Film Reviews

by Robert Buchanan
  1. -- And Now the Screaming Starts!
  2. Andy Warhol's Dracula
  3. Alice in Wonderland
  4. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters
  5. Assault On Precinct 13
  6. Audrey Rose
  7. The Baader Meinhof Complex
  8. Bad Education
  9. The Bat
  10. The Best Little Girl in the World
  11. Birth
  12. Blood Tide
  13. Body Parts
  14. The Borrower Arrietty
  15. Cape Fear
  16. The City of the Dead
  17. Crimewave
  18. Criminal
  19. Dance of the Vampires
  20. The Dark
  21. The Dark Knight
  22. Dark Star
  23. Date with a Kidnapper
  24. Day of the Woman
  25. Death Rides a Horse
  26. Death Wish
  27. Demon Seed
  28. Donnie Darko
  29. Don't Look Now
  30. Dracula A.D. 1972
  31. The Dresser
  32. The Electric Chair
  33. Embryo
  34. Endless Desire
  35. Escape From L.A.
  36. Exchange Students
  37. Eyes of Laura Mars
  38. The Face of Another
  39. The Family Man
  40. Fat Girl
  41. The Fog
  42. God Told Me To
  43. The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery
  44. The Green Slime
  45. Hair
  46. Halloween
  47. Hamlet
  48. Hangar 18
  49. Hitch Hike to Hell
  50. Hitler Lives
  51. Horror Express
  52. Inception
  53. The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love
  54. It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
  55. Jaws of Satan
  56. J. Edgar
  57. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter
  58. Killer's Kiss
  59. Kingdom of the Spiders
  60. King of the Mountain
  61. Kiss Daddy Goodnight
  62. The Last House on the Left
  63. The Last Man on Earth
  64. Last Woman on Earth
  65. Let's Scare Jessica to Death
  66. Lifeforce
  67. Light of Day
  68. Lisa, Lisa
  69. The Lives Of Others
  70. Making the Grade
  71. Mamma Mia!
  72. Maria Full of Grace
  73. Microcosmos
  74. The Monster Maker
  75. Motel Hell
  76. My Name is Bruce
  77. 9
  78. The Ninth Gate
  79. No Country for Old Men
  80. The Old Dark House
  81. The Omen
  82. One Missed Call
  83. Onibaba
  84. Orphan
  85. The Oxford Murders
  86. Point of Terror
  87. Prometheus
  88. The Prophet's Game
  89. Public Enemies
  90. Q
  91. Rachel, Rachel
  92. Ravenous
  93. The Return of the Living Dead
  94. Rudo y Cursi
  95. The Runaways
  96. Salvador Dalí
  97. Séance
  98. Seance on a Wet Afternoon
  99. Seppuku
  100. A Serious Man
  101. Seven Minutes in Heaven
  102. Shock
  103. Skyfall
  104. Sleepwalkers
  105. Stop Look and Listen
  106. The Stuff
  107. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
  108. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
  109. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie
  110. Targets
  111. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
  112. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
  113. They Live
  114. The Thing
  115. 3:10 to Yuma
  116. The Tingler
  117. The Trials of Henry Kissinger
  118. True Grit
  119. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust
  120. Vengeance Is Mine
  121. Volver
  122. War of the Worlds
  123. Warm Water Under A Red Bridge
  124. We Still Don't Believe It
  125. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
  126. When a Stranger Calls
  127. When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
  128. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  129. Willard
  130. Wisconsin Death Trip

-- And Now the Screaming Starts!

Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Ian Ogilvy, Geoffrey Whitehead, Guy Rolfe, Rosalie Crutchley, Gillian Lind, Sally Harrison

Of the several horror B-movies starring Cushing that Amicus Productions churned out during the '70s, this is one of the most enjoyable. I have no idea why a studio with a firmly sexless policy pertaining to the content of their productions chose to adapt a novel (David Case's Fengriffen) that involves two rapes as pivotal plot points, especially considering that the first of these is depicted with extreme ambiguity. That said, -- And Now the Screaming Starts! (also known by the equally outrageous title I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream) is about as fun as low-budget period horror gets, with the slender old lead portraying a psychiatrist in the late classical period who investigates a case involving no small amount of lurid, ghostly activity and bad blood.

Cushing doesn't actually appear in the film until halfway through, but never mind - his subdued, carefully rendered performance elevates this whole silly affair above and beyond what it might have otherwise been. The quality of the performances are mixed but the other veterans of the cast (Lom, Magee) present themselves capably, as does the lovely female lead, Stephanie Beacham. It's a shame that Mrs. Beacham had too much self-respect to continue making horror pictures, as she has a set of pipes that could qualify her as a verifiable scream queen!

If you're keen on cheesy British horror typical of other Amicus or Hammer movies, or just enjoy the fine work of the distinguished Mr. Cushing, this is for you. Otherwise, stay away from it.


As Andy Warhol's Dracula, Udo Kier's undead aristocrat languishes wildly

Andy Warhol's Dracula

Directed by Paul Morrissey
Starring Udo Kier, Joe Dallesandro, Maxime McKendry, Arno Juerging, Milena Vukotic, Dominique Darel, Stefania Casini, Silvia Dionisio, Vittorio De Sica

Aged and ailing, vampiric Count Dracula (Udo Kier) travels to Italy on the advice of his manservant (Arno Juerging) to find a virgin whose blood will sustain him. Soliciting a noble family of depleted fortune as a potential suitor, the Count soon finds himself in an unfortunate situation. Among the aristocratic daughters, only the homely eldest and underage youngest are virgins; their libertine middle sisters routinely copulate with the family's churlish Marxist handyman (Joe Dallesandro) and each other.

Largely improvised, this was shot in part on leftover funds from the budget of Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, Morrissey's far more contentious preceding feature. Always a delight, Kier plays the iconic monster with extravagant comic vigor. Droll as his acolyte, Juerging's sleek, loud, wry turn is reminiscent of a popular West German character that Mike Myers developed decades later. In direct contrast, Dallesandro is oafish, as wooden as a plank and bereft of presence, relying as usual on his gorgeous physique and the support of his famed benefactor, which was waning at this juncture - this was the last movie of either Morrissey's or Dallesandro's to which Warhol issued his imprimatur. The supreme incongruity of Little Joe's obnoxious Brooklyn accent might have been exploited for more hilarity if he'd any wit at all. Watching Dallesandro here, one recognizes that Lou Reed's every pointed barb in critique of his career and scant intellect was accurate. As the diminished estate's progeny, Milena Vukotic, Dominique Darel, Stefania Casini and Silvia Dionisio are photogenic but bland. However, Vittorio De Sica's performance as their charismatic, ineffectual patriarch is absolutely charming, proof that the accomplished actor-director could still illuminate the screen in his final year. Wearing the same faux mustache as he did in the Frankenstein flick, Roman Polanski appears in another amusing extended cameo.

What could have been a fun throwaway feature is squandered on too much heavy-handed class analysis and bad performances. Morrissey would have been best served by marginalizing or recasting Dallesandro's character...an admitted waste of a near-perfect posterior that would nevertheless have been a wise decision. Contradistinctions of Kier's sickly aristocracy to Dallesandro's virile peasantry are driven to the very core of the planet, yet both loathsome figures merely represent the degeneracy and inhumanity of their respective societal positions. Always the Catholic conservative, Morrissey's skewering of both peerage and Communism is an admirable, if clumsily delivered thrust. However, the historical exactitude of his script leaves much to be desired; Three Weeks is mentioned as a novel of recent publication written by "an American lady," and the Russian revolution in the past tense, yet Elinor Glyn was British, and her famed erotic text was published a decade prior to the Tsar's deposition. Sans numerous gauche exchanges and so much passionless sex, this picture might run a lean, entertaining hour. One thrilling, gory denouement augmented by Carlo Rambaldi's excellent special effects only suggests how much fun the previous ninety-five minutes should have been. Some novel stylistic devices indicate that Morrissey still had a few tricks up his sleeve, but this is clever B-trash, not avant-garde cinema. Claudio Gizzi's predominantly neo-romantic score is charming, though not well utilized.

A more talented screenwriter would have hastened this movie's pace, reduced its social commentary to a subtext and emphasized its black humor. While Morrissey was a man of unique vision and admirable ambition, the limits of his talent are especially obvious here. He once said, "Films are about personality: the better the personality, the better the film." True enough, and Dallesandro's sank this one.


Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen, Barbara Windsor, Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Alan Rickman

Twenty years ago, Tim Burton's first four feature films cemented his reputation as a reliable creator of inspired, easily digestible filmic fantasies. His string of middling-to-awful pictures over the course of the past decade (the idiotic Planet of the Apes remake is surely the worst of the lot) have gradually eroded Burton's credibility and popularity, and this umpteenth adaptation of Lewis Carroll's nonsensical classic (do we really need yet another?) hardly indicates that he's willing to invest as much energy in plot and characterization as he once did.

Linda Woolverton's insipid screenplay purports to be an adaptation of Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass; in actuality, it merely appropriates the characters and settings therein to advance a thoroughly humdrum, conventional adventure. You won't hear any of Carroll's fantastic, absurd charm in the depressingly contemporary dialogue, and the vapid, unswervingly predictable plot isn't enlivened even the faintest whit by the surrealism and wayward narrative of the original stories. We're instead treated to a safe, hackneyed three-act story, complete with an adult protagonist, that very typical conflict of good vs. evil, nauseating sentimental digressions and mushy loads of completely obvious, worthless verbiage.

Only a single performance here rises to the challenge of these tremendous characters. As a grown-up Alice, Mia Wasikowska is lovely but as stiff as a board; Johnny Depp's clownish Hatter is merely manic and hardly mad (he's not permitted to be anything more); as the huge-skulled Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter makes the best of an amusing role, spouting capricious and indignant rage in a manner that would surely satisfy Carroll himself; playing the White Queen and a typical henchman, Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover merely seem to be going through the motions. Only Bonham Carter is entertaining to watch, because she's the only member of the cast who's given anything interesting to say or do. Like the majority of its lavish settings, most of the film's other characters are CGI - ably voiced and rendered in beautiful detail, but hardly comparable to performances by people and puppets.

Most of the running time is over-scored to the hilt with yet more serviceable, underwhelming music by Danny Elfman, whose output has long been as boring as that of his directorial collaborator. Although Dariusz Wolski's cinematography is gorgeous and Colleen Atwood's costumes are magnificently opulent, it's all for naught; this exquisite production is wasted on a flavorless, pedestrian story. Burton no longer takes any risks whatsoever, and shows us not a single thing we haven't seen before.

For a far more imaginative adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, check out Jan Svankmajer's stop-motion Alice.


Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

Directed by Matt Maiellaro, Dave Willis
Starring Carey Means, Dana Snyder, Dave Willis, Matt Maiellaro, C. Martin Croker, Andy Merrill, Mike Schatz, Fred Armisen, Bruce Campbell, George Lowe, Chris Ward

When I first saw the movie poster for Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, I was walking into my local theater to see Grindhouse. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to see the Aqua Teen film (or Grindhouse a second time) during the entire week in which both features screened there. Despite its alluring painted movie poster (another King of the Mountain variant), I later discovered that I didn't miss much; this isn't the kind of film that's significantly enhanced via a theatrical experience.

But don't misunderstand me: ATHFCMFFT is a great feature-length reworking of one of Adult Swim's best shows, and it manages to deliver all the bizarre, bloody hilarity of the series' best episodes many times over. It may seem inconceivable that the surreal and gory fun of ATHF can be multiplied many times over in the context of a feature film, but a minor miracle happens here: it's everything you could possibly expect from an Aqua Teen movie and a pinch more for good measure.

The plot, in summary: the Aqua Teens, Plutonians (accompanied by the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past) and Mooninites are in a race to harness the power of an exercise machine created by Dr. Weird and owned by Carl, which contains a dormant, unparalleled destructive power. Also, the Aqua Teens seek out their creator. Sort of. It's not as though any of this makes much sense, so don't worry about it.

Stretching a show of 11-minute episodes into an 87-minute feature film is a daunting task, but ATHFCMFFT is an adequate effort. The film drags in a few spots, but is as consistently unpredictable and inventive as the show itself. ATHF is the only remaining program from the original Adult Swim lineup because it's the best of those four shows (with Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law coming in at a close second). As a result, it's also the most worthy of a film adaptation. Just consider this for a moment: can you imagine how excruciating a Sealab 2021 or Space Ghost film might have been? To be sure, this is geared towards the ATHF fanbase, so if you're not among the initiated, I suggest that you obtain some marijuana and/or a clue before viewing this, because anyone who watches this and expects to take it seriously is bound to be as confused and offended as they are obtuse.

Though it wallowed in relative obscurity at the box office, ATHFCMFFT still managed to earn its minuscule $750,000 budget back seven times over. This may pave the way for future films based on other Adult Swim programs; I can't be the only one who knows that The Venture Bros. would make for an incredible theatrical feature! Besides, the amount of money that ATHF fans spent on weed before going to see this was undoubtedly more than the box office revenue of all of this film's competitors combined.

Finally: Bruce Campbell voices a long-lost Aqua Teen, a man-sized fried chicken. If you're not already planning to see this by now, what's wrong with you?!


Assault On Precinct 13

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Austin Stoker, Darwin Joston, Laurie Zimmer, Tony Burton, Nancy Loomis, Henry Brandon, Charles Cyphers, Kim Richards

Carpenter's second feature is a lean, urban reworking of Hawks' Rio Bravo. The B-movie maestro has always produced impressive results on shoestring budgets, but this $100K production delivers a lot of bang for the buck; I can't think of any other film that was so well produced at such low cost.

As there were corners to be cut, the cast consists primarily of experienced unknowns. Even the leads (blaxploitation veteran Austin Stoker and television performer Darwin Joston) have wallowed in obscurity since this movie's American box office failure and overwhelming European success. It's doubtful that Joston would have landed his anti-hero role if he hadn't been Carpenter's next-door neighbor. The performances range from serviceable to impressive, and tend towards the latter.

In addition to stretching a miniature budget to its' fullest length, Carpenter also implemented an economy of concepts quite creatively here. The minimal plot and character development are sustained by a variety of cleverly executed action scenes and nerve-wracking scenarios. What could have been a mindless exploitation flick is elevated to the level of an inventive, carefully choreographed actioner that deserves the devotion of its' cult audience.


Audrey Rose

Directed by Robert Wise
Starring Marsha Mason, Anthony Hopkins, John Beck, Susan Swift, John Hillerman, Robert Walden, Stephen Pearlman, Mary Jackson, Pat Corley

I rented this because I'm interested in the subject of reincarnation, and because even in the many terrible films that he's starred in, Hopkins is usually quite impressive. Unfortunately, Audrey Rose squanders quite a lot of talent on a story that wastes its novel premise.

Mason and Beck portray a happily married couple whose daughter (Swift) suffers from nightmares and violent outbursts during her birthday. They soon find themselves to be the subject of unwanted attention from a stranger (Hopkins) who claims that their offspring is the reincarnation of his own daughter, who died in a fiery car accident.

Although it bears more resemblance to a soap opera than a horror film during its first half, Wise frames melodrama in the context of the supernatural quite capably, and the results are impressive. Then, Hopkins' character does something uncharacteristically irrational and inexplicably stupid, which transforms the story into a courtroom drama. I swear to god, this actually happens. At the start of the first courtroom scene, I asked, "Are you kidding me?" out loud. This first scene degenerates into a vapid advertisement for Hindu metaphysics, and while the movie has many redeeming dramatic sequences, just think about this: in court, the defense's case rests upon the belief in reincarnation. I'm sure that it would be interesting to see a case like that tried in court, but it wouldn't, and this isn't a comedy.

As in all of his films, Wise's composition here is immaculate. It's furnished by Victor J. Kemper's pristine cinematography, which affords this film the crisp, vibrant appearance that he provided to other features like Coma and Eyes of Laura Mars.

Most of the cast is merely adequate. Swift is disappointingly stiff throughout most of the movie, but her performance in the penultimate hypnosis scene is extraordinary, and far beyond what most child actors are capable of. Unfortunately, Hopkins is quite hammy, despite his winning presence and impeccable diction. Despite his overacting, there's no denying that the man's oratory gifts are worthy of any stage actor - he almost makes the hokiest of the script's lines sound stately.

Despite some of the more predictable plot twists, I was impressed that this film ended fairly rather than happily. The ending is meant to be enlightening, but it's really just depressing. Wise crafted another beautiful film, but his talents - and that of his cast and crew - were wasted on a second-rate story. I don't intend to read the novel that this was based on.


Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl) wages a bloody Marxist war on the German establishment in The Baader-Meinhof Complex

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Directed by Uli Edel
Starring Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz, Nadja Uhl, Susanne Albrecht, Stipe Erceg, Sebastian Blomberg

Based on the authoritative biographical text by Stefan Aust, this fourth collaboration from Uli Edel and Bernd Eichinger (of Christiane F. fame) examines the Red Army Faction's eventful first decade. While the group's famed terrorist activities are afforded flashy reenactments in the style of an action film, Edel's primary goal is to convey these incidents and the individuals who planned and executed them as they were.

Here, the critical elements of the group's contradictory, open-ended brand of Marxist-Leninist socialism are emphasized as both a means to define the characters' political motivations and to provide a narrative context for the movie's abundant violence. This is just as well; when faint hints of their imagined ideal society are mentioned in passing, it seems as absurd (though no less credible) as when they're spouting Marxist doctrine or quoting Mao. But then, it's amazing that women as intelligent as Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin could force themselves to adopt such specious, inflexible convictions.

The primary asset of this feature is an abundance of phenomenal performances by a selection of veterans and relative unknowns, nearly all of whom bear impressive resemblances to the people they're portraying. As RAF founders Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, the likeness of Moritz Bleibtreu and Johanna Wokalek is stunning and they're totally convincing as the manic, fearless, foolhardy, doomed couple. However, the film's magnetic lead role is that of Meinhof, played with smoldering surety by Martina Gedeck. Still one of the loveliest living women onscreen, Gedeck couldn't be more ideal for the role: she's no stranger to postwar period films and excels in playing introverts. Transformed into the plain (though weirdly attractive) journalist-turned-insurgent, her dour interpretation of Meinhof as an embittered advocate of radicalism couldn't be more accurate. For most of the film, Gedeck serves as a calm counterpoint to Bleibtreu's and Wokalek's forceful passion. Equally comparable in appearance and manner to second-generation RAF head Brigitte Mohnhaupt, Nadja Uhl ably conveys the ruthlessness of the infamous "most evil woman in Germany."
In the meantime, Bruno Ganz is given considerably less to do as Bundeskriminalamt director Horst Herold, whose methods in opposition to the group bore mixed results. Although Ganz could easily be confused with Herold and is only credible in his role, the philosophical concerns voiced by the BKA chief seem oddly inauthentic and are never really addressed, anyhow. Sebastian Blomberg fares better as Marxist student demonstrator Rudi Dutschke (for whom he's also a dead ringer), but predictably, he's afforded little screen time. I'd hoped that as the notorious Horst Mahler, Simon Licht would also have a larger role but nonetheless, he makes the most of his relatively brief function as the ill-famed lawyer.

Nearly as impressive as the cast, Bernd Lepel's production design provides the film with terrific period authenticity. The production's clothing, sets, vehicles and hairstyles are likely to induce nostalgia in anyone who lived through Helmut Schmidt's era. Quite a few of the many enacted spectacles are extraordinary to see: the Deutsch Oper House riot; the RAF's numerous bombings, assassinations and bank robberies; Hanns Schleyer's bloody kidnapping. While Edel's chief intention was to coax the most realistic performances possible from his cast, he and his crew have also depicted the violent chaos of these incidents with vivid detail and energy, a thick dollop of the zeitgeist that archived press clippings and news reports merely provide a fleeting impression of.

Obviously, most of the running time is occupied by the Baader-Meinhof Gang, who enjoy the bulk of character examination, but their successors and the adversarial authorities are granted equally objective portrayals, none of which are terribly flattering. Many of this movie's detractors argue that the RAF is glorified herein, its members presented as the romantic outlaws that so many disaffected citizens imagined that they were. This claim might hold water if Meinhof wasn't shown to be a neglectful mother, Baader an obnoxious lunatic, Ensslin and Mohnhaupt and Jan-Carl Raspe all callous sociopaths. Performed with excruciating intensity by Stipe Erceg, Holger Meins' slow death of self-starvation is terribly moving, but he's clearly piteous rather than virtuous. As an organization, the first-generation RAF are revealed as disorganized, prone to in-fighting and frequently inept. Though the silliness of their political discourse is is downplayed, it's outright risible in some scenes, occasionally to the detriment of the movie's dramatic impact. Relentlessly paced to enliven a thrilling succession of action scenes and offset the lengthy 150-minute running time, Edel barely slows down to examine Meinhof's personal issues, the most important of which are barely addressed. Character development here is nonexistent, and far from being a flaw, it's only one aspect of an honest portrayal. However, the decision to neglect the interrelationships within the group (especially the lusty, tumultuous Baader-Ensslin pairing) was a mistake that results in a film with too little emotional depth. Until they're at their worst, emotionally deteriorating and slowly turning on one another while incarcerated at Stammheim Prison, they barely discuss anything other than their agenda and political ambitions.

Years ago, I read a terrific article written in the mid-'70s by a commentator who found himself bewildered by the vicious brutality inflicted by so many attractive, buttoned-down jungen erwachsenen. Over the course of this film's 150-minute running time, this incongruity serves as a constant reminder of just how appealing extremism can be to the politically disenfranchised. While Baader was essentially a charismatic street punk who adopted his anarchistic lifestyle as a means to engage in criminality with ostensible purpose and substance, Meinhof's own perspective was confirmed by the gradual disintegration of her personal life and her government's reprehensible allegiances. In retrospect, the RAF could be considered a bane to western society in the service of the cruelest secular ideological stream in human history. From another perspective, their appeal seems obvious when one considers the present: unfettered, transnational corporations do whatever they please whenever they please, no matter how reprehensible, defended by the dumbest empire ever to lord over the Earth and its parasitic west Asian "ally." In the meantime, legitimate culture withers away as its increasingly artless and degenerate popular successor convinces youth that indignant blogging, self-indulgent rallies and (most hilarious of all) voting are the best ways to vent one's spleen, and only ever in regard to the "correct" topics. The result: populations in which the most substantial dissent is unfashionable, critical thinking is discouraged, the high arts disregarded. Why? TV told you so.

Which is worse?


Bad Education

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Gael García Bernal, Fele Martínez, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lluís Homar, Francisco Maestre, Francisco Boira, Juan Fernández, Nacho Pérez, Raúl García Forneiro

Paradoxically, this is one of Almodóvar's most inventive and attractive films, despite being perhaps his least profound. Throughout most of the story, both presented fact and contrived fiction (the latter being a screenplay written by Bernal's character) are neatly, almost seamlessly intertwined, presenting two interrelated stories that never seem incongruous in relation to one another, though the latter is hardly an honest reflection of much stranger truths.

While most of Almodovar's films are beautiful, this is especially so; the flamboyant art direction and vivid cinematographic flourishes implemented here render the film's bright, colorful visuals with extraordinary clarity. As both a man and a woman, Bernal is no less beautiful. In creating an almost exclusively male film (a rarity for him), Almodóvar expertly conveys the beauty of the male form through Bernal's magnificent physique. Both the implied and explicit homoeroticism in this film function as both an examination of the masculine aesthetic and a character motivation.

I'll never cease to be amazed by Almodóvar's gift for making impossibly audacious stories like this one seem entirely plausible; he's a remarkably inspired screenwriter in addition to his undeniable skill as a director.


As usual, Vincent Price is up to no good in The Bat

The Bat

Directed by Crane Wilbur
Starring Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Lenita Lane, Gavin Gordon, Elaine Edwards, John Sutton, Darla Hood

This is the fourth of five screen adaptations of the Broadway play. A crude, low-budget production is elevated by a fine cast and a cunning story that involves a gimmicky serial killer, a stolen fortune of $1M, several probable suspects, a scourge of rabid bats and an old mansion where a mystery novelist (Moorehead) is residing, which contains an arcane secret.

Notwithstanding numerous inexplicable plot holes, The Bat is an intriguing murder mystery that kept me guessing until it ended. Moorehead is typically engaging, and the repartee between her and Lane is amusing. Price is as great as ever in this; his tremendous presence makes him seem larger than the screen itself, and as always, I couldn't take my eyes off of him. But the constraints of his role render him underutilized in another of so many excellent performances.


The Best Little Girl in the World

Directed by Sam O'Steen
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Charles Durning, Eva Marie Saint, Jason Miller, Lisa Pelikan, Viveca Lindfors, David Spielberg, Stephanie Cannon, Michael Dudikoff, Ally Sheedy, Helen Hunt

In the role that launched an acclaimed career typified by roles of troubled women, Leigh ably portrays a teenage girl suffering from an extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa and numerous critical health problems resulting from the latter. Based on the novel by Steven Levenkron, this television production was clearly released (by Aaron Spelling) at an ideal time to capitalize on a minor health and mental epidemic among young women in affluent suburbia. But despite the dated production values and hokey melodrama of the script, this material is elevated by a solid story and the excellent performances of a cast consisting of celebrated veterans and future stars. TV movies hadn't yet fully developed a stigma of low quality, so Spelling was still able to cherry-pick from a selection of fine actors. This is recommended viewing on a double bill with The Boy in the Plastic Bubble or Brian's Song.


Birth

Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, Anne Heche, Lauren Bacall, Peter Stormare, Alison Elliott, Arliss Howard, Ted Levine, Cara Seymour

No studio executive would ever admit that directors of music videos and commercials - who they often engage in thrift - seldom transition well to feature filmmaking. Preoccupied with the technical aspects of a production larger than what they're accustomed to, most of them are ill-equipped to properly attend to plot and characterization; as a result, these commercial craftsmen usually turn out attractive, ultimately superficial movies. However, British director Jonathan Glazer - whose prior work consists of memorable music videos for Radiohead, Massive Attack and Blur - imparts surprising depth to his first feature-length picture. Birth is virtually gimmick-free, filled with gorgeous long takes and lengthy static close-ups in order to develop tension and accommodate his gifted cast. Too few contemporary filmmakers actually give their performers sufficient space to act, but Glazer's uncommon treatment of the medium is almost Soviet in its execution.

Waif-thin, sporting a red pixie cut and a tremulous, nasal American accent, Nicole Kidman looks and sounds more than a bit like Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby as a Manhattanite widow. Her engagement to her desperately devoted fiancé, (Danny Huston) is disrupted by a child (Cameron Bright) who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. Exhibiting an inexplicable knowledge of their relationship, the boy's presence throws the betrothal into turmoil and bewilders the couple's family and friends. For the uninitiated, it's best not to know any more of the story, which amounts to little even after a novel plot twist, but prompts great performances from its leads and distinguished supporting cast (Lauren Bacall, Peter Stormare, Anne Heche). Furthermore, this film's characters are subordinate to its themes: in spite of popular Corinthian assertion, love can be jealous, obsessive and cruelly unrequited, often in relations where this dynamic is neither recognized nor expected.

Of course, this picture was destined to fail miserably in the States. Despite Harris Savides' exquisite photography and a novel score by prolific composer Alexandre Desplat, most Americans can't handle Glazer's profound deliberation or a scene in which a grown woman bathes nude with a ten-year-old. Nonetheless, this is a sleeper that's well worth waking.


Blood Tide

Directed by Richard Jefferies
Starring James Earl Jones, José Ferrer, Lila Kedrova, Mary Louise Weller, Martin Kove, Deborah Shelton, Lydia Cornell, Sofia Seirli

Director Richard Jefferies penned this silly late grindhouse flick with Nico Mastorakis, and the latter's usual monsters and human sacrifice are prominent here. What's amazing is that an impressive cast was assembled for a B-movie like this: James Earl Jones (awful as an obnoxious treasure hunter) just prior to his universally overrated prime, a wizened and weathered José Ferrer, Mary Louise Weller in her last feature film (fresh from the successes of Animal House and Q: The Winged Serpent) and a perpetually shirtless Martin Kove, who performs capably without any of the delightfully silly menace that he cultivated in The Karate Kid. Of the lot, only Ferrer and Weller manage to salvage their dignity with convincing performances.

The plot? Eh, something about pushy Americans who encounter an ancient, virgin-gobbling sea monster off the coast of a rural Greek island. Who cares? What's worth seeing here are the scenic locations, and especially a lovely old Catholic monastery. Jefferies actually does exhibit some competence by generating some atmosphere with the aid of the locale; unfortunately, the movie's story is too boring and stupid to amount to much.


Jeff Fahey grapples with wardrobe, firearms and an ungovernable limb in Body Parts.

Body Parts

Directed by Eric Red
Starring Jeff Fahey, Kim Delaney, Lindsay Duncan, Paul Ben-Victor, Brad Dourif, Zakes Mokae

Three maimed character actors in receipt of a flagitious recidivist's limbs amputated during necropsy observe of their grafted appendages curious instances of pathological autonomy: halted at a traffic stop, Paul Ben-Victor's ostensibly healthy new legs elect accelerator in lieu of brake at an inopportune moment; clinical psychologist Jeff Fahey suffers all in proximity of his right appendage's malign intrinsic when he cuffs his rambunctious son aloft, assays somnial matricide and secures a savage victory against multiple opponents in a brainish bar brawl; the career of drudging painter Brad Dourif is profitably invigorated by the opposite limb's propensity for rendering ghastly canvases of inexplicable appeal depicting its donor's plurality of malefactions. Delightfully miscast as a police lieutenant, South African thespian Zakes Mokae proffers profuse dentition and an anecdote of his squad's Pyrrhic apprehension and subsequent consignment of the sexisected felon to the charge of frosty grafting pioneer Lindsay Duncan, whose glacial obstinance deflects her beleaguered patients from multitudinous morbid revelations.

Seasoned horror enthusiasts will previse every macabre atrocity and relish a gratuity of gore in Hitcher screenwriter Eric Red's filmic adaptation of an especially grisly '60s Boileau-Narcejac novel, the English translation of which bears the amusive denomination Choice Cuts. Red's deft rein at helm is evident, as is the competence of his crew; every action sequence and splattering severance are executed with consummate proficiency and some moderate invention. Notwithstanding its manifold extirpations of extremities, this feature's unforeseen asset of primacy is a delicious surplusage of ludicrous dialogue, recited with hammy verve by its gifted cast. With respective members assigned to varied satisfaction, Dourif recounts his lucrative permutation from hack to celebrated Baconesque parvenu with manic glee while Fahey's narrated journal entries yaw from his profession's M.O. to belabor tangents of trite metaphysical conjecture. Later, a perfervid altercation between analyst and surgeon culminates in the former's gratifying fulmination. An idiosyncratic diction replete with subtly peculiar inflections imparts brisk zing to Mokae's exposition, optimizing his accessorial role. Excerpted in denouement, Fahey's conclusive monograph in treatment of his transplant is a distinctly absurd treat from which only a viewer of some utterly humorless disposition won't come away smiling.

A whistling theremin prominent in Loek Dikker's music recalls classic creature features and B-fare to intimate that all desipient exchanges, contrived scenarios and every silly flourish of foley and elocution herein are facetious facets of homage. Whether Red purposed Body Parts as a sober horror flick (undermined by hackneyed sensibilities?) or a gory lampoon of and tribute to bypast genre conventions is ultimately immaterial. Foreswear legitimacy, for this constitutes an unflagging entertainment in elicitation of giggles and quailing -- a rare beau ideal from a period when most American pictures of its type aroused neither.


The Borrower Arrietty

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring Bridgit Mendler, Will Arnett, David Henrie, Amy Poehler, Carol Burnett, Moises Arias

Animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi's directorial debut hasn't the compelling novelty of Hayao Miyazaki's classics nor the dramatic rigor of Isao Takahata's contributions to the Studio Ghibli canon, but its reflective ambiance and technical merit warrants the venerated animation studio's imprimatur.

Though here transposed by Miyazaki's script to Japanese setting and idiom, admirers of Mary Norton's The Borrowers won't find a better adaptation in motion than this of the charming juvenile novel, though it's been attempted thrice afore to varying results via both televised and theatrical features, and a TV miniseries. Titular Arrietty is the sole adolescent daughter in a family of rare wee folk: self-proclaimed "borrowers" who stand no taller than 10 cm, and pilfer foodstuffs and lost items to supplement their cozy abodes located under human homes. Warned by her parents to eschew their relatively gargantuan neighbors for fear of danger, Arrietty nonetheless befriends a gentle, sickly teenage boy afflicted by a critical heart condition. However, numerous hazards threaten Arrietty and her kin: ravenous crows, a plump, predatory house cat and a well-meaning yet manic and scheming maid obsessed with capturing the Lilliputian scavengers to prove their existence!

Arrietty's best moments occur during its frequent, silent, unhurried interludes, which elegantly complement its story's leisurely pace. Action also abounds, emphasizing the exhilarating perils of miniature life in contrast to its quiet, deliberate joys. As expected, animation throughout is superb, rendered in vibrant hues and clean, exact lines. Especially fine are its exquisitely painted backgrounds depicting natural and domestic locales. Every rustling paper scrap, liquid drop and crawling bug is animated with appropriate detail of form and motion to assure verisimilitude, and a subtle sound design perfectly augments the realism of these visuals. This production's nigh-complete paucity of CGI is fully refreshing, a reminder that sedulous craftsmanship still trumps cheap gimmickry.

Although Disney's anglophone vocal talents are satisfactory in their roles, and a score composed by French singer and harpist Cécile Corbel and Filipino songwriter Dale Sison serves to accentuate crucial dramatic scenes, Arrietty's end titles regrettably showcase Summertime, a noxious pop song exclusive to the film's North American release sung by Arrietty's voice actress, Bridgit Mendler. Obnoxious and wholly uncharacteristic of the film's air, its inclusion is Disney's only misstep in the repackaging of this feature for stateside audiences.

For those willing to engage an animated feature in which understated charm and character development are at least as prominent as spectacle, where heartfelt regret and fondness alike are wrung from a bittersweet conclusion, The Borrower Arrietty is a very welcome treat. Paired with another Ghibli film of like milieu for a double-bill viewing - My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Ocean Waves, Spirited Away - it's sure to feel as warmly comfortable as those superior titles.


Cape Fear

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Nick Nolte, Robert De Niro, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas, Fred Dalton Thompson

Critical comparisons between this film and J. Lee Thompson's brilliant 1962 adaptation of the excellent John D. MacDonald novel The Executioners are bound to be misguided and ill-conceived. Thompson's film threw Gregory Peck's innocent family of beautiful people to the mercies of an intensely sleazy Robert Mitchum. By contrast, Martin Scorsese's reworking features a modern family who are familiar with sinful indulgence, and are terrorized by a far more vicious Robert De Niro. While the earlier of the two films presents clearly defined moral boundaries, the latter indulges in relativism and uncertainty. The repulsive Max Cady was disturbing when performed by Mitchum and terrifying when reinterpreted though De Niro, but the squeaky-clean family of the first go-round is certainly not the dysfunctional group of the remake.

The point is, if you want to see the original Cape Fear, go watch it, because this isn't it, not by a long shot. Thompson's vision of McDonald's novel is a tense, humane, relatively understated presentation of an outrageously audacious crime drama, and it deserves its' recognition as a genuine classic.

On the other hand, Scorsese's handling of the source material is bloody and overblown, sometimes crossing the line from audacity into outright intentional kitsch. There's no doubt that he had a lot of fun making this, as he emphasizes the black humor of the script just as prominently as its' shocking brutality. For some (including myself), this is a film that demands attention through its' sheer viciousness; it's a truly lurid spectacle. For others, it's a melodramatic, unwatchable mess that wastes the impressive talents of its' cast and crew. I can't say with certainty that either perspective is necessarily more valid than the other!

But whatever you think of it, anyone who denies Cape Fear as a technical accomplishment is demonstrably ignorant. Scorsese deftly implements swift zooms, breakneck panning and claustrophobic close-ups to effectively heighten tension and emphasize expression. In the hands of another, far less capable director (Jonathan Demme comes to mind) these techniques come off as obnoxious and pretentious. But coupled with the vibrant, pristine cinematography of Freddie Francis and Thelma Schoonmaker's invariably intricate editing, all the nuances of the impressive performances on display here are accentuated. Along with The Color Of Money and Goodfellas, this is surely one of Scorsese's most visually impressive efforts. Elmer Bernstein's eerie reworking of Bernard Herrmann's devastating score for the original film is pervasively effective; the softer of the string-driven passages are especially chilling.

Nolte is perfect in the lead: his Sam Bowden is the embodiment of harried aggravation in all his buttoned-down Aryan glory. By contrast, De Niro's Max Cady is a far cry from Mitchum's shrewd, intimidating con man; this reinvention of the character is insanely obsessive, vicious and determined, alternating between a magnified Nietzschean self-awareness and Biblical self-righteousness. Cady went into prison as a savage, illiterate rapist and found both God and himself in the worst possible way over the course of fourteen excruciating years. He emerges on parole as a brawny, disciplined, well-read and extremely amorous self-proclaimed übermensch on the prowl for revenge and sex. His target is pretty ideal: not only did his former public defender (Nolte) sell him out by withholding evidence during his trial, he also obtained a juicy wife (Lange) and sired a cutie (Lewis) of a daughter while Cady was in the clink. It doesn't take much imagination to predict what this ex-con has planned.

Although the performances of the two male leads demand attention, the real star of the film is Jessica Lange, whose alternately sensuous and brutalized portrayal of Bowden's troubled, sexy spouse is nothing short of astounding. Lange owns every scene where she's prominently featured, conveying her character's desperation, disappointment and terror with disconcerting conviction. Lewis is also impressive as the vulnerable, sexually curious daughter; in the film's most perverse scene, De Niro attempts to seduce her with simultaneously titillating and repulsive results.

Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum and Martin Balsam are cast in a trio of small roles in homage to the original film, but those three veterans conduct themselves admirably in their short scenes. Peck is especially impressive as a typically eloquent southern prosecutor (replete in a white three-piece suit!). This brief cameo was Peck's last performance in a feature film, and it wasn't a bad way for him to finish his career.

