They Look Like People
They Look Like People

They Look Like People, a dark little film, was introduced at the Slamdance film festival way back in January 2015 and picked up by streaming services earlier this year. It’s been billed as low-key psychological suspense, and it can be. It is just as much a slow moving relationship study that could have been more thoroughly fleshed out in its 80 minute running time. Still, the story is complete, the characters interesting, and the film itself quite beautiful.

***

They Look Like People is director Perry Blackshear’s labor of love—he wrote, produced, directed, shot, and edited it, all with good results. The only thing Blackshear didn’t do was act in it. But he picked a very involved small cast for his essentially three-character screenplay. The possibly schizophrenic Wyatt is played by Mac Leod Andrews (who also produced the film), his damaged friend Christian is played by Evan Dumouchel (another producer), and Christian’s competent, silly love interest, Mara, is played by Margaret Ying Drake. All three are intense and believable.

They Look Like People begins charmingly enough with childhood best friends Wyatt and Christian suddenly reconnecting after an untold number of years apart. In addition to many other alluded-to life changes, both are reeling from failed relationships. Christian is trying to take control of his life again. Wyatt is losing his already tenuous grip on reality.

There are many well-done small touches. Blackshear makes excellent use of sound— the film is filled with the background patter of clocks ticking, insects buzzing, phones clicking, rail cars chattering. Coupled with the mechanical noises, the ambient sounds of human movement and activity give They Look Like People a surprisingly distant feel.

The use of light and color is also effective in creating a sense of distance. Greys and blues are the dominant palette. Blackshear creates a washed out look using rainy daylight, early morning winter sun, and bare basement fluorescents that evokes a feeling of alienation. Developing from that, the special effects are minimalist and hallucinatory, sliding in rather than jumping out. They build an atmosphere that is creepy instead of truly scary.

The basement, where things get worse
The basement, where things get worse

Other effects and techniques are less restrained. There are some distorted voice-over phone calls warning Wyatt of dire things like, “If you ever hear three claps of thunder in a clear sky, the war has begun.” There are other voice-overs intoning pseudo-profound affirmations for Christian. A significant amount of the movie takes place in a cluttered, cave-like basement, which generates its own sense of foreboding. Unfortunately, when rising action finally happens down there it recalls every shoestring horror movie since The Blair Witch Project.

But this is Blackshear’s directorial debut, and the weaknesses in They Look Like People reflect only inexperience.

For example, it needed a stronger editing hand. Too much of They Look Like People’s limited running time is spent on indulgent extended scenes that don’t add any depth to the story. And there is a lot of blank space—the screen goes black for long seconds between scenes like a curtain coming down. The episodic presentation feels unnecessary, given how short the film is.

Waiting for...something
Waiting for…something

What this slow pacing does is thin out an otherwise well-constructed story. There are deeper issues raised and then ignored, and hints of tragedy dropped in and then abandoned—all clues to how Christian and Wyatt got to this place. There was room to give them real context. The unexplored parts are more intensely missed for it.

***

The bottom line is that They Look Like People works. The wounded characters and the sensory details pulled me in despite the glacial pacing.

They Look Like People isn’t a horror movie, not even a psychological one. It is unsettling, ambiguous, and sad, a disturbing and at times uncomfortable dip into an altered reality. But I did not find it frightening. I found it fascinating in a raw-edged kind of way. Small, slow, and subdued, it has the ability to make me want more.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Strange Days's cybernoir mood
Strange Days’s cybernoir mood

Strange Days is an often-overlooked bit of 1995 cyberpunk written and produced by James Cameron (of Terminator, Aliens, and Avatar fame) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (of Point Break and Zero Dark Thirty). As with many things Cameron it is overlong and somewhat bloated, but there is still a beautifully filmed, compelling story beneath the weight.

Strange Days was nominated for five Saturn Awards, winning two—Angela Bassett’s as Best Actress and Kathryn Bigelow’s as Best Director. Because of this film, Bigelow was the first woman to win the Saturn’s directing award. But no one wanted to see this movie when it was released—it made only $8 million, at a cost of $42 million. However, it’s the kind of film that is hard to shake off once you’ve seen it, which is why I’m here to tell you about it now.

***

Cyber and noir inhabit the same, discarded spaces, but with different technology, and Strange Days has a classic set-up. There are crooked cops and decent criminals, hookers with hearts of gold and fine, upstanding two-timers, corruption, double and triple crosses, and a hard-boiled love story all wrapped up in millennial paranoia. The scenes are dark and artfully grim, full of steam and neon and rain and a population that keeps to the edges of society.

Lenny
Lenny

The coming Millennium looms over the action, all of which happens on New Year’s Eve, 1999. But this isn’t about the shadow of technological collapse—this is driven by the specter of racial tensions stretched from the flash point to the breaking point.

The main characters are a tightly connected group. Our antihero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is a former cop who has fallen into the world of squids—illegal electronic neural nets that can record experiences straight from the wearer’s brain. (Oddly enough, they look like facehuggers.) Squids are the ultimate virtual reality because they can give the user “a piece of somebody’s life…you’re doing it, you’re feeling it,” and because of that power they have created a different kind of junkie. Lenny is both a dealer and a user, endlessly replaying self-made clips of his ex-girlfriend, Faith.

