19 May 2019

Retro Sword & Sorcery Fun!

Retro Sword and Sorcery Fun!
by Kristin Battestella

Surprisingly well told tales, scantily clad ladies galore, or terribly juicy shlock – either way these vintage fantasy yarns provide some enchanting entertainment.

Erik the Conqueror – Epic music and coastal waves open this 1961 viking adventure directed by Mario Bava (Black Sunday) and starring Cameron Mitchell (How to Marry a Millionaire). Maps and scrolls hear tell of 786 A.D. Dorset invasions before longboats, bloodthirsty blonde giants, horses, axes, and village fires. Scottish rivals and coups against the British king separate the rescued viking sons, establishing the personal rivalries amid up close action and well choreographed sword fights. Although the long arrows, shields, crossbows, and costuming are probably inaccurate and the English audio and subtitles don't match, this is well filmed for its time and budget with red lighting, fiery forges, and tree motifs making the viking rituals wild and otherworldly. Festive dances to Odin by vestal virgins create pageantry – a touch of magic and fantastics contrasting the regal chorales, reverence, bright tunics, and trumpets of courtly England. The visuals parallel each brother's circumstances twenty years later with grand pink and gold interiors and wide overhead shots of the divine cathedral versus forbidden love and deadly tribunals as the vikings challenge one another in fights to the death to be the king's successor. Though apparent, the pagan and Christian conflicts don't beat the audience over the head, making room for the two fold man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself layers alongside North Sea battles, onboard spies, and betrayals. Who's savage or civilized questions and nature versus nurture debates rise as the unknown to each other brothers switch locales, trade hostages, and swap babes amid seasonal feasts, daring escapes, and twin sisters. Sometimes the misunderstandings are bemusing – people wash ashore in exactly the right place or sail between the coasts with such ease yet the right pair can't quite both be in the right country at the same time. With all the open furs and bare chests, how has no one seen the brothers' matching tattoos? Fortunately, the tale becomes darker, intermixing its distinct worlds with green lit dungeons, spider booby traps, and evil villains making for some serious moments and dramatic twists. Rival rescues, castle raids, and a big battle finale keep what is actually a simple little story entertaining. The lively blend of historical, sword, and sandal does what it says on the tin with an extra touch of Bava panache.

Sorceress Ye olde titles, epic music, torches, horses, and red hoods provide the fantasy atmosphere opening this 1982 romp directed by Jack Hill (Spider Baby) and produced by Roger Corman (House of Usher). Bad acting with clunky deliveries, poor dubbing of the laughable dialogue, and weird fantasy-ish names hamper the sacrifices to the gods, evil warlocks, and mystical old man in white before the usual celestial prophecies and enchanted infants growing up to exact warrior revenge for low budget village massacres and typical, unnecessary violence against women. Fortunately, there's barbarian action, women wearing inexplicable see through armor, and playmate twins Leigh and Lynette Harris skinny dipping before running in slow motion with their heroic theme and bemusing magical blue glow. Sure, they aren't doing a lot of the actual fighting thanks to sped up camerawork and compensating editing – despite the mystical girl power, their male pals come to the rescue, too. Also never mind that the ladies are supposedly disguised as men because clearly they are not, and likewise ignore any of the weak explanations on light versus dark magic, full moon rituals, and ancient temples. At only eighty-two minutes, there's no time to think on these fast moving, derivative quests complete with separation ambushes, evil princesses, fiery trials, and forbidden forests. Most of the precious little money here seems spent on the exotic bazaar with belly dancing, scoundrel princes, gambling, meddling hookers, and brothel brawls. Cruel sword slashes, arrows in the back, creepy red eyes, and horny beastly things stir up the saucy palace intrigue alongside magical green visuals, catacombs coming to life, and bewitching nectars. Twin connections, however, are able to overcome any deceptions or fire in their loins – the prince has the key to her “wonderful secret” but her moaning sister feels all the hot reactions! This could have been something if it had a proper production budget or a polished script, and not, you know, camp villains, monkey suits, or a convenient, borrowed, science fiction movie light show finale. These twin twists have fun with themselves, and if you don't expect anything, you can laugh at this late night, so bad it's good lark.

Split Decision

The Warrior and The Sorceress – Producer Roger Corman strikes again with this short seventy-seven minute 1984 tale starring David Carradine amid interstellar mercenaries, magic swordsmen, and rival clans. The flat print is VHS poor with low volumes contributing to the whispering olde speaketh meets eighties modern and mumbled made up names. The dawdling dialogue doesn't really get the story going, and already the ensemble seems so weary of the script they can't be bothered with the typical, thin premise of tyrants controlling water rights while poor villages suffer. Mountainous wastelands, bewitching babes wearing nothing but ribbons, mystical weapons, and suave hooded cloaks can't compensate for the cheap looking prehistoric walled city. This is taking place on another planet to excuse the abysmal, embarrassing production design, and the sword and sorcery meets Kung Fu knockoff tone makes this tough to watch. Fortunately, some of the aimless fighting can be fun, with Grasshopper chopping off arms and swiftly handling the jerky soldiers before the half naked dancing babes give him a bath at the well. The castle interiors are better, and fire, green lighting, red accents, and evil orgies create more magic atmosphere alongside poisoned supplies, gluttony, and vengeance. However, any kind of social commentary gets lost – most of the story seems to be missing amid muddled action scenes and meaningless mobs. Why is this devil may care warrior telling each side when it's their time to use the well? It's not mysterious if his angry scowling has no motivation; we don't know how this planet got this way or why. Terrible armor, lookalike dirty rag costuming, and crawling men captioned as “fools laughing maniacally” don't tell us much, and it takes half the picture before the too few and far between rescuing babes from dungeons, heroic music, reptiles, monsters, and a killer four breasted woman. Although this is disappointingly slow, dry, and lacking in personality, it could be a doze worthy midnight yarn if you like the campy and nonsensical.

