Movie, TV series, and book reviews; personal memories; political and social commentary; mental health wisdom; spiritual and philosophical musings; my own creative endeavors, such as drawings and paintings.
I watched the dark comedy and horror movie KRAMPUS (2015) last night. What fun, particularly the portrayals of and interactions among members of a dysfunctional American family. There is a beautifully done animation sequence for a flashback of childhood memories by the Christmastime hosting family’s German grandmother. The movie is not at all gory. Krampus himself looked quite menacing yet fascinating.
(Spoiler alert: I did my best here to not give anything away, but I eventually make vague references to a few significant story developments I found hard to avoid mentioning in order to still provide a coherent, thought-out review of this movie.)
After a four month wait for BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER to become available to rent on a streaming platform (Disney), I watched it yesterday (Saturday) morning and was pleasantly impressed. First of all, this sequel to 2018’s BLACK PANTHER served as a means for me to properly grieve the passing of Chadwick Boseman, who died in late August of 2020 from colon cancer. This movie opens with his character, King T’Challa, the Black Panther, dying off screen from some unspecified illness from which his scientist sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is unable to save him. Shortly after this, Shuri stands by her mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who leads the fictional African nation of Wakanda in a beautiful burial and memorial ceremony of their beloved monarch. I wept, partly over the loss of this elegantly regal, dignified character but mostly over the death of such a fine and beautiful actor. I imagine other viewers had a similar cathartic experience. Sometimes, a movie character and the actor playing them uncannily seem to harmoniously intertwine on screen and in real life. T’Challa/Boseman is one such example I will always remember with warmth and a deep respect.
Queen Ramonda is soon beset with challenges, initially concerning the protection of her country’s vibranium from other nations and parties wanting to obtain it for power and profit. However, another problem arises: the threat from Talokan, a mysterious underwater kingdom originating from the ancient Mayan civilization. The Talokanil also have plentiful access to vibranium. Their sovereign state is led by Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejia, full name Jose Tenoch Huerta Mejia), a half human, half ocean deity and anti-hero. Viewing Wakanda as responsible for publicizing to the world the existence of precious virbranium, Namor seeks out Queen Ramonda through a clandestine night-time visit to her homeland. During this unwelcome encounter, he demands her kingdom’s cooperation in delivering to him a young female scientist at MIT, who has invented and built a machine that detects vibranium. The already action-filled narrative picks up pace from there.
I was thrilled to see Angela Bassett in her role as Ramonda carrying the mantel of monarch and enjoying a more central role in this sequel. I so wanted to see more of her in BLACK PANTHER, and this follow-up delivered. Like the late Mr. Boseman’s, her screen presence is poised, regal, and elegant, harkening back to beautiful, larger than life movie stars of decades past. With a natural charisma, she wears her character’s grand and exquisite dresses and hats, adding much to the already lush-filled imagery throughout this fun work of cinema. Ms. Bassett spends all of her scenes gracefully portraying a leader with deep intelligence, strength, and compassion. Her 2022 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is well-deserved here.
The rest of the cast ranges from good to excellent, with Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira standing out alongside Bassett (well, almost alongside her). I was glad to see the old Marvel character Namor portrayed here as a Mayan instead of a black-haired white male like he originally was shown in the comics, starting in 1939. His grievances stem from his ancestors’ oppression at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, adding nuance and complexity to him. Handsome Mexican actor Huerta Mejia’s screen presence is sincere and passionate. Ms. Nyong’o as Nakia, the Wakandan spy and former love interest of King T’Challa, shows up a ways into the movie but, when she does, her familiar, serious persona quickly drew me in, as if I’d just seen her on screen the other day, not almost five years ago. She is a woman with gravitas and a sense of purpose in her face and movements. The same can be said of Gurira’s Okoye, General of the Dora, an elite group of Wakandan women warriors. These powerful women are forces to be reckoned with, matched well in strength and charisma by Namor.
