Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hereditary (2018)

Director: Ari Aster
Writer(s): Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Alex Wolff

I have fallen for an ad campaign.

That might not sound like a necessarily negative statement. After all, people fall for them thousands of times daily, given that's the entire point of their existence. Companies are always trying to push their brands out there using catchy monikers and hyperbolic statements, using whatever they can to get a leg up on the competition. It's just a fact of life. Advertisements are everywhere, and I must say that I have grown quite accustomed to completely ignoring them. But everyone is a victim at some point.

I first heard about Hereditary back in January. It was actually a friend who mentioned it to me, having read on some horror news site about a film out of the Sundance Film Festival that was garnering praise and reputation as the scariest film of the year. That's a pretty hefty statement for any horror film released in a given year, but an even more impressive feat when the month it's released happens to be the first month of the whole goddamned year. Immediately, my interest was piqued. A trailer was released a short time later, and that solidified things—I had to see this in a theater.

Let me be clear about the weight of that statement: I don't see movies in a theater. Like, almost ever. I find it to be a huge waste of money. Yes, please let me pay $30 for a popcorn and soda, the two cheapest things to make on any menu and probably a 1000% markup, after having just dropped $20 for two pieces of paper. Hmm, I'm very baffled as to how piracy is a widespread problem.

Hereditary starts off brilliantly, with an opening shot that slowly tracks around a room before settling on a dollhouse. The camera pans into it closely, and we realize it's a smaller version of a bedroom, complete with a doll lying in the bed. Then, the door opens and a character walks in, It's a brilliant, seamless transition from static miniature shot to live-action film, and just one in a myriad of examples of technological prowess featured within. But technical prowess does not a movie make, and Hereditary crumbles under the weight of its own convoluted story.

It wastes no time setting up what we believe will be the outer shell of the story: Annie (Toni Collette, in a performance for which there are no words) and the rest of her family are mourning the loss of her mother, who recently passed away. Well, “mourning” might be a strong word, as most of the family members don't really seem to mind that she is gone. We eventually learn that she was a bitter old woman even when she was fine, but was made even more unbearable as she slowly started giving in to the effects of dementia, and this became increasingly difficult to bear for all the remaining members of the family.

The old woman fell out of touch with almost everyone in the family, but she always held an unhealthy fascination with Charlie, Annie's introverted thirteen-year-old daughter. Charlie is a simple little girl, who likes to “cluck” her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and who has a weakness for sweets (predominantly chocolate bars; however, she has a severe allergy to nuts). But her simplicity and innocence belies a morbid fascination with death. For example, after a bird commits accidental suicide after flying into her class window, she calmly grabs a pair of scissors, and goes outside to decapitate the already-dead animal. She also passes her time drawing creepy portraits of family members. Has she always had this predilection for disturbing pictures, or is she perhaps her dead grandmother?

From here, I will honor the “Critic's Code” (a moniker I just made up because I'm far from a respectable reviewer of movies) and resist the strong urge I have to spill some plot beans. Why? Because, supposedly, this is one of those films that work better the less you know about its plot; a notion I call bullshit to, because all I did was watch the trailer and I was still incredibly disappointed. I want to describe it in detail not to prepare you for what you're going to see, but to warn you about what you're going to see. And not because it's so shocking, but because it's so maddeningly stupid. (Though I must admit an early twist is perfectly shocking, and falsely lulls you into a sense that the film is heading down the right track.)

I guess I can kind of see the acclaim, because what Hereditary does right, it does almost perfectly: It's a technical masterpiece, with outstanding shots and visual trickery galore. I am rather surprised to see that Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover--amongst one of my favorite films of all time--also had a profound effect on writer/director Ari Aster, and while I cannot say that I would have picked up on that just from watching Hereditary, you can clearly see that, like Greenaway, he does have an artist's aptitude for creating striking visual compositions.

Then there's Toni Collette, who, quite frankly, gives one of the greatest horror performances of all time. I don't really pay attention to acting all that often, because it's generally the least interesting part of a movie for me. But she, as Annie, is required to run the gamut of emotions from endless despair, to pent-up rage, and does so with such a burning intensity and commitment to the role that's refreshing for a genre typically relegated to screaming women and one-note characters. No matter what you think of the film, there is no denying that she is the main reason any of it even remotely works whatsoever; the other actors seem to feed off her performance, and while no one can even come close to matching her, they all turn in solid renditions. I'm tempted to make some reference about how Collette not being nominated for some sort of major Hollywood award would be a travesty, but the whole Hollywood system is a travesty, a smoke and mirrors campaign that bases its awards on algorithms and politics, rather than those actually deserving to win. By this metric, it might actually mean more if she doesn't.

