Review: 'Blair Witch' is a brute force reminder of what worked about the original film
Credit: Lionsgate

Review: 'Blair Witch' is a brute force reminder of what worked about the original film

This sequel comes from a place of clear affection for the first film

When I reviewed the original The Blair Witch Project, it was March of 1999. I saw it in Austin, in the apartment of a couple of my friends, thanks to Harry Knowles, who had been sent a VHS copy of the film by the filmmakers during its Sundance run. I went to Austin in February, and Harry had been sitting on his copy, waiting for us to get to town. We were there for the third Quentin Tarantino film festival at the still-young Alamo Drafthouse, and on the last night of the festival, my friends and I were set to hit the road as soon as the movies ended. We were road-tripping, and between the four of us, we figured we’d be able to do the entire drive back to LA straight through with no stops for sleep.

Harry asked us not to leave town right after the film, though. He told us to come to our friend’s apartment first, and once we were all crowded into the fairly tiny apartment and we had smoked just enough Austin skunkweed to be completely gullible, Harry got up to introduce the film. He told us it was a documentary that had screened at Sundance and that when he was sent the film, he didn’t really know anything beyond that. “I don’t know what to make of it,” he said. “It’s sort of crazy. You should see it for yourself. It’s not long, and then you guys can get going.”

Now imagine seeing the film without any hype beyond that. Someone tells you, “Here’s this thing. It is what it appears to be. Enjoy it.” What we watched in Jed and Rebecca’s living room that night absolutely scared the shit out of all of us. Charlie and Scott and Pete and I all sat there, gradually freaking out, not sure what was happening, absolutely convinced for a time that this was real. The film built to that climax in the house, there’s that strange ambiguous last shot, the film cut to black… and Harry turned off the tape. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s all they had on the tape. No credits. No nothing. Like a goddamn snuff film. Anyway, enjoy your drive.”

And laughing because he knew full well what he had just done to us, Harry wished us goodbye and we started driving through endless miles of pitch black Texas chainsaw landscape. We were convinced something was going to jump out into our headlights, and we started trying to scare each other even more. It was like we were drunk on being scared, and by the time the sun finally started to come up, none of us had slept and we were giddy from the sustained terror that the film had generated in us.

Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick had no idea what they were about to do to the film industry when they made their ultra low budget “found footage” film about four film students who vanished while filming an attempt to find some sort of evidence in the case of the Blair Witch. The story of the film is exciting because of how much is suggested but not explicit. The story of how the film was made is exciting because of how much it empowered an entire generation of filmmakers. In 2008, I moderated a panel at Comic-Con for several filmmakers including the Dowdles, Steven Schneider, Jacob Gentry and Dave Bruckner, the three friends behind the Raiders Of The Lost Ark adaptation, the producer and production designer of All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, and, finally, a young Adam Wingard. Schneider was there for Paranormal Activity, the Dowdles were there for The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Quarantine, and I think it’s safe to say that the shadow of The Blair Witch Project loomed large over the event. These were indie filmmakers, people working on the absolute fringe and making it happen, and that, more than anything, was the message that Blair Witch sent to filmmakers. It set them free, and it made it okay to embrace a video aesthetic.

One of the reasons I feel like Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows is such a strange film is because they followed up this largely successful fake documentary with a film by Joe Berlinger, a genuinely gifted documentary filmmaker, and they did it by making a film that had nothing to do with the documentary aesthetic of the first film. What a strange choice that is. Like that film or not, there’s something almost perverse about that decision. It seemed like it was a fool’s errand to try to follow up that first film, especially with a filmmaker who was already an established filmmaker when the first film came out. Joe Berlinger might have liked the first film, but I doubt it was a lightning bolt moment for him the way it was for the filmmakers sitting on that panel I moderated. It makes much more sense that now, a full 17 years later, Adam Wingard is the one making a reaction to the original movie, because he was a filmmaker who genuinely felt that influence.

Working with screenwriter Simon Barrett, Wingard has had a diverse and aggressive career over the past six years. When they made A Horrible Way To Die, it played some notable nerdy film festivals, and it got some love from genre reviewers and from the genre nerds who actually saw it. But it was the following year’s You're Next that finally struck the right nerve, and it was purchased by Lionsgate, who did their best to figure out how to translate the genuine rabid enthusiasm generated at Toronto and Fantastic Fest into a successful commercial release. It’s important to note, though, that Wingard and Barrett haven’t just worked in horror. What Fun We Were Having is much more of a thriller, co-written with Wingard’s Pop Skull co-writer E.L. Katz as well, and Autoerotic is an psuedo-anthology film about sexuality and technology, co-directed with Joe Swanberg. V/H/S, a horror anthology that they directed and wrote the wrap-around for, was another immediate festival sensation for Wingard and Barrett, and there was a sequel the following year that they were also involved in. They reunited with their You’re Next producers, Jess and Keith Calder, for The Guest, and it felt like they were getting better and better at what they were doing.

