Tuesday, October 13, 2020

underseen for Halloween, 2020 (from behind the mask)

This year's encomiums include a pair of television-plays of 1973, but with no regard to proceedings lately before the eldership in America.    

As ever, the plays are mere hoarfrost amusements, or if the reader prefers, admonishments before "red hour," the tricks or treats.    

Dying Room Only (1973)

The late Richard Matheson was one of television's most reliable: he wrote for Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, created the underrated Circle of Fear, and supplied teleplays for various Dan Curtis productions, including both "Kolchak" features.  Like the Matheson-Spielberg Duel (1971), Dying Room Only is a desert-gothic and a precursor to The Hitcher, The Vanishing and Breakdown.  More modestly scaled, Dying Room Only has, in addition to Matheson's craft, striking desert photography, and a cast including two Oscar winners.

An “ordinary” couple is returning from a road-trip vacation.  Wife Cloris Leachman wants to drive 100 miles out-of-the-way to get photos of a native "wikiup" for a school project (the kid's back home).  Husband Dabney Coleman resists; their quarrel is horror's trigger-sin. 

In a culture dependent on racial identity, it’s not unusual for an American film to be about race even when all characters are white.  This spousal conflict, referencing Indians, evokes national anxiety.  Later, Cloris pokes into a dark storeroom, as if in the national unconscious.   

Handled correctly, such notes create an edge, especially for white viewers: for the conservative, the characters are endangered by their soft-minded disloyalty and condescension.  And regardless, they've been identified with genocide. 

When Coleman disappears, Leachman runs up against clannish locals Ned Beatty (just off the implicitly racial Deliverance) and Ross Martin.  Malignity is gradually exposed, in unnerving fashion.  The narrative is so hard on the female lead, some may object.  Early in 2nd-wave feminism, equality was dead serious -- she's on her own.

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) 

This film is charged mislabeled, because not faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel.  Without researching the makers' intent, it's frustrating: if faithfulness were the claim, they could’ve billed it “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” (available, in 1973). 

Perhaps the subtitle is more in reference to metaphor cheek-by-jowl with reality.  Frankenstein: The True Story, originally a prestige miniseries, is very much costume horror.  Amid the shocks and trading for parts, we see 17th century industry draw motley laborers from all points, to form new, roiling communities.  Historically, the communities became Frankenstein cultures, often appalling, disowned and self-loathing.  A cultured appreciation for history helps this version be a worthy cousin to Hammer's Frankenstein, then completing its impressive run.

The cast includes Michael Sarrazin as the Creature and David McCallum as Clerval; Jane Seymour is memorably erotic as Prima.  Top billing goes to James Mason, who'd already been 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, and would groom The Boys from Brazil (these credits bely Charlton Heston as first science-fiction star).  

Mason plays Polidori, a new character (by teleplay writer Christopher Isherwood) named after a real friend of the Shelleys.  Although this senior scientist is more consequential than those in most Frankenstein films, Polidori does nothing to discourage Victor’s recklessness.  Perhaps the name was too good to waste: a professed love of all implies an actual love of no one.  This Polidori is an omnivore, waiting for one like Victor to dare the jealousy of God.

With these provocative threads, and the miniseries form still largely untested, a touch of self-sabotage should not surprise.  The first minutes shatter the fourth wall, as Mason hosts clips that give away too much of the plot (skip to 5:44 to avoid spoilers).  

Well, it’s not as if we're unfamiliar with the major beats.  Since at least James Whale in 1931, Shelley's novel has likely been on-the-boards somewhere on any given day.  Frankenstein is a modernist liturgy, a ritual of egomaniacal science transgressing and punished.  The universal refusal to marry Shelley has kept her narrative electric and viral.  And we need the catharsis, when the creature so rarely completes circuit back to his creator ... this side of the mirror.  

Extraordinary Tales (2013)

This is an impressive animated anthology of Edgar Allan Poe, evidently for all ages.  As such,  the Tales are among the most familiar, and will elicit varied responses.  The animation style is more like book illustrations than anything "cartoony," and reminded me of the classics The Selfish Giant and The Woods.  Voices heard include those of Bela Lugosi (reading "The Tell-Tale Heart) and Christopher Lee.  

Caveats: some screens are busy with CGI; the pace is too fast in the first two stories.  It's understandable to schedule for parents, with content more challenging as we go (kids-to-bed before "The Masque of the Red Death"), but the opener, "The Fall of the House of Usher," plays like "Rod Usher's Greatest Hits."  It's especially regrettable in that the medium seems ideal for multiple versions of a film.    

