Heart of Glass

Heart of Glass (1976)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Josef Bierbichler, Stefan Güttler, Sonja Skiba

 

Heart of Glass is the fourth Werner Herzog-directed film that I’ve written about for this project, and it’s one of the ones included in the Herzog box set that I own that I actually hadn’t watched before. As is typical with my first experience with a Herzog film, I was left with a curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a desire to watch the movie again almost immediately. The film isn’t likely a great introduction to the work of Herzog, but it is typically Herzog-ian in its themes, its presentation, and its formal and narrative strangeness. The film is somewhat famous as one in which Herzog hypnotized nearly his entire cast, and had them perform their scenes while in a trance state, but, to my knowledge, it’s not nearly as widely seen as many of his other films. I can see why the film’s somnambulant tone and pacing, plus its highly esoteric subject matter, might turn off casual viewers, but fans of Herzog shouldn’t miss this hidden gem. It seems to have missed out on classic status, but it provides a richly rewarding cinematic experience, and it’s a movie that I will certainly be thinking about for many days to come.

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Heart of Glass is set in a pre-industrial Bavarian village, whose citizens’ livelihood depends on the highly valued “Ruby glass” that is produced in their factory. At the film’s outset, it is discovered that the foreman of the factory has passed away without bestowing on any of the villagers the secret of making the beautiful rose-colored glass. The factory’s owner (Güttler) tries in vain to find someone in the village who can recreate the Ruby glass, but as it becomes more and more apparent that there is no replacement for the deceased foreman, the villagers become increasingly depressed and erratic. All the while, the village’s seer, Hias (Bierbichler) is prophesying doom and destruction, perhaps not only for this village and its people, but for all mankind.

This is an exceedingly simple plot synopsis, but aside from a few highly impressionistic passages, and a visual coda at the film’s end that could serve as a sort of allegory for the preceding narrative, it’s accurate. Heart of Glass is a simple film, but it’s certainly not direct, and, as always, the real value of a story lies in the telling. Though it isn’t as decidedly abstract as Fata Morgana, this film finds Herzog operating a similar mode, privileging feeling and mood over narrative clarity. Though I think that the events of the film are meant to be taken at face value, they also operate just as well on an allegorical level. The fate of the villagers can stand in for the fate of humanity over the ensuing centuries, as humans’ worth became more and more closely tied to their ability to produce goods through heavy industry. Hias’s visions are specific to the village, its inhabitants, and its treasured factory, but his dark proclamations seem to ring with resonance for the modern world, as well. The hypnotized actors are stand-ins for modern workers, and the secret of the glass is the only thing that gives their labor some small purpose. Without that drive and purpose, the villagers have lost all will to live. This fable breaks down a very modern conundrum to its core essences, and presents many of the problems of a modern industrial society with such shocking frankness that they’re rendered almost unrecognizable.

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At the heart of the film’s inherent strangeness are the haunting, affected performances of the hypnotized actors. Through the hypnosis, Herzog gets pure performances, stripped of any artifice or emotionality. It’s a daring directorial choice, and it leads to some highly uncomfortable moments throughout the film, but it also leads to a uniformity of performance and mood throughout the film that is enveloping. The actors register less as characters, or even as people, than as types, vessels through which Herzog can articulate his philosophies on the nature of man and work and life. Some directors would seek to explore these themes emotionally, through heightened character/audience identification, but Herzog breaks in the other direction, seeking to get to philosophical truth through a stripping away of comfort and identification, and the extreme use of cinematic devices aimed towards a particular sort of distancing effect. I’m sure that the style isn’t for everyone, and this performance decision might be why Heart of Glass is less seen than other Herzog films of the period, but, for me, the dreamlike acting style was perfect. I won’t forget the hollow eyes and disimpassioned line delivery of these actors any time soon.

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Despite being a rather pessimistic and dour film, Heart of Glass contains several moments of absolute sublime beauty. As in Fata Morgana, Herzog captures scenes of immense natural beauty, and, in so doing, creates a deep sense of awe and wonder, and causes the audience to question the role of man and society within nature. The drab village, and its strong association with ideas of society and industry, is the purview of man. As we see in Heart of Glass, lacking for purpose, man becomes his own worst enemy and society cannot thrive. The woods around the village, which Hias calls home, and the other natural locations that Herzog highlights are associated with magic, visions, and spirituality. Through his association with nature and his visions, Hias is freer than the villagers, and more in tune to the natural rhythms of the world. It is important to note, also, that Hias’s visions are not associated with any religious belief. Natural mysticism is given priority, and though the film doesn’t make any explicit claims about organized religion, there are several telling symbols that pop up on the fringes of scenes which give clues as to Herzog’s position on religion’s role in spoiling the decency of a pure and natural society. The film’s coda could potentially throw into question the primacy of nature, but I think that it even more underscores the point that man must seek to find himself within nature, rather than attempt to bend the natural world to his will.

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I wish that more people, particularly more people who are somewhat familiar with Herzog’s work, would see Heart of Glass, but it’s also a difficult film for me to recommend unequivocally. Though I think that it is a film approaching masterpiece territory, it’s also a dense, meditative, and difficult film, and one that isn’t likely to appeal to most, or many, viewers. It is a film that is designed to make the audience uncomfortable, to jar them out of a sense of complacency and understanding, and awaken within them a desire to receive a particular message. Herzog’s delivery method is unique, but the themes that he is exploring appear time and time again in his body of work. For Herzog fans, Heart of Glass is richly rewarding, and not to be missed. For fans of experimental or art cinema, it’s a challenging film worth exploring. I know that I’m anticipating my next opportunity to submit to this film’s particular brand of hypnosis. I don’t think that I totally understand everything that I saw and experienced while watching Heart of Glass, and I know that I’ve done a poor job in adequately discussing the film, but it’s a movie that crawled under my skin and it will take a long time before I’ve shaken it.

Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson

 

Hard Eight is the story of a friendship that begins when an older man meets a young man, down on his luck, and offers him a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and, eventually, a path to a new lease on life. John (Reilly) is sitting on a curb outside a diner, having come to Las Vegas to win money to bury his mother, when he meets Sydney (Hall), a longtime card shark who sees something in the desperate young man, and offers him help. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature begins simply, lacking the bombast and import that would come to define his masterful later work. It’s a small, character-driven drama that explores the seedy world of small time cons and the seedy characters who pull them in casinos and pool halls. It’s an aimless, meandering sort of picture for the first hour, allowing the audience to really get a sense of who these characters are and what their relationships are to one another, and to completely get a sense of place as the action shifts to small town Reno, Nevada. The film’s final act picks up the pace, providing a few surprise reveals and some violent retribution, but at its core, Hard Eight is a movie about four desperate people and their desires and shortcomings. It isn’t a pretty movie, or a fancy one, but when I’m looking to briefly dip my toes into the type of world peopled by figures both sad and seedy, it’s a perfect choice.

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I’ve written about a lot of first features and debuts in this space, but I think that Hard Eight is the most accomplished yet. Though it offers only fleeting glimpses of the cinematic mastery that Anderson would eventually display, the film stands on its own as a tight and entertaining caper. The thing that I’m always impressed by when I return to Hard Eight, which I do fairly frequently, is the efficiency with which Anderson builds up these characters and their relationships. A few lines of perfectly written and delivered dialogue are enough to make the audience feel that they know each of the principals and their motivations. Though each of them keep secrets until the end, these characters are familiar and, mostly, endearing. In a way, these characters are tropes – The Benevolent Grifter, The Down-on-his-Luck Loser, The Hooker with a Heart of Gold – but Anderson’s narrative subtlety and the excellent performances of the entire cast, elevate them beyond thin stereotypes.

Anderson managed an impressive assemblage of talent for his debut feature. Hall, who also starred in the short film Sydney, from which Hard Eight is adapted, is perfect in the role of the paternalistic, wise conman. His lined face speaks to the years of experience Sydney has had and the things that he’s seen in those years, existing on the fringes of underworld societies. Watching Hall take a long, patient drag from a cigarette is akin to taking a master class in world-weariness. There is a hardness at the core of his performance, but it never registers as cruel, rather that hardness is earned through experience, and in his interactions with the other characters, it manifests itself as a persistent, paternalistic care, especially for Reilly’s John. The two make a good pair of foils, obviously forming a father/son pairing as Sydney takes the place of the father who John lost many years ago. John is a typical Reilly character, kind and sweet, but more than a bit naïve. I’ve always been impressed by the vulnerability that Reilly often shows as an actor, and that openness and vulnerability is on full display here, as he plays a character completely set adrift in the world, looking for any harbor.

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Though the film is, without a doubt, the story of Sydney and John, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson round out the supporting cast and are each given a few scenes in which to shine. Both characters are used to reveal deeper characteristics of the two principals, with Paltrow’s Clementine falling for John, and vice versa, and helping to introduce a stronger, more independent side to his character in the film’s third act. Clementine has an inner strength that’s belied by her made-up exterior, a quality that Paltrow fully puts on display in the film’s pivotal scene. She and John have beaten and kidnapped a john who refused to pay Clementine after sex, and they call Sydney for help. Though she’s understandably emotional and hysterical, Clementine is pulling all of the strings in the scene, urging John and Sydney to kill the man, remaining singularly focused on her money and her besmirched dignity while John is spinning out of control in the face of a situation he can’t comprehend. This is Paltrow’s only featured scene in the movie, but she makes the most of it, revealing a nuance to her character that wasn’t readily apparent earlier in the film. Likewise, Jackson isn’t afforded many opportunities to really shine in Hard Eight, but he plays the role of Jimmy, a small-time hustler and keeper of an important secret, perfectly. Jimmy’s big scene comes near the film’s end, when he confronts Sydney about a secret from his past, and demands that Sydney disappear. To this point, Jackson has played Jimmy as an affable, if sleazy, character, whose sinister side is well contained. However, when he confronts Sydney in the parking lot, he seethes rage and righteous anger, delivering the sort of monologue that Samuel Jackson has become known for. Jimmy is intimidating without ever becoming unhinged, and his malice is all the more potent, because Jackson’s restrained performance gives the impression that it could be wielded as a club, if need be. It’s a short scene and a small role, but it’s vintage Samuel L. Jackson, and the venerable character actor nails it.

