The Queen’s Gambit

A compelling story, exquisite period detail, and a wonderful lead performance make this Netflix series a deeply engaging show anyone can get into. It also might inspire you to add chess set to your Christmas list this year.

The Queen’s Gambit is a miniseries released this year on Netflix. It is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Trevis. The story follows an orphaned chess prodigy as she rises from a novice in an orphanage basement to the world stage and a showdown with the top ranked Soviet player at the Moscow Invitational in the late 1960’s. The story is given room to breathe by expanding its narrative over the course of seven episodes.

The series has wonderful attention to detail. It begins in the mid 1950’s as Beth Harmon, is admitted to an orphanage after her mother is killed in a car accident. The series takes place throughout the 50’s and 60’s and is filled with a wonderfully authentic aesthetic. From the carpeting to the costumes, every frame is filled with period accurate features. They don’t adhere to the generic cliches of the 50’s and 60’s. The look and feel is very specific to the characters in the story. The orphanage feels lived in and much older than the period with minor updates the characters would make. Beth is eventually adopted by a very middle class family trying to look like an upper class family, and the costumes and decor of the house represent that. Beth’s wardrobe reflects not only the period, but her personal taste. She doesn’t just go for the outlandish cliche dresses of the period, but sticks close to a personal style that feels right for her. It’s really fun to inhabit this world with these characters.

Speaking of the characters, they are a fascinating bunch of odd balls. Beth herself is a bit prickly, but she’s not a belligerent troubled genius like we’ve seen a million times. She has some rough edges. She is single minded in her goals. She isn’t always the most likable protagonist, but she is always fascinating to watch. She’s played beautifully by Anya Taylor-Joy who feels effortless throughout the film simply embodying the character rather than playing a part. Bill Camp plays Mr. Shaibel the janitor who first teaches her chess. Their early scenes are fascinating to watch. He is a stoic and gruff man who comes to admire her genius with the game. He changes, but he avoids the trope of the gruff mentor who melts into a cuddly bear by the charms of his protege. Beth is adopted by Alma, played by Marielle Heller. She is a woman who is in over her head, but she and Beth help each other through life. She has both a positive and negative impact on Beth, and that dichotomy is wonderfully explored. Finally, Moses Ingram plays Jolene who maybe Beth’s truest friend. She begins as a foul mouthed girl at the orphanage and grows into an independent woman in her own right. From start to finish, she’s fantastic.

I have struggled not to refer to this series as a film, because it feels all of a piece. It is a cohesive story that feels more like a film than a tv show. Each episode was written and directed by one individual, Scott Frank. This unity of vision has done so much for the show. It just feels like a complete narrative beginning to end. There are no extra episodes or fillers. It’s a solid story from start to finish. He also does a brilliant job of making the advanced chess these characters are playing if not entirely understandable for a novice at least compelling to watch. This really is a sports movie except about chess. This isn’t your grandma’s chess. This is sexy chess with gorgeous, glamorous people playing at the highest level. It is fun to watch and deeply engaging.

I have a few problems with the show. At the orphanage, Beth and the other girls present are given tranquilizers. This was apparently common practice. Beth develops an addiction to the pills and to alcohol. Her addictions are given ample screen time, but her recovery and battle with addiction isn’t. One episode she is simply clean. She relapses, but it doesn’t take a huge toll on her. She just stops taking them again. It’s an odd way to depict her addiction. It’s more of a side note in her journey rather than an obstacle to overcome.

The narrative is also curiously paced. It charts her rise to great heights in the chess world, but that’s about it. It’s just a series of heights. She leaps from one success to another. Even when she fails or loses a big match, she isn’t truly defeated. The narrative is more about her inner drive and her insatiable determination to have some control over her life which explains why these external forces don’t impact the narrative arc as much as it would or should. However it makes for an odd feel to the narrative as she just continues climbing like a roller coster that never really gives us that first drop.

My last gripe is with the character of Benny Watts played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster. I don’t like him. He’s supposed to be like the bad boy of chess with his leather jacket and knife on his belt, but he just sucks. I don’t like him. He serves a purpose narratively. The actor does a good job of playing him. I just personally found him annoying and insufferable. Your mileage with this character may vary. He just got on my nerves.

Overall, I really enjoyed this series. I would go so far as to say I loved it. I would definitely watch it again. It has inspired me to break out my chess set. Definitely give it a watch this holiday season. A-

Jungle Fever

Getting back into Spike Lee’s filmography we return with Jungle Fever. This is a movie with moments of transcendent greatness that falls short in its execution.

Spike Lee followed up Mo’ Better Blues with Jungle Fever. Mo’ Better Blues was not a big hit at the box office and received mixed response from critics. Most critics felt it was a let down from the heights of Do The Right Thing which is often the case. When someone makes a world shattering masterpiece any follow up is going to be a disappointment and receive some backlash.

The backlash against Mo’ Better Blues was rather pointed however. One specific aspect stuck out to some critics. That was the depiction of Moe and Josh Flatbush played by John and Nicholas Turturro. They were Jewish club owners who exploited the band for profit. This depiction ran afoul of the Anti Defamation League. Lee stood by his work saying that…

“if critics are telling me that to avoid charges of anti-Semitism, all Jewish characters I write have to be model citizens, and not one can be a villain, cheat or a crook, and that no Jewish people have ever exploited black artists in the history of the entertainment industry, that’s unrealistic and unfair.”

Lee’s dedication to his characters and his refusal to backdown from controversy lead to Jungle Fever. A film about interracial relationships, drug addiction, and racial tensions. The film follows Wesley Snipes who plays a successful architect with a loving wife and a delightful daughter. When Annabella Sciorra enters his office as a new secretary, the two begin a torrid affair. Sciorra is from a very traditional Italian family. Who react very badly when they discover she’s sleeping with a black man. Snipes faces his own excoriation when his wife and friends discover he’s having an affair especially with a white woman.

