Will Mormons reject the new “softer” slasher films?

by Danny Stout

“Slasher” films are dubious at best in LDS circles, and outright rejected at worst. Opponents struggle to find redeeming value in violence-as-entertainment, while fans talk of high-tension thrills and chills, or the fun of “freaking out.” Three new movies, Hush, The Green Room, and the TV dramatic series, Slasher, are challenging the kitch-based ultra violent genre that’s kept us screaming, and, in some cases laughing, for decades. The brand-new works retain spurious elements of past slashers (e.g., story begins with youth trauma, followed by revenge, typically with metal weapons by the wounded protagonist that usually wears a hockey mask or other creepy costume), yet the recent works have depth, finer craftsmanship, and moral commentary. Filmmakers increasingly discard the pejorative “slasher” in favor of the euphemistic “psychological thriller” or “psychological horror film.”

Something like the slasher has been around for centuries. Peasants attending London’s Elizabethan Theater demanded murder slasher4from Shakespeare who delivered it in high doses, Hamlet being an example. Actors in a play bereft of death scenes were bombarded by rotten vegetables by a deliriously discontented audience. Today, “scary” movies function similarly to their fifteenth century progenitors of the stage. Religionists struggle to sort out the moral questions. That is, not all violence is as easily denounced as that in the brutal The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). War movie Saving Private Ryan has a 30-minute scene of non-stop death, but is praised as a moral work. The Passion of Christ while lauded as a religious film, had bloodshed throughout as Mel Gibson strove for historical accuracy. Nevertheless, the “Slasher” pushes the limits of taste and morality.

The new films are more like Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho; they’re more morality tales than traditional slashers designed merely to exploit audience catharsis and adrenaline rushes. The shower scene murder was unprecedented, but the overall allegory is about conscience, repentance, and circumstances beyond one’s control. The Green Room, Hush, and Slasher while violent, have redeeming value beyond the traditional gore fests such as Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980). The three recent films are gory, but thoughtful; there’s fewer graphic scenes, emphasizing other dramatic elements, particularly character development and substantive plots, elevating moral themes.

In Hush, Maddie, a deaf writer played by Kate Siegel has an intruder hovering outside her remote cabin. His weapons include a machete and crossbow. Reading his lips, she decodes his message: “I’m not coming in until you want to die.” Murder is kept to a minimum because, thematically, the wonder of mind and spirit in outfoxing an overpowering foe is the gestalt. Conceding my reductionist take, the film deals with problem-solving in the wake of intense fear. While few of us will receive a visit from a deranged killer with a crossbow tonight, all have anxieties at various levels. In an impossible situation, Maddie finds a way to pause, think, and perhaps engage a higher power in discovering that fear, not the intruder, is the real threat.

The Green Room (i.e., chamber for performers before and after their acts) takes us into the punk rock culture, as the band, “The Ain’t Rights” reluctantly agree to play for neo-Nazi skinheads in a club outside Portland, Oregon. Opening their set with a song mocking Skinheads is the first mistake. Second, they witness a murder, and are locked in the Green Room; a roller coaster of rabid realism takes off. Like Hush, the violence is graphic, but not like Wes Craven‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Clive Barker‘s Hellraiser (1987).

Band members Sam, Pat, Tiger, and Reece give us a tour of punk life; the film takes on an ethnographic feel. Viewing it through an anthropological lens, the viewer is enlightened about the utility of punk community and its often misunderstood youth culture. Rituals such as “gobbing” (i.e., spitting at the band in appreciation) will intrigue uninformed audience members. How a functional subculture blends with a dysfunctional one such as the Skinheads is equally informative. Again, the violence, although salient, takes a backseat to the film’s engrossing setting.

