Hulu review: Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” (1996)

It gives this critic pause when a director writes and stars in their own work. Cinema is a collaborative medium between diverse photographic, musical, and dramatic artists synthesizing their respective talents into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

A temptation factors into the equation for filmmakers to indulge in narcissistic wish fulfillment when they emulate Orson Welles and presume themselves to be better actors and screenwriters than, well, actors and screenwriters.

Keeping all that in mind, how does Billy Bob Thornton fare?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Thornton’s Sling Blade (1996) is available to stream on Hulu. It is an adaptation of George Hickenlooper’s short film, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1994), which Thornton also scripted and performed in.

The drama picture snagged Thornton an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Thornton plays Karl Childers, an intellectually disabled Arkansas man who is released from the state mental hospital after killing his mother and her lover when he was twelve years old with a sling blade.

He lands a job at a repair shop in his rural hometown, where he befriends Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a boy the same age as he was at the time he committed double homicide.

Karl becomes an eyewitness to the abusive relationship between Frank’s mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday) and her boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam).

Thornton’s writing Oscar is well-merited, for his dialogue characterizes the cast who deliver the lines with as much life as it does the setting in which they stage themselves, and his narrative galvanizes the Faulknerian tone behind his Southern Gothic mood.

Thornton’s acting is no less forceful. Karl Childers is an ambitious, uncomplimentary performance, demanding of Thornton not only to change the way he looks and speaks, but also to invest in this unlikely hero a sympathy which conflicts against the violent crime he’s guilty of.

And he directs a powerhouse out of Yoakam as well, though for as loathsome a villain as you are like to see on the screen.

But as intense as these portrayals are, there’s a reason Thornton’s direction wasn’t up for an award. His final cut is a reel of “master shots,” with entire scenes taking place in a single frame so nothing can be edited out.

To direct is human. To edit is divine.

Thornton’s notorious anal-retentiveness cramps the pacing at times, for modern audiences most of all, who are seasoned consumers of media propelled along by myriad cuts.

All in all, Thornton is an exception to the rule of self-obsessed authorship, and Sling Blade is an exceptional movie.

Netflix review: Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)

Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France…

If you don’t know what to watch next, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) is available to stream on Netflix. The war film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of SS Colonel Hans Landa.

The movie strings three storylines like Christmas lights around the premiere of a fictitious National Socialist propaganda piece in World War II Paris.

A Jewish American paramilitary group called “the Basterds,” led by First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), scalps German soldiers.

British Royal Marine Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) rendezvouses with the Basterds as part of his government’s plan to assassinate the Nazi leadership in attendance at the showing of Doctor Joseph Goebbels’s (Sylvester Groth) Stolz der Nation (1944).

And Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew whose family was massacred by Hans, masquerades in Paris as the gentile theater owner hosting the Nation’s Pride debut, plotting her own justice against the Third Reich.

If Kill Bill (2003-2004) is a revenge fantasy for women and Django Unchained (2012) is the same for Black Americans, then Inglourious Basterds and its alternate history of Jewish vengeance makes up something of a trilogy with these two companion pieces.

Tarantino is a master of this subgenre, and the grand finale of Inglourious Basterds exhibits his genius for this niche at its most cathartic.

There is something to be said, however, about his attempt at empowerment through aestheticized violence. Such exploitative filmmaking can horrify the audience with images of fascists getting burned alive, when the narrative is intended to dramatize a triumph over their ideology.

It’s not that they don’t deserve it – it’s that the wrong crowd could sympathize with them.

Furthermore, the twice-nominated auteur (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) indulges in some of his more infamous weaknesses as a filmmaker and screenwriter, such as inconsistent pacing and self-gratifying dialogue.

Notwithstanding, Tarantino inspires in Waltz a star-making performance, which, together with his other Oscar-winning turn in Django Unchained, testifies to his range as an actor, from unlikable characterizations to the likable.

But the star who shines brightest in Inglourious Basterds is Laurent. Shosanna is one of the director’s finest creations, and though her screen time runs brief relative to her castmates, she steals the show.

