Sunday, May 15, 2016

We Who Watch Behind The Rows: Graveyard Shift (1990) Pt. 1

Welcome to our first installment of We Who Watch Behind the Rows: Stephen King Print vs. Film. The focus of this new column is to compare the written works of author Stephen King against the numerous adaptations made for either the movie or television screen. Since there are what seems to be about 4,000 such adaptations released into the wild to this point, we expect catching up with all of them will take a good amount of time on our parts.

As with our other semi-regular column -- Visiting and Revisiting -- your hosts are myself, Rik Tod Johnson of The Cinema 4 Pylon and Cinema 4: Cel Bloc websites, and Aaron Lowe of the Working Dead Productions website. We are both hardcore, longtime cinema fans, but we are also, to varying degrees, big Stephen King fans. 

The difference between us is that I, after following King earnestly and faithfully around every turn in his career since I first read The Dead Zone around 1981, largely gave up on his writing (with a couple of notable exceptions) post-Gerald's Game (that would be around 1992). So with this project, I will basically begin my personal reintroduction to each of King's stories and novels as we make our way through his oeuvre.

Aaron, what is your personal experience with the written works of Mr. King?


Aaron: I actually started reading Stephen King and stopped reading Stephen King around the same time. I read my first novel from him in 1990, when I was in 6th grade, and I more or less stopped following his career post-1992. That isn't to say I stopped reading King after those two years; no far from it. By the time I came on board, Stephen King had twenty-three novels and five story collections in print, which means I had a wealth of material to dive into. It also means that, much like you, I stopped keeping current with him sometime around Gerald's Game. There were a few exceptions to that, when I would get gifts from relatives who knew I liked Stephen King and not much else about me, but for the most part I fell out of touch with him once I'd caught up, and didn't start buying his novels again until Black House (2001). That may not seem like a lot of time to not be reading Stephen King, but it means that I missed seven novels that I still haven’t caught up with.

Along with reading Stephen King, I was watching his movies nearly constantly. I was a child of the video age, and it seemed as if nearly everything King had written had become a movie or short film or episode of some anthology horror show. There were four filmed adaptations in the year I began reading him, and the world was entering a golden age of Stephen King television, with mini-series versions of some of his biggest books (and, ahem, The Langoliers). It’s certainly no coincidence that I first became acquainted with Mr. King at this point in time.

I’ve pretty much reached the point where I’m back to looking forward to each Stephen King novel or story collection with quite a bit of low-key excitement. It’s no longer a pressing issue to buy the latest King novel as soon as I see it, since he still has one or two books come out a year, but every birthday or Christmas the first thing I use my gift cards on is whatever his latest offering happens to be. And I can say honestly; I’ve never not enjoyed a Stephen King novel. Even a King novel I end up disliking on the whole entertains me and speaks to me in such a way that I never feel like I’ve wasted my time on it. Whatever the outcome, I always enjoy the experience of reading Stephen King’s prose.

Rik: Since rereading each novel takes a bit more time, we have decided to jumpstart We Who Watch Behind the Rows by reviewing the varied pieces in King's 1978 short story collection, Night Shift. From the twenty stories in Night Shift, there have been eight feature films and four television adaptations made thus far. Of the remaining stories in the collection, most (but not quite all) have been adapted into short, amateur films known by King and his fans as "Dollar Babies". Overall, this gives us quite a surplus from which to begin.

The Story: Graveyard Shift [Night Shift, 1978; first published in the October 1970 issue of Cavalier magazine]

Original Cavalier appearance of the story 

Aaron: I’m not entirely sure when I first read the Night Shift collection, but it would have been in the early nineties as I was in the midst of my full-blown King obsession. I remember reading other stories from the collection in the back of my uncle’s pickup truck on a family camping trip, but Graveyard Shift kind of melds into the pile of stories I was reading at the time. There are a few tales in this collection that I have some fairly strong sense memories of where I was when I read them, but Graveyard Shift isn’t one of those. It’s not that the story is bad or lackluster, it’s just that it lacks a central image as striking as that of Grey Matter or I Am the Doorway (the latter of which inspired the cover of the paperback in which I first read these stories).

At its heart, Graveyard Shift is a simple, straightforward, grisly little shocker equally inspired by Poe and EC Comics. That’s not to say it’s derivative or unenjoyable. Quite the contrary; this is an economic, fun shock story that I’ve read through twice now in a short time period and enjoyed each time. Stephen King would, in just a few years, be known for epic, encyclopedia-sized books, and he himself would self-deprecatingly discuss his tendency to ramble on and on and on. But this collection proves that he was just as adept at sketching in characters that seem fully realized within the span of only a handful of pages, and possibly only a couple of lines of action. It’s true that most of the characters in this story are basically background, given only a name or a single line of dialogue, but a few of them become living, breathing characters on the page in a very short span.

I have quite a few friends who only really like Stephen King’s short stories, and avoid his novels. While I don’t agree with that stance, clearly, it’s one that I can understand. His short stories tend to be swifter, nastier, and stranger than his novels. It’s almost as if he lets his imagination run wild for a dozen pages or so and puts no restrictions on his concepts, no matter how bizarre or unsettling, while his novels tend to rein things in a little bit. Also, one thing I discovered early on: Stephen King loves a happy ending. With very few exceptions his long form work (novels or novellas) end with a positive outcome, whereas his short stories have no such assurances. In a Stephen King short story, all bets are off, and no one is safe.

How about you? Where do you stand on this divide? Do you prefer his short stories to his novels, or are you a fan of each in equal measure? How did you feel about his ability here to sketch in a believable world within 26 pages?

Rik: Until I reread Children of the Corn in this same collection a few months ago, it had been so long since I had read any of King’s short stories that I forgot just how economical he could be in his writing. Part of why I started to have a falling out with him is that I felt that he had grown too much in love with his voice, and that voice had definitely developed a rambling tic that I found somewhat annoying, and therefore rendered King a chore to read at times. He had also started to veer slightly away from the supernatural around the time of Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game, and I was mostly uninterested in the topics he was starting to explore. Even when he touched on the supernatural in that mid-‘90s period – such as in Insomnia or Rose Madder – I couldn’t muster much excitement. I read the first couple of chapters of each and gave up. And for the novels leading up to that period, his record was hit or miss with me; mostly miss really. I did not like The Eyes of the Dragon, The Tommyknockers, or Needful Things. While I was a big fan of most of his early novels (especially The Stand and The Dead Zone), the last novel of his that I really liked was The Dark Half.

But his short stories? Loved them. The tales in both Night Shift and The Skeleton Crew were constant re-reads for me throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s; likewise for his classic novella collection, Different Seasons. It was thrilling in those days that so many of these pieces were being made into films in theatres and on television as well, even if the quality varied greatly from project to project. But perhaps it is telling that his ‘90s work in the short story and novella area also failed to grab my attention as well. I liked Nightmares and Dreamscapes well enough; I read through it a couple of times, and some stories, like The Night Flier, really stuck with me. But I really did not enjoy Four Past Midnight all that much, so maybe that is where my real ennui with King started to set in for me.

