*. The Book of Eli was met with generally bad reviews. Ed Koch, writing in The Atlantic, began his in rather absolute terms: “This picture is one big waste of time, including that of the actors and those in the audience who pay to see it.” Not much more to say is there?
*. I didn’t hate it. Then again, I can’t say I liked it either. I can’t even call it interesting, which is a word that usually gets slapped on movies that we don’t like but can’t be bothered with figuring out why. I didn’t think there was anyting particularly interesting about The Book of Eli at all.
*. The story is a conventional post-apocalyptic fable about a wanderer named Eli (Denzel Washington) making his way through a shattered landscape. What it most put me in mind of was a spaghetti Western, with Eli as the taciturn gunslinger who rides into a corrupt town being run by a nasty thug. Chicks dig him, but he remains distant, true to some otherworldly sense of mission.
*. The local boss is played by Gary Oldman. When did he become the go-to guy for these kinds of eccentric villain roles? Maybe after his turn in Léon: The Professional. He had been a brutal but ridiculous pimp in True Romance earlier though. Then Zorg in The Fifth Element and a terrorist in Air Force One and the unrecognizable puppetmaster in Hannibal. By 2010 he had the part down pat.
*. While I didn’t think any part of it was interesting, I did find The Book of Eli to be entirely watchable. It seemed like the kind of movie you could watch in a daze, half-awake. Nothing surprising happens and there’s no plot to bother following but it is cool to look at. The wasteland has a bleached, epic video-game feel to it that makes it look like the surface of the moon accompanied with illustrations by Andrew Wyeth.
*. Here’s one thing I did make note of. Just before we see Carnegie (Oldman) getting a shave the camera pans in from an overhead shot of the street where a very large dog is hopping along. I think this very large dog only has three legs! Yes, that’s the kind of thing I was noticing. Because there was nothing else to pay attention to.
*. So why did so many people dislike this film so much? Maybe it was the religious angle. That Eli has memorized the entire New King James Version of the Bible, like one of those book people we meet at the end of Fahrenheit 451, is all well and good, but has God given him super powers as well? If the movie is meant as a Christian or moral parable, what is the point? I guess it’s pretty obvious that Eli, who may be blind, has the word of God in his heart, while Carnegie, who just sees the Bible as a source of power over others, can’t read it. But that seems awfully trite.
*. Trite, or bland. It all just goes toward that daze-like feeling I had watching this movie. Washington and Oldman are both very comfortable in their roles. Visually it looks empty and grand. It might be a dream. Did I really see it or was I asleep? I need to find out about that dog.
*. A sequel — Joe Dante calls it “this most unnecessary of all sequels” — that was a long time coming. And a very different film from Gremlins, which is to its credit. They didn’t want to just go back and do the same thing with better effects.
*. Sometimes you have to throw your hands up as a critic. At the beginning of his commentary director Dante calls Gremlins 2 “one of the most unconventional studio movies ever,” which I think it probably was at the time.
*. There were precursors. Dante goes as far back as Hellzapoppin’ (1941). Still, but for the fact that Warner Bros. was desperate for a hit Gremlins 2 would never have been made. Or at least never made the way it was, with Dante being given complete creative control.
*. The result is anarchy, no less chaotic for being intentional. The story does have a certain structure to it, but while it never breaks down entirely it does get overwhelmed by all the hijinks. Roger Ebert thought it just devolved into a series of gags. I thought it was turning into a variety show even before it does, in fact, turn into a variety show put on by the boisterous critters.
*. As with any variety show there’s a bit of everything thrown into the mix, with a few hits and many misses. Among the former I’d rate Phoebe Cates’s Lincoln’s Day speech (itself a nod to the controversy over her Christmas speech in the first film), the voice of Tony Randall as the brainy gremlin, and the presence of Dick Miller, who is always fun to watch. Everything else is collateral damage.
*. Something seems to have happened to the character of Daniel Clamp. He’s obviously Donald Trump with a bit of Ted Turner tossed in, and right from the start we expect him to be the usual villainous CEO. I mean, his logo even has a clamp crushing the world in its grip. But as things develop he turns out to be just a goofy kid at heart, and someone who really wants to do good.
