FILM REVIEWS, COLLECTION UPDATES, COMMENTS ON CINEMATIC CULTURE

Sunday, June 2, 2024

JACKIE 2016

 

Natalie Portman deserves a lot of credit, and, some would say, an Academy Award, for the hard work she put into doing an imitation of Jacqueline Kennedy during the time of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, funeral, and the immediate aftermath. Miss Portman has the hair, makeup and early 1960s Jackie-esque fashion style down pat. She even strives, with somewhat mixed results, to imitate Mrs. Kennedy's soft, breathy speaking voice. As she is in nearly every scene in the film, her acceptance by audiences is crucial. 

The film begins shortly after the death and burial of JFK with the former First Lady giving an interview in which she attempts to either tell the truth, or fabricate a version, of the events of the assassination and give a summation of her husband's legacy. Her verbal sparring with the journalist (Billy Crudup) is interspersed with her memories of what happened on November 22, 1963, and the terrible days that followed.

Like many contemporary films that deal with historical figures and events, JACKIE does not tell its story in a linear pattern. Director Pablo Larrain jumps back and forth in time, almost scene by scene, showing various events during the years of the Kennedy presidency. One event that is carefully recreated is the tour of the White House conducted in 1961 by Mrs. Kennedy for television. The grainy black & white imagery looks very authentic, and for those of us who remember seeing the actual broadcast, the effort is indeed impressive. I would take issue, however, with the way the film portrays Mrs. Kennedy as somewhat awkward and unsure of herself. That is not how I remember it, and I have a copy of the broadcast that shows her being very gracious and dignified.

The depiction of this televised tour is one example of why I have problems with this film. Many of the characterizations don't ring true for me. My memories get in the way. When JFK was killed, I was twelve years old. Like so many in my generation, the events of that terrible week are ingrained forever in my mind and in my heart. John and Jackie have become almost mythical figures to me. No actors, no matter how talented, could ever convincingly portray them and cause me to care and respond as I still do to the authentic news coverage of those days. When it comes to President Kennedy and his First Lady, I have no objectivity. The sum total of what I believe about them, and what I wish to continue to believe, is contained in the reality TV footage from that historical era.

Jacqueline Kennedy was already a celebrity in her own right while she was in the White House, appearing on the covers of magazines, including movie magazines. As the years went on, and she reinvented herself as Jackie Onassis, her fame was stronger than ever. To me, however, she became less important. It was always nice to see pictures of her and hear the latest gossip, but her relevance was minimal. But when she died so unexpectedly at the age of sixty-four, my feelings about her changed. Suddenly, it was as though Jackie O had never existed. The beautiful lady who had passed away was Jacqueline Kennedy. I remembered how important she had been to my country, and I mourned for her. The rush of sadness I felt for losing her surprised and overwhelmed me.

I went to see JACKIE hoping to be moved by the familiar story and the performance of the leading actress, but I was not. Natalie Portman spends much of her time wandering through beautiful rooms, arrayed in gorgeous clothes, a dazed look on her face. The film does have its moments, however. The recreation of the shooting is very well realized. And there is an extended conversation between Jackie and brother-in-law Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), where the two disagree about plans for the funeral, that comes across with excellent effect. 

The film has many good actors. Beth Grant, always a welcome presence in a movie, is perfectly cast as Lady Bird Johnson, but not much is seen of her. John Hurt is very good as a Catholic priest whom Jackie confides in before her husband's funeral. And Billy Crudup makes the most of his screen time as the journalist. Pablo Larrain is also responsible for directing the 2021 film SPENCER, a decidedly bizarre meditation on the life and trials of Princess Diana.

Many people who see JACKIE will no doubt find it poignant and realistic. And most people will love Natalie Portman's work. As for me, I choose to keep my memories as they are. Truth be told, I can't help it.




