On Friday night I tried to poke at my newfound dislike of watching movies at home – poke it so that it might die, you see – by once again watching something light, hopefully fun, more than likely inconsequential. I landed on the horror comedy Little Evil, made by the guy who made another horror comedy, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, which I’d enjoyed somewhat, at least until it found a roundabout way of betraying its premise. But Taylor Labine and Alan Tudyk were funny in that movie, and this new one stars the indispensable Adam Scott. I didn’t laugh once.
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Over the course of the last few days, I watched all or portions of I think maybe three episodes of a British sitcom I stumbled across on Netflix called Fried. It’s about the employees of a fast food fried chicken joint in Croyden. The main and possibly only thing I thought while the images and sounds of Fried washed over and through me was that this is a large world, and very full.
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While out and about on Saturday, my wife and I listened to almost all of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It’s very, very, very good. You know this. Bad songwriting is one thing: “My heart is full of desire/I want you to take me higher/Our love is like a burning fire.” I get that. What I don’t get are “Johanna” and “Poor Thing” and “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and “No Place Like London.”
There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit
And it goes by the name of London
At the top of the hole sit a privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo
Turning beauty to filth and greed…
I too have sailed the world
And seen its wonders,
For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
But there’s no place like London.
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Hey, I saw It, the new film by Andy Muschietti, who made Mama. I didn’t like Mama, but I liked It. The original Stephen King novel is fairly important to me, though it’s been almost thirty years since I read it. Nostalgia is no doubt playing some part in my positive reaction, but I don’t think that nostalgia would have been tapped if the movie was garbage. It’s far from flawless – Muschietti falls back on loud (really loud) music stings to gin up his big scares like every other dickless horror director out there; as Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard’s dialogue often seems like it’s courtesy of ADR, which robs the character of some of its creepiness; and I couldn’t figure out why Pennywise didn’t simply kill the Losers (the nickname for the group of seven kids who are our heroes) as easily as he kills his other victims. But the seven kids who make up the Losers are pretty wonderful, with MVP honors going to Finn Wolfhard (taking a break from hunting Rob Roy apparently) as Richie Tozier, the smartass, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. Wolfhard gets all the good lines but has to be funny saying them, and he is, while Lillis has by far the most heavy lifting of anybody in the cast. She’s so on the money that I thought Lillis must be in her 20s, playing very young, but she’s only fifteen. Sheesh! She’s good.
Anyway, I really enjoyed it, and when Muschietti isn’t telling his string section to give it all they got, he creates some nicely creepy moments and images (pay close attention to the library scene). I was even moved by the film at times. Whether that too can be chalked up to nostalgia, I really couldn’t give a shit.
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Because Little Evil did not, as it happens, cure me of my issues with watching movies at home, I decided to step up my assault on the problem by watching Decasia, Bill Morrison’s film (a pairing with a symphony of the same name by Michael Gordon, which serves as the film’s score) comprised of clips of old movies shot on celluloid now decayed into abstraction and surrealism. Themes of birth, death, and ever-present decay (there are images of babies here, but since the actual physical film is falling apart, even these have the whiff of the grave about them: as soon as you’re born, you start etc.) are not hard to eke out of the experimentation, though Decasia is no less powerful for that. Gordon’s music is extraordinary too, mournful and eerie when it’s not being feverishly apocalyptic in a way that reminds me of the score Matti Bye wrote for the silent film The Phantom Carriage at its most intense.
Even so, it’s hard, or was for me, to not get distracted while watching Decasia. Not distracted away from the film, but away from the art, and start wondering about the particulars of the decaying celluloid itself. Every piece of film seems to die in its own way, but a common effect that I noticed here, at least, was that filmed reality, when the film itself deteriorates, often makes that reality look animated. As in, cartoons. A pair of nuns and a group of children approaching them look rotoscoped. The prow of a ship looks like a pencil sketch. It’s an interesting effect, and can help the viewer not think so much about dying.
(I should add for the sake of completion that I also watched Morrison’s Light is Calling, which also uses a decaying film, and is only eight minutes long. I won’t pretend I have anything worthwhile to say about it.)
* * * *Energized by Decasia (my plan worked!) I decided to finally check out Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello’s much-ballyhooed political thriller about a large group of young terrorists who plant bombs all over Paris (and shoot to death two bank executives, or that’s who I took them to be), and then retreat into a large shopping mall-like department store, where they intend to wait until morning and then escape under cover of, er…sunlight? Anyway, they have a plan.
