Three-Minute Review: The faculty (1998)

Summary:

What happens when you pit high school students against an alien invasion? You actually get a pretty good sci-fi thriller that’s a little underrated and totally worth watching. And, that’s just what happens in The Faculty, as high school students from Herrington High have to put aside petty bickering to battle an otherworldly aggressor before it leaves their little town and takes over the world.

Behind the Scenes:

The film is directed by Robert Rodriguez who is an exquisite director all around (see From Dusk Till Dawn [1996]), and he excels at this kind of pacing and storytelling, which seems to involve the struggle of evil forces against misanthropes and outsiders.

Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett are also 90s icons that really lift this film into even higher highs; also, Jon Steward and Robert Patrick play literal members of the faculty that don’t have the children’s best interests at heart.

Takeaway:

The Faculty triumphs because it takes Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and simply moves the story to a high school, which creates a new interpretation of an age-old fear: can we trust those around us?

The genre shift of communist-paranoia to teen-romp in a suburbia works so effortlessly that as a viewer, I was immediately sucked into the story. I think it has some great acting, some truly terrifying scenes (swimming pool climax), and excellent pacing. It helps put 90s horror on the good side of classic cinema.

I think The Faculty gets left in the dark a lot when considering other 90s horror films, but it’s really good in my opinion. If you haven’t checked it out in a while—you really should.

Three-Minute Review: Fight Club (1999)

Synopsis:

Under the sweaty manliness of Fight Club is a movie that warns its viewers about corporate isolation and negligence of the human self.

Our protagonist, who is unnamed (played deftly by Edward Norton), is a career corporate drone, who is bereft of life and overcome by meaningless nature of working one’s way up the corporate ladder.

We meet Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) early on and learn that to break the chains of his corporate life, our unnamed protagonist has to completely tear down his sense of self and embrace a new construction, which may quite possibly result in the destruction of society and order as we know it.

Behind the Scenes:

This is a masterpiece of modern cinema and uses the postmodern lens to analyze the futility of the life of a worker bee and the nihilism in our singular wants and ambitions.

Director David Fincher presents the characters, the setting, and plot in such an amorphous, delightful way, that the viewer has no choice but to go along for the insane psychological ride.

Fight Club also boasts an excellent score by The Dust Brothers that is so distinctly that film that hearing it out of context only makes one think about punches to the face and castration via rubber band.

Takeaway:

Fight Club is without a doubt an excellent film and demonstrates much of what makes a good film compelling. The actors all embody who they play, from Edward Norton’s burned out shell of a cog, to Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla, who is so strangely relatable and distant that you have to wonder how the character works in the context of a “good character.”

The book that the movie is based off of is also a classic, too (if you are into that sort of thing), but Fincher’s movie more than adequately captures author Chuck Palahuniuk’s voice and themes from the book on film.

“Rules of Engagement” fails to become the definitive military courtroom drama

Released: Oct. 10, 2000

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Samuel Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, and Ben Kingsley

Writer(s): James Web and adapted by Stephen Gaghan


Synopsis:

Rules of Engagement (2000) is a military courtroom drama starring Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Terry Childers, and Tommy Lee Jones as Lieutenant Hayes Hodges. It largely details the relationship between two men: Lieutenant Terry Childers (Jackson) and Lieutenant Hayes Hodges (Jones), during the court-martial of Childers for the murder of 83 foreign civilians outside of a US embassy in Yemen. It asks questions about soldier’s ethical responsibility during hostile engagements (sort of), and accountability in leadership when it comes to American soldiers on foreign soil.

Analysis:

The latter of the two themes—accountability—is more pervasive and especially evident in the film during a dinner scene in which Hodges is visiting his father, Gen. Hayes Lawrence Hodges (Philip Baker Hall), who says, “Even if you thought you weren’t responsible—it went wrong and you were there.” Purely for the contention of the movie, Childers and Hodges seem to be the only two who accept this idea as truth, whereas everybody else denies culpability in the war crime that took place.

The story behind Rules of Engagement is not a new one, and films of similar substance certainly had some impact on its arc and character development: A Few Good Men (1992) comes to mind. Rules of Engagement has an expectant ending, but I think what troubles me most about the film is that we don’t see definitive changes in the character, or any meaningful development in theme. “This movie is about accountability,” it says. “And at the end it is still about accountability (sort of).”

I suppose if a film offers something to the viewers in regards to this plot—a different take, an odd angle—I may be more interested in the story it has to tell. Samuel L. Jackson’s character commits a horrible atrocity in this film and yet he is vindicated at the end of the film, which should be unsettling, regardless of the clear picture of corruption in the legislature that the film is also trying to illustrate. I mean, we see him give the order to fire on civilians.

