Film Feed

Oscars: Parasite wins big!

So, full confession: We haven't gotten through the Oscars telecast yet. The show was blacked out for the St. Louis market on ABC's streaming app FOR REASONS and the antenna was misbehaving on ABC only, possibly in stark protest to the insanity of blocking out St. Louis during the Oscars. You really didn't want us cheering St. Louis Superman, did you?

So now it's on streaming, but there simply haven't been enough consecutive hours where the CultureGeeks could get together to watch it. We've seen the bonkers opening number and the first hour of awards, and cheers to Idina Menzel and the International Elsas for a kickass performance from a movie that should have been nominated.

(Ian Smith wishes to register his disagreement, as he is a Toy Story baby and was all in for Woody and Buzz's final adventure, while Elizabeth Donald is solidly of the belief that Frozen 2 was an absolute masterpiece in art and beauty as well as some truly nifty character moments and I've gotten off track.)

Instead, then, we will offer thoughts on best picture from our resident filmmaker, Rahul Menon, who has been caping for Parasite since he first saw it - and was the first to recognize it could make history as the first foreign film to win best picture. -- ekd


Ever since I watched Parasite for the first time back in October, I have been in love with it and raving about it to pretty much every single person I meet. My friends, my colleagues, my teachers... I even had a 30-minute conversation with a random stranger I met in Los Angeles, while waiting for my food in front of a food truck!

It feels like I've personally been on a campaign for 기생충 for the last few months! From watching the movie for the first time, to meeting writer-director Bong Joon Ho for a brief, minute long conversation at the Golden Globes Symposium in LA, to randomly stumbling upon a rep at a party, that started a 2 month long conversation with its American distributors - Neon, the South Korean producers - CJ Entertainment, and representatives of Mr. Bong Joon Ho.

This eventually led to the Film Society of SIUE bringing the movie to our campus for a screening, making it the first-ever free university screening that happened outside of a film school, the first such screening outside of New York and Los Angeles, and something that I'm personally proud of: a screening personally approved by Bong Joon Ho.

To see him get on that stage and win those four deserving Oscars was so satisfying. He tied with Walt Disney for most number of Oscars won on a single night!

His reaction and speech after he won best director is what being a film lover is all about. When he noticed Martin Scorsese giving him a standing ovation, he couldn't contain his joy at being nominated with him, and mentioned that Scorsese was someone he studied while in film school. He asked everyone to give Martin Scorsese a standing ovation; now that's pure fanboy love right there!

He then shouted out "When no one knew me and my movies, Quentin Tarantino put my movies on his list, Quentin, I love you!"

Bong Joon Ho, you deserve all four of those Oscars you won today, you deserve the standing ovation those 3,400 people gave you. They say you should never meet your heroes, but meeting you for those 60 secs is something I'll cherish forever. Till we meet again, "Respect!"

Other notes:

Why the [bleep] was Eminem performing a song that won the Oscar 17 years ago?

• Joaquin Phoenix's vegan rant didn't go over well with the dairy industry.

"Too predictable, too white and too boring": Oscars rating at an all-time low

The Oscars has a diversity problem. (Which... duh, but it's a good analysis nonetheless.)


Rahul Menon was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in Illinois. He is an assistant director, screenwriter and occasional actor, as well as a computer science engineer who worked as a software analyst and in advertising and marketing prior to entering the film industry. His screen debut was as screenwriter and assistant director of Saayanna Varthakal (Evening News) in 2018. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. FacebookInstagramIMDB.

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at

Revisiting old favorites: the Godzilla Criterion collection

The Criterion Company that produces high-quality film collections decided to go old school for their Spine 1000. They decided, with Toho Studios, to make the ultimate Godzilla movie collection, starting with Gojira in 1954 and ending with Terror of Mecha-Godzilla from 1975.

This 15-movie set that is contained on eight Blu-Ray disc is a dream collection for a Godzilla fan. I was lucky enough to have the coolest in-laws who got this set for me as a Christmas present, much to my poor wife's suffering. In this review, I’m going to look at all the pros and cons to this set, so you can decide is this something that you might want to get for yourself.



            The set contains all 15 Godzilla movies spanning the first 21 years of the franchise. It has the American version of Godzilla: King of the Monsters starring Raymond Burr, and as a bonus feature on the eighth disc, the very rare Japanese cut of King Kong vs Godzilla.

All of the movies are the original Japanese versions and the film quality on the disc are some of the best I have ever seen. They have a crystal-clear picture and great sound quality for each movie, as these transfers are direct from Toho Studios. I have other versions of these movies on DVD, and I can say that these cuts are the best I have seen as a collector of Godzilla movies. Criterion has outdone themselves with these productions and you won’t be disappointed with them.

The set itself is a beautiful art book with the eight discs stored in the back cover. Within the book is an essay by film historian Steve Ryfle, and each movie has notes of them from film historian Ed Godziszewski describing the making of each of the movies. Each movie has brand-new artwork from several artists that fits with the theme of the movie.

Some of the real treasures are on the eighth disc of the set, containing interviews with Ishiro Honda, Toho actor Bin Furuya who went on to play Ultraman as the suit actor, plus more special features highlighting the making of the movies.



As cool as the book design is and the artwork on the cover, the thing is BIG! The book is 14.5 inches long and 10.5 inches wide. It can’t just sit on the shelves with the rest of your Blu-rays and DVDs.

IMG_8519(Coke can provided for scale.)

Only two of the movies in the set have audio commentary, and those are the original Gojira and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The other movies are all lacking commentary tracks, which is something I enjoy listening to after watching the film for the first time.

Another con that might be a turn off for those that don’t like to read subtitles is that only seven of the movies in the set have English dubbing tracks for the movies. Godzilla:King of the Monsters, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs Megalon, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, and Terror of Mechagodzilla are the only movies that have either an English soundtrack or dub for them. If you don’t like reading subtitles, then you will be out of luck.

There is one final con, and it is a big one: the price for the set. When it was first announced, the price was more than $260! Luckily,when it was released on Amazon, they put it on sale for $112. That's a lot cheaper, but still very pricey if you are on a budget.

I have also learned from YouTuber Daisuke Beppu of Japan that there are some misspellings throughout the book for actors' names that starred in the movies. Daisuke did an extensive seven-video review for the set and he goes in further details about the history and making of these movies.


Final Thoughts:

Do I recommend that you should get this set, even if you already own all these movies on DVD or Blu-Ray separately? Most definitely! These versions have some of the best picture quality of these movies. In addition, the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla has been next to impossible to find in America due to the licensing issues with Universal Pictures, so it is indeed a treat to be able to own a good copy of the movie.

If you are a Godzilla fan, you owe it to yourself to get this set to be able to enjoy these movies as they were meant to be seen, with the original Japanese versions of the films. Long live the King Godzilla!


Jim D. Gillentine is an author and self-professed comics geek, having immersed himself in four-color prose since the 1970s, and is the biggest Godzilla fan in the western hemisphere. He is currently completing his bachelor's degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Website.

CultureGeeks Pick the Best Movies of 2019

We're ringing in the new year with some ruminations on the best and worst movies of 2019 from some of the CultureGeeks. We bet you'll have some opinions too. Share in the comments!


Jason R. Tippitt

After: This young-adult adaptation starring Josephine Langford (sister of 13 Reasons Why star Katherine Langford) was as confusing and overcrowded as anyone’s dating experiences of their first year of college, I suppose. A lot of Pretty, not a lot of point.