Of the three, Slasher is truest to the genre in terms of frequency of meat cleaver deaths. Such is partly attributed to it being a dramatic series, and thus a longer story line. It also exceeds the sexuality quotient for LDS tastes. Nevertheless, Slasher is a whodunit focusing on who is killing as much as how. It works as mystery suspense in a traditional sense. Produced by the Canadian network Super Channel, Katie McGrath plays a newly wed returning to Waturbury, Ontario to uncover the story of her parents’ murder. It was the “Executioner,” following the List of The Seven Deadly Sins much like the movie, Seven. The tension builds gradually through the eight episodes with believable twists and surprises. It is a slasher – mystery hybrid.

Vacillating scenes from close-ups to distant shots of the town evoke the Hitchcockslasher technique of giving the viewer time to ponder. Campy elements reminiscent of older slashers add humor with lines like: “I’m beginning to think that moving back to Waterbury was a bad idea.” And “The hard work is going to be the death of you.” Slasher ostensibly is a commendable old fashioned mystery main course with a side order of gore.

Popularity of these films among LDS moviegoers is difficult to predict, but one thing is clear: The slasher genre is changing, and it will be increasingly difficult to assess as demonstrated by the films discussed. Moral values and assumptions of these works are not easily assessed. Whether one is better or worse having seen them cannot ne answered here, but all three have provoked mostly substantive discussion it seems.

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“Hacking the System:” Making Life Easier for Whom?

By Bryce Marvin

Have you ever wondered how to get VIP treatment at a restaurant? Did you know you could hacking_the_systemfly on a private jet for the same price as an economy seat? Brian Brushwood reveals these and many other secrets and shortcuts to save time and make life better in an HBO series called, “Hacking The System”. Brushwood, a former student at the University of Texas at Austin has spent years working as an entertainer, studying psychology, and well, picking up tips from criminals. With this odd set of skills and experiences, he’s able to uncover many shortcuts that we may have never even considered.

In the words of one viewer, “This is like Mythbusters, but instead of proving or disproving myths, they seem more focused on hacking tricks and manipulation.”

While some of these “hacks” are entertaining, some of them could be seen as more juvenile and sometimes criminal such as breaking into someone’s house, how to easily break a car window, how to manipulate car salesmen into giving you the best possible option, or even just making a stoplight change in your favor more quickly. I was skeptical at first of the thought of teaching viewers how easy it is to break into a safe or any of the other more criminalist actions. There is a disclaimer shared on each episode not to try the things which they perform, but does that only incite the curious? Just as there have been controversies about what online videos should and should not be censored (i.e. how to make a bomb), where should the line be drawn?

As you continue watching the episodes you begin to question the way that you do things.

 

It is so easy to fall into the same daily routines and then when problems arise, we see just how vulnerable hacking maskwe can be at times. That is where these “hacks” truly serve. Maybe we are not pushy enough to try and “work the system” into free airline upgrades, but being informed on how to best protect yourself can serve all. Not everyone is out to get you, but just as inspired men have counseled, we need to be prepared.

“Hacking The System” is actually quite entertaining, and will make you think about the way you live your life. I hope to never be kidnapped, but I may just have to give a try at breaking out of zip ties!

“Trophy Kids:” How Involved should Parents be?

By Bryce Marvin

trophy kids groupDo you want what’s best for your children, or do you just want them to be the best? That is the fundamental question behind the  HBO documentary, Trophy Kids. In 90+ minutes, we see the daily routines and struggles of six  individuals across four different sports. All are talented and have developed amazing skills, but behind every athlete, there is a parent who will do anything to “help” their child become the best.  Each parent goes about coaching and training their son or daughter in their own way. There is no doubt that they are passionate about what they do, but does their overwhelming passion actually help their children in the long run?

It is heartbreaking to hear the father of an 8-year-old say, “I can’t let her know I am proudtrophy art of her.” Sadly, that is a light example of the verbal abuse that these children receive. All reflect the attitudes that their parents have towards officials, competitors, and even their own abilities. On the one hand, a father claims he sits in the back enjoying the game, but soon he joins other rabid parents, complaining about the coach and referees; his arrogance reaches a climax when he screams how bad his son’s teammates are with their parents sitting next to him.

