The Vintage Revisits: It

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Not too long ago I had praised the bold terribleness of the 2003 Stephen King adaptation of Dreamcatcher. I love that movie dearly for how batshit crazy it is with asshole ripping weasels, British aliens, and Morgan Freeman’s eyebrows. What I hadn’t realized was how closely that movie and presumed book are to the previous and more well-known work It. So many years have passed since I had watched the 1990 miniseries and even longer since reading the tome of a novel that I couldn’t recall the similarities of a group of friends who encounter something otherworldly as children that brings them together some decades later which they must overcome again. It’s not like these are the only two books that are similar in the writer’s bibliography, the youthful storylines also resemble Stand By Me which is due to King’s ultra nostalgia for the baby boomer generation so any childhood flashback has that carbon copy aesthetic and vernacular whether it fits the time period or not. It became famous as a novel by its volume but the miniseries’ notoriety was bringing to life the nightmarish clown and to this day is the selling point.

 
If your early 90’s memory is hazy, the miniseries is broken into two episodes, the first sets up the seven friends of The Losers Club jumping between a particular middle school year in 1960 and where they are now thirty years later. The lone friend Mike who remained in their hometown of Derry, Maine contacts the estranged gang after the resurgence of the child consuming entity. Episode two is the return to Derry and constructing a plan to stop “It”. If it’s not obvious by the brief sentence that sums up part two, the first episode is by far superior and not because I’m nostalgic for my nonexistent 60’s glory days. This is one of the few instances where the child actors sell the story better than the adults. Their camaraderie is more charming than the jaded adult plus it’s more believable for an 11-year-old to be afraid of the manifestation of clowns, skeletons, and wolfmen than an adult or an adult viewer. The first episode sets up so much that you want everyone to return to the rich history of this small town that inhabits their past yet so much time is spent refusing the call. Once everyone is back they’re either ready to leave or in constant denial of the circumstances. It gets repetitive fast and makes episode two stuck in a rut. Even when you’re watching Ritter, Anderson and O’Toole you’re thinking of their smaller counterparts.

 
I have difficulty wanting to admit this is a horror movie. 1990 was not an era of pique television and American Horror Story gore wasn’t getting on ABC primetime. Audiences remember Pennywise because clowns are such a specific horror icon. He resonates in your mind over all the other relationships and side plots because Tim Curry plays him so sinisterly campy. Pennywise has maybe fifteen minutes of screentime total but chews up the scenery in every damp sewer, beckoning children with treats like a creepy man in an unmarked van. The sharped tooth clown himself is only a manifestation of a light based shapeshifting alien(?). In the final act, he takes on the form of a giant spider which I find more mesmerizing and fearful because A) I adore cinematic spider, B) practical effects and C) you get to watch TV actors stab to death a massive prop. The horror is watered down by the melodrama elevated by the after school special-esque soundtrack and the Big Chill happy montages as the grown ride bike and eat Chinese food to a forgotten Motown song. The scary moments that follow up each of those scenes like a fallen deck of bicycle cards covered with Pennywise’s face or mutant fortune cookies containing eyeballs, cockroaches and crabs are more silly than terrifying. Every instance in which I should have been spooked, I thought “I bet that works in the book.”

 
The movie takes a lot of liberties with the novel which you have to when condensing 1,100 pages into three hours. As a story, it mostly works which is what the miniseries should be judged on. The major slip up is with psychopathic bully Henry Bowers who is the Loser’s Club’s tormentor as a child and follows them into the sewers to encounter “It” for the first time. As an adult in an insane asylum, he is recruited by Pennywise to help kill again but the film negated adding the plot line from the book that Bowers had been manipulated once before, which lead him to kill his own father. All the other condensed and altered character specificities work under the rushed circumstances of having to flesh out everyone’s backstory so quickly. Themes get lost in the in translation and that why the miniseries isn’t the densest of the material. As for the consensual gang bang of 11-year-old Beverly Marsh, as much as that could never be shown on television by how protective we are as a culture to childhood innocence and you know, the FCC, it would in no way work for this incarnation of the novel. It’s too controlled and sweet with its sling shots and asthma inhalers to introduce the complicated mechanics of sex used to stop the creature.