There was an annoying bit at the end, too, which involved a closing credit caption sequence as Samuel L. Jackson is strolling away from the court room, free of guilt. The words state that everyone who had lied and tried to cheat Jackson in the film was held up to high legal standards and convicted of some crime or were forced to leave their political position. I found this irritating because in a film that is asking questions about accountability, we suddenly understand that accountability is black and white, which simply isn’t true. The reason accountability is a problem in the United States is because it’s a difficult topic to parse, and assessing blame is a difficult action to pursue. Contrivance, I say.

I did enjoy watching Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones kick the shit out of each other in sloppy indoor fistfight; but, that kind of interesting storytelling and action is short-lived.

Both Jackson and Jones’ characters are carbon copy military characters as seen in myriad military dramas. Their superiors are the barking dogs walking in the shadows of George C. Scott’s Patton (1970), which makes the film a bit….blah. It has all been had and troubles an otherwise compelling (ish) narrative. Nevertheless, Guy Pearce really kills it in this film. During a scene in which he lays out the case to his legal team, he consistently displays his acting ability, strolling around the room, running the finer points through his head like a legal cheese grater. He has wit and is intellectually quick. The viewer understands that by watching him command the role he has been given. It’s good stuff in a film that is stacked full of cardboard simulacrums.

The film is shot in a very generic sense but it works to the advantage of the narrative. As I stated, the film isn’t doing anything new, so the filmmakers could only go in a few directions: either take a very general story and shoot it like a David Lynch film, or shoot it in a safe and practical way, which is what they did. The battle scenes look like battle scenes—the Vietnam flashbacks are so Vietnam-y it’s actually a little unsettling, as they look more like a satire of Vietnam than a historical recap. The courtroom scenes are straight out of JAG, so you can anticipate how the movie will play out before it unfolds. On the other hand, it’s a little comforting, but I think the viewer would want more. With such a violent introduction to the film, some more unnerving imagery might help the story of unlawful murder more gritty—more real.

On the score side of things, Rules of Engagement has a startling lack of music, and I believe what music exists is very stereotypical TAPS-style melody and rhythm, which is meant to evoke patriotic fervor from the audience, I suppose. I honestly wasn’t really wasn’t sure what the movie was getting at sonically. A subtle form of jingoism, maybe? Mark Isham provided this scarcity of score and seemingly committed to it intentionally, but it doesn’t work for the emotional weight of the film. Stark silence works for a thriller (sometimes) but for a dramatic court room drama—there has to be a bit more (typically)—especially if it the story is about a more controversial case. The audience may need to be keyed into what emotions they should be feeling.

I would recommend Rules of Engagement to viewers who enjoy war movies and courtroom dramas. I think there are a few interesting beats here and there—the fight scene between the embattled Jackson and Jones is one such moment—but it lacks something more that might push it out of the boundary of stereotypical drama. Of course, there are better ones, but if you are looking for a lazy, hangover Sunday film—this does the job.

Overall: 1 ½ stars (Writing 1/2 + Acting ½ + Sight 0 + Sound + Recommend ½)

A Domestic Nightmare in the documentary “Crazy Love”

Released: June 2, 2007

Directed by: Dan Klores, Fisher Stevens

Written by: Dan Klores


Crazy Love (2007) is all about psychosis. It’s about the intentions of the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s about the director’s decision to use a score that is totally incompatible with a film that is satirizing the institution of marriage; but, most importantly, Crazy Love is about two people who have lost touch with reality and a director who documents the two with sensationalist lust.

First, let me address the film’s content: it’s a good documentary. It’s good if only for the audience to scream at Burt Pugach and Linda Riss who are far more socially-handicapped than they or the director is willing to let on. There is a spectacle being made of these two, and they are going along for the ride with a candid “tell all” attitude.

There are long moments where Pugach talks about how much money he made as a lawyer, and there are equally long moments of Linda Riss talking about how much she loved him for having so much money. Their shallow relationship gets uglier with each minute of the film, and the viewer quickly comes to the conclusion that a marriage like this can’t be a successful one. Though Pugach is certainly a deviation from the norm, Riss comes off as comparably warped and jaded. If this documentary does anything well, it’s that the viewer begins to share the spoils of the couple’s unhappy relationship, which really makes one look at their own relationships more critically and will find (hopefully) that things could be a lot worse. In this way, the documentary works: the content is surprisingly good. It’s like a late night murder mystery on television, and the sheer macabre of the whole affair is intriguing.

The score, however, is incompetently weak. It stands in stark contrast to the theme of mutually assured destruction. Where there should be notes of distress and dissonance when Pugach pulls out his creeper peepers, there is instead a jovial laugh-track of guitar and horns.

“And then I threw acid in her face!” Pugach screams. *slide whistle*

(The above was not actual dialogue, but he did throw acid in her face).

