Feel & Screen: Shorts on Screen
Wow, hardly any horror this week. It really seems, at times, like I've seen most of what's worth seeing. Instead, I caught up with some embarrassing gaps in my viewing history, which delivered some truly wonderful cinematic experiences. We have such unprecedented access to treasures old and new, what a shame it is that so many people are so committed to responding in anger, even to marvels.
Network - 1976
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Sidney Lumet
with Faye Dunaway, William Holden & Peter Finch
It feels trite to declare that Network is an appropriate fable for our times. Darkly satirical in its own time, it's become prescient of things to come which have now passed. It's not the shocking to consider a network putting a mentally ill man on the wai under the guise of news. There's an entire notwork based on precisely that premise. It's easy to imagine a world in which networks parade the worst or authentic human behavior past the camera; we live in a world where "reality" TV has been cheap fodder for the lowest common denominator for give-or-take 20 years now. It's no longer a scandal when Saudi royals buy out cherished American institutions. It's just Tuesday. So, no, Network is no longer quite so biting as a cautionary satire of things that might become.
It's Howard Beale incarnate. It's the angry old man who still remembers when decency had value, before concepts such as decency, morality a values were thoroughly DEVALUED by their relentless abuse at the hands of hypocrites. Network doesn't tell us what to fear anymore. It shows us what we've lost. It delivers unto us the moral of the story. Nearly 40 years ago, it warned us, "Don't become this. It would be a horrible thing to be." We went and became that that horrible thing, but we did it day by day, bullshit rationalization by bullshit rationalization. But Network is still there, like a friend-who-knew-us-when, or a sad-eyed parent, to remind of of what we have lost, and what we have become.
Altered States - 1980
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Directed by Ken Russell
with William Hurt, Blair Brown & Bob Balaban
My decisions to watch Network and Altered States were entirely independent and not a conscious effort to watch two films written by Paddy Chayefsky, but as long as we have serendipity working for us, let's take a look at these two screenplays. Both stories concern men who may or may not be losing their minds while attempting to open themselves to elevated truths and secret knowledge. Howard Beale turned on to the angry zeitgeist of a world powerless against its corporate masters, while in Altered States, William Hurt's Eddie Jessup is turning on (via some intense hallucinogens) to the evolutionary secrets hidden within his own DNA.
What I found more interesting, however, was the way that these stories are presented. We have gotten so used to the most economic storytelling possible. Characters are only defined enough to given them exactly what they need to get to the end point of the story. Not so, here. Characters consider things, and many of those things they're considering are big ideas. We hardly ever see movies anymore that are interested in ideas, much less considering them. Chayefsky's characters are talking about their process in places where there would be a car chase if they were remade for today's audiences. Howard Beale doesn't do a lot of considering of things, but we have a whole seemingly irrelevant relationship between Faye Dunaway and William Holden doing that. In Altered States, we have Hurt talking about all the things that he's going through, but then we also have Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid talking about what he's going through and offering their own input based on a variety of potential perspectives on the situation.
Thought... on film. What a concept!
Oh yeah, it's also a fantastic film. Russell employs a series of practical and optical effects that no one would use today, giving the more supernatural events an entirely unique texture and aesthetic befitting its strangeness. William Hurt is just great. It's a shame we haven't seen him in a real plum role in so long.
The Elephant Man - 1980
Written by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren & David Lynch
Based on the writings of Frederick Treves & Ashley Montagu
Directed by David Lynch
with John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins & John Gielgud
It seems like a lot of people forget that The Elephant Man was a David Lynch movie, but then I kind of get the impression that a lot of people locked down their impression of what constitutes "a David Lynch movie" somewhere in the span between Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and just left it there. Lynch has dealt with themes of alienation over and over throughout his career, but nowhere quite so obviously as in The Elephant Man, where John Merrick's differences are unavoidably vivid. I was never able to sit through Eraserhead, but even with my limited memory of it, it's clear that The Elephant Man shares many of the thrumming industrial sights and sounds with it. It also shares a particular emotional gravity with another film that people often forget when they're talking about Lynch; The Straight Story, a film so gentle and true that I watched it with my grandmother.
