movie

The Messiah on Mott Street

by Gary A. Braunbeck

The first time I was aware of art "happening" to me was when I was a little boy and was watching a first-run Night Gallery episode with my mom on December 15, 1971. The episode was "The Messiah on Mott Street," starring Edward G. Robinson, Tony Roberts, and Yaphet Kotto. The story centers on an old Jewish man named Abe Goldman (played by Robinson) who is sick and dying on Christmas Eve. Abe prays that a Messiah will save him from the Angel of Death, because if he dies, no one will be around to take care of his young grandson.

I realized about two-thirds of the way through that there was this little lump in my throat, and by the time the episode reached its unapologetically sentimental conclusion, I was bawling like a baby. So was my mom. Until the day she died, "The Messiah On Mott Street" remained her favorite Christmas episode of any television show. We had both been moved by Rod Serling’s simple tale of redemption and miracles among the tenements, and as Mom was pouring herself and me some hot chocolate afterward, she wiped her eyes and said, "Oh, I swear, that Rod Serling can sure write good stories."

It wasn’t until Mom said those words that I came back to reality long enough to realize that Rod Serling (who I knew from The Twilight Zone) had written the words that those people had said, and that his story had made both me and Mom cry (in that good but embarrassing way you never want to tell anyone about later), and that meant that words and stories could affect people.

Not a major unveiling as far as art exhibits go, but it did the trick for me. Watching that episode, knowing my reaction to it, Mom’s reaction to it, and then her reaction about her reaction, brought it full-circle and I started crying again (silly, sentimental boy), and when Mom put her arm around my shoulder and told me it was all right, it was okay, it was just a television show, just a story, all I could manage to say was, "No, it wasn’t," before I started in with the spluttering again.

I hadn’t the experience or the brains to fully realize what was happening to me, so how in hell was I supposed to articulate it? It seemed to me then that, if this were a fair world and just universe, everyone would be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings as well as the people on Night Gallery had, and then maybe people wouldn’t find themselves standing around with snot running down their face and tears in their eyes, frustrated because they couldn’t find the words to express all they needed to convey.

So I began seeking out Rod Serling everywhere I could. I found collections of his short stories at the local library (Serling was a much-underrated prose writer) and read them all cover to cover, then started in again. Anytime a movie written by Serling came on television, Mom or dad would call me down to watch it. I became a Twilight Zone re-run junkie (still am), and you can bet your ass that mine was there in front of that television set every Wednesday night at 9 p.m. tuned to NBC for the next new episode of Night Gallery.

Psycho and the power of good film editing

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I once had the pleasure of spending fifteen minutes at a bar with the late, great Robert Bloch talking about movies, fiction, and peoples’ misconceptions about what they both see and read.

Bloch told me — as he did many other fans over the decades — that he still had people come up to him and complain about how bloody and violent they found the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Bloch’s novel Psycho. (“Thank God I didn’t have her sitting on the toilet,” Bloch always said.)

People complained about Janet Leigh’s nudity and complained that seeing her naughty bits so offended their sensibilities; they complained about the excessive amounts of blood; and they complained, consistently, about the violence of seeing the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh’s body over and over.

Go back and watch Psycho and pay particular attention to the shower sequence. Hitchcock — aided greatly by the work of the brilliant film editor George Tomasini — pulled off a dark magic trick that to my mind has yet to be equaled in American film: they made you believe you were seeing things that weren’t actually depicted.

You do not see Janet Leigh’s naughty bits. You do not see blood splattering all over everything. And you most definitely do not ever, even once, see the knife plunge into Ms. Leigh’s body. But the sequence is so brilliantly filmed and edited that viewers were — and some still are — left with the impression that, dammit, they saw all of that.

Movie Review: Bubba Ho-Tep

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Bubba Ho-Tep is one of my favorite 2003 movies. It’s an extremely adept adaptation of Joe Lansdale‘s novella of the same name by director Don Coscarelli. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis are wonderful in their respective roles as elderly men who may or may not be Elvis and JFK stuck in a nursing home in Mud Creek, Texas* who must do battle with an Egyptian mummy who is brought to unlife after his museum box is dumped in a creek near the home.

The low-budget movie circulated the U.S. in extremely limited release last year. My wife and I took my nephew to see while it played in Columbus for a week — to sold-out showings, no less — at our local art house theater, the Drexel. Afterward, many people my nephew talked about the movie to in his home town wouldn’t believe it was an actual movie.

