Thursday, September 27, 2012

Culture Shock 09.27.12: Prescription for 'Hysteria?' Give it a rest

For a film inspired by actual events, there is surprisingly little about "Hysteria" that rings true.

Director Tanya Wexler’s third and most ambitious movie is a romantic comedy set in the 1880s, when Queen Victoria reigned and Victorian values ruled. Unfortunately the romance is painfully obvious and the comedy is sorely lacking.

And that’s a shame, because a movie about the invention of the vibrator should be ripe for exploitation. You could even build a great advertising campaign around it, with "Banned in Alabama!" emblazoned across the posters.

But what we get with "Hysteria," new to DVD and Blu-ray, is yet another uninspired entry in the genre I like to call "Making Fun of the Victorians."

It goes like this: "Oh, those silly Victorians and their silly ideas about sex and medicine and politics. It’s all so laughable, but thank goodness we’re far more sophisticated now."

Well, yes, people in Victorian times did believe lots of things that turned out to be wrong, and sometimes laughable, just as people who lived before them did. And, one day, 100 years from now — or sooner — people will look back at us, and they’ll point and laugh, too. It’s the way of things. But I’m not sure I’d try to build a movie around it.

Perhaps if the screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer, from an original story by Howard Gensler, had stuck closer to the actual events rather than merely being inspired by them, then going off on the rom-com tangent, "Hysteria" wouldn’t be a limp, cliched snoozer that wastes the considerable talents of its cast.

We begin by meeting a young, idealistic doctor named Mortimer Granville, based on the real-life inventor of the electric vibrator and played by Hugh Dancy (the forthcoming "Hannibal" TV series). He has some crazy, new ideas about diseases being caused by germs and can’t keep a steady job at any of the local hospitals, where leeching patients is still the default treatment. So he takes a job assisting Dr. Robert Dalrymple (the always wonderful Jonathan Pryce), who has a lucrative practice treating wealthy women for the most ubiquitous disease of the Victorian age: hysteria.

Hysteria is a catch-all diagnosis, purportedly explaining everything from unladylike temperaments to thoughts of sex. And the treatment?

Manual stimulation. Unsurprisingly, the handsome Dr. Granville quickly becomes popular with Dr. Dalrymple’s patients. And soon, Dalrymple is eager to keep his medical practice in the family by marrying off his younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones) to his protege.

Yet where there’s a younger daughter there must be an older one, and that’s the idealistic, headstrong Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who may be suffering from hysteria herself, what with all her outlandish notions of helping the poor. And already you can guess where things are going.

Gyllenhaal does her best, but there’s no escaping the fact that as a character Charlotte is a cheat. Every time she goes off about how the world should be or will be, she’s speaking with the anachronistic knowledge of the screenwriters’ 130 years of hindsight. After a while, it doesn’t matter if she’s right; the whole exercise is tedious.

As for Granville, he’s so popular his hand can’t take the abuse. So with the help of a conveniently rich and technology-obsessed friend (Rupert Everett, playing a bored aristocrat all too convincingly), he invents the vibrator. The rest is not exactly history — the real-life Granville didn’t intend his muscle relaxer to become the Hitachi Magic Wand — but you have seen it before, in a hundred other romantic comedies.

My prescription: Give "Hysteria" a rest.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Culture Shock 09.20.12: 'Heathers' is an overlooked masterpiece

Dear diary,

My favorite 1980s teen angst comedy with a body count is being turned into a TV show. And no one — not the CIA, not the FCC, not the PTA — can stop it.

OK, it's not exactly a sure thing — yet. But Bravo announced last week that it is developing a TV series based on the 1988 movie "Heathers" starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty.

The series would pick up 20 years after the original, with Ryder's character, Veronica, returning to Sherwood, Ohio, with her daughter only to encounter a new, all-powerful high school clique, the Ashleys, who happen to be the daughters of the surviving Heathers, Veronica's frenemies from the original film.

The question is, has someone at Bravo had a brain tumor for breakfast?

You don't mess with perfection. And "Heathers" is pretty close to perfection.

Recently, "Sight & Sound" magazine asked more than 800 critics, filmmakers, academics and others to name the greatest movies of all time. The results created a stir when, after a 50-year reign, Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" was deposed as the No. 1 movie by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."

