a

a

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why I Love "The Sandlot"


The ability to rate films on IMDb is liable to showcase the most diverse interests of any filmgoer. To use myself, as an example, I think my phone is the only place that you could find titles as diverse as Amadeus next to Die Hard 2 or Taxi Driver in between Clue and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was as I scrolled through my ratings one afternoon that I came across another curious line-up and suddenly felt compelled to put fingers to keys and hammer out a few thoughts about another film. You see, in my IMDb ratings, sandwiched in between Oliver Stone’s The Doors (a controversial and trippy biopic of the seminal psychedelic rock band starring Val Kilmer as the perfect Jim Morrison) and The House of the Long Shadows (an homage to the old-dark-house thrillers of the ‘30s made in 1984 and starring the triumvirate of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing) there is The Sandlot. These three films have nothing in common with each other (except each one I liked enough to give a decent rating), but my eye was drawn to the poster of The Sandlot and I suddenly felt like saying something.

I’m not really a sports person and I have never really been drawn to sports movies as the result. To make a confession: I have never even seen Rocky all the way through. Yet, I make an exception for The Sandlot: the story of a group of boys who play baseball and “get into the biggest pickle any of them had ever seen.” Normally, as far as pitches go (no pun intended), that wouldn’t really sell me on the movie. The Sandlot won me over though and, to this day, the film holds a special place in my heart. Why? It is a question that I endeavor to answer today.

*

I watched The Sandlot for the first time on an old VHS copy which, if memory serves, we fished out of the attic for movie night. The memories of that first viewing are not engrained in my mind as well as other first-time movie experiences, but I do remember liking it from the get-go. There was something so fun, light, and entertaining about this story that you couldn’t help but have a good time watching it. The Sandlot became a staple for me on road-trips; a portable VHS-playing TV situated in the backseat would keep me occupied for the trips’ long hours and soon, the film became a reliable standard for me. I recall when I upgraded to a DVD copy on my birthday and, ironically, it was then that the movie began to be played a little bit less often in our house. Granted, this was around the time that I really started to get into movies as a genuine art-form and, though The Sandlot is A LOT of fun, I don’t think I can possibly categorize it alongside something like Citizen Kane (just to go for the obvious/stereotypical example). But, that should not undermine the enjoyment which the film brought me and still does. There are still times that the mood will overtake me and I’ll be inclined to pop it in and enjoy.

And, one must assume, that this same amount of enjoyment has been bought to countless others. The freckled face of Hamilton “Ham” Porter can still be found on countless t-shirts as text proclaims “You’re killing me Smalls” or - the insult of all insults – “You play ball like a girl!” Both phrases have entered our lexicon; a testament to the film’s longevity and its ability to entertain a myriad of viewers.




So, if I am not the only one who has been won over by this film, then what is it doing so right?

I think the answer lies in the film’s simplicity. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, The Sandlot can be summed up concisely in one short phrase. It is not a complex movie which is trying to deconstruct the idyllic 1950’s, nor is it a story whose main plot is propelled by its baseball angle. The Sandlot truly is a coming-of-age story. If I had to pick a movie which I felt acted as The Sandlot’s ultimate complement it would be Rob Reiner’s 1986 Stand by Me, adapted from a short story by Stephen King. Yet, there is an underlying darkness to Stand by Me which is lacking in The Sandlot and, while that darkness may make Stand by Me for many the more real and resonating film, The Sandlot’s sense of fun, I think, will also make it more welcoming to people. 

Nonetheless, both films do an amazing job in building a world around its characters of young people. To put it another way, the films take a look at what really matters in the life of a 12-year-old; be that an in-depth debate about who might win in a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman or the chance to play baseball at night on the Fourth of July, the one night of the year when the sky was lit up enough and one might feel like a genuine ballplayer.



To young people, watching a film which so accurately gets what it’s like to be them is something indeed. And, no matter when you might watch The Sandlot, its subject-matter is unaffected by the passage of time. Just because the film is set in the ‘50s doesn’t mean that its themes cannot resonate: building friendships, perceiving yourself as a bigshot, teamwork, and facing the unknown (and the seemingly terrifying things which dwell in the unknown). All of them are just as applicable today as they were in both the ‘50s and in the ‘90s when the film was released.