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Beyond just crafting realistic, relatable characters, Anderson also brings Las Vegas and Reno to life in subtle ways. His casinos feel lived in, a bit worn down at the heel, but authentic. He isn’t interested in the glitz of the strip, but rather in the second-rate casinos and the seedy, extended stay motels that proliferate throughout the rest of Las Vegas. Hard Eight does every bit as much examining and extrapolating on the character of Nevada as does Casino, but the stakes here are smaller, simpler. When Sydney introduces John to a particular hustle early in the film, the object is not to get rich quick but to get a comped room, and maybe a free meal voucher. The scene in which Anderson introduces the con is brilliant, Hall breaking down the intricacies of the simple grift in voiceover while Anderson meticulously documents the ins and outs of the scheme, which involves John appearing to spend more than he is by cycling his chips and a small amount of cash through different cashier windows and getting a player’s card stamped for money that he isn’t really spending. It’s a simple but effective con, and the scene is, likewise, a simple but effective way of suturing the audience’s interest to this particular world and expanding their understanding of it. The rest of Hard Eight is understated and murky, while this early scene is insistent and direct, but it serves as the perfect introduction to the film’s world. Anderson does the one thing a gambler should never do, by tipping his hand early, but it works.

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P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I think that he will be thought of as one of the greatest directors of all time, if that consensus hasn’t already been cemented. Hard Eight, of course, falls short of the cinematically sublime level that a few of his more recent pictures have achieved, but it is a great achievement in and of itself. It might be easy to dismiss this small film as an inauspicious debut, but it’s such a well-crafted, fully formed work, one that features hints of the greatness that Anderson would go on to achieve. Hard Eight is, honestly, the Anderson movie that I end up rewatching most frequently, probably at least once a year. It simply never disappoints, and when I’m looking for a taut, character-driven drama, there are really few better in my collection. It’s a movie that I suspect is still rather underseen, but it really deserves more attention, even outside of the context of Anderson’s larger body of work, or his auteur status. From its well-written characters, to its perfectly established and envisioned world, and impressive performances across the board, Hard Eight has a lot to like on its own. It’s a somewhat forgotten movie worthy of reflection and reevaluation.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Dir. Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan

 

I think that Wes Anderson is one of the more polarizing filmmakers working today. He has achieved a distinct and instantly recognizable visual and narrative style over the course of his twenty-year career, and is often recognized by contemporary critics as a visionary and important filmmaker, but it seems to me that when I talk about his movies with people in the real world, they don’t share this universal admiration. Anderson’s films seem to engender a love it or hate it reaction, with many people I’ve met finding his aesthetic to be too twee, too precious, and too affected. To them, Anderson is the quintessential hipster director, making ironic and precocious art meant to be taken seriously by those for whom cultivating a perfect vinyl collection and sourcing the best knit fabrics for a sweater vest are matters of grave concern. Conversely, I’ve met an equal number of people who feel that Anderson’s humor and sensibilities reflect the sarcastic, wry, and ironic zeitgeist of the 21st century, and that his vintage aesthetics and concern with evoking a sense of place in time through mise-en-scene and music are perfect for a digital age in which nostalgia is only a click away. I find myself firmly in the latter camp, having been a fan of Anderson since the late 1990s, but I suppose that I can see why some people can’t seem to penetrate his filmography and have trouble relating to his movies. One thing that I think shouldn’t be up for much debate, even among those Anderson detractors, is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great movie. It marks Anderson at the height of his powers, and seeing one of the last quarter century’s most important and recognizable auteurs turning in a masterpiece is what makes it one of the greatest movies of the young 21st century.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nesting doll of a caper that unfolds over several distinctive period settings, telling the history of the titular hotel and its staff and inhabitants. The tale is related by the hotel’s proprietor, the aged Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and it centers on his arrival at the Grand Budapest Hotel where he gained employment as a lobby boy under the supervision of the hotel’s famed concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes). The young Moustafa, whose first name is Zero (Revolori), shows promise as a lobby boy and Gustave takes him under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of hospitality. Shortly after Zero begins his employment at the Grand Budapest, Gustave receives notice that Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of his many elderly paramours, has died under mysterious circumstances, and he and Zero travel by train to her estate to witness the reading of her will. Madame D. wills Gustave a priceless painting, enraging her family, particularly her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Though Zero and Gustave are able to safely return the painting to the Grand Budapest, Dmitri frames Gustave for his mother’s murder and he is subsequently jailed. Gustave manages to escape from prison with the help of his fellow inmates, and also Zero and his new fiancée, Agatha (Ronan), a baker’s apprentice with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her cheek. Zero and Gustave then set off to find the identity of Madame D.’s true killer, and, so doing, clear M. Gustave’s name.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel takes many of Anderson’s directorial quirks and dials them up to 11. It’s certainly a treat for the initiated, but I think that it’s also a film that can be enjoyed by just about any fan of movies. While it features much of Anderson’s stock cast, and expands upon his visual and narrative style, Grand Budapest sticks out among Anderson’s filmography as somewhat less precious and precocious. Though the Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson’s most exquisitely realized dollhouses come to life, the story that he tells about the hotel and its inhabitants is darker, more action-oriented, and more steeped in actual history than any of Anderson’s earlier films. In Grand Budapest it seems that Anderson has managed to adhere his style onto a skeleton of classical Hollywood references and a more traditional structure. Though he still utilizes familiar cutaways, intertitles, and meticulously crafted miniatures, Anderson eschews some of his other trademarks, such as his frequent use of 1960s and 1970s pop music for the soundtrack. This pairing of Anderson’s whimsical tendencies with more traditional, grounded influences is a marriage for success, and makes for Anderson’s richest, most cinematically rewarding film.

Another way that Anderson deviates from his established norms is by sidelining the majority of his stock cast of actors. While Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson all appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel, they, and many other Anderson regulars, take a backseat to a trio of actors who are making their first appearances in a Wes Anderson film, led by Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. I’m not overly familiar with Fiennes body of work as an actor, aside from some of the obvious roles that he’s most well-known for, but this is my favorite performance of his. He completely plays against his usual type, playing Gustave as a somewhat effete, surprisingly capable, and mildly authoritarian figure. He is the efficient center of power that propels the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fiennes’s performance is the celestial body around which all of the other elements of the film’s universe orbit. He embodies the Old World elegance that is beginning to fade from existence in the time period Anderson depicts in the film. Fiennes’s clipped delivery and quick wit help to inform the film’s sense of humor and reflect the incredibly efficient pacing that the film adopts in its second half. Once The Grand Budapest Hotel goes into full caper mode, it’s propelled by the energy of Fiennes’s Gustave, and drops its mannered comedy for a full screwball turn. His performance is a delight to watch and the movie would likely wouldn’t work as well as it does with another actor in its most prominent role.

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If Fiennes is the propulsive engine driving the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel forward, then Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan give it its emotional depth, and the romance shared by their young characters, Zero and Agatha, provides its beating heart. I’m fairly certain that this movie was the first time I’d seen either actor in anything, and I can remember leaving the theater really impressed with both of them, but particularly with Revolori. His performance provides the film with much of its physical comedy, with his large eyes and expressive face often giving humorous counterpoint to the antics going on around Zero. Though the lobby boy is fairly meek, when the chips are down and his friends are threatened, Zero draws from a well of strength and comes through to protect them. Ronan provides a steadying presence in the film, balancing the energy of Fiennes and Revolori with her more grounded performance. Agatha is resourceful and smart, and Ronan imbues her with a natural goodness that makes it easy to see why Zero would fall head over heels for her. Though both characters are endowed with obvious Anderson-ian affectations – Zero’s penciled on mustache and Agatha’s birthmark in the shape of Mexico – the young actors’ performances shine through. They both radiate kindness and affection, and their characters’ dedication to one another, and to M. Gustave, is the glue holding the film together.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel also marks a shift in Anderson’s sensibilities towards a slightly less cynical tone and point of view. Much like in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson allows young actors to explore and express more genuine displays of affection and romantic love than are present in his first few films. Whereas in movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, romantic love is viewed extremely suspiciously, and in nearly all of Anderson’s films up to and including The Darjeeling Limited, familial love is basically nonexistent, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see an example of a truly powerful love between Zero and Agatha, and a functioning surrogate family formed between the two of them and M. Gustave. This shift is likely a product of Anderson simply maturing and his views on love and life changing as he has evolved as a person and an artist. In Grand Budapest Hotel the romantic subplot and the film’s occasionally raw emotionality provide an inroad for viewers who might have trouble connecting with Anderson’s earlier, more ironic output. That being said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still very much a “Wes Anderson movie,” and for all of the deviations from what might seem to be his stock pallet, Anderson hasn’t changed his formula, so much as enriched and perfected it. It’s a movie that checks off all of the requisite boxes for me, both as a fan of Wes Anderson and as a fan of cinema, in general. The world building here is typically rich, and that world is peopled by some of Anderson’s most memorable, relatable, and tragic characters to date. The stakes in the film seem high, and Anderson proves himself more capable of creating narrative tension and directing visual action scenes than he previously had in his career. The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a big step forward in artistry for one of my favorite, and, objectively, one of the best, filmmakers of the early 21st century. It’s both a pleasant diversion and a film that rewards multiple viewings, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who has an interest in cinema.

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

Dir. George Clooney

Written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr.

