Monday, July 25, 2011

Play the True Blood Board Game!

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't caught up on True Blood Season Four yet, you may want to wait before reading this.

That's right, True Blood isn't just a series anymore—now it's an interactive board game the whole family can play (provided the family has a high tolerance for kinky sex, foul language and gore). Ready? Let's play!

All right, maybe there's not an actual board game yet, but keeping track of all the character developments and story arcs this season may make you long for the structure and simplicity of Monopoly to keep everything straight in your head.

I was worried about the season opener, frankly. Beginning with Sookie in Fairyland and then catching us up with all the other characters one year later—in addition to introducing new characters—made my brain overheat.
Thank God the subsequent episodes began to sort out all the mayhem and gave me a chance to get organized.

Keep in mind I'm not expert and I haven't read any of the books, which aren't being adhered to word-for-word anyhow. And thank God for that. I read a couple of the Dexter books, and they're pretty stoopid, so I'm grateful that the producers haven't adapted their scenarios faithfully.

Anyhow, you know what they say about opinions...

1. The Fairy Story. Okay, we all know Sookie (Anna Paquin) is a fairy, which is why she's so delicious to vampires. But the opening sequence was like something out of the Tom Cruise stinker Legend, and if you think just because Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) drank Sook's Fairy Godmother, Claudine (Lara Pulver) that that'll put an end to it, you're betting on the wrong horse. Maybe Tim Curry will show up as Satan. We can only hope...

2. The Witches' Story. At first the coven annoyed me, but when Marnie (Fiona Shaw) got possessed by some sort of powerful ancestor, turning Eric into a pussycat and Pamela (Kristen Bauer Van Stratten) into a walking corpse, it became more interesting. However, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) and Tara (Rutina Wesley) are getting pretty ridiculous as the Greek Chorus reacting in eye-popping terror every time Marnie puts a curse on a vamp. Potentially interesting is what will happen to Jesus and Lafayette in Mexico with Jesus' brujo grandfather.
I think Lafayette will become a full-fledged witch, but Tara can stay in Nawleans with her g.f. as far as I'm concerned.

3. Sam and Tommy's Story. Sam (Sam Trammell) has become involved with a Shifter support group and Tommy (Marshall Allman) has been taken in by Hoyt's (Jim Parrack) mama after being shot by Sam. But Sam gets hot for Luna (Janina Gavankar), an exotic-looking member of the group who has produced an offspring with a werewolf. She also has special shifting powers—she can become not only animals but other humans as well.

Meanwhile Tommy goes home to his mother, thinking she's finally ditched his horrible father, only to be betrayed by them and retaliating by putting their lights out permanently. Sam helps him to ditch their bodies in the swamp, so the brothers are reunited—but to what end? And if a
Shifter can shift into anything he wants, why can't he become a werewolf and fight the other werewolves? I predict there'll be some sort of war between the Shifters and the werewolves, because Alcide (Joe Manganiello) is still hanging around, mostly doing errands for Sookie.

Speaking of Alcide, what is Sookie looking at in this picture?

4. Sookie, Bill and Eric's Story. Sook's maternal instincts are brought to the forefront now that Marnie's curse has caused Eric to revert to a childlike innocence. She's feeling protective, even considering having sexy times with him, which has been building up since the first season. However, Eric still has fantasies about drinking her delicious Fairy blood, and the spirit of his maker, Godric (Allan Hyde), keeps popping up to encourage him to do so. Sook also lies to Bill (Stephen Moyer), who has become the King of Lousiana after the true death of Russell Edgington, telling him that she has no idea where Eric is, even though he's living right in her house in his specially-built crypt. Will Eric return to his old cold-blood ways? Will Bill save Sook again? Whatever happens will also involve the witches and possibly the werewolves.

5. Going Gay. We already know that Tara has gone to bat for the other team, but what about the others? Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire taught us that vamps are attracted to either sex because of their personality qualities, regardless of their equipment, and the ghost Godric gently strokes Eric's cheek while urging him to drain Sook. However, Sam had a hot shower dream involving Bill last season, and this year Jason imagines sex with Jessica (Deborah Ann Wohl), only to have Hoyt (Jim Parrack)—ahem—pop up. And sharp-eyed viewers will have noticed that in season two the leader of the Fellowship of the Sun, Steve Newlin (Michael McMillan), was in a pay-per-view gay porn film that Sook saw an ad for on TV in Dallas, and in season four, it's mentioned that he's been missing for six months. My prediction? Newlin will reappear as a flamboyant fang-banger. He was already giving off Liberace vibes before.

