Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Bellero Shield: The Outer Limits Mixes Aliens, Shakespeare & Noir

The Outer Limits remains one of the most inventive and groundbreaking science-fiction anthology series of the 1960s. The brainchild of writer-producer Leslie Stevens, the show presented serious-minded tales of science fiction, liberally sprinkled with elements of gothic horror, fantasy and a touch of film noir. Stevens was assisted behind the camera by a talented team including fellow writer-producer Joseph Stefano (of Psycho fame), cinematographer Conrad Hall and composer Dominic Frontiere. Actors such as Robert Culp, Nick Adams, Robert Duvall and David McCallum all appeared in the series. One of my favorite episodes is “The Bellero Shield,” which features Martin Landau and Sally Kellerman. This Shakespearean flavored story is a richly textured tale about power, greed and the complicated relationships between fathers and sons and husbands and wives.

Landau plays Richard Bellero, a scientist who never seems to be able to impress his iron-willed father, a man who heads up the company that bears their name. Richard’s father is planning to give control of the company to someone else, and pass over his son for the “throne.” Richard’s scheming and power-hungry wife Judith (played by Kellerman) pushes her husband to talk with his father and change the man’s mind. His attempt is unsuccessful. Richard’s father then has a confrontation with Judith, whom he despises due to her controlling role in her relationship with his son. Then, an experimental laser beam, which Richard has aimed into outer space, brings an alien being down from the skies into the lab. Judith sees this as her husband’s chance for unlimited power and glory, especially when the alien demonstrates an impenetrable shield, which he uses to protect himself.

Martin Landau & John Hoyt
Richard wants to share and exchange knowledge with the alien before he has to return his own world. Judith implores him to go get his father and bring him back to the lab, so he can see what has transpired. Unlike her husband, Judith definitely doesn’t have humanitarian goals in mind. She sees the alien’s shield as a means to gain power and influence. While Richard is gone, she tries to prevent the alien from leaving and shoots him. With the aid of her housekeeper, Mrs. Dame, she hides the body in the cellar and removes the shield activation device from his hand. Judith plans to present it as her husband’s discovery, secure him the stewardship of the company, and propel him into being a mover and shaker. The act of violence perpetrated by Judith sets in motion a series of events that will have lasting consequences.

Sally Kellerman gives a richly textured performance. The clever and devious Judith will flirt, cajole, argue and even resort to murder to reach her goal of obtaining power for Richard. She is ably assisted by Chita Rivera, who’s marvelous in a supporting role as Judith’s partner in crime, the mysterious (and barefoot) Mrs. Dame. Neil Hamilton (best known to modern audiences as Commissioner Gordon on the 1960s Batman series) is very good as Richard Bellero, Sr. and gets to deliver the episode’s best line: “Great men are forgiven their murderous wives!” Hamilton had a long Hollywood career dating back to the 1920s; if you only know him from Batman, you may be surprised at his assured, low-key work here. Martin Landau perfectly brings across Richard’s decency, meekness, and quiet nature. He plays off Kellerman, Hamilton and John Hoyt (who portrays the alien) quite well.

“The Bellero Shield” has several allusions to Shakespeare and mythology, in both character and story. Judith is quite similar to Lady Macbeth, and her fate in the episode’s climax will bring that character to mind. Richard’s father is much like a king, ready to turn his business (or throne) over to a worthy successor, but not to his own son. The laser “light bridge” which brings the alien to Earth is compared by Judith to the Bifrost, the bridge between Earth and Asgard (home of the gods) in Norse mythology. The excellent teleplay was written by Joseph Stefano, from a story by Stefano and Lou Morheim, loosely based on a story by Arthur Leo Zagat. But you can tell from the rich dialogue and darker elements of the story that it’s primarily Stefano’s voice here.

The other MVPs in the episode are director John Brahm and cinematographer Conrad Hall. Brahm helmed several memorable films, including The Lodger and Hangover Square. He also did a lot of fine work for television, including episodes of The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. Hall went on to win Oscars for his work on Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, American Beauty and Road To Perdition. Both artists do stellar work here; with Brahm balancing the work of the stellar cast and Stefano’s fine script with Hall’s superb framing, stunning use of shadows and deep noir-ish visuals. “The Bellero Shield” is one of the strongest episodes of The Outer Limits. Landau and Kellerman both appeared in another episode of the series: Landau in the wonderful “The Man Who Was Never Born” and Kellerman in the eerie “The Human Factor.”