It’s been two years since that movie, though, a lifetime in the career arc of these guys so far, and part of the reason they went silent was because Lionsgate wanted to keep it a secret that they were rebooting the Blair Witch franchise with the aptly-titled Blair Witch, even going so far as putting out a trailer with a different cover title, The Woods. From the opening moments of the film, it is clear that Wingard and Barrett have mad respect for the original 1999 film, and that this is not meant to reinvent anything. This is a movie that builds on the mythology established in the first film, and that plays by the same basic rules while also offering new details, new ideas, pulling not only from the original movie but from other sources, like Curse Of The Blair Witch and The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier and even the sequel and its spin-off companion Shadow Of The Blair Witch.

It’s very simple. James (James Allen McCune) is the younger brother of Heather (Heather Donahue) from the first film. He’s grown up haunted by her disappearance and by the release of the movie that used all of her footage. If you take the first film as “real” and you think about how it would feel to see what is essentially an autobiographical snuff film, then can you imagine what it would be like to be one of the families of those kids? To have to live with knowing that the whole world watched your child or your sibling or your friend live in terror, then die under such bizarre circumstances? To have this permanent record, but no real answers? Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is his girlfriend, and she’s also a film student. She decides to make a film out of his efforts to find some clues about Heather after all these years, spurred on by a video that shows up on YouTube that appears to be shot in the same house as the end of the original film. As crazy as it sounds, James believes that he saw Heather in the footage, and that she might somehow still be out there. Sure, he was part of the search parties that were mounted looking for her, as was his best childhood friend Peter (Brandon Scott), so he knows just how hopeless that is. Even so, Lisa and Peter, along with Ashley (Corbin Reid), Peter’s girlfriend, head to the Black Hills forest to search, armed with a ton of high-tech camera gear. They hook up with two creepy local kids, Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), who were the ones who found and uploaded the video that got James curious in the first place, and the six of them head into the woods.

Things do not go well.

That’s the long and short of it, and if you’re not a fan of the first film, this one’s not going to win you over. It hews closely to the kind of storytelling that distinguished the first film, and Wingard is careful to play by those rules, goosing them in a few places. Did I need an explicit explanation of why Mike was standing in the corner at the end of the first movie? Nope. Not really. But do I feel like Wingard and Barrett pulled apart the entire film, right down to its nuts and bolts, in order to build something that works in all the ways a sequel should? Yes. Definitely. And like the first film, this movie takes its time building up a head of steam, only to erupt at a certain point. Once the film reaches a particular fever pitch, it sustains that level of intensity for the rest of the film. There’s no release after a certain point.

At their core, the first movie and this film are haunted houses. They are the cinematic equivalent of actually going out into the woods with a group of lunatics who are determined to scare the hell out of you, and as you run through the haunted house, it just gets crazier and crazier. There are some steps forward here including a disturbing moment with one of those stick figure things, glimpses of the things making those sounds from the first film, and more than a slight hint that whatever’s in the Black Hills came from somewhere very far away, but the details of the mythology are less important than Wingard’s understanding of what made the first film work. There is a brute level appeal to our lizard brain memories of being tiny things afraid of being eaten that sends us into genuine fight or flight mode right there, pinned to our theater seats, and either that is fun for you or it is not. But that’s the button that is being pushed here. Most of the time, filmmakers can sustain this for one sequence, for a few minutes, but these films push that as far as I think an audience could possibly accept it. It feels like the climax of this film is played at a fever pitch for a good half hour. Can it actually be that long? I don’t know. I don’t stopwatch movies. I can only tell you that it becomes exhausting in the best possible way. And in the midst of all the running and screaming and beasties and decay, the biggest scare of the entire film, the moment where it just threatens to break the character onscreen and the audience in equal measure, involves nothing supernatural, nothing outrageous, and no big sound design or jump scare. It is a perfect, ugly, real moment of physical defeat, and it got a physical reaction out of the audience I saw the film with.

