haunted by familial blood but to be subsumed utterly by it. That’s a horror that extends beyond its own genre—Douglas Sirk, for example, exploited the angle in his 1954 melodrama, Magnificent Obsession, in which a playboy’s ultimate act of contrition is to become a widow’s dead husband’s resurrection; Stanley Kubrick used “you are digesting me” horror in several films, including A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, as did Robert Aldrich, arguably, in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. And one needs hardly mention Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Tod Browning’s Freaks—as it depicts the elusive “fate worse than death,” i.e. you are still you but you no longer belong to yourself.

As Zombie closes the second Halloween, he leaves the door ajar to underwrite, of course, another sequel, but also tips his hat to the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Psycho: at the end of way more horizontal space than any mental patient could ever hope to inhabit (which also cites Kubrick by way of a long dolly into an actor’s fixed glare), Strode-Myers still exists but she has merged with the phantom of the boy Michael, himself long since devoured by the mountain man. Will the thirtysomething Laurie sport an unkempt beard? That would be truly scary.

Jaime N. Christley sells used automobiles in a questionable suburb of the great city, in the shadow of a magnificent baseball stadium; his jangly-nerved, bar-napkin jottings on disreputable cinematic objects and subjects are made corporeal on Out, damned spot!.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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