Monday, November 26, 2007

Taste My Frustration With Cablevision!

As part of an ongoing effort to drive subscribers back to rabbit ears and tin foil, the Scribe’s local Cablevision hub has been providing erroneous programming information for several of its HD channels for some time. Only a fool plans his MonstersHD broadcast recordings based on the CV-provided schedule, and a fools reward is exactly what I received. Seeing nothing but the unwanted Hellraiser and Dollman sequels that frequent my otherwise beloved MonstersHD channel, I scheduled no recordings. After being alerted by a sick friend who had initially attributed the confusion to fever-related dementia, I consulted the MonstersHD website and found that I had been missing several Hammer favorites, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Dracula has Risen from the Grave, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Dracula A.D. 72.

Though the repetitive programming and questionable choices can be a prime source of agita, MonstersHD has a good track record in showing excellent prints of some pretty wonderful films – many of which, like Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, contain restored footage - something that the network would do better to advertise. Most of the Hammers on display are available from Warner Bros on beautiful (and anamorphically enhanced) DVDs, and, with a decent up-converting DVD player, one can achieve an image of near HD quality. But Satanic Rites had only been available from Anchor Bay many years ago in an overly dark, non-anamorphic transfer. The MonstersHD version is a revelation, featuring much brighter, stable colors on a clean unmarked print. Though no new footage is present, the MonstersHD broadcast runs noticeably longer, as it doesn’t suffer the frame drop-outs that the previous DVD did. One of the final films produced during Hammer’s death rattle, 1973’s Satanic Rites of Dracula continues the ‘Mod’ setting of the previous year’s Dracula A.D. 72, but dispenses with Johnny Alucard (get it?) and his Carnaby Street irregulars in favor of a more mature cast and a less derivative story (Dracula A.D. 72 carries many of the same themes and plot stylings of Taste the Blood of Dracula). The logic-defying storyline, however, is another matter. Despite being staked into oblivion by Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) at the conclusion of the previous film, Dracula returns, without explanation, as the head of a multinational corporation. DracCorp, you see, is actually a front for a group of Satanists composed of a collection of Britain’s power elite, who obey the will of the Count without question. Their somewhat bizarre mission (again, at Dracula’s behest) would constitute a plot spoiler, but a comparison to someone sprinkling poison on their own vegetable garden might be apt. The police (Michael Coles looking more David Warner than David Warner returns as Inspector Murray) get wind of the nefarious goings on through an informant and call in Van Helsing as a kind of consulting detective.

Part horror, part police procedural, part spy movie and God-knows-what-else, Satanic's more riotous elements are more or less held together by Alan Gibson’s steady direction. Somewhat ironically, Gibson was only 33 when he helmed Dracula A.D. 72, yet seemed ill at ease with the “groovy, baby” antics of the younger characters. Satanic Rites, on the other hand, exhibits the both spirit and breezy fun of a more-macabre-than-average episode of The Avengers. Now in the interest of fairness, the film is far from perfect. The vampire’s demise tops even the lame purity-of-running-water routine from Dracula: Prince of Darkness, as Van Helsing lures the count into a patch of lethal Hawthorne (the aversion to thorns has something to do with Christ’s crown of same), and certainly more fun could have been had by transposing Dracula to a modern-day corporate setting than the rather drab, post-modernist grotto-office that we’re supposed to believe Christopher Lee’s haughty Count would feel the slightest bit comfortable with. Like the set, Lee also seems a bit drab here; he had made his displeasure with Hammer’s more extreme diversions from Stoker’s source book known to anyone that would sit still long enough to listen, and still insists today that he was emotionally blackmailed by Hammer into participating by telling him about all the personnel that would lose their jobs because the film couldn’t be sold without him. We love Chris, but along with Freddie Francis’ frequent griping about being pigeonholed as a horror director, it ranks among our least favorite negative remembrances of Hammer Studios personnel.

But as always, Lee perks right up when playing against Cushing – who may have had the same reservations with the increasingly daffy turns that the series was taking, but never felt the need to discuss it publicly. Their scenes together make watching Satanic Rites a more melancholy experience, as it would be the last time they would appear together onscreen together in a film. Though Cushing would reprise his role as a Van Helsing one last time for the studio in the genre-bending The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a co-production between Hammer and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios, Lee would never again don the black cape for the studio.

