Sunday, December 18, 2011

If Orion Studios Greenlighted This, They Deserved to Fail: "Clifford" (1994)

Martin Short and Charles Grodin star in this mess of a comedy that unsettled me more often than it made me want to hurl.

Martin Short plays ten year old Clifford, a little tyke who makes Dennis the Menace look like a choirboy. Therein lies the first massive mistake in the film- Short pulls everything he can out of his magic fun comedy bag, but does not elicit one chuckle playing a child. Anyway, Clifford's parents cannot stand to be around him, and on their way to Honolulu, they drop the little darling off with Clifford's Uncle Martin (Charles Grodin) in Los Angeles. Martin is having his own problems with fiancee Sarah (what is Mary Steenburgen doing in this?), who wants kids. Martin decides to prove to Sarah that he loves kids, and takes in Clifford, whose only wish is to go to local theme park Dinosaur World. What follows is an hour and a half of Clifford ruining Martin's life, Martin shrieking at Clifford, and Sarah not believing the worst about the child. The story is framed by an older Clifford, a priest in 2050, telling the story to a young runaway played by Ben Savage.

Words cannot describe how stupid this comedy is, but if that were true, this review would end right now...this is woefully unfunny. I was too busy being weirded out by Short's casting to realize right away that he was the film's only gimmick. The story is so weak and padded, the only reason you do not turn it off after the first ten minutes is because the sadist in you wants to see how much more creepy Short gets playing a kid; and it does get really creepy. Grodin, who has become the grumpiest television personality in America after Bryant Gumbel and Don Imus, grates and grates on the viewer's nerves until you wish Clifford would take up a firearm. Steenburgen looks completely trapped in this film, and Dabney Coleman plays another variation of his "9 to 5" jerk boss routine.

Flaherty's direction is terribly flat, and the cinematography is amateur looking- casting so many shadows I thought I was watching a Thai finger puppet show. The finale at the theme park, involving a ride gone wrong is weak. For one thing, this is supposed to be a major theme park, yet the ride can take only one person at a time? Imagine that line during tourist season! The script is boring since it sets up the premise, then beats it to death. Oh, no, Clifford forced the plane down on an emergency landing! Oh, no, Clifford gets a crush on Sarah! Oh, no, Clifford makes fun of Martin's boss' toupee! This all got real old real quick.

"Clifford" sat on a shelf for quite a while before being dismissed en masse by the movie going public. I welcome the opportunity to dismiss it as well. Today, the name "Clifford" refers to a giant red cartoon dog in children's books and on PBS. This film is the equivalent of what comes out of the back end of that canine. (*) out of five stars.

Sex, Lies, and a Snuff Videotape: "The Cliffhanger" (2003)

Eleven Chicago area film makers, about eighteen actors, and one storyline converge to make a singular mess.

Using the "Exquisite Corpse" idea, the basic plot involves a group of lowlifes trying to get their hands on harsh snuff videos, and killing off their enemies. I would provide more information, but I gave up trying to discern a linear plot fifteen minutes into the film.

The idea plays better than the execution. One film maker would have one week to shoot a chapter, then another film maker would have one week and the same actors to shoot the next installment, and so on through almost a dozen film making teams. The differing artistic visions are supposed to provide the audience with a visual thrill, as the all-too-complicated plot unfolds. I believe the improvisational aspect and the number of film makers involved should have been more closely supervised. Apart from "Chapter VII," none of the eleven segments looked much different from the each other. Some of the characters would pull complete one eighties in their behavior, and the number of coincidences and convenient plot twists is mind numbing.

The film degenerates into a bunch of actors smoking cigarettes and speaking tersely into cell phones, while the viewer goes into the kitchen to get another beer and count the minutes until the next "chapter." The first couple of segments never hooked me, so the rest of the film did not get a chance to reel me in. I didn't know who was who, why anyone was acting the way they were, and I did not feel like constructing flow charts in order to keep all the character connections straight (Dad slept with daughter on tape, daughter kills Dad on tape, but really another man killed him but daughter is taking revenge anyway and so on and so on...???).

"The Cliffhanger" has a great idea going for it. The double disc DVD package (from www.splitpillow.com) is impressive, containing a trailer, two documentaries, a music video, and commentary by all the film makers involved. Unfortunately, I am reviewing just the film, and that does not work. For the record, the eleven teams involved are: Kilts Afire, Third Eye Films, Purgatory, Inc., Two Necks Productions, PaddyMeAss, Billy Goats Gruff, Shame About the Couch, the Mystery Men, Focal Point Productions, Panther City Films, and Shack Productions.

Hopefully the next improv film project will have more structure and less chefs spoiling the pot. It may not be a "new and revolutionary" way to make a film, but it might be more entertaining to watch. (* *) out of five stars.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lower Class: "Class of 1984" (1982)

Mark Lester directs a cult hit that has aged worse than any Rubik's Cube or Smurf merchandise from the 1980's.

Naive music teacher Andy (Perry King) is hired to teach at a tough inner-city high school after a stint in the crime free utopia of Nebraska (where I graduated from high school in 1986, and know firsthand this film is already wrong). He immediately has run-ins with a gang of toughs led by Stegman (Timothy Van Patten). Andy's wife Diana (Merrie Lynn Ross) is pregnant, and the two just want to lead normal lives.

The gang runs the school, and no one can do anything about them because of lack of witnesses, and the criminals are still under eighteen. Andy finds solace with Corrigan (Roddy McDowall), a biology teacher who takes his own comfort in drinking between classes and carrying a gun. The helpless principal never believes children are capable of wrong, and the local police detective Stewiski (Al Waxman) is also of no use.

The rest of the film is easy to summarize. The gang strike at Andy or his "good" students (including a chubby Michael J. Fox), Andy strikes back and is reprimanded by an authority figure, toughs strike, Andy reprimanded, etc. The inevitable finale is especially sleazy.

Actually, the whole thing is sleazy. While this might not be a bad thing necessarily, the film makers try to dress this junk up as an important social statement. The opening crawl warns that this is based "in part" on real events, and that most schools are not this bad "yet." The gang is seen as a four person crime wave, dealing drugs, raping, pillaging, et al., and yet no one can do anything about them. All the adults are helpless ninnies who cower in their presence until Andy finally begins taking a stand. By the end of the film, however, no one has changed! There is no development, the characters have shown no difference in their personas, they are established and then give the viewer ninety-three minutes of bad behavior.

Lester directs the film well enough, but his material is so badly written, it is hard to dress it up with artistic flourish. Perry King is rarely bad in anything except maybe some of his film choices ("Mandingo"), and this is one of them. Alice Cooper contributes what may very well be the worst song in movie history, not to mention his music career. Fox tries his early Alex P. Keaton character out here, and that is all I could see while I watched him. Where's Mallory to save you from a lunch room stabbing when you need her?

In the age after the Columbine massacre, when the violence seemed to strike out of nowhere, "Class of 1984" is a relic. No longer should we fear the kids who commit the big crimes in school, but the nutty quiet ones who target practice in the woods as well. This movie does not serve to inspire or change anything, it just gives you a basic thrill, like watching a slasher pic. Believe me, that is not enough. (*) out of five stars.

Santa's Slay: "Christmas Evil" (1980)

Poor Harry. In Christmas 1947, he saw Santa doing more than kissing Mommy under the Christmas tree, and it has traumatized him since.

An adult Harry (Brandon Maggart) now works at the Jolly Dream Toy Factory, where he is the butt of jokes and gossip from his coworkers. He is promoted to an office job, but still misses the toy assembly line. Harry also has an extracurricular hobby- he is obsessed with Christmas and Santa Claus. His house is in perpetual Christmas year round, and Harry spies on the neighborhood children, keeping track of who has been nice and who has been flipping through a copy of Penthouse. Harry's brother, Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Phil's wife Jackie (Dianne Hull) are on the other end of the spectrum. They are in love, they have children, but Phil is venomous toward his weirdo brother.

Harry is taken advantage at work by a lout who wants to duck out on a shift. At the Jolly Dream Christmas party, a film shows the vacationing owner promising toys for the local children's hospital- which Harry finds out is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Jolly Dream's toys themselves are plastic and worthless, Harry laments that no one takes pride in the product any longer. Harry reaches his breaking point.

He begins stalking one particular bad boy of the neighborhood. He steals from the toy factory and delivers gifts to the children's hospital himself, driving a cargo van with a sleigh painted on it. He is now dressed in full Santa regalia, loved by children where ever he goes. Stopping by a church on Christmas Eve, he has other plans for naughty adults, killing three people on the church steps in a startling scene of violence and gore. Soon, Harry is crisscrossing town, bringing joy and gifts to children and taking revenge on the adults who have wronged him. He eventually ends up back at Phil's home, and the movie ends with one of the weirdest climaxes to ever grace a horror flick.

"Christmas Evil" belongs just below "Gremlins" and "Black Christmas" and well above "Elves" and the moronic "Silent Night, Deadly Night" series when it comes to the unique Christmas horror genre. I would compare this film favorably with the unwatchable "Maniac," which also featured an insane loner who loses it and kills.

This film is different in that we are tipped to Harry's insanity early, and watch him mentally deteriorate through the film. The motivation for his Christmas delusion is weak, Mom gets her garter belt felt by Santa Daddy, and Harry slashes his hand open on a broken snow globe. Maggart is very good as Harry, anchoring the film. The writer/director wisely keeps the cast above thirty, no horny teens wandering around alone here. The supporting cast are all character actors whose faces you have seen a million times in other things, most notably "Home Improvement"'s Patricia Richardson, playing the polar opposite mom from her saintly television Jill.

The ending is definitely weird, and the torch bearing townsfolk is a little too much to take. There is a wicked sense of humor throughout, from office politics to a police lineup of Santas, but Jackson never succumbs to tossing in a bunch of Christmas cliches and stupid one liners.

The film came out in 1980, in the beginning of the slasher cycle, and it is definitely different. Known under alternate titles "You Better Watch Out" and "Terror in Toyland," I recommend it based on the junky slasher films that have followed.

This was made before there was a slasher formula, and its difference is something to cherish (in a very weird way). (* * * *) out of five stars.

You'll 'Choke'...On Fits of Unintentional Laughter: "Choke" (2001)

You might see the names "Dennis Hopper" and "Michael Madsen" on the cover of this straight to video thriller and think "how bad can it be?" Trust me, it is worse than you can imagine.

