Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: The Casavin Curse

The final episode of season two, "The Casavin Curse" is derivative of Cat People, but it's an enjoyable season sendoff. It lacks the artistry of Jacques Tournier's original and the steaminess of Paul Schrader's remake, but given the restraints of network TV at the time, it's a nice, creepy effort.

"The Casavin Curse" is about a young woman (Catherine Parks) found in her bedroom with the bloodied and butchered remains of her lover. She claims she's under a family curse that drove her to kill him, but a handsome psychiatrist (Scott Lincoln) doesn't believe she did it. After all, she's not physically capable of such brutality, is she? Well, the doctor discovers the truth soon enough when he begins to fall for her, even though he's warned and threatened by her cousin (Joe Cortese).

Well, if you're familiar with Cat People, you can guess how this plays out, but "The Casavin Curse" works well because it cleverly sets up what appears to be a mundane explanation for what's going on. The curse seems to be the story the cousin is using to control Gina, the woman, so he can keep her to himself. That's what we're led to believe.

But this is Tales from the Darkside for a reason, and the final reveal, as well as the monster makeup, is quite scary and unsettling. Everything looks like it's going to be happily ever after but then...

Tales from the Darkside: Fear of Floating

Here's a real floater. The most interesting thing about "Fear of Floating" is that Bub the Zombie knocked up Lisa Simpson. That's the only thing I found remotely entertaining about this episode.

At an Army recruiting station, where the two recruiters have not had anyone come through the door in weeks, a desperate man (Howard Sherman from Day of the Dead) stumbles inside in a panic. He claims he just escaped from the circus, where he was kept for his ability to float. To demonstrate this, he takes off his weighted shoes and indeed levitates. He wants protection, the recruiters think he can make their careers, but then an angry father with a shotgun shows up, along with his pregnant daughter (Yeardley Smith aka the voice of Lisa Simpson).

I can tell this is supposed to be funny, but I wasn't laughing. The floating angle seems shoehorned in and only factors into the surprisingly violent ending, though I doubt any ceiling fan is that sharp. The rest of the episode is devoted to stupid characters and wastes times on things less interesting than a man who floats: the angry father wanting to shoot Bub, the romance, Bub promising to clean up his act, Bub hitting on the female recruiter, the recruiters thinking one guy who floats slowly would be useful in any strategic way.

Don't get me wrong. A floating man would be interesting to the military, but the fact these Army guys think this gives them an advantage over the Air Force should tell you this is a farce and a lame one at that. Say what you will about Season One's "Levitation," at least that one took itself seriously and focused on the levitation.

Tales from the Darkside: The Unhappy Medium

I'm trying to think of a really great spoof of televangelists. I don't know. Maybe because the real-life ones are already overblown caricatures, the best way to send them up is to just watch them because all the examples in movies and TV I can think of are obvious and unfunny. Can anyone say anything about Jimmy Swaggart that is more ridiculous than anything he says himself? (Ozzy Osbourne's "Miracle Man" is an awesome song, though)

"Unhappy Medium" isn't bad, but the points it makes about these TV preachers - that they're corrupt, lecherous, snake oil salesmen who will say anything to get people's money - were old hat even when the episode originally aired. The televangelist's sister in this one resembles no one if not Tammy Faye Bakker. Talk about easy targets.

The episode finds the family of a dead televangelist, Farley Bright (Peter Miller), squabbling over the inheritance, but even a man of God doesn't know when to let go because Farley continually possesses and speaks through his niece Jenny (Carolyn Clark), who he always favored even though she called him out for the scumbag he was.

The supernatural elements, with the forces of Hell closing in on Farley, give this one a little more life. When Farley speaks through Jenny, it does have a kind of creepy effect (she becomes lit in blue and red light), and when doors open up to the dark side, there is a hint that something really bad is over there.

But the rules are all inconsistent, and it's hard to understand or care why anything happens. I don't know why Farley is possessing Jenny sometimes and not other times nor do I understand why Hell hasn't already claimed him (he claims he was so amoral, nobody up or down wants anything to do with him). Just listen to "Miracle Man" and be done with it.

Tales from the Darkside: Strange Love

Who'd have thought an episode of Tales from the Darkside about a couple of vampires would be charming, but "Strange Love" in its own way is romantic, even if it is kind of silly at times. After all, what else can you expect from a love triangle in which the human man is more dashing and seductive than the male vampire?

Dr. Phillip Carrol (Patrick Kilpatrick) makes a house call one night and finds his patient Marie (Marcia Cross) is a vampire with a broken leg. Her husband Edmund (Harsh Nayyar) orders him to heal her and announces his attention to feed on the good doc once she's better. Fortunately for Carrol, sparks fly between him and Marie.

Most short stories in the horror genre are constructed so they build to single scare or shock. "Strange Love," especially compared to other episodes in this series, has more of a plot. There is character based conflict: Edmund wants to eat Carrol, Carrol is attracted to Marie but trapped, and Marie is getting tired of Edmund, and when this handsome young doctor turns up and is polite, well spoken, and considerate toward her, she sees a solution to both their problems.

Edmund isn't scary as the bloodsucker. He looks like a dweeb, and his traditional formal wear is hopelessly out of date, even in a story set in the 1930s like this one. But that's kind of the point; he's old hat. Time for some new blood.

Tales from the Darkside: A Choice of Dreams

In "A Choice of Dreams," Abe Vigoda plays Jake Corelli, a mob boss told he's dying. How much we're supposed to dislike him is revealed when the doctor says he's glad to have told this news to the gangster's face. Facing death, Corelli receives an offer from a scientist he can't refuse: for $10 million, he can have his brain kept alive in a permanent dream state and enjoy nothing but sweet bliss.

Maybe it's because he's played by Abe Vigoda (an American institution; after all, he crossed the Delaware with Washington), but I actually kind felt sorry for Corelli and felt impacted by his fate in the end. It probably helps that in the confines of this short episode we don't see him do the things we usually see mobsters do in movies (murder, racketeering, etc.), but his grief and fear about his impending death seem genuine.

The twist at the end indicates this story is perfect for the short format of television. Once it's revealed, it's hard to imagine being able to take the concept anywhere else given what happens to Corelli and what we learn about the scientist's true scheme (although bilking his clients out of the money and giving them the opposite of what he promised is the kind of dishonest behavior these just desserts tales usually punish).

The final sequence, in the dark laboratory with futuristic equipment, feels suitably alien and other-worldly, which is fitting. The closing image of the row of brains in jars, all of them still alive and enduring an eternity of unending nightmares, is one of the best the series conjured.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: The Last Car

"The Last Car" is another episode written by Michael McDowell, and it's undeniably creepy, dark, and weird, but it doesn't make much sense or have much of an explanation. That's not necessarily a huge drawback, but it is a bit frustrating because the story is more of a scenario than a drama because the characters don't take much action.

The episode follows Stacey (Begona Plaza), a college student on her way home for Thanksgiving who gets on a subway car at night. Things get weird and creepy when it becomes apparent this subway car is some sort of purgatory, and she can't get escape.

"The Last Car" has freaky imagery such as the spooky reflections in the window and what happens to the passengers and conductor when the train passes through a tunnel, which is frequent. The episode is a dark, haunting episode that feels like you've become trapped in some horrifying netherworld where the same rules don't apply anymore.

Metaphorically, the subway could be read as Death: dark, inescapable, cold, without rhyme or reason, and certainly without any comfort. The drawback of this story is that, with this reading, Stacey is doomed as soon as she gets on the train, so anything she does is meaningless, and we're just killing time until she realizes it. That might be the point.

Tales from the Darkside: The Old Soft Shoe

A philandering, traveling salesman (Paul Dooley) literally steps into the past when he checks into his motel room and has a ghostly encounter with a mysterious woman (Dorothy Parke) who keeps calling  him by the wrong name.

While not outright bad, "The Old Soft Shoe" is ultimately not a particularly interesting entry in Tales from the Darkside. I'm not sure if it was intended to be funny, romantic, or scary, and in the end, it's not really any of these.