If I had a Hammer…

Friday, November 23, 2007

Send in the Gorillas…

Okay, it’s really my fault for falling in love too early. It’s not like the previews for The Mist made any promises that it didn’t deliver; and when a director seemingly born to the task delivers the goods for more than half the time, that ought to be enough, right? What sort of percentage am I looking for?. I really, really wanted to come away from this having loved it the way I dine out – without reservations – but such would not be the case. There are just a few things I need to mention, and I’m afraid it’s going to be like a dead guys fridge…with lots of spoilers
Last chance to turn back
Okay, the good:
The acting was uniformly great. Thomas Jane gets better with every film, and he really shined in a role that doesn’t offer the usual leading man heroics that these films usually provide for their leading men (especially in horror pictures). Toby Jones, whose Capote I really didn’t enjoy the company of, made what should have been a bizarre casting choice seem natural as can be. And the digital photography was excellent – was this Darabont’s first time shooting like this? – like Zodiac, I think that the slightly bland look worked in favor of the story.**** I also loved the second two creature attack set pieces (inside the market and at the pharmacy).

The not so good:
If I remember correctly, the page-to-movie minute ratio is about 1:1, and even with Darabont’s tacked on ending (more on that later) this picture should have been about 20 minutes shorter. "The Mist" was a lean short story and should have been a mean little film – not bloated and slow moving, not even for a few minutes. Take the bit after the group returns from the pharmacy for example; Darabont allows the pace to really go slack at the exact moment in should have shifted to 5th gear straight through to the end. There was also way too much of an emphasis on Mrs. Carmody. After the 12th time the movie has to come to a halt to allow for one of her moments of religious mania, she goes from an annoying character to just plain annoying (and don’t think I didn’t notice the milk bit, Frank – remember what I told you back in October). And with the money they saved on film stock, couldn’t the effects budget have been boosted a bit? I like the Sam Arkoff spirit of the bug attack within the market, but the first creature attack in the loading dock is strictly Sci-Fi Channel Original stuff

The really bad:
Stop explaining everything! I don’t know how big a role Project Arrowhead played in the story (if any) but I really, really didn’t need the origin of the mist explained in such an unexciting, rote way. The more you explain something like this, the less scary it becomes – period. And (deep breath) what a hateful, hateful ending. I can already tell that criticizing this will bring out the “Oh, so you only like happy endings, huh?” reaction, but let me point out several places where it should have ended:

1. As Jane’s car leaves the parking lot. (“So long! Enjoy all that dog food!”)
2. The car just disappearing into the mist on the road after leaving his webbed-in house
3. Right after the huge whatever passes over the highway.

And, if you absolutely, positively need to have some “meaningful” downer of an ending, have Jane close the car door and walk into the mist while still yelling and crying. What comes after that is the most cynical, f*** you, Charlie ending that I’ve seen in a long time. It would have been one thing if this had been King’s ending and Darabont had been stuck with it, but to have made it up from whole cloth?
No sale, Ollie.
**** - It has been brought to my attention (thank you, Jeffrey) that according to Wikipedia, The Mist was intended to be shot on digital video, but switched to a grainy Fuji film stock instead. To me, this film looks more digital than digital; I've seen the kind of grain you get from 35mm and the kind you get from video, and I still say that at least some of this movie (1st loading bay scene, in particular) was digital. Why one would bother spending the time and money that it takes (even for the TV crew that was used here) to shoot on a film stock that will wind up looking like a format that would have been easier and cheaper to shoot on in the first place is lost on me. Maybe my theater had crummy projection, but their print was only a day old.
Kind of makes you go "Hmmmm", right, Arsenio?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"To Find that I Was By The Sea, Gazing With Tranquillity"

In what was touted as a “rare public appearance” David Fincher brought his preferred cut of Zodiac to a sell-out crowd at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater last night, November 19th. Confessions of a Blogger – I really dig Fincher. Even in the gorgeous quicksand that was Alien 3 you could see a very specific vision at work. Aside from Michael Mann and maybe a handful of others, Fincher has the cleanest visual aesthetic of any working filmmaker, and with Zodiac, he finally has the confidence to tame the effects trickery and film the story in a totally unobtrusive style. His rep as a rough-riding auteur who works actors like a chip-shouldered Kubrick preceded him, so imagine our surprise to be greeted by someone so humble and soft spoken that he didn’t want to introduce the film himself, as he felt it would be too obsequious.

