That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Posts Tagged ‘movies’

What are you then, Bill?

Posted by kozemp on February 6, 2018

I started thinking about it right before the playoffs started.

It was just an idea at first, something almost too silly to consider. “If the Eagles make the Super Bowl, I should go down and watch the game with my dad.“ It was ridiculous. The Eagles were not going to make the Super Bowl, so it didn’t really matter. A fancy, a little trifle.

Then the Eagles beat the Falcons, and I seriously started to consider it. Should I go down and watch the game with Dad? There are worse things in Florida in February, certainly.

Then the NFC championship happened, and somewhere around the third quarter together I decided “I guess I need to decide where I’m going to watch this game. Florida could be nice.”

I decided to go to Florida to watch the Super Bowl at around 1130 on the night of the NFC Championship, right before I needed to take a sleeping pill because of the neighborhood-encompassing party that was still going on.

So it was decided, I was going to head down to Florida to watch the game with my dad, and more importantly it was decided to not be in Philadelphia during the game. Not being at Philadelphia during the game turned out, I think, to be the smart play. The city didn’t end up destroyed, but this point I’m almost convinced that was an accident, as though there were some sort of cosmic force that was meant to destroy Philadelphia regardless of the game’s outcome, but, I don’t know, when no one was looking Reed Richards showed up with the Ultimate Nullifier and somehow everything worked out fine. If the worst thing that happens in Philadelphia is that a hotel canopy falls down, you’ve got to think that’s a win in and of itself.

Florida, though.

I don’t love flying. I never have. Technology has certainly made flying… not BEARABLE, over the years, but less awful. Once I went all-digital I stopped having to worry about something to do on a plane. (Admittedly I started having to worry about battery life on a plane, but that’s another show.) Once everything became cloud-based and I could more or less access everything I owned anywhere I wanted flying became the closest to “easy” it’s going to get, in this case meaning “I no longer need to take powerful narcotics to get through a flight.” Movies are my drug of choice on planes now.

Fun fact: The Force Awakens, from fanfare to credits, is EXACTLY the length of a flight between Philadelphia and Tampa. If I start the movie on takeoff it ends almost the second the plane touches down. Orlando is a little shorter, usually I have to start it on the tarmac before the actual takeoff sequence, but it’s pretty close.

You may also recall that my father was sick last year and I spent a good chunk of time shuttling back and forth between here and Florida, over and over again. I haven’t counted but I believe I have flown between here and either Orlando or Tampa eight times in the last two years. This, more than anything, is the primary reason I have seen The Force Awakens something like 17 times. I would watch it on the plane over and over again. Last spring, after I realized how wrong I was about Rogue One, I added that to my inflight playlist.

Star Wars while flying: better than drugs.

For some reason – possibly because I wasn’t flying direct for the first time in ages – I decided not to watch either on this trip. Could it be because for however much I love it (which is a lot) 18+ viewings of The Force Awakens may be a few too many? It’s certainly possible.

On the PHL-CLT leg, as part of the ongoing preparations for John Finally Goes To England, I decided to watch The World’s End.

My dad likes to say that the only “real” filmmakers any more are David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. I think in practice that statement is a little reductive but I get where he’s coming from with it. I don’t believe the “movies are all terrible now” whine from the cineaste-stroke-troll corner of the interwoobz – movies are fucking amazing now. I don’t even believe there’s more bad movies, or a greater percentage of bad movies, then there were at any pick-your-moment in film history. The only difference now, as with almost anything, is that you just know more about everything that’s out there.

Before I start getting angry about the opinion economy, back to my dad.

While I don’t necessarily think his math checks out I agree with his basic premise that there is a cadre of filmmakers who are way, way, WAY better than everyone else. The Tier 1 people. And yes, I agree that Fincher and Nolan are at the top of that list despite the Greek-tragedy-style fatal flaws they each possess. (Specifically, Nolan’s quixotic, Data-like quest to finally understand human emotions, and what we will diplomatically call Fincher’s problems with women.) I don’t know how much farther the list goes – there are lots of great filmmakers out there but there’s a huge gulf that separates that top tier from the “just great.” Call it a dozen for the sake of argument and round numbers.

I feel like I’ve been saying this for years, but Edgar Wright is in that dozen. Man can this dude fucking make movies.

This is not news to anyone who has more than a passing interest in movies but I’m not sure it’s getting over just HOW good he is.

Speaking of Nolan, a criticism I’ve heard of his movies is that they are too often “puzzle boxes,” less movies than riddles to be solved. This criticism is incorrect, but in a strange way it sort of DOES apply to Edgar Wright, whose movies are… is the word “constructed” right here? The “puzzle box” quip applies much more to Wright as his movies, at a micro level, are assembled with the precision of a Swiss watch. They’re vast assemblages of moving, interlocking parts and they SHOULD fall apart or seize up or explode altogether. I watched The World’s End last weekend and everything in it – EVERYTHING – does something. Every. Single. Thing. In the movie contributes in some way to the story he’s telling and works at drawing out the feelings – both conscious and unconscious – he’s trying to evoke.

In addition to being a great movie, with great performances, with a clear point of view and really strongly-developed themes, I realized this past weekend that The World’s End is also a brilliant object lesson in semiotics.

Every now and then I will watch or read something and come to a point where I just go, “this guy is smarter than me.” It doesn’t happen often. It happens with Edgar Wright all the time.