 
I’m still going to defend Dreamcatcher because it is the better adaptation of the same story. Being made thirteen years later and with an R rating allows it to be disturbing and filthy the way that it should be even if it’s with subpar material. Plus I can respect it for being so weird with its character choices and villain manifestations where It plays it so safe. No horror movie is truly great if you can comfortably watch it with your parents. The good news is that it makes it prime for a remake, an opportunity to get it right a second time. I’m already too hyped for that 2017 release for what it will explore especially as it relegates itself exclusively to the youth story line. I’m ready to see a Stephen King adaptation be brazenly terrifying in a way we haven’t seen in ages. There’s a well to delve from in the novel and I hope it would feel in no way indebted to the mediocre miniseries. Let’s see what “It” can really do.

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Democracts Review: Looking For Democracy In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

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I’m not very invested in politics. Sometimes that’s shameful especially when those around me are more active whether it’s campaigning, social justice or watching CNN. I was more informed when I was younger and every school night was spent with Daily Show and Colbert. It’s weird to think there was a time that I knew what was going on in my own country’s government but as I got older, my interests shifted and I channeled more of my concerns towards African current events. Late night Comedy Central was replaced with podcast/radio programs like BBC’s “Focus on Africa” and recently “Africa News Tonight” on the Voice of America so for the past six years I’ve been more aware of the happenings on the “content” than in my own back yard. As much as I should care about laws that affect me, they seem so insignificant when you listen to reports on coups, rampant corruption, and election violence. While it is important to keep abreast with our contentious election which is driving us all mad, there’s merit in examining other countries which remind us how lucky we have it. Democrats is a Danish documentary about the writing of the Zimbabwean constitution which is a very difficult task to conduct under a dictatorship. It’s a crash course in the rough terrain of African politics with the specificity of the suppressive regime that runs Zimbabwe.

 
Director Camilla Nielsson follows the unlikely pair Paul Mangwana of the ruling ZANU-PF party and Douglas Mwonzora of the opposition MDC-T party who are set with the daunting task of drafting the new constitution. The drawn out process begins with good intentions in 2008 where they and a coalition visit villages for town hall type meeting to ask the people what guidelines and regulations they’d like to see put in place with this document. Ideals are quickly dashed at least for Mwonzora as the powerful reach of the Mugabe’s leading party complicates every step of the way from busing in supporters to prewritten answers to intimidation even towards Mwonzora himself. The narrative is less about rival factions working harmoniously to complete an initiative but more of a David and Goliath story as you want for the MDC-T to make any kind of headway in this movement. Mangwana is a personification of the overly confident antagonist that is ZANU-PF which has been unshakeable for 30 years. He can laugh off any allegation because the police and the justice system are on his side while Mwonzora must choose his words more carefully because the wrong word could land him in jail.

 
The documentary’s tone I would describe as a horror-comedy because so much of it is outright ridiculous yet scary for some of those same reasons. Mangwana hardly ever acts like an appointed official and more of a schoolyard bully who yells at anyone who disagrees with him from newspaper editors to members of the coalition. He’ll have a huge smile on his face when he gets his way or the most dejected frown when things go wrong. If only it could be as harmless as it sounds because as tensions rise in communities marred with ZANU intimidation, you’re reminded the dark realities of living under a hostile president. One of the most endearing moments is when Mwonzora pays his respects at the residents of a supporter who was beaten to death by ZANU-PF. In the anger and sadness neighbors finally speak out about the issues they have with Mugabe and that they want change. Any time the film gets too comedic, nearly satirical, it’s honed back in by bringing to light the dangerous consequences of political activism. Both our leads find their lives in jeopardy, Mwonzora is thrown in jail on trumped-up charges and Mangwana’s loyalty is questioned by his party which is equally deadly.

 
The story ends on a questionable high note. After the delayed and years-long affair, a constitution is typed up in Microsoft word and printed out on an average home printer. It’s unceremonious but everyone is relieved that it’s over. Sadly, opposition’s hopes for this constitution to put a stop to Mugabe’s stronghold does not come to fruition and if you know anything about Zimbabwe, it has fallen deeper and deeper into bankruptcy since the documentary’s completion in 2013. It’s not a happy ending but as a postscript I was comforted to learn that Mwonzora isn’t dead and still fighting for freedom.

