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

Rings


All is not well with Samara.

(2017) Horror (Paramount) Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Jonny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan, Chuck Willis, Patrick Walker Zach Roerig, Laura Slade Wiggins, Lizzie Brocheré, Karen Ceesay, Dave Blamy, Michael E. Sanders, Randall Taylor, Drew Gray, Kayli Carter, Jill Jane Clements, Ricky Muse, Jeremy Harrison, Jay Pearson, Rose Bianco. Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez

 

Urban legends have a tendency to take a life of their own. They also make for some pretty nifty horror movies, whether they are actual urban legends or made-up ones. One of the best of the latter was the Japanese horror film Ringu by Hideo Nakata which helped make the Japanese horror film industry a global powerhouse back in 1998. Four years later, Gore Verbinski of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made an American version that didn’t disgrace itself and in 2005, Nakata himself directed the American sequel.

Now in 2017 the powers-that-be at the studio felt the time was right for a third installment of the series but forewent most of the attributes that made the two films so successful and tapped Spanish director Gutiérrez to take his shot. I don’t think that the film’s problems rest primarily on the director’s shoulders necessarily.

The new installment is a sequel. In it, the videotape that brought death to whomever watched it seven days to the tick after watching it is still making the rounds. Holt (Roe) has left his high school sweetheart Julia (Lutz) behind to attend college in the Pacific Northwest. At first, all is hearts and roses as the two lovebirds Skype their sexy across the miles. Then, Holt stops answering his phone. Julia becomes worried so like any good girlfriend she treks to the school to find out what her boyfriend is up to.

It turns out that he has become part of a study of that very videotape as presided over by whacked-out Professor Gabriel (Galecki from The Big Bang Theory) who keeps his students alive by having them do the only thing that gets the video watchers off the hook – show the video to another potential victim. It turns out her man has seen the video and is 24 hours away from an up close and personal visit from Samara (Morgan), the angry spirit who crawls up out of the video screen to murder those foolish enough to give in to temptation.

When Holt’s relief watcher doesn’t show up, Julia herself takes the bullet and watches the tape – which has now been, conveniently enough, transferred to a digital file for easy streaming. It’s the 2010s after all. S’anyway, Julia wants to get to the bottom of this whole rigmarole and ends up chasing clues about the real Samara to a small village on a remote island in the Puget Sound. There she finds a blind priest (D’Onofrio) who may know more about the legend of Samara than he’s letting on.

I think most fans of the series would have welcomed an updating of the original, made in the age of VCRs and modems, into a more digital format. There are certainly a lot of ways good writers could have taken this – Hell, even the concept of a collegiate study of the phenomenon might have worked if the writers had shown some originality.

But they didn’t – not even a little bit. The dialogue is preposterous and the characters are largely too bland and personality-challenged to care about. Lutz and Roe seem to be trying but I have to say that I found their performances simply didn’t create any chemistry or energy onscreen. The producers, going for a PG-13 rating, didn’t even leave Gutiérrez graphic gore or sex to fall back on.

D’Onofrio is a smart actor, who sometimes shows up in bad movies but he never does anything less than his best. Here, his role has little depth to it but what it does have D’Onofrio gives it by the dint of his performance. None of the other actors in the film really hold up next to him although Galecki comes close.

This is a bit of a yawner as horror films go and that’s not what you want to hear when trying to make a scare flick. It has enough going for it that I can give it a very mild – VERY MILD – recommendation but this is a mediocre attempt at resurrecting a franchise that deserves better treatment. I’m quite sure both Nakata and Verbinski would be rolling in their graves if they had one.

REASONS TO GO: D’Onofrio gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO STAY: A poorly written script and not enough imaginative scares doom this franchise revival.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might imagine, there’s plenty of horrific sequences, spooky images, profanity, a bit of sexuality and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the franchise without lead actress Naomi Watts and special make-up effects master Rick Baker.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ringu
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: John Wick Chapter 2

Vacancy


This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

(2007) Horror (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott G. Anderson, Mark Casella, David Doty, Caryn Mower, Meegan E. Godfrey, Kym Stys, Andrew Fiscella, Norm Compton, Ernie Misko, Bryan Ross, Chevron Hicks, Kevin Dunigan, Chuck Lamb, Richie Varga, Cary Wayne Moore, Dale Waddington Horowitz. Directed by Nimrod Atal

 

We take hotels for granted. We check in and go to sleep, completely vulnerable. We don’t know who is at the front desk, or what sort of people they are. They have access to our rooms, could enter while we’re sleeping and do God knows what to us and we wouldn’t know it was happening until it was too late.

