Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Celebretard and the Media Moron

As I've said previously, I think Jesse James is an asshole and a diwmit. However, there's no reason for the idiocy that's been stirred up around this picture:

Click here to see the hysterical gossip article that was written to go with the above photo. Apparently, for the writer, the photo raises the following question: "Is James -- who has since checked into rehab -- a neo-Nazi?"

How does one draw that conclusion from that photo? Looks to me like James is trying to be funny rather than respectful of Hitler and Nazis. To me, that photo looks like the sort of thing any number of people might do if they were among friends and trying to get a laugh.

A more interesting question would be why the "friend" who took that picture would leak it to the media.

I suppose similar dimwits might draw the conclusion that I'M a neo-Nazi because of my upcoming observance of the destruction of the Third Reich, or because I always played the German when we played soldiers as kids because I owned a toy Luger.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: The Easter Angel

Actress Heather Angel is is a very attractive easter bunny in this 1933 publicity still. (It was acquired from this picture blog.)

I hope all my readers have a nice and peaceful Easter holiday.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Love conquers death and demons

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Joey Wang, Ma Wu, Wai Lam, and Tsui Ming-Lau
Director: Siu-Tung Ching
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In ancient China, a young tax collector (Cheung) takes refuge from a rainstorm in an abandoned temple. Here, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful girl (Wang). There's only two things standing in the way of their great romance: She's dead, and she's to be married to a tree demon. Will love find a way even in this case?

"A Chinese Ghost Story" is a wild supernatural martial arts period comedy. It mixes equal amounts of horror, comedy, and tragedy wrapped in great costumes, spectacular sets, mindboggling special effects, and presented with brilliant camerawork, exceptional lighting, and a great musical score. There is literally not a dull moment, as the film careens from magical martial arts duel to terrifying spirit attack to sweet romantic moments to a magical martial arts duel with terrifying spirits who are interrupting a tender romantic moment.

While the wild action and special effects are going to keep you watching in amazement, it's the touching love story at the center of the film that is going to sell you on it. Even if you think romance is "icky", you will, like the bumbling hero of the film does, fall in love with the beautiful, kindhearted spirit, and you will root for her to be liberated from the demons and evil ghosts keeping her trapped.

Both an expertly crafted haunted house movie and a romantic melodrama, "A Chinese Ghost Story" is bound to enliven any ghost-themed Home Film Fest at your house.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Witness Jane Tennison's final case

Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act (2006)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Laura Greenwood, and Gary Lewis
Director: Philip Martin
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

As her life is in total melt-down and alcholism is about to claim her once and for all, Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison (Mirren) struggles to close one last case before she retires from the Metropolitan Police force... the case of a 14 year-old girl who vanished on her way to basketball practice.

"The Final Act" is a nice, two-part close to one of the best television crime dramas to ever be created. It presents a decent mystery--one that I solved just ahead of Tennison, so the show plays as fair with the adience as ever--and it continues and concludes the downward spiral that's been Jane Tennison's life for the last 15 years. As she walks away from her collegues on the force in the final shot of the series, there is a sense that maybe she'll rise from rock-bottom, even if the character flaws that have grown deeper over the years are still very much present.

Although it is a bit slower moving than episodes in the early days of the series and not quite as good as the masterful heights reached in the early "Prime Suspect" series, it's still a fantastically acted and artfully written show. Helen Mirren and teenaged actress Laura Greenwood are particularly good in their parts.

'Tyranny Rex' is a fun read

Tyranny Rex
Writer: John Smith and Chris Standley (with Steve Dillon)
Art: Steve Dillon and Will Simpson
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Tyranny Rex is a sexy Sauran, a human-appearing reptillian species. She is a celebrity performance artist and "trouble-shooter" who moves back and forth across the boundaries between legal and illegal as she sees fit. She is wanted for crimes and random mayhem in some starsystems, while she is just wanted in others.

The "Tyranny Rex" graphic novel reprints the earliest "Tyranny Rex" stories from the long-running British sci-fi comic magazine "2000 AD." They feature an equal mix of humor and action, and they're all fun reads, as Tyranny moves from making illegal clones of classic rock stars, protects Vid-stars from psychotic fans, and defending her body-sculptures from psychic cowboys. Although the book seems to end Tyranny's story quite nicely, the character appeared in several additional installments of the comic series, as well as a few short stories by creator John Smith.

The "Tyranny Rex" graphic novel might be a bit hard to find, but if you can get a copy, I think you'll be entertained. You might want to look particularly hard for it if you're a Steve Dillon fan, as the first half of the book is illustrated by him, and they are full of the sort of gross physcial humor and comedic violence that he has become known for through titles published at Marvel Comcis and the DC Comics imprint Vertigo. (This is early Dillon art, so his style is still a bit rough, but he was good even back in the late 1980s, the period from which these "Tyranny Rex" stories date.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tomie carries a grudge like no-one else!

Tomie: Rebirth (2001)

Starring: Miki Sakai, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kumiko Endou, Masaya Kikawada and Yutaka Nakajima
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A group of friends (Tsumabuki, Kikawada, and Endou) are stalked by the undying Tomie after two of them cover up one of her deaths.

"Tomie: Rebirth" is a drab and boring entry in the film series based on Junji Ito's classic "Tomie" horror comics. The characters are uninteresting, Tomie is more irritating than scary, and the chills and terrors are so few and far between so as to be barely worth mentioning. In fact, the post image is more interesting and disturbing than anything in the actual movie.

This sequel is almost as bad as the original "Tomie" movie, being elevated only slightly above it thanks to a creepy plotline where Tomie returns from the dead by possessing cute, innocent Hitomi, and a sequence where Tomie is reborn from the surface of a painting that had been smeared with her blood. These are also the only elements of the film that come close to matching the chills that Ito's "Tomie" comic book tales inspire when read.

"Tomie: Rebirth" is a film you can skip, even if you're the biggest fan of the "Tomie" series on the planet. It's definately not the first of the series you should watch... that should be "Tomie: Replay" or "Tomie: Another Face", both of which are superior efforts to this one. (The "Tomie" films can be watched in pretty much any order; they are indepedent of each other, and they even have all different casts and directors each time.)

(As of this writing, all the "Tomie" movies and graphic novels are out-of-print in North America.)

Saturday Scream Queen: Jacqueline Lovell

Using the stage name Sarah St. James, Jacqueline Lovell was a very busy nude model and adult film star during the mid-1990s. She appeared in hundreds of magazine layouts and photo shoots for "adult" websites and online services, as well several dozen softcore and hardcore pornographic films.

Among the producers she worked for was B-movie maven Charles Band, first appearing in sci-fi and fantasy-themed softcore films made for his Surrender Cinema production unit, but later showing herself to have talent for acting beyond disrobing and moaning on cue when she appeared in the Band-directed horror classics "Hideous!" and "Head of the Family".

Lovell gave birth to a daughter in 2000 and for a time left show business to focus on her family. Since 2005, however, she has been taking small parts in television shows and low-budget horror movies.

Click here to read reviews of a few of Lovell's films at The Charles Band Collection.

Friday, March 26, 2010

'When Evil Calls' isn't much past its novelty

When Evil Calls (2007)
Starring: Jennifer Lim, Sean Pertwee, Chris Barrie, Lois Winston, Gemma Chan, Lucy Barker, Dominique Pinon, Rick Warden, Oscar Pearce and Luke Lynch
Director: Johannes Roberts
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A deal that one girl (Lim) makes with an evil spirit (Pearce) unleashes death and mayhem via text messages in a British high school.