At the end of the day, though, Hereditary is an arthouse movie being forced into mainstream theaters. It's the kind of movie that critics get hard-ons over, while bemoaning the “average moviegoers” who are “idiots” and “don't get it” because it's a “cinematic masterpiece”. I understand that mentality, because I have to admit that normally I would be on their side: I do think a large portion of the theater-going public are idiots. They are the reason that people like Adam Sandler are considered funny beyond third grade, and the reason there are three Taken movies. They soak up bland drivel and predictable films without a second thought, encouraging studios to recycle ideas and forcefeeding audiences with docile, unchallenging pictures that merely regurgitate the same tired, familiar formulas ad nauseum, to inexplicably packed houses.

But you know what? Sometimes it's not the audience members that are morons; sometimes, it's the studios, who purposefully market films they themselves don't understand in completely misleading ways. The idea is obviously to create a building snowball worth of hype, and by the time the film is released and the audience realizes that what they're seeing is nothing at all like what they were promised, the studio already has their money. The reviews all point to how terrifying and gripping it is, but no one has mentioned how half the audience erupted in laughter as the final credits started rolling during the opening night screening I attended. And no, it wasn't the nervous laughter of a group of people who had just survived the world's scariest movie and weren't sure how to process their emotions. It was the laughter of a group of people who figured out, much too late, that they had been duped.

In some business circles, this would be known as a “bait-and-switch” tactic, but in Hollywood, it's known as “business as usual” (just like rape and pedophilia). And, just like the idiots they were targeting, I fell hook, line, and sinker.

Overall: 5/10.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Better Watch Out (2016)

Director: Chris Peckover
Writer(s): Zack Kahn and Peckover, from a story by Kahn.
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould, and Aleks Mikic

There are an untold number of films that give away too much in the trailer. For example, a specific twist, or a key scene, or a bit of foreshadowing that, once you start watching the movie, makes everything come together and eliminates the need for you to actually sit through it. After all, studios make their money by putting people in theater seats, regardless of what they think of the film, and so they will do anything they can to put butts in the seats.

Along these same lines, there are films that are also intentionally mis-marketed and made into something that they aren't, often with disastrous results. For example, studio execs may decide to put an emphasis on action in a film that focuses more on dialogue and pacing, to make it seem more action-packed than it really is, and to appeal more to people who enjoy that kind of film. It's a deceiving tactic, but Hollywood isn't a world known for its honesty. Besides, once they get you to commit, and take your money, there's little you can do (besides ask for a refund, which is oddly something that very few people seem to ever do; thinking about it, I've never thought of doing it, and I've hated plenty of theatrical films that I've seen).

But rarely has the art of the trailer been so brilliantly subverted as it is in Chris Peckover's Better Watch Out, a film that intentionally prepares you for something that it's not. It's all just one layer of unpredictability in a film that gleefully subverts genre expectations to deliver a film that still delivers the promised dark comedy, albeit in a very unexpected manner. (Also, ignore the multiple reviews that claim the finale abandons humor in favor of seriousness; it doesn't, though the already dark comedy does find a darker shade of black.)

Olivia DeJonge plays Ashley, a teenaged babysitter who has been tasked with watching over 12-year-old Luke (excellently played by Levi Miller) while his parents go to a party. Judging from the interactions between the two, she has done this many times before, but this night is different; she will be moving out of the state in just a couple short weeks, and wanted to say goodbye to the family by babysitting Luke one final time.

But what should be an easy paycheck starts to go off the rails from the outset: her boyfriend Ricky keeps calling her, much to the chagrin of Luke, who plans on letting her know how he really feels by putting the moves on her. This becomes both of their smallest concerns when figures start appearing in the windows, and noises are heard outside. Soon after, an upstairs window breaks; a quick investigation reveals that the culprit is a brick featuring a pretty straightforward, but rather frightening warning--”U Leave, U Die”. Luke's friend Garrett tests this theory by losing his cool and running panicked out the backdoor—and that's when everyone learns that whoever is behind this means business. Are these the actions of a spurned ex-boyfriend? A jealous current boyfriend? Or something else entirely?