From CLT-TPA I pulled out the 2011 Gary Oldman version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of a book I love that I realized on second viewing is actually both a much closer and much looser adaptation than I had thought.

Let’s make something clear – this is Not A Movie For Everyone. It’s long. It’s a period piece. There are huge stretches without dialogue and ALSO a shitload of subtitles. There are plot machinations that you have to pay pretty strong attention to in order to really grasp what’s happening.

Note that I didn’t say it’s “a spy movie,” which might presumably turn off a segment of the viewing public. It’s not. It’s based on what is ostensibly a spy novel, that was adapted into a beloved spy miniseries. (A miniseries beloved by others, at least, I find it terribly indulgent.) But what Alfredson actually does is use the spy story as a framework on which to hang a series of stories about doomed love. It’s genius.

George and Ann. George and Karla. Prideaux and Haydon. Ann and Haydon. The plot of the movie – such as it is, with as much of it as Alfredson and O’Connor and Straughan bother to keep – completely hinges on the intense, life-defining relationships between these people and we literally NEVER SEE ANY OF THEM TOGETHER. Hell, in the movie’s single most genius stroke, Karla and Ann aren’t even in it at all. They’re just specters haunting the proceedings from a distance, unseen forces that push and pull at poor George Smiley, the literary ideal, the quintessential Good Man Who Has To Do Bad Things.

The George of the movie – and the book – has spent his whole life wishing he could lash out at Karla and Ann both. He never can. The closest he can get is Bill Haydon, who gets the only line in the movie that Gary Oldman delivers above a murmur. But even to his friend who betrayed him in every way possible George can only bring himself to raise his voice just a tiny bit for one second – and watching it I love that you can see Smiley decide “I am going to shout now,” and then he doesn’t, and you can see him decide, “it’s good that I didn’t shout.” All in a fraction of a moment, which gods like Gary Oldman can accomplish.

George can’t even bring himself to shout at Bill, not really, because deep down George knew what he was getting into. Just like Ricky and Irina, just like Peter Guillam, and just like Jim Prideaux.

I don’t know if there’s another movie that equates the spy business with the vicissitudes of broken love but if there is I guarantee it isn’t this good. And it’s probably still just a spy movie, which Tinker Tailor isn’t.

Speaking of Gary Oldman, before I headed back from Florida my parents and I went to see Darkest Hour, which was a fascinating movie experience.

My parents had actually seen it already, and when I talked to my father about it I said, “I assume, like all Joe Wright movies, that it is subtle and nuanced?” My father did not pick up on my sarcasm.

This movie is not subtle. It is not nuanced. Joe Wright is a smart guy and a great filmmaker but I’m fairly certain if you said either the word “subtle” or “nuance” in front of him he would blink a few times, tilt his head a little, and say, “excuse me, what?”

There are some artists who wield their art like a scalpel or a jeweler’s drill, who create work of intricate, almost delicate beauty. William Gibson. PT Anderson. Paul Simon. Joe Wright is not one of those artists. Joe Wright does not do subtle. Joe Wright does not do nuanced. Joe Wright wields his art like a 20-pound sledgehammer.

To be honest, speaking as someone who uses the English language as a blunt instrument, I sort of admire his dedication to the belief that a movie can be a battering ram.

Some movies would give you a little chyron in the corner telling you that the date is May 8, 1940. Not Darkest Hour! Not Joe Wright! Here, we dissolve into a hilariously-floodlit scene in Parliament – I’m a longtime viewer of Prime Minister’s questions, it does not look like that – and screen-filling, twenty-foot-high white Impact letters tell is it is “8 MAY 1940.” Oh, and we use the British day-then-month dating convention, because FUCK YOU! IT’S JOE WRIGHT!

The next two hours of what is essentially nothing but scenes of parliamentary procedure and meetings – seriously, people, MEETINGS – are delivered with more minute-long steadicam jobs, omniscient shots and combinations of the two than Stanley Kubrick could conceive in his wildest dreams, extreme closeups that could rouse Jonathan Demme from his grave, and, I swear to god I am not making this up, a combination battlefield miniature slash omniscient shot slash tracking shot that – I SWEAR TO GOD I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP – morphs into an extreme closeup of the face of a dead soldier on the battlefield. That is an actual thing in the movie. I laughed out loud at that, and the absurd titles, and any number of other things, not out of derision but out of a sort of disbelieving joy. I could not believe the things I was seeing were real in a movie about old British people talking.

And yes yes yes, Gary Oldman is great. Everyone in it is great. Everything in it is great. It would have to be, wouldn’t it? You can’t beat people about the head and neck with a cricket bat if the bat isn’t great. That’s what Joe Wright movies are – emotional and intellectual beatings.

My only complaint is that the scenes in the Underground didn’t have a quick cameo shot of Keira Knightley so we could establish the Joe Wright Cinematic Universe. What a terrifying prospect THAT would be.


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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #18: I only lied about being a thief.

Posted by kozemp on November 5, 2012

I don't know what four nines does but the ace, I think, is pretty high.

A few years ago I was in Las Vegas, fleeing from yet another entry in a long, unbroken line of disastrous female entanglements. (Cue Colonel Jessup: “is there any other kind?”) Frankly, at this point I feel as though I should get some kind of award or something for my streak. We’re at, by my reckoning, year 18 on this thing now, and I really feel as though that kind of longevity deserves wider recognition.

