Friday, June 22, 2007

Land of the Pharaohs

The folks at Warner Bros. are fond of boasting that they have the biggest back catalogue of films of any studio in Hollywood. I don't doubt it, and it affords them the luxury of producing box sets like nobody else. This time out they have a little fun at their own expense because they recognize that when you produce thousands of films over the years, not all of them are going to be winners. Their four box sets of "Cult Camp Classics" pretty much illustrate the point, featuring as they do some of their, uh, shall we say lesser efforts.

Volume 1 in the series, "Sci-Fi Thrillers," contains "The Giant Behemoth" (1958), "Queen of Outer Space" (1958), and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" (1958). The names alone give you a pretty good idea of the order of quality you're dealing with. Volume 2, "Women in Peril," actually contains one pretty good film, "Caged" (1949), but the other two are worthy of their "camp" designation: "The Big Cube" (1968) and "Trog" (1969). Then, in Volume 3, "Terrorized Travelers," the tone turns more to dramatic camp with "Zero Hour" (1957), "Hot Rods to Hell" (1966), and "Skyjacked" (1972). Warner Bros. also make each of these titles available separately.

However, choosing to take the high road, I decided to watch Volume 4, "Historical Epics." I figured if I was going to watch anything campy, it might just as well be expensive and campy. The first two movies in Vol. 4 are "The Prodigal" (1955), with Lana Turner and Edmund Purdom, directed by Richard Thorpe, and "The Colossus of Rhodes" (1961), with Rory Calhoun and Lea Massari, directed by Sergio Leone (yes, that Sergio Leone, later of Spaghetti-Western fame).

Then we get to what may be one of the most-expensive cheesy films ever made, "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), starring Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, Dewey Martin, and Alexis Minotis, directed by Howard Hawks. Now, I know if you've seen George Lucas's "American Graffiti," you'll think the movie is set in a small, Central California valley town. But, nope, this is the one in Egypt.

Seeing Howard Hawks's name attached to the picture must be more surprising than seeing Sergio Leone's on "The Colossus of Rhodes." Hawks was, after all, the producer and director who gave us such seriously memorable films as "Scarface" (1932), "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "His Girl Friday" (1940), "Sergeant York" (1941), "To Have and Have Not" (1944), "The Big Sleep" (1946), "Red River" (1948), "The Thing From Another World" (1951), "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), "Rio Bravo" (1959), "El Dorado" (1966), and "Rio Lobo" (1970).

So, how did Hawks get roped into producing and directing a corny historical epic, a costume drama of monumental proportions? It may have been because he majored in mechanical engineering at Cornell some forty years earlier and thought the challenge of making a movie about the building of the Great Pyramid might be fun. It was, however, the only genuine failure of his movie career, and it weighed so heavily on him that he didn't make another film ("Rio Bravo") for the next four years.

I seemed to remember this film having a longer running time than the 104 minutes we have here, but I guess that's what happens to memory after so long a time. As I kid, I probably thought it was longer because it's so very talky; either that or I am still confusing it with "The Egyptian" (1954). In fact, Hawks's script, co-written by Harry Kurnitz, Harold Jack Bloom, and William Faulkner (still slumming in Hollywood), spends most of its time showing us about a gazillion soldiers and pyramid workers trudging along and a few people chattering away for its entire plot.

Not that there is much of a plot. Pharaoh Cheops (Jack Hawkins)--enormously powerful, a living god to his people, and enormously wealthy--is determined to take it with him when he dies. He orders his engineers to build a huge pyramid to house him and his gold for the after life. But he's paranoid about grave robbers, so he persuades a captured architect, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), to build him a pyramid that people cannot enter at all once it's sealed up.

The only complication is that Pharaoh's second wife, the scheming and treacherous Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins), wants everything for herself. Because she's not keen on his taking all that wealth with him, plus she also wants the kingdom, she conspires to get rid the old fellow any way she can. Well, at least we've got a good villainess in Collins, and she gets to wear skimpy outfits, too.

And that's about it. No wars; no battles; one dinky sword fight. But much pageantry. About every other scene contains a thousand or more extras marching in unison or lugging giant building blocks behind them, all to the sounds of a blaring and quite unremarkable Dimitri Tiomkin musical track. Oh, and Dewey Martin plays the architect's son, Senta, as a kind of James Dean look-alike heartthrob.

The film's basic problem is that there are no central characters we can relate to. The Pharaoh is quite distant; his devious second wife is purely evil; and the architect and his son get little screen time. We have nobody to care about. The movie has a nifty ending, to be sure, but we can see it coming a mile away, and it lasts only a couple of minutes. What Hawks leaves us with is a lot of spectacle but little of the intimacy or camaraderie we usually find in his films. The movie is simply methodical, mechanical, like the building of the pyramid itself.

In his audio commentary, Peter Bogdanovich includes some snippets of old conversations he had with Hawks, during one of which the director admits he really wasn't much into this film. He didn't love it with the passion of, say, a Cecil B. DeMille. Hawks seemed more interested in showing us how the Egyptians might have built a pyramid rather than in developing any kind of story line or characters.

So, is "Land of the Pharaohs" bad enough for WB to classify it as a "Cult Camp Classic"? Surely not. But is it good enough for one to mention in the same breath as "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," or "Spartacus"? 'Fraid not. It's just sort of out there, big and imposing, like the Great Pyramid itself and maybe just as enigmatic.

Trivia note: According to the film, it took hundreds of thousands of workers to build the Egyptian pyramids, workers who sang as they worked. However, today's Egyptologists are more inclined to think that relatively small groups of highly skilled craftsmen built the pyramids. They may or may not have sung.
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Bridge to Terabithia

The cover art for "Bridge to Terabithia" shows a boy, a girl, a castle, and assorted creatures, along with the tagline "from the studios that brought you "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe." But don't be deceived. This isn't a fantasy story. It's a coming-of-age story in which two people imagine so creatively that it becomes fantasy for them.

Most coming-of-age stories are about sex, but while there are subtle sexual stirrings here, it's all kept in the realm of stolen glances and unrequited love. This story is about death, that ruder introduction to the world of adulthood. It's also about a deep friendship, which is why it's so Romeo-and-Juliet tragic that one of them dies suddenly. Yes, that's a spoiler if you haven't read the Newberry Award-winning book by Katherine Paterson, but since this is a PG family film and youngsters are going to be watching, it needed to be said. More than the "thematic elements including bullying, some pain, and mild language" that pushed this past a G rating, it's the death of a main character that has the potential to traumatize little ones the way that Bambi's mother did for my generation. I suggest warning them, telling them that one of the main characters dies. For the very young ones, you can remind them that it's just a movie, and that they're only pretending. With the older ones, it might be just the lead-in you need to talk about mortality and all that's related to living life to the fullest . . . which includes forming meaningful relationships.

Paterson's story was inspired by a true event. The playmate of her eight-year-old son was struck and killed by lightning while she was at the beach. "Bridge to Terabithia" was the author's way of trying to explain and interpret the ultimate "not fair" incident to her son.
The book was a tearjerker, and so is the film-though it doesn't go nearly as far down that sad path as Paterson's novel. There's no long funeral scene, nothing about the creepiness of cremation, and very little of "the Jesus thing" by comparison. And the character who survives doesn't wallow in guilt as much as that person does in the book. That's not bad, though, given the power that film has. A little always goes a long way when you see it there in front of you on a gigantic screen, rather than a page of words on your lap that you have to visualize.

Good family films are tough to come by these days. Too many of them include "farts" or gross-out humor, or try to be edgy and hip, which is gradually producing a new generation of people with the ultimate attitude problem. Or else the films go the other direction and play strictly to the kids, leaving the adults and older siblings rolling their eyes at the sheer insipidness of it all. So it's refreshing to find a film that, for all its familiarity of situation and characters, has something to say to everyone in the family. "Bridge to Terabithia" is about finding yourself, sure, but it's mostly about enduring the taunts that others might throw at you and finding refuge wherever you can . . . in this case, with the thing that most fifth grade boys would consider a last resort: a girl.

First-time feature director Gabor Csupo had a great story to work with, but he couldn't have come up with two better stars. Josh Hutcherson is convincing as Jess Aarons, a fifth grader who couldn't be more isolated if he was washed up on a desert island. His dad doesn't give him the attention he craves, his two older sisters cut him down, a younger sister follows him around everywhere like an untrained puppy, and he's the target of bullies at school. But it's AnnaSophia Robb who really shines. Her character is supposed to be a life-changing life force, one of those clichéd people who can light up the room and change the energy level just by walking into it, and that's how it is. When she's onscreen, there's a special feeling. Robb plays Leslie Burke, whose writer parents (Latham Gaines and Judy McIntosh) moved into a home next door to the Aarons in a rural community. In the book, it was Virginia, but this film was shot in New Zealand and so the place isn't as specific. Conversely, the book was set in the '70s, and Leslie's parents were a bit on the "hippy" side, as was the cool music teacher at school who connects with both kids, Ms. Edmonds (Zooey Deschanel).
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Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

"Life´s a piece of shit, when you look at it" goes a Monty Python song. There are times when a deep philosophical look at the meaning of life can yield full support for this short lyrical verse. We´ve certainly had our ups and downs. There are beautiful moments in each man or woman´s life that are never forgotten and always cherished. There are dark moments which we all wish we could forget. I´m fairly certain that each one of can ask the question "Why are we here and what´s life all about?" in either puzzlement, frustration or a desire to laugh our asses off at the 1983 comedy film by the Monty Python gang.

