“They Call Us Monsters”

The question at the center of the thought provoking documentary film, “They Call Us Monsters,” is whether or not violent juvenile offenders, between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, should be given life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, located in Sylmar, California, high-risk, juvenile offenders facing the possibility of lengthy prison terms, or incarceration until their dying day, are housed while they await sentencing. Directed by Benjamin Lear (The Ordinary World), the documentary which premiered on June 6, 2016 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, focuses on three specific individuals awaiting sentencing: Antonio, who is fourteen, has been charged with two attempted murders; Seventeen year old, Jared, is accused of the attempted murders of four individuals whom he fired upon during a drive by shooting, which resulted in the paralysis of one female victim, who speaks on camera during the documentary; Sixteen year old Juan, a former honor roll student, is incarcerated for murdering a rival gang member by shooting him at point blank range. If he eventually does gain his freedom, he will be immediately deported to El Salvador, leaving behind the son, he has fathered. Instead of spending their time day dreaming, watching television or sleeping in their cells, the trio of inmates enroll in a ten week, screenwriting class, given by producer / director, Gabriel Cowan (Just Before I Go). Cowan’s goal for the teens is to write a screenplay for a short film, using their collective experiences as a basis for the story. (As an aside: There were originally four offenders who wanted to take part in the classes, but one was sentenced, and transferred to prison, shortly after the classes began. Additionally, the screenplay that the teenagers worked on with Cowan was turned into the twenty-five minute, short, crime drama “Los,” which came out in 2015.)

Lear’s original objective was to spend time at the high security compound in Sylmar, in order to gather information for a screenplay he was working on. He wanted his writing to be as authentic as possible. After spending time with the incarcerated youth, Lear felt he could do more than just create another fictional film. Lear teamed up with InsideOUT Writers, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles, that was founded in 1996. The non-profit’s goal is to reduce the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders. Part of what they do, is offer classes, which allow the offenders to channel creative energy through writing. If participants in the program are released from prison, InsideOut Writers has an alumni association that will help to support them to aid them in staying on a positive life track.

Throughout the documentary’s 82 minute runtime, the candid footage presented to the viewer offers insight into the teen participants. During the classes, they engage in self-reflection, as the film delves into the factors which led them to a life of a crime, such as the influences, or lack thereof, that each of them had growing up. Jared’s step-father blames his attempted suicide for putting his step-son on a dark path. The step-father relays the story of  how when Jared was a child, he  witnessed his attempt to end his life as he was stabbing himself in the chest. Juan regrets not telling a female classmate, who he used to be very close with, about his true feelings. He admits that he was afraid of opening himself up to making himself vulnerable, and facing rejection, as he felt that she would not reciprocate. While working on the screenplay, Juan plays with the idea of what might have happened had he expressed himself to his friend. The emotions that he feels while writing, gives him the courage to call his childhood friend, and open up to her, even though chances are nothing will ever come of it; nevertheless, it is a cathartic moment for him. While filming, Antonio is unexpectedly set free, with a chance to start over. Will he make the most of the opportunity? Was the time he spent incarcerated a wakeup call as to what life will be like for him for decades to come if he reverts back to his old ways?

There is a secondary story to the film that Lear focuses on, and that is the debate that was taking place at the time, in the California Legislature, over Senate Bill 260. Summarizing: The bill holds juvenile offenders responsible for their crimes. It does, however, recognize that young offenders are not yet adults, therefore it allows them to  demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated, by offering them an opportunity to eventually be paroled, after serving a minimum of fifteen years.

Recent Supreme Court cases, such as Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama, have ruled that juveniles who are given life sentences without the possibility of parole is a violation of the constitution. Additionally, in California, Senate Bill 260 was passed; the law went into effect on January 1, 2014. Furthermore, in 2015, Senate Bill 261 was passed by the California state legislature, which expanded the age range of youthful offenders from seventeen years of age to twenty-two years of age. The questions that some of you might be asking are: What about the victims’ families? Are they not entitled to make sure, especially in the case of murder, that the person who took the life of their loved one, be denied their freedom?

The documentary never sugarcoats what the three offenders did, and the lasting damage their actions caused the victims, and the victims’ families, as well as the emotional turmoil they brought upon their own loved ones. In “They Call Us Monsters,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, Lear never tells the viewer how they should feel about the issue. In my opinion, at no time did the film appear to suggest that there were easy answers as to how the law should deal with such an emotionally charged issue. What Lear does, is present the facts, so that each individual can come to his or her own conclusion.

