Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

halloween 4

  • Year: 1988
  • Director: Dwight H. Little
  • Starring: Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell

Despite making nearly six times its budget at the box office, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch was not a hit. The anthology series idea was dead in the water, and the Halloween series was put on the shelf through the mid-80s. However, producer Moustapha Akka decided to bring back the Halloween series and Michael Myers in 1988, ten years after the original was released.

The first draft was written by John Carpenter and author Dennis Etchison but was deemed… ugh, get this… “too cerebral.” Apparently, Myers was still dead in this version and would be a hallucination or ghost of some kind, but Akkad insisted he had to be alive in a physical form, so Carpenter left the franchise. Instead, Alan B. McElroy, writer of future classics like Left Behind: The Movie and Spawn, was brought on board.

Jamie Lee Curtis had no interest in returning to the series, so her character Laurie Strode is said to have died a few years prior in a car accident, and the film instead focuses on her niece Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris).

jamie

Jamie lives in Haddonfield, Illinois with her foster parents Richard and Darlene Carruthers (Jeff Olson and Karen Alston) and their teenage daughter Rachel (Ellie Cornell), and has nightmares of a man she does not yet know is her uncle, Michael Myers.

Over the credits, we’re treated to beautiful images of farms decorated for Halloween, as if the filmmakers were really desperate to apologize for Haddonfield looking so much like California before (the palm trees and California license plates were the dead giveaways).

pumpkin

For some reason, instead of the chilling Halloween theme, we get some generic synthesizer droning that doesn’t do much in the way of mood-setting. That said, if you play this scene with the classic theme in the background, it’s far more atmospheric than anything in the movie. Heck, it’s probably more atmospheric anyway.

On October 30, 1988, Michael Myers (George P. Wilbur) is being transferred from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium to a maximum security prison… because apparently he SURVIVED AN EXPLODING HOSPITAL ROOM!

fire
Believable

He is in a coma, though, so that’s totally realistic. Of course, he wakes up from the coma on the ride over when he hears that Laurie Strode has a daughter who lives in Haddonfield. He kills everyone in the ambulance, because of course he does, and he’s off to track down his signature uniform.

mummy
Because you could never have a horror killer who’s dressed like a mummy instead.

Obviously, he has to wear the exact same uniform he wore 10 years ago to properly murder people. Michael never kills anyone without his killin’ clothes… except that time he killed his sister… and the people he kills to get the clothes… and the ambulance workers he kills to escape. Obviously the uniform has no special powers, so why does he keep donning it? I get that the mask is iconic, but would it make a difference if he wore a t-shirt or something? Why does this movie need to have a scene where he kills a mechanic just for his shirt and pants?

Meanwhile in Haddonfield, seven-year-old Jamie Lloyd is having a hard time sleeping and is comforted by her foster sister Rachel. Rachel is a nice girl of the Laurie Strode-type, but they’re by no means identical characters.

rachel

Plus, there’s just as much focus, if not more, on Jamie here instead of the high school age characters, and her bond with Rachel is really the film’s heart. Ellie Cornell makes Rachel incredibly likable without being a cookie-cutter character, and Danielle Harris is really good as Jamie, despite being an incredibly young actress in a film she would be too young to buy a ticket to. The only real character arc here belongs to Jamie as she struggles with visions of Michael Myers, and she really pulls it off without being overly cute or cheesy.

Donald Pleasence also returns as Dr. Loomis because apparently he SURVIVED AN EXPLODING HOSPITAL ROOM! What do the creators of this movie think fire really does to someone? OK, let’s just say in some magical world that clearly didn’t exist in Halloween II, a team of firemen came and immediately put out the fire, saving Loomis and Myers from the inferno. Loomis was still dying of his wounds, which is why he had no problem with the mutually assured destruction in the first place! Oh, but he has scars on his face, so trauma I guess. It would be like if someone tried to make a sequel to The Wicker Man where Sgt. Howie is rescued from the burning effigy at the very last moment…

wiki
OH COME ON

So what? Am I saying this film would be better without the Shakespearean-level of committed performance that Donald Pleasence gives yet again? No, it would probably be more boring, but couldn’t they at least mention the lifesaving surgery he received, even just in passing? It’s like they don’t care about the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Shock of shocks, no other doctors take Dr. Loomis seriously, so he has to make his way to Haddonfield alone, where he hopes to reconnect with Sheriff Brackett from the first two films. However, he finds out that Brackett retired in 1981, and the new sheriff is Ben Meeker (Beau Starr). I could be overthinking this, but I really think that 1981 date is an error. It’s suggested that the death of Brackett’s daughter Annie at the hands of Michael Myers is what caused his early retirement, but Annie died in 1978, the year in which the first two films take place. However, Halloween II was released in 1981, and since it’s not until that film that Brackett discovers his daughter is dead, I really think the screenwriter accidentally wrote 1981 and no one caught it.

Anyway, I really like Sheriff Ben Meeker, and he might even be the best character in the film. Like Brackett before him, he is anything but the useless police officer that exists in so many horror films, and he actually makes smart decisions at every turn.

Meeker

When Dr. Loomis warns him what Michael Myers is capable of, Meeker instills a curfew in the town. When every police officer at the station is massacred by Myers (off screen), he gets Jamie and Rachel to safety in his home, barricades the door and calls in the state police. When a bunch of rednecks want to hunt down Myers, he neither tells them it’s police business or lets them run wild, but rather leads them in the hunt. Beau Starr may be playing a side character in the 4th film in a slasher series, but he’s sure giving it his all. The only thing that confuses me is why this guy who has a thick Queens accent is sheriff of a middle-of-nowhere Illinois town. I mean, obviously he could have moved there, but the story seems to suggest he’s been there a while. Again, like with Loomis’s miraculous recovery, I just need one line to explain this, but rural Illinois seems to have everyone, from a New York sheriff to a British psychiatrist. I guess it’s the place to be.

Just like the original film, Halloween 4 doesn’t overload its cast with useless characters. There are a few characters who exist just to be killed off, but we don’t have to spend time with the mechanic Michael kills to get his clothes or the power worker he kills to shut off the power in Haddonfield. However, there are a few characters whose writing… leaves something to be desired. This is Rachel’s almost-boyfriend Brady.

brady

And this is the girl he’s sleeping with, Holly… or Sally… or Kelly.

kelly

Kelly also happens to be Sheriff Meeker’s daughter, because why not force them all into one house? Brady and Kelly have a sex scene that is shot like some Cinemax knock-off and goes on for a painfully long time (in a barely-90 minute movie). It serves to create forced drama, because apparently a murderer returning to town to kill his niece and anyone in his way isn’t drama enough. After everyone is locked in the house, there is a painfully awkward scene where Kelly tries to explain to Rachel that men only want one thing, and it contains the most cliched, soap opera dialogue imaginable. Kelly even defends sleeping with Rachel’s boyfriend because “he’s not married.” In the original film, the teenagers talk like teenagers, because thought was put into the dialogue and characters. Here, they talk like they’re being written by an out-of-touch man, which I’ve no doubt the guy who wrote Left Behind: The Movie is.

Similarly, despite Danielle Harris’s great performance, Alan B. McElroy does have some issues writing kids. There’s a scene in which Jamie’s classmates bully her for being an orphan. It’s not just one kid with a mean streak, but a whole group of kids! Who does this? Kids aren’t so awful as to tease someone constantly for having dead parents. Kids teased Tommy Doyle in the original film for being scared of the Boogeyman, and while it was kind of silly, it wasn’t entirely unbelievable. Jamie being bullied for being an orphan completely takes you out of the movie.

For some reason, there is also a doomsday preacher that Loomis hitches a ride with on the way to Haddonfield. It really adds nothing to the plot, and it really doesn’t even add anything thematically except the fact that they’re both heading towards something evil. OK? It’s so encouraging that this movie doesn’t even have 90 minutes’ worth of screenplay that it has to toss in an entirely pointless character.

preacher
This is still more believable than any character in Left Behind.

I’d be perfectly fine if he just showed up at the end, still rambling on after Myers is shot, but nope. He’s just there to kill time with Loomis. There are also more teenagers who dress up like Michael Myers (but at least it makes sense 10 years later), and Rachel is even friends with Adriana from The Sopranos. Who knew?

adriana

The film does take its time in Michael Myers actually getting to the house, and even though there are some deaths on his way there, it’s not excessive. It’s also genuinely creepy seeing Jamie pick out the exact same clown costume Michael Myers wore years ago when he killed his sister, although I’m pretty sure after some commotion in the store, she just leaves without paying.

clown

On paper, The Return of Michael Myers reads a good bit like the original Halloween, but in execution, it’s nothing like it. This movie doesn’t have any of the atmospheric horror of the first film, or even of Halloween II. There are one or two moments that will make you jump, but it’s just not even a little bit scary (until one part I’m getting to). Michael Myers kills all the characters you expect him to kill (Brady, Kelly, etc.), which would be fine if Michael Myers hid in the shadows like in the original film. Instead, he just kind of walks in and kills, fully lit and without any buildup. Like Halloween II, it thinks that gore replaces genuine terror. In one of the dumbest horror movie kills, Kelly is impaled with a shotgun. Yeah cool, Michael Myers just has a shotgun now.

The lack of true horror aside, the climax of this film is rewarding. After Rachel is hurt escaping Myers in a rooftop chase, Jamie meets up with Dr. Loomis, who suggests she go to the schoolhouse where he pulls the alarm. The bond that Loomis forms with her is really sweet, trying to save a child from a monster he tried to save as a child.

school

Dr. Loomis monologues a lot less in this movie, opting instead for terser, but still dramatic lines, which is a nice change, because the monologues were really getting silly in Halloween II. Plus, he is understandably older and more tired.

The redneck lynch mob shows up and tries to drive Rachel and Jamie to safety, but Michael Myers jumps on top of the car and attacks again, killing some of the mob. Eventually, Sheriff Meeker and the state police show up, and everyone fires away, apparently killing Michael Myers.

kill

They don’t bury the body or anything though, or even make sure he’s dead, because there has to be another sequel.

For some reason, Dr. Loomis is even convinced that Myers is dead even though in the last film he SURVIVED AN EXPLODING HOSPITAL ROOM! Everything seems to be winding down, and Jamie’s foster mother goes upstairs to take a bath. Hold on.. we’re not done yet. Jamie, still clad in the clown costume, goes into the bathroom and murders her! We even see the buildup to it through the eyes of the mask, just like in Halloween‘s opening scene. We don’t see the actual murder, but rather Loomis walking up the stairs and reacting to Jamie walking out with the bloody scissors, but we hear the scream and it is effective.

jamie2

Unfortunately, Loomis lets out a ridiculous scream of “No, no, no!” that sounds more like Emperor Palpatine than Donald Pleasence, but it doesn’t completely ruin the scene.

This twist ending would be ridiculous if it came out of nowhere, but it was foreshadowed early in the movie with Jamie’s nightmares about Michael Myers, even before she knew who he was. The viewer may have forgotten these once the killing started, but I’m glad they went all in with this ending. It’s the lone moment in the entire film that’s unexpected, and it’s a pretty scary place to end.

Story (10/25 Points)

It tries to be the bare-bones thriller that the original was, but it just comes off as being pretty uninspired. Jamie being haunted by Michael, and ultimately becoming a killer herself at the end, saves it a bit.

Characters (20/25 Points)

Honestly, all of the main characters are great here, from Rachel and Jamie to Loomis and Sheriff Meeker. There are only a couple of dumb moments between them, and all of the actors give strong performances. The supporting characters are given so little to work with, and they don’t really make an impression (minus the nutty preacher, and that’s not really for a good reason).

Experience (9/25 Points)

I like the opening shots of farms decorated for Halloween. It really sets the mood for… a far more atmospheric film than this one.

Originality (6/25 Points)

We have a child instead of a teenager as the protagonist, and it leads to a chilling final scene. Beyond that, I guess we never saw Michael Myers with a shotgun before, but that’s not working in the film’s favor. It’s pretty much just copying the formula here.

FINAL SCORE: 45%

Halloween 4: The Revenge of Michael Myers is a perfectly watchable film with enjoyable characters and some nice chase scenes. I blame most of its faults on poor directing, but the writing isn’t exactly brilliant either. At least the actors are trying.

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Halloween 3: Season of the Witch

halloween 3

  • Year: 1982
  • Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
  • Starring: Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Dan O’Herlihy

After wrapping up the Michael Myers/Laurie Strode story in Halloween II, John Carpenter and Debra Hill decided to go in a different direction with the Halloween films and turn them into an anthology series. Each film would tell a different horror story, with the only thing unifying them being the Halloween setting. However, after just one film, the idea was scrapped and Michael Myers soon returned. That film was Halloween 3: Season of the Witch.

The anthology series was a great idea, but there were a few things unrelated to the quality of Halloween 3 that made it fail. First, there had already been two Michael Myers films. If they followed up Halloween with Season of the Witch, the anthology series would have made perfect sense. Also, advertising of the film was less than ideal. The trailers really should have made the anthology concept clear, and they also really shouldn’t have spoiled the entire film including all of the villain’s climactic monologue and even the ending scene.

trailer
This is from the trailer. These are literally the film’s final moments

For some reason, the first thing people always bring up about this film is that Michael Myers isn’t in it, which isn’t even true. I mean, there he is.

myers tV

Alright, so we only see him on a TV, which really just adds to the confusion here. Also, Jamie Lee Curtis returns in a voice cameo as the overhead announcer who declares the curfew of Santa Mira. Let’s take a look at the lone anthology entry in the series and see if it was a good idea.

Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is called late into the hospital one night to take care of Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry), a man who we have already seen chased down Northern California streets by mysterious men in suits. Grimbridge is ranting about people coming to kill everyone, and later that night, another suited man comes into the hospital, kills him, and immediately blows himself up in his car.

subtle
Subtle intro

However, a crucial piece of evidence is left at the scene—a jack-o-lantern Halloween mask that Grimbridge has been clutching. Soon, Challis meets up with Grimbridge’s daughter Ellie (Stacy Nelkin) and the two look into the events surrounding her father’s death.

bar

Dan Challis is not the kind of character most horror films would portray as a hero. He’s a good doctor, sure, but he’s a pretty deadbeat dad, has a drinking problem, and is a major womanizer. The scene in which he slaps a nurse on the rear end would not (and should not) fly today, even if it is with a co-worker he is constantly joking with.

Although Challis doesn’t flat out state this, it’s even suggested that the major reason he gets involved in the investigation is so he can get closer to Ellie. However, when the time comes to step up and do what’s right, he ultimately does it. He’s not some moral crusader, but just a regular guy who eventually becomes something of a hero. Despite the increasingly weird plot, Tom Atkins plays the part razor-straight, and he really does a great job carrying the film. He’s not playing the part like it’s a b-movie, and while there are one or two moments from him that are kind of goofy, I really blame them more on direction (We’ll get to those).

Dan and Ellie’s investigation leads them to the northern California town of Santa Mira, a seemingly-quaint Irish community.

santa mira

The Halloween mask that Ellie’s father was holding onto was made at the Silver Shamrock factory in Santa Mira, run by Conal Cochran (Dan O’ Herlihy). Silver Shamrock has constantly been running an annoying commercial with a jingle set to “London Bridge” advertising their “Big Giveaway” on Halloween night. For some reason, Ellie is taken aback at the idea of “Irish Halloween masks,” and while it’s literally just one throwaway line, it’s always confused me. Is there a certain nationality associated with Halloween masks? Are the Irish not allowed to make Halloween masks? Is Ellie just super racist towards the Irish?

Like Tom Atkins, Stacy Nelkin is giving a really solid performance, playing up both the slight naivete of her character while also knowing her father’s death wasn’t an accident. That said, the minor characters in this movie are really not great. Some of these performances are pretty cringeworthy. Dan and Ellie check into a motel, where the manager (Michael Currie) is the most hilariously over-the-top Irish stereotype imaginable.

Irish
OK… so I added some of that.

If they actually had him say the line “They’re after me lucky charms,” it wouldn’t be out of character. Then there’s Buddy Kupfer (Ralph Strait). When the characters are playing the material straight, this film really works. When a character like Buddy is on screen, the film’s obvious flaws start to show. Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin are playing their parts with such seriousness that satirical characters like Buddy Kupfer and his self-absorbed wife (Jadeen Barbor) and spoiled son (Brad Schacter) just don’t fit.

buddy

Maybe if the Kupfers were more subtle it could work, but they are such overdone parodies that it really kills most of their screen time. Buddy is the biggest seller of Silver Shamrock masks, so he has been personally invited to tour Cochran’s factory, and ends up staying at the same motel as Dan and Ellie. Also staying there is Marge Guttman (Garn Stephens), a shop owner who is having an issue with a faulty mask.

Marge2

That night, Dan and Ellie have sex because… the plot calls for it? I’m not sure. I guess it’s one of those fancy sex intermissions.

intermission

He’s at least twice her age, and they really don’t have that much chemistry (I mean, he’s interested, but he’s interested in anyone with working parts). I suppose their sex scene does have one minor function to the plot. In the next room, Marge is fiddling with a chip that fell out of a Silver Shamrock mask. She takes a pin to it, and it sends out an electric beam, killing her. Ellie asks what the noise was, and Dan says “Who cares?” They don’t notice that something’s up until Cochran’s people have already gotten her to take back to the factory.

It’s pretty obvious that Cochran is evil from the get-go, but how could he be stupid enough to call Marge’s death a “misfire” in front of Dan and Ellie? I mean, he walks away a bit but definitely not far enough! I mean, I suppose his plan is so close to happening that he doesn’t care at this point, but he’s not really covering all his bases.

cochran

Why couldn’t Dan just get in his car, drive out of town, and report this guy to state police or something? Couldn’t he insist someone get Marge to an actual hospital or at least a coroner?

Dan and Ellie tag along with Buddy’s family to the factory, and Cochran allows them to come for the guided tour as well. Buddy raves about how Cochran is the king of the practical joke, making his fortune on novelty gags years before selling Halloween masks (because those two things are completely related). After the tour on which he gives Buddy’s son a jack-o-lantern mask, Cochran invites the Kupfers back the next day to discuss a few more things. Meanwhile, Ellie discovers that her father’s car is in a garage on the factory’s property, and that the same men in suits who killed her father are guarding it.

suits
Mechanics in suits, perfectly normal

Dan decides to call the police while Ellie is packing her things to leave, but while he’s away, more of the suited men kidnap her. I’m not entirely sure Dan would call the police before leaving town and why they thought splitting up at all was a good idea, but I suppose it’s not mind-numbingly stupid. Of course, Dan can’t get through to the police and eventually has to outrun the suited men. Eventually, he sneaks into the factory to find Ellie.

In a scene that could be ridiculous but is actually pretty creepy, Dan is exploring the dark factory and comes across an old woman sewing.

sewing

He tries to ask her about Ellie, but her head falls off, revealing she’s some kind of animatronic. Cochran’s workers soon get to him, and when he punches one of them out, it’s revealed that they’re a more developed version of the same thing.

acid

Honestly, pretty much every scene that takes place in Cochran’s factory is entertaining, mostly due to Dan O’Herlihy’s performance. If you want to see an actor who is clearly having a ball with a role without ever raising his voice or breaking into histrionics, look no further than this performance. He constantly has this devilish grin on his face, and he gloats to an absurd degree, but he’s smug rather than loud.

mask

In the same way Donald Pleasence could make anything interesting in the other films, Dan O’Herlihy can merely handwave the sillier elements of the plot, and you’ll just kind of accept it because he’s so charmingly evil.

Why doesn’t Cochran just kill Dr. Challis right away? Well, he says that as a doctor, Challis will find his master plan quite interesting. He even briefly explains how he makes his robots and call it “just another form of mask making.” I suppose he’s the kind of guy who insists on sharing his genius with someone… or maybe it’s just so there’s a way the audience can learn all of this.

On Halloween morning, (I suppose the elevator ride to the basement took all night), Cochran is ready to reveal his master plan to Challis. Cochran and his team have stolen a huge piece of Stonehenge, which is being mined and used in the creation of every Silver Shamrock mask.

stonehenge

While this is a seemingly impossible feat, as Stonehenge is a huge tourist attraction with security and such, Cochran simply says to Dan (and the audience), “We had a time getting it here,” and laughs off how ridiculous it is. Normally, this kind of explanation would bother me to no end, but there’s just something about it that makes it work. Maybe it’s Dan O’Herlihy’s smug performance, maybe it’s the fact that his character does have some supernatural powers and might be able to pull it off, or maybe it’s just the weird Twilight Zone-world in which this film exists, but I just tend to let this go. Sure, you’re right, I wouldn’t believe how you got it here.

In what is surely the film’s most famous scene, Cochran lets Challis be party to a demonstration of his plan. They watch as Buddy Kupfer and family are led into a room where Buddy believes they’re waiting for Cochran. The buildup to this scene is harrowing, with the music suggesting impending doom as the unknowing Kupfers are locked into a windowless room. I love how Cochran went to the trouble of actually making this barred room still look like a living room.

room

As Little Buddy puts on his jack-o-lantern mask and watches the big giveaway, he falls over dead. The Silver Shamrock mask has destroyed his face (thankfully it’s never taken off), and a whole slew of deadly bugs and poisonous snakes crawl out of the mask and kill his parents. It’s a frightening scene despite the horribly cheesy screams from both parents.

As Dan watches, he does a really ridiculous fist clench that is one of Atkins’ only bad moments in the film.

clench

I don’t know that I blame the actor as much as I do the directing and editing of this scene, but it’s just really hokey.

Cochran takes Dan to a locked room, where he finally just kills him so his plan go through without a hitch.

credits

Nah, of course he doesn’t make it that easy. He has to monologue first. It doesn’t really make sense as to why he would do this, except for the fact that it’s a quick way to explain his motivation. Plus, the film does kind of seem to be parodying b-movies, and this is definitely something that happens in those. Its placement aside, the speech is, without a doubt, the most interesting and haunting thing in the film. Just look at this excerpt:

It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we’d be waiting in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in to sit by our fires of turf. Halloween, the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children. […] In the end, we don’t decide these things, you know; the planets do. They’re in alignment, and it’s time again. The world’s going to change tonight, Doctor, I’m glad you’ll be able to watch it. And… Happy Halloween.

Most importantly, Cochran pronounces Samhain properly, unlike a certain unnamed psychiatrist from the last film. However, after this epic monologue, he still refuses to kill Challis, instead having him tied to a chair and being forced to watch the “Big Giveaway.”

masks

Even if he insists on killing Challis this way, why wait until the special airs? Couldn’t he just take him to the same room the Kupfers were in and roll the ad there? I have got a lot of questions about Cochran’s ultimate plan, so this might be my longest list ever.

  1. How did Cochran get this thing to air on all three major networks? No one seems to really know what the “Big Giveaway” is. Is every network really going to air this at once? Wouldn’t there be a network trying to compete? Networks really only air the exact same thing if it’s a major news event. Does Silver Shamrock really have that kind of pull?
  2. The special airs at 9:00 right? Is it 9:00 in every time zone across the country? So by the time of the film’s climax, has it already aired and killed thousands of kids? Cochran seems to talk as if it has aired nowhere yet.
  3. If it already aired on the east coast, wouldn’t the deaths of thousands of children have been reported? Even if somehow no one connected it to the TV special, wouldn’t this be the kind of news that, say, would air on all three major networks?
  4. If it airs at 9:00 on the West Coast, that means it airs at midnight on the East Coast, and Halloween is on a Sunday in this film. That’s a school night, and what parent would let their kids stay up until midnight?
  5. If Cochran (presumably) has had 3000 years to concoct an evil plan, is this really the best he could do? I mean, television wasn’t even invented until the early 20th Century? Was he really just chilling somewhere in Northern California, waiting for some technological breakthrough to help with his plan? If he in fact has the power to steal a large piece of Stonehenge and get away with it, can’t he do better?
  6. Why does he give the one person to whom he has explained every step of his plan any chance to escape and tell the world? Does he just insist on having a formidable opponent?
  7. What if there’s a power outage or TV issues and the special doesn’t air? Does he have to wait another 3000 years for the stars to align?
  8. Why do the masks produce bugs and snakes? I know that the chips in the masks have a little bit of Stonehenge in them, so I understand the magic of it all, but why bugs and snakes? They killed the Kupfers, sure, but most parents aren’t trapped in a locked room somewhere. They could probably outrun or kill the animals, and it’s never even made clear if killing the parents is part of his plan.
  9. Why are Cochran’s workers still making masks on Halloween? Who buys their Halloween mask on Halloween? There obviously isn’t going to be one next year if Cochran’s plan is a success.

Alright, let’s talk about the end of this thing. Challis of course escapes his prison and manages to toss his mask right onto the security camera to block it. He also manages to place a call to his ex-wife to make sure the kids don’t wear their Silver Shamrock masks, and he swings by Ellie’s cell to free her. He then dumps a box of Silver Shamrock chips onto the floor of the factory and plays the Silver Shamrock giveaway on the TV screens, activating all of the chips at once.

chips

This destroys all of Cochran’s robots and apparently all of the chips activate something-or-other that destroys the ritual circle Cochran has set up… look I don’t know at this point either. Cochran looks up at Challis, gives a polite little golf clap, and is zapped by the piece of Stonehenge. It’s ultimately left ambiguous whether he dies or is magically transported, but he feels like he’s won either way.

transport

On the way back to civilization, Ellie tries to kill Dan, revealing she’s a robot. It’s one final trick up Cochran’s sleeve, and the film is definitely parodying old sci-fi cliches here. That said, how on earth did Cochran make a robot Ellie in just 24 hours? Was she a robot the whole time? Well no, because Cochran’s robots are silent while Ellie was chipper until she resurfaces as a mute. It’s not just like there’s a chip in her or something, because Dan knocks her head off at one point, and she’s clearly a machine. Even though he does destroy her, she does slow him down and ultimately wrecks his car.

Anyway, Dan finally runs back to a gas station and frantically calls to get the giveaway pulled from the air. Meanwhile, trick-or-treaters with Silver Shamrock masks are watching the giveaway at the gas station. He manages to get two of the three networks to pull it but the third is still holding out as Dan screams “Stop it!” and the screen cuts to black.

It’s in this scene, the final one in the film, where Challis is unquestionably a hero. He could just run away and get to safety or simply turn the TV off and explain the situation to the few people at the gas station, but he instead opts to risk his own life and make sure every TV station pulls the programming, knowing that poisonous snakes could attack at any second. Ultimately, we don’t know whether he’s successful, but regardless some lives are saved (at least those of kids who didn’t change the channel).

stop it

The screams of “Stop it!” over and over are kind of silly, but again, I can’t blame the actor here. Any phrase repeated that many times is going to sound kind of dumb. It’s also a reference to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers where the lead character screams “You’re next” into the camera, which itself was probably a reference to the end of The Devil and Daniel Webster. (Note that the titular invasion in Body Snatchers also began in Santa Mira).

