Friday, June 30, 2017

Insert Snarky Phone Pun Here: "Cell" (2016)

The behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the financing, making, and distribution of this film based on Stephen King's novel is more interesting than the film itself, which is yet another post-apocalyptic road movie that owes plenty to King's previous works.

Clay (a tired John Cusack) is a graphic novel writer who is finally making it big. His estranged wife and son live in northern New England, and he has just arrived in a Boston airport with his good career news. Everyone's on their cell phones, when suddenly people start going insane and killing others around them. Planes collide and crash to the ground in all their computer animated glory (more on that later), and Clay flees, finding himself underground in a subway tunnel where cell phone signals cannot reach. He meets up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), and they head to Clay's apartment, picking up neighbor Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman) along the way (she killed her own mother, which she seems to shake off rather quickly). The trio set out for Clay's family's home, he is confident that despite the chaos going on around them, his wife and son are going to be alright. The impossible trek turns into an information gathering field trip, as our group of heroes meet up with various characters who all offer input as to what is happening, and the audience has to delineate the facts as well. The climax of the film has gained cult status for its lousy, impossibly cheesy special effects.

From what I have read, "Cell" seems to have been a doomed production from the start. King co-wrote the screenplay, but there were financing issues (there are a ton of production companies listed in the opening credits). The lack of a sure budget means what should have been some epic scenes (the opening airport scene, a mass cell-zombie extermination on a soccer field, the climax) are treated to special effects that are more at home on a YouTube fan film channel. The film itself debuted online, then opened in a handful of theaters (has this marketing strategy ever worked in the history of movies?), and even the DVD/digital copy I purchased was in the $5 bargain bin at Wal-Mart, despite coming out almost a year ago.

Director Williams has done other films, but he seems to have been hamstrung in his creative efforts here. He is the only one who participated on the audio commentary (I couldn't sit through this again to listen to it), and it's very telling that his behind-the-scenes featurette interview is done with a giant green screen in the background. The computer animation here is awful. The climax should have been effective and creepy, but I couldn't stop guffawing at the Video Toaster-like effects (there's a early 1990's reference for all you middle-aged broadcasting and mass communications majors out there). I didn't read King's novel, I gave up on King after slogging through half of "Insomnia," but I could spot story elements from The Stand, Pet Sematary, The Shining, and even Maximum Overdrive here. In King's America, does everyone sit on a cache of guns? Good thing one supporting character seems to be an expert bomb maker, providing a convenient catalyst for the finale. In true Hollywood fashion, guns are found, everyone is an expert shot, and ammo is never-ending. Williams' best scenes are the intimately creepy ones, like the drive-in theater, Clay's home, and a fortified bar. His direction is a bit shaky and off-putting, which adds to the tension.

The cast does what they can, everyone gets their little moments. I wondered why no one turns on a TV in the film, or where the stereotypical evil government was. The characters, and the viewer, must accept what is happening and run with it, and ambiguity is a good thing, but having all the survivors being visited in their nightmares by the same red hoodie-wearing demonic character was never followed through with or explained to my satisfaction.

"Cell" isn't the worst film ever made, heck, it's not even the worst Stephen King adaptation ever made (I'm glaring at you, "Dreamcatcher"), but it is a definite curiosity. MPAA rated (R), the film contains physical violence, gun violence, gore, profanity, mild sexual content, and adult situations. (* *) out of five stars. Buy it here!: Cell

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Twisted Sisters: "Sisters of Death" (1976)

This 1970's relic is a clever little thriller with plenty of twists and turns and the over-the-top finale is fun. Too bad the film makers don't make the best of the nubile female cast and fantastic setting, instead dwelling in technical mistakes and iffy pacing.

