Film Review: RIDING THE BULLET (2004)

Mick Garris’s 2004 indie Stephen King adaptation Riding the Bullet is a good time. It isn’t an especially good film, from a stylistic or formal aesthetic perspective. It does, however, use its camp and carny components as a functionally efficient way to reflect on important aspects of human experience–selfishness, loss, love, fear, family; you know, those primal, foundational topics common to horror’s entire history. More specifically, they’re topics central to Stephen King’s oeuvre since the beginning. And quite often King approaches those themes with his own heavy dose of camp and the carnivalesque–something he’s likely picked up from Bradbury, EC Comics, and those glorious 50s sci-fi horror flicks he discusses so generously in Danse Macabre. You could say that a certain low-brow vulgarity, honed through much time in gross theme parks and dive cinemas, is central to King’s whole thing. And with that comes many important insights into average America, especially the average white American male.  Lots of fun camp and carny components that really are in King’s DNA. And like how King talks about B-movies (or even the C & D pictures), King’s fiction often comes with a heavy dose of sentimentality. He’s a big softy underneath that crass exterior, full of hope, charity, and corny fart jokes. Veteran adapter of King, Mick Garris’ film naturally also waxes sentimental, but, similar to Stand By Me and 11/22/63, it understands and successfully embraces King’s sentimentality to deliver a modestly fun and poignant tale.

Mick Garris isn’t an overly adventurous or creative director, but there’s a functional economy to his directing that works well enough. This obviously won’t win him any awards, critical praise, or deep fan devotion; but it pays the bills and scratches a personal and cultural itch I think is okay to have around. Riding the Bullet contains traces of Garris’s signature seen in some of his other King works, namely Quicksilver Highway, The Stand, and The Shining. This is both good and bad. Garris doesn’t have the chops to really breath expansive adaptive life into his source material. He often opts for a somewhat slavish devotion to the source material that confines the cinematic potential within King’s work. For such an imaginative author as King, often the adaptations are, well, lacking imagination specific to the cinematic medium. Hence why Garris’s adaptation of The Shining is a rather toothless affair–in trying to replicate King’s own imagination, Garris leaves no room for his own. So there’s little fun in the viewing experience. Riding the Bullet is having much more fun.

Watching the silly antics and mishaps of Alan Parker (Jonathan Jackson) recalled my teenage self watching the bizarre Quicksilver Highway, and the moderately more successful miniseries of The Stand. Neither is amazing, but still fun and modestly successful 90s TV works, especially for a younger person just discovering Stephen King, and who’d been nourished on a steady youth diet of 30s Universal Horror classics. While made in 2004, the look and feel of Riding the Bullet is straight out of 1997, which is kind of strange and also rather fitting for a film so interested in how childhood lingers into adulthood, how the past returns to haunt the present, and our own nostalgia for allegedly simpler times (even if we know they weren’t that simple). There’s a bit of effective time warping in a 2004 film feeling like the 90s, while being about a kid in the 60s remembering the 50s. It’s a peculiar space that never quite lands anywhere stable, but is instead a carnival mirror of oscillating time periods and sensibilities that actually enhances Alan Parker’s internal confusion, where fantasy, hallucination, disillusionment and yearning for something else all whorl together. It’s a weird place.

As expected, the acting is hamish, lacking nuance or subtlety. But this also fits into its strange aesthetic and works well enough. David Arquette‘s George Staub is understandably campy, chewing up the scenery where he can. Arquette isn’t particularly versatile, same as everyone else in this thing, but he works within the world of the story and the creative team around him. What Garris and Jackson get right is that Alan Parker is a very dumb boy. And the sympathy we have for this selfish moron isn’t one that turns him into some noble hero, but rather an ordinary human. People are often pretty dumb, and that’s neither overly noble or tragic–it’s just people, and it’s just life.

And there’s where the film ultimately works: it’s a humble work, made by people of very modest ability, with limited means, telling the tale of a dope who can’t seem to get life right, while never valorizing him, nor looking down our noses at him. Life’s pretty ordinary, even when strange and horrific things–both supernatural and coldly real–are happening to us and shaping us. We’ll do some pretty stupid things that’ll haunt us. But we learn to live with it, neither absolving ourselves of our guilt or trying to garner pity from those around us. This message, which is laced through King’s work, is an ordinary message, a daily grind message. And it’s worth our time.


Halloween Recommendations 2017


Terence Hannum’s Dead Air 2017

A Nightmare on Elm Street: Original Soundtrack [1984] — Charles Bernstein

October II — Matt Christensen & Brian Harding

“Halloween” [Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross Version] — John Carpenter

Rise of the Night Terror — Corvx de Timor


The Hallow [2015, dir. Corin Hardy]

The Lure [2015, dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska]

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night [2014, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour]

Pulse [2001, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa]

Don’t Look Now [1973, dir. Nicolas Roeg]

Dracula’s Daughter [1936, dir. Lambert Hillyer]

Video Games

Layers of Fear


The Halloween Tree — Ray Bradbury


Grump Groan Growl — bell hooks & Chris Raschka

AMERICAN ASSASSIN and Cinematic Honesty

My best friend asked me to go see American Assassin with him opening night. We hadn’t gone to a movie together for a while, so I went, excited to hang with my buddy and despite having no desire to see this film, having seen the very uninteresting trailers, knowing it was adapted from Vince Flynn’s novel, and despite my admiration for Michael Keaton. Oh, and the thing is a conservative wet dream in the spirit of 24American Sniper, and Open Range. Of those three, only the last I enjoy, as its genre trappings and compelling composition and craftsmanship pushes it into very cool territory, while still being an ideological disaster. More on that in a bit. Basically, I was at the show to hang with a friend more than any desire to see the film. But I’ve watched plenty worse, which is no excuse to keep watching crappy shows, so I justify it as useful to see what seems clearly designed for someone with the polar opposite world view and personal politics than myself. Good to get a peek into the other side, I guess. Plus, I’m of the opinion that just because a movie is dumb, doesn’t mean you can’t still have an intelligent thought about it. I don’t know if the following will provide that, but I’ll give it a shot, as these questions have nagged at me for years.

So how was the movie? As bad as I thought it would be. Worse perhaps. It hit all the buzz points beloved by contemporary American conservatism: terrorists, man pain, nukes, irrelevant female nudity, more man pain, torture, Islamic terrorists, vigilante violence, the most man pain, white people killing Arabs, evil Iranians, eternal man pain, dead women, protecting Israel, saving the military, terminal man pain. So, yeah, it’s A Lot. The most even. It’s the most extra conservatism I’ve seen in a long time. Its morality a false dichotomy between state-sanctioned murder and vigilante murder. Which is a pretty damn cynical, even nihilistic, world view. There’s a militant atheism at the heart of American Assassin that is colder and more sinister than even Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.

I often hear Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and John Hillcoat’s film adaptation, described as the most depressing, devastating, and/or bleak story. I disagree with that; The Road has glimmers of hope, but it doesn’t offer it easily. And even if you interpret it as a devastating smothering of hope, despite efforts to overcome a collapsing world, the fact that you tried, suggests a Herzogian defiance in the face of our inevitable destruction. You don’t just resign yourself to a world gone wrong. American Assassin, in contrast, believes exactly that: kill or be killed, take absolute vengeance on not only the individuals who wronged you, but the entire apparatus. American Assassin coldly endorses Donald Trump’s view that we slaughter not just terrorists, but their families as well. An argument many, rightly, identified as a war crime, while, wrongly, neglecting to mention that American Standard Operating Procedure has essentially been exactly what Trump advocated, evidenced by the numbers of civilian casualties killed by American forces in the so-called War on Terror. Step aside, Viggo Mortensen, because American Assassin‘s Dylan O’Brien is the new Millennial face of American nihilism.

And yet. Something that American Assassin has is honesty of presentation. It doesn’t lie to you about its world view. It embraces it, wears it proudly, on full display without apology. This doesn’t exactly make up for the problems I see within that world view. But there’s something to respect there, especially considering a few higher-profile and much more successful films that I find disingenuous, even actively and deceptively dishonest, in presenting their view of the world. I will settle on two from this year: Split and Wonder Woman. Both were praised well above what American Assassin received. Split was hailed as a return-to-form for the insufferable M. Night Shyamalan. Wonder Woman as a revolution in female empowerment, crushing glass ceilings for superhero flicks and women as lead actor and director. Fair enough. As far as it goes. Which, really, isn’t very far.

In both cases I think a certain degree of straining for quality and amplifying alleged positive aspects beyond their reality is happening. With American Assassin, no one felt the need to do so. It’s a film that can much more readily and easily be dismissed by audiences and critics because it doesn’t carry the same cultural clout as a superhero juggernaut name-dropping buzz themes swirling through the popular discourse of contemporary gender politics, even if it does so in a surprisingly retrograde fashion. Split was praised for its suspenseful technique and structure, as well as its approach to mental illness, trauma, and feminism (again with the popular buzz topics).