As you can see, there are countless issues with this film, including plot holes galore that would usually sink a movie for me immediately. Yet, for whatever reason, I enjoy Halloween 3: Season of the Witch. I even find it hard to describe why, because there’s such a weird mishmash of everything going on here. A lot of people will simply applaud it for trying something different, which is stupid, because John Carpenter reading a sociology textbook in its entirety would also be something different. It is an incredibly atmospheric film, just dripping in autumn and the Halloween season, and John Carpenter’s eerie score fits it perfectly. Maybe I enjoy the mixture of ridiculously dark plot set against a cheesy b-movie backdrop. I guess, like on the festival of Samhain, the barriers are down between the good films and the bad. In the end, my brain doesn’t get to decide if this is an enjoyable film; the entertainment value does. I can’t deny that I find myself watching it every year. I laugh at the stupid parts, sure, but the stuff that’s good, like the performances of the three leads and the general atmosphere, makes it worth it. Let’s check out the final score.

Story (14/25 Points)

I really enjoy the mystery-horror aspect of the whole thing, and at points it reminds me of some kind of twisted Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I’ve talked enough about the plot holes, but they’re the main reason the score isn’t higher.

Characters (17/25 Points)

I love all three lead characters here, particularly Dan O’Herlihy’s smug performance as Cochran. I know O’Herlihy wasn’t a big fan of this film, and I can’t even blame him, but he admitted he was having fun and it shows. Tom Atkins shows he can carry a movie easily here, proving a solid lead, and Stacy Nelkin also delivers a strong performance. The supporting actors range from average to… Buddy Kupfer.

Experience (18/25 Points)

When the effects are cheesy, it’s obviously intentional. They’re so over the top that they’re not even all that disgusting, honestly. When Grimbridge is killed, the robot pulls on his skin like it’s some kind of mask, which is great foreshadowing, and it’s interesting how Little Buddy’s jack-o-lantern mask quickly turns into a rotted pumpkin. Those aside, I love the score, and the moments of tension are amped up nicely. There are a few genuinely creepy moments.

 Originality (13/25 Points)

This is a tough call. It’s wildly different from every Halloween film, but it borrows liberally from both Invasion of the Body Snatchers films. Particularly, Dan Challis throwing the chips onto the floor from the rafters is incredibly similar to Donald Sutherland’s character burning the factory in the 1978 film.

FINAL SCORE: 62%

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch was an interesting direction to go with the series. Unfortunately, it didn’t prove popular at the time and Michael Myers returned in… well, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, which I’ll cover next week.

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Halloween II (1981)

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  • Year: 1981
  • Director: Rick Rosenthal
  • Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Charles Cyphers

John Carpenter and Debra Hill never intended to make a sequel to Halloween, but due to both its own runaway success and the success of its imitators (most notably 1980’s Friday the 13th), a sequel was all but inevitable. After considering setting the sequel at an apartment complex years later, Carpenter and Hill eventually decided to start Halloween II immediately after the events of the first film. Also, John Carpenter was no longer in the director’s chair this time, handing the duties over to newcomer Rick Rosenthal.

Halloween II‘s time frame is both one of the film’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. For the most part, I like it. The characters—Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in particular—are far more unhinged, stopping at nothing to achieve their goals.

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The film, save the denouement, takes place entirely at night, only adding to the eeriness and giving even a survive-the-night feel to it, a la House on Haunted Hill. On the flip side, it really puts Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) out of focus. Since Laurie is in the hospital recovering from her injuries she received in the first film, we constantly have to be reminded in the first two acts that “Yep, she’s there,” without much really happening.

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Also, you had 8 times the budget of the original film and you couldn’t buy a better wig?

Due to Laurie being out of focus, Halloween II really struggles to pick a main character, sometimes focusing on Loomis, often focusing on random hospital employees, occasionally reminding us Laurie’s still there, and following Michael Myers (Dick Warlock) at other times.

The film starts off by recapping the ending of the last film where Laurie fights off Michael before he is shot six times by Loomis, only to disappear. The music that introduces this scene is… wait for it… “Mr. Sandman.” Heh? I’m really trying to figure this one out. That brings me to my all new segment…

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The film is set in 1978, over 20 years after the song was released. Oh, but Michael did his first killing years ago when he was six, right? Sure, but that was still 1963. You know how many cheap novelty Halloween songs were popular in the early ’60s? It was a whole genre for a few years, and “Monster Mash” came out in 1962! If you want a dream song, how about “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison which came out in 1963, and even in 1981 was still a good 5 years from being immortalized in Blue Velvet. “Mr. Sandman” worked in Back to the Future both because it was a song that would have been playing in 1955 and Marty McFly was convinced he was dreaming.

“Mr. Sandman” was used nowhere in the first Halloween film, and while I am all for playing a song that doesn’t fit the mood for the sake of dissonance, this one just feels so random. It’s about dreams I guess, even though dreams play no part in the story. Maybe it’s suggesting the nightmare feel of the film, but that’s really reaching.

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And time’s up. Let’s move on.

When Loomis sees that Michael has disappeared, he runs outside to examine the scene and sees Michael’s blood on the ground. When Loomis tells a neighbor to call the police, he tells him “I’ve been trick-or-treated to death tonight,” causing Loomis to respond with one of his classic dramatic lines, “You don’t know what death is,” leading right into the opening theme and credits. When I talked about the original Halloween in my Top 10 Horror Movies list, I said that Donald Pleasence could read the phone book and instill terror into every letter, and that still holds true here.

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Dr. Samuel Loomis, Michael Myers’ psychiatrist, acts mainly as an exposition character in the first Halloween, existing to inform the residents of Haddonfield just how dangerous Michael Myers truly is, leading to many viewers calling him the Dr. Van Helsing to Michael Myers’s Count Dracula. He gives these Shakespearean-esque monologues, contrasting the simple and realistic dialogue of the Haddonfield residents. These monologues would fall apart in the hands of a lesser actor, but when you’ve Donald Pleasence reciting them, they enhance the film greatly.

The only problem is finding things to do with Dr. Loomis’s character, now that the threat has clearly been established. Thankfully, there are still interesting directions to take him, as he gradually becomes obsessed only with killing Michael Myers no matter what it takes. The anger at what Michael has done mixed with self-disappointment at letting his patient escape plus a general lack of sleep causes Loomis to go as far as threatening a U.S. Marshal at gunpoint to drive him to the hospital where Myers is headed. (Also it’s spelled Marshall in the credits for some reason, which I assume could mean his name is actually Marshall and he just stumbled into the perfect career for his name.)

Oh but Loomis isn’t all gun-toting crazy here—the man still wants to monologue. In the first film, it seemed natural and was used just the right amount. Here, his speeches range from the engaging to the all-out comical. More than once in this film, Loomis will just start monologuing at some random character about how evil Michael is, even if they weren’t talking about him. It led to me creating this insane theory that Michael Myers and Dr. Sam Loomis are essentially just shades of the same character. Michael goes around Haddonfield looking for murder victims, while Loomis goes around Haddonfield looking for monologue victims.

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Michael Myers could literally be right behind him, and instead of doing something about it, Loomis would just say, “He’s been right behind me for fifteen years, stalking me like some kind of wild animal. You don’t know what it likes to be face-to-face with pure evil.”  Heck, there’s one scene where his associate Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens) is trying to reveal some very important information on Michael Myers and actually has to tell him to shut up because he just won’t stop monologuing. This is in spite of the fact that she works at the same mental hospital and obviously understands the threat at hand.

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Look, Sam, you’ve already got the lead role in the Smith’s Grove Sanitarium production of Henry V. You can stop auditioning.

Despite the incessant monologuing, Loomis’s scenes are still some of the best in the film—except for one. I would love to say it’s the dumbest thing in the whole Halloween series but since I can pretty much guarantee that’s not going to be true, I’ll call it the dumbest thing in the movie. Loomis and the increasingly-annoyed Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) are driving around town searching for Michael Myers when they think they see him and come to a screeching halt.

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Dr. Loomis is ready to go guns-blazing and shoot him (because it worked so well the last time), but Sheriff Brackett holds him back. It’s in vain though, as another police car runs into Maybe-Myers at full speed and backs him into a van, which explodes and kills him.

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Of course they find out by studying the corpse that it’s not Myers, but (for some reason) Ben Tramer, the never-seen character Laurie mentioned having a crush on in the first film. Alright, I’ve got a lot of questions.

  1. Michael Myers did his killing that very night, just hours ago. How on earth does someone have a “Michael Myers costume” already?
  2. If this is not a “Michael Myers costume,” how contrived is it that this trick-or-treater is wearing the exact same shirt, generic white mask with no features, and similar wig as him? What kind of Halloween costume is that?
  3. Assuming Laurie is not some kind of creep, surely the guy she’s crushing on is around her age of 17 or 18, right? Why is he trick-or-treating? He doesn’t seem to be with any little brothers or sisters.
  4. Does this guy have the exact same body type as Michael Myers? He doesn’t seem to. I get that Loomis is unhinged, but shouldn’t this be something the guy who’s worked with Michael Myers for 15 years would notice?
  5. Where in the name of Dick Warlock did that parked van come from? We saw the street mere seconds before the police car ran into Ben Tramer, and there was no van on it! Yet, when we cut to the street again, there’s just a parked van hanging out.
  6. Why did the van explode when the car ran into it? Two cars don’t just explode when one runs into another! Was it a van of explosives? That’s oddly convenient (For the filmmakers, not for Tramer).
  7. When another officer pulls up and informs Brackett that his daughter Annie is most likely dead, he drives away with Loomis and Brackett, effectively fleeing a crime scene! You are now leaving one cop at the scene, the same cop who ran right into Ben Tramer, and you are taking two witnesses away! What kind of bizarre law enforcement is at running Haddonfield?

Look, I’ve got like 10 more questions, but I think that covers the big ones, so let’s move on. At Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, a mother walks her son into the emergency room, because someone put a razor blade in his Halloween candy as a prank.

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WHY? Is it a one-off joke? Nothing funnier than cutting up a kid’s mouth, am I right? Is it supposed to be serious? Well, there is no evidence of this ever happening once in real life as it’s merely an urban legend, and since it’s just mentioned once or twice in the film itself, it really serves no purpose. It’s not “Michael Myers lookalike almost getting shot before getting run into a parked van of explosives by a police car” stupid, but it’s stupid.

Most of Michael’s victims in this film are hospital workers, and hoo boy, are they boring.

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There’s the sex-obsessed paramedic Budd (Leo Rossi), his nurse girlfriend Karen (Pamela Shoop), who not only arrives late but immediately runs off for a tryst, the responsible head nurse (Gloria Gifford) and some others. The only one who really makes an impression is Jimmy (Lance Guest) who develops some feelings for Laurie, but it never gets creepy.

Jimmy

He just seems like a decent, nice guy who happens to be in a rough situation, and I like the humanity that Guest brings to the character.

The kills in Halloween II are definitely more extreme and gory, which obviously shows the influence of Friday the 13th, but thankfully they never reach the gross-out level of even the first film in that series. It kind of confuses me that the production team thought they needed to up the blood when the first film relied almost entirely on subtlety and atmosphere. I get that you want to go a different direction in a sequel, but you have a dark hospital in the middle of the night! That sounds pretty creepy to me, but instead of unsettling darkness, the film opts for gorier kills. There’s death by syringe, death by hammer, death by hot tub, and death by needle-to-the-eye. Sure, it’s a hospital and Michael is using the tools at his disposal, but it gets kind of silly. The death by hot tub is particularly hilarious (not on purpose) as Karen takes forever to realize that the man behind her is not Budd but rather Michael Myers.

hot tub

Jimmy’s death is a truly odd scene, as he slips in pool of blood but seems to be alright. He then tries to help Laurie escape in a car, but his head just falls against the steering wheel, meaning he’s probably dead.

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I guess he hurt his head really badly when he fell and this is some kind of delayed reaction? What’s even weirder is that the version shown on AMC every year spares the guy! Yeah, there’s no car scene and he’s in the ambulance with Laurie at the end! It’d be nice if they could pick something and go with it.

There is one major plot development in this film involving Laurie, despite her minimal involvement in the first two acts, and it’s such a famous twist that pretty much everyone knows it before seeing the film. It’s a twist that John Carpenter admitted was pulled out of nowhere at 2:00 A.M., and one that he obviously has come to regret a bit—Laurie Strode is Michael Myers’ sister. Look, it’s not creative and came in the wake of a similar familial twist in a certain Star Wars sequel, but it’s not the worst thing ever. It’s attempting to explain Michael’s reasons for continuing to stalk Laurie instead of just starting to kill new victims, even though I’d argue unfinished business would be a solid excuse in this film. Ultimately, if it keeps Jamie Lee Curtis around, I’ll take it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t even a scene where Laurie finds out the truth! What’s the point in having the twist if the character in question doesn’t find out? Don’t get me wrong, Loomis’s investigation is interesting enough. First, he sees that Michael has stuck a knife in a drawing of his sister and has written the name of the Irish festival of Samhain in blood on a chalk board. It should be noted that Loomis pronounces this atrociously, as if it was named after some fellow called Sam Hane.

samhain

Marion Chambers then tells Loomis that a secret file showed that Michael’s sister was adopted by the Strodes. I just don’t get why the movie couldn’t show us Laurie finding this out. It took how long for Nurse Karen to realize the man behind her was Michael Myers, but you couldn’t squeeze in one scene of Laurie learning out who she is?

The final showdown is nowhere near as good as the original’s classic ending, but it’s still one of the better parts of the film. Loomis shoots Michael again multiple times but it only temporarily hurts him, and Michael eventually stabs him in the stomach. Laurie again proves her worth by blinding Michael when she shoots him in both eyes.

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Loomis is pretty badly hurt from the stab wound, and after he has Laurie run out of the room, Loomis blows the room up and kills himself and Michael.

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Yeah yeah the later films retcon both of their deaths, but we’ll get there when we get there

I guess the Michael Myers lookalike getting rammed into a van of explosives was foreshadowing? Ugh, it’s still stupid. The final scene makes clear that Laurie is safe but that visions of Michael will still haunt her for a while.