The kids are fine. To really be effective in a Blair Witch movie, an actor has to be ego-free and be willing to be abused onscreen, and Callie Hernandez in particular seems to be game for anything. She works hard in the last third of the film, and I’d love to see just how crazy the actual physical side of this shoot was. Thomas Hammock might as well get included in the cast list. He’s the film’s production designer, and along with art director Sheila Haley, he’s created a truly filthy and unpleasant haunted house that feels dangerous in every corner. Louis Cioffi’s editing is sharp and effective, and cinematographer Robby Baumgartner has been careful not to cheat and capture things that Lisa’s cameras wouldn’t. Everyone does everything they can, and when it works, it really works. I do think the familiarity is a problem that is sort of a conundrum. If you do your job well and make a sequel that delivers the same sort of experience as the first film, you’ll automatically feel familiar, and if you are too different, you risk ruining whatever it was that people liked about the first film. It’s almost not fair to say that it feels very much like watching the first movie again… but it does. I liked how confident Wingard is about that final third of the film, and considering how careful he’s been about which big-name horror franchise he would or wouldn’t make, I think he’s done himself proud. He made a real Blair Witch movie. I’m not sure the film ever quite convinces me that these kids, knowing what they do, would have gone into the woods without some more support and safety nets in place, and they make some very, very dumb choices in order to keep things moving. But at a certain point, it stops being about “what would I do?” and starts feeling like a nightmare you’re caught in where you keep moving forward because you have to, not because you especially want to.

It will be interesting to see if audiences embrace this very sincere return to the world of the Blair Witch. It feels like a real test of Wingard and Barrett’s ability to cross over into a bigger commercial world, and the movie is as good a Blair Witch film as anyone could have faithfully delivered. It all comes down to how strong a hold those woods have over the modern horror audience.

Blair Witch is in theaters everywhere today.

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Review: Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' is a return to form for Hollywood's master of agit-prop
Credit: Open Road

Review: Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' is a return to form for Hollywood's master of agit-prop

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's natural intelligence humanizes the digital-age canary in a coal mine

At first glance, there is little about Snowden that would seem to distinguish it from some of this year’s other “I’m not sure there’s a movie in that true story” based-on-a-true-story movies like Sully and Deepwater Horizon, especially in the wake of the Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate or the exceptional documentary Citizenfour.

But Snowden has a secret weapon, and it’s one that I wasn’t expecting: a fully-engaged and on-his-game Oliver Stone.

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Why the slow knife of Jody Hill is one of comedy's deadliest tools
Credit: HBO

Why the slow knife of Jody Hill is one of comedy's deadliest tools

Look past the bad behavior. There's something else going on here.

Since the first time I saw The Foot Fist Way, I have been a fan of the work of Jody Hill and Danny McBride. They have a number of other regular collaborators who are part of the wonderful work they’ve created together so far, and you can’t talk about them without also talking about Ben Best or Shawn Harwell or John Carcieri or David Gordon Green or Tim Orr or Joseph Stephens, because they’re all part of what I love about Observe and Report and Eastbound & Down and now Vice Principals.

I’ll have more to say about this season once it comes to a close next week, but today, I am struck anew by why I have such a strong reaction to the films that Jody Hill has directed, and I think I finally have a handle on it. I often find myself having a strong emotional reaction to something without being able to fully articulate why, which is one of the reasons criticism mattered to me as a film fan in the first place. It’s an attempt to explain how we engage with art, to put a name on those things that we react to even if we don’t fully know we’re doing it.

A few weeks back, there was an episode involving motorcycles and missing books called “The Foundation Of Learning,” and I must have watched it four times in the week after it aired. I ended up writing to Jody directly. In part, I wrote:

What I love about your work is that you have devoted a career to studying the way people either do or don't get a win in life. You know that there are no permanent versions of either, so your work drills down on the small wins and the small losses. Moments of victory or moments of humiliation, and that fine line between them. The ending of this week's episode is maybe the best example of that I've seen you pull off so far. Gamby loses, but then Gamby wins. And Lee savors his win before you hand him a brutal loss. For Belinda, that loss becomes a win in an upsetting way, while for Amanda, her loss might well become a really unexpected win. It's gorgeous writing, gorgeous direction, and the cast is so good together.

I’m particularly interested in the way his work examines what we consider a win or a loss, and how fleeting those feelings can be. That’s what made Eastbound & Down so consistently absorbing. Watching Kenny Powers constantly lose the things he thought he wanted in favor of the things he actually needed, and watching the slow dawning of his awareness of just how fleeting every victory was, and how hard-won they could be, was no less than watching someone slowly but surely develop a soul. I was discussing Vice Principals with some friends lately, and one guy mentioned how he can’t watch these shows because he thinks every character is an asshole, and to me, that misses the point.

