Ghosts of Sundance Past #5: Marjorie Prime (dir by Michael Almereyda)


In the year 2050, a woman (Lois Smith) sits in the living room of her beautiful house.  Through the windows, we can see that she has a view of an even more beautiful beach.  In fact, the beach is nearly too pristine.  So is the house.  Somehow, everything about the location feels both inviting and fake at the same time.  We find ourselves wondering what could possibly be lurking underneath the surface.

The woman is 85 years old.  Her name is Marjorie.  She’s talking to a very handsome and charming man named Walter (Jon Hamm).  As they talk, it becomes obvious that Walter and Marjorie are married.  Walter mentions that he proposed to her after they saw the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding.  Marjorie doesn’t remember ever seeing a movie by that name and when Walter explains the plot to her, Marjorie simply smiles and nods along.  Afterwards, she says that she wishes they had gotten married after seeing Casablanca.  She wants a better memory than the one they have.

We can’t help but notice that Walter appears to be quite a bit younger than Marjorie, despite Marjorie saying that Walter was considerably older than her when they first got married.  This is because the Walter to whom she is speaking is not the real Walter.  The real Walter died years ago.  Walter Prime is a hologram, a computer program designed to give Marjorie someone to speak to.  Marjorie is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  When she first got Walter Prime, she specifically decided that she wanted to spend her days with the young Walter, as opposed to the old man that he became.  Sometimes, she knows that Walter is just a program and other times, she thinks that he’s real.

Living with Marjorie is her daughter, Tess (Geena Davis) and Tess’s husband, Jon (Tim Robbins).  Tess finds the hologram of her father to be somewhat creepy and she wonders why her mother treats the hologram better than she treats her own daughter.  Jon, on the other hand, feels that the hologram is just what Marjorie needs.

Time passes.  Marjorie grows closer to the hologram while Tess grows angrier and angrier over her mother’s condition.  When Tess discovers that Marjorie has been reading a bible, she has a meltdown because her mother has apparently forgotten that she was always a militant atheist.  Jon tries to keep everyone calm.  Is Jon trying to the inevitable better for everyone or is he just trying to distract himself from the pain that’s all around him?

The hologram and Jon have a meeting.  The hologram says that, even though Jon and Tess have programmed him to act, think, and talk just like the original Walter, there are still things that he hasn’t been properly programmed for.  While filling Walter Prime in on some more of Marjorie and Walter’s past, Jon reveals the family tragedy that has haunted the family for years….

Marjorie Prime is not a particularly happy movie.  It takes place over the course of several decades and we follow Marjorie, Jon, Tess, and Walter through a great deal of changes.  The only thing the remains consistent is that everyone is eventually left with only half-remembered fragments of their past.  Some of those fragments are happy and others are full of regret.  Everyone ages except for the holograms but, as becomes apparent in one particularly heart-breaking scene, a hologram is only as good as the person programming it.  A hologram can be programmed to superficially act like someone but it can never actually be that person.  As much as Jon, Tess, and Marjorie attempt to recreate the past, it can’t be done because the past can never truly be relived.

Marjorie Prime is science fiction without CGI.  It’s a film that’s designed to make you think and it succeeds.  It would also probably be unbearably depressing if not for the skills of the cast.  Lois Smith is heart-breaking and sympathetic as Marjorie while Jon Hamm does a good job of showing why Walter Prime would be so attractive in theory and so frustrating in reality.  (Walter Prime can be programmed to act like he cares but he can’t truly do it.)  Geena Davis gives an intelligent and thoughtful performance as Tess, capturing both her anger and regret and the film even makes good use of Tim Robbins’s tendency towards to smarminess.

Marjorie Prime, which was acclaimed when it premiered at Sundance in 2017, is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Dellamorte Dellamore, Nadja, The Stand, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

This October, we’re using 4 Shots From 4 Films to look at some of the best years that horror has to offer!

4 Shots From 4 1994 Horror Films

Dellamorte Dellamore (1994, dir by Michele Soavi)

Nadja (1994, dir by Michael Almereyda)

The Stand (1994, dir by Mick Garris)

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994, dir by Wes Craven)

 

Film Review: Hamlet (dir by Michael Almereyda)


What if Hamlet was a hipster douchebag?

That appears to be the question at the heart of the 2000 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s most famous play.  In this adaptation, a young Ethan Hawke plays a Hamlet who is no longer a melancholy prince but who is instead a film student with a petulant attitude.

