Going “three for three” as a filmmaker, meaning the making of three straight films that are considered to be really important works as a filmmaker, is never easy. Debut films are often too small to reach a filmmaker’s full potential, and when filmmakers do manage to hit the ground running they’ll often hit a sophomore slump, and when they do manage to make two straight triumphs they’ll all too often stumble on the third. One of the few filmmakers who have managed to avoid those pitfalls recently has been the English filmmaker Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the actor). McQueen’s debut film, the IRA prison movie Hunger, was an amazing debut that instantly established him as a major talent. It didn’t get the degree of attention it deserved upon release but people in the know caught onto it quickly and it also made something of a star out of Michael Fassbender. His collaboration with Fassbender would continue with his American debut, Shame, a searing drama about sex addiction that has become a bit divisive with some critics but which was undoubtedly very well made. His profile then took a giant leap with his next film, the Academy Award winning 12 Years a Slave. The importance of that movie largely speaks for itself but a movie like that isn’t always the easiest act to follow and in the five years since its release many have wondered what he’s been up to. As it turns out his new plan was to go in a different direction for his fourth film and make a film that has social relevance but a lighter approach called Widows.
The film is set in Chicago and focuses on a woman named Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), whose husband Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) has just been killed in a botched robbery attempt. Veronica had long looked the other way while her husband acquired wealth for decades through large scale heists and built a life of relative luxury for her. Shortly after Harry’s death Veronica is visited by a man named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who’s currently running to be an alderman in Ward 18 against a guy named Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of an old school and corrupt Chicago politician named Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Unfortunately for Veronica this aspiring politician is living a double life as the leader of a violent street gang and apparently he’s the one who Harry was robbing when he was killed in a fiery explosion destroying the loot and he’s demanding that she repay him one way or another. Fortunately for her she does have access to Harry’s notebook, which has his plans for one final score written in it. Not trusting any of Chicago’s other career criminals she decides to instead contact Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunnar (Elizabeth Debicki), the widows of two of the other people who died along with Harry to enlist them to do this final heist along with her.
Clearly this movie is operating off of a bit of a high concept and from the basic description of the film I had expected these widows’ motives to be a bit more vengeful but as it turns out all three of the main widows had rather complicated relationships to their respective husbands. In the case of the Elizabeth Debicki character her husband is quickly established to have been physically abusive, in the case of Michelle Rodriguezs character her husband was a bit of a deadbeat who gambled away a lot of the couple’s money, and over the course of several flashbacks we learn that the Viola Davis character’s husband had his dark side as well. Instead the movie focuses on these women finding their own independence in their new lives, especially the Debicki character who had once been something of a doormat but who is now kind of taking her first steps onto the dry land in standing up for herself. The Michelle Rodriguez character’s arc is a little less clear, but the fact that she’s the only of the three with children does give her the extra dimention of having to find babysitters while she shows up to heist meetings is interesting. Of course the Davis character’s plan to have these widows take part in this heist is a bit odd. Neither she nor her accomplices are hardened criminals with any real experience in the caper business, but the movie doesn’t really emphasize or make a lot of comedy out of the fact that these are supposed to essentially be amateurs playing with guns. One could easily see the movie turning into something along the lines of The Lavender Hill Mob, but it generally plays things a bit straighter than that.
The parallel story to all of this looks at the alderman race, which proves to be an incredibly cynical look at local politics. Brian Tyree Henry’s character is of course a cold blooded killer, we’re given no particular reason to think he knows how to run the office, and he explicitly says at the beginning of the movie that he wants this job for corrupt and self-serving reasons. Sounds bad, but we’re given plenty of reasons to be just as suspicious of Colin Farrell’s character, who appears to largely have contempt for the people of his now largely lower class and African American ward despite occasional photo ops to suggest the contrary and we hear that he may have made some very shady deals on a transportation committee he was on previously. On top of that this character largely seems to have entered politics because he was the son of the ward’s previous alderman, a mean old bastard almost certainly inspired by Joe Kennedy who openly uses racial slurs behind closed doors and seems to largely view politics as a business opportunity. When not on the campaign trail neither of these candidates show the slightest interest in helping anyone but themselves, and our opinion of both of them basically just goes downhill as the movie continues. Pretty bleak. I’m not entirely sure that this “House of Cards” level of cynicism about politics is entirely healthy, it’s the kind of thing that makes people want to “drain the swamp” so-to-speak.
