Mini Reviews, Vol. 7 ~ What I’ve Been Watching Edition

MiniReviews

Oscar Standouts from Last Year

alt textThe Big Short (2016)
Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Charles Randolph (screenplay), Adam McKay (screenplay), Michael Lewis (book)
Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

Winner for best adapted screenplay, based on the book by Michael Lewis. How do you make a movie about financiers and the mid-2000’s housing bubble? 1.) Pick some characters and tell their stories. The four leads in The Big Short are all great. 2.) Don’t fear the occasional educational digression. (That link? NSFW due to a little language.)

Spotlight (2015)
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

Based on the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the molestation scandal within the Catholic church, this movie was obvious Oscar bait. It won best picture and best original screenplay. It is a solidly written and acted movie, fairly compelling, but I thought The Big Short was probably more inventive in its storytelling.

Weren’t Oscar Contenders in Any Year

Black Sea (2014)
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Dennis Kelly (screenplay)
Stars: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn

A submarine captain gathers a crew to plunder Nazi gold from a lost WWII sub. Man, this story, an undersea heist, had so much potential. Alas, this movie is the opposite of competence porn. From the very beginning, dumb decisions are made. The rest of the movie’s narrative is watching those dumb decisions play out.

Green Room (2015)
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Writer: Jeremy Saulnier
Stars: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, oh, and Patrick Stewart

I’ll admit, this is probably my favorite of these four films. A punk band ends up witnessing a crime at backwoods neo-Nazi club. This is pretty much a straight-up non-supernatural horror flick, but it’s well written and really well shot. A good deal of the film takes place in the club’s green room, a locale that is infinitely more claustrophobic than Black Sea’s submarines.

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Review ~ As You Wish

As You Wish by Cary Elwes & Joe Layden

Cover via Goodreads

The Princess Bride has been a family favorite for close to three decades. Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 Greatest Love Stories and by the Writers Guild of America as one of the top 100 screenplays of all time, The Princess Bride will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.

Cary Elwes was inspired to share his memories and give fans an unprecedented look into the creation of the film while participating in the twenty-fifth anniversary cast reunion. In As You Wish he has created an enchanting experience; in addition to never-before seen photos and interviews with his fellow cast mates, there are plenty of set secrets, backstage stories, and answers to lingering questions about off-screen romances that have plagued fans for years! (via Goodreads)

I love behind-the-scenes stories. I’m a fan of DVD extras and making-of documentaries. I’ve read all of William Goldman’s books about screenwriting and movie making. (He’s the writer and screenwriter of The Princess Bride, if you didn’t know.) But most of all, I really enjoy it when the people involved have actual love and enthusiasm for the work they’ve done. To me, that’s so much better than ugly, gossipy stories.

As You Wish is all about the love. If Cary Elwes has any regrets about forever being Westley (at least a little), he’s keeping that under his black pirate mask. Not that it was an easy shoot. Between rainy rural England and grueling sword-fight training sessions, it was not a piece of cake. But it’s all about who you’re in a situation with and the many cast comments attest that it wasn’t only Elwes who felt Princess Bride magic. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the movie would have been anything but a hit, but the production almost didn’t happen and the movie was only moderately successful. Thank goodness for cable TV and the home video revolution for bringing it to its eventual audience.

I listened to this as an audio book, read by Elwes, but including recordings by many of the cast, director Rob Reiner, and producers Andy Scheinman and Norman Lear. So, no never-seen-before photos for me, but instead Elwes dulcet tones telling me stories.

Publishing info, my copy: audio, Simon & Schuster, Oct 14, 2014
Acquired: Tempe OverDrive Digital Collection
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir

#RIPX ~ Peril in SPAAACE!

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In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

That, of course, is the tagline of the movie that kicked off one of the scariest, most suspense-driven science fiction franchises of all time: Alien. In horror, isolation and the unknown are prevalent themes; ones that can be explored well in science fiction.

To bring this around to my RIPX celebration, here are a few perilous sci-fi offerings that I’ve enjoyed lately.

Aliens3: The Novelization by Alan Dean Foster

I don’t listen to too many audio books, but I wanted add some RIPX spice into my life while I did silly things like dishes and laundry. This is the novelization of the oft-maligned third Alien movie. Personally, I think the movie is pretty okay, directed by one of my favorites, David Fincher (Se7en, Gone Girl). The story adapted by Alan Dean Foster isn’t half-bad either. The slam-dunk factor here is the narrator, Lance Henriksen. Henriksen is known for his many genre rolls as a character actor, including Bishop in Aliens and Aliens3.