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“Silver Bullet”

The opening narration of the film “Silver Bullet, voiced by two-time Emmy nominee, Tovah Feldshuh (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), informs the viewer that in 1976, during the last full moon before school let out for summer vacation, something sinister happened. An evil came to the small town of Tarker’s Mills, Maine, and played murderous havoc with the town’s residents, most of whom, the narrator lets the viewer know, cared just as much for their neighbors’ well-being, as they did for themselves. The catalyst, although it will be ruled an accident due to the man’s reputation as being a drunk, is the discovery of the decapitated body of railroad worker, Arnie Westrum (James Gammon). He was killed by a creature, that will later be identified as a werewolf, that had been stalking him from the nearby woods.

The next day, two of the film’s main characters, siblings, Marty and Jane Coslaw, are introduced into the story. Marty is a paraplegic, who rides around in a motorized wheelchair with a makeshift license plate on the back that says ‘Silver Bullet’. He is portrayed by Corey Haim (The Lost Boys). Jane, whose older self is the adult narrator of the story, is played by Megan Follows (Reign). Marty has a great relationship with his twice-divorced, alcoholic, Uncle Red, a role acted by Oscar nominee, Gary Busey (The Buddy Holly Story).  Despite some of Red’s problems, he deeply cares for Marty, and has been designing him a special, customized, replacement wheelchair.

While Marty will immensely enjoy his new gift, it doesn’t take long for the next gruesome murder to occur. This time, it is a pregnant woman, Stella Randolph (Wendy Walker) who, after trying to convince the father of her unborn child (Michael Lague) to help support her, is in the process of committing suicide via-overdose. The chance to change her mind at the last moment is taken away from her, as she is brutally attacked and murdered by the werewolf. She is the second death, but not the last.

The breaking point comes when Marty’s best friend Brady (Joe Wright) is killed, something which is implied by the showing of a kite he had been playing with, that is covered in blood, and the reactions of his father, Herb (Kent Broadhurst), upon seeing what has happened to his son. Ignoring the pleadings of the town’s minister, Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill), and the warnings of Sheriff Joe Haller, played by Emmy winner, Terry O Quinn (Lost), that ‘private justice,’ as he refers to it, is breaking the law, a number of residents set out to hunt down the murderer. The group is led by Andy Fairton (Bill Smitrovich), he has been riling people up at Owen’s Bar. The place is run by Lawrence Tierney’s (Born to Kill) character, who brandishes a baseball bat with the word ‘The Peacemaker’ on it. The main contingent of townsfolk that the film focuses on, as they attempt to hunt down the werewolf, will not make it to the next day. The scene that showcases their demise, is both cool and comical. The comedic aspect of the scene is, unfortunately, due to some of the awful acting, in a film in which, overall, the cast does a spot on job with their respective roles.

As a result of the murders that have been taking place, the town’s annual fireworks have been cancelled, which upsets Marty. Uncle Red, rectifies the situation by giving Marty a bag of fireworks, dazzlers, and one rocket, which he can set off when he wants to, with the caveat, that Marty stay close to the house when he does. Of course, Marty being a kid, promises that he will do so, only to wind up ignoring his uncle’s request, and taking a ride, alone, at night, to a bridge located in the town’s park. There he will encounter the werewolf, and only thanks to his having saved the rocket firework, which he fires into the beast’s eye, is he able to save himself, and get away. Marty tells Jane what has happened, and she agrees to help him discover the identity of the werewolf.  Once they learn who the werewolf is when the person is in human form, they tell Uncle Red what they’ve been up to. Despite wanting to believe his niece and nephew, he is having a hard time coming to terms with the information. Nevertheless, he teams up with Marty and Jane, in an attempt to put an end to the bloodshed.

Who is revealed to be the werewolf? Will Marty, Jane and Uncle Red be able to put an end to the creature? What can they do to stop it? Are the stories true pertaining to the power of silver bullets? How would they go about getting one? Do the trio die in vain attempting to save their town and themselves or are they successful in their mission? All of those questions will be answered by the film’s conclusion.

“Silver Bullet” is an adaptation of prolific, bestselling author, Stephen King’s short novel, “Cycle of the Werewolf,” which contains illustrations by comic-book artist, Bernie Wrightson. The novel was published by Land of Enchantment  in November of 1983. The film, which has a runtime of 95 minutes, was released theatrically in America on October 11, 1985. The screen play was written by King, and directed by two-time, Emmy nominee, Daniel Attias (Entourage). (As an aside: Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) was initially hired to direct the movie, but opted out because of creative differences with the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis).

