Thursday, February 25, 2021

Murder By Numbers


Blood Rage 1987. d. John Grissmer

Written by: Bruce Rubin (as Richard Lamden)

Starring: Louise Lasser, Mark Soper, Julie Gordon

Summary: "As kids, Todd is institutionalized for a murder whilst his twin goes free. 10 years later, on Thanksgiving, Todd escapes and a killing spree begins in his neighborhood." IMDB

This was chosen, I'm pretty sure on a dare, by one of the people in my horror/murder/true crime group last week. It is not a good film but at least it's memorable. Mostly we focused on how outlandish it all was: premise weak, actors' deliveries all extremely reactionary and overblown, fashion choices of the mother out of place even in 1987, and William Fuller (Bubba Flavel's Klansman pal from Porky's 2) as stepdad "Brad," but it was still fun. All in all, it was one of the more adult slasher films I've seen, adult not as in mature in any way but in a disturbingly high body count, many f-words, and prolonged sexual situations with widespread nudity kind of way. This is something I probably would have really enjoyed back in college, not sober. Put it up there with Fun House


Copycat 1995. d. John Amiel

Written by: Ann Biderman, David Madsen

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Dermot Mulroney

Summary: "An agoraphobic psychologist and a female detective must work together to take down a serial killer who copies serial killers from the past." IMDB

I love this film. It's a very good story with a well-chosen cast, and it's just clever. The first time I watched this back in stadium apartments at UMD in 1996 I couldn't get over how genius it all was. I think I took the tape from the football players' place and watched again the next day by myself, that's how into it I was. 

Watching again now the pacing impressed me. It takes a fair amount of time to even officially establish that these are serial killer murders (for the cops, we as the audience have special insight into the killer's stalking and computer stuff, so we know), and then it takes a few attempts for Hudson (Weaver) to agree to work with the cops, so it's all the more satisfying when they finally get together and start figuring it all out. And what a thrilling system to figure out! He's not just a copycat, he's a by-the-book, as-delivered-in-the- lecture, perfectionist copycat! He does it better than the real guys did! Wow. Worth discussing: were Peter's motivations as a copycat serial killer broad (these previous killers have provided me with the focus I need in my disturbed life and I will go above and beyond their respective examples) or was he just obsessed with Daryl Lee Cullum and figured this would get his attention? Props either way, I guess.

Hudson's SFO apartment is gorgeous, everyone is very attractive, and hey, Police: Murder By Numbers! Hunter's MJ was a little irritating, but she was meant to be, I think, Hudson even addresses it ("does she do this often, this wide-eyed little girl routine?") and it works. I really enjoyed her out-of-fucks-to-give response at the end. We always knew she could handle more than just a brachial nerve shot anyway. Best line of the film: "Looks like I cured your agoraphobia, Helen!"


Midsommar 2019. d. Ari Aster

Written by: Ari Aster

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren

Summary: "A couple travels to Scandinavia to visit a rural hometown's fabled Swedish mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult." IMDB

I had to watch this twice. Mostly because I just needed to make sure I was getting what I thought I got the first time, but then I needed two specific answers. 1. Exactly how much time was spent on the opening situation with Dani's family (12 minutes) and 2. What was with that person with the facial deformities, and did I miss something about this person's role? This was never really answered with any satisfaction, although many pieces have been written about this character's link to eugenics, white supremacy, and mysticism. I'm still confused by it; I'm leaving it at that.

I enjoyed this film a lot, it was disturbing and smart. This isn't something that can be "mastered;" like many thinking films out there I think each viewer is set up to have a unique experience based on whatever personally resonates. For me, the horror was incidental, the theme of empathy was what moved and underscored everything that happened on screen. That said, the music and composition of shots in the natural environments were amazing. The fact that this was all taking place in a midnight sun setting made it all the more creepy and offputting.

