Monday, January 31, 2022
Saturday, January 22, 2022
Scream – The Gang's All Here
By Jonas Schwartz
NOTE on spoilers, though I've kept all the secrets of Scream out of my review, I do allow anything that was revealed in the trailer, as well as any information given over the last 25 years of films. If you haven't seen the original Scream, Scream 2, or Scream 4, rent them immediately. The less said about Scream 3, the better.
Though there are unfortunate problems plaguing the new re-quel (reboot/sequel) of the 1996 classic Scream, after 25 years, the teaming of Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette still brings joy, like being reunited with your saviors. Campbell, specifically, brings such tenderness and empowerment to her legendary role of Sydney Prescott that your stomach drops when she arrives on the screen as if you have run into a loved one for the first time in decades. Neve Campbell has always been the franchise's secret weapon, but there was another component missing that cast a pall over the entire film. Though Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett are ambitious directors, the Wes Craven touch would have brought this film together more smoothly.
Once again, a vicious killer in the iconic Ghostface mask is terrorizing the town of Woodsboro. A high school student (Jenna Ortega) reluctantly answers a landline setting off a string of brutal stabbings. Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) returns to town with a dark secret — one that she believes has led to these current crimes, one tracing back to the original murders.
As in the past Scream movies, the film features a cast of young up-and-comers. From Ortega (Jane the Virgin) to Barrera (Showtime's Vida and HBO Max's In The Heights) as well as Mikey Madison (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood), Jack Quaid (Amazon's The Boys) and Dylan Minnette (13 Reasons Why). But as always, the cast is anchored by the three that came from the very beginning: Campbell, Cox, and Arquette.
It's obvious that both the writers, James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and Guy Busick (Ready or Not). and their directors (who hit a bullseye with Ready or Not), have meticulously studied the four previous films. There are shots beautifully recaptured, sequences that mirror the original but just slightly askew, that make it clear these filmmakers revere the franchise. The writers humorously incorporate some of the fan theories over the last 25 years about past films. The creatives imbibe the film with nasty humor and mock the meta world both we and the films inhabit. They pay visual homage to other horror films like Psycho. They even comment on the actors' past career. One character suffers the same fate as their previous character in another film, while it can't be a coincidence that Gail Weathers (Cox) now hosts a morning show, remarkably similar to her "Friend" Jennifer Aniston on the award-winning Apple+ drama, The Morning Show. Also without mentioning the world's current pandemic, they joyfully have one character maimed due to hand sanitizer. One character even suffers with a dark passenger ala Showtime's Dexter. So these are not people winging it or phoning it in.
However, Scream feels like an A+ thesis paper at film school, not a movie. And here's where Craven would have been able to save the day. Craven had a knack for taking the most outrageous situations and grounding them so the audience could identify and follow the characters through a journey. The original four (yes even the subpar Scream 3) work because the audience has someone to follow through the story and empathize. Even the murderers have some distorted rationality to them. But in this film, all the characters are mouthpieces, pronouncing every meta reference with a jackhammer, instead of functioning people. They just don’t resonate. And without giving the ending away, the crimes' reasoning is flimsy, and for such hideous and cruel butchering, rather flippant.
The latest also tries to reinforce a fiction that Stab, the fictional movie being distributed during Scream 2, was filmic art. A film starring Tori Spelling. I never got the sense that Stab was more than campy schlock in Craven's mind. He was mocking the industry with Stab. But the current film puts it on a pedestal that never seemed part of Craven's vision.
I remember leaving a viewing of Scream 4 10+ years ago. Though a full decade had past, the 2011 film jolted you with such ingenuity, including that jaw-droppingly hilarious opening to a villain that took the film to a new level. The current Scream could make you think, could make you giggle, but at least for me, it won't make you feel anything.
Monday, January 17, 2022
Geoff Murphy's Freejack is a loose adaptation of Robert Sheckley's 1959 celebrated science fiction novel, Immortality, Inc.
That literary work told a tale of the year 2110 in which a man named Blaine was reincarnated (by Rex Corp.) into a future world of suicide booths, body transplants and an after-life industry in which "only the rich" went to heaven.
By contrast, the 1992 film -- now 30 years old -- centers on a famous race car driver, Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) who, during a fatal accident, is zapped into the future year of 2009.There, Alex countenances a corporate dystopia in America; one where Big Business has its corrupt hands in everything, even the ownership of the human soul.