Granted this is Chicago, and that’s not exactly a city that’s known for earnest leadership but I’m pretty sure that the real corruption there is a bit more mundane than what we see here and I don’t get the impression that this movie has a David Simon level of insight into this kind of local politics. Instead this movie seems to be operating on more on the logic of pulp when it comes to most of these machinations. It works to tie the plot together but I’m not sure it has anything overly insightful to say about urban politics. I also wasn’t a big fan of the way the film invoked some fairly heavy #BlackLivesMatter imagery just to have it largely serve as a sort of pop psychology motivation for a character later on. Ultimately I think this is a movie that’s probably best enjoyed if you’re not taking it too seriously. I’m not sure that the award season hype of a November release is going to help it as it might lead people expecting a little more out of it than what it aims for. Looked at more as Hollywood potboiler though and it certainly delivers and enjoyable yarn that’s worth your time.
***1/2 out of Five
There are only a few countries with the rich filmic legacy of Italy, the nation that gave us Fellini, De Sica, Rossolini, and Visconti. But Italian cinema goes deeper than the arthouse titans as they managed to specialize not just in the highbrow but also in the lowbrow. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s Italy became one of the premier makers of B-movies, most famously Westerns and Sword and Sandals epics but they also became makers of some rather innovative horror movies that pushed the boundaries of onscreen sex and violence and would go on to influence the slasher genre of the 80s as well as other forms of horror cinema. However, I’ve always been a bit of a neophyte when it comes to Italian horror, in part out of some bad experiences with Argento early on. The dubbing and sloppiness of Italian exploitation has always been a bit of a barrier for me, something about it just bugged me as a purist but I’ve come to sort of just accept it as what the Italian system did at the time. As such the time is right to take a crash course in Italian horror by looking at a couple films from Italy’s three acknowledged masters of the genre: Bava, Argento, and Fulci.
Black Sabbath (1963)
The first filmmaker I’m going to look at is Mario Bava a filmmaker who is of about the same generation as the other two but who was making horror movies about a decade earlier and was at the tail end of his career when the other two came around. His most famous film is probably a film called Black Sunday, which is ironic because that movie was in black and white and Bava is otherwise known for his vivid use of color. I had seen that movie previously so for the purposes of this project I am going to start with his next major horror movie, the anthology film Black Sabbath (AKA The Three Faces of Fear) which is said to have inspired the name of the rock band. The film consists of three short horror segments, all directed by Bava, of which the middle segment is both the longest and clearly the best. Titled “The Wurdalak” this segment appears to be set somewhere in some unspecified Slavic country during the 18th or 19th century and focuses on a bit of folklore about a vampire/ghost-like creature called a wurdalak which comes back to life and tries to suck the blook of everyone in their family. Here the main wurdalak is played by Boris Karloff, who also serves as a sort of host for the movie and the whole segment works very effectively both as a riff on the vampire and as just a straight-up ghost story. The segment (and the whole film for that matter) don’t really have the blood and guts that I generally associate with Italian horror and in some ways reminded me more of what Hammer was doing at the time or Roger Corman’s Poe movies than it does the giallos that would come later.
The first and third stories here are a bit weaker, especially the first one, which is set during the present and is a bit of a variation on the old “when a stranger calls” legend. It’s not a bad segment exactly but the milieu seems to clash with the period horror trappings of the film’s title and framing and feels more like an imitation of Hitchcock (particularly Dial M for Murder) than the kind of gothic chiller the film otherwise trades in and feels like a strange opener given the film’s title. The third segment fares a bit better. There isn’t really a whole lot to it and it’s rather short but it does tell a nice little haunted house type story which feels like it’s had some influence on some of the more recent jump-scare movies of the Conjuring variety. All in all this is a bit uneven and perhaps not overly representative of Bava’s style or of Italian horror movies to come, but it’s a solid example of the kind of horror movies that were being made in the early 60s with some neat atmosphere and some of the right kind of cheese.