Look at Neal Gamby, the character played by Danny McBride in Vice Principals. He’s certainly insecure and full of bluster, and he’s willing to cross some pretty profound lines in his effort to destroy Dr. Belinda Brown, played so brilliantly by Kimberly Hebert Gregory. But Gamby is also a guy whose insecurity is hard-earned. After all, his wife Gale (Busy Philipps) left him and took their daughter Janelle (Maya G. Love), and Neal feels himself getting squeezed out of his daughter’s life, no matter what he does. All he has is whatever authority he’s earned at work, and that is threatened by Dr. Brown’s arrival. He knows people don’t like him, and it makes him more defensive, more closed off.

Even more fascinating to me this year has been the arc they charted out for Lee Russell, played by Walton Goggins. Lee is much more overtly sinister than Neal. He keeps complex dossiers on everyone in the school so he can destroy them if he has to. Or wants to. Or just feels like it in passing. When he and Neal team up at first, he seems to be the far stronger of the two of them, but little by little, Lee has been revealed to be terrified and fragile in ways that are heartbreaking. He has no power in his own house, and feels constantly emasculated, and his attempts at winning power are more pathetic than evil.

What they’ve done beautifully over the course of the show is reveal what everyone on the show wants, and just how hard it is for any of them to get there. Belinda Brown may have seemed strong when she showed up, but she’s revealed the cracks in her humanity with each passing week. Her relationship with her estranged husband (Brian Tyree Henry) and her sons Mario (Deshawn Rivers) and Luke (RJ Cyler) is incredibly difficult, and she’s fragile when it comes to them. She is fiercely devoted to her job, to a fault, and the same confidence and determination that have made her successful can easily curdle to become arrogance and blindness, something that Lee has exploited. 

For Belinda, revealing that human side of herself is a loss because of how it gets used against her. For Neal, revealing that human side of himself is a win because it seems to honestly be bringing him closer to Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King), the teacher who seemed to be completely beyond him at the start of the series. At the same time, Neal can be his own worst enemy, as can Belinda, as can Lee. None of these people need anyone else to destroy them from the outside, because they are perfectly capable of destroying themselves.

Last night’s episode, “Gin,” ended with a long sequence involving Tanqueray and Dr. Brown that simply has to be seen to be believed. It is a remarkable meltdown, and it sets up the final episode of the season beautifully. But what fascinated me is how clearly they’re all starting to reach different places as people. Watch Neal as Belinda has her meltdown. He doesn’t feel good about what’s happening because he’s recognized something in her that he sees in himself, that same struggle with who he is and how he fits and whether or not anyone respects or even likes him. Lee can’t make that jump, can’t see anything but his own pain, and he even confesses that to Neal in the episode’s most naked moment. Whatever happens next week, sorting out how each of these characters defines winning or losing will be a dark and difficult pleasure. Jody Hill measures damage in millimeters, and when he twists a knife, he does it very, very slowly. But unlike most cringe comedy, he isn’t interested simply in bad behavior, but in the human frailty behind it, and the hope that drives it. I live for those little wins. We all do. And frequently, those little wins are all we get. I’m thrilled for you if you feel like you’ve beaten all of life’s challenges and everything is easy and wonderful. I don’t understand you, and I can’t remotely relate to you, but I’m thrilled for you. Congratulations. For most of us, though, a victory as simple as someone liking us back or recognizing a job we’ve done well or even just acknowledging the indignities that we all struggle with can mean the world, and no one is making more out of those moments right now than Jody Hill and the team behind Vice Principals.

Vice Principals airs Sunday night on HBO.

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I'm starting to think Tom Holland really is Spider-Man
Credit: Sony/Marvel

I'm starting to think Tom Holland really is Spider-Man

Or at the very least, the most exuberant actor to ever play the part

While I did not attend the recent set visit for Spider-Man: Homecoming, I’ve spoken with a few folks who did, and it really does sound like Marvel’s doing their very best to give fans a Spider-Man film that they’re going to adore. And a big part of that, at least based on Captain America: Civil War, hinges on the casting of Tom Holland as Peter Parker.

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Review: Tom Hanks just can't keep Clint Eastwood's 'Sully' in the air
Credit: Warner Bros

Review: Tom Hanks just can't keep Clint Eastwood's 'Sully' in the air

This one is confusing from start to finish

First and foremost: Chesley Sullenberger did extraordinary work in landing US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River, and every single person involved in the rescue efforts that day deserves the highest possible praise for how they handled things. Every single passenger and crew member aboard survived, and that is to be celebrated, certainly.

But as a film?