The beauty of the short story is in its succinctness, in the sparing of details unnecessary to the moment at hand. In those early collections, King is brilliant in keeping a tight grip on information, his pen is sharp and concise, and he even seems to practice a form of subtlety – no matter how fantastical the situations, characters, or creatures – that would run away from him sometimes in his longer novels. Since I have rarely read King in recent years (and that would almost entirely be non-fiction and his pop culture columns in Entertainment Weekly), I don’t know if I would still perceive this problem with him.

Just like you, my friends and I – many of whom were also massive fans of King in those bygone days (I am unsure if any of them still read him; many were having a similar falling out with his ‘90s work) – had many discussions regarding “short stories vs. novels.” The short stories usually came out on top about two-thirds of the time. While I did love many of his early novels, I too ran with the short story crowd. And I would have to say that I am probably still with that group today.

Without diving fully into the actual movie version of Graveyard Shift until a bit further on in this discussion, I must admit that my initial re-read of the short story was colored by the fact that I did my re-watch of the film first. (I will not do this with future installments of this column.) Although only two characters truly bear the same name and gender (more on this later), I kept hearing the dialogue in the voices of the actors in the film, one actor (Stephen Macht) in particular. Did you have this problem, or did you do the smart thing and read the story first? If not, were you able to divorce yourself from the screen experience enough to enjoy the story without being influenced by the film?

UK Poster

Aaron: My process went like this; I read the short story, and then watched the film. A few days later I read the story again in preparation of writing this article. I have to say that’s probably the path I’ll be taking from here on out, as it provided me with a few neat insights into both. In fact, I’d like to try and watch the movie one more time before we truly wrap this thing up, and may end up doing so. One thing that I noticed on my second reading of Graveyard Shift (which would actually be the third or fourth lifetime read for me) is how much the film actually stuck to the brief descriptions in the story. We’ll get into the film later, of course, but almost every word Stephen King wrote found some form of representation in the filmed version in one way or another.

The story takes place in just under one week, divided into short sections, each covering one night on the titular graveyard shift as a crew of textile mill workers cleans out a disused basement. Though the narrator is omniscient, the focus of Graveyard Shift is Hall, a college dropout who has been drifting around the country taking odd jobs and searching for something in his life. The only other character of real note is Warwick, the foreman of the textile mill who seems threatened by Hall’s youth and college background. Warwick is the character Stephen Macht plays, and at the risk of getting ahead of myself, I felt that he was the best at capturing the flavor of the character as written. A few of the other mill workers have lines here or there, like Wisconsky or Ippeston, but they’re basically background characters, extras in this story.

Right away, King introduces a stylistic flourish that will eventually become a trademark: grounding his story in the mundane details of everyday life while introducing characters that speak in exaggerated vernacular. The details of the mill are made more real through King’s use of actual product names or pop culture references. The Orange Crush thermometer that Hall keeps checking, or the cans of Nehi that he throws at the rats. There’s no reason for King to point out that the thermometer is a promotional item from Orange Crush, nor that the aluminum cans Hall launches are Nehi, yet doing so gives the story a quick jolt of verisimilitude. We recognize these items from our own lives, and it places this story directly within our understanding.

King also has his characters speak in a weirdly poetic, often stilted, frequently profane style. He claims this language came from his youth surrounded by older blue collar New Englanders, and yet I have a feeling no one actually spoke like he writes. Like when Carmichael gets bitten by a large rat, and complains that he wants compensation, Warwick’s response is “Sure. You got bit on the titty.” This isn’t the most outrageous example in his bibliography, but you get the point. King himself has credited most of his success to this simple act of having his characters say bizarre, distinctive things.

I think Graveyard Shift turned out to be an unexpectedly subtle way to start this project. It features a lot of things Stephen King is known for, but toned way down to the point where it would be easy to miss them. Reading ahead in this collection (though skipping for now the ones we’ll eventually cover for this series) I can say that his stylistic tics become more pronounced the further along we go. Have you read ahead yet? What do you think of his penchant for cultural references and idiosyncratic dialogue? Anything else in the story we should cover before jumping into the film?

DVD Cover

Rik: I only read ahead through the next story, Night Surf, but that was because I remembered that it is connected to The Stand (the use of the Captain Trips influenza as a device), and I loved The Stand. (As to whether I still do, that remains to be seen for future columns.) It was amazing to me how I had almost completely forgotten the story over the intervening years, but the second that I started to read the story, details came flooding back into my head mere sentences before I happened upon them on the page (or really, on the screen, since I was reading it on my iPhone).

We had three constant battles in my gang when we seemed to be group reading King’s latest book back in the day. (Many of us worked for the same bookstore chain, so we were able to get discounted copies of each release, and thus nobody really had to wait to read each one.) One battle was over the overtness of his use of sexuality in his stories, and by that, I mean his descriptiveness and openness. (We had a couple of people in our group who felt he went a little bit too far with the details and sordidness in some scenes, and others, like – ahem -- me, are pervos who felt he never went far enough.) (That I ultimately found happiness in the far sicker and gooier writings of Clive Barker is no surprise.) The second battle was indeed about his use of product placement to sell the reality of his settings to the reader. Certainly he wasn’t getting paid to use any of these trademark names, and I agree with you that it made his stories seem like they were taking place exactly within our own dimension. We again had a couple of dissenters, who felt that it actually cheapened his writing, as if he were taking shortcuts instead of relying more fully on his imagination to set a scene. I saw their side of it as well, but overall, felt that King’s concentration on Nehi and other brands is part of what made him popular: his ability to make us imagine ourselves in his outrageous scenarios.

Such scenarios might even make us say the most outlandish things in the midst of trying to stay alive. That third battle was most certainly over his dialogue. I have always been torn on it myself, but he certainly makes his characters more memorable by his use of it. His characters sometimes employ the most ridiculous, out of left field wording, but King generally gets away with it. While the words may not jibe with our own understanding of the English language, you definitely can’t forget those characters.

In the case of the most egregious user of such language in the story version of Graveyard Shift – the foreman Warwick – he is definitely memorable, though that doesn’t excuse him from how profoundly (and purposefully) annoying he is. Warwick speaks in a manner that I could only proscribe to Stephen King; I have never met anyone in real life who converses as he does, at least when combined with an inability to even attempt to relate to anything living thing on even the smallest level. I will save any discussion of his movie counterpart until the appropriate section of this article. Taking the written Warwick as is, he is probably one of the best examples of how far King was willing to take a character into the realm of the completely unlikable.