Dani is empathetic. Is shown from the film's first scene to have concern for her parents (calls them to check in after sister's scary email) as well as her bipolar and obviously upset sister who is suffering from a concerning episode. Dani seeks reassurance from Christian, immediately senses he's disengaging, and then chides herself for making him uncomfortable. Dani is intelligent (tons of books in her place) and self-aware (constantly adjusting and adapting her behavior and expectations), and although not yet completely able to see through all of Christian's antics--his friends' conversation exposes the fact that he is ambivalent about Dani, lies outright about his plans to go to Sweden, then makes up a ruse about inviting her along which fails, since she ends up going---she clearly senses something is off in their relationship. She is a feeling person.

Pelle is empathetic with specific knowledge and insight. Does not join the other two friends in criticizing Christian's relationship with Dani, expresses sadness and apologies to Dani over her family's deaths (stating outright that he has experienced the same loss), and not only remembers her birthday in Sweden but drew a portrait of her for a gift. Pelle is both a feeling person and a knowing person. Was he sent on his summer-season "pilgrimage" to examine this empathy in contrast to how young adults in America mature? Was he excited to bring Dani along because he knew how she'd be received? 

The Boys are not empathetic: Josh seems very dedicated to his study, an interested anthropologist, the knowledge expert of the group but short on emotional connection to people. Christian is an unreliable partner and a wishy-washy academic. Was he destined for something unpleasant because he was a marginal human being? Maybe. The bear he eventually . . . became was caged when they first got there. There were obviously plans for the bear within the tradition of the festivities, but out of all of them, Christian seems the least likely to put up a fight or even commit to a position about anything. Maybe the village knew how this would play out. He feels little (Dani states she's never seen him cry) and knows little (he is directionless in his thesis studies and basically copies Josh). Only Mark is lower, beginning as simply callous and annoying but emerging as the ugly, insensitive American cliche once in Sweden. 

The empathy at work: the village senses Dani's empathy and embraces her because she's like them. She receives from the village the support and acknowledgment (exemplified in the mirroring of her reactions in pain after seeing Christian's sexual ceremony) she needed from Christian but never received. The act of the ho-ha breaths the villagers all take could be the literal taking in of the group's humanity and sharing it as one. Funny how Dani unknowingly does the breath when she blows out the birthday candle on Christian's too-little-too-late cake. 

Bottom line? I think they were always going to kill whatever outsiders came to the celebration, but that Dani was special and got asked to stay. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, Season Two, Episode 12, Fire + Water

On-Island Events:
Charlie dreams of the piano he received as a childhood Christmas present and then hears a baby crying as the piano drifts into the ocean. He becomes concerned about Claire and Aaron but then becomes jealous as he sees Locke interacting with them both on the beach. Charlie attempts to talk to Claire, asks her about Locke, but then agrees to give her space and leaves. 

Charlie practices guitar on the beach and again hears a baby crying. He swims out to Aaron's cradle, floating in the ocean but when he brings Aaron back to the beach he sees a vision of his mother and Claire, who chant together that Charlie must save the baby. Hugo jolts Charlie awake and he realizes it's the middle of the night and that he's taken Aaron out of his cradle. Claire slaps Charlie when he tries to explain his dream. Later Charlie tries to convince Locke to take his side; Locke advises him trust is a difficult thing to win back.

Next Charlie approaches Eko, who is marking trees for his church. Charlie accuses Eko of telling Locke about his saved Virgin Mary statues; Eko assures him he said nothing but asks Charlie about his dreams. Eko considers the fact that Charlie's dreams have meaning, sending Charlie back to Claire, raving about baptism, as Locke observes from afar. When Charlie breaks away to check on the hidden statues, Locke catches him fondling two baggies of heroin and seizes all the drugs telling him he's "given up the right to be believed." 

When a fire breaks out slightly inland from the beach, most of the camp goes to fight the blaze leaving Claire and Aaron alone in their tent. Charlie sneaks up, takes Aaron from his cradle, and begins carrying him out to sea. Claire, Eko, and Locke plead with Charlie to return Aaron to his mother and he finally hands the baby back; Locke responds by knocking Charlie down with several punches. As Eko examines the burned area, Claire asks him to baptize Aaron; Eko agrees to baptize Aaron and Claire, together. Locke secures the statues in the hatch's weapons closet and Charlie sits by a fire, alone on the beach.

