Thursday, March 31, 2011

1 Nasty Pokey: "99 Women" (1969)

Jesus Franco is said to have invented the modern-day "women in prison" exploitation subgenre with this silly little mess.

Blonde bombshell Marie (Maria Rohn) is sent to an island prison run by Superintendent Thelma (a slumming Mercedes McCambridge). The prison has almost one hundred women (hence the title) and no men, with the exception of island governor Santos (a slumming Herbert Lom), who has his choice of ladies whenever he visits the prison...which seems to be often.

Yet another prisoner has died, and the ministry of justice sends wide-eyed Leonie (Maria Schell) to the island to investigate the conditions there. She immediately stops the hellish punishments and night guard duty (for reasons never made clear), and suddenly Marie and new friend Helga (Eliza Montes) decide this would be a perfect opportunity to escape.

With five writers on this thing (and only one, Harry Alan Towers, credited under a pen name) and the infamous Franco at the helm, I thought this film would have a bit more spunk. Instead, the audience must suffer through McCambridge's completely off-putting Method acting and mystery accent. We sit through a sweating Lom leering after the prisoners. We wonder just what Schell is doing in this picture, since the ending renders her character pointless. While this is a classic in the exploitation field, a bare nipple doesn't pop up until almost a third of the way through the dull story. The ladies are lovely to look at, but watch out for Franco's blurred lesbian love tryst, which might have you making sure your DVD player is firing on all cylinders.

Of course, this is garbage, but some of the scenes work, like Marie's reason for being sent to the prison. Rosalba Neri seems to be having fun as the tough Zoie, and Schell's earnest performance is easy on the eyes and ears, complementing the shrill McCambridge. Since this was an international production, many versions exist, some with an extended ending, different scenes, and hardcore pornographic inserts (so to speak).

"99 Women," also known as "Island of Despair," isn't the best film Jess Franco made (I'm still looking for that), but it eventually delivers the grindhouse goods, albeit in a bored and routine manner. (* *) out of five stars.

Freddy Directs: "976-EVIL" (1989)

Back in the late '80's, one had to call 976 numbers for every occasion, from phone sex to hearing Michael Jackson's tour plans. Nowadays, we have the internet, but Robert Englund's first and only directorial effort (so far) is still an entertaining change from the horror norm.

Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys) worships his ne'er-do-well cousin Spike (Patrick O'Bryan). Hoax's mother Lucy, played by the late great Sandy Dennis, is another matter. She is a religious fanatic who keeps her thumb firmly on top of her nerdy offspring. She is a cross between Piper Laurie in "Carrie," and Ann Sothern in "The Killing Kind," donning wigs and giving more attention to her cats than her son.

Spike calls a mysterious phone number, the title, for his "horrorscope." Soon, the horrorscope begins to get a little more personal, egging Spike on to commit small crimes. We know what happens when people try to get away from the horrorscope, usually bloody deaths by phone. Spike goes out with and sleeps with Suzy, as Hoax looks on. Hoax meets up with the dumped Suzy later, but she gets mad at him as well. By this time, impressionable Hoax has stumbled onto the mysterious phone number. In the film's best scene, Hoax accidentally kills Suzy with a few dozen spiders exploding out of her TV dinner. The horrorscope begins changing Hoax into a demon, and he starts taking revenge on everyone who ever picked on him. As Spike tries to figure everything out, so does Marty (Jim Metzler), a tabloid reporter who comes to investigate a weird fishfall that Lucy takes as a miracle from heaven. Teaming up with the boys' cute principal, they find the 976 company who runs the number. Mark Dark (Robert Picardo) runs the place, and shows that the horrorscope line has not been hooked up for months. The bloody climax brings the major players together, and Hoax's fate is decided. The final scene before the end credits shows us the real person behind the phone number.

I do not really know why, but I thoroughly enjoyed this film more than I should have. There are some slow scenes, and Englund overextends himself in some of the special effects scenes. However, the young cast is up to the task, and Sandy Dennis is a scream. If you have read my reviews before, you know how much I hate "funny" horror villains, but here the film is an over the top comedy, so the humor works.

The art direction is like a nightmarish crayon factory. There are weird lights and day glo colors everywhere, it is like the Warren Beatty version of "Dick Tracy" on acid. The set is also bizarre, as there is graffiti all over the place, from the high school to the movie theater to the eventual climactic home of Hoax and Spike.

While the ending is a letdown, "976-EVIL" is not the worst film ever made. It is nice and average, and better than I thought it would be. (* * *) out of five stars.

Being Federico Fellini: "8 1/2" (1963)

Federico Fellini makes one of the most personal films a director could ever make, giving his audience a look at what made a master tick.

The film is easy to sum up in a few lines, but a plot summary does not do the visuals credit. Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is a film maker relaxing at a spa and trying to find the inspiration to get going on his next picture. He has a giant spaceship set built, has been filming screen tests, but his heart is not in it.

People from his life, especially the women, begin pressuring him to begin the film. His married mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) arrives to see him, but this does not trigger anything. He invites his bitter wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) down, and she brings her mystical friend Rossella (Rossella Falk). Rossella senses things may not be going well for Guido, who slips in and out of dreams and fantasies about the people in his life. Eventually, the actress Claudia (the most beautiful woman at this time- Claudia Cardinale) arrives and for a second Guido perks up before committing his final directorial flourish.

This is not a perfect film. There are scenes here that move at a snail's pace and may have you checking your watch. The film is done in Italian, so subtitles are in order. However, everyone should watch this film just to see Fellini at work.

Different characters in the film comment on Guido's script as if they were commenting on the very film you are watching as well. It is full of imagery, but not about anything. Fellini goes into Guido's head and gives us some breath taking fantasy and dream sequences. One childhood memory has the local village character Saraghina (Eddra Gale) dancing a rhumba on a beach. The most famous fantasy sequence has all of Guido's women gathered into a harem and catering to his every need before they decide to revolt and he must quell the riot with a bullwhip.

There are some laugh out loud scenes, but Guido's melancholia is so real you may feel guilty for smiling. Fellini addresses Catholic guilt, as well. This is not a purely Italian issue, in this day and age of 9/11 memorial services and "Girls Gone Wild."

The stark black and white totally works, as Fellini comes up with lovely shadowed shots and interesting camera placement. The film's music is made up mostly of standards, interesting when you remember that not many of us have an original motion picture soundtrack playing in our head when something notable happens in our lives (unless you are a musician). The acting is above par, the performers are never pushed away by the camerawork. Mastroianni is just perfect as Guido. Anouk Aimee is more than a typical wronged wife. Sandra Milo is a very busty, and very sexy, mistress who wants Guido to see her as more than a mistress but not too much more. And of course, the glorious Claudia Cardinale, who has so few scenes but is impossible not to watch. When she fails to enliven Guido, you know things may not end well. There is a hilarious conclusion at a press conferences (Guido is literally dragged to it) that is so real, it could have been shot yesterday. The reporters question Guido about everything from the film to nuclear weapons, I half expected to see an "Access Hollywood" mic or Byron Allen in the background.

"8 1/2" is a buffet for the eyes, you can see where Kubrick gathered much of his inspiration. Sometimes slow, the film is infinitely rewarding, a product of great acting, genius directing, and good timing. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Disco Beat: "54" (1998)

A young man dreams of leaving his dead end town and moving to the big city, where he can make it big. I wish I could do the same, and I would if I looked like Ryan Phillippe.

Shane (Ryan Phillippe) lives in New Jersey and longs for the New York City skyline just a short distance away. He and his friends go to the same bars and try to lay the same girls, but in 1979 his world is collapsing under the leadership-challenged Jimmy Carter and life seems hopeless.

