October 31, 2016

Addams Family Values: An Appreciation

The 90s seemed to be obsessed with turning bad and sometimes beloved American sitcoms into bad movies. But there was one adaptation that stood out from the rest: Addams Family Values, the 1993 sequel to The Addams Family (which is pretty good too). The casual, cheeky gothic tenor of the show isn’t lost on director Barry Sonnenfeld, who brings out the best in his cast. Addams Family Values is, I think, cherished in the memories of kids who grew up in the 90s, and for good reason. 

Where do I start? With Joan Cusack. Cusack was no stranger to comedy. She’d turned in small performances in John Hughes movies like Sixteen Candles, supporting roles as the bestie to Melanie Griffith and Michelle Pfeiffer respectively, in Working Girl and Married to the Mob (both 1988), and played the killjoy love interest in the Steve Martin-Rick Moranis mob comedy My Blue Heaven (1990). Addams Family Values gave Cusack a chance to carry a larger role and play a femme fatale: the deliciously psychotic man-leech Debbie Jellinsky, who marries Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) for his money. She ingratiates herself into the Addams household by posing as a nanny (she’s actually a serial spouse-slayer), and when the older kids figure out her scheme, she sends them off to a chipper summer camp to keep them from blabbing. Cusack has a big personality, and she's a woman who seems totally embodied: you don't fail to notice a Joan Cusack appearance. Those soft eyes can bat at you and steal your heart, and then a moment later elicit a glare of comic rage that's both funny and terrifying. And that blonde hair, so strikingly different from Cusack's usual red-brown, provides the maniacal finishing touch. Cusack practically steals the show. 

And then there’s Christine Baranski, Broadway star (and sitcom BFF to Cybill Shepard on her now forgotten series Cybill), playing one of the blissfully dopey camp counselors trying to inflict her cheerfulness upon poor Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) and her brother, Pugsley (Jimmy Workman). When the elder Addams kids are shipped off to Camp Chippewa, they’re immediately subjected to the counselors’ joyish terrorism. Peter McNicol plays Gary Granger, and Baranski plays his wife, Becky Martin-Granger: they favor the bratty mean girl who thinks she’s talented because she’s pretty, and ridicule all the misfit kids (including a hypochondriac Jewish kid named Joel, who becomes Wednesday’s first boyfriend). No comedy ever captured the tyranny of relentlessly cheerful extroverts more aptly. When Wednesday refuses to smile, she’s forced to spend 24 hours in the “Harmony Hut,” which plays The Sound of Music, Annie, and episodes of The Brady Bunch on a loop.

Which brings me to Christina Ricci, who had a prolonged moment in the 90s playing the damaged, dark, cerebral teenage girl in movies like Ghost World. (She was more cynical than Reese Witherspoon and wittier than Thora Birch.) Ricci may have become pigeon-holed as a black-lipsticked goth girl, but she left her mark, and she registers as one of the most important and endearing 90s movie kids. (There were so many annoying ones, taking their cue from those little monsters in The Goonies.) When Wednesday stages the attack on Camp Chippewa—by sabotaging the big Thanksgiving-themed play—it’s the triumph of anarchy over conformism. No hipster could have done it better than Ricci, dressed as Pocahontas, treating the pilgrim-kids to a little reverse imperialism. The scene, which is my favorite in the whole movie, echoes the unashamed violence of a Bugs Bunny short, and channels John Waters' giddy anarchism too. 

That’s what is so wonderful about Addams Family Values (and about the Addams Family brand in general): its pointed, joyful rejection of the worst elements of mass culture and its love of anarchy. We’re told that movies like The Sound of Music are great entertainment because they’re wholesome, and good for us. But it’s wholesomeness for the sake of money, money milked from the wallets of audiences, and what good is wholesome culture when it denies reality? Let’s remember that The Sound of Music and The Brady Bunch were products of the 1960s, the same decade that brought us such atrocities as Vietnam, the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., and such urgent, often tragic cultural moments as the civil rights movement. Addams Family Values dares to smile and laugh in the dark, and happily subverts all the fears that so often consume us, that drive us to the lies of The Sound of Music

I’ll close with an appreciation for Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia. Huston gives the most understated performance in the film, which makes her wonderful acting easy to overlook. She imbues Morticia Addams with an exuberant sadness that glimmers through her pale white skin and throws her black hair and wardrobe into relief. And Julia, wide-eyed and ever the gentleman, has such life in him that you could never believe his own life was coming to an untimely end. 