And that's also where I will drop you off on this plot guide, because to go any further would require me to reveal certain plot points that are an integral part of the viewing experience. In fact, do yourself a favor and go into a viewing of this knowing as little as possible, and that will severely heighten the chances that you appreciate the twists and turns; the countless zigs and the zags.

The strengths of Better Watch Out are numerous, ranging from the quality of the script, to the brilliant performances throughout. In the past it has always felt like horror films in general—from the big budget studio fare, all the way down to the indiest of indies—have always been treated as an afterthought, with B-grade (or worse) talent being shoved in front of and behind the cameras. Now, with the success of movies like the It remake, and Get Out bringing large quantities of cash and success to studios (who only care about the cash part), it seems that the genre is finally starting to be taken seriously as a whole, rather than just the catalyst of pointless fads (the non-stop onslaught of post-Scream slasher films; the non-stop onslaught of post-Blair Witch found footage films).

It also marks the first time in a long while that I wasn't turned off by a characters' actions. All of them act within their characterizations, with no one breaking character to do something incredibly dumb. Granted, much of this is cleverly avoided by keeping characters within confined areas (thus severely limiting the number of available actions to them in the first place), but that's also a testament to the tightness of the idea and ensuing execution. (The one moment that could be considered a convenient bit of horror ignorance actually turns out to be a perfectly calculated moment when the plot starts falling into place.)

Imagine my surprise when a quick search revealed that this was not the creation of an up-and-coming horror auteur, but rather a work of a man whose previous sole feature-length directing credit was 2010's indifferently-received found-footage thriller Undocumented, which seems like such a run-of-the-mill horror film that I never even bothered to watch it, despite being tempted numerous times in the past by the admittedly intriguing poster. I still won't, for fear that it will lead me to lose respect for the man, but it's also a sobering reminder that (sometimes) talent cannot be judged just from one or two works. (To wit, who would have ever expected that Peter Jackson, he of Dead/Alive and Meet the Feebles infamy, would go on to helm one of the most epic and widely-acclaimed trilogies in the history of film?)

The ending did wrap things up a little too nicely for my liking, but I suppose it will be a welcome diversion for most audiences, who I'm told do not appreciate endless bleakness and nihilism, especially in their Christmas stories (and for what it's worth, there is a coda after the credits that actually addresses the “kindness” of the ending). That's really the only drawback in a film that's otherwise strong in just about ever other category. It will be interesting to see how time treats this: it will no doubt be on the short list of Christmas-themed horror classics, that much is known, but I wouldn't be surprised to find it on the list of top horror films of the year, decade, or maybe even quarter-century.



Sunday, July 2, 2017

Dead Man's Shoes (2004)

Director: Shane Meadows
Writer(s): Paddy Considine, and Shane Meadows
Starring: Paddy Considine, Gary Stretch, Toby Kebbell, and Stuart Wolfenden

If you have ever wanted to see a slasher film from the perspective of the killer, then Dead Man’s Shoes is the film for you. Yeah, on its surface it might be billed as a revenge picture, and it might have all the earmarks of that genre, but it foregoes the logistics of most of them—there is no careful planning on how best to attack the victims, or how to avoid getting caught by police—because in this world, it’s only the man who wants revenge, and the people he will kill. Not once is his success ever in doubt; but even by eliminating the “will he succeed” portion of the proceedings, which is arguably the most tension-producing component in many similar films, co-writer and director Shane Meadows has nevertheless produced one of the greatest acts of screen vengeance ever committed to film.

There isn’t much plot to speak of, especially at the beginning: Paddy Considine (in an amazing performance) plays Richard, a man who has returned to his hometown after serving in the military. But things went wrong while he was away: it seems local thugs got a hold of his mentally-incapacitated brother, and treated him like a toy. They abused him physically, emotionally, and sexually, forcing him to participate in evil “games” that he has no comprehension of. Well Richard doesn’t take kindly to that, and wants to make sure everyone involved pays with their lives.

Many of the lowlifes still parade around town together, selling drugs and engaging in other criminal behaviors to make ends meet. It is unclear exactly how much time has passed since the abuse, but what is evident is that none of them have grown up, or express remorse for their abuse.