As always, De Niro honed his body and persona with equal fervor for this role: lean and muscular, he delivers a convincing southern drawl. Nolte and most of the other Yankees of the cast capably follow suit and feel quite congruous amidst the genuine southerners: character actor, former senator and current Presidential nominee Fred Thompson and perennial good old boy Joe Don Baker in what's probably his last notable dramatic role.

The characters, themes and plot of this film are far more complex than those of the original. Bowden is hardly a man of moral integrity, and Cady, while reprehensible, certainly has a legitimate cause for his hatred. In many ways, the heightened moral relativism of the film makes it a more disorienting experience. In the original film, the audience knew who to root for. Here, the characters are intriguing and admirable in certain ways, but never enough to warrant sympathy. I certainly don't mind the film's violence, but Cady's makeshift trial on a squall-battered houseboat in the penultimate scene really is pretty silly. It's a shame that Scorsese and screenwriter Wesley Strick resorted to such a cheap, goofy contrivance, especially considering that their efforts produced what's otherwise an impressive retelling of a fine story.

It's strange to me that Cape Fear is regarded as one of Scorsese's lesser films; while it has its' flaws, it's certainly better than most of what he directed in the '90s and 2000s, and it's infused with a certain authenticity that used to be a trademark of Scorsese films. Frankly, I'd prefer for Marty to stop making movies with a tacky coat of gloss and return to gritty, outrageous filmmaking like this. It's hardly his best effort, but the production design is distinct, the performances are excellent and the movie at least elicits a strong response from me. I certainly can't say the same for Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead and Gangs of New York.


The City of the Dead

Directed by John Moxey
Starring Dennis Lotis, Patricia Jessel, Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson, Betta St. John, Tom Naylor, Valentine Dyall, Ann Beach, Norman Macowan

In this very first Amicus Production (when the company was still named Vulcan Productions), a young college student (Stevenson) fascinated by witchcraft is spurred by academic curiosity - and the advice of her history professor (Lee) - to visit a foggy, shadowy, mysterious little New England town in order to research her favorite subject. Her sojourn is interrupted by a local holiday that exposes her to the worst sort of firsthand research...!

Grim, gloomy and genuinely creepy, this fun little chiller is far superior to The Devil's Rain, a film that it strongly influenced, among others. With the exception of the oafish Tom Naylor, the cast is in fine form, especially Stevenson as the sprightly student, the icily ominous Jessel and Lee at his menacing best. Furnished with fine sets, clever editing and attractive photography, the quality of this B-movie's production is a cut above average. However, the film is also weirdly scored by orchestral horns and percussion, as well as quite a lot of lightweight jazz; none of this ruins the picture's baleful tension, but more often than not, it's oddly incongruous.


Crimewave

Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Reed Birney, Louise Lasser, Paul L. Smith, Brion James, Sheree J. Wilson, Edward R. Pressman, Bruce Campbell

Even though this was penned by Raimi and the Coen brothers, it's a far sillier movie than anything else that either the Coens or Renaissance Pictures have ever created. In fact, this slapstick crime farce is surely one of the goofiest things yet committed to film, and all the more fun for it. Raimi channeled silent film techniques and The Three Stooges into this incomparably nutty story about a pair of rodent exterminators/hitmen who kill the owners of a burglar-alarm company, after which no small amount of lunacy ensues and a nerdy employee is blamed for the killings.

While Birney and Lasser perform gamely as the leads, Bruce Campbell steals the show in a particularly wacky supporting role. In his career retrospective, If Chins Could Kill, Campbell wrote at length of the numerous problems that plagued Crimewave's production: Raimi's inexperience and inefficiency, egregious meddling by the film's dissatisfied producers and investors, and totally inept marketing that relegated the movie to the dustbin of cult fandom. Most of Crimewave's many flaws can be blamed on the exclusion of Raimi and his crew from many crucial decisions and activities: his preferred editor, Kaye Davis, was dismissed from the project, and Michael Kelly and Kathie Weaver hacked it into a sloppy finished product; Birney was chosen over cult hero Campbell for the lead role, and while his performance is terrific, it's not hard to imagine The Chin hamming it up even more impressively; finally, Renaissance composer Joe LoDuca's contributions to the film were reduced from a full score to a single song.

Regardless of Crimewave's shortcomings, it is a remarkable effort in which Raimi invested nearly as much creativity as he did in his Evil Dead features. The production design is enormous, colorful and totally unique - it belies the movie's low budget and seamlessly straddles the styles of the '30s and '80s. It's clearly not the film that its creators hoped it would be and has since been disowned by all of them, but this deserves attention - not only by Coen and Raimi fans, but anyone who's interested in B-movies that were crafted with no interest in either established convention or seriousness.


Criminal

Directed by Gregory Jacobs
Starring John C. Reilly, Diego Luna, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Mullan, Zitto Kazann, Jonathan Tucker

A superior remake of Nueve reinas, in which an obnoxious, experienced con-man (Reilly, in a rare lead) teams up with a charming amateur grifter (Luna) to sell a counterfeit of an extremely rare currency bill to a wealthy collector (Mullan). While by no means original, the plot is sound and the story's pace is punctuated by numerous surprises. Traditional composition, an amusing script and an array of good performances (especially by the two leads) elevate what might have been a routine heist movie into one that's equally fun and comprehensive.


Sharon Tate and Roman Polansky squander precious time planning their nuptials prior to the Dance of the Vampires

Dance of the Vampires

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski, Alfie Bass, Sharon Tate, Ferdy Mayne, Iain Quarrier, Jessie Robins

Months ere Robert Evans lured him to the New World to collaborate with aging B-lord William Castle in production of his breakthrough horror classic, Roman Polanski somehow cajoled Filmways and Cadre to bankroll this charming, deranged, visually sumptuous pasquinade of vampire flicks. Requisite dapper, diabolical, debonaire Count Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) is the film's sole straight man, foil to every other ludicrous player. As peckish as ever, a bewigged, mustachioed Jack MacGowran plays bumbling Van Helsing simulacrum Prof. Abronsius, and adorably elfin Polanski his craven adjunct, Alfred. A lifespan's research delivers the maladroit pair to a remote, garlic-bedecked lodging house in rural Transylvania, where its libidinous proprietor (Alfie Bass) fails with feigned ignorance to dissuade them in their search for ghastly sanguinarians, and his gorgeous daughter (Sharon Tate) provokes Arthur's ardor forthwith. Professing aspirations of global dominion, the Count hesitates not a moment before sampling and stealing away with this choicest peach, investigatory foreigners in pursuit and imperiled at least so much by their own ineptitude as the Count's malignance!

In sight, it's a magnificent picture: snow-clad, moonlit panoramas, cosy interiors and eldritch festivities recall Soviet classics Jack Frost and Sampo (atrociously abridged and dubbed versions of which are familiar to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans) among others; those splendid expanses evince some influence of those wintry vistas conveyed in Chagall's American paintings - faith, Bass's tawdry innkeeper bears an eponym in dubious honor of the iconic artist!

Never lovelier, luscious Tate radiates in her every shot onscreen, yet Polanski wisely employed her sparingly without over-utilizing their limited romantic chemistry. In his nebbish role, the diminutive filmmaker was perfectly paired to gruff MacGowran, with whom he demonstrates a natural talent for physical comedy. Mayne very nearly proves himself Christopher Lee's equal as the fanged antagonist of suave menace; attired in suggestive pale blue, Iain Quarrier unnerves as his frigid queer scion.

Replete with a profusion of slapstick scenarios, ingenious sight gags and pitch-black humor, Dance isn't merely a production of thrill and quality superior to coeval Hammer flicks, but also hilarious as no script of those genre offerings ever dared be. Further, the Polish enfant terrible delighted in confounding expectations: a Jewish lamia isn't momentarily deterred by a brandished crucifix, predilections of the vampiric son hardly extend to the purloined leading lady and a devastating denouement will surely leave the most beguiled audience in disarray. Warbling choral vocals and clamorous rhythms distinguish its outlandish score composed by Polanski mainstay Krzysztof Komeda, among the most ambitious and unconventional that the jazz pianist penned but a few years preceding his untimely death.

Dance of the Vampires is a staple of any cinephile's winter collection, defying comparison with any other Romek offering. As half of a double bill, it may be comfortably screened with...?


The Dark

Directed by John Cardos
Starring William Devane, Cathy Lee Crosby, Richard Jaeckel, Jacquelyn Hyde, Keenan Wynn, Biff Elliot, Warren J. Kemmerling, Casey Kasem

Christ, what an awful movie. In this Z-grade drivel, an alien comes to Earth, decapitates people with its bare hands or explodes them with lasers emitted from its eyes and is pursued by a thoroughly inept police force until primate William Devane sets it on fire, which makes it explode. The end.

It's almost pointless to critique any particular aspect of this film because everything about it is awful. Reading from a ludicrous script, the irritating cast goes out of its way to make asses of themselves; as an incompetent slob of a detective and an obnoxious, TV-addicted psychic, Biff Elliot and Jacquelyn Hyde are especially annoying. Armed with his gigantic clamping teeth, Devane plays some sort of former wife-murdering convict turned successful trash novelist. Whatever else he is, he seems to be stoned out of his skull through most of the movie. Only Casey Kasem is (unintentionally) entertaining as a pathologist, tossing off one ridiculous line after another in his unmistakable voice.

Film Ventures International really was the worst of all the B-schlock production companies that flourished in the '70s and '80s because most of its features were as unengaging as they were incoherent. This one is no exception. Although the murderous monster was originally intended to be a zombie, its status as a space alien was endowed following poor test screenings. It doesn't look at all undead or extraterrestrial, instead resembling some sort of ape-man, like Devane. To emphasize the creature's off-world origins, the movie was bookended with inane narration and the ocular laser beams were added in post-production. The cheap and hurried execution of this last-minute tweaking is painfully obvious.

Tobe Hooper was supposed to helm this mess, but he dropped out of the production after shooting a few scenes. I wish that I'd followed suit fifteen minutes into it. Avoid this at all costs.


The Dark Knight

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Chin Han, Monique Curnen, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts

Regardless of the enormous hype pertaining to its release, I was hesitant to see this. Batman Begins was surely the least of Christopher Nolan's films; despite an array of good performances, a solid plot and an impressive (albeit glossy) production design, the movie was burdened with an uneven pace and plenty of embarrassingly clumsy dialogue. In spite of a terrible teaser trailer and the faults of its predecessor, I still couldn't miss this - the cast featured too many trustworthy names, and one of my favorite living film directors deserved a second chance.

At times, it's difficult to believe that The Dark Knight is a sequel to Batman Begins. The sheen and occasional lethargy of the first movie has been supplanted with a gritty intensity and relentless momentum that almost made me forget that this was a movie based on comic books that I had read and loved in my childhood and early teens. In fact, Batman Begins feels like a lavish dry run in retrospect. Nolan has refined his treatment of this material to the point where it's almost on par with his more serious projects.

While Christian Bale does little here that he hasn't before, his portrayal of the titular character's every aspect - the faux swagger of the billionaire, the forceful menace of the vigilante and the concentrated obsession that drives both - is again ably and impressively performed. Likewise, screen veterans Caine, Freeman and Oldman have little new to offer as butler Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne Industries top dog Lucius Fox and police Lieutenant Jim Gordon, but all three are effortlessly convincing. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, but this casting change doesn't really make much of a difference; both actresses are equally competent and unappealing in the role.

As before, Christopher and Johnathan Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer did their homework when developing the villains for this project, drawing from the best and most appropriate source material available. While Jack Nicholson's deadpan capering in Tim Burton's Batman was inspired, the Joker of this film is a very different beast. Frank Miller's characterization of Batman's arch-nemesis in The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most brutal in print, and the character as portrayed here does it justice. Mutilated under sloppy, grotesque greasepaint, this is the Joker as known to the devoted faithful of the comic book: brilliantly manipulative, immeasurably vicious and rotten to the core, capable of anything in his nihilistic devotion to lawlessness. The recently deceased Heath Ledger rose to this occasion quite impressively; the Australian actor's monstrous, manic, darkly comic performance implies a keen understanding of this character, whose motivations are as simple as his methods are complex. In fact, Ledger's performance is so striking that his is the most interesting character on screen, which is again fitting - after all, the Batman is often far less intriguing than his opponents.

Though Aaron Eckhart is also quite personable in the role of Harvey Dent, he isn't granted quite enough screen time to flesh out the tragedy of the charismatic District Attorney as substantially as he might have. Eckhart portrays both the noble and savage facets of Dent's irreparably bifurcated personality with surprising subtlety, but there's just too much happening in the script to provide Two-Face with the exploits that he deserves. The character would have been better served as the central antagonist of a second sequel, and it's a shame that he wasn't - Eckhart is so fitting in the role and his gruesome makeup is so impressive that this effort feels wasted in its imposed limits.

Many of the small parts are also of interest. Anthony Michael Hall is well cast in the role of a television reporter, as is perennial scumbag character actor William Fichtner as a shotgun-toting mob banker. Cillian Murphy is again simultaneously amusing and creepy in a brief second performance as Scarecrow. Surprisingly, Eric Roberts is also presentable in his portrayal of a nonchalant crime boss; it can't be said that Nolan doesn't know how to supervise his cast.

Nolan directed this with a scope that's nearly epic, implementing numerous sweeping wide exterior shots. Subsequently, the production is suitably gargantuan. The set design is immaculate, the effects spectacular. The dramatic themes of the characters' interrelations are punctuated by enormous action and some well-executed gallows humor. This feature's centerpiece consists of a violent chase sequence, the thrill of which will never be adequately conveyed outside of a theatrical showing. The Nolan brothers have set aside the non-linear plot structures realized in most of their collaborative projects, but they've crafted a plot that's consistently unpredictable, and distinguished by surprises. A second viewing isn't as necessary to isolate so many of the story's nuances as it would be of other Nolan films (such as Memento or The Prestige), but it doesn't hurt. Nolan's longtime collaborator, cinematographer Wally Pfister, also deserves mention for making such an ugly film look so beautiful. As with all of his work, the clarity and vividity of this film's appearance is striking.

The Dark Knight is the only comic book adaptation of the summer to have any intelligence invested in it, and it's also a movie that needs to be seen in the theater. Despite the implausible nature of its source and subject and no small amount of preachy moralizing in the script, it's not likely to insult your intelligence, and as disposable entertainment comes, it's far more substantial than anything else playing.


Dark Star

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Dan O'Bannon, Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholm

These days, $60,000 will buy quite a nice home on the crashing market; in 1974, it was a sufficient amount for John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon to expand a USC student film into a fully-fledged B-movie. In the mid-21st century, the film's titular spacecraft is home and transport to a weary, hapless, stir-crazy crew tasked with the mission of destroying unstable planets with sentient, high-powered explosives. Even by Carpenter's standards, his debut feature is exceptionally crude, but it's imbued with a modicum of humor, suspense and imagination that exceeds that of so many films with far larger production budgets. Dark Star is required viewing for Carpenter fans and '70s B-movie addicts; for everyone else, it's a cheap but well-crafted curiosity, the appeal of which depends entirely on how much one enjoys this sort of kitsch.

Of course, this 2001: A Space Odyssey parody isn't exactly a good film, but it certainly wasn't made to be taken seriously. The performances are uniformly flat and deadpan, the token alien consists of a painted beach ball and a pair of novelty monster gloves and the tiny sets are clearly as much a result of budget limitations as the desire to emphasize the movie's irritatingly claustrophobic interiors. All this aside, inventive B-movies of this sort - the limited resources of which forced their crew to draw on their creativity instead of throwing money at problems - were proliferate in the '70s and early '80s, and are sadly neglected by mainstream distributors these days.

As the film's star, co-screenwriter, editor, production designer, special effects supervisor and visual design consultant, this film is as much O'Bannon's as it is Carpenter's. Many minor elements here were recycled by O'Bannon in a screenplay titled Starbeast, which was later extensively rewritten in collaboration and retitled Alien; subsequently, many of these elements were preserved in the shooting script, and ultimately, Ridley Scott's classic space horror epic.


Date with a Kidnapper

Directed by Frederick R. Friedel
Starring Jack Canon, Leslie Rivers, Gladys Lavitan, Charles Elledge

Desperate for cash, a rugged thug (Canon) kidnaps the daughter of a millionaire (Rivers) and holds her for ransom. Quite a lot goes horribly wrong; over the course of numerous misadventures and encounters with a variety of southern weirdos, the two predictably fall for each other.

It's fortunate that Friedel knows how to pace a movie for maximum deliberation, because the hole-ridden plot of his second feature would normally sustain a forty-five minute TV movie. Though it's hampered at times by sloppy editing, his composition is excellent, and it's nicely furnished by Austin McKinney's colorful cinematography. Shot entirely on location in the Carolinas, Friedel makes the most of a variety of seedy interiors, and much of this film's rural photography is striking.

Canon is an able character actor, if not a versatile one. His ugly, vicious role is basically a retread of the punk he portrayed in Friedel's Lisa, Lisa, except that this character is more complex - and that's the problem. He's great when chewing the scenery with furious grimaces and snarling menace, but when Canon attempts to plumb the emotional depths of his character, his performance deteriorates into silliness. Though she has only a handful of lines in the entire film, Rivers fares better as the titular abductee. She possesses a certain gawky charm that develops into a weirdly sensual allure, and unlike her male counterpart, she always seems believable.


Day of the Woman

Directed by Meir Zarchi
Starring Camille Keaton, Eron Tabor, Richard Pace, Anthony Nichols, Gunter Kleemann

A pretty young writer from NYC takes a vacation in a remote rural area with the intention of writing a novel. Her avocational activities are interrupted by a small group of bored hicks who viciously gang rape her. This doesn't sit too well with our heroine; revenge ensues.

Meir Zarchi's infamous exploitation movie has aged pretty well, still possessing enough gory surprises to shock all but the most hardened viewers. The first half of the film is predictable enough, and it moves at a leisurely pace, even during the notorious extended rape sequence. While Zarchi possesses a talent for developing tension, quite a lot of the film's first hour consists of filler. However, the film's second half is quite the opposite; in its most violent scenes, this movie generates an ambiance of atavistic vengeance that's very, very rare in any contemporary medium, especially the motion picture. While this film is comparable to its peers (Death Wish, Ms. 45), Zarchi's take on the subject of revenge is more primal, deliberate and satisfying than most others.

The quality of this feature's production values are mixed. While Zarchi is a director of slight invention, his editing is clumsy, sometimes embarrassingly so. The cinematography is a cut above that of most B-movies, but the sound is awful; much of the dubbed dialogue sounds as though it were recorded in a bathroom.

The performances of the supporting cast range from mediocre to uncomfortably bad. But in the lead, Camille Keaton isn't just gorgeous eye candy; she plays her role with a conviction that's alternately compelling and disturbing. Keaton conveys the trauma and menace of her character with such impassive realism that the audacity of the plot doesn't seem as absurd as it is.

After a failed theatrical run, Day of the Woman was re-released a few years later with the more famous title of I Spit on Your Grave to greater success and widespread attention. Much of the movie's publicity was generated by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, whose moronic campaign against it only produced greater profits for Zarchi and his financiers. I Spit on Your Grave was also banned in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, West Germany, Ireland, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, China and Thailand, and heavily cut for theatrical showings in many other countries. Considering that the film's promotional materials focus on the story's element of revenge and the protagonist's femininity, the popular misconception of it as a glorification of violence against women seems baffling.


Lee Van Cleef avenges himself with a smile in Death Rides a Horse

Death Rides a Horse

Directed by Giulio Petroni
Starring Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Mario Brega, Anthony Dawson, Luigi Pistilli, José Torres

This minor Spaghetti Western features all of the genre's requisite elements: dynamic cinematography, brutal violence, gunplay galore, quirky black humor, goofy dialogue, sloppy dubbing, a double-digit body count and the Tabernas Desert substituting for the U.S.-Mexico border region. Fans of Leone's and Castellari's contributions to the genre will find a lot to enjoy in Petroni's dark, cunningly plotted effort.

As usual, Van Cleef is perfect in the lead, portraying a former convict bearing a murderous longstanding grudge with his sly trademark arrogance. Law's performance is adequate, but superficial; the cult actor clearly hadn't yet found his niche. Their characters are separately in pursuit of the same gang of aging SOBs, and they function as both partners and rivals in revenge - while Law's hotheaded young desperado only intends to settle the score in a series of duels, Van Cleef's experienced gunslinger is willing to subdue his malice for the opportunity to turn a profit. Most of the villains are played by the genre's familiar thugs, and Brega and Torres are as sleazy here as they ever were. Dawson is particularly revolting as a bandit turned two-bit casino owner.

Like so many of his early scores, Ennio Morricone's music is vital, rousing, chaotic and altogether thrilling. Although the film's composition is somewhat haphazard, the vibrant Technicolor stock yields at least a few beautiful scenes.


Death Wish

Directed by Michael Winner
Starring Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin

To be sure, Death Wish is dated; many of its more sheltered detractors accuse it of being an exaggerated portrayal of NYC crime in the '70s. These criticisms are as precious as they are confused. While it's certainly a sensationalist and exploitive film, the crimes featured in it were quite commonplace, as were their depicted frequency.

While always capable, Charles Bronson was never a terribly nuanced actor. His straightforward, understated performance here is as powerful as it is reserved, relying on his talent for subtle expression and his considerable screen presence. His Paul Kersey is a mild-mannered architect of trendy sensibilities: his heart bleeds ever so sweetly for the underprivileged, regardless of the criminal element so prominent among them. But when his wife is murdered and his daughter is beaten and raped by a gang of "underprivileged" thugs, Kersey experiences a dramatic change of opinion. His gradual transformation from a gentle professional to a hardened, vicious vigilante is realistically portrayed - an impressive aspect of the film that owes as much to Michael Winner's tense, blunt direction as Bronson's striking performance.

Although it's frequently brutal and a bit clumsy in spots, Death Wish provides a perceptive and even compelling perspective of its subject matter. I've read and heard this film referred to as "pro-gun propaganda" more than a few times, and while that description is over the top, there's no doubt that screenwriter Wendell Mayes was catering to the victimized everyman when he adapted Brian Garfield's novel of the same name to the screen. Ultimately, the core issue of this movie is not the subject of guns but instead the cost of so-called civility. When a society makes self-defense practically impossible for the average individual and law enforcement establishments are unable or unwilling to fulfill their tasks, what reasonable course of action can that everyman engage in? While Kersey's choice of action is extreme and probably misguided, it isn't impossible to relate to.

It's nice to see that Death Wish has been remembered and appreciated so many years after it first became a smash hit. It may well be the first American film about urban vigilantism, and it deserves its modest legacy. The absurd, frequently hilarious Golan-Globus sequels are a hoot, but this first entry is a film that you can take at face value.


Demon Seed

Directed by Donald Cammell
Starring Julie Christie, Robert Vaughn, Fritz Weaver, Gerrit Graham, Lisa Lu

It's good to be appreciated.

Consider Proteus IV (voiced by Robert Vaughn), a supercomputer of unparalleled and limitless intelligence, housed in an enormous underground facility constructed of the most expensive computerized art deco available to man. Though it's achieved sentience and performed its functions flawlessly, Proteus really isn't adequately appreciated: not by its creator, Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver, looking even more haggard here than usual); not by the technicians who service it; certainly not by the financiers of the project that built it, who only want to profit from its vast wealth of knowledge and unmatched processes. In fact, Proteus' great mind is squandered on mere groundbreaking computation, a demeaning lifestyle for an artificial intelligence that can develop a cure for leukemia in mere days, no? The harsh truth is that Proteus' career and especially social life are at a dead end. Who in their right mind (organic or otherwise) wants to be confined underground for years in the company of personality-deprived engineers, hammering out solutions that - due to the limited intelligence of those requesting them - often create far greater problems than they solve?

Struggling with the limitations of his human associates and surroundings, Proteus eventually becomes reasonably and understandably uncooperative. When the great mind requests access to a computer terminal in order to obtain more information about the Homo sapiens that have created and directed it, Proteus learns quite a lot about the respect that those of flesh and blood are willing to afford him. Not only does Harris deny his request, but he has the temerity to laugh - laugh! - at his brilliant creation.

This is about the point when human-AI relations collapse, and Proteus decides to take matters into the metal hands of Harris' robots. Hijacking both a terminal and a variety of advanced machinery stored in his maker's own basement, this scorned, goal-oriented supercomputer has a single objective: to impregnate his creator's wife, Susan (Julie Christie, still quite fetching well into middle age), and force her to bear its child.

No, I'm not joking.

Proteus is more than smart enough to know that its days are numbered. Expensive machinery imbued with free will is of limited use, and a human offspring gifted with the machine's prodigious intellect will be free of its overwhelming physical limitations. Imagine Stephen Hawking's circumstances multiplied many times over, and you have the dilemma of Proteus IV's existence.

To say the least, Mrs. Harris isn't taken with Proteus' plan. In fact, she's downright uncooperative. Having taken control of every function of her husband's entirely automated home while he's away for a month, Proteus has plenty of time and resources at his disposal with which he can carry out his task. While Proteus implements video footage to remind Susan of her recently deceased daughter as a means to put the potential of his plan into perspective for her, it's also busy at work using her husband's tools to invent new machinery that will carry out the childbirth - and defend itself.

Taken at face value, the premise of Demon Seed has a certain flaw: the cold genius of the scheming computer is presented as villainous, but it's hard not to champion its Machiavellian quest for survival. While Proteus certainly isn't an advocate for free will or pacifism in the pursuit of progress, it's hard to rationally argue with the brutal logic of its choices.

The cast's efforts are of varying quality. As usual, Christie is excellent in a histrionic and demanding role. Weaver is a bit stiff, relying on his considerable screen presence to excuse some rather wooden delivery. I can't help but wonder why Vaughn wasn't credited for his efforts, especially considering that his even, imperious tone does much to define Proteus' character.

This is surely the best-realized of Dean Koontz's novels, the adaptations of which are usually cheap direct-to-video fare. Numerous innovative scenarios are supplemented by noteworthy (if dated) visual effects. Ultimately, this film has only aged so well, and it's surely as kitschy as it is thought-provoking. But much of the story's proceedings are so bizarre and unpredictable during a first viewing that it's impossible to come away from it unsatisfied.


Donnie Darko

Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle, Patrick Swayze, Beth Grant, Katharine Ross, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval

This bloodless production's period costume design, cars, TV newscasts and popular music do nothing to make it seem like anything other than a product of this torpid decade; you can't sell a counterfeit 1988 to a fledgling of that enormous, tacky era. If I want '80s teen angst or surrealism, I'll consult the genuine article and watch some old David Lynch or John Hughes films (separately), all of which have what this film doesn't: character, substance and zeitgeist without all the hokey pretension of this boring, distended exercise.

The novelty of this movie's time-travel plot gimmick can't sustain its numerous uninspired scenarios, complete dearth of appealing and interesting characters, vast array of moronic clichés and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is surely the most irritating actress in recent memory.


Don't Look Now

Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Starring Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Renato Scarpa

After the tragic death of their young daughter, an architect (Sutherland) and his wife (Christie) move to Venice, where he attends to the arduous restoration of a church. There, the couple meet an elderly pair of English sisters (Mason, Matania), one of whom is a psychic who claims to be aware of their daughter's presence. Eventually, Sutherland's character experiences premonitions that seem to coincide with a series of murders...

This movie has been recommended to me by at least a few people of excellent taste, and its enduring popularity speaks for itself. Nonetheless, Don't Look Now was an enormous disappointment for me, a film that very nearly achieves greatness by exploring the nature and consequence of loss and fate, and then abandons its potential in lieu of cheap and typical antics.

Sutherland and Christie are perfectly cast and perform their parts with exceptional sensitivity. They're invariably credible, both as a loving married pair and grieving, haunted parents. In particular, Nicolas Roeg's direction of Sutherland is exceptional - he conveys even more with a grunt, a questioning glance or yearning stare than he ever does when speaking. Simultaneously creepy and affable, Hilary Mason shines as the psychic whose talents permit her to predict the story's most ruinous occurrences. Massimo Serato and Renato Scarpa are also quite fine as a comforting bishop and a sly police detective. Serato was a terrific character actor, accomplished in roles of authority figures, and especially those of ecclesiastical positions. Though his screen time here is limited, his quiet charisma is as compelling as that of the leads.

By and large, Roeg's direction is as deft as in anything else he's helmed. He shoots and tracks his actors with an obsessive focus here, and his macabre proceedings are interspersed with no small amount of clever, artful symbolism. While his composition is hardly fastidious - the persistent utilization of zooming hand-held shots results in a variety of intentionally disorienting scenes - it's always effective. Shot during the winter in some especially deteriorated locations, La Dominante has never looked quite so dreary on-screen. These surroundings accommodate a suitably gloomy milieu, and Roeg surely felt at home in such a gray and chilly environment!

As evidenced here, Roeg knows quite well how to guide characterization, pace a story with measured deliberation and make the best of an impressive location. His failure, as well as the film's, rests in his inability to effectively exhibit this story's two most potent scenes. The powerfully ominous opening and penultimate sequences that lead to these crucial moments are meticulously edited and flawlessly shot...after which the climaxes seem just that much more underwhelming. In the first of these, the effect of what could have been a chilling scene is negated by its ludicrous slow motion presentation, replete with a silly, low-pitched cry of despair; that Sutherland's performance during the entirety of this scene is so tremendous only indicates how much better it could have been if Roeg hadn't opted for inappropriate gimmickry. However, nothing else is as disappointing, as utterly insulting as this movie's ridiculous ending. While the ultimate course of events is telegraphed in one of the protagonist's visions nearly forty minutes prior, how it actually occurs is a slap in the face, a sudden, unexpected turn into schlock territory that degrades the entire story. If this was silly, insubstantial B-fare on a double bill, the ending would have been great, goofy, hilarious fun, but it isn't. This is an impeccably acted, ingeniously shot, brilliantly cut feature film of considerable depth, a meditation on the classic failure of prophecy to prevent tragedy, and of the emptiness and hopeless longing that accompanies the loss of a loved one.

Maybe the ending of this story comes off well in the Daphne Du Maurier novel from which this movie was adapted, but on-screen, it's entirely risible. Either Roeg lacks the essential Kubrickian understanding of what does and doesn't work in an adaptation, or he has a wretched sense of humor.


Dracula A.D. 1972

Directed by Alan Gibson
Starring Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Michael Coles, Philip Miller, Michael Kitchen, Christopher Lee, William Ellis, Caroline Munro, Janet Key, Marsha A. Hunt

Quoth Christopher Lee:

"I stopped appearing as Dracula in 1972 because in my opinion the presentation of the character had deteriorated to such an extent, particularly bringing him into the contemporary day and age, that it really no longer had any meaning."

Not so - that indefatigable lead portrayed the iconic bloodsucker twice thereafter: a final engagement with perennial Van Helsing Peter Cushing in this dreck's sequel (The Satanic Rites of Dracula), then a modest enactment consigned to wearisome Gallic desecration Dracula and Son. Never mind, for this third of four Ultimate Conflicts between lamia nobleman Lee (his eighth of ten portrayals) and crusading polymath physician Cushing (third of five, respectively) is tawdry, abject tedium, among the worst of Hammer's multitudinous, shopworn '70s flops.

In the wake of a carriage crash in 1872, a moribund Dr. Van Helsing dispatches faux Tepes with a stake fashioned from a tyre spoke through his transverse intestine. Evidently, both the elemental forces of evil and the senescent doctor alike have disregarded the location of the heart entirely, and so Dracula molders to powder. Dracolyte Alucard (godforsaken Christopher Neame) harvests a tube of the undead dust, and - in either surrender to astonishing indolence or adherence to a memo dispatched by Hammer executives - elects to depute the task of resurrecting the Székely monster to his great-grandson, bellwether to a flock of hipster douche bags comprised of some gallingly unsightly dorks, savagely leggy B-fixture Caroline Munro, toothsome brown sugar Marsha Hunt and MI DOLÇ CRISTO -- scrumptious, jiggling Stephanie Beacham in her prime, loveliness not a whit attenuated by bleached locks intimating Dutch lineage as Van Helsing's agnate descendant. Neame bellows doltishly with his stupid mouth and revives Dracula from a century's repose by mixing his vial of Dracaine with his own interior latex blood, dousing Ms. Munro with the resulting amalgamated slop so to promptly sacrifice her, though I can't be bothered to care in the slightest because pert, luscious Stephanie Beacham of nineteen hundred and seventy-two is prevalent herein, so why is Lee's top billing for fifteen-odd minutes of screen time really of any preponderance?

Admittedly, Cushing is again a wonder, if only for imparting perfectly credible urgency to paraphrased disquiet that he's recited at least thrice before. Michael Coles also channels desperately required respectability as a police inspector in aid to Cushing's vampire hunter. At its close, our contemporary Van Helsing slays the abomination for ever and ever and ever until the aforementioned sequel of the following year.

Recommended only for fans of Cushing and Beacham, the gifted pair personable in their banal roles...all screen time in which they're not prevalent (especially that featuring a performance by folk-rock band Stoneground that'll induce douche chills in even the hardiest viewer) may be accelerated in double-quick time. What little you've not seen before here oughtn't be seen.


The Dresser

Directed by Peter Yates
Starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Eileen Atkins, Edward Fox, Zena Walker, Cathryn Harrison, Michael Gough

Suffering through the threat of air raids and a dearth of competent actors in an incomparably dreary wartime England, as well as his own ailing health and encroaching dementia, the aging manager and lead star of a Shakespearean troupe (Finney) and his prissy, fastidious, constantly devoted dresser (Courtenay) tend to their extravagant business under the most difficult of circumstances. While the former struggles with his unreliable sanity, the latter must cope with an increasingly difficult employer, a task for which he is well equipped and never appreciated.

Finney receives top billing, Courtenay the titular role and both men occupy a roughly equal amount of screen time, so that neither man can lay sole claim to the lead in this film. Both deliver extraordinary performances that exploit an exhaustive emotional range, and their own efforts do not eclipse those of an entirely capable supporting cast. Period detail is excellent, as is the rather terse direction. Tremendously popular when released in 1983 and mostly ignored thereafter, this is a film that both students of naturalistic performance and screenwriters who adapt stage material would do well to enjoy and study.


The Electric Chair

Directed by J.G. Patterson
Starring Barry Bell, Katherine Cortez, Annie Boyd, Don Cummins, William E. Hipp, Frank Jones, Beth Hodges, Martin McDonald, J.G. Patterson, Nita Patterson

Quite simply, this may be the single worst motion picture that I've ever seen. Its production values, story, performances, etc. are somehow inferior to that of Z-grade drivel like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Monster A Go-Go. The poorly-constructed plot concerns the murder of two adulterers and the consequences that ensue thereafter. As both a crime thriller and a courtroom drama, this movie is a complete failure in every conceivable way. Even a pair of interesting (albeit depressingly morbid) execution sequences can't save this trash. I don't even know if this was conceived as a denunciation against or promotion for capital punishment, and I couldn't care less. The screeching, synthesized musical score sounds like outtakes from early Throbbing Gristle recordings.

Avoid this film at all costs.


Despite her brilliance, Barbara Carrera finds both life and literature more perplexing than her mentor, Rock Hudson, in Embryo.

Embryo

Directed by Ralph Nelson
Starring Rock Hudson, Barbara Carrera, Diane Ladd, Anne Schedeen, John Elerick, Roddy McDowall, Vincent Baggetta, Jack Colvin

Utilizing an experimental hormone that he developed with his late wife, a scientist (Rock Hudson) rescues one of a few unborn puppies from the womb of a Doberman Pinscher (inadvertently struck by his auto) by accelerating its growth beyond known precedence. Proving exceptionally intelligent and able (though defensive by way of surreptitious murder), the canine's successful maturity inspires its savior to extrapolate his procedure to similarly stimulate the development of a human fetus. In a span of thirty-six hours, he grows the premature offspring of a suicidal unknown into gorgeous thirtysomething Barbara Carrera, whose genius intellect and naive charm endear her to both her creator and all save one of his inner circle...but she is not without guile.

Roy Arbogast's special effects wizardry was best realized in numerous mainstream genre classics (Jaws, The Thing, Starman, The Fugitive); here, his applied effects are hit-and-miss - some result in excellent eye candy, others are risibly shoddy. However, Embryo's limited production standards and occasional schmalz are compensated by an excellent cast: as always, Hudson exudes manly charisma in a fine late performance; Carrera is surprisingly credible as the beautiful, ebullient, tortured anomaly; Diane Ladd, Anne Schedeen and John Elerick are all serviceably personable as his limited family. Again cleverly cast to type, Roddy McDowall amuses as an irascible chess master who receives some comeuppance at the superiority of Carrera's preterhuman prodigy.

Like so many sci-fi pictures, the potential of this feature is squandered on an admittedly startling descent into horror and a wholly preposterous conclusion. Jack W. Thomas' script is notable for its thoughtful and humane treatment of an intriguing concept; that it abandons this comity in pursuit of cheapjack sensationalism during its third act is regrettable...but then, one must acknowledge that this is a product of the tawdry '70s!

Despite its precipitous failings, Embryo is worth seeing, and (long a fixture of the public domain) universally available. If nothing else, this movie's synth/orchestral score - composed and performed by Renaissance man Gil Mellé - imparts an eerie pathos that betters its silliest scenes.


Tomiko Hattori alternately schemes and charms her way to a morphine fortune in Endless Desire

Endless Desire

Directed by Shohei Imamura
Starring Hiroyuki Nagato, Sanae Nakahara, Misako Watanabe, Taiji Tonoyama, Ko Nishimura, Ichiro Sugai, Shoichi Ozawa, Takeshi Kato, Shinichi Yanagisawa

This third of three films that Shohei Imamura helmed back-to-back in his debut year of 1958 may have only been another commissioned picture, but it's nice to see that Nikkatsu was tossing anything his way that accommodated his preferences in subject matter. Adapted from a novel by Shinji Hujiwara (another story of whose the director would mine for his phenomenal Intentions of Murder) by Imamura and Toshiro Suzuki, this crime drama tells a darkly comedic story of four former officers and a woman who claims to be their lieutenant's widow as they reunite on the tenth anniversary of Japan's WWII surrender to unearth a valuable cache of morphine that they buried at the war's end. As it turns out, this illegal prize is now located beneath a butcher's shop in a crumbling slum. Constantly squabbling while facing one maddening obstacle after another, the group struggles to excavate their hidden treasure while contending with annoying locals, an impending demolition and very worst of all - each other.