It’s similar to watching Michael Madsen lopping off a cop’s ear to “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs (1992). In attempting to use the juxtaposition of disparate music and imagery as an exclamation mark to punctuate the insanity of Pugach’s and Riss’s unholy matrimony, the sound designer compliments the documentary with all the subtlety of a hacksaw cutting bone. I would love to believe this was intentional, as if it was a sort of joke; but, alas, it feels accidental. I don’t believe Director Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens completely understood the implications (or lack thereof) of what they were attempting to create and instead jammed two warring parts together with seriously insane results.

It’s difficult to have patience with a film that is documenting two truly unlikeable people. The entire film is very similar to the (thankfully) dissipating trend in horror filmmaking of “torture porn,” in which the audience is supposed to sit in approving disgust as people are mutilated and dismembered. While I love good gore in horror movies (and movies in general when it’s necessary), I don’t know that I can abide a two-hour movie where someone’s body is being slowly torn apart. That is, violence and effects are not a substitute for storytelling. The qualities that I just sighted can be applied to Crazy Love, as the main difficulty of the film is sitting through long moments of hedonism and grotesque narcissism with very little payoff.

If one can get past the sensationalist attitude of the film and the circusy score, Crazy Love is an interesting documentary, as it shows just how far the human psyche will go to convince itself that it is, in fact, in love when it definitely should avoid it at all costs.

12. Black Sabbath (1963) Movie Review (Podcast Episode!)

Happy Halloween!

Are you looking for something scary to listen to on this spooky day, when the walls between the living and the dead are at their weakest? Well, then this is definitely the podcast for you!

Black Sabbath (1963) is a curious film. It has an overeager Boris Karloff in both the lead role as an anthology curator, and he appears in one of the segments as a violent vampire-like creature that is trying to eat his family. He hams it up and things certainly do get weird.

There are two other weird shorts featuring witches (black magic corpses) and a segment about a haunted telephone…or it’s just a telephone (we are not entirely sure).

Nevertheless, Black Sabbath is a fantastic anthology that prizes atmosphere above all else (and really succeeds). So join host Josh as he discusses this 60s horror flick with his brother Adam on this special “spooktacular” version of The Vintage Talk Bag!

Also, Boris Karloff’s name is Gorca in this movie, which is pretty rad.

Underrated 90s Horror Gems

It’s nearing Halloween so it’s high time to plop yourself down with a bowl of popcorn or candy and watch some scary movies, but as us horror connoisseurs know, scary movies come in all shapes and sizes, both good and bad. Thus, let’s look at a few underrated horror movies from the 90s that either don’t get much love or just get a bad rap.


Cube (1997)

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I watched Cube (1997) and was completely mortified when the realization of the protagonists’ impending doom set in to my adolescent mind (the body horror didn’t help either). Cube pits a group of unsuspecting individuals against a giant military-constructed contraption that exists, because, well—it just does. I think the franchise reveals what the cube is all about later in the series, but the mystery of it in the opener is damn intriguing. Additionally, there are some seriously gory death scenes in Cube that, while horrifying, are also creative and expertly executed.

Jason Goes to Hell (1993)

There is a lot of hate for this film, it seems…but I love it! Full disclosure: I’m not a huge Friday the 13th series fan, but I have seen all of the films (self-imposed viewing), so I can rightfully argue that they are just not my thing—except for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). To that end, here are my reasons for liking the detestable beast of an installment:

First, it gets rid of Jason Voorhees, who is a tall, lumbering and dull character who should have stayed dead after Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) hit him in the head with a machete in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) (at least the franchise could have gone in a different direction, like with more copycat Jasons or something). Let’s face it, those movies get pretty boring because the viewer knows what to expect, and when the audience becomes all-knowing, omnipotent observers, the films stop being exciting. And, really, considering the myriad flaws throughout each installment, shouldn’t these movies just be fun and not overly plodding?

Second, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday creates a slimy worm-like character who slithers around and takes control of people by entering their bodies (ewww). I love this angle on the film, because it’s new and inventive rather than predictable and lame. Really, ole slimy boi could be a slasher villain with his own franchise. It could be like The Exorcist or The Evil Dead, except the villain is everyone around the protagonist and not just a hulking jackass with a garden tool, who slips, trips (but has an absence of quips) because he has an insatiable lust for murder.

Slimy Boi
What could be the the poster for the first “Slimy Boi” in the series. 

Lastly, there is also a cool bounty hunter named Creighton Duke that actively tries to stop Jason and doesn’t run around screaming for 90 minutes. Moreover, there are some epic-level death scenes that I still marvel at to this day, and they use the Necronomicon in the film, which is alongside a million obvious horror movie references that the creators nod at throughout the film. I suppose so many movie references can be worthy of an eye-roll, but I actually appreciated them due to the slasher-niche genre of the film.