But, all of this is fairly deep and, I don’t think that The Sandlot was ever truly intended to be viewed as a testament to the universal struggles of the adolescent. It cannot be overlooked – as I said already – just how fun The Sandlot really is. Its set-pieces are still able to provide laughs years later. The swimming pool sequence as “Squints” Palledorous pretends to drown in order to kiss the lifeguard – the impossibly named Wendy Peffercorn – is still hilarious. (I have always found Weeks’ matter-of-fact assertion that “Squints” “looks like a dead fish” to be absurdly funny. And the narrator’s proclamation that “He’d kissed a woman. And he’d kissed her long and good” is so amusing too.) Of course, any discussion of The Sandlot is incomplete without referencing the infamous carnival scene. It’s disgusting and hilarious and makes me cringe every time

I also blame it for having The Champs’ “Tequila” stuck in my head, on loop, ever since. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.



I could go on, but I see little point in simply rattling off descriptions of every one of The Sandlot’s great moments. For two reasons: 1) It’s redundant. This really is a movie which so many people have seen that reading about it becomes rather unnecessary. And, 2) The Sandlot works best as a whole. It’s manner of story-telling – linking together these great scenes – means that each one works wonderfully on their own, but they come alive into a cohesive whole when strung together. I speak so much to these great scenes because, I think, they are the heart of the film. The Sandlot may be, on the surface, a sports movie, but it manages to be so much more than that. Unlike, another genre classic of a similar variety, The Bad News Bears (1976), baseball isn’t necessarily the main point of the story. 

Now, I do have to give credit where credit is most certainly due and say that The Bad News Bears is an enduring film. I give it major credit for Walter Matthau’s stellar, deadpan performance, and its use of Bizet’s Carmen as its principle score. However, when I went back and revisited the film some years ago on Netflix, it simply didn’t hold us quite as well. Chalk it up to the inevitable shifting culture tide for one, but I think The Bad News Bears is far more about baseball and, as a result, feels more like a sports film.

*

I was in the seventh grade and, with some downtime towards the end of the year when just about everyone was ready for summer, my teacher put on The Sandlot to fill some time. It was a collective moment for our “team” – the smallest one in the grade with little more than fifty people – as we all came together, opening the partition which divided our two classrooms, to watch the movie. I had by now seen The Sandlot more times than could remember and was quoting it in time to the film, but there were some who had never seen it before. Come the end credits, everyone in that room was feeling the same sense of joy which came with watching such an entertaining, fun film.

The Sandlot has a way of speaking to everyone. Its story, though centered on the all-American game of baseball, doesn’t prevent its themes from expressing bigger ideas. It’s the perfect way to spend a breezy two hours and, in doing so, has become something of a legend.

And, of course, legends never die. 


Monday, 10 April 2017

Ranking the Films of Quentin Tarantino


The road to liking a thing is not always a straightforward one. There are twists, turns, unexpected roadblocks where you question which way you should be going, a malfunctioning GPS which makes you question everything all the more and you begin to wonder if you’re genuinely missing the point of the entire road trip altogether.

This metaphor is a fairly decent retelling of the way that I first approached Quentin Tarantino, a director whose work, at first, confused me more than anything else. How, I wondered, was I supposed to feel after watching Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained? Why, for heaven’s sake, did I feel like laughing at the all-out carnage which was unleashed in Inglourious Basterds, and what on earth did that mean about me?

And then, it was as if that road opened up before me and became one long freeway. My GPS stopped recalculating and I finally understood. I still stand by the assertion that the night some of my friends and I went to see a screening of the 70mm roadshow version of The Hateful Eight upon its initial release was some of the most fun I have ever had a movie. Come that film’s much-needed intermission, the deep breathes which the entire audience let out were almost palpable. I understood that everyone had been holding their breath just as I was. I’d gotten swept up into the story and we were all having…just…so…much…fun. I began to understand the subtle nuances and the sometimes outright brilliant technique which Tarantino used to bring his stories to life and I instantly began to appreciate his filmography so much more.

He is today one of my all-time favorite directors.

While I enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s entire body-of-work, some of it is just more appealing to me than others. So, today I have decided to rank his films from my least favorite to my favorite (just to keep you in suspense). Three minor disclaimers before we begin: 1) I am counting Kill Bill as one complete film and not as the two separate films it was released as. 2) I am only counting the films which Tarantino wrote and directed. Therefore, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn is not on this list nor is True Romance and others. I have also excluded Four Rooms. Lastly, 3) at the time of this writing, I have not seen Death Proof and therefore will not include it on this list. When I do watch it (which is, hopefully, soon) I will revise this list and add it in. Now, with all that out of the way, let us begin.

