(Welcome to The Film Historiography, a series that explores the initial reactions to important, iconic, and memorable films.)
“Writing about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is now playing at the Capitol Theater, is a lot like writing about God or politics. Everybody’s doing it.” – Vivi Mannuzza, The Berkshire Eagle
In the late 1970s, Stanley Kubrick set out to make the “ultimate horror film.” Bringing together his mastery of cinema as an artform – and working from a much-beloved Stephen King novel – Kubrick labored to bring to the screen The Shining, the now-iconic horror film about isolation, domestic violence, and the bad places in the world that call to broken people. Fans flocked to see the film, which diverged early and often from King’s novel; disappointed by the Kubrick’s creative liberties with the novel, The Shining labored as an arthouse curio for years before finally earning its place atop the modern horror canon.
As far as historiographies goes, it’s mostly true. Kubrick may indeed have set out to create the “ultimate horror film” – though that phrase seems more directly attributable to a May 1980 Newsweek article hyping the film than any direct quote from Kubrick himself – but he did so at a time when both horror and Stephen King were capturing the imagination of mainstream audiences everywhere. Hollywood was still adjusting to a new wave of horror films like Halloween (1978), The Amityville Horror (1979), and Alien (1979), and Kubrick’s meticulous shot construction and melodramatic character work seemed at odds with the naturalistic direction of the genre.
These were the threads that regional film critics were running with when The Shining hit theaters in May 1980. While the overarching narrative remains the same – it was underappreciated, it was misunderstood – the reasons for this are rooted in these cultural touchpoints of the era. As we look forward to Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, a sequel to both Kubrick and King’s versions of The Shining, it’s worth looking back at the critics and the conversations that helped shape the film’s legacy for the next 30 years.
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It’s been ten years since Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland was the breakout surprise of October 2009 and, believe it or not, the sequel is finally here. Those who followed the rumors in the intervening decade must have felt that Zombieland: Double Tap was never going to happen; despite the obvious enthusiasm from star Jesse Eisenberg and the rest of the cast, the production delays, casting concerns, and screenwriter turnover made it tough to imagine a sequel ever seeing the light of day. But not only does the new film reunite pretty much everyone – cast, director, and screenwriters – it also manages to capture some of the same magic that made the original a successful R-rated comedy at a time where that seemed like a minor Hollywood miracle.
And while the world of these characters has not changed drastically since we last saw them – zombies and rules are still very much intact – it’s hard not to draw parallels between the two films and see what has changed about both zombie movies and comedies in one little decade.
In a recent interview with both Fleischer and Eisenberg, we discussed getting the script to the right place, finding room for improvisation, and the power of limitations when it comes to shooting action.
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It isn’t often that movies blow things up – metaphorically, of course – the third time around, especially when the first two installments are a hit with their intended audience. In 2013, Gerard Butler starred in Olympus Has Fallen, a mid-budget blockbuster where one intrepid Secret Service agent defended the White House against an invading force. In 2016, Butler and company found even more success with London Has Fallen, this time putting Butler’s Mike Banning – and his President-defending ways – on foreign soil. After two movies and more than $370 million at the box office, it would not have come as a surprise if Angel Has Fallen was just a simple twist on a familiar formula.
Instead, writer-director Ric Roman Waugh stepped and made the franchise his own. “It needed to have my stamp on it,” Waugh explains, noting that he took the structure of the existing Angel Has Fallen script and added elements more in keeping with his own filmography. Following That Which I Love Destroys Me, his 2015 documentary on the effects of PTSD in the military, Waugh had plenty to say on the impact a lifetime of service could have on both the body and the mind. The traumas of the modern military quickly became a focal point for Angel Has Fallen. “They’re dealing with a very different type of post-traumatic stress,” Waugh continues. “They’re dealing with war addiction. They’re dealing with being in battle for so many years now that their brains are becoming wired to it.”
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For years, moviegoers and fans of wrestling have found themselves the unlikeliest of bedfellows. In wrestling, cinema lovers can share their love of detail character work and precise stunts with a brand new audience; in many ways, wrestling is the perfect allegory for those who want to beat the odds and carve out a Hollywood career.
So it comes as no surprise to find that wrestling was one of the main passions in the life of Zack Gottsagen, the breakout star of the upcoming film The Peanut Butter Falcon. Just as his character wants to find work as a professional wrestler, Gottsagen had always dreamed of starring in a major Hollywood film. This makes The Peanut Butter Falcon the rare film with a happy ending both on and offscreen.
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(Welcome to Cardboard Cinema, a feature that explores the intersection between movies and tabletop gaming. This column is sponsored by Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy in Austin, Texas.)
In 1975, Axron released the first tabletop adaptation of Jaws, a dexterity game that saw you trying to hook bone pieces from the open jaws of a mechanical shark. While the 1975 Jaws was a fine repurposing of Operation, it was not exactly a faithful creation of the movie itself. Those who wanted to replay the doomed adventures of Brody, Hooper, and Quint would have to wait more than four decades until 2019, when European game developer Ravensburger would release Jaws into Targets across America. And thankfully, everyone’s favorite killer shark has finally found a tabletop adaptation worth his dorsal fin.