I'd like to offer this simple piece of advice to anyone who might be making a movie. John Hurt will make any movie better. He won't turn a crap movie into a good one, but he'll make it better than it would otherwise have been. Even if it's a crap movie, the parts when he's on screen will at least be more interesting crap. In his career he's played good and evil, stern and tender, grim and jolly, engaging and distancing men. He makes iconic characters more human and human characters more iconic. I've seen him seem so frail in roles that I worried about his health and was then astonished at how robust he seemed in the next film in which I saw him. If you're looking at your movie and asking yourself if it needs a little something more, it's him, John Hurt; that's what you're looking for. As John Merrick, a single sucking inhalation could make you cringe at the sound of his saliva, and yet make you want to hug him. What a magnificent portrayal.
And a magnificent film. It feels like a much older film than it is. Not just because of the stunning black-and-white photography, but from its embrace of classical storytelling; unspooling a really very simple tale of a man who appeared hideous and was treated even more hideously, yet possessed great beauty within him. That's a highly magnified version of something that any decent human being must feel at some time or another in their lives, that alienation and misunderstanding, that hope and yearning. The performances have an older style of delivery as well, and their scale serves to make it not dated, but timeless; not specific to a particular place and time the way current tastes in drama prefer, but universal, a parable for all places and times, speaking to the grace of the pure human spirit that unites us all in the solitary places in our hopeful hearts.
The Shawshank Redemption - 1994
Written & Directed by Frank Darabont
from a short story by Stephen King
with Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman & Bob Gunton
It's long been one of my greatest cinematic shames that I hadn't really seen this. As it turns out, I really only missed about 10 to 20 minutes on the front end, so my guilt has been both rectified and assuaged.
It really is one hell of a movie.
Pitch Perfect - 2012
Written by Kay Cannon
from the Book by Mickey Rapkin
Directed by Jason Moore
with Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow & Rebel Wilson
On the one hand, I knew that people had enjoyed the movie and I've enjoyed Anna Kendrick in everything in which I've seen her, even the things that I didn't like. On the other hand, a film about a collegiate acapella competition sounded both predictable and twee. Also on that hand, it's not that I have a problem with female-led comedy, but I don't trust Hollywood's very uneven record when it comes to female-led comedies, and frankly, I haven't gotten over how creepy Rebel Wilson was in Bridesmaids, even though I can acknowledge that that could be the result of her just doing a really good job. So, taking both hands into account, I'd been pretty reluctant about seeing Pitch Perfect.
I needn't have worried quite so much. Was it predictable and twee? Heck yeah it was, but it was also aware that it was and winked from time to time about it It took the formula for [scholastic competition of your choice] and semi-satirized it, showing us a bizarre parallel world where the Big Men on Campus are the men's acapella choir. It is aware of the eye-rolling nature of our expectations for acapella chorale, and plays along, saddling the women's group with the kind of turgid, stale and self-satisfied saccharine that is exactly what we feared. It gives us a leading lady who is on our side of the mocking, only to be won over in her level of commitment as the group is won over to her idea of doing something different with the concept, and we are won over because we're just having too much damn fun to remember that we're too cool for all of this.
Despite my reservations, Pitch Perfect says something I've been trying to say for a while. You're going to have a LOT more fun the more you get over trying to be cool and caring what others think all the gawdam time. Pitch Perfect is a hoot and a half.
At Middleton - 2013
Written by Glenn German & Adam Rogers
Directed by Adam Rogers
with Vera Farmiga, Andy Garcia & Taissa Farmiga
A really charming sort-of-romantic sort-of-comedy about an unlikely duo of characters.
Ordinarily, you'd expect a romantic comedy about a college tour to center on the two young and attractive students, and while they certainly do get their own (underdeveloped) sub-plots, the focus here is on their parents, played by Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia. Now, don't let me suggest that it's entirely fresh. Naturally they still grate on each other when they first meet, and then somehow grow on each other after they've ditched the tour and set about discovering the campus (and themselves, and each other) in unexpected ways. I don't want to suggest that it's in quite the same class as Before Sunrise and the like, but it has a lot of that kind of walking-and-talking and taking a look at one's life sort of content. Unlike a romantic comedy about thoughtful and available young people, our starry-eyed duo here are both in unsatisfying marriages, in the middle of lives that aren't exactly begging to be thrown into the air over a single chance meeting. This weaves a thread of tension throughout much of the film, because once they get over their conflicts with each other, they find themselves in conflict with themselves.
