Aug 20, 2019

READY PLAYER ONE (2018)



Steven Spielberg has never made an out-and-out bad film. I’m not sure the celebrated filmmaker is capable of that. I’ve certainly seen plenty of his films that don’t agree with me, ranging from the newer (War Horse) to his classics (I’ve given Close Encounters of a Third Kind so many chances), but I’ll never say they’re poorly made or seem workmanship in their presentation. While I’m not about to drop the internet-douchey slam of “worst Spielberg film ever,” I will say Ready Player One is probably the director’s emptiest — one that embodies the same kind of spectacle and world-building that many of his previous films sought and achieved, but with very little of its heart, or even over-sentimentalism that he’s been accused of in the past. Though one might argue Ready Player One’s entire construct is based on over-sentimentalism, given that it’s entirely an ode to ‘80s pop culture bent on nostalgia, this same kind of warmth doesn’t really come through any other aspect.

Ready Player One crams every possible ‘80s reference into its running time (at least, I’m assuming, the ones Warner Bros. had legal ownership of or access to — the nerdiest of you may have noticed that Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees appeared as his Freddy vs. Jason iteration, which is a film owned by Warner Bros. and not current franchise rights holders Paramount Pictures). And while it’s neat to see your lead hero (Tye Sheridan) driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future and later lovingly homaging its director by obtaining “the Zemeckis cube,” these feelings of awww just don’t last. Nostalgia is great for luring in an audience, but it’s not enough for telling a standalone story. 


The nostalgic bits — the appearance of the aforementioned Jason and his colleagues Freddy and Chucky, along with Robocop, King Kong, Duke Nukem, and so many more — work on that reactionary fanboy level. And the much ballyhooed sequence set in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining works in the same way. Once that familiar Penderecki soundtrack creeps in, and our characters start traversing the very faithfully recreated hotel, it’s easy to want to squee. Jack Torrance’s typewriter! The bloody elevator! Midnight, the Stars, and You! But once Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (also the source novel’s author) put an axe in the hand of the suddenly leaping Room 237 bathtub ghost and CGI starts demonically morphing her face, you also get the notion of just how wrong it all feels. Now, I’d never claim to be an authority on what Kubrick would or would not have approved. Spielberg and Kubrick were friends in real life, whereas “all I know is what’s on the internet” (Trump, 2016), and the Beard believes Kubrick would have good-naturedly approved the homage. Still, he skirts his faith in that belief by having Olivia Cooke’s Artemis say, “That’s the point. It’s not supposed to be exactly like the thing you like so much.” I’m not quite buying that, and the feeling of wrongness remains.

Ready Player One isn’t a terrible film by any stretch; in fact, it’s a light, fun, and breezy way to kill 90 minutes. But once the spectacle of the whole affair wears off, you’re struck with the realization that you could have skipped watching it and gotten the same experience simply by sifting through the film’s IMDB Trivia page for all the references the film contains.

Bonus! Some screengrabs from the flick featuring our favorite horror villains are below:






Aug 19, 2019

I SEE YOU HERE

I think you're a lonely person. 
I drive by this place a lot and I see you here. 
I see a lot of people around you. 
And I see all these phones and all this stuff on your desk. 
It means nothing. 
Then when I came inside and I met you, I saw in your eyes and I saw the way you carried yourself that you're not a happy person. 
And I think you need something. 
And if you want to call it a friend, you can call it a friend.

Aug 18, 2019

THE BURBS (1989)



Next to The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, The Burbs is probably my favorite all-time comedy. It’s one that I’ve been watching and laughing at since I was a kid — right around the time when I was also developing my love for the horror genre, which made The Burbs feel like an ideal way to also get in my comedy kicks. The script, naturally, conveys that blending of genres (make no mistake, though — this is much more comedy than horror, with the slightest twang of a western), but it was also thanks to the sensibilities of director Joe Dante, who has worked in every genre there is, but who has also directed some bonafide horror classics (the Gremlins films, The Howling). 