All the kids in this documentary aspire to Division I NCAA scholarships at a major university, but somehow only one of the six children was offered a scholarship, and even he did not stay and play at that level. What can be taken from this? Sports are a huge part of our culture, and provide an identity to many that need a place to feel wanted and belong. Occasionally we see parents try and relive their high school sports days through their children, but generally their passions overwhelm those of their children and it only drives them away.

 

“Captain America: Civil War” Lifts Marvel to a New Level

By Brianne Burgess

Civil_War_Final_Poster.jpgMarvel’s Captain America: Civil War is taking the country by storm. Although technically a Captain America movie featuring Marvel characters, fans of Thor or Hulk might be disappointed they don’t make an appearance. On the other hand, interesting new  characters make their debut.

Die-hard fans know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), differs from the comics. A major plot point of the comics hangs on the secret identities of the heroes, but in the movies, their identities are well known. There are WAY more characters on each side in the comics, and the way the characters interact differs dramatically. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the movies need consistency within their own universe and present the story in a way more appropriate for the medium and audience.

Civil War raises the genre to new levels with uncommon nuance that includes extraordinary action scenes rare in cinema, high dramatic tension, and optimally placed humor. It’s far superior to Superman vs Batman which fails to artfully civil-war-promo-art-calendar-172257grasp the characters in the way that screenplay writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely  do in Civil War. They give each character depth while subtly disclosing their motives. Although it doesn’t match the comics in this respect, it didn’t need to. The cinematography is uncommonly good as is the superb choreography. Simply put, Civil War is a highly enjoyable movie. The sound engineering falls short somewhat, but it is hardly noticeable.

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The movie has its twists and turns, but the moral message is familiar: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Abraham Lincoln quoting the Bible, speaking about the American Civil War).

The fact that comic books were condemned in a 1955 conference talk (see insert above) and 60 years later command a global following inside and outside the Church, speaks to the evolutionary nature of pop culture genres. Comic media are complex in their many forms. One example is the graphic novel (book-length comic book) Road to Perdition which was converted to an Academy Award – winning movie starring Tom Hanks.

Civil War is receiving critical acclaim, and for this genre, it may earn masterpiece status; it certainly gave me goosebumps, and at the end of the two and a half hours, I wanted more.

Encore Film Review: “Nightwatching” (Lest we not forget Rembrandt)

by Dean Duncan

Trot out the adjectives, visually speaking.  This is an utterly gorgeous, luminous film.  Not just painterly, but really successfully and multiply painterly.  Frames, perpendiculars, exquisite balance giving way to different exquisite balances.  Props and costumes seem so apt, so familiar and lived in/with.  As per usual with Greenaway, these visual clarities come into conflict with narrative and thematic complexity.  It’s a compelling combination, and a valid one.

nightwatchingtwoOn the other hand, as per usual with Greenaway, it’s all kind of unpleasant.  Make that very unpleasant.  Some of that unpleasantness is earned; the film intelligently and perceptively considers power and its abuses, and abusive power behaves badly.  In this the film goes beyond the level of platitude and self-serving—the specificity, of the thing, both historically and methodologically, is positively Brechtian.  And the picture, this detailing of the ways of political oppression, isn’t likely to be very pretty.

On the other hand, on the side of our protagonist (Freeman is revelatory), there’s a Rabelasian component, an earthiness/bawdiness nightwatching-5321ad45d6edfthat seems at once really well-researched/historically plausible, and really humanly accurate.  After all, the muck of medieval subsistence is still not so terribly far in the past.  Unfortunately, this is also, on the side of the apparent good guy, the source of most of the aforementioned unpleasantness.  Rembrandt’s efforts come more or less to naught, the which conclusion—remember, the writer/director is telling this particular story for a reason—contains the message of the movie.  It’s a practically Buñuelian vision of human perfidy.  Is Buñuel so set on the futility of it all?  It’s more than that, really.  Misanthropy is one thing.  Vicious misanthropy might go a bit too far.

