95th Academy Awards Recap: (Shrugs)

Before I run through tired Academy Awards takes, can we take a minute to appreciate how much I nailed my predictions for Best Picture nominees back in October? Please do, because I don’t have much to pat myself on the back for. Going 8/10, only missing on Elvis and All Quiet on the Western Front is something worth riding home about in my world. Unfortunately, my prognostication is never going get me invited to St. Patrick’s Day parties or any celebratory occasions for that matter, so I’m still trying to improve.

I had the benefit of watching Everything Everywhere All at Once in April 2022 when the hype was minimal, only existing for super-online cinephiles on Letterboxd. I enjoyed it fine enough, thinking it was a clear execution of a unique vision, and it juggled multiple genres in fun ways. I’m preaching to the choir with this take, but I found the ending and resolution to many of its lofty ideas to be quite toothless. Oftentimes, the Daniels want to be taken seriously by dipping their toes into philosophy and cultural heritage but frequently resort to juvenile humor. When the film was rolling, at some point in the middle, Everything Everywhere kept me engaged and entertained.

Then, as awards season arrived and lasted far too long per usual, the film from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert got hit with a bad wave of discourse. This is typical for Best Picture favorites, but this case was more extreme than usual. This indie with multiverses and Epic Bacon sensibilities from filmmakers who are more inspired by YouTube than cinema vaulting to the highest of prestigious recognition was jarring, and it’s something I’m still grappling with. I imagine there were plenty of cinephiles who at least mildly enjoyed EEAAO and immediately turned on it when it received 11 Oscar nominations. I’d be lying if I didn’t have remnants of that instinct. With each passing day heading up to the Oscars ceremony, I gradually tempered my approval and enthusiasm for the film. I wonder if, deep down, I wanted to be a true hater of the film and the rabid fanbase it conceived. I purposefully have not revisited it yet, hoping to watch it with a fresh mind and removed any influence created from discourse. This is not a flattering take to reveal, but I can’t help but be underwhelmed by the Oscars awarding a film like EEAAO that is so commonly sophomoric. This is not to say that the Academy is the ultimate arbiter of great cinema, or that they consistently honor the best work, but I like to hold them to a standard of classiness. Academy voters responding favorably to something riddled with meme language doesn’t sit right with me. This runs counterintuitive to the philosophy of “let people enjoy things!” that permeates artistic criticism today. I sound like an old crank even though I’m the age of the target audience of Everything Everywhere, but this is the kind of thinking that I live with every day.

Other than the dominance of Everything Everywhere, I’m not sure what else there is to say. While it was dry and quite dull at times, I appreciate that the ceremony carried itself with pride and credibility, unlike the mockery that was put on display (Will Smith-innocent. If anything, it’s a shame he didn’t slap the decision-maker behind cutting categories from the broadcast). I say this by pretending like the infomercials for Disney and Warner Bros didn’t happen on the telecast. While watching, I was contemplating why I’m routinely invested in this annual ceremony that is regularly predictable, but I chose not to torture myself over it. Enjoy montages and clips of movies, I told myself. The shutout of The Fabelmans, my favorite of 2022, is a foresight into the Oscar success of Killers of the Flower Moon next year. The collective reverence for our master filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese has waned. There is obviously enough respect for these pictures to receive nominations, but late-period reflections seen in The Irishman and The Fabelmans are no longer a slam dunk for unanimous Oscar sweeps. Unfathomably, that’s reserved for Everything Everywhere All At Once.

The Idea of Baseball

There has always been a block in the road for my passion and interest in baseball. I should love it, and I routinely get excited about it around February. Since the NBA and NHL are not really my thing, the big show should take the mantle for my sports consumption once football ends. But I never get there with the MLB. Without question, the most passion for baseball that ever sparks with me is in February and March at the dawn of the new season. Credit where credit is due, Olivia Craighead on the For Love of the Game episode of Blank Check could not have hit it out of the park harder than with this point. Suddenly, on May 8th, 2022, the day when the podcast dropped, I was forever enlightened by this passage from Craighead.

“I like the idea of baseball… What I love is going to a baseball game and drinking a beer with my pals. Watching a baseball game on TV…no, not for me.”

This notion on its surface is not that groundbreaking. Just the simple framing of liking the idea of baseball rings is so true to me. The sport evokes a sense of nature and the American frontier, similar to that of watching a classic western. Perfect match for me! It has value as both background noise and a source for deep concentration. What is wrong with this equation? Well, as much as I am a sucker for statistics, analytics have undoubtedly ruined the game. Sheer fun has been stripped away over the last 10 years (some would say even longer). This is the genius of Moneyball: in a cruel twist of irony, Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta struck gold, but it would ultimately lead to the demise of the sport’s romanticism. As an aside, baseball truthers: the film is telling its own isolated story. It’s not the film’s job to be a textbook. As I was saying, the moment when computers could process sabermetrics, the sport’s beauty was forever compromised.

In fairness, if I force myself to take personal inventory and avert from excuses, baseball solely becomes just a great concept due to my lack of appreciation of the moment. I’m always thinking about how great something is going to be days, weeks, months, and years down the line. When the time comes, though, the moment never fulfills me, and then I’m off hyping myself up about what’s coming up. For instance, during the fall, I look forward to the summer. During the summer, I look forward to the fall. Do you know why so many of the things I look forward to never live up to my self-promoted hype? Loneliness. Because when push comes to shove, I find that much of my free leisure time consists of me being worked up over the fact that I’m not doing anything fun, exciting, or worthwhile. This is why I resort to watching new films all the time. Logging things on Letterboxd is the closest thing I have as “important,” and not watching a baseball game. Ultimately, baseball is hollow without the aspect of personal bonding.