But wait! There's more! We've got the freaked-out Arlene (Carrie Preston) who thinks her newborn baby is possessed by her dead husband, and sheriff Andy Bellefluer (Chris Bauer) who is addicted to vampire blood. And Jason is now a panther, I guess.

Poor Hoyt and Jess are having marital problems. I'm glad that Jason has become connected to Jessica because the whole white trash shifter storyline is getting kind of dull.

We're definitely up for some sort of apocalyptic climax. The final episode of the season is called "Burning Down the House," so I imagine that refers to Sook's homestead. It'll be vamps versus witches, Shifters versus werewolves, or maybe a combination of all of the above. There'll certainly be some sort of conflict between Bill and Eric over Sook. And Andy is either going to kill someone or be killed.

I just hope it avoids getting soapier. If that happens, I demand that Joan Collins and Linda Evans show up to have a bitch fight in the fountain in the town square.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Grim Reaper is Back at WMV

It's just been reported that character actor Roberts Blossom passed on at age 87 last Friday. The mainstream press is talking about his "charming, quirky character" in Home Alone, but to me, he'll always be Ezra Cobb in Deranged, one of several films based on the crimes of real-life serial killer Ed Gein (another notable being The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).

Written and co-directed by Alan Ormsby and produced by Bob Clark, it's part of a trilogy of horror films they made in the early '70s, the other titles being Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (a 1973 zombie horror comedy) and Death Dream, a bleak 1974 chiller about a soldier who comes home from Vietnam as a bloodthirsty zombie.

Deranged, also from 1974, was shot in Canada and utilizes the unforgiving landscape as an effective backdrop for the chilling story. Blossom's Cobb is certainly a repellent character, but at times you feel sorry for this isolated individual who misses his late Mama! And it was Blossoms' only leading role—he provided memorable support in films like 1983's Christine (he sells Keith Gordon the haunted car) and Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Another notable passing was Anna Massey on July 2nd at age 73. She came from an acting dynasty not unlike the Redgraves—both her parents were professionals (Raymond was her father) and so was her brother, Daniel. She had an extensive career in film, television and onstage, but two key films place her in the realm of Weird Movie Village.

In Peeping Tom, the film that derailed the career of beloved English director Michael Powell, she played the pivotal role of Helen, a young woman who lives in the apartment below Mark (Carl Boehm), a photographer who murders his models and films the killings. He has a knife attached to one of the legs of his camera tripod and a circular mirror that faces away from the lens so that his victims can see their own horror reflected as death approaches. He begins to confide in her, even showing her some of his films, and she is rightly horrified.

When it was released in 1960 (the same year as Psycho!), critical backlash was so severe that Powell worked very little thereafter. However, in the 1970s, Martin Scorsese saw that it had another release, and it's now considered a classic!

In 1972 Massey appeared in Hitchcock's Frenzy, which is in some ways similar to the earlier film. She plays Barbara "Babs" Milligan, a barmaid who is sympathetic to the plight of Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), a co-worker who is falsely accused of being the "necktie murderer" currently terrorizing the women of London.

As shocking as Psycho was twelve years before, Hitchcock took full advantage of the looser censorship of the times (and the American "R" rating) to depict a level of violence and nudity he'd not displayed before. The rape and murder of Blaney's ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) is particularly savage, and the whole film is pretty misogynist, but it does have an impact. And alas, Massey's character doesn't make it through the film, as she did in Peeping Tom.

Another fun role for her was the "Midnight Mess" story in The Vault of Horror (1973), Amicus Films' follow-up to its hit Tales from the Crypt. In the story, Massey's brother Daniel plays—surprise—her brother who comes to the small town she's living in to kill her in order to claim her inheritance. Little does he know that the town is inhabited by vampires, including Sis, and he soon finds himself "tapped out"!

Distributor 20th Century-Fox cut Vault to a PG rating (as was a common practice at the time, since horror movies were considered kiddie fare), so all of the stories had frustrating, ridiculous freeze frames at their conclusions instead of the scenes of horror we'd been waiting for. Fortunately I found an uncut European DVD and finally was able to see the film as it was meant to be.

