The ‘Burbs: An American Gothic Tale

A cul-de-sac in an unassuming Midwestern suburb is the setting for this classic dark comedy from the ’80s. Though underappreciated, The ‘Burbs (1989) is one of my favorite movies and helped spark my interest in the unusual. It stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun as three friends who suspect an eccentric and reclusive family is up to no good in their neighborhood.

Though on the surface a lighthearted satire of ’80s horror, The ‘Burbs delves deep into the American gothic and the double-sided nature of modern American society, a society that consumes true crime, horror, and paranormal books, movies, and television behind picket fences and manicured lawns.

On Mayfield Place in the fictional suburban town of Hinkley Hills, Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun) and retired Lieutenant Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) suspect a family named Klopek, who live in a dilapidated house next door to Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks), are really satanists responsible for the disappearance of the house’s previous occupants, and later, an old man named Walter Seznick.

Ray Peterson is skeptical, simply wanting to enjoy a quiet weeklong vacation at home with his wife (Carrie Fisher) and son. Strange events gradually convince Ray his friends are right, and they break into the Klopeks’ home seeking evidence of their crimes.

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Power and Force in ‘Crash’

On the surface, the Academy Award-winning film Crash (2004) purports to be an emotional portrayal of race and prejudice in America. Through a series of interwoven vignettes, the filmmakers portray characters of several different races and ethnic backgrounds as they interact over the course of two or three days on the streets of Los Angeles. At every point in the film, the main characters express prejudice in one form or another. Some are seemingly redeemed after dramatic moments, and others never change.

The message of Crash is, perhaps, that everyone harbors some form of prejudice. However, social critics like Bell Hooks have maintained that Crash utterly fails in its attempts to discuss race or class, and instead actually confirms and reinforces typical Hollywood stereotypes.

If Crash was solely a film about race or class, Bell Hooks may have a point. When viewed through the lens of race, Crash is, of course, a cynical portrayal of race relations in which all Americans are trapped in a never-ending cycle of hatred, remorse, and self-loathing (aside from a few moments of catharsis). But Crash falls flat in its attempts to discuss those issues, partially because those issues are not what the film is really about. Looking a little deeper past issues of race or class, Crash is a film about power and force (the raw exercise of power).

For instance, in the second scene, a Persian man and his daughter walk into a gun store to buy a pistol and they begin to chat in Farsi. The store clerk, whose persona is reminiscent of Archie Bunker, mistakes the pair for Arabs, insults the man, and they argue. The store clerk instructs his security guard (who apparently has been standing off camera) to remove him. At this point, the store clerk has exercised force to remove a perceived threat. He could have thrown the man’s daughter out as well, but chose not to. He then bombards her with sexual innuendos as she attempts to complete the purchase.

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Snowden: A Masterfully-Crafted Fairytale

Last night, a handful of people and I watched the premier of Oliver Stone’s latest film, Snowden, a biopic about NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. Oliver Stone, who turned 70 today, has written and directed over two dozen films, many of which are considered masterpieces. Alexander, Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Platoon are among my personal favorites. A live interview with Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who played Snowden), Shailene Woodley (who played Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills), and Edward Snowden himself followed the premier.

Oliver Stone is known for his politically-charged movies, and he doesn’t try to hide his biases. Snowden is an effective piece of propaganda. It’s nearly flawless as a film in terms of acting, editing, pacing, and dialog, but lacks the depth usually given to such a controversial subject.

First, here’s what Snowden gets right. Every actor and actress in this movie is on point. Every character feels genuine. Nicolas Cage, in top form, even makes a cameo as Hank Forrester, a (fictional) disillusioned CIA instructor. Shailene Woodley is perfect as Lindsay Mills, a free spirited, liberal photographer Snowden falls in love with.

One of the advantages of portraying a living person is you are able to study their mannerisms, tone, and expressions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt studied his subject well. Levitt, as Snowden, narrates throughout the entire film, as he is telling his story to a group of journalists, but the dialog is tight and the narration never gets bogged down in needless exposition.

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Labyrinth’s 30th Anniversary

This afternoon I watched a special 30th Anniversary theatrical showing of Jim Henson’s final film, Labyrinth. I loved Labyrinth as a kid. It was the only VHS tape my grandma owned, and I  watched it every time we visited. Seeing it in the theater was definitely an experience worth having. I was surprised to learn Labyrinth did not do well at the box office. I suppose seen for the first time through the eyes of an adult, it would seem like a silly movie. But to a child, it’s magical.