"Monty Python´s The Meaning of Life" is a series of comedy skits and musical numbers that strive to describe the complete cycle of life, from conception to death and every little bump in the road that lies between. Sex, birth, war, organ donorship, fine restaurants and death are principle subjects that are covered in the film´s not quite seven chapters that begins with a short film depicting old codger financial clerk´s setting sails on the financial high seas with their old brickwork building and bringing down the free world´s glass and steel structured financial institutes. Of course, with any proper Monty Python film, there are plenty of penis jokes, gratuitous shots of female breasts and attacks on anything decent.

Part of the fun and splendor of "Monty Pyhon´s The Meaning of Life" are the colorful and adult-humored songs. From the catchy "Every Sperm is Sacred" to "Isn´t It Awfully Nice to Have a Penis?" and finishing with the hilarious title song, "Monty Python´s The Meaning of Life" is easily the funniest damn musical you will ever have a chance to hear. All of the Monty Python films have had a few funny musical numbers, but "The Meaning of Life" easily bests either "Holy Grail" or "Life of Brian." The quote at the beginning of this review is actually from "Life of Brian," but perfectly suits the stories told by "The Meaning of Life" to try and answer the true question as to what really is the meaning of life.

The sketches are not particularly politically correct. In fact, they are just plain wrong. From the memorable beginning "short film" about "The Crimson Permanent Assurance" until the final moments, nothing is sacred. "Part I: The Miracle of Birth" details a hospital operating room where the doctors are more interested in impressing the executive staff of the hospital and impressing everybody than they are with the pregnant woman on the operating table. "The Miracle of Birth – Part II: The Third World" describes Roman Catholics as the Third World and their decisions against using birth control as a serious social problem where a wife almost unknowingly gives birth while doing the dishes and the family must send their children away for science experiments to survive.

After birth, "Part II: Growth and Learning" finds Michael Palin giving a rousing sermon to boys in a religious school. The lessons of the sermon are quite hilarious, unless you are deeply religious. The following scene finds John Cleese acting as a schoolteacher and the first pair of gratuitous tits as he performs sexual acts on his wife to educate his class, who are frighteningly uninterested. "Part III: Fighting Each Other" shows an inept sergeant attempting to perform drill and ceremonies and then finding Eric Idle suffering a flesh wound where his leg was removed by a tiger. They find the poor tiger and then question the tiger on his motives and whether or not he digested Idle´s leg.

The middle of the film gives way and offers up "Part IV: Middle Age." This short scene features lone Python American Terry Gilliam and John Cleese acting as a married couple and trying to order conversation from a menu. The "Part V: Live Organ Transplants" is hilarious in its bloodshedding and finds two paramedics forcefully removing a liver from an organ donor that is called upon for his organs before he dies. Both scenes that follow the odd "Middle of the Film" are vintage Python moments and show that incredible British humor that the six men excelled at.

"Part VI" is split into two parts. The first, "Part VI: The Autumn Years" features the hilarious song "Isn´t it Awfully Nice to Have a Penis?" and then moves along to the grotesque take on the sin of sloth and features the most impossibly rotund fellow eating, vomiting and ultimately exploding into bits of flesh and partly digested dinner. The second, "Part VIB: The Meaning of Life" features Terry Jones portraying a cleaning lady that is reminiscent of the peasant lady in "Holy Grail" and then being punished with a bucket of puke after stating a racist remark about Jews. This finishes up with Eric Idle portraying a French waiter and quaintly telling the audience to "F**k off."

The film concludes with a look at "Part VII: Death" and finds Graham Chapman being punished for his lifelong crime spree of making sexist references. His punishment is death by being chased by a plethora of terribly sexy and topless women having their breasts happily bounce behind him and fulfilling the promise by Eric Idle in the film´s introduction of providing lots of gratuitous tits. Oh, the irony. After Chapman´s character dies from falling off a cliff, Death visits the house of English upper class who have assembled for a dinner party. After Death brings about doom from salmon, everybody is seen at dinner as Graham Chapman sings "Christmas in Heaven" and the film concludes the theme music.

Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin were six very funny men. They relished in sexual humor when given the opportunity and this opportunity was given in spades by "Monty Pyton´s The Meaning of Life." If the word ´tits´ offends you, then this movie will greatly offend you. Every chance the crew had to show a lovely pair, they grace the screen. There are plenty of penis puns and dick jokes abound throughout the film. Sperm, ejaculation and other sexual innuendos are poorly hidden throughout the film. This is the most adult and perhaps most humorous of the old Monty Python films and while it is a collection of short sketches that creates a coherent motion picture, it weaves a funny story that helps to tackle the ageless question of the "Meaning of Life."
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Lost In Translation

Sofia Coppola took home an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her sophomore feature film "Lost in Translation." Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, the film takes a metaphorical journey into loneliness and loss of love through foreigners trapped in a world where they are unable to understand the tongue of those around them and find solace and friendship in each other. With Bill Murray taking yet another dramatic turn in the starring role and then nineteen-year-old Scarlett Johansson portraying the young love interest in which Murray´s character partakes in an unconsummated romance that helps both characters survive an unhappy situation in an unfamiliar country.

"The Virgin Suicides" was Francis Ford Coppola´s daughter´s second film. Coppola directed and penned the dark comedy and intended for Bill Murray to star in the film from very early in the project. The film borrows history from Coppola´s own life, as the film portrays a popular Hollywood personality making Japanese commercials in a viable market after their American popularity has waned. In the film, Bill Murray´s character Bob Harris is peddling Suntory whiskey. In Coppola´s own life, her father had made Suntory commercials with legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Other themes in the film mirrored Sofia Coppola´s own marriage to Hollywood director Spike Jonze.

The principal theme of "Lost in Translation" is the playful and unfulfilled romantic relationship between fading American star Bob Harris and lonely and ignored wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). Charlotte spends much of her time alone in Japan while her celebrity photograph husband John (Giovannia Ribisi) canoodles with beautiful young celebrities who are in Japan and spends very little time showing his own wife very little affection. Bob must pose for photographs and film commercials with a translator who is of little help and survive in a city where he has no possible chance of fitting in or adapting to the society. With Bob suffering marital boredom and stress and no longer being the huge star he once was, he finds a friendship with Charlotte and the two survive Tokyo by spending much of their time together.

As the film continues, the sexual attraction or desires between the two grow. From the moment when a karaoke outing finds each singing to the other and sharing yearning glances, it is quite apparent that Bob and Charlotte desire each other. Bob carries a tired and drunken Charlotte into bed and the two drink Sake and fall asleep together, yet never consummate their desires. When Bob does fulfill his sexual yearnings with an American singer, a strong hint of jealousy from Charlotte and self disappointment from Bob shows how each feel towards one another. When Bob finally must leave Tokyo and rejoin his nagging wife, it is difficult for either to say goodbye to the innocent relationship that burned much hotter under the surface.

"Lost in Translation" is more dramatic than it is comedic. The "fish out of water" situations that Bob and Charlotte find themselves in provides for a few humorous moments and the barbs thrown at one another between Bob and Charlotte are witty and nicely written. Bill Murray was once known for his slapstick performances in films such as "Caddyshack," "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters," but his recent work with Wes Anderson and now Sofia Coppola have proved that Bill Murray is a capable dramatic actor. His performance in "Lost in Translation" have earned him the best praise of his long career and while Murray may be a fading star in Hollywood and share some similarities with the film´s main character, the funnyman is a believable serious actor in this film. Johansson is an actress that has become a bigger star since this film was released and this film suits her well.

This is not a movie that will leave you gasping for air after deep and hearty laughs. Nor is it a film that will leave you feeling philosophical after sitting through its well written storyline. It is not a film you will want to watch repeatedly. However, Sofia Coppola deserved all of her praise for this very good little film. "Lost in Translation" is a relatively low budget Indie picture. It is a quiet and quaint little film that easily entertains, but never pushes its audience to any great emotions. "Lost in Translation" is a film to enjoy for the art of filmmaking and the craft of its actors. The multi-faceted story is captivating and the passage of comfort from loneliness in a foreign land is a great metaphor for the socially unacceptable love affair shared by the older Bob and very young Charlotte.
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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sweet Movie

If John Waters and Ken Russell ever got together to shoot a remake of Pasolini´s "Salo" it might look like Dusan Makavejev´s "Sweet Movie" (1974). That Waters/Russell project sounds like a lot of fun (I´m picturing Divine dressed as a nun and sitting on a toilet), but "Sweet Movie" is something a little less than fun. It has its charming, even outright hilarious moments, but they´re tough to spot in a film whose characters split their time between micturating and defecating.

"Sweet Movie" was Makavejev´s follow-up to the outrageous and successful "WR: Mysteries of the Organism." This time out, the director pushes right past the boundaries of social taboo into a film designed to shock a lazy bourgeoisie audience. Frequently, films created for shock value don´t age well as one generation´s transgressive behavior becomes the next generation´s mainstream entertainment ("Psycho" riled censors for daring to show a flushing toilet on screen), but Makavejev´s film is still pretty outré even by modern standards.

As with "WR," the film stitches together several different narrative strands into one, though in this case the documentary content is minimal (but quite effective, as discussed below). The film begins with the Miss World 1984 contest (situating it, I suppose, as science-fiction film since the movie was released in 1974) in which the most beautiful virgins throughout the world compete from the privilege of marrying the world´s most eligible bachelor, the grotesque Mr. Dollars (John Vernon). Each contestant is paraded on stage and then examined by a gynecologist to assure her hymen is intact. Ms. Canada (the very beautiful and very brave Carole Laure) is the "lucky" winner and is spirited off for a whirlwind honeymoon with her filthy rich hubby. The wedding night holds a terrible shock for naïve Ms. Canada, involving a certain sickening surprise regarding her husband´s anatomy. Hint: think "Austin Powers 3."