When Morticia conceives a baby, she and Gomez are delighted, until it morphs into a blond, curly-haired, smiling toddler. Morticia is horrified, as though she’d delivered a werewolf. (Actually, a werewolf would be a welcome improvement.) Gomez weeps in despair even as he tries to comfort his wife. But nothing can comfort you when your perfectly strange baby suddenly turns...normal. Addams Family Values takes delight in a world that is off-kilter and strange, but it's our "normal" world that becomes increasingly suspect in the process. 

October 24, 2016

At this point, fans of the 'The Walking Dead' should be asking to be put out of their misery.

Promotion of the season premiere of The Walking Dead reached new lows this month, with ads promising that one of the show’s most beloved characters would be killed, and interviews with actors and writers from the series, grimly warning its loyal fans that this episode would be painful, that the death of at least one major unidentified character would “propel the series in a new direction,” according to make-up expert Greg Nicotero, one of the show’s executive producers and occasional directors. AMC obviously needs to keep the fan base whipped up into a frenzy so that ratings will increase (or at least, stop decreasing), especially given that the show’s considerable viewership finally plateaued during the fifth season. But this kind of cheap manipulation riles me, and leaves me wondering why any fans would put up with being treated with such contempt. 

But then again, the numbers have dwindled, so maybe people are beginning to vote with their remotes. During the 2014-15 season, approximately 14.4 million people watched the series on average; that figure shed a million viewers during 2015-16; perhaps nothing to be alarmed about, but then again, AMC has been commanding big ratings for some time now. But their efforts to sustain those numbers have been largely reprehensible if you care about art. The final episode of Season 6 ended with a by now typical cliffhanger, in which a villain named Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) threatens to kill one of the gang. (He even uses such big-boy tactics as reciting the "eeny meeny miny moe" rhyme. Quelle surprise!) That was six months ago: fans have been waiting all this time to discover the truth, and the trumped up ad campaign over the last few weeks has only whetted their appetites, with BS teasers and heaps of speculation. The fans got their answer last night, even though the episode dragged on pointlessly for nearly half the running time before finally revealing the deaths of not one, but two, major characters. (I’ll withhold their identities for those who haven't watched yet.)

Killing off beloved characters is kind of the latest American pastime, except it’s a tradition that’s been around much, much longer. (Shakespeare, anyone?) And experiencing an emotional reaction to a character’s death in a TV series or a book or a movie is usually a sign that the text has connected with us in a big way, that it’s certainly become more real to us than say, the actual deaths we hear about on the news every day. I won’t fault any show or book or movie for doing that. But I will fault ad campaigns that salivate over the sadistic protractedness of this “ordeal.” The Walking Dead’s devoted viewers deserve a little better than that. What’s more, they deserve a better television show. (Or do they?)

In the first two seasons particularly, The Walking Dead offered surprises, exciting plot developments, and satisfying growth in characters. We fell in love with the hot-headed bow-wielding redneck Daryl, we rooted for the transformation of abused housewife Carol into a bold warrior, and we tolerated the sometimes ridiculous love triangle between Rick, his wife Lori, and his best friend Shane, which fueled much of the show’s drama. (I never thought I’d be tuning in to a show about a zombie epidemic to find out who the father of Lori’s baby was.)

But The Walking Dead meanders on, well after its characters and its stories have worn out their welcome. What’s left is a talky show, steeped in grimness and unflinchingly self-indulgent. We keep hearing that the writers want to go for at least ten seasons: that means three to four more years of their contemptible audience-bating. God help us. And there’s no turning back from the show’s dopey, repetitive tone: It’s either as serious as the plague or as noxiously saccharine as The Brady Bunch (like when Rick remembers the group gathered around a large table for a feast, all of them smiling in the bright, clean, happy sunlight). 

In the season opener, Rick keeps imagining different characters (all of them parade through his mind like the in memorium segment of the Oscars), as though he’s going through the same tortured experience as the viewers: “which one will it be? I love them all so much.” That is not good story-telling. When a show has exhausted the same old narratives, when it’s become utterly humorless, when the writers have even forgotten the best part—the zombies—it’s time to end things. But The Walking Dead has the luxury of good ratings, even if they’ve fallen a little, and sometimes (most times), good ratings trump bad art.

October 20, 2016

'The Witch' isn't witchy enough.