Split hinges on the assumption that in order for a woman to survive in the modern world, she needs to know certain hostile realities about men. Our protagonist, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, doing the best she can with what little she’s given), is considered an awkwardly uncool outsider by her much more hip, and therefore ignorant, companions. Casey is an introvert, and awkward; a painful caricature of a tumblr profile, which we learn is because she was sexually abused as a child by a much older family member. Her childhood trauma has taught her some harsh realities about the world: namely regarding men and violence against women. She’s resourceful and able to overcome her trauma, even turning it into a strength with which she can beat our mutiple-personalitied James McAvoy. It sounds and looks like a pretty cool bit of female empowerment, embracing contemporary discourse on abuse and trauma. Discussion of rape culture, trigger warnings, trauma, and mental illness makes Split a timely work, and on the surface it might appear to be quite the feminist and PTSD manifesto. The response from audiences and critics alike tend to praise its feminism, while pushing back, to varying degrees, on its presentation of mental illness.

I won’t begin to broach the topic of mental illness in this film, other than to say it does a bad job. By which I mean, I don’t need scientific accuracy. But I need something that strategically works within its own cinematic world in order to speak to some broader real-world truth, and Split doesn’t deliver. But it doesn’t deliver on its feminism either for the simple reason that Casey’s experience depends completely on her being abused.

Casey’s fellow prisoners, Claire (Hailey Lu Richardson) & Marcia (Jessica Sula), are essentially helpless. They’re ignorant, weak, and don’t ever do anything except be leered at by the camera in their fashionable clothes that accentuate both their sex appeal and their vulnerability. They’re victims from the start and because they don’t like Casey, the film cuts us off from ever caring about them. They’re stock slasher film throwaway victims, mere props for spectacular slaughter rather than dynamic, fully-formed characters. That their deaths aren’t as drawn out or gratuitous as we find in endless numbers of slasher films doesn’t really make up for their narrative and thematic function: they’re disposable, designed to die as a lesson in ignorance–to the point of slut-shaming and victim blaming. After all, if you hadn’t been so concerned with fashion, you’d have something more practical on, because of course you’re supposed to always dress like you’re gonna get kidnapped by a mentally ill sexual predator. 

More than that, they die precisely because they’re ignorant to the alleged cruel realities life imposes on women. If only they’d known how bad it can be! How could they have known? They had clothes to buy and selfies to take; there’s no time to be sexually abused by a family member as a child, like Casey, which thankfully enlightened her to life’s cruelty. The key to preventing future sexual assault is to first be assaulted. It’s completely, ludicrously insulting and degrading to women. It’s a double-standard, where the story can condemn sexual abuse, while suggesting that such abuse is the only, or at least the best way, a woman can empower herself. But then it essentially gaslights Casey by saying her trauma is actually a strength. Which, well, doesn’t sound feminist at all.

Even framing it as “this is how life is,” as my prior paragraph did is incorrect. Life needn’t be this way. It’s not a given or absolute. There’s little attention to the role of patriarchy as an ideological force over-determining the world. That’s conveniently absent, replaced by a man whose primary characteristic is his mental illness. Not an especially good move when people with mental illness are in fact much more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. It’s a nice deflection technique, shifting the focus away from patriarchy and systems privileging men over women, and onto mental illness. And while horror operates on anomalies, and inexplicable deviations within “reality,” Split‘s flattened approach turns a potentially promising basic premise into a terribly exploitative portrait of trauma, where the trauma is essential and necessary to your survival. If you aren’t traumatized and abused, then you’re ignorant and will be killed. Survival requires trauma, as if survival was the basic framework of a woman’s lived experience, rather than being simply life. 

This is not to say that trauma can’t offer experience and sources of strength. Many survivors attest to gaining valuable insight from their experiences. And, yes, trauma and difficulty can be turned to strengths, offering experience and knowledge to help navigate our strange and often hostile world. But the film’s broad-stroked approach fails to sufficiently develop a metaphor or parable that functions beyond a cruelly shallow level. There’s no nuance. Casey is one-dimensionally resourceful, her “friends” one-dimensionally helpless. Paper-thin women whose function is to be terrorized and killed, or terrorized in order to survive. It’s a narrow, gross world view that thinks it’s one thing, but actually is another. Deeply disingenuous and dishonest, in many cases only highlighting the ignorance of its creator, Shyamalan, who has the male luxury to be ignorant and survive to make more insufferably pretentious, shallow films awash in well-worn gimmicks and platitudes. And then he ruins Unbreakable as well. Goodness. He’s like the U2 of filmmakers (which is giving him too much credit), where his current work is so shitty that even sticking to the old stuff can’t get you away from the smell. You gotta just abandon the whole thing.

And then there’s Wonder Woman–the massively successful DC entry that everyone wanted. Why did they want it? Well, because we haven’t had a contemporary superhero film with a female lead. And we haven’t had one directed by a woman. And all of DC’s other films have mega-sucked, and DC has long had a sexism problem (not that Marvel doesn’t have one; it does: that leering dude bro kissing moment in Civil War–maximum yikes). So a lot was riding on Wonder Woman; big expectations, big hopes, and so much future money to be made.

By all accounts it was a smashing, complete success. Raked in the cash, the reviews, the everything. Women everywhere praised its feminism, praised director Patty Jenkins’ direction, went on and on at how ungazey it was, how toweringly tough Diana (played terrifically by Gal Gadot) was. She was a combat badass, yet loved babies. Her weapon is mostly a shield (wow! defense rather than offense, which isn’t actually true because the shield enables violence over and over again). She’s a warrior for love! But she also throws tantrums that slaughter people for no reason. And the supposed villain, who she fights and kills, turns out to not be the actual villain and there was no need to kill that guy (a point we never return to or interrogate, because killing stock evil Germans is still one of the great uninterrogated bits of wallpapering spectacle of slaughter left to Hollywood). Wonder Woman is basically Hacksaw Ridge: a self-proclaimed pacifist film that endorses violence against a demonic Other by way of divine right. But now with women! Yay! It’s a rush to the bottom, where instead of asking us to rise above the baser aspects of human nature–hatred & violence–which the film is saying it opposes, but really just wants to be allowed to commit those very atrocities in an equal opportunity fashion. It’s the ultimate display of Sheryl Sandberg lean-in feminism: white, corporate, imperialist. A movie proclaiming itself to be about love or violence can’t also have this much un-interrogated violence slathered across the screen. It’s saying one thing, and showing another, which is nasty to the visual form of cinema, and–more importantly–to its audience, of whom it doesn’t think too highly.

The problem here is that for all the gushing praise of its progressive feminism, it’s, well, not that progressive, or feminist. In part, because it can’t be. This is big budget blockbuster economics. You can’t take many risks. You gotta play it real careful, because to really push would be to alienate much of your needed audience. We saw that with Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, where to radically revamp the beloved male establishment is met with vitriolic torrents of sexist fragile masculinity. The revolt against Ghostbusters had little to do with any shortcomings in the film’s craft–and there are some real shortcomings there–and had more or less everything to do with the remake’s perceived perversion and feminization–dare I say, emasculation–of a beloved male classic. It didn’t matter that the cast of the original Ghostbusters all endorsed the remake (it shouldn’t matter that they did or didn’t–remakes needn’t happen only with the blessing of the ‘original’ artists–but as the arguments decrying the original often pointed to the original cast, for the naysayers, it clearly mattered a lot what Murray, Ackroyd, and Hudson thought–did Weaver’s opinion matter?). It didn’t matter that the original actually had its own blaring shortcomings–the EPA as villain? Really? Ghost blowjobs? Really? The entire push-back centered on the film’s female cast. As if Shakespeare had never happened. As if Battlestar Galactica didn’t already rewrite the beloved Starbuck character as a woman, and thus make the character infinitely better than its predecessor. Galactica, furthermore, gave space and voice to more women than the original series. The attack on Ghostbusters and other similar examples, reveal a selective tunnel vision at work among the dissidents that only exposes the entrenched sexism within our culture, while–less importantly–also revealing inanely stunted notions of adaptation, remake and the ever-evolving world of artistic creation and industry. This is what Wonder Woman was up against, facing massive pressure to be a success, in a landscape no one wanted to admit stacked the odds against it. So Wonder Woman needed to play a very careful cultural, creative, and business game. And it absolutely succeeded at that game, but not by being overly honest.

I recently attended a conversation lecture at Utah Valley University by renowned culture critic bell hooks, wherein she made the amusingly lovely remark that “Wonder Woman should have been called Wonder Woman Meets Steve“. Sounds like a flippant quip, right? Something for a laugh, right? Low-hanging fruit perhaps? This would be a fair criticism of her comment if the resounding, overwhelming, consuming response from critics and audiences hadn’t insisted that Wonder Woman was the most immense leap forward in female empowerment and representation E V E R. And what’s central to that praise is how Diana isn’t beholden to any man–she does what she wants. And the movie isn’t objectifying. At least those are the shorthand claims. And yet. This is still a film in which a woman basically ditches her homeland to follow a hot guy into a fray, where she joins up with other dudes, who get to remark how they’re both “frightened and aroused” by Diana, and everyone notes her beauty (over and over). And Diana still needs to have a relationship with Steve. The depiction of that relationship might be better done than in other superhero films, but as a plot point and narrative device, this is classic gendered structuring. Steve saves the day (also not terrible in itself) and Diana’s reaction is to slaughter a bunch of wallpaper German soldiers without consequence (quite terrible). Guess she’s not here for Love after all? Or she is, but that love is for Steve and “women and children”; you know, that super progressive classic line stemming from, eh, chivalric, chauvinistic patriarchy.

