Saturday, October 31, 2009
Friday, October 30, 2009
nytheatre.com Reviews The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol
Wow! nytheatre.com just posted Will Fulton's review for The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol.
It's nice to get a review for a show with such a short run. It's even nicer that the review is posted before closing. It's even nicer still that said timely review says many nice things about the show.
"...revealing the inexplicable and unpredictable darkness that seethes beneath the surface of human nature and can rear its ugly head at any time and in any person. The form and spirit of the evening is an admirable tribute to the Grand Guignol's peculiar moment in theatrical history....an effective reminder that every day we are precariously poised on the edge of chaos."
Read the whole thing here.
Have a good weekend and a happy Halloween, no matter what you decide to do. (Though, seriously, you should do this tomorrow. I mean, c'mon.)
James "Needy Girlfriend" Comtois
Shout-Out From The Gothamist!
Well, thank you, Gothamist:
THEATER: Have you ever received an e-mail with the subject "Because you can never eat too much severed head for Halloween"? We sure did this week, which is why we're telling you to check out the latest macabre installment in The Blood Brothers Present series. Called The New Guignol, the show is comprised of ghoulish tales full of blood and nudity and graphic violence, such as one about "a scorned husband offers his wife a ghastly maternity gift." (Could it be a haunted bugaboo?!) Halloween after-party to follow, with complimentary "severed head pie!"
I guess severed head will get them every time.*
Thank you, thank you. I'll be here all night, folks. Try the fuckin' veal.
Tapping his "mic,"
James "Every Day With The Fuckin' Dick Jokes" Comtois
*Okay, I can't take "credit" for that previously-written pun. So, h/t to Hope Cartelli for that one. She'll be here all night, folks. Stay away from the quiche.
Well, gang. We've only got two performances left for The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol. Well, technically, one performance left for you to see, since tonight's show is about a ticket or two away from being sold out (if you still want to come see it tonight, we'll most likely find a way to get you in). Still, it is odd to think that even though we've just started the run, this show is already about to head up into that Great Production in the Sky.
Fortunately, they had these shoulders to cry on.
However, for closing night, as in, tomorrow, as in, Halloween, we'll be having our post-show party at the Brick Theater following the final performance.
And for those of you who've yet to make plans for Halloween (that is to say, if you're like me, the holidays are things that seem to spring up on you like an ambush even though you've had, well, your entire life to figure out how a calendar works), there's no additional cover charge for the post-show Halloween party, and no charge for the libations or refreshments.
Bobbing for brains,
James "Headcheeseball" Comtois
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Oh, balls. I got too busy with Nosedive and day job-related things today. I was hoping to offer my opening night assessment and write a new horror entry.
That didn't happen.
Sorry about that, folks. I'll try to make it up to you by posting a horror entry either Friday or Monday. Cool? Cool.
Well, I can give my hasty assessment of opening: We had a good run last night, and a good crowd. I'm happy with it. I want more people to see it. I'm looking forward to tonight.
I'll see some of you tonight.
James "Scatterbrained" Comtois
Labels: Simply Being a Moron
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Check Out Buck-Buck's Shout-Out
This is also happening this weekend, which many of us in Blood Brothers and Nosedive Central are a part of. Kid Sister Comtois has directed a short piece I've written (featuring Stephanie Cox-Williams, Marc Landers, Brian Silliman, Sistois herself and Daryl Lathon), Patrick's written & directed a piece that Abe Goldfarb & Madame Renee Rosebud is in, Danny Bowes has a piece featured, and Blood Brothers actress Becky Byers is in one of the shorts.
In short, Nosedive's hijacked Bryan Enk's evening of slasher films.
And speaking of the two Becky's, Daryl just sent this along, plugging the evening but really highlighting their entries.
Well, Kid Sistois, I guess you're an important woman in horror. Woo-hoo!
An unimportant man in horror,
James "More of a Rom-Com Guy" Comtois
So. We open tonight.
Although there was some inevitable choppiness in the dress last night, I think we're in good shape, and am both a tad nervous and very excited to be showing this to folks.
I think this is our best Blood Brothers show to-date. And again, that's not just me being a salesman for the show. I actually do think this. The cast is awesome. The effects look hot. The pieces are diverse and range from fun to unsettling to downright bone-chilling. The directors have brought it.
It is, in short, on.
My day will no doubt be spent compulsively checking ticket sales every 10 minutes. Oh, who the hell am I kidding? Every 2 minutes. (Okay, seriously. I'm just going to stay on the tickets page and click "Refresh" every 10 seconds. That'll be my day today.)
Anyway, I hope to see you there.
And unrelated to the pitching, I hope to post one more horror film entry on this site before the end of the week.
James "Let's Do This" Comtois
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Horror Film Posts
For your convenience, here is the list of horror film posts on this site thus far (with the most recent entry on the top of the list). Since the list is getting a little unruly for the sidebar, I'm replacing the individual links to each horror post on the sidebar with this one. I'll continue to update this list as I write new entries.
Making your life easier,
James "Convenient Schlockmeister" Comtois
Monday, October 26, 2009
The Serpent and the Rainbow (Wes Craven, 1988)
Although it offers a pedestrian and predictable conclusion, Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow takes one of the central premises he used for his flagship film, A Nightmare on Elm Street (a villain who invades people's minds and dreams), to make a film five times more interesting and about ten times more frightening.
The film plays on some old standards in the horror genre: fear of the unknown, premature burial, the stealing of souls, Voodoo, and even regular ole prosaic torture and castration. It's not entirely successful-as I stated, the film's conclusion is a letdown-but when it is successful, it's truly compelling and terrifying.
The Serpent and the Rainbow came out just when I was getting really into horror films (it was released in February 1988, which means I would have been 10 at the time). I distinctly remember being both fascinated by the trailer and aware that, as much as I was now interested in horror films, it was going to be way, way, WAY to intense for me:
Being buried alive, having rotting arms dragging you into the ground, drowning in a coffin filling up with blood; yeah, that's some prime nightmare fodder.
Now, if you'll allow me a slight digression on A Nightmare on Elm Street? It ties in, don't worry.
First off, before you get all defensive, let me just that yes, I do like A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's smart. It's inventive. It's fun. It's scary. I watch it almost every October. I've even powered through many (but not all) of the atrocious sequels (I know I'm in the minority on this, but I'm not wild about the meta sequel, Wes Craven's New Nightmare: it's way too proud of itself and telegraphs Freddy's existence way too early, thus denying it of any suspense, metafictional or otherwise; but that's another digression for another entry).
However, with my problem with the original Nightmare is that its premise is exponentially more horrifying than the actual movie itself. The premise of a serial killer that can only kill you in your dreams is both original and truly horrifying. I remember actually having nightmares based on the idea of Freddy Krueger...until I actually saw the movies. Maybe it's one of those concepts that can only deliver in theory (since it allows the imagination to go wild) but not in practice (since you now have to deal with budgetary limitations, three-act story structures, et. al.).
Still, the original Nightmare is a decent movie, and offers up some decent scares (especially since it has Freddy abstain from making witty "quips," as opposed to the sequels, which turns Freddy into a third-rate standup).
Seeing The Serpent and the Rainbow a few years after it came out (I think I was 12 when I first saw it, but I could have been 13), like Nightmare, it too, did not deliver on the way-too-terrifying-to-deal-with movie I made up in my mind around the images in the trailer.