And as for the screening itself? The Scribe is on record for Zodiac being the very best film of 2007 so far. Zodiac heralded the return of the much missed ‘police procedural’ genre - in stark contrast to the forensics procedurals that we’ve been flush with since the 90s. Refreshingly free of CSI double speak about bullet trajectories, body gasses, and splatter patterns, Zodiac instead concentrates on the nuts and bolts of investigative work; immersing the viewer in decades worth of interviews and testimony of witnesses, victims, and even suspects. The ‘Zodiac’ terrified the Bay Area of Northern California with a series of shootings in the late 60s and early 70s, but like Jack the Ripper, only found true infamy after sending a series of letters and coded ciphers to major San Francisco newspapers, creating a climate of fear and paranoia similar to NYC’s own Son of Sam case. The letters always promised more victims (including school buses), taunted the police for not finding him, and even claimed credit for random crimes in the area that he had nothing to do with. Nobody was ever officially charged with the murders, and with the exception of the police assigned to the case and the journalists who wrote about it, the Zodiac nearly faded from public memory by the end of the 1970s. It was the publication of Robert Graysmith’s book “Zodiac” in 1986 that helped to re-ignite interest in the case; in the book, Graysmith accuses Arthur Leigh Allen on the basis of an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence gathered by the former cartoonist during his years at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Fincher’s film concentrates on the toll that years of chasing down dead end leads took on the men closest to the case – SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr), and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and deftly juggles each character in what must have been a logistical nightmare to structure at the screenplay level. The film covers more than a decade and throws enough names, dates, and alibis to make even the most attentive audience feel woozy, yet any patience exhibited is rewarded. Visually, the film has an amazingly exhilarating style yet never drifts too far from the docudrama approach that grounds the film in reality. When Fincher does dip into his bag of digital trickery to lock onto a yellow cab from above and follow it through the streets of downtown San Francisco, or show the passage of a year with a time-lapse recreation of the construction of the landmark Transamerica building set to Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues, it always flows naturally from the narrative and never feels like the “showing off because we could” camera shots in Fincher’s previous Panic Room.

The 7 minutes that had been added to the film bring it back to the length it was prior to a New Orleans preview screening where the majority of moviegoers apparently felt the film ran too long. Had they asked me, I would have been happy to tell them that removing and/or chopping up existing scenes in order to speed up a film usually has the opposite effect. I noticed three completely new scenes and two extensions:

1. The scene with Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) on the AM chat show now features a new exchange between Belli and the show’s host.

2. When the detectives interview Belli during his Christmas party, there is now an additional exchange regarding the African safari he had just been on (“You must go there, gentleman…such a beautiful, savage place”)

3. A new scene outside Morti’s has Graysmith waking Avery out of a stupor in the backseat of a car (“Paul, you missed editorial, it’s 11:30!”)

4. To bridge a 4 year transition, we now have just under a minute of black screen featuring music and news clips pertaining to the years going by, sort of like the opening of Contact, only going forward.

5. Probably the longest single restoration, Toschi and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) sit in Capt. Lee’s (Dermot Mulroney) office and pitch their case for a search warrant to the District Attorney over one of those tiny speaker boxes. A very funny, if somewhat redundant scene.

Any new material is a treat, but I’d say that the only substantial change is the 4-year transition; after the breathtaking Transamerica Pyramid scene, having only tiny text on the screen to indicate a 4 year jump is a bit anticlimactic. It’s funny to imagine a the look of satisfaction on the face of the studio executive, sure that taking 7 minutes out of a 165min film would turn it into a top grosser.

During the Q&A that followed, the painfully shy Fincher (who seemed to be attempting to hide behind a hand held microphone) fielded question regarding shooting features digitally (the Viper camera was used on Zodiac, but each digital camera has quirks that have to be dealt with), working with actors (If they’re not cooperating, make them to a bunch of takes without any direction and have them come crawling back), Mission Impossible III (besides not wanting to do another sequel with a “3” in the title all that much, the studio wanted to start production with only 40 pages of script and Fincher balked), and the surprising difficulty in getting permission to use vintage studio logos.

All in all, it was an amazing four hours. The digital projection at the Walter Reade was flawless, and rivals the recent digital Blade Runner showing at the Ziegfeld for pure clarity of image. It was also projected right off Fincher’s own digital copy; I’ve been slow to warm to shooting films digitally, even Michael Mann – who has achieved amazing night visuals with Collateral and Miami Vice - can’t quite get a handle on the excessive grain and the plastic sheen it can give to human skin. Zodiac is the first film that supports the argument that digital is the future of filmmaking. The slightly washed-out look is how most of us regard the period, and the clarity it gives to night shots (just look at the films opening shot, featuring fireworks over Vallejo) is stunning.