Love is, according to many of Diana’s actions and the film’s visual language, not for faceless masses of German soldiers who are not even the primary villain of the piece–as Diana now knows. At no point does she or the film interrogate this major misstep. But it comes close enough for complexity to be confused with incoherence. If you focus simply on her character, where Diana believes she can overcome evil by killing the primary villain, only to realize that’s incorrect, then it’s an interesting bit of character development and internal conflict. But her external actions remain grounded in killing people, who she now knows don’t need or deserve to be killed. At least, she would know that if she (and the film) didn’t still consider them disposable props, non-human cannon fodder. The film only marginally tries to correct this by reframing our villainous scientist as someone to be pitied rather than feared–a pity that stems from her physical facial deformity. Yikes as that bit of physical shaming, that is compounded by the attention to Chris Pine and Gal Gadot’s beauty–they’re both “above average,” unlike our villains.

While I’m thinking about what it means to love people, remember when the film threw secretaries under the bus for the sake of a joke? Or women getting the vote? These are jokes designed for audiences and filmmakers to pat themselves on the back for being so much more progressive and enlightened than those earlier generations. This is the shallowest acknowledgement of gender disparity and sexism, of the 1910s or today, and it mostly is there as a convenient foil in which the film can position itself as the enlightened product of the Liberated Woman (written by a man, of course).

This applies to costuming, as well. Diana is baffled by the bulky old dresses of the era, which are restricting and impractical. She finds something more her speed, which, indeed she wears magnificently while looking cutting edge for the time. This is mostly fine, because it adds to her mobility to move in and out of gendered spaces freely, and Diana walking around in a room full of dudes like she belongs there is one of the more effective jabs in the film. However, if the impractical restrictions of women’s clothing is what’s being scoffed at, then I’m a little confused why contemporary Diana is sporting the pencil skirt? There are reasons why that would make sense–women can wear whatever they want, and wearing restrictive and form-fitting clothes isn’t inherently bad or anti-feminist, but the film never really deals with it. The fashion comment rests more in the very deliberate emphasis on the most ludicrous fashion choices available in order to juxtapose archaic symbols of female oppression and sexism with the liberated enlightenment of our modern day, in which most women’s jeans still doesn’t have real pockets. It’s a wonky, muddled attempt at audience deception more than genuine critical engagement with culture, history, and the characters’ own journeys.

But audiences swallowed this wholeheartedly, without much interrogation. At virtually every turn, audiences gave the film a pass. Some of the most common defenses actually are easy deflections–red herrings designed to villainize other works rather than properly interrogate this one. “Well, the Joss Whedon script was super sexist!” Fair enough. But that’s irrelevant to assessing Heinberg’s script used for the film. Stay focused on Heinberg’s script, wherein all of the aforementioned examples exist. “Well, this is the first superhero movie by a woman! You can’t expect it to be perfect!” No, I don’t. That’s not what I’m demanding. But it does seem that audiences need it to be if not perfect at least impervious to serious critique, with any criticisms against the film small potatoes and irrelevant against all the great things it does. Eh, no. Some criticisms are small potatoes. Example: the alleged devastating chemical agent that’ll destroy everything and is so much worse than mustard gas, doesn’t actually look worse than mustard gas. Chris Pine sucks a bit down, coughs a little and then clears out. Mustard gas woulda melted his guts. So the bomb doesn’t seem all that terrible really. That’s a small criticism. A large criticism is that the movie basically liberates white women to participate in the American colonial project. To which I will return to bell hooks, who rightly stated “you can’t be pro-women and pro-war.” Because women are always the most severely brutalized in warfare. And Wonder Woman is a movie drawing on the rich heritage of American colonial war films.

It’s fair to suggest that Wonder Woman, as a superhero film, doesn’t necessarily have much to do with actual warfare, and that the entire thing operates as a metaphor for something else rather than a concrete commentary on and endorsement of war. And yet, the film goes to certain lengths to suggest precisely that. And the history of Wonder Woman is overly political in nature. Wonder Woman, similar to Superman, is an extension of America. Lots of these comics originate as anti-fascist narratives, where Nazis are the villains, and America, by way of these superheros, is the hero out to vanquish the evils of the world–which it does in part by positioning itself as a threatened nation who now needs to defend itself. You know, with a shield. And then a sword and whip. Diana’s primary weapon, like Captain America’s, is often her shield–a protective, defensive tool. Lots has been made of this. We see it as defensive, because Wonder Woman defends goodness, and protects people. That’s virtuous, right? That’s not the tool of the violent aggressor. Except she uses the shield to then enable British soldiers to aggressively attack and overrun the German forces. It’s a terrifically staged sequence. Shot and cut quite well. But it’s also basically PG-13 war porn, where swaths of Germans are rapidly killed, without blinking or reflecting on the human slaughter. This isn’t particularly emblematic of an advocate of peace. She just doesn’t actually shoot the gun. It’s a Lewis Bloom kind of violence from Nightcrawler, where he successfully manipulates people and elements around him to cause destructive and horrific violence to undeserving peoples. He’s at a remove, and therefore escapes blame. But he absolutely is exploiting crisis in order to cause further harm, and thus preserve his job. Wonder Woman does this same thing, exhibiting less interest in human life than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, wherein the debate about violence for the greater good is tackled head on. The Terminator is designed to destroy. And yet young John Connor emphatically denies the Terminator this right. So The Terminator switches tactics, immobilizing opponents rather than killing them (something cops might wanna try someday when stopping people of color). Even Miles Dyson, the man instrumental in designing Skynet and inciting Judgement Day, gets a bit of a pass. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor believes he must be killed to save the future. John and the Terminator move to prevent her from doing so. And it’s in no small part because of the horror in the faces of Miles’ wife and kids that ultimately keep Sarah from killing him. So, like Diana, Sarah is moved by the women and children–the inherently innocent, according to this particular brand of sexism–but unlike Diana, Sarah actually puts down her weapons of war, and attempts a different solution to the problem. Dyson still dies, which is convenient to the film’s intent and thus presents a possible contradiction wherein the film pulls a mild Louis Bloom on us. But it’s a much more interesting engagement with the problem inherent to stories shaped around violence, as action & superhero movies are. Some of the superhero films within the Marvel universe have grappled somewhat with the question of violence, with varying success. To date, none of the DC universe films have done so with any success. And this is central to Wonder Woman‘s success.

The DC universe has been stagnating. The films aren’t good. They’re not succeeding with audiences or critics remotely to the degree Marvel’s universe is. One of the recurring issues within the reception of these films is that they’re unnecessarily violent without conscience. Man of Steel showed massive obliterating destruction and mass casualties that the film never stopped to interrogate. The killing Zod wasn’t the main issue, though that stirred a lot of chatter and discussion. That’s less interesting or important to me than Superman’s complicity in annihilating civilians. Batman v Superman didn’t fare much better, with Ben Affleck’s crusty sad Batman running over people in the batmobile, because . . . he’s old and numb I guess? And the utterly useless killing off of Jimmy Olsen, which Zack Snyder explained as poorly as one could:

“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?” 

Uh, cool? No. And not because of fidelity and history. I don’t believe one needs to hold onto characters in adaptations just because the original has them, even when they are important characters. You can rework these things and eliminate some people. Casino Royale worked like crazy, precisely because it deviated so drastically from key aspects of the Bond franchise–Moneypenny wasn’t there, the gadgets were largely absent, for example. The Lord of the Rings lacked Tom Bombadil, a sad loss, but makes sense within the world and narrative pursued by Jackson’s trilogy. Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s The Shining dramatically reworks its source material, taking the film in directions the book does not. Certainly that one rubs the wrong way with a lot of fans (and, famously, King himself). But even King, along with numerous fans and critics, concedes that Kubrick’s film is a tremendous one. So, no, we needn’t keep Jimmy Olsen in the film’s lineup. But where this goes wrong is that his murder becomes casual spectacle in the name of “fun.” The pragmatic decision to write him out of the world is clumsily added as background noise in an action sequence–a disposable death that no one noticed until the credits rolled.

So Snyder has some figurative blood on his hands regarding his treatment of Jimmy Olsen. But, perhaps more importantly here, the audience only cared because they knew who Jimmy was, and were then upset that such a favored character was treated so poorly. Had Jimmy not been Jimmy, but instead some rando, no one would have noticed or cared. That dude’s death would not have mattered, except as a function of violent spectacle. But because we “knew” him (only because of the comics, not because he was anything in this specific cinematic world) we are bothered by how poorly the creators treated him. By extension, Jimmy’s unimportant death is fun not just for Snyder & co., but it’s fun at the expense of the very audience they claim to respect. Therein are the filmmakers unnecessarily and unjustifiably cruel and disingenuous to their audience, their fans.

