Sunday, September 30, 2012

Peachy Keen?: "James and the Giant Peach" (1996)

When I was a kid, those big loud musicals of the late '60's and early '70's totally freaked me out. Bloated monstrosities like "Doctor Dolittle," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," and even the much later "Annie" were torture for many kids to sit through, while smiling parents thought they had finally found something to keep their offspring entertained. Well, add this film to the list.

After his parents were taken by a giant snorting rhinoceros, young James (Paul Terry) must go live with his evil Aunt Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and Aunt Sponge (Miriam Margolyes). He is made to do all the work around the house, and the aunts treat him horribly. James meets an old man (Pete Postlethwaite), who gives him a magic bag filled with crocodile tongues. James wants desperately to leave this house of hell in England, and go to the Empire State Building in New York City. This was a dream of his parents' before they died, and James has been keeping hope alive since.

James accidentally spills the bag, and the magic tongues generate a giant peach that grows to the size of a house. James crawls inside it, and discovers giant bugs that have also changed thanks to the magic. The group roll the peach into the ocean, and set sail for New York, and immediately run into other fantastic whimsical obstacles. The two aunts quickly pursue.

The film does start out live action, then switches to the stop motion animation that made "The Nightmare Before Christmas" famous. In the animation scenes, Grasshopper (Simon Callow), Centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), Ladybug (Jane Leeves), Glowworm (Miriam Margolyes, again), Spider (Susan Sarandon), and Earthworm (David Thewlis) all become characters who contribute to the voyage. They also grate on the nerves as much as Randy Newman's hopelessly bland songs.

The main voyage, with its undersea pirate ghosts and mechanical shark, just is not all that interesting. I was reminded of "The Pagemaster" while watching this. There is no central villain, so the threats to the peach's voyage are predictably dealt with. Of course, this being a musical, the entire film comes to a complete stop so the cast can warble a tune and bore the audience. The terrifying corpse makeup sported by Lumley and Margolyes, and their mistreatment of James, just added to my distaste. The rhino effects are impressive, and Terry turns in a good performance.

While the technology involved in creating this film is landmark and all that, Roald Dahl's original story is a letdown. Do not be bowled over by the bells and whistles, "James and the Giant Peach" is strange and cold. Go to bed, kids. (* *) out of five stars.

Jake's What-The-?: "Jake's How-To" (2008)

I'm not quite sure what the Buckley Brothers were doing with this film. It's a mess, and frankly, all about the wrong characters.

Aaron (Neil Kubath) is partner and prodigy to Jake (Kevin Oestenstad), a conceited beach volleyball player. The two practice on the sun drenched beaches of Wisconsin, and Jake gives Aaron some hilariously bad advice on how to pick up women. Aaron has just split up with his girlfriend, and his best friend Jonny (Matthew Zeidman) is also hoping Aaron will score, and return to normal. Aaron tries his best with assorted women, and does well, until he decides to use some of Jake's advice. A big volleyball tournament approaches, and Aaron finally comes to his senses about Jake, which affects both players' skills.

I'm sorry, but I often had no clue what was going on here. The sound is pretty bad, and the fun electronic score often drowned out the dialogue. The first two-thirds of the film drag, as Aaron is shot down every time he uses Jake's advice, yet stupidly goes back to it again and again. Also, for a sex comedy, sex is only talked about, and the only nudity here is shirtless guys and bikini-clad girls.

Two peripheral characters had me laughing, and building their parts up may have made the rest of the film tolerable. Two friendly rivals to Jake and Aaron are The Christian Fury (the film's composer Kyle Buckley), who carries a cross and slaps anyone who uses God's name in vain, and Rick (Nick Doetsch), The Christian Fury's maniacal partner- rude and crude and often getting the only laughs ("Anal!"). Plus, beach volleyball in Wisconsin? We couldn't milk a little more out of that? Instead, we have to watch Aaron getting hit in the forehead constantly, or ha-ha material like everyone thinking Jonny is gay.

"Jake's How-To" is a lost opportunity I wanted to like more. Well, guys, maybe next time. (*) out of five stars.

Mourning Wood, Part I: "Jail Bait" (1954)

Yes, yes, yes, Ed Wood made movies that were "so bad, they're good." Well, not being a believer in this mantra, I rented this junk and "Glen or Glenda" so I could have it out with the spirit of Ed once and for all.

The basic plot for this film reads like a rejected Rod Serling script idea. Poor misguided Don (Clancy Malone) is bailed out of jail by his sister Marilyn (Dolores Fuller). Their father is the world famous plastic surgeon Dr. Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson, who found himself in this dreck after over a hundred silent screen roles). Cops Johns (Lyle Talbot) and Lawrence (future "Hercules" Steve Reeves) try to convince Gregor that his son is up to no good.

Don confirms this by robbing a theatre with his mentor in crime Vic (Timothy Farrell). Don kills a night watchman, and Vic wounds a secretary, who later identifies them. Don wants to give himself up, but Vic kidnaps him and kills him. Then, Vic pretends Don is still alive and summons Dr. Gregor and Marilyn to his place for a little plastic surgery so he and his gal can escape to South America and live like kings. There, preparing for surgery, Gregor finds Don's body, and performs the surgery anyway...

I will never understand the worship of Ed Wood. His films were out and out lousy, whether he was a wide eyed neophyte in Hollywood or a cross dressing talentless drunk. How many people out there are defending "Glitter" or "From Justin to Kelly" or "The Real Cancun" because they are so bad they are good. I guess paying ten bucks at the theater makes a bad film, a two dollar video rental makes a so bad it's good film.

The entire cast is bad. Wood's script is laughable despite a half decent idea. He lets entire subplots come and go (the newspaper reporter), and has no concept about basics like camera placement or story. The title is a misnomer, the jail bait referred to is not a girl, but a gun.

Kelly Preston was once asked about hubby John Travolta's colossal bomb "Battlefield Earth." Preston, wearing an L. Ron Hubbard approved grin, responded, "at least he got it made."

Somehow, "Jail Bait" got made. It is truly terrible, and the mere vomiting forth of a bad film like this can no longer justify its existence or serve as an excuse to like it. Ed, you were one awful film maker. (*) out of five stars.

Seekin' Hyde: "Jacqueline Hyde" (2005)

Sure, you might think "oh, great, yet another modern version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde story." I doubt even old Bob himself was imagining anything this sexy.

Recently fired telemarketer Jackie Hyde (Gabriella Hall) inherits a giant house from her recently deceased magician grandfather. Jackie is lonely and doesn't have any friends, so she is intrigued when she discovers her grandfather's invention. Grandpa created a serum that allows the user to physically transform into other people.

Jackie becomes her sexy neighbor, and the neighbor's sexy boyfriend, then settles on a magazine model she renames Jacqueline (Blythe Metz). Estate lawyer Phillip (Jeremy Ordaz) likes Jackie, is turned on by Jacqueline, but begins to suspect something is wrong with both. Jacqueline keeps Jackie hidden inside her guise, and sets out to find a lover who can keep up with her.

Written and directed by Rolfe Kanefsky, "Jacqueline Hyde" features some of the boldest sex scenes since "Basic Instinct." Ordaz is not movie star artificial handsome, but is very believable as the normal Phillip. Metz is not only beautiful, but completely sinks her teeth into a great role. Kanefsky is careful to keep things from toppling over into all out comedy, but the movie's tone does not become too dark and pretentious (like "Mary Reilly").

At first, I did not think star and co-producer Gabriella Hall was mousy enough as Jackie. I realized she did not have to be the complete opposite of Metz, and playing the role as simply "ordinary Jackie" was the way to go. I have had a crush on Hall since her "Alien Erotica" days, and her Jackie is sexy and vivacious, immediately aware of the danger she has put herself into.

Using just a handful of sets, Kanefsky keeps things clicking along. Christopher Farrell's music and Paul Deng's photography add a big budget dimension to the film. There are some iffy effects along the way, including a terrible closing shot morph, which does take something from the film.

Available in an unrated DVD release, "Jacqueline Hyde" is a sex and nudity laden romp for erotic horror fans. If Misty Mundae and Seduction Cinema are planning their next straight to video crapfest, they should rent this and take notes. (* * * *) out of five stars.

The Price is Wrong: "The Jackals" (1967)

This remake of "Yellow Sky" plays like a two hour episode of "Have Gun, Will Travel," and tries everything it can to convince the viewer it is not a typical western...and yet, it is.

Stretch (Robert Gunner) leads a gang into a gold rush era small town. They rob a bank, and flee into country so rough, the posse gives them up for dead and goes home. So far, so predictable, right? Except all this action does not take place in southern Arizona, but South Africa.

As the gang rides, the men begin to complain, horses drop dead, and this looks like one short film until the robbers happen upon a ghost town inhabited by the boyish Willie (Diana Ivarson) and her grandfather Oupa (Vincent Price). All the men take an immediate shine to Willie, who must fight off their collective advances. The ruggedly handsome Stretch seems to be the only one Willie doesn't seem to hate, and then the men get down to some deep thinkin': why are Willie and Oupa still here in the middle of nowhere?

A querying shootout, where Oupa is injured, answers that question. Oupa and Willie want to bring their town back, and found another gold vein in the nearby hills. The gang promises to rob Oupa of only half, and then they turn on Stretch, who wants to honor his deal with Oupa and Willie.

An African western? Actually, the story is so bland that setting it in south Antarctica and casting penguins in the lead roles could not have provided the viewer with any more interest. Remember some of those episodes of "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" where the series' regulars would merely bookend a story involving townsfolk we would end up never seeing again? That is this film.

With the exception of the final gunfight (which actually takes place offscreen), the violence here is mid-1960's network television-level, with all the danger of a brisk walk into your kitchen. The cast is stiff, the gang going unnamed for most of the film (but you won't really care about them either way). The soundtrack is rejected bachelor pad xylophone jazz, I kept waiting for Frank Sinatra to wonder in and ply Willie with a pitcher of martinis.

Oh, Vincent. Vincent Price should have stuck to cheesy horror films instead of hamming his way through this. While he does a good job channeling Jack Elam, he turns the half drunk Oupa into a mincing creepy lout whom you suspect really is plying Willie with a pitcher of martinis.

