Archive | October 2013

How Not to Adapt Romeo and Juliet

How Not to Adapt Romeo and Juliet

I occasionally write film columns for the online magazine Talking Writing. Here is my latest. It’s a great site, and you should check it out if writing interests you to any degree. And I dare say, this is a pretty good article.

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Halloween movie mini-reviews

I’ve fallen behind on Halloween movie reviews, so here’s a bunch of mini-reviews to catch up. It’s a copout, I know. I’ll post proper reviews the rest of the month.

Night of the Living Dead

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The definitive zombie film is still probably the best one ever made. Spare and still quite brutal, and its smaller scope (it’s a rare zombie film that is not apocalyptic in scale) lends it a sense of singular desperation: All of humanity is not at stake in this film, just six people trying to get through the night alive.

Begotten

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Well, this one’s a crowd-pleaser.

This is abso-friggin-lutely not a movie for everyone. It’s grimy, silent, and profoundly strange; an original creation myth, depicted entirely through wordless actions. Since creation myths often involve gruesome violence and baffling sex, well, that’s what this film depicts. Despite being incomprehensible at times, whether or not you can make sense of the imagery, it’s pretty damn unsettling.

Evil Dead II

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It wasn’t on my list, but I felt like watching it, so I did. I guess it replaces something else that I’ll figure out later.

Anyway, there’s not to explain about Evil Dead II. It’s the same basic plot as Evil Dead. You know the drill: absurd gore, chainsaws, and Bruce Campbell making faces. Always enjoyable.

Scream

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There’s no denying the craft behind this film: Wes Craven was clearly having a blast making it. Yeah, watching it now, its deconstruction of the genre doesn’t feel as fresh as it once did, and its thrills don’t hold up to the very best horror films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still has the power to unsettle me. This film doesn’t. Regardless, it’s still a very good time.

Trick ‘r Treat

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I did review this film earlier. It was a blast. Not really frightening, but its purpose is less to disturb than to capture the ineffable essence of Halloween that still makes October such a fun time of year. A very entertaining film that will definitely become a Halloween tradition for me.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre   

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I also reviewed this one. Still one of the greatest horror films ever made, a movie that still feels fresher than its gory  remake. Excess isn’t what drives this movie, but a disquieting sense of believability underneath the mayhem. It’s a masterpiece of the genre, and one of my favorite films of any genre. Go watch it.

That’s what I’ve got so far. I’ll have my review of Lords of Salem (what a strange movie, but I’m glad I watched it) up tomorrow. I’m also working on my review for The Exorcist, which will be longer. I can’t just snippet all of these, after all.

On Gravity, screenplays, and burritos

I’ll be posting a full review of Gravity later, but first, some thoughts on a rather common line of discussion I’ve seen with this film.

I dislike when people compartmentalize the elements of a movie like Gravity, saying things like “The acting was really good and the visuals were spectacular, but the story was only decent”. This kind of thinking breaks art down into components that neutralizes its purpose, which is to impact you with its whole. It’s reductionism pretending to be critical thinking. This can be especially true when it’s applied to movies whose visuals are an essential element of the storytelling. The screenplay acts as a delivery system for a movie that exists to be an unrelenting visual experience.

Imagine your favorite burrito. You can taste the individual elements as you eat it, and you might like some ingredients than others. But at the end of the day, you don’t judge burrito by each of its ingredients; you judge it by how those ingredients blend together into satisfying burrito-eating experience.

So it is with movies: sometimes a movie can have a genuinely crappy story and bad acting that good visuals cannot save, just like great guacamole can’t save a burrito when you find a shoelace where the beans should be. But other times, the beans aren’t meant to be exemplary: they’re meant to do their part, providing just enough substance to allow the guacamole to steal the show, and elevate the entire burrito into something transcendent and spectacular.

What I’m saying is, Gravity is a delicious burrito with really good guacamole.

Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

 

Good lord, this movie retains its power. Watching it for the sixth or seventh time last night, I was surprised that it still frightened me. Like the very best horror films, its scares come, not from shocks or jumps, but from burrowing into our psyches and mining our nightmares.

Its structure is startlingly spare, I realized. It eschews a traditional, act-based structure almost by necessity (at 81 minutes, it still feels like it could have been edited into something shorter and meaner). We meet the main characters. They pick up a hitchhiker, who promptly terrifies them, then cuts one of them. They stop at an old farmhouse. Chaos ensues. It flows naturally, like the course of the evening it takes place over.

This structure, or lack thereof, makes the film feel disarmingly real. The concept of “wrong place, wrong time” is essential in horror, but rarely have the fates of characters felt so disturbingly arbitrary, yet inevitable. The structure reminds me of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, the brilliant, horrifying short story by the brilliant, strange mind of Flannery O’Connor, the queen of Southern Gothic and grotesque.

In that story, a horrifying situation develops out of what, to that point, had been a perfectly normal family outing for its main characters. It’s the timing and the tone that make it truly horrific; we sense that something is wrong, but at no point does O’Connor introduce the players who will make it wrong until it is too late. They are suggested on the periphery, through newspaper headlines and local gossip, so passively that there’s no way for us to prepare for their actual arrival.

Hooper structures this film in much the same way. Leatherface doesn’t make an appearance nearly halfway into the film, the moment he kills his first victim. Compare this to other horror movies, like HalloweenScream, and A Nightmare on Elm Street; iconic villains usually make an appearance in the first scene. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre waits, and waits, and then sucks us into its horrifying little world, turning the idea of familial hospitality on its head. It’s not just about showing horrible deaths; it’s about planting that little, unsettling seed of an idea that, yeah, this could actually happen. Like the best horror, it knows that it doesn’t need to scare us with bombardment, that what truly frightens us lies within.

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A quick review of “Trick ‘r Treat”

Hey all. I’ll have these pouring in soon enough. Here’s an animated GIF set for this film that I made myself, as well as a quick review.

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Trick ‘r Treat is more in love with the idea of Halloween than any film I’ve seen before, and that’s why it works so well. It’s not a particularly scary film, but then it doesn’t want to be. It’s a film heavy on nostalgia with none of the sepia tones. Like the best anthology films, it feels like sitting around a campfire in October with a group of friends, one-upping each other with scary stories. Despite its violence, it captures that usually ineffable feeling that makes Halloween so appealing to kids and that’s so easy to lose once you enter adulthood and the godforsaken tradition of Halloween parties (which tend to be a pale, sickly, placebo version of celebrating Halloween).

This is a film set on Halloween, in Halloween, about Halloween. It gives in completely to every notion of spookiness and fear (the fun kind, of course) that permeates the holiday. Perhaps it didn’t frighten me, but it’s one of the most enjoyable horror movies I’ve seen from this decade.

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