Tag Archives: B

HALLOWEEN

Producer: Malek Akkad, Jason Blum and Bill Block
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green
Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner, Jefferson Hall, Rhian Rees, Toby Huss, Haluk Bilginer, Dylan Arnold, Miles Robbins, Drew Scheid, Jibrail Nantambu, Omar Dorsey, Nick Castle and James Jude Courtney
Studio: Universal Pictures

B

John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween” was hugely influential, the little horror movie that initiated the entire slasher genre. It was also unlike most of the dross that soon mimicked it in depending far more on suspense and suggestion than on gore—indeed, blood is conspicuous by its absence. In that respect it also differed from the spate of sequels that inevitably followed, as well as the recent remakes by Rob Zombie. It’s a classic of its kind, and like “Psycho” before it, retains the power to surprise and scare new viewers.

David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are an unlikely pair to attempt restoring the original luster to a property that has been desecrated over forty years of debasement, but their film does a pretty good job of melding respect for Carpenter’s template with the contemporary audience’s demand for more explicit violence. The new “Halloween” can’t match the punch that Carpenter’s carried four decades ago, but compared to today’s spate of gruesome horrorfests, it comes closer than most.

The script’s first tack is to cleanse the franchise of all the rubbish that’s accrued to it over the course of innumerable sequels, reboots and remakes. The premise is that none of that happened, and that this is a direct follow-up to the first movie. So murderous Michael Myers has been back in confinement in Dr. Loomis’ mental institution for forty years, though the good doctor himself is dead (we’re treated at one point to a recording of his voice—Donald Pleasence as imitated by Colin Mahan), but he’s been succeeded in his obsession with Michael by an erstwhile student of his, Dr. Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), who seems perturbed that his longtime patient (played by the original “Shape” Nick Castle in some scenes, and by James Jude Courtney in others) is finally being transferred to another facility. Before he departs, however, Sartain introduces the perpetually mute, fearsome Myers to a couple of podcast reporters, Aaron (Jefferson Hall) and Dana (Rhian Rees), who are doing a retrospective on his crimes and even bring along his old mask in hopes of eliciting a response from him.

Meanwhile Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), Carpenter’s last girl standing, remains traumatized by the experience, having spent her life trying to protect herself and her family from the possibility of Michael’s return and pushing away her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) in the process. Karen is married to Ray (Toby Huss), a nice but ineffectual guy, and their daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) is a high school senior who’s just become a National Merit Scholar. She’s also preparing to go to the campus Halloween bash with her boyfriend Cameron (Dylan Arnold) and his goofy best buddy Oscar (Drew Scheid). Her best friend Vicky (Virginia Gardner) is unfortunately cooped up babysitting for a smart-aleck kid named Julian (Jibrial Nantambu), though her boyfriend Dave (Miles Robbins) has promised to stop by after the kid goes to sleep.

Of course the transport bus carrying Michael has an accident and he escapes, killing a boy in the process (you can always tell that a horror movie is serious when a child becomes a victim), and after retrieving his mask in an especially nasty sequence, he returns to Haddonfield and offs a considerable number of people—the body count is far higher than last time around—though some that you might deem worthy of his blade in fact escape while others much more sympathetic don’t. By this time the police—Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) and Sheriff Baker (Omar Dorsey) are on his trail, but his real targets are Laurie, Karen, Ray and Allyson, whom he will track down to Strode’s fortified, rural house. There’s a joker in the deck in the person of Dr. Sartain, who turns out to be less like his mentor, who was all for simply killing the embodiment of “pure evil,” than the obsessive scientist in another Carpenter movie “The Thing,” who wanted the creature saved for study.

Though it shares a small-town setting with Green’s first film “George Washington,” “Halloween” couldn’t be more different from it. Although there’s a certain hallucinatory quality to each, the hazily idyllic atmosphere of the earlier film has little in common with the rather brutal look Green, production designer Richard A. Wright, cinematographer Michael Simmonds and editor Tim Alverson have contrived for this one. It fits, of course, as do the occasional shafts of humor that are inserted (no doubt contributions at least partially due to McBride).

So does the performance of Curtis, who reclaims her old title of scream queen even as Matichak challenges for it. Everybody else does their job decently enough, though Greer frankly seems a little too weak for Karen (whom, as flashbacks disclose, Laurie forced to undergo lots of training as a child). Curtis and Castle aren’t the only returnees from Carpenter’s movie: P.J. Soles turns up in a cameo as a teacher, too. And there’s another element of the 1978 “Halloween”—a very important one—that reappears here as well: Carpenter’s brilliantly simple score, embellished by Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.

“Halloween” should please fans pretty much throughout, but they’ll be hooked at the very start, a virtual reverse of the memorable pumpkin credits sequence from the original, which figuratively clears away all the damage done to the franchise over the decades.