The film opens with a ceremony inducting two new members into a group called the Sisters. One of the initiation rites involves putting a gun to the newbie's heads, and it goes off, killing Liz (Elizabeth Bergen). The other half dozen Sisters are rightfully horrified. Cut to seven years later, and all of the Sisters receive invitations to a reunion. They gather, and are driven out to the location by two hired men (Paul Carr and Joe E. Tata), who have never met their boss. The Sisters are obviously intimidated by the mystery, and the guys hang around hoping to score with the women. Soon, the partygoers find themselves trapped in the remote mansion by an active electrical fence, and the murderous Sisters are slowly being picked off one by one.

I collectively refer to the women as the Sisters, because aside from Claudia Jennings as model Judy, none of the other characters stuck out in my mind. The two brunettes looked so much alike, and Jennings resembles another brown haired Sister, I thought everyone might be related in real life. Just when you think you know who is creeping off with who, who might be in on the murderous plot, and who just got killed, their doppelganger pops up and you think "oh, wait, I thought that was who died." Old pro Arthur Franz plays a good bad guy, and the location is wonderful. The screenplay does generate some tension here and there, but an over-enthusiastic boom microphone will suddenly fall into a shot and kill the mood. By the time the climax rolls around, where a very large gun makes a laugh-worthy entrance, my patience had run out as well. As with many of these public domain films, this screenplay is screaming for a remake.

Star Claudia Jennings should have had a big career in television and films, but her life was cut short three years after this film was released (she fell asleep at the wheel and died in a car accident). Her charisma comes through onscreen. She found herself trapped in many exploitation films (she had been a Playboy Playmate), but seemed to be on the cusp of bigger things at the time of her death. "Sisters of Death" serves as a reminder of what could have been. The film is MPAA rated (PG) and contains physical violence, gun violence, some gore, some adult situations, and some sexual references. (* *) out of five stars. Buy it here!: Sisters of Death

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Steele Crazy After All These Years: "Nightmare Castle" (1966)

Horror legend Barbara Steele takes a dual role in this cornball, "gory" Gothic story that is screaming for a remake.

Unfeeling cynic Stephen (Paul Muller) is one of those movie scientists who spends the entire running time of a motion picture excusing himself to go to his laboratory, working on generic experiments. His shrewish wife Muriel (Barbara Steele) is dallying with stable boy/handyman David (Rik Battaglia), and the two are discovered and murdered by Dr. Stephen. In the background lurks Solange (Helga Line), an elderly woman (sporting terrible old age make-up). Stephen drains Muriel's blood, burns the couple's bodies, and then goes in search of Jenny (also Barbara Steele), Muriel's look-alike sibling.

It seems Muriel changed her will so that Jenny inherits everything, and lucky for our villainous doctor, Jenny is nuts. Quicker than you can check the running time on the film, Stephen has married Jenny and brings her home, where she meets Solange, who is suddenly younger looking. Solange and Stephen decide to poison Jenny, sparking a return of her insanity, but there's a problem- Jenny has a "nightmare," and sees outlandish things, but had not taken any of the solution Stephen prepared. Is she crazy on her own, reacting to a very real haunted castle? Or has Muriel come back from the dead to possess Jenny's body? A visit from Jenny's old hunky doctor Dereck (Marino Mase) should clear up all of these questions.

"Nightmare Castle" is one of those films in the public domain, meaning anyone can grab and show a copy. There are a variety of running times, cast and crew pseudonyms, and picture quality prints out there. When you find a copy of this (I counted at least six different versions on YouTube alone, but screened a cheap DVD version for review) you need to take all of this into account. This isn't a very good film by any means, but Caiano uses his limited resources to the extreme. The set is nicely decorated, the shadowy cinematography works, and Caiano does some nice things with his camera. The small cast and castle setting make this feel stagy at times. The performers' performances are hard to judge since the dubbing on the film is atrocious. Ennio Morricone delivers an odd score.