Halloween II is obviously nowhere near as good as the first, but it’s not a bad film. The returning characters (Loomis, Laurie, Michael and even Brackett) are all taken in believable directions, particularly Loomis, as he delves into being more and more unhinged. It absolutely feels like it exists in the same world as the first, which is more than I can say about a lot of sequels.

Story (12/25 Points)

There’s nothing really groundbreaking here, but it’s at least a decent continuation of a pretty simple story. There are some really dumb moments (see the 7 point thesis above that I won’t re-hash here), but when it’s being the minimalist thriller the original was, like in the closing scenes, it works.

Characters (16/25 Points)

Donald Pleasence is the highlight as Dr. Loomis, but Jamie Lee Curtis makes the most of her scenes, especially at the end. Michael Myers is still a hard-to-kill force without being a joke (He is still injured multiple times), and it’s nice to see both Sheriff Brackett and Marion Chambers return. I don’t really care for any of the new characters except for nice guy Jimmy, though.

Experience (14/25 Points)

It never approaches the horror of the first film, but I love the creepy hospital and the nighttime setting. There is one very tense moment where Laurie closes an elevator door just in time, which may be a tad cliched but is still effective.

Originality (7/25 Points)

Meh. It’s pretty much Halloween meets Friday the 13th with a twist from a Star Wars film. I can’t give it all that much credit here.

FINAL SCORE: 49%

Halloween II offers closure, and it does it in a way that is still respectful to the first film. John Carpenter decided to take the series in a completely different direction with the third film, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, and that’s the film I’ll be looking at next week.

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Movie Match-Up: Halloween Follow-Ups

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INTRODUCTION

halloween 2

John Carpenter and Debra Hill never intended to make a sequel to Halloween, but due to both its own runaway success and the success of its imitators… (More)

halloween 3

After wrapping up the Michael Myers/Laurie Strode story in Halloween II, John Carpenter and Debra Hill decided to go in a different direction with the Halloween films… (More)

halloween 4

Despite making nearly six times its budget at the box office, Halloween 3: Season of the Witchwas not a hit… (More)

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Introduction: Halloween Follow-Ups

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With the upcoming release of yet another sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic Halloween, I thought it was time to look at what got us to this point. The Halloween series is one that has retconned its own story so many times that it seems pretty self-loathing. The first two films follow the same story, then there was an attempt at an anthology film, then we got three sequels (One of which there are two versions), then we got a retcon, then we get a sequel to that retcon that retconned its ending, and then finally Rob Zombie remade the film and gave us his own sequel to that. As if that’s not enough, we’re getting Halloween 2018, which will be attempting to retcon every film after the first.

The original Halloween is a simple, minimalist and very frightening little independent film. Michael Myers is nothing more than evil and terror personified, and he hides in every dark corner like something out of your nightmares. He is only referred to as “The Shape” in the script, and he is often suggested to be “The Boogeyman” by the characters. It’s a film I wrote more about on the list of my favorite horror movies last year. Sure, everyone agrees that most (if not all) of the sequels are varying levels of garbage, but surely there has to be something good in all of them, right? At least one thing? Maybe there’s even a hidden gem in here somewhere. I’ll be grading the films as follows…

Story: 25 Points

Characters: 25 Points

Experience: 25 Points

Originality: 25 Points

At the end of it all, will I be looking forward to seeing what Halloween 2018 has in store, or will I decide they should have left good enough alone? Let’s find out.

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Ranking the Coen Brothers (Part 2)

 

Alright, let’s get right back into it with the second half of the Coen Brothers’ movie countdown. Don’t forget to read Part 1 first if you haven’t already.

8. Barton Fink

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Written during a period of writer’s block while working on Miller’s CrossingBarton Fink was the first Coen Brothers film to be nominated for an Academy Award (3 in fact: Supporting Actor, Costume Design and Art Direction). The film, appropriately enough, is about a Hollywood writer going through writer’s block.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is an acclaimed Broadway playwright who takes the opportunity to go to Hollywood in 1941. Barton checks into the bizarre Hotel Earle, with an over-enthusiastic desk clerk Chet (Steve Buscemi), an elderly elevator attendant, and a noisy neighbor he quickly reports to the front desk. However, the neighbor (John Goodman) soon comes over and apologizes for the noise complaint, quickly befriending Barton. He introduces himself as Charlie Meadows, but unsurprisingly, things are not as they seem.

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Meanwhile, Barton’s first assignment from Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) is a b-movie, simply a wrestling film starring Wallace Beery. However, every time he tries to write, Charlie shows up, essentially a human personification of writer’s block. Barton tries to stop it by visiting acclaimed author and William Faulkner lookalike W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney in a brief but brilliant performance), which turns out to be a brilliant case of “never meet your heroes.” It turns out that Mayhew is a wash-out and a drunk, who has his secretary and lover Audrey (Judy Davis) do all his writing for him.

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Audrey and Barton begin sleeping together, but it ends quickly when she’s found dead with Barton not remembering all the details of the night before.

It just gets weirder and weirder from there, becoming essentially a surrealistic horror film, with a whole bunch of seemingly-symbolic objects that may or may not have any meaning at all. Despite these increasingly dark images, this is a very funny film at points, from the hilarious pair of detectives who interview Barton to the over-the-top studio executives like Lipnick and Ben Geisler (Tony Shallhoub), and even the film’s final line is (probably) supposed to end the thing on a light note. Like so many of the Coens’ films, it kind of throws every genre into a pot and lets you enjoy the result. Plus, it is the only Coen Brothers film to go 5-for-5, featuring John Turturro, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, and a voice cameo by Frances McDormand.

7. Hail, Caesar!

It may not be their most popular comedy, but when it comes down to it, laugh-for-laugh, intelligent joke-for-intelligent joke, Hail, Caesar! is already my favorite Coen Brothers’ comedy. Now granted, some of the funniest Coen moments come from either dark jokes in their darkest films, or from one of their brilliant comedy-dramas, but in terms of straight comedy, this film takes it.

At the heart of this film full of wacky and wild characters is 1950s Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Brolin plays a brilliant straight man to all the antics, as his job literally involves him holding all the craziness at the studio together.

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These antics include a kidnapped star of a biblical epic (George Clooney), a singing cowboy shoved into a period piece (Alden Ehrenreich), a pregnant Esther Williams-type who doesn’t know who the father is (Scarlett Johnansson), twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton), and a host of others. Hail, Caesaris often described as a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and if you think that kind of comedy will work for you, it probably will.

The film is not super-plot heavy, but there is the overarching story of George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock getting kidnapped, which does tie some plot threads together. However, there are just so many scenes that are laugh-out-loud hysterical that it doesn’t really matter. In one such scene, Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich) is desperately trying to say the line “Would that it were so simple” for director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), which quickly turns into an Abbott and Costello-esque exchange. (There is also a brief and brilliant payoff for this joke far later in the movie.)

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In another, the Gene Kelly-style dancer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) films a 5-minute song and dance number called “No Dames,” which makes the Village People’s “In the Navy” look positively heterosexual. In my personal favorite scene (perhaps the funniest scene in any Coen Brothers’ film), Eddie sits down with a priest, a rabbi, a protestant minister, and an Orthodox clergyman to make sure the upcoming biblical epic will offend no one. Instead, it quickly turns into them all hilariously insulting each other’s beliefs as Eddie tries in vain to hold things together. The rabbi (Robert Picardo) in particular steals the show, of course ending five minutes of arguing by saying he has no opinion.

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Even when the plot picks up and we see the “Communist’ screenwriters that are holding Baird Whitlock captive, it’s entirely played for laughs. Some of the best humor comes from the screenwriters being possibly the worst Communists in history, from asking for ransom to treating their maid like garbage to giving the ransom entirely to Burt Gurney, who is revealed to have been working with them the whole time. This is all discovered by Hobie Doyle, who is not unintelligent after all, but just way out of his element in a period drama.

Ultimately, the film takes place in just a little over 24 hours. It’s fast-moving, doesn’t take itself seriously, is choc-full of references to Old Hollywood, and it’s all part of the charm. Time will only tell if it will have a major cult following or not, but I know Hail, Caesar! is one I can’t get enough of.

 6. Fargo

What can you say about Fargo that hasn’t been said in the 22 years since it’s been released? It’s brilliant. There was nothing like it before. A whole bunch of movies tried to be like it for years (and TV shows are now, not just the show that shares its name). I even wrote a What Makes it Great post about it awhile back.

The Coens love movies where one small immoral decision leads to everything spiraling out of control, and this is the most famous example in their work. Interestingly enough, this small immoral decision is actually something that happened before the events of the movie. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) took out a loan he couldn’t pay back. As the movie begins, he’s heading to the titular North Dakota city to make a deal with Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife so his father-in-law will have to dip into his bank account.

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It’s a ridiculous plot, but once Jerry follows through with it, he’s in so deep that everything falls apart, made even worse by the fact that Carl and Gaear are impulsive and stupid.

In spite of these stupid people, though, there are many kind and loving people who pop up throughout, from the one-scene wonders to the lead herself, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Marge is an incredibly bright detective who isn’t necessarily surrounded by the brightest people, but she’s never mean-spirited about it.

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The scenes between Marge and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) are wonderfully sweet, without being saccharine, to perfectly contrast the darkness of the rest of the film. They are constantly doing little things to show their love for each other, and in just a few scenes, we see how wonderful their marriage is.

McDormand and Macy are equally brilliant as the two leads, and I think the scene where Macy repeatedly beats his car with his ice scraper is one of the most brilliant in all of the Coen Brothers’ filmography.

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I still can’t believe Macy didn’t get nominated for and win Best Actor in a Leading Role for this (Supporting Actor? Really? Losing to Cuba Gooding?). Maybe it’s the fact that this is always the first Coen Brothers film people talk about that keeps me from putting this even higher, but honestly, I just happen to like the next five even more.

5. Miller’s Crossing

I saw Hereditary last week, and in addition to the brilliant story, atmosphere, and performance by Toni Collette, I was reminded just how much Gabriel Byrne has been missed in great movies. Byrne’s performance in Miller’s Crossing as Tom Reagan, an intelligent mafia consigliere whose motivations are often unclear, remains one of his best.

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For better or worse, Miller’s Crossing came out in a year that featured two other enormous gangster films—Goodfellas and The Godfather Part III. While Goodfellas is a fast-moving, brilliant look at gangster life through the eyes of a regular Joe, and Godfather III is… Godfather IIIMiller’s Crossing is a different beast entirely. It’s a throwback to the gangster films of the ’30s and ’40s, sure, but it’s an incredibly cerebral, tense film with plenty bubbling under the surface.

Tom Reagan is the second-in-command to Irish mob boss for Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) in an unnamed American city during the Great Depression. The characters suggest New York, the story suggests Chicago, and the scenery suggest more Southern Gothic, leading to a really nice universal feeling. (It was shot in Louisiana for what it’s worth.)

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Leo’s biggest opponent in the city is Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), who puts out a hit on Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), and despite Tom’s advising against it, Leo protects him. To complicate the matter, Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is involved with both Tom and Leo. As is typical for the Coens, there are all kinds of shout-outs, to everything from The Third Man to the works of Dashiell Hammett.

Most interesting of all, Miller’s Crossing features a protagonist whose endgame is unclear to first-time (and sometimes second-and-third-time) viewers, which is reminiscent of Sam Spade in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. When it does come together in the end, we (and the characters) wonder if it was even all worth it. (That’s not a spoiler, because it’s a dark Coen Brothers film. What were you expecting?) Throw in some gorgeous scenery, a psychopathic killer called The Dane, some incredibly witty dialogue, and a beautifully horrifying shoot-out set to “Danny Boy,” and you’ve got one of the most underrated mob films of all time.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis

Why was True Grit the Coen Brothers film the Academy suddenly decided to throw 10 nominations at, while this film, coming just three years later, got only technical nominations? Maybe True Grit was safe enough, while this was an exceedingly bleak character piece. Maybe 2013 was a better year for film. (I don’t think so personally, but whatever). Maybe this one just needs some time to be cemented as a classic.

The Coen Brothers are at their best when they’re doing period pieces, as you’ll see from the fact that the top 5 films are all set considerably earlier than when they were made. Inside Llewyn Davis transports us to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, a fascinating period in music history. The early days of rock n’ roll were ending, but The Beatles hadn’t come to America yet, and the underground folk scene was becoming mainstream. Right in the middle of it all is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) a lazy, uncompromising, above-average folk singer who has nothing going for him.

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A lot of his troubles are brought on by himself, and in the wrong hands he could have been so unsympathetic that no one would care. However, Llewyn is a tragic figure as well, having lost his singing partner Mike Timlin to suicide. Llewyn has a solo album out, but it’s not selling, and he spends his time playing at the Gaslight club and sleeping on a different couch every night.

The plot starts off with Llewyn in a dark place, and things only get worse from there. An older, extremely friendly couple kick him out for lashing out at them and losing their cat. He records a cheap novelty song and takes the quick buck instead of being credited on the single, and it becomes a hit. He discovers he has a son upstate, but he drives right on by when given the chance. He hitches a ride with some acquaintances of an acquaintance to Chicago to visit a high-profile record producer (F. Murray Abraham), who deems him good but not great.

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Ultimately, it’s impossible to talk about the true greatness of this movie without talking about the ending, so go and watch it first if you haven’t seen it. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’re hoping this is going to be a story about an uncompromising artist being rewarded richly… you’re going to be let down, but given the tone, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Things do gradually start to turn around for Llewyn as the friendly couple welcome him back with open arms, understanding that everyone is reacting differently to Mike’s death. It’s at this point we realize the movie is not about Llewyn’s success or failure, but rather the grieving process. In the final moments of the film, Llewyn gives an incredible performance of “Fare Thee Well” at the Gaslight, but then goes outside and is beat up by the husband of a woman whose music he mocked. Inside, Bob Dylan is playing his own song called “Farewell,” perhaps suggesting the Llewyn will never make it big, because although Dylan is starting at the same place with a similar song, he will compromise, and for this he will become one of the most successful artists of all time.