Mind you, the conclusion, in which that foreign gentlemen steps out of the frame, enumerates the many facets of Rembrandt’s failure, and then concludes that he was right, has considerable, undiluted power.  Near the end of Henry V Prince Hal isn’t sure who won.  Are we ever?  At the very end of Henry V, not to soon after the historical battle, that stirring victory all falls apart.  Maybe not here.  It’s kind of thrilling, after being so very dispiriting.

 

“The Jungle Book” Shines, but where’s Kipling?

by Kayna Stout

Disney’s latest iteration of The Jungle Book, about “boy-cub” Mowgli (Neel Sethi), raised by animals, and basking in the mythological, adventure-fraught forest, is turning heads of moviegoers. Mowgli’s refreshing backseat position to assertive mammals, combined with Director Jon Favreau‘s imaginative use of live-action/CGI formatted in Dolby Vision, will earn over $1 billion in ticket sales.

Jungle Book is a visual feast, and not just a kids’ movie; adults can enjoy it with no kids in tow. You wouldn’t mind toddlers asking umpteen loud questions during The SpongeBob Movie, but during this one hour and 47-minute story, too many “That elephant is big” is a definite disrupter. Young and old, however, are awed by technology allowing real animals to interact with a real seven year old boy. It’s as seamless as a magician’s slight of hand, and Disney’s 1967 version is no match for this visual masterpiece, if not compelling narrative.

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Unlike the static dioramas of the New York Museum of Natural History, canopies of trees yield endless possibilities for swinging, climbing, tumbling, and conversing with forest animals in a non-cartoon format. The child actor, Neel Sethi, is as much a wonder as the talking animals. He’s believable as a member of a wolf pack. The magic of moviemaking permeates the theater intermittently.

This elation fades in and out, however, as junglebookFavreau struggles to do the writer Rudyard Kipling justice. The director fares as well as anyone working against the Disney tendency of over-simplification. He manages to raise questions about human domination of nature, and suggest what animals might tell us if they could about our impact on the planet. Enjoy the movie, but revisit the books lest the richer story be forgotten.

The highest compliment I can give a movie is to return a second time, and this film has earned it. Such is confirmed by Metacritic’s score of 77 out of 100, based on 49 critics, placing it in the favorable-review category.

“Money Monster:” There’s a Killer in the Studio

by Danny Stout

Jodie Foster applies the same intelligence that established her as an Oscar-winning actor to directorship of Money Monster, a taut fast-moving suspense thriller. It revolves around a cable TV business program anchor, Lee Gates (George Clooney) that implores viewers to invest in a particular stock. Unfortunately for buyers, a computer glitch in the stock algorithm results in $800 million in losses across thousands of portfolios. What happened? What is an algorithm, and why did it cause me to lose my life savings?

These are the questions of livid if not berserk Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) that storms a live broadcast of Money Matters with guns and a bomb detonation vest that orders Gates to wear. Millions are watching this live from the New York City studio.

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Technical director (Julia Roberts) directs with Gates through an undetectable earphone. In a particularly tense moment, she tells him what to say word-for-word to the terrorist. Clooney and Roberts try to out-act each other, but O’Connell shines as working class laborer that’s his life’s savings. The anemic economic situation plaguing our country contributes to the film’s realism.

A heated yet delicate conversation between Gates and Budwell is a turning point. “What makes your life so s____y compared to anyone else’s?” Gates demands, disclosing a litany of his own problems: failed marriages and a daughter he’s never met. Budwell furiously rejects this ploy.” “I make fourteen dollars an hour! There’s nothing after paying rent, and I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend. What about her?”

By now, she’s on a monitor rabid with anger: “You loser! You lost all your mother’s money, how stupid, you f_____g failure!” Not exactly the approach the police were hoping for, as Budwell sinks further into deranged hopelessness. “She’s right! She’s right!” he screams repeatedly.

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Foster works the nuanced script competently, but Money Monster isn’t likely to make the canon of great suspense movies. Dramatic tension could could have been higher, but how do you kill off George Clooney and Julia Roberts? Audience members know you can’t. How little people know about the technology of investments is much scarier. How investment companies keep us guessing is the ethical question that makes this film worth seeing.