The anonymity of superhero cannon-fodder is a frequent problem in these films, and Wonder Woman is absolutely no exception. But because there isn’t a Jimmy Olsen lurking in the crowd, and the victims are part of a familiar narrative trope–Evil Nazis, er, Germans? Which War are we in again?–no one stops to question what’s happening. Diana doesn’t even stop to question this. She moves on through very easily. The Jimmy Olsen equivalent in Wonder Woman would probably be, the horribly named, The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). The casually racist name is one thing–where everyone will defend this racism as being historically accurate, while demanding we skirt past all the other historical inaccuracies because this is a superhero movie–but more significant for my purposes here, is his one moment of “characterization” when talking with Diana. It’s here revealed that Chief’s own people were wiped out by Steve’s people, white Europeans. This is designed to illustrate the cyclical violence between peoples while also creating some complexity between Diana and her opinion of Steve. The scene largely is to service people who are not Chief or Native populations–it’s for the colonial force represented by Steve and Diana, and crafted by Heinberg and Jenkins to their own comfort. And the issue is never returned to. Diana gets over this potential problem with Steve and his heritage exactly when the scene ends.  The general response I’ve seen to this is, well, it’s bold for them to have brought it up at all. This is deflective white nonsense, that forgets an entire history of white nonsense regarding Native peoples and their extermination by white colonial invaders, which has been documented over and over throughout the history of American cinema. The allegedly racist films of the American Western have often done a far superior job of addressing this issue. Hell, the lackluster Hidalgo did a better job, and that flick is embarrassing. It’s as if Dances with Wolves, the whitest movie about Natives ever, never happened.

Now, part of this is optics and narrative space. I’m throwing around films that focus much more specifically on Native American history than Wonder Woman. So it would make sense to say that they can do a better job because they have more space. This is a fair point. Compression and short-hand is absolutely a tactic used by every narrative. So the problem isn’t so much that there is one tiny scene, and that Chief is largely sidelined after that (though that’s a thing for sure), but that the scene operates as hollow dramatics within its own narrative. This is drama as plot-point, but only just barely. As earlier stated: Diana gives Steve a wary look after hearing Chief’s words, but by the very next scene she is back to liking him as she did and never again does the issue come up or create any difficulty between characters or with the story’s trajectory. And it most certainly doesn’t get Diana to question whether or not the Allied forces are in the right or if the Germans might be not monolithically Evil. I would say this presents a flaw in her character, but the film never really does that either. It does nothing with that scene, because its singular function was only for the duration of the scene, with no resonating connection to the film as a whole. Alienation effect. Isolated incidents without impact or consequence. Capitalist Imperialism in its finest form. As if acknowledging that Europeans killed some Natives one time is sufficient treatment of the past and the present.

I’ve belabored the point I think. Wonder Woman keeps telling us it cares about women, feminism, love, and peace. But it cares in that message only as far as a cheap meme on pinterest. But this one is way longer, costs way more money, and doesn’t actually believe the shit its peddling anyway. And herein may be the difference between it and American Assassin: both essentially hold the same ideological position, but only one of them is honest enough regarding that position to unashamedly, without apology, state exactly where it stands. The other one is a superhero juggernaut too afraid, and too beholden to corporate, financial interests to be sincere.

From a technical, craftsmanship, and performance standpoint, American Assassin is a facile, bland effort. It tries to build on the supreme staging, choreography and kinetic interplay of actors and camera of sublimely superior films like John WickDredd, and Atomic Blonde. The extended takes, featuring camera movement rather than cuts, sometimes almost work. But this is a crew of filmmakers without the imagination, resources, and skill to match those films–all three of which also do not hide what they are, nor do they apologize for it. But they also do, each in its way, offer some introspection or complex character dynamics that offer thematic dimension on top of formal excellence. In this respect, they fit alongside such seemingly disparate films as Kevin Costner’s Open Range, basically everything by George Romero, and the great works of Dario Argento. Romero quite famously asserted that Night of the Living Dead “doesn’t lie to you” about what it is. And that integrity traverses a range of difficulty. But again, these are work of also superior craft, on top of creator integrity. American Assassin might have the latter (kind of?), but it absolutely doesn’t have the former. 

And quite frankly, it’s a cheaper attempt at offering the firm conviction of John Wick or Open Range. Dylan O’Brien’s Mitch Rapp (a name that can’t even compete with Dirk Pitt, Jack Ryan, or Jack Bauer, but really wants to). Rapp is a Nice-Guy-turned-Militant-Alt-Righter (aka American Patriot) wherein his disposable dead girlfriend serves as the sole justification for becoming an irresponsible douche bro convinced that the ends always justify the means. He carelessly gets in fights with people at the gym, is a hazard at the gun range, and even after all his so-called training and learning to believe in and fight for the higher cause espoused by Michael Keaton’s bland Stan Hurley (what are these names, my dudes?) he takes off on his own to eliminate an Iranian General set to become the new leader of Iran. The closing shot of O’Brien’s eyes looking at us as the elevator doors close, signalling the impending death by American-sanctioned vigilantism, is the most nihilistic interpretation of Nietzsche’s abyss staring back at you in modern cinema. A circling back to the irresponsibility of the opening scenes, but now with some degree of American government approval. It’s terrifyingly irresponsible, but a perfect portrait of Millennial far-right conservativism. Does Stephen Miller dream of American Assassin? I don’t know, but that 32-year-old Nazi sympathizer, living in the body of a 50-year-old man, certainly envies O’Brien’s dead-eyed monolithic worldview.  

In contrast, a film like John Wick offers a brutal revenge tale that might seem similar, but distinctly different not only in the more contained and fictional world it creates, but also through strategically effective backstory and developments that give Wick a more believable motive than Rapp. It’s not just the dog and the dead wife. It’s a sense of loss. Rapp’s girlfriend is killed as catalyst to irresponsible action violence. Wick’s wife isn’t killed in the world, but is killed by the film. The difference gives Wick room as a character, while still giving us some man pain. But it’s a pain rendered more human, felt through the absence of the actual person, while seeing and hearing that person in the ordinary world around you–an alarm clock, a coffee cup, and then a puppy. So Wick flounders. He has no focus, no purpose. Suicide becomes an option, but he can’t commit. And this, we later learn, is completely foreign to his character, who is focused and deliberate, a cold functionality to his hitman work. Wick had left the underworld and his criminal past behind, buried under concrete. Yet when trauma hits, the concrete containing the darker past and personality within Wick is crushed. The classy sophistication of the underworld, with its house rules, gold coins, and tailored suits is the glossy veneer of “civilized men,” which Wick himself refutes with the snarling growl, “Do I look civilized to you?” Certainly we’re cheering Wick to victory, but because we’re outside the real world, the film operates more parabolically and metaphorically. What appears to be all surface and no substance, has some depth and heft within all that gorgeous lighting and kinetic gun-fu. After all, the symmetrical framing of the opening shots of his wife collapsing and the closing shots of him walking away with his rescued pitbull give a nice connecting harmony. He had recovered, passed through grief and emerged victorious and with a new pet. And yet, the warm lighting of the opening has been replaced by cooler lighting and darker silhouettes that evoke the closing images of Shane or Unforgiven. Certainly we’ve passed through the figurative and literal rainstorm, as the water reflections indicate. But the darkness remains. Something has been lost in the finding, and Wick walks away from us in a rather classic gunfighter-leaving-town way, suggesting a complicated form of resolution, healing, and damnation.

This finish, however, only works if we disregard the second chapter, which severely undercuts my reading. The second film loses its way almost completely, lapsing into gratuitously unnecessary violence (amidst some commendable action sequences), and implausible character action–the tipping point of the second film, killing someone on Continental grounds, makes little sense compared to the first film–Wick has rage, but he is “a man of focus.” If his dead wife isn’t enough for him to break that focus in the first chapter, it hardly seems plausible that he would deviate under less dire circumstances. And therein crumbles the whole thing.

O’Brien’s Rapp has no such motivation or focus. He’s a boy who sees being wronged by random violence as justification to do whatever he wants. He has no such focus, and no justification. And this is compounded by a film ostensibly taking place in the real world with real nations and peoples, which are here depicted with staggering one-dimensional demonization. But, the film believes this characterization firmly and completely. It never undercuts or complicates this conviction in the rightness of America and the wrongness of the “Enemy.” If that singular honesty is anywhere compromised it’s in the cliched reveal of an American operative as primary villain. But that, too, seems to conform completely to America’s nagging fixation on Lone Wolf, Bad Apple, individuals in regards to its own. Iranians are sweepingly villainized. Americans, well, there’s this one Bad Apple, but the rest of us are good and right. The logic doesn’t hold up at all, but it’s a perfect depiction of American ideological conservatism. No question. No one hides behind claims of love, or bullshit nods to some facile depiction of feminism, or tries to tell you that this is a movie of female empowerment, only achievable through female victimization. No. It’s not hiding. It’s staring you right in the face and it doesn’t blink.