Despite this minor - and inevitable - disappointment, The Serpent and the Rainbow delivers on many scary and unnerving scenes, many of which fester under the skin long after they're done playing (such the image of a man, presumably dead, with a single tear sliding down his face as he's in a coffin being buried).
The Serpent and the Rainbow takes Voodoo much more seriously than many other Hollywood films, which often merely use the religion as a device for characters to stick pins in dolls. That the film was shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic also adds some authenticity to the movie. Some.
Based very, very loosely on the nonfiction book by ethnobotanist Wade Davis (who apparently despised the film), The Serpent and the Rainbow is about an anthropologist (Dennis Alan, played by Bill "Lonestar" Pullman) who's sent out to Haiti by a giant pharmaceutical corporation to investigate a drug used in the Voodoo religion. Apparently the drug creates "zombies," but it is in fact a form of anesthesia.
Once the drug gets into a person's pores, the person appears to be dead by all counts. There's no recordable pulse, no notable breath, no response to outside stimulus. So, the person struck by the "zombie powder" is often buried, then eventually comes to, underground, and suffers brain damage due to the lack of oxygen (and, y'know, the trauma of being paralyzed and buried alive).
When Alan arrives in Haiti, which is in the middle of a revolution, he meets Marielle Celine (Cathy Tyson), a doctor who helps him research and investigate the so-called zombies. (Since she's a beautiful woman and Alan is the hero, do you think a relationship and sex scene develops? What do you think, dear reader?)
Alan's exploration to find the zombie powder attracts attention of the Tonton Macoute (the new regime and its secret police). The commander of the Tonton Macoute, Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), doesn't want the secrets of the powder revealed, since it's been used to control the people of Haiti through fear. He warns Alan to leave Haiti.
Alan of course doesn't leave, but instead continues to investigate the drug. He finds a local witch doctor, Mozart, who can produce it. Before gaining this knowledge, Alan is arrested a second time by the Tonton Macoute. And of course, in addition to all the mystical mumbo jumbo and nightmarish sequences of being buried alive, we've got a scene where Captain Peytraud tortures Alan and threatens castration. (Don't worry: he only hammers a nail into his scrotum. Oh, is that all?)
Here's the scene. It begins at the 3:25 mark:
See? This movie offers a diverse blend of shit to make you feel uncomfortable.
Alan, however, still refuses to do so and meets with Mozart to create the zombie drug. A few hours before picking up the final product, however, Alan has a nightmare - possibly the most terrifying sequence in the film, in my estimation - where his room slowly and steadily becomes a coffin and he's buried alive (and with the coffin filling up with the aforementioned blood).
Here's where we enter Nightmare on Elm Street territory, since, although yes, it turns out to be "just a dream," it also turns out to be more than that: the dream was planted in his head by Peytraud, who's not just a tyrannical government head but an evil Voodoo priest.
When Alan awakes, he finds a severed head in his bed. The Tonton Macoute storms in, takes photos of him with the severed head and forces him on a plane back to the States. On the plane, Mozart gives him the zombie powder free of charge.
While Alan is at a dinner party back in the States, Peytraud induces hallucinations of corpse hands appearing in Alan's food and possesses one of the guests to attack him. He realizes he's still not safe and, worse, Celine is in danger. He decides to go back.
Upon Alan's return, he's infected with the zombie powder and delivers the movie's famous tag line: "Don't let them bury me. I'm not dead." Too late: Peytraud captures Celine and buries Alan alive in another horrifying scene done in complete blackness, with just the sound of Alan screaming. It's not quite as terrifying as the similar sequence in the original The Vanishing, but still pretty unnerving and effective.
Remembering how horrifying it was for him to be buried alive, Christophe, the original zombie (the previously-mentioned man buried alive with the single tear in the opening sequence) quickly digs Alan up. Alan then saves Celine, confronts Peytraud and saves the day.
Unfortunately, the film's final showdown is generic and predictable: the hero and villain duking it out with their fists, complete with macho exclamations and "badass" catch phrases (yawn). Wasn't this entire battle supposed to be fought not on the streets, but in the hero's mind and soul? Then why such an uninspired conclusion? I guess that's Hollywood filmmaking in the '80s for you. (Although Craven has been guilty of this in many of his films, even in Nightmare.)
However, it doesn't ruin the rest of the film; it only serves as a mildly disappointing cap to an otherwise good film.
Though, true, it didn't quite deliver on the scares that my 10 year-old self imagined after seeing the trailer (God help any film that tries to compete with the hyperactive imagination of an adolescent), The Serpent and the Rainbow deftly mixes a nonfiction tale with the premise of Nightmare (but put to better use, in my humble estimation) to create an inventive and disturbing film that offers plenty of scares from the explicit (it's got decapitations and gore) to the genuinely bone-chilling.
Not wanting to mess with bokors,
James "Claustrophobic Agnostic" Comtois
In The Final Stretch
Load-in for The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol was last night, and the Brothers Blood themselves - Pete and Patrick - are in the theater as we speak getting the space set up for tonight's tech and cue-to-cue. There's still lots of work to be done before our opening on Wednesday, but reports are saying that things are still on schedule and coming together quite nicely.
"Tech's always fun when wearing suits."
I'm hoping (hoping) to post a new horror film entry later today or tonight (time permitting).
So, while I'm writing that up, and while you're waiting to read my oh-so-clever and insightful reassessment of a horror film from the days of yore, why not buy your tickets for The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol?
Friday, October 23, 2009
A Serious Man
In the middle of A Serious Man, our beleaguered Job-like hero Larry Gopnik meets an ineffectual rabbi who relays a parable of a Jewish dentist finding the phrase "Help Me" naturally inscribed in Hebrew in the insides of a gentile man's teeth. This drives the dentist crazy. What does it mean? What should the dentist do? If it's a sign, what is the sign telling him? What's the moral of the story? The ineffectual rabbi, of course, doesn't give poor Larry one.
This scene encapsulates the heart of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, which offers a compelling story, poses many theological and spiritual questions, then deliberately, maddeningly, frustratingly refuses to offer answers.
This is not what Larry needs. A Jewish physics professor at a Minnesota-based university in 1967, Larry's life is slowly and steadily spiraling downward. His wife's leaving him for his creepily intrusive and unnervingly sympathetic friend. His neighbor's honing in on his property. His brother's staying on his couch, hoarding the bathroom and getting into trouble with the law. The tenure board's getting eloquently-written anonymous letters urging it to not grant Larry tenure. His son keeps nagging him to fix the reception on the TV. His daughter's slowly and steadily stealing money from him to pay for a nose job. His divorce and real estate lawyers are bleeding him dry financially with their ungodly hourly rates. He's getting bribes - then threats - from a student to give the student a good grade.
He needs help. He needs answers. And he's not getting any.
A Serious Man isn't about offering answers. It's about offering questions - about morality, about God, about spirituality - that only lead to more questions.
Of course, the above statement makes the movie sound heavy-handed and portentous, which it is not. It is, after all, a Coen Brothers movie. It's quirky and funny, though it's quirks and humor are dry (rather than wacky or silly) in nature.
Okay, that's not entirely true. One scene centered on a rabbi's "advice" to Larry (concerning parking lots) is laugh-out loud funny, as is another concerning another rabbi's advice to Larry's son, Danny, on Danny's bar mitzvah (which will sound oddly familiar to anyone versed in the music of Jefferson Airplane). But, for the most part, the humor in A Serious Man is more of the sardonic and wince-inducing variety.
