Minari

Minari (미나리) is an edible plant popular in Korea, somewhat akin to watercress or parsley in appearance and use. It is resilient; when planted on the shores of a wooded creek in rural Arkansas, it grows. This is the metaphor.

Minari the movie is by the Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, and is a semi-autobiographical reflection of his own childhood years on a remote farm in the Ozarks. It is about the farm, but it is mostly about this family, their hopes and hurts and humor. It’s not really a slice-of-life, that doesn’t feel like the right term for something with so much of the softness and piercing poignancy of memory. Maybe like a more grounded Terrence Malick, if you’ll forgive the agriculture pun.

It’s dreamy in the fluid way it moves and in the lingering golden warmth of the light—a movie that warms you just looking at it, even if your heart didn’t feel it too, glowing from within. But it’s not dreamy in the sense of being all sweet weightlessness. Minari folds its delicate layers into something strong, something deep and resonant. It is a flowing drama of the struggles within the souls of these people, and between their souls and the other souls they live with on this land, and their struggles with the land itself—this field, this America.

I respond very feelingly to stories of complexity in ideas and emotions. Contradictory or inconstant notions of nationality and culture, of faith, of gender roles, of what it means to be a partner, a parent, a child, a grandparent—different understandings of all of these experiences and identities slide and glimmer through this movie like sunlight dappled through the trees over the little stream, multi-faceted and ever-shifting. I can’t talk directly about one of my favorite scenes without giving too much away, but I can say that I think part of the reason it rocked me so was the realization that Lee Isaac Chung’s script wasn’t flattening his story into one structural shape that every narrative thread would follow, but instead, like in life, different arcs were having their peaks and valleys on their own time. It means that nothing is one-note, the varied tones drifting in and out of discord and harmony.

Minari is beautiful. Beautiful to watch, beautiful to listen to as my rising fave Emile Mosseri’s score weaves among the lilting hum of insects on the warm air, and beautiful to feel, as the sometimes funny, sometimes bruised nuance of this family’s conflicts and love slips around you. And by the last act, a series of mounting events swept me into the biggest bout of cathartic weeping of any film I’ve seen yet from the 2020 season. I was, simply, bawling. And I think I really needed that right now. If you do too: Minari is finally available to stream in the U.S.

★★★★★

One Night in Miami

In the category ‘high-profile film adaptations of Black American plays released on streaming platforms this winter’, this one was far & away my favorite. Both still feel quite like the stage their stories originated on, but could be said to embrace that, a kind of purity in how they wear their theatrical hearts front and center—it’s going to be about the words and the performances, it says. After my tepid response to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I began to wonder if, taking its cue from the theatre it’s replicating, the director might therefore have an out-sized influence on these sorts of projects. If you take as a given that the bulk of your movie is going to be a handful of characters talking in a room, then it’s all going to come down to how they’re doing that talking. The pacing, the tone, the emotional texture among the actors.

Actor Regina King’s directorial debut was the other of these straight-forward play adaptations, and the living warmth she brings to this philosophical script is an achievement completely worthy of all the acclaim she’s been earning so far this season. One Night In Miami, first performed onstage in 2013, centers on a fictionalized account of what might have been talked about on a real night in 1964 spent between football star Jim Brown, musician Sam Cooke, civil rights leader Malcolm X, and newly minted world heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, just on the cusp of joining Malcolm in the Nation of Islam, where he would take on the name Muhammad Ali. The conversation topics that night, as imagined by writer Kemp Powers: race, politics, economics, and religion, heavy hitters to match even The Greatest.

Powers, who adapted his own stage play for King to put on screen (and wonderfully without preciousness—the first lines from his original play don’t occur until a good 40 minutes in) has said he was using these dialogues to air out silent debates he’d been having with himself about what it meant for him to be a Black artist in mostly white spaces. The result is a wide-ranging dialogue with a bracing depth of complexity and contradiction. Each new point raised is often in conflict with the one prior, and yet it TOO is a good point! This narrative turns its whole audience into Geminis for the night, basically, though feeling out every thread this way, instead of tugging on just one, seems to slightly loosen the Gordian knot by the end, without ever being so foolhardy as to imply it’s been cut.

But while One Night in Miami offers a lot of rhetoric to chew over, where King’s film version really sings (besides the moments when Leslie Odom Jr literally does), is in the interpersonal dynamics of it all. There’s four of them, when we eventually settle into the hotel room where most of the story takes place, and they talk and bond and spar together in a group and in factions within that group, but we also get scenes with just two characters alone, in every combination at some point, where these differences bloom up in how they might behave with one friend but not another, different forms of vulnerability that come out in different arrangements. It’s an idea movie that’s been intertwined with such rich character studies, such a nuanced and tender portrayal of homosocial interaction, and—and this is far from nothing—all among historical luminaries of Black culture. The movie humanizes these larger-than-life figures, without ever losing sight of the fact that it is their fame itself, and the question of what they should be doing with it as Black men in America in the 1960s, that makes up the stuff of their fiercest arguments and most open wounds.