The vengeance starts off innocuous. He sneaks into the house of Sonny (a pitch-perfect Gary Stretch), the “leader” of the pack, and local hangout for all the thugs, and terrorizes them with spraypaint while they are all sleeping off a long night of alcohol. At first, they blame each other, but one of them, a nervous chap named Herbie, who already had a couple of terrifying encounters with the mystery man, suggests that it was probably him. He isn’t sure, but he’s pretty positive that it’s “Anthony’s brother” (Anthony, of course, being the mentally-handicapped kid that they tortured, and played by Toby Kebbell in a performance that doesn’t receive nearly enough credit). From there, it gets worse and worse, as they are picked off one-by-one, in often brutal fashion.

Even though it’s basically a revenge film torn down to its bare roots, the action is adrenaline-pumping, thanks largely in part to flashbacks that gradually reveal just how far the torture went; it’s pretty imperative in a work like this that we feel for the subject of torment, that we desperately want the bad guys to get a little taste of their own medicine, and there’s no doubt Dead Man’s Shoes delivers on that front. But what’s even more surprising, and almost revelatory in a way, is that the film focuses just as much on the thugs being stalked, as they do on Richard and Anthony. So we can see firsthand the effects his aggressive campaign has on the baddies, from nervousness, at first, to outright fear as more and more of them end up dead, and that only adds to our delight.

None of this would have nearly half the impact that it does if it weren’t for the universally brilliant performances. I don’t know much about British actors, but apparently Paddy Considine is considered one of the finest overseas film actors working today, with some even going so far as to call him one of the greatest current actors, period. By that measuring stick, I suppose it’s no surprise that he delivers a perfectly calculated, chilling rendition. But for my money, Toby Kebbell as Anthony just might be the film’s breakthrough performance; there’s a lot that has to be taken into account when playing a role like this, and he hits it out of the park. Everything about it is flawless, from his facial control, on down to his voice…it’s so good that I honestly had to check to make sure he wasn’t actually handicapped in real life. And since his co-starring role here, he has gone on to roles in Hollywood features, which doesn’t surprise me one single bit. Gary Stretch’s Sonny is the best of the bad guys, but the rest are still well above-average.

If you like revenge flicks, you’ll obviously love this. But that’s selling the movie short; if you like horror movies, you’ll probably like this. If you like dramas that mess with your emotions, chances are you will like this; and the list goes on and on. On its surface, it may be a simple tale of revenge, well told, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there is much more than meets the eye.

RECAP: A must for not only fans of revenge films, but for just about any kind of gritty film in general. The performances are uniformly superb, and there’s far more emotional resonance than most movies of its ilk. There’s nary a misstep in its efficient 90 minutes, and it functions as an adrenaline-pumping revenge tale, a slasher film from the perspective of the killer, an interesting character study, etc. Just a fantastic all-around film and quite possibly the best revenge film ever made.

RATING: 9.5/10


Monday, June 26, 2017

Rope (1948)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer(s): Adapted by Hume Cronyn, from a play by Patrick Hamilton. Written for the screen by Arthur Laurents.
Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger

My interest in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope began when I was a teenager interested in filmmaking, and that is the only reason I tracked it down. My interest in Alfred Hitchcock also begins and ends there; for some reason, I have never been into old films, a disinterest that even carries with me to this day. They’re just too theatrical and staged, with outdated acting styles and visual effects that take me right out of the movie. It is for those reasons, that I simply do not enjoy watching them, and rarely seek them out.

But Rope features a technological breakthrough unlike any (to my knowledge) up to that time period, and one that really helped to open my eyes to the possibility of film: It’s presented as one long, continuous take. Now, as we know now, that’s not entirely true—it was actually made up of eight 10-minute long takes, with the cuts obscured (though obvious) by close-ups on the actor’s clothing—but for my young, impressionable mind, it opened my eyes to a world I had never really thought about before. It made me think of the rules of cinema, and how they could be obliterated. Unfortunately, I never amounted to much as a filmmaker, besides a few incomplete projects made with friends, and while I still have an appreciation for the craft, my interest in it has died down over the years.

It wasn’t just about the long takes for me, as intriguing as they were: this is also a perfect example of low-budget minimalism. Thanks to this, I was also drawn to the idea of a movie taking place within one or two locations, which also made it easier and cheaper to shoot. Such an idea sounds like an easy thing to do in practice, but in reality, you also need a near-perfect plot that will be able to handle filming in such confined quarters. Rope even has that aspect covered, too, thanks to its original iteration as a play.

