Remembering: Being John Malkovich (and Reflections on the COVID Crisis)

Surely I don’t need to justify the lack of new Snooty Film Critiques this year – 2020 to date has been more turbulent and less predictable than a season of Game of Thrones (that’s pre-Season 6 Game of Thrones, mind… before the dark times… before the plot armor and anachronistic Starbucks cups). Seriously, if everything headlining CNN these days played out on HBO, critics would dismiss the narrative twists and turns as unrealistic to the point of absurdity – the initial arc centering on the Coronavirus pandemic was sidelined by the sadistic murder of George Floyd and the descent of major US cities into anarchy; the threat of the killer hornets was introduced as a potentially major plot point in episode 3 and then swiftly abandoned (though it may yet be revisited in the inevitable Christmas Special); and now Kanye West has announced his bid for the presidency, because ratings have dipped and the desperate writers needed a flashy guest star to bolster their viewership.  

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2019 Top Ten List

My feelings towards 2019 as a year-in-film are mixed, because it felt like two radically different years fused together in the middle whose individual parts ultimately coalesced about as well as bone marrow and cheddar cheese. January until about June was one of the most disheartening seasons I can recall, and that was despite a conscious effort to avoid movies I knew I’d hate such as Godzilla: King of the Kong and X-Men XXII: Dark Phoenix Revisited. I must have angered the Indie Film Gods at some point, because there were key movies in the early portions of 2019 that I had pegged for a slot on the ol’ Top Ten that proved woefully disappointing. In fact, until about July I had been getting ready to give up on films altogether and devote myself to more worthy pursuits, such as reading, exercising, and dating—oh God, help me…

July, however, triggered a dynamic shift in the quality of films available to me, with some surprisingly great films trickling into my hometown’s Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies (likely by accident) and slowly but surely filling up my Top Ten.

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Let’s Talk About: The Irishman

Well, finally.

The Irishman (or, I Heard You Paint Houses) is one of those eleventh-hour releases that manifests itself to weary cinematic sojourners like a chilled, glistening bottle of Aquafina on the final stretch of the barren, hostile, morale-shattering wasteland you’ve been trudging through since January. Not only does it revitalize you so that you can finally complete your arduous journey, it imbues you with enough energy and hope to begin a new one come 2020. Suffice to say, the only question I had for The Irishman once the curtain fell was, “Where the hell have you been all year?”

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Let’s Talk About: The Lighthouse

2019 is certainly proving to be the year for emerging Indie horror directors’ follow-up films, isn’t it? Jordan Peele followed up his universally-acclaimed quasi-horror-comedy Get Out with the much more sci-fi-leaning Twilight Zone tribute Us (which I adored); David Robert Mitchell followed up his eerie sex-themed after-school-special It Follows with the polarizing neo-noir Under the Silver Lake (which curiously went to Cannes unedited); and Ari Aster followed up his demonic family portrait Hereditary with the psychedelic, bloodletting Eurotrip Midsommar (which should never under any circumstances be viewed with grandma). Now, Robert Eggers has followed up his highly-effective period horror The Witch with a fresh article-noun arrangement called The Lighthouse, a psychological horror that is already being hailed as a masterpiece by those who have acknowledged its existence.

Alas, the proprietor of my hometown’s Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies was not one such person, having deemed the Zombieland sequel that no one asked for the preferable feature to screen. Incidentally, our Symposium bears many striking similarities to Eggers’ nightmarish lighthouse – it’s filthy, it’s drafty, it’s beset by cantankerous seagulls, and its employees are presumably forbidden access to the proprietor’s inner sanctum that is the projection room under pain of an axe murdering.

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Let’s Talk About: Joker

A few years back a series of single-sentence plot summaries surfaced on the Internet that recontextualized the premises of famous films, often with the result of casting the protagonist in an ironically negative light. For instance, The Wizard of Oz was reframed as a crime thriller about a teenage girl who, upon being transported to a fantastical land, promptly murders and loots the body of a community leader before teaming up with a trio of locals on a quest to kill again. Finding Nemo was reinterpreted as the horrific nightmare of a man whose wife is brutally murdered by a serial killer before his physically-disabled son is kidnapped, compelling him to embark on a rescue mission with the aid of a chronically-amnesiac transient. In a true thematic reversal, The Dark Knight was recapitulated as the story of a deranged billionaire who copes with his crippling PTSD by dressing up like a giant rodent and victimizing an extremely troubled, mentally ill man in a clown costume.