*


7. Kill Bill (2003, 2004) – To some, Kill Bill is their favorite Tarantino film, and it’s understandable. It is a fun, absolutely crazy thrill-ride which, all together, lasts four hours. But, I think of all Tarantino’s films, this is just the one which does not gel with me the most. My main complaint with it is its scattered nature. I’m never entirely sure what kind of movie Kill Bill is trying to be. A thriller? An action film? A martial-arts showcase? For once, I felt that there were loose ends to tone and style which Tarantino did not tie up neatly (it’s animated sequence, for example, comes out of nowhere and feels, in the grand scheme of things to be pointless).

Kill Bill, I think, really is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. And, I don’t have a problem in the slightest with self-indulgence as a director. While not a bad film by any means, it feels the most lacking in what make Tarantino films so good and still, I believe, stands out as quite an oddity in his filmography. 


6. Jackie Brown (1997) – Of all the films in his repertoire, I think Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s most underrated. Released on the heels of Pulp Fiction, I think audiences expected something more like its predecessor and, instead, we get a fairly slow-paced, understated film about a simple heist. But, the hallmarks of classic Tarantino are still stamped all over the film: great dialogue, an ensemble of fine actors (Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), and some technical marvels. The heist scene itself – presented from all of the main characters’ points-of-view – is incredible work and is some of the most engrossing cinema I think I have ever watched.

So, if I feel so strongly about Jackie Brown why is it so low on this list? By necessity, really. I think it’s a testament to Tarantino that even one of his (personally) lowest-rated films has so much merit. I say that if you’ve been putting off watching Jackie Brown or haven’t watched it in some time, give it another chance. You’ll be surprised. 


5. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Some have made the argument that Tarantino has never topped his first film. I don’t think I can say that, but as first films go, Reservoir Dogs is the gold-standard. It is a triumph of production on next-to-nothing and shows us – perhaps for the first time – that a truly good film can be driven by little more than dialogue. That is not to undermine any of the action which takes place in Reservoir Dogs, but its conversations, turns-of-phrase, and characters are at its heart. It is, for much of its runtime, an understated, simple story; its nonlinear presentation does not complicate the plot in the same way as Pulp Fiction, nor do we even see the heist which the entire film’s plot centers around.

If there is one thing which I can hold against Reservoir Dogs, however, it is that whenever I hear Stealers Wheel “Stuck in the Middle with You,” my mind instantly goes to this film and a chill or two is liable to run up and down my spine. 


4. Django Unchained (2012) – Two words: Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio has delivered some excellent performances – Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, The Revenant – but, I do believe that some of his finest work on screen is as the villainous Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s spaghetti western. DiCaprio is a truly nasty piece of work (surely one of Tarantino’s finest-written villains), but his cold ruthlessness is off-set by an at-times gentlemanly demeanor and you cannot help but like this despicable guy. Now, don’t get me wrong, before DiCaprio shows up in Django Unchained, it is a good movie; but his entrance elevates the film in no small measure and propels the story in a whole new direction.

But, let’s focus on the film before Leonardo DiCaprio’s entrance. Christoph Waltz is so incredibly watchable as the bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz, and Jamie Foxx presents us with a multifaceted, likable title character who manages to subvert so many of the genre conventions of the traditional western. And, to be entirely honest, the scene featuring the horseback-riding proto-KKK is surely one of the funniest that Tarantino has committed to film.

Not unlike its villain, Django Unchained is a nasty, at-times grim piece-of-work, but its underlying sense of fun and likability is infectious. 


3. The Hateful Eight (2015) – The work of Quentin Tarantino has, effectively, been broken into two distinct periods: his early crime thrillers and his later historical films. The Hateful Eight bridges the gap between those two periods seamlessly. At once harkening back to the days of Reservoir Dogs, wonderfully paying tribute to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and presenting a no-holds-barred thriller, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his most skilled revisiting the work of a talented amateur. Though it received mixed reviews upon its initial release, I think audiences missed the point of this taut, claustrophobic thriller, expecting instead a film akin to Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds in its presentation of an epic story. But, like his first film, Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight cuts back on all the distractions and presents us with nearly three-hours of rich, Tarantino dialogue...

...And an unfathomable amount of blood. It’s pretty shocking, honestly.

