The Origins of the Horror Film

The horror film genre has existed since the dawn of cinema, always adapting and evolving along with the medium itself, and always seeking to entertain, thrill, and scare the pants off of moviegoers.  The first horror films were inventive yet modest, and they bear little resemblance to the horror films of today, but knowledge of their existence and influence is essential to understanding why the horror genre has remained so popular for over a century.

The oldest known horror film was a three-minute short titled Le Manoir du diable (The House of the Devil), directed by French filmmaker Georges Méliès in 1896.  Méliès was a pioneer of early cinema, famous for his fancifully ambitious production designs, impressive special effects, and innovative editing.  The Haunted Castle is very characteristic of his work:  through trick editing, the main character witnesses the conjuring of skeletons, bats, and the Devil himself.  These spooky images probably weren’t meant to scare contemporary audiences, but the film laid the groundwork for what was to come, introducing imagery and tropes that, for decades, have defined what a horror film looks like.  If you have a few minutes, I highly recommend checking it out below.

Other filmmakers soon began copying Méliès’ editing techniques, producing short horror films of their own, though none of these early experiments can be considered scary by modern standards.  Nevertheless, film historians and horror enthusiasts have identified a few of these early films as worthy of particular attention, including Segundo de Chomón’s La casa hechizada (The House of Ghosts, 1908) and Walter R. Booth’s The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901).  In the 1910s, several filmmakers began adapting popular horror (or horror-adjacent) literature, often with bigger budgets, bigger sets, and more impressive special effects.  Examples include a Thomas Edison-produced adaptation of Frankenstein (1910) and the very ambitious Italian film L’Inferno (1911), based on the first part of Dante’s Divine ComedyL’Inferno, which cost over 100,000 Lire and was almost 70 minutes long, forced theater owners to raise their ticket prices.  All of the films mentioned above are available to watch on YouTube.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In the early 1920s, horror cinema took a giant leap forward with the premiere of two iconic German films, both influenced by the German Expressionist artistic movement.  The first, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), tells a weird story about a mad doctor who hypnotizes a sleepwalker (played by Conrad Veidt) to commit murder.  It is famous for its production design, utilizing sharp or twisting lines, high-contrast lighting, and distorted perspective to achieve an unusually eerie effect.  According to legend, audience members screamed and fainted during the premiere.  The film was an immediate box office success, but its most last impact was due to its visual style, which continues to influence films to this day.  The Babadook (2014), for example, is just one of the many films that owe a debt to Dr. Caligari’s off-kilter imagery.  The entire film is available to watch below:

If I could recommend just one film from this early era of horror cinema, however, it would be another iconic German Expressionist horror movie:  Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, 1922).  An unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, Nosferatu was almost lost forever when Stoker’s heirs sued for all copies of the film to be destroyed, but a single print survived, smuggled out of Germany and duplicated so that it could be distributed all over the world.  Almost one hundred years later, its public domain status has ensured that its popularity continues to grow.

Count Orlok, Nosferatu

Nosferatu, like Dr. Caligari, was strongly influenced by the German Expressionist movement.  It is a cinematic fever dream, a nightmare constructed of menacing shadows, stylized settings, and an unsettling villain.  Before Bela Lugosi donned Count Dracula’s cape, German actor Max Schreck portrayed a very different version of the character.  His Dracula (renamed Count Orlok in an attempt to avoid copyright issues) is very different from Lugosi’s portrayal, eschewing the feigned hospitality and slow, strangely magnetic personality for something more animalistic, weirder, and more visually terrifying.

Schreck’s Count Orlok is, in some ways, much closer to Stoker’s original characterization of Dracula than many of the actors who played the character in the decades to come.  His image has become iconic in its own way, influencing the visual design of the character Kurt Barlow in the 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot, inspiring a remake by filmmaker Werner Herzog and a fictionalized making-of film starring Willem Dafoe, and famously popping up in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePantsNosferatu is, without a doubt, the greatest horror film of the silent era, and one of the most influential horror films ever made.  If you can find the time this October, I highly recommend watching the entire film in the YouTube video linked below:

The Only Correct Way To Kick-Off October

I always get extremely disappointed when I hear a friend say that they love every type of movie except for horror.  I understand why the genre may not appeal to a large mass of people but I also believe that many people write-off horror before doing enough exploration to fully understand what they do/don’t enjoy about the genre.  At the beginning of every October I always try to introduce a few friends to horror and I always start with something that I think will help invite them deeper into the genre.

My all-time favorite movie to excite people about horror is Cabin in the Woods.  I will never forget walking into Cabin in the Woods expecting a straight forward horror movie but leaving the theater laughing out loud and the rollercoaster that I had just been on.  Our goal for The Reel Deal this month is to introduce people to movies that we believe may inspire new excitement and deeper exploration into the genre.  For me, Cabin in the Woods is the perfect tip of the iceberg.

Throughout the film you will both laugh and yell.  You will also see a cast of monsters that typically could not stand together in any other situation and that is why I believe this is the perfect way to start off the month.  You can get the month started on a light and funny note but also see enough monsters and images to get your brain turning and wondering what it wants to look for next.  

Get some popcorn and pumpkin beer out tonight and watch Cabin in the Woods on Hulu.