However, now that Bubba Ho-Tep has been released on DVD, everyone who missed it in theaters can get themselves a copy. And in my book, it’s an excellent purchase for any movie fan’s library. I bought my nephew one just so he could prove to all his friends he didn’t just make the whole thing up.

The movie is wonderful all the way around, with great performances from everyone, right down to the smallest supporting character. It’s got all of Lansdale’s trademark humor and off-center poignancy.

The transfer is gorgeous, and seeing it again (this time on the small screen) made me appreciate the director’s use of comic-book angles more than I did inb the theater. There’s a surprising amount of extras, but the single biggest reason to own this (aside from having the movie itself) is for the secondary audio track where Bruce Campbell as Elvis comments on the film as if he’s seeing it for the first time. It’s basically a 90-minute performance piece, and it’s utterly hysterical.

What surprised me upon my second (and third) viewing (yes, I watched it twice — c’mon, you know I have no life) was that there are countless little throwaway character bits that I didn’t catch the first (or even second) time. A lot of love went into the making of this movie, a lot of care was taken, and the result — even if you have some quibbles about it — is undeniably a unique (in the dictionary sense of the word) movie: you ain’t ever seen nothin’ like this before.

The other surprise was the level of poignancy in the movie; this thing would have been a disaster if the filmmakers had decided to make fun of the elderly, or to play its two lead characters for laughs; they don’t. The characters — outrageous as they are — are treated with respect and given dignity, and I was shocked that during the “salute” moment near the end, I actually got a little choked up.

Helluva good movie, a new cult classic (as it deserves to be — the masses aren’t ready for something like this).

I’d most definitely give this movie ***1/2, hands-down — and it’s ***1/2 instead of **** because I have a quibble: I think it takes just a tad too long to set up its premise, but that in no way diminishes the enjoyment.

* They shot the movie on-location in an actual nursing home in the actual town of Mud Creek, Texas. When you watch the movie, you’ll notice that aside from JFK’s room, the home looks pretty run-down. The home had been closed down temporarily for badly-needed repairs.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter

The film The Sweet Hereafter is based on the novel of the same name written by Russell Banks. If you enjoyed the film, I encourage you to seek out the book, because it’s wonderful. If you want to be a writer, or if you simply enjoy a good story, the novel has a great deal to offer you.

The book’s central event is a school bus crash that kills many children in the small town of Sam Dent in upstate New York; the rest of the book explores the effect the tragedy has on the town and the novel’s central characters.

The Sweet Hereafter provides the best example I’ve ever encountered of an author alternating between several first person narrators. It’s told from four viewpoints: Dolores Driscoll, the bus driver; Billy Ansel, a grieving, alcoholic father of one of the dead children; Mitchell Stephens, a New York City lawyer who is trying to cope with grief over his own drug-addicted daughter; and Nichole Burnell, a teenager who was crippled in the accident.

Banks establishes such distinct cadences for each character that when all four of them are talking to one another, he goes sometimes for pages without a single “he said,” “she said.”

The book is 257 pages long and was first published in 1991, though parts of it appeared before that date in North American Review and Ontario Review.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Movie Review: God Is Alone

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

God is Alone is a 2004 indie film written and directed by Jason Torrey. It’s about a young man named William who, along with his deaf sister Amy, endures a great deal of abuse from their father. After William loses his job, he sees a girl abandoning a baby in a dumpster; he tries to help the baby, and the film chronicles the disaster that follows. On a symbolic level, the film is basically an update of the story of the birth of Christ.

I thought that Monique Farrar, the actress who played Amy, was superb–I don’t recall the last time I saw a face so naturally and deeply, deeply sad; of all the actors in the film, she was the only one who I felt wasn’t “acting”–she was natural and effortless and heartbreaking as hell.

Other reviewers have criticized the movie for having far too many scenes of William walking around. I agree (though I can undertand, to an extent, why Torrey chose to do this), but even if I hadn’t liked it overall, I would still recommend that people watch it for the extraordinary “coffee-making” scene that comes about 2/3 of the way through.

The coffee scene accomplishes everything that good film storytelling should accomplish; it adds depth to the character, it has real poignancy, it’s nerve-wracking as hell in context, and ultimately incredibly sad.

The entire sequence, from the time her father pours the coffee on the table right up until Amy falls asleep in her bedroom is–in my opinion–perfect. No flashy camera work, nothing terribly symbolic, just one person in a great deal of quiet pain and fear trying to keep herself from being further abused, then retreating into memories of the past in order to make coping with the present more endurable.

