Monday, September 28, 2015

EW #68: Goodfellas (1990)

Sorry guys: this post explains why Goodfellas (1990), which Entertainment Weekly placed at #68 on this list of 100 all-time great films, is actually one of Martin Scorsese's least interesting, most overrated works.

As I have already stated in my post about Mean Streets (1973),
Contrary to its title, Mean Streets is not mean-spirited at all. It is upbeat, funny, and centrally about friendship and loyalty between a bunch of variously incompetent yet basically good-hearted "mooks."
Goodfellas replaces Mean Streets' humanness and nostalgia with cleverness and cynicism. Everyone in Goodfellas is out to screw each other and derives perverse pleasure from doing so. Goodfellas glamorizes brutality and violence, not friendship. And while I have no problem with films that depict how barbaric and misdirected groups of men can be, it is Goodfellas' patina of smug, self-congratulatory cleverness, a wit that pretends to be ironic and deconstructive but actually isn't, that puts me off this film. The film is so in love with its fucked-up characters and its own sense of humor that it cannot achieve a point of view outside of either, the way Heat does or Aguirre, Wrath of God does or even Funny Games does. Goodfellas celebrates and glorifies that which (I think) it means to parody. This is not good.*

When my undergraduate film students write papers about Goodfellas, they discuss it straightforwardly as a "great gangster film," not as a parody of one. Of course, part of that reading is bound up in (most of) those students' ignorance of the long tradition of gangster films upon which Scorsese is drawing here. Yet I argue that the film's rhapsodic tone and love of its despicable characters contributes strongly to this impression as well. As AV Club's Ryan Vlastelica fairly recently put it: "The film is like the cinematic version of a Ferrari: so fun to ride along with that you barely think about the sophisticated workings under the hood." He means that comment as praise, yet I see it as the source of the film's ideological danger.

Unlike Scorsese's own earlier works such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets, Goodfellas does not make it clear that we should be critical of Henry Hill's way of life. A key difference between Goodfellas and its superior predecessor Mean Streets is from whose point of view the story gets told. In Mean Streets, it is Charlie (Harvey Keitel), the more mature aspiring wiseguy through whose eyes we see the reckless Johnny Boy (Robert de Niro) inexorably sow the seeds of his own destruction. This allows us to see Johnny Boy -- and by extension, this whole group of wiseguys -- for the cocky, violent idiots they really are.

Conversely, in Goodfellas, we see everything first person, via Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), this film's reckless Johnny Boy figure. Of course, Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito is thrown in so that there is another even more psychotic and reckless individual around to make Hill seem more measured, but the point stands: Goodfellas transpires from the point of view of the idiot himself, rather than the smarter character who is trying to manage the idiot. This makes a big difference. It also doesn't help that Goodfellas lacks the sinister, tragic, discomfiting tone of, say, Raging Bull. It is, frankly, too much of a good time to effectively function as social critique.

