How the Clues Unfold in Enola Holmes 2

I already explained why Enola Holmes 2 is a much better film than its predecessor. Here I outline how the clues unfold. My gift to those who complain that it’s sometimes hard to follow how Enola puts the pieces together.

1. Enola is hired by Bessie Chapman to find her older sister Sarah. While searching the Chapman house, Enola

  • finds in the trash a paper fragment with the date “12 March” written on it
  • learns (from Bessie) that Sarah’s job was at the Lyons Match Factory, and that the foreman accused of Sarah of thieving

2. Given the thieving accusation, Enola proceeds to the factory, where she breaks into the boss’s office. Inside the office she

  • sees old match models with red tips instead of white;
  • sees ripped pages from the register and concludes that Sarah stole these papers;
  • overhears a discussion of high-ranking people who are panicking about someone stealing from them and extorting them (Enola will later learn these people are Henry Lyon the factor owner, William Lyon his son, Charles McIntyre the city treasury minister, and Mira Troy the secretary of McIntyre)

3. Enola is suspicious of Mae (who lives at the Chapman house with Bessie and Sarah), and so follows her at night to the Paragon Theater, where Mae works a second job. At the theater, Enola

  • learns that Sarah also worked a second job here as a stage performer
  • learns that Sarah had a lover who sent her letters, that he was apparently a “wealthy gentleman”, and Enola finds one of the letters with a cryptic poem; the signature is a flower drawing, which Enola thinks is a poppy
  • wonders if Sarah ran away with this man, or from him, or was abducted by him

4. While stalking Tewkesbury the next morning, she deciphers the love poem, which reads “28 Bell Place, Whitetower”. She goes to that address, where she

  • finds the front door ajar and the place inside a mess; on a table is a jar with red powdery material and flies buzzing around inside, and another jar with white powdery material and dead flies inside
  • finds Mae stabbed; Mae dies pointing to a piece of paper in her pocket, with music on it titled “The Truth of the Gods”
  • tells Superintendent Grail that she’s looking for Sarah Chapman, and learns from Grail that he is also looking for Sarah, as she is wanted for theft and blackmail
  • flees the police when they try to arrest her

5. Enola hides at Sherlock’s place, where she

  • learns that Sherlock’s case involves government officials sending money to someone in the system; they are separate filings from five different bank accounts going via the Treasury into one private bank; the five banks are all south of the river with no clear link between them; Sherlock’s theory is that someone is bribing, extorting, or blackmailing his client; he has only one lead: a week before the first money transfer, there was a break-in at the treasury office, by a man in a taper crown hat, who took a document that the treasury office won’t talk about, evidently containing some sensitive information
  • explains to Sherlock the case she has taken on involving Sarah Chapman; she shows him the love poem (he figures the address “28 Bell Place, Whitetower” immediately) and they both suspect that Sarah was kidnapped by this mysterious lover; she also tells him that Grail claimed that Sarah had stolen something and was into blackmail; Sherlock then leaves to investigate Mae’s murder site at 28 Bell Place
  • browses a newspaper and sees an ad for the Match Maker’s Ball that evening, to be hosted by Henry Lyon (the match factory owner) listed at 12 Marchmont Square; she realizes the fragment she found in Sarah’s trash (“12 March”) isn’t a date but this address, and wonders why Sarah would be interested in attending a ball for the wealthy; the newspaper says that Henry Lyon’s eldest son William will be there leading the first dance, and in a flash of intuition she realizes that the flower signature on Sarah’s love poem isn’t a poppy but a sweet William, and she deduces that William Lyon is Sarah’s “wealthy gentleman” lover/abducter, and that’s why she was going to the ball (meanwhile at 28 Bell Place, where Mae was killed, Sherlock finds a taper crown hat hanging on a rack; he looks out the window and sees Lyons Match Factory, and wonders if the factory is the link between the five banks south of the river; he begins to suspect a connection between his case and Enola’s)

6. Enola decides to attend the ball to confront William Lyon. At the ball, she

  • sees the same four people she saw back at the factory meeting room, who were panicking about being robbed and extorted (Henry Lyon the factor owner, William his son, Charles McIntyre the city treasury minister, and Mira Troy the secretary of McIntyre); she tries to talk to William but cannot do so without a chaperone
  • meets a woman named Cicely, who seems to be romantically drawn to Tewkesbury
  • meets Mira Troy, who gives Enola some friendly advice on surviving in a man’s world, and who encourages Enola to pursue her intentions with William
  • asks Tewkesbury to teach her how to dance so she can find the socially acceptable opportunity to speak to William
  • arranges to dance with William, and becomes 100% sure that he is Sarah’s lover/abductor when she compares the “W” from his dance-card signature with the “W” in one of the words in the love poem
  • is arrested and taken away by the police, when waiting in the library for William to come and explain his relationship to Sarah

7. Meanwhile, Sherlock realizes that the blackmailer he is after is “Moriarty”, when he converts the original account number in his money laundering case to its corresponding alphabet of English language.

8. Enola gets thrown into prison, but is rescued by Eudoria (her mother) and Edith; they are chased by the police but end up beating the shit out of them.

9. Enola goes to see Bessie and advises her to leave the home because it’s not safe. While at Bessie’s house she sees red and white powder in some of the plant jars. She

  • learns from Bessie that the factory match tips changed from red to white two years ago, exactly when the “typhus epidemic” started
  • remembers the jars where Mae was killed — the flies that were still alive in the jars with the red powder, and the flies that were dead in the jar with the white powder — and realizes that the powders were the ground product of the old and new match tips
  • sees cheese on the floor with white powder on it, and a dead rat close by, and realizes that Sarah “fed” the rats not because she “had a heart for them” (as Bessie had told her) but because she was trapping them
  • deduces that Sarah had found out the real reason why the factory girls are getting sick and dying — because of the cheap white phosphorus used in the match sticks — and that this is the information that Sarah stole from the factory office

10. Enola rushes to Tewkesbury’s home to share her revelation with him — that Sarah found proof that the phosphorus is killing girls, and the factory owners are trying to cover it up as typhus, and that someone is going to kill Sarah — but Cicely drops by unannounced. Enola hides and Cicely says to Tewkesbury that she needs to speak to him about “a relationship”, and then Tewkesbury tells her to come back at another time. Enola, at first, thinks that Cicely wants to fuck Tewkesbury, and is enraged, but Tewkesbury insists that Cicely’s interests are pure business: at the ball she had told him that she was working on a bill to change factory law in order to fight corruption. Enola then

  • realizes, in a flash of intuition, that Cicely is Sarah and that she and William were indeed in love, planning to expose the people, led by William’s father, who were profiting off the low-grade phosphorus; that’s why William invited Tewkesbury to the ball; he and Sarah needed a Lord’s help to expose the corruption — a lord like Tewkesbury who speaks up for liberal causes

11. Enola and Tewkesbury go to the match factory to find more clues. At the factory Enola encounters Sherlock, who tells her that he believes his case and hers are connected. They find William murdered in the factory meeting room. “Sarah’s love”, says Enola. “My thief in a taper crown hat”, says Sherlock. William is the one who stole a document from the treasury office. Enola

  • suggests that William stole the document not just from the treasury office, but from the office of Lord McIntyre in particular (Sherlock is impressed at her deduction, for McIntyre of course is his employer), and that the document is proof that Lord McIntyre and Henry Lyon have been conspiring together (changing the match formula to a cheaper phosphorus to make more profits) and that McIntyre has been secretly profiting from the company
  • suggests also that Lord McIntyre killed William, but Sherlock dismisses that theory, showing how all the clues in the murder room (of Lord McIntyre and Henry Lyon’s presence) have been planted by someone to mislead them from the true villain — someone who had just as much to lose with that document being stolen; someone who knows what Lyon and McIntyre are up to and is blackmailing them
  • finds a piece of the same sheet of music that she found on Mae’s dress when she died; Tewkesbury says that “the Truth of the Gods” probably refers to the Paragon Theater, since the top row of seats is called “The Gods”; Enola deduces that the top row of sheet music is a map of the top row of theater seats, and “X” marks the spot of something important

12. Sherlock, Enola, and Tewkesbury go to the Paragon Theatre and search the top row of seats. They

  • find (a) the contract between Lyon and McIntyre that William stole for Sarah; and (b) the papers from the factory register that Sarah stole, which lists the names of all the girls who died from the cheap phosphorus
  • are confronted by Cicely, who reveals herself to be Sarah, as Enola supposed; Sarah explains that she, Mae, and William wanted to expose the factory owners and their associates who profited at the cost of young girls’ lives; and that she needs Tewkesbury’s (a lord’s) help in exposing these monsters
  • are interrupted by several policemen and Superintendent Grail, and a massive fight ensues; Enola ultimately manages to kill Grail
  • are then confronted by Lord McIntyre (who Sherlock summoned), Inspector Lestrade, and Mira Troy; Sherlock realizes that Mira Troy is Moriarty and that she has been the one blackmailing McIntyre and Henry Lyon; when William stole the contract, that threatened to cut off her money train, so she hired Grail to retrieve the document; when she learned that Sarah, William, and Mae were on the verge of exposing the factory, she ordered Grail to kill them all to keep her blackmailing scheme under wraps; Mae was killed first, then William, and Sarah was hunted by Grail in vain; Troy is arrested and taken away, but Lord McIntyre burns the evidence to avoid further suspicion against him

13. The next day, Sarah, Bess, and Enola rignite a strike at the factory, revealing the real reason for the girls dying. Tewkesbury gets McIntyre arrested for being an accomplice to Lyon’s activities. Sherlock sees in the morning news that Mira Troy has escaped police custody. Enola sets up a new office at Edith’s shop.