I just realized that my ongoing horror story when it comes to the fairer sex is old enough to vote tomorrow, and I find myself suddenly a little more sanguine about it.

Anyway: Vegas.

I had fled to Vegas, and between outrageous restaurants, and shows, and attractions and more gambling than I ever thought I could possibly endure, I would proceed to lose, quite literally, almost every cent I had. As I recall I came home with about forty eight bucks in the bank, having burned through almost $3500 over the course of five fantastic days. Even though I don’t think I was up for a single second I had a fantastic time, and the shows and the food and the games did a great job of clearing my head and getting me over my troubles, and once I got back I managed to stay happy and entanglement free for almost six whole weeks.

But despite all the great stuff I saw and did, there’s one thing that will always stick out in my mind as why that Vegas trip was truly amazing.

Before I left I went on iTunes and found the track for what I wanted to accomplish, and my first night in town, I walked down Las Vegas Boulevard from my room at Treasure Island to the Bellagio. It was February, so it was a little mild at night, maybe in the 60s. You could walk around in jeans and a shirt. Very pleasant. I love Vegas that time of year.

I got to the Bellagio, walked up to the edge of the marble railing, and put in my headphones. I had decided that I wanted to recreate the end of Ocean’s Eleven, standing in front of the Bellagio with Claire de Lune playing, watching the water fountains.

This is actually not as easy as it sounds, primarily because the water fountain show at the Bellagio – which is the second best thing in Las Vegas, period – already has music, which is incredibly, I mean INCREDIBLY loud. So in order to most accurately recreate the end of the movie – which, yes, I realize is technically impossible because the film crew built an extension of the sidewalk so the actors would be closer to the fountains – and stand right up on the edge of the balustrade, you have to turn the volume up on your iPhone basically as high as it will go, and blasting Debussy tends to remove a little of the magic from the music.

All the same, I got the volume to a point where I could clearly hear Claire De Lune and not hear Josh Groban. (Seriously, so many of the fountain shows are Josh Groban, it makes me terribly sad.) And I stood there, on Las Vegas Boulevard, in the middle of a February night, with the music playing in my ears, and I leaned on the marble like Matt Damon and thought, “you know what, even with all this crap I got going on, life is still pretty great.” And I smiled, for what seemed like the first time in ages.

That isn’t why the story is amazing, though.

It’s amazing because when the piece was concluded, I stood up from the balustrade and took my headphones out of my ears. I looked over to my left and there was a kid standing there. Kid, Jesus, the guy had to be 24 or so. I’m getting old.

The kid was standing there, of some sort of vaguely Middle Eastern or North African extraction, wearing a leather jacket.

He had an iPhone in his hand and headphones in his ears.

He watched me put my headphones away, looked at me for about three seconds, then said, “were you listening to Claire De Lune?”

I chuckled, nodded a bit, and said, “yeah.”

He held up his fist in the air. “Awesome, man.”

We fist-bumped, I smiled, and turned around to walk back to my hotel.

I could go on for pages and pages about how much I enjoy Ocean’s Eleven, and why, and the joyful effortlessness of it; the sly, quirky performances and how it’s all the more amazing because this movie, and its almost as enjoyable sequels, are what Soderbergh and Clooney and Pitt dash off as a lark between other movies. I could talk about how even though I don’t really go for the casino culture anymore, or con artistry, or any of that sort of stuff, and that I’ve really divested myself of most of the trappings or reminders of that life, I still go back to Ocean’s Eleven, and laugh, and toss off the scores of brilliant quotable lines.

I could go on for pages about the movie, but I really don’t think any of that says as much about how endearing it is as two guys, standing alone in the middle of the night, watching the fountains and listening to Debussy, for one moment not being themselves, but the guys they admire up on the screen.


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An Open Letter to International Business Times Editor Shawn Moynihan

Posted by kozemp on September 2, 2011

Dear Shawn:

I read your letter, and in the spirit of the times – open letters are all the rage now, apparently – I thought I would respond in kind.

You and I have been friends for no small number of years, thanks in part to our mutual love of Star Wars. You’re the biggest Star Wars fan I know, and I mean that as an honest and great compliment. You and I both travel in social circles where being a big fan is pretty common, but out of everyone I know who loves Star Wars, I’ve always felt that you were one of the few who “got it.”

You were the guy who, like me, loved Star Wars not just for special effects or its place in filmmaking history or as fuel for an obsessive need to collect things (though you and I both indulge in all of those). You were the guy who connected with the weight behind the hype, who realized that the important thing about Star Wars wasn’t sound design or toys or editing.

You recognized that Star Wars is the quintessential modern myth in the quintessentially ancient sense. You recognized that Star Wars is a story designed to teach lessons, and fundamentally important lessons at that: Star Wars is the simplest, easiest way to teach children why it’s important to be good, to stand up for what’s right, and to help people in need.

Yes, there are other vehicles for those lessons as we get older. Tolkein does most of the heavy lifting once we hit the teenage years. In college and beyond we can literalize the subject by studying Kant or Aquinas or stick with pop culture and drink deeply from A Song of Ice and Fire or the adventures of The Doctor.

But if you want to teach a 7-year-old kid the difference between right and wrong and why it’s important to do right, and have that lesson stick with him his entire life, letting him watch Star Wars to his heart’s content is more effective than a thousand sermons. And you, Shawn, understand that better than anyone I know.