Look, I’ve never been to Maine, and I probably will never go there. I am not knocking the state, but I grew up in Alaska, so there is not much in Maine that I can’t get by just going back home for a visit. And I am allergic to shellfish, so in a gastronomic sense, why would I even? Nor have I ever met (to my knowledge) anybody directly from Maine, so I have zero experience in any actual dialect from that state. What has always struck me in the King adaptations (when they stick to that region) is how phony the dialogue sounds to my ear. Period. No one speaks like that at all, I tell myself, and the overriding effect has been that if there is a feature of pure artifice to King’s stories, it is not the fantastical creatures that never have or never will be in this world, but the words that fall from his most annoying characters mouths and the odd angles at which those words hit my ears.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy some of those words. I find their use annoying, but at no point would I admit that King doesn’t achieve the exact goals for which he is striving. When I saw George A. Romero’s (and King’s) Creepshow in the theatre for the first time in 1982, and saw King on the screen as the doomed Jordy Verrill – or even in his cameo role as a loudmouth spectator in Romero’s earlier but equally fascinating Knightriders -- I got the sense (apart from King being a shitty actor) that in his head, all of King’s characters spoke within those parameters – as annoying as possible and with accents so outrageous they may as well be the “Frenchies” in Monty Python.

Of course, I exaggerate – as King does as well -- and it does bring me to my point. I can say “No one speaks like that in real life!” but what do I know? Right down the street, in any direction, there are groups and nationalities and subgroups and cultures that speak to each in ways that I have never heard. Nor am I likely to hear if I don’t immerse myself in their cultures. I am no expert on anything. Do I know anyone from the backwoods or small towns of Maine? No. So how can I say that Warwick doesn’t exist somewhere, and that people just like Warwick influenced King? I cannot know. It doesn’t mean that I have to accept every frustratingly odd piece of dialogue, but I will give King the benefit of the doubt in most cases.

There is some memorable imagery in Graveyard Shift – such as King’s vivid descriptions of the mutated creatures –but the one that gets my mind racing is the lock on the underside – yes, the underside – of the trapdoor that is discovered, which will eventually lead to a hidden sub-basement and much carnage by the end of the story (and possibly portends more carnage post-story). The rusted lock is a marvelous tension builder, and the “hero” character, Hall, seems to revel in its discovery, if only because it helps continue to cut through Warwick’s blusterous fa├žade of toughness. Trying to fathom exactly what purpose led to its necessity almost distracts me from the exploration of the dank subbasement and the mutant rat-bat action that occurs next. Did the lock perform similar black magic on you? What other imagery stuck in your memory the most?

Aaron: Definitely the lock is the big, glaring, flashing light at the center of this story. It hints at something grander and stranger than the inbred, mutant rat action we get. At first glance it seems like an early example of yet another Stephen King tic; the offhand remark or briefly mentioned artifact that hints at an older, more horrific story only tangentially related to what we’re seeing. Eventually those digressions would get the best of him, and Stephen King would devote hundreds of pages to ideas that were only really incidental to the main plot, but I’ve always loved them. Even when they threatened to overload the main story, my favorite parts of King books tend to be the brief (or not-so-brief) detours that give the impression that the world is weirder and scarier than you thought. Right now I’m going to take a page out of Stephen King’s book and back up a bit and work my way back to answer your question.

On my first re-reading of this story, I felt the ending had a few rushed elements. After some pretty leisurely storytelling, and without much foreshadowing, the ending comes rushing at us in just a couple of quick pages. Warwick and Hall seem to undergo some pretty major shifts in personality, and Hall in particular gets a new motivation that seems to come out of left field. I’m speaking, of course, of Hall’s decision to not just force Warwick into a rat infested basement in order to prove his aggressive blustering is merely a show, but to actually take an active role in Warwick’s death as almost a sacrifice to the rats.

As soon as Warwick and Hall enter the sub-basement, Hall’s entire attitude changes. Where earlier in the story he had been silently acquiescing to Warwick’s demands and insults (though often with some passive aggression), here he begins to take charge of the situation, to badger and harass Warwick openly. His inner thoughts change as well, as he begins to feel a wild elation, ‘something lunatic and dark with colors.’ He feels a sense of purpose drawing him on, and his inner thoughts remark that ‘he had perhaps been looking for something like this through all his days of crazy wandering.’ This change happens so suddenly, over barely a page, that at first blush it seemed unearned. Then, when re-reading the story it all fell into place; of course Hall was unmoored and probably a little unhinged, despite his seeming sanity at the story’s outset. And of course a drifter who seems to be searching for his place in the world would find something almost religious in the mystery and violence of what happens in that sub-basement.

Which brings us back to that lock on the underside of a trap door. Why would it be there, on that side of the door? The characters in the story all wonder this, but it’s glossed over rather quickly. As I see it there is only one real reason you would lock the inside of something; you are locking yourself in and something else out. Based on the disused nature of the basement, and the certainly even more disused nature of the sub-basement, neglected for decades, who could have set that lock? And what must their rationale have been? How could anyone with even the barest sense of curiosity not be tempted down those stairs?

But there’s more to this mystery, and although we never get a definitive answer we get a lot of weird clues. First off is the basement itself, which is ancient and full of weird fungi the characters have never seen before, strange and swarming beetles, and of course giant rats and bats. The basement is also larger than the mill that lays on top of it, extending past the mill’s borders, and we get explicit evidence that the basement might predate the above structure by several decades. Warwick and Hall discover a large wooden box with a name and date painted on it; “Elias Varney, 1841.” At the discovery of that item, Hall asks Warwick if the mill is that old, to which Warwick answers that the mill was built in 1897.

In the sub-basement Warwick and Hall find one skeleton, and though no connection is made in the text, I think it’s a fair assumption to make that the skeleton belonged to whoever locked the basement from the inside. I think another assumption could also be made that the skeleton and Elias Varney are one and the same. So now the question remains, who is Elias Varney? I’m going to get a bit extra-textual here, and go outside of the book for a theory I’d like to put forward.

Knowing how much Stephen King likes to make allusions to his own works I went online to look up any other instances of an Elias Varney in his work, or even just another Varney, and could find nothing (Stephen King fans have tirelessly plotted most story connections throughout several websites, so if a connection existed I should have found it). What I did find, buried in a forum thread from ages ago, was the idea that the name meant nothing in and of itself, it was just there to identify the skeleton, and perhaps Varney had been chosen because King is a ravenous fan of horror literature, and wanted to give a shout out to Varney the Vampire, the first English-language vampire tale.

But what if the naming wasn’t random? What if it was a clue to the very origins of the story? The wooden box they find isn’t really described, other than it is apparently huge, but what if it was a coffin? What if Elias Varney is related to Francis Varney, the titular vampire of that story? Or, what if he had nothing to do with that story and was simply a clue as to the nature of the trouble beneath the mill. There are a couple ways it could go from there. This vampire had sealed himself away from the dangerous humans above, or perhaps this Varney was as self-hating as the original, and had sealed himself away to keep humanity safe. Either way, it’s clear that he died beneath what would eventually become a textile mill.