 
Democrats is a fascinating hands-on exploration of what African politics looks like in action which is often fledgling and disorganized but well intentioned. For me, it was seeing these reports I’ve only ever listened to come to life. For anyone else, it’s learning more about how “democracy” can function globally. As for what is the solution to the problems the film presents, this year has seen great shifts in public opinion. With the country’s veterans, once Mugabe’s greatest supporters turning away because they are no longer receiving benefits and the #ThisFlag movement started by pastor Evan Mawarire is its own seedlings of a revolution. Zimbabweans shouldn’t have to wait for a 92-year-old geezer to kick the bucket to see improvements with their economy and living conditions. I know a lot of people won’t take the time to watch this movie because interest in Africa is pretty niche but as you visit the polls on November 8th and vote for whoever you want to vote for, just know how exciting and special it is that you have the ability to do so.

Japan’s AvP with MVPs Sadako and Kayako

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J-horror is a genre has taken a back seat in the American cinematic consciousness. The late 90’s and early 2000’s introduced us to the unsettling findings of Ringu and Ju-On. These titles spread faster than a cursed videotape and soon had American remake hits with a heightened, more frightening Ring and a sleeker, sexier Grudge. The hype died down once found footage paranormal trumped creepy pale Asian children but as the release of Sadako Vs Kayako shows, the flame never burned out in Japan. The Wikipedia boasts this mashup being the twelfth film in both series (but they count the remakes which is cheating) still the last Ringu sequel was in 2013 and Ju-On: The Finale Curse was released only last year. What were once perceived as Japanese strokes of brilliance butchered by American retellings actually became beaten to death franchises like our slasher greats. No wonder they needed some Freddy vs. Jason juice, these murderous ghosts have been terrorizing teenagers for almost two decades. This pay-per-view battle knows how to give its fan exactly what they want, and as a non-native spectator, I found value in these long lost characters. It’s trashy, self-aware and bombastic, perfect for a movie with “vs” in the title.

As someone who can’t speak on the direction any of these series took, this new incarnation has a very modern feel with its storytelling, tropes and the way it pays homage to its predecessors. Essentially there are two recognizable plots occurring simultaneously, one of Suzuka (Tina Tamashiro) who has moved in next door to the abandoned house cursed by the mother/son apparition duo Kayako and Toshio who will rip off the head of anyone that passes through their doorway. At a nearby university Yuri (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Natsumi (Aimi Satsukawa) make a poor purchase of a VHS deck that holds the tape of the long haired, well soaked Sadako. A major difference from the original Ringu is that the new hex kills you in two days instead of seven because this movie does not have a week to spare. Even the tape footage itself shorter because they need to breeze through set up and get to the good stuff. Kayako’s backstory is only hurried dialogue delivered by school girl gossip since the filmmaker trusts if you’ve decided on watching Sadako Vs Kayako you’re probably familiar with the mythology. Exposition is only a formality here.

There are two defining scenes before we get to the standoff that present the traditional and the westernization of Japanese filmmaking. Kayako initially enacts her wrath on a group of four elementary school boys who dare each other into entering the dwellings. As presented by the original Ju-On, Japan has fewer qualms with killing children than America. We tend to preserve the innocence of children and have their lives spared in horror movies while everyone is legal game in J-horror. Here they’re sucked into closets and bathtubs and presumably torn limb from limb. Sadako exhibition of power comes in an exorcism scene when the marked girls search for a way to get the spirit lifted and avoid certain doom. All the Ring manifestations I’ve seen never allude to religion as a solution of ridding her and this set piece feels copied from any James Wan or Blumhouse flick from the last five years. It’s an action-heavy scene only in place to up the body count and fill the void of something scary needing to occur every ten minutes. It also leads to the introduction of the pompous psychic Keizo (Masanobu Ando) and his clairvoyant child sidekick Tamao (Mai Kikuchi). They’re needed to unite these diverted storylines and explain in the most unsubtle manner how the murderous spirits will collide.