That said, I know this is a subtle matter involving tone and point of view, and I acknowledge the potentially valid counterargument put forward by Matthew Eng, in which he argues that
[Scorsese] doesn’t warrant the blame for the chauvinistic vein in which Goodfellas’ bad fans have appropriated the film’s legacy to fit the superficially cool story they’d like it to be. (And between Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese has infamously seen his share of director-shaming misinterpretations.) Scorsese is, quite simply, far too talented and too intelligent a filmmaker to have made the movie Goodfellas is labeled as.
Is he really? I mean, I see this argument, and I agree that Scorsese is both enormously talented and highly intelligent, yet there is no reason he couldn't have slipped over the line on this film, accidentally lionizing the forms of masculinity he so effectively deconstructed in those other films Eng and I have mentioned. Eng continues:
Even as Goodfellas coats a glittering sheen over most of Michael Ballhaus' marvelously multilayered images, Scorsese delves pretty deeply into the foolishly warped mind of Henry Hill, whom he pegs almost instantly as a craven, class-A manipulator. [. . .] Henry’s relentless pursuit of criminal aims allows him to become the type of made man he deified as a boy, a transformation that is firmly rooted in the heroic images of his departed youth, when he was initially recruited into mob society. In many ways, Henry is the prototypical Goodfellas bad fan. From there, Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi are ultimately less interested in creating heroes than in deconstructing Henry and his friends.
It's that "glittering sheen" I worry about. The tone of Goodfellas encourages us to enjoy Hill's madcap ride through his wiseguy fever dream, and ultimately to sympathize with him. Compare this to Raging Bull, in which whatever sympathy we might be able to muster for Jake La Motta (de Niro) is surely undermined by what a colossal, corrupt asshole he has been throughout the entire film. Sure, Bull makes La Motta's time in the ring look "glittery," epic, and aesthetically beautiful -- those fight sequences are some of the very best scenes of Scorsese's entire career -- yet anytime Jake steps out of the ring, he acts like a despicable, violent, antisocial asshole. Raging Bull makes very clear the ironic, even disgusted distance we are meant to impose when looking in on La Motta's disastrous life.

I am just not sure Goodfellas achieves that same ironic distance, despite Eng's noble defense of the film's deconstructive potential. I just don't see it that way, and that's why I find it hard to enjoy it.

Goodfellas is doubtless a technical masterwork, as this video -- which also foregrounds how intensely the film aligns the viewer with Hill's subjective point of view -- demonstrates:

But in the end, despite its high level of cinematic craft, I just find Goodfellas to be:

(1) Too clever in a self-satisfied way to function as a sufficiently deconstructive ideological critique of the violent masculinity it displays,


(2) A less interesting, less clever, less raw rehashing of characters, ideas, and themes Scorsese already explored with much more finesse in the truly great Mean Streets.

So fuck Goodfellas -- give me Mean Streets. Or give me Michael Mann's crime film masterpiece Heat (1995), which is fifty quadrillion times better than Martin Scorsese's vastly overrated gangster comedy.

* Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange has the same problem. I think -- I hope! -- it means us to be critical of Alex's antisocial behavior, yet it makes him so likeable and amusing and hard to censure that it may ultimately fail as satire, at least of anything other than the state apparati that attempt to condition the violence out of Alex via torture.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Three Wonderful Recent-ish Movies

Over the past couple of months, I have seen a few films that stand out in a special way. These three -- What We Do in the Shadows, Nightcrawler, and The Skeleton Twins (all 2014) -- are, of the several films I have watched lately, the ones that gave me the most pleasure as I watched them and stuck with me most poignantly afterward.*

What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary comedy about a group of vampires living together as flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand. It is the outright funniest film I have seen all year (beating out Spy). The filmmakers really understand the classic tropes of the vampire genre. They skewer them all brilliantly. Furthermore, there are some delightfully unexpected twists, as when the newest member of the vampire clan brings his human "best mate" Stu over to meet his undead roommates -- and Stu ends up becoming the most popular member of the group.

Vladislav, Deacon, and Viago jam out in What We Do in the Shadows.

What We Do in the Shadows really nails the drily witty mockumentary form, standing alongside the Christopher Guest-directed classics Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003) as an all-time great of this particular comedic subgenre. Like the Guest films that I assume inspired it, Shadows culminates in a big event that brings all the key characters together, in this case the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball. The events that transpire during and after that sequence alone are worth seeing the movie for, as are the flatmates' occasional run-ins with the local police.

Shadows contains a few moments of graphic blood and gore, though (to my eye anyway) these come across as more excessively Monty Python-esque than truly horrific. No, the dominant tone here is laugh-out-loud funny -- there is one sequence in the film, when  neat-freak vampire Viago is laying down newspapers to protect his couch before he attacks a victim, that had me belly laughing for quite some time.

Viago is a bit of a neat-freak. 