Had "The Jackals" been set in Arizona, with a capable cast and interesting direction, we may have had something. Instead, the film is too safe, picking all the most common ingredients off the carcass of the western film, which didn't get resurrected until "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" a few years later. Imagining Burl Ives as Oupa and Clint Eastwood as Stretch, being directed by Don Siegel, already makes me feel better...skip this one. (* *) out of five stars.

Rage Against the Dying of the Script: "It's the Rage" (2000)

Also known as "All the Rage," and based on the play of the same name by Keith Reddin, this film is not an obvious plea for gun control- nor a successful one.

The huge, big-name cast does an incredible job in a film that is Altmanesque without the actors falling over themselves trying to impress an overrated director. The following basic plot outline is going to get confusing, but here it goes. Warren (Jeff Daniels) "accidentally" shoots his business partner in the opening scenes. This is a catalyst for his mentally abused wife Helen (Joan Allen) to finally leave him, hired as an assistant to the crazed billionaire Morgan (Gary Sinise). Warren's lawyer Sullivan (Andre Braugher) has problems of his own- with his gay lover Chris (David Schwimmer), and a little street tart named Annabel Lee (Anna Paquin). Annabel has a crazed brother named Sid (Giovanni Ribisi), who she eggs on with lies and feeds off of his homicidal behavior. Warren is shadowed by retired cop Tyler (Robert Forster), and young detective Agee (Bokeem Woodbine). Josh Brolin is great as Tennel, who changes his name to Fennel to honor the herb, and falls in love with Annabel after leaving Morgan and hiring Helen for his old job.

The plot is all over the place, as this core group of characters interact without knowing the full relationship each has with each other. The characters' encounters are not forced, and the editing keeps it interesting as the film does not dwell on one storyline. In each situation, the majority of characters purchase guns. The guns then play an integral part in the film's finale, as misunderstandings and obsessions kill some of these people. To get a clue on who does die in the end, read some of the hinting headlines during the opening credits.

The film is very difficult to describe, since the plot is so different and the mystery essential to the film. I can point out two great scenes, both involving Ribisi. One scene has Chris and Tyler meeting at a shooting gallery, and talking about killing while Sid flips out in the background and takes out all of his hostilities on paper targets. Another scene has Sid almost pulling a gun in a bar, where five other major characters are seated. Their hands go to their firearms, too, in a self defensive reflex.

Many reviews point out that this is an anti-gun film that beats its viewers over the head with its message. I did not see it like that at all. I felt the characters were too kooky and loony to have any relation to them other than as characters. If the film had played it straight, showing the carnage that guns can cause, then the point might have been better made. Instead, this film just reminded me to avoid anyone named Sid with a Robert De Niro fixation, billionaires named Morgan who try to close themselves off from all outside information, and mentally ill men named Chris who need to satisfy their inner child by berating their in-the-closet lawyer lover. The ending credits tell what happened to the characters, and guns play an important part in their lives, but watching this did not change my mind on gun control laws, or the people who own guns, one way or another.

The cast is first rate. Daniels plays his absolute most unlikable character to date. He should be cast in bigger villainous roles. Joan Allen is good as his wife, who decides to see the world after her husband threatens her for the last time. Forster, who has made some really bad films in his day, proves "Jackie Brown" was not a fluke. Braugher is such a major talent, he should be up for the same roles as the aforementioned DeNiro. His presence has kept him on TV for years, I wish he could get that one juicy role that would keep him in film forever. Woodbine, in a small role, is very effective, and does not disappear behind all the bigger name talent. Paquin is good as the aptly named Annabel Lee, playing a street punk naturally. David Schwimmer makes you forget Ross on "Friends," his final screen minutes are both funny and chilling. Josh Brolin is another pretty face who shows there are some acting chops behind the veneer. His speech about changing his life just like Helen is hilarious. Gary Sinise is bug eyed and psychotic, but reins enough emotion in to be sympathetic. Some saw him as playing a Bill Gates-type character, I just saw his character as sheltered and a little crazed (his final destiny is also very un-Gates-like). Ribisi comes along late in the film and completely steals it from everyone else.

Stern's direction does not uncover this film's stage origins. He opens it up without being obvious about it. The dark color scheme works well her, cinematography is grand. Reddin's screenplay does call attention to itself, and the wacked out characters, once too often. His politics are confused, and so is some of his writing. If he thinks all gun owners are homicidal and paranoid, like most of the group here, he is mistaken. Again, playing it straight might have made this more effective and compelling.

"It's the Rage" should not be seen to glean insight on violence in America today, the focus is too narrow for such a broad subject.

"It's the Rage" should be seen for some incredible actors showing independent film makers how to squeeze powerful performances out of an unpowerful script. On the acting alone, I slightly recommend this film. (* * *) out of five stars.

It's Patently Awful: "It's Pat" (1994)

I will never doubt the American movie going public again. Once in a lifetime, a film comes along that has been universally reviled by every known human being on the planet. Yes, before "Battlefield Earth," Hollywood gave us "It's Pat."

Pat (Julia Sweeney) was a popular recurring character on "Saturday Night Live." The one joke skits had various cast members and guest hosts trying to trap the androgynous Pat into declaring whether it was a man or a woman. Now imagine that exact same joke and those brief sketches expanded to a mercifully short seventy eight minute film.

In the film, Pat has problems keeping a job. It is fired from it's postal route because it was opening other people's mail. During a brief stint with the gas company, Pat meets Chris (David Foley), another androgynous being. The two fall in love and get engaged. Pat also gets new neighbors in the form of Kyle (Charles Rocket) and Stacy (Julie Hayden). Kyle slowly falls in love with Pat, not knowing Pat's gender, and soon becomes obsessed.

Pat's karaoke performance at it's engagement party is put on the television show "America's Creepiest People," and Pat gets a one shot performance with the rock group Ween (whatever happened to them?). Unable to handle the pressure of getting married to someone who is a legend in their own mind, Chris calls off the engagement. A heart broken Pat stumbles onto a radio talk show run by its neighbor Kathy (Kathy Griffin, at her most, er, least unlikable) and becomes the show's new host. Chris tries to make amends with the thick headed Pat as Kyle decides to make his move and find out once and for all if Pat is a man or a woman.

I sat in stunned silence for the entire seventy eight minutes. I was stunned because I knew the movie had a horrible reputation, but not this horrible. I did not laugh once, but my suicidal thoughts did recede a bit when Kathy Najimy (whatever happened to her?) came on, playing a jittery retail clerk in two scenes. Other than that, nothing.

So much blame can be placed on so many people here. I thought Julia Sweeney's Pat was kind of sweet on the television sketches. Here, I kept wishing someone would kill her. I am trying to recall a more annoying film character, and I cannot come up with one; Sweeney is even worse than Kate Capshaw in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Sweeney's Pat looks and acts too much like a man, and Foley's Chris looks and acts too much like a woman, which takes all the fun and comedy out of the androgyny storyline. Foley is usually a reliable laugh, but he is completely lost here. Charles Rocket's obsessive Kyle should have been a riot, but the film is chopped instead of edited, and all the laughs seem to have been removed. Comedians Tim Meadows and Phil LaMarr have small supporting roles, and just prove that they were funnier on television sketch shows as well. Even poor Camille Paglia is dragged in to spoof herself, and does so badly.

Director Adam Bernstein's idea of a funny camera angle is to get way too close to Sweeney's face, and Mark Mothersbaugh's score absolutely sucks, sounding like the canned music CD that college film students buy to make their senior projects sound more professional. The entire joke about Pat was that we would never know what it is. Dragging me along for seventy eight minutes with the same material I thought was funny almost twenty years ago depressed me. There is good reason this film bombed, and I am now a believer.

"It's Pat" is so bad it will knock the wind out of you. (*) out of five stars.

This Party is On: "It's My Party" (1996)

Eric Roberts proves once and for all that he is a better actor than his better known sister in this emotionally draining story.

Roberts and Gregory Harrison are lovers who break up soon after Roberts finds out he has AIDS. Their eventual separation is shown in tiny scenes in between credits in the opening minutes of the film. Roberts moves into another house, taking most of their mutual friends with him, and over a year later Roberts throws a giant two day party. He invites everyone he knows, from his estranged father to his agent (he is an artist and house designer) to Harrison, who has not had contact with him in all this time. Roberts has taken a turn for the worst, forgetting things, tunnel vision, and poor coordination. So why throw a party? Roberts plans to end his life at the end of the evening.

Director Kleiser, who also wrote this, takes a massive ensemble cast and keeps them reined in enough to be effective, but gives them enough freedom to be entertaining. His approach his very un-Robert Altman, where characters step on each other trying to get his attention. Here, the film is anchored around Roberts and Harrison, and the rest of the cast are friends and family having a hard time saying goodbye.

This would make an incredible stage play, easily, but the film itself never gets claustrophobic or boring in its very few sets. Gregory Harrison has also never been better as the film director who is semi-invited by Roberts, and pretty much told to leave by everyone who cares about Roberts. Eric Roberts plays Nick so well, you get the feeling you know someone who acts just like him. Nick is no saint, and Roberts' and Bronson Pinchot's jokes about his upcoming suicide are in bad taste, and the rest of the cast is ill at ease knowing the soon to be departed is finally stepping away.

As with any good film, knowing the outcome of the story does not ruin the journey getting there. Many actors have cameos, some have few or no lines, relationships and friendships sometimes are not clear, but I thought this filmed party was a lot like real parties in that respect. The overwhelming sadness of the final scenes should have you in tears, and probably because, as one character noted, Nick is able to wrap everything up with everyone he knows before he goes. This is not a statement about death with or without dignity, just an honest statement, and one we should follow in our daily lives. What would happen if the sun came up tomorrow and you or I were not here? Who are the people out there who would never know the impact they had on your life, and vice versa?

This is a powerful film with a powerful message, especially in these few months following the horrific attacks and our current war. It will be a long time before I can shake this film, and maybe I never will, but I never will l forget it. I definitely recommend this. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

George and Mike Kuchar Violated My Eyes, But In a Good Way: "It Came from Kuchar" (2010)

I don't know why, but I love the weird stuff. I think underground films are wonderful, and back when I wanted to be a film maker (in high school and college), I studied John Waters, not Steven Spielberg. I had never heard of the twin film making brothers George and Mike Kuchar back then, but if I had, and had been exposed to their crazy films, I may be in San Francisco right now, shooting my next sci-fi/porn epic, instead of sitting in front of an open window, cursing the noisy Minot, North Dakota traffic, and writing this film review.