Shane finally gets some gumption and heads to Studio 54, the most exclusive club in New York. Taking off his shirt for owner Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), he gets let in. There, his senses are overwhelmed with drugs, sex, and music, three of the lacking ingredients in his life. Shane gets an interview and begins bussing at the club, meeting struggling singer/coat check girl Anita (Salma Hayek) and her busboy hubby Greg (Breckin Meyer). Greg covets the cherished bartender positions, but he does not have the right look. Shane does.

The main reason Shane sought out Studio 54 is because of his crush on soap opera actress Julie (Neve Campbell), who he glimpses briefly here and there before diving crotch first into all the loose sex and drug abuse. He moves in with Anita and Greg, but things begin to unravel as Rubell comes under the interest of the I.R.S., and Greg realizes he will never be a bartender, but there is plenty of money in drug dealing. 1980 comes in with a bang, and changes everyone.

Ryan Phillippe is very good as Shane in one of his best performances. He has a very young look about him that is completely right for the role. Writer/director Mark Christopher does a nice job with his actors, and the casting is outstanding. Shane is obviously more hunky than Greg, and Meyer does a great job of conveying disappointment about not getting the bartending gig. Salma Hayek is beautiful but not too flighty as Anita, who puts her burgeoning singing career above her marriage and friendships.

Neve Campbell, while okay, is not given a very good role here. Christopher holds off on Shane getting too close to her until it is too late, and by the time an hour (of the film) has gone by, we really do not care if these two get together or not. Mike Myers is outstanding as Rubell, I thought Christopher should have concentrated more on him than Shane. Myers has a great scene where he propositions a straight Greg for sex in order to get the bar tending job, and Myers makes Steve a pathetic and sympathetic character in the span of just a few minutes.

If you thought this year's "Crash" has a lot of coincidences, get a load of "54." Not to give too much away, Julie and Shane meeting in a New Jersey restaurant isn't the worst, that honor goes to the climax of the film where everything seems to happen on one predestined night.

Christopher does capture the look and feel of 1979 hedonism very well. Some of his characters' choices make little sense, though. Shane knows where Studio 54 is, that soap actress Julie hangs out there, but has no clue who ANY of the other celebrities there are. For someone who frequents gossip columns, he should have been more tuned in to his clientele. Also, for all the sex and drugs going on, none of the characters seem very happy, and Christopher beats us over the head with redemptive moments.

The "54" soundtrack is a lot like the film, and the club. Some familiar filler that is really great while it happens, but becomes instantly forgettable when it ends. I have always liked techno and dance music over anything else, but "54" barely manages a blip on the screen. (* * *) out of five stars.

A Spiral Stare Case: "The 39 Steps" (1935)

Although the two remakes are pretty well known, this early film by Hitchcock is fantastic, one of the best films of the 1930's.

Hannay (Robert Donat) is a typical Canadian in London on business when he goes to a music hall to see some vaudeville-type acts perform. During the set by Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), the man who can remember anything, a fight breaks out in the unruly crowd and gunshots ring out. Hannay escapes into the street on the arm of the pretty Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who asks Hannay to take her home with him.

Annabella is not after what you, or Hannay, thinks she is after. Annabella was at the show to try and stop a state secret from leaving Great Britain. She is a spy who caters to the highest bidder, and is trying to get to Scotland to contact a gentleman there who knows more about the case. The couple retires for the night (in separate bedrooms), but someone stabs Annabella to death and Hannay escapes the two men who were following them earlier that evening.

Hannay wants to go to the police, but ends up on a train bound for Scotland himself. He is suspected of Annabella's murder, and now being pursued by the two men (foreign agents), and the police. On the train, he tries to find help from Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who does not believe him and turns him in. He escapes into the Scottish countryside, and eventually finds the man Annabella was looking for. The climax takes place in the packed London Palladium. As with complex mysteries like this, I cannot give away too much information or else it would spoil the entire film.

"The 39 Steps" is one of many "innocent man on the run" films Hitchcock would direct over his career, and this is right up there with more expensive films starring James Stewart or Cary Grant. Robert Donat is handsome and winning as the lead, looking like the theoretical love child of Liberace and Errol Flynn. Madeleine Carroll is lovely, and a perfect foil for Hannay, rightly not believing him.

Most impressive here is the screenplay and direction. The supporting cast are not just figures who show up to move Hannay and the story along, but well drawn characters who are all memorable. Watch for the isolated farm couple Hannay stays with, played by John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft. Or the Professor's family. Or Annabella. Or the two women's underwear salesmen on the train. They all could have been given more scenes and dialogue, but they are perfectly written in their respective parts, and never seem "thrown in" just to be there.

In the 1930's, film makers were still getting used to working with sound, and there are some real clunkers out there from the period. Hitchcock shows grand finesse with his camera, using stunning movements and great cinematography. The sound is actually pretty good for this period of film, and the pace is just as quick as any film released today. The only two drawbacks are a badly done special effect involving a flying machine, and having Hannay "remember" clues Annabella gave him, but these are both brief and minor. The final shot of the film says so much about Hitchcock's favorite innocent man theme, it is beautiful.

"The 39 Steps" is one of those films I am sure you have passed over at the video store on the way to something else you really wanted to see. Go back and check it out, it is a wonderful eighty or so minutes. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Hot Sex Does Not a Good Film Make- But It Certainly Helps: "3-Way" (2004)

The old film noir standbys are dusted off and presented for the viewer's pleasure- sex, murder, double crosses; and yet through it all Gina Gershon somehow manages to keep her clothes on.

Lew (Dominic Purcell) is a handsome thug with a run of bad luck. His wife Janice (an unrecognizable Roxana Zal, in case you were wondering what happened to her) has just dumped his loser butt. He does a little dumping of his own, tossing the bullet riddled bodies of Janice and her new boyfriend in the Pacific Ocean. Eight months later, Lew lives next door to an abandoned gas station keeping busy painting signs, avoiding the cops, and banging local realtor Rita (Joy Bryant).

One night, Lew overhears businessman Ralph (Desmond Harrington) and his girlfriend Isobel (Ali Larter) plot to kidnap and murder Ralph's shrewish wife Florence (Gina Gershon), whose family is rich. Lew decides to kidnap the kidnapped and keep the money for himself. Okey dokey, we've got a smart plan and nothing could possibly go wrong to spoil this.

Except...a very strange man named Herbert (Dwight Yoakam) contacts Rita, wanting to buy the land Lew is living on. In actuality, Herbert is the brother of dead Janice's dead boyfriend, and he needs the brother's body to claim an inheritance. That's all well and good, except Lew may not have killed Janice and her boyfriend, and we still have a kidnapping that goes all sorts of wrong.

Director Ziehl has a lot of fun with the pulpy screenplay, based on a novel by Gil Brewer. His trippy visuals include fast and slow motion, and time lapse photography, all of which throws the viewer off kilter. I could have done without the endless shots of Lew getting a beer, and Rita storming out of his house in a sexy huff, but that might be blamed on the screenwriter. This is an exaggerated look at the lives of a bunch of losers, and Ziehl lets the audience in on his smirking attitude. The entire cast is good across the board. Bryant, Larter, and Gershon are no femme fatales, but the sexual tension radiates from them in waves. Gershon's role is pretty small, but she plays very well off of Harrington's idiotic Ralph.

Never you mind that Purcell looks like Jim Belushi on the DVD cover, he does a great job as Lew. Lew is about as smart as a bag of hair, and I was glad Purcell played him only slightly sympathetic. Harrington is a hoot as Ralph, and Yoakam downplays the psychotic Herbert, much to my relief.