All the compassion and thought of a writer and a director still needs a standout cast to make these conversation plays really shine though, and by jove they got it here. The only actor I knew going in was Leslie Odom Jr, whose talents absolutely translated from Broadway to the screen. Just impeccable casting for Sam Cooke, because whenever they need him to get up onstage and musically command a crowd, it’s Leslie Odom Jr. Yeah, he can do that for you! No problem! Eli Goree, meanwhile, playing the cheerfully cocky young Cassius Clay, is probably the least known of the cast right now, but he did a very fine job in his important balancing role as the baby of the group. It was about a minute into Aldis Hodge’s first scene where something clicked in my brain and I asked, wait, is that handsome clock man? It is! He has a riveting presence. Out of the four, Jim Brown might be the lightest written role on the page, or perhaps just the quietest, but in Hodge’s hands you never forget that he’s in the room, and he absolutely commands his kind yet piercing half of the crown jewel of the two-hander scenes.

His scene partner there is Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. At one point fairly early in this movie, I had to pause it for a moment to just silently process some feelings about Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X. Like a containment safety measure, like otherwise I was about to become overwhelmed. Like I needed to calibrate to his levels so I could make it through this. The reason I think I was feeling so much, is because Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X is also feeling so much. I don’t know the last time I saw a character that felt more like a prophet, and what I mean is the awkwardness. The genius of this, god it’s perfect. He’s intense and sure and lonely and worried, and he might be going too far but also not far enough, because that’s the curse of a prophet, and damn I loved all the choices of this performance! And when it at last struck me like a physical blow that I knew how this ends for Malcolm, that he’s Malcolm X, all my containment measures fell apart.

But this story here (mostly) takes place on just one night, in Miami, in February 1964. And when it ends, it ends with a cinematic technique, a gesture of editing and close ups, yet the feeling of it is one I recognized from the theatre, these days usually achieved with lighting cues but which I think of as a curtain falling in your heart. And that right there, is a beautiful piece of play adaptation.

★★★★★

The Nest

The Nest tells the story of a family, a British businessman and his American wife, a horse trainer, who at his sudden & suspicious behest move with their two children from her native New York to his native England, where everything swiftly feels even more wrong, and then precedes to start falling apart.

It is in every way a throwback to those mid-budget psychological adult dramas of the later 20th-century, with an added soupçon of always maintaining this certain artistic edge where you’re thinking, this could still plausibly become a haunted house movie, there’s still time. While it never fully crosses over into horror or any of the other genres that sometimes slip along just under the surface, I still think this would be a good recommendation for people who liked last year’s Parasite, a movie so boldly, sharply crafted that it makes The Nest’s own financial spikiness seem understated by comparison, but they do contain a number of shared elements to enjoy: a narrative of social climbing & tension, a certain twistiness to the emotional landscape, a big rich house in a featured role, and just a lot of sterling direction and cinematography.

I loved this movie. “Yay,” I kept saying to myself happily. The interiors, the clothes, the particularly Reagan flavor of its 1980s, alongside a soundscape subtly but increasingly textured by the teenage daughter’s taste for the British new wave that’s coming in over the airwaves in Surrey. Loved her especially by the way, a great character for this talented young actor in a movie that definitely could have just been dominated by the adults. Though regarding them, I just continue to be so pleased by this career stage of Jude Law, Actor-slash-Producer, where so many of the roles he does now are ones where it’s like he’s having a complete ball expertly deploying his skillset and middle age to play a note-perfect commentary on a movie we associate with him from his twink younger years—here, The Talented Mr. Ripley absolutely. He even pulls out the same grimacing grabby-hands gesture he used as Dickie, and I was incandescent. 

Meanwhile, I had never seen Carrie Coon in anything before, and the impact she had on me here was probably most akin to my reaction to meeting Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread: oh, sorry to the Famous Man, who’s of course great as ever, but that’s why I’m all the more dazzled by YOU babe! This is YOUR movie and you’re killing it! Where have you been all my life! Apparently, in that HBO show The Leftovers. Man, Leftovers fans, you’ve been dining so well.

What else did I love about The Nest? God, so much. I love the nearly impossible to pinpoint yet undeniable way in which the grand wonderful manor house is actually horrible. I love movies where a bunch of adults have a party. I love a black horse, and I particularly love when characters look at a black horse and it seems to become symbolic of their own personal holy mysteries. And I loved, so much, the final scene, going out on something I’m going to call, a certain Joanna Hogg unspokenness. Oh do I love that!