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However, I refuse to view the ending as bleakly as a first viewing might suggest. “Fare Thee Well” was the trademark song of Llewyn and Mike, and all movie it has haunted him. Now, he is finally performing it alone and beautifully. He has finally gotten to the final stage of the grieving process, and even getting beaten up outside could simply represent the final gut-punch in the process. He might not be Bob Dylan, but he’ll move on with his life.

It goes without saying that the folk music selections in this film are fantastic, and like most every Coen Brothers film, there is brilliant humor sprinkled throughout. I particularly love John Goodman as the washed-out jazz musician who thinks little of folk musicians because in jazz, they play “all the notes.”

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This is following in the classic Coen Brothers tradition of someone claiming they’re something they’re not, because of course the old idiom says that jazz is about the notes you don’t play. Carey Mulligan is also particularly memorable as the mean-spirited Jean who can’t stop calling Llewyn “asshole.” I wouldn’t want every movie to be this grey, but when it’s done this well, it’s worth it.

3. A Serious Man

One of the most divisive entries in the Coen’s filmography, A Serious Man has had to grow on me over the years. To some viewers, this is just a mishmash of random terrible things happening to a relatively innocent victim, but to others, it’s a brilliant look at religion inspired by the Book of Job among other things.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a somewhat boring physics professor at a Minnesota University and a relatively religious Jew. He tries to be a good man, sticking to his standards and treating everyone fairly. However, his world is turned upside down when his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him she wants a ritual Jewish divorce because she’s fallen in love with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed).

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In addition, Larry’s possibly-criminal brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is mooching off him, and Larry’s son is getting ready for his bar mitzvah. At work, it seems that Larry might not get tenure, and he’s being bribed by a student who insists he deserves a better grade.

Larry attempts to seek out wisdom from his rabbi, but instead is only permitted to speak to two lesser rabbis (Simon Helberg, George Wyner), the first of which speaks only in meaningless cliches, while the second tells him a truly bizarre story about a dentist.

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Like in the Book of Job, Larry does have one friend who is relatively helpful, his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), who provides perhaps the only common sense in the film.

A recurring motif throughout the film is Larry’s declaration “I haven’t done anything,” which may just be the most important line in the understanding of the film. In what may be passed off as a simple running gag on a first viewing, Larry is getting calls from the Columbia Record Club.

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Since he did not tell them he does not want this month’s record, he is automatically sent and billed for that record. (It’s implied this is something his son signed up for merely for the 12 cheap introductory albums.) Just like with his life, Larry is being penalized for doing nothing. It goes a step further when we hear the names of the albums—Abraxas by Santana and Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival. These names seem to suggest that even though he has done nothing, the cosmos are experimenting with him.

The casting of lesser-known actors really adds to the authentic feel of the film, and of course this led to a great career for Michael Stuhlbarg. The film is extremely funny in places (A certain exchange with the failing student has me busting up every time), and you will be pondering the film for days after seeing it.

2. No Country for Old Men

When I think of the tensest, most psychologically draining movies ever made, this is always one of the first that comes to mind. I’ve seen No Country for Old Men plenty of times, but I was watching it again recently and caught myself so caught up in it that I was genuinely on the edge of my seat.

It’s easy to see why the Coens were drawn to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, as it features a down-on-his-luck man making a terrible decision, a bizarre killer trying to catch him, and an upright cop trying to stop them.

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The film is, on its surface, simply about the pursuit of these three men, as they never even meet each other on screen. There are plenty of times where they come close, and there is a shoot-out involving Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and serial killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), but they never sit down for a conversation. Whether or not Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) ever does catch Chigurh is up to the viewer’s interpretation.

Everyone has talked about the most famous scenes and how brilliant they are, whether it’s the coin toss (which I discussed here), the ringing phone, or the final monologue, but there is not a single moment in this film wasted, and you can find brilliant little tidbits all throughout, especially on repeat viewings. Take for example the scene in which an unnamed man (Stephen Root) hires bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to hunt down Chigurh.

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Wells sits down without the man’s permission, saying “You struck me as a man who wouldn’t wanna waste a chair,” showing that he has lousy observational skills, as there is clearly an empty chair in the corner of the room. The man has an overturned hourglass on his desk, showing that his time is almost up, foreshadowing his death in his next scene. The man also tells Wells that he has lived “something of a charmed life,” but Wells scoffs at this, showing that Wells believes in his own wits, while the man believes in luck. This is furthered by the fact that Wells asks about the building missing a floor (presumably the 13th).

All of the cast is phenomenal, from the three leads to Stephen Root and Gene Jones to Kelly MacDonald as Llewelyn’s innocent wife. The sparse and dry landscapes create an eerie, neo-western atmosphere, only letting up and revealing something green and refreshing in the film’s final scenes. Ultimately, whether or not Chigurh is caught is not necessarily the point, because Sheriff Bell now feels incompetent to fight the evil in the world. He is a good man, and he can no longer understand evil.

1. O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Barton Fink was their artistic breakthrough, Fargo was their first enormous success, and No Country for Old Men was their long overdue Best Picture win, but it’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? that sums up everything that is great about the Coen Brothers (I could be super pretentious and say everything great about cinema as a whole but I’ll hold off.). Drawing from Homer’s The Odyssey, biblical imagery, bluegrass music, Faustian legends, classic Hollywood, and so much more, O Brother, Where Art Thou mixes drama, comedy, a Southern Gothic novel and a redemption story to great effect.

Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) escapes from a prison chain gang with Delmar O’ Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) in search of a treasure he says he buried before being arrested.

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Along the way they encounter Pete’s treacherous cousin (Frank Collison), Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco), a blues guitarist (Chris Thomas King) who sold his soul to the Devil, a one-eyed Bible salesman (John Goodman), and a sheriff who might just be the Devil (Daniel von Bargen). They also stop along the way at a radio station to record “Man of Constant Sorrow” for blind radio manager Mr. Lund (Stephen Root), which, unbeknownst to them, becomes a statewide hit.

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First and foremost, the style of this film is completely engrossing. From the first second of the film, you’re transported to Depression-era Mississippi, thanks to Roger Deakins’ groundbreaking cinematography. This was the first film to use digital correction in post-production, and while it’s been overused in films since, the yellow, dust-bowl feel of the film is perfect.

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Then there’s the music, which was so popular the album got a sequel. Despite the fact that the music is great on it’s own, it complements the film perfectly, from the bluegrass numbers sung on screen to the instrumental score of T. Bone Burnett. There is some overblown, Raising Arizona-esque humor, but most of the laughs comes from the dialogue, whether it’s Everett’s pseudo-intellectual wordiness or the hilarious Seinfeldian conversations from the re-election team of Governor Pappy O’ Daniel (Charles Durning).

Of course, the treasure isn’t money but Everett’s ex-wife (Holly Hunter), and the deadline they have to get back by is the day she plans to remarry. Her fiancee (Ray McKinnon) works on the campaign of the charismatic gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), who, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, is revealed to be a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

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I talked in detail about the “Man of Constant Sorrow” scene here, and it remains my favorite film scene of all time. I also love how that scene shows Everett’s redemption by the law, while the next scene shows his redemption by God.

O Brother is a very personal film to me, because it was pretty much my gateway into seeing film as something more than just entertainment. I was very young when I first saw it, but I knew I liked it and that there was more I would need to unpack later. As the years go on, I think this one will rank higher across the board in Coen Brothers’ rankings, because it’s as quotable as The Big Lebowski, as rewatchable and rewarding as A Serious Man and features as brilliant an ending as No Country for Old Men. It is a perfect film and one I will never get tired of watching.

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Ranking the Coen Brothers (Part 1)

Later this year, Joel and Ethan Coen will be debuting their Netflix series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology series which they will write, direct and produce. Before diving into what will surely be one of the most interesting new shows of the year, let’s look at what’s gotten them here, as I count down every Coen Brothers-directed film from worst-to-first.

17. Blood Simple

I know I said worst-to-first, but I can’t all-out say that the Coens really have a bad film. I put Blood Simple at the bottom spot, in spite of its compelling story and interesting visual style, simply because I don’t care about any of the characters. Thankfully, it is the only Coen Brothers’ film where this is the case.

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Dan Hedaya plays a man who finds out that his wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him, so he hires private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmett Walsh) to find evidence and eventually kill her and her lover (John Getz). However, things quickly spiral out of control when it turns out Visser has other plans.

I won’t spoil the whole thing despite it being 30 years old, but I will give it credit that the character left standing at the end is not who I was expecting, and there are some particularly haunting scenes. It’s just so hard to care when the characters are a cheating wife and her lover, a murderous husband and a sociopathic detective, and sadly the humor that peppers even the Coens’ most serious work is mostly absent here. Sure, this being their weakest film says a lot about their reputation and consistency on the whole, but it’s the one I find myself wanting to return to the least.

16. Burn After Reading

After winning Best Picture for No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers went a completely different direction with the wacky spy parody Burn After Reading. With a star-studded cast including George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Richard Jenkins, the potential for greatness is all there, but unfortunately, it turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.

The Coens love movies about not-so-bright folks getting in way over their head, whether it’s played for drama like in No Country for Old Men or comedy like in The Hudsucker Proxy. However, in this case, the scheme is so ridiculous and the idiots are so…  idiotic that it can only be played for farce.

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John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, an over-the-top, short-tempered John Malkovich-type who is demoted from his CIA job due to a drinking problem. It is Malkovich who provides many of the film’s greatest lines (“I have a drinking problem? […] You’re a Mormon. Next to you, we all have a drinking problem.”). Cox is inspired to dictate his memoirs, which gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) find at the gym and try to make money off of, despite the fact that the information within is incredibly tedious and boring. The plot goes in all kinds of directions from this point, and the funniest scenes are actually the CIA heads (David Rasche and JK Simmons) discussing how ridiculous everything is (“They all seem to be sleeping with each other.”).

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There are great moments (including one of the most shocking deaths this side of The Departed), but it meanders in places and sadly features a relatively underwhelming George Clooney performance, especially in comparison to his other work with the Coens.

15. The Ladykillers

The Coen Brothers working together with Tom Hanks sounds like an automatic shoo-in for a classic, right? However, The Ladykillers almost always pops up at the bottom or near the bottom of any Coen Brothers’ list, whether it’s Taste of Cinema…

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GQ…

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or The Washington Post.

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You get the point. Obviously I agree with all of these lists that The Ladykillers isn’t great, but geesh guys, it’s not like Joel and Ethan broke through the theatre screens and ripped all the laughs out of your throats personally. Look, I’ll even admit that Burn After Reading is the funnier film overall, but there’s a certain charm to The Ladykillers that just isn’t there in Burn After Reading.

Maybe it’s the old-world Southern setting, even though it’s set in the present-day. Maybe it’s that Tom Hanks is essentially playing a live-action Wile E. Coyote (From the cartoons where he tried to con Bugs Bunny with his upper-class charm).

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One big factor is definitely Irma P. Hall as the lovable old-woman that the titular ladykillers are trying to kill. Keeping with the cartoon-feel of the characters, the plot breezes right by (even though it is shockingly 10-minutes longer than the bloated Burn After Reading), and when Tom Hanks’ character dies with the closest-thing-possible-to-an-anvil-to-the-head-that-isn’t-actually-an-anvil, it’s hard not to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

While everyone is clearly having a good time, this is by no means a necessary remake of the British classic, and it sometimes tends to be one of those movies that acts like it’s extremely funny without being all that funny. I’m sorry, but the “You brought your bitch to the Waffle Hut?” scene isn’t nearly as funny as the movie thinks it is. JK Simmons and Marlon Wayans add a bit as well, but it’s mainly the scenes with Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall that make this… kind of work.

14. The Huduscker Proxy

Hmm… I wonder why a film with such a gibberish title bombed at the box office. Well, star Tim Robbins is no stranger to that, as The Shawshank Redemption, released in the same year, suffered similar problems. If the audience can’t grasp some kind of idea from the title, how will they know what the movie is about? Plus, this was pre-Fargo, so the Coens, while already acclaimed in critical circles, couldn’t sell a movie on their names alone.

So ignoring its failing at the box office, how is the movie on its own? Frankly, it’s an enjoyable watch. It’s a throwback to the old Howard Hawks fast-talking comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, and while it could be a lot funnier, it’s still good for some laughs. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the stand out as quippy reporter Amy Archer, and she’s clearly having a blast doing her best Rosalind Russell impression.

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Paul Newman is gloriously over-the-top as the sniveling Sidney J. Mussburger, and of course Tim Robbins is solid as the average Joe who gets promoted to President of the toy company as a pawn in Mussburger’s scheme. There are brief but memorable performances by Charles Durning, Steve Buscemi, and Jon Polito as well, and the style and setting of the film are a lot of fun.

Like The Ladykillers, parts of this could easily have come out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Heck, the film plays suicide attempts for comedy not just once or twice, but three times. The film starts with Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning) getting up at a meeting, running all the way across a long table, and jumping out of a 44th-floor window of a skyscraper, complete with a SPLAT! sound effect.

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Later, in the film’s funniest moment, another board member tries to follow in his old boss’s footsteps, only to hit the window like a bug on a windshield, as Mussburger explains he just installed Plexiglas. (The third is the climax of the film so I’ll refrain from spoiling it if you haven’t seen it.) If you’re not a fan of classic cinema, this may not be for you, but it didn’t deserve to bomb this badly.

