An Honor To Be Nominated: Rob Roy

THE CONTENDER: Rob Roy (1995)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Tim Roth)

Number of Wins: Nane

Every so often, Hollywood studio executives will drink from the same batch of Kool-Aid and, as a result, we’ll get two or more competing projects with weirdly similar themes. Sometimes these movies are alike in only the broadest strokes, as happens whenever we get a glut of body-switch comedies all at once. Other times, they’re bizarrely specific. I’m still not sure why we got two Truman Capote biopics in 2005-06.

Back in 1995, we had the Battle of the Scottish Epics with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart debuting about a month after Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson as the Highland Rogue. It was a short-lived skirmish. Braveheart quickly eclipsed Rob Roy in popularity, making over six times as much at the domestic box office and eventually winning five Oscars, including Best Picture. By the time the nominations were announced, pretty much everybody had forgotten all about Rob Roy…except for Tim Roth’s out-sized performance as the loathsome Archibald Cunningham.

In most respects, comparisons between Rob Roy and Braveheart are unfair from the start. Yes, both films take place in Scotland, are (very) loosely based on historical figures, star long-haired men wearing kilts and feature the great character actor Brian Cox in supporting roles. But apart from these surface similarities, the two films are quite different. Braveheart is an epic war film that champions freedom and independence, while Rob Roy is a smaller-scale adventure focusing on personal relationships and ideas like honor and self-worth. Braveheart has massive battle scenes. Rob Roy has duels between individuals. They don’t even take place in the same century. Almost 500 years separates the two stories.

Rob Roy is an old-fashioned movie, romantic in the classical sense of Blake and Shelley. Neeson plays Robert Roy MacGregor, a Highland chief devoted to his Clan, his children, and his beloved wife, Mary (Jessica Lange). Hoping to provide a better life for his people, MacGregor borrows a thousand pounds from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) with the aims of using it to trade cattle. But Montrose’s devious factor Killearn (Cox) sees an opportunity and recruits the exiled, penniless aristocrat Cunningham to kill MacGregor’s go-between (Eric Stoltz) and make off with the money.

Montrose offers to forgive the debt if Rob will bear false witness that Montrose’s rival for the Queen’s support is a Jacobite. Rob refuses, not out of any great love for the Duke but simply because lying would violate his own code of honor. And so, Rob Roy is branded an outlaw and Cunningham sets out to flush him out of hiding by seizing his land, burning his house, killing his livestock and, last but not least, raping his wife. One small problem with that plan: Mary knows full well what will happen if Rob sets out in a blind rage, so she doesn’t tell him about the rape. So with cooler heads prevailing, Rob and Mary focus on finding out what happened to the thousand pounds.

As I mentioned, this is an old-fashioned movie in both story and style. It isn’t too difficult to imagine versions of this same tale coming out in the 1930s, 40s or 50s. Indeed, Walt Disney produced one back in 1953, presumably with considerably less rape. The sexual assault is handled about as tastefully here as one could hope, thanks in large part to Lange’s powerful performance. She’s a strong character and an ideal match for Neeson. They have palpable chemistry together and you never once doubt their commitment to one another. If there is perhaps a bit too much emphasis put on Neeson’s reaction to the assault rather than Lange’s, at least it’s her decision to make. And when Neeson does discover the truth (seemingly long after everyone else in Scotland has), he’s hurt that she didn’t tell him right away but concedes that it would have been much worse if she had.

All of which brings us back to Tim Roth. In interviews, Roth has said that he fully expected to be fired once studio execs got a look at his over-the-top performance and credits director Michael Caton-Jones for encouraging him to go for broke. On the outside, Cunningham is a lisping fop. But beneath the filigreed lace and curly wig lie the steely eyes of a true sociopath. Roth allows us to see that anything likable or charming about this man is a total sham, an act required by the conventions of the society he aspires to. Even Cunningham’s patron, Montrose, holds him in contempt and Killearn, who at first views him as an easily manipulated partner, grows steadily more horrified by his behavior. It is, in other words, the quintessential villainous Basil Rathbone role given a grim and gritty 90s upgrade, right down to the swordplay. Roth gets two great showcase scenes and the climactic fight against Neeson is right up there with the best sword fights ever filmed.

Roth racked up a number of Supporting Actor nominations for Rob Roy and even ended up winning a BAFTA Award. But he was always considered a longshot for the Oscar (the award ended up going to Kevin Spacey for The Usual Suspects). The Academy is rarely shy about rewarding actors for going big and broad. Just look at Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda or Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. But they are extremely skittish about awarding a performance in a movie with no other nominations. They seem to view such things as anomalies, like the actor made a happy mistake in an otherwise dire film. I don’t think that’s quite fair here. Roth’s performance isn’t at odds with the rest of the movie. In fact, it suits the tone quite well. If Roth’s performance deserved to be singled out, then so did Lange’s.

Even more surprising than his nomination for Rob Roy is the fact that it remains Tim Roth’s only Academy Award nomination to date. Prior to Rob Roy, Roth was known to hardcore film buffs as a risk-taking chameleon, having appeared in such films as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, and, of course, Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But in the years since, he hasn’t really found a breakthrough part in a major Oscar contender. He has certainly continued to do excellent work but often on television, in smaller films that fly a bit beneath the radar, like Chronic, or as part of a larger ensemble, as in Selma and The Hateful Eight.

For his part, Roth has always seemed somewhat ambivalent about awards and accolades. I suspect he was somewhat uncomfortable with being the one thing about Rob Roy to be singled out for award consideration. Tim Roth is an actor’s actor, quietly doing the work and very happy to contribute his unique gifts to a story that’s larger than any one person. That’s why his nomination for Rob Roy is such an outlier in his career. It’s a scene-stealing performance from an actor with no prior criminal record.

Rob Roy is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Cry In The Dark

THE CONTENDER: A Cry In The Dark (1988)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Actress in a Leading Role (Meryl Streep)

Number of Wins: 0

As this column continues to wind its way through 90+ years of Oscar-nominated movies, we’re going to be seeing a lot of Meryl Streep. A lot. She’s been nominated for 21 Academy Awards, more than any other performer in film history. And assuming she remains healthy and doesn’t suddenly forget how to act for some reason, it’s reasonable to assume she’ll get a few more.

Because she’s such a fixture at the Dolby Theatre (and, prior to that, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Shrine Auditorium), it’s easy to take her work for granted. There have been occasions when her name has been read as a nominee and you can sense a sort of collective eye-roll in the room. It’s as if we all assume that it’s part of her contract whenever she signs on to a new project. As long as she shows up to work every day, she’ll get a nomination.

You can trace the origins of Streep Fatigue back to her 8th nomination, 1988’s A Cry In The Dark (known in its native Australia as Evil Angels). At the age of 39, she was already an Oscar favorite, having won twice. Certainly no one begrudged her any of those honors, but her nomination for the previous year’s Ironweed was the first time she (and co-star Jack Nicholson) was singled out for elevating a movie that was not unanimously praised. A Cry In The Dark would mark the first time (although not the last) that Meryl Streep would be the sole nominee representing her film.

Even at the time, A Cry In The Dark wasn’t a particularly popular movie. Today, it’s best remembered (when it’s remembered at all) for the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine, trapped at a hellish party, tells an annoying woman that “maybe the dingo ate your baby”. Even there, based on comments I’ve seen online, a surprisingly large number of people don’t realize that’s a deep-cut reference to a movie. They seem to think it’s just a non-sequitur.

None of this is to suggest that A Cry In The Dark isn’t a good movie. In fact, it’s an unusual and quite gripping movie, ably directed by Fred Schepisi. Based on a true story, Streep stars as Lindy Chamberlain, alongside Sam Neill as her husband, Richard. While on holiday at Ayers Rock, the Chamberlains’ nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, disappears, seemingly abducted by a dingo, although only Lindy actually saw the animal. Hope quickly fades that the girl will be found alive, so the police and coroner’s office begin searching for evidence to establish the cause of death. The case turns into a national cause célèbre, with members of the press tripping over each other to run wildly speculative stories and everything from Lindy’s aloof exterior to the Chamberlains’ Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs scrutinized and judged in the court of public opinion.

