Monday, November 28, 2011

Lower Class: "Class of 1984" (1982)

Mark Lester directs a cult hit that has aged worse than any Rubik's Cube or Smurf merchandise from the 1980's.

Naive music teacher Andy (Perry King) is hired to teach at a tough inner-city high school after a stint in the crime free utopia of Nebraska (where I graduated from high school in 1986, and know firsthand this film is already wrong). He immediately has run-ins with a gang of toughs led by Stegman (Timothy Van Patten). Andy's wife Diana (Merrie Lynn Ross) is pregnant, and the two just want to lead normal lives.

The gang runs the school, and no one can do anything about them because of lack of witnesses, and the criminals are still under eighteen. Andy finds solace with Corrigan (Roddy McDowall), a biology teacher who takes his own comfort in drinking between classes and carrying a gun. The helpless principal never believes children are capable of wrong, and the local police detective Stewiski (Al Waxman) is also of no use.

The rest of the film is easy to summarize. The gang strike at Andy or his "good" students (including a chubby Michael J. Fox), Andy strikes back and is reprimanded by an authority figure, toughs strike, Andy reprimanded, etc. The inevitable finale is especially sleazy.

Actually, the whole thing is sleazy. While this might not be a bad thing necessarily, the film makers try to dress this junk up as an important social statement. The opening crawl warns that this is based "in part" on real events, and that most schools are not this bad "yet." The gang is seen as a four person crime wave, dealing drugs, raping, pillaging, et al., and yet no one can do anything about them. All the adults are helpless ninnies who cower in their presence until Andy finally begins taking a stand. By the end of the film, however, no one has changed! There is no development, the characters have shown no difference in their personas, they are established and then give the viewer ninety-three minutes of bad behavior.

Lester directs the film well enough, but his material is so badly written, it is hard to dress it up with artistic flourish. Perry King is rarely bad in anything except maybe some of his film choices ("Mandingo"), and this is one of them. Alice Cooper contributes what may very well be the worst song in movie history, not to mention his music career. Fox tries his early Alex P. Keaton character out here, and that is all I could see while I watched him. Where's Mallory to save you from a lunch room stabbing when you need her?

In the age after the Columbine massacre, when the violence seemed to strike out of nowhere, "Class of 1984" is a relic. No longer should we fear the kids who commit the big crimes in school, but the nutty quiet ones who target practice in the woods as well. This movie does not serve to inspire or change anything, it just gives you a basic thrill, like watching a slasher pic. Believe me, that is not enough. (*) out of five stars.

Santa's Slay: "Christmas Evil" (1980)

Poor Harry. In Christmas 1947, he saw Santa doing more than kissing Mommy under the Christmas tree, and it has traumatized him since.

An adult Harry (Brandon Maggart) now works at the Jolly Dream Toy Factory, where he is the butt of jokes and gossip from his coworkers. He is promoted to an office job, but still misses the toy assembly line. Harry also has an extracurricular hobby- he is obsessed with Christmas and Santa Claus. His house is in perpetual Christmas year round, and Harry spies on the neighborhood children, keeping track of who has been nice and who has been flipping through a copy of Penthouse. Harry's brother, Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Phil's wife Jackie (Dianne Hull) are on the other end of the spectrum. They are in love, they have children, but Phil is venomous toward his weirdo brother.

Harry is taken advantage at work by a lout who wants to duck out on a shift. At the Jolly Dream Christmas party, a film shows the vacationing owner promising toys for the local children's hospital- which Harry finds out is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Jolly Dream's toys themselves are plastic and worthless, Harry laments that no one takes pride in the product any longer. Harry reaches his breaking point.

He begins stalking one particular bad boy of the neighborhood. He steals from the toy factory and delivers gifts to the children's hospital himself, driving a cargo van with a sleigh painted on it. He is now dressed in full Santa regalia, loved by children where ever he goes. Stopping by a church on Christmas Eve, he has other plans for naughty adults, killing three people on the church steps in a startling scene of violence and gore. Soon, Harry is crisscrossing town, bringing joy and gifts to children and taking revenge on the adults who have wronged him. He eventually ends up back at Phil's home, and the movie ends with one of the weirdest climaxes to ever grace a horror flick.

"Christmas Evil" belongs just below "Gremlins" and "Black Christmas" and well above "Elves" and the moronic "Silent Night, Deadly Night" series when it comes to the unique Christmas horror genre. I would compare this film favorably with the unwatchable "Maniac," which also featured an insane loner who loses it and kills.

This film is different in that we are tipped to Harry's insanity early, and watch him mentally deteriorate through the film. The motivation for his Christmas delusion is weak, Mom gets her garter belt felt by Santa Daddy, and Harry slashes his hand open on a broken snow globe. Maggart is very good as Harry, anchoring the film. The writer/director wisely keeps the cast above thirty, no horny teens wandering around alone here. The supporting cast are all character actors whose faces you have seen a million times in other things, most notably "Home Improvement"'s Patricia Richardson, playing the polar opposite mom from her saintly television Jill.

The ending is definitely weird, and the torch bearing townsfolk is a little too much to take. There is a wicked sense of humor throughout, from office politics to a police lineup of Santas, but Jackson never succumbs to tossing in a bunch of Christmas cliches and stupid one liners.

