Posted on May 20, 2023
On the 20th anniversary of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer finale, I find myself returning to a central question about that series that I’ve come back around to every now and then since.
Was the season 5 finale better than the one in season 7?
First, let’s sum up the differences. Season 5 ended with Buffy sacrificing her life to save her sister and the world. “It just wants Summers blood,” she says to Dawn before leaping into a hell portal opening in the air next to a trash tower (a sentence one can only say with a straight face if one is into genre fiction).
And then that was it. At least for a few months that summer we didn’t know if Buffy was going to come back. The WB had cooled on their once prized show. Eventually, the production company signed a deal for two more seasons on the struggling UPN — which everyone knows was an acronym for “Uh…Paramount has a Network?”
At the end of season 7, Buffy and Willow activate the potential slayers around the world like vampire staking sleeper cells in their fight to defeat the first evil. After their victory, Buffy smiles enigmatically into a future where she well never again fight alone, but as one of many.
Originally, I thought the obvious choice for better finale was season 7 for the simple reason that we got two more seasons, one pretty good and the other extremely good.
But after a couple of decades of seeing this story on repeat in dozens, if not hundreds, of other books, films, and shows, I’ve grown extremely weary of chosen one stories. And that weariness has changed my mind about which finale I prefer.
Because, even though season 7 relieves Buffy of her mantle as Chosen One, those extra two seasons commit a story foul that has become more and more grating to me: The negation of a profound sacrifice.
Bringing Buffy back from the dead was the first time I noticed the after effect of this kind of thing, so at the time, I was just glad to see her again. I didn’t even stop to think that the most intensely emotional act on television I’d ever seen had just been yoinked back like a bad animaniacs punchline.
Since then, we’ve seen this crime committed repeatedly in genre entertainment. Star Trek is probably the worst perpetrator, often not even waiting for another season to undo a character’s powerful sacrifice. But Star Wars also has its ridiculous Force Ghosts and, more recently, the idea that Boba Fett could just climb out of a Sarlacc pit.
I guess this unhallowed tradition goes back to comic books killing off Superman and Batman every so often only to have them show up again with a reboot, retcon, or ridiculous off screen escape. Maybe it goes back further to the movie serials so beloved by Lucas and Spielberg, but I never noticed it before because I was never that emotionally involved.
When Spock gave his life to “sacrifice the few for the many,” I got seriously choked up, but Star Trek was pastime to me, not a religion. So when we started seeing articles pop up in EW a year later implying the next movie in the franchise would bring him back, I was fine with it. I liked Spock. Why not have more Spock?
It wasn’t until later when this kind of thing started happening with alarming frequency that I realized bringing him back negated the sacrifice he made. It literally undoes the most important moment in that film.
I can’t help but think most of this is driven by financial concerns. Killing off a beloved character can damage the fanbase. And we can’t have that, not until every last dollar has been drained from the corpse.
So, nowadays, I lean more toward the fifth season ending. If Buffy had ended on a sacrifice, freeing herself from the burden of being “the one” though her own action, and leaving the audience emotionally bereft, it would have been one for the ages. One that would probably never be repeated.
I love big movies — currently, I’m pacing the floors waiting for Dune Part II to come out in November — but my true obsession is finding little, off brand, often low budget movies that beat the odds and deliver an unqualified punch.
From Used Cars to Tourist Trap, extraordinarily creative filmmakers somehow manage to turn a micro budget into a macro victory. My latest discovery is Resolution, a movie shot for $20,000 in the hillbilly hills around San Diego by two filmmakers frustrated by their attempts to break into Hollywood.
Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, the same film-making team behind Marvel’s Moon Knight series, met while interning at a commercial production house. Both were frustrated by their attempts to crack the Hollywood egg, so they raised $20,000 and wrote a script that would fit into that budget. Then they grabbed a RED camera and drove up into the hills.
One of the things that movies like Resolution (and the sequel The Endless) prove is that good writing trumps low budgets every time. Good writing improves actors’ performances, it builds suspense that causes the audience to overlook cracks in the film-making, and it provides a memorable human experience.
And in the days of relatively low priced digital cameras like the RED series, you can now mix excellent writing with cinematic film-making, to produce a great movie for very little money.