Faith and Philo
Faith and Philo

Faith (Juliette Lewis) is an ex-prostitute trying to become a star, who has moved on to someone who can further her ambitions. Philo Gant (Michael Wincott) is that someone–Faith’s current lover, powerful musical manager/promoter, squid-head, and generally nasty person with a particular problem with Lenny. Philo has all his artists followed, watched, and recorded to satisfy his increasing paranoia. Max (Tom Sizemore) is Lenny’s ex-cop buddy who Gant hires to watch Faith, and Iris (Brigitte Bako) is a hooker—an old friend of Faith, Max, and Lenny–who Gant hires to record a highly political rapper he represents.

And trying to remain clean in this tangled mess is Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), a chauffer/bodyguard with a deep history as Lenny’s friend and protector. She is Lenny’s moral anchor in a very slippery world.

The story is as twisted as any forties’ crime drama. It starts in earnest with the execution-style murder of a prominent rapper and activist, and the threat of retaliation and race riots to usher in the year 2000. Then Iris is killed, but not before she comes to Lenny for help and to warn Faith of a shared danger. The murderer uses Lenny’s squid addiction like a scalpel, hurting Lenny with a trail of minidisc recordings of worse and worse crimes, all of it designed to set Lenny up as the fall guy and quite literally stab him in the back.

***

Mace with a squid
Mace with a squid

The virtual reality voyeurism in Strange Days comes from a technology “developed for the feds, now it’s gone black market”. The slang it inspires is vivid and believable: jack-in, wire-trip, wire-heads, squid-heads, ‘trodes and decks and clips. And blackjacks—snuff clips, where a truly sick wire-head can experience the actual death of the person making the recording through the victim’s eyes. Blackjacks are a special kind of hell, and they are used liberally to provoke the essentially-decent Lenny into headlong action.

The symbolism and iconography of watching is often obvious and in-your-face, with multiple instances of mirrors and mirrored surfaces used to reinforce the idea. Faith dresses all in reflective silver. Mylar balloons are abundant. Even the character’s name, Iris, reflects the theme—especially since what Iris witnesses and records is critical to the plot.

That bluntness is one of Strange Days’s primary shortcomings. While the characters are mainly well-drawn, the traits of the good guys and bad guys are often…typical. The dialogue leans toward stilted, becoming preachy at points with Dramatic and Important Declarations. At nearly two and a half hours the film goes on a little too long, with too much running back and forth and repetition of interactions. And, surprisingly, the ending is happier than anyone has any reason to expect.

Strange Days welcomes Y2K
Strange Days welcomes Y2K

Which leads us to the other issue. Both Cameron and Bigelow are known for flashier films than Strange Days, and they frequently fail to capture the necessary grittiness of cyberpunk. The overall mood and ambience is one of an idealized criminal underside. There are docks and alleys and crummy apartments. But there is also an industrial/techno club background of raves, stage-diving and Mohawks that visually references past, present, and future styles of rebellion. Outside the clubs and parties there is fire wherever the camera turns—cars, garbage cans, Molotov cocktails thrown in the streets. It evokes a studied end of times chaos that blends smoothly into the New Year celebrations going on around the main storyline. Everyone is clean.

But even with too much polish, Strange Days gets into your head. The visuals are hypnotic, the actors glossy and beautiful. The story touches on all the major tropes of noir in comfortable and satisfying ways. And the feeling of longing and loss and recaptured happiness that the squid technology can produce is compelling, to say the least. Maybe the happy ending is warranted, after all.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

 

 

Choosing up sides in Captain America: Civil War
Choosing up sides in Captain America: Civil War

Now that the initial frenzy to see Captain America: Civil War has cooled somewhat, I will venture my opinion. As I told my friends as we walked out of the theater in the wee hours of opening night/ morning, I liked it, it was really good, and I’m glad we saw it, but it won’t leave a mark.

Captain America: Civil War was exactly the glorious spectacle we all expected it to be. The production and effects were flawless. The story was coherent and moved blazingly fast, with just enough dialogue to keep the action anchored to the plot. It was a technical masterpiece, with convincing CGI and the anticipated wild stunts and tricks.

But I can’t help but be disappointed by the shiny, much-lauded blockbuster that is Captain America: Civil War. It was a crazy amount of fun but it left me feeling a little empty when it was over, like eating candy instead of a sandwich for lunch.

As an action movie, it was exceptional. What I missed was the characters. There was only superficial interaction between the main characters for large parts of the movie, with no depth, no real development, no reason to connect and hold on to Civil War instead of just waiting for the next Marvel showstopper to come out in a year or so. It seemed to me that most of the characters (even the major ones) were just doing a walk through, and that they had been written purely to advance the plot and not to grow as actual people.

Accidents happen in Captain America: Civil War
Accidents happen.

Perhaps because they are more seasoned actors (and Tony Stark is pretty well defined by his shortcomings), that effect was less apparent in Robert Downey Jr’s and Don Cheadle’s performances. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky at least had some range to him because of the uncertainties caused by his programming, but he was still put away at the end. And Ant-Man’s sudden inclusion, while energetic and funny, seemed random. Why was he there? What did he care that the Avengers were beefing?