This took an unforeseen melancholy turn, but these feelings have become inseparable from baseball. I hate that my personal bullshit gets in the way of enjoying simple things. In reality, I am low-key. I’m content with spending my free time entertaining myself alone. However, there has to be an inexplicable voice inside me that says that I am wasting precious time. I start caring about what other people are doing. So-and-so hangs out often, and so-and-so habitually travels. I’m sitting here like a lump watching a movie that I will most likely never converse about with anyone in my life.

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by my obnoxious angst and insecurities, baseball never follow through with its great idea. The glossy depiction of baseball through its idea sucks me in every year, even right now, as I actively deconstruct the unsatisfactory feelings of the sport. I will watch highlights of an old game on YouTube in February and March, but by the 5th inning of opening day, I wish I was doing just about anything else besides watching baseball. From there on out, I continue my relentless spree of watching movies. It feels like it’s all I do, and yet it still always seems as if I’m never watching enough. All in all, why can’t you deliver on your promise, baseball?

It is stimulating to say the least when I read these passages that were written in a fragile mental state. Currently writing this section from the perspective of three days removed and in a clearer state of mind, I can’t imagine anything above is substantive or coherent at any level. But, in any instance, I think I have found a rational solution to end this session of proverbially banging my head against the wall. Maybe I just…don’t really like baseball that much. Stick to watching Don Siegel movies over the summer instead.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Movies

As I latched on to the promising venture of freelance film writing, I find that conversing on the topic of cinema to be a mighty challenge. Bear with me, we’re delving into some real first-world problems. But I swear, if you talk to me, you’d think I had never seen a movie before.

“Have you seen (insert random-ass D-level high school movie played by 40 year old teenagers from the 1980s or genre flick buried in the Netflix library)?” asks friend/family member

“No…. I’ve heard about it thought.” I respond, totally pretending that I’ve heard of said film.

“It’s good. I think you’d like it.” graciously says the other person.

My gripes have nothing to do with the people that I interact with in these situations. It is so internal of a problem that it’s claustrophobic. My dread of these exchanges stem from insecurity. Anytime I am with a party that is discussing a movie I haven’t seen, there is this pit in my stomach that cultivates inside me. I’ll change the conversation to the fly that just passed us if I have to. I know no one actually thinks I’m supposed to have seen every single feature film ever produced, but that’s always the feeling that sits with me. Not to turn it against these people, but again, the movies that are recommended to me the most are disposable 80s movies. The decade is often cited as a shallow time for mainstream/blockbuster entertainment, sharing various similarities to the problems of cinema of the 2020s, but in the indie-sphere/arthouse collection of films that were buried under the studio dominance, there are some amazing movies. However, no one ever asks me about After Hours, Blow Out, Lost in America, or The Purple Rose of Cairo. Or, if anything, I would like to be able to have some crossover with movies that others have seen as well. Watching over 1,000 movies ought to prepare to me not feel like an idiot when discussing movies with others. Not to deflect from my own deep-seated insecurities, but the exact exchange written above that I commonly partake is kind of like the “Remember when” game. The “have you seen…” model of interaction wears thin, at least for me.

I am a junky for the Academy Awards. I love the history, the ceremony, the tradition, but this current awards season has made me hate myself for caring about the Oscars. I’m aware the Internet would cease to exist if not for it, but this year is completely demonstrative of people desperately clinging for complaints about the slate of nominations. I’m glad that I don’t have a sports-like relationship with movies. The idea of expressing real outrage over Nope (which I love) getting shut out at the Oscars is baffling to me. It seems like it comes from a place of needy assurance that what they like is deemed of prime quality.

In a surprising twist of fate, maybe I am possessed with this neediness as well? Mirroring the previous passage, there are people in my life that use me as consultants of sorts as to what awards contenders they should watch. “Will I like Everything Everywhere All at Once? Tar?” I know with all my intellectual prowess that there is no ill-will to these benign inquiries, but I just want to grab them by the shoulders and yell “how the hell should I know?” When this person unsurprisingly does not vibe with EEAAO, I for some unforsaken reason feel guilty about it, as if I made them feel obligated to see it. By the way, I’m not even the biggest fan of the film. I like it fine, but nothing to match the level of overwhelming praise it receives from its cult-like online fanbase. Also, more importantly, I did not star in, write, or direct Everything Everywhere All at Once! Why would I have a personal attachment to it and feel uneasy about someone not liking it? The almighty “why?” is the bane of my existence. Perhaps this is because these people will look at me in shame as I have yet to see Three O’Clock High or Biloxi Blues, but will sit through the entirety of a Everything Everywhere. Then, to make myself feel smart, I will share with them that Mike Nichols was the director of Biloxi Blues!

What’s the lesson from this depraved soliloquy? An inferiority complex sucks, and it even cause you to have a sour relationship with cinema.

The Big Break

November 15th, 2022 began as another futile day of human progress. This season of grappling with the hopeless reality that I would never amount to any real career. While I have never been allured by the lofty aspirations of fame and great wealth, I’ve been worrying since high school that I would never be able to make it on my own. My own insecurities and general anxieties would prevent me from obtaining a steady form of employment. Writing about Spike Lee and Alexander Payne movies are what I dream of, but writing gigs for lowly recent college grads like me aren’t offered, and who in the world would care about my two cents on The Fabelmans?

Anyways, on that seemingly dreary November morning, I changed up my routine by heading to the bathroom first thing post-wakeup instead of browsing on my phone while still in bed. It’s not ideal that most of humanity has adopted themselves to looking at their phone as their first human activity of the day. I think I subconsciously had a George Costanza complex going on with me at this point, now months removed from graduation and still without a career break. If I’m not doing the complete opposite of my usual habits, then I’m at least taking a piss first thing in the morning instead. I arrive back into my room to check my phone afterwards. The screen lights up, and it just happened to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Collider gave me my first big break.

