27 February 2020

Death Becomes Her

Deliciously Dark Death Becomes Her gets Better with Age
by Kristin Battestella


Writer Helen Sharp's (Goldie Hawn) plastic surgeon fiance Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) thinks Helen's childhood friend Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is an amazing starlet. Madeline has stolen Helen's beaus previously and does so again, but fourteen years later, Helen achieves her revenge by looking stunning and wooing Ernest into her killer plans. Madeline will do whatever she can to compete – including visiting the mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini) for a youthful elixir. Unfortunately, the costly potion leads to bodily disasters if you don't take care of your beauty, and unlike these desperate ladies trying to stay forever young, the 1992 dark comedy Death Becomes Her only gets better with age.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and writers Martin Donovan (Apartment Zero) and David Koepp (War of the Worlds) open the surprisingly PG-13 Death Becomes Her with 1978 not so well received ritzy as Playbills are tossed aside and stage glory turns sour thanks to show within in a show awkward performances, bad choreography, caricatures on youth, and phony songs about you. Flirtatious winks, polite shade, through the teeth comebacks, and backhanded compliments are played straight as your frienemy steals your man, and Death Becomes Her wastes no time with back stabbing wedding bells and revenge decades in the planning leading to book party invitations and who's looking swell versus who's looking worse for the wear changes. The man looming above the frame is reflected in the mirror behind the woman – reverse revealing the personal disconnect as each says things they don't mean alongside more symbolism and aggressive gestures. Hellish characters and murderous plans are both deliberate and measured yet flippant and off the cuff as our plastic surgeon is dismissed as a ghoul for not healing but indulging vanity even in death. More quirky visuals layer the Hollywood commentary – what's with that guy upside on the wheel at the spa? – and reflective camera shots create viewer double take. What if we did look twice and really paid attention beyond face value then what would we see? Death Becomes Her winks at the secret opportunities available to the elite behind closed doors amid insular they know that we know that they know that we know flattery. Confidence only comes with beauty, and the camera's distorted angles and askew perceptions reiterate this frame of mind as wide shots have the face in the center but the subject at hand in the background. With such in camera staging, one need not resort to fast paced editing later to compensate and piece together wit or tension because the bags full of makeup, screams over seeing oneself in the mirror without said makeup, and fake tears sprayed in the eyes while practicing crocodile speeches – in the mirror framed by defaced pictures of her obsession – speak for themselves. One woman equals sex while another demeans flaccid, and cuckold phrases reiterate the servile men and obedient dogs as demented one liners, frantic questions, and disturbing calm lead to top of the stairs teetering and the not so dead rising behind one's back. Formaldehyde is bought in bulk on top of jokes on doing something “funny” with a dead wife and “It's alive” homages. Eternal youth potions await in a scary, humbling castle where newcomers tip toe so their heels don't echo on the floor before sampling this hush-hush, ageless elixir to prove its price. Snake charmers admit the forever young will look suspicious if they don't disappear, and Death Becomes Her is likewise self-aware of how lacking in self-awareness its desperate characters are when not heeding knives or warnings to preserve the facade. Women who for decades purposely inflict pain without actually harming each other let all the violence out and apologize – tag teaming the man they were fighting over because they need him to maintain their seemingly miraculous vitality forever. Twisted dream sequences, wide lenses, and zooms accentuate the preposterously clever scheme of tranquilizers on the wine glass and finishing dinner before planting the body in a car going off Mulholland Drive as quips about divorce in California, never seeing a neighbor in Los Angeles, and those with no talent for poverty orchestrating murder escalate the satire with handy hardware, bloody bodies in the lily pond, and a hole in the stomach big enough to right see through you.

