Aug 29, 2019

REMEMBERING 'HANNIBAL' (2013-2015)



It feels dirty to use the word "reboot" when talking about NBC's short-lived but very beloved series Hannibal, but technically, that's exactly what it is. Iconic characters were plucked from Thomas Harris' celebrated novel series and reimagined, regendered, and reintroduced for newer audiences. But unlike Batman, Superman, or James Bond, the act of ever daring to think you could fill the shoes left behind by Anthony Hopkins, whose three separate performances as Dr. Hannibal Lecter earned one Academy Award and hundreds of millions at the box office, bordered on blasphemy. Props to Brian Cox for originating the on-screen version of the character in Michael Mann's underrated thriller Manhunter, but with that out of the way, Hopkins' iteration was always going to go down in history as the definitive take on the character. And that's because the character of Hannibal Lecter doesn't lend itself to semi-annual change-ups like the array of comic book heroes or international super-spies that by now have established the understanding that, yeah, every five to ten years, a new face is going to step up to play them. So when the Hannibal series was announced, everyone was very taken aback by the news, and rightfully so. You mean to say the same network that aired The Voice and America's Got Talent and, ugh, Grimm, had the gall to think they could not only do the Lecter series justice, but could sidestep TV standards and practices and include the grisly gore for which the novels and subsequent adaptations became known? It was one of those ideas that looked and sounded like a disaster, and it easily could have been, but Hannibal not only overcame everything stacked against it, and not only did it somehow out-gore HBO, it's likely to go down as one of the most beloved television series of all time, even if the audience wasn't there for it.

And it went off the air exactly four years ago today.


All the credit in the world goes to show-runner Bryan Fuller, who did the smartest thing anyone could have possibly done in his situation: kept the bare essentials of the series, maintained the most iconic and necessary aspects, and jettisoned the rest – enough to provide familiarity and keep the readers and film fans happy, but enough to create the distance needed so it didn't feel like holy ground was being desecrated. The casting also certainly didn't hurt, as it was impeccable nearly across the board (except for Scott Thompson, who, though lovable, was definitely miscast). Is it too early to predict that Mads Mikkelsen's take on Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter has become the new definitive version? Probably, although you'd likely have a legion of Twitter fans ready to preach that gospel. One thing is for certain, Fuller's Hannibal is the first visual medium to accurately portray the very damaged soul that is Will Graham, in keeping with his depiction in the first novel, Red Dragon. Though this was touched on with Manhunter, William Petersen's take was more distant and cold rather than haunted and broken. And gosh knows what Ed Norton was trying to do with Red Dragon besides cash a check to fund 25th Hour, but except for a moist brow and pit stains, his Will Graham seemed pretty all right. But this version of Will Graham is utterly damaged, and that's evident from his very first on-screen appearance during which he's walking through blood impossibly frozen in mid-air in the same way stars look plotted into the night sky – and this as he babbles to himself in the first person...as the serial killer responsible for the carnage.

Once you wipe away the serial killers, the violent art, the cheeky and recognizable mannerisms of Hannibal Lecter, and the touchstones of a post-CSI television landscape, what's revealed is what Hannibal was actually about the entire time – that two men from very opposite sides of the spectrum could develop mutual love for each other, and through their opposite natures struggle with this love and what it means. And this isn't to write off Hannibal as some underlying gay drama about two men in the closet, because that would just cheapen what Fuller intended. The love on display between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter can be anything you want it to be – friendship, romance, brotherhood, or other. The kind of love doesn't matter – it's window dressing – but just that it's there, and that it's challenging both of their respective natures, is what's made the show so compelling.


Hannibal was a critical favorite from its first episode, and what little audience tuned in did so with devotion. But, as some folks know and some don't, it doesn't matter how devoted the audience is, how beloved the characters are, and how much praise the show receives from critics. If no one's watching the show, then no one's watching the ads, and if no one's watching the ads, then companies aren't going to buy the ad time, and without that revenue, there is no show. That's the long and short of it, and it sucks, but that's business. So call it really misguided that NBC treated Hannibal like a ping pong ball, changing its air day three separate times, two of which occurred during the struggling final season, which saw it transition from a straightforward procedural/serial killer program to a European-set, esoteric, dreamlike quasi stage play filled with characters musings about their identities and natures and all kinds of heavy ideas that aren't going to grab newer audiences. (Not even scenes of kaleidoscopic lesbianism lured in the newbs.)