Meanwhile, Captain Anna Planeta (Anna Prucnal) pilots the ship "Survival," featuring a massive image of Karl Marx´s head on the prow, through the canals of Amsterdam. She is visited by a sailor from the Battleship Potemkin (Pierre Clementi) who arrives (possibly back from the dead) not only to board the ship, but also to board the lonely Captain. Eventually, they make love in a giant vat of sugar.

Poor Ms. Canada is punished for rejected her wealthy scion of a husband, and is packed off into a suitcase to be exiled to Paris where, of course, she makes love to a Spanish film singer. They do the nasty in public and wind up literally getting stuck together, requiring immediate surgery which plunges her into a semi-catatonic state. Then things get strange.

Makavejev uses his bizarre post-modern mashup to satirize both capitalism and communism, though the critique may not translate well for audiences unfamiliar with Eastern Europe´s experience behind the Iron Curtain. As the film progresses, Makavejev focuses more and more relentless on the human body and particular body functions. The barely-conscious Ms. Canada arrives in a commune whose members spend all their time eating, drinking, vomiting, pissing, and shitting. On plates. Which they show off to each other as if they had just crapped out The Pieta. Many viewers will check out during this sequence, which takes up almost the last third of the film, save for a final scene in which a naked Ms. Canada is immersed in chocolate for an advertising campaign ("I want people to think they´re eating you.") Apparently, even the game Ms. Laure checked out this point; unable to handle the gross-out factor of the extended commune sequence, she walked off the set.

The film´s title is certainly intended ironically, but it´s also got a ring of authenticity. Through all the sex, viscera, and excretions, the characters exude an aura of innocence and joy, as if declaring that no matter what political system attempts to oppress them, they´ve still got their bodies, and they´re still alive. One of the film´s central songs asks "Is there life after birth?" The answer is yes, and it is best lived vigorously and without limitations, either self-imposed or otherwise. Here, it is perhaps better to be pissed on than pissed off, at least if that´s what you´re into.

In this ejaculatory mess, it´s easy to miss Makavejev´s strategic placement of brief documentary snippets of the Katyn Forest massacre. In 1940, Soviet authorities (on Stalin´s orders) authorized the mass execution of thousands of Polish citizens; in 1943 Germans uncovered evidence of mass graves. Makavejev inserts footage of the mass exhumation at certain points, which to me seems like a direct challenge to audiences and censors who were outraged by the film´s sexual and scatological content. How twisted and clueless do you have to be to be offended by a little piss and shit (OK, more than a little) in a world in which such tragedies happen? If only the Soviet butchers could have gotten into a little harmless S&M, a whole lot more people would still be alive today.

"Sweet Movie" is not nearly the success that "WR" was. As a challenge to societal conventions, it has its place, but unlike "WR," the film feels post-modern by the Moe Szyslak definition of the term: "Weird for the sake of being weird." The commune scenes certainly succeed in terms of pure shock value, but the film´s taboo-busting energy is dissipated by the over-the-top eccentricity of many of the characters, esp. Mr. Dollars and his hag-from-hell mother. Carole Laure is a real trooper, though, the bravest actress this side of Divine (yes, I´m obsessed), and the photography by the great Pierre Lhomme (Lhomme is truly "the man") is worth the price of admission all by itself.
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Lucille Ball Film Collection

"Lucy, I'm home."

Hard to believe but, yes, there was a theatrical life for Lucille Ball outside the famous television series, and this collection of five films displays some of her RKO, MGM, and Warner Bros. motion-picture work before and after the "I Love Lucy Show." WB make the movies available in the "Lucille Ball Film Collection" box set as well as in individual purchases if there are only occasional items that strike one's fancy. Let me briefly tell you about four of the movies and then go into greater detail about one of the more representative titles.

"Dance, Girl, Dance": The first up, chronologically, is "Dance, Girl, Dance" from RKO Radio Pictures, 1940, directed by Dorothy Arzner and co-starring Maureen O'Hara, Louis Hayward, Virginia Field, and Ralph Bellamy. In actuality, Ms. Ball receives only third billing, behind O'Hara and Hayward, but she was on her way up.

The story is a light, breezy romance with Ball doing her bit as a burlesque dancer. I first saw this film many years ago on TV, and neither then nor now has it ever struck me anything special. However, it does show us that Ms. Ball could actually act, and her role here is a far cry from the airheaded Lucy Ricardo we all came to know and (maybe) love. Frankly, Ball is the best part of the show, and my rating is based on her performance alone. 6/10

"The Big Street": Next is "The Big Street" from RKO, 1942, alternatively known as "Damon Runyon's The Big Street" because the screenwriters based the film on a story by Runyon and because Runyon himself produced it. The movie co-stars Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Eugene Palette, Agnes Moorehead, Sam Levene, Ray Collins, and Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra.

If you've seen "Guys and Dolls," you'll get the idea. Runyon painted colorful portraits of what he said were the real denizens of New York's Broadway environs, but here they come off mostly as mundane, maudlin, and trite. Fonda has the unfortunate role of a busboy who falls in love with a high-class nightclub singer, played by Ms. Ball. When the singer falls and becomes paralyzed, guess who comes to her rescue. There are good moments, but mainly it's schmaltzy and sentimental, while trying too hard to make its characters picturesque. Still, of all the movies in this collection, this one shows us the most-different side of Lucille Ball. 5/10

"Critic's Choice": After the "Lucy" show had run its course and Lucy and Desi were no longer one, Ball returned to the big screen in two films with her old pal Bob Hope. The movies were "The Facts of Life" and the one in this set, "Critic's Choice" from 1962, directed by Don Weis, based on a stage play by Ira Levin, and co-starring Marilyn Maxwell, Rip Torn, Jessie Royce Landis, John Dehner, and Jim Backus.

"Critic's Choice" and "Mame" are the only films in the set that I actually saw in a theater, in both cases to my regret. "Critic's Choice" plays like a situation comedy, I suspect much of the Broadway play's humor having been toned down for movie audiences. Ball and Hope play husband and wife, the wife a writer and the husband a critic, the conflict coming when the critic must review the writer. You can see the complications. The most-pleasing aspect of the movie is its widescreen, color presentation; otherwise, despite a plethora of quips and one-line gags from Hope, it's a fairly routine affair. 4/10

"Mame": From 1974, directed by Gene Saks and co-starring Beatrice Arthur, Bruce Davison, Joyce Van Patton, Kibby Furlong, and Robert Preston, "Mame" is notable for several reasons. First, it is a big, lavish, splashy, widescreen Warner Bros. production based on the hit Broadway musical. Second, it marked Ms. Ball's final motion-picture appearance. And, third, it is one of the worst casting of a female lead in the history of movies, perhaps second only to Barbra Streisand's starring role in "Hello, Dolly!," the two films practically killing the Hollywood musical for all time.

Ms. Ball looks hopelessly lost at sea as the supposedly sophisticated bon vivant Auntie Mame. It was one of the few films I ever considered seriously walking out of in a theater, and I don't think that was more than fifteen or twenty minutes in. I watched about fifteen or twenty minutes of the DVD, and it confirmed my earlier reaction. Ms. Ball seems positively leaden in the part. Add to that the fact that audiences probably weren't ready to accept their beloved Lucy in anything but an accepted role, and you have a decided disappointment. 3/10

"Du Barry Was a Lady": I chose to give this one a longer look because it strikes me as showing off Ms. Ball's singing talents and comedic ability to best advantage. Arthur Freed and MGM produced the film in 1943, Roy Del Ruth directed, and Red Skelton, Gene Kelly, Virginia O'Brien, Rags Ragland, Zero Mostel, and Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra co-star, with uncredited bits from Buddy Rich, Lana Turner, and Ava Gardner.

Skelton and Ball share top billing, but it's really Skelton's picture. Still, Ms. Ball had come up quite a bit in billing in just a year or two. The director, Roy Del Ruth, specialized in lightweight affairs like "Topper Returns," "Panama Hattie," "Always Leave Them Laughing," and later "Phantom of the Rue Morgue." He keeps the action moving along, but it's mostly songs, dances, and sight gags that keep the film afloat.

Although the scriptwriters based the movie on a musical comedy by Cole Porter, it appears that they removed most of the Porter songs because the opening credits list a slew of other songwriters. In any case, a series of musical numbers and comedy skits make up the bulk of the film, working almost like a revue, with only a tenuous story line to connect the bits.

Ms. Ball plays May Daly, the headliner at a nightclub called the Club Petite, where she sings and woos audiences nightly. Skelton is Louis Blore, a hatcheck guy at the club, and, naturally, he's in love with her. Gene Kelly is Alec Howe, the club's piano player, and he, too, loves May and she him, but she refuses to marry him because he has no money. She determines only to marry somebody rich, and she makes no bones about it.

Then Louis wins the Irish Sweepstakes and becomes rich. The first thing he does is announce to the world that he is going to marry May, without, however, bothering to ask her. She accepts, but she tells him that it is to be a business deal only, that she doesn't really love him. Fair enough; Louis accepts.

The second half of the film is a fantasy segment. Louis mistakenly drinks a "Rooney," a high-powered Mickey Finn that knocks him out, and he dreams he is back in time two hundred years to the French court of Louis XV. He is the king, May is his girlfriend, Madame Du Barry, and Alec is a dashing, rebellious rogue called the Black Arrow.