Avengers: Endgame: Pretty close to a perfect superhero jam, this even made room for a couple of seconds of Howard the Duck looking resolute in the face of evil. While the movie teased me with a Katherine Langford appearance that never came in the theatrical release, the Russo Brothers were probably right in shelving the scene for purposes of clarity in storytelling. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a few icons lighter now, but the threads tying these characters together now create a wealth of exciting possibilities for the next 10 years and beyond.

Booksmart: A cut above the typical “teens committing misdemeanors and minor felonies as a rite of passage” comedy, this heartfelt movie gave us two warm and deeply lived-in characters through Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein’s performances. The two shared an apartment throughout the production to build up a real friendship that comes through in their performances and lasts to this day.

Captain Marvel: Brie Larson carried the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on her shoulders in this film as the first Marvel heroine to front a solo film and as one of the clear foundations of the next wave of movies. The movie was less strident in its feminism than the original comic book adventures of Carol Danvers as Ms. Marvel despite the reaction by a small number of misogynists online, and indeed is a character open to multiple interpretations: Maybe she and her former Air Force pilot partner were more than friends, or maybe she’s a little bit flirty with rookie Nick Fury (a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson), and maybe she’s flirting with both of them or … perhaps the bravest choice at all … neither of them because there are important things going on and she’s a warrior. Plus, there’s a great soundtrack.

Deadwood: The Movie: Haunting, at turns melancholy and ribald, this film may well serve as David Milch’s swan song, given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The decision to hang the film’s plot around lingering issues from the TV show’s third series rather than create a new conflict was a bit of a disappointment for me, and it ruled out any accessibility for a newcomer, but as a visit with old friends … albeit with a few empty spaces at the table … it was sufficient.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie: This is less a sequel than a coda to the television series, and I’m not sure how well it functions as a standalone movie. But it gave us a chance to see Robert Forster perform, and that was never a bad way to spend some time.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters: You know you’re in trouble when the filmmakers spend more than a few minutes trying to develop intricate relationships and heartfelt character moments for the humans in a kaiju film. I liked a lot of the folks in this movie and would love to see that cast doing something else together, but quit talking about your family problems and show me some giant monsters already. 

It Chapter Two: Hollywood did the impossible twice with this movie. Not only did they find a credible adult Finn Wolfhard in SNL alumnus Bill Hader, they also cast James Ransone in a role that was downright heroic by film’s end. (The people higher up on the marquee were pretty good, too.) Moving the timelines forward to land the adult Losers in a contemporary setting is a move I viewed with mixed feelings, but the real impact of that decision was felt more in the first half of the story and the flashbacks here. There was a nice fleshing out of all of the Losers by film’s end (Mike was the most ill-served of them all, but not as badly as originally planned), the climactic battle with Pennywise was cathartic for anyone who was ever bullied, and let’s just let the rumors of a film franchise wash away like water down a drain, OK?

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: I’ve missed a couple of Tarantino films but found this love letter to late-60s Hollywood funny and at times moving with a killer soundtrack. Sure, it plays fast and loose with history and then throws it out the window, but he’s been doing that since Inglourious Basterds. Some of the biggest controversies didn’t make me bat an eye … I took the Bruce Lee scene to be all in the Brad Pitt character’s imagination, and nothing about him screamed Completely Unimpeachable Narrator to me … and the fact that Sharon Tate’s sister approved of the film absolved it of being an exercise exploitation as far as I’m concerned.

Shazam!: I’m not going to say that every DCEU film should be like this one. That would be as foolish as, I don’t know, trying to do a Superman movie or two or a Justice League movie that felt like Watchmen. #sorrynotsorry #notevenalittlebitsorry My only regret with this movie is that it’s taking so long to get the second movie out to the screens that sweet, motor-mouthed Daria might have her driver’s license before we see these characters on screen again. I know that the corporate parents were worried after the critical failures of Batman vs. Superman and Justice League, but Captain Marvel (that’s the guy in red’s real name, darn it!) was the biggest selling comics star of the 1940s. They should have had the faith to fast-track a series the way the folks behind the Harry Potter movies did.

Spider-Man: Far From Home: Thankfully, Marvel and Sony heeded the (drunken) call (from star Tom Holland, no less) and backed out of their own unforced near-error and are keeping Peter Parker and friends firmly rooted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland and his peers took a European vacation to do the Griswalds proud in this post-Endgame entry to the MCU canon. Near-Spider-alum Jake Gyllenhaal and franchise veteran Samuel L. Jackson both gave us some great moments of bombast, and future Queen of Everything Zendaya got to step to the forefront after being a background player in Homecoming.

Tall Girl: A good-enough high school story centered on, well, a young woman whose stature has often intimidated the males of the species. Bullying comes in all forms, after all, and it was refreshing to see this particular variation even acknowledged.

Them That Follow: Kaitlyn Dever (seen in Bookworm, and who also delivered one of the year’s best TV performances on Unbelievable for Netflix) delivers another haunting performance in this backwoods Appalachian story of secrets inside a snake-handling Pentecostal church. She’s in familiar geographical territory, having previously recurred on Justified — which costarred Walton Goggins, who brims with intensity.


Jim D. Gillentine's Top Ten

Godzilla: King of the Monsters: Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I loved this film. Anyone that knows me knows that I was going to rank this on the top of my list. What is not in this film that I don’t love? Big monster battles, call backs to the old films, four classic Toho monsters, and Godzilla doing what he does best: stomping and rocking the town. Full review here.

Alita: Battle Angel: A cool action movie based off of one of my favorite animes. Great special effects and a touching story of a young, cyborg woman becoming the hero her world needs her to become. Full review here.

Captain Marvel: A fantastic Marvel film that made me a big fan of the character. This movie was a fun romp through the 80’s and seeing just how Nick Fury got his eye patch.

Shazam!: One of my favorite DC superheroes got his own film and it was a fun romp seeing the Big Red Cheese cracking jokes and learning what it takes to be a hero.

Avengers: Endgame: The culmination of ten years of Marvel films. The big battle of all big battles...and it rocked my world! The ‘Avengers...Assemble!’ scene still gives me chills and I still tear up at the end of the movie.

Toy Story 4: I went into this movie asking myself if we really needed a fourth Toy Story movie. The answer was... of course we do.

Spider-Man: Far From Home: A fun, exciting Spider-Man movie that was a perfect follow up to Endgame.

The Lion King: This was the shiny, new CGI remake. I enjoyed it, but it was not as good as the original movie.

Joker: A dark descent into madness. An interesting look at what makes someone a villain and one of the best performances I have ever seen in a movie by an actor in Joaquin Phoenix. Chilling and mesmerizing. Full roundup review.

Frozen 2: I loved it. A fun adventure that made me laugh and cry. I hope we can for a part three that is just as good as the first two.

Bonus pick: Tolkien. Just as I am a huge geek for Godzilla, Tolkien’s works rank right up there with the Big G. This bio-pic covering the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien is a wonderful look into what shaped the early life of one of the greatest fantasy authors to have ever lived. A blend of his early teen years and his time in the trenches of WWI, it showed the struggles Tolkien had with the priest who raised him and wanted him to follow the calling of the priesthood, and his heart for the young woman that he wished to marry. But the imagery of the war was what would grab you in this film. Seeing the things that a young Tolkien saw on the battle field, you can see where the ideas of Mordor came from. All of that leads up to Tolkien writing the first line of The Hobbit, and now I’m crying at the thought of it. 


