Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Bad, Seen: "The Bad Seed" (1956)

A classic in the suspense field, this 1950's film does not live up to its reputation.

Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a perfect little pig-tailed eight year old. She is overloved by her military dad, stoic mom, and even the frumpy landlady from upstairs. Her hunky father (William Hopper) leaves on temporary duty, and Christine (Nancy Kelly) is alone with Rhoda. A child dies at a school picnic, and it comes out that Rhoda was the last to see him alive. Rhoda really really wanted little Claude's penmanship medal, something she felt she should have won.

Christine begins to suspect all is not perfect with little Rhoda. She shows no emotion at losing the classmate, and somehow ends up with the disputed medal. Christine begins consulting with amateur psychologist/landlady Monica (Evelyn Varden), and a criminologist. Much is made of environment playing the main role in a child's criminal behavior, not genetics.

As Christine begins suspecting Rhoda more, weird handyman Leroy (Henry Jones, who is great) begins teasing Rhoda, knowing she was involved. Christine's reporter dad (Paul Fix) drops by with the bombshell that Christine was in fact adopted and her birth mother was a murderer whose case the father was covering.

As Christine tries to battle these life changing issues, another major character dies. Christine then makes the decision to stop Rhoda's murderous habits for good, and take herself out of the picture as well.

While often placed in the horror section of video stores, this is more Hitchcockian suspense than anything. On the positive, it does contain some creepy scenes. When McCormack describes how she killed her classmate, I got chills down my spine. Also Kelly's recounting of her recurring dream about escaping from her real mother's house when she was a toddler is also good. Kelly and McCormack deserved their Oscar nominations for these brief scenes alone.

Director LeRoy makes no bones about this story's popularity on the stage first, and there are too many scenes set in Christine's living room. He does not try to open it up enough, and instead of claustrophobia, boredom sets in. It is one thing for a mother not wanting to believe the worst of her child, it is another when the mother seems too stupid not to believe the worst. LeRoy overplays everyone's love for the child, to the point of nausea.

While the audience knows the child is a killer, we must sit through quite a few static dialogue scenes before others figure it out. While Jones is good as Leroy, it seems his fate is put near the end of the film so we would not be mad at Christine, who could have stopped her daughter from harming him. He is made lecherous and weird, so we won't feel bad when anything happens to him.

The cast here is way over the top. Much of the gestures are very broad, and even the speech delivery is overly theatrical. The cast still seems to be playing for a live audience, and there is not the intimacy of film in the execution here. Eileen Heckart is the dead boy's drunk grieving mom, and plays her as that and nothing more.

A word about the ending. The cast is called back out for a curtain call, just like onstage. Then actress Kelly play-spanks actress McCormack, both laughing. I do not know if this was supposed to diffuse the downer ending, but instead it negates it, trying too hard to remind the audience that this is just a movie.

Despite the few tense scenes, this is a very dry and boring film. The cast tries to liven it, but they try too hard, resulting in overacting an underwritten story.

I hate to do this, and I may be the only one on this planet, but I do not recommend "The Bad Seed." (* *) out of five stars.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Not Naughty, Just Plain Bad: "Bad Girls" (1994)

Is this country so starved for a decent western that we have to sit through this steaming cow patty to find it?

In the first few minutes, four prostitutes leave town in a frenzy after one of them kills another's client in hooker defense. I don't have any character names, because this all happens in the first ten minutes without any background to who the characters are or their relationships to each other.

The women escape and go for a pie in the sky dream of running a lumber mill in Oregon. Enter James Russo, Madeleine Stowe's former beau and current outlaw. He takes all of Stowe's hard earned money. She works hard for her hard for it, honey... Dermot Mulroney of the "Young Guns" series happens by to flirt with the ladies while seeking his own revenge. The rest of the film consists of at least three of our five heroes getting captured and disappearing, then the others riding to rescue them. Three times...they shouldn't have quit their night jobs.

The four leads are pretty and beautiful and buxom and nothing like the Old West's real soiled doves. The quartet could have stepped off a Ralph Lauren fashion runway. For a more realistic portrayal, try either "Unforgiven" or the stupidly titled "The Wicked Wicked West" with Kelly McGillis and Brenda Fricker.

You know the routine in this kind of film, the bad guys lose, the good girls (or is it bad girls?) win. Director Kaplan apes the late great Sam Peckinpah, throwing in slow motion scenes. Unlike Sam, Kaplan uses slow motion for no motivation or reason, just to do it.

Except for Mulroney and James LeGros, all the men here are pigs who are just holding these poor women down. A great feminist statement that is ironic in a film that dumped its first female director in favor of Kaplan, who decides we cannot get through the film without a couple of glimpses of Drew Barrymore topless. Girl power!

This is not a good western, your first clue is the five different writers listed in the opening credits. All involved have done better, and you would be better off checking those out instead. "Bad Girls" is bad in more ways than one. (*) out of five stars.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Back Would, Then Didn't: "Backwoods" (1987)

**SPOILERS**Don't you just hate when a movie grabs you, shakes you around a little bit, then completely insults your intelligence to the point that you are sorely disappointed by it? "Backwoods" does just that.

Jamie and Karen are cute boyfriend/girlfriend who are biking through the midwest. They stop to camp in a remote part of the forest (after being warned away by the stereotypical nerdy forest ranger), and are watched by an unseen presence. They are awakened by Eben and his injured daughter, Beth. As doctor Jamie performs an emergency tracheotomy and saves Beth, weird Eben invites the pair back to his even more remote home, which is on a neat acre lot and looks a lot like a public park.

Unfortunately, Jamie keeps tripping over the bodies of headless chickens, and Karen is full of herself for helping out these poor "Deliverance"-like characters. Eben is a little weird, believing a woman's place is not with a man, and he keeps drinking moonshine out of a mason jar. Suddenly, Eben's brain damaged son William appears, scaring Karen when she goes for one of those nude swims in an isolated lake, something everyone does when they go camping. Karen is chased by William back to Eben's house, where Eben promptly beats William. It turns out William was mauled by a dog as a toddler and ain't been right since. The dog had William by the head in his jaws, and William has been reciprocating over the years by biting the heads off of small woodland animals. How's that for Horror Movie Psychology 101?

Karen and Jamie stay on to make sure Beth is okay, and William, all drool and hissing noises, gets stranger and stranger. It comes out that William killed Eben's second wife (Beth's mom), and is fixated on Karen because her hair is like that of William's mother (Eben's first wife).

Up until this point, everything is above average. The small cast does a good job, and Crow's direction is very good considering an obviously small budget. Karen and Jamie fight and talk like a real couple. They are not two horny teenagers, like you might expect from films of this type.
And then comes the climax.

(SPOILER) Karen, not learning her lesson from the nude swim, feels the need to change her top in broad daylight in Eben's front yard, knowing full well that William must be lurking somewhere nearby. William attacks Karen. Eben and Jamie come arunnin' from their coon hunt, both drunk on moonshine. Jamie shoots William in the chest. William does not die. Eben has a fatal heart attack and William attacks Jamie, biting his neck. As William drags Jamie off into the woods, with Beth fighting her half-brother, Karen blindly fires the shotgun at the trio...William comes back out of the woods, sees Eben, and goes to him, trying to get his father to hit him for old time's sake. Karen, now sporting a large axe, approaches the distracted William...and...RUNS AWAY WITHOUT KILLING HIM. Later, after finding the nerdy ranger murdered, Karen is able to become MacGyver, making a booby trap for William out of fishing line and hooks. She is able to complete one of horror's most elaborate killer traps with no interference from the crazed William, who minutes before was right on her heels. William gets caught in the trap, seems to die, and the epilogue here involves a new crazy backwoodsman in the form of a delirious Jamie now biting the heads off chickens.