It’s hard to then say which is more dangerous. And that might not be the most important point anyway. After all, I find both positions pretty abhorrent. But my job as an educator has revealed something about me: I value honesty. I care about it very much. Because you can work with that. There’s a clear position, of where you are, your intent, and your goals. My freshmen write argumentative papers about a range of topics, and at least 50% of the time I disagree with their position. But I cannot argue the integrity, rhetorical quality, and critical rigor of a well-argued paper, that knows what it is, goes for it, and upholds honest intent and diligent research. When papers begin to fall flat, it’s often because the argument is undercooked (lacking formal quality) and/or disingenuous in its treatment of the topic (dishonest).

Offering a strategic ploy, such as in Wonder Woman, is a little harder to pin down, because I’m not sure what any of its creators might stand for. The movie says it has firm convictions, but it doesn’t show them. The only visible conviction I see is to makes mountains of cash. I have no doubt that Jenkins and the rest would take severe issue with that claim, and they would perhaps have good grounds for doing so. But I stand by it, believing that ultimately the money is the primary fruit of this labor, with the benefits—and there are some, because folks have legitimately felt empowered and encouraged by the film—secondary to the primary goal of corporate imperialism that Hollywood has long been partnered with. Wonder Woman is primarily a cash grab, willing to use women, Natives, history, and a beloved comic book character in the service of that primary goal. I don’t see Split as anything but a floundering director desperate to recover past glory, and he’ll plunder women, mental illness, and his own past successes to get it. American Assassin wants to make money, because that’s the business and it has no problem with that business. It doesn’t hide what it is: an unwavering declaration of American patriotism against a world of evil terrorist nations intent on destroying America.

Consequently, American Assassin received poorer reviews, which I find largely accurate in assessing the film’s ideology and craft. But this is a film easy to dismiss and pan. Wonder Woman not so much. Critics need to play their own game in relation to Hollywood’s game. They had been massively criticized by DC fans for unfairly panning DC films while favoring Marvel films. Without siding too much with the DC dude bros, because they absolutely aren’t my scene, and their anger at critics has a lot of barely masked beta male 4chan sexism and anti-intellectualism. But it’s fair to claim critics have often played it safe regarding Marvel films, leaning towards praise rather than criticism, whereas they lean toward disfavor with DC. Rightly, DC has been criticized for its sexism, misogyny, and irresponsible violence. Wrongly, Marvel has gotten a frequent pass on that front. Yes, overall the Marvel films are better and do a better job than DC, but they aren’t as drastically better as reviews and audience response believe. They’re frequently better crafted, which can improve content and substance, but only so far.

With Wonder Woman, DC figured out how to better play the game. They pulled from the Marvel book, and delivered quite the tokenizing feature to illustrate how culturally aware and progressive they are, all while throwing that very demographic under the proverbial bus. Critics and audiences swallowed it completely, not seeing how Wonder Woman is saying much the same thing as American Assassin: To love is to kill the perceived offending force. And by accepting that belief, we become the citizens of Rome fawning over Commodus:

“He’ll bring them death, and they will love him for it.”



Adam & Eve Web Series: Some Thoughts on an Old Story, and a Chance at some Funding

A bit of self-serving, shameless promotion for a project I’m part of and believe in very much. But first, some rambling.

I’m fascinated by creation myths and origin stories. I don’t spend enough time with them. One of the most popular origin stories in the Western World is Adam & Eve–the first humans, as told in that familiar-yet-elusive text, The Holy Bible. We know about the Bible, right? Eh, kind of. Often we know it more through how it’s interpreted by people professing it to be scripture from God rather than from reading the text ourselves. Unsurprisingly, lots of Christians don’t spend much time with Adam & Eve, and the basic lesson(s) of the story are told a bit simplistically.

This is different from being simple. Myths, fables, parables, metaphors–often the bread n butter of Biblical storytelling–excel at being complex narratives communicated through simple structures. They’re surprisingly difficult narrative forms. Kinda how comedy, when done well, appears effortless and spontaneous. In effect, easy. But anyone in comedy, either as a critic or practitioner, knows it’s anything but easy. And one of the greatest challenges is to make it appear really damn easy (like making a world through millions of years of natural process appear like it was created from nothing). So, it’s gotta look easy, and it’s gotta convey big, expansive ideas through laughter–also not something we value as much as we should.

Laughter in the Bible? Where? Lamentably, the Bible has the unfortunate reputation of not only being dry and severe, but aggressively unfunny. This isn’t necessarily true (it’s a big book, so some of it is absolutely not funny–some of that Law of Moses stuff, and the mass slaughter of entire civilizations, usually not funny; Jesus baggin on how stupid his apostles often are? Very funny. Job trash-talkin his unhelpful friends, very funny. Watching too many Christian homophobes work their way around David and Jonathan’s hella-gay relationship? Always funny, yet sad, with a history of devastating consequences for so many people). Finding the humor, much like finding the poignancy and layers of meaning, takes a little-to-a-lot of work learning how to read and understand the Bible–though your Sunday School class will undoubtedly assure you that it’s all easy and crystal clear, and often conveniently in line with the class’ already established world view, and frequently confused with Divine Revelation.

There’s a problem though. It’s actually not easy, and believers I think could benefit from seeing the degree of difficulty a little more clearly. For starters, imagine Adam & Eve as a rom com. Why not? You don’t think it was hella weird being the only two people on earth, who had known each other for a potentially shortish amount of time, in a perfect environment devoid of conflict? Yeah, getting along is easy when that’s your world. Especially when God is always there to chat. Life’s pretty good. Perfect even. Plato would be proud. But everyone else is bored to death, except we can’t die, because the Garden of Eden. Suddenly, this isn’t easy; this is damnation–the ultimate Beckett play where nothing happens and everything is as it should be and existence is meaningless. No human likes that. But there was a spark of tension, which ignited into a full-blown atomic blast, wherein Adam & Eve learned some things, gained some perspective, and flunked out of Eternity School. At least, so it seems. Suddenly, God ain’t around and there’s only them, and now they age, and have clothes, and their bodies wanna get down, and everything can die.

Eternity didn’t prepare them too well for this. So you gotta figure it out. Work from scratch, hone your DIY skillz, and figure out whether this person you’ve always been around in a perfect, conflict-free, environment, is still tol’able despite being a perplexing, contradictory, pain in the ass. Oh crap, you mean I gotta actually figure out if I like this person? What if I don’t? They’re the only one here! Nuts, right? A total mess. Think of the most uncomfortable date ever, and then realize you can’t tell anyone about it because the only person to tell is your date.

Wait, what about the telling? We like telling stories. We like telling uncomfortable stories. Good storytellers–even funny, optimistic, kind ones–are masochists to some degree, because most of the time the best stories contain unbearable conflict. Some of the best humor is found in watching other people agonize through the most uncomfortable scenarios imaginable–Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, Bringing Up Baby, Some Like It Hot, Nightcrawler (yes, Nightcrawler is a comedy–the darkest comedy ever made, besides perhaps Heathers). We love watching this stuff, we don’t like living it. But how often have you found yourself halfway over the coals and thought: “this sucks, but it’ll make a killer story later,” or “someday we’ll laugh about this, but today is not that day.” We’ve been there. Hell, it was the only thing my sophomore creative writing class could write about. It was just four months of the most uncomfortable, absurd, and confessional dating and relationship stories ever. All these kids were desperately attracted to and repulsed by relationships and the perplexingly cruel rituals of dating in Provo, Utah; the shiny Sunday School curtain of perfect lives pulled back, revealing the most grotesque and carnivalesque shop of human horrors imaginable. Stories allowed this release, and it was the only release available since these were Mormon kids, who couldn’t get laid. Masochistic, dark-humored narratives of collapse and despair were all they had, an eternal cycle of birth, growth, decay compressed into the week-to-week crucible of singles ward hell.

All of which makes Adam & Eve a rather relatable narrative. Even a true narrative. But it requires some work on our part, because Biblical language is tricky, and people’s interpretations of that language even trickier. And sometimes, there are gaps in the narrative, where we can speculate on the details. This is fun, and potentially dangerous, and kinda vital. So we appropriate, interpret, translate, and adapt the story to ourselves, our communities, our cultures–just as we do with the painfully amusing stories of our own lived experience. Again, not a bad thing. Quite the opposite, I think this is essential. Storytelling is a kind of redemption, where suffering, forgiveness, and salvation all become possible, through the telling, the crying, and the laughing. Understanding a text is like understanding our lives–God wants us to figure it out, because the easy ride of paradise is over, and now it’s time to get our hands dirty, apply some elbow grease, and troubleshoot this life thing. Essentially, you have to care. About everything and everyone. The boundaries and limits are suddenly so firmly before you, yet the whole point is to get past them, or perhaps more accurately, expand them to include other people who you don’t and can’t know as well as you thought.