Everything has to be taut and perfect for Madeline Ashton, and only Meryl Streep (She-Devil) can play a bad actress obsessed with wrinkles without winking and scene chewing for the camera. Madeline strikes the right pose, plumps the bosom, and remains pampered even if she hasn't worked in sometime and is no longer the breadwinner. In order to hide her impoverished past, she must show up Helen at all times and mere make up won't do. Despite her fame and wealth, Madeline's ugliness shows in her mistreatment of the maid or any pretty supple ingenue. When rejected by her younger lover for not considering how he feels, she blames him for making her feel cheap. Even if the spa refuses to do a traumatic plasma treatment, Madeline demands the procedure money is no object because she fears younger women must be laughing at her. She's shocked at Helen's transformation and makes excuses about feeling terrible at having happiness at Helen's expense, but Madeline doesn't feel that terrible and she's not really happy. Fortunately, her shady zingers return with her beauty, but Madeline says what she shouldn't, leading to scary body bags and uncomfortable realizations – although she enjoys having no pulse because nobody can play dead better than she can. Goldie Hawn's (Overboard) Helen is initially a shy and quiet writer compared to her old school rival Madeline, dowdy and twisting her handkerchief rather than expressing her anger. She warns Ernest that Madeline only wants him because she has him. Madeline has stolen men from Helen before and she wants Ernest to pass her Madeline Ashton test, but when he does not, Helen becomes a gluttonous cat lady obsessed with rewinding Madeline's onscreen strangulation. Upon eviction she ruins her therapy group by talking about Madeline before overcoming her outlook by vowing revenge and looking dynamite while doing it. Literary success follows, and Helen lies to Madeline's face about never blaming her, kissing her cheek as she pits Madeline and Ernest against each other. Now a vivacious vixen, Helen claims sisterhood while plotting with her man – embodying the shade, deception, and fierce competition of the woman scorned even if she doesn't really want Ernest anymore. She just wants to take him from Madeline and use him for her fatal revenge, and both ladies willingly become a Hollywood type of vampire, consuming the essence of a man for their own youthful survival. What does their undead beauty contest get them? Each other, stuck forever in an “I paint your ass, you paint mine” begrudging.

Ernest Menville was once a famous plastic surgeon, but now Bruce Willis' (Color of Night) doctor is a postmortem fixer for the Hollywood dead between breakfast bloody marys. Life with Madeline hasn't worked out, and she's reviled by his bottom feeder, drinking himself to death existence. When complimented for his mortuary work, Ernest admits the secret weapon for coloring dead skin is spray paint, but he knows it isn't real work and would sell his soul to really operate again. He argues with Madeline about who ruined whom and won't take jokes about his clients being stiffer. Though unhappy, wishing to divorce, and easily swept up when Helen comes on to him with sexy words, Ernest is reluctant to go along with her plans, for he takes the change in Madeline's temperature, pulse, and hair – because that's what men notice – as a miracle. Ernest gains confidence despite his fear over what he has done, wanting to make Madeline his masterpiece, painting her and carefully mixing the turpentine. He won't be rushed when her eyes must have artistic balance! Ernest will fix them and then go, but when the ladies need touch ups, his sudden backbone becomes a problem. Death Becomes Her's few daylight scenes are about Ernest realizing what took him so long to leave. He was willing to keep his marital promise in spite of the suffering and humiliation, but his obligations are fulfilled in her death do us part. The camera at the not all that it seems spa has to be switched off before Isabella Rosellini's (Merlin) Lisle von Rhoman can be mentioned, but the million dollar price tag for her mysterious potion is relative to such elite clientele. Her stunning beauty and barely there clothes make it easy to soft sell her elixir – Lisle is sweet when charming a guest, telling them to follow spring and summer but avoid autumn and winters however she's sassy when ordering her Tom, Dick, and Harry henchmen and intimating with her deceptions. She knows why her clients come to see her, for they are scared of themselves, their bodies, the lengths they go to in maintaining their secrets, and their inevitable failure. Life is cruel, taking away vitality only to replace it with decay, so we want to believe her sweet talking promise to defy natural and endorse the check despite her dominance. The camera heightens Lisle's look fair and feel foul with carefully orchestrated poses and frames. She's centered perfectly in each shot with daggers, dobermans, and amulets. Lisle crosses her legs in her throne chair and says “thank you” when someone exclaims about God, but her seductive wraps and high collared, witchy robes suggest an underlying evil. After imploring our plastic surgeon to now take the youth and beauty he gave to others for himself, Lisle's full menace is revealed when he questions her on the nightmarish consequences of immortality. Of course, there's a wink to Rosellini's casting because she looks so much like her mother, and bemusing not so dead cameos include James Dean, Jim Morrison, Elvis, and Marilyn alongside appearances by Mrs. Zemeckis Mary Ellen Trainor (Tales from the Crypt) and poor doctor with a heart condition Sydney Pollock (Three Days of the Condor).