Henson’s puppets are finely crafted and the sets and characters are unique and entertaining. The music by David Bowie and Trevor Jones is outstanding. It’s a testament to the quality of the film that rather than be forgotten, 30 years later it’s being replayed in theaters around the nation.

Released in June 1986, Labyrinth is the story of a teenage girl, Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly), who must journey to the center of a complex labyrinth to rescue her infant brother, Toby, who has been kidnapped by Jareth (played by David Bowie), the Goblin King. Along the way, she makes friends with colorful characters like Hoggle, a dwarf; Ludo, a large hairy beast; and Sir Didymus, a tenacious Fox Terrier. The film was a commercial disappointment, losing $12 million. Depressed by the failure, Jim Henson never made another feature film. He died four years later, in 1990.

The 30th Anniversary theatrical showing included interviews with Jennifer Connelly (who was 14 years old in 1986) and Jim Henson’s son, Brian, as well as a look at the Henson collection at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia. It showed the care and detail that went into making the puppets. In Labyrinth, two brass door knockers seem to come to life. The door knockers are not CGI: they were actually made of foam painted to look metal. The illusion holds up even on the big screen.

I’ve always thought that CGI hasn’t come close to the puppets, miniatures, and practical effects of the 1980s in terms of realism. There’s something too clean, too perfect and precise about CGI. Labyrinth does use some effects like matte paintings and green screen that look terrible, but overall the effects quality is solid. Interestingly, Labyrinth contains one of the first uses of a CGI animal in a film–the owl in the opening credits.

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Morgan

Released in early September, Morgan (2016) was billed as a promising new sci-fi horror/mystery movie, but quickly falls flat.  It stars Kate Mara as Lee Weathers, a “corporate consultant,” Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan, and Rose Leslie as a behavior specialist. Paul Giamatti makes a notable appearance as the only character with emotional depth.

Going into the film, I thought it was going to explore the ethical issue of genetic manipulation and cybernetic enhancement. I thought it would pose an interesting dilemma to the audience about whether research of this nature should be pursued, like Ex Machina (2015) did for artificial intelligence. Boy, was I disappointed.

First, the film was deceptively marketed. It’s not a mystery and it barely passes for horror. Its IMDB summery is, “A corporate risk-management consultant must decide whether or not to terminate an artificially created humanoid being,” but that’s not actually the plot.

Spoiler alert: the end of the film reveals that the corporate consultant was actually a genetically-enhanced assassin, and the whole exercise was an excuse to see whether her version could defeat the newer version, Morgan. So, in the end, there’s never a question about whether Morgan should be terminated, and the protagonist never solves a mystery–she knew what Morgan was the whole time. The result was a boilerplate chase/assassin thriller.

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Paper Towns: An Existential Mystery

Released in July 2015 and based on the novel by John Green, Paper Towns (2015) is a coming of age story centered on Quentin “Q” Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman, childhood friends who drift apart while growing up in a nondescript Orlando, Florida subdivision. I enjoyed this film. It weaves urban exploration, road tripping, and geography/cartography around deeper themes involving free will, expectations vs. reality, friendship, and how we confront our own mortality.

The title of the film, Paper Towns, comes from a type of fictitious entry that cartographers sometimes use to discourage plagiarism or copyright infringement. This becomes important when Margo Roth Spiegelman refers to Orlando as a “paper town” before she mysteriously disappears. Her friends attempt to track her down near a famous fictitious entry, Agloe, New York.

To briefly summarize the plot, as a young boy Quentin Jacobsen, played by Nat Wolff, is immediately smitten with Margo Roth Spiegelman, played by Cara Delevingne (a discount Emma Watson), after her family moves into the house across the street. They become inseparable, until one day they discover the body of a man who committed suicide in a park. Margo wants to investigate the man’s death, but Quentin chickens out. After that, the two drift apart. Quentin becomes a band geek who always follows the rules, while Margo constantly lives in the moment and falls in with the popular crowd.

One night, in their senior year of high school, Margo asks Quentin to help get revenge on her boyfriend and her friends, who betrayed her. After sharing this moment together, Margo mysteriously vanishes. Quentin begins to break out of his shell, and enlists the aid of his friends in a lengthy search for his missing soulmate.

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