I love Daniel Radcliffe — he remains my favorite celebrity interview — and I love the daring choices he’s made to show his versatility outside the “Harry Potter” franchise. But I did not love the supernatural thriller “Horns,” which has some intriguing ideas but is all over the place tonally. My RogerEbert.com review.
Daniel Stamm is a twisted dude, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
When I asked the director of the horror films “13 Sins” and “The Last Exorcism” whether he’d be interested in doing a Five Most list for my website for Halloween, not only did he say yes immediately, he also immediately had a topic in mind: his favorite unhappy endings. So it’s all tricks and no treats here.
Usually I like to limit the lists to five selections, because making the tough choices is what makes the game fun. But Stamm picked seven, which I’m OK with because they’re all so varied and inspired. So enjoy, with my thanks to Stamm for taking the time — but be warned, there be spoilers ahead.
“Se7en” (1995): “What’s in the boooox?!” I read somewhere that the studio didn’t want to shoot the draft with the box, and David Fincher didn’t want to shoot anything but. It took Brad Pitt to threaten to quit unless Fincher would get his box, and so he did. On the DVD commentary, they are talking about an alternative ending that I always liked: When Morgan Freeman’s character realizes that he can’t keep Pitt from shooting John Doe, he pulls out his gun and does it himself, sparing the younger cop decades in prison and sacrificing himself. You know you have a dark movie when this is the ending that “wasn’t enough of a sucker punch” to make it into the film.
“The Mist” (2007): Like “Se7en,” this also is a movie where the director and the studio battled over the ending. Frank Darabont allegedly agreed to having his budget cut in half in exchange for the studio not to mess with it. He should have a sticker on the back of his car that says MY FILM’S ENDING COULD KICK YOUR FILM’S ENDING’S ASS. And it could. I don’t think I have ever seen a more uncompromising one.
“Layer Cake” (2004): This one is deep: Daniel Craig’s character is a bad-ass who doesn’t only beat the mob, he becomes top dog, only to walk out and give it all the finger. He’s invincible. He is in the middle of a heroic voiceover that wraps it all up when he gets shot by some nobody we hardly remember whose girlfriend he screwed along the way. The camera pulls up as he bleeds out on the stairs. All hail the little guy’s bite.
“The Cabin in the Woods.” (2012): If the ending of “Layer Cake” is about the little things that fuck you up, “The Cabin in the Woods” is about the big ones. It’s a rollercoaster of bigger bigger bigger. There was really only one place to go with the ending, and that was into epic megalomania – which they did gloriously. I love Lionsgate for protecting this movie’s secrets instead of giving them away in the trailer, even though they probably paid a steep price for it at the box office.
“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003): This ending always stuck with me because it is so odd. Some mentor figure sends young John Connor out to prevent the rise of the machines. It takes him the entire film to get where he was told to go. It turns out he’s been tricked: The catastrophe cannot be prevented, and instead he’s been led to a nuclear bunker to survive it. The whole thing was a bluff so he wouldn’t insist on fighting and dying. It’s a cool idea. But it also means that you could cut the entire movie out of the franchise entirely and nobody would notice it was ever there, as far as the overall story and mythology are concerned. Hmm.
“Videodrome” (1983): Speakking of deceptive mentor figures, here’s a far more vicious one. I remember being a teenager and sitting in a house in Belfast during a stormy night, being utterly confused when the movie is suddenly over after James Woods was just about to go to battle. I must have been staring at the credits rolling in front of me for a good minute before it finally hit me what had happened. Goosebumps.
“The Blair Witch Project” (1999): It’s so masterfully done: They (dismissively) talk about a gruesome piece of mythology early on, give you enough time to forget about it, then have you remember it when you slowly recognize the visual of the kid in the corner. It’s straight out of a nightmare. Eduardo Sanchez, one of the two directors, told me they didn’t have an ending until someone came up with it on the day. Thank God someone did.
Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use.
Running time: 108 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
Writer-director Justin Simien takes a sledgehammer to the rosy notion that we’ve achieved a post-racial utopia — but he does it with great wit, bite and flair — in his debut feature, “Dear White People.”