Hopper is businessman Henry. What type of business? I don't know, the writer/director cannot be bothered with such trivial nonsense. Anyway, sleazy business associate Roy (Ron Sloan) is trying to pressure Henry into yet another shady deal. Henry refuses, and then gets a call that his cute daughter Gena (Chelcy Reynolds, who does NOT take her clothes off in the film) has just drunkenly run over a district attorney's son and killed him. Roy overhears the conversation, and tries a little blackmail to get Henry to sign on to this damn deal.

It may have been one hell of a deal, but we never find out. The funniest scene occurs at well-to-do Hopper's suite of offices, which is about the size of my bedroom closet, even though Henry drives a Hummer! Henry attacks Roy, leaving him coughing and gasping in the office building bathroom. Henry later checks on Roy, and finds him dead. He dumps the body out the bathroom window and makes plans to get rid of it.

Cue local serial killer Will (Michael Madsen), who decides to help out Henry. Will already has a body in the trunk of his car, but there's room enough for Roy's carcass, too. The two make an agreement: Will will dump Roy's body, but Henry must help with Will's own alibi for his latest murder. Trust me, the synopsis, a bad riff on "Strangers on a Train," is more interesting than the film.

I am guessing the entire budget for the film was barely enough to pay for Madsen's brand new John Deere cap. The film is goofy-cheap, from the hysterical offices to Henry's rather modest home. Most of the film involves Henry and Will talking to each other for what feels like hours on end. They cover their childhoods, how dissimilar they are, pick up hitchhikers, leave notes for each other, threaten one another, etc. I eventually forgot whose bodies were in the trunk of the car, and didn't care. Watch for one scene where Will and Henry park and admit to their respective crimes as a peeping tom looks on. Does the peeper's testimony put anyone behind bars? No, his only role is to turn around from Will and Henry and look at the only actress with enough low self-esteem to show a brief boob in a dressing room scene.

The director must have sat in between Madsen and Hopper in the endless driving scenes, because the camera pretty much shows us every nose hair the two actors possess. The finale involves one character's lack of peripheral vision, I was laughing instead of being thrilled or relieved.

"Choke" deservedly went straight to video. Like the DVD cover? Looks kind of cool, huh? Aside from the cut and paste picture of the two stars (which I believe came from another film anyway), none of that is in the movie. Perform the Heimlich maneuver on yourself after watching this, and pick a better flick. (*) out of five stars.

Cheese-um: "Chisum" (1970)

It is amazing that John Wayne is so popular so many years after his death. No one has ever been able to duplicate the man's screen presence, despite Clint Eastwood's best efforts. John Wayne was beloved, an underrated actor, an even more underrated film director, and a western film icon. Sadly, for every "McLintock!" or "Red River," there is a "The Conqueror," or this film.

The Duke is John Chisum, one of those impossibly rich ranch owners who finds himself the target of the villainous Forrest Tucker. Tucker is buying up the local town for no real reason. Enter some of the way too many characters when none other than Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett get involved with the proceedings. Both compete for Chisum's overly plain niece. The rest of the film consists of too many ambushes and horse chases, as Tucker and Wayne go back and forth until the inevitable violent conclusion.

At one time, this type of western worked- about twenty years before this fossil was released. McLaglen virtually draws pictures on the screen to illustrate the kind of simplistic plot my gerbil could figure out, if I had a gerbil. The scenery is beautiful and Ben Johnson is worth a quite a few laughs as Chisum's muttering-under-his-breath sidekick.

The most embarrassing aspect of the film is the treatment of real life characters Billy the Kid, Billy's mentor Tunstall, and Pat Garrett. Garrett ends the film as a hen pecked sheriff with no indication that he would one day kill William Bonney. Tunstall, the European anti-gun rancher who took Bonney and others in, then was gunned down, is a little irritating here. This is the west, he does not carry a gun, so he comes off as slightly feminine and completely stupid.

Billy the Kid wasn't a cold blooded killer, he apparently succumbed to some sort of 1870's peer pressure, explaining his past crimes to running with the wrong crowd. After these scenes, I kept expecting Father Flanagan to step out from behind a cactus and box Billy on the ear. Tucker and Wayne keep likening their competition to a chess match, and this film is that exciting.

The film is badly paced, as McLaglen relies to heavily on his cast's goodwill to carry a story that has been done (better) a hundred times before.

This is not as bad as "The Conqueror," but I did not expect this level of ineptitude from a normally strong cast and crew. "Chisum" should have stayed back on the ranch. A few positives keep this at average, but geez. (* * *) out of five stars.

Please, Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em Anymore With Your Acting: "Cheyenne" (1996)

MC Hammer, his do rag, and his razor wielding midget sidekick are just a couple of aspects of this awful, inept western.

Sexy Cheyenne (Sexy Bobbie Phillips) runs away from jerk husband Starrett (Bo Svenson) and takes all his dirty gun running money with her. Bounty hunter Jeremiah (Gary Hudson) comes to town, is framed for stealing a horse, and almost finds himself swinging from a tree. Starrett makes him a deal- find his wife alive, and he will get a thousand dollars. Jeremiah rides off to look for Cheyenne. Haddox (M.C. Hammer) and little person Razor (Robert Bell) arrive for the job, and Starrett makes them the same deal. Why? Starrett has Jeremiah out there, why bring in another bounty hunter?

Keeping in the proud modern western film tradition of automatically trying to rape all female characters, Cheyenne is attacked in a cabin by a bunch of fat guys and Jeremiah saves her. He ties her up and heads back to Starrett. Haddox finds out they are together, and rides out after them. How? Cell phone technology was nonexistent, no one knows they are together, so who told Haddox? Cheyenne has hid the money, and she and Jeremiah grow closer, bickering and bantering like a Kate Hudson rom-com. Haddox catches up to them, they escape.

Meanwhile, back at the other uninteresting subplot, Starrett's latest gun deal goes bad. He now has no money to pay whoever brings his wife back first. Haddox finally captures Cheyenne and takes her to Starrett, with a thought-dead Jeremiah in pursuit.

At one point in the movie, Jeremiah spies on Haddox and Razor with binoculars from the top of a very high cliff. The problem is, when he looks through the binoculars, the director has Jeremiah's point of view at the bottom of the valley on the same line of vision as Haddox. The amateurish music score is often so loud, it drowns out dialogue. Hammer smokes a cigar and wears western wear. However, the costume is too big, so he looks like a ten year old playing cowboy. He also holds and smokes his cigar like Sister Mary Catherine of the Perpetual Sorrow discovering her first Pall Mall.

Bo Svenson lends some weight to this piece of foul breeze, doing his best with an impossible script. Bobbie Phillips has awfully white teeth for a kept western woman, but her frequent nude scenes will soon distract you. These scenes should be savored and remembered, since everything surrounding her is bad.

"Cheyenne" proves that anyone can make a movie if they have access to a three hundred dollar budget and an all day group pass to Monument Valley. Making a GOOD film is the ultimate challenge, and "Cheyenne" fails miserably. (*) out of five stars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Pits: "Cherry Falls" (2000)

"Cherry Falls" boldly struts onto the horror genre stage, bathed in self-importance and confidently carrying the air of "something new." It is one of the most unpleasant movie experiences of my life.

Flavor of the month Brittany Murphy is Jody, a pasty high school student having problems with her horndog boyfriend Kenny (Gabriel Mann). Kenny wants to do it, Jody does not, and the two break up. This occurs the same night another teenage couple are hacked to death. Jody's dad is Sheriff Marken (Michael Biehn), who stoically investigates the killings.

After another student is killed, Marken goes to the high schoolers' parents with a tidbit of information- the killer carved the word VIRGIN into the victims, and it seems the victims were in fact virgins. This causes a giant uproar, as the students decide the only way to save themselves from the killer is to have sex, and the parents half heartedly say no. Jody is attacked at the meeting, and has a sketch done of the killer. The killer is identified as a girl who disappeared from town over two decades before, and suddenly town secrets start rising to the surface. Jody does her own investigation, and the prerequisite bloody climax (sorry) occurs at the giant high school sex party.

This film made me sad. The director went with a bunch of browns and earth tones, the likes of which I have not seen since I last changed my son's diaper. All the students have a pasty look to them. Everyone seems to wear black, even the sheriff and his deputies sport the latest in brown wear. This is depressing to watch. I also came to hate every character in the movie. When watching a slasher film, one should not feel more sympathy for the killer than for the victims. All the adults here are troubled alcoholics who are quick to get into dumb fistfights (the school meeting). All the high schoolers here are stupid horny pot heads who make jokes about the killings. Why bother hoping these people make it until the end of the film?

Wright, who somehow went from directing "Romper Stomper" to this mess, gets some real mean murders out of his film. However, he also falls for every damn cliche you have seen in every other damn slasher film. From the jump cut (heroine bumps into someone who turns out to be harmless), to the villain coming back to life one final time, I wanted to throw something at the screen. There is a germ of morbid humor near the end of the film, watch for a severed hand in a student's hair, but it is too little too late.

"Cherry Falls" is bathed in unpleasantness. I thought I was going to need a shower after this. Hopefully, this new round of slasher flicks is ending so we can wait another twelve years for "something new" to come along. "Cherry Falls" and should have stayed down. (*) out of five stars.

Delicious: "Chef's Special" (2009)

The most unfortunate thing about “Chef’s Special” is that it is Spanish, and will forever be compared to the work of Pedro Almodovar. Nacho G. Velilla has created a very funny screwball comedy that stands on its own.

Maxi (Javier Camara) is the head chef in a small restaurant. He has a number of people working for him, including the crazed Ramiro (Fernando Tejero), and unlucky in love maitre d’ Alejandra (Lola Duenas), better known as Alex. Maxi’s life is nothing but chaos as he tries to hold his crew together. The eatery is bleeding money, and his coworkers all let their flawed personal lives affect their work. A former soccer star, Horacio (Benjamin Vicuna), is moving in across the hall from Maxi, and Alex already has her claws out for him. Amidst the chaos, Maxi gets a call from the hospital.

His ex-wife is dying and someone must take care of their children- fifteen year old Edu (Junio Valverde) and six year old Alba (Alejandra Lorenzo). Maxi has no relationship with the kids, but takes them in when their mother passes.

Maxi goes on a date with Alex and Horacio, acting as a chaperone (and leaves Ramiro babysitting the kids, in one of the film’s very funny scenes). Unfortunately, Horacio has eyes for Maxi; he is deep in the closet, being a former professional athlete and now a television sports commentator. Slowly, Maxi’s life keeps unraveling: there are rumors of the Michelin Guide’s representative looking to judge Maxi’s restaurant; Edu is expelled for gay-bashing at his school; Alex can’t seem to let go of Horacio, not knowing he is with Maxi; and Maxi must reevaluate his life and priorities concerning new loves and his children.

