Though the term “Kafkaesque” gets bandied about a lot, it’s only correctly used a relatively small portion of the time. Admittedly, it’s a hard thing to succinctly describe without sitting someone down, making them read The Trial cover to cover, and going “pretty much that” as soon as they’re done. But hey, let’s try anyway. Kafka wrote in large part about helplessness, about being trapped in something overwhelming, incomprehensible, and perhaps hostile. It could be a labyrinthine bureaucratic system, or even your own suddenly unrecognizable body. He wrote about normal people suddenly thrust into the abnormal and nightmarish, seemingly at the whims of an uncaring universe, which itself doesn’t sound too complicated, but it’s a strangely hard thing to get really “right,” sort of like Lovecraft. There have only been a small handful of movies directly based on Kafka’s work, and directors ranging from Orson Welles to Steven Soderberg have taken tries at getting his schtick right. An often overlooked film in the far more plentiful genre of films that use Kafka’s themes and ideas rather than directly adapting his works is the 1985 black comedy After Hours, which also happens to be one of the more often overlooked films in the oeuvre of its director, Martin Scorsese.
After Hours isn’t one of those Scorsese films that is talked about to death, like with Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, and that is a shame since it ranks among his best work. It was made while production on The Last Temptation of Christ had stalled so hard that it looked like the film would never get made, and Scorsese, understandably for someone in the situation of having a dream project potentially slip away, was in a dark place, feeling powerless. This may seem like a trivial fact, but it’s actually key to understanding why After Hours works. That feeling of powerlessness, of being a victim of happenstance and capricious fate, is what drives a good chunk of the film. Had it fallen to a different director, or even the same director at a different time, it’s almost certain it wouldn’t have turned out as well as it did.
After Hours follows Paul Hackett, an office worker living in New York in the 80s. After a chance encounter with a woman in a diner, Paul heads to the trendy Soho district, far from his usual hangouts. From there, virtually everything that can go wrong does, from lost cab fare to the woman he’s there to meet turning out to be married, to Paul eventually finding himself pursued by an angry mob after a case of mistaken identity. It’s a comedy of errors in the truest sense, one where things always manage to fail in just the right way to leave our protagonist in the worst possible situation. Of course, it isn’t all exactly in the hands of fate. Despite being our hero, Paul is actually kind of an ass, far from blameless for everything that befalls him. If there’s any real corollary, it’s Seinfeld, which the film predates by just a few years. Take a person with some questionable reactions to bizarre circumstances, add a few unfortunate coincidences, steep the whole thing in an foot of New York urbania, and you’ve got After Hours.
There is another layer at work, however, beyond the Kafkaesque and Scorsese’s feelings of frustration and helplessness. Soho in the 1980s was a very strange and wild place, the kind of neighborhood where you could find Jean-Michel Basquiat sleeping on the floor of John Lurie’s apartment while Jim Jarmusch films Permanent Vacation around him. The “No Wave” film scene was in full swing, and scads of other avant-garde movements as well. To an outsider looking in, it must have been bewildering, perhaps even frightening. There’s a fair bit of that sentiment in After Hours, that sense of being a “straight” person looking in on a world that’s operating on a whole ‘nother wavelength. Of course, this means the film could be read as being somewhat alarmist, a work that paints avant-garde subcultures and movements as alien and frightening.
This would only be the case, however, if Paul were presented as the perfectly normal, upstanding middle-class worker suddenly thrown into the terrifying world of weird artsy types and stoners. But remember that Paul is, as we’ve already covered, a bit of a schmuck. As much as it’s about him being at the whims of the world around him, he’s also to blame for some of his situation. This is also where things break a bit from the Kafka vibe, and where After Hours becomes more of its own thing. Rather than purely a story about some poor sap being wrenched about by incomprehensible forces, it’s also a movie about perspective.
Though Paul never quite says it out loud, it becomes fairly obvious that he thinks he’s the “normal” one in this situation, that he’s a regular person, and everyone else is unhinged and weird. As the film goes on, that certainty becomes shakier, especially for the audience. Paul’s status as an audience surrogate character starts to erode as he begins to make more rash decisions, more ill-advised moves. It’s at this point that After Hours handily escapes being about how scary and weird the subculture at hand is, Reefer Madness-style. To the denizens of Soho, Paul is unquestionably the weird one, the one who seems kinda crazy and unhinged. With just the slightest change in perspective, After Hours could have very easily been a movie about a neighborhood of artists and misfits banding together to protect their home from an outside threat. Of course, we know more about that outside threat than they do.