For a werewolf film, it is certainly not on the level of “An American Werewolf in London” or “The Howling,”  but is, nonetheless, an entertaining horror film. Throughout the film there are a few corny moments – whether intentional or not – a couple of good jump scares for a first time viewer, not an overwhelming amount of gore, and a well executed scene that takes place in a character’s nightmare, where everyone in the church congregation become werewolves. The werewolf, when shown in close-ups or reflection, comes off as effective; when it appears on screen whole, not so much. The look of the werewolf was a problem for the film from the outset, and shooting began without the costume having been finalized. The end product disappointed producer, Dino De Laurentiis, who didn’t think it looked good when fully shown, and that is something I agree with him on. “Silver Bullet” is not the best film based on King’s work – for me that will most likely always be “Carrie” the first horror film I loved – nor is it anywhere near the worst. Overall, it gives you characters you can cheer for, evil that you’ll want to see vanquished, and it offered an interesting twist on traditional werewolf lore.

 

 

 

 

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“Crazy Is My Superpower By AJ Mendez Brooks”

“When looks fade, and your only value is your mind, will you still be beautiful? I figured out early on that investing in my heart, my personality, my mind, and my soul was going to be the key to success. Fans connected to me, they cheered for me, and they fought alongside me because I was genuine. When someone is honest and raw on-screen, the fans can see it. They can also tell when someone is not.”

The first thing that struck me while reading the informative and earnestly written “Crazy Is My Superpower: How I Triumphed by Breaking Bones, Breaking Hearts, and Breaking the Rules by former professional wrestler, AJ Mendez Brooks, was that you don’t have to be a fan of sports entertainment to enjoy it. AJ Lee, as her fans knew her when she was wrestling for the WWE, doesn’t just chronicle her rise from obscurity to the pinnacles of success she reached within the industry. Several of the accomplishments AJ achieved while in the business were being involved in major storylines on WWE programming’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw – She had over one hundred different pieces of merchandise bearing her name, image, or likeness, even though she was originally told that fans don’t buy souvenirs of female wrestlers – and AJ became a three time, WWE Divas champion. Since her retirement in 2015, the Diva’s title is now simply called the Women’s championship, and female wrestlers are now referred to as sports entertainers just like their male co-workers.

While AJ does write about her time in Florida Championship Wrestling, where she was trained by Jay Lethal, no part of the book is a – how-to-guide on how a person can become a professional wrestler. Seemingly, the only advice AJ imparts on the subject is that a person has to have an incredible dedication in regard to diet, exercise, and training, and even then there are no guarantees. Furthermore, for those wrestling fans interested in information regarding her husband, former WWE champion, Phillip Brooks, better known by his in-ring moniker, CM Punk, especially details regarding his exit from WWE, AJ doesn’t provide any. She writes about their first kiss, which was supposed to be a quick peck, a part of a storyline that had been scripted for television, but went further than anyone expected, especially AJ. She also provides a few tidbits about their relationship prior to their dating and being married, and she touches briefly upon their wedding, but chooses to hold private most of the other aspects of their relationship.

Instead, what AJ writes about, while utilizing humor and heartfelt prose, is her tumultuous and often times, unstable childhood. Her entire life, and into her adulthood, she felt like an outsider before becoming the strong and confident woman she is today. She was a member of a family of five, which included her parents, and her two older siblings, her brother Robert, and her sister Erica. AJ shares with the reader the numerous embarrassments and indignities her family lived through. The Mendez family frequently had to move, having no money for rent, or for that matter, much of anything else. This included money for clothing and food; an empty refrigerator was not an uncommon site, but as AJ mentions, in a bitter tone, and rightfully so, there often times seemed to be money for a cold, six-pack of beer. The family often lived in seedy motels, relatives’ houses until they inevitably overstayed their welcome, and for an extended period of time, in the family car.

AJ did her best to escape the reality of her home life, or lack thereof, through creative writing, delving into comic books, and living vicariously through the female action heroes in the video games she enjoyed playing. When she discovered wrestling at the age of twelve, thanks to her brother Robert’s interest in it, she realized larger than life female heroes did really exist. Although she did other things along the way, which included attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied film and television production, wrestling was her ultimate calling.

