Film Reviews: Spring 2016

By: Anna Faktorovich

***

Special Correspondents: A Hard-Hitting Look at Hack Journalism

Special Correspondents is a low-budget Netflix comedy that stars a series of well-known middle-aged stars. It is refreshing to view an anti-journalism film for a change, as the dramas about the heroic journalists nearly dying but surviving against all odds through their strength of character are predictably dull.

The film starts when a radio announcer, played by Eric Bana, and his female assistant, Kelly Macdonald, break into a crime scene by pretending to be detectives, and in two minutes concoct how the announcer images the Russian without a finger got shot in a gang war based on silverware and a couple of sentences by the bellman.

Fig. 1 - Hotel - Special Correspondents

Fig. 1. Eric Bana, middle, and Kelly Macdonald, right, in Special Correspondents. Netflix.

Things go awry when the technician, Ricky Gervais, tosses his own and the announcer’s passports and tickets into a dump truck, just as they are supposed to fly for an assignment in a warzone in South America. They hide out in an apartment above a diner across the street from their radio station instead, and use automated sound effects to convince listeners that they are reporting from the frontlines. They make up a false general and spin the lie so far that they have to pretend they’ve been kidnapped. To support this lie, they smuggle themselves into the country illegally, and actually manage to get kidnapped.

Fig 2 - Terrorists - Special Correspondents

Fig. 2. Eric Bana, middle left, and Ricky Gervais, middle right, in Special Correspondents. Netflix.

Most of the cast acts as if they are intoxicated during shooting, and this stands out the most in Vera Farmiga’s performance. She does sip alcohol a few times, as part of the plot, but her lack of enthusiasm for the story and for what she’s saying shows through. She is supposed to be the detached, mean and self-interested wife of the technician, but her apathy is painful to watch. Comedies typically exaggerate this sort of characters to a greater extent to avoid it slipping into a dark tragedy.

Fig 3 - Car - Special Correspondents

Fig. 3. Ricky Gervais, left, and Eric Bana in Special Correspondents. Netflix.

The running scene where Ricky Gervais shoots out the kidnappers really shows why comedians should not attempt inserting extreme action into their low-budget (i.e. no stunt-doubles) films. Imagine Xena without doubles, if Lucy Lawless gained a hundred pounds and was wearing baggy casual clothing, while she’s trying to run and toss spears in the general direction of her numerous assailants…

The settings look expensive though. In one scene, the leads are making their way through deep water towards the shore as a large trade ship is departing behind them. The jungle village they end up in in South America looks like an authentic village in the rainforest, so it must have cost a good deal to get a crew in there. The shots inside of an expensive hotel lobby and inside of a radio station probably were costly too.

Ricky Gervais did a good job pulling this whole thing together considering that he acted, directed and wrote it. He could have chosen a more formulaic comedy that did not require a trip into the jungle, or casting doubts on the follies of American journalists, so his daring is commendable. At no point of this film did I consider stopping it and not watching it through the end, and there were a few moments when I might have giggled silently. So, if you have Netflix, yeah, you should definitely watch this comedy, if only to laugh at the mistakes.

Title: Special Correspondents

Written/ Directed by: Ricky Gervais

Stars: Ricky Gervais, Vera Farmiga, Erica Bana, America Ferrera

Genre: Comedy

Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 100 min

Release: 2016

***

Valley Uprising: How Hobos Made Climbing into a Popular Sport

The Valley Uprising captures the spirit of rebellion and freedom most of us feel in our childhood but lose as we grow into careers. This is an inspiring documentary that starts in the 1950s and follows generations of mythic climbers in Yosemite Valley through to the present day. The Yosemite Valley national park had few regulations in the 1950s, which meant that climbers could live near the mountain for many years. They found food with the help of John Salathe (1899-1992), who had been climbing since 1945, and now taught the younger climbers how to forge for dinner in the park’s meadows. Because they lived on the site, they could gradually climb a few feet in a given day, without feeling rushed because of camping fees or other costs. This allowed them to develop all sorts of innovations to make climbing more of a science that could be mastered for future generations. They tried to hammer in spikes into the side of the mountain. They tried large climbing parties, and going solo. A couple of generations into it, climbers could scale the mountain in a couple of hours, whereas the first climbers needed over a year to complete the vertical climb. In the last few decades, free climbing without harnesses, robes and other safety measures has become popular, as well as cliff diving or gliding off the top of the mountain and then landing with a parachute. This is a very education description of the progression of the climbing sport and I was surprised to find that all these innovations happened at Yosemite.

Fig 4 - Pioneer Yosemite valley climbers

Fig. 4. Pioneer Yosemite valley climbers, resting in the middle of a climb.

The climbers give very honest explanations for their motivations: “None of us expected to have a job. We were going to be hobos forever, and that was the extent of it.” Without intending to cash in, at one point they found out about a plane from South America loaded with marijuana crashing on top of one of the peaks. They worked together to retrieve the pot and then used or sold it at a profit that afforded the bulk of them a comfortable life away from the mountain that kept them from continuing to live as hobos. A taste for money encouraged some of the climbers to court media attention and to compete in climbing tournaments for money. So that some ended up leaving Yosemite to pursue these goals.

But new generations kept coming because Yosemite remained one of the most challenging climbs in North America: “Ballsy stuff to get up there, like you’re going to the moon or something…”

Later park rules restrained climbers to only being allowed in Yosemite for 7 days out of a year, which forced climbers to avoid troopers by sleeping at the side of the road outside of the park. Great climbers kept coming back to the park because this was where a climbing hobby could become a career: “The idea of devoting your life to climbing didn’t exist anywhere else…. Only through climbing can you find yourself, bullshit like that…”

The film is made up of archival photographs and videos, as well as new interviews with pioneer climbers. Photos are animated and combined with interesting narration and music that makes this an interesting watching experience, even for those who have never even climbed a wall in a gym.

Fig 5 - John Bachar

Fig. 5. John Bachar, south Californian, climbing Yosemite.

I was pretty shocked that the climbers confessed to doing acid, pot and alcohol during climbs, but then again perhaps somebody has to be intoxicated to go up a mountain, risking death. In fact, at least one of the climbers described did end up dying: John Bachar (1957-2009), a south Californian climber who invented the Bachar ladder. He had dropped out of UCLA to start climbing full-time from the 1970s until his death on July 5, 2009 at the Dike Wall in California. He was certainly extremely charismatic in his youths, and his relatively early death in this sport added a realistic, bitter and tragic note to an otherwise uplifting uprising.

Fig 6

Fig. 6. Lynn Hill, pioneer woman climber going for a record.

The story of how Lynn Hill trained to become a top, international award-winning climber by practicing at Yosemite should give something girl-power inspiring to the female viewers. She might have bigger arm muscles than the men in the film, and she mentions that she had zero body fat at the top of her game. It is easier to imagine how humans once climbed trees when somebody watches somebody like Hill speeding up a mountain without a harness.

Title: Valley Uprising

Directed by: Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen

Writer: Kathleen McGlaughlin, Peter Mortimer

Stars: Peter Sarsgaard (narrator), Alex Honnold, Yvon Chouinard

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 86 min

Release: 2014

***

Hotel Transylvania 2: An Adult Cartoon with a PG Rating

First, I do not recommend this film for any children under 17. I cannot imagine that somebody watched this whole picture and rated it as PG unless these types of things are so commonplace in today’s children’s programming that the raters have quit screening things out because they cannot handle being challenged by so many big-budget film studios. As the stills below show, this picture is extremely well executed, but almost deliberately sets out to give kids that might dare to watch it nightmares.