In this future America, our nation has lost "a trade war" with the Far East (either China or Japan, it's not clear.). Accordingly, the middle class has disappeared entirely, leaving only the haves and the have-nots in perpetual conflict. Most of the population seems to live on the over-populated streets, in shanty-towns. This is a world in which you "either hide what you have...or you lose it," according to one character.
Hunting Alex down for McCandless is a mercenary and "bone jacker" named Vacendak (Mick Jagger), a man looking to collect on a big payday. And, as Alex realizes, he is a "freejack," a person whose very body is up for grabs if you possess a big enough check book.
The 1992 action film also seems to owe something important to Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), with its heavy focus on action, and on a hero attempting to navigate a world and personal relationships he doesn't fully understand yet.
On the latter front, Alex re-encounters his fiancee, Julie (Rene Russo) in 2009, now a business lawyer working for McCandless. She could either be a traitor or an ally...
Mick Jagger doesn't fare much better. He looks sillier in a tank helmet than Michael Dukakis did in 1988, and Jagger's abundant personal charisma doesn't translate well to the taciturn role of Vacendak. Like Estevez, Jagger seems out of his element here.
Even Hopkins is a dud in the villainous role of McCandless, the corporate soul marauder. I remember reading an interview with Hopkins in Starlog when this film was first released, and his key to understanding and playing the character of McCandless involved the fact that his character smoked cigars. That anecdote reveals just how shallow the performances and concepts in this movie really are. Under the surface, there's almost nothing of real interest.
There's little more desperate in terms of bad movies than a would-be blockbuster that can't entertain an audience, and that's, finally, what Freejack is.
Or, as Owen Gleiberman wrote in Entertainment Weekly: "The trouble with low-rent science-fiction movies is that beneath all the futuristic gimcrackery — the video phones and laser guns and hyperspace leaps, the obligatory time-travel setups — you realize, at some point, that you're watching a routine urban chase thriller: Lethal Weapon 2000."
Yep. Clearly, the opportunity was here to present Freejack as what author and scholar Paul Meehan terms a "tech noir," the kind of gritty, involving film that fuses high technology with low, basic human impulses.
But Freejack can't get there. The film doesn't dig deep enough about the reasons why such a miserable future has come to pass, or even why the characters respond the way they do to such a world. The film's idea of humor is to feature a crotch-kicking, shotgun-armed nun in a habit (Amanda Plummer), but no thought or explanation is given to her demeanor or belief system. She's just a joke, not a person we can understand.
And the future world of Freejack looks ramshackle and cheap (a lot like Johnny Mnemonic, actually), with just a few "futuristic" cars dotting the streets. Worse, the action scenes are incredibly dire. The film lurches from one boring chase sequence to another and then -- finally -- ends with a trippy virtual reality light show that today seems conspicuously dated, a relic from the age of such films as The Lawnmower Man (1992).
To put it another way, the entire film stakes itself on action, and then, in the last scene, attempts to thrill with metaphysical gymnastics. It fails in both instances.
At the end of the movie, Alex survives the cosmic switchboard and fools the authorities into believing he is actually McCandless, the CEO of the biggest and most powerful corporation in the world. Now Alex has access to money, power and lots and lots of fast cars. He could change the world, save all the freejacks, and work for a better tomorrow.
But does he?
Of course not.
As the end credits roll on Freejack, Alex drives off in McCandless's luxury car, beautiful Rene Russo at his side. He's not looking back...or forward. Nope, he just beat the bad guy and that's all the movie cares about.
With money and Russo to keep him flush and happy, Alex will get by in Corporate Land just fine...
Sunday, January 16, 2022
- From The Sixth Sense Press Kit, published in Senior Scholastic: “The Sixth Sense,” September 18, 1972, page 22).
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
It also introduced a hero, Kolchak who returned in a second TV-movie, a TV series in 1974, and a reboot in the mid-2000s.
Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970's.
There, down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor, Tony Vincenzo. It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out much hope.
In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their corpses drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit.
Kolchak considers this avenue of investigation, but runs into a brick wall erected by the mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die.
Finally, once the culprit is named - Janos Skorzeny - the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. Realizing it is up to him to put anen d to this nightmare, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. But In order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good.
Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.
In this project, he provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even a sense of humor. The late Darren McGavin (1922 - 2006) does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat delivery that is unmatched to this day.