The film came out in 1980, in the beginning of the slasher cycle, and it is definitely different. Known under alternate titles "You Better Watch Out" and "Terror in Toyland," I recommend it based on the junky slasher films that have followed.

This was made before there was a slasher formula, and its difference is something to cherish (in a very weird way). (* * * *) out of five stars.

You'll 'Choke'...On Fits of Unintentional Laughter: "Choke" (2001)

You might see the names "Dennis Hopper" and "Michael Madsen" on the cover of this straight to video thriller and think "how bad can it be?" Trust me, it is worse than you can imagine.

Hopper is businessman Henry. What type of business? I don't know, the writer/director cannot be bothered with such trivial nonsense. Anyway, sleazy business associate Roy (Ron Sloan) is trying to pressure Henry into yet another shady deal. Henry refuses, and then gets a call that his cute daughter Gena (Chelcy Reynolds, who does NOT take her clothes off in the film) has just drunkenly run over a district attorney's son and killed him. Roy overhears the conversation, and tries a little blackmail to get Henry to sign on to this damn deal.

It may have been one hell of a deal, but we never find out. The funniest scene occurs at well-to-do Hopper's suite of offices, which is about the size of my bedroom closet, even though Henry drives a Hummer! Henry attacks Roy, leaving him coughing and gasping in the office building bathroom. Henry later checks on Roy, and finds him dead. He dumps the body out the bathroom window and makes plans to get rid of it.

Cue local serial killer Will (Michael Madsen), who decides to help out Henry. Will already has a body in the trunk of his car, but there's room enough for Roy's carcass, too. The two make an agreement: Will will dump Roy's body, but Henry must help with Will's own alibi for his latest murder. Trust me, the synopsis, a bad riff on "Strangers on a Train," is more interesting than the film.

I am guessing the entire budget for the film was barely enough to pay for Madsen's brand new John Deere cap. The film is goofy-cheap, from the hysterical offices to Henry's rather modest home. Most of the film involves Henry and Will talking to each other for what feels like hours on end. They cover their childhoods, how dissimilar they are, pick up hitchhikers, leave notes for each other, threaten one another, etc. I eventually forgot whose bodies were in the trunk of the car, and didn't care. Watch for one scene where Will and Henry park and admit to their respective crimes as a peeping tom looks on. Does the peeper's testimony put anyone behind bars? No, his only role is to turn around from Will and Henry and look at the only actress with enough low self-esteem to show a brief boob in a dressing room scene.

The director must have sat in between Madsen and Hopper in the endless driving scenes, because the camera pretty much shows us every nose hair the two actors possess. The finale involves one character's lack of peripheral vision, I was laughing instead of being thrilled or relieved.

"Choke" deservedly went straight to video. Like the DVD cover? Looks kind of cool, huh? Aside from the cut and paste picture of the two stars (which I believe came from another film anyway), none of that is in the movie. Perform the Heimlich maneuver on yourself after watching this, and pick a better flick. (*) out of five stars.

Cheese-um: "Chisum" (1970)

It is amazing that John Wayne is so popular so many years after his death. No one has ever been able to duplicate the man's screen presence, despite Clint Eastwood's best efforts. John Wayne was beloved, an underrated actor, an even more underrated film director, and a western film icon. Sadly, for every "McLintock!" or "Red River," there is a "The Conqueror," or this film.

The Duke is John Chisum, one of those impossibly rich ranch owners who finds himself the target of the villainous Forrest Tucker. Tucker is buying up the local town for no real reason. Enter some of the way too many characters when none other than Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett get involved with the proceedings. Both compete for Chisum's overly plain niece. The rest of the film consists of too many ambushes and horse chases, as Tucker and Wayne go back and forth until the inevitable violent conclusion.

At one time, this type of western worked- about twenty years before this fossil was released. McLaglen virtually draws pictures on the screen to illustrate the kind of simplistic plot my gerbil could figure out, if I had a gerbil. The scenery is beautiful and Ben Johnson is worth a quite a few laughs as Chisum's muttering-under-his-breath sidekick.

The most embarrassing aspect of the film is the treatment of real life characters Billy the Kid, Billy's mentor Tunstall, and Pat Garrett. Garrett ends the film as a hen pecked sheriff with no indication that he would one day kill William Bonney. Tunstall, the European anti-gun rancher who took Bonney and others in, then was gunned down, is a little irritating here. This is the west, he does not carry a gun, so he comes off as slightly feminine and completely stupid.

Billy the Kid wasn't a cold blooded killer, he apparently succumbed to some sort of 1870's peer pressure, explaining his past crimes to running with the wrong crowd. After these scenes, I kept expecting Father Flanagan to step out from behind a cactus and box Billy on the ear. Tucker and Wayne keep likening their competition to a chess match, and this film is that exciting.

The film is badly paced, as McLaglen relies to heavily on his cast's goodwill to carry a story that has been done (better) a hundred times before.

This is not as bad as "The Conqueror," but I did not expect this level of ineptitude from a normally strong cast and crew. "Chisum" should have stayed back on the ranch. A few positives keep this at average, but geez. (* * *) out of five stars.