The film is full of jokes like enormous tears dropping like puddles on top of the mother in laws’ head is reminiscent of Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes, with similar slapstick hits and shots that might have killed the victim in reality, but fail to cause damage in the cartoons.

Fig 7 - Monstrously giant tears

Fig. 7. Monstrously giant tears dropping on Linda, the groom’s mother.

Other jokes slide into gay porn. Here Dracula dresses as a nurse and does a seductive rear-end dance as he is fondling the newly born infant. Is it appropriate for children to watch a drag performance? Perhaps so, if we lived in a society that was gender-neutral, but this kind of comedy humiliates and pokes fun at people who might choose to wear drag because in it they feel more truly like themselves. And if we put the drag aside, why is this nurse wearing an extremely tight dress that is coming apart and shows a bit too far up Dracula’s more distant leg.

Fig 8 - Dracula in Drag

Fig. 8. Dracula in drag as a nurse after the birth of his grandson.

Then, there are scenes that are suggestive of child pornography. A pack of young wolves eat the fur off a monster’s legs. He has red underwear under this fur, as if it is his clothing. The underwear shows an outline of private parts. At least some of the wolves chew on and over the monster’s groin to get the fur off. So, they’re kind of giving him oral in a giant orgy. The monster isn’t in pain from whatever they’re doing, and only pretends to be embarrassed and attempts to cover the underwear afterwards. Considering that some young viewers might have been molested, this scene might make them feel as if molestation is normal and funny.

Fig 9 - Child werewolves devouring the pants

Fig. 9. Child werewolves devouring the pants off a monster’s body.

Then, the kid’s grand-grandpa is invited by accident to his fifth birthday party, and when he finds out that his grand-grand-son might not be a vampire, he calls in demons from hell to come and kill all of the guests and destroy the hotel his grandson has worked to build up. Once again, this is a pretty formulaic demon attack in Hollywood movies, but relatives sending demons to massacre everybody in sight is more like an R-rated, extremely violent horror film than a PG cartoon comedy for kids…

Fig 10 - Demons being attacked

Fig. 10. Demons being attacked by a pack of young werewolves.

That being said, and hopefully all kids having left us by now, this is a somewhat funny dark comedy for atheist, nymphomaniac adults. It is almost better than a horror gay porn because all of the characters are very crisp and have dramatic facial features and body language, more so than they would have if this wasn’t an animation.

However, anybody that is hoping to watch an R-rated slapstick romp will be disappointed by the periodic “morality lessons” as characters debate the problems that go with interracial or inter monster-human marriages. The mother, Mavis, orated by Selena Gomez, travels to her husband’s California home to determine if they should move there if their son turns out to be human as opposed to a vampire, like his grandpa Dracula hopes. There, the husband’s mother, Linda says, “Oh, Transylvania, it was a fun experience. Mike was afraid he’ll get disemboweled and eaten, but I told him, he was just being silly.” To this Mike replies with the formulaic rebuttal for Hollywood comedies, “No, that was you Linda.” Linda, formulaically looks innocent, and at this point the bell rings. Linda explains as she opens the door: “You know we have a couple of mixed families in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d invite them over. It might be nice for you guys to talk since you’re thinking about moving here.” The first couple that enters is a pretty girl and her odd-looking monster husband and the pretty one recommends the move saying, “I mean the kids get picked on a little, but it toughens them up.” The normalization of racist violence against outsiders is so normal in American schools that Sandler thought it was a joke that could be the climax of this conversation. Mavis decides after this exchange that moving to California isn’t for them. Thus, there is moral preaching, but the lesson is: don’t come here…

Back in Transylvania, Dracula attempts taking his grandson to a vampire camp, and refuses to take his grandson’s outstretched hand as everybody else sings in a circle around a fire: “Even in the sunniest weather,/ Vampires will be friends forever…” Dracula then throws his grandson off a very tall tower and rescues him a second before he would have died from the collision, supposedly as a lesson in kid safety, but somehow chillingly disturbing and depressing to watch.

Title: Hotel Transylvania 2

Directed by: Genndy Tartakovsky

Writer: Robert Smigel, Adam Sandler

Stars: Adam Sandler (Dracula), Andy Samberg (Jonathan), Selena Gomez (Mavis)

Genre: Animation; Comedy; Fantasy

Rating: PG

Running Time: 1 h 29 min

Release: 2015

****

3 Days in Havana: Unexpected Surprise Ending

I now started skipping some of the films I disliked in my recent viewing history on Netflix because writing about the problems in Hotel Transylvania 2 was pretty depressing. I watched the bulk of this feature while I was designing or going on about my chores, but the ending made me chuckle and was an unusual surprise that was better than the average formulaic resolution.

“Hey, you wanna kill a gangster for me?” asks a girl he meets at the bar, Rita, played by Rya Kihlstedt.

“Ah… Sure…” Jack Petty, who’s supposedly in Havana on business, played by the writer/ director, Gil Bellows, answers with a smirk.

“You’re right I shouldn’t have told you all that. I should’ve just shut da hell up. I’m sorry. It was nice talking with you. But on this trip we should both try having some fun, after all, we’re in paradise right?” writes down and hands him her hotel room number.

The bulk of the film is action, be it fighting, dancing, playing ball or otherwise touring Havana. The few conversations Jack ends up having are all significant in the surprise ending.

Fig 11 - Gil Bellows and Greg Wise in 3 Days in Havana - Edited

Fig. 11. Gil Bellows, left, and Greg Wise in 3 Days in Havana.

The plotline up until the end is that Jack is an innocent business-minded tourist that ends up being roped into illicit drug usage, prostitution and other shady and seductive activities by an assassin, Harry Smith that befriends him.

“In a few hours you’re gonna have all the girls of Cuba trying to start a fire in your crotch. Salsa, mi amigo, eh? Can you smile, eh?” Harry Smith, played by Greg Wise, tries to convince his apparently hesitant new friend, Jack.

“Yea, I can do that, yea,” Jack says casually.

“Just keep them in front of you. Yea? They’ll do the rest…” Harry adds.

The night does not go as planned for Harry, who does not manage to get his supposed hit. But it starts out as if he can manage the problems around him when he threats to cut a guy that objects to Jack urinating in an alley.

Fig 12 - Greg Wise and Paul Pardon

Fig. 12. Greg Wise, left, and Paul Pardon.

In what at first seems like a friendly conversation between an aristocratic elderly assassination administrator (who I assume is meant to symbolize the Queen of England) and the drunkard hitman, she gives him the marching orders, and mentions that she is displeased with how he managed to kill relatives that were not intended hit targets in an earlier assignment.

Fig 13 - Greg Wise and Phyllida Law

Fig. 13. Greg Wise, left, and Phyllida Law (The Broker).

Jack seems to be attempting to report the crimes he is witnessing to his embassy, but they end up torturing him when they assume that he is the hitman. They eventually let him go when he does not talk. The plot is too sketchy here, and it is unclear how they fail to investigate Jack’s background, and just let him go after the very serious offense of torturing him. In practice, detainees who are torture are usually detained for a very long time and eventually brought on trial, as they can otherwise file charges against illegal detainment and torture without sufficient cause to have even been detained beyond the short interval of the torture. Clearly, Gil Bellows did not do much research on this topic. He manages to hides this by making most conversations casual and action-based instead of getting into the political, legal or criminal meanings behind the action sequence.

