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.