Random Acts of Twitter Drama

With October right around the corner, I can already feel the cravings for horror movies and pumpkin beer starting to settle in.  To be honest, I’ve struggled with writing anything new just because I’m so caught up trying to figure out what I should watch next.  A couple higher-profile horror films were able to catch my attention recently:  Joe Keery made me laugh and then wince in horror throughout his recent performance in Spree, and Netflix’s 1BR pulled me in quickly with an exciting trailer but the enjoyment fizzled out relatively quickly once I realized that it’s the same kind of story I’ve already seen one too many times.

Random Acts of Violence is another film that drew my attention for many reasons.  First, it’s exciting to see Jay Baruchel (This is the End, She’s Out of My League) finally make the jump into the horror genre.  Considering that people like Jordan Peele and John Krasinski have delivered wildly successful horror flicks over the past couple years, we’re living in what could be a golden age for comedians who dabble in horror and bring fresh perspectives to the genre.  Second, who doesn’t love an over-the-top slasher?  A friend recommended it to me recently, and I watched it without doing any research beforehand.  I think that was pretty fortunate, because my perception would have been heavily skewed if I had done even a little bit of googling.

Earlier this week I started seeing this image circulating around horror Twitter, featuring a quote from Baruchel:

As a fan of horror in general, statements like the one above always tend to bum me out.  There is absolutely truth in the notion that much of modern horror is stagnant and that there have been periods within horror’s history in which cruelty is fetishized.  However, I believe that we are currently living in one of the best periods that horror has ever had.  We are no longer in an age where we can scare the modern viewer with the fear of open water.  We aren’t going to have another massive franchise that is entirely centered around the idea of capturing and torturing the average traveler.  We live in an era in which the general public recognizes that horror is a medium that can speak to social issues and enlighten viewers.  

Clearly, Jordan Peele has led the charge in bringing social issues like racial prejudice and inequality to the center of cinema discourse.  His first two directorial efforts, 2017’s Get Out and 2019’s Us, will be remembered as two films that were able to provide brilliant social commentary without coming off as ham-fisted as, say, the Purge franchiseI am really hoping to see the Peele-produced Candyman remake pick up the torch and keep this trend moving forward when it premieres in October.

Needless to say, I was disappointed in Baruchel’s generalizing statement, but I was even more disappointed because I genuinely enjoyed the film.  Random Acts of Violence was a breath of fresh air in regards to the slasher genre.  The characters are all three-dimensional, the killer has a genuine motive, and the pleasing visuals are indicative of the film’s smooth execution.

There are few things in the world that I enjoy more than going out of my way to make myself angry.  That’s why I still have a Facebook and that is why I spent time digging through Twitter replies to get some type of closure with this movie.  It didn’t take me long to find that Jay Baruchel himself took to the platform to make sure that his horror debut wasn’t getting disregarded because of his statement.

I’m sure that there are thousands of things that Jay would rather be doing at 7:54 in the morning than defending a film that it took him years to make.  I can also completely understand why he might speak differently to a room of potential investors than to a room of horror fanatics.  

After enjoying the movie, becoming disappointed by the director’s statement, and then feeling some empathy towards Baruchel (who I truly believe is a fan of the genre), I felt compelled to type this article up quickly.  Random Acts of Violence is not the next Friday the 13th, but it is an enjoyable film that deserves to see the light of day.  I would hate to see Jay Baruchel get pushed out of a genre that he clearly loves just because of a throwaway quote that is being presented out of context.  Should he made those generalized remarks about the horror genre in the first place?  No.  If I were in the exact same position, trying to sell one of my passion projects, would I say the same thing?  Almost definitely.

Don’t let the drama keep you from seeing Random Acts of Violence, which is streaming now on Shudder!

Tenet Review: Is Christopher Nolan’s Latest Time-Bending Film Any Good?

Last month, I wrote about the James Bond franchise’s influence on the films of Christopher Nolan.  I highlighted some of the direct Bond homages found in films like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and I mentioned that many critics have already pointed out the similarities between the Bond formula and Nolan’s highly-anticipated film Tenet, which follows an undercover CIA agent (John David Washington) on a globetrotting mission to save the world using time inversion technology.  As a fan of both the Bond series and most of Nolan’s movies, I was very excited by the opportunity to experience the film at a drive-in theater last week.  Unfortunately, I left the drive-in with questions, nitpicks, and a general sense of disappointment.  Tenet is, in many ways, Nolan’s most ambitious and unrestrained cinematic vision, but I’m not so sure that’s for the best.

This is the most convoluted film he’s made so far, and as with some of his previous films it requires constant attempts to communicate the complexities of its premise.  However, unlike Inception and Interstellar, Tenet never really succeeds in explaining any aspect of the scientific mumbo jumbo that drives the plot.  The dialogue is incredibly awkward, even by Nolan standards, and it’s bogged down by exposition that never really manages to clarify anything.  When Clémence Poésy’s character says “Don’t try to understand it…Feel it,” it really feels like Nolan’s way of telling the audience that he’s not too interested in explaining the mechanism by which temporal inversion works, and that we should just shut up and enjoy the ride.  During Tenet’s promotional tour, even the actors seemed to struggle to understand what’s going on in their own movie.  This failure to clearly establish the rules of the world is why the first hour and a half just didn’t work for me.  Without a solid understanding of the central premise, the plot is borderline incomprehensible.

