Monday, December 30, 2013

The World According to Bauji: "Ankhon Dekhi (Before My Eyes)" (2013)

Deciding to reject everything you have assumed in life, and only believing what you experience physically, is a strange way to live. Is the Earth round? Maybe, but you only see flatness. Is there a God? Perhaps, but where are the miracles? Rajat Kapoor gives us an entertaining story of one man's rejection of his own world.

Bauji (Sanjay Mishra) is the patriarch of his crowded household that includes his wife Amma (Seema Pahwa) and children, as well as his brother's family. After his daughter Rita (the beautiful Maya Sarao) is forbidden to see her new boyfriend Ajju (Namit Das), Bauji and his friends decide to go to the young lothario's home to rough him up and keep him from his daughter.

What they find at Ajju's house is a nice young man terrified that these men have forced their way in and want to harm him. Bauji is changed by this. Ajju is nothing like he was told, and Bauji decides from then on he will only believe what he can see and experience personally. His family is thrown into tumult as he quits his job as a travel agent (how can he book passengers to fly to cities he has never seen?), and eventually acquires a group of followers. They sit around his house, and quiz him, first to laugh at him, then to learn from him. Chacha (Rajat Kapoor), Bauji's brother, moves out, and a rift develops as Bauji uses his new philosophy trying to solve everyday problems like his son who is flunking math, and another family member who is suddenly in debt to a gambling house.

Kapoor writes, directs, and costars in this nice little fable. It rarely goes outside of the family's small group of rooms, but Kapoor does a great job of keeping things moving. In fact, this could easily be adapted to play on the stage, the themes are universal, and many observers will be able to relate to Bauji.

Sanjay Mishra is wonderful as Bauji. He is soft-spoken, and as an actor, he doesn't call attention to his character by chewing the scenery or stealing scenes. The progression of his mocking, then worshipping, disciples is nicely handled. There are light touches mixed with the pathos, although some of the subplots wander in their own direction and get lost. Kapoor's screenplay lurches off the narrative path here and there. I could see a Hollywood remake of this starring Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, and going the goofball route. Kapoor should be applauded for digging deeper, and not insulting the viewer's intelligence with dumb situations.

"Ankhon Dekhi (Before My Eyes)" had its world premiere at the South Asian International Film Festival earlier this month, and is definitely worth a look. This is one of those films that you are sad to see end (in a memorable climax), but Bauji and his outlook will stick with you. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Boogie Nights Lite: "Lovelace" (2013)

Linda Boreman's tale is a cautionary one. Blinded by love for the wrong man, she would end up being coerced into doing anything she could to make him happy and save her own life. This biopic shows us the rise and fall of porn icon Linda Lovelace, but unfortunately, it's a story you know all to well.

Twenty year old Linda (Amanda Seyfried) is in Florida, living at home with her stern mother (Sharon Stone) and nice father (Robert Patrick). Linda meets up with Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard), a ne'er-do-well who instantly attracts the repressed young woman, still being punished for having a baby out of wedlock (the child was put up for adoption, against Linda's wishes).

Chuck charms the parents, but after she comes home late and is slapped by her mother, Linda moves out of the house and into the arms of Chuck. Things go okay for a while, until Chuck gets into some legal trouble with his bar, and convinces Linda to go into porn as a way for them to get money. It's the '70's, so why not? After one of the film's best scenes (the audition where Chuck shows the film makers a home movie of Linda's oral talents), Linda finds herself shooting "Deep Throat" with a very nice leading man (a good Adam Brody who looks nothing like Harry Reems), and Chuck is left out in the cold. The film catapults Lovelace to superstardom. As the film makers get to the halfway point of the story, she is taking bows at a screening where she has met Hugh Hefner (James Franco) and other celebrities.

Fast forward six years later, and Lovelace is taking a lie detector test from Eric Roberts (one of the film's many "huh?" cameos). She is ready to write a book about what really happened behind the scenes, and in her relationship with Traynor, who she had divorced. Now remarried and living a normal suburban life, Lovelace tells the harrowing tale of physical abuse at the hands of Traynor, and that "Deep Throat" is nothing more than a week-long filmed sexual coercion.

The documentary film makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have branched out into docudramas, and created "Howl," the best film of 2010. This take on the porn industry of the 1970's is an important story, but coming on the heels of the better "Boogie Nights" and the documentary "Inside Deep Throat," it feels unnecessary. I never saw "Deep Throat," but I did have the misfortune to sit through "The Confessions of Linda Lovelace," which featured an actress wearing a veil and outtakes from the original film. I read both of Lovelace's books, "Ordeal" and "Out of Bondage," (cowritten with Mike McGrady), and they are harrowing tomes. Shocking and salacious. Lovelace's honesty was questioned often about how much coercion was actually involved, but her supporters point to her seemingly willing behavior on set (unlike the film suggests, she made more than one pornographic film, as well as some softcore movies) as an example of post-traumatic stress disorder and being in an abusive relationship.

