Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film.  Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.

The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over.  Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography.  Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series.  Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been.  Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.

Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something.  In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting).  The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative.  Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween).  They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.

Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences.  Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance.  Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”.  When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled.  When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory.  This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning.  By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”

I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow.  Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit.  Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017).  As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date.  When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe.  Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring.  It’s fun as hell.

-Brandon Ledet

The Humanoid (1986)

I really do try my best to not be a snob.  I pride myself in being able to evaluate films on their own terms, careful not to dismiss a work outright because of its genre or budget or level of prestige.  Still, I obviously have personal hang-ups & biases I’ll never be able to look past, and they do make me helplessly snobbish about certain movies from time to time.  One of these major hang-ups is my general distaste for computer-animated children’s films, including from widely beloved institutions like Pixar.  Outside of more adventurous experiments in form like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, the majority of CG animation looks like dogshit to me.  Even films that’re praised by industry experts for their exquisite, time-consuming animation of ocean waves or animal fur look lazy & uninspired to my biased eye, so I know this is a personal hang-up and not some objective truth.  Meanwhile, I’m easily wowed by traditional 2D animation even if the movie is objectively lazy & uninspired, as is the case with the straight-to-video sci-fi anime The Humanoid.

The Humanoid is a 45min relic I found collecting dust on YouTube, where all forgotten media goes to effectively disappear.  At first glance, it appears to be a backdoor pilot for a retro Saturday morning cartoon show, introducing the audience to a Alien-knockoff spaceship crew who travel from job to job, planet to planet, collecting paychecks by doing Good.  This particular mission feels fairly self-contained, as the crew meets the titular humanoid—an android named Antoinette—who’s learning to become more human while also protecting her home planet from colonizer corporate villains.  There are a couple stray laser fights & chase scenes peppered throughout the film, but most of the story concerns Antoinette’s struggles with human emotions & desires, as well as her ultimate decision to sacrifice herself to save the spaceship crew, so they can putter onto their next adventure.  The result is that the only compelling character in this would-be series pilot dies at the end of the “episode,” making it difficult to imagine the adventure continuing in future installments.  There’s also a decisive finality to this hilariously overwritten epilogue addressed to Antoinette, which also suggests this was always meant to be a standalone piece:

“Who can say a machine has no soul?  Aren’t humans machines too? Mechanisms of flesh and blood.  Across the endless light-years . . . life, mind, and spirit must flourish in a variety of forms.  And as long as there is life, there will be love.  Antoinette — I’m sure we’ll meet again, somewhere in the vastness of time.  Until then, I send my blessing.  Wherever you may be.”

If The Humanoid isn’t a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon show, what is it exactly?  My best guess is that it’s a coffee commercial — not for any particular brand of coffee, mind you, just for the general, basic concept of Coffee.  There’s very little in the way of thrilling robo action in this film, but there are plenty of hilariously inane conversations about how great the coffee is on the planet-of-the-week.  Seriously, there are at least five lengthy discussions of its robust flavor & aroma.  The film’s opening narration includes the line “It’s only memories of Earth and the rich smell of this coffee that keeps my spirits up.”  It’s closing scene muses “Coffee? my salvation from my day-to-day drudgery”.  In-between, characters occasionally interject “This coffee tastes great!” just to keep the product at the top of the viewer’s mind.  It’s maddeningly inane, making you question whether the generic villains’ quest for a MacGuffin “energy source” on the planet will ultimately result in the discovery that there is no power source greater than the rich, bold pick-me-up you can find in a hot cup of joe.  And, as an advertisement, it totally works!  I desperately want a cup of coffee right now.

So, here we have an action-light sci-fi cheapie that’s supposed to be about an android’s quest for human emotion, but it is actually about how great coffee tastes.  The thing is, though, that it still looks great.  This might be straight-to-VHS fluff with a retro Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but its animation is intricately detailed & vibrantly imaginative, especially as it builds to its explosive, overwrought climax.  It’s hard to imagine any modern-day, computer-animated children’s media putting this much effort into its visual aesthetics, and this really is the bottom of the barrel in terms of passionate anime artistry.  I try my best not to be a grump about how modern media doesn’t stack up to my nostalgia-tinged memories of the types of media I happened to grow up with.  Comparing the look of low-effort 80s schlock like The Humanoid to today’s $200mil CG animation monstrosities is too depressing to ignore, though.  I genuinely feel like we’ve lost a basic attention to visual craft (or at least a collective sense of good taste) in animated media over the decades.  At this point, it’s only the memories of vintage cartoons and the rich smell of coffee that keep my spirits up.

-Brandon Ledet

Slaxx (2021)

You would think that a low-budget, 70min horror movie about a killer pair of blue jeans would be met with lowered, forgiving expectations, but the truth is that Slaxx has a lot to live up to.  Not only has the early buzz about this satirical, shopping mall-set horror comedy been generally positive, but the bar for movies about killer inanimate objects has been set weirdly high in recent years – especially when it comes to killer fashion.  Between In Fabric (about a killer cocktail dress), Deerskin (about a killer deerskin jacket), and Bad Hair (about a killer hair weave), this once-niche genre has recently ballooned to include plenty of genuinely great, surprisingly thoughtful horror novelties.  Unfortunately, the killer blue jeans movie doesn’t quite clear the hurdle set by those superior works, but if it were just a smidge funnier or politically sharper it might’ve gotten there.

Slaxx joins the much wider, richer genre of Shopping Mall Horror by setting its blue jeans bloodbath in a parody version of stores like American Apparel and H&M.  It smiling, supposedly philanthropic corporation professes to be “Making a better world today” through the sale of trendy green-fashions, but secretly outsources its clothes’ production to subcontractors who employ child-labor facilities in India, often with lethal consequences.  That’s how the roll-out of their new, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants style one-size-fits-all-blue-jeans becomes sabotaged by the vengeful ghost of a child laborer, who possesses the blue jeans in order to massacre the company’s employees & clientele.  There are some well-observed political targets in that premise, especially in how consumers are in constant hunt of new, affordable clothing but don’t want to pay attention to the human rights violations that make that product possible (or, worse yet, want to be tricked into thinking their purchases are doing a real world good).  Unfortunately, the film’s humor is too broad & too self-amused to be worth much.  Its sketch-comedy level parodies of vapid YouTube Influencers™ or teenage Mean Girls don’t really have a place in what’s essentially a corporate-world satire; or at least they’re not nearly funny enough to earn one.

The frustrating thing is that the film’s actual horror gags are on-point, even if its satirical humor is loose & unfocused.  The blue jeans puppetry is especially cute, smartly opting for practical greenscreen effects over the weightless CGI buffoonery you’d expect.  There are plenty of great jeans-specific gore gags peppered throughout the film, including some gnarly images of the killer pants using their zippers as teeth to gnaw off their victims’ limbs or gathering in circles to gently slurp up the resulting pools of blood.  And when the movie isn’t making fun of the store’s teen employees for being airheaded Zoomers, it occasionally pauses to contrast their mangled body parts to broken-down mannequins, re-aiming the satire back at the proper corporate target.  Obviously, it’s a film with a pronounced sense of humor about itself (often to its own detriment), so not all the killer-pants puppetry is thematically serious or grotesque.  It also makes time for the slacks to enjoy a solo Bollywood dance number (complete with a behind-the-scenes look at that gag’s practical puppetry) just to keep the mood light.  It’s adorable in isolation, but not adorable enough to pave over the more straightforward Jokes that simply just don’t land.