Aside from the awkward dialogue and confusing premise, the acting is generally okay.  John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki are all pretty good, although there’s a dearth of character development.  The characters receive information and react to it, they go through the motions of espionage and revenge, and in the end they accomplish their mission, but they never seem to experience any personal growth.  Washington’s character doesn’t even have a name, for gosh sakes!  He’s referred to exclusively as The Protagonist for the entirety of the runtime, which just feels overly pretentious on Christopher Nolan’s part.

The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

Another problem I had with the film is that Nolan fails to take full advantage of the various locations featured in the film.  The characters travel the globe, from Mumbai to Oslo to the Amalfi Coast, but instead of devoting any time to the beautiful scenery, most of the major dialogue and action scenes seem to take place in nondescript rooms, in undecorated hallways, or on unremarkable roads.  If you’re going to make an homage to the Bond series, you’ve got to understand that the best Bond films are cinematic travelogues, highlighting the beauty, culture, landmarks, and mystique of each location.  Nolan isn’t interested in doing any of that.  He’s more cerebral, more internalized, and that’s why so many of his most iconic scenes and set pieces take place in rather unexceptional, indistinguishable interior spaces.  That strategy doesn’t fit the Bond formula, and that’s why certain sequences fall so flat in Tenet.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so completely critical.  I did enjoy the last hour or so of the movie, and the inversion scenes are cool to look at, but overall this film was a disappointment compared to other Nolan movies.  Tenet is, like so many of his previous films, a big idea movie.  He has structured the entire film around the sci-fi concept of time inversion, just as Inception was structured around the idea of shared dreams.  In both films, every conversation and every action sequence is designed to remind audiences of the implications of these concepts.  But whereas Inception’s dream technology inspired me to imagine more sci-fi possibilities, Tenet left me wishing I could reverse time and stop myself from watching it.  I didn’t understand it, and I definitely wasn’t feeling it.

Cobra Kai is a Perfect Continuation of the Karate Kid Franchise

In 1984, a gawky teenager named Daniel LaRusso won the All Valley Karate Tournament, defeating his high school bully Johnny Lawrence and etching the crane kick into the popular consciousness forevermore.  Johnny, representing the merciless Cobra Kai dojo, graciously handed Daniel the championship trophy, but was shamed by his abusive Cobra Kai sensei for leaving empty-handed.

Where are they now, over three decades later?  That’s the question that Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid spin-off television series, dared to ask when it premiered on YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) in 2018.  Netflix acquired the show in June 2020, and since the first two seasons moved to the streaming platform on August 28, it has quickly become Netflix’s #1 show.  The Karate Kid’s aftermath, Mr. Miyagi’s legacy, and the divergent lives of Daniel-san and Johnny Lawrence are explored in this thrilling, surprisingly thoughtful sequel series that now sits at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.  It’s rare that such a sequel, made decades later, can recapture the spirit of the original and attract new generations of fans, but Cobra Kai has done just that.

The show might easily have been a soulless retread of The Karate Kid’s storyline, with Daniel LaRusso serving as the Miyagi-like sensei for some new karate student, teaching them some schmaltzy life lessons about standing up to bullies and training them to win another karate tournament.  Johnny Lawrence, who returned for the opening scene of The Karate Kid Part II and then disappeared entirely from the film series, needn’t have appeared at all in this follow-up.  The creators of Cobra Kai, however, are very interested in what happened to Johnny in the years following his tournament loss, and thus the ultimate ’80s high school movie villain is now the co-lead of a hit show in 2020.  As it turns out, the decision to focus on the rivalry between Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny (William Zabka), and how their contentious relationship affects their kids, makes for some must-watch TV drama.

Season one begins by focusing on Johnny’s troubled life after losing the karate tournament:  his romantic struggles, his near-alcoholism, his strained relationship with his son, etc.  Johnny dwells on the past, unwilling or unable to move on from his high school hero days.  His misfortunes are soon contrasted with the relatively perfect life that Daniel LaRusso now lives.  Daniel is happily married and owns a successful car dealership, and his dramatic crane kick victory in the 1984 All Valley Tournament has made him a local celebrity.  To Johnny’s continued irritation, billboards and TV advertisements proudly proclaim that the LaRusso Auto Group “Kick[s] the Competition!”

One night, after drinking his sorrows away yet again, Johnny notices his neighbor’s son being picked on by some neighborhood bullies and uses some long-dormant martial arts skills to defend him, in a scene reminiscent of Mr. Miyagi’s rescue of Daniel in the original film.  The kid, a high schooler named Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), wants karate training, and the Cobra Kai dojo is soon revived with Johnny as sensei, desperately seeking redemption for the choices he has made throughout his life.  Daniel LaRusso, meanwhile, is busy reviving Miyagi-Do Karate, and he begins training his daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan).  Inevitably, the Lawrence-LaRusso rivalry is rekindled, and their conflicting karate and life philosophies put themselves, their kids, and their students on a collision course at the next All Valley Karate Tournament.