I spat out the coffee that I wasn’t drinking when I saw the follow-up email from my application, which I had sent a week prior. I had just about forgotten about my application there, as I was resigned to expect disappointment. But after further application steps and training, I would become a published, freelance features writer for Collider. It took a while for this euphoric break to seem real, especially for someone who is not blessed with the highest of self-esteems like me. I love writing for the site, and I’ll be forever grateful to them for giving me this opportunity. While there is still more down the road in the future, and I’m obviously aware that I am not immediately set for life, I would say that it’s quite fortunate that I can get paid to write about Election and 25th Hour. Please check out my feature stories (see the tab at the top of this site) and support Collider as a whole.

Sometimes I wonder if that email would have ever reached my inbox if I decided to pick up my phone first thing in the morning…

It’s About Myself

For the longest time, I was passionate about writing about myself. I vowed to make a living out of blogging about my own psyche, expressing myself through humor and frankness. It was going to be a sure thing that my four years of higher education would be the summation of the ability: a long running, twice a week series of blogs about what’s inside my head. Unfortunately, I learned that I just haven’t been through many eventful things in my life to be worthy of such a self-indulgent premise, and I learned that the hard way, via self-enlightenment. The only impact I would make with these blogs, where I would routinely offer scathing critiques towards commonalities of society and the people around my life, is a pissed off reading audience. This is not some Fight Club scenario of the empty ordinary schmuck shouting “we live in a society” to the crowds. I am content with everything nowadays, which is probably concerning considering that I haven’t found a career yet.

For as naval-gazing and angsty as these blogs were, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t reminisce over this time when I was courageous enough to be so bold online. Sometimes, I’m envious of that version of myself, because I had something worthwhile. What I used to publish online was unique, at least in my mind. There are already thousands of loudmouths on the Internet who draft up thinkpieces and ten Tweet threads about why film is Important. I could talk about the state of the medium and film “philosophy” if you call it all day, but I’ll admit that the individual movie analysis can be slightly grating at times. There are just more equipped people to properly break down the artistic value of A Perfect World, and those people have probably done so already.

There is a good chance that none of this makes any sense. I oughta just show you what I used to write, now featured with annotations from 2022. This one I selected is titled “When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit,” where I discuss how I fit in at college after three days in. (Passages written in bold)

In high school, there was this charm with me, I suppose, that many people appreciated. I had the knack for saying something cynically polarizing or throwing some crazed rant about anything trivial in class. I don’t know, maybe my imaginations are completely far from reality. Wouldn’t be the first or last time.

Being incapable of distinguishing between ego and reality. I guess I really haven’t changed that much? I have never been the most socially outgoing individual of the bunch. I built up this artificial reputation based on a few moments in my senior year, all of which happened when I had friends in class. This is a mild spoiler for the rest of the blog, but when you refuse to make friends at your four year university, you start to think you’re some hermetic tortured genius.

I don’t think the folks in my residence hall take pleasure in that kid. Granted, I haven’t fully unleashed my high school persona, but vibes are vibes.

Or… I could’ve been just a person and not a persona. When it comes to holding boat loads of regrets, I am a shipping port. My freshman year of college just might make it over capacitated. The regret that is perhaps the most prioritized is reserved for my roommate. That kid deserves a Purple Heart for putting up with my irritable neurotic angst.

Perhaps they like the genuinely nice kid. Perhaps they like the kid who picks up girls like a forklift. I don’t know what kids like these days. (I know what Fortnite is, shut up.) It probably explains how I got started doing this shit. When you check my box in the filter section of what they like, nothing shows up.

In the character alignment chart, this writing represents chaotic evil. However, I’m still giving myself the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the quality of the writing. I remember that my prose and language back then even came out naturally. These days, it can take me ten minutes to pick the proper word to use. Based on how I used to characterize myself in print, it’s a miracle that I didn’t turn out to be a member of QAnon.

I know it’s nothing personal at all. New blood arises in your system once you reach upperclassmen stage, which makes you smug upon the peasant freshmen. I always love it when they harass us to attend school events, but immediately take out their frustrations on the fact that too many freshmen are there. But I can store those ideas for another day.

This passage is really out there. Most of the residents in my hall were most certainly freshmen. So apparently freshmen were lambasted for attending school events? (Narrator voice: they weren’t).

As you might expect, I don’t mind it at all. In fact, I embrace it. I do believe with all of my heart that one of the big keys in life is embracing any negative qualities or circumstances in your life. You’ll feel so much better about yourself. We fight and repel too often. I’m on the side of believing that people never really change on their fundamental level. So for me, there’s no point in shoehorning in a connection between the other UNH students in my residence hall, because I speak a different language than these kids, and it’s all fine. We can keep doing our business diplomatically.

This sums up my theory that I probably should have never gone to a four year university after all. I would routinely say “I should’ve gone to plumbing school” to myself during this time, but I think I would’ve been happy to roll with community college. It would’ve eased up on the loans. Without question, I carried myself with too much negativity, but I still believe I was never going to connect with my peers, as the college lifestyle was never in my bag.

Fear of Missing Out, or as they call it, FOMO?

FOMO? Fuck no.

I had a way with words. 

I would like to imagine that this kind of writing, a style and an attitude that can be packaged into a series, can give me a career. The job search is going as well as you think, and I wonder if starting my own thing is the last remaining path to success if things keep getting dire. The reason why I am hesitant to revive this writing subject stems from the response that I could receive on social media, and worse, if it ever comes back to me in reality. When I was writing these personal blogs in the fall of 2018, I was on a roll, and I had enthusiasm about its future. All it took was a single, benign comment, which mainly consisted of me trying to think more positively about my environment, and I turtled. I carry myself like I don’t have a care in the world, but deep down, I know that I’m sensitive to the reaction of others, which is not a great asset in this circumstance.