The obligatory (if unlikely) "Hey let's get the old people stoned" scene doesn't appear to have been written by anyone with any experience with marijuana (which I find hard to believe of a Hollywood screenwriter), but overall the film strikes far more resonant tones than the few flat, clanging ones that pop up. It's really nice to see a romantic comedy about grown ups... even if they're only sort-of-grown ups.
Frank - 2014
Written by Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
with Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson
Jon finds himself pulled into the gravity of an odd and enigmatic bandleader who wears a big papier mache head night and day. The bandleader, Frank, is curiously charismatic and everyone associated with the band feels compelled to make him happy. Whether it's something in his personality, or simply the way his giant wide-eyed head affects them is part of his mysterious charm. As the new guy in the band, Jon is confronted with a great deal of suspicion from other band mates who are unclear (even to themselves) about whether they're more interested in protecting Frank, or protecting their closeness to Frank. For his own part, Jon wants to make Frank happy by driving the band to succeed, and getting them a berth at South by Southwest; a gig far bigger than the band has ever played.
I found the film to be just charming as all hell. I really enjoyed the explosive nature of the characters' chemistry. No one was all bad, and no one was heroic, but as their individual agendas for doing good things, particularly making Frank happy agreed or opposed, it altered how they saw each other, themselves and Frank, without necessarily being clear about how Frank actually felt behind his facade. A lot of people won't understand Frank, but then a lot of people don't understand a lot of people.
St. Vincent - 2014
Written & Directed by Theodore Melfi
with Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy & Naomi Watts
Here's the thing about St. Vincent; it's not really fresh or original, but it's well played by skilled artisans. It could easily be named "Bad Neighbor" or something along those lines. It's an entirely familiar "mean old man's heart is eventually warmed (a little bit) by a plucky youngster" story, so if you rankle at the thought of having your heart warmed in the third act, best steer clear. I just want to be clear about what it is before I explain how it works anyway.
Bill Murray is Vincent, the mean old man, and his portrayal is one of the most vivid combinations ever of Early Bill Murray, the anti-establishment nutty cut-up, and Latter Day Bill Murray, the subtle and human Ac-Tor. I suppose if there are any surprises, they're in the performances. Melissa McCarthy takes it down a few notches as the newly single mother next door. By playing her nervous talkativity much more realistically than she does in her broader comic roles (not necessarily realistic, but more so), she comes across much more sympathetically than usual. Naomi Watts is most commonly known as a dramatic actress, but the plays arguably the most consistently comedic role in the film as the pregnant Russian hooker with whom Vincent maintains a working relationship. Like a jazz show; no one goes to hear a specific old standard, but to enjoy the performances.
I laughed, I cried, I wasn't particularly surprised. What do you want from me? Get offa my lawn!
Asylum - 2014
Written by Chris Mancini & Tex Wall
Directed by Chris Mancini & Todor Chapkanov
with Stephen Rea, Caroline Ford & a bunch of bald Bulgarians
Asylum is a nonsensical, low budget turdburger shot on-the-cheap in Bulgaria... and someone at After Dark Films recognized that. They beat the rush of disparagement destined to be thrown at the movie (if anyone paid attention to it at all), and decided to make fun of it themselves (while saving themselves their post-production effects budget). Imagine Mystery Science Theater 3000 getting their hands on the rough cut of a crappy horror movie before it was even finished, and you'll have a pretty good impression of Asylum. There's the movie they shot, but then it's framed and voiced-over by the guys who are supposedly editing this stink-pile. The horror part is bad, but the comedy redeems it. The comedy is actually pretty good -- not quite MST3K good, but with its own voice. DON'T hold out for the director's cut.
As Above, So Below - 2014
Written by Drew & John Erick Dowdle
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
with Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman & Edwin Hodge
A found footage horror film that works!
Think "Lara Croft and the Gates of Hell." A young English scholar is determined to finish her father's quest for the Philosopher's Stone. In the opening, we see her raiding an underground chamber in Iran for a codex that leads her back to the gravestone of Nicholas Flammel in Paris. The information she finally gains suggests a chamber buried deep below Paris, through ancient catacombs (AKA tombs), far beyond the bounds of the usual tourist sites. She enlists a camera man, a fellow scholar with whom she shares a history, and a team of Parisian urban explorers to find the chamber.