Season two is just as sensational, reintroducing the villainous John Kreese as Johnny’s mentor, business partner, and tormentor.  I don’t want to spoil too much in this review, but I will say that the backstories and character arcs of each character, from Daniel to Johnny to Kreese, have been well-thought-out, and the actors are just as engaging and believable now as they were over three decades ago.  A teaser for season three, attached to the Netflix release trailer for the series (watch below!), promises even more surprises in our protagonists’ future.

This is a fantastic continuation of the Karate Kid franchise, far better than it has any right to be.  What could have been a meaningless, nostalgia-dependent cash grab is instead a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and exciting story of how youthful mistakes, victories, and choices can come to define the rest of a person’s life.  Cobra Kai is often funny, always exhilarating, and respectful of the original film series.  It strikes without mercy.  If you’re looking for a new Netflix series to binge-watch, Cobra Kai is the best around.

James Bond’s Influence on the Films of Christopher Nolan

Tenet, director Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited (and thrice-delayed) eleventh film, will finally open in the United States on September 3rd, with early access screenings beginning on August 31st in select theaters.  The first reviews appeared online last week, and although they were not all favorable, many critics agreed that the time-bending espionage thriller is very reminiscent of another blockbuster spy series:  the James Bond franchise.  Variety declared it “the fanciest James Bond romp you ever did see,” and The Wrap stated that its exotic locations, thrilling chase scenes, and jaw-dropping stunts pay “direct homage to the James Bond series.”

It’s no secret that Nolan is a big fan of the Bond films, and rumors have swirled for nearly a decade that he might direct an installment of the iconic spy franchise.  Whether or not he will ever be offered the Bond director gig remains to be seen, but as the Tenet reviews remind us, we don’t really have to imagine what a Nolan-helmed Bond film would look or feel like.  It’s right there in front of us, in many of his movies.  Sure, he might shake and stir the familiar formula to produce his own ambitious cinematic visions, but 007’s influence is still easily identifiable throughout Nolan’s filmography.

Before Tenet, 2010’s Inception was the Nolan film that most proudly exhibited its Bond influences.  The stylish costuming, globetrotting plot, and large-scale action scenes certainly mimic the Bond formula—minus the sci-fi dream heist elements, of course.  In a 2010 interview for Empire, the director made it clear that this mimicry is intentional.  “[Inception] is absolutely my Bond movie,” Nolan stated.  “I’ve been plundering ruthlessly from the Bond movies in everything I’ve done, forever. I grew up just loving them and they’re a huge influence on me.”  His “plundering” of the Bond franchise has resulted in some of the most breathtaking action scenes of the past fifteen years.

LEFT: The Snow Fortress in Inception. RIGHT: Piz Gloria, Blofeld’s Alpine hideout in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

In the Empire interview, Nolan cited On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) as his personal favorite Bond film.  It’s a favorite of mine as well, apparently for the same reasons that Nolan enjoys it.  “What I liked about it,” he stated in the interview, “is there’s a tremendous balance in that movie of action and scale and romanticism and tragedy and emotion.  Of all the Bond films, it’s by far the most emotional.”  Of course, the director’s films have repeatedly been criticized for their lack of emotional depth, but other elements of OHMSS’s plot are definitely echoed in Inception’s third act.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service takes place largely at the Alpine mountaintop hideout of Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Inception’s climactic final set piece, meanwhile, takes place partially at a snowy fortress dreamed up (literally) by Tom Hardy’s character Eames.  The visual similarities are immediately obvious, Eames’ ski chase resembles Blofeld’s snowy pursuit of Bond, and fans will surely recognize that the destruction of the fortress in Inception mirrors the blowing up of Blofeld’s lair in OHMSS.

Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy infused the comic book mythology of Batman with gritty realism and plausible gadgetry and technology, and some of the Caped Crusader’s gadgets were inspired by Bond.  Morgan Freeman, as Lucius Fox, is equivalent to the character of Q in the Bond films.  Just as Q provides Bond with souped-up Aston Martins, Fox introduces Bruce Wayne to the military prototype vehicle known as the “Tumbler.”  After a quick paint job, it becomes the Batmobile.  One of the Dark Knight trilogy’s most direct references to the Bond series is the “skyhook,” used to exfiltrate the corrupt accountant Lau (Ng Chin Han) from an upper floor of a Hong Kong skyscraper.  The skyhook device was derived from the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system developed by the CIA in the 1950s, and it was previously featured in the final scene of the 1965 Bond film Thunderball.

LEFT: Bane hijacks a plane in The Dark Knight Rises. RIGHT: The pre-titles sequence in Licence to Kill.

The opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises pays homage to another spectacular Bond stunt:  the plane heist in 1989’s Licence to Kill.  In the pre-titles sequence of Timothy Dalton’s second Bond outing, he is lowered out of a Coast Guard helicopter onto the villain’s Cessna 172 airplane, where he attaches a cable to the tail.  The helicopter then yanks the cable upwards, dipping the nose of the plane and foiling the villain’s escape attempt.  In The Dark Knight Rises, several henchmen do essentially the same thing to a CIA aircraft to rescue their boss, the villainous Bane (Tom Hardy once again).  As we have seen over and over again, Nolan recreated a classic Bond moment, only much bigger.