These twisted plot rewrites are, of course, meant to give us a hearty chuckle as well as prompt some reflection on the underlying messages and themes conveyed in our favourite films, not to mention showcase how imperative context and perspective are.

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Let’s Talk About: It Chapter Two

I’ll keep this short and sweet… is not something anybody involved in the production of this seventeen-hour-long saunter down memory lane said at any point on set, even in jest.

After part one of the long-gestating film adaptation of Stephen King’s It took the world by storm back in 2017, I confidently predicted in my annual Top Ten that the inevitable second chapter chronicling the grown-up Losers Club’s final confrontation with Pennywise the Clown had nowhere to go but down the proverbial drain. This forecast was founded on the notoriously poor quality of the hammy 1990 television duology’s second half, the fact that the adults comprise the least interesting portions of the predominantly kid-focused novel, and the assumption that older incarnations of lovable child characters would be simultaneously cringy and dull to witness (just look at Stranger Things Season 3). These rock-bottom expectations enabled me to enter the theater with the open-mindedness necessary to assess Chapter Two objectively, and my conclusion is this – while miles better than what I had been anticipating, It Chapter Two is still a long, tedious, repetitive, and stale attempt at horror that is salvaged only by its unexpected humour and admittedly spot-on cast.

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Let’s Talk About: Ready or Not

“Do you like playing games?” asks patriarchal board game magnate Tony Le Domas to his new daughter-in-law Grace in the stately family music room following the ceremony. “It depends on the game,” the bewildered bride replies, still begowned in her wedding dress and eager to ingratiate herself to her strange new in-laws, who are the sort of hyper-aristocratic, tradition-obsessed, monied WASPs who make a point to advise outsiders that they prefer the term ‘dominion’ over ‘dynasty.’ The game in question, it turns out, is determined by a mysterious puzzle box that was presented to family founder Victor Le Domas during the Civil War by an enigmatic benefactor named Justin Le Bail, who is casually implied to be Satan. Anyone marrying into House Le Domas must, by order of tradition, participate in the game chosen by the box, which might be as innocuous as checkers, as archaic as old maid, or as deadly as hide-and-seek. Grace, who was unaware of this little household custom before her nuptials, regrettably draws hide-and-seek.

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Let’s Talk About: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

When I first heard that Quentin Tarantino’s ninth motion picture would take place in Hollywood during the late 1960’s and feature characters with names like Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, I admittedly had some misgivings. Setting aside my love for Tarantino’s filmography as well as my undying zeal for gratuitous violence, I just wasn’t sure I was ready to watch Sharon Tate get murdered by a cult of psychotic, LSD-addled hippies. Even if I were up for that from a purely biographical standpoint, I had doubts that Tarantino would approach such a tragedy with restraint or decorum, given that his prop sheet to date has been topped by the line item ‘Literally all the fake blood and maybe some real blood too if you happen to have some on hand.’

As it turns out, I should have given dear ol’ Tarantino the benefit of the doubt. This is, after all, the man who rewrote World War II so that Hitler got gunned down by Tommy Gun-toting Jews in a French theater in 1944.

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Let’s Talk About: Midsommar

Welp, so much for my summer trip to Sweden. I had so eagerly been anticipating a month-long romp in a sun-dappled meadow and tripping on psilocybin proffered by a clan of white-robed death-cultists – until my recent viewing of Midsommar, that is. This film effectively cured me of all inclinations to ever visit rural Sweden… because it showed me that the countryside is populated by flowers, and this critic is severely allergic to pollen. Ah, well! I’ll just have to enjoy some psychedelics with my local death-cult over at the community hall instead…

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Let’s Talk About: Under the Silver Lake

It’s a sad indictment of the collective temperament of the human race that those in the public eye are often remembered best not for their triumphs and achievements, but for their blunders and missteps. Where directors and writers are concerned, oftentimes the most calamitous of these blunders and missteps have directly followed the greatest of their triumphs or achievements. Michael Cimino won Best Director in 1979 for The Deer Hunter, which he immediately followed up with 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, a disasterpiece that by all accounts ruined the industry for everybody. Kevin Smith defined slacker culture with Clerks in 1994, which he has since been following up with everything else in the View Askewniverse, which is apparently a thing that people take seriously. Robert David Mitchell was lauded in 2015 for his Indie horror flick slash cautionary tale about sexually transmitted diseases It Follows, and has now followed it up with Under the Silver Lake, a movie that admittedly might have been good had a modicum of restraint been exercised at any point in the editing process.

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