Friday, July 14, 2023

Notes on Film: My Brain, the Enigma

 by Anthony King

Why so contrarian?

I haven't word-vomited for over a month in this column. I feel the pressure building. I recorded a podcast last night where I realized I contradicted myself on prior attitudes and beliefs I stood by in the recent past. Rather than backtrack and dig myself a grave by needlessly defending said backtrack, I owned up to the fact that I AM A MERE HUMAN BEING. With feelings and everything! I won't apologize for erasing every Letterboxd rating I ever gave while declaring “Rating art is unethical!” and then less than a year later going back to re-rate every movie I've logged. This is the introductory paragraph, though. I should save these thoughts for later on. Let's start with what I've been watching.

I enjoyed a trio of new horrors last weekend. I'll start with Chris McKay's Renfield, available on Peacock. When I saw the first trailer I was incredibly excited for it. When mixed reactions started pouring in, though, my enthusiasm waned. I should know better that the opinions of others shouldn't influence me (more on that later) because I had a blast with Renfield. Nicholas Hoult is a perfect example of a character actor perfectly suited to lead his own movies. Ben Schwartz, who I love, was hysterical yet made his character so easy to hate. My biggest gripe is with Awkwafina, who I can't stand, and it always feels like she's trying too hard to be funny. And here's hoping we get at least a dozen more performances from Cage as Dracula, who seems to be perfectly suited for this role.
Kurtis David Harder's Influencer is an interesting potboiler that goes to places I was not expecting at all due to marketing materials. It's about a woman in Thailand, an expat named CW (Cassandra Naud), who mixes a little of Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction and Anya Taylor-Joy from The Menu, and befriends influencers hocking their looks and goods on social media while traveling through her neck of the woods. Naud is absolutely terrifying in this role. She plays it so convincingly that I hate to think there are people like that in the world. Influencer is available to stream on Shudder.
Also on Shudder is From Black, writer/director Thomas Marchese's film about a grieving mother and the lengths she goes to find her son after his disappearance five years prior. Told in flashback, Anna Camp plays Cora who was accused of neglecting her child due to her drug addiction. Presently Cora is in a police station, covered in blood and scratches, being interrogated by her detective sister. Cora tells how a man she met at a grief group told her of a way to see her son again by way of witchcraft. I'm as tired of grief horror as much as I am of eat the rich movies, but From Black mixes grief with a terrifying witchcraft story, as well as addiction. Camp is great here as the grieving mother whose life was controlled by her addiction, but the real stand out was John Ales as the stranger in the counseling group who gets Cora to participate in a dark ritual. The imagery is very scary and makes use of some excellent practical monster makeup. If, like me, you enjoyed Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (2016) but thought I was a tad slow, From Black ups the ante with a little more life.
Finally, I continued my quest to complete Wes Craven's filmography with his bloodsucker comedy, Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). To start, this movie is much better than its 2.4 average on Letterboxd leads you to believe. Eddie Murphy is in fine form as Maximillian, the titular vampire. I doubled this with Renfield which made for a spectacular New York-set vampiric police procedural double feature. With a cast that includes Angela Bassett, Allen Payne, Kadeem Hardison, and John Witherspoon, this is a very solid mid-tier entry from Wes that deserves way more love than it's gotten in the past.