LEFT: John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki in Tenet. RIGHT: Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi in From Russia with Love.

With the arrival of Tenet, it seems that Nolan has not only returned to dip his toes into the Bond ocean, but that he has dived right in, offering up plenty of visual references to examine and reflect upon, even in the trailers.  In the final trailer, released on Friday, we see John David Washington’s character fight bad guys in a kitchen like Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace, hitch a ride on a fire engine like Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, and steer a speedboat through an exotic locale like Sean Connery in From Russia with Love.  This can’t be a coincidence.  Nolan is borrowing heavily from a film series that he loves, repackaging these familiar images into something new, thrilling, and probably a bit confusing.  Will it work?  As a Bond fan and a Christopher Nolan fan, I sure hope so.  COVID-19 will keep me from watching it in IMAX as Nolan intended, but I’m excited to check out Tenet at a drive-in theater once it premieres next week, and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for more 007 homages.

An American Pickle: HBO Max’s First Entry Into The Streaming Wars

An American Pickle

HBO Max has officially entered the world of original content with the new Seth Rogan film An American Pickle.  HBO will always have a warm spot in my heart because it has always had original programming that seems to hit at just the right time in my life.  I loved watching The Sopranos even when I was far too young to understand what was going on, Flight of the Conchords defined my sense of humor when I was a young teenager, Game of Thrones ruled pop culture throughout my college years, and the unbelievably funny The Righteous Gemstones is more than worth the price of an HBO subscription today.  HBO always produces great content, and I’m very excited to see what will happen with HBO Max.

An American Pickle seemed like a great place for HBO Max to start from the moment that I heard about the film.  A loveable household name like Seth Rogan attached to an absolutely bizarre story?  That’s pretty much a guaranteed success.  The streaming wars have continued to heat up over the past few years, and with already popular shows like The Office being snatched up for $500 million dollars, it seems that some streaming services have decided that their money is best spent on original programming instead.  When original programming is done correctly you get content like Stranger Things, Ozark, and Handmaid’s Tale.  When original programming is done poorly you get catastrophes like The Cloverfield Paradox.  (Remember how excited you were to see that ad during the Super Bowl a few years ago?)  With An American Pickle, HBO Max seems to be betting its success at least partially on original content.

An American Pickle is certainly not going to spin off into HBO’s next big franchise, and it’s probably not going to make waves large enough that we start seeing Seth Rogan’s face in “For your consideration…” awards season campaign ads.  But An American Pickle is a very fun film that will spark conversation between families and provide a blueprint for future HBO Max programming.  

The story may seem completely ridiculous, but there is a comfort in its self-awareness.  Herschel Greenbaum (played by Rogan) moves to America, falls in a vat of pickle brine, gets sealed inside for 100 years, and is awoken without missing a single beat.  The following scene immediately leans into the absurdity of what has happened.  Herschel finds himself sitting in front of a press room surrounded by scientists and being berated by reporters about the authenticity of his story.  A narrator then explains that the scientists went on to do such a good job explaining how Greenbaum is still alive that no one had any other questions and decided to move on.  I found this to be a clever way of saying, early on in the movie, “if you aren’t willing to be flexible with the storyline then this is not the movie for you.”  

I am almost always on board for a completely ridiculous movie.  Even if the plot makes absolutely no sense I will most likely still be interested as long as there is some element of self-awareness.  My main gripe with An American Pickle isn’t how ridiculous the overall story is, or that it isn’t self-aware, but that there were too many stories that the filmmakers wanted to tell at the same time.  The overly ambitious bonkersness ended up taking away from the overall message.  It’s first and foremost a fish-out-of-water (or pickle brine) story, but it also ends up being a satirical take on Trump’s use of social media, a meditation on Rogan’s true feelings about how he has strayed from his family’s path in Judaism, and a heartwarming family reconciliation movie.  The fact that the film had been in development since 2007 probably contributed to the cluttered nature of the end product.  It’s honestly a well-made comedy movie, but although there is a resolution to each plot thread, it could have been more streamlined and intentional.

Overall, however, An American Pickle is a fun watch and a good showing for HBO Max.  There are jokes that will make you laugh and moments that will stick with you long after you watch it.  It’s not a top film in the Rogan filmography, but it doesn’t need to be.  The streaming wars are about getting big names to attract as many people as possible to click on their original programming.  Think of Adam Sandler and his Netflix deal.  I can’t even name any of his last five films (and I am sure that they are all terrible), but I do know that by signing a deal with Sandler, Netflix is making money.  So maybe An American Pickle came out exactly as intended.  It’s a few decent ideas wrapped around a big name and released for immediate consumption.  It may not have been what I expected, but it was enough to make me excited for any future releases from HBO Max and the Point Grey team.