Still, it's an impressive set, especially the wry horror of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and the quietly terrifying "The Pit and the Pendulum."  These are reason to see Extraordinary Tales.  "Valdemar" may be the best English-language version; certainly, it's flights above George Romero's misbegotten Two Evil Eyes (1990).  (Correction:) While worthy Corman-Poe, Tales of Terror (1962) commercializes "Valdemar" with a romance.  (Reviews discourage consideration for The Mesmerist, a 2005 black comedy with Neil Patrick Harris.)

Extraordinary Tales is wrapped in an original frame: a Continental-accented Lady Death tries to seduce Poe (as a raven) from his attachment to life.  If their dialogue is "therapy-speak," it is, at least, perceptive: 

Lady Death: You have devoted so many pages to my name ...  All veiled love letters, addressed to me. You fear me.  And yet you are insatiably attracted. Come with me … it's time.

Poe: No -- it cannot be. I don't want to be forgotten. I was buried in a common grave. My writings were forgotten for years.

Lady Death: ... Come now, Poe. You love me! You've been a corpse walking amongst the living for a long time, Edgar. It must have been quite a strain ...  Look at your final acts: they all succumb to my prowess.  The poor, the weak, the rich, the powerful.  Everybody bows before me. 

There's nothing unusual in Poe being temporarily forgotten, it was the same with H.P. Lovecraft.  That which is most challenging to the culture triggers a quarter-century denial (where needed, the period is indefinite).  Similarly, the films we revisit from any era are almost never the hits.  

If Edgar Allan Poe triumphed over death, it was from insight.  He knew the optimistic, utopian, forward-thinking society protests too much, its national poet should write "horror stories for boys" (critic Leslie Fiedler's phrase).  And so the obscurity, pitched in a pauper's grave, has 392 credits on the IMDb.  


Sunday, May 10, 2020

Deep Red (1994 TV movie) score: 2 of 4

Haun as the first human to benefit from "Reds"
not that Deep Red
In a prologue that evokes Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Thing (1982), an alien ship disintegrates in Earth's atmosphere.  As tiny shards spray a park, one pierces a girl's face (as an adult, Lindsey Haun would have a recurring role on True Blood).  She not only recovers, her club foot is healed.

Duly impressed, scientist Newmeyer (John de Lancie) seizes the alien nanotech, dubbed "Reds," as a lucrative panacea/fountain of youth.  ("Deep Reds" are the upgrade, or something.)  He's opposed by the girl's mother (Lisa Collins), herself revivified, but also reeling from the murder of her husband (Newmeyer's erstwhile colleague), played by future-Jigsaw Tobin Bell.

the goodies: Collins, Pacula & Biehn
All of which might be too much premise for a mock-serious neo-noir with a dangling subplot about killer milkmen.  It might've worked as a self-spoof, but even the humor could've used Deep Reds (and milk).

As noted on Moria, Deep Red is confusing: we expect the aliens to show up (again) -- they never do -- while the indulgent character-morphing might force a rewind.  Script fixes would've been rather simple, raising questions of what happened, and, perhaps, the prospect of a redemptive remake.

Michael Biehn is well-cast as Joe Keyes, a dissolute P.I. hired by Collins.  Keyes has been down, ever since a colleague's wife was killed on his watch, which sounds like backstory for a series.  The cast also includes conspiracy vet Joanna Pacula, Steven Williams as a sketchy police contact, and John Kapelos, in basically his Forever Knight role.  Further "pilot" evidence: the nanotech isn't discredited by the end, as the new (very healthy) family drives to sundown.

Amusingly, as Deep Red begins, it seems everyone in this Dark City has a shingle, outside dirty office with desk and chair, like a comic variant of "Demon with a Glass Hand."  There are such glimmers, but like the pieces of the alien craft, they disperse. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

bats left (no, right), throws right (no, left)

My work is rarely to-the-minute, and I rarely consider when a piece will be read.  I started this post long before Covid-19 and the consequent postponing of the baseball season.  If it doesn't elevate, nor replace peanuts and Cracker Jack, it is, I hope, of interest.         
Over the winter, news of an actual MLB game to be played at the location for 1989's Field of Dreams (left) summoned one of the all-time film flubs: Shoeless Joe Jackson hitting right-handed.  Ray Liotta, playing Jackson, failed badly to hit left-handed despite pro coaches on set (per this New York Post interview).  Finally, Liotta was given permission to switch sides.  It doesn't explain why the filmmakers didn't prioritize accuracy from the start.