The naughty but sinister, frenetic strings of Alan Silvestri's (Predator) theme set the mood for Death Becomes Her amid a dash of jazz, disco beats, and campy cues. Boas and colorful stage backdrops in the opening sequence establish an over the top, garish, tacky and lamé atmosphere before static on the old television, retro patterns, and poor clutter contrast the massive Beverly Hill mansion with gated entries, a grand staircase, hefty doors, and heaps of marble. The made to look ugly, old, and desperate makeup and bodily transformations are well done amid tears and soggy rain making a women look worse before bemusing good skin versus bad skin comparisons and boob lifts. That pretty left hand with the giant rock ring is always prominently displayed! Subtle nudity is also reflected through windows and doors as supple butt shots provide curves to the sagging and wrinkles. The square nineties blazers and low buttons add masculine angles for the women, however low cut cleavage, deep blouses, and lace invoke feminine symbolism along with thigh high slits, Egyptian life giving motifs, and our glowing pink potion. Death Becomes Her abounds with mirrors everywhere – frames within frames via television screens, snapshots, and gold portraits pepper every scene. Clever reflections, shadows, and silhouettes do double duty while red stands for passion, black for suspicion, and white for innocence as dramatic overhead drops, balcony dangles, thunder, and shot gun blasts apply terror in the killing scenes. Neck snaps, stairway rolls, holes in the gut, and backwards results are as disturbing as the decision to kill. Sure, some of the bumbling bodies and squashed heads may look poor now, but that also keeps them funny, and there are more intriguing or random visual gags to catch our eye – the doctor throwing away his stethoscope when he can't get a heartbeat, the yuppie tennis couple with the bruised elbows, those weird ass gliding nuns. The pink pastels and green palm trees in the eighties upscale buildings are perfectly gaudy now, but the blue lighting, black marble, and arrows pointing to the morgue mirror how the characters are inevitably walking towards death. Michelangelo motifs and pools of water could be symbolic life renewals as one tries to escape the locked doors, gilded elevators, grand arches, maze like spires, and those ever present mirrors but Death Becomes Her's beauty goes from svelte to garish with vampire pale, white out eyes, pasty skin, and gross peeling.

One may love or hate Death Becomes Her but there is no in between and it takes multiple viewings to study the dual nuances, comedic layers, and dark subtleties. Questions on immortality – or at least looking immortal – deepen the commentary on beauty and why women compete to look so enchanting even if it kills them. Today's dark comedies often feel crass or too disturbing, but the great cast keeps Death Becomes Her mature with a tongue in cheek that doesn't have to berate the obvious. While not in your face horror, the choice macabre moments and increasingly bleak palette illume our dread and fear of old age. We can laugh at the sardonic winks even as Death Becomes Her calls out Hollywood then and hello look at us on the 'gram now, remaining delicious because its satire is unfortunately more applicable than ever.

"Do you remember where you parked the car?"

14 February 2020


Performances Make the Flawed Dickensian
by Kristin Battestella

Shades of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit pepper winks to David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby in the BBC's 2015 mash up Dickensian. This ten hours plus series from creator Tony Jordan (EastEnders) features murder mysteries from A Christmas Carol and prequel fallout for Bleak House and Great Expectations alongside twists from Olivier Twist and a potluck of Charles Dickens' characters from Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, and more buying and selling at The Old Curiosity Shop. It's surprising no one attempted this novelty before, however the Marley meets Fagin gimmick wears thin thanks to uneven pacing, poorly focused storytelling, and a meandering intermix of too many characters. Fortunately, strong performances and superb source material keep the melodrama worthwhile.

