Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Nerd Notes: November 2022

I'm always welcome to hearing that rich people are shallow assholes but if you already agree with that point of view, The Menu doesn't offer much else to chew on past that. It unfolds at a steady clip, though, it doesn't dawdle (thumbs up for the well under two hour running time), it occasionally surprises in wonderfully nasty ways, and the cast is top notch. I do think, however, that if you start pulling on the threads of its narrative it quickly starts to fall apart. There's a lot of suspension of disbelief that has to happen here. Without giving any spoilers, I would just say I wasn't totally convinced that Ralph Fiennes' kitchen staff would be as, let's say, dedicated as they are and the whole movie hinges on whether you can and do believe that. I can believe that Anton Phibes had one assistant that, for whatever reasons, was so maniacally devoted to him that they would go along with facilitating his murderous revenge schemes. Do I think that an entire restaurant staff would be willing to go all in on what Fiennes' character has planned here? No, I don't, no matter what grudges they might have towards the one percenters that they serve. Director Mark Mylod, working with Seth Reiss and Will Tracy's script, tries to sell this aspect of the story by making it clear that the staff is more like an obsessive cult than a group of professional cooks but I still think it's a big ask on the part of the filmmakers. Ultimately, for The Menu to work you just have to shrug and say "Eh, fine." Luckily, the events of The Menu are entertaining enough where it's easy enough to enjoy what's on the plate without picking apart the ingredients.  

Having just watched The Menu days earlier, I found it a little difficult to warm up to Glass Onion at first. As soon as it began, I thought "Oh God, here I am at another movie filled with unlikable rich assholes." Once it got going, though, it became very easy to put The Menu out of mind and enjoy the delights of Rian Johnson's relentlessly clever sequel. I haven't watched Knives Out since the theaters so I can't really compare the two movies but I do remember walking out of Knives Out hoping that Johnson and Daniel Craig had many more mysteries for Benoit Blanc to solve and I walked out of Glass Onion feeling the same way. If the quality can stay this high, I hope this franchise will go on for decades and keep pairing Blanc up with all-star casts in new settings. Shame on Netflix for not giving Glass Onion a lengthy theatrical run as this crowd pleaser deserves to be seen with a receptive audience on the big screen. 

Given that there was about zero chance of James Gunn and co. dropping the ball on this, it's not surprising that The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is every bit as hugely entertaining as everyone assumed it would be. Drax and Mantis are one of the best pairings in the MCU and I love that this special is about 80% just them together on a well intended misadventure on Earth as they hunt down Kevin Bacon in order to give him to Peter as a gift to renew his Christmas spirit. It's hilarious, it's heart-warming and of course it has an impeccably chosen holiday themed soundtrack. In the terminology of the MCU, this is called a Special but in comic book terms, this would be analogous to an Annual, a single issue that can be enjoyed without following the main title. Just as the publishing arm of Marvel is able to cater to fans who are more invested in following every appearance of their favorite characters and the casual readers who occasionally dip in with Annuals and one-shots, the MCU is well positioned with their Disney+ series and specials to serve the needs of both the MCU diehards and those who have a more passing interest in the Marvel U.  

I had no intention of watching this but I gave the first episode a shot just to fill some time and liked it enough to keep going. The original films are something that I watched with my son years ago when he was little so I have some nostalgia for them but not necessarily enough to be motivated to see this continuation. I'm really finding it charming, though. It's very much in the style of the films, both in the aesthetics of the world (I like how it seems to hail from a pre-CGI era with physical sets and handmade props) and in its sitcom level tone of humor. Given Tim Allen's increasingly conservative real world political bent, I was worried that this would be filled with a grouchy, anti-woke attitude but it isn't like that. 

There's one eye rolling line about "...Even saying 'Merry Christmas' has become problematic these days!" but that's it and there are some actually funny bits that address the progressive changes in the world that Santa needs to adapt to like, while he's assembling his naught and nice list, an elf will interject to correct Santa that this kid or that isn't actually 'naught,' but it's just that they have ADD or whatever. I can't say that this is anything great but I will say that, against expectations, I'm actually digging it. If you have any affection for the movies, or if you just want some light 'n breezy holiday cheer that goes down as smooth as a glass of egg nog, it's worth a look. So far, at the halfway point, I'm giving it three out of four candy canes.  