The first forty five minutes or an hour of this was pretty entertaining, despite a few awkward scenes here and there, but deciding that the viewers are a bunch of morons is a bad decision on the film makers' part. Also, once again, we get the mental deficient as the evil killer, thereby scapegoating an entire minority of people who can rarely speak for themselves to begin with. Plus, there is no supernatural connotations in the film, yet William survives a shotgun blast to the chest for no other reason than to make the film longer.

"Backwoods" was also known as "Geek," a reference to William's character. He is called that by Jamie, the doctor with no bedside manner, and Karen, the woman dumb enough to run from a perfect opportunity to do away with a killer but smart enough to make a lethal weapon out of some tackle box items.

The film almost had me, but thanks to the dumbing down of the climax, I cannot recommend "Backwoods." (* *) out of five stars.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Forget 'Asylum of Terror,' THIS is the Worst Movie Ever Made: "Ax 'Em" (1992)

Michael Mfume, the son of Kweisi Mfume, shows that bad film making knows no racial barriers.

A group of about ten college students go to an isolated cabin in the woods for a weekend, and are terrorized by a retarded man whose family was shotgunned to death thirteen years before. He is now going to "revenge" (as the opening credits crawl puts it) his family's deaths.

Give me a minute, I am trying to both hold down my supper and find a place to begin here...this is that bad. Mfume shot the entire film (barely an hour) on video. The video copy I rented was letterboxed- on all four sides! Suddenly I was watching a nineteen inch picture on my thirty-two inch screen! Except for writer/director/star Michael, I did not catch any of the other characters' names. This is understandable since the sound is possibly the worst recording job in motion picture history. At least seventy-five percent of the dialogue is muffled and incomprehensible. Of course, lines that do survive are of the "I've fallen and I can't get up" variety. Twice, I heard a voice off-camera cue the actors. During one cut, a video timer is evident at the bottom of the screen.

The old retarded killer in the woods story has been done so often it is now fodder for parody. Mfume tries to squeeze some laughs here by having the cast stop everything to tell some "your mama's so fat..." jokes. The cast is in on the inside joke and tries to have fun, mugging at the camera and ad libbing. The point is the film makes no attempt to scare or even make sense. Mfume had ten friends and a video camera, and shot this thing.

"Ax' Em" is the worst film watching experience I have ever had. There is so much crap out there dressed up with an above average video box cover, and this is just another dose. I am now officially a victim of the technological revolution. Remember when making a film involved some sort of talent and a spot of money, not some yahoo with a video camera and a couple of hours to kill?

"Ax' Em" deserves every bad review I have read about it, and I pray Michael Mfume will not venture into the world of the horror film ever ever again. (*) out of five stars.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Crazy From the Beard: "Asylum Seekers" (2011)

The initial set-up to "Asylum Seekers" is promising: half a dozen people with mental problems try to get into an insane asylum where only one spot is available. Only the craziest will make it in. The possibilities are endless: manic dark comedy, bloody horror film, social satire, etc. What I did not see coming is a film even more insane than its characters.

Six people enter the asylum, and are provided with onscreen introductions. Antoine (Daniel Irizarry) is a virgin nymphomaniac, Maud (Pepper Binkley) is a trophy mouse-wife, Paul (Lee Wilkof) is an evangelical nihilist, Miranda (Camille O'Sullivan) is an introverted exhibitionist, Alan (Bill Dawes) is a gender bender refugee, and Alice (Stella Maeve) is a cybernetic Lolita. All possible patients are put through various "contests" by the mean Nurse Milly (Judith Hawking) and her evil henchmen, under the watchful eye of the unseen The Beard. The asylum itself is full of fringe characters even more bizarre than our prospects. Maud and Antoine begin to grow closer (as close as a nymphomaniac and a mousy wife can), until The Beard makes up their mind.

"Asylum Seekers" is exhausting. Co-writer/director Rania Ajami ups the bizarre quotient right away, never giving the viewer a break. Each successive scene is a little more insane than the one before, and even quiet scenes turn into bizarre set-pieces that are not soon forgotten. I would compare her direction favorably to Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Her use of widescreen is excellent, and she gives us some creepy imagery that plays with the viewer's head as much as the characters'.

I could tell too easily, however, which characters were going to be the focus of our attention. Some are given small back stories- little scenes that show us why they are where they are, but some are not. Some characters don't live up to their own opening onscreen intros- Alan seems more torn between being black or white, not gay or straight. Same with Miranda, the most inhibited exhibitionist I have seen. Even Paul, who should have been a right-wing fanatic nutjob, seems toned down, becoming a mild paranoid instead.

The cast does a great job playing characters that are way way out there. I would love to see their reactions reading the screenplay, seeing what they must endure on film. There is nothing "Salo"-esque here, no exploitative feces eating or anything lowbrow like that. Instead, Ajami puts her cast through the paces of "American Idol"-like competitions and wearing giant animal heads. The problem is all the surrealism should have been toned down as much as some of the characters. A more mainstream approach to the material might have warmed me up to the film, where following through on some of the initial scenes are a problem. The lack of strong characterization also means not being able to sympathize much with any of these people, much less the equally disturbed asylum staff.

Technically, "Asylum Seekers" is a visual marvel and very well made. I would slightly recommend it, I guarantee you will be talking about it for days, love it or hate it. (* * *) out of five stars.

I Want to Avenge My Video Rental Fee: "The Avengers" (1998)

Foisted on an unsuspecting public, this British try at a new franchise other than Bond flopped at the box office and with good reason(s).

Ralph Fiennes is the very dapper agent John Steed, working for the Ministry led by "Mother" (Jim Broadbent) and "Father" (Fiona Shaw). A company called Prospero is destroyed by Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman), or at least her double, and Steed and Peel team up to track down the culprit and put an end to the nefarious deeds. Enter Sir August DeWynter (Sean Connery), the obvious villain, who has created a weather machine and plans to freeze London to the tune of ten percent of the gross national product. He has been working with "Father," a plot point my cat could figure out, and Peel and Steed race against the clock to save the world...blah blah blah...

I am not going to go any deeper into the plot because I do not care. If Warner Brothers does not respect its audience enough to release a decent film based on a cult television show, why should I bother with the intricacies of a standard action flick plot? You could plug any other buddy cop characters into Steed and Peel's places, take away the sexual double entendres, and you have "Lethal Weapon 5" or "Still Another 48 Hrs."

Fiennes is okay as Steed, but he plays him like his umbrella has been placed where the sun don't shine. Instead of looking unflappable during fight scenes, he looks uncomfortable. Thurman is a different choice as Peel, and the best thing in an otherwise dreary film. She was also the best thing in "Batman & Robin," which makes me wonder if she is reading entire scripts or just her parts before signing to do action films. Poor Sean Connery is a victim of great casting (A villain! Cool!), but is given nothing to do. The lack of direction forces him to act kind of crazy and kooky, and he does not get to chew any scenery or play the part big.

The film is less than an hour and a half, and feels like a long preview for a better film. The action is there, the impossible effects, heroes and villain, but the effort is too muddled. It seems like this idea read great on paper, but no one had any confidence to put it onscreen, resulting in a loud movie full of explosions and effects, and nothing more (like "Super Mario Bros.")