The Witch, which marks the film debut of writer-director Robert Eggers, has received considerable praise from critics (though not unanimous, by any means) since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. I suspect that the praise is largely due to the fact that The Witch offers us some things we rarely get in contemporary horror movies: deliberate pacing, for one thing, coupled with a creepy mood that lingers over the proceedings like a fog. But when you pull back the film’s artificial successes, and the occasional moments of real creepiness, what’s underneath is a lackluster horror film, certainly not the good time I was hoping for. 

The Witch is about a family of English colonists, ostracized by their Puritan society (for apparently having more strict religious views than even the Puritans), who relocate to the gloomy, ominous wilderness, where they are—unbeknownst to them at first—visited by a conniving witch. (We see very little of her, a smart move on the part of the director; she’s almost as elusive as the Blair Witch.) Eggers, working in the grand tradition of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, has fashioned some rather convincing era-appropriate dialogue: his family spouts Calvinist dogma like they’re saying “good morning,” and often their talk about religion—mostly concerning humankind’s sinfulness and God’s methods of atoning for it—sounds as though lifted from actual Puritan prayers. (So few period pieces try hard enough to get the language right.) Indeed, if mastering a milieu were the only requirement for a great movie, The Witch has achieved something remarkable. 

But for all its impressive craftsmanship—not to mention the film’s admittedly effective use of restraint—The Witch does not work. No doubt the Puritans have been a worthy subject for horror stories, what with their almost too-good-to-be-true devotion to repression and punishment, but Eggers hasn’t done anything inventive with this theme. The Witch is too obvious, and anyone who’s seen a live performance of The Crucible (or watched the 1996 film, which is riveting in a shameless way) or suffered with Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sympathetic and terrifying Scarlet Letter has already experienced almost everything that The Witch has to offer. 

The difference between The Witch and those two pop lit classics? The witch is real here, full-on supernatural powers. There is no third-act-of-Scooby-Doo-unmasking-the-villain scene. Eggers lets us know right away that we’re in for a horror movie in the most literal sense, that he’s not interested in allegories. But Eggers doesn’t know what to do with his film: the plight of the family takes the focus: bewildered patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), haggard wife Katherine (Katie Dickie), their oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy), who emerges as the protagonist, and 12-year-old son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). There are three other children: twins named Mercy and Jonas, who are just about the most insufferable children on the planet, and an infant named Samuel. Thomasin is training for the day when she will be a wife and mother: We see her caring for the twins and the baby, tending to the animals and the garden, washing her dad’s clothes in a muddy brook. Caleb is a devoted son, helping his dad set traps in the woods and working the fields, where the corn and other crops waver, as if even they have fallen under the witch’s spell. 

We are so steeped in the miserably austere life of this family that when baby Samuel disappears right out from under Thomasin (in one of the film’s creepiest, subtlest moments), it’s almost underwhelming. We wait for grim death to touch everybody. Soon blame erupts between family members, and as the witch’s apparent curse over them manifests itself in other ways (like when Caleb also disappears), the blame morphs into suspicion. (Which is when The Witch really starts to feel like The Crucible, with everyone accusing everyone else of wicked witchcraft.)

The Witch is essentially Arthur Miller’s play, on an even more microscopic level, stripped of all the subtext about Communism. I would allow that Eggers is going after the dangers of moralism, but his movie is so concentrated on this one family, this family that was too intense for their own Puritan brothers, that we’re left with little insight about religion, and that spelled out right from the beginning. Eggers favors the literal horror experience without any flair for it. He should have looked to Dario Argento, director of the supremely insane and delightful witch chiller Suspiria, or Guillermo del Toro, whose Crimson Peak, though not a great horror film, was stylish. (Eggers achieves this level of horror only at the end, when we behold a group of naked women chanting around a bonfire in the woods, all of them presumably agents of the devil.) The Witch gets an A+ as a diorama made for someone’s English lit class. But as a horror movie, it’s a slog. And we can’t even play Communist Scare Wheel of Fortune while we watch, so where’s the fun in that? 

October 19, 2016

'American Honey' is an exuberant, happily aimless story of a lost youth finding herself.

American Honey, from British writer-director Andrea Arnold, vividly captures the lives of America’s invisible lower-class. And like 2015’s Tangerine (the movie about trans prostitutes in L.A.), it does so with verve and gusto. This is a full-blooded, hearty slice of life, about a girl named Star, just eighteen, who joins a nomadic group of fellow young people who sell magazines for a living. Star is played by newcomer Sasha Lane, and her face burns into your mind and lingers there long after the movie has ended. American Honey has texture and a menagerie of often fascinating characters, but Lane gives the film a heart and a soul, and when the film meanders—it’s a road trip movie with no final destination—we’re still drawn to Star’s story, and we’re waiting to see how she will make out in the end. 

