Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Worst Western Ever Made: "Apache Blood" (1975)

This 1975 mess ranks up there (or down there) with the absolute worst films ever made, western or otherwise.

Bold, unimportant narration tells us that Chief Yellow Shirt is hunting down white men because they broke a treaty. He and all three of his braves find a small squad of U.S. soldiers and take after them. Among the soldiers is a mountain man who is attacked by a bear (in the funniest scene in the movie) and left for dead. He eventually gains consciousness and starts fighting off the Indians while trying to catch up with the soldiers. Eventually, both sides are killed down to Yellow Shirt and the mountain man, who now race across the desert and try to outsmart each other and survive wind storms, snakes, and hallucinations of their respective women.

I cannot give too much away from the ending because I am still trying to figure it out. Let me just say it is perhaps the stupidest plot twist of all time, and do not take this as a peaking of your curiosity to go find this thing. The editing seems to have been done with a chainsaw. This is beyond bad, this is so inept you will want to hurl things at the television, whether it be physical objects or your semi-digested lunch. The acting is terrible, the direction seems to have been achieved by my two year old, and the film is padded so heavily to stretch this to an hour and a half, you could use the screenplay as a flotation device in the event of a water landing.

How this was made, marketed, dubbed onto video, and found its way to my local video store is a great mystery that may never be answered through the coming ages, but I guarantee you will be hard pressed to watch a more idiotic example of film making. Also known as "Pursuit," this is a waste of time and money.

IMDB says no one in this went on to do anything else in film. This is probably true because if I ever see these people on the streets somewhere, I am demanding my $1.25 rental fee back. (*) out of five stars.

Ironic Title, You SHOULD Watch Anything Else: "Anything Else" (2003)

Iconic writer/director Woody Allen tries to do a modern romantic comedy that is surprisingly unfunny, and rips himself off in turn.

Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs) is a twenty-one year old comedy writer living in New York City. He meets sixty-one year old comedy writer David Dobel (Woody Allen), a paranoid teacher who stashes guns and survival equipment to protect himself in case the Nazis ever rise again. Jerry is in a committed relationship with the beautiful and sexy Amanda (Christina Ricci). Jerry fell in love with her at first sight, and once their whirlwind romance was consummated and they moved in together, trouble began. Jerry tries to hold his life together, dealing with such stock characters as Amanda's obnoxious mother, Laura (Stockard Channing), and his hopelessly inept manager Harvey (Danny DeVito). Jerry faces a life changing decision, whether to move to California to write for television with David or try to stick it out with the flaky Amanda.

For years, the new round of endless romantic comedies have sometimes ripped off Woody Allen. Urbane city dwellers who have apartment issues while seeing bored psychoanalysts are characters I have come to accept as par without really understanding, or caring, about them. "Anything Else" rubbed me the wrong way, all the way through.

I had the exact same reaction to Amanda as I did to Andie MacDowell's character in "Four Weddings and a Funeral"...what does this guy see in her? Ricci's Amanda starts out as the ideal woman, then the gloves come off and she immediately flakes out and becomes annoying. Deeper issues about Jerry's need for companionship at all costs are too evident in her character's change, I still liked looking at Ricci go braless more than caring about how she needs to cheat on Jerry in order to see if she could still have an orgasm.

Biggs is hot and cold as Jerry. Sometimes he takes his Allen impression way over the top (since all of Allen's leading men are basically playing him), but in other scenes his comic timing is dead on (trying to cover up his secret date with Amanda to his then current girlfriend). Allen miscasts himself as the brilliant but disturbed David. His paranoid fantasies are funny, his jokes about the rough school he works at are funny, but Allen delivers all the lines in the exact same way he has been delivering lines onscreen for almost forty years now. What Christopher Walken could have done with this part! Stockard Channing's Laura is straight out of a TV sitcom. Danny DeVito has the best scenes, a manager who has no business experience outside of the garment district, all of his stories and examples involve clothing. Jimmy Fallon is wasted in a cameo as one of Amanda's boyfriends, he looks completely lost.

Allen filmed a lot of the scenes in Central Park in what looks like summertime, and the film is nice to look at. Diana Krall plays herself, and jazz is sprinkled throughout, creating just the right mood. Technically, the film is very good, but all the pretty pictures cannot mask one of Allen's weakest scripts ever. Allen tries to one-up the cocaine scene from "Annie Hall," unsuccessfully, and how many times do we need to see the psychiatrist who sits by while the main character spills their guts out, only to ask the wrong question or tell them their time is up at the cusp of a breakthrough?

"Anything Else" caught me off guard, especially at how boring it sometimes becomes. The young cast seems willing, but Allen brings them down with limp execution. Anything else, indeed. (* *) out of five stars.

In Duh Nile: "Antony and Cleopatra" (1975)

The Royal Shakespeare Company brings this classic play to the small screen, an experience helped immensely by many familiar faces.

Summarizing Shakespeare, of course, is an exercise in futility, but here is the basic plot of the play: Marc Antony (Richard Johnson) is in Egypt, cavorting with the queen Cleopatra (Janet Suzman). He and his men are having way too much fun to follow the orders of the Emperor Octavius Caesar (Corin Redgrave, Vanessa and Lynn's brother) from Rome.

Antony is ordered back, where a deal is struck that he marry Caesar's sister Octavia (Mary Rutherford) and carry the Roman banner into many needed battles. Of course, his travels always take him back to Egypt, and the arms of Cleopatra. After this affront to the emperor, Caesar decides to war against Antony, whose armies are now hollow shells of themselves. Antony and Cleopatra's love cannot seem to hold up in the face of the impending doom, and Cleopatra strikes a behind the scenes bargain with Caesar.

In what he thinks is his last battle, Antony somehow manages to drive back Caesar's troops, but his world crumbles anyway after his right hand man Enobarbus (Patrick Stewart) deserts him, and he is notified that Cleopatra is dead (although she is not).

Because of assorted theatrical forays and reading, I am familiar with Shakespearean language, and can get the general meaning of his scenes. "Antony and Cleopatra" is not a work I was familiar with, aside from the title, but I found many similarities to both "Romeo and Juliet," and even the latter story about the mutiny on the HMS Bounty. The film itself is actually shot on video on an interior set. Scoffield's camera often hides this fact, but he does resort to too many close-ups from time to time. The running time is well over two and a half hours, so I imagine the play is filmed as it was written. The stage sets are impressive and expansive, giving the actors plenty of room to move about.

It is sad that Richard Johnson is probably best known for his appearance in Lucio Fulci's "Zombie." He was very good in a supporting role in "Khartoum," and he is excellent here. While Suzman plays Cleopatra a little over the top on occasion, I liked her physical portrayal. She is not Elizabeth Taylor, but a more harsh and older queen, finding love in what would be the end of her life. Corin Redgrave is perfect as Octavius Caesar, I liked watching him even in scenes where he had very few lines. His regal reaction to the drunken celebration of his sister's marriage to Antony is priceless, but his character contains more than enough menace to render Caesar a force to be feared.

In the supporting cast, Patrick Stewart is very good as Enobarbus, addressing the camera here and there. "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"'s Joe Marcell is admirable as Antony's servant Eros. It is interesting to spot him as just another extra in the first half of the play, and watching his character develop to the point where a despondent Antony orders Eros to murder him after hearing of Cleopatra's (fake) death. Future Oscar winner Ben Kingsley is in a couple of scenes as one of Caesar's messengers, Thidias. Stewart and Kingsley both sport full heads of hair, which is disarming at first.

I never read the play, but this version of "Antony and Cleopatra" manages to move and entertain the viewer. This is good filmed Shakespeare, not up to the dizzying experience of Roman Polanski's "Macbeth," but it does stand on its own. I do recommend it, forsooth! (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Cabin Sever: "Antichrist" (2009)

I hate Lars von Trier. Among some of the worst films I have ever seen rest "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark," and the artsy-putrid "Dogville." He sits in Europe, creating Cannes Palme d'Or-baiting anti-American pablum, while the American public go to drivel like "Transformers" and Shia's stabs at credibility...okay, maybe von Trier has a point.

I DVR'd "Antichrist" off Independent Film Channel, and watched it this morning. Damn you, IFC, for interrupting the bottom of the screen with graphics for moronic series like "Food Party," and the only semi-funny "The Whitest Kids U'Know." Really? During a watershed landmark film, sure to be argued about for years to come, I need to know that the new "The Whitest Kids U'Know" season is coming up, featuring Trevor Moore's rarely funny songs?

I did not plan on reviewing "Antichrist," walking in a light rain shower to the seemingly abandoned university library after I finished watching the film. I retrieved the Sep.-Oct. 2009 issue of Film Comment magazine, and right on the cover was the bony bloody beauty of Charlotte Gainsbourg, eyes looking to her right. The still from the film reminded me of what I saw, and almost reconfirmed my inability to review this film; yet after reading Larry Gross' long and interesting article on the film, I decided to give it a shot.

An unnamed married couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) have a stolen sexual moment together. Their toddler son, the only other cast member, tumbles out of their apartment window to his death. Dafoe, a therapist, retreats to the family's cabin in the woods with the still grieving Gainsbourg. Being a better therapist than a husband, Dafoe tries to draw Gainsbourg out, and the two begin manipulating each other psychologically. Eventually, violence is resorted to, as von Trier grabs the viewer by the throat and makes us watch wide-eyed at what seemingly rational and educated human beings are capable of doing to each other and themselves.

Across the world, I am sure von Trier has generated many a thesis and dissertation with this one film. I have a feeling everyone with an opinion about the film will have a different take on it, with none of them being wrong (even among my fellow critics here). For the purpose of this review, I will stick to the filmic aspects. Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg are astounding. Dafoe is one of the most interesting actors working today, unafraid of this intense material. I only remember Gainsbourg as a demure "Jane Eyre" a few years ago, but she, too, inhabits her character. I don't know who else was approached to play this hopelessly damaged couple, but I cannot imagine any other performers doing this. Dafoe and Gainsbourg turn in the best performances of their careers.