I bring up Lovelace's books because the writing of "Ordeal" figures prominently in the film. If Epstein and Friedman had "gone there," the film may have been stronger. Instead, the "good girl gone bad" plot is dragged out. The film is barely an hour and a half, and could have been double that with the amount of situations Lovelace found herself in before, during, and after her infamous fifteen minutes of fame. Seyfried looks the part, and does a nice job portraying Lovelace. She even resembles Sharon Stone a little bit, and their scenes crackle, especially when Linda returns home begging to stay. Another fantastic home life scene is a wrenching telephone conversation between Linda and her father, who saw his daughter's film and had to walk out. Really great stuff, and the film should have featured more of that. We never get any information regarding what Linda's second husband and children thought of her porn past, even though her children served as consultants to the producers. The film makers hinge their story on Andy Bellin's screenwriting trick of telling us "what really happened" in the second half of the film, but there is none of the imaginative energy that made "Howl" so special. The film looks amazing, the costuming, the editing, the soundtrack...all top notch. I don't know if the film was tampered with in post-production, but I am curious to see what was left on the cutting room floor.

There is no confidence to "Lovelace." Did the film makers decide no one remembers "Star 80," so we'll go that route? Val Kilmer in "Wonderland" presented an excellent look at a porn performer caught up in the debauchery of the times. Instead, excellent turns by Hank Azaria and Chris Noth are forgotten in the midst of cameos like Chloe Sevigny's two second, one line credited performance. Linda Lovelace died in a car accident over a decade ago, and her life is still being told and talked about. In this instance, the books "Ordeal" and "Out of Bondage" are much better than the film "Lovelace." (* * *) out of five stars.

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Taken from many sources, this collection of stories provides an introduction to the sometimes surprising genre writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, best known as the author of "The Scarlet Letter," the arch-enemy book of my high school years.

"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" reads like notes for a longer science fiction work that never came to fruition. Four elderly people gather at a scientist's home to sample something that might change their lives. There is very little characterization, despite some detailed introductions, and the story plays out unsatisfactorily.

"The Birthmark" reads better, a story about scientist Aylmer's efforts to rid his wife Georgianna of a birthmark on her cheek. Hawthorne is very visual here, and while the dialogue is melodramatic, I could imagine everything he wrote. The author is making a comment about science, and how new discoveries blind the scientist to the bigger picture.

Aside from the obvious metaphor of "Young Goodman Brown" (his name is Goodman, and he's a GOOD MAN), this tale of a young husband trekking into the dark woods to attend a meeting of a coven of witches, made up of the godly folk of his village, is pure paranoid horror. This tale has been copied many times, but it is quite effective and creepy.

"Rappaccini's Daughter" is a densely worded tale of a young man falling for a beautiful woman who is literally poison to those around her. It is high melodrama, and contains an odd prologue that isn't essential to the story, but all in all, it is still good.

My favorite tale of the collection has to be "Roger Malvin's Burial." The story of two wounded soldiers in the wilderness, and one dying from his injuries, spans a few years. You may begin to figure out what happens to the survivor, but the climax is both emotional and heartbreaking. A great story.

"The Artist of the Beautiful" is a well-written but meandering tale about a watchmaker's life-long project. He gives up and is re-inspired one too many times, but Hawthorne says a lot about artists and their work.

The suspense built in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" isn't menacing, but still interesting. A young country boy scours a large city looking for his benefactor, and eventually finds him. I really enjoyed this story, too.

I hated "The Scarlet Letter," having read it in high school. I didn't read any Hawthorne again until "Young Goodman Brown and Other Short Stories," and now think I might have to pick up his famous novel again...after I go through a few other books in my library. I do recommend this collection, however. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

An Almost Perfect Independent Film: "Theresa Is a Mother" (2015)

Theresa (C. Fraser Press) is an unsuccessful singer in New York City freshly evicted from her apartment with her three daughters. She drives back to her hometown, and stays with her parents Roy and Cloris (the excellent Richard Poe and Edie McClurg), and tries to find work in the small town. There is a family tragedy that haunts Theresa, and has never really been addressed by her parents. As her daughters try to fit in, and Roy and Cloris' lives are disrupted, Theresa tries to balance responsibility and her rebellious attitude.

This is not one of those "I don't need a man to stand on my own" stories. Theresa is, in fact, a mess. Her punk-inspired songs are atrocious. Her relationship with her parents is so strained, they don't recognize their own granddaughters. She does finally get a job mowing lawns by under bidding the only local Jewish boy (Matthew Gumley), and is later hired by the boy's clueless father to write a song for a bar mitzvah. Part of the charm of the film is that Theresa and her family are so flawed.

The cast is outstanding, across the board. The Press daughters are professional and turn in actual performances. McClurg and Poe have a great chemistry, and play the broad comic scenes (the hot tub parties) as well as the dramatic very well. C. Fraser Press wrote the screenplay, knows Theresa inside and out, and triumphs in the role. It's a very fine line between sympathy and quirky, and Press walks that line well. I did not find any of the characters irritating, they all have a charm of their own- even the minor ones like the prostitutes hanging out in front of her apartment building, and the TV preacher/cook.

The Press' direction and use of widescreen is lovely. The scenes of Theresa riding around on a child's bike looking for work in the small town are nothing short of classic. Daughter Maggie's (Schuyler Iona Press) forced friendship with the Jewish boy, Seth, is well written. The editing is quick for a story that isn't all plot all the time, some of the best scenes are the interaction between Theresa and either her daughters or her parents.