Scowling townsfolk, death beds, and shocking will readings open Dickensian as wealthy made paupers, meager wages, unpaid debts, arguing businessmen, and creepy child dealings make for a melancholy Christmas Eve. It's moody and surreal to see famous characters populate the same cobblestone streets and ominous back alleys, congregating as we recognize the eponymous names and places before Christmas morning brings blows to the head, coroners, and inspectors on the murder case. Dickensian has a lot to do and moves fast – maybe too fast when viewers aren't sure yet who has an important part to play and which characters are merely window dressing, spying on the comings and goings over subdued holiday celebrations. Everyone's a suspect montages and redundant whodunit zooms for each person can also be too humorous a la the 'burbs despite humble gift givings, police questioning, and motives run amok. Mysterious journals, clues, and stolen wallets but other valuables left on the dead are plotted and edited as a modern thriller rather than a traditional period piece, yet the audience most familiar with these characters and the literary references is more likely the older Victorian fan than fast moving younger viewers. At times the great attention to Dickens details is too much – it would take more than one viewing of Dickensian to catch them all – yet we're also supposed to enjoy characters in separate storylines bumping into each other by mere happenstance or pick pocket in a scene transition disguised as a connection. Gossip about the murder spreads fictitious details of strewn innards as messages are burned and families argue. Pauper's graves and poor proposals begat modest weddings, but a codicil in the will leads to ruinous investor schemes. Smitten older aristocrats come courting with awkward tea visits as baubles are bought and pawned and desperate loans mount. Orchestrated jealousies and faked dog rescues escalate amid no alibis, arrests, and ruined nuptials. Debt collections are suspiciously erased whether they may have been collected or not, and despite Dickensian's back and forth nature, the best moments are when the action stays still and the players have time to really act. It's not quite clear which plot is the main focus here – Great Expectations meets Bleak House or A Christmas Carol meets Oliver Twist – and unrelated sidelines further upset the uneven balance as more new characters with familiar names, arranged suitors, and departed true loves come and go. Previous assault charges, witnesses, and drinking contests lead to rooftop dares and ingratiated villains, and Dickensian is again stronger when there are no cutaways from the murder questioning and action on the trail. Pleas to forgive arrears fall upon reluctant lawyers and merciless lenders as goods are seized and women high or low remain beholden to the nearest man – father, brother, lover, husband, or pimp. Constables gain sympathy and valuable testimony by feeding street urchins mutton pie, but a reward for the killer only makes for costly kisses, beatings, and debtor's prison.

Despite such potential, halfway through Dickensian, the episodes begin to feel the same. Threats are a long time coming, and it's sad to see the ladies love the wrong man even if the bitterness isn't surprising because we know how their novels end. Strong arming creditors, plotting couples looking for their come up, and soldiers who can't get a promotion go round and round amid for love or money break ups and off the book warehouses. Poor villagers are ironically happier in many ways compared to the losing wealthy and shady folk putting themselves out to gain or maintain. Surprise relatives, detectives tête-à-têtes, and unusual evidence pits suspects against each other before fainting spells, jails, and clever escape plans. After a sagging middle and humorous side stories that stall more important events, the dalliances, lies, and sabotage come together in the penultimate episodes as constables resort to brutal methods in gaining confessions. Something finally feels like it's happening on Dickensian thanks to bloody pregnancies and sisterly arguments where the uninterrupted drama is allowed to be the sole focus. Critical letters are burned, doctors don't arrive in time, and the Bleak House prequel angst again makes the case that Dickensian should have narrowed its concentration. These characters can coexist, sure, but don't force everything to happen at the same time so they undercut each other. Time is running out to find the killer, and revisiting the murder alley, its killer blows, and the personal motives are just as much about the deduction on the case as reminding the audience that we're supposed to be solving a crime. Apparently its been weeks onscreen – if not more if we think too much about the weather changes and early pregnancies – and in plain sight evidence should have been realized a long time ago. Was the malice planned or was it just an ordinary man in terrible circumstances? Flashbacks of the crime are well done with a surprising murder weapon, tearful revelations, and excellent performances as the ensemble carries the new twists on the familiar tales. Unfortunately, once the murder is resolved, the supersized finale returns to the same old back and forth. Forgotten characters are suddenly at the forefront wasting time while weak siblings quickly mature. Lawyers and strongmen come together as secrets are finally let out, but if it were all so simple, why did it take so long? The disastrous weddings and sour culminations leading to Great Expectations are superb enough thanks to more fine performances, yet Dickensian doesn't even need this entry if it's going to be cluttered with falling flat obtuse. In the end, the series is so busy setting up its gimmick with one and all at the pub for a sing a long that Dickensian forgets to embrace the dynamite characters Dickens left to explore.