Letitia Wright and Dominique Thorne are the two somewhat weak links in the cast. They are good, not quite excellent. I may be seeming unfair here, but hear me out for a moment. In her role as Princess Shura, younger sister of King T’Challa, Wright is lovely and fun as the geeky, super competent scientist in BLACK PANTHER. She is this again in WAKANDA FOREVER, only her role eventually has additional shoes to fill, a transition which I found hard for her to believably complete. Even though the actress is in her late twenties, Wright is rather girlish in her voice, emotional energy, and physicality, hence not quite grounded in fully mature adulthood and the deeper relaying of confidence that goes with that, particularly for someone in a position of power and authority. Perhaps, however, Ms. Wright will mature more in the next installment of this series. I will say, though, that she acts as a believable older sister type of friend to Thorne’s Riri Williams, a young genius MIT student. Their combined moments on screen are sweet and endearing. I did find myself having to effort a little bit around suspending my disbelief over Thorne’s portrayal of someone so scientifically brilliant. I imagined her spending most of her time and energy doing daredevil things like racing cars, a hobby of Riri’s in the movie, rather than frequently studying advanced mathematics and science and inventing high tech. machinery. This could just be me, however, given that I’ve hardly ever spent any time with young geniuses, it having been decades since I last did so in college. The few I met and can most readily recall were subdued and noticeably book smart. In any case, Ms. Thorne, who is now twenty-five, is believably youthful as nineteen-year-old Riri, amazed in the face of so much wonder around her. She is probably a significant, relatable vehicle for much of the youth watching this movie, so there is that, while I’m a middle aged man more readily relating to the characters who are over thirty. To other viewers, perhaps Thorne’s Riri is excellent too.
Like BLACK PANTHER, WAKANDA FOREVER is a sweeping screen epic. All the lovely, cleanly done CGI of the colorful Talokanil is a beautiful addition to the mix of familiar Wakandan images. The focus on women as leaders and heroines in this sequel is a natural transition and evolution from the first movie. A proper honoring of King T’Challa’s memory and the male line of rulers before him is presented in a balanced, graceful way. And it is noteworthy that the large majority of the cast in this high budget blockbuster is Black and Latino. Far more high and lower budget productions with such casting of great, non-white talent need to be made, of course. This is so long, long overdue.
I’m skeptical of the power that will come through in the third installment of the BLACK PANTHER franchise. It is slated to be made, per the statement at the end of the movie’s credits that this entity will return. With King T’Challa (and Boseman himself) dead and buried and how BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER concludes, I can’t help but wonder how certain vacuums of presence that arose will be effectively, substantively filled. Will Letitia Wright be able to carry the third production? How much will Nyong’o and Gurira be able to help her along? It seems likely that these first two completed films will be very hard acts to follow, as is so often the case with sequels, especially second ones and beyond. Well, I guess we shall see.
THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES (released in December of 1973), is an obscure, low budget Gothic(ish) horror film starring the lovely 1950s scream queen Faith Domergue. John Ireland gets top billing and old-time horror movie actor David Carradine appears in a supporting role.
There are some gems within this campy, sometimes silly, movie, primarily Ms. Domergue, who was forty-eight or forty-nine during filming. The narrative is straightforward enough. A supernatural horror movie is being produced in an old mansion where seven residents met mysterious, violent deaths. The main star of the production, Gayle Dorian (Domergue), reads from the TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD as part of her screen role. In the nested film, Ms. Dorian is playing a 19th century witch in New England (or so it seems to take place there). Just outside of the house, her reading in the scene being filmed inadvertently, actually animates a long-dead resident. Violent incidents begin to happen, starting with the sudden death of Ms. Dorian’s pet cat.
The movie opens with Faith delivering a monologue in which she has cast a witch’s circle and is summoning a spirit. She brings pure elegance and intrigue to the rather routine, cliched material she is left to work with here. A pleasant foil to the character of Gayle is Eric Hartman (John Ireland), an impatient, veteran movie director. He and Gayle are old flames who maintain a romance-filled friendship and working relationship, including on this current project. Their brief moments of chemistry and tension seem genuine.
Ms. Domergue delivers at least one good one liner that I can recall, this occurring in a scene where she and a makeup man argue about her eye wrinkles being “laugh lines” vs. “crow’s feet.” She may have said another one elsewhere that I’ve already forgotten. Regardless, the actress’ delivery is consistently smooth and elegant, due to her beautifully unique sloe eyed face and seductive voice. Her dyed-brown hair enhanced with a fall is visually remarkable, a holdover from 1960s fashion. While watching, I wondered if the project was all largely built around this underrated star of B movies. A quick Google search indicated this was the second to last film she appeared in before retiring from cinema altogether. I got the sense that THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES was a homage to Faith.
Some particularly colorful supporting characters are Edgar Price (Carradine), the long-time caretaker of the home, and the drunken, frustrated Shakespearean actor Christopher Millan (Charles Macaulay). They offer more amusing moments to this campily entertaining screenplay. Writers Paul Harrison (who also directed) and Thomas J. Kelly go for the tongue-in-cheek, which comes through in many of the players’ sardonic responses to others on the set.
For people who enjoyed watching DARK SHADOWS and/or STRANGE PARADISE, this movie will likely seem to be inspired by those slightly earlier produced television series. I appreciated the look and feel of both of those shows (which I admittedly hardly watched) and this film, in each of which the grand house is a central character.
