All posts by El Rob Hubbard

CAPSULE: “WILD PALMS” (1993)

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DIRECTED BY: Peter Hewitt (Ep. 1), Keith Gordon (Ep. 2 & 4), Kathryn Bigelow (Ep. 3), Phil Joanou (Ep. 5)

FEATURING: , Dana Delany, , Kim Cattrall, , , , Ernie Hudson, Ben Savage, Nick Mancuso

PLOT: L.A. in the year 2007: Harry Wyckoff (Belushi) is a patent attorney with a wife, Grace (Delany), son Coty (Savage), and a mute daughter, Deirdre. He ends up in the employ of Senator Kreutzer (Loggia) who owns the Wild Palms media group, heads the Church of Synthiotics, and is about to unveil a new VR process for TV. A former lover, Page Katz (Cattrall) asks Harry for help in locating her lost son, which leads Harry into a convoluted world of two warring political factions, the Fathers and the Friends, wrestling for control of the country. Wyckoff discovers he is an integral part of both factions’ plans for success.

Still from "Wild Palms" 1993

COMMENTS: The debut of “Twin Peaks” on network television in 1990 was a watershed moment. It furthered the possibilities of challenging material getting into the mainstream and finding a dedicated audience, and proved that television didn’t have to stick to a lesser aesthetic just because it was on a smaller screen. TV didn’t have to be considered a step down, a place where feature directors were put out to pasture before their careers died. The “Peaks” influence can still be felt some 30 years afterwards. Of course, once something has proven successful, others jump in hoping to get a piece of the pie. So it was inevitable that ABC, the network that took a chance on “Peaks,” would attempt to replicate that success—with stipulations, of course.

Which is how, more or less, how “Wild Palms” came into being. Created by Bruce Wagner (based on the comic he wrote that ran in Details Magazine) and executive produced by , ABC saw it as a safer bet than “Peaks.” Having learned from their experience with to set certain terms at the start—like the property having a definite beginning, middle and end—“Palms” was billed as an “event series,” running about five hours spread over five nights. Like “Peaks,” it had a healthy budget, a distinctive look, and an incredible cast and crew. But “Palms” did not duplicate the cultural tsunami of “Peaks,” despite some pretty good marketing.

There are distinct similarities between the two shows. Both were inspired by and are, to an extent, parodies of the prime-time soap opera format. “Palms” embraces melodrama more in performances and in Wagner’s florid writing. The dialogue is packed with literary and cultural references and wordplay. Both shows exhibit elements of surrealism  and perversity: in the latter case, “Palms” tiptoes the line of prime time acceptability with less subtlety than “Peaks,” especially with the demise of a particular character.

“Palms” distinguishes itself from “Peaks” by being more overtly political and straightforwardly science fictional. It’s sci-fi in the vein of , involving virtual reality (VR) and a drug used to enhance the experience (Dick’s “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” is very much a touchstone). It’s also very “L.A.,” with many, if not most, of the characters having direct ties to the Industry and to the religion “Synthiotics” (this depiction surprisingly not raising the ire of a certain other L.A.-based religion notorious for being extremely litigious).

Some 25 years later, it’s clear “Palms” is not as timeless as “Peaks.” Some choices (the fashion and phone technology) now look quaint, anchoring it firmly in the early 90’s. Other aspects feel prescient, like a direct commentary on our current landscape: especially the political war between the “Fathers” (right wing) and the “Friends” (left wing).  Looking past its contemporary setting and lack of dragons, the way the conflict plays out between two families intertwined by circumstances, with side characters becoming disposable pawns, has a quasi-medieval tone that “Game of Thrones” fans might appreciate. Although the acting all around is good—Delany, Cattral, Loggia and Dickinson are notable, and Belushi reminds you that he’s a good dramatic actor when given the opportunity—very few of the characters are likeable; they don’t captivate audiences the was Lynch’s characters did.

Kino-Lorber released the series on Blu-ray and DVD in the fall of 2020, remastered and including commentaries: Bruce Wagner with James Belushi on the pilot, Wagner paired with Dana Delany on Kathyrn Bigelow’s episode, director Keith Gordon on his two episodes, and Phil Joanou on the last episode. They’re all informative, although Joanou’s is the weakest of the bunch.

A Grantland article on the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut features an interview with creator Bruce Wagner.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another provocative exercise in television-for-people-who-don’t-like-television — a six-hour ‘event series’ that makes ‘Twin Peaks’ look like ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’… a jaw-dropping combination of disturbing imagery, dark humor and startling moments spread over a narrative that’s virtually impossible to follow.”–Brian Lowry, Variety (contemporaneous)

10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

Baron Prásil

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Miloš Kopecký, Jana Brejchová, Rudolf Jelínek

PLOT: An astronaut, Tonik, discovers that he is not the first man on the Moon, having been beaten there by literary figures Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne’s protagonists of “From the Earth to the Moon,” and Baron Munchausen. Mistaking the astronaut as a native moonman, Munchausen volunteers to take him back to Earth to show him the ways of earthlings. The pair there rescue a princess from a sultan and are swallowed by a fish, among other fantastic adventures.

