V
I think most people have read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, right? It usually gets assigned in high schools, and as a result, most of the familiar tropes of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian state are ingrained in our culture: telescreens broadcasting propaganda, a police state violently crushing all dissent, and of course, the corruption of language to control the population’s thoughts.

Orwell didn’t invent these ideas, of course; he merely extrapolated the methods he observed being used by dictators like Hitler and Stalin into the future, resulting in one of the seminal works of 20th-century literature.

V for Vendetta reimagines what Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been like if Batman had been there.

Is that a bit flip? Maybe you think so now, but let’s look at how this film begins: we have pretty young damsel Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) walking home after curfew in a crumbling, futuristic London when she is attacked by government security agents known as “Fingermen,” who, upon finding a damsel, immediately propose to put her in distress. Already this movie is off on the wrong foot with me.

But then, the hero of the piece enters the scene: V (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious terrorist or freedom fighter wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who rescues Evey from her attackers and then proceeds to give the following melodramatic speech:

Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.

He goes on like that for a while longer, and then takes Evey to the rooftops of London to watch as Old Bailey is demolished while the 1812 Overture plays over the public address speakers.

Okay, I can accept this character is a terrorist with a flair for drama. I can even accept, although it’s logically impossible, that he managed to miraculously time his rescue of Evey so that they could be on the roof at the stroke of midnight on November 5th.

But why the 1812 Overture? Why is a piece of music written by a Russian to commemorate the Tsar’s defeat of Emperor Napoleon I’s Grande Armée being used by a man who is supposedly fighting to liberate England? Why not use something from the English Civil War? For that matter, wouldn’t he see Napoleon’s defeat as a bad thing? A victory of the Tsarist aristocracy over a People’s Army?  V is really much more like Napoleon then he is like Guy Fawkes, but that’s for later.

I know the reason the filmmakers used the 1812 Overture, of course: it’s because it’s a great piece of music, and it works well dramatically. But it feels contrived–an empty spectacle, lacking earned emotional weight. In truly great cinema, the filmmaker’s hand is invisible; the spectacle must arrive organically.

Anyway, later that day (?) Evey goes back to her job at the TV station. It’s not exactly clear to me what she does–apparently she’s some kind of assistant for a variety program hosted by Gordon Deitrich (Stephen Fry). She takes delivery of a bunch of boxes which prove to contain more Guy Fawkes masks, and soon after, V launches an attack on the television studio.

Meanwhile, police detective Finch (Stephen Rea) is working to figure out who attacked the Old Bailey, and from security camera footage, realizes Evey may know how to find V. He races to the television studio, but in the confusion of V’s attack, fails to capture him or Evey.

V takes over the airwaves and broadcasts a message to the people, condemning the government of High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt):

[W]hile the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. 

And how did this come about? V addresses that as well:

I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.

Finally, he tells the bewildered citizens his demands:

I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.

And with that, V departs, leaving a bunch of captives clad in Guy Fawkes masks. A policeman attempts to stop him on his way out, but Evey distracts him. The policeman punches her, but V knocks him out and takes the unconscious Evey to his secret underground lair.

Yes, his secret underground lair, full of priceless art, luxurious furnishings, and various other trinkets which V has acquired over the years. And here we must ask: exactly how scared can you be of a government that, for all its Orwellian bluster, can’t find a flamboyantly-dressed terrorist who resides in a maze of tunnels underneath their own capital city? I mean really, this would just not happen on Big Brother’s watch.

V explains that he needs Evey to stay with him for the entire year, until next November 5th. If she leaves, she could be captured and tortured to give the government information on his whereabouts. Evey gets mad at V, and then immediately forgives him. Evey does stuff like that–her psychology is based purely on the dramatic needs of the scene she happens to be in.

V then enlists Evey’s help in a campaign of murderous revenge against various people in the government–the host of a propaganda talk-show is first on his hit-list, followed by a sick, perverted priest. Evey continues her policy of doing random things and tries to get the priest to help her, but he doesn’t, because he really is a vile, twisted monster. V kills him, but Evey runs away and back to Deitrich’s house. Deitrich welcomes her and confesses that he, too, is a subversive whose activities the government would not look kindly upon–he owns a Quran and a collection of homoerotic photos.

While all this has been going on, Finch has been pursuing his own, much better, storyline. He has been uncovering connections among V’s victims, and traced them all to an experimental facility called Larkhill, where government prisoners were subjected to cruel and ultimately lethal experiments with biological weapons. This is further confirmed when V kills a doctor who experimented on him at the facility.

Meanwhile, Deitrich, for some insane reason, does a sketch on his television show mocking Chancellor Sutler, which prompts the police to raid his house. Evey escapes momentarily, but is knocked unconscious and dragged to a prison where she is tortured and her head shaved.

While imprisoned, she finds a note hidden in a small hole in the wall. It’s from a young woman named Valerie, previously imprisoned for being a lesbian. She recounts the rise of Sutler’s fascistic party and their murder of her partner. Evey takes courage from reading Valerie’s words, and refuses to submit to her captors, even when they threaten to kill her and offer her freedom in exchange for information about V.

At last, Evey is released from her cell to find that she’s actually back in V’s subterranean bat-cave! Yes, all along, it was V torturing her, as a test of her loyalty, as well as, he claims, a way to free her from fear. By losing her fear of death, Evey is now liberated! Or something.

This is stupid. First, it makes V seem less like a freedom fighter and more like just another gangster, almost as bad as the people he’s fighting. And second, it once again forces us to consider the question of “How the Hell has the Government Not Noticed V’s Fake Prison Adjacent to His Underground Art Museum?”

Meanwhile, Finch has pretty much pieced together the mystery of Larkhill. The biological weapon being tested there was a deadly virus, which then-Secretary of Defense Adam Sutler deployed against his own population in order to induce panic. Blaming the attack on terrorists, Sutler then used the promise of restoring order to lead his party to an overwhelming majority. Meanwhile, the upper-management of the Larkhill program enriched themselves by controlling the distribution of the vaccine.

Finch’s faith in the government is shaken by this. (Why he ever had any faith in this blatantly corrupt horror show is less clear.) Meanwhile, V is busy setting up dominoes on the floor of his secret lair to fall into an intricate mosaic of his “V” logo. Seriously, there’s a scene like that. It’s a metaphor, I guess.

V then distributes Guy Fawkes masks all across London, inspiring the increasingly discontented populace to rise up. Sutler responds with a heightened police and military presence to fight the angry mobs.

Once again, we reach November 5th, and Evey finds V and learns his ultimate plan, which is to send a trainload of explosives rolling into Parliament.

Yes, a train. Somehow there is an un-patrolled train tunnel leading into Parliament that the supposedly intrusive police state knows nothing about. These people aren’t totalitarians, if only because “totalitarian” is derived from “total,” and their control over the public is clearly not total. This state’s power ends at the ground, and anything that goes on below that is the Wild West.

V tells Evey that it’s up to her to pull the lever that will send the bomb-filled train on its way. He says that both he and the regime he is destroying are part of an old world, and the people who outlive both will make a new world. “They deserve to make that choice,” he says. I actually liked this bit. It’s a nice illustration of the philosophical concept of thesis -> antithesis -> synthesis.

V heads off to confront Chancellor Sutler, who has been betrayed by the head of his secret police. V then kills them all by bringing knives to a gunfight. (Only in Hollywood, folks.) However, in a small sop to plausibility, he sustains mortal injuries in the process.

He stumbles back to the train station and dies in Evey’s arms, telling her that he had been living for revenge every day until he met her, at which point he fell in love. It’s not really clear why–there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about her. On the other hand, since V has presumably been living alone in the catacombs all this time, you can see he would have been susceptible.

Evey loads V’s body onto the train and sends it on its way. Meanwhile, a huge mob of citizens wearing Guy Fawkes masks storm the military barricades surrounding parliament. The soldiers, with their government decapitated, stand down, allowing the crowd to surround the building and watch as it is blown to pieces, again accompanied by the 1812 Overture. Finch finally catches up with Evey, and as they watch the building explode, he asks her who V was. She replies, “He was all of us.”