Steed and Peel, the two smartest people on film and television since the Crane brothers on "Frasier," never rely on their smarts to solve the case. The big break in the case? Steed finds a map...I kept looking for a paw print from Blue, since my kindergartener could follow the weak plot. Steed kicks butt with his umbrella, but never just sits down and figures the crime out. Even Bond must do some brain work once in a while. Add to this mess Bailey (Eddie Izzard), DeWynter's henchman who is silent for the entire film. He is one of those screenwriter's devices who, when he does finally say a word, is supposed to be funny. He isn't. I knew going in the reputation this film had, but I never imagined it to be this fantastically awful.

A snowed-in London? DeWynter doesn't know what cold is, try forgetting your gloves in ninety below zero wind chill in a North Dakota January. "The Avengers" left me just as cold. (*) out of five stars.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

(Almost) My Final Review for HollywoodBitchslap/EFilmCritic: "Austim is a World" (2004)

Can a film change your life? Can a forty minute piece of video completely unravel everything you thought you believed? Yes, and with this review I almost retired from, and movie criticism in general. Read on.

Sue Rubin is a twenty six year old autistic woman who cannot speak. She needs twenty-four hour care as her condition does not allow her to even dial 9-1-1 in case of an emergency. At the age of 13, Sue was diagnosed with a mental age of two years, and an IQ of 29. However, when this documentary was filmed, Sue was a junior at Whittier College majoring in history, with career plans to advocate for autistics, and newspaper writing.

What changed for Sue at age 13? "Facilitated communication" did. With the steadying of her sometimes flailing limbs, Sue is able to use a keyboard with vocal capabilities in order for her "voice" to be heard. The keyboarding took a lot of practice, but a reassessment of her condition put her IQ at 133, which allowed her normal high school years and college.

From her tiny size, protruding tongue, and yelping vocal tics, everyone assumed Sue was mentally retarded. When she was a little girl, she exhibited self abusive behaviors like biting her arms and head banging. Her parents never gave up on her, and we learn her brain was soaking up information like a sponge, even though her outward appearance did not show this.

The film focuses on Sue's reactions to losing two of her caregivers after many years. The two women are as young as Sue, and are moving on to other opportunities. They have become great friends, able to vocalize Sue's thoughts and even call her on an occasional lapse in concentration and purposeful misbehavior. Although many autistics are known for their seeming lack of emotion, there is a sadness on Sue's face as their time together gets shorter.

As you may or may not know, my oldest son is on the autistic spectrum. One of his many psychiatrists over the years has said he is not "autistic," but he is on the the "autistic spectrum." He is of normal intelligence, can have a conversation, and wants to be a rock star (this week) when he grows up; typical eleven year old stuff. But, he is prone to violent outbursts, able to clear a classroom of children, and flip desks over in a flash. This has resulted in law enforcement being called on him three times in the past year alone. He sometimes says completely inappropriate things without realizing he is hurting others with his words. He is a mess of tics, thanks to Tourette's Syndrome (which is not just whooping profanities like on "L.A. Law"). Physical touch is often painful to him, he doesn't look anyone directly in the eye, and with all his diagnoses plus asthma, his overnight bag is full of pill bottles and a lengthy medication schedule. On a tangent, it was seeing my son misdiagnosed and mismedicated a few years ago that confirmed for me that L. Ron Hubbard and his Scientology cult's belief that all psychotropic drugs are bad is erroneous, and that Hubbard and his cult are full of shit.

Watching Sue onscreen, I was filled with admiration. She has a comforting device involving spoons and running water that is similar to my son's. If he could stand under a shower all day long, he would. My son also constantly draws- not just doodling a page or two, but sketching notebooks full of cars, monsters, and his favorite band- KISS. Sue proves that way too many people think all autistics are high-functioning, like "Rain Man" or Sigourney Weaver's brilliant and completely misunderstood performance in "Snow Cake." There is a routine to many autistics, and they can be humorous, but the low function of Sue takes you off guard. You feel just as frustrated as the others in the documentary as she answers questions one letter of each word as a time. She must write entire speeches and presentations like this (they are read by others), but Sue is prone to emotional outbursts, typing nonsense on the keyboard because of her attitude, especially her fears about her departing friends.

Sue wrote the narration to the film, getting screen credit, and it is expertly read by Julianna Margulies. Gerardine Wurzburg directs unobtrusively, not pestering Sue and others with a bunch of questions. This was part of the "CNN Presents" series, and was nominated for a short subject documentary Oscar. Sure, Jenny McCarthy can write a book a week touting her autism cure, and setting up many a parent for disappointment, but Sue says it best: she can never be free of autism. It might subside, but it will always be there.

Speaking of being there, my sons moved two hours away from me last summer, which plunged me into a deep depression. Watching Sue's story, I realized that I needed to make some sacrifices in my life. Turning 40 didn't help. While others were deeply concerned with Clay Aiken's coming-out or Tina Fey's Palin impression, I found myself moving away from such trivial matters. I email my sons constantly, and get a weekly phone call from them, but it is not the same as seeing them every day or two. My ex-wife is teaching in her old hometown, and the boys are happy, but my priorities have shifted after "Autism is a World."

I could no longer watch a film and write about it, knowing I could better be using my time with my children. A second job, letters, emails, reading books, anything besides watching Paris Hilton's latest crapfest, or having to suffer through entertainment shows obsessed with celebrity culture (Pat O'Brien recently left "The Insider" for some very good, and similar, reasons). I have been reading more lately, and watching less films. Films were my life. I have seen about 5,000 over the past forty years, I stopped counting when my library's computer kept crashing every time I tried to view my vote history on IMDB. Sue Rubin showed me that being a good dad is more important than being a good film critic. Sure, I could do both, but the passion was not there anymore. My output has been hiatus-like lately, so I don't consider a vacation or leave of absence an option. Watching the badly titled but still brilliant documentary "Autism: The Musical" and reading "Born on a Blue Day" by Daniel Tammet recently also had an impact on me I can only describe as born again Christian-like.

I wrote the above review almost six months ago, and I think I now know what a nervous breakdown feels like. My son is doing better, having only one outburst in the time since I saw the film (which resulted in police being called), but is happy in his new hometown and school. I recently came back to HBS a better and thicker-skinned person. Check out this film, whether you are affected by autism or not. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Lock This Back in the Attic: "The Attic" (1980)

The late Carrie Snodgress portrays a mousy librarian under the domineering control of her father in this mislabelled horror film.

Louise (Carrie Snodgress) is being forced out of the librarian job she held for nineteen years. She drinks too much, makes halfhearted attempts at killing herself, and once accidentally set the building on fire. A fire she also "accidentally" set crippled her father (Ray Milland), and Louise stays at home taking care of him. Louise's fiance, Robert, disappeared almost twenty years ago, and Louise still waits to hear from him. She bothers the missing persons bureau, fantasizes about taking exotic vacations, but the loss of her job really begins to change her. She befriends her replacement, Emily (Ruth Cox), who is having control issues with her own mother. Louise begins going out at night, much to her father's chagrin, even having a one night stand with a man she meets at the movies. Emily buys Louise a pet chimpanzee, Louise's fantasies of killing her father begin to increase, and Louise's final day at work approaches.

This film was shot on location in Wichita, Kansas, which is actually refreshing considering NOTHING is ever filmed in the Midwest! "The Attic" is anything but horror. Despite the misleading foreboding title (and inaccurate plot summary on Netflix) the film is a psychological character study, becoming somewhat horrific only in the final fifteen minutes.