The best part of the movie is the opening half hour or so in the nightclub, where we see a series of entertainers perform their acts, from Ball to Kelly to the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. As the movie progresses, it gets sillier, with Skelton generally mugging and clowning his way along. Still, the movie is uncommonly glamorous in appearance, and WB's print and transfer are excellent, making "Du Barry Was a Lady" an appealing proposition for Lucille Ball fans in particular. 6/10
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Ghost Rider [Extended Edition]

Even in the scenes where he screams and shouts as he transforms from the human stunt biker Johnny Blaze into a creature with a flaming skull known as Ghost Rider, Nicolas Cage looks like he's having one hell of a good time. It's been years since Cage threw himself into a role with such playful abandon. Co-star Eva Mendes, meanwhile, just threw herself into it without even seeing a script. And somehow, under the guidance of Mark Steven Johnson, it all comes together in a respectable adaptation of the Marvel comic book.

American blues legend Robert Johnson wrote a song ("Crossroad Blues") about going down to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil. He'd trade the devil his soul in exchange for an extraordinary ability to play the guitar. According to legend, it was the devil who took Robert Johnson from this life at the young age of 27, before the musician had a chance to savor his success. Johnson died after drinking from an open whiskey bottle at a road house, the most likely explanation that he was poisoned by the angry husband of a woman he had known before and was trying to romance again.

That crossroads legend (minus the angry husband) is at the core of "Ghost Rider," which finds young stunt rider Blaze (played by Matt long) doing stunt-bike shows with his father (Brett Cullen). He's about to run off with childhood sweetheart Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi) when he learns that his father has a nasty cancer that's going to kill him. And so he makes a deal with the devil to cure his father. The thing is, as with the Robert Johnson legend, it's awfully hard to outsmart the devil. Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) can get around pact-language quicker than you can say "Huh?" He agreed to heal Dad, but he didn't say anything about protecting him from fatal motorcycle crashes.

Years pass and the adult Johnny Blaze (Cage) is now a fearless stunt rider of considerable fame, while the childhood sweetheart (Mendez) he stood up is now a TV news reporter assigned to interview him. But the real action begins when Mephistopheles claims Blaze's soul and gives him the job of Ghost Rider, a flaming motorcyclist whose job it is to round up the rotten souls who should be in hell. His big challenge? Round up Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the disobedient (hey, fruit doesn't fall far from the tree) son of Satan who decided that he wants to make hell on earth. With his buddies, all of them wearing long coats and looking like bad guys in Westerns, he stalks the earth looking for trouble. When Blaze is Ghost Rider he's ready to oblige. But when he's plain old Johnny Blaze, his goal is to get to a cemetery where hopes to find the secret of Carter Slade, the legendary first Ghost Rider who gathered up all of Satan's bad-souls but then refused to hand them over. Somehow, he figured how to outsmart Mephistopheles, and Blaze is desperate to learn the secret so he can do the same.

It's a pretty straightforward narrative that probably devotes more time to the skull-head than it should, considering Cage is so much fun to watch. And while there are obvious homages being paid to "Easy Rider" (the bike Ghost Rider uses is a jazzed-up copy of the Captain America bike that Fonda rode in that counter-culture film), Fonda is about as bland a Satan as I've seen on film. And his cinematic son isn't much better. Bentley makes Blackheart seem more like one of the jaded twentysomethings that turn up in bad teen films than a truly menacing villain. But there's enough black humor here to make up for a lot of sins. During the big battle between Blackheart and Ghost Rider, for example, the evil one conjures up a semi-trailer to plow over the flaming skull. A quick cutaway shows the sign on the back of the truck, which reads, "How's my driving?" So there's a tone here that's appropriate to the comic-book treatment. Another big plus? The special effects, specifically the CGI fire, which looks as real to my eyes as the real thing we saw in "Ladder 49." On one of the documentaries we learn that Image Works actually rewrote a new program to crank it up a notch when it was apparent that current technology wasn't sufficient to make the fire look realistic.

And then there's Sam. Whether he's playing the sagely bouncer in "Road House" or a cemetery caretaker, as he does here, Sam Elliott has such a unique presence that he elevates the film when he's onscreen. More than Mendez, he seems to connect with Cage, and maybe it's a shared love of bikes that's responsible. Cage said that this film was partly about trying to get people excited about motorcycles again. That's evident at least with Cage, who hasn't had this much fun around bikes since "Raising Arizona."

The "extended cut" inserts mostly quieter scenes that flesh out the story a little, so that it has more emotional resonance. It's an improvement over the theatrical release. What film about Satan and hell couldn't use more depth?
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Robert Redford. Dan Aykroyd. Ben Kingsley. Sidney Poitier. James Earl Jones. River Phoenix. This is an impressive list of six names to be involved in a singular film. With so much talent, one would expect a film of proportions similar to the recent "The Departed" or a number of other high profile ensemble films. Unfortunately, "Sneakers" is a film that has flew under the radar for many filmgoers and has been ignored by many because the film isn´t necessarily anything special. "Sneakers" isn´t a bad way to spend two hours, but with its level of complexity and lack of any dramatic strength, "Sneakers" doesn´t excel to the heights it could have reached with its incredibly talented cast.

While watching "Sneakers," it was easy to remember the era when Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier were commanding box office presences. It was easy to remember a time before River Phoenix succumbed on the sidewalk of the Viper Club. It was easy to remember when Ben Kingsley took good roles. When the final credits rolled for "Sneakers," it was apparent that the greatest strength of this film was the veteran actors that are no longer visible and as pertinent in today´s Hollywood climate. Redford´s role is similar in demeanor as his performances in "The Last Castle," "Spy Game" and a few others, Aykroyd is his odd and entertaining self and River Phoenix showed a lighthearted wit that the world would never see develop. Poitier is good, but dramatically underused and Kingsley´s performance was a caricature of his former self and perhaps his first step into the parody he has become with roles in films such as "BloodRayne," "Species" and "Thunderbirds."

The plot of "Sneakers" finds Robert Redford as Martin Bishop, a master hacker who leads a team of intelligence experts that includes former CIA man Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), blind soundman Erwin ´Whistler´ Emory (David Strathairn), conspiracy theorist and electronics expert Mother (Dan Aykroyd) and a talented young understudy, Carl Arbegast (River Phoenix). They are confronted by two members of the National Security Administration and asked to collect a special black box from a mathematician and return it to their ownership. The NSA tells Bishop that they know his true identity and do not have the legal means or talent capable of pulling off the heist and hire Bishop and crew to perform the duties necessary to accomplish the task.

Unfortunately, not everything is as it seems and the NSA men are not working for the Federal Government and the black box is a super hacking device that is fully capable of breaking the most secure encryption available. The mathematician is murdered and Bishop is framed for the murder of two Russian dignitaries. With the FBI on their tail and precious little time to work with, Bishop and his team of super thieves must break into an impossible to crack room and steal the device from a villainous former friend of Martin Bishop, Cosmo (Ben Kingsley). Bishop enrolls the help of a former love, Liz (Mary McDonnell), to facilitate a base of operations and romance a person with the necessary security credentials to break into the ultra-secure building.

"Sneakers" is technology-based thriller that lacks the action of the familiarly-themed first "Mission Impossible" film. In fact, if you would take "Spy Game" and remove anything relating to Brad Pitt from that film and blend the remaining parts with "Mission Impossible," you might get something with the same consistency and flavor as "Sneakers." There are gadgets aplenty and the technical capabilities of the crew provide drama and an awe factor that should please all but the most hard-core computer enthusiasts. Aykroyd´s oddly named character Mother spews conspiracy theories and techno mumbo-jumbo that shouts "Nerd Hero" to the masses and is a far cry different from "Mission´s" Ving Rhames. With a similar amount of technology and a much smaller dose of heroics and explosive action, "Sneakers" is neither the thinking man´s techno-thriller nor an older audience´s preference over "Mission Impossible." The story is good, but the pedestrian pace and thematic move about as slow as Robert Redford´s stealthy moves to heist the film´s notorious answering machine. Mix in the laughable performance by Ben Kingsley and "Sneakers" just falls a few notches more.
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Circle of Iron [2-Disc Special Edition]

Before his untimely death in 1973, Bruce Lee had expressed wanting to bring a Buddhist tale to American audiences. He attempted to do so during the late sixties when Lee sat down with two of his students, cheesy character actor James Coburn and hack scriptwriter Stirling Silliphant. Together they created the rough draft for "The Silent Flute." Four of the main roles were written for Lee to portray as his characters led a young wandering fighter (a part crafted for Coburn) towards his ultimate destiny. The various characters Lee would play were designed to represent various Buddhist beliefs. Unfortunately, Lee never had the chance to play these roles, but even more unfortunate was Coburn and Silliphant's continuation and ultimate bastardization of Lee's vision. In a final insulting move, they cast David Carradine in the quadruple role originally intended for the now dead Lee. Just six years prior, Carradine had passed over Lee for the lead role in the popular "Kung Fu" television series. This occurred at a time when Bruce Lee was at the top of his game, and Carradine didn't know kung-fu moves from Kung-Pao chicken.

After going through a bit of script revision "The Silent Flute" was retitled "Circle of Iron" and was released to theaters in the winter of 1978. "Iron" tells the tale of Cord (Jeff Cooper), a dishonorable, failed combatant who sneaks along with a fighting contest champion who is on a quest for the Book of All Knowledge. After the champion is beaten to death by a group of "monkeymen," the Robert Plant-coiffed Cord picks up the mantle of champion and sets out to find the keeper of the book; a wizard named Zetan (Christopher Lee).

