Station Eleven, and six more

My favorite movie this week was The Andromeda Strain, and my hot tip would be The Trick, but it's slightly sad watching the world end. Station Eleven gets a yes, but it stars Shakespeare, and he can kiss my ass.

— — —

Abby (1974)

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Abby is a cheap, black-centric ripoff of The Exorcist, but it's better than it sounds, and if you're comparing the two movies, remember that there's a very boring start to The Exorcist before it gets interesting.

Abby gets going much quicker, and the demonic whatsit here has sexual undertones, which helps keep it watchable during the otherwise tedious parts. Bonus points for the weird electronic scare music, too.

Blaxploitation superstar Carol Speed plays the demon-possessed Abby, and she is making a play for an Oscar nomination. Her possessed voice must've been dubbed, or she'd need lots of Luden's, but she does amazing things with her face. I wasn't much frightened, but always entertained.

It also stars William Marshall (a deep-voiced and dashingly handsome actor you might remember as Star Trek's Dr Daystrom, and the King of Cartoons on Pee Wee's Playhouse) as a church bishop who's also an anthropologist (I think?). His son is a preacher, and Abby is the preacher's wife, but she's getting urges that aren't at all pastoral, and then she kicks her husband in the nuts and strips during a couples counseling session.

With such very Christian characters, Abby's wild acting-out seems more audacious and outrageous, but there's no nudity or anything explicit beyond some mildly naughty language. "There are hostile forces all around this house, and they have to be eliminated tonight, or she'll die." The script is silly, sometimes on purpose, but everyone's trying, and the power of Carol Speed compels you to watch.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

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It’s hard to believe that this movie is fifty years old. I’ve seen it several times, always loved it, and it still holds up.

This is high-IQ science fiction, about a space probe that returns to earth with an unknown and deadly contamination. A team of scientists are on call for exactly such a situation — the kind of planning-ahead that's probably not done these days — and they come together to huddle over microscopes and 1970s computers to try and understand what invisibly tiny otherworldly life form they're dealing with.

It's from a novel by Michael Crichton, which is also excellent, and the movie was directed by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), who knew how to do science fiction. It's a money-drenched movie for theaters, but they made the curious choice to go with TV actors — Arthur Hill from Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law, David Wayne from Ellery Queen and House Calls, and Kate Reid from Dallas. Wayne and Reid are marvelous, but Hill is just Owen Marshall.

No ray-guns. No green men. The science makes sense, the tension is palpable, and the key element — a nuclear self-destruct system at the laboratory, in case anything goes wrong — adds drama to a story that already had plenty.

The technology depicted is dated because time is an unforgiving bitch, but the story's questions are still worth asking, and there's a political message, hinted just enough that you'll notice if you're paying attention, but not so much as to be a nuisance.

Not to be mistaken for a 2008 TV miniseries that sorta bungled around with the same story.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Konrad (1985)
NO —  

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This is an odd Hallmark-esque fantasy about a manufactured 8-year-old boy who's unexpectedly delivered to Polly Holliday (Flo on the 1970s sit-com Alice, and watch for a cameo from Linda Lavin).

As a new mom, even artificially, Holliday's character has no experience raising anything more complex than a goldfish, and it's soon decided that she isn't up to motherhood after all, so the factory recalls the boy. Holliday, though, has already built a bed with hammer and nails and 2x4s, and she loves the kid, dang it. Grab a moist towelette.

Once in a while there's a funny line, and Ned Beatty plays a fiddle, a harmonica, and a flute. It's all harmless, Holliday is quite good, the kid's adowable, and the movie's electronic music is poppy, but this is not worth your time unless you're a manufactured human, or eight years old.

It's very 'family friendly', so I should've clicked it off and found a movie where there's a heist or a murder or things blow up or there's something, anything genuine. By the time it sunk in just how stupid this movie is, though, it was more than half over… and anyway, I wanted to see how it would turn out.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

May (2002)

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A girl with an ever-so-slight disability — she has a 'lazy eye' — grows up shy and insecure, and inordinately fond of a doll. She has trouble making friends, never goes on dates, and then, flash forward, she's a young woman, but still lonely, uncomfortable in her own skin, and she has a crush on a guy she's seen at the park. 

This is presented in a way that's unsettling but also sweet, and relatable if you're a wounded soul, as most of us are. But writer-director Lucky McKee, what are your intentions with this young lady?

