Streaming Reccomendation

The Devil All the Time – Sent from hell itself

Submitted by Boone Alexander

I want to disclaim this piece by saying that there is probably no one in this hemisphere who loves Robert Pattinson more than I do. I am a recent convert to the cult of RP, but what I lack in seniority, I more than make up for in my zeal. Now, with that said let us begin.

The Devil All the Time is Netflix’s most recent attempt to hop on the A24 slow, psychotic horror/thriller/suspense movie bandwagon by adapting Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name. Our setting du jour: “Southern” gothic horror, or at least what directors think is Southern (read: poor). Netflix’s biggest selling point? The cast. Antonio Campos has brought out a constellation of big-name stars to give our fun little horror hoedown a little more oomf. Biggest names include Tom Holland (imprisoned in hot, befuddled teen boy typecast), Eliza Scanlen, Bill Skarsgard, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough Mia Waskikowska, and of course… Robert Pattinson.

We open with Bill Skarsgard’s Willard Russell’s not so subtle encounter with Christianity in World War II, when he finds a crucified soldier left by the Japanese whom he then mercy kills. Willard’s return to Knockemstiff, Ohio is marred by disillusionment with Christianity and being haunted by images of the cross. He then lives his version of the American Dream, marrying the diner waitress Haley Bennett, and then he has a sudden religious rebirth, setting up a backyard cross that he takes his new son Arvin to. Cue the American Dream is a lie motif when Bennett dies of cancer and God is stoically absent. No spoilers here, but needless to say, PETA is certainly not going to be raving about the movie on Twitter.

We now meet our intrepid protagonist, 16-year-old Arvin Russell, played by America’s favorite 24-year-old, Tom Holland. Arvin now lives with his adopted sister Lenora, a Jesus girl who makes Joan of Arc look like Mae West. Arvin struggles to do the right thing in a world that treats both him and his sister badly. Enter the Reverend Preston Teagardin, played by one Robert Pattinson, a new, slick-talking, sly-eyed preacher who turns their lives upside down. Add dirty cops, Dixie mafia, itinerant serial killers, the Vietnam War, and some good ole-fashioned Polaroids, all wrapped up in the ever-nostalgic aesthetic of the 60s, and you’ve got yourself a movie

The name of the game for this film is trauma. How we experience it, how we live through it, and (most importantly) how it gets repeated. Everyone receives some form of trauma in this Gothic gorefest. We begin in the first 10 minutes with a crucifixion. From there, it’s off to the races; you name it, the movie’s got it. Animal sacrifice, corruption, drugs, religious hypocrisy, murder, serial killers, and spiders. Not a film for the faint of heart. But once we scrub out the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, what are we really left with? Gothic? Absolutely. If by Gothic you mean middle school goth girl, eyebrow + lip piercing, all black clothes, dyed hair streaks aesthetic: just busy, busy, busy. 

What do you get when you combine 6+ characters all with different, integral backstories played by big name stars with pushy agents into 138 minutes of film? Answer: one great big Hollywood traffic jam. Campos gives each star their requisite screen time (cheerfully killing off a few in the process), but what the movie has in starpower, it lacks in narrative quality. The movie simply doesn’t have enough time to give each person the characterizations necessary for us to feel fully invested in them or to understand their motivations. The best exemplification for this is Donald Ray Pollock himself giving us almost insulting narrations of what the characters are doing and feeling in a vain attempt to smooth over the canyon-sized gaps the movie leaves.

Not that Pollock exactly has his work cut out for him. Most of the characters, despite having plotlines integral to the story, are perfectly content to be perfectly static. Robert Pattinson’s Reverend Teagardin in particular was touted in Netflix’s promos as a great evil, the primary antagonist of the movie, the “devil” of the movie’s title. To be fair, we immediately get bad vibes the minute Pattinson struts into the ramshackle church wearing his powder blue suit and frilly shirt, straight out of an 80s prom scene (a costume he never changes). Pattinson is quickly unmasked as a religious hypocrite after he manipulates Eliza Scanlen’s Lenora into having sex with him and then spurns her when she becomes pregnant. And… that’s it. That’s all we get from Teagardin.

