God Bless Us, Every One!

I’m not sure there is a more iconic fictional story during the holiday season than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There are so many theatres around me who are playing various stage adaptations of the novella (speaking of which, why not do some others? I’ve been dying to see the Elf musical or the musical version of A Christmas Story? What about White Christmas?) but there was only one production that I had an interest in seeing — a one-man show adaptation starring Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays and directed by two-time Tony Award-nominee, Michael Arden (whose work I’ve seen in Deaf West Spring Awakening and Once on This Island). If I never see another production of A Christmas Carol again, I think I’ll be fine after having seen this spectacular adaptation.

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Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

Admittedly, when I first heard about this production I was skeptical. A one-man show? Really? I figured I would wait and see what other Christmas productions local theatres were doing before I committed and then the reviews came in. It earned high praise from almost every major reviewer, including a coveted Ovation recommendation, and since it’s at one of my favorite venues, The Geffen Playhouse in Downtown LA, why not, right? This particular adaptation is not your typical charmer, it stays true to the roots of the story and is, by all means, a great ghost story. Did you know it used to be a tradition to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve? The king of all these stories is now, of course, A Christmas Carol and through his one-man adaptation, this production really captures the story as though it were relayed to you one chilly Christmas Eve night with full intention to be creepy when the spirits allow, funny when the characters allow, and heart-warming as we so often think of it.

Jefferson Mays is a true gift to the theatre community. This wouldn’t be the first time anyone has seen him take on multiple characters in a production: during his Tony Award-nominated performance as eight members of the D’Ysquiths he endured around 9,000 deaths by the time the production closed.

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Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

Portraying multiple characters in a performance is pretty much Mays’ specialty at this point in his career. Mays offers such an exquisite performance during his uninterrupted 90 minute recounting of A Christmas Carol. Each character has his or her own distinct voice and body language that Mays so effortlessly switches between, it’s easy to forget there’s only one actor on stage.

Aiding Mays’ incredible performance is a perfectly coordinated lighting design and set design. As Mays switches between Scrooge and another character the lighting changes with him to help the change. My favorite example was during the scene in which Marley confronts Scrooge to warn him of the ghosts who will visit him. Each time Scrooge spoke he cowered in his arm-chair, bathed in a warm orange glow from his fireplace, and as Marley speaks Mays will straighten up, arms raised , jaw slack and the lighting will switch to a chilling blue.The set pieces on the turntable move in and out of the scene like Mays is walking through the pages of a book so fluidly. It’s incredible.  The music, both the instrumental tracks and the aptly chosen Christmas themed songs, enhance the story telling. I particularly enjoy the somber version of “Silver and Gold” to further illustrate Scrooge’s descent into greed.

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Photo Credit: Chris Whitaker

The whole experience of A Christmas Carol is worthwhile. The ambiance of the theatre as you walk in is perfectly moody. A dimly lit stage with a setting for a funeral. I had a seat on one of the far edges of the orchestra so it was hard for me to see exactly what it was since it was framed so delicately by the dark curtains. As they cut the lights to begin the performance there was a huge bang that caused a handful of people to scream which made me a little nervous, I’ll admit, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a play where so many people would scream and be disruptive that way but they reeled me back in effortlessly. Mays starts his performance in complete darkness and lights candles on the cold and dismal stage. Have you ever seen a better introduction to a chilling tale than having a single man on a stage with a small candle? Surrounded by what feels like infinite darkness? So smart! So well executed!

I can’t more strongly recommend to you a this production of A Christmas Carol. It’s running through December 16th at Geffen Playhouse. You can get tickets from Goldstar or through the Geffen website. And if I haven’t convinced you enough to go, I’ll leave you with this last bit of praise from Becca, one of my best friends, roommate, and frequent theatre buddy, who said she finally understood what I mean when I come home after an amazing show and boldly proclaim “Theatre gives me life” like the true dweeb that I am. We’ve seen a lot of show together in the last three years so I have to wonder how she didn’t get it before….but…..at least she gets it now thanks to this incredible production. Go, go, go, go, go!

Let That Lonely Feeling Wash Away

Dear Evan Hansen,

You may have won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2017, but you were not the best musical of the year and here’s why.