Well, considering this whole blog was an unnecessary deep dive into a life severely lacking in real adventure, I guess I have already jumped back into the game.

Dear Oscars: Stop Hating Movies

I have a challenge for the Academy Awards that I, despite my antagonistic relationship, will always love deep down. I hope this isn’t too much to ask, but for the sake of your purpose of existence, please, stop hating movies.

It sounds unusual for the highest body of awarding film achievement to hate movies. To put a more specific point on it, the Oscars have fed into the deep rooted cynicism of the film industry that has transpired over the last few years. Nothing was more dire than the display put on by the Academy last March. As I stated in a previous blog, they are so lucky that Will Smith was insecure about his marriage, because they would’ve had their reckoning if not for G.I. Jane 2.

There is a ratings crisis for the Oscars. Surprising, I know, for a network TV broadcast in 2022. Viewership dropped from 43.7 million in 2014 to 15.36 this year, with the only increase coming from 2018 to 2019 (not counting this year’s jump from the fake telecast in 2021 that doesn’t exist). At the most recent 94th Academy Awards, they decided to be more proactive in dealing with this issue than ever before: by going populist.

What these morons didn’t realize was that the fight for ratings was and will forever be a lost cause. The days of 48 million people watching anything non-NFL on basic television are over. No matter what you do, whether it’s a fan vote or cutting out below the line categories on the telecast, you will never regain anything close to the viewership of 48 million that they received in 1998. So naturally, the best course of action would be to placate to the more niche audience that cares deeply about movies. You know, the freaks like me that can name the Best Supporting Actor winner in 1991 quicker than their middle name. (The answer is of course Jack Palance in City Slickers. If we’re being dumb and looking at the calendar year, then it would be Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.)

What the grand and prestigious Academy Awards gave us cinephiles instead was the Twitter fan favorite vote, where the public at large can pick their favorite movie and the finest “cheer” moment on screen. If I had a kid that thought of this idea, I’d put him up for adoption. I know this joke ran into the ground when first announced, but when did the Oscars begin idolizing the MTV Movie Awards? A longtime Academy member stated to the Los Angeles Times “Does the academy not get how much this pisses off their members and filmmakers?” With this asinine fan vote, their line of thinking consists of the rabid DCEU fan base all turning on their TVs to witness a mediocre movie they already like win a meaningless award. Yep, that’s how it turned out. Congratulations folks, you fixed it.

Their second measure to fix the ratings crisis was, once again at the alienation of their core audience, cutting the acceptance of numerous technical categories such as Best Original Score and Best Editing from the broadcast. I’m sorry I don’t have hard proof or scientific data to back this up, but there is no human being that was going to watch the full Oscars telecast because they cut out a few categories. This audience that the Academy is desperate to obtain is not the girl you try to pick up at a bar. You know who that girl is though? Me! So start putting some goddamn respect into films and the craft that goes behind it. I personally think it’s pretty neat that there used to be a major awards body that gave an equal stage to a costume designer and Julia Roberts. The 48 million viewers had to have been tolerating them in 1998, which makes sense because we all simply had better taste back then. It’s a shame I missed it. I get handed clips of the fucking Flash from Justice League for my Oscars.

It doesn’t help that movies are made a mockery of during the telecast. If it were up to me, there would be no bits or heavily rehearsed material at the show. If the host or presenter isn’t charming and charismatic enough to take the stage without it, then keep looking for another host or presenter. But anyways, I get that they need jokes, and I’m not here looking for anyone to be policed, but the Oscars ought to have a little respect for what they represent. Take for example this abhorrent joke about The Last Duel that, as I mentioned in a previous blog, still pisses me off.

Johnny Carson used to host this show.

Ridley Scott’s film is excellent. Not only that, it’s an adult picture with adult themes and ideas. They look like complete jackasses by turning a movie that should be honored by them into a bit. Really? You guys are so low that you poke fun at a movie that bombed at the box office? A movie that bombed because it wasn’t a blue lasers/portals in the sky piece of garbage? Do you possess any self-awareness? This truly was the nadir of their weird vitriol towards cinema. If anything, the joke is on the public for ignoring The Last Duel.

You might be saying, “how do you suppose that the Academy Awards doesn’t respect cinema? Did you not see those montages and reunions this year?” I sure did, and I’ve seen enough of the barrage of clips over the past few years. Someone across the street from me could do the same thing on their computer. Peak laziness from this past broadcast came from the Godfather and Pulp Fiction “reunions”, which were as much of a reunion as running into the person you sat next to in chemistry class in sophomore year on the street. Drag out Coppola, Pacino, and De Niro (who, in case you weren’t sure, IS NOT IN THE FIRST GODFATHER THAT IS BEING CELEBRATED FOR ITS 50TH ANNIVERSARY. BE MORE GODDAMN LAZY!), and have them say absolute drivel. The Pulp Fiction was somehow even more contrived. At least The Godfather was its 50th anniversary. Come back in two years when Pulp is at year 30. This is really the best the premiere awards body of the country can muster up to honor the art of cinema? The same creators who created the thing you like are standing together again! It’s like every shitty Super Bowl commercial now. 

Academy voters did the right thing by not buying into any disillusions about Marvel being the westerns of our time or some bullshit like that and giving Spider-Man: No Way Home a Best Picture nomination. That movie and all its counterparts in the Disney empire is a disgrace to cinema. The Academy is under no obligation to nominate No Way Home because it was the most seen movie. It’s a grave discredit to popular movies that are good. You know what happens when you make a good movie that makes tons of money? Dune, Black Panther, Get Out, and Mad Max: Fury Road got to find out. You get a Best Picture nominee. This goes out to every reader who has this myth jammed into their brain: popular movies have always been acknowledged at the Oscars! It happens slightly less often nowadays because most popular movies are pitiful franchise content. It’s not them, it’s you, Marvel. You’re the ones that suck.