When the movie opens, somewhere in the midwest, Star is dumpster-diving with two young children, presumably relatives, although it’s never completely clear. She locates a discarded whole chicken, among other things; once back home, the little boy struggles to rip open its plastic container with a stick. They live in squalor, with a sleazy guy who’s drunk when Star and the kids come home from their work. Star makes him dinner, he gropes her while his favorite music drowns out her despair, and she makes a decision: She will leave this zero, after dumping the kids off with their actual mom. (Why Star was looking after them isn’t apparently important, except that it establishes Star as a caretaker, a person who, even at age eighteen, has a sense of moral responsibility.)

Star’s new job selling magazines introduces her to a variety of odd, crazy, lost youths just like her, all of them bound by a similar yearning for community, as well as a desire to see the world. Traveling with ten or more bodies packed into an oversized van isn’t exactly luxurious—nor is peddling magazine subscriptions to snooty rich people or grubby truckers or even people in reduced circumstances like their own—but it affords them the opportunity they never had: the chance to travel. 

This group is a world unto itself, complete with a power-hungry leader, Krystal (Riley Keough), a girl who only likes her staff when they’re making money for her (she collects 70% of their earnings, although some of that covers motel fees and transportation). Krystal runs this little organization like an army, and she’s the general. She even stages fights between the two lowest-scoring employees of the week. She also has a penchant for taking lovers (despite rules against romance within the group); so when Star catches the eye of her boyfriend Jake (Shia LaBeouf), jealousy festers in Krystal’s thoughts. (This is a girl who at one point in the movie is sporting an ill-fitting confederate flag bikini.)

Andrea Arnold’s sense of America is apt, perhaps because American Honey doesn’t claim to be some kind of definitive statement about America. Instead, this is a film that tells a particular story of youth. And we aren't made to pity these kids; in fact, their lives often seem far more interesting than the boring existence of wealthy suburban kids. (Don't get me wrong: they encounter horrible experiences as well, like sexual abuse.) When people degrade the poor as being money-grubbers, they’re really scorning the same quality they dislike about themselves. These seemingly aimless youths dream of having money (although they’ve never had any to begin with, and have no prospects of making in the future), but when they drive through a wealthy neighborhood in Kansas City, their reaction amounts to shock, like a tribe of natives seeing their first Europeans: they feel displaced by the lavish wealth, and sure, jeaous, but ultimately not that impressed. Jake later says, “I want my own place, but nothing large: just a small house on my own.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Star doesn’t dream of a big house either, just her own trailer, and “lots of kids.” When the group stops in a particularly depressing town somewhere out west, Star happens across two children whose mom is clearly doped up on something. She brings them groceries. She’s eighteen and she has no reason to be selfless, except every reason: Star has been dealt a particularly empty hand in one sense, and yet, she is a fully living person, and every bit herself. American Honey is about a girl embracing her womanhood, and the powers that come with it: the power to love on her own terms, the power to say Yes and to say No, the power to find her own way.

If that sounds like a lot of cant, don’t be fooled: American Honey is a movie of grime and grit and sweat and blood and people living on the margins of life, people who are by no means "together". (But then again, how "together" are rich people?) When I saw Tangerine last year, I kept thinking about how uncomfortable those girls were walking in the hot streets of Los Angeles in the summer heat. This movie gives off the same sense of palpable humanity. Its earthiness is its chief charm.

As for Shia LaBeouf, his performance is good enough to forgive some of the ridiculous behavior he’s exhibited in real life over the years. Jake is jealous and daring and crazy and cocksure. He's also manipulative, yet we sense that his passion for Star is turning into love. But he's also patronizing and hot-headed, and Star wants to prove herself to him. In one scene, she ditches him for a trio of older Texas longhorns driving in a convertible. They take Star back to their house (the whole time we’re waiting for something terrible to happen to her), and Star swallows the worm from a tequila bottle in exchange for 400 dollars cash. Then Jake catches up, brandishing a gun and forcing the men into the swimming pool. Jake and Star take off in the car, and it’s in this moment that we feel these two could morph into a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. 