One big problem I have with this film is that despite the omnipresent Guy Fawkes imagery, it seems only dimly aware of who Guy Fawkes actually was. V is fighting a religious extremist government; Fawkes was a religious extremist. And he was kind of a screw-up, judging by what a catastrophe the Gunpowder Plot turned out to be for him.

The film tries to draw on a lot of historical material to give it weight, but it doesn’t understand the historical context of its own references. The 1812 Overture was one example; another is V’s repeated references to The Count of Monte Cristo. V spends the lonely hours in his base of operations watching the 1934 film adaptation of the novel by Alexandre Dumas. V identifies with the protagonist’s quest for revenge.

Here’s an interesting factoid about The Count of Monte Cristo: the protagonist is sympathetic to Napoleon, as was Dumas himself. Quite frankly, if you want an example of someone who successfully led a movement to destroy a failing government and replace it with one that was at least semi-functional, Napoleon is a much better example to follow than Fawkes.

I know my loyal readers are wise to me, and will say I only think that because I’m an unreconstructed Bonapartist. Well, it’s a fair cop. But there are other historical figures who fit much more closely to the mold of what V is trying to accomplish. Oliver Cromwell was a religious zealot and a murderous thug, but at least his revolution succeeded for a while. Another possible model would be Alexander Kerensky, who arguably did what V does at the end of the film, giving the people a choice in their future. (In Kerensky’s case, the people did not choose wisely.)

I don’t think the filmmakers ever quite made up their minds about the age-old question asked of every fictional character: what’s their motivation? V’s motives are murky: he talks a lot about symbols and ideas, and how his masks and theatrical terrorist acts symbolize some idea or other. But when we find out he’s seeking vengeance against specific people in retribution for things they did to him, he seems less like an idealist and more like somebody who’s been wronged and is looking to get back at the people who wronged him.

There’s nothing wrong with either story. Stories about idealistic freedom fighters can be good. Stories about people seeking revenge for some wrongdoing can also be good. But by trying to be both, the end result is that V seems almost as hypocritical as the government he’s trying to destroy. That idea itself could be quite interesting. “He who fights with monsters…” etc. But the film doesn’t explore that either. It suggests we’re supposed to view V as unambiguously heroic, as Evey, the on-screen proxy for the audience, does–despite the fact that she is almost certainly suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

It took me years to finally watch this movie all the way through. I’d start it, get fairly deep into it, and then get so irritated I’d have to stop. Part of it may have been the dialogue, which takes a lot of words to say a little. People frequently say things like, “Can I ask you something?” to which the other character replies, “Yes,” and then they go on. Fat like that ought to be cut from a script.

But despite this, I wouldn’t say I hate this movie. It’s not what I consider a good film, but it is interesting. It has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why: it’s weird and offbeat and a bit subversive. There is a wealth of promising material here, but it’s not utilized as well as it could have been.

And yes, I know it’s based on a graphic novel, and no, I have not read it.

KOThis is a modern take on a classic mystery setup: an older gentleman (Christopher Plummer) is murdered in his country estate, and there are plenty of suspects, each with possible motives for committing the crime. Into this atmosphere comes detective Benoit Blanc, (Daniel Craig) a master detective who has been hired to solve the crime. In addition to this mystery, he also is faced with a related question: who hired him in the first place? To aid him in solving the crime, he enlists the help of Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the deceased gentleman’s nurse, who has an uncontrollable physical reaction to lying.

There are a lot of things I could say about this movie—about the eclectic cast of suspects, each one of which is unique and interesting, or the absolutely brilliant dialogue, or the intricately woven, well-paced plot and satisfying resolution. And then there’s Craig’s incredible performance as Blanc, which would be a showstopper by itself. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and, I’m pleased to report, makes full use of the color palette, as opposed to that washed-out greyish-blue that’s so prevalent in modern movies. 

Honestly, I could go on at length about so many things in Knives Out, but it would feel like taking a beautifully assembled jigsaw puzzle apart piece-by-piece to do so. The beauty of it is in the full effect of the finished product, and audiences deserve to see it all fall into place in the film’s own time. This movie is so fresh, so energetic, and so much fun to watch that it doesn’t need a critic’s eye to analyze or interpret. It’s just a good old-fashioned detective yarn that’s a pleasure to watch. 

One thing I will say is that this is how you do an homage to a particular style or genre of story. If you like the classic murder mystery tales, you don’t need to “reboot” or “modernize” Poirot or Holmes; you just need to tell a good story of your own that follows the same principles Christie or Doyle used. That’s what Knives Out is, and it’s wonderful. One of the best movies I’ve seen in years.

WTF posterAh, interminable wars waged by hegemonic powers in the Middle East! They’ve been the cause of unfathomable amounts of human suffering for centuries, but on the other hand, we’ve gotten some really good movies out of them. Lawrence of Arabia, The Beast of War, The English Patient… maybe it is home to the graveyard of empires, but it sure is good for showbiz.

All right, maybe I’m being a bit cynical and snarky here, and that’s something I try to avoid doing, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a war comedy-drama, so there’s inevitably a gallows humor quality to it.

The film follows journalist Kim Baker, (Tina Fey) who quits her desk job writing news scripts to cover the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan.  She’s embedded with the Marines, and, after initially being perceived as a bumbling civilian, gradually wins the respect of the unit and its commander, as well as veteran reporter, Tanya Vanderpoel. (Margot Robbie.)

Slowly, Baker gains the trust of important officials in the Afghan government, and, with the help of her guide and translator Fahim, (Christopher Abbott) gains a better understanding of their culture. She also starts a romantic relationship with journalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) after breaking up with her stateside boyfriend. 

Ultimately, Baker is forced to use all her wits, contacts, and knowledge of Afghan politics in order to save not only her career, but her lover’s life. And she is forced to come face-to-face with the horrors of war, as she interviews a young soldier badly-wounded after an IED attack.

WTF1
This poster looks more like the kind of film I expected.

I went into this film with low expectations. I like Tina Fey and Margot Robbie, but wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than “Liz Lemon goes to Afghanistan.” And that’s what it seems like at first.

But over the second half, nuances emerge. The characters show unexpected depth and nuance. As I said, I’ve always liked Fey’s comedy, but I gained new respect for her skill as a dramatic actress. As the CineMuseFilms review put it, “she nailed her part” by not playing it solely for laughs. Billy Bob Thornton is great as the commanding Marine officer, and Christopher Abbott’s performance is absolutely fantastic. His character’s friendship with Baker is one of the highlights of the film—frankly, I found it to be the real emotional core of the story, much more so than the romance thread. 

There’s one dialogue between Fahim and Baker in which he warns her that she’s becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of mortal danger. It’s a moment of real tension in their friendship, and a dramatic turning point in the film.

I mention it because addiction to the thrill of war was also the theme of the film The Hurt Locker, which is about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq. That film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2010. Personally, I found Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to be a vastly superior war film compared to The Hurt Locker, and this more economical portrayal of the same basic theme is only one of many reasons why.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has humor, but never at the expense of characterization. It shows both the horror and the heroism that every war entails. It ended up being a far more thought-provoking film than I was expecting. I’m now curious to read the book on which it was based, The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker.

Tank_girl_poster
Sometimes the most fun movies are the ones you stumble across purely by chance. I happened to be flipping through the channels the other night, and this came on. 

It starts with an animated sequence narrated by a woman named Rebecca (Lori Petty) and the post-apocalyptic world she lives in. She tells us about “the Rippers,” a race of underground monsters that menace the struggling population, which has been largely deprived of water ever since a comet struck the earth. The majority of the water is controlled by a corporation called Water & Power, and run by a sadistic psychopath named Kesslee. (Malcolm McDowell)

The film switches to a live action sequence in which Water & Power thugs attack Rebecca’s home, killing her lover and kidnapping a young girl named Sam. The goons also capture Rebecca and torture her in the Water & Power prisons.

Rebecca befriends a fellow prisoner, a jet pilot/mechanic called simply “Jet Girl,” (Naomi Watts) who is repeatedly harassed by Kesslee’s second-in-command. Rebecca and Jet Girl escape after a Ripper attack on Water & Power; Jet Girl in a jet and Rebecca in—of course—a stolen tank, which she soon decorates according to her own punk-y tastes:

Tank and girl

Together, they set out on a quest to find Sam, which takes them first through a surreal brothel, complete with an ensemble performance of a Cole Porter song, and then to the lair of the Rippers themselves. 