Thank god this movie has a sense of humor or it would be unbearable solemn garbage. The source material plays it pretty straight as Japanese residents are possessed, haunted and tortured by these virus-like curses. Sadako Vs Kayako is still very scary as Sadako appears in screen reflections and Toshio crouches in corners making excruciating cat noises. Their appearances are frightening but it’s inner spliced with this wink to the camera as the girls’ professor is obsessed with the Sadako legend and more than happy to die painfully if it means seeing her face. Characters are intentionally dumb, making the worst choices so we can arrive at the climax that goes full Freddy vs Jason as the spirits battle and the humans try to trap them and make it out alive. The challenge is it’s hard to make ghosts fight. They don’t wield machetes or knives for fingers, they just approach you slowly and scare you to death. The movie tries to remedy the situation by giving Sadako hair based super powers to strangle Kayako but she has the stamina of being unkillable. The answer to this discrepancy is brilliant and lazy all at once. The film is enough fun leading up to this bizarre climax that you accept that the journey was as important as the destination.

 
I don’t know if the creative minds or studio execs behind either of these franchise are ready to put these titans to rest but I found it a fitting resolution for stories I hadn’t realized were still carrying on. It’s an easy movie to walk into even without the knowledge of the original films and maybe better so. Sadako Vs Kayako is doing its own thing as a horror comedy which is how you need to address those characters after a drawn out shelf life. In the grand scheme of the universe they exist in, I think it’s better than Ringu which I’ve been underwhelmed with but not as great as Ju-On which is pretty avant-garde as far as genre story structure goes. Overall, it’s a good time and as a great Japanese man once said “LET THEM FIGHT!”

The Vintage Revisits: Westworld (the movie!)

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When you first hear the premise of Westworld, an adult theme park where patrons can relive a particular historical era until robots go awry and kill everyone, it sounds perfect for a television show that can spend seasons worth of time building the vast environment and inner workings of such a place. Surprisingly enough at the original conception which was a 1973 movie written and directed by Michael Crichton, jammed all that into 90 minutes, and quite unsuccessfully. Not from a financial standpoint as the film was a box office hit earning $10 million and that’s in 1970’s dollars. It spawned a sequel (Futureworld) and a previous flop of a TV Show (only 3 episodes aired) which is proof that audiences and executives have been in love with the concept which is why it is continually resurrected. Where the original falls short is that it is fairly poorly structured as a screenplay and directed by an inexperienced Crichton. The fact that with these flaws my feelings still skew positively is a testament to the foundation that’s so intriguing and that it can carry a film that otherwise falters under its ineptness.

To an extent why I give it a pass is because it starts so strong. It kicks off with news footage or more likely a promotional video where a chipper interviewer speaks to guests leaving the park about their experiences. In a tongue and cheek manner, people knowingly smile as the articulate how much they enjoyed the hunky men in Romanworld and shooting outlaws in Westworld (the visitor hoping he only shot robots and not real people). It’s a great tactic to build up the excitement for these time travel Disneylands before we even arrive. We’re then introduced to our protagonists Peter (Richard Benjamin) and John (James Brolin as Christian Bale) a situation where I couldn’t figure out who was the main character until one of them dies at the midway point. These seeming strangers who are actually friends (another script problems) embark on their vacation of drinking and debauchery in Westworld. The film jumps around between their experience, some other unknown characters in Medievalworld and the row of nameless control room operators who direct the action while ordering their lunch. The film manages to be specific enough that you understand the intricacies of running this park as each night deactivated robots are cleaned up off the roads and taken underground for maintenance and how these humanoid A.I.s interact with the either with sexuality or violence but show signs of overriding their programming yet at the same time is vague enough that you don’t care about all these people who die at the hands of vengeful machines. It’s entertaining to watch our heroes get into bar fights and seduce whores (which leads to the most bizarre, dissolve heavy sex scene ever) but I don’t care or even understand why robots want to massacre them. The main villain is the Gunslinger played by Yul Brynner who Michael Myers-esque stalks Peter the whole movie for some unestablished vendetta.

