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A pleasant, forgettable diversion.
"Toi et Moi" is pretty typical romantic comedy stuff, albeit with a more sophisticated twist. The neurotic, lovelorn characters writhe their way through low-key tortured romances, seeking happiness and fulfillment. Very European, with lots of self-consciously intellectual dialogue that sets it apart from similar American films.
Still, despite the high-falutin conversations of the characters, this is essentially fluff with a little angst and some good acting elevating it slightly above its standard trappings.
"Invasion of the Bee Girls" certainly isn't the worst movie of its kind, but my god does it overstay its welcome. I never really thought a movie about a demented entomologist (Anitra Ford) who, for purposes never really made clear, begins cross-breeding women with bees (in a transformation sequence that's more confusing and exploitative than it is disturbing) so they can light upon the male population of a town comprising equal parts rednecks and sex-crazed scientists to kill them by engaging in the physical act of love.
Talk about coitus interruptus.
As interesting as it is seeing a bunch of scientists turn into sex-mad weirdos out of sheer boredom -- as opposed to most horror movie characters in white lab coats, who are either just asexually insane or upright as a telephone pole -- the premise isn't nearly interesting enough, nor the characters memorable enough, to anchor this in the realm of great B-movie territory.
Establishing the aggressively mundane take on the stranger in a strange land template he has explored throughout his career, Jim Jarmusch's debut "Stranger Than Paradise" deserves its acclaim for opening a new epoch in independent film. Though Jarmusch has made funnier movies - anthology film "Coffee & Cigarettes" chief among them - and better ones - the remarkable "Dead Man" is easily his most realized - "Paradise" has a seminal quality that repays close attention.
Loafer Willie (John Lurie) is paid an unexpected, unwelcome visit from his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), who attempts to understand the strange - but, paradoxically, not entirely foreign - customs of America in an exhaustively banal 10-day stay. Willie's even less ambitious pal Eddie (Richard Edson) is more accommodating but still struck by the vampiric ennui that afflicts both Americans. Looking for excitement a year after Eva leaves for Cleveland, Willie and Eddie head east, failing to find anything new or exciting there, before the trio makes a last-ditch journey to Florida which ends in similar disappointment.
Jarmusch exhibits a great deal of economy, most scenes comprising little more than static dialog exchanges in cramped rooms that abruptly cut to black. Together with Tom DiCillo's stark black and white cinematography, the effect is an almost alien rendering of familiar U.S. locales that mixes into one blank, homogenous melange, with an Ohio lake shore and a Floridian beach both taking on grey, barely inhabitable foreboding that would make Morrissey proud. The impact of seeing a New York City street take on shades of a dystopia more harrowing than any post-apocalyptic movie is both unnerving and humorous; Eva and the viewer both share the strange sensation of visiting a less-than-vibrant America that is less a hollow lie and more an elusive vision.
By the end of "Paradise" you'll have little memory of what the characters talked about and no inclination to believe they've changed. However, this is a movie that redefined what it meant to search for good items, deserting the fast cars, easy women, and cheap thrills of previous cinematic eras and finding characters looking for action but indisposed to find it. A familiar theme adapted, mutated, and even sliced to ribbons by scads of independent pictures since, Jarmusch is quite possibly the only indie icon to avoid making his characters and their situations twee or succumbing to post-modern cool.
For that, he deserves to be commended. Never has a filmmaker made something easy - a sense of excitement, of joie de vivre, no matter how fleeting - look so difficult.
"Leprechaun: In the Hood" isn't the mess its title might indicate. However, it does mark a case of wasted potential, a promising blaxploitation-spoofing beginning giving way to an uninspired, bloody jaunt around Compton. Warwick Davis is clearly having fun, treating the Leprechaun's inane, pseudo-menacing couplets with just enough tongue-in-cheek wit to keep the proceedings from getting too silly (though he never makes the character seem menacing).
A trio of aspiring rappers steals the gold jewelry belonging to record label magnate Mack Daddy (Ice-T in fine, albeit one-dimensional, form) in an effort to buy new gear and make it big. However, Mack's fortune turns out to belong to the malicious leprechaun, who will stop at nothing to get the treasure back. Likewise, the gangster music man is in hot pursuit as well, operating on greed and the knowledge of the bloodshed the unleashed leprechaun can cause.
Needless to say "In the Hood" isn't treated seriously by any of the cast and crew behind this fifth installment in the "Leprechaun" series. From the over-the-top, gory kills (many of which are mysteriously truncated with a fade to black late in the film) to the casual drug use by man and Irish trickster spirit alike to "Lep's" goofy rap video at the end, the diminutive monster obviously isn't supposed to be related to Freddy Krueger.
That said, the comedic tone can only take goodwill toward the movie so far. The aforementioned, essentially censored deaths late in the movie reflect a laziness that makes the flick more and more frustrating as its overlong running time progresses. Little touches like the exaggerated blaxploitation opening (Ice-T in full regalia, poofy afro, platform shoes, and all) and the extended "Boyz n the Hood" by way of "Undercover Brother" first act makes the tedium of Lep's killing spree and the lads' attempts to escape the wrath of the twisted cherub and record producer drag all the more.
There are worse horror movies, straight and satiric, but if only "In the Hood" delivered on the promise of the latter and/or hewed a bit more closely to the former rather than wallowing uneasily in the middle.