This post is part of the Favorite TV Episode Blogathon hosted by my fellow blogger Terence over at A Shroud of Thoughts. I’d like to thank him for having me join the party. Be sure to check out the other entries by following this link: http://mercurie.blogspot.com/2019/03/the-5th-annual-favourite-tv-show.html.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

This Movie Is Caught in a "Spider's Web"

Claire Foy in The Girl in the Spider's Web
The adventures of the brilliant hacker Lisbeth Salander in author Stieg Larsson’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series have captivated readers all over the world. The original trilogy of novels was adapted for a trio of Swedish films starring Noomi Rapace (who was excellent as Salander) in 2009. Then David Fincher directed a dark and stylish American version of the initial book in the series in 2011. Rooney Mara played Salander for this film, which co-starred Daniel Craig. She earned an Oscar nomination for her riveting, transformative performance in the role. Despite good reviews, the film was only moderately successful at the box office. A planned sequel that was to be helmed by Fincher, and once again starring Mara and Craig in the roles of Salander and her ally and occasional lover Mikael Blomkvist, was never produced.

Then in late 2018, a new movie featuring Salander, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez, was released. The film is based on the fourth book in the series, penned by David Lagercrantz, who took over writing the novels after Larsson’s passing. In this story, Salander takes time out from her activities as a vigilante avenger aiding victimized women to help out a computer expert who created a program that can access all of the nuclear codes in the world simultaneously. He’s worried that this program, code named Firefall, will fall into the wrong hands, and asks Salander to help him steal it from the NSA. But there are others who wish to obtain Firefall, including a shadowy figure with ties to Salander’s past. Lisbeth Salander not only needs to save the day, but she’ll have to confront some dark secrets from her childhood.

The film travels along at a frenetic pace, hardly taking a breath for you to figure out what’s what and who’s who. It’s a streamlined version of the book, and some characters and situations have either been altered or dropped. The movie assumes that you’re familiar with the main characters from the previous books or film adaptations of the “Dragon Tattoo” saga. Though it’s not quite a full reboot, the movie is something of a reset which acknowledges that there have been previous Salander stories. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is briskly directed by Alvarez (who helmed the well-received 2016 thriller Don’t Breathe) but it pales in comparison to the Swedish made films and Fincher’s sole entry in the series. Claire Foy (The Crown) gives a powerful, effective performance as Salander, and compares favorably with her predecessors, but it does feel like some of the characters darker edges have been smoothed off this time around.

The film’s action is very much in the mold of a Bond or Bourne movie, with fight scenes and car chases that wouldn’t seem out of place in either of those franchises. In fact, the main titles recall Maurice Binder’s work for the Bond series, and the score by Roque Banos feels very 007-inspired. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is worth a look for the solid work of Foy as Lisbeth Salander, and actress Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049) in a key supporting role, but it’s one of those films that won’t stay in your memory too long after you’ve seen it. In a way, it feels like the movie is caught in a web of the previous adaptations of the Lisbeth Salander character, and can't quite get past the expectations set by those previous films. The movie is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKMSP9OKspQ.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

It's a Terrifying "Trilogy of Terror!"

The late Richard Matheson was one of our most talented and prolific writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His career spanned from the 1950s right on through the early 2000s. He created such enduring classics as the novels The Shrinking Man, I Am Legend, Hell House and A Stir of Echoes, all of which were turned into movies. Matheson also wrote for television, including episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and sixteen segments of the original Twilight Zone, including the classics “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “The Invaders.” In the 1970s, Matheson teamed up with producer-director Dan Curtis (of Dark Shadows fame) on several projects. They collaborated on a television adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring Jack Palance, as well as The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, a pair of classic telefilms featuring Darren McGavin as intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak, who battled supernatural menaces in both movies.