Elizabeth Donald

Best of 2019:

• Captain Marvel. I'll repeat what I said before: it was fun, it was enjoyable, and it doesn't have to be put into a cage match with the astounding Wonder Woman to stand on its own feet as a good movie. Full roundup review here.

Avengers: Endgame. This one pretty much blew away all the competition, and I have very few complaints. So many people saw it that we didn't even bother doing a roundup here on CultureGeek! (Although I did do a quick roundup explaining why you didn't need to see the extended cut.) But I think it wins the gauntlet as best film of the year in my humble opinion. 

• Spider-man: Far From Home. I'm noticing that my best-of picks have been mostly Marvel movies, and that's concerning to me. Marvel has got to give us a stinker sometime, right? In the meantime, these movies aren't crowding out serious cinema, Mr. Scorcese, and they aren't dumbing down America - we have Facebook for that. The Marvel movies are, simply, the best entertainment of the era. and even post-Endgame, Spidey slings his web across Europe and manages to give us hope for the next round. Full roundup review here.

• Aladdin. Will Smith is not Robin Williams (RIP) and he doesn't try. Instead, Disney took one of its more problematic modern masterpieces and tried to bring it into the 21st century with greater nuance. It mostly succeeds, and it's a crime that lead actor Mena Massoud has apparently gotten few offers for more work, because he was terrific as the famous "street rat." But the best change Disney made was to center the story on Jasmine, who is now the heroine of the movie. Instead of "will Jasmine get to marry Aladdin," the central conflict lies in Jasmine's fight to become sultan of her country, to step into the leadership role for which she has been striving all her life and fighting against misogynistic cultures and traditions as well as condescending dismissal.... wait, sorcery? Magic lamps? Yeah, it's all there... but Jasmine is worth the watch, and her musical number is at least as empowering as Frozen's "Let it Go." Fight me.

• Terminator: Dark Fate. One of the advantages of a time-travel series is that you can always spin off a separate timeline. In this one, we are no longer protecting John (which is abundantly clear in the first five minutes so c'mon, spoilers are over). We have a Terminator in deep cover, we have cyborg Grace as the best protector we've had in eight movies, and we have Dani, who is the new target. Best of all, we have the return of Sarah Connor by Linda Hamilton, as it always should have been. If this was the year of the woman for action movies, Dark Fate should have been its crowning achievement. Unfortunately there were plot holes and a bit of predictability that marred the fun, which is generally what happens when the script is written by committee (and p.s. all men, again). It made $261 million worldwide, which would have covered production costs, but not the $80 million in marketing. (Good lord.) So I doubt we will see more of the surviving characters, and that's a damn shame.


Just okay:

• Dark Phoenix. Yeah, I know. Everyone except me hated this movie. But in my not-so-humble opinion, when you set aside the comics and allow a movie to stand on its own, it wasn't bad at all. It was certainly better than the previous attempt to do the Dark Phoenix saga (the abominable X3), and suffered mightily for a Phoenix story without Wolverine because it would have been creepy for 51-year-old Hugh Jackman to pine away after twentysomething Sophie Turner. There are multiple flaws, certainly, which I detailed in this full review.. But in all, it's an enjoyable film and did not deserve the hate it received. 

• The Lion King. There was nothing new, and that was its biggest flaw. But the absolutely amazing cast steps into the pawprints of its predecessor ably, with Donald Glover and Beyonce as the leading lions, Alfre Woodard as Sarabi, John Oliver as Zazu and James Earl Jones returning as the One True King. As I detailed in my full review, Disney's live-action remakes have generally been saved from direct-to-video dreck by taking new perspectives and twists on their traditional stories, from Cinderella to Maleficent to Beauty and the Beast and the aforementioned Aladdin. The Lion King could have used a little more difference and a little less shot-for-shot remake, but its visuals and the terrific voice cast make it worth a watch. 

• Shazam! I honestly didn't think I was going to enjoy this one - I've been burned by DC before. But Zachary Levi brings his irrepressible charm to the role and the film managed to work in actual human emotion and expanding the concept of family into the heartbreaking world of foster care. Here's the full review by Jim Gillentine.

Tolkien. I married the biggest Tolkien nerd in the midwest - he gave me an Evenstar as an early present - so it was a given that we would see this movie. I was pleasantly surprised by the skill of the period drama, a way to present linguistics (of all things) as fascinating and germane to the plot, and the skill of the actors to portray lauded men of a bygone era with grounded accessibility. 

• IT: Chapter Two. It saddens me that I didn't enjoy the new movies as much as the cheesy 1990s miniseries, since the book is my single favorite novel of all time. Bonus points for the funhouse scene, minus several for the destruction of Mike and Eddie's personalities, and minus several million for completely sidelining Bev's husband, Tom. As I detailed in my full review, Tom is the living embodiment of the Losers' failure to escape their past, the walking example of all that was awful in their childhood that they willingly kept. I would have been happier with 20 fewer minutes of "Cthulu as imagined by Sam Raimi" and replace them actual character development... or a Pennywise that actually scared me. 

• Joker. Ponderous pacing and logical flaws with a muddled message downgrade Joaquin Phoenix's brilliant portrayal of the mad Clown Prince into "eh" territory. Was it a feature-length mockery of the resistance movement, alleging that the poor and angry 99 percent are sheep manipulated by a madman? Or was it a warning to the 1 percent that riches and privilege will not protect you when the people grow tired of the scraps from your table? Read the roundup review if you want more... it is a movie I was glad to see, and have no desire to see again.

• Toy Story 4. It was a delight to see the Toys back in town one more time, but it failed to hold the nostalgia that it holds for younger viewers (now in their 20s) who grew up with the original movies. See Ian Smith's review linked below for more.

• Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Not quite what I was hoping for after the fascinating Maleficent, it was still an interesting return to the Maleficent world, in a battle between three women for power and control. Maleficent faces off against Queen Ingrith, soon to be Aurora's mother-in-law, and Aurora is caught in the middle. The king? The prince? They are as sidelined as the princesses have always been in these movies, so for that alone I'd enjoy it, and the cinematography was absolutely astounding (as is Angelina Jolie as Maleficent). Unfortunately the plot became very paint-by-numbers, and one can see the meddling in the script as Ingrith's motivations become oddly muddled. It was poorly reviewed, but audience scores were sky-high and it made nearly half a billion dollars worldwide, so I imagine we may see more of the great horned lady. 

• Doctor Sleep. The biggest achievement this movie had was making me like the book better, and I really, really didn't care for the book by my favorite author. Fortunately the film left out some of King's weird retcons (like making the kid related to Danny Torrance through some retconned affair by his father back in the day) and streamlined the timeline a good bit. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to make it a sequel to the Stanley Kubrick film instead of the actual book, and since I have many, many issues with the Kubrick film, the twenty-minute fan-service walk through the Overlook was not nearly as fascinating to me as it would be to fans of the Kubrick film. 

• Frozen 2. A worthy successor to the first film, which has grown on me over the years into a favorite, this sequel was stunning to view and held some serious character development moments, albeit a touch predictable and, in places, dark enough to question whether really little ones should see it. I also have quibbles about the ending, but that would be seriously spoilery, so I shall shut up. Still, it was a great return visit to Arendelle, and one we will be adding to our collection.