This is a long way of saying that the Academy needs to stop dumbing themselves down for a culture with deteriorating creative output. Needless to say, this year’s telecast had jokes mocking themselves for not nominating No Way Home, including Amy Schumer hanging from the ceiling in a Spider-Man outfit, frankly looking like an idiot. The whole awards body seemed embarrassed at themselves for not properly acknowledging the movie. I know I said that popular movies are routinely honored, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Oscars should not be a popularity contest. The discourse surrounding the entitlement of No Way Home as a BP nominee from fans online is part of a worsening case of juvenile anti-intellectualism in our popular culture. Even Kevin Feige, the head honcho of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, called out the Academy for a “superhero bias”. This would be like the President of McDonald’s and its team of lackeys getting upset that McDonald’s has never won the restaurant equivalent of an Oscar.

If the Academy Awards are going to continue to lower their standards like this, then shut it down, because we’ve lost all perspective.

DRAG ME TO HELL (2009) – Sam Raimi Having the Time of His Life

Photo: Universal

Movies ought to be meaner. I know intellectually that there should be movies with a lighter touch, ones that are deeply moving and ones that are lacking in any emotional manipulation. But the kind of visceral feeling I received when I first watched Drag Me To Hell, Sam Raimi’s return to the equally screwball and gory horror genre that he represented, is what makes me most proud to be a passionate consumer of the art and a follower of director career arcs.

The 2009 film was Raimi’s return to horror following his Spider-Man trilogy, which concluded with the often derided Spider-Man 3. The struggles behind the production of the third installment has been well documented, including studio notes and forced story arcs, and Raimi himself seems to have disavowed it himself. His career arc is quite fascinating. He begins in independent cinema, making zany horror-comedies with his friends that become cult classics (Evil Dead trilogy), climbs his way into the studio system as a gun for hire on mid-budget pictures (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan), and then fully ascends to the top of blockbuster cinema as the author of a franchise. As his authorship deteriorates with Spider-Man 3, he steps down to go back to his Evil Dead roots. Drag Me to Hell isn’t just a return to form. It is a diss track on film.

The story follows Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a successful loan officer of a bank who is the recipient of a supernatural curse after evicting an old woman from her home. She attempts to work for a promotion and continue a stable relationship with her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), but this evil curse is using its power to destroy her life.

Raimi loves to abuse his main characters, whether it’s Ash Williams or Peter Parker. When those two are slapped, thrown through a wall, or have projectiles launched at them, viewers don’t sense danger from them. The mayhem sent toward them is recognized as a fetization and sensationalism of screwball violence. When bodily fluid from the supernatural force is projectiled at Christine, it feels cruel. This mostly comes from her gender, age, and petite body. For my viewing experience, a portion of this discomfort also came from an uncertainty of my sympathy for her. While not labeled as one, the movie, based on the viewer’s mood or state of mind, can play as a dark comedy. The line is muddled throughout the runtime of whether or not it is appropriate to chuckle at the sheer carnage thrown at the way of poor Christine.

While Raimi would go on to direct a mediocre Wizard of Oz sequel following this, Drag Me to Hell is in many ways a twisted Oz adaptation. Christine, the farm girl, makes it to the big city and thrives at the cost of others’ livelihood, and is satanically punished for it. The parallels to this film’s release coinciding with the Great Recession of 2008 is conspicuous, but the script was written way before the financial crisis. Raimi is the furthest thing from a director with social and political messages, but the attitude of the film is representative of a time of distress. The kind of vicious punishment Christine, as a loan officer, suffers through would be a comforting vibe for audiences in 2009.

Raimi has always been a pastiche filmmaker with traditional sensibilities. His Spider-Man was so radical because it refused to be hip and new wave, and instead went for earnestness. For as mean as Drag Me to Hell is, it is still formally old school with its use of practical effects and puppeteer work. Raimi zipping the camera across space and spraying Lohman’s face with unidentified goo has the same wide-eyed passion of movie-making as it did in the 80s. On a more perverse level, I get a kick out of Raimi cooking up new gross excrements to throw at his actors’ faces all as a form of venting due to his frustrations on Spider-Man 3. In his mind, Avi Arad, his boss at Sony who forced him to add Venom to his story for merchandising, is the one being covered in excrement and not Lohman.

The metatextual commentary of Raimi unleashing his frustrations on this film is the most logical cause as to how he made the first truly cynical film of his career. While violent and gory, Evil Dead seems benign. There is even a sense of sympathy for the characters in A Simple Plan as they continue to push their luck out of pure greed. The guy had an interest in taking on a syrupy, dad-core Kevin Costner baseball movie. Even at his most zany and rebellious nature, Raimi is rooted in creating whole-hearted entertainment. Despite Drag Me to Hell being positioned as a return of form, the film is really more of a far cry for Raimi. It was the perfect kind of film to make as he got into older age and in the aftermath of dealing with the burden of franchise filmmaking.

As a tradition I’ve merely stumbled on, I tried to find a good passage from Roger Ebert’s review. I’m afraid that his review is really lacking. Anything he wrote circa 2009, when his health was quite poor in the midst of his battle with cancer. He’s a legend who earned the privilege to write reviews that were more about the plot and character beats of the horror genre rather than his usual populist analysis.