The cast is filled with actors you either don't recognize or vaguely recognize (Richard Kind and Adam Arkin are the most recognizable faces), and they're all very, very good. In particular, Michael Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast as Larry. Even though the weight of the world gets heavier and heavier on Larry's shoulders, Stuhlbarg less as a pathetic, self-pitying loser but more as someone keeping up a good front and trying to hold it together. He actually plays Larry as someone who's an optimist at heart. Fred Melamed as Sy, the way-too-eager-to-hug friend who wants to marry Larry's wife, also steals every scene he's in (even one where he's simply driving his car and has no lines).
The ending, which I won't reveal here, originally left me feeling frustrated and mildly cheated. However, later that evening, I thought about it more, and realized the movie could only end the way it does. As frustrating as the ending is, a pat conclusion would betray the rest of the film. It offers you the parable and like any worthwhile parable, it leaves it up to you to figure out the moral.
Still wanting a hint,
James "Dybbuk" Comtois
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Dancin' Til Dawn
Since beginning my rambling thoughts on criticism and reviews earlier this week here at Jimmy's Dicks Aplenty Dance Party, Isaac Butler and Sean Williams have posted their thoughts on the subject and come up with some very keen insights (that have developed some very interesting dialogues). Check them out and weigh in.
Reading these entries by these two astute fellows has (I think) strengthened my resolve to write about shows I feel strongly about, particularly about the shows I strongly dislike. Not just to be a dick, but, well, I think Sean says it best:
In the end, we're starting to lose the need for disinterested reviewers. What we really need is a community of bloggers who are willing to discuss the merits of one another's work openly and honestly. In my last post, I tried to explain my point of view, and, although my explanation almost guarantees that my posts will be taken with a grain of salt... we should *ALL* be taken with a grain of salt.
We should publish our thoughts about ALL of the shows we see, and let people figure out if they like it or not. And we gotta get over ourselves.
Egg. Zact. Lee.
I'm hoping to post two or three more horror film entries this month, which all depends on my schedule. Since I typically like to re-watch the film I'm writing about just before I begin writing, but since the folks here at Nosedive Central are going into tech this weekend for The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol, that may prevent my movie watching abilities (especially since, now that I posted this, they'll know I'm not in the theatre helping out because I'm at home watching awesome horror movies instead. I can imagine Pete coming up to be afterwards with that all-too-familiar nuts-punching look in his eyes).
"You did NOT just blow us off to watch Prom Night for the 40th time..."
(This habit of re-watching the movie in question isn't a strict rule, it's more of a guideline, especially since most of the movies I've written about I've already seen countless times.)
So that's the proverbial plan for this site for the end of the month.
Oh, that and reminding you ad nauseum to buy your damn tickets already.
On with the show,
James "Jazz Hands" Comtois
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Testing Effects for Blood Brothers
I just realized, much to my chagrin, that in delivering all this "content" to this site, I've been neglecting my duties in bringing you embarrassingly transparent, untoward, unseemly, crass, blatant, shameless, Internet-clogging, blogosphere-threatening, theatrosphere-killing self-promotional entries! For shame, say I! For shame!
And it's even doubly-shameful when The New York Times is doing a better job of plugging my stuff than I am!
(Ya...ya see what I just did there? Ya like that? Go on, admit it. You did. And you can also admit it: I'm your hero. And the guy of your dreams.)
Well, since I'm behind, I guess it's time to get right crackin' on that and bring to you, dear readers, a blog post that serves nothing more than a tactless and dignity-killing plea to see my upcoming project.
Though, in all seriousness, I saw the run of the show last night, and I gotta say, I am super excited about this one. I think we may have the best Blood Brothers anthology to-date.
I'm not being hyperbolic. I think the lineup of plays - which are incredibly diverse this year and run the gamut of laugh out-loud funny to fun gross-out to truly psychologically terrifying and horrific - is hot. (Hell, Kid Sistois, not the most squeamish kid on the block, covered her eyes at one point during one of the early pieces. For real.) The new effects are fun. I dig the hell out of what all the actors are doing on this. The directors are bringing their A-games.
I'm really looking forward to people seeing this.
And again, since we open in a week, and only have four nights, get your tickets now. This shit will sell out.
And, to get you more in the mood, here's a video of Stephanie Cox-Williams testing out one of the effects featured in The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol.
So buy your tickets. You'll be glad you did.
Wanting some bloody head,
James "Sans Shame" Comtois
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Reviews and Criticism (Part Three)
Here's where I offer the third and final part of my overlong blog entry on film and theatre criticism. In the first two parts, I blather on about my enjoyment of criticism, my particular favorite critics to read and what's wrong (and right) with the criticism scene. In this final part, I talk about my involvement in the critical world and where I'd like to go from here.
Film and theatre criticism fascinates and entertains me (hey, it's great fun to read a well-written scathing review of a play or film). But more than that, I find it to be an important profession, since good criticism can help audiences gain a deeper understanding of a art work, as well as help articulate their thoughts and feelings about plays and movies they've seen.
There's been more than one occasion where I've walked away from a play or movie, and had a problem with it, but couldn't quite articulate what it was. You know, one of those, "tip of my tongue, can't put my finger on it," problems. Then I'd read a well-written review that would clear a huge mental roadblock for me, helping me clear my own mental path for what I found wrong with the work.
Criticism and analysis is important and must be protected, especially since film critics are becoming shills for the studios (as Armond White, Ray Carney, Roger Ebert and Charles Taylor have all argued) and theatre critics can sometimes get too caught up in being haughty or "clever," remembering the "cheerleader/advocate" part of the equation but forgetting the "reporter" end of it.
(I agree with the introduction to the video of Siskel & Ebert's discussion on criticism, shown in the appendix section of part two, which explains that film criticism is in that weird nebulous place between news reporting and op-ed column writing. I think it's crucial that good criticism should remember both sides of the coin.)
Again, this is why I'm fascinated with White, from a distance. I agree with his argument that critics need to step up their game when it comes to ethics and integrity, and agree that in this day and age of print media dying and online magazine budgets shrinking, critics need to be especially vigilant, but am not buying that he's necessarily doing so. (Seriously, sir. You can't suggest that the Wayans Brothers vehicle Little Man is "a near-classic comedy" yet cite District 9 as an example of the "sloppiest and dopiest pop cinema" and expect to be taken seriously by the elite or the mainstream.)
Which finally brings me to my limited role in all of this.
I periodically write film reviews and essays for this site and theatre reviews for both this site and nytheatre.com. I enjoy writing reviews. I enjoy how writing reviews forces me to be an active and engaged audience member. I'm not able to leave a show, then think, "Meh, that was fine; where are we getting food?" when I have to write 500-1,000 words on the play. Writing reviews makes me have to assess and articulate my thoughts and feelings on the play I've just seen.
I also like being a part of the dialogue about theatre playing in New York, no matter how small. This is especially true when I find, very much to my surprise, that I've honestly gone against the grain of popular opinion. And I assure you it's not me being deliberately contrary when that happens. I tend to write and send/post my theatre reviews before reading others, so I'm usually shocked when many other critics and reviewers love something I loathe and vice versa.
Simply put, I think writing reviews has made me a better writer, a better audience member, and a better thinker. Not to mention, it's fun.
I'd like to continue participating in the dialogue of film and New York theatre. However, I ultimately don't think I can be a major or steady part of that dialogue.
