Talking Movies

June 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

2001: A very bad year

Well, I finally saw Evolution last weekend. Just because it was on. And because I was eating dinner. It was a sorta ambient film-watching experience. Watch 45 minutes. Tape the rest. Watch that during lunch the next day. Wonder then why I bothered watching any of it. Muse on not knowing about Head & Shoulders’ efficacy against aliens. Cheer on some truly minor TV actors in small roles. Wonder why on earth David Duchovny took the lead. Muse on whether its failure stopped him from parlaying his X-Files fame into a leading man career on the big screen. And then remember that, even though it was from the director of Ghostbusters, I’d skipped the film on purpose in 2001 from a complete lack of interest. A lack of interest not limited to Evolution. There were multiple reasons why I saw only eleven films in the cinema in 2001, an alarming number of them rep showings. But one of them is that the year 2001 was not a very good year for cinema. In fact it was by way of being a very bad year. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tigerland, which were 2001 highlights for me arrived here then but were actually 2000 films. And the hangover went the other way with Ocean’s 11 and Monsters Inc being 2002 experiences here. Shrek, Planet of the Apes, AI, Moulin Rouge!, The Others, The Fellowship of the Ring. These were the films of 2001 I saw on the biggest screens in the Savoy and Ormonde during 2001, and if not for the Antipodeans Luhrmann and Jackson unleashing immortal classics in the final four months of the year what a washout it would have been. I don’t know if anything can really be said to cause a slump the likes of which Hollywood experienced in 2001 but it was a slump for sure.

John Cusack: Former Film Star

John Cusack turned 54 yesterday which led me to the question: What in the hell happened to John Cusack? In what should have been the decade of his career in which he played a defining role, like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus or John Wayne in The Searchers, or Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko or Keanu Reeves as John Wick, the best that Cusack rose to as a fortysomething was his lead role in the minor Stephen King horror story 1408 and his hero repeatedly escaping just ahead of the shockwave(s) in Roland Emmerich’s over-egged disaster pudding 2012. What went wrong? How did he end up making so many films that were not released, barely released, or sunk without trace here? 1408 and Cell, his two Stephen King horrors with Samuel L Jackson, got cinema releases in late summer 2007 and 2016 – they almost neatly cordon off the decade of disaster under scrutiny, and the decline in Cusack’s celebrity, as the latter went to VoD before a very limited cinema release. Before 1408 came Grace is Gone and The Contract. Ring a bell? Nope… 2012 and Hot Tub Time Machine while not great films got wide releases and made money. The Raven and The Frozen Ground are better films but got less wide releases and made considerably less money. They also flag a recurring problem – there are way too many films here that merge together when you read the loglines; impressive casts assembled for some glossy crime thriller, involving a serial killer or assassination or heist: The Factory, The Numbers Station, The Bag Man, Drive Hard, The Prince, Reclaim. There’s even a Phone Booth–like appearance in Grand Piano. And what’s stranger is that in the midst of these formulaic films Cusack made We Are Not Animals in Argentina, about a Hollywood star fleeing formulaic films, and then went back to Hollywood to make more formulaic films. There have not been enough meaty roles like his older Brian Wilson in the split-focus biopic Love & Mercy. Instead he’s made cameos in The Paperboy, The Butler, Adult World, taken more substantial roles in glossy films that sank without trace (Dragon Blade, Shanghai), indie films that failed to connect (Maps to the Stars, Chi-Raq), and somehow bungled a spiritual sequel to his towering 90s achievement Grosse Pointe Blank in the shape of War, Inc. Cusack has not stopped working, and perhaps that’s the problem. Like Matthew McConaughey, he needs to say no to a looooot of scripts for a while if he wants to get back on track. Otherwise Cusack will continue to work steadily, but solely on trashy nonsense (constantly declining in quality), that is made for midnight drunken Netflix buffoonery, and clicked on increasingly only by people who remember that his was once a face that appeared on posters inside cinemas.

September 6, 2019

From the Archives: 1408

This expedition into the pre-Talking Movies archives doth descry cynical writer John Cusack hacking out books debunking supposedly haunted houses. For the final chapter of his latest tome he checks into a notorious New York hotel room, only to find that this room is actually evil….

Stephen King’s work has been the source for nearly 100 films over the last 30 years and has provided many meaty acting roles. John Cusack, who had a minor role in Rob Reiner’s 1986 King adaptation Stand By Me, is on fine form here as the jaded writer Mike Enslin. The film’s opening act is surprisingly funny as Enslin remains mordantly undaunted despite the best efforts of hotel manager Gerald Olin to dissuade him from checking in to 1408. Even after the room turns on him Enslin’s jaded cynicism still enables him to deliver one-liners. Samuel L Jackson has very little screen time as Olin but is an absolute hoot in his best turn in some years. His delivery of the line “It’s an evil f***ing room” is guaranteed to elicit cheers.

Director Mikael Hafstrom impressively manages to ratchet up tension for pure shocks and also to comically undercut it. The entrance of Mike Enslin into room 1408 for the first time is particularly joyous as music, editing and camera angles all combine to create creeping dread. It’s difficult to discuss the plot without ruining it but suffice it to say that the horrors inflicted on Enslin began quite plausibly as the room sounds him out. Later the terrors become more nightmarish as it becomes clear that the room skims the subconsciousness of guests in order to inflict their darkest fears upon them. Mike Enslin is thus increasingly fleshed out as a character the more the room tries to scare the bejaysus of out him. We find out in snatches what it is that has made him so detached from people.

It’s important at this point to note that there is more humanity in 10 minutes of 1408 than in all of Eli (Hostel) Roth’s oeuvre. It is cheering to see a PG-13 horror film being made, and doing well, in the current climate. It proves that a good script complete with laughs, genuine jumps and a heart can still succeed. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski wrote Man on the Moon, Agent Cody Banks and the forthcoming Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Matt Greenberg, the other screenwriter, comes from a gory horror background but he’s been affected here by their sense of fun. It is impossible to enjoy any of those misogynistic exercises in cruelty like Hostel which have been rightly dubbed ‘torture porn’. 1408 is a throwback to the traditional horror film. It does not want you moaning in revulsion while covering your eyes, wondering why you paid money to see such inhuman barbarism, it wants to make you jump in fright and send you away smiling. For that intention and its successful execution it deserves an audience.

3/5

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