While I would like to applaud the show for opening up a conversation about mental health, especially pertaining to our nation’s teenagers, I must criticize the use of mental illness as an excuse for Evan’s repeated manipulation of everyone around him. Evan’s social anxiety leads him to lie to Connor’s parents the first time about the letter they find in Connor’s pocket (which they presume is his suicide note) and I can believe that. I can believe he would be embarrassed and unsure how to react in the face of the intense grief and accusations from Connor’s parents in that meeting with the principal. I believe he wanted to help and he wanted to help ease their pain and suffering. I can give him a pass on that first lie because he’s young, but to keep the lie going? To work so hard at deceiving everyone? And what comes of this? Almost nothing. His girlfriend (who’s also manipulated and the whole circumstance under which they get together is a total sham) breaks up with him and he loses his “perfect family.” That’s not a lot of consequence for the hurt he has caused.  Though they’re not at all the same thing, the reaction of the Murphys reminded me of the way the courts treat white boys who are accused (and perhaps even convicted) of sexual assault but are granted relief in their punishment because it may ruin their future. Why does the show just gloss over the fact that Evan is avoiding treatment? He stops taking his pills. He barely even tries to write his “Dear Evan Hansen….” letters.  His mom treats him as though he is something that must be fixed which is addressed in a cursory fashion. This is an important discussion to have, but overall it almost feels like the story is trying too hard to be relevant and misses out on some other thematically rich elements of the story.

What do you do when your brother who always threatened to kill you and was your personal tormentor kills himself? Is it okay not to be sad at his loss? Is it okay not to try to make him out to be a good person? According to the show, it’s maybe not okay to feel these things. Sure, no one deserves to be forgotten, but death does not wash away a life of bullying and cruelty. What about grief makes people claim they were closer to the deceased? Why does it go barely mentioned that one of the other characters involved in the Connor Project is only in this for personal gain? That it’s not okay that she leaks the “suicide note” without permission. Why is it not discussed that even though the Murphys were not great parents to Connor that this doesn’t excuse death threats and intimidation from people who thought they caused Connor to kill himself? I can only hope the recent novelization of the musical delves into this.

It’s frustrating that the musical is lauded as the next best thing in theatre, as though it were on par or better than Hamilton, when it’s one of the least diverse casts on Broadway and is a pretty cruddy story that not even the dynamic songwriting team Pasek & Paul can salvage into a great musical. You can’t just put window dressings on a poor structure and expect to have a great product. It’s exceptionally hard to make a great film with a poor story and it’s no different with theatre. Honestly, what’s really inventive about this show? What is it bringing that changes musical theater the way Hamilton did or, better yet, the actual best musical of 2017, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Nothing! There’s nothing in this show that breaks new ground both in its staging or in its storyline. If you know your theatre history, there’s a really incredible musical that is also all about mental illness, Next to Normal. Sure, Dear Evan Hansen specifically addresses social anxiety which is important but is its overall handling of mental illness as good as those that came before it? Definitely not. The difference between Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen though is the former has great characters that are empathetic  and the latter has at most two characters who are relatable — Zoe, Connor’s sister, and Heidi, Evan’s mother who are the heart of the show without really getting their due credit because they are overshadowed by Evan.

I have to hand it to this some of the members of this cast though. Ben Levi Ross, the touring production’s titular character, is as charming as he can be under the circumstances. His voice is incredible, slaying this decade’s “Defying Gravity” for boys, “Waving Through a Window.” One of the real heroes of this story is  Maggie McKenna’s Zoe who brings us a wildly relatable character and the heartbreaking solos of “Requiem” that address the pain of going against societal expectation’s of grief. McKenna has great comedic timing and easiness about her that makes her dialogue feels natural like it’s real conversation. She’s gentle but tough. Vulnerable but guarded. It’s a delicate balance McKenna walks so easily.  Our other leading lady is Jessica Phillips in her role as Heidi Hansen. Phillips is the only character I feel deserves the tears of the audience as she recounts the day her husband left her and she realized she would have to be an only parent to Evan and the pain that might cause him and the shortcomings she might have because she would never be able to fill the shoes of two people. Her vulnerability as she deals with the realization her son wished for another family to be with is emotional and heartbreaking in the way the rest of the musical only dreams it could be. The rest of the cast leaves you wanting for the most part. Marrick Smith’s Connor Murphy lacks the intimidating qualities Mike Feist brought to the character. The qualities that made you believe he really did threaten his sister. That he is the terrible person she describes and the others fear. Aaron Lazar’s Larry Murphy is flat and uninviting in a way that may be more the fault of the book than Lazar’s talents.