There seems to be an attempt at a noirish atmosphere with the jazzy saxophone on the soundtrack and a mysterious woman from the past who wears stockings and leads the main character to his doom, but it doesn't resonate very strongly. The encounters between Chester the salesman and Glenda the ghost woman don't sizzle like they should because the characters are one-note.

The twist of the story, Chester re-enacting the past in a haunted room and playing the part of a murder victim, isn't a terrible concept, but he's just a random guest at the motel who doesn't really have any connection to its history. Maybe in a longer format, the episode could have had time to establish and support a connection.

It is nice to see John Fiedler (the voice of Piglet until his death in 2005) as the motel manager. The turtle with a candle on its back is also a rather strange but neat visual detail, even though it has nothing to do with the story.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: The Shrine

"The Shrine" is a modest but effective entry. A young woman named Christine (Lorna Luft) returns home after being away six years and finds her mother Cecilia (Coleen Gray) has kept old room unchanged as a shrine to her absent daughter. But what about the voice of a little girl Christine keeps hearing at night?

"The Shrine" is about something personal: parental expectations and disappointments. Christine, who we learned suffered a nervous breakdown some time ago and is having other issues, has to a degree disappointed Cecilia. In response, Cecilia has nurtured an ideal, dream version of her daughter who never grew up and never disappointed her. The horror of the episode is somehow this fantasy version of Christine has become real, and she doesn't like the grown-up Christine.

Heavy-handed? Sure, but unlike a number of other episodes I can list, the characters are fairly complex (for a 20-minute episode shot on video anyway), with flaws and admirable traits. There are no conniving shrews or prime bastards deserving of a supernatural comeuppance, just wounded people trying to make the best of things and nurture a broken relationship.

The episode could have used a more horrific edge to it. The little girl sends objects flying at Christine like in The Exorcist or Poltergeist, but she's not particularly creepy or haunting. The ending also goes for sentiment instead of terror and thus lacks some much needed oomph.

Tales from the Darkside: Printer's Devil

Man, Tales from the Darkside sure had a lot of stories about people selling their souls to the Devil. Are the writers trying to tell us something?

"Printer's Devil" (which was also the title of a Twilight Zone episode) finds a struggling writer (Larry Manetti) taking on a new agent (Charles Knapp) who assures him black magic and animal sacrifice are the keys to literary success. Kellaway, the agent, provides Junior, the writer, with plenty of furry critters for these rituals (none are seen being killed), but when Junior decides he doesn't need the Satanic touch anymore (mainly because his girlfriend can't stand having all the animals around), he finds it hard to sustain the new found success. No points for surmising who he must eventually sacrifice.

Over-used narrative aside, "Printer's Devil" is a decent example of the formula. Junior actually gets to be more than a one-dimensional asshole who deserves his just desserts. He goes from desperate and broke to cocky and assured to forlorn, defeated, and doomed.

The episode also has fun mixing the arcane (black magic) with the mundane (it would be annoying to have to keep all these animals around until it was time to kill them). Even the final moment, when Junior prepares to drive a knife into his girlfriend's throat as she unknowingly leans back into his embrace, is well shot because the build up and suggestion of the impending act are effective.

Knapp is kind of too goofy looking to project menace. In an interesting touch, he's always eating and jovial, no matter the circumstances, but I kept waiting for him to drop the friendly facade and to reveal something truly dark.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Tales from the Darkside: A New Lease on Life

I enjoyed "A New Lease on Life" because it wasn't a silly comedy nor a hackneyed just desserts story.  I think it could have been vetted better, but there's less of the usual traits that detract from other episodes.

Archie (Robert Rothmans) moves into a new apartment at an incredibly cheap rate to be close to his new job but finds some odd rules about the building. He can't use nails to hang pictures on the walls (the wall bleeds when he does), he can't keep a microwave (the maintenance men who help him move in blatantly throw his on the ground), and every night, he must dump his leftover food down a special garbage chute. After a neighbor tells Archie to leave, she disappears.

I'm gonna spoil the reveal (not that you can't figure it out quick). The building is alive. It's a literal monster and needs to be fed, hence why leftovers are dumped down the garbage chute and hammering nails into the walls are forbidden. Now this actually is a cool premise for a horror story. Lovecraft could have done something special with this, but the execution here is a bit bland.

The apartment is too cheaply furnished to be impressive, and the scheme to feed it - with leftovers and anyone who gets out of line - is really hokey. The apartment building only seems to have a manager, two workers, and two tenants, and apart from the rent, the episode never explains why Archie (or the neighbor who knows the truth) doesn't leave when he suspects foul play.

The nature of a living building served by a cult (?) that it rewards with nice living raises a lot of questions that might have been fun to explore and used to build mystery, but the treatment here is perfunctory and rushed, but the ending, when the building drags Archie down its gullet, is a nice creepy moment.

The main problem is we know what's going on too soon, and we just wait for Archie to catch up. That said, Marie Windsor as Madame Angler, the dragon lady manager that wants to recruit Archie into the fold, is quite enjoyable.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Near Dark

I can't remember another movie in which the sun played such an omnipresent role. The sun provides light and warmth, and horror movies are typically set at night to play up the darkness and shadows. But if you're a vampire, the sun is an enemy.

Near Dark (1987), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who co-wrote the movie with Eric Red, arrived the same year as The Lost Boys and was at the time overshadowed by Joel Schumacher's film. The Lost Boys is a fun, stylish movie with a great sense of humor, but Near Dark is the superior effort, a bleak, poetic horror film about what it would really be like to survive by drinking blood on the outskirts of civilization: the terror, the loneliness, and the freedom.

At a fundamental level, Near Dark is a modern western. The vampires are a roving pack of outlaws in the desert. Led by Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), who when asked how old he is replies, "I fought for the South. We lost," the family also includes Diamondback (Jeanette Goldstein), Severen (Bill Paxton, it's an Aliens reunion), Mae (Jenny Wright), and Homer (Joshua Miller), who has remained a boy for decades (think Kirsten Dunst in Interview With the Vampire). Into this group enters Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a young Oklahoma rancher bitten by Mae who finds he'll have to kill if he wants to survive.

The strength of Near Dark is the richness of its characters, which is bolstered by strong writing and powerful performances. These vampires have their quirks and personalities. Henriksen has rarely been better, projecting quiet menace and unquestioned authority, and Paxton is great as the wild cowboy of the bunch ("Howdy. I'm gonna separate your head from your shoulders. Hope you don't mind."). The moral center of the movie is Caleb and Mae's romance, and his dilemma whether he wants to live like this. He'll have to become a murderer and remain with this pack of monsters forever.

Bigelow strips away much of the fantasy elements of vampires. There are no crosses, holy water, or even stakes through the heart, just an immortal band of nomads who can be killed by the sun. During a scene when the vampires slaughter everyone in a bar, Caleb takes a shotgun blast to the gut, and while it hurts like hell, he's amazed he's doesn't die from it. Meanwhile, Severen, Diamondback, and the others have no problems using knives and guns to make killing easier.

The film is loaded with fun details about how these vampires live. They steal cars and black out the windows so they can drive in the daylight. After Diamondback cuts the throat of a waitress, Jesse puts a beer stein under the table to collect her blood. The movie also treats blood drinking like drug addiction. When he goes too long without a fix, Caleb grows sick, pale, and nauseous, and Mae nicks her own wrist to offer him an open vein. As hard and as lonely as this lifestyle is, it does have an allure, a freedom to be outside of society's rules.

The movie stumbles in its last act. There is a subplot involving Caleb's father's (Tim Thomerson) and kid sister's search for Caleb, and when the two families meet, it's disappointingly rushed and over before you know it, although the bit with the bullets is great. That leads to a contrived cure for vampirism involving a blood transfusion and a climax dependent on the vampires forgetting about the sun.