16 May 2019

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte a Delicious Gothic Treat
by Kristin Battestella

Director and producer Richard Aldrich capitalized on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with the chilling but no less sophisticated Southern Gothic examination of murder, gossip, and madness in 1964's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

After Charlotte Hollis' (Bette Davis) father Big Sam (Victor Buono) insists she break off her dalliance with the married John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), Charlotte enters the cotillion covered in blood. Decades later, Charlotte remains an infamous murderess and recluse, living alone save for housekeeper Velma Cruther (Agnes Moorehead). The state of Louisiana plans to tear down the crumbling Hollis House to build a bridge, and with Doctor Drew Bayliss' (Joseph Cotten) help, cousin Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland) returns to convince Charlotte she must leave. Unfortunately, ghostly violence terrorizes the women, blurring past crimes, contemporary suspicions, and deadly delusions.

Happening jazz, dancing, and 1927 good times hide the illicit schemes, secret elopements, and vicious murder opening Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte. We think we've seen a cold hearted kill thanks to intercut chopping, gruesome slices, and screams, but is this crime all it seems? Wind chimes and silent shocks lead to 1964 cemeteries and youthful rhymes detailing the chop chop legend of headless lovers as boys sneak in the desolate ballroom ruined by passion, scandal, and insanity. Construction vehicles rumble nearby, yet there's a certain gentility to the venomous shouts. Everyone says miss or sir, using full names and regional colloquialisms despite the ten day eviction notice, paranoid conspiracies, suspicious old enemies, and secrets coming back to haunt one and all. Talk of an innocent teen girl having a dirty affair with a married man and calling each other bitches was shocking dialogue at the time, but there are also regrets, tears, and wishful thinking of an inheritance that should have been well spent instead of wasted on the lonely, dilapidated decades. The dramatically paced conversations are layered with talk of the past, current states of mind, double entendres, and shade – creating zingers and story telling comforts before wardrobes that open by themselves, slashed clothing, crank letters, and unforgiving threats quicken the pulse. Creaking doors, cleavers, and severed limbs scare the women – our eponymous character may be a little mad, but others are experiencing the frights, too. Crimes of Passion magazine reporters are excited that now in the sixties they can play up the murder's sex angle, and there's no one to trust amid phantom figures strolling the grounds and ghostly harpsichord playing. Storms, lightning, and winds blowing across the balcony lead to breaking windows and shattered mirrors. Today we have crazy versus ghost horrors, but they are often teen light rather than sophisticated dramas with performances free to carry the murderous motives behind the frights. Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte provides superb scenes with heavyweight talent, and revelations in the final act place the viewer within the footsteps, physical bouts, and shocking violence. The southern gentility degrades into cruel intensity as the sense of dread escalates without any need for in your face jump scares. Deaths we've seen happen are said to have happened entirely differently, and the women do what has to be done thanks to the men's messes – be he builder, destroyer, father, doctor, or lover. Beckoning echoes and tormenting serenades are twisted, sad, and delicious all at once thanks to eerie masks, gunshots, headless suitors, and nightmares. Delusions revisit the original crime while chilling visuals, bitch slaps, and dead bodies rolled up in the carpet contribute to the hysteria. These dames won't suffer for the lies, blackmail, and cruelty anymore, but the can't take it with you and what was it all for pain serves up a few more frights before the madness is all said and done.

Is Bette Davis' (All About Eve) Charlotte a crazy killer, abused, or just misunderstood? She's mad one minute pushing planters off the balcony at construction workers but demure in white, crying, and heartbroken the next. Charlotte's an unreliable old woman dealing with trespassers and losing her home. She doesn't need sympathy or company, just help in saving Hollis House. At times she is very sharp, but she's also caught in the moment of her lover's murder, dressed up and waiting for a dead beau. She knows the townsfolk think she got away with murder, however the audience likes her moxie. We're on her side when the sheriff insists she only acts loony because it's what's expected of her, and we pity Charlotte's sobbing sing a longs to their song. She wakes up in the night, for her fantasies are only real in the dark – Charlotte used to be positive she wasn't crazy, but now she isn't so sure thanks to ghostly visions, medication, and nightly damaged she swears she didn't do. Mad murderess or not, she is certainly scared, and the family pride, fatal disgrace, gossip, and the irony of letting go make for a sad vindication. Olivia de Havilland's (The Heiress) cousin Miriam Deering tries to make it easier for Charlotte to leave, reminiscing and sharing fond memories of sliding down the banister. She makes Charlotte laugh, telling her not to pay any attention to trash rags, old rivals, or nasty letters but come back to reality. Unfortunately, Miriam can't stop the state's eviction, and she's always looking out for herself first. Charlotte says her public relations job “sounds dirty,” and past tattle tales on who was the poor relation or favored daughter make Miriam wish she had never come back. Nonetheless, she increasingly takes over the household, packing and making Charlotte say goodbye to Hollis House whether she is ready or not.