Not because I think writing reviews is an ethical conflict of interest with writing plays, mind you (although I'm discovering, the more people I know and work with in the city, the more difficult it is to be truly impartial). I've actually never felt that. I think it's perfectly fine for a participant in the field or craft to critique other participants in the field or craft. Honest and open peer assessment is a good thing. There should be more of it. Plus, it's not the end of the world for a reviewer to have both some humility and understanding of the inner workings of the craft being critiqued.
No. The reason why I don't think I'll ever be able to be a major and steady part of the ongoing public critical dialogue (which is really just a fancy way of saying I'll never be a professional full-time critic) is because I'm not able to fully commit to it. I see about 50-60 plays a year. I really would need to see and write about 100-300 plays or films a year (at least) to be a "legit" critic, in my view.
And that would take away from my playwriting, which I don't want to give up.
Ultimately, to be a professional film or theatre critic, I'd need to increase my time commitment by 100-500%, which means I'd ultimately have to abandon my playwriting, or at least curb it substantially.
I don't see that happening anytime soon.
And I'm also not quite as...I'm hesitant to use the word because it may give off the wrong connotation...passionate about a great number of plays and films I see. Not that I don't love seeing plays and films; far from it. But I think if I were to award a star rating or grade to the bulk of the plays or films I would see (provided I reviewed every film and play I saw), there'd be a lot of two and two-and-a-half star reviews or C+/B- reviews.
Take my pal, colleague and oft-collaborator Abe Goldfarb. He sees a lot of movies. He loves movies. He's very passionate about many, if not most, of the films he sees. I love his scathingly articulate takedown of Wanted as well as his loving write-up of The Dark Knight. They're funny. They're honest. They're articulate. They give the reader a very good description of the films themselves.
And last but not least, they're very, very passionate. He's got some very, very robust opinions of the films he sees.
Recently, he saw Zombieland, as did I a couple days later.
Here's Abe's assessment in his own words from his Facebook page (yes, I know, not a formal review, but still worth reading):
"Zombieland is a piece of shit. It has no wit, no atmosphere or sense of place, no character to call its own, and almost no zombies. It fucking sucked, and I'm frankly upset about it. Woody Harrelson is misused in all his awesomeness, and what, they couldn't afford Michael fucking Cera? Who is this Eisenberg chump? PIECE OF SHIT.
"Some reviews have compared it favorably to Shaun of the Dead. Anyone who tells you that it's funnier than Shaun, more atmospheric, more thrilling, more resonant, comparable or better in any way at all, is trying to sell you something. I declare shenanigans.
"The intro was okay, but smothered in redundant, irritating voice-over, muted gore and the sort of humor that lets you know everyone involved was very impressed with themselves. It's an almost surreally smug film for how unambitious it is deep down. ... it was exactly the soulless, focus-grouped studio product I thought it was going to be"
Here's my assessment of Zombieland:
Reading Abe's assessment of Zombieland, I thought, "There's absolutely nothing here I disagree with." Yet on an emotional level, I felt no strong sting from or seething hatred for the movie. On an emotional level, it did very little for me. I wasn't expecting much, and in that regard, I wasn't disappointed.
(I also do want to make a tangential point here by saying, seriously, Abe. You really should think about getting a gig reviewing films. Your critical voice would be tremendously more valuable than, say, Stephanie Zacharek's. Or Armond White's, for that matter.)
Mediocrity doesn't typically anger me (with some rare exceptions, like Rock Star or Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, both of which still fill me with trembling rage), perhaps because I simply expect and accept it. I'm really impressed with Abe's ability to be incredibly moved (both to joy and rage) by several movies he sees.
That's my long roundabout way of saying that another major roadblock for me being a professional critic is that I see myself getting very jaded and/or indifferent very quickly; and the last thing the film/theatre criticism world needs is a jaded critic who's most common reviews are, "Feh, it didn't do much for me," or, "Feh, it was all right."
(Tangential update: I find it either fitting or ironic that over the weekend, I saw Where the Wild Things Are, had very strong feelings about it and felt compelled to review it for this site. Go figure.)
I'll admit, I sometimes find myself jealous of professional/full-time critics and wishing I could be one. Not just because their job is watching plays or movies and writing about them, even though that's pretty damn cool, but because they're contributing to and often spearheading the dialogue over art, culture and popular entertainment (sometimes all three).
They're also, if they're doing their jobs, providing an independent voice separate from the marketing departments.
I'm still a bit saddened that the Bloggers Nights introduced back in 2006 ended up dying on the vine, even though I understand why it did. Many theatre bloggers freelance in the field and don't want to offend potential employers. I can respect that. Since I self-produce through my own company and am not seeking a theatre job, I'm not really as dependent on maintaining such potential bridges.
However, I've still found myself becoming a little gun-shy lately about writing up friends' or acquaintances' shows I didn't care for. If given the option (i.e., I didn't promise a review to them or Martin), I opt out of writing anything. And honestly, it's nothing more than stupid cowardice on my part, plain and simple. I - and they - should suck it up and be fine with it.
As Ebert wrote in his little rulebook: "If you give [a negative review] to the work of a friend, and they're not your friend any more, they weren't ever your friend."
As Don Hall wrote: "Dear Theater Types (Critics, Too)...thicken up, OK?"
Well put, gentlemen.
(True story: I was once comped into seeing a friend's play on closing night and was not given clear reasons as to why, i.e., if I was expected to review it or not. Throughout the run, my friend had been revealing extreme sensitivity to the critical reception the play had been given. I read the reviews. In my view, they were fine: mixed-to-positive reviews with a quibble here and there over an element here and there. But to him, they were scathing slams. Since I had some issues with the play, I decided not to review it. I'll leave it to you to figure out the moral of the story and tell me what it is.)
Although I don't think being a professional critic is in the cards for me right now, I still want to do my small part to contribute to the critical dialogue. Also, I would like to continue stepping up my proverbial game with film and theatre criticism. Even though criticism for me is ultimately a hobby, it's a hobby I take very seriously. This is why I've been writing more horror entries this month (it's not just to coincide with Halloween and the impending Blood Brothers show). In the ensuing months and in 2010, I would like to write more reviews, for both film and theatre, provided I don't get to a point where I become a jaded crank who mainly writes, "Whatever. [fart noise]," as my default review.
Though...maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's not crucial to review more plays or more movies to contribute. Maybe it's not the quantity, so much as stepping up and writing about the works I see I feel strongly about, both good and bad. Like I said in part two, I do feel some regret for not writing about the plays I had strong feelings about for various chickenshit or lazy reasons (and I think it's too late now; not only is there not much point in championing or trashing productions that are long since closed, but my memory for the details for these shows have faded). Maybe I should work at making sure something like that doesn't happen again.
I don't know. I'll get back to you. Regardless, with the landscape for film and theatre criticism changing, I see many are areas for improvement and self-improvement. I'm interested in improving my contribution to the critical scene: I'd like to continue improving my review-writing skills. I'd like to see more critics bring their own proverbial baggage to their reviews, be more passionate and personal about what they've seen and be more honest with their assessments. I'll continue to work on doing the same.
Anyway, this was a long entry, even broken up into parts, so thanks for reading.
Critical of his own ramblings,
James "Conflicted" Comtois
Monday, October 19, 2009
Reviews and Criticism (Part Two)
In Part One of my three-part ramble-a-thon about my recent thoughts on film and theatre criticism, I go on about reviewers I like and what I get out of theatre and film criticism, closing with the assertion that film and theatre criticism is in trouble. In part two, I talk about some of the symptoms (sort of), and where I diverge with mainstream thought on this oft-discussed subject.