Bigelow shoots with a cool, harsh style, so it remains mesmerizing even as the plot falls apart. When the gang is cornered by police, bullets tear holes in the walls, allowing sunlight to shoot inside and hurt the vampires; the light is practically tangible in this scene. After Caleb is bitten, he stumbles across an open prairie as the sun begins to rise, and slowly, his body begins smoking in its glare. This is the kind of movie that will make you wince once you step outside after watching it.

Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight

What do you get when you combine the sensibilities of John Carpenter and Sam Raimi and add the awesomeness of Billy Zane? You get Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995), the first feature-length spinoff of the ghoulish HBO series. While not the sort of thing to keep you up all night afraid of the dark, it is terrific fun.

After a brief prologue featuring our old pun-spouting friend the Cryptkeeper (voiced by John Kassir), the movie dives right in with a man named Brayker (William Sadler) pursued by The Collector (Zane) to a ramshackle motel in the middle of nowhere. Brakyer holds a mysterious key, and The Collector besieges the motel with an army of demons to get it. Held at bay by blood from the key, the smooth-talking Collector attempts to tempt the occupants of the motel (CCH Pounder, Jada Pinkett, Dick Miller, and Thomas Haden Church, among others) into giving up Brayker and the key.

Demon Knight is directed by Ernest Dickerson, who got his start as a cinematographer for Spike Lee and who has since made a name for himself in television horror, directing episodes of Masters of Horror, The Walking Dead, and Dexter. Dickerson brings style and energy to the proceedings here: splatter gore, cockeyed camera angles, a fast pace, and tongue-in-cheek humor.

The movie is violent and gory, but it's done in an exaggerated, comic-book style. The demons, which sprout out of the ground like plants, have this reptilian vibe about their look and movements. They are mean and ugly, and they can only be killed by destroying their eyes, resulting in an explosion of green fire, and in one zany shot, the camera follows an arrow as it soars through the air into its target.

At the center of the movie is Zane's performance as The Collector. He's a hoot, clearly having fun being silly and menacing. Some of his dialogue is terrible ("Humans! You're not worth the flesh you're printed on."), but he knows how to sell it. Whether's he's conjuring up monsters (that he kisses like little babies), seducing and corrupting the humans, and even dancing a couple of times, he never gives anything less than 100 percent. He's unapologetically evil, promising Thomas Haden Church's douchebag idiot he won't kill him and then instantly telling him he lied and having the demons rip him apart.

The basic plot is not too original and the characters thin: monsters try to get in as the humans try to survive the night. The backstory is more interesting than the main narrative. The key contains the blood of Christ, and if the demons get it, it will mean the end of the world. There's a nifty flashback showing Brayker in a World War I trench fighting off possessed soldiers and receiving the key from its previous guardian. No prizes for figuring out he'll be passing the key on to a new protector by the end of the movie.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Diary of the Dead

Writer/director George Romero has never been the most subtle of filmmakers. His zombie movies always functioned as social commentaries, his monsters acting as metaphors for all sorts of themes and ideas, whether it was consumerism, class warfare, or racial strife.

Diary of the Dead (2007) finds Romero perhaps losing faith in his audience's intelligence. Not content to have his zombies represent an idea, he has his characters explain that larger meaning, both to each other in the dialogue and to the audience in voiceover narration.

Remove the condescending polemics, and Diary finds Romero on solid if not spectacular horror footing. After charting the progression of the apocalypse from its beginning in Night of the Living Dead to the emergence of a dystopian society and its subsequent downfall in Land of the Dead, Romero goes back to the first night of the zombie invasion as a group of student filmmakers, out in the woods making a mummy movie, hears on the radio that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living.

The movie takes the form of a mockumentary, ostensibly filmed by the characters but mainly by Jason Creed (Joshua Close), who wants to document what's happening so the world can see the truth. Much of the film is shown from Jason's first-person perspective; we see what he sees through the lens, although the film occasionally cuts to another camera, including a security camera at a warehouse and even a cellphone video. The movie also includes other footage, including an opening at a crime scene being covered by a news camera that turns disastrous when the murder victims get off their stretchers.

Looking back on the movie, I still don't understand what Jason was hoping to accomplish by filming everything. True, the government is attempting to cover up the zombie apocalypse (poorly, I might add), and the traditional media have become so filled with spin and baseless speculation that no one trusts them anymore, leaving it to students, bloggers, hackers, and other citizen journalists to get "the Truth" out there.

But Jason merely documents what he and his friends go through and doesn't really provide any useful information that people didn't already know (other videos alert the students to the shoot-them-in-the-head weakness), and he seems more interested in getting visits to his MySpace page (speaking of the living dead) than helping people. As one character tells him, there's no one left to watch his movie, and his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) berates and scolds him for caring more about filming the dead than shooting them. Romero seems to be commenting on the uncertainty and panic modern media generate in their pursuit of ratings, and with all these different voices, they create noise instead of truth, but the scenario he elects to present this idea feels contrived and forced.

Debra is the would-be voice of reason, but she wears on the nerves because she's the one who narrates the movie. Her narration is so solemn, so self-important, and it over-explains everything, and worse, it interrupts the momentum of the movie, bringing it to a halt every time she begins to analyze what's going on.

Those thematic and story issues aside, Diary at least proves visually interesting with its presentation of the zombie apocalypse through the subjective camera, and the film contains a number of fun and spooky sequences, including a search through an abandoned hospital and an encounter with a deaf, mute Amish man named Samuel. The found-footage genre, especially with zombies, exploded around this time, with such entries as The Zombie Diaries and [Rec], but Diary demonstrates style and finesse with the format.

At least Romero knows how to hold the camera steady and capture the action we want to see, and there are some throwaway satirical jabs that get a laugh, like the radio commentator who says America used to be concerned about people crossing the border into the country, but the problem is now "those people who are passing the border between life and death."

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Night of the Living Dead

The first modern zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced the world to the idea of zombies as undead, cannibalistic monsters instead of the sugar-mill slaves of Voodoo overlords. It's a dark, graphically violent, intense, and taboo-shattering horror movie that remains one of the most important films for the trends it established in the genre and independent cinema.

Night of the Living Dead came out at the height of the turmoil of the 1960s: the political unrest, the countercultural movement, the race riots, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. The world, especially in America, seemed to be falling apart, and society was changing. Night, like the later entries in director George Romero's series, captures the zeitgeist of the decade it was made in. Zombies are often used to represent revolution, and in Night, the zombies are a new society literally devouring the old society.

The plot of Night has been re-used countless times: a group of people try to survive the night as they are besieged by monsters. The tragedy is instead of working together, these characters bicker, argue, backstab, and ultimately are unable to act cohesively, thus ensuring their doom. The film has plenty of scenes of zombies clawing through boarded-up windows and emerging en-masse from the shadows, but man proves to be his own worst enemy.

The film broke a lot of taboos. Plenty of movies since have gone farther, but when Night came out, the scenes of cannibalism, as undead ghouls tug on intestines and chew on severed arms, were as shocking and grotesque as it got in 1968, and even the today, seen in the stark black and white photography, it retains its power, almost like watching a newsreel or documentary. The low-budget nature of the movie becomes an advantage, giving the film an authentic feel, and with most of the drama inside the farmhouse, there is genuine, claustrophobic tension.

Night refuses to play favorites and is merciless towards its characters. Everyone, kids and adults, are in danger and can be killed at anytime, or worse, they can turn on you, whether they've panicked and tried to lock you out of the sanctuary as the zombies get closer or they've joined the living dead and want to take a bite out of you.

At the center of this group of catatonic victims, panicking mothers, and assholes is Ben. Played by Duane Jones, Ben is the calm voice of reason and authority who tries to help everyone and keep it all together. The fact he's played by a black actor, itself a shattering of movie convention of the time, adds a greater resonance to the movie, leading to an unforgettably dark and ironic ending that brings to mind nothing if not a lynch mob.