While it's true "Faster" is far from a masterpiece, it does represent a refreshing change of pace. In the last 20-odd years, when genre film fanatics-turned-genre filmmakers began crafting their own homages of widely varying quality to the "classics" and grindhouse and B-movies became -- for better or worse -- ground zero for a wide swath of burgeoning professionals, it's rare for filmmakers to adopt the pace of the newly idolized forebears that inspired them without gimmicky callbacks to the style of prior eras. Though "Faster" allows its genetic material to show, there's nothing cheeky, twee, or overly referential in the presentation.
A hard-hitting convict simply called Driver (Dwayne Johnson) is released from prison and immediately sets out on a revenge plot, killing several people, we later learn, involved in a double-cross that sent him first to the hospital with a bullet in his head and later jail and left his brother (Matt Gerald) six feet under. On the case of the brutal, direct killings is Slade Humpheries, a bent cop on the verge of retirement whose questionable former ties with local CIs give him particular insight into the case -- and might compromise his involvement.
Director George Tillman Jr. makes "Faster" a quick, straightforward actioner that doesn't suffer from the usual tangents and blind-alley trips most modern action movies indulge in (think the oeuvre of Michael Bay and pictures produced by Jerry Bruckheimer). Though it lacks the apparent subtext that has endeared some of the better low-budget genre flicks to a variety of contemporary filmmakers, that's not necessarily a bad thing: Tillman comes off more as a craftsman than an artist -- never a bad thing for an action film -- and he makes, tight, efficient use of his actors and setpieces.
"Faster" isn't a thrillride, but it's a perfectly enjoyable trip to a known destination without regrettable detours or frustrating roadblocks along the way.
Picture a teen-targeted, modernized "Ten Little Indians" with only six people and terrible acting and idiotic plot contrivances, and you basically have "Taboo." Perhaps the worst change is the utterly unconvincing setup that brings the characters together not once but twice; these seem like people who wouldn't stay in the same mall for more than five minutes, let alone be friends.
In a rushed prologue, six young people gather and provide anonymous answers to questions exposing their kinky sexual proclivities. Fast forward a year later and the same group gathers in the palatial inherited mansion of Christian (Nick Stahl) and Elizabeth (January Jones), the two engaged members of the group, for a New Year's Eve party where it turns out just about every friend assembled has committed the sins of the flesh they anonymously answered "yes" to one year prior.
What follows is a hackneyed murder mystery followed by another hackneyed murder mystery stemming from a blackmail plot launched by Elizabeth. To say the motivations behind her scheme are utterly contrived and farfetched is an insult to the words.
Apart from hamfisted writing and characterization that seems to represent little more than a shuffling with trite teen soap opera personae in one pile and traits exhibited by softcore porn archetypes in another, the entire movie is hobbled by some of the worst acting imaginable. Stahl is the standout, delivering a performance that almost makes his character's changes, motives, and emotional makeup somewhat believable. Eddie Kaye Thomas does a decent job as a one-dimensional horndog who always has a vulgar quip at the ready.
The women fare worse. January Jones is icy, insufferable, and inscrutable, not because her character demands it but because her default style appears to be imperious smugness. Lori Heuring attempts to meld self-assurance and sexual openness with the conniving of an all-out bitch and fails at both. Her Katie attempts repeatedly to distinguish between being a "slut" (her) and a "bitch" (Elizabeth); the distinction is there, but Heuring seems unaware that her character embodies both cliches.
Worst in show goes to Amber Benson, who plays a disoriented alcoholic like a coma patient just emerging from several years of complete brain inactivity. Benson herself was probably drunk, high, and brain-damaged at the time of filming -- it's the only explanation for how such a bad actress could convincingly embody a character so fully.
Kenneth Branagh seems an ideal candidate to bring the story of "Frankenstein" to the big screen. In contrast to the seminal creature feature trappings of previous film versions, Mary Shelley's original is first and foremost a tragedy: a tragedy of science too far outpacing the changing morals of an era, a tragedy of a creature born to a cursed fate, a tragedy of a man blinded by ambition and the possibilities of his field to what his actions might bring.
Unfortunately, Branagh's position as the preeminent classical tragedian working today doesn't augment the story well. The characterization is there -- Victor Frankenstein (Branagh himself), the Monster (Robert De Niro), and even ancillary characters like Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and Justine Moritz (Trevyn McDowell) attaining greater depth than any prior screen incarnation. However, what's missing is the drama. Despite the tragic histories binding each character to the others, the tension is rarely all that convincing, the story moving lifelessly through each plot development with very little lost or, especially, gained from the interaction.
The beginning of the film is very promising, Victor's fanatical devotion to conquer death itself, blind to everything else, is brought to life vividly through both Branagh's performance and direction. It's a role almost forgotten in earlier productions due to the focus on the monster but here the star/director brings the doctor deservedly to the forefront, detailing the reasons behind his obsession (not just mad science) while charting the inevitable results of his actions and preoccupations.
The Monster, likewise, is memorably brought to life by De Niro in an excellent performance. Speaking roles for the creature are rare indeed and De Niro's penchant for subtlety is well-served here, using the Monster's tortured body language and scarred facial expressions to maximum effect.
The rest of the cast is more forgettable, only Tom Hulce (as Victor's university chum and semi-accomplice Henry Clavell) and Bonham Carter playing roles important enough to the story for any kind of impact beyond just cogs in the machine. Henry gets several chances to play Frankenstein's foil but those opportunities are largely squandered save for a last-minute warning to Victor near the film's end, when prior mistakes are on the verge of repeating themselves. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is more than just a love interest-cum-damsel-in-distress in Branagh's picture but her personality is rendered too agreeable, the heroine serving as little more than something to react to Victor's actions without having sufficient insight to really make full comment on them.