Fig 14 - Gil Bellows recovering after torture

Fig. 14. Gil Bellows recovering after torture.

The majority of this film was executed in a drunkard hobo acting style, and this was what kept my attention distracted on other things as I was watching it. Gil Bellows acts more like a hippie mountaineer that just smoked a bag of stolen weed than like the businessman or possibly hitman that he is supposed to be portraying. The clothing on not only the Havana natives, but also on the leads, looks like it was bought in a local, Havana thrift store. This is both a good thing, because it’s authentic, and a bad thing because the actors with receding headlines and pimples are not assisted by fancy clothing to make them attractive. There usually has to be something mesmerizing in a film to keep the viewer stuck on the screen: the beauty of the actors, the clothing, the scenery, or any other consistent element on the screen. Instead, the places depicted are dirty and pastel, just like all other ingredients. On the other hand, it is refreshing to see a film that looks from start-to-end like it was shot on-location in Havana, as places like this probably could not be mimicked in a set.

Overall, I would recommend watching this movie, but I cannot guarantee that you will not be a bit bored and annoyed by the slack performances until the very end.

Title: 3 Days in Havana

Directed/ Written by: Gil Bellows, Tony Pantages

Stars: Olunike Adeliyi, Gil Bellows (Jack Petty), Ariel Cardenas, Greg Wise (Harry Smith)

Genre: Comedy; Crime

Running Time: 83 min

Release: 2013

***

Band of Robbers: Sawyer and Finn Re-Imagined as Gangsters

This film opens with a quote from Mark Twain, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” If the author of this script followed this advice and did not make a formulaic bandit adventurer plot for this feature, this would have been a much better film. Instead, the script writer attempted to write an alternative modern-day retelling of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by rebirthing Tom as a police officer and Huck as a convict just leaving prison. Huck and a couple of other friends are roped into a robbery by Tom, but the whole thing goes horrifically wrong in what seems to be slapstick comedy before it descends into a dark tragedy.

In this image below, the young Sawyer and Finn are starting their search for treasure. Huck has a bruise over his eye from his father beating him, and he allows Tom to drag him into criminal activities for which he is initially arrested as a juvenile because Tom supports him running away from his father to spend time in their fantasy world. If these two kids carried the rest of the movie, it might have turned out a lot better…

Fig 15 - Miller and Bateman

Fig. 15. Willem Miller as Young Tom Sawyer, left, and Gabriel Bateman as Young Huck Finn.

None of Twain’s plot or moral is retained, and their adventures are equated with modern gangsters willing to kill for a few dollars. I never understand why films like this use known authors and character names in the public domain without even calling the film by the popularly known titles. From glancing at the title and the description, I had no idea this would be a mockery of Mark Twain.

Some ideas expressed in Mark Twain’s adventures are taken out of context, and see ridiculously out of place in this interpretation. Here is an example of a scene where Tom is trying to convince Huck to commit a bigger crime than the one they just barely pulled off.

“We had an adventure, nobody got hurt, and we’re all a few bucks rich, eh?” Tom says.

“Thomas, the situation is, we put ourselves in danger again, for nothing,” Huck replies.

“We got some money.”

“There’s no money! I gotta pay Horhay! I gotta give him thirty dollars. The driver. I’m barely going to break even on this.”

“All right. Well, you can be the one who gets the special coin then…” Tom stretches the coin out to Huck.

Huck does not take it: “You know the woman I live with keeps telling me that I need to change. She says, if I don’t change, I’m gonna end up in a bad place. Of course, I wish, I was already in a bad place.” Chuckles. “She’s trying to sell me on heaven, you know. She’s tellin’ me that all you do all day is you sit down, you play harp, you sing songs for all eternity. And I said to her, if that’s the case, I better sweat it out in hell with my best friend, Tom Sawyer, than play the harp, and, and… with Moses. I’m not friends with Moses.”

Then he reverses his position and says that still he has to change because he just “got out of prison” and he doesn’t want to go back. The switch is too abrupt. In Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain does indeed present a band of robbers but they are crooks that both Huck and Tom work to help to prevent from committing crimes. The youths are hunting for treasure, but stop short of committing crimes to find it, and if they stumble into doing the wrong things, like pretending to be dead, they usually right these wrongs because of moral and religious motivations. It certainly speaks to the modern age that in this re-imagining the villains and the heroes are united into anti-heroes and they are partially redeemed in the end without fully atoning for their very serious sins: murder, theft, armed assault, etc. So, this discussion about Moses and heaven feels hacked in

Fig 16 - Matthew Gubler, Hannibal Buress, Kyle Gallner and Adam Nee

Fig. 16. Matthew Gray Gubler (left), Hannibal Buress (center), Kyle Gallner (right), and Adam Nee in front with the gun.

The whole film feels like a revenge fantasy by two students that flunked their exams on Mark Twain’s novels and decided to re-write the stories to prove that what they imagined happened in the narrative was really the case.

Fig 17 - The treasure of gold coins

Fig. 17. The treasure of gold coins.

The acting is also unconvincing, as it’s unbelievable that Tom, despite being a police officer, is an illiterate idiot. I would fully support the portrayal of police officers in this light, but I think this would have had to be a tragedy rather than a comedy to pull this point off.

This film is memorable, but disturbing for any serious literature readers. If you’ve never read Mark Twain, you should feel pretty good about it all, but I hope you will not base your high school quiz answers on this plotline.

Title: Band of Robbers

Directed/ Written by: Aaron Nee, Adam Nee

Stars: Kyle Gallner (Huck Finn), Adam Nee (Tom Sawyer), Matthew Gray Gubler (Joe Harper)

Genre: Adventure; Comedy; Crime

Rating: R

Running Time: 95 min

Release: 2015

****

Moonwalkers: Brilliant Moving Art Mixed with Cheap Comedy

Fig 18 - Stephen Campbell Moore and Rupert Grint

Fig. 18. Stephen Campbell Moore, left, and Rupert Grint.

This film certainly makes a strong effort to become an art film. Just to paint the blood and bullets on so many walls, they needed to have some very strong painters on the team. The nudity and violence are also somehow artistic. For example, in a scene where Ron Perlman, as Kidman, is beating up a gang of bikers in a restroom, he does so in slow motion and to classical music. Freezing frames on the action shows that at his age, Perlman is extremely exhausted by pretending to hit them, and is more likely to pass out from this exercise to be a convincing hitman; the elegant music and slow motion help to add suspense and beauty to the scene whereas if it was done at regular speed and with fast music, it would’ve looked ridiculous. In that same scene, Ron meticulously knocks out a string of teethes from the hooligans’ mouths and each falls out as if they are components of a composition rather than body parts.

Fig 19 - Painted women

Fig. 19. Painted women.

The obvious thing that makes this a curious watch is the performance by Rupert Grint as Jonny. Rupert is best-known for his work as Ron in the Harry Potter series. I saw him in one or two other films since the series ended, and he seems to be getting chubbier and even developing some wrinkles at his young age. He is starting to play a type of comedic, sexless and confused buffoon, and this role seems to suit him. However, he isn’t challenging himself or developing his craft. Watching him in several films is like watching an actor in a TV series. He under-acts and reacts to what other actors are telling him without showing any spikes in emotion. I hope he will get some serious acting training and will make a better showing in a future film because I’d really like to see him at his best.

Fig 20 - Eric Lampaert, Rupert Grint and Andrew Blumenthal

Fig. 20. Eric Lampaert (back), Rupert Grint (middle) and Andrew Blumenthal (right).