Romero worked dark humor into his later zombie work, and while Night is more or less a straight up thriller without the tongue-in-cheek style of his other movies, he gets in some sly, subtle touches. The opening in the cemetery, where Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russ Streiner) visit their father's grave, is justifiably famous. The mean brother teases his sister about how "They're coming to get you, Barbara," but the joke's on him: they're coming for everyone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MacBeth (2015)

However promising the idea of a new version of MacBeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard sounds, one can't help but feel disappointed with the result. Instead of a blood-pounding, grab-you-by-the-throat take on Shakespeare's classic tragedy, this new adaptation of the Scottish Play is muddled, both visually and from a narrative perspective.

The basic outline of the story remains. MacBeth is told by witches he will become king of Scotland, and at the urging of his wife, he murders King Duncan (David Thewlis) and usurps the throne, setting off a bloody chain of events that leads the new tyrant to madness and his downfall.

If you're looking for a faithful adaptation, look elsewhere. Much of Shakespeare's dialogue, especially for the supporting characters such as the true heir Malcolm (Jack Reynor) and even the witches (now made up of three women, a girl, and a baby for some reason), has been removed or otherwise re-arranged. It doesn't help that most of the actors deliver their lines with harsh, hushed whispering, making it all but incomprehensible. I've read the play and seen many versions of it, but I struggled to follow this one, and when I could follow along, I was annoyed by the seemingly random changes made by adaptors Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso. Under two hours in length, MacBeth feels choppy.

Visually, Scotland here is a desolate, cold place, shrouded eternally in fog, mist, and smoke and caked in mud, blood, and toil. Some sequences are absolutely spell-binding. When MacBeth returns to the Weird Sisters, their prophecy is delivered by the marching souls of fallen warriors, and when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, the advancing army does not use the trees as camouflage as in the text but burns the forest to the ground. As MacBeth's castle is doused in the ashes, he and MacDuff (Sean Harris) clash on a field covered in an orange-red glow that's almost Hell on Earth.

The climax hints at the film's larger problem. Watching MacBeth and MacDuff, I couldn't tell them apart; Fassbender and Harris are both buried beneath beards, dirt, and armor, and the camera is rarely steady enough to follow the action. As nice and as atmospheric some of the shots in the movie are, from the sweeping Scottish hills and the eerie coastline beneath Dunsinane, director Justin Kurzel uses a handheld camera during too many scenes, including normal conversation, and as the camera dips and bobs, it becomes distracting. During the action scenes, Kurzel uses a shaky camera buried in the sea of fighters, utilizing slow motion to focus on graphic wounds, and it becomes hard to follow except for the various closeups of stabbings and slashings.

Shakespeare's text hints MacBeth and Lady MacBeth may have had a child but never confirms its. The movie opens with their child's funeral pyre, MacBeth placing coins on his son's eyes. There's another teenager killed in the opening battle MacBeth seems close to, but the movie doesn't indicate if he is also a son. On one hand, it is interesting to speculate what MacBeth was like before the events of the story, but it takes away his tragic arc. Instead of a loyal but ambitious nobleman brought down by his flaws, MacBeth spends the entire film a brooding, monotone figure, much like everyone else except for Lady MacBeth, played well by Cotillard with equal parts feminine ruthlessness and ethereal despair.

The joy and poetry of Shakespeare are bled out by this MacBeth.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Twilight Zone: The Night of the Meek

Every year on Christmas, during the family party, my Uncle Joe puts on this classic episode of The Twilight Zone. It stars Art Carney as Henry Corwin, a normally unemployed drunk who plays the department store Santa Claus, but one Christmas Eve, shortly after getting fired, he finds a magic bag of gifts. Well, it's definitely better than the other holiday special Carney appeared in.

To describe "The Night of the Meek," I'm going to use a word I don't use often in my reviews: magical. I don't normally use the term because, unless I'm referring to wizards and witches and whatnot, it can be a vague, wishy-washy term to describe quality. But for a show famous for twist endings, dark ironies, and frightening aliens and monsters, this is an uplifting and hopeful story, and I can't think of a better way to say it other than it's enchanting.

In an Oscar-winning career that spanned decades, this is one of Art Carney's best performances. He's boozing, pathetic, heartbroken, defiant, overwhelmed, and finally cheery, giving, and hopeful, a man with nothing given the chance to give happiness to others, and for a TV episode, not even half an hour long, it is an extraordinary range for a character. Carney is great as both the beaten-down bum, despondent about all the children he's disappointed and unable to help, and the whimsical, big-hearted representative of St. Nick. Without Carney at the center, this episode wouldn't play nearly as well.

The fantasy elements of the episode are not overblown or over the top. The magic bag, with its unending supply of gifts for people, whatever they want, is pretty much it until the end. No explanation is offered for where the bag came from or how it works. It just appears, and Corwin unselfishly uses it to spread joy. It's so simple and direct, like a fairy tale from Charles Dickens by way of Rod Serling. When Corwin gets his wish at the end, to be the "biggest gift giver of all time" and able to do it every year, it is a touching finale

The Twilight Zone: Death's-Head Revisited

In a story about a former Concentration Camp commandant confronted by his victims' ghosts, it would be disastrous for these murdered spirits to act like typical ghosts. You know what I mean: swooping out of dark corners, popping out of shadows. and turning murderous and vengeful.

Instead, writer Rod Serling and director Don Medford offer a restrained, stark approach. These Holocaust victims only confront their tormentor with the weight of his crimes and evil, and that is horror enough. They seek not revenge but justice against the real monster.

Oscar Beregi plays Gunther Luntze, a former S.S. captain visiting the remnants of Dachau years after the war. His sadistic nature is revealed in the first scene when he checks into an inn. The clerk seems to recognize Luntze, who is using a false name, but quickly, he turns the tables, all but ordering her to tell him there's a concentration camp nearby, even though she'd rather not admit it. When she finally cracks, she says the camp should be torn down.

As he tours the camp, Luntze remembers his power and authority and smiles nostalgically. That's when he is confronted by Alfred Becker (Joseph Schildkraut), a former prisoner, still in a striped uniform. Luntze downplays and rationalizes what he did as just another soldier following orders, but Becker won't let the captain avoid the consequences of his actions.

When Luntze hears what sounds like people moaning in pain, he gets nervous Becker notes that sound didn't used to bother him. Those voices are reacting, he says. "They just heard you offer the apology for all the monsters of our time: we did as we were told."

The performances by Beregi and Schildkraut are the centerpiece of the episode. Becker is a puffed up bully, a tyrant who's never accepted responsibility for his actions, a perfect fascist. He begins slick, confident, and controlling, and as he's confronted by Becker and the other prisoners, he grows increasingly unhinged as he runs out of rationalizations and denials.

Becker is not a firebrand avenger. More than anything else, he is a sad figure, speaking in a calm, flat voice, a messenger informing Luntze of the facts. His true nature is revealed when an enraged Luntze lunges for him, saying he should have killed Becker when he had the chance. That's when the captain remembers; he did kill him.

Becker doesn't attack Luntze, turn into a monster, or become angry. He simply states it would be a waste of time, that precious little time Luntze has left, for the captain to kill him again.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Spotlight

It's been a week since I watched Spotlight (2015), and when I think back on it, I feel disgust, anger, and shame.

Not at the movie, mind you. Spotlight falls in the great tradition of All the President's Men. The film illustrates how the staff of the Boston Globe uncovered and reported the sexual abuse of children perpetuated and covered up by the Catholic Church in Boston (the paper won the Pulitzer for its coverage). It is strongly acted, written, and directed, and enterprising young journalists would do well to learn from it. It focuses on the procedure of the newspaper: waiting around for interviews, calling sources, sifting through documents, cross-referencing information, and coaxing stories out of people.