Snipes is great. He’s charming and has wonderful screen presence here. It’s easy to get on his side even when he’s behaving very badly. Sciorra is also wonderful. She has such feistiness yet such vulnerability. She walks that line and creates a full life on screen. The thing is, this central relationship seems tertiary to Lee’s true interests. Lee surrounds these two with far more interesting and compelling material.

Samuel L Jackson plays Snipes’s brother Gator. He’s a crack addict who charms their mother out of petty cash and outright lies to her to score money for drugs. He dances and twitches his way through the movie all the way to an Oscar nomination, his first. His journey through addiction is clearly something Lee wanted to explore, and he found the perfect actor to take it on. Jackson himself had just gotten clean after years of drug addiction and channeled those experiences into his performance. He is utterly convincing in this role. There is a scene in which Snipes goes looking for Gator and he ends up in a crack house. It is a scene that encapsulates the crack epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s. The scene is horrifying in its implications. It’s like something out of Dante’s inferno.

Another group of character’s Lee is clearly interested in is Paulie who owns a little shop. He’s played by John Turturro. He’s a mild mannered young man with a terrible 90’s haircut who was engaged to Sciorra’s character before the affair with Snipes. His place is inhabited by the regular guys who are all varying degrees of racist. There scenes are full of some of the most interesting contradictions on film. They complain about the black mayor, but refuse to vote. They hate black people but love hip hop music. Paulie lives with his father played by Anthony Quinn. Quinn is especially powerful in one scene in which he tells Paulie about marriage. Its a fascinating scene that is absolutely to notch.

There is one more scene that is a true A+. It involves Snipes and Sciorra. They are at this point living together. On their way home, they begin play fighting. A flirty kind of wrestling that looks real enough to someone across the street who calls the cops. When the people show up, the resulting scene is one of the most abrupt, horrifying, and suspenseful ever captured. It puts us completely in the point of view of someone on the receiving end of aggressive policing. It is a challenging scene. to sit through. It gives the viewer a lot to think about.

Finally, there is one final scene that has to be addressed. Snipes’s wife is named Drew, played by Lonette McKee. After she discovers the affair, she and her friends sit in her living room and discuss the implications. Drew is light skinned and wonders if her husband married her because of her light complexion. Her darker skinned friends address how they’ve always been made to feel different. These women offer hard truths and share deep seated fears and insecurities regarding color. It’s revealing scene that addresses topics I’ve never been exposed to. It turns out the scene was real. These women are sharing real feelings improvised on the spot. There is so much truth in this scene that the movie is worth watching for it alone.

These scenes and moments are undeniably great, but the movie as a whole doesn’t work. There isn’t enough connective tissue to pull these moments together. The story is about an affair, but it’s really about everyone around the affair. The central relationship never feels real inspire of the lead actors talents. the movie just does not come together as a unified narrative. For that reason it is a series of peaks and troughs rather than a great movie through and through.

I’d say watch it for the challenging narrative and hard truths it exposes. I’d also say don’t be surprised if it’s not the best movie you’ve seen. It’s narrative shakiness really diminishes the overall impact. Also it has the most annoying opening song of all time. It is repetitive and childish, and it got stuck in my head for a week. I hope I never hear it again. When I rewatch this movie, I will skip the opening credits for sure.

It’s mostly my cup of tea. B+

It is hard to find. This one is not online anywhere. I had to buy a second hand DVD. It’s worth watching if you can get a copy though.

Happiest Season

This is a movie that is occasionally brilliant, but it adheres too closely to holiday rom com feel good formula to really transcend the genre in the way that it clearly wants to.

Happiest Season is a holiday movie that follows Abby and Harper played by Kirsten Stewart and Mackenzie Davis respectively. They are two women head over heels for each other. Harper invites Abby to her family’s home for Christmas. Abby reluctantly accepts, but decides to go hoping to propose to Harper on Christmas. On the drive, Harper breaks down and reveals that she’s been lying to Abby. Harper lied about coming out to her parents. They think she’s straight and that Abby is Harper’s straight roommate. Abby is now faced with the prospect of playing straight for Harper’s conservative parents for an entire week.

Harper’s parents are played by Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber. They’re wonderful performers playing the absolute worst people. They are image obsessed. He’s running for mayor of their town and would do anything to avoid a scandal. Her main goal seems to be getting the perfect family Christmas photo and will crush anyone’s feelings to get it. They are passive aggressive to the extreme. They are horrible people.

While home, Abby sees a new side of Harper a violently competitive side. Harper and her sister Sloane are brutal with one another. Sloane is played by Alison Brie who seems to be playing a more sinister and extreme version of the perfect sister trope. These two continually lock into terminator mode where they get very serious and try to destroy the other in some trivial contest. Harper’s other sister is Jane, and she’s the best. She’s played by Mary Holland. She is all quirks and oddities. She keeps trying to explain her overly complicated fantasy novel to anyone who will listen. She never feels like she’s quirky for the sake of being quirky though. Holland keeps her firmly rooted in reality. She is a person who broke free from some horrible parents and embraced all the things that make her unique. She is such fun whenever she’s on screen.

There are two movies at work here, there is a very real and important story about coming out. Harper comes from a home where love was not guaranteed. She and her sisters had to fight for their parents affection. Harper has spent her entire life afraid of losing that love if she told them the truth about herself. Caught up in that is Abby, how much is she willing to sacrifice and go along with before it becomes too much and she loses herself?

