Posts Tagged ‘Scott Derrickson’

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I’ll say this much — Marvel Studios’ latest mega-blockbuster, Doctor Strange, certainly is an amazing feast for the eyes. From the amazing opening fight sequence to the trippy other-dimensional mystical mindscapes peppered throughout the film, director Scott Derrickson (who also co-wrote the script along with John Spaihts and the erudite-sounding C. Robert Cargill) pulls out all the stops to “wow” you and succeeds in his goal admirably. In fact, if there’s ever been a flick that you need to see in 3-DD, Imax, and all that shit, it’s this one.

Here’s the rub, though : if you’ve seen all, some, or even just one of Marvel’s other cinematic products, then you really don’t “need” to see this thing at all.

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By all rights, of course, this movie (which only came out two weeks ago, but I’m slapping my “Late To The Party” header on it anyway since most people see these on opening weekend and I didn’t get a chance to catch it until last night) sounded like it might represent the best chance for the so-called MCU to break from its well-established (and, admittedly, quite financially successful) mold : the character of Stephen Strange himself, a semi-tragic figure brought low by his own hubris when the wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon’s reckless driving leads to a car accident that renders his hands useless and sets him off on a quest to heal himself by mystical means, is arguably the purest distillation of the type of “morality play” his creator, Steve Ditko (sorry, Stan, I don’t care what the studio bosses say, you don’t get any credit for this one from me) excelled at during his 1960s Marvel period, and his signature psychedelic visual style is well-represented in the work of Derrickson’s CGI crew, but there’s definitely quite a bit lost in the translation from newsprint to celluloid here. I’ll grant you that this film isn’t nearly the glorified paean to war and militarism that the Avengers and Captain America flicks are, but in just about every other respect it follows the worn and tired formula of its stablemates downright slavishly : morally and ethically dubious protagonist (in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange) goes through a long-form origin story that results in him becoming a marginally better person after attaining super-powers at the feet of a more experienced master (Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One);  he accrues a comic-relief sidekick (Benedict Wong’s — well, Wong), as well as one who might be a potential future rival (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo), along the way; principal bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius) is a former pupil of aforementioned master gone rogue; main bad guy (Dormammu) is a computer-generated special effect; nominal love interest (Amy McAdams’ Christine Palmer) is essentially treated like a doormat but sticks by her guy anyway; you know the drill. In fact, you know it by heart at this point.

All of which means that a darn fine cast is wasted on this lifeless, assembly-line drivel (hell, you can even set your watch by the intervals between jokes — which largely fall flat this time out — in these things). Cumberbatch essentially plays Strange as Tony Stark in a magic red cloak;  Ejiofor buries his not-inconsiderable talents under a mask of dour, one-dimensional earnestness; McAdams suffers through her lines as surely as her character suffers through life as a plot device for her male counterpart; Swinton (whose casting was controversial among stodgy and conservative comics fans due to the fact that the “real” Ancient One is both Asian and male) shows some heart but the damn thing is that her role would be better served if she were more distant and blase a la David Carridine; Mikkelsen seems like a low-rent stand-in for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki; yadda, yadda, etc., etc.

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In many ways, in fact, the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios has never been made more plain than it is here — after all, if they can take a fundamentally different premise than that which we see in their other films and still turn it into big-budget, dime-a-dozen, interchangeable cinematic fare, then it becomes depressingly clear that not only are they not interested in trying anything fundamentally different, they more than likely simply don’t even know how to at this point.

Not that audiences seem to care, mind you. “More of the same” still sells, and unless and until one of these things tanks at the box office, nothing’s gonna change, and the “Big-Budget-TV-Movie” ethos that permeates the MCU will hold firm. When it comes to the bottom line, that makes plenty of sense — but sooner or later familiarity breeds contempt, and when the bottom finally falls out on the super-hero craze, I predict it’s gonna fall out hard. As in, end-of-disco hard. People aren’t just gonna stop seeing this stuff, they’re gonna be too embarrassed to admit they ever even liked it. And when that day comes, whether it’s in one year or ten, Marvel will have only themselves to blame. They crank out enough films to be able to do something at least a little bit adventurous and “outside the box” once in awhile. They can afford to throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. But they don’t. Won’t. Can’t. And now it’s gotten to the point where I’m a whole lot less lonely than I used to be when it comes to griping about the utter sameness of their films. The chorus of groaners is still small, true, but it’s getting louder. And larger. And sooner or later, the powers that be might want to pay attention.