The 1919 White Sox added disgrace to poverty when they threw the World Series.  70 years on, the "Black Sox" were in the zeitgeist: 1988's Eight Men Out had D.B. Sweeney as Jackson.  According to MLB Radio's Ryan Spilborghs (in a special devoted to Bull Durham), the athletic motions in Eight Men Out are "terrible."  Even so, that Joe Jackson hit lefty, at least.  Filmmaking is tough, but faking a base hit is still easier than the real skill (hitting a round ball with a round bat).  Faking is Hollywood's job.

Shoeless Joe Jackson

It's not that Ray Liotta was perfect casting otherwise: he doesn't look or sound like Jackson, who was from South Carolina.  (Actually, Jackson looked more like top-billed Kevin Costner.)  The production makes matters worse in the field: Jackson threw right-handed, but Liotta's Jackson throws left-handed (again, the actor's preference).  Effectively, the switch draws the attention of anyone still oblivious.  (Field of Dreams also flips Moonlight Graham left to right as a batter, as the redemption-mad narrative grants a sympathetic washout his first big-league at-bat.)

Liotta as Jackson
Thus, we've had non-answers regarding Field of Dreams and its Bizarro World Joe Jackson.  As with Marco Rubio's awkward lunge (addressed here), the baseball flick's "epic fail" may be rooted in polarization trauma.

If so, the filmmakers added their own reason for anxiety.  Their message is memorably spoken by James Earl Jones (as author Terence Mann):
The one constant through all the years ... has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again.  But baseball -- has marked the time.  This field, this game ... (is) a reminder of all that's good, and could be again.  
Fans can only forgive the script's worst sabotage: the school-auditorium meeting.  All the parents arguing for exclusion of Mann's indecorous book (from the school library) fit the Hollywood-and-Left stereotype: they're ignorant, resentful, repressed.  As Annie Kinsella, Amy Madigan warns them not to be like "the Nazis."  Just as young Ray (Costner) insulted his father (who died before Ray could apologize), the film picks a side from which to decry division.

Even with this regrettable scene, Field of Dreams delivered a plea for unity.  It went unheeded, but we should have self-mercy.  Polarization, I've come to believe, is part of the normal operation of the United States.  The owner of a high performance car should expect road noise and greater maintenance; a nation based in diversity, democracy and ambition is comparable.  (Reading on 3/27, this is ~trite.  But who makes it so?)

If we get twitchy around moves left and right, we need the distraction.  The existential unknown may be displaced to a Jack Nicholson movie: "what if this is as good as it gets?"  How would we ever react, to the honest conviction all our American plans are good for a laugh.

This blog doesn't feature comments, but I very much appreciate your reading.  

Sunday, March 22, 2020

checkdown: Brooklyn's Finest (2009) score: 1.5 (of 4)

"Checkdown" is overheard lingo from American football: a play called at the line-of-scrimmage.  Thus, a checkdown review is relatively quick and rough, an attempted end-around perfectionism.  

Cheadle and Snipes posture in Brooklyn's Finest
A tragedy of Hollywood is that the established filmmaker may be subjected to more pressure than the first-time director.  It can ruin an otherwise well-made film, like this one by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen).  That it fools some (6.7 IMDb) doesn't make it less ridiculous.

Brooklyn's Finest is about men, as portrayed by stars, those being Wesley Snipes, Ethan Hawke, Don Cheadle, Richard Gere, even Will Patton.  Over the course of the film, the characters plan, allude to and are accused of transgressions,  but we hardly see them do bad.  Repeatedly, the movie stops short: Hollywood stars are notorious for demanding likable, admirable characters.

And so Snipes is a compelling drug kingpin, for whom an undercover Cheadle nobly bleeds, while Hawke's up-against-it cop can't quite grab the loot once he has the chance, and consequently winds up shot.  Hawke's edgy NYC detective also won't allow ethnic jokes at his poker game.  As for Richard Gere's character, he seems well-preserved and virile, for a disgraced alcoholic.  He remains a cop for the pension, but redeems himself saving abused women.

Apparently, writer Michael C. Martin and Fuqua couldn't fit a scene with a cat up a tree.    

Friday, February 28, 2020

Legion (1998 TV-movie) score: 2 (of 4)

** minor spoilers only **

Legion gets a nod in Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan by Fraser A. Sherman, so I braved a stuttery stream.  A modest Sci-Fi Channel production (not yet "Syfy" in 1998), the tale of future war is like a facetious episode of the contemporary Outer Limits.  It doesn't quite work, but with points of interest.