Tales from the Darkside (1990)

I love a good horror anthology, and I think Tales from the Darkside (1990) really does the trick for me in regards to presenting good stories, good gore, and good atmosphere. Director John Harrison does an excellent job with the material as he seems to know what Tales from the Darkside is all about, and that makes all the difference. I like to imagine a modern take on Creepshow (1982), which would no doubt have a million “jump scares” and good-looking actors and actresses to appeal to casual horror fans who don’t give a damn about the source material (and probably rightfully so because not everybody loves horror movies like us junkies).

The cast is really great. Steve Buscemi as a vengeful graduate student who reanimates a mummy is perfect, David Hickey as a wheelchair bound millionaire who fears retribution from a murderous cat is…well…he plays David Hickey and that works wonders, and James Remar as a gloomy artist who has sworn an oath to a gargoyle to never speak of having seen it in action is also a joy to watch.

This is a more than excellent anthology of horror very much in the vein of The Vault of Horror (1973) or Tales from the Crypt (1972), so it’s worth checking out if you are a fan of violent little vignettes,

Night of the Living Dead (remake) (1990)

I just watched Night of the Living Dead (1990) within the last few years and didn’t like it as much as I remember, but that just means it is high-time to watch it again.

It has a lot going for it as a movie: Tom Savini directs, it stars Tony Todd (Candyman [1992]), and features hordes of cannibal zombies at every turn. It at least has all the qualities of a good horror movie. Except that it takes shlock and camp and jacks it up to 11, and then features a repetitive castle defense-style game plot that sees the cast attempting to nail all of the windows and doors closed again and again.

But, I wanted to highlight this movie for a reason: when I was a kid, my brothers and I would play a game that we created called “Zombies,” which saw some of us playing as the hordes of the undead and some us as the survivors (or we would all be survivors and just pretend there were zombies), and the point of the game was to keep the zombies out of our home (one of our bedrooms). We would spend much of the game fake nailing the doors and windows shut against an ocean of imagined monsters and also pretend to be nearly bit as we boarded ourselves from the outside. As I was watching Night of the Living Dead, I suddenly realized that we had harvested much of that game from the movie itself, which is awesome for a kid’s game, but not awesome for a movie, because it’s repetitive and boring.

Still, I kind of like it for nostalgia alone, so…oh well!


Whelp, that’s my list of 90s gems, and while this list accentuates my taste in horror films, the 90s is filled with all sorts of strange and curious flicks for viewers of all stripes. Consider the campier Wishmaster (1997), Leprechaun (1993), and Hocus Pocus (1993), versus the revolutionary found-footage film The Blair Witch Project (1999). In the span of ten years, horror movies went bat-shit insane with bipolar depictions of the terrifying and the macabre.

So, what are your favorite horror movies from the 90s? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

 

“Dark Was the Night” uses atmosphere but reveals too much budget in the light

Released: Oct. 16, 2014

Title: Dark Was the Night

Director: Jack Heller

Starring: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich


Synopsis

A small-town sheriff (Kevin Durand), who is struggling with grief due to the loss of one of his sons, comes face-to-face with a monster that has been exacting its revenge on the local populace for desecrating its habitat.

Analysis

Dark Was the Night begins promisingly enough. It has the slow-burn quality of a tense horror thriller without using “jump scares” to try and excite the audience. However, the filmmaker forgot to add moments of excitement and resolve to create an engaging narrative.

By the time the climax hit, I was standing in front of the television waiting for it to be over, which is not the quality of a good film.

Kevin Durand turns in a good performance as a depressed father who has lost all emotional attachment after the abduction of his son. The long-windedness of the writing makes his character arch tiresome, though, and the viewer is exhausted from Durand’s depressed state by the end of the film.

Bianca Kajlich plays Durand’s estranged wife, who lives with her mother—unable to deal with the loss of her son. There is a lack of chemistry between both her and Durand, and their relationship feels like it is “going through the motions.” This is made abundantly clear through the writing, but their lack of attachment to one another seals the deal.

Lukas Haas provides some enjoyment as Durand’s rather detached partner. While he also shares many of Durand’s qualities in the film, he brings a sort of escalated expression to his role, which makes him enjoyable to watch—mores so than the lead of the film.

The first half of Dark Was the Night has interesting visual qualities. The screen is literally cast in blue to give a cold, distant winter-vibe, which I thought achieved its purpose. This cinema trickery wears off by the end of the second act as the film steers into generic territory.

Furthermore, the evil monster, which may or may not be a “Windiga” (sic) is revealed to be a giant malformed CGI creation. The entire film is a build up to the reveal of this creature—and it looks horrible. I wanted to give the movie a half-star in this category but really felt as though the monster ruined it. They should not have revealed it at all, because they could not pull it off as the build up set too much expectation.