I can imagine all of the good impulses that went into the decision to make Sully, but none of that matters when the film is as resolutely limp as this one. Clint Eastwood often works in a minor key, which is one of the things I like most about him as a filmmaker. He has always been interested in the understated, and Sully is certainly that. The danger is that you can be so understated that it becomes inert, and in the case of Sully, I don’t get the entire thing. I understand that there was a plane crash and a lot of people did their jobs extraordinarily well, but there’s no drama beyond that. There is a bit of busywork made of the investigation, and they try their best to build to a big triumphant finish where Sully is vindicated, but no matter how hard the filmmakers try, it still just comes down to “Adjust the settings on the simulation.” There is nothing compelling here, right down to the plane crash itself, the most seatbelt-buckled IMAX experience I’ve ever had.

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No, Daniel Craig is not set for a $150 million James Bond payday, and here's why
Credit: Sony/EON

No, Daniel Craig is not set for a $150 million James Bond payday, and here's why

Yet another game of crappy Internet telephone turns a dumb rumor into 'news'

One of the most frustrating things about spending 20 years covering film as a critic and a reporter is watching the slide of even the most basic standards into total ruin, and it is safe to say that at this point, the entire wall of white noise that is “film journalism” is essentially useless as anything other than farce.

Maybe it’s because there are some stories you don’t want to believe and some stories you do. Maybe that’s why certain false things get reported as fact so readily. I still see people run the “fact” that Bill Murray only appeared in Garfield because he got confused by Joel Cohen’s name on the script, thinking he was going to work with the Coen Brothers. People really want to believe that’s true, but it’s ridiculous.

Just take a step back and really consider what you’re saying. Bill Murray would have to be clueless about the nature of Garfield as a project and remain clueless throughout the entire process. Forget about how stupid the idea is that his lawyer negotiated his deal (which, believe me, was negotiated carefully before Murray showed up to record his voice work for what Fox was hoping would be a huge family franchise) and never mentioned to Murray that, no, he was not actually working with the Coen Brothers. You have to believe that Murray showed up for the first day, realized what he’d done, and then stayed to do the movie anyway. Because that sounds exactly like what we’ve heard about Bill Murray for the last 30 years. He’s a real pushover who shows up to make movies by mistake and has no idea who he’s working with or for. I’d be more likely to believe that Murray took Garfield strictly to take a job away from Lorenzo Music, who provided the voice for the Venkman character on the Ghostbusters animated series, out of a sense of perverse whimsy. At least that makes sense. But then again, I can’t blame someone who decided to believe this story since Murray really did tell the story. He was kidding, but if someone fell for this the way kids in the late ‘80s earnestly believed Robert Zemeckis when he claimed hoverboards were real, then I guess I understand to some degree.

So what do you want to believe is true about James Bond?

When I reached out to someone close to the Bond franchise about what’s really going on with Daniel Craig and the future of the series, what became clear immediately is that there is no big story at the moment. Before there is any kind of announcement about who will play Bond for the next film, whether that’s Daniel Craig or someone else, there will be an announcement about what EON is doing regarding distribution for the next film. Will they re-sign with Sony? Unlikely, but possible. They weren’t happy with the way the Sony deal worked, and Sony wasn’t especially happy with it, either. Even so, the  It’s far more likely that they’ll jump to a new studio, and Warner Bros. has been particularly aggressive about trying to make sure they’re the new home for the enduring super-spy. Considering how heavily Warner Bros has started leaning on their tentpoles, this would be a pretty spectacular win for them. When Warner Bros. is on their game, their marketing department is a force of nature, and James Bond is one of the most recognizable brands on the planet. If they do manage to convince EON to bring the franchise to them, you can expect they will make as loud a noise as possible to announce the deal.

At the recent TCAs, the producers of Purity, the television series that Daniel Craig stars in, were careful to tell reporters that Craig’s TV schedule will not interfere with his duties as James Bond. It was interesting in part because of how many people wrote articles about Purity that instantly assumed that Craig’s casting meant the end of his time as James Bond. People make assumptions about James Bond and then pass it along as reportage, and it’s little wonder that readers have no idea what’s actually happening. There’s so much junk in the conversation that it’s basically crowded out the truth, and fans of the franchise are hungry for information because things move at a slower-than-average pace for James Bond.

Let’s look at the Radar story that was picked up and reposted over and over, and let’s ask ourselves why anyone should believe the story.

According to Radar, Sony is both offering Daniel Craig $150 million for two films and working to cast the new James Bond at the same time.