The third (and final?) season of Hannibal is disappointing only in the sense that, had it all gone according to plan, it would have instead served as the exact middle of the series' overall run. Seasons four through six were set to adapt all the other books, including the maligned Hannibal Rising, and conclude with a season of entirely original material, keeping both avid readers of the novels and viewers of the show entirely in the dark about how that would all end.

That didn't happen.

Instead we received a smidgen of Hannibal Rising married to a fleshed-out version of Hannibal and the third act of Red Dragon.  Though it was never part of the plan, Fuller and his show-runners did an excellent job of closing out all the lingering story lines, minus the somewhat abruptness of season three transitioning yet again halfway through – but only to include what was meant to come much later. Yes, it was certainly disappointing that the series never matured to the degree of reaching the story arc of The Silence of the Lambs – the most famous novel and adaptation of them all – but what's even more disappointing is never getting to experience how Fuller's version of that arc would have looked, or potentially seeing Will Graham and Clarice Starling on screen together. (Gasp! My nerd heart!)

Hannibal also liked to have its fun, and not just within Thomas Harris' Lecterverse. A fair number of homages and nods to other famous horror properties were sprinkled throughout. Some of these were very under-the-surface, including a brief moment during season three while Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) is shopping in a store filled with fine looking dinner table decor where a slight riff on selections from Goblin's score for George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead can be heard on the soundtrack. (Amusingly, Romero himself enjoyed a brief cameo in The Silence of the Lambs, along with famed producer Roger Corman, who gave Jonathan Demme his start in directing.) And then, of course, there's the cameo from the bathroom featured in The Shining:



Bryan Fuller has openly stated (lovingly) that he wanted Hannibal to maintain the certain level of pretension that was evident in the writing of Thomas Harris' series. Not only is that approach present in the philosophical and at-times poetic dialogue, but in the flawless production design and visual presentation – lots of slow motion, lots of reverse engineering, but never in a way that feels exploitative. The visual tricks serve the show's aesthetic and the minds of its characters. Even if the plot or characters of Hannibal do nothing for you, there's no denying it's a gorgeous show to look at. Colors are vivid, though they often depend on shades of gray. Shadows drape across nearly everything; even scenes set in the height of daylight maintain a certain darkness. Detail is as fine as Dr. Lecter's smashing wardrobe.

Sometimes it's the less showy audio presentation that makes for the most immersive experience – this is the show's design. Hannibal is a very intimately presented show, showing restraint and preferring the sound of moving air over garish and cheap Foley effects. The unorthodox and unusual musical score by composer Brian Reitzell (30 Days of Night), filled with clangs, bashes, and non-melodic ominous tones created a sound that would somehow define a show that was, itself, without definition. Working well in tandem with the show's quiet design, Reitzell's musical design – relying often on the pounding of drums with loosened drum heads and slamming metal – would shatter the perceived solitude induced by the art-like images to unnerve the audience with little effort.

To reiterate, NBC kept Hannibal going for as long as they could while remaining fiscally solvent. Unfortunately the viewership wasn't there to justify keeping the show on the air. In this age of Hulu and Amazon/Netflix Originals, everyone held out hope that the series would be picked up by another distributor. For a while, Fuller et al. were hopeful – and media websites were goodheartedly but irresponsibly muddying the waters by predicting the series would "likely" be picked up – but so far, there have been no firm developments in this regard. Maybe we can look at Lionsgate calling its home video release simply "Season Three" rather than "The Final Season," which has become the home video tradition for television swan songs, as a sign of hope that we haven't seen the end of Bryan Fuller's Hannibal.

Does season three mark the end of Hannibal, or is there life in this new universe yet? Fuller et al. are optimistic about completing the arc in movie form, which is a nice idea but seems unlikely. How does one adapt a series that was cancelled due to low viewership into one or several films if funding has proven to be an issue? If anything, Fuller has established he's full of surprises, so never say never. The final moments of season three work well as both a season finale and a series finale, so should this, indeed, be the end of the strangest courting ever made, let it not be said that Hannibal didn't go out in style. 

Aug 27, 2019

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)



At this rate, Hannibal Lecter has achieved pop culture status, and when a horror figure reaches those heights, that’s pretty big. By now, he’s the James Bond of horror, having been played three times in three very different takes on the character, but all of them appropriate for the mood of the film — or television series — utilizing him. (I’m not commenting on anything having to do with Hannibal Rising, the very film about which you’ve forgotten. In my mind, it doesn’t even exist.)