 

 

Enola Holmes 2: A Surprising Improvement for Sherlock’s Sister

The Match Girls Strike, led by Sarah Chapman, was the first ever industrial action taken by women for women. It improved their working conditions forever.

Those words play over the closing credits for Enola Holmes 2, which I enjoyed considerably more than the first Enola film. (Apparently I’m not alone: on Rotten Tomatoes the first has a 70% audience approval, while the second has an 85% audience approval.) Don’t mistake me, it’s still the same animal — a silly comedy at heart — but accepted on its own terms, it entertains in a way that the first film doesn’t, and on a variety of levels. The historical backdrop of the Match Girls Strike (1888) is done justice without sermonizing or politicizing the film into something tiresome.

For those who don’t know, the strike occurred in the Bryant & May Match Factory of London, where women and girls suffered horrible working conditions — long working hours for dirt pay, which was often docked even more for petty reasons like being a few seconds late or using the bathroom. They were also exposed to the health dangers of white phosphorus (which the matches were dipped in), and many of the girls suffered a form of necrosis called “phossy jaw.” The factory owners suppressed the health hazard by claiming that a typhus epidemic was going around, deliberately refusing to report phosphorous poisoning among the women and girls. One of the workers, Sarah Chapman, finally organized a walkout: 1400 women and girls took to the streets to protest their working conditions, and the strike contributed to the growth of the union movement in England.

Enola Holmes 2 is set three years before the historical strike (in 1885, for whatever reason) and uses the Match Girls event to frame a mystery — Enola’s first mystery that she is hired to solve. The film starts with her setting up shop to be a private detective like her brother, and no one takes her seriously (the prospective clients laugh at the sight of a young girl detective, many of them seeking business with Sherlock instead), but eventually a young girl comes in and hires Enola to find her missing sister. The young girl is Bessie Chapman, who works at the match factory with her Sarah, and Sarah has mysteriously vanished. Enola takes the case, and before she knows it becomes the prime suspect in a murder of one of the factory girls. The thrill ride never lets up, and as you might expect it becomes pretty ridiculous at times, especially when Enola is thrown in jail but her mother and Edith break her out with explosives — the most eye-rolling absurdity I’ve seen in any film this year. Admittedly, this event is followed by one of the best and most hilarious scenes which sees Enola, her mother, and jujitsu-master Edith beating the shit out of police officers to the blazing chorus of Handel’s Messiah (the scene can be watched here). Again, if you accept the comedy on its own terms, Enola Holmes 2 has, for the most part, a tight and compelling enough plot to keep you hooked.

Which is more than I can say for Enola Holmes 1. The only thing that film had going for it was Millie’s performance, and it’s just as good this time around, as we see her play the opposite character of Eleven from Stranger Things — wildly uninhibited, overconfident in herself and her abilities, and thoroughly unable to shut up. But now the focus is on the main mystery, not Enola’s family baggage, which means that Sherlock (and briefly, Enola’s mother Eudoria, for the prison break) supplement the story with substance rather than dominate it with melodrama. And Sherlock is used well this time, as he and his sister come to realize that the cases they are each working on intersect; it doesn’t even feel that contrived.

The blend of humor and intrigue hits a high point at the ball which Enola attends to smoke out a suspect (who turns out to be virtuous, not villainous, and eventually ends up dying for it), which she does by arranging to dance with him — a difficult task, as practically everyone at the party thinks she should be chaperoned as a minor, and she doesn’t even know how to dance on top of that problem. This leads to her quasi-boyfriend Tewkesbury (whom she denies her obvious affection for) giving her a dance lesson in a bathroom, and the relationship between the two is handled much better than in the first film, where the romantic tension was too overwrought.

It says something when a film can exploit themes of oppression and sexism while never losing sight of the most important parts (artistry and entertainment), and Enola Holmes 2 milks those themes just right, even to the grand reveal of Sherlock’s arch-nemesis. Moriarity is the black woman, Mira Troy, who — much like Enola — weaponizes Victorian sexism to become an unseen or underrated force. Men don’t take her seriously, and pay for that mistake. I’m sure we’ll see more of Mira Troy in Enola Holmes 3 (of course there will be a third) and I’m looking forward to it. Yes folks, I’m actually warming to this series, and I much enjoyed seeing Sherlock’s sister having an impact on the English union movement.

Tony Scott Tribute

Tony Scott died ten years ago (in August 2012), and so this tribute is way overdue, prompted by some recent rewatches. No director could elevate a popcorn flick like Tony Scott. His camera work, avant-garde techniques, and the mileage he got from talented actors made his films aesthetic as much as thrilling. I think he was superior to his brother Ridley, who had two masterpieces in him (Alien and Blade Runner) but a lot of stinkers too. Of Tony Scott’s sixteen films, I don’t think any of them are bad (though some are mediocre), and I consider the following six to be his best, and they all have high rewatch value. I’ve seen each of them anywhere between three and seven times. I should note that I’m not the biggest Denzel Washington fan, but Scott used Denzel incredibly well — in no less than five of his films, and four of them place on this list.

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1. Deja Vu. 2006. Among the cinematic enjoyments that handle time travel intelligently, Deja Vu is especially impressive for not even being a sci-fic film. It’s a crime thriller incorporating a sci-fic element, which it then turns on a man’s obsession for a dead woman — basically this is Tony Scott meets Vertigo. The woman in question was abducted by a domestic terrorist who took her vehicle, killed her, and then bombed a passenger ferry boat, killing hundreds more. Enter the FBI, who have a special “surveillance” program which looks 4 days and 6 hours into the past, by using several satellites to form a triangulated image of events (or so they say). The FBI uses this program to solve crimes, in this case by looking into the past to try to identify the terrorist. They recruit ATF agent Doug Carlin (played by Denzel), who quickly figures out that this “surveillance program” is actually a time window — a gate into the past, from the present point to 4 days and 6 hours ago — which the government only stumbled on by accident. Doug becomes hell-bent on changing the past, by saving the woman who was abducted and killed, and in the process stopping the bomber before he kills more. The action and thrills are worth the price of admission, but the heart of Deja Vu is Doug’s obsession with Claire. He’s convinced she can be saved though the FBI team of scientists insist that changing the past is impossible. The model of time travel used in Deja Vu is the multiple timelines model, meaning the past can indeed be changed, and the logistics are executed flawlessly.

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2. Crimson Tide. 1995. I’ve seen Crimson Tide so many times that it probably qualifies as my favorite popcorn flick. It does for me what The Fugitive does for others. In place of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones are Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. Captain Ramsay (Hackman) is the captain of U.S. nuclear missile submarine, and Lieutenant Commander Hunter (Washington) is his freshly-arrived executive officer — more cautious and less trigger happy when a crisis like the Cuban Missile breaks out. Watching Ramsay and Hunter go at each other is a treat, as they each keep gaining the upper hand when Hunter leads (yes) a mutiny against Ramsay aboard the sub. Another big plus to Crimson Tide is the dialogue, some of which was written by Quentin Tarantino, though he is not listed in the credits. Tarantino was called in by Scott to “finesse the dialogue” after doing such a kick-ass job in True Romance (see #3 below), and the results are entertaining; I’m sure that Ramsay and Hunter’s argument over which breeds of horses are what color, and what country they come from, is from Tarantino’s pen. Most importantly, Scott doesn’t allow us to choose between Ramsay and Hunter too easily. Both men get their asses torn by the Admiral in the epilogue: Hunter led a mutiny aboard a naval submarine, right in the middle of a Russian torpedo attack; Ramsay violated nuclear launch protocol. Both men acted appallingly, and yet each can be viewed as acting in the American people’s best interests from where they stood.

Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino's True Romance Getting 4K Restoration
3. True Romance. 1993. Clarence and Alabama are a fabulous romantic duo written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Scott for an excessively violent tale with morbid humor. The lovers end up in over their heads with drug dealers, and manage to stay alive through stupid perseverance and unconditional devotion to each other. The musical theme (“You’re so cool”) is an infectious piece of scoring, played at all the right moments that makes you actually believe in the triumph of pure love. The final scene on the beach is a well earned epilogue; interestingly, Scott managed to improve Tarantino’s script by providing a happy ending that works. Usually I prefer dark endings, but Clarence and Alabama, after being hammered by bruising and bloodshed, have this coming. There is so much good acting on display, from the infamous interrogation of Clarence’s father (played by Dennis Hopper) by the ruthless cutthroat (played by Christopher Walken), to the sadistic beating of Alabama by the thug (played by James Gandolfini), to the epic standoff and shoot out at the very end. There’s also an early Brad Pitt who does nothing more than sit around the house stoned out of his mind. Remember, this was a year before Pulp Fiction, and in some ways I consider True Romance Tarantino’s real breakout after Reservoir Dogs. Scott directed it, but the film feels about 80% Tarantino.

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4. The Hunger. 1983. Exactly one decade before he wowed audiences with True Romance, Scott landed his first film which was an utter box office failure. It was around the same time his brother Ridley made Blade Runner, and The Hunger was similarly concerned with the desire to prolong life. Ridley and Tony had recently lost their older brother to skin cancer; Blade Runner and The Hunger were respective ways of working through that loss. But unlike Blade Runner, The Hunger failed to impress, judged by many to be overly artsy and self-indulgent. It is overly artsy and self-indulgent, but in a good way, and like other ’80s films that were outside the mainstream, it has aged to a cult classic. There’s gothic and post-punk music ahead of its time (Bauhaus, most notably, with the awesome Peter Murphy) that fits the vampire theme. Frankly I consider it one of the best vampire films ever made. The Hunger is about the fear of getting old, the loss of sexual appetite, and a person’s terror in letting go of youth. Watching it today in my 50s affects me totally differently than it did forty years ago; it’s a very sobering film. The scene where John (played wonderfully by David Bowie) has accelerated into an old man (after 200 years of vampire youth) and the eternally young Miriam is holding him in her arms, is heartbreaking.

This Action Movie About A Runaway Train Is A Masterclass In Filmmaking
5. Unstoppable. 2010. Aside from an asshole CEO, there’s no human antagonist in Unstoppable. The villain is the runaway freight train, which is more than enough. The train carries explosive cargo and becomes an effective missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers (one of them played by Denzel of course) engage in a wildly desperate plan to stop it. That this is based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland OH is pretty scary. There is the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict (again, despite the lack of villains) as the company’s CEO pulls every incompetent strategy out of his ass while threatening to fire the two hostlers who have the best chance at stopping the train. There were at least six cameras always rolling during the shooting of this film, to capture the helicopters and chase vehicles at all the right angles. And it wouldn’t be a full-fledged Tony Scott film without Denzel playing a working-class hero; in a sense this is quintessential Denzel. Unstoppable may well be the king of popcorn flicks. It was Scott’s last film before suicide and a remarkable achievement, getting plenty of critical praise.

A very necessary tribute to Denzel Washington and an underrated masterpiece, Man On Fire | JOE is the voice of Irish people at home and abroad
6. Man on Fire. 2004. If you don’t count Quentin Tarantino’s gems, Man on Fire is probably my favorite revenge film. Granted I’m not a fan of the genre, so that’s not saying much. Revenge films tend to be cliche, giving audiences a license to go on a moral holiday — to applaud vigilantes who take down scum in the most violent ways, and feel (hollowly) righteous for it. Scott tried his hand at this in 1990, with a film he called simply Revenge (Kevin Costner starring), but it was a mediocre effort. In 2004 he tried again with Man on Fire — and lit the screen on fire with one of the best films of his career. Using Denzel Washington to play Creasy was a stroke of genius; you don’t expect Denzel to be serious about blowing away a pregnant woman with a shotgun, and fully intent on taking the kidnapper’s whole family apart piece by piece. At least three things set this above the usual revenge fair. (1) I was really convinced that the little girl (Pita) was dead. The revelation that the kidnappers still have her alive almost stopped my heart like it stopped Creasy’s. (2) Scott raises the stakes with patient storytelling, and really making us like Pita and Creasy. It takes a full hour (in a two and a half hour film) before the kidnappers abduct Pita. In that first hour, Man on Fire is a character drama showing a little girl’s impact on a man who has largely given up on life. Revenge films usually initiate the catastrophe too soon, before we get to know much about the victim. (3) Creasy is killed in the end as he must be, to make saving the girl feel earned, but also to atone for his outrageous slaughter. He trades in himself for Pita, and the killers have their way with him. Man on Fire is about a man being robbed of a precious salvation, which must end in the death of anyone remotely connected to the crime, and then his own demise.

If You Could Live (or Relive) Two Years in the Past

Here’s an interesting exercise: If you could go back in time and live out two full years in America, any two years between 1913-1992, what would they be? In other words, sometime after all continental states were admitted to the union, but before the World Wide Web was made public. My years of choice are 1925 and 1973.

The Year 1925

The mid-twenties in general were a time to be alive. It was the ultimate decade of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Presidents Warren Harding (1921-23) and Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) kept the nation out of war and needless costly foreign intervention. They raised the standard of living for millions. Technological advances and mass production made consumer goods affordable, and the spread of electrical power created a demand for appliances. Many people could buy cars, yielding a new world of paved roads and stores. New York became the largest city in the world, overtaking London. Child mortality rates dropped across the nation. Money was spent lavishly on public education. Women were now able to vote, giving the country 26 million new voters. People danced the nights away, to the latest music on radio. There was Prohibition, which was bad itself, but yielded the benefit of the black market with bootlegging and speakeasies; in effect the price of booze went way down. If there was a decade I could visit during the first half of the twentieth century, it would be the 20s hands down, and the particular year I choose is 1925.

Here are some of the note-worthies of 1925.

Great Books. Some say the greatest year for books was 1925. Books like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby were hugely influential.

The First Motel. Hotels had been around since 1794, but the first motel opened in California in 1925, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It charged a rate of $1.25 per night. Motels hinted that car culture would soon take over the American way of life.

Gitlow v. New York. This year the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling: that the right of free speech protects a person from state interference as much as federal interference. The Court had previously held, in Barron v. Baltimore (1833), that the Constitution’s Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but Gitlow reversed that precedent and established that while the Bill of Rights was designed to limit the power of the federal government, the denial of these rights by a state government constitutes a denial of due process which is prohibited under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters. In this year the Court also held that children did not have to attend public schools. States that made such a requirement were acting unconstitutionally.

Scopes Monkey Trial. In the summer of 1925, the Scopes Trial was all the rage — staged deliberately to attract publicity. Tennessee upheld a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools, and fined Scopes $100, although the state supreme court overturned the ruling on a technicality. The nation would have to wait until 1968 for SCOTUS’s substantive ruling: that banning evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the bans are primarily religious. But the Scopes trial itself was a benchmark in forcing the question of whether or not evolution should be taught in public schools.

Weird Tales and Adventure (“The Camp-Fire”). The pulp magazines became wildly popular in the 20s. Weird Tales — still regarded today as the most important and influential of all fantasy magazines — had launched its first issue in 1923, and in 1925 began publishing an issue every month. Adventure Magazine, started back in 1910, had grown so popular by the 20s that its letters page, “The Camp-Fire” (not to be confused with the youth development organization by the same name, that also started in 1910), had become a major cultural phenomenon. The Camp-Fire featured editorials and fiery discussions about all sorts of topics, usually about whether or not the author had the right facts in his or her story. Historical accuracy, geographical accuracy, the kind of weapons the characters used — all of these and more were debated with passion. By 1924, a number of Camp-Fire Stations — locations where Adventure readers could hook up — were established across the U.S. and even in other countries. In 1925 one of the Camp-Fire’s most fiery debates was over the character of Julius Caesar. The writers often embellished their lives, reinvented themselves with outlandish fictions (even in their bio sketches); some were con artists. By 1925 Adventure was unquestionably the most important pulp magazine in the world, let alone the U.S. I’d love to live in 1925 as a subscriber to Weird Tales and Adventure, and as a Camp-Fire freak.