In general terms, Resolution tells the story of a guy who handcuffs his best friend to a water pipe in a remote cabin to force him to get off meth. The dialog between the two is often priceless and the addict, played by Vinny Curran, spits out one gem after another.
But the main character is Michael, who has decided to give his friend one last chance at surviving a terrible addiction. Waiting for a meth head to wake up or stop puking leaves him with free time to explore the junky, trailer strewn, hills around the cabin.
On his treks Michael finds different pieces of media, from discarded hard drives to worn out VHS tapes, that, when played, show a piece of his potential near future.
The haunting vibe of this piece will stay with you and the slow burn of a reveal builds to an excellent ending that leaves you wanting more — which you can get from the equally viby, disturbing sequel The Endless.
Both movies are highly recommended (but make sure to watch them in order, Resolution and then The Endless) for those horror film lovers who enjoy being creeped out without a lot of gore.
Devs starts off as a compelling look into the cult of the tech bro through the eyes of Lilly, a coder whose boyfriend is killed when he’s caught out as an industrial spy.
Nick Offerman is excellent as always, this time portraying the tech guru at the top of a company that’s doing advanced hooha research into schmergin (not flornoy, not this time). As everyone knows, the very concept of schmergin renders human choice impossible. The schmergin force guides us through our lives like invisible tram lines from which we are unable to deviate.
The problem with schmergin, of course, is that it proves that all physical laws exist only to define one person who can break them, thus rendering the schmergin theory only 99% reliable.
The creator of Devs, Alex Garland, has a love for high tech, but I suspect he may not have a very deep understanding of it.
The series is a return to his other equally obtuse dive into this subject matter, Ex Machina, for which Devs is an inside joke (the V in Devs is Roman).
In this case, the hooha is quantum computing and the schmergin is the deterministic universe in which all time has already played out and we are merely noticing it moment by moment on those tram lines we talked about earlier.
Grieving for his lost wife and child (a condition so common to these movies it deserves its own syndrome), Offerman’s character, Forest (run!), has somehow built a machine that can, using advanced hand-waving and buzzword technology, trace those tramlines backwards and forwards.
All the way back to Jesus on the cross and all the way forward until a couple of days into the future when everything goes blank because Lilly is coming and she’s all out of bubblegum.
Up until the very end of the very last episode, this is actually an extremely compelling look at love and loss that asks powerful questions about destiny. Then it ends in the worst possible way and leaves you sitting there thinking, “Surely this isn’t it, right?”
But that is it.
Personally, I would still recommend it. It’s one great drama from the very start, but next time I watch it for the first time, I will deviate from my tram line and turn it off with fifteen minutes left.
Devs and Ex Machina are slick yet shallow forays into the complexities created by the power high tech gives us, but I would really prefer that Alex Garland spend his time doing something more productive, like writing a sequel to my favorite movie, Dredd.
I was watching Dune (again!) last night when it occurred to me I was witnessing one of the most devastating betrayals in science fiction history. That immediately started my brain rolling on what other betrayals exist that are even close to the gravitas of Dr. Yueh dropping the shield wall.
- Dune – without question, no other dastardly act stands shoulder to shoulder with this one. Especially the way Denis Villeneuve depicts it in Dune Part 1. Absolutely heartbreaking.
- Order 66 – the idea of a massive slaughter of the Republic’s most noble knights at the hands of their former comrades is equal to the one in Dune, but its depiction in the prequels undermines its true importance.
- Soylent Green – that the rich are feeding the poor to the poor while munching on steak and fine wine is betrayal enough, but what really poured salt into the wound was the marketing department dipshit who decided to spoil the ending by having Chuck Heston scream, “Soylent Green is people!” in the trailer.
- Dr. Smith – the various incarnations of Lost In Space all rely on the inciting incident of Dr. Smith stowing away and trying to use the robot to kill the Robinson family. Each iteration has further refined Smith into a worse and worse monster, finally landing on a vicious sociopath who isn’t even a doctor at all.
- Alien – The corporation deciding the crew was expendable as long as they got their weaponized, acid-blooded chaos demon for R&D was pretty shocking at the time. However…
- Aliens – Imagine if Paul Rudd stabbed you in the back and left you to die. That’s right, sweet & funny Paul Rudd snickering as he abandoned you in a ditch. Well, back in 1986 the role of Paul Rudd was played by Paul Reiser and he tried to “impregnate” Ripley and Newt with alien chest bursters so he could get a percentage. A perfect comment on late stage capitalism and the Reagan era.
