One Man's Notes on Movies and Other Life Obsessions by Chuck Wilson
December 06, 2015
My annual DISNEY page-a-day calendar from Chronicle Books is available now at Barnes & Noble and thru Amazon. This year, for the first time, we cover both Disney and Pixar animated films...there's something for everyone!
In 2007, writer-director Michael Dougherty made Trick 'r Treat, a wonderfully twisted horror debut that Warner Bros. financed — and then refused to release. It was as if the movie was too mean, too witty, too original for them to handle, so they gave up without even trying and sent the thing directly to video, where it became an instant cult classic. Trick 'r Treat is beloved, so it's big news that Dougherty has finally made a new film, the Christmas-themed fright flick Krampus. And wonder of wonders, it's being released to 2,800 screens. For Dougherty, that theater count must be sweet music.
But Krampus, sad to say, is a disappointment. It's alternately funny and intense (don't take the wee ones), but never enough of either to form a cohesive whole. Krampus begins with a letter to Santa Claus written by Max (Emjay Anthony), who doesn't believe in flying reindeer anymore but does hope that sticking to the traditions of the season will have a restorative effect on his parents (Toni Collette and Adam Scott), who are drifting apart. When Max's spoiled cousins ridicule him, Max rips the letter to shreds and casts the pieces into the night air, thereby summoning the mythological creature, Krampus, "the shadow of Saint Nicholas," who punishes those who've lost their holiday spirit.
The next morning, Max and his family wake to a power outage and a blizzard blanketing the neighborhood. The scariest thing in Krampus isn't the talon-fingered big guy or his minions — which include demonically possessed stuffed animals and robot toys — but the sight of the frozen suburban landscape (designed by Jules Cook) outside Max's bedroom window. It's gorgeous — and, in its people-free stillness, perfectly creepy.
Inside the house, Max's uncle (David Koechner) battles gingerbread cookies come to life, wielding nail guns and stealing scenes. The sequence is so memorably goofy that the gingerbread gang may end up with its own movie franchise. But if the kitchen is Gremlins-funny, the attic is Insidious-grim, as Max's parents and his aunt (Allison Tolman) fight to save their children from a kid-eating demon clown and assorted haunted toys. There's a lot of screaming and rolling around on the floor, but as with much of the film, Dougherty shoots the action so close up that it's often hard to tell what's going on.
Over time, Krampus becomes a murky blur — of action and intention. One of Max's cousins gets sucked up the chimney, which should scare the Santa out of young viewers. The movie sends mixed messages. It's hard, but gooey, too. Trick 'r Treat showed that Dougherty has a mean streak (with wit), but with Krampus, he's clearly been charged with delivering a wide-appeal PG-13 film. In the home stretch, you can feel Dougherty, who wrote the script with Todd Casey and Zach Shields, contorting his way toward a Christmas miracle. It's a painful thing to witness, but in Hollywood, creators do what they have to do. Horror fans, meanwhile, will be looking forward to the inevitable "unrated" director's cut. (Chuck Wilson)
"He had been acting in theater and on television since the late fifties and had appeared in a dozen movies without creating much of a stir but when, in 1971, he began to appear on talk shows, other guests laughed nervously at hearing behind-the-scenes smart talk in public. But the TV audience enjoyed the dropping of barriers, and Reynolds was on his way. He showed an amazingly fast put-down wit, but he also showed something else, which the TV public was probably ready for: he made a joke of his profession. He came on as a man who had no higher values than the buck and the pleasures of the flesh—exactly what people in the audience had always believed stardom was about. His message was that stars are just bums, and that he himself was an honest, funny, bum—too smart and gamy to give much of a damn about anything except having a good time, and too cocky to lie about it. His message was that he was having a ball being a stud celebrity. The belief is now widespread that the price of success is the loss of privacy, and that the successful person who fights this isn't playing fair. And there's a concurrent belief, almost as widely held, probably, that those rich, lucky people who have become stars—whether of sports, politics, entertainment, or anything else—are out for themselves. Reynolds not only accepted those terms but carried them further. His fun-loving "frankness" seemed the show-business truth, and when he was around, any earnestness looked a solemn fraud. His charm is that of a cheap crook who ingratiates himself by saying, "Look, we're all cheap crooks—why lie about it?"