The second movie is a heart warming holiday comedy in which trips ice skating go wrong, and people get wrongfully accused of shoplifting and a big reveal ends up in a silly fight resulting in a Christmas tree getting knocked over. But come Christmas morning, all will be forgiven, old resentments will die, new families will be made and the power of love with triumph.

The problem is these two elements do not convincingly converge. Harper’s parents are the absolute worst. But overnight they transform into completely different people so that the movie can have it’s heartwarming finale. There’s no transition. They simply change everything about themselves and their personalities because of one scene. They spent a lifetime denying their children affection if they didn’t tow the line, then one scene later they are offering unconditional love to anyone in their vicinity? I don’t buy it. Harper, spends most of the movie being the absolute worst. She ignores her girlfriend. She lies to everyone. She forces her girlfriend to lie for her. She then ignores her and rejects her. She denounces her in front of her family, then because of one rom com speech in a parking lot, all is forgiven and everyone is happy? I don’t buy it. In order to have their rom com finish the movie smoothes out all the prickly edges and sharp corners that made it interesting in the first place.

Finally, Daniel Levy is in this movie. He gets his own paragraph. He is the co-creator of Schitt’s Creek. He is phenomenal. I’d watch him do anything. He is hilarious. His play’s Abby’s friend who is foolishly volunteers to watch several people’s pets while they are out of town. He offers iconic comedy relief and some incredible words of wisdom. He and Abby share a scene late in the film that is completely brilliant and beautiful. He and Jane should have their own movie. These two characters were perfect. They are awesome. Brilliant performers doing great work.

The movie has moments of greatness, but it falls short in my eyes. I admit this movie is not made for me. It may have a different affect for you. It’s a half a cup of tea for me. There are worse holiday movies you could be watching. It is currently streaming on Hulu. B

The Devil All the Time

Streaming on Netflix, this film is punishingly dark. It is a deep dive into the horrors we inflict on one another. It boasts some incredible performances and an aesthetic that seeps under the skin. However, it feels like it’s missing an essential element in its exploration of evil.

The film follows a series of loosely related characters in two small towns in Ohio and West Virginia in the days after WWII. The films characters pass loosely through the narrative. They inhabit the screen until their stories run their courses then the film moves on to the next set of characters. The most prominent stories follow a returning veteran named Willard played by Bill Skarsgard. Willard is haunted by the horrible things he say in the Pacific theater during the war. However, he keeps that evil at bay as he meets a beautiful woman and has a family. Tragedy hits his family and Willard descends into despair and commits terrible acts himself that scar his son. His son grows up to be Arvin, played by Tom Holland. Holland does a beautiful job of conveying the weight of his troubled psyche as he outwardly expresses ease and a carefree nature. Arvin runs a foul of the local preacher Reverend Teagardin,, played by Robert Pattinson. Pattinson has come a long way as an actor since his says a sexy, sparkly, vampire with fwoopy hair. Here is absolutely disgusting. He is skeazy and nasty and sweaty. He abuses his power and takes advantage of the young ladies in his congregation. Arvin is very protective of his sister as displayed by some intense violence earlier in his story, and he and the preacher have an incredibly intense showdown late in the film.

Dispersed among these characters are a dozen or so others. There’s another preacher who commits an unspeakably cruel act in order to test his faith. There is a couple who like to pick up hitchhikers and inflict evil upon them. There is a sherif who is a pathetic and insufferable puke who struggles with his ambition and his duty. The trend should be pretty clear. Bad people doing bad things. This movie embraces some harrowing storylines and explores some of the worst people imaginable. That said it never fully loses a sense of hope. It never closes the door on the idea of human decency.

These actors are all giving truly great performances. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast. Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson received most of the early praise, but Sebastian Stan deserves credit for looking as ugly as he could in the role of the sheriff. He really inhabits his part and gives it his all. One of the toughest roles goes to Riley Keough. She plays one half of the psycho hitchhiker couple. She takes the character from a fun loving young woman excited to do everything, to a woman who is haunted by the screams and struggling to come to terms with who she is and what she’s done. Ever actor in this movie walks a tightrope of being too despicable to watch and being human enough to care about. No one becomes a full blown cliche here. We’ve all seen the sweaty southern preacher before, but never quite the way Pattinson plays it. We know the veteran haunted by the war, but Skarsgard finds new nuances and shading to give this character. The actors keep us involved even when their actions become indefensible.

I have a few big problems with the movie, the first is its treatment of its female characters. For the most part, they are victims. They have little control over their own lives. They respond to what the men in their lives do. They are often given little to do in the film. Haley Bennett and Mia Wasikowska in particular are just wives who smile a lot until bad things happen. These are great actresses who deserve real parts. The movie is not especially cruel to the women in the movie, it just doesn’t seem to know what to do with them other than as objects for the men.

This movie will not be for everyone. If you don’t like violence, please skip this movie. If you don’t like really intense movies that ratchet up the tension until it finally bursts, this movie won’t be for you. If you can stomach it though it is really well executed. The director here is Antonio Campos. It’s his fifth featured as director, and man does he pack a punch. He has a great eye for framing and a fantastic sense for building up tension. The violence feels real. The cruelty and evil on display feels earned and never gratuitous.

The real problem comes when trying to answer the question of why. Why do these characters do the horrible things they do? Some are pretty clearly motivated. War trauma, religious fanaticism, and revenge are all clearly laid out as motivators, but the deeper question of why is left untouched. The film never really gets to the heart of evil and why people do what they do. It could be inferred from the title, that these characters lives are all just touched by the devil. The devil made them do it, but that doesn’t feel true. The film seems to be saying something more about the nature of evil, but the message isn’t clear. There is a bit of righteous violence as the most evil are done away with by an avenging angel type character, but that doesn’t seem to be the theme the film is striving toward. Muddled messaging usually handicaps a film, but here the filmmaking is so solid, that it sort of balances out in the end. Each story in this film seems to have its own purpose and its own reason for the violence it depicts. This doesn’t create a thematically cohesive piece, but it does create a more or less satisfying story experience.