Here's the conclusion of "Midnight Mess" in its uncut glory:

No latchkey kid of the '70s (and I was one of them) could hear about the passing of producer Sherwood Schwartz on July 12th at age 94 and not feel that a little of his or her childhood had been snatched away. As a child of divorced parents, I did what millions of kids did at the time: come home from school, fight with my sisters, turn on the television and watch "Gilligan's Island" and "The Brady Bunch" while waiting for Mom to arrive.

Two episodes of those shows that are forever burned into my psyche are the "Gilligan's Island" episode in which Gilligan (Bob Denver) dreams that he becomes Mr. Hyde when he hears about food. The way Ginger (Tina Louise) sibilantly says "ham and shwiss" when she's trying to provoke a transformation in front of a courtroom is hilarious.

The other one is the "Brady Bunch" episode in which Peter is trying to re-invent his personality to be cool. Didn't they all try that? Anyhow, he says "pork chops and applesauce" with his best Humphrey Bogart lisp, which for some reason killed me.

In 2008, I saw "A Very Brady Musical" onstage in Los Angeles, executive produced by Schwartz and featuring his grandson, Elliott Kevin, as Greg. And it was pretty good! Writer/director (and Elliott's Dad) Lloyd wasn't afraid to have a little risque fun with the squeaky-clean Bradys, especially after the hilarious The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) effectively trashed the 70s innocence completely. Greg even sang an amusing song about his Woody.

Finally, one last damn it! for the senseless death of Jackass Ryan Dunn last month. I hope that wherever he is now, he's got a whole new group of pals to mess with.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Giallo": Time to Put Dario in the Home

I rented the DVD of Dario Argento's latest, Giallo (2009) this past weekend. I didn't have very high hopes for it, based on reviews and his other recent films (the execrable Mother of Tears, the ridiculous Phantom of the Opera), so I wasn't really surprised at its mediocrity. Nor did it surprise me that it was really nothing more than a series of strung-together Argento tropes. What surprised me is just how very little enjoyment this film has. If you're just going to repeat situations and storylines from your earlier, better films, Mr. Argento, can't you at least do it with vigor?

Ironically, it's not even a giallo—it's a policier. A throwback to his films of the 1970s (think Four Flies on Grey Velvet), it stars Adrien Brody as Inspector Enzo Avolfi, an FBI agent working in Turin to catch a murderer whose victims are all beautiful young women. He's a weird guy, working alone in the basement of the police station, and given to fits of rudeness. When Celine, a fashion model (Elsa Pataky), is abducted by the killer, her sister, Linda (Emanuelle Seigner, Polanski's wife) approaches him for help.

Not only does he comfort her by reassuring her that's he's convinced that Celine has been snatched by the murderer (!) and is next on the chopping block, he immediately takes her on as a partner on the case, showing her all the confidential files and even taking her out on his various investigations. It's bizarre. Meanwhile, Celine is tied up to a table in the killer's basement abode while another victim lays on the floor nearby. Evidently he likes to take his time with them, destroying their beauty gradually until he finally puts them out of their misery.

Now from this brief synopsis, you might think this is a pretty good set-up for some decent Argento magic, if perhaps a tad too reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs or Hostel. Well, it's not. The director does an okay job of propelling the story forward, but he doesn't embellish it or add any creative spark. It's strictly CSI: Turin.

Frederic Fasano's cinematography is pretty flat, and the dark/night scenes all appear to have been force-processed, resulting in extraneous light and a lot of grain. It just looks cheap. And the art direction involves a lot of yellow...yellow walls, yellow buildings, yellow skies—yeah, we get it.

Even Sergio Stivaletti's gore makeup (which is used very sparingly) is strictly latex-and-blood-bladder retro. There's a face-stabbing scene which had the potential to be really horrifying, but the obvious rubber mask being penetrated is pretty ridiculous. Speaking of gore, Argento seems to be dipping his toes into the waters of torture porn, but loses his nerve when it comes to diving in completely.

