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. Get this movie now!: Apache Blood ("Pursuit") (1975)

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. Watch this film now!: Anything Else

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. Get this movie now!: Antony and Cleopatra

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. Watch this movie now!: Antichrist

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. Watch this movie now!: Another Time, Another Place

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, 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 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. Get this movie now!: Another Stakeout

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. Get this movie now!: Four-Film Collection (Dust / Another Pair of Aces / Wagons East / Pharaoh's Army)

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. Watch this movie now!: Another Gay Sequel

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. Get this movie now!: Annie Hall

"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. Watch this movie now!: Anna Christie

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. Get this movie now!: Animal Instincts:Seductress [VHS]

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. Watch this movie now!: Animal Farm - Color - 1954

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. Get this movie now!: Animal Charm: Golden Digest

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. Watch this movie now!: Angels in the Outfield (1951)

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. See this movie now!: Angel Heart

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. See this movie now!: Angel Eyes (2001)