The Silence of the Lambs is looked upon as the definitive adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel series while also introducing the definitive depiction of Hannibal Lecter, as essayed by Anthony Hopkins. Both are correct. Though my love and respect for Manhunterhas increased over the years, and though I’m sort of in love with Mads Mikkelsen’s version of Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs’ legacy is the most deserved. And there are many reasons to proclaim its superiority over the remaining explorations, due in no small part to its willingness to embrace the dark subject matter of the source novel (something Manhunter shied away from), its across-the-board tremendous performances, and its immortal design. I say immortal because The Silence of the Lambs looks like it could have been shot yesterday, rather than thirty years ago. Where Ridley Scott's Hannibal moved the titular character front and center into a sillier and more visceral experience — a reflection of the source novel — and 2003’s Red Dragon seemed like a move more obligatory than artistic (and a bit too familiar), The Silence of the Lambs was a filmic pioneer in that it plunged into the world of real, actual crime investigations with an emphasis on forensics and postmortem techniques. The source novel for Manhunter, Red Dragon, had its fair share of this as well, but Michael Mann shed much of it from his screenplay, choosing to focus more on the psychological implications suffered by Will Graham (William Peterson) from his uncanny ability to deeply engage with the mind of the serial killer he was hunting. The Silence of the Lambs, both novel and film, resurrects this emphasis on federal investigation, almost feeling like a do-over of the previous novel and film. It is, after all, about someone working on behalf of the FBI to interview a known serial killer in hopes of catching another serial killer. Because of this, it feels more scientific, and hence, more intellectual. And the relationship between FBI Agent Trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and the cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), offers a very different vibe. If ever there were a film about serial killers and cannibals and mutilation and psychosexual perversions that could also, just faintly, just minutely, be sexy, it’s The Silence of the Lambs.


Speaking of sexy, by design, The Silence of the Lambs isn’t attractive. It’s dour, dark, and bleak — not a single sequence shows the sun, nor takes place in any kind of bright and welcoming environment. And once the film is approaching the final act, dealing with Buffalo Bill’s dungeon and house of horrors, the amount of scum and ugliness is at its fever pitch. Color is almost nonexistent. Everything is brown and gray and beige and neutral, although Demme finds ways to play around with colors to a purposely nauseating effect, most notably in the pre-interview sequence where Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) is walking Starling to Lecter’s cell and showing her photos of the nurse Lecter had viciously attacked, all of which is bathed in a sickening red hospital light.

Hopkins and Foster walked away with best actor and best actress statuettes at that year’s Academy Awards, and I’m over the moon that a genre picture was recognized by the typically anti-genre organization in any capacity, but having said that, Ted Levine gives the film’s best performance, period, and that he didn’t come home with his own statue is a shame (although he would have been in direct competition with Hopkins, which would been interesting). Levine’s contributions to The Silence of the Lambs’ enduring legacy is often swept aside in favor of Hopkin’s flamboyant and lovably sadistic Hannibal Lecter, but it’s Levine’s bravery and unhinged performance as Buffalo Bill that gives the film its real sense of danger. Your monster movie (and this is a monster movie) is only as scary as its monster, and in this regard, The Silence of the Lambs is brutally scary. “I ate his liver with some fava beans” might be a popular quote, but, “It puts the lotion in the basket” is the line that’s far more quoted (for some reason).


It’s been two years since director Jonathan Demme passed away, but it still feels like such a recent loss for the horror genre and the filmmaking world at large. (We’ve lost way too many horror directors over the last 5 years – I’m personally still reeling over the losses of Wes Craven and George Romero.) It’s been especially sad seeing Demme appear in the supplements included on the Criterion Collection release where he looks young and healthy, knowing that the director of one of the most respected genre pictures of all time is gone. 

Both this and Night of the Living Dead are two of the most mainstream releases that Criterion have released in a while, and it’s kind of fitting that both were released at the same time — as if in a way to honor both directors who are no longer with us, and who will both be sorely, sorely missed.

Aug 26, 2019

AND WHAT DO WE COVET?

“What do you look at while you’re making up your mind? Ours is not a reflective culture; we do not raise our eyes up to the hills. Most of the time we decide the critical things while looking at the linoleum floor of an institutional corridor, or whispering hurriedly in a waiting room with a television blatting nonsense.”