Please, Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em Anymore With Your Acting: "Cheyenne" (1996)

MC Hammer, his do rag, and his razor wielding midget sidekick are just a couple of aspects of this awful, inept western.

Sexy Cheyenne (Sexy Bobbie Phillips) runs away from jerk husband Starrett (Bo Svenson) and takes all his dirty gun running money with her. Bounty hunter Jeremiah (Gary Hudson) comes to town, is framed for stealing a horse, and almost finds himself swinging from a tree. Starrett makes him a deal- find his wife alive, and he will get a thousand dollars. Jeremiah rides off to look for Cheyenne. Haddox (M.C. Hammer) and little person Razor (Robert Bell) arrive for the job, and Starrett makes them the same deal. Why? Starrett has Jeremiah out there, why bring in another bounty hunter?

Keeping in the proud modern western film tradition of automatically trying to rape all female characters, Cheyenne is attacked in a cabin by a bunch of fat guys and Jeremiah saves her. He ties her up and heads back to Starrett. Haddox finds out they are together, and rides out after them. How? Cell phone technology was nonexistent, no one knows they are together, so who told Haddox? Cheyenne has hid the money, and she and Jeremiah grow closer, bickering and bantering like a Kate Hudson rom-com. Haddox catches up to them, they escape.

Meanwhile, back at the other uninteresting subplot, Starrett's latest gun deal goes bad. He now has no money to pay whoever brings his wife back first. Haddox finally captures Cheyenne and takes her to Starrett, with a thought-dead Jeremiah in pursuit.

At one point in the movie, Jeremiah spies on Haddox and Razor with binoculars from the top of a very high cliff. The problem is, when he looks through the binoculars, the director has Jeremiah's point of view at the bottom of the valley on the same line of vision as Haddox. The amateurish music score is often so loud, it drowns out dialogue. Hammer smokes a cigar and wears western wear. However, the costume is too big, so he looks like a ten year old playing cowboy. He also holds and smokes his cigar like Sister Mary Catherine of the Perpetual Sorrow discovering her first Pall Mall.

Bo Svenson lends some weight to this piece of foul breeze, doing his best with an impossible script. Bobbie Phillips has awfully white teeth for a kept western woman, but her frequent nude scenes will soon distract you. These scenes should be savored and remembered, since everything surrounding her is bad.

"Cheyenne" proves that anyone can make a movie if they have access to a three hundred dollar budget and an all day group pass to Monument Valley. Making a GOOD film is the ultimate challenge, and "Cheyenne" fails miserably. (*) out of five stars.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Pits: "Cherry Falls" (2000)

"Cherry Falls" boldly struts onto the horror genre stage, bathed in self-importance and confidently carrying the air of "something new." It is one of the most unpleasant movie experiences of my life.

Flavor of the month Brittany Murphy is Jody, a pasty high school student having problems with her horndog boyfriend Kenny (Gabriel Mann). Kenny wants to do it, Jody does not, and the two break up. This occurs the same night another teenage couple are hacked to death. Jody's dad is Sheriff Marken (Michael Biehn), who stoically investigates the killings.

After another student is killed, Marken goes to the high schoolers' parents with a tidbit of information- the killer carved the word VIRGIN into the victims, and it seems the victims were in fact virgins. This causes a giant uproar, as the students decide the only way to save themselves from the killer is to have sex, and the parents half heartedly say no. Jody is attacked at the meeting, and has a sketch done of the killer. The killer is identified as a girl who disappeared from town over two decades before, and suddenly town secrets start rising to the surface. Jody does her own investigation, and the prerequisite bloody climax (sorry) occurs at the giant high school sex party.

This film made me sad. The director went with a bunch of browns and earth tones, the likes of which I have not seen since I last changed my son's diaper. All the students have a pasty look to them. Everyone seems to wear black, even the sheriff and his deputies sport the latest in brown wear. This is depressing to watch. I also came to hate every character in the movie. When watching a slasher film, one should not feel more sympathy for the killer than for the victims. All the adults here are troubled alcoholics who are quick to get into dumb fistfights (the school meeting). All the high schoolers here are stupid horny pot heads who make jokes about the killings. Why bother hoping these people make it until the end of the film?

Wright, who somehow went from directing "Romper Stomper" to this mess, gets some real mean murders out of his film. However, he also falls for every damn cliche you have seen in every other damn slasher film. From the jump cut (heroine bumps into someone who turns out to be harmless), to the villain coming back to life one final time, I wanted to throw something at the screen. There is a germ of morbid humor near the end of the film, watch for a severed hand in a student's hair, but it is too little too late.

"Cherry Falls" is bathed in unpleasantness. I thought I was going to need a shower after this. Hopefully, this new round of slasher flicks is ending so we can wait another twelve years for "something new" to come along. "Cherry Falls" and should have stayed down. (*) out of five stars.

Delicious: "Chef's Special" (2009)

The most unfortunate thing about “Chef’s Special” is that it is Spanish, and will forever be compared to the work of Pedro Almodovar. Nacho G. Velilla has created a very funny screwball comedy that stands on its own.