The Press family does an incredible job in "Theresa Is a Mother." One or two scenes don't work, but as a whole, the film is funny and I liked all the characters. What more could I ask for? (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mike Wiley's Tour de Force: "DAR HE: The Lynching of Emmett Till" (2013)

The senseless 1955 murder of teenager Emmett Till marked a turning point in the civil rights movement in the southern United States. Mike Wiley turns the story into a one man show, literally a one man show- playing almost two dozen speaking parts, male and female, himself.

Till was a fourteen year old boy from Chicago visiting relatives in the small town of Money, Mississippi. While hanging around with some cousins, the boy was dared into talking to a white store owner, and either made some inappropriate comments and touched her, or what he said to her was misinterpreted (he had a stutter he sometimes solved by whistling). The woman's husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till a few days later, beat and killed him, and dumped his body in a local river. His mother famously held an open casket funeral, showing the world the torture Emmett went through, and the two men responsible for his murder were found not guilty, and later told a reporter about how they did in fact murder the youth. They could not be retried thanks to double jeopardy.

According to the end credits, this film is an adaptation of a play written by Mike Wiley, and I assume it was a one-man show. Director Underhill opens up the story, and through the use of some unobtrusive yet effective special effects and editing (well done by Larry J. Gardner), Wiley is able to play off himself in scenes from Till's life and the aftermath of his death. This is not a photographed stage presentation, Wiley puts on costuming to play all the characters on location.

Watching a man in drag play a woman in such a serious film is disconcerting at first. Also, Wiley portrays the white murderers without any makeup to look Caucasian (thank goodness). He is a versatile performer, slightly changing his voice to fit the role without too much effort. His best scene, ironically, is as Emmett's mother Mamie, as she describes examining the body of her dead son. You forget this is a man telling the story, as the mother's love comes through.

I am still waiting for Hollywood to make a definitive version of the events that happened, and I am surprised they have not yet. In the meantime, while it is not perfect, "DAR HE: The Lynching of Emmett Till" is a very good telling of those sad, stupid events, done with a passion for the subject and for the craft of acting and film making in general. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"H.N.I.C." by Albert "Prodigy" Johnson with Steven Savile

Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, of the rap duo Mobb Deep, creates a short readable piece of crime fiction with Steven Savile.

The novella is brisk, and introduces the reader to Pappy, a computer whiz looking to get out of his bleak inner-city existence for a better life in...Detroit? He is friends with the seemingly unbalanced Black, and they commit petty crimes trying to fund their drugs-and-women lifestyles. A bank job goes wrong, and Black kills a man, forcing Pappy to hang around longer to make some money to start a new life. Pappy is also concerned for Tonya, the beaten addict Black claims as his own. Following the tried-and-true formula, Black talks Pappy into committing "one last job," which is rife with double-crosses and senseless murder.

What Johnson has written here certainly feels modern (there is an Obamacare reference), but the plot has been around since the days of the Old West. I don't think you are supposed to root for the criminals, but I did sympathize with Pappy's plight. The writing style spends no time on physical appearances or setting, and instead quickly throws the reader into the action. There is no "Ocean's Eleven"-type minutiae about the two robberies in the novella because the planning that goes into them are haphazard.

Full of profanity and bloody violence, Johnson tells his story efficiently. Like I said, the plot has been done before, and that is the book's main drawback. I wanted something unexpected to happen, but familiarity was outweighed by the suspense of what would happen to Pappy. Maybe because of who Johnson is, the story felt very realistic, and you know this has happened before in real life.

I don't know gangster rap from plastic wrap, every time I try to type Mobb Deep, my fingers want to spell out "Mos Def," but Johnson's story is a brutal and quick read. "H.N.I.C." is also a cautionary tale, custom-made for the big screen. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Okay, Fine, I'll Bite, How DO You Get to Carnegie Hall?: "Music of the Heart" (1999)

Wes Craven directs Oscar winner Meryl Streep in a blood drenched tale of classical music, horsehair violin bows, and revenge...okay, not really.

Streep is Roberta, a recently single mother who moves back home with her mother (an underused Cloris Leachman), and decides what she needs to do next. She meets with old friend Brian (Aidan Quinn), and gets a tip about the needs for inner city music teachers, gathers her moxie and spunk, and wins over Principal Williams (Angela Bassett) and begins teaching violin to the youths. At home, her confidence is shattered as she deals with the break-up of her marriage, and Brian's fear of commitment, but her abrasive style at the schools wins the grudging respect of her students. After a few tumultuous relationships, students, and years, her position is threatened, and Roberta must go to extraordinary lengths to both help the kids and keep her job.

Based on a true story, which was documented in the film "Small Wonders," "Music of the Heart" is good. All caps GOOD. Craven took some heat for going outside the horror genre that made his career, and while his direction is not flashy (I am glad he didn't feel the need to make a point with a bunch of bells and whistles), it has no edge, as well. Same with the script by Pamela Gray. The story takes place in inner city New York City schools, but the PG rated film does not show us how these children benefit from the East Harlem Violin Program. When a situations arises (the angry mother, the jerk music teacher, a kid is shot in a drive-by), it is solved by Streep with a heartfelt monologue or hug, and then everyone goes back to rehearsing their violin. A tougher approach to the material might have made the program seem more beneficial to the viewer.