The Rippers turn out not to be monsters, but rather a race of genetically engineered human/kangaroo crossbreeds. Created by the army to be the ultimate soldiers, they prove to be a friendly group of eccentrics. Though initially suspicious, they grow to trust Rebecca and Jet Girl, and ultimately they join forces for a final showdown against Kesslee and Water & Power.

I won’t spoil whether the heroes rescue the little girl from the hands of the over-the-top, eminently hate-able bad guy, or whether Jet Girl gets to serve the second-in-command his richly deserved comeuppance, or whether they are able to end the monopoly of Water & Power and the drought. But perhaps readers will guess the answers to all these when I say that what amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.

It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.

I’m amazed I haven’t heard about this movie before now. It’s a funny, entertaining action film—Tank Girl’s one-liners are great, and most of the supporting characters have humorous lines as well. The film never takes itself too seriously, but it has an earnestness underneath all the silliness. Petty’s performance really encapsulates it: she seems cynical, snarky and sarcastic 90% of the time—but when she’s trying to save her young friend, there’s genuine concern in her eyes. 

Interestingly, the film is directed by a woman, it features a woman in the lead role, another in the role of the sidekick, and the main plot concerns the two of them trying to rescue a little girl. Recently, there has been a lot of call for female-directed, female-led action movies, and yet I’ve never heard people mention this one, made all the way back in 1995. The film was neither a critical nor a financial success at the time, but it deserves to be re-evaluated. I think it might be more relevant now than it was in the ‘90s. 

Wait—what’s that, Wikipedia article for Tank Girl? You have pertinent news?

“It was reported in September 2019 that a reboot of the film was in early development.”

AAAARRRRGHHHH!!

Okay, time for one of my rants… 

Look, movie people: you don’t need to reboot things all the time. The point of movies is that… follow me closely here… they record images to be presented again at a later date.

I agree with the sentiment that a Tank Girl movie released in 2020 or beyond could be a hit. What I don’t agree with is the idea that you need to make a whole new one. Just take the existing one, which probably most people have not even heard about, and re-release it in theaters.

Now, I get it: the special effects in Tank Girl are unmistakably those of a mid-‘90s low-budget film. Nobody is going to mistake it for a modern Marvel movie or anything like that. But so what? The aesthetic is unique, and screams “’90s Punk stuff.” Why mess with that? 

And yes, I know there’s a comic book that it’s based on, and presumably a new film would attempt to be more faithful to it, and incorporate more of the undoubtedly rich and nuanced lore of the Tank Girl universe.

But here’s the thing: no adaptation can ever be 100% faithful, so it’s pointless to try. Make an adaptation, see what it looks like, and then move on to the next thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve on a concept, but when did the idea of a “spiritual sequel” become extinct? 

Because there’s definitely room for more action comedies about wisecracking women fighting their way across surreal dystopias. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But that doesn’t mean you should make the same one over again. Make a new one. 

This is why I don’t watch more movies—a week ago I didn’t know Tank Girl existed, and now here I am complaining they might do a reboot of it.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s a surprisingly good film. It does have a lot of swearing and a few sex jokes that might put some people off. (Most of these are through implication and innuendo, rather than anything explicit.) The violence is stylized, in typical action movie form. And the animation sequences can be so rapid I could imagine that they might cause some viewers to become nauseated. The film is rated R, although I kind of suspect that today it would be PG-13. It’s fun, it’s weird, and it has gunfights and tanks and cheesy one-liners. What else do you want from an action movie?

The Omen posterThis film is the apex of horror for me. It’s about an American diplomat named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who gradually comes to believe that his son is the antichrist. As eerie events surrounding the child escalate, spearheaded by the mysterious governess, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), he eventually becomes convinced he has to take drastic measures to save the world from Satanic annihilation.

This film was made as part of the 1960s-’70s spate of what MAD magazine called “Devil Flicks”—demonic horror movies kicking off with Rosemary’s Baby and most famously represented by The Exorcist. People often call the latter one of the scariest films of all time, but in my opinion, it’s just a distasteful exercise in gross-out scenes and cheap parlor trick special effects.

The Omen isn’t like that. Oh, sure; it still involves a child who is somehow an agent of Satan, but what I like is that nothing he does is clearly supernatural. The most action we ever see Damien take is throw a tantrum when he is near a church. But even that isn’t necessarily unusual behavior for a small child.

The horrific things are what unfold around Damien—the mysterious black dogs that appear, the way other animals seem to fear the child, and of course, Mrs. Baylock, the seemingly sweet but also sinister woman who cares for the boy.

Think about the level of confidence this takes. It’s easy for a writer to make the villain a winged demon, or a hideous ogre, or some other well-worn theatrical manifestation of evil. The on-screen antagonists in The Omen are (1) a five-year-old kid (2) a quiet, polite woman and (3) some dogs. That doesn’t sound particularly scary, but they make it work—thanks in large part to Whitelaw, who was a terrific actress capable of conveying subtle menace with just a look.

Now, while the film isn’t a gore-fest, there are still some violent scenes. The most shocking is probably the suicide by hanging early on, though perhaps the impalement midway through or the decapitation or the death by plunging from a tall building close to the end are worse. But while these are powerful and disturbing, they aren’t what make the movie scary. What makes it scary is the slowly growing feeling of menace as Thorn, with the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), gradually pieces together the eerie coincidences and unsettling circumstances surrounding Damien’s birth. Starting with the scene in the obsessed priest’s apartment—wallpapered with Bible verses and newspaper clippings, like any good conspiracy theorist’s would be—there’s a part of the film that’s basically a horror road picture, culminating in what might be the creepiest revelation of all, set in an Etruscan cemetery.

And the soundtrack! I’ve talked about this before; but I can’t overstate how terrifying it is. Just the opening theme by itself is scarier than all but about a half-dozen of the horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s bone-chilling.

Now, there’s the elephant in the room: the religious themes of this film. It’s about the Antichrist, so naturally, the film is filled with references to scripture, in particular the Book of Revelation, and it tracks fairly closely with the prophecies recorded in the final book of the Bible. 

Ha! Gotcha!

Did I say “tracks fairly closely?” Sorry, no—what I meant was, hasn’t really got much of anything to do with it at all.

The main prophecy that the film wants us to believe Damien is fulfilling is this poem, which Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) quotes to Thorn:

 When the Jews return to Zion

And a comet rips the sky

And the Holy Roman Empire rises

Then you and I must die.

From the eternal sea he rises,

Creating armies on either shore,

Turning Man against his brother

Till Man exists no more.

He says this, and then adds, almost as an aside to himself “The Book of Revelation predicted it all.” Troughton really sells this line too, like the Biblical scholar just can’t get over the uncanny way events are playing out just as scripture foretold.

He says it so convincingly that I totally believed it. It was decades before I discovered that the poem is, in fact, completely made up for the movie and has basically nothing to do with the Book of Revelation. In fairness to me, I saw The Omen for the first time as a 12-year-old kid who most certainly would never win any prizes for scripture knowledge. (And yes, I know the movie is R-rated and a 12-year-old really shouldn’t see it. But that is also exactly why 12-year-old me just had to see it!)

The only real ties the movie has to anything Biblical is the quote from Revelation 13:18 at the very end: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six.” And, as we’ve just seen, Damien has the mark of the Beast on his scalp.

So, yeah. A number. That’s basically all they used from the Bible—that, and of course a bunch of religious imagery. Damien is scared of churches. A church steeple gets struck by lightning. Damien’s shadow forms an inverted cross in the opening credits. There are a bunch of references to the Christian religion and symbols, but really none of it feels integral to the plot. In principle, I think you could, without too much effort, make Damien an avatar of Nyarlathotep or some other “generic” evil instead.

You see, fiction writers love prophecies. I think it’s because it can help to give your story weight if you say it’s all the fulfillment of something foretold long ago. But you have to be careful, because if you just make up a prophecy out of nowhere, it feels contrived and silly. (Hello, Anakin Skywalker, the “Chosen One!”)  