Why this expansive plot can be carried out in 90 minutes is because there’s not a second act. The movie goes from the exposition of the parks and behind the scenes to Gunslinger killing John and everything going to shit. If you didn’t guess it by now, this movie is a prototype for Jurassic Park. Westworld is very top-heavy with exposition and escalates so quickly with nothing to transition that in between where JP cultivates an amazing group of characters and starts with the bang the initial T-Rex escape but still can build tension after that climactic turn. The third act or second act (whatever it is) in this case has its creepy moments and unexpected brutality for what had been a bright movie but lacks any pathos because you don’t have the reasoning for the machine’s malice other than the 70’s fear of uncharted technology. At least for JP, dinosaurs are just being dinosaurs which entails eating humans. These robots are fed up I guess but no emotional cognizance has been presented to show that they don’t like their designed enslavement. Peter is as baffled and relinquished as us as he runs from the Gunslinger maintaining the most neutral and uninterested expression.

It’s still a fun hodgepodge of ideas that obviously needed twenty years and Steven Spielberg to do correctly. I would breakdown Westworld as 75% set up, 10% robots going crazy and 5% laborious horse chase and I like that 75%. It’s so 1970’s future a la Logan’s Run with its blocky hovercrafts and light bright switch boards which are always a delight. Overall though it’s just a brilliant concept. The delineation from what would be repurposed into Jurassic Park is that Westworld is a strictly adult resort and I like the choice to keep the movie as such. It’s perfect for HBO because they can maintain that hard R rating as the appeal is the idea of an amusement park that caters to vices and immoral acts that you can’t commit in normal society that’s paired with the sweeping backdrop of a period piece. This movie is a great pitch that someone has finally realized how to form into prestigious television. Give me characters to root for, complexity to the A.I. and most importantly, spare no expense.

The Birth of a Nation Review: The People Vs Nate Parker

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock that doesn’t have wi-fi, over the past few months you’ve become familiar with the name Nate Parker. His what would be triumphant film reclaiming a title originally soiled by D.W. Griffith and racism now reformed as a bio-pic about Nat Turner has been marred by Parker’s past rape trial. I wrote about my conflicting emotions towards the film once this information surfaced and I want to separate the film from the filmmaker but after seeing The Birth of a Nation that has proven to be quite difficult. When the credits roll the only name you see is Nate Parker as director, writer, story by and producer. This movie is all him. Even if you want to credit the movie as a collaborative effort, it’s hard to. If you don’t think he’s a scumbag for being a rapist, it’s pretty off-putting to realize the amount of ego needed to immortalize Nat Turner as played by you. I’m not against Nat Turner, he rose up against his oppressors and for sure, a lot of those white folk deserved the wrath that was coming to them. What I don’t like is Parker making Turner a deity which undermines the poignancy of his legacy.

The film opens with a trope that I wish could be stricken from all of screenwriting and that is a prophecy. Bestowing a prophecy is an easy way of writing off why everything going forward happens because it was foretold. It makes a character too special. Particularly in Nat Turner’s case, he’s so iconic because he was a typical man who decided not to take it anymore. By beginning with a young Nat standing in a circle of traditional elders in the woods being told the peculiar markings on his chest signify he will be a great leader and destined to change the course of man undercuts all the other character development that leads to his rebellion. As the narrative continues, it depicts all the horrors of slavery from the painstaking labor of picking cotton to the demoralizing nature in which he and his family are addressed by their masters but in the case of this clandestine greatness, his experiences don’t matter because it’s been predicted he’s going to fight back anyway. I’m not demanding for a complicated portrayal of a man like Martin Luther King in Selma where we pull back the curtain on this historical figure but I also don’t need him to be a superhero.