Drag Balls. The tradition of masquerade and civil balls (“drag balls”) goes back to 1869 in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of Prohibition, they were attracting thousands of people of different races and social classes—whether straight or gay. We tend to think of Stonewall (in 1969) as the beginning of the gay rights movement, but decades before that, Harlem’s drag balls were part of an LGBTQ nightlife-culture that gave us gay and lesbian enclaves. What fun. Only after the Depression would this libertine culture fall out of favor, as many would blame this cultural experimentation for the economic collapse.

The Year 1973

The early 70s were gloomy and nihilistic, but that’s what generated so much artistic creativity and cultural progress. Disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage coalesced in the ’60s aftermath, yielding introspection and existentialism. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. The dress and hair styles were awful, granted, but aside from that, it was a groovy period. The best year in particular is 1973. I was alive that year, but so tiny and young that I remember nothing about it. I’d love to go back and live out the year as an adult.

Here are the note-worthies of 1973:

The Exorcist. The best and scariest film of all time is released. I’d give anything to see this masterpiece on screen when everyone was fainting in the isle and running from the theaters.

The Godfather. The epic film wins Best Picture, becoming the new Citizen Kane.

Selling England by the Pound. The best album by the best band of all time. Or at least, Genesis was the best band while Peter Gabriel was involved.

Dark Side of the Moon. The most important album by the most important band of all time. Even if The Wall is Floyd’s best, Dark Side’s influence can’t be exaggerated.

All in the Family. The best episodes — meaning the most offensive and insanely hilarious ones — from the best TV sitcom of all time come from the late part of season 3 and the early part of season 4, which spanned the year of 1973: “Archie Goes Too Far”, “Archie Learns His Lesson”, “The Battle of the Month”, “We’re Having a Heat Wave”, “Henry’s Farewell”, “The Games Bunkers Play”, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Wig”, to name the very best episodes.

Roe v. Wade. Landmark supreme court ruling protecting the right to abortions.

The Paris Peace Accords. After 16 years, American involvement in the Vietnam War ended. Peace at last.

The War Powers Resolution. The congressional resolution (vetoed by Richard Nixon but then overridden) limits the president’s ability to initiate or escalate military actions abroad. It states that “the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply” whenever the American armed forces are deployed overseas. Many presidents since then have failed to comply with this resolution, and for the worse.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association declares that homosexuality is not a mental illness or sickness, and removes from its manuals the listing of same-sex activity as a disorder.

The Endangered Species Act. The most comprehensive legislation enacted (in any nation) for the protection of endangered species.

Happy 40th: Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian is a special film for me. Released on May 14, 1982, it was my first R-rated experience in a theater, and did a wonder on my youthful sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex — especially Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm — and a deluge of gore, I was utterly stupefied, and if not for the subject material which interested me, would have probably taken days to recover. Conan threw me into a world of lust and brutality I was so unprepared for at age 13, but it also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons — the kind of scenarios I fantasized about daily when throwing the 20-sided die.

Today it holds up well — astonishingly well, in fact, when compared to inferior PG cousins like Willow, Krull, Legend, and of course the abysmal sequel Conan the Destroyer. The ’80s gave fantasy such a bad name that I came to view Conan the Barbarian as a one-time exception in a genre flooded by cliche and hollow characters, and not until Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings would I be forced to revise my opinion. The first fifteen minutes alone make clear that Milius is about serious business and refuses to pull punches, as the young Conan witnesses his entire people slaughtered in a village raid, and his mother decapitated as he clings to her. Battles are so violent that the film feels like an historical epic instead of fantasy, as if Hyboria were exactly as Robert Howard intended: a mythic version of the ancient world, like Middle-Earth.

The film in fact anticipates Lord of the Rings in some interesting ways, but most fundamentally with the score. It is no exaggeration to say that Basil Poledouris’ compositions are amongst the most powerful ever written for any film, and this is agreed on by critics who aren’t terribly wild about Conan. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments, and a gothic choir creeps in almost unnoticeably on the slow melodies. Then there is the waltz, one of my favorite pieces, for the orgy scene: the redundant movements fit perfectly over the sex, cannibalism, and Thulsa Doom polymorphing into a snake, and puts me in mind of Ravel’s Bolero. I still listen to this soundtrack as much as I do Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, and am floored by how much talent Poledouris was able to poor into such an obscure project.

The acting performances are the film’s only liability, but not in a major way, and in Schwarzenegger’s case his poor talents actually work for him. His barbaric role demands little more than grunting out one-liners, swinging a sword, maiming foes, punching camels, and fucking women, and his Austrian accent somehow, amusingly, fits just right in this context. Dialogue is used frugally throughout the film in any case, so Conan’s companions (cast more for their athletic than acting talents) don’t come off terribly bad either. But James Earl Jones is genius, and he completely steals the show as Thulsa Doom, the high priest of Set based on Thoth-Amon from Howard’s books. Jones oozes malevolence with all the trappings of a hippy cult leader, hypnotizing with a stare, and commanding loyal followers to jump to their deaths on a whim. The snake theme is milked for all its worth, and considering production values of the early ’80s it’s a wonder how convincing the giant serpents are. Doom even shoots snakes from his longbow, and one of them of course kills Valeria, pushing Conan completely over the edge in his hunger for revenge.

In terms of its treatment of source material, Conan has been a bone of contention, pleasing and displeasing fans of the Howard classics in equal measure. Most everything is pastiche (Valeria is an acrobatic thief more like Belit instead of Howard’s pirate; the high priest of Set is named after a sorcerer who never even met Conan), distortion (the god Crom invites prayer-challenges and has a jovial side reminiscent of our viking gods, unlike Howard’s Crom who disdains all prayer as weak and is completely cheerless), or invention (Conan’s early years on the Wheel of Pain). As one who never got around to reading Howard’s books until much later, none of this could bother me, but my best friend knew Howard inside and out and loved the film as much I did. I’ve always believed that strict adaptations are too stifling (and again Lord of the Rings is instructive), and anyone with a good ear knows that the name of Thulsa Doom cuts deeper than Thoth-Amon.

For all it’s gravity and grim outlook, Milius’ film is not without humor. Conan praying to Crom and telling the god to fuck off is priceless. So is his punching the camel’s face. My favorite line is his answer to the question, “What is best in life?” You have to imagine Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent for the full effect: “Crush the enemy, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!” My friend and I got more mileage out of that ridiculous saying than it deserves, and it pretty much sums up Conan better than anything I can think of.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

 

This review is reposted, with some modifications, from a blogpost I wrote in 2011.

Scores that still score

These are the scores I play most often when I write. Novels, essays, blogposts — so much of it inspired by the following music.

1. Conan the Barbarian, Basil Poledouris, 1982. The film is so operatic that it seems to have been crafted for the score rather than vice-versa — nothing like the cheesy fantasy films that otherwise plagued the ’80s. I watch Conan every year at least once, and listen to the score every month at least twice. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme recur, and a gothic choir creeps in almost unnoticeably on the slow melodies. Then there is the waltz, one of my favorite pieces, for the orgy scene, which reminds me of Ravela repetitive waltz that escalates to a Bolero-like crescendo. Conan is the masterpiece score, and I dare you to name one better.

Try these: Riders of Doom, Civilization, The Kitchen & The Orgy.

2. Fire Walk With Me, Angelo Badalamenti, 1992. This score blends smoky jazz, ’50s pop, and dark noir into a masterpiece that still could use more appreciation. In the ’90s Fire Walk With Me was cursed and reviled (everyone wanted a Twin Peaks film, not a psychological horror film) but now many Lynch fans consider it one of his best, if not his best, and that’s just as true of the score. Even the most subdued compositions are unnerving and menacing. Never has a saxophone gone through me like an awl. Julee Cruise puts in an appearance – as no Twin Peaks film would be complete without her – singing “Questions in a World of Blue”, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes (Laura at the bar) I’ve seen in a film.

Try these: Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer’s Theme, Questions in a World of Blue.

