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

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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

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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

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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.

SERIES RATING: 7/10


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Eerie Indiana: S1, E19: Broken Record

Starring:
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

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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 town...it 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.

EPISODE RATING:
7/10

FULL EPISODE
Click here.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Clueless (1995)

Director: Amy Heckerling
Writer(s): Heckerling
Starring: Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, and Paul Rudd



Remember Alicia Silverstone? It’s hard to believe that there was a time that she was Hollywood’s “it” girl, a title that lasted about four short years before she took the inevitable deep slope into nothingness. Being an adolescent male at the time, I pretty much went out of my way to avoid her works—a theory that I would have still maintained had it not been for my wife desperately urging me to watch this, eager to take a trip down memory lane.

Hers was much different: She was six years old when it was released to theaters, but ten or so years old when she finally caught a copy on VHS thanks to her older sister. At that impressionable age, she didn’t just see Alicia Silverstone’s Cher or her flamboyantly over-the-top friends as the caricatures they were meant to be—she legitimately wanted their lifestyle, and spent many hours watching and rewatching the movie, memorizing entire scenes and lines.

Clueless is the simple story of Cher, and her close friend Dionne, two materialistic, rich high school girls who live in Beverly Hills. Dionne is in a long-term relationship with Murray (Donald Faison, one of the film’s biggest highlights), while Cher is with no one. She lives in a mansion with her father (Dan Hedaya, another highlight), and is frequently in the company of Josh (Paul Rudd), a temporary former stepbrother from when their parents were married for a brief time. The movie makes it abundantly clear that they are no longer related, nor are they blood-related, because that would be very creepy if related people were to fall in love, which is exactly what the film has planned for them.

Getting thrown into the mix is Tai (a young, and very much alive, Brittany Murphy), who came from the rougher side of the tracks—her family is not rich, and she is, by Cher’s own admission, “tragically unhip”. Cher takes it upon herself to raise Tai’s property value, elevating her into the upper echelon of high school coolness, simply because she sees it as giving back to her community (?).

Considering this is a high school-related comedy, I could probably spend six pages fully fleshing everything out, like how Tai really wants to get with skateboarding stoner Travis (a perfect Breckin Meyer) but is steered by Cher and her clique toward popular Elton (Jeremy Sisto), who mistakes Cher’s cheerfulness toward him as flirting and attempts to force himself upon her in his car. But I’ll leave most of those subplots for you to discover on your own, because at the end of the day, as it is with most romantic comedies, the film’s only point is finding a love interest for Cher. It’s probably pretty obvious just from reading this; if it’s not, then it will be pretty obvious to you after twenty or so minutes.

Naturally, there’s not much new or original on display here—I’m sure the whole exaggerated “Valley girl” shtick had been done many times before—but there are nevertheless moments when Clueless works well. Like many of the scenes Silverstone is in; I did not realize just how beautiful she is, with her long slender legs often on display in short skirts and dresses. I’m not one to fall for “Hollywood beauty”, but her looks, along with her youthful innocence, makes it one of the few times in any chick flick I’ve seen, where I started to feel about her the way all the other characters did. This was her breakthrough role, and it’s pretty evident why she exploded the way she did, though a string of failures (culminating in the failure of all failures, Batman & Robin) a couple of years later would pretty much do her in.

It also works any time Hedaya, as Cher’s father, is on the screen…his intense persona, paired up with his love and protectiveness towards his daughter, lead to some genuine comedy gems. Ditto that for Donald Faison (as Murray), who plays a stereotypical over-the-top black man. But while his character, like the film, is a recycled idea, Faison plays it perfectly, managing to elicit some unexpected laughs. It’s no surprise that he would go on to play in "Scrubs", alongside Zach Braff, a show that I will admit to enjoying.

In the end, there’s not much here to recommend to anyone outside of their high school years--or anyone looking for a nostalgic peek back into that time frame--but for those other men who are forced to sit down and watch it at the behest of their significant others, rest easy—it’s not as bad as most of them turn out to be. And that, I suppose, is good enough praise.

RECAP: The over-the-top Valley girl lingo is humorous at first, before wearing thin, but Clueless is still a fairly entertaining romp through overly familiar territory. Its strengths lie in its characters, with all of the main cast, lead by Alicia Silverstone, turning in good performances. There are large sections where jokes fall flat, but there are enough laughs to keep the film moving along. I would recommend this more toward the younger crowd, who would probably get a bigger kick out of it than older viewers, but there are certainly much worse things you could do with 90 minutes of your time.

RATING:
6/10

TRAILER



Sunday, June 11, 2017

Eerie Indiana, S1 E18: Reality Takes a Holiday



Starring:
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
Jason Marsden as Dash-X
John Astin as Radford
Mark Blankfield as Jose Schaefer
Joe Dante as Himself

Written by: Vance DeGeneres (yes, from THAT DeGeneres family!)
Directed by: Ken Kwapis

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Aaaah, “Reality Takes a Holiday”, perhaps the most famous of all “Eerie, Indiana” episodes. And rightfully so, because for the first time, or at least the first time in a while, it feels like the show is dictating everything on its own terms. I've complained in the past about many things in this series, even though I like it: the pointlessness of certain characters (Dash-X and Syndi spring to mind), the uneven balance of creativity (some episodes seem like the show was trying to set a new standard for young adult shows, while others felt like they were just trying to blend in), etc., but I have to say that they wisely saved (one of) the best for last. This isn't just a great final episode of a children's show; this is a great final episode, period. (I guess this comes with an asterisk: This was the final episode of the original run. A nineteenth episode, which is not very good, was added on after the show was syndicated.)