It was very difficult to choose only a few images to illustrate this review because there were so many outrageous and simultaneously artistically unique moments. Two of the scenes I selected were of Perlman walking through a pile of nude women and then walking through a scattered set of dead bodies. It is always interesting to see artists or directors juxtaposition two themes, like sex and violence, in a similar pattern to stress the relationship between the two. This is tasteful nudity and bloodshed. On the other hand, both sex and violence do not have any natural place in the central plot of a CIA operative hiring a Stanley Kubrick lookalike to make a fake moon landing film for the U.S. government. On the other hand, it is a profound suggestion that only if US agents were on LCD, cocaine and the other illicit substances these characters partake in would they have managed to pull off a fake moon landing film. The absurdity also help to convince viewers that a fake landing would have been too difficult for the filmmakers of the time to pull off.

Fig 21 - Ron Perlman in a pile of nude women

Fig. 21. Ron Perlman in a pile of nude women.

As Rupert Grint and his friend Leon, played by Robert Sheehan, are hopping around suspended by wires in the spacesuit, Grint exclaims about Robert’s failed attempts to stick the American flag into the fake sand, “Just stick it in! It’s not that hard.”

“I’m trying, but I can’t,” Robert replies. “I’m so sick. I’m gonna take off my helmet.”

“You can’t take off your helmet,” Grint pleads, trying to make him remember that they are supposed to be in space without an atmosphere.

“I’m gonna be sick. Bleh!” Robert throws up inside of his supposed spacesuit.

This scene shows how the script seems to be in a different movie from the cinematography and the art department. The dialogue is simplistic and formulaic, while the images are dynamic and carefully designed.

Fig 22 - Rupert Grint acting as the first man on the moon

Fig. 22. Rupert Grint acting as the first man on the moon.

This is why it is difficult to rank films as a whole. If I was ranking the script, it would get two stars. The art department would get the full five stars. The acting is probably somewhere around a three. Because filmmaking is a collaborative art, the ranking for the whole is an average of these high and low points. It did succeed in showing a very unique concept in an original way, so I would recommend this film to anybody appropriately aged for an R feature.

Fig 23 - Ron Perlman in a pile of dead bodies

Fig. 23. Ron Perlman in a pile of dead bodies (CIA and the mob).

Title: Moonwalkers

Directed by: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet

Writer: Dean Craig

Stars: Rubert Grint (Jonny), Ron Perlman (Kidman), Robert Sheehan (Leon)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R

Running Time: 107 min

Release: 2015

****

Prescription Thugs: A Personal Study of Corruption of the U.S. Pharmaceutical Industry

This is the second documentary I watched with Chris Bell as the narrator and interviewer, and I like his bland of personal stories about the struggles with steroids and other drugs that his family has gone through as his two brothers and he have attempted to make in competitive sports. Statistics, law codes and other highly researched information is presented on how the Big Pharma industry works. I would definitely recommend this film to anybody considering taking legal uppers, downers, painkillers and other drugs that interrupt the human mind. I have been thinking about this topic lately after Robin Williams’ suicide after a struggle to find anti-depressants that would keep him actively employed as he struggled to pay off a divorce and start over with his new wife in his giant mansion. It’s great to see that other people in America are concerned about drug addiction and that it’s not a War only between the state and the bulk of the American public.

Fig 24 - Mike Bell at WWE

Fig. 24. Mike Bell (left) in a World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. match for Monday Night Raw.

The picture above is of Mike Bell, Chris Bell’s brother, who was the first to succeed between the three Bell brothers and inspired Chris as he started following his path. In this screenshot, Mike is losing a match once again to a popular opponent in a World Wrestling Entertainment event. Chris describes how Mike started to feel that he was just following a carnival as a side act, instead of taking the center-stage. He was also suffering a lot of beatings in WWE and the pain from these got him hooked on pain killers until his addiction got out of control and he died during the filming of Prescription Thugs, a fate that Chris anticipated with worry from the beginning of the project. Chris recalled his older brother, Mike, saying, “I’d rather be dead than average.” About this volatile idea, Chris comments: “It was part of his bigger than life persona. How did he let drugs take that away from him? Was my brother’s death just another sad junkie story, or were there other forces at work that pushed him into it?”

Chris also confesses at the end of the film that he himself had been struggling with addiction to drugs, and had to check into rehab before he finished shooting. The research is really helped by first-hand, honest accounts from him and the athletes with similar problems that he interviews.

This film presents some great facts that explain the legal drug epidemic. In the diagram below, 535 Republican and Democrat congressional representatives are having on average $422,000 thrown on them annually from the 1,445 lobbyists representing Big Pharma. The congressmen that receive the most donations, can run the most expensive advertising campaigns and are likely to be re-elected. Thus, there is a cycle that keeps recycling more politicians willing to accept bribes, while those who stand up for their beliefs are ousted out of office.

Fig 25 - Republican and Democrat 535 congressmen

Fig. 25. Republican and Democrat 535 congressmen and the 1,445 lobbyists for Big Pharma that give each Congressman $422,000 annually.

Because of all of the problems with corruption in Washington DC, it was refreshing to see a state representative that is acting on facts and on his moral obligations to his community.

Fig 26 - Senator Ted Lieu State Senator of California

Fig. 26. Senator Ted Lieu, State Senator of California (right) being shown how to buy prescription drugs on Craigslist by the Director, Chris Bell (left).

Chris Bell narrates, “In a state [California] with one of the highest rates of opiate addictions and overdoses in the country, Congressman Lieu, unlike a lot of other politicians, is actually trying to do something about it.”

Lieu replies: “For a long time we’ve had a war on illegal drugs. These are legal drugs that are killing far more people. And we need to have systems in place where we can identify someone that may be abusing these painkillers. The Cure system, for example, is a database that would let pharmacies and doctors know if a patient is going to multiple pharmacies and multiple doctors trying to get the same prescription medications.”

When asked if it was likely the same laws could become national, Lieu said, “As you know it’s difficult to get things through Congress nowadays…”

When asked about the marijuana debate, he replied, “Well, people are not dying from marijuana. People are dying from legal prescription drugs…”

There are many other similar engaging conversations with medical professionals, politicians and researchers, so somebody familiar with the topic might learn something new as well. Senator Lieu certainly did. In the still above, Chris is showing Senator Lieu how to buy prescription drugs illegally on Craigslist. This conversation started when Chris asked why Craigslist started deleting prostitution posts, but still posts the illegal drugs postings. Senator Lieu confessed that he was not aware of this weakness in the system and he brought in the state police and started a motion to make such postings illegal soon after the initial talk with Chris. It was great to see that this film made a positive change that might help some people from dying from a prescription drug addiction.

Title: Prescription Thugs

Directed by: Chris Bell, Josh Alexander

Writer: Josh Alexander

Stars: Jeff Hatch

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Running Time: 86 min

Release: 2015

****

Booze Traveler: Funny, Educational and Relaxing

Travel Channel’s Booze Traveler seems to be the networks answer to losing Anthony Bourdain to CNN, and it’s a pretty good deal. Initially, I was concerned that Jack Maxwell, the host and a career bartender from Boston, could pull off an entire series about booze, as opposed to Bourdain’s focus on all foods. But before the end of the first episode on Turkey, I was hooked and curious to see what else Jack would have to say about alcohol. Each episode introduces a few curious drinks from the far ends of the earth that I have never heard of. I drink alcohol about once in two years, but I don’t think this show is intent on selling these drinks to viewers. “I didn’t know I could drink unfermented horse milk,” Jack says in the Mongolian episode. He also ends up drinking alcohol made by chewing and spitting the components out, and other unappetizing exotic treats. I really liked goat’s milk when I was a child and had some at a farm without any additives or purification: it was sweet and buttery, so I can imagine how these types of drinks might taste great, but watching them through the TV screen inspire awe rather than thirst. This is a show for people who enjoy learning about foreign cultures, customs and drinks, and not a show for alcoholics to find a new drink to get at their local bar.