3. The Lord of the Rings, Howard Shore, 2001-2003. Howard Shore has always been a genius, and The Lord of the Rings opus is what he had been working towards his whole career. All the major themes sound exactly as one imagines the cultures of Middle-Earth to sound: the Celtic Shire theme with fiddles and whistles; the elegant Rivendell piece with violins and chimes; the unnerving Lothlorien tune with cellos and haunting choruses; the brass and percussive Isengard chants; the raw Moria theme that goes deeper and deeper; the horse-rider music of Rohan with the hardanger fiddle; the stately and grand anthem of Minas Tirith; the gothic Nazgul theme with the raging choir; the bittersweet departure at the Grey Havens. It’s nothing short of miraculous.

Try these: The Breaking of the Fellowship, The Fields of Pelennor, The Grey Havens.

4. Marco Polo, Ennio Morricone, 1982. This guy has scored countless films and TV series, and it’s a wonder that his output is top-notch quality regardless of how much he’s getting paid for it. Marco Polo was an ’80s TV series, and I doubt he was compensated for it as he deserved to be. The tones and textures are some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard — I’m surprised it’s not more widely appreciated. It’s only been released in Italy, and only available on vinyl through amazon, though most of the pieces can be listened to on youtube.

Try these: Mai Li’s Song, The Legend of the Great Wall, First Love

5. Passion, Peter Gabriel, 1989. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it’s one of the worst Jesus films of all time. But the score is one of the best ever made for any film — as how could it not be, with Peter Gabriel composing? Here he mines Armenian, Egyptian and Kurdish melodies in order to bring third-world rhythms into a western ambit, and the result is pure gold. I think of the Middle-East and Africa when I listen to Passion — not in a religious way, but in the way I imagine Gabriel trying to honor its peoples.

Try these: Zaar, Open, A Different Drum.

6. Antarctica, Vangelis, 1983. I’m one of those fools who believes that Chariots of Fire is a bit overrated (both the film and the score), and that the lesser known Antarctica is what earns Vangelis his immortality. This soundtrack is simply spellbinding. You can hear ice in between the notes, and it sounds as cold, solitary, and vast as the South Pole itself. The film itself is okay; it’s about a pack of dogs abandoned in the antarctic, but not at all essential to appreciate the music. I often nap to it in the winter seasons.

Try these: Song of White, Deliverance.

7. Sunshine, John Murphy and Underworld, 2007. Sunshine is about a team of astronauts who take the suicidal step of trying to reignite a dying Sun, and the score — an onslaught of whooshes and blares — goes perfectly with the visuals. It achieves what most composers can only aspire to, ratcheting up tension with insistent themes that stay with you for a long time.

Try these: Kaneda’s Death, The Surface of the Sun.

 

The Batman Films Ranked

The Batman franchise isn’t what you’d necessarily expect. It’s not as if the Nolan films are all better than the Burton films, with the directors falling neatly into tiers. Here are my rankings. Not included are the Justice League medley (which I refuse to watch) and the Lego movie.

The Dark Knight - Joker Crashes The Wayne Party (HD) - YouTube
1. The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan, 2008. 5 stars. The Godfather of Batman films, and almost as epic and tragic. It uses Batman as an icon to show how heroes escalate terror in the name of fighting it. The Joker and Two-Face are born out of perverse emulation for the hero, and of course the Joker steals the show — putting a smile on people with his knives, blowing up hospitals and ferry boats, and burning mountains of money he goes to the trouble of robbing from Gotham’s banks. By the end it’s clear that Batman is more a problem than a solution — “a freak like me”, taunts the Joker — and he willingly takes the fall for Harvey Dent, turning Gotham against him. It set a mighty high bar.

New The Batman Trailer Is Full Of New Bat-Footage
2. The Batman. Matt Reeves, 2022. 4 ½ stars. This is Batman meets Se7en, with the serial-killing Riddler we deserve after Jim Carrey’s slaughter-job in the ’90s. I was a guaranteed sucker for this one. The cinematography is stunning (the best in any Batman film) and the score genius (the best music in any Batman film), and the ugly clandestine world of payoffs, informants and rank corruption is just what a superhero film needs to be taken seriously for a change, especially after the absurdity of Ben Afleck. No doubt this film is setting us up for even more — and I am dying to see what kind of Joker Reeves will give us.

In a real world full of darkness, the wicked camp of Batman Returns is a safe cocoon | CBC Arts
3. Batman Returns. Tim Burton, 1992. 4 ½ stars. Daring for its day, and controversial enough to give Tim Burton the axe, Batman Returns dialed up the gothic weirdness by a factor of five, giving us a Penguin who lives in a sewer and schemes to dump kids into toxic waste. Some have called the film an outright assault on kids, but it’s really about broken adults searching for peace and acceptance. Burton painted a canvas of such hurt and pain — going well beyond what he did in his ’89 film — that it was too much for some people. It’s also what made it good and I still love it. Another bonus: Michelle Pfeiffer is the best Catwoman of all time.

Batman Begins - The Will to Act (Training Scene HD) - YouTube4. Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan, 2005. 4 ½ stars. There is no better origin story. Bruce Wayne spends the first half of the movie imprisoned, and then undergoing a brutal program under the tutelage of Ra’s Al-Ghul. It’s like he’s training to be a ninja — it’s that grueling — a compelling account of how Batman became such a powerhouse fighter without any innate abilities. When he finally becomes Batman, Scarecrow is awaiting him in Gotham (played with relish by Cillian Murphy), making a perfect first villain to overcome, as Scarecrow is all about fear — about which Bruce Wayne still has much to overcome.

Is this the best Batman movie ever made? - Little White Lies
5. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Eric Radomski & Bruce Timm, 1993. 4 stars. Surprisingly moving for an animated film, it examines how demoralizing Batman’s existence is around a tense mystery plot. It starts in romance blossoming out of a graveyard conversation: Bruce Wayne falls in love with Andrea Beaumont, who soon breaks his heart and later becomes the mob-murdering Phantasm, succumbing to her dark side without reservation. Joker is behind the death of both their parents, and Mark Hamill’s voice for Joker is pretty damn good (considering, after all, it’s Mark Hamill).

Mezco Toyz on Twitter: "Batman 1989 thirty years later – How Jack Nicholson's casting as the Joker elevated the superhero film genre - https://t.co/cu5O4pdxyQ https://t.co/VUc6xkp9I6" / Twitter6. Batman. Tim Burton, 1989. 3 ½ stars. It hasn’t aged very well, but in the ’80s this was a dark and groundbreaking effort. And while Heath Ledger’s Joker makes Nicholson’s look campy, there’s still a lot that’s compelling in Burton’s weirdness — a style that he would perfect in his sequel, Batman Returns. This was the film that showed me the potential in superhero films. In the 80s all I knew was Christopher Reeve and Superman. Measured against that cheese, Tim Burton’s Batman was a stunning work of art.

The Dark Knight Rises Voted Best Film Of The Decade - LADbible
7. The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan, 3 ½ stars. Believe me, I really wanted to like it more, but it’s overstuffed and under-inspired. Nolan just didn’t have the mojo he had in the first two films. Batman Begins looked at the hero’s origins by focusing on the politics of fear; The Dark Knight destroyed our hope through nihilism and chaos. This films then took on the theme of pain, but not nearly as profoundly as the other two. As for Bane, he’s not an autonomous villain like Ra’s al Ghul and Joker (he’s the former’s henchman), which reduces him in a major way. Still, this is a good effort by the standards of most superhero films.

The Daily Stream: Batman (1966) Is Comic Book Movie Camp At Its Finest
8. Batman. Leslie Martinson, 1966. 2 stars. Some say the silliness of this classic is part of its charm. They can keep telling themselves that. Though the deadpan humor is admittedly amusing at times, in its cheesy way, which keeps it above the ultra-offenders. I’d watch this over any of the three entries below, which is saying a lot about how bad they are.

Batman Forever' Extended Cut: Will Darker Version Get Release? - Variety
9. Batman Forever. Joel Schumacher, 1 ½ stars. Tim Burton’s films were deemed too weird and unsettling, and Batman Returns crossed quite a few lines. So they hired Schumacher to dumb things down for kids. He introduced Robin — who is always the kiss of death in Batman — and even worse, Jim Carrey as the Riddler, who utterly dominates this POS of a film. It’s impossible to erase Carrey-Riddler from your mind once you’ve seen Batman Forever, and I still resent it. Sad thing is, Val Kilmer would have made a good Batman, and Tommy Lee Jones a good Two-Face, if they’d been given decent material to work with.

The Batman Vs. Superman Easter Egg You Missed In I Am Legend
10. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Zach Snyder, 2016. 1 star. As bad as Batman Forever is, I’d suffer through it again before a repeat of this travesty. It’s basically King Kong vs. Godzilla: boring, boring, and more boring. Though come to think of it, maybe I would choose this one; at least it would put me to sleep. As for Ben Afleck, he’s the absolute worst Batman ever — even worse than George Clooney, below.

