Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Night Paranoia

Watching the 1978 Phillip Kaufmann remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  At one point Brooke Adams says to Donald Sutherland, "'I've lived in this city all my life, but somehow today I felt everything had changed."  And then that actually happened on 11/9/16 (maybe sooner).  So are the pod people are winning????  The issue lingers and we are in it for the long haul, the slow burn, moving through history's cunning passages and feeling ghosts breathing down our neck . . .

Sunday, April 16, 2017

TV Review: Wiseguy (1987-1990)

Wiseguy may be the Rosetta Stone of the modern TV landscape.  It aired on CBS from 1987-1990 to mediocre ratings and was mostly forgotten after going off the air.  The show followed undercover FBI agent Vinnie Terranova, ably played by Ken Wahl , whose job was to infiltrate and disrupt various criminal enterprises.  Also starring was Jonathan Banks as John McPike, Vinny's key contact with the FBI.  "Lifeguard" played by Jim Byrnes stood on call if Vinny got into a serious fix.

What makes Wiseguy historically important was that it went against conventional episodic television: stories played out over several episodes.  Neither did each arc exist in isolation, they were of part an even larger arc as the events in each story brought consequences for the next one. Unfortunately the realities of 1980s television prevented Wiseguy from developing even more complex stories.

Season One packed a wallop with two engrossing narratives featuring larger than life villains. Terranova's first assignment was to infiltrate the Atlantic City mob.  Sonny Steelgrave, played with gusto by character actor Ray Sharkey, wanted to take over the city. His persona combined Donald Trump and Tony Soprano.  Sonny took Vinnie under his wing and they form a close bond, causing serious loyalty conflicts for Terranova.

The second arc showed even more ambition with Vinnie fronting as a bodyguard for international arms dealer siblings Mel and Laura Profitt.  Kevin Spacey got his first big break and its fascinating to see him use acting rhythms he would bring to his future roles.  Mel's a drug attic who's prone to bouts of megalomania and paranoia.  Another major character Roger Loccocco (William Russ), a hired gun for the Profitt siblings, also became a recurring character.

The second season continued to emphasize character. Vinnie, dejected after the chaotic conclusion to the Mel Profitt case, sulks at home until he discovers white nationalists are starting trouble in his Brooklyn neighborhood.  Don't miss Fred Thompson as their titular leader, eventually revealed to be a huckster.

Next came the "Garment Trade Storyline" which featured Jerry Lewis in a rare dramatic role as garment trade business owner who gets in trouble with a mobster, a menacing Stanley Tucci. During filming Wahl was injured and briefly replaced by a veteran undercover agent John Henry Raglin, played by Anthony Denison from Crime Story.

Unfortunately the last part of season two remains unavailable on DVD and syndication, due to copyright  issues.  The story featured Vinnie taking on corruption in the record industry.

By season three the stories grew more erratic. The first arc returned to another mob themed story line involving Vinnie's stepfather.  Next came a brilliant four episode story on power plays in Washington D.C., centering on a scheme to launch a trade war with Japan that came straight out of a Tom Clancy novel, starring Norman Lloyd as a duplicitous general.

Then the setting moved to rural Washington, foreshadowing Twin Peaks which would air the following season on ABC. Vinnie discovers shady behavior and bizarre locals while investigating a serial killer case in what began as a simple investigation into small town corruption. The case caused Vinnie to experience a nervous breakdown and he went AWOL. The season ended with Terranova stumbling upon a toxic waste conspiracy in Seattle as his mental state continued to worsen.  Unfortunately the character never got a proper exit from the show's mythology.

Wahl did not return for season 4 over creative differences and the show quickly faded.  Wiseguy continued on for a short season with Steven Bauer taking over as the lead.  An inferior made for TV movie with Wahl aired in 1996.

So many of the most heralded shows of the 21st Century including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Homeland, all owe something to Wiseguy. Jonathan Banks went on to star in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul brought a welcomed renewed interest in the show.  Wiseguy's pulpy writing style and retro film noir look are well worth revisiting.

Book Review: Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman's history of 1970s horror is a welcome companion piece to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, only Zinoman has genuine affection toward his subjects. There are no heroes or villains in the book, just some creative people who burnt out a little too fast.  Published in 2011, Shock Value focuses primarily on John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero.  Others known for their work outside the genre also appear, namely, William Friedkin and Brian De Palma.

The story begins in the 1960s, a period when few took horror movies seriously.  Mainstream society considered them a bad influence on the youth.  But for a generation the Vincent Price movies and William Castle extravaganzas were unforgettable experiences. Then came Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller Psycho which opened new possibilities for horror, proof the pubic had an appetite for dark and lurid subject matter and that such films could be taken seriously as art.

Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby raised the bar even higher, using film techniques to keep audiences unsettled. Polanski intentionally obscured what happened in his compositions and the location shooting in Manhattan brought a sense of realism, making the audience paranoid along with Mia Farrow.

Meanwhile a new generation of filmmakers brought a DIY attitude to the genre.  George Romero's Night of the Living Dead was shot in low budget black and white like a cinema verite documentary. Romero broke taboos and tapped into the social anxieties of the 1960s.

Wes Craven, the most prolific of the group, was raised by devout Christians and was not allowed to watch movies as a child.  In rebellion against his family's values, Craven made The Last House on the Left, a shockingly violent film with scenes of graphic torture and rape, forcing audiences to confront the violence within themselves.  Critics dismissed the film as crude exploitation, but Craven's anti-violent message was lost on most.

Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was designed as an assault on the audience.  A group of college students run out of gas in the Texas backcountry and are terrorized by a family of unemployed cannibals.  In a savage twist Hooper invites the audience to sympathize with the psycho-killer Leatherface, just another lost child no one understands.

Horror went mainstream and became cultural phenomenon with the 1973 release of The Exorcist. Based on the bestselling William Peter Blatty novel, the film galvanized audiences. Detractors saw it tasteless exploitation, a misogynist film less about demonic possession and more about male fear of female sexuality.  Others saw it as sobering exploration evil and faith. The Exorcist received 10 Oscar nominations, unprecedented for a horror film.

The central relationship in Shock Value is between John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon.  Classmates at UCLA in the early 1970s they collaborated on the 1975 cult film Dark Star, a slight parody of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  O'Bannon resented Carpenter getting director's credit and the two feuded (O'Bannon wrote the script, acted, and designed the special effects for Dark Star).  Zinoman presents a Mozart/Salieri dynamic between them: Carpenter went on become an auteur in horror and sci-fi, while O'Bannon struggled to get studios to read his screenplays. He wrote the original Alien, only to be upstaged by the director yet again.

Zinoman argues the 1970s were a golden age for the horror genre - setting a high bar yet to be crossed. While the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other social upheavals had a tangential influence, the lowering of the production code allowed directors to push the envelope further than ever before. All outsiders in their own way, their movies reflected the dark side of American life. Proof of their enduring legacy exists in the flood of reboots and remakes their movies inspired - most of which failed to measure up to the originals.

Horror went mainstream in the 1980s, but the genre lost its edge. People want a fun roller coaster ride, the Paranormal Activity franchise being an example. Straight up gore fests attracted audiences, social commentary not so much.  Purists believe true horror should leave the audience confused and disturbed.  Zinoman wrote:

The most unpleasant thing possible is what Wes Craven and Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter were trying to put on screen.  That was the point.

As a work of film history, Shock Value is great way to revisit a pivotal decade in American cinema.