Even the amazingly strong introduction of Black Panther lost some of its power for me when he chose to give his assistance to Captain America. It didn’t seem like the decision a reigning king (and anointed superhero) of a sovereign nation would make—to support the agenda of a man who ignored legitimate governments and national boundaries.

And that’s the missing link to depth in the movie. The split in the Avengers’ ranks played out like a schoolyard quarrel rather than a principled philosophical divide. Iron Man came closest to explaining his stance and even he barely touched on why he felt the way he did about governmental oversight. Captain America opted to be intractably stubborn before even trying to persuade. And the rest chose sides because…there is no because. The rest chose sides to provide a balance of outfit colors, apparently.

For all my complaints, I think Captain America: Civil War was worth every second of screen time as pure action entertainment. There were some astoundingly bright points, like Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spiderman in every scene he was in. It was also good to see familiar faces like Marissa Tomei and Martin Freeman in the mix. But they couldn’t do what the story didn’t need them to do.

What are we fighting for?
What are we fighting for?

For me, it’s hard to remain invested in a franchise that skimps on creating an emotional connection with its audience, especially when the seeds of it already existed in the source material. I think the movie would have been much more epic if we had stepped back from the action long enough for an impassioned argument between the Avengers that allowed them to explain themselves, their convictions, their reservations. They are supposed to be friends and colleagues. Friends and colleagues discuss major issues, either before or during the battles.

Ultimately I blame it on Disneyfication. Disney has owned Marvel Studios since 2015, but even though production on Captain America: Civil War started well before the takeover I can’t believe a steamroller of a company like Disney would let it go forward without some corporate input.  The oversimplification of issues and the hyper-calculated emotional tugging that they use to make you think you care are familiar ground. Frankly, if this had been written with a better eye to the characters’ inner workings, the manipulation would be neither obvious nor needed. Alas.

Maybe I’m asking too much of a movie rooted so firmly in comic books. But I don’t think so. The comic books gave the Civil War some thought. With the A-list acting talent, the technical virtuosity, and the monster financial weight behind the franchise, I don’t think it’s too much to expect more from the big screen version—like a lasting impact.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

 

Midnight Special's star child
Midnight Special’s star child

Midnight Special is one of those movies I wanted so much to love. I liked it—a great deal, actually—and I recommend it highly for its emotional depth, but I feel the holes and unevenness of the story-line derailed its shot at greatness. There is genuine warmth alongside its danger, and real humanity with its science fiction. There are also too many opportunities to question the how and why of it that pulled me out of what was otherwise a thoughtful and well-made film.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special has a similar feel to Spielberg’s work in many ways, with sincere sentiment, strong family connections, and a warm glow. In addition to that influence Midnight Special is also obviously a labor of love, which is perhaps why Nichols has difficulty drawing the line between the mystical and the concrete as the story progresses.

Midnight Special begins with great promise in a setting rich with potential—a heady mix of supernatural powers, other dimensions, fundamentalist cults, and the feds—but after a strong start the plot loses its initial focus and the action sags. A great revelations comes midway into the movie and the momentum is hard to regain. At one point, three characters are simply standing around in a parking lot for what feels like an eternity of screen time. Missteps like that trip up the storytelling and weaken its power.

And this is a powerful story.

In brief, Midnight Special is about an extraordinary child born to members of an apocalyptic cult in rural Texas. The boy’s father and the fathers’ best friend escape with him on the cusp of his triggering a possibly devastating, possibly transcendent supernatural occurrence. The cult wants him back and is in hot pursuit. So is the federal government.

In a way, Nichols gives us too much and not enough all at once. The mysteries felt a little too explained, to me, as if he were trying to make them plausible or at least narratively consistent, and stopped in medias res. He wants to convince the audience that there is a spiritual logic behind the ranch group’s worship with evidence that doesn’t tie together. He offers revelations from the federal investigation that reveal nothing. He offers reasons for keeping Alton in the dark that, even when described, don’t fit anything we have seen. I feel Nichols’s script would have been stronger if he had actually left out more details—let the faith be blind, let the phenomena be inexplicable, to preserve the sense of wonder he works so hard to evoke.

It's about friends and family in Midnight Special
It’s about friends and family in Midnight Special

A large part of that wonder can be attributed to the actors. The cast is strong, the acting natural, and the characters are all realistic despite the events all around them. As the supernatural boy, Alton, Jaeden Leiberher is perfect with his small, serious face and matter-of-fact intelligence. Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst as Roy and Sarah, Alton’s parents, are convincing in their pain, belief and intensity. Joel Edgerton’s Lucas, Roy’s best friend, is forceful and solid as a now-rogue state trooper who has come to believe in Alton’s potential divinity. And as the NSA agent Paul Sevier, Adam Driver brings quiet competence and a clear-eyed willingness to his character as Paul is also drawn in to Alton’s supernatural world.

All the characters move under great weight, but they are not crushed by it. They endure, and they believe. Alton’s vulnerability, his parents’ love and faith, Lucas’s friendship and dawning belief, Paul’s openness to something more in the world, all form the core strength of the movie. Alton’s power may drive the plot, but human connection makes it work.