As I noted at the top of this post, The Hateful Eight was the film which really put me on the road to appreciating Tarantino. I was drawn into its deceptively simple story and its characters all of whom are – as the title might suggest – hateful in the extreme, but watching their journey from the beginning to end of this nearly three-hour film was an experience. Not one for the faint-of-heart, I’d say, but few of Tarantino’s films are so uniquely depictive of its director as The Hateful Eight


2. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – I think that it is safe to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino at his most epic. The scale of the story and its interconnected pieces really does make the whole two and a half hours feel like the product of Hollywood’s Golden Age when the epic truly was in fashion. What also sets the film apart is its sheer boldness in presenting so much of the dialogue through subtitles. Never do you feel as though reading those subtitles becomes a burden, however; just another testament to Tarantino’s skill crafting fine dialogue.

But, for all its pomp, circumstance, and sheer overt theatricality, Inglourious Basterds still manages to remain focused on its characters, brought to life by a truly distinguished ensemble and some brilliant scenes. Christoph Waltz has been rightfully praised for his performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa, but special attention ought to be given to Mèlanie Laurent who effectively steals the whole show and Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender who are central to the film’s crowning scene. Much is made of the film’s excellent prologue, but the protracted scene at the bar (running for 25 pages in the screenplay) is a master-class in building suspense.

Oh, and then there’s Brad Pitt obviously having a ball. And, can you blame him?


1. Pulp Fiction (1994) – What is there to say beyond the fact that this truly is Tarantino’s masterpiece? Everything about it comes together so well into a beautiful, cohesive whole. The acting is fantastic; John Travolta, for one, injects his role with an extra level of dry humor which makes this movie impossible to get through without grinning. Samuel L. Jackson, who simply dominated in The Hateful Eight, is so beautifully nuanced here and I think his role as Jules is among some of his all-time best work. Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel round out the amazing ensemble and, truthfully, it’s hard to discuss this film’s acting because the cast is just so talented.

But, at the heart of Pulp Fiction – like all of Tarantino’s films – is its dialogue and I don’t think it has ever been matched. From its opening minutes as Tim Roth’s “Pumpkin” details why it’s easier to rob a restaurant than it is a convenience store, to its closing moments in that same dinner as Jules compliments whether “Mr. 9mm” is his only source of protection in a world “beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men,” Pulp Fiction features some of Tarantino’s finest dialogue ever. I recommend the film’s opening conversation about a royale with cheese and its subsequent use as a threat to anyone who wants to see what truly clever writing looks – or rather sounds – like.

I think it is fair to say that Pulp Fiction is one of my all-time favorite movies and holds an exalted place in my mind as a truly brilliant film.

*

So, that is that, everybody. I hope, above all, that this post conveyed what appreciation I have for Quentin Tarantino as a director. His movies may be an acquired taste, for sure, but to my palette, his work can be enjoyed again and again. But, what about you? Agree with this ranking? If not, what’s your favorite Tarantino extravaganza? Feel free to leave a comment below and stop back soon for new reviews and content. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Is "Halloween" the Greatest Horror Film of All Time?


I’ve been fairly surface level lately and, while I love these 300-word movie reviews, I’ve been craving to dig a little deeper again and, after recently dipping back into the Halloween franchise, I decided to set my sights on crafting a piece which is more in-depth concerning one of my all-time favorite films. Hope you enjoy.

*

Horror is a genre which is generally looked down upon. Horror movies are almost universally scoffed by critics, especially in this day-in-age where the critics have seemed to lose that sense of fun which goes along with the whole movie-going experience. But, this is not a new trend in the history of horror films. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: critics in 1931 were generally quite approving of Universal’s Dracula. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times cited the film as “the best of many mystery films” and praised the work of director Tod Browning and actress Helen Chandler. Dracula was a commercial success for the studio and Universal became the leading house of horror films throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s; their entertaining monster movies allowing audiences to forget the real-life horrors of the Depression and World War II.

But, in 1931, Dracula was a new phenomenon. Up to this point, the horror film was a rarity in English cinema. While Universal had dipped their toe into the genre pool particularly with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, (1923 and 1925 respectively), those films had been silent and, though actor Lon Chaney had perfected make-ups which disguised his features to such a point that he was unrecognizable and almost inhuman in appearance, both their plots were firmly grounded in reality.

