“We are the other people
We are the other people
We are the other people
You’re the other people too!
Found a way to get to you”
– “Mother People”, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
With the end of this pandemic finally within sight, life is starting to pick up and it’s looking safe for the Frida to open its doors again! COVID safety guidelines will still be in place, but I’m sure many will just be happy to watch movies in a darkened theater with other people once again. Though we’re having our official “soft” opening this week with screenings of Dazed and Confused, I like to think that the return of monthly The Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings (and with them KAOS, the Frida’s resident shadow cast) has been a fitting sign that things are getting better for our theater. Playing the second Friday of every month at our Tustin Mess Hall drive-ins since January, the madcap musical takes young lovers Brad and Janet on a wild ride through the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a singing, crossdressing mad scientist who introduces the straight-laced couple to the pleasures of the flesh. Largely ignored by critics and audiences upon its initial release in 1975, the movie has since become a cult classic thanks to its devoted fanbase, who keep it alive with late-night, audience participation-friendly screenings across the country, if not the world.
Featuring LGBT characters and themes at time when homosexuality and other non-heteronormative activity was suppressed and even criminalized, the appeal of Rocky Horror has always been in large part due to its resonance with those who were perceived and treated as misfits or outcasts. Even as progress has marched on and society has become more accepting of LGBT people, the film still speaks to those who feel like they struggle with fitting in or relating to others. This is part of a long, storied tradition in musicals—that most polarizing of film genres—of taking stories and topics that viewers might be uninterested or even hostile towards and getting them to nod along as the cast sings and dances about those very things. It’s not particular to alternative productions like Rocky Horror: beloved classics that generation after generation have grown up on like The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof directly tackle such weighty issues as racial/religious prejudice and defying authority.
However, we’re not going to talk about any musicals that your grandma might have the soundtrack to today! We’re going to take a look at ones that elevate bombast over subtlety, style over reality, and the unusual over the mundane in their quest to subvert the audience’s expectations and worldview. So tell Rodgers and Hammerstein to take a hike, tell Julie Andrews that you love her, and let your freak flag fly as we embark on a tour of misfit musicals!
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Originally staged as a theatrical production written and produced by Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show is a rocking and bopping love letter to Gothic horror and science fiction, particularly the films of Hammer Horror (which I previously discussed in another post.) Indeed, Oakley Court, the country house used as the exterior of Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s castle, was similarly used in a number of Hammer productions like The Reptile and The Brides of Dracula. Another less-commonly noted connection is the fact that Frank’s monster, Rocky Horror, has the appearance of a healthy, even attractive man, a twist on the Frankenstein legend already used to dramatic effect in Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein. Though the Hammer references may not be as apparent to viewers raised on newer generations of horror, Rocky Horror remains an outrageously entertaining viewing experience (and even more so when viewed with a talented shadow cast like KAOS.)
As diehard Rocky fans will be sure to tell you, every cast member here is a star in their own right. Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon, of course, are pitch perfect as Brad and Janet, fully embodying the stereotypical qualities of this seemingly all-American couple before unraveling them as the movie goes on and things get weird. Similarly, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, and “Little” Nell Campbell are all delightfully diverting as Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia, the servants and groupies of Frank-N-Furter. Yet if everyone is equally a star in this film, then the first among equals is Frank himself, brought to luscious life by Tim Curry in his first film ever. Completely giving himself over to the role, the future Pennywise actor isn’t shy about using his sultry voice and playfully villainous charisma to entice the audience and win their affection.
Just as intoxicating as the cast are the songs, all of which were written by O’Brien, to say nothing of impossibly catchy. The obvious classics like “Sweet Transvestite” and “Time Warp” are fan favorites with good reason, what with their funky guitar riffs and unforgettable choruses. “Science Fiction/Double Feature”, the opening number, is a melodiously mellow paean to classic sci-fi films like King Kong and The Day The Earth Stood Still sung by O’Brien in a rather alluring falsetto. However, the tracks that tend to get overlooked are excellent in their own ways. Rocky’s song, “The Sword of Damocles”, is a short but lively ditty that evokes the sound of surf rock with its tremulous vocals and backing harmonies. Without a doubt though, the one everyone sleeps the hardest on is “Super Heroes”. Playing after the departure of the Transylvanians and cut from the original American release, it’s a dark piece describing Brad and Janet’s loss of innocence backed by dirge-like piano and a mournful guitar. To make things even grimmer, it’s played completely straight, meaning this previously funny, freewheeling movie wants us take this depressing moment entirely at face value.
“…if everyone is equally a star in this film, then the first among equals is Frank himself, brought to luscious life by Tim Curry in his first film ever. Completely giving himself over to the role, the future Pennywise actor isn’t shy about using his sultry voice and playfully villainous charisma to entice the audience and win their affection.”
With increased acceptance of LGBT people and expression in the past couple decades, it’s easy to forget just how transgressive Rocky Horror was when it came out. While Frank’s crossdressing and bisexual inclinations are hardly shocking to viewers’ today, his willingness to deceive people into having sex with him, verbally abuse others, and engage in cannibalism might snap them back to reality and make them realize that, for all how sad his death is supposed to be in the context of the film, Frank-N-Furter is a pretty horrible person. It’s an aspect of the story that complicates the carefree, “do what thou wilt” message that many seem to take away from the movie, and it’s undermined even further when you take “Super Heroes” into account. Explaining that, after all the hedonistic pleasure they got to indulge in, Brad and Janet are now “lost in time, lost in space… and meaning”, the song indicates that the two lost much more than they gained from their experience.
Nothing less than a cultural institution at this point, The Rocky Horror Picture Show still lives up to its reputation as both the original midnight movie and an unashamed celebration of LGBT identity.
Hedwig and The Angry Inch (2001)
It could be argued that John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch shares quite a bit in common with Rocky Horror. Adapted from an earlier musical by Mitchell and Stephen Trask in the way that Rocky was based on a stage show, both also feature rock music and explore issues of LGBT identity. But while Rocky Horror largely revels in its own decadence, Hedwig has a more melancholy tone, and understandably so. A survivor of a botched sex change operation that she only consented to out of desperation to escape from communist East Germany, Hedwig struggles to make it big as a rock singer and confront an ex who stole her music, all while trying to come to terms with her identity in a society that views her as neither man nor woman, East nor West. Truthfully, it’s a premise that does have the makings of a great farce, but there’s little that’s farcical about it thanks to Mitchell’s surprisingly sincere direction.
The heart and soul of this heartful, soul-stirring movie is Hedwig herself, played with astounding authenticity by Mitchell himself. Playing our heroine as catty and confident on the stage and in the bandroom but vulnerable and confused in her monologues to the audience, Mitchell is able to navigate the different layers of Hedwig’s identity and show the intense feelings of hurt that lie beneath them. He does affect an accent for the role but it’s done fairly well, indicating the character’s East German origins without reaching Mel Brooks levels of ridiculousness. As such, there’s little room for the rest of the cast to truly shine, though they all do turn in respectable performances. Actress Mariam Shor gets the most mileage out of the supporting players in a gender-bending performance as Hedwig’s husband and bandmate Yitzhak, but Cube’s Maurice Dean Wint also pops up here as Sgt. Luther Robinson, the duplicitous American soldier who sweeps Hedwig off her feet and then drops her like a hot potato.
Unsurprisingly, much of the music has a punk-rock bent, with songs like “Tear Me Down” and “Angry Inch” having the brash, frenetic energy so associated with the genre. Adding to the rough quality of the songs is Mitchell’s decision to record many of his singing parts live during filming, giving his vocals an added layer of rawness before mixing them in with the portions of the music that were recorded in studio. That being said, the movie has an equal amount of slower, softer songs, injecting healthy doses of both sorrow and tenderness to the soundtrack. Among these sorrowful, tender tunes is “The Origin of Love”, a tear-jerking performance from Hedwig about her desire to find her “other half”. Drawing from a speech by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, the song blends mythology-inspired lyrics with angst-ridden vocals to not only convey the immense sense of loss that Hedwig feels but make viewers feel it as well.
“Unsurprisingly, much of the music has a punk-rock bent, with songs like ‘Tear Me Down’ and ‘Angry Inch’ having the brash, frenetic energy so associated with the genre. Adding to the rough quality of the songs is Mitchell’s decision to record many of his singing parts live during filming, giving his vocals an added layer of rawness before mixing them in with the portions of the music that were recorded in studio.”
In contrast to the Angry Inch’s punk orientation, a colorful, almost-glam rock aesthetic pervades the film. Hedwig, for starters, is partial to flamboyant outfits and accessories like shiny tops, tremendous wigs, and a star-embroidered cape that reads “Yankee Go Home With Me”. The bars and restaurants she and her bandmates play in are often drenched in fluorescent, neon-hued lighting that covers the spectrum from pink and red to green and blue. But the most potent visual element of the film has to be the animated portions done by Emily Hubley for “The Origin of Love”. Relaying the song’s tragic story in simplistic, hand-drawn animation, Hubley’s work leaves us with a curiously cryptic message: the words “deny me and be doomed”, tagged on the Berlin Wall by a young man as a disembodied eye watches him. A striking image, it’s haunting in its ambiguity but also penetrating through the sheer power of those five words.
Ruminating on questions of identity and self-fulfillment, Hedwig and The Angry Inch is a powerfully poignant exploration of the human condition balanced by the beauty of its songs and brief moments of levity.
The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Strange by the already-generous standards of alternative musicals, Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible might strike even viewers used to the antics of Rocky Horror and Hedwig as weird. An Australian musical from the 80’s, the movie is also a parody of comic books and superhero films to boot, presumably in response to the popularity of the Christopher Reeve Superman series around that time. Yet one can only wonder what all exactly the thought process was behind this production since it also throws in an origin story involving aliens, references to McCarthyism, and, as if to directly acknowledge influence from Rocky Horror, a brief instance of cross-dressing. This connection is strengthened by the fact that Richard O’Brien contributed a couple songs to the soundtrack, while one of the film’s screenwriters, Steven E. de Souza, would go on to direct Street Fighter, another film awash in action-packed camp. But as jumbled as the movie’s different elements and ideas are, there’s a half-knowing, half-earnest charm that holds the whole thing together.
Befitting its deconstructive approach to superhero lore, the movie casts its main star decidedly against type. Previously portraying Catch-22’s Yossarian (another high-flying captain who finds himself way in over his head) and later going on to play the grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine, Alan Arkin is an unconventional choice for a Superman/Captain America-style hero: with his nasal Brooklyn accent, harsh facial features, and slightly soft build, he isn’t exactly Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans but nevertheless shines as the offbeat avenger. Bringing humor but also an unexpected amount of pathos to the character, Arkin’s transformation from drunken schlub to all-American icon is both believable and deeply gratifying to ordinary, perhaps even broken people who dream of being heroes in their own way. Facing him is a most worthy adversary in the form of Mr. Midnight, a diabolical would-be genocidaire—who may or may not be the Devil himself—played to the hammy hilt by Hammer Horror fixture Christopher Lee, with Western movie regular Michael Pate also getting in some memorable moments as the American President.
A satire of American exceptionalism as much as it is one of comic books, it’s only appropriate that the film’s soundtrack lifts and borrows from various genres of American music. Naturally, rock is well represented with numbers like “Evil Midnight” and the peppy “Captain Invincible”, but other styles like country and gospel are also gently parodied with songs like the captain’s “Amazing How They’re Alike” and the President’s “We Need A Hero”. Arkin—again, he of the nasal Brooklyn accent—comports himself surprisingly well during the singing portions of the movie, even turning in a particularly powerful performance with the soothing crooning of the all too short “Into The Blue”. Stealing the show, however, is Lee (in his only live-action singing role after The Wicker Man) with Mr. Midnight’s showstopper, “Name Your Poison”. Written, of course, by Richard O’Brien and depicting Midnight’s temptation of Captain Invincible with his one and only weakness of alcohol, it’s a rocking good tune made all the more devious and debonair by Lee’s lush baritone.
“…Alan Arkin is an unconventional choice for a Superman/Captain America-style hero: with his nasal Brooklyn accent, harsh facial features, and slightly soft build, he isn’t exactly Christopher Reeve or Chris Evans but nevertheless shines as the offbeat avenger. Bringing humor but also an unexpected amount of pathos to the character, Arkin’s transformation from drunken schlub to all-American icon is both believable and deeply gratifying to ordinary, perhaps even broken people who dream of being heroes in their own way.”
With a measly budget of $7 million (Australian dollars, at that), the movie relies on its surreal humor and offbeat sensibility to overcome its confusing moments and wanting special effects. The limitations of the latter are plentifully on display during the captain’s flight scenes, with him “soaring” in place as a green screen rolls stock footage of New York, Sydney, or the sky behind him. Where the cinematography does land though, is the aerial footage actually shot for the film, particularly several of the establishing shots of the aforementioned cities. However, the most effective use of such footage has to be the opening credits, which sweep across the Australian wilderness as an inebriated Captain Invincible staggers around a mountaintop and sings bits of Leonard Bernstein’s “New York, New York”. From our lofty point of view, the captain appears to be a small, pitiful man, making his eventual return to the sky and herodom all the more grand.
While perhaps a bit scatterbrained in its narrative and a little too ambitious for a project of this scope and budget, The Return of Captain Invincible is nevertheless a superb superhero musical and, as of this post, still the best one out there!
Based on the life of the 19th century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, you’d probably expect Lisztomania to be fairly dry. Yet in the hands of director Ken Russell (whose avant-garde oeuvre I also covered in a previous post), it’s about as far from dry as you can get. Released the same year as Russell’s film adaptation of The Who’s album Tommy, Lisztomania is a spiritual sequel of sorts to that movie that manages to go even farther in its attempts to provoke a reaction from the audience. Creatively interpreting the facts of its protagonist’s life and career, the film takes tidbits of documented history and stretches them to wild, often anachronistic extremes. Liszt’s popularity as a concert pianist, for example, serves as a pretext for the movie to portray him as a literal pop star, pounding the piano as throngs of screaming girls—who probably wish that he was pounding something else—try to storm the stage (it helps that he’s played by Roger Daltrey, a real-life rock star as well as the star of Tommy.) Believe it or not, this is the least weird thing about the movie, and it only gets weirder from here on out!
One might argue that it’s a stretch to call what the cast is doing here “acting” since a lot of it is really them simply reacting to whatever onscreen absurdity Russell has devised, but truth be told there are some entertaining—if not intensely moving—performances here. Daltrey is in top form as Liszt, bringing a waggish appeal and a convincing level of musicianship to the womanizing pianist (it also helps that he kind of looks like the historical Liszt.) As likable as Daltrey’s Liszt is though, it’s his nemesis, Paul Nicholas’ Richard Wagner, who holds the audience’s attention in every scene he’s in. Reimagining the German opera composer as a foppish mad Nazi vampire scientist (yep, you read that right) bent on paving the way for the “Superman”—and he doesn’t mean Clark Kent—with his music, Nicholas plays Wagner completely over the top, making him a comically evil figure instead of a disturbing one.
There’s also some surprisingly familiar faces among the supporting cast too. Nell Campbell, Rocky Horror’s very own Columbia, appears in a bit role as “Mr.” Janina, an amorous woman who travels all the way from Ukraine disguised as a nun and beds Liszt at gunpoint. We see Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who also doubles as the film’s composer and would later work with Russell again on Crimes of Passion, as a robotic version of the Norse god Thor brought to stilted, stein-chugging life—yes, really—by Wagner’s music. However, the most noteworthy cameo has to be everybody’s favorite Beatle, Ringo Starr, as the Pope, bursting into Liszt’s chambers with movie star-encrusted regalia and cowboy boots before dispatching the hapless Hungarian to exorcise Wagner. It already sounds like a lot to take in, but it’s nothing compared to what else the movie has in store for unsuspecting viewers!
With Wakeman arranging a number of Liszt and Wagner compositions to fit the movie’s rock opera sensibilities, the result is a predictably kitschy score that probably hasn’t aged very well but certainly captures the silliness of the 70’s. That means we get to hear garish, synth-heavy renditions of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and the immortal Ride of the Valkyries along with several more conventional arrangements of other pieces. While the silliness does carry over to most of the songs, there are exceptions, as seen in several sung by Daltrey. Wielding the full force of his legendary, raspy voice, the Who frontman brings a scratchily soulful quality to tunes (some of which he contributed lyrics to) like the guilty, regretful “Funerailles” and the longing, euphoric “Orpheus Song”, making these moments the closest the movie the gets to anything resembling serious emotion. Of course, it wouldn’t be a musical if the villain didn’t get a noteworthy number of their own, and Wagner definitely does with “Excelsior Song”, a brooding, bass-heavy song whose lulling vocals seduce but whose lyrics, describing a “messiah” who will one day drive “the beast” from Germany, chill.
“While the silliness does carry over to most of the songs, there are exceptions, as seen in several sung by Daltrey. Wielding the full force of his legendary, raspy voice, the Who frontman brings a scratchily soulful quality to tunes (some of which he contributed lyrics to) like the guilty, regretful ‘Funerailles’ and the longing, euphoric ‘Orpheus Song’, making these moments the closest the movie the gets to anything resembling serious emotion.”
Stimulating as the music is, what will likely stick most with viewers is the ludicrous imagery that Russell so lovingly conjures. Being the good Catholic that he is, Russell incorporates a healthy dose of religious iconography like crucifixes and portraits of saints that might play well to the family values crowd, but as he so often does, the Devils director subverts it with shocking displays of un-family-friendly material. Between topless women, fascist symbolism, and penises—if there’s one thing this movie loves more than boobs, swastikas, and classical music, it’s penises—there’s something that’s guaranteed to offend absolutely everyone here. It’s difficult to go into detail here, but one particular scene, depicting an erotic dream of Liszt’s that will, shall we say, leave any men watching with sudden, severe feelings of inadequacy, deserves special mention. Viewer discretion is most definitely advised, but those who can stomach the deliberate inanity and offensiveness are in for a gratuitously good time.
A profoundly absurd movie by any metric, Lisztomania avoids the blandness of way too many biopics by taking a potentially-dull subject, interpreting it in the most outlandish, most extravagant way possible, and inviting viewers to laugh their asses off at it.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
No list of offbeat musicals would be complete without Little Shop of Horrors, a timeless story about love, urban squalor, and singing, man-eating plants. Directed by Frank Oz (who, in addition to being a sorely-underrated filmmaker, was also the puppeteer behind Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, and several other Muppets), the film is an adaptation on the off-Broadway play of the same name, which in turn was based on a now relatively-obscure B-movie by—who else?—Roger Corman. As such, the movie is a humorous homage to the low-budget sci-fi titles churned out by Corman and American International Pictures during the 50’s and 60’s in the way that Rocky Horror was one to Hammer and Gothic horror. There may be no crossdressing mad scientists here, but there’s more than enough quirky characters and flair to make it a cult classic musical in its own right.
Essentially revolving around a cast of stereotypes, the actors here are nevertheless able to breathe a refreshing amount of life into what, in lesser hands, could just as easily have been cardboard cut-outs. Rick “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” Moranis is impeccably nerdy as our klutzy, botanically-inclined protagonist Seymour Krelborn, Ellen Greene (in a reprise of her role from the original off-Broadway show) is amusingly ditzy as the lisping, sweet-hearted Audrey, and Steve Martin struts and scowls as the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding sadist Orin Scrivello (DDS). The true star of the movie however is Levi Stubbs, who—in an aside that anyone who grew up listening to K-Earth 101 will appreciate—was also the lead vocalist for the classic Motown group The Four Tops. Lending his richly-textured voice to the bloodthirsty Audrey II, Stubbs fleshes the conniving, sweet-talking plant out and makes her as lifelike a character as any of her human co-stars.
The early 60’s influence (a nod to the era of the original Corman film) extends to the soundtrack, which incorporates elements of the various rock and R&B subgenres so characteristic of the period. The opening number is sung in the style of Phil Spector-style girl groups by the appropriately-named Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon, “Dentist!” is a twisted send-up of teenage rebel songs, and “Da Doo” is straight-up doo wop. Additionally, there are not one but two showstopping numbers here. The first is “Skid Row (Downtown)”, a downbeat but infectious ensemble performance that captures the drudgery of the characters’ lives and their hopes for something more. The second is “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space”, an irresistible, guitar-driven tune sung by Audrey II and penned by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (yes, that Alan Menken) specifically for the film. Where else are you going to see a giant, carnivorous plant sing about how much of a badass she is while trying to shoot Rick Moranis?
“The true star of the movie however is Levi Stubbs, who—in an aside that anyone who grew up listening to K-Earth 101 will appreciate—was also the lead vocalist for the classic Motown group The Four Tops. Lending his richly-textured voice to the bloodthirsty Audrey II, Stubbs fleshes the conniving, sweet-talking plant out and makes her as lifelike a character as any of her human co-stars. “
Speaking of that giant, carnivorous plant, it’s incredible how convincing the various puppets they use to render it are! With detailed textures and, in lieu of eyes, an unbelievably expressive range of lip and head movements, it’s a practical effects feat that’s made all the more impressive by the fact that the crew had to film all of Audrey II’s scenes in slow motion to make her motions more realistic. This forced Moranis and Greene to slowly lip sync their lines whenever they interacted with the plant so that they would appear to be speaking normally after the resulting footage was sped up, with audiences none the wiser. And yet, Oz and company somehow manage to top this with the infamous original ending where Audrey II eats Seymour and goes on to take over the world. Featuring marvelous model work by Richard Conway (who previously worked on Flash Gordon and Brazil) and well-crafted composite shots of the plants rampaging and people running for their lives, it’s a brilliant tribute to giant monster movies as well as a reminder that, sometimes, it’s more fun when the bad guy wins.
A love story? A critique of unchecked consumerism? An ode to old school horror and sci-fi? Little Shop of Horrors is all three, wearing each of these hats and looking bloody great in all of them.
The unfilmable novel of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez’s life was first attempted in Gregory Nava’s sprawling, cradle-to-grave biographical drama Selena (1997). An anodyne film crammed full of the Tejano star’s music yes, but nervously avoiding her soul. Selena the film was, for a time, the only depiction of the artist available to the public for twenty-four years, and in the interim after her senseless murder the banal portrait it presented built an urgent connection with audiences that were (and still are) processing her tragic end.
Last December, the streaming giant Netflix debuted the first of a family authorized two-part mini series about the late singer: Moises Zamora’s ‘Selena: The Series’, which intends to elaborate on the rest of the Quintanilla family’s perspective that was more or less absent in the film. With the advantage of a contemporary episodic structure and significantly more time than a feature, this televisual entree may yet prove successful in further contextualizing the singer’s short life (the final episodes of the series premiere in May). Confoundingly however, the last quarter century of daring, insightful, and visually electrifying biographical films made between the two Selena projects, seem to exist in some other cultural planet.
For a piece posted to IndieWire in 2018, film critic and author Richard Brody stated that the Great Biopic is one “in which an idea of history is realized along with the dramatic portraiture.” To be unconscious of a particular film’s historic period, from a production standpoint, is a missed opportunity to augment and enrich your material with layered meaning. Nava’s film resists this style in lieu of something else altogether passable, if painfully conventional.
And he can hardly be blamed for it.
Had Selena not been murdered, her image and rapidly accelerating career would have remained under her father Abraham’s ironclad legal control – as was the fashion at the time for family-managed popstars and boy bands. The emotional honesty and radical expression present in Selena’s music would unsurprisingly and unequivocally have been diluted in any cinematic depiction produced under her father’s eye, for the sake of preserving the band’s “image”. Hindered with this vague notion of “preservation”, the resulting depiction in Selena is terribly diagrammatic and profoundly in awe of it’s own specialness – like someone trying to tell you a story but who keeps stopping to react to the craziness of it.
The allegory of the ‘Superstar as savior’ plot that filmmakers so often default to tends to flatten the personality of the Artist for the sake of perpetuating reverential legacy. This is so common precisely because it is so easy to flatter an audience that has come to the theatre ready to worship at the altar of their chosen hero.
Consider the recent Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) adaptation (because I do consider these films adapted material). Made under strict compliance by the surviving members of the rock band Queen, the film suffers tremendously for how it awkwardly contorts itself around any complicated storylines related to its lead character Freddie Mercury (lest the other band members not have enough screen time). As an audience in the present, with a clear picture of the facts-of-the-matter, the film’s insistence of historical untruths reeked of opportune exploitation and a clear ineligibility to deliver on the story’s complex, sensitive nature. And yet, the film was a huge box office success, earning over $900 million worldwide.
What does it say about the state of the industry when a clearly defective piece of biographical film like this can financially succeed so dramatically?
Part of why this was so discombobulating can be traced to the year prior when audiences were treated to Loving Vincent (2017), a revolutionary hand painted animated feature about Vincent Van Gogh that weaves its iconoclastic investigation of the artist using only frames from his paintings. The execution of this visual idea supplemented the ultimately bland characterization of Van Gogh himself, but more uniquely proved that the synthesis of form and content in biographical films (especially films about well known figures) have boundaries still to be crossed, with a rabid audience ready to indulge in something more experimental; see also, At Eternity’s Gate (2018).
The problem for Selena and the Quintanilla family is the degradation to ‘brand’ that these risks can accumulate if improperly done. ‘Selena Y Los Dinos’ had cultivated a family friendly, proto-Disney image not out of mere incidence, but, by all accounts, as an intentional albatross worn on the neck of Abraham Quintanilla to guide his children away from the corruptive nature of music stardom. Indeed the basic friction between Abraham and his son-in-law, Chris Perez, stemmed from the perceived machisto attitude of the young guitarist on account of his long hair and heavy metal predilections. Certainly no filmmaker would dare to impede on this reputation.
Selena nevertheless remains an object of persistent cultural relevance precisely because of its less-is-more approach that is warmer, and more inviting than, say The Color Of Pomegranates (1969) or Schindler’s List (1993) is to its audiences. In any attempt to dramatize historical reality however, the problem of how to depict the experiential power of meeting a Great individual remains.
William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) had an elegant solution to this by keeping it’s ‘Jesus’ character almost entirely off screen, but the same could not be done in a film about a person like Selena or Freddie Mercury who are so defined by their image. And while neither film suffers from a performance standpoint (I reject any suggestion that Jennifer Lopez might somehow be miscast), the incongruity of these iconic performances and the uninspired compositions they support largely overrides its well meaning ambitions.
The biographical filmmaker of merit will have to face a dilemma when pursuing these stories: to follow the story where it takes you, like an investigative journalist does uncovering an unknown known, or to simply tell the audience what is already known. The difference between these is the difference between reproduction, and dramatization; the difference between an actor on stage hitting marks, saying dialogue, and an actor acting. Because why go to the theater otherwise?
Why spend 2 hours watching any biopic when you could, in the same amount of time or less, receive a much more informative and well rounded education on the figure with an internet search, or by listening to their albums? What frontier is left to be revealed in movies like these, especially in the Internet age?
One hopes that the filmmakers are either sitting on a powder-keg of exclusive information – a result of their privileged access to an extant source – or are otherwise deploying a radical, and necessarily risky interpretation that means to transcend words. Such interpretations run the risk of obfuscating historical details for the sake of emotional truths, but so often this is exactly the thing we find missing in films famous for their historical fidelity. Facts, but not truth.
One wonders (and perhaps hopes?) that the Future will be kinder to Selena than these depictions have been. In the Future long after most of us have gone, there may be an exciting and risky depiction of Selena artist that actually gets after who she was on the inside. Likely in the Future, such a depiction would not even need to occur on movie theater screens to reach the same audience.
The month is August. It is a day soaked in London grey. Through the window of what looks like an extended Cadillac Escalade, a man waves at three young girls on bikes who wave back for the sake of politeness; one of them yelling, “Hi, Tom!”. As they drive off, Tom Cruise ponders to a person recording on their iPhone over how he can be recognized if he’s wearing a mask. Eventually, the car pulls over at the local cinema, to which Cruise excitedly leaps out and lumbers toward a giant poster display of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, towering well over his 5’7 frame. “Here we are …”, Tom says as he walks and then stops to gesture toward the poster in front of the person (hopefully) paid to record him. As he looks at the camera with brimming confidence, he simply says, “… Back to the movies.”
But we do not stop there. We are taken inside the auditorium, in which Tom Cruise and who I believe is his Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie await the starting of the film. Two merely masked faces in a sea of them, successfully blended in. And soon, they watch. We observe their eyes taking in this experience after presumably months of not being able to return to it, recorded in a way that may or may not be legal. Until eventually, like all experiences, they end, and the lights go back up. Tom immediately breaks his obscuring by clapping the loudest, happily declaring how great it is to be back in a movie theatre, to the support of everyone else inside. Tom walks out, reinvigorated by the communal power of movie-going, strutting outside in a way that indicates his confidence in knowing it’s a power that surely won’t go away again. Movie theaters in both the U.S. and U.K. would shut down again a month later.
It’s very easy to have your emotions inform your decision-making. Not even a billionaire actor like Tom Cruise could have expected such an outcome when a video of the above experience was posted on his social media. Months later, as he would go on to make sure his filming of two back-to-back sequels to his Mission: Impossible franchise would be completed in the midst of a global pandemic that had still not even reached its peak in cases and deaths, a secretly-recorded outburst from Cruise himself made the viral waves. Loudly damning select crew members for breaking COVID safety protocols, Cruise lambasted their risking of the entire production (financed in part by Tom himself) shutting down and causing hundreds to be out-ofwork without any feasible way to provide for their families. Today I can’t help but wonder about hypocrisy getting in his way of supposedly acting in the interest of others. After all, how can the same person who is willing to provide work for those under his wing during the worst economical crisis since the Great Depression also be the same person encouraging others to go into movie theaters in a world where there were only rising numbers in cases and approximately zero vaccines available or even conceived?
I don’t think it would be bold of me to say that a fair share of us have spent the past year feeling very scared and confused. Why didn’t the pandemic end after two months like some originally hoped for? What do you mean half of California’s population will likely be diagnosed with COVID-19 at least once? I had COVID in my system without even knowing it?! Many such questions like the above are well likely to have been asked, and oftentimes the most compelled response to the general feeling of doom lingering within myself has been to try and understand the fear of others. The realm of contradicting ourselves has been one we’ll always be certain to fall into, but I feel that tracing it down to why we’ve often felt hurt, or even betrayed, by those we personally know who weren’t as willing to take their safety as seriously as ourselves, would involve drawing a fine line between two reasons. Either we want this period to end as quickly as possible, or we want to maintain the illusion that it already has. But these reasons seem to conclude the same way: people are seeking pleasure in whatever form it takes, and it’s above all possible for others to feel that those eager to seek it during a pandemic are inherently privileged in doing so, and in no way would they be wrong in thinking it. It’s all very difficult to take in.
But back to the movies. If you engage in these blog posts, then I’d like to assume that you have a longing to support not necessarily just the Frida, but the plethora of arthouses out there that rely primarily on community. We have all experienced such a drastic disruption over the past year that most of our plans almost have no choice but to run on a near-improvisational basis. But against unfathomable odds, we’ve seen a bounty of success from the various drive-ins and Virtual Cinema selections programmed since initial action was taken to close our doors. As we inch closer to our first physical screening since then with Dazed and Confused on April 20th (that way you indeed have no choice but to see it with a bud), taking its natural course is recollection. How have we coped with these alterations? How did we survive our lowest lows? And can we ever reach those highest highs again? I personally believe we still have many ways to go before we can comfortably accept the feeling of normalcy, but I also think we are propelling through that path the only way I think is possible. Slowly, rockily, but surely.
The movie theatre has become but a memory to most. Like what you’d have with a former lover, there’s a special kind of aching you feel when you long for something you can’t return to. You ceaselessly romanticize the space you had, the otherworldliness you felt as the lights dimmed and everything that would tempt you as a distraction is obscured by a screen unloading before you with light and color. Before you know it, you’re absorbed into somewhere else, and if you’re moved in the right way, then it becomes a place you couldn’t possibly want to leave behind. There’s a reason why a filmmaker like Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-Liang has gained much prominence for quarantined film fans. With borderline masterworks like The Hole, Rebels of the Neon God, or Vive L’Amour, Tsai taps into such a specific element of collective isolation that couldn’t possibly resonate more with those who had only but themselves to seek solace in over the long year. But it’s with 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn that cemented Tsai as seemingly the most seminal film artist of this period.
Set during the final screening at a Taipei movie palace, Tsai’s film conjures feelings that would otherwise be impossible to articulate. It’s a film drenched in minimalism, but the ghostliness permeating through dimmed, empty hallways and the lonely souls of its patrons is anything but minimal. As King Lu’s 1967 classic Dragon Inn plays onscreen, the atmosphere comes before anything else, even conventional narrative or dialogue. Everything you need to know and feel conveyed through spaces of an environment that may have seen much better days, but a strange beauty is nonetheless mined from beneath the surface. By the time Dragon Inn ends and the lights return, there is barely a soul left inside, yet taking its place is the notion that something is still there. We hold on a wide shot of the entire auditorium for various minutes, and it simply just holds still. With each passing second, the idea of knowing it will eventually cut sinks further within you. In a way, you almost don’t want to leave, but you know you’ll have to. But in its final moments, you’re left comforted with the feeling that it may never be fully abandoned. Each space left to itself is another ghost that stays behind.
On the opposite side, we should be endlessly grateful that the Frida will manage to resume operations in an era that has seen various businesses like it unable to survive. The most fruitful thing to consider here is that at the end of the day, and in some ways before others, people still care. And while it’s important to embrace community, one should just as equally account for the uncertainty of knowing that we’re still far from this fight being over. But steps have been taken that are too drastic to undo, and as long as more continue to hold on and put safety before themselves, whether it’s the continuation of mask-wearing or the protection of vaccination, perhaps the words of Tom Cruise himself will reverberate sooner and sooner into a time that is actually proper and just. After all, it helps to always put trust in scientists before
Throughout the history of animated film there has been numerous films that can easily described as influential to the medium as a whole; whether it be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being the first full-length traditionally animated feature film or even Toy Story for being the first computer-animated feature film. However, one film that that I feel is just as important as both of those I just mentioned, but also goes beyond the realm of animation by influencing pop culture and crossing international borders while doing it, is none other than Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 masterpiece, Akira.
Based on the 1982 manga of the same name, which was also done by Otomo, the film is set in a dystopian 2019, where it tells the story of Shōtarō Kaneda, a leader of a biker gang whose childhood friend, Tetsuo Shima, acquires incredible telekinetic abilities after a motorcycle accident, eventually threatening an entire military complex amidst chaos and rebellion in the sprawling futuristic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo.
To begin with Akira’s many influences, I think the easiest thing to start with is it’s overall impact on anime–in particular how it boosted anime’s presence in the West. While Anime is huge and way more accessible nowadays, the same really couldn’t be said back then, as it was far more obscure and elusive especially back in a pre-internet era. This is why when it started to gain a cult following via numerous theatrical and VHS releases, it was a important contributor to the eventual increase in popularity of Anime here in the West. In terms of why Akira in particular made it big, there’s two major reasons. One, there was really nothing else similar at that time aesthetically, as it created a world that was truly one of a kind. At the time of release, it was the highest budget Anime film of all time, with a budget of of 1.1 billion yen (approximately 8 million U.S. dollars). Akira is chock-filled with so many detailED scenes and fluid animation which no doubt wasn’t an easy task. It used over 160,ooo animation cels to create all of that, and put that into perspective, using cel animation essentially means that the animators had to illustrate the background, middle, and foreground of each scene on three different cels. While it’s no doubt a huge time-consuming process and such isn’t a practice that is used much anymore, it paves the way for so many iconic and downright beautiful shots that shows how much you can really accomplish within the animation. It’s truly is a work of art.
The other reason why I feel Akira developed a cult following is because it really redefined how the West perceives animation and especially was pivotal for the rise of adult animation in general. Before Akira, animation in the West was almost exclusively marketed towards children. The likes of Disney and Warner Bros. animation wasn’t necessarily considered appealing to anyone outside of children and thus animation was given a stigma that it’s only for kids which is one that while not as widely believed anymore is still one that the medium hasn’t been able to get rid of completely. But Akira changed all of that, it featured heavy topics like corruption, violence and secret experiments and the characters weren’t necessarily all that family-friendly as they were either rebellious teens, corrupted adults or strange kids with immense telekinetic abilities. Akira didn’t want to talk down to their audience, they instead wanted to transported viewers into a world that they’ve never seen before and something you never find from Disney in a million years, which at the time was something the animation industry especially in the west really needed as it’s one of the earliest and notable examples of adult animation alongside The Simpsons (1989-present).
However, it’s not just animation that Akira has a major effect in, it’s also incredibly influential various other fields of pop culture. There’s too many to name, so I’ll just go by some notable examples. It’s either been inspired or even featured in two different music videos, that being Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s Scream (1995), and Kanye West’s Stronger (2007). Both Looper (2012) and Stranger Things (2016-present) have been cited as being influenced by Akira by their own creators, Rian Johnson and the Duffer Brothers, respectively. This isn’t too out of the ordinary given that both properties feature children with telekinetic abilities with both of them following different aspects of Akira. But one cameo I find interesting is that in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2017), Kanedo’s bike is featured alongside many other pop culture icons. Spielberg, alongside George Lucas, were originally offered the distribution rights to Akira, but both passed on it as they thought the film was unmarketable in the US. I can only imagine that both of them have long since regretted that decision given the film’s impact, and at least in Spielberg’s case, this cameo seems to rectify that a little bit.
I hope now with all of this in mind, you can easily why Akira is as revered and respected as it is and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. It’s worth noting that it’s one of only three animated films to be a part of the Criterion Collection, and I wholeheartedly believe that it more than deserves its spot.
On Tuesday, April 20th, The Frida Cinema invites you to join us for a classic that invites you to flash back to a time when…well, you could watch a classic movie at The Frida Cinema!
WE’RE BACK!! And for our first screening in over a year at The Frida, we’re joining art house cinemas around the world in partnering with our colleagues at Alamo Drafthouse to present a special screening of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused — followed by a screening of a brand new Cast Reunion that the Alamo Draftouse will be conducting and sharing with participating theaters! Click here for tickets!
Ranking 3rd in Entertainment Weekly’s “50 Best High School Movies,” writer-director Richard Linklater’s classic perfectly captures the irreverence, angst, goofiness, and liberating hedonism of the high school years – this time, in 1976. It’s the last day of school at Lee High School, and students are celebrating accordingly with rituals including house parties, cruising, and tormenting incoming underclassmen. Highlighting the ensemble of rich characters is star athlete Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), who is under pressure to sign a pledge affirming that he will not use recreational drugs; incoming freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), who valiantly tries to avoid being hazed by next year’s seniors; cruel Darla (Parker Posey), who’s having way too much fun terrorizing freshman girls; and so many more memorable characters played by an impressive cast that includes Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Renee Zellweger, and an iconic Matthew McConaughey.
Dazed and Confused remains timeless as ever as its legacy continues to grow. It is featured on countless Best Of lists, including Entertainment Weekly’s Funniest Movies of the Past 25 Years, and Quentin Tarantino recently listed it in his top ten favorite films of all time for a Sight and Sound poll.
SAFETY GUIDELINES: We will be following CinemaSafe guidelines, which includes limiting capacity to 50% of capacity (which makes space even more limited than usual —get your tickets today!); ensuring social distancing in our lobby; and requiring our guests wear masks, with exception to taking in food and beverages at your seat. We will also be conducting temperature checks at entry — guests who register a temperature of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher will be allowed to re-test after a few minutes, but if fever persists, will not be admitted and advised to go home, and rest and fluid up!
$15 Special Event. Frida Cinema Film Club members save on tickets to streaming, drive-in, and in-cinema screenings; click here for information on joining The Frida Cinema’s Film Club!
(If you are planning to attend our The Big Lebowski Drive-In screening on the same night, worry not — we’ll be announcing encores of the Dazed and Confused screening + reunion in the days ahead!)
See you at The Frida!
We’re very excited to partner with KINO! Germany NOW! to present a handpicked selection of Germany’s most promising narrative and documentary films that premiered within the last year, many of them directed by women. (more…)
“Much more than an enigma to be cracked, Mulholland Drive takes as its subject the very act of solving: the pleasurable and perilous, essential and absurd process of making narrative sense, of needing and creating meaning. Whether or not they explicitly pose the question, Lynch’s late films ponder the role of story at times when reality itself can seem out of joint.” — Dennis Lim, ‘The Man From Another Place’, 2015
Though originally premiering in October 2001, the Frida Cinema will be holding a special 20th anniversary screening of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive on March 18th. The revolutionary masterwork will once again take center stage and beguile us with it’s serpentine mysteries before leaving us with only ‘silencio’.
If you’ve ever been to a Frida event, or are a fan of reading this Blog, then it’s likely you’ve seen the film or have at least heard about it. And since there is no print publication of this blog, I can presume that you are reading this via the internet. This means that you have unprecedented access to resources online to help make sense of the film – more so than the average person in 2001 might. If you’ve just seen the film and have come here looking for a breakdown then I must disappoint you, as this will not be that article.
For those uninitiated in the dark mystifying turns of Mulholland Drive, there can be almost no preparation. As a story, the film winds in, out, over, and on top of itself, retreading familiar territory with not so familiar characters. But these aren’t time loops, and this isn’t a philosophical statement. Lynch’s meta perspective on genre and storytelling in Los Angeles takes the shape of an epic, sprawling out larger than LA county itself to properly transcend his own cinematic tendencies as a director, and the expectations of narrative cinema writ large.
Many of the characters in Mulholland Drive will find themselves metaphysically trapped in the sun-shackled oasis of Hollywood: Naomi Watts as an actor desperate to be a movie star, Justin Theroux as a director for a major studio fighting for control of his picture, and Laura Elena Harring as a woman who cannot remember her own name, being chased by people she does not know. Lynch stages these incidents with all the flourishes you’d expect from a neo-noir mystery-thriller. The durational unease present in Blue Velvet and Lost Highway is similarly applied here in Mulholland Drive to dramatic effect.
I should acknowledge my reluctance to elaborate more. This has nothing to do with fear of spoiling the film – because what is there to spoil?! – rather, I don’t want to speak too much for fear of misrepresenting the film. The story is very unique and so well documented it would be redundant to repeat it beat-for-beat here. The images and scenes that Lynch constructs for this film are so much more evocative and intriguing than any description. In fact, like most jokes, art is better left without explanation.
If there is some way to ‘understand’ this film more, it may be in attempting to understand its source. Its idiosyncratic, multi-disciplinary, septuagenarian creator. And that may be more difficult than attempting to understand ourselves.
So just watch it. Be confused, be pissed off, or be enraptured by it.
One year ago today, Jordan, Martin, Trevor and I met at The Frida to update our marquee, shut down our machines, and close up shop for what we thought would be a few weeks. We’d had a last hurrah Friday the 13th-themed screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the fabulous shadowcast K.A.O.S. , which opened with our announcement that we’d be temporarily closing our doors for a while. It was an incredible show, bolstered by an electric feeling of solidarity throughout the night. And that was that.
It’s surreal to look back at that day, and then reflect on the year that was to come. We truly have so much to be grateful for, and every one of these amazing and dedicated team members have so much to be proud of themselves for. We have more work ahead as we finalize the details our reopening plans, and we promise that all conversations continue to have the safety of our guests, our volunteers, and our staff members at the fore. Til then, our drive-in and streaming screenings will continue (and more than likely, beyond), and we will continue to keep you posted.
Thank you to everyone who has supported The Frida Cinema during this truly challenging year. Thanks to every volunteer, our amazing board, and all the venues and distributors we’ve worked with to continue to bring cinema to our communities, albeit on device screens and through windshields.
If you haven’t already – and even if you have – please visit thefridacinema.kindful.com and make a tax-deductible gift in support of a nonprofit art house that is determined to reopen its doors to the same level of cinematic programming and community collaboration that’s been our mission and our work since we first opened — and that kept both going even while our doors were closed. Your support makes our mission and our work possible.
Executive Director, Founder
Even in the most tumultuous points in my relationship with the “Twilight” brand–no matter how much I insisted I was over it, that it was stupid and I just didn’t know any better at the time– the love for first film never disappeared. Yet despite being into New Moon enough in 2009 to see it thrice in theaters, I didn’t revisit the latter on my own in the same way… until quarantine. “On my own” being the key phrase, as the opportunity to rewatch New Moon with my oldest friend who’d had the same “Twilight” journey never came up by the time I’d come around from the whole internalized misogyny thing. You see, while Twilight ‘08 is genuinely beloved by fans and criticized for some as a film where “nothing happens”, New Moon is the beginning of perhaps the most unintentionally baffling collection of heinous story arcs and characters, terrible CGI, hilarious performances and schlocky action. It’s a ride that can’t be truly experienced without other people joining you– and an actual drive-in midnight screening, ending at 3am thanks to the time change, is the perfect place to revisit New Moon or go nuts with your friends for the first time. And while I’m not here to persuade you of these facts (Twilight is unironically great, New Moon is, in a word: whack), the reasons behind why is worth exploring and reveals a whole lot more than we’d like to think.
There’s quite a lot to admire about Twilight ‘08 that one can see even in a first viewing. For one thing, it’s gorgeous, the distinctive blue hue an automatic stand-out and beautiful locations with grand shots which perfectly capture the vast landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. The close-ups and copious amount of staring is broody and intense, coming off silly to those a bit older, but are nothing but genuine towards the target audience and between the characters. I notice more and more with every re-watch that Edward is playful and teasing, Bella outspoken with him and clear in her determination and desires. Some moments are so romantic and tender and set up for wonderful things, it still makes 23-year-old me swoon. The most quotable, memorable lines are dumb in the best way, and the action just feels different– emotionally-driven by characters over the the sole desire for stunts. All these elements culminate in moments like a pivotal baseball sequence, which features one of the most legendary needle-drops in cinematic history that makes even those watching for the first time go a bit feral. New Moon beyond the initial bewilderment (which don’t get me wrong, is amazing in itself)? The soundtrack is objectively a better album than Twilight ‘08’ (but not the closest to my heart?), and complementary sequences such as Bella’s depression montage through the seasons is a very distinct, memorable method of way of visualizing entirely blank pages. The first 15 minutes are the most fun of the whole film, with an intriguing dream sequence, and the Cullens’ individual re-entrances– while more akin to Marvel movies’ “there he is, time to cheer” presentation– spark joy in those who liked them in the previous film. The handsome and kind father Dr. Carlisle Cullen, tending to Bella’s wounds and discussing grander moral dilemmas and the purpose of eternal life as a vampire humanitarian? Simply confirms the suspicions from Twilight ‘08 that he is the true catch of the series. Oh, and the entrance of the Volturi and Michael Sheen into the franchise via oil painting transition into a flashback is appropriately lavish.