"When Evil Calls" is a film version of the first-ever horror series produced for broadcast over cellphones. Each of the 20 episodes was 2-3 minutes long, offering up sex and gory violence brought on by evil magic--magic that causes wishes to come true in twisted and bloody ways. Here, they have been linked together with framing sequences featuring Sean Pertwee as a crazy janitor who is relating the horrible events and trying to be more and more like the Crypt Keeper as he gets more and more drunk.

Given its history, I acknowledge it as a novelty and probably even as a milestone. However, as a movie--and this is how I came to it and how most people will come to it--"When Evil Calls" is a run-of-the-mill low-budget horror effort with predictable and/or far-fetched stories that we've seen done better elsewhere, but which manages to rise slightly above similar material due to a better-than-usual cast. (Chris Barrie was particularly fun as the most oblivous school headmaster ever.)

However, when they were cutting the movie together, they should have trimmed parts of the original episodes. There was an annoying repetion in the film--over and over again, it established the content of text message recieved by victims of the evil magic received, something even the dimmest viewer would be aware of after the third or fourth time. I understand why that detail has to be reestablished every time a new episode is released in a serial, but there's no need for it when the pieces are packaged as a whole.

It also occurs to me that a better title for the film (and the original series) would have been "When Evil Texts". That is, after all, what is going on.

As a curiosity, the film might be worth seeing. Otherwise, I'm sure there are better things out there for you to spend your time on.

A naked witch not worth checking out

The Naked Witch (1964)
Starring: Robert Short, Libby Hall and Jo Maryman
Directors: Larry Buchanan and Claude Alexander
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A graduate student (Short) researching the history of a VERY ethnically German town in Texas digs up the corpse of a long-dead witch (Hall) and restores her to life. She the proceeds to take bloody revenge on the decendents of the transplanted Teutonics who murdered her.

To describe "The Naked Witch" as awful is to give it a backhanded compliment. Awful is the mildest of terms one can apply to this film. To make it even worse, it's BORING. What we have here is enough content to barely fill an episode of "Tales From the Darkside" or "Ray Bradbury Theater" but it's stretched out to twice that length. And, although the film barely clears one hour of running time, it feels like twice that.

The fact the script was suitable for a 23-minute TV show rather than a movie is only part of the awfulness here. It's compounded by the film's cast.

First, there's leading man Robert Short, an actor who was born 50-60 years too late. He would have been perfect for slient movies, because he can act with his face and his body language, but whenever he tries to deliver a line, he spoils everything. I am convinced that if you were to put a loaded gun to Mr. Short's head and say, "Act frightened or I will blow your brains out!" he's say "Please, no. Spare me. I have a wife and kids" in a wooden monotone. And we get to suffer through that wooden monotone as Short narrates many of the movies events.

Second, there's Libby Hall, the Naked Witch of the title. She is slightly better than Short when it comes to the acting but not by much. With her, the problem is more a physical one. Although I like nudity as much as the next guy, there really are some women who should keep their shirts on. Ms. Hall is one of them. I don't mean to pick on her, but someone involved with the production should have realized that if you're going to try to sell you movie with sex, you need to have someone a little more sexy doing it; Hall's breasts would have looked just fine if they had been left to the imagination, but when they're exposed, you find yourself seeing something you wish you hadn't. (That said, we don't get to see much of her breasts--not only does the Naked Witch not spend a whole lot of time Naked but when she does, there are often censor bars across the unfortunate boobies.)

Third, there's the fact the fact that every bit of dialogue in the film is atrociously bad... and it sounds even worse coming from the mouths of untalented actors. This isn't entirely the fault of the actors, but good actors can make bad lines at least sound passable. No such luck here.

The only thing that saves this film from a 0-rating is that Buchanan does show the occassional flare for dramatic visuals. There are some great scenes of the Naked Witch walking through the Texas landscape, and there's an almost-great scene where the blood from one of her victims spreads in a body of water. However, such visual moments are shattered by the bad acting and Buchanan's otherwise incompetent directing. He misses more moments to create spookiness or great visuals than he grasps.

All-in-all, I have to wonder why anyone would think this film was worth preserving and re-releasing on DVD. There is so little about it that is worth anything that it was truly wasted time and effort.

'Day of the Nightmare' is full of twists

Day of the Nightmare (1965)
Starring: Beverly Bain, Cliff Fields, John Ireland and John Hart
Director: John A. Bushelman
Rating: Four of Ten Tomatoes

As her artist husband (Fields) grows more aloof, Barbara (Bain) starts to grow concerned for the health of her marriage. She soon has bigger things to worry about, as he first becomes a murder suspect... and then she immediately thereafter almost is stabbed to death by his supposed victim.

"Day of the Nightmare" features the foundation of a decent thriller, with a story constructed with enough intelligence to know not to bother concealing something which is obvious to alert audience members almost immediately (Barbara's husband is a Norman Bates-style maniac and the "murder victim" is actually his second personality), but it's done in by languid pacing and terribly undramatic camerawork and lighting. The film called for deep shadows and quirky camera angles, but instead we get cinematography that would have been better suited for an industrial educational film.

The acting is also mostly mediocre, with John Ireland (as a homicide detective looking for a murder victim that doesn't exist) seeming tired and bored and Cliff Fields (as the hubby leading more than just one double life) seeming like he needed to take a few more acting lessons.

The one exception is Beverly Bain. Whether she is portraying Barbara as the perfect early 1960s American housewife, as trying to come grips with the possibility her husband has killed his mistress, or fleeing an insane, knife-wielding cross-dressing phantom, she gives a performance far better than anything else in the film. This is her only film credit, which is a shame. There is quite a bit of talent on display here. (But no flesh; she is the only attractive female in the movie who doesn't appear topless.)

But Bain's performance alone is not enough to save this film. She, combined with the well executed story, will carry you through it, but the weak acting and inappropriate tone of the cinematography, put this movie firmly in the category of Bad.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

One of the best movies of 2000s

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan
Director: Shane Black
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," petty thief Harry (Downey) is whisked away to Hollywood when a casting director decides he'll be perfect to play a detective in an upcoming movie. Here, he meets homosexual private detective "Gay" Perry (Kilmer) and, through a chance encounter, is reunited with childhood friend and unfulfilled dream-girl Harmony (Monaghan). The trio soon find themselves (despite their best efforts not to be) involved with mysteries, murders, and mayhem so bizarre that it's as though they've stepped into a classic pulp dime store mystery novel.

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" manages to be both a black comedy and a modern take on "film noir," as our reluctant heroes try to sort out the evermore complicated and deadly mystery they have been drawn into. The humor is derived from extremely witty patter that is delivered with great skill by Downey and Kilmer, and from the movie's playful third-wall approach to the ever-present narrator so common in this type of film. (More than once, the narrator--Harry--stops the film and comments that he left something and then goes on hilarious, self-deprecating rants about narration, storytelling, and how bad he is at both.) Laughs are also generated by the way the film turns several of the genre's conventions on its head, prime among these being that the hardboiled detective is openly gay.

This movie is fantastic not only because every actor is at the top of their game for every moment they spend on screen, but also because the film manages to keep its tense mystery plot going while being playful with the artifact that is a movie and the narration device. Even the digs at the "typical Hollywood happy ending" that the film gets in at the end, and the final wrap-up by the narrator are executed so flawlessly that they actually work!

Pay attention, all you filmmakers who think you're making clever suspense movies or clever comedies about movie-making and Hollywood... "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is an incredibly well-done example of how to do both.