Dracula (1931) - The Original, Modern-Day Horror Film
Dracula was another matter entirely. For the first time, a film (with sound nonetheless) was daring to present a situation which did not have such an easily explainable answer. No rational explanation was put forth to explain away the vampire and, in the film’s original excised coda, Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing went so far as to remind the audience that “there are such things” as creatures that go bump in the night.

In truth, all of this speaks to the groundbreaking nature of Dracula and, though the horror genre has progressed to such a point where Dracula no longer has the power to scare or thrill audiences the way it once did, its legacy is undeniable and a strong case can be made that without it, the modern horror film would not exist. But, Dracula is an outlier and, even Universal’s later work began to be panned by critics. Perhaps no more scathing assessment of a horror film (and a true genre classic) has been made than the reviews which appeared following the release of Hammer Studio’s seminal 1957 release, The Curse of Frankenstein. Reviewer Dilys Powell claimed that it was the kind of movie which made it impossible to argue against the notion that cinema “debases” and a reviewer for The Tribune opined that the film was “depressing and degrading to anyone who loves the cinema.”

Despite the decades of abuse which horror films have taken, however, they have endured. And, some have become undisputed classics of the genre and film itself. In fact, if one suspends the definition of horror to a certain degree, then ten films in the AFI Top 100 could be classified as horror films. While the market will surely almost be inundated with more bad horror films than genuine classics, a choice few have been selected as the best-of-the-best. But, I’m here to pose a question which may be impossible to answer: which horror film is the very best?

Could it be the relatively simple story of the night he came home?

*

I was just getting into horror when my Mother first mentioned Halloween. We were in the car, I seated in the back seat, when I posed the question, “What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” It was a question I remember asking on more than one occasion to both my parents (I recall my Father told me that it was a toss-up between The Birds and The Exorcist – two excellent choices and, for sure, scary), but it did not take my Mother long at all to answer, “Halloween.” In that moment, the word took on a monolithic aspect which it had previously lacked. Suddenly, the holiday which I never really took to (surprisingly because I loved horror films as a kid at the ripe age at which Halloween is best enjoyed) was given another meaning altogether; a meaning which was able to frighten my very own Mother. This Halloween movie must be truly frightening indeed.


For years, I didn’t go anywhere near the movie. Honestly, I was a little scared. I remember paging through our copy of The 1001 Movies You Have To See Before You Die and coming across a full-page illustration of the film’s truly terrifying poster: a Jack-O-Lantern with, what appeared to fangs, and a veiny hand clutching a glimmering butcher knife. It was serendipity that I’d come across the film again, but its ghostly appearance there in that book only made the whole film seem even more frightening. And then, I saw the trailer. Though I would not have admitted it at the time, it scared me. Particularly, the scene of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie being chased across the street by the knife-wielding Michael, his white mask shining in the moonlight, positively sent chills down my spine and I steered clear of the movie again.

However, after years of having never seen the movie but remaining aware of its existence, I finally decided to bite the bullet. I’d just watched Rosemary’s Baby for the first time and figured that if I was able to handle the film which harrowingly depicted a woman giving birth to the Devil’s child, Halloween would be a walk in the park.

I was wrong. Even after years and years, John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film managed to scare me. And I loved every second of it.

What cannot go overlooked by anyone who is watching Halloween is just what an influential film it was. While many have pointed out that Halloween did not truly invent the slasher film sub-genre – many point to either The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Black Christmas or even, in some instances, Psycho, as holding that honor – Halloween nevertheless made the slasher a viable sub-genre for horror. While Texas Chainsaw and Black Christmas had an exploitation-like vibe which put them somewhere nearer to the grindhouse end of the film spectrum, Halloween manages to carry off its brutality with a certain amount of decorum. It is much closer in spirit to a film like Psycho then the other proto-slashers which preceded it. And, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Halloween is surely one of the most complimented horror films of them all as it launched a countless number of other holiday-themed horror movies well into the next decade. Nevertheless, Halloween has managed to stand a cut above all of its imitators. How did it do so?

As I mentioned above, Halloween is not looking to drench its screen in gratuitous amounts of blood. In fact, hardly a drop is spilled in the film’s entire runtime. John Carpenter uses suspense to elicit his thrills more than visual horror. The sequence in which Michael stalks his first victim, Annie, goes on for ages with almost no relief for the audience. We’re left sitting on the edge of our seats waiting for something to happen. To modern viewers, we know enough about the conventions of the modern horror film to know that Annie is doomed, but the way that the scene just continues to unfold never gives us the relief we seek and, as a result, for a modern day viewer, the scene carries just as much weight as it did back in 1978.