 

As a love story between two young cannibals (or "eaters," as they're referred to here) who roam the US in the 1980s, Bones and All very much belongs in the horror genre but it's unsettling more than it is scary. This is not a jump scare movie but it generates many shivery, queasy moments and its haunting vibe lingers long past the end credits. Filled with unease from the start, Bones and All's protagonists wander from one bleak situation to the next, all while truing to understand and control their impulse (while sometimes indulging them). They occasionally encounter others of their kind but these brushes with scattered members of their tribe never offers them a reason to feel hopeful for the future. Often in the horror genre, discovering that you're part of a secret society is presented as an empowering experience. Even if being, say, a vampire has its downsides, it's usually portrayed as, if not a step up from being human, then at least an attractive alternative. Not here. What I found most interesting about Bones and All is that being an eater is always depicted as a gross way to live. 

Vampires can be feral but there's always that element of aristocracy to them. All the way back to Dracula wearing a cape and tux, first on stage and then in the Bela Lugosi film, the idea of a "classy" side to vampires has long been established. Eaters, however, are disgusting. Their cannibalistic hunger is depicted as a gross way to live and every adult that's been doing it for awhile is shown to be a sad, creepy mess. There's not an ounce of glamour to being a monster here. There's a wider mythology that's hinted at with such supernatural touches as eaters having the ability to smell each other, even sometimes across vast distances, but the focus stays on Taylor Russell and Timothee Chalamet's characters and their immediate problems rather than exploring all the whys and hows of eaters. Even though it's set in the '80s (with some era-specific needle drops, although oddly enough, not a single Fine Young Cannibals track), Bones and All feels far more evocative of the esoteric, melancholy horrors of the '70s. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Bond Identity: Die Another Day at 20

 

As someone who remembers how popular Pierce Brosnan's Bond era was while it was happening and how celebrated it was for re-energizing the franchise, it is a curious thing to see how fashionable it's become to disparage it. In light of the Daniel Craig era, the Brosnan years have been retroactively viewed as, if not a failure, then as bland and forgettable. When Brosnan arrived, though, his Bonds were seen as rescuing the series from the missteps of the two Timothy Dalton Bonds. With the popularity of Craig's darker, edgier 007, though, suddenly the Dalton Bonds found a belated appreciation and Brosnan's slicker, more crowd pleasing entries, which were once viewed as a much needed course correction for the series, fell out of favor. While I do agree that the Dalton films were worthy of rediscovery, I think the Brosnan era is still great fun and that it represents a style of Bond that may never come again. Twenty years ago today, on November 22, 2002, that era came to an abrupt - and some say ignominious - end with Die Another Day

Unlike Craig's swan song, No Time To Die, Die Another Day was not announced as being the last Brosnan Bond. It was just another entry in a run that, with each new film, had raked in more money than the previous film. The Brosnan Bonds were massive box office successes and every one handily topped the last. There was no lack of love on the part of audiences of the time for his Bond films and prior to its release, Die Another Day was another hotly anticipated installment. Coinciding with the series' 40th anniversary, Die Another Day had the feel of a greatest hits package. Every aspect of the franchise was touched on here, from the grittier feel of License to Kill and For Your Eyes Only to the over the top camp of Moonraker

Directed by New Zealand director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors), Die Another Day became the highest grossing Bond film up to that point. The screenplay by the duo of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who had written Brosnan's previous entry, The World Is Not Enough, and who went on to write, or co-write, all the Craig Bonds, sends Brosnan's 007 up against Tan-Sun Moon, a former North Korean Colonel who was believed to be killed during a conflict with Bond but who survived and through a gene therapy clinic has changed his identity and, more improbably, his appearance to that of a white British dude named Gustav Graves, whose real world counterpart would probably be entrepreneur Richard Branson. As Graves, Moon is a British billionaire whose enormous wealth came from discovering a vein of diamonds in Iceland. 


At his spectacular ice palace in Iceland, Graves unveils a new orbital mirror satellite he's dubbed 'Icacrus' that can focus solar energy on small areas, providing sunlight for agriculture. Bond eventually discovers Graves' true identity as well as the true purpose of Icarus - to use concentrated sunlight to slice a path through the Korean Demilitarized Zone and allow North Korean troops to invade South Korea and unite the peninsula.

With the help of NSA agent Giancinta "Jinx" Johnson (Halle Berry), Bond has to take out Graves and his right hand man Zao (Rick Yune) and put an end to their plans. Luckily for Bond, aside from Jinx's assistance, he has an invisible car - an Aston Martin Vanquish (or, for Bond's purposes, the "Vanish") - courtesy of the new Q (John Cleese) to give him a winning edge.   