Three, four, sometimes five times a month, I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me. Almost every day of every month, between these attacks, I feel the sudden irrational irritation and the flush of blood into the cerebral arteries which tell me that migraine is on its way, and I take certain drugs to avert its arrival. If I did not take the drugs, I would be able to function perhaps one day in four. The physiological error called migraine is, in brief, central to the given of my life. When I was 15, 16, even 25, I used to think that I could rid myself of this error by simply denying it, character over chemistry. "Do you have headaches sometimes? frequently? never?" the application forms would demand. "Check one." Wary of the trap, wanting whatever it was that the successful circumnavigation of that particular form could bring (a job, a scholarship, the respect of mankind and the grace of God), I would check one. "Sometimes," I would lie. That in fact I spent one or two days a week almost unconscious with pain seemed a shameful secrct, evidence not merely of some chemical inferiority but of all my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers, wrongthink.
For I had no brain tumor, no eyestrain, no high blood pressure, nothing wrong with me at all: I simply had migraine headaches, and migraine headaches were, as everyone who did not have them knew, imaginary. I fought migraine then, ignored the warnings it sent, went to school and later to work in spite of it, sat through lectures in Middle English and presentations to advertisers with involuntary tears running down the right side of my face, threw up in washrooms, stumbled home by instinct, emptied ice trays onto my bed and tried to freeze the pain in my right temple, wished, only for a neurosurgeon who would do a lobotomy on house call, and cursed my imagination.
It was a long time before I began thinking mechanistically enough to accept migraine for what it was: something with which I would be living, the way some people live with diabetes. Migraine is something more than the fancy of a neurotic imagination. It is an essentially hereditary complex of symptoms, the most frequently noted but by no means the most unpleasant of which is a vascular headache of blinding severity, suffered by a surprising number of women, a fair number of men (Thomas Jefferson had migraine, and so did Ulysses S. Grant, the day he accepted Lee's surrender), and by some unfortunate children as young as two years old. (I had my first when I was eight. It came on during a fire drill at the Columbia School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I was taken first home and then to the infirmary at Peterson Field, where my father was stationed. The Air Corps doctor prescribed an enema.) Almost anything can trigger a specific attack of migraine: stress, allergy, fatigue, an abrupt change in barometric pressure, a contretemps over a parking ticket. A flashing light. A fire drill. One inherits, of course, only the predisposition. In other words I spent yesterday in bed with a headache not merely because of my bad attitudes, unpleasant tempers and wrong-think, but because both my grandmothers had migraine, my father has migraine and my mother has migraine.
No one knows precisely what it is that is inherited. The chemistry of migraine, however, seems to have some connection with the nerve hormone named serotonin, which is naturally present in the brain. The amount of serotonin in the blood falls sharply at the onset of migraine, and one migraine drug, methysergide, or Sansert, seems to have some effect on serotonin. Methysergide is a derivative of lysergic acid (in fact Sandoz Pharmaceuticals first synthesized LSD-25 while looking for a migraine cure), and its use is hemmed about with so many contraindications and side effects that most doctors prescribe it only in the most incapacitating cases. Methysergide, when it is prescribed, is taken daily, as a preventive; another preventive which works for some people is old-fashioned ergotamine tartrate, which helps to constrict the swelling blood vessels during the "aura," the period which in most cases precedes the actual headache.
Once an attack is under way, however, no drug touches it. Migraine gives some people mild hallucinations, temporarily blinds others, shows up not only as a headache but as a gastrointestinal disturbance, a painful sensitivity to all sensory stimuli, an abrupt overpowering fatigue, a strokelike aphasia, and a crippling inability to make even the most routine connections. When I am in a migraine aura (for some people the aura lasts fifteen minutes, for others several hours), I will drive through red lights, lose the house keys, spill whatever I am holding, lose the ability to focus my eyes or frame coherent sentences, and generally give the appearance of being on drugs, or drunk. The actual headache, when it comes, brings with it chills, sweating, nausea, a debility that seems to stretch the very limits of endurance. That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing.