Flashbacks: Charlie visits Liam's new daughter, Megan, in the hospital, and covers for Liam's absence. When he finds Liam passed out after a heroin fix, Charlie berates Liam for his irresponsibilities and implores him to clean himself up for his daughter. 

The members of Drive Shaft perform for a diaper commercial but Liam, still under the influence of heroin, can't handle the choreography and loses the gig for the group. After Liam is kicked out of his house, he comes to Charlie and the two harmonize together at the piano and plan for the future.

Charlie returns to his apartment to find his piano gone and Liam packing a suitcase. Liam admits to having sold the piano in order to move his family to Sydney, Australia to get treatment. 

Greater Meaning: Locke tells Claire that Charlie feels like he must save Aaron because he's been unable to save himself. Charlie's methods of going about this "saving" seem skewed at best, and reckless at worst; whether this is due to his own unawareness of how he comes off in these actions or the strangeness of the actions themselves, we can't know exactly what the point of it all really is. Who on earth thinks taking  a baby away from its mother is the right move? Especially after the trauma Claire has suffered both while pregnant and shortly after giving birth?

Charlie has fought (and beat) heroin addiction, but still kept the Mary statues full of drugs. During his addiction, Charlie engaged in dangerous, manipulative behavior but always seemed to respect the role that music and family played in his life, which were both symbolically linked to the piano his mother gave him for Christmas. The fact that Charlie has now associated Aaron with the piano is significant; despite Claire having banished him, Charlie still cares for her and Aaron, but if Locke is correct, Charlie's desire to save Aaron comes from either seeing himself in Aaron or seeing himself as a father figure in Aaron's life. If Charlie only wanted to save himself through baptism, it seems less likely that he would react with such jealousy at Locke's ability to "father" Aaron. Charlie's bizarre obsession seems more to do with controlling Claire and less to do with being a savior. In contrasting this with how Jack and Locke "save" others, Charlie's desires to help and the actions he takes come off as ineffective, desperate, and immature. Charlie's religious leanings do not elevate him or guide him as a gifted savior, if anything, they seem to be leading him further astray from doing the right thing. 

Further Questions: 

1. Did Charlie ever get his piano back?

2. Will Claire ever forgive Charlie?

3. Is there something sinister in Charlie's obsession with Claire and Aaron?

4. Will Charlie start using drugs again?

5. Are Claire and Aaron still in danger?

Friday, February 19, 2021

It Was the 80s: St. Elmo's Fire

Once upon a time, I was an undergraduate in a graduate-level film class at the U of M. One of the projects in the class involved the grad students going out and filming the concepts we were learning about and then bringing back the footage to then "mentor" the undergrads with. One of the grads (who already considered himself MIGHTILY above us all) took this very seriously and used his footage as an opportunity to lecture us for over an hour. The footage was nothing special, something a child could have pointed a camera at and shot, a bunch of buildings in downtown St. Paul in the middle of winter strung together at random. We watched, unimpressed. Next, he showed us the same images a second time but against a soundtrack of some big band jazz song, asking us to pay special attention to how the experience was different this time around. We watched, still unimpressed. I did not share my reaction with the class (because I'm not mean) but if I had, it would have been: Uninteresting, basic images and then uninteresting, basic images set to music. Got it. The music didn't really stand for anything, it wasn't being used ironically, but the images and the music together definitely made for a better viewing experience. If anything it was a way for this person to appear to know what he was doing. TL,DR: music is a powerful tool in filmmaking.

Does this have anything to do with St. Elmo's Fire? A little. Obviously Joel Schumacher is leagues more knowledgeable than the grad student in my story (who has since become a professor). Adding arbitrary music won't save a project from its own badness, but adding good music and positioning it at just the right moments can make a film come off as skilled and memorable and can do a lot of heavy emotional lifting where the script may fall short. 