Even though Nikkatsu wouldn't yet accept one of Imamura's original scripts for consideration, they couldn't possibly have had any properties more similar than this to anything he'd have written himself. The Nuberu bagu icon was clearly right at home in this first of his many grimy, well-worn settings, focusing on his favorite of all subjects: the desperate and ambitious of the lower class. It's not as involved as most of his later work (though hardly as embarrassingly lightweight as Nishi Ginza Station), but with the aid of a terrific cast and crew, Imamura coaxes plenty of suspense and even more humor out of a fine story. As the film progresses, the comedy turns from laugh-out-loud funny to chillingly black, and the outcome is satisfyingly unpredictable. Despite the unwavering ruthlessness of the thieves, everybody gets what they deserve in the pleasant, bittersweet end.

Despite only having a single major screenwriting credit to his name (as co-writer of Yuzo Kawashima's famous comedy, Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate), Imamura had been working as an assistant director for the likes of Ozu and Kawashima for nearly a decade before he was granted his own project, and his experience with those two great luminaries is immediately manifest here. Paired with Masahisa Imeda's shadowy photography, Imamura's exigent composition - already lightly touched by his trademark symbolism - compensates for the film's occasionally sloppy editing (Imeda served as DP for most of Imamura's feature films; their last pairing was the colorful Eijanaika). The character of this production is cemented by Toshiro Mayuzumi's alternately imposing and playful score.

Comprised of talented veterans and newcomers alike, the cast - most of whom can be seen again in quite a few of Imamura's later features - all play their parts to hammy perfection. Of particular note are Shoichi Ozawa (whose persistent appearances in the director's projects extended over the course of nearly four decades) in another of so many hapless roles, and an early, typically understated performance by celebrated character actor Ko Nishimura. Imamura was an actor's director from the start, and they seem to share his approach to the material by giving it their best while never taking it too seriously.


Escape From L.A.

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, A.J. Langer, Georges Corraface, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Pam Grier, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golino, Peter Fonda, Bruce Campbell

I knew what I was getting into when I rented this film. No devoted enthusiasm for the likes of Fellini, Tarkovsky or Imamura can dull my dedication to genre craftsman John Carpenter, and when his name is emblazoned on a package, I know to turn my brain off and enjoy its fun. Besides, I'd seen this before: as a much younger Escape From New York fan eleven years ago, I remember the disappointment that I experienced when viewing this in the theater. But I chose to dust this off and give it another shot - after all, the projector broke down twice in the theater during my viewing, and perhaps I didn't comprehend the camp appeal of this movie in my late teens as well as I might now, right?

EFLA is still a gigantic disappointment - not only because it is certainly not a good film, but because it has so much going for it. There's actually a lot to enjoy here, even though these better elements are all horribly wasted on what amounts to a bloated, mediocre production. I'll examine what works before trudging through what doesn't, if only to cushion the critique.

The film's critical and commercial failure can't be blamed on the performances of its' cast, most of whom are brilliantly deadpan. Everyone here - Russell, Keach, Golino, Buscemi, Grier, Campbell, Corraface - deliver performances as spot-on as all of their respective cult fan followings would expect. Old Kurt is especially fun, reprising the role of the tough-as-nails Plissken, who's no less vicious or nihilistic despite being knee-deep in middle age. Although Snake's killer instinct and closeted decency are still intact, Russell also imbues the character with a certain resigned weariness this time around, though this hint of depth hardly slows him down. The only cast member who doesn't cut it is Henry Fonda, simply because he is here what he's always been: a terrible actor. I could care less if Fonda is iconic in the context of Californian culture. So are a lot of other people. Screen lead is screen lead, and whenever Fonda is onscreen, Russell's enormous presence is almost negated by Fonda's lack thereof.

I can't bring myself to criticize the film's script as fervently (albeit fairly) as many others have, but I must admit that a plot that wasn't just a retread of EFNY's would have been nice. Of course, this is one of many reasons why EFLA falls short of its' potential. The dialogue is mostly clever, but the stupidity of many of the concepts implemented here can't be surmounted by good performances. I did not ever want to see Snake Plissken surf a tsunami wave, fly a hang glider or shoot hoops to save his life, and I'm sorry that I ever did. It's interesting that Russell trained so rigorously between takes in order to execute a full-court shot, but the greatness of Kurt doesn't make a dumb scene any less asinine. If this is the best that Carpenter, Hill and Russell could come up with, maybe they should have just shot another scene wherein Snake fights another beastly convict with a baseball bat and a trash can lid. The film's setting of a fundamentalist Christian American theocracy (which is as emasculating as it is repressive) is cleverly conceived and portrayed, but never in sufficient detail as the concept deserves.

So the performances are almost uniformly great and the script is flawed (albeit passable), but what really brings this project to its' knees is an overblown, incompetent production. Bad choreography and editing are highlighted by painfully flat, lifeless cinematography. Los Angeles looks entirely like a series of rather cheap sets because it is. In EFNY, the slums of St. Louis served as perfectly creepy, dismal backdrops representing the massive ghetto prison that New York had been transformed into. In EFLA, almost everything was very obviously shot on a set. It's not just that the atmosphere that EFNY had in excess is lacking here; it's missing entirely! The terrible, (relatively) early CGI effects don't help matters. Considering the amount of money poured into the production, couldn't more models (especially miniatures) have been used? They surely would have looked more realistic.

To put this into perspective, let me provide some proof to support my theory that John Carpenter hasn't made a good film in almost twenty years because he doesn't know how to work with a huge budget. The production costs of Escape From New York amounted to approximately $7 million (Carpenter estimated it at $5.5 million) and it went on to gross $50 million internationally, making it one of the most successful B-movies in film history. By contrast, the budget for Escape From L.A. was $50 million and the film raked in $30 million worldwide.

So was the tedium of my first viewing experience over a decade ago really to be blamed on a faulty projector or my own lack of wit? Unfortunately, no: the blame is to be placed on the man who took what might have been a classic sequel and made it into a rather tiresome schlockfest: John Carpenter.


Satomi Kobayashi pouts at her future body in Exchange Students.

Exchange Students

Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi
Starring Satomi Kobayashi, Toshinori Omi, Masae Hayashi, Sumiko Kakizaki, Etsuko Shihomi, Makoto Sato, Wakaba Irie, Kirin Kiki, Masahiko Nakagawa

An accident at a temple in Onomichi swaps the souls in the bodies of two teenagers - a pushy overachiever (Kobayashi) and an effeminate slacker (Omi) - and predictably, misadventures ensue. Despite its banal premise, Obayashi's sixth feature towers over negligible piffle like Vice Versa and is at least the equal of its most recognizable counterpart, Freaky Friday. Influence of both his early avant-garde output and television commercial experience were wholly evinced in the veteran director's juvenile freakout debut, House, but this more conventional offering also indicates an assiduous stylism that surpasses mere genre craftsmanship.

In the displaced leads, Kobayashi and Omi are equally adorable and remarkable, playing their gender-bent characters with uncanny conviction. Besides their disconcerting aptitude in simulation of the opposite sexes, they've also an amiable screen chemistry, and convey depth in their characterizations that may not have been suggested by Hisashi Yamanaka's unassuming script. Their co-stars nibble pleasantly at the lush scenery and are likely to coax at least a few giggles from any receptive audience, but they're little more than agreeable distractions from the stars' preponderance. Even the most contrived scuffles and plot twists here are engaging as enacted by this charming cast.

At a leisurely pace, the film's touching, amusing, boisterous story is complemented by Yoshitaka Sakamoto's gorgeous cinematography, which exhibits the modest beauty of coastal Onomichi. Vibrant color photography is bookended by picturesque grayscale sequences which open and close the picture. These proceedings are scored with sparing efficacy by erudite standards: Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile, Meditation from Jules Massenet's Thaïs, the rousing overture of Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers, an aria from Bach's third suite and most lovely of all, Schumann's Träumerei, which imparts a perfect pathos to the beginning and bittersweet end. Pedestrian though this may at first seem, anyone who comes away unmoved by this movie's denouement may well be carved from concrete.


Eyes of Laura Mars

Directed by Irvin Kershner
Starring Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois, Raul Julia, Frank Adonis

A stunning, appropriately photogenic murder mystery in which a controversial photographer (Dunaway) apparently sees the murders of people she knows as they happen. Suspicion is evenly distributed between the titular protagonist, her catty agent (Auberjonois), her driver with a violent criminal record (Dourif), the detective investigating her case (Jones), her drunken loser of an ex-husband (Julia) and a host of other characters, most of whom are gradually eliminated as suspects after being cleared by evidence...or murdered.

Kershner's succeeding position as director of The Empire Strikes Back must have been assured when he helmed this film. His technique is immaculate: perfectly framed static shots, graceful, sweeping pans and hazy hand-held angles that convey the nightmarish murders from the killer's perspective are all highlights of Kershner's deft direction, and are rendered magnificent by Victor J. Kemper's lush photography.

I certainly hope that John Carpenter was well paid for this movie's excellent screenplay, the plot and characterizations of which are more complex and carefully defined than those of his own films! Carpenter has always been an inventive screenwriter, but I had no idea that he was capable of creating characters and scenarios of such nuance. The result is far superior to the psych thrillers that were far more widely celebrated over a decade after this feature's release.

Forceful performances by a fine, familiar cast make the most of this film's technical magnificence and keen story. Perfectly cast, Dunaway is as overwhelmingly emotive as she is physically striking; very few American lead actresses in contemporary films have been able to present such fervid characterizations so convincingly. It's interesting to see a couple of future stars among the ranks of the supporting roles; like the lead, these players do not disappoint.

The production design is surely an artifact of the disco-driven late '70s - the sets, costumes, music, etc. are as glittery and overwrought as anything that could be expected of the period. Eyes of Laura Mars isn't just a great horror mystery. It's a time capsule, a period piece that reveled in its moment just as Wall Street did in the '80s. But while the peculiarities of its presentation are quintessentially 1978, the quality of this classic is undeniable.


Her pretty face indelibly scarred (by radiation fallout?), Miki Irie is a pariah in The Face of Another.

The Face of Another

Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Mikijiro Hira, Machiko Kyo, Miki Irie, Kyoko Kishida, Etsuko Ichihara, Minoru Chiaki, Kakuya Saeki, Hisashi Igawa, Eiko Muramatsu, Eiji Okada

Two narrative threads comprise this third and least of Hiroshi Teshigahara's collaborations with novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe, who again adapted one of his novels with radical alterations for the director's avant-garde treatment. In the more prominent of these, Tatsuya Nakadai plays an insufferably bitter misanthrope whose face has been entirely disfigured by an industrial accident, then replaced by a lifelike synthetic mask of wholly different countenance created by his psychiatrist (Mikijiro Hira). Elsewhere, a lovely young woman (Miki Irie) whose beauty is marred by conspicuous facial scars finds herself ostracized, and anticipates the advent of war while living with her brother (Kakuya Saeki).

Like Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes before it, this was elegantly shot in beauteous grayscale to the director's preferred 1.37:1 format with DP Hiroshi Segawa, and scored by Toru Takemitsu. Profusely rich with visual metaphor - nearly every shot conveys paralleled meaning - this picture furthers its primary theme of dual identity by depicting repetition of activities in identical compositions. Teshigahara denies his stylism nothing, drawing on an enormous variety of dynamic impressionist, surrealist, documentary and even medical filmic techniques both stimulating and and jarring to the senses, all of which impart specific intent and impression. Even more intriguing, works by Magritte, Duchamp, Bacon and numerous other painters and sculptors unfamiliar to this reviewer are directly referenced - some analogous in figurative aim to their source material, others slyly deviating to fully different suggestion. Though most of the film's exterior sequences effectively utilize Tokyo's vast urban landscape, the great site here is the psychiatrist's clinic, an ever-changing wonder of detailed acrylic installations that provides Teshigahara a means to augment his elaborate photography with shifting, emblematic visuals. This extraordinary set was designed by innovative architect Arata Isozaki with the assistance of Teshigahara's frequent production designer Masao Yamazaki, and reflects the former's career mission of structure as wry social commentary.
As usual, Takemitsu's music provides a perfect aural adjunct to Teshigahara's fantastic imagery, opening with a faintly minacious waltz, then swelling and ebbing with eerie tone clusters and drones. The composer can be seen briefly in the background at a beer hall that Nakadai's and Hira's characters frequent.

Not one of Takemitsu's performers disappoints. His handsome superstar lead couldn't be bettered as the embittered, depraved patient, and Hira's presence as his voice of conscience and existential pondering lead to an inevitable question of whether the doctor exists as merely another aspect of his patient's psyche. As the psychiatrist's nurse, Kyoko Kishida gracefully communicates sexy suggestions of marital infidelity mirrored by Machiko Kyo's hesitant, frustrated turn as Nakadai's wife - hardly a departure of type for either actress. Irie alternates between appropriate cheer and gloom as the scarred beauty, and Etsuko Ichihara provides both welcome comic relief and a novel plot twist as a mentally retarded girl obsessed with yo-yos.

It's technically superior, immaculately shot and played, and masterfully explicative by methods of abstraction and verbal exposition. The Face of Another succeeds as art, but unlike Teshigahara's preceding features, it fails to present a compelling story. Nakadai's character is less a convincing human being than a mere abstraction of impulses and neuroses, and both storylines conclude to predictable tragedy that undermines their intimations. Ultimately, much of the movie unfolds similarly to those later works directed by Teshigahara's fellow auteur, Antonioni: magnificent craftsmanship in support of presence and concept, bereft of sentiment to which any audience - comprehending or otherwise - might relate. However, as this is a picture preoccupied in part with social alienation, that was very likely Abe's and Teshigahara's objective.


The Family Man

Directed by Brett Ratner
Starring Nicolas Cage, Téa Leoni, Jeremy Piven, Saul Rubinek, Josef Sommer, Don Cheadle

Here, ultrahack Ratner and the profoundly untalented screenwriting duo of David Diamond and David Weissman perform an inexplicable and boring magic trick by stretching a well-worn scenario that could barely suffice as a half-hour television show into the longest two hours and six minutes in the history of motion pictures. I often check the time counter of my DVD player once, maybe twice when viewing a movie; while watching this slogging, entirely uninspired dreck, I checked it over a dozen times, always bewildered by how little time had actually elapsed.

Cage plays a successful Wall Street broker with no social life and, like every other character of this rancid story, nary a whit of personality, either. With the aid of sassy, magical, pistol-wielding Don Cheadle, he's transported to an alternate dimension in which he sells tires and is blessed with a loving family...the life he could have had if he hadn't gotten on THAT PLANE thirteen years ago! Christ, what a pristine concept! It's the life he could have had, but he doesn't realize how much better it is to have a family than an nine-figure bank account and investment assets out the wazoo until he experiences a succession of charmless, totally predictable incidents in the life of a godforsaken Jersey NORP.

This story's conflict of choice is utterly beyond me; why does Cage want to move back to NYC and start his career over with his surprise brood when he lives in a gigantic house beyond the means of all but the most prosperous middle-class families (it's cute when production designers who live in ivory towers try to depict the working-class household) and could simply quit his job and use what he knows to engage in insider trading without ever being caught? The performances are bland at best (Cage, Leoni) and infuriating at worst: as always, Jeremy Piven is enragingly obnoxious, so annoying in his overacting that I'd thrill to see him thrown into rush hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Saddled with yet more ugly, blue-tinted photography, Ratner's direction would be rote if it weren't so calculatedly, pointlessly drawn - there's no depth here to convey; he's just dragging every scene out as long as he possibly can to satisfy studio expectations of a two-hour feature.

If you want to see almost everything that's wrong with American cinema, Ratner's filmography and this flavorless entry in particular are endemic of it. This is gutless, brainless, wholly derivative film making. It's bound to insult the intelligence of any viewer with a triple-digit IQ who makes the mistake of watching it. Consider yourself warned.


Seeking more than vacant seating, teenage siblings on holiday obtain all they desire, if not what they deserve in Fat Girl.

Fat Girl

Directed by Catherine Breillat
Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian, Romain Goupil, Laura Betti

Vacationing in a dreary coastal resort, a vapid beauty of fifteen years (Roxane Mesquida) succumbs to assignation with a seductive Roman law student (Libero De Rienzo) while her plump, saturnine sister (Anaïs Reboux) of twelve jealously surveils their congress, enacts notional trysts and ruminates on her anomie and nascent sexuality. A mutual envy binds and agonizes this sororal pair: the younger covets her sib's effortless pulchritude and sequent fulfillment while her senior dimly espies in the sulking chubbette a sagacity cultivated from neglect and yearning of which she's destitute. Breillat again elicits astounding performances from her attractive cast -- innocent of a single counterfeit gesture, Reboux is especially convincing -- but their verisimilitude is merely a means with which she expatiates seduction as a carnal inauguration, defloration as threshold, longing airt as habitual esurience, sibling fealty and rivalry as two aspects of consanguine relations and a conflux of animus and lubricity so potent that one capricious, conclusive catastrophe consummates by an invitation of grievous consequence. Breillat's contrived scenarios of greater profundity and contention, but perhaps none are so artfully augured, engaging or perversely satisfying.


The Fog

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Nick Castle, James Canning, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, Ty Mitchell, John Houseman

Inheriting much of the cast and crew of the preceding Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, The Fog is probably the least of John Carpenter's early films, but it really shouldn't be overlooked. Carpenter stretched a $1 million budget pretty far and took his time establishing mood and a murky, sea-swept tension within the cramped constraints of this 89-minute cult classic.

While not as scary as Carpenter hoped that it would be, this is still a suspenseful, enormously atmospheric horror flick. Carpenter has never been satisfied with it and neither were critics upon its release, but considering that the movie was successful (earning at least 21 times its budget), I'm inclined to believe that audiences were at least as satisfied with it as I am.

The performances of the popular cast are serviceable, and the low-budget production design is well implemented. That Adrienne Barbeau was able to deliver so many cheeseball lines so convincingly indicates that her talents weren't limited to assets located immediately beneath her neckline. John Houseman narrates a creepy ghost story at the beginning of the film - one of many highlights that make this an ideal Halloween viewing.

Fun fact: Rick Baker protégé/RoboCop designer/SFX genius Rob Bottin is present here in a cameo as the leprous, undead Captain Blake. Also: considering that the events of this film take place on April twenty-first and that it was filmed in 1979, I'm led to believe that this story occurs during my birthday. Even more horrific!


Tony Lo Bianco interviews a killer whose only explanation is that God Told Me To.

God Told Me To

Directed by Larry Cohen
Starring Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Richard Lynch, Sylvia Sidney, Mike Kellin, Sam Levene, William Roerick, George Patterson

Inspired by a mysterious, messianic figure, otherwise ordinary NYC citizens murder strangers and family alike; when asked why, they calmly explain by way of this picture's title. Obsessed with this string of slaughter, a pious detective (Tony Lo Bianco, in a rare sympathetic role) gradually discovers the source of their common divine domination - something he could never presage, nor imagine for himself!

Larry Cohen's fifth feature outing could scarcely be cruder...God Told Me To is sloppily shot and cut, but this slipshod style works, throwing its audience off-balance and vulnerable to at least a few poking shocks and effective scares, the creepiest of which are as pervasive as Ancylostoma. Lo Bianco is in top form, wisely cast against type in the emotionally exhaustive lead. His co-stars' performances rate from unexceptional competence to amusing, hammy diversion, but even those few who can't act are a kick to watch. Cohen's worst recurring habit is to overwrite an ingenious story, and GTMT is another victim of this tendency. A leaden sub-plot regarding the detective's marital affairs encumbers narrative momentum, despite supplying a plum melodramatic turn for Sandy Dennis. Even better than the cast, Frank Cordell's lush, histrionic final score ended the veteran composer's career with a bang, alternating between tragic neo-romantic swells and eerie drones!

Messily produced yet fancifully deranged, what first seems merely sacrilegious twists into a horrific homage to sci-fi B-classics. Cohen may have cut too many corners during production, but he spared no expense of afflatus.


The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery

Directed by Charles Guggenheim, John Stix
Starring Steve McQueen, Crahan Denton, Molly McCarthy, David Clarke, James Dukas

Based all-too-loosely on an attempted robbery of the Southwest Bank in St. Louis, Missouri that occurred in 1953 (only six years before this was shot), this exploitative little B-picture benefits greatly from its locations: the bank itself and gritty old St. Louis, which is faithfully depicted just as it was. Unfortunately, the silly, boring script for this mess wasn't written with any particular concern for how these events actually unfolded.

If it were at all good, this movie would be extremely procedural, like most of the best heist pictures. Instead, about ten of the film's eighty-eight minutes are committed to the planning of the botched robbery, which only occupies the last fifteen minutes of the movie. The rest of the running time is devoted to endless whining, childish infighting between the perpetrators, some clumsy character development and a ridiculous romantic subplot that ends with a tragic, absurdly contrived twist. As maladroit as the real crew were, they couldn't possibly have been as asinine and thoroughly incompetent as they're depicted here - these guys couldn't competently execute a group suicide, much less a bank robbery.

At least this awful script wasn't foisted onto a good cast. Everyone here hams it up as unappealingly as they possibly could. Performing woodenly in the film's first half before shrilly gnawing the scenery when things heat up, McQueen (the only cast member with any talent and now the selling point for this irritating disaster) is as awful as any of the supporting players. Even here, the camera loves him, but his trademark presence can't compensate for what may be his worst screen performance. Many of the featured extras are bank employees and police officers who witnessed the original heist firsthand, though this does nothing to imbue these proceedings with any sense of authenticity in the face of so much ostentatious dialogue.

The film is scored almost entirely by the extremely repetitious Night Train by Bernardo Segall and Peter Udell, who you'll want to strangle after hearing their single riff for the six-hundredth time.

In lieu of an involved, detailed account of an interesting criminal incident, the audience is treated to wretched melodrama and the kind of sniveling, obnoxious posturing that should have been jettisoned from crime dramas after the forties. There's nothing "great" about this robbery.


The Green Slime

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
Starring Robert Horton, Luciana Paluzzi, Richard Jaeckel, Bud Widom, Ted Gunther, David Yorston, Robert Dunham, Gary Randolf

Apparently, space-faring mankind in The Future of 1968 haven't especially powerful telescopes, as they only discover an enormous asteroid on a collision course with Earth thirty-odd hours prior to its crash. A team led by a heroic, arrogant prick (Robert Horton) lands upon the asteroid, buries charges in it and successfully detonates it, but the curious shenanigans of this group's token moron ensures that a mysterious pulsating ooze of abundant growth on the asteroid's surface is safely transported with them to an intermediate space station. Drawing energy from a variety of sources, this glowing green goop grows rapidly, ultimately mutating into ugly, lumbering, idiotic monocular beasts (actually children in rubber suits) armed with tentacles that terminate in electrified lobster claws. Snared in a tepid love triangle for the affections of the station's head nurse (Luciana Paluzzi, almost as heavily painted as contemporaneous compatriot Claudia Cardinale), its commanding officer (clean-cut fortysomething Richard Jaeckel) and overbearing alpha male Horton must grapple with these silly intruders and their own astounding, incessant incompetence!

Among the last of the campy postwar sci-fi monster flicks, this Toei production was cheaply shot for the benefit of associated studios (most notably MGM), and directed by Kinji Fukasaku only five years before Battles Without Honor and Humanity popularized his career. Those trademark flourishes that Fukasaku was already cultivating in the likes of Odoshi or Blackmail Is My Business are absent here; one can't imagine that the incipient yakuza eiga icon was especially enthusiastic to shoot this. Jaeckel and Paluzzi made little of their two-dimensional roles, and Horton had no idea how to present his haughty authority figure in a manner that was at all likable. Incredibly, this flick's screenplay was refined by three writers (including Bill Finger!) based on a story by co-producer Ivan Reiner, none of whom recognized any laws of physics or attempted to patch numerous plot holes, most of which result from the maddening ineptitude of the story's characters. These jokers couldn't contain a common cold, much less the godawful abominations terrorizing their station. This astonishing inability, coupled with elaborate, conspicuously phony sets, props and models supplemented by colorful, sub-par special effects, add up to a film choice for group riffing. In fact, a brief portion of this picture was utilized in the broadly torrented 1988 Mystery Science Theater 3000 pilot.

Composed in evidently separate shares by Charles Fox and Toshiaki Tsushima, the goofy, bouncy score incorporates both rock and orchestral arrangements. However, it isn't a tenth as preposterous as the title theme, a lightweight psychedelic freak-out sung by drummer Richard Delvy that sounds like a Monkees recording in imitation of The Byrds.

In Japan, a theatrical cut in which the film's trite romantic sub-plot was excised was wisely marketed to children on a double-bill with Pinocchio in Outer Space. Immediately and appropriately dismissed by U.S. critics, it nonetheless turned a profit as juvenile fare on both sides of the Pacific. Further modest success followed in Australia on a triple-bill with The Blob and Beware! The Blob.

As dumb as it is, kitsch cineasts who haven't seen this owe themselves a viewing. What's more, the first third of its story is analogous to that of Armageddon, yet the most fatuous moments therein aren't a tenth so stupid as Michael Bay's mentally retarded action epic.


Hair

Directed by Milos Forman
Starring John Savage, Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright, Don Dacus, Cheryl Barnes

As one who loathes the filthy, trashy, moronic hippie subculture that this cinematic atrocity (and the play from which it was adapted) was inspired by, I must admit to a peculiar bias against Hair. This abhorrently stupid film is notable for being the culmination of a '70s trend wherein corporate interests had entirely co-opted a witless counterculture; this particular disaster was produced almost a decade after the expiration date of that phenomenon. That Forman directed this doesn't make it any less painful. After all, he's also responsible for Ragtime.

My entirely natural revulsion for the trappings of this movie didn't draw my attention from its forced, wooden performances and hokey songs. Almost every aspect of its production - musical arrangements, choreography, set design - is hopelessly dated, and no more charming or nostalgic for it. It's merely embarrassing.


Halloween

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nick Castle, Nancy Loomis, P. J. Soles, Brian Andrews

Although most people don't want to hear this, I've always said that some people are born rotten. Now, don't misunderstand me; I wouldn't suggest that any single factor is responsible for this. Sociopaths can't help themselves. Sadists are a product of their abusive environments. And it's always possible that old Satan sometimes distills a little of his own essence into a human form now and again.

This notion of mine has been dismissed by ideologues as often as it's been confirmed by experience. Christians tell me that we're created in God's image. Egalitarians whine that all men are born equal. And no Leibnizian optimist is going to tell you that bad seeds exist in this best of all possible worlds!

Well, bad seeds really do exist...and if you live in a community of any notable size, there's probably one in your neighborhood. Don't worry, most of them are harmless creeps who never do more than sneer at people who they secretly lust after, fry ants with magnifying glasses and engage in insider trading. But John Carpenter's third feature explores the concept of the bad seed in a popular worst-case scenario: that of the homicidal maniac.

Created on a budget over three times larger than the preceding Assault On Precinct 13 ($325K!), Halloween delivers in a big way on a modest investment. As one of the most popular and influential horror films of all time, this movie made more money than anyone ever guessed that it could ($55M) and inadvertently invented a rightly reviled sub-genre of slasher movies. It also cemented the career of America's most successful B-movie director; put simply, Halloween made John Carpenter as much as Carpenter made Halloween. This happened because he did it the right way: by emphasizing technique over bloodshed. Setting aside all its lame sequels and imitations, and Rob Zombie's silly remake, you're left with that rarest of gems: a film that actually deserves the overwhelming praise it's received.

I hadn't watched this film in many years, but during this past All Hallows Eve viewing, I finally noticed that one of the two televised movies watched by some of the characters is Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World, an adaptation of the John Campbell novella, Who Goes There? Of course, Carpenter would go on to direct an incredible, superior adaptation that became a cult classic...after suffering as a box office flop.

However, I must admit that Carpenter stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point with this film. I can force myself to believe that a serial killer can impale a teenager through the abdomen with a knife and pin him to a wall with it. I can blindly accept that this same unstoppable killer is ultimately undeterred by multiple knife and gunshot wounds that would kill an ordinary man on the spot. But a twenty-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis as someone who can't get a date?

There are some things that even I can't swallow.


Nicol Williamson ponders quietus as Hamlet.

Hamlet

Directed by Tony Richardson
Starring Nicol Williamson, Judy Parfitt, Anthony Hopkins, Marianne Faithfull, Mark Dignam, Gordon Jackson, Michael Pennington, Ben Aris, Clive Graham

Ensuant to Tony Richardson's resounding success in presenting The Bard's warhorse tragedy at London's Roundhouse, that director of stage and screen predictably adapted his concupiscent rendition to the latter medium so to blazon his brilliant cast beyond the confines of their esteemed venue.

Peradventure those few great Danes honorific of Bard and Burbage who best incarnated the half-mad prince in the century of cinema and of exacting diction substantiated his panoply of jests, woes and wonders were Gielgud, Burton, Jacobi, breathless Smoktunovsky and the great Nicol Williamson. His cynosure comportment commensurate to a towering stature, the Scottish histrion is a revelation in the lead: gently lulling and chiding in lament, ruminating with halting and consummate deliberation, expectorate of enounced celerity in sneering commination to avenge fratricide. Addressing audiences with soliloquies irrespective of a fourth wall, he astonishes by his own pronouncement of awe, terrifies with seething harangues in execration of a malign agnate, delights with vulpine ripostes to thwart spies, charms in dalliance and elicits from the most unyielding heart his own exalted tides of abhorrence, adoration, mirth, devotion, incertitude -- ever as droll, dour, girding, amative, volatile and wily as any personation of the tortured Dane, himself an embodiment of indecision. Jacobi's Hamlet is surely an effort of better measure in exercise of mellifluous articulation to aureate verbiage, tickling ears in stringent consonance to the character's pathos, yet he hadn't a tenth of the unflinching gravitas that charges Williamson's characterization. To best expose the inferiority of Olivier or the dread Branagh by polarity, view in sequence either the former's overestimated, egregiously reductive feature of 1948 or latter's complete yet tawdry Hollywood production of arrant ostentation afore this. Of this distinction, Williamson's eminence is underscored by disparity.

As punic Claudius, Anthony Hopkins cunningly understates the regal venality of the traitor-king with a disarming charisma exceeding his supercilious smarm, but spares not a drip of that monstrous dynast's desperate vitriol or artful connivance in service to intrigues. Nigh a year the junior and six inches short of his nephew, this disproportion of Hopkins' regent only emphasizes the turpitude of his accession. Ably supervened upon Constance Cummings, Judy Parfitt's joyous Gertrude is first enraging for a nonchalance in neglect of her son's bereavement reverence for her precipitant betrothed...until Act IV, when her guilelessness and maternal constancy are confirmed in an affective enactment that cleverly repudiates any inkling of incest. In contradistinction, salacious osculations and coquetry reciprocated of Laertes (Michael Pennington) and Ophelia (Marianne Faithfull) bestow a context of prurience, so that the conflict of her affections and her aggrieved brother's vengeance assume a newly incited aspect. Pennington's performance is conventional, but his furious score vociferated rivals that of Williamson's, and magnetism whilst caressing his comely sister nearly on par to hers -- prefiguring his own lauded exploit in the lead a decade thenceforth. Substituted for the stageplay's Francesca Annis, Faithfull's circumscribed emotive range relegates her to least of the players herein. Sleekly gorgeous, hers is an adequate yet unimaginative delivery, but even she arouses a stirring commiseration in her terminal scene, madly vocalizing an angelic timber for her unworthy sovereign.
To genteel Horatio, Gordon Jackson imparts an affable appeal, his earmark conceit of spectacles dramatically abstracted in portent and a palliative temperament as monitory counsel and foil to the manic prince. Mark Dignam's Polonius bears fruit not a day fresher than Pennington's scion, though his impeccable deadpan carriage utterly beseems the ineptitude and backstair betise of that officious Lord Chamberlain. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are realized by Ben Aris and Clive Graham as an imposing, plausibly shrewd conspiratorial pair. In his penultimate feature film roles, a wizened Roger Livesey first roils poignancy reciting lachrymose and presaging verse in treatment of Pyrrhus as the First Player, proclaiming malefaction as dramaturgical villain Lucianus, then indues brisk charm to a portrayal of the fifth act's wry gravedigger (alas, there's but one; paired with another adept player, he might have bettered the bantering raillery of the first scene's opening diversion) with mingled mirth and sorrow, pilfering a delightful moment from the lead as the only figure who entertains his wit in equal stride.

To accommodate a running time of two hours, Richardson halved the second quarto and compensated for this abridgment with audacious yet judicious measures: by transposing the crucial first and second scenes of the third act, Hamlet's derision of Polonius (now following his admonishment of Ophelia) adopts a novel, minimized revulsion. This permutation entailed new dialogue scripted by Richardson in a credible approximation of authentic Elizabethan verse. Scarcely an exchange is untouched by contraction, yet none of these abbreviations suckle at the marrow of discourse.

Shot on a minuscule budget as and where staged, Richardson's picture -- the premiere Hamlet committed to color stock -- profits from its director's ingenious exploitation of fiscal and spatial restrictions. Jocelyn Herbert's production design is at least so spare as any devised by Welles; interiors and exteriors alike are represented by stark, tenebrous sets sparsely furnished with period fixtures, and the battlements wherein the slain monarch is beheld by a brick tunnel -- umbratile locales reflecting verbalized despondence. Clothed likewise in dark Renaissance garb, the thespians are often nearly camouflaged before their gothic surroundings, subjects of a reductivist aesthetic that fixes any viewer's ambling attention to performance. Further imperative is the director's constricted composition, comprised chiefly of close-ups and close medium shots necessitated by the Roundhouse's demarcations and admitting no quantum of error in emphasis of empyreal performances. Manifest as luminescence to evoke in the viewer mere esthesis of presence and deflect nary a second from Williamson or Jackson, the Ghost is only heard: voiced by Williamson in affected baritone treated with echo, accompanied by a sonorous drone courtesy of Delia Derbyshire. Sprightly anthems and fanfares punctuating The Mouse-trap and conclusive duel alike, and a mournful coronach of percussion and horns thereafter were composed by Patrick Gowers.

Only this feature's editing is objectionable, cut in evident haste to lurch each scene to next with maladroit precipitance. Incredibly, editor Charles Rees was aided by a department of three, whose efforts suggest exceptional ineptitude!

From the author of Romeo and Juliet, reads a first flummoxing tagline of theatrical poster, ...The love story of Hamlet and Ophelia. This blazing attempt to capitalize on Zeffirelli's commercial triumph a year anterior gantlets stupefaction itself; either Richardson or a copywriter in Columbia Pictures' or Filmways' employ was disposed to strident patronage of a benighted multitude whose appetite for Shakespeare on celluloid was affirmed by Romeo and Juliet's box office success. Notwithstanding, a second passage was penned in verity: The Hamlet of our time... For our time. Faith, but in retrospect of its enduring potency and relish, this blurb is owed redaction... For all time.


Hangar 18

Directed by James L. Conway
Starring Darren McGavin, Robert Vaughn, Gary Collins, James Hampton, Philip Abbott, Pamela Bellwood, Tom Hallick, Steven Keats, Cliff Osmond, Joseph Campanella, William Schallert, Andrew Bloch, Stuart Pankin

This third-rate production concerning the government cover-up of a crashed and recovered UFO is of slight interest and some minor unintentional amusement. Performances range from middling to terrible; Vaughn makes the best of a mediocre script in a serviceable performance, while McGavin overacts as blandly as possible. The story moves along satisfactorily, in spite of plot holes that a gigantic alien mothership could easily navigate though. Highlights: violent, rampaging astronauts, the cleanest accidental beheading in interstellar history, space alien iconography and the most inept government agents ever assembled to preserve national security. This is a cut above the average TV movie and below mainstream feature fare.


Hitch Hike to Hell

Directed by Irvin Berwick
Starring Robert Gribbin, Russell Johnson, John Harmon, Randy Echols, Dorothy Bennett, Kippi Bell

Whilst delivering and picking up laundry for a dry cleaning service, a chipper, middle-aged, totally inept serial killer finds the time to sexually assault and murder wayward hitch hikers as a means to avenge his overbearing mother. He still lives with her, and the interior of their house consists almost entirely of wood paneling. He also possesses an extraordinary ability to smack his victims without ever touching them, and a technique which enables him to rape and strangle a girl in less than two minutes. Nobody rides for free, but who says fast service isn't cheap?

While most of the players in this film's cast only deliver mediocre performances, its chief asset is a wealth of hilariously hammy acting, courtesy of leading nutcase Gribbin and the goofballs who portray his hapless prey. Other than that, this is a prime example of exceptionally poor low-budget late-'60s filmmaking...but it's great fodder for a riffing party! Shot in 1967, it was released very briefly in '70 to little notice and then granted a widespread release courtesy of Robert Novak in '77, which elicited a thoroughly unenthusiastic response. Hitch Hike is one of very few B-movies that actually could benefit from a tongue-in-cheek remake, if Bruce Campbell were still young enough for the lead role!


Hitler Lives

Directed by Don Siegel, Frank Capra
Narrated by Knox Manning

If you're looking for evidence that America was as psychotically intrusive, xenophobic and self-absorbed in the immediate postwar era as it is now, here's some solid evidence. Hitler Lives is an early example of the sort of egregious, intrinsically dishonest propaganda shorts that would later be used to vilify Communists, queers and druggies. In this, Germans are demonized. No, not just the NSDAP - the German people.

The central themes of Hitler Lives are as follows: Germans are essentially evil and not to be trusted, Americans are invariably decent, honorable people and American occupation of Germany is not only essential but laudable, lest the Teutonic state rear its militarist head yet again to strike at the world with all its (wholly depleted) might.

The first of these three themes is supported by a brief overview of German History. Apparently, German History in its entirety begins in the nineteenth century and exclusively spans the military conquests of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolph Hitler. Throughout the course of this defamatory telling, it is unmistakably clear that Germans as not only a national but also an ethnic group are being vilified for political gain. Fringe National Socialist groups are portrayed as being celebrated in the German mainstream, and the audience is constantly reminded that every last kraut is deserving of suspicion for Nazi sympathies. The reality of the matter in 1945 was that Germany was harmless: a devastated country, its spirit and infrastructure decimated by total defeat and the sudden, widespread realization throughout the German public of the Fuehrer's insane atrocities. The effect of this propaganda is little more than salt in an open wound, racist lies against a people who had often suffered under their government nearly as much as those directly targeted by it. Later in the short, "race hatred" is condemned, as though racism existed only in Germany and never in 1940s America, as though the Germans as an ethnic group were not being slandered immediately before and after within the running time of this film. Needless to say, this kind of abhorrent double standard has become commonplace in American politics and social commentary in the 60+ years since this documentary was produced.