*. There’s another interesting bit connecting Clamp to Trump in one of the deleted scenes, where a subliminal message plays over the smart building’s PA system saying “You know, I’ve been thinking Mr. Clamp would make a great president.” And they say The Simpsons was the first to see where the Donald was heading.
*. Another announcement we hear over the PA (this time making it into the released version of the film) warns employees about a new program that will monitor their keystrokes. In 1990 that must have seemed comically dystopian. Now we take it for granted.
*. I know you’re not supposed to ask questions like this of what is unabashedly a cartoon, but where do the gremlins find all the little costumes and props to dress up in? It’s like these tiny sets of clothes and different miniature tools and accessories are just lying around.
*. I was surprised to see Christopher Lee. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he seems to just disappear. At least I don’t recall what becomes of Dr. Catheter. But the same thing happened to most of the characters in Gremlins.
*. Does it go too far? Not in the sense of being offensive, but just in being too much? It’s hard to say given that chaos was the plan (if that’s not a contradiction). Personally I think Dante was perhaps given a bit too much leeway. Especially his penchant for movie in-jokes. These are so plentiful that there’s no way to keep track of them, and in most cases I don’t think they add much. Some of them, like the Rambo parody, have also dated to the point where they will be missed by most.
*. It’s silly. And fun, if you’re a kid. Or, like Daniel Clamp or Joe Dante, a kid at heart. I think even in 1990 I had outgrown it. This time around the charm was all nostalgia.
*. One of the things that makes this blog interesting (for me at least) is revisiting movies I haven’t seen in twenty or even thirty years and seeing how well they’ve held up. That’s the case again with Gremlins, which I remember catching when it came out but which I don’t think I’ve seen since. So call it thirty-five years.
*. I remembered the basic premise, or at least the part about not getting the mogwais wet because if you do they start reproducing like tribbles and turning into nasty little lizards. The basic iconography of good and evil: furry and big eyes = cute; scaly and narrow-eyed = vermin. Even at the time there were critics who saw something racial in this, since the gremlins are associated with several black stereotypes and enter the nearly all-white Kingston Falls by way of Chinatown.
*. Just sticking with that point for a second, I’ll register here how much I dislike the appearance of the mogwai Gizmo. With his furry cuteness he reminds me far too much of the ewoks in Return of the Jedi, which had just come out the year before. It’s a creature that looks like it was designed for the toy shelves.
*. The only other parts I had any recollection of were the scenes of the gremlins tearing around town raising hell. Of course, it had been a long time and I have a poor memory. But more than that, there really isn’t anything else here going on.
*. It’s a remarkably casual script. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just the kind of movie it is: a bit of whimsy that isn’t meant to add up.
*. None of the characters aside from Billy are that important. It seems as though Mrs. Deagle is going to play a major role in the proceedings but her defenestration comes quick and early. Dick Miller’s Mr. Futterman looks like he should be fun, but again is quickly disposed of. I don’t know what the point was of introducing us to Judge Reinhold’s assistant bank manager. As Joe Dante says on the commentary, his character “just sort of goes away.” And we might say the same of Corey Feldman.
*. In the deleted scenes included with the DVD we get some more information, but it’s just as disposable. Mrs. Deagle was buying up the homes of distressed citizens in order to build some sort of toxic chemical facility, but what of it? There was no point keeping this discovery. More interesting was what Dante has to say about the deleted scene where Reinhold is discovered locked in the bank’s vault. Again, this is a pointless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or tell us anything but apparently it came down to a choice between keeping it or Phoebe Cates’s big speech about the death of her father and why she hates Christmas. In other words, her speech was basically just as pointless, even though Dante would claim that it “encapsulates the whole tone of the movie.”
*. All of this underlines my point about how casual the script is. Nothing connects, or is meant to be seen as important. Even Kate’s jarringly bleak Christmas story. It’s just . . . there, and I don’t think we’re meant to pay much attention to it at all. You can see why the studio, as well as test audiences and Spielberg, wanted to get rid of it. But that sense of not having any point or role to play in the story is typical of just about everything that’s going on.
*. Much the same could be said of all the old movie references. Joe Dante is a supreme film buff to be sure, but it would be a mistake to take any of these borrowings as homages. They are just dropped in to the mix and have little or no significance to what’s happening in the rest of the movie. Of course the gremlins turne out to be crazed cinephiles too, and it’s all fun but none of it has any weight.