Pattinson’s character (despite a powerful performance as a hissable religious charlatan by RP himself) never moves beyond this. The same holds true for the other characters who, despite their narrative importance, seem placed in the film simply to die. Scanlen’s Lenora is never more for us than “Jesus girl,” despite the trauma inflicted on her by Teagardin. Sebastian Stan’s Sheriff Bodecker is never more for us than a dirty cop. In a movie about trauma in everyone’s lives colored by violence, death, and evil, we’re left wanting more from a movie that simply does not deliver. This isn’t to say there aren’t bright moments. The actors in particular live up to their starpower and make a valiant attempt to breathe life into the moribund script, but there’s only so much eyelash batting Robert Pattinson can do before we start to ask ourselves “Why are we even watching this?”

Overall, one leaves the movie with neither bloodlust sated, nor their sense of justice gratified, things horror movies need at least one of satisfied to be considered worth spending 2 hours watching. The film’s script falls flat (we’re physically explained the title of the movie by the narrator in the first 20 minutes), and we never get anything from the characters beyond our first impressions. The narrations by Pollock feel like a final insult, as if Campos doesn’t think the audience were smart enough to understand the character choices for themselves. But that’s what you get when you try to make a movie with 7 main characters, just a great big busy mess. I give the movie a C+. Oh hell, we’ll give it a B-, but only because of Robert Pattinson.

Blog Filmic Fits

Filmic Fits – My Own Private Idaho

Submitted by Kamryn Cannon

On day 56 of self-isolation, I decided it was an opportune time to check off a few films on my watchlist. At this point I had not seen another human being in weeks and wanted to watch something that matched my lonesome mood. What better way to complement my sense of yearning than with Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho? This screenplay based on a Henriad tetralogy is the kind of avant-garde film that finds itself in the hall of fame of the New Queer Cinema movement. Van Sant tells the story of a young street hustler named Mike (portrayed by king River Phoenix) who embarks on a journey to find his mother, while overcoming obstacles like narcolepsy, poverty, and unrequited love. Through captivating landscapes and a mesmerizing, steel guitar-filled score, we follow Mike on a globe-trotting mission to uncover insights from his past in an attempt to make sense of his identity. Along with Van Sant’s directorial and writing abilities, I was equally impressed by the costume choices of one Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, whose other works include To Die For (1995), Good Will Hunting (1997), and my personal favorite — Aeon Flux (2005). With the new rise of the soft boi and e-boy aesthetics, we would be remiss if we didn’t appreciate the inspiration by which a lot of these trends stem from. Hints of 90s fashion always seem to find themselves in recent fashion cycles, and My Own Private Idaho is a classic example of this era.

In the opening scene we find a pensive Mike trying to comprehend his surroundings after experiencing yet another narcoleptic attack. As seen throughout the rest of the film, these characters have an affinity for sherpa-lined corduroy jackets. Along with the moss-colored coat, Mike dons a vertical-striped blue shirt with a name-tag that says “Bob” over two t-shirts on opposite ends of the gray spectrum. Pasztor makes use of layering akin to recent F/W lines by Gucci–eclectic, disjointed, and slightly oversized. Aside from the price, a large difference between her and Alessandro Michele’s stylings is that Mike and his gang of friends layer their clothes not only as a way to express themselves but to provide protection from the chilling  winds of the Portland streets they sleep on.

Mike and his best friend Scott (played by a mid-20s Keanu Reeves) are brought up in very different social classes. Scott is the mayor’s son and Mike lives on the streets. Another contrast in their characterization is the way Pasztor designed their fashion expression. Scott dresses himself as a bad boy motorcyclist who likes all black attire and sometimes abstains from the incessant layering by not wearing a shirt at all. On the other hand, Mike regularly wears attention-grabbing fiery ensembles that juxtapose his somber attitude. In most of the movie he is shown in his signature scarlet jacket with a variety of layered shirts beneath. From the top down his polychromatic costume becomes progressively darker, starting with a light yellow dress shirt and ending with black leather boots. Although Mike doesn’t have much abundance in his life, he makes the most of his clothing options.

The penultimate scene hearkens to the theme of class struggles and parallel worlds. Here, two nobles die. One the king of the poor and the other the king of wealthy. Up above the powerful mourn one of their leaders, while a few hundred yards away the powerless celebrate the life of their mentor. While giving a mundane sermon, a priest wears a black suit, his neck wrapped in a regal purple stole. Scott returns to claim the throne he has inherited and sports another sleek black outfit, but this time he ditches the jackets and ripped jeans for an upscale suit and sumptuous pea coat. All flamboyance is lost as he transitions into his new life. Meanwhile, his old crowd of friends are in their usual rags. They mix and match classic autumn colors like burgundy and honey with juniper and carob. All in all, I like to think that the legacy of costumers like Pasztor continue to inspire the fashion choices of modern-day alt kids across the world.


Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro – An Unlikely Pairing

Submitted by TJ Silva

During my first watch of Grave of the Fireflies, while I watched the two children travel along a road in the countryside, the imagery reminded of watching the two sisters in My Neighbor Totoro wander around the road near their new home. After noticing this, I was floored to find out that both of these movies were released on the same day in Japan in 1988. One animation studio dropped two absolute heaters on the same day. I started to reflect and think more about these two movies in relation to each other. 

On the surface, the animation styles are very similar, but they depict two very different worlds. My Neighbor Totoro is filled with beautiful landscapes of rural Japan in the late 50s with magical spirits and animals. After my first watch, all I wanted to do was hug Totoro and take a ride on the cat bus. 

On the other hand, Grave puts on display the true horrors of what wartime Japan was like. We see burnt dead bodies, emaciated children, and decimated villages. When we see these two extremes, it would be pretty easy to distinguish between the two movies, but if we look deeper we start to see some similarities. Grave so often felt like a darker parallel of the story that Totoro was telling. 

At their core, both movies are tales of survival and innocence, but this survival takes two very different paths. In Totoro, Satsuki and her younger sister Mei are surviving the summer of a move to a new home and the hospitalization of their mother. The movie is light on plot, and mainly follows the sisters during this summer. They spend their time hanging out with magical forest spirits (including the eponymous Totoro) and exploring the world around their new home. Mei often expresses how much she misses her mother, and you can tell this is something that weighs on the sisters. Satsuki often tries to be a good older sister and tells Mei that they’ll be able to spend time with their mother soon. The darkest the movie gets is when a visit from their mother is delayed and Mei runs away. With the help of Totoro, Satsuki boards the catbus and saves Mei. 

Other than this one spot, the rest of the movie revels in the wonder of being a child in the country with a vast forest to explore. Every new day could bring something different and something fun. The movie’s message is one of hope and joy. Even though things may be hard, joy can be found every day, and everything is going to be alright in the end. 

In Totoro, the external pressure is that of their mother’s sickness, whereas the external pressure in Fireflies is one of truly fighting for survival. The movie opens with Seita dying and seeing the ghost of his younger sister Sestuko. While Totoro explores the joy of innocence, innocence is thrown out the door in the first 30 seconds of Grave of the Fireflies. After an incredible intro, we are thrown back to the start of the story where Seita and Sestuko’s village is being overtaken by an air raid. Their whole village is burned to the ground. From the offset, they have no home. It’s just the two of them running through the village, and you get the sense that it will be just the two of them for the whole time. 

Shortly after this, Seita learns that their mother was killed during the air raid. Seita chooses to avoid telling her sister, and here we see the first of many times where he tries to shield Setsuko’s innocence. We see Seita fight for her innocence many times throughout the rest of the movie. Whether it is giving her candy when she feels down, teaching her how to catch fireflies, or singing a song, you can tell Seita just wants Setsuko to feel like a kid. 

While we see what the war does to the countryside of Japan, we also see its effects on the people that live there. At one point, the siblings spend some time living with their Aunt. A woman who we can only assume was once a loving and caring mother has turned cold and harsh in the war. She only has so much energy and food to take care of her own family, and we see the extra pressure of two mouths to feed wear on her. To put it simply, she’s mean. She’s so mean, that Seita and Setsuko eventually leave and try to make a home in a bomb shelter. 

If innocence died in the beginning, at this point in the movie it’s the proverbial dead horse that is still being beaten. In any other Ghibli movie, I think we would see the pair meet something magical in this shelter that helps them survive and eat well and have so much fun. Instead, we watch Seita continue to try and keep Sestuko in good spirits while he tries to buy, barter, and eventually steal food. As things go from bad to worse, we watch Setsuko slowly die from malnourishment. She isn’t under some magical curse or spell that has to be fixed by some long enchanting quest. All she needs is food, and they can’t get any. 

Seita’s fight for survival and joy is best emulated in the scene where the movie gets its title. In one of the first nights they are spending in the shelter we see the only instance of any magical creatures. Seita brings in some fireflies in the shelter inside their mosquito net. We proceed to see an absolutely beautiful light show; there is intense beauty for a brief moment. But then, the scene ends as we see one firefly’s light go out. The next moment Seita wakes up to Setsuko burying a mass of dead fireflies, and all the while she seems unfazed. The world they live in is so oppressive and continues to beat them down that despite Seita’s best attempts, they can no longer be children that get to enjoy the magical lights and beauty the world has to offer them.  