• Little Women. I am a long-time fan of this story and especially the 1994 version, so I was happy to see Gina Gerwig's updating... and it is an update, with many lines of dialogue and a few plot points drawn more from Louisa May Alcott's life than her novel. Saoirse Ronan is a worthy successor to Jo March, and extra credit must go to Laura Dern for a brilliant and believable Marmee. Sadly Timothee Chalumet was miscast as Laurie, working as hard as he can for a difficult role but simply has no believable chemistry with Ronan or Florence Pugh as Amy (whose speech about marriage as an economic issue is straight from Alcott and very much needs to be heard). Likewise the "twist" at the end is more Alcott than March, and fascinating. Downside: Gerwig chose to tell the story in flashbacks and hopping back and forth in time, which means if you have been living under a rock and never read the book or seen the other eight or so movies, you're lost.


Worst of 2019:

• Glass. I really wanted to love it, and I wanted M. Night Shyamalan to stick the landing. I loved Sixth Sense, I liked Unbreakable and I thought Split was a master course in acting from James McAvoy. And he's really the only reason to watch Glass, which sorely wasted four amazing actors in a predictable and generally dull story with a twist that was simply annoying rather than illuminating. 

• Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. I think I would have held this one much higher right after seeing it, so perhaps I'm being unfair. But the longer I think about the many, many ways RoS strove to undo everything that Last Jedi did, about the unconscionable sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran due to the whining of racist fanboys, giant plot holes created for fan service and a "twist" that not only erased the entire point of Last Jedi but made no bloody sense... nope, I don't care if I ever see it again. I don't mean to yuck others' yum, since I know many people truly loved the movie and the fan service moments were a nostalgia hit that they seriously craved. To each their own, and I am truly glad they enjoyed it. 

• Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This is not going to win me any points at home, but it's an amazing trick to make a movie about giant monsters battling across the world so dull that I got sleepy. 


Rahul Menon

Best of 2019: Bong Joon-ho's Parasite shouldn't be discussed as a Best Foreign Picture contender, it should be discussed as a Best film contender, and to be honest, it's not a contender, but a frontrunner.

Parasite succeeds in showing us that the worst monster of our reality is the system that we have built. The movie is an unmissable accomplishment in direction, writing, acting, cinematography, editing, music, and pretty much everything else a movie is meant to do. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Parasite is you're never sure what's going to happen next.

20 of my favorite and standout movies of 2019:

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Uncut Gems
Marriage Story
Ford v. Ferrari
Doctor Sleep
The Farewell
Jojo Rabbit
Knives Out
Ready or Not
The Irishman
The Lighthouse
Peanut Butter Falcon
Avengers: Endgame
Honey Boy

Honorable Mentions: Yesterday, The Report, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Little Women, The Souvenir, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Hustlers


Other CultureGeek picks:

Ian Smith: Toy Story 4


And onward to 2020! 

That's a wrap!

Your friendly neighborhood CultureGeeks have been busy, folks. 

It just so happens that frequent contributor Rahul Menon is a film director. He's been writing and directing short films as he finishes his masters degree here in sunny Illinois. We're happy to report one of Rahul's shorts, Cowbot, won a best in category award at an international film festival just a few weeks ago. (Your humble blogger provided a voiceover, and thus begins the 15 minutes.)

Today was the final day of shooting for Rahul's latest film, The Final Act. Shot here in sunny Edwardsville, Illinois, it stars (among others) CultureGeek contributor Ian Smith, and I'm a nameless extra despite my best efforts to duck the camera. It's a half-hour film about the waning days of an actor succumbing to alcoholism. 

We're all very excited for Rahul's latest effort and Ian's film debut, and we'll be sure to share it here once it's released. 

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John Williams, live in concert in St. Louis

Some twenty odd years ago, a boy in India was watching his first-ever Hollywood movie in a theatre, and that movie was Jurassic Park.

He had no idea that the island of Isla Nublar wasn't real, he had no idea how these dinosaurs were made, he had no idea who Steven Spielberg was, he had no idea that few years down the line he was going to fall head over heels in love with the entire art and process of filmmaking, and he most definitely did not think he would ever get a chance to see the John Williams play the Jurassic Park theme live.

It's impossible to talk about Jurassic Park, and not talk about John Williams, easily one of the greatest film composers the world has ever heard. The movie wouldn't have been what it is without the support of Williams' soaring score. The world raved about the special effects team that created the dinosaurs, but they lived and breathed because of John Williams' remarkable score.

And that has always been the case with his compositions: they breathe life into the characters, situations, and every single frame of the film. Even when the score was being played live without any accompanying visuals, I could still see Sam Neill and Laura Dern getting out of their jeep and seeing the dinosaurs for the first time. It still gives me goosebumps and makes me emotional, and I'm sure it always will.

John Williams is responsible for some of the most iconic and beloved scores ever composed. There's no way I can't mention the moment when he finished playing Princess Leia's theme, turned around looked at all of us, smiled, winked, and then turned back, waved his magical hands to conduct the Star Wars theme, and transported all of us to a galaxy far, far away in an instant.

Even the stories he told before each track were magical. "I saw Daisy Ridley, and instantly I was in love with her. She's 10 years younger than my youngest grand-kid. So, then I went and composed Rey's Theme for her."

"Now this one's for my dear friend Harrison Ford," "I composed Leia's theme thinking Luke and Leia are going to fall in love with each other, I didn't know what George had in his mind. I only got to know about it 3 years later! So I composed another theme for them."

"Steven and me have been working together for almost 45 years now, that's quite a relationship. Pheww!" (Paraphrased.)

Williams' score conveys exactly what the on-screen characters feel, and what most audience members are feeling at that moment when they are watching those visuals play out. His soundtracks, just like most of the movies he's worked on, will live on forever in all our hearts and memories.

You haven't really lived until you've cried to the Jurassic Park theme conducted live by John Williams. So thank you to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for bringing this legend to us, and thank you John Williams for gracing us with your legendary presence.


Rahul Menon was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in Illinois. He is an assistant director, screenwriter and occasional actor, as well as a computer science engineer who worked as a software analyst and in advertising and marketing prior to entering the film industry. His screen debut was as screenwriter and assistant director of Saayanna Varthakal (Evening News) in 2018. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. FacebookInstagramIMDB.

Halloween Roundup! What's your favorite scary movie?

We asked our panel of Smart People the quintessential question from Scream: What's your favorite scary movie? No one answered with that movie's choice: "Showgirls. Absolutely terrifying."

Elizabeth Donald: Oculus (2014)

I could have gone with so many choices here, because scary movies are my jam. I generally don't go for the torture porn or slashers - Saw just makes me angry and while I'm a sucker for Halloween, I like the stalking creepiness far more than the actual carnage. I will arm-wrestle Jason (below) any day of the week and twice on Sunday over The Exorcist, because I really like horror movies that grab hold of the subconscious, the political and social fears that torment us in the wee hours of the morning, and give them a supernatural face.