Sound of Metal

The amount of consideration and invention that went into the sound engineering of this movie should, and I have to believe will, go down in film history. This is what it means to go right up to the edge of your medium and advance the line, transforming forever the idea of what can be done in your field.

In telling the story of a drummer who suddenly loses his hearing, Sound of Metal took the approach of profound subjectivity, most immediately apparent in Nicolas Becker’s sound design, but the camera too is intimately associated with Ruben’s sensory perceptions of the space around him, and gracefully conveying to us the changes in those perceptions over time. In one of my favorite features of the cinematography, the camera position and editing subtly center characters’ signing more and more in the frame as the film goes on, a gradual shift from what initially feels more like a fluttering, disjointed movement of hands around the edges of our (and Ruben’s) perception, into what it truly is: a full and fluid language of gesture, conveying the intricacies of both mood and meaning. And god that’s remarkable filmmaking, to have taken the time and care to reflect on screen the way a character is learning to read the world differently, and to create a sense in your audience that they are sharing some portion of that increase in comprehension, all just through the framing!

I’ve wondered if there were Deaf technicians behind the scenes, in addition to all the Deaf actors onscreen. Because that part I do know: nearly all the Deaf characters were played by actors from the Deaf community, with the exception, obviously, of Riz Ahmed. But beyond how the production certainly would have gotten a bigger budget with a Name attached to the project (and that’s more hours you can spend literally inventing new microphones), I think it does make some artistic sense to cast a hearing actor in that role, as the movie is specifically about someone not previously deaf who is actively struggling to hang on to his hearing identity. 

Truly though, the cast assembled here is all terrific. It was in Paul Raci’s very first scene where I suddenly remembered that there was a supporting performance in this that critics have been talking about, and knew immediately it must be him. Olivia Cooke I had not seen since my beloved Thoroughbreds, and it was such a pleasure to get another movie with her in it. And Riz Ahmed in this, is just…god, what a captivating actor. He can act entire scenes with only his giant eyes and the way he holds his shoulders. His performance is as immersive as the technical design around it, living in every thread of a character flawed and fragile and driven—what he’s doing as Ruben would be remarkable even if it were just about him going back to rehab.

Sound of Metal is a movie about care, I think, ultimately. Different ways caring for someone can look, the different forms that can take, as well the journey of learning to take care of yourself. I thought the intersection between the long road of addiction recovery that Ruben has been on four years now, with this sudden new road of learning how to be Deaf, as Joe puts it to him, was such a smart choice, because man, life often IS multiple things at once, isn’t it. And the contrast between the worn smoothness of one road with the bumpy newness of the other was just so sensitively rendered. The wholeness of this story and this film project is something I keep coming back to, it just feels so whole, but also not too neatly buttoned up. It’s human, and being alive means continuing.

This is the kind of movie where the longer I sit with it, the more enamored of it I am. I love it, in a lasting way. The final shot is going to be in my heart forever. When things in your life are lost, when they change, when you’re coping, this is a movie to draw solace from, and I feel I will my whole life.

★★★★★

The Personal History of David Copperfield

The first beneficiary of my “no more half-stars, we commit to the bit” resolution/Letterboxd overhaul, is certainly The Personal History of David Copperfield, which is probably a 3 star movie on a screenplay level, but a 4 for how it personally made me feel! Which was happy! And in 2020 2021, is that not a value to be treasured and praised?

Granted, I have not read the original Charles Dickens novel, in full: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account), so have no idea if I might feel differently about this film’s merits or demerits if I had. I’ve read a number of other Dickens though, so while I cannot comment on whether this is a “good” adaptation of its specific source material, to me it did feel appreciably Dickensian. My working definition of a Dickensian work is that it is a long, ultimately somewhat moralizing tale that follows a colorful character through an exaggerated series of misadventures alternatively ruinous or fortuitous, throughout which there are approximately 250 other colorful characters arrayed. Critics were fairly right then that Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch has a relationship to this genre, as it hits most of those marks square on the head, with the one key exception being that the main character there is positively drained of all color, and his stuffed suit moroseness contributes to the pretentious pall cast over the whole thing, that Dickens, writing a monthly serial for a general audience, does not fall prey to so much. Now, interestingly, Aneurin Barnard is in BOTH of these 2019-released film adaptations as the lead’s Important Drunk Friend, which really is amazing, and had the effect of making me consider this exact full creative team doing the Goldfinch movie instead, with this same spry, absurdist tone, and then laugh and laugh.