So, all the elements are here, and they are all done well. Hot sex scenes, violence, suspense; all the well worn and tried and true ingredients; and therein lies the problem. From "Double Indemnity" to "Body Heat," from Bogie and Bacall to Travolta and Thurman, we have been down this dusty noir road before. While watching the film, I was reminded of many other "kidnappings gone awry" flicks like "Ruthless People," "Ransom," and "Trapped," to name just three. "3-Way" is no different. It is no better or worse than any of those other films, but it breezes through for almost ninety minutes, and then ends, becoming dangerously forgettable.

"3-Way" would be totally comfortable playing on Spike TV or Cinemax at two in the morning. You won't be bored, and it sure beats the hell out of juicer infomercials. (* * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

London Mauling: "28 Days Later" (2003)

Director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland deliver an intense shocker that never fails to scare.

Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma after being involved in a car accident. He is in a hospital in London, but everyone is gone. Not just everyone in the hospital, but everyone in London. He goes to a church, slowly piecing together what happened.

Some do-gooder animal activists accidentally released chimpanzees infected with a virus that can be passed through blood and saliva. The virus turns its victims into raving zombie-like creatures in a matter of seconds. Jim discovers some of these people at the church, and is saved by Selena (a wonderful Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley). After finding Jim's parents dead, Mark is killed by Selena after he becomes infected. This is not a typical virus where symptoms must be observed, if the the victim is not killed immediately, the virus will make the victim kill anyone around them, no matter who it is.

Selena and Jim meet Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns), and the four pick up a recorded radio message promising safety in northern England at a military base. They set out on a perilous drive, losing a major character along the way. The base is commanded by Major West (Christopher Eccleston), and the surviving trio soon find out infected zombies may be the least of their worries.

For a horror film, "28 Days Later" is extremely smart. The characters are all believable, especially when you put them in the context of "what would you do?" Jim tries to see the humanity in everyone, Selena is a hardened survivor who begins to soften, Frank puts his best face on for his daughter, who relies completely on him. Despite what you may think, however, this is not a character study. I have not been this scared while watching a movie in a long time.

As you may know now, the zombies do not shuffle, they RUN after their prey. I have only seen this once before, in the 1970's flick "Dead People" (aka "Messiah of Evil"), and it is very effective and more than creepy. The footage at the military base and the country house they have acquired is just as scary, but because of men losing their human abilities and giving into their basic desires, namely sex. Eccleston is an actor to watch, scoring a great performance in "Jude," and doing the same here.

The opening scene in London took me back to when I visited the city in the early 1990's. I literally stood in many locations where Jim is seen walking, making the film even more chilling. This was shot with video, and it totally works. The makeup and gore effects are top notch, but director Boyle does not overdo the shaky camera routine. Glimpses of the carnage are more than enough. The acting is excellent across the board, and the script keeps things moving along. I was never bored.

"28 Days Later" is scary as hell. Put it into any context you want, but it delivers on the basic promise of frightening you. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

You'll Have to Pay Me $200 American to Sit Through This Again: "200 American" (2003)

"200 American," a film from writer/director Richard LeMay, is as schizophrenic a piece of work as you will ever see.

Ad agency exec Conrad (Matt Walton) has broken up with his long term boyfriend Martin (John-Dylan Howard). He calls up an escort service and pays for sex from Ian (Sean Matic), an Australian. Could Conrad fall in love with this hustler? Before you settle in for a "Pretty Woman" lift, the film does a complete 180.

Conrad gets Ian a job as a photographer's assistant at the agency. There, Ian meets art director Michael (Anthony Ames), who is constantly at odds with the controlling Conrad. Conrad calls Ian in for sex from time to time, but Ian is engaged to be married to Sarah (Gail Herendeen). Before you settle in for "straight guy is really gay" story, the film switches gears again.

Michael and Ian are suddenly growing closer, and Conrad and Martin decide to give their relationship another try. Soon, Martin tries to get Conrad to lose his controlling ways, and Ian cannot seem to find the time to tell Michael he was a gay hustler who is marrying Sarah to stay in the country.

Just when you think you have the film down, it switches on you, and not to the benefit of the viewer. I liked Conrad at first, then hated him, then felt indifferent to him. Ian was a shallow hustler at first, then you like him, then indifference. Same story with Michael. I wanted to stay with LeMay's characters but they, and the film's tone, would change so drastically that I finally gave up and waited for the predictable conclusion.

LeMay does attempt some comedic moments, but they do not fit into the film well. Ian being constantly interrupted as he tries to tell Michael about his sordid past is strictly sitcom level stuff. There is a weird sequence involving white slavery that never pans out. Michael and Martin are stuck in an elevator with two women during an argument, but again the scene never plays as well as it should. One sequence that does get laughs is Martin and Conrad's visit to Conrad's grandfather, but this is the exception.

The authentic New York City locations are nice, as is some of the editing. Once in a while, a clock will jump back and forth by a few minutes and you can see a boom microphone shadow, but the film does move along, clocking in at under an hour and a half.

In the end, "200 American" simply lurches to far from one extreme to the other, grabbing the viewer by the hand and almost pulling their arm out of the socket. I finally made a stand, and cannot recommend the film. (* *) out of five stars.

Lucky 13: "The 13th Warrior" (1999)

Loosely based on Michael Crichton's novel "Eaters of the Dead," this is a triumph in the pre-gun action film genre.

Antonio Banderas plays an Arab who joins up with twelve Viking warriors recruited to fight what seems to be a band of cannibalistic monsters who are wiping out whole villages in the Norse land. Along the way, Banderas learns their language and begins to help the warriors, who doubt his fighting abilities because of his small horse and smaller sword. After repelling an attack, the warriors decide to track the cannibals back to their cave, where they kill a priestess. After making it back to their adopted village, they wait for the climactic, gory, and vengeful battle.

I think I liked this movie so much because it jumped feet first into the mayhem, and yet kept the picture centered around Banderas and the warriors. "Jurassic Park III" jumped into the mayhem, but then started killing characters off so fast, you did not care. Here, Banderas provides a solid anchor to the film, and his compatriots are very likeable.

Another plus: no forced romance. Banderas has a purely physical fling, but we do not have a Viking fall in love with a cannibal (ouch!) or Banderas discovering his paramour in his saddlebag at the battle so she can prove even women can fight people eaters. The story is very straightforward, think of it as a remake of "The Magnificent Seven" crossed with "Quest for Fire." Another plus is the fact that the Vikings do not suddenly invent the world's first grenade or a machine gun that shoots horse dung. They have swords and arrows. They fight with swords and arrows.

The location filming in British Columbia is breathtaking. The movie is very cloudy, dark, and grim, and this works. Jerry Goldsmith's score enhanced the creepiness of every scene, and McTiernan proves he can direct some excellent action films that have more behind them than just explosions (like the first "Die Hard", although avoid "Nomads").

I think the studio marketing department screwed up this film. I expected a weak comedy about peace lover Banderas trying not to fight in a war. The ad campaign never mentioned who the enemy was, or even what time period this took place in.

I think action and Crichton fans will be impressed with "The 13th Warrior." I know I was. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Oh, Deer: "13th Child" (2002)

Southern New Jersey is the location of a horrible scourge that is sweeping the country maiming everyone in its path- yes, micro budget horror films shot on video.

New Jersey state attorney general Murphy (Lesley-Anne Down) sends underling Kathryn (Michelle Maryk) on an assignment. Twenty years earlier, Murphy's father was lost in the woods while looking for local mythic monster the Jersey Devil with his police partner Riley (Robert Guillaume). Riley went nuts after that night. Mutilated body parts are turning up in the woods today. The Devil has been in the woods for over two hundred years, the thirteenth child of a Native American shaman who is avenging his death using shape shifting abilities. Why he doesn't shape shift into a normal looking guy is beyond me.