There’s more to dislike than there is to applaud yet audiences are eating up this musical at every corner. At least it’s introducing new people to this beautiful art form. At least it’s bringing young audiences to theatre and inviting them into conversations about mental health. Please, make way for something more inventive and original though or at least try to be more diverse.

Sincerely,

Me.

So Quake With Fear, You Tiny Fools

When you think of cult classic films, Rocky Horror probably comes to mind first. With interactive midnight screenings of the film where people dress up and sing along, this is one film that’s here to stay and will be a Halloween classic for generations to come.  Come on, is there a better film to wrap up Halloween season than Rocky Horror Picture Show? A film all about embracing all your quirks and all your strangeness? Isn’t that what this holiday has become in a lot of ways? In that vein, it really is fitting we end our fun on this most strange and campy film and go out in an unquestionably stylish fashion. Dr. Frank-N-Furter wouldn’t have it any other way I’m sure.

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Part of the lasting impact of the film is its music including iconic songs like “Time Warp”, “Sweet Transvestite”, and “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” keep you coming back for more, bopping along throughout the year even. Becca, my roommate, made a comment like “name a better lyric than hot patootie bless my soul” and you know, I’m not sure I could.  The opening of the film with Lips singing “Science Fiction Double Feature” that drops so many names and so many films that give you just a peek into the zany adventure that’s about to unfold. A film that’s so going to go so far as to bring time warping aliens and a Dr. Frankenstein type into the same story definitely earns its place amongst those iconic sci-fi films.  How do you not jam to “Dammit, Janet”? Next to “Time Warp” that’s probably the second most well-known song from the show (at least in my experience) full of so many references you might encounter at a party.

a finaleThe music is only the second best part of the film though. The performance given by Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is probably his second most well-known role (the terrifying demon clown, Pennywise, claims the top spot) but what makes Tim Curry such a delight to watch in Rocky Horror is how much fun you can see that he’s having with the role. His “Sweet Tranvestite” is the best version you’ll ever hear and how does your heart not break when he’s singing “I’m Going Home”? Tim Curry’s a true saving grace to a film whose plot is more an homage to the sci-fi films it mentions rather than having a narrative of its own.

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I keep coming back to this film and every year I ask myself, “Why am I watching this? It’s so weird!” but then as the music starts and it hits its glorious campy style you can’t help but have fun. Embrace your inner alien, embrace your oddities and quirks and settle in for a delightful film.

I Don’t Want to Put Any More Stress on my Family

film stripHereditary is the best horror film of 2018. You know what. I’m gonna be bold, I’m going to say Hereditary not just the best horror film, it’s probably the best film of the year so far. There’s not a good way to talk about this film without spoiling some of it and trust me, the less you know about this film going in, the better it is for you. I’m gonna white out the more spoiler-filled parts or link you to some great articles so if you haven’t seen this one and want to, it won’t ruin the experience for you. And that’s what Hereditary is above all — it’s a chilling experience of a film that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it. There are moments in the film that struck me the way the chest burster scene in Alien did the first time in that  I wish I could relive my first time seeing that to experience that sheer initial horror and I would say there are three moments in this film that do that to me.

This is my third time watching this movie but the first since it was released for home viewing so I’ve had some distance from the two times I watched during its theatrical run. There are things I picked up the second time that I didn’t notice the first (of course) but even on my third watch, there were still more things I was pulling out of the film that dug even deeper into the story and highlighted just how incredible writer/director Ari Aster’s film truly is. Ari Aster crafts an incredibly tight narrative where every piece of the story is vital and is so dense with symbolism and details. You even start to google the movie and there are so many articles that want to help you understand what you’ve seen and dig deeper into the film and enhance your appreciation of it. There are two that I really like from Screen Crush and Mashable so I totally recommend you check those out. Also in those articles are links to more articles and those are worth a read too. The more you know after you’ve watched the film the better it gets and the more you appreciate it.