Maxi (Javier Camara) is the head chef in a small restaurant. He has a number of people working for him, including the crazed Ramiro (Fernando Tejero), and unlucky in love maitre d’ Alejandra (Lola Duenas), better known as Alex. Maxi’s life is nothing but chaos as he tries to hold his crew together. The eatery is bleeding money, and his coworkers all let their flawed personal lives affect their work. A former soccer star, Horacio (Benjamin Vicuna), is moving in across the hall from Maxi, and Alex already has her claws out for him. Amidst the chaos, Maxi gets a call from the hospital.

His ex-wife is dying and someone must take care of their children- fifteen year old Edu (Junio Valverde) and six year old Alba (Alejandra Lorenzo). Maxi has no relationship with the kids, but takes them in when their mother passes.

Maxi goes on a date with Alex and Horacio, acting as a chaperone (and leaves Ramiro babysitting the kids, in one of the film’s very funny scenes). Unfortunately, Horacio has eyes for Maxi; he is deep in the closet, being a former professional athlete and now a television sports commentator. Slowly, Maxi’s life keeps unraveling: there are rumors of the Michelin Guide’s representative looking to judge Maxi’s restaurant; Edu is expelled for gay-bashing at his school; Alex can’t seem to let go of Horacio, not knowing he is with Maxi; and Maxi must reevaluate his life and priorities concerning new loves and his children.

Velilla’s pace is non-stop, and “Chef’s Special” is a consistent laugh. While some of the humor is too crude, and a few scenes fall flat (I think due to language barriers more than anything), the cast is so likable and so watchable, I cared about them all from the minute the film started. While the final fifteen minutes is predictable, the film still had me, and I shiver to think what an American remake would do to these characters.

Velilla’s color palette is very Almodovar-like: colorful and bright. The opening credits and music work really well, and the film just plain looks fantastic. The cast is excellent, everyone seems to be having fun and the screenwriters have given them all plenty to do. I loved Alba questioning all her bedtime stories, Horacio being conflicted by his feelings for Maxi, and especially how Maxi handles Edu’s gay-bashing and expulsion. There are some dark moments here, but they are consistently balanced by some broad physical comedy, and somehow work without weighing the film down or depressing the viewer.

Despite the main character being a chef, the film makers wisely do NOT make this movie all about the food as a metaphor. Likewise with the sports angle. Velilla doesn’t hit us over the head with any statements along the lines of “see, life is just like a soccer match!” (thank God).

"Chef's Special" is a fun, raunchy comedy that reminded me of “La Cage Aux Folles.” While I usually hate to wish for a sequel, I wouldn’t mind sampling a few more servings of these characters. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Awful and Unfunny: "Chasers" (1994)

It is always easy to judge a comedy. A good one makes you laugh, a bad one does not. This is a bad comedy.

Too cute William McNamara plays Navy dude Eddie Devane who is celebrating his impending discharge. He has prepaid for a Porsche with money he has been stealing from the Navy by selling things on the black market with the help of his neurotic friend Howard (Crispin Glover). In one of those unbelievable plot developments, Eddie is sent to help hard as a rock Rock Reilly (Tom Berenger) retrieve a dangerous prisoner named Tony Johnson and bring him back to base to be flown out to his permanent incarceration in California. The duo must drive through the Carolinas to do this, resulting in madcap Southern stereotypes.

Well, the bickering couple get to the Marine prison, and lo and behold, he is a she! Boing! And she is hot TonI (Erika Eleniak), not TonY! Wah-wah-wah! I hope the trip back goes as smoothly as every other trip Rock has gone on!

Toni soon makes her true self known, escaping from a preplanned truck stop with the help of a friend. She is recaptured. She sabotages Rock's van by stuffing tampons in the gas tank, and the trio is stranded in the middle of nowhere. The three fall into an abandoned mine shaft, and Toni gets out. She plans to escape, but gets a conscience and returns to help the boys out. As Eddie's life falls apart (Howard steals his Porsche), he gets drunk and sleeps with Toni, who naturally escapes again. She is recaptured again, but she has melted the hearts of these two guys with her sob story. She committed assault because she could not get an emergency leave to see her dying brother. Eddie and Rock deliver Toni to the proper authorities, but both have had life altering experiences (and an extended fist fight), and they come up with a goofy plan to spring Toni so she and Eddie can live happily ever after.

Dennis Hopper could not stage a comedic scene to save his life. He has no idea how to direct physical comedy. The tampons in the gas tank scene is awkward and obvious. The truck stop escape scene has Toni in a bad wig associating with Eddie and Rock, who have no earthly idea who she is! She looks the exact same, she is not Lon Chaney! While Hopper is having technical problems, the real fault here lies with the screenwriters (one of whom is from my hometown of Minot). All the characters here are stupid. All of them. The Navy and Marines have some weird inter-military rivalry (my dad was in the Air Force but we never got into fisticuffs with Army brats), the Carolinians are of the "Deliverance" variety, the women are all sexual objects, and the men are bitter drunks and wackos.