Velilla’s pace is non-stop, and “Chef’s Special” is a consistent laugh. While some of the humor is too crude, and a few scenes fall flat (I think due to language barriers more than anything), the cast is so likable and so watchable, I cared about them all from the minute the film started. While the final fifteen minutes is predictable, the film still had me, and I shiver to think what an American remake would do to these characters.

Velilla’s color palette is very Almodovar-like: colorful and bright. The opening credits and music work really well, and the film just plain looks fantastic. The cast is excellent, everyone seems to be having fun and the screenwriters have given them all plenty to do. I loved Alba questioning all her bedtime stories, Horacio being conflicted by his feelings for Maxi, and especially how Maxi handles Edu’s gay-bashing and expulsion. There are some dark moments here, but they are consistently balanced by some broad physical comedy, and somehow work without weighing the film down or depressing the viewer.

Despite the main character being a chef, the film makers wisely do NOT make this movie all about the food as a metaphor. Likewise with the sports angle. Velilla doesn’t hit us over the head with any statements along the lines of “see, life is just like a soccer match!” (thank God).

"Chef's Special" is a fun, raunchy comedy that reminded me of “La Cage Aux Folles.” While I usually hate to wish for a sequel, I wouldn’t mind sampling a few more servings of these characters. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Awful and Unfunny: "Chasers" (1994)

It is always easy to judge a comedy. A good one makes you laugh, a bad one does not. This is a bad comedy.

Too cute William McNamara plays Navy dude Eddie Devane who is celebrating his impending discharge. He has prepaid for a Porsche with money he has been stealing from the Navy by selling things on the black market with the help of his neurotic friend Howard (Crispin Glover). In one of those unbelievable plot developments, Eddie is sent to help hard as a rock Rock Reilly (Tom Berenger) retrieve a dangerous prisoner named Tony Johnson and bring him back to base to be flown out to his permanent incarceration in California. The duo must drive through the Carolinas to do this, resulting in madcap Southern stereotypes.

Well, the bickering couple get to the Marine prison, and lo and behold, he is a she! Boing! And she is hot TonI (Erika Eleniak), not TonY! Wah-wah-wah! I hope the trip back goes as smoothly as every other trip Rock has gone on!

Toni soon makes her true self known, escaping from a preplanned truck stop with the help of a friend. She is recaptured. She sabotages Rock's van by stuffing tampons in the gas tank, and the trio is stranded in the middle of nowhere. The three fall into an abandoned mine shaft, and Toni gets out. She plans to escape, but gets a conscience and returns to help the boys out. As Eddie's life falls apart (Howard steals his Porsche), he gets drunk and sleeps with Toni, who naturally escapes again. She is recaptured again, but she has melted the hearts of these two guys with her sob story. She committed assault because she could not get an emergency leave to see her dying brother. Eddie and Rock deliver Toni to the proper authorities, but both have had life altering experiences (and an extended fist fight), and they come up with a goofy plan to spring Toni so she and Eddie can live happily ever after.

Dennis Hopper could not stage a comedic scene to save his life. He has no idea how to direct physical comedy. The tampons in the gas tank scene is awkward and obvious. The truck stop escape scene has Toni in a bad wig associating with Eddie and Rock, who have no earthly idea who she is! She looks the exact same, she is not Lon Chaney! While Hopper is having technical problems, the real fault here lies with the screenwriters (one of whom is from my hometown of Minot). All the characters here are stupid. All of them. The Navy and Marines have some weird inter-military rivalry (my dad was in the Air Force but we never got into fisticuffs with Army brats), the Carolinians are of the "Deliverance" variety, the women are all sexual objects, and the men are bitter drunks and wackos.

McNamara is baby faced in a part obviously inspired by all of Tom Cruise's roles. Tom Berenger sounds like Nick Nolte in "48HRS," and his change in character at the end is forced and unbelievable. Eleniak plays Toni as sympathetic, but I kept asking myself why she was set on escaping all the time. Sure, no one wants to serve time in prison, but I thought that reason was secondary to some big climactic confession that never comes about. Hopper populates this nightmare with tons of character actors in bit and cameo parts. Watch for Marilu Henner and actual Oscar nominees try to add a wackiness to the film that just is not there. Hopper's own cameo, with a fake nose that makes him look like Karl Malden, is as funny as a rectal exam.

"Chasers" can recall "The Last Detail," mirroring the basic plot but nothing more. This film lurches from scene to scene, never giving the audience anyone to like. Even Eleniak's topless scene is anticlimactic (so to speak), offering us the same thing we (or, at least, I) have seen in the pages of Playboy.

A bad comedy contains no laughs, and I literally did not laugh once. Do not pursue "Chasers." (*) out of five stars.

Finally, A Movie About That Busty Cuban Entertainer...Oh, Wait a Minute...: "Charro!" (1969)

Elvis Presley proves he does not have to appear in a musical to make a crappy film.

Elvis is Jess Wade (which sounds like Just Suede if you say it fast), a former member of an outlaw gang headed by Vince (Victor French). Wade left the gang to mine gold, and took Vince's girl Tracey (Ina Balin) with him. Tracey left, the mine did not pan out, and Vince has stolen a giant gold and silver encrusted cannon from the Mexican government.

One of the outlaws, now dead, is identified by a neck wound. Vince gets the idea to pay Wade back by giving him an identical neck wound, taking the heat off the outlaws. Wade heads to the nearest town, where the man who raised him happens to be sheriff, and Tracey happens to run the saloon there. The outlaws happen to camp outside the same town, and Vince's hotheaded brother Billy Roy (Solomon Sturges) heads off to town for some booze and hookers. There, Billy shoots the sheriff (but does not shoot the deputy, there is not one), and Wade hauls him to jail. Wade is sworn in as the deputy, still trying to avoid the Mexican military who is after him.

Vince finds out about Billy, and kills an entire squad of Federales with his most obvious weapon- the cannon. Soon, Vince gives Wade an ultimatum- release Billy or he will blow the town to smithereens.

Actually, the plot is the most entertaining part of the film. I could picture a remake, full of exciting action pieces and cowboys using their brains to outsmart each other. I beg for a remake because this film is so bad.

Charles Marquis Warren's experience is in television, and it shows. He uses a dissolve to black constantly throughout the film, as if making a spot for commercials. The problem is they come at the wrong time, every time. There will be a dissolve, then the next scene begins...usually taking place within seconds of the dissolved scene. The pace of the film is off, actors pause in between each other's dialogue as if they cannot remember their lines.

Elvis Presley is at a complete loss here. There are no songs to sing, no Capri-panted chicks to chase, so he delivers his words in his familiar monotone, reading them all with much too much seriousness. The one funny scene, when he slams Billy's head into a jail bar, is turned depressing by the King. Victor French acts circles around him, and takes over the film. Ina Balin is gorgeous, and does the closest thing to a nude scene ever done in an Elvis picture, but her character is so badly written it is embarrassing. The film's musical score, save the lousy opening credits song sung by Elvis, sounds eerily like the score to "Plan Nine from Outer Space." One final note: stay away from the Warner Brothers video of the film. The film was shot in widescreen, and the video's constant pan and scan gave me a massive headache.

"Charro!" is infamous for its ineptitude, and deserves the discredit. I spent most of this film fantasizing about Charo, hoochie koochie, and that was more entertaining than this film. (*) out of five stars.

They Don't Make Them Like This Anymore: "Chamber of Horrors" (1940)

This very British film is based on the novel "The Door With Seven Locks" by Edgar Wallace, and despite its title, it is more mystery than horror.

An eccentric lord dies and leaves everything to his young son. The family fortune is locked in the tomb with him, behind a door with seven locks. The keys are entrusted to the lawyer Havelock (David Horne), but if anything happens to the lord's son, pretty relation June (Lilli Palmer) inherits everything.

Ten years later, June is summoned by a dying man, and given one of the keys. The man is murdered, and June goes to the police. She meets the just retired detective Martin (Romilly Lunge) and his partner Sneed (Richard Bird), and they discover Havelock's office has been infiltrated and the keys are missing. The group, along with June's comic relief Aunt Glenda (a sometimes funny Gina Malo) go to the old mansion, where the weird Dr. Manetta (Leslie Banks) is now residing. Soon, clues start piling up, more murders occur, and Martin is hot on the case, and hot for June.

There are tons of plot twists that I cannot go into. There are almost a half dozen supporting characters that I could name, but won't. To be honest, the plot and acting is goofball. Martin is just too cool, and June is so dang perky. Glenda's desperation for a man is often funny, as is Sneed's inability to stay awake for long periods of time. Manetta makes quite the villain, a descendant of the Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada, and a collector of vintage instruments of torture. The action sequences have all the violence and gore of me and my little brothers wrestling in the den when we were kids. Lee's direction is standard, save a great use of close-ups during a fight scene between Martin and a major character that involves an iron maiden.

It is all so standard, and silly, but I am going to recommend it. Why? This is the perfect example of the type of film "they just don't make anymore." The suave heroic detective (former detective, in this case), the beautiful damsel in distress, the comic relief supporting players, the mad villain, the creepy supporting villains fighting amongst themselves, a scary old mansion and cemetery, it all somehow works. While I figured out most of the surprises before Martin and June did, I still had a ball watching the plot play out.

This kind of film would not do well today, in the age of Austin Powers poo-poo humor, or whether Pierce Brosnan will return as 007 (never mind that his stint as James Bond has been mediocre at best). Today, cops are tortured souls, seeing the grimy side of life. Film makers have tried to bring the golden days of English detectives into the modern age, but I still cringe when I think of the recent network remake of "Murder on the Orient Express."

"Chamber of Horrors" is not a great film, but it is good. If your idea of fun is to curl up with an Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh (or in this case, Edgar Wallace) mystery on a rainy day, this film would be for you. (* * *) out of five stars.

Chain of Morons: "The Chain" (1997)

Gary Busey, who has appeared in exactly one good movie ("The Buddy Holly Story") in his life, huffs and puffs through a Filipino jungle, chained to his arch enemy, and making the viewer wistful for "The Defiant Ones"...or even "Deadlock 2."