Monday, May 27, 2024

FILM CLASS OVERVIEW: SILENT FILMS-SESSION ONE Spring 2024

 

My Spring Semester non-credit film class was called Silent Films- Session One, so labeled by our instructor, film critic and scholar Chuck Koplinski. I have to say this was one of the best classes I've taken. It wasn't just for the quality of the films we watched, but the discussions were livelier and more interesting than usual. Even your humble blogger, somewhat shy by nature, felt relaxed enough to participate more and ask questions. Not sure why that would be the case, but I'm not complaining. As usual, Chuck's pre- and post-film presentations were filled with valuable information and visuals. Chuck presented the films in chronological order, from 1916-1929.


1. Our first film was HELL'S HINGES (1916), starring William S. Hart and Clara Williams. This was my first time seeing Hart, one of the biggest stars of the early silent era. He plays Blaze Tracy, a gunman who is considered to be the most dangerous man in a wild, untamed frontier town. When a young minister and his sister come to town to try and establish a church, the local rowdies do everything they can to destroy the man and his plans to bring religion and order into the town. But Blaze finds faith and comes to the aid of the minister while also falling in love with the sister, whose name just happens to be Faith. (!!) There is plenty of action, but the film is also a morality play. The film was surprisingly pristine for its age and quite enjoyable. Hart would continue making movies until 1928 and pass away in 1946.

2. THE FRESHMAN (1925), starring Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston. He plays Harold Lamb, a naive young man entering college. Lamb believes he can make friends and become popular by imitating his movie idol, a character known as The College Hero. Instead of winning friends, his efforts make him the butt of jokes and derision, although the clueless guy isn't aware of it. After a series of mishaps, Lamb somehow manages to become the campus football champion. I must admit I wasn't all that fond of the movie. Lloyd is an energetic and creative actor, but the endless sight gags and slapstick comedy got to be way too much. Still, this was a successful film and is considered a classic. Lloyd had begun making short films in 1913 and started full length features in 1921. Many of his films are lost. He also worked in the sound era, making his last feature, MAD WEDNESDAY, in 1950.


3. FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926), starring John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Lars Hanson and Barbara Kent. Directed by Clarence Brown. Gilbert was the Number One leading man in Hollywood by this time. When his studio, MGM, paired him with the young, mysterious Garbo, in her third American film, the chemistry between the two ignited the screen. The story of a love triangle that shattered the lifelong friendship between two men was pure melodrama. But the sincere, emotional performances of Gilbert, Garbo and Hanson made it work. Miss Garbo and Mr. Gilbert would fall in love during the making of this picture and have a long relationship. They would make three more pictures together, including QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) in the sound era. She would make a total of seven films with director Clarence Brown. I was surprised to learn that a few of my classmates had never seen a Garbo film, and one of them found her to be totally unimpressive. It's hard for me to understand that, as, for me, she is pure magic onscreen.

4. THE UNKNOWN (1927), starring Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry and Joan Crawford. Directed by Tod Browning. This is regarded as a masterpiece of the silent era, and the best of the ten films Chaney and Browning made together. It also features an excellent performance by the young Joan Crawford, making her an important star at MGM. Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless circus performer who uses his feet to throw knives at his partner, Nanon (Crawford). In truth, Alonzo is only pretending to be armless. But he is in love with Nanon, and when he learns she has a deadly fear of men's arms, he has his arms amputated in order to win her love. His actions lead to tragedy. This is an amazingly intense, and rather depressing film. And yet, I found it impossible to look away. Chaney's uncanny ability to transform himself physically in order to inhabit a characterization is on full display here. I've only begun to explore the films of Lon Chaney, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

5. SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927), starring George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor and Margaret Livingston. Directed by F.W. Murnau, a German making his American film debut. This was truly the crown jewel of all the films shown to the class. If I had to choose one film to show to someone who had never experienced a silent picture, this is the one I would pick. The story is a morality play about love, temptation, sin and redemption. O'Brien lives a simple rural life with his faithful wife, Gaynor. But when he falls for the charms of a promiscuous woman from the city (Livingston), he decides to kill his wife and run off with the other woman. But he is unable to go through with it. His wife runs away from him and goes to the city. He follows her, winning her love and trust as they go on an adventure in the city together. This film was one of the first to use a soundtrack with music and effects, but it had no spoken dialogue. In fact, it also had very few dialogue cards. The story was conveyed by the movements and facial expressions of the actors. Murnau brought his method of German expressionism to the film, and the imagery is incredible. Miss Gaynor was the winner of the first Academy Award for Best Actress.