Before I get caught up in wanting to tell you about all of those little details I love, I’m going to move into some much safer territory. Let’s talk about the acting in the film! Obviously, Toni Collette carries much of the film on her more than capable shoulders as Annie, a miniature artist whose mother dies at the start of the film, struggles with grief throughout the story in various ways. The horror and confusion Annie goes through are so beautifully played by Colette who’s iconic screaming face is now also a pin you can buy from A24. Holding up this atmospheric and tense film are her incredible costars. Gabriel Byrne is Steve, Annie’s husband, who is that innocent bystander who gets thrown into this mess in every horror movie. He does his best to support his family but it’s certainly not an easy time for him. His level head is a welcome addition to a film so defined by the craziness going on throughout the film and its questions of what exactly we inherit from our family and Annie’s family tree has a lot of crazy in it. this is a shot from the movieMilly Shapiro plays Charlie, the creepy kid you’ve heard so much about. Though the film says it “introduces” her to film, Milly Shapiro hardly needs to be introduced to work as a professional actor. She won a Tony for her role as Matilda on Broadway in that incredible production when she only 10. Charlie’s such an interesting character throughout the film and Milly is truly unsettling but also somewhat charming in the role. Rounding out the Graham family is Alex Wolff’s Peter. Wolff’s performance in this film is incredibly polarizing. If you enjoy the film you’re more likely to enjoy his performance but if you did not then he’s going to be your first target when you sling your mud at the film. Alex Wolff gives an unconventional performance which makes sense in the context of the film and the underlying layers of the story but doesn’t always translate well onto the screen. There are some incredibly tense moments that had people laughing in the theater because he has such an over-the-top approach to crying. In Alex’s defense, Ari Aster knew what he was doing and what he asked from Wolff and it works for me.

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Even if you don’t like the acting or the story, this film is beautiful in its shot composition. When you watch the trailer, there’s a certain emphasis on the miniatures that Annie (Collette) creates and so many shots of the film emulate that dollhouse feeling. The head-to-toe composition of each shot in a beautiful house with such bright and bold colors feels like you’re seeing the dollhouse come to life from Annie’s gallery pieces. This is, of course, all intentional from a thematic standpoint but also further illustrates the beautiful way every piece of this film works together to create this experience. This film is as beautiful as it is harrowing. Things in the background I didn’t even notice until I was looking through photosets or gifsets and they were so clear. Pawel Pogorzelski has such a good eye and he’s a perfect companion to Ari Aster and their unified vision presents a truly unique film.

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I usually take a lot of time to dive into the themes of the film but it’s hard to do that with this one without giving too much away. Still, I’ve already kind of mentioned grief, trauma, and inheritance as it pertains to the film in part. It asks some interesting questions. Challenges you to rethink what else you received from your parents other than your physical features and maybe even some personality traits. Do we inherit the sins of our father? Brain chemistry? What about their curses? Their rewards? Watch Hereditary then let’s talk more.

Let’s Light This Sucker and Meet the Old Broads

There aren’t many films that I absolutely must watch at Halloween but Hocus Pocus certainly is one of them. I can’t remember the exact age I was when I first saw it but I was young and it’s been a tradition for me to watch ever since. The nostalgia factor is what’s given this film its incredible staying power after all. The film was a critical flop when it was first released in July of 1993 and opened against Free Willy so it was a commercial flop as well (but I mean, who’s surprised? Free Willy‘s a classic in its own right as well), yet, here we are, in 2018 and it’s impossible for a Halloween season to go by without the film airing on television or popping around you in some fashion. It’s a millennial’s Halloween treasure and after the grueling and grim watch of Se7en, I couldn’t be more delighted to shake off some of that residual tension and discomfort.