13. The Man Who Wasn’t There

The next few choices on the list are a bit hard to rank, because they are all both incredibly memorable and immensely rewatchable. The Man Who Wasn’t There came out in 2001, after the huge 1-2-3 Punch of FargoThe Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it did not have the same kind of success.

The Man Who Wasn’t There is an odd spin on a traditional film noir, because while it is played relatively straight in terms of story and its black-and-white palette, it features a dry and un-sarcastic narrator, and it’s set in a low-key California suburb instead of the big city. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, an unassuming and boring (intentionally so) barber, whose wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with her boss Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini).

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Like many Coen Brothers’ protagonists, Ed attempts blackmail, but things quickly get out of hand. Big Dave finds out that Ed is the blackmailer and attacks him, but Ed kills him first out of self-defense. However, it’s Ed’s wife Doris who is accused of the murder, and it only gets wilder from there.

Tony Shallhoub is a scene-stealer as over-the-top defense lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider, who will be as dishonest and verbose as possible to get his client off the hook. Without him, the film might be a bit too lacking in color (no pun intended). Jon Polito of course serves a similar purpose, adding his unique form of flamboyance to the character of Creighton Tolliver, whose death calls back to a famous scene from The Night of the Hunter.

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There are also some more subtle references to classic noirs. The name of the store Doris works at is Nirdlinger’s, the last name of femme fatale Phyllis in the novel Double Indemnity, before it was changed for the film for sounding too silly. James Gandolfini wears a wig that gives more than a passing resemblance to Alan Reed in The Postman Always Rings Twice, which, like Double Indemnity, is based on a work by James M. Cain. Even the ending of the film feels like something out of The Twilight Zone.

I’ve watched this film many times over, and while I really like it, I always find myself wanting just a little bit more. I love the characters, the style and the unsettling, almost horror-like atmosphere, but I always leave just a tad bit unsatisfied. It’s a relatively minor thing, but it’s why this one ultimately doesn’t rank higher.

12. Intolerable Cruelty

Often written off as a lesser Coen Brothers film, or just a (shudder) romantic comedy, Intolerable Cruelty is often forgotten in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. Yes, this was based on a script by someone else, but it has the Coens’ distinctive touches all over it. It may not feature John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, Frances McDormand or John Turturro, but it features a razor-sharp wit and all kinds of wacky supporting characters.

George Clooney plays cynical divorce lawyer Miles Massey, who is defending millionaire Rex Rexroth (Edward Herrmann) in his divorce from his gold-digging wife Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The scenes of this trial are so loopy and hilarious that I will totally forgive the occasional slower moments later.

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A lawyer objecting on the grounds of poetry recitation still remains one of the funniest exchanges in any Coen Brothers’ film. The fact that this is quickly followed with an objection to strangling the witness and the judge allowing it makes it all the better.

When Massey leaves Marilyn broke, she quickly hatches a new scheme involving Howard Doyle (a brief but brilliant performance by Billy Bob Thornton), and it all boils down to a divorce lawyer convention, a hitman named Wheezy Joe, and a hilarious final scene. Yes, it’s a comedy where the two leads hook up, but this is not one of those cute innocent romantic comedies. Plus, it features Cedric the Entertainer as the least subtle, least private private detective in history. What more could you want?

11. True Grit

The Coen Brothers are at their absolute best when they’re playing with traditional film genres, whether it’s deconstructing them or just throwing them all into one big stew, but they very rarely play them even kind of straight. While it is definitely doing some different things than your average western, True Grit is still a western through-and-through.

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Based more closely on the Charles Portis’ novel than the 1969 film was, it would be a given to acknowledge that Joel and Ethan’s True Grit also features better performances than the 1969 film (Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon vs. John Wayne and Glen Campbell, you do the math). One thing I like about True Grit that is kind of a deconstruction in that its “heroes” aren’t really heroes. Rooster Cogburn is a drunk former Confederate soldier, LaBoeuf is a somewhat slimy and cowardly Texas ranger, and Mattie Ross herself (Hailee Steinfeld) is almost solely focused on avenging her father’s murder. As for the villains, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is an unintelligent outlaw who wouldn’t last long anywhere even without Mattie’s intervention, and his superior Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) really despises having to work with him.

There are some interesting side characters that Rooster and Mattie encounter along the way to finding Chaney (The Bear Man in particular), but for me, it’s not until after the film’s conflict is seemingly resolved that you really see what the Coens are going for here. I will be talking about spoilers, so just move onto the next one if you haven’t seen it yet.

In the film’s most poignant moment, Mattie shoots Chaney dead and immediately trips and falls into a snake pit.

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Vengeance is not even sweet for one second, and even if you get what you want, there will always be kickback. After Maddie is bitten, Rooster rides through the night to save her, but it’s too late and she loses her arm. We then cut to Mattie as a grown woman, who has become aloof and bitter. She tries to meet up with Rooster but finds out he has died, and she insists on putting the grave on her family plot, because this was the only important event in her life. It’s sure a tragic ending for someone getting exactly what they want, and that’s why I love it.

Beyond that, the Carter Burwell score and the Roger Deakins cinematography are beautiful, and Burwell even manages to incorporate “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” without just making everyone think of The Night of the Hunter. There are some great darkly comedic moments as well, particularly one where a gang is being hanged and everyone but the Native American member gets last words. The PG-13 rating may limit it, but it definitely can work as a good starter for younger viewers breaking into more mature cinema.

10. Raising Arizona

It was tough to put such a funny movie this low on the list, but again, it came down to rewatchability. While Raising Arizona is a blast anytime I watch it, it’s pretty much the exact same experience. I’m not going to find too many subtle jokes or deeper meaning, because most of the humor is loud and in your face. That’s not bad, but it shows that the Coens are simply going for all-out comedy here.

Nicolas Cage in his (thankfully) lone collaboration with the Coens plays H.I. McDunnough, an ex-convict who marries police officer Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter), but when they find out they can’t have children, they steal a quintuplet from a local furniture store owner (Trey Wilson).

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It somehow gets even weirder from there, as they meet up with two escaped convicts (John Goodman and William Forsythe), H.I.’s swinger boss and his wife (Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand) and a demonic biker who stalks H.I. (Randall “Tex” Cobb).

The funniest moments come from the scenes with Forsythe and Goodman, whether it’s their interactions with the simpleminded, elderly convenient store employee (“These blow up into funny shapes and all?” “Well, no, unless round is funny.” “Son you got a panty on your head.”) or their poor instructions at a bank robbery (“Everybody freeze! Everybody down on the ground!”) Everyone is great, but it’s these two who steal the show.

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The ending dream sequence divides some viewers, as it takes the film in a bit more serious direction, but I quite like it. It shows that, despite their actions, H.I. and Ed aren’t necessarily bad people, and their lives are bound to improve down the line.

9. The Big Lebowski

Definitely the biggest cult film of the last 25 years, and possibly the biggest cult film of all time (Heck, there’s an actual cult called Dudeism), The Big Lebowski has only grown in popularity since its 1998 release. Without a doubt, it is a comedy that benefits from multiple rewatches, and it obviously left a lot of people just saying, “So what?” upon their first viewing.

Drawing inspiration from westerns, real life friends of the Coens, and film noir, the inciting incident is a pretty direct-shout out to The Big Sleep, as both feature a millionaire who worries for a young woman in his life (a daughter in Sleep, a trophy wife in Lebowski) hiring a man to help rein her in. Of course, unlike Philip Marlowe, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is an unmotivated stoner who just wants to bowl with his team (John Goodman, Steve Buscemi), listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival and get high.

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Describing the plot would be silly as it’s extremely convoluted and everyone in the world has seen this film at least once, but ultimately a lot of the humor in The Big Lebowski boils down to identity. Everyone in the film seems to be playing up some version of themselves that is incredibly and hilariously untrue. Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski (David Huddleston) presents himself as a rich multi-millionaire with all kinds of influence, when in reality his late wife was the one with the money and his daughter Maude (Julianne Moore) now controls the estate. Maude herself criticizes people who have sex selfishly, but she ultimately uses The Dude just so she can have a child. Donny (Steve Buscemi) acts like some intellectual, trying to add insightful and intelligent comments to discussion, but it’s clear he’s an idiot. The Germans constantly going after The Dude claim that they’re nihilists, but in their final scene they complain about not receiving any money. Of course, Walter (John Goodman) constantly brings up his Judaism, even though he was raised Catholic and only converted when he married his now ex-wife.

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Even more so, Walter is constantly bringing up his time in Vietnam, even though there are hints throughout that he never served, a fact that was even explicit in the original screenplay. Even the animal that the “nihilists” drop in The Dude’s bathtub is constantly described as a marmot, even though it’s clearly a ferret.

In fact, there are really only two important characters who are who they say they are—The Stranger (Sam Elliott), the strange cowboy who narrates the film, and The Dude himself. Although both men are wildly different, they have created an identity for themselves that is truly them, and so it’s not surprising that the two have great respect for each other when they do meet.

With everyone in the cast clearly having a ball (John Goodman has said Walter is his favorite role of his career), quotable lines, and one of the best jukebox soundtracks of all time (Creedence, Bob Dylan, Townes van Zandt), The Big Lebowski has obviously stood the test of time. It’s a lot of fun and a lot smarter than it seems on the surface, and while I do find myself quoting it, the Coens just happen to have 8 films I love even more.

Next time, I’ll complete the list as we count down the top 8.

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The 10 Least-Deserved Oscars Ever Awarded

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It’s Oscar season yet again, and while you’re making your final adjustments on your bracket, let’s take a look at those winners who didn’t deserve it in the slightest. I’ve picked one “winner” from ten categories, and I’ve ranked them in order of egregiousness, from “I Can Live with That, I Guess” to “This is a Joke.” Let’s get started. Remember, these are opinions, and you are free to disagree with them (except #1).

10. Best Supporting Actress (1997)

Honestly, I don’t have all that many gripes in the Best Supporting Actress category. The runner-up here was Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas losing to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, but it’s Kim Basinger’s win for L.A. Confidential that confuses me more.

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L.A. Confidential is a great movie, and it topped many critics’ lists for the best of 1997. However, those critics’ hopes were sunk when Titanic won a boatload of awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Song, and Best Movie to Fall Asleep For an Hour in The Middle and Not Miss Anything. L.A. Confidential did win a few awards including Best Supporting Actress, and while there’s nothing wrong with Kim Basinger’s performance as prostitute Lynn Bracken, I don’t find anything groundbreaking about it.

A story about police corruption in 1940s Los Angeles, L.A. Confidential is a neo-noir with an all-star cast, and I actually found the supporting performances by David Strathairn and James Cromwell to be the stand-outs. Basinger’s Bracken is thankfully not a standard femme fatale, but she is a pretty run-of-the-mill hooker with a heart of gold. On paper, it’s one of the least interesting characters in the film, and she doesn’t really do anything to enhance it. It’s a decent performance in a fantastic film.

Who Should Have Won?: This is what really confuses me about the win. Among the competition was Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting, Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights, and Joan Cusack in In & Out. I would pick any of these three over Basinger, but if I had to pick one, it’d probably be Cusack. She is hilarious in In & Out as the surprised fiancee of the recently-outed-as-gay Kevin Kline. She brings so much heart and so many laughs to a part that could have merely been a plot device.

9. Best Adapted Screenplay (1994)

I’ve done my ranting about Forrest Gump here if you want to read a more in-depth analysis, but let’s just say it didn’t deserve every Oscar it won. Best Actor for Tom Hanks? Sure, I have my issues with the character, but he was brilliant. Best Picture? I don’t agree, but it was a feel-good crowd-pleaser. Best Screenplay? Now you’re pushing it.

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If there was any award The Shawshank Redemption was going to win, it was screenplay. Based on a novella by Stephen King, Shawshank had brilliant characters, perfect pacing, and a wonderful story that took place over a period of around twenty years. Forrest Gump just kind of skipped around through different time periods, showing Forrest living in them. What about Forrest Gump deserved a screenplay Oscar? Brilliant quotes like “Stupid is as stupid does” or “Life was like a box of chocolates”? Shawhank gave us “I had to go to prison to be a crook,” “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies,” and “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” You do the math.

Either the Oscar voters didn’t see The Shawshank Redemption, or they fell for the blatant Baby Boomer pandering of Forrest Gump, but this one looks silly in hindsight. Heck, Quiz Show was nominated too, and that would have deserved the win in most any other year.

8. Best Actress (1997)

I promise not all of these are from the ’90s, but there were some really confusing Oscar wins in  that decade. As Good as it Gets got a lot of hype in 1997, and it is a perfectly good romantic comedy, but it’s not the masterpiece the Oscars thought it was.

Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson both took home Oscars for their performances in this film, and I don’t understand either. While I don’t consider Nicholson’s win the biggest Best Actor robbery of all time, I have no idea how he beat out Robert Duvall for The Apostle, when Jack was essentially playing himself. As for Helen Hunt, she does fine with the material, but it’s just an above average rom-com.

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Despite her likable performance, I never believe Helen Hunt’s Carol would lower herself to Jack Nicholson’s Melvin. I enjoy the story of how both of them relate to Simon (Greg Kinnear) but the relationship between the two of them is ridiculous. It’s not romantic, and I’m sure the “love affair” ends approximately 15 minutes after the film does.

Who Should Have Won?: Probably Judi Dench for Mrs. Brown, and despite my middling thoughts on Titanic, Kate Winslet could have won also.

7. Best Original Score (1974)

1974 just happened to give us two of the greatest films of all time—Chinatown and The Godfather, Part II. While I personally prefer Chinatown and think it should have won Best Picture, I can’t call it a snub, because Godfather II is a masterpiece in its own right. Would I have liked to see John Huston get a nod (and a win) for Best Supporting Actor? Sure, but Robert De Niro was brilliant and absolutely deserved to win. The only award that Godfather II won that confuses me is Best Original Score.