Goes without saying: this is a huge pain sometimes, I know. So we do everything we can to make it easy, which usually involves some incredibly creative machinations, which, if they weren’t so stifling, I’d say were commendable. But the creative work of reductionist thinking, where stories and people get simplistic, is talent going in reverse, vain attempts to force ourselves back into the Garden rather than venture forward into Eternity. After all, the promise of eternal life stands as a powerful metaphor for limitless possibility, in which we can take our lives virtually anywhere we want, within certain basic-yet-difficult parameters, summed up by Charlton Heston:


To “Be Cool” means going forward with faith, hope, and charity. “Don’t be an Asshole” means to extend those three pillars of Christianity to everyone around you. Which can be hard when there’s only one person around, and they’re always there, and kinda dumb sometimes. Or you’re kinda dumb sometimes. And you know it, don’t know what to do about it, and can’t bury yourself away from the person next to you who also knows you’re pretty dumb. Oh man, existential absurdism taken to the horrible limits, and we’re all alive but dead from secondhand embarrassment.

Did all of that get pretty dry? I think so. Point is: if this kinda stuff interests you, then you might enjoy the charming romantic comedy web series Adam & Eve. If you’ve seen it, good for you! Your indie street cred is on fire! If you haven’t, well, forgiveness and repentance are real; knowing you’ve repented and been forgiven, less real. In any case, I don’t blame you for having not seen it. The show has been cruising under the radar, despite making a nice splash in Utah, where it was filmed, and at several film festivals across the globe. There’s so much to watch out there, and so much of it very good. And this web series was made on the super cheap, from the quietly hard-working married couple Davey & Bianca Morrison Dillard. I’m, of course, quite biased since they are dear friends of mine, and I have been the PA/AC on this project. It has been a joy to work on this series.

I mean, doesn’t this look fun? (It’s fun.)

Now (here’s the shameless promotional part), there’s a chance for Adam & Eve to get a little funding through the Stareable competition, currently running through the end of the month. How does it work? You click on the link to the project you wish to support. That’s it. The clicks are tallied and the project with the most clicks by the end wins a $2000 grant. For a DIY project like this, $2000 would go an incredibly long way to funding future episodes. But it’s only possible with consistent clicking from those interested. What’s better is that you can click once daily, on any device you can find. Meaning, if you happen to find yourself in a room full of computers, tablets, and phones, you can click once from each device, and every single click counts(!). Incredible. Technology has really carried us some places since Adam & Eve stumbled out of the garden.

What Davey and Bianca have crafted here is much more than a simple Bible story. Not that the Bible is simple, as we know–it’s super not. And that’s true here, as well. What appears simple and straight-forward on the surface, is more intricate and complex. There are nuances here, and what attracts me the most is how human and in the world the whole thing is. A lot of Christian religious cinema I think does itself a great disservice by either falling back too hard on easy platitudes that double as advertising, or becoming too vague and impersonal so that everything becomes more conceptual than concrete. Davey & Bianca, and most certainly Becca Ingram‘s performance as Eve, have crafted a tale rooted in experience. The emotions and concerns are fairly accessible and ordinary ones, which makes them rather massive and profound–eternal perhaps? The Christian narrative explored here is quite catholic (you know, the universal variety, not the institutional), and deeply uninterested in whether or not we viewers might literally believe in God or the story of Adam & Eve. The story is the vehicle through which we can examine ourselves, our relationships, and the world we live in. It needn’t be a “true story” to deliver human truths regarding the human condition. If anything, the Biblical narrative speaks very explicitly to our humanness, emphasizing just how vital it is to engage with that world directly and wholely. And therein might we see the face of God: in the people across from us, and the life surrounding us. This is lovely stuff, sincerely and modestly created. It’s not without limitation, but so it is to be human. And tomorrow is a new day.

As you can see, we work very hard on this project:

We would love to keep working on it, and would greatly appreciate your support. The lone and dreary world awaits, and sometimes it’s funny there.

For further info on the project check the following:

DISCLAIMER: Davey & Bianca didn’t ask me to write this, and the ridiculous thoughts herein are my own. I just like them so much and want their project to continue. Go find their own thoughts and words about their series. They’re worth reading.

Julia’s Eyes and Getting Nice Guyed in the Back

Guillern Morales‘s 2010 horror/mystery/thriller hybrid, Julia’s Eyes, is a competently composed and executed work, drawing on Hitchcock, Wait Until Dark, and Val Lewton & Mark Robson’s underappreciated marvel The Seventh Victim. Julia’s Eyes nicely merges classical narrative and visual styles with a contemporary sensibility. In other hands such conscious appropriation of landmark films would come off far more derivative than this does. The film appears to work well, despite shortcomings in characterization, being a bit too long, and–most importantly–a clunky, overly-sentimental finish that kills the narrative and emotional power and relegates our central character, Julia, played marvelously by Belén Rueda to second-fiddle status that runs contrary to the film’s thematic propulsion. Julia’s Eyes could have been first-rate, updating some genre conventions and cultural notions of gender roles and female empowerment, but got frightened by its own assertiveness, and instead cowered back into a tired, subservient space that undermines the entire film.

The premise is intriguing: Julia’s sister Sara (also played by Rueda) has a degenerative eye condition, and is now clinically blind. She is then found dead, in what looks like a suicide, but the audience knows otherwise–“there was a third man!” So immediately we have our Hitchcockian suspense à la Shadow of a Doubt and Dial M for Murder, as well as our Wait Until Dark blind and vulnerable female protagonist, with loose ties to The Seventh Victim through mysterious deaths and suicide. Despite the evidence and every man around her saying otherwise, Julia doesn’t believe her sister killed herself and we know she’s right. So everyone around Julia is now suspect–tension and distrust established. Through a series of twists and turns, wherein most characters are and aren’t who we thought, we’re dazzled by the effective shifts and reveals, staying on our toes and just out of our comfort zone. This is good genre work, a well-wrought yarn.

Adding to the tension, Julia has the same degenerative eye condition as Sara, where overexertion and stress can cause permanent blindness. Her overly-protective husband, Isaac (Lluís Homar), keeps dissuading Julia from her investigation. While acknowledging his controlling over-protectiveness, Isaac claims to be looking out for Julia’s well-being. Unfortunately, this love and care mostly just comes off as overbearing sexist chauvinism, with healthy dashes of suspicious about his motives. So the film and audience stays firmly in Julia’s corner, rooting for her to expose the shadowy killer, avenge her sister’s murder, and also prove to the dudes around her that she was right and fully capable, no thanks to them. Confirming some of our suspicions, Isaac hasn’t been entirely up front, and his explanation comes off as floundering nice guy garbage about protecting Julia. Such What Lies Beneath-level backsliding makes us distrust him even more. It’s a well-executed setup that speaks to the benevolent sexism within too many modern marriages. My wife and I were all on board.

What further strengthens this film and theme is Rueda’s confident and mostly believable performance. She runs the range of steely resolve, resourceful detective work, and vulnerable uncertainty and sadness. A classically well-wrought genre character. Where it suffers isn’t Rueda’s fault, but due to uneven and under-cooked characterization in the script, which direction and performance just can’t mask. Despite the tension and distrust we hold for Isaac, the film desperately tries to present their marriage as loving and healthy, which never quite passes.

By comparison, the marriage in J.A. Bayona‘s The Orphanage, which bears some character and relationship similarities, gives Laura (Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cayo) proper dimension. There she is also a determined mother with a skeptical, resistant husband. She’s determined to find their vanished son, while her husband wishes to move on with their lives, accepting their son lost and dead. The Orphanage offers light and strategically short but substantial characterization and articulation of their respective concerns and personalities which make both Laura and Carlos deeply sympathetic. Carlos’s grief and skepticism resonates, and we sympathize, but his position doesn’t supplant Rueda’s own determination to solve the mystery; this irreconcilable tension keeps us engaged by exposing important, relatable aspects of what it means to grieve and how, despite a couple’s best efforts to support each other in their sorrow, they inevitably must also travel part of that path alone. Your coping strategy might be fundamentally at odds with the strategy of your partner, which is really damn hard to reconcile when grieving the shared tragedy of losing your child.

The dynamic in Julia’s Eyes is different, because it’s Julia’s sister who’s dead, which distances Isaac from this tragedy. So it makes sense that he is not as devastated by Sara’s death and would more easily wish to ignore the sordid details of her death. However, how the script shapes his response falls uncomfortably flat. Isaac mostly tells us he cares, without it evidenced in his actions, which often suggest the opposite (and Julia knows it). Despite these benevolently condescending motives, the film wants us to believe Julia and Isaac intensely love each other, a hurdle Rueda and Homar never quite clear. It’s not their fault; like Jessica Rabbit, they’re just drawn that way. This shortcoming will become particularly problematic in the film’s conclusion, which I’ll address later.

Julia’s solitary truth quest is most interesting when the stress renders her, like Sara, blind. To recover her sight, she must undergo a transplant surgery, which can only succeed if she keeps her new eyes wrapped for several weeks. Through this middle section, the Hitchcockian cinematography uses medium and close-up shots of Julia’s bandaged face that keep her central, with all other characters faceless. Think about it: how much do we rely on looking at another’s face? and how distressing is it for the face to be just barely out of sight, over and over again. This effectively disconcerting technique connects audiences to Julia’s vulnerability, where potential threats could be everywhere and you can’t identify them and might even depend on them; the camera and her blindness as potent metaphor for the lurking and often daily threat of male violence against women.