Schepisi makes a number of interesting choices in his unfolding of the tale. The movie starts out somewhat languidly, taking its time to get to know not just the characters and their lives but also the surrounding environment and people. Australia itself is very much a character in the film. Within 15 minutes, we have a very clear sense of the place and its people.

Events continue to unfold leisurely through the initial search for Azaria and the Chamberlains’ return home. It isn’t until the press enters the picture that Schepisi picks up the pace. Suddenly, things start happening very quickly. The passage of time is barely remarked upon, even as the movie starts jumping ahead months at a time with only subtle visual cues like Streep’s changing hairstyle to cue us in. We see the rumor mill at work through a series of quick check-ins with random Australians discussing the case on the street, at work, and at dinner parties. They’re almost never the same people twice. These sequences are a little bit longer and meatier than your average montage but still more rapid-fire than the surrounding scenes. On occasion, Schepisi will even cut to or away from these brief scenes in mid-sentence, adding to the sense of dislocation.

Fred Schepisi came up through the so-called “golden age” of Australian cinema, alongside such figures as George Miller, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong. But he never quite established his own identity as a filmmaker, remaining something of a journeyman throughout his career. Most of his films are good or very good, including Barbarosa, The Russia House, Six Degrees Of Separation and the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. But even when his films flirt with greatness, as in Steve Martin’s Cyrano update Roxanne, it’s because Schepisi is smart enough to get out of the way and let those elements really shine. Honestly, there’s something very refreshing about a filmmaker who puts himself in service to the story and not the other way around.

With A Cry In The Dark, Schepisi knows exactly how he wants to tell this particular story. It’s easy to imagine a version of this movie that casts doubt on Lindy Chamberlain’s explanation of events. But Schepisi presents everything in such a matter-of-fact way that we never doubt her for a second. We may, in hindsight, second-guess some of her later decisions, such as making herself available for interviews, especially when she’s so unbending in the way she presents herself publically. But we never think she’s guilty of murder.

Streep is outstanding in a complex role that somehow manages to be both sympathetic and unsympathetic at once. At the time, Streep’s reputation as the Queen of All Accents somewhat overshadowed the rest of what she accomplishes with the role (although, for the record, her Australian accent is impeccable). It’s impossible not to feel for a woman who has lost a child. But Lindy’s strict religious beliefs seem to make her recover far more quickly than most. For many people in the audience, and certainly for most Australians at the time, this makes her seem unfeeling. But Streep manages to open a window that allows us to see her real emotions. It’s a remarkable performance.

Sam Neill, a reliable and criminally undervalued actor who makes every performance seem effortless, is more than up to the challenge of playing opposite Streep. If his role hadn’t been quite so underwritten, he likely would have received an Oscar nod of his own (as of this writing, Neill has yet to receive a single nomination). But the script (co-written by Schepisi and Robert Caswell) isn’t nearly as concerned with Richard. He remains a bit of a cipher, never questioning his wife’s story and mostly just watching in disbelief as events happen around him. Neill gets a few good moments and he makes the most of them but everyone involved seems to agree that it’s Meryl Streep’s show.

I think it’s fair to say that Meryl Streep was considered the longshot at the 1989 ceremony. Her competition included Jodie Foster (who won for The Accused), Sigourney Weaver (a double nominee that year in both the Leading and Supporting categories), ingénue Melanie Griffith, and Glenn Close, probably Streep’s closest peer and contemporary. Up against that lineup, Streep’s work in a dark, kind of weird Australian docudrama never stood a chance. But don’t feel too badly for her. She won plenty of other accolades for this role, including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and we’d be seeing plenty more of her at the Oscars soon enough.

A Cry In The Dark is available on DVD and Digital from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Legend

THE CONTENDER: Legend (1986)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Makeup (Rob Bottin and Peter Robb-King)

Number of Wins: 0

There are a handful of filmmakers who make the concept of a column like this somewhat difficult. It’s a problem I discussed when I wrote about Star Wars. Namely, the version of the film that is widely available today is not the same movie that was nominated for ten Academy Awards. The movie won Oscars for its visual effects and editing but today, thanks to George Lucas’ tinkering, those elements have been radically altered.

The Star Wars movies are extreme examples since Lucas literally removed the original versions from circulation. But there are other filmmakers who are arguably worse when it comes to making post-release changes. And yes, I am looking directly at you, Sir Ridley Scott. His filmography is so cluttered with extended, unrated and director’s cut versions that it’s almost difficult to think of a movie he hasn’t continued to fuss over. Even Gladiator, a movie that most people liked just fine the first time around and won Best Picture, received a superfluous “extended edition” on DVD. Some people are never satisfied.

So what are we talking about when we talk about Scott’s fantasy epic Legend? If it were up to him, he’d probably prefer that we only discuss the 113-minute director’s cut released on DVD back in 2002. If that’s not an option, then he’d likely steer us toward the 94-minute version released in Europe in 1985. That at least includes the original orchestral score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. But neither of those variants nabbed an Oscar nomination, so we’re going to focus exclusively on the 89-minute version released in America in 1986 with the synthesized musical stylings of Tangerine Dream. Sorry, Ridley.

If you read Starlog or Cinefantastique magazine back in the 80s, you were very, very excited to see Legend. I subscribed to both so I’m speaking from experience here. At the time, Ridley Scott seemed like the savior of science fiction cinema. He had blown everyone away with Alien and while Blade Runner had been a commercial flop, a cult of devoted fans was already beginning to form around it. Just the idea of Scott tackling the fantasy genre was enough to build anticipation. Given that track record and with pre-release publicity photos centered squarely on Rob Bottin’s spectacular makeup effects, Legend seemed like it should have been a home run.

Well, it wasn’t. Sure, Legend looks spectacular with its jaw-dropping sets and lush cinematography. But you could say that about any Ridley Scott movie. The man seems to be incapable of crafting a bad image. But looks ain’t everything and Legend has a whole raft of problems, starting, unfortunately, with its script. The idea to make a fairy tale came from Scott and he developed the story with the man who would write the screenplay, the late novelist William Hjortsberg (he’s probably best known for Falling Angel, which became the basis for the film Angel Heart).

The story they came up with would seem to have all the basic ingredients of a classic fairy tale. Good vs. evil. Light vs. darkness. Goblins, unicorns, fairies, elves, magic pixies…it’s a fifth-grade girl’s spiral notebook cover come to life. But what it doesn’t have is much of a point. Our heroes, forest dweller Jack (a woefully miscast Tom Cruise) and vaguely-defined “princess” (of what is never quite clear) Lili (Mia Sara), remain blank slates throughout. Cruise and Sara have zero chemistry as an on-screen couple, so there’s no reason to care whether or not they live happily ever after. Sara, at least, is given more than one note to play as she falls under the corrupting influence of Darkness (Tim Curry). But Cruise is simply out of his depth, unable to make the florid dialogue sound even remotely natural.

Tim Curry, on the other hand, bites into this kind of thing like a rare steak. His Darkness is easily the most compelling thing about the film. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rob Bottin’s makeup is that Tim Curry’s essential Tim Curry-ness isn’t buried beneath all that red paint, rubber and fiberglass. You can still see him in his eyes and his mouth and you can definitely hear him in his voice, despite the addition of kind of chintzy vocal effects. In fact, almost all of the characters have some kind of weird, distracting video-gamey voice. Curry actually gets off pretty easy in this regard.

The makeup work by Rob Bottin and Peter Robb-King is nothing short of extraordinary and more than deserved its Oscar nomination. Darkness is obviously the marquee piece that gets all the attention but all of it is quite remarkable, from Darkness’ goblin toady Blix (Alice Playten) to Meg Mucklebones (played by Joe Dante regular Robert Picardo, of all people), a swamp-dwelling creature that deserved more screen time.