  

With The Bourne Identity having been released months earlier, in June of '02, Die Another Day was viewed negatively by many in light of the new style of action that Bourne established. Such sights as Bond kite-surfing his way through an arctic tidal wave were jeered as hopelessly campy, marking Bond as a corny, out of step relic in a new era for action heroes. Twenty years later, I say that its absurd qualities are what make it special. More than that, they now make it feel very current. 

Given the direction that the action genre has gone in, with the Fast & Furious franchise ratcheting up to the point where these one time street racers are now launching themselves into space, the over the top nature of Die Another Day suddenly feels much more in line with today's action cinema. Ironically, in 2022 it's now The Bourne Identity that looks dated while Die Another Day feels fit and fresh. Put it next to, say, Hobbs & Shaw and it fits right in. 


When it was released, Die Another Day was regarded as the Bond equivalent of Batman & Robin, a movie that didn't know when to stop indulging in pure ridiculousness but today, it is not any more outlandish than most current action films. What seemed to be the mark of a failing franchise seems ahead of the curve now.
 

As an abrupt end to Brosnan's time as Bond, Die Another Day closed the book on his era without any special fanfare, which is a shame. Having helped guide the series to unprecedented levels of success, Brosnan deserved better. The least we can do now is give his finale some belated credit. 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

The Horror Event of the Decade!

 

The occasion of Bram Stoker's Dracula's 30th anniversary this past Sunday on November 13th prompted me to dig out my copy of Fangoria #118. Some of my greatest nostalgia for Bram Stoker's Dracula isn't for the film itself (which I love) but for the hype that surrounded its release. Beginning with the teaser posters that bore only the single word "Beware," the ad campaign for Bram Stoker's Dracula was memorable in and of itself. With so much riding on its success, the advance press for Bram Stoker's Dracula gamely fed into the hoopla and it's no surprise that the #1 horror magazine in the world would go all in on it. 

Back in the fall of '92, the cover for Fango #118 was an instant favorite for me with its dramatic close-up of Dracula in his bat form (one of the many looks for Dracula created by Greg Cannom, who won the Best Makeup Oscar for his work here). Whenever I look at it, I get an instant rush of nostalgia. In our current time when stills for new movies appear on our Facebook and Twitter feeds as part of the constant churn of content we continually scroll through during our day, it's hard to convey what an essential role magazines like Fangoria used to play in the lives of film fans. 

Today we get new info on upcoming films on practically a minute by minute basis but back then, when print was the primary conduit of information, you had to wait for a new issue to hit the stands before you could get the scoop on whatever movie you were excited for. You went weeks with nothing, or whatever the length of time it happened to be between new issues being shipped, and when that new issue finally arrived, it felt like an event. 


When I got my hands on Fango #118, I was especially stoked. The early '90s was a paltry time for horror so the fact that suddenly there was a promising slate of genre movies hitting theaters in the fall of '92 was a big deal. But none of them were more promising than Bram Stoker's Dracula


As much as calling it "The Horror Event of the Decade!" was hyperbole on Fango's part to help them sell issues, at the same time it also wasn't a lie. Whether or not the movie would live up to expectations, what was important about Bram Stoker's Dracula was the fact that a major filmmaker was helming a big budget horror film. Since the late '80s, the horror genre had been on the ropes so to have a director like Francis Ford Coppola making a 50 million dollar Dracula movie for Columbia Pictures was a legitimatley big deal.
 

In horror terms, no one expected Coppola's adaptation to be another Exorcist or Alien but at a time when studio interest in the genre had been faltering for years, any kind of high profile investment in horror mattered and the success or failure of Bram Stoker's Dracula would have an impact on the genre's fortunes going forward. 

Coming off the late '80s, horror had become largely an object of contempt in the eyes of the studios. Even when horror had a prestigious hit in the early '90s, like Misery or The Silence of the Lambs, the impulse of the time was to not even call those movies "horror." Since then, as horror has become more respected, those films have been accepted as genre pictures but in the early '90s, movies like those were "psychological thrillers" while the horror tag was only fit for slasher sequels like Jason Takes Manhattan. So to have Coppola unabashedly referring to his take on Dracula as horror in interviews for the film was an opportunity for the genre to gain some esteem back at a time when it was at a low ebb. 