 

Good Night, and Good Luck. came out at a time in my life when I was rapidly expanding my viewership. In 2005, I was starting my second year of college in Pittsburgh, and I was diving deeply into the Film Studies program at Pitt, filling my schedule with courses that required constant engagement with cinema and encouraged me to explore filmmakers, genres, and national cinemas that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. I spent that year of school living alone in a single room, in a dormitory where it seemed no one was particularly interested in socializing or meeting a new friend, so I turned, instead, to my movies, watching three or four in a day sometimes. I signed up for a Netflix account and attempted to maximize the efficiency with which I could receive, watch, and return those little red envelopes and the discs inside of them that contained a passport to other worlds. I watched a half dozen movies every week just for the classes I was taking. I rented as many DVDs and VHS tapes as I was allowed every single week from the Carnegie Library’s impressive collection. All the while, I still managed to find the time to make it out to the theater to see the latest new releases, both popular and independent. It was something of a solitary year for me, but it was also a year in which my interests and tastes in movies began to crystallize, and during which my dedication to a scholarly pursuit of the movies was strongest.

I say all of that to illuminate the point that while I was spending so much time collecting stories and images, there were certainly moments where I caught lightning in a bottle and experienced a film that would stay with me for years and through which I would gain a better understanding of the medium and of myself, there were other films that simply didn’t stick and whose plots and characters have been lost in the shuffle entirely, and then there were films that felt incredibly impactful to me at the time, but which have proven not to have the staying power that I assumed that they would. Though I think that it’s an enjoyable, and somewhat important, film, Good Night, and Good Luck. largely falls into this latter category.

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Relating the true story of CBS journalist Edward Murrow’s (Strathairn) public feud with notorious U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck. is a stylish, artfully produced period piece. It’s the type of film that seems destined for mainstream award recognition, an Important Drama, and it was rewarded with several Academy Award nominations, but no wins. It’s a film that is designed, with its star-studded cast, serious subject matter, and black and white cinematography, to be appreciated as a serious work of art, but one that stops just short of truly challenging its audience, at the same time. Seeing the movie in the winter of 2005, I felt that Good Night, and Good Luck. was an immensely important movie, and one of high quality, and while it certainly is quality entertainment, its vitality seems to have faded over the course of a decade, and like many other prestige films, its brief run as a must-see movie seems to be all but forgotten. I don’t mean to deny the film any of its artistry, or to suggest that the telling of Murrow’s insistence on speaking truth to power is any sort of frivolity, but there is something about going back to watch this type of prestige film from the mid-2000s that feels absolutely quaint to me. As a commentary on the role of journalism, the film might be more prescient in 2018 than it was in 2005, but watching it again after not having seen it in so long I couldn’t shake the feeling that Good Night, and Good Luck. is simply the product of a radically different time. That’s really neither a bad or good thing, but a truth about the rapidly changing nature of studio cinema, and something of a reflection on my own changing habits as a movie-watcher now compared to 13 years ago.

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What I mean by the first part of that last statement is that shortly after the release of Good Night, and Good Luck., models of distribution began to change radically, as did the consumption habits of the public. Home video was in its heyday and streaming services were beginning to emerge on the horizon, giving audiences access to more and more content in their own homes. The subsequent, relative leveling of the distribution playing field was a definite blow towards the idea of a monoculture, and a single taste-making entity, such as the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, that acts as an imprimatur of filmic quality. In the age of Internet streaming and distribution, the content consumer reigns supreme, with a plethora of viewing options at her fingers. With so many services designed to satiate every individual artistic taste, the idea of prestige films that audiences and the industry rally around is an idea that exists largely in think pieces such as this one, rather than as a reality in practice. These films are certainly still being made, distributed, widely seen, and lauded with awards, but their impact and importance seems more fleeting by the year. One such film, Spotlight, which bears many similarities to Good Night, and Good Luck., was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture recently, and it is a fine movie that tells a story that deserves to be told. However, when it comes to rewatchability and cinematic importance, to me, it doesn’t hold a candle to other memorable films from that year, including Tangerine, Anomalisa, and Carol. Aside from Tangerine, these are somewhat high-profile, mainstream indie movies, but I think that they are also movies that likely wouldn’t get distribution in 2005. Their success is contingent on a shift in the industry towards niche marketing, which isn’t new, but which has intensified thanks to the increased accessibility offered by alternative distribution models.

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As to my own personal viewing habits having changed, I’m not nearly as consumptive of media as I was in 2005. To be honest, I really haven’t been since that time, which is probably a good thing in most respects. While I do still try to eventually see major awards contenders, my limited available time to consume movies necessitates being much more choosy than I was in the past. Trips to the theater are limited for the movies that I really feel I must see immediately upon their release, or the type of blockbuster action movies that really benefit from a viewing experience on the big screen. I do the bulk of my movie watching at home, and I subscribe to a plethora of different streaming services which provide me with a pretty wide range of new release and classic movies. I watch whatever I want to watch when it becomes available, largely unaffected by the cinematic zeitgeist, because so frequently I’m watching these movies a year or more after they were released in theaters. The experience of watching Good Night, and Good Luck. seemed vital in 2005, so much so that I felt the need to purchase the movie on DVD after having seen it in the theater, but only a decade later, Spotlight received little more than a cursory watch on a Redbox disc on a random, snowy Tuesday night. This divorce from the prestige picture as a theatrical event in my life has shifted my attentions towards movies that might otherwise have gone under my radar. Just like studios keep making safe, awards-friendly fare, I still watch these movies, but frequently in a fashion that is far removed from their moment in the cultural spotlight.

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This post is obviously short-changing Good Night, and Good Luck. which is actually a pretty good movie. I think that its level of cinematic artistry rises significantly above that of many films in the “Oscar bait” category, which is a term that I think I’ve danced around a bit here. The cinematography is beautiful, and Clooney makes an interesting directorial decision to include actual footage of McCarthy, rather than represent him with an actor. Strathairn’s interactions with McCarthy’s image, which is seen on television screens, which abound throughout the film, have an odd quality that is at once truthful and false, piling levels of representation upon one another, creating some disorientation. Strathairn’s performance is powerfully understated, and it’s matched by great work from the rest of the film’s cast. As I’ve alluded to, the film, with its political commentary being matched by the realities of the world today certainly seems prescient and contemporary. In the era of “fake news,” a movie about a journalist risking his career to condemn and expose a hypocritical, cruel bully who found himself in a position of political power rings true, indeed. One of the purposes of this project was to explore movies from my past in a new context, and watching Good Night, and Good Luck. in 2018 certainly changed the way I think about that movie, but also it prompted me to think about the way that I relate to movies in general in 2018, versus the way I did in 2005. My world has expanded so much since then, and, luckily, so have my viewing options. In 2018, I long for a more varied cinematic experience, which is likely a consequence of my voracious media consumption in college. There’s still room for movies like Good Night, and Good Luck., which is to say, movies that are fine to good artistically, and which gain the mainstream approval of what is left of a rapidly dispersing monoculture, but there’s increasingly less and less so as new, and more varied, entertainments come streaming into my life.

Goodfellas

Goodfellas (1990)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi (from Pileggi’s book)

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco

 

I have been procrastinating and struggling with the idea of writing about Goodfellas for several weeks now. I’ve written before that I’m not much of a fan of writing about movies that I don’t like, but, sometimes, it’s just as difficult to write about a movie that you really love, one that’s universally accepted as a masterpiece, and that has been lauded to death already. I don’t know what more I could add to the conversation surrounding Goodfellas, a movie that is often brought up as a contender in the debate over the best films of its ilk, if not the best films of all time. There’s really no debating for me; Goodfellas is quite near the top of my personal favorites, and I think that it’s almost a perfect movie. It’s a combination of cinema as high art and as mainstream entertainment, an accessible masterpiece that absolutely builds consensus among almost any movie fans. When I was watching Goodfellas for something like the hundredth time to prepare for this post, I sent a friend of mine a message that simply said, “I could watch Goodfellas every day and be happy,” and that sentiment is absolutely true. It provides everything that I need in a movie, and though it probably isn’t my absolute favorite movie of all time, it would likely be my desert island movie pick.

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Based on the true story of his involvement with the mafia, Goodfellas follows Henry Hill (Liotta) from his first forays into organized crime as a boy growing up in New York City, to his rise to the pinnacle of the criminal underworld. Along the way, Scorsese introduces a memorable cast of characters and details the inner workings of a well-oiled criminal empire. More than any other movie, including the most classic and lauded of all gangster films, Goodfellas acts as a thorough and immersive tutorial in the operations of the mafia. I’m largely dispensing with a plot synopsis for the movie not only because it’s a movie that anyone reading this post should already be familiar with, but also because its narrative has become the ür-text for the gangster film since its release nearly thirty years ago. The story of Goodfellas will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the archetypal trope of the individual struggling to define and achieve the American dream, but it’s the telling that makes the movie so memorable. So many lesser movies have quoted and lifted from Goodfellas that it almost seems to have birthed the genre anew, and though it obviously owes a debt to the other giants of gangster cinema, it stands out as an original and vital push forward for the genre.

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Clearly, Martin Scorsese was already established as a master by the time that he made Goodfellas, but this is a film that no doubt vaulted him into another stratosphere as a visual and narrative artist. The movie takes its audience on a 140-minute thrill ride, visually and aurally matching the opulence and the chaos that would come to define Hill’s life as he ascended through the ranks of an organized crime family. The film features the familiarly expressive camera work that would come to define Scorsese’s cinema, and the whiplash editing of longtime Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, with both the cinematography and the montage combining to underscore the film’s haphazard narrative. Scorsese has also chosen to tell this tale episodically, condensing thirty years of action into a handful of vignettes that chart Hill’s rise and the increasing unraveling of himself and those around him. These directorial choices give the film a sense of urgency and immediacy, while the ever-present voice over narration lends it its credence and position of authority. While The Godfather is told as a grand epic of Shakespearean proportions, Goodfellas feels thoroughly modern, charting a similar story of criminal enterprise and demise, but doing so in a more engaging and more vital way. It’s a movie that eschews rumination in favor of dragging the audience along by the throat, forcing the audience to see and absorb, and, in essence, experience, the things that Hill is experiencing. When the movie does slow down a bit to let the viewer catch her breath, it’s typically in the form of a freeze-frame, highly constructed to hammer home some point or moment of great narrative import. Goodfellas is full of these and other cinematic visual tricks, a tour de force of image paired with narrative meaning, with Scorsese pulling out all the stops and incorporating every bit of cinematic flair he had developed to that point in his career.