BACKGROUND:

  • The character of Baron Munchausen comes from  Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 novel “Baron Munchausen’s narrative of his marvellous travels and campaigns in Russia.” Raspe based Muchausen on a real-life German officer who was notorious for embellishing tales of his own military exploits. Czechs traditionally called the same character “Baron Prásil.”
  • Munchausen’s stories have been adapted to film many times, beginning with a short in 1911.
  • Karel Zeman’s previous film, the black and white Invention for Destruction [Vynález zkázy], won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58, and was considered the most successful Czech film of all time. Baron Prásil was even more ambitious, adding a luscious color palette and expanding on the techniques Zeman had pioneered in his previous work.
  • Home Cinema Choice named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen‘s 2017 remaster the best restoration of the year.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Red smoke billowing in a yellow sky as the Baron and companions escape on horseback.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Cyrano and pals on the Moon; Pegasus-drawn spaceship

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Baron Prasil is a stunning visual feast combining live-action and animation, the effect far surpassing the modest means (by then-current standards) with which it was made.


Trailer for the restored version of The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

COMMENTS: “If he’s endowed with such imagination, let’s see some Continue reading 10*: THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962)

CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)

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DEVELOPED BY: Travis Fickett, Terry Matalas

FEATURING: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, , Emily Hampshire, Todd Stashwick,

PLOT: In 2043, the world is decimated by a viral pandemic that occurred in the late 2010’s. Scavenger James Cole (Stanford) is recruited by Katarina Jones (Sukowa), a scientist heading Project Splinter, which can send a person back in time. Cole is sent back to 2015 in the hope that he can prevent the outbreak. He encounters virologist Cassandra “Cassie” Railly (Schull) and enlists her help. They discover that things are not easy, as their attempts to prevent the outbreak are repeatedly foiled by the “Army of The 12 Monkeys” and their leader, “The Witness,” who has a grander plan in mind.

COMMENTS: “The best adaptations of IP aren’t in slavish service to their source material but are inspired by that material to say something new — something personal, something genuine. I’ve come to learn that adapting doesn’t have to be an act of re-creation. Just gratitude. We wanted to take our love of Gilliam’s film and with the advantage of a longer form narrative, more deeply explore what it made us hope and believe about the nature of time.”–series co-creator Terry Matalas.

The “12 Monkeys” series was inspired by the feature film Twelve Monkeys (1995). Generally, no one looks forward to television series based on popular films, although it’s a long established TV subgenre. It’s hard enough making a GOOD film that can hold an audience’s interest; with a television series, one has to repeat that success on a weekly basis, AND maintain quality for several years—if things go well for everyone. Some get lucky & hit gold (“M*A*S*H,” “Friday Night Lights”) while most others crash and burn and end up in the cultural dustbin.

So when it was announced that there would be a series based on Twelve Monkeys on SyFy, the initial reaction wasn’t favorable. After all, the movie was directed by , who puts his distinctive visual style even on what would be considered “work for hire” projects—which Twelve Monkeys technically was (David and Janet Peoples’ based their script on ‘s 1932 short La Jetee). With Gilliam having no involvement whatsoever in the new show, it makes perfect sense that most fans would consider it a dubious enterprise.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to watch the first episode in January 2015 and not find it inept and horrible; in fact, it was interesting enough to wonder how long it could sustain itself before collapsing into The Suck. Fortunately, it never did. Over four seasons, “12 Monkeys” kept its promise to its audience to provide quality storytelling. They knew to leave at the top of their game, as opposed to Continue reading CAPSULE: 12 MONKEYS (THE COMPLETE SERIES) (2015-2018)

CAPSULE: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Sioban Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, , Jeremy Davies

PLOT: Jack (Dillon), an architect–and prolific serial killer–recounts several examples of his “work” and philosophy as Verge (Ganz) leads him on a journey to Hell.

COMMENTS: Due to controversial films like The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist, among others, Lars von Trier was already considered ‘problematic’ even before his infamous press faux pas at Cannes at the time of Melancholia‘s release. So it’s an interesting conundrum that, in light of his behavior over the years, his work is intellectually engaging and appears (my impression) to have a strong moral center at its core. Jack is much the same. At its Cannes premiere, it gained notoriety when over a hundred audience members walked out during the screening, as well as for for the ten minute standing ovation it received from the remaining audience when it ended.