The Oscar familiar cast is pretty good, considering the material. Quinn is always reliable, but he doesn't play a character here, he plays a plot device. We need Brian to show us how Roberta toughens up and changes, and I did not believe he existed in real life for one second. The scenes leading up to a triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall are beautifully done, and Streep is game to carrying the entire film. She isn't as ballsy as the real life Roberta came across in "Small Wonders," but she is still good. A younger Anne Bancroft would have had a field day with this role. Gloria Estefan is also good in her acting debut, but again, isn't given that much to do.

"Music of the Heart" is a treacly, awful title. It sounds like one of those horrible made-for-television films you find on basic cable at noon on a weekday. It's too bad Craven couldn't go the David Cronenberg route, able to parlay a horror career into even more interesting material. Instead, we get GOOD. He, and we, should demand GREAT. Give this one a look, get warm and fuzzy, and move on. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Movie Monsters in Scale: A Modeler's Gallery of Science Fiction and Horror Figures and Dioramas" by Mark C. Glassy

Mark C. Glassy is a scientist who considers himself cancer's enemy, admirably fighting the disease through research and development of scalpel-free treatments. But on the weekends, during the early morning hours, Glassy creates monsters and aliens with his own two hands- and then displays them depending on how much shelf space he has available.

Glassy is a rabid science fiction film fan, and his love of the genre has transformed itself into model building. He started as a youngster, gave it up for a few years while in school and having a family, but took it up again with such earnestness that he now has a website and this book. He was not formally trained in art, and this interesting book is not a how-to for modelers. Glassy shows off some figures of his collection, showing his appreciation of the cinematic arts through modeling arts.

The author does cover technique, telling the reader what has worked for him over the years. While my interest wandered, waiting for the good stuff, I kept noting how much Glassy loves this hobby of his. The pictures of his models begin, and he goes in chronological order, based on a film's release. The black and white photos of silent-era monsters like 1910's Frankenstein, Nosferatu, and Lon Chaney, Sr.'s Phantom and Quasimodo, are simply stunning. Glassy gives a synopsis of the film, credits the model's sculptor when he is able to, and talks briefly about the problems and solutions involved in constructing a specific model.

Glassy spends more time on the better known films of the talkie era, like "Bride of Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man," and even somehow has kits from the 1950's nuclear fright films consisting of giant insects, and aliens landing in Washington, DC. There are two color sections in the middle of the book, and I quickly wished the entire book was in color, since the models are so impressive.

The models begin to thin out toward the end, after covering the 1960's (the 1970's are represented by just two films), I think because from the 1970's on, there hasn't been enough interest in models of the harder science fiction and fantasy films. Hammer Studios is covered nicely, and I was most impressed with skeletal work from both "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Godzilla." Glassy mentions he is done with bones and skeletons, considering the amount of time and intensity involved!

The main drawback to the book is a functional one. Often, Glassy would be going into detailed explanations of how a model came together, and the reader must flip back or forth in the book to see the item in question. Also, aside from the two sections of color photographs, the majority of the pictures are black and white, negating Glassy's descriptions of getting a subject's coloring just right.

I built many plastic models back in elementary school, mostly vehicles and aircraft from World War II, before finding other interests. I confess that I do not have the patience to build one of those simple kits today, much less go into the kind of detail Glassy must use to bring his kits to life. His collection is a sight to behold, and his enthusiasm is infectious. You may not ever build one of these figures, but "Movie Monsters in Scale: A Modeler's Gallery of Science Fiction and Horror Figures and Dioramas" left me yearning to watch some old horror and sci-fi flicks. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

You'll Never Think of 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' the Same Way Again: "Small Wonders" (1995)

An inspiring documentary that spawned an Academy Award nominated feature film, "Small Wonders" deftly avoids many expected cliches.

Roberta Guaspari is a music teacher who serves three different elementary schools in New York City. Because of budget cuts, her violin program is on the chopping block, but a benefit concert is being held at Carnegie Hall, and the film makers follow Roberta around as she readies her sometimes unruly kids for the big night.

Director Miller's camera is very unintrusive, and the talking heads are kept to a minimum. I did think Guaspari would be a pie-eyed teacher spending the film talking about the magical innocence of children, but she is tough with her students. They seem to respond, using the discipline of learning the violin to improve other areas of their lives. The film makers follow one student, Jose, and his family, but she calls him out on his errors just as often as she does the other children. One scene has her kicking a student out for forgetting her violin on practice day, and not missing a beat keeping the other kids in line.

The highlight of the film is the Fiddlefest concert, and a jaw dropping segment featuring over a dozen famous violinists paired with some of Roberta's students. The sequence is pretty amazing, whether you are familiar with classical music or not. Technically, the film is average. Shot on video, it looks older than it is. I would be interested in seeing an update about some of the kids we meet, and Roberta herself. This film was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, and spawned "Music of the Heart" starring Meryl Streep as Roberta. That film also garnered Oscar nods.

"Small Wonders" is a small film with a big voice. Some of the hippie-dippie staff and teachers at the alternative schools are funny, but Roberta plugs along, teaching her way. This film is a must for inspiring educators everywhere, and happens to entertain the rest of us as well. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, October 11, 2013

"Marvelous Sauce"- Marvelous Sauce

This new self-titled CD from a Canadian group is currently on many college charts around the country, although you have probably heard music similar to this before. Do you remember that "jazzy" streak that hit popular music in the middle to late eighties? Groups like Double, Spandau Ballet, Level 42, and Breathe made it big.