Frankly, writer-director Armando Iannucci always seemed a curveball pick even for this project that he did do, given that most of his work previous has been original political black comedies shot in a faux documentary format, all but The Death of Stalin taking place in contemporary times, and all including The Death of Stalin characterized by his hallmark hilarious meanness. Copperfield, by contrast, is a PG-rated period film and just the cutest fucking thing. It’s sweet and sincere—still a comedy, still with a sense of humor you wouldn’t doubt as Iannucci’s, but without the bitter irony of a The Thick Of It or a Veep. And the nimbleness of the performances all across the board made me consider that while the classic Iannucci insult contains a cavalcade of words that Charles Dickens would NEVER use, it does contain a cavalcade of words. Iannucci is actually supremely suited to directing a script with a lot of stuff in it for his actors to say.

And what actors! Everyone in this is the best. Hugh Laurie plays a genially confused old man experiencing intrusive thoughts of King Charles I, beheaded two centuries prior. Tilda Swinton rockets brightly around every set, in between caterwauling off after donkeys in a field. You have never seen Ben Whishaw deliver a performance as sickening (not the gay definition) as his Uriah Heep. Gwendoline Christie plays an ice woman dressed in black and seven feet tall, and Peter Capaldi plays an orchestrina, badly. I had never seen Rosalind Eleazar in anything before but holy moly is she a delight, what a winning presence, manages the balancing act of a character a bit more sage than most of the others but still absolutely in the same world emotionally, and just so fun. But it is good and right that the most common descriptor I run across for this movie is “the Dev Patel David Copperfield.” Such is his impact! Dev Patel….is so charming. His vim! His heart! His beautiful face! And the little version of him: this precious boy!!

I mean really the biggest part of what I enjoyed about this movie was this cast wearing those clothes in those sets. For speaking of the colorful, this Dickens is colorful through and through, from the buoyantly colorblind casting to their color-drenched Victorian waistcoats and wallpapers, just this side of gaudy, and therefore: accurate. Peter Capaldi is dressed in mulberry velvet with pink vertical-striped socks, and Tilda Swinton is usually draped in head-to-toe turmeric holding court in her Tiffany blue sitting room. In one scene every lanky inch of Dev Patel is covered in patterned fabric and there are at least three of them. All the people and things on screen create together a world so vibrant and welcoming to the eye; it feels fairy tale but alive, fresh and living.

Now, what went wrong? Honestly I think it’s mostly just a script issue, I think there’s not enough material knitting the episodes together, and that it’s overall too quickly paced so trips over its own feet at times. I think the energy being up the whole time is a grand choice, but there were just too many plot beats to cover—I’m citing a speed issue, not a pep issue. Honestly I think Ianucci would have done really well with a miniseries, which is not something I would say for every film director, but in his case I know he’s actually very well-versed in writing for serialized television, and could do a terrific job with say, a 6-part series. I don’t necessarily think the way this was cut together was incompetent (though occasionally….a little cheesy), I think just trying to do it all in two hours was always gonna be an impossible task. The first edition of David Copperfield was 624 pages long.

But although at times this can careen all the way through rollicking into antic, with Hamlet’s unhinged connotations attached there, you can’t say it ever lacks spirit, and too many movies do, in my opinion. This was a right romp and I was glad to have it, jolts and all.

★★★★

Locke

A pal wanted to talk about Tom Hardy, which eventually led to me wanting to rewatch Locke, the tiny 2014 film where Tom Hardy’s secretly strangest character just spends 80 minutes driving down the M6 while (mostly) steadily trying to cajole everyone in his life to calm down. This time I finally realized that must be part of why this stressed movie still works on me like a lullaby: so much of the dialogue is delivered to be soothing.

The concept at play is that we begin the movie with a successful construction foreman getting into his car at a building site in Birmingham, and then he proceeds to drive toward London in real time while his life cracks like badly poured concrete (to pre-empt the metaphor) one hands-free phone call at a time. Things that will not compete for your attention in this literal Tom Hardy vehicle:

– scene changes
– other people on screen

because there aren’t any!

Instead, we see only Thomas Edward Hardy in a cozy sweater & his nicest beard, serving up top-grade Resting Concerned Face while speaking in an accent that is PURPORTEDLY Welsh, no one believes this, but it’s as melodic as it is odd so I offer that you simply think of it as Hardish and just go with it. Hardy is a remarkably compelling actor even when half his face is obscured, which is weirdly often, and for once he’s not playing someone wearing a mask or even remotely connected to organized crime—refreshment. Instead, you just get to watch him somehow completely anchor your attention as he tries to remotely explain where a folder is to a slightly drunk Andrew Scott.