American Honey doesn’t go in that direction though. I think I know why: to turn these characters into savage criminals would be confirming the often baseless assumptions people make about poor youths in the first place. Instead, Andrea Arnold explores the idea that these kids, all of them rejected by society and rejecting it right back (with a boisterous middle finger) might just possibly be human beings capable of loyalty and kindness and their own code of morality—along with plenty of human flaws like jealousy, addiction, and arrogance. 

With McCaul Lombardi is Corey, a Baltimore kid who likes to flash his junk whenever possible (which then prompts the other guys to chase him and wrestle him to the ground), Arielle Holmes, Crystal B. Ice, Chad McKenzie, Garry Howell, Kenneth Kory Tucker, and Raymond Coalson. Written by the director.  

October 15, 2016

"The Girl on the Train" fetishizes drab, miserable women, goes nowhere interesting from there.

The best thrillers concern themselves with the lives of women: either women fighting some force of evil—whether man, beast, machine, or self—like Audrey Hepburn in Charade (and Wait Until Dark) or Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies; or women who embrace evil with reverie, like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or the character of Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) in All About Eve (not a true thriller, but in many ways, a psychologically chilling movie about a sociopath who schemes her way to power and fame). Agency is the key, whether it’s used for good or for ill, because agency makes these characters compelling, makes us root for them whether they’re slaying vampires or breaking hearts or betraying someone close to them. Why is it then that the new thriller The Girl on the Train, which is based on the hugely popular novel by Paula Hawkins, cooks up such drab, powerless women and then marinates in their own misery for two hours?

It’s hard to believe that in 2016 we could get stuck with such an anti-feminist thriller about three women who are too obsessed with the men they’re married to—or divorced from, or sleeping with—to see anything of value in themselves. I realize that there are women in real life who struggle with these feelings of worthlessness, women whose lives and desires and ambitions orbit their men like little moons, with no other identity than “wife” to give them meaning. But if real life is so confining and so disempowering for so many women (undoubtedly the largest audience for this book/movie), surely thrillers about women have an even more urgent task to tell stories that empower women, that give actresses juicy, daring, complex characters, and not just depict mopey put-upon, soulless bodies that function dually as sex toys and baby ovens. Because The Girl on the Train essentially fetishizes women as sex objects and mommies. There’s nothing else to see here. 

Emily Blunt plays the main character, Rachel, a woman so wrecked by her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux) that she rides the train every morning and night, sipping vodka in a water bottle, so that she can pass by the house where she used to live, the house where he lives still, with his new wife (the one he had the affair with) and their baby. Rachel couldn’t conceive, and this “failure” has turned her into a drunk. Through flashbacks, we see that Rachel is at times a violent drunk, smashing mirrors with golf clubs, or throwing a tray of deviled eggs across a room at a party. Rachel, we’re told, is a mess, and this drove Tom to infidelity with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). 

In fact, Rachel is such a mess that she fantasizes about another couple on the same street (she's never met them), catching faint glimmers of their apparently hot romance as the train rolls by. So when she spies the woman making out with another man—on their back balcony—she’s thrown into despair. How could this woman (whose name is Megan) jeopardize what Rachel assumes is the ideal marriage?* Then Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing, and her disappearance becomes a new obsession for Rachel, since stalking Tom and his new family is starting to get a little humdrum. Megan, incidentally, was Tom and Anna’s nanny. Megan’s husband Scott (Luke Evans), was hoping that the job would give Megan baby fever, but it did not. In one flashback, Megan quits the nannying position, and she can barely contain her contempt as Anna complains, “I have so much work to do going to the farmer’s market and picking out the right fruits for my baby.” Is this line meant to be a funny dig at self-involved upper-middle-class housewives, or does someone (either Hawkins or the screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson) think that schlepping for fruit at a farmer’s market takes hours and hours? It’s hard to say, because director Tate Taylor lets the remark fall flat. I laughed, but most of the other people in the theater did not, so who knows what the intention was.

But even if that line was intended as comic relief, it’s the one solitary intentional joke in the movie. There’s no humor here, just a very particular kind of white upper-class misery, the kind that Charles Dickens exposed in many novels so that poor people could see just how difficult life is for the rich; that way maybe they’d be grateful for what they have (or, don’t have). 