Now onto the topic at hand. After ruminating for a few days on how much of an enigma the human brain really is, I laid in bed last night thinking about how much of a mess my brain is when it comes to movies (and pop culture in general). In my capricious teenage years I embraced the punk rock ethos of going against anything and everything authoritarian and/or popular. For better or worse, that individualistic spirit has stuck with me into my 40s. Now, well aware of this sort of ideology, I sometimes pose (scream) the question to myself: WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS? When it came to music I always had to hate the most popular song/artist at the time. In 2002 Avril Lavigne released “Complicated.” Outwardly I expressed my disdain for this pop singer claiming to be punk rock. “Death to all posers!” I decried. Inwardly I was singing my heart out because goddamnit “Complicated” is such a great and catchy pop tune. I have no shame in my love for Avril now, and next time we see each other, Adam, we'll drive around and sing “Complicated” as loud as we can with the windows down.
Speaking specifically to movies, I was so gung-ho at the beginning of the year for new entries in the Fast, Mission Impossible, and Indiana Jones sagas. I'd only seen the first three Fast movies, the first two M:I movies, and I still haven't seen Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. My plan was to complete each series before each new film was released. As the time neared for release of these movies, though, the public's fervor and anticipation built to excruciating heights. People would say, “You gotta see this movie,” and, having previously been excited for said movie, I'd think to myself, “You know, I don't think I will.” Simply because everyone was talking about it. New Wes Anderson? I love Wes Anderson! Am I going to see Asteroid City? Sure, but not until people stop talking about it. I was so excited for Barbie and Oppenheimer, but because we're constantly online these days, I feel so oversaturated with marketing and word of mouth for these films I have lost all interest in seeing them. Why am I like this?
I've always taken pride in bringing attention to things lesser known. I have a couple very small platforms I try to utilize to sing the praises of things that haven't gotten the attention they deserve in my opinion. My thought process is thus: “Enough people are talking about [insert whatever you want] so I won't talk about it.” Not, “I don't NEED to talk about it,” but “WON'T.” I recall when Mike Pomaro talked about his Mount Rushmore of directors. After naming his guys, he said (I'm paraphrasing), “It's boring, but hey, I like who I like.” Wise words from a wise man that I think about almost daily. Like what you like. Who cares if everyone else likes it? People love Scorsese because he makes great fucking movies. Your favorite Carpenter is The Thing? That's awesome because it's a perfect movie. Of course it should be your favorite Carpenter. My favorite Carpenter is Big Trouble in Little China. Great movie. The Thing is #5 on my Carpenter rankings. Halloween is #7! Carpenter has seven perfect movies in my opinion. But now I'm questioning myself. Do I put Big Trouble in the top spot because nobody else does? I like The Thing and Halloween and four other Carpenters equally. This is how my brain works, friends. And this is how I constantly think about how my brain works.

Until next week, hopefully I can get out of my head for a bit.


  1. I get this. I've been a kind of arch-contrarian my entire life. My wife constantly notes that I take opposing positions to many things, which can be frustrating (for her and everyone around me). I guess it's about trying to realise when it can be productive - for oneself and for others - and when it can be just a knee-jerk unthinking reaction because it's just how my brain works.

    As to movies/entertainment.. I mean there is a logic to being put off by stuff a lot of other people claim is good, because a lot of mass-popular stuff is pretty banal and activates emotionally-resonate impulses in the human animal. It's akin to why political populism has worked down through the ages and continues to this day. And, yes, if people like it then good for them. At the same time, I think for many of us that have seen a lot of stuff/movies ("I've seen some shit, man..") it gets to the point when a lot of commonly-popular stuff is actually pretty familiar and, well, boring. We've seen some shit, man, and we are now in search if new things.

    And I get this with the MI movies. I quite like the first 2 - directed by auteurs with actual styles. Then 3 with Abrams and ever since it's felt to me that they've become a lot more calculated. I have little interest, as such, in seeing the new ones (because I've seen them and the 'wow' has never returned for me outside the first two movies). I now know exactly what I'm gonna get from them: big immaculately conceived STUNTS (but I prefer Jackie Chan jumping out a window, and I still have about 10 of his movies I need to watch), overly-convoluted plots (which I give up on about halfway through because, well, who cares? There are many other convolutely-plotted but tight movies I need to watch), and Tom Cruise and his buddies riffing because, ya know, the world is at stake (see my previous comments - the same applies here).

    How does this relate to our brains? I dunno. But I do know that the last 2 or 3 MI movies have been wildly popular and yet to me are basically interchangeable to the point I can barely tell you the difference between them outside of 'this one had x big stunt or big actor or big set-piece'. Life is short and I need to be try to find as many great and novel movies as I can before I die.

    I don't mean to rant. I'm going stream-of-consciousness here and I suppose this is what happens :)

  2. Oo, a chance to talk about MI. I missed all the previous ones this month. MI:1 was one of my favorite movies when I was younger. Tom Cruise was my first movie crush. He's still my favorite actor. But I do not click with any of the other MIs! I tried to watch the 2nd and 3rd when they came out but soon as multiple people started pulling off their face masks and revealing themselves as other characters I was like OKAY, that's too many fake face mask things. We can't just be SWITCHING them around all the time. And then I never saw another MI. I just think about this because I love Tom Cruise but it's the kind of love where I'd rather not see him at all than see him in something I don't like. You know? I prefer him on a very high pedestal... I understand people don't like MI:1 anymore? For me it's hard to get into now, years later, because it's no longer suspenseful. There've been so many of the same movie and plot made. But I used to think it was the bomb - very sexy, suspenseful, clever and loved the close ups.

    I want to see Barbie and Oppenheimer, too. Now I'm pumped for Barbie. But I just can never get myself to a theater anymore on opening weekend (barely ever to be honest). What's wrong with liking it when we see it LATER? I'm cool with waiting.