Some have argued that granting stars and grades to reviews is a detriment to criticism (Ebert has mentioned the 1-4 star rating system has caused him endless amounts of grief). I don't mind them. Sure, it can be argued that they truncate criticism. And they do beget problems. But to be honest, for me, seeing those stars on Ebert's main site or those grades on the Onion AV Club's main page actually entices me to click on the link and read the review.
Like I'm not going to be compelled to read the review attached to the F rating or the film that garnered zero stars. Come on!
When push comes to shove, one of the jobs of a popular film critic is to ultimately let the reader know if he or she recommends the movie or not. In other words, a review should answer the reader's question, "should I see this or not?" In an interview, Ebert said he felt the thumbs up/thumbs down system is more helpful in this regard, since, for example, telling someone that they found a movie to be a 7 on a scale of one to 10 isn't helpful or meaningful, with which I agree.
So although it can pose problems, stars, grades, thumbs up or down, and fresh or rotten tomatoes don't bother me. They encourage me to continue reading and help me determine as a potential audience member, if I should go or not. I know this isn't the case for many people who simply just look at the grade on Critic-O-Meter, the "fresh/rotten" icon on RottenTomatoes.com, or see the number of stars allotted to the movie and leave it at that. But of course, I'm not other people.
Some have also argued that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's show, At the Movies, was a huge blow for legitimate criticism. I could not disagree more. In theory, with any other reviewers, perhaps it could have been (more on that later). But the show made the idea of film criticism fun and popular for mainstream audiences.
Plus, because they were (and Ebert still is) excellent critics who were knowledgeable and passionate about films, their show (for me) was one of the few true debate shows. Not this FOX News or CNN Crossfire spinning bullcrap: their arguments were well-made and sincere, and their fights were sometimes intense. As a viewer, you got strong, well-articulated arguments for or against a movie from passionate and intelligent people who weren't afraid to be scathing.
If you go to the archived site that features many of their old reviewing clips, check out their argument over Oliver Stone's The Doors to see a prime example of this. Both make very good cases for and against the movie, and neither one can understand why the other thinks and feels the way they do about the film (Siskel is visibly shocked at Ebert's opinion).
(And okay, for a larf, also check out the review clip where they argue over Cop and a Half.)
I truly miss Siskel & Ebert. With Siskel's death in 1999, the show eventually became Ebert & Roeper. Though still fun to watch, Ebert and Richard Roeper just didn't have the same chemistry. Then Ebert's inability to speak due to complications from thyroid cancer in 2006 eventually (after Roeper did the show with a revolving lineup of guest critics and celebrity guests) paved the way for one of the most ill-advised changes to the show.
I'm talking about bringing Ben Lyons on board as co-host.
Lyons is the epitome of the problems arts criticism is facing. It's not the stars, grades, or thumbs that cause the problem; it's so-called critics like Lyons. He's appallingly unknowledgeable about film. He has no passion for film (his negative reviews are soft and weak). He's a quote whore. He's been suspected of being a shill (due to the multiple celebrity photos he likes to pose for and product endorsements he's done, I think these suspicions are correct).
Case in point: he called I Am Legend "one of the greatest films ever made."
And, on top of it all, the new show was just plain dull.
Though he didn't refer to him by name, the Intertubes are speculating that it's very likely Ebert was thinking of Lyons when he wrote his brilliant "Roger's Little Rule Book," offering a list of ethical dos and don'ts for film critics.
Whether Lyons was Ebert's target audience or not with his rule book entry, it's a must-read for anyone in the arts criticism game.
Fortunately, Lyons has been fired after less than a year and the show now has New York Times critic A.O. Scott and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips as the co-hosts, both of whom are respectable, intelligent, and legitimate critics.
I also see some problems in the realm of New York theatre criticism, though not as blatant. There's no Ben Lyons equivalent (as far as I know) in the New York theatre reviewing scene. However, there have been many occasions where I've read gushingly glowing reviews for what I've found to be mediocre plays that read like they're currying favor with a production company, playwright, director or actor. There have been a number of times I've read reviews where I've either thought, "are they with the marketing department?" because the language is almost identical to the press materials, or thought it was clear that the critic came up with the "clever" line for the review well before they saw the play (and found a way to shoehorn it into the review after seeing the play).
I've also been dismayed on more than one occasion to find a production of a show I've seen and found either mediocre, middling or downright subpar get virtually unanimous praise from the critics. Not just because I feel oddly out of step with the majority opinion (though there is that; that, "Did I watch the same play?" feeling can be a bit disconcerting), but because I find the lack of diversity in critical thought disheartening. It's when I get the feeling that there's no thinking going on in these situations I get bummed out.
(Though, I'll admit, this doesn't quite bother me when the unanimous critical response of a show coincides with my opinion, or when my theatrical work is the recipient of unanimous praise. It's imbalanced, I know, but I am, I must say, only human.)
Earlier this year, I saw a play from a critical darling (since I didn't review it at the time, I won't disclose which one - feel free to call me a weenie, it's fine) that I found to be, how shall we say, "a bit crap." I came across a middling and wishy-washy review for the play that read as if the reviewer didn't like it, but either a.) didn't have either the nerve or heart to give it a negative review, or b.) was strongly encouraged by his editor to not write a negative review.
Please note I have no evidence of either, I'm just saying that's how the review read.
Suffice it to say, it was a weakly-written review, where I didn't really learn how the critic thought or felt about the piece; the kind of review I hate reading as a theatre-goer/criticism fan and receiving as a theatre-maker/criticism fan. In hindsight, I really regret not writing my assessment of the show on this blog at the time.
(I know we're entering straw man/glass house territory here. Plus, it's an area where I can't prove the motives, since we're dealing with the subjective opinions of people I don't know. But really, is anyone going to argue that there's no intellectual dishonesty and laziness in the realm of theatre criticism?)
I admit that this syndrome of trying to oversell a show or following the herd of mass consensus is inevitable. Plus, it’s not all necessarily bad. Part of a critic’s job is to serve as a sort of cheerleader for certain works, so hyperbolic language is part of the game. If a critic really wants people to come see a show, they’ll often use language similar to that of a press release to urge their readers to buy tickets.
Perhaps I just have much stronger passions and opinions about theatrical works than movies (more on which I’ll get into in part three), although I do remember having that immensely frustrating, "Did you all see the same bullshit movie I did?" when all the critics gushed over Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, which I found (and still find) to be a dull, heavy-handed, emotionally false and manipulative melodrama.
I hope this isn't going to be misinterpreted as sour grapes or me grumbling about how everyone else is stupid 'cept me (grumble grumble, grunt grunt). That’s not what I mean. This is also why I'm not citing specific examples: I don’t want people to get caught up in some bullshit, theatre-blogosphere-centered pseudo-controversy about me trashing specific critics (plus, I've been guilty of this myself in my own reviews, which I'll get into in part three). That’s not what I’m trying to do here.
I'm trying to point out overall problems I find with theatre criticism that pervades the entire scene, regardless of the source. I'm really more referring to the problem I see in theatre criticism where, as a reader, I neither get a good description of the play itself (and good reviews shouldn’t just offer gushing adjectives or snide bon mots; they should give the reader a detailed and accurate description of the show) nor get a good idea of what the critic thought or felt about the show.