***1/2 out of Five
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
If Black Sabbath was perhaps not entirely representative of the violent Italian horror films that were to come his next major film Blood and Black Lace most certainly is. In fact the film more or less invented the sub-genre that would be most heavily associated with Italian horror: the Giallo. Now, some people erroneously throw around the word “Giallo” to describe any horror movie to come out of Italy in the 60s, 70s, and 80s but it actually refers to a very specific sub-genre. Gialli are non-supernatural thrillers, usually about serial killers and based on detective fiction dime novels that were popular at the time, they were essentially proto-slasher movies. The word itself translates to “yellow,” which refers to the fact that these novels were usually sold with yellow covers. It’s a bit like how we refer to certain books and movies as “pulp.” There may or may not be other precursors but many would argue that Blood and Black Lace invented this sub-genre.
The film was made during a time when the European film industry was seeing a wave of movies based on and inspired by a British mystery writer named Edgar Wallace and the producers who backed Blood and Black Lace were reportedly expecting a film along those lines from Bava, but Bava had become increasingly bored by those movies and wanted to shake things up by focusing on the violence of the murder mystery rather than the police procedural. The resulting film focuses on a fashion house in which a number of the models are being mysteriously stalked and murdered by a masked man with a hat and trench coat (he kind of looks like Rorschach from “Watchmen”). We see some of the police investigation into these crimes, but for the most part it’s told from the perspective of the potential victims and eventually from the perspective of the killer and we spend a lot more time watching the killer commit these murders than we do watching those police piece things together and the mystery itself is not wildly fascinating.
As this was still a movie from the early 60s there are still some limits to just how bloody the film could be but it is rather noticeably brutal in ways that movies generally weren’t during this era. As the title implies there’s also a rather shamelessly sexual dimension to the movie and its violence. Again, it’s the early 60s so there’s little in the way of actual sex or nudity but a lot of the murder victims find themselves in lingerie (though not black lace lingerie as the title would imply), and yeah I’m sure that’s all kinds of problematic if you think about it but the point is that this movie was doing stuff like that before there was an entire genre for such things and he did it with more bluntness than something like Psycho or Peeping Tom. Of course a lot of this appeal comes more from seeing it now and seeing its eventual influence. A lot of its importance was likely less apparent at the time and indeed the movie probably proved to be a bit ahead of its time. It wasn’t much of a financial success in Italy and while it did get released by America it wasn’t by the lucrative B-movie studio AIP like Black Sabbath was because it was (rightly) considered to be too intense for the eight-year-olds that would be the audience for horror movies of the Vincent Price variety. The giallo craze would be delayed for a little while as Bava moved on to make horror flicks of different varieties and baton wouldn’t really be picked up until Dario Argento came along a few years later.
***1/2 out of Five
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Mario Bava may have more or less invented the giallo film genre but Dario Argento was definitely the one to popularize it and that process started right with his debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Like Blood and Black Lace this is ostensibly a mystery rather than a horror film but one that is very interested in filming the scenes where the killer stalks and murders people. This one does take a bit more interest in the investigative elements of its story than Blood and Black Lace does in part because it’s being told from the perspective of an American tourist who witnesses a woman get stabbed and attempts to find the killer on the loose on his own while he’s stuck in Italy as a material witness. The tourist is played by an American actor named Tony Musante, one of many American actors who appeared in Italian genre films the era for the same reasons Clint Eastwood appeared in his spaghetti westerns but never went on to stardom like he did. Musante is actually a big part of why the film works as well as it does, unlike a lot of people who show up in exploitation films like this Musante’s character is genuinely likable and personable; you want to root for him and you feel like he has the right intentions. The mystery at the film’s center is not exactly rock solid, it’s not the kind of thing you can really solve by looking at the clues and it finally comes together through something of a deus ex machina, but the story moves along in the moments and mostly works for the movies.