I’m usually not this harsh about films with premises this silly.  Just last year, I (mildly) praised a film called Aquaslash about a killer amusement park waterslide, and that only has one scene where the central gimmick pays off.  I really do think Slaxx is suffering from bad timing.  In any other era, its adorable killer-pants puppetry would’ve been enough to win me over.  There just have been too many excellent, high-profile examples of that exact gag in recent genre films for Slaxx to skate by on novelty alone.  It needed to be just a little funnier or just a little more politically focused to stand out in the growing crowd of Killer Fashion horror comedies.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocks (2021)

The small-scale British drama Rocks appears to be standard coming-of-age docufiction at first glance. A naturalistic, mildly fictionalized portrait of kids’ lives alone in The Big City, the film invites skepticism of what could possibly set it apart from similar, contemporary works like Girlhood, Skate Kitchen, Nobody Knows, or The Florida Project. The answer is somewhat obvious: the kids themselves. Rocks mostly excels in its minor character details, platforming young performers who are authentically adorable, hilarious, and heartbreaking at every turn in their seemingly Real stories. As with a hagiographic documentary or a shamelessly formulaic mainstream comedy, the form of this kitchen-sink drama doesn’t matter nearly as much as the personalities it highlights. If anything, the movie better serves its characters & performers by stylistically staying out of their way.

The titular Rocks is a high school student in Hackney, London, and the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant. She’s a typical teenager at the start of the film, at least judging by her young Londoner peers. She’s mostly interested in dance, hip-hop, and Instagram make-up tutorials, and she pretends to be more annoyed with her absurdly adorable kid brother than she actually is. Her typical-teen life is disrupted early in the film when her mother abandons the kids in their cramped apartment with only a small stack of cash to keep them afloat until she returns (if she returns at all). Rocks quickly goes from bartering for candy in the schoolyard to being the head of her small family, lugging her brother and his pet frog all over the city in a daily struggle to survive life without income or a safety net. It’s unclear at first whether she’s just too proud to ask her circle of friends for help or if she’s fearful of what might happen if word gets out that she & her brother are going it alone. The movie is fascinated by where she belongs within Hackney as a larger community, though, and it feels most vibrant & alive when she’s figuring that question out among kids her own age.

If there’s anything especially striking about director Sarah Gavron’s filmmaking here, it’s in her attention to the artifice of social media while chasing down the grimmer details of Real Life. The movie is incredibly smart about allowing the kids’ preferred mode of communication—Instagram—to propel its visual language & drama. It shifts to a vertical smartphone aspect ratio so frequently that I have to wonder why the kids weren’t given their own “Cinematography By” credits. They check in with & lash out at each other through Instagram posts, and use the app’s Stories function as an edited-in-the-moment travelogue in the transitions between locales. The film is not as confrontationally in-your-face about that stylistic choice as genre films like Sickhouse, Assassination Nation, or Ingrid Goes West, but it is just as honest about how much of its teen subjects’ daily lives are recorded, filtered, and preserved through that very specific lens.

Speaking personally, my ideal version of this film might be one pieced together entirely through staged Instagram posts, like the tear-jerker drama equivalent of a found footage horror film. It would be dismissed as a gimmicky, attention-grabbing choice by most audiences, but to me it feels as authentic to the Kids Today™ as the cinema verité style was to the docufiction subjects of the 1960s & 70s. As is, these kids still feel authentically Real in every beat of the story, even when it’s at its most melodramatic. The movie is obviously more interested in highlighting those performers (who were credited for contributing to writing the dialogue) than it is in flaunting its own heightened sense of style or drama. That’s certainly a worthwhile goal, and the payoffs suggest it was the right way to go with this material (even if it somewhat flattens what distinguishes the film from similar works).

-Brandon Ledet

Hannibal Rising (2007)

I went into Hannibal Rising with pretty low expectations. Not only was it the most critically reviled of the film adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novels, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 16%, but it was also the only one of them to feature no actors from previous versions, as it is a prequel set during our favorite cannibal’s childhood and early adulthood. Hannibal Lecter himself is the only character we have met before who appears here. Still, I thought that it might be one of those instances in which there was a worthwhile film in all of this that was merely “bad” in comparison to the rest of the franchise. Unfortunately, despite a couple of strong performances and some great European shooting locations, Rising is still a miss. 

The film opens in the surprisingly happy Lecter household in Lithuania during WWII in 1941. The Lecters are apparently aristocrats, as we see they live in a fairly large castle, which they depart in order to move further from the advancing German lines and take up residency in the family’s hunting lodge. The 1944 Soviet Baltic Offensive pushed the Germans back, although a German plane destroys a tank near the Lecter’s lodge on its way out, killing everyone but an elementary aged Hannibal and his sister, Mischa. Shortly thereafter, the lodge is discovered by six deserters, including their leader, a Nazi collaborator named Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans) who convinced the others to join him, although their defection proved to be in vain as the war started to turn. Once supplies dwindle down to nothing, the six men kill and eat little Mischa, justifying their decision by claiming that she was sick and malnourished and would soon be dead anyway. When Hannibal tries to stop them, one of the men breaks his arm and the boy blacks out; when he regains consciousness, he is discovered by a group of Soviets, who find him wearing the shackles of his captors and mute from the trauma. 

Eight years later, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is once again living in his childhood home, although Lithuania had come under Soviet occupation (as it would remain until 1990) and Lecter Castle had since been turned into an orphanage. Despite his muteness, he cries out at night for Mischa in his dreams, which makes him a target for bullying by an older boy who holds some authority in the group home. When the boy attempts to strike Hannibal, he simply raises a fork, which lodges in his bully’s fist. As punishment, Hannibal is locked in the castle’s dungeon, but he gets out through a secret passage that is unknown to the others, sneaks into what was once his mother’s bedroom and gathers some family documents, and escapes across the Soviet border into unoccupied lands, making his way to the home of his late father’s brother in France. He arrives too late to reunite with his uncle, who has recently passed away, but is taken in by his widowed aunt, known only as Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She shows Hannibal the first kindness he has experienced in a long time, which helps to rehabilitate him somewhat and even results in him once again regaining the will and ability to speak. She also shows him her family shrine, which includes a katana and her ancestor’s armor, and teaches him to swordfight. 

When Murasaki experiences racist harassment at the hands of a local butcher, Hannibal fights the man and is arrested, but is released to his aunt’s custody, as the man was a known Nazi collaborator and has few friends among the locals. Hannibal later tracks down and kills the man with the Murasaki family sword, decapitating him and presenting the head to Murasaki just as her ancestor had decapitated his enemies in the scrolls she shared with him. This, Hannibal’s first murder, is investigated by French Inspector Pascal Popil (Dominic West), who was made famous for his testimony about Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg. Although there’s little to exonerate Hannibal, when the butcher’s head is placed on a pike near the police station with a swastika carved into it while Hannibal is being interrogated, he is released. 