So yesterday, when I saw on my Twitter feed a post from @ShawnMoyn that read “Dear Mr. Lucas: Are These Blu-Ray Tweaks Really Necessary?” I thought, oh dear, I hope Shawn hasn’t abused his position at the IBT to launch a public broadside against George Lucas.

I clicked the link, and four seconds later I thought, oh dear, he has.

Most of the points you make in your letter – almost all of them, really – are spot-on. There can be precious little argument that, in a purely objective sense, George Lucas is a terrible, terrible filmmaker, or that his continued depredations upon the Original Trilogy are precisely that: depredations. I didn’t need to read your letter to know that you feel the same way (though in your letter you articulate those thoughts in your usual excellent manner).

I got a little worried when you flirted with the demonstrably idiotic (and distressingly prevalent) notion that fans “own” Star Wars in some way, but I thought you nicely redeemed that misstep by making the point that part of being an artist is knowing when to stop working, and that Lucas is risking severe fan alienation by not realizing that.

But George Lucas isn’t the problem, Shawn.

You are.

You close your letter by saying that despite the fact that you hate what Lucas is doing to the Original Trilogy, you are going to buy the Blu-Ray boxed set anyway.

My friend, as a wise man once said, “that… is why you fail.”

I’m not certain I buy the other distressingly prevalent notion that Lucas keeps tinkering with the Original Trilogy because he wants to suck money directly from fans’ wallets. There surely comes a point where even someone like George Lucas has enough money, and after making 1.4 gajillion dollars from Star Wars (that is an exact figure, I looked it up) I’m pretty sure Lucas is past that point.

No, Shawn, the reason Lucas keeps changing the films is because Star Wars fans like you KEEP BUYING THEM. At the end of the day, my friend, this is still showbusiness – you of all people know that – and there’s no booth at the local high school here: you vote with your wallet, and for going on 15 years now Star Wars fans like you and me and countless others have overwhelmingly voted again and again to let George Lucas keep making changes to the films we love so much.

This time, though, I’m voting no. I’m pulling the other lever for once. I’m cancelling my pre-order of the Blu Ray set. Yes, it’s true that I am in a small minority, and that my un-purchase won’t actually accomplish anything. My protest vote is, in the end, a futile gesture.

But these movies I watched as a kid taught me that you have to do the right thing no matter what.

I hope, Shawn, that you are strong enough in the Force to do the right thing as well.

K’oyacyi, ner vod,


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Is that supposed to be some sort of insult? I don’t actually have a spine, you know.

Posted by kozemp on November 20, 2009

Okay, so, we have presumably all heard about my adventures in electromechanical breakage earlier this week. Today, though, I managed to successfully get my MRI. The technician even complimented me on how good I was with not moving in the machine and screwing everything up.

When she said that I thought, but did not say, “it’s easy to lay perfectly still when every single byte of RAM is dedicated to keeping myself from having a claustrophobic freakout.” This is in the quote-unquote open MRI machine, mind you. The notion of the “open MRI” carefully straddles the line between pronounced exaggeration and outright falsehood. It’s only open on the sides, you see. When getting the innards of your lower back examined they still put you into the machine far enough that there is a metal plate about two inches from your face.

This is only marginally better than the giant cigar tube of a regular MRI, but in the end it comes down to coping mechanisms. To cope with the open MRI I just shut my eyes very tightly and feverishly replay Doctor Who episodes in my head. To survive a regular MRI I have to disrupt the higher functions of my brain with enough narcotic painkillers to put an Indian elephant into low Earth orbit. Open MRI it is, then.

One of my favorite new-ish medical advancements is that when you’re done with your MRI they give you printouts and a CD-R with your scans on them. For someone like me whose curiosity transcends obsessive, the chance to actually look at one’s own inner workings in the comfort of one’s own home is up there with breakfast for dinner and free cable for life.

In my particular situation, though, this becomes one of those times when obsessive curiosity becomes problematic.

Let’s first take a look at the side view.

Physiology is fun!

The technical name for this scan is "T2 DEQ SAG."

You notice the top five intervertebral discs? Don’t they look nice? All glowy and healthy and full of goo. They’re paragons of flexibility-granting, shock-absorbing spinal fortitude. Now notice the sixth one down from the top? That’s L5S1, also known as the lumbrosacral joint. It’s where your back turns into your legs, more or less. By now you’ve probably noticed that L5S1 is NOT glowy and healthy and full of goo. It is, in the words of my orthopedic surgeon, “basically broken.” It’s not white because the disc has prolapsed (fancy doctor-talk for “sprung a leak”) and the glowy goo, aka the disc’s nucleus pulposus, has been pushed out and is pressing against and chemically inflaming the nerve roots inside that part of the spine.

Well, I thought, how bad can that be? I mean, it’s all still got to be pretty orderly, right?

Looking good....

This is the top view of L2L3. That’s the little guy at the top of the side view. You can see some definition on the disc and a nice center of goo. So far, so good. Moving down the spine…

Still looking good...

L3L4 here. Again, everything looks nice. Disc, goo, everything in its appointed place and proportion. Dear gods, you’d think there was nothing wrong with this guy.

Why are we even bothering to magnetically resonate this perfectly healthy spine?