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Scorsese also assembles one of the best casts of any of his films, with Goodfellas combining a who’s-who of established actors, many of whom Scorsese had never worked with in the past, and a panacea of up-and-coming actors, who would go on to people the next generation of mafia media. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci both turn in typically electric performances, with De Niro officially beginning a phase in his career where he started to play the elder statesman, and Pesci being rewarded with an Oscar for his unhinged performance as the ruthless gangster Tommy. Relative newcomer Liotta acquits himself well to a meaty and difficult role, aptly charting Hill’s physical and mental degradation throughout the course of the film. He is by turns charming and suave, and then haggard and harried, a life lived on the fringes of society having obviously taken its toll on his character. Hill is the closest thing the movie has to an audience surrogate, because even though he’s on the inside, he acts as a tour guide through this dark world and his engaging performance encourages the kind of identification that leads to the stomach-turning excitement of the film’s final act as everything starts to crumble around him and his family.

Lorraine Bracco deserves special mention for turning in a varied and stellar performance as Hill’s wife, Karen. Karen is an outsider when Hill first meets and approaches her, but Bracco never plays her as helpless or naïve, instead choosing to make her character uneasy, but ultimately tacitly approving of the madness unfolding around her. Karen is obviously taken in by the lavish lifestyle that Henry introduces her to, with the possibilities of life as a mobster’s wife literally unfolding in front of her eyes in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, as the camera charts an unbroken course through the Copacabana, showing Karen and the audience the kinds of pleasures that abound for those willing to bend a rule. Though she’s a wide-eyed observer, Karen is always aware of the work that her husband does to afford them their lifestyle, and soon enough her own character trajectory starts to mirror that of her husband. By film’s end, Karen is just as strung out and paranoid as Henry, and Bracco sinks her teeth into these later scenes, showing the once prim and proper Karen starting to come apart at the seams. Hers is a powerful performance in a film that largely relegates its female characters to the sidelines.

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My own history with Goodfellas probably goes back a little over 20 years. I’m not exactly sure when the first time I saw the movie was, but I can remember borrowing it on VHS from the library, probably sometime shortly after I had borrowed The Godfather for the first time. Because of the close proximity of my first experience to both movies, and I’m sure not unusually, these two classic gangster movies have always been inextricably linked for me. I really liked both movies at the time, and I still do, but when I was a kid, The Godfather reigned supreme in my opinion. That attitude shifted at some point in my teens and early twenties, when I started to recognize the importance and the style of the more modern, and, by that point, more influential Goodfellas. To me, it’s just a more engaging movie. Even though I have its lines of dialogue memorized and I can anticipate every great and memorable set piece, Goodfellas never fails to grab my attention and keep me locked in for the entirety of its runtime. Though I go to see every new Scorsese release in the theaters, Goodfellas is the only one of his classics that I ever go back to rewatch with any regularity. I need to be in a particular mood to want to sit through Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but Goodfellas is always a welcome escape for me. There are better movies, though not many, in my opinion, but this is one that earns its place as my desert island movie because it so perfectly triggers every pleasure center that a movie can activate in my brain. Its narrative structure and pacing, the stellar performances of its cast, the attitude that the film has, its great soundtrack, all add up to one of the most satisfying movie experiences that I can treat myself to.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Forrest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva

 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was my introduction to Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker who I’d go on to really get into in my early twenties. When I first watched the movie, probably around 16 years old, I picked it up because I knew that all the music had been composed by the RZA and I knew that it combined two of my favorite things: kung fu/Eastern martial arts culture and old school New York City hip hop culture. While I expected to like the movie, simply based on its premise of a modern assassin who lives by the ancient code of the samurai, I didn’t expect it to strike me in such a way. Quentin Tarantino aside, I hadn’t found a filmmaker who seemed this interested in projecting a specific idea of “cool” through his cinema, by way of inscrutable references, impressionistic sequences that seem to exist outside the realm of the narrative, and an insistence on creating mood over narrative clarity. I enjoyed Ghost Dog a great deal, but it was never a movie that I watched very often. It isn’t terribly complex, but I did find it to be challenging when I was a teen, maybe because I wasn’t as steeped in the practices of a post-modern filmmaker like Jarmusch. Going back and watching it today, with a decade and a half of viewership under my belt, and a more than passing familiarity with Jarmusch’s brand of “cool” cinema, I think that I enjoy Ghost Dog even more.

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The film’s protagonist, the titular Ghost Dog (Whitaker), is a contract killer sworn to live his life by the strict code of the samurai. Shortly after the film opens, Ghost Dog is fulfilling a contract for Louie (Tormey), a low-level gangster who employs Ghost Dog, and to whom Ghost Dog has sworn fealty due to Louie’s saving his life when he was a teen. While Ghost Dog carries out the hit on Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), he doesn’t realize that there is a woman in the room with Frank, whom he leaves alive and who gives him a copy of the book Rashomon. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of Louie’s mob boss, Vargo (Henry Silva), and Vargo puts out the word to his crew to find and kill Ghost Dog in order to distance the mob from the murder. This proves to be more difficult than expected, however, as Ghost Dog only contacts Louie by carrier pigeon and is notoriously secretive about his personal life. While the mobsters have difficulty tracking down a ghost, Ghost Dog begins turning the tables on them and hunting them down to save his own life.

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The first time I saw Ghost Dog, I was taken in by it almost immediately. Its overwhelming sense of cool was enveloping, and its style was unlike any gangster movie I had ever seen before. The movie is a pastiche of so many disparate influences that it seemed specifically engineered to my own personal taste preferences at the time. It blends classic gangster movies, Eastern philosophy and religion, hip hop culture, and classic American pulp, and the end result is a mélange of signifiers and cultural references that add up to a great action movie, all held together by the glue that is Jarmusch’s impressionistic, post-modern directorial style. Scenes fade in and out at random, intercut by passages from the Hagakure, an ancient Japanese text that defines the life and rituals of the samurai. These spoken passages serve as both counterpoint and context for the film, and help to define the personal philosophy of Ghost Dog, who is never outwardly expressive or outspoken. The movie is often dependent on its cultural references, using them to imbue otherwise mundane conversations or happenings with a greater import. This could potentially be seen as a weak storytelling device, but within the framework of the hazy world that Jarmusch has created, within the framework of the film as a dream, reliance on these signifiers is key. Just as in dreams, these cultural signifiers act as markers that help to orient the characters and the viewer, and there are enough delightfully strange elements at work in Ghost Dog that one could certainly support a reading of the film that paints it as one big dream, but I don’t necessarily agree with that reading. I don’t think that Ghost Dog is a film that can so simply be defined as representing a dream or objective reality, but, rather, I think it is a film that is primarily interested in exploring a dreamlike philosophy of existence.

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From its inception, theorists writing about the cinema seemed likely to compare the experience of watching a movie to that of dreaming. The idea of accepting images, sometimes strange and foreign to our consciousness, broadcast through a stream of light onto a screen in a darkened space brought to mind the somnambulant experience of the dream. Since then, movies have seemed to be a perfect medium to explore otherwise difficult to quantify psychological and dreamlike phenomenon, and Ghost Dog is a perfect example of the film working to codify and represent a dreamlike existence. The film explicitly references the dream in one of the interstitial passages in which Ghost Dog reads from the Hagakure, which says, “It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world that we live in is not a bit different from this.” This passage, along with the presence of Rashomon, a classic tale about the illusory nature of concrete reality, indicate strongly that Ghost Dog is interested in representing not an actual dream, but a state of being in which the subject has some control over a dreamlike existence. Ghost Dog is awake, and I believe that the incidents depicted in the film are meant to be objectively real, but through his adherence to meditation and Eastern philosophy, Ghost Dog has achieved a state of being in which he floats through the corporeal world as if he would a dream world.

The film also supports this reading in more concrete ways, as Ghost Dog is frequently treated by all of the other characters as some sort of Other. He famously cannot understand the language of the man he calls his best friend, Raymond (de Bankole), an ice cream man who only speaks French, but the two have no trouble communicating with one another. The mobsters seem totally vexed by Ghost Dog, unable to track his movements efficiently, and unable to understand his strict adherence to the moral code of the samurai. In the film, Ghost Dog exists separately from other characters, communicating on different wave lengths, and often seeming to pass by strangers unnoticed, as would an apparition. It is also important to note that Ghost Dog is sometimes recognized by strangers who appear to be privy to some knowledge of the lifestyle that Ghost Dog has committed himself to. Perhaps this is because he is truly operating on a different psychological and existential plane. He seems to inhabit the place of the waking dream, existing in the real world and able to have a tangible effect on an earthly plane, but also readily able to slip back into an elevated and obfuscated level of consciousness, submitting to the logic of the dream state.