Von Trier's screenplay is like none I have seen filmed. We have a psychological domestic drama played against a Sam Raimi/"Evil Dead" backdrop. The scary monsters aren't under the bed, and aren't hiding in the woods. They are in the heads of our couple, and manifest themselves in Nature itself. I've never been a fan of von Trier's "kinetic" direction, the shaky Dogme crap drives me nuts, but this style doesn't seem as pronounced here. I don't know if von Trier's confidence in his own material finally peaked, but I really appreciated it. The film's look is beautiful and dark, the music and sound are deft, and the other technical aspects are hard to forget.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that through this film, von Trier had shaken him (the quote is on the back of the aforementioned Film Comment). I would add to that statement and say that I can't shake this film. I am a fan of the obscure and avant-garde, I am currently touring the short films of James Broughton on DVD, but "Antichrist" has affected me like no film since "Pixote." This film is infuriating, vile, and nihilistic, but will also ruin other films for you (at least for a few days- how can I sit through "Marmaduke" after this?).

If anything, this film will hopefully make others seek out more cerebral fare, or in my case, crack open that long neglected screenplay and work on it, knowing that I am God in that little paper universe, and if von Trier can write about a woman mutilating her own genitalia, I shouldn't shy away from writing an explicit sex scene (even if no one ever reads it after I'm gone).

I still hate Lars von Trier, but thanks to "Antichrist," I now respect him. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Next Time, Another Movie: "Another Time, Another Place" (1984)

Writer/director Michael Radford captures the cold and misery of WWII Scotland perfectly in this pretty but dense romance.

Phyllis Logan is Janie, a typically sexually frustrated farm working housewife looking to get out of her dead end station in life. A trio of Italian prisoners of war are trucked into the tiny town to help out the local farmers. There is the bespectacled Umberto (Gian Luca Favilla), the smoldering Paolo (Claudio Rosini), and the despondent Luigi (Giovanni Mauriello). As the trio have settled next door, Janie visits and tries to be polite, until Luigi makes a pass at her. She refuses, but the grunt farm work translates into grunt sex work with her ham fisted husband, so eventually she relents.

The viewer is taken aback right away at the affair, since it is assumed that hunky Paolo would win out over mousy Luigi. Eventually, Luigi is getting bored, and starts flirting with Else (Carol Ann Crawford). In one of those "it only happens in the movies" moments, Luigi and Janie meet in the woods for one last roll in the ravioli at the exact same moment Else is being raped by an unidentifiable Italian POW. Janie must then decide, come forward as Luigi's alibi or stay quiet, since the war is just over anyway and she will never see her lover again in either case.

The film, despite some absolutely breath taking scenery and cinematography, is also deathly dull. Janie and the prisoners do act naturally around each other, tentatively becoming friends. The entire rape subplot can be seen coming a mile away, and the movie's ending leaves more than a little to be desired.

Phyllis Logan is excellent as Janie. She resembles Emma Thompson, and her haggard appearance does not seem to be an act. The farm work dramatized here looks awful, I will never bitch about my warehouse job again. The rest of the cast is alright, although some of the Scottish accents take a while to comprehend. The Italians' conversations are never subtitled, letting the viewer try to figure out what is being said just as Janie must.

"Another Time, Another Place" is a beautiful film to look at. Once the plot tries to move, the whole thing dies, and by the end it resembles a badly written Harlequin romance novel. The scenery and Logan almost negate this, but only almost. (* *) out of five stars.

Another Sequel: "Another Stakeout" (1993)

I admit it. I liked the original "Stakeout." I saw it in its initial run in the '80's, and thought Dreyfuss and Estevez had some weird chemistry that worked. The script was a little routine, but with flashes of intelligence. Madeleine Stowe was cute, Aidan Quinn was a good villain, so the whole thing was pretty enjoyable. This sequel reunites the three elements that made the first one work: cast, director, and writer; something rare for sequels. So why does this outing stink so bad?

The film opens promisingly enough with Tony (Miguel Ferrer) trying to kill mob trial witness Lu (the always entertaining Cathy Moriarty). He gets a lot of federal agents and her boyfriend killed, but Lu disappears after a fiery explosion and some very good camera and stuntwork.

Cut to our heroes Chris (Richard Dreyfuss) and Bill (Emilio Estevez). They are chasing a baddie not related to the film's main plot, exchanging one liners and running around. Problems with this sequel are already evident. Chris and Bill are not funny here. Their dialogue seems forced, it does not flow naturally like the first film's did.

Chris and Bill are assigned to stakeout a house where Lu may be hiding after her disappearance. Also along for the ride is Gina (Rosie O'Donnell), an assistant D.A. with no prior police experience. Hope she doesn't mess anything up! The trio watches the house of Pam (Marcia Strassman, who has not aged since "Welcome Back Kotter") and Brian O'Hara (Dennis Farina). Sure, Lu might be there, but it's a long shot, she is probably somewhere else. Although if she were, we would not have a movie. Unless, the trio finds a bigger crime happening...no, that would have been more interesting.

Chris poses as Bill's dad, and Gina is the second wife. They do not really learn their fake backgrounds, because they obviously will not have any contact with the O'Haras. Of course, they do. Chris and Bill do not get along with Gina. Tony is also looking for Lu to finish the job. John Rubenstein is here in a completely unnecessary role as a prosecutor who is really in the mob's pocket. You may have figured out that Lu is at the O'Hara's, but director Badham's climax does not match the opening for sheer visceral excitement. Chris and Bill do not find Lu by lieu of the stakeout, but by an ineptitude not evident in the first film.

Who is to blame? The cast? Dreyfuss and Estevez go through the motions, but the humor is not there. Nothing flows smoothly, they overplay everything. There is a tedious running gag about Bill having to shave his mustache. Chris is trying to get back together with first film stakeout subject Maria (Madeleine Stowe). Hmm, a sequel where the couple from the first film has split up...I think the last movie series where the couple actually stayed together for the duration was William Powell and Myrna Loy in the "The Thin Man" series. Maria has turned into a shrew, so I did not care one way or the other.

The script is problematic. The crooked prosecutor, the hitman who can kill dozens of bit players but never gets that one fatal shot off against our heroes, the stressed police captain (Dan Lauria from the first film); these are all stock characters who even Syd Field must be tired of seeing. You really cannot blame Rosie, she gamely goes through her schtick, but Dreyfuss and Estevez are so busy with each other, O'Donnell is given no one to play off of. Strassman and Farina are blanks, dropped before the film's typical shoot-shoot-bang-bang finale.

John Badham...you know the name. For every good film he makes ("Saturday Night Fever," "Blue Thunder"), he matches it with a bad one ("Nick of Time," "Bird on a Wire"). In this sequel, he has a tendency to tilt his camera to the side, for no plausible reason. He tries to shoot this as a comedy, keeping every awkward scene Estevez and Dreyfuss needed to try to keep things light, when the editor should have shaved twenty minutes off of this.

"Another Stakeout" is a mess. Nothing works, which is a surprise since so many things from the first film advanced to the sequel. Thankfully, the series did die here, sparing us from such badly titled entries as "Still Another Stakeout" and "Stakeout Academy: Mission to Moscow." Treasure your goodwill for the first film, and ignore this one. (*) out of five stars.

I Just Want Y'all to Know This Film Made Me Ashamed to Be From Texas: "Another Pair of Aces: Three of a Kind" (1991)

This made-for-TV swill features a capable cast in a poorly directed police drama that makes "Walker- Texas Ranger" look like "Hill Street Blues."

Kris Kristofferson is Rip, a down on his luck Texas Ranger entertaining house guest and fellow Ranger Jack (Rip Torn). Well, Jack up and shoots a murderer who was released on a technicality and everyone, including uberhot FBI agent Susan (Joan Severance), starts looking for good ol' Jack.

No sooner than you can say "armadillo," Willie Nelson pops up as a wily old criminal who teams up with Rip, and the duo track Jack while Rip and Susan begin exploring each other's "credentials." There are a few weak shootouts, and lots of climactic twists and turns that make no sense.

I am a transplanted fifth generation Texan currently in North Dakota, but proud of my birth state. I lived there for years, and have family both residing in, and buried in, God's Country. Literally, every twenty seconds, the main characters in the film talk about the magic of Texas. The specialness of Texas. How being from Texas makes one blessed. After hearing this bunch of yahoos try to substitute praise of their shooting location for actual characterization, I had a Longhorn-sized headache.

The late Bill Bixby's direction is listless. Nelson has been good in films before, but here he annoys. The video box proudly displays its "Extremely Mature" rating from some film board somewhere, but the "strong sexual content" consists of some dark shots of Severance's boobs, in case you missed them in all her other direct to video roles.

"Another Pair of Aces: Three of a Kind" is a sequel to another television movie I have never seen. I have little reason to seek it out now. (*) out of five stars.

When Sequelitis Proves Fatal: "Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild" (2008)

While the word "subtle" doesn't occur to anyone witnessing the further adventures of Nico, Andy, Griff, and Jarod from "Another Gay Movie," I think writer/director Todd Stephens may have had a better sequel if someone had just said "enough already!"

Nico (Jonah Blechman), Andy (Jake Moser), and couple Griff (Aaron Michael Davies) and Jarod (Jimmy Clabots) head to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. There, they enter a "gays gone wild" contest, where the winner is determined by the most amount of sex a man can possibly have. Our heroes' main competition is Jasper (Will Wikle), constantly flanked by his cronies- Jasper Chan and Jasper Pledge. The Jaspers sabotage the boys, who all begin to question their hedonistic lifestyle.

Seems straightforward? A little meh? Don't fret. Perez Hilton plays himself, after getting konked on the head and finding Jesus. RuPaul is Tyrelle Tyrelle, the hotel's activity director. Scott Thompson is not given enough screen time as Andy's equally gay dad who happens to show up in Florida for the sex competition. Come on, Nico finds a mer-man and has a big musical number celebrating sexual urination. However...

A lot of the film is just not funny. Stephens wallows in vulgarity and gore (!) when it seems a punchline was lacking. While most of the cast is great (Blechman the only actor of the four leads returning from "Another Gay Movie"), Hilton's extended cameo is the same joke over and over. Any attempts at physical comedy thud instead of working.

Director of photography Carl Bartels' palette here is so lush and bold, I expected to see colors drip off the screen like spilled paint. Blechman's Nico reminded me of Hedwig, and Moser, Davies, and Clabots are so damn likable, I cringed at most of the material they were given. For the record, Will Wikle (as the flawless Jasper) is so funny he should get his own film- trust me, you know someone like him whether you are gay or not. The music is fun, especially the opening theme by one Nancy Sinatra, and the overly obvious product placement is a hoot.