So how is it that makeup this great didn’t win? Well, Legend was released everywhere in the world except America in 1985. In this country, the release was delayed until 1986 so that Jerry Goldsmith’s score could be replaced by Tangerine Dream. And hey, I like Tangerine Dream a lot. But this is a bad score that screams 1980s even more than Giorgio Moroder’s music for The NeverEnding Story does. Anyway, that delay put Legend in competition with David Cronenberg’s The Fly for Best Makeup. As great as the makeup is in Legend, Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis’ work on The Fly is arguably even better. Certainly the Academy would make that argument. They gave the award to Walas and Dupuis.

Not that an Oscar would have been a foregone conclusion if Legend had come out in ’85 like it was supposed to. In England, Legend was nominated for a BAFTA Award in the makeup category. Its competition included not one but two Oscar winners: Mask and Amadeus (which won). So no matter where they went, Bottin and Robb-King were up against some heavy hitters.

Rob Bottin is retired now but his work in special make-up effects has made him a legend in his own right. Movies like The Howling, The Thing, and RoboCop are classics today, thanks in no small part to his work. Remarkably, he never won a competitive Academy Award. He did eventually get one, as part of the visual effects team on Total Recall, but that was a Special Achievement Award presented in one of those weird years when the Academy can’t be bothered to nominate films and instead just hands it to you. And sure, I guess it doesn’t matter how you get your Oscar, just as long as you get one. Still, it seems like an odd injustice that one of the acknowledged masters of make-up effects never received an Academy Award for Best Makeup.

Legend is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Viva Villa!

THE CONTENDER: Viva Villa! (1934)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Best Picture; Writing (Adaptation) (Ben Hecht); Sound Recording (Douglas Shearer); Assistant Director (John Waters)

Number of Wins: 1 – Assistant Director

Viva Villa! has tumbled into obscurity since its release in 1934. If you Google “Viva Villa” today, the first results to pop up are likely going to be for a chain of Taquerias or some other Mexican restaurant of the same name. But at the time, it was a sizable box office hit and wound up nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture. It even won one for Best Assistant Director John Waters (needless to say, a different John Waters than the one you’re probably thinking of). Bet you didn’t even know Best Assistant Director used to be a category, did you? I know I didn’t.

This was not Mr. Waters’ first crack at this award. He’d been nominated the previous year at the 6th Academy Awards, the first year for this short-lived category. Like a lot of categories in the early years of the Oscars, it seems as though there was a lot of figuring this thing out as they went along. That first year, Best Assistant Director appears almost like an Employee of the Month category. There were six winners and no fewer than 17 nominees, none of whom were recognized for a specific film. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the “nominees” were simply an all-inclusive list of every A.D. in Hollywood at the time.

For his work on Viva Villa!, if Waters assisted everybody who had a hand in directing the thing, I’d say he earned his Oscar. Like most studio system films, this was producer David O. Selznick’s vision more than the director’s. Jack Conway ended up with screen credit but William Wellman and Howard Hawks each did uncredited work as well. It comes as no surprise that the resulting film is extremely episodic and about as authentically Mexican as a Doritos® Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the movie is undeniably entertaining and that goes a long way.

Wallace Beery, sounding more like Chico Marx than a Mexican Revolutionary, stars as Pancho Villa. Beery was a huge star in the 30s thanks to movies like The Champ and The Big House but odds are today most people know him, if at all, only as a punchline in the Coens’ Barton Fink. (“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! What do you need, a road map?”) Beery is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other legendary stars of the 30s these days but after watching some of his most enduring work, it’s easy to see why he was such a popular personality. He’s a boisterous, larger-than-life character, eager to please and oddly likable even when he’s boasting about his rape-and-murder-filled exploits.

Part of this is due to the fact that most of the violence and mayhem takes place off-screen. The storyteller’s mantra may be “show, don’t tell” but Viva Villa! never uses imagery when dozens of words can be employed instead. When we do so violence on-screen, it usually involves whips, first in the opening scene where young Pancho sees his father killed after 100 lashes. The filmmakers’ whip fetish comes back into play later when an incensed adult Pancho tries to teach Spanish aristocrat Teresa (Fay Wray) a thing or two about real suffering. The scene is shot in silhouette (presumably by the great James Wong Howe, one of two credited cinematographers). The moody camerawork and Wray’s reactions give the whole thing a distinct S&M quality. Even during all this, Pancho Villa comes across as a big, friendly, loyal, kinda dumb dog, ironic considering his father dies protesting that he is a man, not a dog.

Structurally, Viva Villa! bears an unmistakable similarity to Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata!, released almost 20 years later. Personally, I preferred Viva Villa! to Kazan’s humorless slog of a movie. Neither movie can lay much claim to historical accuracy and suffers from casting very American actors in very Hispanic roles (though, granted, Kazan’s movie does have Anthony Quinn’s Oscar-winning performance going for it). But Beery as Villa at least seems to be having fun. You can’t say the same about Marlon Brando as Zapata. Brando always seems on the verge of realizing he’s made a mistake and walking off set.

A dozen movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1934 and, believe it or not, three of them still remain unaccounted for on DVD: the opulent biopic House Of Rothschild, the musical One Night Of Love, and The White Parade, a tribute to young nurses. I can’t say how Viva Villa! stacks up next to these rarities but I don’t think anyone would argue that it deserved to triumph over the year’s winner, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. If nothing else, Viva Villa! serves as a reminder of the studio system’s remarkable capacity for making effective entertainment out of the most chaotic and troubled productions. It’s no classic but the fact that it’s even coherent is something of an achievement. And odds are, most of the credit for that belongs to Academy Award winner John Waters.

Viva Villa! is available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: 10

THE CONTENDER: 10 (1979)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Original Score (Henry Mancini); Original Song (“Song from 10 (It’s Easy To Say)”, music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Robert Wells)

Number of Wins: 0

Throughout film history, there have been a handful of brand-name filmmakers. These are directors who routinely received an ownership credit above the title and whose names meant something to audiences. You immediately had a pretty good idea of what sort of movie to expect when you saw these names. Alfred Hitchcock. Stanley Kubrick. Federico Fellini. John Carpenter. And, from the mid-1970s to the early 90s, Blake Edwards.

The possessory credit didn’t start appearing on posters for Edwards’ movies until 1975’s The Return Of The Pink Panther. Prior to that, Edwards had dabbled in a variety of genres, from the exquisite cool jazz noir of TV’s Peter Gunn to the issue-oriented drama of Days Of Wine And Roses to the throwback western Wild Rovers. But he had always excelled in comedy, whether it was the bittersweet variety of Breakfast At Tiffany’s or his broad, slapstick collaborations with Peter Sellers. So, from 1975 on, he focused almost exclusively on that genre, occasionally with ill-advised attempts to keep the Pink Panther franchise going but also with semi-autobiographical dramedies like That’s Life!, his remake of The Man Who Loved Women, and 10.

10 was a bona fide cultural phenomenon in its day. It was the 7th highest-grossing film of 1979, turned Dudley Moore into a Hollywood leading man, and made Bo Derek (and her culturally appropriating cornrow hairstyle) an internationally recognized celebrity. But, like a lot of Edwards’ movies, it has not had a lasting impact.

At first glance, one might assume this is simply because the movie hasn’t aged well. After all, Edwards’ filmography is dotted with elements that today would be considered problematic at best. If you’ve got a problem with white actors tackling other ethnicities, you’re not gonna have a good time with Blake Edwards. So if you don’t know anything about 10 other than what you see on the DVD case, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the movie’s depiction of sexual politics and feminism will be impossibly dated by 2019 standards.

Perhaps surprisingly, that’s not actually the case. Yes, this is a movie about a rich, straight, white man bumbling his way through a mid-life crisis. In fact, if Dudley Moore’s character is meant to be Edwards’ surrogate, it’s fair to assume there was more than a little wish fulfillment going on. George Webber is almost impossibly successful. He’s an internationally famous songwriter, a playwright, and the winner of 4 Academy Awards…all by the age of 42.