Yet with all those cool shots and a near religious adherence to the book, all the personality of the first film and its characters severely dampens, clinging to life only by the talented cast and hard-working stunt people and SFX artists doing their damn best; everything else just feels wrong. Despite $13 million more in its budget, the new wigs on main characters are terrible and the styling of the Cullens a massive downgrade with cheap-looking contacts and clown white makeup. Somehow, despite requiring less work than simply leaving the actor’s natural skin as is, the sole vampire character of color is severely whitewashed to the point of looking like a new person. The leads don’t crack more than a smirk to each other, even in their “happy” moments, Edward instead coming off as chronically pained. The interesting concepts of aging with an immortal lover or the moral quandaries of vampirism and soul are shallow, quickly overshadowed by toxic “love” triangles and the most contemptible appropriation of a real indigenous group’s existence + history in recent memory. Edward launches Bella halfway across the room against the wall and into a table that couldn’t be any farther away from the rest of the scene if it tried. The majority of Bella and Jacob’s flirting revolves around half-jokes about their age difference, how weird it is for the 16-year-old to be physically appealing, and the actual bonding is largely told in a montage that features one of the worst attempts at a transition I’ve ever seen (no sane person would ever think of throwing a loose piece of pizza– note that Jake is solely human at this point and has no capacity to catch it like a frisbee). And oh, of course, Edward shows up as a ghost in what is admittedly a cool effect, but ultimately confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the book or the fact that it’s solely in Bella’s head– which, regardless: yikes!
What should be noticed is that the vast majority (though not all) of what is concerning about Twilight ‘08 is residual squick from Stephenie Meyer’s writing. The significant amount of new elements brought in through excellent filmmaking formed an adaptation not as close to the book as New Moon’s would be, but instead an elevated version of Twilight that stands completely on its own because of it. This past year of exploring neglected commentaries, deleted and extended scenes, and interview extras on my (~Borders exclusive~) 2-disc special edition DVD painted a very clear picture: nearly every commendable, interesting, and memorable moment in Twilight ‘08 and its creation comes back to Catherine Hartwicke in some shape or form. A true auteur, Hardiwcke’s ingenuity, dedication, and detail-savvy background as a production designer permeate every second of the film, with love in every step from talent-scouting to credits. Moreover, it is precisely the absence of a similarly invested, caring figure in New Moon to blame for one of the most severe drop-offs in quality in any similar film series, and the unfortunate president set for the remainder of the Twilight Saga.
Just a few minutes into Twilight ‘08’s commentary track, you’ll notice there aren’t very many out there like it– mainly in that the teenage lead actors are present as well, and feels more like eavesdropping on a group of friends who happen to work together professionally. Despite their embarrassment by talking about themselves or overall rowdiness (Rob’s lowkey always been a freak), there’s clear respect for each others’ craft and contributions, even in the casual setting. Hardwicke’s explanation and background information for how shooting played out as it did, what effects were used, and how got worked on until the last moment or on the fly, adds another bit to the surmounting pile of evidence that Twilight ‘08 was a diamond in the rough, formed under pressure in the director’s nurturing, compelling hand.
According to Rachelle Marie Lefèvre (Victoria), Hardwicke was shockingly hands-on with wardrobe from the early stages for a director, pinning, fitting and cutting fabric herself with a backstory and reasoning for every accessory and piece (Victoria collects “charms” from her victims as momentos, adopting them into her outfit). Hardwicke’s Twilight: Director’s Notebook is an extensively illustrated testament to this attitude’s presence in all areas, 176 pages of annotated insight on inspirations, concept art, storyboards, and on-set images to highlight the process of her and her crew.
CH shares in the director’s commentary that she personally did the research on the history of vampires which Bella pours over online, auditions and chemistry tests were held in her own home (like her previous films), some of the young actors even crashing on her couch after the film’s premiere; all anecdotes she shares quite fondly. Nearly every scene was rife with technical challenges, from dangerously cold weather and precarious terrain without proper structures. You’d really never know that the scene at La Push beach nearly froze all the actors in what “99% of the cast and crew agreed it was the worst day of filming they’ve ever been in”, or that the quintessential meadow scene— the dream imagery which spurred Meyers to write Twilight— was filmed on Griffith Park’s golf course in LA with the help of some creative production design and reshoots.
A stand-out part of all this is that not only was the film made, but it turned out incredible and the actors were taken care of. Stewart, still a minor during shooting, had on-set school sessions and could legally only so many hours a day. Rather than make her actors endure the horrendous weather or become frustrated at the need to constantly make scene-altering adjustments to accommodate for it, she made it work with the needs of the people on set in mind. Needing the actors to stay warm, she asked local surfers to borrow their trucks for the scene to replace the bonfire. The final result is laid-back, perfectly giving of the feel of a bunch of friends hanging out on the unpredictable coast that adds more character to the setting. While it’d be easy for anyone to focus on how exhausting it must be to film complex stunt sequences and effects shot in four or five days on a tight budget, she simply knocks it out of the park instead. She cried for 30 whole seconds in private (Robert “The Batman” Pattinson also cried on set, by the way) for a moment, then proceeded to create a fine piece of art and billion-dollar franchise as a bonus.
One of many trying sequences was the very first to be shot: the final vampire battle in a room full of mirrors, where Edward shatters the glass windows and blows into the floorboards, James is decapitated and burned. Both of these elements were Hardwicke’s idea, the latter she even storyboarded herself. The former she insisted on doing with practical effects, saying “if you can do it for real, it’s going to be better”.
Hardwicke rehearsed everything with the cast personally, in hotel rooms or with stand-ins for the many low-res references to allow the visual effect team to have a clear, coherent plan before the actual footage ever made its way to them. Her production design and first-hand knowledge of what it means to create environments around the characters shows with Edward’s bedroom, “a hundred years’ worth of journals” scattered; Bella eating veggie burgers, in a nod to her also being a vegetarian like Edward; even sneaking in the fact that footage of the previous sequence at the ballet studio are playing on the hospital T.V. and the in the painting on the wall to reflect the delirious state of her memories and reality blended together.
Yet with all this foresight, she also has an uncanny sense of what just works, unafraid with her “let’s just try it” attitude. There just happened to be apples in the
cafeteria salad bar Catherine wanted as mise-en-scene, which turned into the book cover’s cameo. The “kooky” kitchen scene with the Cullens cooking for Bella, was added the day-of, as were many of the best lines (“is she even italian?” “Money… Sex,,,Cat.” “that’s my monkey man”) directly from Hardwicke. Wherever dialogue was lacking, Rob added a line or two of his own, or would be asked to pick from a list written by Hardwicke the night before (spoilers: he chose “you better hold on tight, spider monkey”); Stewart thought of her “seatbelt” line on the spot, and Mike Newton shaking his butt at Bella through the window came out of actor Michael Alan Welch asking Hardwicke, “can I try something?” Her answer: “Who am I to thwart someone’s creative impulses”. This says so much about her work and herself as a person.
Something a lot of people might not know is that Hardwicke had her own admirable vision for what Twilight ‘08 would look like, even more so than she already accomplished by putting her spin on the “essence” of the books but changing what needed to go just enough that it would still get the green light. The Edward and Bella of the books were pretty unlikable and not necessarily endearing; Robert Pattinson describes in his own words being guided by Hardwicke, away from his “tendency of making Edward super depressed, desperate, and suicidal”, resulting in the sweet performance (the other sure sounds a lot like Pattinson’s performance through the entirety of New Moon). Hardwicke actively worked with screenwriter Melissa Rosenburg to make Bella less passive. She also wanted a multi-ethnic Cullen clan, and for the movie to represent the “diverse, beautiful people” of all “colors, size, shape, and age” that were fans of Meyers’ books; it didn’t sit right with the author, but Hardwicke fought for diverse actors in Bella’s school, friend group, and was just barely able to keep Kenyan-American actor Edi Gathegi as Laurent, who was described to have “olive skin” in the books (“‘I said [to Stephenie], there are black olives out there!’”). While ultimately, Hardwicke didn’t have to adhere to Meyers’ wishes since the rights were already acquired, the project was supposedly doomed to fail anyway, and Meyers was on set a total of around twice, CH did so with respect, saying “I’m bringing to life somebody else’s baby” and that everyone wanted her to feel “comfortable as much as we can”. Meyers understood that changes are necessary when adapting one media to another to a certain extent, and Hartwicke utilized this as much as possible whilst still honoring the author’s worldview; that’s incredible amicable and big of her as an artist and as a human.
Hardwicke never had the sequel in mind, as she “wasn’t inspired” by New Moon and wouldn’t do the rush job needed for the studio to churn out and cash in as fast as possible on the surprise hit. She would have required more time to tackle “a lot of issues” present in New Moon in favor of original ideas like before, where they “ended up doing a lot of scenes that were not actually in the book”. Meyers’ narrative certainly develops for the worse with Quileute characters (portrayed as genetically animalistic, aggressive, violent) as the antithesis to the white vampires’ “civilized” existence, and disturbingly unhealthy romanticization of mental illness and toxic abuse. Though I have no doubt that a direct sequel to the ‘08 film rather than an adaptation would be worth the wait, the amount of reworking necessary would leave the original texts as little more than distant inspiration. But she did it once, and could certainly do it again; anyone in the director’s chair theoretically could, with enough drive, creativity, and heart. Perhaps after seeing what Hardwicke had done with her first novel, Stephenie Meyers would further expand her capacity for changes from print to screen.
Director Chris Weisz however, would have nothing less than “the very best and most faithful version that can be brought” on film. The ghost director of Summit Entertainment’s previous biggest hit American Pie saw the (multi-million dollar) position with New Moon as an opportune comeback after the previous critical and domestic box-office failure, The Golden Compass (2007). Reportedly deviated and recut from the footage shot according to Weitz’s closely adapted script, the director says New Line Entertainment was afraid of “offending the right” due to the series’ themes (rejecting religion and critiquing religious institutions). It’s always sad to hear about ambitious projects butchered by cowardly executives who will do anything to follow their notions of what makes money, over the value of artistry or content. Most would sympathize with that, especially since Twilight ‘08 only happened thanks to Catherine Hardwicke’s own initiative and belief in the Twilight novel (a horrible script bloated with FBI agents and jet-skis brought back to romance and deeper themes after the director told Summit: “’You have got to throw that script in the trash and we have to start over’”). In a statement addressing the public concerning his appointment to the project and other various interviews post-production, Weisz emphasizes his dedication to the fans of the book series and his interest in the material despite his “Y chromosome” and the effort to come at things from the target demographic’s viewpoint. “I had this theory that if you stay true to the book, you would win… not only the fans, but other people will get what the fans care about. If the box office tells us anything, then it’s a win. It’s made more in its first day then the entire domestic run of Golden Compass. It’s extraordinary.”
While none of The Twilight Saga’s following films ever had a hope of being as quality as the first, even the smallest adjustments of dialogue or direction for the performers (or the makeup) would be massive improvements feasible making it to the final product. Clearly, the fans of the best-selling novel come through in droves for the first film, and the box office increase for New Moon came from the fact that millions became interested after the unique vision of Twilight introduced them to the property. I testify to this, as I’d never even heard of the books at age 11 before seeing the movie in ‘08 and became entranced in the time before New Moon’s release. Afterwards, I steadily lost interest to the point of not even bothering to watch Breaking Dawn Part 2 until years later (and with a friend). Still, there’s no reason to fault a director for doing what they believe in and truthfully, no one in 2009 would ever have expected a male director to care about the teen love story in the first place, or to abstain from the project in an effort to get a woman director the role– or even someone who cared in the first place. If the source material was his philosophy and it made fans happy, that was already more than female-majority fanbases had (and would continue to be) dealt to them. And anyway, I’d never heard Weisz’s director’s commentary or done much looking into the creation of the film before, so I knew the comparison wasn’t entirely fair, either. He’d get the benefit of the doubt from me, for just doing the best job he could at that place and time.
So imagine my outrage when, in my attempts to hear his own words as I’d heard Hardwicke’s, I came across an official promotion interview where he says the following in the most smarmy way possible: “it’s a challenge to portray something that is essentially terrible and uninteresting, and see what you can do with it visually”.
“Terrible and uninteresting,” he mumbles in the most disinterested, monotonous way. I had to rewind to make sure I heard him right. A “challenge” to make it the “best it can be”, because people are going to see the film no matter what.
Who should be more offended by that statement? That blatant insult? Stephenie Meyer, who created the IP and gave Weisz the green light, calling his film About a Boy one of her favorite of all time? Catherine Hardwicke, whose innovation and talent made the film that would lead to the sequel being made in the first place? Who was thanked by Summit for bringing them to the top 10 most profitable studios of the year with a mini cupcake, balloons, 0 studio offers, and numerous rejections for work? Or perhaps it should be screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the damn adaptation for both films and instead of dunking on the content, worked and thought critically to make Twilight ‘08 better? Which one of the women at the forefront of the franchise, save the Kristen Stewart of the “brilliant cast handed to” you by Hardwicke, are you belittling in particular, Chris?
Suddenly, all his other statements and drives are framed by what are apparently his true feelings. The effort to make an faithful, money-making adaptation of New Moon was for revenge, and its success a “dish served cold” Wisz was “ready to eat” his “status as a director” was “utterly violated” by botching of The Golden Compass, which he asserts is the “worst thing that has happened to [him] professionally”. Note his word choice: not his vision, ethics, the source material, but Chris’ “status” as a director. In his letter to fans, he assures that “emotions are universal”, and he’s worked with actresses before, so he can definitely capture the experience of fictional teen girl Bella. Oh, yeah? It seems emotions aren’t as apply-all though, because whereas he sees a character who nonconsensually films a female acquaintance as she undresses, pleasures himself, and distributes the footage to their entire school as protagonist material, I don’t. In an unfettered Chris Weisz film, a teen girl’s life being ruined by compromising images of her body and getting sent home from foreign exchange education through no fault of her own is the punchline, and the prom date-less culprit should be sympathized for.
Forgive me if I’m a bit concerned and upset that a male director can: publicly berate his previous employers and those he works with in a two-faced manner, whine about how “exhausting these big CGI films” are, and have a massively consequential bomb one moment and offered a massive franchise the next whilst Hardwicke fought tooth and nail from the very beginning, to not just make the movie happen but make it meaningful and with compassion on and off set. She got told: “girls don’t see movies”, that there would be at most, “400 girls in Salt Lake City blogging” about her film, and working in the interests of the buzzing fanbase of readers wouldn’t lead to ticket sales. CH strove to translate to film the feeling of a first love that feels like life or death, “an interesting impulse, this metaphor for adolescence and danger”, and succeeded on ¾ the budget. CW followed the easiest road possible with the books, hypersexualizing a 17-year-old brown actor (playing 16) with gratuitous shirtlessness and ogling of the camera. Morally fine with preserving and presenting a story in which Bella’s agency is nonexistent– where everyone but her decides her future and the fate of her body and soul, and it’s romantic, epic. (“Love interest” Jacob says “No, I won’t let you” when she shares her decision, the Cullens vote on Bella’s fate and Rosalie votes no because… she would have voted no if she had been able to choose? So defies Bella’s choice because… she was never given one? Huh?).
In a cruel way, it’s these low-expectations and misogyny that lead to the Twilight ‘08 as we know it seeing the light of day. Catherine Hardwicke states that had any studio known “Twilight” could be a billion-dollar action franchise, they wouldn’t have ever hired a female director. It tragically shows, as she was never got a movie deal, an “office at a studio”, but was turned down for action-packed scripts she showed interest in because they “need a man for that job”. Disgustingly, she was called “emotional”, “irrational”, and “difficult”, and had Hollywood say it was not her directing to admire for the film’s stylistic flair, but mostly the work of the director of photography and post-production editing.
It’s easy to get lost amidst the mountains of memes, and although the overall attitude of “don’t take things so seriously, but respect that I love garbage” is true, there is another key component of “Twilight”’s resurgence, of which I’ve been a happy participant since 2018. Accompanying this unapologetic enthusiasm to have fun after so many had become ashamed in their youth for ever doing so, is fueled by the critical looks at everything surrounding the “Twilight” period of pop culture. There is a revelation that so many people deserved better. The women and girls of the fanbase deserved better. Kristen Stewart always deserved better. The Quileute nation deserves justice, equity, and their land. But most of all, director Catherine Hartwicke deserves better, and knows it.
She is outspokenly fighting for this better future as she continues directing, and has collaborated with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and ACLU to investigate discrimination against women directors and hold accountability for diversity. All the while, she strives to be “all positive inspirational”.
It’s the Twilight Renaissance, babey.
It didn’t take long for me to realize how special watching Minari felt. I’m willing to admit that being in the grand vicinity of the Eccles Theatre during last year’s Sundance lended a fair amount of preciousness to the general experience, but I also know that to remove that experience is to in no way undo its impact. From the opening fade-in and very first note of Emile Mosseri’s heavenly score, writer/director Lee Issac Chung mines a story so personal and rooted from memory, yet provides so much empathy and universality on the other side of the coin that it almost feels as if his story could just as well be experienced by those who watch it. It also seemed to have not taken long for its role endowed by the media as “the film we need right now” to be firmly represented on the film’s own poster. And for certainly good reason.
Chung’s storytelling operates as an ocean of emotion. Its opening sequence sending echoes of the gentle sincerity of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, but honing a craft that only could have stemmed from the most specific of recollections. With Minari, I could start from anywhere, whether it be the spellbinding acting work from everyone involved – particularly Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri as conflicting parents of a Korean-American family one decade into their emigration, or the warmly engaging atmosphere boosted by Emile Mosseri’s score, who after The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Kajillionaire, now establishes himself as one of our most essential modern film composers, or how Alan Kim is a bonafide star in the making. But with two of our drive-in screenings sold out (with tickets to an additional third still available!), I’m certain that audiences will be able to find for themselves what has made the film resonate this deeply since its Sundance premiere and subsequent winning of the Grand Jury Prize.
So instead I’ll cap off this post with a poem. Lately I’m finding myself more easily able to emulate how I process and respond to works that I know will stay with me. Minari presents itself as a film radiating with confidence, yet never willing to let it overshadow its understated approach, going as far as to let the physicality and actions of its performers speak more volumes than an abundance of dialogue ever could. Its muted approach often allowing emotion and expression to inform the growing distance between certain characters, and a tethering closeness between others. As a film about identity and cultural assimilation, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate occasion for it to arrive in the midst of. But it’s only a mere portion of what Chung provides to his script, allowing for the film to be, above all, one that transcends into the universal understanding of family dynamics, the tensions of environments strange and new, and how to move forward in that environment as a whole, rather than as one. It’s a film for everyone, and for anyone seeking something to offer a relieving sense of clarity, which can only come as much-needed these days. In the past year since watching it, certain images and moments continue to come back around to my brain. It’s around here where I’ll try and convey them as fluently as I can. In any case, if a film makes me compelled to write a poem, it’s normally one that I would recommend. So I hope you enjoy, and perhaps compelled to attend a drive-in.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
green green green
down low i see below
the mud that makes things grow
up up and away i look
clouds still and grey
i run through endless patches
the green ends and turns brown
i slide downwards through earth
into a realm of forestry
known by only me
secrets lie down below
the smell of streams and bark
hides the world i grow beneath
i kneel and wait for it to swell
there’s always time to grow
there’s always water running
sprouting to the core
in my head i ponder
will you still be around
when i am as old as you?
one day i’ll run the other direction
into territory untouched
i’ll grow more worlds than one
i’ll tend to their needs
i’ll embrace every fiber of them
give me time and give me years
and i will forget where i ran
but i will know where home is
it will move and it will stay still
today it will move with wind
In 1990, Madonna released “Vogue,” to massive popular acclaim. The same year, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning greeted the world at LGBT film festivals in New York and San Francisco. While Madonna brought voguing to the forefront of popular (meaning “mainstream”) attention, Paris Is Burning presented a thoughtful exploration of 1980s New York’s ballroom scene and Black and Latinx gay and trans communities. Not only did the documentary address issues that affected black and brown LGBTQ people at large, it also amplified the voices of the individuals whose lives and deaths gave shape to LGBTQ+ history at large.
Today, Paris remains one of the most valuable and illuminating pieces of LGBTQ-focused media that exists. At a time when being gay or trans was still extremely taboo in the majority of American society, the very people who were facing this oppression spoke candidly of both their troubles and their aspirations. Voguing has been intermittent in popular fascination, but concern for LGBTQ+ issues is relatively novel. Paris was an opportunity for New York’s ballroom scene to define themselves, their culture, and their concerns on their own terms. Unlike the mainstream, voguing and drag was more than a fad; balls and Houses were modes of banding together against the violence and cruelty that the world harbored for Black, Latinx, gay, and trans people. (“[Gay people] just wanna be together… Just like a community.”)
It’s important to note that there has been progress in public regard for black and brown trans people in entertainment. In 2014, actor and activist Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in any acting category, for her role in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. In 2018, Pose premiered on FX, boasting the largest ever transgender cast for a scripted series. Heavily inspired by Paris, Pose follows a cast of Black and Latinx trans and gay characters in the ballroom community as they navigate life in 1980s-90s New York City, grappling with friendships, family, and the HIV/AIDS crisis. “I believe that there’s a big future out there,” said model and educator Octavia St. Lauren in Paris, “with a lot of beautiful things.” And Pose is beautiful, not only for its groundbreaking cast but also for the Black and gay/trans creatives behind the scenes. It’s hard not feel hopeful for progress when one sees the wealth of critical and popular acclaim the series has earned.
But progress is only a part of the picture. One young, gay, Black man in Paris recounts advice he received from his father: “If you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.” Unfortunately, the current state of the world renders this advice still necessary. Black and brown LGBTQ+ people, especially trans women and gender non-conforming individuals, are in particular danger of violence and death. CNN reported that at least 37 trans and gender non-conforming people have been killed in 2020 alone, a record high. According to the Human Rights Campaign, about 66% of these victims were Black trans women. Simply being aware has long since ceased to be enough. Not for the art and beauty the world has been given but for the unadorned fact that they are human beings, current and potential victims of racist and trans-/homophobic violence and cruelty must be actively supported. Paris Is Burning may be many people’s introduction to LGBTQ+ history, but it doesn’t need to stop there. See this article for a list of ways to donate and support Black trans lives.
I’m not gonna lie: after six years of doing something special at our home for cinema every February 21st, this past Sunday was a little rough. But while our doors may still be closed, this year’s birthday arrived with so much to celebrate and reflect on with deep gratitude — topped off by a truly wonderful couple of weeks. Starting with our Rocky Horror Picture Show drive-in screening on February 12th, programmer Trevor curated seven nights of outdoor cinema to ring in Year Eight with a bang — and among them, our 100th drive-in event! All but one of these events sold out, highlighted perhaps by his genius pairing of new cult-classics-to-be Willy’s Wonderland and Psycho Goreman, where he treated our audience to the surprise appearance of Willy’s Wonderland writer G.O. Parsons, director Kevin Lewis, and cinematographer David Newbert. On Saturday the 20th, while a sold out crowd enjoyed Frida audience-favorite Donnie Darko at the drive-in, The Disaster Artist author Greg Sestero joined me for a live viewing of 2003’s The Room, which was accompanied by a lively live-chat by over 100 audience members with a truly impressive variety of burning questions (all of which you can still rent and experience now through Sunday, February 28th!). Exactly one year ago today, neither our drive-ins nor our live-stream would have even been possible.
Your support continues to open doors to new possibilities — and particularly during times like these, such possibilities can truly be magical. We invite you to share in our celebration of our 7th anniversary, and reflect on a year brimming with bittersweet victories, incredibly generous host venues, wonderful new community and industry partners, unforgettable nights at the drive-in, and a community whose support of our programming continued beyond the theater to the drive-in and home cinema. Because of you, we are able to ring in Year Eight with two of the greatest gifts we can hope for — a profound sense of accomplishment, and a sense of tremendous hope for the coming year.
“I was not alone when I was in Goofy hell.”
It has now been twenty minutes since I sat down on my desk to write. What I plan on writing, I’m still relatively unsure. I know there’s an idea residing just beneath the crevices of my subconscious. I navigate back and forth between ambition and writer’s block, unable to keep still; not unlike a particular stop-motion monkey high off the energy of certain sexual hormones. You see, whatever abstraction lies within my head is practically begging to be unleashed, but what will come of it? What will hath God wrought, these images? They come in bursts, like a cluster of icepicks to the brain. SNL alum Chris Kattan as an acrobatic corpse. Whoopi Goldberg as the very personification of Death. Giancarlo Esposito with goat legs. And finally, Brendan Fraser literally deflating on a hospital bed before our very eyes. It has now been twenty years since these images have come about my head in the most uncalled-for of ways. Whether I’m at work, doing laundry, or trying to reconnect with family. It is the burden, or perhaps complicated blessing, I have with Henry Selick’s 2001 mystery of a film–Monkeybone.
So we have a paragraph. Where do we go from here? Perhaps I may trace things back a little in this case. The films of my youth always lend themselves back to the work of Henry Selick – perhaps my very favorite director of animation working in the US. For me, it’s the bounty of little riches to find and feel in Selick’s work. The beautifully fluid camera movements in The Nightmare Before Christmas, or the warbled audio of Randy Newman’s score on my VHS copy of James and the Giant Peach, which perhaps was only due to my overusing of the tape. From his early MTV shorts to the recently uncovered footage of his 2011 Disney project, The Shadow King (whose production was tragically and infuriatingly cut short by the company), it’s the kind of work that feels specifically rooted in the hazy fantasy of 90’s animation. Nostalgia always feels inherent with Selick’s work, even with 2009’s Coraline.
So perhaps it’s appropriate to carry this over to my personal history with Monkeybone. Being four going on five, I was most prone to being kept at bay whenever I wasn’t in preschool by having a parent insert a DVD at random in our brand-spanking-new DVD player. And with formative memory just barely operating inside of my tiny head, the trailer for Monkeybone played like the kind of dream state you’re in when you have to wake up early but you haven’t drank coffee or showered yet. I barely knew anything about anything, but I knew what I felt was disbelief. Drawing back to this memory makes me remember that it may not have necessarily been The Nightmare Before Christmas – a film I watched obsessively as a kid, that informed my preference for stop-motion animation, but rather the trailer for an early 2000’s 20th Century Fox comedy that would turn out to be one that closes out with a rap-rock track. And so it goes.
Based on the graphic novel Dark Town by Kaja Blackley, Monkeybone is the horny odyssey of a cartoonist named Stu Miley – personified by Mr. Brendan Fraser. He has just premiered an episode of an animated series featuring his beloved original character, the titular Monkeybone. As he approves merchandise deal after merchandise deal, there’s a reservedness to Stu in regards to the exploitation of his creation. He can only voice this to his partner Julie, played by Bridget Fonda, who had helped him channel the imagery of his nightmares into canvases by changing his drawing hand. As Stu is on the verge of proposing to her, consumerism quite literally suffocates the couple, in the form of a giant inflatable Monkeybone setting off in their car and forcing them to back their way into an accident that renders Stu comatose. It’s here where Selick’s visual pastiche begins to surface. As Stu is put into a coma, he literally sinks below the ground and into some other realm of being, propelling downwards into Down Town, a vision of purgatory with the look and feel of an episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog. It’s a wondrous creation; a mishmash of stop-motion critters and hideously elaborate physical costumes, with a mere sprinkle of dated CGI. Down Town is occupied by the creations of those who end up there, which is revealed by the appearance of Monkeybone; the rapscallion himself, voiced by a helium-inhaling John Turturro.
At this point, it may be difficult to ponder how Selick, who at the time was nothing but celebrated for his first two features, would wind up with a project seemingly gone awry, especially with such a distinctive set-up. Because by here, we’re witnessing filmmaking that is, more-or-less, exactly akin to what Ray Harryhausen was doing in the 1950’s. The conglomeration of live-action and stop-motion-animated subjects; both technically physical entities, sharing the same space and screen, immediately recalls Harryhausen’s groundbreaking Dynamation technique that’s most prominent in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. There’s clearly care and fascination in these images and creations, even if what it’s revealed to amount to is the story of an immensely gifted artist gradually losing control of his own creation. Does this regard the story of the film or Selick’s removal from the film itself? Why not both?
What’s most frustrating here is that you can’t jot down the exact moment watching the film when his firing becomes clear. For the whole duration, Monkeybone is a movie seemingly at internal war with itself. For every ball-dropping “humorous” moment of dated raunch and masturbation innuendo, there are sequences that channel something inspired. These sequences are often carried out by the implementing of “Oneirix”, a chemical substance that gives violently nightmarish hallucinations to whichever creature it comes in contact with, even dogs. These sequences make the film responsible for its resemblance of a Farrelly brothers x Lynchian fever dream caught on early-aughts celluloid. It technically wouldn’t surprise me if people, besides myself, were reminded by the visuals in season 3 of Twin Peaks; desaturated, warped 50’s-kitsch textures somehow illuminated by said dated CGI. Time has only made Monkeybone more of a standout of its corresponding decade of release, which ends up causing me more pain to say that the movie is technically not good.
It is a confounding, frustrating, mostly cringeworthy affair. It reeks of interference from studio executives and unconfident producers who found it easier to remove its risk-taking creator from the equation, rather than let him see it through without compromise. At this point, it’s redundant to say that the film really only works when Selick is clearly behind-the-camera, yet it’s ironic how the story of his firing is equally, and unfortunately, as redundant. It’s very easy to jot down the various studio releases from that decade in which its production is just as fascinating as the product itself, but one can’t help but shift gears when the case regards Monkeybone. Because what we see on screen is something so unlike its contemporaries that it does nothing but ache when I think about what could have been if Selick was allowed to do his job. Many may consider how easier it seems nowadays to get the more “out-there” film concepts realized to their potential, whether it be crowdfunding or streaming deals, but the system does nothing but acclimate, and to draw it back to Monkeybone, that system is not unlike what we see through the commodification of Stu’s creation, but also the channeling of nightmares into product.
I won’t unravel the entirety of the story, for the sake of the morbidly curious, but through a vast series of events, Stu awakes in an altered state of mind, grows a soul-patch, and is immediately eager to further extend the branding of his art. As he meets with rows of executives, we almost forget that Stu creating Monkeybone was only founded on his ability to channel his fears (and to an extent, his fetishes) into his art. And over time, it’s mirrored in Down Town, where nightmares are revealed to be as much of a commodity and resource. Not unlike Monsters, Inc! But there’s not much beyond there to give it thought after watching. What you do get consistently, however, is a film gone Monkey Mode. A 100%-committed Brendan Fraser eventually shakes his ass and sings Brick House to a full house. A cat-like Rose McGowan murders a humanoid mouse. Stephen King is trapped in a limbo prison. The film is chockfull of appearances, some welcome (Chris Kattan and Bob Odenkirk in a wonderful subplot) and not-so (Harry Knowles…if you know, you know), and is just as bountiful with such a fascinatingly 2001 energy, regardless of its troubled lifespan. So if you have any recollection of that period, then you may just owe it to yourself. Bear witness to the nightmare juice.
“[…] but I think I’m trying to mess with the ideas of “What is radical?” And money to me is always a good…a very familiar colloquial holder of feelings, like shame, and anxiety, aspiration. Every family loads up money with all this stuff, and they do it in this particular and extreme way. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have weird issues around money from their family, you know?”
— Miranda July, interview with RogerEbert.com, 2020
With all the radiance of a California sun, the splendiferous treasures held within Miranda July’s latest feature film Kajillionaire, flare and rage against the menacing infinity of our observable universe. Terrestrial anxieties are captured with wondrous imagination and equally infinite compassion, daring to defy the fatalist trap of predeterministic thought that July’s characters find themselves colliding with during a particularly quakey spring in Los Angeles.
July’s camera lands on the Dyne Family: Robert, Theresa, and their only daughter Old Dolio. A three-piece of small time con artists that perform elaborate schemes just to remain only three months behind on rent rather than four. Robert Dyne tries to reason with their landlord, “We may need to pay in installments.”. “Rent is installments.”, he is reminded. In a film so conspicuous with its ideas about class, Kajillionaire also functions as a tender coming of age story for an era marked by distracting misinformation and untruths by the powers that be. Where the suffocating umbilical cord of overwhelming family ties is rightfully questioned, and eventually confronted for the sake of personal liberation.
With the energy and plotting of a heist movie, Kajillionaire is a story about intentions becoming actions, and how the persistent unpredictability of reality can interrupt these actions. For Old Dolio, that reality is revealed in magical ways that unlock her sense of self, but in turn distance herself from her parents. The plot mirrors the fallacy of the American Dream – an endless parade of laborious efforts for the mere promise of something greater. The Dynes will attempt grift after grift, scraping dollar after dollar, and wait out The Big Score. A job so big that they’ll finally be caught up on their debts, and maybe have some leftover. This is not to say the film is an expose of economic institutions — far from it. July instead focuses her story on the interior life of Old Dolio, brilliantly understanding that the first casualty of poverty is childhood innocence. This idea underscored with each utterance of Old Dolio’s name – the origin of which must be seen to be believed.
Not unlike Miami-born director Kelly Reichardt, Miranda July is also drawn to the emotional stasis endemic to the working class routine. How living paycheck to paycheck allows little time for things like culture, openness, or feelings. Evan Rachel Wood’s performance of Old Dolio as she wrestles with her newly discovered agency is as poignant as it is effervescent. Grunts and groans become syllabic truths, revealing more than words ever could. Certain filmmaking circles will tell you that it’s always better to show an audience something in a film, than to tell it to them with dialogue – always. In considering characters like the Dynes however, to simply articulate a feeling (except when in character for a con) is a task nothing short of miraculous.
Though painted with chewy, pop colors, Kajillionaire avoids infantilizing Old Dolio’s journey for an identity beyond fight or flight. July’s images for most of the film are staid and conventional, but intoxicating during the briefest moments of ecstatic movement. Saccharine lessons about self-acceptance and interpersonal relationships appear radical when contrasted with the stunted worldview of Old Dolio’s parents, and doubly so when compared to the entropic mandates of the planet itself; the inevitability of solar destruction, of earthquakes.
For all its celestial grandeur, Kajillionaire is a film that values the tiniest, most abstract pleasures. The jewels of Life that bridge our waking moments like monthly installments. In Miranda July’s cinema, simply being able to wonder is priceless.
Harold has committed fifteen suicides. He tells his psychiatrist that it’s at least a rough estimate. While these suicides are staged, he was nonetheless forced into an office by his mother, who has gradually progressed from no longer wanting to bear them, to what is now a hefty passiveness. The psychiatrist asks him to try and find a solution, and whether he does anything to relieve himself of this presumed dread. Harold – proper in his wording, simply says that to do just that, he goes to funerals. One of these is where he will meet Maude. She is almost seventy years older than him. By the time this story ends, one of the most memorable, beautifully bittersweet screen romances will have blossomed. And this year will be the fiftieth in which it has continued to thrive.
It’s difficult to truly put into words the weight of Hal Ashby’s classic; arguably the finest that gallows humor has ever been in 20th century media (and certainly an all-timer in cinema’s great middle finger moments). I’ve spent two Valentine’s Days seeing it alone at the Frida, but that loneliness couldn’t possibly be felt under the warmth provided by Cat Stevens’ sunny, acoustic melodies and the gradual surfacing from the utter blackness enveloping Harold – boldly performed in every facet by Bud Cort; all with the hand of his beloved Maude – personified with the natural grace of Ruth Gordon, clearing 100% away from the Satanic psychodrama of Rosemary’s Baby just three years prior, and into somewhere far more empathetic. Ashby’s film is one that has absorbed itself in me over time. I knew it was love at first sight, but having my viewings of it come at a time where I was beginning to understand my own shortcomings in wanting to live, and how to fix that, cemented a place for it inside my own self. With heavy inspiration taken from the wonderful poem very recently written about Argento’s Suspiria by our own Sean Woodard, I feel that the best way for me to properly go about what this film means to me is to take it to the stanzas. I hope there’s something in these lines that help others convey their own feelings on the film. And if the feelings aren’t ones you have, then perhaps a trip to Tustin’s
Mess Hall Market to catch a drive-in screening of the film on Sunday, February 14th (yes, Valentine’s Day!) will take you on the road to find out yourself. And now, a little something.
the one i cry for
is the one who has drifted
a ghost rendered yellow
plucked from the jaws of life
granted a bounty of air
and still upwards
i hear your sadness out there
i hear the sky moan
passing through cemeteries
and hospital corridors
i hold myself out
and i only wait
for air to swallow me
i find myself collapsing
beyond the veins of earth
and worms and rot
it is air pulling me down
what i want to pull me down
the direction i choose
i feel its end
i feel the car crashing
my bones colliding with metal
descending into bits and pieces
percolating through the ground
becoming scattered and seed-like
and then we breathe
leaves grow and bind
green and young
we rise as we connect
we reach air
protruding through soil
becoming a multitude of suns
pricked and together
you’re still not here
yet you’re why i am
your words travel through my ears
ringing like chimes of gold
to be still is to let yourself float
through air and endless seas
to float is all we have to do
For 45 years and counting, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has existed as a load-bearing cultural object of fringe, arthouse weirdness just outside of the mainstream.
The Frida Cinema is honored to bring this film to our drive-in audiences, and to continue participating in the long held Rocky Horror tradition of arthouses everywhere.
Did you miss out on the SOLD OUT event this Friday, February 12th? No worries, it’ll be back in March!
Describe The Rocky Horror Picture Show to someone who’s never seen it, in two words.
- Logan Crow (Founder, Frida Cinema): absolute pleasure.
- Anthony McKelroy: Susan Sarandon.
- Isa Bulnes-Shaw: Pulp-tastic fun!
When did you lose your Rocky Horror virginity?
- Logan C.: 1991 (I’m old.)
- Anthony M.: September 1st, 2013 according to my notes app. I would have been 18.
- Isa B.: I attended the Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights Rocky Horror Picture Tribute Show when I was around twelve before I watched the movie. I thought it was going to be something scary, but wasn’t too taken aback because I’d heard some of the music before. But it was funny to have Magenta greet the crowd saying “put on your party hats!” and then hold out a condom.
Which theater did you attend your first live cast performance of the film? How was it?
- Logan C.: The South Bay Galleria in Redondo Beach, CA! Good times…it was an absolute blast, and my first real opportunity to surround myself with a community of like-minded bohemian souls, if only for a few hours per week.
- Anthony M.: My first live cast was at the Phoenix 15 Cinemas in Corona – this was when it was still called the Phoenix 15. It used to be at the Dos Lagos shopping pavilion, but has since been converted into a Starlight Luxury Cinema. I had no idea what to expect, no knowledge of the historic traditions of the live cast screenings – I loved it. It was truly discombobulating to walk to be bossed around by the actors onstage, and to try to follow the plot of the film while people are shouting lengthy dialogue of their own. It was a new energy I’ve yet to feel replicated by any film in a theater…
- Isa B.: I actually don’t remember! Somewhere in LA or Orange County. This was before The Frida Cinema’s showings were around, so I just Googled where the next one would be. It was… bad. It was a special outing with my friends, but we were all minors in high school still and none of us could drive, so we had to go with my dad and another person’s parent. I’d watched the movie with my dad before, but the nature of the midnight screenings was more aggressively sexual than either the film or the Universal Tribute show combined. It felt vulgar and gross rather than carefree, and the staple call-out lines are still something I don’t always like very much or think are funny. But I still loved the music, so it was fun to dance during those moments in the aisles.
What’s the best song from the film?
- Logan C.: “Science Fiction Double Feature” — always a thrill to hear so many classic genre films name-dropped!
- Anthony M.: Can I say “Science Fiction Double Feature”? It’s popular for a reason.
- Isa B.: They all genuinely shred, but Hot Patootie is one of my favorites. I also like Rose Tint My World because one of the most fun things is singing in the voice of the characters, and this number has the whole cast from Columbia’s nasal whine to Rocky’s Elvis-y deal.
Who has the best outfit in Rocky Horror? (picture links appreciated, but not required if its an easy outfit to identify)
- Logan C.: Columbia! That hat! That bowtie!
- Anthony M.: Frank-N-Furter has the market cornered on good outfits. But their sequined dinner shirt is clearly the best.
- Isa B.: Frank-N-Furter’s dinner party outfit (with or without the party hat) is severely underrated. The bodysuit is beaded and sparkly, with these cute little toe-showing boots. It’s sexy yet elegant, and gender-defying.
Pitch your idea for a Rocky Horror sequel/prequel film
- Logan C: I’d love to follow Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s years through med school. What did his dorm room look like? Who did he have lunch with?
- Anthony M.: The sequel: Frank-N-Furter returns to Transsexual, Transylvania and attempts to cultivate the same community there as he did on Earth – but it doesn’t work. Their parties aren’t the same as they were on Earth, it’s missing something. The film would be a really introspective study on alienation and not a musical. My version would be directed by Gus Van Sant.
- Isa B.: I want to see Eddie and Frank-N-Furter’s fling before they broke up. Maybe an alternate universe where Magenta and Riff-Raff don’t turn on Frank, and some of Brad and Janet’s loved ones come looking for them after they went missing. Worlds collide again, and now Brad and Janet help bring more people over to the Transylvania way.
What kind of car would Dr. Frank-N-Furter drive if he went to a drive-in?
- Logan C.: 1963 Jaguar E-Type SI – OTS. Sexy as hell, and appropriately phallic.
- Anthony M.: Frank-N-Furter would be driven to the drive-in by Rocky, but both are wearing chauffeur’s hats. They’d arrive in a convertible hearse, with a portable TV to watch in case the movie gets boring.
- Isa B.: Something long and sparkly.
“Damnit…” (fill in the blank with anything except Janet)
- Logan C.: 2020
- Anthony M.: irreversible human damage to this planet!
- Isa B.: Hamlet!
Who would you cast as Frank-N-Furter in a stage revival of the show?
- Logan C.: Lee Pace
- Anthony M.: Mya Taylor. And if she isn’t available then Janelle Monae, I guess.
- Isa B.: I’d want to see an open call for LGBTQ+ performers, but if I had to pick…Michael Sheen as Frank-N-Furter? He looks so good in a dress, stockings, and heels. He has the range, darling.
Riff Raff or Magenta?
- Logan C.: Magenta.
- Anthony M.: Riff Raff. Because I slouch a lot.
- Isa B.: Riff Raff whomst?
What film would you pair with Rocky Horror to make the perfect late-night, double-feature, picture show?
- Logan C.: Phantom Of The Paradise (1974)
- Anthony M.: Spice World: The Movie (1997)
- Isa B.: Another cheesy, iconic musical– maybe Flash Gordon (1980)!
“Suspiria is my baby” is a phrase that identifies me at The Frida Cinema. I could wax poetically* all day about Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film**. It was the subject of my Masters thesis. But rather than write another analytical piece about it, I’m in the mood for some fun. And since I’m taking a graduate poetry class, here’s a list poem to show why Suspiria surely is my baby:
Ooh, pretty colors!
Goblin’s bitchin’ prog-rock score
Major crushing on Jessica Harper***
So many fairy tale references****
A Strong Heroine
Written by a Woman*****
Laughably poor dubbing
Did I mention the pretty colors?
All of them witches
Eastman Color & 3-Strip Technicolor******
Jarring camera angles
Random reference to The Exorcist
Over-the-top murder set pieces
Florescent fake blood
All the wine
Baby-faced Udo Kier*******
The most fake bat ever
Wire that looks like a twisted Slinky
Random cigarette smoking
PS Suspiria is my baby.
*No, it is not an Italian giallo film. Fight me! (Actually, don’t . . . that might hurt. A lot.)
**Gotta love the ironic pun of me writing a poem after speaking about waxing poetically about Suspiria.
***Sorry, Saoirse Ronan, you’re still my main bae. I love you.
****My Masters thesis examined the intertextual references Suspiria makes to Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis and classic fairy tales, including Hansel & Gretel, Snow White, and Bluebeard. (Wait, nobody cares. Getting off my soap box now.)
*****RIP Daria Nicolodi (June 19, 1950 – November 26, 2020)
****** Even more gushing over pretty colors.
*******But they don’t use his actual voice in the dubbing. Sad face.
Richard Kelly’s New Millennium Psychological Thriller Donnie Darko (2001) celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. We sat down with film and television actress Jolene Purdy about her iconic performance as Cherita Chen, and the enduring appeal of this daring film.
Frida Cinema: Jolene, thank you for doing this. Having a background in musical theater, Donnie Darko marked your first appearance on camera. Since then you’ve amassed an impressive resume of character roles in multi-camera and single camera television. Take us back to the year 2000 and your audition for this film.
Jolene Purdy: I was an undisclosed age when I auditioned. [laughs] I was like two but I looked old for my age. It was funny because we were all in the same “class” right? But the entire cast were insanely different ages. Like, Jake was twenty, twenty one. Joanie, she was like 4 years younger than me. I was closest to Jena Malone’s age.
F.C.: And closer to your character’s age too…
J.P. Yeah. Which, the characters I play today are vastly different ages than what I am.
F.C.: Is that true for Wandavision? Does your character even age in that?
J.P: I don’t know. I don’t know what I am. I can’t say anything about Wandavision. So many NDA’s have been signed.
F.C: How did the role of Cherita Chen find you?
J.P: I stumbled into it, honestly. I grew up doing musical theater and I wanted to be represented by this musical theater agent that I took a workshop with. I asked her to represent me and she said “Uh no. You’re like a weird ethnicity, and you’re overweight. There’s no way I’m gonna be able to find you work.”