I actually think the emergence of Critic-O-Meter (the New York theatre scene's equivalent of RottenTomatoes.com, albeit with grades instead of a Pass/Fail system) will serve the critical scene well. Although it has some flaws (it doesn't collect all the reviews, and I have some quibbles about the letter grades some reviews are assigned), rounding up all the available reviews for a currently playing show and ranking them from most favorable to most scathing is a boon to folks like me who like reading criticism (and quite helpful, I think, in helping theatre-goers become more informed when choosing a show to see).
Overall, I wouldn't mind seeing more intelligent, diverse and honest critical discourse in the New York theatre scene (or any scene, really; I just cite New York because it's my home) from more sources (from print and online media, from bloggers, from other theatre-makers). Hell, I think the equivalent of an At the Movies debate show/forum for theatre would be amazing (either in television, streaming video or online text form would be fine; it is, after all, a new media era).
In Part Three: I ramble on about how I (sort of) participate in the critical scene, the ways in which I (regretfully) can't contribute more, and the ways in which I (possibly) can.
Thinking Jennifer 8 is the greatest movie of all time,
James "Seriously, Folks, I'm Kidding" Comtois
1. Siskel and Ebert discuss criticism:
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Where the Wild Things Are
Since I just saw Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, and since I'm amidst blathering about criticism, I figured, why not post a review for the film before continuing my rambling three-part entry on criticism and reviewing? Considering one of my forthcoming points, I find writing a review for a film like this kind of fitting. Or contradictory. Whichever. After I post parts two and three and you have a chance to read it, you be the judge.
I loved Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's 10-sentence children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. It's simply a delightful and amazing film that stays true to the vision of the original book as well as to Jonze's.
I loved the way Max (superbly played by Max Records) acts like a real nine-year-old boy. In the first few scenes of the film, we see instances of Max going damn near feral, yet the movie never treats him as a "problem child." No. He's nine. This is how nine-year-old boys behave, full of manic energy and conflicting, uncontrollable emotions.
Just watch the way Max has fun in the opening scene, making a fort out of snow and pretending to be a general, giving angry marching orders to a fence. Then watch the way he flips out over the aftermath of a fun snowball fight he has with his older sister's teenage friends, red- and teary-eyed and full of inconsolable rage.
I loved the overall lack of typical Hollywood film plot, thus making the 90 minute feature amazingly faithful to the original book. The story itself is pretty simple: Max gets into a fight with his mom (Catherine Keener) and decides to run (then sail) off to a land inhabited by giant monsters (the titular wild things) that make him their king. Max and the wild things then spend the bulk of their time wrestling, breaking stuff, building forts, and waging "war" with one another.
When he meets the wild things, there's not much setup or exposition. None is needed. One of the wild things, Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is trashing some of the monsters' makeshift homes. He asks Max if he wants to join in. Of course he does. Breaking stuff with reckless abandon is the bread and butter of a young boy. Thus begins their friendship. No, "What are you creatures and how does this new world work?" baloney. They're monsters, and they like roughhousing and breaking things. They're speaking Max's language.
Although it's obvious that this is Max's fantasy, Jonze and his writing partner, Dave Eggers, don't hit you over the head with this. They respect the audience's intelligence, even the really young members of the audience.
Because it's Max's fantasy world, we get to see Max's ferocity, imagination and unstable emotions in macrocosm in the form of giant, wonderful and frightening creatures. It's one thing to see a young boy throw a spontaneous temper tantrum. It's another thing entirely to see one thrown by a giant beast that can punch holes through trees.
I loved the acting in it. As I mentioned before, Records is just spot on as Max. He's neither precocious nor cloying. He's likable and believable. The voice work for the creatures, from Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, Chris Cooper and Paul Dano, are also excellent. Keener is, as always, spot-on. The effects are great, the monsters look amazing, and the soundtrack is excellent.
I love how the movie doesn't engage in your typical stupid Hollywood moralizing (a character has a few pat flaws that can be easily fixed, an authority figure of some sort shows the character how to fix them, the flaws get fixed, and the character is a better person). I won't give away the film's course or conclusion, but Where the Wild Things Are doesn't follow this tiresome and fraudulent trajectory.
I laughed a lot. I got misty-eyed a number of times. I loved this movie. I'm so glad it was released. Go see it.
Getting all emotional,
James "King Wolf" Comtois
Ps. Don't buy into the talk around the Intertubes that this is too dark or intense for nine or 10 year-olds. This is absolutely geared for young boys as well as adults. It's just not insipid and condescending like other children's movies around.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Reviews and Criticism (Part One)
Note: this entry ended up being far too long to read in one sitting on a computer monitor, so I'm breaking this entry up into sections. Here's part one (of three), in which I ramble about reading film and theatre criticism.
I'm going to take a weird tangential break from my typical horror film entries, shameless self-promotion and dick-and-fart-joke symposium to offer some rambling thoughts on arts criticism (mainly film and theatre criticism). It's a subject I've been thinking about a great deal of late, so I figured I'd ramble a bit just to get some things out of my system. And seriously: I ramble in this entry. I'm very liberal with my definition of art criticism, use straw man arguments and sometimes don't cite my sources. I'm also all over the map here. Just humor semi-senile grampa and let me ramble. And feel free to post your two or three cents in the comments section.
I'm actually a very big fan of criticism. I regularly read several critics and am fascinated with the writings from several others.
I love reading Roger Ebert's reviews. For me, he's really one of the best. Don't look at me like that. Surf his site and read his reviews if you think I'm just being lazily middlebrow. Sure, he's a popular critic, but he's immensely film-literate (and literate in general) and writes good arguments for his opinions of films. Even when I don't agree with him, I love reading his often well-argued theses on films. Though lately he's been a very soft touch (he's pretty quick to grant positive reviews), and isn't a good gauge for me in figuring out if I'll like an upcoming movie, I love reading his essays and reviews, simply because I think he writes good arguments for or against a film.
I also really enjoy reading my former professor Ray Carney's essays on film and art. He's not a popular critic, but very much an art film critic (he's pretty much the critical authority on John Cassavetes). Although he's a hardliner (Kubrick, the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are mainstream hacks, in his view), he offers good arguments and writes very worthwhile, provoking and insightful essays on films and art. (He was one of the first champions of not only Cassavetes, but of the new wave of so-called "mumblecore" filmmakers like Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers before they were given that shitty label.) One of the biggest values I get from his writing (and there are several; seriously, folks, check his essays, books and interviews out) is for finding good or great independent films I wouldn't otherwise know about. If he offers a film a favorable quote, I'm making a point to go see it.
Nathan Rabin from the Onion AV Club is also aces in my book. In addition to finding his writing absolutely hilarious, I eagerly await every installment from his column, My Year of Flops, in which he revisits a commercial failure from years past to see if it's a so-bad-it's-good gem, an actual masterpiece that was ahead of its time, or a genuinely bad crass, focus-grouped studio "product." He and Scott Tobias (also from the AV Club) are great at opening the discussion of the value (or lack thereof) in bad movies and cult films. In general, when I'm looking for reviews that will coincide the closest with my tastes, I turn to the film page on the Onion AV Club.
I'm also fascinated...from a distance, mind you...with Armond White, the current critic for The NY Press and chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, and his work. I won't bore you with the details of how and why he's controversial. You're on the Internet. Look him up. Go on, I'll wait. He doesn't anger me as much as others. He's written some fascinating essays and insightful reviews, and is clearly very educated. And all opinions are subjective. But, let's face it: when someone who writes in an academic and elitist "voice" writes positive reviews for Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe but writes negative reviews for Wall-E and The Wrestler, you know (as a reader and filmgoer), you're being played.