Marvelous Sauce brings back that era with the first song on the album- "Sister Knows What To Do." To get an idea of what this song sounds like, think of Breathe at their weakest. Next is "Animals on Bicycles," which starts out fine, but sinks with poor lyrics. The song seems like an inside joke: "Animals on bicycles...they're likable/Thoroughly respectable in overalls." "The Amended Will" tells an odd story of a man dying of a heart attack. The song sounds like something from The Replacements, complete with bouncy guitar melody. "Medium" is also helped by better music than lyrics. Heck, think of Breathe at their best in a song praising the virtues of anonymity and mediocrity. "Strength and Sobriety" is probably the best cut on the album. It sounds like an early Billy Joel song, with some great piano and vocal arrangements. "Talk About You" has everything but soul and feeling. Unmemorable, to say the least. "Move on Living" also falls into that category. "On My Floor" is better, thanks to a distinguished vocal arrangement, although the lyrics are a mystery. "Underwater"'s melody is everywhere. You will need a map to keep up. "Temporarily Aside" is another strong cut with strong lyrics and a wonderful organ riff.

The group's singer and lyricist, Stephen Barrick, has a nice range, although some of his lyrics seem silly. The rest of the band is very good, with Joe Rozier's piano, organ, and keyboards doing a fantastic job. Unfortunately, Rozier is under a "Special Appearance by..." credit. Strongest cuts on the album: "The Amended Will," "Strength and Sobriety," "Temporarily Aside," and "Medium." My grade for "Marvelous Sauce" - Marvelous Sauce: C+.

Lonely Video Reviews- "The Clan of the Cave Bear," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and "The Unborn"

So, my fiancee and I went back to the video rental store. We almost broke off our engagement as we wandered around arguing over what to get. After an hour, we had made up about three times and picked our choices for this issue.

"The Clan of the Cave Bear" is based on the best selling novel by Jean Auel. My fiancee has read it about a hundred times, and was finally going to see the movie. The heroine of the film is Ayla, played by Daryl Hannah ("Splash," "Steel Magnolias"), the first feminist Cro-Magnon cavewoman. She is adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals, who consider her ugly and bad luck. Pamela Reed ("The Best of Times," "Kindergarten Cop") has a great role as her adoptive mother. Ayla starts causing trouble by doing things like not bowing to the men and hunting on her own. The film was shot in British Columbia and is well done. The tribe communicate with grunts and gestures, which are all subtitled. My only problem is with Hannah, who looks like she strolled out of her hairdresser's salon to do this role. My fiancee liked it a little less, saying it was a disgrace to the book and Jean Auel. Yes, dear.

Next, we popped in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." We had never seen it before, so I guess that makes us "virgins"...but anyway, it was quite the experience. What can be said about this movie that hasn't been said so far? The plot, as it is, is indescribable. It is fun to watch big stars of today like Tim Curry ("Oscar," "Annie," "The Hunt for Red October"), Susan Sarandon ("Atlantic City," "Bull Durham," "Thelma & Louise") and Barry Bostwick (in just about every TV movie ever made) wearing corsets and stockings and having a jolly good time. Meat Loaf, that fat guy with the great voice, is also in this one. You've heard about it for years, just go rent it, you'll never forget it. My fiancee thought it was weird, strange, and kinky.

Finally, "The Unborn." Brooke Adams ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers") returns to the horror genre in a big way. The story is about this geneticist who is inseminating pregnant women with mutant sperm in order to build a master race. The gore is especially powerful because it involves alot of pregnant women and fetuses. It's a wild ride until the end, when bad special effects begin to unravel it. Of course, after seeing this, my fiancee doesn't want to bear any of my children after we are married.

Remember, go to your local video store and look for the lonely videos that no one else wants. And if you hear two people viciously arguing over whether to get "The Faces of Death" or "Porky's," just introduce yourself. My fiancee and I would love to meet you.

"The Clan of the Cave Bear" (1986) 100 min. Grade: B
Directed by Michael Chapman; Screenplay by John Sayles based on the novel by Jean Auel; Featuring: Daryl Hannah, Pamela Reed, James Remar, Thomas G. Waites, John Doolittle, Curtis Armstrong

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) 100 min. Grade: A-
Directed by Jim Sharman; Featuring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O'Brien, Jonathan Adams, Meat Loaf, Little Nell

"The Unborn" (1991) 89 min. Grade: C+
Written and Directed by Rodman Flender; Featuring: Brooke Adams, Jeff Hayenga, James Karen, K Callan, Jane Cameron, Kathy Cameron, Kathy Griffin

Lonely Video Reviews- "Robot Jox" and "The Oval Portrait"

So, we decided that Zero Peaks needed a video or movie review. I opted for video, since I had no way to get to the mall. Me and my fiancee trekked over to the local video rental place for a night of alternative film viewing.

First problem: what is alternative? Do I have to check out "Blue Velvet" for the umpteenth time? Should I get that strange little film from Sri Lanka containing two characters who stab at Caesar's salads and contemplate life for two and a half hours? Maybe I should check out "Ernest Saves Christmas" and be done with it...well, anyway, it was Friday night and there wasn't a thing left to watch. My fiancee and I blindly went up and down each aisle, picking up something, and then putting it back. Finally, we decided we'll grab what we could get.