Like me, you may never have heard of the Kuchar brothers, either, but a lot of film makers have- and they are interviewed here. Names like Christopher Coppola, Atom Egoyan, Wayne Wang, Guy Maddin, John Waters, and many more are trotted out to sing the praises of two guys slightly older than my dad who started in the underground world shooting on eight millimeter cameras. The boys were born in the Bronx, and started shooting their own films based on big Hollywood movies their doting mother would take them to see. George, the more prolific of the two, ended up in San Francisco at the Art Institute there, helping students shoot their projects while doing his own work as well. Many of the documentary's subjects have no idea how many credits George has, a quick check of IMDB lists over 200 directing credits alone. Most of his work involves crazed science fiction short films, with new forays into personal video making along the lines of today's video blogs (although George was doing this much earlier).

Brother Mike is not as productive, but he is more spiritual. While the brothers often worked together, Mike would branch out on his own, doing more psychologically intense work, thanks to a trip to Nepal where he mistakenly took mind altering drugs and also took a new look at the world. Mike does very surreal, introspective work, also in the short film format.

Why does director Jennifer M. Kroot want us to know about these two men? For one thing, any person who influenced the feces scenes in Waters' "Pink Flamingos" deserves some mention, but also, at almost seventy years of age, these guys are still working! Not only are they still working, they are still sticking with what they know, producing (on the surface) nutty Ed Wood-type awfulness, but with a certain undercurrent that says something else. The Kuchars put some levity and fun into the mid-1960's underground film movement, stagnant with the self-importance of Stan Brakhage or Andy Warhol.

The titles to some of their work alone are fun: the infamous porno "Thundercrack," their best know work "Sins of the Fleshapoids," and George's latest creation at the institute (as of this documentary's filming) "The Fury of Frau Frankenstein." Warhol had his Superstars, and the Kuchars have their own bullpen of actors, including seventy year old Linda Martinez, who thinks nothing of exposing her genitalia on film.

Kroot does an excellent job covering the brothers, although the focus seems to be more on George. George's interactions with friend Buck Henry and his own brother are hilarious, one interviewee brings up the fact that both brothers are insane, "but in a good way." Having two younger identical twin brothers, I immediately recognized George and Mike's interactions, finishing each other's sentences, and telling a story about a pet parakeet from different points of view, yet still experiencing the same emotions and feelings.

One drawback to the film is the reluctance on both Kroot and the Kuchars' part in discussing their sexuality. While I normally don't care whether a film maker is gay or not, homosexual imagery is such a focus in their work, yet the subject is broached and danced around repeatedly.

I have done some research, and only a few Kuchar projects are available on DVD. If you like Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, or any other underground film maker, you probably already know about the Kuchars. But when it comes to either sitting through "The Devil's Cleavage" or the new "Transformers" flick, sign me up for the cleavage! (* * * *) out of five stars.

Valley of the Dulls: "Isn't She Great" (2000)

Jacqueline Susann, the publishing phenom of the 1960's and 1970's, best known for her sex laden potboilers and outlandish public image, is reduced to a sentimental sitcom character in this rushed film.

Bette Midler is badly miscast as Susann, a struggling actress who falls in love with publicist Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane). The cutesy couple marry right away as Susann pursues her dream of fame at all costs. They have one child, a severely autistic son, and Jacqueline is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Irving hits on the idea that his wife should write a book (write what you know). "Valley of the Dolls" is rejected by everyone except publisher Henry Marcus (a terrible John Cleese), who assigns straight arrow milquetoast Michael (Niles Crane...oops, I mean David Hyde Pierce) to edit the massive manuscript.

The book becomes the best selling novel of all time, Irving and Jacqueline fight to save their marriage, and Jacqueline bargains with God over her few remaining years.

With a big name comedic cast (including Stockard Channing, Amanda Peet, and John Larroquette), a popular director, and an acerbically witty writer, "Isn't She Great" should have gone through the roof. Instead, the actors seem to pause a beat after their lines to wait for live audience laughter that never comes. Burt Bacharach provides a lovely orchestral musical score that is all wrong for a film that tries to persuade you that Susann was a ballsy force of nature looking for mass love.

Lane comes off best as Irving, only because he is the least obvious at phoning in his performance. Hyde Pierce had better start worrying about typecasting, and Peet and Channing are give nothing to do.

Entire scenes fall flat, although they probably read very funny on paper. Michael's first meeting with Susann, Michael's snobbish family, Susann's stab as a game show panelist; every scene seems off, as if the editor only used the worst takes shot. This is also a very short film, smelling of post production tampering and editing, from John Larroquette's ONE scene to Irving and Jacqueline becoming obnoxious louts ten seconds after they marry.

"Isn't She Great" should have been an absolutely fabulous, bitchy comedy. Instead, we get "Isn't She Kinda Okay?" The answer would still be "no." (*) out of five stars.

No Caine is an Island: "The Island" (1980)

Dapper Michael Caine plays reporter Blair Maynard. He begs his editor to investigate a series of boat disappearances off of Florida, and wins the assignment. He also wins his son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) for the weekend, and the two head to Florida.

What the duo does not know is the audience was treated to a bloody attack in the opening minutes of the film. The missing boats are not disappearing into the Bermuda Triangle, but someone is killing the people on the ships.

On the trip to Florida, we find out a little bit about Blair and Justin. Blair is divorced from Justin's mother, and Justin is into guns. Blair is not, but he allows Justin to purchase a pistol from a gun store in the state. Blair and Justin arrive and hire a puddle jumper to take them to a remote island to investigate the disappearances. Justin is angry that his father promised Disney World, and we learn Blair has let his son down before. The plane crash lands on an isolated island, Justin still has the gun, and the two decide to make the best of the situation. They rent a boat from the eccentric Dr. Windsor (Frank Middlemass), and set out for some sea fishing.

So far, this is the most excitement I have ever seen a magazine reporter have on assignment. A plane crash! Buy the kid a gun! Fishing! Break out the tequila and hookers, and you're gonna show the boy a weekend he will never forget.

The Maynard's boat is overrun by a scraggly group of people, and Blair kills one of them before getting knocked out. When Blair awakens, he and Justin have been tied up by a bunch of pirates and Blair finds himself in the middle of a trial for the murder he committed in self defense.

The pirates are led by Nau (David Warner), and he adopts Justin as his own son. Blair is sentenced to be in servitude to the murdered man's woman, Beth (Angela Punch McGregor). She is the only woman left on the hidden island who can have a child, and Blair is used as her stud. Once pregnant, he will die.

Blair spends the rest of the film trying to escape, and being recaptured. Beth begins to warm up to him, and Blair finds out Dr. Windsor is helping the pirates by hiring boats out to unsuspecting tourists so the gang will have victims. The pirates have been there for hundreds of years, developing their own civilization and language, which is mostly unintelligible to the viewer.

Justin is now completely under Nau's spell, and they raid a schooner, killing everyone aboard. Blair senses his days are numbered, and escapes with the help of Nau's rejected son Manuel's (Rikki Rincon) help. Manuel tricked him, Blair returns to the island (again) as the Coast Guard happens on the group. This sets the stage for the final bloody showdown between the Coast Guard and the pirates, and Nau and Blair.

"The Island" was made back when novelist Peter Benchley ("Jaws," "The Deep") could do no wrong. He wrote the screenplay for this, and Benchley the screenwriter comes up with too many conveniences from his own novel. Dr. Windsor points out that the pirates have not killed him or Blair because of fate. I am thinking it is because then we would not have a film. Justin jumps over to Nau's side faster than you can change a pair of socks. Blair's behavior to his son is loving and understanding, giving Justin the weakest of reasons to turn against him ("He didn't take me to Disney World, so I will kill him"?). Why give Beth Blair instead of any of the other men the pirates have come across? Saving the pirate civilization from inbreeding would be more important than Beth having justice for her dead man. Caine should get frequent flier miles for the number of escapes and recaptures he goes through during the film.

Michael Ritchie directs the film with professionalism, despite his background in comedy. Caine is always good in this very poor role. Jeffrey Frank is okay, but he is not given a character to play. He is told to be mad, and scowl for the rest of the film. All the pirates, including Warner, fade into each other and never make individuals out of their group. They are interchangeable. The worst aspect of the film is Ennio Morricone's completely inappropriate score. The pirate raids are bloody, yet the bouncy music makes you think you are watching an Errol Flynn film. As gore and carnage fly across the screen, horns and strings let you know that the murderous thugs are having a grand old time. Watch for an extended sequence where the pirates come across a judo practicing victim, and we suffer through some lame fight scenes before he is finally dispatched. The gore here is as strong as some slasher films from the 1980's, but its effect is lost with the jaunty score.

"The Island" is a notorious bomb in Caine's career, one of several. When he won the Golden Globe for "Cider House Rules," he mentioned he had made a lot of bad films in his career. This one could not have been far from his memory. (* *) out of five stars.

No, It Is Just An Average Homo-Rom-Com: "Is It Just Me?" (2010)

Not being a fan of Janeane Garofalo, I have never seen "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," her romantic comedy with Uma Thurman. However, I have read plot summaries and heard word-of-mouth, and while "Is It Just Me?" is not a bad film, it hurts that the two stories are so similar.

Blaine (Nicholas Downs) writes an anonymous column for USA Togay, a free paper in Los Angeles. He is on the search for true love, shunning the one night stands and gay bars frequented by his hot-to-trot roommate Cameron (Adam Huss). Online, Blaine meets Xander (David Loren), a Texan new in town. The two have hours-long telephone conversations, phone sex, and finally decide to meet face to face. Unfortunately, Xander thinks plain Blaine looks like go-go dancer Cameron (Cameron used Blaine's laptop and didn't log out of his account), and Blaine is afraid to tell the truth and face rejection.

The misunderstandings snowball as Cameron takes up the challenge, pitting his physical looks against Blaine's brains. Xander is none the wiser, although he notices that the Blaine on the phone seems a bit different from the Blaine in person. Blaine lets the lie escalate, failing at his one chance for the true love he has always been searching for.

