Thursday, September 20, 2018

Guest Post: A Simple Favor (2018)

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Gone Gossip Girl

By Jonas Schwartz

Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor is a deliciously twisty comedy-thriller in the Hitchcockian vein with two delectable performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively.

Square, single mom Stephanie (Kendrick, Into The Woods) tries just a little bit too hard to please. Her dull life turns upside down when she meets the dynamic Emily (Lively, Gossip Girl) through their little boys. Stephanie is instantly bewitched by the fashionable, flip sophisticate. They drink dry martinis London style and reveal dark secrets. Then one day Emily asks for just a simple favor, for Stephanie to pick up Emily's son from school. After that call, Emily vanishes. Her husband Sean (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) hasn’t heard from her at all, and her work doesn’t seem to notice she’s gone. Stephanie leaves it to herself to solve the mystery. The once buttoned up neurotic blossoms due to the excitement as she chases old secrets to their roots.

Feig plays homage to the French '60s neo-noir thrillers of Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut, who, in turn, had been kissing up to their portly Hollywood mentor, Hitch.  Feig sets the tone with a ravishing soundtrack containing post-modern French songs by Serge Gainsbourg, Brigitte Bardot, and Françoise Hardy and an enveloping score by Theodore Shapiro.  The costumes by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus mock trends of the 1960s with couture female tuxedos and hostess dresses in bright suburban colors.

The script by Jessica Sharzer, based on Darcey Bell's 2017 novel, follows the tropes of the scheming femme fatales and the good girls who climb into the mud after them. The characters are wickedly smart which makes both Stephanie and Emily worthy adversaries. Some of the strings do unravel, in particular the character of Emily's fashion empresario boss played by Rupert Friend could have been woven more into the mystery to add menace. Even without charting new territory, Sharzer keeps the audience on their toes, but still allows them to think they're two steps ahead of the script only to be dead wrong often.

Feig's cast has been obviously schooled on the conventions of the 1940's noir characters they tease, so that they're able to follow the established form, but also make the characters their own. Kendrick, who began her career on the stage as a child, is a winning protagonist. Her insecurities and constant babbling illustrate a woman desperate to belong. The script clues the audience in immediately when Stephanie reveals to her mommy vlogger audience that her best friend that she’s known for ONLY A FEW WEEKS has gone missing. Kendrick may be a pigeon, but audiences empathize with her loneliness and isolation. Lively plays Emily as a force of nature, a commanding presence who manipulates for the same reason other people breath. Like in Crazy Rich Asians, Golding projects an irresistible sexiness, but he unselfishly allows the dominant women surrounding him to take full focus in the film. Feig fills his cast with great supporters like Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla as the gossipy school parents, and Olivia Sandoval and Bashir Salahuddin as two over-jovial but heavily suspicious detectives, she for the insurance company, he for the police. Jean Smart as a boozy piece of the puzzle is a hilarious gem as always.

Like a rich, French meal, A Simple Favor savors its flavors, creating an appetizing treat that's a tastier whole than its parts may suggest on their own. Already adept at skewering the conventions of the spy thriller (Spy), the buddy cop comedy (The Heat), and the girl's-day-out comedies (Bridesmaids), director Paul Feig shows his flair for subtlety and intrigue without the gross-out elements upon which his earlier comedies relied.

Check out Jonas's other reviews at 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Horror Lexicon: "The Stay Awake" Shot

As I've often written, the horror film possesses a visual vocabulary all its own.  At the basis of this vocabulary or lexicon, is film grammar, the agreed upon language filmmakers deploy to vet their cinematic narratives.

Director Tobe Hooper explains further (in Jeffrey Horsting's Stephen King Goes to Hollywood, New American Books, 1986, page 20):

"Brian De Palma actually coined a phrase, 'film grammar,' which refers to the way particular shots are put together by particular directors in order to tell the story....You build sequences, such as a shot of someone coming through a doorway who looks at a table across the room.  On the table, there is a dagger, and as the subject approaches the dagger, the camera dollies back across the long room with the subject approaching the table.  And cutting to that person's point-of-view, which would be a moving shot traveling toward the table, getting closer and closer to the dagger...that's grammar."

Film grammar is the basis upon which all (good) films are constructed, and certain compositions or "sentences" of film grammar are virtually guaranteed to make audiences feel specific emotions or feelings.  You are already familiar with this lingo, at least sub-consciously.  A high angle shot (looking down) makes our heroes look small...vulnerable.  A low angle shot (peering up), makes a villain seem huge and menacing.  A subjective point-of-view puts us inside the body and eyes of a specific character.  Hand-held camera-work makes the action feel more immediate and urgent, and so forth.