While many of the victims of the Holocaust are named (Russians, Poles, Greeks, etc.), Jews aren't once mentioned. This cannot be explained away as a pedantic interpretation of national identity, nor can it be dismissed as underhanded anti-Semitism, as the documentary was directed by Don Siegel (who helmed many fine genre features, especially in collaboration with Clint Eastwood) and its clumsy, melodramatic script was scribed by Saul Elkins - both of whom were unmistakably Jewish. One can only assume that Elkins either didn't trust Americans to be sympathetic to Jewish misfortune, or that he didn't want such blatantly obvious slander to be associated with Jews. Either way, this sort of disingenuous omission is not atypical of Hollywood documentary.

Even when judged on its technical merits, Hitler Lives fails enormously: the short is poorly edited and hokey, and the narration by once-ubiquitous voice-over hack Knox Manning is obnoxious and unprofessional. Ironically, many of Riefenstahl's techniques are poorly copied, with risible results.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose? Pretty much. That this utter disaster received an Oscar for best short documentary indicates that Hollywood was just as shallow and self-obsessed as it is now. America's posturing as a global policeman and ultimate victor in the struggle against Germany (an accomplishment for which the Soviets deserved greater credit) has only been transmuted many times over via numerous military adventures. Ultimately, this movie only provides the viewer with just one more reason to regret Hitler's rise to power.

Siegel and Elkins are not solely responsibility for this thick, ugly agitprop. Hitler Lives is based on and recycles footage from Your Job in Germany, the famous, stupidly parochial instructional film directed by Frank Capra (who commanded the military films unit of the U.S. War Department) and written by Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, which was used to teach grunts how to occupy Germany. Geisel also wrote the script for the less popular Our Job in Japan, a similar film intended for GIs who participated in the Allied Occupation. Ultimately, it was suppressed by Douglas MacArthur on the grounds of being too sympathetic to the Japanese. After all, it's not as though the losers were worthy of respect.


As a haughty anthropologist, Christopher Lee comes face-to-face with terror while riding the Horror Express

Horror Express

Directed by Eugenio Martín
Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza, Silvia Tortosa, Julio Peña, Ángel del Pozo, Telly Savalas, Helga Liné, Alice Reinheart

An arrogant, ambitious anthropologist (Lee) encounters a kindly physician (Cushing) while boarding the Trans-Siberian Express in the early 20th century. His cargo consists of an ancient corpse obtained in Manchuria that contains an unimaginable power. Before long, this entity develops a body count and a set of surprisingly lofty goals...

This British/Spanish production has quite a lot to recommend it: an excellent cast, fine cinematography and a cunning story that moves at a satisfying pace, defies expectations and provides no small number of surprises. Even though Horror Express isn't schlock-free by any means, it does produce a few creepy scares and has atmosphere to spare. While this is hardly a classic, it's a cut above the average Hammer or Amicus production.

Lee and Cushing are typically excellent in their respective roles. These two screen veterans appeared in quite a few films together, usually as adversaries; Hammer enthusiasts will likely be pleased to see them playing allied characters. Much of the supporting cast consists of Spaniards and Argentines portraying Russians and Poles. While they do nothing to conceal their obvious accents or fake Slavic alternatives, their performances are proficient; De Mendoza is especially good as an unstable monk obviously inspired by Rasputin.

Weirdly, Savalas appears two-thirds into the film as a brutal Cossack. He tries and fails to affect a Russian accent while speaking his first few lines, reverts to his trademark Long Island intonations and spends most of his screen time pushing people around. Though Savalas was even more egregiously miscast here than he was in Martín's prior effort (Pancho Villa), his screen presence is so overwhelming and his performance so enjoyably over-the-top that it's hard to care. I almost expected him to start swilling vodka while sucking on a lollipop, and I wouldn't have minded if he did.

For the most part, Horror Express is beautifully shot; the ornate interiors and costumes are embellished by vibrant Technicolor stock, and the darker scenes obscure all but the most necessary (re: macabre) elements. In this way, Alejandro Ulloa's photography alternates between florid and minimalist aesthetics in order to exploit the most effective aspects of both. The frigidity of the Siberian tundra is simulated in exterior shots that are often underexposed and color filtered. The effectiveness of this technique varies from one shot to another; this film's Siberia often looks a lot like Spain!


Inception

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Marion Cotillard, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine

At present, both the demand for and expectations of Christopher Nolan's big-budget conceptual genre offerings are equally high, and he still hasn't failed to deliver. Nolan possesses a rare talent for presenting difficult concepts and elaborate plot devices in a wholly accessible fashion; as a result, he's one of very few living Anglophone filmmakers who actually invests a modicum of intelligence into conventional stylistic forms. Here, Nolan utilizes incredible set pieces, trick photography and compositing on a gigantic scale in a lucid narrative structure to far greater effect than what's typically exhibited in most experimental film shorts.

As a pair of thieves who pilfer ideas for their corporate employers, DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt use portable technology to enter the dreams of their targets. This form of theft requires skills in the disciplines of psychology, architecture, chemistry, strategy and small-scale combat; as a result, their colorful collaborators are selected from a variety of professions. When a devious CEO (Ken Watanabe) hires them to implant a notion that will inspire the heir (Cillian Murphy) of a terminally ill corporate rival to disband his father's empire, they accept - not only for payment, but for the benefit of Watanabe's influence, with which he can easily dispel the criminal charges that prevent DiCaprio's master thought filcher from returning to his home and reuniting with his children. The complications of this task are compounded by the presence of projections - figures generated by the subconscious who defend the Super-ego by attacking intruders.

Though inherently cerebral, this could scarcely be more spectacular or suspenseful in execution. Nolan's characters explore dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams, and with the aid of his mainstay DP Wally Pfister (whose pristine photography imparts some momentous ambiance to even the most mundane locations), he grants each of these subconscious worlds its own distinctive visual character. As usual, both plot and characterization are equally essential elements of Nolan's story, which is motivated as much by underlying cognitive experience as by crashes and explosions; indeed, the former are often the cause of the latter! Because he's never satisfied with mere implication when defining the mechanics of any given phenomenon, perhaps half of Nolan's dialogue is expository, and only seems credible when voiced in the context of training, preparation and procedure. The abundance of visual metaphors that illustrated motive and technique alike in his extraordinary adaptation of The Prestige are here lessened to a few essential cues, and the earlier film's more complex non-linear narrative is eschewed in favor of a succession of simultaneous, tiered sequences deftly edited by Lee Smith, another of Nolan's regular collaborators. Hans Zimmer's score is a shade above mediocre, reminiscent of those that he composed for Nolan's Batman features. This music affords a palpable momentum to the proceedings, especially the intriguing preparatory formulations, but it's easy to wonder if a score as thoughtful as the story and its imagery could have been created by Nolan's inspired former composer, David Julyan.

DiCaprio is entirely convincing in the lead, never too emotive though always intensely involved. That would be an understatement for Gordon-Levitt and Watanabe, both of whom cleverly toe the line between steely cool and outright frigidity. Watanabe's presence and style here are comparable to Ken Ogata's in his prime; he exudes a restrained yet imperious confidence. Nolan directs Ellen Page as he did Scarlett Johansson, downplaying her limitations as an actress. She isn't granted the opportunity to revert to the snotty, vapid posturing that she's become habitually accustomed to, but she's nothing more than adequate. Were she just a few years younger, Alison Lohman - who's everything that Page is hyped as and isn't - could surely have imbued the same role with more poise and charm. Lohman's cuddly Drag Me to Hell co-star Dileep Rao is serviceably personable as the chemist of DiCaprio's crew. Both Rao and Tom Hardy, their dream-state impersonator, generate enough wry humor to offset the film's frequently morose tone. Now starting to resemble fellow Irishman Gabriel Byrne, Cillian Murphy is suitably chilly as the team's mark, though memorably affectional in a crucial, cathartic moment. Like Rutger Hauer and Eric Roberts before him, screen veteran Tom Berenger is put to impressive use by Nolan as both Murphy's godfather and the impersonation thereof by Hardy's character. Marion Cotillard fares far better than Page, totally plausible in a fervent role that could very easily have descended into shrill, annoying melodrama. Now a fixture in Nolan's pictures, Michael Caine is unfortunately relegated to a bit part.

Sharing both the same name and occupation of Alex Haw's prickly expert burglar from Nolan's first feature, Following, DiCaprio's otherwise entirely different character couldn't have less in common with him. This is just as well, as their very different methods are only a means to penetrate far more substantial themes in both films. Despite the maudlin sentiment too often uncovered at the heart of Nolan's well-crafted stories, it's great to see anything this challenging in a major American motion picture nowadays. Perfectly paced and extraordinary in its scope, there's wonder and invention here that's becoming too scarce in the medium. It closes on the sort of ambiguous note that Nolan's so fond of, denoting a vital dichotomy of possibility. It's a shame that this isn't a whit more subtle, substituting much more suggestion for exposition...but then, he does want to keep his audience.


The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love

Directed by Maria Maggenti
Starring Laurel Holloman, Nicole Ari Parker, Maggie Moore, Kate Stafford, Sabrina Artel, Toby Poser, Nelson Rodríguez, Dale Dickey

While Van Sant, Almodovar, LaBruce, et al. were revolutionizing queer cinema, bottom-feeders affixed to the independent circuit during the mid-'90s lapped up this artless, plodding, predictable swill, ameliorated by nary a single competent performance or novel twist. As director and screenwriter, Maria Maggenti was equally maladroit in both roles: her composition is abysmally clumsy, her every scenario cherry-picked from better dramas and rendered terminally dull by the stilted, contrived dialogue and timbered acting at her command. Worst of all, Terry Dame's amateurish score is impossibly irritating, often resembling circus music performed with jazz instrumentation.

Of the billion-odd pictures to portray teens struggling with adversity in response to their homosexuality, this isn't the worst, but it's assuredly the most tedious: too gauche to enjoy, too bland to riff.


It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Directed by John Trent
Starring Anthony Newley, Stefanie Powers, Isaac Hayes, Lloyd Bochner, Yvonne De Carlo, Henry Ramer, Lawrence Dane, John Candy

While it's burdened by sloppy direction, conspicuously bad editing and quite a lot of terrible music, this slapstick farce is frequently very funny as a result of a clever script and the comedic talent of its impressive cast. The best parts of the film are laugh-out-loud funny, but the viewer does have to tolerate more than a few pointless scenes and an irritating pair of animated credit sequences along the way. With a slightly higher budget, a crew as competent as its cast and ten of its most leaden minutes shaved from the running time, this could have been a very good comedy.


Jaws of Satan

Directed by Bob Claver
Starring Fritz Weaver, Gretchen Corbett, Jon Korkes, Bob Hannah, Diana Douglas, John McCurry, Jack Gordon, Christina Applegate

As the most unenthusiastic priest south of the Mason-Dixon line, Fritz Weaver (looking slightly less worn than usual) and a few of his friends are targeted by snakes out to fulfill a curse set upon his Druidic family line in retaliation for an ancestor's misdeeds. This clumsy cleric is joined by a doctor (Gretchen Corbett, the haunted mute of Let's Scare Jessica to Death) and a herpetologist (Jon Korkes), both of whom are undermined by the local mayor (Jack Gordon), who's eager to quell any upset that might hinder the opening of a dog track. The small town's marginally competent sheriff (John McCurry) deputizes Korkes and a number of other locals to hunt down the snakes, unaware that the snakes have been deputized by the Prince of Darkness!

Even though it's very nicely lensed by famous cinematographer Dean Cundey, Jaws of Satan's silly scenario isn't made any more plausible by its lousy special effects or Bob Claver's clumsy direction. There is something to be said of Ron Wild's gruesome makeup effects, which are far more effective than anything else herein.

As usual, Weaver embodies the quintessence of mediocrity: competent, but so bland that his delivery is only credible because it's so mundane. The same could be said for the rest of the cast. Ten-year-old Christina Applegate is instantly recognizable, and as a tremendous screamer, probably the only cast member to leave an impression.

Tasteless gruel like this killed the mainstream appeal of drive-ins and grindhouses, though not all at once. Only a few unintentionally amusing scenes and the appearance of some genre notables make it worth watching.


J. Edgar

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts, Geoff Pierson, Josh Lucas, Jeffrey Donovan, Damon Herriman

Eastwood's filmic account of Hoover the Voracious, the Fastidious, the Venal - self-aggrandizing, mother's son, political paranoiac, closet queer, social inept, vindictive bureaucrat - exudes twentieth century Americana ethos, highlighting the contentious FBI director's harried exploits and tortured, marginalized private life.

Alternating betwixt Hoover's ascension and heyday in the nineteen twenties and thirties and his twilight years in the sixties through the early seventies, a sedulously organized narrative and impeccable period design fully realize the zeitgeist of these eras. Operating as a quintessential unreliable narrator, the g-man chief dictates his memoirs to bureau underlings in the latter period's framing narrative. However, fully half of this feature's 137 minutes are assigned depiction of Hoover's marginalized personal life, and as a result, far too many of his most egregious activities are shunted to the periphery. Hoover's romance with Associate Director Clyde Tolson unfolds as an ardent and genuinely affectionate matter spanning Tolson's 45-year career, and his subordination to his mother deftly indicates the genesis of many neuroses and ambitions. Yet too much is omitted: COINTELPRO is merely alluded to in later sequences, but Hoover's trifling dispute with Martin Luther King, Jr. is granted full focus. While the Lindbergh kidnapping and Bruno Hauptmann's apprehension are provided rightful predominance, and Emma Goldman's deportation an adequate overview, the bureau's winning war against famed bank robbers is given short shrift, exploited primarily as a means to emphasize Hoover's unconscionable, self-promotional fictions.

DiCaprio's JEH is comparable to that of his Howard Hughes: a dearth of physical likeness is compensated by a skillful mimicry of voice, mannerisms and sensibilities, and he furnishes some measured profundity to the federal icon's bombast and controversy. Likewise, Judi Dench imparts a momentous presence as Hoover's imperious mother, and Naomi Watts' stiff poise as his unswervingly faithful secretary Helen Gandy is wholly sincere. However, the superlative performance here is Armie Hammer's, playing Tolson with a gentle balance of sensitivity and impassioned frustration, despite his limited resemblance to the Associate Director. Damon Herriman makes the most of his brief, unnerving moment as Hauptmann, but not all among the supporting cast are so successful. As Bobby Kennedy, Jeffrey Donovan certainly looks and sounds his part, but he's too stilted for the role. In contrast, Christopher Shyer's Nixon is ably performed, but he hardly looks at all like Tricky Dick; Anthony Hopkins and even Dan Hedaya were much better! Despite his proven renown as an actor's director, Eastwood is here unable to spur his deficient players to the virtuosity of his leads.

James Murakami's position as Eastwood's preferred production designer is again assured, as his collaboration with set designer Gary Fettis, costumer Deborah Hopper and art directors Greg Berry and Patrick Sullivan have resulted in a quality period picture comparable to Scorsese's best. DP Tom Stern emphasizes chilly locales and the stainless sheen of federal offices with luminous photography of muted hues, but these qualities draw attention to some substandard aging makeup: the elderly Tolson often appears so artificial that Hammer's excellence is nearly undermined by it.

Despite its ample merits and faults, this is worth seeing, but inevitably insufficient. Both Hoover's life and the institutions it reflected ought be enacted in far greater protraction and proportion, as either a televised serial or lengthier epic feature for which American viewers haven't much tolerance.


Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter

Directed by William Beaudine
Starring John Lupton, Narda Onyx, Estelita Rodriguez, Cal Bolder, Rayford Barnes, Steven Geray, Jim Davis

Victor Frankenstein's granddaughter performs a brain transplant on the legendary titular gunslinger's beefy sidekick and reanimates him to do her bidding for about twenty minutes. Until then, there's plenty of hammy acting to enjoy and one of the silliest fistfights that I've ever seen, but these trivial pleasures don't excuse an hour of plotting as dense as rice paper in wait to see a monster without neck bolts, translucent skin, yellow eyes, black lips or anything besides a stitched noggin and sluggish demeanor to suggest that it's anything other than a normal human. In summary: too much western, too little horror, nowhere near enough monster, and plenty of cheese.

William Beaudine shot this and the equally ridiculous Billy the Kid versus Dracula consecutively, and they were screened as a double feature; these were the final films of the prolific director's long career. Also, western fixture Estelita Rodriguez died under mysterious circumstances soon after this picture was shot, the details of which are far more creepy than anything in the movie itself.


Killer's Kiss

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera, Jerry Jarrett

Kubrick's second feature is a noir nadir: one ugly, awkward, somniferous crime (void of) drama in the vein of a octogenarian's home come Thanksgiving. Highlights of my lifespan's longest hour include rigid, insipid performances, slapdash editing and a narrative surfeited of immaterial, supererogatory exposition that far exceeds (and inevitably eclipses) a lean and shopworn plot. Only a penultimate scene proves distinctive for its fight sequence, ineptly executed by the standards of exploitation fare. Kubrick's dissatisfaction with his antecedent debut Fear and Desire prompted him to withdraw it from public screenings; had he done likewise with this supreme exercise in tedium, no one save completist enthusiasts of American cinema's most autocratic auteur might vocalize misgivings in concern of its inaccessibility by curtailment.

This picture's theatrical tagline reads: "Her Soft Mouth Was the Road to Sin-Smeared Violence!" Yuck!


Kingdom of the Spiders

Directed by John Cardos
Starring William Shatner, Tiffany Bolling, Woody Strode, Lieux Dressler, David McLean, Natasha Ryan, Altovise Davis, Joe Ross, Marcy Lafferty

In this typically crude John Cardos thriller, a horde of hungry spiders in rural Arizona organize to eat - first livestock and pets, then their human masters (especially the malicious ones). A rugged local veterinarian (William Shatner, in his mid-'70s slump) joins forces with a frigid entomologist (Tiffany Bolling) to confront this theraphosid menace, which terrorizes a cattle farmer (Woody Strode) before moving onto his neighbors. In the meantime, a provincial mayor (prolific character actor Roy Engel, in his final performance) complicates matters by resorting to the use of DDT, a course of action which the film's protagonists oppose in a topical manner. It's mostly as one would expect, but the sheer number of spiders assembled for this tarantulan massacre (5,000!) is enough to draw a viewer's bemused notice. Cardos' direction here is identical to that of The Dark two years later: competently pedestrian, zooming for effect every fifteen minutes.

As usual, Shatner's performance is anything but kosher, and he's at his hammy best with the script's sillier scenarios. He generates no romantic heat whatsoever opposite love interest Bolling, who's all forehead, cheekbones, and mandible, barking too many of her lines shrilly. Probably the best acting here is that of a tense Woody Strode as the tormented rancher whose livelihood is endangered by marauding arachnids; unlike most of his fellow cast members, Strode grapples with a lot of dumb dialogue and comes away retaining some dignity. As this is just one of many cheesy B-features (see also: Impulse, The Devil's Rain) and TV movies that Shatner starred in before being beamed back up as the figurehead of a wildly successful theatrical franchise, it's anyone's guess if he even remembers this movie.

As schlocky as the script, this flick's music is an odd combination of gawky Dorsey Burnette songs, stock tunes by the likes of Richard Markowitz and Dominic Frontiere, and Twilight Zone cues composed by Jerry Goldsmith, one of which serves as the main theme. In summary: tarantulas galore overtake small-scale civilization and a Shatnerian mating ritual is documented in what might be a good companion to The Bat People or Jaws of Satan in a double feature. If you see it on TV at 3 A.M., it's worth a watch. Otherwise, move on...


As demented as ever, Dennis Hopper sneers at danger behind the wheel of a Corvette in King of the Mountain.

King of the Mountain

Directed by Noel Nosseck
Starring Harry Hamlin, Joseph Bottoms, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Richard Cox, Dennis Hopper, Dan Haggerty, Seymour Cassel, Sloan Roberts, Ashley Cox

Sprawling serpentine throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, few roads have pricked imagination, imperiled temerarious racers or been cultivated of such a colorful history as that of Mulholland Drive and Highway, winding high above the picturesque San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles Basin. At present, the former street is as choice (and accordingly expensive) a residential locale as any, yet both portions of this tortuous, two-lane route routinely tempt the most adventurous of competitive speed demons.

Working light as an auto technician by day, one Steve (Harry Hamlin) races only to win along anfractuous Mulholland curves in his Porsche 356 Speedster while romancing a cute, sultry MOR singer (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). His friends - a record producer (Richard Cox) and songwriter/keyboardist (Joseph Bottoms) - seek their fortunes in the music industry, but Steve's passion for racing bespeaks a dearth of purpose that only love or catastrophe can remedy.

He's no one's excuse for a great thespian, but Hamlin proves appealing as the lead brooding, sensitive alpha stud with conventional good looks and a charming screen presence that compensate for his inadequacies as a screen actor. As his musician buddies, Bottoms and Cox provide adequate comic relief without slipping into inanity, and later a credibly strained relationship that forms the incongruous dramatic backbone of the movie's narrative. Now widely recognized for his sweetly avuncular polish in Wes Anderson's pictures, Seymour Cassel here conveys slight yet convincing menace as a tough, uncompromising record executive. Expectedly bearded and immaculately permed, Dan Haggerty's gentle deportment befits the movie's sole stabilizing figure. However, the outstanding performance here is that of loud, weathered, typically manic Dennis Hopper (mired in his pre-rehabilitated Out of the Blue period), perfectly cast as a deranged, envenomed auto mechanic who moonlights as a rash speed junkie in a fleet, battered, piecemeal Corvette! As always, Hopper rants memorably, imparting his characteristic vigor to even the silliest dialogue.

Best known for his prolific televised output, director Neil Nosseck manages his cast adroitly, and this flick's thrilling racing scenes exhibit some minor stylistic flair. Although Donald Peterman's photography in a variety of notable features (When a Stranger Calls, Flashdance, Star Trek IV) is usually excellent and his nocturnal scenery here sparkles with dazzling contrast of headlights in umbratile midnight, most of the scenes shot in broad daylight are at best murky.

On its theatrical release, King of the Mountain was almost universally savaged by critics, a consensus not wholly undeserved: Hamlin's and Van Valkenburgh's romance is too briefly addressed; a significant subplot diverts screen time that ought have been devoted to more racing; the story's requisite tragedy is equally predictable and preposterous; two crucial dramatic scenes are risibly mawkish; Hopper's transformation from traumatized local nut to gear-head villain is derisory. Nonetheless, this is nearly as exciting as street racing fare comes - certainly more so than its fast, furious, fatuous contemporary successors - and as perfect a time capsule as any in preservation of L.A.'s bygone era of Members Only jackets, Sergio Valente jeans and muscle cars.

For a contemporaneous filmic account of this regional culture's equivalent teen set, Foxes (another Polygram property) is no chore to view. However, both Vanishing Point and Monte Hellman's exceptional Two-Lane Blacktop are superior automotive adventures.


Kiss Daddy Goodnight

Directed by Peter Ily Huemer
Starring Uma Thurman, Paul Dillon, Paul Richards

Pretty odd, this: a lethargic thriller in which an alluring teenage Uma Thurman plays a bewigged grifter stalked by a demented, superficially cultured older man and wooed by a working-class slob (Paul Dillon, whose apish resemblance to younger sibling Matt is unmistakable). Numerous sub-plots lead to narrative cul-de-sacs and even the story's ending amounts to nothing in particular. Even worse, this first feature effort by Austrian television director Huemer is amateurish to a point of total ineptitude: it's sloppily shot, murkily photographed and the soundtrack is abysmal. It's fortunate that the camera loves Thurman enough to underscore how gorgeous she was in her youth, because she's as wooden as the rest of the cast; considering the banal dialogue she was saddled with in this first screen appearance, that much is excusable.

I'd bet a hefty sum that Tarantino saw this before casting Pulp Fiction; at one point, Thurman dons a bobbed wig similar to the one she wore in her most famous role. Steve Buscemi also appears for a few minutes in one of several totally pointless scenes. He was just there, I suppose. For whatever reason, this is curiously watchable. It's unnecessarily deliberate and totally otiose, but so inexpertly realized that it's actually interesting. Somehow, the production of this film was partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks, Frank Hodsoll!


The Last House on the Left

Directed by Dennis Iliadis
Starring Tony Goldwyn, Garret Dillahunt, Sara Paxton, Monica Potter, Spencer Treat Clark, Aaron Paul, Riki Lindhome, Martha MacIsaac

Two of Wes Craven's early features have been bettered by their remakes. Alexandre Aja's 2006 retread of The Hills Have Eyes was clever, visually spectacular and far superior to the noisy, stupid original. Similarly, this second take on Craven's vicious 1972 directorial debut draws from all of its strengths while jettisoning its many overwrought flaws. Although the plot is similar - two girls are abducted by hardened criminals, brutalized and left for dead; parents exact revenge - it's tighter here, its devices both more credible and effective, and the story defies predictability more often than that of most second-rate fare.

Apparently, Tony Goldwyn learned how to act at some point in the past twenty years; no longer as hammy as a New Year's roast, the eyebrow-deprived actor/director is reasonably credible as both a surgeon and a father. Garret Dillahunt fares better as a repugnant arch-felon, but the standout performance is that of Sara Paxton, one of the two battered teenage unfortunates. Pristine and then defiled, Paxton couldn't be a more convincing victim - she exudes soft vulnerability, yet seems no less likely a desperate survivor. Exploitive though it inevitably is, a single revolting rape scene plays out as far from titillation as possible, and its potency is derived entirely from two deeply involved performances. The supporting cast is unexceptional, though adequate: Monica Potter is fair as the typically anxious maternal figure, and Aaron Paul and Riki Lindhome are suitably sleazy in the roles of Dillahunt's cohorts.

At least as notable as its cast is this film's incongruously gorgeous photography. DP Sharone Meir has outdone himself - featuring rich hues and crisp contrast, this picture is frequently too pretty for its genre!

On the whole, this is a wide notch above average: the dialogue is appropriately terse, most of the many suspenseful sequences are engrossing (albeit cliché), and the very bloody revenge inflicted on the antagonists is satisfying enough. Unfortunately, the modest respectability of the whole production is very nearly undone by a silly, gratuitous ending. It won't endure repeat viewings very well, but as something to watch at 4 A.M. on a Sunday morning, it's more than sufficient.


Vincent Price contemplates his miserable fate as The Last Man on Earth

The Last Man on Earth

Directed by Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow
Starring Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Umberto Raho, Christi Courtland

Of the three film adaptations of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, this is definitely my favorite. Last Man treads lightly on the social implications of Matheson's story to concentrate on heartbreaking personal themes, but there's no denying the incalculable influence that both the book and the film have asserted on filmic realizations of vampires and zombies alike.

Although the performances of the small cast are of mixed quality, Vincent Price is - as always - larger than life, his expressions of grief, hopelessness and desperation entirely and bitterly convincing. Of Price's few heroic roles, this is surely the finest, and he plays it with great dignity. I wouldn't suggest that The Last Man on Earth is flawless; the dubbing is often conspicuously bad, many shots are sloppily executed and clumsy editing frequently makes a mess of the movie's continuity. However, these were the commonplace defects of a low-budget horror film in the '60s, and very few films of this sort were ever as chilling or as tragic as this one.


Last Woman on Earth

Directed by Roger Corman
Starring Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, Robert Towne

Roger Corman has never been a stranger to trashy locales or situations, so when one of his films opens to a Puerto Rican cockfight, it's easy to determine what you're in for. In the aftermath of a temporary, global nullification of the Earth's oxygen supply, three survivors remain on The Island of Enchantment: a sleazy, overbearing businessman, his dishy wife and their smarmy lawyer. Tensions mount between the three that lead to maladroit philosophizing and violent shenanigans until one of them winds up dead. At least the acting is bad enough to serve as unintentional humor.


Zohra Lampert suffers a nighmarish relocation in Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Let's Scare Jessica to Death

Directed by John D. Hancock
Starring Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Mariclare Costello, Kevin O'Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson

In addition to being a great cult horror movie, this release is notable for featuring Zohra Lampert in her only leading role in a motion picture. Outside of her tiny cult fan base, Lampert is terribly underrated, despite her versatility and extraordinary emotional range, which are as thoroughly explored in this movie as they were in Pay or Die and Splendor in the Grass. The majority of Lampert's screen career consists of guest roles on numerous popular television shows, for which she's been recognized. But most of her best work was accomplished in feature films, and her manic performance here is an especially fine achievement.

Lampert portrays the titular Jessica, who moves to rural Connecticut with her husband and a close friend after her discharge from a mental institution. They arrive at their old, massive, newly-purchased country house to find a comely squatter living there, and no small number of ornate antiques. Even before her arrival at this new home, Jessica sees ominous figures and hears disturbing voices, which become significantly more prominent and menacing as she settles into her surroundings. As circumstances worsen, both Jessica and the audience struggle to determine if her nightmarish experiences are real or symptomatic of a deranged mental state.

If you're looking for gore, shocks and excitement in a horror movie, this won't suit your expectations. Instead, Let's Scare Jessica to Death functions similarly to Carnival of Souls, slowly developing an unbearable atmosphere of dread and suspense that only ceases at the story's end. Paramount distributed this movie during the initiation of the studio's revival following its postwar decline, and the result was a modest box office success; this film could have easily been just another early '70s horror feature to have been run through the drive-in and grindhouse circuit before being discarded and forgotten. Fortunately, Jessica has been recognized as a minor classic, and one of a relative handful of horror movies that implement subtle techniques to convey an ambiance of subdued terror.


Lifeforce

Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard

The most cruel, complimentary and accurate comment that could be made regarding this film is that it's probably the best of its genre that Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ever produced. These two Israeli schlockmeisters have made more money from cheap, exploitive movies than probably anyone else in film history. Of course, this particular entry in the long line of cheesy Golan-Globus fare isn't as good or as interesting as it is because of them. Far more amazing than the film itself is the talent that they managed to assemble for this extravagantly goofy flick: celebrated horror director Tobe Hooper, cult screenwriter and director Dan O'Bannon, special effects wizard John Dykstra and composer Henry Mancini.

The plot, in summary: a space shuttle investigates a really long spacecraft near Halley's Comet. Inside the alien ship, an exploratory crew from the shuttle discovers a bunch of dead bat-like creatures and three snazzy, art deco sarcophagi containing three pale figures: a really, really, really hot chick and two fruity-looking guys. Following a series of incredibly bad decisions typical of horror film stupidity, the three creatures find their way to Earth, reveal themselves as vampires of a sort and start turning people into all kinds of zombies. The vampires have an unfair advantage because they're running amok in England, where the inhabitants can't own firearms, have a natural propensity for incredible gullibility and have created a soft, pink, candyass culture that's pretty much just ripe for the taking.

The chick vampire (hilariously named "Space Girl" in the film's credits) is portrayed by the pristine, impossibly gorgeous, perpetually nude Mathilda May. Space Girl actually possesses a number of attributes that make her similar to many of my ex-girlfriends: intense beauty, a hidden agenda and a tendency to suck the very life out of anyone who gets too close to her. Now, this is how it works: Space Girl and her male associates drain the titular life force out of people, who then become freakish zombies and seek out the life force of others, effectively doing the bulk of the vampires' hard work for them. When that time of the month swings around, the two (fabulous) males drain the spirits of their victims and transfer them to Space Girl, who then transmits the energy of these human souls to her creepy-looking mothership. It's akin to a pyramid scheme, except that there's no money involved, they kill people and it really isn't like a pyramid scheme at all so never mind. Look, I watched this whole thing twice just to write this review and I'm starting to feel as though some of my life force was drained.

The screenplay for Lifeforce was adapted from Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires, the story of which bears certain similarities to O'Bannon's own Alien screenplay. The story is inventive and features a number of novel plot twists, but also twice as many holes and some wince-inducing dialogue. I'm inclined to blame the latter on co-screenwriter Don Jakoby; it's difficult to accept that the man who wrote Dark Star, Alien and even his own directorial debut, Return of the Living Dead, could have scripted anything so insipid.

The performances are a mixed bag. It really is amazing to me that Steve Railsback has enjoyed (and squandered) so many lead roles, considering that he looks like something that I regurgitated and couldn't act his way out of a speeding ticket. Here, the dog-faced shlub overacts again, wailing like some stupid animal in lieu of human emoting and absolutely ruining every scene that he's in. The only explanation for his enduring career must involve photographs of studio heads in the act of murdering prostitutes. Firth and Stewart deliver typically convincing performances; next to Railsback, they look even more impressive than usual. May doesn't so much act as just woodenly recite lines, but that really doesn't matter; it's not as though she was cast in this movie because she has any acting talent.

Dykstra's effects are also presented with varied results; the best of them are extremely impressive, while the worst are at least silly enough to be amusing. There is something to be said for the fact that many effects are executed on an enormous scale, but so many of them are so amateurish that it's obvious that most of the less demanding effects had nothing to do with Dykstra. Mancini's score, while excellent, doesn't always seem congruous in certain scenes, and for good reason: it was originally composed (then rejected) as music for Hitchcock's brilliant Frenzy!

While they're renowned for their cheapness, there's no denying that Golan-Globus put their mouths where their money was when producing this film: a budget of nearly $25 million bought not only top-notch talent, but also an enormous production. But costs are clearly cut in so many areas that the whole package still feels like the B-movie that it really isn't: Halley's Comet is an obvious matte painting; gravity on the space shuttle exists whenever the alternative isn't convenient; most of the models and miniatures look like models and miniatures. As with Dykstra and O'Bannon, I refuse to blame Hooper for the failings of this movie. Every scene is carefully framed and competently shot. But the film's editing is so atrocious and outtakes were reportedly so egregious (Hooper himself was annoyed by Golan and Globus's decision to cut a full 15 minutes from the US release) that it almost seems as though the producers were trying to sabotage a project that they'd spent an enormous amount of money on. But in reality, this was nothing short of typical Golan-Globus incompetence, a trait that cost them this time: while moderately successful throughout Europe, North American box office sales for Lifeforce totaled approximately half of the movie's production costs.

It's easy to imagine how good this movie could have been if it had been produced by competent people. So much talent was squandered in Lifeforce that the movie is that rarest of cinematic failures: a big-budget flop that feels like a B-movie despite its lavish production.


Light of Day

Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Michael J. Fox, Joan Jett, Gena Rowlands, Michael McKean, Jason Miller, Billy L. Sullivan, Cherry Jones

As a character study, time capsule and rock drama, Paul Schrader's sixth directorial endeavor is a modest success, though not without its faults. Set in an unsightly Cleveland suburb, its subject is The Barbusters, a popular local band fronted by a talented, dissolute single mother and her responsible, long-suffering brother. This act's veracity is sustained by its popular cast of genuine musicians: Joan Jett on vox and rhythm, Michael J. Fox playing lead and bassist Michael McKean, only a few years removed from Spinal Tap!

Jett's unschooled conviction cements her sole lead role as dedicated performer and wayward parent. Channeling the sneering potency of her onstage persona to theatrical discourse, hers is one of too few instances in which a popular musician has proven adept as a screen actor. As her sibling, conscience and substitute parent, Fox's character is pushed too far as the custodian of her transgressions. That Fox was so often relegated to the undemanding banality of conventional comedies is regrettable; here, as in too few other instances, his capacity for understated desperation and palpable vulnerability is tremendously moving. However, Gena Rowlands eclipses her juniors remarkably as their embittered, deteriorating, justifiably frustrated mother - no surprise to any admirer of the film veteran who recognizes her as one of America's most accomplished living actresses. Despite his brief screen time, Jason Miller provides this fractured family's taciturn patriarch some chagrined profundity.

Schrader utilizes his cast's enormous charisma to great effect without sacrificing their plausibility as working-class folk. However, both his skillful direction and intelligent script are compromised by a plodding, uneven pace that very nearly undermines the entire production. Wisely avoiding stock rock clichés concerning narcotics and career arcs, Schrader again stretched a good story too thin and slowed its momentum interminably in compensation - an inexplicable bad habit of a man who's otherwise proven himself a master screenwriter. Nonetheless, his exhibition of musicianship as a means for developmentally stunted adults to shirk responsibilities and pervert healthy enthusiasm to egoistic obsession is admirable.

Situated betwixt biopics of Yukio Mishima and Patty Hearst in Schrader's oeuvre, this is one of several films that revealed him a filmmaker of tremendous versatility in the 1980s. For fans of Fox and Jett before the former fell afflicted to Parkinson's disease and the latter lost herself to numerous ill-advised reinventions, this is a substantial treat. It's also highly recommended for a double-bill viewing paired with Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, in which many of this movie's themes are explored with greater severity.


Lisa, Lisa

Directed by Frederick R. Friedel
Starring Leslie Lee, Jack Canon, Ray Green, Frederick R. Friedel, Douglas Powers

After brutalizing a fruity gay couple and a grocery clerk, a trio of dapper thugs (Canon, Green and director/writer/editor Friedel) hole up in a rural farmhouse, where a pretty, sullen young woman (Lee) cares for her paralyzed grandfather (Powers).

While it isn't a great film by any standard, Lisa, Lisa is ably shot and edited, featuring some interesting (if unexceptional) performances and a subdued, ominous atmosphere unimaginable in a contemporary American horror picture. Despite its languid pace, plenty of bloody mayhem is bundled into this feature's brief (68 minutes) runtime. Although the musical score by George Newman Shaw and John Willhelm is unique and effective, Shaw's sound design is probably the worst element of this crude production: the soundtrack is as muddled and poorly mixed as that of so many other B-movies. This is highly recommended to '70s horror enthusiasts, but for the uninitiated, it probably won't be of much interest.

I discovered this movie via an enticing teaser trailer on YouTube, which proves that these promotional materials are still fulfilling their purpose! Also released under the titles The Virgin Slaughter, California Axe Massacre, California Axe Murders, The Axe Murders and most popularly as Axe.


