Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project


Worshiping at the video altar.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist/Kino-LorberMelvin Metelits, Richard Stevens, Frank Heilman, Anna Lofton, Michael Metelits, Maurice Borger, Mizzy Stokes, Anthony Massimini, Anne Stokes-Hochberg, Roger McDonald, Marion Stokes. Directed by Matt Wolf

 

There is a very fine line between obsession and compulsion. We can take a hobby or something that we enjoy doing and allow it to take over our lives to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes, good things may come of it. Most often, however, it takes a toll on our relationships and the state of our own minds.

Marion Stokes was by all accounts a brilliant woman, an African-American Philadelphia librarian who leaned towards socialism, but after marrying Michael Metelits, became involved with the Communist Party of America, which she eventually grew to disdain for its lack of action. She and Metelits at one time wished to emigrate to Cuba but was denied an entry visa by the Cuban government.

Disillusioned, she returned home to Philadelphia where her marriage quickly crumbled. She eventually became involved with a television show on a CBS affiliate in Philly called Input, a Sunday morning talk show hosted by John Stokes, who as a contractor had become well-to-do and eventually, she and Stokes fell in love and were married.

The Iran hostage crisis fascinated Marion. She intuited that the way news was being presented to the masses was changing. Wanting to document that change with a librarian’s zeal for preservation and organization, she started recording news broadcasts. With the advent of CNN a year later, the project became much more of a life.

Marion and John became virtual recluses and Marion, whose personality had a strident tone to it, became very possessive of her husband’s time. Their children were virtually shut out from their lives (although they never had children together, they each had children from previous marriages) and Marion took complete control of John’s life. Meanwhile the taping went on, several VCRs taping anywhere from three to eight channels at any given time, with assistants changing tapes (on those rare occasions when Marion went out for any length of time, her limo driver Richard Stevens would be sent home just to change the tapes on the VCR.

Time passed, and so did John. Marion lived in virtual seclusion, with a nurse and an assistant providing companionship, as well as assistance with her project. The momentous events of the end of the 20th century (and the beginning of the 21st) were captured on Marion’s videotapes; the fall of the Berlin Wall, the royal wedding of Charles and Diana and her death years later, 9/11, the election of Barack Obama (which had special resonance for Marion) and also the minutiae – a local woman who decided to be buried in her Cadillac – and was, for example. Stories that captivated for a time and were quickly forgotten, all preserved.

When she died in 2012, she left behind more than 70,000 videotapes even though towards the end finding blank videotapes to record on had become increasingly difficult. Many of them were identified only with Post-It notes and all of them were on a type of medium that wasn’t meant to last forever. As we speak, her collection is being digitized and cataloged, something the librarian in her would no doubt approve of. One day, her incredible project will be available for everyone to peruse.

The big elephant in the room (or on the film) was Marion’s mental state. There was no doubt a bit of a hoarding mentality to her; at her death she had collected not only the videotapes but more than 50,000 books (she was a voracious reader), furniture she never used and an uncountable number of newspapers. She had gone from a single apartment in the swanky Barclay building in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to seven, all full of her collections. Although her personality was generally prickly – she didn’t take to being disagreed with at all – one gets the sense that beneath that disagreeable facade there was a genuinely caring heart. We see that mostly through her son, who was estranged from his mother for a good number of years but managed to reconcile with her shortly before she passed.

While I wouldn’t say this is an essential documentary, it is a fascinating one and it’s told in simple fashion without a whole lot of bells and whistles. Fans of docs in general are going to like this; it’s the kind of film you find at your local film festival and leave deciding that if you’re going to find films like this there, you’ll have to come back the following year for more.

REASONS TO SEE: Stokes is not always likable but one has to admire her intelligence. The dizzying array of news stories she recorded is mind-boggling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score gets a little bit annoying in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stokes was a lifelong admirer of Steve Jobs and to support him bought a massive amount of Apple stock at $7 per share. Already moderately wealthy at the time, this elevated her to a different level of rich.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The Mummy (1999)


Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

(1999) Adventure (Universal) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, John Hannah, Kevin J. O’Connor, Oded Fehr, Jonathan Hyde, Erick Avari, Bernard Fox, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Ipale, Patricia Velasquez. Directed by Stephen Sommers

 

Note to Hollywood filmmakers: now this is how to do monster movies in the 21st century. Something old (the setting), something new (the effects), something borrowed (the premise), something blue (a couple of racy outfits). Even 13 years later this still remains a standard.

Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is an adventurer in the tradition of Indiana Jones. He’s smart, strong, a crack shot and as it happens, one of two survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Hamunaptra, the legendary (some would say mythical) Egyptian city of the dead. It’s reputed to be the resting place of the treasure of the Egyptian pharaohs.

It’s also the resting place of Im-Ho-Tep, the high priest of the dead and murderer of Pharaoh Seti II. Even back then they frowned on regicide a little; ol’ Im-Ho-Tep got the nastiest Egyptian punishment there is which is to be slowly devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles after being entombed while still alive. That definitely leaves a mark (those Egyptians could be pretty nasty when they wanted to be).

Cut to the 1920’s. After Evy Carnahan (Weisz), a sweet-natured librarian discovers a map to the legendary lost city, she enlists O’Connell, Jonathan (Hannah) her ne’er-do-well brother and a corrupt Warden (Djalili) – read designated victim – to help find the site, where the Book of Amon Ra, which contains the secrets of Egyptian magic, is also said to reside.

What they do find when they finally get there is the Book of the Dead. This awakens Im-Ho-Tep, who is mighty steamed – as you would be if you had been buried alive with flesh-eating beetles. He brings with him the ten plagues of Egypt (the ones in Exodus – check out The Ten Commandments if you aren’t up on them) and the ability to control the elements.

He wants to re-animate his dead lover (after 2,000 years, a fella’s got needs) and kidnaps the librarian to do so. From here on in, it’s a roller-coaster ride of dazzling special effects, spine-tingling thrills and daring escapes.

This is one of the best movies — in terms of sheer entertainment — that’s come down the pike since, say, Aliens or at maybe even the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark. It moves at breakneck speed and visually is superb eye candy. Director Stephen Sommers took a fairly hackneyed monster movie and turned it into a franchise for Universal, which sorely needed one.

And Brendan Fraser as an action hero? Who’da thunk it, but it works. Fraser is very likable, in the tradition of Jimmy Stewart. Weisz, then at the beginning of a career that has brought her an Oscar to this point, did a good job as the plucky heroine and Hannah set the bar for the comic relief. Fehr, playing a kind of Guardian of Hamunaptra, shows some Arabic hotness for the ladies and makes a credible action hero in his own right but you’re not watching the movie for the acting. It’s all about More and Bigger and Louder, and The Mummy delivers.

While some of the scenes are a bit too intense for younger children in general, this is one fine family entertainment that you’ll want to add to your video library. particularly if you have teenagers in the house.

WHY RENT THIS: Fun and entertaining. Re-invents the classic movie monster film. Great CGI effects for their time. Weisz and Fraser make an attractive heroic couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes are a bit grisly and may be too scary for smaller kids.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and a bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Ardith Bay, the character Fehr plays, is an anagram of Death By Ra. It is also the name of the character played by Boris Karloff in the original 1932 version.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: In the original DVD release there was a  text Egyptology feature that is actually quite informative. The 2001 Ultimate Edition includes a timeline of the reiging Pharaohs of Egypt. The 2008 Deluxe Edition included a storyboard to film feature. All of these are available on the DVD version as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $415.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster, spawning two sequels and a spin-off franchise.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Outsourced

 

A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material