McNamara is baby faced in a part obviously inspired by all of Tom Cruise's roles. Tom Berenger sounds like Nick Nolte in "48HRS," and his change in character at the end is forced and unbelievable. Eleniak plays Toni as sympathetic, but I kept asking myself why she was set on escaping all the time. Sure, no one wants to serve time in prison, but I thought that reason was secondary to some big climactic confession that never comes about. Hopper populates this nightmare with tons of character actors in bit and cameo parts. Watch for Marilu Henner and actual Oscar nominees try to add a wackiness to the film that just is not there. Hopper's own cameo, with a fake nose that makes him look like Karl Malden, is as funny as a rectal exam.

"Chasers" can recall "The Last Detail," mirroring the basic plot but nothing more. This film lurches from scene to scene, never giving the audience anyone to like. Even Eleniak's topless scene is anticlimactic (so to speak), offering us the same thing we (or, at least, I) have seen in the pages of Playboy.

A bad comedy contains no laughs, and I literally did not laugh once. Do not pursue "Chasers." (*) out of five stars.

Finally, A Movie About That Busty Cuban Entertainer...Oh, Wait a Minute...: "Charro!" (1969)

Elvis Presley proves he does not have to appear in a musical to make a crappy film.

Elvis is Jess Wade (which sounds like Just Suede if you say it fast), a former member of an outlaw gang headed by Vince (Victor French). Wade left the gang to mine gold, and took Vince's girl Tracey (Ina Balin) with him. Tracey left, the mine did not pan out, and Vince has stolen a giant gold and silver encrusted cannon from the Mexican government.

One of the outlaws, now dead, is identified by a neck wound. Vince gets the idea to pay Wade back by giving him an identical neck wound, taking the heat off the outlaws. Wade heads to the nearest town, where the man who raised him happens to be sheriff, and Tracey happens to run the saloon there. The outlaws happen to camp outside the same town, and Vince's hotheaded brother Billy Roy (Solomon Sturges) heads off to town for some booze and hookers. There, Billy shoots the sheriff (but does not shoot the deputy, there is not one), and Wade hauls him to jail. Wade is sworn in as the deputy, still trying to avoid the Mexican military who is after him.

Vince finds out about Billy, and kills an entire squad of Federales with his most obvious weapon- the cannon. Soon, Vince gives Wade an ultimatum- release Billy or he will blow the town to smithereens.

Actually, the plot is the most entertaining part of the film. I could picture a remake, full of exciting action pieces and cowboys using their brains to outsmart each other. I beg for a remake because this film is so bad.

Charles Marquis Warren's experience is in television, and it shows. He uses a dissolve to black constantly throughout the film, as if making a spot for commercials. The problem is they come at the wrong time, every time. There will be a dissolve, then the next scene begins...usually taking place within seconds of the dissolved scene. The pace of the film is off, actors pause in between each other's dialogue as if they cannot remember their lines.

Elvis Presley is at a complete loss here. There are no songs to sing, no Capri-panted chicks to chase, so he delivers his words in his familiar monotone, reading them all with much too much seriousness. The one funny scene, when he slams Billy's head into a jail bar, is turned depressing by the King. Victor French acts circles around him, and takes over the film. Ina Balin is gorgeous, and does the closest thing to a nude scene ever done in an Elvis picture, but her character is so badly written it is embarrassing. The film's musical score, save the lousy opening credits song sung by Elvis, sounds eerily like the score to "Plan Nine from Outer Space." One final note: stay away from the Warner Brothers video of the film. The film was shot in widescreen, and the video's constant pan and scan gave me a massive headache.

"Charro!" is infamous for its ineptitude, and deserves the discredit. I spent most of this film fantasizing about Charo, hoochie koochie, and that was more entertaining than this film. (*) out of five stars.

They Don't Make Them Like This Anymore: "Chamber of Horrors" (1940)

This very British film is based on the novel "The Door With Seven Locks" by Edgar Wallace, and despite its title, it is more mystery than horror.

An eccentric lord dies and leaves everything to his young son. The family fortune is locked in the tomb with him, behind a door with seven locks. The keys are entrusted to the lawyer Havelock (David Horne), but if anything happens to the lord's son, pretty relation June (Lilli Palmer) inherits everything.

Ten years later, June is summoned by a dying man, and given one of the keys. The man is murdered, and June goes to the police. She meets the just retired detective Martin (Romilly Lunge) and his partner Sneed (Richard Bird), and they discover Havelock's office has been infiltrated and the keys are missing. The group, along with June's comic relief Aunt Glenda (a sometimes funny Gina Malo) go to the old mansion, where the weird Dr. Manetta (Leslie Banks) is now residing. Soon, clues start piling up, more murders occur, and Martin is hot on the case, and hot for June.

There are tons of plot twists that I cannot go into. There are almost a half dozen supporting characters that I could name, but won't. To be honest, the plot and acting is goofball. Martin is just too cool, and June is so dang perky. Glenda's desperation for a man is often funny, as is Sneed's inability to stay awake for long periods of time. Manetta makes quite the villain, a descendant of the Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada, and a collector of vintage instruments of torture. The action sequences have all the violence and gore of me and my little brothers wrestling in the den when we were kids. Lee's direction is standard, save a great use of close-ups during a fight scene between Martin and a major character that involves an iron maiden.