Simien’s film is very much of our time and place in history, and it very much toys with the idea that everything would be OK in our nation following the election of its first black president — that the racial tensions that have existed and evolved for centuries would suddenly disappear. And by “toys,” I mean it in the sense of what a cat does with a ball: He chases after it and pounces on it ferociously and relentlessly, but with highly amusing enthusiasm.
It’s actually kind of astonishing that this is Simien’s first film — that he’d try to tackle such tricky territory so sharply and with such honesty right out of the gate. He dares to say what so many of us think — dares to approach subtleties and intricacies that so many of us don’t want to bother talking about. He does it with dialogue that’s direct and often brutal but an aesthetic that’s pleasingly formal and artfully arch. It’s an obvious comparison, but “Dear White People” reminded me of some of Spike Lee’s earliest work, specifically “School Daze,” given its college campus setting. And I was thrilled to be part of the Gotham Awards committee that chose Simien as one of the five nominees for the breakthrough director award this year. He is indeed an exciting new talent.
Simien’s film follows the lives of four students on the fictional campus of Winchester University, an Ivy League-type institution. The young woman who gives the film its title — and also serves as its breakout star — is Tessa Thompson as DJ and aspiring filmmaker Sam. With her radio show, she reveals uncomfortable truths about the ways in which blacks and whites interact. Example: “Dear White People: The minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.” Her observations are both smart and seductive and obviously the reflections of a woman who’s confident in her own identity and power.
Or is she? Part of what makes “Dear White People” feel so alive and vital is the way in which all the characters assess and reassess themselves and their purpose in society — without, perhaps, finding all the satisfying answers they seek. Sam, for instance, believes she should fall in with a group of militant black students, but her heart leads her to her film class teaching assistant — who happens to be white.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Coco (Teyonah Parris) — who has shortened her name from the more ethnic-sounding Colandrea — a sexy young woman who will say and do whatever provocative thing she must to garner attention and land a spot on reality television. With her straightened hair, blonde wigs and curve-hugging dresses, she’s an opportunistic climber who views Sam as a “Lisa Bonet wannabe.” Much of Simien’s humor comes from such observant put-downs of pop-culture figures; Tyler Perry, and his films that depict a narrow view of black America, get a particularly inspired skewering.
The preppy and polished Troy (Brandon P. Bell) obviously is destined for a future in politics himself, speaking of President Obama. He just so happens to be the son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert). And he also happens to be dating a white girl named Sofia (Brittany Curran), for whom this romantic dalliance is an exotic form of rebellion against her wealthy and powerful father, the school’s president (Peter Syvertsen). (The fact that Troy and Sofia’s fathers went to this university together and continue to have a competitive relationship with each other all these decades later feels more than a bit contrived.)
Finally, there’s Lionel (“Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams), who fits even less tidily into a predetermined box. Lionel is bright but nerdy. He’s an aspiring journalist but he’s extremely shy. He’s a skinny kid who rocks a massive Afro. He’s also gay. This combination of attributes makes him the target of unwanted desire and scorn from various corners, and while he seems to be having the hardest time fitting in on campus, he’s also the most secure in who he truly is.
All of their story lines collide at an ethnically-themed party that’s wildly inappropriate — the kind that we still see all the time at college campuses across the country. Simien is onto something in holding up the tendency that blacks and whites sometimes have to appropriate (and misappropriate) each others’ cultures, and the recognition of the truths he reveals is both deeply amusing and cringe-inducing. His film may meander a bit here and there but when he takes aim, he hits his targets squarely. I can’t wait to see where he’ll set his sights next.
“John Wick” is very much in Keanu Reeves’ wheelhouse. It’s a stylishly cool, dazzlingly choreographed action thriller that allows him to play on his stoic, Zen-like persona but also whip out a deadpan one-liner with detached precision. My RogerEbert.com review.
“Birdman” is technically astounding yet emotionally rich, intimate yet enormous, biting yet warm, satirical yet sweet. It’s one of the best times you’ll have at the movies all year and might just be the best movie of the year. A rare four-star review, at RogerEbert.com.