All in all, it’s worth watching for the tremendous acting on display. Its filmmaking craft is undeniable. It’s violence and evil are a lot to be endured, but if you can stomach it you might a worthwhile story or two in here. It’s mostly my cup of tea. B+

Rebecca (2020)

Recently released to Netflix, this adaptation of Rebecca looks fantastic and contains wonderful actors doing their best, but it leaves out the heart, soul, romance, and mystery of the story.

Rebecca is based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. It follows an unnamed protagonist who meets and falls in love with a wealthy widower. They get married and she returns with him to his family estate called Manderley. Once there she is haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca, who was by all accounts the perfect woman.

This story was most famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. That movie was a brilliant adaptation that people should seek out. This will not be a comparison of the two films. Nor will this be a critique of the faithfulness of the adaptation from the novel. I will endeavor to take the film on its own terms and judge the film accordingly. Too many people have disregarded the movie because it isn’t the book or the earlier film.

The movie stars Lily James as the protagonist. She does a lovely job with the part. She is a convincingly naive young woman at the start. We meet her working as a companion to a loathsome woman who takes her on holiday to Monte Carlo in the 1920’s. At their hotel, they meet the wealthy and famous Maxim De Winter played by Armie Hammer. He is handsome and charming and easy company, but Hammer never quite gets any deeper than that. He feels very surface in this movie. He is a good actor, but he totally misses the mark here. He seems to be playing an affable fellow who sometimes frowns and walks out. He does that a lot here. He looks grumpy and walks out of scenes quite often. He just doesn’t have the internal anguish for the role. He feels very surface level and lacking a real inner life.

Anyway, they have a sun drenched romance as James and Hammer frolic in period swimwear and drive around in classic cars. They rush into a marriage proposal and then rush to Manderley. The book opens with the famous line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The director Ben Wheatley seemed to take that line to heart and treats the film as a sort of feverish dream. Nothing quite feels real here. He excises connective shots in order to create a disorienting feeling. James walks to a door, hard cut to her standing at a window down the hall. It feels jarring because we don’t see the shot of her going down the hall. Sometimes this creates a dreamy effect. Sometimes it just pulls us out of the movie. In addition, there are multiple dream sequences aided by excessive cgi. These feel unimportant to the story and more an excuse to show off some wild imagery.

There are whole sequences in the movie that don’t feel like they really happened, but seem to have actually happened in the narrative. There is a segment in which the James character meets Jack Favell played by Sam Riley. Because we don’t see how James gets from the house to the meeting with Favell, and we don’t see how she gets back and no one else sees Favell it feels like it might be a dream. Or maybe Favell isn’t real at all? But then he is real because he comes back later. There’s also a heart of darkness style sequence where James chases after Rebecca’s ghost through the bowels of Manderley and then is surrounded by dancing people in masks that must be a nightmare, but it doesn’t feel like a dream sequence. It’s shot like a chase scene and doesn’t feel like its a depiction of her internal struggle. This dissonance of framing and story is just confusing rather than deep. It pulled me out constantly.

The big part in any version of Rebecca is the character of Mrs. Danvers. Here she is played by Kristin Scott Thomas. She is perfect casting. She has an imperious withering glare that could not be more suited to a character. Unfortunately, in this film, she’s more of a mean minor character rather than a true antagonist. She undermines her and sets her up for failure a few times, but she’s never truly horrible to our protagonist. She talks fondly of Rebecca, and glowers from balconies and staircases, but she never becomes a full blooded villain in the film. Danvers suggests she kill herself, but that might be a dream. She sets her up to make a fool of herself at a party, but it doesn’t feel like a major act of marriage ending sabotage.

There’s a lot more style here than substance. It tries so hard to create a dreamlike tone, that it fails to engage dramatically. It also eschews all characters for the sake of our protagonist. No one else is given much time or attention compared to her. It’s a wonderful looking movie, but it just doesn’t come together.

Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas are wonderful actresses doing good work with what they have. Sam Riley is also fantastic as Favell. He manages to shine through. Hammer is a beautiful disappointment. He looks great, but he’s missing the mark. He’s just miscast here. The film is beautifully shot. The production design is great. The movie just doesn’t click as a story. It’s misdirected. Sam Wheatley has made some good films before, but this one doesn’t come together.

I you’re looking for a nice looking movie to spend a few hours on this is the movie for you. If you want to really experience the story, check out one of the other adaptations or read the book. It’s not really my cup of tea. B

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Now streaming on Netflix, this is one of the great courtroom dramas. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, this film is powerful, thought provoking, and wildly entertaining.

For those who don’t know about the Chicago 7, here’s a brief history lesson. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, a series of anti Vietnam War protests turned into full blown riots and eight people were charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot. Their trial was an extremely contentious affair that brought up questions about racism, the roll of protest in society, and the impartiality of the judicial system.

This film is a dramatization of those events, and the film hews pretty close to the historical record. It rearranges a few events and excludes certain details in order to streamline the narrative, but it is a faithful adaptation to the spirit of the events. It’s also a great springboard from which to research these events on your own. It’s a fascinating chapter in American history.

The film follows, Abbie Hoffman, played perfectly by Sacha Baron Cohen, and Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne. Hoffman is everything we imagine when we picture a 1960’s hippie. Hayden is a much more focused political activist. These are two of the seven who are on trial. They helped organize a protest against the Democratic Convention in Chicago. When things went wrong and a full blown riot broke out they along with their friends and co organizers were arrested and put on trial.