This is actually the second time Ravensburger has tackled a beloved Steven Spielberg property. The developer had previously released Jurassic Park: Danger!, an adaptation of the original film that features Alan Grant and other characters scrambling to restore power and escape the island. Like Jaws, the players take on the role of either the dinosaurs or the humans, and what follows is a game of expensively themed checkers. Humans move to tiles, dinosaurs chase them, and the only real strategy in the game comes when you have to decide when to let a dinosaur eat your character. It’s a fine party game – and, as an in-store Target exclusive, will probably help hook a new generation of tabletop players – but it’s also an example of how developers can connect on a theme but miss on mechanics. Recreating Jurassic Park with friends is underwhelming when you make Jurassic Park a much dumber narrative in the process.
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If you asked me to describe my memory of ‘90s action movies in a single image, it would be this: our hero, wading through thigh-deep water, firing an endless barrage of bullets at whatever bad guy or monster happens to be offscreen. In my nostalgia-addled brain, it seems like every movie from that decade featured some combination of flooding and gunfights. And if this same reverence for waterlogged ‘90s blockbusters is what inspired Hollywood to churn out The Hurricane Heist, then I certainly can’t complain. The math, at least as far as I’m concerned, checks out.
If there was a peak period for this particular type of movie, though, it must’ve come in the months between 1997 and 1998. In that six-month span, three action movies were released that serve as rorschach tests for the decade: Speed 2: Cruise Control, Deep Rising, and Hard Rain. Woven together by a shared love of jet skis and blockbuster films like Die Hard and Speed, these three movies could be regarded as variations on a single ridiculous theme. Even Roger Ebert, in his review of Deep Rising, pointed to the trend of recycling these action beats for his upcoming movies. “No sooner is there an indoor jetski chase in Hard Rain,” Ebert wrote, “(then) there’s one in Deep Rising.” These films were also enough to drive Reddit user LundgrensFrontKick borderline insane in 2016 when he attempted to quantify the exact pain inflicted by jet skis movies at the domestic box office.
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My first published piece of film criticism came on May 20, 1999, two weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday. The night before, a group of my friends had spent the entire day camped out in front of the local movie theater waiting to purchase tickets for George Lucas’ long-awaited Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. After the movie ended, a reporter from our local newspaper was there to capture everyone’s first impressions and managed to jot down my breathless praise of the film for posterity’s sake: “I don’t think I can wait two years for the next one,” this naïve young Star Wars fan gushed, noting that the movie “threw open so many doors” and “left us hanging in a big way.” It goes without saying that it took me years to live these words down within my circle of friends.
It’s easy to remember the number of breathless articles written about Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015 and how many fans were excited to finally experience a Star Wars movie on the big screen, but it had only been a decade since Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith hit theaters; for Star Wars fans in 1999, it had been nearly twice as long since Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was released in 1983. I had lived an entire life up to that point without a Star Wars movie to call my own, and looking back, the most formative Star Wars experience of my adolescence wasn’t waiting in line to see the prequels: it was any one of a hundred nights spent with friends playing the Star Wars Customizable Card Game, the strategy collectible series that did more to galvanize my Star Wars fandom than anything else from my childhood.
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Depending on how cute you get with your math, there are no less than four separate universes focused upon Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. First, of course, came the original novel itself, then the 1997 blockbuster film by Paul Verhoeven. From there, things get a little dicier. There was Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, an animated television series based on Verhoeven’s film that ran for two seasons back in 1999 and 2000. Then there’s Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, the live-action and direct-to-video sequels to the 1997 release. Finally, there’s Starship Troopers: Invasion, a 2012 release that rebooted the cinematic universe and refusesd to acknowledge the second and third movies. For one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops, Starship Troopers has had some pretty long legs in its theatrical afterlife.
Of course, that’s not all. This Monday marks the one-night release of Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars, the latest animated adaption of the original movie. And since some diehard Starship Troopers fans out there might be in desperate need of a franchise refresher, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to revisit the first four movies – canonical or otherwise — in the Starship Troopers universe.
Some of these films are good, some are not, but their willingness to deconstruct the source material and find a narrative (and genre) that works for them is what makes the Starship Troopers franchise the gift that keeps on giving.
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(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of Ridley Scott’s controversial Alien prequel Prometheus.)
Like most of you, I walked out of my first screening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in some combination of confused and angry. That was the Alien prequel we’d spent the past two-plus years anxiously anticipating? The film that absolutely wasted Charlize Theron and Idris Elba, featured some of the worst character beats I’ve ever seen in a science fiction narrative, and bled all over the memory of Scott’s original Alien film? No matter how I approached the film – how charitable I tried to be in my interpretation of its story – all I saw was a barren wasteland where a promising Alien franchise might’ve stood. My hatred of Prometheus ran deep and pure.
And then a funny thing happened. A few months ago, as 20th Century Fox began to roll out new footage from Alien: Covenant and people in my social network started talking about Prometheus as if it wasn’t the worst thing since death and taxes. A few friends even argued passionately on the film’s behalf, suggesting that Prometheus, despite its flaws, was one of the boldest science fiction films to hit theaters in a good long while. This put me in an awkward position. I had spent more than four years nursing my grudge towards Scott’s film, and while I remained convinced that the film would only get worse on a re-watch, I knew it would be disingenuous of me to argue against the film without at least giving a second shot.
So I popped Prometheus into my Blu-ray player again, and wouldn’t you know it? That movie grew up a helluva lot in our four years apart.
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