Carrie Snodgress made a huge splash in the 1970's and quickly fizzled, reduced to taking roles in B flicks after scoring an Oscar nomination for "Diary of a Mad Housewife." She is very good here, and once you let go of any horror film expectations, watching her Louise go mad under her father's tyranny is unsettling. Milland can be accused of playing the same mean old man roles he got stuck with in his latter years, I do not recall the last time he smiled onscreen. Ruth Cox is surprisingly good as Emily, being very pretty but with enough acting chops to back up the role.

Once again, the main problem I had was with the script. There are some comical death fantasies here that do not work, plus the damn monkey gets its own jaunty accordion musical theme! If Louise is such a sourpuss, incapable of a happy thought, why are the fantasies so light and silly? Milland's character is so one note, Snodgress must take over the picture. This is unfortunate since the grand finale is telegraphed to the point where you will have it figured out soon after the film begins. This means Louise must go through her life and trials, and I quickly became bored knowing the outcome.

"The Attic" is a failed attempt at suspense, getting lost in the early 1980's cycle of slasher flicks. The good cast did deserve more. (* *) out of five stars.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Send in the Clowns: "At the Circus" (1939)

The Marx Brothers return, a little worse for wear and long in the tooth, in a very slight comedy.

First, the silly plot. Young Jeff (Kenny Baker) runs a circus. He has made enough money to pay back the villainous Carter, who used to own the circus. Now Jeff can marry sweet Julie (Florence Rice), who has a pretty weird little horse act. Chico Marx is Tony, an Italian who helps out with the circus. Punchy (Harpo Marx) also kind of hangs around the circus with little more to do than make the film's viewer laugh.

The money is stolen from Jeff by the strongman Goliath and the midget Professor. Tony calls in a lawyer, J. Cheever Loophole, played to the hilt by Groucho Marx. Jeff is disinherited by his rich aunt Susanna Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont), so he cannot count on her for the missing money.

As Jeff and Julie slaughter a few weak songs, the Marx Brothers proceed with their investigations of the robbery. The film ends at a society concert at Dukesbury's mansion going horribly wrong as the circus parks in the front yard.

The plot is flimsy, and the songs are extra flimsy. There is one tune called "Two Blind Loves" that is sung to "Three Blind Mice." It was deemed so good, Jeff and Julie wring it out twice. Harpo Marx has a great scene playing the harp. Unfortunately, it happens during the excruciating "Swingali," where dozens of black children follow him around a circus tent, occasionally breaking into the chorus of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

The film is not a complete loss. The brothers are at the top of their form, if not looking a little older. There is a great scene in the midget's room, when the boys try to retrieve one of his cigars to compare to one found at the crime scene. Another classic scene involves Punchy and Tony trying to search Goliath's bed for the money, with Goliath sound asleep. Finally, Loophole's loud entry into Dukesbury's mansion is hilarious all the way through. The silly, unbelievable finale is pure slapstick, and works.

The direction, script, and songs are standard, but the cast lifts this above the norm. "At the Circus" is silly, but not the best Marx comedy out there. (* * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don't Seek Asylum: "Asylum of Terror" (1998)

There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this movie, and the fact that it has been distributed to unsuspecting video stores throughout the country is a testament to York Home Video's marketing department more than actual entertainment value.

There is a spoiler in this is a spoiler if you live under a rock and have never seen a film before. A group of teens decide to tour a former prison that has been turned into a haunted house. A serial killer gets into the prison, he used to be an inmate there, and dons assorted cheap knock-off masks of better known movie slashers. He then kills everyone he can find, as he imagines he is in his own little horror film, and assorted spectators think his real murders are part of the haunted house. In the end, the haunted house's manager and a young boy kill the mad killer.

You will forgive the lack of characters' names. I literally only caught two- Dean and Mark. The sound quality here is awful, I think the film makers were using the microphone on the video camera for sound. I am not kidding, I could not comprehend seventy percent of the dialogue here. Everyone sounds like they are talking into tin cans. You really do not need to know characters' names anyway, there are no characters. There is the killer, and the victims. The killer kills the victims.

This video seems to have been assembled from a checklist of what normally makes a slasher film work: fake blood, a creepy set, a couple of females willing to take off their tops, an unstoppable killer, and plenty of things to stab with. What the film makers did not do was come up with a decent script or production values. Aside from the horrible sound, the picture is terrible. The director throws in the murder of a child as well, as if he ran out of ideas and was desperate to pad the running time. The video cassette gives an "approximate" running time of eighty five minutes, but my video counter and IMDB says the film runs seventy five minutes. With this logic, I weigh three hundred pounds, which is "approximately" two hundred pounds. "Asylum of Terror" (a terrible title) is a terror of a different sort.

This is a film making formula that may have started as a good idea, but quickly was lost by complete ineptitude, from the watery fake blood to the misspelled words in the end credits. If you like this film, you really are crazy. (*) out of five stars.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Asinine On Any Level: "The Assisi Underground" (1985)

The story of Italian priests hiding Jews in the Chapel of St. Francis and Cloister of St. Clare should have been given better treatment than this poorly done film.

Slashed by almost an hour from its original release, Cross plays a young priest asked by Bishop James Mason to hide some Jews in the monastery and cloister at Assisi. He does, while making friends with thoughtful Nazi Maximilian Schell, as the town commandant. Jews are almost discovered, the war ends, everyone gets a little mention about what happened to them at the end of the film.

The film's pace here is dull. The film is nothing more than Nazi extras asking for identification papers and Cross looking like the cat that ate the canary. I half expected him to wink at the camera every time a Nazi goose stepped into frame. Cross also often forgets his Italian accent. Mason's idea of an Italian accent is to add an "uh" syllable at the end of every word, such as "We-uh must-uh help-uh the-uh Jews-uh." Most of his speeches are completely devoid of understanding, I thought I was listening to pig latin.

The Jews here are not shown as victims so much as that they have been inconvenienced by World War II. They do not come across as stoic and bold, but spoiled and complaining. In one embarassing scene, Cross, loved by all Jews who meet him, does a magic trick, compliments a painting, and comforts Jews like he is the activities director at an adult day care facility.

Maximilian Schell comes off best as the Nazi officer torn between his obligation to the Third Reich and his upbringing as a Catholic. Not enough of his inner turmoil was explored.

The film also features a horrendous soundtrack that sounds like bits and pieces of other war films just thrown into the sound mix. There are a couple of battle scenes, one with obvious stock footage, but this is not good.

"The Assisi Underground" was made by the guys at the old Cannon Group studio, and that was the first mistake if you are familiar with their product. I cannot recommend this film. (*) out of five stars.

Monday, May 9, 2011

I Want My MTV Back: "Asia in Asia" (1983)

This 1983 concert video makes one nostalgic for the day when MTV actually played more than questionable reality shows, and showed complete music videos.

Supergroup Asia consisted of Greg Lake on bass and vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Carl Palmer on drums, and Geoffrey Downes on keyboards.

The hour long video was taped at the Bukodan in Tokyo, Japan. MTV veejay/"where are they now?" subject Mark Goodman is trotted out to introduce the Japanese. His phonetic blabbering is not subtitled, making me think the Japanese could not understand it either. As the band takes the stage, the audience seems overly polite, barely uttering a sound.