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They’d better start paying attention to the wretched politics of their films, as well. Women are props consigned to do little beyond making the men around them more caring and more human. Racial and ethnic minorities are consigned to “second-fiddle” roles. Gays and lesbians simply don’t exist. Might always makes right. And, perhaps most troublesome in the “Age Of Trump,” rich people — even the most noxious, self-centered, asinine, egomaniacal ones — are worthy of being granted super-powers and become better people once they attain those powers. Why they’re not called to the carpet more often for these clear, present, and nauseating themes remains a mystery to me, but whenever I bitch about ’em, the most common whitewashing excuse I hear from folks — even he most purportedly “liberal” viewers — is that I’m “overthinking” things. Well, I call bullshit on that. Tony Stark — and now Stephen Strange — have gone a long way toward normalizing this idea that overtly asshole-ish, obscenely wealthy narcissists can be heroes, and look where that’s gotten us.

Am I blaming Marvel, then, for the rise of our Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief? No (although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter was a major Trump donor and supporter), but in much the same way that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (whose author, William Peter Blatty, was a psychological warfare operative in Vietnam) preceded the ludicrous “Satanic Panic” that followed in their wake about a decade later, and the spate of ‘Nam flicks in the 1980s that were, at least on a surface level, critical of that war helped numb audiences to the notion of endless, un-winnable conflicts that would start up again in earnest with “Gulf War I” in 1990 and continue, on and off, for the next three decades, these flicks do their part to contribute to the cultural zeitgeist that makes certain once-unpalatable notions in the real world very palatable indeed.  In that respect, then, Marvel movies may be graduating from being simply dull and predictable to being downright dangerous. I hope, of course, that this is just pure batshit paranoia on my part — I fear, however, that it’s anything but.

 

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Really, on paper,  the whole thing ought to be a slam dunk : the trial of the so-called “West Memphis Three” is prime material for either a gripping, emotionally impacting human drama or a nail-biting courtroom procedural, take your pick. Add in the talents of director extraordinaire (well, okay, Chloe sucked, but we’ll give him a pass on that) Atom Egoyan, probably the best known of the former “Toronto New Wave” filmmakers (no offense to Bruce McDonald or Don McKellar, who also continue to do stellar work), who has shown a deft hand in dealing with material centered on the aftermath of tragedy in the past (most notably in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, the latter of which earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomiation), and you’d seem to be in very good hands, indeed. The screenplay is co-authored by up-and-coming horror maestro Scott Derickson (director of SinisterThe Exorcism Of Emily RoseThe Day The Earth Stood Still remake, and the forthcoming Deliver Us From Evil and Doctor Strange) and his frequent collaborator, Paul Harris Boardman, so you can’t go wrong there, either, right?

Then we’ve got the stellar cast : Colin Firth as lead defense investigator Ron Lax, Reese Witherspoon as grieving mother Pam Hobbs, Dane DeHaan as suspect-for-a-second Christopher Morgan, James Hamrick as supposed “Satanic cult ringleader/child killer” Damien Echols, and supporting turns from the likes of Mireile Enos, Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Kevin Durand, and Alessandro Nivola. And they all turn in, to a person, strong performances, as do Kristopher Higgins and Seth Meriwether as the other two accused “killers.” Seriously, this is an all-star production from top to bottom.

So why does 2013’s Devil’s Knot leave me feeling so flat, and why didn’t it even manage to score a domestic theatrical release ( fair warning, I caught it on Netflix instant streaming, so no DVD or Blu-Ray specs information will be included in this review)? It’s a fair question, with an unfair answer : pretty much for reasons entirely beyond its control.

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First off, for those of you who don’t know, here are the particulars of the case upon which this film is based : in 1993, the bodies of three young children — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore — were found in a wooded area known as “Devil’s Knot” (hence the film’s title) behind a typically slow-burn soul-eating suburban subdivision known as Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. Despite having several leads to pursue in the case (including two of the kids’ stepfathers), the cops more or less immediately circled in on local “bad boy”/junior misanthrope Damien Echols and two of his friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley,Jr. Their “evidence”? The fabricated-from-wholecloth testimony of a kid who wasn’t even there (and whose mother bargained for her son to give a statement in exchange for having credit card-fraud charges against her dismissed) and a coerced “confession” (later recanted) from Misskelley, who is mentally retarded. Oh, and the fact that Echols like to dress in black, listen to heavy metal music (of the entirely mainstream variety — we’re talking Metallica and Slayer here, not Burzum or Emperor) and read books by Aleister Crowley. He supposedly had at least a passing interest in Satanism, as well (who wouldn’t, growing up in a dysfunctional family that lived in a run-down trailer court? Spend some time in one of those places and you’ll realize how lucky we are that they haven’t produced a veritable legion of either serial killers, revolutionaries, or both).  Apparently, in the buckle of the Bible belt, that’s more than enough by way of “proof.”