Dripping sarcasm aside, The Girl on the Train is surprisingly Victorian in its treatment of women who reject their traditional roles. (Although it’s not Victorian in other ways: Victorian thrillers—like The Woman in White or Lady Audley’s Secret or Dracula—never let serious matters stand in the way of showing their audience a good time.) Megan, the girl who doesn’t want to be a mommy (flashbacks reveal that she “accidentally” drowned her own infant years ago), is a self-described “whore” who gets murdered. The other two women in the movie desperately want to be wives and mothers, and will do anything (even if it means marrying a complete scumbag) to accomplish this task. So they get to live. 

The Girl on the Train owes quite a bit to Rebecca, the terrific Daphne du Maurier gothic, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen in 1940. But unlike Megan, Rebecca is a fascinating character, despite the fact that she’s never actually present in the story, because she’s already dead. Du Maurier’s punishment of a transgressive woman is no less disturbing, but it’s far more entertaining because we have grown to deplore Rebecca, who’s a real cad, sleeping around with various men despite being married to the richest elitist in Cornwall and living in his great big house by the sea. People idolize Rebecca, because she puts up a great front, while secretly treating her husband's prestigious family name like a rag. But all of this is the backstory, because Rebecca’s widowed husband, supposedly heartbroken over her death, has remarried, to a gauche 20-year-old girl with no name (du Maurier couldn’t think one up), and this girl begins to be oppressed by (and obsessed with) Rebecca.

The Girl on the Train functions much like a gothic thriller, but it lacks verve and excitement and color. There’s no vitality or visual trickery. There’s hardly anything visually interesting at all, save a moment where the film shows us multiple points-of-view that offer conflicting information. And the whole movie hinges on the fact that Rachel can’t remember an encounter with Megan (because she blacked out during it) on the night Megan was murdered. Rachel’s amnesia then becomes a tired device that strings us along this extended Law and Order episode. And the biggest revelations in The Girl on the Train are nowhere near as exciting as they purport to be. This mopey thriller is drab and gloomy from start to finish.

With Edgar Ramirez (as Megan’s hunky headshrinker), Allison Janney (as a homicide detective), and Lisa Kudrow.

*Edited for clarification/accuracy.

October 10, 2016

Happily in the Dark: Reviews of Two Horror Movies, and Some Notes on the Genre

During the extended hurricane weekend, I found myself watching two horror movies with family and friends, one of them old — 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon — and one of them relatively new—2015’s The Babadook. I’d seen Creature many times (it was a childhood favorite), but had been avoiding The Babadook because, despite its critical acclaim, the film seemed like a dreadful experience waiting to happen. That fear of dread sums up my current apathy for the horror genre, a genre in which I took great pleasure as a child, and which in many ways formed the foundation for my love of movies. It’s also the reason I feel particularly excited when a really fine offering emerges, such as this year’s The Wailing, or 2015’s The Visit (by far the most entertaining M. Night Shyamalan film). 

It’s virtually impossible to nail down the reason that some horror movies are delightful and others are hard to watch. (Aside from the horror movies—and there are plenty of them—that are just terribly made, and thus unwatchable except as fodder for ridicule.) The moment we apply some set of conventions, a movie comes along that breaks them and flaunts our silly rules. Not to mention the fact that sometimes we soften toward movies we didn’t like before. (I’ve gradually grown to appreciate and even enjoy the first two Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, both of which I initially hated.) In the end, horror movies, like all movies, must possess that living, vital, heartbeat that makes some movies magical rather than mechanical. But even this rule doesn’t always stand up, because one could certainly argue that a movie like Creature from the Black Lagoon is mechanical: it has the makings of a studio assembly line product, from a director who made a number of other B sci-fi pictures, Jack Arnold.  

As hokey as Creature from the Black Lagoon is, the film still works. The setup is the ideal one for any horror film: a small group of people cut off from the rest of civilization, pursued by some kind of monster, in this case, The Gill-Man (who looks like a rubber man with collard greens glued all over his body), one of the transitional life forms during the process of human evolution. Creature begins with a banal, self-righteous narrator preaching to us about God and the first explosion of life as it transformed from oozy single celled organisms to more complex creatures, then sets us in the Amazon, where this Gill-Man attacks some unsuspecting natives who’ve been working for an American research team. Not long after, we cut to the next expedition, which includes several scientists, among them the beautiful Julia Adams, who becomes bait for the monster. 

Everything about Creature from the Black Lagoon is preserved in a 1950s brine: the cheesy dialogue and the bad soap-opera love triangle between Adams and her two colleagues, Richard Carlson and Richard Denning, the long speeches about the importance of science, the half-hearted repression of sexual innuendo (like when Adams, in her skin-tight one-piece bathing suit, does breast strokes in the lagoon and the Gill-Man swims right under her, simulating a sexual encounter). 