Along the way Cord meets up with a blind man (Carradine) who spews annoying nonsensical philosophic phrases that could cause a fortune cookie writer to roll his eyes. Shortly after his first meeting with the blind man, Cord encounters the monkeyman clan and their leader, a poorly made-up monkey Carradine. Cord uses the blind man's "word of wisdom" to help him defeat the silly monkey king and sets off in search of the one ring…er, Book of All Knowledge. From here out the film just follows a simple path to its foreseeable ending. Carradine returns again as two more characters, the slightly offensive, Mr.Yunioshi-esque Changsha and the laughable catlike incarnation of death. The only highlight in the entire film is the great Eli Wallach as a man who has spent the last decade dissolving his lower half in a tub of oil, in order to get rid of that horrible thing between his legs. Too bad Carradine didn't follow suit and do the same to the horrible thing atop his neck.
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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Messengers, The

In their U.S. film directorial debut, the Hong Kong-born Pang twins, Oxide and Danny, have fashioned a stylish yet partially by-the-numbers horror movie that seeks to showcase the duo´s unique Asian horror sensibilities to a larger audience. That movie is Sony Pictures´ "The Messengers," which surprisingly did relatively well at the box-office, raking in just over $35 million on a $16 million budget. It was surprising because this film actually came and went without much fanfare or promotion by the studio. Moreover, it opened during the always challenging media-saturated Superbowl weekend. This unlikely success bodes well for the Pang brothers´ reputation and after watching this movie, I am definitely looking forward to any future Hollywood movie projects from them.

"The Messengers" starts off predictably enough with a flashback sequence that shows the occupants of a house--a mother and her two children--frightened and trying desperately to get away from something or someone who, for some reason or another, is viciously trying to hurt them. One by one, each of them are killed and the story abruptly shifts to the present, where we find a family traveling in a car on a deserted road with wide open fields on both sides. The opening conversation clues us in on their situation. They are the Solomon family--father Roy (Dylan McDermott), mother Denise (Penelope Ann Miller), teenage daughter Jessica (Kristen Stewart) and young son Ben (played by twins Evan and Theodore Turner)--and they are in the process of moving to a farmhouse in rural North Dakota from the city of Chicago after an undisclosed incident involving Jessica (or Jess for short). Obviously, moving to a middle-of-nowhere town from a big city would be a huge change for anyone, let alone a teenager and Jess is more than unhappy about her current situation.

When the family finally arrives at their destination, their new home, appropriately enough, essentially looks like something out of a horror movie. Why anyone would want to move into a dump like this one is beyond me but the Solomons are looking for a fresh start and Roy probably acquired it at a bargain basement price. From the outside, it looks like nothing more than a severely run down and downright creepy farmhouse, surrounded by a large tract of fallow land. The condition of the interior fares much better as it looks 10 years younger than the exterior but the long dark corridors exude an ominous feeling. As Jess explores the house, we are given visual clues that this is really the exact same house that the family from the opening flashback sequence was killed in. Uh-oh! To top it all off, a sinister presence may also be lurking in the shadows within the house.

Sure enough, strange occurrences start to happen and for a while it seems that the only person who can see these entities or ghosts is little Ben. This plays off the movie´s theme, suggesting that young children are more susceptible to paranormal phenomena than adults. In one eerie scene, Roy finds Ben outside his crib, running around, laughing and chasing a non-existent thing or person in his room. We, the audience know what it is but Roy doesn´t, leaving us feeling frightened for the innocent boy. Soon, Jess gets to experience these unexplained events too but in a more violent manner. Of course, like in most horror movies, the two adults in the house are clueless as to what´s really happening and they think Jess is just acting up to rebel against their move to North Dakota.

At first glance, "The Messengers" may seem like your typical haunted house movie and it even gives out that sort of vibe loud and clear. However, do give the movie a chance and you would be somewhat surprised by the ending, providing a neat little twist that slightly separates it from your run-of-the-mill horror flick. For anyone who has sat through the Pang brothers´ international smash horror movie, "The Eye," you can pretty much get an idea of the sort of visual and cinematic style to expect from "The Messengers." One of the scariest scenes from "The Eye" is the one in the elevator where the protagonist senses a presence behind her. In that scene, the Pangs use their signature visual close-up to emphasize the fear in the protagonists´ eyes (no surprise there!) while letting the audience have full view of the horrific thing closing in behind her. This signature close-up is recreated in "The Messengers" and it provides one of the most tension-filled moments in the entire movie.

Getting top billing for this movie is Kristen Stewart, a seasoned 17-year old whose previous works include "Panic Room" with Jodi Foster, "Cold Creek Manor" with Dennis Quaid and "Zathura: A Space Adventure." Stewart is really effective here, playing a brooding teenager who has to fight off angry spirits dwelling in her home. I also like the twin boys who play Ben. They make the scenes where Ben is able to see the ghosts that others can´t see not only believable but hell of a lot scary as well. An actor whom I have not mentioned so far is John Corbett who plays a drifter named Burwell, who lands a job working on the sunflower farm with Roy. Also of note is the actor who plays the elusive Cigarette-Smoking Man from the "X-Files" TV series, William B. Davis. It´s a shame that Davis´ part in this movie is unfortunately only a minor one but his brief presence alone gave me the creeps!
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WR: Mysteries of the Organism

Dusan Makavejev´s "WR: Mysteries of the Organism" (1971) accomplishes more in 84 minutes than many filmmakers accomplish in a lifetime. This dense ideo-collage collapses multiple storylines as well as multiple story-telling modes, splicing together documentary, street theater, fictional narrative, and Stalin-era propaganda. Running through all strands is one common element: rampaging libido.

"WR" begins, nominally, as a documentary about psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, a former assistant to Sigmund Freud who moved to America and went insane. His followers would probably prefer the term "pioneering genius," but in reality the once highly respected Reich became a certified quack, but one hell of an interesting quack. Reich came to believe that the power of the orgasm was the cornerstone to mental and physical well-being, which isn´t the crazy part. In fact, it was pretty daring since Reich also wedded his sexual theories to political ideology, in effect trying to reconcile Freud with Marx. The crazy came a little later. After devoting much of his research time to measuring orgasms, he formulated a theory of orgone energy, a universal "life force" which he tried to harness with orgone accumulators: little wooden/metal boxes that people sat in to "soak up" the orgones. He also designed a "cloudbuster" (which looked like a mini-anti aircraft battery) which could manipulate orgone energy to disperse clouds or produce rain. Reich was persecuted and then prosecuted by the state for his practices, and in an absurd case of overkill, the FDA actually ordered that his books be burned. He died in prison in 1957.

You could learn all or most of this from "WR: Mysteries of the Organism" but that´s hardly the purpose of the film; Reich´s theories serve as a launching point to explore the power of sexual liberation as a political tool. The fictional narrative strand follows an idealistic Yugoslavian woman named Milena (Milena Dravic) who talks constantly about how important "free love" is to the revolution, but never backs up her talk with action. Her roommate Jagoda (Jagoda Kaloper) doesn´t share the same inhibitions, and spends most of her on-screen time naked and humping soldiers to do her part for the fatherland. Milena eventually falls head over heels for a dangerously repressed Russian skater named Vladimir Ilyich (Ivica Vidovic), but takes her time bringing their relationship to its inevitable and messy culmination.

Back in New York, transvestite and Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis roams the streets with her boyfriend while serenely fellating a vanilla ice cream cone. A man dressed as a US Soldier (Tuli Kupferberg) patrols Manhattan, wielding a toy rifle and stalking citizens to the tune of the song "Kill for Peace" (which serves as only a slightly distorted echo of "Make Love, Not War"). Like Milena, he spends more time stroking his tool than using it. His gun serves as one of numerous phallic symbols featured prominently in the film. Reich´s "cloudbusters" function as sleek heat-seeking love missiles, but the film´s most audacious strand posits the 20th century´s ultimate phallic symbol to be no less than Joseph Stalin himself. Using footage from an overwrought propaganda film that was essentially directed by Stalin himself, Makavejev situates the proud, erect Stalin at strategic moments in the narrative(s).

A crazy psychoanalyst, a horny Yugoslavian, New York street performances, and a penis-shaped Stalin: how in the hell does Makavejev make any sense of this great honking mishegoss? Having only seen the film once, I feel I am woefully unqualified to answer that question, particularly since I lack the chops to tackle any but the most superficial Marxist analysis. I find the film more interesting for its parts than for its sum, not that "WR" doesn´t have a grander meaning. "WR" is definitely post-modern, but it´s not just a random collection of ironic observations. The anarchic fun of the whole film stems from the consistently bold, sometimes downright insane, editing choices Makavejev and editor Ivanka Vukasovic employ to mash together seemingly disparate shots, proving once and for all that any two images can be spliced together, and that the very act of placing them next to each other creates a connection between the two, though perhaps not always the one the filmmaker intended. "WR," like any similar collage film, invites (demands) multiple interpretations from the viewer.

Even a lazy viewer, however, can enjoy simply watching the controlled and inspired lunacy. "WR" may have some high-falutin´ Marxist critique on its mind, but at a simpler level, it´s just a funny film, relying on unlikely juxtapositions and some of the goofy behavior you might see in today´s American indy-quirkfests to generate laughs. In one scene, Milena spurns her former lover Radmilovic (Zoran Radmilovic), forcing him into the street and slamming the door shut behind me. She returns to dote over her sexy Russian skater, but Radmilovic will not be deterred by mere mortal barriers. In the background, he methodically hammers his way through the bedroom wall and literally "crashes" the party, politely shaking Vladimir´s hand as he prepares to lock him in the closet. In another scene, we watch an artist make a plaster cast of a man´s erect penis (the fact that the man in question is an editor at "Screw" magazine only adds to the strangeness) to add to her collection of hard-on sculpture.