The bulk of the film follows their trial and shows the events of the riots in flashbacks. What’s wonderful about these flashbacks is that they feel so seamless and natural in the context of the story. They are perfectly woven into the narrative, so the story is able to flow freely. We are easily swept up in that flow.

The seven are represented by William Kuntsler, played by Mark Rylance, who is able to find the perfect note in every scene. He has a dry sense of humor and a juicy delivery with his every line. It’s both a top notch performance while also being completely understated. However, Kuntsler isn’t representing everyone on trial. There is an eighth man on trial. This is Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Bobby wasn’t present for the riots. He delivered a speech and left town. He doesn’t know why he’s on trial. He is also on trial without his lawyer. He has no representation, and this leads to some of the most intense exchanges in the film as the judge doesn’t care if he has his lawyer or not.

The judge is played by Frank Langella. Could he be more perfect in this movie? No. He is wonderful here. He is a villain without appearing villainous. He is stern and powerful. He is arrogant and drunk on his power. He is hateful and cruel. But he also feels at all times like a person. He has his own life and his own point of view. The movie doesn’t forget that. It gives everyone a story and an inner life. He also might feel unbelievable or over the top, but by all accounts he’s one hundred percent accurate. In fact the historical judge went farther than depicted in the film. He has clear disdain for the defendants and issues charges of contempt of court like he’s handing out candy on Halloween. He is the perfect actor in the perfect role for this movie.

The film is full of fascinating exchanges. There’s a wonderful dialogue between Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden about what the progressive movement is going to look like if Hoffman continues his hippie ways. There’s a great scene about the difference between someone protesting to frustrate their parents and someone for whom the cause is life and death. The film also has a deeply powerful ending as the characters remember the real reason they’re doing this to begin with. It’s a teary eyed uplifting ending, and who doesn’t need a little uplift now?

The dialogue crackles with Sorkin’s signature wit, but it doesn’t get lost in the tangents like some of his other work. His characters has unique voices and are truly delightful to watch. The actors rise to the challenge of his dialogue brilliantly.

Sorkin also asserts himself as a director here. He makes very smart decisions about tone and pacing. He has clearly learned a lot from his previous directing experience with Molly’s Game. His point of view is sharp. His editing rhythms are pitch perfect. He holds his shots and chooses when to cut wisely. It’s a great directing job.

I loved this movie. It’s the best new movie I’ve seen in a long time. In a year devoid of movies, this one is top of the list. In a year chock full of great movies, this would still stand out to me. It’s streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend you check it out. It will make you laugh, cry, and think about the world today. It has a lot to say about America and where we are today. Please give this one a watch. It’s worth it.

It’s my cup of tea. A+

Psycho (1960)

Ending Halloween month strong with the big one. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Not the crappy remake. None of the crappy sequels. The original. The great movie. How does it hold up? Doe sit have the thrill it used to? Is it dated? Let’s find out.

For those who don’t know, Psycho is a 1960 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It is the godfather of all slasher films. Its influence and reach in the horror genre cannot be overstated. The story follows Marion Crane, played by the delightful Janet Leigh, as she makes a big mistake followed by an even bigger mistake. We meet her and her boyfriend Sam, played by John Gavin, in a hotel room after a lunch hour tryst. They lament the fact that they can’t just get married already. Sam is broke. He lives in the back of the hardware store where he works. Their future together isn’t very bright until Sam can get some money together. It’s a little old fashioned, but also very understandable and in some ways very modern. They are meeting in a hotel room for a little adult time after all. It feels very contemporary in an odd way.

Back at Marion’s office, a real dreck of a guy comes in and hits on Marion and throws $40,000 cash on her desk like it’s nothing. He is a real obnoxious jerk. Marion is supposed to deposit the cash. Instead she takes the money and runs to Sam. What follows is an iconic driving sequence in which Marion is followed by a suspicious police officer with the most intense aviators you’ve ever seen. Seriously, his sunglasses are deeply intimidating. They are massive black holes where his eyes should be.

Marion eventually finds herself at the Bates Motel. The place is isolated and run by Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. The two have a sandwich before bed and share a conversation. This conversation scene is one of the most perfect scenes I’ve ever seen. The acting is understated and naturalistic. They convey so much subtext and hit dramatic beats in such a subtle way that you don’t even realize all the layers at play. Anthony Perkins in particular exudes a shy nervousness that feels childish, yet when Marion makes a suggestion regarding his mother, he changes. He doesn’t turn into a raving maniac, his transformation is subtle and seems to be coming from within. The change happens behind his eyes and everything about him responds to that change. It is chilling without ever trying to chill. The camera work here is the kind that is completely brilliant without ever calling attention to itself. When the angle changes, it’s creates a brand new layer of meaning and intensity. It’s a truly fantastic scene.

Of course there is the famous shower scene. Spoiler alert for a 60 year old movie. A character gets murdered in a shower. It is one of the most often studied and referenced scenes in all movie history and with good reason. Somehow it still carries visceral shock value even all these years later. The editing and the music combine to create a true symphony of emotion. It’s a horrific scene that still works.

This is a good place to mention the filmmaking in general but the editing specifically. This film is shot and edited in a very modern way. It genuinely feels very contemporary. The rhythm and pacing of the film especially in the first half feels very fresh. The scenes have a nice clip. The editing keeps everything moving, and the moving camera work gives every scene that sense of urgency modern films seem to have.

Is the film scary? In the scary scenes, yes. The movie isn’t all about horror though. There’s a lot more going on here. The film is really about a theft of $40,000 and the investigation into the girl who stole it. It’s about normal people who come face to face with something they can’t really comprehend something they’ve never encountered before… the “psycho” of the title.