Karen Black and Robert Burton in "Julie"
Another project the Matheson/Curtis dream team worked on is Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 ABC Movie of the Week starring Karen Black. The movie features adaptations of three Matheson stories, the first two scripted by Matheson’s friend William F. Nolan (co-author of the novel Logan’s Run) and the third written by Matheson himself. The first segment “Julie” (based on Matheson’s story The Likeness of Julie) concerns an egotistical college student named Chad, who initiates a date with his English professor. He then drugs and takes advantage of her, snapping photos of her in compromising positions. Chad (played by Black’s real life husband at the time, Robert Burton) uses the pictures to bribe her into continuing their relationship. But Julie has a deadly surprise in store for him as the story comes to a close. Look fast for Gregory Harrison in a bit part, and pay close attention to the “French vampire” movie Chad and Julie go to see on their date: it’s a clip from producer Curtis' The Night Stalker!

The second tale “Millicent and Therese” (based on Matheson’s story Needle in the Heart) concerns two sisters who are polar opposites. Millicent is prudish and conservative; Therese is provocative, sensual and carefree. Both sisters interact with the family physician, Dr. Ramsey. Millicent insists that Therese is evil, has done terrible things, and must be punished. Therese feels her sister is foolish and predictable. Millicent plots to kill Therese using voodoo. When Millicent hatches her plan, the ultimate truth about the siblings and their dark family history is revealed. Black plays both sisters, and George Gaynes (Tootsie, Police Academy) appears as Dr. Ramsey. While you’ll probably guess the ending of this one in advance, it’s still worth watching, thanks to Black’s effectiveness in the dual roles of Millicent and Therese. Dark Shadows veteran John Karlen also appears in this entry.

Karen Black (and friend) in "Amelia"
The third and final segment of the film is the one most viewers remember. “Amelia” is based on Matheson’s story Prey. Amelia (Black) lives alone, and returns home with a package containing a gift for her boyfriend. It’s a doll crafted in the image of a Zuni warrior, named “He Who Kills.” The doll supposedly contains the actual spirit of the warrior, which is kept in check by a chain around its neck. After Amelia has a phone conversation with her overbearing mother, the chain falls off. The doll comes to life, and begins hunting Amelia. The rest of the story features Amelia and the sharp-toothed, spear-wielding (and seemingly indestructible) Zuni doll facing off against each other each other in her apartment. It’s an intense, one on one confrontation that continues to escalate and climaxes with one of the most chilling images in the annals of horror television.

Many fans, writers and reviewers feel the first two stories are weak, and the final one saves the film. I think the first two entries are pretty effective in their own right, and offer a slow buildup of suspense until the visceral thrills of the climactic tale. Curtis and Matheson did the same thing in 1977’s Dead of Night, another horror anthology showcasing a trio of stories. The final entry in that film, “Bobby,” starring Joan Hackett, was easily the scariest of the three, but the two that preceded it had their charms as well. Trilogy of Terror is truly a showcase for Karen Black. She offers a bravura performance throughout the film, adding some subtle nuances to her multiple roles. Dan Curtis’ direction is assured and effective, and you’ll definitely spot the influences that “Amelia” had on later films in the horror genre. Curtis’ favorite composer, Robert Cobert, provides the eerie score.

Dan Curtis directed a belated sequel to the film, titled (what else?) Trilogy of Terror II. The movie aired in 1996 on the USA Network, and starred actress Lysette Anthony, who also appeared in Curtis’ short-lived prime-time version of Dark Shadows.  The film featured three more tales of the macabre, including a remake of “Bobby” and a sequel to “Amelia” titled “He Who Kills” which takes place shortly after the events of the original story. Trilogy of Terror stands out as one of the most memorable films from the classic era of the TV movie, and it succeeds in no small part thanks to the wonderful stories of the legendary Richard Matheson. The film is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino Lorber home video. This post is part of the Richard Matheson Blogathon, hosted by the very talented bloggers at Wide Screen World and Moon in Gemini. I’d like to thank them for letting me join in on the fun. You can get more info on the blogathon and view the posts here: https://debravega.wordpress.com/2019/03/09/the-richard-matheson-blogathon-day-1-recap/.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Juliana Hatfield Goes Pop on a Loving Tribute to Olivia Newton-John

At first glance, indie rocker Juliana Hatfield (a veteran of the Blake Babies and The Juliana Hatfield Three), might seem an odd fit with the music of Olivia Newton-John. In 2018, she released Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, a collection of songs originally recorded by the Grammy-winning songstress. Hatfield has explained in a number of interviews that she’s a lifelong fan of Newton-John’s music, and relished the opportunity to work on this album as a tribute to her. The 13 songs Hatfield selected to cover for the disc run the gamut from early hits like “I Honestly Love You” to later tracks like “Xanadu,” originally featured in the movie of the same name. The artist's love and respect for Newton-John's music is very much in evidence throughout this well-made record. 