Growing up, however, escaping poverty was not AJ’s and her siblings only problem, nor, as it turned out, would it be AJ’s worst. AJ’s mother, for years went through life, not having been properly diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, and her behavior of extreme highs and lows, had its effect on the three Mendez children; but their mother was particularly hard on AJ, who she often accused of being sexually promiscuous, even though there was not a shred of evidence to support such an accusation. Nevertheless, because her mother, when in one of her dark moods, felt AJ was going to become a teenage mother, in addition to the constant verbal chastising, her mother inflicted harsh punishments on AJ that would sometimes last for hours. Much to AJ’s surprise and horror, after an overdose of antidepressants and pain medication she had been prescribed for a wrestling injury, she, sought out professional help, and learned that she shared her mother’s affliction. The book gives insight as to what she went through after the initial diagnosis, and how she has learned to live with the condition, as best she can, because her Bipolar disorder will never completely go away.  One of AJ’s goals in telling her story in the book is to educate anyone who is, or knows someone who is, dealing with the debilitating mental condition. She informs the reader that Bipolar disorder, has often been mistaken for depression, and that if it goes untreated, as she can attest to from first hand knowledge, things will continue to get progressively worse.

I’ve touched upon several of the major themes in the 288 page autobiography published by Crown/Archetype on April 4, 2017, but there is still a good deal more to discover. AJ’s interesting, physically demanding, and often times emotionally gut wrenching journey to becoming a professional wrestler; and what transpired after she made into the business, where a new set of obstacles were set in front of her to overcome, as stated earlier, should appeal to non-wrestling fans as well. I didn’t feel, at anytime while reading the book, that she was attempting to illicit sympathy from the reader, although there were moments where I definitely felt bad that she had to go through certain emotional and financial struggles. AJ currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, with her husband, and several dogs they have rescued from kill- shelters; AJ is an animal rescue ambassador for ASPCA. I am interested to see what a creative, driven, and intelligent individual, like AJ will accomplish next.

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“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” doesn’t begin in a classroom, or on the first day of school for that matter, but instead at the Ridgemont Shopping Mall. The song “We Got The Beat” by the “The Go-Go’s” plays as the background for a montage that centers on things of interest to teenagers in the mall, such as video games, designer jeans and pizza. A good majority of the featured cast works at the mall. Stacy Hamilton portrayed by Oscar nominee, Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), works at Perry’s Pizza with her best friend, Linda, a role acted by Phoebe Cates (Drop Dead Fred). Linda fancies herself an expert on all things having to do with sex and older men. Stacy’s good natured brother, Brad, played by Emmy nominee, Judge Reinhold (Beverly Hills Cop), is striving for success, as well as some affection from his girlfriend; he works at a fast food establishment. The shy and well-meaning, Mark (Brian Backer), takes tickets at the movie theater. He really likes Stacy, and bemoans, to his ticket-scalping, best friend, the semi-sleazy Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), that all the action is on the other side of the mall away from the theater; especially the food court where Stacy works. (As an aside: Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Justine Bateman was offered the part of Linda, but turned the role down; it wound up being the right career move. The same year Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out, she began playing the character of  Mallory Keaton on the sitcom, Family Ties, which lasted until 1989). 

Additional members of the cast, who don’t work or hustle at the mall, are there just for fun, like Jeff Spicoli, who according to rumor has been high since the third grade. He is the standout character of the film, and is portrayed by two time Oscar winner, Sean Penn (Mystic River). Besides almost always smoking pot, he is perpetually late to class, and dreams of being a surfboarding champion. He is usually accompanied by his two stoner friends, played by Golden Globe nominee, Eric Stoltz (Mask) and Emmy and Golden Globe winner, Anthony Edwards (ER). Rounding out the cast is two time Emmy winner Ray Waltson’s (Picket Fences) character of the truancy conscious, history teacher, Mr. Hand, as well as biology teacher, Mr. Vargas, played by versatile, character actor, Vincent Schiavelli. Furthermore, Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) has a small role as Ridgemont High’s star football player, Charles Jefferson. Additionally, there are two scenes featuring – blink and you’ll miss him appearances by – Nicholas Cage, billed at the time as Nicholas Coppola, in his second acting job after the television movie “Best of Times.”  (As an aside: According to people on the set, Sean Penn got so immersed in his character, that he would only answer to the name Spicoli, so much so, that the director wound up having a crew member put that name on his dressing room door).