Despite his success, he still struggles with depression, drinks too much, argues with both his on-again/off-again girlfriend/muse Samantha Taylor (played by Edwards’ own wife, Julie Andrews) and his songwriting partner Hugh (Robert Webber), and is terrified by the specter of his own mortality. He lives vicariously through his neighbor’s swinging lifestyle, spying on him and his neverending parade of nude women through a telescope. (Incidentally, that neighbor is played by Return Of The Living Dead‘s Don Calfa, sporting a gloriously long head of hippie hair.)

George thinks he’s found the answer to his dissatisfaction when he randomly sees Bo Derek in the car next to his at a traffic stop. She is, as George later puts it, “a vision”, on her way to be married to sentient Ken doll and future Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones. Unable to get her out of his head, George finds out that her name is Jenny and eventually tracks her down to Mexico, where the newlyweds are honeymooning.

So yeah, he essentially turns into a bit of a stalker but no, none of this behavior comes across as creepy. Part of this is because Edwards turns this stretch of the film into a showcase for some of his broadest physical comedy. Every time George gets a little closer to his dream girl, he pays for it in pain or some other humiliation. Dudley Moore was an expert physical comedian and Blake Edwards was second to none at filming bits like these.

But Moore’s performance also helps keep our sympathies from turning against George. Even when his judgment isn’t clouded by booze and painkillers (which isn’t often), it’s clear that he’s going after this woman blindly with absolutely no idea what he’s going to do if or when he finds her. He repeatedly tries reaching out to Sam, desperately wanting her to “save him” from himself. But the movie is smart enough to recognize that isn’t her job. George pushes her too far and Sam rightly tells him to piss off. If they’re going to have a future together, it’s going to take work.

Eventually, George and Jenny do end up alone together, after a somewhat convoluted rescue (involving a shark, of course, since Jaws was still fresh in everyone’s mind) lands Jenny’s husband in the hospital. But here too, the reality of the situation fails to live up to George’s fantasy. He has idealized her so much that he can’t accept the fact that an encounter that’s momentous to him is really no big deal to her. He loses respect for her in that moment but significantly, he also loses a lot of respect for himself as he recognizes his own hypocrisy. If someone were to remake 10 today (note to filmmakers: please don’t), I’m sure this sequence would be handled much differently. But these are equally valid character choices, especially for 1979 but even today. George’s dream girl isn’t just a blank slate. She has her own wants, desires, thoughts and moral compass. And, when he really starts to think about it, George realizes they don’t align with his own.

Odds are that 10 was too big a commercial hit to register much with Oscar voters. It was nominated for five Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) and the ever-popular Best New Star of the Year (you know, the category that was discontinued shortly after Pia Zadora won it…Bo Derek lost to Bette Midler, probably a wise choice by the Foreign Press). But at the Academy Awards, the best 10 could muster was a pair of music nominations.

Now, I’m never going to say a bad word against Henry Mancini. He is one of the all-time great composers for film and television with more awards and nominations than most people have had hot dinners. As far as I’m concerned, he’s earned them all. But, let me just suggest that perhaps his work on 10 is not his most memorable. There is a piece of music from 10 that everyone who’s seen the movie remembers. That would be Ravel’s Boléro. Boléro became so associated with the film that, a few years later, Bo Derek would attempt to ride its coattails yet again by making a movie CALLED Bolero (and if you’re a connoisseur of bad cinema, you should definitely see it…it’s jaw-droppingly terrible). But Mancini’s actual score is unobtrusive and altogether forgettable.

As for the song, nobody’s going to argue that music wasn’t an important part of the film. It’s about a songwriter, after all, and Mancini contributed a few original tunes, including the hilarious, intentionally bad “I Have An Ear For Love”. But when Jenny describes George’s work as “elevator music”, it’s hard to disagree. The nominated song, “It’s Easy To Say”, is performed by Moore and Andrews, both in the film and over the end credits. At one point, Moore plays an extended instrumental version of it on the piano that’s better than the later vocal rendition. Moore was an excellent pianist and he pours a lot of character into his performance of the song. But the final version is exactly the kind of nothing song that the Academy uses to pad out the category in weak years.

In the end, 10 won neither award. Original Score went to Georges Delerue’s A Little Romance, a pleasant enough choice but a far cry from my favorite Delerue score. Of the nominated films, I’d likely cast my vote for Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the original song category, “It’s Easy To Say” lost out to an even more unlikely choice: “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae. In retrospect, the obvious winner should have been “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. But let’s face it. The actual “best original song” from a motion picture in 1979 wasn’t even nominated. That would be “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. I’d put that up against “It’s Easy To Say” any day of the week.

10 is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital from Warner Home Video.

To Stream Or Not To Stream

Hey, here’s some generic movie-themed clip art!

Lately, there’s been a lot of gloom and doom about the impending demise of physical media. Sales are plummeting, the popularity of streaming services just keeps going up, yadda yadda yadda. And while it’s certainly true that there are fewer places than ever to buy (or especially rent) DVDs and Blu-rays, I was curious about how actual consumer desire stacked up against the reality of media consumption.

So yesterday, I tossed a question out upon the social media winds. It was a simple question, one we all probably ask ourselves several times a week. What do you feel like watching right now? The only stipulation I added was it had to be something you could conceivably watch. So, no lost movies (like Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight), no future movies (like Avengers 4) and no unmade or imaginary movies (like the alternate reality where David Lynch lost his mind and said, “As a matter of fact, George, I’d love to direct Revenge Of The Jedi for you. Sounds like a hoot!”)

I ended up with a list of some 80 movies from all across the cinematic spectrum. Classics both new and old, cult favorites, foreign movies, you name it. (Pat yourselves on the back, folks. You have excellent and eclectic tastes in films.) Surprisingly few people wanted to see something currently in theaters (of those, Deadpool 2 was the clear favorite…sorry, Han). And, perhaps not surprisingly given the Electric Theatre’s reputation for spotlighting movies not available on DVD, a handful of people tossed out movies that simply aren’t available except on VHS or in the vaults of the Library of Congress (yes, I want to see The Day The Clown Cried just as much as you do). Even with those outliers and ignoring individual formats that some people specified (we don’t all have access to 70mm projectors and even if we do, we can’t usually control what screens on ‘em), this seemed like a pretty good control group to see where and how movies were available.

I checked all the big streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and FilmStruck). I dug around for both physical and digital availability. I even checked premium add-on services for channels like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and Starz, as well as underdog digital library Hoopla (available for free if you have a library card from many major cities). The results were somewhat surprising.

The big loser turned out to be Amazon Prime, followed closely by Hulu. Of the 80 movies I checked, Amazon Prime had exactly one (the 1998 Minnie Driver obscurity Uncorked, also known as At Sachem Farm). Amazon’s usefulness goes up slightly if you add a premium channel like Starz but even then, the results aren’t great. Hulu fared only slightly better with two titles (The Matrix and Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Not that these services don’t have movies worth watching. Both definitely do, particularly Amazon Prime, if you’re willing to dig. But if either of them happen to have the specific movie you want to see when you want to see it, it’s probably just a coincidence.

I wasn’t really expecting too much from Hoopla and it delivered on those low expectations, although they did have a couple titles (Barefoot In The Park and Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). Hoopla’s a strange animal. I’ve watched a number of documentaries on the service, as well as a handful of B and C-list catalog titles. The most surprising thing about Hoopla’s library is the relatively large number of live-action Disney movies from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Stuff like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and the Apple Dumpling Gang saga. Even Disney short changes these movies, which is probably how they ended up on Hoopla. These titles aren’t exactly easy to find in stores (and, for the most part, not really worth owning unless you’re a hardcore Disney collector), so personally, I think it’s kind of cool that they’re available to check out here. Hoopla’s a great resource for e-books, audio books and music but they’re definitely still playing catch-up in the movie department.

As for Netflix, the mighty king of all streaming…well, kinda sucks. They only had four titles on my list: Burn After Reading, The Godfather, Inside Man and L.A. Confidential. Some of these other movies used to be on there and may well be again someday. But that does you no good if you want to watch them right now. This, of course, is one of the biggest drawbacks to streaming. Stuff comes and goes and it’s a colossal pain in the ass trying to track anything down. I have a Roku and you’d think the search function on there would help with that. You would be wrong. There’s nothing out there that provides a comprehensive and accurate search across all streaming services. If you want to find your movie, you’ve got to search all sorts of places individually. Ain’t nobody got time for that (except for me, evidently, while writing this article).