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While I wouldn’t put them on the same level, just as Young Frankenstein would fall apart without Gene Wilder at the helm, Hocus Pocus just wouldn’t be the same without the Sanderson Sisters played by Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the always stunning Bette Midler.  These three ladies are the best part of this whole film. They land the comical moments with such ease and give us the most memorable lines of the film. Who can forget Sarah Jessica Parker’s excited bouncing and exclaiming “amok, amok, amok, amok!” or Bette Midler’s rendition of “I Put A Spell on You” or Kathy Majimy riding that vacuum cleaner as a broom? They might not be characters of particularly great depths but they’re fun and as charming as they are outrageous. Who else could make three murderous and evil witches seem so fun?

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As far as the film itself goes though, it’s surprisingly bold for a Disney production. Originally created with the intention of airing as a Disney Channel Original, the film was given a theatrical release instead and its got a half a dozen sexual jokes, a somewhat predatory Sarah Jessica Parker, witchcraft, and witches who overall just delight in being evil.many photos Of course, good wins out in the end in true Disney fashion with plenty of ridiculous situations and lots of laughs along the way, but still….it’s a curious choice for Disney. Yet the family-friendly charm is in part what makes it such a treat to watch. Its got its inconsistencies — Winifred doesn’t know what a paved road is but she knows to ask Max if he has his learner’s permit? Odd. The story stumbles a bit in the latter half of the second act and loses some of its steam, but the final confrontation with the witches ends in a heartfelt conclusion. It’s not a true Disney film if it doesn’t make you feel good somehow, right?

Overall, the film’s such a fun time and full of our modern-day Halloween fun. I don’t know if I could pick a better film to capture the more lighthearted feeling the holiday has to it.

What I’ve Done Is Going to Be Puzzled over and Studied and Followed….Forever

I’ve been saving some of the best films for last here to really finish off this incredible month of films on a high note. Today, we’re taking a look at one of the best murder mystery detective films ever made, David Fincher’s Se7en. It’s been a while (like, best guess, five years) so rewatching this film was almost like seeing it for the first time except I already knew some of the parts. There were  also a couple of things I didn’t remember that horrified me all over again.

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This two-hour film written by Andrew Kevin Walker does some incredible things. There’s only one scene where you see the violence committed and for a script about a grisly set of murders whose victims are all executed in line with their deadly sin that’s pretty rate. A retiring detective and a newbie are in a race to stop the killer before the mysterious John Doe can complete his mission but its difficult to stop a killer when you have no clues and no fingerprints. It’s like an avenging angel came down to punish humanity for their gluttony, lust, envy, pride, greed, wrath, and sloth. There’s no shortage of sinners according to John Doe.

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The film doesn’t offer you any further explanation of John Doe’s actions other than his intention to wipe the scum off of the earth which he explains in a rather incredible monologue. This film is an exploration of how the murders are done rather than trying to find a reason. Sure, there’s a reason but this isn’t some catch the killer and all is well type film. Se7en is a rumination on evil. Fincher once said he doesn’t make films that tell you everything is alright in the world because it’s not. He strives to make you feel uncomfortable, to make you realize there’s a darker side to everything. It’s hard to imagine people really need to be reminded about that in today’s climate but still….the film is incredibly effective.

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There’s a really interesting moment early on into the film when Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) says he doesn’t understand this city anymore. He doesn’t understand the criminals and the reason behind their violence. Crime has evolved and he’s struggling to catch up.  This idea of the evolution of crime reminds me of one of Fincher’s latest projects, the Netflix original series, Mindhunter. If you haven’t checked out Mindhunter you are missing out. It’s got a more subtle aesthetic than Se7en does but tackles so many of the same themes. It’s one of my favorite series for sure and I love the always topical conversation about the evolution of crime even during such different time periods.

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Se7en is a truly incredible film all around. With a story that unfolds and reveals information as the characters learn it, you feel as though you’re part of the story and that might just be one of the scariest aspects of the film. There’s nothing you can do to get ahead of the curve, you’re stuck going along for the ride. What makes this such a great choice especially for Halloween though is its intensely uncomfortable atmosphere that sticks with you even long after it’s over. True crime when done well on-screen can be incredibly scary. While I wouldn’t say I was scared by Se7en in the same way I’m terrified of films like The Conjuringthis one has a palpable impact.  Maybe watch this one and have a chaser ready like your favorite cartoon or something light and fun like The Addams Family or What We Do in the Shadows.

Stand Back, For the Love of God! He’s Got a Rotten Brain!