Fig 27 - Rasheed Sali and Jack Maxwell at a resurrected grape farm in Turkey

Fig. 27. Rasheed Sali, left, and Jack Maxwell at a resurrected grape farm in Bozcaada, Turkey. Season 1, Episode 1.

Jack takes viewers through the various stages of alcohol production and preparation. In the still above, he is with Rasheed Sali on a grape farm in Turkey, smelling the ripening grapes to describe how they are preferential to regular grapes used in most modern wines.

Fig 28 - Jack Maxwell with a boat operator in Peru

Fig. 28. Jack Maxwell (right) with a boat operator in Peru. Season 1, Episode 2.

There are many shots of Jack traveling through dense jungle, roaring rivers and seas, and hiking up mountains, so that somebody who is only interested in finding places to visit will find plenty of sites to travel to.

In Episode 2, Jack Maxwell narrates: “Peru is really magical.” The camera pans to a shot of a scorpion. “And by that I mean, maybe a little witchy. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a shaman here. And the landscape is hypnotic and extreme…” As he says this, goats are shown hopping down a rocky incline. Most of the narration pokes fun at the absurdities of international peculiarities, while also expressing a deep love for these charming oddities.

Fig 29 - Canelazo factory on the Amazon River in Peru

Fig. 29. Canelazo factory on the Amazon River in Peru, with the factory equipment and sugarcane in the background, the operators on the right, and Jack on the left.

The scenes of Jack picking sugarcane, and then helping to pull it through complex machinery at a Canelazo outdoorish factory on the Amazon River in Peru were stunning. Each of these epic projects to help with every step of an alcohol brewing process before partaking in the drink is inspiring, and Jack frequently says so.

Fig 30 - barman, hair dresser and Jack in Iceland

Fig. 30. Yohanah, owner and barman (right), the Viking warrior-impersonator and hair dresser (middle), and Jack (left) with a giant traditional Icelandic meal, twice-smoked lamb’s foot, outside of Reykjavik, Iceland. Season 1, Episode 5.

In the Iceland episode, Jack joins a group of Viking impersonators for a kind of battle in a parking garage. He gets hit across the nose with an actually sharp blade of one of the fighters, leaving a small scar. He says, bravely, that he is glad to have received a real-life battle scar. He is then taken by the leader of these “Vikings” to a neighboring restaurant where he eats a bit of a twice-smoked rubbery lamb’s foot, the size of his arm. He complains and obviously looks like he doesn’t want to try it, but braves through it for the show.

Fig 31 - Jack and Mongolian migratory herders

Fig. 31. Jack, with the help of Mongolian migratory herders of the Kimindorz clan in the Khangai Mountains, is trying to milk a horse to make the Mongolian warrior nomad-derived fermented horse milk, airag. Season 1, Episode 6.

In Episode 6, Jack narrates to images of him attempting to milk a horse, while its babe is standing nearby to fool the horse into thinking that the little one is the one getting the milk: “Harder than it looks. If the pressure isn’t just right, the mare calls bullshit.” At this point, the mare in the video makes a move as if to kick him, and makes him lose his balance, all because his “pressure” wasn’t exact like the professionals’. This is a very dangerous stunt because migratory Mongols are ranked as the best horse riders on the planet, and they probably made the milking process look easy, while the mare probably could have easily killed Jack with a kick if he made the slightest mistake. It’s this sort of bravery to do stunts that nobody sitting at home and watching it would want to actually attempt that makes for great television.

Title: Booze Traveler

Star and Writer: Jack Maxwell

Genre: Reality-TV Series

Running Time: 43 min per episode

Release: 2014-present

***

How to Get Away with Murder: Rush of Adrenaline from Character Conflicts

This series stands out from many others because it gives you a rush of adrenaline as you watch it. As I reviewed the episodes, searching for images, I realized that most of this series is a set of conversations between the central characters, with little action other than the love scenes. There are a few murders, many of which are committed by the lawyers themselves, and these are used as teasers to which the narrative returns as viewers are kept in suspense about whodunit or if the young law students will get away with it.

There are also only a few settings where the bulk of the series takes place: courtrooms, a few nightclubs, the “woods,” Annalise’s house, the law classroom, and a handful of mansions that belong to the law firm’s clients.

The lighting is very dark throughout, so that it’s hard to find a scene that fairly conveys the tension felt as the images move forward rapidly. Freezing a scene betrays the imperfections on the leads’ faces, their flat and depressed acting, and the heavy beige or brown filters over the low-light images. When a part of a scene is lit, it frequently looks extremely staged, as if the people in the scene are actors on a stage under a giant theater light.

The adrenaline is primarily created by the dramatic music, cliff hangers, and threats of murder and rape between the main characters, who are constantly at the edge of strangling each other. They toss insults at each other to humiliate their betters and subordinates, their partners and lovers, their clients and their opposing lawyers.

One of the best parts of this show is that it is a fair representation of the cutthroat American legal system, where your lawyer is indeed likely to be guilty of getting away with murder. It starts out as if it is going to be Ally McBeal, as Annalise chooses students in her class to assist her firm, and they are all shown as perky and enthusiastic to succeed. But, in the same episode, a flash-forward shows that they’re guilty of a murder, and their status as the innocent heroes on a quest for justice is immediately suspended.

Fig 32 - Michaela speaking in the law class

Fig. 32. Michaela, left, speaking in the “How to Get Away with Murder” law class, with Annalise on the table, and her assistants, Bonnie and Frank at her side. Season 1, Episode 1.

In Episode 1 above, the law students are all wearing casual clothing, and Annalise looks like an average college professor herself. But, after this Pilot was approved by ABC, they all got an incredibly fashion budget, and even the students start wearing high-end fashion across the rest of the show. It is also curious, that Annalise seems to choose the thinnest and prettiest students in this class to work with her, as the rest of the extras in this shot really look like they might be law students, with all the imperfections that come with heavy studying, but the chosen students all look like supermodels that spend most of their time at the gym.

Fig 33 - Annalise arguing at the trial

Fig. 33. Annalise arguing at the trial for a man sentenced to death by Asher’s father. Season 1, Episode 6.

Annalise’s wardrobe is getting more expensive in Episode 6, though it becomes downright queenly in some episodes in Season 2. An important element in the series is how Annalise looks with her makeup, wig, and other components removed at night. She frequently cries, drinks, uses drugs, or is bordering on psychosis in scenes where she is thus undressed. In fact, these scenes are so intense that I decided not to make stills of them because they just seem too whiney. This is the component that’s unbelievable about the character of Annalise and her team. A lawyer that’s willing to kill repeatedly and methodically is unlikely to be crying herself to sleep about it. Guilt would prevent future repetitions of the crime you’re wailing about. The actors frequently don’t seem to believe the scripts either. In the still above, Annalise is standing in a very unnatural pose, with her hands and legs stretched out in the center of the screen. She is delivering a flat performance, without any hand gestures. When she speaks in front of the court or to her students, she frequently uses hard-hitting stresses that nearly become shouts, as she puts emphasis on nearly every word she utters, as if she’s giving a pro-murder version of the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Fig 34 - Autopsy of the discovered body of Lila Stangard

Fig. 34. Autopsy of the discovered body of Lila Stangard, the mistress of Annalise’s husband Sam Keating. Season 1, Episode 7.