Eventually, Hannibal becomes the youngest student admitted to medical school in France, where he gets a student job preparing cadavers. Murasaki also moves to Paris, as the Lecter family estate is taken by the state due to arrears. At his Parisian school, Hannibal once again meets Popil, who is interrogating a war criminal using sodium thiopental; under the influence of the drug, the man seems to recall repressed memories. Seizing upon the opportunity to unlock his own forgotten memories of the men who killed Mischa, Hannibal drugs himself and recalls more of the events of his last days at the Lecter family hunting lodge and that he was saved by one of the men (Goran Kostić) who was killed by falling debris. Hannibal sneaks back into the country and returns to the lodge, pursued by Dortlich (Richard Brake), another of his former captors who has since become a border guard and recognized the Lecter name on the boy’s visa. Hannibal finds the entire group of deserters’ service tags in the lodge and, after capturing and torturing Dortlich into giving up information about the remaining four, kills him. 

Now armed with the names of his sister’s killers, Hannibal learns that one of them, Kolnas (Kevin McKidd) is living in Fontainebleau, part of the Parisian metropolitan area. Lecter finds the restaurant that the man now owns, accompanied by Lady Murasaki, and confirms the man’s identity; he now has his own family, which includes a young daughter who wears a bracelet that was once Mischa’s. The death of Dortlich has put the three deserters still living in Europe on alert, and Grutas, now a human trafficker, dispatches Milko (Stephen Walters) to kill Hannibal, but the latter kills the former by drowning him in embalming fluid. Popil also becomes invested in these killings and is suspicious of Hannibal, but after Murasaki is kidnapped and Hannibal kills Kolnas in his pursuit of Grutas, the boy apparently dies in either an explosion or the ensuing fire aboard Grutas’s boat as Popil and Murasaki watch. In reality, Hannibal had managed to slip away, making his way west to take his final revenge on the last living deserter (Ivan Marevich) in Canada before heading south to the United States, where he will eventually become the Chesapeake Ripper and, well, you know the rest. 

We don’t need a prequel explaining how Hannibal the Cannibal came to be the way that he is. I have a reputation, at least among my fellow contributors here, as the person who most wants an explanation or a resolution in my media, and I think that’s a fair assessment. I’m very much a systems thinker in a lot of ways, and that’s probably one of the reasons that I get trapped in the event horizon of Thomas Harris’s stories; despite being works that are just serial killer crime stories, they are nonetheless exquisitely crafted with great care, creating a lore that’s not “missing” from something like a Lincoln Rhyme novel, but is absent from them. On the other hand, I’ve long gone on record about my feelings that horror is best left unexplained. Terror that is inexplicable is terror that is its own exponential, and although I understand audience demand for more detail and backstory, as I often want the same when it comes to other genres, that doesn’t apply to someone like Hannibal Lecter. He’s just a well-educated serial killer with a talent for reading people very well, and that’s all that he needs to be. Although the NBC Hannibal series is also a prequel, as it explores the entwined personal and professional relationships between Lecter and Will Graham that are all prologue to the first appearance of Lecter on page or screen in Red Dragon, that’s not an “origin story” like this is, and our impressions of the Lecter character are harmed by this story, not enhanced by it. Even the revelation that Hannibal himself had eaten of the broth made from Mischa (and that he may unconsciously be seeking to kill all those who know the truth rather than truly seeking revenge for her) lands with a dull thud, as we in the audience have already assumed that Hannibal had done so, either unknowingly and learning the truth later or being too consumed by hunger to care in the moment, hence the repressed memories. 

A Hannibal Lecter who is just a brilliant European psychologist who uses his sophistication as a shield against scrutiny into his depraved cannibalistic urges, a Hannibal Lecter who effortlessly diverts any attempts to see past this shield by deflecting his interrogators’ questions and seeing through them to their deepest fears and insecurities; those are much more interesting characters than a Jokeresque Eurotwink strip-mall samurai seeking revenge. As ridiculous as that combination of words sounds all together, it’s still too grounded, in the sense that Hannibal should be a human so corrupted and warped by his desires that we can barely recognize his way of thinking as being like our own, who just happens to exist in a very down-to-earth, grounded FBI procedural. That’s the common element of all of the killers in this franchise, and that’s what makes it work. The Chesapeake Ripper, the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon, Buffalo Bill: their compulsions and dark desires make them otherworldly, and even though we also know them as Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, and Jame Gumb, that doesn’t make the fact that they could exist in our world any less scary. This Hannibal we can understand and even sympathize with. It just doesn’t work. 

Even taken on its own and out of the context of the larger franchise, the film fails as a simple vengeance period piece. The best sequence, in which Hannibal escapes over the Soviet line into unoccupied territory, occurs very early on in the run time; nothing that comes after it matches it for suspense and thrill, and that’s long before Hannibal’s first kill. Hannibal’s slayings are gruesome and joyless, but not scary, because Hannibal never kills anyone with whom the audience can sympathize or like. The “least” deserving of his victims is “only” a Nazi collaborator who slings crass, racially charged sexual epithets at Murasaki; everyone else he kills was complicit in the murder and consumption of a child… on top of being Nazi collaborators. The Hannibal of this movie is basically post-war Dexter (disclosure: I have never seen Dexter), a serial killer who only kills Nazis, cannibals, and human traffickers, which means he’d be the problematic hero of any other story instead of the villain protagonist we have here. That has the potential to be an interesting story, but Rising is not that narrative. 

Gong Li’s Lady Murasaki is the most out of place element here while also being the best. While Hannibal is static–violent, sadistic, clever, and remorseless–throughout, Murasaki is one of the only characters with an arc. She genuinely did love Hannibal’s uncle, and the loss of his estate weighs heavily on her, especially as she comes to realize that the young man she took into her home as the last living connection to her husband has put her in a precarious position. She still genuinely loves Hannibal as well, in spite of his violent tendencies, but as much as she wants to be the chain that binds him to a kind of morality, bearing witness to his viciousness forces her to realize that she can’t change him into something that he’s not. Gong’s performance is nuanced, thoughtful, and subtle, and I wish we saw more of her in other films. Gaspard Ulliel was widely praised when the film was released; any review that is positive specifically cites his performance, but I wasn’t enamored. Ulliel is a good actor, but here he’s all sneer and no substance. This isn’t just in comparison to the other versions of Lecter that we’ve seen; although Rising predates X-Men: First Class by four years, the latter film has a spiritual similarity in the way that Magneto tracks down several Nazis who escaped justice and kills them. In that film, our vengeful killer is unrelenting in his pursuit of his goals, as is Hannibal here, but Michael Fassbender brings an undercurrent of ambiguity to Magneto that is not just absent in Ulliel’s Lecter, but missing. I do think that Ulliel would probably make a fantastic Joker, though, if any filmmaker were brave enough to take that chance. 