About half of Nocturama is, as I’d heard it was, a tense, efficient, expertly constructed thriller, almost free of dialogue, just images and motion. The terrorists are Leftists, and while I can take a stab at guessing Bonello’s own politics and probably turn out to be right, when the bodies fall and the bombs go off, I got so sense that Bonello believed there was any kind of moral gray area: the acts are monstrous, the perpetrators are murderers.
But when we get to the store, it slowly starts to just get dumb, and Bonello’s cinematic ideas become thinner as they grow ostensibly bolder. For example, two of the terrorists don’t make it to the store. Nobody knows what happened, but a reasonable theory about the fate of one of them is floated by a character who was with the missing man. The others question him: is he sure? He’s pretty sure. Then, much later in the film, Bonello flashes back and we see what happened to the missing man, and guess what? The other guy’s theory was spot on! So why’d we go back? To what end? I’ve seen Nocturama compared to Godard, and since with few exceptions my very skin burns like a vampire in church when a Godard film is playing nearby, maybe that’s why choices like that made by Bonello for Nocturama make me pinch the bridge of my nose in agonized exhaustion. Then again, when Bonello starts nodding to Dawn of the Dead (that’s built into the very premise, as the terrorists hide in a symbolic capitalist hub, away from the mini-apocalypse they themselves started) and The Shining, all Bonello seems to want us to take away is that it’s interesting that he’s doing this sort of thing in a movie about terrorism. Which it isn’t, if that’s all it is.
And then, by the end, as everything goes pear-shaped for our anti-heroes, I got the queasy feeling that Bonello was making awful moral equivalence point. I think I was already quit by then, but when that shit started seeping in, I thought, to quote Rick Deckard, “I’m twice as quit now.”
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It might have been nice if, when Tobe Hooper died, his obituaries didn’t often lead with the belief that Poltergeist, the 80s horror blockbuster he’s credited as having directed for producer/writer Steven Spielberg, was not in fact helmed by him, but rather by Spielberg, for Hooper being Spielberg’s front for legal-or-whatever reasons. This is apparently true – nobody seems to be arguing the point anymore, and another on-set witness came out to say it was Spielberg’s movie all the way just a month or so before Hooper passed. But so what? I don’t think of this as a feather being removed from Hooper’s cap. His best films are miles better than Poltergeist, and quite a few of his second-tier movies are, too. So fuck Poltergeist, let’s not talk about it anymore. Oh, but real quick: I was listening to a podcast recently, and the hosts started talking about Poltergeist. Both hosts talked about when they first saw it, the effect it had on them, and how they each, in their estimation, saw the movie when they were “way too young.” When I was “way too young” I was sneaking downstairs, where my brothers and their friends were watching Day of the Dead so I could watch Rhodes get ripped in half, but these guys were “way too young” to watch a horror movie that was specifically designed to be enjoyed by families. What a couple of wieners.
I bring up Hooper because yesterday I watched Djinn, his last film. Set in the United Arab Emirates and featuring a Middle Eastern cast, Djinn was quite clearly made for zero dollars and zero cents so that the tiny production company could walk away with some beer money. For about twenty minutes, this movie is really rough-sledding, and I wondered if I’d be able to make it through. But as it happens, Hooper and his screenwriter David Tully have a pretty solid little demonic hotel movie up their sleeve. It rips off Rosemary’s Baby, but only in its general idea. Otherwise I found Djinn to be reasonably original and effective in a low-key sort of way. I don’t want to overpraise the film, because quite frankly many people might well hate it. But I think Tobe Hooper’s last film was a good one.
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Yikes, it’s late! Okay, well, I just finished The North Water by Ian McGuire. Set in the 19th century, mostly on an English whaling ship, this 2016 novel is about a disgraced Irish surgeon who hires onto the Volunteer hoping only to make a little money and gain some distance from his past so that when he returns he can start over, pretty soon he learns that a very mortal, worldly evil is on the boat, and soon The North Water, which reads like a bullet train, is sunk in Cormac McCarthy-esque metaphysical misery and hopelessness, adrift on a sea of endless human cruelty, graphic violence, and bodily disgust. McGuire’s novel is an evil chronicle of total moral repugnance. Run, don’t walk!