The biggest blind spot in most search engines is FilmStruck. This is a problem because they’re definitely a player, coming up with no less than 9 movies on my list. Good ones, too. I knew they’d have Criterion titles like Seven Samurai and Before The Rain and TCM-certified classics like Casablanca. But I was surprised to discover Dersu Uzala, Network, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, The Producers (the original, not that musical remake thing) and Cameron Crowe’s Singles. If you’re truly interested in movies and not just TV shows and original content, you should definitely consider adding FilmStruck to your lineup.

It should come as a surprise to no one that most of the movies on my list were not available on any streaming service. The older the movie, the less likely it was to show up. But the news isn’t all great for the you-can-pry-my-discs-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands crowd. Of the movies that were available on DVD and/or Blu-ray, almost all of them are also available to buy or rent digitally. There were just over a dozen that you can only get on disc. Granted, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other titles like that out there but the tide is definitely turning.

Look, nothing would have pleased me more than to run this little experiment and be able to say, “Ha ha! Physical media is the only way to go! Toldja!” But the reality is, that’s just no longer the case. I am a collector by nature and will continue to add discs to my library for as long as I’m able. But I’ve also embraced the digital age. I’ve long been an advocate for releasing obscure catalog movies on DVD but my concern was never primarily about the physical object. It’s about availability. As long as you have access to something, I don’t really care all that much what form it takes.

I’ve heard all the arguments against digital downloads and probably made most of them myself at one time or another. Some of them are incontrovertible matters of taste to do with the tactile sensation of holding an object and seeing it on a shelf. No question, that is of great importance to a lot of people. But some of them are also a little tin-foil-hat conspiracy theory based. Can a studio just revoke your digital license at will and disappear a movie from your digital library? Technically…sure, I guess. But has that ever happened to you? In my experience, it’s more likely to be the opposite scenario. I’d be more than happy to delete that copy of Fantastic Four from my digital library. I can guarantee I’ll never want to watch it again. But now it seems I’m stuck carrying it around for the rest of my life like a bad tattoo you had done on an all-night drunk.

Here’s the bottom line. Say you’re sitting around at home, thinking, “I’d really like to watch Movie X.” If you really, really love Movie X, you should own it, on disc if possible or, if you don’t like clutter or can’t be bothered to move from the couch, on digital. Both are equally valid. But if you don’t, your options are limited. Once upon a time, you could have gone to the video store and rented it but those days, for better or worse, are largely behind us. Relying on streaming services like Netflix is worse than a crapshoot. The odds are heavily stacked against you finding Movie X at the exact moment you want to watch it. But if you’re willing to rent or buy it digitally, your odds just got a whole lot better.

Streaming services have, by and large, failed to fulfill the promise of putting the entire history of film at your fingertips. They have their purpose but, as I’ve argued before, they’re a replacement for cable television, not video stores and libraries. The only way to ensure your access to Movie X is by purchasing it for yourself. And increasingly, that doesn’t have to mean owning hundreds and hundreds of discs. The future of home entertainment is not going to come with an eject button. As long as our access to these movies continues to increase, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: House

When the average moviegoer thinks of Japanese horror movies, the first (and possibly only) thing that pops to mind is likely the Godzilla series. If you ask the more Criterion Collection-obsessed fan about the subject, they might bring up the sublimely creepy supernatural thrills of Kwaidan or Ringu. All of these movies have their merits and deserve their places in the horror pantheon. But if you continue to explore the country’s genre efforts, eventually you’ll get to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s delirious 1977 film House. And once you do, you’re never gonna forget it. There are plenty of horror movies but there aren’t a whole lot from any country that are quite like House.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward. A teenage girl (named Gorgeous, your first indication of the broad strokes this movie is painted in) is disappointed to learn that her summer vacation with her film composer dad is going to be crashed by his new fiancée. Still mourning the death of her mother, Gorgeous contacts her estranged aunt, who lives alone in a remote country house. The aunt responds that she’d love a visit, so Gorgeous and her six friends (Sweet, Prof, Mac, Melody, Fantasy and Kung Fu) head off alone for the country, their school-teacher chaperone promising to follow right behind.

It takes a little while for things to get spooky once the girls arrive at the house. At first, the wheelchair-bound aunt is a gracious host, overjoyed to have company after all these years. The girls take turns cleaning up, cooking, and giggling over inside jokes and crushes. But eventually, they start disappearing one by one and as they do, the aunt grows steadily more youthful and invigorated. No points for guessing the source of her new vitality.

Even though it takes a little while to get to the horror parts of House, the movie is pretty unhinged right from the get-go. The cinematography is bathed in lurid colors and composed of wildly disorienting camera angles, disassociating even the most ordinary scene from any sense of realism. There’s already a sense that anything can happen even before the girls’ heads start turning up in wells and pianos start to devour them. And just as you’re thinking, “This movie is bananas,” a character literally transforms into a pile of bananas, as if Obayashi was reading your mind and decided to see your bet and raise it.

This was Obayashi’s feature directing debut and he threw everything up to and including the kitchen sink into it. The result is absolutely exhilarating, a haunted house ride like none other. The only other thing I can compare it to is Takashi Miike’s equally insane The Happiness Of The Katakuris. I could easily see House being an influence on Miike’s most free-wheeling projects. This is the perfect Halloween movie for the jaded horror fan who thinks they’ve seen everything. House is proof that there is always something new under the sun just waiting to be discovered.

The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: Jacob’s Ladder

(SPOILER ALERT: This article will discuss plot points, including the ending, of a film that was released in the previous century. If for some reason you have not yet seen Jacob’s Ladder, adjust your reading plans accordingly.)

When you think horror movies, a murderer’s row of iconic directors immediately pops to mind: Argento, Carpenter, Cronenberg, Hooper, Craven. They’re so familiar to horror fans that first names aren’t necessary. But it can be equally fascinating when a filmmaker not typically associated with scary movies decides to tackle the genre. John Landis and William Friedkin, for example, have only made a couple of horror movies apiece. But those films were strong enough to forever link them to horror. You could make the same case for Stanley Kubrick. He only made one but I think most people (besides Stephen King, of course) think it was a pretty solid effort.

Then you have the real outliers, folks who are just visiting the dark side. Think Rob Reiner (Misery), Robert Zemeckis (What Lies Beneath and the horror-adjacent Death Becomes Her), and pretty much everybody who ever directed an episode of Tales From The Crypt. But surprisingly enough, one of the darkest visions from these horror dabblers came from the guy who directed Flashdance.

In 1990, Adrian Lyne was riding high on the blockbuster success of Fatal Attraction (a movie that’s usually classified with the higher-class “suspense thrillers”…but come on, it’s basically a horror movie). He had enough clout to get Jacob’s Ladder out of development hell and into production. Bruce Joel Rubin’s script for Jacob’s Ladder had been kicking around for years, with such names as Ridley Scott and Sidney Lumet taking a crack at it. Lyne made some significant changes to Rubin’s script, lending the finished film a much more disturbing atmosphere than it likely would have had otherwise. (Rubin, of course, had another big paranormal hit of a much different kind in 1990 with Ghost.)

Lyne cast Tim Robbins (then best known for his comedic work in such films as Bull Durham and…um, Howard The Duck) as Jacob Singer. During the Vietnam War, Singer is badly wounded in a brutal firefight that wipes out much of his platoon. Back in the States, he’s a postman struggling to return to civilian life. He’s separated from his wife following the traumatic death of their son, Gabe (played, somewhat distractingly, by an uncredited Macaulay Culkin). Even worse, he’s begun to suffer from severe hallucinations, high fevers and other ailments. When one of his old Army buddies (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is mysteriously killed, he compares notes with the other survivors of his platoon (including Ving Rhames and Eriq La Salle). They come to the conclusion that something must have happened to them back in Vietnam and whatever it was, it’s coming back to haunt them.