When Bram Stoker's Dracula was released, the immediate reactions were mixed but it was undeniable that Coppola had made one of the most idiosyncratic big budget movies ever. More lushly romantic than scary, Coppola nonetheless embraced Dracula's genre elements while also making it a love letter to cinema with all its special effects accomplished with techniques that dated back to the early days of movie making. Whatever quibbles critics might have had at the time, the movie was a hit and all the hype had paid off.
 

Its success may not have led to an immediate horror renaissance but it did establish that interest in the genre was very much alive and subsequent big budget classic monster revamps in the form of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Mary Reilly, and Wolf (criminally underrated!), soon followed. 

A few years later, in '96, the release of Scream was what really ended the lean years for horror and the genre has never had another fallow period like '89 to '95 since. The success of Scream buoyed the genre until The Blair Witch Project in '99, then another wave kicked off in 2004 with Saw, the next trend hit with Paranormal Activity in '09, and so on. Point being that for the larger part of the last thirty years the popularity of the genre has never really let up. With the recent announcement that former DC Films president Walter Hamada is moving to Paramount to head their horror line and the even bigger news that Jason Blum and James Wan are planning to combine their respective studios, Blumhouse Pictures and Atomic Monster, into one gi-normous horror factory means that the genre is going to remain huge for, well, let's just say for a very, very long time. We're not going to have to wait for some major filmmaker to come along and help rescue it from obsolescence, that's for sure. 

     

So that's another layer of nostalgia attached to Bram Stoker's Dracula in that it is a reminder of a time when the horror genre felt like it was dangerously on the precipice of fading away. With horror having been thriving for longer than today's young fans can even remember, it's hard to imagine the genre's future being pinned on the success or failure of just one movie but in 1992, horror fans were depending on Coppola to deliver a much-needed hit for the genre. In Tony Timpone's editorial in Fangoria #119, he quoted a Fango Hall of Famer who wished to remain anonymous as saying "If Dracula flops, we can all pack our bags." Reading all the details about Bram Stoker's Dracula in Fango prior to its release, fans then could only hope that the "horror event of the decade" would help ensure the genre's continued survival in the '90s and not put a stake in its heart.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared: Creepshow at 40

The lurid contents of Creepshow's first issue are described by Stan, the angry dad who's enraged to see what his son Billy has been reading as "...things coming out of crates and eating people, dead people coming back to life, people turning into weeds." Stan (played by an uncredited Tom Atkins) is so incensed at the sight of this trash in his house that he gives his mouthy kid (played by Stephen King's son Joe King, known today as successful novelist Joe Hill) a good smack, reminds him of who puts the bread on the table and puts the offending comic out with the rest of the trash that's waiting on the tree belt. 

Ah, but Billy has a guardian angel of sorts in the form of Creepshow's skeletal host. Just after Billy has expressed his wish that his father rot in hell, lightening flashes and The Creep appears outside his bedroom window. As Billy grins and punches his fist into his palm, it seems these two have some ideas for dealing with asshole dads who throw out their kid's comics. At the very least, when it comes to the matter of payback, we sense that they're on the same (comic book) page. 

First, though, after Stan has set us up to expect the worst (meaning, of course, the best), we're going to see all the stuff that got him so worked up. The comic pages flip open in the wind (with animation courtesy of Rick Catizone, who was called in when live action footage of the mock up comic proved to be unsatisfactory) and the Creepshow begins.

Sure enough, right off the bat, we get a corpse coming out of the goddamned ground as a long dead patriarch crawls out of the grave searching for his cake on Father's Day. Over the course of five jolting tales of horror, author Stephen King and director George Romero, both at the top of their game in the early '80s, toast the spirit of the disreputable 1950's EC Comics they were weaned on, all of it brought to life with an adherence to the stylized feel of a comic, with shots suddenly bathed in garish, saturated colors, page flips that transition from one scene to the next, and moments when the background behind the actors will vanish, replaced by a jagged pattern painted onto plexiglass lit from behind with colored light. A movie from two men who became acclaimed, successful artists by indulging in all the things that adults told them would rot their brains, Creepshow is a celebration of what has always been, despite the hysteria of moral watchdogs, good clean fun. 

Unlike the Amicus anthologies Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973), Creepshow's tales were not adaptations of classic EC yarns but King stories in the EC vein that had either been published prior ("The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill" appeared as "Weeds" in the May 1976 issue of Cavalier and "The Crate" was first published in the July '79 issue of Gallery) or were original to Creepshow. The stories here have all become beloved in their own right with even the weakest of them containing their share of indelible moments and classic lines (even if it's only "Meteor Shit!"). 