See, with movies I've never heard of, like this one, I prefer not knowing what to expect, so I wasn't even sure whether this would be a romance, an art-flick character study, or a horror movie. Eventually it's clear that McKee wants to scare the audience.

It got creepier than I could stand, so I said goodbye to May midway through her movie, but I'd seen enough to recognize that it's well-written and made. If you enjoy gross-out modern low-budget horror, May is probably outstanding. It's just — not for me.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Sooner or Later (1979)

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An old man’s nostalgia tour continues...

I saw this cheesy TV movie on a date with a dame — hi, Cathy — in an otherwise empty doctor's lounge at the hospital where we worked, what feels like a century ago. Without looking for it, I chanced upon it again, so I had to see it a second time.

A 13-year-old girl (Denise Miller) has a crush on a shopping mall rock singer who's supposedly 17, but played by 24-year-old Rex Smith, so she lies about her age to convince him she’s older. It’s a romantic comedy for the acne demographic, so chaste it seems more like Disney than what it was, a heavily-hyped 'big event' in prime time on one of the major networks. 

Whenever kids do something fake on-screen, something a real kid probably wouldn't do, or something obviously meant to let adults laugh at how stupid kids are, it makes me cringe inside. I call this the Brady Bunch Syndrome, because I first noticed those pangs of existential pain watching that shitty show. There's definitely some Brady Bunch Syndrome, watching Sooner or Later.

The cast and acting is of TV quality, with Barbara Feldon and Judd Hirsh as the girl's parents, and Morey Amsterdam as the owner of a music shop (Rose Marie would've been better).

For all the fakery and schlockery, though, some of the story works, and there’s no denying that Smith was dreamy. I remember kissing my girl while he sang “You Take My Breath Away,” and it's not an unhappy memory. Smith bursts into song so frequently this is basically a musical, though nobody else sings. 

It's a rom-com for tweens and wholesome teens, but I've seen worse, like something (title forgotten) where a CGI crab taught Sarah Michelle Gellar to be a better cook and fall in love. Yeah, that was definitely a worse rom-com than this.

Recommended for Cathy if she happens to read this, but probably not for anyone else older than 15.

♦ ♦ ♦

Station Eleven (2021)
YES —   

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When enough people tell me something is worth my time, I'll give it my time. So many different people and blogs have recommended Station Eleven, it finally reached critical what-the-hell, so I had to click 'play'.

It's from HBO, based on a novel I haven't read, by Emily St. John Mandel. It's a limited miniseries — ten episodes, then The End — which was a big selling point, because I'm not waiting for future seasons of anything.

It opens with a Broadway production of King Lear, where the leading actor drops to the stage mid-performance. One man in the audience understands that it's not acting, and rushes forward to help. The curtain drops and the actor dies, and through a swirl of backstage confusion, that man from the crowd, Jeevan, finds himself the unofficial and reluctant guardian of Kirsten, a child actor from the play.

Next there's a fateful phone call from Jeevan's sister, an ER-doctor who relays inside information that an epidemic is coming. "It's too late to run… Don't believe a word the news says. The city's gonna be fucked. People are walking around already exposed, and they don't even know it. Avoid contact with anyone."

The novel and miniseries were written and filming was underway before COVID came to town, so it's only pertinent to here and now by coincidence.

Jeevan and Kirsten are the focal points of the first episode, but it's a sprawling ensemble piece, and we see less of Jeevan once the story is really underway. It switches around a lot between the pandemic's first days and many years in the future, when grown-up Kirsten is still an actress, working with a traveling troupe that stages Shakespeare for tiny audiences. 

And I gotta call bullshit on that — it's simply a theater brat's fantasy. After a pandemic takes down 99% of humanity worldwide, the survivors will worry more about finding food and water, shelter and medicine and a safe means of waste removal, than about staging Shakespeare plays amidst the ruins and wastelands.

Many of Station Eleven's key actors are playing actors, and there's so much dialogue about acting that this might be the first Hollywood backstage drama that's also sci-fi. In the entire ten hours, there's very little about how the survivors continue to survive, and the conceit about actors and Shakespeare and show-biz and Station Eleven's "Museum of Civilization" quickly wears pretentious and artsy-fartsy.

If you can get past that, though, it's a good show.

Episode 5, "The Severn City Airport," is my favorite, distilling post-apocalypse survival into an hour of movie-quality drama. Despite loving it, though, I wouldn't have understood the episode's end without the internet's help.