Alton
Too much power for a little boy

The visual imagery used to show Alton’s power is spectacular and shocking—even to someone steeped in blockbusters–and still so very convincing in its context. At points Alton suffers from the abilities he cannot control, and the audience can’t help but feel his pain with him. But it isn’t clear how a boy with seemingly so little control over his own abilities can be a solace as well as a threat. He is made out to be part radio, part laser, and part warhead. The risk of being close to that seems overwhelming, and Alton’s magic loses some of its transcendence when Nichols begins trying to explain it piecemeal.

Flaws and all this is still a beautiful film, surprising, sweet, and moving, but I think it lacks the power to rise any farther than that. It is still worth seeing, even more than once, for the fine acting and the striking cinematography. It plays like an affectionate amalgam of Close Encounters, Firestarter, and Starman, and despite some startling effects and spare but jarring violence, Midnight Special is at heart a gentle film. It does not bear too much analysis. But even with its imperfections and inconsistencies it is worth seeking out.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

When it comes to adaptations, I am normally a stickler for the purity of the source material (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson). I realize there will always be exceptions like The Princess Bride, when a book’s narrative structure makes it difficult to film but it still has a viable story to be told, or adaptations which tell the core story in a way that is distinctly their own—inspired, rather than adapted, different yet equal—like Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And last there are those adaptations where the movie is far better than the book ever was, tapping into the story’s potential in a way the words on the page have failed to do. That, I think, is the case with P.D. James’s The Children of Men and the film made of it.

The Children of Men--the end of the world according to P.D. James
The Children of Men–the end of the world according to P.D. James

Since I thought the movie version of P.D. James’s foray into bleak speculative fiction was excellent, I figured I would check out the source novel. I was intrigued by the idea of James writing dystopian fiction, since she was well known for her literary mysteries and not for her near-future world’s ends. But dystopia is not something strictly relegated to multivolume science fiction epics. Dystopia is a concept that rears its head among the literary set with some regularity. Think 1984. Think Brave New World. James is respected. What could go wrong?

A lot, actually. While the novel was undeniably well-written, I expected much more than I got. The Children of Men is a fairly dry story about not particularly nice middle-aged to elderly people, many of whom are Oxford University professors, all of whom are jockeying (openly or in secret) for control in a dying world. It is a slow-moving work, spending more than half its pages in setting the stage before anything actually happens. Told alternately as first-person diary entries and third-person narrative, the plotting is solid and polite and the characters’ evolutions not truly believable.

The end of the world has already happened when the story begins, and the novel unfolds in the long, slow decline that comes in its wake. Human fertility petered out twenty five years before. Society is crumbling at the edges, but the aging population can still go about a fairly normal routine that becomes more limited as the days pass. Their suicide is encouraged by the newly-totalitarian government as a means to preserve resources as long as possible.

The last-born generation, the Omegas, have become dangerous and uncivilized as their elders come to grips with the end of the world. James dwells on the collapse of society, and the re-embrace of the brutal pagan past: “that even the frozen sperm stored for experiment and artificial insemination had lost its potency was a peculiar horror casting over Omega the pall of superstitious awe, of witchcraft, of divine intervention. The old gods reappeared, terrible in their power” (8). She imagines a different kind of lost generation, one that has gone feral because they no longer represent hope for the future.

But James’s characters seem brittle and not especially likeable. Theo, the keeper of the diary, is a middle-aged professor of history whose conversion to the rebel cause is less than convincing. His falling in love with the blank slate of Julian, the first pregnant woman in a generation, seems built on nothing in particular, as does her mutual attachment to him. Theo’s main value seems to lie in his family connection to the head of the ruling council, a man so entrenched in his power that he can throw out grim philosophies like, “We plan for the sake of planning, pretending that man has a future” (102). There is little warmth to be found in the novel, and even with an eventual birth James leaves her readers with very little to hope for. But she does leave us with an intriguingly sharp observation about the lure of power.

And yet something more passionate came from it.

Police-state brutality in Children of Men
Police-state brutality in the film version of Children of Men

Despite its emotionally chilly source, Children of Men was a well-received 2006 movie that took a large number of action-oriented liberties with the plot, transforming The Children of Men from a mannered, upper-class dystopian novel into a deeply touching film about the fight to preserve human worth in the face of societal collapse, whatever the personal cost. The film shows the effect of the gradual loss of hope much more vividly than the book does, through younger eyes and by more violent means. But it also shows that while hope exists, there will always be people willing to sacrifice themselves to make it bloom. Resilience, kindness, and an unquenchable willingness to help underlie the grim, dehumanizing world of this Children of Men.

The story begins with the same triggering event as the novel. But it also begins in a crowded London with the populace soaked in government-sponsored nationalism and fear of illegal immigrants. The characters have considerably more emotional depth than in the book, and the actors have a lot to do with the humanity of the tale. Clive Owen especially brings a nonacademic fullness to Theo that is lacking on the page. And the script sees fit to give them all more realistic motives, with some tie to either current or past radicalism and a deep well of sympathy to draw from.

In this version, the British government’s Homeland Security rounds up its immigrants for transport to a city converted to a brutal internment camp. Everyone is armed and willing to kill, with rebel groups fighting a guerrilla war against the government repression. Julian is reimagined as a radical involved with a terrorist gang to protect a young, miraculously pregnant immigrant woman from government interference. Trading on old relationships, she draws Theo into their plot. Theo’s ties to power, so vital in the book, are no longer central—they exist, but he becomes truly valuable because of his own qualities and his commitment to saving the pregnant woman.