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Stylistically, Jarmusch insists on maintaining a tenuous grip on narrative reality, allowing the story to unfold out of sync, told from multiple points of view, and featuring several elliptically cryptic inserts. This narrative structure is obviously readily identifiable as a dreamlike structure, as are the aforementioned cultural references that Jarmusch packs in relentlessly. Ghost Dog is clearly an homage to several gangster films that came before it, including most obviously Melville’s Le Samourai and Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. These films, as well as Rashomon, heavily influence the movie in the same way that visual media and pop culture have an insidious way of sneaking into dreams. The cultural appropriations also serve to orient the ways in which the characters see themselves, for example all of Louie’s mob friends are paint-by-number gangsters. They lament their ineffectualness as criminals, and respect Ghost Dog for “taking [them] out the right way,” when he goes on his killing spree, but their entire identity is constructed from the gangster archetype established by classical Hollywood. Through a maze of signifiers, Jarmusch has created not only a framework of relevant texts through which to interpret and understand his post-modern gangster film, he’s also revealed the source material through which he, and by extension, his characters have come to understand the world. It’s a very meta- tactic, and the sort of filmic exercise that could certainly turn some viewers off, but it’s one of the things that I love Ghost Dog for the most.

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Of course, all of Jarmusch’s high-minded philosophical import would be largely irrelevant if he weren’t able to craft a film that was equally engaging as a crime thriller, and, luckily, Ghost Dog is certainly that. The movie is a satisfyingly grimy low-stakes crime caper. It reminds me of classic crime films like Cassevettes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Like in that film, the characters in Ghost Dog are down on their luck losers, for the most part, and though the stakes are high, individually, none of the action would resonate in the way that it does in epic crime films like The Godfather. It’s a hard-scrabble vision of the criminal underworld, and it’s peopled by memorable characters played by familiar character actors who all turn in impressive, understated performances. Forest Whitaker is the perfect Ghost Dog, relying largely on gesture and his expressive face to convey meaning in a role with very few lines of dialogue. Though he’s had at least a half dozen higher profile roles, I still always picture him as the stoic assassin Ghost Dog. I’m sure that most people would be content to simply enjoy Ghost Dog for its merits as a great, low budget crime thriller, and would totally eschew the sort of philosophical exploration that the film invites me towards, but, to me, Ghost Dog is the rare movie that is as cinematically satisfying as it is intellectually satisfying, and the ending of the movie begs for a sequel, although I doubt one will ever come. Still, the movie exists wonderfully as it is as an homage to supposed “low culture” art forms, such as kung fu, hip hop, and the gangster film, that combines all of these elements to transcend them in creating a movie that asks questions about the very nature of the human experience.

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters (1984)

Dir. Ivan Reitman

Written by: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson

 

This is a big one for me. Ghostbusters has been a strong cinematic constant in my life. It’s definitely in my top ten favorite movies of all time, and, depending on the day, it vies for a spot as my personal favorite movie ever. Born in 1985, I emerged into a world in which Ghostbusters was already a phenomenon, with the movie becoming a big box office success, inspiring a cartoon spinoff, a line of toys and action figures, and a fervent fandom among young children and adults alike. I was all-in on Ghostbusters from the moment I first saw the cartoon, and soon after, the movie. I collected the toys, I had Ghostbusters clothing, and I obsessively quoted the movie to my family. Some of my earliest memories are Ghostbusters related, such as a Halloween when I was only three and I went trick-or-treating as Ray Stantz, complete with a homemade jumpsuit and a borrowed proton pack. It’s really the first, and probably only, piece of nostalgic fandom that I engage in, and I still can’t get enough of it, watching the movie at least a couple of times a year. For me, Ghostbusters represents a perfect intersection of actual cinematic quality and nostalgia. I can’t pretend that the way that I love Ghostbusters and its resultant media properties isn’t painted heavily in coats of nostalgia, but there’s also no denying that it represents a high-water mark for its brand of studio comedy in the mid-1980s. It’s a classic of American cinema and a cult of fandom wouldn’t have sprung up around it so readily were it not, simply put, an all-time great comedy.

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I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis for anyone who might, for some unknown reason, be unfamiliar with Ghostbusters, but if you fall into the category I’d urge you to just go watch the movie and then come back to reading this. The titular Ghostbusters are Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Ramis), three out of work college professors with a special interest in paranormal phenomena. After they’ve lost their university jobs, the scientists decide to enter into the private sector, opening up an agency that specializes in the removal of supernatural and paranormal pests. Though business is initially slow, once the Ghostbusters break their first cases, they become a phenomenon themselves, and they’re joined by Winston Zeddmore (Hudson) to help them take on more cases. One of their notable early cases is for Dana Barrett (Weaver), who returns to her apartment one day to find a portal to another dimension opening up in her refrigerator, and whom Dr. Venkman falls head over heels for. As they pursue Dana’s case, the Ghostbusters discover that the portal is intended to welcome Gozer the Gozerian, an ancient God who travels through space and time destroying worlds, onto Earth. The Ghostbusters prepare to face off against Gozer and a host of otherworldly entities to save their city and the world.

There’s not a lot that I will write here that would do anything to affirm or deny the greatness of Ghostbusters. It’s an iconic movie, one that has earned its spot in the pantheon of great movies that will likely never be awarded by an Academy or earn a spot in the curriculum at a film school, but a movie that is widely acknowledged, nonetheless, as one of the best examples of brilliant, consumable, pop-culture entertainment. To me it’s every bit as important or meaningful as Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Though it doesn’t exist in a prestige genre, Ghostbusters stood for many as a gold standard for quality comedy in an era when competition was unbelievably stiff in that particular genre. I’m sure this is a biased opinion because of my age and having grown up watching all of these movies on cable television constantly, but the 1980s were the golden era for studio comedies as so many great and iconic film comedians started to emerge and find their voices, as well as finding writing and directing partners who understood how to harness their comedic energy. While Murray and Aykroyd were emerging as leading men, along with Eddie Murphy and Martin Short, as well as the prolonged great run of genius Steve Martin into the 1980s, directors such as Ivan Reitman and screenwriters such as Ramis were pushing the boundaries of the studio comedy in broad, unexplored directions. There’s a buzz surrounding classic comedies of this era that I just don’t feel in modern comedies. I think that it’s the slapdash feeling that comedies like Ghostbusters give me that I don’t feel in modern comedies, the knowledge that at least 50% of what made the final cut was improvised on the spot by gifted comedians so comfortable with riffing off of one another. There are plenty of comedies that have great chemistry, great scripted lines, and great adlibs, but Ghostbusters will always take the cake for me for the best and strongest comedic ensemble ever assembled.

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The focus of that ensemble, of course, is Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman. Though the film features a balanced ensemble of co-leads, and a supporting cast that receives nearly equal billing and several memorable moments, it’s always Murray who stands out to me in Ghostbusters. Venkman was never my favorite Ghostbuster when I was a child, but even though I related more to Ray Stantz, I could easily recognize that Murray was the movie’s star. He displays the timing, wit, and charm that turned him into a bona fide superstar in the 1980s and a comedy legend ever since. Venkman’s character is equal parts sleaze, cynicism, and off-the-cuff observational wit, and that characterization has largely followed Murray around ever since. Of course Murray has expanded his range and his choice of roles throughout his career, and there are no shortage of wonderful roles and performances for any fan to latch onto, but when I think of Bill Murray it’s Peter Venkman who I picture. His performance in Ghostbusters encapsulates everything that Murray has come to represent in his career and in the public imagination. I’m not particularly a Murray fanboy, but there’s no denying that he deserves a place on the film comedy Mt. Rushmore and that his likeness should include a proton pack.

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Of course, a single performance doesn’t an all-time comedy make, and Murray is backed up by a supporting cast that knocks it out of the park at every turn. Ramis is suitably understated as Egon, the straight man of the team, while Aykroyd brings a hand-wringing, mealy-mouthed character to Ray, the most put-upon Ghostbuster. He’s a great foil for Murray’s outsize confidence, and the dynamic between the two actors feels real, with Venkman taking every opportunity to belittle Stantz. Sigourney Weaver more than holds her own in her scenes with Murray, engaging in quick verbal sparring worthy of the best screwball comedies. She also does a great job creating two different characters when Dana is possessed late in the film and her entire demeanor changes. By far, though, my favorite supporting performance in Ghostbusters is Rick Moranis’s nerdy neighbor, Louis. Moranis is perfectly cast as the nebbish, love-struck Louis, whose only desire is to get his neighbor, Dana, to notice him and come to his party. Like Murray, Moranis proves himself to be a master improviser, and he’s adept at both verbal and physical comedy. After probably 100 viewings, Ghostbusters doesn’t always get as many belly laughs out of me as it used to, but Moranis’s party scene in which he rattles off the market prices of the food that he purchased and introduces his guests based on their jobs, salaries, and the remaining balance of their mortgages, never fails to leave me in stitches.

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That’s the thing about Ghostbusters, for me. Sure I have an obviously strong nostalgic attachment to the movie and its related ephemera, but watching it today it still elicits genuine laughs from me every time. I know the movie inside and out, and I’ve been able to quote it, chapter and verse, basically since I learned to talk, but it never loses its humor for me. The simple brilliance of many of its punchlines, and the joy of watching master comedians riffing off of one another, never ceases to leave me in stitches. The day that I watched Ghostbusters to prepare to write this post, I was having a supremely bad start to the day, with my work encroaching onto the one day a week that I am supposed to get to myself, but as soon as I popped in the DVD and the film’s iconic opening shot of the lion statues in front of the New York Public Library filled my television screen, my concerns were all forgotten. Every time I watch Ghostbusters, I am able to fully submit myself to 105 minutes of pure, unadulterated comedy pleasure, and that’s why I still watch it two to three times a year. It’s a movie that can instantly change my mood, taking me back to a place in my life before jobs and social responsibilities and constant stress. Even though I know every punchline, I find myself laughing at a different joke every time. Ghostbusters provides me with a guaranteed respite and a trip down memory lane like no other movie I’ve ever encountered. I’ve had lots of favorite movies over the course of my life, but few, if any, have had the persistence of Ghostbusters. It’s always exactly what I need when I pull it off the shelf.