WR" is a profoundly weird film by any standard, but it was also a product of its times. The most similar film (as discussed by Jonathan Rosenbaum) is Jean-Luc Godard´s "1+1" (also known as "Sympathy for the Devil" with a slightly different ending) which intercuts between a Rolling Stones´ rehearsal and a fictional narrative. I would also offer Brian De Palma´s late 60s films "Greetings" (1968) and especially "Hi, Mom!" (1969) as films with a vaguely similar use of radical juxtaposition. Even more recent efforts like Harmony Korine´s "Gummo" (1997) or Damon Packard´s utterly bizarre "Reflections of Evil" (2002) carry at least faint echoes of this style.

"WR" is certainly the sort of film that cannot be fully digested on one viewing, though I find myself having to write a review under just such a circumstance. I enjoyed it immensely, and I can understand why critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum have labeled it a masterpiece. I reserve judgment on that matter until I see it again, but I am certainly interested enough to watch it again… and then probably again. So I guess I know which way I´m leaning
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Bridge to Terabithia

No doubt hoping to score another knockout along the lines of their 2005 hit "The Chronicles of Narnia," Walt Disney Pictures produced "Bridge to Terabithia" in 2007. Based on the 1977 Newbery Medal-winning children's novel by Katherine Paterson, "Bridge" features young people in the leading roles and both real and imaginary worlds. The result is a reasonably good family film, but it's no "Narnia," being far more grim and a whole lot less fantastical. Still, the story contains much meaning for children, and the young actors are a delight.

Here's the thing: Authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis may have written their books about young people, but they intended them for adults as well as youngsters. Clearly, Ms. Paterson wrote her story about young people for youngsters alone. Keep that in mind, and "Terabithia" works on its own terms, at least for the first three-quarters of its running time. For adults, it may be a much longer ordeal.

The story concerns a fifth-grade boy, Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson), who lives with his family in a rural area of the country. Jesse has trouble getting along with his family, and he has trouble getting along with the other children at school. Then, a new girl, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), and her parents move into a house near Jesse's, and she, too, has trouble adjusting to her new school. Jesse and Leslie soon become friends, perhaps through their mutual misery, and Leslie teaches Jesse how to escape their problems by creating an imaginary world, the kingdom of Terabithia, in the forest behind their homes. The more they imagine, the more they see, and the more they see, the happier they are together.

The movie's two leads, Hutcherson and Robb, greatly enhance the story line. They are not only persuasive actors, they make cute, charming, immensely appealing characters. Even when I found the story line bogging down in banalities, I found Hutcherson and Robb lifted it above the mundane.

More important, for a child the film offers a wealth of insight and meaning. It is a story that can teach much about growing up, about coming of age and learning great life lessons, about the value of friendship, about the significance of family, about the need for dreams, and about the power of imagination in helping to overcome hardships.

I also enjoyed the movie's visual appeal, its attractive location shooting in the backwoods of New Zealand, and its subdued but effective CGI work. This is not an FX spectacular, but what few special effects the film requires in order to create its imaginary world, it provides quite well.

However, from an adult's perspective, I found the film lacking in the very creativity that its story line promotes. For one thing, we get to see very little of the world of Terabithia. For a film I expected might be another "Narnia," this one has maybe five or ten minutes total of fantasy in it, all of it imagined by the children. The script securely anchors the rest of the plot in the here and now of an all-too-ordinary reality.

I also found most of the characters either lacking in development or downright stereotyped. Case in point: The movie tells us that Jesse is a loner and that many of the kids in school deride and bully him. When the bus picks him up for the first day back to school, the kids on the bus taunt him, calling him a farm boy. Yet there seems no logical reason for anyone's behavior. The children who ridicule Jesse as a farm boy, for instance, have little reason for doing so, given that the bus is picking them up in the countryside, too. It doesn't make much sense.

And why is Jesse such a loner? Usually, it is because a person is an only child or because a person is different in some way--smarter, dumber, shorter, taller--than everyone else. But Jesse is a good-looking boy of more than average intelligence, creativity, and athleticism. He does nothing to provoke the other children, yet they torment him. Are we to believe that he goes to a school filled with the most horrible little cretins on the planet?

Or does the film intend for us to believe that this is a child's story told from a child's point of view? If that were the case, then we could easily believe that Jesse was merely inflating the problems he sees around him. Yet there is nothing in the plot or characterizations that might lead us to think this is the case. Jesse does not narrate the story; we see it through the eyes of an unseen and omniscient observer. Thus, we must accept everything we see as being the way it is, something I found difficult to do.

Another example: Jesse's father works in a hardware store in town; he is not a "farmer." But because he is a blue-collar worker, the story tells us he is having trouble making ends meet, and he's grouchy all the time. Additionally, Jesse thinks his father likes his little sister, May Belle (Bailee Madison), more than he likes him. On the other hand, Leslie's parents are both writers, novelists, and she and her family are all happy, free spirits. It seems a shame that the plot should encourage the idea that more-intellectual people are happier than those folks possessing less-intellectual gifts or performing more-menial labor.

I really shouldn't even mention Jesse's school, but as a former schoolteacher of almost forty years, I can't help myself. I mean, why must movies always picture schools either as dilapidated, graffiti-covered hell holes or, as here, as pristine places of higher learning, without a shred of paper on the floor or mark on a desktop? Why must the English teacher (Jen Wolfe) be a tyrant? Why must the school bus driver be an idiot? Why must the music teacher (Zooey Deschanel) be sweet and fun, doing nothing all day but leading the children in joyful songs? And why must Jesse attend the only school in the world where nobody supervises the school yard, where older girl bullies can charge admission to lines of younger girls to use the restroom without any of the school's personnel noticing? Only in the movies, eh?
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Dirty Dancing [20th Anniversary]

I do not want to admit to how many times I´ve seen "Dirty Dancing" since it debuted twenty years ago. I shouldn´t even admit that I owned "Dirty Dancing" and "More Dirty Dancing" on cassette. I´m a sucker for the Oldies and especially the Four Seasons. I believe my first experience with this film was being taken with my older sister Cindy to see the film at a theater. Since then, the film has been released countless times on standard definition DVD by Lionsgate and I´ve written at least two other reviews for the title. Sitting down to type up yet another review, I was tempted to simply rehash one of the reviews for inclusion here. However, one was a ´Capsule Review´ from the now defunct Digital Bayou and I just wasn´t happy with the other review. I decided to sit down and reflect on the film and not necessarily review it.

By now, everybody in the world is familiar with "Dirty Dancing." It features Jennifer Grey before she defaced her natural beauty with a bad nose job. That was one bad business decision for the perky actress and her career took off with this film and ended when the tip of her nose was lopped off. One of the most prevalent actors of the Eighties, Patrick Swayze, also appears in the film. Audiences would flock to see a Patrick Swayze film back in the day. Veteran actor Jerry Orbach appeared alongside the two stars and the cast of dozens that have not been seen since. This film was all about Patrick Swayze and dancing. I´m sure that was the primary reason that Cindy dragged myself and my nephew Don to go see "Dirty Dancing." Don and I are the same age, as my sister is a good deal older, so we both had to suffer for this ´date movie.´

Truth be told, there is something I have always enjoyed about "Dirty Dancing." It isn´t the humor. It isn´t the dancing and it certainly isn´t Patrick Swayze. Jennifer Grey was twenty seven when "Dirty Dancing" was released and she portrayed a teenage rich girl in the film. She was cute, but she wasn´t the reason I agreed to go along to see this film. I was fifteen years old at the time and going to see "Dirty Dancing" with your sister wasn´t exactly the ´cool´ thing to do. What I enjoyed about "Dirty Dancing" was the music. I absolutely love some of the Oldies that appear in the film. "Be My Baby," "Big Girls Don´t Cry," "Where Are You Tonight," "Do You Love Me," "Love Man," "Stay," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "These Arms of Mine," and "Love is Strange" are just a few of the great songs contained on the film´s soundtrack. If anything, "Dirty Dancing" is one of the finest films based upon its soundtrack.

Twenty years later, "Dirty Dancing" is still going strong. It has even survived a shoddy and forgotten sequel, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights." I have many of the songs on various CD collections. No matter how many times Lionsgate releases this cash cow; it sells. I don´t recall if the dancing depicted in the film was necessarily shocking and risky twenty years ago. It was all offensive to me at that time. Since then, I´ve certainly spent enough time on club dance floors to not find anything in "Dirty Dancing" to be offensive. This film had a decent story and decent performances, but it is a tribute to the music and the era in which the film is set. It is a journey back in time for many to enjoy, such as my older sister. For younger audiences, it is a curiosity of the Eighties that looks at the Sixties. I´ve seen this film more times than I want to admit to. Oddly, I still find myself enjoying it. Now, off to watch "Roadhouse."
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Friday, June 15, 2007

The Spaghetti West

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, the constraints of low-budget filmmaking often produce comprises that yield unpredicted rewards. In 1964, Sergio Leone was searching for an American actor to headline his new western "The Magnificent Stranger," an unofficial but unapologetic remake of Akira Kurosawa´s "Yojimbo." The role was first offered to Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson, but neither actor was willing to accept the relative pittance of $15,000 to travel all the way to shoot, of all things, an Italian Western. Fortunately, a young hunk named Clint Eastwood, better known to audiences as Rowdy Yates, had an opening in his television schedule. Eastwood was eager to make the leap to the big screen, but his contract forbade him from acting in films in America. Clint seized the opportunity and soon became "The Man With No Name," and "The Magnificent Stranger" became "A Fistful of Dollars."