According to Joseph Cotten's (Duel in the Sun) Dr. Drew Bayliss, Charlotte has nothing more than a persecution complex. He insists the state's condemned order is solely about the bridge construction and not Charlotte's infamy – although he has looked into committing her but doesn't have enough evidence. Drew calls himself an old man who missed out, regretting choosing his career and breaking off his past romance with Miriam. She, however, insists he's too quick with his compliments and intentions. He flirts with her as he did in their youth, preying upon her even as he wants to protect her – giving her a handgun in case there are any more trespassers. Unfortunately, only more memories of the past come back, and Drew wonders if Charlotte isn't creating her own company and reliving her debutante days with newly fixed delusions. Surprisingly, only Agnes Moorehead (The Bat) as loyal housekeeper and sassy defender Velma Cruther received hardware for her performance in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte – a shiny Best supporting Actress Golden Globe contrasting her crusty, cranky self. Velma dislikes Miriam, mocking her before sulking behind a column and muttering comebacks between her chores. Although initially humorous, Velma isn't stupid. She tries phoning for help and confronts Miriam outright when told she's being dismissed with the month's wages. Velma only takes her orders from Charlotte, and the imminent tearing down of Hollis House does not mean she won't be needed when the manor's gone. Velma sees through Miriam's high and mighty behavior in several taut confrontations that become scrumptiously physical. Certainly there are a few superfluous characters – utility players dispensing exposition yet detracting from the taught hysteria, but Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) makes the most of her brief time as Jewel Mayhew, the widow of Charlotte's mutilated lover. Although Charlotte suspects Jewel is out to get her, she's not afraid to tell Miriam and her vicious tongue off in public. Jewel is gravely ill and ready for the truth to be heard. Victor Buono (King Tut in Batman, people!) mostly appears in the prologue as Charlotte's stern father Big Sam, but his threatening presence lingers throughout the film. He disapproves of some lothario like the married Bruce Dern (The 'burbs) intending to elope with Charlotte and ruin the family legacy he has rebuilt – and his orchestrations ironically cause exactly what he was trying to prevent in memorializing the Hollis name. Unfortunately, George Kennedy (Earthquake) appears too briefly as the foreman ready to bulldoze the manor standing in the way of his bridge project. He's tried being kind to Charlotte and objects to her shooting at his crew. It might have been interesting to have seen him appear more as a physical reminder of the ten day requisitions countdown, for at times the need to vacate for the tear down is almost forgotten in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte's crazy horrors.

Art Direction, Cinematography, and Editing nominations abound for Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte thanks to excellent gray scale schemes, symbolic shadows, scary silhouettes, and askew camera angles that remain sharp on 4K screens. Overhead visuals peer into the scene with our point of view in tight for the harsh, angry faces or panning wide to capture the empty, stage-like mansion interiors. Choice zooms, distorted up shots, and foreboding down angles accent the spinning ceiling fans – we feel the congested southern heat despite breezy lace curtains, open windows, wispy willows, and dangling moss. Trees and balconies are high, but Hollis House is dimly lit with few candles at the dinner table and dark strolls on the veranda leaving room for those disturbing severed heads, phantom hands, and great horror effects. The expansive locales mean every scene takes its time, laid back with people made small in the Louisiana inside out lifestyle. There's no rush to walk down the long corridors as mishaps belie the grand staircase and grandfather clocks tick tock. Barking dogs and silent pauses add to the atmosphere alongside the nominated Score with its angry crescendos, sad melodies, and bittersweet lyrics. Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte has ye olde big newspapers with thick headlines, flashbulb cameras, and $2.50 for a cab drive after which he's told to keep the change! There's a firmly sixties mood thanks to the big cruising cars, hats, gloves, white suits, and cigarettes – however the grandeur is also trapped in time with tall columns, wallpaper, tea in the garden, chandeliers, telegrams, leather libraries, and looming large family portraits. And bench car seats mean we see some good old fashioned slide across!

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte has always seemed a little less beloved than it's exceptional predecessor Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and video options remain slightly elusive thanks to unavailability on Netlix and a limited edition blu-ray. Some audiences may find the psycho biddy style too camp – at times there's certainly over the top inducing laughter to the scary. At two hours and fifteen minutes, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte may also be too long and not all out horror enough for viewers accustomed to contemporary, formulaic slashers. For others there may not be full rewatch value once one knows how it ends, but Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is worth repeat viewings for all the graceful clues and nuances amid the Southern Gothic terror – remaining a gripping, can't look away master class of chilling moments and staple performances.

09 May 2019

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 2

The Delights Continue in The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season Two 

by Kristin Battestella

WJM-TV associate producer Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) continues to balance the single Minneapolis scene with best friend Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) as well as the bustling workplace with anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), news writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), and boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) in the 1971-72 sophomore season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Once again, the series hits the ground running with endearing character breakouts joining several topical episodes pushing the envelope of what television then dared to present. “He's No Heavy...He's My Brother” is a shrewd two-hander addressing xenophobia and cultural stereotypes with laughter as Mary and Rhoda grow suspicious of the package a friendly Mexican waiter asks them to take home after he gets them a vacation deal away from frigid Minnesota. Needing a birth certificate to travel, long distance calls, decoy phone numbers, and complaining memos make for great jokes thanks to shrewd comedic timing and visual gags to match. Negotiations, scab talk, weather jokes, and laugh out loud zingers earn The Mary Tyler Moore Show an Best Direction Emmy for “Thoroughly Unmilitant Mary” when a writers union strike forces management to cross the picket line. No pension or insurance and a pay cut is indeed a stinky deal, and others walkout in solidarity. This could be a long fight when there are bills to pay, but the workplace chaos, laughter, clamminess, and tears tell a serious, still relatable story. Reasonable adults also drive themselves crazy over bad luck fears and hope for financial reward in “Don't Break the Chain” – making copies, hording stamps, and fighting over address lists with workplace peer pressure and guests from last season. Millennials may not understand the premise here, but we tag fifty people on a cutesy social media post and pass it on don't we? Can sentimental, homey, lived in, messy, and gray become nouveau, light, and airy? Rhoda stretches her far out design ideas when cheap, reluctant to change Lou wants his living room painted as a surprise for empty nester Mrs. Grant in “The Square-Shaped Room.” Exceptional performances and décor revelations accent this multi-layered episode alongside work conversations, home mishaps, and generational clashes. Mary would also like to do more – civic duties instead of just socializing to meet men – for “The Five-Minute Dress.” Unfortunately, the Women for Better Government's meeting on recycling leads to a date with a very busy city official who keeps canceling on her. All the awkwardness happens via one-sided phone calls and angry messages from our unseen, unnamed suitor, reiterating how on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an all dressed up and nowhere to go career woman isn't going to waste time waiting on a man who won't make her a priority. Of course, Ted thinks it's going to be nothing but carpools and girls to iron his shirts in “More Than Neighbors” when he considers moving into a vacancy below Mary. In its debut, The Mary Tyler Moore Show firmly separated the familiar home and bungling workplace comedy, but here they completely collide when Ted wants Mary to answer at home calls with “Mr. Baxter's residence.” Sophisticated Mary Frann (Newhart) befriends Mary after rear ending her in “Some of My Best Friends Are Rhoda,” and she promises Mary the $110 check for damages amid fancy activities and tennis at the social club. Rhoda, however, is excluded until Mary realizes the antisemitic truth and sticks it to her new friend in another progressive but tender and intelligent turn.