The killer, known as Giallo (Byron Deidra), taunted since childhood because of his jaundiced, yellow skin, looks hilariously like a cross between Ron Wood and Bruce Springsteen. At first, his black, soulless eyes and heavily-accented, staccato delivery are creepy, but when he starts huffing aerosol cans and sucking on a baby pacifier, all with this bizarre little grin on his face, it just becomes risible. His backstory is that his mother was a junkie who contracted every strain of hepatitis, giving him chronic jaundice and liver disease, and abandoned him at an orphanage when he was born. The other children laugh and taunt him because of his skin color, but the fact is he's just friggin' weird looking!

Seigner is about ten years too old for her character and considering she was already pretty bovine even in 1999's The Ninth Gate, it's amusing to see Brody lug her around town like a hotcha—and worse—get spellbound by her beauty while he watches her sleeping on his couch!

Speaking of sleeping, that's what Brody's doing in this film. Considering he served as a producer and also allegedly doctored the script and interfered in every other aspect, he seems to have neglected his performance. His line deliveries are flat and toneless (sometimes inaudible), and nothing that happens in the story seems to shock or excite him. (Okay, frankly I felt the same way.) But if you were so invested in the making of this film, wouldn't you be encouraged to provide a more arresting performance?

Oh—and Afolvi has his own typical Argento backstory. As a child, he witnessed the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of one of her party attendees (I guess he didn't like the hors d'oeuvres) and then, as a teenager, exacted his revenge upon the killer. The only remarkable aspect of this plot element is that they found a kid with a nose as pronounced as Brody's (except I think it was a make-up job).

And this is the second film I didn't want to see Brody as a cop in. The first was 2006's Hollywoodland, which was one-half a great biography about Superman George Reeves (played by Ben Affleck) and one-half a shitty detective story with Brody!

Giallo's exciting "climax" occurs when Avolfi has finally identified Giallo and has tracked him down to his lair—but of course, he's not there, and neither is Celine. Linda is furious at Avolfi, screaming obscenities at him as he walks away ineffectually.

I'm not going to give away any spoilers (like anyone cares), but the American DVD release ends with an obvious video freeze frame, followed by obvious video end credits—all evidence of your classic patch-up job. I wonder what other footage there was. It certainly wouldn't have helped fix the film, that's for damn sure.

Maybe Argento is making films like Giallo and Mother of Tears to make his fans think that The Stendahl Syndrome and Non Ho Sonno are classics. If that's the's working!

Well, up next for Argento is Dracula 3D, with daughter Asia as Lucy and Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. Luciano Tovoli is back behind the camera. He shot Suspiria and Tenebrae for Argento, so that's an encouraging sign. The story is so well worn, though, I can't imagine that it will make the creative juices flow for ol' Dario. All we can hope is that it will be attractively filmed, the actors will look good, the story will be reverent, and the 3D will add to the fun. God knows where we'll be able to see it, though. I can't imagine it getting a theatrical release in the States.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Talking Heads: A Filmic Appreciation

Last night I went to the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian in Hollywood for a couple of Talking Heads movies. It was a great opportunity to watch terrific films on the big screen that I'd previously only seen on video—and enjoy them with an enthusiastic, like-minded audience.

First on the bill was Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (1984), acclaimed by many to be one of the greatest concert films ever made. It's certainly one of the most thrilling. Like the concert itself, it begins with a bare stage. David Byrne comes out with a guitar and a boom box, saying, "Hi. I've got a tape I want to play." He starts the boom box, providing the rhythm track for "Psycho Killer," which he performs solo. Gradually, the stage fills up with the other band members (Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison) and more performers as the songs become more musically challenging and exciting, with everyone swinging and swaying along.

The film serves not only to preserve one of the best rock concerts in history but also to document the evolution of the band itself. It begins with the simpler, raw rhythms of "Psycho Killer," and "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel," increasing in complexity with songs like "Burning Down the House" and "Once in a Lifetime." True to the Heads' art school background, the event is as much performance piece as concert, with interesting movement and dance (especially from the strutting, quivering Byrne) and ironic words and images projected on the wall behind the band.

In this film, there's no backstage interview business and no playing to the audience, except for Byrne's hilarious query, "Does anyone have any questions?" Indeed, the audience is barely glimpsed until the finale and its enthusiastic response at the conclusion of each song is mixed down far more than usual in concert films.

As Byrne commented on the DVD, this technique was intended to allow viewers to form their own opinions about the performance. I liked the way the crew and cameramen were integrated into the action. During "Girlfriend is Better," Byrne even points the microphone at one of the cameramen, and he obligingly joins in the chorus! It's also effective that the performers frequently look into the camera lens, drawing viewers into the experience and showing them what a good time they're having. It's quite joyous.