If Exorcist was about parents facing the changes of the 1960s through their suddenly-incomprehensible children, then The Purge movies are a conglomeration of all our social and political fears compiled into one. The Haunting of Hill House - a surprisingly good and absolutely not faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson - is about family drama and depression manifested in a haunted house. I don't even need to get into the social politic of Get Out or Us (and Jordan Peele isn't really fond of Us Halloween costumes), because that's been well-discussed everywhere. There's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which has a different permutation in every generation that remakes it), and the Dawn of the Dead remake, which shines far above the original with the single most horrifying opening sequence of any movie ever (as Jason says, #sorrynotsorry). 

But I'm going to go with Oculus, as the movie I find most genuinely frightening and that I desperately want to rewatch this OculusHalloween season. At a certain point even acknowledged classics like Nightmare on Elm Street or Alien lose their fear because I've seen them so many times I know when the killer is going to hop up and go stabbity. While watching Halloween has become a family tradition while we wait for the trick-or-treaters, I can easily go get a snack because I know from the (terrific) John Carpenter music when the next boo is coming.

Oculus rose and fell in 2013, barely noticed by most viewers, and that's a shame. Starring Doctor Who alumna Karen Gillan and Maleficent's Brendan Thwaite (a Brit and an Aussie playing American twentysomethings), it's basically the story of a haunted mirror that ... collects souls? Possesses its owners with homicidal mania? We aren't quite sure, but we know the mirror is bad news.

Mirrors are creepy things, aren't they? They show us the world around us and ourselves, but only a reflection as perceived by the eye. What if what we see in a mirror isn't exactly how it is... or how it's supposed to be? 

Oculus takes that unreality a step further, where we can no longer trust anything we see - and neither can our hapless siblings, trying to solve the mystery of what happened to their parents long ago when the mirror first came to their home. Rory Cochrane (of Argo) and Battlestar Galactica alumna Katee Sackhoff play the doomed parents in flashbacks... or are they? They could easily have devolved into standard-issue horror victims, but Cochrane and Sackhoff manage to make their roles into three-dimensional humans caught somewhere between marital strife, mental illness, domestic violence and demonic possession. Does it seem like that list has a step too far? They bring us there, and it's creepy as hell. 

A combination of excellent actors and the visuals of a perfectly ordinary house with an extraordinary mirror make for a suburban-terror tale that leaves me doubting everything I see, from the apple in my hand to the mirror on the wall. I can't recommend it strongly enough.


Jason R. Tippitt: Various

I'm not a huge fan of traditional horror (#sorrynotsorry). I should have realized I had a problem when everyone told me The Exorcist would scare the hell out of me (pun intended) and instead it bored me to tears despite the Max Van Sydowness of it all.

The splatter genre isn't my thing, slasher films make me feel insulted, and torture porn makes me feel dirty but not in a good way. People scare me more than zombies or ghosts or vampires.

SabrinaMy ideal Halloween-season viewing would be something like HBO's excellent Mindhunter television series, which uses a mixture of real characters and composites to re-enact the creation of the FBI's behavioral crimes unit, the people who hunt serial killers (and who came up with that term). Love or hate Bret Easton Ellis, the movie Less Than Zero was a formative movie for me in the 1980s that did more to scare me away from illegal drugs or even underage drinking than any number of hell houses or smashed-up cars parked outside my high school did. It made me care about a group of friends (Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, and Robert Downey Jr.) and grieve as addiction did its worst. Kicking soundtrack, too.

Any production of Hamlet will do -- whether the ghost is a true spirit from the land of the dead or the prince's subconscious, take your pick, the route the young Dane takes is going to end up just as bloody.

Of course, there are always exceptions. The next time I watch Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, my eyes will not be the only ones riveted on the screen. Reading calorie counts -- well, let's not go crazy here. Have a happy Halloween!


Jim D. Gillentine: Phantasm (1979)

Made famous because of the flying silver ball that could kill you by drilling into your head and sucking your brains out, the movie became a cult classic and spawned a five-movie film franchise that just recently wrapped up. The movie is about a young Tallmanboy named Jody trying to deal with the loss of his parents and his recently killed brother. When he sneaks to the funeral to watch, he sees the caretaker of the funeral home pick the coffin up by himself and put it back into the hearse. And thus the mystery starts with Jody trying to find out what is going on in his small town and trying to deal with the possibility of his older brother Mike leaving him with family to find better things in life.

Why is this movie one of my favorite scary movies? I think it has to do with Angus Scrimm, who played the Tall Man, who [redacted for spoilers]. His screen presence was so strong, and you can see that he threw himself into the role with all of his heart and soul.

I watched this movie when I was a young teen, on channel 24 Creature Feature one Saturday night in my room all alone. Because of Scrimm, I had to turn the light on. When he would call to Jody, in that tenebrous voice saying, “BOOOOOOY!” it would send chills down my spine. You never knew what was real and not real. Anything you saw could have been an illusion, and you were always trying to determine if what Jody was dealing with reality or a trick from the Tall Man.

Phantasm also provides me with one of the funniest moments from my teenage years. My brother Lee had a friend staying over one night and I saw that the movie was showing on the late-night Creature Feature again. I bet him and his friend that they couldn’t watch the movie all the way through with the light off. They both scoffed at me and said they could make it. About 30 minutes into the movie, Lee had to go use the bathroom during the commercial break. When he returned, he turned the lamp on before sitting down. I laughed and he promptly told me to shut the f--- up. So thank you to the Tall Man, for scaring me and giving me a good laugh.


Honorable mentions:

Jaws (1975) - Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum... 

Jacob's Ladder (1990) - A bereaved Vietnam veteran fights his own mind as he struggles with the death of his son.

The Ring (2002) - Urban legend becomes movie as a journalist investigates a "cursed videotape" that kills the viewer within seven days. Based on the Ringu series in Japan, it was unusual at the time for relying on creep factor rather than the torture porn that was all the rage. 

Twilight Zone, "The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge" - Based on the Ambrose Bierce short story, any further details would be spoilery.

Watcher in the Woods (1980) - An American family moves into a house in England where a girl once disappeared... 

They Live (1988) - Science fiction action thriller... follow the bouncing genres, Roddy Piper is a drifter who acquires magic sunglasses that reveal the world is being run by grotesque alien critters who masquerade as us and use subliminal messages to get us to consume products, breed, etc. 

The Conjuring and Annabelle series - If you can forget that the Warrens were real people and the movies are boolsheet, these are very creepy possession/haunting flicks. 

The Scream series - Envisioned as a send-up of '80s teen slasher flicks, they accidentally reinvigorated the genre by simultaneously satirizing and improving upon them.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) - An anthropologist chases rumors of a "zombie drug" to Haiti, where he falls deep into black magic and live burial. Starring Bill Pullman, it was loosely based on a nonfiction account by a Harvard anthropologist who delved into zombification folk-medicine practices in Haiti (but was criticized by some of his peers).  

IT - Elizabeth says: I gotta go with the TV series, plus or minus the world's second-silliest fake spider. The kids are amazing (especially the late Jonathan Brandis) and the adults fare pretty well in their fight against the amazing Tim Curry as Pennywise. Nothing against the new crew, which did the best it could with the inexplicable changes made to the script, but I can't be afraid of the buck-toothed New Pennywise. Curry was terrifying just standing by the side of the road, waving with a balloon in hand. 

Copycat (1995) - Sigourney Weaver as an agorophobic profiler and Holly Hunter as a cynical detective team up against a serial killer who copies the various methods of actual serial killers in a suspenseful flick that is as much a tour of the strange psychology of serials as it is making us afraid of them. 