Despite the ties that bind Frankenstein and his Monster, little is made of their traumatic connection. The best scenes in the film tend to fall into two groups: scenes in which the two groups interact, and sequences leading up to his unholy birth. The former camp is memorable due to the paucity of cinematic material showing the two speaking. De Niro easily out-acts Branagh here, elevating some of the story's intrinsic themes through fine delivery of a range of questions about creation, the existence of the soul and how revival of the body might affect the same, and more.
The latter collection of scenes finds Frankenstein at his most obsessive and most compelling, charging headlong into creating a major scientific epoch without considering the toll on the world, those around him, and himself. Pouring through archaic notes and books, stealing corpses, building unfathomable contraptions, stitching together disparate body parts -- scenes like this are old-hat for monster movies, but they're seldom rendered with the same intensity.
The birth of the Monster represents an exhausting culmination of the early promise, showing just how the condemned creature entered the world. An energetic scene, it finds Frankenstein bounding about his laboratory doing all sorts of dreadful things to advance the cause of reanimation. The latent horror is just below the surface but really hits home when the Monster emerges from his steel sarcophagus of a tomb. Like a good father, Frankenstein attempts to help his "child" with his first steps but the effort proves fruitless, the creature's massive size and a floor stained with a kind of amniotic fluid meaning a difficult birth for father and son alike. Such a harrowing visual metaphor for the horrors of childbirth is difficult to find; it's regrettable more ideas like these didn't end up in the film.
Fun but far from the usual transcendence the titular puppets manage to offer, "The Muppets Take Manhattan" is an ephemeral comedy that sometimes reaches the humorous and emotional highs of past feature-length efforts but mostly stays stuck in the middle. The Muppets attempting to take Broadway by storm is a promising topic and one worth exploring but the writing lacks crispness and Frank Oz's direction lacks the focus necessary to pull off the combination of satire, whimsy, and nostalgia the creators were hoping to achieve.
Kermit and the gang decide to take their smash hit collegiate musical "Manhattan Melodies" to the Great White Way after graduation, leaving any other post-collegiate plans completely untapped. Convinced they have a hit on their hands, the Muppets are disheartened by the lack of interest from producers, who regard the anthropomorphic pals as rubes with big dreams but no clout and even less money.
The story's an old chestnut -- small-town hopefuls stomped down by the big city -- and leads to the film's most affecting moment: "Saying Goodbye," a haunting farewell ditty that finds the friends leaving New York behind after destitution and frustration has taken its toll. Only Kermit remains, promising he'll get the production underway and reunite everyone when their window to success opens.
From there "Manhattan" enters a saggy, protracted midsection where very little happens: Kermit begins working at a diner to support himself while striking up a friendship with Jenny (Juliana Donald), the daughter of his boss, who continues to encourage the frog to pursue his play. The bond between them infuriates a secretly stalking Miss Piggy, who remained in the city as well. Kermit fares more poorly as a one-man would-be impresario than all of the Muppets put together, his plan to get "Melodies" off the ground mainly centering on disguises and laughable attempts to infiltrate the literati.
Along with the main story there are a number of requisite cameos from celebrities but the magic is considerably flatter than normal: Only Dabney Coleman, James Coco, and Gregory Hines leave any kind of impression, while the rest range from the indifferent -- Art Carney and John Landis seem utterly mystified in their brief appearances -- to the borderline subliminal -- Brooke Shields has a brief, completely pointless interaction with Rizzo the Rat.
Probably the most inspired moment in the entire movie comes when Scooter finds himself working as a ticket-taker at a movie theater in Cleveland. There, his coworkers include the Swedish Chef as the concession stand attendant and Lew Zealand as an enthusiastic patron who livens up the feature presentation's 3-D by hurling boomerang fish into the audience. It's a hilarious, hellapoppin scene that contains the gentle satire and fourth-wall demolition that made the Muppets iconic. These are also key ingredients missing throughout the rest of the picture.
Regrettably I'll be aping the consensus on this one. Apart from Rick Baker's awe-inspiring, excellent makeup effects ("Incredible Melting Man" more or less marking the beginning of a brilliant career; good thing this movie didn't prematurely kill it), "The Incredible Melting Man" is horrendous, unpleasant viewing, a confused mess of a monster movie that seems to awkwardly stumble toward being a straight horror movie before stumbling back to a parody/homage of creature features.
The lack of identity and inconsistency of tone are problematic but the thing that really buries the movie is the terrible acting. Incidental cast members are stilted and unconvincing on their own (note the completely unnecessary sequence of a befuddled old couple meandering around a lemon grove, the man and woman seemingly competing to see who can deliver their lines more poorly) but lead Burr de Benning makes his castmates with lesser building seem like members of a Shakespeare repertory by comparison. Either we're supposed to believe de Benning's Dr. Ted Nelson who affixes the same importance to not having any crackers for lunch as he does the body count left by a radioactive monster, or de Benning himself is one of the worst performers to play in a movie within a genre not exactly known for the capabilities of those behind the roles.
The plot concerns an astronaut (Alex Rebar) whose biochemistry is irrevocably altered by the Sun's rays reflected through the rings of Saturn. The sole survivor of the failed space mission, he is treated on Earth but soon begins to find himself with a case of very, very advanced leprosy, parts of his body dripping and falling off. The only remedy for lost cells, we're told, is eating those of someone else. Seems logical. Thus we get a wanton path of blood and destruction from the "Incredible Melting Man," with only Dr. Nelson and an ineffectual assortment of military and police to try to stop the thing.