The plot of the film, which is parts comedy and drama, is straightforward. I am not going to single out particular scenes because it would serve only to lessen the enjoyment for those of you who are first time viewers, or like myself, haven’t seen the movie in a number of years. Suffice it to say, that it follows the aforementioned students through a year of their high school lives. The film premiered on August 13, 1982, and unlike other offerings of its genre, that had preceded it, the movie focused on current time, instead of a nostalgic look at the 1950s through the 1970s. The teens working dead end jobs and dealing with relationship flux, as well as their antics at school, provided the comedic tones of the movie. Conversely, subjects such as a friend’s betrayal, teenage pregnancy and abortion were at the heart of its dramatic moments. Credit, in my opinion, must be given for the film’s authenticity; it didn’t sugar coat anything for the sake of a PG rating, or to deflect controversy. The filmmakers present an honest representation of what it is like at an age where everything is magnified; from falling in love for the first time, to making impulsive choices, to dealing with rejection, and moving forward.

The film marked the directorial debut of Amy Heckerling (Clueless), thanks to four time Oscar nominee, David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) turning the job down. BAFTA and Oscar winner, Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) wrote the screenplay, adapted from his book of the same name, which was published on September 15, 1981 by Touchstone / Fireside, a division of Simon & Schuster. For authenticity in his work, Crowe, at twenty-two years of age, posed as a high school senior, and attended classes for one year at Clairemont High School in San Diego. Although regarded as a modest hit at the time of its initial theatrical run, Crowe’s efforts were not in vain. The film would go on to achieve a generation of fans, with its release on VHS in the mid 1980s. In 2006 “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was picked by Entertainment Weekly, on the magazine’s list of the top 50, as the second best high school movie of all time, bested only by “The Breakfast Club,” but still beating an impressive array of films.

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“The Discovery – A Netflix Original Film That Underwhelms”

Dr. Thomas Harbor, portrayed by Oscar winner, Robert Redford (Ordinary People), has scientifically proven that an afterlife exists. He has discovered, that upon death, sub-atomic brain activity is present, and that it leaves the body. His next quest is to ascertain exactly where a person’s essence goes once they pass on. That still remains an enduring mystery. Since his findings, Thomas has been working on a new machine, that he hopes will be able to record the brain activity of the person who has died, in order to show what they experience once they move on. The discovery of the existence of life after death prompts an inordinate number of suicides by people for whom life has lost all purpose, as well as those, who have an obsessive need to know what awaits them in the afterlife. The consensus is, that whatever awaits them will be paradise compared to their current existence. Thomas attempts to quell the public’s mindset that suicide is a panacea. At the start of the film, he sits down for an interview with a television host, played by Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard). Unfortunately, a member of her crew takes his own life, as the interview is being conducted, a jarring gesture, which leads to Thomas becoming a recluse.

Neurosurgeon, Dr. Will Harbor, Thomas’s son, a role acted by Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother), is a skeptic. He objects to the fact that Thomas released the knowledge of the afterlife to the general public, due to the overwhelming number of suicides. He is traveling by ferry to Thomas’s estate located off of the coast of Rhode Island. While on board, he meets the only other passenger, the platinum blonde, Isla. She is an emotionally damaged woman, played by two time Oscar nominee, Rooney Mara (Carol). They banter back and forth for a bit, but separate once the ferry docks; it will not be the last they see of one another. In fact, a short time later, Will thwarts Isla’s plans of drowning herself in the ocean. He later learns, she was trying to kill herself, in order to be reunited in the afterlife, with her young son, who died in the same manner. After saving her life, he takes Isla back to his father’s estate; a place he has barely spent time at.

Before the incident at the beach, after disembarking from the ferry, Will’s disheveled, pot-smoking brother, Toby, played by Emmy nominee, Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), picks him up, and takes him to see where his father has been living and conducting his experiments. The place is more than the average residence; it is a sprawling structure, on secluded, gated grounds, that occupy a number of acres of land. Thomas has spent his time in isolation, taking in people who have lost their way in life and have sought out his guidance. The residents of the estate wear jumpsuits, attend group meditation and lectures led by Thomas, and before even gaining entrance, need to go through an interview process. One such member, is Golden Globe nominee Riley Keough’s (The Girlfriend Experience) character, the sensitive and questioning, Lacey, who posits a question along the following lines: If people are committing suicide to get to a better place, won’t other individuals begin to justify taking another’s life, using the justification that they are merely sending them somewhere better; a place where they will eventually wind up anyway?

At first the new machine Thomas has constructed appears to be a failure. After the initial experiment, Thomas, Jesse and one of Thomas’s followers, Cooper (Ron Canada), leave the room, while Will stays behind. As Will begins to disconnect the wiring from the machinery to the recording equipment, he discovers something has in fact recorded. He isn’t entirely sure what exactly his father’s equipment has documented, but images coupled with sound are present on the screen. Will, ever the skeptic, is still not convinced that what he is watching is taking place in another plane of existence. Instead, he speculates, that what has been recorded, are the memories of the deceased person. He shares what he has learned with Isla, and the two set out to unravel the mystery.