- Battlestar Galactica – Watching whole planets get razed because one horndog scientist let his little head do the thinking at exactly the wrong moment was excruciating.
- The Matrix – I like to pretend I’ve only seen the first Matrix movie and, honestly, I can’t remember anything from the second and third films (and may not, in fact, have even seen the third one), but I’ll never forget Cypher’s heel turn. That’s a big WOW in a movie full of big WOWs.
- Harry Potter – Yes, HP is not science fiction, it’s fantasy, but one could argue the same for Star Wars. I felt compelled to include it here as at least an honorable mention if for no other reason than Snape pulling the extremely rare fake heel turn to face turn.
As for why I was watching Dune (again!) last night, it’s just the most compelling story I know. I read it at least once a year from 8th grade through college and then sporadically thereafter. To see the absolute piece of art that is Dune Part 1 is to reconnect with a core artifact of my being.
There are three movies I turn to when I’m up late, can’t (or won’t) sleep, and don’t find anything on the one million channels compelling: Dune Part 1, Blade Runner, and Tucker & Dale vs Evil. They are all can’t miss choices. You can drop into any part of the story and immediately get swept along.
SPOILERS for both The Cabin At The End of the World by Paul Tremblay AND M. Night’s movie adaptation A Knock At The Cabin.
Proceed with caution if you haven’t read/seen these.
The movie and book pace each other very closely for the first 2/3 of the story before branching off in wildly different directions. And let me tell you, folks, whether you’re reading or watching, this is one compelling story.
We open with Wen, the pre-teen adoptee of a gay couple, Eric and Andrew — NOT Eric Andre’ though that would be an entirely different, but also highly watchable, story — who have headed to a cabin in the mountains for a much needed vacation.
Wen is out catching grasshoppers when the very large man, Leonard, shows up and starts making gentle, pleasant conversation with her. In the movie, he’s played by Dave Bautista in an impressive display of the acting chops we always suspected he had.
But when three other people show up, all of them toting bizarre, homemade weapons, she gets nervous and runs to the cabin. These four people, Leonard, Sabrina, Adrian, and Redmond, announce they have been sent by God to demand a willing sacrifice.
If they don’t do this, then one of the visitors will be sacrificed and one portion of mankind will be afflicted. They don’t offer up a sacrifice, because who would do that? These people sound crazy.
And if you think they sound crazy, wait until Redmond puts a bag over his head so the other three can beat him to death with their weird rake-axes and bat-hatchets.
Remember, Wen is seven years old. And they do this in front of her.
“Since you have not chosen, a portion of mankind has been judged.”
The book and the movie remain closely tied at this point and, in both, Andrew manages to escape and get the gun from his car. But that’s the last similarity.
In the book. Wen is killed by an errant bullet. This affects Sabrina so deeply she kills Leonard and leads Eric and Andrew to Redmond’s car so they can escape. Eric and Andrew decide to let the world die and to spend what time they have left together.
In the movie, Leonard kills himself as the last of the visitor sacrifices, explaining beforehand that his death will not avert the apocalypse. Only Eric or Andrew can do that. After Andrew offers up himself, Eric takes Wen to find Redmond’s truck and they drive to a nearby diner where survivors of the plagues watch CNN as breathless announcers explain that planes have stopped falling out of the sky and the disease has stopped spreading, etc.
I prefer the book’s ending, except for one thing which I’ll get to later, because this is a very complex story with no win to be had. Five people end up dying to “stop the apocalypse” but it’s an apocalypse we only see glimpses of on television, glimpses that Eric points out could easily be faked by a bunch of fanatics who met online.
This is not a story crying out for a happy ending. Or even any resolution to the chaos. The movie builds a tremendous amount of tension by never resolving whether the apocalypse is real only to let the air out at the end by explaining, in some really heavy handed dialogue, that it was real and it’s all better now.
What I don’t prefer from the book is Wen’s death. I’m a dad. I don’t like it when kids or dogs get killed in stories. Sue me.