The movie within a movie approach is both fun and effective here, a classic means of turning a mirror on Hollywood and the movie making experience. We the audience are allowed both distance/larger perspective while also being drawn into the actors’ lives, especially Gayle’s and Eric’s. When reality outside of the dramatized, nested film production finally converges with the actual movie we the audience are watching, a sweeping sense of the theatrical happens. I often laughed out of amusement while smiling with a wistful respect for both the characters and actors playing them. It looked like everyone was having fun within this simple, now dated script and set up, even if this may actually not have been the case and only an illusion. But, playing with illusion is what movies are usually about in some way or another, and THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES is often a play of sorts and very much filled with verbal and visual play.
The talented, late actor Albert Finney starred in two films released in 1981, neither of which performed well at the box office at the time. His urban horror film WOLFEN (released in July of ’81) was powerful and well-done, however. It explored the tension between nature and the encroachment of humans and their technology via an often haunting, atmospheric screenplay about highly intelligent wolves killing people in parts of NYC. There was even a Native American shamanic thread within the narrative, adding further depth. I watched that movie with rapt attention in the theater and then again on video about a year later. I can see why Mr. Finney chose to perform in such an interesting, thought-provoking project.
LOOKER, released in October of 1981, is also an urban-oriented suspense thriller, though far more superficial than that year’s WOLFEN. As a teenager, I remember feeling curious to see the film when it was new in the local movie theater, but, somehow, I didn’t manage to get around to doing so until very recently, over forty years later.
Albert Finney stars as Dr. Larry Roberts, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. Susan Dey costars as Cindy Fairmont, a professional television and print model and one of his recent patients. Three models, all patients of Dr. Roberts,’ are mysteriously killed in close succession, two of them on screen. Larry and Cindy become caught up in the police investigation of these murders, which point to Digital Matrix, a research firm that’s directly a part of a large corporation headed up by John Reston (James Coburn).
LOOKER is a fairly weak screenplay, which, I read, would likely have been more coherent and logical if it were not so edited down to just ninety-four minutes. It presents some science fiction technology that borders on the absurd, namely a certain light pulse (Light Ocular-Oriented Kinetic Emotive Responses or L.O.O.K.E.R.) gun. This weapon temporarily blinds a person with carefully pulsed light, hypnotizing the victim to lose sense of time for several moments and render their assailant briefly invisible to them. Some similar technology is used on television commercials, whereby the audience is hypnotized into buying the endorsed products. The presentation of this and the CGI of human models is visually interesting and intriguing, especially for how long ago this movie was made. The actual CGI in LOOKER is minimal (on CRT screens within the movie), whereas real people (including Dey’s character Cindy) play what are supposed to be CGI creations within TV commercials. We viewers are never explicitly told why three models are killed and a fourth one, Cindy (Dey), is in grave danger. But, we eventually surmise that Digital Matrix simply does not wish to continue to pay a salary to live models once it creates CGI duplicates of them to use on TV at no further cost and only for profit.
The core premise of this what now seems like a fun cult movie from the early ’80s is that TV is a means of hypnotic control of the masses by predatory corporations and humans are disposable, even replaceable with computer technology. In a way, this campy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek production is hauntingly prescient. It presents AI made imagery, now taking off hugely on social media over the past few years, without actually calling it that. The development of “deep fake” online videos of people and the current debate about concerns over AI stealing from and, eventually, replacing the work of graphic and other visual artists are indicators that we have pretty much arrived in the strange world LOOKER was foreseeing.
LOOKER is visually slick and entertaining in places with its display of beautiful women models wearing tasteful clothes and bathing suits. And I always find Los Angeles city and beach scenery make for pleasant viewing. Finney’s and Coburn’s presences lend some ruggedly masculine gravitas to this amusingly bizarre, if often flimsy, film. Nevertheless, what manages to come through somewhat are the grave implications of technology driven by hyper-capitalism. If left un-checked, this economic model can and will further steal lives and souls from humanity. I do wonder if some footage left on the cutting room floor rendered this movie more vapid than what it may well not have been had the final print been, say, about half an hour longer. According to Mr. Coburn himself, “They really pissed that film away,” because of over-editing. It seems like an opportunity was missed in producing a more substantive, memorable project.
THE MAD ROOM (released in 1969, filmed in 1968), starring the recently deceased Stella Stevens and the long late Shelley Winters, is chock full of big hair and overacting. An older sister (Stevens) must take in her two teenaged siblings after their release from a mental institution. They all try to live with an eccentric, self indulgent wealthy widow (Winters). What could possibly go wrong?