6. IT (1927), starring Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno. This was the film that brought Miss Bow to stardom and gave her the title of The "IT" Girl. The film was written by Elinor Glyn, based on her serialized novella of the same name. At the beginning of the film, "it" is defined the "quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force". In other words, sex appeal. Clara Bow became one of the most popular movie stars in the world after this film became a hit. The story, all about a shop girl who falls for her boss, even though she doesn't fit into his upper-class world, wasn't that original. But Bow was. I'd never seen hir in a silent film, only in one of the few films she made in the early sound era. I was really impressed with her beauty and talent. It's easy to see why the public fell in love with her.

7. SHOW PEOPLE (1928), starring Marion Davies and William Haines. Directed by King Vidor. This was another first for me, as I had never seen Marion Davies in a movie. She was quite enjoyable in this story of a young naive girl, Peggy Pepper, who goes to Hollywood determined to become a movie star. After a series of comical mishaps and misunderstandings, she finds success. This a good example of Hollywood taking a look at itself, and it works beautifully. This is another film that featured a synchronized soundtrack, but no spoken dialogue. The film features cameo appearances by some of the big stars of the day: John Gilbert, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart. Vidor also appears as himself, as does Davies in a scene with her onscreen character, Peggy. Chuck provided some interesting background on Davies' life and career, including her long relationship with the very powerful and very married William Randolph Hearst. Because of the film CITIZEN KANE (1941), which was based on Hearst, the real Davies has been unfairly compared to the tragic Susan Alexander, the no-talent opera singer played by Dorothy Comingore. In truth, Davies was a talented comedienne and a very successful film star well into the sound era.

8. PANDORA'S BOX (1929), starring Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer and Fritz Kortner. Directed by G.W. Pabst. An amazing German classic. American actress Brooks found enduring stardom playing the tragic Lulu in this surprisingly frank adaptation of two plays by Frank Wedekind. Lulu is a dancer, a free spirit, who is seemingly unaware of her sexual power over men and women. Or is she aware? Brooks, like Garbo, has the ability to convey everything with her eyes and her subtle movements. The story takes Lulu from man to man, from a state of high life to the lowest depths of despair, and to a tragic demise. The film was one of the first to show Lesbian attraction and was very sophisticated and adult in every way. Brooks would work for Pabst again that same year in DIARY OF A LOST GIRL, which I actually prefer over PANDORA'S BOX. There was a lot of detailed discussion about the life and career of Louise Brooks, one of the most fascinating true stories of a Hollywood actress reaching the pinnacle of fame and then falling into obscurity. But in the case of Louise Brooks, there was also a stunning rediscovery and a reemergence into the limelight years after her film career had ended. She is a talent worth studying and PANDORA'S BOX is a good starting point.

Chuck's Fall Semester class is going to continue with silent films. I can't wait! Let's get this long, hot Summer over with.



 






Saturday, May 4, 2024

A MAN COULD GET KILLED (1966)

 

This convoluted spoof of the spy movies of the 1960s is a real obscurity. The story, should you choose to try and follow it, involves a search for stolen diamonds in Lisbon and the killing of a government agent. Enter William Beddoes (James Garner), an American banker, who is mistaken for the agent sent to replace the dead one. Beddoes is reluctantly pulled into the world of spy/counter spy along with the dead agent's lover (Melina Mercouri). Also dragged into the confusion are an American smuggler (Tony Franciosa) who gets romantically involved with an American girl (Sandra Dee). Much of the screen time features the four stars engaging in various car chases throughout the Portuguese countryside.

Apparently, there was more excitement behind the camera than in front. James Garner and Tony Franciosa didn't get along and their one screen fight turned into a near brawl. The original director, Cliff Owen, was replaced by Ronald Neame, which made the production go on longer than intended. Sandra Dee was near the end of her career as a star actress at Universal and begged the studio not to make her do the picture. Miss Dee: "So I spent a miserable four months in Lisbon, little fishing villages and Rome, making a picture that should have taken eight weeks. We had two changes of directors, and I ended up playing COME SEPTEMBER, all over again." James Garner called the film "disappointing".