The Omen’s fundamental trick is to take a prophecy that has rather a lot of cultural clout backing it up. Christian texts are so familiar to virtually everyone in the United States, Christian or not, that it gave the movie instant weight. You don’t have to be Christian to know 666 = Bad News.

I can see that Christians might be offended by this, since this film is essentially trading on their holy texts in order to give extra weight to the apocalyptic plot. And, weirdly, I can also see how non-Christians might be offended because the film seems to implicitly endorse Christianity… kinda.

I tried reading the Book of Revelation as a kid after I saw The Omen. Couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, even though I think the Biblical Beast is supposed to have lots of both. Although I think that might be a metaphor? Anyway, you see what I’m saying: I was not cut out to be a Biblical scholar.    

But getting bogged down in ecclesiastical scholasticism is just not what this movie is really about. The religious imagery is just a convenient shorthand for Good and Evil. 

The Omen is really about a child who, for various reasons, a bunch of people believe is going to destroy the world. The child himself never does anything especially out of the ordinary. And this fact lends itself nicely to my personal hobby: alternate interpretations of movies.

Come on; you knew it was coming.

Father Brennan thinks Damien is going to destroy the world and tries, in his own cryptic, abrasive way to prevent it, in the process bringing all sorts of bizarre ideas to Thorn’s attention. Mrs. Baylock thinks Damien is going to destroy the world, and is all about keeping him alive so he can do it. All of this triggers a weird and ultimately tragic series of events, but at no point does Damien deliberately do anything evil. (He does seriously injure his mother, but that is obviously orchestrated by Mrs. Baylock.)

Now, as much as I would love to argue for this being one of those unreliable narrator deals where there’s nothing supernatural going on at all, there’s just no way to make that case. There’s no rational way to account for stuff like the weird images that Jennings captures in his photographs or six Rottweilers showing up staging an ambush in an ancient cemetery. Clearly, some sort of unseen malevolent power is at work in this universe.  But is it really Damien? Or is he just an innocent kid, caught up in events beyond his control that make people around him do insane things? The film doesn’t say.

Well… okay, this film doesn’t say. But The Omen was a box office success, and that of course meant they just had to make a sequel. And so we have Damien: The Omen II.

The Omen II It's Still The Antichrist

I haven’t actually seen this film, so don’t take this to be a review of it. But I have read a summary with spoilers, and I know the basic plot of it: it follows Thorn’s brother, Richard, who gets custody of Damien after the events of the first film and…

…wait for it…

…gradually pieces together bits of evidence which ultimately lead him to believe that…

…are you ready?

…DAMIEN IS ACTUALLY THE ANTICHRIST.

Yes, the plot of the sequel is just the first one over again. Now Damien is older, and now there are different prophecies involved, but… yeah, it’s the same thing.

Watching a guy gradually come to believe that his son is probably the Antichrist was interesting the first time. Watching another a guy come to believe that the guy we already discovered is probably the Antichrist is still probably the Antichrist is boring. But when movie producers know they have a title that they think is a safe bet to sell tickets, they’ll milk it for all it’s worth.

So, yeah; the first film in the Omen series was interesting. The second seems to be just a re-hash of the first. I don’t want to comment on it beyond that, because I don’t think it’s very fair to discuss a film I haven’t seen. I’ll just conclude with the simple fact that they made a sequel to a film I loved, but it had a premise so lackluster it couldn’t convince me to see it.

The Omen III The Antichrist Now Has a Hat

Ugh. Make that two sequels.

Right then, Omen III: The Final Conflict. I’ll keep it short, as I have also not seen this film. Damien is still the Antichrist after all these years, and has now become the ambassador to Great Britain, just as Thorn once was. However, this time, after the good characters once again uncover that the Antichrist is, in fact, the Antichrist, they take decisive measures, bringing an end to “the Omen trilogy.” This is, after all, the final conflict.

Omen IV The Antichrist on Ice

ARE YOU KIDDING ME????

I can’t even follow the synopsis of this one… there are two Antichrists, I think… one of them is a girl, maybe? It seems like they did come up with a different plot for this one, replacing “people gradually realize someone is the Antichrist” with “a bunch of weird Devil-type stuff happens.” I don’t know, and I don’t care.

I want to make it very clear that I don’t have a problem with sequels as such. If you’ve created a world that is so rich it has room for more than one story in it, then by all means, tell all of those stories across multiple installments. Likewise, if you’ve created a sprawling, epic tale best told in episodic format, then sequels are completely fine. 

Neither of these things can be said about The Omen. The first film was a simple concept well-executed, with good writing, intelligent direction, and strong performances from a good cast. But that’s all it was, or needed to be. To me, the thing that proves beyond a doubt that this parade of Antichrist movies was driven by studio executives is the fact that they clearly didn’t even understand what made the first film good. 

If you’re going to make a sequel to a successful film, it’s logical to include the central character from that film. And Damien isn’t the central character of The Omen.  I mean, sure; he’s the center of the plot, but he might as well be a McGuffin as far as what he’s required to do from an acting perspective.  Which is smart, by the way. You don’t want a child actor to have to carry the movie. 

Baylock.jpg
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock

And no, Robert Thorn isn’t the central character either. I’m sure Gregory Peck got paid the most for being in the film, but that’s just because he was Gregory Peck. The central character of The Omen is Mrs. Baylock. She’s the driving force of the whole thing.

Or, maybe more accurately, Billie Whitelaw’s character is the driving force. If they were going to make more Omen movies, they needed to bring Whitelaw back as a similar character. Or just straight-up give Mrs. Baylock the Captain Phasma treatment. But she had to come back in some form for any sequels to work. Having a sequel to The Omen without Mrs. Baylock or someone like her is like having a sequel to Star Wars without Darth Vader. It just reduces the series to an uninteresting mess.

But the original Omen will always be memorable to me. It remains the most scared I’ve ever been of a film. I first saw it on the day before Halloween, and I will never forget lying in my bed early that Halloween morning, worrying that there might be demon dogs breaking into the house. (This pales next to my mom’s experience of the film. She saw it in theaters when it originally came out, and the next morning, she stepped outside her apartment to see, standing around in the morning fog, a bunch of Rottweilers.)

So, bottom line, it will always be a favorite horror film of mine, no matter how many uninspired sequels they may have churned out. The original is good enough that it can survive that. The only thing worse than unnecessary sequels is second-rate remakes produced solely for the sake of a marketing gimmick like releasing on a specific date. 

It Never Ends This $41T

🤦

BtK vs DGo ahead, say that title out loud. (Okay, maybe not if you’re in a public place.) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” The words seem intrinsically strange together, and become even more bizarre when you know that William Bonney, the famous outlaw known as “Billy the Kid,” was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker published his Gothic novel of vampire horror, Dracula. 

Now it’s true, Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad III Dracula, who lived in the 1400s and thus—if he had been an immortal vampire, which most reliable historians seem to feel he wasn’t—might have found his way into a showdown with the famous outlaw.

But as the film begins, it quickly becomes clear that these details do not matter after all, because Billy the Kid isn’t really Billy the Kid—the film apparently is set in some sort of alternate history in which Mr. Bonney abandoned his outlaw ways, did not run afoul of Sheriff Garrett, and instead became foreman at a ranch, where he is engaged to marry the young daughter of the ranch owner.

Careful students of the craft of storytelling may here ask the question, “Why did the writer choose to tell a story about Billy the Kid in which Billy the Kid does not act like Billy the Kid, but somebody else altogether different?” Careful students of the craft of storytelling are advised to take a stiff drink before going any further, because it is also worth noting that the vampire is not once referred to as Dracula throughout the entire film. 

So, it’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, except Billy the Kid isn’t Billy the Kid, and Dracula isn’t Dracula. All quite clear? Smashing! We proceed.

The film begins with the vampire, (played by John Carradine who portrayed Dracula well in the surprisingly decent film House of Dracula) descending upon a family of German immigrants traveling by wagon in the American west. He bites the young daughter of the group, but is warded off at the sight of a crucifix.