"Didn't You Used to Be... Wait... Don't Tell Me” is one of the few less than stellar episodes for Year Two of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with a 1959 Leif Erickson High School reunion that revisits one of the weaker episodes from Season One. The Viking Voice Alumni magazine lists Mary as a single career gal, and then Mr. Valerie Harper Richard Schaal is ready and waiting as the obsessed Howard Arnell – rehashing the same old questions on why Mary is cute but unmarried in unnecessary going home plots. It's not a terrible episode thanks to some fun winks including guest star Jack Riley (The Bob Newhart Show), however the embarrassing proposals get old when The Mary Tyler Moore Show never needs to go back to the “It's still Richards, isn't it?” snide. Likewise not the worst but just annoying is “Feeb.” When Mary inadvertently gets an incompetent waitress fired, she feels guilty and hires her at WJM. Unfortunately, the eponymous lady really isn't qualified in typing or shorthand – adding to Mary's clerical duties rather than alleviating them. Perhaps this is just too realistic a situation to be funny, as Mary thinks it is her obligation to be nice to someone who doesn't deserve it and gets walked all over as a result. It's odd to see our strong, independent woman guilt tripped into more mistakes, and all the men in the newsroom think the negativity between the women is just catty jealousy. Besides, this exact plot was done much better in the First Season with Phyllis' office incompetence. Although we won't be seeing The Happy Homemaker just yet, a different chef at WJM is mentioned in between the once again under utilized appearances of John Amos as weatherman Gordy. He answers the phone for Mary when she's getting obscene phone calls after a sex documentary, stands up for her during the union strike, and does the program logs when she's late even though he can't type and doesn't know how to do them. Gordy contests Ted with a quip or two, but he deserved much more than another meager four episodes to predict fair weather when it ends up snowing. Although backdoor pilots such as the “His Two Right Arms” finale were not unheard of then, it's incredibly weird to tune in for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and meet bungling councilman Bob Daily and his eponymous campaign gals. His Pete Peterson can't handle the tough questions when Mary needs a guest for WJM's political talk show, but can his hip crew prepare him in time? Viewers are supposed to love these girls instantly, but seeding them into the season earlier – even starting the year with this episode – would have helped tremendously. If Gordy's potential was not going to be used, then let's see the progressive African American family herein led by Mrs. Jefferson herself Isabel Sanford addressing the seventies civics. Who's the more incompetent scenes between Daily and Ted Knight could have been fun, too, for Peterson doesn't want to be briefed on air – he wants people to know he doesn't have any answers. Ted also runs for office in Season Four of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, making this idea somewhat unnecessary now. Of course, having Daily here means we wouldn't have had him on The Bob Newhart Show. So really it all works out in the end, especially since The Mary Tyler Moore Show would ultimately have count 'em three spin-off successes.

Mary Richards may wear flannel pajamas, embroider, call her parents on the phone, and not love Paul Newman o_O, but she goes ice skating to do all that “Peggy Fleming” stuff and gains not one, but two suitors when sending out a chain letter. Her unwilling to commit doctor fiance premise seems forgotten now, but Mary left the University of Minnesota after two years and stinks at tennis thanks to her out of date wooden racket. Rather than television perfection – save for her saucy exercise tights and seventies size seven – Moore keeps Mary endearing because she is a good person trying to do right in her little world. She doesn't think it's ethical to call in sick on a Friday when you aren't and remains too polite to get rid of someone. Mary thinks her apartment is a mess when it is completely neat, and her biggest fear in living alone is that one day there will be no one to help her when her back zipper gets stuck. Of course, Mary knows Mr. Grant doesn't like people in his office, yet she's always inviting people in there to confab. After she blunders a late breaking bulletin in “Room 223,” Mary is unhappy at being an average professional and wonders what she really does as an associate producer, so she takes a night school writing class to become better at her job. Naturally the professor is smitten, making Mary question whether she gets by on ability or personality as business mixes with pleasure and she gets a C. This charming relationship will be revisited in Seasons Three and Six, and although it's too soon to give her a regular beau, The Mary Tyler Moore Show keeps trying with a slightly older divorced architect in “You Certainly Are a Big Boy.” Mary is surprised he has a younger son that's closer to her in age – his twenty-five to her “over thirty” – and she dislikes the fast pace with no real time to talk, not to mention the idea of being a step-mother with a son old enough to make her a grandmother. Likewise, Ed Asner's western watching and grumpy as ever news director Lou Grant is told to smile and be natural but he says you can't have him both ways. He enjoys taking his sarcastic frustrations out on Ted, lulling his staff into a sense of understanding before turning deliciously viscous. Lou would love to have a news helicopter but when he's forced to go on the air, he's terrible unless he's drunk. He acquiesces to baking cookies if he can have them with scotch and has been working on a novel for five years – on and off between steaks and martinis. He's proud to be a newsman because real newsmen don't need coffee breaks, but he places himself in the middle when setting up Mary with his poker friend in “I Am Curious Cooper.” He knows his two favorite, attractive, successful friends will hit it off, however the only thing they have in common is Mr. Grant. Asner plays both sides wonderfully before earning his Emmy win with “The Six-and-a-Half-Year Itch.” I'd like to think the John Wayne flick he goes to see is Big Jake, but he catches his son-in-law at the movies with another woman, leading to awkwardness, hidden rage, not so hidden rage, and acting like nothing happened on the phone with Mrs. Grant. Lou says he hasn't been this mad since he let it all out in 1944 and captured a town in Germany, and fear of his wrath is enough to keep his son-in-law zipped. The Mary Tyler Moore Show shrewdly addresses infidelity without ruining any of the main characters or even saying it in so many words thanks to cleared throats and exclamations that somehow remain so innocent compared to today's sex everywhere culture.