This was a fairly difficult movie to track down, although if you can trick Netflix into thinking you’re in Germany (wink wink), you can find it on their service in that country. It’s not really worth the trouble, though. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Red Dragon (2002)

As I wrote in my Manhunter review, that film was only the first of three different adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon. Although Manhunter spent a long time as a semi-forgotten also-ran, I’m guessing that producer Dino De Laurentiis knew that he had failed to strike while the iron was hot by letting ten years pass between the releases of Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and he knew he needed to get Red Dragon into theaters before said metaphorical iron was ice cold. Coming out a mere 20 months after Hannibal, Red Dragon opens with the scene we only heard described in Manhunter: Will Graham (here played by Ed Norton), after seeking help from notable psychologist Hannibal Lecter (still Anthony Hopkins) in finding the so-called Chesapeake Ripper, suddenly realizes that the serial killer whom he is pursuing isn’t keeping trophies like most, he’s eating them. Graham has his revelation that Lecter is the Ripper while sitting in the older man’s home, and, drugged, manages to survive his altercation with Lecter, who is taken into custody. From there, we learn via opening credits newspaper montage that Graham spent a fairly lengthy period recovering from being stabbed by Lecter, followed by a not-insubstantial period of time in a mental facility as a result of his pronounced and unusual talent for empathy with those he profiles, which is plot relevant here as it was in Manhunter

Several years later, Will is now married to Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) and living with her and his stepson Josh in Marathon, Florida, when Jack Crawford (Harvey Keitel) appears to ask him to help with the profile of an emerging serial killer menace, nicknamed The Tooth Fairy. Hitting a roadblock, Graham must consult with his previous partner/prey to once more access the mind of the killer. Elsewhere, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes) is a man struggling with severe mental problems resulting from a lifetime of horrific abuse and violence at the hands of his grandmother, who was his guardian. As a result of a childhood cleft palate issue that has long since been addressed with reconstructive surgery, Dolarhyde perceives himself as horribly ugly, but he also constantly works out to deal with the aggressive nature of his flashbacks to his childhood traumas, acquiring a physique that all of his so-inclined coworkers find pretty attractive. We also learn that Dolarhyde and Lecter have managed to strike up a correspondence through personal ads in the National Tattler, the tabloid that employs Freddie Lounds (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a sleazy reporter against whom Graham has a personal grudge due to Lounds’s invasion of Graham’s hospital room following his altercation with Lecter, photographing and publishing the profiler’s wound. 

This film follows almost all of the stations of the Red Dragon canon. Lecter manages to get information about where Graham lives, and he passes this off to Dolarhyde.  Dolarhyde is revealed to hate the name “Tooth Fairy,” considering it derogative and an insult to the great Red Dragon (of William Blake’s poems and paintings) that he is becoming through the “changing” of his victims. Graham attempts to bait Dolarhyde by planting false information in the news via leaking “embarrassing” fabricated details from the FBI profile to Lounds, but instead of going after Graham as intended, Dolarhyde kidnaps Lounds instead and uses his burning body to send a message to Graham and Crawford. Molly and her son are whisked away to a safe location after the FBI realizes that Lecter’s latest personal ad/message to Dolarhyde included information about how to find Graham. The Red Dragon personality starts to lose its power over Dolarhyde when he meets and strikes up an odd relationship with blind photodeveloper Reba (Emily Watson), although when he misinterprets an innocent, friendly interaction between Reba and another colleague, the Dragon begins to reassert itself. Just as in the previous adaptation, Graham deduces that the Tooth Fairy gained intimate details about the families he killed (like being able to identify the family pet or knowing to bring a pair of bolt-cutters for a padlocked door) through both surveillance and access to their home movies via his job at a company that develops, processes, and edits film. 

The film doesn’t diverge from the plot of Manhunter until Act III, when the FBI prepare to raid Dolarhyde’s home and find the place ablaze with Reba trapped inside. She relates that Dolarhyde shot himself in the face, as she heard the shot and accidentally touched his skull (etc.) in the aftermath. There’s no fire in Manhunter, and in that film Dolarhyde’s reign of terror ends with Graham defeating him in his home and returning from the episode at Dolarhyde’s to a happy family reunion at the beach. Here, Graham, Molly, and Josh are reunited, yes, but it turns out that Dolarhyde had staged his death using Reba as his unwitting accomplice through corroboration of his death, and he takes Josh hostage. Through berating the boy using the same language that was used to abuse Dolarhyde for so many years, Graham is able to force Dolarhyde to empathize with the boy and release him, and Dolarhyde is ultimately killed by Molly. And they lived happily ever after, as long as you ignore the canon from the books, and also that we know Hannibal’s imprisonment isn’t forever. 

What Red Dragon does have going for it is the best version of both Molly and Dolarhyde. Tom Noonan’s performance as Dolaryhyde in Manhunter is nothing to scoff at, but that film brought Dolarhyde into the narrative very late in the runtime; not only is our time with him and his relationship with Reba rushed, but Manhunter also opts to cut the Dolarhyde death fake-out completely and instead end the film with the FBI raid on Dolarhyde’s home, meaning that we don’t get the scene in which Dolarhyde confronts Graham and his family in Florida. That also means that Molly has almost nothing to do in Manhunter, although one of the few good Molly scenes in the 1986 film is missing here: there’s a great atmospheric scene in Manhunter after we have just learned that Lecter has managed to get Graham’s address and send it to Dolarhyde, when Molly and Kevin (not Josh) are in the Graham home and there’s some misdirection that implies that they’re in immediate danger, before it turns out to be the FBI, come to spirit them away to a safe house. By that point in the narrative in this film, the audience has already seen Dolarhyde and knows what he looks like, and it wouldn’t make narrative sense for that film to appear here. Instead, Molly gets to have her big scenes in the finale, which I like. 

It had been nearly ten years since I saw Red Dragon, and having now seen so many different versions of Jack Crawford, I wasn’t sure I would be able to accept Harvey Keitel as the stern but affable FBI director, but that wasn’t the case here. You think of Keitel and you think about Reservoir Dogs, Taxi Driver, and Bad Lieutenant, of characters that err towards aggressive, corrupt, and sleazy. He’s actually rather good playing against type here, and although he’s still the worst version of Jack Crawford, it’s only because the other versions of him are done with so much more aplomb. The weak link in the cast is Norton, whose Graham isn’t vulnerable so much as he is pathetic. When he’s arguing his case to Molly that Crawford needs him to stop the next of the Tooth Fairy’s killings, he doesn’t sound like he believes himself so much as he is simply doing as he’s told by whoever got in the last word by the sole virtue of being the last person to speak. Although this Lecter is once again different from his foppishly eccentric characterization in Hannibal and his brief-but-resounding reptilian inhumanity in Silence, I like him here. The opening scene shows us Lecter in his element as a member of elite society, making puns about symphony and haute cuisine and holding court over all of his social peers while also secretly feeding them a musician who failed to meet his standards. Given that they center around a character called “Hannibal the Cannibal” there’s very little actual cannibalism in any of these films, with only a little Paul Krendler brain saute at the end of Hannibal, so it’s also nice to see him doing his thing here; the NBC Hannibal series would manage to (ahem) make a meal out of scenes like this every week, and it’s delightful. 