Now, I’m not saying that I’ve solved a mystery in a 26-page Stephen King story that no one had ever even noticed before, and I’m not saying that King wrote a secret sequel to a half forgotten penny dreadful from over a century earlier, but it does serve to highlight what I love most about short stories like this; the idea that there is a larger world and we are looking at it through a keyhole. In this case we’ve got Elias Varney, who may or may not be a vampire, but who has locked himself away in an ancient cavern that ends up full of mutated rats, bats, and other forms of life normally found in caves. Did he lock himself up before or after this change in the natural order? Did he do it because of the change? Did the change happen because of him? We’ll never know, and whether you want to buy my version of things or not, I think it’s a fun way to look at the story, and it got my imagination whirring.

Rik: I am willing to entertain the notion, though I really think King never meant anything more than simple literary name-dropping (at most) to add an extra spooky layer to his story’s trappings. But, just as the strange positioning of the lock lends itself to allowing the reader to wander off in epic flights of fancy regarding just exactly why it appears that way, so too does the box with the name of Elias Varney. Why not imagine such a connection?

I, too, had set myself toward scouring the interwebs for some corroboration of the Varney theory, but found nothing beyond the forum source that you did. Since I am not prone to jumping on theories without multiple sourced facts to back it up, I discounted the notion. But I will agree that it is a most engaging idea, and it caused me to head further to King’s non-fictional foray into the history of horror fiction and film, Danse Macabre, itself first published a couple of years (1981, to be precise) after Night Shift. In Danse Macabre, King name-checks Varney while discussing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but nothing beyond informing us that the novel “never degenerates to the level of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Varney the Vampyre.” So it is clear that King is well aware of Varney, but doesn’t hold it in high regard as literature. He also fails to include it in his list of important horror novels and stories in the appendix for Danse Macabre. Since there, by his own words, “roughly a hundred” such works included, it seems there would have been plenty of room if he wanted Varney there.

But it also doesn’t mean that he was beyond dropping a Varney reference into Graveyard Shift as a gag. And no matter how much certain writers might bemoan this fate, once the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it is not going to go back in easily. Once he published the story and the readers took in his words, the fate of Elias Varney became their concern, whether a lightly implied joke or the doorway to further horrors left undiscovered and untold.

Our discussion continues over on Rik's site as we delve into the film and its differences and similarities to the short story. To read that part visit Rik's Cinema 4 Pylon here.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: Starcrash (1978) Pt. 2

This is Part II of a two-part discussion about Luigi Cozzi's 1978 Italian "rip-off" of Star Wars, Starcrash. To read the first part of this article, visit my buddy Rik Tod Johnson's Cinema 4 Pylon website at: 


Rik: The chief influence of this film is clearly George Lucas' Star Wars; that cannot be denied. But there is a huge dose of the legacy of the late Ray Harryhausen at play as well. Stop-motion animation, not even close to being as fluid as Ray's patented Dynamation process, plays a big role in this film in a couple of scenes. The one that played a big part in coaxing me to the theatre was the sword fight between Hasselhoff and a pair of robots that look like Gyro Gearloose from the old Uncle Scrooge comics constructed them. They even look like they have stylized duckbills. Hasselhoff picks up Gortner's lesser form of lightsaber (it now reminds me more of the way that a Schwartz was used in Spaceballs) and has a battle against the extremely jerky, sword-wielding automatons. The swordplay is actually surprisingly engaging, even if the animation is definitely and expectedly subpar to its influences (most definitely the skeleton fights in Harryhausen's Jason and Sinbad films).

Where the stop-motion animation really fails for me, however, is in the scene with the giant "female" robot (with titanic, possibly titanium, breasts for some reason -- who knew robots breastfed?) on the beach. The entire sequence is clearly modeled after the Talos scene from Harryhausen's classic Jason and the Argonauts, but it is almost painful to watch, so awkward are the relatively simple movements involved in the scene. You could say that Talos in the original movie was also jerky and awkward, but he was a normally inanimate statue that had just been magically freed from its base. Talos was towering in stature and composed of metal, like the "female" robot here, but its limbs were not built for movement at all, merely to support its mass as a piece of art; hence the jerkiness in its motions. However, Talos is imbued with remarkable life by his creator -- that god being Harryhausen -- and as stiff as he is naturally portrayed, he has clearly been brought to life fully and his muscles and joints move, albeit deliberately, in a surprisingly life-like manner. The robot in this film clearly has working knees and elbows, and therefore it must be surmised that it is meant to walk around and perform its duties, most likely to guard the planet upon which it resides. However, it moves every bit as jerkily as Talos, even more so due to an obvious lower range of talent attempting to duplicate the moves of the great Harryhausen. Of course, maybe the Amazons on the planet were just inept engineers and technicians, and they made a shitty robot that could barely move as required.

Aaron: That giant robot not only had breasts, but large gear shaped nipples, as well! In a good film, striking design choices like that can easily be explained as atmosphere-enhancing aesthetics, but in Starcrash it just made me wonder, while watching that scene, why the guard had been built that way. I suppose the fact that it’s a planet of Amazons might explain why they’d choose a feminine form, but it did seem strangely sexual. And why hadn’t they bothered animating even a basic bend of the arm at least once? The animation looked like something a bright, enthusiastic nine-year-old would make in their backyard. I mean, it’s great looking for a nine-year-old playing with his action figures, but for an actual movie projected in theatres, it’s laughably subpar.

Speaking of references, I really got a kick out of how blatantly they stole the look of the Martian mastermind from Invaders From Mars for that of the judge that sentences Akton and Stella to hard labor for their various crimes. On top of those references already noted, there’s at least one shot that seems to directly echo Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zarth Arn bears a more than passing resemblance to Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, and some of the ship-launching sequences look suspiciously like those in Battlestar Galactica. That last one may be nothing more than coincidence considering how close their releases are to each other.

Rik: Starcrash gets a lot of surprising mileage out of just how colorful and charmingly fantasy-like its vision of outer space is. The stars at night may or may not be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they are bigger and brighter here. Every planet, moon, and star is represented in the sharpest of hues, and whatever demerits can be attributed to the film on nearly every other level, one cannot deny that much of the film is very pleasing to the eye. I am only watching the film on DVD, and it is awash in the most brilliant colors, far more than I remember. I can only imagine that the Blu-ray I gave you for Christmas is even more pleasing (not that you have seen the DVD version).

Aaron: I have not seen the DVD as you say, but I have watched some clips online (and on the special features) that feature some of the footage before it was touched up, and the Blu-ray is indeed pretty great looking. Aside from some blurriness here and there as a result of aged film stock, everything is pretty eye-popping. There is one downside to this, however, as the added clarity betrays some of the shots of deep space to look like exactly what they are: multicolored light bulbs placed against a black background.