'Darkness' is condusive for sleep

Darkness (2003)
Starring: Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, and Iain Glenn
Director: Jaume Blaguero
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Regina (Paquin), a troubled teen, moves with her family to a house with a dark and mysterious past in the countryside. Soon, strange events start to occur--whenever darkness settles over the house, it's as though a transformation takes place and other residents start to appear. Her parents (Olin and Glenn) remain oblivious to the growing danger and terror, so Regina comes to the realization that it is up to her to unlock the secrets hidden in the house's past if the evil growing within it is to be stopped before it consumes her family.

"Darkness" is a movie that tries to be a haunted house story and fails miserably. The primary reason for this is the same that doomed the Worst Big Screen Release Horror Movie of 2005 "Boogeyman" (my review, at Movies You Should Die Before You See); build-up without pay-off does not make a horror movie, it makes audiences bored. The same true of spooky images of shadowy figures standing just out of view of the principle characters--if nothing comes of them, they stop being disturbing. Some of these would-be horror movie makers would benefit from watching a horror movie or two, I think.

That said, I think "Darkness" will appeal to teenagers, but few others. They'll be able to identify with Regina, as she is the only member of her family with a brain in her head. (The father is coming unglued, her little brother is behaving strangely... yet her thick-skulled mother doesn't notice and refuses to listen when it's pointed out to her.) Yep... the Anna Paquin character will be seen as Everyteen by the 14-19 year-old set. The rest of us will be bored, as "Darkness" contains no scares, a plot that is so muddled it's hard to tell whether the actors are doing a good job or not, because one isn't really sure what they're supposed to be reacting to.

It isn't until the final 15 minutes or so that those of us who aren't teenagers will find something to entertain us in "Darkness," as the secrets of the house come to light and the plot finally stars going somewhere. FINALLY, we get something other than ghosts standing around in rooms and staring at unawares Paquin, Glenn, and Olin, and we get some genuine scares; this final sequence earns the pic a whole Star by itself. The ending of the film is also pretty chilling (even if I'm a bit unclear as to exactly what it means). Still, it's too little and way too late to save "Darkness" from being just another badly done movie.

(Note: I watched the DVD release of the "Unrated Version." I'm not sure what in it makes it "unrated"--other than, I suppose, they didn't send that particular cut to the Ratings Board--so maybe the theatrical release wasn't as tedious.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cary Grant heads 'North by Northwest'

North by Northwest (1959)
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

When ad executive Roger Thornhill (Grant) is mistakenly identified by foreign spies as an elusive American agent, he finds himself framed for murder and on the run for his life, hunted by an ever-present foe (Mason) for reasons he doesn't understand. He eventually attempts to turn his situation back on his tormentors and discover the true identity of the spy they've mistaken him for, with the help of enigmatic beauty, Eve Kendell (Saint).

"North by Northwest" is perhaps the greatest thriller ever made, and I think it's quite possibly the very best movie Alfred Hitchcock directed; it's tied with "Young and Innocent" as my favorite Hitchcock film. It's got a fantastic cast--with Grant, as the hapless hero, and Mason. as the ultra-polished, James-Bondian bad guy, Vandamm shining brightest--a perfectly paced script that moves from one complication to another, from one breathtaking chase to another with roller coaster-like ups and downs and whip-lash turns; brilliant camera-work and editing; and one of the most fabulous scores ever written for cinema.

The use of sound in the film is also incredibly impressive. The cropduster scene (perhaps the most famous sequence from any Hitchcock film) is as impactful as it is because of the strategic use of sound (or, more accurately, the use of silence).

Modern filmmakers and writers should study this film carefully. They'll notice that the KISS principle is best when it comes to effective thrillers, and they'll also perhaps see what real witty dialogue sounds like. Lovers of thrillers and spy movies should also seek it out if they haven't seen it yet. It truly is a classic, and it is a movie that deserves to be seen again and again.

Beware the voodoo sex dolls of 'Baba Yaga'!

Baba Yaga (aka "Kiss Me, Kill Me" or "The Devil Witch") (1973)
Starring: Isabelle De Funes, Carroll Baker, and George Eastman
Director: Carrado Farina
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Commercial photographer Valentina (De Funes) becomes the target of the twisted effections of immortal, sadistic lesbian witch Baba Yaga (Baker). As Valentina's models and friends start falling victim to mysterious curses, she turns to her filmmaker friend Arno (Eastman) for help. Will they together be able to overcome supernatural lesbianic powers as old time itself?

"Baba Yaga" is a decidedly weird movie. From beginning to end, it has a dreamlike quality about it, and as it progresses and Valentina is snared increasingly by Baba Yaga's dark powers, it starts to feel like a nightmare. Usually, films of the disjointed, somewhat pretentious variety that is represented here bug me. But here, we have a film that is so well done that I can accept the quirky, illogical and random nature of many of the events. The acting also reflects the dream-sense that permeates the film, with De Funes being particularly fun (and sexy) to watch.

Part horror movie, part bizarro softcore Euro-trash sexploitation flick, "Baba Yaga" is strange and well-makde enough that it's worth a look. The climax where Valentina is trapped by Baba Yaga and a bondage voodoo sex-doll come to life, and Arno is attempting to rescue her, is extremely well done.

I hesitate to recommend "Baba Yaga" as a film you should seek out, but I found it an interesting movie.

(Trivia: The movie is based on an Italian comic series, "Valentina". I read a few album reprints when I was a kid, and I remember them as being strange and sexy, just like this movie. De Funes' appearance is also very much like the character appears in Crepax's drawings, which are displayed during the opening credits. So, I guess this sets "Baba Yaga" aside as one of those rare successful comic book film adaptations.)

(Special Bonus Trivia: Artist Crepax based the look of Valentina on actress Louise Brooks. You can check out pictures of the real thing at the companion blog Shades of Gray by clicking here.)

Picture Perfect Wednesday:Louise Brooks, Classic Bird

Louise Brooks was a fashion trend-setter in the 1920s, with her bobbed hairstype being widely imitated after she began appearing in film. Often, when someone says "flapper style," they are picturing Louise Brooks.

Brooks only appeared in a couple dozen features. Some sources say her career suffered because she refused to bend to the will of the studio system. Other sources say that her career was damaged by working in European for a couple of years during the late 1920s. Others claim that the fact she posed for a number of nude photos as a young dancer--a choice that Brooks later said had been a tremendous mistake. Finally, her death of career is attributed to her involvement with the Philo Vance Picture "The Canary Murder Case."

Starring William Powell as Philo Vance and Brooks as a blackmailing nightclub singer who ends up murdered, it was originally shot as a slient movie in 1928, but Paramount executives decided to rework the film as a talkie and called the actors back to loop their lines. When Brooks refused to cooperate, it gave her a bad reputation and she never worked for a major Hollywood studio again.

"The Canary Murder Case" was a hit, even if Brooks didn't receieve a career boost from it. However, some great publicity stills for the film exist, featuring the lovely Louise Brooks as the nefarious and ill-fated Canary.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

'The Order' isn't one you need to order

The Order (aka "Jihad Warrior") (2001)
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sofia Milos, Sasson Gabai, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ben Cross Brian Thompson and Charlton Heston
Director: Sheldon Lettich
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

An internationally infamous art thief (Van Damme) must team up with an Israeli cop (Milos)--who is presumably infamous for always wearing her uniform buttoned down to the middle of her chest--to rescue his father from the clutches of a crazed religious leader (Thompson) who is bent on bringing about Armageddon.

While watching this film, be as excited as Van Damme and Milos look to be in the picture above. The film has a paper-thin plot with most of the characters being driven by weak motivations (or by nothing but plot dictates and Stupid Character Syndrom), and all the action and fight scenes being ineptly photographed, badly edited and perhaps even under-rehearsed.