Frank (Gary Busey) is a Boston cop obsessed with capturing gunrunner Carlos (Victor Rivers- think Antonio Banderas with John Waters' mustache). Carlos is always two steps ahead of Frank, which is easy since Frank tips the scales at well over two hundred pounds. Frank and his angry wife Ellen (Jamie Rose) fly to the South American city of Vera Cruz to vacation and save their marriage...I know, I know, more on the Filipino geography mystery later.

Frank is in Vera Cruz to track Carlos, and Ellen has had enough. She takes up with a rico suave stranger in the hotel bar while Frank is roughed up and then fired from the police force (over the phone). Ellen gets cold feet and rejects the rico suave who turns out to be Carlos (gasp!). Frank follows Carlos and the two men are captured during one of their many fights. The duo are transported to the ominous Los Muerto prison camp, where the evil commander Zalir (Craig Judd) chains our moaning heroes together, and then decides to execute them. They are saved in the nick of time by a rebel attack and escape into the jungle, bickering and chained together.

Ellen finally heads to the U.S. embassy, worried, and meets with the ambassador and a mysterious CIA man, but don't fret, this subplot is never pursued, and we don't see Ellen again until the end of the film.

I am not sure what writer/director Luca Bercovici was trying to accomplish. From the opening scene involving Frank and his partner (Bercovici) dressed like clowns to bust the gunrunner, to Frank and Carlos' constant arguing, to the disastrously unfunny one-liners, any light or humorous touch attempted fails miserably. Frank is a jerk, and Carlos a murdering gunrunner, so I could care less if they got out of that jungle alive or not. It should have been simple, since many a shot shows that Busey's iron hand cuff could be slipped out of easily.

About that jungle! The video box places the story in South America. All of the place names and most of the native characters' names are Spanish. Yet, the film was shot in the Philippines, using obviously Asian actors. The story is so boring and badly done, I tried instead to figure out just where the hell all of this was happening. By the time Frank heals a sick child by creepily whispering in his ear, I deemed the whole mess unwatchable.

The buddy movies of the 1980's lives on in the overrated "Rush Hour" series, and while this was released ten years ago, it looks and plays like a relic from twenty years ago. This chain should be broken. (*) out of five stars.

Center Staged: "The Center of the World" (2001)

Although more infamous for its sex scenes than its acting and direction, Wayne Wang does marvels with a digital camera and his actors in a very good independent film.

Peter Sarsgaard is Richard, a young computer genius worth a million or so who takes a liking to Florence, played by Molly Parker. They decide to take a trip to Las Vegas together, with Richard paying for everything, and some harsh guidelines set up by Florence: no kissing on the mouth, together for just four hours every night, and no actual sexual penetration. Goofy Richard goes along with the demands, and the two skip town to Vegas. Richard is skipping more than just town, his computer business is about to go IPO, and his partner can not seem to get a hold of him.

Florence and Richard settle into a routine, and try to get to know each other after being so intimate physically. Richard's love for Florence is obvious, but slowly Florence begins to have feelings for Richard that are not of the usual prostitute/john type. Carla Gugino flashes in as one of Florence's screwed up friends, who notices a change in Florence when she is with Richard. Eventually, the couple begin breaking their rules, and the climactic sex scene brings out everyone's true colors on the future of the relationship.

The title of the film is interesting in that Richard thinks the center of the world is his computer, and Florence thinks it is a female's sexual organs. Eventually in the film, Florence's definition seems to be decided on, with Richard using his Center (money wise) to get to her Center.

The film treads through the familiar sexual obsession territory, but without going to the lengths that have been touched on in dozens of late night Showtime and Sinemax series and made for cable fodder. Richard is a genuine babe in the woods, trying to project a dangerous side, when in fact he is a nice guy who wants to help people. Try and keep track of how many times he asks Florence and others if they are okay or all right.

Florence is a great character, unable to contain her growing emotional attachment, so she uses her own body as a wall to Richard's love. You find yourself wishing these two screwed up people would get it together, but the ending leaves it up in the air without being too frustrating.

If anything, I sometimes found the sex to get in the way of the plot. Both people share innocuous stories from their past, then follow through with kinky sexual acts, but I got more from the stories.

Wang does a great job with the digital camera. He is respectful of his actors, not getting into everyone's face because he has the technology to, but he stays close enough to give the audience a voyeuristic feeling in the hotel room scenes. While some scenes run long here and there, I found the two main characters so different and so interesting, I did not mind the slow spots.

There is a lot of sex and nudity here, but only one very brief scene set in a strip club constitutes anything you would normally see in a porno. This is the kind of film Roger Ebert has been screaming about for years, demanding a new "A" for Adult rating that would be higher than an "R," but not quite a porno either. The "NC17" blew up in the MPAA's face, as it replaced the "X," it did not fall just below it.

"The Center of the World" is just less than an hour and a half long, but speaks volumes about its characters. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, I am still smarting from sitting through Wang's "Chan is Missing," one of the most dull, overcelebrated, and pointless films ever made.

He has come a long way, and I highly recommend this effort. (* * * *) out of five stars.

How Could Such a Funny Idea Go So Wrong?: "Celtic Pride" (1996)

Judd Apatow has been on a roll. He has directed, produced, or written: "The 40 Year Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," "Pineapple Express," TV's "Freaks and Geeks," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Superbad," "Talladega Nights"...the list goes on and on. While not everything he touches turns to gold ("Drillbit Taylor"), it is interesting that he wrote the screenplay for this comedy- but its failure may not be his fault.

Physical education teacher Mike (Daniel Stern) and plumber Jimmy (Dan Aykroyd) are diehard Boston Celtics fans. They are attending the Celts' NBA Finals games against the Utah Jazz in the last few matches before the Celtics' home stadium is torn down. The one person standing in the way of the Celtics' championship, and Mike and Jimmy's eternal joy, is Utah's Lewis Scott (Damon Wayans), a spoiled star player who feels he is carrying his "lesser" teammates. Mike's sports widow wife Carol (a way too serious Gail O'Grady) has filed for divorce again, and Jimmy is all alone- the men only have their sports teams and Lewis has gone and mopped the floor with the Celtics, forcing a final game seven.

After hearing Lewis is partying at a local bar, Mike and Jimmy decide to get Lewis so drunk he will play with a hangover and the Celtics will win. The plan starts fine, as Mike and Jimmy get as drunk as Lewis, all three blacking out. The next morning, Lewis' hands are duct taped together and Mike and Jimmy have inadvertently become kidnappers.

Lewis is not stupid, and begins playing with the guys' psyches. Mike and Jimmy act stupid, but they are able to get under Lewis' skin as well. Carol, and Mike's son, see Lewis and things get more complicated after a couple of escape attempts. The climax is the all important Game 7, and Mike, Jimmy, and Lewis must come to terms with their behaviors and personalities.

What professional sports fan hasn't wished an opposing team's star player would just disappear off the face of the planet? Growing up a Dallas Cowboys fan, I must admit ill will for the likes of Terry Bradshaw, and entire teams like the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. When Mike and Jimmy snatch Lewis, the dormant sports fan in me smiled. Apatow and co-story writer Colin Quinn seem to have answered the prayers of many a sports fan. Unfortunately, director Tom DeCerchio cannot seem to deliver the goods.

While Stern's Mike is a pretty well written character (high school athlete who never made it big), Aykroyd's Jimmy is all over the place. A 40ish year old virgin type who lives alone, Jimmy played by Aykroyd is not funny. Wayans is best as Lewis, but he plays the stuck up basketball player none too deeply, as if this was an extended skit on "In Living Color." Wayans even borrows his homeless guy character in the drinking scenes. The supporting cast includes very brief turns by Darrell Hammond and Jeffrey Ross, but someone needs to tell sports legends like Larry Bird and Bill Walton that they cannot act. Deion Sanders is okay, but geez, sitting through this and "Space Jam" would only prove my point. Christopher McDonald as Lewis' Pat Riley-like coach gets the biggest laughs.

I am not sure who to blame for the film's grimy look. Director of photography Oliver Wood bathes the screen in dingy brown. Production designer Stephen Marsh scores here and there (especially Jimmy's sports-centric home), but even the Celtic green and Jazz purple seem toned down and drab. Basil Poledouris' not-there musical score doesn't help.

From the previews a few years ago, I thought "Celtic Pride" couldn't miss. Instead, it got lousy reviews and flopped. I guess sometimes those fans in the cheap seats are right. (* *) out of five stars.

Scene, Act, Repeat...Scene, Act, Repeat...: "Caught in the Game" (2009)

This film is an exercise in frustration. An attractive cast, an indy budget, good music, competent direction, yet I never could get caught up in this game.

Lisa (Amanda Dee) is a real estate hustler. She brokers shady deals for her drug dealer boyfriend Todd (Cordell Rainey), under the unsuspecting nose of her boss, Goldstein (Guy Nardulli). Lisa also has a love/hate relationship with two coworkers/friends, the impulsive Eve (Nikka Ischelle) and the woman who brought Lisa and Todd together- Angie (Janet Williams).

Todd stays out on the streets for days at a time, but pays for Lisa to live in the lap of luxury as long as she keeps using her deals to launder his drug money. Everything changes when new janitor Joshua (Simeon Henderson) starts at Goldstein's real estate office. Although cold at first, Joshua gets under Lisa's skin. He's a romantic who falls hard for Lisa, who was tiring of Todd and his ignoring ways. As Lisa and Joshua grow closer, Lisa's criminal work gets sloppy. She needs Todd for his money, needs Joshua for his love, and she is having a difficult time deciding between the two. The film's title does have a double meaning. Lisa is not only caught in the fraudulent game, but also the game of love. Watching the characters, you would think her choice would be crystal clear, but writer/director Michael Merrill throws in a twist ending that will leave you with lots of questions and little closure.

The film clocks in at almost an hour and fifty minutes, and is in desperate need of some trimming and tightening. Merrill writes scene after scene of dialogue that covers facts we already know, and then beats this proverbial dead horse to death time and time again. The viewer is overcome with deja vu as Lisa and Todd have the exact same fight (he can't answer the phone when he's out hustling) constantly. Eve and Angie thankfully become more than just disposable best friend characters, until both start parroting themselves from scene to scene, repeating the same warnings to Lisa and Todd about their respective illicit liaisons. This repetition is maddening!

On the positive side, the cast is outstanding. Even Todd gets some sympathy here and there, despite being a despicable character. Henderson as Joshua is so likable, you hope he gets Lisa right away. Dee is good and sexy as Lisa, although some of her character's choices will drive you nuts. I did catch an errant boom microphone here and there, and Merrill relies on interiors way too much, but other than some technical glitches his direction is comfortable. I am not a fan of hip-hop, but the music is also a plus here.