She is a tragic figure who deserves better, an intersectional survivor of racism and misogyny (which go hand in glove in far-right zeitgeists like Nazi Germany) who wins in the end anyway.

Her arc towers at the center of Tarantino’s theme of reclaiming cinema to literally destroy the Nazis after they appropriated and perverted the art form to construct Nazism through their propaganda machinery.

Shosanna speaks to the hearts of Tarantino’s fellow cinephiles with a power unlike any other monologist throughout his filmography, and even though she doesn’t get her happily ever after in this quirky fairytale of Hitler’s France, she still gets the last laugh.

Amazon Prime review: Adam McKay’s “Vice” (2018)

To quote one of this reviewer’s film professors, “George Bush wasn’t evil. He was just an idiot.”

If you don’t know what to watch next, Adam McKay’s Vice (2018) is available on Amazon Prime. The biographical comedy-drama was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Delaney won for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

Narrated by Kurt (Jesse Plemons, a fictional War on Terror veteran), the film charts the career of former Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney (Best Actor nominee Christian Bale), as well as his marriage to Lynne Vincent (Best Supporting Actress nominee Amy Adams).

President George W. Bush (Best Supporting Actor nominee Sam Rockwell) only runs for office to please his father, former President George H.W. Bush (John Hillner), and so delegates executive power to his vice president.

Cheney’s Machiavellian political ambition leads to party polarization in America, the rise of ISIS in Iraq, and historically low approval ratings for himself.

McKay is the recipient of three nods from the Academy as co-producer, director, and writer of the original screenplay. In addition, editor Hank Corwin was up for an Oscar.

The two collaborated together on The Big Short (2015), another historical black comedy for which McKay, Corwin, and Bale were nominated (with McKay and Charles Randolph taking home the trophy for Best Adapted Screenplay).

The Big Short also marks another critique of the Bush years, namely the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

McKay and Corwin’s creative partnership is as vital as the professional chemistry between Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, with Corwin cutting satirical meta-references from beyond the fourth wall into McKay’s production.

This stylization underscores the absurdity of the apocalyptic incompetence in the Bush Administration that empowered an Antichrist like Cheney to reign supreme across the post-September 11 geopolitical hellscape.

The cosmetic Oscar is well-earned, as the star-studded cast transform themselves under McKay’s direction into their characters so unrecognizably, the line between “parodical imitation” and “masterful tour-de-force” is crossed.

Bale, Adams, Rockwell, Steve Carrell (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), Don McManus (Chief of Staff to the Vice President David Addington), and Camille Harman (consultant Mary Matalin) all characterize Cheney and his inner circle with a gravitas that transcends appearances.

But Vice speaks with Plemons’s voice, and his Iraq and Afghanistan vet is one of many victims of Cheney’s plunder, one of the best candidates to tell this story.

But not the best.

It would have been more morally sound to hear from an Arab or Muslin arbitrarily detained and tortured at one of the U.S. government’s international “black sites.”

Furthermore, the movie’s farcical tone begs the question: is it artistically just to turn eight years of corruption and war crimes into a punchline?

As tempting as it is to make fun of Bush (who once used the word “misunderestimated” in a sentence), his regime’s record of human rights violations is no laughing matter.

“Irregardless,” Vice as an historic document is strikingly relevant to the Trump era, and if that means we learned nothing from our recent past, then maybe the joke is on us.

Hulu review: FX’s “American Horror Story” (2011-)

Too bad Ryan Murphy’s ambition outweighs his talent.

If you don’t know what to watch next, FX’s American Horror Story (2011-) is available to stream on Hulu, and, for the first four seasons, at least, it’s worth your time.

Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s ongoing collection of miniseries has won two Primetime Emmy Awards for Jessica Lange, one for Kathy Bates, and one for James Cromwell.

The anthology horror series weaves a different narrative each season, with different characters in different settings. Sometimes, the same actors reappear to play different parts.

At its finest, the limited series make for the most literate fans of the genre a meal of allusions to and interpretations of every variety of horror, from the supernatural to the psychological, from the darkly comedic to the blackly dramatic, from science fiction to the Gothic.