L4L5. My spine is a thing of beauty. Of BEAUTY, I say. Look at that. Who wouldn’t want this spine? I mean, yes, there’s an awful lot of that greyish stuff AROUND the spine that probably isn’t that desirable, but that’s another story. For now we’re talking spine and this spine will kick your ass right off this planet. Could the surgeons and the MRI machine be wrong? Could the side view somehow have been tricked? Has my L5S1 intervertebral disc become sentient and crafted an elaborate practical joke? Well, let’s look at the next picture to make sure.



This is my L5S1. What’s left of it, at any rate. As you can see the healthy, glowy goo which is supposed to reside comfortably in the middle of the disc has seized upon the exit at about 8 o’clock and spread out all over the place. “The place” in this instance being the spaces in my spinal column where the nerves go out to my lower back and legs. The goo is a delicious jelly-like substance made up mostly of different proteins that, while very nice and helpful when trapped inside their disc, react with nerve tissue like something out of the end of a Tony Scott movie.

Nerves (played by Michael Madsen): Hey, who the fuck are you?

Nucleus Pulposus (played by Tom Sizemore): Who the fuck am I? Who the fuck are YOU?

Other Nerves (played by Mickey Rourke): Oh, you’re DEAD, motherfucker!

(Everyone pulls out guns and starts shooting each other.)

Just think about how much more involved and invested people would be in their medical care if doctors explained things the way I do.

Hoity-toity book-learnin’ doctor-speak: “An atheromatous plaque has built up in your posterior interventricular artery that will require a percutaneous coronary intervention.”

My version: “Okay, remember the part when Vasquez and Gorman stopped the Aliens from chasing Ripley by blowing themselves up in the ventilation tunnel? It’s like that, only in your heart.”

“Percutaneous coronary intervention,” or “killing Aliens.” I wonder which is more appealing.


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She’s never going to whisper in my fucking ear ever again.

Posted by kozemp on October 30, 2009

A couple years back, this was probably around 2003 or so, I did something I had never done before and, as near as I can remember never did again: I bought a DVD of a movie I hadn’t seen. I honestly don’t remember why I did it; my friends hadn’t exactly talked it up to me. The reviews were good, sure, but who drops 18 bucks on reviews and a hope?

Still, I bought the movie on a Friday night and took it home to watch. I popped it in the DVD player, collected the remote and my cigarettes, and turned off the living room lights. This is something else – turning off the lights to watch a movie – I had never done before and have never done since.

I lit a cigarette and pressed PLAY on the remote.

After the first scene I stood up, pressed PAUSE on the front of the DVD player, and turned the lights back on.

Once the lights were back on I sat on the edge of the recliner, trying to light another cigarette with shaking hands, looking around for the remote that had been sitting on my leg for the first scene of the movie. It was in the middle of the living room floor. It must have flown there when, at the end of the first scene, I literally jumped up in my chair and screamed louder than I ever have or ever will.

The remote laid there on the living room carpet, that terrible carpet we had back then before I tore it out in a fit of interior design rage, it laid there taunting me, DARING me, to turn the movie back on. I’d seen eight minutes of it and was more scared than I had been in my entire life. I sat there staring at the remote and just before I gathered up enough courage to pick it up and restart the movie I caught a glimpse of the light switch next to the TV and thought, it’s going to be a LONG time before I’m alone in the dark again.

This is how you take a big, mean, chain-smoking bastard and turn him into a mass of quivering baby food:

You sit him in the dark and show him The Ring.

Now, understand, I am a person who loves horror movies. Okay, let me clarify that a little. I love GOOD horror movies. And I’m not talking about “Friday the 13th Part XXXIV: Jason Goes to Tulsa” shit. Any idiot with a camera who knows what a foreground is can make that kind of horror movie. Funky death effects aside movies like that require no skill to make. I’m talking serious, honest-to-god movies that also happen to be really, really scary. We are talking about The Exorcist here. Halloween. Alien. Jaws. The really good stuff. I love movies like this. I LOVE them.

My love for them is, frankly, a little masochistic. I have an extensive series of clinical, left-brain blockages set up precisely so that I don’t immerse myself so much in whatever entertainment I’m consuming that I fall headfirst into it, but a really well-constructed horror movie blows right past all of that. I go from snobbish, detached film school intellectual to covering my eyes and whispering to the characters faster than Superman changes clothes. I am powerless against a really good horror flick, and yet I still repeatedly subject myself to them.

(Interesting side note: the only other genre that sucks me in that quickly and that thoroughly? Romances. c.f. my abiding love of Casablanca, The English Patient, Atonement, et al).

Before I saw The Ring I had, of course, been well and fully briefed on the leading lights of the horror genre. Back in college I was “the movie guy” and Halloween with me and my friends would routinely involve me bringing over large stacks of VHS horror movies and small bunches of us sitting around getting blitzed while scaring the crap out of ourselves. So I’d been there and I had most assuredly done that. I had seen The Exorcist in the theatre. I had gone into Blair Witch with an open mind and gotten a damn good scare for my trouble. I had believed the woman I was in love with at the time when she told me she wanted to watch Halloween (I had to sit on the floor in her dorm and, I am not making this up, she spent the entire movie kicking me in the back of the head). I had suffered plenty of mental damage and a bit of physical damage in the service of my horror movie jones.

As I sat down to watch The Ring – with the lights out, which to this day I cannot explain – I figured that I had already been through the proverbial wringer when it came to horror movies.

Oh, sweet merciful lord, how wrong I was.