This cut of Zodiac will appear on DVD and HD-DVD on January 8th, featuring some of the best packaging we've ever seen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Picking Gold From The Discount Bin – The Citizen X Edition

In writing about character actor Jeffrey DeMunn recently, I was thinking back over his impressive body of work, and his frustrating lack of recognition. Perhaps confusion with fellow journeyman James B Sikking has retarded DeMunn’s ascension?

The role that should have defined him, the one that should have gotten him noticed everywhere came in a 1995 HBO film about the manhunt for serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, Citizen X. When the bodies of several mutilated children are discovered in the woods just outside of Rostov-on-Don in Soviet Russia, pathologist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), in spite of having no training as a detective, is assigned to the case by Col. Mikhail Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) a lifetime bureaucrat concerned only with placing someone expendable in charge of the case. Burakov uses forensic science to ascertain that the killings are the work of one man. His superiors, Communist Party officials all, dismiss his conclusions. They tell him that serial killers are a “decadent Western phenomenon” and refuse his requests for publicity, computers, and a consult with the FBI. Though Fetisov slowly becomes convinced that Burakov may be on the right track, he knows the futility of bucking the Soviet system – he gives him advice, but little help. Meanwhile, we meet a middle-aged factory administrator named Andrei Chikatilo (DeMunn), seemingly shy and introverted; Andrei is belittled mercilessly by his wife and laughed at by his children. After forgetting to place an order, he is humiliated by his supervisor in front of the entire factory. When we see Andrei at a train station, he wears the thousand yard stare of a desperate man. A train pulls in, gathers passengers, then departs – leaving behind Andrei and a young girl traveling alone. The girl, like most children of the region are poor and hungry, and she agrees to go into the woods with Chikatilo when he offers her something to eat…

As the death toll mounts, the “official” police investigation is limited to Party-approved suspects; as many victims were boys, it is their belief that a homosexual gang is responsible for the killings and Burakov is “encouraged” to pursue that lead exclusively. Disillusioned by the horrors he must bear witness to and discouraged by the bureaucratic wall put up around his investigation, Burakov begins to crack. But his job is saved when a now sympathetic Fetisov blackmails a party official (Joss Ackland) and gives both men – now working more or less as a team – the freedom to run the case their own way, which includes bringing in a psychiatrist (Max Von Sydow) to create a profile for the killer, thereafter dubbed “Citizen X”.

Written and directed by Chris Gerolmo, Citizen X had been made for HBO during a pre-Sopranos era when the cable network seemed to be concentrating on films rather than series. The mid-90s saw HBO producing a string of some of the very best films ever made for the small screen, like the hysterically arch Barbarians at the Gate, a comic-umentary look at the infamous RJR Nabisco buyout, and the searing Indictment: The McMartin Trial, featuring a career-best performance from James Woods as the spotlight-seeking attorney of a family accused of molesting children at privately run daycare center. Citizen X was based on another true story, that of the hunt for a particularly ghastly serial killer, the only one (ever reported, anyway) in the Soviet Union. Chikatilo admitted to some 50-odd murders after his capture, though many believe the actual death toll could have been much higher. The world caught up with the case during his trial, when images of Chikatilo seated inside a cage in the middle of the courtroom made him appear as a literal caged animal (the cage was there to protect Chikatilo, as the court was filled with the parents of his victims, clawing at the cage and screaming for his blood).

Gerolmo’s only major previous credit had been the screenplay for Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, and Citizen X displays the same low-key, near docudrama style – a smart choice when dealing with crimes this horrific, as a more heavily stylized approach would have reduced the admittedly sensational story to the level of direct to video potboiler. But Gerolmo’s neatest trick, and what keeps it relevant today (if somewhat ironically) is the incorporation of not only how the Soviet system suppressed the facts surrounding the case, but also how investigators had been restricted in their methods, to the point where they were only permitted to go after an “approved” list of suspects. And the sad irony of how a system that seemingly existed to keep the individual under the thumb of the state in effect created the perfect climate for a serial killer to operate within is well exploited by Gerolmo. The death-by-attrition of the Soviet system provides a fascinating backdrop for the story, even though it’s doubtful that men in bureaucratic positions would have fared as well as these characters supposedly did in the turbulent post-Glasnost years.