But also, Andrew’s willing sacrifice just brings so much more complex emotion to the story than Wen’s accidental death. But, again, see above, kids being killed takes me out of a story.
So, if I had made the movie, I would have done everything M. Night did but I would have rolled credits as they drove off in the pickup and we never would have seen the diner.
By the way, people (like me, often, unfortunately) carp at Shyamalan about his addiction to “twist endings” that can ruin otherwise good films and his sometimes sloppy story logic, but when you see something like Knock at the Cabin, you remember how good a director he really is.
That “happy ending” stinks of studio interference so it may have been tacked on by executive notes. It doesn’t ruin the movie. It’s still an excellent watch. It’s just that the emotional intensity with which you’ve been gripped for the last 80 minutes is suddenly allowed to escape like the air from a damaged tire.
Both the book and the film are powerful and complex works. Both are highly recommended here.
Just remembered, for reasons I’m not clear on myself, that Ira Levin’s excellent (and brutally short) novel, “This Perfect Day” predicts the rise of the monstrous, galaxy-brain tech moguls.
He got that pretty much right, along with their overweening desire to completely control the entire population through grossly invasive means, but I’m hoping one of his predictions fails to materialize.
Late in the book, Chip the protagonist meets Wei, the head programmer who controls everything through his administration of the massive computer complex UniComp, who has achieved clinical immortality by having his head cut off and attached to younger bodies periodically.
So, if you don’t want to see Elon Musk’s flabby, decaying head perched atop a young bodybuilder’s shoulders as he announces he’s invented a chemical combination called di-hydrogen-monoxide that’s going to disrupt the monolithic hydration industry a hundred years from now, act fast to destroy UniComp now.
Whenever I can’t come up with a current or recent title for our weekly movie night, I dip into my list of films noir. Last night, we pulled Criss Cross (1949) starring Burt Lancaster & Yvonne De Carlo.
It was enjoyable, but not nearly the master stroke of, say, Out of the Past (1947) or Gilda (1946) or, my favorite, The Big Sleep (1946).
Directed by Robert Siodmak, this one leans a little too heavy on the melodrama and tropes common to this genre.
Strictly speaking, film noir didn’t exist as a genre or even a concept when the term was coined by French film critic Nino Frank in 1946 and it didn’t really catch fire in Europe until the French New Wave of the 1960s. It was a genre created in retrospect by grouping together films with common patterns and devices; among them, flashbacks, a narrator, femme fatale, low key photography, anti-heroes, etc.
You can see these work like magic in Out of the Past. We start with Robert Mitchum as a small town garage owner in rural California, truly living his best life until he’s recognized by a gangster that just happens to be driving through.
From then on out, it’s a matter of him being dragged back into his bad past to put closure to unresolved and unforgiven sins against Kirk Douglas. Which are, of course, the worst kind of sins.
This is how it’s supposed to work in film noir: Start with the problem, flash back to how we got to the problem in the first half of the second act, then flip forward back into the problem for the back half of the second act, before careening into the conclusion where everyone dies.
No sins go unpaid for in film noir. Though that had more to do with the Hays Code than anything else. One of the prime commandments being, “Crime must not pay!”
In the case of Criss Cross, though, all that descends into melodramatic hugger mugger which has the unfortunate side effect of repeatedly releasing tension without resolution.
This story would have played out better if told in chronological order, starting with Lancaster’s character returning from drifting around the country trying to get over his toxic relationship with De Carlo’s character.
This would have allowed a steady degradation of their renewed relationship which would have built tension and suspicion. It would also have allowed the one set they re-used many times to degrade as a symbol of their failing relationship. Instead, the bar set never changes and it gets boring to look at which doesn’t help distract from everyone in the scene, Lancaster included, over acting to the point of comedy.
Much of the strife between the main characters seems unmotivated. Whereas in Out of the Past, the flashback provides a very clear description of how Jane Greer’s character manipulated and betrayed Mitchum’s character. We know what she’s capable of when cornered which helps build sympathy for Mitchum.
Speaking of which, Yvonne De Carlo is miscast in Criss Cross. She’s really more girl next door than femme fatale and the unmotivated sniping just makes her seem hysterical. On the other hand, Jane Greer has the smooth hard surface of chromium steel and you believe her sociopathic selfishness 100%.