Poison Ivy Encounter - YouTube
11. Batman & Robin. Joel Schumacher, 1997. 0 stars. What can I say that hasn’t been? Not only is this the worst Batman film ever made, it’s one of the worst films period ever made. After the trash of Batman Forever, Schumacher took trash to the 20th power, and made the most risible piece of cinema imaginable. I reserve a zero-star rating for films that haven’t a shred of redeeming moments in them, and trust me, if you haven’t seen it (don’t!), Batman & Robin is one such stinking behemoth.

Film Picks of 2021

Don’t look for Dune on this list; I found it a lackluster affair. For me, The Last Duel was the film of the year, and I really liked The Power of the Dog too.

The Last Duel: la recensione del film medievale di Ridley Scott - Il Cineocchio
1. The Last Duel. 4 ½ stars. The best thing Ridley Scott has done in a long time (since Black Hawk Down twenty years ago) is a western Rashomon, showing three points of view that center on an alleged rape. I’m a sucker for perspective dramas like this and was reminded of the All in the Family episode “Everyone Tells the Truth” (S03E20), in which Mike and Archie gave conflicting accounts of a confrontation between Archie and a black man. Mike the flaming liberal painted Archie as a hyper-racist screaming at the black guy over the slightest provocation, and with a repertoire of racial slurs, while Archie countered with his version, in which he appeared calm and reasonable, and was yelled at and scolded by everyone in the family for no reason at all. Archie also claimed that the black man pulled a knife on him. Then Edith told her version, showing how Mike and Archie equally distorted things. The Last Duel isn’t a comedy, but there are some genuinely amusing dynamics. As in All in the Family, the feuding men come across pathetically and hilariously egocentric, while Lady Marguerite, like Edith Bunker, squeezes out the real story no one wants to hear. The duel itself is a cracker too — and, truth be told, far better than the one between Paul and Jamis in Dune.

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2. The Power of the Dog. 4 ½ stars. The title comes from Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” The dog in the film is Phil Burbank, a macho rancher living in Montana in the 1920s. He’s a passively vicious man, demeaning and suffocating those around him: his kind brother George, his sister-in-law Rose, and Rose’s effeminate son Peter. I’d never have guessed Benedict Cumberbatch could play this kind of role so well — a closeted gay full of self-loathing, wielding brutal psychological power over others. His “power”, as the dog, comes from his cruel ability to prey on others’ inadequacies and eradicating their sense of self-worth. How the boy Peter delivers his “darling” mother from the dog’s power is something I didn’t see coming. I thought he was actually genuinely bonding with his tormentor and trying to find common ground with him. This is great film making, great acting. It apparently hews close to the 1967 novel, though I haven’t read it.

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3. Encounter. 4 stars. If you like William Friedkin’s Bug, as I do, then Encounter is probably up your alley. The levels of paranoia are just as high. A military veteran (Malik) breaks into his ex-wife’s home in the middle of the night, wakes up his kids and tells them they’re going on a surprise road trip. It’s exciting until they learn it isn’t a road trip, but a rescue mission: Parasitic aliens have come to Earth and are being injected into human hosts through bug bites, says Dad. He sprays himself and his boys with bug spray, over and over again, and it’s not long before his parole officer comes on stage… Malik has issues, obviously. The kids are splendid in their roles, and the spotlight stays on them, their relationship with their father, and the question of their future and safety. Prolonged child endangerment often fails under the weight of what is expected from child actors, but these kids do just fine.

Dave Chappelle Says Won't Back Down To Demands, Attacks Hannah Gadsby – Deadline
4. The Closer. 4 stars. This is a comedy special, not a film, but I’m including it for special reasons. Everyone by now knows that Dave Chappelle was cancelled for poking fun at queer and transgender ideology, and as someone with a gay side myself, I can say there is absolutely no merit to the woke outrage. Take it from another gay man, Andrew Sullivan: “Anyone who can watch this special and think Chappelle is homophobic or transphobic is either stupendously dumb or a touchy fanatic. He is no more transphobic than J.K. Rowling, i.e. not at all. It is extremely funny, and I sat with another homo through the whole thing, stoned, laughing our asses off — especially when he made fun of us. The way the elite media portrays us, you’d think every member of the BLT community is so fragile we cannot laugh at ourselves. It doesn’t occur to them that, for many of us, Chappelle is a breath of honest air, doing what every comic should do: take aim at every suffocating piety of the powers that be — including the increasingly weird 2SLGBTQQIA+ mafia — and detonating them all. The Closer is, in fact, a humanely brilliant indictment of elite culture at this moment in time. It marks a real moment: a punching up against the powerful, especially those who pretend they aren’t [i.e. the wokes].” Yes, yes, yes, and yes!

Wrath of Man (2021) - Transcript - Scraps from the loft
5. Wrath of Man. 4 stars. I watched this film twice in a week, and I can’t remember the last time I did that. Certainly not with a revenge thriller. The problem with revenge films is that they play on our basest impulses for payback in the name of righteous justice. But Wrath of Man is so unapologetically nihilistic that I had a blast with it. Jason Statham is the perfect anti-hero, searching for a gang of armored-car robbers who murdered his son. When tearing up the criminal underworld fails him, he joins an armored truck security firm in hopes of baiting the thugs into the open. It turns out the robbers were military buddies in Afghanistan, and these baddies are quite entertaining on their own. The Statham character isn’t all that he seems, for he’s a vicious gangster, and therefore only pretending to be a “good guy” as he smokes out the robbers. They finally take the bait in the mother of all robberies, ending in the mother of all shoot-outs. Wrath of Man has high rewatch value; I was expecting a mediocre film and was pleasantly surprised.

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6. Nightbooks. 4 stars. Family films aren’t usually my thing, but then Nightbooks isn’t really a family film even though it was marketed as such. I think it’s too intense for many kids. Between themes of child abuse and genuinely scary monsters, it feels more like Sam Raimi trying to do family-friendly as best he can. Some of the jump scares unsettled even me, and there’s stuff like projectile candy-vomit, reminiscent of The Evil Dead. Nightbooks is “family-friendly”, perhaps, in the way the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who was, which called forth constant complaints that the show was going too far. From my point of view, none of this is a problem; as a kid who loved horror from the word go, I would have loved Nightbooks. It’s about two kids trapped in a witch’s house that has killed other kids, and the only way to stay alive is to appease the witch by producing stories that have unhappy endings, as she feeds off fantasies of suffering.

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7. Titane. 3 ½ stars. What some critics have called the film of the year is about a woman who kills the people she fucks (both men and women), finds that she likes fucking cars more than her own species, and then gets impregnated by a Cadillac. It’s an impressive avant-garde piece, but a bit oversold; it’s certainly not the film of the year. It’s trying to say something about hybridity — gender identity, family, and what it means to be human — but it’s not quite as profound as it thinks it is. It probably has more to say about biocompatibility (Cronenberg’s Crash is clearly in the background), though how this human being and an automobile successfully mate is never explained, perhaps wisely so. Titane is ultimately, in its second half, about a bereaved father who accepts this son who is not a son (in more ways than one), and vows to protect “him” and his baby from life’s vicious cruelties.

Stowaway review: Netflix's sci-fi drama is oddly down to Earth - Polygon
8. Stowaway. 3 ½ stars. This space survival story is more about the characters and their dilemmas than any thriller elements. (The climbing of the tethers, however, is an exceptionally nerve-wracking piece of suspense that had my hands sweating.) It’s set in the near future, with a team of three on a two-year voyage to Mars. Toni Collette plays the ship’s commander, and the other two are a medical researcher, and a biologist who has been studying the respiratory possibilities of algae on Mars. After launching they soon find out there’s a fourth person trapped on board the ship, and in freeing him the carbon dioxide-scrubbing mechanism is damaged, making it impossible for everyone to have enough oxygen to survive the entire journey. This requires two of them to go into space and climb the tethers to retrive liquid oxygen… and I’ll say no more, save that the ending is depressing, though also very moving.