Stephen Rea, with his hangdog expression and eyes that seem to reflect every bit of despair in the world, is note perfect as Burakov. Rea takes the character from a functionary whose only concern is losing his place on the waiting list for a larger apartment, to a committed, passionate investigator. Sutherland has a bad habit of phoning in roles like these, but something (possible playing nearly all of his scenes opposite Rea) obviously inspired him to dig a bit deeper, savoring the role and coating Gerolmo’s dialog with a palpable smugness – when an over-excited Rea runs into Sutherland’s office after discovering that the killer is using the rail system to find his victims, Sutherland deadpans back “I know what the trains are, they sometimes get in the way of my limousine”. Von Sydow’s role is smaller, but where another actor would fill the role with quirks and ticks in order to get noticed, he smartly underplays. But possibly the hardest job falls to DeMunn; Chikatilo wasn’t a super-intelligent mastermind in the Hannibal Lector mold, just a man of below average intelligence with a crummy job and an emotionally distant family – almost a Russian equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s a real tribute to DeMunn that he can generate sympathy for this man without ever asking for it – no falling on the mercy of the court or pleading for mercy or understanding; he knows what he’s doing is wrong and lies to the police from the beginning so that he can keep on doing it. There’s a stunner of a scene late in the movie where Von Sydow reads the “killer profile” that he had created directly to DeMunn, asking him quietly to point out any incorrect information. As he reads the report describing Citizen Xs childhood, family life, and sexual dysfunction, DeMunn shows us Chikatilo – possibly for the first time – acknowledging who he is and begins to weep.

Citizen X is one of the very best “true crime” films ever made for television, but you’d never know it from the enthusiasm of its studio. Considering HBO has about thirty cable networks under its corporate umbrella, we’ve rarely noted its presence on any schedule. The DVD from HBO video is perfectly serviceable; the reserved shooting style and muted color scheme are represented adequately, and the ratio is correct at 1.33x1 fullscreen.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

I'm Getting Misty...

I know, I know, don’t get too excited – most trailers today make Sidney Falco seem like a straight shooter – but damn if this doesn’t look good.

So why exactly is it that Darabont seems to “get” Stephen King when so many other directors don't? The column for successful King book to screen adaptations is on the slight side, and doesn’t stand a chance against the mountainous column of failures. Where do you count Kubrick’s The Shining? It’s a near total goof as an adaptation of King’s novel, but a magnificent ghost story when divorced from the source material. King so disliked Kubrick’s film that he would write and produce a network miniseries adaptation himself in 1997 that, while more closely adhering to the page, evaporates from memory almost immediately after viewing. Tobe Hooper got King once with the superior 1979 TV miniseries Salem’s Lot, but tripped up with the all but unwatchable 1995 dud The Mangler (the lesson - vampires are scarier than industrial laundry presses).

The Mist will be Darabont’s forth time in the directors chair for a King story; the pair initially connected when Darabont made a very low budget short film in 1983 based on The Woman in the Room from Night Shift, King’s first published collection of short stories. After cutting his teeth on the USA cable film Buried Alive, Darabont would once again go back to King for his first two theatrical films, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Odd choices perhaps, as both films take place almost entirely in prisons and only the latter contains anything vaguely resembling supernatural elements – but Darabont’s precise writing and staggeringly assured direction turned Shawshank into an emotional tear-jerker that never turns mawkish (and even if it ends one scene too late, I still say that it earned that final moment on the beach). If The Green Mile isn’t quite as successful - it plays a much more manipulative game with the audience and is way too long – it’s still one of the more graceful Stephen King transitions from page to screen.

"The Mist" first appeared in 1980 as a part of the fabulous (and regrettably out-of-print) anthology, Dark Forces, though most became familiar with the story when it was included five years later in Skeleton Crew, King’s second volume of short stories. The relatively simple story begins when a thick fog suddenly descends upon a small Maine town and sends a nicely varied cross section of humanity running for cover into a supermarket. When monstrous creatures begin picking off anyone who ventures out into the open, an understandable panic ensues leading some to claim that a Biblical prophesy is unfolding, and that a human sacrifice is their only recourse.

King fans have been waiting for this one for a long time; The Mist has been languishing in studio development hell almost from the moment it was first published. The compact story line and tight narrative structure make it a natural for a film adaptation, and the favored King story device of the society-microcosm morality play set amid the chaos of some supernatural onslaught, has rarely worked better.