The film stamped the template for hundreds of Italian Westerns that shortly followed and would eventually be know (perhaps disparagingly) as Spaghetti Westerns. "The Spaghetti West," an IFC documentary directed by David Gregory, chronicles the short but very happy life of the Spaghetti Western. Sergio Leone receives his proper due, but the documentary also turns its attention to other directors such as Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima and just about anybody else named Sergio.

Running just under an hour, the program can´t possibly provide a comprehensive overview of this unique and enduring genre, and Gregory wisely avoids an effort to cover all the bases. Instead, he uses several films as anchors to discuss the evolution of the Spaghetti Western. Leone and Eastwood set the standard for early films with the enigmatic and taciturn loner serving as protagonist, and intentionally muddled morality which served as a sharp stick-in-the-eye to Hollywood notions of good and bad defined just as clearly as the white or black hats worn by its characters.

In 1966, Corbucci came along with "Django" (1966) which put a gothic horror twist on Leone´s generative work, and further heightened the exaggerated, cartoonish style of the Spaghetti West with its distorted angles and kinetic editing. "Django" sprouted a seemingly endless list of imitators, most of which had nothing to do with Corbucci´s film save for the use of the name Django. This was a common trend in Italian cinema at the time; any new commercial success instantly spawned numerous attempts to cash in on the craze which, come to think of it, is really no different than 21st century Hollywood. The flood of product both helped to solidify the identity of the Spaghetti Western, and soon brought about its downfall, as audiences became tired of derivative works which had few distinguishing features save for the constant escalation of violence and blurred morality.

Even the exploitative Spaghetti Western wasn´t immune to social upheavals and as the revolutionary years of 1967 and 1968 rolled around, the genre began to produce heroes who weren´t just self-serving loners, but also represented causes and fought for the common man. After this stab at social significance, the Spaghetti Western began to falter and quickly running out of ideas, turned into a parody of itself, especially with some of the "Trinity" films beginning with Enzo Barboni´s "They Call Me Trinity."

Other films covered in the documentary are Corbucci´s "The Great Silence" (1968), identified by director Alex Cox as one of the greatest and most underappreciated Spaghetti Westerns and "Django Kill!" (1967), one of the truly demented and ultra-violent films of Giulio Questi. The program devotes obligatory attention to composer Ennio Morricone and provides some sparse stylistic analysis, but the focus is almost exclusively historical. "The Spaghetti West" is a satisfying and entertaining documentary that is accessible to all audiences.
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".45" at its very best is an uneven film. At its very worst it is downright schizophrenic. The trailer for the film suggests an action packed, gun toting, sexy, female revenge flick. But that is definitely not what you are going to get. There is no real butt kicking, no excessive gunfire, no heroic theatrics by Mila Jovovich; an actress who´s built a career out of playing tough machine gun firing superwomen. Really what you got here is a unique domestic abuse drama.

The plot can be summed up in just a few sentences. Kat (Milla Jovovich) is in a relationship with the local gun running tough guy, Big Al (Angus Macfadyen). Big Al beats Kat one too many times and finds himself being double crossed by Kat. This trailer hyped, bare bones plot isn´t the most interesting thing about the film—by far.

What is interesting about this film is the focus. Ever since James Cagney smashed a grapefruit into Mae Clark´s face, tough guy/gangster films have followed much of the same generic formula. Very rarely have we seen films that deepen the character of the gangster´s moll beyond the sexy punching bag. "Casino," "Goodfellas," and even "The Godfather" have given the molls bigger parts, but have not built an entire story around her. In many ways ".45" is an illumination of the relationship between the tough guy and his girl.

The best parts of this film are the everyday relationship between Kat and Big Al. Sex and the sexual attraction turns out to be a big part of the relationship, but we also get a glimpse of how Big Al´s powerful personality meshes with Kat´s powerful personality.

In a lot of films the gangster´s moll tends to be a weak pushover bending at the whim their male counterpart. Kat though is not such a pushover. Kat is a tough talking, controlling, and conniving personality; she is the female version of Big Al. This seems to be the reason for their closeness and why Kat has stayed despite the abuse. Of course a number of the scenes, especially the abuse scenes, could be straight out of a Lifetime TV movie. What separates this film is the fact that ".45" is concentrating less on what makes Big Al and Kat criminals and more on the domestic side of inner city crime.

Milla Jovovich and Angus Macfadyen should be praised for their performances. Milla Jovovich in this film still plays a kind of tough girl, but relies on her acting rather than fighting skills to show this. This Milla Jovovich film more so than any other gives her the platform she seems to deserve. She is a pretty good actor that should not be relegated just to action flicks.

The same can be said for Angus Macfadyen. I´ve seen him in a few films since his meek Robert the Bruce in "Braveheart" and this particular role is vastly different from each. In fact I cannot say I´ve seen him play the same role twice. He´s even played Orson Wells, Peter Lawford, and Richard Burton. MacFadyen in this role is a big beefy fella with a sensitive side. MacFadyen obviously has range, and I really was impressed with him in this film.

Unfortunately, the fine performances of the leads and the unique portrayal of a gangster and his moll can not save this film from its self. There are three major problems: the general tone of the film, the supporting actors, and the ending.

Part of this film—the part that excels—is a serious look into Big Al and Kat´s relationship. This serious tone, though, is intercut with comical musings by the film´s characters. The narrative of the film begins with a long speech by Kat on her affection for Big Al. Then, after the speech, comes the on screen action, which is again periodically interrupted by various people Kat, Big Al´s mother etc. telling about Big Al and where he went wrong. Some of these little interviews brutalize the flow of the film and bring in very corny levity. These interviews, this whole aspect of the film´s structure, which nearly ruins the piece, is a real head scratcher.

But this is not to say the film is terrible just because of the tone and structure problems. I and, my guess, the audience could live with these head scratching moments and find some viewing satisfaction, if not for the terrible supporting performances and the incredibly weak ending/plot surprise. Honestly, I couldn´t say which is worse. I won´t single any one actor out because across the board they were putting in bad to below average performances. And the terrible final scenes—the way the film is wrapped up—plays on every femme fatale cliché possible, not to mention the "look at how clever I am" feel.

Writer/Director Gary Lennon, in the second half of this film, wants to make it seem like your watching a big twist, guess who rigged what and killed who film. There is no surprise though, there is no moment that the viewer will shake their head and say wow. Trust me. Gary Lennon spent too much time trying to be clever, mixing genre and attempting to surprise the audience. He neglects to make any solid decisions to make this a good film. And this is a shame because his film´s lead performers put in solid performances.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Flirting with Anthony

Warning: This DVD review will contain explicit language of a sexual nature. If you are offended by this type of talk, do not continue.

A funny thing happened as I progressed farther into the 2005 smorgasbord of sex and violence that is "Flirting with Anthony": I was drawn into the nonsensical plot and the characters who exist solely to show off their penises or vaginas. The story-held together with duct tape and cum-has nothing to say about the characters and, I suspect, was a thinly veiled excuse to ask actors to disrobe in the casting sessions.

At some indiscriminate time in the past, a man-Anthony-is chased and abducted by two other men. He´s then brought to a residential garage, tied up and beaten until he´s bloody. Apparently, all these men are part of a not-important-enough-for-explanation mob…or crime ring…or something. Anyway, a well dressed associate-Jack-enters the garage and beings to caress and lick Anthony, eventually turning his gun on Bruno, the guard. Fast forward a couple years (presumably) and Anthony live with a girl he doesn´t have sex with and her gay brother, who works as a big gorilla. Anthony and Donna-the girl-set off when her father dies…

Know what, forget it. The problem is giving any kind of plot synopsis for "Flirting with Anthony" is the film defies any kind of explanation. Plot elements are thrown in for no good reason; Anthony and Donna have sex with a laundry list of people on their journey (two of them are even old ex´s…one of whom is shot, leading Anthony to run around a motel in a jock strap…); Jack´s van conveniently breaks down on the side of the road where the two travelers are passing; pointless sidetracks with a psychic and two drag queens.

The one thing that mesmerized me was trying to form a rational storyline based on the material presented on the screen. The problem with that, as you might have guessed, is there is no storyline, at least no storyline worth repeating or dissecting. "Flirting with Anthony" doesn´t have anything to say on any level, nor does it even pretend to be pretentiously experimental. It´s just an excuse for fucking, sucking and full frontal nudity. There´s nothing wrong with any of those things separately or together; any porn worth it´s weight employs all three and a whole host more of un-family friendly actions. But this isn´t porn. This is a legitimate film.

Everything about "Flirting with Anthony" is juvenile, from the way absolutely no plot point makes a lick of sense to the reactions from each and every character. For starters, Anthony and Donna continuously pin her younger brother Leroy and tickle him. Yes, I said tickle. Further, they dress up while doing it, all the while forcing the audience to wonder if a sex scene between the three is coming. This shouldn´t come as any surprise, since Anthony´s break out in the beginning of the film is followed by both Jack and Anthony getting naked and taking pictures with Bruno which would suggest man-on-man sex blackmail.

Outside of 20 minutes, does Leroy figure into the plot? Nope. And, in what must have been a disappointment for actor Ryan A. Allen, he is the only "main" character not to show off his privates. If you´re going to be in a piece of trash, you might as well go all the way, right?

