All Hail The King
Though primarily a literary figure, Stephen King has enjoyed one of the most successful symbioses between publishing and Hollywood of any popular author, if not in box office and critical respect (those trophies would most likely have to go to Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling) certainly in terms of sheer quantity.
King’s first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974, and the breakout success of Salem’s Lot, published two years later – the same year the movie version of Carrie was released – elevated him into the major commercial publishing ranks and ignited a revived interest in literary horror fiction as a whole. King’s ascension to bestseller status roughly coincided with a surge in Hollywood horror fare (this was, after all, the era of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre , Halloween , The Exorcist , The Omen , just to name a very few), and his early-won, long-held prominence in both print and film – with each venue reinforcing King’s status in the other – quickly combined to cement his reputation as one of modern horror’s leading lights.
Since the screen adaptation of Carrie, King-based horror movies have been so much a regular feature of studio slates it wouldn’t be unfair to consider the King-inspired creep fest as a genre unto itself. Since 1980, hardly a year has gone by without a theatrical release or TV project connected to the author. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, as of this writing there have been some 120 theatrical releases, shorts, TV movies, series and mini-series – including sequels and remakes – built around King’s novels, novellas, short works, and original screenplays, beginning with Carrie and up to and including over a half-dozen projects currently in various stages of development or production including adaptations of his most recent novels, Cell and Under the Dome, both tentatively scheduled for a 2011 release. “Stephen King” is considered such a branded commodity among the major studios that the novelist’s name is not infrequently incorporated into the titles of screen adaptations and originals as a marquee draw i.e. Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift (1990), Stephen King’s Silver Bullet (1985), Stephen King’s The Green Mile (1999), etc.
What makes King so representative of movie horror over the last 35 years is that the extensive canon of King screen adaptations and originals encompasses nearly every approach, trend, and permutation of horror cinema the studios have explored over that period, from the industry’s 1960s/1970s surge in elegant, adult-oriented horror (The Shining, 1980) to the 1980s tidal wave of more modestly-produced shockers (Pet Sematary, 1989), and so on. Stephen King thriller movies range from the insipid (Graveyard Shift  – giant rat preys on mill workers; Maximum Overdrive  – alien force takes over the world’s trucks) to the intentionally kitschy (Creepshow  – anthology salute to the horror comics of the 1950s and 1960s) to the intellectually intriguing (Apt Pupil  – disaffected teen becomes interested in elderly neighborhood man who might be a Nazi war criminal). There have been King thrillers which were exhausted rehashes of the familiar (werewolf tale Silver Bullet, 1985), while others were refreshingly novel (Carrie and its portrait of adolescent frustration manifesting as telekinetic catharsis). Some stories have been all “hook,” hung on a promotable premise but little else (Thinner  — nasty lawyer is cursed by a gypsy to become thinner and thinner), while others have been so effectively drama-driven one, is loathe to even consider them thrillers (Dolores Claiborne  and its front story of a fractured mother/daughter relationship).
Productions have been similarly variegated. Some King features have been prestige productions helmed by the strongest directors in the horror genre (Creepshow’s George Romero; Christine’s  John Carpenter; The Dead Zone’s  David Cronenberg), as well as some of the most notable directors in the commercial mainstream (Carrie’s Brian DePalma; The Shining’s Stanley Kubrick; Misery’s  Rob Reiner).
Hollywood’s consistent interest in the “Stephen King” genre is understandable beyond the obvious hope the brand will bring a built-in fan base to movie houses. King’s stories are mainstream-friendly as they are often clearly-defined morality tales with boldfaced villains and Everyman heroes who find some deep, inner, uplifting resource to take them to an ultimate triumph. As well, by King’s own admission, many of his horror stories provide just the kind of grotesqueries – “…the gross-out” — which appeals to the horror genre’s youthful fan base and its appetite for visual shocks.
Also appealing to Hollywood in much of King’s work is his ability to take bankable familiar horror icons – vampires (Salem’s Lot, 1979), werewolves (Silver Bullet), the undead (Pet Sematary), hauntings (The Shining, Christine, Rose Madder ), paranormal powers (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter , The Green Mile), hexes and curses (Thinner), Jaws-like monster tales (Cujo , Graveyard Shift), and revive them by marrying them firmly to recognizably everyday milieus.