The Omen (1976) - A movie so evil that David Warner plays the good guy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Hush" - We only allow a few TV episodes on this list or it would be nothing but The Twilight Zone. But "Hush" seems to make everyone's list, as the Gentlemen float in and rip your heart out without offering the release of a scream.

Blair Witch Project (1999) - It either worked for you or it didn't, and if it did, it was a shotgun blast to the head. 

28 Days Later (2002) - A pioneer of the "fast zombie" fun of the early 2000s, Danny Boyle's British take on the zombie subgenre deals with the darkness in human souls as much as the survivalist focus of most zombie flicks. 

Carnival of Souls (1962) - A woman survives a terrible accident, but is drawn to an abandoned carnival. Remade in 1998, but no one saw it. 

The Wicker Man (1973) - A Scottish detective flies to a remote village on reports that a young girl is missing... but no one admits to ever having heard of her, and they have some odd rites... 

Approximately half of the Stephen King oeuvre, including The Shining, which is beloved by Kubrick fans and someday Elizabeth will write her definitive reasoning why the TV miniseries was superior in almost every way, right before she enters witness protection.

Breaking Bad: El Camino

An extended meditative and emotionally satisfying epilogue, quite worthy of the Breaking Bad brand, El Camino feels more like lost pages from the original story.

This Netflix "event" movie reunites fans with Jesse Pinkman (Emmy winner Aaron Paul). In the wake of his dramatic escape from captivity, Jesse must come to terms with his past in order to forge some kind of future.

With El Camino, Vince Gilligan knows what he's doing, and it doesn't take him long to shift everything into higher gears. This is Gilligan operating near the peak of his calibre, and he takes time to fix one of the few crucial things of the show that he didn't get quite right the first time. He reinforces the main theme of Breaking Bad: that none of us know what we are capable of until we are pushed to the limits and our own survival is on the line.

Visceral, ruminative, and totally worth your time, particularly if you are lucky enough to see it on the big screen, El Camino is currently playing at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis as well as on Netflix.


Rahul Menon was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in Illinois. He is an assistant director, screenwriter and occasional actor, as well as a computer science engineer who worked as a software analyst and in advertising and marketing prior to entering the film industry. His screen debut was as screenwriter and assistant director of Saayanna Varthakal (Evening News) in 2018. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. FacebookInstagramIMDB.

Roundtable: Joker is no laughing matter

This weekend, the CultureGeek Roundtable pinned on the squirting flowers and went to see Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips. Here's what our panel had to say.


Rahul Menon

When you hand him the Oscar, can you introduce him as Joker?

Joker is what you get when you have a mediocre, overbearing director standing on the shoulders of one of the greatest actors of our time.

I've heard the audience and few critics say that this movie does a bad job of making us sympathize with the devil, and I have to completely disagree with them, because I feel this is more of a piece that's showing us how or why that devil came to be.

The portrayal of violence has been a controversial topic of discussion, for months now, even before the movie released! My two cents? It doesn't have as much as violence as John Wick or Anna or Ready or Not or Liam Neeson's Cold Pursuit.

The film is a psychologically rich portrait of a mentally ill loner that just happens to take place in a world that will one day yield a cowl-wearing billionaire vigilante. It lays out this life in decline and dares us to watch how it turns out. It works much better as a singular character study than as a broader sociopolitical drama. And regardless of where you will personally sit in reaction to its material, the fact it's inspiring conversation is an achievement in itself, and is nothing less than admirable in my opinion. I feel that the less you think about Joker as a comic book movie, the more you'll like it. I would always prefer movies that make you want to have discussions over the disposable ones that come out every other month.

The movie definitely is a calculated risk on WB's part, and I really hope it works for them, as that would open doors for more R-rated "superhero" films from the studio. It would make them stand out from all the Marvel films, which will (hopefully) hit saturation soon, now that the grimace has turned into ashes. I imagine how the movie would've played out if there wasn't a commercial imposition that the main character has to become the Joker at the end, or may be. WB could've gone the M. Night Shyamalan Split route and kept the entire Joker thing under wraps, calling the movie Arthur or something.

If only Todd Phillips' movie had the depth or clarity of vision to match up to its star's performance. But even with all its negatives, Joker stands out as a formidable and twisted film, both primarily because of Joaquin Phoenix. He isn't so much an actor as a moral contortionist in this origin story that features too many overt nods to the Scorsese movies from the 70's and 80's. Phoenix has plumbed depths so deep and given us such a complex, brutal and physically transformative performance that it would be no surprise to see him take home a statuette or two come award season. Heath Ledger definitely would have been proud, if he was able to witness this.

And with that, we have the clown who fights Batman as the most coveted role in Hollywood.


Jim D. Gillentine

In the latest movie from Warner Brothers under the DC banner, director Todd Phillips tries to show one of the possible ways that a man might snap and become a villain.

In Joker we are introduced to Arthur Fleck, a party clown living with mental illness and a condition of uncontrollable laughter when he is stressed. He tries to care for his mother, hold down his job, and stay balanced in a city that is suffering from crime, corruption, and a nasty garbage workers strike. As one bad thing after another happens to him, he begins to slip into madness, and we see the results of his fall.

Is Arthur Fleck a victim of his environment? Is he a madman that should be feared and we hope gets killed in some way? I really don’t know, to be honest. The movie has shown me one thing: Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is powerful, frightening, and one of the best if not the best performances this year. He at least deserves to get an Oscar nomination, if not win the bloody thing.

This movie isn’t your usual comic book movie. There are no crazy CGI special effects, no super powers, nothing magical. Just a gritty, dirty city and one man’s journey to become a villain. There are a couple of Batman Easter eggs here and there if you look for them, but this isn’t Batman’s story. This is Arthur's story, so don’t expect to see a superhero to show up to save the day.


Elizabeth Donald

If you removed the word Joker from this movie, and renamed the Waynes as the Jones family, this movie would probably be shed of many of the complaints about it. But it is not a movie that should be ignored.

It's not a superhero movie, nor the kind of film that one usually associates with comic books. That's partly because most people think of comic books as inherently fantasy, magic skills and funky devices and spandex costumes with awesome back spin kicks and flying - even from fans. That, of course, is only one level of comics, a medium that has illuminated depths and darkness far beyond the grittiest crime drama. I said when The Dark Knight premiered that if it were not a Batman movie and was billed as a mob drama, it would have taken home best picture. I had that same sense watching Joker, that this movie could have been billed as any crime drama outside of Gotham City, and it would be viewed very differently.

Joker is not best picture. It has many flaws, pacing among the worst of them - for a good portion of the film, I found myself hoping it would hurry up and get to the point. It has created an indescribably vicious urban hell that is basically the worst nightmare of the early 1980s brought to celluloid. As we walk the streets of Gotham with Arthur Fleck, we are uncomfortable watching the awful things that happen to him, because we know there can't be a happy ending for the bad guy - and he's the bad guy, right? 

We should be uncomfortable. Joker is the most political movie I have seen in years, a movie centered not on spandex and fisticuffs, but on a deeply divided, inequitable society. The things happening to Arthur are the same things that happen in our actual society, on the abuse of the different, the harshness of the streets, the selfishness of many humans, the cruelty of those in power. It is disheartening to watch, because we know these problems and that they have no easy solutions. 