After Hours keeps this balance wonderfully, never straying into demonizing the Soho-ites, nor Paul. His confusion at their whole scene is apparent, but it never turns to condemnation, and likewise Paul is portrayed as thoughtless, panic-stricken, rash, but never a bad person. After Hours could have easily been about an upright normie versus the scary art-weirdos, or the neighborhood of artists versus the evil entitled yuppie, but it never goes in either direction, winding up instead as a film about a bad set of circumstances made worse by people just being on different wavelengths.
‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ is Dark Fantasy at its Best
Tom Watches Movies
Issa López immediately sets the stage for her latest film, Tigers Are Not Afraid,
After that harrowing opening, schoolgirl Estrella returns to find her mother missing, seemingly one of the ever-increasing number of innocents spirited away by the local Huascas gang. Estrella joins up with Shine, a boy trying desperately to keep a small band of fellow orphans safe from the Huascas after stealing a gun and cell-phone from one of them. But strange forces linger in the background, pursuing Estrella and her new friends. Estrella was given three pieces of chalk by her teacher, along with the promise that each one would grant a wish; this magically appears to be true, but Estrella’s wishes also seem as much a curse as a blessing.
While other films have positioned fantastical elements as a relief against the harshness of the ‘real’ world, Tigers Are Not Afraid is more ambiguous. In López’s film, the entities silently following Estrella and her new friends are often sinister and threatening. These aren’t comforting fantasies meant as a means of escape, but simply another aspect of an endlessly threatening world. The film is as much horror as it is fantasy, and walks a fine line between the two. Like the gun and cell phone that Shine steals in the opening scenes, Estrella’s chalk brings as much danger as power — power and control over one’s environment is really at the core of the film.
Shine especially is in a constant search for control, and at
López, along with cinematographer Juan Jose
The cast, almost entirely composed of young children, is
There are worse issues to raise with a film, however. That is the cardinal rule, after all: always leave them wanting more. Tigers Are Not Afraid absolutely does that, presenting a dazzling and often harrowing mix of fantasy and brutal realism, and establishing Issa López as the new director to watch for genre fans.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is streaming now on Shudder
‘Stephen King’s IT’ Is Dated but Not Toothless
Tom Watches Movies
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 8, 2017, but for obvious reasons, we’ve decided to spotlight it again.
With the release of the new, big-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, attention is invariably turning to the previous attempt at bringing King’s gargantuan novel to the screen: the 1990 miniseries. The original IT is mostly remembered for Tim Curry’s performance in the role of Pennywise, the sinister clown that terrorizes the children of Derry, Maine. Curry’s Pennywise can often be found on lists of the most iconic horror characters of all time, and it would be easy to assume that without this one element, It would most likely have fallen into the same obscurity that many of those King miniseries now find themselves in, and as the number of people who’ll be watching the 1990 version before flocking to catch the new adaptation are finding out, the original It isn’t actually that good. It’s not exactly bad, but aside from one memorably over-the-top performance, it’s ultimately still an above-average early 90s miniseries.
The story takes place (as the vast majority of King properties do) in a small town in Maine, and something is targeting the local children, in particular, the group of outcasts and misfits dubbed the Loser’s Club. But rather than a run-of-the-mill serial killer, the entity leaving a trail of dead children in its wake is Pennywise, a sinister clown with supernatural powers and a thirst for blood. With the adults seemingly blind to Pennywise, the Loser’s club must band together to put a stop to his reign of terror, and then meet again thirty years later when their old nemesis returns.