Ghost Ships

The sea-faring age had ghost ships, vessels that had met strange and mysterious ends and continued to sail without a crew and brought doom in their wake. Space-faring science fiction has often taken that concept and blended it with the horror theme of meddling with forces beyond human understanding.

Event Horizon (1997)

A rescue ship is sent to investigate the Event Horizon, a space vessel that had disappeared seven years prior. Event Horizon, unbeknownst to the general public, had been fitted with an experimental gravity drive that creates an artificial black hole in order to interdimensionally travel long distances in space. The rescue party finds an empty ship. The last video log graphically depicts the insanity of the previous crew. Is the Event Horizon haunted? Or has is breached dimensions better left unknown?

This is a pretty tense film. Featuring Sam Niell (Jurassic Park), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), the acting is solid and so is the direction by Paul W. Anderson. It isn’t for the faint of heart though. Some of the most disturbing footage is only flashed for a few seconds, which leaves plenty of room for your mind to fill in the gaps.

The Black Hole (1979)

I’m going to admit it right now, this film might only be scary to me, and five year old me at that. The Black Hole was released in 1979 by Walt Disney Productions. I was a big Star Wars fan at the time (a fan of any science fiction, really) and my grandpa thought to to see it would be a perfect outing. (Grandpa and I went to see pretty much every Disney release/rerelease.) While it included a couple of cute, anthropomorphized robots, it was also Disney’s first PG release. I ended up having a few nightmares about the scary, anthropomorphized robot that ends up in “hell” with its creator on the other side of the black hole… (This didn’t stop me from owning a read-and-play record/book combination that I’m sure drove my parents up the wall as much as I played it.) On rewatch, the ending is still a little discomfiting.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has called The Black Hole the least scientifically accurate movie ever, but I wonder if he’s taking into account that it was made in 1979. It does have the distinction of having the longest computer generated sequence ever (up until that time) included in its opening titles.

R.I.P. IX Update #3 ~ More Peril on the Screen

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Gone Girl has been pretty big at the box office this October. I haven’t seen it yet, but I did inadvertently watch two movies with Gone Girl connections:
Zodiac_Hollywood
Zodiac (2007) is one of my Top 10 favorite movies. Top 5 depending on the week. Zodiac is about the less-than-successful investigation of the eponymous serial killer in 1970s San Francisco. It mostly involves police and newspaper men talking to each other about what information they do not have. Despite this–or maybe in light of the helplessness of the characters–there are some wonderfully tense and menacing scenes in Zodiac. It’s also visually beautiful.  Connection: director David Fincher.

Hollywoodland (2006) – Call me crazy, but I like Ben Affleck. I’ve liked him ever since I saw Chasing Amy. Here, Affleck puts in a really nice performance as George Reeves, the man who played Superman in the 1950s. Reeves died mysteriously, and Hollywoodland offers a few theories about his death against the backdrop of a down-on-his-luck private detective played by Adrian Brody. Connection: Ben Affleck.

(Did you know that Ben Affleck has won every Oscar he’s been nominated for? The number is two and neither have been for acting.)

R.I.P. IX Update #1 ~ Perils on the Screen

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Check out more R.I.P. IX Reviews or Join the Perilous Fun!

True Detective 2014 Intertitle.jpg
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

True Detective (2014, TV series) – starring Matthew McConaughey & Woody Harrelson. In general, I appreciate this trend toward limited run series, like True Detective and American Horror Story. (Some might call them mini-series, but that has a different connotation.) When there isn’t pressure to keep a story going for multiple seasons (in some cases seemingly indefinitely), writers can write cohesive stories with definite archs. Even if they’re only a meager eight episodes long…  SPOILER AHEAD! — After hearing so much about True Detective‘s nod to Robert W. Chambers and his King in Yellow stories, I was a little surprised that there was no supernatural twist to the show. I was expecting it, but I wasn’t disappointed when it didn’t come. I’m fine with the mundane. –END SPOILER  And in retrospect, I’m also surprised at how reserved the gore was. Hannibal? Much more shocking in its visceral gore. In all, good performances, good characters, and well-made. When I first saw trailers for True Detective, I was excited and it didn’t disappoint.