But yes, of course, the visuals are great fun. The exteriors of the ships are off kilter and interesting (though the ship from the beginning, the one that the emperor’s son escapes from, looks a bit like a guitar frame someone stuck some plastic bits to and then spray-painted grey), and the interiors are full of oddly designed furniture and decorated in primary, often clashing colors.

Rik: As I mentioned earlier, in that attack on the Galactic starship at the beginning of the film, Count Zarth Arn's minions use a weapon that creates a field of floating red spheroids that are undeterred by walls or atmosphere, and simply drift through everything in their path. The red spheroids exert a mind-altering force that serves to drive the crew of the starship mad and ultimately cause the starship to explode. This is the terrible weapon that, later in the film, Stella and her pals are recruited to stop. It is a very simple but weirdly effective scene. The spheroids are never actually touching or even in the same plane as anything else; they are merely superimposed by the filmmakers over everything (according to Starcrash expert Stephen Romano, the images are of various objects floating in a fish tank). While the effect looks as low-rent and cheesy as anything in the rest of the film, I found it to be one of the more memorable images from the film, and it has stuck with me since that first teenage showing. The same effect is used later in the film, on an even larger scale, when Stella's ship is attacked. This time, the effect grows even more psychedelic, with other elements added to the superimposed imagery. Watching it now, even seeing how simple it is, it kind of holds up for me as one of my favorite moments in the film. What did you think of the use of the red balls?

Aaron: I must admit it didn’t quite affect me in the same way. I agree it’s a nice enough image, and a clever use of their limited budget, but the weapon itself seemed so… ill defined. The characters never refer to globular red balls floating through the ship, and instead repeatedly say they were attacked by groups of monsters. But there’s really nothing monstrous about them, other than how unsettling it would be to travel through space and suddenly find yourself inside a red lava lamp. There was a lack of physicality to them that I found hard to connect with, and I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief enough for them to read as menacing in any way. They do remind me, however, of Rover, that giant white ball that acts as a security system in The Prisoner. That’s a similarly cheap and spherical effect that nonetheless still unsettles me when I see it.

Rik: The Prisoner is such a great show, and yes, Rover has always unsettled me, even to this day. Getting back to the red blobs, I did find it amusing that one of the very first things that Starcrash historian and DVD commentator Stephen Romano says when the scene pops up is to discount the theory that the filmmakers have merely superimposed an image of a lava lamp over the rest of the film. It made me chuckle because that is what my friends and I have always figured it was over the years.

Watching Starcrash now, Caroline Munro is every bit as lovely as I remember her, but there is an odd thing that must be told about her performance. Even though she is a British actress, Munro's dialogue was dubbed for its Western release by Candy Clark, who was married to Marjoe Gortner, who plays Stella's super-powered sidekick, Akton, in the film. Supposedly, when they redubbed the film, both Munro and her husband, Judd Hamilton (who played the loyal robot, Elle), were not flown over to America to save expenses, and so Clark and character actor Hamilton Camp were used in their places. It's a shame that we don't get to hear Munro's own voice as this is her biggest role in a film, and because I find Clark's line readings to be as off-kilter and often stiff as many of her own performances. Though I do adore Candy Clark in certain films, I don't think she is a particularly adept actress, and her voice doesn't quite match some of Munro's reactions emotionally. That said, the only voice I find annoying in the film is that of Elle the robot. The Texas twang with which Camp imbued the robot in the English dub is quite tiring and ridiculous, and it adds undoubtedly to the film's cheese factor.

Physically, Munro is jaw dropping gorgeous as Stella Star. She only wears her skimpy leather bikini outfit for the first chunk of the film, and as a teen, I was upset that her outfits gets increasingly less provocative as the film progresses. By the end of the film, Stella is completely covered up in a full bodysuit and cape (and ultimately, a space helmet). While one would look at any another movie for its psychological implications (has the hell-bent Stella been tamed by her conversion from bikini-wearing smuggler to demure heroine?), the real reason here seems to be Munro wanting more to wear in the film than just a leather bikini. On one of the audio commentaries, Romano quotes Harlan Ellison as saying that they had to ugly up Munro a bit for the film so that the cameras wouldn't melt. I've looked around to verify this quote (unsuccessfully so far), but I do have to agree that such a thing might have been possible.

Does Caroline Munro affect you in the same way, sir, or is my lingering affection merely a by-product of my misspent youth?

Aaron: All I can say is that Caroline Munro is delightfully cute, and it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours watching her traverse the stars. I can only imagine what my opinion would be had I been exposed to her in my formative years. However, it saddens me to know that I can’t really appreciate her performance in this film, as her lines were dubbed by someone else. She certainly appears to be giving it her all, but the lines come out a bit stale, which is a problem that affects almost everyone in the cast, even those who were able to dub their own dialogue. You mention in particular disliking Hamilton Camp’s portrayal of Elle, and while I can’t argue with you, I have to say I kind of enjoyed the hillbilly twang he gave the robot. It was such an out of place detail that some part of me loved the randomness of having a robot in this fantasy galaxy speak like an extra on Hee Haw.

I would like to take a moment to talk about Marjoe Gortner’s character, Akton. As I said, he seems like a Han Solo analog at first, but turns out to be more Obi Wan Kenobi. That may not be entirely accurate, but he’s certainly supposed to be Starcrash’s version of a Jedi master, complete with light saber. But it continually bothered me how little they go into Akton’s powers or background. He just randomly exhibits new powers whenever the plot demands, and while no one ever expects him to have these powers, no one ever questions them either. Discussing plot holes or story inconsistencies seems almost beside the point for this film, though. Starcrash feels beyond criticism, in a way, as if the normal rules of storytelling don’t apply to it. Still, I think a little bit more information about this character would have been much appreciated.

Rik: No one is ever going to mistake Starcrash for Star Wars. But I also think that some of the spaceship design is pretty interesting. One of the ships is even named after science fiction author Murray Leinster, who specialized in pulp adventures such as this (though his works were often more elevated intellectually than Starcrash). By the time I saw this film, I was not only immersed in the technology of Star Wars, but also Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers (I actually watched the TV pilots for both series in theatres). I was swamped with outer space dogfighting, and so when I finally did get to see this film, I had already gotten a bit tired of spaceships due to the over-saturation of the market. Honestly, I really just wanted the film to get to the parts with Stella, so maybe my teenage boy sex drive had overtaken my patience with everything else. Watching the film since, though, I really enjoy many of the ship scenes, especially the quite appropriate design of the evil Count's ship, which looks like a giant, clawed hand.

