Now On Patreon: THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973)

Subscribers to my Patreon get all sorts of exclusive stuff, including podcasts and long form pieces like this one I published today. Here’s an excerpt; to read the whole thing become a member at the $10 level at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha.

Dan Freeman has planned and plotted the revolution for years, patiently waiting for the moment to activate sleeper cells of Black liberation warriors he has seeded across the country. But in The Spook Who Sat By The Door all of that planning gets undone by a couple of lunkheaded racist cops who shoot a low-level drug dealer in the back in the city of Chicago. As the people rise up on their own, as the streets become choked with angry faces and violent cops, Dan has no choice but to light the fuse of the national uprising he has prepared. 

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Review: Scatalogical, Bizarre, Brilliant CAPONE

It took me almost 20 minutes to understand what Capone is. Tom Hardy, in thick makeup and with a thicker grunting voice (slurred by an omnipresent stogie), shuffles and wanders through this movie, occasionally staring off into the distance as if falling into a reverie. He’s playing Al Capone in the final year of his life, enfeebled physically and mentally by syphilis, and every time he does that stare into space thing your biopic trained muscles prepare for a flashback. This, you think, is where we will see Hardy as a young, powerful Capone, revealing the doddering old wreck stuff as a framing device. 

Nope. There are no significant flashbacks in Capone. There is a lengthy dream/hallucination sequence where an addled, diapered Capone wanders through scenes from his own life, but that plays more like a version of The Shining than a standard biopic. These aren’t memories, they’re ghosts, and he’s not remembering, he’s being haunted. Josh Trank’s Capone is anything but a standard biopic, and it’s a movie that is almost aggressive in its unwillingness to give you anything comforting or expected. 

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FIRST REFORMED And The Sin Of Hopelessness

Hopelessness and despair have been constant companions for me the past few weeks. I’m having a hard time seeing a future past the immediate next few months, and sometimes I catch myself spiraling away into the urge to just give up, maybe in the most drastic way possible.

But when I get like this I think about the movie First Reformed, the Paul Schrader film starring Ethan Hawke as a priest-turned-ecoterrorist, and I remember the beautiful message of that movie – a message that I think many people don’t see. But I do. And it strengthens me. It’s a line from the film, based on the writings of Christian mystic Thomas Merton: “Despair is a form of pride.”

I wrote about this aspect of First Reformed years ago on my Patreon, and while it was a Patron exclusive back in 2018, I think in 2020 it’s okay to share it with everybody. I hope you find something useful in here, if only the urge to watch First Reformed.

Without further ado, my original piece on First Reformed and hopelessness and despair:

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Finding Neverland: HOOK As Response To CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

Hook’s Peter Banning is a bad dad, but he’s got nothing on Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Roy Neary. And while Roy starts off bad enough – ignoring his family at the dinner table, his home a disaster indicating a life out of control – by the end of the movie, as he happily steps on to the mothership, he’s become one of cinema’s ultimate deadbeat dads. His kids will likely never get a goodbye, and if he ever does return to Earth relativity tells us he’ll be the same age and his kids will be old.

And yet he’s the hero. His moment is triumphant, the apotheosis of his life. The little ETs are his new children-but-also-parents, and the movie treats his domestic life as something he must escape, a prison of Altmanesque clamor that has been holding him back from his true destiny. He is the one human CALLED to the stars, and aliens have traveled light years to make his acquaintance. His kids? Pains in the asses we last see taking off in a station wagon, headed who cares where. 

Close Encounters ends with Dad going to Neverland (scored to a non-Peter Pan Disney tune, When You Wish Upon A Star, but the song is close enough – Peter Pan doesn’t have a big, wistful dreamer number like that). But Hook is all about Dad coming back from Neverland, returning to be with his kids for the first time ever. Peter Banning rejects the wonder for the (upper class) every day, the kind of life Roy Neary turns from with gusto.

To me Hook is answering Close Encounters, and it’s part of a journey that Spielberg was on with his own father. While it’s vital to separate the art from the artist when it comes to how we watch – good works come from bad people! – getting intimate with the artist can open up new areas of analysis of the work, allowing us to see the entire filmmaker’s canon as a personal journey set against their own autobiography. 

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Review: THE HUNT Is A Gory Satire Of Our Polarized World

This movie ain’t subtle. But for all its lack of subtlety, The Hunt actually takes a little time to reveal its true intention, and a huge part of what makes the movie so fun is its almost constant misdirection. Which makes it, frankly, incredibly hard to talk about.