In this new type of post here, called "The Horror Lexicon," I'll be spotlighting and examining the horror film's distinctive visual language, the language we all understand, at least psychologically.

I've written previously about the "Stay Awake" genre convention in Horror Films of the 1980's and Horror Films of the 1990's.  In those two instances, I cataloged at least 125 instances of this particular visual in 1980s and 1990s horror cinema.   A favorite of director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain), the "Stay Awake" shot represents a visual shorthand for post-traumatic stress, and the fall-off ofter a crescendo of highest dramatic intensity. 

The "Stay Awake" shot (named by me after a very bad 1987 film called The Stay Awake) is what I term "the trademark" composition of the once-popular rubber-reality horror film.  The Stay Awake  shot most often (but not universally) features a close-up of the beleaguered protagonist, all sweaty and bothered, awaking from a traumatic dream, usually on a bed or in a sofa.  You will see the shot frequently in A Nightmare on Elm Street films, which explicitly deal with nightmares.

The Stay Awake shot often arrives immediately after a horror film has tricked us with a sequence in which the protagonist appears to be in inescapable danger.  At the moment of greatest jeopardy and terror, we suddenly cut to the Stay Awake, as the protagonist comes to conciousness from the disturbing phantasm.  We have been tricked by the harrowing action too, and identify with the character's relief (and fast-breathing, perspiring demeanor).  The Stay Awake composition builds an important link between protagonist and audience. It portends universality (we've all had bad dreams), and we've both, in this instance, been tricked.

Many directors and film scholars have compared the act of watching a movie to dreaming, only with our eyes open.  The Stay Awake shot seems to be a self-reflexive, mirroring of this dynamic.   We're actually watching a character on screen dream within a dream, as we are observing the larger dream of the film itself.

Sometimes, the Stay Awake shot is a movie's final, climactic sting (think Carrie [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980]), and sometimes, when a director is being exceptionally playful or mischevious, the audience is treated to a double Stay Awake (a second dream within a dream; as in the case of Prince of Darkness [1987].)  Sometimes, the awaking figure clutches dream wounds, further evoking a feeling that the dream was physically dangerous.

Below are some well-known post-dream, post-traumatic "Stay Awake" shots of the horror cinema.  Again, consider how here one shot alone has become part of horror's communal language, a critical part of the horror director's quiver.

The Stay Awake a la Cameron: Aliens (1986)

The Stay Awake a la John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness (1987)

The Stay Awake a la Tobe Hooper: Lifeforce (1985)

The Stay Awake a la Brian De Palma: Dressed to Kill (1989)

The Stay Awake a la Neil Marshall: The Descent (2006)

The Stay Awake a la Mark Pellington: The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

De Palma redux: Carrie (1976)

See also these prominent examples: Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),  George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), Alan Parker's Angel Heart (1987), Sam Raim's Evil Dead 2 (1987),  Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm (1988) Don Coscarelli's Phantasm 2 (1988), Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary (1989), Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990), Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990), Richard Stanley's Dust Devil (1992), Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate (1997) and David Koepp's Stir of Echoes (1999).

Friday, September 14, 2018

Breakaway 2018: "All that Glisters"

Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) leads a team to a nearby planet when Main Computer reports that the world possesses the rare and vital mineral called Milganite required for Alpha’s life support system. 

On the team to find and mine the Milganite are Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), Maya (Catherine Schell), Alan Carter (Nick Tate), Chief Security Officer Verdeschi (Tony Anholt) and geologist David Reilly  (Patrick Mower), an Irishman who fancies himself a Texan cowboy.

Once on the planet surface, the Alphans’ Milganite readings lead them to a strange orange rock in a cave. When Reilly cuts off a sample of it, it bleeds and utters a scream of pain.  Upon the deposit of the rock in the Eagle, the rock flares energy, and apparently kills Tony.

Helena determines, however, that Tony still possesses brain function, a fact which becomes apparent when Tony is “revived” to serve as the arms and legs of the rock sample, retrieving another piece of the glowing rock from the cave.

Koenig and the others soon recognize that the rocks on the planet are alive, and desperate. They require water to survive, and have been enduring a seemingly-unending drought.

But, as Maya points out with worry, there is plenty of water in the human body…

“All that Glisters” is a quite disliked episode by many Space: 1999 (1975-1977) fans, and also, actually, by some of those who participated in the making of it. 

Martin Landau’s displeasure with the script is legendary, and if you watch very closely, you can also see Catherine Schell breaking character and succumbing to fits of giggling, in a scene set on the planet exterior, as the rocks take control over the Eagle. She must turn away from the camera, once her composure fails.