*. One of the few references that did seem loaded was the gremlin eggs, which look so much like those that the facehuggers burst out of in Alien. For a moment you start to think that maybe things are about to get dark. Perhaps as dark as the original script, which had a real sadistic streak. But then the gremlins hatch and all they really seem to be about is creating chaos on a sugar rush.
*. But like I say, that’s just the kind of movie this is. It’s credited as being one of the films responsible for the PG-13 rating because of its violence, but it’s hard to take any of that seriously. Everything has the texture of fantasy. You know that as soon as you see how nobody seems that surprised to have discovered an entirely new form of life. They just think Gizmo is cute. And then there is the look of Kingston Falls, which is Universal’s backlot covered in fake snow. Again, this fits the tone of the movie, but it’s all so weightless I don’t see where there was much to be offended by.
*. I mentioned how the characters in the movie just tend to drop out, disappearing without any further mention. Could we say the same for the stars and the director? I think this was Zach Galligan’s feature debut, and though he’s kept busy ever since it’s been in mostly unremarkable work. I think Phoebe Cates retired in the mid-’90s, without having done anything else that memorable. Drop Dead Fred? And Joe Dante, who was riding high at the time with The Howling and an episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie just before this film, went on to do mostly TV work (and other stuff like the delightful Trailers from Hell web series). It seems an odd legacy for such a successful project. All three, however, did at least reunite for a sequel.
In this week’s quiz we have a gallery of men sweeping ladies off their feet. Whether they want to be so handled or not.
*. There’s always been something a bit cartoonish about Edgar Allan Poe. You hear his stories in your head being read by Vincent Price and illustrated by Edward Gorey. And it’s fair to ask in a lot of cases just how seriously he intended them to be taken. He was a master of the spoof, and even sent up genres that he invented, at the same time as he was inventing them!
*. So in this version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” there’s nothing surprising about the humour. The art is Gorey-esque, but brightened with a lot of vibrant colour and vibrating animation. The narrator’s hair makes him look like he’s receiving electroshock while certain motifs, like the fly (perhaps borrowed from the moth in the 1953 version) and the giant eyes play up the sense of exaggerated, grotesque decay.
*. The jumping from different styles of animation and colour schemes gives the film even more energy to add to its already fierce pace, which tells the story in under 7 minutes (there are over a minute of end credits to fill out the rest of the running time).
*. There have been a number of film versions of “The Tell-Tale Heart” but this one by Annette Jung is perhaps the liveliest and most inventive. I like the attention to detail in things like the headboard of the old man’s bed being a spiderweb. And I don’t recall ever seeing it suggested before that the narrator is actually the old man’s son, though I guess it’s a fair enough reading.
*. As many different times as I’ve seen it done, however, there always seem to me to be avenues or possibilities in the story that remain unexplored. Credit to Poe. But credit to Jung for giving us this little bit of crazy fun.
*. This is little more than the filming of a stage version of Poe’s famous story, literal to the point of being a recitation by the narrator (played by Michael Sollazzo). It’s directed by Scott Mansfield, the founder of Monterey Media, who has done a number of independent projects like this.
*. The one bit of cleverness is in the way the narrator continues to address the audience and tell his story even while the events of the story are going on around him. In itself, however, this is nothing surprisingly new, and it does nothing to exploit the story’s dominant passion, which is the obsession and paranoia of the narrator and his mad insistence that he is not mad.
*. I thought the moment when the one policeman directly faces the camera and addresses what seems to be us as the Inspector might have been a clever wrinkle, but I don’t see where they did anything further with it. Too bad.
*. I mentioned the narrator’s mad insistence that he isn’t mad. This is a paradox that had to be developed more. The narrator here is too restrained and the part underplayed, without any of the manic energy you have to feel he’s unsuccessfully trying to keep the lid on.
*. The voice does sort of fit with the décor though, which may be historically accurate but which doesn’t fit with the brooding sense of interiority and terror — what the narrator describes as “the death watches in the wall.” The house here looks like a cozy b&b.