One question remains: what is that brief glimpse of a scene from the eighties TV series “Voyagers!” doing in one of the murder scenes? Perhaps it’s just intended as a reference to travelling back in time, which is what that show was about. If so, it’s appropriate for Green’s sequel, a surprisingly successful attempt to recapture the effect of Carpenter’s now four-decade-old classic in more modern terms.

FIRST MAN

Producer: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Kalusner and Damien Chazelle
Director: DAmien Chazelle
Writer: Josh Singer
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christoher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian D’Arcy James, Corey Michael Smith and Kris Swanberg
Studio: Universal Pictures

B

In 1968 Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” premiered, offering a portrait of space travel that envisioned spacious, fastidiously made vehicles transporting their human occupants beyond the hold of earth in slow, smooth, perfectly calibrated motion. The following year came the NASA moon landing, which Damien Chazelle now recreates in his biographical drama about Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who set foot first on the lunar surface. And one of the major points of “First Man” is apparently to show how different the reality was from Kubrick’s beautiful, austere visuals.

So the feel of the machinery in the picture, beginning with the experimental plane Armstrong pilots dangerously high in the early sixties and proceeding through the various missions that culminated in the moon landing, is of devices cobbled together out of sheer imagination and desperate hope as well as technical wizardry. The craft develop over time, but they remain cramped, shaky and rickety—a reality accentuated by Chazelle’s decision to shoot much of the action from the claustrophobic perspective of Armstrong: even the face-on images of the helmeted astronaut, while similar in composition to Kubrick’s, are kept close-in and jerky by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. One definitely gets a sense of how primitive the equipment actually was, and—as accidents that are staged here with grim economy, or alluded to as happening off-screen demonstrate—how dangerous.

In another way, however, “First Man” is more like “2001.” Just as Kubrick’s Bowman and Poole are impassive characters, so is Armstrong (Ryan Gosling)—at least on the surface. It’s not that he doesn’t feel things deeply; indeed, the first section of the film is largely devoted to the devastating effect the death of his young daughter had on him, and later on he will experience occasional flashes in which she suddenly appears to him.

But Armstrong buries the pain beneath an exterior that appears almost preternaturally unruffled and brusque. It’s a quality that—along with his self-control under pressure and his superb skills as a pilot and an engineer—places him high among the squad of early astronauts in the estimation of NASA officials (played by the likes of Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton and Ciarán Hinds as Robert Gilruth) and distinguishes him from more extroverted colleagues—and rivals—such as Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit). But his rigidity sometimes distresses his supportive wife Jan (Claire Foy), especially when it leads him to be less than honest and forthcoming with their sons about the dangers his missions pose.

There will be those who find the film disappointing for a variety of reason, most of them misplaced. On the one hand, they may object to the rinky-dink, seat-of-their-pants characterization of the entire sixties space program; “Hidden Figures” made a similar point, but cloaked the message in an uplifting tale of its major protagonist and the triumphalism of the outcome. Chazelle, on the other hand, emphasizes the chaotic desperation of the whole endeavor without apology. Of course that makes the accomplishment more, not less, impressive, but critics may not appreciate that.

More specifically, “First Man” has been attacked by politicians looking to score points for failing to include a shot of Armstrong planting the American flag on the lunar surface, although it’s clearly visible in scenes of the astronauts working on the moon. It’s a phony issue, not unlike the one raised when “Superman Returns” didn’t add the words “and the American Way” to the usual formulation of “Truth, Justice…” The point appears to be that unless one embraces the most extreme jingoism, you’re devoid of patriotism.

Apart from such matters, the main problem some will have with “First Man” is the character of Armstrong himself. The portrait is an accurate one—he was a difficult man who held in his emotions in check and often appeared not just inscrutable, but quietly hostile. Gosling presents him that way, in a highly controlled turn that suggests the strain bubbling beneath the surface without ever allowing it to break out. It’s a finely tuned performance that will nonetheless be too low-key for some of the actor’s fans, and does put him at something of an emotional remove from the audience. Foy’s turn is equally nuanced, but Jan is a far more demonstrative person than her husband, and the actress captures her fierce protectiveness—of Neil and their boys—well. The remainder of the cast is more functional, but all are fine, with Clarke and Stoll standing out, the former for expressing White’s stalwart professionalism and the latter for capturing Aldrin’s cocky, abrasive personality.

The technical crew—Sandgren, production designer Nathan Crowley, costumer Mary Zophres, editor Tom Cross and the visual effects team supervised by Paul Lambert—have done expert work in realizing Chazelle’s vision. Even in the non-NASA scenes, this is not a beautiful picture; visually it reflects a decade not particularly known for its loveliness, the period detail unobtrusively right without exaggeration, and even the Armstrong home scenes have a rather dark, gritty look.

Chazelle’s film is an ambitious if uneven attempt to do justice to both an American space triumph and the complex man at the center of it. It aspires to a greatness it does not achieve, but like NASA’s efforts of the sixties, the reach is itself admirable.