It’s place as a beloved horror property — or at least a fondly remembered one — can largely be attributed to one element: Tim Curry’s Pennywise. To be sure, it is a memorable performance, full of the kind of enthusiasm and gusto that Curry made a name for himself with. To what degree you’re bound to find Curry’s character actually scary depends a lot on how you feel about clowns. If coulrophobia isn’t something you suffer from, it’s very likely that Curry’s antics, dripping with camp from start to finish, won’t do much to send chills up your spine. Then there’s the infamous ending, which sees Curry’s Pennywise drop away in favor of a giant spider creature, ostensibly his true form. Full credit to the effects designers — it’s a great looking effect, but it’s also completely devoid of subtlety, substituting the sinister, unsettling vibe of much of the series for a big monster in a surprisingly well-lit cave. Luckily for IT, there’s a deeper horror lurking under the surface, but more on that later.
When Curry isn’t onscreen, which is the vast majority of the time, the series rests solely on the shoulders of the cast and production staff, who usually strain under the weight. In a surprising twist, the child actors who portray the Loser’s Club in their initial encounter with Pennywise vastly outshine their adult counterparts, whose performances generally leave a lot to be desired. Even usually dependable players like John Ritter fall short more often than not. The inadequacies of the adult actors are made somewhat worse by the fact that the second half of the series is notably weaker than the first, with the atmosphere undone by too many montages set to upbeat music.
The production staff, including director Tommy Lee Wallace, also don’t do much to stand out. Wallace’s direction is fine, occasionally capturing a spooky atmosphere, but for the most part the direction in IT feels like exactly what it is: flat, by the numbers TV direction typical of the time period.
So if Pennywise isn’t that scary and the formal aspects of the 1990 production aren’t that interesting, what is there to IT in the end? The series’ best moments, the ones that almost make it worth sitting through all three hours, are the moments of true horror scattered in between clown attacks and the giant spider finale. The Losers Club, like so many child protagonists in horror properties, are the only ones who can see Pennywise and all the aftermath of his antics, but IT throws a twist into this tried and true formula. Horror fans will doubtlessly be familiar with this scenario: during a moment alone, one of the protagonists will see a horrifying vision, in this particular case an explosion of blood from a drain or a family photo album. They’ll run and grab their parents, only to return and find everything normal. What they saw was a vision, a hallucination. IT throws a curveball in this formula by having the blood, creatures, and other terrifying manifestations stay around when the adults are in the room. These aren’t visions or hallucinations, but reality — a reality that adults have trained themselves to overlook.
Why does this matter? Because the true horror of IT isn’t the scary clown or the giant spider — it’s the willingness of societies to look the other way when something is clearly wrong. There’s a key scene when Bev, the only female members of The Loser’s Club, recalls being attacked by the neighborhood bullies. A man across the street sees this happening, and rather than intercede, he quietly returns to his house. It is about what happens when people become so used to cruelty and horror that they train themselves not to see it, to look the other way when presented with something clearly harmful. It’s about the normalization of the abnormal, about the seductive power of willful ignorance when the alternative — action — puts oneself at risk. Look at Henry Bowers, the local bully who’s clearly a dangerous sociopath to anyone who pays attention. What is he, if not just another Pennywise? He’s a problem that everyone looks past because trying to fix it is harder than ignoring it.
Admittedly, this far more interesting aspect is something native to King’s novel rather than something concocted by the makers of the series, so we can’t credit Stephen King’s IT with bringing this particular aspect to the table. We can, however, be grateful that this crucial element was preserved rather than putting a focus on the much shallower horrors of scary clowns and giant spiders.
Watching the 1990 IT, it becomes clear that a second stab is needed to really plumb the depths of the novel and do it justice, as there is a lot of interesting material to be mined. In addition to the more interesting commentary on societal apathy, there’s also King’s dabblings with cosmic horror, something the miniseries pays the barest of lip service to. By the sound of things, Andrés Muschietti has presented us with a far superior version of King’s novel. Does that make the 1990 version obsolete? No, not entirely. Tim Curry’s performance, campy as it is, is still fun to watch. But apart from that element, it won’t be hard for the upcoming second attempt to overshadow its predecessor in most regards.
Fantasia Film Festival 2019: Thomas O’Connor’s Most Anticipated Films
The Fantasia Film Festival is once again looming on the horizon, promising three weeks of fun for Montreal film geeks. As always, the lineup is chock-full of new works by familiar creators and promising new talents, and it can be intimidating to decide where to start. But worry not, for GoombaStomp has you covered. In the lead-up to our coverage of this year’s Fantasia Fest, we’ll be bringing you some of our most anticipated films from the selection.