This is the last we’ve seen of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal to date. He’s presumably still out there in this continuity, albeit he’d be extremely aged (Hannibal Rising presents him as a child of nine or so during the end of WWII, so he’d conservatively be 83 at this point). Although the Hannibal TV series has already given us an unforgettable modernization of this story, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be first in line for a present day feature in which an older Will Graham, now long retired, is approached by Director Starling and asked to work one last profile, and finally bring Hannibal Lecter back to justice once and for all. I’d prefer it if Graham were played by William Petersen and Starling was Jodie Foster, but I’ll take what I can get, even if it’s just a fanfiction out there (please note: I will not be reading any fanfiction). Don’t bother with this one unless you’re a completist; just watch Manhunter instead. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Hannibal (2001)

Of course, I couldn’t just leave it at finally watching Silence of the Lambs or rewatching Manhunter. I cannot explain it, but every time I get within a mile of the, for lack of a better term, Thomas Harris serial killer lore, I get completely sucked in. It’s not even about Hannibal Lecter for me; he clearly became the most popular character, as the post-Silence novels and their film adaptations bear his name—not Will Graham’s or Clarice Starling’s—in their titles, and the NBC show was titled Hannibal for a reason (the current, brand new Clarice series on CBS aside). For me, Hannibal himself is such a small part of a larger interconnected web of behavioral analysts, hospital staff, reporters, forensic scientists, and associated spouses, friends, and victims. Although he’s the thing that sticks out and looms large in the public consciousness of this series, the Chesapeake Ripper is still only a part of what makes for an incredibly engaging whole. 

Ridley Scott‘s 2001 film Hannibal, based on Harris’s 1999 novel of the same name, is generally pretty poorly regarded. Although Rotten Tomatoes is obviously a dubious metric, it’s the second lowest ranked of all of the Harris film adaptations there at a “rotten” score of 40%, beating only 2007’s Hannibal Rising‘s meager 16%; it’s easily surpassed by the certified fresh 93% and 96% respective scores for Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs as well as as adequate and accurate 68% summation for the tepid Red Dragon (2002). It had been a very long time since I saw Hannibal, and even that viewing had been on television (with its already bloated 132 minute runtime further expanded to accommodate commercials), so my recollections of it were both fuzzy and not very fond, so down the rabbit hole I went. 

After (spoiler alert for a 30 year old movie that’s arguably one of the five most iconic films of the first half of the nineties) Hannibal’s escape from custody in Memphis and his flight from the country at the end of Silence, Dr. Hannibal Lecter has essentially settled in Florence and taken on the identity of one Dr. Fell, curator and caretaker of a breathtakingly beautiful old school library, with the implication that Lecter killed the man who had the position before his arrival. The detective overseeing the investigation into the disappearance of the previous caretaker, Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), suspects Lecter, but has no proof. Stateside, it’s been ten years since Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore, taking over for Jodie Foster) captured Jame Gumb, aka “Buffalo Bill,” and despite her obvious talent and a career-making rescue of a senator’s daughter, she’s still being held back by sexism within the FBI, both overtly and subtly. While overseeing a drug bust, she spies that one of their suspects has a baby in a child carrier and calls off the raid, but her orders are ignored by a local dick-swinging detective who previously gave her some light misogynistic backtalk, committing the whole squad to a deadly shootout that endangers an infant. 

Elsewhere, paralyzed and disfigured child molester Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), attended by his put-upon personal physician Cordell (Željko Ivanek), is scheming. Verger is one of that exceptionally rare breed: a victim of Lecter’s who was left alive, although his condition is a result of Lecter’s questionable psychological ministrations. The details are rather lurid, but essentially, Verger’s dogs ate his face … after he carved it off while under the influence of drugs. Verger is ludicrously wealthy; in fact, he’s rich enough to have henchmen in different hemispheres, some of whom are solely devoted to training boars to devour a human being in preparation for his vengeance on Lecter. Back in Langley, Assistant Director Noonan (Francis Guinan) pulls Starling from field duty following the incident while her professional nemesis, a Justice Department official named Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), hectors her during the entire dressing down. Verger, who understands Lecter’s motivations better than most, learns of this and pulls a few strings to get Starling reassigned to the pursuit of Lecter, correctly surmising that the cannibal psychologist’s fascination with the agent will prompt him to reach out to her; this also gives the FBI a chance to work on the optics of Starling’s recent failure and how it reflects on the organization, both by playing to her strengths and invoking the ghost of past success. 

Hannibal sends Clarice a taunting letter, on which he deliberately leaves a faint remnant of a bespoke hand cream, which allows Clarice to snag a few threads and track him down to Florence, but Verger’s gambit is also working almost too well. Inspector Pazzi is looking to land a huge payday to appease the expensive tastes of his younger wife, and against Clarice’s direct recommendation, he passes on the opportunity to arrest Lecter outright, instead gambling that he can turn the man over to Verger for the $3M reward. His greed proves to be his undoing, as Lecter kills him gruesomely and evades Verger’s men. Verger pays Krendel to plant evidence that Clarice is deliberately hindering her own investigation in order to raise suspicion of her motives, and Lecter returns to the states and toys with Clarice a bit before Verger’s stateside goons capture him. Clarice, ignored by her superiors, breaks into the Verger estate to arrest Lecter, but is shot before her rescue/apprehend plan succeeds. Verger’s boars find them, but they ignore Lecter, presumably smelling no fear on him, and instead attack an injured guard. Lecter suggests Cordell simply push Verger into the boar pit and blame it on Lecter himself, which the physician does, and Lecter escapes with Clarice back to her home, where she awakens to find her bullet wound tended and herself dressed for dinner. Downstairs, Lecter has since apprehended Krendler and, as a drugged and captive Clarice watches in horror, removes part of the dolt’s brains, gives it a little fry, and feeds it to him. Lecter, fascinated with what he sees of himself in Clarice, asks her to join him on the Dark Side, but she refuses and fights back, albeit with mixed success in her drugged state. Lecter once again escapes to dine another day, not that we ever see it, given that this is the last chronological appearance of the character in the film series. 

One would think that the film’s biggest stumbling block would be in the recasting of Starling, but that’s not really so. Foster’s performance as Clarice is absolutely legendary, but if one had to recast the character, I doubt that there was a better choice than Moore. Although there are moments where her affectation of the Clarice accent verges on overkill and calls to mind Moore’s 30 Rock character Nancy Donovan in its general broadness, she delivers a reliably solid performance that grounds Clarice as she navigates the shark-infested waters of institutional sexism and the equally turbulent plain of her own troubled conscience. The problems here aren’t with her performance, or Hopkins’s either. After a long time away, he plays Lecter a little less broadly here than in Silence, as while the character was certainly menacing there, it strained the credibility of the narrative that that Lecter could have ever pretended to be a normal person at all. With Lecter now living more understatedly in Florence, he can play off some of his more quirkier mannerisms as merely foreign behavior, and he’s believable as someone who is eccentric but doesn’t immediately set off “serial killer” alarm bells. This Lecter seems completely in his element, effortlessly preparing for every potential wrinkle in his grand design, but the irony is that this almost makes him seem less scary. In Silence, Lecter is literally imprisoned but he never seems cornered, he’s just biding his time. Here, it seems like Lecter could have stayed hidden for quite some time if he hadn’t decided to contact Clarice and leave his breadcrumb trail, but instead of living his life in freedom, he comes back around to taunt Clarice because he loves the drama, which could arguably be considered more fun, but that doesn’t inherently make it more interesting. 