Of all the Mel Brooks films in the world, Young Frankenstein seems like the one that caters most to my interests. Before watching today’s pick, I had only seen Robin Hood Men in Tights (which I love), but for a film that’s a satire of the original horror movie classic, Frankenstein from 1931 and its subsequent sequels, this seemed like something I might enjoy. It was even turned into a Tony-nominated musical with Sutton Foster. I haven’t seen the musical yet either so I guess my not having watched this film is hardly shocking.

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Even though I know you’re not surprised by this, I wasn’t in love with this film. You might think it’s just because I don’t appreciate comedy and satire the way most people I know do, but I feel a little more justified on this one because there are some definite weaknesses to the film. There are three major female characters in the film. One of them is as vain as they come and incredibly annoying (except the moment she dodges the kiss blown to her by Gene Wilder).  Sure, it’s cool Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) later becomes the Bride of Frankenstein with that iconic hair, but up until that point, she’s just an uninteresting caricature. Opposite her, vying for Dr. Frederick Frankstein’s (Gene Wilder) affection is Inga (Terri Gar) whose sole purpose seems to be the butt of sexual-themed jokes. Not my favorite kinds of female characters who feel empty except for their stereotypes.  At least Cloris Leachman brings the intriguing Frau Blücher into the fold. She’s funny and seems to have a little bit more to her character than the others but she’s such a minor part in the film it’s disappointing not to get more of her.

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The film has overall good pacing and story up until the musical number, “Puttin on the Ritz”, performed by Frankenstein and the Creature (Peter Boyle). Once this scene (and it’s a great one) is over, the story really loses its steam.  The idea of switching brains between Frankenstein and the Creature feels out of place, like a last minute idea to wrap up the story. The last act just doesn’t play nearly as well as the rest of the film. Perhaps some of these are the scenes that Mel Brooks added in so they could continue filming once everyone on set was bummed out principal photography was almost complete.

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Even despite these missteps, the film does get some things right. In its emulation of the classic Frankenstein film, Mel Brooks went for a black and white film with lighting so similar to the old classics. There’s a lot of shots that mimic classic moments from films and that’s something to applaud. The transitions even seem like an old classic. The equipment used in the original film for Frankenstein’s Lab is recycled here in the film. Young Frankenstein engages its original source material in a fun and loving manner while also maintaining a satirical distance that allows it to poke its fun at the film and the genre.  There are some really fun scenes like when Frankenstein is upset his experiment failed so he tells his team (Igor and Inga) that they must take the loss with dignity then throws a tantrum. Abby Normal.  The musical number. Walk this way. Sed-a-GIVE?!

Gene Wilder gives an incredible performance in this film. I don’t know if I would say it a better performance than his beloved turn as Willy Wonka but he delivers some truly wonderful monologues throughout the film. He’s over the top in the best, old-timey films way that really works. Honestly, without Gene Wilder, this film would not be nearly as good as it is.

 

 

Ed, This is as Close to Hell as I Ever Want to Get

Say what you will about the real Ed and Lorraine Warren, but The Conjuring and its sequel The Conjuring 2: Enfield Poltergeist (which we’re discussing today) are some of the best modern horror films of the decade. These films are also two of the scariest films I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m not sure if that’s just religious beliefs or what, but demon possession films in general really scare me good. I was really insistent this list included either The Conjuring or Enfield Poltergeist because I love this series so much. I’ve seen the first one a handful of times and hadn’t seen the sequel since its theatrical release so naturally, we chose the second one for that reason and also because its sister film, The Nun dropped in the last month. (The Nun is really not a great film so if you want your fix of that terrifying demon, stick with this film).