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Invisible Ghost (1941) – starring Bela Lugosi. This is a schlocky piece with a somewhat silly premise but a few good moments of creepiness. Lugosi plays Mr. Kessler, a–widower? cuckolded husband? I’m not sure now–, who believes that his wife will one day return. Unbeknownst to him, after his wife was involved in a car accident, his gardener has been keeping her in the basement. When Kessler sees his wife, he’s sent into a homicidal fugue and no one is safe. There are just so many weird overtones to this movie. Lugosi dines with his “wife” on the anniversary of her death, but everyone shrugs it off with a “poor old guy” attitude. Then there’s the gardener benevolently keeping the injured wife semi-captive and the fiance of Kessler’s daughter being executed for the first murder. In R-rated modern hands, this could be a very different movie.

Only Lovers Left Alive poster.jpg
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Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) – starring Tilda Swinton & Tom Hiddleston. In my corner of the internet, I had seen many gifs from this movie. The look of Only Lovers Left Alive *is* gorgeous. The music is also pretty good and Tilda Swinton is captivating as usual. Who else would you cast as a contented vampire?  Unfortunately, this movie strikes me as over-indulgent. Nothing much happens. There is really no tension. Adam (Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) have an novel way of existing after hundred of years, but there’s just nothing there aside from Hiddleston being eye-rollingly emo. John Hurt is the other bright spot playing Kit Marlowe.

Magic Monday ~ History Channel’s Houdini

MagicMonday

I like Mondays. On Monday, I am refreshed from the weekend and exhilarated by the possibilities of the week ahead. I also like magic. I like its history, its intersection with technology, and its crafty use of human nature.  I figured I’d combine the two and make a Monday feature that is truly me: a little bit of magic and a look at the week ahead.

A year ago, I had a Saturday Cinema post about various screen incarnations of Harry Houdini. Last Monday and Tuesday, the History Channel broadcasted their mini-series and I figured I’d give it my Cinematic Houdini treatment and a general review.

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“Houdini 2014”
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Houdini (2014)
Adrien Brody – 6’1″

  • What it’s got: Houdini as a kid growing up in the small town of Appleton, WI (except it wasn’t a small town), including his brother Theo. Royal performances for everyone in Europe, including Rasputin. Bess threatening to leave due to the dangerous tricks; Harry having affairs, including little bit of bondage for the 50 Shades set, a biting comment from Bess about marrying a Jew. Most of the signature tricks, including disappearing an elephant (except that’s not how it was done at all).  Engineer Jim Collins (except Jim Collins wasn’t an American). A nod to Houdini’s film career. The Halloween curse. The gut punch.
  • What it’s missing: Houdini’s other siblings–it was a big family. “Mundane” jobs before becoming a performer. Martin Beck. Needles. The Scotland Yard challenge. Houdini’s interaction with other magicians. Houdini and Hardeen (his brother Theo) working together to keep imitators to a minimum. The Houdinis inability to have children.

The History Channel’s Houdini includes quite a few things that haven’t been seen in a Houdini biopic, but gets so many things very wrong. John Cox at Wild About Harry has a two part post of fact-checking (night one, night two) that goes in-depth about inaccuracies. The general reaction to the mini-series has been mixed within the realm of Houdini-philes. On one hand, there’s a level of disappointment and even rage at what the History Channel is portraying as truth. On the other, most are also happy that Houdini is getting some play in a nice, medium-to-big-budget manner. The movie is nice looking, though the writing is somewhat flat and I don’t think Adrien Brody quite has the angry-short-man ego to pull off Houdini.

I’m not a fan of Houdini, but when reading about  turn-of-the-20th-century magic, he is inescapable. There is also a certain amount of embellishment that occurs when magicians set down their biographies. I’ve seen several comments along the lines of, “This is schlock, wouldn’t Houdini love it?” I think he would definitely love what a Salon writer is calling the Houdini-Industrial Complex. What bugged *me* about this biopic is something that bugs me in general about what writers (and maybe especially screenwriters) sometimes decide to dramatize. This movie goes for low-hanging fictional fruit.

The biggest example in Houdini is the portrayal of Houdini’s wife, Bess. By all accounts, Bess was supportive of her husband’s career. But the easy dramatic beat is: Bess is upset by Harry doing dangerous escapes, but Harry *needs* to do dangerous tricks. Conflict ensues. To me, there are at least two other angles. A.) Bess didn’t act in the cliched way you’d expect from a wife and didn’t have a problem with Harry doing dangerous things. Or, B.) The tricks really weren’t dangerous. Do we deep down think that Houdini risked his life so often, or that maybe he was, you know, a professional magician who created the illusion of peril? That’s harder to write.