On that note, when I first watched this six years ago I definitely did not adequately appreciate the depth of the voice cast beyond the aurally mesmerizing duo of Not Welsh Tom Hardy and Full Irish Andrew Scott, and I really must must impress the rest of the cast list upon you right now: Olivia Coleman, Ruth Wilson, Ben Daniels, and baby Tom Holland. The filming construction they used here, and I think this is neat, is that they essentially shot this movie like a play—each night for a week, Hardy would get pulled down the motorway on a low flatbed trailer, and they would just run through it as written with the rest of the actors genuinely calling him up from a hotel conference room they were all camped in. The resulting film was edited together from the best bits of these complete runs.

One critique I will raise is that the most interesting version of a movie that is composed of just phone calls and one actor’s face is if it truly is just that, and as such we need to lose the couple of theatrical soliloquies to the empty backseat of his car. They seem to exist outside the established constraints in a way that feels sort of like a cheat, and are also easily the most broad parts of both the script and Hardy’s otherwise very very good performance, so it’s easy, we just 86 those and I promise we can do the father issues aspect of Ivan Locke’s character in just a handful of spare yet heavy allusions in dialogue that frankly will probably pack five-fold the punch anyway, why am I phrasing this like I am actively producing this movie in this moment, okay–

Something I think Locke does really beautifully, I have no notes, is how it’s tense & emotional but is all strung together with that familiar hypnotic lull that comes from driving alone at night with the lights of the road sliding over you. This movie feels like driving home from the airport after your late flight gets in. This movie is a poem to that yellowy urban glow over the major roadways at night.

Most importantly—you watch this movie and you are going to know what C6 is forever. You will not be able to help not only learning about concrete, but caring about concrete. Truly, what this movie is about, in order, is 1. concrete, 2. project management, 3. when you’re someone who believes everything can be project management if you can juuust get your little grid-patterned cuffs to stay rolled up over your sweater sleeves.

Don’t Look Now

Just an outright list of reasons to watch one of my very favorite autumn horror films, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier story by the same name. At time of posting, it is currently included free to stream with a Prime account, if you have access to one of those.

1. Don’t Look Now is unsettling and atmospheric and creepy and striking, but not due to jump-scares or gore. Of course everyone has different things they’re frightened by in movies, but for me at least, this is a horror film I have described as “not scary-scary, just eerie.” This is not a movie designed to make you cower with dread, it is a movie designed to make you keep asking softly, with disquieted wonder, “what the heeeck…”

2. It stars young Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in capital 1970s Transatlantic bougie intellectual chic, playing a married couple who have recently lost one of their two small children in a drowning accident.

3. And they then go to VENICE, a city of water!! Obviously the haunting watery imagery is everything you’d want it to be. The reason they travel to Venice is because Donald Sutherland’s character is not simply one of cinema’s many architects, but specifically an architect who restores cathedrals. There could hardly be a better movie career. The combination of artistic, academic, and material know-how here…bellissimo.

4. Anyway it is of course, in the way all good horror movies are “really about” something, really about grieving.

5. I think there are three main components of my love for this movie: the filmmaking style, the setting, and the central couple. Let’s go backwards since we were already talking about them:

5. a. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are so good in this. More so than a lot of movie spouses these two actually feel like they’re married, and it’s partly what was scripted but so much of it just comes from their performances. It’s a relationship I always enjoy watching, whether they’re at odds as they struggle with the strain of their terrible loss, or being close and familiar and cute with one another in a very longstanding kind of way. I feel for and root for them, which is an important piece of investment to have in a movie that is only going to further and more strangely bedevil this pair as soon as they reach Venice.

5. a. i. (Don’t Look Now also features one of film history’s more infamous and influential sex scenes)

5. b. VENICE. I’m obsessed with the Don’t Look Now Venice, a sombre ghost city of little waves quietly lapping against stone, the bare, chilly streets with seemingly more pigeons in them than people. It is late autumn here, not the tourist season, the hotel they are staying at set to close for the winter as soon as they check out. It feels bleak and damp and old, perfectly enhanced by that particular taupe & cigarette smoke, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy palette of this period. This is a quiet, half empty Venice, haunting and haunted. If you watched The New Pope, think the Venice of Episode 7—an episode I am now super guessing might have been deliberately referencing Don’t Look Now. Or think the Bruges of In Bruges, which Martin McDonagh said he wanted to function the way Venice does in Don’t Look Now, a movie his references in numerous ways thematically, formally, and of course in the metafilmic moment where Clémence Poésy’s character directly names it as the inspiration for the movie that is currently shooting in the city. Bryan Fuller would also cite Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as one of the reference points of the loss-haunted Italy section that begins the third season of his Hannibal adaptation on NBC—though if we keep going, the amount of filmmakers who have been influenced by this movie is nearly numerous enough to become comical if listed.