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Building upon the great things its predecessor gets right, Enfield Poltergeist has some really strong things going for it. It’s got great pacing (though familiar) and great cinematography that in parts mimics The Conjuring such as the tracking shot through the house the first time we see it but it also expands upon all of the things that the first film gets right. There are some truly brilliant sequences in this film too. The most obvious takes places in a sort of premonition where Lorraine sees The Nun in the Warren House and she is locked in a room with the terrifying painting and sees its shadow skulk along the walls to its portrait. Once it finds the painting, these ghastly hands creep out from behind the painting before The Nun rushes at Lorraine. Terrifying. I also love one of the sequences at the Enfield house when they’re testing Janet (Madison Wolfe) to see if she is faking the voice of the spirit she claims has possessed her. In order to prove her legitimacy, they ask her to hold a mouthful of water and see if the spirit will talk. Unfortunately for everyone in the room, she only agrees to do this when everyone turns their back. Fishy. I know. Ed (Patrick Wilson) tells everyone to comply and though he’s in focus, just over his shoulder Janet is severely out of focus so when she suddenly morphs into the terrifying old man ghost you can’t exactly see him but you know he’s there. It’s one of the smartest moments of the film.

Spirit Board

Where the film starts to fall apart, however, is in its climax. because Enfield is such a different case from The Conjuring and it’s not your typical possession film, they chose not to go the classic route where the film ends with an exorcism and all is well. That wouldn’t have worked but I’m not convinced the final sequence as they have it now really works either. There’s a lot of running around the house and not a lot of head on battling of the demon. This does make a rather weak ending in comparison to the strength of the rest of the film which can be disappointing but doesn’t hurt the film so badly it turns you off entirely. It just could have been stronger is all.

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Speaking of interesting choices in the film, we see for the first time in this series the film tackle the conspiracy surrounding the Warrens. It’s hard to avoid it coming up in conversation about them. There’s a lot of “proof” that they’ve faked all of their evidence and most people think of them as complete crackpots. I’m not convinced they’re entirely telling the truth or spreading lies either way but the choice to bring that into the fold here is smart especially when you consider that Ed and Lorraine were barely involved with this case and certainly not to the extent they were portrayed in the film. Bringing in questions about their legitimacy also opened the door to do this with the Enfield case. The Enfield Poltergeist case is one of the most well-documented cases of paranormal activity period but that’s not to say that all of the evidence people saw was real. Janet and some of the others did later reveal there were times they faked what was happening and others they did not. How do you believe any of it though when you know some of it was a lie?  Still, it’s an interesting idea to throw into the mix here.

i love this moment a lot

The film has some great softer moments though between Ed and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and the family, especially Janet. It breaks up the barrage of scares and invites you to care more about the characters which are always one of my favorite parts of these films. When Ed sings some Elvis to the kids it warms your heart or when Lorraine and Ed tell Janet their own struggles with the paranormal growing up. Even if their real-life counterparts weren’t as delightful as Farmiga and Wilson portray them on screen, it’s still such a treat to watch them together.  The chemistry between them is so palpable and its a great contrast to the otherwise tense and hostile environment the film builds.

Though not quite as strong as its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is a standout film in this genre and brings plenty of jump scares and moments to get your heart racing. I’m so excited to see what the third installment of the main series will be and whether it will continue to capitalize on the great work set forth there.

 

 

What’s Your Damage, Heather?

Last month I had the incredible pleasure of seeing the musical version of Heathers and today’s pick of this Halloween film fest is the original 1988 film starring Christian Slater and Winona Ryder. I gotta be honest up front here, I am a much bigger fan of the musical than I am of the movie but that’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its own set of good qualities.

ding dong witch is dead

If you haven’t read my post about the musical or aren’t familiar with the movie at all, Daniels Waters’ satirical script follows a group of the most popular girls in Westerburg, the Heathers and their former good girl protege Veronica (Winona Ryder). As she realizes just how truly awful the Heathers are, Veronica teams up with the charming sociopath, JD (Christian Slater), to wipe out the plague of terrible cool kids and end their reign of terror. Well, she doesn’t do so intentionally, she just goes along with JD’s plans each time he tricks her.