Do the images that were recorded further validate Thomas’s findings? Has Will been right all along? Does some brain activity continue after death, but it is only a person’s memories, and not another place they are transported to? How far will Thomas take his experimentation? If you’ve read enough of my posts from the past, you’ll know, that I normally inform the reader, that all the questions I pose will be answered by the film’s conclusion. I can’t make that statement with this particular film. The ending, I believe, has more to do with an individual viewer’s beliefs regarding death – the afterlife – and the existence of a heaven, which will help the viewer formulate an opinion as to what the ending represents.

“The Discovery” was directed by Charlie McDowell (The One I Love); additionally, he co-wrote the screenplay with Justin Lader. The 102 minute Netflix original, premiered on January 20, 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival. Parts drama, mystery, romance, sci-fi, and thriller, the film, does not execute any of its genres well; particularly the forced romantic storyline between Segal’s and Mara’s characters, who have zero on-screen chemistry. In general, while the film, can certainly be considered thought provoking, it doesn’t delve deep enough into any of its subject matter, and instead gives mere surface exploration of the high concepts it deals with. Interesting scenes take place on occasion, but nothing about the film is cohesive, or presented to viewers in a dramatic or compelling manner that takes hold of their attention, and doesn’t let it go. When I first learned about the film, and what it dealt with, I was intrigued. Unlike other offerings that have been created by Netflix that I very much enjoy amongst its diverse programming, series for example, such as “House of Cards” “Orange is the New Black,” and Stranger Things,” “The Discovery, for me at least, will be one time viewing.   

 

 

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“George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead”

Zombies have become ubiquitous in just about every medium of our popular culture. In Italy, on September 2, 1978,  when “Dawn of the Dead” first premiered, however, the massive hordes of decaying undead weren’t nearly as omnipresent. The movie is director George Romero’s follow up to his classic originator, 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead.” It follows the trials and tribulations of its four well drawn out main characters: two members of a Philadelphia swat team, a television executive, and a traffic reporter, as they seek shelter in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. The mall might be the perfect place to hide while they wait for something that they hope will be their salvation. Case in point, it offers them innumerable supplies in the way of weapons, clothing, food, and the like. The band of survivors are free to take what they want, when they want, as if the mall was a utopia that catered to people’s material desires. The initial feelings the characters have of kids in a candy store, dissipates for the foursome, as the months of lockdown pass; cabin fever inevitably begins to set in. But, it is a problem that doesn’t last long, thanks to the actions of a gang of bikers that invades the mall, thereby, destroying the plans of the survivors, and forcing them into a confrontation with both criminals and monsters alike.

The film, which had a budget of approximately $650,000 and went on to gross an estimated $55,000,000, was amongst the first to present the now well traveled path of the desperate struggle for survival in the face of a zombie apocalypse. Regardless of the fact that this was his second film, it should be viewed as the premier modern day zombie movie. The film adeptly blends the thematic elements of comedy, drama, horror, and satire which move effortlessly from one frame to the next. Romero, in essence, is suggesting to the viewer, that perhaps the human race, under normal conditions, is more volatile than the shambling zombie corpses that have no regard for right or wrong, or the value of human life. Opinions aside, Romero invites the viewer of the film in, to vicariously share all of the anarchic thrills of the collapse of western civilization that would take place if the scenario presented in the movie actually transpired.

How did the film come about in the first place a decade after the original? Dario Argento (Suspiria), who is known as the “Italian Hitchcock,heard that Romero was interested in making a potential sequel to “Night of the Living Dead.” Argento became consumed with the idea, so much so, that he invited both Romero, and his then wife, Christine Forrest with whom Romero has three children, to come spend time with him in Rome. Over the course of three weeks Romero, with Argento’s mentoring, wrote the screenplay for “Dawn of the Dead.” In addition to the advice he gave regarding the story for the film, Argento helped Romero secure financing for the picture on the sole stipulation that Argento would have complete control over the European edit of the movie. The film cut that American audiences have come to experience was lengthier and spent more time focusing on character development; conversely Argento’s edit features big action that takes place in a shorter run time, as well as a score from the director’s own music group, Goblin. As an aside, Romero has acknowledged that while working on “Night of the Living Dead,” he specifically garnered inspiration from the novel “I am Legend” written by prolific author Richard Matheson. The monsters that were created by Matheson’s imagination are more in sync with the look of Nosferatu in F.W. Murnau’s (Faust) 1922 classic of the same name, while the creatures in director Francis Lawrence’s (Water for Elephants) 2007 version starring Will Smith (Men in Black) are possessed with both heightened aggression and freakish speed.