It is all so standard, and silly, but I am going to recommend it. Why? This is the perfect example of the type of film "they just don't make anymore." The suave heroic detective (former detective, in this case), the beautiful damsel in distress, the comic relief supporting players, the mad villain, the creepy supporting villains fighting amongst themselves, a scary old mansion and cemetery, it all somehow works. While I figured out most of the surprises before Martin and June did, I still had a ball watching the plot play out.

This kind of film would not do well today, in the age of Austin Powers poo-poo humor, or whether Pierce Brosnan will return as 007 (never mind that his stint as James Bond has been mediocre at best). Today, cops are tortured souls, seeing the grimy side of life. Film makers have tried to bring the golden days of English detectives into the modern age, but I still cringe when I think of the recent network remake of "Murder on the Orient Express."

"Chamber of Horrors" is not a great film, but it is good. If your idea of fun is to curl up with an Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh (or in this case, Edgar Wallace) mystery on a rainy day, this film would be for you. (* * *) out of five stars.

Chain of Morons: "The Chain" (1997)

Gary Busey, who has appeared in exactly one good movie ("The Buddy Holly Story") in his life, huffs and puffs through a Filipino jungle, chained to his arch enemy, and making the viewer wistful for "The Defiant Ones"...or even "Deadlock 2."

Frank (Gary Busey) is a Boston cop obsessed with capturing gunrunner Carlos (Victor Rivers- think Antonio Banderas with John Waters' mustache). Carlos is always two steps ahead of Frank, which is easy since Frank tips the scales at well over two hundred pounds. Frank and his angry wife Ellen (Jamie Rose) fly to the South American city of Vera Cruz to vacation and save their marriage...I know, I know, more on the Filipino geography mystery later.

Frank is in Vera Cruz to track Carlos, and Ellen has had enough. She takes up with a rico suave stranger in the hotel bar while Frank is roughed up and then fired from the police force (over the phone). Ellen gets cold feet and rejects the rico suave who turns out to be Carlos (gasp!). Frank follows Carlos and the two men are captured during one of their many fights. The duo are transported to the ominous Los Muerto prison camp, where the evil commander Zalir (Craig Judd) chains our moaning heroes together, and then decides to execute them. They are saved in the nick of time by a rebel attack and escape into the jungle, bickering and chained together.

Ellen finally heads to the U.S. embassy, worried, and meets with the ambassador and a mysterious CIA man, but don't fret, this subplot is never pursued, and we don't see Ellen again until the end of the film.

I am not sure what writer/director Luca Bercovici was trying to accomplish. From the opening scene involving Frank and his partner (Bercovici) dressed like clowns to bust the gunrunner, to Frank and Carlos' constant arguing, to the disastrously unfunny one-liners, any light or humorous touch attempted fails miserably. Frank is a jerk, and Carlos a murdering gunrunner, so I could care less if they got out of that jungle alive or not. It should have been simple, since many a shot shows that Busey's iron hand cuff could be slipped out of easily.

About that jungle! The video box places the story in South America. All of the place names and most of the native characters' names are Spanish. Yet, the film was shot in the Philippines, using obviously Asian actors. The story is so boring and badly done, I tried instead to figure out just where the hell all of this was happening. By the time Frank heals a sick child by creepily whispering in his ear, I deemed the whole mess unwatchable.

The buddy movies of the 1980's lives on in the overrated "Rush Hour" series, and while this was released ten years ago, it looks and plays like a relic from twenty years ago. This chain should be broken. (*) out of five stars.

Center Staged: "The Center of the World" (2001)

Although more infamous for its sex scenes than its acting and direction, Wayne Wang does marvels with a digital camera and his actors in a very good independent film.

Peter Sarsgaard is Richard, a young computer genius worth a million or so who takes a liking to Florence, played by Molly Parker. They decide to take a trip to Las Vegas together, with Richard paying for everything, and some harsh guidelines set up by Florence: no kissing on the mouth, together for just four hours every night, and no actual sexual penetration. Goofy Richard goes along with the demands, and the two skip town to Vegas. Richard is skipping more than just town, his computer business is about to go IPO, and his partner can not seem to get a hold of him.

Florence and Richard settle into a routine, and try to get to know each other after being so intimate physically. Richard's love for Florence is obvious, but slowly Florence begins to have feelings for Richard that are not of the usual prostitute/john type. Carla Gugino flashes in as one of Florence's screwed up friends, who notices a change in Florence when she is with Richard. Eventually, the couple begin breaking their rules, and the climactic sex scene brings out everyone's true colors on the future of the relationship.

The title of the film is interesting in that Richard thinks the center of the world is his computer, and Florence thinks it is a female's sexual organs. Eventually in the film, Florence's definition seems to be decided on, with Richard using his Center (money wise) to get to her Center.

The film treads through the familiar sexual obsession territory, but without going to the lengths that have been touched on in dozens of late night Showtime and Sinemax series and made for cable fodder. Richard is a genuine babe in the woods, trying to project a dangerous side, when in fact he is a nice guy who wants to help people. Try and keep track of how many times he asks Florence and others if they are okay or all right.