The Ten Best ESPN 30 for 30 Documentaries to Satisfy Your Sports Addiction

It’s tough out there for American sports fans right now.  Over the past few days, several collegiate athletic conferences announced the cancellation or delay of fall sports, including college football.  Various NFL players are opting out of the upcoming season, and it’s still unclear if the season will happen at all.  Multiple Major League Baseball teams have been struck by COVID-19 outbreaks.  The NBA seems to have figured out a workable solution, but once the playoffs end in mid-October, we probably won’t see professional basketball again for many months.  Unless a vaccine is approved and widely distributed soon, we’re likely headed for another sports drought.  How can fans get their fix?  Luckily, ESPN’s full 30 for 30 library is available on the ESPN+ streaming platform, and the critically-acclaimed documentary series offers hours of entertainment for anyone who can’t stand the thought of another several months without sports.  Here’s my ranking of the top ten must-watch 30 for 30 films:

10. June 17th, 1994 (2010)

The 1994 World Cup began, hosted for the first time by the United States.  The New York Rangers celebrated their Stanley Cup victory with a ticker tape parade down Broadway.  The Knicks defeated the Rockets in Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals.  Arnold Palmer competed in his final US Open.  These events all took place on June 17th, 1994, and they were all overshadowed by a white Ford Bronco being chased by more than a dozen police vehicles down the I-405 in Southern California.  Consisting primarily of news clips from that day, this documentary recounts the bizarre O. J. Simpson police chase within the context of other major sports events, and it serves as a unique exploration of the relationship between American sports and American media.

9. Four Days in October (2010)

The 30 for 30 series is surprisingly light on documentaries about America’s pastime.  Of the dozen or so entries about baseball, only a few are truly memorable, including this chronicle of the 2004 American League Championship Series, in which the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees to reach the World Series.  It pretends, at first, to be an objective examination of one of the greatest rivalries in American professional sports, but in reality it skews heavily in favor of the Red Sox.  You know what?  That’s okay.  That’s the narrative.  It’s fun to watch the Red Sox break the Curse of the Bambino.  Nobody likes the Yankees, anyway.

8. Celtics/Lakers:  Best of Enemies (2017)

If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve probably seen these highlights before:  Bill Russell and Jerry West, Magic and Bird, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, etc.  Basketball’s greatest rivalry has produced some of the most iconic athletes, matchups, and moments in sports history.  Best of Enemies doesn’t have any new footage to offer, but it repackages the familiar imagery of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry into something sleeker.  The documentary is a bigger commitment than most 30 for 30s,around five hours long and split into three parts.  Whether you watch it all at once or take your time with it, you’re sure to have a fun time.

7. Catching Hell (2013)

A Cubs fan named Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul ball during the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, and he’s been paying for it ever since.  Catching Hell explores a darker side of sports fandom, focusing particular attention on fans’ eagerness to find a scapegoat for all of their teams’ failures.  Bartman’s innocent mistake wasn’t the reason the Cubs lost that series, but he got all of the blame, and the harassment he received in the aftermath of the “Bartman incident” has had lasting effects for both his family and the Cubs organization.  This is an absorbing documentary about one of the ugliest sagas in the history of sports media, and it’s an essential entry in the 30 for 30 collection.

6. You Don’t Know Bo (2012)

Every so often, an athlete’s on-field accomplishments become more than just highlights or stats.  Sometimes their athletic feats are so impressive, so unbelievable, that they take on an almost mythical quality.  Jackson was such an athlete, his strength and speed and natural ability rendering him godlike in the eyes of many sports fans.  He was so good that even his video game equivalent, in the 1987 game Tecmo Bowl, has been called “easily the greatest video game athlete of all time.”  This documentary certainly treats Jackson like some kind of god, and that’s the point.  His dual-sport career, in which he became an All-Star in both the MLB and the NFL, is the stuff of legends.  You Don’t Know Bo is a fascinating look at one of the most awe-inspiring athletes to ever live, and a sobering reminder that injuries can reduce even godlike athletes to mere mortals.

5. The Fab Five (2011)

Chris Webber.  Jalen Rose.  Juwan Howard.  Jimmy King.  Ray Jackson.  These five freshmen made up possibly the best recruiting class in the history of collegiate sports.  The Fab Five is the story of how they exploded onto the scene in 1991, led the Michigan Wolverines to two NCAA championship games, and changed the culture of college basketball forever.  Unfortunately, Chris Webber doesn’t have the best relationship with his old teammates these days, and he declined to participate in the documentary.  However, that’s pretty much the only flaw in this otherwise exhilarating chronicle of one of the most iconic basketball teams ever assembled.

4. Survive and Advance (2013)

Everyone loves an underdog.  The COVID-19 pandemic cost us the chance to root for a new Cinderella team in March Madness this year, but we can still enjoy this documentary about one of the most inspiring teams in the history of college basketball, and the coach that led them to a championship.  At the first ESPY Awards, less than two months before his death, Jimmy Valvano delivered a now-famous speech and offered some advice:  “There are three things we all should do every day.  Number one is laugh…Number two is think…And number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears…If you laugh, you think, and you cry that’s a full day, that’s a heck of a day.”  This documentary is guaranteed to make you laugh, think, and cry, and that’s why it belongs on this list.

3. The Two Escobars (2010)

The best 30 for 30s examine the intersections of sports and history, but only a few of the documentaries are as historically significant or as poignant as The Two Escobars.  It tells the story of the Colombian national soccer team in the 1980s and 1990s, and of players who sought to redefine their country’s image in the eyes of the world.  At the center of the story are two men:  Andrés Escobar, the captain of the team; and Pablo Escobar (no relation), the infamous drug lord who laundered his money through Colombian fútbol teams and fueled the rise of “narco-soccer.”  It’s a tale of high hopes and human tragedy, and it’s essential viewing for any sports fan.