There is a dash of the creepy in places, but mainly contrived– even sometimes ridiculous– efforts to be so. The movie’s director (Bernard Girard) and writers (also Girard, plus A. Martin Zweiback) appear to have inserted some Grand Guignol for shock value. The overacting mutes that for me, even with the entertaining, suspenseful music, which simply adds to the film’s whole over the top aesthetic. There is no deep character development, just moments of amusing melodrama.
Along with the pretty cinematography of western Canadian countryside in some scenes, Ms. Stevens looks lovely as a young, well-dressed woman who steadily grows unhinged. Her wide-eyed expressions and brightly bleached, heavily sprayed hair especially make this a worthwhile watch. (Okay, those elements and a certain scene where an angry, drunken middle-aged woman crashes a house party of high society wives.)
The movie is a loose remake of the 1941 film noir LADIES IN RETIREMENT, which stars Ida Lupino. That earlier production is atmospheric, psychological suspense drama, whereas THE MAD ROOM is a mediocre specimen of 1960s cinema camp, colorful and fun enough.
While recently ill with Covid-19, I finally watched the 1955 science fiction movie classic THIS ISLAND EARTH, starring the interestingly beautiful, unusually sloe-eyed Faith Domergue. Probably almost thirty years ago, I had seen some parts of it, but not the entire film, until just the other day. For those, like myself, who enjoy the small amount of well-made, extant 1950s movies in the sci-fi genre, THIS ISLAND EARTH is impressive. Its then state-of-the-art special effects and, towards the end of the movie’s well-paced eighty-six minutes, beautiful animation, matte background set, and artistic large-brained, insectoid alien costume all render this production aesthetically on par with THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). The acting quality is sufficient, conventionally emphatic (verging on over-acting in places) for the time, so not particularly remarkable. I generally do not watch this category of movies for their cast’s acting abilities.
The plot is straightforward and intriguing. A pair of male humanoid aliens from the far away planet Metaluna have come to earth to recruit a select group of top notch nuclear scientists from around the world. We viewers eventually find out that this advanced civilization is at war with a neighboring one and desperately needs help from intelligent earthlings to save their dying world. Enter the tall, baritone-voiced Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason). Upon his arrival at a secret Metalunan research site, he meets up with a colleague and romantic interest from his recent past, Dr. Ruth Adams (Domergue). They are not long at this facility before getting whisked off by a flying saucer bound for Metaluna. The journey there and back is a mix of the scientifically credible and inaccurate, but visually colorful and entertaining nonetheless. Jeff Morrow plays Exeter, a sympathetic alien scientist who leads this plan to involve human beings in saving his planet of origin.
In addition to the aforementioned impressive technical aspects of this movie, what I also found noteworthy is how the leading female character, Dr. Adams, is portrayed. She is single and a highly respected scientist, along with at least one other female scientist within a small, elite group. There are eventually a few requisite moments of her being put in danger and screaming. Hence, due to this movie and others she starred in, Ms. Domergue became known as a “scream queen,” like many other actresses of her time, before, and later. However, her overall competence in the role of independent, unmarried professional scientist in both this film and the far inferior, yet also entertaining, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (also released in 1955), come through as primary, intact identities. The fact that Faith Domergue played this type of central, on-screen persona twice in one year impresses me. Her portrayal of Professor Lesley Joyce is actually more active and crucial in IT CAME… than in THIS ISLAND EARTH. But, in both productions, her identity remains that of a single professional at the end, albeit more explicitly so in IT CAME…. I found this pleasantly surprising and encouraging, given how so many movies from this era tended to relegate women into playing less competent and empowered roles. I am glad for Ms. Domergue and the exposure of audiences to these two characters of hers back in the 1950s.
What I did find irritating yet not at all surprising is how the leading men in both of these screenplays are presented. They are positioned as the necessary physical strength and stoic presence to both protect and “complete” Ms. Domergue’s “weaker” feminine vulnerability. Ridiculous. A well-educated, competent, single woman can draw from her own inner strength to get through life as a complete feeling person. Indeed, these two movies are conventional products of their times, albeit with some semi-feminist overtures.
Ultimately, THIS ISLAND EARTH is a visually entertaining movie that lightly explores a deep ethical dilemma: the ongoing cost of war on civilizations. Other than these positives, the script adheres to the ancient assumption that women– even intelligent, resourceful ones– are the “weaker” sex. Additionally, the movie is a product of the early years of the nuclear age, when splitting the atom was marketed as healthy for society, a major solution to many of humankind’s problems. Admittedly, the film is quite dated. But, the lovely Faith Domergue and all the colorful spectacle, such as (to name just a few images) many explosions and a giant flying saucer that produces a glowing green tractor beam, make it a joy to watch.