I was fortune enough to attend this concert in 1983—not the filmed one at the Pantages Theater, but the one they gave at the Pacific Amphitheater in Orange County on the same leg of the tour. The film brought back a lot of happy memories of not only the band's great music, but also of my younger self in a different time. It was an outrageous, energetic evening, and I don't remember sitting down even once.

I'm still an avid alt-rock concertgoer, and it wasn't until I saw Green Day in San Antonio in 2009 that I was as blown away by a performance. The difference is that while the Green Day boys are master showmen, the Heads were truly artists in every sense of the word. Byrne, with his big suit and big ideas, was the undisputed creative force, as his post-Heads career has shown, including receiving an Academy Award for 1987's The Last Emperor.

The Cinematheque ran a nice original 35mm print, and the audio mix is remarkable, considering it's circa-1984 Dolby Stereo. Even though it had a limited re-release in 1999 in preparation for its first DVD release, I think it's a natural for midnight screenings. Sure, it's available on Blu-Ray, but it really needs to be experienced on a big screen with big sound—and a big suit!

Pictured here is the original T-shirt I bought at the concert. It's in pretty good condition, but I sure as hell wouldn't dare wear it anymore—it's too valuable a piece of memorabilia.

The co-feature was 1986's True Stories, Byrne's gently humorous chronicle of a small Texas town's preparation for its Sesquicentennial. A strange mixture of wry comedy, arthouse and social commentary, it perplexed critics and viewers alike upon its original release, but I think it's aged well, especially since sites like Funny Or Die have given the general public a more expansive taste for irony and offbeat humor.

Byrne plays the unnamed narrator who comes to the tiny town of Virgil to check out its preparations of what is dubbed a "celebration of specialness," (emphasize the ness). Among the residents he encounters is Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a frustrated bachelor with a heart of gold who longs to find the perfect soulmate; Earl Culver (the late Spalding Gray), a civic leader credited with bringing the area's biggest employer—the ominously-named Varicorp—to town; and his wife, Kay (Annie McEnroe), who's in charge of all of the ladies' club activities. Another prominent resident is Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz), a woman so rich that she never gets out of bed because she simply doesn't have to.

There's not really a driving plot to speak of (although Byrne does lots of driving), just a series of vignettes and musical numbers with hilarious peripheral characters drifting through, including the Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who spins fantastic tales about her life to anyone who will listen; Mr. Tucker ("Pops" Staples), who works for Miss Rollings but also practices good voodoo on the side; and a preacher (John Ingle) who espouses his conspiracy theories about corporate/political America to his congregation, which is actually scarier these days. There's other wry commentary about consumerism and big business, but none of it is particularly confrontational. In fact, the film's candied color scheme and essential optimism is pretty engaging. Even when the camera tracks past acres of identical tract houses, devoid of people, with newspaper pages blowing across their lawns like modern-day tumbleweeds, Byrne says, "Who can say it isn't beautiful?" And you can't.

Byrne is especially amusing as the deadpan narrator. He's treated as a sort of VIP by the residents, yet his status is never explained. Wearing a series of bizarre cowboy outfits, he drives through town, commenting on such sights as ready-made metal buildings, new shopping malls and the miles of freeway that connect one place to another.

The score has some great tunes: I'm sure even those not familiar with the film have seen the "Wild Wild Life" music video, and Staples does justice to Byrne's "Papa Legba." Even Goodman gets into the act with the ironic country tune "People Like Us," which would have been really bleak in any other context, but Byrne and his co-writers Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky have populated Virgil with such a likable cast of characters that it's charmingly poignant. It's what Horton Foote might have written if he woke up feeling weird and light-hearted one day.

True Stories was not well-received upon its original release. I mean, the best quote the marketing folks could come up with is "It's a completely cool, multi-purpose movie"? Oy. But it has steadily built an audience via home video. Warner Bros. unceremoniously dumped it onto DVD in 1999 in a 1:33 transfer with no extras, so I was delighted to see a nice 35mm print in its correct aspect ratio. I'd love to catch an airing of it in HD on cable, but surprisingly I never see it listed. At the very least, it deserves a DVD re-release in Blu-Ray with a new sound mix.


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