The autopsy scene from Episode 7 is one of the better sets, but while in a close-up this girl looks grotesque and dead, she looks like an actor lying still and straining her face to look stiff in this shot. Also, if this is an autopsy, there aren’t enough surgical instruments to cut her open or to preserve her parts for testing. And why are the two technicians wearing the same uniform, without one of them serving as the doctor? And, why are they taking these pictures and doing the autopsy at night? The room has to be very dark for the flash to create such a sharp light on the body. Well, it’s a decent effort… as long as they didn’t consult with an autopsy doctor before creating this scene.

Fig 35 - Wes going down on Rebecca

Fig. 35. Wes going down on Rebecca. Season 1, Episode 7.

As in most ABC, NBC, etc. series, after representing Rebecca at a trial, Wes, one of the attorneys in training, has intercourse with her, and then the lawyers work together to kill her. If a woman enters a series as a recurring character, there is usually no other way to explain her longevity unless she is having sex with one of the regular characters. This show is rated TV-14… I just don’t understand how the various sex scenes are appropriate for 14 year olds. I guess the rating is based on the fact that there are no female nipples in these shots, and even if it’s two guys having sex, their private parts are covered as they embrace and making grunting noises.

Fig 36 - Aja Naomi King trying on a wedding gown

Fig. 36. Aja Naomi King (Michaela Pratt) trying on a wedding gown. Season 1, Episode 10.

In the scene above, the assistant adjusting Michaela’s dress says, “Somebody has slimmed down a bit…” And indeed from the Pilot episode to this scene near the end of the first season, Aja King has lost a great deal of weight, so that she looks more and more Barbie-proportioned as the show progresses, as do the rest of them. This wedding dress also looks like it would be far outside the budget of any law student, but it does look picturesque. The strong light that is pointing directly at Aja’s front obviously cannot be any natural lamp in the room, so this is one of those examples of extreme unnatural lighting in the series. The only thing that makes this image less like a reality TV series about moody brides is the giant black thing blocking a third of the screen, which wouldn’t have been in the shot if this was reality TV.

Fig 37 - Katie Findlay tied up in a basement

Fig. 37. Katie Findlay (Rebecca Sutter) tied up in a basement and threatened by Viola Davis (Annalise Keating). Season 1, Episode 15.

In the scene above, Rebecca has gone butch and is now wearing braids along one side of her head. It is typical for girls to suddenly look undesirable when they’re about to be cut from a show. The message is usually, if the looks start to go, she must be crazy, and the ugliness is supposed to decrease the audience’s sympathy with her character, so that killing her off goes easier on the viewers.

The conversation they have at this juncture is very curious. Annalise lectures Rebecca, as if she’s the one strapped to a poll. “I was worried when I first found out that you and Wes were involved. Because of you. I saw you for who you were. I recognized you. You’re angry. You lash out. You use people. But only because you don’t know any better. And once in a while you find out what it is to love someone. And here is a boy who so clearly loved you. He still does. Even if he doesn’t know who you are anymore. And he hates himself for doing this to you. He was so innocent and he believed you when you said you didn’t do it. But, now he’s grown up. You and I have made him grow up. Rebecca, tell me what happened that night. That’s all you need to do to do right by him.”

This is a great example of moralizing being forced into American primetime television even if the moral does not fit the storyline. Wes got to have sex with a beautiful woman. She looks like the exchange left her crazed because he did not provide the love she needed. Instead of finding fault with the young man’s actions, Annalise stresses that Rebecca is basically a whore that used Wes. Used Wes? Because she asked for oral? There are also contradictions in Annalise’s argument. Why wouldn’t this beautiful girl know what it’s like to love someone, while the boy “clearly loved” her? There are many femme fatales in pop shows that are accused of failing to love men, while it is much more realistic that the man just wanted to sleep with her, and she was the victim of his abandonment. Wes is helping to murder Rebecca, and it’s her fault? This show is disturbing to watch, but these painful lines are usually blurred when the story speeds ahead. They become more screechy and annoying to consider when one pauses the film and thinks about the dialogue.

To Annalise’s accusation, Rebecca replies: “I did it. I killed Lila, or maybe Sam did it. It would be easier for you, right, so you can live with yourself for turning on your own husband? Who knows who did it?” There is a long pause after “I did it” that suggests that this is the answer, and Annalise smiles at this supposed confession. She is then disappointed when Rebecca fails to give the answer she was working to get out of her as she inserted a guilt trip about Wes’s feelings.

Fig 38 - Viola Davis kissing her old flame, Famke Janssen

Fig. 38. Viola Davis (Annalise Keating), left, kissing her old flame, Famke Janssen (Eve Rothlow). Season 2, Episode 7.

The love scenes between Viola Davis and Famke Janssen are pretty steamy, in the sense that it’s very unusual to see middle-aged lesbian kissing on primetime. Famke puts on a very striking performance, as she does in most of her projects. She does over-act a bit, as if she is in a horror film, constantly looking horrified, lustful, homicidal or focused. In the scene above, she seems more focused on kissing from the right angle than on the kiss. It seems as if she isn’t really into it upon closer examination, more so than if she was kissing a really old, fat man. Her hand also is clutching the side of Davis’s face, rather than caressing it seductively. But, if a viewer does not look too closely, this is an inspiring moment.

Near the end of Season 2, Annalise’s number one attorney, Bonnie, tells her: “You don’t know how to love anyone.”

Annalise replies, “I don’t know how to love anyone. All right, then go back to your fancy apartment, and when you’re rolling in the sheets with some twenty-five year old boy, and you’re not hanging from the sheets behind some metal bars, then you tell me that I don’t love you.”

This is all very well, but if you recall what Annalise said to Rebecca about love, this is very hypocritical. What exactly is love if we apply these meanings to it? Love is what you do to hook up your friends with young pieces of ass? But, then why didn’t Rebecca love Wes with this definition? Is love equal to money and sex that Annalise provides Bonnie with? Is it loving to help your friends get away with murder? These are questions addressed in this formulaic series.

Bonnie replies, “I want you to die. That’s what I want. That it was you, you killed in this house, not Sam, because he would’ve never done this to me.” Bonnie walks out, after glaring at Annalise murderously. After Bonnie leaves, Annalise starts crying and hits her desk with her hands as she’s having trouble standing up straight.

The point of Annalise’s harsh words is to create dramatic tension in the scene. The characters must disagree and there must be the threat of one of them murdering the other to create tension and suspense. Psychological, gender, and all other rules of average human response and behavior are ignored if the typical response would have failed to deliver the adrenaline rush that’s the best part of shows like this one. Why would any assistant tell her boss that she can’t love people? Who cares if the old hag loves you, you’re there for the money and sex? As you can see, all the emotions in this series have made me a bit emotional in response, so I should stop this review here.