St. Elmo's Fire, 1985. d. Joel Schumacher 

starring: Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Mare Winningham

Summary: "A group of friends, just out of college, struggle with adulthood." IMDB

This story embodies perfectly what my childhood idea of post-college life would be like. As I was a nine-year-old child living in a rural midwestern town when it came out, I didn't know much, but I knew I wanted to be like these cats. Bar-hopping with the same group of friends, quirky apartments, a group CHANT, you know, those kinds of things. I learned of the film from seeing trailers on television and from John Parr's music video for "Man in Motion" on MTV but I was not yet allowed to see R rated films in the theater, so I lived for the little glimpses from these. Imagine my joy when a friend of my mother's (at some posh lake house we were at the next summer) had St. Elmo's Fire on VHS! At ten, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven (read: Rob Lowe 80s aesthetic) but more than that, I still thought these people were cool as hell. Also, I wanted to learn that piano theme terribly. It wasn't at all realistic, I later learned, but as a cultural piece of white people in the 80s and a story about friendship, it still holds up. I still listen to the soundtrack, regularly, regrettably missing is the fated let's-rock-in-conversational-tone-bar-piece, "One Love," performed by Billy Hixx and The New Breed,** but it still slaps, as the kids say.

The film opens with the crew walking away from a frat house building in graduation caps and gowns and quickly transitions to the aftermath of a car accident in an emergency room. As the group of friends is SO close-knit and still BFFS even after graduating college we see that when one of their own gets injured, they drop what they're doing to be with her in her time of need. This also serves as exposition to who everyone is, what they do, and how they're linked to each other:

Wendy (Winningham): the injured. Frumpy, virginal, rich parents (loves Billy)

Billy (Lowe): drunk companion of Wendy, cause of accident. Plays saxophone, hyper-sexual

Jules (Moore): hot pink evening gown and stole. Eccentric, glamorous, wild

Kirby (Estevez): in waiter's uniform. Stays to flirt with doctor, romantic and hopeful

Kevin (McCarthy): trench coat and camo pants. Pessimistic writer who throws out random deep thoughts (secretly in love with Leslie)

Leslie (Sheedy): sensible businesswoman. Responsible, shows empathy (lives with Alec)

Alec (Nelson): young political strategist. Type A, bossy, former democrat, now a republican (lives with Leslie)

After Wendy is discharged from the hospital, lamenting the state of her car, they all go to St. Elmo's Bar to drink more (as one does in the aftermath of a drunk driving accident). On goes the story, showing us bits of the characters' professional lives and more of their relationships with each other. A party, thrown by Kirby at the fancy estate of his employer, serves as an explosive turning point where many of the group's dramatic issues (Alec's infidelities, Kevin's love for Leslie, Kirby's A-level stalking prowess, and the beginnings of Jules's downfall in a thwarted confession to Billy) are revealed, and suddenly, things aren't so sunny anymore. Post-college adulthood is, to use Billy's preferred phrasing, more "out of hand" than any of them anticipated. 

Technically, the film is solid. The fall scenery, the collegiate settings (meant to portray Georgetown but actually shot on the University of Maryland's campus), and the huge height-of-the-80s apartments are all appealing throughout. The casting is perfect, everyone is attractive, and the pacing of the story, pretty fast-paced, moves along well with every character's unique struggles and interactions with others. The music elevates the experience, no matter where it's used. Even the seemingly throwaway conversation Alec and Leslie have over which albums she's allowed to take when she moves out drives the point that this era, this music, even the music choices of the characters (or their musical abilities)---all are very meaningful. In my opinion, you cannot have a discussion of this film and its place within 80s culture without honoring these music choices.

Hungry for more? Cameron of Obnoxious and Anonymous (@ObnoxandAnony) and I sat down for a nice long chat about St. Elmo's fire yesterday. Let us know what you think about it! 

**The song, as well as the clip from the film of Billy performing it (LET'S ROCK) is showcased beautifully over on UncleTNuc! You can find it HERE