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Monday, March 29, 2010

I fought the war but the war won't stop for the love of good: Chris Carter's HARSH REALM

So I just watched the first four episodes of Chris Carter's X-Files follow-up Harsh Realm this weekend. The AV Club had mentioned it in a list of shows that never got a proper resolution, and the premise sounded intriguing. Plus, it has Terry O'Quinn in a pretty important recurring role.

The concept is that Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) is a rather heroic Army Lieutenant who's engaged to Sophie Green and nearing the end of his enlistment. One night, some soldiers show up, escort him to a military base, where he's informed that he's been selected to play this virtual reality game called Harsh Realm and take down the number one player, the legendary Omar Santiago (Terry O'Quinn, giving a decent performance in an unfortunate pencil-thin mustache). Harsh Realm was developed as a simulation of the aftermath of a nuclear war, replicating the geographic and demographic characteristics of the United States (or at least as of the 1990 census). He was only asked to pack an overnight bag, so he assumes this should be a pretty simple mission.

Except once Hobbes gets in the game, he finds out that a large portion of the game's population are would-be players who were given the same mission as him, and that Omar Santiago now rules an ever-growing portion of the Harsh Realm version of the nation. Oh, and there's no way out of the game except dying (which also kills you in real life) or discovering Santiago's portal to the real world.

What's weird about watching Harsh Realm now is the way it predicts a couple of shows (there are a lot of elements of LOST and Dollhouse in both concept and execution), while never quite synthesizing those elements successfully.

Like LOST, this show uses its mysterious setting as a crucible of character, with a lot of thematic interest in destiny vs. choice, and talks a lot about faith and salvation. There's also the referentiality/allusiveness to history and philosophy to add depth (the lead character's name and the second episode named Leviathan after his namesake's book, for example). And both possess the same talent for crafting surreal, enigmatic cold opens that draw you in (for example, "Leviathan" and "Kein Ausgang"). And most superficially, there is a driven madman played by Terry O'Quinn, a Party of Five alumnus with an everyman appeal, a shady, wise-cracking mystery man and a cute dog that follows everyone around.

Like Dollhouse, there's the same fascination with where identity comes from and whether technology can create something with the complexity of real human beings. The care and recruitment of the soldiers injected into Harsh Realm is reminiscent of both "the treatment" and "The Attic" from Dollhouse. And of course, both share a paranoid fear of technology hijacking our lives while suggesting that the shady people controlling  that technology are actually holding off a far worse threat.

So Harsh Realm has some interesting ideas in play. It also throws in some nice elements of world-building. Since the world is a video game where people disappear once they die, there is no concept of religion or afterlife except for whispers of "the real world" that a savior could lead them to.The soldiers injected into the game usually treat Virtual Characters like pets or possessions since they're not real, which contributes to that same Hobbesian nastiness. Finally, there's a suggestion that a lot of people forced into the game try to find simulations of loved ones from the real world (since the game is based on a fairly recent census) to cope with losing the real thing.

But for all these cool moments, Harsh Realm suffers from several problems. First, Scott Bairstow's character is pretty bland and forced to deliver some of the most thudding, on-the-nose narration you'll hear in anything from a major network that's not Flashforward. Second,  Carter lacks the courage to follow his material. There are several comments on how Hobbes' dog would make a good meal for the post-apocalyptic hordes, only for him to be left alone and allowed to interfere with the bad guys' schemes without harm. Third, a crippling case of On-the-Nose-itis, where characters are named "Max Pinnochio" with a straight face and people constantly reiterate that "if you die here, you'll die in real life" (just like in every movie since Tron).

So it's easy for me to see why Harsh Realm struggled, especially in the age before DVDs collected full seasons of TV. It was daring for it's complex concept and dystopian setting, but it was flaws in execution that sank it, not just its' visionary qualities. Like a lot of pioneers, it never reached the new frontier it sought.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

SON OF DRACULA (d. Robert Siodmak, 1943)

"A little irrational, maybe, the same as anyone after committing murder."

This is a weird, weird picture, unlike most of the Universal horror film I've seen. Imagine if Flannery O'Connor & Raymond Chandler had written a Dracula screenplay and you've got this film.

At the aptly named plantation Dark Oaks, Kay Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) has had an anxious couple of days. Her father died on the night of her coming-out party, family friend Count Alucard (Lon Chaney, Jr.) showed up on her doorstep the same night, and, in her father's will, she's received the almost worthless plantation property and her sister's received all the money. However, it seems that she understands the connection between these weird events and she's happy with the way it's all happening. Why, she's even in a rush to get married to Count Alucard, even though several people have told her the Hungarian government has never even heard of the Alucard family...

I know the plot sounds a little obvious, but trust me, the screenplay knows what we're assuming, and pretty quickly starts suggesting that there's something going on beneath the surface.

In fact, for a 1940s vampire film, it gets pretty "meta". One would-be vampire hunter actually reads Bram Stoker's novel, while a newly turned vampire outright treats the "v-word" as a pejorative ("Don't use that word, Frank, we don't like it."). And there are a couple of hints at the idea of vampires as immigrants coming to the New World to start over.

In general, the film hits a weird mix of Southern gothic/horror (there's an early scene in the swamp that reminds me of Val Lewton) and noir. And while few of the elements in the film are original (you can play "spot the convention" pretty easily), the combination of these elements is unique. For example, the "Renfield" of the film is also the "fall guy" for one of Dracula's victims, while holy crosses are less deadly to the vampires than double-crosses (pardon my pun).