It starts off a day like any other: The Teller family, plus Simon, are sitting around the lunch table, trying to beckon Marshall into going with them to see Revenge of the Corn Critters (a film the Wilson Twins give “two fingers up”, to which Simon jests, “Which fingers?”), the sequel to the popular first film. Marshall, per the usual, doesn't want to go, if for no other reason than everyone else does; he stays home while the rest head off to see the movie.

While he's outside, seeing them off, he decides to check mail. And there, in the mailbox, is a copy of a screenplay. A screenplay for a show called “Eerie, Indiana”, and an episode titled “Reality Takes a Holiday.” Confused, he reads through the first couple pages, which are a word-for-word repeat of the conversation he just had with his family. He re-enters his house...only to find his entire family sitting there, staring at him. Wait, didn't they just leave? His father utters a sentence to him, he repeats it back, and then Edgar loses it, cursing his inability to remember his lines. “Cut!” says a voice in the background, and everything is revealed to be nothing more than a set in a studio soundstage.

It all seems like a joke, and one that only poor Marshall isn't in on: He seems genuinely baffled when people keep referring to him as Omri (his “real life” name), and telling him that he is screwing up lines that he had no idea he even had. Amidst all the chaos and anger of the people around him, all he wants to know is, “What happened to my house?”

There's some inspired humor in the complete change between the way the characters act on the show, and their real-life personas: For example, Justin Shenkarow (who plays Simon), goes from sweet and innocent, to an egotistical maniac who consistently likes to harass women (he tries hitting on Julie Condra, who plays Syndi, provoking a slap at one point), and yell at his agent over his own personal cell phone in between takes. Francis Guinan (Edgar), throws on a sweater as a scarf and speaks with the accent of a sophisticated gentleman (“Really Omri? These lines aren't that hard to memorize. It isn't as if we're doing [laugh] Chekhov.”) And so breaks the fourth wall: Everyone is aware they are part of a television show, except for Marshall, who is actually stuck in character. Pretty clever, right?

In trying to escape his reality, he runs out of the indoor set, where he ends up on the studio lot. Dozens of people are moving about, carrying props and backgrounds, to the many soundstages nearby. This is when Marshall hears a familiar voice, and enters into The World o' Stuff, run by Mr. Radford. Radford doesn't appear to be “in on it”, as he refers to Marshall by “Marshall”, and seems to be a real shop owner. But when Marshall tells him his problem, Mr. Radford pulls out a copy of the script, telling him the answers always lie within those pages. They skip ahead to find out how everything is resolved...only to discover that the ending of the episode hasn't been written yet!

Figuring that if there's a script, there has to be a writer, Marshall heads to the office of Jose Schaefer (a combination between the names of the two series co-creators) to get to the bottom of this. As it turns out, Dash-X is planning on having Marshall killed off in this episode, an idea that Jose is on board with. This will allow Dash to take over as the new lead. But since everything is real to Marshall...does that mean that he will literally die in real life?

He doesn't intend to find that out. Instead, he sneaks into Jose's office and re-writes the ending to the episode, giving it to Jose's secretary to deliver to the production crew. Marshall shows back up on set, where they are excited to see him, and joins his acting family at the dinner table from the first scene. What is taking so long for the rewrite to arrive? (It's the 1991 printer, which has to make enough copies for everyone on set). He stalls for a few moments, while Dash is relishing the opportunity to kill him. Then, at last, it arrives.

Marshall closes his eyes in relief...only to discover his onscreen family staring at him when he reopens them. They're still waiting for an answer. Is he or isn't he going to see the movie with them? Shocked, Marshall gets up and looks outside, where he sees neighbors enjoying a beautiful summer day; he's no longer on a set, but back to real life! As a token of thanks, he agrees to see the movie with his family, but a page of script catches his eye...

I've said it a million times over the course of these episodes, but this show was always at its peak when it wasn't afraid to do its own thing, and it certainly wasn't afraid here. The entire installment, from concept to execution, is pretty close to genius. It doesn't quite usurp “Heart on a Chain's” place on the throne as the best this show ever produced, but it's easily the best example of the show's trademark lighthearted quirkiness. (Listening to Syndi berate Marilyn for getting a tattoo by saying, “Self-mutilation is playing right into the hands of the male power structure,” is a thing of beauty. So too, is Marilyn's response: “It's my midlife crisis. You'll know what it's like in ten years.” So too, again, is Syndi's response: “Fifteen.”)

It would be impossible for one episode to completely justify the sudden appearance of Dash-X, but this one deserves points for trying. We've always known that he has always been drawn into situations for selfish reasons (usually involving beefing up his bank account), so to see him try to oust Marshall so he can take over as the show's star comes as close as possible to explaining his role in the show, in an almost "meta" kinda way. It feels like he was working “undercover” to get what he wanted all along, helping Marshall out to gain his trust so he could ultimately tear the rug out from under him...for good.

This would be the perfect episode for those looking to get into the series and see some of the best it has to offer, but I'm hesitating to recommend it in that regard, because many of the remaining episodes just don't reach its lofty heights. Besides, who eats the cherry on a sundae first? It's best to save it for last, knowing that there's always a light at the end of the tunnel, should you ever want to quit watching the series. I'm not certain this would go down as one of the great farewells in episodic television history, simply because I don't watch enough full series to make an accurate statement on that, but I am fairly certain that a strong case could be made.

EPISODE RATING: 9/10

FULL EPISODE

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