Later, the nameless vampire comes upon a stagecoach, carrying wealthy travelers towards their ranch, where, he learns, their beautiful niece Elizabeth resides. He is much taken with a picture of young Elizabeth shown to him by the travelers. When the coach stops for an evening, the vampire attacks a young Native American woman camped nearby, sparking the rage of the rest of the tribe. They assume it to be the work of the stage coach’s occupants and retaliate by killing them—allowing the vampire to assume the identity of the ranch owner and Elizabeth’s uncle, Mr. Underhill.

Meanwhile, William Bonney and young Elizabeth are playfully shooting tin cans and flirting with each other, much to the annoyance of the previous foreman, who watches jealously from afar. Apparently, being foreman also entails being Elizabeth’s lover, since apparently Billy took both positions from him at the same time.

Realizing that Elizabeth’s uncle Mr. Underhill is due to arrive in town soon, Billy rides off to meet him at the saloon. He arrives just after the vampire, posing as Underhill, has come to the saloon and taken a room. Moments later, the immigrant family arrives, still shaken by the earlier vampire attack, and are horrified when their daughter recognizes “Underhill” as the vampire who attacked her. However, he is somehow able to convince them that he is not a vampire, and, as a gesture of goodwill, allows them to take his room for the evening while he follows Billy to the Underhill ranch.

But of course, this is all a diabolical trick, and the vampire returns that night to finish the job on the poor immigrants’ daughter. Meanwhile, Billy and Elizabeth ponder the idea that there is something odd about her uncle, although what it is they can’t quite put their fingers on…

Dracula

What could it be?

So, after much riding back and forth, Billy getting into a brawl with the ex-foreman, and the old immigrant woman’s attempt to keep the vampire away failing, Elizabeth is carried off into a makeshift lair the vampire has created in an abandoned mine. Billy rides there furiously, ignoring the town doctor’s advice that to defeat the vampire, he must drive a stake through his heart. Instead, in typical outlaw fashion, he tries to gun him down with his revolver. But the bullets have no effect. 

Okay, look: I know it’s absurd to complain about logic in a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But I can’t help myself. Bullets are just fast-moving, miniature stakes, right? So why shouldn’t they work on the vampire? Now, you might say, “Well, they didn’t hit his heart, so it didn’t work.” I could buy that… except that then Billy throws his gun at the vampire and hits him in the face and knocks him down!

Seriously, what is this? If being hit with bullets didn’t hurt him, why should being hit with a much slower-moving hunk of metal? I know, you all are thinking I’m being Comic Book Guy at this point, but I have a reason for talking about this, and it’s not because I’m one of those people who is going to go off and start a petition demanding that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula  be remade with proper consultation of a period firearms expert and a close-quarters combat specialist.

The reason is because it’s an important lesson for anyone who writes fiction: there are bound to be illogical things in any work of fiction. That’s a given. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be fiction. But the important thing is that the logic must be internally consistent. We get to make up our own rules for our fictional worlds, but they must never conflict with each other. 

All right now, where was I? Oh, yes! So, Billy then stabs the vampire through the heart with the doctor’s stake, and releases Elizabeth from the spell the creature placed on her. He then carries her out of the mine, in the words of Wikipedia, “presumably to live happily ever after.” I love that use of “presumably.” Like, we think they’re going to live happily ever after, but who knows? It could be they’ll realize that they’re just two very different people who happened to get involved in this weird vampire business, gradually grow apart, and eventually come to the point where they argue over petty things like who should do the dishes before finally realizing that they need to go their separate ways.

So we’re 1,097 words into this review and you’re wondering, “Berthold, why are you even writing about this random lousy 55-year-old movie?” 

The reason is very simple: I’m fascinated by the Weird Western genre. I like westerns for the desolate desert landscapes and their frequent use of themes of loneliness and revenge, and of course, weird supernatural horror was my first love in fiction, and the combination of the two will always interest me. And so while I’ve made a huge amount of fun of the film, it’s nonetheless, in its own odd way, significant as one of the first Weird Western films. 

I mentioned the title at the beginning because I honestly think that a competent storyteller could make something interesting out of that. Make Billy the Kid be honest-to-God Billy the freakin’ Kid, the ruthless outlaw who boldly escaped from a New Mexico Jail, and have him encounter a vampire while on the run from the law, somewhere in the gorgeous New Mexico landscape. A skilled writer could spin all kinds of compelling yarns about death, murder and revenge out of that.

But, instead we got a move that shows a vampire strutting around in daylight! For shame!

That’s okay, though. They say that once you invite the vampire in, your fate is as good as sealed. And since early Weird Westerns invited the vampires west, it’s paved the way for all sorts of interesting stories to follow.

5th-e-277389952-1566087319784.jpg
Image via IMDb

A couple weeks ago, Pat Prescott blogged about this film. It’s his go-to escapism movie. I’d heard of it, but prior to Pat’s post had never known much about it. Then I saw it was directed by the same guy who made the science-fiction adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I enjoyed, and Lucy, which was at least decent. Honestly, I was surprised I hadn’t seen this already, because it sounded like exactly the sort of film I’d enjoy.

And I did. I thought it was better than Valerian. It’s almost impossible to summarize–it starts in Egypt in 1914, when aliens land at an archeological dig site and reveal that they have devised a weapon to combat an ancient evil when it arises every 5,000 years. It requires earth, wind, water, fire and a mysterious “fifth element.” They take this fifth element–which looks like an Egyptian sarcophagus– aboard their ship, telling the human priest who guards it to pass the key on to his successors for when the evil is due to rise again in 300 years.

Fast forward 300 years, and the evil has indeed arisen in the form of a giant, growing orb in space, gradually increasing in size and engulfing everything in its way. From there, the film is a wild ride featuring the fifth element herself (Milla Jovovich), who turns out to be a woman named Leeloo who possesses unnatural strength, an ex-soldier-turned-flying-taxi-driver named Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), who helps her in her fight against evil, an over-the-top DJ (Chris Tucker) who I initially found incredibly annoying, but by the end thought was funny as hell.

There’s also a blue-skinned opera singer, a race of bloodthirsty shapeshifting monsters,  Dallas’ nagging mother, and best of all, the main antagonist, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), an evil businessman who seems like a cross between Ming the Merciless and Jerry Jones.

All these characters find themselves battling to find the stones that symbolize the other four elements, beginning with a flying car-chase and culminating in a huge shootout inside a glitzy space resort. And of course, along the way, Leeloo and Korben wind up falling in love.

It’s a good old fashioned, light-hearted sci-fi adventure romp with plenty of humor, excitement, and memorable characters. I loved the futuristic, cyberpunk-ish sets, costumes, and art design. And (because I’m sure you all just have to know) the weapon props were excellent, from the Mauser pistol used in the opening scene to the all-in-one super-gun manufactured by Zorg.

Now it’s true that the computer-generated effects look pretty weak to the modern viewer. But remember, this was 1997, and for the time, they weren’t bad. The gunfight in the resort was especially good. It looked downright gritty.

The Fifth Element (1997)
Does this look kinda silly? Sure; but it’s also unique and stylish. (via IMDb)

Is it a deep, thought-provoking tale, rich with allegory, complex characters, and biting social commentary? No, it isn’t. But so what? Not every film should be that–sometimes you just want a fun little story with likable heroes, bad guys you love to hate, memorable scenes, and plenty of funny lines. The Fifth Element definitely has all that. I’m so glad Pat posted about; otherwise I might never have seen it.

I like making lists, but it feels odd to just say, for example, that both Lawrence of Arabia and Duck Soup are favorite films, because I have to be in the right frame of mind for each. And it would be absurd to try and rank them. Lawrence is a great film, but it doesn’t work very well if you’re in the mood for a musical comedy, and Duck Soup fails as an exploration of a complex individual’s psychology. So, I’ve tried to categorize these films not by genre so much as by what “vibe” I need to want in order to watch them.

To be eligible for the list, I have to have seen a film at least twice, and be willing to watch it a third time. There are plenty of films I’ve enjoyed on seeing once and might watch again, but those don’t make the cut for now.