The cast at the time of filming was comprised of four unknowns, three actors David Emge (Basket Case 2), Ken Foree (The Devil’s Rejects), Scott H. Reiniger (Danny), and actress Gaylen Ross (Creepshow). They do a fantastic job of carrying the film without ever displaying anything short of genuine emotion. Not once during one of my many viewings of the film over the years have I ever felt that there wasn’t a strong sense of realism to what I was watching. The cast plays off one another very well, which is essential in a film of this type where the story is mainly character driven. Gifted make-up artist, special effects guru, and actor, Tom Savini (From Dusk Till Dawn) appears in the movie as a leader of the aforementioned bikers that invade the mall.

Regardless of personal tastes, when it comes to horror films, there is no denying that “Dawn of the Dead” laid the foundation for the current climate of zombie mania that has invaded the pop-culture landscape in recent years. By today’s standards the film is nowhere near as jarring to the senses in a shocking way as it pertains to the violence that is shown on screen. Nor does it present the viewer with non-stop action like many of the films that deal with the same subject are apt to do. What it does do, and exceptionally well at that, is paint a portrait of a nihilistic society that has drowned in bleakness because eventually the realization that just surviving for survival’s sake might not be enough to warrant living. Would it be wonderful if every time any one of us wanted something we could just go to a shopping mall and take it without spending cash or having our credit cards charged? Absolutely! But in a world gone to a literal hell, do material possessions really mean all that much? I think not. If you love zombie movies, or for that matter horror movies that encapsulate the very best the genre has to offer, “Dawn of the Dead” is must see viewing.

 

 

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“Kolchak Episode – The Inspiration for Chase’s Sopranos”

Created by Jeff Rice, and starring Darren McGavin, (A Christmas Story) “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” aired on ABC Television from September 13, 1974 through March 28, 1975. Unfortunately, the momentum generated from two popular and successful television movies, The Night Stalker in 1972 and The Night Strangler in 1973, which preceded the series, wasn’t enough to maintain the show beyond one season. Sadly, all that fans of the series, and of veteran character actor McGavin who passed away in 2006, are left with is the two television movies and twenty episodes of a show, which I could imagine, might be a ratings success today if tweaked properly for modern viewers on networks such as the CW.

The introduction to the show always began with Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak walking into the offices of the INS (Independent News Service) accompanied by composer, Gil Melle’s  (Embryo) theme music, which was written a mere twenty minutes prior to the opening being filmed. Kolchak would toss his straw hat, sit down at his desk and begin pounding the keys of his typewriter, diligently working on his latest article. He was always armed with his camera and tape recorder, while driving around the windy city in his Ford Mustang convertible, investigating a crime that was, inevitably, the antithesis of run-of-the mill. No store robberies, muggings, or auto-thefts for Kolchak; no, his reports always contained aspects of the macabre, supernatural, and science-fiction. Sadly for the seersucker suit wearing Carl, the evidence he gathered to support his claims that creatures from the beyond, exist, was usually destroyed, which in turn would lead to him catching the ire of his argumentative editor, Tony Vincenzo, played by former concert violinist turned character actor Simon Oakland (Psycho). Trivia buffs take note: The episode “Chopper” was the first script that writer, director and producer Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and his co-writing collaborator Bob Gale (Used Cars) ever sold in Hollywood.

Loosely based on real-life journalist Charles Fort, the series while short in length was long on impact, most notably, is the praise given to it by two individuals: The first is X-Files creator Chris Carter, who strongly credits it as being a major inspiration in developing the concept for his own X-Files series. Carter didn’t just pay verbal praise to the show. Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson, who wrote the teleplay for The Night Stalker movie and was the writer of The Night Strangler television film, is the name of a character who appears in several episodes of the series. In addition, Carter wanted McGavin to appear on the X-Files as the character of Kolchak. That exact scenario didn’t transpire, but McGavin did appear in several episodes as the character of Arthur Dales, who is a retired FBI agent who was known as the “father of the X-Files.”