Florence is a great character, unable to contain her growing emotional attachment, so she uses her own body as a wall to Richard's love. You find yourself wishing these two screwed up people would get it together, but the ending leaves it up in the air without being too frustrating.

If anything, I sometimes found the sex to get in the way of the plot. Both people share innocuous stories from their past, then follow through with kinky sexual acts, but I got more from the stories.

Wang does a great job with the digital camera. He is respectful of his actors, not getting into everyone's face because he has the technology to, but he stays close enough to give the audience a voyeuristic feeling in the hotel room scenes. While some scenes run long here and there, I found the two main characters so different and so interesting, I did not mind the slow spots.

There is a lot of sex and nudity here, but only one very brief scene set in a strip club constitutes anything you would normally see in a porno. This is the kind of film Roger Ebert has been screaming about for years, demanding a new "A" for Adult rating that would be higher than an "R," but not quite a porno either. The "NC17" blew up in the MPAA's face, as it replaced the "X," it did not fall just below it.

"The Center of the World" is just less than an hour and a half long, but speaks volumes about its characters. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, I am still smarting from sitting through Wang's "Chan is Missing," one of the most dull, over-celebrated, and pointless films ever made.

He has come a long way, and I highly recommend this effort. (* * * *) out of five stars.

How Could Such a Funny Idea Go So Wrong?: "Celtic Pride" (1996)

Judd Apatow has been on a roll. He has directed, produced, or written: "The 40 Year Old Virgin," "Knocked Up," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," "Pineapple Express," TV's "Freaks and Geeks," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Superbad," "Talladega Nights"...the list goes on and on. While not everything he touches turns to gold ("Drillbit Taylor"), it is interesting that he wrote the screenplay for this comedy- but its failure may not be his fault.

Physical education teacher Mike (Daniel Stern) and plumber Jimmy (Dan Aykroyd) are diehard Boston Celtics fans. They are attending the Celts' NBA Finals games against the Utah Jazz in the last few matches before the Celtics' home stadium is torn down. The one person standing in the way of the Celtics' championship, and Mike and Jimmy's eternal joy, is Utah's Lewis Scott (Damon Wayans), a spoiled star player who feels he is carrying his "lesser" teammates. Mike's sports widow wife Carol (a way too serious Gail O'Grady) has filed for divorce again, and Jimmy is all alone- the men only have their sports teams and Lewis has gone and mopped the floor with the Celtics, forcing a final game seven.

After hearing Lewis is partying at a local bar, Mike and Jimmy decide to get Lewis so drunk he will play with a hangover and the Celtics will win. The plan starts fine, as Mike and Jimmy get as drunk as Lewis, all three blacking out. The next morning, Lewis' hands are duct taped together and Mike and Jimmy have inadvertently become kidnappers.

Lewis is not stupid, and begins playing with the guys' psyches. Mike and Jimmy act stupid, but they are able to get under Lewis' skin as well. Carol, and Mike's son, see Lewis and things get more complicated after a couple of escape attempts. The climax is the all important Game 7, and Mike, Jimmy, and Lewis must come to terms with their behaviors and personalities.

What professional sports fan hasn't wished an opposing team's star player would just disappear off the face of the planet? Growing up a Dallas Cowboys fan, I must admit ill will for the likes of Terry Bradshaw, and entire teams like the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. When Mike and Jimmy snatch Lewis, the dormant sports fan in me smiled. Apatow and co-story writer Colin Quinn seem to have answered the prayers of many a sports fan. Unfortunately, director Tom DeCerchio cannot seem to deliver the goods.

While Stern's Mike is a pretty well written character (high school athlete who never made it big), Aykroyd's Jimmy is all over the place. A 40ish year old virgin type who lives alone, Jimmy played by Aykroyd is not funny. Wayans is best as Lewis, but he plays the stuck up basketball player none too deeply, as if this was an extended skit on "In Living Color." Wayans even borrows his homeless guy character in the drinking scenes. The supporting cast includes very brief turns by Darrell Hammond and Jeffrey Ross, but someone needs to tell sports legends like Larry Bird and Bill Walton that they cannot act. Deion Sanders is okay, but geez, sitting through this and "Space Jam" would only prove my point. Christopher McDonald as Lewis' Pat Riley-like coach gets the biggest laughs.

I am not sure who to blame for the film's grimy look. Director of photography Oliver Wood bathes the screen in dingy brown. Production designer Stephen Marsh scores here and there (especially Jimmy's sports-centric home), but even the Celtic green and Jazz purple seem toned down and drab. Basil Poledouris' not-there musical score doesn't help.

From the previews a few years ago, I thought "Celtic Pride" couldn't miss. Instead, it got lousy reviews and flopped. I guess sometimes those fans in the cheap seats are right. (* *) out of five stars.

Scene, Act, Repeat...Scene, Act, Repeat...: "Caught in the Game" (2009)

This film is an exercise in frustration. An attractive cast, an indy budget, good music, competent direction, yet I never could get caught up in this game.

Lisa (Amanda Dee) is a real estate hustler. She brokers shady deals for her drug dealer boyfriend Todd (Cordell Rainey), under the unsuspecting nose of her boss, Goldstein (Guy Nardulli). Lisa also has a love/hate relationship with two coworkers/friends, the impulsive Eve (Nikka Ischelle) and the woman who brought Lisa and Todd together- Angie (Janet Williams).