Even after Michael has claimed his first victim and the action shifts to the ill-fated Lynda and her boyfriend, Bob (who, again we know must be doomed – they’re breaking that cardinal rule of how to survive a horror film: don’t have sex), Carpenter manages to inject suspense into the film. The sequence’s long, drawn-out takes give the impression that someone is watching all that is happening. The screenplay also manages to cleverly off Bob and build up even more suspense by having Lynda not know that it not her boyfriend who has returned to the bedroom but rather Michael covered in a sheet. It’s all truly nail-biting stuff.

*

But, for my money, what truly elevates Halloween beyond other such genre classics as Psycho, The Shining, The Exorcist, and even my favorite movie, Jaws (which is technically more of a thriller than all-out horror, but for the purposes of this post I’ll settle with calling it a horror), is its simplicity. I should mention now that I do think all of those aforementioned films are excellent examples of finely-crafted horror cinema and they all deserve praise. But, what makes Halloween work, perhaps better than those others, is its sheer straightforwardness.

There is no labyrinth-like plot, red herrings or false-starts, to true spectacle to distract, Halloween focuses entirely on its characters and situation. The film centers around only a handful of characters which the script takes its time in fleshing out completely and its central concept is so simple and so effective: a young woman gets caught up in a truly horrifying series of events. This aspect of Halloween can be chalked up to the film’s budget (or perhaps lack thereof), but Halloween is a testament to what lengths one can go on virtually nothing.

When Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Sam Loomis says that Michael Meyers truly is the boogeyman – the embodiment of all that is evil – the film brilliantly flirts with higher concepts. In the same way that The Exorcist portrays its demon as an intangible force of evil, Halloween does much the same with Michael. The implied metaphysics is astonishing and again, so deceptively simple. With little to no explanation concerning this turn of events, Halloween elevates itself from the run-of-the-mill slashers (like Friday the 13th and others which followed it), and becomes a far more intelligent horror film than it is often given credit for. 

"Death has come to your town, Sheriff"
Terror in the suburbs
In lists of the all-time greatest horror films, Halloween often crops up, but I have never seen it top the list. Though credited with ushering in a new wave of horror films, Halloween manages to surpass its imitators with its understated presentation and incredibly foreboding atmosphere. Truly, never has the dichotomy of the sleepy, peaceful suburbs and unrelenting horror ever been presented as well as it is in Halloween and watching a place we once thought of as a safe-haven being decimated by an expressionless-masked killer is shocking indeed.

*

Some things never change and the critical reception which Halloween received upon its initial release was lukewarm at best. A reviewer for The New Yorker called it derivative of the films of Hitchcock, De Palma, and Val Lewton, and that the film lacked intelligence. And, while the film may harken back to the classics of Hitchcock and Lewton, it is by no means a rip-off and, as I discussed above, there is a great deal of intelligence lurking beneath the surface of the film.

But, much like Michael Meyers himself who cannot be kept at bay by knitting needles, knives, or bullet wounds, Halloween plowed ahead and went on to become one of the most profitable independent films of all time. John Carpenter was launched into stardom as one of the new masters of the horror genre and would go on to helm The Thing (1982), yet another undisputed horror classic. Jamie Lee Curtis’ career was also jump-started but the film and she went on to appear in numerous box offices successes.

The nightmare is far from over for Laurie Strode
Even if you do not believe that Halloween is the finest horror film of all time (there are plenty of contenders for that title and many, many of them are deserving), its truly groundbreaking nature cannot be underestimated in the least. It – and Michael Meyers – endure. It shall last for years, decades even to come and it shall continue to scare generation after generation with its uncompromising mood which borders on sheer terror. It will continue to fuel nightmares and make audiences – myself included – just a little fearful of that darkness at the top of the stairs.

After all, you can’t kill the boogeyman.