My disgust stems from what these priests and clergymen did. The film does not depict scenes of child molestation or rape, but it does feature interviews of abuse survivors conducted by the Globe reporters. The ones we hear from are adults, years if not decades removed from their experiences, but the scars remain. The details are not pretty. Rachel McAdams interviews one man who explains how a priest took advantage of him, knowing he was gay, and the victim struggles to talk about it, always on the verge of tears. Meanwhile, Mark Ruffalo speaks with another victim who initially doesn't want to be identified; when their session ends, Ruffalo notices faded needle tracks on the guy's arms.

Spotlight is a movie that will get your blood boiling. The reporters - led by editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) - uncover not only how widespread the abuse was but just how far the Church went to cover it up, moving pedophile priests around from parish to parish, paying off and pressuring families to keep quiet, and more concerned with upholding its image than protecting children. At one point, Robby tells his team they are holding off publication until they have all their ducks in a row, and reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), who like his co-workers grew up Catholic in Boston, explodes.

"It's time, Robby! It's time! They knew and they let it happen! To KIDS! Okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags! We gotta show people that nobody can get away with this. Not a priest, or a cardinal or a freaking pope!" 

But Robby holds off on the story because he wants to nail the system, not just one priest or one cardinal. As an attorney played Stanley Tucci says, "It takes a village to raise (children). It takes a village to abuse them." 

The Church knew. Police knew. Lawyers knew. The government knew. Hell, even the press knew. Years prior, Robby, as the metro section editor, all but buried a story about 20 priests suspected of abuse and never followed up on it. The only reason he and his team started covering it again was because new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) directed them to after reading a column about a priest on trial. People looked away, rationalizing it by saying the Church is too powerful, it does a lot of good, the priests will be removed, etc. 

In one illuminating scene, Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) questions a retired priest who candidly admits he abused children, claiming it wasn't a sin because he derived no sexual pleasure from doing it. Then his sister slams the door in Pfeiffer's face and tells her to never come back. Abuse in the church was a problem no one wanted to see or hear about, so people turned a blind eye. The film ends with a list of all the cities around the world where abuse has been reported since the Globe's coverage. It is sobering.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Boyhood

Boyhood (2014), as fitting for a movie with that title, chronicles the childhood of a boy as he grows and matures from age 6 to 18. The movie opens with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he lies on the grass outside his elementary school and ends with him arriving at college and hiking through a desert canyon.

How does Coltrane play a character who ages twelve years over the course of the narrative? Makeup? CGI? Nope, writer-director Richard Linklater, of Dazed and Confused fame, another coming of age story, filmed the movie over the course of twelve years, maintaining the same actors as they aged.

I don't know of any other film that does that. Plenty of films show characters at different ages in their lives, but they usually achieve the effect through cinematic trickery or using multiple actors for the same part. The only other similar instances I can think of are the Phantasm series and the collaboration between director Francois Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Leaud that began with The 400 Blows, but even those examples occurred over multiple films and weren't planned from the start that way.

To devote so much time to one film is an ambitious undertaking and risky. You have to count on the actors still being able to return to the roles, that they'd be willing to, and that life wouldn't derail filming plans, and that's not counting whether the financiers would be willing to commit money to such a long-term project that doesn't sound too commercial. If nothing else, Linklater deserves credit for trying something different.

But you've might have noticed, I'm five paragraphs in, and I haven't gotten to my thoughts on the movie. Did I like the movie? I don't know. I admired its craft and performances, especially by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason's divorced parents, and it is fascinating to watch Mason go from a wide-eyed little boy to a sullen teen with a passion for photography who discovers life is not filled with answers or direction.

The movie is loaded with dramatic potential - single parents, alcoholism, abusive stepfathers, first romances, partying teens, parent-child relationships, sibling rivalry - but Linklater doesn't pump them up with artificial importance; he merely documents them, depicting this hodgepodge of events in the life of this boy. Many scenes occur and are never referenced again. If the film feels meandering, random, and unfocused, well, that's life. The changes these characters go through - physical, emotional, and otherwise - are subtle, gradual, and plausible. Boyhood doesn't build to confrontations or climaxes; it marks time.

But, boy, it is a long time, nearly three hours in length. Some moments are quite powerful, but during others, my attention wandered. I won't say the movie is boring, but it's low key and eschews dramatic tension and action. If Boyhood were a conventional film, filmed over the course of several months instead of several years, would the life of Mason be of cinematic interest? I doubt it. He lives his life, and we follow him. There's no catharsis or great realizations other than life has no catharsis or great realizations.

Linklater loads the film with cultural references to mark the passage of time. Mason's sister sings Britney Spears songs, Roger Clemens pitches for the Astros, Ethan Hawke rants about the Iraq War, Mason and his sister plant Barack Obama campaign signs, and there are prominent closeups of MP3 players and iPods. How quickly the world changes.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Lost

I wasn't too sure of my thoughts when I watched The Lost, the film adaptation of the novel by Jack Ketchum. I was torn between admiration, disgust, fascination, and boredom.

At the time, I hadn't read the book, but now I see the film is remarkably faithful to the text. Sleazebag delinquent Ray Pye still stuffs crushed cans in his boots to make himself taller, he still murders the two girls in the woods, Detective Schilling tries to nail him for it, friends Tim and Jennifer are equally awed and afraid of Ray, new girl Katherine leads him on, and it all leads to an eruption of violence.

In retrospect, the movie mostly depicted the surface action of the story. The book's advantage is it delves into the thoughts and decisions of the characters. Ketchum writes in the third person, but each chapter is told from different perspectives, so we'll see in one chapter how Ray views himself during his date to New York with Katherine, and in the next, we'll read about how ambivalent she is about him. The result is the novel holds together better than the movie, so actions that seemed seemed unsupported on film make more sense on page.

Except from the 1965 prologue, the book takes place in Sparta, New Jersey in 1969, which I don't recall the movie making a point about. Here, Ketchum touches on the small-town 1960s zeitgeist: the Vietnam War is still raging, hippies are present, drug culture is all the rage, and a couple of historical events, mainly the murder of Sharon Tate (which Ray finds especially interesting) as well as Woodstock, are mentioned. The country at large seems lost, filled with turmoil and despair, and that trickles down to the characters.

The character who benefits most from this is Schilling. In the movie, Schilling was nicely played by Michael Bowen, but he was absent for long stretches and felt peripheral. In the book, his personal life is explored: he's an alcoholic (he hates that word), his wife took their two kids to Arizona, and his son is trouble. He's obsessed with getting Ray for the murders, and he has a plan to push him.

I still don't care for the subplot involving Schilling's retired partner Ed, a widower in a relationship with the 18-year-old Sally Richmond. It feels like it belongs in another story and doesn't have much of a payoff, except to get Ed back on the force by the end. Interestingly, Sally is college-bound, and unlike the other girls, she has no interest in Ray, which makes him mad. There are also some vague passages from Ed's cat's point of view which add nothing.

Ketchum can craft strong, memorable prose. The Lost is filled with nasty characters and bookended with scenes of nasty, gory violence. As a writer, Ketchum grasps the physical details, like the sticky feel and rotten smell of dried blood on a girl locked in a trunk with the thick, overwhelming gasoline fumes of the car. He also knows how to build up tension and release it, like when Ray shoots the first girl in the beginning:

"Lisa felt something strike the back of her shoulder, an acorn falling from high above, she thought, from the tree, but knowing even then that something was wrong, that whatever it was had struck her too hard and then instantly heard the crack, like someone stepping on a branch in the brush out there in the dark and at first there was no pain, it was only startling, a sound out of sync with the world. But she turned at the sound and at the sudden wet feeling on her shoulder.
And that was when her face exploded."

That passage continues with a description of the bullet shattering, and her teeth drilling into her cheekbone. Many scenes are unpleasant, and Ray is a hateful, vain, lecherous creature whom I kept waiting for Schilling to nail. His temper is driven by his need to be in power, and when he's rejected or perceives rejection, it's not pretty.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the Road with the Ramones

Groups such as the Stooges and the New York Dolls are considered forerunners to the punk genre, but The Ramones are often considered the first band to be identified with the label. They formed in New York in 1974, toured and produced music nonstop for twenty-two years, and then called it quits without ever having a hit record or achieving mainstream success, but they maintained a strong cult following, and today, they're regarded as an important and influential rock act.