Brandon and Philip are two friends who murder one of their classmates, David Kentley, and proceed to hide his body in a chest in the middle of their living room. Eager to test the level of perfection in their crime, they invite over those closest to David for a party: his girlfriend, Janet, his father, Mr. Kentley, his aunt, Mrs. Atwater (they actually invited his mother instead, but she is sick and unable to make it), his rival, Kenneth, and their old teacher, Rupert Cadell. Their housekeeper, Mrs. Wilson, is also thrown into the mix. For about an hour, we sit in on the party, as the duo drop ominous hints to their dinner guests, as if daring them to connect the dots.

Of course, it stands to reason that one of them must be emotionally fragile and eventually come undone, and Philip definitely fits that bill in this regard. He expresses regret almost immediately after the murder, and wishes to call off the little gathering. But Brandon is the required cocky and arrogant ringleader, who assures Philip everything will be okay even as his clues get more and more gutsy, especially as the night wears on, and the usually-reliable David still doesn’t show up.

Rope is successful as a thriller due in large part to the excellent camerawork and fiendish creativity that combine to really heighten the tension. For example, there are scenes where the camera will linger on the chest housing David’s dead body as characters walk near it or stand over it; the fact that he is literally right under their nose, while they remain completely oblivious, is maddening. Or there’s the fiendish touch of Brandon giving some books to David’s father, with the set held together by the very piece of rope used to murder his son. “Brilliant” is not a word I like to throw around very often when describing a film, but it’s definitely appropriate here.

The main reason I can’t get into older movies is because of the style of acting: it just feels too amateurish and theatrical, especially when compared to the acting of today. The performances in Rope are no different, but given its simple story and single set, it feels more like a movie than a play, so I didn’t find that it detracted from my interest in it at all. It’s also a master-class in minimalism, with Hitchcock wringing an astounding amount of tension from a simple story. He would go on to create many classic films, many of which have gone on to eclipse this one in terms of popularity, but there’s a good chance none of them would have existed had it not been for Rope.

RECAP: Rope is a true suspense classic, with Hitchcock wringing a ton of tension from a single set. It’s also a masterpiece of technology, as the film was shot in eight 10-minute takes (with hidden cuts, which give the illusion that it was shot all in one). The film’s theatrical-style acting, standard for that time period, works excellently here, as the movie has the feeling of a play more than a film (which makes sense given that it was originally a play, adapted into a film). He would go on to direct many films regarded as “classic” over the ensuing years, but it would be a crime for this to ever fall through the cracks.

RATING: 9/10


Friday, June 23, 2017

The Plague Dogs (1982)

Director: Martin Rosen
Writer(s): Rosen, adapted from the novel "The Plague Dogs" by Richard Adams.
Starring: John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam, and Nigel Hawthorne

If you have ever wanted to lose faith in humanity, then plan a viewing of Martin Rosen’s animated tearjerker The Plague Dogs. I can only imagine the look on the faces of confused parents who, seeing animated dogs on the cover, rented this for their children expecting lighthearted cartoon fare; there are no laughs to be had, only feelings of intense despair and sadness. We know how it will end almost before it begins, when the depressing opening credit song kicks in:

I don’t feel no pain no more
I don’t feel no pain no more
I’ve left this cruel world behind
And I found my piece of mind
I don’t feel no pain no more

Not far removed from the opening credits, we witness a dog in a water tank, swimming while “white coats” (the dog’s slang for the people wearing lab coats that carry out the cruel animal tests) time him; once he passes out from exhaustion and starts to drown, they remove him from the tub, and place him back in a cage. This is Rowf, a large black Labrador mix, and we soon learn that he is a frequent, but unwilling, participant in these water experiments (the “white coats” even excitedly comment on how his stamina and time keeps going up with each attempt).

His pal is Snitter, a smooth fox terrier who is in an adjoining cell, and wears a plastic cap on his head. Unlike Rowf, who has only known this life, Snitter was once in a loving home with a loving master. But all that changes when his owner is hit by a car. Soon after, Snitter was sold to the laboratory, who constantly operated on his brain; as a result, he constantly dips in and out of reality, and frequently hallucinates.