Hope exists in Children of Men
Hope exists in the film of Children of Men

While I normally enjoy a film less than its inspiration, this is a case where the original material left me cold. I found The Children of Men to be beautifully written but so full of unpleasant people that I can’t honestly say I cared what happened to them. The movie, though…if you are looking for an adult dystopia, Children of Men will serve well. Despite the terrible imagery that fills it, this Children of Men still ends with fragile optimism. Same characters as the book has. Same events. In some cases scenes transcribed verbatim. But by shifting the perspective from the machinations of power to the power of hope, the effect on film is something wholly different than the original material can produce.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

He Never Died
He Never Died

He Never Died is a small-scale horror movie that just happens to star Henry Rollins. That was quite enough to get my attention.

Now, I haven’t checked in with Henry Rollins in a couple of decades. It’s good to see that he hasn’t changed much at all. He is still physically imposing, sharp-eyed, and stern. He also has great comic delivery. The starring role he takes on in He Never Died is a real showcase for what he can do.

A few spoilers are coming.

The movie itself is lightweight, with a number of weaknesses. But the script is surprisingly funny, with Rollins’s deadpan performance turning joking lines that border on witty into actual laughs.

Rollins’s character, Jack, is a man of few words. He expresses himself with many eloquent, put-upon sighs and a few unnatural roars. He is slightly chattier than Rowdy Roddy Piper, but not by much. His Jack is a man with big scars, many tattoos, and a purposely limited life. He doesn’t work, drive, drink, or socialize. He eats at the same diner every day. He plays bingo at the local church three nights a week. He buys mysterious contraband from a rogue medical intern every few days. He also happens to be immortal. “I’m in the Bible if that means anything,” he offers by way of explanation.

Then his previously unknown nineteen year old daughter shows up with the intent of getting to know him and interrupts his routine. And soon after, somebody is out to get him.

Rollins is a funny man—he knows how to play this character for all its worth, and his delivery is so dry as to be purposefully ironic. His Jack is so literal, and so sub-clinically annoyed by the people around him, that his reactions can’t help but be funny.

So when Jack is finally prodded to open up to an interested waitress, he recites a resume that includes everything from truck driver, soldier, horse breeder, tinsmith, blacksmith, retail manager, cook, and businessman to prison inmate, medic, and farmer. It is like he is reciting the phone book from memory—or recreating the list of shrimp dishes from Forrest Gump.

Here are a few more of the many, many examples of his dialogue that made me laugh in this movie:

How will Jack find someone to do what he wants? “Money. People like Money.”

How did he get maced in the eyes by his aged landlady? “She’s spry.”

Why is he using pliers to pull bullets out of his forehead? “If I leave the bullets in it’ll heal over and I’ll get migraines.”

It’s hard not to love this.

Yes, there is a heavy-handed religious theme running through the action—less in-your-face literal iconography (that is reserved for the promotional art) than a handful of repeating symbols and figures of unavoidably obvious portent. We aren’t allowed to miss them.

Rollins having a bad day
Rollins as Jack, having a bad day

He Never Died is not a subtle film, and I think it wishes itself to be more clever than it actually achieves. The plot is pretty much a straight line, with the attempts at giving it a crime mystery to supplement the horror playing as awkward rather than deep. The convolutions built into to the story seem simplistic and underdeveloped, not true machinations but things for Jack to do that will let him show off his powers. The inherent violence in the tale is uneven, presented as either over-the-top gore or oddly restrained take-downs that coyly stop before real damage occurs or refrain from showing it.

While Henry Rollins is unmistakably the star, the other actors (Booboo Stewart, Kate Greenhouse, Jordan Todosey, and Steven Ogg, among others) are enjoyable to watch in varying degrees, with their characters’ weaknesses coming in large part from the thinness of the script. None but Rollins rises to great (but let’s face it, everyone except Rollins is effectively a plot device in this), but all are good enough to make this a solid little film.

Still. He Never Died resonates with me like some sort of cheerful, mutant offspring of They Live and The Prophecy. It’s the kind of movie that you can watch repeatedly and still have fun with. And I think that Henry Rollins is to thank for that.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Spoiler alert.

I hadn’t planned on writing about 10 Cloverfield Lane this week. And even though it looked like it would be good, I hadn’t planned on even seeing it before it made it to cable, content to let it get lost in the lead-up to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and dismiss it as just a sequel to a movie I hadn’t seen.

Boy, am I’m glad I didn’t wait.

Spoilers coming. Big ones.

Only loosely connected to the original Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane was kept very effectively under wraps until its release. The previews strongly suggested a siege-mentality monster movie. But the previews lied. 10 Cloverfield Lane is actually a frightening and finely constructed character study disguised as an alien invasion movie. By the time the explosions and the CGI monsters show up, the best, most fascinating, and most terrifying part of the film is behind us.

An uncomfortable moment at 10 Cloverfield Lane
An uncomfortable moment at 10 Cloverfield Lane

Many well-made action and horror movies rely on strategic overacting from their leads, to allow the human characters to keep up with the loud and boisterous CGI going on all around them. 10 Cloverfield Lane goes the other way—its leads have to underplay their characters. The setting is so narrowly focused and so intimate that emoting would have ruined the admirable amount of tension built into the story.