The group's tour manager was Monte Melnick. He was there for their entire run, and it is Melnick, along with Frank Meyer, who penned On the Road with the Ramones. The book covers the formation of the group, the personalities and backgrounds of its members, their hectic touring schedule, their early days in the New York scene, their later years and breakup, and the aftermath of the band's dissolution, ending with the deaths of three founding members: Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny (since the book's publication in 2003, original member Tommy Ramone also passed away).

The book progresses more or less chronologically. Each chapter begins with a one-page introduction before proceeding as an oral history chronicling the band's history. Just about anyone involved with The Ramones in any capacity - band members, road crew, fans, wives and girlfriends, agents, and other musicians such as Cheetah Chrome of The Dead Boys and Joan Jett - contributes their thoughts. For those looking for insight from Joey and Johnny and all the rest, this is the book to check out. The only notable voice missing is Richie Ramone, although considering his exit from the group was acrimonious (and is covered in the book), it's understandable he didn't want to be involved.

Reading the book, I find The Ramones defined by contradiction. They were a rebellious, teen-friendly rock group that influenced countless groups but never found big success themselves. They wanted success but didn't change to achieve it. Their style combined heavily distorted, buzz saw aggression with catchy, pop sensibilities. Johnny, the driving force of the band, was a driven, disciplined conservative who led the group with military efficiency, but Joey, the front man, suffered from OCD (he would drive back through traffic to hotels and airports to touch knobs and walk through doors) and eventually started doing heroin, and Dee Dee was a bi-polar party animal and drug addict who possibly had multiple personality disorder.

The Ramones perfected a stage show that was always high quality and professional, but the members were frequently at odds with each other and fighting. Most significantly, Johnny married an ex-girlfriend of Joey's, and Joey never forgave him. The two hardly ever spoke to each other after that. Throw in the usual insanity of being rock stars, and the result is somewhere between a music tour, Hell's Angels riding into town, frat boys on vacation, and a three-ring circus.

On the Road With The Ramones gives us the story of The Ramones in their own words, and it doesn't try to clean things up or tell a neat story to keep everyone in a positive light. We hear multiple accounts of the same incident, and the players don't always agree. Some people in the book accuse Johnny of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan and state the song "The KKK Took My Baby Away" was about him taking Joey's girlfriend. Johnny, for his part, admits he kept a white supremacist card in his wallet because he found it funny, but other people deny the song is about him.

Everyone who was a member gets space devoted to him and what they brought to the band, good and bad. Despite the uniform look of the members (black leather jackets and jeans, adopting the same surname), they were all distinct individuals and personalities. Some were good fits for the band, others weren't, but the book tries to play fair and never picks on any of them. Melnick is described many times as having been a babysitter and punching bag for the group, and while he presents life on tour as a non-stop wild and crazy ride filled with setbacks and frustrations, he never appears to have an ax to grind. It was a significant part of his life, and he remembers it fondly.

On the Road With The Ramones is packed with behind-the-scenes photos, passes, posters, fliers, and other images. It's also filled with its share of stories that sound like they belong in This is Spinal Tap. It's a fascinating inside account of one of rock's most consistent and iconic bands.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Shocker

In past reviews, I've referred to Shocker (1989) as one of Wes Craven's duds. The first time I saw it, I hated it, thinking it too transparent and cynical of an attempt to replicate Freddy Kruger. I went into it expecting a hardcore, intense  thriller but saw a tonally inconsistent movie that couldn't decide what it wanted to be about.

Still, Shocker is a movie I've thought about many times, and I remembered some of its sequences and visuals fondly. With Craven's recent passing, I decided to revisit the film. While many flaws remain, Shocker has just enough inspiration to make it worth checking out. Rather than a serious horror movie, Shocker works best as a zany, violent satire.

Shocker's boogeyman, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), is to television what Kruger is to the dream world. Instead of killing people in their dreams, Pinker invades their homes through TV sets. Just before he went to the electric chair, Pinker conducted a black magic ritual in his jail cell where he prayed to a television set. TV as the Devil? Not exactly subtle subtext, but a fun idea Craven exploits well. Television, filled with depictions of violence and mindless entertainment, deadens viewers, numbing them to the real world and leaving them vulnerable to Pinker. 

Unfortunately, that part only occurs in the last act. It's nearly forty minutes before Pinker winds up in the electric chair, and then, the movie becomes a precursor to Fallen as Pinker hops from body from body to get revenge against the college student, Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg), who caught him. It's kind of amusing as Pinker possesses people, from a bulky construction worker (played by Alice Cooper guitarist Kane Roberts) to a cute little girl, but this part goes on too long, and I don't know how it gels with Pinker's electrical abilities. Later, Pinker occupies an electric armchair, and it's like seeing Chairry from Pee-Wee's Playhouse on the rampage.

Pinker, despite a crazed and enjoyably over-the-top performance from Pileggi, is not scary. Kruger, despite becoming watered down and goofy as his series wore on, started out as a terrifying figure, and Craven wisely kept him in the shadows and his jokes to a minimum. By contrast, Pinker is out in the open and shown in color while saying things like "Let's take a ride on my volts wagon." He's not a badly burned boogeyman; he's Mr. Clean in an orange jumpsuit.

Craven throws in too many supernatural elements without bothering to explain them. I can accept a serial killer traveling through television because he made a deal with the devil, but the other stuff - Jonathan's ability to track Pinker through his dreams, the ghost of his girlfriend (Cami Cooper) coming to his aid, and the girlfriend's charm necklace repelling Pinker - feels hokey.

While Craven the writer is shaky, Craven the director is in top form and creates some memorable images. The film opens in Pinker's junky repair shop with dozens of TVs broadcasting death and destruction, and it's an ominous atmosphere on par with Freddy's boiler room lair. The special effects, most notably Pinker's blue, distorted image, like a distorted TV reception, are well done, and the final sequence - when Jonathan and Pinker chase each other across several TV channels - is an outstanding climax. It's also a nice touch that the hero is a football star, a jock, rather than the expected of virginal final girl the genre usually delivered at the time.

The film is more comedic than A Nightmare on Elm Street. Timothy Leary has a cameo as a televangelist, and during the final chase, Pinker and Jonathan wind up in a living room where a woman in hair curlers says "I've heard of interactive programming, but this is ridiculous." And keep your eyes open for Ted Raimi, proving once again that growing up as Sam Raimi's brother prepared him to be a good sport.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why I Don't Plan to Monetize this Blog

The dream of any writer is to be paid for what he or she writes. Sure, fame and critical acclaim are nice, even goals to strive for, but to be able to make a living off your skill as a wordsmith is the true litmus test. It's a sign of success and worth, or at least, it gives you a sense of gratification because a lot of people believe what you write has merit if they're willing to pay for it.

Many blogs and websites, many of them very good, generate ad revenue, and I certainly don't begrudge them for doing so. I've considered it. Google Blogger, the engine I use, has the option to monetize, and it seems like it would be relatively easy to set up. So why haven't I made the plunge? There are a few reasons.

First, Blogger tracks my readership. While a few entries have page views in the thousands, most of my posts, especially in recent years, hover under 100. Knowing what I know about online advertising and just how many page clicks it would take to generate a significant amount of money, I don't see that happening on Dubo's Den. I don't see a reason to bombard my readers with ads just to get a few extra pennies.

Second, I don't really need that extra money. Sure, it'd be nice, but as I explained in my previous post, I have a nice, steady, well paying job. I started the blog shortly after college mainly to keep my writing sharp, and I maintain it as a hobby. I enjoy it. It's an investment of my time and effort, but it's rewarding by itself without a monetary aspect.

Third, advertising is everywhere, especially on the Internet. Wherever you look - in newspapers, on television, on Facebook - someone is trying to sell you something. Personally, I'm annoyed with it, and I'd like to consider my blog a haven from attempts to fleece people for money.