Still, Foster’s absence looms large here, as does that of Jonathan Demme, who was invested in the idea of doing a sequel for a long time. Also gone is Ted Tally, who wrote the Silence screenplay. With Scott at the helm and an initial first draft of the screenplay written by David Mamet(!), one would think that the film was tee’d up for success, but not really. Even a mediocre sequel would have been a guaranteed success in, say, 1995, but by 2001 Lecter’s legacy had grown too expansive, like a cloud that has expanded and expanded but essentially become immaterial. You’d have been hard pressed to find anyone over the age of ten who couldn’t at least mangle the line about Lecter’s famous liver and fava bean dinner or do that little hiss thing, but that made him less menacing. From all reports, Harris took the whole thing in a bizarre direction in the book, wherein Clarice (albeit under the influence of drugs) accepts Hannibal’s invitation to let her hate flow through her, etc., and runs off with him in the end. Demme admitted that he simply couldn’t get his head around this idea, and Tally politely referred to both this plot development and the generally gorier nature of the Hannibal novel as “excesses.” I’d bet that also put Foster off of the project, although she’s always played it off that she was too busy working on Flora Plum, which you may have never heard of, since it’s still only a dream, and Foster has all but admitted that this was a convenient excuse. I imagine that if the film had followed that plot more, the reception would likely have been even worse, but no one gets to know what could have been. Then again, the best parts of the film are those that follow Lecter’s cat and mouse games with Piazza in Florence, as Scott makes great use of the city’s historic buildings and architecture to craft some beautiful shots, and Piazza’s increasingly risky attempts to get some evidence of Lecter’s identity are met with Lecter’s casually effortless countermoves. It’s genuinely fun, and it’s completely separate from just about everything having to do with Clarice; in the year of our lord 2021, post-Harry Potter, they’d probably split the book into two films, and the one about Lecter and Piazza would be the more compelling one. 

Personally, I wasn’t happy about the news media being villainized for how they portray the botched drug raid that’s pinned on Starling. The audience is supposed to cringe in sympathy with Clarice when a news anchor smarmily waxes on about the FBI’s tendency to use excessive force, because we in the audience know that it’s not her fault. In the real world, however, it’s been a decade since Silence, which was released mere weeks before the LAPD brutally beat Rodney King, marking one of the major turning points in the greater American discourse about police brutality. Even in Silence, when Clarice first enters Jack Crawford’s office, he notes that he picked her for the Buffalo Bill assignment because, during a lecture of his, she “grilled” him about the bureau’s well-known issues with civil rights issues. That blind disregard for the reality of law enforcement’s problems in our world lends the whole thing a lack of specificity; it doesn’t feel moored (no pun intended) to reality in the same way that Silence did. Also contributing to this general ambiguous vibe is the very pre-9/11 nature of its storytelling. I’m not just talking about how easy it is for Hannibal Lecter to trot the globe while also being on the FBI’s Most Wanted list (alongside Osama bin Laden, no less) and how he travels with a bottle of wine without the TSA taking that from him, I’m talking about the clumsy attempts at addressing the glass ceiling that Clarice is up against. Within a few months, the treatment of the FBI in our media was about to become extremely jingoistic for quite a while, and we’re still living in the narrative fallout. Consider, for instance, how Fringe differed from its spiritual predecessor The X-Files, which was itself partially inspired by Silence of the Lambs, in its treatment of the Bureau; in the former, the FBI is mostly a force for good, while in the latter, Mulder and Scully’s larger organization is riddled with obstruction and maliciousness at every turn. It would be a long time before we would see any nuance in stories about the FBI again, and now it’s handled with a more surgical approach (while also still mostly being uninspected in its uncritical treatment of law enforcement, which is bad), but it makes any interaction between Clarice and her colleagues with whom she has conflict feel blunt and careless. 

Ultimately, Hannibal is fine. It’s overstuffed, but the entire entertainment commentary industry is abuzz with talk about a superhero movie that clocks in at a solid 4 hours, so if anything, the world is more ready for this film now than it was twenty years ago. It’s been thirty years since we last (and first) saw Jodie Foster play Clarice Starling, not just ten, so it’s also easier to accept Moore in that role. The most surprising thing about it is that the Florence plot in this one may actually be better than the version in NBC’s Hannibal, at least in the sense that I could follow what was happening; Hannibal in Florence was that show at its most hallucinogenic, baroque, and convoluted, to its detriment, in my opinion. I’d still recommend it over this one as a whole, though. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

This … experience (I’m not quite sure it’s a “movie”) opens in an awkward flashback to a time four years ago that barely resembles our present reality, so I will, too. Back in November of 2017, I rode a bus with an exposed face to a movie theater that was located in the same strip mall as an honest-to-goodness travel agency, where I pushed a lever on a dispenser that provided me with a plastic straw that wasn’t even wrapped in paper, just piled into said dispenser with all of its brethren willy nilly by a teenage employee using their bare hand. And I used that straw to drink an ICEE that was as blue as the sky and as big as my femur. The film that I went to see that grey November Saturday was the theatrical release of Justice League, which I found … sufficiently diverting. “Look!,” I typed with my naïve little fingers, “Up on the screen!” digits as yet unravaged by just how stupid, undignified, and dangerous life was about to become, in every single way it possibly could. “It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud!” I wrote, not really thinking myself clever but pressed to come up with anything better. “It’s Justice League!” Now, here we are, a pandemic, an insurrection, and three and a half years later, and the revelation is at hand, and I have to say, it troubles my spirit (which we’ll get into in a minute here), if not my sight, vexed to nightmare.

I’m speaking, of course, about Zack Snyder’s Justice League

What a rough beast to come round at last, slouching towards HBO Max to be born! There’s no way that the modern reader doesn’t know what I’m referring to, but in case you are reading this some decades in the future, when the internet has collapsed in on itself and there’s nothing left to read but Cathy comics, the fabled Swampflix Tablets, and Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl, I’ll explain. Once upon a time, there was a movie that wasn’t finished because of a tragedy in the director’s life. As a result, directorial duties were handed off from Zack Snyder (aka the film bro’s Michael Bay) to Joss Whedon (aka the thinking man’s Harvey Weinstein) so that the latter could hopefully bring to the DC film franchise some of the tangential Marvel prestige that the former’s previous films had failed to garner. Whedon churned out a mediocre-at-best live action cartoon that was cursed with the worst production problems since God decided to make Richard Stanley into the modern day Job, plagued by contract disputes about facial hair, beset by horrible jokes about the nature of brunch, and savaged by most critics. Immediately, the drowning vermin in the extended gutters began to demand “The Snyder Cut,” and Warner decided to just go ahead and do it, teaching all of the too-online Twitter incels the valuable lesson that you pester and pester and pester long enough (40 months, as it turns out), you’ll eventually wear down everyone enough to get what you want. I’m sure that won’t have any long term consequences that we’ll all regret forever! 

As a result of the death of Superman (Henry Cavil) at the end of Batman v. Superman, a mysterious cube on Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), is activated. This cube is one of three “mother boxes,” sentient computers that, in this version, are used in conjunction with one another to terraform planets into the same hellish landscape as Apokalips, the home of DC supervillain Darkseid (Ray Porter), an omnicidal monarch whose life’s work is to find the Anti-Life Equation, which can be used to subjugate and enslave by destroying all free will in the universe. Diana relates to Bruce “Batman, obviously” Wayne (Ben Affleck) that, in some prehistoric past, Darkseid had visited earth and attempted to unify the mother boxes, but that his attack was repelled by a group of Amazons and gods, Atlanteans (who had not yet migrated to beneath the waves), and humans, with a Green Lantern thrown in there for good measure. The mother boxes themselves were left behind when Darkseid’s forces retreated, and each group—man, Atlantean, and Amazon—were given one of these MacGuffins to guard and stand vigil over. Now, the boxes are awakening after countless centuries of dormancy, and the first has called to the villainous Steppenwolf to reunite it with its fellows in order to turn everything into magma. And it’s up to Bruce and Diana to unite the seven, or six rather, in order to combat him. 

