Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XV: Amazing Stories: Mirror, Mirror

Amazing Stories: Mirror, Mirror (1986) **
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Joseph Minion.
Starring: Sam Waterston (Jordan Manmouth), Helen Shaver (Karen), Dick Cavett (Himself), Tim Robbins (Jordan's Phantom).

Martin Scorsese has always liked old B movies. He was most likely a fan of the Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock’s various TV shows. So when his friend Steven Spielberg came to him and asked him to direct an episode of Amazing Stories, a TV show he was producing, Scorsese probably jumped at the idea. By 1986, Scorsese was enjoying directing again, and this would allow him to bang out a short film, in a style he had not yet tried, in a relatively short period of time.

The idea behind Amazing Stories is one that probably sounds better on paper then it actually plays. Each episode is a self contained story, running half an hour, and they are based on the old comic series of the same name. Spielberg obviously was in love with this format of storytelling as a few years before he produced and directed one of the segments for The Twilight Zone Movie, which like Amazing Stories, probably sounds more interesting then it is to actually watch. The most recent foray into this type of series is probably Master of Horror, which like Amazing Stories, only ran two seasons before being cancelled. Both shows drew some top name talent both in front and behind the camera. But because budgets are so small, and shooting schedules so short, most of the segments end up rather uninteresting.

Such is the case with Scorsese’s episode Mirror, Mirror. It stars Sam Waterson as an author and director in the horror genre. We see him on the Dick Cavett show talking about his latest movie, then he heads back to his huge house. A young fan is waiting for him outside the door. Waterson tells him to get lost. Then something strange happens when he goes inside. Every time he looks into a mirror, he sees a ghoulish creature stalking up behind him. It isn’t just mirrors, but anything with a reflection. It starts to drive him crazy. But is he just paranoid, or is there something really there?

The screenplay by Joseph Minion, who also wrote Scorsese’s After Hours, is perfunctory and to be honest a little dull. No one really says anything all that interesting in the film, and I don’t think the acting really helps. Waterson is usually a wonderful actor – I have loved him in many of Woody Allen’s films, and of course for more than a decade as Jack McCoy on Law and Order – but he overacts here. He takes things just a step too far so that we are not really scared along with him, but rather laughing at his overacting. Helen Shaver, who plays Paul Newman’s girlfriend in The Color of Money, is a little better as the sympathetic Karen who tries to help Waterson, but it’s a fairly nothing role. I didn’t even realize that behind all that makeup (which I think was laughably bad), it was Tim Robbins playing the “phantom” that Waterson sees. He has nothing to do but to try and look scary – and he fails.

I appreciated some of the shots in the episode – particularly a good one focusing one Waterson and Shaver as they’re driving, which I think perfectly calls to mind old B movies. And I liked the creative ways that Scorsese continued to show the phantom in the background, reflected off everything, and the shots involving the broken mirror, which fragments the images. Shaver’s entrance, in slow motion with a slight haze on the frame, brings to mind Hitchcock. Scorsese, as best he can under the circumstances, does recreate the look and feel of the old movies and TV episodes he is trying to emulate.

But the bottom line is that the episode just isn’t all that interesting or entertaining. It doesn’t get under your skin, or burrow into your head like the best of this genre can do. It’s something that if you saw on TV, you’d probably watch few a minutes, then change the channel. I appreciate what Scorsese, and for that matter Spielberg, were trying to do. I just wish they had done it a little better.

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