F.C: She told you that?
J.P: Oh yeah. And then a year later, my friend’s mom was helping, like as an assistant to that woman. Then I learned she had sent me out for Donnie Darko. So she called me, the agent, and said “hey so we submitted you for this thing. You can use our name and go in on it,” blah-blah-blah. And so I like, I was doing musical theater in high school at the time. So I sent in my high school photo as a headshot and got an audition. So maybe that got me the job because they were like “Wow she’s so authentic”.
F.C: What did you know about this role before you read the script, and how did that change as you read the material?
J.P: My character didn’t have a lot of material. It’s the same phrase repeated. What I did know was that she was bullied. She wore ear muffs to drown out the bullying, so I got this vulnerability of what it was like to be bullied. And growing up, I very much had those experiences to draw from.
F.C: What was the casting search for Cherita Chen like? Were you being considered alongside lots of other actors?
J.P: I think it was pretty extensive. I mean, Donnie Darko was one of the first indie films that became a festival darling, at the beginning of that era where that was a thing. So not a lot of high profile actors were doing these small films like they are today. I mean, they looked everywhere.
F.C: How many shooting days were you scheduled for?
J.P: I think it was 10 days over a two week period. They were shooting fast. So 9 days, but I ended up doing 10.
F.C: This is your first, and to date, only film appearance. It must be difficult to form an opinion on something you did once when you were a teenager, but do you find you prefer one medium or the other? Film or television?
J.P: I love television. It’s my jam. Every week you get a new script and get to grow the character. The writers are creating the story, so as an actor you go through the journey without knowing the ending, the same way the character does. With a film you know beginning, middle, and end. And you design the performance to fit. But on TV, you can’t know what’s happening in two weeks and tweak your performance to compensate. The writer’s know. We’re just their puppets. I just really enjoy tv. Multi Camera. Comedies.
F.C: Tell me about “chut up”. Was that line written on the page like that?
J.P: Yeah. it was written “chut up” with a “c”. So, she had a speech impediment. When I spoke with Richard Kelly about what that was, he told me it was based on a girl he went to school with who was bullied for her speech impediment. And it wasn’t clear which ethnicity she was, if that had anything to do with it.
F.C: When you design a character like Cherita Chen who has so few lines, how do you differentiate between each line reading? Mentally, how were you attempting to differentiate each performance?
J.P: Mentally I was going through a breakdown being that close to Jake Gyllenhaal [laughs]. Cause in the script it was like “he pulls her face up to his” and I was like, “nonononnononono”. This was the second day of shooting–
F.C: The scene where he tells you things are going to get better.
J.P: Yes the second day. And I was underage at the time, so my mom had to be on set. I told her “Uh, I think this is when I quit. I think I’m done, mom.” And she goes, “Cool. You signed a contract, so when you finish this you can be done. But right now you kinda just gotta like…you gotta just do it.”
F.C: Good advice that worked out.
J.P: Jake was just so kind and gentle. And just caring and supportive. And everyone knew I was nervous. Of course I couldn’t hide that. But everyone knew it was my first camera audition for anything, so they were all kind…Going back to your question about how to say the same thing but have a different emotion every time. For Cherita, she didn’t have a way to communicate. She had this speech impediment she was terrified about, so this was the phrase that she knew would help with that fear. So as they’re bullying her, she’s saying “chut up” to get them to stop because she’s protective of herself. But with [Donnie], she’s saying “chut up”, but it’s more along the lines of “I can’t hear this anymore”.
F.C: There’s a montage of all of the characters in bed, some are waking up from a bad dream. Cherita seems to be laying down with a book, waiting to fall asleep. What do you remember Richard Kelly telling you about that scene?
J.P: I feel like the book was “So You’re Going Through Puberty”. Or something like that. It had to have been in the script. Richard’s thing was, and I’m totally paraphrasing, he said “You’re at peace knowing that Donnie has fulfilled his destiny, and in fulfilling his destiny he has saved other people”. That’s just what I remember.
F.C: Who did the choreography for your Sparkle Motion dance?
J.P: Marguerite Derricks. She’s actually a huge choreographer. Everyone has worked with her. I was kind of like, “I hope she knows she’s not working with a dancer”. Some of the other kids were dancers who could pick it up quicker. But I remember her being surprised like “Oh, oh. You got it. Oh you can, you got it”. It was fun. It was shot in this auditorium and I think when I shot there was no audience.
F.C: Was that easier?
J.P: No, I think it would have been easier with people there because I come from stage. But I think it was fine. Richard said “You’re trying to win them over. This dance is supposed to win them over. You think this dance is the thing to make them go *gasp* we were wrong about her”.
F.C: Tell me about your first time watching the film all the way through.
J.P: It’s funny. When I’m acting it, when I’m being bullied, or I’m crying, or I’m doing a dance, I am the character. I was so into it that when I went to go see the movie as Jolene, and everyone was laughing at my scenes, I had to go “wait, this is kinda funny”.
F.C: It never felt like a comedy on set.
F.C: What were your conversations with Richard about this character? Did he clue you in to how Cherita fit into this broader sci-fi narrative?
J.P: So, Richard Kelly shopped this around all over for years. He wanted to direct it. He didn’t want any big studio to water it down or turn it into a blockbuster. He wanted the message, his message, to be clear. He fought for me to stay in it, because the studio wanted to cut my character because it was so long.
F.C: Cut you out entirely?
J.P: Entirely. And he fought to keep me in. which I’m so grateful for. He told me “you’re integral to this. And I don’t care if people don’t understand it. You’re an integral part of this
F.C: How much did you and cast interact during downtime?
J.P: Sparkle Motion was sparkle-motioning in downtime. So I just watched them. And I wasn’t old enough to be engaged with like Seth Rogen and Jake. So I was with the kids mostly.
F.C: Cherita doesn’t seem to fit in with her fellow students, but she also doesn’t seem to identify with the adults and faculty either. When or where is Cherita most comfortable?
J.P: At home in bed, reading. That last shot. Unlike most kids in high school that aren’t comfortable sitting in themselves because they don’t know who they are and they don’t like who they think they might be, I think Cherita was very comfortable with who she was. She was just less comfortable and felt unsafe in the world which was so unlike her.
F.C: Any fond memories on set with Drew Barrymore?
J.P: There was a scene that I had with Drew where I’m eating oranges. Time was running low and since I was a kid I could only shoot for so long. They were like “oh we may need to cut this” and Drew goes “no no, we’ll move my thing, I want HER to be in this. I want her to be my eyeline for this.” She was adamant about me being there for her coverage.
F.C: Coverage you’re offscreen for.
J.P: Yeah. So she’s over there acting and I think “what am I going to do?” So I’m like, literally just eating oranges in that scene.
F.C: Fear and love is a major topic in the film. What did you think about the Fear and Love videos that were in the film? What did Cherita think?
J.P: I thought it was hilarious. I thought the videos were so funny. “Im not afraid anymore!” I mean that’s funny. But, as my character, I think she was taking it in very seriously. She was learning things. Like, yes I have a lot of fear, but I want to act out of love, so how do I? Y’know. It’s school, so she’s following the protocol and the rules, the program. She’s learning, she’s not judging it at all. I was [judging], because I thought it was funny. But she wasn’t.
F.C: It looks like it was fun to shoot.
J.P: So fun. I remember them saying “Wait till you see this, this is hilarious”
F.C: How often do you get recognized for this movie?
J.P: I remember when I first started getting recognized for Donnie Darko. I was at a diner, maybe eighteen at the time. And there was this adult couple, and they were looking over at me, looking over at me. They were like rocker kinda people and, I’m musical theater [laughs]. But I have an edge. And so, I was telling my friend with me “what are they looking at”. So I just look over at them and I’m like [makes face] “What are you looking at? What?” So the girl comes over and she’s like “Were you in Donnie Darko” and I started laughing and I go “Oh yeah. I thought I did something and you were mad at me.” She’s like “No I just couldn’t tell that was you. That was so cool.” And I was like “Oh, so that happens.” It still happens all the time.
F.C: In addition to an impressive supporting cast of film actors, Donnie Darko features a standout performance from the late Patrick Swayze as motivational speaker and pedophile, Jim Cunningham.
J.P: On set, you get a call sheet everyday, right. With your sides on it. My mom looks at the call sheet and goes “P. Swayze. Hm…if that’s Patrick swayze I’m gonna die.” Cut to, we open the trailer door and he’s walking by. And she goes “I think I’m gonna watch today”. We watched Dirty Dancing growing up, so for her it was a big *gasp* moment.
F.C: Did she get to meet him?
J.P: No, he just came in, did his thing. very nice. I got to see him dance, that was fun.
F.C: On set?
J.P: Yeah so when he’s doing his speech thing the stage he was on was shiny black, and he had to wear medical booties on his shoes – this was before covid. So it’s kinda slick. So he’s sliding around, doing pirouettes and I was like “this is amazing”
F.C: Did you ever get to talk to him about acting?
J.P: No. He kinda kept to himself. I think things are different now with how communal actors are. But then, most actors just went, did their thing and went to their trailers.
F.C: He probably was in a weird headspace considering his character.
J.P: Right. He did not want to do jazz hands with Sparkle Motion if he’s playing a pedophile. So he stayed away from us kids [laughs].
F.C: This film premieres at the dawn of a new Millennium and almost immediately finds a cult audience. Twenty years later that cult following is beginning to crystallize into a fixture of mainstream culture. What do you hope people take away from this movie, twenty years on?
J.P: I feel a bit disheartened by social media and how this generation has taken to instant gratification and popularity of things without substance behind it. I think this film has substance and is enduring. And I just hope that future generations are as focused on having substantial messages as they do lots of likes…oh, that was mean [laughs]. But just the underlying message of when you’re watching someone else be bullied, you yourself are too scared. You’re living in fear. And it doesn’t allow you to love that person. So that’s the fear and love. It’s scary to love people. It’s sacrificing yourself…The coolest thing was the last day when I wrapped. Jake came to me and said “You have to think about the message that you just created. It’s so much more than a movie. There’s gonna be a kid that’s sitting there and they’re gonna identify with your character and feel seen and feel represented by you. And not feel so alone because they see it happens to other people. But even more so there could be a bully that hasn’t even fathomed the repercussions of their actions. And maybe it might make them question the next time they bully someone. So your reach has so much more than a credit. And of course it was Jake who’s so wonderful and nice. He said it way more eloquent than what I just said.
Donnie Darko plays Saturday, February 20th at 7:30pm at The Frida Cinema Pop-Up Drive-In.
“‘Operator, I’d like to call America…Yes, A-mer-i-ca!’”
- Ho (Wei Ping-ao), The Way Of The Dragon (1972)
This Friday, January, 29th, in collaboration with Ghost Party, The Frida Cinema will be celebrating the Life of Bruce Lee with a Fiftieth Anniversary double-feature of two of his finest screen performances: Fists Of Fury (1971), and Bruce’s directorial debut The Way Of The Dragon (1972).
Much has already been said and speculated about the legacy of Bruce Lee; the extent to which his abilities were exaggerated or not; doubts of his cinematic contributions; the running tab of aggressive interactions with strangers. True, that the supra level of fame in which Bruce Lee occupies makes his celebrity worthy of discussion. It merely becomes impossible, then, to escape these sensational details in order to discuss the true merits of Lee as a filmmaker, who debuts in the early seventies alongside a superlative roster of directors that would go on to become cultural fixtures in their own right: John Waters, Gordon Parks Jr., Sidney Poitier, Wes Craven, Chantal Akerman.
Born Lee Jun-fan in 1940, the year of the Dragon, Lee entered the Earth an American by way of San Francisco. Lee’s parents were on tour with a traveling stage act in the United States when Lee’s mother went into labor. They named him “Lee Jun-fan”, a name translating homophonically in English to “return again”. A prophecy of Lee’s eventual return to the United States after his birth, but also a koan demonstrating the discipline of repetition. Nowhere is this discipline more on display than in The Way Of The Dragon, Bruce’s first directorial effort.
After the success of his first two films with Golden Harvest Productions in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee negotiated a new deal to write and direct a third film for the studio. With an increased budget and new creative life, Bruce exercised all his creative muscles to flex out a didactic film that is somehow expressive, exhilarating, and irresistibly charming all at once. Though one of the tenets of Lee’s martial art Jeet Kune Do argues for a degree of minimalism in its application, the cinema of Bruce Lee, including and especially The Way Of The Dragon, are remembered for their thrilling, over-the-top depictions.
Consider an early scene where Bruce Lee’s character Tang Lung eats lunch. It’s a comedic ordeal of montage-like cuts and snap-zooms that communicate hunger, sure. But it also shows an amateur filmmaker wrestling with a scene that has no observable action. In interviews, Lee has expressed his high regard for the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, and in some scenes this influence is abundantly clear. In other scenes, such as the lunch scene, the operatic atmosphere that Lee attempts feels tonally at odds with the Chaplin-esque material.
As the film progresses however, Lee’s kinetic camerawork will finally compliment the dynamic fight choreography he has plotted in this story of intersecting cultures and fighting styles in Rome, Italy. Threatened by a group of thinly characterized international thugs, Bruce Lee stages his fight scenes as competitions of spirit and style – the film essentially existing as a proof of concept for Gung-fu martial arts. That Bruce Lee’s character Tang encounters a variety of opponents is no accident. Lee wanted to position the rigidity of his opponents fighting style as their weakness, and the fluidity of Tang’s style as a superior trait – I’ll let you guess who wins every fight. Lee would revisit the drama of competing styles in Enter The Dragon (1973), and his unfinished Game Of Death screenplay where the main character fights a pagoda of enemies with increasingly deadly combat styles.
With the simple tracking moves and tableaux-like compositions of The Way Of The Dragon, Bruce Lee captures baroque images of ferocity and spirituality that cement him as a visionary filmmaker. The journey of this confidence is observable in the extant ~30 minutes of footage that Bruce shot for Game Of Death, whereby the same kinetic techniques we see in The Way Of The Dragon are deployed with more overlap with narrative and character development. If given a longer life, Bruce Lee may have developed an even more sophisticated cinematic palette, but would no doubt retain the core philosophical values on display in both films on this billing – the righteousness, the anger. An anger explored to a more explicit degree in Fists Of Fury (1971), where Bruce Lee’s character Chen Zhen confronts a rival Japanese dojo during the Occupation of Shanghai in the early 20th Century.
A case can be made on behalf of directors Lo Wei (The Big Boss (1972), Fists Of Fury (1971)) and Robert Clouse (Enter The Dragon (1973)) that their positions as director should receive a greater level of credit for the final product than the star actor. Author Laurence F. Knapp describes this relationship between film auteurs and film stars in his comprehensive analysis of the films of Clint Eastwood, but it feels crucially relevant when parsing the legacy of Bruce Lee.
Knapp refers to Eastwood as a “starteur” (star + auteur), a phenomenon of homogenized film production that obfuscates the individualism inherent to all art:
“Starteurs have a self-reflective relationship to their work; their films are an extended dialogue with their screen personae, an attempt to shape, reshape, and break the mold that gave them their initial creative and commercial independence […] With great delicacy and insight, they are capable of making successive films that deconstruct or circumnavigate their personae without reducing them to bathos, parody, or caricature. Their longevity and singular status comes as a result of a direct understanding of themselves, their craft, time period, and archetypal appeal” (1996)
While the contributions of Lo Wei and Robert Clouse cannot be understated, the essence of each film can only be attributed to the persistence of Bruce Lee’s personal vision – his creative, spiritual, and ethical vision that goes beyond cinema. Indeed whole scenes would be rewritten or blocked out by Lee, much to the chagrin of his collaborators who are used to dealing with passive actors. Bruce Lee’s long standing career in show business since he was a baby, offered him a far greater insight to his relationship with an audience and how to cater a performance to it than his directors could
Both Wei and Clouse resort to smash cuts in editing to highlight aesthetic details during the action – cuts to a close up of a fist as it is thrown, a close up of a torso as it is kicked – but ultimately avoid showing any fight as a dramatic event. When in the hands of Bruce Lee, fight scenes are framed in long shots with minimal cutting, making effective use of the popular widescreen format at the time, and precipitating a demand for verite realism in films that would reach maturity before the end of the decade with the rise of “New Hollywood.” A generation of films with little action, but no shortage of emotional content.
Nearly fifty years after his death in 1973, the mania over Bruce Lee burns as brightly as it did when he was alive. Last year, Cinemax aired its second and final season of The Warrior, a television program based on a treatment Bruce Lee pitched to ABC in 1970. ESPN also recently produced a 30 for 30 Documentary with cooperation from the Lee Estate about the life and teachings of the Jeet Kune Do Master. Just as it was before he passed, Bruce Lee remains to this day, the most recognizable international figure associated with martial arts cinema or nunchucks. A tragically short but humble life, the images that Bruce Lee leaves behind will continue to inspire generations across cultural boundaries in times of refracted instability and anxiety. The oneness we feel as audience members underscoring the oneness between all things.
Give yourself time to sit down and close your eyes for while. Now imagine you’re back in the late 2000’s. The age of Hannah Montana, Xbox Live, and the Plain White T’s. Say you were in middle school during that period, and as you get dropped off by your mom who blasts I Gotta Feeling with windows wide open, you start to hear murmurs of vampires and werewolves as you walk to your first class. Perhaps Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney pop up in your head if you’re familiar with the movie monsters of old, but there’s a good chance of you slowly noticing a certain cultural shift in how your peers view those monsters. As you play Line Rider on the library computers during lunch, you see your crush from algebra reading a book by one Stephanie Meyer. On the cover is a delicious-looking apple being held by two very pale hands. Suddenly, those murmurs you heard in the morning of who is Team Edward or Team Jacob suddenly begin to add up, and bellowing deep in your gut is the realization that she may always find herself luring after those fictional heartthrobs before ever even knowing your name.
Luckily this story is fictional. I personally preferred to wait to get my heart broken until after high school. But perhaps this is a narrative shared by those who spent that period hating the Twilight Saga with the utmost, often-homophobic fury. After all, the idea of vampires that sparkle and feel burdened by the emotional weight of living for an eternity while stuck in a teenage form, instead of, y’know, sleeping in coffins or turning into a little bat that flies around, was probably too new of an idea for those insecure enough to dismiss the saga in the most immature of ways. The kind of people who probably spent way too much time playing Modern Warfare 2. But as Susan Sontag wrote, “Time eventually positions […], even the most amateurish, at the level of art”. I don’t have as big a gall as I would hope to say that Twilight now qualifies as high art, but there’s a preciousness to it all that has certainly grown with the flow of time. To be among an age group that experienced the peak of their adolescence alongside the annual release of a new film in this series now feels like something akin to a once-in-a lifetime privilege. There’s no feeling quite like it, even if the indifference I initially had with the series was still very much there. But with Twilight, I think of middle school courtyards, sitting at lunch with your friends who recommend anime that you will never watch, and the all-nighters I would have to myself on weekends. For me, a link to those memories becoming far more tangible rests on the soundtrack for each film. Running through the veins of them is pure unfiltered adolescent angst, and with those sounds is a tether that can immediately transport me to a time where you were merely confused, emotional and pimply, yet somehow reassured that being an adult was still the farthest possible thing. But now, there’s no better time to look back and see what made each one work; from the least to the most. Cue Paramore. Because who else?
5) BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011)
As petty as it may be to start the lowest choice in a ranked list with “nowhere to go but up”, I unfortunately can’t help but apply that here. In the vast realm of Twilight soundtrack openers, Endtapes by The Joy Formidables is a melody too derivative to truly latch onto, and the leeway into the rest of it isn’t too strong either. Love Will Take You, its second track provided by Angus and Julia Stone, is above all very pretty folk, but not quite enough to tell it apart from anything I could hear from The Lumineers or Mumford and his fraudulent sons. Ultimately, it’s too lightweight of a collection, with an uninspired single from Bruno Mars seemingly made only for radio play. But Christina Perri’s A Thousand Years is the single that’s closest to saving the day here – in the form of a chamber-folk ballad that bleeds itself well into the story of the newlywed couple found in Bella and Edward, and their animatronic infant soon-to-come. The only other noteworthy song is one that was originally within the soundtrack of the first film. Iron and Wine rework the gorgeous Flightless Bird, American Mouth into an even softer version of itself for the opening where Bella and Edward tie the knot. But y’know, highlighting a song that was from another soundtrack isn’t quite a testament to the rest of it, which only amounts to what feels like a bridge to a better collection of songs in Part 2. Hopefully by now, you can guess what the next one will be.
4) BREAKING DAWN – PART 2 (2012)
You can imagine in some way that the music supervisor for these movies may have attempted to steer a metaphorical ship in a more proper path before this franchise ended. Where Breaking Dawn – Part 1 comprised mostly of pop-oriented singles that sounded disposable enough to sound nearly the same as the other, Part 2 would nearly work as a return to the more out-there’iness of the first three soundtracks, if there wasn’t like, a mere 12-month wait between each film. But man, remember synth-pop? Passion Pit is certainly there to show you if not, in the form of its opening track Where I Come From. It is potentially the brightest sound you’ll get on any of these soundtracks, with cheery synths, bouncy beats, and Michael Angelakos’ trademark howl. But suddenly, you hear Ellie Goulding’s Bittersweet possibly begin what may be a mostly electronic affair this time around, and then surprise! Green Day shows up with The Forgotten. You may think of it as an unexpected 180 if it weren’t for hearing Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocals alongside melancholy piano and strings, which winds up a welcome detour from the processed beats that came before. Feist brings a callback to that familiar Twilight angst with Fire in the Water, and St. Vincent shreds onto the scene with a bluesy track called The Antidote. It ends up becoming a soundtrack tonally at war with its own tender moodiness and rowdy rock; all-the more appropriate considering the climactic war of the film itself. I’ll have to assume that’s a deliberate decision and that the music supervisor is more than likely a genius.
3) ECLIPSE (2010)
It’s right around here where we start to reach a perfect middle ground between the more radio-friendly vibes of the Breaking Dawn soundtracks, and the more eclectic variety of the first two. From the start, if you’re anything like me, you’re a tad bit taken aback by how Metric has only contributed one song to any of these movies. I’d certainly say that between Eclipse and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 2010 had to be the year that Metric’s floodgates burst with a surplus of new fans. But Eclipse (All Yours) provides a heavy lead-in for the bombast that follows, in the form of Muse’s Neutron Star Collision (Love Is Forever), but it’s the double-decker combo of Florence + the Machine and Sia that really hits. Heavy in Your Arms and My Love, consecutively – both such achingly romantic ballads that are able to really extend themselves to the story. Like,
will Bella truly allow herself to become a vampire by marrying Edward? I personally don’t know. I stopped at New Moon. But alas! It’s in the second half where we go for some genuinely out-of-left-field appearances from Jack White, The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, UNKLE, and Cee Lo Green himself with What Part of Forever. There’s a far more energetic pacing to be found here, compared to the softness that truly complements the moodiness of this saga, but for what it’s worth, there’s still enough here to imagine yourself in those Washington woods, in a tense love triangle between vampires who climb trees and werewolves who ride motorcycles.
2) TWILIGHT (2008)
At first glance, I had nearly zero engagement in the story of Twilight when I accompanied far more eager family members to see it on opening weekend, but somehow I felt just a glimmer of resonance with 15 Step, the opening track of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, being the very first song we hear as the credits rolled. I didn’t quite fully delve into Radiohead until I was in high school, but I knew there was something to latch onto with that song choice, which may have informed the obsession I’d have with them later on. In an unexpected discovery, it seems to be that 15 Step is not on the actual soundtrack, but that doesn’t at all obscure the inherent bangers to be found here. There’s no better way to say “welcome to 2008, baby” than opening your soundtrack with Muse, who continues their apparent outer space fetish with Supermassive Black Hole, which plays during the film’s (in)famous baseball scene. Following that is Hayley Williams – a most prominent mainstay of late-2000’s emo, popping off on Decode by Paramore. And Linkin Park stopping by in-between inserting theme songs for two consecutive Transformers movies with Leave Out All the Rest. It’s a collection to truly get lost in; from the melancholy loudness of Mutemath, to the gentleness that Iron & Wine brings to Flightless Bird, American Mouth, and a reminder that the legendary Carter Burwell scored not one, not two, but three of these movies. The only thing more iconic than that is including an additional Paramore song in your soundtrack, in this case I Caught Myself. The cherry on top, of course, which really cements this soundtrack as more of a capsule of those late-aughts vibes than any of its companions.
1) NEW MOON (2009)
We made it, folks. And to be honest, for me at least, it wasn’t even a close call. This baby is a bounty. A full relic of what ultimately summarizes the sound of these films; from brooding alternative to the up-and-coming indie rock that Pitchfork would throw themselves at in 2009. If getting hit with an opening triple-decker combo of Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Skulls, and the sinister synths of Thom Yorke doesn’t do anything for you, then perhaps some wonderful collaborative tracks between the finest of that era certainly will. The Twilight saga seems ingrained in a feeling one gets during the time of autumn, and above all, that feeling is strengthened here to a high degree. Even in the hardest tracks is an airy melancholy that suits the general vibe, if you will, but the beauty is best found in the softness. Specifically, Done All Wrong by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Possibility by Lykke Li bring their own sense of intimacy to the melodrama of it all. Though two other tracks in particular ring especially effective, to where they could easily exist apart from the world of Twilight, but just as much as they do service to it. Rosyln – a collab track between Bon Iver and St. Vincent, is one such track. In this song are two artists, fresh off their own breakthrough success, channeling a beautifully muted folk sound; all with a sincerity that feels nothing but aching. Following near the end is Slow Life – a song by Grizzly Bear with vocals by Victoria Legrand of Beach House fame, who lends a bold, dreamy closeness to round out the entirety of what came before in a very perfect way. Songs like these come as reminders that in spite of the brooding heartthrobs, the high school drama, and at times the general silliness that this franchise has become known for, within its core are the building blocks of a love story, which more than anything was put together by the musicians who lent it a heart that very much bleeds.
This year might’ve been the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, but for myself, it was certainly the year of the cat. Because of the quarantine, I’ve spent more time with my own kitties than ever, which has been both a blessing and full of challenges to which I’m sure anyone with senior pets or working from home can with attention-seeking furballs can relate. Despite this, I seemingly will never have my fill of the creatures, because last month’s ridiculously fun drive-in screening of Tom Hooper’s nuts adaptation of Cats bumped the film up into the winner’s circle for my most watched movie of 2020. I’m not the least bit surprised.
You see, Cats 2019 kicked off my year, being one of only two films I saw in a theater other than The Frida. It became the soundtrack of my bustling commute days for everything from late-night food deliveries and afternoon freeway jams. Though the superior 1998 film soundtrack isn’t available on Spotify, the majority of the original Broadway tracks made it into my most listened to songs of 2020. There are far more listens that didn’t even register, as the ultimate Scottish iteration of Skimbleshanks could only be found on YouTube played non-stop for weeks in what is indisputably (and unsurprisingly) my most listened to song of the year. It filled my days with joy, especially during quarantine when I needed the pep-boost and sunshine offered by the orange tabby cat whose passions arise from something as quaint as “working” on a train to keep the crew and conductors company. Funnily enough, it’s also connected to one of my other loves, as the most huggable version of Old Deuteronomy is performed by Ken Page, a.k.a. Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The early months of 2020 feel like eons ago, yet simultaneously like it was just yesterday rather than a year’s past, even more so looking back and remembering that those first few days of January, I hadn’t thought much of the “Cats” musical at all. Though I hadn’t thought about “Cats” too much before that infamous trailer dropped threatening its Universal arrival during the Christmas season way back when it was far from my first experience with the Andrew Lloyd Webber property. I’d actually had the fortune of seeing a local stage production in person way back in 2012 and found it enchanting as a display of music and dance to be felt and not completely understood at first glance. I do feel a bit sorry for the folks whose first encounter with the musical was the 2019 studio abomination.
Despite enjoying that initial experience enough to watch the 1998 filmed version of the musical and declaring my next cat would be named Rum Tum Tugger or Mr. Mistofalees, I continued to endure an overall Cats-free life aside from the occasional soundtrack listen or YouTube rounds. I knew the new film would be a trip, so I was actually very excited to see Cats 2019 with my bestie for a good laugh and to make fun; unfortunately, our theater wasn’t completely empty, as a whopping three other old folks were there to seemingly watch the film unironically. I think one of them left the theater halfway through. But neither my friend nor myself were prepared for what the experience would do to me in the coming weeks; with the bad taste left in my mouth, I returned to the 1998 film and soundtrack to re-discover what I knew I’d loved about the source material and came back as a complete fanatic. It was non-stop Cats music in the weeks that followed, and seemingly never ceased.
Thanks to The Frida and Tom Hooper, Valentine’s Day 2020 was the most memorable February 14th I’ve ever had– and I spent it dressed as a cat, belting out Broadway classics and laughing with the crowd until I was dizzy. Leave it to The Frida to propose a “Valentine’s-Spay” benefit event for a local cat rescue to give the people what they’d craved for months: the opportunity to witness Cats 2019 and laugh and scream without reservations! Any event that has a line out the door past showtime tells you it’s going to be absolutely outrageous.
The lobby that night was filled with Frida staff, cat ears, and the motion picture soundtrack playing as incoming guests bought booze and were gifted posters of Mr. Mistoffelees for the Segerstrom production (mine is currently gracing my wall). Hilariously, there were folks in line for the other screening of the night as well, and people attending for both Cats and the following screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the group behind me curiously asked what the heck was going on. This would be a recurring sentiment throughout the night, especially from those in the theater who actually came to watch Cats.
There were two types of audience members there that night: “Cats” stans who may or may not have seen the Universal film before, and unsuspecting Cats newbies. The stans were outspoken, leading the sing-alongs to the numbers while the folks who knew nothing of Cats beyond its existence likely left the theater that night in a stupor.
Once the first creepy carnivalesque notes began, it popped off. Already in disbelief, the uncanny CG humanoids creeping in and out of the shadows drew screams of horror which only grew as the uncanny figures kept being introduced and ominous lyrics continued, each seemingly worse than last. Having had the song stuck in my head nonstop for a month, my face already hurt from smiling by the time the chorus of “Jellicle Cats” hit and folks began clapping along. Meanwhile, the couple to my right was stunned silent, their jaws literally dropped as they tried to take in everything in front of them. It was hilarious and not a unique reaction in the theater; I asked if they were okay. They informed me that they’d never seen or heard Cats before, and I informed them that it was going to be a hell of a ride, so they’d better strap in.
Anyone who’s been exposed to the real thing can see that Tom Hooper’s Cats is even more of a bizarre disaster through a first impression. I’ve never had such a blast making fun of the horribly misguided attempts of major studios, actors, and musicians with no self-awareness to rake in cash and Academy Awards. There’s nothing quite like saying “you’re welcome T.S. Eliot” out loud and having the crowd laugh at the guy’s expense, or being reminded that both Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellan were both in Hamlet as the knight himself laps at a bowl of milk. It was therapeutic, commenting on how somehow they managed to make even the designs of the cats racist and taking the two good-natured and admired chubby cats and turning them into fat-phobic failed attempts at humor.
While the movie itself manages to disappoint by getting the music wrong along with everything else, ruining what was a joyful and triumphant finale into a fizzling nothing, it became fun again with a crowd. Everyone cheered Mr. Mistoffelees on like he was Tinkerbell; others kept yelling “where’s Rum Tum Tugger?!” and yelling “HE’S GAY, TOM” at the shoe-horned hetero romance forced upon a character who literally lit up and manifested rainbows. By the end, a whole row of what had to be theater kids stood in the front left row and started doing a kick-line, and other improvised choreography followed among the rest of us. Literally, everyone in the theater lost their minds when Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat appeared for his number, because whether a longtime fan or casual moviegoer, Skimble is the part of Cats 2019 that everyone agrees was unironically awesome. I screamed way too loud, but I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm for the best character and song in any version of the show.
Pretty much everyone was astonished at the choice to have snot dripping from Jennifer Husdon’s song during what was meant to be her Oscar-moment, and many could relate to one moviegoer’s “about two hours ago” response to “Memory” asking if we remembered a time when happiness was. True solidarity shined as the vocal musical fans yelled at the screen when their favorite character appeared: “look how they massacred my boy!”
Before The Frida Cinema elected to shut down for everyone’s safety, another semi-regular screening of Cats was planned to make the rounds, and I was eagerly awaiting the chance to see it with others once again. I got to thinking, “what items or lines can be used to make this a real midnight movie experience”? It was the potential to create new traditions, which is an opportunity rarely available– I’d already started looking for a train whistle and considering what would be a good alternative to glitter that could be thrown. Although I wouldn’t have ever guessed a drive-through screening to be the follow-up this winter season, it was a delight in a different way.
Even through closed car windows, laughing fits and screams could be heard throughout the experience, and even a few clap-alongs from the folks in the bed of their trucks despite the cold December air. You could tell the majority of audience members were true fans much the same as before, cracking up at demands for “Mr. Mistofalee’s boyfriend”. Headlights and honks replaced cheers, though there were plenty of those as well in the form of hands waving out the windows. I made sure to take advantage of what’s definitely better than a train whistle and honked for Skimble, who I’m very pleased to share once again got the biggest reception and drove ‘em wild.
Perhaps, like the very poems which created the cast of Cats, there’s some poetry to be found in ending 2020 with Cats as well. Since the actual movie didn’t understand a single thing about what makes “Cats” work as a musical and what people genuinely love about it, it’s only natural for the public to take back what both T.S. Eliot would burst into flames at the sight of even more than before, and Universal wishes they could make everyone forget. Here’s hoping that every year from now on we can have a Jellicle Ball to add a bit of feline magic to the holidays.
Happy New Year!
On behalf of our board, staff, and volunteers, I hope 2021 finds you well, in good health, and hard at work on those New Year’s Resolutions!
What a remarkable year to look back on. We opened 2021 with a retrospective of films by director Bong Joon-ho, whose exceptional Parasite would go on to make history as the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, among its four awards. To follow this series we lined up a collection of neon-lit films to complement our opening of Chinese neo-noir thriller The Wild Goose Lake, as well as a retrospective of films to commemorate the great actor Max von Sydow — only to find ourselves suddenly canceling months’ worth of programming. On Friday, March 13th, we hosted a sold-out screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the next morning our staff met at the cinema for a quick meeting, collected our work tools from our desks, put a sign up on our front door, and locked up for what we thought would be weeks, maybe a month. We could never have imagined that The Frida had just held her last screening of 2020.
Thanks in large part to your support, the story didn’t end there. Trevor Dillon, our amazing Programmer, quickly held the first of three 10-Hour Stream-A-Thons to help us raise money to keep our staff paid and insured while we worked on identifying new avenues to keep our mission going. On March 27th, just two weeks after closing our doors, we partnered with Kino Lorber Films’ streaming service Kino Marquee — itself a brand new platform in response to COVID-19 — to host our first virtual premiere and run of an art house film, the sensational Bacurau. Then on Saturday, May 23rd, we hosted our very first drive-in screening, The Princess Bride, on the lawn at Fullerton’s Muckenthaler Cultural Center. The event sold out in less than two minutes, which led to two more sold-out encores that Memorial Day weekend. And the calls and emails began to flood in for more.
I am proud to announce that in 2020 our organization presented 83 drive-in events, for approximately 17,716 guests. And we provided you with 161 diverse titles on our streaming platform. We thank the many wonderful host venues and film distributors who partnered with us to make this possible, and we thank every one of you who purchased a ticket, rented a film, made a donation, shared a social media post, or simply told their friends about our organization and events.
It’s still such a surreal thing to look back to just nine months ago, when neither drive-ins nor a streaming art house platform were part of our forecast. I’ve said it twice already in this email, and I’ll say it once again — we couldn’t have done it without your faith, advocacy, and support. Allow me also to express my gratitude to our amazing staff members — Trevor Dillon, Jordan Djahangiri, and Martin Nguyen — for their dedicated work and gracious adaptability throughout the year.
Thank you for helping us ensure that The Frida Cinema wouldn’t see its last days in 2020, as so many wonderful independent businesses and non-profits unfortunately have. To be sure, we still have a long way to go to ensure we will be able to not only sustain ourselves, but to ultimately reopen and return to presenting you with the opportunities to experience the extensive variety of films and events that The Frida would regularly present, month after month. But we’ve made it this far, as we look back at a difficult year, there is so much we have to celebrate.
We wish you much joy, health, and cinema in 2021. Please stay safe out there.
The Frida Cinema
Continued support is vital in our ongoing commitment to provide our community access to diverse art house cinema. Please make a tax-deductible contribution today in support of The Frida Cinema.
In a year defined by fear, isolation, and an unhealthy longing for a trip to see anything at a movie theater, we asked our Frida writers how they got through 2020, and what they’re looking forward to in the new year! Warning: the following blog shows an unusual amount of optimism for the future of the film industry going forward. You’ve been warned!
What was the first film you watched in 2020?
- Austin Bittner: Chain – an amazing documentary from 2004 that delves into the mundanity of retail culture. A relic of mid-2000’s strip-mall architecture that set a pretty high bar for what I’d watch this year.
- Anthony McKelroy: It was me. I watched Tom Hooper’s Cats in theaters on 1/5/2020. I paid full price. I started the apocalypse. God have mercy on us all.
- Bradley Burke: Parasite.
- Isa Bulnes-Shaw: Klaus (2019).
- Miquela Davis (Frida Volunteer): Greener Grass on New Year’s Eve. Technically 2020.
Prior to COVID, what film(s) were you most looking forward to seeing in 2020?
- Austin B.: The new Wes Anderson of course looked pretty tight, and so did the new Edgar Wright. Hey, look at me rhyme! But for me, the biggest casualty couldn’t possibly top After Yang, the new film by Kogonada. I suggest anyone reading this to watch Columbus as soon as they finish to see what I mean.
- Anthony M.: First Cow, Dune…are there other movies besides those two?
- Isa B.: Get Back – The 50th anniversary release for The Beatles documentary film Let It Be (1970). Not only is it an HD restoration of footage we’ve had for decades, but it’s a reveal of more than 55 hours of footage, and 140 hours of audio from the ‘Let It Be’ recording sessions that have never been seen by the public before.
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run – I’m a Spongebob fanatic, and although there are definitely things to criticize (not the least of which regards Nickelodeon’s treatment of the franchise after its creator’s passing), I’d seen the previous two movies in theaters, so why not this one? The style of the CG is also a major upgrade, it looks fantastic visually.
Steven Universe: The Movie – My favorite show for seven years and one of the things dearest to my heart, Steven Universe’ epilogue series ended in March. As a send-off before the finale, theaters planned screenings of the epic movie from late 2019, and I was going to attend with my oldest friend who’s watched with me from the beginning. Instead, I bootlegged it right before the final episodes dropped and cried with her over a Discord call.
Trolls: World Tour – The McElroy Brothers, my fave podcasters/entertainers, are minor voices in this movie cuz they campaigned for years that they WOULD be in Trolls 2 one way or another, somehow. The crazy bastards did it, and I was going to pay $7 to see their 3 seconds of collective victory.
- Miquela D.: The French Dispatch
How did you watch movies in isolation this year?
- Austin B.: Chromecast became my best friend this year, pretty much by default. 99% of what I’ve seen this year has been through there, and considering the speakers of my laptop now making everything playing on it sound like distorted farts, Chromecast has now become my only friend these days.
- Anthony M.: Like some streaming service Voltron, I was able to lean on lots of friends’ login info to watch movies at home this year. Though I was mostly using Criterion Channel, and Netflix + netflix DVD’s to watch things.
- Bradley B.: Through streaming services via Netflix, Hulu, HBO etc. or through films I own on Blu-Ray.
- Isa B.: On my tiny laptop by myself mostly, or at the drive-in pop-up screenings. Streaming, digital rental off of YouTube, and DVDs.
- Miquela: Drive-ins, but mostly streaming in the living room.
Which film(s) from 2020 would you still like to see that you haven’t yet?
- Austin B.: I’m still eager to catch Days – the new Tsai Ming-liang, as well as Nine Days – a film from Sundance I was pretty peeved on not being able to catch. Lots of rotations around the axis of Earth.
- Anthony M.: Minari is pretty high on the list. But I’m also eager to catch up on all the great TV that came out this year: I May Destroy You, We Are Who We Are, The Undoing.
- Bradley B.: Tenet.
- Isa B.: Honestly, other than the ones that haven’t been released yet, just the ones previously listed. I’ve seen the ones I’m most interested in already, and there wasn’t too much sadly.
- Miquela D.: Minari, Nomadland.
What movies did you see at a drive-in?
- Austin B.: None, unfortunately. To be frank, I’ve let many depressive episodes prevent me from engaging in any events that didn’t involve the occasional distant get-together at a park or something. I was happy to help set up a screening of A League of Their Own a few months back! For Madonna!
- Anthony M.: I think the first drive-in movie for me was a Beanie Feldstein joint, How to Build a Girl. Since then I’ve only been to two Frida events: Stop Making Sense, and Fire Walk With Me. Both phenomenal experiences.
- Bradley B.: Unfortunately, I have yet to experience a movie drive-in. Hopefully I can change that soon.
- Isa B.: I watched 27 of The Frida’s Pop-Up Cinema films, and volunteered at even more!
- Miquela D.: How To Build a Girl, Stop Making Sense (1984), Fire Walk With Me (1992).
Which movie did you watch the most this year? How many times?
- Austin B: Managed to go for round two with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Uncut Gems (2019), Cure (1997), Popstar (2016), and I Know This Much is True (2019) – all wonderful.
- Anthony M.: I watched Arrival (2016) twice this year. In three thousand years, I will watch it again.
- Isa B.: It’s a four-way tie. These films all had three watches:
Help! (1965) – The Beatles’ films and music are some of my ultimate comfort/nostalgia content, and boy did I need it! Was also the 55th anniversary, and I started my Beatles on Film blog series.
Yellow Submarine (1967) – Ultimate serotonin generator
Cats (2019) – ¯\_(=•́ܫ•̀=)_/¯
**Julio Torres’ My Favorite Shapes (2019) – Watched this three days in a row. Isn’t so much stand-up as it is one-man show / TedTalk / performance art. There’s absolutely nothing like it, just blew me away and busted my gut.
Which film(s) did you watch this year that most surprised you?
- Austin B.: I was very much caught off guard by the sweetness of Hubie Halloween, the astounding last half hour of Da 5 Bloods, the line of reality and fiction blurring into the chaotic beauty of Bad Trip, the Mulholland Drive-esque wild ride of Black Bear, the neon energy of Ema, and just how much Oz Perkins’ Gretel and Hansel actually kicks ass. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
- Anthony M.: Got around to Vox Lux (2018) this year and found myself unexpectedly exhilarated for the entire runtime. The images of defiance, hubris, and ostentation in the film have replayed in my mind while watching the Eggheads completely fumble the COVID relief effort.
- Isa B.: Birds of Prey was the only 2020 release I saw in theaters and it was SO refreshing both story-wise and aesthetically — colorful, fun, women-oriented. A damn good action flick.
- Miquela D.: Sound Of Metal, Arrival (2016)
What was the most disappointing film you saw this year?
- Austin B.: Easily i’m thinking of ending things. Charlie Kaufman having the nerve to juxtapose his self-indulgence with John Cassavetes is now officially starting to annoy me.
- Anthony M.: Wild at Heart (1990). What an ugly film. Even worse, people will try to justify the ugliness as a creative technique. It’s not, it’s ugly and aesthetically superfluous.
- Isa B.: I guess The Love Witch (2016). I’d been wanting to watch it for a long time, and I anticipated it as being one of my new favorites, but it just didn’t go deep enough into what it seemed just on the edge of and it dragged in several parts. Aesthetically though, it is truly marvelous. Also, I had no expectations for Puppet Master (1989), but there were barely any puppets in it despite the bare minimum criteria.
- Miquela D.: Contagion because it was such a fantasy of how governments respond to a virus..
Favorite film about new years?
- Austin B.: Those five minutes of Phantom Thread (2017)
- Anthony M.: Passionate Friends (1949)
- Isa B.: High School Musical (2006), Snowpiercer (2013)
- Miquela D.: When Harry Met Sally (1989)
How many movies do you think you watched this year?
- Austin B.: According to Letterboxd, I have reached a mere 358! Almost a year’s worth of cinema, baby!
- Anthony M.: ~106
- Bradley B.: 15-20
- Isa B.: According to my Letterboxd: 261 total, with rewatches and short films. Without either, about 164.
- Miquela D.: 102.
What do you recommend for people to watch while stuck at home? (preferably something accessible via streaming or the library)
- Austin B.: The big 5 (in terms of streaming) for me are Kanopy, HBO Max, Criterion, MUBI, and Prime Video (only for the shocking surplus of sleazy 80’s horror they have).
- Anthony M.: For a good documentary, look no further than The B-Side on NETFLIX. A story about an artist trying to capture happiness on large format instant film.
- Bradley B.: Klaus on Netflix or Parasite on Hulu.
- Miquela D.: Enemy (2013) – on Netflix
What is the best film you saw this year for the first time? Doesn’t have to be released in 2020 to qualify.
- Austin B.: I fell in love with Peter Bogdanovich this year. From his unreal streak through ’68-’73, his recurring role on The Sopranos, and subsequently directing an episode of it to my utmost surprise! But the peak of that love came with The Last Picture Show. The almost ghost-like loneliness of that Texas town, dying more and more each passing day, resonated with me far more deeply than I could ever have expected. A perfect COVID watch. Just narrowly edging it out are Unbreakable, Dancer in the Dark, and Rosetta.
- Anthony M.: Streaming on Amazon Prime, as of writing this, is a little film called Thank God It’s Friday (1978) starring the one and only, DONNA-FREAKIN-SUMMERS. I don’t care if you don’t like “musicals” or whatever, if you like movies then you’ll love Thank God It’s Friday (1978). Its exaggerated 70’s design aesthetic has aged beautifully, and the film’s depiction of a night out dancing couldn’t be more needed in this age of social isolation.
- Bradley B.: Probably Parasite, although Akira and John Carpenter’s The Thing also come really close.
