Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

FRINGE: "Bad Dreams"

An Idiot Box Review by Brian Holcomb

So last night's episode "Bad Dreams" was the work of writer and debuting director Akiva Goldsman. This is the man behind the worst Batman script ever written, Batman and Robin. He also won an Academy Award for the worst script ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, A Beautiful Mind. So, one can say that expectations were quite low, lower in fact than those for many of the episodes of this still wet behind the ears series. But this turned out to be a pleasant surprise, probably the best episode yet.

Olivia ( Anna Torv) is having terrible nightmares in which she sees herself killing people. At least that's what she thinks she's doing when she dreams of pushing a young mother off a subway platform to be crushed by the incoming train. Of course, the dream has occurred in real life-in Grand Central Station in NYC-but the woman is seen on the security cam to just jump off the platform by herself, leaving her child in her stroller to witness the horrible event.

The Fringe team gets together to help Olivia solve her problem which turns out to be more complex than the usual "seeing through the eyes of the killer" trope expected. It turns out to be more of a "feeling what the killer is feeling" experience and is directly connected to the series' developing mytharc involving the US government's secret drug testing on children. Like much of Abrams' other work, the central concept may be derivative (in this case a twist on Cronenberg's Scanners) but the end product swallows up ideas at such a prodigious rate that it becomes less about what idea came from where than in how many of these ideas can be consumed in one sitting as one twist gives way to the next. Where Chris Carter cherry picked one classic horror-sci-fi movie idea at a time for each episode of The X-files, Fringe has no problem starting with a scene that looks to be an homage to Brian DePalma's homage to Battleship Potemkin in The Untouchables and ending with a final act that's a much more effective version of M. Night Shyamalan's endless and lame The Happening.

It's a tightly crafted little story that weaves its "monster of the week" very well within its bigger serial story. We learn more about Olivia's past and the secret that Walter (John Noble) is holding from her. We get some more foreshadowing of a romance between Olivia and Peter (Joshua Jackson). As in all the episodes thus far, there's always some eruption of strangeness or quirkiness that suggests a madman hiding among the writing staff. This week we get a surprising moment of Torv kissing a female stripper while in a hypnotic trance and her "experiencing" the male killer's orgasm following intercourse. The show ends with an old videotape that Walter digs up featuring a young girl in what appears to be a cruel experiment. Offscreen a sinister and gravelly voiced scientist can be heard giving Walter instructions. I wonder who this could be...

Friday, April 17, 2009


by Brian Holcomb

Wow. This mediocre and very derivative British horror movie has finally beached itself onto our shores riding a massive tsunami sized wave of online hype and hope. It's really nothing more than your run of the mill "old dark house" plot, with a group of young women who get lost in some caves instead of a house or a spaceship or a summer camp or the outback and are picked off one by one by some creatures who look like relatives of Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings". These underground dwellers may have once been human but have since evolved to live and hunt in total darkness. And that's about it.

Technically well made, writer-director Neil Marshall has obviously kept his DVD player spinning for days studying all of the classics and simply taking wholesale everything he needed like a Vanilla Ice "Under Pressure". But the elements he's Frankensteined together do not cohere into anything resembling a good story, instead seeming like an anthology of classic horror riffs-a kind of "Horror Movies for Dummies" primer.

Which makes it all the more bizarre is that it's the horror film fans themselves that have hyped this movie up on the net.When false hype is fed by desperate hope the results are insane blurbs like, "The greatest horror film of the last 10 years" or "The best cave dwelling mutant horror movie since 'The Mole People'!". It only demonstrates how bad the horror genre has become, that fans will go into orgasmic exhaltations over almost any movie that will risk an R-rating in the US multiplex market.

The true horror lies in the fact that Marshall seems to have real talent as a film director and could actually make some authentic horror classics if given better source material. The material provided here is paper thin: After a tragic prologue lifted from the screenplay structures of "The Changeling" "Don't Look Now" and "Dead Calm", "The Descent" settles into it's main narrative of six young ladies who decide to reclaim a sense of youthful danger in their responsible adult lives by going on a caving expedition in the Appalachian mountains. However, one of them, the American, Juno, decides to lead them to an unmapped and far riskier cave without their knowledge to increase the danger and the excitement. This, of course, proves to be the classic "really bad idea" and a few intense arguments, suspenseful traps and cave-ins later, the horror begins-photographed in scenes so dark they look as though they could've been shot in your basement with the lights off.