Despite its mild use of horror elements (in addition to the blood, there is one vampire attack that is rather sudden and unexpected), I would recommend What We Do in the Shadows to practically anyone. If you like comedy in general and/or witty mockumentaries in particular, you will find plenty to enjoy in Shadows.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler is also something of a comedy, serving as a bleak satire of the news production business. However, despite its darkly satirical tone and many absurdist moments, it probably has more in common with the urban noir thriller than with any other genre. It is more pulse-pounding than laughter-producing.

As A.J Snyder writes in his capsule review of Nightcrawler, "While much has been said about the intensity of [Jake] Gyllenhaal's performance, and rightfully so, I feel like the single greatest strength of the film is its allegory for capitalism's current mode of racing to the bottom-most line." That's it exactly. While Gyllenhaal's central performance is intense and intriguing and delightful, the whole film -- including Rene Russo's superb costarring turn -- is so cleverly put together and expertly paced that I was completely on the edge of my seat the whole time through.

Furthermore, the film has a clearly articulated central theme about the cruelty and inhumanity that lie at the heart of media consumerism which it conveys quite efficiently via what you see and experience, without undue expository dialogue. (Thematically it reminded me a bit of Sofia Coppola's underrated The Bling Ring.) 

Lastly, there is cinematographer Robert Elswit's (There Will Be Blood) sublimely photographed setting: the city of Los Angeles. Nightcrawler is an exemplary "L.A. film," joining the ranks of such classics as Chinatown, Shampoo, Heat, Collateral, Short Cuts, and Boyz n the Hood in taking full advantage of the particular way L.A. sprawls around its various disparate neighborhoods, crisscrossed by freeways. It's a weird place (both geographically and vibe-wise) that I always enjoy seeing depicted poetically on screen. Nightcrawler captures its unique qualities about as well as any film I've seen.

Iconic L.A. images captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit for Nightcrawler

Yes, Nightcrawler is one of the finest thrillers and one of the sharpest satirical dark comedies I have seen in quite some time. Packed with uniformly great performances, a tight, compelling script, and haunting L.A. cinematography, it will surely loom large in my End-of-Year reflections.**

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in the touching, heartful dramedy The Skeleton Twins.

Set in an unspecified small town ("near Woodstock") in upstate New York, The Skeleton Twins is a film that, like Nightcrawler, I intended to see in the theater but ended up seeing on Netflix streaming. The movie is a somewhat dark yet ultimately heartwarming dramedy about an estranged twin brother and sister coming back into each other's lives after a ten-year hiatus.

The Skeleton Twins' dark side comes in part from its engagement with the topic of suicide. The film opens with Milo (Bill Hader) making a suicide attempt, and when that fails, the hospital calls his sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) to come pick him up just as she is about to make an attempt on her own life the very same day. The film treats this remarkable coincidence with dark humor, yet it also reveals later in the proceedings that the twins' father successfully killed himself when they were young, adding dramatic weight to the suicide theme. Unraveling why both siblings find themselves so unhappy with their lives, and how and why they drifted apart from each other for ten years, becomes the film's raison d'etre.

Milo and Lance get to know each other, with mixed results. 

Part of the problem on Maggie's side is her inability to remain faithful to Lance, her upbeat, kindly, yet dimwitted husband (played to perfection by Luke Wilson, always my favorite of the two Wilson brothers). Lance wants to have children but Maggie doesn't, and rather than confront him him with this, she has flings behind his back. Meanwhile, Milo rekindles an old relationship that causes major problems for himself and reopens old wounds between he and Maggie. All of this conflict is so well scripted and performed, and the casting (including Ty Burrell as Milo's sexually conflicted old flame) so spot-on, that the film is simply a delight to watch. Both Wiig and Hader deliver nuanced characterizations that allow us to feel great empathy for these two lost souls even as we watch them make repeated mistakes. And the moments in which they laugh and get along together are very natural, believable, and warm.

Kristen Wiig delivers a downbeat yet empathetic and lived-in performance as Maggie. 