The art.

Aug 25, 2019

MANHUNTER (1986)



I have kind of an odd history with Manhunter.

It was 2001, and the first post-Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter film was being released to huge anticipation and fanfare. (Ridley Scott's Hannibal was released a mere nine years after The Silence of the Lambs, yet it felt like an eternity had passed in between; meanwhile, eighteen years have passed since Hannibal was released in theaters, but it feels like it just came out, doesn't it? Tell me, how old do you feel?)

In "honor" of Hannibal's impending release, Anchor Bay Entertainment released Manhunter on an anniversary VHS. "Hannibal Lecter's legacy of evil begins here" the cover art boasted. I was curious about the film, never having heard of it, let alone seen it. And I was warned against it. "It's so bad," I was told. The film was boring. Poorly made. "Some weird, no-name guy" was playing Hannibal Lecter.


Refusing to fold to such pressure, I brought it home anyway to give it a whirl. And my first viewing of Manhunter could best be described as conflicting. Chronologically, I don't recall if I had yet to read through the Hannibal Lecter novel series, though I since have, so it wasn't a matter of compulsively comparing the events of the film to the events of the book. It was more than I had no choice but to take the film at face value, doing my best to reconcile that The Silence of the Lambs had seemed to prove the final word on the subject of Hannibal Lecter. Fair or not, The Silence of the Lambs had already cemented the idea of who Hannibal Lecter was: how he sounded, looked, spoke, and in what way he figured into the conflict. Manhunter, based on the first novel of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, Red Dragon, had no choice but to pale in comparison. After all, the same aesthetic--an FBI agent relying on the intellect of a captive serial killer for help in catching another killer at large--had already been established. Not only that, but Lambs hewed closer to the horror genre, with its gory and graphic depictions of exhumation, crime scene photography, along with its wild, awe-inspiring, and taboo-shattering performance from Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill. It was difficult to appreciate Manhunter from the outset because, following the discouragement in seeing the film, I only managed to see its flaws. But, like most things, perception can change over time. And as I became more and more attuned with who Michael Mann was, and how a Michael Mann film felt, it led me into a reintroduction to his take on the Hannibal Lecter legacy, and this time around, I found a lot more to appreciate.

Manhunter is the Hannibal Lecter story reimagined as a police procedural. Efforts were made to maintain Lecter's (sorry, Lecktor's) cunning and intimidation, but to also dial down the grislier aspects from the character of the novel. (He's never once referred to as "Hannibal the Cannibal.") More interested in crafting a psychological thriller than the overtly horrific 2005 version of Red Dragon and the television series Hannibal, Michael Mann honed in on the effects of "the gift" that Will Graham possesses--and on how easily a person with that kind of gift can begin to lose a sense of who he is. But in doing this, his character came off as hardened, rather than the fragile and quite vulnerable version recently essayed by Hugh Dancy on the short-lived NBC series. (The less said about Edward Norton's "Nah, I'm good" take on the role, the better.) Because of this, Peterson's iteration of Will Graham was difficult to embrace at first, and at times, it still is. He seems less like a person trying to enjoy retirement in a Floridian pastel paradise with his wife and son, and more like someone insisting on this paradise and this family in an effort to enforce his own sense of normality. Right off the bat he seems unable to fully connect, emotionally, with his wife or his son, and whether this was purposeful on Mann's part or a disconnect between Peterson and the role is unclear. What is clear, however, that as appreciation grows over time for a film at first misunderstood, Peterson's Will Graham--hardened or not from his years of criminal profiling--is a fascinating portrayal of a man on the edge, obsessed with doing what he knows is right, to the point where he risks his life, as well as those of his family.


Of all the novels in the Hannibal Lecter trilogy, Red Dragon is most suited toward Michael Mann's sensibilities. Seemingly not that interested in the horror genre (The Keep notwithstanding), Red Dragon makes the easiest case for Mann to sidestep the horrific in favor of the psychological. It's in keeping with the kind of stories he likes to tell: the cop against the thief; the righteous against the corrupt; whatever Miami Vice was. And that's the most satisfying thing about Manhunter--it's vintage Michael Mann. Disparate conflicts aside, Manhunter wouldn't feel out of place in a double bill with his James Caan heist film Thief. From his leaning on cool blue hues to his use of ethereal (and, yeah, kind of dated) musical soundscapes, it's Michael Mann who makes Manhunter such a great film (with respect to novelist Thomas Harris, of course).