I have seen worse films, but "Caught in the Game" is still a disappointment. The running time feels padded, and after a while even the willing cast could not save it. To use a completely inappropriate sports metaphor, "Caught in the Game" quickly heads into overtime, when it should have been called much earlier. (* * *) out of five stars.

Curse Words: "Cathy's Curse" (1977)

This review gives away the entire movie because I care about you too much to make you watch it.

This Canadian effort opens with a little girl being taken by her father to go find her mother and little brother, who have left the dad. Right away, things do not make sense. There is no explanation why the mother took the son but left the daughter. Anyway, dad swerves to miss a little white bunny in the road, crashes the car, and he and daughter die.

Fast forward twenty years (and maybe until the end of this film), and little brother is all grown up and moving back into his childhood home with his wife and a daughter named Cathy. An elderly cleaning lady and a handyman greet the family, introduce themselves as certain murder victims, and help the family move in. Cathy takes the dead daughter's old room, and finds the dead daughter's favorite toy in the attic. The toy, a doll with its eyes sewn shut, is an object of constant bickering between Cathy and her mother.

The film makers make no bones about the fact that Cathy is haunted by her long dead child aunt, but they can never seem to decide who is doing the haunting. Is the gruesome doll possessed? No, the doll is not always present when weird things happen. Why does the doll have her eyes sewn shut? Never explained. If the dead child's possessions were so odious and offensive, why were they not thrown out twenty years earlier after the daughter died? That would make too much sense for our illustrious director. Is the house haunted? Possibly, but by the dead daughter? There is no indication as to the daughter's possible evil. Maybe she is mad at the mind altering 1970's wallpaper treatments in her old home. I almost became possessed by Christopher Lowell just so I could pull the crappy decorating down. Is Cathy just having a spell of ESP and a case of major whoopass? She is able to make some characters "see" things such as rats, snakes, and leaches, but this little devilish power is never explored, either. It just seems like the ghost here is eternally pissed off at something, and takes her revenge on the unsuspecting, idiotic cast members.

Since this is a badly written horror film, we must have a psychic come to the house for no other reason than to sense "evil." She is sent running and screaming into the streets. The cleaning woman is thrown through the second story window and dies. Cathy's mom flips out enough to be sent to Trembling Pines Relaxation Hovel and Insane Asylum. Elderly handyman, a drinker, watches Cathy, but his prized Doberman is poisoned. Through this creepy chain of events, Cathy's father remains oblivious to his own surroundings, never mind the constant presence of police, EMTs, and veterinary coroners in his manicured front yard. He chalks it up to bad luck and constantly goes to the "building site," although we are never sure if he is an architect, construction foreman, or bologna sandwich maker in the chuckwagon. In the conclusion, Cathy's mom figures everything out and saves Cathy from...well, I still do not know, my earlier questions were never answered.

This is a spiteful, mean little film in which the writers and director have just as much contempt for the viewer as they do for their own characters. I honestly could not believe entire scenes as the actors spoke horrid lines and tried to make me believe they were a family. Watch for the omelet scene, where father and daughter exchange some of the most unbelievably stilted dialogue ever captured.

"Cathy's Curse" cannot be taken seriously, the only real threatening curse here is on the unsuspecting video renter. I highly unrecommend it. (*) out of five stars.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hey, Kids, Crime DOES Pay!: "Catch That Kid" (2004)

Yes, yes, we should all "Catch That Kid," and then beat the hell out of them for making this film.

Maddy (Kristen Stewart) is your typical junior high schooler. That is, if your typical junior high schooler was really into rock climbing. Her mother (Jennifer Beals!) has a convenient job as a security expert for a local bank, run by convenient jerk Brisbane (Michael Des Barres). Maddy's dad (Sam Robards), also a former rock climber, conveniently suffers the effects from an old fall and finds himself paralyzed. The only treatment available is an experimental procedure performed in Denmark (where all the cool stuff happens).

The operation would come to a quarter of a million dollars, and insurance is not paying. Maddy has two best friends- Austin (Corbin Bleu), a convenient computer geek, and Gus (Max Thieriot), a convenient mechanic. Instead of killing Mom for the insurance money, our delinquent trio decide to knock over Mom's bank and get the money for the operation. The heist is planned, performed, and routinely ends.

Stewart, Belum and Thieriot are very good in roles that are onion paper thin. All three will go far in the business. With the exception of Robards and Beals, every adult here is a complete moron, especially bank security guard Ferrell, played by an embarrassing James Le Gros. Gus' dumb older brother also conveniently gets a security job at the bank.

I watched this film and lost track of the missed opportunities. This should have been a "Who's Minding the Mint?" for the kiddie set, instead, even kids will roll their eyes at the film. Mind you, it is not technically bad, but it has been a long time since I have found a film so devoid of surprises. I was immediately bored because I knew exactly what would happen every step of the way, even predicting the little criminals' miscues, and the out and out sugary finale.

"Catch That Kid" is conveniently forgettable until one of the pay channels gets a hold of it and we must suffer through it again twenty times a day. I do not think I want my kids to watch this...Daddy needs a new pair of shoes and my sons know where I work. (* *) out of five stars.

Litter Pan: "Cat People" (1942)

A cult classic deserves it's reputation...and doesn't.

Fashion sketch artist Irena (Simone Simon) is a Serbian fresh off the ship in America. She meets ship builder Oliver Reed (!) (Kent Smith) cute-like and the two quickly fall in love and decide to marry. Everyone is happy for the couple, including Oliver's lovelorn coworker Alice (Jane Randolph).

All is not blissful in the Reed home. Irena refuses to even kiss Oliver. Her reason? Due to some ancient Satanic practices by her village back in the homeland, if she submits to physical love, she will turn into a panther and devour her mate. Oliver thinks she is eccentric, and Alice recommends Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), a psychiatrist.

If anything, Irena believes her own story. Animals hate her, and she spends a whole lot of time down at the zoo, sketching the big cats. Soon, Oliver tires of his platonic marriage, Alice professes her love for him, and Irena gets more than a little upset.

For years, I have heard about this film second hand. The remake came out almost twenty years ago now, and was a failure compared to the original. I liked how this film looked, but didn't like what I heard. Everything you may have heard about the cinematography is true. It is gorgeous. For such a small film, atmosphere must be created using such everyday items as table lamps and cigarette smoke. The dark is both repellent and inviting (according to Irena), and the audience sees this. The scene where something in a darkened indoor swimming pool stalks Alice is so effective, it was copied for the remake.

While a beautiful film to look at, it is almost too bad it has sound. This is certainly one of the talkiest seventy-two minute films I have ever seen. The premise is set early, then expounded upon until you do wish Irena would either kill someone or put herself outside for the night. Oliver is too aw-shucks naive to be very believable. Alice seems the stronger of the two. Irena also does not convince, a beautiful woman like this has never had a suitor before? Oliver and Irena marry so quickly, does she simply hope her problem will go away? The two lead actors do not have enough chemistry to make us believe this is a relationship that can be risked, cat transformations be damned.

"Cat People" is a disappointment, script and acting wise. However, the mood is so striking, and the sheer framing of the film is so wonderful, I find myself slightly recommending it on those pluses alone. There was an in name only sequel that is supposed to be better than this, which is not too difficult to believe. (* * *) out of five stars.

Fu Man-Booooo!: "The Castle of Fu Manchu" (1972)

This last film in the series, starring Christopher Lee as the evil Fu Manchu, is a nightmarish blend of stock footage and sleep walking cast members.

Fu, or is it Manchu? (Christopher Lee), has a new dastardly plan brewing. He has somehow found a process that uses opium crystals to turn water of any temperature into ice. He demonstrates his discovery with some blue tinted footage from an old Titanic flick, as a ship runs into an iceberg in the Caribbean, and then delivers a vague worldwide ultimatum.

Fu Manchu and his evil daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) are in Istanbul, using opium dealer Omar's (Jose Manuel Martin) henchmen to take over a castle to be used as evil headquarters. Fu Manchu has kidnapped the professor responsible for the outlandish ice/opium scheme, then kidnaps the professor's physician (Gunther Stoll) to perform a heart transplant to keep the professor vertical. Omar is looking for his captive henchwoman Lisa (Rosalla Neri), as Fu Manchu keeps working on those meaningless threats.

For those of you who are thinking, "there just are not enough secondary characters for me," we also have our hero, Scotland Yard detective Nayland Smith (Richard Greene) and his version of Dr. Watson, Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford). Soon, there are more jail breaks than "The Great Escape," and the viewer wishes someone would pour ice water down the front of their pants to wake them up.

Directed by the infamous Jess Franco, "The Castle of Fu Manchu" is a snoozefest. Lee is alright as the evil villain, but watching the middle aged Greene beating up teams of martial arts experts like some kind of James Bond wannabe is laughable. The entire cast looks stunned, as if they were smacked in the backs of their heads by a two by four. Franco relies on too many obvious special effects shots from other films, and none of his trademark exploitation elements are here- no nudity and some very fake looking blood.

The sound design also stinks, with some of the worst post-production of the 1960's. Characters deliver sentences of dialogue without moving their lips. The ending of the film seems to come about when the production ran out of money, instead of the story wrapping up loose ends.

With the rampant political correctness of today, I doubt we will see another restart of Sax Rohmer's famous yellow peril films. The only yellow peril in "The Castle of Fu Manchu" is the possibility you might wet your pants laughing at it. (*) out of five stars.

Set Adrift: "Cast Away" (2000)

Yes, yes, yes, Tom Hanks lost forty pounds to play a man marooned on an island for four years. It is too bad the director did not put that much effort into making a better movie.

This is one of those films that you like when the end credits roll, then wake up in the middle of the night and wonder why you suddenly dislike it. I'm skipping the plot and going right into the complaining, and tons of spoilers:

Why does Zemeckis insist on using special effects for the most mundane scenes? I thought the Oscar winning effects for "Forrest Gump" were lousy. The scene I am talking about is an obvious CGI fish swimming in the water before getting speared by Hanks, who is dramatically thin after four years. Why the effect? A fake fish on string would have been more realistic.