Both stories are light on plot and are much more about a feeling. In Totoro, it is a feeling of intense wonder and whimsy, while in Grave it is one of dread and despair. Both stories are truly moving and powerful. While these films paint two very different pictures, through this contrast they share a similar story of siblings fighting for survival through a tumultuous time in their life.

Blog Streaming Reccomendation

Make Satire Relevant Again – On The Death of Stalin

Submitted by Boone Alexander

Politics in 2020 have been… unpredictable. Aside from the global pandemic and the inexplicable public debate surrounding personal safety, the political status quo has been rocked by protests against police brutality led by community leaders in cities throughout America. Added to the mix is the President, whose personal brand of leadership has strained explanation. This leaves political satirists– those artists whose role it is to create content about the sharp edge of political discourse, holding up a mirror to humanity’s universal idiocies– in danger of being marooned on the wayside while public events whiz past them. The late 2010s have stretched American political satire to the point where much of the content has been hewn down to imitation (coughcough SNL coughcough).

Armando Iannucci, widely known for the wickedly incisive Veep, defies the mold with the 2017 black comedy The Death of Stalin. To be honest, the only thing I should have to say to anyone to convince them to watch this movie is “Steve Buscemi plays a Soviet dictator,” but since that might not be enough for some people, I will elaborate further. The movie is set in Moscow, 1953 when the eponymous dictator inconveniences the nation with a fatal stroke. Mayhem ensues as the conniving Politburo members plot to fill the titanic political vacuum left by Stalin’s death. The closest thing the movie has to a protagonist is Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer who managed to survive the Purges by telling bathroom jokes at Stalin’s dinner parties. Opposed to him is Simon Russell Beale’s Machiavellian Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB). Added to the farce is Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s histrionic daughter Svetlana, Rupert Friend as his perennially vodka-soaked son Vasily, and Jason Isaacs as an AK-47 wielding Marshal Georgy Zhukov. The cast also consists of a superb ensemble of Politburo members all determined to outdo one another in their slavish devotion to the fallen tyrant.

            There are numerous highlights, not least of which is the Politburo members’ haphazard attempt to transport Stalin’s urine-soaked body to his deathbed with lines including “So you think Stalin is too heavy?/ No! It’s a compliment. Gold is heavy.” These scenes revel in that same aspect which made Veep and Iannucci’s other works like In the Loop and The Thick of It so surgically comical: the sycophantic devotion people in the service of the powerful display in order to secure their own advancement. Only in the arena of Soviet blood politics, the stakes are much, much higher than losing out on a promotion. All of the Politburo members strain to ostentatiously display their devotion to Stalin’s legacy, with absurd results: Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov nearly trips over himself to praise Stalin’s supposed imprisonment and murder of his wife.

It would seem on its face that the movie has little to no relation to the absurdity of the American political scene today. Instead, it outflanks the current pace of political events by targeting an extreme of the political spectrum: Soviet totalitarianism. A close comparison of the two shows that they are not quite so diametrically opposed as we might think. Indeed, a close comparison between the eulogies each Politburo member gives on top of Lenin’s Mausoleum at Stalin’s funeral and the current President’s State of the Union speeches might yield more similarities than one might feel comfortable with. Both are gilded with sweeping praise to abstract concepts, but underneath both are actually nonsense. My personal favorite is Molotov’s call to action that since Stalin’s love for the nation was “unwavering” the Soviet people must take their “unwavering” pain and love and with it build an “unwavering” future. What exactly an “unwavering future” is, is not specified.

Perhaps the best evidence that The Death of Stalin gives in its own defense (and evidence that its themes still hold true today) is the fact that its release was banned in Russia. Members of Russia’s nationalist Great Fatherland Party said that the movie was an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” and part of an “anti-Russian information war” in a statement almost completely congruent with something out of a Soviet-era Pravda article. And while we might be able to find absurdity in Russia’s banning a movie denigrating Soviet politics, it isn’t a big stretch of the imagination to imagine what the reactions to movies denigrating America’s involvement in foreign wars or its treatment of marginalized populations might get in ultra-conservative (or liberal) outlets. It’s also worth mentioning that the film has been illegally downloaded over 1.5 million times.

This isn’t to say that The Death of Stalin is a cautionary tale. Instead, it has the same twofold effect that all satire has on us. It zeroes in on and ridicules the follies inherent in all humans and their foolish systems.

 Stream The Death of Stalin on Netflix US