The first attempted recruit is Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the son of an Atlantean woman and a human man, with one foot in both worlds and at home in neither (I assume this is explained in Aquaman). He all but laughs in Bruce’s face and disappears into the sea. Elsewhere, Diana meets Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former Gotham City University football star who prior to the start of the story was in an accident that claimed his mother’s life and should have killed him as well. In a desperate move, his father Silas (Joe Morton), a STAR Labs scientist with access to the excavated mother box that was to be guarded by mankind, uses the alien technology to save Victor’s life, turning his son into a walking deus ex machina who also happens to be the emotional core of this narrative. Like Aquaman, he too also initially rejects Diana’s offer to join her and Bruce, since he’s too busy doing things that actually make the world a better place (like redistributing wealth, albeit very, very slowly). The only luck the duo have in soliciting assistance is when they meet Barry Allen, aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), a speedster whose superpower lets him move at such speeds that it sometimes affects the flow of time itself. Meanwhile, Steppenwolf is trying to find the third and final mother box in order to do his thing, and this plan includes abducting anyone who’s been near it, including Silas, which brings Cyborg into the fray. They track the abductees to one of the Snyder Cut’s multiple nondescript industrial locations and manage to free them, but even with an assist from Aquaman, they get their asses handed to them, so they decide to cut through this Gordian Knot by digging up Superman’s rotting corpse and bringing it back to life with the mother box, like you do. 

Via technobabble and superheroic shenanigans, they manage to resurrect Superman, but it’s Pet Sematary rules so he’s not all there at first, at least until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and they fly away together, and the two of them reunite with MARTHA (Diane Lane) back at the now-repossessed Kent family farm for a bit while the other five supes fly off to Russia to attack Steppenwolf’s base. Superman eventually joins them, and there’s a lot of CGI action for a really long time, and then the credits roll. Or rather, they don’t, as this thing has more fakeout endings than Return of the King. We get a prison break, a harbor rendezvous, and a dream sequence/future vision that leads into a scene in which Bruce meets the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), all for the price of admission, which I guess is just whatever you were already paying for HBO Max.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is (infamously) presented in 4:3, which means that it’s in the same aspect ratio as the television you watched as a child (presuming you’re old enough to read and enjoy this website), which honestly did wonders for the release as a whole. Any time something was very, very dumb, my unconscious just said, “This isn’t cinema, it’s TV from the Baywatch generation,” and my conscious was like “pew pew lasers, zap zap zap.” The fact that it’s broken into segments that make it perfect for viewing in chunks while riding an exercise bike, which is the only way that I do anything now anyway since we’re all getting vaccinated and immunized and I will once more have to be perceived in public again, doesn’t hurt either. Although I hate to give the subset of internet weirdos who build their whole identity around the claims that Disney buys positive reviews and that the DCEU is some kind of grand artistic statement instead of an inconsistent corporate product any credit for being right, even if only by accident, this version of the narrative does things that Marvel would legitimately never do. For better or for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is not going to have a bunch of Scandinavian women ululating on a gravel beach because someone rented Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and although that’s not a metric of greatness, it’s moody and atmospheric in a way that I didn’t expect. So, yeah … this is good, actually? 

Which is not to say that it’s good consistently. There are many, many scenes that take place solely in the realm of The Mind, and not in a way that’s beautiful or complex so much as a way that’s very … brown acid. Everything about the epilogue is pure hot steaming garbage, especially the much-vaunted reappearance of Jared Leto’s Joker. Maybe it’s not the best barometer, but I often use the rapidity of how quickly a TVTropes page grows as well as its editorial tone (or lack thereof) in combination with the Twitter discourse to gauge just how problematic a given fandom is, and I have to say, YIKES. In what is easily the narrative’s worst scene, Joker and the Bat have a super macho, aggro argument about the deaths of loved ones that prompts Affleck’s Batman to proffer a death threat that’s delivered with the same exact cringe as BVS’s infamous “Why’d you say that name?” or the out-of-context Dick Grayson line “Fuck Batman” from Teen Titans, but since the worst people on the internet have adopted kinning/LARPing the Joker, they’re eating this scene up like it’s cherries jubilee on the Fourth of July. It just goes to prove that giving these people this cut of Justice League is possibly the worst thing that we have done as a society. It’s like it’s the last week of school and a bedraggled fourth grade teacher has finally given up on trying to improve the morals, education, or enlightenment of a boy who doesn’t respect his female classmates’ bodily autonomy, the opinions of any individual other than himself, or why it’s wrong to torture small animals, and just gives him a candy bar to shut him up before we head into the long, dark summer slide of western civilization, turning and turning in the widening gyre. 

So how to grade something like this? It’s unequivocally a better experience than the theatrical cut, which I gave a 3.5 star review (albeit with the Camp Stamp signifier). It also demands some kind of qualifier to any measure of its quality, however, as things fall apart upon inspection, and the centre cannot hold… your attention for very long, but to call this “camp” doesn’t seem right either, despite the weirdly performative nature of its machismo. But can I justify giving this a 3.5+ star review with no real warning to the potential viewer who uses Swampflix as a guide to quality? I’m flipping a coin and living with the decision. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

StageFright: Aquarius (1987)

Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, StageFright: Aquarius is a 1987 giallo film directed by Michele Soavi, who got his start assisting Dario Argento and shooting second unit work on Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. His second film was the previously reviewed La chiesa in 1989, but this freshman feature has a lot of style, which spackles over the occasional slip-ups that are common in debut films. 

Our film opens on a grimy street, as a woman in a platinum wig seeks an honest night’s work, only to be attacked and pulled into a shadowed entryway. This causes a commotion as a dozen people gather and stare at her murdered body, only for the killer to suddenly and energetically burst forth from the door and begin to dance as we pan out to see that the street is just a set on a stage in a modestly sized theater, and our characters are but actors on it. Well, most of them are actors; some are dancers, and there’s also an inexplicable saxophone player in a billowing Marilyn Monroe dress perched on one of the faux rooftops. The killer happens to be wearing a giant owl head, and it’s one of the strangest but most fascinating openings I’ve seen in a film in this genre. The choice to open with offscreen traffic noise and slowly pan up a city street makes for a clever misdirect that is also ultimately a metaphor about the film’s own method of doing more with less

After wounding her ankle on-stage in the opening scene, Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) acquiesces to the prompting of Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) to sneak out of the side door and get her ankle treated, without the permission of egomaniacal director Peter (David Brandon). They charm affable theater owner/property manager Willy (James Sampson) into letting them out through the side door. It turns out that the hospital that Betty knew about that was nearby is actually a psychiatric hospital, but as Betty points out, psychiatrists do attend medical school, so after an encounter with an unfriendly nurse, Alicia sees a doctor. On the way out, she asks about the room that has bars over the door, and the women learn that the prisoner is serial killer Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), who’s awaiting trial. Wallace escapes from his room due to an orderly’s carelessness, and, hiding in Betty’s trunk, returns with them to the theater. Alicia is immediately fired upon return, and while Peter is dressing her down, Betty is killed outside with a pickaxe. 