Yes, there is more anal sex here than twenty showings of "Brokeback Mountain," and the explicit content may turn off the casual viewer. I like a good gay comedy as much as the next guy (see "Dorian Blues" or "All Over the Guy"), but Stephens went for the shock laugh and couldn't get me to smile. Also, for a big loud spoof, not much is spoofed.

"Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild" is like all the really dirty parts of all of John Waters' films gathered together without any context or story. Sorry, girls; but I do look forward to the concluding chapter of your planned trilogy. Outer space, you say? (* *) out of five stars.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ha-Ha-Huh?: "Annie Hall" (1977)

Yep, this is it. The film that beat "Star Wars" for the Best Picture Oscar for the year 1977. After seeing all five Best Picture nominees (the others were "Julia," "The Goodbye Girl," and "The Turning Point") for that year, "Annie Hall" is the worst of them.

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) lives in New York and falls in love with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Their romance affects his friendships, his life, and his career as a comedian. Alvy begins looking for parallels between Annie and his two ex-wives, waiting to see what will go wrong here, as well. The couple never seem right for each other, as Annie comes into her own.

While Allen can certainly write and direct a film, his screenplay here is a disappointment. Allen jumps back and forth in time, but without a reason. Maybe the flash and whistles were to cover the fact that the basic romance between Annie and Alvy is as compelling as watching paint dry. I did not care about these two people because Allen did not give me any reason to. The cast is certainly funny and charming, but that is a credit to the actors more than the material.

The film plays like a series of Allen's best ideas, full of gut wrenching laughs. Come on, his grandmother never gave him anything because she was too busy getting raped by the Cossacks? Annie's family's reaction to the Jewish Alvy is also classic. The film is full of "classic moments" that are wonderful when taken separately, but fail in the overall feel of the film (my identical reaction to "There's Something About Mary.") I kept getting this odd feeling that "Annie Hall" was trying to deceive me, like a bait and switch. You go in expecting at least a classic romantic comedy, instead you get the comedy and no desire to see these two people together in the end.

"Annie Hall" is one of the more average films in the Woody Allen filmography. You can spot themes that he will revisit time and time again. My two favorite films of his are "Manhattan" and "Radio Days." My two least favorite films of his are "September" and "Alice." "Annie Hall" falls right in the middle- simply average. (* * *) out of five stars.

"The Civil War: Strange & Fascinating Facts" by Burke Davis

Despite the title, these strange and fascinating facts may interest Civil War buffs, and not many others.

Davis, the author of several history books, takes the little stories and factoids he has collected in research and put them all here in small episodes. To appreciate the value of these stories, the reader should have more than a passing knowledge of the Civil War. Many names, dates, battles, and the like are tossed around by an author who knows his subject, and requires his readers to know some, too.

The stories here are very entertaining, covering subjects as varied as can be imagined. The Civil War was full of "firsts." Firsts include: successful submarine, hospital ships, tobacco and cigarette taxes, and presidential assassination. The book also mentions Confederate States president Jefferson Davis more than Abraham Lincoln, possibly because Davis is barely a footnote in high school history books today. Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses Grant, and Robert E. Lee are also profiled. One entertaining chapter debunks many myths surrounding Grant's drunken war behavior.

Davis also gets serious, writing about widespread venereal disease on both sides, and the atrocities committed on civilians, which was evident on both sides as well.

Davis' book was published in 1960, and once again the publishers have decided to reprint the book many times without updating it. Davis mentions the upcoming centennial of the war, and mentions descendants of the major figures of the war and what they are doing today, or at least today forty years ago. Another drawback here is the lack of an index, leaving a serious researcher to have to skim the book looking for useful information. The author also mentions prices for Civil War memorabilia at current auction prices...forty years ago. Davis writes that more people lost their lives in the Civil War than in all the wars from the Revolution to our most current conflict...Korea.

I will recommend this book as a cursory page turner. As a displaced Texan who descends from three Confederate soldiers (that I know of), I appreciated Davis' balanced view of both sides of the conflict. Too often today we lose sight of the fact that over 600,000 people lost their lives in this war, and not many people know much about it. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Garbo Garbles: "Anna Christie" (1930)

"The first film that Greta Garbo spoke in" is the only reason this old chestnut should be sought out.

Based on the play by Eugene O'Neill, New York City-based drunk barge captain Chris (George F. Marion) waits for his long lost daughter to arrive. He dumps equally drunk galpal Marthy (Marie Dressler), and Anna arrives in the form of Garbo.

Anna joins Chris on the barge circuit, and Chris loves having his daughter around. Anna begins to warm up to the father she has not seen in fifteen years, but she also has a deep dark secret. She was not working as a nurse back in St. Paul, she ran away from some amorous cousins on the farm and ended up in a brothel.

Anna and Chris rescue shipwrecked Irish sailor Matt (Charles Bickford), and Matt and Anna soon fall in love. There is no love lost between Matt and Chris, as both are protective of their good little girl. Marthy shows up long enough to make Anna feel guilty about her soiled past. Matt offers Anna a marriage proposal, and in the finale, Anna sits Matt and Chris down and has it out with the both of them. The final confession changes her relationship with both men.

Filmed in 1930, this movie does not move well. The script's origins are obviously stage bound, and Brown's direction never gets very imaginative unless Brown is allowed to take his camera out of the set. Nice scenes include Anna and Matt's date at the carnival, and a storm scene. Also interesting is seeing the New York City skyline of almost seventy five years ago. Frances Marion's script bogs down in slow scenes with bad pacing.

Garbo succumbs to theatrical acting, constantly grasping her hair and trying to wear her emotions on her sleeves. Bickford is okay as Matt, although he sometimes seems more concerned with getting his Irish accent right as opposed to understanding what his lines mean. Dressler plays Marthy for laughs, although this fat alcoholic woman is more sad than humorous. The early sound technology is horrible, and all the European accents are very difficult to understand. Brown also tries some backscreening processes that fail miserably.

This leaves George F. Marion as Anna's father, and he is incredible. He originated the role on Broadway, and played him in a silent film version, but his performance is fresh and likable. He is so comfortable as Chris, he makes the characterization effortless, as opposed to the often hysterical overacting of the rest of the cast.

Eugene O'Neill has been filmed better, check out John Ford's "The Long Voyage Home." The idea of a sullied woman trying to escape her past has been done before, and better.

"Anna Christie" should be avoided, unless you are a big Garbo fan, or would like to see Marion turn in one of the most underrated film performances of the 1930's. (* *) out of five stars.

Animal In-STINKS (giggle): "Animal Instincts- The Seductress" (1996)

Only in direct-to-video softcore porn could stupid films like this exist.

Joanna (Wendy Schumacher) is a world renowned best selling author/sex expert. She is very famous, but still finds time to entertain the little people by having sex in public places with total strangers thanks to her chronic exhibitionism. She meets Alex (James Matthew), the world renowned blind record producer/knife thrower. Don't you see the irony? An exhibitionist is dating a blind man! Don't the possibilities stun you?

I am not giving anything away here, but Alex's blindness is as real as Paris Hilton's sex appeal. He is faking and playing mind games with Joanna because...well, I don't know why and you won't care. Making Alex's character a record producer means Joanna gets to bed a bunch of musician stereotypes right in front of Alex, never questioning his poorly played infirmity.

Gregory Dark, renowned porn creator, Britney Spears' former music video director, and one of the sleaziest looking creatures on the planet, brings little visual flair to the stupid script. The screenwriter tries to say something about the state of relationships, but his thought provoking lines are delivered by actors who wouldn't get a callback for a kindergarten pageant about fighting tooth decay.

"Animal Instincts- The Seductress" also lacks the sexy Shannon Whirry of the first two "Animal Instincts" films, replacing her with a pouty Schumacher. Schumacher looks too much like a bitchy former coworker of mine to elicit any other feeling that contempt.

Slight film, slight review, unless dry humping and lousy music are your thing: in that case, just rewatch your prom night video (ohh, burn...)! (*) out of five stars.

Let's All Buy the Farm: "Animal Farm" (1954)

Based on the novel by George Orwell, this animated film is for adults and means just as much now as it did when released in the mid 1950's.

Manor Farm is run by the often drunk Farmer Jones. The neglected farm animals revolt, thanks to the inspiring words of an old hog, who dies and becomes a sudden martyr. The remaining animals adopt some simple rules, and get along swimmingly.

Eventually, the animal utopia begins to crumble. The remaining pigs, led by the tyrannical Napoleon, begin taking advantage of the others' hard work. They dispatch enemies as needed, but still have enough power to rally the troops to fight off a violent invasion by Jones and his drinking buddies. As the pigs begin trading with a shady businessman from the outside world, the animals finally come to their senses and do what they should have done long ago.

Finally, an animated film for adults that actually challenges the viewer to think. No Disney-like cute factor, no songs by aging white British rockers, this is a fascinating film. Orwell's book was written as a lambast against communism, fascism, and dictatorships in general, yet many of the pigs' selfish actions could be applied to modern government today.

In the United States, we get upset at every mention of pork barrel (ironic) spending, yet we send our representatives back year after year because it is always some other state or district's politician who is causing the trouble. "Animal Farm" illustrates in simple, yet not dumbed down terms, the way power corrupts, especially by those whose motives seem so sincere to begin with.

If anything, this film should empower you. This should not lead you to violent revolt against your congressperson or representative, but it should force you to ask questions about where that income and sales tax goes. "Animal Farm" is important, entertaining, and thought provoking.

I would match this up against anything Disney has released in the past fifty years. Yes, their audience goals are different, but as adults, it is nice to have something besides anime aimed at our heads. Great film. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mental Indigestion: "Animal Charm: Golden Digest" (1996)

I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcasting. If you ever need help with video or audio equipment from 1992, I'm your guy. Back in college, we used to have to sit and watch video projects from other Broadcasting students. Most of these, including my one and only foray into music video directing, were awful. It's nice to see Jim Fetterley and Rich Bott made one of their own terrible pieces of video and turned it into an undeserved career.

"Animal Charm: Golden Digest" is almost impossible to explain (and watch). Fetterley and Bott have taken old VHS footage from a variety of sources like training videos and infomercials, and combined them into a montage that runs ninety-six minutes. You might be thinking, as I did, "oh, cool, a bunch of bad videos edited together in a fun and watchable way!" You, and I, would be wrong.