"Nightmare Castle" is passable time-filler, in all it's versions. Not scary or great, but it could make you reminisce about the long-gone late late shows on independent television stations. The film contains physical violence and gore. (* *) out of five stars. Buy it here!: Nightmare Castle [Blu-ray]

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Short Films, Television, and Miscellaneous Reviews (131)

A (16)

Abe & Bruno (2006) TV movie
Absence of the Good (1999) TV movie
Act of Vengeance (1986) TV movie
Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore (1992) TV movie
Against the Wall (1994) TV movie
Alfred Hitchcock Presents- The Best of, Volume I (TV)
Alien Arsenal (1999) TV movie
Amazing Stories- "Amazing Stories: Book One" (TV)
Amish Grace (2010) TV movie
Amour de Femme (TV)
Another Pair of Aces: Three of a Kind (1991) TV movie
Antony and Cleopatra (1975) TV movie
Ants (1977) TV movie
Are You in the House Alone? (1978) TV movie
Arena- "Salvador Dali" (1986) capsule, TV
Autism is a World (2004) TV movie

B (12)

Baby Huey and Many More (short film collection)
Beneath the Veneer of a Murder (2010) short film
The Best of Saturday Night Live: The Mr. Bill Collection (TV)
Blade: House of Chthon (TV)
Blind Justice (1994) TV movie
Bloody Current Exchange (2007) short film
Blue Vanities 306 (1994) short film collection
The Bounty Man (1972) TV movie
Boys Briefs (1999) short film collection
Boys Life 3 (2004) short film collection
A Bright Shining Lie (1998) TV movie
Bugs Bunny: 4 Favorite Cartoon Classics (short film collection)

C (5)

Candle in the Dark: The Story of William Carey (1998) TV movie
Chameleon (1998) TV movie, capsule
Conspiracy (2001) TV movie
Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham (1993) TV movie
Curse of the Blair Witch (1999) TV movie

D (10)

Daughters of Discipline (1983) short film
Dead Man's Revenge (1994) TV movie
Death of a Prophet (1981) TV movie
The Death Train (1978) TV movie
Den of Dominance (1980) short film
Dollar for the Dead (1998) TV movie
Dracula's Curse (2002) TV movie
Draw! (1984) TV movie
Drum Struck (1991) short film
Duel (1971) TV movie

E (1)

Erotic Confessions: Pleasure (TV)

F (4)

Family Blessings (1998) TV movie, capsule
Fatherland (1994) TV movie
For Whom the Bulls Toil (1953) short film
Full Eclipse (1993) TV movie

G (7)

The Gambling Man (1995) TV movie
Ghosts (1997) capsule, short film
The Great Train Robbery (1903) short film
The Greatest Heroes of the Bible- "Abraham's Sacrifice" (TV)
The Greatest Heroes of the Bible- "David and Goliath" (TV)
The Gun and the Pulpit (1974) TV movie
The Gunfighters (1987) TV movie

H (7)

The Hanged Man (1974) TV movie
The Hardcore Collection: The Films of Richard Kern (2000) short film collection
Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars (2010) TV movie
Haunted- "The Ferryman" (TV)
The Hijacking of Studio 4 (1985) TV movie
Hoi Polloi (1935) short film
Hunky & Spunky & Friends- "You Can't Shoe a Shoefly" (short film collection)

I (4)

iCarly- Season 1, Volume 1 (TV)
If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000) TV movie
Ikwe (1987) capsule, TV movie
An Introduction to Scientology (TV)

J (4)

Jesus (2000) TV movie
La Jetee (1962) short film
Jewel (2001) capsule, TV movie
Johnny Be Gone (2011) short film

K (1)

A Knight for a Day (1946) short film

L (4)

The Last Outlaw (1993) TV movie
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) short film
Lion Down (1951) short film
A Little Comfort (2005) short film

M (9)

Magic Kisa (2008) short film
Make a Killing (2004) short film
The Meanest Men in the West (1967) TV movie
Meltdown: Days of Destruction (2006) TV movie
Minot, North Dakota (2008) short film
Miracle at Moreaux (1986) TV movie
Montana Sky (2007) TV movie
Moses (1975) TV movie
Mystery of the Maya (1995) short film