J.C. Calciano wrote and directed, and needs to write a thank-you note to casting director Mark Sikes. The main trio of actors are absolutely perfect, charming in every way. Downs is so down to earth and nice as Blaine, the viewer cannot help but hope he finds what he wants. Huss' Cameron is shallow and a bit crass, but is never a douchebag looking to hurt Blaine. Xander is also a likable character, and Loren plays him without a flaw. Downs and Loren have a natural chemistry together, and they are supported by a nice turn by character actor Bruce Gray (you have seen him on television thousands of times) as Ernie, Xander's friend and landlord. I wish Michelle (Michelle Laurent), Blaine's best friend, had been given more to do, but Laurent does what she can with the limited role.

Calciano doesn't infuse his film with any urgency. You can guess the plot points from the beginning, we even get a nice standard rom-com score from Christopher Farrell, but everything is telegraphed and predictable. If the lead actors hadn't been so damn nice, I would have knocked off a couple of stars from my rating. Given the limited budget, Calciano's direction is very strong.

"Is It Just Me?" has appeal and heart, but no, Blaine, it isn't just you. Your story has been done before. (* * *) out of five stars.

The Mind's Eye: "Iris" (2001)

A beautifully acted film, "Iris" will hit home, especially with anyone who has lost a family member to Alzheimer's Disease.

The film is split into two different stories, whose scenes interchange throughout. Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) is a respected novelist in England, living with her English professor husband, John Bayley (Jim Broadbent). She goes on speaking engagements, with her husband by her side. She begins to have lapses in thought, unable to use her beloved mastery of language to finish novels, then conversations, then sentences, then words. Her deterioration is sudden, rapid, and sad, taking their obvious toll on Iris as well as her husband, who gets more and more frustrated with every one of Iris' setbacks.

Young Iris (Kate Winslet) is a free spirit at Oxford who has just written her first novel, which has been accepted for publication. She meets the awkward, almost bumbling Young John (Hugh Bonneville), and something about him attracts her, but she continues to see other men (and possibly at least one woman). Despite her friends' opinions of this strange man, Iris begins to open up to him, letting him into her literary world. The two form a bond that we see lasts through Iris' battle with her illness.

I am not familiar with Bayley or Murdoch's work, but the film has certainly peaked my interest. Richard Eyre directs the film brilliantly, intercutting the two stories without getting mawkish or sentimental about whatever is triggering the memories. Watching Bayley and Murdoch's house deteriorate along with Iris' mind is an interesting touch. While some of the situations may come off as movie-of-the-week type moments, they are acted with such professionalism and talent, I can easily overlook them. I am not saying Iris did not wander off, or eventually forget her own husband, I just feel those scenes could have been presented in a new way.

I have never seen two actors play one character so well as Broadbent and Bonneville as John. I sometimes could not tell they were two different people. Likewise with Iris and John's friend Janet, played younger by Juliet Aubrey and older by Penelope Wilton. The stricken couple's reaction to a major character's death and funeral are sad disasters that not many normal people could have handled.

Judi Dench and Kate Winslet do not look enough alike to get the same reaction out of me that Bonneville and Broadbent did, but that does not lessen the effectiveness of their performances. Dench does a fantastic job, going from intellectual to mute disease victim so fast, no one would know how to react to something this tragic. Winslet is also good as the free spirit, but my main problem was with the earlier life scenes.

I love films and books about writers and the writing process, and I would have liked to see more background on Iris Murdoch and what she wrote. I am not saying her suffering was lessened because I did not get to know her as well, but more hints into her personal life and writing would have been rewarding. The film runs a mere ninety minutes, when another half hour could have been added easily. When was the last time you wished a film could be lengthened?

My grandfather, a philosophy professor, died of Alzheimer's and assorted complications from a series of strokes. I did not see him in the last six years of his life, I want to remember him taking me fishing at the muddy pond on the little bit of land he owned, or sitting in his study at his home and looking through encyclopedias. I helped him move his books from his office at Baylor University to the back of his two car garage, noticing titles that I would never understand on a subject I could not fathom. We all want to have a moment back, a few seconds to tell people we have lost how we feel and how much we miss them. Alzheimer's is a horrible disease, because the person is physically there, but not mentally. It is a disgusting disorder, and I would not wish it on my worst enemy.

"Iris"' pain is raw. The directing and performances are strong. The film makers should have let us get to know Iris and John better, to more fully appreciate his loss and literature's loss. I will probably hunt down Bayley's books, to find out more on the subjects. I do recommend the film. (* * * *) out of five stars.

See the Invisible: "The Invisible Man" (1933)

Between this film and the two "Frankenstein" entries, James Whale cemented a reputation as a great director that lasts even seventy years later.

Beware: I got spoilers ahead! The great Claude Rains is Griffin, a bandage-swathed stranger who insists on a room and privacy from innkeeper Hall (Forrest Harvey) and his wife Jenny (the always shrill Una O'Connor). Upstairs, far away from the drunk and curious crowd, Griffin tries desperately to reverse the scientific experiments that rendered him invisible.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) and his melodramatic daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart, now better known for her role in "Titanic") wonder just where the heck Griffin disappeared (ha!) to. Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), Cranley's other assistant, the one you can see, promises Flora he will find Griffin and they will change him back to normal. The problem is one of the chemicals Griffin uses not only caused his invisibility, but will drive him insane.

Griffin blows up at the inn, assaulting the barflies, and bursts out into the street, causing harmless havoc there. The entire incident is blamed on mass drunkenness, and no one believes the townspeople. Griffin finds Kemp and enlists his help to get back to the little town and retrieve his notes. There, Griffin murders for the first time, beating a police inspector to death.

As the English countryside falls out to find the man, Griffin goes completely nuts. He kills twenty of his searchers, and derails a train- killing another one hundred. He also decides to kill Kemp, promising him when. Now the police have a definite time and place where Griffin will be, and make elaborate plans to capture him. Unfortunately, Griffin is pretty bright, and finds a way to get Kemp. Even the love of a good Flora does not help Griffin, who makes a simple mistake and is finally dealt with. On his death, we see Griffin's uncovered face for the first time.

Whale's direction here is not as hurried as "The Bride of Frankenstein," although the film is a very brief seventy one minutes. The cast is very capable, and Whale uses his camera on these faces well. The alcoholics in the bar are unforgettable, and Stuart and Harrigan are really the only "good looking" people here. Rains does a great job acting while off camera or wrapped in bandages. In the end, he looks like Liberace, but up until then his performance is great.

The special effects? Brilliant, whether for a 1933 film or not. Forget CGI, the effects here are very good and very funny. Imagination seems to have inspired them, not a film formula or control groups. There are a couple of gaffes here and there, but that is it. Based on H.G. Wells' novel, this was followed by a few sequels, but this is the most entertaining film of the series.

In the end, The Invisible Man" is total fun. It will not change your life, but it is more interesting and suspenseful than anything else playing out there even now. A classic film that holds up decades later. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

One of the Creepiest Things I Have Ever Seen: "An Introduction to Scientology"

In his only filmed interview, made in 1966 for television, L. Ron Hubbard provides the basics of his Scientology process, plus provides this reviewer with an overwhelming sense of unease.

This DVD and accompanying forty-four page booklet are meant as recruiting tools for possible Scientologists. Hubbard submits to a fifty-one minute interview with an unnamed reporter (Tony Hitchman, according to IMDB), and tries to explain to the sometimes skeptical questioner some of the basic tenets of Scientology. Let's do the shorthand version of this. Remember, this is a summation of Hubbard's statements, not any personal beliefs on my part, except for my comments on the stupid stuff.

Scientology is the fastest growing religion in the world (sorry, Mormons). Hubbard began studying Man after witnessing the shocking brutality of Asia (not the rock band) when he lived there as a teen. He did not write or study straight philosophy like other "ivory tower" philosophers, he went out and lived with and observed twenty-one primitive races, including Filipino pygmies (!) and Mongolian bandits. Hubbard was looking for one common denominator that linked all of Man, both primitive and advanced, and he discovered that the denominator was Survival. Now, Man is a spiritual being first and foremost. We are spirits encased in flesh, put here by a universal author or higher powers (he does not say whether that would be God or space aliens). It is this earthly life, with all its temptations, that turns good Man into drooling Bad Man. Scientology opens the eyes of its subject and shows them how to shake loose all of the roadblocks that renders them incapable of resolving their own problems. Hubbard really bristles when Scientology is compared to psychology and psychiatry. Psychology calls Man an animal, rejecting the spirit; a very Germanic idea, he mutters. Psychiatry deals with the insane, a group of people Hubbard calls a lost cause who are beyond help. Scientology literally means "the study of knowledge or truth," Man must know himself in order to help himself.

And who helps the Man? The Auditors! The Auditors have training that equals twelve years of collegiate study, guiding a subject (ethically, of course) through the throwing off of the mental baggage that is holding everyone back until the subject reaches the Clear stage. At the Clear stage, a person has been unbrainwashed through Processing, their IQ has increased (proven by university research, although Hubbard could not think of any specific universities), and this person's spirit can deal with any earthbound problem headed their way. Wanna be an Auditor? You must have beingness (the ability to interact with your environment), a high IQ, good moral fiber (no "bad background"), be educated, and have a desire to help people. Wanna learn more? Hubbard insists you spend a couple of years or so reading all the books, then contact a local organization for meetings.

As to the film itself...this was originally filmed in black and white and recently colorized. The colorization process has not come a long way since Ted Turner tried to ruin the great films of the 1940's, both Hubbard and Hitchman look like they are wearing pancake batter for makeup. Hubbard as an interview subject seems a little uncomfortable, grinning goofily, rising occasionally, and sometimes nervously addressing the camera directly. Some of the interviewer's questions are tough, and sometimes Hubbard can be prickly- he can prove there is life after death, but that is "too technical" to cover on this program. I wonder if space aliens were involved in that explanation.

Hubbard's dismissal of "the insane" is the most troubling aspect of the film. One of my sons has a myriad of medical problems which have caused behavioral catastrophes in his school recently. He is on some medications that Tom Cruise has deemed not necessary, yet when he is off of them, or they just do not work, my son is far worse. I do not mean he is a little bratty or hard to control, I mean worse as in violent tantrums and threats that have required physical restraining so he won't hurt himself or others. Is my child a lost cause? A failure? His spirit is beyond help, so he should be relegated to a human trash heap according to this man and a toothy actor/psychiatric history expert. I don't think so.