The film was almost certainly influenced by Blood and Black Lace but it also clearly comes from a later school of filmmaking that was less bound to soundstages. The film was actually shot by Vittorio Storaro shortly before he would shoot major movies with the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola. The cinematography is more down to earth and natural than the highly expressionistic look that Argento would embrace latter in his career in movies like Suspiria but it does look slick in a way that elevates it a bit. I was also surprised that this movie wasn’t really all that gory. There are conceptually nasty killings in the film to be sure and some of them do have a little bit of that signature bright red blood but the camera does semi-tastefully cut away from a lot of the nastier bits and the movie isn’t going out of its way to invent gross ways to murder people. In fact the movie apparently managed to play in the United States with a PG rating with only about 20 seconds of cuts, which even in a pre-PG-13 era seems kind of crazy, the movie is more violent than that would imply. That lack of brutality likely did contribute to the film’s accessibility and helped it become a big international hit within the B-movie/exploitation world despite having a kind of terrible title. This would start a giallo wave in Italy which Argento himself would continue through his trilogy of movies with animals in the title before moving on to full on horror movies with more of a supernatural bend.
***1/2 out of Five
In selecting Dario Argento movies for this project I was careful to pick one of his giallo films and one of his more supernatural projects and for the latter film it seemed the logical choice was his 1980 semi-sequel to Suspiria entitled Inferno. While I doubt that Argento had overly concrete plans for sequels in mind when he was making Suspiria that film was inspired by an 1845 Thomas de Quincey book which described three personified “sorrows”: a Mother of Sighs, a Mother of Darkness, and a Mother of Tears. This wasn’t outlined in Suspiria but it’s certainly outlined in Inferno, in fact much of the first half of the movie seems to consist of people reading from various old books about these three so that audiences will fully understand the connection between this Suspiria, and a third film that was presumably on its way. The witch killed at the end of Suspiria was meant to be the Mother of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum) and the witch at the center of Inferno is meant to be the Mother of Darkness (Mater Tenebrarum, though given this it’s curious that this wasn’t called “Tenebrae,” which was the title of his next film which was unrelated to all of this). Argento would eventually finish his trilogy twenty seven years later with the film The Mother of Tears, which is by all accounts terrible.
Scene for scene Suspiria often operated on a pretty strange dream (nightmare?) logic but at its center was a pretty simple story of a girl who arrives at a dance school, observes strange things, then confronts the monster behind it all. Inferno is not so simple; it swaps protagonists half-way through, it goes on endlessly about the lore of these witches while doing little to actually show how this covenant works, it has a bunch of side characters who only complicate things, and it frankly isn’t entirely clear why the characters are involved with these witches in the first place. The film employs a lot of the same extreme lighting as Suspiria but it often isn’t as effective in the film’s various New York locations as it was in the previous film’s German dance school and it generally doesn’t flow as well given that the film isn’t largely from the perspective of a single character. I was also kind of shocked that the film wasn’t in widescreen like Argento’s earlier films and I do think that took something away from the style. There are a handful of solid horror scenes throughout the film, but it’s a much slower burn in general, which was possibly a response to criticisms that Suspiria peaked in its first fifteen minutes and wasn’t able to top its first couple of kills but it really hurts the film’s momentum. Argento himself doesn’t care for the movie, in part because he was very sick while making it, and feels like that hurt the film and his memories of it. That, along with the fact that the film was a failure at the box office, contributed to him cutting off his “Three Mothers” trilogy, and given the results I can’t entirely blame him.
** out of Five
I had kind of expected this look at the Italian horror tradition would be a nonstop orgy of blood and guts but so far things have been a little bit more tasteful than I expected, that is until now when we get to Lucio Fulci, a man who’s entire career has been largely defined by button pushing exploitation violence. Like a lot of his peers, Fulci started working on films in the 50s and 60s and made films in a variety of genres including musical, comedies, and westerns, but in the wake of Dario Argento’s success with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage he started making gialli like Don’t Torture a Duckling, but he really solidified himself as a director of horror films with his 1979 film Zombie. Known as Zombi 2 in Italy, this was one of a number of Italian movies from the era which used a loophole in Italian copyright law which allowed anyone to market unofficial sequels to any movie without purchasing the rights so long as the plot and characters were actually original. In this case they were trying to pass their movie off as a sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which was re-edited into a more violent and less socially conscious film in Europe and released under the title “Zombi.” The connections really do pretty much end at the title, although zombies probably weren’t as common on screen during this period so maybe the connection would have been more plausible at the time.