Just Fun

  • Thor
  • The Mummy (1999)
  • Bandidas
  • Ghost in the Shell 
  • Jurassic Park
  • Last Action Hero

When I Want To Think

  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • The English Patient

I Want It Darker

  • Chinatown

Scare Me

  • The Omen (1976)
  • The Terminator
  • The Haunting (1963)
  • The Mothman Prophecies

Musical Comedy

  • Duck Soup
  • Muppet Treasure Island

Movies That Are Terrible But I Enjoy Them Anyway

  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
  • Diamonds Are Forever

Star Wars Movies (Possibly some should be in the preceding category.)

  • All the original 6 Star Wars movies, but not the Disney ones.

I Only Like Medieval/Fantasy Movies That Are Funny

  • The Lion in Winter
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • The Princess Bride

My Favorite Movie

  • Jane Got a Gun

220px-The_Wind,_2019_Theatrical_Release_Poster

[As is my wont, I’ll be spoiling everything. Although as you will see, I’m not the only one doing that…]

The Wind is a psychological horror western. The opening scene tells you that this is not going to be a light movie: Elizabeth Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) emerges from her remote cabin, covered in blood and carrying a stillborn baby, while two men stand solemnly outside. The scene then cuts to the men burying the baby and its mother, who is missing a portion of her head. 

There is no dialogue in this scene; just three grim-faced people and two corpses, and the howling wind in a harsh and desolate landscape. The first lines don’t come until the next scene, when one of the men—Elizabeth’s husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman)—tells her that he and the widower Gideon (Dylan McTee) will be gone for a few days, leaving her alone in her cabin. Elizabeth hardly responds to this, instead simply repeating “How did she get my gun?”

Elizabeth tries to go about her daily routine, but is constantly on edge. As she’s hanging laundry, she is attacked by wolves, forcing her to retreat into the house and shoot the wolves through the door. Or are they merely wolves? The scratches on the door seem awfully high, and strangely fit the shape of a human hand. Later, she finds a goat carcass with its side ripped out—and then encounters it again; seemingly healed and oddly threatening.

The film soon turns into something like a montage of flashbacks and flash-forwards, explaining how Elizabeth found herself in this situation. It moves around so much that I’m not going to try to summarize everything in the order the film shows it. I’ve seen some reviews that complained the flashbacks were confusing, but I didn’t have too much trouble following which scenes related to which. And even when I did, the disordered structure sometimes—with a big exception I’ll address later–makes the gradual revelations more interesting and powerful. It does, however, make the film hard to summarize.

Briefly, what seems to have transpired is this: Elizabeth and Isaac lived alone in their remote cabin. At some point, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, but he was stillborn. They make a grave marker for him with an “S” for “Samuel” carved in a stone. Later, Gideon and his wife Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) showed up, and although Isaac thinks them a bit “funny,” he and Elizabeth invite them over for dinner, where it quickly becomes clear that Gideon and Emma don’t really get along very well.

Emma has some strange ideas about the plains, which eventually become a superstitious fear of them.  She also has a great deal of admiration for Elizabeth and Isaac, both for their toughness and their kindness towards her and Gideon. 

Emma soon falls “ill”—meaning pregnant—and begins to behave strangely. At one point, she’s in such a state of fear over some unseen threat that Elizabeth advises Gideon to tie her to the bed. Emma reads from a mysterious little pamphlet about demons of the prairie, which includes the names of various such spirits. She also hints, ominously, to Elizabeth about her expected baby’s name, asking her to guess it. Elizabeth guesses “Gideon” and then “Samuel,” but neither is correct. After she guesses “Samuel,” Emma says “I’m not a monster.” This is probably the most significant point where the non-linear structure works in the film’s favor—we find out after this scene that Elizabeth’s stillborn was named Samuel. (The name Emma has in mind is, of course, Isaac.)

More strange things happen; both in the present and in the past. Emma believed there was “something out there” at night, and in the present, alone in her cabin, Elizabeth feels the same. An old preacher (Miles Anderson) arrives briefly, and Elizabeth hosts him for breakfast and then allows him to stay in the opposite cabin, telling him not to answer the door for anyone after dark.

Naturally, he arrives back at Elizabeth’s door in a panic that night, screaming that there is “something out there.” Elizabeth, despite her own advice, lets him in, and he asks her why she stays here, since she knows of the evil presence that haunts the land. He then says “Surely Emma would have…” and this horrifies Elizabeth, since she never mentioned the existence of Emma to him. At this point, the man turns into a glassy-eyed monster, and Elizabeth flees the cabin in terror, finding the preacher’s body on the ground the next day.

Elizabeth is increasingly haunted by visions of Emma, or rather, Emma’s corpse-like ghost, appearing to her and saying, “Lizzy, where’s your gun?” She is further disturbed when, on finding Emma’s diary, the entries seem to hint that her child was fathered by Isaac.

Finally, Isaac returns, finding Elizabeth on the verge of a breakdown and contemplating suicide. He tries to comfort her, but soon begins to argue as she insists on the existence of an evil presence. He finds the same pamphlet about demons that he had previously burned, and becomes infuriated with Elizabeth, ultimately tying her to the bed just as she advised Gideon to do to his wife.

As Isaac and Elizabeth fight, she cuts herself free of the ties with a shard of glass and…

Okay, folks, here’s the Big Spoiler! At least, I think it is. I pretty much figured it out five minutes in, when it was clear just how dark this movie was, but anyway…

In a flashback, we see that the pregnant Emma was behaving strangely one night, screaming wildly in the rain, and Elizabeth shot her after wrestling her gun away from her. In the present, as Isaac realizes this, Elizabeth struggles free of her bonds and stabs Isaac in the throat, killing him.

She stumbles out of the cabin, and into the field, and here we get the flashback that made the least sense to me—the reverend, back in his kindly preacher persona, handing Elizabeth the pamphlet about demons. I have no idea when or where in the timeline this was supposed to have occurred. In any case, the film ends with Elizabeth lying wounded on the empty plains.

So, that’s the bare-bones outline, but I’m not sure how useful it is. I said at the beginning the disordered narrative didn’t confuse me too much, but as I wrote this, I realize maybe that isn’t completely true. There were actually a couple scenes where I didn’t know the chronology. That is, I thought I did when I watched it, but thinking about it some more, I’m now not sure they occurred when I thought they did.

There is clearly supposed to be a strong unreliable narrator component to this story. Is Elizabeth just making all this up because she’s paranoid? Does she kill Emma because she’s jealous that she is having a child, and hers died? Or because she suspects Emma is having an affair with Isaac? And if the latter, is she right, or is she imagining all of it? Are any of the supernatural elements real, or are they all just in Elizabeth’s head? Isaac seems to think so, although it seems very hard to account for most of Emma’s behavior by chalking it all up to Elizabeth being crazy.

At one point, Elizabeth is shown reading to the pregnant Emma from The Mysteries of Udolpho, the classic Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe. I suspect this is actually a sort of double-reference: it’s both a nod to the tale itself, and also to Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen’s satire of Gothic fiction, whose protagonist imagines herself to be in such supernatural tales as Udolpho, though in fact she is not. I think something similar is supposed to be going on in The Wind. 

There were definitely moments when I was worried it was going to turn into It Comes At Night all over again. (Spoiler Alert: In It Comes At Night, nothing, in fact, comes at night.) But ultimately it wasn’t that; not quite. It’s much closer to The Haunting, where it’s truly ambiguous whether there are supernatural beings or if the heroine is just suffering from some combination of grief and serious psychosexual disorder. You could make a case either way, really.

I happened to stumble across this movie completely by chance while checking for some other film at my local theater. I saw the combination of horror and western and was immediately intrigued. Then I started reading the reviews, which described it as a revisionist western with a female lead, a spare, tight script, lots of long silences that say a lot, and gorgeously desolate landscapes that give an overall feeling of isolation. Some also alluded to the way the story is gradually (some complained too gradually) revealed through flashbacks.

All of this could also describe Jane Got a Gun, which is one of my favorite films ever. I absolutely love movies in remote desert settings, and female protagonists are also a plus. The element that differentiates this from Jane, of course, is that it’s a psychological horror flick rather than a romantic thriller. And psychological horror with unreliable narrators is very much my cup of tea.