After I spent a few minutes calming myself down I picked up the remote, took a deep breath, and started the movie again. I was immediately struck by how… I suppose the word is “careful” the filmmaking was. The first scene is scary as fucking hell, even years on and having seen it multiple times when I watched it this week I still jumped at the right spots, though not as high. After that, though, Verbinski works very hard to construct what for lack of a better word is a very “real” movie: single mother, precocious kid, grieving friends, broken relationships, everyone trying to come to terms with the death of a teenage girl in a depressing, rain-drenched landscape.

Once you get past that first scene things move along pretty swimmingly, actually, until the first time we see the tape.

The tape isn’t that scary in and of itself. It’s off-putting and weird and vaguely unpleasant but there’s nothing on there to make you scream. But watching it along with Rachel – and you do just watch the tape with the character, there’s only one cut away from it the first time it’s shown and it’s at a perfect spot – a sense of foreboding builds and builds and builds, and Rachel’s reaction just makes it somehow worse.

The worst part, though, is that you KNOW that phone is going to ring and you KNOW there’s going to be that horrible voice, and the anticipation of that happening is FAR worse than the actual event – face it, it’s a phone ringing – but through some genius alchemy Verbinksi holds that moment for JUST long enough that when it happens you still jump out of your seat. Because you are weak and while you are sitting in front of The Ring, Gore Verbinski is God. Worse, he is an all-powerful god of fear and you have severely displeased him.

Once you’ve seen the tape the movie proceeds as… I don’t want to say a “standard” horror movie, because it isn’t, if there even is such a thing. But it follows a known arc, at the very least. Mysterious happenings abound, Rachel investigates, things escalate from mysterious to dangerous to horrifying, the stakes are raised, questions are asked and answered, and eventually there is a horror- and emotion-packed climax. Make no mistake, though – everything up to this point has been executed with nothing less than stunning precision.

This is just how incredibly well-made the movie is:

Sitting there watching it, about halfway through the movie – around when Rachel arrives on the island – my phone rang. For the second time in less than two hours I literally JUMPED out of the recliner and started screaming incoherently. It wasn’t just the shock of the noise – I was absolutely certain that a ringing phone meant I WAS GOING TO DIE.

I clumsily grabbed the remote and paused the film, then grabbed a quick look at the display on my cell. It was my friend Chris.

I flipped open the phone and started screaming.


Chris said, “what? What did I do?”

I sputtered, “you… you… you fucking CALLED me! Oh my god I thought I was going to fucking DIE!”

Chris said, “what the hell are you doing?”

Starting to calm down, I said, “I’m watching The Ring.”

Chris said, “oh, Jesus Christ, I’m sorry, I’m REALLY sorry.”

His contrition was genuine: he’d seen the movie.

It goes beyond precision, really. Everything in The Ring is note-perfect, and part of its brilliance is the way we get drawn into the quest along with Rachel. We carry along and experience with her the feeling that, after you watch the tape, the entire world is just increasingly WRONG and the movie becomes as much about setting reality right as it is saving herself. Still, though, it IS a horror movie, and once everything has been set in place the aforementioned climax has to happen, and there are scares and moments of swelling emotion and finally release, and when Rachel says “I want to go home,” you sit there, exhausted, and say to yourself “god DAMN that was a great fucking movie!”

But, and this is the true genius of The Ring, the movie doesn’t end there.

After what would be the climactic final battle of a lesser movie – hell, of a perfectly respectable movie – The Ring yet has manipulations profane and sublime in store. In what is supposed to be the happy denouement between casually estranged mother and son, finally united against a cruel world, when Aidan says “why did you do that” your stomach drops and your flesh starts to crawl and you realize that everything up to that moment has just been the movie playing with you, TOYING with you, and that what’s about to come is going to be worse than you could possibly imagine.

And oh GOD does it come, and oh GOD is it worse than your wildest nicotine patch nightmares. I’ve watched a great white shark terrorize Amity Island, I’ve watched Michael Myers stalk Laurie Strode, I’ve watched Regan McNeil defile a crucifix, and for however visceral and truly horrifying those things are (and they most assuredly are), none of them, and indeed nothing I’d ever seen before or have since since or will likely ever see again, none of them come close to the sheer, abject terror of the penultimate scene of The Ring. I spent the entire scene desperately trying to get away from what was on my television, trying to scramble up and over the back of the recliner, trying to look away, moaning, “no, no, no” over and over again, but I was fixed to the spot. I couldn’t get away. I couldn’t not look at it.

You can very easily get all film-school-literary-studies-major douchebag about The Ring, talk about Verbinski’s repetition of imagery and use of color, or talk about how it uses the supernatural to demonstrate the threat of technology or how it presents a case for the empowerment of women or one of a host of lit-crit theory crap, and you’d have fertile ground on which to plant your bullshit lit-crit douchebag arguments, and all those things are true. Verbinski goes out of his way to create a real, artistic, serious “literary” movie, and he succeeds, and all those things apply. But for all it’s artistic merit – and it is fucking well brimming with it – the bottom line on The Ring is that penultimate scene. It is the pure distillation of horror in movie form. And I don’t mean in terms of gore or violence or blood. There aren’t any. I mean just stark, basic, amygdala-shattering terror. It is the single most frightening thing I’ve ever seen on film.

And I couldn’t look away.


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And then at the end there is a pretty pretty rainbow.