Ghostbusters is a perfect movie for this project, and it’s one that I’ve been eagerly anticipating getting to write about since I started doing this work in late 2016. I’ve written about tons of movies that I have various nostalgic attachments to for one reason or another so far, but I don’t think any encapsulate the idea of going back and digging through physical media that I’ve collected so perfectly as Ghostbusters. Last year, writing about Apocalypse Now, I briefly touched on the fact that Ghostbusters was the first movie I ever saw on DVD, and I think that’s interesting because my relationship with the movie has always been related to physical artifacts as much as the film itself. In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was an avid collector of the action figures associated with the animated series The Real Ghostbusters, and my early fandom of the movie was strongly associated with those toys. At that point, for me, Ghostbusters was as much about its ancillary properties as it was the original movie, and I think that the nostalgic bond that I have to the entire franchise extends as much from the toys that I played with, and the good memories that I associated with engaging in the fan discourse of the movie through play and dress up at Halloween, as it does to my early experience of watching the movie itself. I guess it’s fitting that a movie about ghosts would be so associated to me with memory and repetition, now for thirty years playing the movie over and over, engaging with it in so many different contexts and through so many different lenses at various points in my life. It’s a pleasant sort of haunting that I’ll probably never really grow out of.

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz

 

Gangs of New York was released at a time when I was probably watching Martin Scorsese movies more regularly than at any other time in my life, but for some reason I didn’t see it in the theaters. In fact, I didn’t see Gangs of New York until it was already a couple of years old and I purchased a used copy of it on DVD at the Exchange in Pittsburgh, in 2005. In high school, I gained a strong affinity for Scorsese’s cinema, but I largely only skimmed the surface. I watched Taxi Driver and Goodfellas obsessively, and Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and Casino were on a list of movies that I professed to admire but hadn’t watched closely yet, but the rest of Scorsese’s deep filmography remained an unknown to me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go to see Gangs of New York in the theater when it was released, since it didn’t share obvious affinities with Scorsese’s crime and mafia related output, or maybe I was just scared off by the film’s daunting run time, or maybe I just didn’t have any friends who were interested in seeing it. Whatever the reason, I never saw Gangs of New York on a big screen, and though it’s become a movie that I like quite a bit, I’m disappointed that I robbed myself of the opportunity to experience its larger-than-life sets and set pieces in a theater environment. Gangs of New York is often thought of as a lesser entry into Scorsese’s filmography, despite it receiving a slew of award nominations and decent critical acclaim upon its release, and I can’t really argue that as a movie it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of Scorsese’s best work. In spite of its flaws, however, Gangs of New York is still a big, engaging, and entertaining movie, and one that seems to have gained in importance and relevance in light of current societal realities in America.

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Based on a historical recounting of the history of New York City and the gangs, both street gangs and political gangs, that ran it in the mid-19th century, Gangs of New York is a tale of the savage and brutal mechanics behind the development of one of the greatest cities in the world. The film explores New York’s Five Points neighborhood through the eyes of Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio), a young Irish immigrant who witnessed his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), die at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) in a brutal gang fight when he was just a boy. Amsterdam spent his adolescence in a reform home, but when he is a young man he returns to the Five Points, sworn to avenge his father’s death. In order to do so, Amsterdam gains Bill’s trust and becomes his close ally, all the while planning to one day turn on Bill. Through his relationship with Bill, Amsterdam is introduced to the power structures and the powerful men that run New York City, and he learns that Bill may be the most powerful of them all, holding politicians, police, and the people of the Five Points in his tightly clenched fist. Amsterdam gains power and notoriety through his association with Bill and he becomes something of a celebrity figure in the Five Points, seen as an up-and-comer in the power structure of the neighborhood. The two enemies share an uneasy alliance through much of the film, but when Bill discovers Amsterdam’s true identity, they must square off in bloody combat, their personal vendetta backlit by the raging fires of the infamous New York City draft riots of 1863.

This is an obvious oversimplification of the plot of Gangs of New York, but as I mentioned before, the movie is a sprawling epic that contains multiple subplots and diversions, many of which are ancillary to the story of Amsterdam and Bill, but which give the film incredible richness and depth. While I’ve heard some people say that they feel that Gangs of New York doesn’t justify its lengthy runtime, or that the romantic subplot between Amsterdam and Cameron Diaz’s female pickpocket, Jenny, is unwarranted and unnecessary, I can largely forgive the movie its indulgences. Gangs of New York is a historical epic, and, as such, it should be expected to be in-depth, dense, and bombastic, and Scorsese does a masterful job of balancing great action, suspense and intrigue, and human interest, all while telling a compelling tale about the roots of America and Americanism. The Five Points of the film is alive and vibrant, with sets built at Italy’s famed Cinecitta studios standing in for the 19th century streets of New York City. The camera navigates these sets and streets with aplomb, capturing nooks and crevices of society otherwise unnoticed, bringing them to life with Scorsese’s typical visual acumen and virtuosic style.

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Small moments and more intimate scenes in the film allow Scorsese to really show off some of his trademark tracking shots and his mastery of setting and lighting, such as the absolutely gorgeous candlelit dance scene in which Jenny and Amsterdam finally submit to their obvious initial attraction to one another. The camera becomes a character in the scene, perfectly partnering with the twirling couples, moving in and out of the crowd on a dolly, and capturing the woozy, off-kilter nature of a rare night of revelry and respite for the tired and oppressed working class citizens of the Five Points. Though it might not be the most integral scene to furthering the film’s primary plotlines, it’s an essential break for the characters and for the audience, and it’s a moment of pure cinematic beauty.

The most obvious and immediate example of Scorsese’s visual genius in Gangs of New York is on display right from the film’s outset. The film opens with a lengthy tracking sequence that introduces most of the film’s principal characters, as well as the world that the film depicts, one that is defined by might and cunning, and sheer force of will. The shot follows Priest Vallon and a very young Amsterdam as they prepare for a bloody battle between the gang of Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, led by Vallon, and a xenophobic, Nativist gang led by Bill the Butcher. Though it isn’t constructed as a single tracking shot, like some of Scorsese’s most famous sequences, the camera moves along with the boy and his father, panning and tracking to pick out the faces of important supporting characters who will fight alongside Vallon. The edits are well placed, and concealed somewhat by useful sound/image matching with the martial drum and fife tune underscoring the scene. Intensity builds as Scorsese introduces whip pans and cut-aways into the montage, picking out the grim faces and fearsome homemade weapons wielded by the Dead Rabbits as they march out of their subterranean base of operations. Fires burn alongside the stone walls and characters engage in strange, ritualistic dances, giving the setting an otherworldly feeling. As Vallon and his army emerge from the caves, the camera tilts up, revealing them to be beneath a bustling common house peopled by the denizens of the Five Points: degenerates, outcasts, and thieves, all living and existing on top of one another in a constant state of chaos and squalor. When the door is burst open and the camera tracks outside of the building, revealing an empty, snowy courtyard, the music drops from the soundtrack entirely and the audience is left on seat’s edge, anticipating the battle to come. The battle is a thing of violent beauty, but it is this initial sequence that truly expresses the efficiency of Scorsese’s visual language. He reveals a distinctive setting, implies character relationships, and the stakes of the cinematic universe into which the audience has been dropped, all through the use of music, montage, and camera movement in just a few short moments. It’s a sequence that can stand up to nearly in in Scorsese’s long and accomplished body of work.

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The film’s veracity and impact is also benefited by the incredible cast that was assembled to portray the residents of the Five Points. Obviously the film’s leads are accomplished and noteworthy, but the depth of this ensemble cast is one of Gangs of New York’s biggest strengths. Great actors such as John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson all show up in secondary roles. Broadbent’s Boss Tweed is appropriately corrupt and despicable, while Reilly takes a rare turn as an unlikable character. He does bring a level of complexity to the character of Happy Jack, who began the film standing beside Priest Vallon but who becomes a police officer, effectively working to support Bill’s stranglehold over the Five Points, as do many of the former Dead Rabbits, putting their own personal survival before their allegiances to their dead leader. Gleeson is McGloin, and though he begins the film as a mercenary, he proves to be one of the few characters who remains loyal to the ideals of the Dead Rabbits and of dignity for immigrants, but Gleeson plays him as a shady background character, potentially duplicitous, until his true nature is revealed late in the film. Though his performance is incredibly brief, with his character dying in the film’s first scene, Neeson brings a gravitas to his portrayal of Priest Vallon that lends a credence to his son’s and others’ dedication to the preservation of his character’s ideals. These secondary roles all work to create a rich tapestry of characters inhabiting the Five Points, giving the neighborhood of the film life and vigor.

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Of course, for all the important work that the film’s supporting cast do, their performances are all, naturally, overshadowed by Day-Lewis’s iconic and memorable portrayal of the cruel, powerful Bill Cutting. By now, Day-Lewis is widely recognized as one of the best actors of his, or any, generation, and though he had been turning in brilliant performances for over a decade by the time he starred in Gangs of New York, I think that it was this performance that largely cemented his status as an icon. I had seen My Left Foot and The Crucible in high school, but it was Day-Lewis’s work in creating the character of Bill the Butcher that truly signaled his greatness to me. Stories abound of the actor’s persistence to maintain character during a shoot, adhering to the mannerisms, accents, and affectations of his roles at all hours of the day, and that dedication shines through in every second of screen time that he has in Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis steals every scene that he’s in, chewing the scenery and spitting verbose prose in an unmistakable and unforgettable proto-New York City accent. He seethes and rages, he cajoles and charms, and all the while he maintains a fearsome physical presence that hints at his character’s capacity for lethal violence. Bill the Butcher is an all-time great villain, and it’s impossible to imagine him being played by anyone else. Day-Lewis breathes life and menace into the character, achieving a total transformation that would prefigure the all-consuming performances that he would turn in later in his career. Though his xenophobic and racist rhetoric and penchant for abuse and violence are abhorrent, Bill the Butcher’s charms make him an irresistible villain, if not a relatable figure. A lesser actor might not have tapped into the complexity of Bill Cutting, playing him as either purely evil or as a grandstanding raconteur, but the devil is in the details, and Day-Lewis creates a nuanced, attractive devil out of a performance dominated by attention to minutiae.