Nonsense. That’s not how it works. When Radar writes, “The studio is desperate to secure the actor’s services while they phase in a younger long-term successor,” it suggests that Sony has some ongoing stake in the future of the character. They don’t even have the rights to release one film. Why would they care what happens three or four films down the road? Say they do secure the rights, as Radar predicts. “They will shoot two more films, which will be made virtually back-to-back, preferably featuring Daniel as 007 before he passes the figurative baton to someone else for a third movie that will mark the start of the new era.” No. Absolutely not. They don’t make Bond films back-to-back, and as a whole, the industry seems to be backing off of the two-at-once sequel strategy. It was appealing on an economic level, but it was a huge struggle for the creative teams involved. Whether you’re talking about the Pirates of the Caribbean films or the Matrix sequels, that has been a difficult model to make work, and the makers of the Bond films have never been known for developing more than one film at a time. That’s all they can do. They focus on getting each Bond movie as right as they can get it, and then they take a break and they regroup. That is how it works.

And the Bond films have also never leaned on one Bond passing the torch to the next. That doesn’t even make sense. Forget the fan theory about “James Bond” being a code name and not a character name; that’s simply not the series that EON has been making for over 50 years. When they recast James Bond, they do a hard break and they recast James Bond.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that no matter how logical or matter of fact you are about things, there are people that will automatically take an opposite position, just to argue. Could Sony have the rights all locked up? Maybe. Could they decide to do two films back to back? Maybe. Could they pay Daniel Craig $150 million for two films? Not likely at all, but maybe. Any of those things are possible, but none of them are probable. Radar’s reporting would be problematic if they just got one big part of the story wrong, but there are so many things about what their unnamed source supposedly told them that run directly counter to the way EON actually works that I think anyone who ran that story as news, even with a useless “take this with a grain of salt!” warning, should be embarrassed. It’s terrible reporting in the first place, and no one did even the slightest follow-up to see if there was some reason to run this story that runs counter to everything that we know about the people and the companies involved.

Ask yourself if the money makes sense. Ask yourself why Sony would be the ones making these calls. Ask yourself if you think EON is going to make back-to-back Bond films. Ask yourself why you should believe a story that Radar Online couldn’t even assign a byline to, instead crediting their story to “Radar Staff.” No one put their name on that reporting, and it doesn’t surprise me. I wouldn’t either. It’s a disgrace, and the way the story went viral is just as disgraceful.

We have to do better, across the board, or we have to accept that readers have no reason to trust anything they read anywhere. My own sources indicate that there is no story right now, and that when there is a story, it will be announced quickly and loudly.

Until that point, you deserve more than this "EXLCUSIVE" clickbait trash and the echo chamber that amplifies it.

Meanwhile, if EON is really stuck for a new Bond, I have a great suggestion, and I know he's interested in the job...

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Exclusive: Casper's down to party and Frank's being fed in this 'Klown Forever' clip
Credit: Drafthouse Films

Exclusive: Casper's down to party and Frank's being fed in this 'Klown Forever' clip

That's great news for fans of this cringe-comedy gem

If there was an Olympics for cringe-comedy, Klown would go home with a gold medal every time.

For those of you not familiar with Klown, it’s a Danish television series about two friends, Frank (Frank Hvam) and Casper (Casper Christensen), and their innate ability to make the worst choices humanly possible.

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Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston may co-star in 'Last Detail' sequel for Linklater
Credit: SPHE

Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston may co-star in 'Last Detail' sequel for Linklater

With Laurence Fishburne as the Otis Young character? This sounds awesome

Richard Linklater has long since earned my eternal loyalty as an audience member. I may not love every film he makes, but I know that when he sets out to make a movie, there’s going to be some reason, some idea, some element of the story that Linklater couldn’t resist. He has such an interesting relationship to time in his films, and he is far more motivated by character than he is by plot, which I like.

Like many filmmakers his age, he’s had a long and public interest in the films and filmmakers of the ‘70s. When Darryl Ponsican published a sequel to The Last Detail as a novel, Linklater was immediately attached, and he was going to make the film with Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid both reprising their roles from the original. That was huge news at the time, and I remember how exciting a prospect that was. I love Hal Ashby’s original film, and the description of Ponsican’s sequel novel Last Flag Flying makes it sound like a solid foundation for a movie a full 23 years later.

There’s been no public word about Linklater’s film since those first announcements a decade ago, and I’d forgotten about it completely. Now word comes of casting for the film, and it sounds like Linklater is finally making the film for Amazon Studios with Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne stepping in for Nicholson, Quaid, and Otis Young.

In the 1973 film, Randy Quaid played a young navy recruit who had been busted for something, and two Naval petty officers (Nicholson and Young) have to pick him up and transport him to prison, where he’s going to spend a lot of years locked in a dark hole. They make some detours along the way to give Quaid a chance to sample life, and it’s a great dark funny trip of a movie. In this new film, the one-time prisoner reaches out to the two petty officers to ask them for help in getting the body of his son, killed in service in Iraq, shipped home for burial. Grim stuff, but there’s real potential there.