There's nothing in "Melting Man" you can't get from "The Toxic Avenger," a movie that functions as a better straight monster movie and satire of the same. When a Troma film -- even one as magnificent as "Toxic Avenger" -- makes your movie look cheap, cut-rate, and insipid by comparison, you've lost your right to work in the medium of film.
Home invasion movies can be the setup for many things but comedy isn't usually one of them (unless you find some undercurrent of dark humor in the breaking-and-entering sequences of "A Clockwork Orange"; I do, but I'm hardly the posterboy for what a mainstream comedy fan likes). Yet, Roman Polanski reverses one of his favorite themes -- the horror of confined spaces -- to find equal parts humor and the expected degradation with "Cul-de-Sac."
Emerging just one year after little sister Catherine Deneuve played a repressed, disturbed woman in Polanski's "Repulsion," Francoise Dorleac plays the comparatively uninhibited Teresa. Recently married to obliging, spineless husband George (Donald Pleasence), the couple's complacent life in a poorly maintained 11th century fortress is turned topsy-turvy with the arrival of fugitive robber Richard (Lionel Stander, seemingly channeling Laurence Tierney with his gruff delivery and profane, insulting dialog) and mortally wounded accomplice Albie (Jack MacGowan).
Richard's appearance and unwelcome stay is attended less by the standard fear and tension than it is the inconvenience of upended routine and the frustration wrought by new standards of behavior and the requirements of new roles, duties, and expectations. Formerly content to putter around the house and halfheartedly raise chickens, George becomes Richard's chief target, the bullying criminal almost immediately tearing down George's de jure role as man of the house -- admittedly not a difficult illusion to break -- and forcing him to exaggerate his fey English mannerisms and broken-down self-confidence in a bid for dominance. Meanwhile, Teresa stays distant and critical of the two men but manages to find a kind of freedom, her frequent nudity and seeming run of the place liberating her from the unenviable position in her half of a loveless, unpleasant marriage and the unfulfillment experienced by a kept woman in an isolated locale with no useful activity to keep her (pre)occupied.
Even the status of Richard's control of the situation, however, isn't on the dominant footing most criminals have when encountering a family to victimize. It's clear from the first shot, Richard pathetically pushing the broken-down getaway car as Albie sits almost lifeless in the front seat only to immediately run into a post, and the pair's dialogue that the job has gone wrong, the lack of specifics suggesting it wasn't even a particularly important crime. Like most stick-up men, Richard lacks satisfactory people skills and can't match the conniving of "civilized" people; this is confirmed in a late scene when Teresa and George are visited by people who pass for old friends and Richard plays the family butler to avoid suspicion, his assumption of a servant's role confirming more than most cinematic examples that, pay or not, crime can't make most lowlifes into kings.
The peculiar interplay among the characters and the unpredictability of their relationship isn't the only source of comedy, drama, tension, and more, and doesn't even really definitively set "Cul-de-Sac" apart from other man-on-the-run and home invasion movies. What really pushes the film into the stratosphere of uniqueness is Polanski's peculiar use of existential themes. The title is very appropriate: Literally meaning bottom of the bag -- an apt description for both Teresa and George's marriage and the situation in which Richard and Albie find themselves -- and nowadays a dead-end street, "Cul-de-Sac" suggests emptiness and a definitive, unsatisfactory conclusion, both meanings accurately encapsulating the fates and attitudes of every character onscreen. Whether it's George's pathetic facade of marital happiness and prosperity, Teresa's unfathomable choice to marry such a man, or Richard's endless wait for a mysterious criminal benefactor with no intention of rescue, the choices the characters have made have consigned them to a trip down a dead-end street, into the bottom of the bag; that they're making the journey together serves not as an opportunity for redemption but a final trip into the pointless in which the trio is already immersed.
Made one year after their groundbreaking surrealist short "Un Chien Andalou," "L'Age d'Or" finds Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali reunited for another go at the trappings and entrapments of modern society, specifically the church and state repression. Unfortunately, Dali left the project part way through, leaving Bunuel to finish "Or" alone. The dissolution of the partnership also seemingly marked the dissolution of anything worthwhile coming from the new project; where Dali brought lightness and even humor to augment the bizarre visuals of "Chien" and the prevailing mood of despair and cosmic frustration, Bunuel's specialty lies in a tiresome, unpleasant polemical style that defined a new school of thought of pretension just as it condemned it to the eternal fires of insularity and irritation.
Dali's entire vestigial contribution to Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" 15 years after this one is more compelling, substantial, and thought-provoking than any one scene in "Or." That some of Dali's mischievous, morose visual aesthetic remains -- a group of bishops rendered skeletal on a coastline, a statue rendered into a sex object, etc. -- seems almost accidental, a relic of the painter's onetime involvement more than any lingering coherence from Bunuel's solo misadventure.
The majority of the movie centers on one couple's (Gaston Modot and Lya Lys) attempts to be alone and make love. However, their efforts at intimacy are routinely interrupted by various contrivances and misfortunes, including a gawking gaggle of pilgrims, chamber music emanating from a garden party, and the man's arrest after the initial display of carnality (if you love scenes of three men walking a well-lit sidewalk, this is the film for you).