With make-up master Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th) handling the special effects, Creepshow offers a full buffet of ghastliness. All the hideous things that Stan described with such disdain are present and accounted for. Stretching past the splatter FX he was known for, Creepshow saw Savini delivering more elaborate make-ups and designing an actual creature here in the form of the toothy occupant of "The Crate," dubbed 'Fluffy' on set. With Savini and his crew having been pushed to their limits and in some cases working in unfamiliar, untried territory, there is an uneven quality to Creepshow's FX but I'd argue that the occasional instances when Savini's illusions come up a little short are just part of Creepshow's charm. There's a handmade feel to everything here. If some of it might fail to convince, oh well. 


As with any cult classic, Creepshow's imperfections have become inseparable from what fans cherish about it. For instance, could Creepshow have benefited by being a tighter movie? I think so. For a movie that's supposed to be analogous to reading a comic, Creepshow feels like it's adapted from a comic that's as thick as a phone book. As opposed to the trim running times of Crypt and Vault (83 minutes and 86 minutes, respectively), Creepshow clocks in at a whopping 120 minutes (King's first draft screenplay was an absurd 142 pages). Two hours is way too long for an anthology film to maintain any momentum. 

"Jordy" and "Something to Tide You Over" are regarded with affection by fans but right from the screenplay stage they should have been dropped in favor of one stronger segment (maybe "The Hitchhiker," which made its way into Creepshow 2). As difficult as I'm sure it would be to critique the work of the most popular author in the world, especially when it's someone that you have a friendly relationship with, in collaborating with King, Romero could have stood to be a little more demanding. Reportedly Romero started shooting Creepshow as soon as King handed in his first draft and I think that impulse to just keep it amicable and not question whether there was room for improvement shows in the final product. If these guys were a little harder on each other, I think Creepshow would have been better for it.    

That said, whatever fatigue that sets in midway through Creepshow is alleviated by its final segments, "The Crate" and "They're Creeping Up On You." Two classics, both featuring iconic performances in the form of Adrienne Barbeau as Billie, the ball busting wife to the long suffering Hal Holbrook, and E.G. Marshall as germaphobic, racist millionaire Upston Pratt, ensconced in his hermetically sealed, dirt-free, bug-free apartment. 

These two segments were already the most sharply written to begin with but the performances of Barbeau and Marshall make them indelible. Romero was working with his most high profile cast to date here, with everyone from Ed Harris to Leslie Nielsen to Fritz Weaver, so the acting is notably good throughout (even Stephen King does just fine as Jordy Verill) but Barbeau and Marshall are having a whole other level of fun. 


Once "Creeping" ends with Savini's most show stopping gore gag, with E.G. Marshall's chest erupting in an explosion of cockroaches, we return to Stan and Billy for the wrap up (although not before Billy's copy of Creepshow is recovered by Savini himself in his cameo as a garbage man). 


One might argue that Stan's punishment at Billy's hands with Billy causing Stan to clutch his throat as Billy jabs a needle in a voodoo doll (purchased through an ad in Creepshow, natch), doesn't quite fit the crime (although I guess it depends on how far Billy takes things - does he just inflict some pain on Stan or does he flat out murder him? I like to think it's the former and that he's just content to make Stan uncomfortable) but we're in the world of Creepshow and punishments for even the most trivial offenses are always going to be supersized. 

However we might imagine things might go for Stan, Creepshow closes on an "all's well that ends well" note. In real life, it was a slightly different story. Meant to prove the commercial viability of a King/Romero collaboration in order to interest studios in investing in a planned two film adaptation of The Stand, Creepshow didn't quite make the box office splash they were hoping for. When it was released on November 12th, 1982, it only did good, not great, business. As a result, Romero didn't get that hoped for bump, leaving Creepshow to mark a passing moment of time when Romero was briefly primed to jump to the next level but didn't. While it didn't give Romero the commercial clout that he and King wanted it to, Creepshow still stands as a lovingly crafted valentine to, as Stan calls it, "all that horror crap."