But despite Creature’s corny elements, it’s still a fun movie to watch, especially in a large group. And what’s more, the Gill-Man emerges as a tragic figure: He’s taunted by the scientists who see him as nothing more than an opportunity to make their own careers shinier; their complete disregard for the world around them, which they see as theirs for the taking, becomes a fitting commentary on U.S. politics during the age of the bomb and the space race: Achievement trumps environment. 

In Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) begins to suspect that a creepy character from a children’s book, called Mister Babadook, has possessed her seven-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The idea of a character from some sinister children’s story coming to life is enticing enough, and when we see Amelia flipping through this particular book, which appears in their house out of nowhere, it’s quite an effect: Mr. Babadook has the long arms of Count Orlok in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and the pale, ghastly face of Cesare from Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Also, it's a pop-up book, so freakish houses and creatures and eerie threats emerge from inside the pages, like secret warnings. The book troubles Amelia, but at first, as in every horror movie set-up, she thinks little of it. Then Sam begins acting out, making weapons to fight the Babadook (and taking one to school, which gets him in hot water with the administration). 

As the movie progresses, we wonder if Kent hasn’t placed us in a Turn of the Screw-like situation: Has Mom just gone completely bonkers, perhaps a grief-induced madness? (Sam’s dad died on the day he was born, and this tragedy haunts them both.) The Babadook, whatever it is, has either gotten loose and started playing with reality, or both mother and son are turning into variations of Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining. Watching all this unfold is less than enjoyable. 

As a director, Jennifer Kent does impressive work in The Babadook, her first feature. She values subtle creepy things, she values the accumulation of subtle creepy things, and she cares deeply about Essie and Sam. (So many directors seem to hate their characters.) We feel great sadness for the plight of Amelia and her son: not just the horrific series of events chronicled in the movie, but the grief they’ve been living with for seven years. Sam’s bratty cousin taunts him at her birthday party: “Your dad left because of you!” and Sam screams the truth at her, but cannot contain the anger and the fear her words engender. He bloodies her nose, and becomes the "bad kid" at her birthday party. 

As well-made as it is, The Babadook cannot recover from its essentially grim, unpleasant tone. We feel weighed down by the horribleness of the story, particularly because Kent humanizes the mom and the boy so effectively. Surely this is the whole point of the movie (Kent herself said she was addressing grief, and the fact that people tend to bury their grief rather than work through it); and apparently enough people were drawn into the film, as it received high praise from critics after premiering at Sundance, and has since become a sleeper hit.

But this general unpleasantness—the same unpleasantness I remember feeling in other recent horror movies like Don’t Breathe and Green Room and It Follows and The Conjuring—ruins the movie for me. At the screenings of Don’t Breathe and Green Room, I remember feeling a desire to simply get up and leave the theater. But aren’t we supposed to experience dread in horror movies? Yes, but somehow, some horror movies get dread right, or perhaps they get the right level of dread mixed with a number of other varying ingredients like humor, satire, irony, and of course, all the various artistic qualities that make a movie more interesting. The Babadook is a grey and murky movie, except for the scene in which Essie looks through the book, and the film becomes something starkly, surreally beautiful, like a scene out of Night of the Hunter

[spoilers for The Babadook below]

And, perhaps, The Babadook fails because we know pretty well what’s happening. We’ve seen it all before, and nothing in The Babadook comes as a surprise. Contrast that to The Wailing, a movie that unspools multiple mysteries simultaneously, while constantly switching our allegiance to its opposing characters, and which, in the final act, resolves certain plot elements without giving everything away. In its defense, The Babadook wisely chooses not to explain the monster, instead turning Essie and Sam into its caretakers: They must feed the thing worms while it lurks in the cellar, engaged in a prickly neutrality. Horror movies deal in the terrifying mysteries of life, like a shaky old gypsy at her tarot cards, and the most effective ones do not explicate those mysteries too much. They lead us deep enough into the cave to lose us, and then they leave us happily in the dark. 

October 03, 2016

'Masterminds' is a delightfully silly mess that lovingly pokes fun at White Trash America.