The prosecution was hopelessly fucked, of course, but it worked anyway — Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences and Echols was scheduled to be executed. But then things took a turn : an HBO documentary film titled Paradise Lost showed the glaring holes in the prosecution’s case and its lack of anything even remotely resembling evidence to tie the three then-teenagers to the crime. Appeal after appeal was filed as high-profile supporters with deep pockets kept the wheels of justice turning (slowly). Two sequels to the original documentary followed, keeping the case in the public eye. New evidence with the potential to implicate others came to light. And a lot of volunteers never quit fighting.

Eventually, after 18 years in prison. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were all able to arrange a very rare — but perfectly legal — Alford plea, the terms of which dictated that they remained listed as convicted felons but admitted no guilt for the crime they’d been accused and convicted of. Today, they’re all free men. Hail Satan, right?

Here’s the rub, though, when it comes to this film : unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know all this shit already. Besides the three aforementioned Paradise Lost flicks, there’s also been another documentary, West Of Memphis, that covers pretty much the same ground. They’re all good movies. And so is this, on both an artistic and technical level. But it doesn’t add anything new to what’s already known, and maybe that’s just because it can’t.

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All of which puts Egoyan, his fine screenwriters, and his fine cast in a tough spot : getting blood from a rock. Water from a dry well. A charitable donation from a cheapskate. An ounce of sense from a Tea Party member. It just ain’t possible. I give the folks involved in Devil’s Knot all the credit in the world for trying — they never stoop to Lifetime movie-of-the-week melodrama and consistently handle this touchy subject matter with the respect and care it deserves. This is a quality piece of work. But it’s also a complete re-hash, and by its very nature can do nothing but give short shrift to a story that’s been covered in much greater detail elsewhere. You honestly have to wonder, when watching Devil’s Knot, why they even made the thing in the first place.

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Which, mind you, is not the same thing as me saying they shouldn’t have made it. There’s seriously nothing wrong with this flick.  But there’s no real point to it, either, unless you’re completely unaware of the four other films that preceded it, in which case I guess this would serve as a very good “primer” on the case. Beyond that, though, well — there’s just nothing new under the sun, is there?

I opened this review by saying that Devi’s Knot looks like a “can’t-miss” deal on paper, But in reality it’s a” can’t-win” situation any way you slice it.

Quick question : why do you go see horror films? If you’re anything like me, you don’t expect these things to actually, ya know, scare you anymore, so what’s the point?

I ask this question now because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the last 24 hours since seeing director Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. Why? Because this thing actually is scary. And not just in the “jump-outta-your-seat” sense, although there are a few good “cheap scares” of that variety, to be sure. No, it’s the underlying concept here that’s so frightening.

Granted, that wouldn’t really matter if the standard bases weren’t covered so well, but rest assured they are — the casting is pitch perfect, with a decidedly unhealthy-looking Ethan Hawke starring as true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (admit it — you hope he dies on the basis of that name alone), who gets the less-than-bright idea of moving his fucking  family into the house of the latest atrocity he’s investigating (a family was hung from a tree in the backyard and their toddler-age daughter has been missing ever since), turning in one of those increasingly-unhinged performances that really rings true; Juliet Rylance hitting the admittedly predictable but well-done notes as his long-suffering wife, Tracy; and (thankfully) failed Presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson putting in a nicely believable turn as the local redneck sheriff.

In addition, director Derrickson has the whole “ramping-up-the-tension” thing down really well, and all the small-but-necessary touches such as moody lighting, minimalist settings, and a damn creepy musical score are present and accounted for. So, hey, on paper, it all looks good, right?

But then, the same can be said for dozens, even hundreds, of horror films over the last few years that have still, at the end of the day, fallen short when it comes to really delivering the goods. The same can’t be said of Sinister, and as mentioned earlier, I think it’s largely down to the fact that the main concept underpinning the proceedings here is both horrific in and of itself and, strangely enough given that it’s based in (fictionalized) ancient superstition, believable. You can see this kind of shit going down in the house next door, and you might not necessarily even know that it’s happening.

That, right there, is why Derrickson and his cohorts should take a bow for their efforts here. They’ve managed to deliver a story that, sure, is fantastic, in and of itself, but is also one that we can all relate to, featuring characters we can easily relate to, as well. The end result isn’t just the scariest thing to come out of a major Hollywood studio in 2012 (hell, in the past several years, truth be told), but also one of the most inventive, most creative, and most well-executed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. So why, indeed, do we really go see most horror films? There are probably countless reasons, but  Sinister is a stark reminder than any of these flicks that don’t actually scare us are really just wasting our time.