Aaron: The ships are great, and straddle the line between innovative and old-fashioned. Some of the ships are clearly on tracks, and look like the planes that would attack Godzilla in his early decades, but then some of them are quite interesting and feature more detailed movement. Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship (try saying that five times fast) is the clear standout, though it does beg the question; what is that design for? Have you ever wondered why Zarth Arn would need five extendable digits on his space fortress? They don’t appear to provide any protection or added benefits beyond being a cool visual gimmick. Then again, given how flamboyant Zarth Arn is in his fashion sense and demeanor, that would probably be enough for him. In a quick side note, Joe Spinell as Zarth Arn really reminded me of Dave Grohl, which gave me a quick chuckle any time he was stomping around the screen.

Having now seen the film two-and-a-half times, I think I might be done with it for a while. I enjoyed it, but I think I’ll let it sit in my memory for a little while, where I can let the neat visuals and the fun swashbuckling moments overshadow the more perfunctory plot motions. Seeing the film for the first time as a man in his late thirties, I think that might be the best way to experience this film; as a burst of juvenile excitement. Best to allow it to sit in your mind and remind you of how totally awesome sword-fighting robots, spaceship dogfights, and the very idea of ‘the haunted stars’ can be.

Rik: Obviously, the design of Zarth Arn’s fist-shaped ship is so he can pull four of the fingers back to flip the bird at his enemies. He’s just that type of guy. I see your point about Spinell reminding you of Dave Grohl, and I must admit it did cross my mind briefly and made me chuckle a bit. Spinell, as he often does, sort of reminds me of the younger and not yet enormously rotund Ron Jeremy as well.

I, too, am probably done with Starcrash for a good while. Having just watched it about five more times in the past couple of months, I think it is burned in pretty good for the time being. In those two months though, my estimation for the film has gone up ever so slightly, but not so much that I ever forget my long-running disappointment with the film. Loves and hates that stem from childhood or your teen years are awfully hard to shake. I still think Caroline Munro is one of the most beautiful women to ever appear on the movie screen, but I also think Starcrash is well below what constitutes a good film, even on a pure entertainment level. That said, were I ever to throw a video party again (not that I have in the past twenty years), this might be one that I would choose to show everyone a crazy, weird time and allow everyone to riff at will.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Run All Night

Liam Neeson is so far into his second career as a soulful, grieving action hero that it can be hard to remember a time when he was more known for films like Schindler's List, Love Actually, and Michael Collins. Part of what has made him so successful in this role is that he never seems to be phoning it in. Liam Neeson commits fully to the sometimes-preposterous action films he's been starring in to a level far beyond what they might otherwise warrant. Simply by signing on to a film he's raised its cultural and critical cachet. And yet, the formula is showing signs of decay. His character descriptions are starting to read like self-parody, and the plotlines and stylistic touches are beginning to blur together. In Run All Night, Neeson's third film with director Jaume Collet-Serra (the others are Non-Stop and Unknown, with a fourth one on the way!), he plays an aging hitman for the mob who hasn't worked in years, but is kept around by the boss (Ed Harris) out of sentimental reasons. Neeson's wife is dead, his son wants nothing to do with him, he's never seen his grandkids, and he's a punchline to everyone he used to work with, resorting to playing Santa Claus at a Christmas party for the rest of the gang in order to get a few hundred bucks to fix his heater. The trouble starts, in a manner too convoluted for me to care about detailing, when Ed Harris' hothead son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) threatens the life of Liam Neeson's son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), prompting Neeson to shoot him, and Harris to vow his revenge.

This setup seems pretty strong, bolstered by a cast more than capable of giving this material weight and resonance, and overseen by a director who has experience with the type of grim action pieces Liam Neeson's new fans have come to expect. Maybe it's all of the great old school, straightforward action films I've been watching in recent weeks, but Run All Night seemed like nothing more than a missed opportunity. The plot I described up above seems like the perfect jumping off point for a no-nonsense action film with shadings of Greek tragedy in the relationship between its two leads. I hate to compare a movie I'm watching to the one I've got in my head, but I couldn't stop thinking about what Walter Hill might have done with this in his heyday, or what Nicolas Winding Refn would have done with it today. Instead the film we got is a portentous mess that squanders the amazing chemistry Neeson and Harris bring to their brief scenes together.

And chemistry they do have. Ed Harris brings an unforced intensity to every part he plays, while Neeson brings a wounded, slightly hangdog seriousness to these action films, and the two work great together. In only a couple of scenes they sell the idea that these two completely different individuals are actually lifelong friends that have drifted far apart over the years, but still enjoy each other's company. The rest of the cast is a little shakier in comparison. Joel Kinnaman is a decent enough actor, though he's a bit of a non presence here. Nick Nolte shows up in a brief cameo that was delightfully unexpected, and yet didn't really amount to much. The real dud, however, is Common as an almost supernaturally efficient hitman. His weird sci-fi appearance and odd facial makeup (I think they meant to give him a harelip, but it just looks like he's just suffering from a bad cold sore) seem to have been airlifted in from another movie.

Run All Night is a dark film, in more than just plot. The film is murky and artfully underlit, distorting the action scenes sometimes to the point of abstraction. After awhile it became visual white noise; two or more characters would converge, the screen would get all choppy and blurry while I could hear the unmistakable sounds of fists hitting chests and skulls hitting walls, and then someone would run away, and I would assume they had just won the fight. It was hard to get a sense of where the characters were and what they were doing at any time, a problem made paradoxically worse by Collet-Serra's repeated tendency to link scenes by zooming the camera quickly through the city to focus on what other characters are doing at other locations. This was intended to give the film a sense of scope to Neeson's journey as he races to keep his estranged family out of the clutches of Harris' goons, and to ground it in a real and definable place, but it came out as distancing, giving physical spaces an abstract feeling, removing them from the real world.

In the end, Run All Night's biggest problem is one of expectation. For a film centered around -and titled after- the concept of continuous movement and escape, the film sure does spend a lot of time with characters who are just sitting and talking in underlit rooms. The best, or at least most memorable, of Liam Neeson's action films, like The Grey or the first Taken film, have benefited from a constant sense of forward momentum. They put Neeson's grim determination to work, propelling the film along with a certain sense of fatalistic energy. Run All Night, on the other hand, stops and starts so often that by the time the end comes around (which, due to the cold open, we've seen most of already), my interest had well and truly deflated.

Final Rating: 2.5(out of 5)

Monday, February 08, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: John Wick

Keanu Reeves gets a bad rap as an actor, in my opinion. He may not be the world's greatest living thespian, or even in the top 50, but he's not really a bad actor either. He has an unflappably stoic persona, and a very limited range, which sometimes makes his more emotional scenes a bit uncomfortable, but he also has an appealing presence on screen. It's what made him so effective as Neo in the Matrix films, but also made him woefully ridiculous in Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, I've always been a fan, and I enjoy seeing the choices he makes in his career. He's a guy who clearly fell in love with the art of stuntwork and fight choreography, and has molded his career around some solidly populous dramas and romantic comedies that allow him to make a few flops like 47 Ronin. His directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, reads as an ode to Hong Kong filmmaking and old school fight choreography. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it, as he clearly understands how to use the camera in concert with the actors dueling on screen, and is probably the purest representation of that style ever made with an English speaking audience in mind.

