It's official: We're living in a golden age of horror anthologies. True, the long-moribund subgenre isn't every fright fan's cup of tea, but those who like variety in one double-hour package have enjoyed a wealth of opportunities over the last few years and especially 2013.
For movie watchers, few things can be more frustrating than films that begin with a sequence of immense promise, only to show over the remainder that the emperor truly wears no clothes. Two new examples come from the horror realm.
Until now, Ethan Hawke was having a wonderful year. Before Midnight, the third leg of his trilogy with director Richard Linklater and actress Julie Delpy, brought waves of critical acclaim and talk of another Oscar nomination for their collaborative screenplay, while The Purge turned a meager investment into a highly profitable box-office take.
Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Nearly every scene of HBO's telefilm Game Change, I recall from
John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's excellent nonfiction book of the
same thing. But the movie directed by Jay Roach (of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents
franchises) only tells half — maybe even one-quarter — of the story,
ignoring the 2008 presidential-campaign narratives of Barack Obama,
Hillary Clinton and John Edwards for the one it finds most compelling:
that of Sarah Palin and John McCain, and not the other way around.
If Sen. McCain's choice of the largely unknown Alaska Gov. Palin as his veep choice seemed out of nowhere then, there's good reason: Because it pretty much was. McCain, here played by Ed Harris (Man on a Ledge), wanted Sen. Joe Lieberman, but was talked into someone “more transformative” by hired gun Steven Schmidt (Woody Harrelson, Rampart).
At that point, so pressed for time was the McCain campaign, Palin (Julianne Moore, Crazy, Stupid, Love) wasn't vetted properly. For example, she informed Schmidt and company of her daughter Bristol's out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but not of her husband's membership in Alaska's secessionist party. Nor the extent of her political knowledge — or lack thereof — as she doesn't know why there's a North and South Korea, what the Federal Reserve is, or who ordered the 9/11 attacks (she says Saddam Hussein).
While facts were not Palin's strong point, acting was. Once the campaign just let her be her, McCain’s journey toward the White House got back on track ... but at the expense of McCain, who no longer could control her power grab. About all he could do is say "fuck" an awful lot (in stark contrast to her one and only curse word: “flippin’”).
To that extent, Harris' McCain is pretty much a beer-drinking cartoon. That's not the actor’s fault; that's all the script gives him to do. He's a supporting player to the tug of war between Schmidt and Palin. Harrelson is strong as expected, but Moore is stronger — so much so that I literally forgot I was watching her. Naturally, she's best portraying the side of Palin we've never seen: so stressed, she's increasingly catatonic, and not from her constant consumption of Diet Dr Pepper.
While Moore proves the best choice for the role, the scenes of the behind-the-scenes reactions to Palin's speeches and debates are the definition of forced, from "She's incredible!" to "Now I know why they call her Sarah Barracuda!" Lines like those keep Game Change, premiering Saturday, at that made-for-TV level, despite that top-drawer talent. It’s good, but not transformative good. —Rod Lott