- Isa B.: Rocketman (2019) was fantastic! I also loved Xanadu (1980) so much, it was a delight.
- Miquela D.: Arrival (2016)
Did you get into any new, non-movie related hobbies while in quarantine?
- Austin B.: Been mostly doing this thing where I have five books I have only gotten halfway through with and now keep on a bench near my couch. Will probably get to two or three more by the end of the month.
- Anthony M.: I’m afraid that’s classified information.
- Bradley B.: I’ve definitely been getting more into reading graphic novels and manga as well as listening to audiobooks, which is helpful for someone like me who isn’t much of a reader personally, especially when it comes to traditional novels that only have text.
- Isa B.: I started learning how to edit, design, and draw in programs like Photoshop and Illustrator!
- Miquela D.: Making a book of drawings, making comics, teaching (virtual) art. Crafting shelves, baking. Standard quarantine hobbies.
Which films are you looking forward to in 2021?
- Austin B.: I would just like the new Paul Thomas Anderson already. Would preferably want it injected into my bloodstream. And to have the title actually be Soggy Bottom. Also, the new Apichatpong!
- Anthony M.: Dune for sure. And to be clear, I will only be seeing it in a movie theater (when it is safe to do so).
- Isa B.: Get Back, Guillermo Del Toro’s animated Pinocchio thats been a life-long passion project of his, Candyman will be interesting.
- Miquela D.: FRENCH *clapping emoji* DISPATCH *clapping emoji*….and the new Paul Thomas Anderson. *fingers crossed emoji*
1960 was a monumental year for the horror genre. Considered as cinematic classics, heavily influencing and setting the creative standard for subsequent entries in the second half of the 20th century, and well into the 21st century, here is a list of 10 films every horror fan should see.
10. Blood and Roses
A lesser-known French and Italian collaborative film, known for its stunning visuals and cinematography, Blood and Roses is cited as a paradigm of early European horror.
A bitter heiress, jealous of her cousin and best friend’s engagement, becomes obsessed with a vampiric ancestor, while a series of murders occur around them.
9. 13 Ghosts
The King of Gimmicks William Castel developed a unique style of publicity and camp, which left an indelible mark on filmmakers such as Joe Dante and John Waters.
A family inherits a mansion from a mysterious relative, soon discovering that it’s riddled with restless, ghostly occupants wanting to kill one of them.
A Mexican classic escaping traditional horror conventions, Macario is a visually stunning tale centered around The Day of The Dead and death.
Macario, a poor Mexican peasant, makes a deal with death, only to find that their deal is more than he bargained for.
7. Peeping Tom
One of the earliest influences on the modern slasher genre, sparking controversy at the time of release, Peeping Tom permanently damaged the career of director Michael Powell.
An aspiring filmmaker lives a double life as a serial killer, who captures his victims’ painful last moments before death.
6. Village of the Damned
A staple of classic British sci-fi horror, fraught with tension, creepy emotionless children actors, and an eerie sense of isolation, Village of the Damned follows a group of children, born under mysterious circumstances, as they use their mind-control powers to hold the inhabitants of a small village hostage.
5. Hanyo (The Housemaid)
Inspired by true events, Hanyo is remarked upon as the magnum opus of early South Korean horror films, highly inspiring Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Oscar-winning film Parasite.
A middle-class family hires a young female housekeeper, whose presence turns their little home to a living nightmare, as she becomes obsessed with murdering the family.
This essential Japanese arthouse horror film broke new artistic ground with its graphic images of torture, inspired by the Buddhist interpretations of hell.
Several interconnected tales of sinners, whose devious behaviors lead them to suffer, torment in hell beyond their wildest nightmare.
3. Black Sunday
The cinematography of this landmark Italian horror film transformed gothic cinema internationally.
After a vampiric witch is executed by her brother, she returns centuries later to exact her revenge on his descendants.
2. Eyes Without A Face
One of the most important and bone-chilling French horror films of all time.
A mad doctor, who obsesses over fixing his daughter’s deformed face, kidnaps unsuspecting young women to graph their faces onto hers.
House of Usher
Circus of Horrors
Little Shop of Horrors
City of the Dead
The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond
The Virgin Spring
The crown jewel of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, Psycho defied expectation with its innovative plot twists.
When a secretary vanishes after embezzling $40,000, it’s up to her sister and boyfriend to investigate her disappearance at her last known whereabouts, the eerie Bates Motel.
In the 46 years since its release, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas continues to conjure up nightmares and make skin crawl in moviegoers. If it doesn’t, as the tagline goes, your skin is “on too tight…”
What sets this horror staple from the slew of slasher films that it inspired are the well-defined characters. Although the narrative takes place in a sorority house over the Christmas holiday, each young woman stands out with their own personality quirks and set of problems. Two of the most convincing portrayals are those by Margo Kidder and Olivia Hussey. Kidder’s Barb is a foul-mouthed alcoholic—see her hilarious exchange in the police station and the uncomfortable conversation she starts at dinner later. Hussey’s Jess, on the other hand, is strong willed and holds her own when her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) rages when she says she wants to abort their child. The film is populated with other interesting characters, including the duplicitous housemother Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman) who hides bottles of booze around the house, the airheaded Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath), and the focused Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon).
The audience’s emotional connection to these characters make the murder sequences more shocking. When the unseen killer sets his eyes on Claire Harrison (Lynne Griffin), who is packing to go on a trip home for the holidays, the onslaught of violence feels ripped from the plot of an Italian giallo film. Claire is suffocated with a plastic garment bag. The disorientating camera movement shows the act from both the killer and Claire’s perspective. After she is killed, the murderer hides her body in the attic.
When Claire’s father (James Edmond) arrives the next day to pick her up, the audience cannot help but feel sympathy for him. Not only is he confronted with the fact that his daughter is missing, but also with the fact that the daughter may have been living a lifestyle while on campus that is antithetical of the traditionally conservative upbringing she received at home. As he tells Mrs. Mac, “I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking and picking up boys.”
Also interesting is the trajectory of Margo Kidder and Olivia Hussey’s acting careers at this point. Kidder had recently garnered acclaim and controversy for her role in Brian DePalma’s psychological thriller/horror film Sisters (1972) before taking on the role of Barb in Black Christmas. She wouldn’t receive mainstream recognition until her roles in Superman (1975), The Amityville Horror (1979), and other films would catapult her into stardom. Hussey, on the other hand, had achieved early acclaim at the tender age of seventeen because of her Golden Globe-winning performance in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (1968). Even though Black Christmas can be construed by some critics as standard horror fare, both Kidder and Hussey deliver strong performances that are a far cry from their previous work. In fact, Kidder won a Canadian Film Award for Best Actress for her role in Black Christmas.
While Jess manages to survive as a “Final Girl,” the other sorority members aren’t as lucky—particularly Barb. Her death comprises of one of the most visually and diegetically stunning sequences in the film. As Jess answers the door to reveal a group of carolers, the killer sneaks into Barb’s room. The killer grabs a crystal unicorn figure and stabs her repeatedly with its pointed horn. The act is captured in slow motion, the visuals distorted as the camera lenses the scene through the other glass figures on her nightstand. The relatively bloodless murder intercuts with the carolers outside as they sing “Silent Night.” Extreme closeups of their faces and open mouths, along with medium shots of Jess at the door bathed in the red glow of Christmas lights, create a mirror of the attack upstairs. The choristers proclaim the sacred birth of Jesus Christ in the lyrics through the beauty of their prepubescent voices, while upstairs an unholy act of menace occurs. The red blooming lights changes into the specks of crimson that flash before the screen as Barb’s hands knocks over other crystal figures. With each downward stroke, the unicorn horn reflects the blood forming on Barb’s body offscreen. As Jess claps at the end of the performance, Barb’s hand goes limp upstairs.
The sequence, through its indelible editing, becomes one of the most shocking montages ever seen in cinema. It elicits a perverse sense of attraction (and horror) to the violence in viewers, while also forcing them to reconcile the blasphemy of witnessing a Christian carol underscore such an act of depravity. This clashing of the sacred and the profane arguably propels the scene into the category of art; It not only causes the viewers emotionally react, but also conjures up a myriad of interpretations on how to view the scene. Because of this, the scene is chillingly effective.
While Black Christmas contains other memorable death scenes—many occurring offscreen in order to heighten the viewer’s imagination—Barb’s death remains the standout sequence in the film. Because the script takes the time to introduce viewers to these characters, their deaths hit harder. In Barb’s case, she earns sympathy. Yes, she’s brash and promiscuous to a certain extent; but take away the alcohol and see through the defenses she puts up, and you’ll find a person aching for connection. She’s not a bad person. And she definitely did not deserve the death fate dealt her. None of these girls did. Unfortunately, the killer’s identity and motive remain ambiguous. Perhaps knowing these particulars would provide better closure for the audience. But a sense of reality permeates the horror in the film, and the reasons for each of the deaths dissipate just as leads in unsolved true-crime cases go cold.
With all its mystery and horror, Black Christmas continues to frighten new generations of fans. A 24-hour marathon of Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story may be the safer option, but Black Christmas remains his more engaging film. And if you’re like me, it’ll be a film you return to every winter season.
The responsibilities of the CIA are known to be vast and never-ending, in ways that tend to involve foreign intelligence or government spending. But whether it be preventing terrorism or a covert military operation, the tasks are normally in favor of supposedly governing this American nation. And while it may be a stigma for the CIA to be shrouded in mystery, you may be surprised at how they tie to Jim Carrey. Fresh off his portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, Carrey immediately followed such a performance that supposedly “drove him psychotic” perhaps way too soon. Because this was a performance calling for something even more, including a makeup process quite difficult to adore. And even with famed makeup artist Rick Baker at the helm, for Jim Carrey it did nothing but overwhelm. Nearly suffocating in a costume of yak hair dyed green and a wrinkly latex facial sprawl, the frustration was enough for Carrey to kick a hole in his trailer wall. He found it impossible to thrive, and compared the makeup process to being “buried alive”. Until producer Brian Grazer sought up an unlikely friend who happened to be a specialist for the CIA, who immediately got himself on a plane that very Friday. It was there in which Carrey was locked in a room with him and another official, who taught him methods unconventional yet beneficial. Explaining to Carrey how CIA agents would frame their thinking in the midst of torture or hostile interrogation, this helped him create an almost Zen-like state of mind that would occupy his head during the makeup’s duration. It’s unclear whether Carrey himself was ever tortured in that room, but the performance that caught the eye of audiences that following year would probably make that easy to assume. Because with that much facial contortion and nearly-inhuman physical activity, you too would had to have found ways to relieve yourself of such captivity. Perhaps twenty years later you may roll your eyes or even cringe, but Carrey’s performance is somehow just a faint peep into the nihilistic madness of Ron Howard’s The Grinch. Or How the Grinch Stole Christmas if you had wanted me to ruin a perfectly good rhyme, for which I definitely do not have time.
Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel – author of the beloved book of the same name, had passed nearly a decade before the film came. But his widow Audrey had spent an arduous process selling the film rights, to which Ron Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer took to tremendous heights. Over time and through various script revisions (including from writers of Seinfeld), the final product can only be compared to the experience provided by a mind-melt. From the moment we soar into the microscopic world of a snowflake, there is no undoing of the path you will take. Through prosthetics used to create the Who citizens of Whoville that seemingly came from a bad dream, and a surplus of asymmetrical Dutch angles that would make Wes Anderson scream. It is borderline impossible to jot down Howard’s adaptation to a few lines, as its relentlessly energetic pacing only further, and strictly, confines. Yet to this day it maintains its existence as a product of pure curiosity with much strength, whether it’s the film’s underlying critique of commercialism, or of course the nearly two-hour length. The film’s decision to draw itself directly from Chuck Jones’ 1966 TV special is obvious with nearly each scene, including the cementing of the Grinch’s color as a rich green. Did you forget that The Grinch had no color in the original book? Perhaps that fact may leave you, as the kids say, shook. But that’s for another time, as we haven’t even fully delved into Jim Carrey’s contribution under the color of lime.
Giving a character known for an arc as simplistic as hating Christmas then eventually coming to embrace it allows for it to be easily expanded, but to witness the Grinch not only be given a nearly-tragic backstory but also see him as an animatronic infant raised by a gay couple may not exactly be what fans demanded. But even before he grows into the curmudgeon we know him to be, we witness Carrey inhabiting a take on the character that is so animated that even the Chuck Jones special can’t compare to this kind of degree. You may buy this a load of crud, but as far as the 2000’s go, the way Jim Carrey completely disappears into The Grinch can only be compared to Daniel Day-Lewis turning into Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. In a way that even if you never doubt that underneath the character is that very actor, the transformation they undergo is enough to never be a distractor. It’s enough effort on his part even in spite of the humor that is so bluntly crass, from The Grinch flying directly into the bosom of Martha May Whovier, to him luring a sleeping Jeffrey Tambor into kissing his dog’s … uh, [redacted]. But the jokes that are nothing but juvenile is only for his performance to outweigh. It is a mere sight from which you couldn’t possibly look away. And Ron Howard knows this with utmost grace, literally dropping frames in shots just to emphasize how much Carrey is willing to stretch his own face. Yet he still allows the character to over time become more hearty, especially throughout the chaos involving the fact that the Whos literally throw a key party. It’s a performance that quite honestly should’ve swept award shows completely clean; even knowing that it’s the second time he has played a live-action cartoon with a face colored green.
Howard’s camera refuses to stay still. Tilting and spinning so often that to hope for some kind of levity takes as much effort as pushing a sleigh up a hill. Perhaps there’s more to this direction than simply keeping the audience engaged like I initially thought, as if maybe the aggressive commodification of the Christmas season each year is bound to leave some in an energetic drought. In this particular mood is Cindy Lou-Who, played by Taylor Momsen and slightly older than the original character’s age of 2. Her character becomes fleshed out enough to be the one responsible for bringing the Grinch down to the Who’s, where he delivers a scathing monologue with the light of a fuse. It’s here where the film’s thematic dancing around of commercialism becomes crystal clear, as the Grinch revels in how each year is an endless cycle of excess that should deprive every Who of cheer. The gifts that are used and then immediately disposed, said with an honesty that is bluntly exposed. And despite the irony of this being a $150 million product released by a major conglomerate, for anyone it shouldn’t take very long, to simply realize that he is nowhere near wrong. At times we all must feel the weight of the season crushing our spirit, and as it gets closer to Christmas, our responsibilities to keep ourselves and our loved ones happy may as well cause us to fear it. This year in itself could potentially be the worst in causing that kind of oppression, as a still-raging pandemic continues to cause massive spikes in depression.
Which is where comfort lends itself in as a desire. Some people may find that in baking, or snuggling up near your hearth in front of a fire. For me, watching movies became my comfort over the last year, with enough seen for my senses to approach degrees I never thought they would come near. Recently I’ve come back around to familiar films in which I should feel that I’ve very much outgrown, but feelings change when you’ve spent this much time living alone. Although with The Grinch I’m not necessarily reminded of my own youth, but rather how a film like this could only have been made in the year 2000…. and uh, that’s the truth. Through the efforts given to bring life to a world rooted in cartoon law, the results still bring some faint glimmers of awe. The idea of filming a big-budget blockbuster on the Universal backlot should feel so dated by this point, and yet the energy Howard brings to each physical set built makes it impossible for the artificiality to disappoint. Of course there are signs everywhere that cause the age of the film to bounce back, like… of course Smash Mouth is on the film’s soundtrack. But age is a word that often leaves people with insecurity and harm, so the word I would rather use is ‘charm’. To which that can be found in nearly every crevice of the production, where the blink- and-you’ll-miss-it energy and Jim Carrey’s once-in-a-lifetime performance converge into Ron Howard’s go-for-broke attempt to entertain through his entire conduction. It’s an exhausting yet arresting work of film art, and getting to see Clint Howard is somehow not even the best part. It’s been a long, long year, so perhaps sit down, open up a can of Who-hash, and let in that infectious early-2000’s cheer.
“The word ‘ambient’ doesn’t ring a bell with me. It’s meant to mean something, but is, in fact, meaningless. It’s not relevant for me. My style is the only thing I can do well. I don’t think about genres. I don’t think about labels, they don’t have meanings.” – Harold Budd
There is an endless, gaping void that has been created in the world of music with the passing of Harold Budd. At age 84, the output of Budd’s gorgeous, otherworldly ambient music feels enough to last far beyond those years, even if he rejected the label of “ambient”, among any other genre. Having spent five decades creating unforgettable sounds with the likes of Brian Eno and the Cocteau Twins, Budd also took that time to establish his own style of melody that couldn’t possibly be imitated. Music that somehow exists without age; often as haunting as it is haunted. His final project was an LP he created with Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins named Another Flower. He passed four days later. His age would indicate that the reason could’ve been anything, but tragically he was revealed to have contracted COVID-19 after a stroke he had a few days prior, and succumbed to its complications. It didn’t take long for me to realize just how much longer he could’ve kept going, and how the lives lost this year can only leave me with a further feeling of defeat. But his death hit the hardest. There was no other artist whose work I delved into more since the beginning of quarantine, and the fact that we will only be getting past this period without him is a horrid thing to consider. To me, Budd’s music transcends itself into something akin to an escape. If his records were entire worlds, each track was just a glimpse into each individual abstraction the world contained. The kind of abstractions that are just as formless as his compositions. Since his 1978 debut The Pavilion of Dreams, his work has made it incredibly easy to allow anyone to see the world differently under its influence. It is music rooted in stillness, and with me I have brought two of his film scores that each provide a glimpse into how that stillness bleeds into both stories. It’s here where I hope more can provide themselves the peace they may have struggled to find in a year as tumultuous as this one. It’s only one out of a multitude of feelings his work can provide you with.
The results of Budd collaborating with a member of the Cocteau Twins are probably as dreamy as you would expect, but it merely accentuates the tone that Gregg Araki sets in his 2004 drama Mysterious Skin. A tale of two young men whose paths are further bound together by one tragic memory, in two different recollections, Araki utilizes the craft he’s been honing through his 90’s queer dramas into what I think is him at his best. His work tends to include a soundtrack that helps bring out his distinctive energy; including alternative/shoegaze bands that lend an inherent dreaminess. And while Mysterious Skin has its fair share of those (with so many Slowdive songs that a character is named after one of them), its closing out under ‘Samskeyti’, the gorgeous third track from Sigur Ros’ 2002 untitled record may be Araki’s best musical moment. But throughout the entire film is an original score by Budd and Guthrie that helps in contrasting the harrowing story with an airy tranquility. Reverberated guitars and droning ambient synths ring throughout the individual stories of Neil and Bryan – played by Joseph- Gordon Levitt and Brady Corbet at their very best, and the closer their stories intersect, the more that the music becomes a comfort to fall back into. Like the feeling upon waking when you realize the nightmare you had was only that. The way Araki refuses to pull punches in his climax, as it builds to a horrific realization, is made far more effective with the tenderness that Budd and Guthrie’s score gives prior to it. In a way, the score parallels the final moments, in which the two hold each other closely in the wake of understanding a trauma so deeply ingrained, that all they wish to do is escape. And the music does nothing but allow it.
Budd’s film scores seemed to have operated best with melodrama, and who else to muster up the best of that genre than Derek Cianfrance? His bleak-as-it-gets HBO miniseries I Know This Much is True (just let me count this as a six-hour film, for my own sake) at first seemed like it was to start airing at an equally-bleak time; in the midst of a global pandemic, among other slight inconveniences. But like Mysterious Skin, the score by Budd – a mix of archived tracks and new music made for the film, alleviate the pain endured by our protagonists – in this case two twin brothers both played by Mark Ruffalo, also very likely his best performance(s). From flanged drones to minor-key strings, the score is a work that hits a sweet (and sour?) spot between melancholy and soothing, at times highlighting the unexpectedly time-spanning scope that Cianfrance draws from the original novel by Wally Lamb. For every extreme close-up and traumatic moment, it’s all the more felt by the intimacy and gentleness that Budd provides. And by the time the film has gradually bloomed into a melodramatic epic of sorts, you can only be taken aback by the catharsis that comes near the end. It’s a project so relentless in its depiction of abuse, mental illness, and generational pain, yet what prevents it from becoming what is now popularly coined as ‘misery porn’ is a gorgeously tangible atmosphere, brought just as much by Jody Lee Lipes’ 35mm photography as it is with Budd’s music. The release near the end of the film hits so strongly that it helps cement its initial airing as rather the best time it could’ve aired. For as easy as it may be to feel an onslaught of uncertainty and hurt during this period, nothing continues to be permanent. Eventually, all recedes to make way for a clearness. A way out of the dark.
Harold Budd built a career out of friendship. Since first working with Brian Eno on his second ambient record The Plateaux of Mirror, Budd kept his future collaborators to a tight-knit group. The kind of closeness that can be heard in any of his work. In Budd’s music is an intimacy that should’ve called for a far bigger output of work within film or other visual mediums, and it kills me to know that it would’ve been cut short regardless of what could’ve been. The only notion I can consider as redeeming here is the fact that Budd only continued to create, no matter how often he considered retiring. Budd’s life and career is marked by that everlasting urge to do all you know how to do, until you no longer can. For now, I’m motivated to find warmth in the music I’ve still yet to hear from him, and to remind myself that pain does nothing but minimize with time, until we at least know how to control it. For a moment, we are allowed to breathe, and we are all capable of stillness.
“I wanted to be responsible for music that would change your life
…Because it changed my life, and it’s all I could do.”
– Harold Budd
1936 – 2020
“Take the serious side of Disney, the Confucian side of Disney. It’s in having taken an ethos … where you have the values of courage and tenderness asserted in a way that everybody can understand. You have got an absolute genius there. You have got a greater correlation of nature than you have had since the time of Alexander the Great.” – Ezra Pound
If you’re like me and are still processing the bewildering spectacle that is Cats, we’ve got some options to help you make sense of – okay, to help you move on coming up at the Frida’s Drive-In screenings! We’ve got Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire flying in to Zion Lutheran Church on Saturday, December 19th, a Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night double feature coming down the chimney at Tustin’s Mess Hall on Tuesday, December 22nd, and that darkly comedic Christmas classic, Gremlins, creeping in on Thursday, December 24th, also at Mess Hall! Before all that however, we’re in for a special treat in the form of Disney’s The Jungle Book, screening at Tustin Mess Hall in celebration of outgoing Frida Board member Tish Leon on Friday, December 18th! Based on the enduringly-popular children’s books by Rudyard Kipling, the film follows the adventures of feral boy Mowgli as he tries to navigate the travails of jungle life and find his place in the world. Hailed by critics and audiences alike upon its release in the 60’s, The Jungle Book is an animated masterwork that inspires warmth and cheer among children and adults to this day.
In some ways, it’s funny that The Jungle Book should remain as popular as it does considering how unusual it is for a classic Disney movie. Aside from the Indian setting and princess-less plot, the whole film basically revolves around a young boy facing and overcoming the dangers of the jungle, kind of a child endangerment-heavy set-up for a company that has long been caricatured as churning out G-rated, people-pleasing pap where nothing really bad or scary happens and they all live happily ever after. This caricature, of course, relies on selective memories of Disney’s princess films, the main source of such misconceptions: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example, has an extremely frightening sequence early on where she gets lost in the woods and perceives the trees as monstrous apparitions, and Sleeping Beauty has that one X-rated part where the devil-horned Maleficent claims to conjure “all the powers of Hell” before turning into a dragon and trying to kill Prince Phillip. If you’re curious enough to look past the fanciful animation and sing-along-ready songs, you’re likely to find something – shocking, profound, maybe even both – lying beneath them.
This isn’t to demystify the magic of Disney the way many try and (often fail) to do. If anything, it’s to argue that there’s more to these movies we watched and loved as wide-eyed kids than meets the eye – a different kind of magic, if you will. And so through the power of writing (that darkest of dark arts), I’d like to you take back to a time before The Force Awakens and Avengers when you could see elephants fly, orangutans scat sing, and fairies and demons alike frolic to Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. With any luck, I’ll be able to not only make you look at these movies differently but also fall in love with them all over again!
The Jungle Book (1967)
The last Disney film to be produced by Walt himself, he tragically succumbed to a circulatory collapse in the midst of production and died before it was completed. Having shepherded the project from its earliest days as a dramatic, more straightforward adaptation of Kipling’s dark-minded stories and overseeing it to a far greater extent than the studio’s last few movies, Walt’s passing must have hit the members of the production team all the harder. Out of this great sadness however, director Wolfgang Reitherman and his colleagues were able to make one of the cheeriest and most widely-loved films in the Disney canon.
With a cast of characters who remain beloved to this day, it can’t be overstated how completely and utterly perfect each actor is in their respective role. The sloth bear Baloo is remembered as fondly as he is thanks to the smoothly avuncular intonations of Southern songman Phil Harris, but Sebastian Cabot (a British gent who would go on to narrate Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) is just as commendable as Bagheera, bringing a breathy, fatherly quality to the paternalistic panther. The supporting players knock it out of the park as well: Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh himself) schemes as the mewling python Kaa, All About Eve’s George Sanders commands attention and fear as the affably evil tiger Shere Khan, and jazz legend Louis Prima steals the show as the oobee dooing-orangutan King Louie, among other pitch-perfect performances.
Often praised for the high quality of its animation, the film features lush, hand-painted backgrounds that establish the size and majesty of the Indian rainforest. With enough diversity of scenery to create unique locations for each scene, viewers get a good sense of movement as the story moves forward and our heroes make their way through the jungle. Equally diverse is the Sherman Brothers’ soundtrack, a timeless staple of Disney musical fare that delves into everything from jazz with King Louie’s “I Wanna Be Like You” to barbershop quartet with the mop-topped vultures’ “That’s What Friends Are For”. George Bruns’ instrumental, reed-heavy score is similarly masterful, with the overture in particular casting a strange but wonderfully enigmatic shadow (perhaps a holdover from the project’s early, darker days?) over the good-natured frivolity that is to follow.
“…it can’t be overstated how completely and utterly perfect each actor is in their respective role. The sloth bear Baloo is remembered as fondly as he is thanks to the smoothly avuncular intonations of Southern songman Phil Harris, but Sebastian Cabot (a British gent who would go on to narrate Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) is just as commendable as Bagheera, bringing a breathy, fatherly quality to the paternalistic panther.”
Though the movie departs from Kipling’s source material in many ways, it retains its thematic preoccupation with questions of identity and belonging. Mowgli is a “mancub” and thus pressed by Bagheera to go live with other humans even though he wishes to stay in the jungle, the only world he has ever known. The threat of Shere Khan is invoked by the panther and others to impress upon him the urgency of rejoining his kind, but it’s ultimately a chance encounter with a girl from the nearby village that convinces Mowgli to leave his old life behind. Some interpret this as the logical conclusion of a reactionary conservatism said to be at the heart of the story, with its apparent implication that he had no choice but to accept a predetermined place in the world for himself. Yet crucially, Mowgli leaves the jungle not because Bagheera forced him or because Shere Khan drove him to do so, but because he chose to, an expression of free will very much in line with the freewheeling, hippy-dippy outlook of Baloo’s “Bare Necessities”.
Delightfully exotic with songs that are always a joy to hear, The Jungle Book is an unbeatably happy note for Walt Disney to end his inspiring, nigh-mythic career on.
Based on the children’s book of the same name by Helen Aberson-Mayer, Dumbo might have ended up as just a short film had Walt not decided that Mayer’s story required feature-length treatment. This couldn’t have been an easy decision for the up-and-coming studio head to make: the company’s last two movies, Pinocchio and Fantasia, had both flopped, putting extra pressure on the next feature to perform well. But Walt’s faith in the story about the little elephant with the big ears ultimately paid off for not only did it prove to be at the box office, it still remains regarded as one of Disney’s most heartrending films and one of its most heartwarming as well!
With supervising director Ben Sharpsteen specifically instructed to keep production costs down, the film’s restrained budget shows in the simpler, rushed style of animation. Characters like the Ringmaster and clowns look more cartoony compared to the relatively “realistic” humans of Snow White, and the watercolor-painted backgrounds – a technique rarely used in Disney movies – include less detail in their depictions of circus tents and countrysides. This isn’t to suggest that the animation is bad or uninspired. With its carnivalesque color palette and eye-catching character designs, the movie is undeniably stimulating on an aesthetic level. This is even without taking the “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene, the artistic highpoint of the film’s animation, into account. A fever dream experienced by Dumbo after accidentally imbibing alcohol (drinking? In a Disney movie? It’s more likely than you think!), the sequence is a Daliesque mix of shifting shapes, Latin-inflected jazz, and creepy pachyderms that alternately haunts and entrances viewers to this day.
The first Disney feature to take place in the US, Dumbo retains the distinction of being one of the few to have an American setting. From the distinct, regional accents of such characters as Timothy Q. Mouse and the crows to familiar imagery like trains and circus Big Tops, the film proudly wears its American identity on its sleeve. It is especially pronounced in Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill’s score, the lively brass and percussion of which evoke jazz – that quintessentially American artform – as much as they do circus music. The songs show range as well, with the crows’ amusingly uplifting “When I See An Elephant Fly”, the inexplicably intense “Song of the Roustabouts”, and “Baby Mine”, the heartful lullaby heard while Mrs. Jumbo cradles Dumbo to sleep, demonstrating the variety of emotions conjured over the course of the film. If I may lift from the name of the exuberant piece that plays during Dumbo’s successful flight at the circus, the music here is nothing less than a “triumph” of spirit and structure.
“The first Disney feature to take place in the US, Dumbo retains the distinction of being one of the few to have an American setting. From the distinct, regional accents of such characters as Timothy Q. Mouse and the crows to familiar imagery like trains and circus Big Tops, the film proudly wears its American identity on its sleeve.”
Being so overtly American in character, it’s perhaps appropriate that much modern discussion about the film revolves around its controversial handling of race. While said discussion mostly revolves around the portrayal of the crows and the roustabouts and the racial stereotypes they invoke, there is a critical, little-discussed subtext to the story that changes the movie and the role of these characters in it. As anyone who loved elephants as a kid can tell you, big ears are not a physical deformity in elephants but rather a natural trait of African ones, in contrast to the small ears of Asian elephants. This means, of course, that Dumbo is an African elephant born and living among Asian elephants, with the abuse and rejection he faces reflecting the horrific discrimination visited upon black people in the US in general and mixed-race children in particular (parallels that writer Nicola Shulman thoroughly elaborates on.) This fact gives a new slant to Dumbo’s interactions with both the crows and roustabouts: while some understandably might still find these characters offensive, they appear to be intended as kindred spirits to our innocent, maltreated protagonist rather than objects of mockery or contempt.
A surprisingly subversive film for a company widely perceived as sensitive to potential controversy, Dumbo is a creative tour-de-force filled with emotion, ideas, and imagination.
The Three Caballeros (1944)
A sequel of sorts to 1942’s Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros was part of Disney’s effort to aid the Roosevelt administration’s push to lure Latin American countries away from the orbit of Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II. Dubbed the Good Neighbor policy, this background has led some to dismiss the movie as propaganda soft-pedaling the imperialism that America so casually engaged in – and not-so-secretly still does – south of the border. Geopolitical intentions aside, Caballeros has proven to be popular with its target demographic decades after its debut, so much so that Disney still uses Jose Carioca and Panchito Pistoles, Donald’s Latin, Speedy Gonzales-adjacent friends, in its media and parks from time to time (as opposed to the way it seems to have quietly disowned the similarly stereotyped crows from Dumbo.)
Starting off with Donald opening presents from Jose and Panchito on his birthday, the film uses this framing device as an excuse to visit different parts of Latin America and explore various aspects of its cultures and environments. While it opens with fairly conventional short subjects like The Cold-Blooded Penguin and The Flying Gauchito, the movie becomes weirder and weirder as the “plot” (if you can call it that) takes Donald to Jose’s Brazil and Panchito’s Mexico before outright abandoning the framing device and slipping into a strange, hallucinatory state where Donald desperately attempts to woo numerous women only to be denied every single time. It’s a brazenly shameless display of horniness for a Disney movie, but it does build up to a memorable climax (nudge nudge, wink wink) where our hot and bothered hero meets the live-action, charra outfit-wearing girl of his dreams (Golden Age of Mexican cinema star Carmen Molina) but is tragically foiled by some nosy cacti – cactus-blocked, if you will. All this to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of “Jesusita en Chihuahua”, a Mexican Revolution-era polka and favorite of rebel folk hero Pancho Villa.
However, the threadbare plot arguably works to the movie’s advantage as it allows it to go in directions that a more straight-laced film wouldn’t be able to. Blending animated and live-action sequences as needed, we’re able to jump back and forth between the two without an elaborate, Who Framed Roger Rabbit-type explanation for how humans and cartoons can coexist with each other. This allows the fictionalized Bahia (or Baia as it spelled in the film) that Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) sings and dances through to jump from decently-crafted studio set to dancing, cartoon cityscape, and the caballeros themselves to cruise on a magic serape through documentary footage of Mexican landscapes and beaches. Though it’s decades away from the technical wizardry of Roger Rabbit, the animation itself is astounding in how expressive and downright surreal it can be, as demonstrated by cockfighting roosters turning into real men and then back during the Baia segment and a lovesick Donald dancing on stars of all shapes and colors and trying to pollinate blooming, Dora Luz-faced flowers (goodnight everybody!) in the final third.
“…a memorable climax (nudge nudge, wink wink) where our hot and bothered hero meets the live-action, charra outfit-wearing girl of his dreams (Golden Age of Mexican cinema star Carmen Molina) but is tragically foiled by some nosy cacti – cactus-blocked, if you will. All this to the accompaniment of a rousing rendition of ‘Jesusita en Chihuahua’, a Mexican Revolution-era polka and favorite of rebel folk hero Pancho Villa.”
Similar to how Dumbo shows its American character through its jazzy score, Caballeros expresses its Latinidad through its soundtrack of then-contemporary Latin American tunes as well as older folk songs. Several compositions like the romantic bolero “Solamente una vez” and the ranchera hit “¡Ay, Jalisco no te rajes!” are given a new, US audience-friendly spin, with the latter being reimagined with English lyrics sung by Donald, Jose, and Panchito over its original Mexican melody as the titular “Three Caballeros”. Others like the Spanish-language “Lilongo” and Brazilian Portuguese “Os Quindins de Yay” remain in their respective tongues however, adding a layer of authenticity to them. “Yaya” particularly stands out, with its addictive, samba-style rhythm and equally-addicting chorus producing a high that nicely complements the scene’s druggier visuals.
Thin on plot and runtime but rich in atmosphere and imagery, The Three Caballeros is a festive, beautifully bizarre love letter to Latin American culture that might rub some of the woke among us the wrong way but enthrall pretty much everyone else.
Only the third movie to be made by Walt Disney Productions, the premise and production of Fantasia are ambitious even by the standards of today. Piggybacking off the idea of the earlier short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which, of course, appears in the final film itself), Disney envisioned an experimental, feature-length program of original animation introduced by a live-action host and accompanied by an orchestra playing classical music. With this avant-garde concept – to say nothing of the prodigious costs of setting up theaters to accommodate its revolutionary, stereophonic Fantasound system – it’s sadly no wonder that the film failed to even recoup its budget. Yet like Dumbo, it appears that time has vindicated Walt’s concert feature, with many young viewers getting their first exposure to the power of Western classical music through this one-of-a-kind project.
Disney films, much less animated films, should be engaging to look at as a rule but even so, it’s amazing that Fantasia, with all its stylistic and tonal shifts, is so consistently amazing to watch and take in. From the relatively naturalistic dinosaurs of The Rite of Spring to the more traditionally anthropomorphic hippos and crocodiles of Dance of the Hours, and from the mischievous, magic-wielding Mickey of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the reveling demons of Night on Bald Mountain, there is always something interesting going on on-screen. Even the live-action segments are visually intriguing, with the superimposed shadows of the musicians and the changing, almost neon-hued lighting of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor proving to be just as arresting as the abstract animated portion that accompanies it.
It is the music, of course, that drives the picture, and while it’s a far cry from the popular, sing-along-friendly tunes that everybody knows and loves, Leopold Stokowski leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in a command performance of classical music pieces. Opening with the tense strings of Toccata and Fugue, the maestro and his players bring whimsy to the dances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, mirth to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and a titanic sense of struggle to Stravinsky’s Rite. Their rendition of this last piece is especially impressive given that it was actually a rearranged, slightly-truncated version of Stravinsky’s original ballet. This upset the Russian composer so much that he outright denounced the film, but between their teetering brass, lowing reeds, and rolling drums, the orchestra nevertheless manages to realize the “primitive life” that Stravinsky sought to express.
“…it’s amazing that Fantasia, with all its stylistic and tonal shifts, is so consistently amazing to watch and take in. From the relatively naturalistic dinosaurs of The Rite of Spring to the more traditionally anthropomorphic hippos and crocodiles of Dance of the Hours, and from the mischievous, magic-wielding Mickey of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to the reveling demons of Night on Bald Mountain, there is always something interesting going on on-screen.”
For all Walt Disney’s reputation – warranted and otherwise – as a conservative, Fantasia is startling for how willing it is to entertain decidedly un-conservative subjects. For one thing, the Rite of Spring directly contradicts the creationist account of the origins of life, with host Deems Taylor even claiming “Science, not art, wrote the scenario for this picture,” as if to say “Sorry, them’s the facts,” (Walt originally planned to go even further and show the rise of mammals, but the idea was dropped precisely over concern that it would overly antagonize those skeptical of evolution.) On top of this, we not only get a brief shot of topless female centaurs bathing in The Pastoral Symphony (again, Disney initially intended to go further, leaving them topless the whole segment before censors at the Hays office demanded the animators add garlands to cover their breasts), but also the devilish Chernabog and his impish friends doing their infernal thing in Night on Bald Mountain. The inclusion of the latter over the aforementioned mammal section of Rite is particularly amusing in hindsight, implying as it does that Christian viewers are more likely to take issue with cartoons featuring evolution than ones with pagan Slavic gods.
A daring, visionary project by any measure, Fantasia is a visual and aural marvel that the Marvel-milking, safe-playing Disney of today would never even dream of attempting to make.
From acclaimed director David Fincher in his first film since 2014’s Gone Girl comes the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles’ partner in writing (or is he?) for the script of the legendary film Citizen Kane. The film stars veteran character actor Gary Oldman in the title role along with a supporting cast rounded out by Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, and Charles Dance as famous newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. With this talent, Mank sets out to recreate the Golden Age of Hollywood that influenced one of the men behind Citizen Kane.
The film’s direction and screenplay invoke the style and format that made Citizen Kane into the influential classic it is. Obviously, Fincher made the film blackand white to look like a 1940s film. A reoccurring technique that Fincher uses is a deep focus, as he frames his subjects from angles to make one look larger compared to another subject, a technique also commonly used in Citizen Kane. Unlike many modern filmmakers that will just make their film black and white and call it a day, Fincher uses similar lighting techniques of old black-and-white films in order to create striking visual images despite the lack of color.
Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, wrote the screenplay for Mank in the late 1990s and he clearly structured his script in a similar way to Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’ original movie framed its story through an investigation and Kane’s life is told through a series of flashbacks. The framing device of Mank is Mank’s writing binge as he writes Citizen Kane and then flashbacks to various points throughout his career.
Of course, a unique story structure is nothing without a compelling subject to follow, and Mank is that subject to latch on to. Mank is an eccentric man who does not fit into a Hollywood in the movie’s world. He is an alcoholic and serial gambler, often getting himself into trouble with his colleagues. Yet, he’s incredibly witty and observant. He’s not afraid to challenge the status quo that his colleagues want to enforce, even if it damages his wallet and reputation.
So, the movie is not lacking a central protagonist for viewers to be fascinated in. It’s not hard to see why Mank went on to write Citizen Kane. Like Mank, Citizen Kane was outside the box for conventional Hollywood films, with its nonlinear narrative and use of multiple narrators. Mank was not afraid to share his unpopular opinions to the detriment of his career, like how Citizen Kane’s treatment of Hearst hurt its box office chances. So Mank seemed like the perfect choice to bring the unconventional and controversial story of Citizen Kane to life.
Not only does Mank inform viewers on what kind of man Mank was, but it demonstrates what 1930s Hollywood was like through its articulate recreation of the period. However, it does anything but glamorize it. Mank demonstrates the kind of men that controlled Hollywood: rich and powerful businessmen who cared more about their own profits than artistic and moral integrity. Mank discovered how they had too much influence in politics and manipulate the public, which lead him to turn on Hearst.
One gripe with Mank is that its side characters are not nearly as interesting as its main subject. Surprisingly, Dance is only in a handful of scenes as Hearst. Most of the other characters in the film are one-note and do not get enough screen time to get fleshed out. The notable exception is Marion Davies, the friend of Mank and mistress of Hearst, who is wonderfully portrayed by Seyfried. Davies is the only character with a lively
personality to match Mank and leave an impression on viewers.
Orson Welles fans may also not appreciate how the film portrays Mank as the primary writer of Citizen Kane. There is much debate among film scholars on whether Mank or Welles contributed more to the film’s script. Mank makes the argument that it was Mank whose life experiences and unconventional thinking influenced the script.
While Mank offers cinephiles a fascinating look into the world of 1930s Hollywood, casual viewers may struggle to connect with the subject matter. A common complaint about Citizen Kane is that the movie is cold and lacks a strong emotional core for viewers to latch onto, and this complaint can be leveled at Mank as well. Another issue with Mank is that even though it offers an insightful look into the era and the character, it struggles to justify why this story needed to be told. Viewers will learn history, but they may not take away why they need to know this piece of history. But for other viewers, just living in this world for two hours should be enough to satisfy their inner film geek.
Mank is masterfully made on a technical level, with superb direction from Fincher and gorgeous black and white cinematography that recreates the aesthetic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. While it may not be accessible to all viewers, it sure provides a pleasant and fascinating experience for cinephiles. Mank is now available to stream on Netflix.
“…the creative potential and possibility in this role was that [a hearing actor] would literally go through this experience of losing that comfort, losing that ability, and all of the things that come with that, and actually have to grapple with being a minority amongst and in Deaf culture…And if you were to take an already deafened person, they would be comfortable within Deaf culture, they wouldn’t be actually a minority, they wouldn’t be able to access that creative energy that only a hearing person can access because they are a minority, because it’s not a place that [hearing people are] used to. It’s not a place that they’re comfortable. And that’s very much where the viewer is put in this movie.” — Darius Marder, on casting a hearing actor in the lead role, 2020 CBC radio interview.
NOTE FROM THE WRITER:
While theatrical versions of the film are screened with open captions in accordance with the filmmaker’s intent to satisfy a mixed-hearing audience, this reviewer saw the film at home with closed captioning turned off. To hearing audiences that want to experience this film in its complete form, consider watching it with closed captions turned ON.
Delayed its original summer release due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, Darius Marder’s electrifying debut film Sound of Metal finally arrives on Amazon Prime streaming and drive-in theaters in all its stereosonic luster. It’s a story about music and sound, yes, but more precisely it’s a story about addictions and the transcendental healing power of silences. Nearly fifteen years in development, Sound Of Metal marks the third collaboration between Marder and fellow filmmaker Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines), another American director with an eye for the internal suffering of characters that gradually and inevitably self-destruct over the course of their stories.
In Sound Of Metal we meet Ruben Stone, a magnetic Riz Ahmed, and his partner Lou (just, Lou), the always talented Olivia Cooke. The pair make up a noise/art metal band that has been touring around the country for the last four years living noisy bohemian lives segmented by playing concerts, drinking blended smoothies, and slow dancing to jazz music. The film bounces through its opening moments with rosy insouciance, conjuring a dream romance unaided by phony exposition. Whether inside or out of the confines of their cozy Airstream van, Marder’s camera repeatedly frames Ruben and Lou within the same shot, deepening and empowering their intangible bond. When Ruben suddenly and inexplicably loses his hearing overnight, he never doubts his bond with Lou. “You’re my heart”, he tells her in an early emotional scene.
Lovingly photographed on 35mm film by Cinematographer Daniël Bouquet, large portions of Sound Of Metal are framed with characters in close up, allowing all their unspoken emotional states to resonate from their faces when sitting in silence or when attempting to communicate with one another. Aided by a cast of deaf or hard of hearing actors and consultants, Marder depicts Ruben’s deafness with an informed yet hands-off approach that strives for authenticity. Honest moments, from diagnosis to treatment, are captured with a verite immediacy that thrust the audience into the scene with Ruben and Lou – both attempting to reorient to a totally new reality on separate terms.
Reluctantly enrolling in a deaf sober living house, Ruben finds himself toeing the line between two worlds, two cultures. Deaf, not deaf. Isolation, community. Past, present. Lou, no Lou. Although Ruben’s history of substance abuse is hinted at with his anxious smoking, the film smartly avoids any predictable subplots about potential relapse – if Ruben has any stability, it’s certainly in his sobriety. Alarmingly however, an obsession for a new kind of “fix” develops while he transitions to life without sound. An empty obsession that might get him his heart back at the risk of total alienation from the people that understand him most.
Despite the tattoos and the uber-masculine “fuck you” exterior, it’s clear that Ruben is a scared young man when he’s not with Lou. It comes as no surprise then that the music Ruben makes, or the way he’ll sign his name on a whiteboard is disruptive and complex, beautiful in its multitudes yet difficult to decipher. A reticence to express that which is most personal because of self-imposed barriers. Ruben’s insecurities, his addictions, his codependency with Lou, all hinder him from loving himself. The deafness merely magnifies these problems he’s been hiding from for years.
By the end of Sound Of Metal, Ruben again finds himself between two worlds, only this time it has nothing to do with his ability to hear. For the first time in his life, we see Ruben at peace, without judgment or agitation. Whether or not he’ll have his heart intact is best left for the film to say.
Now Streaming at The Frida Cinema
As a darkly, suspenseful science fiction film, director/co-writer Eric Schultz’s Minor Premise presents an underlying dialogue on the larger topic of mental health and the “true self.” I was bound to the screen. If this were a book, it’d be a page turner. The unpredictability of the film parallels the uncharted territories of the human brain.
Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) battles his emotions surrounding his brilliant father’s recent passing by throwing himself into his work. He uses himself as a guinea pig, pushing away his former lover turned lab partner, Alli (Paton Ashbrook), in the process. His work exacerbates his already questionable mental state when he manages to isolate nine sections of his consciousness, each of which takes turns interacting with Alli, whose role evolves from girlfriend to lab partner as she aims to set boundaries with an increasingly unhinged Ethan.
Despite a slow start, Justin Derry’s creative cinematography (including a wormhole view!) and stylishly visual montages kept me glued, as did composer Gavin Brivik’s pensive, foreboding score, which mirrors Dr. Kochar’s psychological descent. The character is a very relatable person, dealing with death, overwhelm and guilt by attempting to avoid it or drown it. His devolution is a heartbreaking and realistic portrait of someone suffering a mental health disorder. I felt invested in the film, and dedicated to Kochar’s self-inflicted emotional whirlwind, because I could relate to most of the “sections” of his consciousness. The use of close-up camera angles make Kochar’s breakdown all the more intimately relatable.
Minor Premise was thought provoking and disturbingly captivating. Although most of the technical jargon may be lost on some audiences, the film is at its heart a character study. Rich and invested performances allow for empathy and understanding of the characters. Sridharan switches between the nine sections of his consciousness with awesome energy, matched by co-star Ashbrook. His role was demanding, and he does not disappoint.To top it all off, the soundtrack boasts some eclectic jams that have already become part of my own life’s soundtrack. Minor Premise is worth a watch, and is now streaming at The Frida Cinema.
Where do I even start? This is probably the only question one can ask when they have just watched Batman Returns for the first time only two hours ago, and it’s gradually becoming more difficult to imagine returning to the version of myself who had somehow spent 24 years unaware of the operatic, relentlessly Gothic, kink-laden masterwork that Tim Burton dove headfirst into creating. And yet, for its cosmic level of irreverence on full display– from Danny DeVito sailing through a sewage system on a giant rubber duck, to Michelle Pfeiffer exiting out of a scene by doing an endless amount of backflips, slowly rising through the drains of those snowy metropolitan streets is an undercurrent of tragedy and intersecting trauma. You only need to watch the opening minute of to realize that your preconceived notion of what a Batman film directed by Tim Burton would look like is probably far closer here than it was with his previous Batman film, which is 100% telling of just how much creative control Burton was given with the sequel.
From a production that took up more space of the Warner Brosthers studio lot than any other (at least at the time), to Burton personally hiring Heathers screenwriter Daniel Waters to flesh out the character of The Penguin–played to iconoclastic and repulsive degrees by a pre-Frank Reynolds-era Danny DeVito. And in spite of the bounty of madness, it all comes together in a beautifully bizarre, expressionistic, and wholly singular piece of work. And yes, one is that absolutely bustling with an energy more horny than not just any superhero film from the 28 years since its release, but probably any Christmas movie ever made. I hope just about everybody had already accepted this as a Christmas movie, by the way. Because it is.
Waddling in the sewers beneath the citizens of Gotham City is a penguin, as well as an army of others. These penguins are led by Oswald Copplepot– the titular Penguin–who as an infant was abandoned by aristocratic parents that couldn’t bear his deformities. His fingers fused together until hands become flippers, a pale nose long enough to resemble an icicle, and the tar-like fluid releasing from his mouth with each raspy word spoken. In control of a circus troupe gone rogue named The Red Triangle Gang, Copplepot uses an ambush on ground level to kidnap the wealthy philanthropist/industrialist hybrid Max Shreck–played by one Christopher Walken–whom Copplepot blackmails to help redeem his status as an upstanding citizen. In the midst of this, Shreck has proposed to build a power plant which in actuality is a cover-up to drain Gotham City of its power. The fact that Shreck shares the same name as the actor who infamously played Nosferatu is but a mere indication of his sinister plans. But who discovers this? You’d think Batman, of course. But Bruce Wayne–played by Michael Keaton–doesn’t have a full scene of dialogue until nearly forty minutes into the film. Burton instead takes time to establish the arcs of the new (and honestly, far more compelling) characters, including Selina Kyle–played to an immeasurably risqué prowess by Michelle Pfeiffer–the awkward assistant who uncovers this evidence, and is subsequently attempted to be rid of by Shreck. But such an attempt only gives her a true sense of identity, and in the trashing of her pastel-colored apartment, and the sewing of skintight leather, Catwoman is born in the shattered neon lights of her bedroom, signaling that Hell is here, and revenge is to be had.
Such is the tale of three outcasts–Wayne, Copplepot, and Kyle. Lost souls searching for meaning in the vast grandness of an unloving metropolis. Can the answers to their individual traumas be found? Can you truly use love to redeem a corrupted soul? Can a penguin responsibly use a jet pack? These are only too little a fraction of the questions that Burton and Waters dare to ask. But within the brooding atmosphere and occasional bits of shockingly misanthropic violence is the overt amount of fun to be had in nearly every scene. From the camera that swoops across gorgeously elaborate miniature sets, to the city-street brawls that find Burton using his ability to render live-action through a vast cartoon logic to unreachable highs. Having all of this set during the Christmas season does nothing but highlight the opera beneath the pulp. As mistrust, pain, and disgrace further bind these three souls together, it all culminates in the possibility that what they desire will ultimately leave them even more alone than they already were. During a period of the year where unity and family are embraced at its peak, only their opposites are felt as the film climaxes with a battle of self-destruction that only leaves the three searching for something that can never be found. Fully aware that they are who they are, and can only tread onwards until the nearest thing to closure is felt. Batman Returns is an ode to the lives who are at their most broken during quote-unquote “the most wonderful time of the year”, under the faint guise of a grand-scale Gothic opera. It also happens to be a hodgepodge of utter insanity; chockfull of relentlessly Burtonesque imagery and shockingly blunt innuendo between a penguin man and leather-clad cat lady. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. And to imagine, this was the big Summer blockbuster of 1992. This will absolutely never happen again. So embrace it, strap on that leather, and chug that milk carton. Hell is here.
My favorite band in the world is, without a doubt, Queen. For as long as I can remember, I just love how they can produce music in multiple different styles and genres while still containing a familiar feel across it all. Not to mention their music is just very good in general. In celebration of the Frida’s Drive-In screening of the band’s biographical film, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), I’ll be presenting my personal top five favorite Queen music videos:
#5 Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)
First up is the project that essentially created the modern day music video as we know it. While it’s definitely a bit primitive looking nowadays, and while it wasn’t the first one to exist out there, you have to give it credit. Just like the song itself, it’s definitely one of these experiences that just needs to be witnessed, as it’s such a ride through multiple different sounding verses of various different tones that somehow just clicks in really well by the end. I’m also a fan of the lighting choices and effects–they just add to the experience that the original song wouldn’t be able to accomplish on it’s own.
#4 A Kind Of Magic (1986)
In a mysterious and abandoned theater, we watch the iconic Freddie Mercury as some sort of magician-like character that encounters May, Taylor, and Deacon (playing a trio of homeless sleeping hobos) and uses magic to transform them into rock stars. What I really like about this is the interrogation of both the band members as well as the animated depictions of them from the album’s cover. As a bonus, we get some very classy backup singers with extremely striking designs. As you’ll probably see both in this video as well as in the entries, I really enjoy when different forms of media, in this case live-action and animation, can lead to some amazing results and I think this video is no exception.
#3 The Invisible Man (1989)
Two of my favorite things in the world are video games and retro 80s aesthetic. This video satisfies my love for both of them at the same time. I think what I really love about this video is just how the music not only works with the action itself, but it also sounds like it belongs in a retro game from that era. It’s a perfect time capsule. The bandmates appearing as nothing more than just simple silhouettes within the game also adds to the simplistic but retro feel of the video. I also just really like the setting of a kid’s room from the 80s, as it feels oddly nostalgic despite me not being born during that time. I guess what I’m trying to say is I just really like the 80s aesthetic.
#2 Save Me (1980)
Here we have one of the band’s more unique songs and videos. It’s definitely one of their most emotional videos, as it’s about the struggles of moving on from a past relationship that just didn’t work out. In the end, how do we move on from something like that? Do we hope that things can get better later, or is it just better to just start taking the tough path on trying to move on? All these questions are brilliantly displayed via the animation segment featuring a young woman and golden dove that represents what the theme of the song is while also giving it a nice dream-like vibe. This was accomplished via rotoscoping–a technique that fuses live action and animation. It’s the same technique that A-ha would use for their iconic music video, Take On Me.
#1 Innuendo (1991)
It’s pretty hard to explain why Innuendo is my favorite of Queen’s music videos, but I think what I love about it is the unique approach it decided to take. With Freddie being too ill to film, old video footage of the band was brilliantly morphed into stylized animation based on different artists – with Mercury drawn in the style of Leonardo Da Vinci, May in the style of Victorian etchings, Taylor in the style of Jackson Pollock, and Deacon in the style of Pablo Picasso. Alongside that is footage from multiple different forms of expressionism–dark baroque artistry and piling scary dolls to different historical moments via stock footage like WWII and the Gulf War while being showcase in a setting very much like the film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s such a breathtaking experience that’s worth analyzing and experiencing for the masterpiece it is.
UPDATE: Congrats to Martin W. & Katie M., winners of today’s Batman Returns ticket giveaway contest! We received some great entries to our question “What’s your favorite cinematic comic book/graphic novel adaptation,” but far and away, the title with the most entries was Watchmen!
Has it really been 28 years since the second (and best?) Tim Burton contribution to the Batman franchise, Batman Returns?
We’ll be screening the 1992 classic this Friday as part of our Drive-In Dine-Out series at Tustin’s Mess Hall Market! Tickets are still available — or you can enter our contest below for a chance to win a free ticket to Friday’s show! We’ll be picking a winner at random for our entries on Thursday, December 3rd at 5PM, and emailing them to let them know they’ve won!
For a chance to win, tell us — What’s your favorite cinematic comic book / graphic novel adaptation?
Enter below for chance to win! Don’t forget to click on “Click to Submit” when done! Good luck!
1980 was an amazing year for groundbreaking and entertaining Horror films. In honor of the 40th anniversary of The Frida drive-in screening of The Shining on November 27th, we’re gonna highlight ten Horror films every fan of the genre should see.
10: Prom Night
The Slasher film classic heavily inspired the popular 90’s Horror franchise I Know What You Did Last Summer. A group of teens who accidentally killed a fellow classmate as young children are being stalked by a masked killer as they get ready for their high school senior prom. Over the years, this film has become a B-picture cult classic, especially for fans of 1980’s Horror.
9: The First Deadly sin
Though considered a Crime Thriller film, the intensity of the suspense and use of violence feels like a horror movie. Golden Age of Hollywood icon Frank Sinatra stars as a close-to-retirement New York City police inspector that is frantically following the trail of a serial killer. A unique aspect of this film is that the serial killer’s weapon of choice was an ice axe with serrated teeth.
8: The Fog
Co-written and directed by Horror icon John Carpenter, this was his second film starring Jamie Lee Curtis after the 1978’s Halloween. As a small California coastal town is preparing for their 100th year anniversary, mysterious events lead to an eerie fog engulfing the town, bringing fear and death. The plot was based on a true story of a shipwreck.
Considered one of the most violent Slasher films of the 1980s–its bold use of guerrilla cinematic style and gory special effects by legendary FX artist Tom Savini continue to be its legacy. A psychotic serial killer roams New York City, murdering young women and taking their scalps as a trophy. However, when he meets a beautiful photographer, will his bloodlust end, or will she become his next victim?
A visually stunning surrealist horror Hilm written and directed by one of the most influential Italian horror directors ever–Dario Argento. After a young poet goes missing in her New York City apartment building, her brother goes to investigate her disappearance and a series of brutal murders, caused by the magic of a powerful coven of witches. Another equally influential Italian Horror director, Mario Bava, also assisted with this film, such as shooting scenes of star Irene Miracle and creating the film’s special effects.
5: Cannibal Holocaust
Without a doubt the most controversial horror film on this list, this is credited as the first found-footage horror film. A university anthropologist goes to the Amazon rainforest in search of a missing American film crew and recovers their film canisters. As he views the footage, he is shocked by the stomach-turning brutality captured on camera.
4: Dressed to Kill
An Erotic Thriller by Brian De Palma, it was nominated for two New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Director and Best Film. After a prostitute witnesses a murder and becomes the prime suspect for it, she and her son must find the killer before the killer finds her. What Psycho did for showers, Dressed to Kill did for elevators.
3: The Changeling
A chilling haunted house Horror film, listed by Bloody Disgusting as #4 of its “20 Best Haunted House Horror Movies”. While relocating to a countryside Victorian mansion after the death of his wife and child, a composer deals with the raw pain of grief and a ghostly presence within the mansion. The story of this film is based on the real-life haunted house and its events, the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion, located in Denver, Colorado.
2: Friday the 13th
The start of one of the most influential pop culture Horror franchises from the 1980s, inspired by a real mass murder. As a group of camp counselors are in the process of reopening a summer camp with a tragic past, a mysterious presence stalks and murders them one by one. This film was part of the top twenty highest-grossing movies of 1980, alongside Prom Night, The Fog, Dressed to Kill, and The Shining.
City of the Living Dead
We’re going to Eat You
1: The Shining
Undoubtedly, one of the most influential and beloved Horror films of all time, The Shining brought American horror films to a new artistic level. A troubled family spends their Winter isolated in the sprawling Overlook Hotel, where sinister energy torments them at every turn. Starting with them seeing horrific supernatural manifestations, the film eventually spirals into a violent battle to the death. In 2018, The Shining was entered into the Library of Congress because of its historical and cultural significance.
The Frida Cinema currently rests on land once occupied by an Indigenous people that historically conflicted over two different names. The Kizh – meaning “willow house”, and the Tongva were separate, but their names were known for causing confusion for one or the other; from not just historians, but by its own people over centuries since their occupying of Southern Californian land.
Both would end up befallen over time as casualties of both Russian and Spanish colonization, with the Kizh becoming renamed as the Gabrieleño, which seemingly became a blow to not just their occupation, but nearly any lasting memory of their existence or culture. To say it’s unfortunate that the structure of this story seems to be shared by the centuries of eradication of the vast number of peoples who founded this shred of land we divided into fifty different sections, is obviously too undersold of a statement to make.
Over recent time, there has been a noticeably stronger push for us to acknowledge the ground we walk on, often by learning about the people who built it for us in the first place. Many other ways to learn can be found, but delving into the art created by descendants of those peoples tend to be the most essential. To me, there’s no more ideal way to learn about these perspectives than from the stories told by those perspectives, and in the midst of a holiday that, whether you celebrate it or not, sits on the mere foundation of colonial genocide, I feel a strong desire to share five works that each give a platform to creators who otherwise would have their histories slightly more lost.
1) THE BODY REMEMBERS WHEN THE WORLD BROKE OPEN (2019)
This Canadian feature, directed by both Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers–of Sámi and Blackfoot descent, was only made known to me based on a Letterboxd recommendation, where I noticed it seemingly buried on Netflix without much of a platform. All I could really afford to ask after giving it a watch is, “what gives?”. Set in real-time and mesmerizingly told in a single-take style (after two introductory shots of our lead characters), Hepburn and Tailfeather’s film tells the story of these two characters crossing paths based on nothing but happenstance. Rosie – waiting near a bus-stop, stands with a face laden with tears and fresh bruises from her abusive partner. Áila (played by Tailfeathers) – walking home from an IUD appointment just happens to walk past Rosie; her face conveying enough pain for Áila to take her back home with her, away from the reverberated screams of Rosie’s partner in the distance. We follow them, and we do nothing but follow, and it is an invigorating sight to behold.
While some films that utilize a single-shot style tend to use such technical bravura to compensate for a story that would otherwise be short on substance or abundant on ego, the film eradicates any possible usage of the word ‘gimmick’ from the get-go. The approach that Hepburn and Tailfeathers lend here feel purely natural and subjective, allowing these two souls to share spaces, occasionally in a silence that speaks in devastating volumes of their past experiences. Norm Li’s handheld 16mm camera gives the film a key sense of authenticity that makes Rosie and Áila’s trek feel as real as can possibly be. And while the trek is small in scale, the steps taken forward, and the connection that these two people slowly build, leave a print just big enough to never quite leave your head. Turns out you can watch something that is only understated enough to at least sort of understand why Netflix would bury it. It’s a film as enigmatic as it is essential.
(STREAMING ON NETFLIX)
2) AINU MOSIR (2020)
Kanto is fourteen years old and newly fatherless. He descends from Japan’s Ainu people – living in the isolated village of Akanko Ainu Kotan, and he is conflicted over said heritage; from the way his similarly feeling classmates attempt to distance themselves from it, to the passive condescension that her mother faces for something as arbitrary as speaking Japanese. As Kanto attempts to guide himself through this tumultuous period, he is approached by a friend of his father’s named Debo, who takes him into a forest containing not only a mysterious hole that supposedly leads into a place where the souls of his deceased ancestors reside, but arguably the most adorable bear cub you will ever see in contemporary film. Locked in a cage is a cub named Chibi, whom Debo assigns to Kanto the task of caring for. But what Kanto isn’t told of is the ritual that Chibi will be the centerpiece of. A ritual called ‘Iomante’, that will push Kanto’s personal doubts to upsetting degrees.
Despite the synopsis above potentially luring viewers into what may sound like a Ghibli-esque magical-realist fable, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga keeps the story within a grounded, unsentimental approach that brings a full sense of life into Kanto and his surroundings. As the controversy regarding the aforementioned ritual begins to surface, you almost feel an urge to hypothesize the outcome you hope happens, instead of the sobering one you get. But within subtle flourishes of dreamlike imagery and the gorgeous nature of Kanto’s village is a genuine sense of spirituality that flows freely through the film’s veins, further assisted by the tight, intimate cinematography of Safdie brothers mainstay Sean Price Williams. Featuring surprising, but welcome cameos – including Lily Franky, known for his work with Hirokazu Kore-eda, Ainu Mosir is a brisk 84 minutes, but just as perfect a length for its window into the lives of the Ainu to last long enough to remember.
(STREAMING ON NETFLIX)
3) THE EXILES (1961)
Los Angeles County is known to be the home of more Native Americans than any other county in the US. In 1957, director Kent McKenzie started to find himself among the company of Indians who lived in the downtown area, specifically the Bunker Hill district. A year later, having spent time recruiting those he had gotten to know during that period to recreate their experiences of getting by day-by-day, McKenzie brought together a small-scale crew of friends and colleagues to help turn the project into what would gain prominence as a groundbreaking exercise in vérité filmmaking – despite its lack of distributor and world-found recognition. But over time, particularly due to its featuring in Thom Andersen’s 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, attention naturally became drawn back to it. The Exiles documents twelve hours in the lives of a group of young Indians as they share cramped spaces in an apartment, drink, gamble and brawl the night away, while others quietly go a theatre by themselves to long for a life that distances from the one they used to have in the Southwest reservation they originated from, or as they call it, “back home”.
Through Malick-like voiceover from actors essentially playing themselves, and the black-and-white 16mm (from leftover rolls of film discarded by major studio producers), McKenzie’s film conveys an atmosphere that is entirely lived-in; blurring a fine line between narrative and documentary. It’s clear from the very first scene that McKenzie approaches these characters with a bludgeoning sense of love and truth, not unlike the work that John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke were creating around the same period. It’s a film that thrives on social rifts both big and small, despite its lack of resolution. From the way that Yvonne quietly lies in her bed, waiting for her lover to return from the debauchery he currently engages in, to the tension that explodes on top of Hill X, in the form of a huge fight during a a party of drumming and dancing. Running through the course of the film is a genuine thread of life that you can tell doesn’t stop winding even after it ends. It’s all bound by the neighborhood the characters share that would tragically wind up being demolished a few years after the film’s completion, with the Walt Disney Concert Hall taking its place. Such an outcome can only place The Exiles far beyond the merits of a ‘film’ until it’s merely a document of lives that lived, and spaces once occupied.
4) CLEARCUT (1991)
Peter Maguire is a lawyer fighting for a case regarding a logging mill plowing and cutting its way through Native American land. As it becomes clearer and clearer that the case is one he will ultimately lose, Peter wallows in self-pity for the people he failed to provide himself for. Up until he comes across an Indian militant named Arthur – in a commanding performance by Graham Greene, who almost immediately takes far more initiation than Peter ever did, and in far more difficult ways. In a mere moment, Arthur takes Peter’s off-handed joke of kidnapping and torturing the manager of the mill and turns it into something very real, which drives the story into ways that put the film far above your typical early 90’s tight-knuckle thriller. Because by the moment you realize that Arthur’s methods clearly parallel what the mill has done to the trees surrounding the community of his people, the unpredictability does nothing but hit you.
Polish filmmaker Ryszard Bugajski gradually shows an understanding of the fragility of white liberalism that is, well, clear-cut. The emptiness of Peter’s self-affirmed defenses of how he failed the Indians he was assigned to testify for, and his painfully wormy exterior is woefully portrayed by Ron Lea. The way he speaks almost conveys prescience as if realizing the powerlessness of each word that comes out of his mouth, which makes Arthur a far more compelling foil. Greene’s performance gives Arthur a multitude of dimensions that immediately indicate not knowing what this character will do in the mere moments that follow. Possessing such an eerie charm that goes against his actions often gives the film easy comparisons to the work of Michael Haneke. As the film goes along, the furthermore complicated the dynamic gets between Arthur, Peter, and the manager of the mill who endures such hell, yet you can’t fully blame or pity any of the three for their actions. It is an unexpectedly angry, brutal, difficult watch; rooted in the blood of bodies and the sap of trees.
5) BOY (2010)
Taika Waititi–of Māori descent, is arguably the most prominent artist on this list, all the more considering he’s the first (and only) indigenous person to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. But while Jojo Rabbit was his latest film, I still firmly grasp that Waititi can be found at his best in his second feature. Set in 1984, the titular Boy–played by James Rolleston, is introduced as an eleven-year-old Michael Jackson superfan living in Waihau Bay, New Zealand. In his spare time, we find Boy living on a farm with his ‘gran’, pet goat, and younger brother named Rocky, who believes he was left with superpowers from his mother who died giving birth to him. Their absentee father – Alamein, played by Waititi, only lives on in the exaggerated stories that Boy makes up, at least until he appears to Boy one day in town accompanied by two shady individuals. If you read this and feel inclined to write the film off as your run-of-the-mill quirky coming-of-age comedy, maybe don’t jump too far ahead. Because while the quirk is certainly there, just beneath the surface is something deeply melancholy.
Waititi casting himself in his own film would indicate a sense of vanity that’s been proven by many others in the same position over the years, though not only does his performance sell a fully-realized but inherently flawed father figure, but he also gives center stage to Rolleston, who remarkably holds his own as father-and-son try to mend but only seem to unloosen whatever tether there was in the first place. Once it becomes clear why his father is there at all, it only deepens the pain of Boy that we almost have no choice but to feel ourselves. But this tonal balance is never quite lost, as what seems to be a conjoining of fiction with the recollection of Waititi’s youth is fully realized in the evergreen surroundings of Waihau Bay. Humor is found just as often as the sadness that can often blindside you. In the realm of directors in the past decade making semi-autobiographic work (Lady Bird, mid90’s, etc.), Boy is one that feels most specific to not only Waititi’s youth, but the roots from where he sprouted.
It’s that time of year again! When the family gets together for the holidays, whether it be Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah, things will look a lot different this year after many months of social distancing due the Coronavirus. Family gatherings will feel even more contentious than they did the past four years after another presidential election leaving one side, or both, very bitter. So what better way to prepare yourself for those awkward get togethers than to binge some movies about similar situations? After watching the dysfunctional families in these movies, you may feel more appreciative of the family you have.
Milou en mai (1990)
This French film tells the story of a family gathering after the death of the family matriarch. The film takes place in 1968 France, when the country was in a period of civil unrest. However, the funeral is situated in a countryside estate, away from the unrest. Yet, the family faces trouble from within. Sibling rivalries and long-held secrets emerge to threaten the family. They fight over money while the rest of the country is in anger due to materialism and consumerism. However, the family members’ greed is eventually what unites them as they fear rumor of revolution that their possessions may be taken away from them.
Like all ensemble films, Milou en mai relies on its cast to not only convincingly bring their roles to life, but also have chemistry with their co-stars. The Cesar Awards recognized the stellar performances by awarding the Cesar Award for best supporting actress to Dominique Blanc, who portrays the dead woman’s orphaned granddaughter. Michel Piccoli, Miou-Miou and Michel Duchaussoy also received Cesar Award nominations for their performances. The domestic and political commentary of Milou en mai may remind viewers of their own issues with their families and the unrest happening in the world right now. So viewers may feel right at home in this movie’s troublesome world.
This Danish black comedy-drama tells the story of a family gathering to celebrate their father’s birthday at the family-run hotel. However, the party is ruined when the eldest son reveals a secret about their father. To say the family in this movie is dysfunctional would be an understatement; they are screwed up. Just one of the issues they face would be enough to destroy a family: adultery, sexual abuse, suicide and racism to name a few. The issues that Festen deals with makes for a sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience that will make some viewers’ families seem functional.
However, the film sprinkles in comedy to allow viewers to laugh at the absurdity and chaos in the movie. Director Thomas Vinterberg added to this chaotic feeling as he shot the movie handheld with natural lighting. He also shot the movie on video and then blew it up to 35 mm to give his movie a distinct look. All of these elements combined make Festen a chaotic yet immersive viewing experience. This movie was the first Dogme 95 film, a movement created by Danish filmmakers that tried to strip away the production value of Hollywood movies in order to focus more on plot, performances and themes. Film scholars took notice to this unique approach as Festen won the Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
From the wonderfully quirky mind of Wes Anderson, this movie tells the story of a father returning to the lives of his ex-wife and adult children in order to reconcile. The adult children also face their own issues as they realize they have already peaked in life despite being geniuses. The film demonstrates how miserable the adult children are because of their parents. With the absence of their father for over 20 years, they lost the love and support of a parent. While their mother had stayed in their lives, her expectations of them made them feel like failures once they lost the success they had early in life. For many viewers, these feelings of neglect and disappointed may feel all too familiar.
Despite these depressing situations, Anderson’s style makes the movie mostly comfortable for viewers. The movie’s story plays out like a book, with a prologue, chapters and an epilogue. His production design creates a visually imaginative and ambiguous time setting that could take place anywhere from the 1960s to the present. Everything in the movie just looks and feels orderly yet wonderful, offsetting the emotional drama in the family. The family is brought to life by a great cast. Gene Hackman portrays the returning father and Anjelica Huston as his ex-wife. Their adult children are portrayed by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson. In addition, Danny Glover plays their mother’s new husband, Owen Wilson portrays a family friend, Bill Murray as the daughter’s husband, and Alec Baldwin as the narrator. The great cast along with the imagination of Anderson make The Royal Tenenbaums into a melancholic yet wonderful viewing experience for viewers and maybe the release for some as they fret having to deal with their family this holiday season.
Knives Out (2019)
This murder-mystery from the mind of Rian Johnson tells the story of a wealthy family of a famous novelist who turns up dead after his birthday. Considering the whole family was at his birthday party and all had motive to kill him, they are all suspects. This movie brings the extended family experience to life by showcasing the two things that tend to tear families apart: politics and money. The Thrombey family represents your typical American family divided by their political opinions. Arguments between family members over Donald Trump and the ensuing name calling feel all too familiar.
Money is another factor that creates divisions within the Thrombey family, which is also an issue that several viewers maybe all too familiar with. Harlan Thrombey’s success as a crime novelist led to his wealth that his family benefits from. When Thrombey threatens to cut off some of his family members from his wealth, it creates a wedge that leads viewers to easily believe that one of his family members was responsible for his death. These issues that are brought up make Knives Out into a hilarious, engrossing and inventive murder-mystery that is brought to life by an all-star cast including Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, and Ana de Armas. While demonstrating the divisions and issues within the modern American family, Johnson never forgets to tell a compelling murder mystery. His script takes viewers on a ride with plenty of twists, turns, and laughs that they will not get enough of.
The following blog was submitted by guest blogger and genre film fanatic Gabriel Neeb:
Stephen King was in Boulder, Colorado. He was far from his home state of Maine and struggling to come up with a story for his third novel, Darkshine. It was going to be about a boy with psychic powers in an amusement park. He put the manuscript away, and on October 30, 1974, Stephen and his wife, Tabitha, took a trip to Estes Park, Colorado, and stayed at a resort called the Stanley Hotel.
The Stanley was a hotel that operated on a seasonal schedule and was preparing to close down for the coming winter. Stephen and Tabitha were almost alone, save for the hotel staff. After dinner, Stephen remained at the bar for a few beers while Tabitha went back to their room. After the beers, Stephen started to go back to his room and got lost. Amid the corridors and doorways, and the jungley things on the black and gold carpet, Stephen had a thought.
“There’s got to be a story here.”
By January 1975, Stephen King had taken the ideas of Darkshine and transplanted them into a new setting. Only now, he called it The Shine, after a line from the song ‘Instant Karma’ by John Lennon. However, instead of an amusement park, the story was not set in a vacant, maze-like hotel known as the Overlook, based on the Stanley.
The Shine did not last as a title. Once Warner Brothers bought the film rights and insisted on a different title, as The Shine was too similar to a derogatory term for African-Americans. In January 1977, The Shining was released to bookstores.
Reviews were mixed. While Stephen’s editor, William Thompson, thought it was the best thing King had written, literary critics of the New York Times found it either “gimmicky” or “overloaded with plot elements and clichés.” It didn’t matter. The Shining would sell 50,000 copies in hardcover and 2 million in paperback, landing on the New York Times bestseller list- a first for any Stephen King book.
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In 1999, my friends and I were the first people in line to see The World is Not Enough at the Avco Westwood. We walked into the theater expecting it to be empty, but there was someone already there. One of our group, Sam, a fourteen-year-old film geek, ran up to the gentleman sitting alone in the auditorium and asked him how he got in. I wish the rest of us had recognized the gentleman ahead of time and overcome the shock of seeing one of the top executives at Sony Pictures and intervened, because it might have saved our friend the embarrassment of looking like an idiot in front of John Calley.
John Calley is the reason you’re reading every word I’m writing.
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In early 1977, Calley was working at Warner Brothers. From 1969 to 1982, he’d presided over the production of many of the studio’s best films of the decade, many of which the Frida Cinema has played at their hardtop location, and now in their drive-in series. One day, Calley received galleys of an upcoming novel by a writer people only knew because one of his books had been the basis of the successful Brian DePalma picture, Carrie. He wasn’t fond of the title and made it known to the publisher, but he still managed to pass it on to Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick and Calley had a good working relationship. Calley had been part of getting A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975) made. Kubrick wanted to direct a horror movie, but he hadn’t found material worth adapting. In The Shining, the story of a young boy being pursued by his bloodthirsty father around a vacant hotel, Kubrick found material that had a mythic resonance. Pre-production began soon after.
In June 1977, Kubrick hired the novelist Diane Johnson, based on having read her book, The Shadow Knows. Johnson flew to Kubrick’s London home and began collaborating on the script. Among the topics they discussing in the writing process were Freud, Horror Fiction, and Bruno Bettelheim’s work on fairy tales- The Uses of Enchantment (published in 1975, it concerns the examination of fairy tales through a Freudian perspective. It is still in print.).
Kubrick and Johnson molded The Shining into a fairy tale about a boy being pursued by a monster that happened to also be his father. They deleted a lot of the backstory of the main character, Jack Torrance, and focused on the boy and his mother, Wendy Torrance, as they ran from the monster. Soon, they had a working script. Now Kubrick needed a star–he had only one man in mind.
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Jack Nicholson was on a roll. He’d been in hit films, gotten some awards and nominations, and now, was being courted for a major role in a film by one of the era’s best directors. He was going to be Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon.
But since MGM, the studio that was going to release it, was being run by James Aubrey, Napoleon didn’t happen. Kubrick went on to film A Clockwork Orange instead. Nicholson went on to star in even more hit movies and that garnered him additional awards glory.
Years later, Stanley Kubrick reached out to Jack again to star in the adaptation of The Shining. Jack told his agent, Sandy Bresler, to make the deal before he’d even read the book.
By May 1978, Jack Nicholson was in London to shoot at the EMI-Elstree Studios. The Shining was scheduled to shoot for 25 weeks, and Jack took up residence at the Dorchester Hotel in London. However, as it quickly became clear 25 weeks was not going to be enough time to shoot the film, Jack was then moved to a four-bedroom mansion on the Thames River.
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Production began in late May 1978. The production was scheduled to finish at the end of 1978. Aside from shots taken from exteriors of the Timberline Lodge near Mount Hood in Oregon, the film was shot exclusively on interior sets built at the EMI-Elstree studio in London. Shooting nearby was The Empire Strikes Back.
For Kubrick, filming The Shining was a family affair. His wife, Christiane, and daughter, Vivian, would contribute to the overall design of the film, and his brother-in-law Leon Vitali would serve as his production assistant.
One of Vitali’s duties was to find an actor that could play Danny Torrance. After auditioning four thousand American boys, he found Danny Lloyd, who was five at the time. For as varied as the experiences of the actors on The Shining were, Danny might have had the best one. He never realized he was making a horror movie–he never saw the ghosts or the blood.
It was supposed to be a cozy 25-week shoot.
The production went over schedule and Kubrick did something he almost never did with actors: he allowed Jack to improvise. In fact, one of The Shining’s most famous lines was improvised.
Yup. That was improvised. While “Here’s Johnny!” was well known in the United States as Ed McMahon’s introduction to Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, Kubrick had spent years in England and was unfamiliar with American idiosyncrasies. So when Jack said that line, he loved it.
Kubrick was known for taking a lot of time between productions. By the time The Shining premiered, it would have been five years between it and his last picture, Barry Lyndon. Besides the complex sets designed by Leslie Tomkins, Kubrick demanded multiple takes of scenes. The scene where Jack meets Lloyd the bartender required more than 80 takes. The scene of the elevator opening and gushing blood required so many takes and generated so much fake blood that residents of a nearby village thought a massacre had happened at the studio. To add to all of this, the production was beset by a fire in January 1979. While there are no reports of anyone being hurt, the fire did destroy the set for the Colorado Lounge, the place where Jack spends most of the film writing.
The fire also destroyed sets being used by The Empire Strikes Back. Warner Brothers, already worried about the shooting schedule, had to pay another $2.5 million and delay the release date from Christmas 1979 to Easter 1980. It was slowly beginning to be reminiscent of other nightmare productions of the era, specifically Apocalypse Now and the now infamous Heaven’s Gate production. The shoot would eventually take thirteen full months to complete.
Not surprisingly, there are no public accounts that the studio expressed concerns for the actors. Most stories of Kubrick’s penchant for multiple takes seem to come from The Shining. Scatman Crothers, playing Dick Halloran, did more than forty takes of his last scene. It took Jack’s begging off-camera before Kubrick, eventually, acquiesced from shooting.
“As the takes stacked up, Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall began to move through a range of emotions from catatonia to hysteria.” – Vincent Lobrutto, Stanley Kubrick, A Biography
Shelley Duvall. No discussion of The Shining can be had without mentioning the treatment of Shelley Duvall who played Wendy Torrance. On the DVD for The Shining, there is a documentary shot by Vivian Kubrick about the making of the film. Among things depicted is Kubrick taunting Duvall. There are some sources that believe Kubrick may have been attempting to derive something from Duvall by his behavior. Music editor Gordon Stainforth stated that he wanted scenes of him being warm and nice removed from the film and the scenes of him shouting at Duvall left in…”. What was left were the sequences of him shouting at Shelley in the snow.
And yet, Kubrick is still the director that insisted on 127 takes (possibly a record) of the sequence of Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson on the staircase. The production took its toll on Duvall, undoubtedly.
“Going through day after day of excruciating work was almost unbearable,” Duvall told Roger Ebert in December of 1980. “Jack Nicholson’s character had to be crazy and angry all the time. And in my character I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week. I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy because after the day was over and I’d cried for my 12 hours … After all that work, hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick like I wasn’t there.”
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The Shining opened in limited release on 23 May 1980 with a wider release on Friday, June 13, 1980. At a final cost of $19 million, The Shining represented a large risk for Warner Brothers, and may have been threatened by the release of The Empire Strikes Back, which had opened two days earlier. They needn’t have worried; The Shining would gross $44 million dollars at the box office and has been a perennial bestseller through home video releases over the past forty years.
However, Stanley Kubrick wasn’t quite satisfied. In one of the most unusual moves ever for a director, he removed a brief sequence at the end that featured Danny and Wendy. What was so unusual about it was that this cut was made after the film had appeared in theaters.
How soon after? I had a film professor state that he remembers the ending, where Danny is seen throwing a tennis ball against the wall, similar to how Jack had done so in the Colorado Lounge, from his viewing of the first show of the day. His friends, who saw The Shining that night, didn’t know what he was talking about. To date, there has been no release of this footage, and only a handful of stills exist that confirm this ending once existed. As of this writing, there is no way to view this scene. There is speculation that it was destroyed after its removal.
Stephen King was not happy with the movie. “Kubrick’s direction is good, but it’s heartless. Technically the movie is flawless, and the acting is great, but it’s not very scary.” Stephen has maintained this position for almost four decades, though he is complementary to the 2019 sequel, Doctor Sleep.
The Shining received no Academy Award nominations. Though, in one of the stranger episodes of “awards cluelessness,” it did receive nominations for Razzies–an award designed to note the worst examples of movies in a given year. Shelley Duvall received a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress and Kubrick received a nomination for Worst Director, losing to Brooke Shields for The Blue Lagoon and Robert Greenwald for Xanadu. In the defense of the Razzies, this was their first year giving awards.
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Like most of Kubrick’s films, The Shining would go on to gain a cult audience in the years after its release. It is regularly revived at chain and independent theaters. Even though it appeared right before the home media revolution, it has been a constant seller through its releases on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and lately 4K blu-ray.
Stephen King still dislikes The Shining. He even wrote the script for a 1997 TV mini-series directed by Mick Garris. Not only did that production boast Stephen’s teleplay, but it was also shot at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. While that project has not garnered the acclaim or following of the 1980 film, it does feature certain elements that may have prefigured the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who fame.
The film and the movie spawned sequels decades after their respective creations. Stephen King wrote the novel Doctor Sleep in 2013, chronicling the life of Danny Torrance in the years after his time at the Overlook. It was adapted into a film in 2019 by Mike Flanagan, which was met with King’s approval.
The movie has also proved a source of Halloween costumes and regularly makes “Best of…” lists related to Horror movies. Its signature line, “Here’s Johnny!” has appeared all over the pop culture landscape, long after the originators–Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson–have disappeared.
Even the film’s carpet pattern has appeared as clothes, tablecloths, and recently, masks.
Beyond even this, The Shining has a deep hold on the popular imagination. Filmmaker and commentator Rob Ager (http://www.collativelearning.com/) has a youtube channel dedicated to video essays on The Shining and other films. In his essays, he has explored the impossible geography of the Overlook, themes of child abuse in the film, and how the film might be Stanley Kubrick’s stealth commentary on the Federal Reserve and international banking. And Rob Ager isn’t the only person who studies The Shining.
In 2012, the film Room 237 was released. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the film was about the numerous theories and interpretations people have about The Shining. The film was released to video on demand and often arises when people discuss The Shining.
The Shining is forty years old. It hasn’t gone away in our imaginations and continues to haunt film discourse and popular media. When we get back to Halloween, we’ll see the costumes and the pattern, and almost certainly one of your friends will introduce himself by saying, “Here’s Johnny!”
When he does, the drinks are on the house.
The Shining will play at The Frida Cinema’s Pop-Up Drive-In at the Mess Hall at Flight in Tustin at 7:00 pm on Friday, 27 November 2020. For tickets and more information follow the link:
In response to the rapid surge of COVID-19 cases throughout the state, the California Department of Public Health has issued a Limited Stay at Home order, which goes into effect this Saturday, November 21st. This order requires that all gatherings with members of other households, and all activities conducted outside the residence, lodging, or temporary accommodation with members of other households, cease between 10PM and 5AM PST, with exception to those working in what are considered “essential” operations.
In order to comply with this curfew, we have adjusted our upcoming Drive-Ins to the earlier start time of 7PM. We have unfortunately also had to postpone just three of our upcoming events — due to their longer running times, we are postponing our presentations of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, originally scheduled for December 4th, 5th, and 6th. We hope to reschedule the trilogy in 2021.
All Drive-Ins scheduled from this point out will be scheduled with a 7PM start time. As for the Drive-Ins already scheduled and announced as of this date, please note updated start times:
The Wizard of Oz, Saturday November 21st — 7PM
Eraserhead, Tuesday November 24th — 7PM
The Shining, Friday November 27th — 7PM
Bohemian Rhapsody, Tuesday, December 1st — 7PM
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, December 4th – 6th — Indefinitely Postponed
The Jungle Book, Friday December 18th — 7PM
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Saturday December 19th — 7PM
We thank you all for your understanding! Please stay safe out there!
When I first started attending California State University Fullerton, I didn’t necessarily know what I really wanted to study. At first, I thought I wanted to pursue a Computer Science major, since I’ve always had an interest in computers and the internet. However, after a while, I realized that coding just wasn’t for me–I had to look for a new major. After some soul searched, I landed at Cinema and Television Arts. One of my favorite aspects of the major has been discovering several new films during classes that I’ve previously either never seen or even heard of at the time. It has broadened my horizons and allowed me to take a chance on films that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. So, without further ado, here are my top 7 films that I’ve discovered through my time at college:
#7 Run Lola Run (1998)
When I first saw Run Lola Run, there was something about it that really spoke to me. It was as if I had already seen something similar…and what do you know…I have! Various other sources of media have taken major inspiration from it, and in Lola’s case it was The Simpsons episode “Trilogy of Error”, as well as the video game The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It’s always a unique experience for me when I’m able to explore the original source of media that I have previously seen being either parodied or are the heavy inspiration that it is taken from. I was fully invested in the conflict between our two main protagonists and how it uses its unique storytelling method of telling 3 acts that all start out the same way but play out incredibly different every time. It allows you to get all the details and lets you put the pieces together. It’s definitely a rewatchable film, as you catch more and more details each time you watch it.
#6 Bodied (2017)
I didn’t necessarily go into Bodied with high expectations for two reasons: it was presented as a YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) Original, which I typically view as a poor man’s Netflix, and it was also a film that dealt with battle rap and the culture around it, which is something I have absolutely no interest at all. Despite those two signs, I ended up really enjoying it. I think what works about the film is that it goes into what battle rap is and makes it understandable to a wide audience without alienating those within the scene. But more importantly, it really goes into the themes of what’s acceptable when it comes to freedom of speech and the whole idea of being “woke”. Like what’s playful and respectful banter and what’s going too far? This is something I definitely needed to see as I myself often struggle with this very predicament. I always try to be respectful and meaningful, but sometimes I say things that come off as hurtful when that wasn’t at all the intention. I’m sure that’s something everyone can relate to. I have to thank Bodied for showing this very dilemma and how not everything is black and white.
#5 Mac and Me (1988)
We’re now entering The so-bad-it’s-good category. One of the classes I took was all about analyzing cult films, most of which were generally regarded some of the worst films ever made. I loved that class so much, and I knew that I had to include at least one of those films. Something I just love about this film is just the complete absurdity of it all, like the fact that a film like this was able to come into existence and receive a theatrical release. For the uninitiated, this film is a blatant rip-off of E.T. filled to the brim with product placement everywhere for Coca Cola and McDonalds, including a full on appearance from Ronald McDonalds himself. I can definitely see why the film has become a huge cult classic nowadays and a film you definitely need to see in order to believe it. For some reason, I’m now hungry for a Big Mac.
#4 Tammy and the T-Rex (1994)
From one so-bad-it’s-good film to another. Coming from the same class that introduced me to Mac and Me, we have Tammy and the T-Rex, a film with an equally, if not more absurd premise. It’s even directed by the same guy! The plot revolves around putting the late Paul Walker’s brain into an animatronic dinosaur that’s trying to reunite with his girlfriend, who is still human. It’s just the perfect type of movie to watch with a couple of friends on a Friday or Saturday night. It also gets bonus points for being one of the very last things I did on school campus before the current world events forced all of us to go back home, so at the very least my experience living the campus lifestyle ended with a bang.
#3 A Silent Voice (2016)
Another class I took at Fullerton was about Anime, which is a big passion of mine. While it was mostly television series that were presented in class, they did also showcase a couple of films as well. What I really love about this film, which was presented in the class, is how much I relate to the main character of Ishida and his personal struggles of trying to right the wrongs of the bullying he did as a kid. While I like to believe that I wasn’t as bad as he was as a kid, I can’t deny that I did things that I’m not at all proud of now. However, what this film shows us is that people are deserving of receiving a second chance if they are willing to go through this journey. We’ve all done things we’re not necessarily proud of, but that shouldn’t stop us from allowing people to redeem themselves and learn from their mistakes.
#2 Perfect Blue (1997)
Yeah, it’s another Anime film. But instead of themes of bullying, Perfect Blue tackles the themes of perception, reality, and one’s own identity. It is, without a doubt, incredibly trippy. It has you constantly questioning the actions of what’s real and what’s fake, and even with knowing the outcome of things at the end, you still have many questions about the events that had just transpired. While this makes the film sound incredibly convoluted (which it is), it doesn’t feel hard to follow if you’re disconnected from the story. Rather, it grips you in with the events wanting to know more as well as masterfully weaving its themes in the narrative. The film is generally described by scholars as a commentary of the consumer society of contemporary Japan, however, I feel the same thing can easily be said on a much grander scale nowadays. It’s pretty amazing that the film is just as, if not more relevant, today as it was 23 years ago.
#1 Parasite (2019)
I saw Parasite about a month after it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I’m always a little worried when it comes to films that have received such universal praise, as I feel that I’ll set my expectations too high and be let down that the film wasn’t the greatest thing in the world. But this is a great film. When I learned that I would be seeing Parasite in one of my classes, I was both excited as well as cautiously optimistic. The good news is that not only did the film meet my expectations, but they easily surpassed them. What you’ve heard about the film is definitely true: its acting, sound, and set designs are just masterfully crafted. It’s truly one of 2019’s greatest achievements.