As you probably already guessed, this is one of those modern day adaptations of Shakespeare.  Denmark is now a Manhattan-based corporation.  Elsinore is a hotel.  Hamlet ponders life while wandering around a Blockbuster and, at one point, the ghost of his father stands in front of a Pepsi machine.  While Shakespeare’s dialogue remains unchanged, everyone delivers their lives while wearing modern clothing.  It’s one of those things that would seem rather brave and experimental if not for the fact that modern day versions of Shakespeare have gone from being daring to being a cliché.

At the film’s start, the former CEO of the Denmark Corporation has mysteriously died and his brother, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), has not only taken over the company but he’s also married the widow, Gertrude (Diane Venora).  Hamlet comes home from film school, convinced that there has been a murder and his suspicions are eventually confirmed by the ghost of his father (Sam Shepard).  Meanwhile, poor Ophelia (Julia Stiles) takes pictures of flowers while her brother, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), glowers in the background.  Polonius (Bill Murray) offers up pointless advice while Fortinbras (Casey Affleck) is reimagined as a corporate investor and Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) wears a hockey jersey.  Hamlet spends a lot of time filming himself talking and the Mousetrap is no longer a player but instead an incredibly over-the-top short film that will probably remind you of the killer video from The Ring.

I guess a huge part of this film’s appeal was meant to be that it featured a lot of people who you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being Shakespearean actors. Some of them did a surprisingly good job.  For instance, Kyle MacLachlan was wonderully villainous as Claudius and Steve Zahn was the perfect Rosencrantz.  Others, like Diane Venora and Liev Schreiber, were adequate without being particularly interesting.  But then you get to Bill Murray as Polonius and you start to realize that quirkiness can only take things so far.  Murray does a pretty good job handling Shakespeare’s dialogue but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s totally miscast as the misguided and foolish Polonius.  One could easily imagine Murray in the role of Osiric.  Though it may initially seem a stretch, one could even imagine him playing Claudius.  But he’s simply not right for the role of Polonius.  Murray’s screen presence is just too naturally snarky for him to be convincing as a character who alternates between being a “tedious, old fool” and an obsequious ass kisser.

Considering that he spends a large deal of the movie wearing a snow cap while wandering around downtown Manhattan, Ethan Hawke does a surprisingly good job as Hamlet.  Or, I should say, he does a good job as this film’s version of Hamlet.  Here, Hamlet is neither the indecisive avenger nor the Oedipal madman of previous adaptations.  Instead, he’s portrayed as being rather petulant and self-absorbed, which doesn’t necessarily go against anything that one might find within Shakespeare’s original text.  Hawke’s not necessarily a likable Hamlet but his interpretation is still a credible one.

At one point, while Hamlet thinks about revenge, we see that he’s watching Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet on television.  There’s Olivier talking to Yorick’s skull while Hawke watches.  It’s a scene that is somehow both annoying and amusing at the same time.  On the one hand, it feels rather cutesy and more than a little pretentious.  At the same time, it’s so over-the-top in its pretension that you can’t help but kind of smile at the sight of it.  To me, that scene epitomizes the film as a whole.  It’s incredibly silly but it’s so unapologetic that it’s easy to forgive.

Horror Film Review: Nadja (dir by Michael Michael Almereyda)


When we first meet Nadja (Elina Löwensohn), the title character of this odd, 1994 film, she is walking around New York, wearing a cape and picking up men in bars.  She speaks with a thick, Eastern European accent and when she’s asked what she does, she explains that she comes from an old and very wealthy Romanian family.  As we quickly guess, Nadja has lived for centuries.  She’s a vampire, a daughter of Count Dracula.  Everything she says and everything she does is drenched in the ennui of someone who wishes to be set free but who knows she is destined to live forever in the prison of her existence.  Even when she has visions of her father getting a stake through the heart, it doesn’t provide her with the relief for which she was hoping.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that it was a member of the Helsing family that drove the stake through Dracula’s heart.  However, having killed the vampire, Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) finds himself in trouble with the police.  Apparently, the cops don’t believe Van Helsing when he insists that he was just killing a vampire.  As far as they can tell, Van Helsing just killed a man with a sharp piece of wood.  Fortunately, Van Helsing’s nephew, Jim (Martin Donavon), also lives in New York and can bail his uncle out of jail.