The paper-thin plot and weak characters can be forgiven, I suppose, but the inept handling of the fight scenes cannot. With the exception a fight during the heist that opens the film, every fight has a cheap and amateurish feel to it, with too many cuts and close-ups of the action to really seeing what's going on and entirely too much use of slow-motion of Van Damme jumping or kicking. It screams either of an attempt to cover of badly rehearsed fights or of a director and cinematographer who didn't know how to film martial arts action. The many chase scenes are handled pretty well--with the exception of a motorcycle sequence that is filmed and edited so badly that it positively screams, "Look! Stunt Double driving instead of Van Damme!" This ineptitude carries through straight to the big final battle between Van Damme and the religious crazy, bringing the film to a close on a low note that is only made worse at a misfired attempt at a humorous denouement.

For all the films faults, the actors do as good a job as can be expected with the material they are working with. Van Damme is charming and funny while Sofia Milos wears that half-unbuttoned police uniform like few others have ever worn half-unbuttoned police uniforms before. Charlton Heston's extended cameo is badly written, but he does a good job with it and the same is true of supporting cast members Ben Cross and Brian Thompson. Their parts are horribly written, but they are appropriately sinister.

The backdrop of Jerusalem is also interesting, especially the way the film demonstrates during a foot chase how wildly different communities that are hostile to each other exist in very tight quarters, with Van Damme fleeing from secular police to the protection of Hasedic Jews and then finds himself being stared down by hostile Muslims, all over the space of just a few minutes.

That said, the film is a letdown in all areas that really matter when we are sitting down to watch a Jean Claude Van Damme film. It ranks among his weakest efforts to date.

Beware the secretary too good to be true....

The Inner Circle (1946)
Starring: Warren Douglas, Adele Mara, William Frawley and Virginia Christine
Director: Phil Ford
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a mysterious veiled woman frames private detective Johnny Strange (Douglas) for the murder of a much-loathed radio reporter, his equally mysterious secretary (Mara) is ready with just the right lie to clear him. But Lt. Webb of the homicide department (Frawley) isn't buying it, and Johnny has to race against time to find the real killer.

"The Inner Circle" is a light-weight, slightly goofy mystery film that's the cinematic equavelent of an apple--it's a quick, inoffensive snack. Average acting, simple script, and an okay mystery plot (that keeps it together to the end, but then falls apart), it's not a bad way to spend an hour, but it's not an experience you'll remember. The most interesting thing about it is William Frawley as a sort-of proto-Columbo whose main investigative technique seems to be to annoy suspects into confessing.

'The Return' isn't really worth the trip

The Return (2006)
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Peter O'Brien, Sam Shepard, J.C. MacKenzie, and Adam Scott
Director: Asif Kapadia
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A traveling sales-rep (Gellar) starts having strange dreams and visions when she returns to Texas for the first time in years. When she tries to unlock a mystery that dates to her childhood, she finds herself remembering places she's never been before, and eventually being haunted by phantom voices and stalked by a phantom killer. Will she uncover the truth before she completely loses her mind?

"The Return" had a lot of potential. It still does, if someone were to edit it down to about 53 minutes. It's got good acting, gorgeous cinematography and production design, and a decent (if obvious and predictable) story... but everything is draaaaaged out and the result is that the movie is boooooooring. What tension is built disspates over drawn-out sequences, and subsequently any pay-off feels either pointless or forced.

In fact, because the movie is such a meandering mess, the whole experience is one of emptiness and pointlessness. It's neither scary nor romantic enough to birng about the sort of emotions in the viewer that it is hoping to inspire. Even the climax--where this feeling should dissipate and be replaced with relief and maybe even happiness--has an empty sort of feeling to it. (I wish I could explain more, but doing so might give the movie away completely... and I try not to give too many spoilers in this forum.)

The film also suffers from the fact that we don't really get to know any of the characters in it. Even Gellar's character is a bit of a cypher... although given her nature that's forgivable. But her father, her "rescuer", and even her pursuer should have been developed more. This might have helped to raise the tension a bit, and it might even have helped justify the running time.

"The Return" would have made a great "Twilight Zone" or "Night Gallery" episode. It could even have been a decent movie--all the elements are here, they're just not used properly. As it stands, the film is worth seeing so you can admire the beautiful camerawork and production design. Just don't expect an exciting viewing experience.

Monday, March 22, 2010

'Voodoo Man' is full of stars and weirdness

Voodoo Man (1944)
Starring: Michael Ames, Louise Currie, Wanda McKay, Bela Lugosi, George Zucco, John Carradine, Henry Hall and Ellen Hall
Director: William Beaudine
Rating: Five of Ten Stars (if meant to be a serious movie); Seven of Ten Stars (if meant to be a spoof)

Women are vanishing along a lonely stretch of highway... and the latest victims are a brides maid and a bride-to-be (McKay and Currie). Can a Hollywood screenwriter (Ames) rise to the challenge and face the real-life menace of the Voodoo Man (Lugosi) and minions (which include Zucco and Carradine)?

There are some movies that are so bad they become good. "Voodoo Man" may be one of those. In fact, it's so strange and over-the-top that I'm not sure it was ever intended to be taken seriously; the numerous in-jokes sprinkled throughout the film--starting with the main character being a writer for Banner Productions (the company that produced the film), with a boss named S.K. (Sam Katzman was the chief executive and lead producer at Banner) and the many sly references to other successful zombie movies of the day, such as the Lugosi-starring "White Zombie" from a decade earlier and the 1943 hit "I Walked With a Zombie". Then there's the absolute goofiness of George Zucco's gas station-owning voodoo priest, a character that even within the bizarre reality that exists within every Monogram picture is so outrageous that I can't believe he was supposed to be taken seriously. And then there's the absolutely ineffectual "hero" of the picture, the screenwriter who spends the film's climactic moments unconcious while the sheriff and his dimwitted deputy save the day.

Also, thinking of the film as more of a spoof than a serious attempt at making a horror movie also makes Zucco and John Carradine look a little less pathetic in the picture. By pathetic, I'm not referring to their performances, but to the fact they are playing the characters they do. If the film was intended to be a serious movie, then I feel sad for the state of both their finances that they were reduced to playing a cartoon character in a silly hat (Zucco) and a dimwitted pervert who walked like he had just crapped his pants (Carradine). How desperate must they have been to not walk away from parts like that, even if they had iron-clad, multi-picture contracts with Monogram-related production entities--could Carradine's theater projects REALLY have been that in need of money that he had to stoop this low? If treated as a serious movie, Carradine and Zucco both give performances that mark low points in their careers and that their families should STILL be embarrassed about. However, if they are playing in a comedy, then they're not half bad. (And whether a serious movie or not, Carradine's character undoubtedly found a place among the beatniks a few years later... that cat can beat the drum, man.

Whether a comedy or not, Bela Lugosi is the solid core of the film, an absolute straight man at the heart of the silly weirdness of the rest of the movie. Yeah, he may be a mad scientist who dresses funny for voodoo rituals, but the scene where the mumbo-jumbo briefly pays off by reviving his braindead wife's soul is a genuinely touching and ultimately heartbreaking moment that is worthy of more serious drama. (In fact, Lugosi is the only reason I'm even wavering in my belief that this is a comedy. In films like "Scared to Death" and "You'll Find Out", he is clearly playing in a comedic style, but here he is at his most dramatic and serious.

Also, whether this is a comedy or not, it is quite the star-studded feature and that alone makes it worth checking out for fans of old movies, especially if you have a taste for the quirky. Not only do you have Lugosi, Zucco and Carradine, but you are also treated to performances by the very lovely Wanda McKay and Louise Currie. Both were regular leading ladies and supporting actresses in low-budget thrillers and comedies during the 1930s and 1940s, and with McKay in particular one has to wonder why she never managed to make it to "the big time". She is every bit as attractive and talented as any number of ladies appearing in Universal, RKO and MGM B-movies of the time... and she even has a few A-listers beat.