Title: How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)

Directed by: 15 different directors, with the most, 8 episodes, by Bill D’Elia, and 4 by Mike Listo

Writer: 14 different writers, with the most, 44 episodes by the show’s creator, Peter Nowalk, 7 by Erika Harrison, and 6 by Michael Foley

Stars: Viola Davis (Annalise Keating), Alfred Enoch (Wes Gibbins), Aja Naomi King (Michaela Pratt), Liza Weil (Bonnie Winterbottom), Katie Findlay (Rebecca Sutter), Famke Janssen (Eve Rothlow)

Genre: TV Series: Crime, Drama, Mystery

Rating: TV-14

Running Time: 43 min per episode

Release: 2014—present

****

Salem: A Horrifying Retelling of the Salem Myth

While many primetime series about witches, focus on the seductive bosoms of the athletic maidens that work to rid the world of evil on a daily basis, this show really focuses on the devilish evil that possesses witches. The authors of this series were clearly more Christian than Pagan. The preachers are hardly free of sin too, and they as well as the majority of the townsmen are damned and tortured by the plagues the witches dig up in Salem.

When I saw the name, “Salem,” I was conflicting on if I should start watching it. I must have seen a dozen different films and series, and documentaries about Salem, and that’s not counting a few versions of Arthur Miller’s play. I was hoping that it would be an argument in support of the innocent girls that died in Salem, arguing that they and their accusers had partaken in drugs that made them see hallucinations, as this version is currently missing from fictitious depictions of this tragic time. But, once I started watching the first episode, I could not think of leaving the series unfinished.

The energy is very negative and horrific, with strained, sinister, gothic music and imagery, including the disturbing titles song, “Down the witch goes, the witch goes down, better pray forever, now, Halleluiah!” Many characters are burned, deformed, and look monstrous for long stretches of film, rather than having a monster engage in a battle and then die allowing viewers to only see him for a few fleeting moments. Even the beautiful witches are deeply psychotic and are constantly trying to kill each other and all of humanity. They start a plague by infecting one townsman that spreads and kills a great portion of the non-witch people in the town, as part of a ritual of the coming of the Devil. The Devil is personified in the body of the illegitimate child of the leading witch of the town, John. John is angelic-looking, but even at his age, he does a great job of acting possessed by an older demonic spirit.

The screeching horrors are a bit more tolerable because of the beautiful, elegantly crafted costumes, unique and varied locations, and extremely passionate actors that really work to keep the viewers entertained.

Fig 39 - Michael Mulheren being tortured by his wife

Fig. 39. Michael Mulheren (George Sibley), left, being tortured by his wife, Janet Montgomery (Mary Sibley). Season 1, Episode 1.

There are a few disturbing storylines that push this film closer to a fetish porn fantasy than an average pop film, but these tend to push on the viewer’s emotions, and this draws one in. For example Mary Sibley controls her fat and old husband, George Sibley, by placing a frog into his mouth, which makes it so that he cannot move or say anything unless she allows him to. She keeps teasing him with her naked or near-naked body, as in the scene above, and later uses this seduction to attempt to control the town by telling him what to say at a town meeting. This storyline is empowering in the sense that the man is bewitched and does whatever she tells him to do, instead of the woman being a victim of a more powerful, older husband that could have sex with her and abuse her according to the laws of this period.

Fig 40 - Seth Gabel being led by the possessed Elise Eberle

Fig. 40. Seth Gabel (Cotton Mather), left, being led by the possessed Elise Eberle (Mercy Lewis). Season 1, Episode 1.

Women are also humiliated in this film. In the scene above, Cotton Mather, a preacher, leads Mercy Lewis by a muzzle, trying to find witches with her help because she is possessed by witches that want to divert attention away from them and onto her. Power-plays and enslavement of people is a major component in this series, and this is what adds an emotional horror. People are constantly tortured by being burned, possessed, poisoned, and otherwise hurt either near or to death. This level of pain, sexual fetishisms and violence makes the series highly addictive, but it is also disturbingly grotesque. It is sad that modern filmmakers have to insert this much pain and suffering to get top ratings from viewers. Perhaps it is more interesting because there is more action than moralizing, and the moralizing is supported with passages from the Bible, rather than with clichés.

Fig 41 - Stephen Lang hanging an accused witch

Fig. 41. Stephen Lang (Increase Mather), left, hanging an accused witch. Season 1, Episode 9.

In the still above, Increase Mather, a preacher that has killed many powerful witches in his day is hanging a suspected witch. Before stringing her up by the noose, he carries her up to the platform as he is delivering a sermon: “Let them no more say, God must do all, and so encourage them so to live in a careless neglect of God and of their own souls and salvation. The Devil has made the gentle knot of witches in the country, and with the help of witches has dreadfully increased that knot. Your children’s children be afraid and go not prayer-less to your bed lest the Devil be your bedfellow.” Then he snaps her neck in the knot of the noose, though she is bluish and long-dead before this as he’s carrying her out. There are great details in this shot: the misty smoke and dust, the people watching in period dress, the carefully designed outfits the witch and Mather are wearing all put the viewer into the period, and give a sense of honest retelling. This is probably another reason this film is disturbing, as historical accuracy is combined with fantasies about witches and devils.

Fig 42 - Sammi Hanratty and the deformed from burning Elise Eberle

Fig. 42. Sammi Hanratty (Dollie Trask), left, and the deformed from burning Elise Eberle (Mercy Lewis). Season 2, Episode 3.

Elise Eberle somehow also adds to the horror of the series. Her acting is always over the top, and her character is constantly on the edge of madness. She has her finger bitten off by the little Devil. She is burned by Mary. She later consumes the blood of children under the direction of Countess Marburg, who has experience with this as she uses it to stay alive and young after centuries or millenniums. These horrific witchcrafts are probably more in line with the demons portrayed in Medieval and Renaissance times, all powerful, monstrous, and extremely murderous, so perhaps it would be dishonest to portray them as any less monstrous.

Fig 43 - Lucy Lawless kissing her son, Joe Doyle

Fig. 43. Lucy Lawless (Countess Marburg), left, kissing her son, Joe Doyle (Baron Sebastian Marburg). Season 2, Episode 5.

When Lucy Lawless made an appearance in Season 2, the series suddenly started to remind me of the fake-looking monsters in Xena, which I adored because they were so absurd. She can make just about any horror into a comedy. Her most heart-felt performance to-date was probably in Spartacus, where her love scenes with a woman and her engagement with the gladiators were raw and realistic. I naturally adore her in anything she does simply because Xena was the first cinematic event in which I saw a woman heroically fighting with stronger and bigger men. This is probably she was asked to perform the role of Countess Marburg in Salem. Who else could pull off kissing her on-screen son, Baron Marburg, in the scene above, or being fed by a child, who she is trying to seduce into marrying her and spending a satanic eternity together? All these strange love and hate triangles make for a very dramatically tense show.

Fig 44 - Lucy Lawless being fed by Oliver Bell

Fig. 44. Lucy Lawless (Countess Marburg), being fed by Oliver Bell (John), Mary’s illegitimate son and the Devil incarnate. Season 2, Episode 13.

In the finale of Season 2, Countess Marburg says, “No matter what happens to this body, you know I will survive to live again.”

Mary replies, as she’s working to kill her, “But, how long will that resurrection take? And what about your plans? Do you remember how it felt the last time you burned?” Marry then attempts to burn the Countess, but they were moving a bit too quickly in these shots for me to grab a still. Perhaps, the special effects and body doubles had to be moved around quickly to avoid a freeze-frame showing the artistry behind the magic.