You might think I am overreacting. No, it's right there in artificially dyed black and white. No drugs, says L. Ron, only vitamins! Chemo patients, diabetics, epileptics, toss out your pill bottles and pop a Centrum. Maybe by the word "insane," Hubbard is referring to the Charles Mansons or Kevin Trudeaus of the world. According to the handy dandy glossary in the back of the disc's booklet, insane is defined as "an individual who is incapable of any responsibility for his own acts and social conduct." This definition can be applied broadly, covering everyone from infants to Alzheimer's patients. If the church's thinking on this subject has changed, the video shows no evidence of it through an onscreen comment, voiceover, or even an edit. The interview may be over forty years old, but the disc came out last year, and changes could have been made and points clarified if the distributors had thought them necessary.

Believe what you want. If your Processing enables you to Clear with the help of your Auditor, then fine but L. Ron, if you are looking down from the mother ship, still certain the mentally ill are beyond help, then you obviously missed your own point. Not only did you fail to discard yourself, you gave the world "Battlefield Earth." As I watched the disc, I was truly afraid of getting fed subliminal messages from Kirstie Alley or John Travolta, their commands embedded somewhere in the fake colored studio background. After it was done, I did not feel any different, the "Look Who's Talking" series is still a low point in the history of cinema, but I was disturbed none the less.

"An Introduction to Scientology" is just that. I do not see the allure, you would think a religion rich in celebrities would put out a product with more bells and whistles, instead of the hollow thuds and hot air that was L. Ron Hubbard's thought process. Read the book "A Piece of Blue Sky" by Jon Atack, instead. (*) out of five stars.

Swedish Erotica: "Inga" (1968)

Writer/director Joseph Sarno gives us the most shocking, most erotic, hottest, sexiest film of all-time...if you first saw it in 1968.

Greta (Monica Strommerstedt) has problems. She is an ancient thirty-three year old (!) and still trying to party like she was a teen. She has a mopey boyfriend named Karl (Casten Lassen), who is twenty-one and fancies himself a writer. Greta supports him, and he is draining her for all she is worth. Enter Einar (Thomas Ungewitter), who is looking for female companionship ever since his wife went to the sanitarium. He sure likes himself with Greta, and they bed down.

Karl has extra-curricular activities of his own, bedding a hot blonde. Then comes Inga (Marie Liljedahl), Greta's seventeen year old niece. Greta and annoying-as-hell maid Frida (Else-Marie Brandt) conspire to get Einar to fall for Inga, providing Greta with cash so she can still keep Karl. Unfortunately, Karl and Inga grow closer, too. Who will end up claiming Inga's virginity? Karl? Einar? Or Gunnar, the guy who deflowers virgins after mock court proceedings at crazed drunken parties? In my opinion, no one should ever lose anything to anyone named Gunnar, but those Swedes are a wild bunch.

This was groundbreaking stuff back in the year of my birth, but it would barely garner an "R" rating today. For one thing, the film is black and white, which makes it look and play ever older than it is. Sarno obviously decided to make Inga the main character during filming, she does not really become part of the central plot until almost half way through. Sarno's direction is okay, his script has shadowings of "Dangerous Liaisons," and is sometimes quite clever.

I'll say it now: Marie Liljedahl is one hot Swede. Cute little figure, rather vacant look in her eyes, and willing to take her top off for any reason. Aunt Greta looks a lot like "Saturday Night Live"'s Tina Fey, which can be disconcerting. I am not saying Fey isn't attractive (she is), but I kept waiting for Aunt Greta to rise up and read a pithy satirical joke, with Jimmy Fallon giggling behind her. Ungewitter is obviously younger than his character Einar, with unconvincing gray makeup slopped on his temples. Again, Frida is so annoying, you will wish her death, or at least will someone to smack her between the eyes with her spatula.

Seduction Cinema does an impressive DVD rendering. You can watch either the original film in Swedish with English subtitles, or the English dubbed version with bored commentary by Sarno and others. Liljedahl is heard but not seen in an interview, she eventually left films and is now a ballet instructor. Best are the trailers for films from the 1970's, when trash ruled the drive-ins. Who wouldn't want to sit down to "The Naughty Stewardesses" or "2069: A Sex Odyssey" after seeing these previews?

"Inga" was followed by "The Seduction of Inga," a sequel made in color. While this film has more than enough closure at the end, you cannot get enough of a good thing- especially if its Liljedahl trying to top her masturbation or shower scenes here. Uff da! (* * *) out of five stars.

...a small film...: "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957)

Grant Williams and Randy Stuart are Scott and Louise Carey, vacationing couple lounging on a boat. A mist envelops Williams, and he is left with what looks like glitter on his chest. No other ill effects are noticeable.

One day, six months later, his dry cleaner keeps screwing up, either giving him clothes that are too big, or doing something to stretch his old clothes. He begins to notice he may be losing height as well as weight. He goes to see a doctor, played by William Schallert, and discovers he is not imagining his condition. The doc sends him home, but Williams comes back with even more, er, shrinkage.

The doctors decide the radioactive mist, along with some insecticide Williams accidentally inhaled, is causing an almost anti-cancerous condition in his body. Instead of renegade cells growing, his body is shrinking at a uniform rate. Williams is injected with a serum that seems to stop his loss, but does not help him grow. His marriage to Stuart begins to suffer as he takes out all of his frustrations on her. Down to thirty six inches, he runs away from home, getting stares the entire distance. He meets a sideshow midget Clarice, played by April Kent, and begins to feel normal again, trying to adapt to his new world. Eventually, he discovers the serum did not work, and he begins to shrink again.

Williams is now angry and bitter, living in a child's doll house and ordering Stuart around. The film's most famous scene happens when a pet cat is accidentally let into the house and attacks Williams. He ends up in the basement, and his wife and brother think he is dead. They begin to pack up the house and leave, while Williams spends the last half of the film down in the cellar, hunting for food and battling a giant spider.

The radioactive mist that poisons Williams occurs in the first few minutes of the movie, indicating that the film makers really wanted to get going on the story. I would have appreciated just a little look at what Williams' life had been like before he began to shrink. Williams does do a great job showing us his character's frustrations, I liked the fact that he is not just another pretty faced leading man.

The final long set piece set in the basement is brilliant. Seeing Williams figure out how to get food is fascinating to watch, and never stretches the imagination. The water heater flood is my favorite scene here, realistically played. The final few minutes of the film are a real downer.

I do wish the characters had loosened up just a little. I did not want an out and out comedy, but the doom and gloom gets a little heavy at times. Even Williams' relationship with the midget April Kent is not a happy one, and ends too soon.

Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, and does a great job. The special effects are incredible, for a 1957 film, there were only a couple of scenes that were a bit iffy. No CGI, just good miniature and double shots that work well. Jack Arnold shows such a great eye here, getting down to Williams' level as he shrinks. How dirty is the floor of your basement? Arnold will let you know.

This is a quick eighty one minutes, and is never boring. "The Incredible Shrinking Man" is now a classic in the science fiction film field.

Unfortunately, Eddie Murphy may star in a remake coming out next year. Can't Hollywood leave well enough alone?? I highly recommend this entertaining film. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Whip It, Whip It Good: "The Image" (1976)

Bondage, S & M, whippings, leather, masks, pain, torture, submissiveness...if you are intimately familiar with these terms, you are probably intimately familiar with this film.

Jean (Carl Parker, looking like a young Michael Nouri) is a bachelor writer in Paris invited to a stuffy party. There he sees an old acquaintance, Claire (Marilyn Roberts), and Claire's "friend," Anne (Rebecca Brooke, credited under the name Mary Mendum). Claire and Anne are obviously involved somehow, and Jean's interest is aroused. The trio go out for a drink, where Claire treats Anne like an object. Anne rarely talks, and cowers under Claire's control. Jean later tags along with the pair to the Bagatelle Gardens, where Claire demands unusual requests of Claire, like breaking the rule against flower picking...and peeing in public.

Anne is very short with Jean when he sees her later without Claire, which earns Anne a new set of punishments- namely being beaten. Thanks to Claire, we know that Anne gets sexually aroused when being treated this way. Claire orders Anne to satisfy Jean sexually (to which Jean offers no resistance) but, of course, the unnatural order of the sadistic triangle begins to break down.

"The Image" came out in the mid-1970's, when the line between mainstream and pornographic cinema was still blurred. Newspapers would critique works like this as if they were "regular" films, finding fault or celebrating positives. This film does have some beautiful cinematography, courtesy of Rene Lefevre. Metzger's films were known for their photography, much like David Hamilton's films. The screenplay, by a pseudonym-bearing John F. Goff, is a nightmare of terrible dialogue ("It was a look of one viewing a rerun of a successful film one had directed oneself, whose plot couldn't possibly have any surprises."), and comically clumsy metaphors, such as Jean thinking back to Anne's public urination as giant water cannons explode behind him. Paris' many phallic monuments are also filmed in a certain way...

Rebecca Brooke is gorgeous in the lead role. Unfortunately, her character is treated subhumanly and the actress must engage in many an explicit sex scene with Parker. Parker's Jean is a blank. We never figure out why he joins in the humiliation of Anne, and his narration is both unnecessary and obvious. Roberts is also a bit of a mystery as Claire. While the two go about the business of mistreating Anne in public places, I wondered how we got here to begin with. I understand if Metzger wanted to keep the sex, and the relationships, anonymous, but this provides a coldness the film could not shake. Metzger's direction is imaginative, he was fond of shooting sexual situations vaguely blocked by objects in the foreground, but here he lets loose with sex and violence of the bondage variety.

"The Image" is just that- pretty pictures of pretty people whipping each other during sexual sessions. Its infamy is understandable, but not deserved. (* *) out of five stars.

Great Walls:"If These Walls Could Talk 2" (2000)

This made for HBO film traces the lives of three lesbian couples who all manage to stay in the same house over the years, unbeknownst to each other.