Moreso than usual, I'd love to hear your take on this film. Is it a comedy or just a complete misfire in the horror department? What do you think?

If you decide to check out "Voodoo Man", I recommend you get the edition released by Mike Nelson's "Riff Trax"/Legend Films edition. It contains the movie and an optional second audio track where the three stars of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" engage in mockery and commentary as funny as anything they did in the old days. After some dissapointing efforts from them as "The Film Crew," they seem to have gotten their groove back. (And if you do get this version, make sure to let the menu screen play a while. There's a great song inspired by "Voodoo Man" that plays. It's almost worth the price of admission by itself.)

Journalism student receives tip from ghost

It was a toss-up whether to post this review here or at the Watching the Detectives blog. The presense of the ghost made me choose to post it here.

Scoop (2006)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman, Woody Allen, and Ian McShane
Director: Woody Allen
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sondra (Johansson), a bubble-headed journalism student, is contacted by the ghost of recently deceased journalist Joe Strombel (McShane). He wants her to write the scoop he didn't have a chance to: That the dashing and handsome man-about-town Peter Lyman (Jackman) is actually a serial killer. With the help of a third-rate magician (Allen), Sondra goes about getting close to Lyman in order to gather the evidence needed to prove Strombel's accusation from beyond the grave, and get her scoop of a lifetime. But what will Sondra do once she starts falling in love with Lyman?

"Scoop" is a lightweight mystery comedy. The mystery isn't really much of a mystery, and the comedy is of a type that will make you smile rather than laugh.

The characters are, for the most part, well enough acted and the story moves along in a straight-forward fashion, unburdened by a desire on the part of the writer/director to show off his cleverness by throwing in either painfully predictable "twists", or developments that are completely unsupported by the plot. Allen avoids the very thing that dooms many movies of this type that are being made by younger, hipper filmmakers. My hat is off to him for not trying to make this movie seem any deeper than it is, but simply letting it stand as the plain little movie that it is.

I am also impressed by the way that an element of the film that bothered me at the beginning turned out to be one that I very much enjoyed by the end. There are scenes of characters on board Charon's barge as it crosses into the Afterlife, and the first couple of times Allen cut to this mystical scene, I was irritated, because I didn't feel it fit the nature of the film, despite the fact thee's a ghost popping in and out of the story. I felt it was too much of a fantasy element for a film that is, basically, grounded in the modern, everyday world.

However, by the end of the film, Allen pays off the River Styx scenes to the point where, looking back, they're probably the funnest part of the film.

One thing that isn't as fun is the character Allen plays in the film. His character is so socially awkward and downright dumb that it's painfully embarrassing to watch him attempt to mingle at the parties Sondra drags him to in her quest for dirt on Peter Lyman. It also doesn't help anything that there doesn't seem to be a connection between Allen and Johansson on screen--yes, they are delivering lines from the same script on the same set, but there's no sense that either actor is really paying attention to what the other actor is saying or doing. There's no spark between the two, and the comedic timing of every scene they have together is likewise off.

(It's tempting to say that Allen has "lost it" now that he's in his 70s, but this isn't so. He does fine in his scene with McShane, and he's okay when interacting with bit players and even Jackman... there simply seems to be something absent between him and Johansson. However, Allen must be happy with the result, because Johannsson is starring in at least one more Allen production.)

I think anyone who enjoys watching the lighthearted mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s will get a kick out of "Scoop". Those out there looking for a film with "twists" or lots of sex and violence are going to be bored. (Although Johansson fiills out a swimsuit quite nicely.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

'Rise' is a decent vampire flick

Rise: Blood Hunter (2007)
Starring: Lucy Liu, Michael Chiklis, James D'Arcy, and Margo Harshman
Director: Sebastian Gutierrez
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Features reporter Sadie Blake (Liu) is raped and murdered, but that's only the beginning. She wakes up in the morgue as a vampire, and soon sets out to take revenge on those who killed her and to stop them from doing what they did to her to anyone else. An obsessed police detective (Chiklis) who lost his daughter to the same killers (Harshman) is also on their trail, but will they help each other, or ruin each others quests?

"Rise: Blood Hunter" plays as if it was scripted from the outline of someone's "Hunter: The Reckoning" or "Vampire: The Masquerade" RPG campaign. If you understand what that entails, you'll either know this movie is for you right now, or you'll know it absolutely isn't.

(The title is sort of a dead giveaway if you've seen any of White Wolf's Storyteller games over the past 15 years. There's also the fact that Liu character tells her editor that the "vampires" she just published an article about were a bunch of wanna-bes that were playing "like D&D... but with nipple-rings" makes me believe even stronger there's a gaming campaign somewhere in this film's evolution.)

That aside, it's basically a paint-by-numbers modern-day vampire flick, with a victim who rises from the dead and wants to retain her humanity while getting revenge for her condition. It's an engaging enough movie, but there's nothing terribly original here, and there won't be any surprises for well-seasoned horror fans. (And those White Wolf gamers will find even fewer surprises... although that may be a selling point.)

There's nothing all that bad about the flick, but there's also nothing to make you go "wow!" while you're watching it.

Technically, it's a very pretty movie. The camera-work is decent, and the director has a good notion of now to stage and pace an action flick. He's a little less adept at invoking horror and dread, having to rely mostly on "Boo!"-type scares, although the scene where Liu's character wakes up in the morgue shows that Gutierrez might be able to produce a scarier movie. It's definately the horror high point of the film. (On the other hand, he probably should not attempt comedy. The two scenes that are clearly intended to be comic relief fall flatter than a pancake.)

Acting-wise, the film is mostly decent. Everyone is playing figures more than characters, except for Liu... and she demonstrates that she probably should stick to light-weight action roles or utter coldhearted bitch parts. She was at her weakest when she was trying to portray emotions such as sorry or uncertainty, with only the scene where she calls her mother on the phone after her "death" being the only such scene where her performance is convincing. She does fine as the hardbitten, vampire-asskicker, but her range seems to fail her otherwise.

In the end, I think lovers of slick-looking, Beautiful People Vampires movies will enjoy this film. (You'll enjoy it twice as much if you prefer playing Toreador or Ventrue Clan vampires in White Wolf games.) It might be worth seeing for the rest of you horror and action fans out there, just don't expect anything you haven't seen before.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

'Sucker Money' shows dark side of psychics

Sucker Money (1933)
Starring: Earl McCarthy, Mischa Auer, Phyllis Barrington and Mae Busch
Directors: Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Jimmy (McCarthy), an actor-turned-newspaper reporter, infiltrates a group of confidence artists who are running an elaborate phony psychic operation, he gets more than just the material for a great expose: He finds romance in the form of beautiful Ms. Walton (Barrington), one of the targets of the bad guys, and he finds danger at the hands of the murderous leader of the gang, Swami Yomurda (Auer) when his cover is blown.

"Sucker Money" is a fine, fast-paced little reporter-saves-the-day-and-the-girl and self-declared "expose" film of the phony psychic racket (which, given the number of movies that were made with this theme during the 1930s and 1940s, I can only assume was quite widespread). The set-up is a bit weak--a criminal enterprise as elaborate and organized as the one presented in this film wouldn't turn to the want ads when it came to hiring new help--but that bit of nonsense aside, the film is engaging, well-acted, and well-filmed... even if it feels and looks a bit too much like a silent movie at times. (There's also the minor issue with the reporter wearing more lipstick and eyeliner than any of the women characters in the film when he's in his "acting mode". Perhaps that's to remind the audience that he's a ACTOR? Or maybe that was part of his disguise--"if they think I'm one of THOSE actors, the women won't come onto handsome ole me, and I'll get my story quicker"?