As far as the music goes, I will keep this brief. There was nothing memorable in the score. The monster’s cries were monster screams that could have been royalty-free sounds from a horror website. And, there are moments where the audio is difficult to hear because Durand’s voice is both deep and low, which is fine, but they do nothing to elevate it in the mix, so it gets lost in a void of silence.

I would not recommend Dark Was the Night for the reasons previously mentioned. It is a long build to ultimately reveal something that could not be filmed. The setting was interesting (I love cold, snowy environments), but the characters were forgettable, and the CGI was not executed well at all. It’s kind of disappointing since I enjoyed the first half of the film.

Overall Rating: 1 star (writing ½ + acting ½ + sight 0 + sound 0 + recommend 0)

Live in Cook County Jail is King of Chicago Blues albums

I was immediately swept up with this album as I was riding on a train back home from Chicago with my future wife sitting next to me. I can still remember us grinning at each other when the crowd on the album erupts in applause at the line, “I gave you seven children, and now you want to give them back.” King’s genuine attitude really sealed the deal for me, regardless of a few clunky executions on the album.

Synopsis

King was invited to Cook Country Jail by the new warden Clarence Richard English and played for 2,117 prisoners. English had seen king play at the Chicago nightclub Mister Kelly’s (Kapos).

The set included older material, and the track list is laid out as such:

  1. Introductions
  2. Every Day I Have the Blues
  3. How Blue Can You Get?
  4. Worry, Worry, Worry
  5. Medley: “3 O’Clock Blues,” “Darlin’ You Know I Love You””
  6. Sweet Sixteen
  7. The Thrill is Gone
  8. Please Accept My Love

Live in Cook County Jail is still regarded as one of King’s finest performances alongside Live at the Regal.

Analysis

I love the way this album opens. The jeers from the crowd at the very mention of prison and state officials sets the mood (and the reform in living conditions that took place after the concert at Cook County Jail hints at why they were not pleased to hear such esteemed names). The first track, though, is rushed, and King’s voice gets muddled in trilled horn instruments as he barrels through the lyrics. Nevertheless, most of the tracks are all around sonic bangers, and I always enjoy the crusty pentatonic peel that King attempts to pull off at the end of “The Thrill is Gone.” It’s authentic.

Even the sometimes ambling “Every Day I Have the Blues,” which is perhaps played too quickly (perhaps the live-stage jitters?), still affords that necessary energy to kick off the album. When the second track “How Blue Can You Get” came on I was completely riveted. My excitement trickled over, and I handed my wife one of my ear buds. It was such a perfect moment between us, and I can thank Chicago Blues for that.

This is a classic blues album, and I believe if you go in listening to a generic blues album, your expectations are typically met. There is going to be some yelling, some soloing, and some twelve-barring. Live at Cook County doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but it has some tricks up its sleeve. King monologues and inserts his discreet sort of guitar playing into all the right nooks and crannies. If we analyze it from the idea of intention in complexity, the listener will be comfortable with the bluesy-ness of the album, and will be delighted by the content and delivery.

This is a live album so I can cut it some slack in regards to fidelity, but I would also say that in that way, the audio is one of its best parts. It sounds like a blues album, and the listener doesn’t have to find a faux-blues band to hear them use vintage amps and equipment. It’s right there on stage. As far as the ideas go, King and the band play laid-back music on purpose (I’m guessing because of the setting), and jam and vamp their way through the album, setting a real tone for both expectation and reality.

I think B.B. King, much like everybody on the planet, is as authentic a blues player as one can get, and I also think on Live in Cook County Jail, King lives and breathes his blues music like a true blues man.

Trivia:

  • Press related to the album described the poor living conditions at Cook County Jail and necessitated prison reform. The prison had been referred to in the press as “a jungle” because the conditions were so rough for inmates.
  • The album reached Number One on the “Top R&B” chart, which is the only B.B. King album to do so throughout his career.
  • It was ranked 499 out of 500 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

Musicians:

B.B. King – guitar, vocals

Wilbert Freeman – bass

Sonny Freeman – drums

John Browning – trumpet

Louis Hubert – tenor saxophone

Booker Walker – alto saxophone

Ron Levy – piano

Sources:

The Times are a-Changin’ in “No Country for Old Men”

Introduction

 The first time I became familiar with “No Country for Old Men” in any format, was when I watched the movie by myself at the ripe old age of 17. The movie played through, Tommy Lee Jones finished his monologue with “And then I woke up,” the screen went black, and I sat up from the couch. “God, that movie sucked.” Seemingly, I had just sat through something poorly executed and meaningless. I mean, was there significance to each character? What was I supposed to take away thematically? Anton Chigurh got away scot-free aside from a baffling car accident? And Moss simply dies off-screen and away from the reader’s window? I am the wiser at this point and with the help of literary analysis, I have come to understand the book much better, and find it far more profound than I once did. Though, this essay is a reflection, I will impart both thoughts and lessons I have taken from “No Country for Old Men,” and elaborate on what I think and feel about the content.