2. Pony Excess (2010)

As the conference dominos continue to fall in 2020, it’s entirely possible that we are about to experience a fall without a college football season.  The effect that this will have on universities is not yet clear, but it’s important to note that this won’t be the first time a college football program was forced to cancel its season.  Pony Excess, one of the best 30 for 30 documentaries, charts the stunning rise and sudden fall of Southern Methodist University’s football program in the 1970s and 1980s.  In 1987, after evidence emerged that multiple players had accepted illicit payments during the recruiting process, SMU became the first (and to this day, the only) university to receive the NCAA’s dreaded “death penalty,” and its football program was terminated for two full years.  SMU’s team has never fully recovered.  The documentary is well-made, entertaining, and as relevant as ever.

1. O. J.:  Made in America (2016)

This list started with an O. J. Simpson documentary, and it ends with another one. By far the longest and most ambitious of the 30 for 30 features, O. J.:  Made in America is also the most critically acclaimed.  This five-part, eight-hour miniseries about the career and criminal trials of O. J. Simpson won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 89th Academy Awards, along with more than a dozen other awards and honors.  Via hours of interviews and archival footage, it tells O. J.’s story through the lens of racial tensions and celebrity culture in America.  It’s a biography of a Hall of Fame athlete, and it’s also a true crime documentary.  It’s perfect binge-watch material.  Of all the 30 for 30 docs, it’s the most impressive and the most rewatchable.

The entire 30 for 30 library is available on ESPN+.

Is Host The Next Step In Modern Horror?

Over the past couple of months I must have scrolled right past 50 different posts about the new Rob Savage film Host.  In case you haven’t heard about it, the entire film was created during the 2020 quarantine.  This left each actor entirely responsible for their own lighting, practical effects, make-up, and filming.  I assumed this could have set the film up for failure, and it didn’t help that it looked like a rehash of 2014’s Unfriended for the newly Zoom-dependent public.

Host was initially released on 7/30 streaming exclusively on Shudder, and it immediately started making waves throughout the horror community.  My Twitter feed was quickly filled with people commenting about being afraid to log onto Zoom for work that day or being nervous and looking at their webcams.  For whatever reason, I still was not immediately enticed to check it out.

Yesterday, while avoiding one of my many obligations, I scrolled through Twitter and noticed a screenshot showing that Host currently sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.  While reviews don’t typically mean much to me, especially reviews of horror films, I decided to do some digging.  About .5 seconds into scrolling through the Wikipedia page for the film, I noticed that the runtime is an extremely brisk 56 minutes.  

There has been a massive push for shorter-form content over the past few years.  Netflix and other streaming platforms have normalized TV binge-watching, and shorter episodes and series are naturally attractive to today’s content consumers.  Quibi arrived on the scene earlier this year, and I was afraid that would be the final nail in the coffin for standard length content.  Thankfully, it seems like Quibi was just a billionaire’s wet dream-turned-nightmare.  However, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still looking for more bite-sized content.  If anything, it’s just left consumers searching for the size they prefer to bite.

If you can truly develop feelings of horror and suspense in a shorter runtime, with little to no setup, that just means you must have an incredible concept.  Short-form horror also has the potential to bring in new fans to the genre.  I have friends that have never seen a horror movie in their entire lives because of how stressed they get while watching, and they can’t even fathom sitting and feeling that way for a couple of hours.  However, promising to wrap everything up within one hour could attract new viewers, and could potentially change some film-going lives.

Host absolutely scratched my itch for short-form horror.  It’s a fun and genuinely scary experience that takes place in the most relevant, relatable setting, which transports you right into the middle of the terror.  There is nothing new or groundbreaking within the story, but there doesn’t need to be.  Rob Savage isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel; he’s taking the wheel and shoving it right down viewers’ throats.

A group of friends, a seance, multiple skeptics, a creepy older lady to take them on the journey to the spirit world, and of course plenty of scares to keep you on the edge of your seat…It’s a winning combination, and it does not need to be re-examined when it works so effectively.  The circumstances of production had no negative effects on the film’s quality.  With each of the members of the production being stuck home alone, it was necessary to create scares using only what they had around them at the time.  This creates direct connections to every viewer who is probably also sitting at home.  I could go into specific moments that I enjoyed, but I don’t want to risk ruining any of the magic that comes with experiencing the unexpected.  Just know that if you sit down to watch this film that you are also sitting down to rapidly look around your room to try to notice if anything is suddenly…slightly off…

I was skeptical about watching an entire film presented via Zoom screens.  Unfriended was decent, but it also left me feeling bored after the first 45 minutes or so.  Host shines because after about 10 minutes you feel like you are part of the call.  Any illusion of separation is removed as you see the Zoom controls throughout every scene.  I almost shook my mouse around to be sure that I was muted out of habit.  The 56 minute runtime also guarantees that there is never a stale moment.  My heart started racing within the first 10 minutes, and although I reminded myself that it was way too early for anything truly scary to happen, I soon realized I was in uncharted water and that the scares could begin at any time.
I don’t know if short-form horror is the future.  I don’t know if any type of content that is created during quarantine will age well.  I do know that I enjoyed every minute of Host.  It was goofy, fun, literally as modern as possible, and it was scary. 