The weaknesses of the film are more than made up for by the evil Swami Yomurda (whose name is never said in the film, thank God.) Auer portrays a truly sinister and evil character, with strongly scripted actions to support him. He may be a fake psychic, but he has Svengali-like hypnotic powers, and he has no compulsion about ordering those under them to dispatch themselves by drinking poison. He does just this in the film's most startling scene. The scene alone makes the film worth watching, although the strong climax also makes it well worth your time, if you're a lover of old-fashioned crime dramas.

(Trivia: This is the second movie in which Mischa Auer played a crooked spiritualist named "Sawmi Yomurda." The first was 1932's "Sinister Hands," in which is also co-starred with Phyllis Barrington (her character in that film was a different one, however).

The two Man-Thing collections truly are essential

Some twenty years before DC Comics and Warner Bros. tumbled to the idea of marketing comics for mature readers ("mature" here meaning adults, interested in reading about adult subject matters that might be treated in serious literature, not porn), writer Steve Gerber was creating comic book tales that in many ways were more mature than the later material labled as such.

Those adults who discovered Gerber's work loved it. His stories featured three dimensional characters who battled real-world issues and real-world problems in addition to super-villains, demons, and nameless horrors from dimensions that would have scared the heck out of Lovecraft and Howard. His stories dealt timeless social and emotional issues and most of them are as relevant and fresh today as they were when they were penned 35-40 years ago.

Unfortunately, comic book readers don't really WANT to read stories that are truly written for adults, so time and again, Gerber's titles were cancelled... a fate that would follow his comics career right up until the bitter end when his truly excellent books for DC Comics, "Nevada" and "Hard Time" failed to find a large enough audience to warrant their continued publication.

Steve Gerber passed away two years ago, but his work is still here for us to enjoy. Over the past three or so years, Marvel Comics has most of Gerber's best work easily acessesible in the low-cost, massive volumes that are part of their "Essential" series. In fact, his work is easier to read not just because you'll have it collected in one spot, but because the printing quality is better and you'll actually be able to read the text-heavy pages in some of the issues. (It's still on news-print, and the ink is still prone to smearing, but it's still clearer.

It's interesting to me that Gerber wrote horror so well, as he has stated that didn't particularly care for horror stories and that he liked monsters even less. Perhaps his is why his horror stories deal with real horrors more than supernatural ones. bigotry, racism, religious extremism, broken dreams, unrealistic expectations, the ugliest manifestations of addiction, poverty, sexual abuse, censorship, politics, depression, suicide, environmentalism... all of these thing are explored in the "Man-Thing" stories that Gerber wrote, oftentimes explored with such thoughtfulness and presented through such well-done characters that almost feel as if what you're reading is too good to be mere comic books.

Gerber was writing comics that were ahead of their time, and he was writing about timeless subjects. Some of the trappings of the tales are a little dated--such as typical early 1970s hippies and biker-types--but the stories and the characters themselves are as relevant and vital as they now as they were when they were first published. If you enjoy intelligent, well-written horror tales, particularly ones that easily mixes straight-forward social commentary with satire and allegory.

Essential Man-Thing, Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics)
Writers: Steve Gerber, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas and Tony Isabella
Artists: Mike Ploog, Val Mayerik, John Buscema, Gray Morrow, Frank Chiaramonte, Tom Sutton,
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

"Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 1 opens with the Man-Thing earliest appearances, chroniclally the events that lead to chemist Ted Sallis being transformed into a mindless creature made of mud and vegetation from a patch of the Everglades. After a couple of adventures that teamed Man-Thing with S.H.E.I.L.D and Marvel's answer to Tarzan, Ka-Zar, against the sinister criminal organization A.I.M, we get the first glimpse of the greatness that is to come.

In a story written by Man-Thing's co-creator Gerry Conway, we learn that Man-Thing has a very strong empathic sense and that he is drawn to emotional and physical pain and misery. We also learn that fear and anger cause him pain and cause him to lash out at the source of that pain, attempting to destroy it with a supernatural ability that causes anything that feels fear to burst into flames when he touches it.(And, as probably goes without saying, most people who come face-to-face with a 7-foot-tall mud-encrusted monster with huge red eyes will fear plenty of fear... so there plenty of people who suffer lethal third-degree burns as a result of an encounter with Man-Thing.)

Although Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway created Man-Thing, it is Steve Gerber who will use the creation to its fullest potential, using Man-Thing's empathic sense to have him drawn to all sorts of situations charged with negative human emotion, thus making him a vehicle for telling stories dealing with topics as diverse as bigotry, jealousy, greed, depression and suicide.

Gerber also added the Kale family, a family of sorcerers living at the edge of the swamp in Citrusville... and in doing so, he set the stage to reveal that Man-Thing and his swamp are guardians of the Nexus of All Realities, thus giving him a free hand to include all sorts of cosmic and extestial elements to his Man-Thing yarns. Finally, he added the character of Richard Rory, a down-on-his-luck Everyman who sort of serves as a stand-in for the reader as the takes unfold; he's a kindhearted, decent and completely normal guy--well, except for having a giant swamp creature as a friend.

The mix of tales in "Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 1 move from small-scale, stories of personal horror to cosmos-spanning, reality-shattering dark fantasy adventures--one often leading to the other and back again--and each is more fascinating than the one before.

There are three main plot threads that run through the book, so, although it's very obvious the 500+ pages were originallty published in chunks of 12 or 22 pages because each presents a finite episode, you'll still feel as if you're reading something that was intended to read as a coherent whole.

The first thread deals with Jennifer Kale's maturation into a sorceress and inheriting her family's duty to help protect the Nexus of All Realities. Jennifer and her extra-dimensional teacher, Dakhim the Enchanter, become the wellspring of all sorts of cosmic nightmares for Man-Thing and those who enter his swamp.

The second thread deals with construction baron and real estate tycoon F.A. Schist (not one of Gerber's most subtley named characters) and his efforts to first drain the swamp to build an airport and later gain revenge upon the Man-Thing for ruining his business. After Schist comes to a very bad and very final end, his family picks up the revenge quest. The Schist storyline is used to explore such diverse topics as environmentalism, bigotry, the dangers of excessive greed, and the self-destructive nature of obsession. Although Schist more often than not comes across as a cartoonish villain, most characters around him are quite three dimensional and even Schist has a few moments of depth.

The third thread deals with Richard Rory's ongoing attempts to make a new life for himself in Citrusville while trying to deal with all the crazy and nightmarish situations he is drawn into. He is a recurring secondary character for most of this book, but his important grows as it wears on, and in Volume 2, he takes center stage for real.

The three story threads weave in and out of each other and the various stand-alone episodes present in the book, giving it a unified feel, a feel that is made stronger by the fact that the final comics story presented in the book harkens back to the very first Man-Thing tale, as it resolves the fate of Ellen Brandt, the woman whose treachery led to Ted Sallis becoming the Man-Thing.

Between the two end pieces and the three running plots, readers are treated some of the most interesting stories Gerber ever wrote, such as "Night of the Laughing Dead", a tale of depression, suicide, and cosmic balance; and the two-part introduction of the Fool-Killer, a tale of religious fanaticism and vigilantism that was written partly as a spoof of the popular Marvel Comics character the Punisher.

And Gerber's Man-Thing stories continue to get better with time, with more greatness following in "Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 2.