Like the director's much, much later "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "Or's" main focus is the inability of the uppercrust to enjoy pleasures -- simple or not -- often due to machinations and structures of their own design. Pity the intervening 40-odd years did nothing to lighten Bunuel's exceptionally heavy hand. It's a curious thing the filmmaker is considered such a pioneer of surrealism -- the art form, by its very nature, is supposed to suggest the feebleness and frailty of modern living with abstract, discordant thoughts, feelings, and images without giving the game away through the familiar; its bread and butter is meaning derived through meaningless, a harrowing journey through multiple subconsciences to arrive at some semblance of truth (however elusive it may be). While Bunuel is a master of the meaningless part, he falls frustratingly shy of any of the rest, his pedantic direction, message, and preoccupations consistently obscuring any of the depth and complexity available in the paintings of Dali, Max Ernst (who ironically appears in "Or" briefly as a mortally wounded bandit), and other contemporaries.
Awful. "The Unnamable" has about as much to do with Lovecraft's original as the works of Stephen King have to do with the films of Nora Ephron. Where Lovecraft relies on creepy evocations of dread and explorations of the frailty of human sanity in the face of cosmic evil, Jean-Paul Oulette's adaptation of this short story centers more on gore, stupid haunted house conventions and a succumbing to the demands of the slasher film.
Sure, Oulette includes plenty of references to Lovecraft: the heroes attend Miskatonic University in the hamlet of Arkham, one character is named Randolph Carter (Mark Kinsey Stephenson), the Necronomicon features prominently in the third act (which mentions of Abdul Alhazred and certain lines of text from the fictional tome, naturally), but the similarities more or less end there.
Carter tells school chums Joel (Mark Parra) and Howard (Charles King) about a demon residing in a creepy house not far from Miskatonic. The scientifically minded Joel doesn't believe the story and investigates the house himself. He is soon torn asunder by the demon (Katrin Alexandre), the daughter of local man Joshua Winthrop (Delbert Spain), who attempted to confine his cursed child but ultimately failed.
The house is later visited by two freshman girls desperate to fit in and make it to the top and two lunkhead fratboys hoping to get the ladies in the sack. Carter and Howard later turn up looking for their lost friend and get suckered in by the demon as well.
If you've ever seen a horror movie set in a haunted house, you know what happens. Just throw in some misappropriated material from the 20th century's greatest practitioner of the horror story, and you'll have an idea what "Unnamable" is.
George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is a celebrated Victorian-era composer on the verge of breaking into the ranks of high society. Under the tutelage of Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) and his adoring daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe), Bone seemingly has everything a young artist could want. Unfortunately, he's also afflicted with a burden all meteoric creative types possess: a mental disorder, the composer's taking the form of blackouts which seemingly give way to violent urges.
A further complication manifests in Netta (Linda Darnell), a conniving, cruel woman who is the subject of George's unrequited affections. Netta soon becomes the subject of Bone's brutal obsessions, provoked by exposure to loud, unpleasant noises.
"Hangover Square" is a competent thriller, effectively evoking a foggy, claustrophobic London; one can almost see Jack the Ripper stalking the same streets Bone does when struck by his dark periods. The problem, unfortunately, rests on an approach to the story. Despite a fine performance by Cregar, very little of his horror makes it to the screen. Director John Brahm focuses on the effects of Bone's disorder more than what it's like for the sufferer, meaning murder and the mayhem it causes take center stage rather than the psychological turmoil the protagonist experiences.
A better director could have hit pay dirt with such a story. In the same year, Alfred Hitchcock began his intense interest in psychoanalysis and its application to drama with "Spellbound." Though by no means a perfect picture, "Spellbound" set the stage for fruitful psychological thrillers, including "Vertigo" and "Psycho." Who knows what Hitchcock could have done with this intriguing source material ....
The irksome trend of the grindhouse resuscitation grinds on with "The Devil's Rejects," Rob Zombie's foremost ode to the fugitive killer cinema of the '70s. Though the trend began promisingly in the early '90s thanks to Tarantino's able adoption of genre tropes while enhancing the standard elements with good actors, decent production values and a screenplay at least slightly better than a scribbled-upon napkin found on the bathroom floor of a bordello, the master director subsequently lost his way, taking mediocre peers like Robert Rodriguez along for the ride.
If Tarantino is Orson Welles then Rob Zombie is William Beaudine: Mired in the genre he loves so well yet utterly incompetent at bringing that joy to the screen, Zombie is a horrendous director and an even worse writer.
The plot involves three ugly, awful killers in a loosely knit family of criminals: Capt. Spaulding (Sid Haig, an actor who really should never have enjoyed a career renaissance), Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley, channeling a pre-charisma Charles Manson) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, her inclusion in the project certainly not a result of nepotism). Together the trio moves across South-Southwest America terrorizing a variety of deranged innocents (the term used loosely but they're certainly better than our heroes) in an effort to escape the wrath of Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe, a decent character actor squandered), a man violently intent on putting the "family" in the ground.
It's hard to say what the worst part about "Rejects" is, but the contenders can be best exemplified by three scenes.
In one, Baby and Otis take a group of musicians hostage in a hotel room and proceed to torment the group and exploit individual and collective weaknesses for giggles. The scene is supposed to be reminiscent of psychologically suspenseful cult favorites like "The Sadist" (a decent little thriller Zombie himself gushed over in his thankfully brief tenure hosting Turner Classic Movies' Underground programming block) but just manages to drag on for far too long and bore, Moseley and Moon Zombie's bad delivery just exacerbating the stupid dialogue Rob wrote.
Next up we have a scene in which the characters' curious names are ham-handedly explained. Turns out the nod to a certain legendary comedy collective was no accident, as Wydell receives a visit from a monumentally pompous film scholar who haughtily informs the sheriff about what the names -- apparently aliases, thankfully not their Christian names -- refer to. What could have been a nice nod to an unlikely source of inspiration thus becomes less a joke and more of a didactic sermon about referring back to previous filmmakers' work.