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Always Bet On Black: Passenger 57 at 30

 

Once upon a time, action movie heroes didn't have to save the world to prove their worth. They could just, you know, save the day. They could just be an ordinary (if sometimes well trained) person at the right place and the right time and come between innocent people and terrorists, hijackers, what have you. And that was enough. They didn't have to have super powers. They could just be very good at kicking ass, something that the average person isn't. As a lifelong comic book aficionado, I'm all for superheroes in gaudy costumes and flashy powers but just the same I do miss the type of action movies that the current Marvel/DC landscape doesn't leave much room for. Even the supposedly regular people in today's action movies, whether it be in the Fast and Furious films or in one of the many Mission: Impossible's have to be able to accomplish extraordinary, superhuman feats. In today's world, the unassuming likes of Passenger 57 would never get off the ground. It would barely even qualify as an action movie. 

When it was released on November 6th, 1992, Passenger 57 was, in every way, standard issue early '90s fare. Coming four years after Die Hard, it's another story of a snooty, arrogant British terrorist who sees their plans up ended by the intervention of a regular Joe who just happened to be there. Wesley Snipes is John Cutter, the titular 57th passenger, aboard a plane that, by chance, is also transporting international terrorist Charles Rane (Bruce Payne), who's been apprehended and is on his way to face justice. It will surprise no one that Rane has plotted his escape in advance and that his associates are already on the plane, some as passengers, some among the plane's staff (in an early role, Elizabeth Hurley plays Rane's second-in-command, posing as a flight attendant). 

A former cop and retired Secret Service agent who's been working as a security consultant for airlines, Cutter has decided to accept an offer from his old buddy Sly Delvecchio (Tom Sizemore, giving this the '90s stamp of authenticity) to take the vice presidency position in a new antiterrorism unit in his company, Atlantic International Airlines. Cutter is on this flight heading to LA to make his new job official. You don't need a degree in action cinema to know that Cutter's skills will be put to the test when, mid flight, Rane's people kill the FBI escorts chaperoning Rane and take over the plane. Most will also not be surprised that Marti (Alex Datcher), the attractive stewardess with whom Cutter had a testy encounter with early in the film during an airline security class he was teaching, turns out to be working this flight and that fighting terrorists helps them develop a mutual attraction.

It's no knock on it to note how by the numbers Passenger 57 is. The one element that made it stand out at the time, of course, was Wesley Snipes. After appearing in films like New Jack City and White Men Can't Jump, this was his first time as the lead in an action movie and audiences instantly responded to his supreme sense of cool and his convincing fighting skills. As a trained martial artist he had all the physicality that a Steven Seagal or Van Damme were able to bring to their fights but in addition he was a serious, top level actor as well. Snipes also had a worthy adversary to face off with here with Payne being the perfect arrogant slime to contrast against Snipes. While Rane is smugly convinced of his own superiority, Cutter is there to burst his bubble. The two of them playing off each other make this otherwise routine movie more memorable.


While there wasn't much outside of Snipes and Payne to make Passenger 57 stand out in 1992, the entire movie stands out now. This is such a keepsake of its era. All the things that no one gave a second thought to in '92 now jump out. Just the fact of how simple it is. It is straight up plain by today's standards. After Cutter evades Rane's men on the commandeered flight and he finds a way to dump most of the plane's fuel, it forces Rane to land the plane at a Louisiana airfield to refuel and the action then moves to a nearby local county fair. In a world where Fast and the Furious has sent its characters into space, it's really something to see a movie where having the hero scramble up a ferris wheel to evade a henchman was seen as meeting the requirements of the action genre. 

Director Kevin Hooks was not, in any way, trying to raise the bar here. Passenger 57 has a charming lack of spectacle about it. At one point, Cutter has to get back on board the plane before it takes off again and this means he has to jump from a moving car onto the landing gear of the plane before the wheels retract. Now, if you think this sounds like something that even TJ Hooker could pull off, you'd be right. It's nothing you or I would dare attempt but for an action hero, it's not anything to brag about. This is not any Mission: Impossible shit, that's for sure. Next to what Ethan Hunt or John Wick get up to these days, Cutter might as well be solving mysteries in Cabot Cove. 

From today's perspective, the main thing I have to marvel at while watching Passenger 57 is the fact that it played in theaters. It's just so strange to remember a time when action movies this basic were the stuff of wide theatrical releases. Aside from the pedestrian action, it's just small scale in every way. There's no multiverse to be saved, no hierarchy of power to be changed. No mid-credit scene. No world building. It is nothing more than a guy saving a plane load of people from a terrorist. 

While you could say the same about other old school action films like Cliffhanger or Speed, there's an extra level of panache to those. They're such well constructed, well executed films, there's no questioning why they were hits and even with their low stakes, it's easy to imagine them earning a wide release today. Passenger 57, not so much.