What I disliked most about this film was the missed opportunities. Where was the scene where Hanks gets on the boat and explains his appearance? His reaction to loud noises after being on a tropical island alone? His reaction to getting back on a plane after going down in a plane at the beginning of the film? His inability to drive a car after four years of not being able to? I also would have liked to see Hanks gradually get used to island life. Instead, he stumbles around like Gilligan, then we jump forward four years later where he looks like a caveman, and is an old pro at island life. Couldn't we see how he adjusts? We know he is going to be rescued, so we are left with muddled scenes regarding his reunification with love of his life Helen Hunt, who is better in this than "What Women Want."

Where is the emotional reuniting of the pair, instead of the strained meeting when he goes to their house? She still has all of his stuff from the unsuccessful search, and his car, and yet he must go to her.

I really did not like the ambiguous ending. Normally, ambiguous endings are the result of the film makers deciding to do something different than the Hollywood norm. Here, it just seems that no one knew how to end this. Having Hanks look back up the road where Lori White had driven is nice, but what was in the package he left at her door? Sure, he is at a crossroads emotionally as well as physically, but the film makers try to be mysterious by leaving him there. Do not take me through two and a half hours with this guy, then leave the both of us hanging on a dirt road in Texas. Closure, darn it!

I cannot recommend "Cast Away," despite the marketing and reputations of the cast and crew. (* *) out of five stars.

Carrying On: "Carrington" (1995)

A young female artist falls in love with a known homosexual and the two spend their remaining years in each other's lives. No, this is not a romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts, but "Carrington" is an emotional drama that is a triumph for Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce, and less than perfect for writer/director Christopher Hampton.

The film is good. It takes place in the years 1914-1932 in England. Thompson is Dora Carrington, a troubled artist who falls for homosexual writer Lytton Strachey, played by Pryce. Strachey is a bit of a dramatic, suffering from "old age" and other infirmities, although he would be considered a young man. Strachey is first attracted to Carrington, thinking she is a young man thanks to her pageboy haircut and lack of makeup.

The two fall in love the only way they can: unphysically. They share a bed, but have no real sexual relationship and pursue the kind of physical love they cannot find with each other. Virgin Carrington falls for an angry artist who cannot understand their four year relationship with no sex. She is simply not attracted to his body, but gives in anyway, finding she does not enjoy sex anyway. She breaks it off with him, using her impending cohabitation with Strachey as a reason. She then brings home uptight army soldier Ralph, played by Steven Waddington. He is a man's man who does not understand all these artists and conscientious objectors (to WWI), but beds Carrington and, the film implies, Strachey. Ralph and Carrington marry and Ralph brings home friend Gerald for Strachey to "get to know." Gerald then suddenly falls in love with Carrington. The two have an affair. Strachey finds and loves a younger man named Roger, and Carrington dumps Gerald, later finding a guy with a boat who really likes his sex on the high seas. Ironically, he is not sexually attracted to Carrington, the very reason she broke up with the angry young artist. Strachey and Carrington end up back together in their strange living arrangement, and both meet their sad fates.

Thompson and Pryce are so good here it hurts. The main problem I had was with Hampton's choice of subject matter. He based the film on a book about Strachey, titled the film after Carrington, and I kept noticing a real lack of focus as to the film's main character. Hampton also writes Strachey like he is a poor man's Oscar Wilde, coming up with pithy sayings in between heartbreaks. Carrington comes across as flighty and confused, but we do not see how disturbed she is until after Strachey's death, and Hampton could have elaborated on that a little more. More scenes about Carrington and Strachey's work might have helped as well. The two hour movie feels like compressed images from a long running soap opera. Why should the viewer care so much about these characters?

Hampton the director is wonderful. In one scene, Carrington sits on a stump and, through a giant bank of windows, watches her husband and his live-in mistress, Carrington's own new lover, and Strachey and Roger, all getting ready for bed. Hampton keeps the scene sad without becoming voyeuristic, as Carrington seems to be silently questioning all these men who have brought her to this place in time. Carrington's death is also handled tactfully.

I would recommend "Carrington," but with the reservations about the script. I definitely would recommend it on the performances alone, if nothing else. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This Candyman Can't: "Candyman: Day of the Dead" (1999)

The first "Candyman" was a visual feast, a creepy exercise in horror made great by the direction of Bernard Rose. The second "Candyman" was surprisingly watchable, a convoluted story with some interesting shots. The third, and so far final, "Candyman" has plenty of eye candy in the form of nudity, and nothing else.

Donna D'Errico is Caroline, the great-great-granddaughter of the original Candyman (Tony Todd), a black artist tortured to death generations ago after his affair with a white woman was uncovered. Candyman's story is one of urban legend, but Caroline wants to change all of that by showing his artwork at Miguel's (Mark Rorir-Rios) gallery. Miguel hires an actor, David (Nick Corri) to be an obsessed weirdo about Candyman, and the showing goes well until he shows up for his schtick, then Miguel forces Caroline to summon Candyman by saying his name five times in a mirror.

Later, Miguel and his one night stand are brutally murdered, and the paintings are all stolen by a punk/goth gang. David is suspected of the killings, and he and Caroline team up to find the paintings, and destroy Candyman- who is carving a bloody swath through east Los Angeles with his meat hook.

That is a basic outline, but the film gets overly politically correct by throwing in a racist cop (Wade Andrew Williams), and having all of the gore and grue coincidentally occur around Cinco de Mayo, the day of the dead. I know southern California is a melting pot, but the film makers play with race like they are trying to elevate this junk to some sort of allegory about prejudice in today's world. It is obvious from the start.

When I think of good acting, Donna D'Errico's name does not come to mind. When I think of breast implants, Donna D'Errico's name comes to mind. D'Errico tries, but most of her scenes have her either screaming her augmented lungs out, or sitting quietly and twitching while smoking a cigarette, trying to recover from the latest crime she has witnessed. Tony Todd's dialogue seems to have been copied from a book entitled "Film's Stupidest Lines of All-Time." Come on, "why have you forsaken me?" is a line always used when a straight-to-video horror film tries to be more than it is.

The special effects are average, the fake blood is everywhere, even obscuring the copious number of topless blondes. The swarming bee effects are pretty bad, the budget just was not there. Meyer has all the ingredients for a "Candyman" film- graffiti, flashbacks, Caroline even has a black friend like Virginia Madsen did in the original, but there is no style or scares here. The Candyman's motives are nonexistent. First, he wants Caroline to believe in him. Then he wants her as a victim (saying "be my victim" more times than I could count) in order to save David's life. The climax is especially drawn out, featuring such a convenient plot twist, that I did not see it coming merely because I overestimated the limited capabilities of the screenwriters.

"Candyman: Day of the Dead" is another of my 99 cent video purchases that will find itself in the donation bag to the local public library's video checkout shelves. It died at the rental counter when it was released, it should die at the library, too. (*) out of five stars.

Carey On: "Candle in the Dark: The Story of William Carey" (1998)

I have often wondered how missionaries of any religious persuasion can simply pick up their lives and move to a possibly hostile land to preach their message. Now imagine a lowly Baptist cobbler taking his wife, his sister-in-law, and his three young children from their comfortable lives in England to Calcutta, India...in the early 1790's.

William Carey (Richard Attlee) is concerned right away that he has misunderstood God's calling. His wife, Dolly (Lynette Edwards) and her sister Kitty (Julie-Kate Olivier) are very unhappy as the family moves around aimlessly, with William unable to convert a single soul. Things look up when William gets a paying job, but then one of his sons dies and Dolly is inconsolable and hysterical as William plunges into further self-doubt.

William also witnesses the barbaric act of Sati, the Hindu tradition of killing the widow of a dead man on her husband's burning funeral pyre. As Carey toils, his missionary society sends a master printer to help him, and it seems William's purpose is finally revealed.

Shot on video on location in India, the film falls into the familiar trappings of your average biopic. Writer/director Tew takes us through the ups and downs of William Carey's tumultuous life, barely letting the viewer catch their breath. We cover almost thirty years in a little over an hour and a half, and I would have liked to have had the chance to stop and breathe and bask in what Carey was experiencing- his faith and strength in the face of horrific adversity.

Luckily, the film is anchored by an award-worthy performance by Attlee as William Carey. He appears in almost every scene and he is excellent. The supporting cast is fine, but unfortunately the script requires them to be in either the highs of religious fervor or the gloomy depths of hysterical depression without any middle ground.

Technically, the musical score and editing are strong, and only a few instances of differently-shot stock footage mar otherwise impressive photography. The costume design is spot-on, and the Indian performers portray actual characters, not nameless masses of faces getting preached to by some white guy.

William Carey once said "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God." Carey lived this mantra, facing down tragedies that would kill weaker men and women. William Carey brought God's Word to India, and "Candle in the Dark" brings his work back to the west. (* * * *) out of five stars.

The Law of Average: "Cahill: U.S. Marshal" (1973)

In 1973, John Wayne continued making safe, similar westerns that really did nothing to change the genre, except for his final film "The Shootist." "Cahill: United States Marshal" falls into this sure category.

Wayne is the title character, a tough U.S. marshal who is gone from home a lot, letting his sons Gary Grimes and Clay O'Brien fend for themselves. In order to get back at their dad, seventeen year old Grimes and eleven year old O'Brien join with a gang led by George Kennedy to rob the town bank. The group has a foolproof plan- get themselves locked in jail, escape, rob the bank, then lock themselves up again with a perfect alibi. The bank is robbed, but Kennedy's empty promises about no one getting hurt are broken as the sheriff and a deputy are killed. O'Brien is told to hide the loot, and Grimes and his brother are threatened if they ever talk.

By this point, Wayne has returned to town, and takes Grimes to go track the imaginary bank robbers. They do stumble upon a group of outlaws, and these men are arrested and sentenced to hang. Grimes and O'Brien must now work to get the hidden loot to Kennedy, save the four innocent men, and look over their shoulder as their father becomes more suspicious of their weird behavior. People begin dying as the truth is slowly uncovered.

I have always liked John Wayne. He had huge screen presence that has never been equalled. The voice, the stance, you know right away when he is onscreen. Say what you want about the bad film choices he made, and he made some doozies, even his mediocre films are better than some of the cow plop Hollywood passes out today.

"Cahill" is a good film, despite some flaws. There is never a scene where Wayne finds out the truth about his criminally inclined children, one second he doesn't know, the next second he does. I would have liked to see him figure it out and react. Also, some of McLaglen's action sequences are just plain stilted. Watch the scene where Wayne catches a knife in his shoulder, barely wincing, and knowing that the knife was already there when the scene began. Same for the ridiculous owl-scares-kids scene, with a large fake bird on some string.