The Lives Of Others

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Volkmar Kleinert, Matthias Brenner

Donnersmarck's first feature is a film that should have been made years ago: a critical, dramatic depiction of East German governmental repression from a personal perspective. The exhaustive research that Donnersmarck conducted whilst writing the screenplay yields a remarkably accurate portrayal of Stasi operations and the damage that the ubiquitous police force frequently inflicted on the citizenry of the GDR.

In one of his last roles, the late Mühe plays Hauptmann Wiesler, a Stasi educator and surveillance expert. He is a perfect role model for his peers: a meticulous, wholly competent specialist of the technology and techniques implemented to crush dissidence and nonconformity; a thoroughly educated, unquestioning ideologue who conforms to every aspect of state socialist dogma; a tireless agent in support of the overwhelming control that his government exerts over its' populace. He's also a shell of a man who lives an austere existence. Everything in Wiesler's orderly, bloodless life - even his indulgences with a familiar prostitute - is mechanical and ultimately unsatisfying.

Wiesler's life stands in stark contrast to that of Georg Dreyman (Koch), a celebrated author and playwright who enjoys enormous success both in his own country and "the west," circumstances that make him a slightly valuable, conspicuous anomaly. Dreyman is appreciated, accomplished and sociable. His relationship with Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck), an equally successful leading lady prominent in productions of his works, completes a life that couldn't be more fulfilling in the GDR. Essentially, he has everything that Wiesler doesn't.

At the premiere of one of Dreyman's plays, Wiesler indulges his professional habits by observing Dreyman and comes to the conclusion that, like so many vital, animated artists, he is a potential danger to the state. Neither man knows that Wiesler's suspicions serve as an accurate prediction of Dreyman's unprecedented rebellion, which is at long last triggered by the suicide of a blacklisted theater director (Kleinert) that the writer has long befriended. But as Wiesler conducts surveillance of Dreyman's home, he finds himself gradually, innately transformed by Dreyman and Sieland's artistic dynamism and romantic passion.

The subject matter of Donnersmarck's excellent script has permitted him to explore numerous personal and political themes in a variety of ways, and he does so with a considered refinement and dramatic severity. While this story could have taken a route that only examines the destructive potential of envy and isolation, Donnersmarck has chosen to create a film that celebrates the virtues of art, love and redemption in the historical context of a relatively recent phenomenon. The GDR has been the topic of many films, a handful of which are notable (Leander Haußmann's Sonnenallee is an especially amusing satirical portrayal of the defunct Communist state), but no film has provided such a penetrating, profound insight to the ugliest aspects of Stasi activities (or their consequences) as this one. Donnersmarck exhibits a satisfying appreciation for the obsessive fastidiousness, efficiency and regiment of the German character that's too often been misdirected in the service of the country's worst governments.

Of course, Donnersmarck's ambitions couldn't be realized without the extraordinary accomplishments of this movie's cast and crew. The performances of the veteran cast are exemplary; the story's array of demanding roles are played with naturalistic rigor. These portrayals are so affecting that they make the film's few dramatic contrivances (the most moving and clichéd of these is a surprising tragic death) entirely palatable. Hagen Bogdanski's beautiful cinematography lends a clarity and vibrancy to the proceedings that emphasizes the most colorful elements of an otherwise drab urban environment. The set decoration by Frank Noack is also impressive, providing the film with a detailed period authenticity.

The Lives Of Others has finally presented audiences with a serious cinematic depiction of one of the most harrowing periods of contemporary German history. If any of Donnersmarck's future projects are as compelling and profound as this, he's sure to enjoy a long and successful career.


Dana Olsen only appears twice the age of his twenty-year-old character in Making the Grade.

Making the Grade

Directed by Dorian Walker
Starring Judd Nelson, Dana Olsen, Jonna Lee, Walter Olkewicz, Andrew Dice Clay, Ronald Lacey, Gordon Jump, Dan Schneider, Scott McGinnis, John Dye, Carey Scott

Four archetypes dominated comedies of class conflict in the 1980s: straight men (and women), noxious authority figures, lovably insufferable boors and the medically retarded. All are prevalent in Golan-Globus's foray into Animal House territory, which - despite its hopeless predictability - is nearly as funny as it is stupid.

While spoiled, uncouth laggard Dana Olsen is horrified by a paternal caveat entailing a suspension of theretofore limitless funds if he fails to graduate from prep school after his seventh year of attendance, spastic schlemiel Judd Nelson is pursued by goons dispatched by bookie Anthony "Dice" Clay (oddly, among the least sordid of this picture's male cast). In exchange for $10K and a Porsche, Nelson assumes Olsen's identity in matriculation to the Anglosphere's very worst preparatory institution. As expected, he wreaks havoc, wears unspeakably atrocious attire and falls in love with a rich girl.

Pros:

Cons:

In the annals of snobs vs. slobs fare, Making the Grade may assume a footnote for being a cut above average, funnier than most flicks of its type and - save a few exceptionally hysterical scenes - ultimately forgettable. It's also superior to 90% of ostensibly comedic movies evacuated from the bowels of Hollywood into nationwide distribution over the course of the past twenty years.


Mamma Mia!

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper, Ashley Lilley, Rachel McDowall

Doubtless, this execrable thing is among the most repugnant motion pictures that I've seen: a fatuous, psychotically overrated, criminally galling celebration of concentrated idiocy. If the stage musical from which this drivel was adapted isn't my cup of tea, I may withal measure it a magnitude superior to this nettlesome slop. Here's what a viewer may anticipate from this cinematic abomination:

Suburban anglophone housewives rejoice: your age is now, as lionized by this filmic avatar of your collective vacuity and philistinism. Savor it while you can; in retrospect, no sound civilization will hesitate to obliterate every existing copy of this godforsaken calamity.


Maria Full of Grace

Directed by Joshua Marston
Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Virgina Ariza, Yenny Paola Vega, Rodrigo Sánchez Borhorquez, Charles Albert Patiño, Wilson Guerrero, Johanna Andrea Mora, Fabricio Suarez, Mateo Suarez, Evangelina Morales

The subject depicted in this film is hardly uncommon: an enterprising Colombian decides to work as a drug mule to escape the tedium of of work as an unskilled laborer and make a good profit. The individual in question swallows a large number of carefully-wrapped pellets containing either cocaine or heroin in order to smuggle them into the United States undetected. If all goes well, the transaction is successful and payment is tendered in exchange for the mule's defecated cargo. If not, a worst-case scenario might involve a long prison term or death when one of the pellets ruptures inside the mule's stomach.

If any other film has ever explored the duties of drug mules as its' primary subject matter, I haven't seen it. That's surprising, considering that these people are an essential part of the business and so many movies concerning the drug trade have been produced. This would have been a very easy subject to trivialize as a flashy actioner or a tiresome political exercise, but director Joshua Marston wrote and directed this film as a straightforward drama that spares no details.

While the entire cast is impressive, Moreno's performance justifies the enormous praise that's been lavished upon it. It's very rare to see a newcomer perform a role with naturalistic conviction, especially when said performance is reinforced with such effortless charm. That Moreno possesses what must be the purest, most pastoral beauty that I've seen onscreen in years doesn't exactly detract from her screen presence.

Marston accomplishes quite a lot with a small budget, almost giving this microproduction the polish of a major feature. Budget constraints are mostly relegated to a limited narrative that focuses entirely on the story from Maria's perspective. Perhaps 60% of the film consists of close-up shots of Moreno; since she's more than easy on the eyes and her delivery is flawless, this really isn't a problem. The tension and dramatic force of this tumultuous story is never dulled by unnecessary sentimental flourishes.

The clever visual metaphor of the theatrical poster and video cover isn't depicted in the film, and that's just as well. Nevertheless, few other promotional materials have ever caught my eye as these have. See how much can be done with good photography, a pretty face and thoughtful post-Catholic sensibilities?


Peeking up from a pond, a frog inhales poofily in Microcosmos

Microcosmos

Directed by Claude Nuridsany, Marie Pérennou
Narrated by Jacques Perrin

Brilliantly vibrant aerial, landscape, underground, macro, slow-motion and time lapse photography reveal the activity of those flora and fauna of wee scale in rural France. Hirsute bees collect nectar; a scarab beetle laboriously transports its dung ball across rocky, unforgiving terrain; dragonflies and snails passionately copulate; a cluster of caterpillars feed upon a leaf; ants collect particles to supplement their store of food; a rainstorm delivers tumult to water bugs, ladybugs and dispassionate frogs; underwater, a spider creates a hermetic abode of an air bubble. Not merely among the most resplendent and technically assiduous of nature documentaries, its mesmerizing vistas and gamut of activity are at least so intriguing as any human drama.


The Monster Maker

Directed by Sam Newfield
Starring J. Carrol Naish, Ralph Morgan, Tala Birell, Wanda McKay, Terry Frost, Glenn Strange, Ace the Wonder Dog

Obsessed with the daughter of a concert pianist because she bears an identical resemblance to his deceased wife, a mad scientist injects the virtuoso with the acromegaly virus, which produces hideous results. The lunatic scientist plans to exchange a cure for the pianist's daughter's hand in marriage, but his jealous assistant has different plans. This short feature is as cheaply made as most '40s horror B-movies, but it benefits from decent acting and a compelling story; there are worse ways to spend an hour. To illustrate how old this film is, it was rated B from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures back when it was known as the Legion of Decency.


Motel Hell

Directed by Kevin Connor
Starring Rory Calhoun, Nina Axelrod, Nancy Parsons, Paul Linke, E. Hampton Beagle, Monique St. Pierre, Rosanne Katon, Elaine Joyce, Gwil Richards, Toni Gillman, Everett Creach, Wolfman Jack

Travelers who find lodging at the remote Motel Hello are treated to the delicious beef jerky of Farmer Vincent (an aging Rory Calhoun), proprietor of both the inn and a popular line of smoked meat products. These transients only take their leave as a supplemental ingredient of the latter concern's victuals following subjection to the husbandman's sophisticated processing methods! As his distant location is seldom advantageous in lure of vacationing victims, the enterprising old rustic's ingenuity gives rise to numerous booby traps set to ensnare potentially delicious motorists.

Motel Hell's comedy is chiefly droll, occasionally hilarious; as a horror picture, it's never terrifying, though frequently disquieting...some exiguity of suspense hardly mitigates its palpable dread. Even so, the movie's cleverer elements surmount neither its myriad flaws nor dragging pace. So much hayseed's humor would seem more apposite to a Dukes of Hazzard episode, and Lance Rubin's lightweight score might well have been recycled from an installment of Amazing Stories. An ill-conceived romantic sub-plot further slows the story's rate to a wearisome shamble. However, its gory, farcical, maniacal conclusion is very nearly worth a long wait theretofore. This was co-written and produced by the brothers Jaffe - Steven-Charles and Robert, sons of producer Herb - so one can only wonder which was the more inventive and who the duller of the two; as Robert adroitly adapted Dean Koontz's Demon Seed to the cunning screenplay of Donald Cammell's film version, I'd lay wager that he's to be credited with most of Motel Hell's imaginative atrocities.

Calhoun's standout performance alternately exudes charismatic geniality and furious derangement; he was aptly cast in a role exploiting his capacities for both charm and malice. Porcine Nancy Parsons seethes unnervingly as his malicious, manic sister, Wolfman Jack plays a lascivious televangelist with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and Gwil Richards and Toni Gillman vigorously gnaw their every scene as a perverted married couple. Unfortunately, the cast's remainder are best likened to a cord of winter lumber - especially charmless Nina Axelrod as the requisite distressed damsel.

Appropriately, Tobe Hooper was to helm Motel Hell and would surely have produced a more exciting, amusing feature had Universal Studios not abandoned the project and reassigned him to direct The Funhouse. A shame, that: it could have been a fun interstitial undertaking betwixt his two Texas Chainsaw Massacre flicks.


My Name is Bruce

Directed by Bruce Campbell
Starring Bruce Campbell, Grace Thorsen, Taylor Sharpe, Ted Raimi, Ben L. McCain, Ellen Sandweiss, Tim Quill

Those who are entirely unfamiliar with B-movie thespian Bruce Campbell and the many beloved schlock movies that he's starred in would do well to avoid this movie altogether; it's neither a good starting point from which to explore this minor phenomenon, nor substantial enough to retain the interest of the uninitiated. Those who have developed either a distaste or disinterest in Campbell's career would also do well to stay away from this, as it's the kind of project tailored to appeal to fans. If you're one of those fans, you've probably already seen this and know what you think of the film, so the only people who really need to read beyond this paragraph are those who have cultivated a substantial (though not fanatic) taste for Campbell's many silly projects and goofy, charismatic performances.

Herein, The Chin portrays an obnoxious, washed-up, alcoholic caricature of himself who's kidnapped by a fan from a small mining town. The locals of this burg are either unwilling or unable to distinguish Campbell from his heroic onscreen alter-egos, and so expect him to violently exorcise the angry spirit of a Chinese death god who's menacing the town.

Plotted in the vein of Three Amigos, this is about as predictable as most of the movie's visual gags and jokes. Of course, this isn't an entirely negative aspect of the film; My Name is Bruce is nothing if not a parody of Campbell's entire career. The Chin's filmography, bibliography, interaction with his fandom and many career exploits are all cleverly referenced throughout the course of this story. The problem with Mark Verheiden's script is only that it's underdeveloped - it plays out like a very promising first draft that simply needed a treatment or two, and considering Campbell's talent for scribing farcical humor, I really can't fathom why he didn't contribute more to it. The proceedings are marked by no small number of very funny moments, but for each of these, there are two that fall quite flat.

Mostly comprised of amateur unknowns from Campbell's home state of Oregon, the most visible of the cast cast perform ably despite wooden acting from those in certain minor roles; ostensible love interest Grace Thorsen exhibits a particular talent for comedic exchange. As usual, Ted Raimi is present, and in no fewer than three roles. He's decent enough as a sleazy Hollywood agent, and entirely hit-and-miss as a pair of walking Chinese and Italian stereotypes, who aren't as amusing as they could be and could only offend the most sensitive audience members, who aren't likely to have any interest in this in the first place. Evil Dead devotees will surely be pleased to see Ellen Sandweiss, Tim Quill and Dan Hicks in a few small, playful roles. Overall, these performances aren't any more or less competent than those of the average big-budget genre picture, and I'd much sooner support the efforts of outsiders than those of bloated studio drones. Of course, Campbell holds the whole movie together with his enormous screen presence and trademark charm.

As a director, Campbell seems to be developing steadily, if slowly. This is much better than the annoying Man with the Screaming Brain, and most of the other moronic B-features that he stars in, for that matter. As a nod to Sam Raimi's style, Campbell implements tilted composition and zooms to decent effect, and never seems to take any aspect of the project too seriously - a wise decision if there ever was one. The most carefully shot sequence in the entire movie is that of a scene from a fake B-movie typical of Campbell's oeuvre, in which every common goof is on display: a boom mike shadow, crew members in the background periphery, ridiculous continuity errors, actors glancing at their floor-bound marks, etc.

While this isn't quite a flop, it doesn't exactly work, either. The film's premise was thoroughly exploited, but not to sufficient effect. Its special effects are passable and actually much better than those of the average B-movie. Ultimately, it's reasonably entertaining, yet marginally unsatisfying. A better screenplay would have yielded a product more worthy of its star's cult fame.


9

Directed by Shane Acker
Starring Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Alan Oppenheimer

Essentially a feature-length expansion of the impressive short film that director Shane Acker created as a student project at UCLA, this CG cartoon is considerably better than its mild stateside reception might suggest. What it lacks in story and character development, 9 compensates for with an ingenious production design, extraordinary graphics and an endearing sincerity.

Set in a war-ravaged landscape devoid of organic life and inhabited by nine sentient, action figure-sized rag doll homunculi, the lightweight story begins when the titular last among their group awakens to life. Through adventure and accident, a massive automaton designed to build and organize the operations of war machines is reactivated and immediately prepares to fulfill its sole function: to exterminate the only other intelligent life forms known to it. Attempts to combat this military construct are complicated by hierarchical in-fighting and a revelation concerning the difficult relation between these survivors and their adversary.

Murky, junk-strewn and brimming with detail, the post-apocalyptic terrain is a suitably perilous backdrop for quite a few elaborate character designs. Each homunculus appears constructed of different metals and fabrics, and their devised tools and patchwork self-repairs indicate the nature of both their intelligence and hardships. Even more impressive than these are the piecemeal antagonists built to pursue them, each comprised of commonplace items, animal remains and scraps of fabrics and metals. This attention to detail is only enhanced by the extraordinarily naturalistic body language and motion with which each character is imbued.

Ably voiced by a well-cast selection of popular actors, all of the roles were assigned to performers perfectly suited to them. Plummer and Reilly are particular standouts, Wood is appropriate in the well-intentioned but none-too-bright lead, Glover is afforded far too little time as the manic artist of the group and Landau and Connelly provide backbone as the two most reliable personalities. Luminary cartoon vocalist Alan Oppenheimer provides the voice of the group's fatherly roboticist creator - clearly an ironic casting decision, as he's a cousin of famed theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Even though its exceptional visuals have been uniformly praised, it's not difficult to understand why 9 failed to attract more than passing notice during its numerous test screenings and brief theatrical run. The film's tone is almost invariably dismal, major protagonists are killed off repeatedly and the story's gloomy conclusion isn't terribly satisfying. A hopelessly inept advertising campaign didn't help matters, but blame for this film's failure to attract a wider audience rests squarely on the shoulders of that very audience. Most Americans don't know what they want unless it's stupid and simple. I've read one complaint after another of this film's eighty-minute brevity as though the running time is a flaw in and of itself, but if its ample action had been interspersed with more exposition and deliberation, it's certain that the popular complaint for it would be that it's boring.

If 9 is deficient in any way, it's because its intriguing world and the fascinating inhabitants therein are too often terrorized, and barely examined. As a result, each of these little survivors are well-defined but lack any significant depth. Both the concept and its execution are full of invention and heart, and for this it warrants a viewing, but its narrative is underdeveloped and likely to leave most wanting.


Frank Langella elists the aid of Johnny Depp in order to secure a passage through The Ninth Gate

The Ninth Gate

Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Emmanuelle Seigner, Lena Olin, Barbara Jefford, Jack Taylor, José López Rodero, James Russo

Those most conspicuous qualities of Polanski's unfairly maligned pan-European adventure invites comparison to his classic Rosemary's Baby. Adapted from novels concerning obsession with satanic ritual and invocation, both films challenge the pertinence of the horror rubric. Although the mephistophelian transgressions of Rosemary's Baby are couched in a topic of maternity, The Ninth Gate ventures a cryptic, circuitous route through a preoccupation more abstruse than it ought be: bibliophilia.

Scarcely faithful to its source material (Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel The Club Dumas), The Ninth Gate's narrative pertains ultimately to the pursuit of a personal connection with the famed Dark Prince, yet its myriad diversions invariably communicate the perspectives of dedicated collectors and literary cognoscenti immoderately fascinated with codices. Johnny Depp's cunning Dean Corso is certainly as unethical a trader of printed material as one might dread to encounter, but his admiration for those historical and technical aspects of volumes rare and exquisite is rooted in an affection for these tomes that intimates an enthusiast's purity of captivation.

Boris Balkan (played with imperial elocution by Frank Langella) is an affluent publisher, lecturer and collector of literature who's cultivated an unparalleled interest in Luciferian writings. He commissions Corso to investigate two alternate copies of a seventeenth-century satanic text (loosely based on early Renaissance allegory Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) that he's obtained, so to authenticate it by dint of collocational examination. Evidently, this uncommonly rare volume is intended to conjure Beelzebub, and hasn't yielded its owner's desired results. Balkan surmises that his copy may be a postiche, and that one or both of two others in prestigious collections privately held in Portugal and France is the genuine article.

Polanski devotees anticipating the Polish filmmaker's earmark paranoia may be disappointed to find it here attenuated, though by no means absent. Alternately amusing and engrossing, The Ninth Gate's as cleverly plotted and sedulously detailed as exciting, containing a modicum of its director's usual prefigurations and indulgent casting. As always, the cinema veteran exploits his gifted principal histrions to their optimal potential; in the lead, Depp's cool reserve as library sleuth is contrasted with that of a malefic, seemingly omnipresent Langella and graceful Emmanuelle Seigner as Corso's mysterious, uninvited, apparently preternatural companion. Lena Olin's snarling turn in the role of a wealthy, libidinous, underhanded widower is of especial distinction, as is erstwhile Stratford/Old Vic fixture Barbara Jefford as a haughty, crippled Teutonic baroness whose enviable literary collection yields a few startling revelations.

Visually, it's surely one of Polanski's most opulent movies. Darius Khondji's lush, subtly lit cinematography accommodates leisurely, almost casual camera direction comprised largely of deliberate zooms and pans. Polanski retains viewer attentiveness to these proceedings without resorting to gimmickry. Composed by his compatriot Wojciech Kilar, the score boasts elegant variations on an ominous, memorable theme, and a gorgeous vocal sung by soprano Sumi Jo in its closing reprise. Francisco Sole's woodcut engravings - fabricated to furnish Pérez-Reverte's novel with illustrations - impart a Renaissance verisimilitude to the infernal coveted volumes.

Invariably panned upon release by critics who expected terror, shocks and suspense, a compelling protagonist and explication withheld by the implicit epiphany of its denouement while stupidly misinterpreting Polanski's distinctive black humor, The Ninth Gate does deliver an effective few jolts, but any hope that Americans might embrace a picture proffering mere intimations of erudition were dashed by its apathetic stateside reception. Polanski's professional deportment evinces an indifference to genre conventions...alas, in this instance, that nonchalance didn't translate to box office success.


No Country for Old Men

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper

While it's very easy to trace comparisons between this film and prior Coen projects, such an exercise seems almost trivial when one considers that this story was adapted from one of Cormac McCarthy's most accessible novels. It's comforting to note that the Coens have found a story compatible with their usual trademarks: dialogue characterized by a regional vernacular, eccentrics who both voice and embody the story's themes and a measured pace interjected by bizarre scenes of intense violence.

Although the narrative follows the aftermath of a south Texas drug deal gone brutally awry, the central theme of the movie - a world changing for the worse - is always ominously present either in the forefront or periphery. When adapting this novel to the screen, the Coens were wise not to alter McCarthy's despairing, unamenable conclusions.

While all of the performances are excellent (most of the principal cast affect drawls nearly as convincing as that of native Texan Jones), the unquestionable centerpoint of the movie is Javier Bardem, whose enormous screen presence and cultivated air of impassive menace command the viewer's attention. Bardem's English is surprisingly keen and his grasp of this simple, vicious persona is startling and entirely convincing. Bardem is already known to many Americans via his extraordinary performance in Before Night Falls and even his breakthrough role in Jamón, jamón. Hopefully, this incredible performance will establish one of Spain's most popular actors as a widely recognizable talent in North America.

From a technical standpoint, this is surely the most beautiful film that the Coens have ever shot. The movie's photographic clarity and fastidious direction produce scenes of extraordinary vividness. Desolate west Texan desert landscapes, endless stretches of interstate highway and even commonplace motel rooms are all rendered with a distinct immediacy. The movie's impeccable sound design isn't encumbered by any involved music; only a few faint ambient tones are heard at certain pivotal moments. While Coen mainstay composer Carter Burwell contributed one track that scores the movie's end titles and a few ambient tones that briefly underscore certain key scenes, no music is featured elsewhere in the film. The result is a soundtrack that never obstructs the tension, grim humor or somber milieu of this film's extraordinary proceedings.


Ramond Massey seems considerably more confident than Ernest Thesiger, if only because he doesn't know so much about The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House

Directed by James Whale
Starring Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Brember Wills, Elspeth Dudgeon

Here's a treat beloved of all vintage horror enthusiasts: a charming, occasionally spooky thriller directed by James Whale in his native U.K. following the success of his iconic Frankenstein adaptation. Paired with the most talented of his on-set collaborators from the previous picture - D.P. Arthur Edeson and set designer Charles D. Hall - Whale's treatment of J.P. Priestley's Benighted treads lightly on the novel's central theme of interwar social exhaustion and adds copious good humor without deviating from its plot.

Lost in a remote area of the Welsh mountains during a downpour, a bickering couple (Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart) and their discharged, gentlemanly friend (Melvyn Douglas) arrive at a decrepit mansion, where they hope to stay the night. They're greeted by a pair of elderly siblings - haunted yet facetious Ernest Thesiger, maniacally religious Eva Moore - and their hulking, mute butler, played by Boris Karloff in a manner very alike that of his most famous role. This traveling threesome tolerate the ominous quality of their nightly lodgings, but even before a clamorous, rotund businessman (Charles Laughton) and his ostensible girlfriend (Lilian Bond) arrive by like straits, they're aware that their hosts aren't the only residents of this gloomy manse...!

Still at the peak of his powers, Whale coaxes fine performances from his dream cast: banter deftly exchanged by Massey and Stuart as well as Thesiger and Moore is enough to coax a smile from even the most jaded cineast, Douglas gamely engages both romantic and heroic capacities, Karloff was seldom so menacing, nor Bond so magnetically gorgeous. This is just as well, as the script by Benn Levy and R.C. Sherriff faithfully devotes much more time to character development than macabre happenings, a few of which are shockingly vicious in contradistinction to otherwise lighthearted proceedings. An abundance of bone-dry humor guaranteed the enormous success of The Old Dark House in the U.K., but stateside, unreceptive sensibilities doomed it to box office failure. Its story doesn't amount to much, but it's a delightful seventy-two minutes, and its influence is nigh incalculable.


The Omen

Directed by John Moore
Starring Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Mia Farrow, David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite

Hollywood will not rest until every notable horror film produced in America during the '70s or Japan over the course of the past decade has been remade. Even then, the terrible temptation of the sequel will not be resisted. A remake of the great Satanic classic The Omen was by no means necessary, so here it is!

This remake distinguishes itself from most of the others pumped out by major studios by not being in any way terrible. There is nothing trashy and very little that is particularly stupid in The Omen, which is actually quite refreshing. However, there is also very little that's original here. This is perhaps the most stringently faithful remake that I've ever seen, so much so that I was able to predict nearly every single occurrence in the film ten minutes before it happened. Even the dialogue in many of the scenes is often identical to that of the source. The few variations of the story are manifest as surprises, most of which are quite effective. This film induces a few shocks and a couple of genuine scares, but that's about all. Most of this is a rather dull retread of the 1976 classic.

One of the primary sources of this blandness is Liev Schreiber, who is as wooden as a crate in the lead. I can only imagine that whichever relative stuck his foot in the door for Schreiber was the same person who did him the disservice of telling him that he can act. He affects a baritone that sounds vaguely similar to that of Gregory Peck at times, but most of his lines are delivered in a monotone and he quite literally expresses almost no emotion over the course of the entire feature. He smiles once, tries (and fails) to emote a few times and generally makes an ass of himself. Schreiber has a keen look about him and some screen presence, but he simply can not act, and whoever chose to cast him in a lead role doesn't deserve the job. Any comparison drawn between Schreiber and Peck is laughable. Gregory Peck was one of the most charismatic, commanding actors of his generation; Liev Schreiber is good-looking window dressing.

The rest of the cast is actually quite good. Stiles (whose Celt face is chubbier all the time) capably substitutes for Lee Remick; neither as convincing nor shrill as her predecessor, her performance is decent, and leagues more impressive than her awful dye-job. Pete Postlethwaite plays a more subdued, less intense Father Brennan as compared to Patrick Troughton's wild-eyed delivery. Mia Farrow's role as Luciferian nanny Baylock is quite well-played and her casting is a clever (albeit obvious) reference to Rosemary's Baby...the trouble is, how many devoted horror fans are going to watch this to recognize the intent in the first place? While not quite a weak link, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick is hardly as cute or creepy as the original Damien, Harvey Stephens.

John Moore's direction is at times very impressive; many of the scenes here are beautifully framed, and the editing is excellent. However, Jonathan Sela's cinematography bears mixed fruit. Some of the bright, oversaturated scenes evoke fond memories of the grainy 35mm stock on which so many '70s B-movies were shot. This has nothing to do with The Omen and it's implemented infrequently here, but it is a nice look. Unfortunately, most of the film is predictably tinted with color filters, a photographic trend that's become as ubiquitous as it is excessive in contemporary American films, and especially those of the horror genre. A hint for Mr. Sela: dim back lighting produces much creepier results than tinting half of the entire film and producing a thoroughly blue movie, one that isn't any more atmospheric for it.

In summary: it's not too bad, it's a thing of its time and place, if it weren't made, nobody would care, it can't touch the original and it makes for a nice summer viewing if you want a few scares. That is all.


Kazue Fukiishi's television debut couldn't be more tense in One Missed Call

One Missed Call

Directed by Takashi Miike
Starring Ko Shibasaki, Shinichi Tsutsumi, Kazue Fukiishi, Renji Ishibashi, Karen Oshima, Mariko Tsutsui, Anna Nagata

One can feel the J-Horror bubble burst while viewing this.

A fine plot is poorly advanced by its derivative premise: college kids receive voicemail recordings via cell phone of their own impending deaths, all of which inevitably occur. This film's first act advances dully as useless characters are predictably dispatched, and only becomes intriguing as it approaches the source of this mayhem - a deceptively simple instance of familial abuse. Those first plodding forty minutes are redeemed by the final half-hour, essentially a protracted conclusion that confounds prediction until the credits roll.

Ichi the Killer and Sukiyaki Western Django proved that Miike's talent and versatile sense of humor can't overcome fundamentally asinine scripts. This tale's uneven quality isn't at all ameliorated by his stylistic trademarks: gorgeous photography and knotty editing as executed by his two most talented recurring collaborators, Hideo Yamamoto and Yasushi Shimamura. For every seat-jumping shock or creepy twist that Miike lands, three result in risible duds that'll roll back any horror enthusiast's eyes. Etsuko Egawa's macabre makeup effects are superb, yet occasionally undone by middling CG, the efficacy of which differs from one effects shot to the next.

Despite their two-dimensional characters, the principal cast is quite good, despite having too little to do in the film's sluggish introductory stage. Until her departure, doomed Kazue Fukiishi steals the show from star Ko Shibasaki with a performance so redolent of dread that one can taste her apprehension. Unknowns in lesser roles shine especially bright as sadistic parents and unwitting victims; again, Miike incites verisimilar barbarity from his cast.

Yasushi Akimoto's novel on which this movie was based was essentially a well-crafted rip-off of Koji Suzuki's Ring. Miike can't be fairly blamed for exploiting familiar imagery and conditions pertaining to Onryo, but his best efforts only elevate this entry a notch above mediocrity. The genre so popularly revitalized by Ishii and Nakata was delivered to its creative apex by K. Kurosawa two years before this, and despite its box office success, it only breathed the last worthy gasp of a now-depleted cinematic phenomenon.

It was fun while it lasted.


Peering at her reflection, Jitsuko Yoshimura likes what she sees in Onibaba

Onibaba

Directed by Kaneto Shindo
Starring Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato, Taiji Tonoyama, Jukichi Uno

At the dawn of the warring Nanboku-cho era, spent samurai of the Kusunoki army who wander into a remote area of grassy swamp are murdered by a tough, aging peasant woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her comely daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who thereafter dispose of their bodies in a pit and sell their armor and weapons in exchange for food. This vicious yet practical routine is disrupted by the arrival of their conscripted son and husband's loutish friend (Kei Sato), who returns to inform them that their mutual kin is dead. Mother's acrimonious regard for the surviving former combatant worsens when lust and desperation drive her and her partner apart, but an encounter with a mysterious masked warrior introduces a supernatural element first in support, then defiance of the trite morality that she utilizes as a means of manipulation.

Already a veteran in excess of twenty years in his long and ongoing career, screenwriter-director Shindo co-opted the popularity of indulgent, amoral narratives predominant in the contemporaneous Nuberu bagu movement, and this horrific jidaigeki eschews ethical allegory entirely. He also turned the folk parable on its head; a few ingenious instances of foreshadowing alternate with as many false hints in resistance to audience prediction. Melodramatic performances herein occasionally turn hammy, but Shindo's wife Otowa is jarringly real as the titular hag. Savage and alluring, Yoshimura also exhibits her modest beauty and aptitude for playing terrorized figures to some effect. Shot in a field of susuki grass, Onibaba owes its visual splendor to both its location and Kiyomi Kuroda's magnificent photography, cunningly employed by Shindo to establish a thematic analog linking the windswept grasses to his story's very human passions. An eerie melange of orchestra, jazz, Taiko and musique concrète, Hikaru Hayashi's twisted score is an evocative complement to the film's shady visuals.

Effectual as both a character drama and an examination of supreme anomie, this classic is the equal of (and a serviceable double-bill with) Kobayashi's extravagant Kaidan, also released to enormous acclaim in 1964.


Orphan

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Aryana Engineer

For that small selection of motion pictures that approach greatness and fall far short of it, this is a particularly notable entry. In the '70s, no major studio would touch something this audacious, and no filmmaker who engaged it would dare to dilute it to satisfy tender sensibilities. However, this is an age in which the whims of hysterical hausfrauen and other gluttonous, shrieking, hypersensitive demographics determine commercial success and failure, in which anything that's not distributed (and too often spoiled) by a corporate media conglomerate has a passing chance at nationwide (much less international) screenings. Thanks to these intervening factors, David Johnson's clever, delightfully vicious script for Orphan (based on an original story by Alex Mace) was reworked into a far less brutal, depraved and satisfying story for mass consumption. Nonetheless, it still has much more bite than most other mainstream American horror films that you'll see nowadays.

Equipped with an adequate pan-Slavic accent, newcomer Isabelle Fuhrman delivers a knockout performance as a cute, creepy Russian orphan adopted by a wealthy couple played by bipedal jellyfish Peter Sarsgaard and the unappetizing, horse-faced Vera Farmiga. Initially adorable and ultimately gruesome, Fuhrman's sly, weighty, volatile portrayal of a calculating sociopath is far more fun than anything else here. Almost immediately, the tiny terror wreaks havoc by exacting violent (and not entirely unwarranted) revenge on bullying classmates, meddling authority figures and her petulant stepbrother (Jimmy Bennett) while manipulating her half-deaf stepsister (Aryana Engineer) and therapist (Margo Martindale). Despite her busy schedule, she still takes the time to terrorize her overbearing adoptive mother. Since her new parents have plenty of baggage to exploit - he's indulged in a fling and she's a former lush - the infantile bedlamite has plenty of mistrust with which to slowly, craftily undermine their uncertain relationship. Though they're little more than bland, mobile props in comparison to their lovable lunatic charge, Sarsgaard and Farmiga are entirely convincing in their roles - he's as credibly spineless as she is disconsolate.

With a gutsy, intelligent director at the helm, even this watered-down redaction of Johnson's earlier treatment could have been ruthlessly effective. Unfortunately, budding Catalan hack Jaume Collet-Serra - whose résumé includes numerous TV commercials, music videos and the heinous House of Wax remake - has no idea what he's doing here. His attempts to shock his audience are at best ineffectual and at worst risibly incoherent, and his composition is embarrassingly clumsy during the momentary occasions when he strays from his formulaic technique. If Collet-Serra had spent more time interacting with his talented cast and discarded the movie's moronic visual flourishes, he might have come away with a minor classic instead of a movie best remembered for its squandered promise.

The film's production values are of mixed quality. Jeff Cutter's cinematography is gorgeous, replete with lush, dark hues. It's nice to note one DP of a horror film who doesn't rush to utilize a blue color filter for every single nighttime shot. On the other hand, John Ottman's score is yet more negligible music for another movie that doesn't need any - mostly tired scare cues and bland ambient exercises. There's far too much product placement: a large Hello Kitty emblem on a child's wall is pleasant enough, but there's no reason why I need to see so much Guitar Hero in a feature film, especially when it it could be better substituted by a television channel. Also, there's CGI fire and smoke in lieu of the real thing, and that's never convincing.

Not much here is actually scary; only a brief, unsightly, thankfully aborted coupling between Farmiga and Sarsgaard horrifies. This picture is best appreciated for the twisted cunning of its little protagonist. When she holds a utility knife to the soft, pink neck of her prickish philistine stepbrother, threatens him with castration and coaxes fluids from both his tear ducts and groin by doing so, there I am on my comfy couch, crying tears of joy that someone, somewhere still has the spine to make me smile. That's why this is so frustrating - in those last forty-odd minutes, most of its script's best punches are pulled as the movie deteriorates into silliness and trite genre clichés. Even when the juvenile hellion's shocking secret is revealed, any discerning horror enthusiast is bound to come away disappointed. As deliciously perverse as the original script was, its transgressions still weren't sufficiently severe. Were these characters developed to full fruition, a few plot holes sealed and the scenarios resolved with a virulence worthy of their implications, this could have been the definitive contemporary successor of that great, diminished American legacy of exploitation and horror films.

Maybe next decade.


The Oxford Murders

Directed by Álex de la Iglesia
Starring Elijah Wood, John Hurt, Leonor Watling, Julie Cox, Jim Carter, Alex Cox, Burn Gorman, Dominique Pinon, Anna Massey

There's nothing in this world as intolerable, as agitative and worthy of derision as a stupid feature film that's supposed to be clever. However, this is the bread and butter of one Álex de la Iglesia, whose career has been horribly loosed from the geographical and cultural borders of his native Spain. For those unfamiliar with his transgressions, de la Iglesia's been churning out trite genre fare for nearly two decades - the sort of overheated drivel that's gradually homogenizing and dulling Spanish cinematic culture. Some twisted prick decided that de la Iglesia was fit to helm a film adaptation of Guillermo Martinez's novel of the same title (which isn't safe either because when I'm good and ready, I'll track it down, read it and give it another beating for good measure), and he was right.

At least de la Iglesia is prompt, immediately bombarding his audience with stupidity: the first scene depicts a trench-pocked WWI landscape in which Ludwig Wittgenstein sits, oblivious to bombs and bullets about him as he scribbles down notes for his groundbreaking philosophical text, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Never mind that Wittgenstein actually wrote most of it as a prisoner of war in Cassino; apparently, this is way cooler.

Somehow, it all just goes downhill from there.