While I am not sure what these guys' final outcome was supposed to be, I can say that what is on the screen is not good. The clips have a random order to them. There is no rhyme or reason to the collection, and the occasional titles to the clips do not help. Were Fetterley and Bott serious, trying to make a statement about our screen-centric society? Well, they failed. Were they trying to make a wacky collection, going for laughs? Failed again. I wanted to shut this off seven minutes in because it made me sad, and I knew I still had an hour and a half of this to go.

Here's a prime example of what almost worked: in one scene, footage involving Q-Tips is edited together. One shot shows a cotton swab going into a person's nostril, then pulled out. The next shot shows a swab cleaning a cat's ear, and finally another shot has a swab being used on what looks like a container of bacteria, before (looking like it's) going back into the person's nose. I actually laughed, and thought that the film makers finally came up with a joke and punchline. Then, the video process repeated itself again and again and again. Any humor was lost. The entire DVD is like that- a nonsensical looping of snippets that instantly bore. You'd sleep, but the annoying audio samplings and music will make your eardrums rupture. This officially marks the last time I rent a disc from Netflix' Independent- Experimental list.

All you film makers out there, and former Broadcasting students who are not using their degrees and want a way back in, try what Fetterley and Bott failed at. The disc will inspire you to scour the thrift stores in search of all those VHS tapes, and I'm betting you could put together something funnier and more entertaining...but if you have a song like "Sunshine Kitty" that you are dying to perform, then stop. I will hunt you down and eat your soul. (*) out of five stars.

One of the Greatest Baseball Movies Ever: "Angels in the Outfield" (1951)

This 1951 film was the inspiration for the 1993 remake with Christopher Lloyd and Danny Glover. While the remake was not terrible, Hollywood shows us that they once knew how to do things right.

Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) is the angry manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His team is losing, and he blows his top at the slightest provocation- from umpire calls he thinks are wrong to radio announcer Fred Bayles (Keenan Wynn), who rides Guffy's failures constantly. Home newspaper columnist Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) is assigned to cover the Pirates' losing season from a new perspective. Things are going into the dumpster when Guffy hears the angel Gabriel one night after a game. The angels field a team of their own, compromised of great players who have passed on, and this team is helping the Pirates. Why the Pirates? The angels are answering the prayers of eight year old orphan Bridget (Donna Corcoran), who one day spots the angels at Forbes Field while on an orphanage field trip.

Soon, Jennifer and Guffy get involved, and Bridget works herself into Guffy's heart. Guffy starts following the angels' rules- no cussing and no fighting- rules Guffy finds hard to follow. The Pirates are suddenly in the run for the pennant, but Guffy loses his cool with Bayles once again and hits him. The angels pull their support, and Guffy and his team must rely on their collective talent. The final climactic game is classic.

Douglas is hilarious as the bachelor manager. Director Brown does a funny bit. Whenever Douglas is cursing, he speaks nonsense double talk, and Brown puts another vocal track of nonsense double talk on top of that. The effect is humorous, much like when Yosemite Sam would let loose with a string of "profanity" in the Warner Brothers cartoons.

Leigh is cute as the reporter, her veal recipe scene is very funny. Corcoran as Bridget is very good, without crossing over into saccharine emotions and over extending the heart strings. Wynn is great as always, he has a running gag involving his ruined bridge work after his fights with Douglas.

The film has some fun cameos from Joe DiMaggio, songwriter Harry Ruby, Ty Cobb, and Bing Crosby. Look for "Leave it to Beaver"'s Barbara Billingsley in a nonspeaking role as a hat check girl. "The Waltons"' Ellen Corby is here as an orphanage nun. Brown's direction is smart and understated. He wisely never shows the angels, and the audience gets to imagine what they look like from their description. To see the angels, you have to believe in them, maybe Brown is saying something bigger here.

The 1951 original "Angels in the Outfield" is wonderful, smart, and funny. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Heart Attack: "Angel Heart" (1987)

Mickey Rourke, still good enough to appear in theatrical releases as opposed to straight to video fare, stars as the New York private detective Harry Angel.

The setting is 1955, and this normally lowbrow investigator is hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a missing singer named Johnny Favorite, who owes Cyphre a debt. Angel begins making the usual inquiries, finding out that Favorite was an amnesiac WWII veteran who was spirited from the local hospital by a mysterious duo who paid a morphine addicted doctor $25,000 to keep the patient on the books as a resident there.

Angel seems to have hit a dead end, learning Favorite had a society girlfriend down south, as well as a secret lover. Cyphre keeps pushing Angel, plying him with cash. Angel also takes a more personal angle on the case, especially since the doctor ends up dead of an apparent suicide, but Angel is a murder suspect. Angel goes to New Orleans, and tracks down the society girlfriend Margaret (Charlotte Rampling). As Angel finds more and more people who used to know Favorite before the war, but have not seen him since, the witnesses turn up dead after seeing him. Margaret, as well. Lisa Bonet is Epiphany, the offspring of the secret lover and Favorite, and Angel is drawn to her, resulting in one bloody love making session. She is mysterious, is 17 and has a child (something not exactly looked up to in the '50's), and comments that Favorite was the most evil person on the face of the earth. And Cyphre keeps Angel on the case, even as more bodies pile up and the New Orleans police look into Angel's motions. We soon learn the real relationship between Angel and Favorite, and Cyphre's true identity.

This film is most notorious for Cosby alum Bonet's sex and nude scenes, which are not all that notorious except that she was on the squeaky clean sitcom first. Rourke is very good as the slightly dumb Angel, who kind of stumbles from person to person as opposed to doing any kind of brilliant Sherlock Holmesian deductions. De Niro is great as Cyphre in his few scenes. This was made back when DeNiro did not agree to appear in EVERY film made; when his very screen presence was an event. He should make more genre films, but he made the laughable "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," instead. Rampling is given nothing to do except make a cute corpse.

The main surprise ending of the story is too easy to figure out. The mechanics of Favorite and Angel's relationship are hinted at, but Cyphre has a line about an egg being a symbol of the soul, and you pretty much have it once you hear him say it.

Parker's visuals are stunning, nothing appeared on screen this disturbing until "Jacob's Ladder," to which this film favorably compares. His version of New Orleans is appropriately hot and humid, another great instance where he makes his main characters sweat and suffer just like normal people (just look at the perspiring Phil Joanou made Alec Baldwin go through in "Heaven's Prisoners). Great look and good script, by Parker based on the novel by William Hjortberg.

All in all, "Angel Heart" succeeds enough times to make it a scary, suspenseful ride. You may know how it all comes out, but getting there is the fun. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Watery Eyes: "Angel Eyes" (2001)

This is the kind of film that is impossible to categorize, and by the time you do, you realize there has been a vast Hollywood conspiracy to fool you, the viewer.

Jennifer Lopez is a tough as Lee Press-On Nails cop named Sharon. She is the butt (tee-hee) of sexual harassment from all the chauvinist pigs (sorry) she works with. She is running down some stereotypical Chicago street scum when a mysterious man saves her life. His name is Catch (Jim Caviezel), and he wears a long coat and mopes around the streets mysteriously.

Sharon and Catch begin a tentative love affair, despite the fact that they refuse to let each other into their respective lives. Catch is the aforementioned mysterian without a past, and Sharon is dealing with her mom-beating dad and her wife-beating brother. The two have a lot of fights, and a lot of apology scenes. Most of the film has them treading on egg shells around each other, until the very good climax, when all the truth comes out, and the couple must decide if they can handle the emotional baggage.

With an awful title like "Angel Eyes," you might expect something supernatural along the lines of "City of Angels" or even "The Sixth Sense." Wrong. The video box would lead you back to the whole angel angle. Wrong. I found this video in the "ACTION" section of my video store. Wrong. Not knowing anything about the movie might explain its quick death at the box office, the studio just did not know how to market the thing.

Luis Mandoki's direction is very good, despite a couple of show off angles. The script moves at a leisurely pace, although you will probably figure out Chance's big problem with the opening scenes. The best scenes involve the climax, the worst involve Lopez trying to be street smart.

Jennifer Lopez, who I really do not mind except when she is on VH-1 twenty four hours a day, runs hot and cold here. Her scenes with her dysfunctional family are well done and believable. Whoever decided that timeless Sonia Braga should play her mother and the intense Jeremy Sisto should play her brother should get a bonus paycheck. Both look like Lopez, and I totally believed they could be in the same family. Lopez's scenes where she banters with her cop buddies are sad. She seems ill at ease, and so do these boorish characters who were old thirty years ago. Caviezel does not seem to wake up until the end of the picture, his "mysterious nature" could be mistaken for boredom.

Lopez and Caviezel have a nice chemistry, but by the time I realized this was a chick flick with profanity and gun play, it was too late. The main focus on Sharon, instead of Catch, is all wrong.

Despite a well acted finale and nice direction, "Angel Eyes" fails to deliver because it never could decide what it wants to be. (* * *) out of five stars.

Ancient Script: Scream of the Viewer: "Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy" (1999)

David DeCoteau boldly directs an insipid cast with an insipid script, resulting in this reviewer cheering on the villains.

In one of those situations only found in B movies, half a dozen students and their professor are living at a rural compound where they are studying an ancient Aztec mummy. The stock characters include our hero Don (Jeff Peterson), jerk Morris (Michael Lutz), nerdy Norman (Trent Latta), token black guy Arlando (Russell Richardson), smart and sassy virgin Stacey (Ariauna Albright), cute Janine (Michelle Erickson), and uptight alcoholic Professor Cyphers (Brenda Blondell).

The students are all a-twitter over the mummy, a remarkably preserved specimen that will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the compound. Meanwhile, we have tenuous "Saved by the Bell"-type subplots happening, as Stacey waits for her boyfriend Scott (Christopher Cullen) to pick her up, Morris makes moves on Janine, Don and Arlando shake their heads at Morris, Morris picks on nerdy Norman, etc. These "modern" students even use words like "kegger" and "dude" to drive home their self-delusional coolness.