There are several quite capably directed jump out of your seat moments, but these all appear quite cheap when you try and follow the logic of the storyline which soon fades into the darkness. A horror film meant to be a surreal fever dream is one thing;"Phantasm" and "Suspiria" never intend to make conventional sense and we're never annoyed. This movie, however, wants to be taken seriously on some level as a real narrative, with some effort to display a mini morality play as well between several of the characters. When the movie works, it ditches the tiresome character material and focuses on the "haunted house" styled shock machine. Marshall knows that these old movie tricks still work and does a quite reasonable job of playing with the whole "now you see me,now you don't" cinematic game. For a short while at least, you feel as though you are watching the genuine article: a new cult classic horror film. But this is soon swept away amid a series of shots and plot turns that appear to be an homage to classic horror cinema.

This "genuine article" turns out to be a Xerox of a Xerox even using a second generation dub of the Ennio Morricone soundtrack from John Carpenter's "The Thing". If we can agree for the moment that "homage" is actually French for "rip-off", that would seem to explain, finally, the appeal of this over-hyped flick to many tired fans. For what is more gratifying to a life long horror movie fan than to watch a movie which is a kind of 90 minute shout out to them. "Hey, man, that's the helicopter shot from 'The Shining'", "Bet you dudes pick up on the reference to 'Apocalypse Now'!", "...the arm is from 'Carrie'", "...or maybe it's the hand in 'Deliverance'","It's definitely the broken leg from 'Deliverance'", "Everything from 'Alien' and 'Aliens'?" We could go on, but why? Yes, Neil Marshall and I like alot of the same movies. I own all of those movies on DVD myself. I just don't feel the urge to do my Karaoke version of them for the fanboys. Especially if I possessed the technical skills of Marshall who perhaps one day will make the genuine article he so admires, creating new classic images and moments that others will feel inspired to copy- beginning the whole cycle anew.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The ANTI-CHRIST is Coming!

Lars von Trier's Antichrist - Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.

“I would like to invite you for a tiny glimpse behind the curtain, a glimpse into the dark world of my imagination: into the nature of my fears, into the nature of Antichrist.” LARS VON TRIER

Well, if that doesn't sound just like the opening of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace! Like Werner Herzog, It's ALWAYS hard to tell if Von Trier is kidding.

It's been awhile since we've heard from Von Trier and this film has certainly had its production troubles. But from the looks of it, it seems that Von Trier has crafted a film somewhat closer in style to his early works like The Element of Crime than the dogme and pseudo-dogme approach taken from The Kingdom onward. It also reminds me of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf in its mix of isolation, psychodrama, and surrealistic imagery.

But that remains to be seen...

This is the plot as offered in a press release from Zentropa: A couple lose their little son, and the wife subsequently suffers from terrible anxiety attacks. Her husband is a therapist, and in spite of warnings not to treat people with whom you have close relations, they begin to tackle her fears together, and in the place where her anxiety is strongest: Eden, a deserted cabin in the woods.

The tough therapeutic struggle develops into a battle of the sexes. Her fears inhabit them both, and even he is not exempt from experiencing the merciless evil of nature. Natural brutality takes over and his cool reason is rendered futile. The evil in her runs wild.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Harper's Island is a gimmick show in the grand but bargain-budget tradition of master showman William Castle and his reality-TV bastard stepchild Mark Burnett. It's best described as And Then There Were None Because I Know What You Did Last Summer When We Were Survivors, but that was probably too long a title to be marketable. The show has been promoted as a "Mystery Event," which is CBS's way of saying it's a miniseries with a conclusive ending—in 13 weeks, to be exact. This is a rarity amid the current vogue for never-ending serials with no hope of a satisfying resolution. For better or worse, Harper's Island will come to a close in the dog days of summer revealing the identity of its mystery killer and answering the age old question, "Who Will Survive"

Survivor was definitely the inspiration for this fictional show's central gimmick. Each week, at least one of the wedding party guests on the isolated titular island will be killed off and Jeff Probst will be on hand to put out their cigars. Not really. But the show's biggest flaw is that it's a gimmick show that doesn't effectively exploit its gimmicky nature. It would be one thing if the script made a real attempt at strong characterizations and a compelling mystery, but based on the sketchy first episode, Friday the 13th Part 3D was more complex and Fred Walton's April Fool's Day much wittier. Read the rest of this review at SLANT MAGAZINE