There are some moments that drag. In the second half there are a few scenes that feel like they could have been cut way way down or removed entirely. An exchange with the sherif could be shortened. The scene with the psychologist could be trimmed, some even argue excised entirely. I wouldn’t go that far. I think it serves an important purpose, but I think it could be cut in half to great effect.

There are three scenes that made me jump and grit my teeth in fear. The shower, the stairs, and the cellar. All scenes involving Norman’s mother. All scenes famous for the power of their filmmaking and their impact. They carry the same impact. In the 31 days, I’ve seen some insane things, but these scenes from 60 years ago still carry quite the punch.

There are two scenes that feel perfect to me. The first I’ve already mentioned. The second is when Detective Arbogast, played by Martin Blosom, interrogates Norman. The scene is so well written as Arbogast’s questions trip up Norman and expose his lies. It’s a wonderful performance from Blosom who still feels friendly and easy going even as he grills the stammering Norman. It’s also a great performance from Perkins as Norman, who convincingly falls to pieces before our eyes as he lies to cover his other lies and he trips over his lies repeatedly. It’s such a great scene.

It’s a little dated, but it’s also very contemporary. It’s genuinely scary. It’s brilliantly directed. It’s perfectly acted. It is a great movie. You should definitely see this at some point in your life, why not make it Halloween weekend?

It’s my cup of tea. A+

The Silence of the Lambs

It’s so much fun to watch good movies. This is a very good movie. It’s great as a movie. It’s also a great example of an unsettling and frightening film that lingers long after the credits roll.

Released in 1990 and directed by Jonathan Demme, this film follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, as she is tasked with a simple assignment by her manipulative boss Jack Crawford, played by Scott Glenn. That assignment is to talk to a notorious serial killer. It’ll be good trainee for her and hopefully they can glean something from this man. She arrives at the mental hospital and is lead through locked door after locked door, past warning upon warning about this man. The build up to meeting him is intense, and when she finally meets this man he lives up to the anticipation. He is of course Hannibal Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins.

These two performers in these two rolls is absolutely magnetic. Foster does a fantastic job of conveying Starling’s youth and her anxieties especially under the intense eyes of Lecter and Crawford. She makes subtle gestures and minor vocal stammers that fly under the radar yet convey so much. And if there was an award for the actor who did the most with his eyes alone, it would go straight to Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. My goodness he has such intensity in his gaze. For most of the film he is locked in a single room. He can’t move or interact with Starling in any meaningful way except through his gaze and his looks. Hopkins infuses some incredible depth into his facial expressions. There are so many moments where his slightly raised eyebrow, or the smallest shift in his gaze conveys a complexity of emotion and thought that rarely gets captured in movies. These two are incredible.

As Starling talks to Lecter she uncovers more and more about the killer Buffalo Bill, a case the FBI is currently working on. A serial killer is abducting and killing young women. He is also taking their skins. Buffalo Bill has a tortured psychology that involves hating himself so much that he wants to create for himself a new body using the skin he takes from his victims. The more she talks to Lecter, the more insights she gleans into this killers mind. However, this information isn’t free. Lecter wants personal details from Starling’s life as well. What he wants with these details is up to the viewers imagination. Starling is able to uncover a lot about Bill and she becomes a more vital part of the investigation. However, as she inserts herself into the case, she is met with hostility to her presence by the men in charge.

This film is shot from Starling’s perspective. The camera is almost always at her eye level. When characters talk to her, they are looking directly into the camera, staring at the audience. This puts us entirely in her shoes. It helps us identify with her experience. It also helps set us on edge. We’re not used to the actors looking at us, let alone staring as intently at us Lecter does in most of his scenes. In scenes without Starling in them, the camera remains locked in with a character. Each scene is shown from a characters perspective. This brilliant use of perspective elevates this movie beyond most dramas and most horror films. Most movies are shot with a birds eye or director’s eye view of the action. This movie is firmly rooted in the reality of the characters. Because we don’t step outside the characters the movie feels less like a film and more like a real experience we’re enduring with these people.

There are a few things that make this movie truly frightening. One is that so much of what happens is left up to our own imaginations. When Starling is shown a photo of the aftermath of Lecter’s attack on a nurse, she is horrified and the event is spoken of in oblique tones, but we never see the photo. It’s the implication that scares. When two police are killed later in the movie, we see the aftermath of the killing. The bloody, horrifying, carnage is all we get to see. We are left to imagine how they got to that state. Whatever we come up with will be more haunting than any special effect we could see.

It’s also frightening to know that these characters are based on or inspired by real people. Real serial killers exist and the horrible things they have done are not too far off from the horrific things this movie touches on. Ghosts are scary. Vampires, monsters, and werewolves can all be scary, but there’s something far scarier in the evil real humans can inflict upon one another.

This is a well crafted movie. The script is like a tightly wound cable. It could snap at any moment. The direction is pitch perfect. Every frame perfectly constructed. The performances are gloriously engaging. The fear is real without a single jump scare. It’s scary, but it rarely feels like a horror movie. If you hate horror movies, this might be a good one for your Halloween. There are elements of true crime. There is scary stuff. There is a macabre fascination with the twisted psyches involved. It’s a great movie.

It’s my cup of tea. A+

The Babadook

Oh boy, what an absolutely terrifying movie. This one truly rattled me. It’s incredible filmmaking that can eek unease, dread, and terror out of even the most mundane moments.