5. c. And that is mostly due to the sheer calibre of film craft being deployed here. It is a movie of vivid visual symbolism without feeling overbearing, of experimental editing without feeling remote. Practically any scene in this could credibly be someone’s favorite, they’re all just that good. The way the shots are laid out, the pacing, the finesse with which a plot line that will in time be entirely interrelated with our story begins unfolding first as just a piece of background texture (god I’m so into that!)… The first time I watched Don’t Look Now I immediately watched it again, because I just wanted to appreciate it a second time.

7. “One of the things I love about Venice is that it’s so safe for me to walk. The sound changes, you see, as you come to a canal. And the echoes near the walls are so clear. My sister hates it. She says it’s like a city in aspic, left over from a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone.”

★★★★★

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

EXTRAORDINARY. WHERE TO BEGIN.

You know maybe all the way at the actual beginning, because I had seen this movie before, but when I was 18, and for CLASS. Not a real class though, a fun wintertimes class as part of my college’s January term. It was called ‘Victorian Monsters’ and we read Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Dracula, and talked a lot about how the true monster was [insert social concept] all along!!, and also at one point were encouraged to give the 1992 Dracula a gander. The main sense memory I’d retained of it could probably be summed as “DRAMATIC,” all-caps, along with a vague recollection of my classmates, mostly other tiny freshman, being like, ahaha whaahahaat?, and our professor, this fantastic old woman who made her own ceramic jewelry, casually declaring that something this magnificently ludicrous and hornéd was the only valid interpretation of this material—rather foreshadowing the tone of what would later be my equally casually assured pronouncements about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

But I don’t remember us talking all that much about Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, probably because again, this wasn’t exactly a hard-hitting academic course, the whole of Winter Study being designed to give both us and the professors a bit of a break for a month. This was the kind of class where I think our grade came from simply class participation and a loosely defined final project to just produce whatever the Victorian Monsters spirit moved us to. And clearly impacted by the sexual energy of this film, 18-year-old me wrote a dark slashy fusion fic combining Dracula and Frankenstein, well before I had the terminology to know that’s what I was doing. I got an A. The real project you should be excited about though was that of my friend Sean, who now does math for Google, who made AN ENTIRE BOARD GAME (out of card-stock and tape, mostly) where the objective was to escape Count Dracula’s castle, involving numerous meta-aware jokes about the literature. As soon as she saw it our professor was like hold up—this is the best shit I’ve ever seen—and immediately halted class (“class”) to play through Sean’s game in its entirety. 

The point is: I may have been kind of perfectly set up by that distant yet memorable college experience to finally rewatch the Coppola Dracula this year, now as an adult with the resources both mental and physical to truly appreciate what this baby has to offer while draped on my couch in the October night surrounded by taper candles. 

All of which brings me here to you to report that Professor Case was right: this Dracula rocks it totally.

For starters, the attitude this work has toward adaptation is one of my very favorites, where it takes care to include a good amount of arcane nerdy details right from the text, while on the other hand going completely off the shits in art direction and boldly adding a new plot element whole cloth—that nonetheless dovetails with and contextualizes plot points of the original story. It’s actually a really interesting adaptation!

It also rules because it is grand bloody-minded lunacy. The filmmaking here feels like you’re paging through an antic, lushly drawn storybook, for ~adults~. It is so strange and grotesque and sumptuous and Catholic, with all these unusual in-camera special effects that give it this hokey yet innately magical quality—a real stage magician was even contracted to advise on some of the visual tricks. Throughout I kept quietly exclaiming that it was like Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête yet technicolor, only to learn afterward that in fact that was very much one of the reference points! The other primary reference point I think we can just call “costume designer Eiko Ishioka,” the ravishingly brilliant artistic mind who also designed the costumes of Tarsem’s The Fall, and whom Coppola wisely let just fly free. “Bring me things that are weird,” he would reportedly ask everyone.

Relatedly, this cast. Exquisite marquise-cut gothette Winona Ryder paired with oddball dialect boffin Gary Oldman, sure, a sort of crazy-like-a-fox brilliance there actually. My poor angel Keanu Reeves staggering in exhausted after just shooting three or maybe even four other movies back to back, trying to finagle a British accent he has no comfort with, and turning in just the most bewilderingly out of tune performance, oh honey. The scene where you realize you’re watching Tom Waits as a bespectacled madman in a cell acting against Richard E. Grant, playing curiously against type as, relative to everyone else, kind of a normal man?? Normal and doctorly enough that I didn’t even recognize him until his second scene. Then, Cary Elwes. Cary goddamn Elwes as Lucy’s posh fiancé, a role he could do in his SLEEP, but that doesn’t mean we’re not elated to see him. Finally, finally, rather deep into the runtime, Sir Anthony Hopkins rolls in as fucking Van Helsing, in what I think might be the nearest performance of his to his eventual turn as Thor’s Odin, but specifically in Ragnarok, where Taika Waititi infamously once asked him to maybe tone it done just a tad.