The most memorable thing about the film is the lovely theme music by Bert Kaempfert, which won a Golden Globe for Best Song in a Motion Picture. The theme, originally called Beddy Bye, was later given lyrics and became the hit song Strangers in the Night when recorded by Frank Sinatra.

Tony Franciosa, Sandra Dee and James Garner


Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Notes From The Movie Room 5-1-24

 

🎬 This week I finally ventured into a theater, the first time since July of 2023, to see my first film released in 2024. I was half expecting the walls to cave in as I entered the building. Fortunately, the gods of cinema, whoever and whatever they might be, were looking down on me. The film that brought me to this momentous undertaking was UNSUNG HERO, directed by Richard Ramsey and Joel Smallbone. The story is based on true events in the lives of David and Helen Smallbone, their seven children, and their struggles to survive after emigrating from Australia to America in 1991. David's successful career as a concert promoter focusing on contemporary Christian music had fallen on hard times and he took his family to Nashville to start a new job. Upon arriving in the US, that job offer fell through, and the family, inspired by their faith, worked hard to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. The film is quite inspiring and heartwarming without being overly sentimental.

I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about Christian music, so I wasn't aware that there are some very prominent members of the Smallbone family. Co-director Joel Smallbone, who portrays his father in the film, is partnered with his brother, Luke, in the Christian band For King and Country. And their sister, Rebecca St. James, is also a successful singer and songwriter. Rebecca's start in show business is an important plot point in the film.

It was nice being back in a theater again! Let's hope it won't be another year before I go back. There were very few people there, which helped. No irritating behavior to deal with. Just like home...sort of.



🎬 Once again, I find myself preparing to upgrade a DVD in my collection to a Blu-ray, and this time I anticipate no buyer's remorse. Kino-Lorber has announced the release of three pre-code murder mysteries from the long-running Philo Vance series, based on the novels by S.S. Van Dine. All three films star William Powell. They include: THE CANARY MURDER CASE (1929), THE GREENE MURDER CASE (1929), and THE BENSON MURDER CASE (1930). My main interest is THE CANARY MURDER CASE, as one of the stars is the legendary Louise Brooks. This film played a pivotal role in her career. It was made as a silent film, right at the time when sound was being introduced to movies, so Paramount Studios decided to retool it as a talkie. When Miss Brooks was told to report to the studio to record her dialogue, she refused. While she went on to find great success in European films, Paramount blacklisted her, and she was never able to reestablish her film career in Hollywood. As a huge Brooks fan, I'm looking forward to seeing this movie in Blu-ray glory and hearing the audio commentary. My DVD-R copy is from CryptFlicks, a bootleg seller that many collectors will no doubt be familiar with. It's watchable, but the imagery is less than perfect.

I can't complain about companies like CryptFlicks, as they provide collectors with the chance to see obscure films, some of which never get good commercial releases. I picked up my copy at a film convention several years ago, and conventions are the best places to find these obscure titles. But thanks to Kino-Lorber for once again coming through with another way to make me spend money. I plan to keep the CryptFlicks copy because I love that cover!

Thursday, April 11, 2024

VERONICA LAKE'S SWAN SONG TO THE CINEMA: FLESH FEAST (1970)

 

I remember the first time I saw Veronica Lake.

It was in a 1943 Paramount picture called SO PROUDLY WE HAIL. The story, based on true incidents, was about a group of Army nurses serving the troops in the Philippines during World War 2. Miss Lake was third-billed after Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard. Her character, Olivia Darcy, joined the nurses' team after surviving an attack on a war ship. Olivia was aggressive and unfriendly to the other women. After a violent argument with two of them, Olivia breaks down and confesses to the head nurse, played by Colbert, the reason for her behavior. Her fiancée was killed by the Japanese, and Olivia is determined to kill as many Japs as she can get her hands on. After unburdening herself, she begins to soften towards her fellow nurses and her bitterness begins to fade. 