Things go from weird to spooky to creepy to SOOPER CREEPY to "RUN, DAMMIT, WHY AREN'T YOU FASTER?" The creepy elements are really well done and I definitely caught a few distinct chills. It doesn't over explain or go too big. Where a lot of found footage horror involves a bunch of assholes wandering around the [woods, factory, asylum, mansion, carnival, etc.] just bitching at each other in generic locales of low-budget decay, the Dowdle brothers plotted this much more conscientiously, moving from creepy set piece to creepy set piece, deepening the mystery and mixing it up with claustrophobia, fear and panic.
It's not exactly an fresh, new take on the found footage approach, but it does what it does rather well, and it avoids a lot of the common pitfalls. Most importantly, the characters are interesting enough that I cared what happened to them, and it creates a palpable sensation of fear.
Friended to Death - 2014
Written by Sarah Smick & Ian Michaels
Directed by Sarah Smick
with Ryan Hansen, James Immekus & Sarah Smick
Some of the things I was reading about this movie before I watched it threw around terms like "dark comedy" and "satire." That's pretty misleading. It's pretty screwball, using the social media aspect of modern culture as a conduit, but that doesn't really make it a satire. There ARE points made about the ways that people use social media, and they'll grind on you like a 400 lb lap dancer.
Really though, it's more screwball, slapstick hijinks when (obnoxious-overlapping-cruel) social media junkie and (freshly fired) ex-parking enforcement officer Michael Harris (Hansen) gets the idea to fake his death to see how his Facebook "friends" respond and who will show up to his memorial. Much of the comedy is based on the lengths that he and his sidekick Emile will go to keep the secret and pull off the prank/experiment/obsessive-compulsion. Matters are complicated significantly when the woman who has been revenge-stalking Michael threatens to expose his secret.
It's a light, silly comedy, and feels a lot more like television than a movie. As such, it also felt like it should have wrapped things up a little sooner. That's not a complaint; just an observation. There are worse ways of spending 90 minutes and there are better. I didn't regret this 90. It was nice to see a little more range from Ryan Hansen (formerly of Veronica Mars and Party Down) and I expect Sarah Smick to have an interesting career as things progress for her.
Play It Again, Dick - 2014
Written by Rob Thomas & Bob Dearden
Directed by Rob Thomas & Viet Nguyen
with Ryan Hansen, Jason Dohring & Kristen Bell
Play It Again, Dick is a spin-off to the fan-favorite series Veronica Mars about a spin-off from Veronica Mars, which isn't really a spin-off to Veronica Mars. Allow me to explain. So, on the original fan-favorite series, Veronica Mars, there was a one-line character that turned into the fan-favorite character Dick Casablancas played by Ryan Hansen. Play It Again, Dick, is about the actor, Ryan Hansen, pitching a spin-off series starring Dick to the CW network. They give him the go-ahead for a low-budget microseries called Play It Again, Dick, but THIS Play It Again, Dick is about the actors making THAT Play It Again, Dick. Wait, now I'm lost.
Oh, also, this TV series is not a TV series, but is, in fact, a web series on CW Seed, which I guess is the CW's attempt to Hulu. Because you're already on the internet RIGHT DAMN NOW, you can go watch this series RIGHT DAMN HERE.
Oh, wait, I didn't tell you why you'd want to. Well, if you're a favoring fan of Veronica Mars, you already know you want to. If you've seen the show Party Down, also by Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, then you should likewise be interested. Party Down was a comedy unrelated to the other show, although several actors appeared in both series, including Ryan Hansen. The humor of Party Down should give you a good idea what to expect in Play It Again, Dick. If, somehow, you have no idea what the downtown funk I've been talking about for the last 3 paragraphs, BUT you have a keen interest in Hollywood inside-baseball humor, or heck, if you just enjoy seeing a self-absorbed nitwit embarrassing himself, then Play It Again, Dick just might have something to offer you. Also, it's free and the episodes are short so you really have nothing to lose but that stick up your butt.