Originally conceived by von Trier with co-writer Jenle Hallund as an eight-part television series, Jack is a treatise on serial killers and the culture of fascination regarding them. Jack sees murder as an art and himself as amongst the greatest of artists, as he argues to Verge (i.e. Virgil, the poet of “The Aeneid” and guide from “The Divine Comedy”) on their journey. He justifies himself and his acts by pointing  up examples in Nature (the Tyger and the Lamb; the “noble rot”) and Art (poetry of Blake, and the films of one Lars VonTrier).

Despite adopting the non de plume “Mr. Sophistication,” Jack, as portrayed Matt Dillon, is not the Hannibal Lecter type of cultured romantic one ends up liking despite his horrible acts. The film makes clear that Jack is a liar (not a good liar either), and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but gets away with his horrible acts because he uses his entitlement and privilege to full advantage. People overlook his behavior until it’s far too late. He acts so obnoxiously that some who might bring him to justice get annoyed and brush him off.  He’s abetted by the naiveté  and obliviousness of his victims, and everyone else; as he yells out of an intended victim’s apartment window, “Nobody wants to help!”

Despite this “success,” Jack’s flaws eventually catch up with him. For all of his lofty pretensions as an “artist” and creator, Jack is unable to complete any sort of life-positive project. His attempts at building a house for himself end in a Sisyphean cycle of frustration; the only structure he succeeds at is a grisly sculpture made from the corpses of his victims, which serves as his literal entrance into Hell. Despite Jack’s spirited arguments and defenses on their journey, Verge isn’t buying any of Jack’s b.s. As he remarks, he’s “heard it all and there’s very little that would surprise him” at this point. Jack’s ultimate fate, likewise, is no surprise at all, though he still thinks there’s a chance he can beat the House. He learns the hard way that the House always wins.

The House that Jack Built is a bleak look at an empty soul in an empty world. It’s also very funny, among the darkest of dark comedies.

Scream Factory released Jack in a 2-disc Blu-ray set in early 2020. It includes the standard theatrical cut, and the unrated cut that played in selected theaters for one night only. Extras includes von Trier’s introduction to the unrated cut and an interview with the director conducted by University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Peter Schepelern.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As the film progresses into its last stretches, it proves itself to be bizarrely satisfying, recontextualizing itself into something much grander in sadness and scope.”–Matt Cipolla, Film Monthly (Blu-ray)

366 UNDERGROUND: SMALL TALK (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Terrisha Kearse

FEATURING: Farelle Walker, Jared Benjamin, Scott St. Patrick, Kiya Roberts, Jermaine Jercox, David Chattam, Gayla Johnson, Mia Sun

PLOT: Ahmed attends a dinner party with Corah, his fiancée, to meet his prospective in-laws. Did we mention that they live in Wonderland?

COMMENTS: “Down the rabbit-hole” is as apt a phrase to use with Small Talk—literally as well as figuratively—since the film is a very clever bounce off of Carroll’s “.” The original story has been adapted and interpreted as everything from social commentary to political allegory, but writer/actor Farelle Walker uses it as a pointed and even more surreal look at information overload, behavior defined by social media, and any “ism” (race, sex, class, etc.) that she can come up with—and that’s quite a lot.

It’s a chaotic package; quite a lot is thrown at the audience, and at “Alice,” in this instance represented by Ahmed Mogadam (Jared Benjamin) as the voice of reason. He (and we) are introduced to the Hamner Family, described in the opening statement as an “interesting family of strong opinions and disturbingly small-minded chatter.” There’s Corah (Farelle Walker), Ahmed’s fiancée, an African Goddess (we meet them as they’re listening to her podcast on her “Yanniverse”; she refers to Ahmed as a “Moor”) and a conspiracy believer (trying to avoid chemtrails as planes fly overhead). Her sister, Senna (Kiya Roberts) is “White” based, having ties to the “White Lives Matter” movement. Her husband, Edwardian ‘Eddie” Licenter (Scott St. Patrick) is a “White” rabbit (“Creole,” he insists). Brother Grant (Jermaine Jercox) is a sinister Army officer, describing himself as “the Black Man They can trust.” Poppa Hamner (David Chattam) is a pig who acts and talks as a stereotypical black patriarch, and matriarch Athyna Hamner (Gayla Johnson)—The Red Queen —is a pious Christian for White Jesus, who watches all via a portrait on the wall.

Amongst all of this is the Asian housekeeper, Soon Yook (Mia Sun), who gives condescension as good as she gets it; and the constantly streaming “Wonderland News” with the Mad Hatter, Dormouse and Rabbit as news anchors in the background. It’s a dense package that might seem, at first glance, a mad cluster… but it’s a film that one needs to pay close attention to, especially the wordplay. It’s a film for smart people. Some of the banter  may go over a lot of heads, especially as far as some specific cultural aspects are concerned, but for those willing to go on the ride down the hole, they’ll have a wild time.