One day, they get a stroke of luck: a hurried worker doesn’t close Rowf’s cage all the way. Snitter sneaks through a small opening in the wire, and the two of them make their escape from the testing facility. However, they soon learn that survival on the outside is even more difficult than their torturous existence within the testing compound, a fact made even more strenuous when the media declares that they might be carriers of the bubonic plague, which ensures no one will help them, lest they run the risk of getting the disease.

Thankfully, Rowf and Snitter do have an ally in this whole ordeal, and he comes in the form of The Tod, a sly and crafty fox with whom they strike an uneasy alliance. While Snitter is taken by The Tod, old grumpy Rowf is certain that they would be better off without him; before long, The Tod runs off and he gets his wish, learning too late that maybe they need him for their survival after all.

Initially, the trio manage to survive by killing and eating sheep; this angers the sheep’s owner and starts a manhunt to destroy the animals that are cutting into his livelihood. They manage to survive that, only to be rewarded with the horrors of winter, when the sheep are taken out of the fields and put some place warmer. This is when the "true" manhunt begins…the military is sent in to "take care of" the dogs, who are believed to be infected with plague, only of course in this instance, "take care of" means "kill". The military eventually manages to trap the dogs, and then...

The Plague Dogs is, at times, a powerful film, but I have to admit that the film’s style really bothered me—Rosen relies heavily on fades to black between scenes, which honestly makes the movie feel like it’s a series of vignettes moreso than one continuing narrative. Even worse, the passage of time between the fades is very inconsistent: sometimes, it picks up just a few moments later, and other times we’re informed that several days have passed. The fragmented storytelling really broke up the momentum for me, and I felt that it was never really firing on all cylinders; it literally took me completely out of the movie on occasion. There’s no doubting that I still liked the film overall—just the plot alone packs a mean punch—but there’s also no doubting that it could have been infinitely more powerful with better editing/direction.

I’m also not sure of Rosen’s ultimate objective for this—the book on which this is based (also called “The Plague Dogs”, and written by Richard Adams) is clearly against vivisection and animal cruelty (he even spent a year as president of the ASPCA: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Rosen, on the other hand, adamantly maintained that this movie had no agenda, and was instead an “adventure” film. The material itself makes you cheer for the animals, while making the humans look like insensitive pricks, but I’m wondering how well it could have worked in the hands of a director willing to focus more on the anti-cruelty aspects, instead of merely trying to make it exciting and "entertaining".

Still, this is almost required viewing for all animal lovers that are willing to stomach this kind of stuff. It is an all-too-rare instance of an adult story trapped within the confines of a typically-children’s visual style, and one that couldn’t be told any other way. I’m really not sure it will stick with me that long after this initial viewing—unlike the brilliance of a film like White God, which I can’t get out of my head several months later—but The Plague Dogs is certainly a worthwhile alternative to the constant string of feel-good animated junk that comes out every year. Just make sure you have the tissues ready for an “Oh no don’t you dare do this to me” ending that’s both ironic, and emotionally shattering.

RECAP: There are certainly pacing and directorial issues (a fade-to-black every two minutes…really?), but despite these, The Plague Dogs still manages to be an occasionally powerful story of two dogs who escape an animal testing facility, only to find that life on the outside is every bit as difficult. Even though it’s animated, this is no feel-good story; it’s almost endlessly bleak, with an ending that seems to fake ambiguity but seems all too depressingly obvious. If you can stomach the plot, and if you can forgive the often plodding pace, then this is a great example of a decidedly adult film that couldn’t be told in any other way.

RATING: 7/10


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Series Outro: Eerie Indiana

Sometimes, things that should be pretty obvious, don't appear that way until it's too late. In this case, it probably wasn't a good idea to jump back into television reviews a mere two months after having a baby; it was even dumber to pick a show that offered up a whopping nineteen episodes, far and away the most out of any show I have reviewed up to this point. Add to this the fact that I watched every episode twice (because I was too tired and/or lazy to sit down to review them the first time), and you might begin to feel as burned out on it as I am.

Anyway, I have to say that the show was a little more uneven than I remembered, having caught a few episodes back during its initial run, with some made to stand out amongst shows of similar ilk, while others seemed like they were content just to “blend in”. It was also uneven in quality, though I feel like that is a criticism that can technically be leveled at almost any show ever produced. But when it was firing on all cylinders, man did it deliver the goods: “Heart on a Chain”, which I feel like I mention quite frequently, is pretty much a perfect example of episodic young adult television, while the the original series finale “Reality Takes a Holiday” cleverly centers its basic premise on breaking the “fourth wall”, an idea that not many “kids” shows would have the guts to do.