It's not just the writing in the book that's so remarkable. We're treated to some great art from Mike Ploog (whose Will Eisner-inspired style lends itself perfectly to the water-logged Everglades swamp where most of the stories take place), Val Mayerik, and John Buscema. There are other minor contributors, but those three gentlemen produce some truly gorgeous pages. (Mayerik's art suffers a little bit due to the lack of colors in this black-and-white reprint volume, but Ploog and Buscema's art shines.)

"Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 1 is a book bursting with true classics of the comics genre. It's a must-own for affeciandos of the genre, or for anyone who loves intelligent, well-written horror tales.

Essential Man-Thing, Vol. 2 (Marvel Comics)
Writers: Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Mike Friedrich, Marv Wolfman, J.M. DeMattias and Dickie McKenzie
Artits: Jim Mooney, Don Perlin, Bob Wiacek, John Buscema, John Byrne, Tom Sutton, et. al
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
"Essential Man-Thing" Vol. 2 picks up where Vol 1 left off, finishing out the first "Man-Thing" series and the rest of the original Man-Thing stories penned by Steve Gerber.

Like the first volume, the tales mix episodic horror with social commentary and satire. The cosmic nature of the stories has mostly been dailed back with storylines about alienation, bigotry and censorship. The mystic Kale family has stepped into the background while hardluck case Richard Rory and some very darkhearted but seemingly-average citizens of Citrusville become the focus of the ongoing storylines. Gerber starts cranking up the cosmic madness in the tales that orginally appeared in "Man-Thing" #20 and #21, but the full scope of the story he was trying to tell, Marvel pulled the plug on the title. However, Gerber made lemonade with the lemons, and the final issue of the series summarized a story that might have spanned three or four issues within a tale that featured Gerber himself as a character and brought the series to a conclusion unlike any other that had previously been seen. Few titles that are cancelled go out on such a high note as "Man-Thing" did.

The Gerber material takes up about half the book,and once it's done, there's a very steep drop in quality.

First off, a bad editorial decision was made to include the team-up between Man-Thing, Captain America and the Thing from "Marvel Two-In-One", as it is a fragment of a much larger storyline and makes little sense on its own when they should have included "Giant-Sized Spider-Man" #5, which detailed Spider-Man's first meeting with Man-Thing and to which the story reprinted from "Marvel Team-Up" #68 is a sequel and makes frequent reference to that previous tale.

Secondly, when Marvel gave Man-Thing another shot at his own title in 1979, with Michael Fleisher and Chris Claremont handling the writing chores, the book was a pale imitation of the first Man-Thing series. Fleisher and Claremont tried to copy Gerber's style, and they failed at every turn, turning in ten issues of suspense comics that are barely above average in quality. To make matters worse, the majority of the issues were illustrated by the team of Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek, competent artists but whose styles are too streamlined and clean to effectively captaure Man-Thing and the vine-choked swamp he dwells in.

Altough not as "essential" as the first volume of "Essential Man-Thing", this book is still well-worth owning for anyone who likes intelligently written horror comics.

(For your information, another Steve Gerber horror milestone was collected two years ago in "Essential Tales of Zombie". I recommend that book as highly as I do the "Essential Man-Thing" volumes. Click here to read that review.)

Saturday Scream Queen: Jennifer Love Hewitt

Jennifer Love Hewitt is perhaps best known to horror movie fans for her role as Julie in slasher flicks "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer", but she is also the star of the long-running television series "Ghost Whisperer" where she plays a woman who sees dead people, talks to them, and convinces them to travel to the afterlife before they start tormenting the living.

A talented actress, as well as very beautiful (even if a friend of mine likes to point out that she wears too much eye make-up), Hewitt started her career as a child actress on television, but made a successful transition into life as an adult actress, moving from playing teenagers menaced by killers in horror movies to playing a mother in her current series.

Although Hewitt's film roles have mostly been in comedies, she is returning to big screen horror with the upcoming film "Dead Whispers" that is slated to start filming in April of this year. She will reportedly play a young woman troubled by voices and haunting nightmares.

Friday, March 19, 2010

'Warlock' will cast a spell on you

Warlock (1989)
Starring: Julian Sands, Lori Singer and Richard E. Grant
Director: Steve Miner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A powerful, evil warlock (Sands) travels from the 16th century to modern day America to escape the witch hunter hot on his trail. The hunter (Grant) is more tenacious than he gives him credit for, and soon their battle resumes in 1989, with a young woman (Singer) who finds herself cursed by the warlock caught in the middle.

"Warlock" is a fast-paced, thrilling horror movies with numerous great moments and excellent performances by all the principles. The witch-legends it creates and how it uses them give the script a tremedmous freshness, and I am extremely impressed with the screenwriter's talent for crafting dialogue: Each character has is own "voice" and each sounds perfectly realistic (as far as time-traveling warlocks and witch-hunters are realistic that is).

Julian Sands gives perhaps his best performance so far as the boundlessly evil Warlock devoted to undoing Existence itself, while Richard Grant is almost as excellent as his world-weary foe. Singer is also good as a somewhat bubble-headed blond, a part that probably anyone could have played, but even she gets to shine during the scene where she is "nailing" the warlock's footprints, and during the final scene on the Utah Salt Flats.

This film is a prime example of how Steve Miner is one of the most underrated directors working in film; this 20-year-old movie is far more entertaining and scary than the vast majority of horror films being released today.

Double Feature: The Miss Congeniality Saga

During the early 2000s, Sandra Bullock starred two movies as Gracie Hart, an FBI agent who went undercover as a beauty queen. Like the "Speed" movies in the 1990s, Sandra Bullock starred in one excellent film and then signed up for a sequel that was nowhere near as good. In this post, I review both of the "Miss Congeniality" films.

Miss Congeniality (2000)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Cain, Heather Burns, and William Shatner
Director: Donald Petrie
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When an unknown madman threatens a beauty pagent, life-long tomboy FBI Agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) must master all the feminine graces and go undercover as a pageant participant to unmask the killer.

"Miss Congeniality" is a funny fish-out-of-water comedy, with the standard theme of characters who have their preconceived notions of each other (and even themselves) challenged and emerge at the end of the story having learned valuable lessons and gained a deeper understanding of themselves and everyone around them.

In the case of Gracie, she learns to embrace a part of herself that she's denied since she was a girl, and she learns to respect the hopes and dreams of those who might not want the same things she does. It's actually a rather touching transformation that the character undergoes, and it's a testament to Bullock's acting ability that Gracie comes across like a three-dimensional character in a movie that is otherwise populated with outrageous stereotypes and excuses for slapstick comedy. (And speaking of slap-stick, Bullock also displays a great talent for physical comedy in this film.)

Although Bullock is definately the star of the film, she is ably assisted by her co-stars and supporting players, all of whom put in excellent comedic performances (with the exception of Benjamin Bratt, who is the films only straight man... but he fills that role admirable). Bergen and Shatner are particularly fun as a pair of aging pageant organizers, and Caine is fantastic as the beauty expert tapped by the FBI to infuse Gracie with some grace.

"Miss Congeniality" is definately a comedy that's worth seeing.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Regina King, Enrique Murciano, William Shatner, and Heather Burns
Director: John Pasquin
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In "Miss Congeniality 2", Gracie Hart (Bullock), too famous for fieldwork after her adventure with the beauty pageant, and with slightly more refined manners, is tapped to be the FBI's "celebrity face". With her romantic life coming unglued for reasons she can't understand, she throws herself completely into the life of an empty-headed PR flack. But then two of the friends she made during the pageant caper (Shatner and Burns) are kidnapped, so she flies to Las Vegas in an unauthorized attempt to rescue them.