N (4)

NBC News Presents- The Last Days of Jesus (TV)
NightScream (1997) TV movie
No Place to Run (1972) TV movie
No Safe Place: Six Lives Forever Changed (2003) TV movie

O (1)
Outlaw Justice (1999) TV movie

P (4)

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) TV movie
Pet Shop Boys' "Videography: The Singles Collection" (short film collection)
Picnic on Sunday (1968) short film
The Pink Panther Film Collection (2004) DVD box set
Pioneer Woman (1973) TV movie

Q (1)

The Quick and the Dead (1987) TV movie, capsule

R (6)

Rasputin (1996) TV movie
Red Shoe Diaries 3: Another Woman's Lipstick (1993) TV movie
Remy (2009) short film
Rescue from Gilligan's Island (1978) TV movie
Revealed: Portraits from Beneath One's Surface (2011) short film
The Ripper (1997) TV movie

S (14)

Saturday Night Live, The Best of: The Mr. Bill Collection (TV)
Savage Sadists (1980) short film
Scooby Doo: A Nutcracker Scoob (TV)
Scooby Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf (1988) TV movie
Seth (2015) short film
Sex Bytes- "The Best of Sex Bytes" (TV)
She's So Cold (1995) short film
Sherlock Holmes- "The Last Vampyre" (TV)
Shot in the Heart (2001) TV movie
Slaughter Among Pigs (2010) short film
Spider-Man: The Chinese Web (1979) TV movie
Stocking Stuffers (2001) short film
Storm of the Century (1999) TV movie
Stuart Little: The Animated Series- "All Revved Up!" (TV)

T (7)

Temple Grandin (2010) TV movie
The Twilight Zone- "Nothing in the Dark" (TV)
The Twilight Zone- "One for the Angels" (TV)
The Twilight Zone- "The Eye of the Beholder" (TV)
The Twilight Zone- "The Invaders" (TV)
The Twilight Zone- "The Lonely" (TV)
Twin Towers (2003) short film

U (2)

Under Capricorn (1982) TV movie
United States of Poetry (1995) capsule, TV

W (4)

Wilderness (1996) TV movie
Winnie the Pooh: Cowboy Pooh (1994) TV, capsule
Winter Nights (2009) short film
The Work of Director Spike Jonze (2003) short film collection

Y (4)

Yesterday's Target (1996) TV movie
You Know My Name (1993) short film
Your World As I See It (1994) short film
Yuma (1971) TV movie

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Movies Seen: March 19-March 25, 2016

One high and one low this week:

Nixon's the One: The '68 Election (2010) is a pathetic hit job on the already dishonored president. Don't be fooled by the title (Hubert Humphrey gets little mention, as does Robert F. Kennedy), we talk to two biographers who obviously hated their subject (one calls him a con man), Tom Hayden (of all people), and narrator Dick Cavett refers to him as "Tricky Dick" constantly. At fifty-two minutes, it's too short yet mercifully so. When Cavett's dulcet tones lambast "Slick Willy," then we'll talk. Otherwise, I gave this a 1 out of 10.

Pet Shop Boys: Somewhere (1997) is a recorded concert as the electronic music duo played the Savoy Theatre in London. Full of hit songs, and familiar favorites to life-long fans like myself, this a well-shot documentary as well. The stage is small, but PSB's big sound opens it up. I give this a 9 out of 10.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Movies Seen: March 12-March 18, 2016

Still trying to finish half-watched stuff in a streaming queue, but didn't have a lot of time this week!:

Do Not Disturb (1965) should be left undisturbed. I read online that Doris Day didn't want to make this stale romantic comedy, and I'm thinking she wasn't the only one. A dated, misogynistic relic, Day plays the good wife to a clothing company executive who decides to make up a lover after suspecting her husband Rod Taylor is fooling around with his assistant. Extended sequences where Day plays drunk, and a "wacky" bedroom farce finale go on too long and are a pain to watch. The editing is a mess, and by the time everyone imitates Day on the dance floor as she tries to shake a piece of food out of her dress (one of the oldest jokes in comedy history), the film lost me. I gave this a 3 out of 10.