When the troop of nurses is under attack by Japanese forces and about to be taken prisoner, Olivia valiantly sacrifices herself to save the other women by hiding a hand grenade under her clothes and walking towards the Japanese soldiers while feigning surrender. The explosion gives her colleagues the opportunity to get away. 

This emotional scene is one of the dramatic highlights of the movie and Lake plays it perfectly. But it isn't just her fine acting that makes it memorable; there is also an important change in her physical appearance. Up to this point, Olivia has been wearing her blonde hair in braids that wrap around her head. But when she goes out to entice the Japanese soldiers, she pulls her hair loose and it falls languidly around her face, all the way to her shoulders. And there is a lock of hair nearly covering her right eye. She is a true vision of beauty. I didn't know it at the time, but this actress's hairstyle was already an icon of 1940s cinema. Veronica Lake, as I would soon learn after more afternoons spent watching old movies on the Early Show, was a major Hollywood star by the time she got around to blowing herself up with a hand grenade in 1943. 
 



Lake's star rose high and hot in the early 1940s: I WANTED WINGS (1941), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1942), and two excellent Film Noirs with Alan Ladd, THIS GUN FOR HIRE and THE GLASS KEY, both in 1942, made her one of Paramount's most popular actresses. Lake was very talented, but it was partly her famous hairstyle that made her a sensation with moviegoers. In fact, so many women tried to imitate her peek-a-boo look that it caused a national crisis. There were so many accidents in factories with women getting their hair caught in machinery that the US government asked Miss Lake to start wearing her hair in a safer, tied back manner. This change, and a series of less suitable films as the war years pressed on, caused Lake's star to dim somewhat. However, she eventually reteamed with Alan Ladd for another classic Film Noir, THE BLUE DAHLIA in 1946. By this time, the war was over, and Veronica was once again allowed to unleash her blonde mane to its full effect.


The Hour Before Dawn (1944)



Due to a combination of personal and professional difficulties, and a gradual decline in her popularity, Lake's tenure at Paramount was over by the end of the 1940s. She made two more pictures for other studios and then spent most of the ensuing years working on television and in the theater. Her life after movie stardom is chronicled in Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake, published in 1969, and a tumultuous life it was. Suffice it to say that the personal and professional problems she had during her Hollywood years continued to afflict her. Lake had been largely out of the public eye when she was found working as a waitress in a hotel bar in 1963. The outpouring of support and interest brought a kind of resurgence in her acting career. She made a low-budget Canadian film in 1966 called FOOTSTEPS IN THE SNOW. This film, which also features American actress Meredith MacRae and Canadian actor Paul Kastner (YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW), was never released in the United States. It can be seen on Youtube, in German with no English subtitles. 




In 1970, using the proceeds from her successful autobiography, Veronica Lake co-produced and starred in her last movie, FLESH FEAST, a low-budget horror film directed by Brad F. Grinter for Viking International Pictures. Lake plays Dr. Elaine Frederick, a plastic surgeon with a rather unique method for altering someone's appearance. She uses a breed of flesh-eating maggots to eat away the skin. Yes, I said maggots. The good doctor gets involved with a gang of South American revolutionaries who want her to change the face of their "Commander". It turns out that the Commander is actually the one and only Adolph Hitler, who has been hiding out in South America since WW2. But Dr. Frederick has an agenda of her own. Her mother had been in a German concentration camp and used as a guinea pig in hideous experiments involving maggots. The doctor is determined to avenge her mother by inflicting the same fate on Hitler. When the doctor gets Der Fuehrer strapped down in her laboratory, she covers his face with the maggots, laughing maniacally as he is tortured. As he screams in agony, Dr. Frederick raises her arm in a Nazi salute and says "Heil Hitler!!!"



The plot also involves some investigative reporters infiltrating the operation to find out who the Commander is and what the revolutionaries are planning. And there are some romantic scenes between vapid characters played by equally vapid actors. The working title of the film was TIME IS TERROR, and it was not yet fully edited by the publication of Lake's book. Here's what she had to say about the final stage of her movie career:

"Someday soon, perhaps on your local television station during their daily horror film show, you'll be able to see my two latest films. Fortunately, I did not have to return to Hollywood to make these films. They were produced in Canada and Florida, and, in vogue with today's trend of putting older stars in horror movies, both these efforts are designed to turn your knuckles white, get your heart pounding and cause your girlfriend to cuddle up close in sheer terror. 