Todd stays out on the streets for days at a time, but pays for Lisa to live in the lap of luxury as long as she keeps using her deals to launder his drug money. Everything changes when new janitor Joshua (Simeon Henderson) starts at Goldstein's real estate office. Although cold at first, Joshua gets under Lisa's skin. He's a romantic who falls hard for Lisa, who was tiring of Todd and his ignoring ways. As Lisa and Joshua grow closer, Lisa's criminal work gets sloppy. She needs Todd for his money, needs Joshua for his love, and she is having a difficult time deciding between the two. The film's title does have a double meaning. Lisa is not only caught in the fraudulent game, but also the game of love. Watching the characters, you would think her choice would be crystal clear, but writer/director Michael Merrill throws in a twist ending that will leave you with lots of questions and little closure.

The film clocks in at almost an hour and fifty minutes, and is in desperate need of some trimming and tightening. Merrill writes scene after scene of dialogue that covers facts we already know, and then beats this proverbial dead horse to death time and time again. The viewer is overcome with deja vu as Lisa and Todd have the exact same fight (he can't answer the phone when he's out hustling) constantly. Eve and Angie thankfully become more than just disposable best friend characters, until both start parroting themselves from scene to scene, repeating the same warnings to Lisa and Todd about their respective illicit liaisons. This repetition is maddening!

On the positive side, the cast is outstanding. Even Todd gets some sympathy here and there, despite being a despicable character. Henderson as Joshua is so likable, you hope he gets Lisa right away. Dee is good and sexy as Lisa, although some of her character's choices will drive you nuts. I did catch an errant boom microphone here and there, and Merrill relies on interiors way too much, but other than some technical glitches his direction is comfortable. I am not a fan of hip-hop, but the music is also a plus here.

I have seen worse films, but "Caught in the Game" is still a disappointment. The running time feels padded, and after a while even the willing cast could not save it. To use a completely inappropriate sports metaphor, "Caught in the Game" quickly heads into overtime, when it should have been called much earlier. (* * *) out of five stars.

Curse Words: "Cathy's Curse" (1977)

This review gives away the entire movie because I care about you too much to make you watch it.

This Canadian effort opens with a little girl being taken by her father to go find her mother and little brother, who have left the dad. Right away, things do not make sense. There is no explanation why the mother took the son but left the daughter. Anyway, dad swerves to miss a little white bunny in the road, crashes the car, and he and daughter die.

Fast forward twenty years (and maybe until the end of this film), and little brother is all grown up and moving back into his childhood home with his wife and a daughter named Cathy. An elderly cleaning lady and a handyman greet the family, introduce themselves as certain murder victims, and help the family move in. Cathy takes the dead daughter's old room, and finds the dead daughter's favorite toy in the attic. The toy, a doll with its eyes sewn shut, is an object of constant bickering between Cathy and her mother.

The film makers make no bones about the fact that Cathy is haunted by her long dead child aunt, but they can never seem to decide who is doing the haunting. Is the gruesome doll possessed? No, the doll is not always present when weird things happen. Why does the doll have her eyes sewn shut? Never explained. If the dead child's possessions were so odious and offensive, why were they not thrown out twenty years earlier after the daughter died? That would make too much sense for our illustrious director. Is the house haunted? Possibly, but by the dead daughter? There is no indication as to the daughter's possible evil. Maybe she is mad at the mind altering 1970's wallpaper treatments in her old home. I almost became possessed by Christopher Lowell just so I could pull the crappy decorating down. Is Cathy just having a spell of ESP and a case of major whoopass? She is able to make some characters "see" things such as rats, snakes, and leaches, but this little devilish power is never explored, either. It just seems like the ghost here is eternally pissed off at something, and takes her revenge on the unsuspecting, idiotic cast members.

Since this is a badly written horror film, we must have a psychic come to the house for no other reason than to sense "evil." She is sent running and screaming into the streets. The cleaning woman is thrown through the second story window and dies. Cathy's mom flips out enough to be sent to Trembling Pines Relaxation Hovel and Insane Asylum. Elderly handyman, a drinker, watches Cathy, but his prized Doberman is poisoned. Through this creepy chain of events, Cathy's father remains oblivious to his own surroundings, never mind the constant presence of police, EMTs, and veterinary coroners in his manicured front yard. He chalks it up to bad luck and constantly goes to the "building site," although we are never sure if he is an architect, construction foreman, or bologna sandwich maker in the chuckwagon. In the conclusion, Cathy's mom figures everything out and saves Cathy from...well, I still do not know, my earlier questions were never answered.

This is a spiteful, mean little film in which the writers and director have just as much contempt for the viewer as they do for their own characters. I honestly could not believe entire scenes as the actors spoke horrid lines and tried to make me believe they were a family. Watch for the omelet scene, where father and daughter exchange some of the most unbelievably stilted dialogue ever captured.

"Cathy's Curse" cannot be taken seriously, the only real threatening curse here is on the unsuspecting video renter. I highly unrecommend it. (*) out of five stars.