For most movies I watch, even the great ones, I always wish the ending was a little bit more harsh, dark, sad, or pick any adjective evoking negative emotions. Most movies are cynical for the first three quarters and then lose the tone in the 4th. Landing the plane is difficult, and because of that, filmmakers become too concerned with wrapping up the plot cleanly and concisely. This is particularly true with genre pictures. In the closing moments of Drag Me to Hell, I was expecting to be disappointed by an ending that plays it safe. I kept checking how much time was left, holding my breath for the tide to change. Christine waits for a train with Clay, and everything seems to be merry, signaling that she may have learned a lesson in morality. In fact, she did learn a lesson. Instead of passing her curse on to another living person, she digs underground in the pouring rain for the grave of the old woman who was ground zero and passes it on back to her, which was summoned in the form of a coat pin. Unbeknownst to her, she sent the wrong envelope, one that didn’t contain the pin. Her good deed was not good enough despite the effort, and as the title promises, Christine is dragged to hell, and the set piece is as mean as anything in the film. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Revisiting Teen Core Cinema

Photo: Universal Pictures

As I wonder where all the time has gone (I refuse to believe I started high school eight years ago), I thought of an interesting experiment. I recently had the urge to film bro-out, so I would take the time to revisit three essential films that I would argue on any given day in 2016 were my three favorites: A Clockwork Orange, Scarface, and The Shawshank Redemption. These pretty much check all the boxes of the teen film bro who just started getting into movies. While Shawshank stylistically and tonally greatly differs from the first two, there is something something inexplicable as to why this has climbed up the ranks of the film bro core despite the lack of gun wielders shouting “fuck you” at each other. I mean, it is #1 on the IMDb Top 250.

What is there to say about Stanley Kubrick that hasn’t been said to death already? He knows how and where to point the camera and how to, like a madman, unlock his actors into giving unique performances. There isn’t much enthusiasm, at least for me, in discussing the artistry or filmography of Kubrick. For as mysterious and reclusive as he was, everything about him is stated and plain fact. This is probably due to his films being so precise and exacting, as well as the length of time he took in between films towards the end of his career and life. Over the last few years, I never have the urge to rewatch any of his movies (even as my favorite podcast, Blank Check, is currently covering him).

A Clockwork Orange is the pinnacle of my new relationship to Kubrick. In my head, I was saying this while rewatching: This is technically exceptional. I’m loving Malcolm McDowell’s performance. The story is simultaneously transgressive and nuanced. I’d rather be doing something else with this time. It is a shame that I had this reaction, but maybe I shouldn’t feel bad. Perhaps this is the Kubrick effect: forcing yourself to sit in his cold and calculated mind. And I’m aware that the mythos surrounding Kubrick as a hermetic cyborg artist is overblown, but this is how I respond to his films. I might not be alone in having second thoughts about the film. Anecdotally speaking, the crowd on film Twitter would generally place this at second tier Kubrick, behind Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut. The issue that gets in my way the most of putting this in my top five of his films is the overall sameness in its narrative. The tone and characterization is just a little too one-note for my liking, and that is where Kubrick’s demanding preciseness hurts him.

Verdict: Very good movie that I respect more than I love. I’m hoping that I don’t feel this way when I revisit Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket. My favorite Kubrick joints are still Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove

I love Brian de Palma. Just about all of his films are so engaging to watch and use the camera so masterfully. Not many directors have the precise genre sensibilities that he possesses. While there is a lot to grab on to when watching Scarface, from the De Palma perspective, I find that the film is lacking more and more every time I watch it. It’s odd that the knock on the movie when it was first released in 1983 was that it was too stylized and all flash. The whole time when I was revisiting this, I was yelling “why isn’t this more perverted? Where are the split screens and split diopter shots?” This is De Palma at half speed, which is baffling considering that this is in between Blow Out and Body Double, perhaps his two most De Palma movies. 

I used to think one of the strengths of Scarface was the conflicting sensibilities of De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone. The former seems to have no interest in telling a story about the rise and fall of the gangster and/or takedown of capitalism, while the latter made a career out of suffering the consequences of following the American Dream. That worked against my enjoyment of the film this time. Their separate takes on Scarface would be much better. This certainly isn’t me looking at myself as a De Palma truther who delegitimizes his popular movies. I recently rewatched The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible and liked them even more, so much that they climbed up my ranking of his filmography. 

Verdict: Scarface needed to be either more trashy (sleazy exploitation) or more classy (30s Warner Bros gangster picture, even if it’s too similar to the original Howard Hawks film). This is just sitting here awkwardly in between.

As for The Shawshank Redemption, I’m still trying to comprehend its spot in film bro culture. If anything, I guess that when you begin diving into movies as an art form, the ones you start out with are ultimately nihilistic. Sometime after watching Pulp Fiction and Taxi Driver and feeling like you discovered true art for the first time, Shawshank moves on its audience differently. This was the one movie out of the three that I most expected to hold up the best. I was particularly in the mood for classical, broad sentimentality about friendship and self-redemption for a while, and in fact, I responded to these emotions when I revisited the film. With much of it coming from Stephen King’s side, the structure of the film is great, and features economical storytelling despite its mildly lengthy runtime. The highlight of Shawshank, really without question, is a thunderously captivating Morgan Freeman performance, who’s spirit carries the story, even through ham-fisted writing on screen or via voice over.

On a long awaited rewatch, I noticed signs of a rookie director in Frank Darabont. It’s amazing he directed a modern classic considering he unknowingly almost blew Morgan Freeman’s arm out. To steal a line from Griffin Newman of Blank Check, someone needed to take away the jar of paprika from Darabont. There are times, even though I can be suckered into a sweeping sentimental tale, when he lays it on too thick. Watch the “hope is a dangerous thing” scene again. Tim Robbins is giving too much, and the Thomas Newman score (albeit still great) plays way too unceremoniously. While the narrative stays on track, the first third of the film, which comprises prison hell porn and a cartoonish villain as a means to signify the difficulty of the lifestyle, could be cut out of the movie or at least be considerably revamped. These cliche filled moments get in the way of the true heart of the movie: the relationship between Andy and Red.

Verdict: This held up the best, but just like the two other films I covered, I no longer view this as a masterpiece. When it’s playing on cable TV (yes, I’m still sticking with it), I immediately click it, because it is rightfully canonized as the premiere Rewatchable movie. For a reason, the flow of the movie works efficiently, and you can jump in at any time and get to a landmark scene. The film’s strength is also its weakness at heart: it’s just too simple.