Kathryn goes and meets with park ranger Ron (Christopher Atkins) and NYPD cop on special duty Mitch (Gano Grills). Kathryn and Ron may have been involved once, but that subplot is not pursued. They visit with the mysterious Mr. Stroud (Cliff Robertson), who knows more about the Jersey Devil than he is letting on. Kathryn conducts her investigation as local townsfolk end up killed, or scared out of their minds at seeing the giant creature lurking in the woods.

Cliff Robertson? Christopher Atkins? Robert Guillaume? Lesley-Anne Down? What are these name actors doing in this goofy slop? Robertson's name is also on the writing credits, let's hope he is not responsible for his sleep inducing conversations with Kathryn. The writers may have thought Shroud's ability to quote from the dictionary was menacing or eccentric, it just comes off as dumb.

Atkins as Ron is not given anything to do. He is a supporting character to Maryk's Kathryn, but their history is never explained. Robert Guillaume is also at a loss as Riley. The screenwriters jump back and forth in time almost immediately, which quickly confuses the viewer. Has Riley been locked away in the asylum all this time? Why does the Devil choose now to kill all these people?

The gore effects are okay, but some of them are actually real. According to the end credits (see, it pays to watch them all the way through), actual roadkill deer were used in many scenes. How would you like to be that guy? "Okay, Ted, put a hook through the dead animal's haunches, then tear the carcass in half, and baggie up the innards for the next shot..." The direction is okay, for shot on video. The Devil itself looks like a walking coat rack, and the director wisely keeps the monster in the dark through the whole film. The number of false endings rivals "The Talented Mr. Ripley," there is even dialogue over the end credits!

The scariest aspect of this film (full title: "13th Child: The Legend of the Jersey Devil Volume 1") is the threat of a Volume 2, "Kill Bill" this ain't. Stay out of the southern New Jersey pine woods, stay away from Cliff Robertson, and stay away from this film. (*) out of five stars.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Monkey See, Monkey Do: "12 Monkeys" (1995)

Never having been a huge Gilliam fan, I avoided this film like the plague (sorry) when it first came out. Maybe only now I was meant to enjoy one of the best science fiction films of all time.

James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a convict in the future. Mankind has been driven underground in 1997 by a virus released by the Army of the 12 Monkeys, and Cole is "volunteered" to go back in time and find out just what happened. The problem is, time travel is not perfect, and Cole finds himself in 1990 instead.

He is institutionalized and meets Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), a psychiatrist he has seen before in a recurring dream. He also meets Jeffrey (Brad Pitt), a tic filled man who is crazy enough to believe Cole's stories about the future. Kathryn wants to help Cole, but he vanishes into the future again. The future scientists interrogate him, then accidentally send him to World War I before getting it right and having him come back to 1996. Things have changed drastically from 1990. Jeffrey is out of the mental ward, he was telling the truth when he said his dad was an important man, a bacterial scientist (Christopher Plummer). Cole finds Kathryn and kidnaps her, still looking for the 12 Monkeys clues that will lead him to the deadly virus' origin. He will not like the answers.

It seems Jeffrey was listening too intently to Cole in the asylum, and is carrying out his plan to destroy the world with a virus. Kathryn does not believe Cole, just as Cole decides he likes the pre-viral world and begins to convince himself he is insane so he can stay. He disappears again, then reappears in a nice juxtaposition where Kathryn believes the virus story, but Cole convinces himself he made it up. The two then try to stop Jeffrey, and the murder of five billion people.

Bruce Willis plays James Cole so well, I wish he had received more praise. He has many great scenes, but my favorite is when Cole is riding in the back seat of Kathryn's car, breathing the fresh air and listening to the music on the radio. The joy on Willis' face is so sincere, I smiled. Madeleine Stowe also gets to cut loose here, totally believable as a psychiatrist. She is horrified at Cole's behavior, but her attraction to him works too. Brad Pitt is very un-pretty boy, his Jeffrey seems like all nervousness on the surface, but there is an edge underneath that is a bit unsettling.

David and Janet Peoples wrote the script from the film "La Jetee," and the screenplay ought to be studied in universities around the country as a model for superior construction. The movie never dulled, using Cole's recurring dreams and his interrogations in the future to fill in blanks. It is great, and the script is the one thing I usually find wrong with a film. Gilliam's direction is not aloof, irresponsible, or as boring as I have found it in other films. He finds a great balance, letting his actors perform without showing off with his camera. "Restrained" might be a word to describe his direction, although it is so full of imagery, that may be all wrong. The art direction and set decoration are astounding.

"12 Monkeys" is not "Outbreak," it is wonderful. I came to care for these characters, and no one involved takes a wrong step anywhere. In the age of George Lucas' new empty "Star Wars" special effects extravaganzas, here is science fiction with a brain, and sci-fi/horror/fantasy geeks like me have reason to rejoice. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Let Me Count the Ways: "101 Love Positions" (2001)

When I saw this video, I thought, "what, two people are just going to show me over a hundred sexual positions in the course of two hours?" Well, yes.

A young, tan, rather hairless thin guy and a freckled girl who looks like Debra Messing dry hump for two solid hours. This is not hardcore pornography, nothing is really seen up close, no money shots, the two simply act out sexual positions. The video begins with a screen reading "1," the couple do some position for about a minute, then "2." I thought I would transcribe my copious notes into this review, giving you insight into what I write and how I observed the video. The numbers on the left denote the sexual position, and then my comments:

1- Oh, yeah, here we go
2- Did he just bite her ear?
3- She has a tattoo
5- Hey, that's just a variation on number 4
8- I'm bored
10- Where did the couch go?
14- No freaking way
15- If I could bend like that, I wouldn't need a sexual partner
17- What is this, gym class?
19- That's just 18, from another camera angle
21- They have somehow managed to have sex out into the backyard
24- I've done that...with a turkey wishbone after Thanksgiving dinner
25- I doubt I could use mine to lift a whole person
28- There's the couch
33- Where's her other foot?!? Oh, there it is
37- Isn't that assault?
47- We're at 47? Did I fall asleep?
51- Over half way there!
52- They're back on the porch
53- C'mon, honey, let's go outside and I'll dangle you off the front door for all the neighbors to see
61- Are those bruises?
64- Why do the people next door to me have a dog? Dogs aren't allowed in my apartment building
68- I am laughing, I swear
69- What they are doing is not what anyone else associates with the number 69
71- He just bit her foot
72- No freaking way
76- The dog next door finally stopped barking
79- Two killed in bizarre sexual position video accident, film at eleven
84- The end is near...so to speak
88- And now we found an outdoor table
90- He just bit her back
93- I am laughing again
94- NOW we find the swimming pool?
99- I thought you couldn't have sex in the pool for fifteen minutes after you ate, or else you'd cramp up
101- In or out, buddy?

I cannot believe I watched the whole thing. Before you get too excited, there is no oral sex. They may boast that there are over one hundred positions, but actually only a couple of dozen are done with little variation. The two cast members, uncredited, probably shot this in an afternoon. They both look tired, and their hair is frizzed and dried out. There is no sound from them, just badly done new age music, so when they speak, your lip reading might pick up "I love you," "stop biting me," or "we're only in the mid-40's?" The positions are not named, either, so be careful if you tell your partner "tonight, I want to do number two on you," and others overhear. Same sex partners look elsewhere, too. This is man and woman illustrating safe procreating sex (badly).

"101 Love Positions" is supposed to bring couples together and enrich their relationship. Too bad a video celebrating closeness is so anonymous and devoid of feeling. (*) out of five stars.