The first film takes place in 1961 and was directed by Jane Anderson. Abby (Marian Seldes) and Edith (Vanessa Redgrave) are two retired school teachers who lead a quiet life in the house. Abby has a stroke after falling from a ladder, and dies, and her nephew (Paul Giamatti) and his wife (Elizabeth Perkins) come for the funeral and to sort and sell Abby's things, unaware that she and Edith were a lifelong couple. The video starts with a heartbreaking story, made so much more effective by the great work of Redgrave, Seldes, Giamatti, and Perkins. Edith kind of bonds with the nephew's daughter, but Redgrave's expressions as her partner's distant family begins horning in on the home and its possessions is tragic. Many memorable scenes here, especially Edith's need to create a new bedroom for herself, in case anyone would figure out that she and Abby shared a bed.

The second film is set in the same house in 1972, and is directed by Martha Coolidge. The screenplay contains a most clever plot, one that I have no seen before. Young lesbian Linda (Michelle Williams) is a college feminist living in the house with three other lesbians. They have been kicked out of their university feminism group, and go to a local lesbian bar. There, Linda is drawn to Amy (Chloe Sevigny), a very butch lesbian who wears a men's clothing and drives a motorcycle. Soon gender identities are being questioned- how can a feminist fall for a lesbian who acts like and dresses like a man? Williams and Sevigny have a wonderful chemistry together, and the film makers do not gloss over the strain the relationship puts on the other girls in the house. The story is told well, taking the side of the new couple, but not condemning the others for being uncomfortable with the situation.

The final story takes place in 2000, and is directed by Anne Heche. The story is pretty simple, as long term couple Fran (Sharon Stone) and Kal (Ellen DeGeneres) want to be pregnant, and their horror of shopping for sperm on the internet. The third story is played for laughs, and gets a few, too, thanks to DeGeneres. The film is nicely directed by DeGeneres' then partner Heche, who does a very good job with the slightest of the three screenplays. Stone has always made me laugh in her comedic roles, from "Antz" to "The Muse," and her willingness to shed her inhibitions in this strong role really says something about her character (both in the film and real life). The two leads and Heche's direction carry it, although the material is lacking.

I like the concept of these stories taking place in the same house, I wish there was more of a connection between them. While that might be seen as borrowing from "The Hours" a little too much, how much do you know about the previous occupants of wherever you live right now, aside from the unforwarded mail, this is a movie.

"If These Walls Could Talk 2" is a very strong film altogether, and proves that HBO is often doing more interesting things cinematically than even independent film companies. Keep up the good work! (* * * *) out of five stars.

David Hilton and the Raiders of the Lost Idol of Evil: "Idol of Evil" (2011)

Kevin McDonagh and A.J. Nicol pay homage (or rip off) "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in this British low budgeter.

Dr. David Hilton (Richard Cambridge) is an expert in mythology who has just been suspended from the university where he teaches (for being a jerk). David is contacted by two priests, both dressed like they should be backing up Gladys Knight, and is assigned to find an idol that a former friend had been searching for. That former friend is now missing, and David goes to the man's wife's (Tracey Sheldon) flat to get some clues. He happens to have the map to the secret idol burial spot in northern England, where he should find a skull. When that skull is used as a vessel for the already recovered "Eye of Kali," it can turn into a monstrous weapon.

One problem is that a team led by Father Calvert (Eley Furrell, looking like Tim Curry in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show") and Nixon (Adrian Bouchet) are already digging for the skull, thanks to a fragment of the map they took from David...but they are digging in the wrong place. David, with the help of very cute research assistant/love interest Lucy (Stephanie Elliott) must stop the bad guys in time since the fate of humanity rests in their hands.

As if the Indiana Jones series did not make archaeology look action packed enough, McDonagh and Nicol penned this blatant attempt. The limited budget hinders any huge action scenes, and the film makers are reduced to sad little fistfights and dubbed gunfire that rarely hits anyone. McDonagh does have a fantastic directorial eye, however, and with some more money and a better script, he is capable of doing something fantastic.

The cast is bland, Cambridge does not have the gravitas to pull off the hero role. While the film is being marketed as a horror and gore extravaganza, the blood and violence never rise above a PG-13 level of mayhem. One aspect that does work, and saves this from being a disaster, is David Staiger's giant musical score. The epic orchestral swells make the film seem bigger than it is, and weak scenes seem better.

"Idol of Evil" trudges along, ignoring its own innate predictability, hoping no one watching has ever seen the Indiana Jones series. The closing credits promise that "David Hilton Will Return," hopefully he will bring a better adventure with him. (* *) out of five stars.

I, Mad Reviewer: "I, Madman" (1989)

Jenny Wright is Virginia, a mousy bookstore worker/wannabe actress who gets caught up in a horror novel by an author named Malcolm Brand. The books are so vivid that Virginia often pictures herself in the books. Takacs' reworking of this familiar theme fails due to his reliance on some very old horror film conventions.

Virginia searches for Brand's second novel, "I, Madman," after finishing the first, which involved a demonic creature who takes its revenge on its creator. In the second story, the madman of the title has razored off his own facial features in order to please the woman he loves. He then tracks down better features, using the woman's friends as his own personal parts store.

In Virginia's world, a competing actress is killed and scalped. The madman shows himself to Virginia wearing the other actress' red hair, and Virginia is troubled. Luckily, she has a cop beauhunk who likes to come over without knocking and scaring the living daylights out of her (and supposedly the audience). Soon, the piano repair guy across the street has his ears removed, and Virginia goes to the police, who poo poo her story and send her packing.

Now, here is where the film lost me. Virginia reads in the book where the next victim is a swarthy Mediterranean type with one heck of a schnoz. She does a little stakeout of her own where the murder will take place, and bam, her swarthy Mediterranean type friend from acting class with one heck of a schnoz sits down next to her and they have a chat. He leaves and she still looks for, everybody now, the swarthy Mediterranean type with one heck of a schnoz. Of course, Virginia realizes her dumb mistake too late and runs after Mr. Swarthy in time to see him killed and...denosed?

Now cop beauhunk and his lieutenant are all ears (so to speak), and Virginia reads in the book that the next victim will be a librarian watched over by cats. Virginia, not learning her lesson, decides the killer will strike next at a library. Now, every victim so far has had a connection to Virginia, except this one. And Virginia has completely forgotten her sassy coworker at the bookstore who recently acquired a stray cat...and is working alone that same night.

The director then gives us a convoluted scene at the library, where we know the killer IS NOT, and even a shadowy figure who turns out to be some poor janitor who finds himself looking down the barrels of some dozen and a half police issue firearms. How he snuck through the dragnet thrown up around the library by the cops is never explained. The finale, involving Virginia and the madman, is not bad, until the old "whew, the killer is dead, we can relax...look out behind you, he's alive!" ploy comes into play.

The villain, who turns out to be the author himself (no spoiler, this is easier to figure out than "Blue's Clues"), is very good. Lots of shadowy and backlit shots really make him effective, as does the bizarre facial reconstruction he decides to attempt. The gore here is very convincing, but the stop motion animation Takacs used to better effect in "The Gate" is not. No one ever explains why Malcolm Brand came back to haunt Virginia, and no one else.

I coasted along with "I, Madman" on its good intentions for long enough, but eventually the whole thing strayed into familiar territory, and then tried to convince me they were up to something completely new and different. In the end, I cannot get too manic about "I, Madman." (* *) out of five stars.

Teenage Wasteland: "I'm Gonna Explode" (2009)

You know, the teen angst story has been done to death. Come on, "Romeo and Juliet" is centuries old. So when yet another tale of alienated youth comes out, the adult in me rolls his eyes...and hopes for a topless scene.

Roman (Juan Pablo Hernandez) is the son of a right-wing congressman who consistently causes his father (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and step-mother headaches. Roman is kicked out of another school after his diary (describing a shooting that is dramatized in the film) is found, and he is sent to a school that the introverted Maru (Maria Deschamps) attends.

Maru lives with her mother and younger sister, and also feels left out of the world and chronically misunderstood. Roman and Maru tenuously hook up, and escape from the school, taking refuge on Roman's father's roof, as the parents inside worry (kind of). Roman's father has been down this path before, enabling his son. Maru's mother is in a panic. Roman and Maru send their parents on wild goose chases, and break into the home to steal food until they decide to leave. They should have stayed on the roof, as things quickly go down hill.

If Larry Clark went to Mexico, you would have "I'm Gonna Explode." And I do mean that the film irritates as much as a Clark film does. While Maru is very easy on the eyes (and I thankfully found my topless scenes), Roman is a maladjusted jerk. He plays with loaded guns like toys, and is every bit the spoiled son of a politician. Maru seems deeper, more complicated, but it's hard to feel sympathy for someone who attaches herself to such a basket case only to be different. The adults in this film are all stupid, but the film maker never succeeds with this part of his screenplay. Instead of cheering on the teens in the face of such bad parenting, you just come to hate everyone onscreen, and patiently wait for the inevitably violent finale.

Naranjo's camera is constantly on the move, as if his confidence in his screenplay was lacking. The film has a bleached-out look to it, and the musical score is a mish-mash of rhythmic stylings, depending on the teens' moods. The film has been compared to New Wave French films, but I didn't see the similarities. Naranjo's biggest misstep is the dramatized shooting at the beginning of the film. Shot from Roman's point of view, it is so shocking, the rest of the film cannot possibly live up to it.

Watching this film is like watching one of those terrible reality shows, where the cast members talk about how dangerous they are, and how hateful they can be. Naranjo follows through with some explosive behavior, but by that point, I thought a good spanking would have been in order instead. "I'm Gonna Explode" turns out to be an empty threat. (* *) out of five stars.

Bury Bury Good: "I'll Bury You Tomorrow" (2002)

As a passionate horror film fan, I have been known to become physically ill when I hear the words "shot on video horror film." I have been burned too many times to count, and I did not hold out much hope for this little zinger. Color me surprised, "I'll Bury You Tomorrow" may be the best shot on video horror film I have ever seen.

Cute blond Dolores (Zoey Daelman Chlanda) pops into a small town with a large trunk in tow and heads for employment at the Beech Funeral Home, run by nerdy Percival Beech (Bill Corry) and his religious nut wife Nettie (Katherine O'Sullivan). The Beechs are mourning the loss of their daughter a decade earlier, and look alike Dolores knows her way around a mortuary. She's hired, much to the chagrin of make-up artist Corey (Alan Rowe Kelly) and the horny delight of goofball handyman Jake (Jerry Murdock). Corey and Jake are not only lovers, but make a little scratch on the side selling bodies on the black market.