I hope you enjoyed reading this, as not only a way of knowing what type of films I love, but also maybe discovering some films that you may not have seen before. Have a nice day!
As of the writing of this, I am 21 years old; and throughout my life I have seen quite a number of films, ranging from a number of genres and eras. However, there still remains countless amounts of movies that I’ve haven’t see before. For this post, I’m going to be listing down ten classic and beloved movies that I have never seen, why I’ve never seen them, and why I decided to include them in this list. I plan on watching the films within the coming weeks, and after I finish watching all of them, I’ll be making a follow-up to this post telling you all my thoughts on each of them. Without further ado, in alphabetical order, here are 11 Classic films I’ve never seen.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles of mine alongside films, Anime is a huge passion of mine. So it’ll come as a huge surprise that I’ve never seen one of the most influential films in not just Anime, but in Animation in general: Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Based on the Manga of the same name, this post-apocalyptical work is one of the first Anime films that made it big in the US, developing a huge cult following and having huge impact on the Cyberpunk genre, Adult Animation, and has greatly inspired many different films like The Matrix, Chronicle, Looper and so many more. As for why I haven’t seen it yet: I only became interested in Anime around my first year of High School, and at that point as I was mainly focusing on episodic series and not so much feature length films. However, as of late, I’ve been wanting to get into more Anime films. This seems essential for any fan of the genre.
One of my favorite genres is Science Fiction, so you’ll probably find it a complete shock (and maybe even be disgusted and disappointed) that I haven’t seen one of the most groundbreaking film of that genre: Ridley Scott’s Alien. There really isn’t a whole lot of things I can say about Alien that haven’t already been said. It’s one of the most influential films in both Science Fiction and Horror, it spawned a huge franchise consisting of more films, novels, video games etc., and Ripley is one of the most significant female protagonists in the history of the medium. As for why I haven’t seen it, the first time I became aware of the film was I way too young to see it. By the time my parents were comfortable with me watching R-Rated films, I wasn’t really interested in watching them. Now that I want to explore more films now, I owe it to myself to watch this one.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
One of my favorite decades of film has definitely got to be the 80s. Sure, in hindsight, some of the stuff was incredibly cheesy…but that’s part of the charm to me! There’s just something about the media that came out of it that just screams uniqueness, and in a way, timeless. I’ve seen quite a bit of the essential 80’s classic films, but one I’ve never quite gotten to from this decade is The Breakfast Club. Why haven’t I seen it? Despite being a movie I know I would most likely enjoy, it’s just never came into my life. Unlike other films that were introduced to me by my family members, I just didn’t see any references to it in other media I was consuming, with the exception of an episode of “Futurama”. Times have changed, and I feel this is a perfect moment to knock this film off my watchlist.
I’ve always had somewhat of an interest in giant monsters or Kaiju ever since I was a young kid. Without a doubt, the biggest face of them all is Godzilla. I mean, he is called the “King of the Monsters” for a reason. Now, I wouldn’t call myself the biggest Godzilla fan, but I’ve seen a decent number of films starring the character, and I’ve always had a huge interest in watching the very first film in the franchise, especially since this one is a lot more darker and serious in tone compared to most later films. By the way, when I say the first Godzilla film, I’m specifically referring to the original Japanese version from 1954 and not the Americanized version from 1956. The reason for why I haven’t seen it yet is because it wasn’t until recently when I became interested in foreign media that wasn’t Anime or video games. Plus, like I previously said, I’m not a big Godzilla fan. At most, I’m only a casual one, but I still want to see this one not only to become more knowledgeable in the franchise.
The Graduate (1967)
In contrast to the 80s, the 60s are a decade that I’m not too terribly familiar with. I’ve seen a couple films from the era, but overall I’m not too familiar with the films, in general. One movie that I see everywhere, whether it be parodies/references, mentions from family members or Movie reviewers on YouTube, is The Graduate. It’s constantly regarded as an all time classic in both the Romantic and Comedy genres and served as a breakout role for legendary actor Dustin Hoffman. What generally interests me about the film is really just to know all the major context behind the famous scenes as well broadening my horizons of watching a Romantic Comedy, a genre I’m not at all familiar with.
Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 (2003/2004)
One filmmaker I owe it to myself to get more familiar with is Quentin Tarantino. His films, to me, have always seemed to deal with dark themes, as well as being very unconventional. Out of his movies, the only ones that I’ve seen are Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight, so when it came to deciding which one of his films I wanted to watch for this article I’ve decided the one, or should I say two, films that interested me the most: Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2. Before Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I would argue that Kill Bill was his most unique film, as it draws inspiration from Martial Arts films, Samurai films, Blaxploitation, etc. I’m definitely looking forward in checking these two out.
The Matrix (1999)
Surprising as it easily seems, I haven’t seen this 90s classic. I think I would enjoy it, as it takes many inspirations from Anime (including the aforementioned Akira), Martial Arts films and other Eastern sources, as well as being a staple of the Science Fiction genre and being such a huge pioneer in special effects, even coining the term “bullet time” it seems like a film that So why haven’t I seen it!? Well, the simple reason for that is I always knew of the film’s existence, going way back to when I was just a young kid, but through a combination of being too young, and not being a film addict at the time…I was just never in the right situation to get into it. But don’t worry, things are about to change, and out of all the films listed here this is definitely the one I’m most looking forward to the most.
Another filmmaker I want to get more familiar with is Alfred Hitchcock. His films honestly seem like the type of that I absolutely love, with their emphasis on suspense and dark themes. However, unlike Taratino, I’ve yet to see any of his films. I believe the one I should definitely start out with is arguably his most iconic film: Psycho. I’ve always been aware of the film, it’s just that iconic, but what really peaked my interest in the film was that in one of my television classes, we saw an episode of the prequel TV series Bates Motel, and just that one little episode left a big impact on me. I haven’t seen the film yet due to similar reasons above (too young, not big into film etc.), but I also kind of find a little hard to go back and watch black and white films. I don’t have anything against them, but I guess just find difficulty watching something not in color. But I want to try and improve that, and I think Psycho is a good start!
Seven Samurai (1954)
As you probably guessed from the previous entries of this list, I’m very invested in Japanese culture and media. One of the most noteworthy Japanese films out there is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Outside of the typical Japanese aspects contained in the film, like Samurai and whatnot, the thing that interests me the most about the film is how it played in being one of the main inspirations for Star Wars. As a fan of Star Wars, that only peaks my interest even more about the film. The reasons for why I haven’t seen it are pretty much identical to Godzilla, with not being too familiar with foreign media, but in addition to all of that, I’m very eager to see where all these films that I loved get their inspiration from.
The Thing (1982)
Finally we have a film that’s partially responsible for inspiring me to make this list: John Carpenter’s The Thing. One genre that I’ve been trying to get into more is Horror. In general, I find the genre, in a way, a little too formulaic for my liking. But this film is generally considered to be one of the greatest Horror and Science Fiction movies of all time. Plus the overall concept of the film and the groundbreaking special effects that I’ve seen snippets of amazed me. Also, during this, me and millions of other people have been playing the social deduction video game Among Us, which definitely quite a number of cues from The Thing. As previously stated my lack of interest in Horror movies have been my main reason for not watching The Thing, but I feel that this one is so much more than just a Horror movie. If I still don’t end up becoming a Horror movie fan, I have a good feeling that I will enjoy this film.
And there’s my list of 11 classic films that I’ve Never Seen. As previously mentioned, I will be making a follow-up article where I will give my thoughts on all the movies listed here after I see them all. I’ll update this post once that article is up. Other than that, I hope you all have a nice day!
Once you notice Ryan Gosling’s The Giving Tree tattoo on his left shoulder, it’s hard for it to not bear some kind of significance. Obviously, it can be an easy platform for interpretation. After all, tattoos, like any art form, tend to be informed by the experiences of its wearer. But to have art displayed on an artist is in of itself an invitation for a multitude of meanings to be considered. Perhaps one could take it as a symbol for the surplus of performances Gosling has provided us with ever since his world-renowned debut on The Mickey Mouse Club. Another could take it as a representation of his humanitarian efforts. Or maybe, if you ought to go for a reach (like I very much will), you could look at it as a conduit for the characters he’s inhabited over the years. Like the tree in Shel Silverstein’s book, a muted selflessness can be found in his nameless lead in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Maybe you could find something else about selfless love in his character in The Notebook – a film I have definitely not seen. But it’s difficult to imagine a better representation of this than his work with director Derek Cianfrance. Unconditional love runs through the veins of both his characters in the two projects they’ve done together, even if the veins are practically dried up. Somehow, a way is always found for them to devote themselves, to give endlessly to those they want to give to, even if all that’s left is nothing. Love being given in the presence of something long dead.
Turning 40 is certainly eventful. I’d put myself on a limb and so boldly state that it’s usually the age for when we look back on how we got to this point. But it’s now been just one decade since Gosling delivered what I believe is him at his very best. He had joined his first project with Cianfrance three years before filming even began, and the script had been given to Gosling’s acting partner, Michelle Williams, four years before that. It feels pretty much impossible not to correlate time with not just this film, but Cianfrance’s entire output of work thus far. But after eight years of circulating, Blue Valentine finally premiered at Sundance in 2010, and those who had only seen Gosling as Nicholas Sparks’ sappy heartthrob caricature were exposed to something far more raw. Ten years removed, it’s easy to see the film as a setting point for a new phase in his career, and while his performances since then have always been great reminders of his effortless charms and reservoirs of emotion, there’s nothing quite like the foundation. For me, that was Blue Valentine, and I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate his birthday than to get super, duper sad about love.
“Come on, baby. We’re going to the future. ”
The sounds of Grizzly Bear warmly strum as Dean, played by Gosling, fixes his hair before impulsively landing a job as a Brooklyn home-mover. As he readies a room in a nursing home, he goes the extra mile with its occupant named Walter. As Dean guides him through the room laden with a near-excess of care, Walter is only taken aback by the effort. Gosling provides Dean with such easy charisma, you just know that while the devotion is overt, it’s always meant. Insincerity feels impossible. Across from Walter’s room is an elderly woman being cared for by her granddaughter Cindy, played by Williams. With the bat of an eye, Dean and Cindy meet behind doors near-closed. Cindy shows initial reservation due to a recent breakup, but Dean sees through it with immediacy. To call it love at first sight is inherently cornball, but nonetheless felt. And by mere circumstance, they meet again on a bus. Dean, attempting to return a lost heirloom to Walter, is told by Cindy that he had died. But the air of death does nothing but give way to something that blossoms. The nightly rendezvous that follows is captured in the handheld rawness of Cianfrance’s 16mm camera. The surfacing of love feeling so real that you couldn’t possibly buy it as fiction.
But this is not where the film begins. Our first image is of a five-year-old girl named Frankie. She is the daughter that Dean and Cindy will have together after half a decade of marriage. She is looking for their family dog, waking up Dean in the process, who has since started his own process of pattern balding and morning drinking. The way you can nearly smell the beer on him when he first appears could risk making the outcome the film will end on as obvious. But Dean’s love hasn’t withered. Through his Eagles sweatshirt and raggedy exterior (apparently modeled after the look of Cianfrance himself), he seems nothing but changed by time’s flow at first. But as it becomes clear that the feelings of Cindy, now a doctor, may no longer mirror Dean’s, the pain of his desperate attempts to savor what’s left begins to reveal itself. Whether it be his refusal to engage in lifeless sex at their spontaneous hotel getaway or embracing her when Cindy can longer afford to reciprocate arms, the eyes behind those sunglasses are slowly revealed to be of the same soul. Over the film, we return back and forth between these two timelines. The grainy analog of a romantic past gradually colliding more and more with the digital sterility of the present. But effortlessly binding the two is an aching authenticity, further aided by DP Andrij Parekh’s telephoto photography that sends rippling echoes of the domestic drama of John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman. The reservedness of Cindy in both timelines is played to pitch-perfection by Williams, so much that it does nothing but emphasize the pain in her eyes when she can only let tears leak. Feeling so real that for as much as you may feel inclined, you couldn’t possibly fault Dean or Cindy for how things end up if you tried your damndest, and Cianfrance’s knowledge of this is in every frame.
Later in the film, Dean’s choice of tank top allows for his Giving Tree tattoo to be fully exposed. Upon noticing, the choice to even show it at all immediately tells of Dean’s entire character. From the moment we first observe him being woken by his daughter, he is as much of a lover as he is a provider. There’s enough in his behavior and posture to indicate time’s unkindness to him since first meeting Cindy, but his playfulness, even if fueled by his alcoholism, is just enough to send glimmers of the man he was. He is a giver until what’s left is a mere stump. Over spells of transparent reminders of past love, and silences broken by the pounding of walls, Dean refuses to accept that his connection was founded on too weak a circumstance. That the romanticization of romance itself can only take you so far until the constant exchanging of pain swallows you whole. Yet Cianfrance knows better than to explicitly state whether Dean and Cindy were truly ever meant to be together. Because at that point, both Gosling and Williams have made them feel so unbelievably lived-in that you’re just as likely to draw your own conclusion the way you would with the partners you know in real life.
But to walk away from Blue Valentine is to embrace the idea of giving yourself as much as possible to those you love, even if you’d understandably feel hesitant doing so after the initial viewing. At one point, Cindy asks her grandmother how she could possibly trust her feelings if they can all just go away. She only says that all we can truly do is to have a feeling to begin with. The chances of Dean and Cindy meeting were as slim as the door crack between them, yet nothing stopped them from the life they built together. As aptly blue as the film may leave people feeling, the collective execution of Cianfrance’s direction and the performances of Gosling and Williams pleads for lovers to simply embrace circumstance. That romance can sprout from anywhere, and can wither away anytime. That it’s only up to us to keep the veins flowing, to keep commitment alive, and to keep love given. The thesis of Blue Valentine rests on its last minutes; as Ed Droste mournfully sings on “Alligator” – the film’s closing song –
“This is life and this is love. “
The relationship between Halloween and Horror cinema is practically a straight line. As we transition into the holiday, we asked our Frida Blog Writers to weigh in on their favorite Halloween and Horror movies of the season.
What is your favorite Halloween tradition?
Logan Crow, Owner/Founder Frida Cinema: Well for me of course it involves what happens at The Frida. So I’d say my favorite Halloween traditions have been handing local kids candy here at the cinema when they swing by in their costumes trick-or-treating down 4th Street (which we sadly can’t do this year due to COVID-19), and screening a Halloween classic — generally, John Carpenter’s Halloween!
Anthony McKelroy: Watching movies, duh. And also getting to see what the trick-or-treaters dress up as every year. Usually it’s movie characters, but sometimes there’s a really clever one that you get to give the whole bowl to.
Austin Bittner: To me, Halloween is always an occasion for me to take in the atmosphere before anything else. That it just happens to be a day that falls on my favorite season feels especially rich. I don’t do it every year, but if I happen to get the chance to just walk around my neighborhood and just peek at the house decorations or the autumn trees, it’s usually all I need for the day to feel full. Hopefully here in Orange County it gets to actually feel like fall this year. I’ll stop before the inevitable climate change rant.
Isa Bulnes-Shaw: As a child, it was definitely decorating the house for Halloween with my dad, who’s the person I can do spooky-scary things with. I miss trick-or-treating so much — getting out with friends and seeing all the awesome houses and costumes was the best! When we got home, my brother and I would trade candy while watching the special episodes and annual movies they’d play on T.V., and old cartoons like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Silly Symphonies. When it was just me and my dad, we’d whip out the Vincent Price classics and B-movie schlock, à la “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”.
Things have really changed since entering college, and although October 31st is usually just another homework-filled evening, I watch at least a couple of my staples on or around Halloween night. The past two years, events like Camp Frida have definitely been the highlight of the spooky season!
Kason Clark.: Listening to “Thriller.”
Nicole Ngyuen: Before everything spiraled out of control, it was handing out candy and seeing people’s costumes
What is your favorite horror movie cliche(s)?
Logan C.: Someone is hiding somewhere in the dark, and we get a close up of their terrified and trembling face, and then suddenly they hear a noise *right* behind them, and their face freezes for a moment (generally sound goes dead quiet), their eyes slowly turn to the side, followed by the slow turn of their face, then we cut to the loud reveal of whatever’s behind them and carnage ensues. / I’m also a sucker for effective, mood-building establishing shots — of the front of a house, of a quiet street, of a rainy hospital, of the quiet corridors of a spaceship, etc.
Anthony M.: Stupid, sexy teens getting into stupid, sexy teen shenanigans is an infinite well of horror movie inspiration that I will never get tired of. I love any time a character has to go down into a spooky basement. I also love a shaky handheld camera in found footage movies, I do. Especially if the camera falls over at some point and another character has to “pick” it up.
Austin B.: I get so excited when the call is coming from inside the house. It means the protagonist has a visitor! In this age of isolation, truly what’s a better scenario?
Isa Bulnes-S.: I like how animals always know what’s going on first in movies, and I love a good old-fashioned supernatural slow-burn. I’m a big fan of the long-overdue trend of women going absolutely feral AND surviving the film. I hope them having satisfying endings which may or may not involve taking down the men and society that hurt them is present enough to become a full-blown trope
Kason C.: One girl left
Nicole N.: Characters having no idea of the genre they’re in and walking toward certain death
Favorite halloween candy?
Logan C.: KRACKEL! Come to think of it, I think I only have Krackel on Halloween. Why is that!? I love Krackel!
Anthony M.: Right now, it’s the new cookies n cream Twix bars. I’m eating one as I write this. But candy corn is the true winner.
Austin B.: Can’t go wrong with Sweet-Tarts, but here’s the catch – gotta go with the mini ones. Don’t even think about hitting me with the regular ones that are basically a nightmare to swallow whole. Am I willing to admit here that I often swallow regular Sweet-Tarts whole? Sure! In this age, why hide anything? Also Haribo gummis – in any form of animal.
Isa Bulnes-S.: Give me all the unwanted buckets of candy corn. I will appreciate it like they deserve.
Kason C.: Candy corn
Nicole N.: Gummy bears (or worms, I’m not choosy)
Biggest fear in life?
Logan C.: The fact that I have no clue what happens to my consciousness when I die. And, for that matter, what happens to the consciousness of the people that I love when they die.
Anthony M.: Spiders.
Austin B: Mitch McConnell. No, really. Have you seen him?
Isa Bulnes S: I started to type out a few of the many on the list, and realized I’m a complete downer. Oh, how I wish I were just scared of spiders or clowns or something– unfortunately, I love both.
Kason C.: Paranormal activity.
Nicole N.: Spiders, being outside alone at night, and giving presentations–among (many) other things
Biggest fear in the movies?
Logan C.: Jump scares. Especially after a long, steady sequence of quiet dread. Also, nothing scares me more than something rushing the camera, with its eyes set right into the camera. Like Bob in Twin Peaks, crawling over couches as he makes his way right towards the camera. Even when they’re coming slow, like the woman in the kitchen in It Follows, it gives me absolute chills.
Anthony M.: That monster from FEAST (2005)
Austin B.: I don’t think I can jot it down more specifically than the general atmosphere, so I’ll just write out two specific horror moments that still get me. The “sloth” in SE7EN, and that one shot in The Strangers where one of them is in the background while Liv Tyler’s just standing around. Hope those both sell my kind of spooky vibes.
Isa Bulnes-S.: Those foreboding, void-ish and abstract figures that people describe sleep paralysis being like? No thanks.
Kason C.: Ghosts, demons, paranormal activity
Nicole N.: Jump-scares, the implication of dangers unseen, and the possibility of secondhand embarrassment
What would you say are the main traits of a traditional “Halloween movie?”
Logan C.: Creepy shots of kids trick-or-treating idyllically. Pumpkins on lawns. Representations of the spirit of Halloween as seen through varying generations of townsfolk (little kids happily trick-or-treating; older kids pulling juvenile pranks; drunk teenagers having sex and getting in fights; parents who might be considered “too hold” to celebrate Halloween still finding time for a nostalgic acknowledgement of the holiday.)
Anthony M: Can you have a Christmas movie that doesn’t show a christmas tree? A Thanksgiving film without a meal? If there’s not a pumpkin in at least a single frame of the film, then I don’t believe it qualifies as a Halloween movie. No one says “trick or treat”? — not a Halloween movie. The reason we watch horror movies on Halloween is due to the staggering deficit of Halloween movies being produced. If we had enough movies that prodded at the tradition and ritual spirit of Halloween, we would be watching those instead of some serial killer film.
Isa Bulnes-S.: A strict definition would be that the actual holiday or idea of Halloween is present– so it either takes place on or around Halloween, with the typical iconography of trick-or-treating, Jack-o-Lanterns, etc.. While that’s super limiting and comes close to only including television specials and films centered around human kids, the point is often to create a world like our own reality, but wherein the spirit of Halloween indulge in every year still has the potential to be true behind all the smoke and mirrors. I think it’s more about the atmosphere– an overall feel of autumn or winter months, and adults’ ideas of what an “appropriate” type of scary is for kids– a more “innocent” version of scares and frights. Some sort of inherently spooky monster or witch, ghoul or zombie which the protagonist(s) (most likely kids) must defeat, and hijinks ensue. Usually the kids are on their own, either because of some threat to the parents or they’re just not in the picture. Also there’s usually a poppin’ soundtrack.
Nicole N.: Features monsters/ghosts/witches/etc., has a certain level of humor
What would you say are the main traits of a traditional horror film?
Logan C.: Scary music. Moments designed to make the audiences’ hearts skip a beat, whether that’s as simple as a jump scare, or as complex as an effectively chilling reveal or disturbing image — or both, such as in the case of Sleepaway Camp. Characters in danger of losing their lives to a homicidal and villainous foe.
Anthony M.: Someone’s gotta die before it’s over. Right? Is there a single horror movie where NO ONE dies? Could you call that horror? Would love to know.
Isa Bulnes-S: Horror is so broad and expansive, “traditional” doesn’t even begin to narrow it down! Do you mean Nosferatu-type classic? Universal Monsters? Or the slasher? Too many subgenres to say, honestly.
Nicole N: Grim, suspenseful, frightening
Where do you see the two genres overlap the most? And where do they diverge?
Logan C.: Mostly, they diverge in the cases of Halloween films intended more for children, and/or lighter and campier celebration of the Holiday (The Worst Witch, Hocus Pocus, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown). Where they overlap is when the Halloween film is also a horror film, which isn’t always the case. The best example of this, of course, would have to be “Halloween.”
Isa Bulnes-S.: Movies for kids/youth are where the best of both worlds collide for me, especially because that’s where you can find the medium of animation being utilized most. The most effective and enduring are ones that don’t shy away from existential dread and some iteration of the very real horrors we experience every day, but also don’t dismiss the concerns of younger folks. Animation allows for an immediate suspension of disbelief, and automatically lets you experience that “Halloween” magic of another world, but with more stakes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many explicitly Halloween movies involve kids being written-off by adults in the midst of a struggle that’s very real, but can’t be seen by others; it encapsulates kids’ fears and frustration of not being listened to in real life by adults, and talked down to. Prime examples of both of these are Over the Garden Wall and Coraline (2009), which embrace both greater fears of death, the unknown and unsaid, as well as some pretty terrifying body horror in addition to the typical spooky fun of pumpkins and black cats.
Nicole N: I’d say the two overlap the most in their dealing with macabre subject matter, but they have different ways of approaching and portraying it.
Complete the statement: “It’s not a halloween movie if…”
Logan C.: …there aren’t trick-or-treaters seen or referenced at some point in the movie.
Anthony M.: It’s not a Halloween movie if there are no pumpkins! No Halloween costumes!
Austin B.: There’s not somethin’ sinister in the suburbs!
Isa Bulnes-S: You ain’t got the spirit. Really, it’s just something you feel, at the end of the day. If it doesn’t have a single pumpkin in it and you watch it every year, it’s probably because it’s just generally “darker” or has to do with death and the macabre, or you simply first got exposed to the film in a Halloween context.
Kason C.: it doesn’t take place around Halloween.
Nicole N.: …”fun” isn’t one of the words you’d use to describe it.
Complete the statement: “It’s not a horror movie if…”
Logan C.: the audience isn’t unsettled. (Or at the very least, if the filmmaker didn’t set out to unsettle the audience.)
Anthony M.: It’s not a horror movie if no one dies, right? The drama comes from the constant threat of violence. I think I’m onto something.
Austin B.: Somebody in the theatre deliberately overreacts to a jump scare by making their large popcorn bucket explode all over the floor.
Isa Bulnes-S.: It relies purely on jumpscares to manipulate you into thinking that basic biological response == good horror movie.
Kason C.: it does not at least attempt to be tense or scary
Nicole N.: …it doesn’t trigger a genuine fear reaction.
What is typically offered in a horror movie that can’t be found in a “Halloween” movie? And vice-versa.
Logan C.: Well for vice-versa, not all horror movies are Halloween movies, so they won’t all have trick-or-treaters, pumpkins, etc. As for the first question, not sure how to answer that. It depends on the Halloween movie, I suppose. And the sub-genre of horror movie, I suppose. For example, I can’t think of a Halloween movie set in space. But not all horror movies are set in space.
Isa Bulnes-S.: There’s a point, which is different for everyone, where the things that horrify you are informed by your experience in the world as you live through it, and what might have scared you before is comforting compared to current concerns, and vice versa. Gore, violence, and torture porn isn’t in itself Halloween-y, and definitely needs the suspense and as part of a larger thrill to be a piece of a larger, effective horror movie. The Babadook (2014) is one of my favorite movies, and while it’s horror I don’t see it as a Halloween movie at all because to me, the type of joy that comes with the scares isn’t present. I’ve experienced the repressed grief and anger it portrays, and that’s the context in which I encountered the film; if it had existed before I’d known such things personally, I might have watched it as another well-made and complex thriller most fitting for October.
I think for a Halloween movie, there’s an inherent sense of whimsy that isn’t always present in horror films, and a sense of closure that comes with the season, knowing all things come to an end and the seasons will change. Halloween always comes back year after year. But horror doesn’t offer solid answers, and often leaves you with more questions. The fear lives on in you, and will likely never leave, because it’s rooted in our fear of ourselves. Perhaps this is the root of my struggle to categorize certain spooky films as “horror” mentally, like the Vincent Price or Rocky Horror Picture Show type– they’re just too fun and irreverent!
Nicole N: As opposed to a Halloween movie, I think a horror movie has more room to be truly upsetting. In other words, I’m not expecting to have nightmares after a Halloween movie. And I think a Halloween movie has more freedom to be tongue-in-cheek or “cheesy.”
Rank, top 3 best horror movies (no order)
Logan C.: The Descent (2005), The Shining (1980), Get Out (2017)
Anthony M.: FEAST (2005), The Conjuring (2013), Jennifer’s Body (2010)
Austin B.: Cure (1997), The Blair Witch Project (1999) , The Thing (1982)
Isa Bulnes-S: Only three?? You’re killin’ me! Coraline (2009), The Lighthouse (2019), The Babadook (2014)…and I can’t not put The Witch (2015)
Kason C.: The Shining (1980), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982)
Nicole N.: The Witch (2015), Train to Busan (2016), Crimson Peak (2015)
Rank, top 3 best halloween movies (no order)
Logan C.: Halloween (1978), Trick ‘R Treat (2007), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
Anthony M.: Halloweentown (1998), The Nightmare before Christmas (1993), The Addams Family (1991). The 90s were really killin’ it in terms of halloween cinema.
Austin B.: Halloween (1978), Trick r’ Treat (2007), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Sorry for being what the kids call basic.
Isa Bulnes S: Scary Godmother: Halloween Spooktakular (2003), Over the Garden Wall (2014), The Majority of Tim Burton Movies (Corpse Bride, Beetlejuice, Sweeney Todd)
Kason C.: Halloween (1978), Halloweentown (1998), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Nicole N.: Hocus Pocus (1993), Beetlejuice (1988), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Why do audiences enjoy seeing “scary” films year after year?
Logan C.: I think it’s because fear and anxiety cause the secretion of adrenaline, which in turn provides a rush. Beyond that, that rush of adrenaline actually has the ultimate effect of soothing the anxiety that caused it. There is, I believe, also something about facing one’s fears vicariously — in watching the terrors experienced by the characters on screens, your body’s nervous system goes through the same terrors, but with the knowledge that you’ll get to walk away unscathed. It’s the equivalent of being able to eat a giant chocolate cake — to taste it, to feel it go down — without having to take on the calories and put your body in actual danger.
Anthony M.: The spike in brain chemicals, right? It’s a bit like exposure therapy. Things become less scary the more you understand them.
Austin B.: I would go the extra mile and say that horror and comedy both go hand-in-hand in terms of the sensation. They are probably the easiest genres that audiences can rely on for the feeling that they provide, even without having to truly engage in the story. Surely it’s why stuff like Scream (1996) or Scary Movie (1999) gained the prominence they did upon release. A synergy of cheap sensation, if you will. But it doesn’t have to be cheap of course! Sometimes atmosphere is just enough for people. Point is, we love to get our kicks from discomfort and we’re all inherently weird.
Isa Bulnes-S: Escapist fun. It’s a fear that can be left behind once you leave the theater or turn off your screen. Chemicals in your brain love the relief of being in danger, then realizing “oh, not really”. It’s also a time to explore subjects society shies away from, the most prominent example in American culture being death.
Kason C.: They feel safe throughout the day so getting scared is an exciting and new emotion for them.
Nicole N.: I think it’s partially the satisfaction of sticking to a tradition, partially breaking up the monotony of the passage of time by heralding in fall.
Best halloween costume worn in a movie?
Logan C.: I’d say it’s a tie between Donnie Darko’s hooded skeleton, and Daniel’s shower costume in The Karate Kid.
Anthony M.: Ralph Macchio’s shower costume in The Karate Kid. Hilarious and functional.
Austin B.: Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler’s matching Benjamin Franklins from They Came Together (2014).
Isa Bulnes-S: I know there are better out there I just can’t recall, but I’ve always been absolutely crazy about Dani’s autumnal witch look in Hocus Pocus (1993). Warm tones, sun-and-star-covered fabric, and tasseled, furry vest? Comfortable, subversive, AND iconic. Elevate it with a better hat, and you’ll be the new Supreme. Also, one of the main kids in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) dressed as a classic Pierrot, and I truly felt seen as a person.
Kason C.: The Michael Myers mask
Nicole N.: Scout’s ham costume in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)?
Logan C.: Nightmare on Elm Street.
Anthony M.: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Better songs.
Austin B.: I guess it’s really all about trade-offs. Nightmare on Elm Street doesn’t have gorgeous animation and Nightmare Before Christmas doesn’t have the gorgeous Robert Englund. Let’s leave it at a stalemate.
Isa Bulnes-S: The Nightmare Before Christmas is my go-to favorite movie, full stop. It hardly registers as a Halloween movie for me, that I forget it’s a seasonal thing for most people, and not year-round; also, it’s a Christmas movie at its core, but that’s discourse for another day.
Kason C.: Nightmare Before Christmas
Nicole N.: Nightmare Before Christmas
What will horror movies look like in 20 years?
Logan C.: I honestly think they’ll be better. We are seeing films like Hereditary actually embraced by the mainstream. Get Out, which I consider to be one of the greatest films ever, took in $255M at the box office and won an Academy Award. I believe horror films will simultaneously get even more cerebral and exploratory, as well as more unsettling in equal measure.
Anthony M.: The horror of…tangible consequences of climate change!
Austin B.: It feels too long a time to really predict it with practicality, but hopefully within those twenty years we’ll finally get a Wayans Bros. parody of all the postmodern slow-horror work from the last decade. Maybe we could land on something close to: “The Hereditary Babadook Who Comes At Night in A Quiet Place Conjuring The VVitch from Last Midsommar: Origins”.
Isa Bulnes-S: Real life is already becoming more of a horror movie than anyone could think up, so if we’re around in 20 years and people still need to watch things to be scared, that’s anyone’s guess.
Kason C.: More low-budget and artsy like recent A24 movies.
Nicole N.: There’s definitely more material to be mined from the progression of technology and its effects on society. Also, given the Current Situation, I think there’s another evolution of zombies imminent.
Which horror movie character is the perfect halloween costume?
Logan C.: Every year I tell myself I’m going to lose enough weight to dress up as a Baseball Furie from The Warriors. And every year I just don’t get there. Next year!!
Anthony M.: The monster from FEAST (2005).
Austin B.: Would love to see someone as the dad from Hereditary. Just acting annoyed and confused all the time and maybe bursting into flames. Could very easily work in the first two.
Isa Bulnes-S: The Babadook is a fun one! Could also double as a look for Pride– double the value.
Kason C.: Pennywise
Nicole N.: Michael Myers–menacing and instantly recognizable
What other holidays deserve more movies made about them? What would be the defining traits of that holiday genre?
Logan C.: Super Bowl Sunday. Someone needs to make a Get Out-like satire about a lot of the darker events that go down year after year on Super Bowl Sunday.
Anthony M.: I would like to see more holiday movies from the perspective of parking lots where none of the characters can ever find good parking because it’s such a busy holiday.
Kason C.: Easter. Intense easter egg hunts, the easter bunny as a real character,
Ideal horror monster movie crossover that you’d like to see?
Logan C.: Christine vs. The Car
Anthony M.: The paimon cult from Hereditary should team up with the swedish cult from Midsommar. They’d be unstoppable.
Austin B.: This took a while, but I would love to see Freddy vs. Jason! So strange how we haven’t seen that yet.
Isa Bulnes-S: Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Wolf Man (1941) rom-com where they just kiss already.
Kason C.: It (2017) and The Babadook (2014)
If cost and materials were no issue, what horror movie costume would you love to pull off for Halloween?
Logan C.: I would love to get a huge group together and dress up as the seven powerful thieves/planets from “The Holy Mountain,” as well as some of their minions.
Anthony M.: The monster from FEAST (2005).
Isa Bulnes-S: The list is endless, but to fulfill all my childhood wishes once and for all, it’d have to be Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas (I’ve already been Jack). But it’d have to be all-out; dress sewn from actual different fabrics, prosthetic mouth stitches, contacts to make the eyes all white with just a small pupil– hey, even a detached arm spilling out leaf-stuffing. Similar dedication to be Emily from Corpse Bride (2005), fresh out of the ground. And okay, fine– a fluorescent Oogie Boogie Big-Bird type bodysuit/puppet hybrid would be all types of rad.
Nicole N.: I’m cheating because this isn’t a horror movie, but I’d love to dress up as Lavinia from Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as long as the costume is disturbingly realistic.
Trick or treat?
Logan C.: Treat.
Anthony M.: Always treat. Always.
Austin B.: Trick.
Isa Bulnes-S: Treat .
Kason C.: Treat.
Nicole N.: Treat.
The Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Sellick and based on the vision of Tim Burton, is truly one of the most beloved films in recent history. With a style all its own and characters recognizable all to folks all over the world, it’s an understatement to call the feature iconic, as well as innovative. It’s fit for any time of year, and why we’re showing it at The Frida yet again– it’ll be a particularly special one as our first drive-in screening of the film, as well as the spooky occurrence of a full moon on October 31st.
Personally, Nightmare was the spark that ignited a long-fueled blaze of admiration for animation– stop-motion in particular– and began a spiral into all (well, most) things Burton. A chronic stan since my age was still a single digit, I know very well that there’s a myriad of mind-blowing, entertaining facts and stories surrounding the film’s production. You’ll have no trouble finding listicles or other resources breaking down Nightmare by the numbers, or videos sharing the many Easter Eggs placed in the movie itself– heck, I even talked a bit about the project’s many years in limbo and poem origins in a previous blog.
While this is all awesome to know and prime stuff I’d happily gush about to anyone who’d listen, there’s something not discussed nearly enough, if at all: the deleted scenes, alternate endings, and overall “lost” lore that lives beyond the canon in the special features of DVDs or special edition anniversary soundtracks.
Here are just a few of the many, many astounding facts to get the uninitiated caught up on this absolute marvel:
- The film took three years to make, with a full week needed to complete about one minute of the movie. The final runtime is a modest 76 minutes, comprised of about 103, 440 frames in total. There are several fully-animated segments which were “cut for time” or other reasons.
- This was accomplished by filming multiple sequences at the same time, utilizing 19 sound stages, 230 sets, and 8 camera crews. However, of the 100+ individual crew members working on the film, only 13 of them were the animators tasked with physically moving each puppet 24 times for every second of animation.
- Every puppet is hand-sculpted, assembled, detailed, and dressed. There are about 60 characters total, with 3-4 duplicates of each.
- Since it was shot on actual film and technology being limited, animators could only see whether a frame was incorrect upon receiving the portion back from processing. If even a single frame was out of place, the entire scene or sequence had to be redone.
- Animating began before the script was finalized, beginning with the musical sequences since the songs were finished before the story anyway. Danny Elfman accomplished this by talking with Tim Burton and having him explain scenes and dictating ideas, even drawing visual references; from this, Elfman would begin writing they song over a couple days before bringing it to Burton, and making edits until satisfied. Caroline Thompson’s screenplay is the means by which these centerpieces were seamlessly brought together.
It’s this type of dedication, labor, and attention to detail that makes for animation masterpieces. Like any creative process however, there are plenty of bumps and formative challenges along the way, with various iterations that change from pitch to finished product. More than anything, The Nightmare Before Christmas maintains a sort of purity, leaving fans’ minds to wander, theorize, and expand to get another taste of the magic. It’s rare for a film to have both a saturated personality and the perfect amount of mystery for its world to be wondrous as well as grand. The gift that keeps on giving even after a quarter of a century, here are some hidden gems from Sellick’s titan of a film.
- Extended Narration
Those who own the soundtrack to Nightmare have likely heard the extended version of the opening narration played during the introduction to the holiday doors:
‘Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems
In a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.
For the story that you are about to be told
Took place with the holiday worlds of old.
Now, you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from.
If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.”
Not only is the soundtrack version performed by Sir Patrick Stewart, but it adds a little more world-building through rhyme, and establishes that the events of the film have already occurred in whatever world the speaker inhabits.
“For holidays are the result of much fuss
And hard work for the worlds that create them for us.
Well, you see now, quite simply that’s all that they do–
Making one unique holiday, especially for you.
But once, a calamity ever so great occurred
When two holidays met by mistake.”
While not strictly necessary, the full poem is more satisfying from a cadence perspective thanks to the repetition of the rhyme scheme, but it’s read quickly enough that it doesn’t drag on too long. It also really gets that child-like wonder in just enough before the ghosts and ghouls steal the show for a bit.
2. A Different Portal Into Halloweentown
The storybook-style narration provided by Ed Ivory ushers viewers into a mysterious fairy-tale land where holidays originate from their very own worlds. “You’ve probably wondered where holidays come from,” the voice says, “if you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun”. The land of Halloween swallows us up, and shows off exactly what we’ve been missing with the unforgettable “This Is Halloween”– when you go off with a bang like that, it’s hard not to be
completely swept up in the enthusiasm of the setting.
So can you imagine a version of /Nightmare/ that doesn’t simply dive right into the Elfman romp that is the film’s soundtrack? We have the workprint of an alternate opening sequence that would’ve given the film a very different tone.
It’s no secret that one of Nightmare was inspired by previous iconic Christmas films, with Burton describing Jack Skellington’s story as “The Grinch in reverse”, and the initial goal of short poem’s screen adaptation to follow the format of Ranken/Bass’ quintessential stop-motion television specials of the 60s and 70s.
Like the newspaper headlines and snow-swept credits of 1964’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, these boards focus on a paper calendar with pages flying off to display dates and illustrations of different holidays before landing on the Jack-O-Lantern-marked 31st of October. Upon disappearing into the darkness of its eyes, we’re met with stop-motion candy corn coming together to form the title and credits before dropping in on Halloweentown. Though this version certainly evokes Rudolph’s own opening featuring presents and ornaments to spell out the crew members’ names, it’s not nearly as immersive or intense. Perhaps it would have worked as end credits decoration, though.
3. The Many Deaths of Oogie Boogie
Alright, so this is where things get really wild– understandably so considering the secondary importance of plot points in the early stages. There were plenty of ideas throughout the writing and storyboarding process surrounding the antagonist’s defeat.
As this video kindly compiles, storyboards show a longer confrontation between Jack and Oogie, whose sack separates from his internal bugs– which quickly form a flying swarm, from which Jack has to run. Meanwhile, Oogie lies as a pile of fabric and laughs. Another version has the two facing off with maces, and yet another has the very anti-climactic conclusion of Boogie tripping into the hot vat.
By far the most challenging plot concept is one wherein Sally’s creator, Dr. Finkelstein, was Oogie Boogie all along! In typical Scooby-Doo fashion, he’s unmasked and confronted by the main lead.
He spills his dastardly plot and motivations, before making a getaway thanks to his servant Igor.
What could possibly be the reason Finkelstein nearly destroyed two holidays, and attempted to murder Santa and his own creation?
Well, he’s angry that Sally isn’t the subservient and dedicated creature he intended her to be, fed up with her continuous successful escapes. Definitely petty and likely bitter that she’s obviously much more intelligent than him, Finklestein cites her interest in Jack as the reason for her disobedience, declaring the Boogie persona was a facade to “teach her a lesson she’d never forget”.
Without a doubt, the best part of this animatic is Finkelstein exclaiming the following: “But she loves YOU Jack, you oblivious twit!”
He speaks the truth. Jack Skellington is overzealous and self-centered with a one-track mind, and clearly knows how to woo the townspeople, yet not take a hint. I’m glad he got called out for it, and wish it still somehow made it into the movie. The facial expressions are also very funny.
This ending obviously has some pretty deep flaws in the storyline, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. When did Finkelstein create Oogie? He’s in the opening of This is Halloween, and has a reputation around town, his own lair, etc… Did he plan this facade for many years beforehand? Did he somehow plan all the events of the movie, without directly causing any of them? How would Sally learn her lesson if she was melted into a vat of snake and spider stew?
It’s a hot mess and downright goofy– it really makes you appreciate just how perfect the final film’s tone is between humor and horror.
4. Oogie Boogie’s Shadow Dance
By far the sequence which I genuinely mourn is only a few seconds from the antagonist’s big number– which is exactly why I can’t believe it was cut when it was already fully animated!
Once again only featured on the soundtrack version of the songs, Oogie Boogie’s song contains a 16-second long instrumental bridge. Though the whole song is quite obviously jazz-based, this segment breaks it down with some sinful brass, while Oogie laughs indulgently. It still catches me off guard when watching the actual film to not have this portion in the song, because you just can’t help but get down right before the prolonged “Oh” that ushers in the song’s second half. You can watch a fan-edited version of the full song, complete with unused boards and animation here.
The visual aspect of these 16 seconds is a traditionally (2D) animated silhouette of Oogie Boogie dancing, vibing, and very obviously relishing his wickedness. It’s gorgeous and smooth, obviously, like all the inserted hand-drawn elements of the film (ghosts, sometimes Zero). But what’s so great about it is the extension of Oogie Boogie’s character, by referencing even darker, more morbid animation from the early half of the century.
Cab Calloway, the famed African American pioneer in the fields of music, dance, and showmanship, has been immortalized in animation for nearly a century. His music was the basis for several of Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons in the 1930s, and his dancing rotoscoped (traced over) to form some of the most important sequences in animation history. Oogie’s shadow dance directly draws influence from one short in particular, “Minnie the Moocher” from 1932, which similarly features skeleton backup singers, with additional death by drinking and electric chair– images that weren’t uncommon for animation of the time, and which Disney actually helped go out of fashion. It’s a brilliant, subtle way to show the more sinister activities Oogie Boogie likely had fun with besides gambling, but which wouldn’t get past censors (though midevil torture devices seem to be just fine).
Truly a beautiful tribute to the spooky, playfully morbid origins of animation which the Nightmare Before Christmas builds upon and revitalizes for new generations.
(Fun fact: Cab Calloway’s performances and animated dance moves continue to influence pop culture into the late 2010s and beyond, from award-winning Cartoon Network series to best-selling video games.)
5. Outro Epilogue
As you can see in the lovely illustrated accompaniment to the epilogue, the film was to end in rhyme just as it began. But, rather than an omniscient voice belonging to no one in particular as might be perceived, the poem confirms that the one telling the audience the story is none other than Santa Claus himself, reflecting on a visit to Halloweentown years after the events of the film. This makes sense given that the film’s narrator is indeed the same voice actor as Santa– Ed Ivory.
In this track, Santa mentions that after he saved Christmas from Jack’s antics that year, “each holiday now knew the other one’s name” as a result. Jack spurred an exchange of cultures that supposedly lives on, and likely makes for some interesting mash-ups.
Santa Claus doesn’t have much screen time in the film, and he’s rightfully pissed for having his holiday hi-jacked by a bag of bones. In the end though, we see the man in red doesn’t hold a grudge and is maybe a bit more forgiving than he should be so quickly. Regardless, we see him bring Christmas to the residents of Halloweentown, and shares that he’s “still quite fond of that skeleton man”– so much so, he takes a visit.
“So, many years later, I thought I’d drop in
And there was old Jack, still looking quite thin”
For fans of Jack and Sally (the ultimate goth-emo couple), the OTP-feels intensified while deviantART OCs flourished upon revealing that the undead couple started a family of their own.
“With four or five skeleton children at hand
Playing strange little tunes in their xylophone band”
Whether they adopted, performed some sort of necromancy, or simply reproduced via good old cartoon logic, it’s an adorable visual. The outro goes on with such sincerity and a relatable, nostalgic sentimentality that older listeners can greatly appreciate. Every time I hear that final line, my heartstrings are thoroughly tugged at, and I know I can’t be the only one. It’s lovely, I can’t possibly paraphrase it.
“And I asked old Jack, “Do you remember the night
When the sky was so dark and the moon shone so bright?
When a million small children pretending to sleep
Nearly didn’t have Christmas at all, so to speak?