And it starts off on the right foot. The first season, American Horror Story: Murder House, appropriates the trope of the dysfunctional family moving into a haunted house and adapts it to the television medium.

The result is the most refreshing contemporary take on this classic cliché you could ever hope to see, with the long-form storytelling of Golden Age TV generating suspense through binge-worthy cliffhangers as well as developing the performances with epic detail.

American Horror Story: Asylum would be the greatest season, if not for the absurd alien abduction subplot.

Still, what it gets right outweighs what it gets wrong by a wide margin, and it is more re-watchable than the best season.

American Horror Story: Cult features some of the most quotable dialogue, yet, somehow, some of the weakest writing. As Misty Day (Lily Rabe) raises the dead, she lowers the dramatic stakes.

Why kill off a character if they’re just going to be resurrected later?

What’s more, the big reveal is not foreshadowed enough, which is narratively dishonest. The most efficacious twists land not only because they surprise us, but also because they play by the rules of the world-building.

Still, there is a campy pleasure in watching A-listers like Lange, Bates, and Angela Bassett smoke, drink, and dress to kill.

If Coven is the most overrated season, then American Horror Story: Freak Show is the most underrated, narrowly outperforming Asylum. It evokes a depressive mood, but because of the power of its tone.

The unsavory realism of its mise-en-scène makes it the most difficult season to watch, but the most “horrifying” horror is that which is experienced in our world, and for that reason, Freak Show is the masterpiece of American Horror Story.

The beginning of the end is American Horror Story: Hotel. It would benefit from a more ambiguous answer to the “Hotel Hell” mythos à la Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stephen King.

Instead, Hotel throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience – ghosts, vampires, serial killers – and none of it sticks.

It’s an exercise in futility to identify what Hotel is even about, which theme pulls the incohesive plot threads together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. For all its overcrowding, Hotel does nothing fresh with its glut of material.

But Hotel is far more watchable than American Horror Story: Roanoke. An incomprehensible, uninspired bore, Roanoke is the worst season of American Horror Story, with unmemorable characters and an uninteresting premise.

The “haunted house” formula had already been visited, and better, in Murder House, and the “found footage” gimmick, while a novel homage, fails to grasp what makes found footage work in the first place, which is a cast of unknowns who may or may not have actually disappeared.

Cuba Gooding, Junior, is hardly “unknown.”

American Horror Story: Cult was almost the comeback the show needed, but it is bookended by a poor premiere and an even worse finale.

After the cringeworthy opening episode, wherein Murphy uses his characters as mouthpieces for his own social commentary in the form of hashtag soundbites and “GIFable” moments, Cult surprises with some of the strongest hours in the series.

In fact, they were some of the most important episodes on TV at the time, critiquing the Trump Administration through a realistic “cult” allegory resonating with the same horrifying verisimilitude as Freak Show.

Unfortunately, for its third act, cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) suffers an unintelligible character assassination as the showrunners disembark on a bizarre “mad with power” arc that provokes rather than enlightens.

American Horror Story: Apocalypse, the crossover between Murder House and Cult, marks an improvement above Hotel, Roanoke, and Cult, but when an anthology has nothing new to say, then it has lost its voice.

The forthcoming American Horror Story: 1984 has an abysmally low bar to clear ahead of it, but, then again, so did Roanoke.

Starting American Horror Story from the beginning, you will find yourself addicted to a sinfully gaudy universe that you will mourn over by the time you reach the end, but the lower the crash, the higher the peak.

Netflix review: AMC’s “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013)

With the (now controversial) Academy Awards sweep for Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999), Hollywood made the bed for its love affair with the mid-life crisis.

If it’s because there’s something to be said about straight, white men of a certain age running the industry, then the fate of Walter White is what they deserve.

If you don’t know what to watch next, AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is available to stream on Netflix. Showrunner Vince Gilligan saw the series win sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards.

Leading man Bryan Cranston took home four of them, co-star Aaron Paul earned three, and leading lady Anna Gunn won two.

The neo-Western crime drama, set and shot on location in Albuquerque, spins the yarn of Walter White (Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer who produces and distributes meth with former student Jesse Pinkman (Paul) to provide for his family.