Because of this, and aside from the obvious morbidness and murderousness of the plot, The Burbs is a Rear Window parody rife with nods and homages to horror titles from The Exorcist to The Sentinel, and the underrated Race with the Devil. (Tom Hanks’ character, Ray Peterson, even suffers a nightmare straight out of that latter satanic thriller.)


Hanks and Rick Ducommun (who didn’t quite get along during filming), along with Bruce Dern, make for an absolutely wonderful and hilarious trio — Hanks’ Ray is the dry and glib straight man slowly sucked into the mystery, Ducommun essays childlike immaturity with next-door neighbor Art, and Dern plays, basically, your wacky conservative uncle — a gun-loving military nutjob with an all-fatigue wardrobe — and he’s a fucking delight. Dern, especially, wraps his limber arms around his character of Mark Rumsfield, clearly having a great time playing such a broad archetype. (The actor has mellowed during his later years, keeping closer to dramatic roles, although he did appear in another Dante effort: 2009’s The Hole.) Corey Feldman also appears as a sleuthing neighbor, rejoining Dante after Gremlins, and basically playing the Greek chorus for the audience. Wendy Schaal as Bonnie Rumsfield plays the most undervalued member of the cast, often deserving big laughs that go unnoticed, especially during the neighbors’ intensely awkward first meeting with the mysterious Klopeks. Her alarmed or mystified reactions to Hans Klopek are some of my favorite scenes in The Burbs’ entirety.

The Burbs is one of those rare pre-90s comedies that never feels dated, and everything that was funny about it thirty years ago is still just as funny today. (The frantic zoom-in/zoom-out of Hanks and Ducommun screaming at a human leg bone, which purposely goes on for just a hair too long, is still one of the best gags any film has ever had — period.) And there’s every kind of comedy on display: slapstick, sight gags, and — my favorite — the surreal and the absurd. The Burbs is at its best when it’s almost self-aware, such as the aforementioned leg bone scene, or when our characters recognize the sheer madness of the conflict in which they are engaged. (“I’ve never seen that. I’ve never seen someone drive their garbage down to the street and beat the hell out of it with a stick. I…I’ve never seen that.) 


Dante, who has built a career on horror-comedies, uses perfect timing and dramatic camera angles to accentuate the more amusing aspects of the script’s concept. At one point, when Art and Mark appear on the driveway of Ray’s house to collect him so they can continue their spying on the creepy new neighbors, Ray’s wife, Carol (a wonderful Carrie Fisher), tells them from an upper balcony that Ray won’t be joining them. Dante shoots this scene from both perspectives — from Carol looking down on them, and Art and Mark having to look up. As intended, it presents Carol as the mother figure, telling two neighborhood “kids” that her son isnt allowed to come out and play. And for good measure, Art kicks the ground as the two walk off in disappointment. Meanwhile, Ray cowers in the background half obscured by a doorway. If The Burbs were to be directed by anyone else other than Dante (and okay, maybe John Landis), then it shouldn’t even bother existing. Its DNA is too intertwined with Dante’s ease at this kind of humor and his willingness to poke his audience in the ribs and say, “Isn’t this just a gas?”

Hanks had a tremendous run in the ‘80s with a string of successful comedies, including Bachelor Party, Big, and The Money Pit (I’ve still never seen Splash — sorry), but The Burbs remains the most underrated. A combination of its somewhat morbid content and its offbeat humor has prevented it from being as celebrated as Hanks’ more obvious titles, which is a damn shame, but new collector’s editions of films like these only prove their enduring legacy and offer the chance to become reacquainted with yet another lost classic.



Aug 15, 2019

'HAIL SATAN?' ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK IT IS


As I sat down to watch Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?, I knew the doc would be covering many different things about this black goat religion, but I was hoping to hear concrete answers to the very pointed question, “Do Satanists actually believe in Satan?” Even before that question is asked, which occurs roughly one-third into the doc, everything that Lane presents up to that point, which includes interview segments with Lucien Greaves, the current leader of the Satanic Temple, would lead you to predict the answer: no. 