Why the dislike? 

Well, there are a number of reasons, for certain. 

The episode, about a silicon-based life-forms, doesn’t treat the main characters, for the most part, in appealing or intelligent fashion. The guest star, Mower’s Reilly, for instance, is an “Irish Cowboy” and attempts a dreadful Texan accent. 

He is an obnoxious character, with little in terms of human qualities to make the audience like, or even care about him. He hits on Maya in the Eagle, to Tony’s dismay, and then constantly acts counter to Commander Koenig’s orders.  He is obsessed with a living rock.  

So, an Englishman plays an Irish cowboy who is obsessed with rocks.  That’s quite a description!

Commander Koenig, a character I love and admire, also fares poorly in the episode.  

Perhaps because of Landau’s displeasure with the story, Koenig is constantly on the verge of catastrophic rage, shouting and yelling at his subordinates like a maniac.  

Worse, his orders sometimes make no sense.  After Tony is injured by the rock, for instance, Koenig orders that no one go near, look at, or in any way interact with any rocks.  

Well, if they do that, how will they save Tony? How will they understand their environs? It’s a dumb order, and Landau should never have been put in the position of having to issue it.

Dr. Russell also comes across poorly here. She has to say the line “I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker,” which, of course, comes straight from the lexicon of Star Trek (1966-1969) and its notoriously cantankerous physician, Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley). So Helena is a sort of cut-rate “Bones” here, frustratingly.

So why did I give such a favorable review of “All that Glisters” in my book, Exploring Space: 1999 (1997)? And why do I still appreciate it?

There are two reasons, primarily.  

First, I admire the episode’s photography. Much of the episode takes place in a darkened Eagle laboratory pod, as Helena and the others deal with the strange nemesis in their midst.  These shots are beautifully-crafted, with dim illumination, and lights sometimes cast only on eyes, or faces.  

It’s stylish and smart in visual approach, and reminds me of black-and-white horror photography from Hollywood of the 1940s. The familiar technological setting is rendered almost “supernatural” in its creepy nature, and given that so much time is spent there, the episode also boasts a nice, claustrophobic feel.  There’s a real sense here of an inescapable trap.

Secondly, and perhaps more important than the episode’s stylish photography, I appreciate how “All that Glisters” fits into my “horror myth” thesis about Space: 1999 overall.  

Basically, that thesis states that Space: 1999 is actually a horror series, not a science-fiction one, with all the old universal fears translated to the technological space age. We have the horror of the premature burial, in “Earthbound,” for example.  We have the man with the Midas Touch, instantly freezing other humans on contact, in “Force of Life.”  Other stories are about wicked, evil children (“Alpha Child”) or dragons (“Dragon’s Domain.”)

This conceit continued into Year Two. “The Exiles” was “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” at least after a fashion, and this segment, “All that Glisters” is very clearly a technological, space-age update of the traditional zombie story.  

Today, we primarly associate zombies with George A. Romero and The Walking Dead (2010 - ).  They are dead creatures who feast on human flesh and typically transmit a plague to those bitten.  But if you go back in Hollywood history to films such as White Zombie (1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), you can see the interpretation of that monster that “All that Glisters” adopts and re-processes for the space age.  

Basically, zombies, in those situations are shambling, dead (or mostly dead…) servants of sorcerers or other puppet masters.  The fear was of being made dead, and then a drone or slave to some horrible person and his agenda. 

Here, of course, the rocks destroy Tony’s consciousness and make him, operationally, a zombie: a creature without higher thought, but bound to their control.  

Again, there are some very good, atmospheric shots of Tony blank-faced, walking across the alien planet surface. He is lit from below (by the glow of the rocks), so that his vacant life-less face appears menacing and inhuman. 

My grounds for admiring “All that Glisters” come down to, essentially, the horror touches, and the accumulation of their impact. The dark laboratory is a haunted house setting, and quite claustrophobic, thus generating anxiety. And the rocks make zombies of the living, turning them into trudging, mindless automatons, in keeping with the series’ overall horror qualities.

I can see how the episode’s other factors are less than successful. Certainly, the silicon life form has been featured before, and in better shows, such as Trek’s “The Devil in the Dark,” but in fairness, “All that Glisters” also appears to be the influential basis of the ST:TNG episode “Home Soil.”

Finally, I do think it is nice, after all the horror on display in “All that Glisters,” that the Alphans show their humanity and help the rocks to survive.  

Not so much because I want Space: 1999 to emulate Star Trek’s universe of brotherhood and optimism among alien species, but because it’s a different type ending for the series, and therefore it feels fresh.  If the Alphans can help the rocks, it seems natural that they would do so.