Episode 7, "Goodbye My Damaged Home," is also outstanding, with the adult Kirsten seriously wounded, and flashing back to her childhood. This allows the two actresses playing Kirsten (child and adult) to share several scenes, and in addition to everything else, it's remarkable how alike they look.

Episode 9, "Dr. Chaudhary," takes a distasteful and disappointing twist, and I almost quit midway through. Instead I googled Is Station Eleven crap?, and found this Rolling Stone headline promising that the end wouldn't depress the shit out of me. I generally trust Rolling Stone, so I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did.

Thumbs-up, but with some serious complaints.

• The score is violin-centric, so the mood is usually on edge, but it's interrupted way, way too often by pop music that's intrusive and jarring and wrong. It's a headache, especially when binge-watching, and I watched all of Station Eleven in one afternoon and evening.

• There are half a dozen plot points I didn't understand and still don't, and a couple of characters kept popping up and making me wonder, Now, who is this again, and what's she on about? Usually I don't have such elementary unanswered questions about a professionally produced show, so either I'm finally losing it or the whole dang thing needed another pass through the editing process.

• All the Pulp Fiction-esqe timeline-hopping was an unnecessary distraction and a constant reminder that you're watching TV. A hundred scenes start with superimposed text telling when an event was supposed to be set, but clicking around, I'm told that the novel was basically linear, so the time-hopping distraction was added. 

• And of course, everything in Station Eleven builds toward a climax involving Shakespeare. Enough with the damned Shakespeare. If I wanted to be watching Shakespeare, I'd be watching something else.

That said, the pluses outweigh the minuses. There are several memorable characters, the beginning and end both brought tears to my eyes, and in between there's an interesting story. I don't believe any of it, though, except that the next pandemic is coming.

The actors playing Jeevan and young Kirsten (Himesh Patel and Matilda Lawler) couldn't be better, and I was absolutely there for every scene with either of them in it. Also, a zine is crucial to the plot (though the word 'zine' is never spoken).

"You all seem to know that the world is coming to an end, so it's a good reminder that nothing we have done or do matters at all — but it does."

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Trick (2021)
YES — 

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You'll perhaps remember that in 2009, a huge cache of emails was stolen from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, and promptly published by climate change deniers.

The media unanimously pretended that the scandal was the emails, not the theft of the emails, and the wackadoodle climate denial crowd gleefully extrapolated and publicized every off-the-cuff and off-the record remark that had been sent between scientists who'd been talking amongst themselves.

This is a dramatized retelling of those events, and it's infuriating, of course, but well-crafted and recommended by me. The main character is climatologist Phil Jones, then and now one of the world's most respected climate scientists. He had no innate knack for dealing with bullshit, though, and instead retreated inside himself as the man-made hot-air 'crisis' engulfed him. To the world's billions of boobs, his silence made him even more suspect.

For a time the morons and boobs held sway, and The Trick replays that brouhaha very well. When it's over, then and now, every year is one of the hottest ever, climate disasters happen daily, and we're building Hell on Earth and living in the end-times, while the fools still say it's all a hoax.


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  1. Say what you will about Crichton - and there's plenty shitty to say - he could write an adventure yarn. Of his first six books, through Jurassic Park, I loved five of them, and the only one I didn't love was one I was never able to find, The Great Train Robbery.

    1. He's some kind of evil, I vaguely recall, but yeah, the man writes. Coma, The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, ER,and a few others...

  2. Writing a very readable, 300-word movie review without spoilers is not a job for the faint of heart. Writing seven of them at a time is a job for a talented writer and an even better editor. I thought this batch was particularly well-written, but you always do a terrific job with this form.

    I hope the day will come when you will digitally (or even real-world) publish these collected reviews as a book. Amazon offers a service wherein they digitally publish your book, advertise it on their site, keep all the profits, hold your pets for ransom, spread rumors about your inferior sexual performance, send you bogus invoices to fund their silly-looking capsule space program, and steal your car. Standard Amazon deal. But it would be a really nice service to readers, and you'd be a published author, which you damn well should be. In any case, thanks for the tight writing and superb editing.


    1. The bit about what Amazon "offers" made me giggle and snort. Can't see myself publishing the movie reviews a second time. The first time seems self-indulgent...

      Kind words are always appreciated, though.


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