The Godfather has a brilliant score, but it was disqualified when it was discovered that it was not truly original. Nino Rota’s “Love Theme” had previously been used in 1958’s Fortunella, and therefore could not compete for the prize. However, even though the sequel also featured “Love Theme” or “Speak Softly Love” as its better known, it still won the award.

The Godfather, Part II has some brilliant new selections that weren’t in the original, but it also reuses a lot of cues from the first. Chinatown‘s soundtrack, on the other hand, is a beautiful and haunting masterpiece by Jerry Goldsmith that brings the perfect touch to the neo-noir. That trumpet in Chinatown‘s own love theme (the track that plays over the opening and closing credits) sets the mood perfectly. Surprisingly, Jerry Goldsmith only wrote the score at the last minute when the entire original score was shelved. Sometimes, simplicity wins the day.

6. Best Original Screenplay (1998)

Shakespeare in Love will forever be remembered as the film that beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture, but I find it winning this award even more ridiculous. At least it was a big fancy costume drama, and those tend to win over Best Picture voters. However, a script full of “loosely-based on real life” characters and allusions galore to other Shakespeare plays doesn’t deserve a Best Screenplay Oscar.

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Who Should Have Won?: To add insult to injury, Shakespeare was up against one of the most original and interesting screenplays of the decade—The Truman Show. Sure, the concept of a TV show made out of someone’s life had been done before (heck EdTV was made the same year), but the way the film goes about telling its story is brilliant. It builds a likable lead in Truman, a believable antagonist in Christof, and it touches brilliantly on all the ways living in The Truman Show (willingly or unwillingly) would affect someone’s life. The scene where Christof appears on a call-in talk show is a brilliant way to have some exposition without it feeling forced.

Andrew Niccol’s screenplay deserved the award for Christof’s final speech alone, where Ed Harris delivers that great line, “I am the creator… of a television show.” As he begs with Truman to stay in the program, it shows how this man can cover up his villainy with sympathetic pleas. We almost forget for a minute that Christof tried to kill Truman just moments ago.

5. Best Director (1990)

This one is a given on pretty much every Oscar snub list, but come on. Martin Scorsese for Goodfellas losing to Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves? It’s a joke.

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Find me one shot in Dances with Wolves that rivals Scorsese’s oner through the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Scorsese had deserved the Best Director Oscar at least once—and probably more—by this point (Barry Levinson beating him in 1988 was the runner-up), but this is the one he unquestionably should have won for.

The marriage of Thelma Schoonmaker’s innovative editing and Scorsese’s bold directing makes Goodfellas so much more than just a mob story. Every scene is unforgettable, from the finding of the bodies montage set to “Layla” to Henry Hill’s drug-fueled driving near the end.

Sure, but does it have three hours of Kevin Costner in the desert?

4. Best Actor (1969)

There are a lot of Best Actor wins that really don’t make sense, so this was a tough one. The go-to response would have been Art Carney in Harry and Tonto beating Pacino in Godfather II, Nicholson in Chinatown, and Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express. It was a confusing win, but Harry and Tonto does have its fans, and Carney was not a bad actor. It’s definitely the biggest “snub,” but I had to look at actors who were genuinely not good—actors who didn’t deserve an Oscar any year, let alone the year they won. It came down to Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur and John Wayne in True Grit, but it ultimately went to Wayne.

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John Wayne was the kind of actor who gave the same performance in every film. He had his fans, many of them, but what he didn’t have was range. Anyone who went to a John Wayne movie knew what they were in for, and True Grit was no exception. John Wayne played John Wayne… but with an eye patch, which apparently made the performance Oscar-worthy.

Wayne’s line-delivery was so wooden it rivaled Pinocchio, and he made no attempt to make the character anything more than just “John Wayne with an eye patch.” Apparently, Wayne and Robert Duvall had trouble on the set due to their different acting styles. Wayne was unfamiliar with Duvall’s style of “good” acting, which totally threw off his “bad.”

Who Should Have Won?: Probably Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, but take your pick of the lot (Richard Burton, Peter O’ Toole, Jon Voight).

3. Best Supporting Actor (1996)

I know Jerry Maguire was a huge hit in 1996, and it’s been quoted to death since, but do even the biggest fans think Cuba Gooding Jr.’s scenery-chewing performance was Oscar-worthy? It’s really just a lot of yelling. I suppose maybe in an off-year it could have slipped in, but not with the competition it was up against.

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Primal Fear starts off feeling like a relatively standard courtroom drama, but more and more twists are revealed about Edward Norton’s character, and they only work because of Norton’s brilliant performance. Never mind the fact that this was his first film appearance! He constantly has to switch between innocent choir boy and twisted sociopath, and he pulls off both with finesse.

Don’t like Primal Fear? How about William H. Macy in Fargo? Macy makes Jerry Lundegaard both pathetic and sympathetic at the same time, which is near impossible to pull off. He is not smart, and his plan has tons of holes in it, yet we feel bad for him in the way he’s treated by those around him. He’s brilliantly humanized, even though he’s not a very smart human.

Who Should Have Won?: It’s not right that Art Carney is the only Ed Norton with an Oscar. Norton should have won here, and Macy should probably have been nominated for Actor in a Leading Role due to his screen time.

2. Best Original Song (1967)

Yes, it seems incredibly strange that I’m this upset about an Oscar this minor, but hear me out. The winner for Best Original Song in 1967 was “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Dolittle. Try humming it. Can’t? Listen to it and try humming it.

Still can’t? That’s because it’s barely a song!

Rex Harrison was the lead in multiple musicals, and apparently he was so charming that his lack of vocal talent wasn’t all that relevant. He doesn’t even sing this song, rather just kind of talking his way through it. This Best Original Song isn’t even sung by the actor singing it! He took that whole “do little” thing way too literally. That’s fine. I’m sure it was just an off-year that didn’t just happen to have one of the greatest movie songs of all time in competition…

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I give up. “Talk to the Animals” isn’t even the best talking animals song on there. Now you’re humming “The Bare Necessities,” and you’re welcome, because it’s a great song. It has all those things a song needs, like a tune and vocals, but it has more than just the… never mind. It is genuinely one of the catchiest and most enjoyable songs ever featured in a movie, and it was robbed.

Well, here we are at the biggest snub, and we all know which category is left…

1. Best Picture (1964)

Sure, everyone has their “How did that win Best Picture?” whether it’s Shakespeare in Love, The English PatientHow Green Was My ValleyThe Greatest Show on Earth, or one of many others. However, this one absolutely befuddles me more than any other—How did My Fair Lady deserve the Best Picture award for 1964?

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Boasting songs that sound like first drafts of songs from other musicals (“Ascot Gavotte”) or that game from Whose Line is it Anyway where you have to make up a song based on the last line you said (“The Rain in Spain”), “My Fair Lady” spends most of its run time desperately searching for a plot to justify its length. Rex Harrison does more of his wonderful talk-singing, while Audrey Hepburn doesn’t do her own singing at all, and while the Cockney accents aren’t Dick van Dyke-bad, they’re still pretty bleedin’ awful.

What makes this win so confusing is that not only was My Fair Lady not the best film nominated, it wasn’t even the best musical nominated. Mary Poppins came out the same year, and is a far better film in every regard (save the Cockney accents), from the actually-good (and actually-sung) songs to minor things like plot and character.

If musicals aren’t your thing, don’t worry. Also nominated for Best Picture was Dr. Strangelove, perhaps the greatest comedy of all time. (Peter Sellers not winning Best Actor was considered for this list, but I had to stop the Rex Harrison-hate somewhere.) Strangelove doesn’t waste a minute of its hour-and-a-half run time, while My Fair Lady manages to waste most of its minutes.

Who Should Have Won?: I personally prefer Strangelove, but Mary Poppins winning would have been a nice coda on Walt Disney’s career, and at least would have given the award to a good musical.

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Does Forrest Gump Have a Terrible Message?

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Like so many films adored in their time, Forrest Gump was bound to face backlash. In a year filled with fantastic and groundbreaking films like The Shawshank RedemptionPulp FictionQuiz ShowEd Wood and The Lion King, it was Forrest Gump that took home the 1994 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. To this day, some viewers believe it to be a flawless masterpiece, while others despise the thing both for being overly saccharine and for beating out whatever film they preferred that year. I admit that Forrest Gump is a wonderfully entertaining film to watch, with groundbreaking special effects and good performances all around (I find Gary Sinise’s performance as Lt. Dan particularly strong), but the more I think about Forrest Gump, the more I start to question if it’s all that great. Does it actually have a terrible message hidden under the light entertainment exterior?

Forrest Gump paints its hero as a man who just kind of stumbles into history, not taking a side on things but rather just experiencing them. On the surface, it doesn’t feel like a movie that’s trying to make a statement about anything, but in a way, isn’t that kind of making a statement?

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Forrest doesn’t join any political movements, protest anything, or seem to believe in much at all, yet everything works out wonderfully for him. He is successful in business, strikes it rich, ends up with the woman he’s obsessed over all of his life (albeit only for a short while), and is raising a son by the end. It is quite bizarre that with all of the huge world events that Forrest lives through (Civil rights, Vietnam, Hippies, Watergate, etc.), he doesn’t seem to care about any of them. Sure, he’s not intelligent, but he is shown throughout as a caring and kind person, so why wouldn’t he at least have something of an opinion? Being apolitical towards certain issues is absolutely understandable, but it gets to a point where indifference is in fact taking a stance.

Gump‘s issue with this political indifference starts right off the bat. Forrest begins telling his story to a stranger at a bus stop, and he tells her that he was named after his ancestor Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

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He was the black sheep of the family, but he hated being called that.

Gump says his mother named him after Bedford Forrest “to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.” Never mind the fact that Bedford Forrest started up the single most dangerous and racist organization in American history—let’s just remember him as a good man who did an occasional bad thing. Even worse, the film has Gump telling this story to a black woman, who stays and continues to listen to his story for a while.

Obviously, Forrest Gump is not intelligent and might not understand the Ku Klux Klan on his own, but his mother is not portrayed as unintelligent. If she gave him this name, she clearly had mixed feelings on the founder of the KKK, and yet she is only portrayed throughout the film as a loving, caring person. The KKK is such a cut-and-dry issue that not taking a hard stance against it means sympathizing with it. There can’t really be a middle ground.

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Have a seat, son. Just ignore the copy of The Birth of a Nation by the TV.

The Vietnam scenes are equally limp-wristed. After college, a recruiter tells Forrest he should join the army, and he agrees. On the bus, he meets Bubba, whose dream is to go into the shrimping business. This would be fine, except cooking shrimp is shown to be the profession of Bubba’s family since the days they were slaves. We only see a few seconds of this in flashback of course, but again, it refuses to make any kind of statement. The only major black character in the film is perfectly content doing the same line of work his family has for years, with the only difference being that it would now be a paid job.

On the positive side of things, the Vietnam scenes do take a darker tone than the rest of the film, as they should. On the negative, though, let’s look at how these scenes really paint Forrest and Vietnam. Forrest is only there for a short time, but he saves men and becomes a hero. Sure, his friend Bubba dies, and while Forrest is clearly sad about this, there don’t seem to be any long term effects.

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Forrest seems to suffer absolutely no PTSD of any kind, and even his time recovering in the (ultra clean and not-at-all-gross) military hospital leads to him stumbling into his ping pong skill. Essentially, Forrest Gump goes to war, becomes a decorated hero, and suffers no lifelong issues from the horrifying warfare. See how making no statement is actually making a statement? A pro-Vietnam film wouldn’t really need to change anything.

Now, the more negative effects of war are touched on with Lieutenant Dan, easily the most well-rounded and interesting character in the film. After losing his legs in Vietnam, Dan’s life goes into a downward spiral, but as he and Forrest go into the shrimp boat business together, he begins to get better.

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It does kind of feel like Forrest “cures” Dan of his PTSD, but to be fair, it’s not shown as happening all at once, but rather over time. However, this ultimately leads to no anti-war statement being made, as Dan’s issues are painted as Dan’s alone, and not a greater effect of war. They appear to be curable, simply with time and nice people.

As Forrest seems to represent the traditional American experience (going to college, playing football, becoming a war hero), Jenny represents the changing face of youth culture. She tries to become a Joan Baez-esque folk singer, and joins the hippie movement and Vietnam protests. In spite of doing all these perfectly valid things, she is portrayed as always running and never content.

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In fact, later in life, she is shown falling into dangerous drugs and contemplating suicide, as if these harmless things led to that lifestyle, simply because they were rebellious and non-traditional.

Oh, but it gets worse. What does this life lead to? A terminal disease, heavily implied to be AIDS. She reunites with Forrest for good to tell him that her son is his (from the one time they had sex), and they get married. Even though she is dying, these scenes attempt to show that Jenny is now content with this more traditional life after never wanting it before. It’s an attempt to give a hero some happiness after pining over the girl all of his life, but the way it’s done is sexist and demeaning, cheapening Jenny’s character for the sake of Forrest.

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It’s as they’re saying “She still has part of her hippie-self. Look at the wreath on her head.”

Forrest as a character does not change over the course of the film. He doesn’t have to become a better person, because the film insists on portraying him as morally perfect, even though he is not all there mentally. Although the film doesn’t play it as straight as the weakest examples, it still feels like one of those “Good guy waits around for the girl he’s obsessed with” narratives.

Can a movie work if the lead character has absolutely no arc or development? Well, Forrest Gump was a huge success and won a boatload of Oscars, so obviously yes, but let’s look at some better examples. How about Mary Poppins? Both Gump and Poppins are adaptations with a character’s name in the title, both won Oscars for their lead performance, and both feature a title character who doesn’t really change throughout. However, who really is the protagonist of Mary Poppins?