Zombie is partly an attempt to bring back the original Caribbean take on zombie mythology that was explored way back in movies like White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie and mix that with the zombie rules that Romero introduced like “you have to shoot the zombie in the head to kill them” and “if a zombie bites you you turn into one.” It’s also noticeably more violent and just generally schlocky than the movies that Bava and Argento were making and he doesn’t seem to have the same pretentions of making stylish and operatic horror works. This one actually contained the first major instance of nudity out of the six movie I’m watching, and it came in the form of an extended topless scuba diving scene which famously ends with a zombie punching a shark. The film also has one of the all-time gore moments in a scene where a zombie punches through a door, grabs a woman on the other side of it, and then slowly pulls her forward until her eye is gouged out by one of the pointy wood pieces right on camera in close-up without cutting away. The zombies themselves are also particularly gnarly, and I distinctly remember seeing the VHS cover with the zombie with the worms coming out of his eyes as a kid and being pretty grossed out by it. The movie ain’t Shakespeare, and it’s not for everyone, but for gorehounds of a certain era the movie delivered the goods and it’s going to be remembered because of it.
*** out of Five
The Beyond (1981)
The Beyond is probably Lucio Fulci’s most famous film along with Zombie and it’s actually a spiritual sequel to another movie of his called City of the Living Dead and would be succeeded by another film The House by the Cemetery which together make up the “gates of hell” trilogy. I think this trilogy was meant to be something of a response to what Dario Argento was making with his “three mothers” trilogy: three movies of random horror murders sort of loosely tied together by a very ill-formed horror mythology. The plot here is in many ways very simple: a couple buys a hotel that was built on top of a gate to hell, and scary/violent shit happens to them because of it. The movie does very little to develop the various victims that would be killed by the various entities that come out of the gate. The film kind of operates off of a similar dream logic to Suspiria and Inferno in that it isn’t terribly concerned with establishing consistent logic for the film’s various supernatural goings on. Unlike Suspiria the film is not terribly interested in high falutin cinematography. I don’t mean to say that there was no thought put into the film’s look or atmosphere at all, it’s certainly made with (relative) competence and has a look, but it doesn’t operate with the grandiosity to match up to that “dream logic.”
What the film does have a clear interest in is blood and gore. Zombie was pretty bloody but this thing clearly tops it. It starts by showing a guy getting wipped to pieces by a chain, nailed to a wall, and then having his face melted off and it kind of just gets more vicious from there. Gory horror films usually like to focus on intestinal extraction but Fulci clearly has some kind of deep fear of eye torture because he has at least three different eyeball gouging scenes here that are trying to top the eye stabbing from Zombie. Some of the effects in the movie have not aged perfectly and probably never looked quite right to begin with. You can clearly tell that a lot of the bodies and faced that are getting their flesh ripped off are animatronic but just the same it’s sometimes the thought that counts in movies like this even if you don’t entirely believe the gore. Like, take the famous scene where a guy gets bitten to death by flesh eating tarantulas. They did get real spiders for the scene, but they never crawl on a real face and you can kind of tell that the p.o.v. shots are just being done by having the tarantulas walk on glass and when they start ripping off flesh from the guy’s face it is very plainly latex, but still how many other movies even try to show people people getting eaten alive by spiders? Or take the dog attack scene. In Cujo they cut away from all most all the parts where the dog murders anyone but here they go right in and give you a close-up of when the German Shepard rips off the lady’s throat. Good wholesome fun. Definitely not the first extreme Italian horror movie that anyone should watch but if you’ve reached a point where you really want to have that extra bit of violence in your life this will not disappoint.