Outdated Characters in the Modern World

I suppose a good starting point is the book thematically as a whole. An initial scan reveals the suggestion that life, often being brief and ending abruptly, has a way of informing its residents in many aspects, as does the slow deterioration of one’s self. While I think nailing down a theme for “No Country for Old Men” can be difficult, there are some clues that may help the reader understand what McCarthy is getting at throughout the text. Reviewer Walter Kern writes that the novel relies on sparse elements that create a cohesive whole, which include, “Too much temptation. Too little wisdom. Too many weak, bad men. Too few strong, good ones.” Yet, it’s covered in something else. Kern writes that it’s freedom and space to make poor choices to temporarily flee, as we see with Moss fleeing for his life with the drug money—the blood money.

“He sat there looking at it and then he closed the flap and sat with his head down,” McCarthy writes of Moss’s fateful decision. “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead.”

So, then the theme it is tied to fate and chance, as one’s actions will see literal outcomes; however, I also think an important theme to consider plays into the title, which is that time moves on whether one wants it to or not, and, with that, people become outdated in their morality, philosophy and ethics as the years pass. In other words, relevancy is not permanent, and it can be inferred that one’s age dictates the currency of one’s life. I think this makes sense when one considers an older person who is attempting to dress in the current fashion—there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but it just looks off, because we have adopted what our own conscious understanding of fashion (and what is fashionable) and to whom it belongs. With that being said, the looming irrelevancy of all of our lives can dictate the meaning we derive from ourselves and our history.

  1. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell

Case in point, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. He believes people should be responsible for their actions and for their justifications; and, yet this concept evolves throughout the novel. The endless procession of horrors jostles Bell to the point that he retires disenfranchised due to his inability to exact any kind of justice in a world that no longer fits him.

“A few years ago and it wasn’t that many neither I was goin out one of these little two lane blacktop roads of a night and I come up on a pickup truck … so I hit the lights and whenever I done that I seen the slider window in the back of the cab open and here come somebody passin a shotgun out the window.”

During this scene, Bell is attacked by drug runners, who shoot at him from their truck, and he crashes his car and realizes that times have changed. No longer is the world full of innocent barfights that lead to a few minor scrapes, but now it has morphed into a landscape rife with murderous rampages, violence, and killing. While he reminisces in the book from what we can assume is the future of the events, the real change isn’t apparent until he visits Moss’s dad toward the end of the book and discusses his dreams with his wife.

To frame it another way, at the start, he is an honest, stalwart sheriff who is overseeing the civilians within his county (what could be defined as his flock). At the end, he doesn’t know if there is any reason to continue doing such a thing, as evil has forced its hand, the villain got away, and good people died. This is an interesting evolution as Bell reminisces about “better times” where kids used to play different games (better, more innocent games), and, as such, we see the theme of an evolving world taking place in a more literal way—in Sheriff Bell’s mind. Moreover, in meeting with Uncle Ellis and after having a thorough discussion about modern morality and ethics, Bell learns that these “better times” might have never existed, as men have always killed each other for the same reasons—or lack thereof. As Uncle Ellis states of Uncle Mac’s death, the violent times never went away.

“They was seven or eight of them come to the house,” Uncle Ellis tells Sheriff Bell. “Wantin this and wantin that. He (Uncle Mac) went back in the house and come out with a shotgun but they was way ahead of him and they shot him down in his doorway. She run out and tried to stop the bleedin. Tried to get him back in the house. Said he kept tryin to get hold of the shotgun again. They just set there on their horses. Finally left.”

This excerpt is reminiscent of Chigurh’s macabre methods. While the killing of Uncle Mac seems devoid of emotion and meaning, one could suppose that such killing happened a lot in that particular area of Texas, and thus had historical value to the inhabitants. One could also surmise that Uncle Mac was so attached to the past, and the way things were done in his day, that his death was assured. But this is only my own inference.

  1. Llewelyn Moss

Furthermore, we see the theme of outdated values in Llewelyn Moss, who is truly a flawed character. While hunting on the flats of New Mexico, he stumbles upon money, which he then decides he will steal to better his own life. This action dooms him as far as the theme of the novel goes, as he is then pursued from the start of the novel by a drug cartel, a sheriff, an remorseless assassin, and another hired gun; and, he is finally left dead in the doorway of a motel after a shootout with someone from the cartel.

Sheriff Bell’s unveiling of Moss’s corpse is indicative of the dry means of killing in this part of the world:

“He (Bell) pulled back the sheet. Bell walked around the end of the table. There was no chock under Moss’s neck and his head was turned to the side. One eye partly opened. He looked like a badman on a slab. They’d sponged the blood off of him but there were holes in his face and his teeth were shot out.”