There’s a lot of subtle pain and terror in that sequence, and though the rest of the film doesn’t measure up to these 8 or 9 extraordinary minutes, that they exist at all is proof enough of the director’s talent for me.

If you can get past some of the over-long strolls, a handful of visual self-indulgences, and some of the heavy-handed religious symbolism (that Amy was dressed in white, white, white all the time got on my nerves in short order) this is very worthwhile–though flawed–piece of filmmaking. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to be exactly what it wants to be: it’s the work of a single vision, so it’s understandable that that vision might have gotten a little tunnel-visioned at times.

There is a scene in the movie that–as far as I can tell–serves no other purpose (speaking here from a narrative point) than for the director and his wife to put their baby daughter on-screen. But you know what? I’m a sucker for babies. The little girl is adorable, a natural for the screen if I ever saw one. Unfortunately–for the scene in question–you can’t look at anyone or anything else once the baby comes on. It’s not that she makes noise or draws attention to herself, it’s just that she’s so darned cute you don’t really care about anything else.

But I want to re-emphasize something: despite my reservations about it, this is a very worthwhile film, one that shows its director as having serious intent and a talent to watch.

God is Alone is 104 minutes long and is intended for mature teens and adults.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Movie Review: The Village

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village is about the people of Covington, an isolated late-1800s era village somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania. The villagers have an uneasy truce between themselves and monstrous creatures who live in the woods surrounding their village. Travel is prohibited; as the movie opens, one of the village’s elders has just lost his only son to a disease that could have been cured had they been able to travel to nearby towns to get medicines.

The plot thickens as the creatures invade the village at night and leave red slashes on doors and mutilated animals. After her beloved is gravely wounded, a blind girl decides she must brave the woods to get medical supplies.

Signs was an allegory about faith; this movie is about fear. The villagers wear the color of caution and cowardice.

The good things about this movie are that it is beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, and the micro-writing of the script is very good. There are a number of great scenes, but I think the best is between Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard) on a porch.

The problem — and it’s a big one, folks — is that The Village should have never been approached as a horror/suspense movie in the first place. It is not a scary movie because it never should have been a scary movie. Shyamalan has bought into his own PR as the “New Master Of Suspense”. This movie — and bear in mind I’ve liked all his other films — was hamstrung by bad storytelling. As a result, it’s the weakest of the films he’s written and directed so far.

I’ve seen the central idea of The Village done in at least two old Twilight Zone< episodes, and I can’t help but think that a writer like Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont or Richard Matheson would have done The Village right and told it as a sociological drama.

Another film similar to this was done many years ago; it’s a wonderful Alan Bates film entitled King of Hearts. If you enjoyed The Village but left the theater feeling dissatisfied with the story as I did, you might try to find King of Hearts as a rental.

Furthermore, several people have mentioned to me that the plot of The Village is quite similar to a children’s novel entitled Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix. Haddix’s novel includes not only the basic idea of the village, but the village elders also have black boxes in their homes.

Derivative or not, The Village has a good story at its core — but it took the movie over an hour to finally get around to telling it. The “twist” should have been revealed in the first thirty minutes — as it is, it’s broadcast enough that my wife and I guessed it pretty early on, and I know of at least one person who guessed it from simply watching the trailer. It could have been a really chilling and poignant drama had it been written and directed by someone who wasn’t bent on making a suspense movie with a twist at the end.

And unfortunately although the story looks and sounds great, Shyamalan blew every chance he had to tell this story the way it should have been told.

Discussion (Spoilers Follow)

The movie does have an interesting political subtext, and many viewers (including myself) are interpreting it as a critique of the Bush Administration’s handling of the war on terror: “If you won’t fear the outside world so that we can control you with fear, we will create monsters to frighten you into meek submission.”

Political allegories aside, the story was actually told backwards: this would have been a much more compelling movie had it begun with all of these broken people in the counselling center deciding they’d had enough of society’s violence, and then following them as they took steps to make the life in the village and raise their children to be fearful of the outside world, and ending with the creation of “the monsters.”

There was an outright plot hole in this one, too (aside from the literal plot hole in the woods). Why was the monster suit hidden in the floorboards of the quiet room where Noah would have access to it? The scene before had led us viewers to believe all the suits were in the forbidden shed. And how would Ivy know what the claw of one of the monsters would feel like, since she’s never seen one? Sloppy.