Norman is not normal, he is in fact the last remaining high priest of an ancient Aztec religion. He does what looks like tai chi over the mummy, who miraculously comes back to life and begins taking the cast out one by one with a nasty looking knife. The prof is the first to go, but not before she got some important information translated, leaving her notes as a clue for later in the film. Stacey awkwardly (to the audience) confesses she is a virgin, so we know that will come into play as well. Eventually, Norman needs Stacey's virgin blood so he can bring about the end of the world, and his servant mummy (Anton Falk) is doing his bidding.

DeCoteau continues his "The Brotherhood" series penchant for showing hunky twenty-something guys in their skivvies. The entire film takes place in just two buildings, but instead of creating claustrophobic suspense, DeCoteau creates boredom. His direction is very good, up until his obsession with slowly tilting the camera back and forth in the finale, which had me reaching for Dramamine.

DeCoteau's cast and co-written script are awful. No cast member escapes stilted dialogue and stock characterization. The film consists of a lone character talking to an empty room before being killed by the limping, yet completely silent, mummy. While the mummy's makeup is pretty good, the prosthesis on his stomach makes it look like he has a beer gut. Most of the murders involve a whole lot of hacking and dicing, yet just a splash of fake blood.

The little suspense DeCoteau generates with a well lit set and effective music score dwindle into yet another silly B effort to cash in on a big screen cash cow ("The Mummy" series, obviously). DeCoteau had the set, had the shots, had the music, had some makeup, and decided decent casting and a smart script were secondary. Not only is the mummy ancient and shuffling, so is this film.

With a budget that seemed to be spent on blue light gels and mummy makeup, you get what you pay for with this disappointing effort. (* *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Anatomically Correct: "Anatomy" (2000)

This German film puts a European twist on all those "Scream"-type horror films we have been sitting through lately, and succeeds.

The beautiful Franka Potente from "Run Lola Run" and "The Bourne Identity" is Paula, a very smart medical school student who is accepted to an exclusive school in Heidelberg. She meets busty party girl Gretchen (Anna Loos), and the two become roommates. On the train trip there, Paula revives a young man named David, who has a heart condition. He is on his way to Heidelberg to seek treatment for his rare illness.

Right away, Gretchen hooks up with studly Hein (Benno Furmann) while Paula flirts with the weird Caspar (Sebastian Blomberg). The film has already shown us that the medical school is using live subjects for its autopsies, and are putting the victims in a specimen museum when they are done. David winds up on an autopsy table, very much alive, and stabs a masked doctor before being killed. Paula suspects nothing until David winds up on an examination table one morning in anatomy class.

Paula suspects something, but her professor (Traugott Buhre) tries to throw her off the trail. Paula soon finds some strange initials on David's body, and discovers a strange group of doctors who only research, never cure. They sacrifice a few to help several. These Anti-Hippocratics are banned in Germany, but still operate, and we find out Nazis were also members of the sect. Gretchen dumps Hein for Phil (Holger Speckhahn), and Hein gets a little angry.

I cannot give away too much more, except Hein is part of the sect, and begins killing students. He is not doing this for the sect, he is insane. Paula discovers more and more, and finds out the sect is huge and involves members of her own medical family. This sets up the violent finale between Paula and Hein.

The gore flows freely here, and there is a lot of terrific suspense. One great scene involves Hein trying to get rid of a body while people try to get into a blocked morgue room. The finale involves Hein chasing Paula through the school, as another student tries to save his own life by making a saline solution out of table salt. The film has a great expensive look, and the editing (by Ueli Christen) and musical score (featuring some Euro-pop songs, instrumentals by Marius Ruhland) are first rate. The sterile hospital set is cold and creepy.

I could only get the dubbed version (from German to English), but even that is done better than most foreign films. Franka Potente is great, holding the film in her grasp. She is believable and watchable. Anna Loos is a riot as Gretchen, watch her scene in the restaurant as she sucks down oysters while talking medical school "shop." Benno Furmann is introduced as just a hunk, but he is able to turn the tables on the audience, giving us an evil character that we never suspected from his opening scenes.

Of course, the rest of the world seems to have been influenced by the junk coming out of Hollywood, and this film is no different. We do have a predictable finale, and a villain who comes back to life when thought dead. Paula believes the sect is definitely killing people, but assumes a good friend (who we see murdered) really left for a long weekend when we know better. The local police, of course, do not believe her. These are small flaws, but they detract slightly.

"Anatomy" is gory, and the squeamish should turn to something else. This film is brazenly over the top, but does not resort to the same smugness that permeates so many American films today. Paula is a great heroine, not needing a man to save her from dangerous situations.

I read on IMDB that the same director has made an "Anatomie 2," already falling into another Hollywood trap- the unnecessary sequel. Open up this "Anatomy" and dig in. (* * * *) out of five stars.

The Russians are Sucking! The Russians are Sucking!: "Anastasia" (1997)

Fox makes like Disney, bad Disney, and slaps together a silly, treacly, boring story about the famed "missing" Russian princess.

Mean old Rasputin (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) curses the Romanov family and some convenient Communists follow suit and murder them. Young Anastasia (Kirsten Dunst) escapes with Grandma (Angela Lansbury), but the two are separated, and Anastasia loses her memory.

Ten years later in St. Petersburg, Dmitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) are looking for someone to portray the princess to Grandma so they can collect a reward. An amnesiac Anastasia (say that three times fast) is released from an orphanage, and meets up with the pair. The three are off to Paris, not realizing the fake Anastasia (now voiced by Meg Ryan) is the real Anastasia. Rasputin, who died in the opening scenes, is somehow resurrected with some help from his "funny" sidekick, Bartok the bat (Hank Azaria), and tries to complete his curse by killing Anastasia, first with a train wreck (like this film) then permeating her dreams and having her sleepwalk off a ship.

Anastasia sees Granny, everything seems to be working out, Dimitri falls in love with the princess, but Rasputin makes a final try at murder at a giant coming-out ball to celebrate Anastasia's return. You can guess the outcome of the finale.

I hate musicals. I hate Meg Ryan. I hated this movie. A good musical will use its songs to propel the plot or give us some insight into the characters, here they serve as nothing more but hopeful Oscar nominations. The animated cast sings and goes through dance numbers worthy of a Broadway show, even ending the tunes with flourish as if waiting for applause...keep waiting. For singing Russians that actually work, rent the best musical ever- "Fiddler on the Roof."

Cusack, Lloyd, and Ryan sport American accents, yet Grammer has a Russian accent. Lansbury has her semi-British accent, and no one seems to try and get the cast on one specific accent. Is this Russia or not? Cusack sounds like he forgot his anti-depressants in his other pants, delivering his lines with a solemnity not heard since Ben Kingsley typed up "Schindler's List." Meg Ryan still believes she is in a romantic comedy, saying all her lines in a clipped delivery that is completely wrong for her noble character.

There are five different writers credited here, and none of them could come up with a funny joke. One liners are tossed off that even my five year old would have groaned at, and the film lurches from scene to scene without any energy or fun.

Don Bluth puts the final nail in the coffin containing his big screen career, co-directing with Gary Goldman. All the characters look like every other character he has ever drawn. Computer animation is mixed in with the hand drawn animation, but the two never mesh together well, leading me to believe it was done to hurry the film along through production. Throw in the cute puppy, a rotting Rasputin, the annoying Bartok, and a plot that has been copied from better films, and "Anastasia" is a disaster.

You could argue that I am not the audience for this, but if this is "just a kid's film," then you should be arrested for child abuse. From Russia, with loathing. (*) out of five stars.

Finally, Something Good on TV: "Anarchy TV" (1998)

Director Blank brings Frank Zappa's children onboard in a decadent ninety minute comedy that entertains.

Channel 69 is the local public access station that plays shows like "Political Jeopardy" and "Eat Me." The shows blast the establishment, and push free speech and individualism. It is run by cute couple Jerry (Jonathan Penner) and Natalie (Jessica Hecht), hilarious paranoid Frank (Matt Winston), Katie (Moon Zappa), and Sid (Dweezil Zappa). Natalie is also a teacher, working her political agenda into subversive elementary school plays, much to the principal's (Mink Stole) chagrin.

Natalie's dad is Reverend Wright (Alan Thicke), who buys the television station, disowns his daughter, and throws the group out onto the street. They try to protest their plight, but no one seems to care as no one was watching them in the first place. They hold a couple of disastrous rallies, where all their friends butt heads about their personal beliefs. They are thrown in jail, and eventually bailed out by Oriental prostitute/fan Tiffany (Tamayo Otsuki).

As the Christian station broadcasts on their station, the group hatches a new plan. They take the station by force and begin broadcasting their stuff again, much to the yawns and indifference of the viewing public. Even the police and press do not care. Frank discovers a safe in the station that holds the key to all his off-the-wall beliefs, and sets about breaking the combination.

**Spoiler Alert**Tiffany suddenly gets a great idea, and viewers begin tuning in- nude aerobics will do that. Soon, the little station terrorists find themselves to be media darlings, and people tune in, shedding their inhibitions and clothes as well. Eventually the film ends in Frank's shooting, as he discovers proof that the government executed radical Abbey Archer (George Wendt) with microwaves. **End Spoiler Alert**

The film plays like a goofball version of "UHF." The film makers wisely lampoon conservatives as well as liberals, but usually spends way too much time beating it into their audience. The final few minutes, featuring the shooting, brings down all the silly fun of the film, and really ends on a sour note. The entire government-as-assassins angle absolutely fails.

Moon and Dweezil Zappa are very funny in supporting roles, as is Ahmet Zappa as an abusive cop. Matt Winston is a riot as paranoid Frank, questioning everyone's motives. The sketches in the film run hot and cold, but it helps that a middle ground is found. If you are offended by a joke one minute, Blank finds something for you to laugh at the next. Actually, with free speech and personal freedom being preached, the political group who come off best in the film are the libertarians, not anarchists.

"Anarchy TV" is not great, but it has more laughs than some big screen successes, and contains off color humor that works better than any "American Pie" film. See it, unless full frontal nudity (both sexes) and anti-establishment humor really bothers you... (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, April 25, 2011

This and That: "Analyze That" (2002)

Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal return in a sequel that takes an unsubtle swipe at "The Sopranos," and offers little else.

Paul (Robert De Niro) is in prison and Ben (Billy Crystal) has settled down into a routine life in suburbia with wife Laura (Lisa Kudrow) and his son. Someone is gunning for Paul in the big house, and Ben's father dies. Paul has a complete nervous breakdown, singing the score to "West Side Story," and he is released into Ben's care (after some very funny psychoanalytic tests). Of course, Paul was faking and of course, the FBI knows, trailing the men as Paul must suddenly go out into the world and get a real job.