Hack extraordinaire Brett Ratner did his best to replicate Manhunter's class and appeal with his "official" adaptation of Red Dragon by doing what he does best--stealing good ideas from better filmmakers. Hiring Manhunter's director of photography (Dante Spinotti), and The Silence of the Lambs' screenwriter and production designer (Ted Tally and Kristi Zea, respectively), all Ratner managed to do was make a very okay film with an amazing ensemble cast, all of whom are utterly wasted. Naturally it made money and was considered quite the success--neither thing Manhunter had been able to boast upon its 1986 release.


There's been a slow Manhunter resurgence over the years, likely due in part to the boom in home video collecting beginning in the early '90s, which allowed new audiences to discover the redheaded stepchild of a rather prominent horror franchise. Many ardent supporters go as far to say that it's superior to The Silence of the Lambs in every way. While that last part isn't true (man-love for Mads Mikkelsen aside, Anthony Hopkins' first take on Hannibal Lecter will always be definitive), that doesn't make Manhunter less worthy of a re-reintroduction to high-def collectors. Fans of psychological thrillers will find a lot to analyze and pupils of Michael Mann will enjoy seeing an early effort containing signs of things to come.

Manhunter isn't the definitive film from the Hannibal Lecter universe, but it's nearly there. As long as The Silence of the Lambs exists, Manhunter will always be second in command, but that's just fine considering the enormous legacy Lambs has gone on to establish and rightfully earn. 

With the cancellation a few years ago of the cult television series Hannibal, which proved that established characters could shake free of their constraints and be re-imagined for new audiences, perhaps a few more folks have opened their minds to the possibility that the Hannibal Lecter legacy doesn't stop and start with The Silence of the Lambs, however oddly Hannibal Lecktor may want to spell his name.


Aug 24, 2019

OK, SO LONG

Hello Betsy.  
Hi, it's Travis. 
How ya doin'? 
Listen, uh, I'm, I'm sorry about the, the other night. 
I didn't know that was the way you felt about it. 
Well, I-I didn't know that was the way you felt. 
I-I-I would have taken ya somewhere else. 
Uh, are you feeling better or oh you maybe had a virus or somethin', a 24-hour virus you know. It happens. 
Yeah, umm, you uh, you're workin' hard. Yeah. 
Uh, would you like to have, uh, some dinner, uh with me in the next, you know, few days or somethin'? 
Well, how about just a cup of coffee? I'll come by the, uh, headquarters or somethin', we could, uh... 
Oh, OK, OK. 
Did you get my flowers in the...?
You didn't get them? I sent some flowers, uh... 
Yeah, well, OK, OK. 
Can I call you again? Uh, tomorrow or the next day? 
OK. No, I'm gonna... 
OK. Yeah, sure, OK. So long.

Aug 23, 2019

DEEP INTO HIS WORLD: REVISITING 'THE CELL' (2000)


The Cell is a film that not a lot of people seem to like. References to it over the last few years have mildly spiked in conjunction with the introduction of the critically beloved but little seen NBC series Hannibal, as the two share breathtaking images of unrestrained beauty married to that of the macabre (one particular Hannibal character's fate seems lovingly lifted directly from the former). Every so often you may accidentally catch someone expressing enthusiasm for this horror/science-fiction/serial killer thriller aptly described as "The Silent of the Lambs meets The Matrix," but more often than not, no one has all that much positive to say about it.

Universally derided Jennifer Lopez plays Catherine Deane, a child psychologist employing an experimental approach in her work: her ability to enter the mind of her subject in an effort to examine his/her reality and attempt to study the visual representation of her patient's cognition to determine the root cause of her patient's illness.  This procedure takes its toll on Catherine, both physically, in that it exhausts her and forces her to such stimulants as marijuana (run!) to come down, as well as emotionally, as despite how cutting edge the machinery is, it just doesn't seem to be helping her current patient, a young boy named Edward. That this technique isn't helping with his illness certainly isn't sitting well with Edward's parents, who begin threatening to pull him from the project altogether.