(My suspicion is that White's motives aren't just to be simply contrary, but to get people to start thinking about their tastes in mainstream films. I don't know if he's on the right track or successful, but to give him the benefit of the doubt, that's my suspicion. For a really good and even-tempered essay on the pros and cons of White, I recommend James Berardinelli's ReelThoughts entry here.)
I'm not really sure if I get much value from White's reviews aside from immediate entertainment value. A positive or negative review from him doesn't factor into my movie-going habits or tastes at all. I think because he garners such controversy, yet has some genuine bona fides and is clearly intelligent, I feel compelled to check out his reviews and interviews.
And I have to say, I also miss Charles Taylor over at Salon.com. I thought sometimes he, too, would be intellectually dishonest: he wrote a middling and dismissive review for Jackie Brown, then wrote a negative review for Kill Bill Vol. 2, saying he wished Tarantino would go back to making great films like the unfairly underrated Jackie Brown (though to be fair, he did admit that he dropped the ball on the review for Jackie Brown, but there are plenty of other examples where he's pulled a 180 on his own self-created criteria). But he was thoughtful, and there are more than a few times he hit the nail on the head with his reviews (his reviews for Star Wars Episode I and Dogville are spot on).
Taylor's essays on popular films were also enjoyable and thought-provoking (in particular his loving essay on E.T. and his essay Blahbusters). So yes, I have to admit, I do miss Chuckie T., and that Salon.com's value as a source for respectable film criticism has suffered as a result (sorry, Andrew and Stephanie).
Well, enough. Suffice it to say, I enjoy reading film criticism. I enjoy reading the varied takes on past and current films. I enjoy reading the academic and scholarly essays, I enjoy reading the reviews that basically serve as a consumer report (i.e., "See it or skip it"). I like seeing how different critics carve out different niches for themselves and how different critics approach a film from different angles.
I also enjoy reading theatre criticism, although to be honest, I don't follow theatre critics so much as the reception of specific productions. Perhaps this is because I've seen more films than plays, and I enjoy comparing and contrasting reviews and critics' opinions (as well as comparing and contrasting their opinions to mine) to works I've seen or have the hope/intention of seeing.
(Though I actually enjoy reading Martin Denton's reviews relatively regularly, as well as Aaron Riccio's. We don't always agree, but I enjoy reading their takes on shows. And when we do agree, I find their reviews eerily in sync with my assessment. There are some other critics here and there I check up on just for the fun of it as well.)
After I see a play, whether or not I review it, I often find all the reviews for it and read them.
I think arts criticism, for many reasons, is facing some trouble. With print media dying, critics becoming either shills for the studios (a little more on this in a moment) or so cynical they've lost interest in their jobs, and attention spans getting shorter, long-form (even medium-form) criticism has seen better days.
In Part Two: I continue to ramble about the trouble film and theatre criticism is facing. (Spoiler: I don't blame the star ratings system, letter grades, or Siskel & Ebert's "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" system.)
Knowing where to stick his thumb,
James "Academic Artisan" Comtois
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
There are spoilers throughout.
Stanley Kubrick's liberal adaptation of Stephen King's novel, The Shining downplays the book's supernatural element and makes it more about a recovering alcoholic becoming crushed by isolation, despair and failure, and falling off the wagon in the most spectacular way imaginable.
I'll be honest: The Shining isn't a movie that grabbed me when I first watched it. It's a movie that grew on me exponentially since my original viewing. Not that I disliked it when I first encountered it, but when I was 13, I found it overlong and took too much time kicking into gear, with many false starts (although it did have Jack Nicholson running around this large nearly empty hotel terrorizing people with an axe, which my 13 year-old self appreciated).
And okay, fuck it. I first saw The Shining during my full-blown, rabid Stephen King fanboy days, a time when I would take less-than-faithful adaptations of his work a little too personally. Though, I think by now we all know that this isn't a "Stephen King film." It's a Stanley Kubrick film, through and through.
Carrie is a Stephen King film (even though it's quite ably directed by Brian De Palma). Stand By Me is a Stephen King film (again, no offense to Rob Reiner intended). The Shining is a Kubrick film that, like all his films (virtually all of Kubrick's feature films were adapted from literary works) happens to use King's novel as creative fodder to tell this own story his own damn way.
So, I won't go over the differences between the book and the film, simply because there are just too damn many. It'd be a shorter list of how they're similar (pretty much the characters' names and that it takes place in a closed up haunted hotel are what they have in common).
When I saw it again five years later, I found every single frame filled with menace and dread, from the ominous opening credits to the slow tracking shot of Danny in the bathroom talking with his imaginary friend Tony about his dad getting the job at the Overlook Hotel. And those are just in the first few minutes of the movie. We haven't even gotten to those fucking twins or the woman in Room 237 or seeing "ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY" written in various formats on reams of paper (it's such a simple scene but it's so effectively chilling).
And I've seen it many, many times since. It's a creepy-ass movie.
Despite King's originally expressed disappointment with the film, the material suits Kubrick well. His signature unnerving slow tracking wide-angle shots are perfectly suited for a horror film (his only entry in the genre), truly capturing the cold, bleak isolation of the expansive Overlook Hotel.
You may be asking a very reasonable question. Why am I praising The Shining, which has a much longer run-time and is all about buildup and eerie atmosphere, when I criticized Rosemary's Baby of being substandard for the same reasons? First off, I find Rosemary's Baby dull and find The Shining engaging. For me, Kubrick is more successful in creating a mood of slow and steady dread in The Shining than Polanski is in Rosemary's Baby. In some ways, it's as simple as that. But no, I'm a quasi-professional here, so I'll continue to elaborate.
Second, and I admit this is pretty bitchy, things actually happen in The Shining. From Danny's hallucinations to Jack's slow and steady meltdown to Jack's investigation into Room 237 to the relentless, "Oh, shit! Dad's got an Axe! RUN!" conclusion, shit actually happens. With Rosemary's Baby, you've got one amazing sequence, a whole lot of nothing, then a muted and somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.
And third, simply put, The Shining is scary while Rosemary's Baby is not.
(Okay, I really should stop, lest this seem like I'm just bashing the shit out of Polanski's film. I don't hate it. Really. I just think it's overrated and should be cut by 30 minutes.)
The Shining opens with Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) interviewing for a job at the Overlook Hotel as its off-season caretaker. In the interview, the manager warns him that a previous caretaker got cabin fever and killed his family and himself during the long winter in which the hotel, which is built on the site of an Indian burial ground, is completely isolated.
Jack's son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), talks to his imaginary friend, Tony, about his bad premonitions about the hotel. Jack's wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), tells a visiting doctor about Danny's imaginary friend "Tony" and that Jack had given up drinking because he had dislocated Danny's shoulder after a night of heavy drinking.
The family arrives at the hotel on closing day and is given a tour. The elderly black chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) speaks to Danny telepathically, offering him some ice cream.
While they have ice cream, Hallorann explains to Danny that he and his grandmother shared the gift; they called the communication "shining." Danny asks if there is anything to be afraid of in the hotel, particularly Room 237. Hallorann tells Danny that the hotel has a certain "shine" to it and many memories, not all of them good. (Hallorann's simile of the memories lingering like the smell of burnt toast is an element where Kubrick tries to connect the concept of ESP and evil spirits connected to the real world.) He warns Danny to stay out of room 237.