The first one was the Canadian epic. It was titled Footsteps in the Snow and deals with dope traffic and ski bums and other goodies. They paid me $10,000 for this, plus expenses. I left immediately after shooting was concluded and still have not seen an edited version. All I know is it was cold in Canada and I was happy to return to Florida.

The other film must rank as one of the great Chinese productions of all time. Its tentative title is Time is Terror.

Making movies, even low-budget ones, is an expensive and demanding chore. You'd better know what you're doing, or your low-budget job will blossom into a bankrupting one. That pretty much is what happened with Time is Terror."

According to Lake, the inept director shot over 130,000 feet of 35MM color film. But since he had failed to take enough master shots, editing the film was a huge problem. The movie was finally released as FLESH FEAST on April 8, 1970, clocking in at 72 minutes.



So, how does the legendary Veronica Lake come across in her final film? I think she is 100% professional in trying to make her character believable. She is clearly the standout element of the entire production, working with unknown actors, some of whom are also doing their best. She is stylish and attractive in many of her early scenes. In the final segment, she plays crazy quite convincingly as she laughs and slings maggots all over the place. She appears to be in control of her acting and even enjoying herself while she's doing it. You might say that she's inflicted a final blow against the villains of WW2. In SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, her character, Olivia, takes on the Japanese. In FLESH FEAST, her Dr. Frederick has defeated the Nazis.


Veronica Lake was living in England when she died on July 7, 1973, at the age of 50. Although her final screen effort was clearly unworthy of her, it takes nothing away from the excellence of her entire filmography. My advice is to check out FLESH FEAST as a curiosity item. Then rewatch THIS GUN FOR HIRE and THE GLASS KEY and immerse yourself in dreams.







This post is part of the 2nd Annual 'Favorite Stars in B Movies' Blogathon sponsored by Brian Shuck of Films From Beyond the Time Barrier. Thanks once again to Brian!!







Notes From the Movie Room: April 2024

 

🎬 A while ago, I was looking up something on my Letterboxd page and I discovered that the last movie I saw in a theater was SOUND OF FREEDOM (2023) on July 6, 2023. It kind of surprised me that it had been that long. Sad to say, but it looks like my movie-going habit isn't going to make a dramatic comeback anytime soon. Even before the Covid lockdown my visits to the local theaters were becoming less frequent. Champaign's beloved independently owned Art Theater closed in October 2019, bringing on a personal existential crisis from which I have yet to emerge. And then the Covid nonsense happened and my life, like everyone else's, changed forever. Of course, my growing lack of interest in new films is a big part of the problem. I'm much happier exploring the cinema of the past.

🎬 Speaking of the past, I've been taking a non-credit film class all about silent movies. The film we watched last week was the Clara Bow classic IT (1927), a film I'd never seen. It was delightful, and also my first exposure to Miss Bow. Before the class started, one of my classmates, John, told the instructor that he hadn't liked any of the five movies that were shown so far. His reason was that he didn't see the point of examining the beginnings of the cinema when so many technical advancements were made in later decades. Now, keep in mind that this is a class for people over the age of 50. John's age is 81. You might assume that people in this age group would have an appreciation for old films. I commented to John that his mindset towards silent films was kind of like the way many young people feel about watching anything in Black & White. This prompted another classmate to say that he enjoys old B & W classics much more when they've been colorized. I was amazed by that comment. Several people in the class, John included, spoke out against the colorizing process. Fascinating discussion. Lesson learned: Never assume anything based on age.

Would IT be better in color? The eternal question.