Last, these are some of the products I've seen advertised on my Facebook page: tampons, ladies Depends, vasectomies, reverse vasectomies. The reverse vasectomy ad came the day after the vasectomy ad; how easily swayed does Mark Zuckerberg think I am? Despite all the advances in advertising logarithms based on your browsing history, your likes and interests, and other factors, this kind of micro advertising is still not as accurate as it's touted to be, at least in my case. In the nearly ten years I've been on Facebook, I never clicked on one of their ads, and if I ever did, it was by accident. I have no interest to purchase anything being advertised to me online.

Will I ever sell out and start trying to make money off Dubo's Den? I'd like to promise I never will, but I can't. I have no immediate plans to do so or any long-term plans for that matter, but that's a great thing about the future; it's unknown. Maybe I'll change my mind if my readership skyrockets to the point the price becomes too high to refuse or maybe I'll find myself in financial straits and will accept any income I can. For now, this blog is free, and I want to keep it that way.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

New Job, New Chapter

I graduated college in 2010. That feels like a lifetime ago. The last five years were filled with ups and downs, new friends, some losses, and altogether new experiences for me. The one constant in that time was my job: reporter.

Even before I finished school, I began my career as a professional journalist, getting paid by the story to cover Delaware City Council meetings and collect the sheriff and police reports. After graduation, I moved back to Northeast Ohio for a time before returning to Central Ohio where I was hired as a full-time reporter for Suburban News Publications. Even after the company was bought out by the Columbus Dispatch and I was laid off, I remained in the area and worked as a freelance reporter for a couple of different publications before being rehired full time as an editorial assistant. I still reported, but I also processed press releases, announcements, and other news briefs.

I remained in place for three years. In June, my company was sold again, and I grew worried about my future. My last experience with a buyout and merger left me snake bitten, and every day, I expected to receive a notice that my position would be eliminated. But I was lucky; it never came to that. I jumped ship to the dark side.

About a month ago, I started a new job as communications manager for a local library district. The overlap between careers is great. I'm still writing and working to get what I write out to the public. I'm still taking pictures, and I'm throwing in some editing and design work, acting as a sort of one-man band by assembling calendars, newsletters, press releases, and other documents. I'm also managing more business side operations, filling out requisitions and working with printers to get our documents produced. It's a lot of work, but at least I don't have to worry about weekly deadlines. I also have my own office, a first.

There's a joke among reporters that taking a public relations job like this is the journalist retirement plan. There is some truth to it. The job is less stressful, and it pays better. Getting out of journalism, I feel like I've done a tour of duty in the trenches, proving my worth and honing my skills. And with the uncertainty surrounding the future of the industry, the timing was pitch perfect. My hours are stable, my commute is shorter and less congested with traffic, and I don't have to work weekends or evenings anymore. I feel, for lack of a better word, safe.

Still, part of me misses the grunt work of reporting. I've traded independence for security. Instead of acting as a watchdog and informing the public of its leaders' actions or sharing important and/or interesting community news, I'm working for entity the watchdogs watch. As a reporter, my first responsibility was to seek the truth and report it. As a communications manager (or community relations coordinator, or public affairs director), my job is to get the library's story out there, to expose our brand to the public and make them want to come to the library and use its programs. Instead of fielding press releases and deciding which of them make the best stories, I'm writing press releases and hoping they'll get used as stories. It's a new mindset, one I'm still adjusting to.

I'm enjoying the new job so far. The people at the library are nice and welcoming, and the library is a service that is evolving to meet the needs of its customers, something I can't always say about the newspaper industry. It's an exciting time for me but a little nerve-wracking. The experience I gained as a journalist was invaluable, and I made a lot of friends with the people I worked with, friends whose job security I'm concerned for. I learned a lot about politics, government, economic development, law enforcement, business, education, and people in general. I made mistakes for all the readers to see, and I was publicly criticized for some of the stuff I wrote. There were some bad times, and it wasn't always the romantic profession of Woodward and Bernstein. It could be frustrating, painful, confusing, and tedious, but it helped shaped who I am.

I wouldn't have changed it for the world.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dracula 3D

Among its laundry list of problems, Dario Agento's Dracula 3D's (2012) biggest drawback is it doesn't have a clear grasp of what it wants its Dracula to be. Depending on the film and the actor, Dracula can be a cadaverous monster, a romantic seducer, an Old World nobleman, a fallen Christian warrior, a tortured creature, and any number of possibilities and combinations. No one ever confuses Bela Lugosi's portrayal with Christopher Lee's or Lee's with Gary Oldman's and so on and so on. There's no one "correct" presentation of Dracula; everyone can have their own favorite, but I only ask that, whatever the concept in a given movie, Dracula be interesting.

Played in Argento's film by Thomas Kretschmann, Dracula is - I hate to use the word - boring. I can't think of any other way to describe him. He speaks flatly, his movements are stiff, and there is so sense that he is a cunning predator or a suave gentleman. He doesn't have a distinctive look or presence, and that's fatal to any movie about Dracula. True, he gorily murders some people, ripping out throats and cutting off heads, and he tries to convince Mina Harker she's the reincarnation of his lost love, but there's no passion or energy; it feels perfunctory.

Perfunctory, a word I never imagined using to describe a Dario Argento movie, but there you have it. No one watches an Argento film for the plot or acting. His movies (Suspiria, Inferno, Opera) were always style over substance, but what glorious, confident style. His films dripped with atmosphere, surreal nightmares captured on film. Yes, they're filled with blood and gore, but the movies were stunningly beautiful, the colors so vivid, the compositions so striking and offbeat, and the camera movement so fluid and hypnotic. Take all that away, and you're left with a poorly acted, clumsily plotted, horribly dubbed mess of like Dracula 3D.

Over at rogerebert.com, Peter Sobczynski runs down everything wrong with the movie - weak performances, bad CGI (the scene where Drac transforms into a giant preying mantis has to be seen to be believed) - but most potently, he notes that Argento seems to be going through the motions, apparently uninterested in telling this particular story. Watching the movie, one can't help but think Sobczynski hit the nail on the head; nothing in the film indicates Argento had any special desire to make this movie.

If Kretschmann (who Sobcyznski called the least frightening Dracula since Leslie Neilson) is stiff and flat, Argento's direction is languid and pedestrian. The period details are nice, but much of the movie looks cheaply over lit, eliminating shadows and sense of menace. I once heard this type of direction referred to as "directing traffic:" people enter and exit, move along, nothing to see. Moments that might have had some oomph, like Dracula flying in through a window and materializing out of flies, are undercut by terrible special effects. When Dracula attacks people, Argento speeds up the frame to suggest his supernatural power, but it looks hokey.

Dracula 3D has its share of blood, gore, sex, and nudity. These elements briefly give the movie some life, but I think we expect more from Argento. Rutger Hauer has some fun as Van Helsing, but he's limited to a third-act appearance. It's always nice to see Asia Argento, but she's given little to do as Lucy, and while she does get naked, if you're like me, it'll weird you out because her father is the director. How awkward was filming those scenes?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Djinn

Djinn (2013), filmed in 2011 but without any sort of release here in the States until 2015, arrives with a lot of hype and baggage. Touted as the first horror movie produced in the United Arab Emirates, the movie stars predominantly Arab actors, centers on characters who are Muslim, and focuses on a creature from Middle Eastern folklore. It's also directed by Tobe Hooper, the famed director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist.

The film generated some controversy between its completion and release. Rumor had it someone in the UAE royal family disapproved of the film for being subversive and tried to have it buried. I don't know if that's true, but the film was delayed and there were reports of re-shoots and other behind-the-scenes drama, such as a crew member quitting production because of a lack of local influence on the project. The film did get some play time at festivals, but the reviews weren't kind. Variety called it "execrable," and Indie Wire asked in its headline why Djinn was "such a terrible film."