As much as I loved "Miss Congeniality", I find very little to recommend the sequel. The biggest problem is that everything that made Gracie Hart a likable and sympathetic character in the first film are absent for most of the sequel, because she spends most of the story playing at being someone she is not. It doesn't help matters that her new partner (King) is just plain obnoxious and completely devoid of any interesting character qualities.

With Bullock playing someone who is playing a lame character, we're left with the supporting cast for most of the laughs in the movie. Shatner and Burns (who spend most of the film tied up in a little shack) are very, very funny, and they're worth two of the tomatoes I gave the film. Likewise, Murchiano (best known for deadpan, ultra-serious performances on the crime drama "Without A Trace"), as a nebbish FBI Agent who learns to stand up for himself once Gracie rediscovers who she is, displays some fine comedic talent. However, everyone has limited material to work with, as the story is very flimsy.

I think all the performers do the best with what they have to work with, but it just isn't enough. The film has no heart, but just feels like a string of badly told, fairly tired jokes. Worse, Bullock and the Gracie Hart character are so badly wasted that this film almost makes one forget what was so charming and fun about the original "Miss Congeniality."

Tomie returns again and again and again

Tomie: Another Face (1999)
Starring: Runa Nagai
Director: ToshirĂ´ Inomata
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

One of the greatest talents to ever work in horror comics is Japan's Junji Ito. His tales never fail to send a chill down a reader's spine, and his style is one that even those who "hate" manga will be able to appreciate. (If you're a horror fan and you've never experienced Ito's work, go immediately to by clicking here and order one or more of his books. You're missing out of pure horror genius.)

Ito's most famous creation is that of Tomie, a mysterious teenaged temptress who makes men and boys fall in love with her and drives them insane so they eventually murder her and destroy themselves. Once the carnage is over and before the horror has subsided, Tomie rises from the dead to start the cycle all over again. It doesn't matter how efficiently her body is disposed of... Tomie ALWAYS comes back.

Ito's comic has been adapted into nine different movies as of this writing and they vary greatly in quality.

The first "Tomie" movie (review here) was so awful and boring that it nearly put me off any others in the series. However, my love of the "manga" tales led me to give what I believed to be the next installment--"Tomie: Replay" (review here)--a try. I'm glad I did, because it's a far superior movie, and it calls attention to a fascinating aspect of the monster that is Tomie that even Ito's original tales did not bring into such clear focus.

However, I recently discovered that there was a made-for-TV (or possibly direct-to-video) effort released shortly after the first theatrical "Tomie" film, "Tomie: Another Face". When I further learned it was an anthology film, it became even more of a must-see for me, as I love that format.

The first tale is what you'd call a "standard Tomie story". It's set in a high school setting, and she's one side of a love triangle with the story's narrator... who has lost her boyfriend to Tomie. Tomie's already dead when the story starts, but she returns to prevent the narrator and her boyfriend from reuniting. This, in turn, leads to some drastic high school romance drama that would give even Romeo and Juliet pause. It's a somewhat dull story, but it's got a punchy ending that more than makes up for its overall tepidness.

In the second tale, a professional photographer, who has spent his professional life trying to capture the image of a mysterious woman he developed a crush on while in school, encounters a young girl who looks just like her. Her name turns out to be Tomie and she agrees to model for him so long as he makes her look beautiful in the pictures. Needless to say, things end badly for the shutter-bug. The creep factor is far higher throughout this segment of the film, and, once again, we're given great ending. Unfortunately, despite being built around an element that's appeared in several Ito stories--photos always reveal Tomie's unnatural nature, as well as the fact that her beauty is barely skin deep--this tale presents her in the role of a tart from the beginning. Tomie just isn't Tomie when she's got make-up caked on and is dancing for dollars in dive bars.

In the third tale, we find another Tomie standard set-up... a nebbish loser is wrapped around her finger, and she uses him as the means to kill someone who is immune to her charms or otherwise onto her evil nature. In this case, the target of her wrath is a former coroner who witnessed one of her many resurrections two years earlier and who has been researching and stalking her ever since. The climax to this third tale is one that Ito himself could have cooked up, and viewers will chuckles with mingle with Tomie's fading laughter as the credits being to role. (And that's not a spoiler.... Come on, you know that no one will ever truly destroy Tomie!)

"Tomie: Another Face" is a solid low-budget horror film. While the cinematography is a bit weak and the shot-on-video feel is flat and all-pervasive, it's got a good atmospheric soundtrack and the cast all give a good accounting of themselves. The choice of the actress to play Tomie (Luna Nagai this time out) is a good choice, better than the actress who played Tomie in the original film, who looked entirely too old. (Luna Nagai may be the best actress I've seen as Tomie yet... she is great at switching between being a simpering girlie-girl and a bitch in an instant. For some reason, each Tomie film seems to have a different actress in the part. Maybe they are used as vehicles for the Japanenese Lindsey Lohan's of the Moment when they are made?)

The biggest drawback of the film is that while it stays true to the themes and overall feel of Ito's Tomie stories--something that it enhanced by the anthology format--at no time does "Another Face" manage to match Ito's work in creepiness factor. They come close at a couple of points, but the filmmakers never quite manage to equal their source material. While this may be partly due to the obvious budgetary constraints it was made under, it is also the fault of the director and cinematographer. Better lighting and tighter editing could have gone a long way to making the film far creepier.

"Tomie: Another Face" is far better than the first film in the series, but you should watch "Tomie: Replay" before you bother with this film. (Or, even better, read some of Ito's original Tomie short stories. (Unfortunately, as of this writing, all English-language editions of them are out of print. Actually, even the DVD is out of print as of this writing. But, Tomie always returns....)

Lionel Atwill holds secret of 'The Sphinx'

The Sphinx (1933)
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Theodore Newton, Sheila Terry, Paul Hurst, Robert Ellis and Lucien Prival
Director: Phil Rosen
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Stock brokers are being murdered and eye-witnesses are certain the killer is Jerome Breen (Atwill), because he took the time to chat with them as he casually strolled away from the crime scene. However, Breen can't be the killer, because he is deaf-mute who was born unable to produce any sound at all. Will bumbling police inspectors (Ellis and Hurst), together with crimebeat reporter Jack Burton (Newton) be able to unlock the secrets behind the murders? More importantly, will they solve the mystery in time to prevent Burton's would-be lady love (Terry) from joining the list of those murdered?

"The Sphinx" is a straight-to-the-point murder mystery with a twist that all but the most inexperienced mystery fans will see coming. In fact, I think the best audience for this film today is to use as a gateway to other classic mystery films for kids who are reading "The Three Detectives", "Nancy Drew" or "The Hardy Boys" (or whatever more contemporary counterparts they may have in the kid's section of the local bookstore). It's a fast-paced film that crams two hours worth of plot into a one-hour running time.

Another thing to recommend this film as an entry point is the characters. While the 1930s stock characters are here--dumb Irish cops and fast-talking tough-guy reporter as the heroes/comic relief, the plucky girl society columnist who will become the damsel in distress, and so on--they feel a little more real than in most films. More importantly, none seem as obnoxious as they sometimes do in these films, partly due to the inherent charisma and on-screen chemistry of all members of the exceptionally talented cast, but also because each character is given a bit more depth than is often the case. (For example, the hard-bitten reporter is shown to have respect for the cops even while ribbing them, and to have genuine feelings and a purely human reaction when his would-be bride turns her back on him.)

"The Sphinx" is by no means a classic, nor is it one that hardcore mystery fans are likely to be overly impressed by. It's got a good cast, and decent script, but the solution to mystery is one that they're likely to see coming. It might not be a bad little movie to show to the right kid, however.