When it was bad, it was bad, with episodes like “The Retainer” and the complete dud “Tornado Days” immediately springing to mind, but thankfully the show was “mediocre” more often than it was flat-out bad. As unbalanced as it could be, I at least have to be thankful that it wasn't wildly so: there were more stand-out episodes than complete bombs, so at least there wasn't a huge fluctuation, and that is enough for me to recommend the series as a whole.

What it consistently delivered, though, were characters that had the audacity to be smart, something so often missing from shows aimed toward younger crowds. Flip on any number of shows now—even ones geared toward teens—and you'll immediately find that the formula tends to consist of obnoxious characters overacting to an obnoxious degree, while shouting recycled lines that were never funny to begin with. In "Eerie", Marshall, and his trusty sidekick Simon, are kids that could pass for almost any kid in America today, and that's what makes them so instantly relatable.

By extension, even (a majority of) the adult characters were several notches above the norm. The parents encourage Marshall's imagination and curiosity within a reasonable limit, and even know about his constant hunts for the bizarre, which make up the framework for many of these episodes (in a cute touch, they even ask him in a couple episodes if he's in the middle of any investigations before asking him to accompany them to a family event). It never devolves into a “Marshall vs. his parents” storyline, which so many shows tend to fall back on; sure, he sometimes has to sneak around and avoid his parents to get the info he needs, but it's never with malicious intent. In other words, he is part of perhaps the most functional family unit in television history. (Though I will say Marshall's sister isn't really given much to do, but she's hot so I'm not completely against her inclusion.)

The show also wasn't afraid to back down from tackling stronger themes, which they did more than a couple times. Simon's parents are never shown, but it is insinuated that his parents were abusive, and that is why he is always with Marshall. In another episode, entitled “Who's Who”, a lone girl with an alcoholic father and several brothers is always expected to take care of them; the entire installment is about her trying to escape her captive life by using drawings that come to life. In every instance, it's handled with humor and a healthy dose of reality, a balancing act that's hard to do, but that the show pulled off well.

As I mentioned in an individual review, the show's lone season did go on for way too long (I could have seen cutting at least six episodes), which I think is what prevents it from having as much of a cult following as it could. Not that nineteen half-hour episodes is too much to slog through, but in my opinion, it's a big reason for its unevenness. You can always tell when a show is frantically trying to make something work when a new main character shows up unannounced, and that's what happened with Jason Marsden's “Dash X”, who became the “is he bad or is he good” kind of guy starting in episode thirteen (again proving my theory they should have just cut their losses there).

Regardless of its criticisms, I would still take an “Eerie, Indiana” over almost anything that passes for children's entertainment nowadays. It's a show that, almost thirty years later, is still ahead of its time in that there really hasn't been too much like it since then. Like all good children's shows, it catered to the parents of the audience, throwing in tidbits about conspiracy theories, taking aim at “liberals”, politics, beliefs, and other heady topics. How some of the comments made it through the censors is rather shocking (especially the references to the “Iran-Contra affair”, which is mentioned in no fewer than three episodes, and was a huge scandal just a couple of years prior).

It was fresh in that it didn't rely on many effects, which is also a big reason why shows always seem super-dated (after all, we've come a long way since the early '90s). That might be enough to cause disinterest in many kids, but its minimalist approach means that more gravity is placed on the story, rather than trying to cover up plot deficiencies with special effects. Hell, there aren't too many adult shows that would be daring enough to try this, which speaks to just how different it really was.

Lastly, it was intelligent enough not to assume its viewers were complete idiots, a decision that ironically probably lead to its early demise. If you're looking for something unique, and don't require your stories to have a bunch of “razzle-dazzle”, you really should give “Eerie” a try; it's a very good young adult/kids show that deserves far more attention than it has received.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Eerie Indiana: S1, E19: Broken Record

Omri Katz as Marshall Teller
Justin Shenkarow as Simon Holmes
Mary-Margaret Humes as Marilyn Teller
Francis Guinan as Edgar Teller
Julie Condra as Syndi Teller
Tom Everett as Tod's Dad
Grant Gelt as Tod McNulty
Gwynyth Walsh as Tod's Mother
Andrew White as Officer Derek

Written by: Jose Rivera
Directed by: Todd Holland


I'll try to eliminate any confusion regarding this episode right off the bat here: This is the nineteenth, and final, episode of “Eerie, Indiana”. It was not originally the final episode, that title going to the excellent “Reality Takes a Holiday”, however “Broken Record” was added to the rotation after the show was syndicated. So, technically, this one is kind of like a bonus episode, especially considering Dash-X is nowhere to be found for the first time since he was introduced.