The first song, "The Heat Goes On," proves one point. Lake was brought in to do vocals shortly before this was made, and must rely on a teleprompter to get the lyrics down. He looks to his left and barely moves during the entire concert. "Here Comes That Feeling" is next, and is easily the weakest song of the set. The band is still trying to get the feel of the audience, and this melodramatic song does not help. "Eye to Eye" is punctuated with a great Steve Howe solo. The crowd finally goes nuts when "Only Time Will Tell" begins, and director Mallet gives us a few crowd shots. "Open Your Eyes" is strong vocally and instrumentally, and Downes' piano solo into "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes" is great.

Despite Howe's awful segue into "Wildest Dreams," the song works when Greg Palmer is allowed to break out on drums. "Heat of the Moment" follows, and "Sole Survivor" (a really strange song) is the encore number. Fans of Asia might love this, but there are a few too many songs with the words "heat," "eye," and "time" in their titles, and it seems a little confusing.

The stage set is neat, a giant capital "A" framing the band. Downes' twenty five foot span of keyboards runs along the back of the stage, and his back is to the audience the entire time!

Mallet, a veteran of concert videos, does some nice editing, but you can see most of his cameramen onstage in the long shots. The video recording equipment is old and there are stage light burns on some of the shots.

"Asia in Asia" is not perfect, but it will make any child of the '80's nostalgic for the day when MTV was cool. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Trust Me, Art Has Nothing to Do With It: "The Art of Murder" (1999)

Suffering from a title that sounds like an old episode of "Murder, She Wrote," this typical straight-to-video erotic thriller is neither erotic nor thrilling, nor good.

Elizabeth (Joanna Pacula) is married to old drunk Cole (Michael Moriarty). Elizabeth is also boinking Cole's hunky younger business partner Tony (Boyd Kestner). Elizabeth also dabbles in painting, mostly anonymous seascapes of the surrounding Seattle set, Vancouver BC shot area. Willie (Peter Onorati) arrives on the scene with some photos of Tony and Elizabeth, er, opening each other's galleries, and blackmails the duo.

At the first payment drop, things go bad. Elizabeth ends up shooting Willie. Tony and Elizabeth hide Willie's body in the lake, but curiosity gets the better of our Liz. She goes to Willie's isolated cabin and finds more photos of herself. Concluding that Willie was obsessed with her, she burns the place to the ground! Tony finds out and rejects Elizabeth, both wanting to avoid prison for murder AND arson. To reconcile, Cole promises to quit drinking, and he and Elizabeth get back together again. Is it me, or is this reading like a soap opera plot summary you find in the newspaper TV listings? Anyway, Tony gets Cole drinking again. Cole beats and rapes Elizabeth in a rage. A major character ends up murdered, and Elizabeth is implicated, so she must search for the real killer before ending up in the pokey.

The video box claims Elizabeth "seems to have it all." It mentions the rich hubby, the big manse, and the affair. This is what a woman having it all gets? Are women supposed to cheer for Elizabeth's predicament, instead of tiring of a spoiled adulterous seascape painter?

Michael Moriarty, in real life an unapologetic drinking man, plays a drunk well. In fact, I would hazard to guess that is not just iced tea in the glasses of booze he swills. He looks physically ill, his voice is a raspy whisper, and I would worry about this actor if I were a friend or family member. Poor Boyd Kestner is handsome and dashing, but is asked to play a dumb pretty boy role. Onorati is also a talented actor I have seen before, but he gets the one note jerk villain role here.

Comparisons to a soap opera are not that far off. Cut the too few nude scenes and a couple of curse words, and you would have a special hour and a half episode of "Passions." The direction here is very standard, television episode quality, Preuss does not try to do anything with the bland script.

Despite the title, "The Art of Murder" has little to do with art. Sure, there is murder, but watching that old episode of "Murder, She Wrote" might be more challenging than this shallow take. I can guarantee the acting and writing would be on the same level. (*) out of five stars.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ran Off the Road: "Arlington Road" (1999)

While the original theatrical trailer pretty much gave away the entire plot of this film, I do not want to spoil this for anyone left on earth who has not seen it. Just because I don't like a film doesn't mean I should ruin it for you.

Jeff Bridges, a terrorism expert and college professor, begins to suspect something a little funny about new neighbors Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack. As he begins investigating Robbins, he must convince those around him that none of this has to do with his FBI wife's death in a shootout. Eventually, Bridges suspects Robbins might be a terrorist, and tries to get his new girlfriend and his wife's old boss to believe him. As his son is put in danger, the film winds down to a tense finale with a surprise ending.

In this day and age, terrorism films may seem quaint and uncomfortable. I felt wrong watching this, but because of the script, which somehow won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy Awards people. Bridges' character is an intense professor teaching a class on terrorism. In one impossible scene, Bridges takes his class on a field the place where his wife was killed! While the scene is well acted, directed, and edited, this scene put me over the edge of credibility. The film is full of scenes like that.

The script seems to have started with the very good twist ending, and then constructed backward until the story was there, and this is the problem. Watch as Bridges calls up state vital statistics bureaus and gets information right over the phone from name change applications and death certificates. If you have ever done any sort of genealogical research like I have, you would know death certificates must be requested by mail and sent to you after you make a claim as to relationships and reasons behind the search. I wish it were as easy as calling someone up and getting information. Bridges also seems to be making these calls at night, when these state offices would be closed. Bridges' distrust of the FBI because of his wife's death is not explored adequately either, resulting in the viewer just wishing he would tell his suspicions to someone else besides his girlfriend, who finds the absolute weakest reasons not to believe him.

Pellington's direction is excellent, and he somehow manages to build suspense despite the script's shortcomings. Angelo Badalamenti's musical score is perfect. Jeff Bridges is good in a very difficult role that requires this much suspension of belief. He keeps the weaker scenes grounded, since his pain and suspicion is evident on his face. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are good, they are really good at playing people who may not be what they seem, but sometimes their innocent act went too far.

"Arlington Road" is a well done film. It is an exciting, well acted film. It can raise questions about how much we really know about people around us, and how far we would go to protect others. It is also not well written, sloppy, and a supreme disappointment.

Do not be so taken with the ending as to ignore the messy hour and a half that came before. The horrible script totally negated any positive aspects I found in "Arlington Road." (*) out of five stars.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Nightmare: "Arizona Dream" (1994)

You can't have "fart" without "art," something I thought up while watching this brilliant mess.

Johnny Depp is a young man who comes to Arizona to be his uncle Jerry Lewis' best man in his wedding, and stays on to sell cars at the local family Cadillac dealership. There, Depp and buddy Vincent Gallo meet up with Lili Taylor and her weird stepmother Faye Dunaway. Taylor and Dunaway hate each other, living in a big house in the country and arguing continuously. Depp eventually falls for Dunaway, and is drawn into her weird little world, where she dreams of flying, and moving to Papua New Guinea.

Taylor has her own set of mental quirks- she worships turtles and wants to kill herself so she can come back as one. Gallo fancies himself a serious actor, one good scene has him recreate the cropduster scene from "North by Northwest," on stage at a local talent contest. Paulina Porizkova is given nothing to do as Lewis' very young fiancee.

We have all these weird characters in a weird little comedy. There are funny scenes. Taylor tries to hang herself with pantyhose from a second floor balcony, and bungees up and down as Depp tries to save her. Depp, Taylor, Dunaway, and Gallo play a hilarious game of footsie at a dinner table. Taylor, depressed over her suicide attempt, begins wandering around the house playing the accordion. Depp and Dunaway begin building flying machines, trying to fulfill Dunaway's girlhood dream. The screen fills with weird special effects and tons of magical realist images. The eskimo prologue; a fish that swims in the sky; really interesting stuff.