The casting has also been well-handled; good actors all, and no big stars to distract from the story. We like Thomas Jane very much and attach no blame to him for The Punisher. Andre Braugher and Toby Jones are great choices, and even though Marcia Gay Harden is a much younger Mrs. Carmody than appeared on the page, the glimpse of her performance in the trailer feels real, and very chilling. But the actor I’m most looking forward to seeing – Jeffrey DeMunn.

DeMunn has been busy on TV and film since the early 80s. With his unforgettably angular face and an easy New England drawl (even though he was born in Buffalo), he’s always been an unforgettable presence, if not a household name. DeMunn has always excelled at playing sympathetic authority figures, and made his mark for many genre fans in the late 80s with supporting roles as small town lawmen in The Hitcher and The Blob. He has also appeared in each of Darabont’s films to date. It's always a pleasure to have him in a film, however small the role.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Hail Ants!

I feel a great sense of privilege in being a member of the last generation to get to see the classic Warner Bros animated shorts made from the 1930s through the 50s before they fell victim to the political correction police, whose scissors have saved subsequent generations from the evils of shotgun-accelerated beak realignment. I resisted anything featuring actual humans in favor of animation even when I was well passed the appropriate changeover age. So flipping through the channels in the late morning/early afternoon hours of a Saturday meant keeping a snipers eye out for the big WB as it always brought the promise of a terrific cartoon.

And then I got tricked.

One day I saw the famous logo in B&W across a desert background (the current DVD uses an updated logo on its own screen and then cuts to the desert) and I quite reasonably thought that it was a Road Runner cartoon. The film’s actual title flashing onscreen (in blood red letters, no less) raised suspicions, and after an unusually long credit sequence I realized, to my great disappointment, that this was indeed a “real” movie.

I still don’t really know what kept me watching on that day, but I suspect that it was the kind face of James Whitmore as one of two police officers out patrolling for a missing girl wandering in the open desert. There was just something so trustworthy about the man, so I kept on watching.

The girl is found, walking away from the wreckage of her family’s mobile home in a near catatonic state. The bodies of her parents are nowhere to be found, but the gigantic hole in the side of the trailer doesn’t bode well – and why is it that the hole seems pulled out instead of pushed in? And why does she react in horror to a strange sound from off in the distance. Now what could that be?

Later on, the officers discover a filling station that had been torn apart in the same way, along with the body of the attendant, and I still remember the palpable terror I felt when they hear the same creepy sound coming from off in the desert.

The movie, of course, was Them! Director Gordon Douglas (a journeyman director who’s amazingly varied subsequent career would find him behind the camera for the classic spy spoof, In Like Flint, an above average Elvis vehicle, Follow That Dream, and the late career Frank Sinatra triptych of Tony Rome, Lady in Cement, and The Detective) would be the first to successfully exploit the looming fear of a nuclear world by laying the blame for unleashing the giant ants at our own doorstep. More than one character addresses the radiation from nuclear tests conducted out in the desert as the only possible culprit. But never fear, this movie is no didactic snooze on the evils of The Bomb, it’s a straight ahead monster-adventure story, one of the very best ever made.

Kids remember the superior creature design (and the wonderfully frightening trilling sound that accompanies each attack) but return to the film as adults for the terrific performances. Edmund Gwenn (sixty years after the fact, and still the only Santa Claus I will accept on film) and Joan Weldon appear as a father-daughter entomology team and James Arness (his second appearance in a classic 50s shocker, this time without The Thing From Another World’s makeup) as an FBI agent. But...

The following section concerns a major spoiler and should only be read if you’ve already seen the film

..the picture belongs to Whitman. As Sergeant Ben Peterson, Whitman gives a decidedly un-actorly performance, yet full of heart and nuance (we know he’s a veteran from one tossed off line of dialog - “First time I’ve ever given orders to a General”). The screenplay has enough respect for his character to not give him the type of comic relief groaners that too often fall on the “cop” role - it also spares him the indignity of slobbering over the leading lady like a sexual predator just released from solitary confinement. Whitman is given the freedom to create an actual human being rather than a genre archetype. In the finale, two children are cornered by the ants within the L.A. sewer system, and while an entire army is sent in to rescue them, it’s Ben Peterson who finds them. Our stomach tightens as the ants close in and Ben carefully lifts the children to safety. The setup is a greased chute towards a tragic conclusion, and that’s exactly what we get. It had never occurred to me that a beloved character could be killed in front of my eyes, and I can still remember thinking “They can’t do that!” while watching in stunned disbelief. Each time I face that scene, I still find myself hurrying him along; thinking that if he could just move a little quicker…

The other major studios spent the next few years cranking up their respective B unit departments and rushing as many giant ‘whatever’ movies into release. Some, like Universal’s Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis, weren’t bad, but “borrowed” so many elements as to barely qualify as original work. While on the other end of the spectrum you had Columbia’s The Giant Claw, in which the title creature resembles a poorly constructed piñata dangling on wires thick enough to garrote the Giant of Marathon.