Posted by kozemp on June 26, 2009

Let me make something perfectly clear right from the start: I loved the first Transformers movie. LOVED it. No one is saying it’s Lawrence of Arabia or anything, but to deny that it is a solidly-built and vastly entertaining film is to deny that the sky is blue. My PARENTS loved Transformers, for God’s sake. We heartily endorse the first movie. It’s great. I love it. And now, a day after seeing Revenge of the Fallen, I love the first movie even more, because now we know what it could have been. We now have firsthand evidence what a bad Transformers movie is like.

Even the poster is kinda lousy.

Even the poster is kinda lousy.

What a really, REALLY bad Transformers movie is like.

The great sadness of ROTF is not that it’s bad. Don’t get me wrong – at a macroscopic level it is frighteningly bad. No, the great sadness is that it suffers from Quantum of Solace Syndrome: somewhere inside the misshapen hulk that is Revenge of the Fallen lies an honest-to-god good movie, cowering in a crawlspace like Newt. Unfortunately the powers that be chose to take that good movie, beat it into cringing submission with a leather strap, and surround it with mountains of crap that might as well have been Junkticons, since apparently our intrepid production team thought that specific, direct references to the cartoon were the most important thing missing from the first film.

Helpful hint: specific, direct references to the cartoon WERE the most important thing missing from the first film, and the fact that they were missing was a GOOD thing. Further helpful hint: for however much we wistfully look back at the cartoon in a vain attempt to recapture the happy, discernment-free days of our youth, we must realize that the important part of that statement is “discernment-free” because when you were seven years old your young brain was physically incapable of realizing that the original cartoon was, and continues to be, FUCKING AWFUL. And aping the tone and general maturity level of a fucking awful cartoon leaves your movie – wait for it – FUCKING AWFUL AS WELL.

To continue with the trend, the key word in that phrase is “tone.” Tone is a slippery word to use when describing literature; unlike technical terms like “plot” or “characterization” it means too many different things to different people (though my perusal of the online reaction to ROTF reveals that a startling percentage of people flat out don’t know what the word “plot” means). It’s sort of style but not really, it can describe a film’s belief as to its intended audience but it also can’t, that sort of thing.

Setting those concerns aside, though, one of the first movie’s strengths was its tone: it was adult, it was realistic (within the confines of giant robot scifi), it didn’t talk down to its audience, and for the most part it was deadly, deadly serious. I’d be willing to bet that at least part of the reason it turned out that way was an attempt to subvert expectations: everyone just assumed a Transformers movie directed by Michael Bay would be an idiotic no-story toy commercial blow-em-up, so they purposefully made a serious alien invasion movie where the invading aliens just happened to be giant shapeshifting robots.

(Imagine Deep Space Nine if the Founders turned into runabouts instead of birds. In a word: FUCKING AWESOME.)

Oh, and it also had ridiculously amazing action sequences.

You watch this scene from the first movie where they fight Scorponok, and if the whole sequence doesn’t take your breath away you must not have had any breath in the first place. (And in that case, you know, stay the fuck away from me, zombie.) It is a perfect amalgam of cinematography, visual effects, music, and editing. It is pure adrenaline on film and there are FIVE MORE JUST LIKE IT. If you want to dismiss it as just an action film and tell me that scifi action movies can’t be great movies in their own right I will kindly direct your attention to Aliens and The Empire Strikes Back, then kindly inform you that you are the worst kind of obnoxious cineaste asshole, and then kindly ask you to shut the fuck up.

Yes, the first movie wasn’t perfect. Sam’s parents and the late, lamented Bernie Mac are overused and overdone. I am unsure as to why Anthony Anderson and the Australian chick (whose name I am not even bothering to look up since you wouldn’t recognize it anyway) are in it at all. And John Turturro, oh for god’s sake Turturro, his performance is from some other movie entirely. So basically, er, the first movie’s problems boil down to the humans. EXCEPT, he noted with evil glee, Sam and the soldier guys. This is not surprising, because – like we talked about below vis a vis Anakin Skywalker – Sam and the soldier guys WANTED things. Sam wanted to save his car/dog and get the girl. Josh Duhamel wanted to see his kid. Tyrese wanted to kick ass. (It is, I would think, safe to assume that the soldier dudes also wanted to get the insanely-hot girl.) All the other humans wanted to run around and wave their hands in the air like flaming spastics. For god’s sake, even the fucking robots wanted something. The Decepticons wanted power. The Autobots wanted to protect the humans. Both sides wanted the Allspark.

This is basic Drama 101 type stuff: characters who want things (even if they’re giant robots) are interesting, and thus make for interesting drama. Characters who don’t want things are not, and thus do not. The biggest problem with the second movie is that it violates this cardinal rule by… well, it’s sort of two-fold.

For starters, this time around NONE of the humans seem to want anything, even the ones who wanted things previously. Sam has already gotten the girl. In fact, in the new film Sam’s primary problems are that he is trying to break up with his supercar that turns into a giant robot and that he is unable to verbalize his commitment to the hottest girl in the known universe, both of which together demonstrate nothing so much as the fact that our hero is the single dumbest human being alive. The army guys are pretty muted. Lennox has seen his kid (I mean, one presumes he has in the space between movies). Him and Tyrese do nothing but pal around with the Autobots and travel the world kicking Decepticon ass. Their primary concern for 90% of the film’s running time is not the evil Decepticons but an obnoxious White House staffer. We took the only remotely interesting human characters from the first movie and turned them into harried housewives.