In this, we can see Kern’s point—Moss had the freedom of choice and the freedom to flee, which he chose not to do and thus killed himself and his wife in the process of his own wants. But, we must also analyze the “outdated values” argument. Moss is impulsive and is willing to follow his morality and ethics to the end to justify his theft. Moreover, he is willing to throw his life away, and he believes that, through simple ingenuity, he could survive and defeat the odds. Nevertheless, as we see, this is not the case. Moss is killed, the money is taken from him, and his wife, Carla Jean, is murdered likewise. Llewelyn’s outdated morals—morals he perhaps honed in Vietnam (and thus during a different older time)—ultimately get him killed. He is too reliant on the skills he hopes to use to defeat the cartel and Chigurh. As such, his morals are outdated and thus lack rational logic for modern problems, which in McCathy’s world means you will leave defeated or you will die.

  1. Anton Chigurh

Anton Chigurh is vastly different from both Llewelyn and Bell in his moral code. He doesn’t believe that life has inherent meaning, and instead favors fate as the guiding principal. In Chigurh’s opinion, one follows a path that leads them to where they are going rather than choosing their path. Destiny is destiny.

As Kern states:

“He’s a strict, conscientious, self-taught psychopath who vigilantly maintains his mental ill-health. He’s purged himself of all qualms and second thoughts so as to function smoothly in the world that Bell has grown unfit for.”

The march of time and “outdated morals” do not apply to Chigurh because his morality and ethical purity are made for a violent world. In other words, he lives strictly by his convictions, and he will not be deterred unless he is in an absolute dire strait, which isn’t often. As such, he is completely different from Bell in that way.

“… what makes Chigurh such a chilling antagonist is that by McCarthy’s reckoning, he seems like the right man for the times—an uncaring beast with no concern for anyone else,” Keith Phipps from the A.V. Club writes.

He is the right man for the right time, and he is playing a violent game—not an innocent one.

Llewelyn Moss is flawed, impulsive, and impractical, while Sheriff Bell is in over his head as times have moved on without him, but the world seems to reward people like Chigurh due to his convictions and his willingness to adopt the methods of the current climate. Somebody who has no want of sensibility, community, and capital—those things that tie Bell and Moss together—will benefit in the en—or, at least, that seems to be the suggestion.

Conclusion

Which brings me to one of the final scenes in No Country for Old Men—both the book and movie. Anton Chigurh is driving down the road in suburbia after killing Carla Jean and is t-boned by another car that runs a stop sign. He is left in bad shape, bloody, but is able to pay a bystander for their shirt and silence, and then he makes off into the night, as though he is some phantom of vengeance and retribution that can’t possibly succumb to his own rule set.

I’ve always found this to be the most confounding part of the book and movie, but now it makes sense to me when applying the “outdated morals” concept. Taking a step back, one can see how Chigurh simply leaves the scene of the accident, and gets away, which would literally mean that this really is “No Country for Old Men,” because evil perseveres in the face of justice. However, in applying the “outdated morals” concept, we must reflect on Chigurh’s confrontation with Wells and his unwillingness to take money in exchange for Wells’s life. In fact, he gives Wells a face full of shotgun instead of taking his money; but, this should be strange, because we then see Chigurh bribe two small children in order to ensure his own escape. Is he just being a pragmatist who is cleaning up loose ends? I think not. As the two boys ride their bikes to Chigurh, who is terribly hurt, he asks them for their help and gives them money.

“Chigurh thumbed a bill out of the clip and put the clip back in his pocket and took the bill from between his teeth and got to his feet and held it out … Take it. Take it and you don’t know what I looked like. You hear?”

But, why? If he is so sure of fate, wouldn’t it work itself out? In the novel, Wells asks Chigurh if he would take money in exchange for sparing his life, and Chigurh says it’s a good payday, but “It’s just in the wrong currency.” This, he says, shortly before outright murdering Wells. Nonetheless, according to Jack’s Movie Reviews, and what I think is an astute observation, the reviewer states: “As he passes the one-hundred-dollar bill to them, it is a passing of generations. It is him being weak. It’s him becoming an old man. And, as we know, this is no country for old men.”

There is no right or wrong in “No Country for Old Men,” in my opinion. There are no just actions or evil actions. There are just those who have outdated morals or ethical impurity and suffer from their own actions, and those who adhere strictly to a modern moral compass that ensures survival. Bell realizes he is outdated and is no longer fit for a world that has changed and left him in the past. Once, he used to break up bar fights, and suddenly he was being shot at by drug dealers, and then he was following in a destructive swath cut by Anton Chigurh. The world moved quickly and away from Sheriff Bell, and regardless of the amount of his ruminations—the world had changed.