King has a penchant for returning to certain story ideas and elements and reworking them into new but familiar shapes. Thus, the homicidal blocked aspiring writer of The Shining becomes the homicidal blocked established writer of Secret Window (2004); the haunted hotel corrupting its caretaker in The Shining becomes the haunted vintage sedan corrupting its owner in Christine; The Faustian Needful Things (1993) becomes the Faustian Storm of the Century (1999); the relationship between a young boy and old hotel cook with whom he shares a special psychic connection in The Shining becomes the relationship between a young boy and middle-aged boarder with whom he shares a special psychic connection in Hearts in Atlantis (2001); childhood bullies are faced down tragically in Carrie and Christine, more triumphantly in Sometimes They Come Back (1991) and Hearts in Atlantis; in Salem’s Lot, a fatigued novelist returns to his sleepy town to find it plagued by vampirism, while in The Tommyknockers (1993), an alcoholic poet discovers his sleepy town is plagued by an alien force. Such recyclings have only attracted a Hollywood enamored of sequels, remakes and knockoffs, and which often seems less interested in forging iconoclastic successes than in cloning past ones.
Hollywood execs have no doubt also been attracted to the fact that most King theatricals have been produced for moderate budgets. Up until The Green Mile ($60 million budget), the average budget for a King theatrical over a 20-year period stood at a little over $11 million. Subtract the few top-of-the-line King adaptations from the roster – The Shining, The Running Man (1987), Misery (1990), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – and the average budget over the same period drops to a lean $8.7 million.
While these elements go a long way toward explaining Hollywood’s ceaseless mining of King’s material, there remains something paradoxical about the major studios’ fealty to the brand; a fact which, in itself, reveals something indicative about today’s Hollywood mindset.
King’s literary success has never found parity on the big screen. While, as an author, he has been a consistent bestseller for decades, the canon of King screen works can boast only very few major box offices success. Of 41 Stephen King theatrical movies released between 1976-2007 (including non-thrillers like the elegiac boyhood tale Stand By Me , and prison drama The Shawshank Redemption), 19 either fell short of breakeven on their domestic release or were outright flops. Most of the remainder were modest or mid-range performers with the average box office for those same 41 releases standing at a little over $30 million domestic gross per. Only four Stephen King adaptations over that same period grossed more than $60 million: The Shining ($65 million), Misery ($61.3 million), The Green Mile ($136 million – the best performance of a Stephen King adaptation until It: Chapter One), and 1408 ($72 million). The record becomes even more uninspiring the more parsed it gets: only 8 of these 42 features have grossed more than $40 million domestic; 18 grossed less than $20 million; seven earned less than $10 million. One of the most recent big screen King features: 2007’s The Mist, adapted and helmed by Frank Darabont (who had previously adapted/directed Shawshank and Green Mile), turning in a disappointing $25.6 million box office on a budget of $18 million (Hollywood rule of thumb: a movie typically has to gross at least twice its budget to achieve breakeven).
To be fair, this performance rate may say more about Hollywood thriller-making than King’s material. Many King adaptations pare down the pop culture texture and character drama which have helped the author connect so widely with readers, and, instead, emphasize the horror and gross-out aspects of his work. Going one step further, some projects seemed to have been picked primarily for their quotient of bizarreness and the grotesque (Silver Bullet, Graveyard Shift, and Thinner offering prime examples), rather than their ability to sustain a movie feature.
1 It $327,481,748
2 The Green Mile $136,801,374
3 1408 $71,985,628
4 Misery $61,276,872
5 Pet Sematary $57,469,467
6 Pet Sematary $53,257,219
7 Stand by Me $52,287,414
8 The Dark Tower $50,701,325
9 Secret Window $48,022,900
10 The Shining $44,017,374
11 The Running Man $38,122,105
12 Carrie (2013) $35,266,619
13 Carrie $33,800,000
14 Dreamcatcher $33,715,436
15 The Lawnmower Man $32,100,816
16 Sleepwalkers $30,524,763
17 The Shawshank Redemption $28,341,469
18 The Mist $25,594,957
19 Dolores Claiborne $24,361,867
20 Hearts in Atlantis $24,185,781
21 Cujo $21,156,152
22 Creepshow $21,028,755
23 Christine $21,017,849
24 The Dead Zone $20,766,616
25 The Rage: Carrie 2 $17,762,705
26 Pet Sematary II $17,092,453
27 Firestarter $17,080,167
28 Tales From the Darkside: The Movie $16,324,573
29 Stephen King’s Thinner $15,315,484
30 Needful Things $15,185,672
31 Children of the Corn $14,568,989
32 Cat’s Eye $13,086,298
33 Silver Bullet $12,361,866
34 Graveyard Shift $11,582,891
35 The Dark Half $10,611,160
36 Apt Pupil $8,863,193
37 Maximum Overdrive $7,433,663
38 Children of the Corn II $6,980,986
39 Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace $2,409,225
40 The Mangler $1,781,383 800
41 Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet $134,711
42 The Night Flier $125,397
Still, despite a box office record which could only be described as erratic, Hollywood’s devotion to Stephen King as a brand name franchise has been unflagging and surprisingly consistent over the last thirty-odd years, regardless of whether the industry has just experienced a King triumph or a string of King disappointments. In this, Stephen King movies are a testament to an industry dedication to the concept of the brand name franchise bordering on religious fanaticism. Particularly as time has gone by, the major studios have seemed less concerned about selecting just the right Stephen King property and matching it with just the right cast and director, then they have been in getting anything on a cinema marquee which begins with the descriptive, Stephen King’s….