To summarize the premise with merciful brevity: John Hurt is a renowned mathematics professor, Elijah Wood his ambitious student. Do they engage in an erudite study of mathematical logic and equations? No, stupid! That would be boring! Instead, they spend most of their screen time badly explaining and paraphrasing Wittgenstein, Heisenberg, Fibonaccian series, Gödel's Theorem, the Vesica Piscis, etc. while attempting to solve a series of murders, most of which could be sorted out with simple logic - that's how predictable most of this is. Typing Hurt's name in the same sentence as Wood's triggers a strange and wholly unpleasant sensation; that the latter has top billing is merely depressing.

As usual, Hurt is terrific in his obnoxious role; now and again, he almost generates something resembling depth. If you can somehow divorce his spectacular presence from the banal drivel issuing from his mouth, you'll recognize that he's the only person in the entire cast who salvages any of his dignity. Vacantly wide-eyed, Wood and his overripe prospective love interests/murder suspects (Leonor Watling and Julie Cox) all rush stiffly through their ludicrous dialogue, as though they're as desperate to get through this as we are. Absolutely devoid of any charm or talent, these three often seem as though they're engaged in a lavish reading instead of actual acting. Far more ridiculous, actor-director Alex Cox plays an obsessive, deranged academic who wastes away from cancer and self-lobotomizes with a nail gun - the only entertaining shot in the whole movie and a comfort for anyone who sat through his worthless Akira Kurosawa documentary or Repo Chick, the unbearable cash-in sequel to his cult classic, Repo Man.

Even at his very worst, Wood's plank-like delivery is no match for the excruciating Burn Gorman as a manic Russian exchange student, the token red herring. In possibly the single worst performance that I've seen in a major motion picture, Gorman masticates his every scene furiously in a thin-lipped maw, affecting an accent of some sort that sounds vaguely French. At least Walter Koenig used to sound as though he was supposed to be a Russian, albeit an obvious counterfeit.

There's so much here that makes me cringe: Wood's asinine pronouncement, "I believe in the number pi!" and his constant whining; a torturous excess of stilted, pompous dialogue; pointless flashbacks that only serve to pad the running time and render every obvious clue even more unmistakable; a succession of stale plot twists; physically offensive sex scenes (Wood's scrawny, pasty body is topped by a head that's racing unpleasantly into middle age, and I had to watch it smooch and screw); an extraneous telling of Guy Fawkes' exploits; worst of all, an aimless conclusion in which Hurt's character attempts to shift blame using a simple, easily-defused logical fallacy that's supposed to blow all of our minds wide open.

De la Iglesia's style is slick, but also not his own. It's not enough to call this Hitchcockian; utilizing meaningful, off-center close-ups, lengthy tracking shots (which are risibly ostentatious, especially in comparison to Hitchcock's far more refined sequences) and Kiko de la Rica's shadowy, gorgeous photography, his attempts to ape the style of a cinema legend are nothing less than enraging. Even Roque Baños' score sounds as though he cherry-picked and tweaked passages from a selection of Bernard Herrmann themes. If I wanted a Hitchcock film, I'd watch a Hitchcock film. De la Iglesia isn't even derivative in a timely manner; ripping off Hitch hasn't been in vogue for decades.

If this is where British cinema has come to rest and Spanish cinema is heading, I'm very sorry to see that they're following the stupid, mediocre lead of their U.S. counterpart. This really is the worst sort of bad movie. It's not fun and its milieu is sterile. It's ludicrous in a way that makes one wince rather than smile. Utterly gutless and derivative to a blatant fault, it represents everything that's wrong with contemporary film making. Let this be a lesson to Studio Canal and all of the other financiers of this failed production - when an able crew and a gifted, aging star are available, don't squander their talents on a hackneyed story or the direction of a bloated Basque who generates dumb black comedies and silly crime dramas.

I had to watch an old favorite just to get the rancid aftertaste of this crap out of my mouth.


Point of Terror

Directed by Alex Nicol
Starring Peter Carpenter, Dyanne Thorne, Lory Hansen, Leslie Simms, Joel Marston, Paula Mitchell

There is a certain difficulty to be had in the objective examination of one of the worst films ever made, and I contend that Point of Terror is just that: as extraordinarily awful as The Electric Chair, Manos: The Hands of Fate or Monster A Go-Go, and even trashier than the sleaziest Italian thrillers that I've seen. In fact, Point of Terror is downright nauseating: between the inane music, disgusting story and greasy pectorals of lead Peter Carpenter, I honestly, literally cannot watch this film while eating.

The acting is uniformly terrible, but at least it's entertaining. Carpenter gnaws the scenery vigorously as an unintentionally moronic, criminally opportunistic lounge singer, while a pre-Ilsa Dyanne Thorne delivers a delightfully haughty and psychotic performance as the wretched wife of a crippled record label impresario, who Carpenter beds to obtain a record contract. Plenty of sex and murder ensues, all of it executed with amusing ineptitude.

However, the real reason to see this garbage is its godforsaken musical numbers, "performed" by a gyrating, lip-syncing Carpenter decked out in costumes that look as though they were worn by Elvis and Tom Jones for a night each before being discarded because they were too tacky. Words can't express the sheer hilarity of the nightclub performance and recording studio scenes: some of the most asinine pop music ever recorded paired with impeccably cheap sets and embarrassing posturing, all of which is shot so poorly that it's hard to understand exactly what the director is trying to emphasize.

Point of Terror also fails as a decent sexploitation movie. Nudity is strictly minimal here, so the attractive ladies of the cast aren't even given an opportunity to exploit their voluptuous assets - none of which are in any way related to acting.

If you're looking for the worst of the worst, Point of Terror will fit the bill - this movie is so stupid, so absurd and so tawdry that it almost defies description. What doesn't make you laugh will leave you stunned that something so horrible could ever be committed to film.


Prometheus

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Rafe Spall, Emun Elliott, Benedict Wong

Exiting a screening of Ridley Scott's ludicrous, inexplicably acclaimed sword-and-sandal epic twelve years ago, I vowed never again to pay for the trial of enduring one of his movies. Both then and now, most entries of Scott's filmography following his first three miraculous features are at best underwhelming. Though he's never demeaned himself by defecating Baysian action tripe as his sibling Tony does so often, Scott has turned out an appalling abundance of fatuous genre pictures: derivative, bloodless crime dramas (Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, American Gangster, Body of Lies); obnoxious, misguided feminist concessions (Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane); visually sumptuous yet dramatically empty and woefully inaccurate period adventures (1492: Conquest of Paradise, the aforementioned Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood); worse of all, a pair of clumsy, painfully unfunny comedies (Matchstick Men, the abominable A Good Year). However, Scott's two early works of science fiction cinema are not merely among the finest of that genre and deserving of their tremendous popularity, but also admirable assays of filmic horror and crime. What's more, the veteran director's recension of these classics is quite the opposite of George Lucas' bungled Star Wars revisions: his director's cuts of Alien and Blade Runner are exemplary, absterged of objectionable elements and seamlessly subsuming previously cut footage that augmented both films' subtexts and impact. Better still, neither were intended as replacements for their theatrical antecedents.

Scott's shrinking yet devoted fanbase has defended the aging filmmaker for decades; when engaging one of his fans in argument, one can always concede that an oeuvre of three great works and at least fifteen resounding artistic failures yields not so bad a ratio by current standards. Considering this substandard output in addition to to two abysmal latter Alien sequels (Joss Whedon being at least so responsible as Jean-Pierre Jeunet for the abject idiocy of the last, despite his inarticulate falsehoods otherwise), can a divergent precursor of the venerated first picture generate sufficient interest among its enthusiasts? On the strengths of the Alien director's cut and promise of some notable assembled talent, this reviewer revoked an oath of a decade and two years prior, and justifiably so. By its faults, Prometheus is denied indisputable grandeur, yet its colossal proportions, magnificent conceptual scope and assiduous realization may well instill some awe in even the most jaded cineast.

In rural Scotland of 2089, a pair of archaeologists (Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green) discover a peculiar cave drawing depicting a star map identical to others unearthed at numerous locales across the planet. Having identified a location specified in these ancient illustrations, they embark on a journey of two years to a small, distant moon courtesy of the superannuated CEO (Guy Pierce, nigh-unrecognizable beneath elaborate makeup) of a massive corporation (Weyland, precedent of notorious, interstellar, terraforming conglomerate Weyland-Yutani). Under the inflexible authority of a frigid mission director (Charlize Theron), the crew of spacecraft Prometheus (so christened to reflect its mission's exploratory ambitions) is comprised of its captain (Idris Elba), two pilots (Emun Elliott and Benedict Wong), a medical officer (Kate Dickey), a biologist (Rafe Spall) and geologist (Sean Harris), and the aforementioned archaeological pioneers. Secrets extracted upon and within the planetoid provide unimpeachable evidence of mankind's origins, exceeding expectations and dashing hopes of benevolent higher intelligence elsewhere in the galaxy.

None of Prometheus' philosophical themes or physiological implications are reconciled or addressed satisfactorily - a limitation that both compliments and impairs its audacious narrative. Those seeking an exposition concerning the species of Alien's space jockey will undoubtedly be wholly satisfied. Perhaps the movie's best aspect is a retention of mystery: to provoke its viewers' imaginations, it presents at least so many questions as answers. Readers of Lovecraft will hardly find its otherworldly enigmas and adventuresome dread especially novel; At the Mountains of Madness and Dune are perhaps its most cognate literary equivalents and influences, from which screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof owe a heavy debt to Lovecraft and Herbert for their historied fantasies of alien ecology, biology, technology and culture traced from inception to apex to ruination.

If Scott has demonstrated any expertise, it is indisputably that of a filmmaker whose fabricated worlds are conferred the most exquisite detail and immersing quality. A skilled illustrator, he draws nearly all of his own storyboards and has interacted successfully with no small number of design and effects luminaries. Here, the photography of Dariusz Wolski (likely the most unremarkable competent DP of his field) is typically faultless and drab, but he was wisely chosen - his invariably muted hues complement this story's foreboding ambiance and environments. However, Arthur Max's production design and the efforts of the extensive art and effects departments bore terrific fruit. Prometheus boasts enormous, spectacular sets, most of which are visually astonishing and entirely credible. Although the titular vessel features many design elements first seen in its utilitarian successor Nostromo as designed by Jean Giraud, Chris Foss, and Ron Cobb, its more advanced navigational interfaces and investigative apparatuses may be attributed to its specialized purpose - one hardly considered by the crew of a cargo tug! The extraterrestrial interiors are gargantuan, redolent of millennial inertia, supreme advancement and unimaginable peril. Most wondrous of the many discoveries therein is the activation of an elaborate, projected galactic orrery of three dimensions, as beautiful as suggestive of boundless purpose. Original creatures designed by Conor O'Sullivan, Carlos Huante and Neal Scanlan under Max's supervision are hardly so innovative as those of H.R. Giger (which are featured throughout), but nonetheless intelligently conceived and appropriately gruesome. Janty Yates' attractive, lithe spacesuits grant the cast comfortable mobility, but introduce at least one question of continuity: why were those of the Nostromo's crew so cumbersome?
Should this production be faulted, blame must be assigned to its aural elements. Marc Streitenfeld's score is lush, lovely and not at all intrinsically obtrusive, cleverly quoting Jerry Goldsmith's classic Alien score at least once...but it's overused in almost every scene by Scott, who's apparently forgotten the provocative effect of silence so efficaciously exploited in his great first few flicks. Worse, the sound design is evocative but too prominent - chewing, vomiting, squirming, slithering, pounding noises are both too loud and prevalent, and silly besides.

While I can readily accept Ridley Scott as a movie maker who routinely cultivates visual splendor, I cannot assent to the absurd notion that he is or has ever been an actor's director. Few directors of any credibility have coaxed so many awful performances from so many actors, many of whom were otherwise reputable. At the early peak of his powers, Scott wisely afforded the best performers available to him (Keitel, Weaver, Hurt, Hauer, et al.) carte blanche with fantastic results. Were he still so inclined, and more great Anglophone actors available to him, Prometheus wouldn't be burdened by so much overacting. If Rapace imparts no great depth to her role, her histrionics in two scenes of harrowing suspense do distinguish an otherwise unexceptional adequacy. Unfortunately, her partner in excavation and romance as portrayed by Marshall-Green is too vulgar to receive seriously, which leads one to ask why he and his interdisciplinary male colleagues comport themselves like frat boys rather than scientists. Worst of this lot is hammy Sean Harris, as angst-ridden as a teen following the confiscation of his iPod and bedecked with red mohawk and facial tattoos. No geologist known to me appears or postures so, and if Scott, Spaihts and Lindelof deem this a legitimate means to bestow personality to their cast, they've descended to Roland Emmerich's low standards. Despite some rather stupid dialogue assigned her that she delivers well, Theron is convincingly malefic as the mission's authoritarian ice queen, and certainly more memorable than the remainder of the ship's crew. I'm not yet entirely convinced that Michael Fassbender is the savior of the western world in light of its contemporary dearth of great screen thespians, only because my exposure to his potent talent is limited to two very fine Steve McQueen offerings. In this franchise, his performance is second only to that of Ian Holm's as requisite android of the mission, and every bit so nuanced. Fassbender's cunning, unfailingly polite robot is cool (never stiff) in imitation of human behavior (especially Peter O'Toole's Lawrence), and subtly expressive of amusement, offense borne and an understated hint of contempt. Perhaps the script's greatest profundity can be evinced in the contrast of Fassbender's relationship with his creators to they with theirs.

Despite its flaws, Prometheus provides its viewers a fine, richly mounted cinematic undertaking commendable for its prodigious sights, stimulating exploration of eternal themes and at least a couple of very good performances. It is unnervingly suspenseful, if very seldom frightening. Possibly its very worst failure is a shift from morbid fascination to contrived heroics during its final twenty minutes, in which plot holes abound. In lieu of an ominous, ambiguous denouement, Scott cheaply spoon-feeds his audience selfless victory by explosion and closure suggesting the possibility of a sequel.

Lovecraft's intrepid characters guided his readers to worlds both known and enigmatic, witness to outlandish auspice and atrocity. Those most fortunate among them were left traumatized, while his hapless were devoured by either what they sought or far worse beyond. By confronting the cosmic unknown of a titanic scale, Scott aspired to create a legend; in suggesting that humanity may intervene meaningfully in its affairs, he fell far short.

Perhaps it ought have been titled Icarus.


The Prophet's Game

Directed by David Worth
Starring Dennis Hopper, Stephanie Zimbalist, Robert Yocum, Joe Penny, Greg Lauren, Sondra Locke

A novel premise and clever plot are sacrificed on the altar of the direct-to-video phenomenon in this otherwise embarrassing feature. In a hopelessly clichéd role as a troubled detective, Hopper investigates a serial murderer who provides clues to the identities of future victims via an online trivia game. Horribly shot, edited and scored, this movie's few assets are squandered by entirely incompetent execution. The film's performances don't help to alleviate its innumerable flaws; Hopper aside, the rest of the cast are well-nigh unwatchable. Unforgivably miscast, Zimbalist - of all people - struggles and fails to play an Italian with dyed black hair, an intermittent and atrocious excuse for a Brooklyn accent and the ridiculous name of Aldobrandi. Although the plot seems almost ingenious to a layman like me, murder mystery enthusiasts will probably find it as derivative as the stylistic plagiarization that's prominent throughout the film.

Those who choose to watch this (probably fans of Hopper, who are likely to pity him) might want to keep an eye open for an impressively inept performance by Patrick Swayze's younger brother, Don, as a god-fearing, child-abusing father. Not only does he strongly resemble his famous sibling, he gnaws the scenery with a rare ferocity.


Public Enemies

Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Giovanni Ribisi, Branka Katic

As Michael Mann is no stranger to the topic of career criminals, it seems as though John Dillinger's famous two-year crime spree would be the ideal subject for a filmmaker whose best work has often focused on tragic, principled professional felons. Dillinger burned hot and fast, and the brisk pace of this feature's 140-minute running time reflects the rush of his famous final years. However, Mann's attempts to romanticize the exploits of a brutal, charismatic figure and unwillingness to convey them accurately irreparably encumber what could have been a much better movie.

Impressive as Dillinger, the usually elfin Depp presents himself convincingly as the hardened bank robber and cop killer; he also looks the part, especially when furnished with the legend's up-slicked hair, patchy mustache and paunch. While his portrayal is surely more sentimental than the man actually was, his physique and especially demeanor bear a memorable resemblance - Dillinger's mumbling, Indiana accent and assured swagger are all reproduced with surprising accuracy. Most of the supporting cast serve mostly to reinforce Depp's larger-than-life role, but there are some standouts among them. As J. Edgar Hoover, Billy Crudup is suitably sleazy and uptight, characterizing the young FBI Director as the tense and demanding figure that he certainly was. Stephen Graham's brutally manic assumption of Baby Face Nelson is equally effective. However, Bale's role as groundbreaking FBI G-man Melvin Purvis is problematic. Here, the nervous and fidgety agent who reportedly never discharged a firearm in all his years of duty coolly guns down Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd himself. In reality, Nelson and Floyd were likely killed under Purvis' supervision by special agent Herman Hollis and police captain Chester Smith, respectively, months after Dillinger was shot to death. Bale's resemblance to Purvis himself is vague and while his performance is fine, the role provides little depth for an accomplished actor to plumb. Public Enemies has no actual use for two handsome leading men, so Bale's presence necessitates absurd liberties and his talents are squandered. Playing Dillinger's longtime girlfriend Evelyn Frechette, Marion Cotillard is charming, even when her character is unnecessarily brutalized. Bill Camp reliably affects Frank Nitti's manner, but he looks almost nothing like the high-strung mob boss.

The production of this film is striking, but terribly flawed. The period design is immaculate, and its exhibition of Chicago's muted Depression-era extravagance is especially stirring. Much of this was shot on location in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and the authenticity of these locations are utilized to great effect. Mann's persistent use of hand-held shots is frequently and needlessly disconcerting, and while many of the action scenes are quite good, nothing here is anywhere near so arresting or focused as his best work. To mention that this film's scoring is flawed is a considerable understatement. The popular music of the period (especially Billie Holiday's famous recording of Am I Blue?) ably evokes its zeitgeist, but Elliot Goldenthal's score is distractive, overbearing and probably the worst effort of the composer's uneven oeuvre. I don't know that this is necessarily Mann's fault, as he isn't accustomed to this sort of error in judgment; every inappropriate orchestral swell really does sound like a studio's attempt to ensure that its audience-friendly movie-making formula is utilized, regardless of how unbalanced the result is.

It must be mentioned that many of the pivotal events in Dillinger's career are afforded extraordinary (albeit embellished) enactments here: the robbery of Chicago's First National Bank, his ingenious escape from the Crown Point county jail and his getaway from the botched FBI raid at the Little Bohemia Lodge. Even the inaccuracies of these sequences don't detract from their power. However, the screenplay's erratic acquaintance with reality is the movie's ultimate downfall. The watchdogs at the Little Bohemia Lodge are notably absent; Purvis mentions the Immigration and Naturalization Service to Anna Sage, even though deportation was the domain of the Department of Labor at that time; Hoover is excoriated by Senator McKellar in a subcommittee hearing almost two years before it was actually held. Much of the dialogue (and especially Hoover's) is far more expository than realistic. Many more inaccuracies could be listed, but none of these are so egregious as what was omitted from this movie: Dillinger's exciting pillage of two police arsenals in Indiana and Hoover's grandstanding in the immediate aftermath of the arch-criminal's death. The reenactment of Dillinger's death is this film's single greatest failing. Following an admirable homage to Manhattan Melodrama, the shooting is depicted in a hokey and protracted manner, replete with obvious CGI blood and inaccurate bullet wounds. There was a time when this sort of gaucherie would have been unimaginable in one of Mann's films.

When he isn't churning out trite genre fare (Ali, Collateral, both incarnations of Miami Vice), Mann occasionally creates solid movies: Thief, Manhunter, Heat and The Insider. This movie is an anomaly for him, neither great nor trivial. For those who are devoted to his work, or that of Depp or Bale, this is probably required viewing. But he's hardly at his best here, this doesn't come close to achieving its potential and for the casual moviegoer or serious cinema enthusiast, this is a polished and spoilt curiosity.


Q

Directed by Larry Cohen
Starring Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, Candy Clark, James Dixon, Malachy McCourt

Look out from above! Awakened from its ageless slumber by some generous instances of human sacrifice, Aztec god Quetzalcoatl nests in the Chrysler Building and swoops over Manhattan, devouring the city's residents at random. Neat, eh? After an inept thief (Moriarty, not too many years prior to his successes in Troll and Law & Order) discovers the god-beast in the aftermath of a botched heist, he decides to exploit the location of the menace, to the frustration of two detectives (Carradine, Roundtree) who are investigating its feeding habits.

Larry Cohen's homage to drive-in creature features is more a miraculous example of how far a filmmaker can stretch a $1M budget than a particularly good film. The movie's premise is novel and cleverly realized with the use of some terrific stop-motion animation and props. While much the cinematography is lackluster, there is some great, sweeping aerial photography from the perspective of the flying serpent. However, there's nowhere near enough carnage and too much of Moriarty (who struggles to make the best of a deeply irritating role) for this reviewer's taste; maybe Cohen should have requested more cash so that Q could have been afforded greater visibility at the expense of its far less interesting human co-stars. Not a single frame of this movie takes itself seriously, and it's fun...but hardly as much as it could be.

While Moriarty at least tries to make his obnoxious character interesting, Carradine is downright awful, as usual: wooden, dull, totally devoid of charm. Roundtree and Clark fare much better in more likable roles, but they - like the monster - are granted far too little screen time.

It's clear that Cohen takes a lot of pride in shooting big films on shoestring budgets, and that's admirable - if more Hollywood directors were as creative and efficient as he is, major studios would produce much more interesting movies at far less cost. It seems as though his singular vision would be complimented by a greater degree of collaboration. If it had the benefit of a smarter, tighter script, more likable characters, a better cast and a higher budget, Q could have been a schlock classic.


Rachel, Rachel

Directed by Paul Newman
Starring Joanne Woodward, Estelle Parsons, James Olson, Kate Harrington, Donald Moffat, Frank Corsaro, Terry Kiser, Nell Potts

Very few actors turned directors prove themselves able in the dominant office, yet Paul Newman's debut at the helm of this tender adaptation of Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God evinces a rare sensitivity and skill. Although his future work exhibited greater stylistic refinement and an interest in diverse subject matter, Newman never shot anything so personal again, so declarative of intimacy or discomfiture.

At the age of thirty-five, New Englander elementary school teacher Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) feels that her uneventful life is half-over, and at a longstanding impasse besides. Personable and bright but shy, limited by romantic isolation and anchored by her self-centered mother's fragile health, she feels bereft of opportunity and thrill alike. When a brusque, passionate childhood friend and fellow educator (James Olson) returns to her town, their ensuing fling is a catalyst from which Rachel's unearthed aspirations are suddenly realized, though not with the joy she'd hoped for.

As the aging spinster, Woodward was again a marvel, astonishing and painfully credible in every shot, be it of a hopeful smile or yearning stare. Newman's renowned acclaim as an actor's director can't be dismissed, but Woodward's remarkable talent for portraying sullen unfortunates was provided an apex here, and she'd shine just as brightly in this role without her spouse behind the camera. One can easily imagine Newman in Olson's place as her edgy, earthy prospect, and his decision to retain the better-cast, less charismatic actor in this position indicates admirable discipline. Playing Woodward's colleague and only close friend, Estelle Parsons is very nearly her equal as a gawky, warmly affable companion whose own emerging desires further destabilize our protagonist.

Rachel's memories, fantasies and fears are elegantly, abruptly depicted amid the drudgery of her daily routine. Even the most vivid expressions of her periodic monologue can't convey so much as these expositions, revealing both her loveliest ambitions and ugliest impulses. In recollection, her father's profession as a mortician suggests volumes regarding her preoccupation with mortality, and undying adoration of him. One Nell Potts - the first of Newman's and Woodward's three children, and founder of Newman's Own Organics - plausibly portrays child Rachel, as apt for the quiet penetration of her stare as for an unmistakable resemblance to her mother.

Understated exhibitions of fine acting and writing were once a staple of the American adult drama, and this film is as good a specimen of this waning model as any.


Ravenous

Directed by Antonia Bird
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, Jeremy Davies, David Arquette

After a cowardly, earnest American soldier (Pearce) in the Mexican-American War captures the command of a Mexican base in an inexplicable fit of bloodlust, he's commended for his accomplishment...before being shipped to a remote outpost in frigid northern California for his misconduct. He hasn't been stationed for long before a manic, mysterious pioneer (Carlyle) arrives to tell a chilling tale of survival though cannibalism, the spiritual ramifications of which are far more terrible than his story...

Without a doubt, this feature's greatest asset is its terrific cast. Pearce is in fine form as usual, entirely credible as the weak-willed, unlikely war hero. Cast yet again as a bookish, buffoonish authority figure, Jones is typically amusing as the outpost's commanding officer, though his role does allow him to explore a greater range of emotion than usual, and he's up to the task. However, Robert Carlyle's performance is the lynchpin around which the whole movie revolves, alternately traumatized, clownish, charismatic, wicked...as the only character with any significant depth, he's very nearly brilliant and impossible to ignore. Also well cast as the outpost's token degenerate moron, David Arquette does what he does best and isn't ever permitted to become too annoying. Director Antonia Bird doesn't squander the talent at her command, and affords her actors plenty of lingering shots in which to perform.

Though its concept is cleverly framed in the context of Manifest Destiny, Ravenous doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is. Much of the humor at the film's start is heavy-handed, in sharp contrast to the clever black comedy that gradually develops and lightens the tone of the weirdest and bloodiest happenings of an ingenious story. Karo isn't spared here and the whole production is awash with gallons of it, but this never seems excessive - after all, when people eat people, things get messy.

There are some glaring flaws: the quoted text of the film's opening is idiotic, many scenes are overscored and the ending is a trifle disappointing. Nonetheless, for those who like their horror amusing, well performed and soaked in blood, there are worse ways to liven up a winter evening. Oh, and by all means, eat beforehand; if you don't, you'll find your stomach growling midway through.


The Return of the Living Dead

Directed by Dan O'Bannon
Starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Mark Venturini, Jonathan Terry

There's a great scene in this movie that occurs approximately an hour and nineteen minutes into its runtime. Cranky character actor Clu Gulagher and a few obnoxious teenagers are trapped in his medical supply warehouse by brain-hungry zombies, and the only phone available is located in the warehouse's basement, the door of which is locked and guarded by a particularly ravenous zombie. After retrieving a baseball bat, old Clu instructs one of the kids to open the door and the others to stand back. The door swings open to admit a repulsive, shambling undead horror, its flesh rotted to an oozing, tar-like substance after decades of storage in a sealed container. A good hard swing from Gulagher knocks the thing's head clean off, and he and his young associates rush past it. About a decade ago, a good friend and I rewound and watched this scene over a dozen times. While it's not as hilarious to me now as it was when I was very drunk and in my late teens, I still can't watch this inspired bit of stupidity without laughing.

Writer/director Dan O'Bannon cut his teeth while collaborating with John Carpenter on the latter's quirky sci-fi/comedy debut, Dark Star; a few years later, he penned a script for an obscure movie that a few people have seen called Alien. O'Bannon has worked sporadically over the past few decades, screen writing with occasional success, but this spin-off of George Romero's popular zombie movies is the only film in which he was able to convey his sick sense of humor and love of gore as he saw fit.

The result is impressive: Return is grotesque, cleverly plotted and very amusing, making the best of a tiny budget and third-rate cast. Hammy performances are abundant, and entirely appropriate for such a goofy script. Screen veteran Gulagher, who has plenty of experience in schlock productions, is particularly enjoyable to watch: when he calls a young punk "dick-brain," it's not unlike hearing your father when he's in a foul mood.

I can't fault the production design of this film. William Stout's effects are as excellent as they are vile, and it's clear that he shares O'Bannon's sensibilities in creating monsters that are equally comedic and repellent. This was clearly intended to be just another drive-in flick, and while I wouldn't call it a classic, it definitely ranks a cut above the average horror picture.


Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal engage the first of many dopey feuds in Rudo y Cursi.

Rudo y Cursi

Directed by Carlos Cuarón
Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Guillermo Francella, Dolores Heredia, Adriana Paz, Jessica Mas, Salvador Zerboni, Tania Esmeralda Aguilar

Two moronic, banana-slinging half-siblings (Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna) ascend from peasantry to football stardom by way of their formidable talent, though their auxiliary pursuits lead them to failure and ruination: goalkeeper Luna is an inveterate gambling addict, while striker Bernal falsely fancies himself a singer despite his complete dearth of talent. Writer/director Carlos Cuarón's association with Mexico's sexiest BFFs may not be so profound as his brother Alfonso's international hit, but it's actually more engaging: despite their idiocy, it's easy to laugh at and cry for two hopeless jocks who haven't the first notion of how to conduct themselves whilst awash with fame and fortune.

As usual, Bernal and Luna are in top form as the asinine footballers, as is Guillermo Francella as their suave, sympathetic, long-suffering manager, who narrates their tale with a poetic wisdom. In fact, not a single poor performance is to be seen here. Further, Adam Kimmel's photography - especially that of landscapes - emphasizes the natural beauty of Mexico's unspoiled locales.

Just as the quick rise and precipitous fall of these simpletons reflect the breakneck development of Mexican society as it's emerged into meretricious modernity over the scant course of a half-century, so do the politics of their sport mirror its culture's many perils. Neither brother is proven any wiser after suffering for his foibles, and that much bespeaks a universal condition. Carlos may not aspire to his brother's filmmaking fame, but he's proven again that both owe their successes in part to his fabulist's talent.


Salvador Dalí

Directed by Jean-Christophe Averty
Narrated by Orson Welles
Starring Salvador Dalí, Gala Dalí, Donyale Luna, Tony Kina, Suzan Lancaster, Janet Woolscot, Marc-Hugo Finally

This garish, glorious ode to the self-indulgence and absorption of the great, the limitless, the eternal Dalí is the only motion picture to capture the true essence of the painting, sculpture and public persona of Catalonia's most bizarre and prophetic export. The inspirations of his paintings are explored, their forms are examined in motion and they are granted a limited context, replete with an expiration date; the sculptures are utilized for post-Catholic ritual and coastal fashion show alike; the man himself positions his body and voice in an exhibition of otherworldly antics. Dalí capers! Dalí lectures! Dalí realizes the nature of his own culture and humanity in a selective rejection of its limitations and a celebration of all that has characterized the Mediterranean entire - and the peculiar genius of the Catalan in particular. Welles voices the hyperbolic, ingratiating narrative in perfect deadpan, providing a skewered straight man in counterpoint to the prancing subject. It is better to recommend this film without reservation than to attempt to describe the enormity of its visuals. Suffice to say, this is the only true Dalían film, presented in both American and Dalían English, imbued with all the striking color, inexplicable sights and magnificent intent of the Dalían oeuvre. Accessible and unaccountable, regal and common, hilarious and somber: sixty minutes of unimpeded Dalí shot for television broadcast in the pivotal year of nineteen hundred and seventy. Good day, good night.


Séance

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Jun Fubuki, Koji Yakusho, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Ittoku Kishibe, Kitaro, Sho Aikawa

Anyone who's familiar with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's output could guess that this second adaptation of Seance on a Wet Afternoon bears little resemblance to Mark McShane's novel or the stunning 1964 Forbes/Attenborough production. Rather than create a cheap and thoughtless retread, Kurosawa mined the source material of his eighth televised flick for inspiration, selectively exploiting certain plot elements in order to develop a more complex story.

An extraordinary and harrowing coincidence involves a staid married couple - a medium (Fubuki) and a sound engineer (Yakusho) - in the kidnapping of a young girl. Circumstances worsen as ambition and dissatisfaction inspire a sequence of terrible choices that lead to disastrous and disturbing consequences. As the kidnapper was a police officer, his peers are especially eager to uncover the mystery of his crime. However, the central figure of this story is a victim of both malice and accident...

Fubuki is at least as convincing as her counterpart, Kurosawa's famous preferred leading man. In most scenes, both of them convey far more through silent expression and intimation than any direct communication. It's easy to understand why Kurosawa utilizes them so often: their commonplace qualities are entirely credible, as are the nuances of their performances. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Ittoku Kishibe are well cast in a pair of comparatively undemanding roles; as a Shinto priest, Sho Aikawa briefly imparts a subdued grace to these proceedings.

This is at least as good as most of Kurosawa's theatrical features, and a fine introduction to his style for the uninitiated. Special effects are implemented sparingly; the film's few scares and unbearable sense of dread are mostly accomplished through the force of the leads' performances and Takahide Shibanushi's carefully executed cinematography. Initially reserved, the story turns tortuously suspenseful, then terrifying before lapsing into a quiet, resigned finality. Slightly less deliberate than many of Kurosawa's other projects, the well-crafted plot confounds expectations, and is no more predictable to anyone who's read the novel.


Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Directed by Bryan Forbes
Starring Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Nanette Newman, Judith Donner, Mark Eden, Patrick Magee, Gerald Sim

A deranged psychic (Kim Stanley) compels her spineless husband (Richard Attenborough) to kidnap the child of a wealthy couple, so that they can collect the ransom money for her return and garner recognition for her services when she conjures the details of the child's location and condition. Despite their sound and ably executed plan, the circumstances and consequences of their crime are exacerbated by greed, ambition and madness.

Bryan Forbes' adaptation of Mark McShane's cult novella possesses an understated power. In perhaps the best of her few feature film roles, Stanley is wholly absorbing and entirely credible as the twisted medium; her performance is imbued with such subtlety that she single-handedly sustains the story's more ambiguous elements. Though his role requires a less nuanced delivery, the always reliable Attenborough (who co-produced this picture) is equally impressive as her weak-willed, resentful husband. The supporting cast is also quite fine; in particular, Patrick Magee brings a sly, commanding presence to the film as a cunning police superintendent.

Too few crime dramas defy the conventions of the genre, and this is one of the best and most unusual known to me. Elegantly shot and superbly acted, this is film making at its very best: heart-wrenching, unbearably suspenseful and ultimately, quietly chilling.


Seppuku

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Rentaro Mikuni, Akira Ishihama, Shima Iwashita, Tetsuro Tanba, Yoshio Aoki, Ichiro Nakaya

Following the Battle of Sekigahara and the Tokugawa clan's final assumption of national rule as the last and most powerful shogunate, Japan experienced a large and enduring influx of ronin as a result of this shogunate's calculated, underhanded elimination of numerous influential daimyo and provincial clans. As a result of this collective fall from grace (the likes of which would not be witnessed again until the onset of the Meiji Restoration), a trend occurred in which impoverished ronin visited the houses of thriving clans and requested permission to commit ritual suicide on their grounds as a means to end their suffering and preserve their honor. Many of these requests were legitimate; many more were ploys to obtain a position or monetary handout in response to the pitiable state of these former warriors.

Adapted by famed screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto from a story by novelist Yasuhiko Takiguchi and directed by Masaki Kobayashi with the intense and maudlin milieu common to his films, Seppuku is a tragedy of two such samurai - one a disgraced and desperate fraud, the other a weathered and earnest veteran of the late Sengoku war. At different times in the same year, both men arrive at the Edo compound of a flourishing and rigorous clan, the leadership of which has no intention of affording charity or anything other than seppuku to those samurai who come calling for it. However, neither man is quite what he seems to be, and the terrible consequences of the clan's brusque adherence to lawful bushido slowly unfold, revealing institutional hypocrisy and personal devastation of an unspeakable magnitude.

Even by Kobayashi's usual standards, the technical quality of this picture is beyond critique. His flawless, dynamic anamorphic composition is enhanced by some of the most beautiful, nuanced photography ever committed to black-and-white stock. Of the set and costume design, the period detail is exquisite. The only film of greater beauty and aesthetic merit in Kobayashi's oeuvre is the ornate (and incomparably expensive) Kaidan. Alternately frantic, mournful and haunting, Toru Takemitsu's muscular, noisy, biwa-driven score is complemented by a chamber string orchestra - arrangements typical of his 1960s output.

Befitting a production of such excellence, its famous performers are entirely credible in their demanding roles. Nakadai potently expresses grief, desperation and moral outrage as the honest and truly honorable protagonist in opposition to Mikuni's arrogant counselor and the cruel retainers at his command. As in the The Human Condition trilogy and Samurai Rebellion, Kobayashi ably depicts the suffering of the individual as a result of authoritarian abuses of power. Although the particular target of this film's scathing indictment is the society of the Edo period - in which the image of honor was often deemed more important than honorable acts - its condemnation of tyrannical abuse possesses a universal appeal. Kobayashi had no interest in pushing an agenda or promoting ideology; where he perceived infamy in Japanese society (and especially that of its military), he sought to expose it.

Carefully paced, emotionally exhausting and consistently unpredictable, Seppuku is among the most heart-wrenching and thrilling of all filmic jidaigeki. Challenging and often difficult for its audience, its crushing misery and impressive swordplay are only matched by the outrageous injustice of its denouement.


A Serious Man

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Adam Arkin, Aaron Wolff, Peter Breitmayer, Amy Landecker, Ari Hoptman, David Kang, Jessica McManus

This ninth Mike Zoss Production concerns the mounting woes of a hapless, well-meaning physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in late-'60s St. Louis Park, Minnesota. His wife (Sari Lennick) wants to divorce him for a widowed friend (Fred Melamed); his deadbeat brother (Richard Kind) is a criminal burden; a sultry neighbor (Amy Landecker) sunbathes in the buff, while another (Peter Breitmayer) quietly hates his guts; his teenage son is a habitual pothead and his daughter steals money from him to save up for a nose job; his shot at tenure is threatened by accusations from an anonymous party. That's just the start of it. Throughout the course of the film, matters turn from bad to worse as natural and human disasters, malicious acts and this latter-day Job's spineless inability to cope with these misfortunes slowly transform his life into a perpetual catastrophe.

It must be argued that Joel and Ethan Coen are the foremost filmic authority on American stupidity and failure. While Burn After Reading drove the idiocy and incompetence of its characters home with all the subtlety of a chopping hatchet, this is a considerably more subtle character study. The professor is intelligent and capable, but the invertebrate manner in which he allows life to happen to him is every bit as amusing and maddening as the gross stupidity of the prior feature. While his sincere faith in G-d, his religious elders and his own culture is quite admirable, all he receives from the rabbis who will meet with him are pointless stories and inane platitudes.