Mary is close to burning the Countess to death, but then her protégé witch, Anne Hale, played by Tamzin Merchant, intervenes and pours rain down on their parade, stemming out the fires in the church. Lying on the floor of the church, Mary exclaims, “Let me die.”

Her protégé lectures, “I cannot for the same reason that you couldn’t let me. There is no easy way out Mary… for any of us.”

This is of course a cliché that follows a melodramatic and illogical request for suicide-by-frenemy. But, perhaps it is better to hit a high note in drama than to wallow in casual observations. Is it better to be murderously Shakespearean with dire exclamations of extreme emotions, or to insert researched witch-related dialogue in moments like this? I would naturally opt for research and authenticity, but that’s why I’m not writing for TV.

Fig 45 - Lucy Lawless close to death

Fig. 45. Lucy Lawless (Countess Marburg) close to death. Season 2, Episode 13.

The scene above of Lawless dying, as she’s drenched in blood reminds me of a review I did early of Weeds, where there was a near-identical shot of the female protagonist pot-dealer, who’s laying on a gurney with her eyes wide opened as blood is also dripping down her face, looking fantastic all-the-while.

Overall, I would recommend this series only to those who are of sound mind and aware that witches, gods and devils are all fictions concocted by lunatics, signifying nothing. I’m afraid that if somebody who’s too young watches it, they’ll develop nightmares and might see demons under their bed. If somebody who’s too religious watches it, they might see witches in their female neighbors. The best audience for this film are special effects and costume designers who could appreciate the artistry behind individual elements without viewing the power struggles and tortures as anything more than moving paintings of hell and heaven.

Title: Salem

Created by: Adam Simon, Brannon Braga

Stars: Janet Montgomery (Mary Sibley), Shane West (John Alden), Seth Gabel (Cotton Mather), Elise Eberle (Mercy Lewis)

Genre: TV-Series, Drama, Fantasy, Thriller

Rating: TV-MA

Running Time: 60 min per episode

Release: 2014—Present

****

Hot Sugar’s Cold World: Where Samples Come From

When I tried to create a short animated cartoon, I found a few websites that offered free samples of explosions, engines starting and all the other basic sounds that might be involved in interplanetary warfare, but if I was going to make a full series about my little group of space travelers, the sound of their engines starting would sound suspiciously identical every time, as it does on most primetime shows about things out of this world. I also frequently use stock images on Pixabay when I’m designing cover art for Anaphora. There are some great public domain free art out there, but after 180 covers, I am seeing some of the same potential images creeping in despite Pixabay having over 500,000 different images. The pool of free samples is much smaller for musicians, as it is a bit less common for somebody to record sounds as opposed to snapping pictures and posting them online for free re-use. From this perspective, I can really appreciate a young musician like Nick Koenig setting out to record a variety of his own sounds that he could mix to create more original and enticing music. If I had a similar project, I might record sounds that I could create at home with all the junk lying around, the sound inside a fruit, the dishwasher, scanner, and other things that could be manipulated not to sound like themselves. But, Nick goes a long way to find sounds in the natural world, in cityscapes, and in the mouth of his girlfriend.

Here’s how Nick explains the problem he is working to solve in the film’s opening: “Starting from the beginning, I wanted to record different sounds, so I started recording violin, drum sounds because anything can be turned into anything. Producers use sims [samples] and most of them come from software that have stock sims. Everyone ends up using the same sounds. You can always tell that sounds have the same melody in the profession. That’s never been a problem. That’s pop music in general. But the fact that people use the same instrument patch every time has always frustrated me. There’s no studio fees. I don’t have to pay for anything when I make any song, regardless if it’s a throwaway beat that I just throw on Sound Cloud or if I get to the roots.”

The studio fees Nick mentions can run in the hundreds or thousands hourly just to use a quiet room and a microphone. With his own laptop and a good microphone, Nick manages to record a wide range of sounds. Recording an equivalent quantity would cost a prohibitive amount in a studio, and this cost is the reason so many other musicians opt out of original recording in favor of pre-made popularly used bits of noise.

One of the glitches though is a lack of structure when Nick puts the bits he collects together. There were rules of musical composition that Beethoven and Chopin followed, which made the music easy to listen to and allowed listeners to imagine a story behind the notes. What Nick is collecting is bits of random sounds, and he does a good job making them easy to dance to, but they fail to tell a coherent story and they fail to create dramatic escalation or natural waves of sound like the classics do. At one point of this film, Nick goes to Paris, and he travels to all these other places, perhaps to make the film more engaging as opposed to just showing him recording and editing sounds in his room. But, if he spends the bulk of his life on these travels, he is missing out on the progress his music could make if he read more about musical theory and figured out how to make modern classics, rather than just fleeting experiments in unusual noises. It’s frustrating that he’s taking great first steps, but isn’t going further.

In the image below, he’s recording his girlfriend, Rachel, making clicking and chewing noises on a bed. The noises sound familiar, like something from a pop song, and yet the series of them is unique to this particular chewing session. Each bit of sound is equivalent to a brushstroke or a musical note. It’s important to stop and listen to these types of moments. Young writers are frequently told to write with all of their senses, their sense of sound and smell being two that are frequently ignored by new or pop writers in favor of sight. Describing or capturing the world of sound is a worthwhile endeavor, and a curious experiment.

Fig 46 - Nick Koenig and his musician girlfriend

Fig. 46. Nick Koenig, left, and his musician girlfriend, Rachel Trachtenburg recording sounds of chewing.

The sound of a house exploding is something that can certainly be useful for a Hollywood film, but I’m not sure why it would make an appearance on a song. I would imagine that Nick would sell these types of sounds to the sims collectors or paid stock websites to support his fun projects, but he did not say that this is the case in the film. Perhaps, there is too little money in selling a tiny explosion sound when there are so many free explosions available. Or perhaps the explosions that come with mainstream film production software is all made in a studio of a giant corporation rather than by individual recorders like Nick. It’s certainly interesting to watch Nick recording it in the middle of a residential neighborhood, without getting sent to jail.

Fig 47 - Nick Koenig recording a mini house exploding

Fig. 47. Nick Koenig recording a mini house exploding.

The most curious part of this film is when Nick recorded in a cave. When I tried editing music on my laptop, there were several ways to mutate a sound to make it sound longer, deeper, and otherwise more cave-like, so why go to such great length to record in an actual cave, and then why is he recording so close to the mouth of the cave that you can see light behind him, why not go into a really deep cave? Maybe he just wanted to go tour a cave? Well, once again, it’s a pretty picture for a film.

Fig 48 - Nick Koenig recording music in a cave

Fig. 48. Nick Koenig recording music in a cave.

I really don’t understand the shot of him recording the counting of money under water. I mean the point of his sampling quest is that he does not have money to record these types of sounds in a study. So, here, he is basically drowning in money? Why didn’t he use $1? Why $20s? And yet again, great composition—beautiful, thin body, interesting angle, nice bluish-purple color pallet. This film raised a lot of unanswered questions, so I think I’d be able to get to the bottom of it better if I did an interview with Nick. As is, I have to leave this review in a state of confusion and inspiration.

Fig 49 - Nick Koenig recording the sound of money under water

Fig. 49. Nick Koenig recording the sound of money under water.

Title: Hot Sugar’s Cold World

Directed by: Adam Bhala Lough

Writer: Adam Bhala Lough, Hunter Stephenson

Stars: Nick Koenig, Frank Andrews, Danny Brown, Shelby Fero, Rachel Trachtenburg, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Genre: Documentary, Music

Running Time: 87 min

Release: 2015

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