Out, Out Damn Spot!: "101 Dalmatians" (1996)

Disney plumbs the depths of their overrated animation and creates a one hundred minute commercial for their dalmatian products.

Glenn Close perfectly embodies Cruella DeVil. She is the fashion designing boss of Anita (Joely Richardson). Roger (Jeff Daniels) has a dalmatian, like Anita, but he is unsuccessful as a video game designer- living in that hotbed of video game designing- London.

Anita and Roger meet overly cute, and their dogs Pongo (his) and Perdy (hers) fall in love, too. Anita and Roger marry, and get pregnant. Pongo and Perdy marry, and get pregnant. Poor Perdy squeezes out fifteen puppies, under the watchful, slumming eye of Joan Plowright, playing Nanny.

Cruella returns and offers to buy the puppies. She was inspired by one of Anita's designs and plans to make a giant fur coat out of dalmatian puppies. She and her henchmen have been collecting puppies, and these final fifteen will give her her frock. Anita and Roger do not sell.

The puppies are dognapped by henchmen Jasper (Hugh Laurie) and Horace (Mark Williams), who look exactly like their animated counterparts from the better Disney film. The very long finale is one giant rescue scene, as the puppies are helped by other animals to escape, with Cruella, the henchmen, and a psychotic mute taxidermist named Skinner (John Shrapnel) on their collective tails.

Screenwriter John Hughes apes his "Home Alone" ingredient of having grown men injured by cute creatures so often, I though I was watching an unofficial sequel. Director Stephen Herek is no Chris Columbus, however. While Columbus can direct (usually), Herek is all over the place, not quite sure what he should be capturing in order to double over the audience with laughter. The scene where Anita and Roger meet after wrecking their bikes thanks to their runaway dogs is milked for all it is worth and runs way too long. The editing is not tight, as Herek switches back and forth between multiple cameras, and capturing extreme close-ups of "funny business" instead of just letting the actors be funny.

Daniels and Richardson get lost in the shuffle, making no impression on the audience whatsoever. Glenn Close is just right for the part, with some amazing costumes and hair, but she seems reined in as well. The film makers cannot decide if their audience is innocent children or their tired parents. Some of the dialogue is harsh, like the villains' plans for the puppies, but that is offset by sugar coating too many scenes (including the finale).

There are also a couple of clips from other Disney films in the movie, but this does not seem like an inside joke so much as free advertising for other Disney videos.

In the end, "101 Dalmatians" fails to deliver on its intent. Close almost breaks free from the shackles of marketing mediocrity, but the real loser here is the audience. The puppies are adorable as hell, though. (* *) out of five stars.

Embracing the Fall: "...Around" (2010)

As a fan of the documentary "Cinemania," I am aware of a segment of the population that loves film. Films, movies, cinema, motion pictures- whatever you call it, it is the center of their lives. This kind of obsessive love of an art form is what I expected from David Spaltro's "...Around." In fact, I got a whole lot more.

Doyle Simms (Rob Evans) is a New Jersey-ite from a broken home itching to go to nearby New York City and enroll in film school. His home life is a nightmare, where he and his sister (Ali Tobia) are terrorized by a very bitter mother (Berenice Mosca). Doyle has a dream, no real life plan, and packs up his belongings in plastic bags and departs. His first year is a bit rough, he returns home for the summer, then heads back to New York for another eventful year.

This year, he was late with some paperwork and denied financial aid. Suddenly, Doyle finds himself homeless, paying his tuition with credit cards, but living out of public restrooms and lockers. He shoplifts, and begins learning how to survive on the street, thanks in part to Saul (Ron Brice), who has accepted his lot in life and wishes Doyle would accept the same fate. Doyle gets an awful part-time job in a restaurant and meets (again) Allyson (Molly Ryman), a wannabe actress who he has already seen nude thanks to our hero conning himself into an anatomy drawing class at his art school. Allyson is very weary of the charming Doyle, but eventually warms up.

Doyle keeps returning home to be berated by his increasingly unstable mother, then flees back to his new burgeoning relationship with Allyson. He eventually saves up enough for a tiny apartment, keeps trying to come up with a film thesis, but in his brain, he is still "homeless," feeling trapped when inside. Saul's forecast of "Movie Star"'s life (Saul nicknamed him after hearing Doyle is in film school) looks like it is coming true. Despite new friends and surrogate family members, Doyle's life is not coming together as he (and others) imagined it would. It would take a real family emergency for him to reluctantly change, and even then the transformation is both difficult and partially incomplete.

Writer/director David Spaltro based his film on actual experiences, and it is clear the he is showing us his story. He tells us in his film that everyone has a story, but never crosses into touchy-feely territory (unexpectantly). I've never been homeless (came close a couple of years ago), only went to film school for a semester (all film study courses, never touched a camera), and I am divorced (and not dating), but I still completely associated with Doyle's outlook on life, and those life experiences. The film is dark and depressing, but I found it watchable, as Spaltro gets the audience to care about someone who many would have written off a long time ago.

Rob Evans as Doyle is excellent. While some of the casting and aging is a little awkward with the cast, Evans and company carry the picture. Molly Ryman is also wonderful in her role, never idealizing Allyson as an unattainable love interest. Ron Brice and Marcel Torres add gravity as Doyle's friends, and Spaltro gives them great material, so they never become just "supporting friend characters." Mosca is also great, her scenes with Evans in the hospital are also familiar and universal, even though I have never experienced anything like them in my personal life. Spaltro's direction is fantastic and the editing is very professional, making good use of what he shot.

My only complaints concern technical aspects, really. Some of the dialogue is a bit hard to understand, and a few scenes sag here and there (especially the Mona the dancer subplot, which seems unnecessary). There was some confusion about the wrap around scenes on the bus (too few). I like that Spaltro used actual New York City locations, and wish more productions would. The city has a look and feel that cannot be duplicated in Toronto or other stand-ins.

The title "...Around" comes from an answer Doyle gives when asked where he lives. The film is so much more than a story of a homeless guy who gets through film school. It addresses the definitions of friendship, family, and life. Spaltro and his cast and crew do a nice job, creating characters I came to care about. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Edward Albee: A Singular Journey" by Mel Gussow

Albee, the author of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," and other plays, is given a deluxe biographical treatment here from a man who has known him for almost forty years...and sometimes worships him a little too much.

Albee was adopted by a wealthy, emotionless set of parents. His father, Reed, was absent, and his mother, Frankie, was cool and detached. This upbringing, where he was seen more as a possession than a family member, would, of course, affect his writings. Constantly kicked out of schools, and never graduating from college, Albee turned to writing, his first success being "Zoo Story."

"Zoo Story," a short play about a fateful meeting of two men in a park, received mixed notices from assorted playwrights and critics. Here, biographer Gussow overextends his protection of his subject too much. He dismisses the honest critiques of two playwriting giants- Thornton Wilder and William Inge, because they did not understand or like Albee's works. However, a bland positive response by Samuel Beckett is treated like a Dead Sea Scroll, to be picked apart and treasured. I have read "Zoo Story," and it is wordy and preachy.

Albee's next big success was "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," which was turned into the powerhouse film by Mike Nichols. Again, Gussow is flagrant in his criticism of someone involved with the film in order to placate Albee, and here, Nichols. The film's screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, is harshly criticized for opening the play slightly, yet just copying Albee's play. The bio's author, and Albee, make a point of needling Lehman's screenwriting credit on the film. Mike Nichols' former partner, Elaine May, copied the French film "La Cage Aux Folles" word for word, adding what could be described as copious scenes at best, then took a big giant screenwriting credit for Nichols' "The Birdcage." Watch both of those films back to back sometime, it is eye opening.