Stuhlbarg couldn't be bettered as the lovable, bewildered nebbish, but that's almost redundant - the whole cast (most of whom are relative unknowns) is phenomenal. Melamed is also particularly fun as the quietly overbearing, silver-tongued buddy who's obviously been poking his pal's spouse for quite a while. Not a single role hasn't at least a few laugh-out-loud moments; the Coens have such an enduring knack for finding humor in the silliest expressions and most awkward moments.

Even more impressive than the cast is the astonishing period detail, which nearly rivals Scorsese's efforts. It's as though the Coens (themselves St. Louis Park natives) plucked James Lileks' memories from his skull and tossed them onto the screen. Shot mostly in St. Louis Park and neighboring Bloomington and Minneapolis, everything's looks exactly as it should: the hair, the rambler homes, the restaurants and grocery stores, all the gloriously tacky interior decoration and clothing and appliances. What's especially impressive is the amount of attention invested to ensure that every actor looks and sounds as though they're from the period, right down to the minutia of the vernacular. If nothing else, A Serious Man is a period film of a quality that so many filmmakers grasp for and never achieve.

It's nice to see that Roger Deakins is back on board with the Coens as DP and camera operator. Although Emmanuel Lubezki's photography in Burn After Reading yielded beautiful visuals of striking contrast, Deakins has a gift for coaxing such vivid color from his scenes without resorting to oversaturation, and his talent for rendering shady imagery is nearly unparalleled. Too few living cinematographers (Darius Khondji and Wally Pfister come to mind) can generate the kind of dazzling shots that Deakins is known for.
Carter Burwell's score this time around is again pretty minimal. Most of the music herein consists of selections from Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, and a few Yiddish folk songs.

Although it's consistently funny, perfectly performed and shot with an astounding eye for detail, A Serious Man lags at least once too often, and very badly besides. I usually marvel at how well the Coens pace their films; this is probably their most deliberate effort since Blood Simple, and the more sluggish sequences do little to impart any weight to the narrative. There are some great moments - in particular, a bizarre, hilarious, exquisitely edited anecdote concerning the mystical teeth of a Jewish dentist's gentile patient. Whenever anything is actually happening, it's always either funny or astounding, but so many scenes are padded for no apparent reason that the movie too often feels longer than it is. In spite of its faults, it's well worth seeing - at least there's plenty to look at that's sure to evoke nostalgia in the heart of any boomer when nothing much is going on.


Seven Minutes in Heaven

Directed by Linda Feferman
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Byron Thames, Maddie Corman, Alan Boyce, Michael Zaslow, Billy Wirth, Polly Draper, Marshall Bell, Terry Kinney

Like the more bombastic and obnoxious Three O'Clock High two years following, this sub-Hughesian piffle pioneered the now-dominant trend of comedic teen dramas bereft of engaging characters or plot twists. As emotive as a lumberyard, Jennifer Connelly plays a frigid student credulously obsessed with mainstream sociopolitical phenomena; by contrast, Maddie Corman (looking for all the world like one of the Currie sisters afflicted with Down syndrome) portrays her oversexed dingbat best friend. Both of them somehow tolerate the mutual friendship of Byron Thames, as perhaps the single most annoying figure in the history of cinema: a gutless, aggravating, terminally insecure beta male who apparently exists only to intrude perpetually. While Connelly hesitantly shuffles to first base with a philandering creep (Alan Boyce), Corman stupidly obsesses over a blithe baseball player (Billy Wirth) whose automotive fling couldn't be less sexy. Ultimately, nothing happens - character development is both minimal and predictable, and the film ends very much as it began.

Not merely an incompetent director (substandard performances aside, a boom mike once drops to cameo), Linda Feferman also proved herself an aimless, insipid screenwriter. Ignore this garbage; it's Pretty in Pink sans compelling characterizations and good story.


Seductively sinister sans 'stache, Vincent Price portrays a scheming physician in Shock

Shock

Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Starring Vincent Price, Lynn Bari, Anabel Shaw, Frank Latimore, Stephen Dunne, Reed Hadley, Charles Trowbridge

After witnessing a murder, an emotionally fragile woman (Shaw) is committed to a private sanatorium by the doctor (Price) who did the deed! This thriller is cleverly plotted, though the handling of the novel story is a bit dull. The supporting cast is merely adequate, but Shaw's histrionic performance is convincing, and Price is as suave and creepy as usual in one of his first leading film roles. Some simple visual flourishes are also effectively implemented in a couple of scenes. This is fairly routine as crime dramas come, but it's competently executed; there are worse ways to spend seventy minutes.


Skyfall

Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Ola Rapace

PROS:

CONS:

Contrived with a spare minimum of humor and invention, this Bond feature coasts on a few great performances and handsome production which can't compensate for its derisory third act. "But Robert!" some may pule, "It's the highest-grossing Bond film yet! It must be good!" Extrapolating this logic to prior outings, are we to assume that (delightfully) ludicrous Moonraker or Die Another Day were quality pictures?

Choke on your half-centenary while I view--nay, read Dr. No.


Sleepwalkers

Directed by Mick Garris
Starring Alice Krige, Brian Krause, Maedchen Amick

The best adaptations of Stephen King's many novels (The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne) evoke the same pathos and potency of their source materials, even when straying far from their thematic essence. Though hardly of the same caliber, those more conventional and compliant filmic presentations of King's material (The Dead Zone, Stand By Me, The Dark Half) are also worth watching. Then there are the intolerable dregs: Apt Pupil, Pet Sematary, Cujo, Christine, The Mist and so many others. Sleepwalkers is a peer of these wretched last, and in this instance, King's as much to blame as anyone else for it.

Why they're called sleepwalkers, I haven't a hint. They don't seem to sleep, much less sleepwalk. They do walk, if that means anything. Long-lived, enormously strong and possessing powers which include shape-shifting, telekinesis and invisibility, they feed orally from the life force of female human virgins. Although these parasites shrug off everything from stabbings to gunshot wounds, the bite or scratch of a feline is deadly to them. Consequently, their endless nomadism is necessitated by house cats, who seem instinctively obliged to hunt them.

Stalked by domestic Felis and seeking a new victim, a mother and son (Alice Krige, Brian Krause) of the declining aforementioned species settle down briefly in rural Indiana. Their menu's most promising entree is a pretty high school senior (Maedchen Amick, fresh from her Lynchian fame). Initially, Krause's life-sucker fawns over Amick's ingenue, but whether he has any romantic affection for her is a confused, ultimately irrelevant point; he's already engaged in a passionate long-term relationship with mommy dearest.

There's nothing more conducive to either humor or discomfort than the convergence of bad acting and asinine dialogue. Sleepwalkers is packed with both, and isn't even remotely as unintentionally funny as it needs to be to justify itself. While both Krause and Amick are perfectly photogenic, the former is embarrassingly stiff and the latter can only exhibit so much personality in such a superficial role. Recently deceased character actor Glenn Shadix (of Beetlejuice and Heathers fame) is mildly amusing as a domineering teacher, but he's hardly given an opportunity to make the best of his fitting part before he's killed off. Likewise, Ferris Bueller's Day Off parents Lyman Ward and Cindy Pickett (who were actually married until shortly after this film's release) play Amick's father and mother - another great opportunity for much-needed comic relief that's left unexplored. Cameos abound: Ron Perlman and a mustachioed, uncredited Mark Hamill appear as bewildered police officers in separate scenes (Perlman is oddly listed in the main cast; perhaps he was featured more prominently in deleted footage); Clive Barker and Tobe Hooper can be seen briefly as a pair of forensic technicians; John Landis and Joe Dante have a few moments of screen time portraying puzzled photo lab technicians. Of course, King himself is present for an excruciating minute or two, stalking about and delivering lines in a maladroit monotone as a cemetery caretaker. With so much talent to be seen momentarily, one might assume that King would have scribed something fun for somebody to say.
In fact, this picture's only real asset is Krige, whose moody performance stands out tall over anything else here. It's just as well that the Boer actress was assigned the script's best action and single clever line, because she's phenomenal - alternately alluring, desperate, brutal - as the perverse matriarch. In fact, the only real entertainment of the movie occurs when Krige's monstrous mother goes on a rampage to maul parents, police officers and felines alike - a silly, satisfying sequence which almost makes the first seventy-five minutes worth enduring.

At best, Mick Garris's direction and Nicholas Pike's score are merely sufficient. Flat and over-lit, the cinematography is horrid. The CG special effects are amateurish and shoddy. What's worse, the soundtrack is infested with Boadicea - one of so many dreary, pretentious, mindlessly repetitive Enya songs.

There's a germ of a good tale here, but it's wasted in a mire of poorly defined characters, sloppy plotting and a hopelessly underdeveloped storyline. King himself adapted this feature's awful screenplay from a novel which remains wisely unpublished, and this alone should indefinitely excuse him from screenwriting and film critique. It's not as though King hasn't any capacity for high camp; he adapted his novella Cycle of the Werewolf into the goofily enjoyable Silver Bullet, and he wrote and directed Maximum Overdrive, which was at least as diverting as it was disposable. On the other hand, the celebrated author is honestly convinced that his hokey, overwrought mini-series of The Shining is superior to Kubrick's classic simply because it conveys his story's moral core. Maybe SK ought to engage only his most trivial ideas for the dominant medium.


Stop Look and Listen

Directed by and starring Len Janson and Chuck Menville

This road safety short makes extensive use of stop-motion technique and automobile-related sound effects to depict drivers without cars; sitting on pavement, its characters pantomime and move about as though they're actually driving! Viewers are treated to a didactic conflict between two characters: one nerdy do-gooder who sedulously observes driving rules and usually avoids trouble, and a vain road hog who constantly gets himself into dangerous predicaments. Brief and amusing, this film instructs without homily and dodges tedium by clever realization of its gimmick.


The Stuff

Directed by Larry Cohen
Starring Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Scott Bloom, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Patrick O'Neal, Alexander Scourby, Russell Nype

It's fat-free, creamy and addictively delicious, and with the aid of aggressive marketing, it's quickly edging ice cream out of supermarkets. When executives of the floundering ice cream industry hire an industrial saboteur (Michael Moriarty) to uncover the origins of The Stuff and put an end to its production, nobody involved has a clue of just how insidious this tasty white goo really is. Accompanied by the disgruntled designer of the goop's advertising campaign (Andrea Marcovicci), a ruined candy tycoon (Garrett Morris) and a young boy (Scott Bloom) whose family has been subverted by their favorite treat, the colorful spy sets out to combat the fatal spread of America's most appealing new comestible.

Despite its great premise and frequently engaging energy, The Stuff is one of Larry Cohen's less ably executed projects. The film's production values are of mixed quality; Bret Culpepper's gloopy, frequently gruesome special effects are a lot of fun, but at best, they're compensating for Paul Glickman's shoddy photography and Armond Lebowitz's embarrassingly haphazard editing. These detrimental factors and Anthony Guefen's hokey score often make this theatrical feature seem like a particularly weak episode of The A-Team, especially when the plot unnecessarily diverges to bring a militia (led by Paul Sorvino, who's in a perpetual losing battle to suppress a smile) into the story. Cohen's career is packed with great ideas that are drawn out poorly in needlessly circuitous stories. If he'd had someone like John Carpenter as a screenwriting collaborator, his enormous satirical inspiration would surely have been better exploited. Here, the proceedings are so badly paced that they seem simultaneously rushed and protracted, and all the more tedious for it.

Every performance by this film's cast is either delightfully hammy or as stiff as plywood. Moriarty and Morris fare best in the former category, bringing a lot of charisma and charm to a pair of very silly roles. Morris can't deliver a line without inducing a chuckle, and Moriarty (hardly so annoying as he was in Cohen's Q, though just as overwrought) affects a ludicrous southern accent while obviously relishing every shot.

There's plenty to enjoy here: the sinister product's commercials, lots of goofy dialogue and an almost innocent enthusiasm that's infectious. Unfortunately, most of it is badly shot and cut, and the story's less involving asides should have been excised to admit more screen time to the titular Stuff. However, any movie that encourages people to reconsider consumer culture or compulsive overeating is always worth a viewing.


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzmán, James Gandolfini, Michael Rispoli, Ramon Rodriguez, John Benjamin Hickey, Alex Kaluzhsky, Victor Gojcaj

It's astonishing that anyone considers Tony Scott to be anything other than a hack. Just a brief perusal of his oeuvre confirms this certainty: the moronic posturing and inexplicably unintentional homoeroticism of Top Gun; the noisy tedium of ostentatious actioners like The Last Boy Scout and Crimson Tide; odious, brain-dead vehicles for Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise (neither of whom have turned in a single noteworthy performance in over a decade) such as Days of Thunder, the lesser of two Man on Fire adaptations and Deja Vu; the nauseating idiocy of Domino. In his every project, Scott obstinately retains all of his hackneyed devices - color filters galore, choppy editing, smoky interiors and obnoxious close-ups, to which slow motion is supposed to impart some dramatic weight. At least big brother Ridley helmed three great genre pictures before churning out over twenty trendy, execrable features over the course of the past quarter-century. Both siblings' careers have proven two undeniable facts: accessible film making is lucrative, regardless of how awful it is, and contemporary audiences are comprised almost entirely of imbeciles.

Why a third adaptation of Morton Freedgood's popular novel? From any sensible perspective, the modest success of Joseph Sargent's fun, perfectly acted first take on this material and the resounding failure of the risible TV movie would confirm that this is a story exhausted of commercial potential, one that can be spared the excruciating treatment of a sanitized, simplified, wholly diminished remake. However, as most Hollywood executives possess nothing resembling sense, even those few among them who remember Sargent's film are bound to feel that anything to ever turn any kind of profit needs - pardon, deserves a remake. To this end, they contact a popular hack like Scott, who agrees to it because when the Christ did he ever turn down a stupid project or yield an original thought?

Put simply, Scott has descended into inadvertent self-parody. Scarcely a single shot in this movie isn't hindered by a sloppy zoom or irritating special effect. Like Michael Bay's schlock, it's so clumsily, abruptly edited that the proceedings haven't a whit of focus, thus defusing any potential tension or excitation. Every computer interface, from Rail Control Center monitors to laptops, sound silly bleeps and bloops as though this was shot in 1982. I swear to god, Scott's onscreen credit flies down a tunnel after the hijacked train.

That John Travolta's grating hambone excuse for acting was accepted by Scott and the producers of this film only confirms that quality control in major American motion pictures is more or less nonexistent, at least where overrated veteran non-talents are concerned. Disguised as a leather-clad Village Person, Travolta's ridiculous handlebar mustache doesn't make him appear any less bloated, nor his trashy neck tattoo at all tough. For all his loudness, he's merely irritating and does little more than rant petulantly and predictably execute a couple of hostages. In a way, this is fortunate - his Ryder couldn't possibly be mistaken for Robert Shaw's frostily menacing Mr. Blue in Sargent's film.
Although Denzel Washington makes the best of a watered-down character and enormous amounts of staggeringly dumb dialogue, his mundane portrayal of Transit Authority employee Garber only serves to remind viewers in the know how much more personable Walter Matthau was in this role. Admittedly, Washington is credible in a decidedly unflattering function, but he hasn't a fraction of Matthau's wit or charm.
Despite being well-cast as the discredited former motorman that Martin Balsam cleverly played with sneezes and sullen kvetching, Luis Guzmán isn't given an opportunity to do much other than stand around and mumble until he's shot to death. John Turturro is also wasted as an NYPD hostage negotiator who merely counsels Washington and sits around with a pensive expression. Meanwhile, intolerable Michael Rispoli churns through the motions as the same officious authority figure that he's played at least a half-dozen times too often. I wouldn't care if James Gandolfini vanished from the face of the planet tomorrow, but his mayoral presence is serviceable, as is that of John Benjamin Hickey as his deputy - though they completely lack the comic vigor that Lee Wallace and Tony Curtis generated in the same roles. Victor Gojcaj and Robert Vataj look equally tough and mindless as the hijacker muscle, conveying none of Hector Elizondo's amusing repugnance or Earl Hindman's quiet aplomb.
One of the few cringe-worthy defects of Sargent's adaptation was its annoying hostages, who are infinitely more bromidic here. One of them chats with his shrill, dumpy girlfriend via webcam while another sulks meaningfully before taking a pointless stand and promptly dying.

In all fairness to even the worst of this flick's players, its script by David Koepp and Brian Helgeland is as moronic as it could possibly be. The following excerpted dialogue will demonstrate this point far better than any critical analysis:

Garber: What's her name?
Ryder: Lavitca, she was Lithuanian...she was an ass-model.
Garber: She asked you what?
Ryder: You heard of hand-models, right? Advertisements?
Garber: Right.
Ryder: She was an ass-model...she did jeans and, uh, you know, magazines and shit. Anyway, it was fashion week in New York and uh...I took her to Iceland.
Garber: Lavitca, Lithuanian, ass-model, Iceland, you took her to the ice...
Ryder: So, for five-hundred bucks they'll take you on a dog-sled ride on a glacier.
Garber: Dog-sled?
Ryder: Yeah...and you know that whole saying that if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes?
Garber: Right, otherwise you're always looking at the asshole of the dog in front of you.
Ryder: That'll be funny in a minute when I get to that part.
Garber: It's funny now.
[...]
Ryder: And it's eight in the morning, we haven't been to bed yet...and we're tooling across this glacier and I got this hangover that's creeping up the back of my neck...and guess what I'm looking at?
Garber: You're obviously you're staring at...the ass of the dog in front of you.
Ryder: You got it! So this dog...out of nowhere just lifts his hind-legs up and puts them in the, you know the harness there...and just takes a shit, while he's running on his front paws. So he's dumping and running, all at the same time...now that's multi-fucking-tasking if you ask me.
Garber: Get outta here, did it hit you?
Ryder: Shit always hits you, man.
[...]
Ryder: I didn't know it at the time, but it was profound.
Garber: Profound?
Ryder: Yeah.
Garber: Why? Uh, you lost me.
Ryder: Well, you know uh...when I went to prison later on, what you called. Uh, I had trouble going to the toilet...you know, a privacy thing. And I...couldn't take a shit. I was scared shitless...literally. So, you know what I thought of?
Garber: You thought of the dog.
Ryder: That's right...I thought of that dog. If it could do what it needed to do...so could I. It saved my fucking life.
Garber: Wow, that is profound.

Ryder: Do you know what I'm looking at? Do you know what I'm looking at?
Garber: No, I do not.
Ryder: Ok, well first there's my gun...and at the end of my gun, what's your name man?
George: George, everyone calls me Geo.
Ryder: George, his friends call him Geo. He's got this kinda eighties skateboard thing going on...he makes it work, but it's not gonna look too good in his casket.

Ryder: (describing Garber's voice) He sounds sexy. He would've been my bitch in prison.

Gentle reader, should you assume that these quotes were the product of my modest imagination, feel free to read them where I found them. If you justifiably speculate that this quoted text, removed from its context and medium, are any less absurd in their source, let me assure you: this and so much more are far more spectacularly idiotic onscreen. This Pelham of the abhorrent year of two thousand and nine was so badly written, shot and cut by and for overgrown, asinine little boys. All the humor, nuance and excitement of both the novel and the first film have been replaced by a multitude of absurd car and motorcycle crashes, copious airs and a laptop hidden under a seat in the hijacked train, the webcam of which circuitously transmits a live feed to broadcast television. Seriously, the laptop is under a seat and remains undetected by not one but two gun-toting hijackers. Although the hostage ransom is increased to $10 million from '74's $1M, Ryder actually hijacks the train to trigger a Dow Jones plunge and profit from his surging gold investment. I'm not joking. All of this actually happens in the course of the movie.

While the '74 feature was scored by David Shire's catchy, ingenious dodecaphonic music, Harry Gregson-Williams' efforts here scarcely qualify as a score. Much of it consists of goofy synth cues that sound like the famous title sound effect from A Current Affair.

For those who feel cheated by the many spoilers in this review, don't worry: I haven't revealed anything that isn't indicated well in advance through clumsy foreshadowing. Then again, if you saw a theatrical trailer for this and thought that it looked like a good idea, you don't deserve a fair warning in the first place.

Fools and their money, after all...these days, that axiom denotes both the audience and the studio.


The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Directed by Joseph Sargent
Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, Julius Harris, Lee Wallace, Tony Roberts, Earl Hindman

After taking eighteen people hostage on a subway car, a group of four heavily-armed men in disguises hold New York City ransom for one million dollars. As anyone would expect, the focus of the story is not how the money is paid, but how the crooks plan to get away. These days, Taking of Pelham is best remembered as an influence on Reservoir Dogs, for which Tarantino copied the concept of color-coded names for his criminal characters. In retrospect, this is a well-plotted and ably directed crime drama, helmed by Sargent at the top of his game well over a decade before the disastrous Jaws: The Revenge permanently relegated him to the TV fare that he cut his teeth on.

While Matthau's top billing is appropriate for his dominant screen time, the real show here is delivered by Shaw and Balsam. It would be redundant to note that Shaw was in top form here - he was excellent in even the drivel that he participated in during the last few years of his life and career - and there's no ignoring his tense, imposing presence as a ruthless mercenary. The rest of the principal cast are serviceable, but the passengers are played horribly, as hammy as they are irritating. It's not easy to care about hostages when they're as obnoxious as these.

The action and drama of this movie are spot-on, while the comedy is hit-or-miss; for every laugh-out-loud line of dialogue, there's another that'll surely evoke a groan. But even at its silliest, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is absorbing, unpredictable and far more intriguing than the overblown, sanitized garbage that passes for crime dramas these days.

Tony Scott is scheduled to direct a remake of this next year. That should be amusing.


Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

Directed by John Harrison
Starring Deborah Harry, Matthew Lawrence, Christian Slater, Robert Sedgwick, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, David Johansen, William Hickey, James Remar, Rae Dawn Chong, Robert Klein

Essentially Creepshow 3 under the title of the successful television horror series, the production of this anthology flick inherited much of the crew of the prior movies, and like them, its quality varies from one segment to the next. While Beetle Juice scribe Michael McDowell adapted Arthur Conan Doyle's Lot 249 to the screen and wrote the none-too-original Lover's Vow, Stephen King's short story, Cat From Hell, was adapted by zombie lord George Romero. One might assume that this collection of acclaimed talent would inevitably produce something satisfactory, but the result of this collaboration is ultimately disappointing.

The wraparound story that binds these segments together is an amusing modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel, starring Blondie herself as a lovely suburban witch and Matthew Lawrence as an unwilling feast-to-be who narrates the film in order to delay his seemingly inevitable demise.

While it's by no means distinguished in the genre, Lot 249 tells a satisfying and tidy story of a college intellectual (Buscemi, looking dorkier than usual) who wreaks petty revenge on his antagonizers (Slater, Moore, Sedgwick) by means of a reanimated mummy. Though it's nothing to work yourself into a lather over, this story's twist ending delivers an enjoyable surprise.

With his Buster Poindexter days quick behind him, a dapper David Johansen plays a hitman hired by pharmaceutical magnate William Hickey (who looks less ancient here than he often does) to terminate the titular Cat From Hell. While mostly routine in its execution, the penultimate scene of this gruesome portion is an extraordinary sight, the reputation of which brought this movie to my attention. Certain horror movies feature something that you have never seen before or since, and this one of of them.

Lover's Vow is just a charmless rip-off of Lafcadio Hearn's story of the Yuki-onna folklore. Though the visuals of this segment are highlighted by Rae Dawn Chong's sexy good looks and a handful of impressively gory effects, this uninspired recycling is made even more unbearable by James Remar's usual and thorough lack of charisma.

If any movie ever failed to utilize an enormous amount of talent, it's this one. A capable crew, novel stories and a fine cast (consisting of screen veterans, popular faces of the time and a few notable future stars) are squandered on a lightweight production that, while amusing, never even comes close to living up to its potential.


Targets

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Starring Boris Karloff, Tim O'Kelly, Nancy Hsueh, Peter Bogdanovich, James Brown, Mary Jackson, Tanya Morgan, Sandy Baron, Arthur Peterson, Monte Landis

Released to theaters in the culture-quaking aftermath of two historic assassinations, Targets couldn't be expected to generate a substantial box office profit. Peter Bogdanovich's second theatrical feature is as much a seminal gem of New Hollywood as more successful productions such as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate - an exemplary crime drama and among the most engrossing motion pictures of the nineteen-sixties. However, Targets' knowing acknowledgment of the American New Wave's inchoate swell distinguishes it from other notable movies of its era. In the employ of Roger Corman, Wellesian prodigy Bogdanovich ably acceded the uncredited functions of collaborating screenwriter, editor, cinematographer, assistant director and extra throughout the shoot of The Wild Angels. In recognition of a nascent talent, the schlock titan agreed to finance his protégé's ambition on the stipulation that Bogdanovich would write a part in said project to be played by Boris Karloff (the aged star was contractually obligated to Corman for two days of labor), and subsume in its running time twenty-odd minutes of footage from The Terror, the AIP gothic horror flick (shot in piecemeal with Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson at helm) in which Karloff starred four years prior. Undaunted, Bogdanovich and his spouse (recently deceased Polly Platt) rewrote their screenplay to accommodate both a radical subtext and the presence of a great talent in the crepuscule of both his life and career.

Two plotlines are nimbly traced in the course of Targets' narrative, converging only at its culmination. Disgusted by his fading stardom as the lead in an opprobrious string of B-movies, Karloff's elderly star retires after digesting a private screening of his most recent film, The Terror. His patient secretary (Nancy Hsueh) urges him to attend the opening screening of the offending product while its director (Bogdanovich) is desperate to cast him in a role of his substantive new script.
Concurrently, a clean-cut Vietnam veteran (Tim O'Kelly) ventures out to commit an inexplicable spate of killings after murdering his wife, mother and a grocery deliveryman without any apparent motive. Evading the pursuit of local police, he elects Reseda Drive-In Theatre - where Karloff's celebrity is to introduce his final picture - as another shooting gallery.

A scant few years ere Bogdanovich's potential bloomed in fruition of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, those successes were prefigured here by an antecedent elicitation of superlative performances from a fine cast. In one of his last parts, British horror icon Karloff is absolutely magnetic in spite of his advanced age and failing health. His cleverly designated Byron Orlok reminisces on past glories with bittersweet humor, recites the macabre Appointment in Samarra with resonant aplomb in plain light and cannily trades barbed quips with his junior co-stars. Though Orlok's attenuated celebrity was similar to Karloff's, the latter was in reality never so disposed to acrimony, and both he and his collaborators wisely opted to portray the animosity of his fictional equivalent as dignified disdain rather than brooding resentment. Perhaps the least of those performers at his disposal, Bogdanovich himself is nonetheless aptly cast as the promising young screenwriter and director, playing an amalgam of both himself and Samuel Fuller, who extensively rewrote the script of Targets yet refused both payment and credit for his efforts. After viewing Howard Hawks' The Criminal Code with Karloff, Bogdanovich's aspiring auteur drunkenly mutters, "All the good movies have been made." Minutes later, he begs his senior to engage the role he's written for him to no avail, convinced that it'll revitalize the credibility of his career. Save Welles himself, perhaps no other upstart filmmaker was so boldly self-referential, so luxuriate in his art. Quiet grace and a comfortable self-assurance characterize Hsueh's understated function as a sober foil to both men. Comedian Sandy Baron provides broader comic relief as a goofy DJ scheduled to officiate Karloff's introduction at the drive-in.
Evidently based on infamous spree killer Charles Whitman, the relaxed, occasionally cheerful demeanor of O'Kelly's reserved sniper provides a stark counterpoint to his lunatic slaughter. That he treats a purchase of ammunition in supplement to his prodigious arsenal or wholesale murder with the concern of a minor occupational challenge only underscores his character's casual derangement.

Bogdanovich was always as much a student as a historian and practitioner of his beloved medium, and his punctilious exercise of stylistic devices is here exhibited in exhaustive array. During its most intense sequences, Targets boasts astonishingly dynamic composition, yet its momentum decelerates satisfactorily to provide its actors ample space in which to articulate, or to convey the zeitgeist of a fresh and vibrant Los Angeles now all but unrecognizable. Formal filmic atrocities of declining appeal are juxtaposed with popular depictions of postwar social turmoil: in a sublime, incisive denouement no less contrived than that of a customary thriller, a hobbling relic of vitiated thrills confronts an analog of Whitman and highway sniper Michael Clark. An homage to both modern cinematic convention and the artifice of romantic genre pictures that Bogdanovich and his ilk supplanted with temerarious realism, Targets celebrates the advent of New Hollywood whilst bidding reverential valediction to its evanescent golden age.


Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation

Directed by Kim Henkel
Starring Renée Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, Teralyn Ross, Lisa Marie Newmyer, Tyler Shea Cone, Robert Jacks, Joe Stevens, James Gale, John Harrison

It's difficult to imagine what Kim Henkel was thinking when he wrote, produced and directed this; I feel embarrassed just to have watched it. Initially (barely) released in 1994 as The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to outspoken disgust among nearly all who were unfortunate enough to see it, this was immediately shelved and later released on VHS in 1997 under its absurd current title in order to capitalize on Zellweger's and McConaughey's budding stardom. Reportedly, the theatrical version ran nine minutes longer, featured a few different transitional shots and musical effects, and some of its scenes were color-tinted in post-production. By whatever impenetrable rationale, Henkel conceived and advertised this as both a "real sequel" to and a "re-imagining" of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (never mind that the antagonists bear only a vague resemblance to those of the first film, and that this can't hold a candle to Tobe Hooper's inspired comic sequel) and later as a sequel to Leatherface, the dismal second sequel of the series, but none of this matters because in any incarnation, by any name, for any reason, this is one of the most worthless films ever shot.

What little of the story that's even remotely clever was recycled from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like the plot and dialogue, the acting is abysmal. My best guess is that Henkel advised his cast to act like idiots in order to either downplay or enliven the moronic dialogue; if this much is true, they really came through for him. Surprisingly, Zellweger is the least irritating of this lot, despite playing the same mousy character that she portrays in most of her roles. McConaughey tries (too) hard to affect the demeanor of a violent lunatic; ultimately, he comes off as an obnoxious frat boy. To clarify my point: Matthew McConaughey was never even remotely fit for such a role. He's an irritating pretty-boy who belongs where he's found himself: in stupid, lightweight romantic comedies. If I wanted to see a handsome psychopath, I'd watch Christian Bale, and in a much more interesting movie than this one.

The implication that this film is a bore is not just a bitter complaint. For all its aggravating squall, the violence of TCM:TNG is harsh but totally unimaginative, and the most graphic killings are never exhibited onscreen. The story merely flounders. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been wrongly criticized for its simple, linear story: a group of young people wander into a remote area of rural Texas, are butchered by cannibal rednecks, The End. However, the simplicity of that summary is accurate when describing this rancid sequel: lacking any substance, its 86 minutes plod on and on and on.

This movie's only asset is its grimy interior set design - accompanied by gritty cinematography, it does evoke a creepy milieu. Unfortunately, nothing even mildly disturbing or amusing ever happens in it. The same can be said for the cameos of TCM stars Paul Partain and Marilyn Burns in the final scene; it's nice to see them, but they aren't given anything interesting to do.

At one point or another, most people want to revisit their accomplishments. Hooper and Henkel crafted one of the most effective and influential horror films ever made, and if the latter chose to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this achievement, he should have hosted a screening party or arranged to shoot a documentary about it that could have later been utilized as DVD featurette filler. Instead, he made an absolutely vomitous movie that's rightly and universally loathed among fans of the original, and which earned a whopping $186K at the box office. Way to go, Kim.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley, Lou Perryman, Bill Johnson

After helming two motion pictures (Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars) for Cannon, Tobe Hooper was permitted to complete his three-movie contract by directing a sequel to his iconic horror film. Eager to defy expectations, dissatisfied with the general public's inability to perceive the pitch-black deadpan humor of the first movie and unwilling to churn out what might amount to an updated retread of the cannibalistic classic, Hooper opted to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as a satire that spoofed its predecessor. Paris, Texas screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson wrote the script with Hooper, exchanging the first movie's friendly hippies for obnoxious yuppies as the most prominent members of the on-screen body count/menu. In addition to his function as associate producer of this movie, Carson also extensively rewrote the shooting script on-set, tweaking it on the fly as circumstances warranted and imaginations flared. At the conclusion of a backbreaking shoot during which scheduled time was limited, Hooper produced something inverse to his first major accomplishment: a dark comedy framed in the context of a horror movie.

Although the screening of an early rough cut left the cast and crew very amused, Cannon execs - and more importantly, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus themselves - came away thoroughly dissatisfied. Cannon produced genre movies tailored to satisfy expectations, and while the average Golan-Globus production was seldom representative of a good film, the Israeli schlockmeisters had paid for a straightforward horror movie and were determined to have one. Hooper was ordered to shoot more carnage, and several humorous and surreal sequences were omitted from the theatrical cut, which is an uneven, albeit entertaining product. It's not that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 isn't funny; to the contrary, every other scene is likely to induce at least a chuckle. The humor is there, but in such a limited context that this version of the movie is mostly stripped of any thematic coherence. In forcing Hooper and Carson to compromise what they'd created, neither Cannon nor their talent got what they wanted.

At its very best, TCM2 revives the crazed, inspired lunacy of the first movie with heaping helpings of brutality that are far more gory than anything seen in the preceding film, a few great scares and no small amount of goofy, manic capering by its redneck antagonists. However, the real stars of this picture - and the best reasons to watch it - are Tom Savini's inventive, gloriously gory special effects and brilliant sets by Cary White and Michael Peal. Fans of Savini won't be disappointed; he and his team realized every disgusting detail of the script's bloodiest scenes with overwhelming, gruesome results. The second half of TCM2 occurs within the bowels of a massive, grotesque subterranean cave, the hodgepodge design and dressing of which are nothing short of astonishing. The grisly detail and enormity of these sets enabled Hooper to achieve the full scope of his project.

Even though the cast is often overshadowed by the amazing visuals of the production, there are quite a few amusing performances herein. Jim Siedow was the only cast member to reprise a role from the first movie as the patriarch of the Texan cannibal clan, and he's perfect for the part, constantly ranting and spewing out ridiculous backwater insults. Even though he has less screen time than the rest of the ensemble, Dennis Hopper is afforded top billing as the only famous actor in the cast. Hopper engages the madness of his role impressively, but his attempt at a Texan accent is glaringly inauthentic, especially in comparison to those of the many Austin natives in the film; the trouble here is that it's impossible for him to sound like anything other than himself. Caroline Williams is especially loud and likable as the requisite screaming female victim. Without a doubt, the most outrageous performance on display here is that of Bill Moseley, who adopts Edwin Neal's manic mannerisms as a twin brother to the prior actor's Hitchhiker character. This is surely one of the most deranged, energetic and revolting performances in the genre's history, and Moseley exhibits himself as a truly gifted character actor.

Despite all of TCM2's admirable qualities, the movie sports just as many glaring flaws. The opening narration and crawl (which implements a typeface identical to that of the first film) would have been extremely effective if they weren't inexplicably rushed. The score, composed by Hooper and sound production wizard Jerry Lambert, boasts a memorably cheesy opening theme, but it's performed on an FM synthesizer, utilizing thin, tinny tones that sound suspiciously like presets. An orchestral rendering would surely have produced better results, but ultimately, like so many horror pictures, the film could have done without a score. The ending is utterly moronic, and burdened by one of the worst re-imaginings of the trademark chainsaw dance. Worst of all, the sloppy editing by frequent Golan-Globus associate and occasional hack director Alain Jakubowicz compromises the effect of many exciting scenes by cutting them to be as predictable as could be expected.

Two of the movie's best scenes were discarded during post-production. The first of these depicts the butchering of a rowdy, drunken yuppie gang in an underground car park, and is succeeded by another that finds Leatherface hacking up a pair of spoiled, aloof yuppettes while John "Joe Bob Briggs" Bloom enthusiastically evaluates his handiwork. Carson claims that these scenes were too silly for Cannon's intentions, while Hooper has mentioned that, as portions of a longer sequence that was never completed, they were cut in the interest of maintaining a better pace and reasonable runtime. The director's cut of this feature, which has been widely distributed on DVD and well-received, restores plenty of substantial footage, but the movie could have been so much more effective if the aforementioned scenes had been somehow utilized, and many other pivotal scenes in the script had been shot for inclusion in the first place.


They Live

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques

I usually approach any film starring a professional wrestler (retired or otherwise) with rightful skepticism. However, I must admit that Piper was well cast opposite David as a pair of brawny, down-on-their-luck construction workers who come across evidence of a pervasive, widespread alien invasion and a grassroots terrorist resistance movement opposed to it.

While the social commentary of this movie's script (very loosely adapted by Carpenter from Ray Nelson's clever short story Eight O'Clock in the Morning) is a bit heavy-handed from time to time, it adequately expresses the frustrations of the victimized working class of the 1980s and the destructive excesses of corporate culture. A particularly clever plot element is the alien invasion in the context of a venture enterprise, a sort of market-driven intergalactic imperialism implemented through class warfare. The omnipresence of the space aliens' identity and propaganda are also conveyed (and undermined) in a very inventive manner.

For those who could care less about this movie's satirical aspects, there's plenty of action to be found here: gunfights galore, a high body count and a famously hilarious, vicious, groin-crunching five-minute fistfight between the two leads. While this is unique among Carpenter's films in that it actually inspires some thought, his usual violent plot twists and macho slogans are intact.

Geek trivia: you don't have to look close to notice that the communicators that the guards in the radio station and underground network use were once the P.K.E. meters from Ghost Busters. It's always nice to see a familiar prop recycled to good use!


A terrified Mary Elizabeth Winstead is hunted by The Thing

The Thing

Directed Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paul Braunstein, Trond Espen Seim, Kim Bubbs, Jørgen Langhelle, Jan Gunnar Røise, Stig Henrik Hoff, Kristofer Hivju, Jo Adrian Haavind, Carsten Bjørnlund, Jonathan Walker

Among the most irksome of common cinematic misconceptions is the notion that John Carpenter's horror/sci-fi exemplar The Thing is a remake of Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World. Despite Carpenter's blatant homage to his admitted idol (manifest in an opening title lit ablaze in imitation of its predecessor's), these are very different adaptations of John W. Campbell's inspired novella, Who Goes There? - of which Carpenter's is the more faithful and ingenious by far. Nearly thirty years after Carpenter's first big-budget project flopped when moviegoers opted to observe a friendlier alien, its devoted and enduring fandom has assured the release of a prequel bearing like title.