All the actors were excellent—with a cast of only three, they had to be. They each brought a depth and completeness to their characters that is often given short shrift in favor of moving a plot along. Here, character and plot development moved together.

Mary-Elizabeth Winstead as the POV character, Michelle, does a convincing job of creating a genuinely competent character—there is none of the too often used heroism-from-nowhere showboating, here. Michelle is always shown to be a smart, creative, and capable person (with a single, bluntly explained character flaw), and her attempts to save herself grow directly and believably from there.

As the third-wheel character, Emmet, John Gallagher, Jr. demonstrates an intelligence and sympathy in the role that makes Emmet’s sacrifice more than just a dramatic shock. Emmet may not be as clever as Michelle, but he trusts the case she builds against John Goodman’s prepper, Howard, and is fully committed to their escape.  Emmet is portrayed as a fundamentally decent fellow, long familiar with Howard and so unable to clearly gauge the threat—in Emmet’s experience Howard has always been a little weird, but not really dangerous.

A musical interlude
A musical interlude

And for most of the movie, that seems like it could be true. Or not. The signs point both ways, and interpretation depends greatly on the angle you read them from.

And because of that incredibly nuanced uncertainty, John Goodman owns this movie. Goodman underplays his Howard to devastating effect as a man who has had the opportunity to stew in his own juices too long to recover from the experience. I believed him completely as Howard struggled with his temper and paranoia, his lies and his desire to be loved, his uncomfortable attempts to be polite and proper.  Howard is so frightening because we all know someone kind of like him, a little uneven, a little paranoid, a little absolutist in their thinking, a self-described nice guy who has been screwed over by someone and who still gets mad about it long after anyone else would have let it go.

Puzzles within puzzles at 10 Cloverfield Lane
Puzzles within puzzles at 10 Cloverfield Lane

Goodman’s compelling portrayal of Howard Stambler reminded me in some ways of Heath Ledger’s Joker. There is artistry in it. You know something’s off, but the true scope of the menace, of the madness, is so subtly played that when it is finally laid bare it stings like a slap in the face. There are so many hints to the true danger that could be easily read as mere quirks, but they build inexorably into a shocking scene that, while it is a truly unexpected jump-scare, is not for me the genuine terror. That comes after, when Howard appears at Michelle’s door, shaven, neatly dressed, and ready to be a family. That’s when we get to see how dire the situation is, when Michelle’s fate is laid out clearly before her and the mercy of a straightforward bullet to the head isn’t in it.

10 Cloverfield Lane does stumble at a couple of points, and especially in its conclusion. There are times when the mechanics of the plot are too close to the surface. There is the wrenching acid barrel scene, where Michelle’s inability to act to save Emmet—her declared character flaw–is held up for the audience in case they forgot about it. And having Howard morph into a typical maniac to make Michelle’s final escape attempt more exciting comes across as lazy writing. It is exciting, in a cheap way, but does nothing to add real tension to the danger Michelle faces and quite a bit to take away from the credibility Goodman has established for Howard.

The end is actually a disappointment to me. Having escaped—no, having conquered—Howard’s bunker, Michelle’s impromptu battle with the aliens feels hammered-on to link this movie to the first Cloverfield (as, indeed, it was—the original script was titled The Cellar). By the time we get to the aliens enough has happened already, the audience’s emotions have been thoroughly wrung out, and additional action sequences seem gratuitous.

So in short, I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is a must-see for the superb acting (I’m going to say it now: give John Goodman the Oscar. He’s earned it.), and take or leave the last fifteen minutes as you will. It’s intense and frightening and convoluted enough without them–because an alien invasion has nothing on John Goodman.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Deadpool is finally here!
Deadpool is finally here!

Short version: Deadpool was &$#!!@ amazing. From the initial strains of “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton to the final notes of “Careless Whispers” by Wham!, Deadpool met, exceeded, and blew away any expectations I had. Hyperbole, perhaps, but when the opening credits list a Douchebag, a Hot Chick, a British bad-guy, and a CGI Character as producer and various cast, you know you are going somewhere where you had better hold on.

In brief, this is the story of how dishonorably-discharged Special Forces operative and sleazy mercenary Wade Wilson accidently becomes the super-powered, super-healing Deadpool because of an ill-advised and illicit attempt to cure his cancer. He comes out with his sense of humor not only intact, but turbocharged. It pairs nicely with his desire for vengeance on the man who messed him up. Hilarity and mad action ensue.

Decapitations, slow motion chaos, exploding heads, car crashes, collapsing dry docked battleships, Hello Kitty and ill-used unicorns abound. There is no down time. I will need to see Deadpool at least twice more to fully absorb the overwhelming tide of snarky references and asides splashed around with depraved indifference for any softer sensibilities. The fourth-wall wasn’t just broken. It was functionally removed, since Deadpool narrated his story directly to the audience. That conceit, beautifully written, provided an immediate connection to the character that the vast majority of comic book movies lack.

While Deadpool was vigorously unpredictable, one part of the story was unexpected. Tucked in the middle of the carnage and joyfully unhinged vulgarity was an honest emotional core. Wade’s and Vanessa’s reactions to his diagnosis of metastasized, terminal cancer and their attempts to deal with it were true, and painfully real. Of everything in this movie, those few scenes were not inflated or romanticized and were able to provide an underlying strength to the rest of the orgy of violence.