The two videos we picked were the ones nobody wanted- the lonely videos that you grab out of desperation hoping they'll provide a little entertainment, and maybe a few unintentional laughs. Anything, as long as the story even remotely resembles the picture on the video box cover.

Our picks for the night were "Robot Jox" and "The Oval Portrait." The first film was directed by Stuart Gordon, who directed "The Re-Animator," "From Beyond," and "Dolls." The story took place fifty years after a nuclear holocaust, as most science fiction films do. The two warring sides use huge robots, about ten stories tall, to decide feuds over territory. The robots meet in a giant arena in Death Valley, and whoever's robot is left standing gets the match. Right away, I expected silly special effects along the lines of the "Godzilla" series of films. Guys dressed in robot suits falling on snap together models of recent cars. Boy, was I wrong.

The story concerns a robot jock, who operates the robot, and his last fight with an evil robot jock. Their first match is a draw, so they meet again to fight to the death, but they don't...I can't explain, but the film wasn't that bad. The effects were well done for such a cheap picture, and fans of NBC's "In the Heat of the Night" get to see Anne-Marie Johnson's bare butt. My fiancee didn't think a whole lot of the film because the big robots "squished people".

We weren't so lucky with our second film, "The Oval Portrait." It was made in 1973, with a Spanish film crew and an English speaking cast. Based on a page and a half Edgar Allan Poe story, this mess was obviously put on video to make a quick buck. The flashback scene in the film takes forty five minutes, and the director's idea of scary filming is to constantly zoom the camera in and out of the scene. Now I think I know what a grand mal seizure feels like. The cover of the video makes this one look great, but we giggled through the entire last third of the movie.

That's it for this edition. Look for more lonely video reviews in future issues, or you can do what we did: rented "Ghost" the next night and had a good cry.

"Robot Jox" (1989) 84 min. Grade C+
Directed by Stuart Gordon; Story by Stuart Gordon, Screenplay by Joe Haldeman; Featuring: Gary Graham, Anne-Marie Johnson, Paul Koslo, Robert Sampson, Danny Kamekona, Hilary Mason, Michael Alldredge

"The Oval Portrait" (1973) 86 min. Grade: D-
Directed by Rogelio Gonzalez, Jr.; Written by Enrique Torres based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe; Featuring: Wanda Hendrix, Barry Coe, Gisele Mackenzie, Maray Ayres, Barney O'Sullivan, Doris Buckinham, Pia Shandel

Saturday, August 24, 2013

My Raccoon Has Hepatitis: "Local Legends" (2013)

The co-creator of such films as "Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You!", and writer of over 13,000 songs, decides to turn the cameras on himself, with very pleasing results.

Matt Farley writes and directs this quasi-documentary about being a recording artist and film maker in small town Manchester, New Hampshire. He randomly leaves his products around town, where he walks constantly, works a job, lives cheaply, and is able to put out music, films, and books when he isn't doing is so-bad-it's-hilarious stand-up comedy routine. A couple of women show an interest in him, he plays fantasy one-on-one basketball games with his friend Soup, and he deals with an alter ego, also played by Farley, who decides this very film should be used to sell more of his odd music (which he keeps mentioning is available on iTunes, under dozens of different band names).

Obviously a labor of love, this film is much different from the films Farley appears in that are directed by Charles Roxburgh. Farley answers critics like me who don't get his earlier films, and in doing so, makes a better film than his Roxburgh collaborations. This isn't a contest with Roxburgh to see who can make a more appealing movie, this is simply Farley on his own, and the film is nicely directed in black and white, recalling "Stardust Memories" and "8 1/2". There are a ton of familiar faces from Farley's past films here, too, but you won't need to be familiar with them in order to understand what he is getting at. The highlight of the film is a comedy showcase in a basement that did have me laughing. I am hoping this is the beginning of a series of films from Farley dealing with his life outside of his Shock Marathons and monster movie work. He has shown he can branch out into introspective comedy, and he comes up with his best work- a charming effort that I was immediately taken with.

"Local Legends" is good stuff. You can find more information on it at (including a link to YouTube, where you can view the entire film for free), or you can call Farley directly at (603) 644-0048. Don't worry, he gives his phone number out in all his music and movies, and according to this film, he would love to hear from you. You might even score a free CD or DVD! (* * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Skull Man and His Skull World: "Skull World" (2013)

Justin McConnell finally fills that "eccentric Canadian who wears a skull mask and hits people with cardboard weapons" documentary niche.

Greg Sommer lives in his mother's basement, works at a cemetery, and does freelance video work on the side. He is obsessed with heavy metal music, and his "room" is a giant space filled with big boy toys. He hears about a new competition from Australia that gets him and his friends very excited. Three Aussies have created Box Wars, where competitors dress in armor made of cardboard, and wielding cardboard weapons, beat their fellow soldiers until their armor falls off, and then that competitor is "out". Sommer has created an alter ego, Skull Man, and with his quirky sense of humor and his video work, embraces Box Wars, instigating competitions in his native Canada. What starts out as a few of his friends getting together turns bigger and bigger, and Sommer begins feeling the pressure of running the entire operation himself.