*


Thanks everyone! I know this was a long one and I thank you for sticking with it to the end. So, this all begs the question: do you too think Halloween is the finest of all horror films? If not, which movies deserves such a title? Let me know in the comments below and stop back soon for continued movie reviews and further content. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Some Bonus Features

Not every movie I watch gets the 300-word review treatment. Time – but more often than not – drive dictates when I’m able/when I feel like drawing up a few thoughts about a recently-watched flick. However, today I thought I would share some thoughts on an assortment of movies ranging from old favorites to fascinating first-time viewings:

American Psycho (2000)
This is the very definition of a niche movie. It’ statement about ‘80s yuppie culture is interestingly contrasted by its depiction of over-the-top violence. Christian Bale shines in the lead role and his performance brings out some of the most amusing aspects of this pitch-black comedy. The now infamous murder scene set to Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square” is genuinely funny. Not a movie for all palates, but to those with a taste for the bizarre, American Psycho is likely to linger long in the memory.

Black Swan (2010)
Managing to combine elements which are both beautiful and disturbing, Black Swan is a truly impressive psychological drama. Natalie Portman won a deserved Oscar for Best Actress for her role as a ballerina slowly being consumed by her dark side, and her performance is central to this story. Black Swan is the story of a transformation and the film is also; going from straight drama, to psychological thriller, to all-out horror. A spellbinding achievement, a descent into madness is worth the price of admission.

The Prestige (2006)
It’s not easy to admit when you’re wrong. Especially for me when I’m talking about movies. For years, I said that I was not a fan of Christopher Nolan’s film about at-war magicians. But, upon a recent re-watch, I was forced to eat my words. Truly, The Prestige is an exciting, taut, complex thriller, that explores the world of magic and the depths of obsession with skill and intelligence. The movie is surely one of the most well-cast films in recent memory too with an ensemble headed by Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine, and David Bowie as the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. The front of the DVD box for The Prestige boasts a glowing review by Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers saying, “You want to see it again the second it’s over” and, you know, I couldn’t agree more.

Memento (2000)
I have always been a little skeptical of Christopher Nolan. The reasons are uncertain, even to me, but I am beginning to recant any and all negatives thoughts I may have had for the director. If he didn’t sell me with (what I think to be his masterpiece) The Prestige, then he’s certainly won me over with Memento. Memento is a film so incredibly original and unique; it is difficult to liken it to any other movie. Its story is fascinating. Its performances are excellent, and it is surely one of the most cleverly structured movies I have ever watched. Just as much of a puzzle for its audience as it is for Guy Pearce’s central character, Memento is a movie which warrants revisiting sooner rather than later.

Whiplash (2014)
There are some movies which I know that I love the instant they are over, and Whiplash is a prime example. Watching it again after a long time, I was left with the same intense, emotional response I had when I watched the film for the very first time. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons deliver powerhouse performances in a movie which is so well told and edited. Destined to become a modern day classic, Whiplash is a fitting moniker for a movie of this kind: a breathless, intense thrill ride from beginning to end.

JFK (1991)
You’d think that it would be easy to talk about one of your all-time favorite movies. It isn’t. Suffice it to say that upon revisiting Oliver Stone’s epic masterpiece, I was left in the same breathless state as I was with Whiplash. From the first time that I watched it, JFK has been able to pull me into its twisting and turning narrative, presented in some of most brilliantly-edited together series of montages I have ever beheld. JFK really transcends being a simple conspiracy thriller. It really is an experience and a one-of-a-kind one at that.

Gone Girl (2014)
Opinion seems to be divided on David Fincher’s adaption of Gillian Flynn’s thriller, but I am of the mind that the film is a stylish, gripping character study. While the story may have more than a handful of unplugged plot-holes to its detriment, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike lead an impressive cast (which includes Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry both acting against type and truly succeeding in doing so) and, as usual, Fincher’s style is a feast for the eyes. Gone Girl is, at its heart, a domestic drama and a talented production team is able to elevate that to new heights. Come for the interesting story and stay for the fantastic performances and direction.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Another from director David Fincher, this adaptation of the best-selling thriller once more shows off what a unique artistic vision Fincher is behind the camera. Swathed in chilling, grey tones (matching the setting of an almost tangibly frigid Swedish winter); The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was deservedly nominated for Best Cinematography. A truly disturbing story which manages to be equal parts Agatha Christie mystery and an episode of Law and Order: SVU, the film boasts a remarkable central performance by Rooney Mara as the title character and an equally fine turn by Daniel Craig as a determined investigator. Dark and gritty wouldn’t do this film’s tone justice and once seen is likely to haunt long after. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

300 Words on "The Devil's Advocate" (1997)


Genre. Genre certainly comes in handy when you’re scrolling through Netflix, but sometimes it is difficult to classify a movie. If it includes a number of ingredients, it could automatically be classified as something it is not. And then, there are the instances when a film simply cannot be classified at all. Or, its ingredients categorize it as something quite unique. The Devil’s Advocate, from 1997, is just such an example. How many other movies can you think of that could be described as psychological, supernatural, legal thrillers?