A month later, Jack is trying to write, but doesn't seem to be making much headway. In fact, when Wendy tries to engage in chitchat with him, he's outright hostile.
Danny enjoys riding around the endless halls of the hotel in his Big Wheels bike, until he has one of his..."hallucinations." That's right. It's those fucking twins; the two daughters of the previous caretaker who went batshit insane and went after his family with an axe.
Yeah. Fuck this hotel.
When the snow piles up, the family is officially shut in for the winter. The snowstorm knocks out the phone lines and makes travel nearly impossible. I particularly love the sequence where Wendy is speaking to a dispatcher on the radio, needing to go, "Over," then switching the radio from talk to listen mode for the conversation (emphasizing how cut off they are from the outside world).
Then there's that truly horrific scene in Room 237 where Jack goes to see what's in there that attacked Danny. Even before the "gotcha" moment when the hot naked lady turns into the not-so-hot deformed semi-corpse naked lady, the scene, which unfolds slowly and in one of those long wide-angle shots Kubrick was known for, always puts me on edge.
But throughout all this supernatural creepiness, which builds and builds and builds until Jack is eventually coached by the ghost of the previous caretaker to "correct" his family (and of course by "correct," I mean, "chop up into little pieces with an axe"), there's a through-line of a recovering alcoholic desperately trying to keep it together...and failing, due to outside forces beyond his control.
Though Kubrick has never been known for his warm portrayal of humanity (and The Shining definitely follows Kubrick's theme of humans being insignificant and powerless specs against giant outside forces of nature), and I certainly wouldn't argue that The Shining is an exception to this rule (it's not), I was struck listening to Jack's rant about going on the wagon after injuring Danny (at the four-minute mark in the above clip). He clearly feels regret about injuring his son, but still tries to downplay it as an accident anyone could have made (that Wendy has blown out of proportion). For someone not known for portraying humanity, this is a surprisingly emotionally honest scene.
Although The Shining ultimately reveals that the ghosts and demons are literal (how else would Wendy see the furries going at it, and how else would Jack escape the walk-in fridge, and what about that final shot of the old photo with Jack in it?), the film just as interested - if not more so - in the metaphorical demons that trigger Jack Torrence's descent into homicidal madness.
Making sure the Sidewinder still runs,
James "Snowblind" Comtois
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Episode Two of Entrenched
After the awesomeness that was the Saturday Night Saloon, I spent the bulk of the three-day weekend working on Episode 4 of Entrenched, which means I was unable to write-up the next horror film entry on my list.
Although I may be able to finish and post it later today, since I actually have real day job work to do, it's more likely the next horror entry will be posted tomorrow or Wednesday.
With the rough of the penultimate episode written and sent off to the cast & crew, I realize that this may be the one serial I've written for the Saloon that would most benefit from being rewritten as a full-length. While writing the fourth episode, there was more than one occasion when I'd think that five 10-15 minute episodes aren't nearly enough. I'm finding myself truncating a lot to convey the story coherently in five short episodes, cutting huge chunks of dialogue and streamlining many subplots I no longer have any time/room for.
Perhaps after I finish revisions to The Little One and write the final episode for the serial of Entrenched, I'll go back and rework the story as a 120-minute full-length script. It would most likely be a completely different structure and format, not just connecting the five episodes as one long piece.
Though, in the meantime, here's the video for the second episode of Entrenched for your viewing pleasure:
Entrenched: Episode Two
By James Comtois
Directed by Adam Swiderski
Featuring Peter Brown, Bryan Enk & Ben VandenBoom
Video by Pete Boisvert
I'll get that horror film entry posted for you soon, folks. Until then, enjoy the video, and buy your tickets for Blood Brothers.
Scrambling to write that next horror film entry,
James "Tawdry Tard" Comtois
Monday, October 12, 2009
And I Have To Say...
...I love the fact that Nosedive's props list currently says: "Penis stump that can squirt blood - Have. Clipboard - Need."
There really are times this life we've chosen just tickles me.
Enjoying such foolishness,
James "Lover of Theatre" Comtois
Sunday, October 11, 2009
You Know What's a Good Idea?
Buying your tickets for The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol.
Fortified with gore and depravity, The New Guignol is part of your complete Halloween.
Always looking out for ya,
James "Creepy Peeping Neighbor" Comtois
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Tonight! Episode 2!
in association with
The Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company
A five-part WWI/Time Travel serial play by James Comtois
Two men fight in the trenches.
One died yesterday.
The other won’t be born for another 55 years.
Directed by Adam Swiderski
Peter Brown - Bryan Enk - Ben VandenBoom
As part of the Vampire Cowboys' Saturday Night Saloon.
LET'S NINJA SCIENCE RANGER TEAM GET!
by Dustin Chinn
(Member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab)
directed by Jeff Whitted
(Co-Artistic Director of Youngblood)
by Mac Rogers
(Universal Robots; Viral; Hail Satan)
directed by Jordana Williams
(Member of Gideon Productions)
by Crystal Skillman
(The Telling Trilogy; 4 Edges; Birthday)
directed by John Hurley
(Artistic Director of Impeteous Theatre Group)
JACK O'HANRAHAN AND THE TROUBULATION OF DOOM
by Brent Cox
(The Dog & Pony Show)
directed by Padraic Lillis
(Member of LAByrinth Theater Company)
LADY CRYPTOZOOLOGIST: SEASON 2
written & directed by Jeff Lewonczyk
(Babylon, Babylon; Macbeth without Words)
Saturday, October 10
at 8 p.m. at the Battle Ranch
405 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn
ADMISSION IS FREE!
Friday, October 09, 2009
Shitty Trains, Time Traveling Soldiers, Bargain-Priced Severed Heads
Despite the L train apparently planning on being fucked up this weekend (seriously, L Train, once again, go fuck yourself), I'm all pumped up for the next installment of the Saturday Night Saloon tomorrow at the Battle Ranch.
So, for those of you who can brave the shuttle buses, come out tomorrow night to check out the second episode of six new serial plays, including Nosedive's contribution, Entrenched, written by Yours Truly, directed by Adam Swiderski, and starring Peter Brown, Bryan Enk and Ben VandenBoom.
If you can't make it to the Saloon this weekend, fear not. As with the previous episode, we plan to tape and post the performance.
In other self-promotional news, according to reports, rehearsals for The Blood Brothers Present...The New Guignol are going well. I hope to see a full run of the shows on Wednesday of next week to see for myself.
In what may be one of the most awesomest business discussions ever, the folks at Nosedive Central were engaged in an email discussion thread yesterday comparing and contrasting the quality and costs of different fake severed heads. Yes, this was serious business we had to attend to.
I gotta say, there are times when I really do love this gig.
Incidentally, tickets for The Blood Brothers Present... are starting to sell rather nicely, so although it's still a few weeks out, it may be a good idea to buy your tickets sooner rather than later.
And since I completely forgot we have a three-day weekend coming up, I'll be posting my next horror film entry on Tuesday instead of Monday.
And that's what I've got going on at my end. Have a great three-day weekend, folks. If I don't see you at the Ranch on Saturday, I'll catch you after you've had a chance to find your pants and clean the weekend off yourself.
Looking forward to having the
weekend spray its love on my face,
James "Dignity Personified" Comtois