As though the segment couldn't have gotten any worse, the scene concludes with an exchange between Wydell and the scholar which basically cribs from a sequence of dialogue in "3000 Miles to Graceland." When you're borrowing from Demien Lichtenstein -- and making him look better by comparison -- you have an affliction for which there's no cure.
Finally there's the ending, or rather the two endings, the first in which the "protagonists" nearly get killed, get saved by a deus ex machina in the shape of a deformed giant who inexplicably comes along, escape, then get killed five minutes later. Not only does the second setup unnecessarily prolong the movie, it brings the story to a ridiculously overwrought, hero-worshiping end. Where before the audience viewed Spaulding and crew's atrocities from a dispassionate, squeamish distance, the end of the film instead becomes a hell ride into Valhalla that is totally unearned.
Overall, these scenes represent fatal flaws individually when the biggest one can simply be chalked up to this: Zombie is a shameless plagiarist, and a bad one at that. Though Tarantino often walks the line between homage and outright stealing others' work, Zombie's widespread theft seems like the actions of a no-talent who just doesn't know what to put in his movies so he steals from everyone else.
Apart from the expected nods (almost continuous) to grindhouse and cult favorites, as well as the stylistic elements common to the best and worst of the genre, there are also sequences more or less lifted wholesale from "Thelma & Louise," "Key Largo," "Albino Alligator," "Five Easy Pieces" and even a momentary reference to -- of all things -- "Caddyshack." Though it can't be asserted for sure that Zombie has even seen any or all of these movies, it's hard to shake the feeling that he has -- and he was taking copious notes.
A Jamaican "Little Caesar," "The Harder They Come" borrows heavily from the gangster cinema of Mervy LeRoy and Howard Hawks in telling the story of Ivan (Jimmy Cliff), a young man who finds the only way to rise out of his country's poverty is via drug-dealing and murder.
The film begins with Ivan on a bus careening into a slum paradoxically towered over by billboards for foreign mega-nationals like Shell and Phillip Waite. Beneath the adverts people mull, their meager work -- or lack thereof -- and insufficient livelihood contrasted with the inescapable images of success and prosperity just above their heads.
The film's rendering of destitute Jamaica is its strong point, director Perry Henzell effectively making Kingston a character far stronger than any of the human actors onscreen. The alleys, thoroughfares and dirt roads present a foreground through which the characters walk, run, talk, beg, gamble, steal and kill, a setting that defines who they are and what they do far more than any internal elements or motivations.
Another character unto itself -- probably the most prominent, given the film's legacy -- is the soundtrack, a collection of uniformly strong reggae tunes that prove to the globe Jamaica could produce more than ganja and Bob Marley (both of which have since worked a dubious magic upon the world). Like Tony Camonte in Hawks' "Scarface," Ivan is ridiculed by circumstances and his status as a two-bit hood in a crime-ridden area with bigger fish, but the push for felonious success comes not from a neon sign assuring the protagonist "the world is yours" but the insistent, incongruously upbeat leitmotif "You Can Get It If You Really Want" (performed by Cliff himself), a jaunty number that promises reward for hard work while paying lip-service to oppression and obstacle.
The title track serves as a vivid counterpoint. Again performed by Cliff, the song "The Harder They Come" is a rebuke of such platitudes, instead celebrating personal drive and success now, not later, by whatever means available in a recording that borders on the spiritual.
As Ivan moves from recording studio errand boy to hit singer to pusher to outlaw to folk hero, media attention becomes more and more central to his image. Like "Little Caesar's" Rico, he often wonders about his placement in the papers and how the ones who make the news will present him, even lassoing a photographer into creating iconic gangland glamor shots where Ivan poses in flamboyant costume while brandishing a pair of revolvers -- an image forever cemented in the public imagination, making Ivan a template for criminal cool.
Let's get one thing straight: "Season of the Witch" is by no means a great movie. But unlike contemporary films set in medieval times ("Kingdom of Heaven," for example) or sword-and-sandal flicks reliant on setpieces ("Troy"), this flick doesn't take itself seriously. The Crusades-era time and place are little more than backdrops for an action picture with some sinister mysticism thrown in and -- bizarrely -- trappings of a buddy movie.
Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman, having much more fun with this than either of the execrable "Hellboy" films) are two crusaders who become disillusioned with killing after the former accidentally kills an innocent bystander during a raid on Smyrna. After deserting, the pair enters a plague-riddled town where they are enlisted by the local cardinal (the voice of Christopher Lee) to transport a witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery where the local monks might be able to cancel her powers, which are causing the outbreak devastating the continent.
This setup takes up little time and just gets Behmen and Felson on the road to exchange quips while encountering a variety of dangers, including a collapsing bridge, a pack of demonic wolves and growing mistrust within the party. As they get closer to the monastery, the girl is less and less what she seems, taking on the role of both devil and angel, often at the same time.
Sure there are elements of the film exploring redemption and even a sideline into the nature of demonic possession and satanic influence on the mortal realm, but the real attraction of "Witch" is the relationship between Cage and Perlman, who have excellent chemistry onscreen; one could almost see them as gruff, macho manly-men in just about any era and the pairing would still seem inspired.