Kolchak's not your typical TV protagonist, but rather a persistent voice for the truth, a fact which distinguishes him in this era of fake news. The Night Stalker introduces us to a man who lives on the edge, in a cynical time, and yet there is an optimism here that I appreciate, having a training in journalism. Embedded in Kolchak's DNA is the once-popular and common-held belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the telefilm and follow-up series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and a compliant media. Kolchak -- for all his failures as a human being -- is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a story...no matter where it takes him.
The made-for-TV movie's story itself -- about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas -- remains more intriguing, perhaps, for what it doesn't directly tell audiences. Rather than spoon-feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.
It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, well-traveled to boot.
I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot by director John Llewelyn Moxey. The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze.
As a set-up for the first vampire attack in a dark alley, it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool -- a hand-held camera -- and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot, and an atmospheric one too. The hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers. There's a feeling here that we're going to see an underside to an underside of Las Vegas.
There's a great moment in this telefilm when Kolchak walks to his car at night. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him.
He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of him. There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (or his embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and therefore realistic. McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale.
Monday, January 10, 2022
For those who don't quite remember it, The Invaders is the grandfather of paranoia and horror television series; one of the first such ventures to posit that "THEY" are among us: alien invaders (hidden in human form save for a pinky finger that juts out at an odd angle...), bent on our destruction.
These alien invaders in human bodies "have a plan" -- to coin a phrase -- to occupy and dominate the Earth. Accordingly, much of The Invaders' suffocating aura of paranoia arises from the fact that it is difficult to distinguish between human beings and extra-terrestrials. And worse, the aliens have already infiltrated every level of American (and possibly global...) infrastructure.
The Invaders, which began 55 years ago today, commences with a brilliantly-wrought pilot. The episode is titled "Beachhead" and in this inaugural program, audiences are introduced to dashing architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes).
Thinnes is a perfect leading man for this venture and this era -- the late 1960s -- and this alpha male shares the belligerent but virile yin/yang of that era's other leading men like Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, William Shatner and Charlton Heston.
Which means, basically, that's he's attractive and arrogant at the same time; both enticing and a little entitled. It's a master-stroke to put the beautiful but bellicose Thinnes into this particular situation -- facing an alien invasion alone -- because audiences expect this American paragon of white male virility to win and, shockingly, he doesn't. Or at least not usually. .
But let's not jump the gun. In "Beachhead," David Vincent is out on a road trip alone, driving by blackest night when takes a wrong turn (literally and figuratively).
We see his car run roughshod over a sign reading "road closed" but it might as well have read "dead end."
Vincent navigates his car through a thick mist and then parks near an abandoned roadside eatery, Bud's Diner.
As a voice-over narrator asks viewers the question "how does a nightmare begin?" we see the answer for ourselves: Vincent awakens from his late-night highway-hypnosis to see an impressive alien saucer land in the field just feet beyond his car.
Vincent's face lit in pulsating hues of alien crimson, and we watch as emotions like wonder, amazement and fear cross his face in extreme close-up. This moment is a watershed: an awakening for the character in more ways than one.
After Vincent's encounter with the alien saucer, things are never the same for this man, and since Larry Cohen (of It's Alive fame) is the creator of the series, that means we're in for something clever and even a bit subversive just beneath The Fugitive-like tableau of the series.
In this case, the series depicts a WASP-y figure of the establishment (David Vincent) suddenly introduced to the new America of the mid-to-late 1960s; the sub-culture or emerging counter-culture. Through his "radical" belief in an alien invasion, Vincent finds himself shunned by figures of the American ruling class (co-workers, government officials, the wealthy, and so forth) and even hunted by them (particularly the police force). These individuals now view Vincent with disdain because he has forsaken his safe "role" in white, middle-class American society for that of a prophet...a doomsayer warning of planetary emergency.
In one episode, "Nightmare," a group of white rednecks in rural Kansas beat-up David at a diner called "The Lunch Counter" and it is impossible not to be reminded of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and how -- literally -- there was no seat at the table (or lunch counter) for those outside Nixon's "silent" and white majority.
David is pulled off a lunch stool while minding his own business, beat up, dragged away by the police and jailed...with no charges leveled. The Invaders, in depicting an outcast member of the silent majority searching desperately for legitimacy, says much about the America of the day and the fears of that time about speaking out; about dissent.