David (Wilson) and Amy (Beckinsale) Fox are already having a bad night. Their marriage is already sinking into a morass of self-recrimination, self-medication and naked hostility following the tragic death of their son. On their way to a family function, David decides to take a shortcut off the interstate and is soon hopelessly loss. His navigator Amy is in a Xanax-induced snooze bordering on a coma, awakening to find one more reason to bicker.

A raccoon in the middle of the road causes David to swerve and crash. Nobody is hurt, not even the raccoon, but the car is barely drivable. They limp into a gas station that is anything but all-night. A friendly mechanic (Embry) tries to help them, telling them there might be a mechanic on duty in a town down the road, but their car has other ideas. They only make a few miles before their car expires of plot contrivance.

The bickering couple hoofs it back to the gas station, but the friendly mechanic is gone for the night. However, the fleabag hotel next door is open for business. The smarmy night clerk (Whaley) gives them a room with a view – of the parking lot. Hey, it’s the honeymoon suite. At first, David and Amy are not thrilled about spending a night in the same bed. After seeing the stains on the bed and the bugs in the bathroom, they aren’t thrilled about spending a night in THIS bed. Resigned to a terrible night, David puts on a videotape in the high-tech VCR on the TV which you half-expect to find rabbit ears on.

They see what appears to be a cheap horror movie of half-nude women being raped and slashed to pieces by masked killers. Then David notices something familiar about the scene. The bedspread looks an awful lot like the one in the flea-bitten room they are staying in. So do the curtains. Disquieted, David puts another cassette in and discovers it to be much the same thing – a couple being horribly murdered in a room not unlike their own. That’s when Amy makes the startling realization that it is their room. Their every move is being watched through a series of hidden cameras placed throughout the room. The sound of insistent knocking on their door signals the beginning of a night of terror in which the odds are stacked against them as a trio of killers comes after them to make the next episode in their snuff film series. Will David and Amy be able to survive the night, or will some other unfortunate traveler see their tape in that broken-down motel room?

Luke Wilson has been charming in a great number of better movies, but he is a bit flat as a slasher film hero. It’s not for lack of effort, however; he just seems a bit stifled. Beckinsale, from the Underworld movies, is gorgeous and resourceful. She makes the perfect heroine for this kind of movie, although her character’s bitchy moments make it difficult to root for her survival. Whaley is appropriately creepy, and most of the other characters are either meat for the grinder, or the ones doing the grinding.

Director Atal made his English language debut. He made the impressive Kontroll a few years back and his visual style seems tailor made for Hollywood. His seedy hotel is really seedy and claustrophobic. Paul Haslinger’s score is Horror Film Music 101, but at least it isn’t intrusive. Beckinsale is very pleasing to look at, and there are a few genuine scares. There is almost a Jim Thompson quality to the motel and the night clerk working there. The action sequences are pulled off nicely.

The stranded travelers are a hoary old premise for terror flicks going back to the earliest days of the movies and Vacancy doesn’t contribute anything particularly new or exciting to the genre. Wilson isn’t a terribly convincing hero; you keep waiting for a punchline that is never delivered.

As horror movies go, this one is about average. Beckinsale is easy on the eyes and as mentioned above, there are some pretty decent scare sequences. However, I wound up with a feeling I’d seen it all before, and better. If you haven’t seen a lot of horror movies and you want to see this one, you might not mind the clichés that are thrown at you like a water buffalo to the face, but otherwise this is merely a diversion.

WHY RENT THIS: Some pretty good scares can be found here. Beckinsale is a resourceful slasher film heroine.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is pretty mundane. Wilson is a bit lackluster as the slasher film hero.
FAMILY MATTERS: The snuff film sequences are graphic and disturbing. There is also a great deal of violence, and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was shot on the same soundstage as The Wizard of Oz was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD edition has an alternate ending; the Blu-Ray contains this and an alternate opening as well as a compilation of all the snuff footage in one feature if you’re of a mind to watch that.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, Crackle, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Moana