It’s difficult for any other character to shine past the mighty shadow cast by Nat. If you’re like me, when you heard about Gabrielle Union commenting on her costars allegations you went “she’s in this movie!?” because you’d assume an actress with a lengthy career such as her’s would be mentioned in the marketing. Yet my exclamation can be paired with every actor in this movie. Union is essentially a glorified extra (she has no lines) and most of those around Nat feel the same way, they’re there to further his story. The two supporting characters that particularly compel him are his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and his master/childhood friend Samuel (Armie Hammer). The latter produces a more interesting conflict as he has his own inner struggle towards the inhumane treatment of slaves. You have moments where he’ll defend Nat and then other times is reminded that socially he is ranked higher and treats his slave accordingly. It’s the perfect balance of the adopted ignorance of the southern whites willing to turn a blind eye and the self-hate of doing so. Samuel chooses to drink his way through existence than do anything. Cherry is more underserved as a love interest while their initial courtship is quite sweet. It’s a piece of happiness to cleanse the palate between all the instances of brutality but she is eventually raped and that becomes one of his core reasons to act. That depiction which was embellished for the story is in poor taste for Parker notably when Nat sits at Cherry’s bedside as she lies battered and says. “God is going to punish whoever did this.” All the metatextual impediment that goes along with that moment is enough to make you uncomfortable in your seat.

This is a tough film to watch and that is the point. The visuals of the antebellum south aren’t depicted as the heydays of Tara and are graphic and hard to swallow. To judge the film on does it get it’s point across that slavery is bad is very simple. On many media outlets (and I include myself) have commented on whether or not we need another slave movie. Is it necessary to watch another movie about the bloody, inhumane treatment of blacks in America? The answer is yes and no. In reality, there are way fewer slave biographies than you think. Roots, Glory and 12 Years a Slave are such statement pieces that you assume they’re part of an overflowing genre when really they’re their own one-offs. The reason it’s important to have these historical retellings is, and it’s cliche to say, but we shouldn’t forget our past or we’re doomed to repeat it. It’s important in general for white people to stay woke to their checkered past but also because many instances in this film can be mapped onto current day issues. The laymen police force, headed by Jackie Earle Haley, patrols the roads stopping any black for walking unaccompanied and enacting punishment however he pleases. That and all the corpses of innocent people shot and hanged are shades of Trayvon, Brown, Sterling, and countless others. Most of Birth of a Nation’s power comes from how relevant it is. Yet where the frustration for this presumed tired genre comes from the fact that there are very few roles available for black actors and especially if you want Oscar recognition, the impassioned portrayal of a slave is almost a surefire way of getting it. Back in 1939 when Hattie McDaniels won Best Supporting Actress for the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind she was quoted as saying “I rather play a maid than be one” and that was painfully true for that time. Now that servitude is not the default profession for African-Americans, the public wants to see black roles diversify and if Birth gets nominated it will continue this unprogressive cycle.

What this movie represents in the context of modern cinema and the context of Nate Parker’s life handicaps it from being successful. Never have I encountered a film with such baggage. What would have been decently received Oscar bait is weighted down by bombarding exterior factors. If Parker wasn’t marred by his own volition, I’d say this was a more than competent debut feature but now it’s probably his last. It’s fitting that a controversial man made a film about a controversial figure. As some look at Turner and see a hero or a murderer, people will look at Parker and see a rapist or a filmmaker and in each scenario they’re correct, one just happens to be more justified. Birth will be remembered as a rise and fall story of a movie destined for greatness out of Sundance that found itself collapsing under a society that no longer allows rape to be swept under the rug. Even if Nat Turner didn’t get the movie he deserved, in death he’s furthering social awareness of rape culture. Not a bad addition to your legacy.

An Easy Ride on the Train

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There are two kinds of people in this world, those who love ten-cent paperback murder mysteries and those who don’t. It’s obvious many enjoy an unsolved case as seen by the rise of true crime documentaries and podcasts but melodramatic, Agatha Christie whodunits are their own beasts. That’s the genre The Girl on the Train falls into even though it carries itself as if it’s Gone Girl. I’m not scolding it for its confidence but it is nowhere near as intelligent as Flynn’s novel or as artistic as Fincher’s big screen adaptation. It’s less morally ambiguous and easier to swallow than the controversial approaches in Gone Girl. Train finds its own rhythm of twist and turns which has good intentions but can leave you unsatisfied.