Gussow also fumbles in his outline of Albee's life. In Albee's less successful years, he is writing weird experimental plays with subjects like a man with three arms, and one play where two of the characters are sea creatures. After mounting all of these failures, Albee is defended endlessly by Gussow, who suddenly contributes an entire chapter about Albee's alcoholism. The alcohol is both a reason his plays were not celebrated, and a defense of the brilliant man.

The entire beginning of the book chronicles the complete lack of love Albee's parents had for him, yet the death of Albee's father is glossed over, barely mentioned. I had to reread the sentence a few times, since no followup is made about Albee's reaction. A whole chapter is devoted to his mother's demise, and her revenge on her own son in her will. More is written about one of his former lovers and honest critics, a frustrated musician. This "A Star is Born" redux is written about nicely.

Gussow does do well in describing Albee's assorted forays into theater, as playwright and director. Dirt about Donald Sutherland and Frank Langella is dished around. The bio's author is honest in Albee's lacking skills as a director, coming to the theater as a playwright and not an actor.

Albee, who prefers to be called a writer who is gay, as opposed to a gay writer, also has kind words for his longtime partner of over twenty years. Albee says a gay writer writes about being gay, whether the work is good or not is moot, since the writer knows the subject and is putting in the final word. A writer who is gay is not tied down to just homosexual topics, and is free to explore society without audiences looking for gay subtexts that do not exist. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a seering look at two heterosexual couples, the sexuality of the playwright is nonessential in light of his characters and their actions.

Gussow wisely keeps talk of Albee's lesser known plays, and the ones readers probably have not read anyway, to a minimum. Albee's triumphant comeback play, "Three Tall Women," is covered extensively. The play is about his mother, and so much more.

Reading this biography will make you curious to seek out some of Albee's other plays, just to see what makes him tick. Over eighty years old now, he is definitely an interesting man, and Gussow does catch that fact better than anything.  I recommend this book to theater lovers, and any writer who needs a little inspiration.  I give "Edward Albee: A Singular Journey" (* * * 1/2) out of five stars.

"How to Judge Motion Pictures, and How to Organize a Photoplay Club" by Sarah McLean Mullen

You remember the scene, I know you do. In 1989's "The Dead Poets Society," teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) is leading his new class in how to measure the enjoyment of a poem. The exercise involves graphs which students dutifully copied, and measurements strictly observed, when suddenly Keating insists that the students rip this section out of the textbook and toss it! Poetry cannot be measured like you would a temperature, or a quantity of liquid. It's inherent beauty comes from what it does to your head and your heart.

Well, while skulking around the local university library, I was browsing in the film books section (which is impressively diverse for a college with no film studies program). Tucked among the larger books by James Agee, and old Halliwell's Film Guides, I found a 63-page pamphlet entitled "How to Judge Motion Pictures, and How to Organize a Photoplay Club" by a woman named Sarah McLean Mullen. The pamphlet trumpeted its foreword (by a William L. Lewin) and was published by Scholastic, a weekly newspaper for high school students. I sat down to read, and found the copyright date for this revised edition- 1936...oh, boy, this was going to be good.

While the yawny foreword talked of Lewin's nationwide research into using films for education, Mullen's material was the best part to digest. In the back of the pamphlet, I found what Mullen has called a "Scholastic Score Card For Rating Photoplays." Ten aspects of a judged film is rated on a weighted scale, the scores are totaled, and the total weighted score, after a little more math, gives you a percentile rating that tells you whether a film is good or not. As an audience, we all have expectations when seeing a photoplay (their term for movies, and an irritating one at that), and the Score Card slices through all the physical discomforts we experience at the theater, giving us a true indication of a film's worthiness.

The ten items judged are: Entertainment Value, Basic Theme, Story, Title, Dramatic Plot Structure, Social Value, Direction, Characterization, Settings-Costuming-Make-up-Properties, Lighting and Photography, and Sound and Musical Effects. Interestingly enough, the sample Score Card printed is for a real 1935 film featuring Henry Fonda called "I Dream Too Much." Someone named Syms C. Armstrong of the Burr High School Photoplay Club paid 35 cents to see this, and the film's final percentile score is 63-1/3% (Mullen warns us that very few ever pass the 90% mark, much less score a perfect 100 percentile). When I looked "I Dreamed Too Much" up on IMDB.com, only a few hundred people had seen it, but it's weighted average score was 5.5 out of 10. Apparently, Syms found more to like seventy-five years ago than today's jaded audiences.

So, which film should I test Mullen's hypothesis out on? Last year's Best Picture Oscar winner? A contemporary film from Frank Capra or John Ford? No, no, no. I'm going for a short film, so I can look back and forth between Mullen's ingredients for good photoplay-making, and the screen. Yes, I believe 1987's "Gent Video Centerfold #4: Stacey Owen" on VHS will do just fine. Don't judge me.

The video is just twenty-six minutes. For Entertainment Value, a big-busted Scottish lass waking up nekkid and going through her day before posing for a pretend photo shoot does have some Entertainment Value. On the +3 to -1 scale, I scored this a +1. The Basic Theme has no significance, so a -1. No Story, either, so we'll goose-egg that section. The Title onscreen is different from the video box, and none of them is listed on IMDB (yet), so I score it a -1. While the Dramatic Plot Structure is stupid, there is some, so +1. Social Value? Um, yeah, zero. Direction gets a +1, Peter Kay does his job and shows off every aspect of Owen's physical talents. Characterization is supposed to include Acting and Speech. The film is narrated by Owen, and photographer James Campbell, but Owen doesn't do very well even playing herself, so another zero. The Settings, Costumes, Make-Up, and Properties are all consistent with a direct-to-video centerfold tape that served as an introduction for Owen to eventually move to more hardcore efforts, so a +2. Lighting and Photography were both blinding and bleached out, so another zero. The Sound and Musical Effects were horrendous. When Owen isn't pleading with you to look her up the next time you are in Scotland, some song I think was called "When a Woman's Alone" assaults your ears. Definitely, a -1.

Now then, I multiply the scores by the weight, add the weighted scores, and then divide the total by three. According to the Sarah McLean Mullen Scholastic Score Card For Rating Photoplays, "Gent Video Centerfold #4: Stacey Owen" gets a pitiful 8.33%. Sorry, love.

The rest of the pamphlet covers how to start a photoplay club in high school, which involves complicated parliamentary procedures, and sexism (girls will appreciate the social aspects of the club, while boys will be more interested in how the film equipment runs). The main focus is Mullen's formula, and it was a hoot to read aged passages like "we are all familiar with climaxes. We have sat breathless during many of them, and have slumped back with a sense of deep relief when they were over," which had me laughing so hard, I did slump back.

I thought about following the inspiring civil disobedience of John Keating, and ripping this pamphlet to shreds, but this was the original 1936 copy. It is so old, I looked at the yellowed library card in back, and it was signed by a humanities professor who taught at the university so long ago, they died, and then had a building constructed and named for them over thirty years ago. I think I'll hold onto my Score Card, though, putting it up on the fridge alongside Syms C. Armstrong's "I Dream Too Much" judgement. That film, and "Gent Video Centerfold #4: Stacey Owen" received equal scores in Dramatic Plot Structure. Oh, Syms, if you only knew what photoplays would be like in seventy-five years!  * * 1/2 out of five stars.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

You Can't Make Public Domain Watchable, Either?: Hunky & Spunky & Friends- You Can't Shoe a Shoefly

Ella: The Life and Music of Ella FitzgeraldYou know, if a company wants to release public domain films to make a quick buck, then fine.  A public domain film is one that has no copyright owner, and can be recreated and shown again and again.  Digiview Productions puts many of these films on DVD, and sells them at giant retail outlets for a buck, hoping unsuspecting consumers will shell out the pocket change to either add to their DVD collection, or shut up the kids who see the cartoon cover.  This collection of animated shorts would be interesting in any other form, like cleaned up and released by a major distributor.  Instead, Digiview should be ashamed of themselves (or himself or herself, I think anyone with a disc burner and a copy of a public domain film can open a DVD business).