Most of the players are pretty generic, in the less-insulting meaning of the term. They mostly play to type & genre, and most of them feel more comfortable in the noir style than the horror. Louise Allbritton seems like she should have gone into bigger and better things, and Robert Paige's initial freak-out when he realizes the world isn't behaving rationally any more is quite effective. And the comic relief, which is at its most odious in horror, is acceptable. It's at least believable, instead of jaw-droppingly stupid.Which leaves Chaney...


On a conceptual level, even Chaney's limited skills should serve the film well. He's not THE Dracula, merely one of the last survivors of that line, who has been scraping by on the picked-over remains of post-World War I Hungary. He's supposed to be a pale imitation. He's come to the New World in hopes of fresher, more virile blood, but the film makes apparent that he's not ready for the ambition and recklessness of America. Unfortunately, playing a buffoon who thinks he's smart takes some self-awareness, and Chaney doesn't have it. He has one or two moments (the ending moment where he realizes how screwed he is actually does have some pathos to it) that work, but mostly he drags the film down slightly when he's on screen (though he never ruins it).

Visually, the film is very well put-together, no matter which mode it's functioning. There's a beautiful shot of Dracula's coffin rising out the swamp, for example, and another great one of Paige in his jail cell. Even some of the effects are well done. For some reason, the mythology has vampires using smoke forms as well as rubber bats to get around, and the smoke certainly works better than the normal "fly a rubber bat in, turn off the camera, put actor on mark" effect.

But I have to say it's the intriguing mix of genres that works best. Even when a character makes a mistake, it doesn't feel like a bone-headed error so much as they don't understand the kind of story they're in.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sometimes the best way to cheer yourself up...

is to buy a whole bunch of used CDs that you've wanted for a while.

Second best: hearing Shellac release years of finely-honed anger in a packed concert hall.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dept. of Loathsome Movies...

So, are there actually people who think Falling Down is a good movie? I think Glenn Beck must have seen this movie, and thought it was a documentary....

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Dialogue dub/ now here's the rub/she's acting her reaction"

You know, most people who are blogging/have blogged about the Oscars have more to say about most of the subjects. The three things that got me are:
1. Seriously, a John Hughes retrospective? In a year where we lost Eric Rohmer, we spend 10 minutes on John Hughes?
2. I hope a zombie Lon Chaney Jr. kicks Taylor Lautner's ass and proves who is the most popular werewolf of all time (I mean, Lon Chaney Jr. was a limited actor, but unless you measure acting talent by abs, he was still a better actor than Taylor Lautner has proven himself to be).
3. Also, thank you, Academy Awards, for recognizing horror films how many years after completely ignoring them. It must suck for the rest of the world to realize that they've made nothing that could beat Saw and/or Twilight in the last eighty-two years.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Terry O'Quinn is a great actor, reason #652

Maybe a real episode review later, but maybe not. Or maybe my thoughts on season 6 so far. I worry that LOST is becoming more like Flashforward, in that Flashforward has some cool moments, usually starts & ends well, but is otherwise a mess that makes few emotional connections. Of course, the fact that LOST has made mis-steps before & corrected them gives me hope.

But I did want to say that "Sundown" reminded me of why I love Terry O'Quinn's work on the show. He's maybe in the episode for all of 5 minutes, but he makes them count. The moment that got me, however, was not his conversation with Sayid, as good as it was.

No, the moment that got me was when Sayid, Claire and Kate join up with Smokey/Locke's followers outside the temple.

There's a great shot of S/L's face as he looks at Sayid (satisfaction at the job this new follower has done, pride at the plan coming together), Claire (recognition of a trusted ally) and then he see Kate. You see a quick moment of surprise that hardens into a grimmer but almost-unreadable expression.

In about 10 seconds, Terry O'Quinn's facial expression tells us more about his relationship to these people and how his plan is going than 10 lines of dialogue could.

Even when I'm lukewarm on LOST, I have to recognize they have one of the largest and strongest ensembles on network TV, and the show either lets them or makes them do some pretty complex work. And that alone makes tuning in worthwhile week after week.

Quote of the day: Movies and ideas

I can't find the original source, but D Cairns at Shadowplay is the immediate source:

"Lots of American movies start out with interesting ideas, but they usually wind up with a fight in a warehouse." - Olivier Assayas

Monday, March 1, 2010

Man, I've been riding a tide of snark and annoyance for too long

I know I haven't been the sunniest person lately on this blog, when I post. So let me say something good for once.

The Ghost Writer, the new Roman Polanksi film? It's actually pretty good.*

It's no Chinatown, obviously. But it's not pretending to be anything bigger than it is, which is: a well-done psychological thriller. It has characters with believable motivations, a refreshing lack of explosions, and builds suspense out of the inability to know what other people think or feel.

I have no idea how wide a release this'll get, for several reasons. But it's got some great performances by everyone involved, including Kim Cattrall (I know!). Oh, Olivia Williams has a bigger part than the posters & press might suggest, which is always great. Someone give her another lead role, please. The production design & cinematography is well-done without screaming "this is a set!" or "look at what great geniuses we are!"

I don't want to oversell it. But the film is just so unassuming and competently put-together that it surprises you.

*And as regards Roman Polanski's proclivities: he's in jail, he certainly deserves to be. But it's not like going to see it is going to get him released. And he's a talented film-maker.