Later-and this is a spoiler for anyone really interested in seeing the movie-Donna has the gall to become angry with Anthony and Jack when they have sex in a bathroom stall. This, after two separate instances of hookers and whores on the road trip. I can´t figure out what she´s so upset about: that her "boyfriend" is gay or that he had sex in a place she couldn´t watch and finger herself. It´s that kind of logic-rather, the lack of-which permeates through a maddening 88 minutes.

Ostensibly, there is a lesson stuck in the mud and muck about being truthful to your loved ones. It gets lost somewhere near the end of the film when the only thing it still has going to for it is the tease of another full frontal sex scene between, I´ll admit, two guys who aren´t bad to look at. But even that puerile pleasure can´t overcome a scatterbrained script written by director Christian Calson and equally inept camera work.

As a director, trying to be new and experimental is one thing, but asking the audience to buy rotating the camera as a revolutionary concept is insulting. At least have the production values to back up whatever it is you´re "trying" to do. Here, it just looks like the cameraman got tired with the two actors, pointed the camera out the car window and rotated. Over and over and over again. Until he vomited from vertigo, of course.

Some kind of commentary or interview with anyone involved in the making of "Flirting with Anthony" would have been appreciated. What was Calson thinking when putting the story together, how did the actors respond to the script, why did anyone sign on for this production? There can´t have been any pretension of creating a film which would play in a mainstream theater or get picked up for limited theatrical exhibition at a film festival.
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Blood Diamond

I must bow in admiration for Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio. He could have sold out and used his good looks and early success to become a huge box office star. Instead, DiCaprio has chosen the righteous path and dedicated his career to his craft and making good films and not successful films. If you need a stellar example of what he did not become, simply look at the career of Ben Affleck. After "Titanic," DiCaprio could have signed on for any big film that came his way. Instead, he followed up with "Celebrity," "Beaches," "Gangs of New York," "Catch Me if You Can," "The Aviator," "Departed" and "Blood Diamond." All are good films and none have been guaranteed box office blockbusters. DiCaprio is an actor who chooses good stories and roles that will earn him accolades and push him as an artist. He is already one of the ´great ones´ and I look forward to watching him become one of the true Hollywood legends.

"Blood Diamond" earned five Oscar nominations; three of which were technical and the remaining two earning Leonardo DiCaprio a Best Actor nod and Djimon Hounsou a Best Supporting Actor nod. The film was shut out on Academy Awards night, as DiCaprio´s other film "The Departed" took the most little gold statues home. This very powerful film tells the story of African´s illegal blood diamonds; precious stones that are sold by warlords and rebels of African civil wars and conflicts to earn money for guns and obtained by the forceful indentured servitude of slaves. The story looks at the 1999 civil war in Sierra Leone and finds Djimon Hounsou in the role of one of the slaves forced to mine for diamonds and Leonardo DiCaprio as a smuggler of diamonds and arms. The two Oscar nominated actors for their performances in the film are joined by Jennifer Connelly as an American journalist looking to tell the tale of the blood diamonds and the horrid conditions of the citizens of Africa who are killed and forced to bleed to obtain the precious stones.

Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is captured by Revolutionary United Front rebels when he risks his life to save his family from death of capture. Just before he nearly loses his hands to a machete in a hellacious tactic to keep Africans from voting, Vandy is thrown into a truck to work as a slave and obtain diamonds for the RUF soldiers. Vandy finds an enormous pink diamond that is roughly 100 carats in size. As he is hiding the diamond and nearly captured by one of his slavers, the Federal troops raid the slave camp and Vandy is captured by the Federals and put into jail. There he is seen by an imprisoned diamond smuggler, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio). When Archer is freed by his employer Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), he has his cohorts also pay the bail necessary to free Vandy and begin a search for the pink blood diamond.

Journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) has been sharing Guinness beer with Archer; who has a strong physical interest in Bowen, but not enough of an interest to answer her unending questions about the blood diamond trade. In order for Archer to have Vandy lead him to the diamond, Archer must work with Bowen to find his family and place them in safety before Vandy will lead Archer to the slave camp and the location where he hastily hid the immensely valuable rock. During their adventurous journey, Archer and Vandy must escape the rebel assault on Freetown and flee into the jungle. The are constantly avoiding gunfire and always facing danger from Federal troops, RUF rebels and others looking to get their hands on Vandy´s diamond. Archer slowly leaks information to Bowen, in order to get her to assist in his cause and he begins to build a friendship with the leery Vandy.

"Blood Diamond" is a film that tells a powerful tale of real world suffering and danger. The film publicized the blood diamond trade, something that was perpetrated by the civilized world´s thirst for expensive diamond engagement rings and lavish jewelry. Although Archer and Vandy were fictitious characters, the film ends with a conference based upon the factual Kimberly conference that resulted in a 2003 set of regulations that aimed to help curb the blood diamond trade. DiCaprio is excellent as the unlawful and unscrupulous Danny Archer. Djimon Hounsou is another fine actor that has been largely ignored by Hollywood. He is a true leading man and his performance in "Blood Diamond" shows exactly why. The horrendous events and mass murders depicted in the film are events that have actually happened across African and the film deserves some amount of respect for bringing the atrocities to light.

After "Titanic," I could have cared less about Leonardo DiCaprio. The film that immediately followed that picture for the actor helped give me an impression that he was just another pretty face who wouldn´t amount to much. That film was "The Man in the Iron Mask" and the only true ´bad film´ ever featuring the actor. DiCaprio had originally caught my attention with his incredible performance in "What´s Eating Gilbert Grape" and ever since 1998´s "Celebrity," he has been on one hell of a hot streak. His performance is only one of the strong points of "Blood Diamond." Both Hounsou and Connelly are good in the film. Along with the stunning and beautiful cinematography, excellent script and solid directing by Edward Zwick, "Blood Diamond" was easily one of the best films of 2006.
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The best part of this "Primeval" DVD package is the slipcover. I found it beautifully illustrated and handsomely embossed, done up in a fancy metallic finish. Very attractive.

Then, there's the movie.

"Primeval" is not beautiful, handsome, fancy, or attractive. It's not even metallic or embossed. It's just dull.

The movie's preface reads, "The following story is inspired by true events," as if its being based on "true events" makes the film any better. Be that as it may, the movie takes the expected liberties in telling its tale of tracking a giant crocodile. That's right; despite the picture on the cover, which makes "Primeval" look like a dinosaur picture, it's actually about the hunt for a big croc. Apparently, the filmmakers based their movie on an account of the circumstances written by Mike McRae, a contributing editor to "National Geographic Adventure," and published in 2005.

Here's a link to the article if you'd like to read the real story:

Yes, a team went to Africa looking for a legendary man-eating crocodile, and, yes, a civil war was going on in the country at the time. Beyond that, a viewer should look to the words "inspired by" as their key to understanding the nature of the film.

Plot: A huge blood-thirty crocodile, nicknamed Gustave, is eating people in the African country of Burundi. A newspaper publisher sends a team to investigate and bring back the croc alive. The team has more trouble with a local civil war in Burundi than with the big reptile.

Characters: The team consists of five persons. There is Tim Manifrey (Dominic Purcell), a stouthearted, square-jawed, supercool newspaper reporter. We know he's cool because he wears his shirt half open and sports a perpetual stubble. Next, there is Aviva Masters (Brooke Langton), a beautiful, animal-rights journalist who gets to have her blouse torn open. Then, there is Steven Johnson (Orlando Jones), a jokester photographer, the designated comic relief. After him is Matt Collins (Gideon Emery), a TV-famous herpetologist, a guy who studies reptiles, who wants to capture the croc for the good of science. And, finally, there is Jacob Krieg (Jurgen Prochnow), a craggy-faced crocodile hunter and guide who wants only to kill the beast. Somehow, the filmmakers overlooked having an Asian, a Hispanic, and a Native American in the group.

Conflict: The croc is smarter than the humans. Good thing, too, or we wouldn't have a picture. Unfortunately, there is not enough croc story to go around and fill out a ninety-minute movie, so the characters become involved in an action subplot with local warlords and insurgents. It doesn't work, as the subplot is exaggerated and clichéd. Worse, not once but twice does the croc itself become an unintentional hero. There are other improbable coincidences in the film just as silly.

Themes: The movie suggests that Gustave the crocodile grew large (twenty feet) and hungry feeding off the corpses dropped into the river during the Burundi civil war. Therefore, it's not his fault; it's Man's fault that things went wrong. Seems we're always screwing things up. Personally, I blame it all on global warming.

Settings, costumes, music: The filmmakers went to South Africa to film "Primeval," and many of the shots there are quite striking. If this were a documentary in high definition, it might have worked. Otherwise, everything in the film looks like everything in every other film set in modern Africa. This could as easily have been "Blood Diamond" as "Primeval." And the music is so generic, I cannot remember if there was any. Well, I lie. Whenever the director wants to intensify the action, he turns up the soundtrack music, whatever the music sounds like.

Direction: Michael Katleman helmed the film. He worked in the mid-to-late 1980s as an assistant director and then in the 1990s and early 2000s as a TV director. "Primeval" is his first big-screen directorial effort, so he's worked his way up and deserves the job. Unfortunately, he's stuck with a script that relies so heavily on hackneyed situations, there is not a lot he can do with it. Filming on location helps a good deal, but not enough to save the picture.

Impressions: Most of "Primeval" is looking at a bunch of people as they walk and talk, and then waiting for something to happen. When the action does come, it's predicable, unlikely, and mundane. It functions like a low-grade "Jaws," with a bit of "The Usual Suspects" thrown in at the end. The only things missing are the excitement, the humor, the characterizations, and the suspense of those other films.

Trivia note: Supposedly, the largest crocodile ever recorded measured twenty-three feet. It was not Gustave.
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