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The Morning After (1974)
Devastatingly real look at addition
Remember those movies you watched as a kid that left such an impression you were haunted by them for the rest of your life? An example that comes immediately to mind is "The Screaming Woman" based on a Ray Bradbury short story and starring the lovely Olivia de Havilland in the twilight of her career, about a woman who hears a voice from the grave but everyone around her is convinced she's delusional. It fell into such obscurity there was a time I wondered if I had imagined it. Then on a late night talk show one night I heard Quentin Tarantino talking about this exact film that obviously had the same impact on him confirming that it hadn't been a vivid childhood dream.
"Duel" was another example of a disturbingly unforgettable TV movie that many of us watched at that highly impressionable time. By contrast, and probably by virtue of its famous director, "Duel" decidedly didn't fall into obscurity but has become a cult classic of sorts. And, let's face it, Richard Matheson, who wrote the screenplay, based on his own unforgettable short story, had a lot to do with the success of that one.
Add to the list "The Morning After," which was equally haunting for entirely different reasons than the other films mentioned. I happened to be doing an IMDb search and noticed that Richard Matheson had penned yet another film permanently etched into memory. (And let's not forget his other made-for-TV classic "The Night Stalker.") I saw "The Morning After" in school because the teacher obviously saw enough in its message to encourage, or perhaps better put terrify, her pre-pubescent students away from that most popular of legal drugs. It is a movie that will never leave me. I remember shuffling out of class after the closing credits with an emotion very closely resembling devastation. It was as if a close friend had given up on life and I watched it happen in stark detail. Of course, revisiting those impactful films from our past never holds the same power that childhood naturally allows but I would like to see this one again nonetheless. It was indeed a great one.
Incident at Loch Ness (2004)
Half doc, half mock, total mess
Christopher Guest is the master of the mockumentary. Werner Herzog is one of many documentary greats out there. Zak Penn isn't good at either but he could certainly take a lesson from the other two. Guest often plays around with reality and fiction but the line between the two is always clear in his films, sort of an essential with a mockumentary. Penn could also take a lesson from the The Blair Witch Project. Even though you knew it was a fake documentary going in you totally bought into the world the filmmakers created. It seems to the audience as if the whole thing is real even though you know, deep down, you're watching fiction. In other words, it was fiction successfully disguised as truth. In fact many early audiences watching it, at Sundance and other premiere audiences thought it was real. Penn, whose forte, by his own admission, is screen writing, should probably stick to that. Documentary or mockumentary film-making (and it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends with this film) is obviously not.
Penn sets the stage for what he tries to sell as a legit documentary on the filming of a documentary, sort of a meta-documentary. Penn, however, confuses the audience, and loses their trust, from the get-go as he enters Herzog's house before the filming of Herzog's film, "Enigma of Loch Ness" about the myth of the Loch Ness monster (a film which apparently was never finished probably because of Penn's interference). Even though Penn is apparently the director of the film we're watching, he starts it by looking at the cameras and saying, "What is the film crew doing here?" and starts shying away from them. He does this on a couple other occasions as well. He will stop and tell the cameras to stop filming, thus forcing the camera guy to hide in the shadows to pick up snippets of dialogue between Herzog and Penn. It seems to be a gimmick, but that is never made clear, and Penn is apparently keeping us in the dark intentionally. This leaves the audience scratching its head wondering, "Who is in charge here?" If Penn is working against his own film crew what kind of a world are we a part of? This is just one of many examples of how he confuses the line between reality and fiction.
Penn seems to only fully enter the fictional world (I think) when the crew has sightings of what appears to be the Loch Ness monster. But by the time the monster makes its first appearance we have totally exited the fictional world Penn has attempted to create, so it all just seems silly and pointless.
This is a potentially fascinating movie and a real missed opportunity in that Penn has a chance to document a master at work, but completely loses focus and it becomes a movie about Penn and his antics instead of the filming of a documentary. Penn's presence begins to pervade and overshadow everything else in the movie.
The Herzog interviews are convincing and we actually believe he isn't acting. We even start to wonder if he and others on his crew are being duped by Penn, much the way the audience is, but you're never sure of even that. Penn, in his interviews to the camera, attempts to be quirky and unintentionally funny, like the characters interviewed in a Guest mockumentary, but he only succeeds in being annoying. In a Guest film this effect is hilarious, while here it falls flat because you're never sure what Penn is about. As a result we, the audience, start to dislike him as much as the crew apparently does. Aside from the beautiful scenery and the superfluous appearance, out of nowhere, of a beautiful model, thrown in to give the movie spice, there is little to recommend here. Perhaps its only redeeming quality (an unintentional one at that) is that it's a great example of why the audience is important; and by completely ignoring the conventions of storytelling your doing them a disservice. For that reason alone I think this would be a good film to show to film students sort of a "what not to do" kind of movie. I have nothing against a movie told in an unconventional way as long it's done skillfully, with a thematic base to give it substance. This film is completely lacking in that.
I'd like to call it a valiant effort at something, but I'm not sure what it is, other than a complete mess and ultimately a waste of time.