Jake's brother, Mitch (also Jerry Murdock), is the local straight arrow sheriff dating the cute barmaid Ellen (Kristen Overdurf). Ellen has a ne'er-do-well bro of her own, Eddie (P.J. Mehaffey), who is run off the road by Jake and killed. Dolores takes quite a shine to Eddie's remains and keeps them in her closet. It seems while this small town is full of sickos, Dolores is the queen of all sickos, and a psychotic murderer to boot. Bodies start turning up all over, as Mitch and Ellen learn the truth.

Alan Rowe Kelly wrote and directed this over the top flick. You can see his character Corey as either a very mannish woman, or a very feminine guy. Either way, he is very good. Kelly does a great job with a very capable cast. Chlanda is both beautiful and unsettling as Dolores. It was about half way through the film before I realized Jake and Mitch were being played by the same actor, Jerry Murdock. He does an absolutely fantastic job in both parts. Corry and O'Sullivan are also perfectly cast in their roles.

Tom Burns' musical score is a great mishmash of strings and noise, and there is even a theme song to hum along to! The editing is crisp, the video picture is pretty clear, and the film does move quickly.

My complaints would be minor: a few loose plot points that could have been tied up (the Beech's daughter, the sudden investigation into Dolores' past), and there are a few too many secondary characters that threaten to topple a long film (two hours, plus another half an hour of deleted scenes). The gore is pretty good, there are some scattered laughs, and the locations cannot help but work for the film.

Alan Rowe Kelly should be congratulated for restoring my faith in the "shot on video horror" subgenre. I will call upon his name every time I am in the video store and the cover for the unwatchable "Ax 'Em" is staring back at me. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Lifeless Execution: "I Was a Teenage Zombie" (1987)

This silly Troma-like horror comedy has a stupid energy all its own.

A group of guys led by hunky Dan (Michael Ruben) and goofy Jimmy Kimmell look-alike Gordy (George Seminara) decide to buy a quarter pound of marijuana for the big spring dance. They get some stuff sprayed with pesticide from Mussolini (Steve McCoy), and confront him when the pot makes them sick. Mussolini slips on a banana peel and dies (or so the boys think). They try to throw him in the recently contaminated river, but he wakes up and promises revenge. Dan hits him with a baseball bat, then toss him in the drink, and they go back to their normal high school lives. Dan has the hots for Debbie Gibson look alike Cindy (Cassie Madden), but becomes tongue tied whenever he is around her. Speaking of tongues, Mussolini comes back to life and pulls the taste organ out of one of the group. Mussolini also rapes and kills one of their girlfriends, and the guys set a trap for the zombie.

Mussolini kills Dan, so the guys throw his body in the river. He comes back to life in time for the big spring dance. Being the walking dead complicates his date with Cindy, and the whole thing boils down to a gory finale at the dance.

The rest of the gang of guys are so unmemorable, I could not tell them apart. This was filmed in 1987, and features Duran Duran jokes and a soundtrack by the Violent Femmes and the Smithereens. The money used to get these groups' songs would have been better spent on the production itself. The film is funny in a dumb way, and the film makers should have gone for a higher brow screwball comedy. Instead, the comedy here is boring. The gore scenes are few and far between, including the old talking disembodied head, which is the actor sticking his "decapitated" organ through a hole in a table.

The gore effects are weak. The editing is sloppy. The jokes are old. The acting is bad. The direction is standard. The script is half baked. And yet the film is so awful, it is entertaining.

I do not mean in a "so bad it's good" way, but in a "so mind alteringly awful, it's watchable in its own mindless way" way. It is ugly, dumb, still bad, and not easy to block out of my memory. (*) out of five stars.

I Lettered in Lycanthropy: "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (1957)

A typical 1950's small town is terrorized by a werewolf, and Michael Landon's overacting.

Rockdale High School is a normal high school, and Tony (Michael Landon) has problems. He may be dating pretty Arlene (Yvonne Lime), and his grades may be good, but he has an anger problem that gets him into fights. He does not like to be startled or touched, and lashes out at those who do this to him. After an innocent Halloween prank where Tony punches a guy for blowing a toy horn in his ear, Tony heads to the office of Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell).

It seems Dr. Brandon is into regression hypnotherapy. Not the kind you and I may know about, Brandon wants to take a human being back to his primal aggressive state. He uses a serum and takes Tony back to when humans were bloodthirsty, I didn't say the science was exact. Tony is soon turning into a monster at the sounds of bells (like a weirded-out Pavlov's dog), and the town's crack police force (three cops and a janitor named Pepe) is on his trail.

Despite its title and reputation, this is not the worst horror film ever made. The direction is okay, it sometimes grandstands and ignores the actors (no one will be seated during the compelling coffee pouring scene). The werewolf makeup is goofy looking, but not a bad job. All the teens speak in late 1950's lingo, and the dialogue is embarrassing. There are no real scares, the film is too short to waste time with suspense. However, the black and white cinematography is rather creepy. The lighting scheme is first rate, especially the gymnasium attack. Don't get me wrong, this is still silly stuff.

At one point, a bongo playing teen sings a song called "Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo." He then has a dance number with his girlfriend. I have not been this embarrassed during a song since I saw "The Wiz." The thought that these teens think of themselves as so cool, when even audiences back in the day had to see how lame they are, is funny.

Michael Landon was normally a good actor, laid back and confident. Here, Tony flies off the handle so often, then smiles the next second, he should have been tested for bipolar disorder. It is as if Landon got all his bad acting out of the way with this film, so he could become Charles Ingalls and Little Joe and not be giggled at by an audience again. The rest of the cast is a blank, except Bissell as Brandon, whose experiments are a complete mystery. Bissell also overacts, but his character is so weakly written, he can be forgiven.

"I Was a Teenage Werewolf" is better than the similar "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," but it still needs to be spanked with a rolled up newspaper and put out for the night. (* *) out of five stars.

I Saw a Strange Movie: "I Married a Strange Person" (1998)

Bill Plympton, the animator I always associated with nice little animation pieces usually consisting of people having their facial features exaggerated in some way, gets out all of his frustrations in a full length effort that blows the doors off of any Japanese anime.

Grant and Keri are newlyweds. They begin having problems with their marriage right away. Keri's parents hate Grant, and at dinner one day, Grant begins imagining horrible things happening to his new family. A small lobe develops in his neck, thanks to a misplaced satellite TV signal, and when he imagines a giant blade of grass trying to lawn mow his neighbor, it really happens.

This interferes with Keri and Grant's sex life in what must be the funniest cartoon sex scene ever filmed. Grant goes on a talk show, and shows off his new power. He becomes the target of Smile Corp., who want his power in order to bolster their sagging television ratings. The rest of the film consists of one giant running gun and tank battle between Grant and Keri and the uniformed goons from the corporation.

This film is not for children. The whole thing is animated in that Plympton style, but he seems to cut loose here, resulting in a wild ride that never lets up. Barely 73 minutes, the action will leave you exhausted. The gore is intense resulting in hilarious, disgusting scenes. One split open corpse is used as a skateboard, and Grant's daydreaming usually consists of violence. There are more guns fired here than in all the Rambo, Lethal Weapon, and Terminator films combined. The giant goons sent after Grant are hilarious, and the constant sound of automatic gunfire that takes up the last half of the film takes on its own humor.

The sexual scenes are also explicit, and very shocking for an animated film. The best scenes involve Keri's parents. If you have ever been married, or in a serious relationship where you have met the significant other's parents, you can totally relate to Grant's experiences. Keri's father's foul mouthed prayer before the meal is classic.

I loved this film. I have mentioned "Killer Tongue" a few times in my reviews, and I think this film even out grosses out that one. Plympton boldly stomps into an area recently dominated by bland Japanese anime and memories of the overrated Ralph Bakshi, and kicks the ink out of both genres, reducing them to shallow, quirky cartoons. If you find this and watch it, you will not believe your eyes. If you finish it, and are completely offended, then I think Plympton succeeded. This is one marriage I am glad works out.

Definitely seek "I Married a Strange Person" out, and take my word for it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

How to Kill a Film Franchise in Ninety Minutes: "Howling: New Moon Rising" (1995)

"The Howling" series limps to its merciful conclusion with one of the worst films of all-time.

Writer-director Clive Turner, looking like Gregg Allman, plays Aussie Ted. He arrives in Pioneer Town in the California desert and quickly finds work at the local bar. The losers and hangers-on there welcome him with open arms, yet assorted folks start ending up dead. A police inspector and overly serious priest are on the case as the towns people suspect Ted of more than an obsession with the music of George Jones.

I cannot stress how inept this film is. Turner tries to tie this entry to two other entries in the series, and borrows liberally from these lousy, but better films, without providing any permissions or rights in the credits (IMDB says he cowrote and acted in them). He decides to shoot using non-actors, all using their real names as their character names. The non-actors non-act, giving us the stiffest performances ever seen this side of a gay porn film. The editing is a mess, watch for the useless flashbacks, and the climax features one of the unintentionally funniest werewolf transformation scenes in film history. The real townspeople center around a country bar, so the viewer is punished with non-stop scenes of terrible country songs and bored line dancing. The "comedy bits" are obviously dramatized reenactments of old high-lar-i-ous bar stories, and would not be funny even after your twentieth Coors. Turner has no budget, so the gore looks like ketchup and baby powder.

This was filmed almost ten years ago, and no more "The Howling" sequels are on the horizon. If I didn't hate this film so much, I would be tempted to write Clive Turner a thank you note.

Hollywood, let us not revisit this series. Reader, do not rent this junk. (*) out of five stars.

S & Mage: "House of Sin" (2011)

Break out the leather and lace, writer and film maker Philip Gardiner has a sparse story to tell you.

Paul (Nik Spencer) is the handyman at a small hotel in London. The guests there are not your typical travellers but people society would think of as misfits, thanks to their desire to be themselves. The hotel's proprietor, the Mage (John Symes), allows people to do what they want, whether it be self-humiliation, transvestism, voyeurism, or whatnot.