Ultimately, The Skeleton Twins is a carefully sketched portrait of strained yet loving sibling relations, and while the film's climactic episode may feel a wee bit contrived to some viewers, it is emotionally correct, and the film ends on a lovely note of reconciliation, as comedies should.

Plus, any movie with an unruly kid flipping adults the bird automatically gets my vote:

Cullen flips the bird. 

* I almost included a fourth film, Azazel Jacobs's Terri (2011), in this post, but despite its many delights and pleasures, that indie masterpiece is more offbeat and less plot-driven than any of the three I have included. I decided that it might be hard to recommend Terri to readers who don't enjoy meandering yet well-observed slice-of-life films about socially alienated weirdos quite as much as I do. You will be able to read my capsule review of Terri in this year's forthcoming End-of-Year Roundup.
** Here are links to my 2013 and 2014 End-of-Year Roundups. Yee-haw!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

EW #11: King Kong (1933)

King Kong.

As a lover of horror and monster movies, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's masterpiece King Kong (1933) is one of my all-time favorite motion pictures.

Although there are a few silent monster movies that came before it (The Lost World [1925], The Golem [1920]), and although Universal Studios' 1931 Dracula rightfully takes principal credit for launching the horror film boom of the early Hollywood "talkie" era, Cooper and Schoedsack's King Kong nevertheless stands as the most popular and influential monster movie of all time. Even Ishiro Honda's brilliant Gojira (1954) owes a debt of influence to Kong's groundbreaking horror extravaganza. Fusing an action/adventure film with a terrifying "monster on the loose " rampage in New York City, King Kong sets the narrative template and production standard for all monster films ever made in the wake of its release.

To start with, Willis O'Brien's animation work on King Kong is enormously influential and quite magical. 1933's Kong (the creature) is still, for me, the most convincing one. As Entertainment Weekly's short blurb for their Top 100 Films List says, King Kong's "stop-motion effects retain every bit of their magic as Kong the giant gorilla awes, terrifies, and breaks your heart." I couldn't agree more. It is no coincidence that the EW writers and I both use the word "magic" to describe the monster effects in the 1933 Kong. This is an example of "movie magic" at its absolute creative and affective pinnacle.

Willis O'Brien's "performance" of Kong is an amazing feat of special effects artistry. 

Another reason why the 1933 Kong is so great is that it does not waste time. Its hallmark is narrative tightness, smooth flow, and excellent pacing. It runs a lean and mean 104 minutes in total (including a pre-credits musical overture). No subsequent version has really gained anything by being longer. Twenty-five minutes into the 1933 Kong, our protagonists have reached Skull Island and are preparing to go ashore. In Peter Jackson's overlong 2005 version, at twenty-five minutes Denham et. al. are still fucking around in New York City and the Venture hasn't even left the harbor yet. Yawn!

King Kong is also particularly effective (and historically significant) thanks to Max Steiner's innovative musical score. While the singular importance of King Kong's soundtrack has been disputed (or at least complicated) by some film historians (see Michael Slowik's superb article "Diegetic Withdrawal and Other Worlds" in Cinema Journal 53.1), it nevertheless marks a watershed moment during which the cinematic score came into its own in Hollywood.* Especially distinctive in Kong are the ceremonial drums our protagonists hear as they approach Skull Island, which signal to them that the supposedly uninhabited island is anything but. As film critic James Snead writes, those drums serve as a form of subtle (and influential) aural coding that clue us into the identity of the islanders: "Steiner's coding of blackness by 'the drum' founds (in the relatively youthful art of synchronized movie sound) a longstanding cinematic device" which will be used again and again whenever blacks -- especially 'native' ones -- hereafter appear in popular film.**