Ballerinas Pushed to Their Breaking Points in Birds of Paradise Trailer | PEOPLE.com
9. Birds of Paradise. 3 ½ stars. Inspired by horror-fests Suspiria and Black Swan, this ballet drama explores friendship and rivalry alongside the pain that seems inevitably to come with the art. It follows two American girls in Paris, one a scholarship student and a bit of an outsider. They start as enemies but soon become friends, swearing a pact to win the prize together, though it becomes obvious that’s impossible. Birds of Paradise isn’t as good as Suspiria (either the classic or new version) or Black Swan — it’s more like a sanitized version of those films for teens, despite its R-rating — but taken for what it is, it’s enjoyable and feverishly surreal. In one sequence, the girls go to an underground club, where a woman dressed like a Gorgon makes them eat psychedelic worms, and they proceed to face off against each other in a high-stakes dance. Sets a wonderful tone.

Nobody' review: Bob Odenkirk comes on strong as dad taking on the mob - Chicago Sun-Times
10. Nobody. 3 ½ stars. It’s cartoonish but in a good way, and Bob Odenkirk is well suited for the lead. He plays an ex-assassin trying to lead a normal family life, until his bad-ass cravings draw him back in. It’s a silly plot that works despite itself, thanks largely to Odenkirk’s trademark color. He even teams up with his decrepit father (in the above pic), who is a retired FBI agent, and they proceed to gun town the entire Russian mafia. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a film on this level of preposterous since Cronenberg’s History of Violence, which was a metaphor for natural selection (survival of the fittest). Nobody is more a metaphor for the futility of repressing one’s inner thug.

 

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018, The Best Films of 2019, The Best Films of 2020.)

The 50th Anniversary of the Nashua Public Library

This year the Nashua Public Library will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the months of November and December. The celebration will include an exhibit of library artifacts and a slideshow of photographs in the gallery, a banner and a special anniversary edition library card, and also special displays of material from the collection that were released in 1971 — books, films, music, TV series, and events. The library’s actual anniversary is September 26 (when the dedication ceremony took place), so technically the celebration should already be under way. So I’m doing my own personal homage to the library and the year 1971. Here’s looking back at what was happening that year: books that would leave their mark, like The Exorcist; rock ‘n roll masterpieces like Zeppelin IV; the debut of All in the Family and unprecedented political incorrectness. It turns out that 1971 was a critical year in many ways — it started the ’70s in the way 1983 started the ’80s — an important year (though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate most of it) and suitable moment to open a town library. There were shifts in the cultural milieu that would have lasting impact, and here are some of the highlights.

1. The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. It started with the book in ’71, even if the film pushed it into infamy two years later. Not great literature by any means (unlike the film, which was a cinematic masterpiece), but Blatty presented demonic possession like no one has done since, and never scarier.

2. All in the Family, by Normal Lear. The best TV sitcom of all time hit its peak in ’73-’74 (the excellent third and fourth seasons), but it began on that fateful January in 1971 (you can watch the full premiere here), when Archie and Mike screamed at each other about racism over a Sunday brunch. The show would keep going to the tail end of the ’70s.

3. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. The 50th anniversary for this one has already been widely celebrated. It was a book ahead of its time, making its urgent plea for preservation and a clean environment, showing how species disappear when food runs out or pollution is left unchecked.

4. Led Zeppelin IV, by Led Zeppelin. Yeah, this one. The opening “Black Dog”, the medieval “Battle of Evermore” (my favorite), the epic “Stairway to Heaven”,  the ballad “Going to California”, and everything else… hard to believe this masterpiece has 50 years under its belt.

5. Harold and Maude, by Hal Ashby. A morbid love affair between a suicidal teen and a 79-year old woman was widely panned at the time of its release, but today it’s much more appreciated it deserves. One of the darkest comedies ever made, and a fitting start to the ’70s era of creative cinema.

6. The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin. In the middle of writing the Earthsea Trilogy, Le Guin released this sci-fic tale of a world racked by violence and environmental catastrophe. One man’s dreams controls the fate of humanity, and a psychiatrist manipulates those dreams for his own purposes. I’m reading this now and lamenting that we don’t have writers like this anymore.

7. Hell House, by Richard Matheson. Stephen King calls it the best haunted house story of all time. Perhaps. It’s about two previous expeditions to the awful house that ended up with the investigators killed or going insane, and now a new investigation is under way.

8. The Monster at the End of this Book, by Jon Stone. It may sound strange, but this book terrified me as a kid. My mother got for me about three years after publication. Hysterical images like these petrified the shit out of me and kept me awake at night. I dreaded the monster at the end, even knowing it was just Grover. The things that scare little kids.

9. The French Connection, by William Friedkin. Known for the infamous car chase that could have gotten people killed (it was shot illegally without Friedkin getting anyone’s permission, or without even closing off the streets), the film was a landmark shot in the “induced documentary” style that put Friedkin on the map.

10. Nursery Cryme, by Genesis. Prog rock excellence from Genesis in their glory days. In the epic “Musical Box” a girl knocks her boy cousin’s head off with a croquet mallet, and his spirit returns to lust for her and assault her. In “The Fountain of Salmacis” Hermaphroditus is seduced by the nymph Salmacis and becomes fused with her. Great imagination on display here.

11. The Electric Company, by Paul Dooley. Sesame Street (launched in ’69) had pride of place when I was growing up, but The Electric Company (’71-’77) was my favorite and the reason I became a fan of Spider-Man. Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader was pretty cool too. This is his first appearance on the show.

12. Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey. Arguably the best of The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the second book involves complex storylines. In the first book Lessa traveled back in time centuries in order to bring an army forward. In this one F’nor takes on an even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread forever.

13. The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. Like The Exorcist, the book would be made into a successful 1973 film. It was also awarded on its strength as a novel, receiving the Best Novel Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. it’s about the assassination attempt of Charles De Gaulle, and it holds up well today.

14. A Clockwork Orange, by Stanley Kubrick. Kubric went for the jugular in adapting the 1962 novel, depicting a miserable journey through a world of decaying cities, psycho adolescents, and nightmare technologies of rehabilitative punishment. Viewers were stunned. Welcome to the ’70s.

15. The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, by Robert Foster. Before the age of the internet and Tolkien webpages, this was my go-to book for Tolkien lore (which I acquired, I think, in either ’79 or ’80). It was as complete as I could imagine a resource for Tolkien’s world. How little I knew back then.

16. Who’s Next, by The Who. A song like “Baba O’Riley” comes along once in a blue moon, and an album like Who’s Next? even more infrequently. I’ve never been a Who fan, but I do love this album, and I could play “Baba O’Riley” any day of the week.

 

As for events, in 1971…

17. The digital age began. We don’t tend to associate the early ’70s with that, but January 1971 is when the microprocessor was invented.

18. The voting age was lowered to 18. The 2th Amendment was finally ratified, after the drafting age had been lowered to 18 during World War II. The drinking age, of course, still needs to be lowered to 18 (if not abolished altogether).

19. Charles Manson was executed. He and three of his darlings got the death penalty.

20. Disney World opened. I’ve still never been and probably will never make it.

All was not rosy, however, in 1971. Probably the worst thing that happened was…

21. The gold standard was abandoned. Nixon announced that the United States would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed value, thus completely abandoning the gold standard. From 1971 onwards productivity increased as wages flatlined; Gross Domestic Product surged but the shares going to workers plummeted; house prices skyrocketed; hyperinflation increased; currencies crashed. The personal savings rate went down the toilet; incarceration rates went up by a factor of five; divorce rates shot up too, and the number of people in their late 20s living with their parents increased; the number of lawyers quadrupled.

Graphically, this is what happened in 1971, thanks to Nixon’s abandoning the gold standard (click to enlarge). The graphs come from the WTF Happened in 1971? website.

No denying that 1971 is a year to pay homage to, in more ways than one. Happy anniversary, Nashua Public Library!

Those ’80s Films… Even the Best of Them

Quentin Tarantino is solid. He doesn’t let the PC police faze him, or ideology get in the way of his art. Recently he’s gone after ’80s films, much in the same way I have; I’m convinced now that he and I are kindred souls. From two of his recent interviews, he says:

“The ’50s and the ’80s were the worst time for American movies. In the ’50s it was just the way society was. In the ’80s it was self-censorship, in response to the ’70s, where film makers went as far as they could. Everything in the ’80s was suddenly watered down. In ’70s films characters weren’t necessarily the heroes, but they were compelling and interesting. In the ’80s you couldn’t say shit if you had a mouthful. In the ’80s the most important thing about main characters was that they were likeable. And even a film that pushed the envelope and tried to do chancy things, it could do so for only part of the film before it pulled back and ‘apologized’ for it…”

“The decade of the ’80s was the decade of ‘they won’t let you do that’. We’re going through the ’80s Part 2 now [in the 21st century], except there’s more of a McCarthy-esque blacklist aspect to it. In the ’80s film makers just did it to themselves, whereas today people are doing it to you as a film maker. And it was only happening in America in the ’80s; everywhere else in the world was bold cinema. And that’s the kind of film I wanted to make when starting my career [in the early ’90s]. When I was told ‘they won’t let you do that’, I said, ‘Well, who are they?’ And I never let that stop me, and by doing that, I and others changed film making in the ’90s. [Starting with Reservoir Dogs.] The ’90s films stopped being ‘politically correct’ [by ’80s standards], and started taking risks again.”