Fellow Emmy winner Valerie Harper is as sarcastic as ever as Rhoda Morgenstern – who came to cold Minnesota to keep better amid winter vacations with less competition for her sweatsuit bathing suit. Despite Harper's beauty and style, Rhoda says the bad side of her face is the front, always joking about being fat or ugly and ending her diet with cake. Watching a documentary on swinging singles alone is depressing to her, but Nancy Walker's Ida Morgenstern flies in for “A Girl's Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” just to hook up slim, unmarried Mary with a perfect, not Jewish man. She's shocked to hear Rhoda has dated gentiles, but Ida tries being hip in a pink pant suit, no bra, and matching mother/daughter dresses. She drinks super sweet Jewish wine, too, so she can be “with it” in this delightful generational clash with uproarious results. Rhoda, however, gets caught up on the soap operas after getting fired in “...Is a Friend in Need.” Mary feels guilty about hiding an opening at WJM from Rhoda, and the workplace and friendship collide on The Mary Tyler Moore Show with a giant hair dryer finale. Our lovable ladies are at each other's throats again after a small fire makes them roommates for “Where There's Smoke, There's Rhoda.” None of Mary's clothes fit Rhoda, she laughs under the covers watching W.C. Fields, and dirties the kitchen but won't do the dishes. Rhoda just can't handle all Mary's good morning sunshine, but she takes Phyllis up on her phony move in offer just for the torment. Billed as a Special Guest Cloris Leachman's Phyllis Lindstrom keeps a college catalog in her purse because you never know when one might feel inadequate or need to better herself. She goes to a PTA presentation of Hair with all the clothes on when not boasting about her unseen husband Lars or listening in on the landline extension. Phyllis inadvertently reveals she is the lax landlord and may be self-centered, but she wants to be an open and honest parent to Lisa Gerritsen's Bess, letting her watch WJM's controversial sexual I.Q. Documentary in the “The Birds...and...um...Bees” premiere. Phyllis wants Mary to give her daughter the titular talk, but all the adults are too uncomfortable to say the word “sex” in a wonderfully tasteful reflection of television itself maturing into adolescence. Twenty years prior, Lucy had to be “expecting” but now our single unmarried thirty-something can talk freely about sex versus love and Bess is totally cool with it. When crusty backup babysitter Lou Grant is called in for “Baby Sit-Com,” he says Bess can do whatever she wants but play with matches. He's a father of three grown daughters, but entertaining a hip eighth grader leads to zany kitchen antics and poker for cookies. When Bess writes a report about her parents in “The Care and Feeding of Parents,” Phyllis thinks it can be expanded into a book and be published – ignored how the point of the piece was how children have it tough with such groovy parents. Disinterested Bess, however, wants to do what will make Phyllis happy, because her mother is a resilient, intelligent, creative woman that got stuck being a humdrum housewife.

Ted Knight's vain Ted Baxter carries glossy photos of himself and an autograph stamp, but sending his perfect head shot to the five people in his fan club might intimidate them. Cheap Ted buys “imported” beer from Los Angeles and tries having all his purchases written off on his expense report – stomach aides and shoe shines included. He has vintage fake pictures of himself with famous people, and while Ted may do a volunteer ventriloquist act to entertain local troops, he sings at the piano bar like it's karaoke and takes change from his tip. Ted adds complex numbers if it involves money but can't do basic math. He hires a second year law student for two dollars an hour with two cents a mile, and his accountant goes to “Wilson High.” When Ted's similarly silver haired and sport coat wearing brother commercial actor Hal Baxter visits in “Cover Boy” he thinks what Ted does in this little studio is quaint for a man his age. Ted has Mary pretend to be his girl as the topper, but the brothers' competition escalates with arm wrestling, visual blunders, and heaps of luxury restaurant faux pas. Ted's also deliberately not gone on vacation over fears a competent substitute would replace him in “And Now, Sitting in for Ted Baxter.” Why is Ted kept on when he is so bad? Because no one wants to hurt his feelings – especially after his card saying “terrifico in Acapulo” is postmarked Minneapolis. It's awkwardly endearing, too, when Ted's romancing Betty Bowerchuck, the sweet daughter of Chuckles the Clown in “Ted Over Heels.” He wears a fake mustache until the real one grows in and steals the roses from Mary's desk, but underneath his peacock fronting, Ted's really fearful of any rejection or embarrassment – and nobody wants to tell him they really don't like his mustache! Murray Slaughter admits he feels bad when his anchorman foil might get fired, but Gavin MacLeod's news writer keeps a fake bag lunch in his desk drawer for when Ted asks him out to dinner. Murray feels more like a comedy writer in writing the news for Ted, and although he enjoys getting paid, he doesn't really enjoy writing it. Initially Murray doesn't have much to do beyond his seated zingers – ad libbing as needed great rifts though they are, but Murray's making writing mistakes and yawning over his typewriter in the late season spotlight “The Slaughter Affair.” It's his tenth wedding anniversary, and he wants to get his wife Joyce Bulifant the car they couldn't afford in 1963. Unfortunately, Murray lies that he's teaching news writing at night school when he's really moonlighting as a cab driver. When he's robbed and late at the police station, Marie thinks he's having an affair with Mary. Though clumsy when there were better ways to feature Murray, a writer needing a second job to make means remains a realistic story. The balding Murray, however, would give up all his activities if it took him an entire night to wash his hair.