But what exactly is the politic of Joker? From one perspective, one could view it as a mockery of the resistance movement, that the poor and angry 99 percent are sheep being manipulated by a madman into violence over nothing. "Those who oppose this unjust establishment aren't given a specific ideology, just explosively violent rage," writes Matthew Rozsa of Salon. "It offers no solutions beyond 'burn it all down.'"

From another perspective, it could be viewed as a warning to the 1 percent: the consolidation of power and money among the very few is enraging those who fight and die in the streets, and there will come a boiling point. Thomas Wayne is the walking personification of privilege here, spouting nonsense about how wealth just means you worked harder than the rabble, and speaks of the protests against him with such disgust and dismissiveness that in another decade, I would wonder how he could strive to be elected to anything. There is a sense that the wealthy of Gotham City live in a carefully protected bubble, and Arthur pierces that bubble in the most violent way possible. 

Rozsa hit on another of the major concerns: that Joker could be seen as a dangerous manifesto that could compel those who struggle with violent tendencies to commit acts of violence. And I must admit, it struck my mind that as much as Joker was uncomfortably real and awful to me, to someone of a similar mindset as Arthur, it could be quite the inspiration. 

Is it responsible to create works of art that feed the darkest of impulses? Conversely, is it responsible to whitewash such art to the point where we can simply pretend worlds like Arthur's do not exist? These are questions for far wiser minds than mine. 

One of the major concerns many fans had going into this film was that the Joker has always been an enigma. Any attempt to codify an origin story for the Joker is met with disdain and/or backpedaled quickly out of existence. The Heath Ledger variation played on that very mystery, with Ledger's Joker giving a different tale to everyone he meets about the source of his scars.

Fortunately, this was one area that I felt Joker handled well. There are multiple possible backgrounds for Arthur, and we are never sure which is the real one. It makes a mastery of the unreliable narrator structure, with repeated instances where we are unsure if the events unfolding are real, or merely Arthur's imagination. Even the ending puts the film itself in an entirely new perspective and leads us to question everything we've seen. For some audiences, this will be enormously frustrating; for others, it makes the film complete. Therefore it's difficult to know whether to recommend this movie, as it will definitely be one of those "love it or hate it" films. 

One thing no one can dispute: Joaquin Phoenix has turned in a career-level performance. His physical contortions are matched and surpassed only by the emotional gamut he runs as this deeply damaged human attempting, in his words, to find joy. Phoenix is acclaimed for his method acting, and one can only imagine the depths to which he had to reach to find this particular character. Joker is more of a character study than a story, with the wider background of the crime-ridden, disastrous dumpster fire that is Gotham City as mere background to illuminating Arthur. 

Is the Joker a born psychopath who found his way to becoming the Clown Prince of Crime, or is he a troubled, damaged man pushed into horrible acts by the torment of the city? Joker has no answers for us, not even in the form of a bat. 


IT finishes with a strong bite

Warning: There may be spoilers for book and movie(s) ahead.)

It's hard to objectively review IT: Chapter Two, considering that it is drawn from my favorite novel of all time. So buckle in, folks, this is going to be long.

I've always maintained that Stephen King's novels are best examined as a surface bugadeboo with something entirely other underneath. The Shining is his treatise on alcoholism and domestic violence, with a haunted hotel on the surface. Cujo is about unhappy marriage, from the seven-year itch to loveless abuse, with a rabid St. Bernard on the surface. Pet Sematary is about how we face death in American society (or don't), Under the Dome was his criticism of the Bush II administration, The Dead Zone questioned whether a political assassin could ever be right, Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game explored the impact of child sexual abuse, and The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption found dignity and even God behind prison bars.

None of it has to do with monsters, unless they are the monsters who walk among us.

IT is my favorite novel because when I read it, my mental vision takes me to the streets of Westfield, Mass. I lived there from ages seven to fourteen, so it is the place where childhood lives for me. That's about where the resemblance between Derry and Westfield stops, as it was a lovely town despite junior high, and as far as I know there were no shapechanging killer clowns. 

Most people dismiss IT as the story of Pennywise, but like the rest of King's work, its inner story is something very different. It's about imagination, the rich and lustrous flavor of a child's imaginings that dim to a dull glow when they grow up. That's why the children were so strong when they faced It in 1955, and why their diminished numbers were able to defeat It in 1985.

The movies dispense with those themes for the most part, focusing a bit more on childhood friendship than imagination. Much was made of the changes made to the characters' backstories beyond the simple update to 1989. The hints of incestuous abuse from Bev's father are made explicit, and then added to poor Eddie and his mother (of which there is no hint in the book). Stan's backstory was filled out with more interesting creatures; I approved of making his father the town rabbi in what has to be the whitest, goyest town in Maine, but having Rabbi Dad be cold and dismissive feels unfair. Movies always try to amp things up, of course, but does everyone have to have terrible parents?

B83c5deb-802c-4f77-9913-d2ca39e10ded.sized-1000x1000Which brings me to Mike Hanlon, one of the best characters in the book and the one served worst by Chapter 1. Book Mike had a stable, happy home life. He had parents who loved each other and loved him, who raised him well and paid attention to him, who cheered his successes and taught him how to survive the racism of their neighbors and the world beyond. They fought the battle so many working-class black families had to fight (and still do), and they did it with dignity and grace. Mike is the wonderful person that he is - bright, studious, curious, empathic - because of his parents.

Um, never mind. Because in Chapter 1, we find that instead Mike's parents died in a fire, and he's raised by an awful, abusive grandfather who imparts none of these qualities on him, forcing him to kill animals against his gentle nature. I spent whole portions of Chapter 1 with my jaw hanging open - why do this? Why replace the Hanlons with this horrible caricature of the too-strict black grandparent? And why take Mike's curious investigation of Derry history and give it to Ben, who already has his own skills and intricate backstory to contribute? It took Mike, a driving character behind the Loser's Club in the novel, and made him essentially background noise to the story of Chapter 1.

So I approached Chapter 2 with cautious optimism. That became foreboding when I read news stories alleging that Mike was to be degraded even further in the second half: Instead of being the town librarian who has carefully researched and interviewed the city's history to record the impact of Pennywise, Mike was to be a drug addict turning to heroin to deal with the traumas of fighting It. So it was stated in plain English by director Andy Muschietti after Chapter 1 came out.

Nice try, Master Director, but all the kids fought It and Bev in particular went floating in the deadlights. None of them turn to drugs, even though it would make sense, especially for Richie. The only one to fall into addiction is the black guy? Nice. 

Fortunately, it seems that idea hit the cutting room floor. You can see its echoes, however. Isaiah Mustafa does an exceptional job with what must have been one of the hardest acting gigs ever: to begin filming under one premise of the character, and then have it yanked out from under you. In several scenes, especially earlier in the film, Mustafa appears to play Mike as high, speaking very quickly and falling all over his words. The movie attempts to pass it off as fear, but I read the interviews and I know where the script began. Any hint that Mike is an addict has been cut, and instead he just comes across as terrified (and living in the attic above the library for no clear reason specified). 

So I give Muschietti props for listening to the screaming and coming to his realizations late. Did he change it because he realized it was a horrifically racist thing to write, or because he figured there would be protests overshadowing his movie? Only he knows for sure.

(Also, I have heard zero buzz about this plot development silently disappearing from the final cut of the film. Am I the only one who remembers?)