McConnell's film runs one hundred minutes, and in the first half hour, I was wondering why this wasn't a short documentary. A little Sommer goes a long way. McConnell gets into a competition himself, the Box Wars take off, and I couldn't figure out what more could be gleaned from the film. But then Sommer begins relieving stress by doing odd things like taking hallucinogenics, and going UFO hunting. He tries to come off as a wild and crazy guy (a little too much footage involve his friends telling us how wonderful he is), but he is dumping thousands of dollars into these Box Wars with little to no return on his investment. The best segment of the film has Sommer travelling to the home of Box Wars, Australia, and meeting the game's three creators and finding out how they do things Down Under.

McConnell does a great job exposing Sommer's faults as well as his positives. He is close to his subject, but allows some warts to show through. The editing and camerawork is great. Sommer was involved in the film's production, but this doesn't turn into a feature length infomercial for Box Wars. Sommer's weirdness does threaten to sabotage a few efforts to sell Box Wars.

Aside from a few too many glowing testimonials and a film that runs ten minutes too long, "Skull World" is an entertaining documentary that lets the viewer peek into this odd corner of Canada. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gen X Angst: "Saberfrog" (2010)

What starts out as a slacker road comedy turns into a hardcore science fiction allegory that doesn't quite work out.

Josh (J.D. Edmond) finally leaves his dot-com job, and finds out that his favorite sci-fi author has died. He was obsessed with the "Vanguard Epsilon" series, and now Josh is adrift. He decides to track down his friend Terrance (Reuben Tapp), a stereotypical angry black man now comfortably living with his wife. The pair also take up Terrance's ex Laurel (Liz Mariani), who sings in an awful band, and Canadian underground porn obsessed Bert (John Karyus). The group decide to head to their old campus, looking for closure in their lives, only to discover the liberal arts university has changed as well- you know, suicide cults, mind control, and disembodied voices...the usual.

Markham wrote and directed this film, and it is certainly ambitious. The odd science fiction angle in the final act is hard to comprehend, until the viewer realizes Markham is appealing to the geek culture that goes through life in a state of escapism. Kudos to the screenplay for rounding out these characters very well. You may know some people like this, and some individual scenes stand out. Terrance's one man show and the fate of Josh's computer company are highlights. There are a few obviously improvised scenes that had me wincing, however. Markham's direction is mostly hand-held camerawork, luckily the cast seems game. The music and audio are all clean and done well.

I was curious to see where the film would go, but I didn't expect the ending. You get an animated sequence, some special effects, but I never got a solid sense of what the series of books meant to Josh (the film's title is explained here). The climax is sometimes too preachy, and some of the performances suffer.

While I didn't expect the final third, the first hour of the film was solid enough to slightly recommend "Saberfrog." (* * *) out of five stars.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of: "Coyote" (2013)

While stories dealing with the warped minds of the psychotically insane are a dime a dozen, Trevor Juenger presents this amazing character study, anchored by the excellent Bill Oberst, Jr.

Juenger jumps right in as Bill (Bill Oberst, Jr.) sits in his new house, paid for by his mother. He works a mundane job with racist Joe (Bill Finkbiner), and the viewer is clued in right away that things are not alright in Bill's head. He suffers from insomnia ("sleep is the enemy"), to the point that his already warped mind kicks out some pretty terrifying hallucinations. After a disastrous fishing trip with Joe, Bill gets another job at a home shopping television network, and hooks up with Jesse (Victoria Mullen). Jesse is a bit of a mess herself, and the relationship furthers Bill's psychosis.

I can't go into too much detail about what happens to Bill, but you might figure out how bad it gets if you've seen this kind of film before. Yes, this story has been told before, but rarely this well. I liked Juenger's previous "Johnny Be Gone", and here he cranks up the tension to disturbing proportions. I would favorably compare this to David Lynch or early Cronenberg. I watch tons of experimental and avant-garde films, and Juenger is a master of the genre. I am not easily shocked or grossed out, but this film had me on edge.

Oberst might look familiar, he has dozens of credits on IMDB. His performance is excellent. His role demands a strong actor, and he delivers. Mullen is believably pitiful and sad as Jesse, grasping at any companionship her character can find, ignoring all the warning signs about Bill.

Technically, everything clicks. The camerawork is imaginative, the special effects aren't obvious, and the music is very ominous. Juenger's direction is astounding. He uses every trick (and lens) he can find, but none of it feels forced or manipulative. The planning that goes into each shot and sequence must have been immense.

"Coyote" is not a popcorn munching good time at the movies. It is dark, dank, and unsettling perfection. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

This Film's Offbeat Charm Might Get to You: "Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You!" (2013)

The good citizens of River Town, USA are being terrorized by a giant river beast, and we must rely on a chocolate milk drinking disgraced tutor to save us all.

Neil Stuart (Matt Farley) returns to his hometown after being left at the altar by his fiancee Emmaline (Elizabeth Peterson) three years before. He is a believer in a giant creature that lives down by the river, but the rest of the town doesn't believe him. He is hassled and assaulted constantly, eventually staying in his godmother's (Joanie Greenan) basement with his former best friend Teddy (Tom Scalzo). Neil gets a gig tutoring Ally (Sharon Scalzo), the daughter of a former professional athlete (Kevin McGee). As various subplots begin to develop (Neil is hounded by a reporter, Teddy finds love), the river beast makes himself known to the local citizens and begins attacking members of the large cast.