For viewers, this section comforts and discomforts according to what we can and can’t see, creating a fascinating space where we get the thrill of suspense, complicated by that suspense feeding on a woman both possibly and actually being terrorized. And yet, we identify with that fear, reminded of just how dangerous the world around us can be, and how quickly our capacity to defend ourselves from those dangers can be compromised. Much of Julia’s earlier resolve and confidence is taken away, forcing her to adapt. And thankfully this classic mystery aesthetic has refined its representation of female vulnerability to better convey a woman’s experience, and I would assume that for women who’ve experienced male aggression, this entire sequence might sit distressingly close to home in a way male viewers, like myself, cannot understand. Julia’s fear that her killer could be by her at any moment becomes our own fear, for we don’t know who these people could be, especially not the in-home care nurse helping her daily. The spectacle of female victimization is not as perversely displayed here, and in many respects this is the quietest and tenses part of the entire film, which is book-ended by more familiar spikes and anxiously hysterical cinematic choices with sound, camera movement and performance. But in this sequence, the film shines brightest through controlled tension and deliberate choices that immerses us in the narrative while still consciously aware of our relationship to the film as a viewer, a very subtle bit of Brechtian boundary erosion.

When the big reveal comes, it too has a disarming quality that aids the film’s play with convention and comment on sexism in 2010, MRAs and internet beta-males. How the film anti-climactically reveals our shadow villain plays like in Panic Room, where there’s no mastermind Hannibal Lecter/Harry Powell super-villain, but instead a regular dumb guy, wanting to be more than he is. He’s the thriller version of Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That moment when Kylo takes his mask off, serves a double function of (1) stepping out of the familiar genre convention of the masked Vader villain we’ve watch a thousand times, and (2) revealing that Kylo doesn’t actually need the mask, he just wore it because he’s a Darth Vader wannabe, desperate to look and walk hard, while being a self-declared faceless shadow (because he’s TOUGH, and also a persecuted man–fragile masculinity is SO HARD). Villains self-branding themselves as victim to justify their rotten actions (MRAs and alt-righters everywhere, I’m looking at you). They seem to misunderstand that Vader, like Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Immortan Joe, needs the mask because he’s physically ruined. It’s not fashion flair, but a lived necessity, which adds to their character in a way that makes the Tyler Durden dude bro posturing even more insulting and childish.

The anonymity of the internet makes shadows of us all, offering masks to hide ourselves. And we all do so. The problem is when we interpret that self-constructed anonymity as persecution from others. “They don’t see me!” “I’m so overlooked!” “Women, why don’t you see me?!” “I deserve to be seen!” (This is often code for “why won’t you sleep with me?”.) But also, don’t see me, because the shadow mask is my Power, and I then can prey upon you via gross manipulation and voyeurism. I’m really a psychotic abuser who thinks they’re a Nice Guy. But, hate to break it to you: you’re neither a nice guy nor a sophisticated super-villain. You’re just a pathetic dude on your basement computer sadistically stalking and trolling women you don’t know but want to control. You’re not cool. You never were cool. And no one owes you shit.

This is good social commentary, updating facets of Wait Until Dark and the satanist cult manipulating Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) in The Seventh Victim, to the present day, while never having any single moment quite as iconic as Wait Until Dark’s famous jump scare, or the devastating/liberating complexity of Seventh Victim‘s conclusion. Yet, like Wait Until Dark but unlike The Seventh Victim, Julia’s Eyes makes the horrid move to contain all this female empowerment. As the trope and life go, a dude has to manspread across the frame and smother our heroine. It’s painfully awkward, glaringly unconvincing, and absolutely unnecessary. This is where the film’s conclusion bottoms out. With aching desperation it insists Isaac was a good person, without ever showing us that he deserves to be so praised. Nothing is earned here, just like when men get mad that women don’t naturally flock to them and swallow everything they say and do.

Remember how Doctor Strange kept telling us Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange was good, but never showed us he was? Same problem. Why this matters? It hamstrings our emotional connection and sympathy, rendering the whole yarn a dull slog that all the visual fireworks in the world can’t make up for. There’s almost no visible proof Strange is a good person, only other characters saying he is. It’s the narrative equivalent of the business man saying “believe me! Take my word for it!” Uh, show me the receipts, dude. That audiences continually fall for this only speaks to the power of spectacle and performance, but distressingly reveals how easily suckered we are, and more distressingly how little we mind being suckered (2016 election anyone?). Morales seems to want Isaac’s goodness to be believed without proof, which, you know, sounds like pretty textbook male privilege.

Movies are amazingly good at persuading an audience while not really deserving it. Kind of how the magnificent cinematics of Stranger Things convinced us some of the very thin and tired characterization and motivations were in fact brilliant–nostalgia weaponized to validate latent biases. In Julia’s Eyes this shallow manipulation is the entire finish and it falls flatter than the psychologist explaining Norman Bates, or the unnecessary and patronizingly abusive moment in Wait Until Dark when Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) demands Susy (Audrey Hepburn)–who has just singularly prevailed in a horrendously traumatic experience of male aggression–prove her mettle to her husband, despite having already spent the entire movie showing that she is fully capable of taking care of herself. It’s patronizing, insulting, and sexist.

The closing scene of Julia’s Eyes buries the movie through grotesque male encroachment declaring Isaac the real hero. Rueda, bless her heart, gives it her all, imbuing lines with more convincing substance than they remotely deserve. But it’s not enough, and the finish had me choking up hairballs of disgust. My wife was understandably even more upset than me, which might only expose the gender disparity of experience. I can’t be as upset as her, because she’s the one who soaks this shit up everyday way more directly than I do. It’s especially bad in a film about how women are the fully capable protagonists of their own lives, and beta male dude bros are the worst. How insulting to, after all that skillful dismantling of gender inequality, we have to basically blurt “BUT NOT ALL MEN!!!” and push Julia down a step so her chauvinist husband can be saint and savior. I just threw up a little.

In a movie with so much working, it’s a shame that it so completely collapsed. Naturally we can always find flaws–there are no perfect movies (except Night of the Hunter). And if not flaws, then just different sensibilities and preferences that resonate with some and not others. Frequently, such incongruities and rough edges are as fascinating as the superbly executed/resonant moments. Flaws can enrich the personal connection, interpretive range and reciprocal application available to art. Take the commendable evolution of Star Trek: in each new iteration to boldly go where no one has gone before it continually revises itself to better realize its utopic vision of peace and equality. Often I can forgive a film its biggish missteps (I very much like Psycho and Wait Until Dark), find something redeeming about it or still consider the film, as a whole, a success and worth revisiting. But that can’t happen all the time. Sure, there’s racism lurking in numerous 1930s horror flicks, but The Mask of Fu Manchu is really racist, and Boris Karloff, the greatest human, can’t save it.

Sometimes shortcoming are so large you wonder whether the movie was any good to begin with–was the first half actually good, or did it sucker me? It suckered me a little, because, let’s be real, the budding romance between her and her nurse–so quick after Isaac’s own suspicious murder/suicide–is pretty shallow, out of character, and too long, with some spinning camera work and transforming set pieces that seem the blandest nod to Vertigo I’ve seen in some time. Why is this happening? What, did her womanly nerves get in the way of her sound judgment and the one-two punch of two dead loved ones? The things that seemed otherwise marvelous are starting to unravel. If you, like me, get suckered by the business bro sometimes, don’t feel too bad. The day comes to each of us to ask: has U2 sucked this whole time, or is it really just the post-Zooropa albums that get progressively worse with each release? Now I can’t tell if The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are brilliant or the same inane posturing, but with better production and less unbearable Bono White Savior bullshit. And even if those early albums are still good, damn Songs of Innocence is a used moldy diaper whose stink has tainted everything. I can’t even enjoy Unforgettable Fire without catching a whiff of that dank mess dumped in my iTunes. Maybe it’s better to just forget that U2 ever happened.

It’s a cruel last irony that, in this woman’s story about overcoming sexism, Isaac’s eyes replace Julia’s, and, with this new vision, her world view becomes but a vacuous cosmic void of nice guy apologism.

Director: Guillern Morales
Country: Spain

Film Review: Here Comes the Devil [2013]

An underwhelming tale of two children who go missing on a mountain apparently believed cursed by demonic forces. The children mysteriously return, now acting strangely, prompting their parents to pursue answers that lead to even more troubles. It’s a predictable exercise in tedium, where its low-budget nature and aesthetic doesn’t pay off.

Here Comes the Devil is, in a word, drab. In more words, it contains untapped potential, stilted tropes, and far too many zooms. A few zooms are good pulpy fun, numerous zooms, however, is just bad form. Much of the cinematography is conventional and unimaginative, even by efficient low-budget standards. The one moment when the camerawork, editing and sound design somewhat shine comes in the film’s third quarter with a flashback sequence of a friend’s nightmarish experience. Some decent work in that sequence, where layered frames and transitions combined with effective sound touches give some much-needed atmosphere and edge to an otherwise lifelessly unfrightening tale.