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Understandably, DiCaprio and Diaz don’t fare as well in the shadow of the powerhouse performance that Day-Lewis turns in. Though he provides a serviceable performance as Amsterdam, DiCaprio was still attempting to grow into more adult roles after spending much of the 1990s firmly entrenched as America’s teen heartthrob. His chops would improve in later collaborations with Scorsese and as he became more comfortable with his own artistic voice, but DiCaprio in Gangs of New York is still a bit raw, and his acting lacks a sense of naturalism. For whatever reason, I’ve also felt that DiCaprio’s vocal cadence isn’t suitable to lengthy, expository voiceover tracks, and Gangs of New York relies heavily on his narration. This could be a knock against Scorsese, as well, whose trademark voiceover narration I often find well done despite my overall distaste for the technique as a storytelling device, but in Gangs of New York it largely feels unnecessary and overwritten.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Diaz as the film’s love interest and female lead, but I actually think that she does a fine job. She has a natural wryness to her star persona that plays well with Jenny’s penchant for petty crime and her playful courtship of Amsterdam, and Diaz is also more than effective when searching out the emotional depths of the character. Though she doesn’t often shine in the movie, she makes the most of her moments in the film, and isn’t given as much material to work with as either of the male leads in building up her character. Jenny feels more like a glorified supporting character than a third co-lead, through no real fault of Diaz’s. I think that she and DiCaprio acquit themselves fairly admirably, but it would be impossible for either of these young actors to really emerge as a standout in a movie that is so thoroughly dominated by Day-Lewis.

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Gangs of New York isn’t a movie that I get to rewatch very often, given my penchant for only really liking to watch movies in a single sitting, and its long runtime frequently being prohibitive of that practice. I think I’ve probably seen it four times, including watching it on the Fourth of July in preparation to write this post, and it has always struck me as a film that speaks to Scorsese’s ongoing later-career interest in depicting how powerful men and their belief systems have formed the idea of Americanness. These themes stretch back to his crime films like Goodfellas and Casino, which both explicitly position themselves as commentaries on the shape of the American dream, but I think that it becomes even more explicit in films like Gangs of New York and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think that it’s fairly clear from his cinematic output that Scorsese has a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature, choosing, as he does, to highlight the seedier and more vicious elements of the human existence. In later films, he begins to expand that line of thinking out to examinations of American society and history, as a whole, and his outlook is no more favorable. In Gangs of New York, the very idea of Americanness is at the heart of the central conflict, with Vallon and the rest of the film’s immigrants attempting to stake their claim to a new identity in their chosen home against the wishes of Nativists like Bill the Butcher. This conflict is all set against the backdrop of the Civil War, a conflict that challenged the very notion of a national character for the young United States of America, and the film sees several characters, most prominently Bill, make impassioned speeches against the Union cause and against the emancipation of African-American slaves. Bill the Butcher as the film’s central character and his catalytic force in the narrative embodies and expresses these most savage and base fears and prejudices and the New York City that he attempts to influence and form in his image is a place that is heavily informed by his xenophobia, racism, and authoritarian nature. I think that Scorsese would posit that these virtues are, in many ways, at the core of the history of the American nation.

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It isn’t difficult to see why watching this film on Independence Day felt, for me, ironic, and why it also seems so totally prescient in 2018. Many of the struggles that are depicted in the film seem to be emerging as major narratives in the ongoing discussion of what it means to be an American in the 21st century. First and foremost, the unambiguous xenophobia and racism expressed by Bill and the film’s other Nativist characters has persisted for centuries in America, and has now emerged as a cornerstone in major mainstream political discourse. The face of immigration has certainly changed over the 150 years since the events depicted in Gangs of New York, but the conversation pertaining to closing borders to ensure the “purity” of the American character is exactly the same, and is couched in the same racist and exclusionary rhetoric that is on display in the film. The irony of a group of white, Anglo- settlers calling themselves Native to the Americas is an exclusionary argument still in use today that misses the point that anyone who is non-Indigenous can’t claim to have a birthright to Americanness, but it is the argument that forms the central basis of a form of economic and social White Supremacy that are hard baked into the American character. The roots of this attitude extend much further into history than the period depicted in Gangs of New York, but it is not by accident that Scorsese has selected a period of fraught racial turmoil to examine the formations of the American identity.

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The film also depicts the corruption and vice that were central to New York City’s civic governance by featuring Boss Tweed, the Tammany Hall political machine, and their ties to a criminal underworld that helped to prop up their status and ensure their political and social dominance. Throughout human history a desire for power and status has led humans to corruption and to choose strange allies. New York City in the mid-19th century certainly wasn’t the first or last locality to open itself up to this sort of political corruption, but the levels of civic betrayal and political ruthlessness and operational incompetence on display in the film, and which are apparently factually accurate, are astounding. The film depicts volunteer fire departments run by warring civic political factions that get so wrapped up in preventing each other from gaining credit for putting out the fire that they allow a building to burn to the ground. This level of ineptitude and hubris could only bring to mind the current political landscape in America, where corruption and deceit seem to be the order of the day, and service to the electorate is an unfortunate hindrance to the acquisition of capital at their expense. In the Super-PAC and special interest era of American politics, it feels more than ever that politicians and corporate structures are inextricably wedded in a marriage that aims to keep the non-elite from gaining any political power or capital. Though the disenfranchisement and squalor shown in the Five Points is extreme, the economic striation currently on display in America is not far off from that reality. Though Scorsese couldn’t have foreseen the levels of blatant graft and corruption that American politics have descended to barely 15 years after the film’s release, there’s no denying the parallels the film’s gilded era political machinations have to today’s political circus.

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Gangs of New York probably doesn’t rate up with the top tier of Scorsese’s filmography, but it does mark an important shift in his focus at the beginning of the 21st century and a return to form after a couple of less-than-great efforts to close out the 20th century. It’s a film that has largely been remembered as a mixed bag defined by an all-time great performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, but I think that it offers much more than that for modern viewers. Cinematically, it offers some of Scorsese’s most painterly compositions, and it’s obviously a deep well of his signature visual style, plus it also features one of the earliest performances from adult Leonardo DiCaprio that pointed towards the future quality of his performances. Socially and culturally, it’s an important film that I think will remain relevant as long as Americanness is so readily defined along lines of race and class. It’s a movie that seeks to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” and it depicts the deadly struggle on many sides to secure the right to uphold the proper definition of Americanness. This is still a debate that rages on today, perhaps even more fiercely than it has in previous eras, and for that reason alone watching Gangs of New York is a must in 2018.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

Dir. Danny Steinmann

Written by: Martin Kitrosser, David Cohen, and Danny Steinmann

Starring: John Shepherd, Melanie Kinnaman, Shavar Ross, Tom Morga

 

I’ve reached the end of my month of watching and writing about Friday the 13th, and this month is wrapping up with the sequel that’s probably the reason why I didn’t continue collecting more of this franchise. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is a follow up to the inaccurately named The Final Chapter, and it attempts to move the franchise in new directions hinted at in that film by continuing the story of Tommy Jarvis. Unfortunately, where that film was able to make subtle innovations to a tired formula, A New Beginning chooses to attempt to change things too drastically, while retaining some of the worst aspects of the earlier sequels. It’s a confusing mess of a film, and one that feels wholly unnecessary with regards to the rest of the series. It’s the middle film in an ill-advised trilogy that used Tommy Jarvis as its central character, but it fails to develop his role in the series, or even in one individual film, in any meaningful way. Featuring one of the series’ highest body counts, this entry might please viewers only looking for some gory fun, but for anyone with any higher expectations, A New Beginning totally fails to deliver.

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The film opens with young Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) sneaking through the woods near his home to find Jason Vorhees’s fresh grave. As he spies on the grave, a couple of grave robbers arrive on the scene hoping to get a view of the legendary monster, Jason (Morga). When they unearth the coffin and remove its lid, Jason quickly and miraculously comes back to life, stabbing both of the grave robbers with his trademark machete. Jason rises from the grave, shaking off dirt and worms, and turns his attention to Tommy, who is still cowering behind a bush. He slowly strides over to the boy who killed him, and raises his machete high over his head, preparing to deliver a killing blow. As the blade descends, adult Tommy Jarvis (Shepherd) awakens, startled, in the back seat of a transport van from the mental institution where he has spent all of his teens. Tommy is being transported to a rural halfway house, in an attempt to ease his transition back into society. At the halfway house, Tommy first meets Pam (Kinnaman), the director of the facility, and Reggie (Ross), a young boy whose grandfather is the cook. He also meets the other patients, including Joey (Dominick Brascia) and Victor (Mark Venturini), two patients who have a dispute shortly after Tommy’s arrival that leads to Victor brutally murdering Joey with an axe in front of the rest of the residents. Joey’s is just the first in a string of murders, as several of the residents and townsfolk in the surrounding area go missing, and Tommy is left wondering if Jason Vorhees could truly be back.