Thanks to directors Jay Sandrich and Peter Baldwin as well as regular writers including Treva Silverman, Susan Silver, Martin Cohan, David Davis, and Lorenzo Music; The Mary Tyler Moore Show creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks keep the twenty four episode season uniform. Of course, the Second Season credits are updated with new at home and work scenes replacing Mary's big city move, and the “Love is All Around” lyrics are redone into the now more familiar anthem with a softer, mellow exit instrumental for a comforting, simpler time. Did you ever think we'd refer to 1972 coughwatergatecough as a simpler time? How much would a then $8 bottle of wine, $42 gourmet meal, and $28.50 for the plumber cost now? The door to door salesman doesn't know his product's price outright in cash because they make their profit via interest and penalties, and if you rush that typewriter bell, you must make your corrections with a pencil and eraser. Of course, let's not forget that tiny, primitive, portable television right next to the primitive, unmovable, behemoth VCR. While there aren't too many dated cultural references on Mary Tyler Moore, the younger generation won't understand the clip on the receiver to rest the phone on your shoulder nor how Lou wishes he could put Ted on the air after the Star Spangled Banner. Us oldsters will recognize those vintage cups and corning ware sets, but some of the seventies tall boots, empire dresses, chokers, waist cinchers, ruffles, and scarves are back in vogue. The skirts are still short to start the season but give way to longer, colorful suit sets and wider, flared jeans with groovy patches to match blazers with the suede elbows and wild ties. Orange turtlenecks, crocheted pink ponchos, and plaid vests can be a bit much, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show looks crisp and revitalized on the 4K television. In addition to several commentaries, Disc Three on the Season Two DVD set is double sided with unexpected parodies, news report spoofs, karaoke, and trivia as Cloris Leachman, Ed Asner, Betty White, the late Georgia Engel, and more host fun interactive features alongside 1972 Emmy highlights, vintage on location Moore on Sunday behind the scenes, and an hour long “Eight Characters in Search of a Sitcom” retrospective topping off the sentimental good time here.

Season Two of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is easy to marathon thanks to charming nostalgia and groundbreaking storytelling that remains fresh and must see for the whole family.

08 May 2019

Clunky Women's Horror

Clunky Women's Horror
by Kristin Battestella

This trio of recent horror releases puts women at the center of the scares, but the cliches littering the action are what's most frightening!

You Make the Call!

All Light Will End – Thunder, rustic cabins, and a scared little girl in white saying there's a monster in her closet open this 2018 scary before folk songs, creaking doors, and hiding under the sheets with a flashlight to keep the growls at bay. However, rather than building on these chills, the story restarts twenty years later with a fat redneck cop chastising a rookie black cop as they answer a call about a severed forearm. We're told the little girl is the sheriff's daughter before restarting again with her big city rise and shine complete with taking pills while looking in bathroom mirror, edgy ballads, and posters for her titular bestselling debut. Multiple driving montages, radio chatter, cliché talk show interviews, and therapy loose more momentum – arbitrarily going through the motions while giving everything away in the first fifteen minutes. Her medication can cause disassociation or a fugue state mixing dreams with reality, and flashes of previous conversations, nightmares, and suicides provide guilt, blame, and inner demons. Alarms, flashing lights, green hues, and eerie tunnels accent the hospital nightmares, and the best scary moments allow the potential frights behind each door to play out with darkness and screams. Unfortunately, these quality night terror vignettes delay our writer's six hour drive home to face her fears, and it takes more than half the movie for any forward action to happen. We're at the wrong point in the story, and viewers who haven't tuned out will wonder why we're watching now when all the story seems to have happened then. Bungling cops jar against the severed limbs, creepy gas stations, suspected abuse, and campfire tales, but the grieving family moments and women mulling over telling secrets or keeping them and losing your sanity are better than the try hard pals with beer. The blurring of dreams versus reality are intercut well when we finally do get to the cabin, mirroring the mental disassociation with similar nighttime lighting, mind bending jumps, distorted voices, blindfolds, and bloody trails. People are missing, searchers are separated, and woods and whispers blend together. Prior arguments between mother and daughter are revisited with negative portrayals, sacrifices about what it takes to be a writer, and doubts about who wrote what escalating to blackmail and crazed, violent reactions. Although there are some choice twists as well as a reason for the disjointed, non-linear telling, the structural flaws make it tough to enjoy this story. Key points are both obvious thanks to that front loaded information and muddled with unanswered plot holes and abrupt resolutions. The possibilities devolve into hammy actions, unnecessary running at the screen with open mouth screams, and strolling through the woods in bloody lingerie. With four minutes of end credits, this really is an eighty minute movie that should have traded the first half hour for a half hour to resolve everything properly.

Two to Skip

Backcountry – From packing in the parking garage and highway traffic jams to embarrassing sing a longs and a Cosmo quiz for relationship backstory, this 2014 Canadian survival thriller from writer and director Adam MacDonald (Pyewacket) has plenty of cliches for this city couple in the woods. Sunlit smiles, peaceful canoe pretty, and happy hiking montages can't belie the ominous when the audience enters in with full knowledge of the impending horror. At the country rest stop, a ranger warns them of bad weather and closed, out of season trails, however our big man insists he doesn't need medical kits or a map. He ignores minor injuries, mocks his inexperienced girlfriend's preparations, leaves his ax behind, and lights a fire before leaving it to go skinny dipping. Not only do these actions completely contradict everything Survivorman taught us, but these people also don't know they are in a scary movie. A sudden stranger at their campsite creates obvious jealousy and inferiority complexes but weird accents, racist questions, contrived dialogue, and stereotypical characterizations interfere with the attempted tension. Fortunately, askew angles on the trail, going off the path doubts, isolated nature sounds, and lookalike trees invoke better suspense as the camera blurs and pans with confusion or pain thanks to disgusting toe nail gore. Up close views inside the cramped, not so safe tent build fear alongside snapping branches and bear footprints, but of course this guy doesn't believe the supposedly overreacting woman who wants to go home when she hears something amiss. No dumbass, it isn't acorns falling on the outside of the tent, and you should have never taken her phone and left it in the car! It takes a half hour for the innate wilderness horrors to get going, but the suspense is continually interrupted by the obnoxious behavior – wasting water, blaming her for their situation when it is clearly his fault, and her apologizing after confessing he is a loser just trying to impress her. Why couldn't they have gone on an easier hike when she never wanted to go in the first place? Proposal excuses aren't enough when you continually ignore dead carcasses nearby and claim it was just a raccoon that ate your food. Drinking the mini champagne bottles is not going to help their situation! Despite well done heartbeats, ringing in the ears, and tumbling down the ravine camera views, there's simply not enough character development and story here to sustain the wait for the superbly bloody, frenetic bear attacks in the finale. Gore, scares, screams, growls, and maulings fall prey to a just missed 'em helicopter rescue opportunity as our final girl inexplicably becomes an expert runner, rock climber, and field medic before pretty deer and dumb luck save the day. Is this uplifting music and girl power ending just a dream of what she wishes happens because otherwise it is ridiculously unlikely. Where Pyewacket expressly defies the horror tropes checklist, this does nothing but adhere to it – becoming only worth watching if you want to yell at the people or fast forward to see them get what they deserve. ¯\_()_/¯ The bear isn't the villain, human superiority is!