Obviously, the next question comes, “If you don’t believe in Satan, why call yourself Satanists?” That answer, this time, is less predictable, and it’s one that sums up Hail Satan? as a whole: Satanism is a direct response to the United States’ gradual transformation into a “Christian country,” despite having originally been founded as a secular nation, and that Satanism is basically the underdog religion using shocking imagery and their own very misunderstood philosophies to shock society into awareness and attempt to teach what they’re really about. Satanism is rebelling against the Church’s butting in of everyday Americans’ lives in the form of limiting women’s access to abortion, or restricting gay rights, or taking the moral high ground and defaming the Satanic Temple as a whole, even though the Diocese of Boston was responsible for the cover-up of thousands of boys being molested by priests over the last several decades--something, the Temple is quick to point out, is far more evil and disgusting than what the Temple is said to take part in.


The third question to come: “If Satanists don’t believe in God, why don’t they just call themselves atheists?” Because non-believers lack a community, one Satanic Temple member puts it: that atheists embrace nothing, and have no philosophy; the same cannot be said for the Satanic Temple, who very much have codes of beliefs (in the form of their own seven Tenets). One of those Tenets? Word for word: 
Beliefs should conform to one's best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one's beliefs. 
Tell me that’s not fucking relevant with respect to the current anti-science administration currently occupying the White House--that the entire world is melting, the temperatures are increasing yearly, that people are embracing ludicrous conspiracy theories about vaccinations and climate change while gleefully turning up their noses at the facts and science anyway. Also tell me that particular Tenet makes less sense than the Commandment that forbids a person from being envious because their neighbor has a maid.

I’ll admit I’ve been intrigued by this movement for a while now: not because I’m a devil worshiper, but because by doing some simple Googling--something anyone is able to do--I was really taken aback by the things I’d discovered, embodying the simplicity of what the Satanic Temple, preceded by Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, aims to do. (LaVey’s Church forbade its followers from killing animals unless for purposes of food and shelter. Sound evil to you?) Modern Satanic Temple members do not sacrifice animals, or take part in orgies, or perform black magic or occult incantations. No, instead, they adopt sections of Arizona highways and pledge to keep them clean--same with beaches, in fact. They run shoe and feminine hygiene drives to benefit the homeless. They form after-school programs to give children a place to go that’s safe, where they can color with other children and expose themselves to new ideas. Satanists are men and women, white and black, hetero and homosexual, former Christians, atheists, and Muslims. One of them in particular, a native of Arkansas who calls himself a former Christian, and who looks and sounds every bit like 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, wears a respectful blue suit complete with blue bowtie. But this isn’t a put-on: this is what members of the Satanic Temple can look like. The Temple is also comprised of people, though their external appearances may suggest they follow the public’s misconceptions of the Satanic Temple, who are not evil, who are not crazy, and who don’t have hate in their heart. They are people rebelling against the corruption of government and the Church, and who are advocating for the clear separation of both, upon which our country was once founded, but has since fallen by the wayside--after one political party in particular realized it would benefit them at the polls. In fact, the doc is sure to include one prominent member being ex-communicated due to her extremist performances that called for the assassination of Donald Trump. While this is easy for the armchair devout to point at and say, “See? They’re evil!!,” really, what the doc is showing you is that this viewpoint goes entirely against the belief system of the Satanic Temple, and that they did the responsible thing by severing ties. They are, one could argue, remaining more true to their responsibilities to morality than the Catholic Church.


The backbone of the doc is the story that has become quite well known to every-day society through its heavy coverage in the media: the Temple’s insistence that the Arkansas State Capitol either remove its Ten Commandments monument in order to honor the Constitution’s proclamation that religion and government never intertwine, or make room for their own Baphomet statue, which they argue belongs there just as much. Naysayers call this nothing more than a form of trolling, and certain members wouldn’t disagree, but they also know that what looks like theatrics represents something much larger, and it’s their way of breaking through to the everyday American to educate them on what the Satanic Temple is really about.

Hail Satan? is the most fascinating documentary I’ve seen all year and I would recommend it to anyone the least bit open minded. I like to think you will be constantly surprised, amused, and even touched by certain aspects of both the documentary and the religion itself. I would almost guarantee that you won’t be expecting nearly any of what you see. 

Hail Satan? is now on DVD from Magnolia Pictures.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]