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It’s understandable that the series’ creators and the filmmakers behind A New Beginning would want to shift the focus of the series moving forward. Despite the successes of The Final Chapter, no one could deny that most of the life had been wrung out of the existing formula, and using Tommy Jarvis as the character to bridge the gap between the first few movies and the next batch of sequels makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the execution of those changes is terribly botched in A New Beginning, with new director Danny Steinmann trying to change too much, too soon, and ending up creating a confusing mess of a movie. Though it stands firmly in the slasher genre, Steinmann attempts to integrate elements of mystery, and even psychological thriller, into the mix, and it just doesn’t work. The film wants to tease throughout that Tommy may in fact be behind the murders, but its narrative is too flimsily constructed to carry this conceit through. Instead, what is presented is a series of kill scenes, many of which feature characters who are introduced into the film for the sole purpose of being murdered later in their first scene, strung together by the sketches of a mystery that also feels largely irrelevant to the film’s outcome. The film features a couple of twists in its third act, with the killer being revealed to be Joey’s estranged father, who works as a paramedic, and who snapped after seeing his bastard son’s mutilated corpse, and with a final shot which features Tommy putting on Jason’s hockey mask and stalking up behind final girl, Pam, with a knife. These sorts of twists revealing the killer’s identity, or hinting at the inevitable sequel, should be familiar to fans of the series by now, but in A New Beginning, neither of the surprises feel narratively warranted or satisfying.

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One of the reasons for this lack of satisfaction is likely that the film doesn’t do anything to make the audience care one bit about any of the characters. Even the trio that ostensibly makes up the core of the cast – Tommy, Pam, and Reggie – are completely underdeveloped. Clearly the idea here was to include a cute kid to replicate the success of casting Feldman as the young Tommy Jarvis, but Reggie’s character is never developed beyond being an excitable, rambunctious little boy. Pam’s character is given maybe a dozen lines in the entire movie, and Tommy is equally mute, with Shepherd attempting to translate his mental scars through a brooding, vacant performance. Ancillary characters fare even worse, with the residents of the halfway house being as typically undifferentiated as the counselors of the first few installments in the series. As I mentioned, several characters are literally introduced just to be killed off, and as a result, the film feels disjointed and incomplete. The film jumps from locale to locale with little logic, and characters pop into the story abruptly, with little narrative import, and are dispatched from the story summarily, with even less. More than any other entry in the series, besides perhaps Part III, A New Beginning feels like its narrative was constructed with the sole purpose of guiding the audience from one kill to the next, with little attempt made to promote satisfying, or even coherent, storytelling. The fact that its creators clearly had a higher opinion of its quality, and had ambitions to introduce new elements into the series, makes it a bigger disappointment than Part III, because at least that movie contained its ambitions to being a campy gorefest.

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I haven’t seen the films that make up the second half of the Friday the 13th series since sometime in the 1990s, so I’d have trouble maintaining that A New Beginning is positively the worst movie in the series, but it can’t be far off. I’m sure it’s a movie that has its champions among fans of the series, but it’s hard for me to look at this movie as anything but a failure, particularly after the relative successes of The Final Chapter in reinvigorating the series. Its plot is a flimsy pretense, its acting is as laughably bad as its dialogue, and it doesn’t even have the good sense to actually feature Jason Vorhees as its masked killer. I suppose that it does feature a few good kill scenes, but if that’s all you’re looking for as a viewer, there are superior watching experiences within the Friday the 13th series, and certainly across the slasher genre. A New Beginning tries to do too much with the franchise, and its attempts to move it forward end up being two steps back. The less said about this bad movie, the better.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

Dir. Joseph Vito

Written by: Barney Cohen

Starring: Kimberley Beck, Corey Feldman, E. Erich Anderson, Ted White

 

The Friday the 13th series bounces back admirably from its two lackluster sequels in what was initially intended to be its final installment. The Final Chapter attempts to make changes to the stale formula of its predecessors, and actually features a few performances that are worth watching, as well as upping some of the suspense factor, providing actual scares rather than the gruesome shocks of the first few films. The subtle attempts to change the patterns of the series make The Final Chapter feel somewhat fresh, and make it a highlight in the series. This might be faint praise, but it’s certainly the best of the five that I own, and from my memories of the other movies in the series that I’ve seen, it’s likely the best in the series, overall. Its higher production values give it a boost above the original, and its lack of adherence to the established Friday the 13th formula make it unique enough to stand head and shoulders over the other, highly derivative sequels.

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The Final Chapter picks up immediately after the events of Part III, with Jason’s body being taken to the morgue. Presumably, his fight with Chris put Jason (White) down for the count, but you can’t keep a good unstoppable psycho killer down, and, as such, Jason miraculously revives in the morgue. After killing the orderlies on duty there, Jason is back on the loose and headed towards Crystal Lake, where a new family has moved in. Trish (Beck) and Tommy (Feldman) Jarvis, and their mother (Joan Freeman), have moved to the country in search of a quieter life, but the group of teens who have rented the house next door might have other plans. Those teens lead Jason right back to the lake, and he quickly gets back to his old tricks, rampaging through the woods, picking off his victims one by one, in gruesome and shocking fashion. While Jason is stalking his victims, however, there is someone stalking him. Trish meets a young man named Rob (Anderson), whose sister was one of Jason’s victims in an earlier massacre, and Rob has sworn to get revenge on the masked killer. As such, he shows up at the end of the film to help protect Trish and Tommy from Jason. However, Rob proves to be no match for Jason and the two siblings are left as the last pair standing, forced to confront the monstrous Jason in a fight for their lives.

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The introduction of the Jarvis family was a conscious decision on the part of the film’s creators to create protagonists who would be seen as more than just disposable fodder for Jason’s murderous rampage, and that decision pays dividends. The earlier films in the series feature a host of interchangeable murder victims, and, as such, don’t invite any sort of audience identification, but The Final Chapter actually gives us a few characters who are sympathetic and fleshed out enough to make them worth rooting for. Focusing on a family gives the film a feeling of higher stakes than previous entries in the series, and Tommy, in particular, is a notable addition to Friday the 13th lore. More than any other character in the series, Tommy gets actual character traits and a personality that makes him endearing to the audience. Casting an up-and-comer in Corey Feldman also helps this cause. He doesn’t have to do much acting in the film besides being an excitable, cute kid, but his performance stands out as one of the best in a film franchise that doesn’t put much weight in the dramatic chops of its actors. Beck doesn’t fare quite as well, largely falling into the familiar role of the final girl, but she is still very good. She has a bigger screen presence than any of the actresses who preceded her in that role, and she brings a wholesomeness to her portrayal that was largely absent from any of the first three films. Her performance ranges from nurturing and kind to savage and fearsome during her final showdown with Jason, and she shows more depth and range than any actress in the franchise previously or since.

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While much of its plot does, in fact, play out like a paint-by-numbers Friday the 13th sequel, the little differences that I’ve already mentioned in The Final Chapter’s casting and attempts to flesh out its characters do wonders to freshen up the formula. Also, new director Joseph Vito brings a new storytelling sensibility to the franchise. Jason’s assault on the house that the teens have rented feels more purposeful than any of his previous rampages, with Vito blocking the kill scenes out with efficiency and something resembling narrative continuity. The kills are still a random string of gory cut scenes, but Jason moves through the house with something resembling forethought, as if he’s actually on a mission with an achievable end goal in this film. Vito also dispenses with the silly tone taken in Part III, delivering a grimmer, more serious entry into the series. Like any good horror film, there are moments of levity to contrast the terror, but overall this is a darker movie. The stakes also feel heightened in this entry with the decision to introduce a character who already has an understanding of what Jason is capable of, and who has made it his stated mission to kill the monster. Though it doesn’t turn out to be Rob who kills Jason in the end, his foreknowledge seems to even the playing field, even if that advantage does prove to be futile. The Final Chapter takes itself seriously, which could have been disastrous, leading the audience to point out the obvious silliness of this movie and its ilk, but instead the darker tone and attempts at audience identification make for a movie that stands out in a crowded field of B-slashers.

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Vito is also to be credited for creating one of the series’ most iconic final chases. Each movie in the Friday the 13th series invariably ends with its final, usually female, protagonist desperately racing through the woods or some other locale, with Jason and his machete close on her heels. The Final Chapter delivers one of the best chases, with Trish narrowly escaping Jason time and time again as he lays waste to her home, all while she is trying to distract him and protect her brother, Tommy. This final fight scene might represent the most awesome depiction of Jason’s superhuman abilities of any sequence in the series, at least in the films that comprise the first half, with which I’m more familiar. It packs genuine suspense, from the moment that Trish and Rob arrive at the teens’ rental home to find their mangled corpses, until the very last moment that Jason is bearing down on Trish in her own home, after having chased her through the woods in between. It also packs in great jump scares, with Jason casually tossing bodies through picture windows, and crashing through doors and walls like a homicidal Kool-Aid Man. No matter where Trish hides, Jason is right behind her, bursting into frame abruptly and violently. It’s a great sequence, and it’s capped off with a memorable ending worthy of the original’s reveal of Mrs. Vorhees. Tommy arrives just in the nick of time, disguised as a young Jason, and is able to distract and confuse the killer long enough for his sister to get the drop on Jason and knock his mask off, before Tommy jumps on him, hacking away with a machete at Jason’s prone, seemingly lifeless body. It’s a thrilling ending to the series’ most exciting sequel.

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I think it likely goes without saying that The Final Chapter is my favorite of the Friday the 13th sequels. I think I probably even prefer it to the original. It can stand alone as a horror movie, without resting on the laurels of its franchise affiliation. It takes the tried and true formula of the rest of the series, and genre overall, and fleshes it out with slightly more interesting characters and a bit more depth than most of the rest of its ilk. Besides featuring Corey Feldman in a pre-fame role, the film also features a young Crispin Glover in a supporting role, and those casting choices make it obvious that there was some attempt made to make this a higher quality of movie than should probably be expected of a third sequel to a slasher rip off. It all works pretty well, however, and the end result is a totally enjoyable, mildly rewatchable horror movie. The series may have been better off truly letting this be the final chapter, but there were many, many subpar sequels to come. As a result, the Friday the 13th brand has probably become somewhat watered down, but The Final Chapter is well worth another look for its attempts to give the series a much-needed breath of fresh air, while still remaining true to the core dynamics of the franchise. It and the original are likely the only ones that I can recommend someone who isn’t already a fan of the series taking the time to check out today.