Surprisingly, Alicia discovers this almost immediately and the police are called and arrive at once. Her body is taken away, there are reporters, it’s a whole deal. Two patrolman (Soavi in a cameo, with Mickey Knox as his older partner) are stationed outside of the theater and Willy clocks out for the night, entrusting Peter to lock the place up. Instead, he has “ingenue” Corinne (Loredana Parrella) hide the key so that everyone is locked in and forced to participate in an all-night rehearsal so that they can open the play early and capitalize on the tragedy. Of course, that means that Irving is now locked in with the cast as well as their producer, Ferrari (Piero Vida). The first to be subdued is Brett (Giovanni Lombardo Radice, credited as John Morghen), who portrays the killer within the play; Irving takes his owl head mask and uses it as his disguise to get close to Corinne in the scene in which she dies, only for onlookers to respond too slowly to the dawning realization that she is actually being murdered. And, as she’s the only one who knows where the key is, they’re in for a long night. 

The play within the movie is about a fictional killer named The Night Owl who preys on vulnerable women and murders them. The characters within the film also recognize that the play is a stylish but trashy cheap thrill masquerading as something more; one character describes it as a “thoughtful musical” when asked, but this “artistic endeavor” is fully funded by a sleazy businessman who doles cash out of a briefcase like a gangster. The director of the play, a possible jab at Argento, is fully invested in his artistic vision … but that vision proves to be completely malleable if it sells a few extra tickets. There’s also a moment in which the director is confronted by the killer wielding a chainsaw and just throws a woman directly into the path of the blades, which, as someone whose knowledge of Argento is … extensive, seems like a pretty good jab at the older filmmaker’s less-than-modern take on gender dynamics. 

Speaking of the play, in order to enjoy the movie, it’s important not to worry about what the production’s narrative is or how it could possibly work, and I think this might be an intentional comment on Italian horror as a genre as well. We see several disparate scenes, included but not limited to: 

  • The aforementioned scene in which a sex worker played by Alicia is pulled into a dark alcove/building and murdered, then the owl-headed killer bursts out and dances while a woman plays a saxophone on a rooftop above. This appears as the film’s opening but is presumably not the beginning of the play, as Alicia’s role is repeatedly referred to as the “lead role,” despite her being killed in this scene. 
  • A scene in which Laurel (Mary Sellers) is dancing on a bed while wearing a red wig and dressed as Raggedy Ann–not just a dress like Raggedy Ann’s, but literally dressed as the doll, apparently. We later see that she’s even wearing pads that simulate a body shape that’s essentially identical to the patented Ann doll. This part is apparently non-essential to the plot, as Laurel is tapped to replace Alicia in the aforementioned lead role when Alicia is briefly fired for getting her ankle checked out, and there’s no mention of someone else taking on Laurel’s old role. 
  • The love/killing scene in which Corinne does an interpretive dance around her bedroom while mooning after but also fearing The Night Owl. Although Corinne is intentionally styled to appear more prudish/innocent than the other female characters, there’s no doll on the bed in this scene or any indication that she has a Raggedy Ann. 

I leave it to the giallo fanfiction writers of the world, which I assume exist (if only because I can’t be the only one, right?) to put together a feasible narrative in which these scenes might appear, but I like to think that this is supposed to reflect how most giallo films are often composed of striking individual scenes that ultimately add up to a whole that is greater—but less comprehensible—than the sum of its parts. This film is no exception, although it’s much more fun and compelling than many of its peers, despite occasional wonkiness. For one thing, I fully support the decision to get up in the catwalk above the stage more than once; in a theater, that’s a natural place to stage a scene, but the film puts both of its catwalk scenes in Act III, which makes it feel narratively unbalanced. The dubbing in this one is particularly funny, as there’s the characteristic slight syncing/emphasis issues that are pretty common in Italian cinema, but while most characters are clearly speaking (possibly phonetically memorized) English that’s been dubbed over, there’s no attempt to do so with Ferrari. Either he’s just straight up speaking Italian or every one of his lines was rewritten between filming and voiceover. There’s also an inconsistency of verbiage, as the events of the night are given the nickname “The Sound Stage Killings,” but this isn’t a sound stage; it’s a live theatrical performance space. Those quibbles are fun and easily ignored, but I did have some qualms with the finale. The movie reaches a natural conclusion (our final girl defeats the real Night Owl and escapes to notify the police), but it keeps going for some reason, following her return to the theatre, where she reunites with Willy. In shoddy ADR, he endlessly repeats a line about how the apparent prop gun that was found in one of his desk drawers and which turned out to be useless against Irving is, in fact, a real gun as the play crew had initially guessed, but that none of the actors had figured out how to turn the safety off, only for there to be one final altercation with Irving. The pacing of it is all off, and it feels like it was added to pad the runtime (even with this scene, it’s a lean 86 minutes); forgivable, but not very fun. 

StageFright: Aquarius is currently streaming on Shudder, although the title is styled much less interestingly as Stage Fright.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)

There are many shades to The Joan Crawford Noir. Mildred Pierce is, of course, the crown jewel of the genre – a transcendent work that’s equal parts moody crime picture & proto-Sirkian melodrama. For its part, Possessed splits the difference between the typical Crawford noir and her future subgenre of psychobiddy thrillers, leaning into the powerhouse actor’s unmatched skills in portraying woman-on-the-verge mental unraveling. By contrast, The Damned Don’t Cry doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, novelty, or excellence in its own version of The Joan Crawford Noir. It’s a great crime thriller on its own terms, but as an entry in the genre it’s the one that relies on the Joaniest Joan, noiriest noir payoffs & tropes.

In the Damned Don’t Cry, Crawford plays a ruthless social climber whose ambition gets the best of her when she finds herself caught between two rival mobster boyfriends. It’s basically the noir version of Baby Face, except she’s sleeping her way up a nation-wide mafia network instead of a single office building (and without the pre-Code vulgarity, of course). Like all of the Crawford noirs, these events are recounted in lengthy flashbacks, with our distressed femme fatale at her lowest point looking back on the road that got her there. She’s worked her way up from abject poverty to low-level grifts & sex work to an all-powerful mafiosa – only for it all to come crumbling down with a single gunshot. Refreshingly, the movie doesn’t go as far as to condemn her for her violent, sexually charged ambition either. When looking back to her poverty-stricken beginnings after following her tawdry ascent to wealth & power, the movie basically shrugs and asks “Who could blame her? Wouldn’t you do the same if you could?”

While this does share some delicious melodrama with the much more refined, accomplished Mildred Pierce, it can only best that film in terms of its adherence to noir payoffs & tropes. The Damned Don’t Cry is soaked in the window-blinds lighting, amoral criminals, and sultry sexuality typical to noir. Most importantly, it affords Crawford plenty opportunities to indulge in the over-stylized, rapidfire dialogue of the genre, delivering one-liners like “I was about to say it was a pleasure meeting with a gentlemen, but I was wrong on both counts” and “Self-respect is something you tell yourself you’ve got when you’ve got nothing else.” Mildred Pierce is undeniably the best Crawford noir, but The Damned Don’t Cry is the noiriest Crawford noir, which is a fabulous distinction in itself.

-Brandon Ledet