Mentioning those drums raises the biggest problem I have with King Kong. Like Gone with the Wind and so many other Hollywood classics, Kong is unabashedly racist, sexist, and imperialist. As Snead argues,
In all Hollywood film portrayals of blacks, the political is never far from the sexual, for it is both as a political and a sexual threat that the black skin appears onscreen. And nowhere is this more plainly to be seen than in King Kong. There are very few instances in the history of Hollywood cinema in which the color black has been writ so large and intruded so powerfully into the social plane of white normality.***
Kong's main threat, then, is a sexual one that is coded black. He stands in for the frightening black bogeyman/rapist that has haunted the white imagination for so much of its cultural history. Kong's abduction of Ann (Fay Wray) makes the stakes of King Kong clear: it is a struggle between white masculinity and black masculinity for the erotic possession of the white woman's body (and by extension her reproductive power). Spoiler: In all three versions of King Kong, as in the vast majority of Hollywood films, the white men win.

In case there was any question about the sexual dimension of Kong's obsession with Ann, the scene in which he half undresses her and sniffs his fingers after caressing her body should clarify this point. 

Protecting his highly prized white woman, King Kong pulverizes the shit out of a pterodactyl. 

What is colossally unfair about all this is that Denham (Robert Armstrong) deliberately provokes Kong's abduction of Ann. He brings her to the island with the express intention of placing her in mortal danger for the sake of his adventure film. Writing about the ending, and insisting that King Kong is ultimately "about the motives and effects of Carl Denham's deeds," Snead tells us that
The relationship between Ann and Jack survives only at the cost of an execution. The narrative pleasure of seeing the (white) male-female bond re-established at the end tends to screen out the full meaning of the final shot: the accidental (black) intruder lies bloody and dead on the ground, his epitaph given glibly by the very person [Denham] who has trapped him."† 
In essence, Denham stages a spectacular show in which Kong's kidnapping of Ann justifies white male retribution against the creature, who represents blackness. Thereby, the responsibility for Kong's capture and subsequent death is deflected back onto Kong himself, instead of being laid at Denham's feet where it belongs. This is a classic example of very effective "blame the victim" rhetoric.

Denham: "It was beauty killed the beast." LIAR!!

Denham's explicit role as a film director and cinematographer drives home King Kong's dominant thematic message: that we are all implicated in his visual colonization, capture, and killing of Skull Island's most noteworthy black denizen. As Snead puts it,  
[it is difficult to resist] our gradual implication in Denham's optical colonialism. Even a viewer repulsed by Denham's many negative qualities would have difficulty resisting the pull of his powerful voyeurism [. . .]. The political ideology of the film soon becomes inextricable from the pleasure we take in the very act of seeing.  The power of staging a 'show' (watching a 'girl' scream or 'natives' dancing) is no longer Denham's alone. King Kong, by a rather devious movement, makes us cheer him on. 
Carl Denham, visual colonizer, capturer, and killer of black bodies.

All that said, if we disqualified racist films from EW's list, it would contain practically no films at all. We live in a structurally racist and sexist society, and so of course our popular media reflect that back to us, both in the historical past and in the present dayKing Kong stands as an example of both Hollywood's ubiquitous pro-white-maleness and as a singular apex of its ability to produce narrative, cinematographic, musical, and special effects artistry. Kong is a terrifically fun film and, despite its ideological shortcomings, well deserving of its high placement on this "Top Films" list.

Bonus Afterthoughts: In my view, the 1933 version of King Kong is the best version by a long shot. For me, the versions get steadily worse as they go: the much-maligned 1976 version starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange is second-best, and Peter Jackson's overlong, bombastic 2005 remake is the worst of the three. Having already extolled the many virtues of the original, let me briefly explain why I rank the 1976 version above Jackson's dull, over-inflated remake.

Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and Jessica Lange in the 1976 remake of King Kong

First, let me confess to two biases regarding the 1976 Kong: (1) it is the first version of King Kong I ever saw, so doubtless it created a stronger impression on me than it would have if I had seen the superior 1933 version first, and (2) I am generally predisposed to like 1970s cinema (as, for example, my reviews of Nashville and The Fog should make abundantly clear).