– Bill Mesce
For more on Bill Mesce’s writing, pick up Idols, Icons, and Illusions and Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go to See Them. Both paperback editions are available on Amazon.
Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan
Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something
You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.
Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts.
Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune.
And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.
I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie.
While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.
In Defense of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’
The anger and vitriol directed at Rian Johnson’s 2017 film is misplaced, as it’s actually the best ‘Star Wars’ movie since the original trilogy
Over the course of the last few years, a tiresome debate has been had, over and over again, over whether certain popular blockbuster movies have become too politically correct, too inclusive, too “woke.”
This debate has touched just about every piece of mass entertainment, from Marvel to Terminator to Watchmen to Charlie’s Angels, and it’s often used as a cudgel to gloat over negative box office results.
It’s all both exceedingly tiresome and not the slightest bit new, as it’s just a different name for what used to be called “liberal bias” analysis, back in the 1990s. But the worst thing of all about it the modern version of this is that “woke” is often merely another word for “this movie has women and minorities in prominent roles.”
“Every word of what you just said was wrong”
Probably the apotheosis of the recent version of this was Star Wars: The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson’s film that came out in December of 2017. The Last Jedi received positive reviews, with a Rotten Tomatoes critics score in the 90s, and made $1.3 billion worldwide, good for 13th all time. It was the #1 movie at the domestic box office in 2017, even though it was released two weeks before the end of the year.
However, since the time of the film’s release, there’s been a bitter, angry backlash against The Last Jedi, against director Rian Johnson, and in favor of a counter-narrative that says the film “ruined” Star Wars.
Yes, there are other arguments, about the film not being true to the character of Luke Skywalker, about Star Wars not being what it used to be following its 2012 acquisition by Disney, and other specious contentions that The Last Jedi “ruined” characters Star Wars fans used to like.
Nevermind that a certain subset of Star Wars fans has reacted with seething anger to just about every new Star Wars project, going back as far as Return of the Jedi. (The Mandalorian seems to have escaped this, through its first few episodes, but give it time.) Or that many of the complaints about The Last Jedi, from its hamfisted dialogue to its overly cute characters to the slowness at times of its plot, is true of just about every Star Wars movie.
Things get ugly
Of course, the backlash against The Last Jedi has taken on even uglier tones. There were death threats against Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose. Trolls admitted to manipulating the movie’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. That petition to strike the film from the Star Wars canon. The film has been the subject of way too many angry, ranting, three-hour YouTube videos.
Nasty as all of that stuff is, these people are just plain on the wrong side. That’s because The Last Jedi is a beautiful, special film, one that holds up on repeated viewings, and is by a pretty significant margin the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy.
There are many great things about The Last Jedi, starting with the return of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. The film centers Luke in a way that one hadn’t since Return of the Jedi, and explores the character in a fascinating way that is, contrary to what Last Jedi haters say, true to what may become of Luke.
There’s also a ten-minute sequence in the middle of The Last Jedi that’s up there with the very best of the Star Wars saga. That throne room scene, followed by Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo slamming into the ship -which Johnson shot as a knowing 2001: A Space Odyssey homage – is such a thrilling succession of events that I rewound and watched it again the last time I watched the movie. This part, in particular, made everyone in my critics’ screening gasp:
Then there’s the final scene, in which kids are playing with a Luke Skywalker toy.
The silly thing at all is that the film doesn’t even have much of a political agenda, unless you’re the sort of person who thinks that women and people of color having prominent roles in a movie is, by its very nature, problematically political.
It really can’t be emphasized enough that Star Wars has now been around for over 40 years. If you’re part of the original generation of fans, that saw the original movies in the theater and collected the original toys and everything else, you’re not only not the entirety of the Star Wars fan base anymore, but you’re not even the majority. And when it comes to Star Wars today, I care a lot more about what kids think than about what 45-year-olds think.