After contemplating these films in succession, I think why films of this kind resonate with male teens morphing into film buffs is because these films are centered around the evolution of a character, in this case being Alex, Tony Montana, and Andy Dufresne/Red Redding. Furthermore, they evolve due to their environment (crime reformation program, drug trade, prison) There is nothing an angsty teen knows more than the utter fact that we live in a society. These films may seemingly just be about individual people, but myself and many other up and coming film bros recognized that it’s the system, and we’re all just pawns in it, man.

Rent Free – A Martin Scorsese Story

It has been three years since the benign opinion heard around the world.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

~ Martin Scorsese on the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Marvel and its rambunctious online fanbase has been knocked out and down for the count ever since. Scorsese still owns so much real estate in their heads in 2022. Ever since these comments, they want to be taken seriously just as their movies continue to get worse and look like the worst amusement park in the area. Since that fateful day on October 4th, 2019, we have been blessed with many unhinged takes and think-pieces from Twitter users and professional columnists. I wanted to take valuable time to break down the summation of what we have been dealing with for three years. 

Introducing: “Martin Scorsese: rinse and repeat self-indulgence”, written by Sean Egan of The Critic.

“The result is a debasing of his talent: new Scorsese films are routinely an hour too long. The truth, though, is that his directorial talent has never been as great as occasional masterpieces like Goodfellas (1990) tricked us into believing it was.”

I don’t appreciate that someone like Sean Egan likes Goodfellas. This complaint is a broken record. Runtime, runtime, runtime. As James Cameorn said in a recent interview, go take a fucking piss if you have to. While almost every film released nowadays has a long runtime that is noticeable, Scorsese films are so tight and economical that you are just along for the ride.

Taxi Driver made Scorsese’s name in 1976, but lacks momentum or moral, relying for its gritty power on the shock value of Jodie Foster’s child-prostitute character and on it constituting by simple happenstance a snapshot of a Big Apple that then seemed on an unstoppable ride to dystopia.”

This feels like someone who didn’t watch Taxi Driver and instead went off of a Gen Z influencer’s ten tweet thread about the problematic nature of the film. If Travis Bickle’s arch isn’t an unstoppable ride to dystopia, then what is?

New York, New York (1977) is curiously soap opera-like if reasonably entertaining

This guy thinks Mean Streets is poorly directed but enjoys watching New York, New York, which I am fond of but is maybe his least enjoyable film to watch? I can’t help but admire Mr. Egan. His thoughts on Raging Bull are just more of the greatest hits. I’m sorry Jake LaMotta never puts down his gloves and says, “wait a second, your name is SUGAR RAY?!?!” like he’s Ant-Man. (Marvel has yet to get sick of that joke)

It turns out The King of Comedy, After Hours, and Goodfellas get the Egan stamp of approval, which again is concerning. They’re only three of my thirty favorite movies ever. After his 1990 masterpiece, however, it all goes downhill for Scorsese according to the writer who has Avengers: Endgame as his favorite film on Letterboxd.

“Since then, though, Scorsese has lazily settled on Mafia-Picture Director as a main calling.”

Did you not go to school for counting? I’ll fill it in for you. He’s done two since then, Casino and The Irishman, (I’ll give you The Departed but I don’t count it). He’s directed nearly fifteen feature films following Goodfellas. It really is like the closing lines of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the legend has become the real story behind Scorsese’s variety of films. I try not to get too defensive about this fallacy. Let’s pretend this notion is actually true and he’s only directed films in crime underworld, it would still be way more interesting than the shit that this guy consumes.

Casino (1995) and The Irishman (2019) contain broadly the same milieu, set pieces and morality lessons. Scorsese is simply moving the furniture around. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he, in another act of laziness, uses the same actors over and over: seeing Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel in a Scorsese mobster movie for the umpteenth time makes for a bizarre feeling of déjà vu-cum-musical chairs.”

There’s nothing worse than when Casino is viewed as the direct-to-video sequel to Goodfellas. Even when spoken neutrally about it, I wish the ‘95 film could ever get its due without having the title Goodfellas mentioned. The two films heavily vary in visual style. Goodfellas is more contained as a personal tale of rags to riches while Casino is going for something larger about the state of capitalism in America. Why do people dumb themselves down so much for Scorsese, one of the smartest directors to ever live? I know people aren’t this dumb. Or are you all way too caught up in the fact that they share similar casts and feature narration thus causing your brain to shut down?

The Irishman and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) are achingly slow, the momentum of what could be great narratives dragged down by longueurs just begging for the application of a brave editor’s scissors.”

The Irishman is slow” takes, fine, I give up that fight (but many people I see online lost their film buff badge over their awful takes on the film three years ago), but The Wolf of Wall Street is too slow now? I’m becoming more convinced this piece is all a bit.

“Whisper it lightly, but Scorsese doesn’t really believe in cinema. He has consistently refused to work within the art form’s natural parameters, whether it be by using voiceovers…or by whimsically breaking the fourth wall”

And…there’s the money shot. I read these previous takes in my sleep, but this was the new mountain that needed to be climbed. Someone who would painstakingly lay the groundwork for Scorsese being a detriment to the art of cinema is probably going to invoke the artistic value of a certain long running franchise, aren’t they?

“Scorsese recently slammed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, asserting that its component films are sensationalist and empty. In fact, thoughtfulness and rationalism suffuse every single one of them. In Captain America: Civil War, the vigilante nature of superheroes and costumed crime fighters is subject to profound questioning.”

I want “In Captain America: Civil War, the vigilante nature of superheroes and costumed crime fighters is subject to profound questioning.” to be memefied. Thank you Sean Egan for being a real king with this piece. I can see the light now. He watched Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ and, out loud, asked, “where is the profound questioning?” I bet you he was so upset he turned off the T.V halfway through each and stormed out of his apartment.