About halfway through the film, everything takes an ugly turn. Depp and Taylor play a game of Russian Roulette. Lewis overdoses on pills, he is guilt-ridden because he drove the car in the accident that killed Depp's parents. Eventually, not a whole lot of plot happens. Instead, the film becomes obsessed with suicide, wallowing in the characters' unhappiness to the point that I may remove the COMEDY sticker from the video case and write MANIC DEPRESSIVE on it.

The cast, especially Taylor, is good, too good. I felt like they really understood their respective characters and the director's overall vision. Too bad they did not let the viewer in on it. I felt undermined by the cast and crew, and could not wait for the film to end.

The final scene, on the tundra, has Depp and Lewis talking to each other in Eskimo native language while ice fishing. A confusing ending to a confused film. I do not recommend "Arizona Dream." (*) out of five stars.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Home Alone?: "Are You in the House Alone?" (1978)

Doe-eyed high school student Kathleen Beller is found beaten and raped in the opening scenes of this made for TV movie.

The film then flashbacks to the few days before the rape, as Beller is harassed by a stranger. Beller and Scott Colomby and her best friend Robin Mattson and Dennis Quaid are double dating early on. Beller's anxious parents, laid back Tony Bill and shrill Blythe Danner, wait at home wringing hands and so on. Right away, the 1970's makes its dated entrance, as the young couples discuss the romance and love in "Three Days of the Condor."

Beller, an amateur photographer, begins getting threatening notes stuffed in her locker at school. The film makers wisely give us a whole slew of suspects: Beller's new boyfriend, Mattson's boyfriend, Beller's dad, Beller's ex-boyfriend, and what about that overly friendly photography class teacher who wants Beller to be a little more sexy in her self-portraits? I knew who the rapist was because the Worldvision Video company video box has a picture of the attack on the back cover, destroying any suspense in that regard.

Without giving away who the attacker is, Beller begins getting harassing phone calls, and is eventually raped. The movie then heads south as she makes like Nancy Drew and secretly sets up a time lapse camera to catch the guy stalking another student. Finally, the film makers tack on a hokey ending narration from Beller about the lack of understanding for the victims of rape in that day and age.

The suspense here is very real, without going over the top into scary movie stuff. Beller is very good, and watch for her and Mattson's scene in an abandoned theater- both do great jobs. The film is full of familiar faces, including Ellen Travolta in a small role, and everyone is professional.

This was made in 1978, and it shows. I am sure no one had any idea that this would be reviewed in 2003 by an overcritical horror movie lover, but some of the attitudes here are embarrassing. The teacher who tells Beller to be sexy is never made to explain what exactly he had in mind. Nowadays, if any high school teacher said that, then THAT would have been a made for TV movie on its own.

After Beller is raped, the rapist is still a part of her life, as warrants are issued, blah, blah, blah. There may not be a case because Beller is not a virgin, and cannot prove she was raped by whom she said. Many of these problems have been addressed with modern technology and policing efforts, but this film obviously knew it would have a chance to add to the reform debate. Rape is an act of violence that has not gone away, but efforts today to catch the attackers are miles ahead of twenty five years ago. The problem is the anti-rape angle feels tacked on, like an afterthought. Before that, we have a tight little suspenser that has real honest to God characterization. After the rape, everything changes, filmwise, and not for the better.

I remember Beller from the '70's and '80's (and who could forget her revealing role in "The Betsy"), but she has not done anything in almost ten years. This is a shame, since she was very good way back then.

I will recommend "Are You in the House Alone?" based on the acting alone, with a reluctant nod to at least the first two-thirds of the film. If you want to relive 1970's made for TV high school life, this is your cup of Tab. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Open Your Legs and Say 'Cheese': "Arakimentari" (2005)

With over three hundred photography books to his credit, artist Nobuyoshi Araki might be mistaken for an extreme case of quantity over quality in regard to his output. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Araki was born in Tokyo in 1940, and still loves his country. He came into prominence in the 1970's, shooting conservative street scenes based on Italian realism. He also married, taking candid nude and sexual shots on his honeymoon and afterward. As he tells it, in the 1980's he rebelled against himself. He began shooting nude models, bondage, vaginal closeups, and actual penetration. Japanese censors would cover up the female genitalia with shapes, or blur out the offending image, so Araki one-upped them with a series he called "Spermanko." The photographer would censor himself by climaxing (metaphorically) on his photographs, covering everything deemed extreme with a white liquid.

This is the kind of work Araki is doing to this day, and film maker Travis Klose gets inside this demure man's world. Araki is not a brooding artist, he is constantly laughing and joking. He wears round glasses, his thinning hair looks like a bird's nest, and he is the center of activity in every room he enters. While some professional artists who photograph nudes are careful not to violate the model's space or make them feel uncomfortable, Araki thinks nothing of ogling and groping his subjects. He applies make-up where needed himself, and there are even a couple of shots of him styling pubic hair. He is the epitome of hands-on.

Like Robert Mapplethorpe, Araki is better known for his shocking nudes than his other work. He loves to shoot around his native Tokyo, and in order to deal with a traumatic death in his life, he would simply shoot cloud formations from his balcony. Flowers are another subject, it helps that some of them resemble the female anatomy.

Araki was derided by many feminist groups for his bondage series, but the artist has a deep and lasting respect for the female sex. He believes that since we all come from females, they are automatically better than males both physically and spiritually.

Some of the talking heads singing Araki's praises include Takeshi Kitano, Bjork, and Richard Kern, a controversial film maker and photographer in his own right. Klose gets some great behind-the-scenes shots of Araki at work. Araki doesn't seem to be playing for the camera, and we hear nothing but positive comments from his exhausted looking models.

The most interesting aspect of Araki's work was his heat development series that coincided with the anniversaries of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Araki took some images and used heated liquid during development, making passe pornographic shots look like something occurring in a nuclear holocaust.

Araki really opens up for Klose. The film is short, but extremely interesting. I found Araki to be quite the character. Many viewers will be put off by both his boorish working ways and subject matter, but the film makers should be congratulated for including this in the film. The documentary shows Araki in a positive light, but doesn't whitewash the man and his art.

Toss in a great electronic score from DJ Krush and mix it with an overwhelming amount of nude Japanese women, and "Arakimentari" is a fascinating and artistic look at a fascinating artist. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, May 2, 2011

You'll Pity This Fool: "April Fool's Day" (2008)

This reimagining of the 1980's chestnut already has one strike against it before the disc even hits the DVD player- if a horror film involving gory murders takes place on April Fool's Day, then the viewer is going to be automatically suspicious of everything they see or hear.

On April 1, 2007, spoiled rich orphans Desiree (Taylor Cole) and Blaine (Josh Henderson) are throwing a society coming-out party for Torrance (Scout Taylor-Compton). Invitees include dimwitted future politician Peter (Samuel Child), his beauty queen wife Barbie (Jennifer Siebel), Desiree's enemy Milan (Sabrina Ann Aldridge), video geek Ryan (Joe Egender) who has a crush on Milan, and gossip blogger Charles (Joseph McKelheer). The party gets going, but a prank played by Desiree and Blaine on Milan leads Milan to take a header out of a second floor balcony and die.