Aside from the way it hails from a different time for action, Passenger 57 also reflects a different era in American culture. With Snipes as the hero, there are several moments in Passenger 57 that touch on the issue of race. It comes up in a humorous way when the dotty old white lady who Marti takes great satisfaction in purposely seating next to Cutter raves to him about how much she loves his show and he realizes that she thinks he's Arsenio Hall ("I just loved it when you told off that Madonna! Who's she to tell you how to wear your hair?"). It comes up more seriously later in the film when Cutter has to contend with Louisiana law enforcement as they refuse to believe him at his word about Rane and treat him like a criminal. But even here, Biggs, the local police chief (played by Ernie Lively) and his men aren't depicted as racists, just as slightly ignorant backwater yokels. 


Once the FBI gets involved, Biggs and his men quickly get on board with backing Cutter (even though Cutter kicked the ass of some of these cops earlier to escape custody) and by the end, Cutter feels free to poke at Biggs with some verbal jibes. These two might not have become best buds but they've learned to work together and respect each other. The ease in which societal tensions and differences are acknowledged and then resolved, at least in the immediate moment, seems a million miles away from where we are now. The Arsenio bit gets a funny callback at the end when all the saved passengers do the "Woof! Woof! Woof!" chant in unison as a victorious Cutter exits the plane and the general lack of acrimony here between various walks of life is a reminder of a time when America didn't feel so bitterly divided and when racism seemed to be on the retreat, rather than on the rise. Maybe even then it was only an illusion but watching Passenger 57 it tugs at the heart a bit to feel that, for awhile, things seemed to be moving in the right direction. 


Despite occupying a pivotal place in Snipes' career, Passenger 57 is not so well remembered today. The classic line "Always bet on black!" that served as the killer hook in its trailer has proved to be more enduring than the movie itself. If you saw it back in '92, though, you likely regard Passenger 57 with fondness. As a slice of '90s nostalgia, it's a pleasant flight back to a much simpler time.    

Monday, October 31, 2022

Fate Never Changes

The key lines of dialogue in the original Halloween come early on as Laurie Strode sits in school while her off-camera teacher discusses the concept of fate with the class. We hear Laurie's teacher saying "You see, fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Collins took, he was destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself." While her teacher is speaking these lines, Laurie is dreamily gazing out the classroom window and catches her first glimpse of Michael Myers standing across the street outside the school. She doesn't realize it yet but fate has arrived and is waiting for her.  

As much as Carpenter's original set the template for scores of slasher films to follow, it was also a rumination on the role that fate plays in our lives. Fittingly, Halloween Ends brings the franchise full circle back to that same theme. As in Halloween, fate catches up with several lives here. Many characters in Halloween Ends are marked for tragedy by circumstances outside of their control, in ways that seem to be predestined. 

Right from the start, fate intervenes to determine the course of events. Twenty one year old Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) finds himself babysitting the young son of a couple that he's done yard work for only because their regular babysitter had to cancel at the last minute after suddenly contracting a stomach virus. The mother's first words to Corey - and the first lines of dialogue in the film - are "Corey, you're a lifesaver." By the end of the night, the couple's son will be dead due to an accidental fall and Corey will become a pariah in Haddonfield.

Years later, Laurie has a chance encounter with Corey outside a convenience store as he's being harassed by a group of high schoolers and, with Corey's hand bleeding from a deep cut caused by shattered glass, she decides to bring him into the hospital where her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) works, thinking that Allyson might take a liking to him. She does and later in the film, Allyson reveals to Corey how when she heard about Corey's tragic babysitting incident in the news, she felt that she understood him and that she knew him and she felt that one day he would somehow come into her life. Circumstances have brought them together just as Allyson believed was meant to happen and the question is "were these events random or were they fate?" Do we ever know the forces that shape our lives? 

Once Laurie senses Michael's darkness in Corey, she tries to put a stop to his relationship with Allyson but Corey angrily shouts at Laurie "You invited me!" On one level, this is Corey reminding Laurie that he's only in Allyson's life because Laurie brought them together. On another level, it seems to call back to the original Halloween. Did Laurie somehow unwittingly, wordlessly invite Michael into her life and into the lives of her friends back in 1978?  Is this fate coming back around as Laurie invites Michael into her life again? Is it also possible that whatever part of Michael that has burrowed its way into Corey is also speaking through Corey in this moment?   