And would, if you could, turn that mighty clock back
To that long, fateful night, now, think carefully, Jack
Would you do the whole thing all over again
Knowing what you know now, knowing what you knew then?”
And he smiled, like the old Pumpkin King that I knew
Then turned and asked softly to me: “Wouldn’t you?”
Is that not so much sweeter than it has any right to be, and the perfect end to the fairy tale, epic opereta that is The Nightmare Before Christmas?
Now, while there are dozens more scenes and treats to be found and discussed, I’m going to take a note from the film and leave a little left for the audience to figure out on their own.
After all, prime Nightmare season for those keeping it on a schedule has only just begun! With a year scarier than anyone could’ve predicted, why not stretch out the charming, good-natured frights as much as you’d like? It’s certainly one of my ultimate comfort movies, regardless of the month.
Have a very merry Halloween, and dig through your old DVDs and Blu-Rays! You never know what awesome features you can revisit that will breathe new life into an old favorite.
To call the Italian giallo a distant cousin and predecessor of the American slasher film would not be entirely incorrect as a statement. However, the slasher’s slice-and-dice tendencies and the reveal of the killer’s identity are usually where the comparisons end. For the uninitiated, I describe a giallo film (plural, gialli) as a murder-mystery featuring stylish murder set pieces, hyperviolence, and lurid sexuality. Common tropes include black gloved killers, copious amounts of J&B scotch, and amateur detectives.
The term giallo—meaning “Yellow” in Italian—stems from the publisher Mondadori’s imprint of translated mystery and noir novels by Cornell Woolrich, Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie, and other writers. These books were noted for their distinct yellow covers. Pretty soon, giallo became the umbrella term for any type of printed mystery or detective yarn. The term was later adopted for the Italian film industry’s take on these types of stories.
The giallo experienced its heyday from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, although occasional late-entries to the genre appeared in the 1980s. While Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) is often credited as the first giallo, many critics and academics consider Dario Argento’s Deep Red (Profondo Rosso, 1975) as the representative film of the genre. Argento burst on the Italian film scene with his debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage after years of working as a film journalist and screenwriter. This film codified most of the narrative and stylistic tropes, but Deep Red combined them in arguably the most effective way. For more information about giallo, see my interview with giallo and folklore academic Mikel J. Koven, author of La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film.
The narrative follows jazz Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, Blow Up) who witnesses the murder of a psychic (Macha Meril). With the help of an intrepid female reporter named Gianna (Daria Nicolodi, Shock), he attempts to uncover the identity of the killer before becoming a victim himself.
The film is obsessed with perception—much has been written on the use of mirrors in the film—and the unreliability of memory. Even though Marcus thinks he has everything figured out, he finds himself either one step behind the killer or forgetting an essential piece to the puzzle. As the mystery deepens, a punchy prog-rock score by the band Goblin punctuates the most memorable scenes.
Deep Red also features standout sequences of horrific violence, beginning with the murder of psychic Helga Ulmann. The murderer’s weapon of choice is a meat cleaver. This choice of weapon most likely was erroneously associated with a hatchet, which could explain why some censored film prints bore the title The Hatchet Murders. However, the culprit also kills victims by other means. For example, the killer drowns a character by holding her face under scalding hot bath water (a kill later recycled in Halloween II) and subjects another to blunt force trauma to the face before impaling his neck to the desk with a knife. Argento also throws in a nasty decapitation by elevator climax and a creepy mechanical doll—seriously, that doll still has the power to unnerve viewers through its unexpected entrance into the story.
Although he would later branch into supernatural horror with Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), Argento’s would return to the giallo over the course of his filmmaking career with entries like Tenebre (1982), Opera (1987), and Sleepless (2001). Other prominent Italian directors—such as Sergio Martino (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, 1971), Umberto Lenzi (So Sweet . . . So Perverse, 1969), Lucio Fulci (The Psychic, 1977), and the aforementioned Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)—would also leave their influential marks on the popular genre. In recent years, a slew of neo-giallo films have emerged, including The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), and Knife + Heart (2018).
Deep Red has earned its reputation as a cult film and a classic of horror and giallo cinema. It continues to have a lasting impression on viewers and influence upon contemporary filmmakers 45 years on.
“Also, no found-footage movie [has] ever used score…We all took turns screaming and then stretched those screams out and that became the sound of the air in the spaces. So you’re hearing human screams stretched out. You can feel something human surrounding you. It doesn’t sound like a scream but you feel like that’s what it is.”
— John Erick Dowdle, 2014 interview
The Hell depicted in John Erick Dowdle’s frightening katabasis As Above, So Below is buried under rivers of blood, walls of skeletons, and awful French graffiti. Posing at times as a faux documentary, and other times as a jittery “found-footage” horror film, As Above, So Below documents the search for the mystical Philosopher’s Stone, an ancient talisman of great alchemical power, by a young group of amateur adventurers with deeply traumatic hang-ups. Following a series of Goonie-ean like riddles, academic polymath Scarlett Marlowe (Ready Player One’s Perdita Weeks) and her team inadvertently find themselves crossing over into a portal to Hell while investigating a lead.
What to say about a conundrum of a film like this? Because of its disordered documentary style, one must accept a certain amount of clumsy dialogue in order to simulate the “realism” at play. And yet, the ambitious screenplay by Dowdle and his brother Drew balance this by producing highly motivated scares, and a palindromic narrative structure; breezy expositional scenes one might normally yawn at become sinister warnings when encountered later in the film. Deploying one phantasmagorical image after another, the Dowdles build a propulsive experience languishing in dread and terror.
Plunging deep into the famously spooky network of catacombs underneath the streets of Paris, the film begins in earnest. Endless hallway mazes are paved with some combination of mysterious runic symbols or decaying skeleton bones, drenching nearly every frame of the film with a ghostly ambiance. A flurry of demonic and biblical imagery gradually erodes the “reality” of the film the deeper our characters enter the catacombs. “The only way out is down” becomes a common, reluctant refrain.
Because of its genre, the events shown in this film are necessarily unclear. A quote from British multimedia artist Brian Eno comes to mind:
“…so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart…The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
The impressionist depictions in As Above, So Below reflect this instability in the recorded image – even hi-def digital ones. The entire appeal of “found-footage” horror, that you are seeing something more “real” than a highly produced movie, rests on this axiom. Though cut to resemble a frantic stream-of-consciousness state, deviating from the investigative documentary conceit, the film works spectacularly. The disturbance of hallowed tombs, untouched for centuries, is sure to knock loose a demonic spirit or two, and at that point who’s to say how things are supposed to behave.
With unprecedented access by French authorities, the film production was allowed to shoot on-location in the catacombs in areas that had never been photographed before. This was made possible by the small footprint promised by the filmmakers: timed shooting schedules, helmet cameras, battery powered lighting rigs, etc. These limitations, and their resulting visual aesthetic, recall the cinematography of another French-based production about an ancient cave, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011). Though light on “spooky” elements, Herzog’s film is similarly reflexive in its acknowledgement of production restrictions necessary to preserve the natural state of the cave interiors. To try and hide this aspect would deprive the story of it’s authentic, organic disposition.
In overcoming these challenges, As Above, So Below mirrors one of its own early sequences where an old church bell is fixed and rings hallelujah for the first time in centuries. If nothing else the film is a contemporary document of the catacombs at this particular time in history. Everything that’s on screen from the moment our characters enter the catacombs, to the moment they leave has never, and perhaps will never be seen by another living person again (unless the French government starts getting super relaxed about preservation regulations all of a sudden, which is unlikely).
Maybe in another 1000 years or so, if earth is somehow still around, another film crew shooting a found-footage horror movie will be allowed access into the catacombs, and they will see what we saw with new eyes, new perspectives. They will watch this movie and wonder how we did it. Maybe they won’t even need cameras to make the film.
The flash in the pan that the Dowdles captured is a bit like observing a science-fair volcano done with immaculate execution. Though a classical and familiar premise, it’s littered with extra-ordinary detailing and flourishes that hasn’t been seen in recent memory. This film’s only goal is to frighten and thrill. To understand it better is to allow yourself to be taken by the camera, to crawl behind those characters into the gates of Hell and marvel.
I like to say that if you’re seeing me you’re having the worst day of your life.
The following blog is written by former Frida superstar volunteer Sam Feldstein. Sam has relocated to Iowa City, Iowa, but intends to write guest blogs from time to time:
Lou Bloom is looking for a job. He’s made up his mind to find a career he can learn and grow into. Who is Lou? He is a hard-worker, he sets high goals and he’s been told he’s persistent. But he’s not fooling himself. Having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools, he’s used to expecting his needs to be considered. But he knows that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations. What he believes is that good things come to those who work their asses off, and that people such as yourself who reach the top of the mountain didn’t just fall there. His motto is if you want to win the lottery you have to make the money to buy a ticket. Did he say he worked in a garage? So how about it? He can start tomorrow or even why not tonight?
This rapid-fire description/sales-pitch of/by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom ripped almost verbatim from the Nightcrawler screenplay reflects precisely the values imparted on we American children. We were told to value hard work. We were told to have faith that said hard work would be enough to get us what we want. We were told that what we want is success. We were told that success means money, and money means power, and power means control; over our circumstances, over our future, over our surroundings, over other people. We were told that that is the dream, to conquer limitation. And we were told if someone finds themselves in dire straits it is because they didn’t work hard, they didn’thave faith, they didn’t want it enough, the guy begging for change on the sidewalk is there bychoice or he wouldn’t be there at all he’d have a job, be saving up, be making something of himself and it’s not really my problem is it he got sick maybe or got in a car accident and now he’s drowning in thousands of dollars of hospital bills, three grand just for the ambulance, fighting with his own insurance company just to get them to do their job. Sorry that happened but that doesn’t change the fact he still chose to be out there, begging on the sidewalk. American culture erases empathy from the success equation by making the individual responsible not only for their actions but for their circumstances.
Now what makes Nightcrawler fairy tale of sorts is that Lou Bloom, unlike so many real-life success stories, really does pull himself up by his bootstraps, goes from selling stolen scrap metal to building his own company, Video Production News, so despite our revulsion we can’t help but find something to admire in the man, his work ethic and his drive to overcome his situation with almost superhuman focus and endurance. Then again there is something superhuman about Lou, isn’t there, or at least something adjacent to preternatural, something that makes him unstoppable, almost machine-like in his intractability, so that he becomes less a character and more a breathing semantic statue, the quintessential if iconoclastic exemplar of American individualism, incarnate ambition stretched taught over ruthless mechanisms combusting promises to power arms made only to climb, encasing a hollow core of immaculate egoism.
Lou’s power is this:
What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?
Here Lou admits to his hatred for people, and his greatest strength is revealed. His misanthropy is his Darwinian advantage. He does not account for the consequences of his actions as they pertain to others. In Lou Bloom-world, other people don’t matter. And there is a dangerously alluring freedom in that. Wouldn’t you love to just…not care? Wouldn’t you love to be able to put yourself first with zero concern for the ramifications? You find that abhorrent, good, that’s because you do care. But if you didn’t, you wouldn’t. Imagine being Lou, so consumed by your solipsistic nihilism that you act out of not belief but knowledge,certainty of your righteousness. Is there not something appealing about the notion? Something freeing?
But as we know, that freedom comes at a price. What Nightcrawler wants us to understand is that the price of ambition is not paid by the ambitious, but the people they exploit, injure, even kill, along the way.
What I’m realizing, particularly as I grow older (I’m in my mid-twenties) and especially in light of the last four years and the upcoming election, is that the world is filled with Lou Blooms. Not sociopaths per se, but people who seem practiced at removing empathy from the equation. And when these people act in their own interests, and the rest of us pay for it, it means that we have to overcompensate with our own generosity in what typically feels like a vain attempt to make up lost ground. Part of what’s made growing up in the last twenty years and continues to make existence in the 21st century so infuriating is that we can see another, better world right in front of us. A world without disparity, with free accessible healthcare, and ubiquitous job security, and electric vehicles, and clean energy, and affordable education, and so on. We have the technology. We have the awareness. We have the desire. It’s all there, in the eye of our hopeful imaginations, a quintessent future, tantalizing not so much in its possibility as its plausibility. We could have all of it.
If only it weren’t for Lou Bloom, the perfect American.
— Barry Keoghan, 2018 interview
As the COVID-19 pandemic in America shows no signs of stopping, movie studios continue to delay new releases seemingly every week until public safety in theater spaces can be guaranteed. This cultural stasis deprives us of new stories, new images, and new contributions to the cinematic arts, but it’s a small price to pay for safety.
Tragically, two new films featuring Dublin native Barry Keoghan (key-oh-gun) were also deprived of their 2020 release: David Lowry’s The Green Knight, and Chloe Zhao’s Eternals. Two roles that should fit well with the 27 year-old’s already dynamic body of work. Like what our writer Austin Bittner described in his Christopher Abbott Trilogy, truly great supporting actors give you the impression that their best work is still ahead of them. Making their early creative period all the more exciting to follow.
While we count down the days until these new films can be released, let’s return to three performances from Keoghan’s already burgeoning career to see an exciting young artist at work.
“It was a confused situation. In these circumstances, what you saw, what you think you saw, can be a very different thing to what actually happened. Do you understand?”
— C.O., Sam Hazeldine
Yann Demange’s camera is as restless as the North Irish Troubles themselves in his period war drama debut, ‘71. Elaborate tracking moves, zooming lenses, and erratic handheld sequences lend a verite realism to this harrowing tale of survival during the unrest in early seventies Belfast.
British military Private Gary Oak (an electrifying Jack O’Connell) gets separated from his squad during a search mission in Northern Ireland, and must evade capture from provisional IRA operators that encircle him on all sides. Enter Barry Keoghan as Sean Bannon, one of the IRA soldiers on Gary Oak’s tail.
While refusing to contextualize the greater political situation at large, Demange’s story takes on a new light. It is not a historical document of the situation in North Ireland, but rather it uses those events as a backdrop to indict the corruptibility of law and order, the entropic decay of power structures and hierarchy. Crooked cops, crooked soldiers, crooked rebels; all compete for control over the course of this kinetic and thrilling film.
From his first appearance in a sensational early scene, Keoghan exudes a magnetism that transcends many of the other tremendous character performances in this film; Sean Harris, Valene Kane, Martin McCann, and David Wilmot all turn in wonderful work, but are restrained by plotty gangster film dialogue.
Keoghan meanwhile, casts an ominous presence over the film with nary any lines whatsoever. Sean Bannon is a bottled and fascinating young man whose demeanor can shift faster than you can say ‘Get the guns!’. Only in two revealing moments of domesticity does Sean break his silent facade, showing us two lives living in the same body: a radical fundamentalist, and a scared young boy that loves his family.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
“At that time, I thought I was the only one who ate spaghetti that way…Later, of course, I found out that everyone eats spaghetti the exact same way. Exact same way, exact same way.”
— Martin, Barry Keoghan
We now arrive at a star making role for Keoghan in Yorgos Lanthimos’ clinical and disturbing greek tragedy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer – yet another example of a stellar ensemble cast orbiting around a singularly engrossing, and mesmerizing performance from Keoghan. The compassionate humanism he brings to ‘Sean’ in ‘71, becomes corrupted to suit his role as the inhuman sixteen-year-old Martin – a rare villain in Keoghan’s oeuvre.
Following the death of his father during heart surgery, Martin befriends the surgeon who performed the operation – Dr. Stephen Murphy (Colin Ferrell, playing a man who is somehow even more repressed than his ‘David’ character in The Lobster (2015)).
Now Martin is a real creep – it makes sense why Keoghan would want to avoid being typecast as such. We sympathize with Dr. Murphy who’s repulsed by Martin’s stilted and awkward etiquette, but we also recognize Martin’s untreated trauma infecting his judgement. What follows is an anxious and terrifying dramedy of manners as Lanthimos follows his characters through hospital hallways, suburban sidewalks, and suffocatingly modern homes like a phantom. His camera observing with twisted curiosity each character’s deepest, and darkest confessions slowly coming to surface.
In the wrong hands, Martin could have felt like an empty and generic villain; too showy of a performance rendering it parody, while a total lack of personality rendering his revenge unbelievable. Keoghan strikes a balance here, knowing when to emphasize his threats within the membrane of small talk and pleasantries that pervade the movie. It’s a haunting bit of work that’s sure to be remembered as one of the greatest performances of the recent era.
American Animals (2018)
“It doesn’t work like that in real life. Bad guys, they don’t get to ride off into the sunset with the money.”
— Spencer Reinhard, Barry Keoghan
If Bart Layton’s exhilarating docu fiction exposé, American Animals, has a reputation beyond being one of only three films acquired by the now defunct MoviePass Ventures, it will be for featuring Barry Keoghan in one of the more introspective, and as a result more complicated roles of his early career. Keoghan swings his character pendulum back and forth, this time shifting to Spencer Reinhard, an art major who has a nifty idea to rob his own university of priceless masterpieces.
Keoghan’s sheepish performance stands out in contrast to the sinister tone of his previous two characters. In American Animals, he swings so far in the other direction, you could easily imagine Keoghan in the role of Gary Oak in ‘71 – scared, unsure, out of his element. By playing more or less a straight man to Evan Peters’ erratic ringleader character Warren, Keoghan is given ample opportunity to demonstrate his comedic sensibilities and timing, however brief.
The entire premise of Layton’s heist procedural relies on Spencer and Warren’s total lack of existential conflict that, in and of itself, guides their reckless behavior. A self-imposed, self-fulfilling prophecy, aided by boredom and too many movies. Such is the ennui of 21st century collegiate life.
A cautionary true crime tale, and an indictment of American educational paradigms, this fascinating hybrid film will no doubt leave you wanting more from Keoghan. In the meantime however, please continue wearing your mask and staying indoors whenever possible. The sooner we beat this virus, the sooner we can see new Barry Keoghan movies!
I first watched The Fog with my mom when I was around twelve or thirteen years old. It marked the first John Carpenter film I ever watched; perhaps that is why it continues to have a lasting impression on me. My mom owned an MGM Special Edition DVD from 2005. I remember walking into her room and seeing ghost pirates on her small TV screen. I was instantly caught up in the story,
While I grew up watching crappy movies on the SciFi Channel (now stylized SyFy), The Fog marked the point when I first became invested in the horror genre. Shortly after, I decided to at least watch all the major films I could get my hands on (The Exorcist, Halloween, Psycho, Friday the 13th, etc.). This led to a lot of trips to Blockbuster (RIP) and me becoming a bonafide horror fan (and now academic).
What made The Fog compelling at the time was how one of its main characters, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), was a Catholic priest. I hadn’t seen priests in horror films prior to that moment. Being raised Catholic, I was able to connect with the character and understand his spiritual dilemma. Upon finding his grandfather’s diary, he becomes attuned to the horror and revisionist history that surrounds the founding of the coastal community he serves.
As Antonio Bay’s townspeople prepare for its 100th anniversary celebration, Father Malone’s warning falls on deaf ears: “The celebration tonight is a travesty. We’re honoring murderers.”
If that’s not enough, unexplained supernatural phenomena have been occurring around town. Gas pumps start on their own. Car horns blare. A clock face cracks. A mysterious piece of driftwood appears on the shore with the etched words “Elizabeth Dane” that later change to “6 Must Die.”
Then there’s that fog. It envelopes everything in its path and appears to have a mind of its own. At one point the fog bank moves against common weather patterns. The fog itself is more frightening than the actual ghost pirates. Growing up in Visalia, CA, located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, I can attest that driving through fog is one of the scariest things imaginable. When driving down country roads when the fog rolls in—so thick that you can’t see past the front bumper of your vehicle—many people will slow their car to a crawl, pull as far over to the right edge of the road so they don’t drift over the median strip, and count the mailboxes they pass to discern their relative location. One time, I was driving home with my friend Dillon. As we turned onto the offramp from Highway 99-N to Highway 198-E, we couldn’t see anything in front of us. We proceeded at less than 5 miles an hour, practically straddling both lanes to make sure we executed the sharp turn correctly, lest we roll into a ditch. At one point I stupidly turned the brights on, temporarily making it impossible to see. Thankfully, no one came roaring down the offramp behind us, otherwise my truck would have been rear-ended with full force.
Because of the fog bank, John Carpenter’s film excels in conjuring atmosphere. Produced during a time where the slasher genre Carpenter inspired was experiencing its heyday—and becoming increasingly more violent—and plagued by a number of reshoots after negative test screenings, The Fog’s “less is more” approach is arguably more effective. By showing no blood, Carpenter instead focuses his energy on building suspense through editing and pacing. There are a few jump scares, but the film holds less in common with other films of the late 1970s and early ’80s (with the exception of Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried, co-penned by Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon), than it does with its gothic antecedents like The Innocents or The Haunting.
While some may quibble at occasional plot inconsistencies, such as the reason why the ghost pirates stalked their particular six victims—apparently the novelization details how they are direct descendants of the original six conspirators—I think such a criticism misses the point. From the first frame, Carpenter frames the film as a ghost story. Mr. Machen (John Houseman) sets the scene with his tale to a bunch of children camping on the beach. The history of telling ghost stories extends back hundreds of years, one of the most common traditional times being Christmas Eve in Victorian England. Novels, such as Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, carry on this tradition in literary form. Here, Mr. Machen announces the stroke of midnight with the story of shipwreck that contextualizes the backstory of the narrative. It sets the film’s tone by planting a creeping sense of dread in the viewer’s mind. This is complemented by Carpenter’s sparse piano-synthesizer score.
Since my initial viewing, The Fog has become my favorite John Carpenter film. It even inspired me to write a meta short story while a college undergraduate. As the film approached its 40th anniversary, StudioCanal released a 4K restoration. Viewing it projected at the Frida Cinema, I never imagined the film could look so vibrant and clear. Although the story takes place on April 21st, The Fog remains a perfect Halloween season treat for those looking for a good ghost story.
Tamika Palmer – the mother of Breonna Taylor, had to drive herself to the offices of the attorney general handling the trial regarding the murder of her daughter – at the hands of three police officers, only to be told that the indictments regarding the officers would only go as far as a first-degree wanton endangerment; charging only one of the three involved. Reportedly, Palmer had received warnings in advance from her family’s attorney not to drive her way down, as if the answer was known before even being given. And just days prior to the indictment, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky declared a state of emergency, only to be in the wake of a decision in which the ones responsible for making it knew would spark outrage. The kind that never went away in the first place. It had been one-hundred-and-ninety-four days since the officers broke into Breonna’s home in the middle of the night; investigating for an alleged drug bust and leaving her with six gunshots. She was a medical worker. She was 26 years old. She was asleep.
As I type these words, the now-global Black Lives Matter protests that have gained newfound prominence with the murder of George Floyd have reignited because of this decision, if solely from the perspective of the media. But if you happen to know the proper outlets, you would know that the fire had never even dampened. The anger that could have sprouted from any various occurrence of racial injustice that certainly isn’t limited to 2020 – as much as it is to even centuries before, has swelled into a rage that has, and will only continue to seethe. Only until as long as the systems responsible – in which their inherent foundation of white supremacy can never be undone, cease existing. It’s right around here where I feel inclined to acknowledge my privilege as a white person writing about this subject. I have, am, and will continue to spend a very long time learning and unlearning. There will never be a point to where I feel as if I’ve been educated to the highest possible degree, but there will always time to listen, and there will always time to understand what you haven’t before; even if it involves such a topic that can only allow for the most difficult of discussion. Though as needless as it may be to say, to be difficult is to often be equally as necessary. I now write these words as if this is the only platform I can use to write about a film that has enough power to where I can feel it in my bones that there won’t be a better film not just this year, but for this year, and the ones preceding it. It may just have enough power to help prevent it from applying to the years that follow.
In 2017, director Garrett Bradley released a documentary short for the New York Times titled ‘Alone’. In thirteen minutes, Bradley tells the story of Aloné Watts – a single mother in her 20’s who is caught in the midst of a devastating situation in whether to marry Desmond Watson, her Black partner facing mass incarceration. During the making of the film, Bradley met a woman named Sibil Fox Richardson – aka Fox Rich, who at the time had her husband Robert in a nearly parallel situation. In 1997, Fox and her husband were arrested for bank robbery, with Fox sentenced to nineteen years but serving three – a number made even more minimal so by her own husband’s. Robert was given sixty years, with boldly no chance of parole or probation. But as soon as Fox was released, that lack of chance was rendered meaningless. Fox was left a mother of six children – including two twins named Freedom and Justus, who as time went on, would grow to have a resilience that mirrored the woman who raised them, fighting over two decades for her husband’s freedom. Twenty years into Rob’s sentence, Bradley took to feature length to tell their story, and as its title would convey simply but perfectly, it’s about Time.
A documentary filmed in stark black-and-white, Bradley adopts the same format as she did on Alone, but as a feature would entail, she expands it in a way that’s purely natural; enough to where the more intimately we delve into Rich’s story, the more universal it becomes. Being able to walk such a delicate line between that drastic contrast makes it seem as if Bradley has been honing this skill over a vast career of features, and then nothing but awe comes when you realize this is only her third film. You couldn’t even begin to imagine what the future beholds in the works that will hopefully follow. During the making of Alone, Bradley was given a hundred hours worth of mini-DV footage of Fox and her family; spanning as early as her eldest son being merely an infant. The film starts at this early point, but the chronology isn’t a gradual slope. Bradley gives the film something far more non-linear, fluctuating back-and-forth between grainy home video footage and crisp digital footage of present-day, but the black-and-white helps to provide a thread running through each moment that renders the passage of time as nothing but a faint breeze. But at just the right moments – through scathing dialogues directly calling for defunding of the system responsible for cheating Black people out of their families, and the tearful voices of family members who can only acknowledge the unfairness of that system before ever being able to actually fight for it, the reality of time’s passing comes like a splash of ice water to the face.
In just 81 minutes, Bradley spins an epic’s worth of contrasts. She creates a film as loving of its subjects as it is damning of the prison industrial complex. It is as minimally contained as it is bountiful with empathy for the countless amount of others who face similar treatment. It is as lively as it is angry. But these qualities never detract from how Bradley keeps focus on each member of the family. The stories of Fox’s children become nearly as known as her’s, where it becomes further clear how she had spent two decades preparing them to get past the point where she herself struggled. Through their goal in lessening the sentence of a father they spent their youth without, the blossoming of their strength becomes abundantly known. But at the same time, Bradley makes it equally as clear that the film is not about their resilience. Fox and her family do not need to be reminded of their strength. You can tell from the way Fox is put on hold by the offices in charge of her husband’s case that this has reoccured far enough times for her to not have patience. She waits, and we wait with her, until she is told that there is nothing new to report. She responds with sincerity, but only until the moment she breaks when getting the same response later on in the film. It is sudden burst of emotion that dismantles the kept-together demeanor Rich had established from the start, revealing only a woman in pain; who only seeks escape from it.
Time is a film that captures the world surrounding us in a way that’s above all painterly. Bradley and editor Gabriel Rhodes often use natural earth to transition between specific moments in time. A camera soaring from rocky terrain and into the vast darkness of a forest with leafless trees. The passing of monochromatic clouds. These transitions are simple, but their significance in conveying the easiness of time’s flow is anything but. The magnitude felt by the sight of Fox’s children as their maturation into near-adults occurs in the length of a single cut is only made staggering because we know how much this story spans. And yet the system keeping Robert away from his family has stayed as fundamentally fixed and biased as it’s always been. The amount of years should allow for hopelessness and pain to be our only leanings, but Fox knows better, and by the time her children share the same sentiment, we are encouraged to know better as well. We are always made aware in different ways of how the flow of Earth’s movement can never shift, and yet somehow, Garrett Bradley simply manages to do so in a finale that cements the film’s weight as incalculable. Echoing an ending such as the one from Come and See would inherently indicate it’s done in a way that’s just as powerful, to which it very much is. But Bradley unloads the emotion in a far different way. As we literally look back on the journey of this family – the motion of each sequence shifted, there is no single feeling to capture. Only a multitude, as pathos comes through suddenly witnessing young adults shrink back into unknowing infants. The pain of seeing a loving husband, free with his most golden years ahead, well before his trapping. The love that has somehow grown in the undoing of time itself. Showing that above the surfaces of rage and loss, of despair and frustration, is the codependency between two people. Against every conceivable odd, love is a thing still possible.
It is purely not enough calling Time the film of the year, unless it’s possible to mean it in a variety of ways. To refer to it as the best of the year is too obvious, but to call it the film that defines the year would do it something closer to justice. Even if the fight against systemic racism (somehow) ends with a sense of finality, it will continue to metastasize in different ways. Racism is rooted in the most foundational grounding of America’s origins, and there is clearly no practical way to even deduce an ounce of its impact. It never lies within one group of people and it never lies within one system. But through the story of a single family, the time they waited, the time they lost, and the time they ultimately felt, in the end is enough power for Bradley’s film to represent so many others who had no choice but to have their lives befallen under similar circumstance. The prison industrial complex is and has always been a broken ideal, and as I write these words, the chances of even more lives becoming ruined under grossly exaggerated sentences and inherent leanings of racial bias are far and away likely. It’s a film that contains love, but only as much as the surplus of emotions beneath the surface. A particular one being a rage that only expands. A rage that stands for the lives no longer with us. A rage that calls for the defunding and dismantling of the systems that control us every day. A rage that does nothing but stare directly back at you. Only seconds pass before you come to a conclusion. To look away would be inhuman.
TIME RELEASES IN SELECT THEATRES ON OCTOBER 9th AND AMAZON PRIME VIDEO ON OCTOBER 16th
Let’s not be coy. Even if you haven’t seen Adam Wingard’s nostalgic home invasion thriller The Guest (2014), you have seen a film like it. Its debt to slasher film tradition is conspicuously injected into each glossily photographed scene as shadows clash with neon lit compositions, and horrified screams wash over an eerie synth soundtrack. The brutal naturalism at play comes with the territory of a cozy, domestic horror film like this – a stranger or other such force descends on a small family in a small town to disrupt their lives, forcing them to band together and extinguish said threat. Violence begets violence doubly. It’s an 80’s movie remade for the 10’s
Like a good 80’s horror film all the recognizable family archetypes are here: Spencer Petersen (played by Leland Orser), the lovable alcoholic father, Laura Petersen (a weepy Sheila Kelley), the inert but emotional mom, Luke Petersen (up and comer Brendan Meyer), the nerdy youngest son who gets bullied at school, and middle child Anna Petersen (scream queen Maika Monroe), the one that pieces it all together. We meet the Petersens a few days before Halloween as they mourn the recent loss of their oldest son Caleb, a casualty of the War in Afghanistan. A different monster than the one we’re about to meet.
Enter the one who calls himself David Collins. Played with psychopathic aplomb by Dan Stevens, “David” visits the Petersens to fulfill a dying wish for their son Caleb. As a matter of fact David continues, he served in the same secret special forces unit as Caleb, and was with him just before he died. As a matter of even more fact, there’s a picture on the Petersen’s mantle showing David and Caleb together while deployed, looking like fast friends. It’s all very convenient as a plot setup, but far too much to process for Laura Petersen. Watching her choke up as she receives this information makes you almost want to believe David – the closure she never had, finally arriving at the same front porch where she was told her son was dead. Even using well trod material, the film is brought to life by astounding performances like this.
Dan Stevens does much of the heavy lifting in the film, cultivating one of the great movie monsters of the 21st century. In a role that’s equal parts charming and frightening, Stevens delivers to us a confident, capable, and totally unhinged performance. Scenes of spastic violence teach us not to trust David, but of course you already knew that by now. That nothing much is known for sure about David Collins makes him all the more frightening in the era of instant Information. Even when military officials arrive for third act damage control, not much of an explanation for David’s motivation is given. He’s a totally enigmatic monolith of sadism with no start or end point.
The polite but anxious atmosphere that develops as the truth of David’s identity slowly unravels calls to mind the unnerving tenor of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), wherein a vacationing family is gradually held hostage in their lake house by strangers who refuse to leave. The criticism Haneke is making in his film regards the elaborate and distressing prominence of brutality as subject matter in media, violence as entertainment. Here’s a happy little family, what did they do to deserve any of this torture? What is truly being said with this depiction? Herein lies the responsibility entrusted to filmmakers to never cross that exploitative line, lest we the audience should accidentally walk into the theater and see the shameless snuff presented in Haneke’s admonitory film.
The Guest doesn’t come close to crossing those same lines, but it isn’t any more thoughtful in how it approaches the violence of its own story. It is shocking, and we the audience are shocked by it, but we get the sense that the film is not. Rather, the film delights in glee with its ability to produce such shocking imagery, to so closely emulate the films it’s clearly inspired by. It’s telling that where the film lacks in story, it substitutes immaculate scenes of deranged chaos. Exactly the thing depicted in Haneke’s movie.
If you are a fan of Wingard’s other works, or if you simply enjoy a good ol’ fashioned slasher film, then you’ll no doubt have a wonderful time watching The Guest. A fabulous cast, a thrilling story, and a distractingly groovy soundtrack await, but once it’s all over you may find yourself reaching for something with a little more foundation, and a little more empathy.
One industry that has been most effective by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is the film industry. Not only has it greatly affected the production of several films but it has essentially made the movie watching experience completely different as it led to many theaters closing down until things have gotten better. While a handful of films originally intended for theatrical release have since been released digitally, many people have realized that while this model is very convenient it just doesn’t have the same feel as watching it in the movie theater. Its reasons like this why I believe that theaters should reopen once the situation has gotten better because without it, we wouldn’t be able to have memories like this that you just wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. And here are my Top 5 Movie Theater Memories:
#5 Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
As a kid, one of the franchises that I and many other people across generations grew up with was Star Wars. While I had watched Episodes I-VI numerous times on either VHS or DVD, I never had a personal theater moment with any of them due to when I was born. While I did see Revenge of the Sith in theaters, I was only 5 when it came out and thus my memories on it are incredibly foggy. It wouldn’t be until the first film since the Disney acquisition of the franchise, 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens where I was given a chance to see this legendary franchise in theaters for the first time ever. Now while my opinion on both this film as well its two sequels have greatly changed since their release and for lack of a better word aren’t the most positive, it doesn’t change the fact that it was an exciting time to see a legendary franchise like this back on the big screen in major theaters again whether it be the first time in several years for older generations or for the first time ever for newer generations.
#4 Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Similar to Star Wars, Spider-Man was also a big part of my childhood and I had seen most of the film adaptations of the character in theaters, with the most memorable experience I had with any of his films being the most recent one, Spider-Man: Far From Home. While Far From Home isn’t my favorite Spider-Man film (that would be Spider-Verse), it had such an unique experience that no other film staring the character could possibly produce. One major aspect of the film’s plot was that Spider-Man himself, Peter Parker went on a trip alongside his class exploring the many different places in Europe, and the thing is that I was on a summer vacation to Europe with my family around the time the film came out and as you can guess that’s where we saw the film. Not only was it the first time that I saw a film in a completely different part of the world, but because the film took place around numerous landmarks in Europe, two of them being London and Prague which I had visited before I saw the film it just made the film experience that much more special, especially when I could tell where in those cities they were filming.
#3 The Disaster Artist (2017)
One of the first films that I had discovered that wasn’t from a huge studio was the infamous 2003 cult classic The Room from Tommy Wiseau. I instantly fell in love with the film, it was such a weird and bizarre experience completely different from anything I had previously seen up until that point. One of the most interesting things was hearing all the production stories around the film, it just sounded so absurd that you could easily turn it into its own movie, which it eventually became just that in the form of The Disaster Artist, which was based on a book of the same title which detailed the production history of The Room. Both me and my friend who were avid fans of the film were very ecstatic to see something related to it on the big screen especially in an environment with other fans and even some people who were being introduced to this story for the first time. James Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau was absolutely phenomenal as he truly became the man himself perfectly mimicking his characteristics which made this an essential companion piece to any fan of Wiseau’s bizarre but yet masterfully made gem of a film.
#2 Your Name (2016)
As someone who grew up during the 2000s I never got a chance to see traditionally hand drawn animated films in theaters and as a big fan of animation that’s something that was a little disheartening to realize when I started discovering those films at a young age. While CG animation can do many amazing things, there’s just something about hand drawn animation that it’ll never be able to replicate and I really hope that studios eventually start to go back to that style for certain films, but at least that tradition is being kept alive in other parts of the world, particularly in Japan. Around my early teens, I was getting into anime which only helped made me appreciate hand drawn animation even more. That’s why when I saw Your Name in theaters, it was just an amazing experience, not only was the film itself amazing but also it was the first time I was seeing this particular medium on the big screen, one that still had merit to be shown in theaters. All of that combined made this into an experience that I’ll never forget.
#1 Avengers: Endgame (2019)
And for my final movie theater memory, it’s for the Cinematic event of possibly my generation, that being Avengers: Endgame. This film was the climax of a story being built up for 11 years, and as someone who had been following it since it’s beginning just made this experience all the more climatic. I saw the film with a group of friends midnight release and witnessing the climactic final battle in a room packed filled with people who similarly grew up with these films was just a spectacle to behold and something like this doesn’t happen all the often but when it does, it’s experience that I will never forget, one that I wished to tell my own children about and something like this would never had been as monumental had it not been released in theaters, thus showing that even in this mostly digital age, movie theaters still have a place in our culture that streaming services can never completely replace.
The actors who I tend to call my favorites are ones that almost act as the film’s secret weapon. The ones you’d never suspect to be the scene-stealers you end up remembering most more than even the so-called stars you would normally go to those movies for. The ones like Paul Walter Hauser in I, Tonya, Seu Jorge in The Life Aquatic, and of course Brian Falduto – aka the “you’re tacky and I hate you” kid from School of Rock. Independent film allows you to find these kind of actors in spades. You can very easily imagine them breaking out in a performance that catapults them to world-renowned fame, even if you’d also want them to stay relatively under-the-radar, as if that status allows those kinds of actors to excel at their very best. It’s that and many other reasons why I have decided to raise a toast to one Christopher Abbott. It’s about time you knew his name if you’ve had the misfortune of not.
Born and raised in Connecticut and originating from stage, Abbott made his screen debut in Sean Durkin’s 2011 psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene and has since been a prominent face in some of the best and most memorable indies of the past decade. Obviously there are plenty of qualities regarding his work that I’ll go over in spades here, but I think it’s appropriate I start off by saying that the best thing I can say regarding Abbott is that he’s still relatively under the radar. And for an actor as young as he still is, that makes it more exciting for me to talk about these three films that I feel best encapsulate his abilities as an artist. They are all pretty much completely different from one another, but their binding tie is shared by what he brings to each one that I feel couldn’t have been approached by any other. In these films you can see something enigmatic about his eyes, the spontaneity of his actions, or the ambiguity of his character that make me very much look forward to the body of work I can only hope he continues to build. I really have no hesitation calling him my personal favorite actor working today.
1) POSSESSOR (2020)
Brandon Cronenberg seems insistent on picking up where his father David left off, at least in terms of psychologically-tinged (and sexually-charged) sci-fi body horror. An intensely visceral experience of world-building and mental warfare, there’s no easy way to delve into Possessor without at least one of your five senses going haywire. Set in a near-future laden with vape smoke, Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin who, thanks to mind-implant technology, can enter unknowing bodies to take out clients under the fullest guise of anonymity. His latest body? Colin, a soon-to-be-married programmer played by Abbott, who we soon find out has a mind that may need some taming.
From having to technically play two characters under one self, to utilizing the human body in ways and actions that are frankly hard to forget, it is a challenging, overwhelming performance that feels like it can only be that way for it to truly work. Over time, the melding of Riseborough and Abbott’s characters soon lend themselves into something resembling disintegration of both people, which only gives Colin more layers to where you wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s such a towering labyrinth of a performance that in the scene where he’s forced to remove himself from a party by assaulting the host, and is then taken away while repeatedly belting out, “I’M A F***ING GIANT”, you almost have no choice but to believe it.
2) IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017)
To say that Trey Edward Shults’ post-apocalyptic chamber thriller got a bad rap from audiences upon release would be a mere understatement. Initially billed as A24’s next Big Horror Sensation, it would check out pretty easily as to why people felt angry and duped by the nightmarish, hope-deficient psychodrama they got instead. But the reaction it got proved to be just as much of an artistic injustice as its marketing, considering the minimalism of Shults’ story does nothing but fuel the full-throttle amount of paranoia that infects this tale of families colliding at the end of the world. The most frightening thing about the film is that it really does feel like the end.
Joel Edgerton leads a family of three – a wife and a teenage son, all holed up in a spacious but remote home in upper-east New York. Peaceful, right? But then you factor in the contagious illness that has done nothing but ravage the majority of human life and it unfortunately becomes something far more timely. After putting a succumbed grandfather to (brutal) rest, the family becomes the target of an unexpected ambush from a man played by Abbott. Apprehended and later tied up against a tree, he is interrogated by Edgerton’s character in a mesmerizing single shot sequence. His life simply spills out, revealing a family of his own that needs shelter, and despite having no reason to do anything besides leave him to rot, Edgerton’s character lets him and his family in. In the entire scene, Abbott yields such a geyser of pathos that would convince anyone to do the same. But all it takes for the chance of surfacing community to unwind completely out of control is the opening of a door, and the lack of an answer for who opened it. Trust dissolves overnight, and violence takes its form, culminating in one of the most effectively traumatizing climaxes of the past decade. But through grippingly strong filmmaking and inspired aspect ratio choices, it becomes a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from if you tried, let alone look away.
3) JAMES WHITE (2015)
I figured it made enough sense to close this out with not just a starring vehicle for Abbott, but the film that introduced me to him in the first place. In retrospect, an immensely raw and grounded cancer drama would never have been ideal viewing during my period as a depressed film school drop-out, and as much as I wanted to hate this movie for what it made me feel at the time, there’s no possible way I couldn’t come back around to the power of it, and it’s fitting that it’s quite literally Abbott’s show, considering writer/director Josh Mond crafted the titular role specifically for him. Probably needless to say at this point, but even when acting against intimidating players like Cynthia Nixon and Scott Mescudi – aka Kid Cudi, Abbott’s performance is one that shines even in the film’s utmost amount of darkness.
James White needs help that he refuses at every step of the way. His father has just died, and his mother – played by Nixon, is in the process of dying. Staying beside her as terminal cancer renders her weaker every day, James gets by on the most self-destructive of behavior; in the form of bar fights and showing up to job interviews reeking of alcohol. He is a frustrating, complicated character who is almost destined to turn away viewers seeking a more conventional protagonist with an inherent arc. But by leaning on these decisions that further distance him from any semblance of an epiphany, he becomes something less of a character until he’s only just someone. A kind of someone you could see alone in the corner of a bar, or anxiously walking about the streets of downtown New York. The kind of someone in which you don’t think it at first, but your eyes are on them enough to where you want to know more about them. What brought them there.
Christopher Abbott gives one of the most staggeringly underrated performances of the 2010s. He both embodies and releases such a furious air of discomfort in every confrontation – not just with the people close to him, but the disease slowly taking his mother away from him, and yet enough empathy is felt to where you want more than anything to forgive each bad decision that he can’t seem to stop making. By the time his character becomes further more defined, it’s also where we get to the second extended-shot sequence that I’d be sore if I didn’t mention here. A single, static handheld shot on the floor of a bathroom, it is a quiet moment between James and his mother – very well nearing her own end, where in a last ditch effort to provide any feeling of comfort, he conjures an alternate reality for her where they live in Paris. James is married with children, who are taken by his mother to the Louvre where they can see the Mona Lisa. Happily returning to a husband who loves her.
It is all in his words, but the sound design shifts them into something that feels just real enough to know that despite never saying it at that point, James has a love for her that couldn’t be more real. By the time he finally does say he loves her when she’s only a husk, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s too late. He already said it on the bathroom floor. It’s this scene alone that serves as golden a testament to Abbott’s power as an actor as there could ever be. It’s a film for anyone who is terrified of having to grieve those they love. It understands that there’s no easy way to avoid the confusion of death, but Abbott makes the acceptance of it just as felt.
“There are many stories in Twin Peaks. Some of them are sad, some funny. Some of them are stories of madness, of violence. Some are ordinary. Yet they all have about them a sense of mystery – the mystery of life.”
― Margaret Coulson, The Log Lady
The great American North-West countryside that contains David Lynch’s vast and mythic Twin Peaks is pregnant with a furious history. Shocking images of pure evil lurk within the hearts and minds of everyday rural folk, waiting to be unleashed; their idyllic middle class lives, paved with the original sin of their ancestors. The genocide of indigenous peoples in America is but a single component of the labyrinthian network of stories that compose Twin Peaks, but its revolting history codifies the dramaturgical conceit brewing at the heart of this dreamy murder procedural: How can you undo what can surely never be undone? Where, on earth, do these unspeakable horrors come from?
In Lynch’s mournful prequel film Fire Walk With Me, the rich, cultural traditions of the great Nez Perce Nation, where Twin Peaks is located, supply most of the narrative apparatus and visual motifs for this transcendent melodrama. Owls, shadow doppelgangers, douglas firs, spiritual realms, horses, all of these recur in Nez Perce storytelling. A barrage of these symbols descend on the small mountain town during the final days of high school student Laura Palmer – homecoming queen, four months from graduation. The life she never got to have is revealed here with stirring frankness and unsettling imagination.
We are shown clues that we recognize from the TV show, yes, but mostly we are given a moving portrait of a young woman grappling with the sexual abuse she’s endured at the hands of her father; at the hands of men. Laura’s spiritual disintegration swells over the course of the film as the evil BOB attempts the potentially catastrophic process of changing human hosts, from her father Leland to her.
With the advantage of final cut, Lynch abandons all manner of traditional cinematic comforts in Fire Walk With Me as an attempt to refocus the essence of Twin Peaks’ restrained operatic style, which, in the second season, was tampered in a quagmire of network executive interference. Gone are the plucky array of comedic side characters that ground our sense of logical reality. Gone are the lush monologues sung by Special Agent Dale Cooper (an eternally zen Kyle MacLachlan), who appears in this film in a minor capacity. By effectively removing the “campy” tone that was enforced by traditional TV standards, Lynch is able to elevate this tragic
fable into a true atmospheric horror film not unlike Mandy (2018), or The Witch (2016), or Carnival of Souls (1962). Films where a character’s experience with misery and pain are the story.