The level of vitriol towards Martin Scorsese is borderline concerning. Just watch any interview with him. He’s a sweet and gentle old man who loves cinema as art and not commercial property. I think because of the kinds of films he’s most famous for and the demographic of people who are most passionate about them, his naysayers think he is this toxic gatekeeper filled with aggressive male rage. In an age of sellouts and the real mafia of this story, intellectual property, he continues to preserve classic and international cinema. You know what, though, I get how the game is played. A nuanced story about Scorsese’s contribution to saving lost films Michael Powell doesn’t draw the same amount of clicks as “Despite claims from old cretin Martin Scorsese, Thor: Love and Thunder is great art.”

MEAN CREEK (2004) – The Darkest Afternoon Special

© 2004 Paramount Classics.

I heard about it from a meme, and I stayed with it because it hits the spot. That is my relationship to the 2004 indie film directed by newcomer Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek

What most shockingly stands out for viewers, specifically ones who grew up on the Nickelodeon series Drake & Josh as kids, is the presence of Josh Peck, who serves as the emotional center of the story. He looks just like the titular Josh of fame, but in this film which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival almost synchronously to the airing of the show, he is hostile, aggressive, and vulgar. This curse-filled tirade is the meme that is single handedly responsible for any lasting impact of this film today. And that’s a damn shame because this film is quite excellent.

The story of a group of kids performing a prank on George (Peck) after he beat up the younger brother (Rory Culkin) of one of the kids that goes horribly wrong seems like an invitation for campy, syrupy, cheap melodrama. After School Special 101: revenge is bad and don’t do to others and what you wouldn’t want others to do to you. Trust me, this movie is punishing to both the characters and the audience. The revenge prank ends when George is involuntarily pushed overboard and is killed via head collision. While sure, the coda of the film enforces that message, you experience a visceral reaction to the cause and effect as a result of the film’s dynamic character work.

Once the main story arc of the prank orchestrated by Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), Rocky (Trevor Morgan), and Clyde (Ryan Kelley), which involves leaving George naked and left alone on the water, I at least found myself continuously on edge. Estes plays with conscious thought and primal emotions. Consciously, you know that this prank is cruel, but emotionally, you talk yourself into thinking that George deserves something coming to him. His troubled nature works on both sides of the coin. In morality tales such as this, the gray line of proper justice is always in question and often pushed to the limit. When dealing with junior high schoolers and high schoolers, the punishing effect when the wrong decisions are made only hits harder.

A great example of the character work in Mean Creek is Clyde’s disdain when homophobic remarks are made at the expense of him, as he is the son of a gay couple, even when they come from his friend, Marty. So when George, trying to fit in with the group, refers to Clyde as a “faggot”, it creates dramatic tension between Clyde and George. You can only imagine how he would feel about a non-friend name calling him with that word. But then again, George just doesn’t know any better. And as an aside, there is great nuance in showing a young adult express vulnerability in being called such a thing for a film with such a hard edge in 2004.

Mean Creek is effective as a film engaging with the desires and consequences of hyper-masculinity. On the first watch, which occurred when I was about 15 I might add, (you know, what most 15 year olds were doing) I was puzzled by how often the boys were physically pushing each other, notably in the first twenty minutes or so. It seemed like overdirection, but looking at it now, it builds up to the idea that their instinctual toxic aggression led them down this path. Marty is constantly reinforcing to Rocky that he can’t let George walk away scot free after beating up his brother when Rocky starts to grow weary of the executing the prank. It’s ambiguous whether George’s toxic masculinity is true to him by nature or whether it’s a cover up for his insecurities, but either way, his aggression clashes with the internal rage of Marty and leads to his demise on the boat. The damning sign of the toxic masculinity of Marty and Rocky, “who personally have nothing against George, want to go ahead (with the prank); they’re using a crude interpretation of justice to mask their own needs” writes Roger Ebert. When Rocky’s brother, Sam, gets to know George more, morphs his vengeance into empathy, and Sam is the one who actually was affected by George’s actions. The way I as a viewer shifted my sympathies with George is a credit to Josh Peck’s brilliant performance, who somehow managed to make me forget he was the lovable, goofy kid on Nickelodeon.

Ebert’s review is quite celebratory, more than expected solely based on his middling three star rating. I thought I’d be the one defending this film’s honor at all times, but I couldn’t help but be taken aback by Ebert’s comment here:

Mean Creek makes us realize how many films, not just those about teenagers but particularly the one-dimensional revenge-driven adult dramas, think the defeat of the villain solves everything. Such films have a simplistic playground morality: The bully is bad, we will destroy him, and our problems will be over. They don’t pause to consider the effects of revenge — not on the bully, but on themselves.”

If Estes had the courage to write and direct a film that sets up and executes the perfect bully revenge and relishes in the success of it all a la Tarantino, then hats off to him. This is when I wonder if Ebert, god love him, occasionally viewed films too literally. Every morality tale that I’ve seen flirts with the consequences of a scheme like this, even if the story arc is closely tied to the perspective of the characters rather than an omnipresent narrator. I highly recommend that everyone see Mean Creek, but not because it’s unique in delving into the consequences of your actions. The point I imagined he’d agree with, and maybe was trying to convey all along, was that Mean Creek is more unapologetic with its psychological angst than its peers.

As I previously mentioned, I watched this when I was fifteen and a freshman in high school. Based on the Vine (R.I.P) of Josh Peck’s passionate vulgar filled insult barrage at these people that always gave me a great laugh, I just had to know what this movie was and how it got to this point of dramatic intensity. Sure enough, the film worked on me so well that I was doing anything but laughing by the time this pivotal scene occurred.

Ebert’s review