Terry Farrell in more familiar guise
Moonlighting from Deep Space 9, Terry Farrell is Major Agatha Doyle, who's tasked with leading a dirty-dozen military offenders against an enemy "fuel processing plant" in a civil war for the solar system.  Her platoon of "scum" all have the requisite vital specialties and tragic backstories, e.g., Parker Stevenson's an officer cashiered for desertion.  There are multiple psychopaths (one a needle addict), a saboteur fragger, and a colorful distaff column: a nympho traitor, a rape-revenge case, and a religious fanatic.

Farrell doesn't convince as a hard-bitten officer, but it's partly the script: Doyle is so one-note tough, I suspected she was an android.  An interesting cast also includes Rick Springfield and Trevor Goddard.  Corey Feldman may be cast to type, but he gives a lazy, selfish performance as a (brainy) con.

The team starts 10-strong, and as they split up for patrol, the viewer may conflate.  Most turn out to have been falsely accused and/or acting in self-defense, suggesting the script/movie might've started as a pilot.

These heart-of-gold badasses don't know just what they're fighting, except that it's big and bad and leaves piles of uniformed corpses behind.  Once revealed, the foe makes an impression (less so, for those who've glimpsed the box art), but Legion takes too long getting there.  Worse, there's little progressive learning, though the viewer may triangulate from the premise, title, and Troy Donahue's character.

In a mystery-thriller, half the fun is matching wits with the protagonists as they strategize.  Without intell, Farrell in particular is left hanging, as Doyle incongruously agonizes over her fitness to command.  The all-at-once ending seemed confusing -- or maybe I checked out.   

These flaws could have been fixed, rather easily; it may've been (self-) sabotage.  While the film superficially resembles Space: Above and Beyond,  the relatively gung ho Fox series, these Legion-aires are entirely victims of their own command.  This cheeseburger of a TV-movie dares portray an American military on imperial business (pointedly, the flag is unseen until a likely suicide errand).  Even when tongue-in-cheek, subversive content draws flak.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

War Machine (2017) rating: 3 of 4

War Machine is a dramatization of Michael Hastings' book about the Afghanistan war, The Operators (which expanded the 2010 Rolling Stone piece, "The Runaway General").  This film is welcome evidence Hollywood is still capable of satire (after Southland Tales, American Dreamz, The Joneses, Salvation Boulevard and Butter).
Brad Pitt as"MacMahon"

General Glen McMahon -- Brad Pitt, playing a cartoonish version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- seems more concerned with projecting affirmative masculinity than strictly military objectives.
It's a funny turn: ready with a buzzword, McMahon has a hilarious, stiff gait even when jogging.  Brow perpetually furrowed, his hands claw for odd emphasis.  But he rarely loses his temper, leaving it to a sycophantic posse.

As commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, his job isn't so much waging war as lobbying governments.  As said by a German official (Tilda Swinton in a lucid cameo), careerism renders  McMahon oblivious to whether American goals in the region make any sense.  When a U.S. soldier vents about the surreal conflict where medals are given for "courageous restraint," the general tells him "get un-confused."

The overall tone is sadly wry.  Though well-acted, some of the supporting characters smack of manipulation: the visiting wife (Meg Tilly) would be equally lonely during a necessary war; Ben Kingsley appears as the corrupt puppet-ruler of Afghanistan, but we don't see Hamid Karzai before the dubious office.

The pivotal scene is an airplane encounter between McMahon and Pat Mackinnon (Alan Ruck as a fictionalization of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry).  After one-or-more drinks, Mackinnon breaks down the general's task:
You're not here to win, you're here to clean up the mess ... (to) show everyone ... a nicer set of graphs.  Either that, or get yourself fired.  
These lines, along with McMahon's lack of "face time" with the president, illuminate the casual disrespect, reported by Hastings, of those up the chain of command.  Of course, President Obama soon fired McChrystal.

When a person or group consistently fails to achieve stated goals, we should question the desire to succeed.  Despite its wit and value as history, War Machine is ultimately disingenuous, in assuming American shortfalls in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East are problematic ... for anyone other than soldiers and the host nations (the word "insanity" is prominent). The opposite may be true, in the context of U.S. global dominance and, especially, the Pentagon's yearly allowance of over $500 billion.