The family's East India Trading Company deals have gone belly up, but Sophie Rundle's (Peaky Blinders) Honoria Barbary doesn't know about the misfortune – unlike Alexandra Moen (Doctor Who) as her serious, spinster sister Frances. Honoria works in a dress shop and tarries with her poor soldier boyfriend, but her glowing, youthful countenance turns pale and sad as she is forced to choose between her family and happiness. Frances is almost gleeful in giving Honoria the bad news, turning cruel in setting up her sister in a loveless marriage with an older aristocrat rather than build her own life. Honoria takes on their circumstances and potential scandals, bearing the guilt, punishment, and consequences we later know in Bleak House. Stephen Rea's (The Company of Wolves) Inspector Bucket, however, is straight forward and methodical, putting people in their place with facts. His new detective unit must investigate, gather evidence, and find the perpetrator to prove its merits, and Bucket stays determined despite a bad back and preferring to be home with his wife. He takes no pleasure in punishing the decent for committing a necessary evil and takes an honest man at his word even if he doesn't believe the killer when he hears the surprising confession. Bucket's infuriated more with child trafficking not being against the law, and he struggles when justice isn't satisfied. Only Omid Djalili (His Dark Materials) as Mr. Venus speaks frankly with Bucket, for he is able to see the criminal scenarios objectively when Bucket becomes too close to the case. Tuppence Middleton's (Clean Skin) Amelia Havisham is likewise reluctant to take advice upon inheriting most of father's estate. She's shrewd in business, aware of costs and new safety designs, and doesn't want a man to solve her problems. Unfortunately, Amelia is so smart yet so foolish, wanting to be loved despite all the red fags. Her melancholy end toward Great Expectations is excellent – no thanks to Tom Weston-Jones' (Copper) Meriweather Compeyson. The con artist is supposed to reunited Amelia's money with his fellow plotter Joseph Quinn (Les Miserables) as her brother Arthur, but Compeyson bends all the shady angles for himself. His slick takes over the increasingly drunk and desperate Arthur like an abuser in a relationship, and Arthur soon regrets their association. John Heffernan's (Dracula) lawyer Jaggers is as close as Dickensian comes to having one person involved and aware of every situation thanks to will stipulations and financial matters. He treads carefully, warning clients not to trust so easily, yet nobody listens to him, and the character remains terribly underutilized.

Peter Firth's (MI-5) nasty Jacob Marley personally knocks on reluctant doors for his payments and gets his kicks with Fagin's clientele. His infamy precedes him as he threatens one and all, and it's said one would be very disappointed in trying to find anyone to shed a tear for him. Likewise Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders) as his partner Ebenezer Scrooge is only concerned with people if his money is in their pockets, calling in his loans regardless of illness or holidays. He humbugs at Marley's dalliances when they interfere with business and wants the whole firm to himself. People can't pay him back at their convenience, he has terms and their collateral, and it's their lack of foresight if they speculate and lose money. Robert Wilfort's (Gavin & Stacey) Bob Cratchit dares to question why his thirteen shilling pay is being docked by Marley, struggling over a one pound loan before taking a Christmas Eve stroll when the shops are closed to steal leftovers in the trash. Family is sacred to him and Jennifer Hennessy (Death Comes to Pemberley) as Emily Cratchit. Their children – including engaged seamstress Martha, young apprentice Peter, and sickly Tiny Tim who's somehow the same age as in A Christmas Carol seven years later are their priority. Mrs. Cratchit brings Bob pies at work and despite their situation, the family is happy and festive, appreciative of the little things and protective of each other because they are all they have. Anton Lesser (The Hollow Crown) as creepy, shrewd taking Fagin, however, keeps his underlings in line with food, shelter, and threats. He claims to have their best interests at heart, insisting his charity is better than these youths being on the street, yet he'll blame them to save himself from the noose. Where Dickens could only imply the Victorian severity, Dickensian realistically addresses the city underbelly, and Fagin offers to sell Nancy to Bill Sykes for fifty pounds. It's odd then, that at times, Fagin is also portrayed sympathetically, sad as his minions leave him before they kiss and make up – dragging on when their tale seems ended in order to set up the titular Oliver for a second year that would never happen. Delicious meetings between Scrooge and Fagin also come too late when their crusty curmudgeonry could have been so juicy. Why should Bethany Muir's (The Little Drummer Girl) Nancy trust in the law when girls like her die all the time and nobody cares? She's told to make nice to all the rich men, but comes to trust the Inspector and love Bill. Nancy doesn't think love can feed you or keep you warm but Mark Stanley's (Game of Thrones) Bill is saving up his money so they can start a new life. Fagin says Nancy deserves better and mocks Bill, but he's tired of being Fagin's patsy – leading to bittersweet moments when we know their tender ultimately has a terrible outcome.