There’s plenty of drama in Houdini’s life. He grew up in poverty and was determined not to live so as an adult (but didn’t blame his father for those humble beginnings). He was an organizing *and* divisive force in the magic community. He had his own motion picture company, which became a bit of a thorn in his side. Like most magicians of the era, he faced having to make the change from vaudeville to a bigger stage–something he did quite well. (Until the elephant scene in Houdini, I hadn’t realized how much I was looking forward to seeing the trick in some fashion. With visions of the enormous New York Hippodrome in my head, I was disappointed that the TV version involved a circus ring and some silliness with gauze on poles.)

Houdini is far from being my favorite magician and Houdini is far from being my favorite movie about him.

SmallAce

What Am I Reading?

I’ll be working on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, at least until a late-week trip to Omaha. I’ll probably only take my Kindle with and both of the former are physical copies. I don’t know what I’ll read ebook-wise. It seems too early to read the two ARCs I have planned for R.I.P.. I had a slow start with Kavalier & Clay, but it turned into compulsive reading over the weekend. For Deal Me In, I have a second Janet Berliner story, which I’m not really looking forward to.

What Am I Writing?

On the cusp of 15,000 words on In Need of Luck. Eric’s been working hard on PHYSICa, so I’ve been on my own a bit more than previously. He gave the first 14K a read-through last week. So far, so good, aside from one or two things that will get rewritten.

Saturday Cinema ~ R.I.P. Edition, Vol. 2

Ticket3This week: Reviews of three old-school horror movies. All are on Martin Scorsese’s list of 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time; completely coincidental that I watched them recently.

File:Nightofthedemonposter.jpgNight of the Demon (1957), also known as Curse of the Demon, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, and Niall MacGinnis

A couple of weeks ago I found out that episodes of Harlan Ellison’s Watching are available on YouTube. If you’re unfamiliar with Ellison, he’s very opinionated. When the Sci-Fi Channel first began broadcast back in 1992-ish, “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” was a 3-5 minute segment at the end of their sci-fi related news show. (This was obviously long before it was Syfy and when it still had predominantly speculative fiction programming.) During episode two, Harlan relates a list of near-forgotten gems. One of those is Night of the Demon.

Based on the M.R. James story “Casting the Runes,” Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is cursed on the eve of a conference to expose a witch cult while investigating the death of a fellow skeptic. Andrews plays Holden with unexpected dry wit, but it’s Niall MacGinnis that steals the show acting-wise. I’m not sure I’ve encountered too many villains as truly menacing as MacGinnis’s Karswell. And he does it with subtlety. No scenery chewing occurs. It’s also a wonderfully shot movie. There are some beautiful parallels between modern architecture and pagan ruins. The only place the movie falters is in showing the demon. The effect isn’t very good and it undercuts the psychological aspect of the plot. As it happens there was quite a bit of controversy about showing the demon. The wrong choice was made, but still a worthwhile film.

File:Thehaunting1963.pngThe Haunting (1963), Directed by Robert Wise, Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, and Richard Johnson

The Haunting has a couple of things in common with Night of the Demon. Both are based on classic works of suspense and horror. While I haven’t read “Casting the Runes” yet and can’t vouch for it, The Haunting is based quite faithfully on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, a frequent re-read for me. Plot-wise, both play with the notion of psychology vs. the supernatural as Eleanor, a woman with a great number of personal demons, navigates her independence and a very bad house. The Haunting is also shot in black and white. While lacking the vistas of London and rural England, Wise shoots Hill House from skewed angles that make rooms unfamiliar every time we see them; not forgetting the very inventive and affective special effects.

File:Changeling ver1.jpgThe Changeling (1980), Directed by Peter Medak, Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas.

This is a movie that my friend Tania introduced to me in college. I hadn’t seen it in quite a while, but I remembered it being one of those great old-style ghost-story-mysteries that seem to be prevalent in the 1980s. What I had forgotten is how down-right unsettling this movie is.

After the death of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident, composer John Russel (George C. Scott) accepts a teaching position in Seattle and rents a historical Victorian mansion that houses the secrets of an influential family. George C. Scott is so likeable in this movie. He’s heartbroken and struggling to get on with life and the escalating disturbances in the house seem incredibly unfair. Yet, Russel is intrigued and, well, chivalrous. He takes it as his duty to figure out this mystery instead of simply moving out of the house. The very end of the movie is maybe a tad bit over the top, but the meat of the haunting is disturbing as only a child ghost can be. I watched this movie on my computer and listened to it through headphones. There’s a whole level of eerie noises that I had never noticed when watching in a dorm room.

rip8perilonscreenTake a gander at all the R.I.P. reviews!