Working with a widescreen canvas not available to them when producing the pilot, Lynch and cinematographer Ron Garcia paint elaborately shadowed compositions using flickering lights that conspicuously blink during scenes of collapsing morality, and waning innocence. As Laura radically attempts to reclaim her sexual agency from the violations of BOB, her dreams transform into spectacularly colored hallucinations of her pending demise. An inevitability of the always looming darkness that invades Fire Walk With Me. Even in broad daylight, shadows cast long, inky shapes on sidewalks, on faces and down hallways. Hell, the first shot of the Philadelphia sequence is not of the Liberty Bell, but of its very own shadow!
Laura’s suffering is depicted as a consequence of this darkness, of repressed history. The infectious nature of neglected pain & sorrow is echoed in Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), where the buried dead are reanimated by the rage of disturbed Mi’kmaq spirits hiding beyond the trees. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) conducts another variation on the same theme nearly ten years before it, as Jack Torrance’s time travelling descent into madness is explained by the presence of Native American burial grounds under the Overlook Hotel. A furious history. Though loaded with narrative puzzle-pieces that help shape the deeper mythology of the show, Fire Walk With Me will be wholly memorable for its two titanic screen performances from Ray Wise and Sheryl Lee as Leland and Laura Palmer respectively. In one nightmarish confrontation
after another, Lynch flexes his affinity for crafting anxious, and chilling scenes punctuated with splenetic bursts of raw emotion. Consider the morning after the Canadian nightclub sequence: Leland drives Laura to breakfast, they get stuck waiting for an old couple to cross the
intersection. MIKE suddenly appears to warn Laura about her father. Leland revs his car engine and honks his horn with increasingly violent decibels to drown out the ghastly truth, but Laura already knows, her worst suspicions confirmed. It’s a sensational scene in a film full of sensory
Angels will disappear from Laura, they will reappear to her in a changed context. How literally they are to be interpreted is anyone’s guess. But with a destiny that was decided long ago, Laura completes her final act of free will by choosing a death in the black lodge over a life with
BOB. If you’ve seen the rest of the series, then you know what happens next. If you haven’t then Laura’s life evaporates right before your very eyes, remaining in dreams forever.
The following blog post was guest-written by Frida volunteer and all-around cool guy Gabriel Neeb.
“A couple weeks before we started shooting Rabid, he came up to us, and he had dreamed up The Brood over the weekend or something, and had written a treatment. And he basically came to us begging not to do Rabid, but to do The Brood instead. And we all went ‘This is crazy! You’ve got people growing out of shoulders and stuff. No Way!’”
-Don Carmody, producer, Rabid and Shivers
“He” was Canadian director David Cronenberg. In this case, the cooler heads of the producers prevailed and filming on Rabid went ahead in November 1976, for its April 1977 release to profitable box office numbers and good, and bad, reviews. Starring Marilyn Chambers, an actress known for pornographic films like Behind the Green Door, Rabid was the story of a woman injured in a motorcycle accident, that receives an experimental plastic surgery treatment resulting in her development of a parasite that subsists on blood and spreads to other citizens of Montreal.
With the success of Rabid, and his earlier film, Shivers, surely David Cronenberg would make The Brood his next film.
CAPITAL COST ALLOWANCE
Before I continue, I have to talk about the Capital Cost Allowance. (I imagine many of you are already thinking about clicking over to Facebook or cat pictures, I’ll try not to take too much time, and for the three or four accountants reading this, I hope I don’t mangle the terms and concepts I’m going to spend the next hundred or so words talking about). Because Canada is an English speaking country, located next to an extremely rich English speaking country with the world’s most robust film industry, its modest film industry is always in danger of being subsumed by its larger neighbor to the south. In 1975, seeking to pump money into its film industry, Canada created a tax loophole that allowed 100% of all money invested into Canadian films to avoid taxes. This was called the Capital Cost Allowance and led to an era informally referred to as the “tax shelter years.”
For example, if a doctor had a great year and ended up with a million dollars, he could avoid taxes on the money and invest it all in a movie. If he was savvy, he could pay himself a producer’s fee, and if the movie happened to be a hit… his investment could return several times the first million.
This ended up creating a few good movies and lots of terrible ones. While there were a few notable films like The Changeling or Prom Night, they were exceeded by films like Circle of Two or Crackers. To the best of my knowledge, no film society has ever hosted a festival dedicated to the “tax shelter” films of 1975 to 1982. Thus was born, “Canuckxploitation.”
“Strange as it may seem, I don’t think I was getting offered anything at that time! [post-Rabid]”
In this era, David Cronenberg found himself as the director of a drag racing movie called Fast Company, starring John Saxon. This is considered David Cronenberg’s first “tax shelter” production. It is also regarded as the least Cronenbergian film David Cronenberg has ever been involved in. He took the job as it seemed well-funded enough, and because he could work out of Toronto, although the film ended up being shot in Alberta.
Fast Company is the strange aberration in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, because it is a tonally normal film. It’s very entertaining, but if you’re expecting the force of his earlier or later films, you’ll be disappointed. However, from this film Cronenberg would meet cinematographer Mark Irwin (who would shoot many of Cronenberg’s next films), editor Ronald Sanders (who has edited every Cronenberg film since except The Brood), and art director Carol Spier (who would design almost every one of Cronenberg’s films since). Cronenberg regards Fast Company as a positive experience, even though, due to the circumstances beyond his control, it almost never received a proper release when the distributor went bankrupt and was lost in subsequent asset litigation (its availability today is due to DVD and blu-ray releases by Blue Underground).
SHAPE OF RAGE
“I couldn’t write the script I was supposed to because The Brood kept coming.”
Between shooting Rabid and Fast Company, David Cronenberg had two years of limited directorial work, and he spent that time fine-tuning the script for The Brood. Working in the upstairs of the house purchased with earnings from Rabid, Cronenberg kept working on the script for The Brood, neglecting the script that would serve as the basis for Scanners that he was also working on.
Cronenberg has stated that catharsis is the basis of all art. Although Cronenberg had been working on the script since the mid-1970s, he directly attributes the final version to the experiences wrought from his divorce in 1979, and has referred to the film as “my version of Kramer vs Kramer.”- the Best Picture winner from 1979 (awarded in early 1980). Cronenberg states that the fuel for the film arose from his ex-wife telling Cronenberg, over the phone, that she was leaving Canada that very day with their daughter, Cassandra, and going to live with a religious group in California. David immediately withdrew (“It wasn’t really kidnapping, but we were still sharing custody.”) his daughter from school, sought and received a court order preventing her from taking Cassandra.
The Brood is the story of Frank Carveth (played by Art Hindle), locked in a brutal child custody battle with his estranged wife, Nola (played by Samantha Eggar) who is currently under the care of Dr. Raglan (played by Oliver Reed) in the Somafree Institute and is undergoing an experimental therapy called “psychoplasmics.” Against this situation, Frank soon finds himself and his daughter being afflicted by child-sized creatures that soon kidnap the daughter and kill anyone that gets in their way. Of course, Frank begins to suspect there is a link between Dr. Raglan, these creatures, and Nola.
Filming began immediately after Fast Company was completed. The performances are generally lauded, though Samantha Eggar later considered The Brood “the strangest and most repulsive film I’ve ever done.” The creatures which drive the main terror, the “broodniks,” were unique cases. Played by female gymnasts–for the background–and little people in make-up for the foreground (including Felix Silla–who would go on to play the robot Twiki in the Buck Rogers TV show in the 1980s), make-up prep took three hours and was designed and created by JackYoung and Dennis Pike.
Budgeted at $1.5 million, The Brood was released to 400 theaters in North America in Summer 1979. This was Cronenberg’s widest release yet, although he later felt that it was due to a misleading advertising campaign which eschewed the complex family dynamics for the phantasmagoric spectacle. This is attributed to Roger Corman and his company, New World Pictures. Oddly, Cronenberg and Corman might have met years earlier, but Corman was having dental work done, so that meeting was cancelled.
Cronenberg has come to describe The Brood as “the most classic Horror film I’ve done: the circular structure, generation unto generation, the idea that you think it’s over and then suddenly you realize it’s just starting again.”
The Brood was not without controversy. In its original released form, assorted film boards of North America and Europe demanded certain segments be deleted, specifically some frames of one of the final shots of Nola “caring” for one of the broodniks.
“I could kill the censors for their narrow-mindedness and stupidity! Talk about rage!” The irony being that, “When the censors, those animals, cut it out, the result was that a lot of people thought she was eating her baby. That’s much worse than what I was suggesting. What we’re talking about here is an image that’s not sexual, not violent, just gooey-gooey and disturbing…why cut it out? It fucks the whole movie as far as I’m concerned.”
The deleted seconds, are available on the Criterion DVD and blu-ray release of The Brood, and will be shown on September 25.
David Cronenberg was supposed to have been working on a script for a project called The Sensitives while he wrote The Brood. Finally, he delivered his script to producer Victor Solnicki, and Solnicki’s new production company, Filmplan International Inc. Hot off the success of The Brood, and flush with tax shelter financing, the script, now titled Scanners, received a $4 million budget.
Scanners had been an idea that existed in various forms since the 1970s, when it started as “Telepathy 2000,” was written as “The Sensitives” for a while, until it finally coalesced as Scanners. It was initially about artificially created telepaths led by a charismatic leader.
Before I go any further, Scanners is this movie:
Yeah, it’s the movie where the dude’s head explodes. If you’re on the internet, as you are, and if you’ve never heard of David Cronenberg, Scanners, or even movies, you know this image. And since we’re in an election year, you might experience this.
Since Scanners was set to be the first film of a new production company, and needing to take advantage of tax shelter money’s availability (due to weird tax requirements, many tax shelter movies ended up being filmed in the winter), production began quickly. As in, the film was shooting within two week of approval, without a finished script. And it showed, Cronenberg has said, “Inevitably the first day was the most disastrous shooting day I’ve ever had. We went out and there was nothing to shoot. Nothing was there: we didn’t have the truck; we didn’t have the insignia on the building; we didn’t have the costume for Stephen Lack.”
The production continued in a similar vein. Actors were struck with the kind of challenges actors endure, they were sent the wrong scripts and reacted poorly. And there was the ever present pressure to finish the film by December 31 in order to reap full tax shelter benefits.
Then there was the exploding head. It was created by Chris Walas, who would go on to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark for Lucasfilm Ltd, and attracted the attention of the MPAA who threatened Scanners with a ‘X’ rating. Cronenberg responded by moving the sequence further into the film instead of opening with it as originally planned, and trimming a few frames.
Cronenberg was very satisfied with the head, and even with the shooting. The make-up crew shot the sequence three times, but Cronenberg only stayed for one- he got the take he wanted, and took a nap.
As required by the demands of tax shelter requirements, the production finished quickly, although second unit photography continued for about two months, and post-production- where a film is molded into its final form- lasted nine months.
Filmplan liked the final product. For their significant investment, they wanted a strong releasing partner, and made a deal with Avco Embassy to secure a release in January 1981. Below is the full page ad placed in the Los Angeles Times for Scanners’ opening day.
To the credit of Filmplan, this tactic worked. Released on January 16, 1981, Scanners would gross $14 million and spawn a series of sequels and spin-offs, none of which provided Cronenberg with any money. Since he didn’t have a film lawyer, and wasn’t interested in directing Scanners II, he never saw proceeds from the series. However, the success of Scanners, and the artistic impact of his films to this point, did provide him with a higher artistic profile and further opportunities in the film world.
Scanners and The Brood play at the Tustin Mess Hall this Friday, the 25th of September.
For more information follow this link:
Tickets can be purchased here:
Vatnsdal, Caelum. They Came from within a History of Canadian Horror Cinema. Arbeiter Ring Publ., 2014.
Rodley, Chris. Cronenberg on Cronenberg. Faber and Faber, 1993.
Peary, Danny. Cult Movies. Dell Publishing, 1981.
Box Office Information on Scanners:
Cuts to The Brood:
Tuesday, September 22nd at Tustin’s Mess Hall
Despite the best efforts of this pandemic, The Frida Cinema hasn’t let it get in the way of bringing great movies to audiences through its Drive-In Dine-Out series at Tustin’s Mess Hall! Guests have retched at Re-Animator, guffawed at The Toxic Avenger, and are set to be mystified by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but the movie we’re going to talk about today is one that will have them cancelling any plans they might have to visit Tokyo. That movie is none other than Ishiro Honda’s Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, the fifth entry in Toho’s long-running Godzilla franchise and co-presented by Creature Bazaar! When the evil space dragon King Ghidorah lands on Earth, he promptly attempts to destroy it the way he once did an alien civilization on Venus. In the face of this diabolical threat, Godzilla teams up with the mutant pteranodon Rodan and the Infant Island deity Mothra to defeat the extraterrestrial intruder in a struggle that will determine the fate of the world!
Marking the entrance of the three-headed demon to the series, Ghidorah also has the distinction of coming out 10 years after Gojira, the very first Godzilla film. The brainchild of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the picture was a dark metaphor for Japan’s wartime experience in general and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (the ruins of which director Honda, himself a veteran of World War II, once visited) in particular. As Toho churned out sequel after sequel, the movies began to stray away from (though never outright abandon) the political roots of the original, increasingly emphasizing monster fights and transforming Godzilla from a keloid-scarred nuclear horror into a bulgy-eyed, drop-kicking superhero until, after a whopping 15 films, the studio temporarily retired the character in 1975.
Dubbed the Showa series due to them being released during the reign of the Showa Emperor Hirohito, these movies are what even people who mainly know Godzilla from Blue Oyster Cult or the Matthew Broderick movie think of whenever the King of the Monsters is brought up. They also capture the multifaceted nature of the franchise, drawing inspiration from the most monstrous war in human history to create cinematic spectacles and flights of fancy beloved by viewers old and young, Eastern and Western (including the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro.) It’s, as Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski describe in Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, “A world defined by the horrific reality of mass destruction visited upon Japan in World War II, yet stirring the imaginations of adult and children around the world for generations.”
So without further ado, let’s dive into this wonderfully unreal universe where benevolent dinosaurs roam the earth and sinister aliens lurk in the heavens, where real-world terrors clash with childlike fantasies, and get a feel for it with five movies from Godzilla’s Showa era!
Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
A pivotal entry in the Showa series, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster boasts a number of firsts. Not only is it the debut of Ghidorah, it’s also the very first step in Godzilla’s transformation from scourge of mankind to a reluctant defender of it. On top of that, it’s also Rodan’s first appearance in the series, with the return of Mothra after her turn in the same year’s Mothra vs. Godzilla further rounding out the cast of creatures. With the latter two monsters earlier starring in their own self-titled features (both of which were directed by Ishiro Honda as well), one can understand and appreciate the plentiful kaiju crossover appeal that this film offered to moviegoers when it first hit theaters.
With all the star power of an Avengers film, the climatic battle here has to be one of the most memorable of the Showa era. Despite facing the three Earth monsters, Ghidorah proves more than capable of holding his own against them, easily repelling the trio with his gravity beams and even getting Godzilla against the ropes – or rather, a bridge – at one point. Sporting an iconic golden-scaled design and an appetite for annihilation, it’s easy to see why Ghidorah is regarded as one of Godzilla’s greatest enemies as well as all the more exciting when the king of the Monsters and his allies finally rally together and devise a way to subdue the planet’s would-be destroyer.
It goes without saying that the monsters, as with virtually any Godzilla film, are the true stars of the movie, but Honda still manages to showcase his taste for human drama with a narrative that weaves several different threads together into a surprising but solid whole. From researchers investigating a strange meteor in the mountains to assassins tracking down a mysterious woman who claims to be from Venus but bears an uncanny resemblance to the princess they’ve been trying to kill, there’s more than enough to keep audiences intrigued besides kaiju combat. Akiko Wakabayashi’s (who 007 fans might recognize as Bond girl Aki of You Only Live Twice) performance as the amnesiac princess particularly ties the human element together, with her dispassionate delivery and blank expressions giving subtle weight to the idea that she is possessed by an alien trying to warn mankind of its impending doom and destruction.
Speaking of destruction, the kind shown here is nothing less than the stuff monster movies are made of. Boats burn, mountains crumble, and cities are laid to waste through the inventive model work of special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya, with Ghidorah’s aerial rampage being especially indelible (certainly effective enough for Toho to recycle it as stock footage again and again for later entries in the series.) Yet the most visually-arresting sight, however, has to be one of panicked civilians screaming and fleeing for their lives as Ghidorah – no more than a blip in the sky – flies around in the background. Almost as if Honda is teasing viewers with the terror that is to come, it’s a terrifically understated shot that speaks to the artful intelligence behind the camera.
The fourth Godzilla score to be composed by Gojira’s Akira Ifukube, the soundtrack builds on the maestro’s themes from previous films and adds some important cues to the series’ musical repertoire. Taking a melody first briefly heard in 1958’s Varan, Ifukube rearranges it into an anxious, trumpet-driven piece that serves as Rodan’s theme and would be quoted in various Godzilla scores to come. The piece that plays during Ghidorah’s “birth” is also striking, using rolling cymbals, a teetering organ, and even a harp to build up the dragon’s appearance before giving way to the brassy cue that accompanies his fiery formation in the air and from thereon out acts as his theme. While it leans a bit too much on the same cues throughout the movie, Ifukube’s score is the right combination of seriousness and whimsy for a Godzilla film as middle-grounded as this one.
A crucial turning point in Godzilla’s evolution from haunting allegory to amusing camp, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster is as much an important landmark for the series as it is a fun-filled, rock ‘em sock ‘em romp.
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Given the colorfulness (both figurative and literal) of the previous movie, Godzilla Raids Again (originally released in the US as Gigantis, the Fire Monster) will strike many as a jarring follow-up. A direct sequel to Gojira, director Motoyoshi Oda’s only foray into the Godzilla series is the one most tonally similar to that film even as it departs from it in significant ways. For starters, it downplays the anti-nuclear story and messaging of the original in favor of the monster-vs-monster set-up that would become the key draw of the series. Pitting Godzilla against Anguirus, a giant Ankylosaurus and his first foe ever, the movie features plenty of action but lacks the general silliness that people associate with the franchise. Plus, it’s all in black and white, another way that it emulates the grim atmosphere of Gojira and contrasts with the zany antics of latter Showa offerings.
Compared to the tag-team conflict of Ghidorah, the battle between Godzilla and Anguirus is stark and ferocious. This is unintentionally helped by the fast speed at which many shots of them fighting were filmed, an accident on the part of a crew member who, instead of overcranking the camera to produce a slow-motion effect, undercranked it, creating the opposite effect. Effects chief Tsubaraya was reportedly enraged by this mistake, but the resulting footage gives a frantic intensity to the monsters’ movements that makes it strangely mesmerizing. To add to the brutishness of it all, Godzilla finally gets the best of Anguirus by biting his throat until he keels over dead, an unusually feral way of defeating an opponent for the Big G. It’s also a kind that would become increasingly rare over the franchise’s long run (with notable exceptions like Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster) as its fights and antagonists became more and more fantastical.
Equally noteworthy about the film is that it marks Kurosawa collaborator Masaru Sato’s first stint as composer for a Godzilla movie. Remembered for bringing a distinctly jazzy sound to his compositions, Sato’s score opens with a jaunty but uneasy theme (a phrase that, incidentally, could also describe his later theme for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). Driven by pulsing piano chords and piping trumpets, the theme deviates from the classical sensibilities of Akira Ifukube yet still conveys the sense of menace the story that it sets up requires. Closer to Ifukube’s Gojira score is the recurring, cello-heavy cue that appears during scenes with the monsters. Considerably slower-paced than the opening theme, it’s the closest the music comes to capturing the deep foreboding that the original film’s score so powerfully evoked.
As important as the music is to the movie’s mood, it also makes strong use of silence and minimal sound at several points. When Osaka receives an alert that Godzilla is approaching, we’re briefly treated to the familiar sight of people screaming as they evacuate before suddenly giving way to shots of the city quietly blacking out. Silent as the grave, the only thing that can be heard is the sharp sound of planes flying out to sea, a sight that Japanese audiences likely found eerily familiar just 10 years after WWII. Similarly compelling is the scene where Hidemi (Setsuko Wakayama) helplessly watches from her home as Osaka silently burns in the distance, with Sato’s ominous cello theme lowly playing in the background as a cloud of smoke rises from the far-off city. They don’t prompt quite the visceral response that Gojira’s images of dead and dying civilians did, but their muted potency makes them linger in viewers’ minds longer than any number of money shots in contemporary Oscar darlings.
Regarded for years by the fandom as your typical inferior sequel to a much better film, Godzilla Raids Again is an early, interesting variation on a now-classic formula that deserves serious reevaluation by fans and critics.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Another excellent starting off-point for those unfamiliar with Godzilla is the third film, King Kong vs. Godzilla (which I previously discussed in another post.) A fan favorite as well as the best-performing Godzilla film at the Japanese box office to this day, the film sees the King of the Monsters face off against the Eighth Wonder of the World. To put it in context, this was a cinematic crossover of Superman meeting Captain America proportions at a time when DC and Marvel Comics were just that, comics. Even a six-year-old can see the allure of such a concept, or at least six-year-old me did when I – knowing little about either Kong or Godzilla – stumbled across the film on VHS at Toys “R” Us and begged my parents to buy it. Solid enough on paper, the execution of this most colossal crossover is masterful in the hands of director Honda and company.
While it’s fashionable in some quarters to hype up the film’s human narrative as some biting satire of television and the advertising industry (a reception very much intended and welcomed by the populist Honda), the truth is that these elements, while certainly present, are largely just a pretext for the mindless violence that we’re all really here for. Not to say that the story is without its charms: on the contrary, we actually get to see the first inklings of the over-the-top humor that would come to characterize the Showa era. This is most seen in the performance of Ichiro Arishima (commonly called “The Japanese Chaplin”) as Mr. Tako, an eccentric pharmaceutical executive who comes up with the brilliant idea of sponsoring King Kong in his fight with Godzilla. Erratic and excitable, Arishima brings a jittery energy to the human proceedings that, as tempting as it is to skip to the monster scenes, makes them entertaining enough to actually sit through and watch.
Just as engaging is the work of editor Reiko Kaneko, with him crafting some very interesting scene transitions here. A shot of the burning overhead of a submarine fades to the bubbling wake of a boat and the sound of Kong roaring cuts to a lion roaring on a TV screen, drawing similarities or contrasts between the connecting elements. It should also go without saying that Tsubaraya’s special effects are on point, with the stand-out scene being the surprise giant octopus attack on Faro Island (a dream come true for Tsubaraya, who always wanted to make a giant octopus movie.) Basically coming out of nowhere, the sequence utilizes an innovative combination of puppets, stop-motion, and real live octopi that stuns spectators to this day.
Returning to the composer’s chair after his absence from Godzilla Raids Again, Akira Ifukube contributes a reliably robust score that borrows as much from island influences as it does classical music. Two tracks stand out in particular: the first is the main theme, a forceful piece with pounding drums and fervent chanting that doubles perfectly well as Kong’s theme. The second is Godzilla’s theme, which is actually a reworking of Ifukube’s earlier military march from Gojira as well as the first appearance of the sulking fanfare we’ve all come to associate with the Big G. As with Ghidorah, the score repeats its themes a tad too much (the American cut overcorrects and makes the opposite mistake, almost entirely replacing Ifukube’s music with stock cues from movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon), but it still provides a well-fitting sense of gravity and momentousness to what might be the greatest monster-versus-monster confrontation in Godzilla history.
On that note, I hate to talk up Godzilla and Kong’s final fight at Mt. Fuji but – speaking strictly with my fanboy hat off and my semi-respectable film critic hat on – it really is that good! They tackle one another in towns and forests, they knock each other down mountains and hillsides, they even exchange taunts like Godzilla grinning giddily and flapping his arms after belting Kong with his atomic breath. It’s a lot more like wrestling than the animalistic combat of Godzilla Raids Again, pointing to the fact that suit actors Haruo Nakajima and Shoichi Hirose (both trained in martial arts) choreographed much of the fight themselves. And of course, it’s got that hilarious scene where Kong shoves a tree down Godzilla’s throat, a now-infamous image that became a minor meme known even to people who’ve never seen a Godzilla movie in their life a couple years back.
Riding off the sheer momentum of its brilliant premise, King Kong vs. Godzilla is a winning combination of raging battles and surprising laughs that should have even the snobbiest Letterboxd user or A24 stan whooping and cheering like WWE fans.
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Remember how I said Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster was like an Avengers movie because of the way it crossed over monsters from different Toho films? Well, Honda’s Destroy All Monsters takes that crossover angle and runs away with it, making it the Godzilla equivalent of Infinity War. Funnily enough, it was intended to be the last entry in the Godzilla series, which goes a long way in explaining why they pulled out all the stops for this production. Starring 11 monsters, it’s far and away the biggest cast of kaiju to appear in a Showa film and the second biggest to appear in a Godzilla film period (the first is 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, which is widely considered to be a flawed remake of this movie.)
Revolving around a scheme by the Kilaaks – a race of aliens disguised as glittery-gowned women – to take over the world by controlling all its monsters, the plot is full-on Showa goofiness but the cast plays it fairly straight (or at least as straight as a movie about giant monsters and aliens allows.) This works to the film’s advantage though, giving a credible urgency to the heroes’ efforts to free the monsters from the Kilaaks’ control and save the planet. Though the human actors are, as usual, basically supporting players to the monsters, Yukiko Kobayashi pulls off a refreshingly-nuanced performance as Kyoko Manabe. As one of the Monster Land staff who gets mind controlled by the Kilaaks, Kobayashi does an excellent job of alternating between calmly devious when her character’s under the aliens’ influence and pleasantly conscientious when she’s free of it.
On top of its dramatic element, the human narrative has a surprisingly sizable amount of violence to complement that of the monster scenes. Much of this action takes the form of gunplay, with the prime instance being the shootout inside the Monster Land base. Unafraid to flash a little gore, the scene shows one man retching and clutching his stomach as blood trickles from it while another staggers after taking a bullet straight to the head. Sadamasa Arikawa’s special effects shots (supervised by Eiji Tsubaraya, who was too infirm at this point to direct them himself) get in on the action too, with the pyrotechnic work during Godzilla and company’s rampage through Tokyo being especially superb. Indeed, the amount of firepower that the military miniatures unleash during the sequence is so immense that fans often joke they caused more damage to the city than Godzilla!
Alongside the usual Toho royalty of Rodan, Anguirus, and Mothra, the movie also features more obscure creatures like the serpentine Manda, the huge spider Kumonga, and the theropod Gorosaurus. More importantly though, it tries to make sure that each gets the most out of their screentime, giving the C-list kaiju the chance to make lasting contributions to the Godzilla universe. This is facilitated in large part by – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the final fight at Mt. Fuji, where all the Earth monsters join forces to battle King Ghidorah (hey, I told you to stop me!) With a few exceptions, everybody pitches in to defeat the multi-headed invader, with Kumonga joining Mothra in spraying Ghidorah with webbing and Gorosaurus decisively administering a kangaroo-like kick that knocks him to the ground (and likely explains his status as a cult favorite among some G-fans.)
Aside from the number of monsters taking parting in it, that final showdown is truly something to behold even by the standard of mid-Showa era fights. The kaiju are visibly intimidated by Ghidorah, recoiling and even fleeing when he fires his terrible gravity beams at them. However, just as in Ghidorah, Godzilla and friends are able to work together and lay the ultimate smackdown on their alien enemy. Visibly bleeding from his mouth and his tails limply quivering as the Earth monsters bite, stomp, and smoke-ring him to death, it’s an unquestionably brutal end, but I would be lying if it wasn’t awesome to watch this chaotically evil creature get the hell beaten out of him.
Nothing less than a parade of astonishing destruction, engaging human action, and memorable moments for lesser-known kaiju, Destroy All Monsters lives up to the rollicking enthusiasm that its title evokes.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Released at the tail end of the Showa era, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla came at a time when things weren’t looking too good for the franchise. Also not helping things was that it was 20 years since the release of Gojira, meaning Toho had to do something special for the Big G’s 20th birthday. With box office numbers and thus production budgets down, it fell to second-stringer Jun Fukuda to direct the film. Having helmed the two preceding movies, Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon, evaluations of Fukuda’s impact on the series is largely shaped by these cheap, almost-cartoony films, which are frequently cited as the worst Godzilla movies of the ’70s, if not ever. Yet despite the negative reaction to these two films, Fukuda was able to work with the limited resources Toho gave him and create a dazzling picture that not only introduces one of Godzilla’s most menacing adversaries but excellently celebrates 20 years of the King of the Monsters as well.
Following a motley crew of scientists, reporters, and secret agents as they try to thwart the fiendish plans of apelike aliens (imaginatively named the Black Hole Planet 3 aliens) to conquer Earth, the story’s set-up bears obvious similarities to Destroy All Monsters (or really any number of ’70s Godzilla films.) Where it differs though is the way it handles the material, approaching it more like an espionage thriller than a sci-fi adventure. Both the human and alien characters are fun to watch, with the big draws being Shin Kishida (who also played Kikui in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance that same year) and Akihiko Hirata (appearing here 20 years after his turn as the heroic Dr. Serizawa in Gojira.) Playing an Interpol agent and a professor respectively, Kishida brings a deliciously-cheesy edge to his role while Hirata brings a decidedly non-cheesy poise to his.
Presumably to counter criticisms that the series had become too child-oriented, the film puts a premium on heated skirmishes between the human characters and the aliens. The camera shakes and jerks as the characters fight and chase each other, giving the impression of volatile motion and immersing viewers in the action. Interestingly though, gun fights are deemphasized in favor of melee combat and there’s shockingly little blood. The most graphic shot (of the human scenes anyway) we get is one of the heroes shooting an alien, who sprays black (or maybe dark green?) blood from his neck as he keels over and dies. Perhaps less guns and blood was the price Fukuda had to pay to get more human violence into the movie without alienating the younger audiences that Toho’s star attraction had become dependent on.
Of course, this isn’t to imply that the picture is nothing but mop-topped dudes beating up a bunch of guys in Planet of the Apes masks when it’s not robots fighting radioactive dinosaurs. Far from it, Fukuda demonstrates his refined visual vocabulary with pleasant shots of cruising ocean liners, gentle sea currents, and even anchors dropping into bay water. Many of these shots are not integral to the story but establish the location and mood, contributing bit by bit to the quirky but cheery vibe of the film. That being said, there’s a particularly potent shot of two characters on a ship that’s more ambiguous in tone than the others. Framed in the background by the vessel’s railing, the two look out at the ocean as the legs of an unidentified figure enter the frame and foreground. It’s a quiet shot but a dynamic one as well, using visuals instead of narration or exposition to tell us the characters might be in danger.
As lovely as these shots might be, the big draw is – but of course – the ones with the monsters in them. This is especially the case with Mechagodzilla, the steel-plated secret weapon of the Black Hole Planet 3 aliens. Armed with an astounding array of weapons and a sharply-angular design, the King of the Monsters’ robotic duplicate is dangerously cool to look at, and even more so when he unleashes his expansive arsenal. With rainbow-colored eye beams, explosive finger missiles, and an energy bolt shot from his chest, it’s no exaggeration to say that Mechagodzilla and his flashy weaponry put the “fire” in “firepower”.
Fortunately for us, the metallic monster gets plenty of opportunities to utilize his various implements of destruction in his fights with Godzilla and the ancient guardian of Okinawa, King Caesar. In a stunning show of his power, he rebuffs both as they simultaneously try to approach him from opposing directions, knocking them over from afar with his ranged weapons. Also impressive is the first encounter between him – disguised as the Big G – and the real thing, taking place in a burning oil refinery whose blazing flames complement the aesthetic marvel of the two monsters’ respective beam weapons. This makes it all the more ironic that, for all the awe Mechagodzilla’s fights inspire, it’s the one where he doesn’t use his weapons or even really appear onscreen that is the most discussed. The fight in question is between him (still in disguise as Godzilla) and Anguirus, who tries to expose Mechagodzilla and for his efforts gets his jaw broken by the imposter. Ending with the overgrown Ankylosaurus, his mouth caked in orangish blood, scurrying away, it’s the single most traumatic scene in the film, as many G-fans who grew up watching it (including this one) can attest to.
The last Godzilla film to be scored by Masaru Sato, it’s perhaps fitting that he composed one of the most vibrant scores of his career for it. Taking cue from the unique Okinawan setting, many of Sato’s themes incorporate elements from folk music, playing comfortably alongside a gaudy, suitably ’70s-ish variation of his trademark jazz. Also worth noting is the fact that one of the strongest pieces is diegetic (or actually occurring in the world of the movie), with the impassioned prayer Miyarabi sings fulfilling the important plot point of awakening King Caesar. Yet beating out Miyarabi’s song for best track is the one that plays during Mechagodzilla’s scuffle with Anguirus, a demented big band riff that gives the scene all the verve of a bad trip (not that I’d know) and is wildly popular among the fandom to this day (it’s even briefly included in Godzilla: Final Wars, indicating that people at Toho are fond of it too.)
As richly colored as the rainbow-hued beams Mechagodzilla shoots, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is both a splashy testament to the underrated Fukuda’s filmmaking talent and an electrifying highpoint for the low-budget Godzilla movies of the ’70s.
Poor, poor Mary Henry. She is not crazy. She is a perfectly sane, perfectly reasonable victim of tragedy. Perhaps the only survivor of a fatal car crash, Mary is naturally carrying around a lot of post-traumatic stress. So much in fact, she doesn’t even stick around to hear the fates of the others involved before running off to begin life anew in Salt Lake City…But she’s definitely not crazy.
The only feature-film from documentarian Herk Harvey, the spectacularly crafted Carnival of Souls has endured for decades as an exercise in mood and atmosphere; overflowing with shadowy frames that crackle with danger and temptation. Story goes that screenwriter John Gifford was given only 3 weeks to deliver a script based on a single image described to him by director Harvey: a caliginous danse macabre in an empty ballroom, attended by spirits in formal dress. The result is a harrowing story of a woman in existential peril, confronting demons both personal and literal – real and imagined.
Prior to the accident, nothing is known about Mary Henry (played by the magnificent Candace Hilligoss in a rare performance). Watching her settle into her new life as a church organist however, a portrait of an empty person emerges. Mary has no family. She doesn’t dance. She doesn’t drink alcohol. Someone suggests that she doesn’t like men – they also think she’s crazy, so what do they know. Mary has no observable spiritual life, yet seeks employment at a church; constantly clarifying that she is non-religious and simply needs a job. If this were the case, surely she could find secular employment as an organist elsewhere? Baseball stadium, or funeral home maybe.
Mary’s inert personality then, reveals a stifled curiosity about the afterlife – one that even she may be unaware of. During a particularly bewitching scene, a beautifully stained-glass window reading the words “CAST OUT THE DEVIL”, seems to taunt Mary while she plays her organ. It’s in Mary’s passivity that her life is most altered.
As if accepting mortality wasn’t hard enough, Mary also finds herself grievously haunted by a flagitious ghoul: “The Man”. Played by director Harvey, The Man is relentless in his pursuit of Mary as she tries to put the past behind her. In thrilling chase scenes mirroring that of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, Mary finds herself exasperated by the inability of those around her to see the apparition. Unlike in Mitchell’s film however, Mary’s monsters exist for her to conquer all on her own. Other characters Mary meets are willing to condescend to her with uninformed diagnoses for her behavior, but none are all that willing to provide meaningful empathy. She is alone, but she’s not crazy.
Now, one could argue over what The Man does or does not symbolize in the story – though vague, the movie hints at multiple meanings – but it’s the slow, determined pace of Harvey’s sinister performance that undeniably gives the film its most frightening images.
Yet, the richly textured lighting and design in Carnival of Souls make it clear the film is not interested in story whatsoever – it means to underscore a specific mood that Harvey’s going after instead. His unobtrusive proto-horror style is exemplified during Mary’s visit to the titular carnival: an abandoned outdoor pavilion rotting on the edge of a dried up lake, it may reveal the truth about The Man. Harvey lets this sequence play out on wide shots, lingering on surreal images of decay to create lurid spaces both disturbing and enchanting. A picturesque nightmare so convincing, it lets you accept the reality before you and forget you’re dreaming — among other things.
Since its release in 1961, Carnival of Souls has achieved enormous recognition that was absent for its debut. The film’s theatrical re-release in 1989 met an audience that was more attuned to Harvey’s gothic sense of atmosphere and staging, an audience hungry for both the surreal and the ordinary (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks would premiere in 1990 to record viewership). Knowing what happens to Mary at the end of the movie – or is it at the beginning? – makes subsequent viewings all the more hypnotic. None of this should exist and yet we find ourselves, like Mary, leaning in. Unable to resist the seductive allure of Harvey’s phantom images.
Carnival of Souls’ near perfect execution of the psychological thriller broke the mold. Any attempt to dramatize the arresting psychosis of trauma in motion would no doubt emulate it, however indirectly. That is the mark of good filmmaking. And that– hey wait a minute, are you listening to me?
I’m thinking that Charlie Kaufman and existential horror go hand-in-hand pretty easily. Perhaps his background in writing for sketch comedy before going into screenwriting would make that surprising to people. Or maybe not, considering you can find a particularly dark humor just below the surface of surreal dread that defines his work. Since Being John Malkovich, Kaufman has spun tales of identity, writer’s block, hopeless love, unrealized potential, mental illness – among many other complexities, with an absurdist edge that seems to get closer to something far more misanthropic with each new work.
I’m thinking that since transitioning into directing his own scripts with Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, you can almost notice Kaufman’s frustration growing alongside his ambition. If you can’t feel it in the dialogue or the hopelessness of the stories from either film, it could be evident in the arc of their protagonists. A depressed middle-aged male so defeated by his own ego that any sign of satisfaction becomes less attainable with each passing minute. Acceptance only in the form of a self-inflicted doom. I’m thinking it’s gotten obvious to see who Kaufman’s drawing from.
‘i’m thinking of ending things’ is his newest film as writer/director, and the latest champion of lowercase film titles. It is apparently labelled as a psychological horror by Netflix – perhaps the only practical distributor that could’ve put out a film like this. But putting it under this genre feels ironic for two reasons. One, for being seemingly his first actual stab at the genre, you would think that horror has been tackled by Kaufman since the beginning. Synecdoche, New York was originally approached as a horror film to both Kaufman and its producer, Spike Jonze, until they incorporated their own personal fears, crafting far more effective horror than what we’d normally associate with the genre. To me, at least. The second reason can only be understood once you actually watch the film, when it becomes abundantly clear that genre is the least of Kaufman’s concern. At first, it seems hard to tell what exactly is his concern here. But you can feel from the first frame that something’s off, and it stays off until its last.
A couple – portrayed by Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley, is driving through a snowy Oklahoma road, towards the home of the boyfriend’s parents in a remote farm. We know his name, but we don’t know hers. During the drive, her boyfriend, named Jake, calls her Lucy, who then receives a phone call from a friend with the same name. And that’s before the two different names he calls her later on in the film. Over the duration of this scene, it becomes clear that nothing’s clear. What seem like blatant continuity errors start to blend into loose fragments of time, only bound together by the internal monologues of Buckley’s character.
If you can’t tell from the title, she’s having second thoughts. As she narrates, the disconnect between the couple shows through awkward, faint exchanges and jarring shifts in emotion, at least whenever it isn’t passive-aggression. Nothing feels natural, and it’s in a way where dread easily builds in you without having to disturb in a way that’s obvious. It’s all well before they reach their destination, where the film turns into a sort of fuse between Meet the Parents and Hour of the Wolf.
The introduction of Jake’s parents, played by the always-welcome Toni Collette and David Thewlis, do not make the tension any less unbearable. They appear and they disappear. They introduce themselves then immediately walk to the dining room table where dinner is already served. A searing pain desperately tries to escape through unnatural laughter. Toni Collette reaffirms herself as a force to be reckoned with in the art of uncomfortable scenes set at dinnertime.
All of that, and it’s still just the faintest reach into the fever dream that Kaufman creates. Time is rendered into a fluctuating void of distorted memory, where any feeling of safety no longer exists. It is an absolutely suffocating experience, made all the more literal by DP Łukasz Żal, who uses the same 4:3 aspect ratio that defined his work with Paweł Pawlikowski to build claustrophobic, static frames that easily craft the feeling of general wrongness, and the way the camera will move before the character’s actions that would’ve informed the movement feel anything but unintentional.
Calling the film suffocating was meant in a way where I’m sure it was intentional. But
with that being said, the film also happens to be intensely frustrating, exhausting, and as self indulgent as it is self-pitying, and it’s at this point where I don’t know if I’m any more capable of entertaining the idea that it’s supposed to be those things than I was with Kaufman’s past work. It almost felt wrong to try and engage with it as something as simple as an unsettling mood piece, considering Kaufman has been capable of works with far more density than that would entail. But it unfortunately seems to be that what I considered Kaufman to be grasping at – from the unavoidability of aging to the trappings of entitled male fantasy, are themes that only feel too familiar for me to truly connect. And the change of POV near the end only confirms my feelings that what he executes here has only been executed by him in previous work, and in far more responsible ways.
There’s certainly frustration to be had in criticizing the film at all. Kaufman laid a strong foundation with the movies I would obsess over in my formative years, and it’s clear that with each film he puts out, it is an absolute unloading of ideas that you couldn’t possibly digest in one sitting. But it’s here where I start to question how many of those ideas really work within the structure. Later on in the film, the couple engages in in-depth discussions of David Foster Wallace and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, and as much as it would’ve excited a younger version of myself to see those names referenced by Kaufman, the name-drops feel nothing but jarring. Perhaps the idea of Buckley’s character quoting verbatim Pauline Kael’s 1974 takedown of Cassavetes’ film works within the subtext of how we project onto others to keep our own fantasies alive, but I’m thinking it’s just a result of Kaufman throwing whatever will stick on the wall, regardless of whether it should’ve been thrown at all.
For what it’s worth, the entire cast shines. Buckley contains such reserved emotions that could unravel at any moment, but her keeping together only further builds the tension we feel throughout the whole ordeal. And when someone like Kaufman gets Jesse Plemons, you better expect for him to make Plemonade, to which he does in a performance calling for so many different elements that are pretty much all pulled off. The aforementioned Collette and Thewlis of course deliver the dread, which further reaffirms Kaufman’s ability to build a mood that feels consistently off – one that he’s excelled in since Malkovich.
It’s just an all-in-all bummer that great performances and inspired visuals culminate in Kaufman yet again reaching for a grandiose metaphor for male narcissism. Or something of that sort. The idea of Netflix putting the film out would probably explain the more out-there choices that he makes here, for better and worse. But considering the struggles of his past projects finding any success beyond festivals, the chances of being given the keys to full creative freedom without the worry of success feel appropriately bestowed. I’m thinking that he’s found his home.
It hardly bears saying that Hollywood has historically had a problem with diverse representation on the silver screen, especially with regard to Black artists. The recent push for better media representation, while pressing, is not new. From the inception of the American film industry, white filmmakers have had advantages over filmmakers of color, in front of and behind the screen. Countless times works by white filmmakers have actively contributed to the marginalization of minorities. Most infamously, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) both fueled and validated violent anti-Black sentiment—a disturbing idea, given how influential cinema is on culture. American film musicals, despite their reputation as wholesome and/or romantic in the cultural imagination, have an unfortunate tendency to feature minstrelsy and blackface, which film musicals retained as the genre evolved from the stage tradition. In fact, not only was The Jazz Singer (1929) the first talkie, it was also the birth of the American film musical. In the following decades, classical Hollywood film musicals both perpetuated anti-Black attitudes via blackface and minstrelsy as well as minimized Black performers’ ability to contribute to cinema as an art form.
Stormy Weather is a 1943 film musical by (white) director Andrew L. Stone and released by 20th Century Fox. The film was—and still is—known for its all-Black ensemble cast, a rarity during Hollywood’s classical era. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson plays protagonist Bill Williamson in a story loosely based on Robinson’s own life. After serving in World War I, Williamson returns home and pursues a career as a performer. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne). Williamson runs into obstacles in both love and employment, but his perseverance ultimately wins him both a career and Selina’s heart. Musical performances from well-known Black performers at the time, many of whom play themselves, are interspersed throughout. From a certain perspective, Stormy Weather is a showcase of popular Black artists of the early 1940s. However simplistic the film’s plot may seem, though, Stormy Weather’s very existence brings up some complex social issues that remain relevant today.
Including but not limited to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers, the all-star ensemble of Stormy Weather would probably be hailed as prime examples of Black excellence, today. And therein lies part of the problem. It is undeniable that all the performers in the film are considered, then and now, masters of their respective crafts; however, it does raise the question of how such a wealth of talent warranted so little attention in Hollywood. There are a plethora of films starring white classical Hollywood actors, both those now hailed as icons and those lesser known (or even forgotten), but it took a veritable host of famously well-known and capable Black performers to warrant Stormy Weather and a handful of other mainstream films with all-Black ensemble casts. Otherwise, when Black characters appeared in films with majority-white casts, they were relegated to extremely minor roles, often as a servant—or, in the case of a musical, a supporting role in a short number (see: the Nicholas Brothers with Gene Kelly in 1948’s The Pirate). This minimization of Black onscreen presences is an indication that Hollywood placed more value on aspects of Black culture that fulfilled a certain value of “entertaining,” rather than authenticity.
However, criticism of Stormy Weather does raise a question: is it fair to focus on the film’s negative aspects when it was one of the few classical Hollywood films to place Black performers front and center? Indeed, this isn’t something to take lightly. Even now, the number of Black-led mainstream films is outnumbered by films with white-led or white-majority casts. With our modern-day perspective of the restrictive racial relations of the early 20th century, an all-Black ensemble film that showcased the talents of popular Black entertainers sounds remarkable. By no means do I dismiss the impact Stormy Weather had. However, praising the film uncritically leads us into the dangerous territory of accepting whatever representation audiences are fed, whether good or poor. Everything about this situation is complicated. There