Did I mention that this movie was &$#!!@ amazing?

Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead represent the X-Men connection (because, as was often mentioned, budget constraints prevented anyone else from being there) and do their level best to talk Deadpool into becoming a hero. As X-Men related spin-offs go, Deadpool is a remarkably unlikely candidate. He is profane and irreverent in a way the X-Men (and superheroes in general) have never been. It’s almost like they are worried about not being noble and impressive enough, or something. But our Deadpool gives no f’s. He is mayhem in red spandex, to hide the bloodstains. Fortunately for everyone, he’s also willing to consider the hero thing.

The cast was, of course, perfect. Ryan Reynolds was a comedic whirlwind as Deadpool. Morena Baccarin matched him as his girlfriend, Vanessa. Ed Skrein was suitably wicked as Deadpool’s nemesis Francis, with Gina Carano as his sidekick Angel. Rounding out the main cast were Brianna Hildebrand as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Stefan Kapičić as Colossus, Leslie Uggams as Blind Al (Deadpool’s formerly-coke-headed roommate), and Karan Soni as Dopinder, the easily-influenced cabbie. And of course Stan Lee had his cameo. It wouldn’t be a Marvel movie without him.

It was incredibly refreshing to have a bad-ass character be so funny. Against the looming background of the Marvel Universe and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, it’s good to laugh. Even in those films that display a good sense of humor, like Iron Man and The Avengers, there is an almost insufferable seriousness and self-importance. These are comic book super hero movies. They aren’t supposed to be important; they’re supposed to be fun.

And Deadpool is incredibly fun. It is shockingly inappropriate and relentlessly, effortlessly funny. There were plenty of scenes that made me laugh so hard I snorted. There were some so stunningly rude that I laughed too hard to breathe. Trimming this back to a PG-13 would have been a bad, bad mistake.

To sum it up: going in, I had very high hopes for Deadpool after an inescapable and happily well-done media blitz running up to the movie’s release. The anticipation definitely had a payoff. It was amazing– amazing and filthy and so much fun. Deadpool, FTW.

 

Yay, Deadpool!
Yay, Deadpool!

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

I’d like to pay a small tribute to three men whose work in movies meant something to me, each in his different way. Angus Scrimm, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman were wildly divergent in their talents and career paths, and each received wildly varying amounts of recognition and acclaim in life and in death. I’m not going to pretend to any sweeping career overviews or deep thematic analysis, or even that their talents were in any way comparable.  It’s not about art, or even objective quality. For me, this is about remembering how each of them played a certain role that made, and still makes, me happy.

Angus Scrimm in Phantasm
Angus Scrimm in Phantasm

The first I want to recognize is Angus Scrimm, the one and only Tall Man, who helped make the Phantasm movies the cult horror classics they are. I wasn’t allowed to see Phantasm when it came out in 1979 because my mother eschewed the junk culture of cheap horror movies. When I finally did get to watch it a few years later (at a friend’s house, naturally), I was smitten by the sheer cheesy wonder of it. Scrimm, an unlikely monster with his creepy dwarves and silver spheres, was a large and lasting part of that, since I still bellow “Boy!” in imitation of him to this day. He has 51 acting credits   to his name, ranging from appearances in TV series (including Alias) to a slew of low-budget horror movies. His final portrayal of the Tall Man is in the soon-to-be-released Ravager: Phantasm V.

David Bowie in Labyrinth
David Bowie in Labyrinth

Next is the incomparable David Bowie, who in addition to his fantastic music and his musical persona Ziggy Stardust also appeared in a surprising number of films. He took many small roles such as Pontius Pilate in the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, and as an ethereal Andy Warhol in the surreal biopic Basquiat. But Bowie is perhaps best known as an actor for his leading roles as an alien in the trippy, dated, and grotesque The Man Who Fell to Earth, a less-than-immortal vampire in The Hunger, and, of course, the flamboyant Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth, where the odd, catchy songs and odder, infamous costumes forever cemented his position in my young heart. I will always love him as this character, even though as an adult it makes me cringe a little. Okay, a lot. But, still.

Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest
Alan Rickman in Galaxy Quest

Last is Alan Rickman, who began his career on the stage before moving into movies. Among his consistently fine mainstream performances, he always sprinkled in a few genre roles where he seemed to enjoy himself immensely. He was the criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Metatron, the Voice of God in Dogma, and the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But Rickman truly built his legacy over eight films as the inimitable, arrogant, nuanced Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. Still, I am fondest of him as the perpetually disgusted former Shakespearean actor Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest. Many of the characterizations he would later bring to Snape were fully developed in Dane—from the condescension to the sarcasm to the unexpected, matter-of-fact heroism. It looked less impressive without Snape’s all-black costume, but it certainly played the same.

The passing of a celebrity is a strange thing. They have an impact on our lives but we rarely really know them as rounded human beings, so their deaths come as a sudden, odd disruption rather than an intimate personal loss. It doesn’t mean we don’t mourn them. It doesn’t mean we aren’t sad and somewhat bereft at losing them. That’s where I am with Scrimm, Bowie, and Rickman. I didn’t know them, but I miss them just the same.