The films are listed in order, along with a brief review and a one-to-five star rating:

"Hunky & Spunky: You Can't Shoe a Horse Fly"
Directed by David Fleischer
Two donkeys (or horses?) are bothered by a hungry horse fly when they decide to stop for a nap.  I don't know who is Spunky and who is Hunky, but the gags are as weak as the annoying title song. (* *)

"Land of the Lost Jewels"
Directed by I. Sparber
Children Isabel and Billy go to the bottom of the ocean to find Isabel's lost lucky pin.  Terrible picture quality and editing ruin an already sad piece of pun-filled animation.  (*)

"Boy Meets Dog"
Directed by Walter Lantz
Based on Gene Byrnes' comic strip "Reg'lar Fellers," little Bobby brings a dog home, and upsets a father who would today be considered abusive!  Bizarre, the stuff of nightmares.  (* *)

"The Goal Rush"
Directed by I. Sparber
Canine College and Alley Cat College meet at the Milk Bowl for a big football game.  Goofball stuff, but it does contain a couple of grins.  (* * *)

"Once Upon a Time..."
Directed by Mladen Pejakovic
A black dot on a white background transforms itself into a charming vignette about a baby and its parents.  Cute little story. (* * * *)

"The Invisible Moustache of Raoul Dufy"
Directed by Aurelius Battaglia
Little Raoul has blonde hair and blue eyes, "like a millionaire," and grows a light blond moustache and tries to become a painter.  Narrated like a story book, and nice enough with some appealing scenes until the abrupt ending. (* * *)

"The Tender Game"
Directed by John Hubley
Ella Fitzgerald, backed by the Oscar Peterson Trio, sings "Tenderly" as watercolor animation portrays life and love in a big city.  Simple and marvelous. (* * * * *)

"Freedom River"
Directed by Joseph Cavella
Deliriously simplistic fable about the arrogant people of an unnamed land who let their freedom go to their heads.  Solemnly narrated by Orson Welles. (* * *)

Now then, aside from the fact that all the films are animated, there is no reason why this diverse collection of films would be gathered together into one volume. This is a problem. I imagine Digiview grabbed a handful of films, spliced them together, and released it. Even the DVD cover is full of mistakes- it gets the opening film's title wrong, has the phrase "Hunky and Spunky- Yankee Doodle Donkey" on the spine, and unrelated artwork of a bulldog and the aforementioned donkey on the front. The back of the cover lists the films being color and black and white (all the films are color). The disc runs about an hour, including a strange collection of "previews" of other public domain flicks.

The sound is cranked up too loudly, and the picture quality varies from mediocre to awful. I am giving "Hunky & Spunky & Friends: You Can't Shoe a Shoefly" a ranking based on the average of the film's ratings, but Criterion Collection this ain't. Digiview, you kind of suck...(* * *) out of 5 stars.

Stuart Little: The Animated Series- "All Revved Up!"

Stuart Little / Stuart Little 2When I first wrote this review, North Dakota had just gone through a horrible blizzard that had me cowering in my apartment for a couple of days. I caught up on some reading, and watched a couple of my kids' videos with a critical eye. I have been a film critic for as long as I can remember, so the old instincts kicked in.

Stuart Little, the creation of E.B. White, really took off in a couple of live action films released a few years back. You see, Stuart Little is a mouse adopted by a human family. He has a Mom, a Dad, a brother named George, a sister named Martha, and a family cat named Snowball. Stuart can talk, is understood, and the family and those around him do not seem to notice that he is a mouse.

The third film in the series was computer animated and released straight to video, and this brief two dimensionally animated television series followed. Hugh Laurie, voicing Mr. Little, is the only cast member returning from the films. The other voices in the series kind of sound like Michael J. Fox, Nathan Lane, Geena Davis, and the other film performers, but are obviously not. Each episode is book ended by a computer animated Stuart giving a brief life lesson for the kids.

"Stuart Little: All Revved Up!" consists of three episodes, and no extras:

"The Meatloaf Bandit" (written by Melody Fox, directed by Bob Hathcock)
In the first episode, Stuart and George must protect the Little house from whomever is stealing meat loaves in the neighborhood. While the animation is okay, the story is too mild, resulting in a quiet boredom. Nathan Lane's Snowball the cat was ten times funnier than the series' imposter. On the 1 to 5 star scale, I give this a (* * *).

"A Model Driver" (written by Carin Greenberg-Baker, directed by Bert King)
A better episode than the first has older sibling George jealous of Stuart's miniature boat, car, and flying kite, and his ability to have more fun than a human boy thanks to his size. George decides to build himself a full sized car, and the Little parents worry. More laughs and excitement help, and kids learn that parents might look like they favor one child over another, but actually love them all equally...except in my family's case, where I am still the favorite. On the 1 to 5 star scale, I give this a (* * * *).

"Team Little" (written by Amy Wolfman, directed by Rich Wilkie)
The third and final episode has the Little family taking on another family that cheats in neighborhood games like three-legged races and water balloon tosses. This one is pretty amusing, thanks to Hugh Laurie's voice work, and the message for kids is demonstrated well. On the 1 to 5 star scale, I give this a (* * * *).

The DVD runs just sixty-seven minutes, and contains no extras. Kids wanting to read along onscreen are also out of luck since there are no subtitles recorded. While my then-eleven year old and then-seven year old boys were entertained, I doubt "Stuart Little: All Revved Up!" is at the top of their repeat performance list. Overall, I would give the whole collection a (* * * *) out of five stars.

"Bush Must Go" by Bill Press

George W. Bush has not been our president since January 20, 2009, the disease Bush Derangement Syndrome will be around for a long time to come.  Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS) is a mental disorder suffered mostly by Democrats.  They believe that everything wrong in the world is George W. Bush's fault.  War in Iraq?  Bush's fault.  9/11?  Bush's fault.  The economy?  Bush's fault.  Big giant hurricane come while Louisiana state government sat on their hands?  Bush's fault.  Dog just pee on the rug?  Bush's fault.  It is a victims' mindset that many liberals suffer from when afflicted by BDS.  The government coddles them, takes care of them, is smarter than them, and promises to give them everything they could ever need.  When a conservative Republican gets elected president, "independence," "self-reliance," and "personal responsibility" become evil buzzwords.  "Look, I bought a house!" becomes "It's Bush's fault the nefarious predatory lender didn't let me read my mortgage agreement thoroughly!" and so on and so on.

I thought it would be interesting in this era of Obama's "change" and "hope" (where Californians voted to "change" to a Democrat in the White House, then voted to "change" the law that allowed gays to marry; where Obama "hopes" his new cabinet nominees aren't all tax cheats) to look back at an early case of BDS- Bill Press, unashamed liberal and former cohost of CNN's "Crossfire."  Press, who is not a victim but only lives with BDS, since there is no cure, comes up with ten reasons George W. Bush was supposed to lose the White House four years ago: the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, Jobs, the Deficit, the Patriot Act, Crony Capitalism, Foreign Policy, the Environment, Broken Promises, the Credibility Gap, and a bonus reason- the "stolen" 2000 election.  While these are the chapter titles, Press likes to bounce around and combine the subjects.  I cannot go into all that much detail on each reason because they have been covered in dozens of books since this volume's 2004 copyright date.  I can go into Press' writing style, or lack thereof.