And I found Noah’s character to be a bit aggravating; I’m faulting the script rather than Adrien Brody’s acting, which was fine as usual. Noah giggles at the sounds from the forest at the beginning because he know’s what’s going on — it seems like he’s the embodiment of the director laughing at us because we don’t know what’s going on yet. I gathered that Noah was responsible for all the animal mutilations as well, but it seems impossible he could do so many of the animals later on, and it’s never really clarified. Another plot hole.

This movie’s horror trappings were ultimately unnecessary. The tale was told with the emphasis on the wrong elements.

The lesson: never buy into your own PR, lest you take a good story and purposefully mangle it so that it better suits your “reputation.”

Movie Information

Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Score: James Newton Howard
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins (who also shot O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Sid and Nancy)
Cast:

Bryce Dallas Howard: Ivy Walker
Joaquin Phoenix: Lucius Hunt
Adrien Brody: Noah Percy
William Hurt: Edward Walker
Sigourney Weaver: Alice Hunt
Brendan Gleeson: August Nicholson
Cherry Jones: Mrs. Clack


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.

Movie Review: The Punisher

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

I watched this 2004 movie last night and much to my surprise, I liked it. I’m not sure that this was really a good movie (though I can say without hesitation that the camera work — done by the talented Conrad W. Hall — and pacing of the action sequences are excellent) but I sure had a good time watching it.

It put me in mind of a Bogart movie from 1953 called Beat the Devil — a movie that bombed and was panned by critics upon its initial release because everyone thought it was being serious; the ensuing decades have revealed that the movie is, in fact, a subtly tongue-in-cheek comedy whose wit and cleverness was a bit ahead of its time.

I think that’s why The Punisher tanked; it’s not a serious movie, despite the way it was advertised (and one wince-inducing torture sequence). I found this to be a wild entertaining, tongue-in-cheek comic book/action movie satire with a couple of very sly performances from Tom Jane and John Travolta.

And if you think I’m off-base about the tongue-in-cheek aspect, go back and watch the dinner-with-the-neighbors sequence again; Jane does some hysterically subtle stuff. And consider the diner sequence when guitar-strumming Johnny-Cash-as-psychopathic-assassin Harry Heck confronts Castle. And review the time the Russian assassin shows up–looking like Gorgeous George, complete with the Popeye red-striped shirt–you’ll have no choice but to realize that this thing was not meant to be taken seriously; it’s all tongue-in-cheek, and just overdone enough to be winkingly funny; it’s meant to be a joke, and one that the viewer is in on.

Seriously; if one were to view this as a movie with serious intentions, it would be a disaster; watch it as a sly action dark comedy, and it’s a whole new experience.

The basic plot is pretty simple: after his family is murdered by gangsters, Frank Castle goes on a one-man mission to kill the killers. “This is not revenge,” Castle says. “This is punishment.” He sets up his base of operations in a seedy apartment building where his oddball neighbors take an interest in him.

Comic book purists may of course be dismayed by the liberties the movie takes with the Frank Castle canon. Jane’s Castle is a Federal undercover agent whose entire extended family is murdered by Howard Saint’s hitmen at a reunion in Puerto Rico. Whereas in the original comic Castle had nothing to do with the drug lords prior to his immediate family’s murder, in this movie Saint decrees the mass slaughter in revenge for his son’s death during a drug sting orchestrated by Castle. And the subsequent action takes place in Florida instead of New York City. Furthermore, instead of being a loner, Castle becomes involved with his neighbors despite his own intentions.

Movie Information

Rating: R
Release Year: 2004
Running Time: 124 minutes
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Writer: Jonathan Hensleigh and Michael France, based on the works of the various writers for the Marvel comic
Cinematographer: Conrad W. Hall (who also shot Fight Club and American Beauty)
Cast:

Russell Andrews — Jimmy Weeks
Omar Avila — Joe Toro
James Carpinello — Bobby Saint/John Saint
Mark Collie — Harry Heck
Ben Foster — Spacker Dave
Laura Harring — Livia Saint
Thomas Jane — Frank Castle (as Tom Jane)
Kevin Nash — The Russian
Will Patton — Quentin Glass
John Pinette — Bumpo
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos — Joan
Roy Scheider — Frank Castle, Sr.
Hank Stone — Cutter
John Travolta — Howard Saint


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this review, check out his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.