Cage is certainly an actor who essentially eclipses any other talent onscreen but 2011 might just be the year the perennially misunderstood, invaluable actor meets his match: In this (with Perlman) and best movie of the year contender "Drive Angry" (with William Fichtner), Cage seems to have stumbled upon charismatic, dynamic costars who can hold their own against the headliner's peculiar movie magic.
"The Ruling Class" is a rare thing: A bad movie which might contain the best performance from one of he greatest actors in cinematic history. Peter O'Toole slyly satirizes the aristocratic grandeur and elegant depth of his T.E. Lawrence and his Henry II in portraying Jack Gurney, the unstable scion of an upper-crust English family depending on their eccentric son to further their wealth, privilege and entitlement (which, after centuries of stagnation, feels opulent and unearned).
Unfortunately, as excellent as O'Toole is, the rest of "Class" disintegrates early and often, relying on witless jokes, feeble satire and a random assortment of misplaced genre tricks (musicals, period pieces, even horror film elements pop up and fade away just as quickly) to" liven up" what could have made for a decent character study had director Peter Medak showed a little damn restraint.
After the autoerotic asphyxiation death of the previous Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews), Jack is next in line to inherit the title. The only complication is the young man is mad, confined to an asylum for many years under the delusion that he is Jesus Christ. The Gurneys struggle through, however, with corrupt uncle Sir Charles (William Mervyn) arranging for Jack to marry his mistress, Claire (Coral Browne). Even the cynical Claire falls for Jack, though, his thoughts on free love a welcome respite from the power-mongering and shallowness of the aristocracy.
An encounter between Jack and a man claiming to be Jesus Christ (Nigel Green) as well jolts the young man out of his mental illness, the lad finally taking on a mantle of respectability and clinical distance and answering to his given name, "Jack." That first name, however, disguises a separate subtitle the family doesn't know about: "the Ripper."
O'Toole's magnetic work as the two Jacks is a tour de force, proving the acclaimed dramatic powerhouse equally adept at carrying comedy (no matter how badly written or conceived). Unlike the rest of the cast and the movie as a whole, Jack in either incarnation is a well-rounded individual; his Christ is much deeper and affecting than the hippie-dippie subtext the screenplay tries to read into the faux-messiah while Jack the Ripper is a classy, authoritative, eloquent martinet of a man who whose forceful support and rigid adherence to conservative principles makes him attractive to the cold ranks of the upper class.
Unfortunately, that's the joke. Just about every critic of conservatism has opined it is a heartless set of ideas that favors rule-worship over people and efficiency and results over compassion. Satirically speaking this isn't new territory; there's no reason it should take Medak two and a half hours to advance this thesis.
A lack of balance is the real problem: The vast majority of the running length focuses on Jack's time channeling Jesus, an overlong segment of the film with a number of amusing scenes -- primarily some of Jack/Jesus' quirks, such as sleeping on a cross and his family and attendants' bewildered attitudes when faced with the pseudo-messiah's kindness, something totally alien to their way of life -- that don't fail to override the sense of tedium or the fact that the humor is stale.
Jack the Ripper is a far more interesting character because of his intensity; the peculiar grandfatherly quality O'Toole invests in Jesus is intriguing but largely insubstantial, never dwelling on tiresome platitudes (surprisingly, given the rest of the film's dogmatism and lack of subtlety) but doing little to advance the story. Jack only takes on the Ripper persona for about the last quarter of the film, leaving behind a lot of wasted potential. Every scene with Jack the Ripper is totally engrossing, not only because of O'Toole's considerable skill in playing the part but even because, not in spite of, of the finesse Medak and the screenplay by Peter Barnes instill in exploring the character's central dichotomy: his charisma mixed with the fact that the ideas he espouses are transparently fascist.
Ultimately, though, "Class" is little more than an overextended gag with a setup longer than a Tolstoy novel and a punchline the length of a haiku. Just about every neoliberal hack has uttered some variation on the tired -- if not entirely untrue -- idea that modern society considers love anathema, its incorporation in politics a mark of instability and even insanity, while the cold rationality of law & order is markedly desirable despite its ostensible cruelty. This film is the dramatic extension of that idea. Pity a better storyteller didn't attempt to bring it to the big screen.
Ably pairing western tropes with elements more commonly found in psychological thrillers, "The Naked Spur" transplants internal turmoil with the majesty and danger of frontier exteriors. Though the third act stumbles somewhat, the majority of the film manages to draw the viewer in with its first-rate setpieces, unimpeachable acting and taut script.
Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) is an embittered bounty hunter tracking down outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) in the Rocky Mountains. Enlisting the help of itinerant prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and disgraced cavalry Lt. Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), Kemp soon comes upon his prey. After braving rockslides the quarry created to stop his captors, Kemp and company capture Vandergroat and his companion, the lovely and naive but feisty Lina (Janet Leigh).
Capturing the outlaw proves to be the easy part as Kemp, Tate and Anderson must transport their captives through the wilderness. Forced to contend not only with the elements and hostile natives, the biggest threat turns out to be the shackled Ben, who begins preying on fissures within the group, each bounty hunter's personal flaws and their sexual desires (via Lina) to fracture the bunch and hopefully fashion an opportunity for escape.
The characters in "Spur" are at their strongest when we know nothing about them. Apart from Lina, who seems far too young and beautiful to be mixed up with a manipulative rogue like Vandergroat, everyone seems to have a past largely comprising of harming others and possibly themselves into a life of dissolution or questionable worth. Director Anthony Mann and his leading man cleverly play with western conventions, abandoning the good vs. evil conflict so common in the genre with a sense of uneasy moral ambiguity.