NOTHING in Francis Ford Coppola’s gothic romance is toned down, and bless it for it. Dracula, like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House: not sane, is a darkly fantastical tits-out vampire operetta on a fever dream scale, and I can’t believe I haven’t been watching this ornate night-tale every Halloween since Winter Study.

★★★★★

Little Shop of Horrors

Medium to light spoilers here, by my standards, though I am careful to avoid going into detail on the different endings

The thing about Alan Menken music is that I am INSTANT GOOSEBUMPED. And I didn’t know that in Little Shop of Horrors, I would have the opportunity to be goosebumped by Alan Menken compositions in a Howard Ashman penned non-Disney property, very much a non-Disney property, music & lyrics by Menken & Ashman coming right out the gate with a Greek chorus of ‘60s gals singing to the camera about how you better look out, because things are about to get WILD.

Oh my god I loved Little Shop of Horrors! Every choice is delicious. A space-scroll Voice of God prologue about an eclipse— putting an elevated train in downtown New York City just for the hell of it— Ellen Greene’s breathless smitten squeaks— the way Rick Moranis swings his arms as he long-strolls down the sidewalk in his flashback— “Oh my gosh it’s peculiar!”

It’s so jokey, it’s blithe it’s stylized it’s a musical, but yet I felt real affection for these people, and that’s what I ask for in my comedies. Characters to be strange and funny but also engender genuine pathos in me as they topple around this incredible set of Skid Row, Fantasy New York, that they built entire on a huge soundstage, because you can leave the off-Broadway theater but the off-Broadway theater doesn’t always leave you, and neither do we want it to sometimes!

Although in fact, those elements did transpire to give this movie a curious place in film history, as part of the select club of those with alternate original endings. This was actually one of the few things I did know about Little Shop of Horrors beforehand, because I was so fascinated when I read this that it embedded in my brain even though I knew nothing else about the show. The story goes: when they played the movie for test audiences, the ending from the stage show, which had been a hit with the theater crowd, went over terribly at the test screenings. The theory of the movie’s director, puppetry legend Frank Oz, is that the more fatalistic (in…every sense) ending was easier on the theater audiences, because they got to see those characters they loved again when the actors came out for the bow, got to cheer them a farewell—a moment they didn’t get from the movie version. There is a further fascinating theory that the nearest corollary film has to what the curtain call gives theater audiences psychologically, is the blooper reel, but that’s another story. In our story, Oz and Ashman write up a new ending, a happier one, and this plays much better and is what the movie is released with in cinemas in 1986, and subsequently on VHS, where the movie’s popularity really takes off.

The footage of that original conclusion was still out there though, and in 2012, a Director’s Cut of Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors with the stage musical ending fully restored was officially released by the studio. When I streamed Little Shop of Horrors (HBO has it at time of publishing), the entire Director’s Cut version was linked to the theatrical release as a “special feature,” so I was able to watch the shorter theatrical cut first, and then go on an extended journey with the more macabre ending I OBVIOUSLY preferred, being who I am. But beyond just my taste for stories that end very um, finally, the ending that this show was originally written with, to no surprise, has just gobs more thematic & narrative resolution. It is better in absolutely every way!

I’m avoiding specificity for those who haven’t seen any version of Little Shop before, but a few of the elements that are perfectly brought to fruition (PLANT PUN INTENDED), include:

The premise of this story, which I cannot believe I am just now getting to: a sincere, be-shambled flower shop worker buys a small unusual plant he finds on the street, and thanks to a prick on his finger from a rose thorn (!), discovers that the plant eats human blood. The whole notion of this man Seymour—a wonderfully endearing Rick Moranis, no matter how dark his storyline gets—feeding this plant with his own blood is a concept I found frankly RIVETING, on its own merits but also for its intriguing position near but askew from the classic vampire story. The nature of the power differential and the motivations here are different from how how your usual Dracula-type tales go, but there are echos of the visual motifs and attendant emotional elements in things like seeing little bandages multiplying on his gradually more enervated fingers.

Though the arrangement does quickly start, ahem, growing (I’LL NOT STOP, apparently), and in what is in sound and structure absolutely the seduction song of the musical, the plant, which we should mention he has named Audrey II, after his coworker crush—wacky willowy genius Ellen Green, voice work insane—develops a hell of a baritone and begins cajoling him with the Jareth the Goblin King tack of promising to be your slave if you’ll only do what they say and sacrifice things to them. “Feed me, Seymour,” Levi Stubbs drawls, “Feed me aaallll night long.”

The pronounced psychosexual undertones introduced from really the moment Audrey II first started doing anything have definitely graduated to FULL OVERTONES by the time we meet eager masochist Bill Murray, who appears midway through to have a one-sided yet transparently erotic experience at the hands of sadistic dentist Steve Martin, but I’VE SAID TOO MUCH ALREADY.