The Usual Suspects (1995) is still a crackling good story, simply told. Five criminals are recruited to pull a job in order to repay a mysterious crime boss that each of them unknowingly ripped off. The cast is great across the board, Bryan Singer's direction is imaginative without being show-offy, and Christopher McQuarrie's script deserved the Oscar it won. Any one of the cast could have also won a Supporting Academy Award, but Kevin Spacey's great performance had the luck of the draw. Great stuff, worth a revisit every once in a while. I gave this a 10 out of 10.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Movies Seen: March 5-March 11, 2016

Sometimes my eclectic tastes in film scare even me a little:

Finding Vivian Maier (2014) is a perfect film. I have had a years-long fascination with hoarding and collecting, wanting to be an appraiser for a number of years a while back. I grew up an Air Force brat, where hoarding was kind of impossible when you have to move every couple of years, and I think that experience has triggered a sort of anti-hoarding behavior in myself. When I do get something, I automatically look to get rid of it. Not because I don't like an object (whether it's a book, or DVD, or could be anything), but if I get use out of it and don't need it anymore, I look to sell or donate it. Vivian Maier, a nanny, was a hoarder who moved around the country and kept her hoard with her. A young man, John Maloof, finds a few hundred photograph negatives at an auction that he snaps up for a history paper. He realizes the pictures were taken by this mysterious Maier, and goes about buying her other possessions that were also sold. Soon, this woman's things have taken over Maloof's life. She kept everything. He begins researching her life, not because he is the inadvertent custodian of her estate, but because of those original negatives. Her street photography is stunning. She had a natural gift for capturing a shot, and much of what Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskel show us is fantastic (I dabbled in photography a few years ago, and some of Maier's work floored me). This film is like a mystery, Maloof unfolding the story of this strange woman, warts and all. I saw this on Netflix and wholeheartedly recommend it. On IMDB, a rare 10 out of 10.

The Beast (1977) is something else entirely. Walerian Borowczyk's much-maligned take on the Beauty and the Beast tale is a sexually explicit and unsuccessful film. Some scenes go on too long, his anti-church opinions are on full display, and much of his script seems convenient and odd. I do give him credit for trying to tell a story with the explicit sexual scenes, but I am still looking for that one film that can do it successfully. Opulent locations, and a beautiful (and often nude) leading lady in Lisbeth Hummel keep this from being a completely unwatchable disaster. I gave this a 4 out of 10.

Spectre (2015) completes Daniel Craig as James Bond's story arc that began with "Casino Royale." Here, Bond finds out the source of all of his problems dating back to that film as he investigates the titular crime organization. Craig is still a morose Bond, and I wish Monica Bellucci had a larger role. The biggest problem here is the length of the film. A half hour could have been lost easily. The story is interesting, the production is spectacular, the Oscar-winning title song is okay, and the action sequences are good. As of this writing, Craig may not return to the role, it will be interesting to see what the next film will bring. An 8 out of 10 on IMDB.

Immoral Tales (1976) is the second Borowczyk film I watched this week. Like "The Beast," it is full of nudity and anti-church storylines. Four different tales ranging from the then present-day to the Borgias, De Sade, and Madame Bathory are featured. Not as sexually explicit as "The Beast," this still provides a ton of sex and the "immorality" of the film's title comes through with issues like incest and murder. Once again, the female cast is beautiful and easy on the eyes, and it's hard to remember that what you are seeing is in fact immoral while appreciating the female form. Borowczyk's best film that I have seen is still "Goto, Island of Love," perhaps because it is the least sexually explicit of the three films I have screened so far? Not "great," this gets a 6 out of 10.

I have a few films half-watched that will hopefully make it into next week's column. Thanks for reading.