To say that Warners has squandered much of the goodwill capital that their logo came to mean to me would be a gross understatement – the studio’s forced mascoting of One Froggy Evening star Michigan J Frog during the launch of the ‘WB Network’, and the subsequent tying together of classic cartoon characters with the most genetically deprived members of the Wayans family for the sake of corporate synergy will not soon be forgotten by this viewer. Contributions for the Save the Shield campaign can be sent to the attention of the webmaster (non tax deductible)

Friday, November 2, 2007

“Diane, I’m holding in my hand a small box of chocolate bunnies”

There are very few television films, either in series or movie form that can be legitimately called a phenomenon – that can claim to have actually altered the medium, leaving it a very different place than it had been before. Off the top of my head, I would say that Hill Street Blues would be one. Roots would certainly be one – so would The Sopranos, The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone…and of course, Twin Peaks.

The Scribe remembers very well the night of April 8th, 1990. At least a dozen eager viewers had gathered in a friend’s basement for the event; most were Lynch fans, while others had been won over by the atypically excellent promotion that ABC had been running. Our group that night contained core samples of nearly every conceivable demographic from 8th graders through young Gen X-ers and even (gasp!) actual adults, and what I remember most vividly was hearing this motley crew quickly quieting down once the credits began and staying that way for 2 full hours. Afterwards, everyone knew that they’d just seen something special. Even the few who weren’t won over were quick to say that they’d never seen its like on TV before, and would more than likely tune in again just to see how it all plays out. Of course, the ultimate curse of the show would be the confounding of that sentiment – abandon all hope of coherent plot resolution, ye who enter here – eventually dividing viewers as the show continued down its esoteric course. But those fights were a long way off, and with the release this week of the complete series run on DVD, it seemed a nice moment to remember how great it was on that night more than 17 years ago to witness just a little bit of history being made.

Twin Peaks was the brainchild of David Lynch and Mark Frost, and it’s easy to see what both brought to the table. Frost was fresh from the Hill Street Blues writing staff (where they knew a thing or two about running multiple story arcs) and would help keep the tires on the road. Lynch was responsible for some of the most gorgeously abstract images in American film over the previous decade; the success of The Elephant Man in 1980 helped lift Lynch’s previous effort, Eraserhead, past its status as hash-parlor wallpaper for the cult movie crowd and establish itself as a precise and personal artistic statement. His next film, 1984’s Dune, awkwardly squeezed Frank Herbert’s massive (and, frankly, unwieldy) narrative into a movie of less than 140min. While not remotely coherent, it is without question one of the most visually sumptuous science fiction films ever made. It would also be the first project with which Lynch would work with lead actor Kyle MacLachlan. As an actor, the Scribe has always found MacLachlan to be serviceable at best. But as a re-actor, he’s positively extraordinary. As Paul Atreides in Dune, he just sits there, taking up space and radiating the charisma of a bag of wet doorknobs. It’s hard to imagine following him through a subway turnstile, much less into lethal desert warfare atop a giant worm. But he was born to be a wide-eyed innocent guiding us through the Lynchiverse; and two years later, the pair would reunite for a film that is still regarded as one of the seminal films of the 80’s

Twenty years of tiresome analysis by everyone ranging from the casual film-goer to PhD candidates hasn’t diminished the sly, seductive spell of Blue Velvet. Lynch loved breaking through the veneer of idyllic complacency to get at violence and corrupt sexuality undulating just below the surface in small town America. I’ll opt out of the worn-out critical conga line and just say this: If you haven’t seen it, get it now – not just because it’s good, but because it’s the perfect entrée into Lynch’s next project, one of the most complete worlds that any filmmaker has ever had the opportunity to create.