My husband also has migraine, which is unfortunate for him but fortunate for me: perhaps nothing so tends to prolong an attack as the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache. "Why not take a couple of aspirin," the unafflicted will say from the doorway, or "I'd have a headache, too, spending a beautiful day like this inside with all the shades drawn." All of us who have migraine suffer not only from the attacks themselves but from this common conviction that we are perversely refusing to cure ourselves by taking a couple of aspirin, that we are making ourselves sick, that we "bring it on ourselves." And in the most immediate sense, the sense of why we have a headache this Tuesday and not last Thursday, of course we often do. There certainly is what doctors call a "migraine personality," and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist. "You don't look like a migraine personality," a doctor once said to me. "Your hair's messy. But I suppose you're a compulsive housekeeper." Actually my house is kept even more negligently than my hair, but the doctor was right nonetheless: perfectionism can also take the form of spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.
But not all perfectionists have migraine, and not all migrainous people have migraine personalities. We do not escape heredity. I have tried in most of the available ways to escape my own migrainous heredity (at one point I learned to give myself two daily injections of histamine with a hypodermic needle, even though the needle so frightened me that I had to close my eyes when I did it), but I still have migraine. And I have learned now to live with it, learned when to expect it, how to outwit it, even how to regard it, when it does come, as more friend than lodger. We have reached a certain understanding, my migraine and I. It never comes when I am in real trouble. Tell me that my house is burned down, my husband has left me, that there is gunfighting in the streets and panic in the banks, and I will not respond by getting a headache. It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up. On days like that my friend comes uninvited.
And once it comes, now that I am wise in its ways, I no longer fight it. I lie down and let it happen. At first every small apprehension is magnified, every anxiety a pounding terror. Then the pain comes, and I concentrate only on that. Right there is the usefulness of migraine, there in that imposed yoga, the concentration on the pain. For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.
Its review day, so this Peanuts fan can finally say: YES! Rosalie and I LOVED THE PEANUTS MOVIE. When it was over, Rosalie (my goddaughter, who is 10) said, "It's really, really good" and I could tell she was truly surprised, deeply pleased, and also sort of relieved. (My best pal in all things PEANUTS, she needed it to be good just as much as I did.) There are a ton of things I love about it (more on that later), and a couple things I don't (not enough Linus), but the best thing (besides the film's gorgeous color palette) is that THE PEANUTS MOVIE is a true children's film. Rated "G", baby, and proud of it. Adults will enjoy the movie, but Rosalie and the little kids around us were IN the movie—they were hanging on every word, every gesture. I'd forgotten what a rare and wonderful energy that is—giggling, seat-kicking, delighted children, their eyes glued to the big screen—completely invested, because already, of course, they've each had their own Charlie Brown days. Kids watch good movies with their entire bodies (their entire beings), and THE PEANUTS MOVIE is sure to have them bobbing and weaving in their seats. What could be better? (Chuck Wilson)
Ukrainian multimedia artist Fedor Alexandrovich is haunted by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred when he was four years old. There's radiation in Fedor's bones, and this may be what drives his conviction that the accident was a willful act of sabotage designed to protect the secrets behind a nearby Soviet-controlled radio installation dubbed the "woodpecker." In a commanding debut, American filmmaker Chad Gracia, aided by cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov, follows Fedor as he visits the forbidden Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. It's desolate, of course, but Fedor, who is one part performance artist, wraps his naked body in plastic and dances across an ashy floor littered with gas masks. Later, he climbs to the top of the massive, still-standing radio installation, an act of rebellion breathtaking in its daring. As Fedor begins asking questions of elderly ex-Soviet officials — loyalists, still — his wild-eyed theory that the Chernobyl accident was initiated by a Moscow bureaucrat desperate to hide the failings of the ultra-expensive radio tower takes on a feverish plausibility, even as Gracia's healthy skepticism keeps the film from going off the rails. Fedor's quest eventually takes an emotionally wrenching turn, which Gracia and Ryzhykov handle with an impressive combination of empathy and journalistic ruthlessness. The Russian Woodpecker is very much like Fedor himself — eccentric as hell, smart as a whip, and, at the end of the day, a heartbreaker. (Chuck Wilson)