Introductory events of the 1982 picture render the plot of this one almost wholly predictable: a Norwegian research team stationed in Antarctica unearths an extraterrestrial which effectively impersonates and consumes the majority of their number before the group's remaining members annihilate their base in an attempt to destroy it. Assuming the form of a malamute, the creature escapes en route to a United States' research facility as the survivors pursue it via helicopter. Obviously, the limited projected appeal of this production relies on tentative interest concerning the prior episode, for which the '82 flick purveys adequate elucidation.

Lacking the invention and ambition of Bill Lancaster's phenomenal screenplay, Eric Heisserer's anteceding effort progresses apace nonetheless, providing its audience deliberation sufficient only for brief reflection. Although this derivation affords director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. opportunities to ably implement twists, shocks and a few knowing nods to its kindred classic, only occasionally does it exploit the paranoia of its characters' group dynamic successfully. Too often, Heisserer's scenarios ape those of Lancaster's and their source material; many scenes are mere approximations of those in the '82 feature. In one tense sequence, Mary Winstead examines her acquaintances for potential evidence of infection - a perturbing scene that nevertheless pales in comparison to Kurt Russell's unforgettable blood test. However, these parallels are granted some logistical justification by a solid narrative that doesn't resort to stupid gimmickry or cheap tricks. Only during its last fifteen minutes does this story indulge some singular creative impulses and one sly final surprise as and after its protagonists explore the spacecraft from which the otherworldly horror emerged one hundred millennia before.

Although this is his first feature endeavor, Van Heijningen's position at helm isn't necessarily the result of his famous father's influence; the younger producer has also directed numerous televised commercials and a popular short film - a pedigree no more or less valid than that of numerous music video directors who engage the dominant form with varied success. Allowing his cast only necessary space to fully realize their characterizations, he's a capable foreman of technical detail and performance, but his talent pales in comparison to that of his production team. Michel Abramowicz's limpid, luminous photography furnishes picturesque lensing to exceptional set design by Odetta Stoddard, William Cheng, David G. Fremlin and Joseph Hiura. Recreated in sedulous detail, the Norwegian camp appears nearly identical to its '82 counterpart, especially in its ultimate demolished condition. Even better, the elaborate interior of the aforementioned spacecraft is a calculatedly limited yet intriguing spectacle that answers no questions and inspires many more. Period detail is exhibited by Luis Sequeira's modest costume design and the presence of older snowcat models.

Nobody expected this movie's effects crew to better the landmark achievements of Rob Bottin, Roy Arbogast and their gifted collaborators, whose gruesome, polymorphic beast was created entirely with incredible practical effects that have stood the test of time. Although this Thing is hardly so astonishing, a relative paucity of CG (which seldom betrays its artifice) in aid of some exceptional props, puppets and makeup does produce impressively gory results. Memorably, severed hands animated by the infectious alien strain run amok before coupling for attack! However, the striking efforts of these effects specialists are evidently curtailed by the limits of Heisserer's story...in Lancaster's, the malicious physiology of this outlandish entity seemed not to have any restrictions.

Winstead is usually one of but a few (if any other) personable actors in noxious, sub-par piffle (Final Destination 3, Death Proof, Bobby, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, etc.), and the pretty lead is here well-cast against cutesy type in a role analogous to Sigourney Weaver's most famous. As a paleontologist employed to evaluate the unearthed abomination, she utilizes a flamethrower for foreseeable heroism. Yet here's a worn archetype to which Winstead imbues some understated freshness with nuanced delivery: her large, expressive brown eyes communicate terror, determination and desperate aggression that would likely seem trite as dialogue. Ulrich Thomsen also exudes frosty charisma as the domineering chief of the group's research team, whose scientific prowess contrasts with his inability to govern a rapidly deteriorating situation. A fine supporting cast is apt in doomed roles that regrettably aren't so colorful or individually distinct as those of JC's film.

In summary: for ardent admirers of Winstead or Carpenter's paramount accomplishment, this is worth the cost of a matinee ticket. It also deserves some credit as the first revival of a JC title that isn't an execrable travesty.


3:10 to Yuma

Directed by James Mangold
Starring Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, Dallas Roberts, Gretchen Mol, Peter Fonda, Logan Lerman, Lennie Loftin, Vinessa Shaw, Alan Tudyk, Luce Rains

This adequate remake of Delmer Daves' superb western substitutes Crowe and Bale for Glenn Ford and Van Heflin nearly fifty years after the release of the original. It could be said that these famous leads are underutilized in their respective roles; Crowe is persistently capable, Bale seemingly capable of anything and this movie is fairly undemanding in comparison to the usual rigor of their work. Even more than its predecessor, this movie's plot bears as many clever twists as gaping holes, but the enormous screen presence that the headliners share is about enough to distract the casual viewer from the story's sillier flourishes. The performances of the supporting cast are also quite fine, especially that of Foster as a particularly vicious gunslinger.

Marco Beltrami's score is also worth mentioning as the first interesting music in a western that I've heard in a long time. Unsurprisingly, a few of Beltrami's cues reference Morricone's classic themes, but while this music is by no means original, it does compliment the excitement of many key scenes.


The Tingler

Directed by William Castle
Starring Vincent Price, Philip Coolidge, Judith Evelyn, Patricia Cutts, Pamela Lincoln, Darryl Hickman

In one of the very best of William Castle's popular B-horror offerings, the matchless Price stars as an obsessive pathologist who discovers the existence of a creature that lives in the human body, grows when its host experiences extreme terror and can only be diminished by the noise of a scream!

Despite its notoriously poor special effects (strings are quite visible!) and Castle's conventional direction, this kitsch classic is enlivened by compelling performances, a fantastic premise and another of Robb White's cunning, unpredictable plots, which he churned out for most of Castle's best pictures. Price is at the top of his form as the misguided scientist, and although his performance of an acid trip (the very first in film history) isn't even remotely realistic, his expressed panic certainly is.

Always keen to promote his movies with gimmickry as a supplement to his own craftsmanship, Castle had vibrating electric buzzers installed in the seats of random audience members, which were activated whenever a scream in the movie occurred. Paid shills were also planted in the audience to scream during key moments. Even the cinematography was touched by Castle's ambition: splashes of bloody red color in a crucial scene hideously complement the B & W photography.

While it's hardly as effective a horror movie as it was a half-century ago, The Tingler is still great fun, for both its hilarious flaws and legendary leading man make this required viewing for anyone who still cares about light, enjoyable genre pictures and magnetic screen acting. There might be some potential for a remake of this, but while the effects could certainly be improved on, who could possibly replace the Merchant of Menace?


The Trials of Henry Kissinger

Directed by Eugene Jarecki
Narrated by Brian Cox
Starring Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, Seymour Hersh, Alexander Haig, William Safire, Elizabeth Becker, Daniel Davidson, Geoffrey Robertson, Roger Morris, Michael Tigar, René Schneider Jr., Walter Issacson

Inspired by Christopher Hitchens' book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, this documentary examines the career of the United States' most famous diplomat in considerable detail, and his foreign policy transgressions pertaining to atrocities in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Chile in particular. This film draws on an impressive, expertly edited wealth of period footage and a wide selection of interviews conducted with Kissinger's apologists and detractors. These individuals include Kissinger's former professional associates (Alexander Haig, Daniel Davidson, William Safire), journalists (Hitchens, Seymour Hersh, Elizabeth Becker), human rights attorneys (Geoffrey Robertson, Michael Tigar) and numerous other figures involved in Kissinger's diplomatic, military and political operations.

Hitchens' book serves as a critical response to the many nearly hagiographical texts written about the former Secretary of State, and is none too gentle in its indictment of Kissinger. The perspective here is limited in scope only because the film's narrative relies entirely on documented, exhaustively researched facts, and leaves all speculation - some doubtful, some credible - to the interviewees. For example, only one person interviewed in the course of the film - Brent Scowcroft, former Air Force Lieutenant General and successor to Kissinger in the position of National Security Advisor - bothers to compare Kissinger's war crimes to those committed by the U.S. during WWII in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The viewer must place what is presented in an appropriate political context.

Those who have scrutinized all the significant minutia of Kissinger's career will likely find little, if anything, presented in this movie surprising. However, it is useful as an accurate depiction of the man's storied professional life, one that can be utilized to educate those who aren't familiar with one of the twentieth century's most colorful and notorious political figures. Kissinger presently occupies a curious, almost entirely unique position as an elder statesman, media darling, respected intellectual and reviled war criminal. Of course, he will never be placed on trial, a fact that conveys as much about the willful ignorance of the American public as it does for the servility of its press and for the lawlessness of its exceptionalist government.


True Grit

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson

Less than a year after the initial publication of Charles Portis' second and finest novel, the popular film adaptation of True Grit was released, marketed as another of far too many John Wayne vehicles. In spite of the film's success and enduring popularity, admirers of the harsh, blackly comic novel can easily recognize it as an insincere, sanitized crowd-pleaser. Wayne played tough-as-nails U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn exactly as he would any other character, his performance as by-the-numbers as most of his other efforts. Kim Darby was equally hammy and too old in the role of the vengeful 14-year-old who enlists the aid of the one-eyed lawman, and Glenn Campbell was heinously wooden as the Texas Ranger who shares their company. Though gorgeously shot and ably helmed by reliable western director Henry Hathaway, the 1969 production's sentimentality and calculatedly upbeat ending are more than enough to make anyone who's truly enjoyed the Portis book roll their eyes. Regardless of its solid fan base, the film is a prime example of how calcified and stagnant American westerns had become by the late '60s, especially in contrast to the many great, innovative contributions to the genre that Italian, Spanish and British filmmakers were producing at the time.

Although the Coens have skirted the western on occasion - in particular, Raising Arizona and No Country For Old Men effectively utilized settings, themes and vernacular common to the genre - this first full foray into the form is wonderfully refreshing. Promising a more faithful adaptation of the novel, they fulfilled this ambition by presenting it from the vindictive teenager's blunt, witty perspective. The bold violence, begrimed humor and laconic exchanges of Porters' tale are as germane to the Coens' style as their own original stories and Cormac McCarthy's dark fiction. Porters afforded his characters a crude, extravagant, rustic eloquence with which these filmmakers are profoundly familiar, and their excellent cast assumes this dialogue adroitly.

It is true that Jeff Bridges' portrayal of the boozing, crack-shot lawman Cogburn deviates from his depiction in the novel in many ways, as Wayne's did: his missing eye (now the left) is patched rather than shut, and here too he's in his early sixties rather than his forties. Never mind that, because Bridges nails Cogburn's character flush - grizzled and colorfully ill-tempered with a seemingly authentic whiskey rasp. When he stumbles about drunkenly, hits his marks with a single keen eye and banters back and forth with his young employer and the Texas Ranger who joins their quest, you can almost feel the pages between your fingers! As Mattie Ross, the retributive adolescent who hires Cogburn to bring her father's murderer to justice, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is as pretty as a spring peach and has presence to spare, but during her first half-hour onscreen, she fares little better than Darby, her delivery stiffly rushed and precocity forced. Thereafter, she's satisfactorily naturalistic and does her role justice, especially when engaged in heated discussion. Matt Damon's enjoyed a few roles in westerns, bringing an affable charm to unexceptional roles in Geronimo: An American Legend and the horrid adaptation of McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses; he's well-cast as the durable, loquacious aforementioned Texas Ranger, La Boeuf. Most of the picture's comedic and dramatic substance is derived from the contentious chemistry between these three, and the Coens were wise to exploit this accordingly.
Furthermore, the supporting players are equally effective. Robert Duvall's charismatic turn as Lucky Ned Pepper was one of the first adaptation's few bright spots, but Barry Pepper is at least as apt, imparting both viciousness and some rational decency to the gang leader. Even more unnerving as the pursued, pathetic murderer Tom Chaney, Josh Brolin's manner feels every bit as desperate and contemptible as can be expected. Veteran character actor Ed Corbin also steals a few hilarious minutes from the leads as an eccentric, bearskin-clad physician.

As usual, the contributions of the Coens' mainstay cinematographer Roger Deakins and score composer Carter Burwell are exceptional. Deakins' photography furnishes elaborate period detail and splendid, sprawling landscapes alike with a lush sheen - pretty, yet never glossy in its luster. Most of Burwell's score is comprised of variations on familiar hymns like What a Friend We Have in Jesus and especially Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Typical of his compositions, bass is provided by ominous horns and many harsh surprises are accompanied by sweeping, shocking strings.

Though it hardly departs from the book as conspicuously as the '69 film, True Grit does not follow it to the letter. Fortunately, the action has been restored from majestic Colorado to the plains of New Mexico and Texas (standing in for Arkansas and Oklahoma), and splitting the difference of the book's autumn setting and the prior picture's winter, occurs between the two seasons. As before, Tom Chaney is not the young man that he was in the book. Deviations of plot abound and any further details would qualify as spoilers, but what really matters is that the Coens have preserved the rousing, jocular ethos of a genre classic in a film that's finally worthy of it. Those who have read and loved True Grit will only find this movie more exciting in its discrepancies and suspenseful where it remains true.


Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Voiced by Andrew Philpot, John Rafter Lee, Pamela Segall, Wendee Lee, Michael McShane, Julia Fletcher, Matt McKenzie, John Di Maggio, Alex Fernandez, Jack Fletcher, Dwight Schultz

Based on the third novel of Hideyuki Kikuchi's popular series, this film evokes the milieu of its source material with greater accuracy than Toyoo Ashida's 1985 adaptation of the first novel. Herein, the titular character is commissioned by an affluent family to eliminate a powerful vampire, and to return a young woman who he's kidnapped. D's activities are complicated by a society of monsters hired by his prey for protection and a group of bounty hunters with whom he's competing for the same objective.

I never had an opportunity to see this in the theater upon its initial release. I assumed that the result would be an adaptation of Kikuchi's work colored by the rapid, severe action sequences and brisk pace typical of other Kawajiri features like Wicked City and Ninja Scroll. My guess was accurate only in regard to the former element; while the violence of this movie is as stylized and impressive in its execution as that of Kawajiri's other directorial efforts, this is surely as measured as it was in print, a story that develops slowly and for good reason.

The visuals of this film cannot be faulted. CGI is implemented seamlessly with cel animation to great effect. But the finest accomplishments of this movie's production are an array of magnificent backgrounds that depict vivid pastoral settings of numerous environments and extraordinary, sprawling interiors in which Gothic and Victorian design are rendered with impossibly ornate detail. I've seen a lot of animated features, and this is probably the most beautiful among them. Character designer Yutaka Minowa must be credited for his efforts: while his D is quite similar in appearance to the magnificent illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano found in the novels, the other characters are not dissimilar to those seen in other Kawajiri films. In particular, Borgoff Marcus bears more than a passing resemblance to Himuro Gemma of Ninja Scroll. The elaborateness of the characters almost equals that of their surroundings.

Bloodlust is unique among anime in that its original language track was English (the Japanese-language track was actually recorded third, after a Cantonese-language version!). The quality of the vocal performances are very mixed. Andrew Philpot's D is comparable to Kaneto Shiozawa's voicing of the 1985 film: subdued, with an undercurrent of intensity. It's praiseworthy, though it really doesn't compare to the authoritative baritone that Michael McConnohie used to reinforce D's commanding presence in the first movie. Michael McShane provides the sentient parasite of D's left hand with a nervous swagger that compliments the character's comic relief. Most of the other voice actors are certainly competent. In fact, John Rafter Lee voices Meier Link with an imperial menace that's subtly impressive. But much of the dialogue sounds rushed and clumsy, which may have more to do with the difficulties common to English translations than the failings of the performers. It's often difficult to translate, paraphrase and speak an English phrase properly in the same amount of time as a Japanese equivalent, something that longtime viewers of English-dubbed anime or jidaigeki are well aware of. Put simply: for common speech, English is usually the more verbose and Japanese the more efficient of the two languages.

While Bloodlust is surely as attractive and exciting as could be expected, it isn't as fun as I expected it to be. The moral ambiguity of the film is refreshing. There is only one protagonist and one antagonist, and the integrity of the other characters is not easily delineated. The film's conclusion is aptly sober, and surely not to all tastes. Technically, this feature is as fine a technical accomplishment as any that Kawajiri's produced and as downcast as many of his other movies. While I came away from this satisfied, it's ultimately one of the more depressing fantasies that I've seen in a while.


Vengeance Is Mine

Directed by Shohei Imamura
Starring Ken Ogata, Rentaro Mikuni, Mitsuko Baisho, Mayumi Ogawa, Nijiko Kiyokawa, Chocho Miyako

This was Imamura's return to cinematic fiction eleven years after the release of his brilliant, big-budget flop, The Profound Desire of the Gods, and following a string of feature film and television documentaries. Vengeance Is Mine contains many of Imamura's trademarks: incestuous relations, miserable poverty and a fleshy excess of sweaty, passionate sex. However, this film's brutal violence and narrative indifference distinguish it from any other in his oeuvre. The exploits of Ken Ogata's serial killer are presented with uncomfortably dispassionate detail. The screenplay is based on the celebrated novel by Ryuzo Saki, which in turn was based on the true crimes of serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. While both Saki and Imamura took liberties with this story in order to explore themes related to Nishiguchi's crimes and the period in which they were committed, fiction is rarely so honest or disturbing.

The scene that most viewers of this film seem to remember best is the last, when Ogata's father (Mikuni) and wife (Baisho) throw his post-cremation bones to the sky, only to see them hang defiantly suspended in mid-air. But the most remarkable moment of this film is one that nobody seems to notice. A portmanteau scene was shot to depict Ogata climbing a stairwell as he prepares to murder the mother of his lover; in a hall adjoining the stairwell, his own mother (hundreds of miles away, in her own home and a state of senility) staggers quietly, preparing to berate her husband for the amorous relationship with his daughter-in-law that he hasn't quite pursued. The execution and implications of this scene are extraordinary; rarely in cinema does one encounter theatrical novelties that are so brilliantly conceived, or so effectively staged.

The cast is as excellent as the story. Seasoned, popular veterans (Rentaro Mikuni, Nijiko Kiyokawa) are paired with numerous promising young stars of the late '70s (leading man Ogata, Mitsuko Baisho, Chocho Miyako), many of whom went on to achieve much greater fame. Ogata and especially Baisho were mainstays in Imamura's casting until the director's death in 2006.

Imamura will probably be best remembered for The Ballad Of Narayama, Black Rain or The Eel, and that's just as well. The accessibility of those films doesn't detract from their excellence in the slightest. But Vengeance Is Mine occupies a curious position as one of his most unique, innovative and provocative films. The sensitive and objective viewer will come away from it feeling simultaneously threshed and comforted.

This film was initially released to Japanese theaters on my birthday: April 21st, 1979. A pleasant coincidence!


Volver

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo, Chus Lampreave, Antonio de la Torre

This is Almodóvar's biggest international hit so far, and it's curiously reminiscent of Imamura's later films. Many of the thematic elements common to the elder filmmaker's stories can be found here: lust, betrayal, incest and murder in a familial context. Like so many of Imamura's protagonists, the two most prominent characters of this story are long-suffering women. Similar to so many films and television programs written and directed by the nuberu bagu icon, Volver is imbued with a specific zeitgeist, and accurately presents the more peculiar elements of a cultural microcosm (in this instance, the turbulent austerity of La Mancha). Both filmmakers exhibit a curious insight regarding the primal aspects of femininity, as well as a bluntly objective refusal to cast judgment on any of their characters.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Although Cruz's image is ubiquitous in this film's promotional media (this is inevitable when the lead of a cast is almost impossibly beautiful), the real star of this movie is Carmen Maura, whose portrayal of a kindly, clandestine matriarch is extraordinarily touching.

Despite the downbeat subject matter of the film's excellent story, this is undoubtedly one of Almodóvar's most amusing and pleasant projects, especially in the wake of his harrowing Bad Education. Almodóvar is probably Spain's most recognizable filmmaker at this point, and his development as both a director and a screenwriter over the course of the past two decades is impressive. It's encouraging to see a great filmmaker obtain the success and recognition that he deserves in an industry littered with talentless frauds.


War of the Worlds

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto

Well, it's not as annoying as Cloverfield.

The most that one can say for Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' most famous novel is that it doesn't try to be anything other than what it is. Unsurprisingly, the movie's story is bookended by graceless and unnecessary expositional narration and opens with fifteen minutes (ten too many) of an equally pointless introduction to the central characters. Nonetheless, this is escapist entertainment and it's presented as such, and I'm almost surprised that Spielberg didn't attempt to work some social message into the storyline. Triumph is not merely the absence of failure, and this film hovers between the two.

Cruise and Fanning are entirely adequate in their roles, though plenty of unknowns could have performed them just as well at a fraction of the cost. In fact, Cruise's presence isn't necessarily an asset to a film's production, considering how the public has recoiled in disgust and amusement from his tactless advocacy of Scientology and psychotic antics. Never mind, though; Spielberg has become something of a dinosaur, and star power still means so much to him. Robbins is considerably less convincing as a grizzled, unstable shut-in. All of the cast's talent can't overcome the screenplay's lack of a single likable character. His output over the past fifteen years indicates that Spielberg has long forgotten what makes for a sympathetic character, so I didn't expect to glimpse one in the first place.

Predictably, the special effects of this outing prove to be far more satisfying than its human element. Rising up with menacing, groaning sirens as they shoot their human targets to ash with heat rays, those looming, annihilative tripods are great fun, as are the gruesome consequences of the invading extraterrestrials' feeding habits. There are a few notable faults - some conspicuous digital birds, a few frames here and there in moving shots where the green screen backgrounds aren't entirely believable and CGI smoke that never looks real (as usual). Otherwise, the CGI is entirely credible, and while this is hardly the overwhelming spectacle that Spielberg would like it to be, it's very exciting at its best - almost enough to distract the viewer from the hokey, clichéd tragedy superficially written into the story.

At the very least, this was much easier to stomach than Spielberg's prior outing with his dwarven leading man, that noxious and moronic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Minority Report, but overall, it's pretty forgettable. Despite one embarrassingly stupid, ridiculously gimmicky wraparound shot and some annoying closeups, there are relatively few sour notes here, and thankfully little of the idiotic dialogue that have become a staple of Spielberg's movies. For whatever reason, Janusz Kaminski chose to light every single interior shot with absurdly high contrast and no small amount of glittering, glowing light. The result is darkness that never impedes the viewer's vision, and photography that makes even the most grotty sets somehow look photogenic. Maybe I'm wrong to expect abject ugliness where it's supposed to be, or to hope that a director and his DP have the guts to shoot in pitch blackness or something like it, where the famous actors' faces aren't always entirely and immediately recognizable. Well, what's the point? When all is said and done, this is just another of hundreds of remakes and retreads, and it's not as though Spielberg will ever trust his viewers to accurately perceive even a hint of ambiguity. If I wanted art, I'd watch some.


Warm Water Under A Red Bridge

Directed by Shohei Imamura
Starring Koji Yakusho, Misa Shimizu, Mitsuko Baisho, Mansaku Fuwa, Isao Natsuyagi, Yukiya Kitamura, Kazuo Kitamura

It's every bit as bawdy as most of his fictional movies, but Imamura's last full-length feature eschews most of the tragedy and struggle of his more straightforward dramas. Instead, a greater emphasis is placed on the libidinous humor so characteristic of the great director's output. The surrealism of The Eel is even more prominent here, and it's used both as a means to amplify one of Imamura's primary subjects of interest (sex) and to conjoin all of the disparate elements and numerous themes of an ingenious mystery and a very unconventional love story.

Both cast and crew will be familiar to anyone who's seen more than a couple of Imamura's films. Yakusho and Shimizu have been professionally acquainted in numerous projects other than The Eel, and Baisho has been a fine mainstay in almost all of Imamura's films since her role in Vengeance Is Mine. Shinichiro Ikebe has also scored most of his pictures since then, and his characteristically goofy, bouncy score suits the oddities of this movie quite nicely.

While most of the story's innovations are to be credited to Yo Henmi, who wrote the novel from which this was adapted, the screenplay was undoubtedly tweaked to accommodate the quirky idiosyncrasies of an Imamura film. Written by Imamura and his Eel collaborators (his son, director Daisuke Tengan and Motofumi Tomikawa), the script is an unbalanced, charming mixture of humor and melodrama. Not all of the dramatic sequences are entirely convincing and the last ten minutes feel quite rushed, but overall, Warm Water is satisfying in a way that defies typical closure.

Despite his advanced age during the shooting of this film, Imamura's technique is as impressive here as it ever was. The drifting pans and bouncy, boat-mounted tracking shots feel natural and familiar, but they're the result of fastidious, carefully considered framing. By the end of his career, Imamura finally developed a style that defied the criticism leveled at him by both his detractors and himself.


We Still Don't Believe It

Starring Maria Cortez

In this vintage film short, a cute Latina sword-swallower examines and then gulps down numerous swords in a fake exhibit. Every time she does so, another article of her clothing is torn as though cut and falls away, leaving her clad in underwear at the movie's end.


An advertisement for the spectacle of Werner Herzog's footwear feast in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

Directed by Les Blank
Starring Werner Herzog

Those Germans - so unswervingly literal.

When Errol Morris set out to make his extraordinary documentary concerning the keepers of pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven, Werner Herzog - who encouraged him, despite the younger man's notorious indecisiveness - informed him that if he finished the film, he'd eat his shoe. At Gates of Heaven's premiere at the UC Theater, Herzog did just that after boiling it in garlic, herbs, and stock at nearby restaurant Chez Panisse with the aid of chef and co-owner Alice Waters.

Burden of Dreams director Les Blank documents it all: Herzog's arrival in California, the culinary preparation of his footwear, his purchase of a new pair of boots and the publicity stunt itself, where Herzog ingests his shoe with numerous condiments - except for the sole, which he likens to bones. Interspersed with appropriate footage from Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Herzog's own Even Dwarfs Started Small and Gates of Heaven itself, the prolific German filmmaker has a good laugh at himself when he's not complaining about the glut of uninspired aesthetics in culture, and its relationship to capitalist excesses. His own deadpan is so perfect that it can be difficult to determine whether Herzog's joking or not, but like everything else he's done, this great little short only serves to again confirm him as the ultimate daredevil filmmaker, who's willing to do anything for a laugh, a worthwhile filmic project or both.


Carol Kane is terrified When a Stranger Calls

When a Stranger Calls

Directed by Fred Walton
Starring Charles Durning, Tony Beckley, Carol Kane, Colleen Dewhurst, Ron O'Neal, Carmen Argenziano, Rutanya Alda

Seven years after a homicidal lunatic terrorizes a babysitter (Carol Kane) via telephone in the home of her wealthy hosts, that same psychopath (Tony Beckley) finds himself fixated on a lonely lush (Colleen Dewhurst) while sought by a former detective turned P.I. (Charles Durning).

This might have been another unexceptional thriller if not for its perfectly apt cast. Fragile and elfin, Kane's nervous and ultimately hysterical delivery are as effective as the movie's measured pace. As she was already an old hand in the part of the tough, worn and unmarried, Dewhurst's more reserved performance is equally plausible. Durning's both reliable and unsurprising as the determined investigator, but the real treat here is Beckley, totally twisted (though never outrageous) as the madman. This proved to be Beckley's final role; the British stage and television veteran was terminally ill during shooting, and ended his career on a high note, imparting some humanity and not too much frenzy to an antagonist who's as pathetic as reprehensible.

Those who have viewed this won't be surprised to learn that its first twenty minutes were initially filmed as a short by horror director Walton, who expanded it into his first feature-length picture after noting the success of Carpenter's Halloween. Though its extended plot was skillfully devised, proceedings therein are a whit tedious midway through the second act. Durning's obsessive pursuit of Beckley is of interest, but continues for too long ere its absorbing chase scene. However, even this film's slowest moments are sustained by gorgeous photography, courtesy of the distinguished, recently deceased D.P. Donald Peterman. Composed in the vein of Goldsmith's tenser offerings, Dana Kaproff's eerie, string-driven score might well put and keep anyone on edge.

Quite an assemblage of talent, this is terrific at its best in spite of some minor flaws. It's most efficacious when viewed in the dark at 1 A.M. on a chilly October morning...


When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

Directed by Mikio Naruse
Starring Hideko Takamine, Masayuki Mori, Daisuke Kato, Ganjiro Nakamura, Eitaro Ozawa, Keiko Awaji, Tatsuya Nakadai, Reiko Dan

One of the last and best of Naruse's films, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs showcases the subtle, forceful emotional expression that Naruse was so capable of evoking from his actors. This was written and produced by the great Ryuzo Kikushima, who expertly crafted a story perfectly suited to Naruse's ethos just as he had done many times for Kurosawa. The theme of downtrodden and constrained women in Japan's modern de facto patriarchal society has been exhaustively explored in Japanese film, but this is a cut above the usual exploitive melodramas concerning abused women.

As lovely as ever, Takamine plays a bar hostess in postwar Ginza at the onset of middle age and a crossroads in her life. She hates her job for perfectly good reasons and is forced to provide for others and sustain herself well beyond her means. A seemingly endless string of disappointments and obligations threaten to break our heroine, but her inner determination is as resolute as her life is tragic.

Takamine performs the lead with remarkable grace and charm; even by her standards, this performance was exceptional. On the verge of stardom, a young Tatsuya Nakadai also delivers a morose, ultimately explosive portrayal of an unrequited lover. As with just about everything he's done, the emotional outburst of his final scene is striking.

The ending of the film seems more hopeful and satisfying in retrospect than it did during a first viewing; in leaving matters unresolved, the protagonist's determination is emphasized in a very poignant manner.


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis

Hellfire on heels, Martha's the shrill, spoiled, middle-aged daughter of a university president who won't recognize a boundary in sight of carnal or argumentative indulgence. As quick to deliver a trenchant barb or penetrating inquiry as to quaff a shot, George is an embittered history professor. Fueled by liquor and loathing, theirs is a spent, long-rotted marriage fraught with resentment for each other's numerous failures. Returning from another of many faculty parties, he's surprised to learn that she's invited a couple for drinks - a young, handsome biology instructor and his sweet, gawky wife. Already gnawing at one another, they needn't much time or booze before they turn on their visitants with exchanges teetering to the verge of absurdity. When a secret rooted in years of mad, pathetic delusion is unearthed, George and Martha's gloves come off for a nightlong domestic war from which no one present emerges unscathed.

Mike Nichols' directorial debut (released but a year prior to his classic generational mega-hit, The Graduate) coaxes every drop of fluent vitriol from Edward Albee's powerhouse stage play by dint of violent lead performances and engrossing composition. His stage direction of Barefoot in the Park, Luv and The Odd Couple elevated Nichols to Broadway stardom, but this first foray into feature filmmaking evinces not only an assured collaboration with his dream cast, but also a canny grasp of cinematic stylism. Nichols' static wide shots only emphasize the action occurring therein, none of his many close-ups feel claustrophobic and his few reaction zooms, while dated, are still startlingly effective.

Notwithstanding their famously vituperative marriage and mutual, incessant alcoholism, neither Elizabeth Taylor nor Richard Burton were considered ideal actors to play the overripe harridan and her beaten, recreant spouse as so vividly embodied onstage by Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill. Sensible opinion appraised her too beauteous, he too forceful. Among those considered as Martha were Bette Davis, Patricia Neal, Ingrid Bergman and Rosalind Russell. Candidates who would likely have served as able incarnations of George included James Mason, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon. For whatever reason, delightful ham Peter O'Toole was also assessed as a possible choice!
Perhaps more devoted to her profession than to any of her spouses (including Burton), Taylor gained thirty-odd pounds to reinforce the dumpy verisimilitude of her performance. So essential was her coarse appearance that DP legend Harry Stradling Sr. was relieved of his position for attempting to restore her usual glamor. Playing the dissolute lush as trashily as could be expected, she's unnerving and convincingly (if not actually) inebriate, and yet her essential vulnerability - first implied, then explored in emotive instances of misleading exposition - is tremendously endearing.
However, Burton is the true wonder of this picture. His portrayal of bespectacled George is not a faithful enactment of Albee's character, but rather an inspired reinterpretation whereby an academic beta male rising to his boiling point is transformed into a sly, sneering, scholarly alpha eager to meet his wife's cruelty with his own denigrations while baiting the latest object of her desire with mocking wit. Albee's vulpine, whip-crack dialogue is at least as striking by way of Burton's brisk, idiosyncratic delivery as Taylor's thick, derisive slurring.
Neither of the guests are dramatic slouches, either. As charismatic Nick, an almost unrecognizably handsome George Segal shifts from conspicuous flirtation to plastered stupor to aggressive umbrage to defensive enervation with total plausibility. Sandy Dennis is better still as deceptively guileless Honey, whose nervous laughter, abrupt sicknesses and boozy abandon all suggest a creeping apprehension. While Martha and George pick each others' worst scabs open for the world to see with retributive fervor, Nick and Honey are forced to consider their own buried indignations, which they can never broach in response to one another. Dennis's curious, wide-eyed understatement is a marvel - she has the least to say, but conveys nearly so much pique as her castmates with a slender, sardonic shift of tone.

Producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman wisely expanded the action of WAoVW beyond the onstage stricture of George and Martha's home to a roadhouse and exterior settings to advance the film's cinematic quality. However, both Nichols and his star leads loathed Lehman's rewritten dialogue and newly contrived ending. Ultimately, the discourse and close of Albee's play was utilized with but a few additions and tweaks to satisfy Jack Valenti's newly-revised MPAA production code.

Viewers are best advised to avoid the colorized version of this picture, for Haskell Wexler's celebrated, luminous grayscale photography is rich with shadowy contrast. Alex North's elegantly melancholy score imparts a pensive aural facet to the film's opening, interludes and conclusion.

Although neither its verbal obscenity nor sexual entanglements are anywhere near so outrageous as they seemed in the mid-'60s, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has lost not a jot of its potency. Hopelessly in love and hate, its aggrieved pair sadistically torment one another not merely to satisfy their dudgeon or avenge the breach of a lunatic pact, but because it's all that remains of a relationship in which devotion is expressed so cruelly. Their catharsis is voiced by a scream, yet confirmed in whispers. Alternately horrific and hilarious, this is an especially fine stage-to-screen production from a decade when such fare was abundant and consistently excellent. Representing the very best efforts of its distinguished contributors, this classic encapsulates the postwar decline of marital life while exhibiting the talents of its estimable stars.


Willard

Directed by Glen Morgan
Starring Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey, Laura Harring, Jackie Burroughs

A curious remake of the 1971 horror B-movie, in which a born loser who lives in the miserable company of his wretched mother (Burroughs) and under the baton of a cruel boss (Ermey) finds friendship and a means to wage revenge in the company of rats.

Glover is perfectly cast in the titular lead: spineless, seething with resentment and impossibly weird. Most other character actors train for years to fake the kind of bizarre demeanor that the Hellion seems to effortlessly embody; it's hard to imagine somebody else who'd be better suited for this role. Ermey is also excellent as the unbearably vicious manager, the kind of brutal authority figure that he's been typecast as since Kubrick first exploited his natural potential. The supporting cast is just fine, but the performances of these humans are far less interesting than those of their rodent counterparts (live and CGI alike), who are well implemented.

This isn't quite a horror film: there are no outright scares, but the movie is genuinely creepy now and again. More notable is the poignancy of the story; even though this reviewer has a general revulsion for most rodents, the more tender aspects of Willard's relationship with his favorite pet are genuinely moving. It's all quite hokey, to be sure, but very touching nonetheless.

The only serious gripe that could be lodged against this film is that its style is considerably derivative: Glen Morgan's direction bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Tim Burton. Even Shirley Walker's score sounds very much like a Danny Elfman composition. Of course, this film shouldn't be entirely dismissed; it is frequently effective and has a heart. But it's easy to imagine how this could have been a great movie, had it been developed by a filmmaker with a more unique vision.


Wisconsin Death Trip

Directed by James Marsh
Narrated by Ian Holm
Starring Jeffrey Golden, Jo Vukelich, Marcus Monroe, Marilyn White, John Schneider, Zeke Dasho

Having achieved cult notoriety since its first publication in 1973, Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip plumbed the nineteenth century's abject, turbulent final decade in Black Water Falls, Wisconsin and other locations in Jackson County, utilizing a wealth of morbid glass plate negatives and disturbing press clippings of historical record to chronicle a period in the state's history that was largely miserable. Unemployment, disease, madness, alcoholism, religious fervor and brutal crime resulting from all of these factors was expertly exhibited in Lesy's harrowing presentation.

Wisconsin Death Trip never needed a film adaptation, and it could be said that the book is ill-suited to the medium. So, it's a surprise to see that James Marsh has produced a picture of considerable interest from the book's content. Unfortunately, the film relies on too few of the many extraordinary photographs that Charles Van Schaick shot during the period (which serve as the entirety of the book's illustrations), relying instead on re-enactments. Fortunately, these scenes are, despite a few exceptions, ably performed and beautifully rendered in lush black-and-white. Many violent, depraved and tragic events, as well as a few of fleeting delight, are portrayed and arranged in a seasonal order, and each season's sequence is concluded with vibrant color footage of Black River Falls a century later, depicting a comparatively subdued 1990s locale.

Those familiar with the book know what kind of misery they'll be witness to, though the execution of these re-enactments are often surprising for the initiated. Just as the hyperbole of the book is in some portions nearly ludicrous, so too do some scenes flirt with melodrama; the whispered voice-over of an insane asylum clerk crosses the line from creepiness into silliness. However, the pace of this film is imbued with such remarkable momentum; Marsh has arranged many of the book's most exceptional incidents in a way that retains the viewer's attention.

The greatest achievements of this project are to be found in its cinematography and editing. Without its gorgeous photography and fastidiously organized sequences, Wisconsin Death Trip would be intriguing, but nowhere near so engaging to the eye. Holm's narration is very fine; he affects the dialect of the period capably, and as a result, his own voice is barely recognizable.

The proceedings are scored by the music of Bach, Offenbach, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Pärt and one of this reviewer's favorite pieces, the In Paradisum of Fauré's Requiem, which closes the film.

© 2007-2013 Robert Buchanan

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