This is the third film I have seen from Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh, after "Freaky Farley" and "Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas," and this is the better of the three. These three films still remind me of John Waters' early films. The cast's delivery of their lines is stilted, the dialogue sounds like it was lifted from sixty year old films, and the monster is obviously a guy in a rubber suit, but this time Roxburgh and Farley have opened up the proceedings and I didn't feel like I was watching a private joke I wasn't in on. From the earnestness of Farley's leading man persona to the terminally cute Sharon Scalzo, this outing is nothing more than goofy fun, and part of that fun is in watching what weirdness the film makers have up their sleeves next. I usually wasn't disappointed, with cat litter and a harmonica playing big game hunter entering the fray.

Of course, this isn't a John Waters film, and I still wish I could get some edge. The film runs a few minutes too long, and the violence and gore is purely PG level. The odd universe this story exists in is fun, but this may not appeal to the average moviegoer. On the other hand, weird and underground cinema fans will probably eat this up. The technical aspects of this film are strong, the cinematography is crisp, the editing and directing are confident, and the sound is excellent.

"Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You!" is cornball stuff, but it's fun cornball stuff. I liked it enough to slightly recommend it, and it's good to see Roxburgh do such a good job behind the camera with each film he directs. (* * *) out of five stars.

Monday, June 24, 2013

False Confessions: "Confessions" (1977)

1977 was a productive year for porn auteur Anthony Spinelli. Not only did he direct the silly identity switch film "Expectations", he also helmed the hilariously titled "Oriental Babysitter," and this standard flick.

Spinelli doesn't need any identity switching here, telling the story of Beth (Kristine Heller), a bored housewife who can't get sex from her moron husband Gary (John Leslie), and goes out looking for it. She picks up a biker (Peter Johns) in the film's only "action sequence", then seduces her husband's boss (Joey Silvera) in a kinda funny party scene. She answers an ad in the paper and humiliates Howard (Jack Wright), much to his wife's (Dory Devon) amusement, before letting herself be with the wife as well. Eventually, Beth turns to prostitution (all because goofy Gary won't satisfy her in bed?).

Spinelli's direction is different from most porn only because he actually directs. The late 1970s decor seems more outlandish here, adding to the by the numbers screenplay, which is just a series of sexual encounters set against a very weak plot frame.

The lead actress, Kristine Heller, a girl next door type, is so refreshingly different from other tarted up starlets who all eventually look alike. She committed suicide in 1989. if you believe internet rumors, and that is sad. It is unsettling to watch someone who has fallen victim to abuse, illness, or an early death perform such an intimate act as sex onscreen. The rest of the cast literally go through the motions, but I cannot get Heller out of my head. This is unerotic stuff.

"Confessions," also known as "Confessions of a Woman," is standard, despite Vinegar Syndrome's DVD release. It is slightly worse than "Expectations," and no different than any other adult film. I don't confess to liking this film very much. (*) out of five stars.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Lower Your Expectations, You'll Thank Me: "Expectations" (1977)

This pornographic film may be more famous today because of its film-like quality, not the actual sex itself.

I am using the participants' real names, as found on, since the credits are full of pseudonyms. Margo (Delania Raffino) is bored with her man, and wants a change. She puts an ad in an "underground newspaper" (the film takes place in San Francisco), and meets up with Montana (Chris Cassidy). Margo plans to switch identities with Montana, and live the life of a "loose woman". Montana apparently has connections, makes all the arrangements, and Margo goes to Montana's apartment to live. Instantly, Joey (Joey Silvera) stops over for a little smack and tickle. Meanwhile, Montana settles into Margo's pad, and Margo's brother Vincent (Jack Wright) stops by. Because of an unexplained eye patch and a penchant for incestuous fantasy, Vincent is already the most interesting character in this group...and the two women explore their new lives sexually.

If this had not been a porn film, it would not have been made. The identity switch is completely idiotic. Margo is a mousy brunette, and Montana is an oddly built platinum blonde. The idea is ridiculous to start with, and the only reason the audience follows along is to see some sex.

The film's cinematography and widescreen are notable only because they exist. There is nothing special about either, and my mind wandered during many scenes (count how many lamps Montana turns off, it's a fun game). The acting is porn-standard, and the music is laughable, pieces ending and others beginning in the middle of scenes. The film is narrated by Margo and Montana, badly, and I can't remember when even that was dropped before a final coda at the end of the film.

The director, Anthony Spinelli, was the brother of mainstream actor Jack Weston. I can only imagine some of their conversations around the dinner table at Thanksgiving- "I just appeared in 'The Four Seasons' with Alan Alda", "Wow, I just directed 'Between the Sheets' with Seka". Some of Spinelli's shots are interesting, and the sex scenes don't follow the tried and true formula, teasing the audience. Although, a lesbian scene between Margo and African-American actress Desiree West never goes beyond softcore, making the viewer ask why it was cut.

All in all, "Expectations" is just what you might expect from a pornographic film as the cusp of the video age. They don't make them like this anymore, and that might be a good thing. (*) out of five stars.