So what can I say about The Hunt that might preserve for you the sense of consistent surprise and delight I experienced in the film’s first half? I can say that this is a lean, propulsive movie; The Hunt begins deep in the good stuff, with a private plane full of liberal elites transporting a bunch of unconscious ‘deplorables’ to an unknown location to hunt them for sport. When one of the deplorables wakes up too early, while the plane is still high in the sky, the ensuing fight – which is ugly, funny and profoundly violent (the deplorable takes a stiletto to his eye; when the stiletto is pulled out his eye and the cord attached to it comes slithering out of his face hole) – sums up what you’re about to get for the next 90 minutes.

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1917: It’s A Small World War After All

You get into the seat of your moving car and a lap bar lowers, even though this ride won’t be so bumpy. The mechanisms grind into life and with a mild jolt you begin gliding down the moving belt. The car turns and pivots to reveal scenes rendered with exquisite Imagineered detail – a trench full of beautifully placed corpses, an empty German bunker with an animatronic rat and a friendly sense of dread, a destroyed French village that is immaculately constructed and lit with a breath-taking series of flares. Right at the end it surprises you by turning into a log flume ride, but honestly by the time the car returns to the loading area you’re a little bit exhausted and have taken to heart the message that the animatronic figures of soldiers and civilians would occasionally turn towards you and intone: War IS hell.

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The Grotesque Miracle Of CATS

That Sharknado is a hit and Cats is a flop is a true indicator of how misaligned our cultural priorities are. The fake bad movie is big business, while the real bad movie – the earnestly bad movie – has become a punchline. Cats deserves more.

(Before we go any farther, yes, I am aware success is measured quite differently for a SyFy Original versus big budget Oscar bait. I really just need you guys to roll with my rhetoric a little bit this year.)

The legend of Cats preceded it, and all of my friends saw the movie and returned almost hyperventilating with laughter. Ironic Cats stuff started with the release of the first trailer but exploded after the first screening. More people seem to be tweeting and memeing about Cats than are seeing it, though, and so Cats has become something that people want to talk about and laugh about but not necessarily see. 

I have seen it and I will tell you this: I am glad I did. And while it is a terrible, awful, miserable movie it is, in many ways, preferable to some of the perfectly fine big budget movies I saw this year. I will take the sheer insanity of Cats over the inanity of a Hobbs and Shaw, for instance. Hell, I’m more likely to see Cats in theaters again before I see Rise of Skywalker in theaters again. 

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STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER Taught Me To Love The Prequels

This review is fairly spoiler-free.

In the beginning there was the word, and the word was Starkiller. From this humble start came dozens of iterations, concepts, ideas and drafts until what finally emerged, like a triumphant amphibian climbing from the primordial ooze, was Star Wars, later known as A New Hope

All beginnings have ends, of course, and 42 years later the ending of that new hope – or one particular aspect of it, anyway – has arrived. I’m tempted to continue the Biblical allusions here and talk about how at the end, as in the end of the Bible, there is a Beast, “having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.” Maybe once upon a time I could get have gotten worked up into that John the Revelator mode, but that time is past. I’ve lived through the Prequels and the wars over The Last Jedi; I’ve seen the eradication of swaths of the Extended Universe and I’ve witnessed the birth of a really coherent and exciting transmedia canon. I’ve seen worse, and I’ve seen better, and in the end The Rise of Skywalker is more a disappointment than a blasphemy. And who can worry about blasphemies in Star Wars post-midichlorians anyway?

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A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: What Would Fred Rogers Do?

Many of you reading this grew up with Fred Rogers as a presence in your home. That wasn’t the way it was for me; Mr. Rogers always struck me as creepy, as the guy at the end of the block who gives out Werther’s Originals on Halloween and who always wants to hire young boys in the neighborhood to do errands for him. Something about that tidy haircut, the red sweater, changing his shoes when he came into the house… all of it set off alarm bells for me. 

But what really set off the alarm bells was his emotional openness. Raised by a single mother who didn’t have the capacity to express love or acceptance, I found Fred Rogers’ default state to be mind blowingly threatening. Grow up in a desert and you’ll have one of two reactions to the ocean – you’ll either fall in love with it because it was what you were always missing or its depths will terrify you.

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KNIVES OUT: The Kindest Murder Mystery Ever

The first few paragraphs of this are spoiler free, but major spoilers do arrive.

Who knew murder could be so fun? More importantly, who knew murder could be so nice? Rian Johnson’s whodunnit, Knives Out, may be the singularly nicest and most kind murder mystery anyone has ever made, an Agatha Christie-style sleuthfest with kindness and love as its guiding principle. 

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