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Clearly it’s about Uncle Albert becoming more down-to-earth.

It’s debatable, but most would argue it’s either the children Jane and Michael or their father George. All three of these characters grow because of Mary’s influence, and you can easily trace their development from beginning to end. George in particular goes from stuffy and strict, to far more fun-loving and open about his emotions. It’s not that he didn’t love his kids in the beginning, just that he didn’t know how to show it.

Similarly, it is debatable who the true protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird is. The story is told from Scout’s perspective, but the heroic actions are done by her father Atticus. Although the book is more about Scout’s life on the whole, the film focuses more on the trial at which Atticus is defending Tom Robinson. However, it is Scout who grows and develops, not Atticus. He causes her growth, but he does not really change as a character.

Now, who is the protagonist of Forrest Gump?

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You would be hard-pressed to find someone who argues it is any character besides Forrest himself. Lieutenant Dan has an arc, perhaps the only one in the film, but he’s a supporting character, coming in at the beginning of the Vietnam scenes and only appearing sporadically throughout Forrest’s life. He’s not always right there like Atticus Finch or George Banks. Jenny kind of just appears in and out of Forrest’s life as she sees fit, but she seems to exist mostly as the flip side of Forrest’s traditionalist coin. Therefore, Forrest is the protagonist, but does he grow at all?

The running montage sure seems to act like it’s attempting character growth—heck it throws some awkward dialogue into the voice-over so we know it’s character growth. Forrest says, “My Momma always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on. And I think that’s what my running was all about.” Um… sure?

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This shoehorned attempt at character development brought to you by Nike. Like the screenwriter, just do it.

Absolutely no one would know this running was meant to symbolize anything without the film telling us, and it clearly was only written in the first place so the soundtrack could include “Running on Empty,” “Against the Wind” and “Go Your Own Way,” but let’s just throw in a line saying it represents his development. His running was all about running from the past? Is that healthy? What does have to run from? Memories of Jenny? Well that’s great, except she sees him running on television, and this is the catalyst for her meeting up with him again anyway! Did he just run until he had moved on? Well, since we can now move on in any way we see fit, moving on…

By the end of the film, the message of Forrest Gump seems to be “Do nothing, and good things will happen to you anyway.” History is constantly happening around Forrest, but he makes no stand whatsoever. Jenny constantly does make a stand for things, but apparently that’s rebellious and she’s dead at the end because of it. By doing nothing, Forrest ends up a multi-millionaire who never needs to work again. When he contributes to history, it’s unknowingly and unintentionally, like pitching John Lennon the idea for “Imagine,” teaching Elvis to dance, and accidentally spying the Watergate break-in. It’s a running joke, but it gets old fast.

Forrest Gump is by no means the only film to have a main character who does nothing and still falls into considerable luck, but no other film plays it so straight. Oddly enough, Hal Ashby’s Being There came out 15 years before Gump, but almost feels like a parody of it. In Being There, Chance (Peter Sellers) is a low-IQ gardener whose simple sayings are interpreted as political brilliance, and by the end, it’s suggested he may become President. In the final scene, he even walks on water, perhaps representing the Messiah everyone believes him to be.

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Forrest Gump, however, just has Forrest go through life with success after success, as if this is the way to live.

Am I reading too much into it? Well, what about that feather the film begins and ends on?

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It backs up this message perfectly. Like Forrest, the feather just kind of floats along with no control over anything, but everything turns out just fine. If director Robert Zemeckis didn’t want this message to come across, he shouldn’t have begun and ended the film on this image.

Look, I can’t deny Forrest Gump is an entertaining and heartwarming film, but a lot of the themes, both explicit and implicit, really bog the thing down when you think about it. Oh, and one more thing…

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Flip the box over. You know exactly what you’re gonna get.

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7 Worst Game and Reality Shows Ever Aired

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Game shows like JeopardyWheel of Fortune and The Price is Right have been around forever, but what about the ones that weren’t so successful? Today, I’ll be taking a look at 7 of the worst, least-inspired, blandest and most repulsive game and reality shows to ever hit airwaves. Brace yourselves. (If you dare, episodes of all of these excluding #3 are available on YouTube.)

7. Set for Life

In the wake of Deal or No Deal, game show producers started to think they could take a format that involved little-to-no skill whatsoever, find overly-excitable contestants, and still have a hit. This led to some terrible flops like How Much is EnoughTake it All and the William Shatner-hosted Show Me the Money (albeit that one had some trivia). None was as bad or as lazy, though, as Set for Life.

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Let me see if I can explain this format concisely, because it’s complicated. There are 13 light sticks on stage. Pull a white light, your money goes up. Pull a red light, your money goes down. The game ends when you find all the whites, all the reds, or quit. That’s it! It’s almost an SNL-parody of overly simplistic game shows.

OK, so there is one twist and it makes the show even worse. The contestant has a “guardian angel” (a friend or relative) watching the game’s progress (but not the contestant), and can stop the game at any time. However, we don’t find out until after the game is over if the guardian angel has stopped the game. THIS IS JUST PADDING!

The title comes from the fact that the contestant is playing for an annuity instead of a lump sum, meaning the money tree shows the amount of time for which the contestant will receive a monthly check for a pre-determined amount, with the top prize being 40 years.

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How is this amount determined? In an off-stage game before the show of course! Look, I don’t know what this offstage game was, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been more boring than “Pull a light stick.”

Jimmy Kimmel was clearly under contract to host this thing, as he slogs through it like the bore-fest that it is. Thankfully, ABC said “Lights out” to Set for Life after a mere seven episodes, meaning the forced catchphrase “Four red and you’re dead” never caught on.

6. Are You Hot?

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A talent show that involved absolutely no talent whatsoever, Are You Hot? is exactly what it sounds like. According to robotic host JD Roberto, the producers had spent months scoping the country for the sexiest people in America, and now they were ready to show them off.

The show would start with the 32 contestants walking onto stage one at a time, trying to look as sexy as possible. The judges had already pre-determined whether they were hot or not, so it was absolutely pointless to air this portion, but the “hot” contestants stayed and the “not” contestants left, as JD tried to come up with 32 different ways of saying “What did the judges say?” So what gods of sex appeal did they get to judge this thing anyway?

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Because who knows who’s hot like the woman who married Rod Stewart? Alright, she’s a supermodel, so I get it. Who else?

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The rejected Dukes of Hazzard brother played by Danny Bonaduce?

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That’s the best sexy TV actor you could get, ABC? A washed-out soap star?

The remaining contestants would then re-enter the stage one at a time in their bathing suits, and the judges would give them scores on their face, body and sex appeal. The contestants with the highest scores, plus whoever the home audience voted through, would move on to the finals where the best looking man and woman would be deemed The Sexiest People in America. Thankfully, this one got canned after its first six-season episode. I can’t imagine one home-viewer sat through a whole hour-long episode of this drivel.

5. The Million Dollar Word Game

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In the wake of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the Canadian network America One gave us the misleadingly-titled Million Dollar Word Game. Well it was a word game, and technically you could win $1,000,000, but it was near-impossible. Hosted by the antithesis of charisma Ian Jamieson…

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The game was a series of 14 word puzzles, starting out relatively easy like re-arranging a few letters to make a word in 30 seconds.

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No money was guaranteed to the player until level 5, at which point the puzzles were already challenging. For just $1,000, this contestant had to make four four-letter words out of these letters in 30 seconds!

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In addition, the contestant has no lifelines, no free wrong answers, and the clock is never shown on the screen! The host takes forever to explain the rules of each round, spends an excruciating amount of time talking to the contestants, and is a slow talker to boot. This contestant missed the puzzle and left with nothing, even though her game took up half of the episode!

If the contestant somehow managed to make it through Level 14, they would win $1,000,000… Nah I’m just kidding. They would get to pick one of the 24 numbered boxes behind Ian, one of which contained $1,000,000. One episode is circulating online, but viewers recall another where one contestant made it to level 14 but lost when they could not unscramble the word BICENTENNIAL.

As if this wasn’t enough, the producers put up an online version of the game where one player could win $10,000,000. Yeah, it was easy. All you had to do was put up $100 up front, and the winner had to go to the Caribbean to claim their prize. Nothing fishy at all there. Somehow this thing lasted 40 episodes.

4. Shopper’s Casino

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Did you ever watch QVC and say to yourself, “Yeah but what if we mixed this with gambling?” Well if you did, Shopper’s Casino is the show for you. Hosted by Miss America 1983 Debbie Sue Maffett and Jeff Maxwell of M*A*S*H fame, Shoppers Casino was one of the cheapest game shows ever produced.

In addition to the chintzy set, there’s one glaring thing you’ll notice right off the bat—Jeff Maxwell is clearly drunk. He stumbles over his words, he laughs at random times and in odd ways, and he makes some hilarious faces.

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The game features contestants playing casino games for worthless overpriced items that of course you can buy from home, like a cookware set and Coca-Cola pins. Seriously. A set of Coca-Cola pins was a prize on a game show in the 1980s. Even the announcer stumbles over his words as he claims its “value” is $499.95.

At one point, Jeff and Debbie Sue “call” a home viewer, who is obviously in the corner of the studio speaking to them. You can even see Jeff trying not to look too long at the spot where the “caller” is.

The winner gets to spin the Big Wheel for an actual prize.

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That’s not a Big Wheel! That’s just a regular wheel. Anyway, this contestant won a trip to the Virgin Islands, which I suppose isn’t bad, but since the announcer never described it, we don’t know the accommodations, how long it’s for, or even if it’s round trip! With this show’s budget, this guy might still be there.

3. The Swan

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Did you ever watch The Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” miss the blatant social commentary, and instead think it would make a great reality show? For those who haven’t seen the classic episode, it’s set in a future society where at age 18, everyone undergoes a transformation to look like one of a small pool of models.

The premise of The Swan is basically that. Women who never felt beautiful are given a complete plastic surgery overhaul to look conventionally attractive, and the best makeovers move onto the final Swan Pageant, where the “winner” is crowned The Swan.

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This is of course in spite of the fact that the title comes from a Hans Christian Andersen tale where an ugly duckling realizes it was a beautiful swan all along without changing itself. Whatever. Shocker, this show led to complications from extensive surgery and made already-present mental health issues even worse. It’s like if Are You Hot? said “No, and let’s fix that.” It doesn’t warrant any more than a few paragraphs. Next.

2. 3’s a Crowd

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The Newlywed Game was controversial in its time, sure, but this one makes it look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In 1979, Chuck Barris gave us this clunker that asked the question “Who knows a man better—his wife or his secretary?”

First, the three men would be asked four questions, but gone were the innuendos of Newlywed. For example, in one episode the questions included “Is your secretary in love with you?” and “If you were single, what would stop you from having an affair with your secretary?”

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Everyone seemed to be under the impression that all of the husbands and secretaries were one step away from sleeping together (if they weren’t already), as the contestant above answered the latter question with “I could fall in love with her.”

The secretaries were brought out and got one point for every match, and the wives then did the same. The team (wives or secretaries) that matched more answers won $1,000… to split.

This one was so disgusting, both to conservative audiences for its raunchy nature and liberal audiences for its blatant misogyny, that some theorized Chuck Barris was tired of producing game shows and was intentionally self-destructing. Let’s just say it’s possible.

How could anything be worse than a marriage dissolving in 30 minutes for a little over $300? I mean, the only way to top that would be putting someone’s life in danger…

1. The Chamber

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In 2002, FOX gave us the worst game show of all time—The Chamber. Deciding that audiences were sick of just watching contestants answer questions, they decided that we should watch contestants answer questions from within a torture chamber. The only chambers we saw on the show involved extremely hot and extremely cold conditions, but the show promised insect and water torture chambers in the future!

The show was hosted (barely) by Rick Schwartz, who was basically just a color commentator, as a robotic voice would ask the questions within the chamber.

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Two contestants played a preliminary game where they listed items back-and-forth to see who would enter the chamber, and the winner signed a release saying they knew the dangers they were about to forego.

The chamber consisted of seven 1-minute rounds in which the contestant was asked as many questions as they could answer. The conditions in each level grew more uncomfortable, but the answer value did not! That’s right, whether it was round 1 or round 7, the contestant only got $1,000 for each right answer. If a contestant thought the chamber was too much, they could leave the game with half their money. If a contestant got two consecutive answers wrong, they would leave the game with half their money. If the on-set doctors declared the contestant unfit to continue, they would (you guessed it) leave the game with half their money. The only way to win all of the money you earned was to make it through all seven levels. There was no bonus unless you answered 25 questions right though, in which case your money was tripled.

As if this wasn’t enough, there were all kinds of problems on set that made it to air. Due to the extreme nature of the chamber, it was often very difficult for the contestants to hear the questions being asked. One contestant even mentioned one of his earpieces had fallen out, but game play continued as normal.

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Another question was about the astronaut John Glenn, and even though the contestant shouted “Glenn” twice, she thought her answer was not being accepted, so she shouted “Armstrong” out of despair. The producers judged her answer as “Glenn Armstrong,” and the game was over.

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Only one contestant in the three aired episodes, Scott Brown, made it through all seven levels, answering 20 questions and leaving with just $20,000 for his troubles. (The clip of this episode shows that they were now letting Schwartz actually ask the questions.) Brown eventually received a nice bonus of $100,000 though… when he settled out of court with Dick Clark Productions for long-term damage!

I still cannot believe this show got past the developmental phase. Sportscaster Matt Vasgersian (who is actually personable) turned down the show because he found the premise repulsive, and I guess Rick Schwartz had access to so few emotions that he was the only one they could get to host. There was a similar show on ABC called The Chair, which was based around keeping your heart-rate down, and while it wasn’t good, no one’s life was in danger. The Chamber was just sick.

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