One of the biggest complaints I've heard regarding the 1976 Kong is about the monster itself: rather than an animated creature, the 1976 version utilizes a man in a gorilla suit. Not only is this choice perceived as a failure of special effects innovation in general, the performance of that guy in a suit is considered to be unconvincing and not very gorilla-like. Indeed, the 1976 embodiment of Kong walks upright rather than hunched forward, making no real effort to conceal his very human gait and posture. Yet, despite my recognition of its cheapness, that guy in a gorilla suit actually works for me -- after all, King Kong is supposed to be a unique creature, "neither man nor beast," so why should he necessarily behave and move exactly as a real gorilla would? Maybe I was just too young and impressionable when I saw this version of the film, but the creature never struck me as unconvincing -- indeed, I always found him scary and, at times, quite sympathetic.

That brings me to one of the greatest triumphs of the 1976 Kong: its overtly environmental message. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 1976 version is the most ideologically progressive version of King Kong. Bridges plays an animal rights hippie who sneaks aboard an oil company ship heading to Skull Island to exploit it. He spends the whole movie critiquing Fred Wilson (Grodin) and his corporation's motives in capturing and crassly exploiting King Kong. Most remarkable in the 1976 version is an extended set of scenes taking place on the ship's return voyage from the island for which there is no analogue in the 1933 or 2005 versions. This sequence depicts Kong entrapped and miserable in the cargo hold of the ship, generating unprecedented pathos for his unjust fate and heavily underscoring Kong's moral superiority to his captors.

The 1976 Kong may just be a guy in an ape suit, yet scenes like this one generate strong viewer sympathy for the unjustly incarcerated creature. 

This progressivism extends (somewhat) to the 1976 Kong's treatment of its indigenous Skull Island tribespeople. Bridges's anthropologist Driscoll says of them that "when we took Kong, we took their god." Sure, this is still a privileged white man speaking on behalf the indigenous "Other" whose point of view we never truly know, yet it is more voice or agency than the Skull Islanders get in any other version of the movie. In 1933 they are infantile idiots to be laughed at, and in 2005 they are murderous horror-film monsters to be reviled. Here, at least, their sufferings are acknowledged.

The 1976 Kong does run a bit long, 134 minutes in total. One especially feels this length in the film's third act, during the New York City sequences, which go on a wee bit longer than they need to. Yet the film does not drag nearly as badly as does Jackson's 2005 remake (187 mins long!), and at least it extends certain portions (as in the return voyage sequences just discussed) in order to bring fresh, new ideas to the table.

As for the 2005 version, Jackson gets the digital design of Kong just right, but then animates him very badly as he moves through cinematic space (scroll down to item #2 on this list). Despite some inspired casting (Naomi Watts and Jack Black are especially good) and a cool-looking gorilla (as long as he sits still), the film is just too long, too slow-paced, and too overstuffed with unnecessary crap that it diffuses any power the film might have over its viewer. 2005 Kong is a prime example of sloppy, over-indulgent filmmaking of the kind late-career Jackson seems to favor. It is boring. No thanks.

Rene Auberjonois sez: "You'd get better mileage filling up your Cadillac with mule piss!"

* Slowik's fascinating article works to complicate the idea that Max Steiner's Kong score single-handedly "paved the way for the Golden Age of film music (roughly 1935 to 1950)" (p. 1). Obviously, I highly recommend his article. For additional reading, Slowik offers some afterthoughts about his essay here and film composer David Allen offers historical and musical insights into the scores for both the 1933 and 2005 versions of Kong here.
** James Snead, White Screens, Black Images (Routledge, 1994) p. 19.
*** Snead p. 8.
† Snead pp. 16, 15.
†† Snead pp. 25-6.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Cthulhu (2007) - Best DVD Commentary Ever

Back in August 2010, a friend lent me a DVD of Cthulhu (2007), a not-so-great low-budget ($1 million) horror film whose main claims to fame are that Tori Spelling plays a small but tantalizing role in it, and that it features possibly THE BEST DVD COMMENTARY TRACK EVER!