In addition to Chris Carter, six-time Emmy winner, David Chase, the creator of the iconic “The Sopranos,” originally came up with the idea for his fictionalized crime family, as a writer on the Kolchak series. In the episode, “The Zombie” directed by three time Oscar nominee Alexander Grasshoff (Journey to the Outer Limits), Chase, who would contribute to writing seven additional episodes of the series, first began to incorporate, into his writing, characters inspired by people in the syndicate. The teleplay for “The Zombie” was co-written by David Chase and Zekial Marko (The Rockford Files) based on a story idea by Marko, but it was Chase that would hold onto the idea, and eventually parlay it into a mega-hit HBO series. Interestingly enough, Chase didn’t want Tony Soprano and his associates to be part of a series, but instead the subject of a film. The episode, the second in the series, originally aired on September 20, 1974. The following opening voice-over by Kolchak sets the episode, which has a runtime of approximately 51 minutes, into motion:

“Popular folklore would have us believe that there exist in the underworld ruthless men who fear nothing. This story should debunk that myth. August 14th, 2:00am. While the upper strata of the syndicate were accustomed to dealing in millions, the foundation of their fortunes was here in their counting houses, in the small change of the numbers racket. Mr. Albert Berg, head collections man; a graduate of an Ivy League business school, he was an incompetent even by syndicate standards. About the only smart thing he’d ever done was marry the boss’s sister. Willie Pike – he’d never been convicted of anything, by anybody, except by the boxing commission. Willie took a dive into the canvass, and on through into the bulletproof car set. Willie was making a bundle; a bundle he would never get to spend.”

The episode places at odds, members of the Mafia versus a Chicago street gang. Former professional football player, and the Rookie of the Year for 1961, defensive lineman Earl Faison, plays Francois Edmonds, a numbers runner, who is murdered. As retaliation for his death, his mother, Marie Juliette Edmonds known as Mamalois Edmonds (Paulene Myers), who practices voodoo, resurrects Faison as a zombie. She sets the zombie out to kill everyone that had anything to do with his murder. Captain Leo Winwood, a corrupt cop, portrayed by Emmy nominee Charles Aidman, is working with the Mafia. He is having a hard time protecting the interests of the crime family run by  Benjamin Sposato (Joseph Sirola), and underboss, Victor Friese (Val Bisoglio). Their men are being killed, and he is worried that his ties to organized crime will be detected. Kolchak’s investigation, thanks to the paid help of morgue attendant Gordon ‘Gordy the Ghoul’ Spangler, a role acted by John Fiedler (12 Angry Men), and a mysterious character, known as ‘The Monk’ (Ben Frommer), finds that criminals are dying from more than just gunshots and cut throats. In addition to the aforementioned, the episode also features Grammy nominee, Scatman Crothers (The Shinning), and Antonio Fargas, who, among many other projects, would go on to achieve fame as the character of Huggy Bear on the television series “Starsky & Hutch.”

Acting on information given to him by ‘The Monk,’ Kolchak witnesses a meeting inside a garage between Sposato and Weldon. Threats and accusations are made from each of the warring sides; Sposato demanding retribution for the death of his men, Weldon dismissing it as bluster. Kolchak gets the meeting on tape, but he is discovered before he can get the evidence into the hands of the proper authorities. Sposato’s guys grab Kolchak and he is brought before the irate boss to learn his fate. In a last ditch effort to save himself, Kolchak informs Sposato, that he knows who is killing his crew. Sposato doesn’t believe it when he tells him that it is Francois Edmonds. He knows a hit was ordered and carried out on Edmonds. Kolchak begs Sposato for an opportunity to prove that what he’s saying is true;  at the cemetery, after Kolchak digs up Edmonds coffin, and they see, that as he said it would be, the body is gone.

Can the zombie be stopped? If it can, how? Does Kolchak prove its existence to the right people? What happens to the remaining members of the Sposato family? Will Captain Winwood’s association with organized crime be exposed? Everything will be answered by the end of the episode.

The distinct vintage aesthetic is what originally drew me to the series when I saw it while watching a marathon on television back in the early 2000’s. The special effects would be considered hokey by today’s standards, and perhaps a bit laughable even back in the early 1970s, but that is a small price to pay for a series that exuded such charm as it journeyed through mystery, noir, and urban legends and delivered, for the most part, entertaining stories. The show did, for its one and only season, use the ‘monster of the week’ formula to entertain the viewing audience, but I believe, like the first season of other shows of its genre, that would have changed had the series been allowed to continue. I sense that Kolchak eventually would have moved away from that type of storytelling and would have been geared towards more intricate scenarios, which in turn would have made the series vastly more interesting.

For those of you interested in watching the episode I covered, or the series, Netflix had the entire series available to stream instantly, but has since removed it. As of the writing of this blog, all of the episodes are available to watch on YouTube.com. While leaving much more to the imagination than is actually ever shown on the screen, Kolchak is vintage fun.

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