Meanwhile, you've got Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio), a serial killer who likes to kidnap women and murder them, and then basically turn them into dolls. Hot on Stargher's trail is Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn, in an ever increasingly rare dramatic performance), a detective intent on hunting down the madman before he claims another victim. Their paths soon cross and Novak locates Stargher at his home, but it's too late, as it would seem Stargher is now comatose, having suffered what would seem to be his last seizure. And it's really too late because Stargher did manage to kidnap one more girl and place her in his inescapable cell apparatus, which over time fills with water, causing the victim to suffer and eventually drown. With the only one person knowing the location of this apparatus now in a coma, Novak requests the help of Catherine and her team to enter Stargher's mind and determine how to find this cell by sifting through the many layers of his madness.


As for The Cell being summarized as "The Silence of the Lambs meets The Matrix," this kind of generally lazy pull-quote that a critic concocts hoping to be quoted in subsequent marketing efforts is actually right on the money. You take a hunt for an infamous serial killer and marry it to this strange abstract world where everything seems possible and there are no physical rules to keep everything in place, and The Cell is exactly what you'd get. Many critics faulted this mash-up, not because of the approach, but because of the ol' "style over substance" bit, for which a lot of films get attacked. Too much Matrix, not enough Lambs. And that's a fair critique. Even the most ardent lovers of The Cell have to admit that its visual merits far overshadow and outweigh its thematic ones.  Not only does the film definitely tote the admittedly fantastic visual effects, but except for the mind-suit gimmick, it doesn't do much with the serial killer route beyond what we've seen in this genre so many times before: the killer was abused as a child, has sexual issues, and for the most part retains no semblance of genuine human emotion.

While one should always stress the importance of content over context, sometimes said context can just be so expertly performed that it can capably carry its weak content across the finish line. And that's ultimately what The Cell kind of is: a flawlessly designed and presented horror/thriller with a story strongish enough to complement it, but one still weak enough to prevent the finished product from being celebrated across the spectrum.


J. Lo and V. Vau (sorry) both turn in pretty standard performances, the former finding herself playing a role she's never played before, and likely won't again. Personal opinions of her "celebrity" aside, she manages to pull off a pretty tricky role, especially in the film's final moments when she's been dolled up as Stargher's demented queen.

But the real star is here director Tarsem Singh (The Fall, Self/Less), who became famous for directing the music video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion." His visuals on display are tremendous. He manages to create entire landscapes that are both twisted as well as beautiful; revolting as well as sad; and some of them will flat-out fucking mystify you, such as the bodybuilder (a past victim) that comes to life only when needed to do Stargher's bidding, or any of the several bizarre set-pieces recreated from infamous and abstract art pieces.

Some of these set-pieces are spurred right from his imagination, whereas others are based on abstract works of art (mostly notably the horse vivisection, inspired by the art of Damien Hirst, and the painting "Dawn" by Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum). Whether original constructions or inspired by elsewhere, all of these images come together and form a demented and disturbed visual tapestry akin to literally a living nightmare.



If you were to accuse Tarsem of being more creatively engulfed by the idea of constructing this strange world rather than exploring the thematics of the serial killer aspect, he would have agreed with you:
You know, the serial-killer thing didn't interest me at all... At the turn of the century, a studio would make any film that had a serial killer in it. I just said, "Okay, so that's the nutshell I need to put it in? It's fine." In the '70s, everybody was making disaster movies. If I'd made The Cell in the '70s, it would have been about a burning building, with a guy having a dream on the 14th floor. I'd make it because of the dream, the studio would make it because of the building burning. Same thing here—I looked at the script, said "Oh, serial-killer thing—I don't give anything about that. Okay. Put that on the side. And inside his head… wow, clean palette."  
Then I came up with all this shit which was called overindulgent, masturbating on dead bodies or whatever. I just said, "All I'm saying with this is, don't laugh at this character, okay?" And that's it. That's what it took.
(Source: The AV Club.)
The Cell made enough bank the year of its release for New Line Cinema to consider it a success, and to ensure a very terrible direct-to-video sequel (though it would star Frank Whaley and take several years). Despite its commercial success and mixed love from critics, Tarsem did not jump right into another studio project, but instead bankrolled The Fall, an independent feature shot in countries all over the world over a span of several years. It was also pretty fantastic, and far more interesting and satisfying than his next big studio project, The Immortals, which starred a pre-Man of Steel Henry Cavill.

Tarsem has gone on record saying of all the genres he's worked in so far, he enjoys thrillers the most, and hopes to do another sometime soon. Here's hoping that's true.


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.]