They’re talking about shooting in November, so this must be close to ready. It’s a nice surprise when something fell off the radar for long enough to forget about it completely, only to surface again as something that’s actually going to happen. Here’s hoping we’re seeing this film by this time next year, because it sounds like it could be great.

Meanwhile, Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some is on-demand and on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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Gene Wilder was so much more than his pitch-perfect work as Willy Wonka
Credit: 20th Century Fox

Gene Wilder was so much more than his pitch-perfect work as Willy Wonka

We pay tribute to the terrific comic performer who left behind such a rich body of work

What makes a great actor great?

When I watch a performance, there are certain things I look for, and the biggest of those things is whether or not the actor is making choices about their work. There are plenty of actors who get through a scene just fine and who deliver their lines nicely and who never ever connect beyond that for me because it doesn’t feel like they’re bringing anything to the process aside from their physical presence. There are certain actors, though, who I am immediately drawn to because you can see how they’re taking the raw material of the script and they’re putting it through their personal filter so that the end result is something the writer couldn’t have imagined, that the director couldn’t have asked for, and that the actor never would have reached on his own. Gene Wilder was one of those actors, and he leaves behind a body of work that is filled with joy and invention, shot through with a singular comic vision.

For many people my age, Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka first.

It’s sort of amazing seeing how much love there is for the film now considering it was a total disaster when it was first released. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was bankrolled by the Quaker Oats folks to help launch a Willy Wonka line of chocolate bars, and Paramount Pictures released the film in 1971. They did okay with it, but not great, and at the end of the year, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score. Wilder got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, but come on… look at that performance now and the iconic weight of it. In a perfect system, that performance has to be considered one of the very best given by anyone that year, and should have been praised and awarded much more than that, as much as possible. The film was first shown on television in 1975, and in 1977, Paramount gave up their distribution rights, which is another mind-boggling decision. Wolper Pictures Ltd. was sold to Warner Bros, and Quaker Oats sold the studio their share of the rights as well, and over time, it was Warner that managed to take this film that was willingly dumped on them and turn it into the beloved classic that it is now.

At the heart of the film’s enduring appeal is Wilder’s work, and in this one performance, you can see everything that made him great. His entrance is an all-timer, and it was something that Wilder created. Willy Wonka is presented as a mysterious figure, so when he does finally enter the film, it’s shocking to see him using a cane, limping terribly, apparently frail. All of a sudden, he plants the cane by accident and takes an extra step, faltering, and then collapsing forward. Just as the crowd gasps, Wonka rolls and pops up, revealing that he is fine and the limp was just an act. It’s funny, but it’s more than that. It is a promise to the audience that Wonka is completely untrustworthy, and for the rest of the film, Wilder lives up to that promise.

His Wonka is not some safe and cuddly kiddie character. He’s sinister just as much as he’s charming. He’s got a quiet seething contempt for bad behavior that runs through the film as subtext, and Wilder savors every bit of it. His dark sarcasm is often devastating in the film. When they were shooting the movie, he grew quite close to Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie. He did not tell Ostrum that he was planning to yell during the final scene in the office when he tells Charlie that he is disqualified for stealing, and so when he finally let loose during the actual filming of the scene, that shock you see on Ostrum’s face is real. He couldn’t believe what was happening because he was so used to the sweet and gentle Gene Wilder.

When I read the official statement released by his family today, I thought it was crushingly sad, but also perfectly in keeping with who I’ve always believed Wilder to be. He kept the details of his sickness very quiet, and not simply because he was a private person. Here’s their statement:

“It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived, that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford Connecticut. It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.

The cause was complications from Alzheimers Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones - this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough, but not that.

The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worrry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

Wow. Wilder was, of course, far more than “just” Willy Wonka. I have a personal mania for his work with Mel Brooks. Their three films together are as good as film comedy gets, and when you look at his work in the films, you can see just how broad his range was. Leo Bloom, The Waco Kid, and Froderick Franhnkensteeeeen are all wired wrong, but in totally different ways, and I love how inventive his work with Brooks was. When I interviewed Brooks a few years ago, I asked him about Wilder and his innate comic gifts, and he had this to say:

I told him that I have a particular fondness for the way he and Gene Wilder worked together. I think Gene is one of those guys who is so special and so unique, and to find  a comic presence like that and to be able to really explore the full range of his comic talent is one of the things that makes the run from "The Producers" to "Blazing Saddles" so special. I asked him how the creative partnership began and what his memories of it are.