I set out with the intention of creating a mirror image of what I saw happening in my Social Media feed, while simultaneously shining a light into the dark corners of assimilation. As each minority group gains wealth, independence, and power there is a collective cheer amongst us. There is also a collective responsibility, which requires us to understand just how intricately racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and hatred of ‘others’ was woven into the structure of society. If we take note of how these concepts are interlaced we will start to understand why these ‘isms’ have not only outlasted their creators, but also started to be reflected in numerous people of color and minority groups. Recognition of our responsibility to be better should not make us kowtow to those that would oppress us; you will not hear a rally from me to turn the other cheek. Whether we find ourselves in opposition with a different ethnicity, opposite sex, or even a different religion; we must utilize our hard fought gains towards a higher standard in our approach to dealing with those we oppose. For if we act, problem solve and sound like those who oppressed us, are we really any different? ” – Farelle Walker

You can watch the 45 minute feature for free at www.flyrenegadeproductions.com or embedded below.

Small Talk The Movie from Farelle Walker on Vimeo.

CAPSULE: THE SHASTA TRIANGLE (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Barry W. Levy

FEATURING: Dani Lennon, Ayanna Berkshire, Helenna Santos, Deborah Lee Smith, Madeline Merritt

PLOT: Paula returns to her hometown of Shasta, CA where unexplained phenomena regularly occur, to look further into one such instance—the disappearance of her father. With the help of four childhood friends, they go into the surrounding woods looking for answers—which they do find, and quite a bit more.

Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

COMMENTS: The Shasta Triangle is an above-average low-budget genre film of the type that you’d expect to see on the SyFy Channel on a Saturday night, and if you temper your expectations to that level, you’ll enjoy the film. There’s nothing that’s particularly new here in terms of playing with the tropes, but it is refreshing to have the “group going into the woods” be all-female in this variation. You might recognize some of the cast from other genre work, particularly Lennon, Berkshire and Santos (also a producer and the co-story writer). These three also give the film’s better performances.

The premise is solid for what’s essentially  a friends-go-into-the-scary-woods movie. It all plays out fairly well, although the ending is somewhat muffed and may leave some dissatisfied; there’s a resolution, but it also feels like the filmmakers left themselves room to continue the story. Some may not feel a compelling need for them to do so. Still from The Shasta Triangle (2019)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays out much like a Luc Besson film. That is, it’s filled with audacious, original ideas worth exploring and experiencing, even if they don’t always hit the mark like you’d hope…  Subtle camera movements and transition-heavy editing create a disorienting effect that underscores the dream-like elements of the film.”–Justin Andress, The Model American (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BLISS (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Ray Lawrence

FEATURING: Barry Otto, Lynette Curran, Helen Jones, Miles Buchanan, Gia Carides

PLOT: Harry Joy, an ad-executive and raconteur, has a near-death experience after a heart attack, and afterwards starts to see himself as living in Hell. He attempts to reform, but comes into conflict with his family. He finds a kindred spirit in Honey Barbara, a hippie girl in the City to sell marijuana to support her commune, but can Harry overcome the pull of his old life and find love?

Still from Bliss (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are touches, mainly in the imagery, it’s not full-on weird in concept or themes.

COMMENTS: Bliss is a story about stories: how stories affect one’s environment and how stories can save one’s life. Both Peter Carey (author of the original novel) and Ray Lawrence worked in advertising—storytelling used to sell something. Bliss is an expiation and penance for that life. At its core, it’s a story of a man’s mid-life crisis: he has a heart attack, dies, is revived and takes stock of his life, seeing himself as living in Hell, and works to atone.

At the time of its release, some compared it to Terry Gilliam‘s work, specifically Brazil. Some of the absurdist touches to illustrate the hellishness of Harry’s life (roaches skittering out of his chest incision, his wife’s infidelity symbolized by fish dropping from her crotch onto the floor) make that comparison sort of understandable, solely due to the use of imagery.

But with some 30 years of perspective, it’s a very superficial—and somewhat wrong—comparison. Now we see that Bliss anticipated “Mad Men,” and can be seen as a more focused and compact distillation of the thematic concerns of the show, only without the period setting and detail. Also, Bliss‘ Harry Joy is a far more sympathetic character we identify with, and his journey does come to a conclusion, rather than ending in ironic ambiguity.

HOME VIDEO INFO: Bliss was available on VHS from New World Video in the mid 1980’s, and to date is the only home video release in North America. In 2010, an all-region DVD was released with both the theatrical version and Director’s Cut, as well as a commentary with Lawrence and producer Anthony Buckley, but it appears to be out-of-print at this date.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Ray Lawrence milks the absurdity of the surreal situations for laughs and pathos in a take-no-prisoners style that challenges audiences’ tolerance for eccentricity.”–Michael Betzold, AllMovie

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Bliss Rewatched – a Guardian article about the film

Original trailer for Bliss