Simultaneously, Walt finds himself trapped in a violent criminal underworld that threatens not only himself, but also the lives of his wife, Skyler Lambert (Gunn), and his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who he’s desperate to keep in the dark about his business.

Through it all, Walt becomes an increasingly powerful (and dangerous) drug lord.

The theme of Breaking Bad is addiction, and the key to addiction is escalation. Walt, the “average,” domesticated suburbanite, grows to be as addicted to his dark alter ego, “Heisenberg,” as users are addicted to his meth, and as addicted as the binge watcher is to his downfall.

Breaking Bad is the once-in-a-lifetime show that improves with each season until it reaches that even rarer “perfect” finale, intensifying its mythos to such a transcendent crescendo, it feels as though the writers had the entire series charted from the beginning.

It is a slow burn from an intoxicating initial hit to a dizzying high with nowhere to go but down, which is why Gilligan led the noble maneuver to bow out gracefully at the production’s peak, rather than beat a dead horse.

His ethos, on the other hand, lands a somewhat more discordant note. In the Breaking Bad universe, actions have consequences, and crime doesn’t pay.

Still, many fans fail to see Walt’s abusive, narcissistic behavior for what it is, instead demonizing one of his longest-suffering victims: his own wife, Skyler.

Skyler White is something of a lovechild between Patty Hearst and Lady Macbeth, a housewife who wakes up one day to find her American Dream perverted into her worst nightmare.

The home she made is now a prison, the family she raised is now in jeopardy, and the man she married is the monster who started it all.

As she is forced to launder his blood money to protect her children from the truth about their father, Skyler cannot scrub her own hands clean. It’s a life she never asked for, and it’s a cross she’ll have to bear forever.

She is hypocritical and manipulative, but her flaws are what help her survive in Heisenberg’s unforgiving empire.

Overall, she’s a contradictorily-faceted, nuanced, tragic character, played to pitch perfection by Gunn. She is hardly the megalomaniac Walt is – where Heisenberg says family is his motivation to rationalize his deadly lifestyle, for Skyler, it’s the truth.

Regardless, the fanbase turned against her with such vitriol, the actress herself was the recipient of death threats.

Most likely, it’s because Walt’s role as the “antihero” at the focal point of the narrative seduces the audience into sympathizing with him, falling for the “meek,” “mild-mannered” persona which turns out to be just another lie.

It’s a masterfully verisimilitudinous character study, but it unfairly cuts Skyler into an antagonistic figure – in the end, she is right to condemn Walt’s choices, even if he ostensibly made them for the sake of her, because he is ultimately what destroys everything they have together.

For the objective, ethical consumer, with enough critical remove to see behind Walt’s mask,  Breaking Bad is a work of art that will be studied centuries from now like we study Shakespeare today.

Sir Anthony Hopkins penned an open letter to the cast praising their performances as the greatest of all time, and Cranston and Paul deliver, as protagonist and deuteragonist, respectively.

Even though Cranston isn’t the sociopath Walt is (or, at least, one would hope), this turn in his career is still a deeply personal one for him. Before Breaking Bad, he was a comedic staple on NBC’s Seinfeld (1989-1998) and Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006).

Heisenberg is as miraculous a transformation for Cranston as it is for Walt, a chameleonic alchemy of dynamism further tempting us onto Walt’s side at the beginning, when he’s at his most harmless, only to find ourselves, much like Skyler, bedfellows with a villain by the end.

Toxic masculinity and heterosexual, Caucasian, male egocentrism stand trial in American Beauty on meth, for the crime of vampiric selfishness, with five seasons of evidence to convict the accused.

Gilligan’s verdict ought to serve as a cautionary tale for all the other Walter Whites out there who seek empowerment through oppression.

Guest essay: “Circle of Life”

“Circle of Life”

By Sandra Reid

Imagine picking up a kitten for the first time, or maybe even a human baby. Alternatively seeing the sunrise or visiting the zoo. There is exactly one song that comes to mind in each of these scenarios, the iconic “Circle of Life.”