The film begins with Rachel (Emily Blunt), a commuter on the New York transit who exists in a fantasy world as she lives vicariously through those she gazes at in the homes that wiz by, namely one inhabited by a gorgeous blonde. This happens to be Megan (Haley Bennett), Rachel’s former neighbor who goes missing after Rachel was the last person to see her alive. The film jumps perspectives (and time) as these women live’s, including Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), unknowingly intertwine. I’m going to spoil this upfront but what links them is the ex, current and future husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Considering how obvious that sounds, the film does a great job avoiding such suspicion. Maybe it’s because I’m not someone who wants to be ten steps ahead of a mystery, but I didn’t come to the realization of his involvement due to the plot never overemphasizing his role. Like a good mystery, it’s trying to throw you off the scent of the real killer by adding enough ancillary characters and side plot to take your mind off the prime suspect. The film perfects weaving through narratives with seamless transitions and helps to keep Megan as a functional character even after she’s dead. There’s only a small batch of characters in this story so it tries its hardest to make the best of them.

The fundamental element that makes this whole movie work is a stellar performance by Emily Blunt. She’s our unreliable narrator and so much of the plot hinges on her fuzzy memory because she’s a raging alcoholic. The first act is barely a mystery and more of an authentic portrayal of addiction. Blunt sells it by first opening with the succinct monologue as she articulates her dreams about the lives outside the train but when we see her first interaction with another person, her words are slurred and she can barely keep her head up. Throughout the story, she maintains a disheveled appearance and believably a woman who can’t keep her shit together. She doesn’t even trust herself as she pieces together her missing memories. It’s engaging enough to watch her daily struggling as she consumes vodka in her inconspicuous water bottle then add being a murder suspect onto that, you’ve got one bad week ahead of you. Her incoherent nature caused by blackouts elevates the theme of perception as you don’t know the validity of the truths she is told.

The film is never able to live up to the strong introduction Blunt brings forth. As we enter into Rachel’s sleuthing, we meet the cop on the case played by an underserved Allison Janney. She personifies a pretty inept police force who seem as clueless as us. She suspects Rachel from the beginning and for good reason considering Rachel has garnered a lengthy stalking rap sheet from breaking into her ex-husband’s house only two doors down. The movie doesn’t want real detectives to get in the way of laymen detective work but it allows their presence to be felt. When the film winds down, it drops its weaving structure and gives a straightforward reveal that’s both further graphic than needed and completely unsubtle. But maybe when you accept that this is essentially about gaslighting women, you can come to terms with a futile conclusion. Director Tate Taylor tries to end on some note of female camaraderie as these three women had been sequentially wronged by the same person and yet while we spent a lot of time getting to know each person, we didn’t know them together. They are all extremely separate in reality, connected in a large sense but not as actively as this movie may think.

It’s very easy to pick apart the stupidity throughout the film. Once it’s all laid out it appears quite basic and frivolous. It’s no grand scheme, it’s just a guy who, as the movie puts eloquently, “can’t keep his dick in his pant.” I don’t fault it as much as I could. I’d describe it as a proficient episode of Law&Order:CI. It’s not as exciting as SVU but they put in the effort for strong character development. Blunt brings 110%, overshadowing everyone in the cast especially with Ferguson’s drifting accent and Bennett being distractingly similar looking to Jennifer Lawrence. Still, I can get behind a movie that’s goal is to gang up on men. It’s quite nasty when portraying the other sex and women get shit done here (unless you’re Allison Janney). I have to assume if the novel is anything like this, it’s an easy beach read just as the movie is a perfectly mindless watch. Smartly released amidst the lull between the blockbuster summer and the winter Oscar season, you exit the movie unharmed, shrugging it off saying “it’s fun while it lasted” but ultimately The Girl on the Train is going to pass you by.

“Pain Can Be Trusted”: The Twisted Nature of Audition

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The late night Cinefamily screening in which I saw Audition, one of the theater’s programers opened by articulating his enthusiasm for this J-horror classic. I was immediately surprised to hear it categorized as such. Even without seeing this Takashi Miike work before, I was aware of its reputation. When I think J-horror I envision pale girls with long black hair crawling out of wells or ghosts prone to holding grudges. Audition is more in toe with the canon of high caliber psychological thrillers like Silence of the Lambs until it deviates with the final act. Not to devalue the Sadakos of cinema but the curled-lip smile of Asami as she imagines the fate for the unsuspecting protagonist is subtle yet more chilling than any cursed videotape. Miike lures you in, Dusk till Dawn style, with a tale of romance as a widower searches for a new bride using his post as a producer to interview young, attractive women. If it wasn’t for the marketing or at least the poster used in all the American publicity, this movie could contain the most ingenious plot twist in cinema history. Surprisingly, the knowledge going in that there’s a butcher apron wearing murderess to fear doesn’t hinder the impact as that scene, in general, is wildly unimaginable and the cryptic relationship/mystery elements work so strongly in its favor leading up to it.