Hatfield, who also produced the album, mostly sticks to the original arrangements of the songs. However, she adds a little instrumental heft here and there, including a slightly tougher guitar sound on “A Little More Love” and edgier vocal takes on “Physical,” and “Make A Move On Me.” Another cool aspect of the disc is that in addition to the expected hits like “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Magic,” Hatfield also includes her versions of some less well-known Newton-John tracks such as “Suspended in Time” and “Dancin’ Round and Round.” The backing band is excellent, with Ed Valauskas playing some nimble and expressive bass, and Pete Caldes providing a rock-solid foundation on drums.

Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John should appeal to fans of either artist. This affectionate tribute to the pop music songbook of Olivia Newton-John, lovingly crafted by one of the heroines of the 1990s indie rock scene, is very much worth a listen. Hatfield's enjoyment at working on this project is truly infectious. Please note: for every album sold, one dollar will be donated to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre. You can purchase a physical copy or get a digital download of the album at the artist's label American Laundromat Records by following this link: https://www.alr-music.com/products/juliana-hatfield-sings-olivia-newton-john. And here's a link to the music video for Ms. Hatfield's fantastic version of "A Little More Love": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nkp-rtW-vp8.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Will She Survive "Gerald's Game?"

Film adaptations of the works of Stephen King have become so numerous, that they could easily fill several sections at your local video store; that is, if you still have a local video store. Because there are so many of them, not every movie can be as memorable as Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption, or It. Sometimes you get a film as atmospheric as The Dead Zone, other times you get the not scary (and not very good) 2003 version of Dreamcatcher.  Writer-director Mike Flanagan, who scored a critical and audience success in 2018 with the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, turned his attention toward the works of King with a chilling version of the Master of Horror's 1992 novel Gerald’s Game.

Gerald’s Game (2017) stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood as a couple who decided to go on a weekend getaway to try to re-ignite the passion in their marriage. Gerald (Greenwood) thinks if they add a bit of kinkiness in the bedroom, it might help. What ends up happening (spoilers ahead) is that Jessie (Gugino) ends up handcuffed to the bed, and after an argument between them, Gerald dies of a heart attack. Since they’re staying at an isolated location, there’s no one around to help Jessie. She begins to see physical manifestations of both Gerald (in a well-acted, nicely nuanced turn by Greenwood) and herself, who converse with her, and in turn taunt, cajole, challenge and infuriate her. A stray dog that Jessie spotted earlier in the day also plays into the proceedings.

As Jessie contemplates how to escape her predicament, her thoughts begin to wander, and she recalls a terrible instance of abuse from her childhood, one which she has buried deep in her mind. How did that incident shape the person she is today? How will she free herself from those restraints? Who is the mysterious, ghostly figure that appears to her in the corner of the room? Director and co-writer Flanagan effectively creates an atmosphere of mounting terror and intensity as Jessie deals with nightmares which are both real and imagined. Gugino (who was excellent as the mother in Flanagan’s Hill House) is outstanding as Jessie. She powerfully conveys the character’s fear, confusion and constantly shifting state of mind, but also displays her inner spirit and sheer force of will. It’s a terrific performance that anchors the film, and holds our interest throughout.

The terrors in Gerald’s Game are (for the most part) psychological in nature, and the monsters are (all too) human. Ultimately, it’s a story of resilience and having the strength to move beyond your past. Flanagan and his cast (which also includes Henry Thomas and Kate Siegel, both of whom appeared in Hill House) and crew have done an excellent job adapting King’s novel. Gerald’s Game is a riveting thriller with a strong emotional core and depth of character that are not always evident in films of this type. Based on his work here and on The Haunting Of Hill House, as well as earlier projects like Hush and Oculus, Mike Flanagan is proving himself to be one of the best filmmakers currently working in the horror genre. I highly recommend checking out this film, and the other movies mentioned in this review. Gerald's Game is currently streaming on NetflixHere’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twbGU2CqqQU. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Many Entanglements of Modern Love: Drew Pisarra's "Infinity Standing Up"

Most of us have, at one time or another, fallen in love with the wrong person. During the time we’re with them, we’re sure they’re the right person, but ultimately the relationship is a fire that burns brightly, then flares out, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Many people have written songs, books, plays or films about such complicated affairs of the heart. But when’s the last time you read a contemporary set of sonnets about the pleasures and pitfalls of love in the modern age? Well, look no further. Author Drew Pisarra has just published Infinity Standing Up, a book of poems recalling his affair with a man who in turn, delighted, dazzled, intoxicated and infuriated him in equal measure.