After several employment mishaps, Paul is hired on as a consultant on the mob TV series "Little Caesar." There, he reunites with his old gang and they begin planning a huge heist. Meanwhile, Ben is still trying to grieve for the father he sometimes hated, popping pills and trying desperately to keep Paul in line. In the end, we find out who was trying to kill Paul, who may be redeemable after all.

Like its predecessor, "Analyze That" is merely okay. The focus here is definitely on De Niro, as he is featured in almost every scene. Ben takes a backseat in the film when in fact his situation dealing with his father's death (running gag: "He's grieving, it's a process") is more interesting than Paul's heist and double crossing cronies.

The film takes an almost angry look at "The Sopranos" in the form of its fictional show "Little Caesar." Naturally, I felt a little hypocrisy at this stage. A fake movie about mobsters poking fun at a fake TV show about mobsters.

While no laugh riot, there are some bright spots. De Niro has the funny psycho tests scenes, and Crystal is very natural while watching his life unravel. If you thought Kudrow's role in the first one was overpraised, then you will completely think the same here. Her lines seem hurried, like she did this over lunch hours during "Friends," and she is once again completely wasted in an underwritten role. Joe Viterelli is always good as Jelly, Paul's henchman, and Cathy Moriarty is fine as a rival crime boss.

"Analyze That" is a ninety five minute sitcom, complete with end credits out takes, that has its likable characters and not much else. The initial "mobster/shrink" gimmick wore off long ago, and a third movie does not seem likely. (* * *) out of five stars.

Don't Be Fooled By the Snake That She's Got: "Anaconda" (1997)

From its bizarre cast to its iffy effects, "Anaconda" has "cult film" written all over it.

A film crew run by Terri (Jennifer Lopez) and her professor boyfriend Steven (Eric Stoltz) are departing on a boat into the Amazon River Basin, trying to shoot a documentary on a lost tribe. Along for the trip is cameraman Danny (Ice Cube), sound techs Gary (Owen Wilson) and Denise (Kari Wuhrer), conceited narrator Warren (Jonathan Hyde), and shifty captain Mateo (Vincent Castellanos). Mateo seems to know Paul (Jon Voight), an unlikely Paraguayan priest/snake hunter who the film crew picks up and who knows how to find the lost tribe. Now, we already know there is one big snake shadowing the crew, and you know its mean if it can kill Danny Trejo in the opening minutes of the film. Sure enough, the snake finds many opportunities, and meals, as it gets our heroes one by one.

Released over a decade ago, "Anaconda" has enjoyed a cult following. The cast is mostly recognizable A-list (now), running and screaming in a pulpy B flick. I even remember Oscar buzz around Voight, who wrestles, subdues, and chews every second of every scene that he is in. The film's reputation precedes it: Stoltz really is unconscious for half of the film, and the climax features one of the most memorable vomiting scenes in film history.

While the cast is fine (and I keep waiting for that one role that will turn Ice Cube into the big time successful action star I know he can be), the film's winking and knowing attitude gets in the way. I am not sure if the actors knew this was light stuff. Llosa's direction is great, and the river scenes are a cinematographer's dream, but only Voight seemed to be clued in to the campy possibilities of the screenplay.

The animatronic effects are a hundred times better than the computer effects (a huge stumbling block), and unlike "Jaws," the screenwriters dumb down to the audience, looking for any excuse to put people in harm's way. Eventually, this turned me off.

"Anaconda" might be the best of the big snake genre, considering its lousy in-name-only sequel, and any ten minutes of the crap Sci-Fi Channel feeds us (and I sat through all of "Boa vs. Python"), but here, the hype is more fun than the film. (* * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Famous Movie Stars and Directors" by Joseph Stewart

I recently reviewed the nightmarish book from Santa Monica Press entitled "Guide to Home Video and Movies" by someone named Ryan Reed. This self-proclaimed ultimate video guide was full of misspellings and absent films, and an embarrassment to all the better video guides out there. At the same thrift store where I picked up that tome, I found "Famous Movie Stars and Directors" by Joseph Stewart. Also from Santa Monica Press, also exactly 128 pages, this sad book did not have as many misspellings, but the factual errors alone make it an awful choice for anyone out there writing a film studies paper, interested in movies, or just looking for a brief read.

The book is a collection of one and a half page profiles of well-known performers and directors- at least well-known when this was published in 1993. I decided to bring up some of the glaring errors from the Actor section only because if I corrected everything here, I would have enough material for a book of my own. I will mention that Faye Dunaway has been rechristened Faye "Dunawaye" every time she is written about, including the table of contents and her own profile.

From Dustin Hoffman's entry: "Hoffman has been nominated for four Academy Awards, for his performances as Ben Braddock in The Graduate (1967), Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Lenny Bruce in Lenny (1974), and Raymond in Rain Man (1988). He finally won for this last film..." Good for Dustin, except he won his first Oscar for 1979's "Kramer vs. Kramer", and was also nominated for "Tootsie".

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone each get just one page for their entries. The longest entry is Bette Davis, who gets a whopping two and a half pages. Burt Reynolds' page and a half has only one of his films mentioned- "Deliverance."

After naming James Stewart's films "Bell, Book, and Candle" and "Anatomy of a Murder," author Stewart writes "Arguably, he has not had a significant role since these films..." Pardon me while I get arguable, but did our author simply forget about "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "How the West Was Won," "Shenandoah," "The Flight of the Phoenix," "The Shootist," and "Airport '77," or did he not possess the simplest film reference book?

Finally, he gets John Wayne (one of my favorite actors) all wrong. Back to the work: "Throughout the 1940's, he appeared in several uninspired movies, mostly Westerns and war films." While most of Wayne's output in the 1940's was Westerns and war films, see if you recognize some of the titles of these "uninspired" flicks: "Flying Tigers," "They Were Expendable," "Angel and the Badman," "Fort Apache," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and his uninspired Oscar nominated role in the uninspired "Sands of Iwo Jima." Whether a Wayne fan or not, you have to agree that Joseph Stewart has no idea what he is talking about.

So what should I do with these horrible reads? I thought about donating them to the local library, but they might be sold at their annual book sale, and ruin the days of another film fan. Toss them in the garbage? I only spent a quarter for each book, but the landfill may be too good for this stuff. I think I will put them back on my bookshelf, in the film books section. They can serve as a reminder of what can happen when you approach a writing project half-assed, and inspire me to come up with that one good video guide idea someday. In the meantime, Santa Monica Press, you are to printing what Digiview Productions is to video distribution...you suck. (*) out of five stars.

"Guide to Home Video and Movies" by Ryan Reed

Video and film guides are nothing new. I remember picking up Leonard Maltin's thick paperback way back in junior high school, before internet and IMDB. Roger Ebert still releases books, including collections of his reviews. Back in the video explosion of the 1980's and 1990's, everyone seemed to be releasing guides, from the Videohound to the Phantom of the Movies.

A small publishing house called Santa Monica Press decided to put their fingers in the pie. I have seen their product before (in thrift shops). Their guides are cheap paperbacks, filled with vague film descriptions, questionable opinions, and more misspellings than a third grade class' grammar pop quiz. I once found two of their video guides, with different covers, titles, and authors, yet opened them up and discovered the reviews were identical, word for word. It was with some trepidation that I plopped down a quarter for Ryan Reed's 1993 "Guide to Home Video and Movies," knowing what I did about the Press. It did not disappoint.

I actually am not sure what the title of the book is. The cover and spine read "Guide to Home Video and Movies," but the introduction refers to the tome as "Guide to Home Video Movies" (without the 'and'). Reed (or whoever wrote this) uses a four star rating system...but hold on, one star does not necessarily mean the film is bad. Reed writes that even a two-star film has merit, but not enough "artistry" to render a three or four star rating. Already, the ratings are on shaky ground, but Reed is confident enough to call his 128 page book the "ultimate guide to the most popular and critically acclaimed films available...," so he must know what he is talking about. By the way, Reed's name is typed in a different font at the bottom of the introduction, making me wonder how long the publishers waited before coming up with the name "Ryan Reed."

Right away, I found misspellings. In the first review, for "Adam's Rib," Katharine Hepburn's first name is misspelled. Turn the page and find out how good John "Houston's" direction was in "The African Queen." I read this whole book in one sitting, and found at least one mistake every two pages. The reviews themselves may have been written years after the films were seen. The reviews are just one paragraph, and padded with Oscar winning stats (come on, only four sentences on "2001: A Space Odyssey"?). The choice of films is bizarre. "Aliens" is here, but not "Alien." In the review for "Back to the Future," Reed writes "...the first installment of one of the most successful film series of all time..." but neglects the two sequels. Factually, Reed (or whoever) gets a lot wrong. Michael Douglas was not nominated for an Oscar for "Fatal Attraction," and saying Susan Sarandon makes a "remarkable major film debut" in "Atlantic City," ignores her work in such little pictures as "Joe," "Pretty Baby," "The Other Side of Midnight," "The Great Waldo Pepper," and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

Ending with "Zorba the Greek," I did not come away with any sort of individual tastes from Mr. Reed. If you read my reviews or posts, you may know that I loathe Michael Moore, hypocritical mainstream media, reality television, most Disney Channel alumni, and a lot of Robert Altman's output. I love Bob Fosse, Westerns, Underground and Experimental stuff, porn as art film, and the pre-"Village of the Damned" cinema of John Carpenter. Reed, on the other hand, either writes grandiose statements about films, or semi-trashes them (in the case of "Pretty Woman," rightfully so) with the reader unable to take his opinions seriously.

"Guide to Home Video and Movies" is lousy. Scarier is that at the same thrift store, I also picked up "Famous Stars and Directors," also from Santa Monica Press, and authored by a "Joseph Stewart." I'll let you know how many pages I go before finding the first error. (*) out of five stars.

"The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life" by Steve Leveen

You might think the life of a HBS Monkey is glamourous: going to world premieres, hobnobbing with Hollywood elite, and bedding internet groupies with the mention of your name and the snap of your fingers. Sure, all or none of this has happened to me, but in addition to watching way too many movies, I read tons of material about Hollywood.