Neville Brand, a name you may not know, but a face you have seen in films before, is excellent here as Lightfoot, a half Comanche tracker who fancies himself a great warrior. Denver Pyle, Jackie Coogan, Royal Dano, and Paul Fix are all well known film veterans, but are given just one or two scenes each and just a handful of lines. Some of the gun scenes are bloody, but the gore looks like bright red paint and is not convincing.

"Cahill: U.S. Marshal" rests on John Wayne's shoulders, and he is up to the task. He is very watchable, and does a good job in a role he could have sleepwalked through. (* * *) out of five stars.

I Feel Stripped of My Video Rental Fee: "Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom" (1994)

Sometimes, even women-in-prison flicks are so bad, the promise of sadistic guards and gratuitous shower scenes are not enough to combat the ineptitude of the director, in this case, one Cirio H. Santiago. Santiago is an awful director. Truly awful. I have seen a few of his potboilers in my day, and they were all low points in my life, right down there with my divorce and various deaths in the family.

Amanda (Jewel Shepard) is a CIA agent posing as the mistress of a Southeast Asian monarch (Ramon D'Salva). The king is shot and his hot princess daughter Marga (Chanel Akiko Hikai) is hauled off to an island prison to await a trial and certain execution. Except, the assassination was fake! Hooray!

The king gets royally ticked about his daughter being taken, and threatens Amanda's boss Carl (Ed Crick) with big press conferences and tattle-telling if Marga is not rescued. Lo and behold, Amanda has a new assignment: go to the prison and break Marga out.

Amanda hides some blow in her suitcase and is arrested, along with porn smuggler Lucy (Susan Harvey) and both go to the big house. The warden (Vic Diaz) is busy banging scary Paula (Pamella D'Pella) so she can feed her dope habit. Amanda is strip searched and tossed in with the other inmates, all of whom are under twenty five years of age and cute. Whenever I watch women's prison reports on MSNBC's Doc Block, the female inmates are normally three hundred pound toothless lesbians with the four children by four different fathers anxiously awaiting their release, so incarceration here looks pretty good. The cells are larger than my apartment and, after Marga arrives, the escape attempt is on!

Wait, we are barely thirty minutes in, so the attempt fails. Amanda and Paula break out in wrestling matches all the time, while Marga pouts and Lucy wonders why, exactly, her character is even in the film. Carl plans another escape attempt, but Amanda is ordered to leave Marga and Lucy behind.

Coming from New Horizons Home Video, you know this film was never destined for Oscar greatness. Jewel Shepard has written about her life as a B movie actress, and always seemed to have a sense of humor about the schlock she appeared in. In this movie, unfortunately, she is awful. Her only emotion is "pissy," and she delivers all her lines through clenched teeth while glaring at other characters. The rest of the cast is even worse.

The screenplay is so bad, I could write a book. Santiago's direction is purely Santiagoan, i.e. awful. There are plenty of bored shootouts and fights, but the film is seriously lacking in the skin department. Sure, we have some topless scenes here and there, but even the shower room scene has the actresses wearing bikini bottoms or towels.

"Caged Heat II: Stripped of Freedom" is an absolute flop. Sorry, ladies, no early release for you. (*) out of five stars.

You Give Me Fever: "Cabin Fever" (2003)

A refreshing horror film, one of the best of 2003, after "28 Days Later."

Five college students get done with finals and flee to a cabin in the woods. Thanks to a local hermit, a flesh eating bacteria begins spreading through the countryside. One of the five is infected, and the group turns on each other as the bacteria infects more and more people.

Eli Roth wrote and directed a small horror film with great cinematography and gore effects. The cast is full of familiar faces from film and television, the five main characters are Paul (Rider Strong), Karen (Jordan Ladd), Ben (James DeBello), Marcy (Cerina Vincent), and Jeff (Joey Kern). Giuseppe Andrews plays a young deputy who likes nothing more than a "party," and Arie Verveen is grotesque as the hermit.

Why did I like "Cabin Fever" so much? Simple. Even before watching the behind the scenes documentaries and director interview (something I never do with DVD's), I noticed something. Eli Roth loves horror films. So many directors, writers, and actors consider the horror genre beneath them. Many sit around after their horror film does well in stunned silence, afraid they will be roped into a series of sequels that will do nothing for their careers. An example of the other end of the spectrum would be "Wolf," directed by horror novice Mike Nichols. There is nothing worse than a mainstream director deciding to bring something new to the horror film, and messing it up. Of course, many mainstream actors owe their renown to horror films, and are proud of it- Jamie Lee Curtis and Jack Nicholson, to name two. Then there are some who do not even acknowledge their horror outings, distancing themselves from what they did as if it were hardcore pornography that they need to apologize for in mainstream magazine and primetime TV interviews- Jennifer Aniston and Neve Campbell, to name two.

Which brings me back to "Cabin Fever." If you love horror films, this is your movie. Roth reaches back and pays homage to everything from "Evil Dead" to "Night of the Living Dead," and yet you can tell he does this out of affection and not depletion of ideas. The entire cast is good, Roth somehow works characterization into the film, without offing everyone right away once you get relationship dynamics established. Each character is different, and you do come to care about them before the carnage begins. This is an element I haven't felt this strongly about since "Halloween."

But, the film is not all characterization and deep conversations. It is also funny as hell without trying to be. Regular readers of my reviews (Mom, and you other three people) know I hate humor in horror films unless it is an out and out comedy, or the laughs come naturally, i.e. "Killer Tongue," the best horror film of the last decade. Here, the laughs are natural, and work. I was horrified and giggling at the pig farm scene, the deer hitting scene, and the "party" scene, without having to roll my eyes at some gruesome villains trying to be funny.

"Cabin Fever" is great, and I can see why film festival audiences went nuts for it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Oh, My Goodness Gracious!: "Bush's Brain" (2004)

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I feel any potential viewer should be warned before watching this film. Sit down, take a deep breath...here goes: politics is a dirty business...now you can start gasping.

Reporters James C. Moore and Wayne Slater have written a book entitled "Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential." This documentary covers the same ground, how ruthless evil genius Karl Rove got George W. Bush, the spoiled son of a former president (who is unable to put one foot in front of the other and form a comprehensive sentence, yet is the mastermind behind everything from 9/11 to the milk going bad in my refrigerator) president.

The film makers reenact Karl Rove typing a thirty page e-mail disputing the book (only a couple of passages get into the film, the ones where Rove is wrong), while everyone who has ever been associated with Rove is trotted out with their sob stories. Rove has done a lot of unorthodox, and perhaps illegal, things over the years to get his clients elected. The film makers can do nothing more than allege his activities, since Rove certainly is not going to admit he planted a listening device in his own office during a Texas governor campaign just to get more votes for his candidate. We hear of Rove and George W. Bush's friendship, Rove's coaching of his candidate, negative ads against now-former Georgia senator Max Cleland, Robert Novak's outing of a former friend's CIA agent wife, all played to some bland music by Michelle Shocked and David Friedman. The film ends with footage of a Nevada family mourning the death of their son in Iraq, which is Rove's fault, too, if you follow the big flashing dotted lines drawn by Moore and Slater.

Here's the problem (and yes, if this film was called "Clinton's Brain," and dealt with James Carville or Hillary Clinton, I would have the same reaction). Rove coached George W. on how to be more political? Horrors! No candidate has ever been coached in the history of the United States, ever! Rove resorts to dirty tricks and lying to get his candidate elected? Say it ain't so! No candidate has ever spoken a false word to get into office! Throughout the segment on Joseph Wilson's CIA agent wife, no one thinks to question why Robert Novak will not put this story to rest and reveal his source.

I have seen Wayne Slater before, in the film "Journeys with George," which covered Bush's first presidential campaign. In that film, Slater certainly loves the limelight after grunt reporting for so many years on George W. Bush. The other reporters on the press bus in that film realize this, and here Slater is our gallant hero, showing Karl Rove for the maniacal menace that he is. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the film makers come down on the anti-Rove side so often, with so little back up, that it begins to get silly. Mentioning a half dozen times that Max Cleland lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam more than makes its point. Showing the negative ad that perhaps cost Cleland the election three times loses its effectiveness. Watching Cleland whine about all the money the Republicans had to get rid of him is sour grapes. Not showing Cleland's response to the negative ad, or any of his own negative ads, is a mistake. Rove beat up on John McCain in the 2000 primaries, as a bitter McCain campaign worker will tell you, but the film makers ignore the fact that McCain actively campaigned for Bush then, and does four years later.

In one of the DVD's deleted scenes, a former Bush opponent in Texas expresses awe that this president had never been to Europe until he was elected to national office. Presidential candidates from Congress (like John Kerry!!) are better qualified, he states, since they see issues in a national light, not the narrow focus of governing a single state. Of course, Clinton was the governor of an even smaller state than Bush's, and went to Europe to avoid the draft (for Vietnam, where Max Cleland lost an arm and two legs!), but then again this film is all about Bush and Rove.

Except for the footage about the fallen Marine's family in Nevada, this is a whiny attempt to bring down a president through one of his inner circle, blaming the country's problems on a nerdy star high school debater who went on to become the president's closest adviser. Much mud is flung, some of it sticks, but in the end it will join the ranks of other forgotten anti-Bush films once the election is over...

...of course, the election is being fixed as we speak, as Karl Rove is looking to prolong his power. I am sure "Kerry's Brain" or "Hillary's Brain" is on the horizon, these two good reporters, Moore and Slater, certainly do not want to be accused of a liberal bias! (* *) out of five stars.

Faces of Death: "Buried in the Sand: The Deception of America" (2004)

Finally! A film that combats the liberal view that we should not be in Iraq! A film that argues how Iraq is better off today thanks to the removal of Saddam Hussein! Oh, wait, this is not that film.

An anchorman-type named Mark Taylor (the credits are full of initials and pseudonyms, so I am not sure if Taylor is his real name) introduces shocking video clips of torture carried out by the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule. The viewer is treated to mutilations and public punishments based on radical interpretations of Islamic law. The video is real and disturbing. Then, the film makers quote the liberal trio of Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry, all voicing their opinions that we should be in Iraq.

Then the video lost me. We get an assault by an Apache helicopter on Iraqis who are hiding weapons. Ted Kennedy's quote about Abu Ghraib being reopened for torture under new management after the idiotic actions of those National Guard soldiers is displayed (never mind that Saddam Hussein executed an astonishing 30,000 people at Abu Ghraib during his rule, a number George W. Bush could never touch while he was governor of capital punishing Texas).