I know not many of my readers are gamers, but there’s a term from gaming lingo that fits almost perfectly here: modding. At its most extreme, modding is when people build essentially a new game using the underlying assets—physics engines, graphics, music, etc.–from some existing game, often completely changing the plot and tone. The Wind is about what you would get if you did a horror mod of Jane Got a Gun.

And, like most video game mods, it’s kind of rough in places. In particular, the acting here is pretty uneven: Gerard is fairly good, Zukerman (who reminded me a little of Humphrey Bogart) is good, Telles is decent if a little wooden, and McTee…

Well, I’m not going to say he’s a bad actor. Maybe he was following his directions, or maybe the scenes were shot in a hurry, but the upshot is that his line readings are really flat. At first, I wondered if maybe this was deliberate, but I don’t think it is. However, he’s not in it that much.

Wind+Demon+cardThe cinematography, on the other hand, was great. I know some reviewers, who apparently have the attention spans of espresso-drinking hummingbirds, thought it was “boring” and “slow,” but I personally can’t get enough B-roll of the wind howling over desert hills or shutters creaking in the twilight. The film’s only 86 minutes long, for heaven’s sake. And this demon pamphlet! This may sound silly, but seeing it in the trailer was what ultimately convinced me I had to watch this movie. I haven’t seen such creepy drawings in cinema since the sketches at the beginning of The Mothman Prophecies.

Also, there’s a bit of a behind-the-scenes mystery here, in that some people claim this is a remake of a 1928 silent film, also called The Wind, based on a 1925 novel of the same name. I haven’t seen the 1928 film, nor read the book, but seemingly they are also about a woman in a relationship that goes disastrously wrong, and who is driven mad by the howling wind on remote prairies. The demonic element, however, is not mentioned in the synopses of the earlier works. If anyone has seen/read either of these, I’d be interested to know what you think.

Now then, let’s get to the heart of the matter: Did I like this thing or not?

I love unreliable narrators and ambiguity in horror. It’s one of the coolest tricks in storytelling, in my opinion.

But, having seen and written quite a lot of deliberately ambiguous stories by now, I’ve come to realize there’s a dark side to this technique. And no, I don’t mean the dark side that unreliable narrators usually turn out to be bad people.

It is very easy for ambiguity and unreliable narration to become the last refuge of a bad storyteller. Does your plot not make a whole lot of sense? Are your characters’ motivations maybe not so clearly defined, even in your own mind? Hey presto! You can just introduce ambiguity and unreliable narration and suddenly, these flaws disappear. It was supposed to be like that all along! It’s not that your plot doesn’t make sense; it’s that it’s “ambiguous” and “raises questions.” 

I know this because I myself have been guilty of it in some of my short stories. I thought I was so clever for doing it; but I think in reality this can easily become a subconscious crutch a writer leans on to avoid having to actually flesh out the characters, or iron out problems with the story.

And don’t get me wrong: when it’s done well, there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of realizing you’ve been reading or watching a different story than you thought you were. The gold standard for me is The Repairer of Reputations, but there are plenty of other examples. 

But like anything that’s so effective, it’s really hard to do it well. Put a single foot wrong, and you make a mess of the whole thing. The Wind does a lot of things right, but it makes a few mistakes—the big one being that it seems so weird from the outset that you’re already primed to be on edge and question what you’re seeing. It walks up and kicks you in the gut and says “All right; maggots! This is a dark and terrifying movie you’re about to watch!”

The best horror doesn’t do that. It seduces you at first. It presents itself as a normal, even borderline cliché story that you’ve seen a thousand times before. And only then, once you think you know what you’re dealing with, does it start to mess with your mind.

I think this is the unarticulated problem at the root of all the complaints about the non-linearity of the plot. The problem isn’t that it’s out of order as such, but that it starts off with a scene that is gruesome, unsettling, and ambiguous. The audience immediately starts asking questions, and—the film not being willing to provide any easy answers—starts speculating about what exactly happened here. And they know, given how grim the tone is, that anything, however horrible, is a possibility.

If you’re planning to pull some twist on the audience, you don’t want them asking questions at the beginning. You want them thinking they’ve got it all figured out, and then you start to slowly make them realize that they don’t.

All that said, this isn’t a bad movie. It’s bold and different, and many of the individual scare scenes are quite well done. There was one jump scare that got me; and I’m pretty hardened against such things. 

And the atmosphere! I know I went on about it already, but these bleak deserts just never get old for me. If anything, I wish the filmmakers had given us more of these windswept plains, let us hear more wolves baying in the distance, until we can’t help but believe that yes, of course there is something evil out there—how could there not be? An extra ten minutes of that at the outset might have made the whole thing work better.

I guess I’d say I was disappointed with the film, but that’s only because I think there’s potential here for something really awesome, and this only scratched the surface. It’s so rare to get a film that even tries to do some of these things, though.

The Wind is not a film for everybody. There’s violence, one (totally unnecessary) sex scene, a childbirth scene that’s gut-wrenching to watch, and a ton of disturbing images. (It’s not exactly shown onscreen, but the film strongly implies how Elizabeth removed Emma’s infant from her after her death.) I have a very strong aversion to films with violence against women, which made some scenes tough to watch.

But if you can stomach all of that, and you like creepy, unsettling psychological horror in harsh, barren settings, it’s worth a watch.

vox lux
Ah, dear readers, I have not been entirely forthright with you. For I saw Vox Lux before A Star Is Born. But I had to see the latter to know how it stacked up against the former, because the two films, released almost simultaneously, have drawn many comparisons.

And indeed, there are some striking similarities: both films are about a young woman who meets someone who helps her achieve musical stardom. Both films feature a fan being attacked in a restaurant for asking for a picture with a famous person. And both concern a star who, despite all their professional success, has demons of their own to battle.

When it comes to critical reception, of course, there’s no comparison: the critics loved A Star Is Born; they were lukewarm on Vox Lux. Likewise, at the box office, Star demolished Vox, by a score of approximately $432 million to $874,597.

And despite the superficial resemblance, they are very different kinds of films about very different things. In fact, part of the reason for the success of A Star Is Born could be that it’s easy to describe and summarize. What kind of a film is it? A romantic musical drama. What’s it about? A couple of musicians who fall in love while their careers are headed in opposite directions.

Meanwhile, what kind of film is Vox Lux? What’s it about?

Eh, well… we’ll get to that later. If you’re a regular here at Ruined Chapel,  you know that I like to take my time in these reviews. I view them rather like legal cases in which I have to slowly build the evidence for my final argument. And if you’re new to Ruined Chapel, you’re about to get a quintessential demonstration of what I mean.

Vox Lux begins with a school shooting in the year 1999. A lone gunman walks into a music class and opens fire. A 13-year-old girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is shot in the neck, and many of her classmates are killed.

Right off the bat; I have to say this opening is effective and disturbing. It’s clearly modeled on the Columbine attack, but nowadays, when we have become all too familiar with mass shootings, it evokes the horrors of many different atrocities. The setting is powerful, too; the idea of a sleepy, rundown little town being shattered by an attack on its children is… unnerving. Unnerving and all too real.

In the aftermath, we see Celeste crying with her sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) in the hospital, learning, slowly, to move on her own. Finally, with Ellie’s help, she performs a song they have written together, at a church vigil. It opens with the lyrics:

Hey, turn the light on
‘Cause I’ve got no one to show me the way.
Please, I will follow
‘Cause you’re my last hope, I’ll do anything you say

This is the chorus:

So teach me. Show me all you’ve got
And in your words, I will be wrapped up.
Speak to me, you’re my last hope
And I will say nothing and listen to your love.

I’m honestly not sure what’s supposed to rhyme with what here. “Got” with “up”? Or “up” with “love”? Or is it an an A/B/B/A rhyme scheme, where “got” is supposed to rhyme with “love”, and “up” with “hope”?

At any rate, these lyrics seem generic, banal, and trite. Which, to be clear, is a compliment, since that is how most real-life pop lyrics are.