I am not talking about the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly or Radar (my new favorite entertainment magazine), I am talking those large collections of paper I used to sell back at the end of the semester in college...after missing enough class to have professors ask me for I.D. Yes, I read books. Lots of books. I picked up Steve Leveen's book, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, from the library, hoping to improve my reading quantity and quality.

Leveen's small volume, easy to complete in one sitting, shows the average reader how they can take control of their literary lives and get more out of reading books.

Everyone seems to want to read more, and read better. I have suffered through my fair share of books, reading to the bitter end, hoping it would get better (much like bad movies). Leveen suggests making a list of books and subjects that have always interested you. This is not a heavy must-read list, but a List of Candidates. These are books you should keep around and pull down when you are ready, no commitment involved.

If you read the book and like it, it is now part of your Living Library. These are books you can go back to and reference again and again. Leveen advocates a more participatory role in your reading by doing the one things your mom told you never to do- write in your books. Are you a "Preservationist?" Unable to mark in a book so as to spoil its enjoyment for others? Or do you want to be a "Footprint Leaver," putting your ideas and thoughts on the very page you are reading, engaging the author as that author engages you? Not mentioned in the book, English contemporaries of 18th century writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge would loan him books just to get them back and read the author's dense notes and arguments in the margins (I was a former English major, so I know this stuff).

Leveen's idea of adding twelve books to your reading list each year is to rent at least one audio book a month. Many frown on audio books without giving them a chance (I tried listening to Christopher Lee reading Poe, and could not get into it). Book clubs are covered, as well. Also interesting is a section on how books had a liberating effect on people like Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X.

The only "yeah, right" section of the book I found was Leveen's idea to keep some books back until you have a chance to read them in the location they are set. Reading Lonesome Dove on your next trip to Texas is a great idea, but it is hardly the driving force behind calling up your travel agent. Also, some of Leveen's hippie language had me grinning. Didn't you, when I asked you if you wanted to be a "Footprint Leaver?"

While Steve Leveen's writing is simple, his message is clear- YOU control what you read, so be well-read. A well-read life is a well-lived life, a point more obvious when I finished this book.

Ironically, I already follow some of Leveen's advice- I take notes on books so I can write reviews, just as I take notes on films I watch. I did not mark up the book in front of me, however, it belongs to the public library.

"The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life" is 123 pages long and includes blank end pages for notes. It was published in 2005. The chapters are:

Introduction: Book Love Regained
Chapter 1: Uncovering the Books That Will Change Your Life
Chapter 2: Seizing More from Your Reading
Chapter 3: Reading with Your Ears
Chapter 4: Sharing the Fellowship of Books
Chapter 5: A Life Uplifted
plus an epilogue, bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.

On the five star scale, I would give this four stars. (* * * *) out of five stars.

"Hollywood Babylon II" by Kenneth Anger

It seems like these days, the Golden Age of Cinema (the 1930's-1950's) seems pretty tame. Everyday people humiliate themselves on reality television just to achieve fleeting recognition. The names disappear into our attention-deficited collective (quick, name the winner of the second season of "Survivor"), and we latch on to the next Contender or Idol or the bimbo Who Wants To Marry My Dad. Thank God for Kenneth Anger.

While the internet allows us to replay Janet or Tara's boobie escapes ad nauseum, we must rely on faded memories and rumors when it comes to those icons we normally see in black and white on basic cable television. Then came Hollywood Babylon.

Anger appeared in the film "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as a child, and grew up in Tinseltown, eventually becoming know for his avant garde film work like "Scorpio Rising." He was privy to many a juicy story, and dragged many a skeleton out of the closet in the book.

Every film fan knows a big hit deserves a sequel, and a tinted photo of a fat Liz Taylor beckons us into the world of "Hollywood Babylon II". Here, while Anger defends that he in fact does like movies, we are privy to over three hundred pages of bitchy, and often hilarious, gossip, which I easily went through in one sitting.

It does help to have some knowledge of classic Hollywood. I have seen actor Paul Kelly in many a picture, and had no idea he once served time for manslaughter. The name Pantages is synonymous with grand movie palaces, but I never knew Joseph Kennedy (one of this country's biggest bastards, the more I read) once framed Alexander Pantages on rape charges.

Was gay George Cukor really fired from "Gone With the Wind" so Clark Gable could get manly man director Victor Fleming to do the job right and turn this chick flick into an action studded romance? Or did Cukor have some knowledge that a younger Gable would submit to some man on man action in order to further his career?

While most of the dirt flung is serious (the Black Dahlia murder complete with explicit crime scene photos, a whole section on who committed suicide and how), Anger rises above it all with morbidly colorful writing. On choreographer/director/drunk vehicular manslaughter criminal Busby Berkeley: "He made surrealistic, voyeuristic, erotic musical dream fantasies which made eyes pop and pricks stand up around the world."

On the two women who betrayed character actor Lionel Atwill's confidence and blabbed about his infamous house orgies:"...two Judases in skirts did their best to drag their host by the short hairs all the way up the hill to Golgotha."

When speaking of James Dean, Anger asks: "And yet, today, if Richard Gere, or Matt Dillon- or any of the other members of the boring regiment of James Dean clonettes spewed out by Francis Ford Coppola in 'The Outsiders'- were to suffer Dean's fate, would cults arise, fans commit suicide, would mash notes arrive thirty years after their demise? Doubtful."

Anger shows no love for Gloria Swanson (celebrating her death in a strange half page rant), Joan Crawford (publishing nude photos from her modeling days), or the Reagans (we are all going to die in a nuclear holocaust).

"Hollywood Babylon II" was published in 1984, and another sequel to complete a trilogy has not been forthcoming. So we must live with this forbidden volume, readily available at many public libraries, and suffer through today's celebrity marketing: which celebrity starlet (otherwise famous for nothing) has been seen in a recently discovered (but by no means planted) sex tape. Joanie Laurer, you say? Color me shocked, I'd rather read about the mind blowing lesbian coupling of Tallulah Bankhead and Hattie McDaniel any old day. "Hollywood Babylon II" gets five stars from me. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

"Rich Dad's Retire Young, Retire Rich" by Robert T. Kiyosaki

If you have seen the new infomercials Robert Kiyosaki has made about retiring and making millions of dollars, you get the gist of this book. It is a three hundred and thirty five page ad for all of his other products under his Rich Dad moniker.

Most frustrating is Kiyosaki's complete lack of skills as a writer. He freely admits he is not a great writer, and proceeds to prove it. He repeats himself constantly throughout the book, and writes pages of dialogue scenes he swears are from memory, but play like the worst staged scenes in an infomercial.

Kiyosaki also manipulates the reader with his constant berating. If you are doubtful of his methods or if you question whether you can go running out and buying real estate without money down, then that is your problem. You are wrong and he is right. I was consistently made to feel stupid as I read this thing, and that was confirmed by the authors' smug attitude toward people who actually work for a living.

Kiyosaki also never gets specific about how to retire young and rich. He dances around the subject, throwing out little helpful hints here and there, but never gets to the brass tacks when it comes to sitting down and doing it. Recommending I go to seminars and hire a bookkeeper are lovely ideas...but then what??

If anyone is retiring young and rich, it is the people behind this three hundred page ad for other Rich Dad products. If anything, reading this will inspire you to go it on your own, and ignore the advice of "experts" like this duo. Don't waste your money, or self esteem, and avoid "Rich Dad's Retire Young, Retire Rich." (* *) out of five stars.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Verses That Hurt: Pleasure and Pain from the Poemfone Poets" by Jordan and Amy Trachtenberg

A few years ago a voice mail was set up in New York City, and poets were called in every month to read a new poem everyday onto the message. Then the public could call in everyday, listen to the poem, and respond after the beep with anything they had to say. The poems were recorded on an album, and the best printed in this wonderful book.

The book came out in 1997. The phone number they have listed in the introduction is either wrong or changed, I called it twice and kept getting the voice mail to someone named "Kika." The poets in this book are: Penny Arcade, Tish Benson, Nicole Blackman, David Cameron, Xavier Cavazos, Todd Colby, Matthew Courtney, M. Doughty, Kathy Ebel, Anne Elliot, Janice Erlbaum, Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, John S. Hall, Bob Holman, Christian X. Hunter, Shannon Ketch, Bobby Miller, Wanda Phipps, Lee Renaldo, Shut-Up Shelley, Hal Sirowitz, Sparrow, Spiro, Edwin Torres, and Emily XYZ. All the poets get at least three poems, and very good portraits by photographer Christian Lantry. The poems are short enough that you can probably get through this in one sitting, or read a poet a day.

Penny Arcade starts the book off with a bang, using some really incredible verse. Tish Benson is next with poems that read like lazy blues songs, but filled with so much detail and activity, you can almost hear Billie Holliday gruffly whispering this in your ear. Nicole Blackman and her section is also incredible as she seems to speak for so many women who cannot find their own voice except hers. David Cameron's writing, while readable, is a little bland, like a freshman creative writing class. Despite his obvious emotion, I felt he was holding back on his own writing. Xavier Cavazos's section is slightly better, except for an entire poem that slams Rush Limbaugh. It may have been very clever when written and read, but it just give conservatives like Limbaugh more ammunition to go after art that they do not believe in. Why not a poem about Parkay hawking corporate monkey Al Franken, who had so much success slamming Limbaugh? Or Dennis Miller, whose rants against everybody was quickly dashed by asinine long distance ads. Nothing worse than a sell out. Todd Colby does better work with paragraph poems than traditional verse poetry. Matthew Courtney reads like poorly written Allen Ginsberg, full of "shocking" imagery and without a point. M. Doughty's work is scary and involving, and not your traditional stuff. Kathy Ebel left me with no response. I read it, I was done, and I was not terribly moved. Anne Elliot reads like poorly written Matthew Courtney. Janice Erlbaum is wonderful, filling a sonnet and sestina with modern situations, turning antiquity on its ear. Ginsberg is Ginsberg. Being a little familiar with his work, I expected to see poems about gay sex, followed by verses about a frog. Ginsberg is so Ginsberg. John Giorno's two poems are shocking, about more gay sex, and taking drugs. He seems to be shocking without TRYING to be shocking. I guess you could say his shock is natural.