*. I wonder if it’s too long at 25 minutes. Ted Parmalee’s 1953 film and Annette Jung’s 2006 version both only run around 8 minutes. Even Jules Dassin’s film, which is a free adaptation, was done in 20 minutes. It’s not that there’s not enough material here to make a longer film out of, but that there’s such a thing as a short-story aesthetic that depends on being succinct. If you dawdle the whole thing starts to come undone.
*. Gore is hinted at, but not seen. Madness is dramatized, but not felt. There isn’t any suspense to speak of. I came away thinking that I’d actually like to see this version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” live on stage sometime, in a small local theatre where it would have a cozy immediacy. As a movie, however, it’s not worth bothering with unless you’re a student with a paper on it due the next day.
*. Before the advent of CGI you never heard a lot of talk about a “realistic” style of animation. That wasn’t the point. A cartoon or animated film wasn’t supposed to look real, but either be fantasy (as with much of Disney’s production), comedy (with anthropomorphic talking animals), or done in some other exaggerated artistic style. Computer animation, on the other hand, is supposed to look real. It’s highest praise is to have audiences not be able to tell the difference.
*. The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are a good fit for animation, not just because they’re short (“The Tell-Tale Heart” only runs to five pages in the edition I have sitting beside me), or because they deal with fantastic subject matter, but because they have the crazy or expressionistic quality of subjective points of view. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a tale told by a madman, whatever his protestations to the contrary, and so its world is distorted when we see it through his eyes.
*. The clearest indication in this film that this is the killer’s view of the world is that we never see his face, and the events mainly appear from his own perspective. As the intro titles tell us: “This story is told through the eyes of a madman.” I think perspective is behind the scruffy and obscure style of animation as well, which doesn’t flow in imitation of a normal film but rather consists of quick pans up and down or across what are static images. Another example is the way the screen goes completely dark for 45 seconds (in an 8-minute short) while the narrator stands in the darkness of the old man’s bedroom. We are not a witness to the event, but in the young man’s shoes.
*. James Mason is a counterintuitive bit of casting that works. He’s not the kind of voice I’d normally associate with the hyper, nervous acuity of the story’s narrator but he captures the sense of earnest and thoughful confusion well. Plus, who needs an excuse to listen to James Mason? This is a rich film visually, but I’d enjoy it almost as much hearing it on the radio.
This week’s quiz presents a gallery of still photography. Very still photography. You might almost say these pictures have the stillness . . . of death. There’s some real detective work to do here as we look at a gruesome line-up of crime-scene glossies and polaroids. See how many of these cold cases you can crack.
*. We begin, much to my surprise, with an epigraph. But not from Edgar Allan Poe, whose story this is. No, it’s from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2 verse 15: “The law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.”
*. Hm. OK. I guess the application here being that the killer has a conscience. Is that it? It doesn’t seem very appropriate to me, especially as the story doesn’t strike me as having even a glimmer of a spiritual dimension. In fact, I think you have to work pretty hard to shoehorn any kind of a Christian message into Poe generally.
*. Still, this was Hollywood in 1941 and I guess they didn’t want to be too bleak. So we get the epigraph, and an ending where the hero’s confession signals his first step toward salvation. Again, that’s nowhere in Poe but every adaptation has its own unique interpretation.
*. There is an even bigger shift from the source than this though. Poe’s story is a madman’s dramatic monologue: manic, voluble, and intense. The young man in this film (Joseph Schildkraut) is a silent, retiring figure. I imagine this is how director Jules Dassin wanted him to be played, but it still seemed to me to be a poor performance, leaving it up to Dassin to evoke the killer’s anxiety by other means.
*. This is too bad, since “The Tell-Tale Heart” is above all an oral performance. It’s a voice that grabs us from its opening appeal (“why will you say that I am mad?”). All of that is missing here. Even more perversely, the sound of the beating heart is also dropped and instead rendered visually: with zooms into the young man’s ear or pans to a dripping faucet and a pendulum clock. And instead of hearing these items the score is used to signal the killer’s breakdown by way of creepy music.
*. As I say, this strikes me as very odd. The Tell-Tale Heart was Jules Dassin’s directorial debut and maybe he just wanted to show off what he could do in terms of shooting a film and cutting it rather than worrying about the soundtrack.