One year later, and after court hearings exonerating everyone and giving estate control to Desiree, six of the remaining friends are summoned to Milan's gravesite. A delivered package contains a video of Charles being drowned in his pool, and a letter proclaims that unless one of the friends cops to Milan's murder, they will all die. The finger pointing and back stabbing begin immediately, but the film's focus is on the siblings, who make like Scooby and the gang and try to solve the murders before they are next.

This film is definitely not a shot-by-shot remake, or even a franchise reboot, although one can always wish for a Deborah Foreman cameo...and get disappointed. Only the title and very loose plot is taken from the first film (which was merely good enough). Like I said, this version also has some baggage along, and the viewer immediately knows more than the characters in the film. Unfortunately, these characters are so immensely unlikable, I was hoping all the murders were real. I thought the screenwriter might go for a nasty "Cruel Intentions"-type vibe, but watching these whiny twentysomethings drive around Charlotte, North Carolina chasing ghosts gets real boring real quick.

The actors cannot do anything with the poor script. Cole (who looks like a young Sharon Stone) and Henderson are okay, and the final final twist is a kicker, but we must suffer through too many scenes that do not work, or take their own sweet time padding out the film. Anyone else think the 2007 ball was going to be the whole movie? It takes forever.

The technical aspects are excellent for such a small production, although The Butcher Brothers (with a name like that, this film should have been meaner) really really love that Steadicam rig, but the suspense is nonexistent.

Sure, '80's horror franchises are getting rebooted left and right, but I think this new "April Fool's Day" fails. Please, God, don't let anyone find a VHS copy of Roz Kelly in "New Year's Evil"...please? (*) out of five stars.

Masterpiece Theatre meets The Exorcist: "Apprentice to Murder" (1988)

In 1927 Dutch Pennsylvania, Billy (Chad Lowe) is a sixteen year old illiterate artist who works in a factory during the day and protects his mother Elma (Rutanya Alda) from his drunken father Tom (Eddie Jones) at night. Beautiful Alice (Mia Sara) meets Billy, and the two begin a friendship.

The town is greeted with a whirlwind in the form of a powwow medicine man/faith healer named John Reese (Donald Sutherland). Reese's entire life has been a struggle with Satan, and he begins healing people in the town in the name of Jesus Christ. Billy goes to him about his drunken father, and Reese gives him a substance that will make Tom violently ill every time he drinks alcohol. Living in the same boarding house, Alice sees a different side of Reese, a strange man who rants and raves in the dark and is prone to paralyzing seizures. Billy falls under Reese's spell, bailing him out when he is arrested for practicing medicine without a license after the death of a local girl.

As Billy and Alice fall in love, Billy becomes Reese's assistant. His father is now sober, and Billy is ready to escape to Philadelphia with Alice. However, Reese is felled during an exorcism to get rid of a demon that is killing a farmer's livestock. He goes with the young couple to Philadelphia, and Alice leaves the pair so she can get on with her life. Finally, death brings Billy home, and he and Reese must track down the weird hermit Lars (Knut Husebo), whom Reese is convinced is the devil.

Ignore the old New World Video box cover for this film. The scene with a cloaked figure standing over the cute girl does not happen in the film. This is not horror, but a very suspenseful and creepy psychological thriller. The first question you will want to know is if Reese is really healing these people. There are terrifying scenes of demon possession, but we quickly realize they may be occurring in his mind. We find out he spent four years in a mental institution, is he insane? Billy is so desperate to get out of the small town, he is willing to believe anything. Alice loves Billy, but she is a realist who puts her own humble aspirations (to be a typist) before her relationship.

Chad Lowe, always such an underrated actor, is really wonderful here. He doesn't play Billy as a wide eyed fool. Mia Sara, whose career has suffered lately, is also good. Alda and Jones do fine jobs as Billy's troubled parents. Special mention should be made for Sutherland. His character is off the wall to begin with, but Sutherland turns him into a sympathetic man of God who may be serving Him in all the wrong ways. There is something in Sutherland's eyes that make you think he is either sincere or scheming. He has a very physical role, and he is fantastic.

The film was shot in Norway, and the crew is full of Norwegian names. The location is excellent. Thomas directs with real suspense, never caving in to pressure to trot out gore for gore's sake, or sex for exploitation's sake. Billy and Alice's love scenes are dark, and sweet in a way.

I have seen this film on video shelves for years, but avoided it until I found it for ninety nine cents at a previewed video sale. It was worth that and so much more. I highly recommend this odd film. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Appetite for Deconstruction: "Appetite" (1999)

You pick up the video box to this film in the horror section of the store, and you prepare yourself for a good old fashioned British hotel haunting that will have you forgetting "The Shining" and promising never to visit England. You watch the film, and feel like you should sue the video company for false advertising.

Trevor Eve is Jay, a quiet but noble hotel owner. An assortment of weird guests are staying at his out of the way hotel, which is located in the middle of Chinatown. Greta (Ute Lemper) is a former beauty who cannot seem to finish her suicide note so she can kill herself. Arthur (George Harris, remember Captain Katanga from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"?) is searching for the heroin dealer who made his son overdose. That dealer is the chef Wim (George Lentz), who works with the simple minded Godfrey (Detlef Bothe), who is saving his money in a box in the kitchen vent system. Susie (Yse Tran) is an adopted woman who plans to kill herself if her birth mother does not show up by an appointed time. Jonathan (Edward Hardwicke) is a middle aged man obsessed with Susie, and final judgments. Nelson (Christien Anholt) is an angry Navy sailor who stirs up trouble as soon as he is thrown into this den of misfits.

Everyone here has a history, and everyone's history is going to culminate in this hotel. A card game's loser, Susie, must spend the night in the haunted room of the hotel, where she has weird dreams that tell us a little bit about her. She survives the stay, more determined in her self destructive decision. Greta and Jay draw closer, and she leaves him a girlie magazine she was in years before. Someone steals Godfrey's money, and Nelson steals the magazine. What follows are many scenes of accusations, and characters confronting other characters who have no idea what is going on. I soon realized the horror angle had been a dupe, and I watched as the haunted room took a back seat to the psychological torture these characters are going through. The ending cannot be revealed, but the deaths of many of these troubled people is obvious, with the haunted room playing the smallest of roles.

Every character here has a personality quirk, and they have this flaw when they arrive at the hotel. The hotel is not driving people crazy, the people are driving the hotel crazy. The entire haunted room subplot could have been removed and the film would not have been adversely affected.

The whole film takes place in the hotel, and the set is very natural looking. Director Milton recalls Kubrick's "The Shining," right down to copying that film's fundamental flaw- characters who go nuts much too quickly. I was also reminded of Alan Parker's gliding shots in "Angel Heart," I would be interested to see Milton tackle straight horror with this kind of panache. Instead, we have a film that cannot decide if it is a character study or a suspenser. It does not work at either level.

The cast is excellent across the board. Standouts are Eve as Jay, Lemper, and especially Anholt as Nelson. His part is not villainous so much as he is a first class jerk of the highest caliber, and one of the most unlikable characters in recent memory.

The film is light on plot, relying on the characters to keep interest from flagging. Things really do not get going until the bloody finale, and the hopeful coda tacked on to the end feels as forced as it plays.

I was disappointed with "Appetite." I went into it with the wrong expectations, and by the time I tried to understand what the film makers were trying to do, I found that did not work either. Aside from the acting, lose this "Appetite." (* *) out of five stars.

Paint It Blood Red: "The Apostate" (2000)

Richard Grieco turns in the best performance of his checkered career in this underappreciated little thriller.