The film makers continue to dwell on "Faces of Death"-type footage to make their point. The gore and violence is never put into any context, making one wonder where it all came from. One public beheading is credited to Saudi Arabia, negating the film's ambition to show us the torture of the former regimes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then the video makers finally cross the line, sealing this reviewer's negative review. The recent beheadings of American hostages in Iraq are shown without edits. I was washed over with a wave of nausea, not patriotism as these people screamed for their lives as cowardly terrorists slit their throats and removed their heads. This grimmest of footage is not here to educate, it is here to appeal to the lowest common denominator of humanity. The film makers want to sell discs and make money, and here is some shocking footage to move sales.

"Buried in the Sand- The Deception of America" is not worth your time or effort, and is certainly not even in the same league as other political documentaries out there. America is being deceived, but the people who are peddling this collection of snuff films under the banner of education and democracy are the ones doing the deceiving. Simply repulsive. (*) out of five stars.

Losing Ground: "Burial Ground" (1986)

Most infamous for a scene involving a child biting off his mother's nipple, this loser Italian zombie film has a high gross out factor, and little else. Be warned, I am about to spoil the hell out of this thing!

In the opening, a bearded Professor Ayres (Renato Barbieri, looking like Rasputin) discovers a "secret" that looses zombies on the countryside, getting himself killed in the process. We never find out how he awakened the dead...

Cut to three horny couples arriving at an Italian villa. They are guests of the late professor, and let themselves in. None of the couples are differentiated from each other. George (Roberto Caporali) and Evelyn (Maria Angela Giordano) bring along Evelyn's weird son Michael (Peter Bark, an obvious little person badly posing as a young boy). James (Simone Mattioli) and Leslie (Antonella Antinori) are here, keep track of them because Leslie is cute. Mark (Gian Luigi Chirizzi) and Janet (Karin Well) stand out only because Mark looks like Michael Keaton and Janet has psychic feelings that something awful is going to happen, and this subplot is never elaborated on. Nicholas (Claudio Zucchet) and Kathleen (Anna Valente) are the house servants who always do everything they are told, even in the heat of the zombie attacks.

There is really not much of a plot here. The zombies stumble upon Mark and Janet, and James and Leslie, while they are all getting it on in the gardens. George and Evelyn and Michael are cornered in the professor's office and George is the first to die as he martyrs himself for his family. From here on out, if a cast member wanders off by themselves, consider them dead. Out in the yard, Janet steps in a bear trap (!), and hobbles around for the rest of the film. The survivors board themselves up in the villa, and wait to die.

Hilariously, Kathleen finds time to serve everyone drinks from a tray before getting beheaded by a sickle when told to go check a window. Later, Leslie goes to find whiny Janet some bandages and gets her head mashed into a pieces of a broken window. Little freaky Michael tries to make out with his mother, is rejected, and partially eaten by a newly zombified Leslie. Poor Nicholas is sent on a fool's errand and killed by the absent professor.

That Mark, he is always thinking. As the zombies use assorted tools to break into the villa, Mark decides they should let them in. He is under the mistaken impression that they are after something other than human flesh, plus they move slowly, so the remaining people should be able to out run the dead. Tell that to the five people just killed. Evelyn, Mark, Janet, and James run to a quiet monastery, where James is promptly devoured by some zombie monks. The remaining group makes it to yet another house, where the film's most infamous scene occurs.

Evelyn sees Michael, and offers her left breast to comfort her obviously zombied son. Michael begins to suckle, then takes a big ol' bite. This is the only murder to occur in front of other cast members (Mark and Janet), and is really gross. The zombies overcome the remaining living, and the film ends.

I love Italian zombie films as much as the next guy, but this film is so monotonous that boredom soon sets in. The gore is effective, local butcher shops must have run low on innards, but director Bianchi must deal with a terrible script. Bianchi pads the film with endless closeups of the maggot covered zombies. As I mentioned, the killings are telegraphed by the default of a victim being alone. Until the actual bloody act, this results in some very boring stalking scenes. Obviously some of the cast has seen a Romero film, only a couple of them know to aim any violence toward the heads of the zombies in order to kill them.

"Burial Ground" is a very gory and very violent film, helped by some pretty good special effects. It is also very boring and very badly acted, not helped by some pretty bad scripting. I cannot recommend it, even to fans of this subgenre. (* *) out of five stars.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Raw Poetry: "Bukowski at Bellevue" (1995)

Poet Charles Bukowski was a force of nature. If you are not familiar with his verse, you might be familiar with three films based on his prose- "Barfly," "Factotum," and "Tales of Ordinary Madness." This black and white video captures Buk at a poetry reading in 1970, and its technical problems enhance the man's words.

Despite assumptions, the Bellevue in the title does not refer to the mental institution, but a small college in Washington. The footage was shot on videotape, and forgotten and thought lost until its rediscovery in the 1990's. The running time is barely under an hour, and the frame wavers, flickers, and freezes as Bukowski drinks booze from a thermos and reads aloud to a gathering of students.

This is not Romantic or Victorian rhymed verse in iambic pentameter. Bukowski spent his life on skid row among society's refuse. He writes vividly of the women he laid and the drinks he drank. He turns tender when writing about taking his then-toddler daughter to the bathroom, and shows a mix of respect and repulsion at some of his dalliances with prostitutes. We hear about cockroaches and flop houses, and through his slurred monotone we can see and smell what he is describing.

Once in a while, Bukowski flubs a word or smirks, genuine qualities from a man who seems uncomfortable in the land of intellectuals. He wasn't really part of the Beat Generation, but I'll put his self-destructive brilliance against Kerouac or Ginsberg any day.

The direction is simple. Bukowski sits in his chair and reads as the camera drifts once in a while to a rapt audience member. The sound quality is surprisingly good, the microphones pick up every word. Bukowski readings were sometimes known to degenerate into shouting matches, but here he lets his words do all of his fighting for him. He is crass, crude, and unapologetic, and this forty year old piece of honesty is like a breath of fresh air in today's world of manufactured reality, coarse political discourse, and obvious hypocrisy.

"Bukowski at Bellevue" is required for all poets, readers, and lovers of English. Charles, I raise my glass to you. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Thank Ya, Thank Ya Very Much: "Bubba Ho-Tep" (2003)

Don Coscarelli throws good taste to the wind and crafts a very funny horror flick that also serves as a character study of the king of rock and roll.

Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) is residing in a nursing home in East Texas. He switched places with an impersonator years back, and that was the man who died in Memphis. Elvis misses his fame, misses his family, but has more important things on his mind. Sure, there is the growth on his penis that may be cancer, but there is also an ancient mummy scuffling around, sucking the souls of the helpless elderly through any orifice it can get to. Thank goodness the King has the help of John F. Kennedy.

Yes, Elvis lives, but JFK? After the assassination, "they" put him in the nursing home and dyed his skin dark so he would look like Ossie Davis. No one at the nursing home cares much for the patient, be they living or dead, so Elvis and JFK team up to fight the monster.

"Bubba Ho-Tep" sounds like a film made just to offend, but it is not. I would compare it favorably to the Coen Brothers' "Fargo," as Coscarelli, working from a Joe R. Lansdale short story, gets inside the head of one of this country's true icons. The mummy gets almost secondary treatment as Elvis tries to deal with his life now, and the audience tries to deal with the fact that Jack and Elvis may not be who they say they are.

The budget is small, but Coscarelli does his best. The setting is great. The mummy effects are spectacular. Campbell's makeup is more funny than convincing, but he has the voice down pat. Things just sound funnier with Presley's voice, especially strings of profanity. Davis is also good as Jack, making you believe he really could be Kennedy, since we have accepted the "Elvis is alive" theory already. I had to wait impatiently for this film to come out on video, since I knew it would never play in a theater near me.

"Bubba Ho-Tep" is funny, a little gross, but stands head and shoulders above many other films because of one thing- originality. The idea itself is funny, and Coscarelli could have taken it in an obvious direction, but to have Elvis become an actual character you come to care about is smart. To have him team up with JFK to fight a mummy is brilliant. Ask not what your nursing home can do for you, ask what you can do for your nursing home!

One of the smartest horror comedies ever made, I loved it from beginning to end. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Lousy Title, Lousy Movie: "The Brylcreem Boys" (1998)

No, "The Brylcreem Boys" is not a documentary about men's hair dressing in the 1940's, nor does it feature actual boys as main characters. It is a poorly done slap in the face of all sides involved in World War II Europe.

Hunky Canadian R.A.F. pilot Myles Keogh (Bill Campbell) and his crew are shot down over what they think is France. They are arrested and transported to the local Irish prisoner of war camp.

It seems Ireland is neutral in the war, holding captured British soldiers on one side of the camp, and captured Nazi soldiers on the other side. One of the Nazis is Rudolph (Angus Macfayden), and both Myles and Rudolph fall for local Nicole Kidman clone Mattie (Jean Butler).

Before you ask how Myles and Rudolph could fall for Mattie while locked away in prison, I'll tell you. It seems prison commander O'Brien (Gabriel Byrne, who coproduced this silliness) lets all the prisoners out on day release passes, as long as everyone agrees to return at night. Crazy and nutty, huh?

Myles and Mattie, er, discover each other's Blarney Stone, Rudolph turns into one of the really good nice polite Nazis, and soon a poorly executed prison break is on!

The film makers had such a great opportunity here, it is too bad they squandered it on the sappy Myles/Mattie/Rudy love triangle. An Irish prison containing British and Nazi prisoners? One character calls it a "madhouse," and it should have been! I settled back for some "M*A*S*H"/"Catch-22"-style satire, but by the end of the film I would have been happy with some kicky doofus "Hogan's Heroes"/"Major Dad"-style hi-jinks.

Campbell is a blank. He looks good, but is given nothing to do. "Rudolph the Nice Nazi" Macfayden is a villain, then not, then a villain, then not, then... Butler used to be in "Riverdance" (anybody remember THAT?), so be warned that spontaneous yet flawlessly executed Irish jigging suddenly breaks out midway through the film. The annoying William McNamara plays an annoying American movie star, and Byrne just looks dire. The film ends with the most depressing "what ever happened to...?" coda since "American Graffiti," and I was emotionally empty.

Sure, you have seen better films about Ireland ("The Quiet Man," "Cowboys & Angels," countless others), but when the British escape plan hinges on getting the Irish guards really drunk ('cause ALL Irish are a bunch of swarthy alcoholics!), you realize one half-baked idea does not make a good film. This story is 80 proof positive of that. (*) out of five stars.