*. In his obituary for Dassin, Richard Schickel opined that The Tell-Tale Heart “was possibly the very first movie to be influenced by Citizen Kane (which came out less than six months before).” I don’t know. Schickel points to a number of what he calls “Wellesian tropes” that seem pretty generic to me. In any event, I think he’s right when he goes on to say that “MGM wasn’t a studio that encouraged innovation or eccentricity,” which led to Dassin’s immediately subsequent work there to be conventional and forgettable.
*. Is it proto-noir? Well, the young man is a bit of a noir hero. He’s weak, and is pressured into making a bad decision that he’s presumably going to have to pay for. The way he’s led off at the end really has a naturalistic feel to it. A feel that, again, has nothing at all to do with Poe but which is more a house style of American cinema at the time. Poe was too bizarre yet to be handled straight up, leading to the erasure of the fascination with the old man’s eye and making him out to be a tyrannical boss instead. The upshot being the assurance that in the end our world, or at least this world, still makes sense.
*. I enjoyed A Quiet Place, but was a bit mystified by the critical response. It is not a particularly inventive or original horror film.
*. It looked and felt to me like several other movies that had come out just a year or two earlier. The conceit of the hunted protagonists having to stay absolutely silent was used in Don’t Breathe. The survivalist family sitting out the apocalypse in a remote home was used in It Comes by Night. And the basic idea of the group bunkered down, again in a remote location, while groups of alien predators who have basically taken over the world roam outside was 10 Cloverfield Lane.
*. Indeed, the set-up here was so similar to 10 Cloverfield Lane that the studio originally intended to present the story as part of the Cloverfield universe. But it was deemed to be strong enough to stand on its own.
*. Added to this is the fact that the premise here isn’t very well developed. I was constantly asking questions. Shouldn’t the aliens, which look a lot like Pumpkinhead, be rather easy to foil? Can’t they just be distracted by sounds and blown away? It’s not like they have any tech of their own. They’re just bugs.
*. Some questions I had were later answered, in ways that made the original question even more puzzling. I figured, for example, that most of the animal life had been slaughtered off. Then we see a pair of raccoons being killed by an alien. How on earth did those raccoons survive so long? What about other forest creatures? I wondered why they hadn’t set the house up with a safe/panic room that was soundproofed that Evelyn could run to when the alien attacked. Then we later see that there is such a room set up in the basement. So why didn’t she go down there? I thought that the aliens had armour that protected them from being shot, but then we see one being blasted by a shotgun. If it was that easy, where was the army? If the monsters are so easily distracted by loud noises, why doesn’t the family make use of this more often? How can the aliens not hear the humans running, or even breathing for that matter?
*. I could go on and on about things like this. Or question who was growing all that corn over a year after contact. Corn doesn’t plant itself. Or where all that water was coming from that flooded the basement. I mean, that was a lot of water. Or why Lee and Evelyn were having a baby. Couldn’t they have picked up some condoms at the pharmacy?
*. I know in every movie like this there are questions that pop up, but A Quiet Place seems to have a lot of them. So many that it starts to become a distraction. Despite being so tight a package, it doesn’t make much sense and I just didn’t think the script was all that well thought out.
*. Even the theme of the family in distress (writer-director-star John Krasinski thought the film primarily “an allegory or metaphor for parenthood”) is simplistic and presented in a fairly mechanical way. There is a tragic incident. This leads to conflict between the father and his daughter. They are reconciled.
*. The thing that impressed people the most was the fact that there were only around thirty lines of dialogue in the whole movie, along with some sign language that runs with subtitles. Originally I think the plan was not to show subtitles, and I think that would have been better. We know what’s being communicated.
*. What I find interesting about this is how much it underlines the fact that in many such action-thrillers the dialogue is almost wholly superfluous anyway. What information does it impart? It reminds me of the time I was on a plane once and the in-flight movie was Armageddon and the person sitting beside me watched the whole thing, rapt, without earphones. This struck me as weird at first, but then I figured that hearing any of the dialogue in that film wouldn’t have made any difference to your enjoyment of it.
*. I guess I’ve sounded rather negative here. But as I began by saying, I thought A Quiet Place was good entertainment. The cast performs well. The second half has a number of decent suspense sequences, though they start to become predictable because they all play out the same way (someone is threatened until a noise is made that distracts the alien).
*. A horror classic it isn’t. It needed to be tightened up considerably. But as a creepy creature feature it’s definitely above average and worth checking out.