***Spoilers Ahead*** Grieco is Father Michael, who returns to his native Puerto Rico for his brother's funeral. His brother, a gay prostitute, was slashed to death by sicky artist Dennis Hopper, and the blood was splashed on the walls. I didn't ruin anything for you, Hopper is shown doing the killing. Another woman is killed by Hopper, and Grieco sees the crime scene, courtesy of his detective uncle. Grieco is also an artist and immediately recognizes that Hopper is not just leaving gory crime scenes, he is painting with the blood. Grieco goes undercover to root Hopper out. Grieco also meets the pretty Mary (irony), a nude artist and friend of the dead girl's roommate, who happens to be Grieco's former lover. Grieco goes through the San Juan underbelly, and of course, struggles with his faith, which was very tenuous at best. In the end, Hopper is caught, but there is another murder, and the ambiguous ending peaks the viewer's curiosity.

Gove directed his own script, and has a fantastic eye. The camera loves Grieco, who looks just plain cool in a priest's clothing. He has one great scene where he is talking about artistic technique while trying to hold down his lunch at a crime scene. He is really fantastic in this film, and I wish he could find better parts.

Hopper is okay in the psycho role that he is constantly playing. This could be the mad bomber from "Speed." One problem I had was with director Gove's obsession with wrought iron and barred windows and doors. Every character in the film, major and minor, go through doors or windows with bars or they peer into windows with bars, and eventually the whole cute idea gets overwrought (ha ha).

If you want films to compare this to, think of it as a cross between "True Confessions" and "Seven." Gove may be reaching putting a priest on the case, but Grieco more than makes up for the script's minor foibles. I definitely recommend this one. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Pot Makes You Horny!: "Aphrodisiac!: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana" (1971)

This quasi-documentary shows the viewer that, hey, pot ain't as bad as booze, man...oh, and here's some nudity.

Did you know that marijuana is an aphrodisiac? Really? Well, thanks to "documentary dramatization," we get three situations where pot loosened up some frigid men and women, and turned them into love machines. The first story involves a virgin and her husband on their wedding night. For two years, the husband and wife make love in the dark, and hate every moment of it. Finally, in a strip club, with the world's worst exotic dancer bouncing in the background, a psychiatrist advises the husband to use pot to thaw out his wife. It works and everyone is happy.

The second story had an uncredited John Holmes playing a businessman who releases stress by smoking a joint and giving his secretary "dictation" right there on his desk. The third story has a hippie chick protesting war who sleeps with an African-American ("my first black!" she proclaims) who is protesting smog. As she narrates a stream of consciousness speech equating sex to candy, the couple make love just off some campus quad after sharing a joint. Interspersed among the sex scenes is actual documentary footage shot on Hollywood Boulevard as normal folk are stopped and asked about marijuana. We also get a history lesson about marijuana, and plenty of speechifying about how pot is not as bad as liquor, tobacco, or coffee, and the film makers somehow manage to work in footage of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.

The film I saw ran only forty-two minutes, and according to, the full version of the film runs seventy-seven minutes, complete with hardcore sex inserts. I doubt all the sex would have made the film much better. This is pretty funny. Its earnestness about the benefits of marijuana, and how no one has ever died or graduated to harder drugs or caught cancer from pot is naive now, considering what is known about it. I laughed out loud when John Holmes showed up. His drug abuse and possible involvement in the Wonderland murders is as legendary as his giant penis, and he doesn't make a credible spokesperson singing the praises of pot. I don't care whether you light up a bowl or not (I don't), but I do know of people under the influence of pot killing the innocent, harder drugs being taken up when pot was not enough, and that marijuana smoke does contain carcinogens. This film pretends none of this could ever happen, boldly wearing its ignorance like a badge.

I am sure the full hardcore version of "Aphrodisiac!: The Sexual Secret of Marijuana" is out there somewhere. I found this version on Something Weird Video's "Alice in Acidland"/"Smoke and Flesh" double feature. I guarantee it's one documentary they didn't show you in high school health class. (*) out of five stars.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ape Shit: "The Ape" (2006)

Actor James Franco makes his directorial debut with a pretentious film that only works as an office comedy.

Harry (James Franco) is a frustrated novelist who worships Dostoevsky but has little time to write. He leaves his wife and son temporarily and moves into a New York City apartment. Not reading the lease's fine print, Harry finds himself living with a talking Ape (Brian Lally). Harry begins to accept Ape, who begins to help Harry see his life and relationships differently.

Franco also cowrote the play the film is based on, but every scene involving the Ape fails miserably. Wisely, the film makers merely put an ape mask on actor Brian Lally, letting the audience find its own reality in the main plot. This "Theatre of the Absurd" struggles to its foregone conclusion, and the scenes and characters equally grate.

The scenes that do score center around Harry's relationship with office crush Beth (Stacey Miller) and boss Cathy (Allison Bibicoff). Harry is stuck in a dead end job in the human resources department at a telephone company. As the Ape feeds Harry bravado and confidence, Harry's behavior at work changes. I believe Franco's performance is better in these scenes, too, when he hits the broad comedy.

Franco's direction is very good. He has a nice eye for little details (the workplace lice outbreak announcements, Dostoevsky quotes reflecting Harry's situation), but the script is dead on arrival.

If "The Ape" had dropped the title character, and morphed into a short film about office politics, it might have worked. If a coworker told you about his talking ape roommate, that would be funnier and stranger than actually seeing said ape. I do look forward to more behind the camera work from Franco, though. (* *) out of five stars.

Killer Pad: "Apartment Zero" (1989)

In 1988 Buenos Aires, political strife is rampant. This is due in part to a series of murders being performed by hired foreign mercenaries. What a time for Adrian (Colin Firth) to decide to look for a roommate.

Although Adrian is Argentinian, he has a British accent thanks to sixteen years in England. His movie theater is failing, since no one wants to see the old classics anymore. He runs an apartment building full of nosy neighbors that he cannot stand. His mother is in the hospital, and will probably never leave. To make ends meet, he puts an ad in the newspaper.

Out of the normal weirdos who answer comes Jack (Hart Bochner), an American who works at a computer company just around the corner. Adrian is almost enamored with Jack, and the two move in together. The first half of the film revolves around Adrian's suspicions about Jack, who becomes friendly with all of the hated neighbors in the building. Lonely Adrian and Jack share and fight like roommates do, and the body count around Buenos Aires keeps growing. To even hint at where the film ends up would be a disservice, but I cannot imagine anyone out there would find it predictable.

"Apartment Zero" is a strange film. It does not quite fit into the "psycho serial killer roommate" genre of suspense films. The Buenos Aires locations are terrific, as is the Argentinian supporting cast. Colin Firth is riveting as Adrian, as complex a character as he has ever played. Hart Bochner is equally good. His classic movie star looks endear him to Adrian, but there is something creepy about his grin. His lack of intensity just jacks up the intensity surrounding his character! Great off-kilter music score to boot.

The first half of the film is pure paranoid suspense. Clues are dropped, relationships explored, and bits of information about Jack and Adrian are revealed. Then the second half of the film turns into absurdist tragedy. There are darkly comic moments, goofy directorial flourishes, and a strange climax that will either have you cheering or shaking your head in puzzlement. While the film worked for me most of the time, some viewers might get turned off by the change in tone and characterization (I did not believe for one minute Jack's passport trouble at the airport).

"Apartment Zero" is still a good film, helped by the two leads and different location. While the second half is not expected, this should be given a chance. (* * * *) out of five stars.