Wednesday, October 26, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Litter Pan: "Cat People" (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set Adrift: "Cast Away" (2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carrying On: "Carrington" (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing Ground: "Burial Ground" (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Raw Poetry: "Bukowski at Bellevue" (1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruised Ego: "Bruiser" (2001)

Almost a decade after his underrated adaptation of Stephen King's novel "The Dark Half", Romero finally returns to the director's chair with a lovely little suspenser that must make Wes "I want to branch out into other genres" Craven green with envy.

**This review contains major spoilers** Jason Flemyng is Henry, a put upon nobody who is treated like crap by his wife, Jeanine, and one of Romero's most vile creations- boss Miko, played with a lot of balls (literally, we get to see them) by Peter Stormare. Stormare is the pig who runs the magazine Bruiser, where Henry toils. Henry's best friend tries to calm him in relation to money, Henry's maid is stealing from him, even his wife's annoying little poodle hates him. One morning, Henry hears a listener shoot himself on a talk radio show. This event changes him. Henry likes to imagine what would happen if he killed himself, or pushed back against the world that is pushing him around.

For a company masquerade, Henry is fitted with a blank white mask that must be decorated. After he catches his wife with Miko, and she rejects him at home, Henry loses all sense of identity. He wakes up one morning, wearing a blank white mask he cannot remove, and begins acting on the murderous impulses against all the people who have been treating him like trash, or not noticing him at all. Henry kills his wife. Call in Tom Atkins, as the world weary detective we have seen a few too many times before. He believes Henry's wife was killed by Miko's estranged wife, Rosemary, who has a special bond with Henry in that it is one of the few normal relationships in his life.

As the police center on Rosemary, a faceless and murdering Henry prepares for the final set piece at the decadent masquerade ball, one of the weirdest parties ever put on film. Romero films this entire sequence with gutsy angles and a satisfying conclusion. The scares come in Henry's stalking of his victims, especially the scene at the tennis club, and the main question Romero asks and never answers: is Henry's mask real, or a figment of his twisted imagination?

This film could be considered a cousin to Joel Schumacher's "Falling Down," except in this case, Henry is not a somebody who is fed up with everyone, he is a nobody who becomes everyone's whipping boy- from his boss to his wife to his maid to his own best friend, who has been ripping off his accounts.

Some of the line readings here are off, but the main cast of characters more than make up for it, especially Stormare. Romero makes a very un-"Night of the Living Dead" and "Martin." His direction is so clean and modern, with a good jazz score highlighting Henry's perceived nonexistence in a crazed material world.

If you are seeking the Romero of the past, look elsewhere. This is not "Scream." Romero, who also wrote the screenplay, shows he does not have to stick to out and out gore, he can handle a psychological thriller very well. The video box cover makes this look like another "Friday the 13th" flick, with a silhouetted man with a knife that does not appear in the movie, but this is so much more. I think many of the negative reviews came from dashed expectations more than a reaction to Romero's change of pace. Romero has had some duds in the past, including the stupid "Monkey Shines," but I think this is one of his better efforts.

"Bruiser" went straight to video, and died, and that is unfortunate. It is better than most of the stuff currently in the theater, and you might want to seek it out after you pass the three hundred copies of "Shrek" at your video store. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

No Lee, Just a Li: "Bruce Li in New Guinea" (1980)

Bruce Li is an anthropologist/martial arts expert who is led by a friend to an island near New Guinea. A cult on the island worships snakes (what else are you going to do on a land mass named Snake Worship Island?). A devil sect runs the island, and the island princess is powerless to stop them.

The duo is led by some comic relief guides, and meet another man who is looking for a "snake pearl," a giant jewel. He meets up with the Great Wizard and is fatally poisoned, but not before warning Li of the wizard's powers. Li fights the wizard, gets poisoned too, and disappears. Much later, Li turns up back in Hong Kong with a story: he was saved by the princess and fell in love with her, forced to leave by the wizard. Li and his friend decide to go back to Snake Worship Island, this time to rescue his love, and the child he did not know he had fathered.

I apologize for the lack of characters' names, but no one is identified during the credits. What is left is a howlingly bad martial arts film, with enough camp and action to keep it out of the one-star category. Bruce Li was one of many Bruce Lee look alikes who popped up after Lee's untimely death. He looks like Lee in some shots, but Li lacks the intensity that Lee conveyed in his film work.

The snake worship cult is hilarious. Their giant temple is the size of the living room I watched the video in. Their costuming is especially funny, multicolored short shorts and matching headbands. The dubbing, always bad in these things, is bad here, too. However, the martial arts action is pretty cool. The choreography is top notch, and the special effects are not too badly done (except for a terrible looking snake spell put on a baby). There is also a large amount of female nudity here, for those who need that to make this kind of film complete.

Weird pacing, snake worship, naked beach frolicking, a poisonous ring, one secondary villain who looks like Cat Stevens, what more could you want? "Bruce Li in New Guinea" is just dumb campy fun, and nothing the Foreign Language Film Academy Award Nominating Committee overlooked that year. (* *) out of five stars.