The movie delves into many themes, more intensely than those of a similar vein which heightens its notability. Gender politics are a crucial and contentious aspect of the film. Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) has very specific standards he wants his future wife to be inline with which leads to this cattle call of ladies. Some of those demands are so this woman can resemble his past wife and others are unfair societal expectations. The fact that he desires someone “trained” in the arts because his wife was a singer is more acceptable than him only considering applicants half his age. He says a “trained” woman has confidence yet he falls for Asami (Eihi Shiina) who is portrayed as tepid and unassured. As a woman, I found the man enamored with her reserved, submissive demeanor infuriating only elevating my excitement when she reveals her true self who is loquacious and playful (when she’s torturing that is.) Miike toys with your empathy between these two lovers. Shigeharu uses a lot of slimeball moves like utilizing his position of power to meet girls but since the film is his perspective, we’re meant to forgive these indiscretions as it seems his minor deceit has led to a genuine connection. Asami who commits acts only a sociopath could execute, as the trauma of her childhood is revealed we understand her viewpoint on the situation. She was abused by older men who felt entitled to dominate her because of her innocence and vulnerable appearance. Shigeharu’s company releases a radio announcement to entice women to submit for this casting and they sell it on the idea of being a heroine, that being beautiful and prized is the greatest achievement. Heroinism in its truest sense is bravery and courage and like it or not that’s what Asami gains by retaliating against her aggressors, our protagonist just happens to be one of them.

There is a brilliant build up to the torture sequence that you’ve at least deduced by now is coming. The second act is a mystery a la Old Boy when after Shigeharu and Asami copulate for the first time, she goes missing and he must track her down. This takes him to some forgotten passages of Tokyo as he digs up her buried past. The imagery gets exponentially more graphic as we see a severed tongue here or a mangled foot there. We’re being pushed out of the comfort zone this romance plot has lulled us into. The scars of her past are revealed as the Shigeharu’s reality becomes nightmarish. The penultimate spectacle is a ghastly dream that Pinhead couldn’t even fathom which includes tortured prey from both main characters. It’s a hellish haunted house formed from Shigeharu’s subconscious and Asami’s reality as he sees the women he’s objectified and casualties of Asami’s wrath. All of these distortions and dream-like flashbacks lead up to this gruesome campaign. Unlike Martyrs whose second half detaches as it becomes unrelenting torture, Audition makes this transition seamless even if still egregious. Miike constructs a lot of the terror through audio from the screech of the bone penetrating wire that as it stretches is akin to nails on a chalkboard or as she inserts the thick acupuncture needles, you’re less paying attention to her actions and rather listening to the pops of the skin and muscle it sinks into. The primary score is a docile, generic piano riff that sounds extracted from a soap opera which is shed during the agonizing cacophony of murder tools mixed with screams. If anything it’s an effective film as the theater collectively squirmed and gasped at each advancing torment.

 
Miike is known for his no holds bar filmmaking. He’s about pushing the limits of what you can stomach but his explicit expression is never without purpose. Audition isn’t an empty narrative plugging in gore where it pleases. It’s an extreme approach to social constructs between men and women. It’s a revenge picture taken from the perspective of the victim and yet you can side with either party. The concluding moments of the two characters sprawled on the floor near death are completely connected on the same plane. It’s close to Misery if Stephen King had written Annie Wilkes in a way in which she’s not acting out due to obsession but as an accumulation of transgressions towards all women. There’s a weight of pessimism even when the scenes early on communicate otherwise. The film ends with an unknown outcome for both people. Shigeharu’s business partner remarks at one point that “Japan is finished” dooming his friend’s future and predicting the downward spiral the plot takes. The characters may be finished but Audition was just the beginning for Miike’s twisted career on an international stage.