Whether performing a jumbled collection of syllables to reach for the legendary Zulu solo at the beginning or howling the chorus on seeing a baby, the song has permeated our everyday lives in a way never matched even by the likes of “Let It Go.”

It changed how major films introduce their themes, characters, and titles. The now over-saturated late title drop had been done in a few action movies previously, but “Circle of Life” codified how to make it work; awe-inspiring score and animation all seeped in operatic sincerity.

Even in the musical adaptation it alone could be worth the price of admission with gorgeous puppets and costumes surrounding Pride Rock as it rises over the stage.

As the essential jaw-dropping opener, Disney had set their own stakes and standards at and impossibly high level for this remake.

 

Sandra Reid has publications in The Rowdy Scholar and Spectrum along with articles in The Metropolitan.

“Song review: ‘Circle of Life’”

By Hunter Goddard

It is all too easy for the unimaginative filmmaker to consign the music in their film to forgettable background noise, but sometimes, a song can elevate the motion picture accompanying it into something immortal: an experience; a memory; a dream.

Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s animated musical, The Lion King (1994), is bookended with the choral leitmotifs of its signature track, “Circle of Life.”

This circular structure sings with the lyricism of Walt Disney’s Renaissance, and echoes with the poeticism of the film’s Shakespearean themes.

Composed by Elton John, written by Tim Rice, and performed by Carmen Twillie (who sings the English verses) and Lebo M. (who sings the Zulu), the record was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

It is the sunrise and sunset of the movie, the birth and death, the love and agony. Its notes soar to vertiginous heights while its vocals reach lows beneath our very skin, crawling along the goosebumps it raises on our flesh and the chills it strikes down our spines.

Such tonal polarization surrounds us with the picture’s epic theses of our history shaping our destiny, and the passionately drawn vistas of Simba’s birth at the beginning, then his own cub’s at the end, harmonize with each other divinely.

Ultimately, “Circle of Life” is a songwriting at its most cinematic, so vital to the imagery onscreen, visual and audio together collaborate into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Amazon Prime review: Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019)

Once upon a time, there was a girl, and the girl had a shadow…

If you don’t know what to watch next, Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) is available on Amazon Prime.

The psychological horror film had the all-time second-best opening weekend for a live-action feature after James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), and the third-best behind Andy Muschietti’s It (2017) and David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), but the best for an original horror script.

Peele, who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his directorial debut, Get Out (2017), is also the screenwriter for Us.

On Rotten Tomatoes, ninety-four percent of critical reviews aggregated for Us are positive.

Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke star as Adelaide Thomas and Gabe Wilson, who visit the family lake house in Santa Cruz with their children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex).

Adelaide is doubtful about the trip because of the mysterious, traumatic event which befell her at the beach when she was a child. Their first night there, a family of four strangers invade the Wilsons’ home and reveal themselves to be their doppelgängers as the Wilsons fight for survival.

Together, Us and Get Out showcase not only Peele’s genius for the horror genre, but also his talent for filmmaking in general.

His background in comedy does not arrest his passion for horror, but rather refines it with laugh-out-loud dialogue that endears you to the cast all the more devastatingly when the terror comes to claim them.

Us is as rich with subtext as its predecessor, yet speaks with a voice all its own. Where Get Out is a slow-burn suspense thriller, Us is a fast-paced horror show.

Nevertheless, between the two, Get Out is the superior movie, but only because it is so difficult to meet, much less exceed. Get Out is one of the greatest pictures of our time, and one of the most important horror pictures ever, a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.

This isn’t to say that Us isn’t still a scissor’s cut above the competition, because it is. Nyong’o’s dynamic performance alone, characterizing both hero and villain, deserves multiple viewings in order to truly experience each layer of nuance she delivers to this dual role.

In a way, Us is more subtle and sophisticated than Get Out, a thematic cocktail of motifs and visual metaphors and double meanings as open to interpretation as a hall of mirror is infinite with reflections.

Us might have been stronger, in fact, if it was more ambiguous, but as it is, it is still a horror piece more lovingly choreographed than the mainstream, cheaply-shot Hollywood release made for no other reason than to rake in an easy profit.

And that twist ending will echo through you forever.