(As a side note: It seems like bad art always calls to mind good. This film made me think of the book "Picture" by Lillian Ross. Ross followed John Huston around during the filming of "The Red Badge of Courage" and brilliantly documented it for the New Yorker. It would make a great movie in fact. If you want a great example of meta-art, read it.)
The Dead (1987)
John's final masterpiece, Tony's first and last
In print this is one of the greatest short stories ever written, brought brilliantly and poetically to the screen by this father-son team, working together, sadly, for the first and last time.It is fitting that John Huston should end his career on a high note by bringing the work of one of his favorite author's to the screen, in what is easily the best Joyce screen adaptation. Huston made a career of adapting great works of literature to film, usually quite successfully. It is sad, and somewhat puzzling, that Tony Huston pretty much began and ended his career in film by adapting what would be his father's final project and picking up a well-deserved Oscar nomination in the process.
I once had the privilege of sitting in the company of the great screenwriter/playwright Horton Foote, who cited this film as one of his favorites in recent years (at the time it was still a fairly recent release). As a rather prolific screenwriter himself (and a brilliant screen adapter of his own works, as well as great authors such as Faulkner, Steinbeck and Harper Lee) he was obviously impressed with Tony Huston's first time effort, and possibly equally puzzled by his lack of output since then. If anyone has insights to share on the topic I'd be interested to hear more.
"Knocked Up" light
I saw "Knocked Up" and "Waitress" within a month of each other. They turned out to be two very different films about the exact same thing: unwanted pregnancies; one the result of a one-night stand, the other the seed of a really bad husband. My response to these two critically acclaimed films couldn't be more different. They are kind of the inverse of each other, in fact. One ("Waitress") was filled with flawed but likable characters, with one extremely flawed, yet darkly quirky character at its core. Though you hated his character it provided the movie with the perfect amount of conflict, and brought out many endearing qualities in the people afflicted with his presence. The other("Knocked Up") was swarming with that type of hard-to-love character, with one or two more likable ones mixed in. The endearing elements here came (in my admittedly biased opinion) at too great a price.
I saw "Knocked Up" the same week my mom died, which accounts for my bias (and is the reason I haven't yet rated it at IMDb). It was a tough week for me as you can imagine. One day I was sitting around feeling depressed and decided I needed an escape, so I went to the movie at the top of my must-see list, "Knocked Up." As I sat watching it, I felt even worse than when I came in. If it was meant to be a feel-good movie the filmmaker failed miserably, at least for the emotionally-impaired moviegoer, like myself. As I sat there I decided it must be either a) easily the most overrated movie of the year, or b) exactly the wrong movie to see the week of your mother's funeral, because it's full of people you'd never bring home to her. It was so crass and packed with the most unappealing, low-life characters which I felt I was supposed be oddly endeared to, but wasn't at all. It had quirky, funny moments that virtually drown under all the crap. I was sitting there asking myself, "This is the movie chalking up 4-star reviews all over the country?" and "Am I in the right theater?"
Then I saw "Waitress," which would have been the perfect movie to see in place of "Knocked Up." It was a lighter, breezier, yet infinitely more substantial Knocked Up. It was everything the lesser film tried to be, charming and sweet and funny and sad and quirky all mixed together into a delicious whole, like one of Jenna's pies. The experience of watching "Waitress" was made all the more poignant knowing the brilliant, attractive woman who wrote, directed, and played a wonderfully quirky supporting role, was murdered soon after its completion. So this was tragically both her breakout film and her swan song. It's sad to imagine what the movie world will miss out on as a result of her untimely death.
The screenplay was written to perfection. The characters were all believable and magically meshed together. Each character, down to the most minor, was interesting and added spice to the story. The acting, especially for a low-budget film, was amazing. Keri Russell, as Jenna, was especially convincing, in a performance that never struck a false note. Jeremy Sisto's performance, as her disposable husband, was spot on. The presence of an aging Andy Griffith was a treat on many levels, in what may become his swan song. His career since his classic TV series has seemed to gradually decline, but he shows he can still act here. His against-type crotchety old man character, brilliantly conceived by Shelly, and executed by Griffith, is wonderfully complex. It's an Oscar-worthy performance that may get sadly passed by at Oscar time, as will, I'm afraid, this beautiful little gem of a film. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
Unexplained Mysteries (2003)
This documentary series, at least as far as I can tell, had a very short life and, judging by the lack of response at IMDb, not a lot of interest. This is surprising and unfortunate because it was a remarkable piece of work. I've been watching for it on my Dish Network guide and haven't seen any listing in some time. If anyone knows of a channel broadcasting it, I would love to hear about it. For anyone interested in the paranormal this series was a true gem. Unlike "reality"-style fare, such as the lame "Scariest Places on Earth" and the much better, sometimes fascinating, SciFi Channel series "Ghost Hunters", this series implements classic documentary style. Using a steady camera, it combines interviews with people who have had direct encounters with the paranormal with expertly recreated past events. It's fascinating, well executed and, at times, genuinely scary. I would love it if they would bring this back.