So far, so good. Lyne films all of this with a palpable sense of dread and menace, his signature carefully placed shafts of light and banks of rolling fog getting put to great use. The hallucinations Jacob endures are genuinely disturbing, from a near miss on a subway track to the bravura sequence with Jacob strapped down on a gurney in one of the creepiest abandoned hospitals in film history, being tended to by eyeless doctors with hypodermic needles the size of trombones. But here’s the thing (and here comes that spoiler I warned you about at the top): Jacob’s dead. He was mortally wounded in that firefight and died in a mobile hospital tent while still in ‘Nam.

When I first saw Jacob’s Ladder back in 1990, this reveal soured the entire movie for me. For one thing, it’s not exactly a twist. We’re explicitly told several times that this is exactly what’s going on. Jacob even has a palm reader tell him point blank that he’s dead pretty early on. It’s a little like if Citizen Kane had opened with the words, “My sled!” instead of “Rosebud”.

Also, it essentially turns the entire film into a protracted version of the great short subject An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (which also aired as an episode of The Twilight Zone). There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that (although I admit to being biased against movies that take longer to do the same exact thing as a much shorter predecessor). But Jacob’s hallucinatory life is filled with details and characters that are extremely specific. These certainly help sell the reality of the situation but don’t quite fit comfortably once they’re revealed for what they are.

Danny Aiello’s role as an angelic chiropractor (I assume either Ruben or Lyne have had some serious back problems) is easy enough to explain away. But Elizabeth Peña has a thankless role as Jacob’s “current” girlfriend who presumably never actually existed. We get no sense that this is some other figure from his past who he has recast into this role. She’s presumably a demon (her name is Jezebel, after all) but for the most part, she seems like an overwhelmed young woman who’s genuinely trying to help her partner. Almost all of the other hallucinatory characters have a mysterious aloofness to them that sets them apart. But Peña seems like a real person and it’s a shame that she and the audience aren’t given more to work with.

All this being said, there are plenty of people who admire Jacob’s Ladder in its entirety and find it to be a disturbing and even profound horror movie. For me, it remains a movie full of brilliant individual moments that unfortunately don’t ever add up to anything more than that. The allegorical elements don’t seem entirely thought out, which may be a result of Lyne’s tinkering with Ruben’s script. As long as the movie focuses on Jacob Singer’s brilliantly art-directed hallucinations and paranoia, it works like gangbusters. It’s only when it tries to spin the horror into something more meaningful that it goes awry. I find Jacob’s Ladder to be a frustrating near-miss. As always, your mileage may vary.

The Hell Plaza Oktober-Minifest 2017: Phantasm Ravager

For eight years, from 2007 to 2014, I ran an annual October review-a-thon for The Digital Bits called the Hell Plaza Oktoberfest. As you probably already know (or can figure out if you have any idea what holiday is most closely associated with October), the premise was that I would review a horror (or horror-adjacent) DVD every day for the entire month. This doesn’t sound like it should be too hard. Social media is chock-a-block with posts about horror-movie-a-day challenges. Plenty of people even write up their reviews on blogs, Facebook, Letterboxd and anywhere else words can be posted online. It’s really not that big a deal.

The thing is, I wasn’t exactly doing that. I wasn’t reviewing a movie a day. I was reviewing a DVD or Blu-ray release a day and that frequently meant multiple movies, plus hours of bonus content. For every bare-bones movie-only DVD I reviewed, there’d be something like Scream Factory’s 6-movie Vincent Price Collection or the Masters Of Horror television series. What I’m trying to say is these things took time.

Anyway, I began to get a little burned out after 8 years and decided it was time to pull the plug on Oktoberfest. I thought eight installments was a respectable run for a horror franchise. Most don’t make it that far and if they do, they’ve usually started to truly suck. That’s right around the time where the word “reboot” starts getting tossed around.

This year, I’ve been doing my own personal Oktoberfest at home, trying to watch a horror movie a day. I haven’t been as religious about it as I would if I was still writing for the Bits, missing a day here and there. But that’s just helped remind me why I enjoyed doing it in the first place. So I figured, why not reboot Oktoberfest? Now that I’m not in the DVD review business anymore, all I’d have to worry about is the movie itself, which was always the most fun part about those reviews anyway. I felt that I did a halfway decent job reviewing bonus content and other technical aspects of the discs I covered but I always tried to make it clear that if you were just reading my reviews for analysis of bit-rates and 7.1 remixes, you were in the wrong place. Here at the Electric Theatre, I don’t even have to pretend to care about that stuff.

There were only two problems with Oktoberfest 2.0. One, I wasn’t sure if anyone would really care. Two, I didn’t even think about doing it until October was already halfway over. Fortunately, the outstanding community over at the J.E.T. Facebook page assured me that they did care and helped me pick out a few movies for a Mini-Fest. So let’s give it a shot. If this goes well, you can expect a complete Oktoberfest next year. Until then, what better way to kick off a new installment of a long-running franchise than with a look at another new installment of a long-running franchise?

And say what you will about the Phantasm series, nobody involved with these films can be accused of rushing things to capitalize on their popularity. The first movie came out back in 1979. Since then, Don Coscarelli and friends have gone one to make four more, including last year’s Phantasm: Ravager (or RaVager, depending on how clever you’re feeling with Roman numerals).

First things first: it is nothing short of miraculous that these movies are still being made by essentially the same group of people who made the first one almost 40 years ago. Despite getting briefly sucked into the studio system with Phantasm II, Don Coscarelli has somehow managed to retain control of his cult classic creation. Sure, he handed the directorial reins of Part 5 over to David Hartman but he still co-wrote the script and produced. Offhand, I can’t think of another series whose creators have maintained that kind of focus and autonomy. Even Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have broadened the Evil Dead tent well beyond the scope of their original effort. Coscarelli and crew just seem to keep plugging along in their own little corner of the universe, away from anyone who might try to interfere with or dilute their vision.

That’s pretty cool but Phantasm: Ravager is the first movie in the series where that sense of isolationism starts to work against it. There’s no question that this movie was made exclusively for Phantasm Phans. And that’s fine. I consider myself a fan. But this is a movie made for people who have seen all four Phantasms multiple times and rewatch them on a regular basis. I like ‘em myself but it’s been almost 20 years since the last one came out. Ravager picks up as if it’s been six months. I have never seen a movie sequel make so little effort toward attracting new fans as this one.

For better or worse, Phantasm: Ravager is essentially The Reggie Show, throwing the spotlight on the guitar-playing ice cream man turned sphere-hunter played by Reggie Bannister. Reggie returns from the events of Phantasm IV alone, wandering the desert and looking for Mike (A. Michael Baldwin). Reunited with his iconic ’71 ‘Cuda, Reggie gets back on the road, still pursued by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and his silver spheres. Or maybe not. In another timeline, Reggie is wheelchair-bound and suffering from early onset dementia, reciting his insane-sounding stories to Mike, who is alive and well and has no memory of any of this. Again, or maybe not because Reggie soon finds himself in yet another alternate timeline, this one a post-apocalyptic hellscape ruled by the Tall Man where Mike leads a ragtag group of Mad Max-inspired rebels like Chunk (Stephen Jutras) and Jane (Dawn Cody, who also turns up as…aw, forget it…it doesn’t really matter).

Believe it or not, this is both more and less confusing on screen than it is on paper. Narrative clarity has never been the strong suit of the Phantasm franchise. It tracks in dream logic that sorta kinda makes sense while you’re watching it. It’s never unclear what timeline you’re in or what’s happening within each one. But what it all’s supposed to mean is another thing. I give Coscarelli and Hartman a lot of credit both for getting the band back together (there are plenty of other surprising callbacks and pop-up cameos here) and for trying to do something kind of ambitious that doesn’t ignore the cast’s advancing age. There’s certainly no reason for the Tall Man to be calling Mike “boy” anymore. But let’s be honest. None of these guys are really strong enough actors to pull off something truly meaningful or emotional. The degree to which this material moves you depends entirely on your own emotional connection to these movies.