The second part of the anti-drama problem is that we have taken our newly-boring heroes, dropped them in with other useless fleshbags (some from the first film), all of whom are now VASTLY less interesting than the giant robots, and then we proceed to spend the vast majority of the film dealing with their stuff.

The movie is called “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and:

– Most of the movie is about humans doing silly human things like going to parties and having relationship issues and how funny it is when old people get high. Transformers: Revenge of Embarrassing Parental Behavior.
– The Fallen is on screen for MAYBE 90 seconds.
– The Fallen doesn’t actually want revenge for anything. He just wants to finish a project he left behind a long time ago, like a paint-by-numbers you start one summer and get bored with and then find in a closet a few months later.
– Again, and this is so important it bears repeating, a movie called Transformers DOESN’T SPEND ENOUGH TIME SHOWING GIANT ROBOTS.
– Oh, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the inaccuracy of the title, but there’s a really old robot in it that you know is old because he has a beard and a cane.

I would have said that a robot with an OLD MAN BEARD is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, but it was only about halfway through the movie.

I’m not going to talk about every face-palming idiotic moment in the film. There are far too many and I don’t want to be here all day. The best exemplar was when Sam and Co. head for the National Air and Space Museum (located here) and, after a short scene in which the film exhumes, robs, and sexually violates the corpse of the most awesome Transformer ever, proceed out the back door of the National Air and Space Museum (located here) onto a windswept prairie in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains (located, say, here). I am not making this up. This transition actually takes place in the movie. What makes it great? Beforehand a character explicitly states that they are going to Washington DC. And then it cuts to the mountain west. It is the platonic ideal of both unintentional hilarity and slapdash, lackadaisical no-thought filmmaking.

Sitting there watching the awfulness unfold before me, muttering “oh my god this is fucking stupid” every 94 seconds, I wondered how things could have gotten so bad. ROTF was made, after all, by the same bunch of guys (less Rogers) who did such a good job on the first one. Say what you will about Michael Bay – and many things can be said – but between The Rock and the first Transformers the guy at the very least knows how to shoot a kick-ass action movie. Kurtzman and Orci are the team behind Fringe, the best show on television that you’re not watching, and their script for the brilliant Star Trek relaunch was tighter than a whore’s miniskirt. For God’s sake, they made the first movie, and we’ve established how awesome that was. So this was the question I kept asking myself: how did they go so wrong this time?

Then I remembered something:

The writer’s strike.

Revenge of the Fallen went into production just as the writer’s strike was starting. They started shooting with just a treatment – not even a full script. Suddenly some of the ridiculous choices started, if not to make sense, than to become at least explicable. So THAT’S why the people never acted like actual people: they didn’t have lines, they were just working off an outline by a guy whose last writing credit was a car commercial!  NOW we know why every single frame that isn’t an action scene is so bizarre and unrealistic! They were created by a replicant whose only programming is on how to direct action sequences! God, the answer was right in front of me all along!

Afterwards, walking out of the theatre, I realized that we have, in fact, been given a great gift: now we know what happens when you spend 200 million dollars to make a movie that literally does not have a script. We joke about, “oh that script was terrible” or “did a monkey write this movie,” but now there is a new nadir to base all future comparisons on. In a way, honestly, it almost excuses the movies worst excesses and most blatant idiocies: what do you expect from a movie with no script?

Son of a BITCH…

Ultimately, there are those who will try to write off the movie’s deficiencies as “it’s just a summer blockbuster.” The only reasonable response to that is NO. FUCK YOU. NOT BY A FUCKING LONG SHOT. Summer blockbusters can be legitimately great movies. The Dark Knight. Spider-Man 2. Jurassic Park. Terminator 2. Iron Man. Pirates of the Caribbean. Men in Black. RAIDERS. For God’s sake, Raiders. Summer blockbusters and outstanding “real” movies all, and if you don’t think so you are fucking stupid. And, even if we ignore the whole summer blockbuster idiocy, Revenge of the Fallen gets held up to a legitimate movie standard because THE SAME PEOPLE ALREADY MADE A GREAT TRANSFORMERS MOVIE. It is not unreasonable to believe – assume, even – that they would do so again. And the fact that they failed doesn’t just make the movie bad – lots and lots and oh god LOTS of other things do that – it makes the movie a disappointment, which is honestly worse than just being bad. If the first movie had been the junk we all expected it to be, then the depths of absurdity plumbed by ROTF would have been a lot easier to swallow; after all, we had a baseline. But to hit such a home run in your first at bat and then go down looking on a piker fastball in your second is just…

Yeah, I know, you’d think we’d be used to that feeling by now.

But the best, most ridiculous, most “my life is an exercise in exponentially increasing insanity” moment?

Walking out of the theatre with Nick and Reg, after a few seconds of stunned silence we turned to each other and started loudly bitching about how heartbroken we were that the movie was so bad, since, after the setup of the first movie, heartbreaking is what this one’s awfulness boils down to. We stood there outside the AMC Neshaminy 24 wailing and gnashing our teeth. Then, at one point, I turned to look at where I’m parked and this is what I saw right over my car:


They say that whenever God closes a door he opens a window. For the rest of you norms that may be the case. My version of that is a little different: every time God sticks a fork in your eye, he also jabs a tablespoon in your gut.

A fucking rainbow. I can hear you laughing from all the way down here, you bastard.


*In the comments: your favorite ridiculous moment/non sequitur/idiotic scene from Revenge of the Fallen.

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