JD and Veronica

When we were picking our list of films for this month I was fresh off my Heathers musical high so I readily agreed even though my first brush with the film didn’t result in me falling in love with it. In fact, the first time I watched it was in part because I was obsessing over the cast album. One of the frustrating parts of the film for me is that I have a hard time picking out its themes. As a satire, it’s naturally got a commentary and something to say but it’s never jumped out to me. Natalie brought up some great points that made me appreciate the movie more than before. Unlike the musical which focuses more on what makes a good person, this musical is more about society as a whole and its socially constructed standards of perfection.  Heather Chandler (Kim Walker, the proud wearer of the infamous red scrunchie) is the popular mean girl; she’s a party girl, beautiful, stylish and rich. Kurt and Ram (Lance Fenton and Patrick Labyorteaux) are your iconic jocks and also stupid fuckboys. JD is the rebellious teen we value in people like James Dean but in his quest to undermine them he’s just upholding society’s standards and trying to push forth his own agenda and assert his superiority as the inverse of these stereotypes. There’s a part at the end of the film when JD has forged the suicide note he’s going to leave after he blows up the school and everyone in it that says, “People will look at the ashes of Westerburg and say; ‘now there’s a school that self-destructed, not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.”  Perhaps he’s right. What is high school and society as a whole if not a battle arena you’re always putting down the people who are different than you to make yourself feel better?

jd's the joke and veronica is harley

In our current social climate, it’s also interesting in the way it approaches sexual assault and masculinity.  Natalie pointed out that even though JD decides to kill Kurt and Ram after their sexual harassment and rumors they spread about Veronica, he also forces himself onto Veronica several times throughout the movie. There’s also this almost undercurrent of her as a sort of abuser to her in the way he reacts to her trying to break up with him.

collection of caps

All of this is well and good but I certainly wouldn’t have picked up on all of it without Natalie’s help and that takes some points from the film for me. Its characters are also far less likable than their stage counterparts, even Veronica, who is the only character I really care about in this version of the story.  Still, the film has some incredible staying power and the dialogue is so snappy. It’s earned its cult film fave but if you left it to me, I’ll take the musical any day over the film.

Bad Luck Isn’t Brought By Broken Mirrors, But By Broken Minds

Of all the movies on the docket this month, Suspiria was the one I was most excited for and the most nervous about. You don’t see a lot of horror movies without hearing something about Suspiria eventually. It’s a little hard to avoid hearing about it recently with the remake coming out in select cities October 26th and a wider release slated for early November. My first introduction to Dario Argento’s masterpiece was a few years ago from while I was a TA for a student whose screenplay was heavily inspired by the aesthetic of Suspiria. This film is hard to find streaming anywhere except for this place called Tubi. Tubi’s a free, ad-powered  Netflix alternative partnered with Paramount, MGM, and Lionsgate. If you hate ads as much I do though, maybe look elsewhere for this one.

gorgeous!

All those ads can’t detract too much from this beautiful masterpiece about an American ballerina who scores an invitation to attend the most prestigious German ballet academy but discovers there’s something far more sinister happening inside those walls. While that sounds like your average cultist horror film, Suspiria has a lot more going for it. There’s a reason this film is getting what looks to be a very promising remake but I’m not sure that will be able to hold up to the amazing design elements of Argento’s cult classic.

Back of the car shot

While the pacing is a little off (perhaps in part since it’s from 1977), the story builds its tension so well. The first fifteen minutes build the paranoia that lingers throughout the film. There’s something weird happening in that school and Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) and Sara (Stefania Casini) are going to figure it out. Even though towards the end of the second act there’s a huge info dump that explains most of the odd events, there are still some surprises left in store for you at the end of the film that keeps you going through this beautiful and horrifying landscape. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is scary though except for a couple of moments here and there. Mostly the film is just paranoid and stressful and sometimes that’s better than cheap scares and gore.

LOOK AT ALL THESE IMAGES

The opening lines of the movie set the tone for a dark fairy tale which comes to life with the vibrantly colored dance academy full of reds and greens and blues. Everything in the school has such a bold pattern and color to it, it creates a fantastic landscape that adds to the fairytale feel of the film but shrouds it in this terrifying nightmarish landscape. It’s so unsettling and yet so inviting at the same.  The film is like one beautiful fever dream. Even the gore has this beautiful quality to it. The blood looks like vibrant paint rather than your usual corn syrup or ketchup. I love horror films that recognize there’s beauty always mixed with horror and vice versa. Maybe not always off the screen in real life but certainly on the screen.

blood

The film has its drawbacks, badly dubbed audio and some poor acting, but overall Suspiria is a real treat to watch. It’s maybe not all the hype it was given to me by others, but it’s certainly a great film overall.