I came of age in the ’80s and simply can’t watch most of the films I grew up on. They’ve aged horribly and I wonder how I ever enjoyed them. By pre- or post-’80s standards they come off as censored or sanitized in the way Tarantino describes, with facilely (and predictably) happy endings. They tend to be family friendly, aligning with the family-value era of Ronald Reagan. Chris Maltezos wrote a dissertation called “The Return of the 1950s Nuclear Family in the Films of the 1980s”, in which he focuses on two particular ’80s films, Ordinary People and E.T., noting the re-emerging importance of father figures, and the lasting bonds between children and their parents. I’ll make similar observations in my case studies below.

But let me preface this by saying that obviously not everything from the ’80s was bad. The rot hadn’t fully set in until ’83. Some films from ’80-’82 were brilliant extensions of ’70s-style cinema. Think of The Shining (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Blade Runner (1982). Many of those are masterpieces, and all are ’70s films at heart. (Whereas Conan the Destroyer (1984), Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and The Evil Dead 2 (1987) are “pure ’80s”, and as awful as their predecessors were excellent.)

There were good films between ’83-’89 too, but they were exceptional, and not entirely free of ’80s tropes. Even the best film makers couldn’t escape the baggage. The self-censorship that Tarantino speaks of is quite evident when you watch them today. I’ll focus on three films I deeply admire (Near Dark, Blue Velvet, and After Hours) and then one that almost everyone loves but I don’t (Aliens).

Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s horror-western is the perfect vampire film — or almost. There’s no seductive glamorizing of the bloodsuckers; it’s a very violent and nihilistic tale and holds up well against the typical dreck horror of the ’80s. But there is the happy ending that sticks out: Caleb has been given a blood transfusion by his father (who does transfusions with farm animals) which saves him and makes him human again. After the nasty showdown with the other vamps — and Mae almost burns to ash in the sun — she too is given a transfusion by Caleb and returns to humanity. The epilogue points to their happy future under the roof of Caleb’s father, where vampire horrors will be a distant memory.

Had Bigelow made this film in any other decade, I guarantee she would not have conceived this cheesy ending. In a ’70s horror film like this Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one (or both) of them likely met a tragic end — dying in the sun, stake through the heart, whatever. As a ’90s film, Caleb and Mae would have also stayed vampires, and perhaps left the other vamps that had been Mae’s family, to go rogue as a lover duo. The film is so great that you can forgive the conclusion catering to nuclear family values, but it does stand out awkwardly from a post-’80s perspective.

Blue Velvet (1986)

The darkest and most perverse anti-’80s film of the ’80s is, for my money, Blue Velvet. If there’s any director who refuses to self-censor in any time, it’s David Lynch. And yet even he — in even this hideous tale of mean sexual brutality that pulls no punches — ends Blue Velvet in a non-Lynchian way that panders to the nuclear family. After the mystery is solved and Frank Booth is killed, all is well that ends well. In the epilogue, everyone is gathered on a sunny day at the home of Jeffrey’s father. Jeffrey’s girlfriend Sandy looks out the window and sees that the robins of her dreams have come to the yard. She has forgiven Jeffrey for all his subterfuge. This scene is juxtaposed with Dorothy, who after her captivity and sexual abuse under Frank is now free and reunited with her young boy: happy for the first time in ages, restored to motherhood and mental health.

I should emphasize that I like Blue Velvet‘s ending. Not all happy endings are bad; some are well earned, and unlike Near Dark’s, Blue Velvet‘s is genuinely moving. It’s an earned payoff to all the suffocating despair that came before. Nonetheless, I doubt that Lynch would have written this ending had he made Blue Velvet in any other decade. Had it been a film of the ’70s or ’90s, Jeffrey would have walked away at the end, alone and shattered by everything he’d experienced. Lynch’s track record speaks for itself: Blue Velvet is his only film with “all is well that ends well”.

Consider: Eraserhead (1977) was ’70s nihilism from start to finish. Wild at Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) were flat repudiations of the family-centric ’80s. In Wild at Heart, Lula’s mother tries to have Lula’s boyfriend killed, and in the end, Lula is finally able to reject her mother as she reunites with her boyfriend Sailor; the photograph of her mother sizzles and vanishes, signaling Lula’s liberation from the woes of her biological family. Fire Walk With Me is about Laura Palmer’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father, who in the final terrible scene murders Laura. (Laura’s mother is dysfunctional too.) These films are impossible to imagine on screen in the ’80s.

Next came Lost Highway (1997), with a nihilistic ending about a man’s permanent imprisonment in denial. Soon after that Mulholland Drive (2001), which finished on Diane being terrorized by hallucinations of her parents, causing her to shoot herself in her own bed. That’s about as anti-nuclear family as one can imagine, and the kind of depressing ending we expect from Lynch.

Even Lynch’s G-rated Straight Story (1999) (G-rated films are family-friendly by definition, so this one would hardly count much anyway), while ending on a man reunited with his brother after years of estrangement, doesn’t portray that ending as exactly happy. His brother looks at him but is unable to say anything; and the film abruptly ends. The Straight Story is an odyssey; the ending is an ambiguous epilogue that leaves questions open about the possibility of a reconciliation.

After Hours (1985)

In Martin Scorsese’s case the self-censorship involves a genre shift. Never in the ’80s did he make anything like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), or Raging Bull (1980) (the last of which was a 70s film to the core, despite its release in 1980). We’d have to wait for the ’90s and beyond to get Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York, (2002), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), and The Irishman (2019).

What we got instead from Scorsese was what the ’80s had in abundance: comedy and sports: The King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), and (for sports) The Color of Money (1986). These were capped off by a horrible imagination of the historical Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1989) (which should have been a comedy like The Life of Brian). The ’80s decade was the undeniable nadir of Scorsese’s career. The Color of Money was especially mainstream for him, showing Tom Cruise playing billiards in the blandest most conventional narrative.

But I do like After Hours. It’s a comedy that hits my sweet spot; a very dark one about a guy who gets sucked into a surrealist nightmare. He loses his money, causes a suicide, becomes a suspect in a bunch of robberies, and turns the neighborhood against him. It’s edgy and nervy by ’80s standards, though hardly by Scorsese’s own standards. But these are the limits he apparently allowed himself. He couldn’t have made a Goodfellas or a Cape Fear in the ’80s. Cinema was too sanitized for that stuff.

Aliens (1986) — as compared to Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992)

And now for a film I don’t like: Aliens. It’s really just Alien on steroids, throwing umpteen of the horrors against a bunch of mercenaries who sign on to risk their lives anyway. Alien was a masterpiece of ’70s sci-fic terror. Aliens is a crowd pleaser with a happy ending (by Alien-franchise standards), with its most likeable characters — Ripley, Hicks, and Newt — surviving against every odd. Ripley is a maternal figure in Aliens who saves the innocent child.

Alien 3, for all its problems, is at least a return to ’70s seriousness. It’s bleak and misanthropic, with no likeable figure save Ripley, and even she’s a bit hard to warm to this time around. The opening scene — right from this starting point, I knew I’d like Alien 3 — reverses the happy ending of Aliens, by killing off Hicks and the child Newt whom Ripley went through Hell and back to save. As if to give the ’80s a deliberate finger, Ripley’s surrogate family is obliterated from the get. The ugly depths of the human condition are on display everywhere in the film. Charles Dutton plays a rapist and killer of women whose faith makes him a very unlikely hero, though a very interesting one. Ripley herself dies at the end.

To the repeated claims that Aliens is the rare sequel that’s better than the first film, I say hogwash. It’s not even close, and I even prefer Alien 3 to Aliens. David Fincher is leagues ahead of James Cameron, and he made his film a stalk-and-slash horror in the same vein as Alien,‭ ‬with Ripley having few weapons to rely on. He tried to bring back menace to the franchise, and while he only half succeeded (the dog-like alien wasn’t especially scary), he still made a decent film. All Cameron made was a blockbuster tailored for ’80s sensibilities.