The "Sight & Sound" list was outrageous for two reasons. First, neither "Vertigo" nor "Citizen Kane" is even its respective director's best film, much less best overall.

Second, I was not one of the 846 people asked to participate. So, I crafted my own top 10 list. And before you question my choices, just be aware that two critics who were part of the poll submitted "Zoolander." So there.

Anyway, my top 10 films of all time, in no particular order, are Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, Sergio Leone's epic "Once Upon a Time in the West," Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," Welles' semi-documentary "F for Fake," Hitchcock's "Psycho," Milos Forman's Mozart biopic "Amadeus," Mario Bava's sublime ghost story "Lisa and the Devil" starring Telly Savalas and Elke Sommer, and Michael Lehmann's "Heathers."

All, naturally, are debatable, and I'm told it's scandalous that I don't share the rest of the world's fawning appreciation for the first two "Godfather" films. (They're not even my favorite mob films. That's the Coen brothers' "Miller's Crossing.")

But my only admittedly oddball picks are "Lisa and the Devil," which I'll leave for another time, and "Heathers."

While Lehmann's borderline surreal direction is not to be underestimated, it's Daniel Waters' screenplay that makes the movie.

He delivers a world-weary broadside against the absurdities and hypocrisies of class, fashion, pop psychology and the education establishment. It's Generation X's manifesto, and it has inspired lesser imitators, from 1999's "Jawbreaker" starring Rose McGowan to 2004's Millennial Generation knock-off "Mean Girls" with a pre-meltdown Lindsay Lohan.

Change the clothes and hairstyles, and "Heathers" could be made today, which is probably one reason Bravo sees this as fertile territory to revisit. The social divisions of high school more and more seep into the world of allegedly responsible adults. The accessories change — I don't think Swatches are still in fashion, although I could be wrong — but the show goes on.

If you've never seen "Heathers" or you just haven't seen it lately, it's available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix instant. And, if Bravo's TV sequel goes forward, at least it'll have the side effect of getting this masterful film a larger audience. As Heather No. 1 might say, that would be very.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Culture Shock 09.13.12: 'Thick of It' is back with some more bite

After spending the previous season as a supporting player — and in the opposition — it is Peter Mannion's time to shine.

Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in "The Thick of It."
And if you believe that, you're alone because not even Peter, the new minister for the fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, believes that.

The parties change, but the challenges and humiliations of government remain the same as the wickedly brilliant British political satire "The Thick of It" returns for a fourth season, following a three-year hiatus. And this year, for the first time, it's also airing in the U.S.

New episodes appear on Hulu on Sundays, and if you want to catch up with previous seasons, Hulu, which is co-producing the new season along with BBC Two, has those as well.

Stuck leading a worthless department staffed with civil servants who would just as soon be laid off, and having to share power with a junior minister from another party, Peter (Roger Allam) has been put out to pasture. He's a relic of the 1980s, with '80s suits, '80s hair and '80s ideas.

That especially puts Peter at odds with the prime minister's modern, tie-hating, chai-drinking PR man, Stewart (Vincent Franklin), whose chipper Zen exterior conceals a cutthroat political operative.

In the previous season, Peter was about the closest thing "The Thick of It" had to a sympathetic character, but now that he's in power — such as it is — he's more bitter than ever.

The political situation echoes the current real-life climate in Great Britain, where the government is composed of an increasingly fractious coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats, while Labour labors in opposition.

That means Peter also must deal with Fergus (Geoffrey Streatfield), a junior minister from the coalition party. And their rivalry gets even more heated when Peter is instructed to launch Fergus' new initiative, which requires Peter going to a school.

"I hate schoolchildren," is Peter's response. "They're volatile and stupid and they don't have the vote." That's Peter: ever practical.

It goes without saying that things go disastrously wrong from there, with fantastic results for us.

Shot in documentary style, "The Thick of It" is a cross between "The Office" and the 1980s British comedy "Yes, Prime Minister," and it relies as heavily on improvisation as it does the snappy scripted dialogue of series creator Armando Iannucci (HBO's "Veep") and his writing team.

Allam, who as others have noted seems to be channeling the late Christopher Hitchens with his performance, is in particularly top form.