And, finally, the ending of Criss Cross seems rushed and even tacked on. It’s also blocked so awkwardly that De Carlo’s final cry is awkwardly laugh inducing instead of terrifying.
Siodmak also directed The Killers (1946) which I haven’t seen in a while but I remember liking but also being a bit hammy and melodramatic as well as relying on multiple flashbacks. Criss Cross may just be emblematic of his style.
In any case, it’s still an enjoyable story. It just doesn’t belong on the list of top films noir.
Next time: Leave Her To Heaven
I should add a fair warning that I’ve fallen down a Joe Bob Briggs rabbit hole so there will be a few posts about drive-in quality movies on here for a while.
As a member of the drive-in generation, I am awash with nostalgia listening to JBB rhapsodize over the movies we used to pile in to see on Saturday night.
The difference between watching them then and watching them now is the quality of the prints.
Seeing this movie at a the Manassas Drive-In on Centreville Road, the print would have arrived in a terrible condition at the ass end of a long circuit of first run, second run, and major market drive-in theaters. I remember these movies as being grainy and sometimes incoherent due to missing scenes.
But the crystal clear HDR transfers we get of these old movies (when made from a pristine print and cleaned up with NASA technology) you can see how gorgeous they are. And ridiculous. Let’s be honest, mostly ridiculous. Especially when it comes to this movie.
The grainy, degraded print from the 1970s big screen would have covered a plethora of faults in the “Special Effects” for Q.
Conceived and written in six days and then shot in two weeks, “Larry Cohen’s Masterpiece” is one of the strangest movies ever made. The star, Michael Moriarty appears to be in one movie, a John Cassavetes movie to be precise, while David Carradine & Richard Roundtree don’t seem to know who their characters are or what they’re doing in this ridiculous story.
Seriously, if you lifted Jimmy’s (Michael Moriarty) story from this movie and added a typical 1970s downbeat ending, he could have won awards for his performance.
There’s also a superfluous story line about a college professor who flays people alive to summon the giant bird. This subplot takes up fully a third of the movie just to explain why the giant bird attacked New York City, a question that wasn’t asked (no one cares) and could have been answered with a line of dialogue.
They shot Q so fast they didn’t have time to work with a special effects team to create the titular bird so the SFX were added after shooting was completed. NOT how that is supposes to work and you can see why in the final act.
The ending, and I cannot stress this enough, should only be watched late at night while high.
But it’s photographed well and is quickly paced. At times, especially when Moriarty is on screen, it’s actually compelling. Some of the dialogue is good, again when it’s coming from Moriarty, and there’s always the completist glow of finally having seen the movie so many people in the horror community talk about.
Personally, I thought it was a hoot, but it’s far from Larry Cohen’s Masterpiece. That title has to be reserved for his episode of Masters of Horror, “Pick Me Up”. Also starring Moriarty.
Having heard for most of my life that Bride is one of the few sequels that’s better than the original, I decided to actually watch it for myself.
So… the thing is… okay, let’s put it this way, the appreciation of art is not only personally subjective, it’s context subjective as well.
From a contextual perspective, I watched the original Frankenstein on many Creature Features gatherings. I have warm, fuzzy memories of everyone being terrified in a dark room lit only by the flickering TV screen, my babysitter recoiled in terror.
By contrast, I had never seen Bride. I watched it with the same pitiless remorselessness as anyone who’s been watching movies for six decades.
From a personally subjective point of view, I think Bride is not nearly as strong a film as the original. On its own, it’s actually a generally weak film.
In. My. Opinion.
And here’s why: The opening pantomime with Lord Byron, Percy Shelly, and Mary Shelly is bizarre and unnecessary. And this is why context is important. Maybe at the time, sequels were new and the audience needed to be escorted into the idea of a continuing story? I don’t know, maybe, but this is not a great scene or a valuable one.
The character of Minnie is so awful, so vaudevillian and over-the-top, she’s plays as an alien from a strange and distant culture unfamiliar to us humans. And she ruins every scene she’s in… for me. She also unfortunately highlights the primitive sound equipment of the time by fuzzing out the microphone every time she has a fit.