Host is currently streaming on Shudder

Ranking the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World Movies From Worst to Best

“I was really just trying to make a good sequel to Jaws, on land.” That’s how Steven Spielberg explained his motivation to direct Jurassic Park, the landmark 1993 sci-fi adventure film. Spielberg had been searching for his next blockbuster movie idea, and he knew he’d found it when author Michael Crichton mentioned that his next novel would involve cloned dinosaurs wreaking havoc at an island theme park. Spielberg’s Jurassic Park became one of the most successful films ever made, showcased the amazing visual effects made possible by new computer-generated imagery (CGI), and launched a film franchise that has lasted almost three decades. The first three Jurassic Park films returned to Netflix on August 1st, so it’s as good a time as any to revisit and rank each film in the series, worst to best. Let’s get started:

5. Jurassic World:  Fallen Kingdom

The latest entry in the Jurassic franchise is also, unfortunately, the worst of the bunch. Fallen Kingdom’s plot is made up of dozens of potentially interesting ideas, but they’re all half-baked or poorly executed. The constant callbacks to the original Jurassic Park, intended to play on our nostalgia, mostly fall flat. The special effects have become less special. The actors try their best, I suppose, but when everything around them feels fake or digital, it’s hard for me to care. It’s just a mess of a movie. If you’re simply looking for a mindless action movie to distract you for two hours, you might enjoy it. Otherwise, I recommend any other film in the franchise.

4. The Lost World:  Jurassic Park

Released in 1997, this film saw the return of Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp. Neither Sam Neill nor Laura Dern reprised their roles, but Jeff Goldblum was back as quirky heartthrob Dr. Ian Malcolm, joined this time by Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, and a host of interesting character actors. It had a bigger budget, featured a variety of new dinosaur species, and included a few genuinely exciting set pieces that rival the original’s most thrilling sequences. In other words, it should have worked. But it just…doesn’t. Jurassic Park obviously emphasized spectacle over character development, but at least the characters were likeable. The same can’t be said for the characters in this sequel. And the sense of awe and wonder that pervaded every scene of Jurassic Park is almost completely absent from The Lost World. It’s an interesting film, and I believe it’s worth watching, but it’s undeniably a disappointment when compared to the original.

3. Jurassic World

Released 14 years after the critical disappointment of Jurassic Park III, this franchise reboot introduced a slew of new characters and dinosaur species and welcomed audiences back to the park. It also took the scientific mumbo jumbo of the series one step further:  in addition to cloning all the familiar dinosaur species like Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor, the scientists at the Jurassic World theme park are now splicing together DNA from different dinosaurs to engineer an entirely new species called Indominus rex. I’m not convinced that this was completely necessary—there are so many dinosaur species that have yet to be featured in this series; why not introduce one of them instead?—but I have to admit that this is a pretty good action-adventure movie. It’s not amazing, but it has some interesting new ideas, solid action sequences, and characters worth rooting for. If you like Chris Pratt, you’ll probably enjoy Jurassic World.

2. Jurassic Park III

It’s hardly a masterpiece, but Jurassic Park III is much better than its mediocre reputation would suggest. At a brisk 92 minutes, it’s the leanest and meanest film in the franchise, and the closest the series would ever get to a true horror film. The plot is minimalist and many of the characters *spoiler alert* only exist to be eaten by the dinosaurs, but the thrills are genuine. This movie, more than any other in the series, wants to scare you. Just watch the abandoned laboratory scene and tell me you aren’t a little spooked. Yes, some of the dialogue is clunky, and there’s the often-ridiculed moment when a velociraptor speaks to Dr. Grant in a dream, but this stuff never detracts from the effectiveness of the action, and that’s really what these movies are all about. They’re B-movies with bigger budgets. Jurassic Park III features bigger, badder dinosaurs and great visual effects. What more could you want? In my opinion, it’s by far the best of the Jurassic sequels, and it deserves a critical reappraisal.

1. Jurassic Park

Of course, nothing was ever going to top the original. Jurassic Park remains one of the defining films of the 1990s, a cultural touchstone for an entire generation, and a major milestone in the history of movie special effects. Even after all this time has passed, those effects are still incredibly convincing. But beyond the special effects, the reason that this film still works is because it makes you feel like you’re really there, seeing living, breathing dinosaurs in the flesh. When the characters stare in awe at the sight of a Brachiosaurus, you share their disbelief. When they come face-to-face with a Velociraptor, you feel their fear. Spielberg’s greatest skill as a director is his ability to manipulate audiences, and Jurassic Park is perhaps the best example of this skill. Every scene, every moment, every detail is designed to make the audience feel something—awe, panic, joy, fear. No matter how many times I watch the film, it always works. It definitely worked in 1993, when it earned $914 million and became the highest-grossing film ever made up to that point. 27 years later, it’s still one of the best popcorn movies of all time.

Jurassic Park, The Lost World:  Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park III are now streaming on Netflix. Jurassic World and Jurassic World:  Fallen Kingdom are available on Amazon Prime.