Years before John Ford started his revisionist phase with "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (the latter also starring Stewart), Mann pioneered westerns where the heroes didn't act like heroes and the villains were more victims of circumstance and their own failings than any implicit evil. Stewart enjoyed a five-film collaboration with Mann that entered the genre into a more "mature" phase, Stewart commonly playing characters with a muddy, haunted history.
In "Spur," Kemp's history makes him both a more well-rounded protagonist than most bounty hunter characters yet also makes the psychological element significantly weaker. Kemp used to have a wife and ranch before losing both upon returning from the Civil War, when his bride ran off with another man and abandoned the farm. Determined to buy back the ranch, Kemp hopes to use the reward money from Vandergroat's capture to get the necessary funds.
This is ostensibly the trait the outlaw exploits and Mann and the script (by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, both Oscar-nominated for their work) attempt to present as Kemp's primary flaw. However, it's not clear how his desire to buy something specific makes Kemp any different from garden-variety western bounty hunters, or any characters from films before and since that craved money. Because Kemp's desire for cash is a means to a very specific end, somehow that makes the filmmakers suggest he is vulnerable. Though greedy characters rarely fare well in westerns -- as well as any genre, really -- Kemp's particular goal doesn't seem compelling enough to qualify as a fatal flaw.
This makes the penultimate scene all the stranger. After a second half with notably less engrossing psycho-drama than the former part of the movie and a legitimately gripping final showdown that takes place on a series of rocks overlooking a raging river, Kemp is forced to bring Vandergroat dead rather than alive. As he loads the corpse on his horse, Lina pleads with him not to start life anew on blood money.
This precipitates a breakdown from the otherwise stoic Kemp, who strangely seems to understand the price of both the journey and the bounty have had on him physically, mentally and emotionally. This begs the question, though: What exactly did Kemp think was going to happen if he successfully brought the outlaw back to Abilene alive? Would he refuse money for services rendered there as well when he discovered the delivery of a wanted man differs significantly from transporting an order of groceries?
The Old West might have provided refuge for as many or more cutthroats, badmen and scoundrels as it did decent people hoping to fashion a new life by the sweat of their brows and the skill of their hands, but it seems to me the nature of bounty hunting was well-known back in those days -- a crisis of conscience seems unlikely to stem from capturing someone who's worse than you, no matter how bad you think you are. And it seems even less likely to prove a boon to a scofflaw adept at psychological warfare looking to escape prison and possibly the noose.
I'll begin by saying "Road to Nashville" is a fine concert film. Though it lacks the energy of genre exemplar "Stop Making Sense," or even the slickly directed live documents accompanying special releases from modern acts, performances from country greats like Marty Robbins (who also acted as associate producer and probably made this curio, for better or worse, possible), Waylon Jennings, Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, as well as more obscure acts like The Stoneman Family (giving an intense instrumental performance early on that marks one of the film's high points) and the comical Osborne Brothers.
Comedy represents the film's downfall, however; if only the Osbornes acted as the only foils for the more "serious" scenes. Instead we're stuck with Colonel Feetlebaum (Doodles Weaver), the most incompetent A&R man ever to work in the music industry. The Colonel has been tasked by his beleaguered boss (Richard Arlen) with recruiting country musicians to appear in a concert film. Ignorant of the business, Feetlebaum bumbles his way around a music studio meeting a who's-who of the industry's best.
Weaver plays Feetlebaum as sort of a cross between a poor man's Red Skelton and all of the Ritz Brothers thrown together. Suffice to say he's incredibly annoying, his shtick forming not only the entirety of the scenes linking one performance to another but also random, completely unnecessary cutaways during the musical sequences. These latter portions usually consist of Weaver looking like a moron and dancing about to the music and/or disrupting goings-on in the recording booths by treating the equipment like accoutrements in his own personal sitting room.
It's a shame "Nashville" used this framing device as it's completely unnecessary. Feetlebaum is an absolute waste, his primary purpose consisting of an overlong dig at "Colonel" Tom Parker along with his Wendell Corey-esque mugging. Furthermore, Weaver's comedic style doesn't even gel with the tone of the rest of the movie; the film's use of country humor among its Nashville stars feels genuine, a traditional mix of folksiness and tongue-in-cheek wit. Because the rest of the film's stars are genuine Nashville icons, and Weaver is an oaf wandering in from out of town, the contrast is even more jarring and unpleasant.
Know why films like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween," "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street" are the foremost examples of the slasher film? The identity of the villain(s) is never in doubt. It's illogical to spend a good portion of the movie faffing about searching for the identity of the culprit when the substance of the story is watching people (usually a pack of good-looking, ineffectual teens) get senselessly butchered.
"Happy Birthday to Me" unfortunately takes the mystery path and suffers for it. Ginny Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) is the most troubled member of the cool kids at her school, her popularity marked somewhat by a long, mysterious absence from school and a head full of bad memories related to the car accident-related death of her drunken mother (Sharon Acker). Soon her friends begin meeting gruesome, inexplicable ends, causing Ginny to confront the trauma of her past as her list of compatriots nears the single digits.
To be fair, "Birthday" does have its share of imaginative death scenes. One pompous preppie leaves this world in the same style as Isadora Duncan, while another encounters the elusive and exotic death by kabob. However, these token scenes only serve to enliven a rather bland story with one of the most ridiculous denouements ever attached to a horror tale. Suffice to say the antagonist is homicidally embittered by an incident that resulted in little to no negative change in her life, making her creativity in picking off dumb members of a clique pointless -- a feeling under which the entirety of the film is ultimately mired.