Now if you've already been following "The Thick of It," or you've seen the equally hilarious spin-off film "In the Loop" (available on Netflix instant) you'll notice one character has been conspicuously absent so far — the foul-mouthed political shark Malcolm Tucker.

That's because Malcolm (Peter Capaldi) is conspicuously absent from the season four debut. But just because the former prime minister's public-relations mastermind and party-line enforcer is out of power doesn't mean he's out of mind. And the preview for this weekend's second episode shows us that Malcolm is scheming to get back into Number 10. But first he must deal with the opposition's new, unlikely party leader, Nicola (Rebecca Front), whom we last saw as the previous head of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.

If Nicola was in over her head as minister of a minor department, then as party leader — well, you can guess. And sharks prey on the weak.

Besides, it wouldn't really be "The Thick of It" without Malcolm calling people names I can't repeat here.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Culture Shock 09.06.12: 'Twins of Evil' has risen from grave

By the early 1970s, the old-fashioned gothic horror that was Hammer Films' stock-in-trade for nearly 15 years was looking dated. Period pieces about vampires and mad scientists' monsters were out.

Contemporary films about joining a satanic cult and having the devil's baby were in.

Hammer tried, unsuccessfully, to get in on the act with 1976's "To the Devil a Daughter," which is best known today for it's revealing final scene featuring a young Nastassja Kinski.

But in 1971, Hammer took one of its last stabs at the period vampire story, and the result was one of the best films of Hammer's late period: "Twins of Evil."

Long unavailable in the U.S., "Twins of Evil" has been brilliantly restored by cult-film distributor Synapse Films and released as a Blu-ray/DVD combo. It's a fair bet the finished product looks as good if not better than when "Twins of Evil" was originally released.

"Twins of Evil" is the third and final installment in Hammer's loosely connected "Karnstein trilogy," three films all based, to one degree or another, on Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla."

His tale of a female vampire stalking female victims, with its strong sexual themes lurking just below the surface, was perfect for Hammer, which was looking for stronger, sexier content in the face of lessened censorship and increased competition.

Yet, ironically, given it's Playboy Playmate leads, "Twins of Evil" is the tamest of the trilogy.

The story begins with orphaned twins Frieda and Maria (Madeleine and Mary Collinson, Playboy's first twin Playmates) arriving to live with relatives in 19th century Central Europe. But their uncle Gustav (Hammer mainstay Peter Cushing) is the leader of a Puritan sect seeking to rid the land of all forms of vice. And that doesn't sit well with the more adventurous twin, Frieda, who is quickly drawn to ribald tales of the local nobleman, the debauched Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas).

Unknown to the villagers, Karnstein is a vampire, and he easily entices Frieda with the promise of an eternal life away from her strict uncle, setting up the inevitable conflict with her virginal sister, who, we must not forget, is also her twin. So you know where this is going.

What sets "Twins of Evil" apart is its rejection of simple, either/or dichotomies. Earlier vampire films, including Hammer's, paint vampires as a threat to good and decent Victorian morality. Many of Dracula's female victims only come alive, metaphorically speaking, as vampires — Barbara Shelley's Helen in "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" is a prime example. But then it is up to strong, heroic, Victorian menfolk to put stakes through their hearts and save their souls.

For much of "Twins of Evil," however, it's hard to tell who is the real villain, the moralist Gustav Weil or the immoralist Count Karnstein. Fortunately, this time they don't represent the only options.

Although overshadowed by Cushing's other Hammer roles, notably Baron Frankenstein and Professor Van Helsing, Weil is a brilliant performance. Cushing plays him with unquestionable conviction. Even if he is a misguided crusader with a simplistic view of what is righteous, one thing Weil is not is a hypocrite. And he is never such a caricature that it's impossible to feel sympathy for him. For fans of the horror master, this is an essential performance.

For fans of classic horror, Synapse's restored "Twins of Evil" is an essential release, not the least for the bonus documentary feature "The Flesh and the Fury: X-Posing Twins of Evil." At 84 minutes, it's nearly as long as the film itself, and it covers everything from Le Fanu's original story, to the first two Karnstein films, "The Vampire Lovers" and "Lust for a Vampire," to the final days of the original Hammer Films.

"Twins of Evil" is one vampire movie that has been left in the crypt far too long.