Even on the phone, you could hear him smile as he answered. "I met him when he was doing a play on Broadway with my wife, Anne Bancroft. She played the leading role in a Bertolt Brecht play called 'Mother Courage and Her Children,' and he played the chaplain, one among a lot of people in the show. Jerome Robbins did a great job. It was a really beautifully directed play, and Anne was never better. So, you know, we got to be friends, and he’d comeoff-stage and he’d say, 'Why are they laughing at me? I didn’t intend that thing to be funny. Some scenes are serious and some scenes are funny. But I didn’t intend for that to be funny, so why are they laughing?' And I said, 'Blame God. Look in the mirror. When you speak earnestly, you have a funny expression on your face. It just tells me to laugh, so you’ve got to be careful, you know.'"

One of the things I love most about Wilder is that the most serious he is, the more brutally funny he becomes. "Right, right, right," Brooks agreed. "The straighter he plays it, the funnier he is."

It makes me sad that they only worked together three times, and I’d originally heard it told that they had a falling out over The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Like much of the Hollywood gossip I hear, that turned out to be completely wrong. In truth, Mel Brooks was asked by Wilder to direct the film, but Brooks demurred because he said he didn’t have the same affinity for Holmes that Wilder did. Brooks offered any support that Wilder needed and told him that he should direct it himself because it was something he was passionate about.

It’s important to remember that they were co-writers as well, because that’s a very different relationship than just being a director and an actor. Wilder got nominated for an Oscar for his onscreen work in The Producers for Brooks, but the two of them were co-nominated for an Oscar as writers for Young Frankenstein, and there’s a case where I’m astonished how right the Oscars got it. That is a beautiful piece of writing, dense and layered and full of love for the thing it’s mocking. They didn’t stop working together for any particular reason. They just went in different creative directions. There was no falling out, and when I spoke to Brooks, it was clear that he had boundless affection for Wilder as a human being and as a performer.

That was true of every single person I’ve ever spoken to about working with Wilder. You don’t often hear universal love for someone, but in his case, it appears to be intense and genuine. When I was in theater school, I met someone who had worked on the original Broadway production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963, and they spoke in hushed and reverent tones about that entire event. It was legendary, and I’ve heard high praise for Kirk Douglas as McMurphy and William Daniels as Harding. For me, though, the idea of Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit was just mind-blowing. I love Brad Dourif’s performance in the movie version, but Wilder seems like a genius choice for the role. I look at him in The Producers or Bonnie & Clyde and I can totally imagine what kind of authentic pain he could deliver in the right role. Every story I was told about Wilder when he was working on the production made him sound like the kind of actor that directors pray for and that other actors enjoy.

He was selective about his work, and he made less than 25 theatrical films. Not all of them are great, but I understand why he made every single one of them. He obviously chose experiences based on who he would be working with, and he loved people like Gilda Radner and Richard Pryor, people he shared a comic sensibility with, and was willing to jump in and try things with them just for the fun of trying things. He made sporadic TV appearances over the years, and it was always delightful to see him show up simply because of the joy that he seemed to radiate. There was something behind those eyes of his, some secret that he knew that made him smile that slightly naughty smile of his, and I think we all stayed riveted over the years hoping he would finally share it with us. There are plenty of other films he made also worth discussion beyond the ones I've already mentioned. For example, there's the greatest pause in the history of movies:

There are films he directed, like The World's Greatest Lover and Haunted Honeymoon, as well as films he starred in like The Woman In Red and The Frisco Kid, and every one of them has something about it worth discussing, and in particular, something about Wilder's work worth discussing. Choice after choice, scene after scene, he was always worth watching.

The family’s statement about him continued, describing the way he’s spent his life away from the public eye.

“He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring-bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted at the company of beloved ones.

He is survived by Karen, Jordan, and the Webbs (Kevin, Gretchen, Tucker, Spencer) along Jordan’s wife Elizabeth. Gene’s sister Corrine, predeceased him in January of this year.

He was eighty-three and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each or cherished possessions. She was singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ as he was taken away.

‘We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.’

‘Gene’s Kid’
Jordan Walker-Pearlman”

It is my sincere hope that Gene Wilder knew just how loved he was, and I suspect he did. We don’t always celebrate someone’s place in pop culture in the right way while they are alive, but Wilder got to see just how deeply his work had gotten through to several generations of audiences, and his own protectiveness towards the children who love him as Willy Wonka suggests that he understood how deep that affection goes.

He will be missed ferociously.

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