While Jim is dealing with his uncle, Nadja is meeting a woman in a bar, a woman named Lucy (Galaxy Craze).  Both Lucy and Nadja feel empty and unfulfilled.  Lucy, who happens to be married to Jim, is soon inviting Nadja back to her home and becoming obsessed with her.  However, Nadja is more concerned with her brother, Edgar (Jared Harris).  Edgar lives in Brooklyn with his lover and nurse, Cassandra (Suzy Amis).  When Nadja visits Edgar, she decides to take Cassandra away from him.  Of course, Cassandra just happens to be Van Helsing’s daughter and Jim’s cousin!

Nadja is an odd film.  On the one hand, it’s pretentious in the way that only a mid-90s, New York art film can be.  Director Michael Almereyda shot the majority of film at night and a good deal of it with a PXL-2000, which was basically a toy video camera that was specifically marketed to children.  As a result, the black-and-white images are usually dark and grainy.  Sometimes, it’s a bit of struggle to tell just what exactly is happening on-screen.  And yet, at the same time, it kinda works.  Those hazy images, combined with the largely deadpan performances of the cast, give the film an undeniably dream-like feel.  When we see Nadja walking through the city, we feel her ennui and otherworldly presence.  At its best, the film achieves a hypnotic visual beauty.  If ever there was an American city that benefits from being filmed in grainy black-and-white, it’s New York City.

The film plays out like a satire of the typical decadent vampire film.  (Nadja even has a Renfield of very own.)  Nadja is so obviously a vampire that it’s impossible not to be amused by the fact that hardly anyone else seems to pick up on it.  However, the film’s most subversive element is Peter Fonda’s performance as Van Helsing.  With his long hair and a demented gleam in his eye, Fonda totally upends all our assumptions about who someone named Van Helsing should be.

In many ways, Nadja plays out like an elaborate inside joke but it’s just strange enough to always be watchable.  David Lynch, whose influence is obvious, has a cameo as a morgue attendant and he feels right at home.  This deadpan vampire film many not be for everyone but then again, few worthwhile films are.

6 More Trailers Exploit The 70s


Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it’s time for another installment of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Exploitation and Grindhouse Trailers.  Today, all 6 of our trailers come from the 70s.  That’s actually kind of a coincidence but it’s as close to a theme as I could find so let’s go with it.

1) Superchick

Let’s start things off on a positive, empowering note with the trailer for Superchick.  This appears to be an only-in-the-70s type film.  For one thing, the narrator says “stewardess” instead of “flight attendant.”  What a pig.  (Just kidding…I think stewardess has kind of a nice retro sound to it, to be honest…)

2) Satan’s Cheerleaders

“Are you kidding?  I’m no maiden.  I’ve been a cheerleader for three years…”  Would I find this trailer as amusing if my older sister hadn’t been a cheerleader at the same time that I was going through my whole goth ballerina phase?  Probably.  I haven’t seen the actual film but, for whatever reason, I suspect it doesn’t quite live up to the trailer.

3) Countess Dracula

Ingrid Pitt, who died on the 23rd on the month, helped to bring Hammer films fully into the 20th Century with this film and the Vampire Lovers.  Here she plays the infamous Elisabeth Bathory.

4) Don’t Answer The Phone

This is not a trailer to watch if you’re in a paranoid state-of-mind.  This is a pretty bad movie but it does feature one of the best “psycho” performances of all time from the late character actor, Nicholas Worth. 

5) The House That Vanished

I have mixed feelings about including this one because it’s a TV spot as opposed to an actual theatrical trailer.  But I’m including it anyway because it is the epitome of everything I love about 70s exploitation.  The film is actually an English film that was entitled Scream and Die! which, in all honesty, sounds like a pretty good title to me.   However, by the time it was released in the States, Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left was making a lot of money and every horror film was retitled with a House-themed title.  Also, the “it’s only a movie…” chant is lifted directly from the advertising campaign for Last House On The Left.

6) Ruby

Finally, let’s end with Ruby.  This is yet another one where I haven’t seen the actual movie but from the trailer, it appears to be a proud part of the grindhouse tradition in that it not only rips off Carrie but The Exorcist as well.

BONUS TRAILER:

Yes, I’m including a bonus trailer!  Why?  Because I love you, that’s why.

This is for Michael Almereyda’s haunting and odd vampire film, NadjaNadja was released in 1994 but it features Peter Fonda so it might as well be from the 70s.

And, since I have to end everything on an even number (it’s a long story), here’s another bonus trailer just so we end up with 8 trailers instead of 7.  This is another unconventional, New York vampire tale — Vampire’s Kiss.  This is also known as the movie where Nicolas Cage actually ate a live cockroach while being filmed.  (Personally, I think of it as being the precursor to Mary Harron’s American Psycho.)