Masterminds, which opened this past weekend, is a delightfully silly mess. The film’s studio, Relativity Media, originally slated it for last October, but then they underwent a debt crisis that forced them to shelve it and several other projects for a year. But it feels strangely apropos in our current, troubling political season. Masterminds, in the tradition of movies like Talladega Nights, aims squarely at people who used to be called “white trash.” If the movie had been written for a 2016 audience, there surely would have been some pointed references to Donald Trump’s appeal among the lesser-educated caucasian set. And while the film does laugh at the stupidity of its characters, it also imbues them with humanity: they love, they scheme, they manipulate, they wander, they dream, they crash and burn with often hilarious frequency. 

It’s the story of a Loomis Fargo employee who steals 17 million dollars from his employer, all ostensibly out of infatuation/love for his former co-worker. Zach Galifianakis, who resembles a pudgy hedgehog with his shoulder-length hair and a curtain of bangs, plays David Ghannt (who really did rob a Loomis Fargo, in 1997). He’s like a less disgusting version of the Cousin Eddie character from the Vacation movies. In an opening scene in which Ghannt and his co-worker Kelly (Kristen Wiig) are at a shooting range, David accidentally fires his gun after shoving it in the back of his pants, forcing Kelly to investigate any potential injuries to his backside. David doesn’t know to care what other people think of him, and as such, he’s not embarrassed that the girl he likes is checking his ass for bullet wounds. No, David goes about his life in a state of blithe obliviousness. He’s like a dim-witted Marx Brother, totally unaware of the gags he’s creating for our amusement. And yet, David’s smart enough to be dissatisfied with his crappy job and his bummer of a fiancĂ© Jandyce (more on her later), which is probably why David agrees to Kelly’s robbery scheme. 

Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis and Kate McKinnon round out the principle cast: Wilson plays Steve, Kelly’s ex-boyfriend (or friend; the film doesn’t ever make it clear what their relationship is); Steve is the ultimate mastermind behind the robbery, although he does almost nothing to aid with the actual execution of the crime; Sudeikis plays a sleazy, mustachioed hitman that goes after David once he escapes to Brazil; and McKinnon plays Jandyce, who keeps her husband-to-be on a very tight leash, although not tight enough, as it turns out. McKinnon, who brandishes those crazy eyes of hers like she’s boring into the camera with two laser beams, seems to take particular delight in her character: a dominant sales clerk who shares a double-wide trailer with her taciturn mother and, of course, her man. (In one of the funniest scenes, David and Jandyce pose in a series of increasingly bizarre engagement photos outside their trailer.) 

As a movie, Masterminds may be slight to a fault. It suffers through enough plot holes, and it moves so fast that at times it fails to develop certain relationships adequately. But it’s kind of a relief, since so many comedies today wander for two hours until they come to predictable resolutions. Masterminds doesn’t seem concerned about resolving things, or taking an eternity to get its plot going. It’s not really concerned with plot at all, thank God. Twenty minutes in, David Ghannt has already committed the robbery (in a particularly funny sequence in which he piles copious stacks of freshly minted bills into the back of an armored vehicle, in which he inadvertently locks himself.) Masterminds cares more about shaping funny scenes around its tiny world of misfit morons than it does about the niggling beats of a plot that we already know from countless other movies. It assumes we don’t need a new take on the conventional robbery comedy, just more scenes with these delightful freaks. The only shame is that Galifianakis’s character is sent off to Brazil for most of the film, where he does not interact with the others in person (except for Jason Sudeikis). But in the mean time, the film tracks Kelly’s growing sense of guilt: she had no intention of joining him in Brazil, and Steve is about to rat him out so that neither of them will be implicated. Meanwhile, Steve and his money-grubbing wife (played by Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and their two put-upon children, embark on a spending spree. They acquire one of those standard stucco McMansions, which they fill with all the chintzy redneck trappings they can get their hands on, including a ghastly Elvis painting, and they stock the garage with a convertible and some big-wheeled sedan monstrosity. 

Perhaps most assuring is the fact that Masterminds never reforms any of its characters. If it made fun of white trash culture and then forced these people to become enlightened or sophisticated, the result would be insulting. (Steve and Michelle try to hob knob with some rich couples, but it’s clear that their money will never be enough to class them up.) Instead, we’re left with a truer more humane view of these characters. The director, Jared Hess, has a gift for creating strange comedy worlds (something he did very well in the sleeper hit Napoleon Dynamite); and even if Masterminds doesn’t always gel, it bumbles its way into some surprising truths about class in America: Are we really a nation in which you can change your status with money? Perhaps the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.