Contrarily, I kind of liked it. Don't get me wrong. There's a lot to criticize, namely the stilted dialogue that over-explains everything in the clunkiest of manners and some weird pacing and editing issues, but once he gets to the horror elements, most notably the sustained climax, Hooper pulls out all the stops and demonstrates he still has some of the talent we thought he lost after the likes of Spontaneous Combustion, The Mangler, and Mortuary. With better focus on the writing and the performances, Djinn probably could have done better, but as it is, the film works best when Hooper jettisons the plot and focuses on just presenting nightmarish visuals and style.

Djinn is about a young couple, Salama (Razane Jammal) and Khalid (Khalid Laith), grieving the loss of their infant. When Khalid gets a job offer back in their home country of UAE, they leave New York and move into an apartment built on the site of an ancient fishing village which was said to be inhabited by Djinn, ancient creatures that can shapeshift and torment people. Before long (not even a day), Salama begins having strange experiences in their new home while Khalid discovers he has more of a connection to the legend of the land than he realized.

Hooper is a strange choice to handle this material. Hooper's films have covered Americana elements: rural, backwater, suburbs, small towns. He's very much an American filmmaker whose work normally draws on the zeitgeist and social norms of U.S. society while his style of horror is usually about turning normalcy upside down and tearing it asunder into chaos and anarchy. The sociological interest of Djinn feels like something Wes Craven would be drawn to, and the lurid, fantasy elements are more befitting the likes of a Dario Argento. Personally, I would have gone with a director from the UAE.

Still, there are elements of Djinn that will be familiar to followers of Hooper's filmography. The apartment building with its mysterious halls and spooky neighbors is reminiscent of the complex where Angela Bettis was terrorized by a masked killer in Toolbox Murders, and the M.O. of the Djinn are not that dissimilar from the unruly spirits of Poltergeist. These demon-like beings like to jump out and scare people, manipulate electrical devices, and lure people out with weird noises. Even the revelation of Khalid's lineage and the true fate of the couple's baby play on a theme Hooper has long dwelt on: family bloodlines and dysfunction creating monsters.

Most notably absent is Hooper's trademark black humor. I suppose it's for the best given the material and cultural considerations, although one moment of dozens of birds flying into windows and going splat is kind of funny (would have worked better with better CGI though). In recent years, that dark humor often led to irritating characters played by overacting performers. Here, the characters are pretty bland and kind of weird, and while most performances are weak, they didn't get on my nerves.

About that weirdness. I don't know how to describe it other than much of it seems to be a result of shoddy writing and acting than design. When they arrive in their new home, arriving by plane and then driving hours to the apartment, Khalid immediately gets in a car and goes two hours away to his job; that was cutting it kind of close. Was he going to do that every day? Why is Salama's mother giving the usual I-can't-wait-to-be-a-grandmother shtick when she knows her daughter just lost a baby? What was up with that marriage counselor in the beginning? She apparently gets possessed, but Khalid and Salama don't react much when she speaks weird and says odd things (like advising clients to move thousands of miles away when they clearly disagree with each other).

Horror movies generally begin with a sense of normalcy before gradually introducing macabre and supernatural elements, but Djinn's attempts at normalcy come off as phony, contrived, and weird, almost like the people making the movie didn't have a grasp of presenting it without it seeming fake. The dialogue is terrible, with characters saying things out of the blue without motivation only to convey exposition, exposition we usually didn't require (that scene with the counselor almost kills the movie right out of the gate) or that gives away a big surprise (once we hear the legend of Djinn, we know right away who Khalid's real mother is).

All that said, the horror elements, on their own and taken apart from the story and acting, are impressive or at least well done. The apartment building itself is an ominous creepy place, and Hooper's camera captures it nicely. The Djinn's appearances are more suggested than shown, and I thought her design was nice and creepy, especially the way she glides through the air like a ghost or crawls on the floor like a corpse, her hideous visage barely hidden by a veil. There's also some fun use of darkness and light (I'm a sucker for images in the dark that vanish when you shine a light on them).

The best sequence of the movie comes at the end when the Djinn really mess with Salama and Khalid, separating them and making it difficult for them to tell what's real and what isn't. The building is especially dark and claustrophobic, and the camera swoops and dives all over the place, giving a sense of being trapped and chased. It didn't make much sense; I couldn't really follow what was going, but while watching this portion of the film, I felt like I was watching a genuine nightmare, and in the moment, I didn't care about rationality.

Horror movies don't have to be realistic and don't have to play by the rules. The trend now is be gritty and believable, so when a movie comes along that doesn't try to be, it can be a pleasant surprise. At is best, Djinn is an involving experience because of this. It's just not always at its best.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tucker and Dale vs Evil

Have you ever been watching something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hill Have Eyes and found yourself rooting for the inbred killers because the so-called normal heroes were too stupid and boring? Then Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) is the movie for you.

Ah hillbillies. Rednecks. Country folk. Mountain people. Where would the horror genre be without this subculture to exploit? Backwoods people have been preying on clueless city slickers wandering into their clutches for a long time. It's a trope that's found mileage in a number of different movies: Deliverance, Southern Comfort, Wrong Turn, Motel Hell. Even outside of rural America, folks have a habit of running afoul of the locals, including Straw Dogs and Wolf Creek.

Why the popularity of the sub-genre? It's an easily recognizable archetype; the story is obvious and flexible: the clash of the civilized and the savage, a battle between decent, moral people and the monstrous, deranged weirdos. And the thematic arc has potency in this modern age when most people don't get a chance to experience genuine danger: do I have what it takes to fight and survive? Depending to what degree a character responds to a threat, we might discover he or she is really not so civilized after all, that maybe there's still some of that animalistic savage in all of us.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil has a setup that sounds like a typical plot of hillbilly horror. A bunch of college kids go into the woods for a vacation and get into trouble with a pair of rednecks, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine). Gory deaths ensue. The twist this time is Tucker and Dale, as the title indicates, are the good guys. In fact, they're downright lovable. The college kids, by design, are too bland, too stupid, and, in one case, too psychotic to be the heroes. All they end up doing is stumbling into and causing their own demise.

The film in its own way is a comedy of misunderstanding. For how smart these college kids think they are, they sure don't know how to communicate very well, and because of their snootiness toward  the good ol' boys, they automatically assume the worst of every action taken by Dale and Tucker. One of their friends is drowning and Dale pulls her into the boat? He's kidnapping her obviously. Tucker is using a chainsaw on a log and accidentally hits a bee's nest, forcing him to run in a blind panic? He's attacking!

Dale and Tucker might not be too bright, but they're a good-hearted sort. Tucker just bought a cabin in the woods, and he and Dale are going to fix it up, go fishing, and enjoy some cold beer. That the cabin housed some actual killers 20 years before who left newspaper clippings of their deeds on the wall and apparently hired Leatherface's interior decorator, well, they kind of missed that (they're more impressed by the unexpired coupon for chili dogs).

Comedy and horror go hand in hand. Set up a situation, apply strict logic, and you can't help but react a certain way, either with a scream or laugh. Tucker and Dale vs Evil has these clueless college kids trying to be heroic and failing miserably because they completely misread the situation. The kid running away from a chainsaw-wielding Tucker isn't looking where he's going and ends up impaling himself on a branch. Bloody but funny. The movie continues to escalate because the other kids find the body on the branch and assume it's a warning to them. The movie is bloody and gory, but it's done in a outrageous, comedic style. It's hard to be repulsed when you're giggling.

The movie also has its share of zingers and funny dialogue. Once the bodies start piling up, our heroes become convinced these college kids are part of a suicide pact and are now trying to kill them. Dale wants to call the police, but Tuckers says that won't work. The officer would never believe them if they say to him, "Oh hidy ho officer, we've had a doozy of a day. There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started killing themselves all over my property." Later, a sheriff's deputy shows up while Tucker and Dale are dragging what's left of one of the kids. I bet you can guess what Tucker tells him.