The sonnets, which are grouped and broken up into “Acts” detail the excitement, yearning and joy inspired by a new relationship, and guide us through the beginning, middle, ending (and fitful restart) of the affair. The poems beautifully convey the complex emotions one feels in words that are at times affectionate, yet also terse and brutally honest. Pisarra expertly charts the twists and turns of a romantic journey we’ve all taken, in one way or another. You’ll feel the emotions rise up through the pages as you read these passionate odes to a muse who has captured the author’s heart, but also inspired feelings of anger, frustration and loss.

Infinity Standing Up is a powerful, intense and electrifying work. It’s witty and wondrous, romantic and reflective, and tough and tender. There's something of a free-form, rock and roll energy and sensibility to these sonnets. We can empathize with this story, because we’ve all been there, and we’ve all experienced the multi-layered complexities of love and desire. This is a book that will resonate with lovers, poetry fans (and devotees of clever wordplay) everywhere. Drew Pisarra is an award-winning poet and playwright who has worked in the television industry, and toured with his one–man shows, such as The Gospel According to St. Genet. He's also had several plays produced Off-Broadway, including Burst. You can support his work by ordering the book online at Amazon. Infinity Standing Up is a wild ride, but it’s one worth taking.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

GLAD: The Music (and Spirit) of Traffic

Rich Pagano
Traffic, the band originally formed in 1967 by Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, created some of the most memorable and diverse-sounding music of the classic rock era. On Friday, February 9 at The Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One, a group of outstanding musicians known as GLAD gathered to pay tribute to the band. GLAD: The Music of Traffic features Mark Rivera (who’s played with Billy Joel and Ringo Starr), Rich Pagano and Jeff Kazee (of Early Elton and many other groups), as well as the talented Marc Ribler and Kevin Bents. These incomparable musicians blew the roof off the place in the process of blowing our minds and enriching our souls with an unforgettable night of music.

Things kicked off with a tasty trio of tunes from Traffic’s 1970 album John Barleycorn Must Die: “Glad,” “Freedom Rider” and “Empty Pages.” The band performed these songs with true passion and power. That was the hallmark of the entire evening: the group’s palpable love for this music could be felt in every note. Pagano’s incredible lead vocals and impressive drumming on “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and “Every Mother’s Son,” Kazee’s excellent keyboards and vocals on tunes like “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone” and Rivera’s sax, flute, cowbell (!) and fantastic lead on “Shanghai Noodle Factory." Guitarist Marc Ribler and Bassist Kevin Bents also got in on the fun, providing terrific vocals and switching instruments with ease, for classic numbers like “Stranger To Himself,” “Paper Sun” and “Medicated Goo.” Everyone played and sang masterfully; these are musicians at the top of their craft. This band truly provides not just a show, but a night full of wonderful memories. For GLAD, it's all about the music, the feeling and the experience.

Mark Rivera and Jeff Kazee
Every song was a highlight: from the iconic “Dear Mr. Fantasy” to the folk-laden “John Barleycorn Must Die” (about which Kazee quipped “This is the closest we’ll ever get to a renaissance fair") and “Pearly Queen.” The band’s love and respect for this music (and each other) shone through in the electricity of their performances. Their unabashed joy at playing together was truly infectious, and enriched the intensity of the show. By the time the band got to the encore, which featured a pair of tunes from Winwood’s supergroup Blind Faith (“Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Presence of The Lord”) and the show closer, The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man” we had been rocked, rolled, transported and uplifted. GLAD: The Music of Traffic not only pays tribute to the music and truly evokes the spirit of Traffic, they elevate our love and appreciation of the music to a whole new level. Do not miss this incredible band if you get the chance to see them. The words "must see" and "utterly fantastic" do not do them justice. Here's a link to a promo video featuring some highlights of the band's live shows: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfttx2EJeoE.