The film can be described in a number of ways all of which would be technically accurate. Amelia, played by Essie Davis, is a single mother trying to get a good nights sleep despite her unruly son. Or… Amelia is a woman haunted by the death of her husband and that trauma manifests in the form of a monster from a story book. Or… Amelia and her son are traumatized by a malicious demon in fancy dress clothes. Or… An Australian filmmaker tortures the audience with a truly scary film for an hour and a half. All fo these are equally accurate.

Amelia and her son Samuel are struggling. Amelia can’t sleep. She also can’t embrace her son fully. Her husband died on the way to the hospital while she was in labor. This trauma haunts her to this day and causes a chasm between her and her son. Meanwhile, Samuel has a kind of arrested development. He believes in monsters and crafts makeshift weapons to protect his mom from the monsters he believes are at their door. One night before bed, Samuel takes a book off the shelf. It’s a book Amelia has never seen before. It’s called Mister Babadook. It turns out to be horrifying. Samuel comes to believe that Mister Babadook is coming to get them. As time passes, Amelia begins to believe it too.

The filmmaking here is unbelievable. It borrows a page from The Exorcist in that it uses editing and sound design in an almost violent way. Smash cuts to loud settings are incorporated throughout the first half to create jolts that never let the audience relax. Quick cuts to odd camera angles keeps the audience on edge and off balance. Rapid editing that builds to a static shot gets the heart rate up then abandons us in a hard long shot. It’s all brilliant work. One of the most well executed segments takes place at a park. Amelia is talking to her sister while Samuel plays on the swings. Samuel shouts about climbing higher. Amelia is distracted by her conversation. The film cuts between the conversation and Samuel climbing higher as the conversation becomes more intense and Samuel gets higher, the editing becomes more rapid. Faster and faster cuts that culminate in a wide shot of Samuel on the top of the swings. Silence. Smash cut to Samuel screaming in the backseat of the car. This rapid editing, combined with the building conversation, then the silence, then the smash cut to the screaming child incites fear and confusion. What happened between the swings and the car? We don’t know, but we’re uncomfortable with the implications. It’s not an inherently scary scene, but through a smart director and a skilled editor, it becomes deeply unsettling.

The design of The Babadook is instantly iconic. It is a dark shadowy figure that has long knife-life fingers an overcoat and a top hat. It is horrifying in the best way possible. The book from which The Babadook springs is vividly realized. It is scary to look at all on its own. Beautiful work. You just have to see it to fully appreciate it. Amelia’s house is perfectly created. It has a gray and black color palette that feels realistic for the most part, until the lights go out and the shadows get longer and those colors take on a heightened aesthetic. It is scary and ominous without having to try.

Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel are an incredible pair. Samuel is a very weird boy, but his oddities clearly come from a challenging upbringing. Wiseman manages to convey a lot and create a vividly realized character. Essie Davis should’ve been nominated for an Oscar for this. She explodes off the screen whether she is lost in an exhausted daze or berated her child like a possessed monster. It’s a great performance. She runs an emotional marathon in this movie, and definitely comes out the winner.

Now, is The Babadook real, or is it just a figment of Amelia’s beleaguered and traumatized mind? Well, the film doesn’t offer an easy answer to that question. It is shot from Amelia’s perspective. We see the world the way she does as such we are stuck with an extremely unreliable narrator. This is actually a brilliant twist on the genre. Early on only Samuel can see The Babadook. Amelia can’t see it, and doesn’t believe him. Usually, these movies followed the POV of the one who can see the monsters and the nonbelievers are relegated to background parts. This film gives us this perspective we don’t usually get. As the movie progresses and Amelia goes longer without sleep, her perspective begins slipping. So, is The Babadook real? I don’t honestly think it matters. It is real to her. She experiences something real to her. It could just be the manifestation of her trauma. It could be c oping mechanism her brain has crafted to deal with her resentment toward her son. It could be a demon that has sacked their lives. What matters is that Amelia can’t bear to touch her son at the start of the film and holds him loving at the end. The facts of the case are less important than the story being told. Also that ambiguity really helps the film stick to the walls of your brain like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth. It stays with you.

If you like your horror, intellectual, abstract, and challenging, then this is the movie for you. If you like your horror intense and relentless, this is also the movie for you. If you like easy answers or are looking for an easy movie to watch this movie is not going to go well for you. that’s not a criticism. Sometimes I need an easy to watch movie with a few jump scares and a neat conclusion. This is the opposite if that.

I was blown away by this movie. It is challenging, and vividly realized. Beautifully shot, intensely edited, and well acted, this movie deserves its place among the best horror movies of all time. It’s scary and effective as a drama. Check it out this Halloween. It’s awesome.

My cup of tea for sure. A

Black Christmas (all three versions)

Black Christmas is a 1974 classic slasher film that has been remade twice. These three movies could not be more different. They share a location and a title, and that’s about it. We’re going to compare all three in this old vs new vs… newer.

We’ll take them each one at a time then do a thorough comparison followed by a deep dive into spoiler territory.

The original Black Christmas was released in 1974 and was directed by Bob Clark. Bob Clark has an extremely eclectic filmography, but he’s probably best known for directing A Christmas Story. Yes, the movie with the BB gun that plays for 24 hours every year. The man who made that nice little Christmas movie also made this long walk into murder, suspicion, and terror. The story follows a sorority during the last days before Christmas break. They keep receiving obscene phone calls from an unknown caller. Meanwhile, Jess, played by Olivia Hussey, is having problems with her boyfriend Peter, played by Keir Dullea. Back at the sorority house the sisters are getting killed off one at a time by an unseen assailant.