The only shadow remaining is when Pennywise is tormenting Mike late in the film, and shows him a headline accusing Mike's dead parents of being crackheads who burned themselves to death; in the final moments, we see the real headline, and they are simply local residents, not addicts at all. We know Pennywise uses psychological torment as well as physical threats to horrify his victims; with the clumsy edits, the headlines no longer make any sense at all. Likewise Pennywise taunts Mike with "I know your secret.... you're a madman." Well, no, he isn't. There are multiple problems with Mike, as has been widely discussed, but he's not crazy. It's a huge "huh?" moment during the final battle, and clearly it started with the now-excised drug abuse. 

But I can't complain, because Mike is the driving force of the story as he takes over Chapter 2 - almost to a greater extent than the book. It's quite clear on the written page that while Mike brings them all back together again and brings them up to speed, he then cedes the reins to Bill, who had been their leader in childhood. This doesn't really happen in Chapter 2, as Bill is distracted again and again by Pennywise and attempts to go off alone - Mike must stay in charge because Bill never takes up his role as leader, which means Mike also bears the responsibility for the possible outcomes. 

Other stories get short shrift: while I don't think we needed to meet Ben's bartender in Nebraska or Richie's angry manager, I feel cheated by the ninety seconds we see of Bev's husband, Tom. That story is much more detailed in the book and deserved to be there, as it was more than just "Bev married a dick like her father." That's too simplistic for what Book-Tom means for Bev and for the Losers. He beats the snot out of her, and she barely escapes with the help of a friend (also missing in action) who then pays drastically for her loyalty. Tom shows up in Derry, as does Bill's wife Audra, and they have a part to play in the fight against Pennywise.

Tom is the living embodiment of the Losers' Club's failure to escape their past, the walking example of all that was awful in their childhood and that they willingly kept - the damage Pennywise inflicted. For him to hit Bev a few times and she runs out the door does the story a disservice, as well as paying little attention to the psychological impact of domestic abuse.

But CultureGeek, the movie is already 17 years long!

Yes, it's a long, long, long movie. So I would have been happier with about 20 fewer minutes of Cthulu as imagined by Sam Raimi and replace them with actual character development. We don't spend a whole lot of time with Pennywise the Clown this round, as he's very busy turning into CGI tentacles and letting his variant other forms torment the Losers. I've never been all that fond of entrails and gross-out horror, so I can't say that Pennywise in his various forms scared me nearly as much as the old woman in Bev's childhood apartment. (Until she turned into Raimiesque CGI, mind you. She was hella scarier as a human.)

As I said when Chapter 1 came out: Bill Skarsgaard is not responsible for my complete lack of fear at Pennywise. It's not his fault. He did a fine job as envisioned... but that character design. It's the Bugs Bunny buck teeth and funky costume. I simply could not find him scary, not with the voice to match those goofy teeth. (The CGI teeth are another story.) Maybe it's because I saw the Tim Curry edition in 1990 and slept with the light on for a few nights. But the goofy face simply doesn't work for me. Curry needed no CGI to scare the bejesus out of me or my high school classmates, who carefully stepped around the stormdrains outside our school for a few days as the miniseries was running. Just in case. 

If anything, Pennywise is less scary in this modern version, because the few times we do see It as the clown, It is attempting to lure a small child by guilting her into playing with him (a theme it repeats several times) or popping up in cheap jump scares. I can't be scared of the sobbing passive-aggressive Pennywise, folks.

The one moment where Pennywise is truly scary is in the inspired mirror maze sequence, which apparently was dreamed up by James McAvoy (Bill) and Muschietti. I will live with Bill refusing to take up his mantle of leadership because McAvoy simply knocks that scene out of the park. 

The changes that are bringing the most chatter post-release involve Richie and Eddie. I feel that Eddie fares almost as poorly as Mike in the changes to his character, both as a child and as a man. Eddie is portrayed as being an angry, hard-cursing germophobe. They got one part right. But Eddie's talent that contributed to the group was his unerring ability to navigate in any situation - it is the "compass in his head" that helps them to survive the sewers. Beyond that he was gentle and shy, and Richie's best friend. Where did this perpetually angry man come from? He's so fiercely unlikable that we find ourselves wishing Pennywise would eat him and put him out of our misery.

Likewise Book-Richie was a smartass, the ADHD wisecracker whose mouth always got him into trouble. In the 1990 miniseries, they could not have chosen a better pairing of an exceedingly young Seth Green and the late great Harry Anderson to play Richie, and they did it perfectly. Anderson in particular ad-libbed a lot of his puns and wisecracks, and you got the real sense that he and Eddie were friends despite his jibes.

This movie's variation never stops to let Eddie and Richie actually be friends, or anything more. As children and as adults, Richie comes off like a jerk, saying mean, foul things to Eddie and Eddie returns with actual anger bordering on fury. It's hard to buy these people as the best of friends when they spend the entire movie being angry with each other. (And why, exactly, was Eddie's profession changed to a corporate raider who screams at traffic, instead of the limo service owner who can easily navigate in and out of Boston traffic, which is a supernatural feat in and of itself?)  

Then, of course, there is Richie's secret.

There's no hint in the book that Richie is gay. In fact, he's quite decidedly not, and the 1990 miniseries doubles down and gives him a string of ex-wives. Eddie likewise has married, though he basically married Mom (and cute trick by having the same actress play Eddie's mom in the past and his wife in the present, but they lost all the points with repeated fat jokes, because we all know about fat women, amirite? Ugh). 

I have often argued that movies have to stand separate from the source material, which is why "but in the comics..." will get you thrown out of my proverbial bar when we're talking superhero movies. And I really think it could have been an interesting twist to see Richie secretly gay... if it made any sense at all for him to be so deep in the closet in 2019. That actually would have been more comprehensible in the original 1985 novel or 1990 TV-movie, or if Richie had been in any other profession than show businesses. Really, "actor/comedian comes out as gay" would barely rate a squib in Entertainment Weekly, and so the movie fails to give us any kind of grounding or reasonable backstory for why this secret has a Capital S in Richie's life.

(Or why he treats the apparently object of his affections so abominably.)

This is a movie that opened with a gay-bashing murder, and it's as horrifying and awful to see as it is in the book. King wrote it based on a real gay-bashing murder in his area in the 1980s, and there has been much buzz about it. The book makes it clear that Derry is more viciously homophobic than most towns around it, tacitly blaming Pennywise's influence. But the movie barely connects that atmosphere with Richie - and nor should it, since Richie wouldn't care one iota what the people in his former hometown think of his orientation. Rani Baker goes into much greater detail on this than I can, since this review is already as long as the book and has taken an extra week to write, but suffice to say this whole subplot could have been done much, much better.

And yet it was lovely to visit my creepy not-hometown of Derry again, and when I could shut up my inner editor desperately clutching the 1004-page book to my chest, I enjoyed it. Stephen King's cameo had me rolling, there's a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the original Young Ben from 1990, there are several other nods to the book, the miniseries and other King stories, and even a turtle nod. 

But I needed less Clownthulu and more psychological torment, less confused half-editing and more friendship among my heroes. I wanted the history of Derry and the subtle ways Pennywise infused himself into the town, and really, would it have killed them to roll the Standpipe? It's just pixels.

I enjoyed it. But I'm not sure I'll be watching it over and over again, as I have the 1990 miniseries with Tim Curry and his merry band. We all still float down here.