Bogliano’s script is thin on explanation and motive, while heavy on disconnected elements and loose strands, with blandly undeveloped characters and mediocre dialog. The prologue is too long, and isn’t sufficiently connected to the main story-line. Later sequences, such as the many returns to the mountain, are too long for what they offer, becoming unnecessarily repetitive. The parents (Francisco Barreiro & Laura Caroare largely unlikeable and uninteresting, with the kids (Alan Martinez & Michele Garcianever developed or endearing either. Thus, there’s little dramatic tension or emotional investment in anyone’s plight. Even unlikeable characters can be interesting and multifaceted. This offers neither.

Consequently, what we’re given doesn’t justify the film’s 90 min length. Horror films often excel from concision. Naturally there are exceptions, but as a rule, tighten things up as much as you can. Horror of Here Comes the Devil‘s variety needs efficiency. Establish simple and strategic elements of character, world, and problem that will drive themselves (e.g. Rec, Texas Chainsaw MassacreGreen RoomThe Hills Have Eyes). The nature of the genre often forces characters to be a bit thin, and yet an audience will still care when characters have clear personality and motives proportional to the established boundaries of the film. Likewise, the Big Bad in these films often functions according to pretty straight-forward principles, which doesn’t mean motives or origin are clear, but the Big Evil’s actions must adhere to the logic of the world and make a clear sense, even while the source and scope remains elusive. The trick is to find the sweet spot where simplicity doesn’t lapse into underdeveloped evasion and/or vagueness. It’s a peculiar process of proportion, which, in this case, eludes Bogliano. A more justifiable length would be 75 minutes, or even less. If Val Lewton can blow our minds in under 70 minutes, then 90 minutes or more should bring something pretty important to the table (e.g. The RingThe WailingPulseThe Descent). I tried to hang on, but by the halfway mark I was impatient, and the ending (what a let down) couldn’t (and didn’t) come soon enough.

Director: Adrián García Bogliano
Country: Mexico

Film Review: The Lost City of Z [2017]

James Gray’s adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction book (itself an adaptation of true events) hearkens back to classical Hollywood adventure cinema with competent cinematography from the skilled Darius Khondji, full of nice colors, good lighting and frames, and a narrative that is predictably familiar and light on guts. Gray’s film—as a cinematic work—is far too calculated and safe, never venturing into challenging, let alone uncharted, territory; disappointing for a film about early 20th-century British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsessive hunt for the mythical city of Z in the Amazon jungle.

Fawcett is the center of this story, an overlooked and undecorated soldier whose family name is tainted by a history we learn little about. Yet he has the chance to redeem the family name, and obtain much-desired recognition and accolades by accepting an exploration assignment to map the border of Bolivia and Brazil. In doing so, he also uncovers artifacts he believes come from the lost city of El Dorado, which he calls “Z.” With that, his obsession is off and running, along with a romanticized notion of colonial exploration and male achievement.

Along the way, we get some brief-to-the-point-of-obligatory nods to colonialism, racism, and sexism in early 20th-century Britain that are never given the proper space they deserve, and are instead always subservient to the movie’s adoration of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). And yet, Fawcett himself is not a particularly multi-faceted, dynamic character. Instead the script and Hunnam’s performance place him in a comfortably narrow range that is easy to follow and understand. It’s a rather soft-boiled addition to a heritage of cinematic characters that include mystifying and complex figures like Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence, and Klaus Kinski’s Don Lope de Aguirre and Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald. Hunnam’s strangely sage and hushed performance has all the gestures, facial expressions, and intonations of an actor insisting the character has real Vision. Consequently, both actor and character are predictably desperate to be liked (by us viewers most of all), creating a stale portrait of restless yearning for their version of the Unknown (which happens to be another culture’s known, but more on that in a moment). Hunnam plays Fawcett like he just watched Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandella performance from Invictus on repeat, a perfect template of the prophetic explorer, a testament to England’s enlightened heritage (White Savior anyone? But minus the saving). And yet, for a film “based on the best-selling true story” (whatever that might mean) it never comes close to the vividly dynamic, captivating characters in documentaries like Meru or Herzog’s short doc The Dark Glow of the Mountains. Or even the luminous, contemplative awe of PBS’s Salt, about photographer Murray Fredericks: a short doc that does in 30 minutes what Hunnam and Gray can’t manage in nearly 2.5 hours.

The length is further disgruntling because individual scenes tend to drag, while the whole narrative feels too rushed and cramped. At no point did the movie breathe and move at its own natural pace, instead the hovering presence of studio and producers, clock and list of to-do boxes in hand, is always there, just off screen, declaring: “time’s up! Check! Moving on!” Certainly, a strange feeling when several scenes are too long for what they give. The length brings a hollow weightiness to the whole affair, every scene pregnant with imposed Meaning and Significance mainlined into our eyes and ears through trundling dialog deliveries and lingering slow-motion camerawork of such heavy-handed force that I can’t help but think James Gray, or perhaps the studio, considers the audience not too bright.

The pace, structure and sheer number of allegedly significant places and scenes leaves the book ever-present, lurking in the background, dictating what the film should be and where it should go—at least in terms of plot. World War I? Sure, it’s fine. Again, it’s a nicely staged, presented and executed scene. But also totally irrelevant. Cut the damn thing. I doubt we’d lose anything in the story, but we’d gain plenty in time and focus. This is a common problem with adaptations trying to cover more of the book than is necessary or feasible (think the first two Harry Potter films). Thus, what we get is a film spread too thin, while going on too long.

The only relief from this pace and tone come from the laudable supporting cast. Robert Pattinson‘s Henry Costin and Angus Macfadyen‘s James Murray breathe a bit of dynamic life into their roles and their scenes. Macfadyen, while a conventional stock antagonist and convenient deflection away from more important issues (more on that, too), still manages to offer some tonal shifts that alleviate the weighty seriousness saturating Hunnam’s Fawcett. Pattinson is also a measured and competent presence, never contending for more space than is necessary (the film wouldn’t give it to him anyway, so this is a smart move on Pattinson’s part). Unfortunately, both characters are too overtly placed in order to elevate Fawcett. In the end both are a bit unfairly torn down. This is also true of Nina Fawcett (Selina Miller), whose confidence draws out some of Percy’s egotistical flaws, yet the film eventually quashes this and comfortably places her in the proper subordinate position. She doesn’t begin as the weepy housewife stereotype, but that does seem to be where she ends.  Alas, the supporting cast is solid, but compromised.

This adoration of Percy Fawcett, along with the film’s slavish need to hit all the right bases problematizes and impedes the movie’s approach to gender politics and colonialism. If we’re not going to spend much time with disparity between the sexes, then giving the subject mere cursory attention—a line here, an argument scene there—is just hollow dramatics masquerading as depth and dimension. It’s a calculated nod to 21st-century sensibilities, with the filmmakers fishing for complement: “see? We’re addressing The Issues.” But this is them tackling the issues the way many of my relatives over fifty do: often poorly and always already outdated, denying both past and present a fair shake. Similarly, racism and colonialism never become fully-developed aspects of the film; they’re minor plot points hoping for unearned dimension. The film shallowly, but no less desperately, claims our protagonist is pretty enlightened about Natives, just as we, the filmmakers, are very enlightened. See? Here are some basically mute exoticized Natives from the past; thank goodness Fawcett’s very enlightened brain discovered that they’re not savages (I’m very convinced, and Natives everywhere are thanking you).

To seriously tackle the colonial foundation and engine of British exploration, rather than deploying the James Murray character as cheap deflection and evasion, would call the entire film and narrative into question. Frankly, taking Fawcett’s role in colonial enterprise head on would have made a far more interesting movie, and one more relevant to our global, cultural moment. After all, the British colonial enterprise is what brought us to our present situation, where the Amazon is (still) being completely plundered and extinguished, now home to giant, vacant World Cup stadiums and vast industrial plantations, that turn healthy, diverse ecosystems into sterile monocultures. Lost cities indeed. The Amazon and its inhabitants have lost plenty to U.S. and British interests. But to highlight such things (as Roland Joffé’s The Mission does) would undercut why the film wants us to care about Fawcett’s story at all, thus exposing some of the crasser motives behind the film existing for our consumption.

Interrogating gender and colonialism properly would but foreground how Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (an obvious inspiration) is a beautifully crafted piece of white dude-bro shit, where women, domestic life, and familial responsibilities hinder men from realizing their potential and dreams through manly adventure and warfare (against nature and humans equally). Whatever complexity either of these topics are offered early on is easily sidestepped and overcome later in the film. Our wife acquiesces, our justifiably disgruntled children agree with us, World War I was, er, noble?, the natives vanish into exotic faceless obscurity, so our protagonist can launch into mystical oblivion. Platitudes abound, and the entire thing becomes an exercise in nostalgia for a simpler time when white men of Western Imperialism were free to go where they like when they liked—because that was what gave life meaning.

There’s certainly a story here worth exploring, but James Gray either couldn’t or wouldn’t bring it. The Lost City of Z sits in the company of high-profile films like In the Heart of the Sea and The Revenant as another droll adaptation that successfully turns a fascinating, inherently cinematic piece of history into a laboriously uninteresting tale. Hardly the stuff of adventure. If this is what the spirit of exploration looks like I’m not sure how the British ever made it off their own island. But now I better understand why the Amazon is ruined.