As the Michael Bay-ification of summer blockbusters continues, with summers full of overstuffed, overly CGI-assisted tentpole action films, it's good to see that the art of the stunt is not gone. For years now the most interesting work being done for fans of no-frills action has been done in the direct-to-video market, where fight choreography still places emphasis on the choreography part of that equation, and a lack of time and money leads to a narrative paring down to the absolute essentials of a story. Films carrying on the tradition of Asian action filmmaking (simple plots to support exquisitely crafted motion) like Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, or even the last two Universal Soldier sequels, have been offering straightforward, mythic, solidly constructed action thrills of a type that seems almost nonexistent in the current crop of billion dollar blockbusters. It's as if the stuntmen and fight coordinators, finding they weren't as in-demand with the major studios as they used to be, went off and started making their own movies. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much what's happened.

John Wick was written by Derek Kolstad, whose only previous credits were a pair of direct to video Dolph Lundgren flicks, and it marks the directorial debut of Chad Stahelski, a stuntman who began his career with the original Point Break in 1991. John Wick clearly showcases a love of physical stunts and well staged fight scenes. While some of the shots were enhanced with CGI, mainly blood effects & green screen composites for some of the car stunts, most of what you see on the screen was actually rehearsed and filmed as you see it. The film also cuts out a lot of the bloat that can creep into action movies, and the story can be tidily summed up as 'ex-assassin gets back in the game for one last time on a quest for revenge. There are some quirks to that story (the revenge is for a cute puppy), some details to add some depth (the revenge is against the son of his old boss), and some impressive nods at world building. In fact, a lot has been made about that world building, as John Wick inhabits the type of criminal underworld normally only seen in comic books. All the assassins hang out at The Continental, a hotel with an elaborate rule system to keep its clients safe and private. All transactions are paid for with gold coins, the only currency apparently accepted among the criminals in this world. The world that John Wick inhabits is a fun one to spend time in, but the film never gets overly bogged down with these details, as the filmmakers realize it works best as a backdrop for bone crunching fistfights and hails of gunfire.

Those fistfights and gunfights carry a very satisfying weight to them, as they are delivered by a crew who knows intimately how to photograph bodies in motion, and who understands the importance of utilizing the space within a frame. The action in John Wick features a lot of long takes, and some unobtrusive editing, that gives everything a believable physicality even when the action reaches ridiculous proportions. Chad Stahelski tends to roam around the scene with his camera, defining the contours of a room or hallway so that when the fighting starts he can cut within that area and the audience will be able to quickly follow along and orient themselves.

A sequel is currently in the works for John Wick, which is a no brainer considering how well the film performed both critically and commercially, but I have my doubts. John Wick is so blissfully self contained, a true standout when most films these days seem to come preplanned as trilogies (with the final film split in two, of course), that the prospect of another journey of revenge for this character seems like a dubious proposition. Of course there's that fun and detailed world to explore, but I worry that exploring it too deeply will lead to a more complicated mythology than this story needed (a la the Matrix sequels). Still, everyone involved in making this films seems to have learned the right lessons from the action films they cut their teeth on, so at the very least it should be great to look at, and exciting to watch.

Final Rating; 4(out of 5)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

I'll be upfront about this: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl features a lot of things that should make me hate it. It's a movie about a broken white male who learns how to fix himself with the help of a magical black man and an equally magical dying girl, two tropes that really irk me. It's also set in high school, and features another trope that bothers me, maybe more than the others; preternaturally witty teenagers. The problems with teenagers and children in pop culture is that the people writing these characters base them on idealized versions of themselves, or people they knew. No actual teenager is as well spoken or assured as most teens we see in movies, because we tend to remember our younger selves as simply smaller versions of our adult selves, and we forget how awkward, emotionally, physically, and verbally, we were at the time. So, this film is made up of a collection of tropes I hate, and yet I somehow came to love the film.

Greg (Thomas Mann, the titular Me) is a closed off teenager entering his senior year of high school. He's survived by working hard to be accepted by every imaginable clique in his school, carefully tuning his personality to be as invisible as possible and making sure he never forms any real attachments or enemies. He even refers to his oldest childhood friend, Earl (RJ Cyler) as simply his coworker, referencing the dozens of handmade film parodies they've made since elementary school. When one of his classmates, Rachel (Olivia Cooke, typecast these days as the Dying Girl), a near stranger, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg's mother forces him to spend time with her to cheer her up. Which sets our story in motion, as we follow Greg through his senior year, tracking the growing, rocky friendship he develops with Rachel and the possible dissolution of his friendship with Earl.

All of this is filtered through the ironically detached eye of a geeky film nerd, with references to Werner Herzog (a lot of references, actually), Stan Brakhage, The Archers, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and advertisements for the Criterion Collection hanging in bedrooms and bookstores and teacher's studies. The soundtrack often echoes the musical scores to Hitchcock films and spaghetti westerns, and Greg and Earl's film parodies, as silly as they might be, have their roots in a very refined cinematic palette (example parody titles include 'My Dinner With Andre The Giant,' 'The Turd Man,' and 'Don't Look Now, Because a Creepy-ass Dwarf is About to Kill You!!! Damn.'). This veers dangerously close to being too cutesy for it's own good, and yet I found it charming. Perhaps it's because these two seem to be living the dream life version of my own senior year, if only I'd found anyone else quite so into oddball arthouse films and lowbrow humor. The direction, from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who also helmed the better-than-it-needed-to-be Town That Dreaded Sundown remake), gives this film a more idiosyncratic, accomplished look and feel than most other teen-oriented dramas even attempt these days.

I said earlier the film follows Greg, and I say that pointedly, because we never see anything that is outside of his perspective. This fact seemed to anger most critics, who judged the film primarily as the collection of tropes I listed above. Certainly the film leans heavily into stereotype, particularly with Earl, who lives in a bad neighborhood and is overly stoic. The closest he has to a catchphrase, "dem titties," seems just a step above having him eat fried chicken and watermelon in every scene. Rachel, also, is sometimes reduced to a series of reactions to Greg, as we see her cheered up by his antics or too sick to put up with them at various times. That reduction to caricature extends to the rest of the cast too, with Greg's parents (Nick Offerman & Connie Britton) portrayed as slightly loopy, hippyish academics. Earl's family fares much worse, with only his brother (Bobb'e J. Thompson) appearing on screen, and he's the basic stereotype of a young African American hoodlum, with tank top, do-rag, tattoos, and an always aggressive dog at his side. It continues on to Rachel's mom (Molly Shannon), who is always filmed holding a glass of wine, Greg's history teacher (Jon Bernthal) is a heavily tattooed variation of the tough but inspiring high school teacher, and all of the other teen characters seem to be central casting's idea of 'goth' 'cheerleader' or 'jock.' Everyone in this film is a caricature.