The discovery of the body of Twin Peaks high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) wrapped in a plastic tarp by a river bank (can anyone think of a more instantly iconic television image?) sends a shock wave through the quiet Washington town of Twin Peaks. The mystery deepens when another girl is found wandering by the roadside just over the state line – still alive, but badly bruised and in a near catatonic state. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) soon arrives in town to investigate, and finds a small, typed letter ‘R’ imbedded under one of Laura’s fingernails. Cooper is then able to link Laura’s death to that of Theresa Banks in the previous year. Working with friendly but cautious Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), Cooper’s investigation will lead to far more sinister forces at work than a mere serial killer…

Some might be wondering why the plot synopsis just sort of stops there, but fans of the show should understand. Over the next 29 episodes, we’re run through a near impenetrable story line involving everything from alternate dimensions, not-really-reverse speaking dwarfs, log-cradling fortune tellers, spirit possessions…oh, and doughnuts, pie, and very hot, very black coffee. Twin Peaks was a show about texture, not plot. It was about creating bizarre characters and letting them run free, almost as if Lynch were letting them control their own destiny just to see where they might end up.

And what characters! Lynch has always had a weakness for actors that had been otherwise forgotten by Hollywood; Dennis Hopper hadn’t been in anything more interesting than a police line-up for years before Lynch gave him the career-saving role of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Russ Tamblyn (unforgettable in West Side Story, but nearly unseen since 1966’s War of the Gargantuas), Peggy Lipton (MIA since the Mod Squad went dark back in ’72), and Piper Laurie (her highest profile role since Carrie 14 years earlier) were given major supporting roles, and all – Laurie in particular – made the most of them. And though the younger members of the cast haven’t shown the career longevity of their older peers, Lee, James Marshall, and Dana Ashbrook all did terrific work - and as a strictly sexist side note, Sherilyn Fenn, Madchen Amick, Lara Flynn Boyle (prior to her full body moisture removal procedure), Joan Chen, and Lee (who would appear as Laura in pictures and flashbacks, and as Laura’s nearly identical cousin Maddy), Twin Peaks probably had the sexiest female cast in television history, not counting an early appearance David Duchovny as a cross dressing FBI agent.

But it was MacLachlan who held it all together – and it’s a rare thing to see an actor and character blend so perfectly into a third entity. The role of Cooper as written is full of potentially irritating character ticks and the comic non sequitors that Lynch is famous for, but damn if MacLachlan doesn’t give such a genuine, earnest performance that he makes all that quirk seem to evolve naturally from the character (the deadpan voice memos to unseen secretary Diane are a perfect example of Kyle turning lemons into lemonade). It’s very good, very difficult work.

The show remained popular through its first full season, but by the second, it had drifted more and more towards the obtuse. Much time was passed in the other worldly “Black Lodge” where evil doppelgangers and alternate realities roamed freely. Without giving anything away, it became increasing clear that anyone expecting a traditional wrap-up for the Laura Palmer case would be in for a sore disappointment (and since a good chunk of the fan base moved right over to The X Files, getting used to this type of disappointment proved to be good practice). In the end, all the letter-writing campaigns in the world couldn’t keep this baffling, beautiful Chinese puzzle box on the air, and the final episode aired on June 10, 1991.

Fans would be hard pressed to some up with a gripe in regards to the new box set from CBS/Paramount. Other than the ugly book binding-style disc holders and the lack of a printed episode guide for easy reference, it’s a sturdy piece of work. The re-mastered sound and picture (supervised by Lynch) are vast improvements over all previous home video editions. The director commentaries from previous editions are gone, but new video features (Lynch and several cast members interview each other) and an exhaustingly complete documentary more than compensate. The most important feature for most will be the inclusion of the original pilot episode; until now, the only edition available on home video in the US has been the version prepared for foreign theatrical distribution. This version is considerably longer than the 95min US-TV version, and contains a rushed, although fascinating, conclusion to the Laura Palmer mystery. It’s great to have both (almost as great is having the Twin Peaks sketch from the MacLachlan-hosted Saturday Night Live episode included!) and as Lynch himself says on the back of the box itself, “I think this is a great definitive Gold Box set”.

Revisiting this series may cause some despair over the current crop of prime time offerings, and no small measure of regret over not cherishing what we had when we had it. As Lynch becomes more enamored of the speed of shooting with digital video – he has said that he can’t imagine going back to shooting on film – and grows more disenchanted with anything approaching narrative storytelling (last year’s Inland Empire plays more like a museum video installation than a theatrical feature) it’s somewhat frustrating to watch Twin Peaks and be reminded how he was able to elevate an entire medium while working within an accessible framework.

Now if only someone could tell me about those amazing trees you have around here?