Despite their cluster and the much-referenced Rule of Three I know the deaths are random, and that many other celebrities have died in recent days. Having these three all die so close together, though, reminds me more of what is gone. Angus Scrimm, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman meant something to me in the context of science fiction, fantasy, and horror films. And for that I thank them, and am glad that I can still watch their peculiar magic time and time again, and bring them back for a little while.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Bone_Tomahawk_Poster
Bone Tomahawk Poster

Bone Tomahawk is a compelling little Weird Western movie, lurking right on the edge of the genre with its combination of laconic cowboys and horrific natives. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk premiered at Fantastic Fest in September, 2015 and went into limited theatrical release in October, 2015. While it has a familiar quality to it, the story is freshly told and effectively, creepily presented.

Spoilers ahead.

For a movie that opens with a throat slitting, a scalping, and an accidently desecrated burial ground, it is almost immediately engaging in a warm way. The oddly literary dialogue is delivered with a western ruffian twang and a sly humor that is unexpected but right. There is a bar named The Learned Goat. There are lines like, “You ask about horses again I’ll slap you red,” and “Sorry for yelling at you.” “My wife used to call me a dumb imbecile all the time. Felt kinda nice.”

The script is a treat. While Bone Tomahawk echoes some of the drawling stateliness of Unforgiven in its pacing, it is not nearly as contemplative and ambles along with jokes and a quicker step. There is precious little music in the film, save for two scenes. The noises of the men and the wind and the moving brush fill the spaces around their chatter. The dialogue follows its own path, separate from the action–witty, bantering, with sarcastic humor running through almost every exchange. The teasing and familiarity effectively conveys the unavoidable intimacy of a tiny community.

The primary cast is led by the ever-reliable Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, an impressively mustachioed old lawman with a penchant for shooting suspects in the leg. Richard Jenkins plays Chicory, the aged assistant deputy, with deep humor and pathos. As Brooder, the town dandy, Matthew Fox is utterly convincing as a very handsome, very vain, very able rake/gunslinger. Patrick Wilson and Lili Simmons play the pivotal O’Dwyers with a modern slant, yet their drives, attitudes, and frustrations a perfectly within context.

fourhorsemen
Riding out

David Arquette as the scoundrel Purvis reminds me of his role in Ravenous, although here is less dissipated and less amusing since his character inadvertently brings monsters to the town of Bright Hope. The troglodytes, as they are called, come in pursuit of him. They capture him, but also take Mrs. O’Dwyer and the Sherriff’s primary deputy, spurring the plot by necessitating their rescue.

There is a sense of casual heroism among the main characters, of competent men shouldering their load without complaint—the familiar Western ethos of honest, imperfect men doing what needs to be done. When Sherriff Hunt declares, “I’m riding out with Mr. O’Dwyer, because there isn’t a choice for either of us,” the immediate response of Brooder and Chicory is that they will go, as well, because they each feel a personal responsibility for what has happened and a need to make it right.

The tension in Bone Tomahawk rises slowly, like water coming to a boil. Before we ever see the troglodytes, we are on edge from encounters with other, less ghastly men. While travelling, Brooder mocks the sherriff, Chicory, and O’Dwyer for ever having married. But his own heart is broken when his horse is badly hurt when she resists being stolen by thieves in the night and he has to put her down. “Thank you, for your service,” is all he says. It is an underplayed scene, and more affecting for it. The humor drains out of the film quickly after that.

Brooder and his horse
Brooder and his horse

Brooder actually develops as a fascinating character to watch. In a remarkable bit of acting, Matthew Fox shows Brooder beginning to go into shock after losing his hand during an ambush by the troglodytes. But even while shaking from the blood loss and pain, he ties off the stump and asks for the repeater rifle and dynamite. “I’m far too vain to ever live as a cripple,” he says to his companions, as he chooses how to die.

The unnamed tribe of troglodytes reminded me of the wendol of The 13th Warrior and the Carkers of Anthony Boucher’s “They Bite” in their brutality and described cannibalism. They are human but monstrous, decorated with tusks and skulls, ghostly in a coating of ashes, wielding the sharpened jawbones of horses as battle axes. They inhabit an avoided place known among the local Native Americans as the Valley of Starving Men—an area of dry dirt hillsides scraped into walls and inset with animal skulls. They do not speak–“What kind of tribe doesn’t have a name?” “The kind that doesn’t have a language. Cave dwellers”—instead, they use weird, hollow howls through bone whistles set into their throats.

Hunt_and_trog
Bone Tomahawk troglodyte

While the troglodytes are made bestial, the camera does not linger on them or use them for jump scares and shock value. They are presented rather matter-of-factly, much as the townsmen approach them. The horror is understated, with relatively (if not actually) little gore. What bloodshed there is, is graphic and grotesquely believable—scalping, evisceration, dismemberment, torture, a man split in half. But this is not sexy horror movie gore. It is meant to look as real as it does.

I was never a Western fan (Clint Eastwood doesn’t count—he’s his own genre). I always preferred action and horror. But there is an everyman’s nobility to the Western genre. With the employment of stellar actors, a deeply engaging script, and some outré human evil, Bone Tomahawk becomes a film that crosses genres in a satisfying way. While not particularly frightening, it is a well-told, entertaining, and unsettling film that is grim enough to be, truly, weird.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!