No Country for Old Men is a book about changing times and how that has a lessening effect on one’s own immediate surroundings. Toward the end of the novel, Bell states that by trying to live by his own morals, he thought he was going to live his life the right way, or at least the way that he perceived was right.

“I thought if I lived my life in the strictest way I knew how then I would not ever again have a thing that would eat on me thataway.”

Perhaps it is a little about mental change as one gets older, too, and the realization that these moments you once lived are now just shaky memories. I recall reading an article about how unreliable our memories are, which is such a sad realization, because we hope those memories will remain with us and will in some way allow us to remain current and relevant in conversation. The thought that we generate parts of our own memories undermines our intellectual independence and renders us fragile before time, which is what I imagine Sheriff Bell feels in No Country for Old Men. He remembers better times, but maybe those times were never better in the abstract. He just remembered them as better days. 

Either way, I believe McCarthy wants us to believe that regardless of one’s morals—or their ability to survive, or their patience, or their violence toward others—everyone becomes outdated one day whether it’s through their own memories or actions. Yet, by understanding and accepting this, one can adjust their life so that the reliance on the past has less of an impact on the present and the future. At least this rational could help us rest easy with the knowledge of our own impending irrelevancy as time marches onward, and perhaps it could help us avoid Sheriff Bell’s disenfranchised conclusion…or Llewelyn Moss’s violent fate.

Works Cited

Cheuse, Alan. “McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men.” NPR. July 28, 2005. Web.

Kern, Walter. “‘No Country for Old Men’: Texas Noir.” The New York Times. July 24, 2005. Web.

Phipps, Keith. “Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men.” A.V. Club. Aug. 16, 2005. Web.

Film Festival a slice of delight for local horror fans and creators

I attended the Slice of Fright Film Festival with my mum in Bay City, MI on Saturday, Oct. 12. The festival showcased 32 international and national short films and micro-films from the horror genre.

Typically, I go to movie-outings with low expectations (this is done intentionally—not out of malice or snobbish contempt), because I’m a popcorn junkie and it gives me a reason to drink non-diet soda, which I otherwise avoid. If the outing features these offerings, then I can safely say it was a great experience without having to use the festival films as a critic’s egregious crutch.

The Slice of Fright Film Festival offered both popcorn and soda, and some really great mini-flicks to boot.

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I went with my dear mum, and at one point I asked her to buy me a sticker (because they only took cash, and I only had a card). My mom turned to me and said, “You’re eating into your popcorn money!” As a 30-year-old man who looks twelve, I probably should have felt more ashamed, because we were in a room full of people, but deep down I knew she was right.

As highlighted by the official selections, the short films were both national and international (and Michigan-made films as well), including Canada, France, Ireland, and Germany. The wide range of diverse voices provided interesting takes on atypical stories, so there were lots of little surprises throughout the evening.

Some of the film highlights:

  • Hypnosis: This French short by Director Grégoire Vaillant kicked off the film festival and had a great deal of depth. By analyzing viewer expectations as moviegoers, the short was able to play with horror movie clichés in an original way. The sound design in Hypnosis helped convey the fear, dread, and revelatory moments throughout its evenly-paced story. This was one of my two votes for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • The Animator: I’ve loved clay animation since the first time I watched Rank/Bass’s Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Clause is Coming to Town (1970). South Carolina Director Trent Shy’s The Animator does not disappoint either, as it explores the notion of the creator and the creation…and the masochism that sometimes occurs when one is literally shaping the world of their creations with their own hands.
  • Grave Sight: One common factor throughout the festival was the level of humor that the creators employed in their films. Of all the films, I think Grave Site by Canadian Director Angus Swantee executed this skill with the most expertise. Grave Site tells the tale of a husband and wife who are digging up a witch’s grave to steal her rings, and hilarity ensues (there’s eye-popping, monsters, and some really fun sight gags). Grave Site was my second and final choice for the “Viewer’s Choice” category.
  • Verso: Verso was just damn cool. Michigan Director Joseph Victor proves that reverse linearity in narrative can be just as effective as telling one’s story front-to-back. The short works in reverse to tell the story of a man’s transformation into a zombie-like monster. The slow reveals through the literal reversal of film is both a neat execution strategy and it’s an engaging way to inform the viewer of plot detail.
  • Death Cleaners: This short by Director Cynthia Bergen uses the macabre profession of crime scene technician as a lens to tell a ghost story. I am highlighting it here because I think it tells a fairly conventional tale replete with “jump scares” but manages to use both a competent and unique voice to tell its story.

Overall, the 2nd Annual Slice of Fright Film Festival was a fun event that had a lot to offer in showcasing unique voices in horror and short films. I’m already looking forward to next year.

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