Pretorius presents his own problems as a character, but the segment with the miniature people is just ludicrous… to me, now as I reside here in the future.
There’s not a lot of motivation for Pretorius’ hold over the doctor. He could have been a Faustian character who wooed Frankenstein back into his unhallowed arts, but he just shows up and says, “You know you want to do this. Also, I’ve kidnapped your wife.” Relieving the doctor of his onerous burden by making it mandatory is a big mistake story-wise…as far as I’m concerned, having not seen this movie until the 21st century.
The ending is both treacly sweet and unfortunate. The movies always want to make the tragedy about the monster, but I feel like the real tragedy is Frankenstein’s downfall. Having the monster urge his awful creator to flee with his bride before he destroys the castle is literally what we used to mean by derisively calling something a “Hollywood ending.”
There were some good things, though. Dwight Frye, as always, turns in the picture-stealing performance. My favorite of his is still him falling to pieces upon seeing the Mummy, but this one is very good, too. No, you know, Renfield is the best. And I can’t wait to see Nicholas Hoult take on the role in the new movie.
I thought Elsa Lanchester’s chin deserved an Oscar, but after a quick google of the subject, it appears the Academy ignored greatness once again.
I remember having long, serious conversations with my friends after a Creature Features session about why everyone in the Frankenstein movies dresses like a German but talks like an Englishman. I don’t remember what we decided, but being nine years old allows you to account for anything.
But the best thing about Bride of Frankenstein had to be its 75 minute runtime which allowed it to be shown on television without being trimmed for commercials.
Olivia Wilde’s second feature landed with some unfortunate baggage. In this age of massive content competition, that’s the last thing your baby needs before you kick it out into the world: another reason for people to skip it.
And that was just one red flag.
But let’s start with the first gorilla in the room and move on to the other hurdles this beautiful, exotic, and compelling film had to overcome when it was released.
Rather than recount every sordid detail of the breathless scandal that revolved around an actor who was or wasn’t fired and what the director may or may not have said, I will just say that I believe Olivia Wilde did everything she was accused of and just add that they are the mildest of the things filmmakers of all genders have done to get their movie made.
It didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t bother me now. The problem that kept me from watching Don’t Worry Darling on its release was the other gorilla in the room: this is the kind of story where you know exactly how it’s going to end so all that matters is the journey.
The solution to the mystery is going to be one of two things: Virtual Reality or Post Apocalyptic Island.
Personally, I was rooting for the second one. I really wanted Alice to drive out of the desert and discover the world in ashes. But, honestly, the ending they went with was also fine. Like I said, there was never going to be a surprise at the end. The mystery wasn’t ‘are they in a VR?’ so much as ‘why are they in a VR?’.
And I did like the twist that the husbands schlepp their lives away from a twisted devotion to keep their wives “happy”.
But, as I said above, the joy of this kind of movie is not the destination, it’s the journey.
And this is a gorgeous journey.
Every now and then, I forget the truth about the world and think to myself that actors are just people with a peculiar set of skills. And in most cases, that’s completely accurate. Stars, on the other hand, are a completely different subject.
There is something about certain people, a kind of existential narcissism, that forces us to watch them, to want to watch them. People like Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, and, yes, Harry Styles.
We would watch them do the dishes for hours and come away feeling entertained and fulfilled. It is in our nature. We crave the light reflected from their perfectly symmetrical faces.
So, if you’re going to take us on a journey where the outcome doesn’t matter, you can’t go wrong with people like that.
And, while you’re at it, give us mid-century modern design at its best. Give us ’56 Thunderbirds and country club scenes and cocktail dresses for lunch.
Anything to distract us — at least for a moment — from the nagging questions these stories always raise.
Why does someone die in real life if they die inside the VR?
In The Matrix, they explained that the body cannot live without the mind. But let’s be honest, that didn’t mean anything then and it doesn’t mean anything now.
What was Alice eating all that time she was strapped to the bed? And why did Nick Kroll get a dinky little sedan when everyone else got a cool muscle car?
The answer to all those questions is pretty simple: it doesn’t matter. The point of this whole exercise was for us to have a chance to watch Florence Pugh deliver an excellent performance rife with paranoia and betrayal.
If I had a quibble, it would be only that we could have used more Chris Pine. But that’s true of every movie.