With David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) releasing on Criterion today in a beautifully restored 4k edition supervised by Mr. Byrne himself, I have been thinking a lot about what makes the film so unique, and loved by so many. There is a tendency to see the film as a scathing critique of small town southern life, rather than a celebration of the idiosyncrasies that can exist in a place so removed from the rest of the world. To see True Stories this way, however, is to seriously misinterpret not only the film, but David Byrne as a person.
It is understandable that fans of Byrne’s band The Talking Heads – known for its deceivingly upbeat pessimism – would want to see a film about a town full of neurotics, fools, and people whose favorite pastime is going to an outlet mall as a harsh criticism of suburban life; that we are meant to laugh at these people rather than with them. However, what True Stories really marks is the beginning of Byrne stepping away from that pessimism. It is only in hindsight that this becomes abundantly clear, as we see what Byrne is up to now. His new album, pointedly called American Utopia takes a much more positive (although not at all ignorant) approach to the current state of the world than, say, songs such as Only the Flowers or Life During Wartime. In fact, Byrne has been working continuously on a project called Reasons to Be Cheerful that shares technological innovations, social movements, and optimistic profile pieces from all over the world, with the sole purpose to restore faith in humanity during a time where it feels like there may not be much of that left.
In the first year of my mom and dad’s marriage, my mom remembers coming home late to see my dad sprawled on the couch, exhausted, watching Die Hard (1988). When she asked him what had made him decide to watch this particular film so late in the night on a weekday, he replied, “I’ve had a stressful day. I just needed to watch people blow up.” Although not nearly as charismatic or witty as John McTiernan’s modern classic, my father’s exhausted confession perfectly sums up my feelings about Julius Avery’s Overlord (2018).
Considering his other film of 2018 was the abysmal and insensitive Death Wish remake, Eli Roth’s pivot to the child-oriented The House With A ClockIn Its Walls (based on the young adult novel of the same name from Edward Gorey) may have taken quite a few people off guard. However, while I’ll admit the thought of him filming a horror story for kids had never crossed my mind until this announcement, it seemed like an area that Eli Roth may finally be able to shine in. Roth is well known for his over-the-top style of horror that can be interpreted either as enjoyable campy fun, or ridiculously stupid schlock depending on who you ask. Most of the time, I fall into the latter category but, just like a mother who keeps sending her deadbeat son checks in the mail, I always believed that Roth had a raw potential that was being wasted. The parts of Eli Roth’s style that I do enjoy always revolved around the obvious fun that he has on set, and the pure love he has for horror as a genre. What better place to explore that melodramatic dialogue and mess around with silly effects and scenarios than in a children’s horror film? Sure, he can’t be as bloody and insane as he is in all of his other movies, but the kitschy-ness of his style that usually comes across as messy or in poor taste would fit right in with a film all about an exuberant warlock and his larger-than-life house. This is what I wanted, what I hoped for, what I was really excited for. This is not what A House With a Clock In Its Walls gave me. Instead, what I got was a film that felt like the director himself had slept through it.
I can’t quite tell you why I was so excited for Papillon when I first saw the trailer for it a few months ago. I only found out after I had begun to anticipate it that it was actually a remake of a 1973 film by the same name, which in turn was based off a book of the same name, which was, in fact, a memoir from Henri Charrière (now played by Charlie Hunnam) whose nickname was, you guessed it – Papillon. I felt a bit silly for not knowing any of this beforehand, considering the original film starred Steve McQueen in the titular role, and Dustin Hoffman in the supporting role of Louie Dega (replaced in the new film by Rami Malek). Still, I enjoyed the fact that the only reason I had originally become excited for the film was because it seemed like a classically fun prison escape film, something that has been missing from the stack of summer blockbusters for the last few years. I became intrigued with the idea of going into this film completely blind, so as to not spend the entire runtime comparing and contrasting it to its predecessor. Instead, I could see it the way I had when I first saw the trailer: As a new and exciting prison escape genre action film starring two actors I’ve always enjoyed. If you go into this film having been a fan of the original, or having read the book for that matter, I’m not the person to tell you exactly how it holds up. But I’m of the belief that all films are created equal and deserve to be judged as such. With that being said, this film definitely manages to hold its own.