The Disappointments Room – Foreign blonde architect Kate Beckinsale (Underworld) moves into a haunted country fixer upper after a death in the family, and there are many more cliches in this long delayed 2016 psychological tale written by Wentworth Miller (Stoker). After the stormy driving montage complete with a sing a long, an annoying kid, and promises of a fresh start; unnecessarily ominous moving boxes abound alongside on the nose mirrors visualizing the parallel but divided parents looking in opposite directions. Trying to be cool transitions consisting of dream fake outs, bathroom scares, and derivative flashbacks begat scary dogs and suspect stray cats as our Jill of All Trades photographs the damaged greenhouse, overgrown garden, dirty statues, grimy reflecting pool, and rusty iron gate. Instead of creepy atmosphere, however, the locked doors and mysterious attic lights break the point of view – we see a shadowed hand or eyes peering through the keyhole because they are meant to be shocks for the audience rather than something experienced by the protagonists. Likewise, an apparent vision of this tormenting garret doesn't feel like the characters are experiencing it so much as they are spliced into the rapid ye olde scary images. The jerky husband objects to everything his wife says but she conveniently finds the right skeleton key after freaking out over old pictures. It's all supposed to be intense because of knives and a kitchen timer yet she dresses so hip with cool boots and suave hair to renovate a house, as seen by her marking up some blueprints with a red marker and using the correct term for a chifforobe. There's a box marked “historical research” which ultimately has everything they need to know, but how do rich white people in horror movies buy a renovation property without never having surveyed the estate in advance? Typical sleeplessness, mental history, and distorted timing contribute to the increasingly unrealistic as a man's leather library, luxury bedrooms, and a fancy architect office are completed while a giant leak in the roof goes unattended until our Mrs. plays hardball and shares cigarettes with totally random hunky handyman Lucas Till (X-Men: First Class). Despite the library research montage, coincidental but not a coincidence death dates, and an old lady explaining the titular imprisonments, we don't feel any fear because it's never in doubt that the ghost story meets psychological excuse is suspect. Late flashbacks to suicide attempts without the injured character further unravel any kind of mental horror examination, tossing in big city troubles while wasting the supporting cast, and it's likely behind the scenes turmoil and cutting room changes were responsible for the inexplicable. Skeletons, hangings, dinner parties, burning portraits, and ghostly hallucinations that somehow do incredibly physical violence go on and on in a finale that becomes one montage after another. Suspenseful music seemingly builds to something that never happens, and the ghosts as guilt metaphor is nothing but smoke and mirrors before eight and a half minutes of slow scrolling credits.

30 March 2019

The Three Faces of Eve

Performance makes The Three Faces of Eve
by Kristin Battestella

Based upon the book by Doctors Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley, writer and director Nunnally Johnson's (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) black and white 1957 drama The Three Faces of Eve chronicles the case of what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder for Joanne Woodward's demure southern housewife Eve White. Her husband Ralph (David Wayne) can't understand her change in persona when Eve Black goes out partying, but Doctor Luther (Lee J. Cobb) believes he can reunite the dissociated identities.

The Three Faces of Eve opens with an onscreen explanation poorly equating Dissociative Identity Disorder to a thin man inside a fat person and Jekyll metaphors before a somewhat stilted play like staging and voiceovers interrupt the narrative with date, time, and treatment specifics. When the narrator breaks the exposition right down to the minute, The Three Faces of Eve becomes a case study rather than a drama, and revealing the symptoms or telling us when something bad is going to happen undercuts the suspense, intrigue, character sympathy, and viewer immersion. Without the on the nose clinical patronizing, The Three Faces of Eve is much better – headaches, anger, and arguments play out with off camera screams and violence. Conversations between doctor and patient reveal blackouts and hearing voices. Understandably, there's a certain anticipation in seeing the personalities come out, but the first manifestation is a well done, unexpected transition from married meek to flirty and feeling fine. Is this just a discontented housewife lashing out or something more? Both are unacceptable in the fifties, leading to institution stays and winking innuendo with exposed on the bed versus covering up visual suggestions. Although it's annoying when the doctor can call a name back and forth to change her personas like Multiple Personalities are merely some hypnosis party trick, it's also sad an innocent woman can be so prompted. She may seem to be no harm, but a man isn't going to take no for an answer after all these flirtations, and above all, none of these personalities wants to be hurt. Unfortunately, this illness comes between her mind and her family, leading to divorce and a daughter taken away as the case worsens with suicidal risks and a third personality. Not only does The Three Faces of Eve oddly announce a death before it happens, but I also wish the title didn't give away the third manifestation. The dual performance builds enough conflict before the new identity emerges, and the audience already wonders how these ladies can co-exist as our trouble gal struggles with no memory and a late flashback. While the recounting of creepy, dark places and a visual representation of her tormented state of mind are necessary in revealing the what went wrong repression, the sense of imminent internal collapse instead becomes a quick Hollywood ending. Rather than a conclusive healing, the trauma feels lame and the resolution artificial. Fortunately for The Three Faces of Eve, the reason why and the saccharin results aren't as important as the journey of self discovery – no matter now many selves you have. 