Standing outside of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital during his first meeting with Allyson, Corey can see the radio tower of local radio station WURG in the distance over her shoulder. On first watch, the sight of the tower comes across to us as a meaningless background detail. Later in Corey and Allyson's relationship, though, as they share a moment on WURG's station rooftop, Corey explains the significance of the tower in his life, that in the wake of his troubles he would look up at this local landmark, imagining being able to climb to the top of it and that for him it became a personal beacon that allowed him to dream about the possibility of things going back to the way they were. The constant presence of this tower in Corey's life recalls the words of Laurie's teacher that "fate is immovable like a mountain. It stands where man passes away. Fate never changes." 

On a second viewing of Ends, when we now notice that the tower was present from the very beginning of his relationship with Allyson, it emerges as a symbol of how Corey's fate was always unavoidable, a set point in his future. Even in this hopeful moment where he's talking to a girl who might change his life for the better, that tower and the dark future it represents is standing there like a sentinel or like a pin that's been pushed into a map. It is a reminder that fate will not budge and that Corey's appointed hour will come. No matter what course of action Corey takes, he is destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself. When Corey sets the tower ablaze during his Halloween rampage, fate has been fulfilled. 

Seemingly trivial details in Ends play their part in putting everything in its place. Allyson has a loose muffler on her car but this minor repair remains left undone. When she arrives at the junkyard Corey works at, Allyson tells Corey that she doesn't actually care about getting the car fixed, she just came for him and their relationship starts to move forward. We quickly forget all about the muffler but ultimately it's the sound of that familiar rattle that alerts Corey to Allyson's arrival outside of Laurie home later in the film, giving him the opportunity to make a desperate move. Nothing happens by chance in Ends. In a nod to this, Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), the girl that Laurie once babysat, gives tarot readings, underlining the movie's belief in the unseen forces that guide our lives. 

The lives of Ends' characters are intertwined in ways that they are helpless to alter or avoid. Corey and Allyson, the band kids that continually torment Corey, Laurie and Corey and Michael. All of them fated to intersect, all of them fated to instigate life or death choices in the others. 

  

Corey's bullying by the marching band kids draws Laurie to Corey, which brings Corey to Allyson and a second encounter with those kids who refuse to leave Corey alone (because the group's leader is bullied by his father and he wants to inflict the same pain he feels at home onto someone else) brings Corey into contact with Michael, which leads to Corey becoming infected by Michael's darkness. At every turn in Ends, fate tightens its noose. When Corey confronts Laurie in her house at the end and she shoots him, Corey is sent tumbling over the second floor stair railing to the floor below in the exact same manner that the boy he was babysitting had fallen, mirroring the death that had changed the course of Corey's life. 

In the end, Michael faces his own fate. He follows Corey to Laurie's house not because he is in pursuit of Laurie but because he is out to retrieve the mask that Corey stole from him, the mask that served as his identity since he first donned it in 1978. Had Michael not been driven to get it back, he wouldn't have crossed paths with Laurie for one final encounter. Fate catches up with Michael in Ends because, like everyone else, he is helpless to avoid it. It's been hardwired into him. 

The same impulse that compels Michael to take back his mask is the same that forced him in 1978 to pause his attack on Laurie because his mask had been removed. That mask defined him and, in the end, it's his fixation on it that dooms him. Michael also closes fate's circle by ending Corey's life here. Corey inflicts a potentially fatal wound on himself but we have to wonder if he only did so because he believed that whatever dark essence he was drawing from Michael would allow him to survive it. When Michael arrives to reclaim his mask, though, and Corey jerks to life, Michael ends him on the spot. If not for that, Corey might have continued to carry on as Haddonfield's new boogeyman but with his death at Michael's hands, that possibility is extinguished. With Michael's subsequent death, fate is tied up in a neat bow.

David Gordon Green and his collaborators on Ends (and on the rest of the new Halloween trilogy) have given much thought to the themes of Carpenter's Halloween and that makes Ends a much more fitting finale than some have recognized it to be. This is the first Halloween since the original to acknowledge the deeper underpinnings of fate that are key to Carpenter's film. A movie devoted to yet another battle between Michael and Laurie would not have been as appropriate a tribute to the original as this is. In Ends, it's not just that girl who once stared out of a classroom window unaware of how her life was about to change who finally comes to terms with fate, it's the entire community of Haddonfield that faces a reckoning.