Instead of presenting reasons for a John Kerry victory in 2004 (Press probably couldn't find any), our brave author used anti-Bush books and websites to make the case that Bush cannot be reelected.  The bibliography and organizations/websites lists in the back of the book run nine pages and feature well known left wing names like Moore, Franken, Begala, moveon.org, and others.  Press even states that it does not matter what Kerry believes, BUSH MUST GO (he puts that phrase in all-capital letters at the end of each chapter, a mantra you come to hate until you see your next Obamantra like YES WE CAN or CHANGE or HOW AM I GOING TO PAY FOR ALL THESE PROMISES I MADE TO GET ELECTED??).

Press does not get specific with footnotes when citing Bush's evils.  We might get a speech date, book source title, or something equally vague.  This entire book's content feels like it was forwarded from an even longer email, and Press took out all the juicy bits to fit his needs.  Press' tome is a hissy fit in print.  He repeats himself often, uses personal attacks (I counted three or four Rush Limbaugh drug addiction slams), tries to sound tough with the "s-word", and basically throws a juvenile, published temper tantrum.  Strange to read in this bipartisan era of hope and change.

According to Press, Bill Clinton did no wrong, even when he did, and Al Gore's only flaw was giving up too easily in the Florida recount.  It was mind numbing to read about Bush's "errors," just to have Press gloss over Clinton's identical "errors."  Alright, one example...let me find it, this thing isn't even indexed, okay, page 75 in the Jobs chapter, Press writes: "Fact: George Bush did not inherit a recession.  The National Bureau of Economic Research, which keeps track of such things made it official: The recession started in March 2001.  George Bush took office in January 2001.  From the get-go, this was a Bush recession.  He had already spooked Wall Street after only two months in office."  Wow!  The truth is out!  The minute your hand hits that Bible and you are sworn in, you bear all responsibility and blame!  With this logic, Obama is already the worst president in history the minute he took that oath.  Funny, though, I remember Bill Clinton blaming Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush for all those deficits he got stuck with back in 1993, and Obama uses the word "inherited" more often than a Anna Nicole Smith estate hearing...surely Press wouldn't contradict his Bush recession myth in his own book...what's this?  On pages 115 and 116 in the Deficit chapter, Clinton ran deficits from 1993-1998, with surpluses only from 1999-2001...hey, Bush was in office in 2001!  What a great job he did!  For the record, every one of Carter's years in office was also marred by deficits.  When did Reagan bring that up?  Sure I can wait...the entire book is filled with this kind of contradiction.

Press also gets rabid about our environment.  Evil lumber companies are raping the land as coal burning electric plants spew poison into the air!  What many global warming advocates have not figured out yet is that they are doing more environmental harm than I am, while telling me how much environmental harm I am doing.  I checked, this book is printed on acid-free, but not recycled, paper.  How many trees had to die for Press to tell you Bush is in the lumber industry's back pocket?  Does your computer come with a hand crank?  Well that's okay, visit one of the many websites listed in the back of the book, burning precious electricity, to find out how Bush is too friendly with power companies.  The environmental double standard is maddening, from the "Today" show jetting all around the world in great big airplanes to cover how YOU are killing Mother Earth to Al Gore's limo service to and from lectures about how YOU are making us all sick with your combustion engines.  I have a feeling people are realizing greenhouse gases are not warming the earth as much as the hot air is.

We know from history that Press' book did not work, despite anti-Bush quotes from such credible moral men as Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd.  Of course, liberals argue that Bush stole the 2004 election, too.   Press's sour book, with his angry pinched face on the cover, went right back to the library donation drive the next week.  I just realized I may be the last person in the country to read this mad diatribe.

One last word before you crack your knuckles for the mother of all comments- I don't care and won't read them.  Conservatives are personas non grata, and I won't be baited into the same old tired "Bush is Hitler" arguments, nor link to fringe websites supporting your position.  I do not support our new president, I did not vote for him, and his first couple of months in office have only confirmed by beliefs about him.  Liberals have had a certain Theodore Roosevelt quote to themselves for the past eight years, excusing their hit jobs (like this book), so now let Libertarians and Republicans dust that sucker off and let it loose: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."  You keep drinking that Kool-Aid.  (*) out of five stars.

Nick Swardson's "Party"

Reno 911!: Reno's Most Wanted UncensoredStand-up comedians are subjective.  One man's funny (early Dane Cook) is another man's chore to sit through (Dane Cook's last concert on video).  So I was handed this album by a coworker, promising aching sides and private jokes upon its return.  Oh, we'll just see about that.

Nick Swardson is best known for playing gay prostitute Terry on "Reno 911!," as well as penning a few awful screenplays like "Grandma's Boy."  His stand-up persona is a pot smoking, booze-drinking slacker obsessed with any activity associated with the bowels.  The album is a recording of fifteen bits done in front of a live audience, plus two prerecorded skits.  While the bits are numbered on the back of the album, they seemlessly blend into his one stand-up concert.  The album opens with a pretty funny skit called "Blackout Morning," where a hungover Nick checks his answering machine and finds out all the horrible things he did the night before after getting smashed at a wine and cheese party.  Following this is the concert, where he tells more stories about drinking, passing out, and pot smoking.  While some of this is also pretty funny, some of it is also pretty "done to death" humor.  He unsuccessfully tries to justify using the words "retarded" and "gay" in everyday life.

The best material here seems to be stuff that is well rehearsed- the birthday gift of 20 pornos, the diarrhea cat, movie previews for films with blow-your-mind titles, all good stuff.  He falters (and seems to realize it) with a joke about babies and suicide, but gets right back in the audience's good graces with a story about ordering the album "Sound of the '80's."

His bit about being on "Wheel of Fortune" is a little long, as is ten minutes on old people, which closes out the concert.  The album ends with a little piece of Hell called "Cary and Mindy," a skit he recorded with David Spade.  If your humor doesn't rise above pre-teen gross-out level, then you'll love it.

Swardson's delivery is often good.  He has some clever ideas, and can read an audience well.  The problem is when he starts to ramble, filling the air with "that's weird" and other words we weren't allowed to write say as kids.  The concert album is an average effort, I laughed as much as I didn't, so I'll score it right smack in the middle with three stars.

The DVD includes Swardson's appearances on two episodes of "Comedy Central Presents" (these discs were released by Comedy Central Records).  The first, and better, show was taped in 2000.  Many of the jokes here are also on the album (seven years later?), but the other stuff is good.  Vanna White's job interview is kind of obvious, but his impression of an ape studying a family (like Jane Goodall observed the apes) had me laughing.  Describing video games he grew up on now that he is an old person was also clever, and seeing him actually do the jokes (the biggest drawback to the comedy album) shows he can mug with the best of them.  I'd give this one four stars.

The second episode was taped in 2006, and is not as good.  More obvious comedy comes from airport security signs (really, no one has had these exact same thoughts?), the "retarded" and "gay" defenses, and so on.  This one doesn't go as smoothly, except when he is mocking a giant photograph of himself as a child.  I'm going to have to go three stars on this one.

"Party" is an acquired taste.  Stand-up-wise, I never miss Dave Attell, Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, and the late Mitch Hedberg when they are on Comedy Central.  Swardson isn't terrible (ever see Charles Fleischer on "Late Night with David Letterman" back in 1990 or so?  The absolute worst stand-up performance ever put on television), but I can take him or leave him.  Considering the title of Swardson's latest comedy album, "Seriously, Who Farted?," I'll leave him.  * * * out of five stars.