Making David Vincent's claims of alien invasion that much harder to prove, some Invaders have "evolved" and no longer bear the telltale finger anomaly, which is oddly similar to a corrupted "peace" gesture from the 1960s).
|Notice the pinky finger...|
Even more dramatically, when destroyed in battle, the Invaders disintegrate in red flame, leaving behind no evidence of their presence. The end result is that Vincent just looks like a nut-case again and again, unable to co-opt others into his :paranoid fantasy."
The Invaders begins as a superb paranoia trip, and the second episode "The Experiment" ratchets up the fear-factor to an incredible degree for the 1960s. Here, the Invaders appear as archetypal men-in-black. These menacing figures in black fedoras and trench coats systematically kill enemies who have witnessed their plots.
They do so with small black disks which - when applied to the nape of the human neck - cause cerebral hemorrhage and mimic a natural death. The Invaders also arrange for a plane crash in this episode, hoping to murder a prominent scientist who is about to reveal the alien plan to a conference in New York. The scientist is ultimately killed, betrayed by his son, (played by a young Roddy McDowall).
This war of the generations (then known as "the Generation Gap"), with young Roddy decrying his father as an "enemy," is, not coincidentally, controlled by the Invaders. They keep the son in line with brainwashing drugs; another commentary on the 1960s, only this time the drug culture of the day.
Each episode of The Invaders finds David Vincent moving from locale to locale in hopes of providing evidence of the alien menace. He finds an abandoned town whose economy has been destroyed by Big Business (again - aliens!) in "Beachhead."
In "The Mutation" (January 24, 1967) he travels to Mexico and meets a female Invader (Suzanne Pleshette), one who is indistinguishable from humans because she has developed emotions, unlike the others. This particular plot is the well-spring for many episodes and concepts on the remade Battlestar Galactica, particularly the notion of an "inhuman" being feeling, well, human.
In "Genesis," (February 7, 1967) Vincent learns that the Invaders have taken over a sea lab in hopes of resurrecting a dead leader. In "Nightmare," (February 21, 1967) the American farmland is targeted by the Invaders as the aliens deploy a weapon that causes locusts to swarm and attack. The photography in this episode alone makes it a worthwhile entry to the canon: there are an abundance of beautiful shots of in a wide open cornfield, Vincent outrunning the locusts like he's Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1960).
Each episode of The Invaders is fifty minutes long. The series aired before commercials had eaten into the broadcast hour (which today is 42 minutes). As a result, these episodes do tend to move more slowly than modern audiences might prefer.
In addition, Thinnes is asked to carry much of the series without much aid from the writers.What I mean by that is that the screenplays do not delve -- at all -- into Vincent's background or even his human psychology.
How does he keep fighting? Is he tired? Angry? Remorseful? Lonely?
In his singular focus, Thinnes is almost always: facing down the enemy and consistently winning battles but losing the war (sounds like Vietnam, no?) There are no large story-arcs; no serialized stories on The Invaders and today that feels like a serious deficit. Instead, the episodes is often left wanting to know more about Vincent.
Were the series to be remade today, I suspect we'd get much more information about this hero as a human being - as a fallible man -- and a lot less of his Invader-smashing.
As it stands, one episode after the other features Vincent stopping the alien plan of the day, only to move on and do the same thing again.That does get tiring, and truth be told, a little boring, but The Invaders is photographed so beautifully, and the social subtext of the series (going into the transitional and tumultuous year of 1968) makes the series much more than the sum of its occasionally inadequate parts.
In time, and over the course of the series, the black trench coats and fedoras give way to streamlined blue jumpsuits (blue seems to be the color of the alien technology too...), a format change that makes the aliens less scary, more like agents of SMERSH or something.
But the first several episodes of The Invaders are hardcore horror. You almost can't believe how dark and sinister they are. These segments also remind me of The Prisoner with Vincent a scorned man alone facing conspiracies, corrupt authority, and multiple brain-washing techniques (including, inevitably, alien leeches).
The best way to enjoy The Invaders, in my opinion, is to view it as a product of its time (the late 60s) -- and also, perhaps, as a product significantly ahead of its time since there have been so many imitators.
Saturday, January 08, 2022
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Today, we return to the blog's ongoing survey of the fantasy films of the 1980s. Last week, we remembered the visually-impre...
My friend, Johnny Byrne (27 November 1935 – 3 April 2008) -- an Irish poet, philosopher and writer on science fiction TV series such as Sp...