While many director's DVD commentaries are all but useless, consisting primarily of self-congratulatory chatter and vapid anecdotes about what happened to a certain prop or costume AFTER the film wrapped, Cthulhu's commentary, featuring Director Dan Gildark and Screenwriter/Executive Producer Grant Cogswell, is a rich collection of technical making-of insights accompanied by hindsightful ruminations about why the project failed.  And while this may sound silly at first -- listening to a commentary track for a bad movie, wherein that commentary only confirms that the movie I'm watching is indeed bad -- it has been, in fact, one of the most instructional and gripping 100 minutes I've spent in a long time.  First-time filmmakers Gildark and Cogswell are extremely frank about what went wrong on Cthulhu, and speak in detailed fashion about what could have been done to improve the end product and make their lives easier during production.  For example, screenwriter Cogswell (who reveals that he sunk a staggering $175,000 of his own money into the project!!) states early on that his biggest mistake was writing way too many locations into the film, and that that factor cut into their budget and their time (what with extensive travel between locations all up and down the West Coast) in disastrous ways.  Both he and Gildark emphatically urge other first-time filmmakers to begin their projects with solid scripts set in relatively few locations -- a single location if possible (e.g., Tape, Clerks).  This is crucial advice from people who, sadly, had to learn it the hard way. 

Cogswell and Gildark both stress the importance of having a very good script, noting that Tori Spelling came on board the Cthulhu project on the basis of its script.  All actors, even famous ones, are on the lookout for meaty roles in good scripts, so the quality of a film's script is all-important to attracting stars, as well as ensuring a smooth production process.  Further, a script can limit or even to some extent dictate the pacing of the finished film, so revising the screenplay for pacing is key: Gildark states that Act One of Cthulhu (introducing the characters and the film's main narrative conflict) does not end until the 49-minute mark, awfully late in a film for the heightened conflicts, juicy narrative twists, and increased pacing of Act Two to get underway.  Another hard lesson learned, after it was too late to significantly change the film, even in editing.  The filmmakers attempted rewrites and post-production re-shoots to tighten the first act, but to no avail: the film is just really slow for almost the entirety of its first hour.  Beautifully shot in many scenes, and well-acted throughout, but draggingly slow nevertheless.

Cthulhu screenwriter Cogswell is fairly unforgiving of his own mistakes, and while he may be correct in his assessment that the Cthulhu script was too ambitious for its budget, at least in terms of locations, I had the feeling listening to the commentary and watching the film that these two guys set out to make a horror movie that was true to the spirit of its source material (Lovecraft's novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth) while incorporating thought-provoking new ideas, including a homosexual main character.  This is bold stuff, and is the kind of risky territory that low-budget, independently produced cinema can and should venture into as frequently as possible, since the studios won't go near it.  As the Cthulhu commentary progressed, I found myself really admiring these two geeks who set off to make a potentially audacious, meaningful, smart horror film, yet who lacked the skill and experience to pull it off even to their own satisfaction (let alone the critics' or audiences').

But their DVD commentary may be Gildark and Cogswell's actual magnum opus.  Alongside the Hooper-Pearl-Hansen commentary on the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD (which the Cthulhu filmmakers specifically mention during their commentary!), Gildark and Cogswell's feature-length commentary on Cthulhu is one of the most informative such things I have ever heard, offering insight into how to make low-budget films correctly precisely via the candor with which it reveals how to do it incorrectly.  Only the Alien 3 special features or the documentary film Lost In La Mancha even come close to Cthulhu's commentary track in terms of accurately documenting a troubled production with such admirable honesty.  I would consider buying the Cthulhu DVD expressly for its commentary and I would make it assigned listening for future students of low-budget filmmaking practices and production.