Celeste quickly catches the eye of producers, and goes off to New York City (complete with a shot of the pre-9/11 skyline) to begin recording and to meet with a publicist (Jennifer Ehle). While the publicist tries to keep the young singer from getting her hopes up too high, Celeste’s manager (Jude Law) encourages her, and reminds her, as a way to keep her confidence up during recording sessions: “Imagine you’re alone, dancing in your room.”

Celeste and Ellie travel to Stockholm, and, in a seizure-inducing sequence narrated by Willem Dafoe, begin sampling a sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll lifestyle. (There is also an interesting aside in the narration about how Stockholm became a center for the recording industry. The economist in me loved that; though I have no idea if it’s true.)

Celeste and Ellie party too hard, earning a rebuke from the manager, who grumbles “You kids are all the same.” After that, they jet off to Los Angeles to shoot a music video, and I have to pause here to say just how much I loved the establishing shot of L.A. at night–it radiates a sinister glow while the ominous heavy metal concert growls on the soundtrack. The ensuing strobe-light sequence nearly made me sick, but it was worth it.

In spite of the manager’s earlier warnings, Celeste sleeps with a heavy metal star after attending his concert. Lying together in bed, she tells him that the gunman who shot her listened to music like her lover performs, and tells him about dream she’s had ever since the attack, about going through a tunnel and seeing lifeless bodies inside. She also says she likes performing pop music because “I don’t want people to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.”

Shortly afterward, she is seen bursting into the manager’s hotel room, to find him and Ellie sharing a bed. Celeste is horrified at this, on top of the panic she is already experiencing on hearing that a plane has hit the World Trade Center.

The narrator intones that Celeste’s loss of innocence mirrors our own. This seems like a pretty trite line–it’s the sort of cliché that gets used whenever people are writing about a period of upheaval. But keep it in mind for later. Meanwhile, Celeste films her music video, in which she and her accompanying dancers wear shiny golden masks. She soon becomes a sensation, much to her and Ellie’s delight, and exactly as the manager was so sure she would.

And so ends Act I. (Which was titled “Genesis”) Act II, “Regenesis,” begins with a title card informing us that it is now 2017, and then we see another shooting: terrorists in gold masks like those Celeste wore in her video attacking a beach resort.

The manager goes to see Celeste to tell her the news, and prepare her for a press conference to take place before the upcoming concert and debut of her new album, Vox Lux. Celeste is now 31, and is now played by Natalie Portman.

Let me pause here and address the question of why I watch and review so many Natalie Portman movies, which some readers may have been wondering about. It began simply enough when, as a Star Wars-loving 11-year-old, I saw Attack of the Clones in 2002 and developed a huge crush on Senator Amidala. That’s a pretty common story, I think; I’ve had a number of people tell me the only way to enjoy Episode II is to have a crush on a cast member.

As a result, I started to follow Portman’s career. And while the schoolboy crush may have faded after a while, I began noticing something about her choice of roles: they are wildly different from each other, and moreover, the movies she is in are wildly different from one another–and from most anything else.

Some actors are content to just play variations of the same basic role in the same basic film over and over again. Not Portman. She’s in westerns and dystopian thrillers and romantic road movies.

And here’s the key thing: her movies always give me something to chew on. Some of them are great, some of them are awful, some of them are a mixed bag, but all of them have something unusual. As I wrote recently about Jackie: the best thing for a reviewer is something that’s just freaking weird. And Portman seems to actively seek out the weird.

Vox Lux is a case in point: just when you think you’ve got Portman pegged as an elegant, restrained actress who brings fragility and delicacy to her roles, she goes and plays a hyperactive, drug-addled, alcoholic, narcissistic pop diva with a New York accent and a foul mouth. The manic is still there, but the pixie and the dream girl, not so much.

Celeste, decked out in a punk-y hairdo and heavy make-up that makes her look much older than 31, is something of a wreck, railing at restaurant employees and sniping with journalists. Ellie has been taking care of Celeste’s teenage daughter, Albertine (also played by Raffey Cassidy) and has brought her to the hotel to see her mother. Celeste  treats Ellie with total contempt, before marching past the paparazzi to take her daughter to lunch.

Over lunch–or rather, before lunch, since they ultimately get thrown out before they can eat–Celeste gives a rambling monologue touching on, among other things, her belief that Ellie is poisoning Albertine’s mind against her, her disgust that her daughter learned about her recent break-up from gossip magazines, and most incomprehensibly, this beauty, ostensibly about modern marketing:

“Their business model relies on their customer’s unshakable stupidity. And deep down we probably sense that–their intimate knowledge of our commitment to the lowest common denominator. It’s the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with every living thing that has some connection to the past… the past reeks too much of ugly old people and death.”

In short, Celeste seems rather unhinged. This is confirmed by more background that the narrator helpfully provides, saying that she is recovering from a recent episode of heavy drinking, as well as a car accident in which she injured a pedestrian.

The narrator also informs us that Albertine has been planning to tell her mother that she has recently lost her virginity. This news causes Celeste to lash out at Ellie when she returns to the hotel, viciously berating her sister for not taking better care of Albertine. Ellie tearfully reminds Celeste that she writes her songs, and threatens to reveal that fact to the public, but as Celeste says, “In this day and age, no one will care.”

Celeste then gives a bizarre press conference, in which, after perfunctory condemnations of violence and expressions of support for the victims, she says that, like the terrorists wearing her masks, she used to believe in God, too–when she was a child. The narrator adds the gloss that she speaks like the political figures of her era.

Afterwards, she goes to her hotel room, where she finds the manager embracing Albertine. She tells him to get away from her daughter, and dispatches Albertine with a note of apology to Ellie. She seems on the edge of a breakdown, as evidenced by her comment when she turns back and is surprised to see the manager still in the room: “Jesus Christ, I almost forgot you were there!” He tells her that Albertine wanted to see her father (presumably the musician Celeste slept with back in L.A.) but that he thinks that’s a bad idea.

She and the manager then snort drugs, drink whiskey, and finally stagger out of the room in an almost comical sequence. Celeste manages to somehow find her way to the convoy of vehicles transporting her to the concert. En route, she orders her driver to stop, and pulls Albertine out to the side of the road to kneel with her, in silent prayer, for “Everyone who’s suffering right now.”

They then continue on to the concert venue, where Celeste has another meltdown over… I’m not even sure what, to be honest. The manager ends up holding her in her dressing room, telling her to ignore Ellie, who finally makes him go away, and then cradles Celeste as she sobs incoherently about being “ugly”.

This ends Act II, and now begins the Finale.

I should mention that up to this point, the film felt very low budget–lots of handheld camera shots, and dingy, grimy interiors. Not Hollywood grimy, either; but the real thing–or so it felt, anyway. It gave the film an almost documentary-like feel.

The concert at the end is clearly where they spent most of their production budget. It’s a high-tech show with elaborate special effects and lots of extras. It seemed to me like a very good representation of a pop concert–which is to say, almost unbearable, as one who has never attended such a concert, or wanted to. Dancers in sparkling catsuits, lasers and pyrotechnics, flashing words on a huge screen, all while a synthesized voice shouts unintelligible lyrics. It looked like every Super Bowl halftime show that I’ve ever had the misfortune to glimpse.

Celeste’s performance seems to be a mash-up of allusions to real-life pop stars–she calls her fans “little angels,” she performs a song called “Firecracker,” and another one called “Private Girl in a Public World.”

And then the film just ends in mid-concert, after about twenty minutes of singing and dancing. Nothing happens after. The credits roll (in total silence) and the movie’s over.

Ah… well, actually; not quite. I omitted something. But it’s a spoiler. A big one. I, unfortunately, knew this spoiler going in, and didn’t get to experience the surprise for myself. And that’s too bad, because I would have liked to have seen it without knowing everything.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Think very carefully about whether you want to proceed beyond this point, because now we are going to get into the real meat of what Vox Lux is. If you want to skip that for now, just know that I think it’s an extremely dark film–especially the shocking violence at the beginning–and that it’s also a very, very interesting piece of social commentary, with great acting and writing. If you watch it, pay particular attention to the scene where Celeste has lunch with her daughter; it’s more important than it seems at first. Have fun!

==NOW ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE==

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