Clearly this sort of one dimensional character work is intentional; it's a result of the film occupying so completely Greg's point of view. It does not, however, necessarily agree with that viewpoint, and I tend to think it's just the opposite. It's true that these characters exist primarily as backdrop to Greg's emotional growth, but it's telling that none of them actually help him in his maturation. In fact, most of his growth occurs because the characters get sick of his self-absorbed bullshit and shut him out of their lives. Even though the film is seen through Greg's eyes, the audience still gets clues as to how his actions are really impacting people, through subtle gestures or looks we can see what Greg ignores, we can see when he's saying the wrong thing or ignoring someone else's feelings. This is a bit of form and a bit of function, as Greg's emotional arc requires him to become less self-involved and more open to forming attachments to those around him, so the film is required to open up at times as well. This is most poignantly driven home late in the film when Greg visit's Rachel's room. He's spent countless hours within that room, but is just now noticing the tiny details; the small drawings Rachel sketched into the pattern of her wallpaper, the intricately carved out books on her shelves, the photos of her friends and family. The accumulation of a life lived that he was unaware of.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may populate it's runtime with stock stereotypes, but it also takes the effort to suggest that these stereotypes have an existence beyond what we see. It would be easy enough to imagine this story being told from the point of view of any of the primary characters. Which is part of why I fell in love with this movie; teenagers are self-involved assholes. This is just fine, it's not a judgment call, we all were at that age. But a lot of teen-oriented movies seem to forget that fact, and they idealize the period of our lives when we're at our worst and most awkward. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also idealizes this period, but it has the honesty to acknowledge that a lot of our actions at this age are regrettable, to say the least.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Monday, February 01, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Documentary Roundup

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015): This is nowhere near being an objective account of the Euromaidan protests that swept Ukraine beginning in late 2013, and anyone looking for a detailed account of the socio-political issues that inspired them would be well advised to look elsewhere. What Winter on Fire is, however, is a blow by blow, street level account of what was going on with the protesters themselves. Initially angered by the pro-Russian president's backing out of talks to join the European Union, Ukrainian citizens of all ages convened in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to peacefully protest this move and call for a continuation of talks. Netflix commissioned cameras to be filming 24/7 at the very beginning of the protests, which means the entire event was captured on film, either through a documentarian's lens or through a protester's smartphone. What this also means is that you can pinpoint the exact moment things fall apart, as police storm the square and begin beating unarmed and nonviolent protesters.

I already said that this film makes no effort to be objective; the filmmaker's sympathy lies only with the protesters, who the film posits as brave freedom fighters putting their lives on the line for what everyone in Ukraine wants. There's not really any mention of an opposing viewpoint, although there were plenty of Pro-Russian protests as well. As with all things, you should try to remember that every stance has an opposing view that may be just as valid. It's best not to view this film as an idealogical statement, but to see it as a you-are-there document of the horrible mistreatment these protesters had to suffer through. Fair warning; the violence is brutal, and you will watch a few people die. Roger Ebert once said that what made him cry in movies was kindness, was seeing someone in the film do something selfless for someone else. I thought of that as I cried during this film, watching people race out into gunfire with nothing but a wooden shield to protect them in order to try and help the wounded to safety, no matter which side of the fight they happened to be on.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015): I did not know much about Nina Simone before going into this, although I've owned a compilation of her music that I love quite a bit. I knew of her personal life mostly through her civil rights era activities, and to be honest I wasn't really that interested to know more. Nothing against Miss Simone, but I'm past the age where I would read articles and interviews and histories about my favorite artists, and nowadays that stuff just doesn't interest me as much. I worried a little about my lack of Nina Simone knowledge going into this documentary, because often biopics, particularly those about celebrities, tend to assume a little bit of familiarity with their subject. they expect you to know a bit about their career already, and sometimes rely on that information to fill in some gaps they might not have the time to completely get into.

What Happened, Miss Simone? started out a little worryingly, beginning with a concert late into her career that would be infamous to Simone devotees, but didn't quite land with the same impact for me. She is an electric performer, but seems to be bristling during the performance, viewing the audience as adversaries and stopping mid-song to call them out for presumed slights. The film then jumps back to Simone's early childhood and follows a more standard musical-biopic mold, checking off all of the boxes these things require. I'll admit I wasn't really enjoying the first half of this documentary, which I felt was a bit too standard, and gave no indication of Nina Simone the person. We here the pertinent details, but there isn't much more than a glimpse of what the human being behind the public persona is. About halfway through, however, things cohere a bit more, and it's clear that the film's lack of defining Nina Simone isn't a weakness, but perhaps a strength. Nina Simone was someone who always felt uncomfortable with fame, who felt regret at a career that it seems she felt was a bit beneath her (her original goal was to be a classical pianist, not a, as she puts it, pop singer). Her involvement in the civil rights movement brought some of that angst to the forefront, and she began to wear her bitterness and sadness more openly. What Happened, Miss Simone? is an exploration of the question asked in the title, and it never quite answers it. The film reveals Nina Simone to be a complex, possibly unknowable human being, as much a mystery to the people who knew and loved her as to her fans.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)

Paris is Burning (1990): This is the type of documentary I really gravitate towards; the type that has no real agenda beyond introducing you to a small, unseen lifestyle or community. Paris is Burning is a snapshot of a certain subculture of gay life in late 1980s New York. Following a handful of colorful individuals as they prepare for and compete in drag shows in and around Harlem. Drag in this context doesn't imply any sort of gender mixing, but instead a costume in general, with the winner of the competition being the one who best embodies the 'realness' of their role. The film has no villains, no heroes, not greater message it's trying to make. Although the spectre of AIDS hangs over the proceedings, this has more to do with our current perspective on that period of time. Instead Paris is Burning's goal appears to be simply to provide a showcase for the various flamboyant individuals who make up the drag circuit. Dividing themselves into Houses, their lives revolve around strutting and performing, and everything else they do is simply to help them get ready for the next show. Their costumes are pieced together from whatever they can hustle for, or whatever they're quick enough to steal.

Late in the film, one of the participants, Venus Xtravaganza, is found strangled to death in a seedy motel room. That is an undeniably tragic loss, as Venus' Pollyannaish dreams and unflagging energy provided one of the brightest spots in the film. Her death is the closest this film comes to making a statement, as it explicitly acknowledges the danger inherent in this lifestyle, particularly in this time and this place. But then the film moves on, life moves on. Some people succeed (Willi Ninja in particularly is shown making a name for himself as a choreographer), others continue competing, hustling and surviving.

Final Rating: 4(out of 5)