Ravager ends up being a tribute to Reggie Bannister, which is fine. He’s certainly earned his day in the sun. But it probably should have been a swan song for Angus Scrimm, who passed away shortly before the movie premiered. You might say, “Sure, it’s easy to say that in retrospect,” considering this movie’s lengthy production time but come on. Scrimm was 89 when he died, so you can’t say it was a shock. I have no doubt they used him as much as they could given his age and that rumble of a voice still carries menace. But it seems to me that if you’re going to make another Phantasm movie and you’re pretty sure it’ll be the last one, at least with Angus Scrimm’s involvement, wouldn’t you do everything you can to highlight his presence? Reggie’s timelines are so scrambled that the Tall Man barely figures in to much of it and eventually, he goes out with a whimper. It’s not what you want from an iconic movie villain’s final appearance.

For all the obvious care and enthusiasm that went into the making of Ravager, the movie is a step backward for the Phantasm series. With its low-grade digital video look and often chintzy effects, it’s clear that they simply did not have the resources to pull off some of the more ambitious sequences. The reveal of Earth as remade in the Tall Man’s image particularly falls flat. The movie feels more like a Kickstarter-backed piece of fan fiction than a professionally produced film. If this is indeed the end of the road for the Tall Man (and with Scrimm’s death, it certainly should be), it’s a well-intentioned but rather ignoble conclusion to the series. For all its faults and quirks, the Phantasm series had more ups than downs. Ravager, unfortunately, lands squarely on the negative side of the balance sheet.

Not That You Asked…Some Thoughts On Twin Peaks: The Return

And now come the think-pieces.

(Note for those of you new to the internet. This piece will be discussing David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return {or Season 3 or whatever you want to call it} in its entirety. This will include what are popularly referred to as “spoilers”. If you are invested in this show but have not yet watched all eighteen episodes, you may not want to read this.)

From the very beginning, to be a fan of Twin Peaks has involved a certain degree of frustration. Not merely tolerating it but actively thriving upon it. To truly appreciate the show, you had to love mysteries more than solutions. When a show’s co-creator admits in interviews that he has little to no interest in solving the murder mystery at the root of the proceedings, you should realize that frustration will be woven deeply into the fabric of the program.

Over the years, Twin Peaks has frustrated its viewers and fans (two groups that shouldn’t necessarily be mutually exclusive but kind of are) in a variety of ways. A lot of viewers got frustrated and jumped ship when the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer was still unrevealed at the end of the first season. Others became frustrated over the course of the second as the show became more esoteric and eventually rambled its way through a bevy of subplots (Ben Horne’s Civil War obsession, the DEA’s investigation into Cooper and, most notoriously, James Hurley’s dalliance with wealthy abused femme fatale Evelyn Marsh) that mostly went nowhere. And everyone who stuck around for the season two finale was frustrated by a series of escalating cliffhangers that were unlikely to ever be resolved.

All this frustration arguably reached its apotheosis in 1992 when the few remaining die-hards went to see Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Never forget that despite its recent re-appraisal by fans and critics, FWWM was a major disaster when it first came out, despised by virtually everybody who saw it. People were frustrated that it was a prequel focusing on the murder of Teresa Banks and the last days of Laura Palmer instead of a continuation that would provide some resolution to the series. They were frustrated that beloved Special Agent Dale Cooper was relegated to a relatively minor (and somewhat baffling) supporting role. And they were frustrated to learn that over an hour of footage, including both material featuring some fan favorite characters as well as stuff that actually helps you make some degree of sense of the damn thing, had been cut from the film.

So it came as no surprise when the recently concluded Showtime revival introduced an entire summer’s worth of frustration to Peaks viewers old and new. But a lot has changed in the years since we were last in Twin Peaks, not least of which is the way we engage with television. These days, the water cooler has moved online. Each and every television show worth discussing (and quite a few that aren’t) is given an online post-mortem, recapping the events of the week and giving fans a place to congregate, theorize and speculate. I followed a few of these for Twin Peaks: The Return and I was amazed to see that the level of discourse and criticism rarely rose above that of Homer Simpson: “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

The Return seemed to defeat the week-by-week analysis method of television criticism. Even something as simple as recapping the events of each episode ultimately proved futile as entire weeks would go by where seemingly very little happened. But without knowing where any of this was headed, the vigilant recapper would gloss over a scene at their peril (“Meanwhile, Andy and Lucy have a heated discussion over what color chair to order…”), resulting in some absurdly detailed articles that somehow still managed to miss the forest for the trees.

But despite all the virtual ink spilled over The Return, very few people attempted to analyze it at its most basic level: as a piece of motion picture storytelling (whether you consider it to be cinema or television is up to you). In other words, what about this thing actually works and what doesn’t? Everyone seems to have collectively decided that David Lynch is above such things. Whatever he’s doing can’t be discussed in terms of traditional filmmaking. Frankly, that’s a crock of shit. Regardless of whatever other artistic pursuits he chases down, Lynch is still a filmmaker, working with a script, actors, a crew and all the other stuff everybody else works with. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, your initial response to his work, whether it’s positive or negative, is based on how it works as a movie, not as some esoteric puzzle that requires 60 minutes of transcendental meditation a day to decipher.

Now don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I felt that Twin Peaks: The Return worked beautifully. I certainly wouldn’t call it a disappointment. If anything, it was much better than we had any right to expect from such a belated follow-up. But it’s worth taking a look at what worked and what didn’t work here because I feel far too many people are reacting as though every minute of these 18 hours was an unassailable masterpiece. Twin Peaks has never been perfect and it does the show, David Lynch, Mark Frost and all involved a disservice to pretend like it is.

But before we look at what we got, I’d like to express my disappointment at a few of the things we didn’t. You can’t really criticize a show for not giving you what you want, especially this one, and this really isn’t criticism. This part is just the whining of a longtime Twin Peaks fanboy.

Sheriff Harry S. Truman/The Man from Another Place – I don’t know what happened that Michael Ontkean and Michael J. Anderson couldn’t be persuaded to return to Twin Peaks, whether it was something personal, health reasons, money or something else entirely (probably money…it’s usually money). Whatever it was, their absence reverberated throughout. Ontkean’s Truman was the heart of the original series, an audience surrogate who guided us into the strange world of the Black Lodge. Likewise, he was able to ease Cooper (and us) into the every day weirdness of Twin Peaks that was simply business as usual for him. The relationship he and Cooper forged over those two series was a key element in Twin Peaks’ success. As much as I love Robert Forster (more about him later), he was no substitute for Ontkean. But at least he was replaced with another human actor. Anderson’s Man from Another Place, a.k.a. The Arm, evolved into a tree skeleton with a blob of flesh on it. Of course in the Twin Peaks world, this evolution actually makes more sense than Harry’s job being taken by a previously unheard-of brother but still. Anderson was one of the first iconic, indelible actors who helped define the look and feel of Twin Peaks. Without him, The Return didn’t feel quite the same.

Chet Desmond and Sam Stanley – I may be the only person who was hoping for a return visit from Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland’s characters from Fire Walk With Me. Sutherland’s Stanley was a long-shot. The forensic specialist was newly paired up with Desmond to investigate the murder of Teresa Banks, maybe a test run arranged by Director Gordon Cole (Lynch) to see if he could handle a Blue Rose Case. It’s safe to assume he didn’t pass the audition. But Isaak’s Desmond disappeared without a trace, just like Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) and Coop. If Jeffries could come back despite Bowie’s death AND we could make time to catch up with former DEA Agent Denise Bryson (David Duchovny), an amusing but peripheral character, surely we could have spared a thought for poor Agent Desmond.

How’s Annie? – This one really irked me. Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham) provided the whole reason Cooper went into the Black Lodge at the end of the second season in the first place. And as we glimpsed in Fire Walk With Me, she’s still in there. The fact that neither she nor her captor, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), were even mentioned in The Return felt like a disconnect to me.

(EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that Annie did indeed get out of the Black Lodge at the end of season two. I forgot about that. It’s also confirmed in a deleted scene from Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces showing her in the hospital. Mea culpa on that one, although I stand by the larger point about how nobody even refers to her or Windom Earle.)