Eve White is a meek housewife hesitant about her amnesia spells, and Oscar winner Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel) immediate has us on her side when unexplained clothes, threats against her daughter, and suspicious trips make the soft spoken Mrs. White seem like somebody else. Eve is clearly scared of losing her mind, but Woodward is exceptional at the distinct personality changes – slouching, tossing her hat, and removing itchy stockings as Eve Black. She's no dreary dope like Mrs. White, hates her jerk husband, and says their daughter isn't hers. She turns up the music loud, jiggles her caboose, and says things Eve White never would, like how she married her husband just because she should. We don't hate Eve Black, but are torn with sadness just like the returning wife, who's confused and embarrassed by her alter's wild hair and unbuttoned shirt. While in the institution, she reads poetry – until Ms. Black in her short shorts wants to tell the orderly a few limericks. Living alone for treatment gives her freedom complete with a sassy nightclub performance, sultry singing, and dancing barefoot with soldiers. Ironically, being alone allows Mrs. White to stand up for herself, even if that means she has to choose between her family and her mental health. Today The Three Faces of Eve may seem tame, but that is only because of the acting conventions of the time compared to now when all the wild, bad girl personality would be shown onscreen. In that respect, however, it makes Woodward's performance all the more provocative. We see the manifestations, but they give us room to wonder about the internal workings of her trouble mind and what's going on with each individual. Eve Black says just because we don't see what she does, doesn't mean she doesn't do it. It's a wonderfully delivered line suggesting all the viewer needs to know, but Mrs. White is the one who ends up slapped and left on the motel room floor. The finale here feels like such a letdown because the fifties film restraints don't live up to Woodward's discomfort in the disturbing “Please, I don't want to.” reveal.

Lee J. Cobb's (On the Waterfront) composite Doctor Luther is initially astonished but remains sympathetic of Eve's plight. He cuts away family emotions to find the facts, asking her how she can explain the things Mr. White says she does. Luther seeks the reason and logic behind her fear but gets the pieces of the puzzle from not just one, but all three personalities. His medical partners immediately suspect she is a fake, and the men wonder if her unhappy marriage is merely making her act out and pretend to be someone else. Today we know it is simplistic to dismiss a woman as unfulfilled rather than consider a mental illness, but The Three Faces of Eve presents Doctor Luther as sincere in his reasoning with each personality. He asks Eve Black not to come out and wants to tell Mrs. White what is happening in hopes of reuniting the personas. Luther confers that neither Mrs. White or Eve Black are fit to be a wife and mother – each is fragmented and not a responsible or capable person. Where his colleagues blame the patient, he uses hypnosis to find the root of her manifestations. Luther is perplexed, but genuinely strives to help reveal and heal her terrible childhood experience. Older, frustrated husband David Wayne (How to Marry a Millionaire), however, is a working man who can't understand what's gotten into his wife. He has to come home and get tough on the phone over an expensive bill and threatens to slap his wife when he thinks she is lying. His harsh is understandable for the time – Ralph doesn't have to be likable and doesn't seem very smart but he's a stern family man keeping food on the table who will give his wife a good talking to whether she's delicate or not. We believe him when he threatens Eve for harming their daughter, yet he can't comprehend the doctor's diagnosis. Ralph has to tone down his temper, get a better job, and send Eve money, but it isn't easy for him to accept treatment that separates his family. When Eve Black is out at the clubs and the marriage finally comes to blows, Ralph's more worried about people laughing behind his back or thinking him a fool than what's best for his wife.

The crisp silver screen Cinemascope still looks sharp on a 4K television, and there are some fine fifties trucks, classic cars, vintage telephones, fedoras, and white gloves to see in The Three Faces of Eve. Fashion is simply but expertly used to contrast our competing personalities – sassy pumps, fancy sequins, and black lace slip dresses versus Peter Pan collars and demure cardigans. Leather chairs and bookshelves represent the male doctor's domain while white cabinets and cheery curtains represent the mid century woman's kitchen before the missus' place in the home is upset by swanky nights on the town, rented rooms, and the now single woman in the workplace. Look at that giant switchboard! Of the time seductions, however, remain hot and bothered. There may be separate beds in the motel room, but the man and his wife not wife sit on the same bed as she removes her stockings and convinces him to buy her something prettier than the old red velvet dress she's wearing. Although great swing tunes and singing accent the scandalous behavior, noticeable music crescendos sometimes give away the forthcoming identity switch. The most stunning moments happen when there is no music or dolly and the tears come forth. Some of the Georgia accent permeating The Three Faces of Eve isn't always reflected in the subtitles, either, which may be confusing for viewers not familiar with the diction. Up close shots and cross coverage that doesn't match the wide shots also feel slower, with firmly fifties editing and pace. Fortunately, the camera is used to great effect with intense zooms and tight two shots as the patient confides her fears. Mirrors and reflections parallel personality transitions, and the visual scale effects in the finale set off the dark place and trouble state of mind.

The Three Faces of Eve is dated in its fifties framework. The mix of case study and then sensational makes numerous mistakes about this misunderstood condition, and the real life liberties will have interested audiences seeking out Christine Sizemore's original case and her subsequent reading materials. Thanks to the disjointed narrations and loosely strung together vignettes, one almost wishes there was a re-cut of The Three Faces of Eve, for the story deserved better writing and direction not some kind of textbook format. Thankfully, Woodward's performance anchors the drama by making viewers compassionate about not one or two but three characters in conflict. These distinct personalities are all clearly broken, and Woodward keeps the suffering of each person no matter how many at the forefront. The Three Faces of Eve is always worth revisiting for a then versus now context thanks to her fine portrayal.