Perhaps that’s why the film wasn’t well received upon its initial release; Roger Ebert, for one, claimed that the whole thing felt disjointed; “the John Grisham stuff clashed with the Exorcist stuff,” and that’s certainly a pit-fall of a movie which tries to do a lot. And, while I think it is fair to say that The Devil’s Advocate is not the perfect film, its uniqueness alone is enough to applaud.

For what it’s worth, the movie has a lot more in common with that other seminal horror film, Rosemary’s Baby than it does The Exorcist; it’s a slow-burn kind of horror, perpetually putting the viewer on guard with the feeling that something isn’t quite right. When the truth is finally revealed, it’s fairly unexpected, but hardly off-putting and feels justified in its craziness. Along the way, Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, and Charlize Theron turn in excellent performances which elevate the film to another degree turning this thriller into a fascinating morality play.

Come the end of this two-hour twenty minute film with The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” playing under the credits, you are left with the distinct impression that you have seen something one-of-a-kind. While not the ideal example of trailblazing in the film industry, it remains an interesting and engaging experiment nevertheless. The Devil’s Advocate is surely a movie which dares you to classify it so easily.

Monday, 6 March 2017

300 Words on "Steve Jobs" (2015)


Good writing is noticeable. It usually has a pattern too; you can spot it easily. The writing of Aaron Sorkin certainly has a pattern. His scripted movies are filled with fast-talking, quip-creating characters. Watching one of his movies is like watching a tennis match in which the players are playing with three tennis balls; each one a different idea or strand of the conversation which is verbally batted around and eventually strung together. As one who is an appreciator of great dialogue, Sorkin’s movies are always enjoyed and what is so special about Steve Jobs is that it brings his dialogue to the front.

Broken into three nearly identical segments, Steve Jobs is all about the characters and all about their interactions. It’s a simple premise and it should be reiterated that this film is not a biopic. It is about Steve Jobs, but it would be difficult to call Steve Jobs the story of the man’s life. This is a deconstruction of the man. This is a look into three (fictionalized) moments which showcased who Steve Jobs really was, presenting all of the facets of one of the most divisive characters from the twentieth century.  

To do the premise of this movie justice takes a skilled cast, and the ensemble gathered together by director Danny Boyle is brilliant. Michael Fassbender really does shine in the title role and, while I wasn’t convinced he was Jobs, I was lost in his performance. Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen and Jeff Daniels compliment him in no small measure.

The ultimate compliment I can pay a film is when it becomes something other than a film: an experience. Steve Jobs is such an example. A masterfully written character piece which is brought to life by a truly talented group of actors drew me into the story and made it an ordeal to hit that pause button.

That’s what good writing can do.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

300 Words on "Speed" (1994)


Die Hard set the gold standard for action films of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its fusion of action, suspense, and wit would inspire a myriad of followers and gave birth to the phrase “Die Hard on a ___.” Speed, described as “Die Hard on a bus” is surely one of those followers, but it is so much more than that.

Speed subverts the usual pitfalls of the standard action film by placing importance not on the set-pieces, but the suspense. Sure, the action is there (and I love watching Keanu Reeves jump from a moving car onto a bus as much as the next guy), but it’s all about the central idea behind it all: a bomb wired to blow up a bus if it goes under 50 mph. Speed plays out more like a thriller, and it’s tension is nail-bitingly palpable at times.

Speed challenges the genre expectations of other Die Hard imitators by wrong-footing the audience time and time again. A scene involving the out-of-control bus and a baby carriage is a prime example. Just when you think that Speed is falling back on action movie clichés, it pulls the rug out from underneath of you and forces you to be drawn right back into the action.

In this way, Speed feels like an action film with a bit more substance than the usual genre fare. Some of the film’s finest moments are the times when it slows down and showcases the morality struggle going on within the doomed bus and a fine cast supported by Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels go some way towards elevating the film even.

Yes, there are moments of undeniable ‘90s cheese, but to those willing to look at the big picture, Speed is more than just Die Hard on a bus. It’s a classic in its own.