Monday, November 18, 2019

underseen for Halloween 2019, Part 3: The Doctor and the Devils (1985)

(spoilers throughout)

           Roger Ebert called The Doctor and the Devils “unredeemed, dreary, boring, gloomy dreck.”  It is gloomy.  It's also mournfully distinctive, for this writer, and beautifully produced, both painterly and disgusting.  The last helps earn the horror tag, though it’s as much a period dramatization.  It's a based-on-truth Frankenstein movie.     
 from Shout! Factory
Despite the billing, the focus is the working class.  In early-19th century Britain, outdated mores forced a black market in fresh cadavers (for medical research), when the enterprising Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Broom (Stephen Rea) take up shovels.  Before it's done, at least one is a serial-killer avant la lettre.  Their patron is Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton), a progressive surgeon secure in his own virtue.  Rounding the eclectic cast are Julian Sands (who’d become a minor horror star) as a naif who falls for a bleak-minded whore (played by ‘60s model Twiggy), with Patrick Stewart as Rock’s fuming rival.
The milieu may evoke Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (and Michael Radford’s), though the Orwellian hell is government surveillance, which could've helped here.  Also, we may recall Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and true-crime biopics like In Cold Blood.  As were the The Body-Snatcher (1945) and The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), The Doctor and the Devils was inspired by the real Burke and Hare, suppliers to one Dr. Knox.  (Fiction can’t improve on the names.)  
Mostly, this film gets mixed reviews.  On Slant, Chuck Bowen ends a mostly positive review thus:

The Doctor and the Devils shares Rock’s problem: decrying the state of humanity while displaying precious little of its own.   
the Fox release

DVD Savant Glenn Erickson charges Freddie Francis with indifference:

there's no indication of a director doing anything more than illustrating a script. … this picture just plays out in a flat line. It's handsome and intelligent, but it doesn't grab us.

Well, it’s a hothouse flower.  Still, degrees of success shouldn’t prevent wonder at what's attempted: it's a rare film that disclaims Manichaeism, portraying modernity as an exploitation matrix.  (It seems hard to deny; I've written of our moral entanglement, as in this essay on The Sopranos.)  
The film's pedigree is impressive, and instructive.  Poet Dylan Thomas's screenplay was a pre-Black List item, unproduced for 30 years.  Producer Mel Brooks reportedly wanted major changes, but director Francis lobbied for a faithful adaptation, leading to revisions by Ronald Harwood.  
Harwood, best known for The Dresser, also wrote a series of plays and films about 20th century celebrities in relation to Nazi Germany, including The Pianist.  The Doctor and the Devils contains intimations of genocide, as do The Elephant Man and The Fly, other Mel Brooks productions.  (Of course, Mr. Brooks is Jewish.  He served in the U.S. military during World War II, later daring to make The Producers.)
             As Jim Knipfel describes on den of geek, several narrative films stay reasonably close to Burke and Hare.  Accuracy aside, and even with a tacked-on reprieve for the Twiggy character, The Doctor and the Devils is the least pandering version.  The others carefully delineate characters from viewers, as in casting the doctor: in The Flesh and the Fiends it's Peter Cushing, already known as Dr. Frankenstein, and it's uber-unnerving Henry Daniell in The Body-Snatcher (in an insipid subplot, Daniell initially refuses a disabled girl a needed operation).  Thriller "The Innocent Bystanders" (1962) is disgraceful, as it exaggerates a story that's terrible to begin with.  In each of these, one of the killers is made a (literal) moron, and a prominent victim, a beautiful woman.   
The Doctor and the Devils skips the doctor's noble, half-false confession (another trope), leaving him haunted by memories and conscience.  And if Dr. Rock was willfully ignorant of the origins of same-day deliveries, are we so different?  
The three films reviewed in these Halloween 2019 posts are prophetic works, and have been knocked about: It’s Alive was dumped by Warner Brothers, but Larry Cohen persevered, and it became a hit three years after initial release.  Both Vampire Circus and The Doctor and the Devils suffered late cuts.  The critics hedge, e.g., Danny Peary condemns It’s Alive for a “shameful premise.”  According to Peter Nichols, “Vampire Circus isn’t so much a good film as a good bad film” (whatever that means). 
However different in style — having the aspect of Fellini-gazing horror, grindhouse sick-joke, and PBS adaptation — the films share a moral perspective.  They lack villains, excepting the vampires (who only do-what-vampires-do), and heroes, vessels for the innocence of viewers.  If they overreach — if The Doctor and the Devils is self-serious, Vampire Circus, a bit overfed, and if Larry Cohen made a motion picture about an action figure — prophets also self-sabotage.  He wants to protect his culture, almost as much as he wants to damn it.