Anyway perhaps the worst thing about the way I’ve structured this review, is that it’s only here at the end that I bring up that ultimately this musical is an overt allegory for the evils of capitalism. With everything that has come before that line there is really no way for that to not sound like a joke, but it is in fact true! Audrey II, a “mean, green” menace, represents capitalist enterprise growing ever bigger feeding off the blood of the people, and whose greatest weapon is in convincing you that you that your own path to success is only through becoming complicit in its growth and helping it drain those around you. But again, I’ve already said too much..!

So if you’re looking for a creature feature this October, watch Little Shop of Horrors, the charming, kinky, 94-minute (depending) plant-based dark comedy whose second song is a banger about economic disparity! It’s great!!

★★★★★

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

SPOILER ZONE

I wish this could have just been a weird poem movie. GOD I wish this could have just been a weird poem movie. I was so down for this as a loopy, uncomfortable, open-ended horror film loosely about the idea that you can never go home again, and also you should break up with your boyfriend. Just a disjointed nap nightmare you have on your parent’s couch on Thanksgiving weekend. That would have been cool with me! Love when things make me say “What!” out loud twenty times in an hour, not wanting an answer!

But no, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things had to go and answer. Based on a 2016 novel, I have since learned, this movie turns out to have something between a twist and a thesis, and more annoying than either: the eventually unavoidable fact that despite being our protagonist, Jessie Buckley is just a figment of Jesse Plemons’s imagination, and it was all about the neuroses of one sad, bad man all along. To his credit Charlie Kaufman doesn’t present this as a ‘gotcha’ surprise, mostly because it’s not really presented at all. For me I just got to a point, probably somewhere in hour two, where I just had to accept that there was just no other conclusion I was going to be able to come to. That this whole movie we had been driving down a snowbound one-lane road in the dark, and the turnoffs I was still looking for were never going to come.

I think mostly I found the imaginary girlfriend more artistically frustrating than necessarily misogynistic. Because she is at least intended to be the anti-manic pixie dream girl, rather in the mode of Kate Winslet’s character in Kaufman’s earlier Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She spends a lot of time mulling in voice-over about how she’s not really getting anything out of this relationship and how, say, she feels like her role in it is to just prop up a man through letting him be associated with her own accomplishments through the mere fact of dating her. Well-observed, although defining herself only as Not His Manic Pixie Dream Girl is still a definition rooted in him not her, which of course is functionally the only option here as she straight up does not have an existence outside of him, which is admittedly pretty much peak misogyny, so!

But even if we can set that aspect aside, it’s still artistically frustrating too. Because she’s definitely the main character here, it’s her point-of-view and narration that we receive, the film has absolutely been about her. And so that makes the ending confusing, and I don’t mean because of the Oklahoma! performance—it’s emotionally confusing to have to spend the last 15 minutes recalibrating to prioritizing this guy and his feelings instead. For instance, now that we have to accept that he has just dreamt her up, then are we supposed to retroactively feel respect and sympathy for his self-awareness that he could so accurately imagine these previous two hours’ worth of damning indictments of his own shitty attitudes? All my whats shifted to much less enjoyable whys; ironically, the less inconclusive it got the more I wondered what was the point of all this.

Everyone gets to Act in this, capital A, so there’s that at least. Unfortunately this ultimately frustrated me too though, because the reason why they all get to Act is because they’re all playing flights of fancy, even this Jesse Plemons is just an imagined form of the older one—Jake, he at least does have a name I can use—and because the whole thing is a warped daydream of continually changing scenarios where no one’s really real, there’s little consistency in any of the characters. They’re by nature mercurial and unpredictable and actors seem to enjoy being able to play in this way, but I don’t know, watching things that heavily feature these kinds of roles has become more and more taxing to me in recent years. I don’t particularly care about a character’s big emotions if I have no understanding of how they got there due to the inconstancy of their internal landscape, because the work would rather keep surprising you with a character’s behavior than let you develop empathy for them. And the reason why I find I’m Thinking of Ending Things uniquely frustrating in this regard, is that Jessie Buckley (smartly) plays her role like maybe she would want to be someone we could get to know, but is prevented from it by the fact that she’s been imagined by this guy who keeps rebooting her demeanor and interests like he’s trying on different shirts.

Anyway. The things I most enjoyed were all the parts that were the most stylized and (therefore?) most free of the baggage of trying to be about something, my highlights of those portions being:
– dream ballet obvi
– the fake film within the film being directed by ROBERT ZEMECKIS—surreal, mystifyingly mean, surreal again, and by that point I’d rapid-cycled into hysterics

★★