As much as I would have liked to see all of the above turn up in The Return, I knew full well that none of them would be appearing before the first episode even aired. Considering the intense veil of secrecy surrounding the show’s production, it’s a bit surprising that Lynch released a complete cast list well in advance of the premiere. That information turned out to be 100% accurate, with no surprise omissions or red herring inclusions. It was the only scrap of information we had in the months leading up to the premiere and it was a far more effective teaser than any trailer or clip could be. It told us everything and nothing at the same time.

Even armed with this knowledge, one of the biggest question marks hanging over The Return was how Lynch and Frost would deal with the large number of prominent cast members who had died over the past 25 years. Apart from Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and the constant presence (felt if not always seen) of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), no one member of the cast seemed to have any more or less importance than another. It would have been fairly simple to acknowledge these passings with a nod and a line, or even ignore them entirely, and move on.

Instead, The Return’s resurrection of its late actors and treatment of death in general became one of its greatest strengths. Who could have predicted that Phillip Jeffries (originally Bowie, now an enormous steampunk kettle voiced by Nathan Frizzell) or Major Briggs (Don S. Davis, who died all the way back in 2008) would be key players in The Return? And yet, these revivals never came across as cheap, exploitative or crass. They were all deeply reverent, a tacit indication that no one other than these men and women could embody these characters. The touching dedications at the end of each episode served as a fitting, final goodbye.

In many respects, saying goodbye seemed to be the entire point behind The Return. Part of the reason the second season cliffhanger proved so frustrating was that we didn’t know at the time that it was the end of the road. Sure, the writing was on the wall as ratings continued to drop but that episode was never meant to be a series finale. It just became one by default after ABC pulled the plug.

In the years since, Lynch may have realized how much he underestimated our need for closure. That isn’t the same as resolution, something The Return steadfastly refused to provide. But watching The Return, steeled with the knowledge that whatever happened, this was probably the end, was a much different experience than watching that second season finale all those years ago. This was particularly true in the series’ second half. Our last glimpse of Big Ed Hurley (Everett McGill) and Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), together and happy at last, or Margaret Lanterman’s (Catherine E. Coulson) heartbreaking final call to Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) felt like the end of a long road. And when Cooper says, “See you at the curtain call” to Cole and Diane (Laura Dern) in Episode 17, it felt like an acknowledgment that the folks who brought us Twin Peaks would finally be getting a chance to take a long-overdue bow.

What then are we to make of the fact that the curtain call never quite materializes in Episode 18? In the end, we’re left with Dale Cooper (or really, I guess, “Richard”) and Laura Palmer/Carrie Page, MacLachlan and Lee, the two constant presences, standing alone on the street in front of what used to be (or maybe will someday become) the Palmer house, asking “What year is it?” The episode works as a powerful visualization of the nostalgic impulses that drove this series, as a thematic epilogue to Twin Peaks in its entirety, and even as simply a tone poem exploring the quixotic urges inside Cooper’s quest to avenge and retroactively “save” Laura. But it’s a far cry from the traditional victory lap we usually envision as a curtain call. And how does it function within the overall narrative of Twin Peaks? Is there meaning here or is it completely inscrutable?

There’s certainly enough to unpack in this episode that I’m confident that it’s scrutable, given enough time, analysis and careful reviewing. But I’m less sure that’s the case with the series as a whole. Many of The Return’s best moments came in its second half, following the astonishing high point of Episode 8, 60 minutes of nonstop I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this-on-American-television mind-fuckery that only David Lynch could have delivered. Prior to that episode and even in several that followed, there were several blind alleys and detours that simply didn’t work. What’s astonishing is that The Return’s strengths overshadowed its weaknesses to such a degree that we all just kind of forgot about them.

The problem here, I think, is that David Lynch hasn’t been all that interested in narrative storytelling for a long, long time. All of his films have grace notes and superfluous sequences that don’t necessarily add anything to the forward momentum of the story being told. And that’s great in a single two-to-three-hour movie (although three hours is pushing it…overlength being one of several problems that sunk Lynch’s Inland Empire). But that kind of meandering becomes maddening over the course of 18 hours.

Did The Return need to be 18 episodes long? Absolutely not. As far as I’m concerned, if this had been a trilogy of movie-length episodes it would have been one of the towering television achievements of all time. First on my chopping block would have been, I’m sorry to say, Robert Forster and Candy Clark as Sheriff Frank Truman and his wife, Doris. I love both actors but Forster’s presence was too close to the heart of the series. He was never going to fit in entirely, despite his best efforts. The addition of Doris should have distinguished him more from his brother. But her few scenes, harping at Frank about minor offenses, felt like rehashes of stuff we’ve seen played out before between Ed and Nadine (Wendy Robie) or, for that matter, Pete and Catherine Martell (Jack Nance and Piper Laurie). If you’re going to go back to the well, at least come back with some fresh water.

There were plenty of other subplots that seemed to portend much but added very little, including Dr. Jacoby’s (Russ Tamblyn) new gig as podcaster Dr. Amp, most if not all of the goings-on at the relocated-for-some-reason Fat Trout Trailer Park run by Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton), and the various relationships between Shelly the waitress (Mädchen Amick), her daughter Becky (Amanda Seyfried), Becky’s cheating, drug-addicted husband Steven (Caleb Landry Jones) and drug dealer Red (Balthazar Getty). If you were paying attention to the credits on Episode 11, you were probably shocked to discover that the woman Steven was having an affair with was Gersten Hayward (Alicia Witt), youngest sister of Laura’s best friend, Donna. This seemed like it should be important. Turned out, it wasn’t.

Perhaps the worst offender in the Things That Went Nowhere Department was virtually everything that happened at the Roadhouse. Almost every week, in addition to some admittedly excellent but somewhat intrusive musical performances, we met a variety of locals, most of whom we’d never seen before and would never see again. Their conversations were intense, elliptical and full of references to people and events we didn’t know anything about. I found it easier to care about and become invested in the now-notorious floor-sweeping sequence in Episode 7. At least I knew what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Having said that, the best sequence in the Roadhouse makes me want to revisit the entire series and watch all of the scenes there more carefully. That’d be the arrival of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and husband Charlie (Clark Middleton) in Episode 16, culminating in the reveal of Audrey waking up in that white room. I’d suspected something was off about Audrey’s situation from the first time we saw her. The dialogue, the situation, everything seemed stilted, even by Twin Peaks standards. So when it turned out that her trip to the Roadhouse was possibly not real, it made sense. Now I wonder if everything in that location was unreal. There’s also the question of Audrey’s missing lover, Billy. His name comes up throughout the series in a few different contexts. I’d be willing to bet that if you could piece together a plausible theory about Billy, you’d get a lot closer to figuring out what’s up with Audrey.

What’s frustrating (there’s that word again) is that even if you did all that, it’d still just be a theory. I really don’t believe Lynch and Frost have given us enough information here to know what’s happened to Audrey. She’s only the most egregious example. You could say the same about many of the other minor characters. But considering what a popular character Audrey was/is…she was even a favorite of Lynch’s…her treatment in The Return stings more than a little. She deserved better.

But we, the audience, got exactly what we deserved. Maybe even a little bit more. After all this time, we now have 18 more hours of imperfect television to add to the 30 or so imperfect originals and one very imperfect feature film. Happily, the best moments of The Return can stand toe to toe with the very best work Lynch has ever done. That’s a remarkable achievement for a guy who seemed to walk away from filmmaking completely over a decade ago. If The Return isn’t as cohesive or consistent as one might like, that’s OK. Consistency was never Twin Peaks’ strong suit anyway.

This kind of years-later creative reboot is rare, perhaps because it’s so risky even with the original creative team at the helm. The X-Files wasn’t able to pull it off and they only had half a dozen episodes. Lynch and Frost came much closer to recapturing the magic of their original creation than most. They knew they had lightning in a bottle back in 1990. And if there’s one thing we know about lightning, it never strikes in the same place or in the same way twice. They had the bottle but they were smart to go chasing after a different storm.