With so many characters on Dickensian – listed alphabetically in the opening credits – one almost needs a who's who and from which book chart. However, some players in this ensemble are just irrelevant clutter, including ruddy nosed and gin loving Mrs. Gamp, crusty one legged Mr. Wegg, and gossipy original character Mrs. Biggetywitch. Rather than jolly good Victorian charm, these superfluous busybodies are out of place amid the murder mystery and prequel drama, and the isolated, bickering Bumbles serve no purpose but to test the fast forward button itch. During the British airing of Dickensian as twenty half-hour episodes, it must have been very easy to tune out and not go back thanks to such a crowded screen and confusing internal chronology. The edgy strings and modern theme music also sound too generic when a voluminous period score would set off the colorful frocks, carriages, antiques, pocket watches, and top hats. We don't get to see the breweries and churches nor much of a house beyond its front door facade. The grass is obviously fake and the interiors feel tight with close quarters filming, yet Dickensian's snow, horses, and birds chirping are better than time wasting CGI sweeping across a fake ye olde Londontown cityscape. Balls, chandeliers, and grand interiors contrast the fiddles and candlelit accessories while tolling bells, parchments, quills, and lanterns create period mood. Back alleys add ominous underbellies and fog sets off the whodunit flashbacks. Dickensian looks great, but the series is twice as long as it should be and not as tightly woven as the master himself could have done. If Dickensian had been made ten years prior, perhaps it would have had more Masterpiece weight than Downton melodrama. It's not as good as it could be, paling in comparison to earlier BBC adaptations such as the 1998 Our Mutual Friend, the 2005 Bleak House, and the 2011 Great Expectations. The gimmick is often more important than the narrative, and Dickensian would have worked better as television movie events – mash ups between A Christmas Carol mystery and Oliver Twist downtrodden separate from the upscale bitter of Great Expectations and Bleak House prequels. Too many characters and a lacking focus make Dickensian too complicated to lure new viewers to Dickens and those failed hopes for a second season. Having said that, the rich source material keeps Dickensian likable for literary and period piece fans thanks to entertaining moments and worthwhile performances.

07 February 2020

Best of the Decade: 2000-2010!

It's the Best of the Decade: 2000-2010!

No. That's not a typo.

Is the old decade actually over and are we really in the new one yet? We know the aughts are in the books, so to avoid all the recent Y2K20 is it or isn't, let's instead look back at some of I Think, Therefore I Review's favorite films from 2000 to 2010...

Or should that be 1999-2009? It was actually kind of tough to find a worthy list for this, as many of the movies initially included from memory did turn out to be from 1998 or 99 and 2011 or 12. As it happens, we also didn't review a lot of the big hits and many good films are certainly missing, but here's a rundown of our memorable horror and indie analysis nonetheless along with a few television hits and actor bonuses. Because why not?

Our 2000-2010 Favorites in Chronological Order include:

Television Favorites from the Decade include: Enterprise, Merlin, The Tudors, and Wallander

Actor who Started the Decade Well but has Faltered since: Gerard Butler
Actor who Ended the Decade Well but has since Faltered: Michael Fassbender
Actor who Started the Decade Great and is Going Strong despite Numerous Onscreen Deaths: Sean Bean

Best Most Favoritistist Movie of 2000 Not Yet Reviewed: Memento, people, Memento.

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Best Of Lists will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review.