Paulette is old, and she's also mean and deeply racist, and, as played by the legendary French actress Bernadette Lafont, the title character in this formulaic comedy is unapologetic about her brittle edges.Alas, writer-director Jérôme Enrico lacks Lafont's steely resolve, and it doesn't take him long to turn Paulette into a pastry-baking softie. She's an impoverished widow, about to lose her apartment in a run-down Parisian neighborhood. When she sees how much money the local dealers are making, Paulette offers her services to their boss (Paco Boublard), and is soon raking in the cash with hashish-laced "Space Cakes."Except for one odd scene where her young drug rivals knock Paulette down and kick her, Enrico avoids all hints of realism, with Paulette bringing her elderly friends into her mini-empire and along the way finally learning to love her black grandson (Ismaël Dramé). It's all pure hokum, perfect for a Shirley MacLaine remake, but it's lovely to see Lafont carrying a film so effortlessly.She died in 2013, at age 74, one year after Paulette became a hit in France. A working actress since she was 19, Lafont was at the forefront of the French New Wave, with François Truffaut, who discovered her, once calling her, lovingly, "a wild child." It would appear that she remained so all her working life. (Chuck Wilson)
As this slow-burning but compelling psychological thriller opens, John appears to be disposing of a body. Later, he plays dumb when neighbors in his Illinois farm town begin wondering if a recently reformed troublemaker named Dutch has been murdered. Dutch's brother, Danny (Ronnie Gene Blevins), sure thinks so, and he's looking John's way. First-time director Steven Piet and co-writer Erik Crary have devised a narrative where the suspense is built entirely around the possibility that the dark, intensely felt secondary nature of the ever affable John might be revealed. In a parallel narrative, Ben (Alex Moffat), a Chicago graphic designer, begins a tentative affair with his boss, Kate (Jenna Lyng). Ben is winsome, but over time, we're made to see that he too is hiding an interior edge. John and Ben are intimately connected, just as John and the missing Dutch are connected, but it wouldn't be fair to reveal how. It definitely takes Piet too long to get Ben and Kate out to John's farm, but when he does, Uncle John suddenly becomes a taut thriller. Trouble ensues, but thanks to Ashton's brilliant, career-defining performance, we're made to see that the only thing worse than doing evil deeds is being nice enough to feel guilty about them. (Chuck Wilson)
The 2nd season of writer John Logan's PENNY DREADFUL is a transcendent moment in horror. So richly textured, so beautifully bloody. It made the horror fan in me absolutely giddy. This will only mean something to about five of you but the neato-keen-I'm-14-again thrill I felt reminded me not of a movie, but of reading Clive Barker's BOOKS OF BLOOD way back in 1984, or a mind-twist 2005 Joe Hill short story called "Best New Horror" (available on Kindle; please find it). Mmmm...Try this: this second season of PENNY DREADFUL (1000 times better than the first), with its insanely textured production design (hit Pause, and just LOOK), and deep respect for powerful women (real, supernatural, and "created"), and its Catholic imagery (only the fearless Eva Green could pull off that transgressive scene with the cross), as well as Logan's deep love for Draculian castles and Victorian ballrooms drenched in blood, reminded me, at varies times of Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese, Val Lewton, Wes Anderson, and novelist Margaret Atwood (if she'd written a straight-on Gothic, which she really should.) And in the final episodes especially, you're sure to think of Dan Curtis' "Dark Shadows," because, you know, when you're doing witchery and werewolves and dungeons...a little cheesiness has to creep in, and maybe, a smart writer (and production staff) welcomes it. For me, that's the happiest thing: this year, PENNY DREADFUL was serious, goofy, gloomy FUN. (Chuck Wilson)