John S. Hall also seems to be writing without getting to the heart of his point. His verse is so much posturing. Bob Holman is a bit of a bore, with quite a few poems here. Again, none stuck with me. Christian X. Hunter takes me into his world and it was hard to get out. He is probably my favorite poet here. Shannon Ketch reads like John S. Hall. Bobby Miller's very personal poems made me nostalgic for a time I could never experience. He writes about his first homosexual experience, and protesting Vietnam, so vividly, you swear you are there. Wanda Phipps opens with an angry poem, and never lets up. She is not threatening, but she has a lot to say. Lee Ranaldo also did not do it for me, his listed words seemed glossy and packaged. Shut-Up Shelley is fun because she is so different. Her changing font size on the page just screams at you, yet her photograph by Lantry shows her so whimsically. She is my second favorite poet here. Hal Sirowitz is my third favorite poet here, writing deeply personal poems about everyday things that had an obvious effect on his life. He is a blast to read aloud. Sparrow is weird. His first poem, involving possible sex with a cow, is a hoot, and his possible middle names for Bill Gates is a riot. Spiro is also very funny, especially his opening poem about heroin addiction. Edwin Torres also had me scratching my head for a while after I read him. His poetry is not hard, just inaccessible, and I was not interested enough in what he was saying to dig deeper. Emily XYZ reads like good Edwin Torres.

The 26 poets here are quite a variety, and I recommend this tome to any poetry lovers. I also repeat my mantra to read more poetry and keep buying those little chapbooks you might see in used bookstores or at flea markets. There is always time in your day to smarten up.

This does contain a lot of profanity, drug references, and sexual content, so giving it to your five year old to practice reading may not be a good idea. (* * * *) out of five stars.

"Shot in the Heart" by Mikal Gilmore

This nonfiction effort, written by the younger brother of executed murderer Gary Gilmore (of "The Executioner's Song" fame) is one of the best books ever written about the downfall of a family. Gilmore delves into the lives of his parents and brothers. His father, Frank Sr., was an older man who would run scams and con games, moving from town to town. He also married a half dozen times and fathered as many children under different aliases. Mikal's mother, Bessie, was a Mormon who grew up in another strange family, filled with death and belief in hauntings and spirits. Both parents beat their first three sons unmercifully. Frank Jr., Gary, and Gaylen seemed like normal little boys until their parents got done with them.

Mikal was the fourth son born, and probably got better treatment than the others. Frank Jr. disappeared after his brother's Gary execution, and was missing from Mikal's life for about ten years. Gary Gilmore spent most of his life in reform school and prison, before murdering two young men in Provo and being executed in Utah by firing squad. Gary's experiences in reform school, especially on his first night, is so horrible it is hard to forget (especially considering this type of behavior is happening to children). Gaylen was the third son, and almost as much of a criminal as Gary. He would end up dying young, the roundabout result of a mysterious stabbing that would not heal.

Gilmore's book, coming in at over 400 pages, is a fast paced read. He never tries to explain his brothers' behavior, and he does not defend them, he merely lays out the facts of their family's upbringing, and the reader experiences the shocking life the Gilmores went through. Mikal talks about his own experiences, and how his love of music eventually led to his career as a music journalist, writing for Rolling Stone.

There are revelations here that would seem right at home on a daytime soap opera if they were not real. Paternity, babies thought dead, marital affairs, greed, all are covered here, but in a manner that makes these incidents very sad. Television shows like "Jerry Springer" take these same kinds of lives and make them into a big joke and ratings booster, but when Mikal spits a half page venomous paragraph about an offhand comment by Maury Povich of the now defunct "A Current Affair," you realize those shows are put on the air to hurt, not inform or enlighten.

"Shot in the Heart" is a terrific book, and might be able to help put your own family's problems in perspective. That petty fight with your sister-in-law over the TV remote will definitely pale by comparison. Mikal Gilmore has written a powerful and passionate book about a subject he knows better than anyone. I highly recommend it.

This book does contain enough material that it is not appropriate for children or young teens. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

"An American Dream" by Norman Mailer

You think Gary Condit has problems? Stephen Rojack is a former congressman, contemporary of John F. Kennedy, popular TV talk show host... and he has just strangled his estranged wife to death.

To cover his crime, he tosses her out of a tenth story window, then meets up with a gangster's moll/lounge singer named Cherry. If ever a character was written to be played by Charlize Theron, this is it. The police suddenly drop their suspicions of murder against Rojack because they have bigger fish to fry- namely some of Cherry's mobster friends. The novel takes a look at a day and a half in the life of Rojack, following his rendezvous with Cherry, Ruta (his wife's maid), and his eventual meeting with his wife's father, culminating with his own high rise theatrics.

This book moves very fast. The reader loves to hate Rojack. The novel is from his point of view, so we see the inner workings of his alcohol soaked mind. Mailer's descriptions are lucid, dense, and brilliant. You feel like you are in 1963 New York City, running from the police, smelling the smells of the squad room, and making love to exotic women.

What does not work here are the kind of mobsters that were threatening in 1963, but come off like characters in a bad straight to video Eddie Deezen comedy today. There is a subplot involving some of the characters' involvement in the CIA that is also dated, and Mailer's attempts at magical fantasies that Rojack takes us on in his mind are over the top and dull.

Other reviews I have read have mentioned this is a good starter to a Mailerphyte, and I would agree. "An American Dream" is entertaining, but not a perfect tome.

This novel features a lot of sex, violence, profanity, and more alcohol consumption than a frat during rush week, so the kiddies probably should not have this Dream. (* * * *) out of five stars.

"Don't Sweat the Small Stuff...and it's all small stuff" by Richard Carlson

Journeys Across the Rainbow: Inspirational Stories for the Human RaceDr. Carlson has all the best intentions in this fluff filled little book suggesting to people how to live a stress free, happy life. Unfortunately, Carlson often doubles up on his advice and offers up some really strange strategies that often conflict with his own sage advice.

There are 100 little one and two page strategies to improve your life. The title comes from some advice Carlson was once given, that many little things in our lives are blown up into huge things. However, Carlson gives the exact same length to topics like being nice to others as he does to the joys of taking care of a house plant. It often is not enough. In one strategy, he will suggest listening to another's problems and letting them vent, and then suggest not trying to solve everyone's problems. We should spend all of our free time with those we love, but keep time out for yourself. Cut back on your activities and reflect, yet get involved with charity and service and give something back. Carlson will often repeat topics as well, mentioning the same Mother Teresa quote twice. One of his strategies calls on the reader to write heartfelt letters telling others how much you love them. If I received a letter like this from someone I have not had much contact with lately, I would be more worried about whether that person was saying goodbye to this cruel world than anything else.

I have seen Carlson on TV talk shows, and he comes off as very knowledgeable and sincere, but after many dozen one and two pages strategies your eyes will finally glaze over as the helpful sap gets a little deep.

Don't sweat the small stuff, and this book is just that. I cannot recommend "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and it's all small stuff." (* *) out of five stars.

"Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies" by Bob Adelman

From the 1930's through the 1950's, small eight page underground comics were distributed all over the United States. They were crudely drawn, even more crudely written, and usually involved popular icons of the day engaged in sexual acts, accompanied with some very blue humor in the form of dirty jokes and puns.

These were called Tijuana Bibles, and also known as Eight-Pagers, Two-by-Fours, Gray-Backs, Bluesies, Jo-Jo Books, Tillie-and-Mac Books, Jiggs-and-Maggie Books, and F**k Books, this according to introduction writer Art Spiegelman.

Author Bob Adelman has collected dozens of these rare bits of cartoon history and republished them here, adding a commentary by Richard Merkin, and putting these into a quasi-historical and sociological context.

Ever wonder what Popeye looked like while having sex? What about Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse talking dirty while going at it? What did Cary Grant and Alger Hiss look like during gay love? All of this and more are here.

This book does a better job of reprinting the Tijuana Bibles than anything, but reading a bunch of them in a row gets very tedious. The introduction warns against this, as well. The drawings are often very crude, and the humor is very old, since their prime era was in the 1930's. Also, all but a few of the artists were anonymous, and the printings were not done in the exotic locales of Havana, Tijuana, or London (as the little booklets claimed), but probably in some basement with a mob type watching over the production.

This is not just a book of dirty pictures, but a very interesting look at what the author calls early sex education. While body parts are rather exaggerated, young men could look at these in the days before government and school sponsored sex ed and have a vague idea of what to do.

If you have any of these dirty little books around, then hold on to them, they are rare. If you have this overview of the history of Tijuana Bibles around, keep it away from the kids, unless they are curious about the sex lives of Dick Tracy or Dagwood Bumstead. I recommend this thin book to anyone who claims to be a fan of underground comics, or erotic art and cartoons. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Clinton: Portrait of Victory" by P.F. Bentley

I am always fascinated with the Clintons. From Bill's exploits to Hillary's statement (after the Sept. 11th attacks) that she understands hatred because of reaction to her now forgotten health care plan, the former first family are like a grisly car accident that reaches the end of its first decade, and we still cannot help but watch.

"Clinton: Portrait of Victory" is a breathless mash note to the then new chief executive, chronicling Clinton's primary and general election wins. The entire book features black and white photography by P.F. Bentley, a photographer I am not familiar with, but who does a very good job.

Reading this book in one sitting, I was struck at the hopeful tone the pictures and essay author strike right off the bat. Roger Rosenblatt's prologue does nothing more than beat the poor reader over the head about how important it is that these are not those ultramodern "color" photos, but b&w portraits. Rosenblatt equates Clinton to a god, and b&w photos to eternal soul searching through the eyes of the photographer.

The photographer had unlimited access to the Clintons and his bold staff, but the book does not open any new doors to the first family. Subjects wring hands, anonymous crowds surge to their media made hero, and anyone who voted against him gets a little ill. You could cut out the pictures of Clinton, insert any other politician, and you would have the same book. The essayist (Rebecca Buffum Taylor) breathlessly tells us how hard it is to campaign, how hard everyone worked, and how hard it is to win. Clinton is shown in candid moments with his family and staff, yet they still feel staged, as if the subjects knew this would make a really cool book if he won, and a tragic tome on honorable defeat if he lost.

Some of the captions are unintentionally funny. Printed below a picture of Clinton enjoying a big cigar (obviously not his last): "Clinton allows himself one small indulgence...". Ah, those small indulgences he would allow himself over the following two terms. (* *) out of five stars.