*** out of Five
When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.” That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations. However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently. It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema. In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014. We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man. Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.
The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds. One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party. On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush. Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.
Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him. That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter. When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video. Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs. After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.
Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme. This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this. The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting. Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.
Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic. It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.
The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop. John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops. The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year. You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure. There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.
There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle. He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.” It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.
The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off. Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking. The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto. For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots. Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more. For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position. Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe. In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.
“The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that. This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films. The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately. It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush. It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc. Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all. Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public. I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.
The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.” Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so. Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth. That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three. In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.
Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema. The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny. This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight. It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something. It’s corny. But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie. That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars. I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals. Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.
Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five
The Hate U Give: *** out of Five
Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.
The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name. It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then. There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra. Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission. He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson. As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos. That seems like quite the exaggeration. There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out. Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema. I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.
The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return. It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission. Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut. The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.
First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing. In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action. This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication. The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period. That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.
Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.” The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him. In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working. The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father. From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most. We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons. He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory. Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable. If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.
I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife. In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men. She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing. In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less. If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary. That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.
There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far. Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax. Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images. He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line. The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were. That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.
**1/2 out of Five
Of all the film’s I’m watching for this project The Watcher in the Woods is probably the least famous and is more of a Generation X nostalgia deep cut. I wanted to do something that would tie into Halloween for October and this is what I came up with as the pickings were a bit slim. I’d already seen some of the better remembered “kids horror movies like Gremlins and Poltergeist” and didn’t want to go with something that was only well liked ironically like Monster Squad or “unintentionally scary” like Return to Oz. This is not however a completely unremembered movie, it may have more or less bombed when it first came out but a lot of people watched it on VHS over the course of the 80s and many a Gen Xer remembers having found the movie scary as kids.
The Watcher in the Woods was actually made by Disney during a period in which they were having something of an identity crisis and were trying to make live action films that would bridge their way into the teenage audiences while still being more or less family friendly. The film was based on a young adult novel from the 70s of the same title by Florence Engel Randall and follows a family that moves into a large British mansion for the summer that’s owned by an old lady played by Bette Davis of all people in one of her final film roles. This mansion is actually the same house that was used in the filming of Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Haunting and as it turns out the house here is plenty haunted as well, but the specter in question seems to be located in the woods surrounding the mansion instead of the house itself.
These sort of haunting movies tend to follow a pretty standard formula: they fritter away time with small spooky things, then once it’s established that the place is haunted the people investigate and learn the backstory, then they try to ward out the evil somehow or other often with questionable results. This movie is at least competent at the last two steps but is kind of terrible at the first one, which takes up the most screen time. The film just does not feel like it was made in an overly professional way, the acting is wooden, the atmosphere lacks menace, and aside from a few strong moments like an early near drowning the camerawork is largely pedestrian outside of a few point of view shots. It largely has the feel of a made for TV production. That’s particularly apparent in the first two acts, which take up nearly an hour of its rather short of its rather brief 83 minute runtime.
The film’s final act is in many ways its saving grace. Once we finally figure out the backstory of what’s going on some of what happened before sort of falls into place and the characters’ scramble to ward off “the watcher.” This ending is in fact the result of a somewhat interesting set of events. The film was originally given a New York only preview release (back before wide releases were entirely the norm) where critics and audiences reacted very poorly to the original ending. Disney actually pulled the prints and reshot the ending before releasing the revised movie the next year. Normally these kind of panicky reshoots are a bad thing but in this case the suits were probably right. The alternate endings were available as bonus features on the DVD, they involve a rather poor special effect and are indeed inferior to what they finally went with. Still, even that final revised ending only goes so far to redeem this rather forgettable movie that probably doesn’t deserve the cult audience it has.
To the Scorecard:
This one’s a pretty easy call, though if I’m being honest this probably didn’t belong in the same weight-class as some of the other films. Horror films for kids are never easy to make but there are better ways to do it as Amblin would prove in the coming years with movies like Poltergeist. This one didn’t necessarily work in part because it was trying to just act like an adult horror movie but one that pulled its punches and that just doesn’t work.