The Mage is odd in that he never seems to answer a question directly. He talks in philosophical riddles, with enough charisma to turn even a middle-aged Christian woman into a lesbian with just a conversation. Paul is drawn into this netherworld, despite his lack of understanding about the residents' motivations, until he finds himself buying a small place and starting a refuge of his own, with dire results.

While Gardiner tries to bring back the S&M exploitation genre singlehandedly, he goes about it in a frustrating way. Despite the plot summary, not much happens in the film. Paul is intrigued by the Mage, who controls everyone around him, but the curiosity about the Mage is never resolved to the viewer's satisfaction. Many storylines are dropped, since the film is an excuse to bring on some songs from independent bands and give them some play. Gardiner's directorial technique is rich with camera tricks and effects, which does detract from the odd scenes.

Another (good) detraction is the almost constant nudity on display. The female cast are undressed for most of the film, and while they do perform as characters, Gardiner goes for the butt and boob shots over characterization. An entire scene is devoted to a new girl entering the establishment, only to have the character dropped by the very next scene. After Paul opens his new place, what happens to the original Mage's tenants?

I was more appreciative of the eye candy than Gardiner's screenplay, as he really could have done something about cult worship and idolatry, but in a sleazy and non-preachy way if need be. The sound quality is terrible as well, with Paul's narration being twice as loud as the dialogue scenes. The different songs are pretty good, though.

"House of Sin" ends up being a film of half-explored ideas, softcore porn, and hot chicks...but I can see hot chicks on many a website or video. (* *) out of five stars.

Arrested Script Development: "House Arrest" (1996)

As happens often, a perfectly good story idea is twisted and ruined by many hands until it is released as a film that may not remotely resemble what the original writer intended. Usually, a sign of this many-hands-in-one-pot school of film making is a screenplay credit that reads like a batting roster. "House Arrest" is strange, in that only one person takes the writing credit, and the blame.

Grover (Kyle Howard) is a nice-guy junior high schooler who lives with little sister Stacy (Amy Sakasitz) and their parents, Janet (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Ned (Kevin Pollak). On the occasion of his parents' eighteenth wedding anniversary, the couple announces they are separating. Grover will have none of it, and after best friend Matt (Mooky Arizona) casually comments that Grover ought to lock Mom and Dad in a closet until they sort everything out, Grover decides imprisoning them in the basement is the next best thing.

Grover has thought of everything to prevent their escape, pouring cement in the window wells and nailing the only door shut. He lets slip his deed at school to Matt, who decides his oft-married father Vic (Wallace Shawn) and his stepmom Louise (Caroline Aaron) also need some locked-away therapy. Also overhearing the pair is bully T.J. (Russel Harper), whose jerk lawyer dad Donald (Christopher McDonald) is cheating on meek mom Gwenna (Sheila McCarthy). The duo bring their parents over (under the guise of a sociology class experiment) and lock them in the basement, too. Along with Matt's bratty younger brothers (Alex Seitz and Josh Wolford), the children now run wild in the household as the parents argue and try to escape from downstairs.

It's not a bad little idea. Turning the tables on the parents, and treating them like childish mental deficients, is funny. How many of us were grounded growing up, wishing the same on the parents? How would they like it? The kids use the parenting skills against the parents, yelling back at them and punishing them when they misbehave. Michael Hitchcock really touches on something here, but something is lost in the translation to the screen.

One problem is the other subplots, all of which are completely unnecessary. Jennifer Love Hewitt is Brooke, Grover's love interest who brings over her immature "cool" mom Cindy (Jennifer Tilly). That is one more kid and one more parent too many. Across the street from Grover's house, retired police chief Rocco (Ray Walston) watches, calling his old police force out whenever he sees something suspicious. Again, it doesn't fit and isn't funny. Throw in what can only be described as cameos by Ben Stein, Colleen Camp, and the director's wife Shelley Hack, and things take a down turn. I do not think Stein and Camp were supposed to be cameos, I suspect their screen time was sheared to the point that they ended up that way.

With the story, you expect either a smart suburban satire, like a cool "American Beauty"-lite, or bumbling dumbness with "Home Alone" falling-down shenanigans. With "House Arrest," you get both, and the serious and slapstick tones wrestle with each other for the entire movie. We make progress when Ned and Janet realize they take each other and their children for granted, only to later have Jamie Lee Curtis fall down a rat infested laundry chute and bounce off a tiny trampoline in slow motion.

The cast is okay. The kids are all very good, and Kyle Howard holds the film together. The parents are a little worse off; Wallace Shawn has played this exact same character before, as has Tilly. Christopher McDonald is usually the underrated gem in his work, but he is too over the top and mean here. The pacing is all fits and starts, and the running time is too long as this comes in at ten minutes short of two hours. Director Winer has done a lot of television work, which makes the meandering long plot curious.

My parents have been together for over forty years now, although two of us four siblings have been divorced (me included), so I know a bit about long and short marriages. "House Arrest" might have gone the high road, making a funny comment about the state of matrimony in middle America (the film is set in Defiance, Ohio), or could have taken the low road, full of bonking heads, smart-ass kids, and stupid adults. It goes for the middle territory, and so does my rating. (* * *) out of five stars.

Biding Time: "The Hours" (2002)

Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep take viewers on one weird misunderstood trip.

The film begins with Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941, then takes us back to the 1920's, when Woolf (Nicole Kidman) was beginning her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" while living with her husband and angry household staff in a small village in England. Virginia was brought there to impossibly recover from severe mental illness, and she and her husband run a small printing house.

In the 1950's, pregnant and plain Laura (Julianne Moore) dotes incessantly on her young son (an excellent child actor named Jack Rovello), and dutifully waits for her WWII vet husband Dan (John C. Reilly) to bring home the bacon. Laura is reading the novel "Mrs. Dalloway," which mirrors her own unhappy existence.

In 2001, Clarissa (Meryl Streep) is an enabler who is helping her friend Richard (Ed Harris) by throwing him a party to celebrate a literary award. Richard is dying of AIDS, his mind is going, and his pet name for Clarissa is "Mrs. Dalloway," as Clarissa almost seems to be living the tale Woolf is writing.

The connections between the three stories do not consist of just the novel. All three women are dutifully playing out their roles and lives, doing everything for others, and being dangerously selfless. Woolf, in the horrors of mental illness, allows her husband to put her best interests at heart and moves her from London (a city she detested) to Richmond (a city she detests even more). Laura is a complete blank. Her sick friend Kitty (Toni Collette) turns her nose up at the novel she is reading, she just plays the happy mom and wife role, feeling worthless inside. Laura has a great line that since WWII veterans risked their lives overseas, they somehow deserved a wife and a good life when they came home. Clarissa ignores her deteriorating relationship with lover Sally (Allison Janney), and throws herself into the dinky details of Richard's life. They were lovers once, and Richard's ex, Louis (Jeff Daniels), visits Clarissa to stir up some emotions she has been holding back for much too long.

I did not see "The Hours" (the title refers to the time we have between events in our lives, and the time we have left) as a typical "chick flick." If anything, it does not empower women to do much of anything on their own without the help of an evil man. All three stories involve a lesbian subplot, kisses meant to show men the ladies are doin' it for themselves, but all three times nothing seems to change afterward.

I associated with the film through the writing and the mental illness. I do both. Woolf was literally crippled at many points of her life with her illness. It is thought she did not want children (her marriage was one of convenience, she was bisexual) so her illness would not be passed on to her children. This seems more sincere than a rotund former talk show host letting the world know she does not want birth children so she can save the planet from possible alcoholic cancer victims.

I did not feel evil men were putting down these three women at all. They may have been playing the roles assigned, and they are unhappy, but all three find their way out- sadly, through suicide and attempted suicides.

Nicole Kidman (enough about her fake nose already) is very good as Virginia Woolf, although Irish actress Fiona Shaw was born to play the role (they look exactly alike). Julianne Moore has a wonderful tension in her scenes, as her young son's character watches his mother's seemingly flighty behavior and tries to help her. Meryl Streep proves once again that she is one great actress, like her or not. A special mention should go to Ed Harris, who literally looks like he is dying. There are no "Love Story"-type sterile hospital settings here, his seedy apartment reflects his own mental deterioration.

As the three stories intertwine and relate to each other, it still manages to pull out a surprising plot twist near the end. Philip Glass' score is melancholy and meandering, but always there, tying the three stories together. He does not big band it up for the 1950's, or throw in a rap for 2001, it is a wonderful constant. Daldry's seemingly standard direction seems appropriate to these women's standard lives. Who needs flash and zoom when you live from one day to the next without doing anything new or stopping to take notice?

While a few slow spots keep this from being a perfect film, "The Hours" does have strong performances and direction. It ultimately just nudges us and reminds us that hours are all we have left here. (* * * *) out of five stars.

He Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!: "The Hours and Times" (1991)

A rock star and his homosexual manager decide to get away from the pressures of fame by taking a relaxing long weekend in a foreign country. This probably would not interest you unless you knew the rock star and manager portrayed are John Lennon and Brian Epstein...and even then, you may not find much more of interest here.

In 1963, Lennon (Ian Hart) and Epstein (David Angus) arrive in Barcelona after an alcohol soaked flight. Married new father John got the stewardess' phone number, and constantly berates Brian about Brian's homosexuality. John delights in tormenting Brian for both his sexual preference and religion (Epstein was Jewish), but Brian tolerates it. He has a crush on John, and John seems more than a little curious about taking things beyond the friendship stage.

Christopher Munch wisely shot the film in black and white, lending it a fantastic aged look (by accident, according to the DVD extra's director's interview). Hart and Angus are great as Lennon and Epstein, making the pair's friendship very natural.

Munch's script, on the other hand, is as boring as a Yoko Ono music video. Small talk and meaningless conversations fill the running time (less than an hour). I figured two of the most fascinating musical icons of the twentieth century might be more exciting to listen to. When the scenes do work (the bathtub kiss, Epstein's blackmail story), they still get lost in the monotony.

"The Hours and Times" proves to be a disappointment. Lennon and Epstein changed popular music forever, and we should be reminded they were mere mortals, but humanizing them to the point of somnambulism is a mistake. (* *) out of five stars.