The camera takes on the perspective of the assailant. This point of view shot serves to make the horror more intense as we the viewer seem to be the perpetrator. It also obscures the identity of the killer. Anyone could be this madman. He has no mask, and no modus operandi. This is Jason with his hockey mask and machete. He is an anonymous evil force that could be anyone. At various points in the movie it appears as though different characters could be the killer chief among the suspects is Peter who has a short temper and is clearly wound tight. There’s a deeply unsettling scene where he smashes a piano in a fit of rage. The film also does a nice job of building tension before the kills. It’s not about the murders it’s about the anticipation. The whole film is permeated by a sense of unease as anyone could be the killer and anyone could be next.

The first remake was released in 2006. This movie begins with the story of Billy Lenz a boy with a severely traumatizing backstory involving abuse, murder, and cannibalism. He was locked up for 15 years, until one Christmas he breaks out of the asylum and heads back to his old family house which is now a sorority house. The girls in the sorority are preparing for Christmas break when they begin receiving obscene messages and phone calls, and begin getting killed off one by one in extremely gruesome fashion.

The first difference is obvious. The killer’s identity is known from the beginning. His horrid backstory is laid out in excruciating detail. His motivations are clear. This is an interesting decision. It takes away the mystery and suspense the first film generated. It also doubles or even triples the body count of the first film. More backstory, more blood. Less build up. Less tension. The film is highly stylized. It has over saturated colors and is shot in the kind of style most early 200’s films were shot in here every frame is played for maximum impact. It feels at times like the director is a first timer and is throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that he’ll get noticed. The kills here are played for splatter entertainment and as such are over the top in the blood and guts department.

The final version was released in 2019 and stars Imogen Poots as Riley, a sorority sister who is trying to get her life back to normal after a sexual assault that occurred the previous year by the head of a fraternity. No one believed her except her sorority sisters and this year they get a little payback in the form of a Christmas talent show performance calling out the accused rapist. That night, they begin receiving obscene texts and messages from an unknown person. They are then attacked by multiple assailants dressed in matching black outfits. The sorority sisters must band together to fight back.

This one has some serious potential, not in the least because it stars Imogen Poots. She is an incredibly talented English actress who has been turning in wonderful performances under the radar for years now. She imbues her character with the shaky uncertainty of someone barely holding themselves together. She has these big eyes that communicate so much with every look. She’s great. The movie’s subject matter is also a very interesting topic that fits in with the setting of the story. A sorority attacked by a murderer is a prime metaphor for what is happening on college campuses all over the country. It is also a nice change up for the slasher genre. Young women have always been the target of slashers, but here that attack is extrapolated upon and made a broader theme. The problem is with the execution. Aside from one or two good jumps, this one is lacking the tension and fear of the first film, and due to its PG-13 rating it lacks the gore and splatter fun of the remake. There is also a twist at the end that neuters its theme and any potential message.

Now, let’s get into the spoilers. The identity of the killer is never revealed. Jess believes that it is Peter when he shows up at the house. He is killed, and everything seems to be okay. Then the phone rings again and the killer is still out there. The terror isn’t over. This film has such a well developed sense of dread and unease. It instills that sense of mistrust and suspicion in the viewer through its story telling and camera work. It’s a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Compare that to the 2006 film in which all ambiguity is replaced by hard facts and specific details. It followed he trend of the early 2000’s which was to over explain icons. This information however, just makes the villain cartoonish and makes him less scary. He isn’t an evil voice on the phone who could attack anyone anywhere. He is a specific guy with a specific backstory. This film also falls prey to the greatest error of slasher films. As soon as the tiny teenage girl knocks him down he is no longer scary. Jason gets pushed over. Freddy trips and falls. As soon as these monsters can be taken out by an untied shoe or a good hard shove, they lose all creditability as agents of fear. How could I be afraid of someone who can be defeated so easily? This killer is just a killer. This movie is just a generic slasher with the name Black Christmas attached.

The most modern remake really could have been something special. The subject matter makes for a really compelling first half. As Riley deals with her trauma and begins coming out of her shell the movie takes its time and gives us a compelling human story which the first two versions don’t have. The movie is definitely the least scary. It opens with a stalking sequence that works really well. A girl is stalked on her way home. She prepares her keys to fight back. There is a false attacker. She relaxes and that’s when things go wrong. It’s a pretty good segment. It’s the only good one though. For the most part this movie plays like an action movie not a horror movie. These girls fight back and there are a lot of sort of forced girl power moments that don’t exactly ring true. The biggest problem I have is the ending.

The girls are being attacked by a fraternity. This fraternity uses black magic to drink a black goo that transforms them into killing machines. It also possesses anyone who drinks with the spirit of an ancient evil dude who hated women. This takes the blame away from the guys. They weren’t bad guys. They were just possessed by an evil spirit. There aren’t real problems with sexual assault on campus. These guys were just mind controlled. It diminishes the message the movie is trying to send. It also makes it way less scary. There is a whole fraternity of guys to get killed by the super sorority. One killer is scary, a bunch of killers is just canon fodder. It’s really unfortunate that they went this route. Don’t include the supernatural. If the movie is about men attacking women, depict men attacking women. Don’t let them off the hook with supernatural silliness.

The first Black Christmas is the best overall. It has the strongest impact. It is the most frightening and unsettling. It makes classic Christmas carols feel scary. The second has a really strong stylistic quality, and lots of blood. If that’s your thing, the 2006 version is the one for you. The third has the strongest lead performance and the beginnings of a really great story, but it falls apart in the finale. It’s also the least scary of them all.

Each one brings something to the table. These movies don’t have the same problem as the Omen and its remake where they just made the same movie but worse. These films try new things and take the set up in a variety of directions. They don’t necessarily work, but they are interesting to watch.

The original is my cup of tea. The 2006 isn’t really my cup of tea. The 2019 also isn’t really my cup of tea although I wish it was. I wish it was better. Original – A-, 2006 – C+, 2019 – B-