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The 80s nostalgia craze seems to be winding down a bit, but that hasn’t stopped numerous franchises from getting revivals and reboots. After all, a new Child’s Play reboot only just landed in theatres. The Critters franchise is the latest to board the revival train, with a quasi-reboot from series producers Barry Opper and Rupert Harvey. Critters is probably the best-remembered product of a wave of “tiny terrors” movies that sprang up in the wake of Gremlins. In the case of Critters, the titular pint-sized creatures are ravenous aliens that devour anyone and anything in their path.
The original films are fun, creative creature features with a dedicated fan following, and while the new installment seems to be positioning itself as a soft reboot, there also looks to be a lot of love for fans of the originals. The new film will continue the franchise’s commitment to practical creature effects, and at least one cast member from the original (Dee Wallace) is returning. Critters Attack! promises a lot of what Fantasia audiences love: nostalgia, gore, and black humor, and seeing it with a lively audience will no doubt enhance the experience of seeing this franchise make its return.
Garo – Under the Moonbow
If you’re into Tokusatsu, the colorful world of live-action Japanese superhero shows, you’re probably familiar with Keita Amemiya. Amemiya has worked with numerous major Toku franchises, having directed episodes of Super Sentai, a pair of short films in the Kamen Rider franchise, and even an installment in the Metal Heroes series. But Amemiya seems to prefer playing in his own sandbox, and projects like the feature films Zeiram, Mirai Ninja, and especially his long-running Garo franchise prove that. Garo follows the adventures of a number of armored demon hunters, men and women dedicated to the destruction of the demonic “Horrors” who prey on unsuspecting humans. Garo in many ways acts as a continuing showcase of Amemiya’s talents for atmosphere and visuals, with ever-expanding mythology thrown in for good measure.
It’s that last part that may keep some audience members at arm’s length from Garo – Under the Moonbow. This is a franchise that’s been going on since 2005, and the chances of the new film sparing much time to get newbies caught up is low. But there’s another element worth considering: Amemiya will be there in person not only to present the new film, but also to offer a Master Class to fans. Even if you can’t tell your Kamen Rider J from your Kamen Rider ZO, the chance to hear an industry veteran with a clear and distinct voice and passion share his experiences as a filmmaker is not one that should be passed up lightly.
Ride your Wave
Anime director Masaaki Yuasa has become a regular presence on Fantasia screens, and you’ll get absolutely no complaints from us. Yuasa quickly stood out from the anime pack thanks to his 2004 breakout Mind Game, and he hasn’t slowed down since. His films are singular in most regards, often sporting a signature flat animation style, a wonderful surrealist edge, and a mile-a-minute rhythm. His films are like jazz, as trite a comparison as that is. They’re uptempo and bold, determined to take the audience by the hand and pull them on a wild ride.
But what makes him especially exciting is his refusal to become too bogged down in a style. He equally comfortable with light, enchanting fare like last year’s excellent The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, and the infinitely darker Devilman: Crybaby series. You never know quite what you’re going to get with Yuasa, but you do know it’s going to be something worth seeing. Fantasia always boasts a solid anime lineup, and this year appears to be no exception.
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy
The Ip Man franchise has become a mainstay of modern blockbuster martial arts films, with new installments every few years. While Ip Man 4 will be releasing in China towards the end of July, its 2018 spinoff will be making its Fantasia debut. Max Zhang stars as Cheung Tin-chi, a Wing Chun martial artist who was defeated by Donnie Yen’s Master Ip in the previous installment.
Whether you’re invested in the series or not, Master Z has enough sheer talent in its roster to draw in fight movie fans in droves. Zhang proved beyond a doubt in Ip Man 3 and SPL 2: A TIme for Consequences that he’s one of the martial arts actors to watch out for, with a dazzling onscreen presence and some seriously impressive fighting chops. But throw in a supporting cast that includes Michelle Yeoh, Dave Bautista, and Tony Jaa, and you’ve got the kind of cast guaranteed to fill seats. As if the film didn’t already have enough winning cards in its hand, the legendary Yuen Woo-ping sits in the director’s chair, bringing his decades of experience to the table, making this an absolute must-see for fans of martial arts films.
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