🎬 There is a very common compulsion among us DVD/Blu-ray collectors known as "double dipping". It means we have a tendency to buy more than one copy of a film or TV show. There are various reasons for this, but most often it means upgrading from DVD to Blu-ray, or more recently, to 4K. Many of us have sworn up and down that we will NEVER develop this rather expensive habit, only to fall prey to temptation. Case in point: I recently went to Wal-Mart and was looking at their display of steel books. I'm not all that fascinated with steel books and only have a few. Most of what was available didn't interest me very much. But then I noticed one featuring the 1954 sci-fi classic THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It was a very cool item. Nice B & W cover art, and both the 3-D and regular viewing options. All for only $27.00. However, since I already have three good DVD copies, including the Universal Legacy collections, I sensibly put the steel book back on the shelf and went on my way. The next day, having decided that I could not live without it, I went back to Wal-Mart and bought the steel book. Buyer's remorse hit me before I made it out to my car. What in the world did I need this for? Oh well, at least it was only (!!) $27.00. I've made worse decisions about money, none of which I will talk about here!

Double (actually quadruple) dipping: the steel book for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.


Saturday, March 9, 2024

THE ENDLESS (2018)

 

I've been obsessed with this film ever since I first saw it at the theater in 2018. After watching it multiple times, I'm convinced there's something, alive, something almost mystical about it. This isn't a feeling I have about many films, even the ones I love and find fascinating enough to rewatch and study. Whenever I watch THE ENDLESS, I get the disturbing feeling that something has changed, that characters are placed differently, or that locations aren't the same as they were in past viewings. Is it possible that the mysterious entity portrayed in the story has seized control of the actual movie? Or am I just losing my mind?

I'll have to watch it again, maybe ten or twenty times, before I decide.

Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead star as brothers Justin and Aaron Smith. The two men were raised in a commune called Camp Arcadia, which is located in a remote wooded area in California. The commune members support themselves by making and selling beer. When Justin was a teenager, he escaped from the commune, taking his younger brother with him. He believed the commune was actually a UFO death cult and told that to the press when he escaped. Aaron, however, remembers the commune as a beautiful place with good, fresh food and people who cared about him. Ten years after leaving the commune, both young men still struggle in trying to live a "normal" life. They have trouble making friends and meeting women. Both of them are in counseling for cult deprogramming. Aaron resents the control his older brother has over his life and wishes they had never left the commune.

A video cassette tape arrives in the mail with a mysterious message. A woman from the commune appears to be saying farewell and that she and the other members are looking forward to their "ascension". Justin believes they're finally going to commit suicide. Aaron tells his brother that he wants to go back for just one night to gain closure. Justin agrees, thinking it might be good for Aaron to see the place for what it really is. Once there, the two men experience strange phenomena as they try to understand the secrets of the commune/cult. For one thing, why do the members look the same age as when the boys left ten years ago? And why are there two moons up in the sky with a third moon slowly appearing? 

To reveal any more details of the story would deprive first time viewers of some incredible surprises. Just forget everything you thought you knew about time, space, eternity, and all of that cool stuff when you sit down to watch THE ENDLESS. For that matter, forget everything you though you knew about how to make a horror film. The directors have created something totally unique: an involving, terrifying film devoid of the violence and bloodletting so common in modern horror movies.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead

THE ENDLESS premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 and was released in the United States a year later. There is so much to praise here, from the believable, natural performances, to the atmospheric locations and cinematography. The special effects are brilliant, but do not overwhelm the human story. The film also makes good use of music. The folk song House of the Rising Sun is interspersed throughout. According to the filmmakers, choosing this song was an economic decision, as it's in the public domain. But the song, performed in an eerie, bluesy style by a female singer, whose identity isn't named in the credits, somehow fits perfectly into the weirdness of the film, even though the lyrics seem unconnected to the plot.


An earlier Benson-Moorehead film, RESOLUTION (2013), a brilliant mind-bender all on its own, features two characters who are involved in the mystery of THE ENDLESS. I highly recommend both of these films. In fact, it might be best to watch them as a double feature, although I can't promise you an obsession-free existence after the fact.

Benson wrote the story and Moorehead was the cinematographer. Music was by Jimmy LaValle. Also starring Callie Hernandez, Lew Temple, Tate Ellington and James Jordan. Other Benson-Moorehead feature films: SPRING (2014), SYNCHRONIC (2019) and SOMETHING IN THE DIRT (2022).