“Rock n' Roll Has Come To Eerie” exclaims a new sign being raised at the World o' Stuff. That sign is a reference to the “Pitbull Surfers”, a popular metal band that finally ends up in the small seems that Eerie is the last to get everything. Marshall suggests the band's new album, "Eardrum Lobotomy", to his friend, Tod McNulty; his family lost their farm a while back, and his father is still out of work, so he figured some aggressive music might take his mind off things for a while. (Sample lyrics from the titular track include, “No one understands you, no one digs your dream, just crank up the music, don't want to hear your parents scream. What you need is eardrum lobotomy, eardrum lobotomy, yeah, yeah, yeah!”)

Tod, Marshall, and Simon go back to Tod's house, where he breaks out his old record player and throws the record on. And that's when his father Phil storms in, calling him a “loser” and accusing him of polluting his mind with mush. Whoa, whoa, whoa, those are some harsh words coming from a guy who can't even take care of his family by finding a job! Tod's mother storms in, interrupting her husband during his brutal tirade, and wondering why he's been acting that way; Tod leaves the room crying, leaving Marshall and Simon stuck in the room with Tod's parents. Talk about awkward. The duo excuse themselves after the parents notice them standing there.

Rather quickly, the band's music takes hold of Tod, who starts dressing like a “punk”, complete with black shoe polish in his hair, and a Pitbull Surfers T-shirt; he desperately wants to see PS in concert, as they are playing in Indianapolis soon, and he feels like it's his duty to see them live. He asks Marshall to go with him, but Marshall says that he always thought their pro-Nazi viewpoints were meant to be taken as a joke, an idea that offends Tod (“They tell it like it is!”) who still plans on hitchhiking to Indianapolis to see the show. That plan is quickly derailed when he sees his parents looking for him, forcing him to switch to plan B: Get home before they do. So he steals a milk truck in a desperate bid to beat his parents to the house—a plan that backfires miserably when he crashes the damn thing.

With Tod on the way to the hospital (more as a precaution, as he is not seriously injured), the police officer on scene (whom Syndi is shadowing for a school project) has to let his parents know about the crash. Immediately, his father assumes it was the music that was taking over his mind, and attempts to prove to the officer that there are subconscious evil messages embedded in records when the vinyl is played backwards. In an interesting twist, what he hears is evil, all right: it's recorded passages of him constantly berating his son, which breaks him down until he finally realizes the error of his ways. And with that, he apologizes, and we assume everything is returned back to normal.

Some of it, especially in the beginning, is heavyhanded and a little too “in-your-face” in execution, though the central themes (alienation, music as therapy, etc.) remain relevant as they always will. The relationship between Tod and his parents, though, is once again a step above normal family fare in that it feels fleshed out, or at least as fleshed out as a 24-minute episode can be. The family dynamic is also refreshing; far too often in media it seems that the mom turns a blind eye to everything and lets the dad do what he wants. But here, the wife is constantly defending her son; there is a surprisingly tender moment where she appears in his bedroom, apologizing for his father's behavior, and assuring Todd his father loves him. Todd then asks, “Well then why doesn't he tell me that himself,” to which the mother replies, “I don't know,” with a look of absolute devastation. It's far more hard-hitting than expected, and somehow works.

I didn't remember being too enthralled with this one the first time I saw it, but I have to say that it's a good overall episode, despite its occasional over-the-top approach. It's definitely not worthy enough to be the series finale (it should have aired earlier in the series), but it's entertaining and heartfelt, with the usual splash of comedy thrown in for good measure. Now that I think about it, this would make a good “starter episode” for those looking to get into the series, because many of the show's strengths are on display here, and with the added bonus that it would leave "Reality Takes a Holiday" as the final one, the way it was meant to be. It's worthy of a watch, especially if you missed the episode during its initial run.


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