The director speaks
For Rian Johnson’s part, he’s found a way to often cleverly retort to trolls who still harass him regularly for directing a movie they didn’t like.
“The key to being on Twitter is like anything else- you have to enjoy it,” Johnson told me in a red carpet interview when his new film, Knives Out, showed at the Philadelphia Film Festival back in October. “If you’re not enjoying being on there, there’s no reason to be on there.. if you’re having fun, and you’re getting more out of it than you’re putting more into it- and I do, in all the interactions with the fans.
“The bad stuff gets written up a lot, but 95% of my interactions on there are wonderful and lovely,” he added. “And the stuff that’s bad, I’ve seen so much of it, I see the patterns it falls into, you don’t want to engage with it too much, but once in awhile it’s fun to just kind of play with it a bit.”
Too many Star Wars fans seem to think, despite everything, that they’re part of a small subculture of nerds and outcasts, as opposed to the closest thing to a worldwide monoculture that still exists.
It’s part of the ugly trend towards fandoms taking on the properties of identity politics. No, liking Star Wars doesn’t make you part of a marginalized, persecuted minority. You just didn’t like a movie, that’s it. George Lucas didn’t “rape” your “childhood,” and no, neither did Rian Johnson. All Johnson did was make a great film that took risks and saw nearly all of them pay off.
‘Greener Grass’ Is a Pain in The Ass
Maybe get high for this one
Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe as two soccer moms who battle it out over who has the more perfect suburban life, Greener Grass looks like it creators are having a lot of fun. Possibly more fun than anyone actually watching the film, a surrealist satire of suburban life that is neither cutting enough to be insightful nor funny enough to be worthwhile. While watchable thanks to its strange, cartoonish world-building and bold production design, it ultimately fails both as comedy and as meaningful commentary.
Greener Grass starts with Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) watching their kids play soccer; Jill has a new baby, which Lisa hadn’t previously noticed. In the first sign that this world is completely askew, Jill just gives her baby to Lisa as a present. This is one of the least weird things that happens in a film with little concern towards logical construction or narrative coherence.
Featuring a soundtrack giving off serious original Twin Peaks vibes, the world of Greener Grass is one of pure strangeness: cars are replaced by golf carts, characters wear matching coloured suits, and the whole town gives off a twinkling aura reminiscent of classic television adverts. Jill and Lisa are classic models of femininity, at one point switching husbands to kiss as a comment on how generic their men seem. Nonetheless, they are constantly competing, with the ever-susceptible Jill constantly on the lookout for a way that she can finally improve her life, while Lisa tries to iron out her own familial issues. Sadly, neither Jill nor Lisa ever make it past their sketch-show characterisations, making them at first unrelatable, before eventually becoming straight-up annoying.
There is a sense here that more care has been put into crafting this weird universe then telling a coherent story of what actually happens in it; Greener Grass mostly using its setting as an excuse to string together a bunch of middling skits. At first, the randomness seems freeing; when you watch so many films for a living, B constantly following A can get rather repetitive. This is a world where anything can happen and nothing is explained. For example, when Jill’s son turns into a dog — suddenly leaving the woman who once had two children with none at all — the how of it all is never asked, and the event is instead used as a means to explore Jill’s relationship to Lisa. Yet, once it becomes obvious that there is no true connective tissue between absurdities (like you might find in the tightly-wound films of Yorgos Lanthimos), the world of Greener Grass grows easily tiring — even moreso considering its barrage of adolescent, amateurish, awkward and atrocious attempts at comedy.
Comedy is a hard thing to quantify. Sometimes it simply boils down to whether something makes you laugh…or at least smile. While the madcap world of Greener Grass is aesthetically delightful, the jokes can come across as painfully awful — the kind of try-too-hard skits you find in the bottom basement of a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe. Undeniably an each-to-their-own kind of situation, its an even bigger shame that these jokes cannot even be corralled into something actually interesting.
The obvious influence here, in both form and construction (featuring a subplot with a mysterious killer), is David Lynch. Yet, while Twin Peaks (at least in season 1 and The Return) and Blue Velvet used that weirdness to expose the darker underbelly of American life, it’s hard to say what Greener Grass is actually saying about the nature of suburban aspiration. While it seems that the point is to show how suburban life is already kind of absurd, dialing the zaniness up to eleven doesn’t hammer in that point any further. It comes as little surprise that the feature film is adapted from a short. Perhaps it should’ve stayed that way.
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