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The Dark Backward (1991)
Promising premise doesn't pay off.
This movie starts with interesting set design and a promising premise, but fails to provide the cult-movie goods. Set in a gritty parallel universe where everything is owned by the "Blump" Corporation, it concerns a horrible stand-up comic who finds success when he grows a third arm out of his back.
All the potential for great cheese is here -- washed-up 80's star Judd Nelson, Wayne Newton, offbeat visuals and strange plot digressions, obese women in skimpy lingerie, necrophilia -- but it never pays off.
The pacing is the main problem. Each scene is excrutiatingly slow. Nelson's stand-up routines are supposed to be funny because they're pathetically not funny. But each performance drags on until it's not even tangentially funny, just boring.
Imagine someone telling you the longest, weirdest joke imaginable, full of smirky self-congratulation for how funny and weird he thinks it is. Imagine after a stultifying two hours of this, you never got a punch line. You've just saved yourself the trouble of watching The Dark Backward.
Everything You Know Is Wrong (1975)
Watch with your eyes closed . . .
This "movie" is the brainchild of The Firesign Theater, and outfit best known for hilarious comedy albums like "Don't Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers" and "We're all bozos on this bus." They are not known for their work in motion pictures, and Everything You Know Is Wrong demonstrates why.
Some of the material here is funny, but the visuals don't add to the comedy. It seems like the actors are just lip-syncing to a Firesign Theater record. It looks like a bad home-movie of someone's aunts and uncles karaoking comedy albums.
Note I said *some* of the material is funny. Some of it is quite aggressively not. Like Monty Python, Firesign Theater have two modes: when they're focused, they're sharp and funny, but sometimes they're just pointlessly bizarre. Unfortunately, after a promising beginning this movie falls into the latter category and wallows there. There's some sort of plot about an alien takeover, or something, but generally weird stuff happens for no particular reason. There's nothing here to equal Firesign's best stuff: no Nick Danger, no synthetic chinchillas, not even any bubonic plague.
If you're a fan of the group, you might want to see this, but you'll probably be disappointed. If you've never heard of Firesign Theater, grab "Shoes For Industry!", their greatest hits album, and start from there.
Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
Darn the critics, full speed ahead!
Something about Love's Labour's Lost is causing critics to sniff and huff and puff like never before. The dance numbers aren't perfectly in sync and the music isn't perfectly performed, they sneer. Shakespeare and Gershwin don't mix. It's sheer fluff. It's bizarre.
Thus saith the critics. The forest that they're missing with their shrubs of discontentment is the overwhelming charm and infectuous fun of this silly little film. Yes, when Branagh and his cronies do a dance number it isn't lock-step choreography (one arm a little high, perhaps, one foot off the beat a bit). When Alicia Silverstone and her ladies-in-waiting cavort and giggle in a pool, they're not quite Esther Williams and company. Instead of picture-perfect Fred & Ginger, they look like real people dancing and singing because dancing and singing are fun. And unless you're Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, or a movie critic, you'll have fun, too.
That's not to say the movie is just sloppy silliness. Branagh stages some gorgeous set pieces, including gondolas lit by Japanese lanterns, a prop-plane goodbye straight out of Casablanca, and a production number in which the film's silliest character kicks the moon like a big silver soccer ball. It's about a third Shakespeare, a third 30's musical, and a third Looney Tunes. What's odd is that the styles mix so well under Branagh's direction.
If you want a picture-perfect musical, rent "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" or some other dull thing. If you want perfect Shakespeare, rent Branagh's "Hamlet." If, however, you want a movie to make you believe in movies again -- if you want to kick up your heels, laugh out loud, and float out of a movie theater humming Cole Porter -- see this movie.
Prospero's Books (1991)
Tempest? Try Much Ado about Nothing.
To ward off the criticism of film snobs, let me say two things: 1. I like Greenaway's work. I loved The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; I know Greenaway's approach to film and it's fine by me. 2. I enjoy independent, art-house, and foreign film.
That being said: Prospero's Books is awfully hard to follow and to swallow. It starts like this: A camera follows an old man through a vast house. Naked people in masks walk around, a kid swings above a swimming pool, and there are plenty of genitalia and breasts on display. The old man sits at a desk, mumbles some lines of Shakespeare. Wind blows sheets of manuscript about. I thought it worked as a great introduction to a film, and eagerly waited to see what would follow it.
I watched an hour of the movie before I quit in disgust. It went like this: The camera follows an old man through a vast house, naked people cavort in masks, the swinging kid pees into a pool for a good 15 minutes (beating Austin Powers' record). Wind blows papers about. The old dude quotes some more Shakespeare. It doesn't GO anywhere -- I kept thinking these images must have meant something to the director, but they meant nothing to me.
Now, I'm all for esoteric, hard to understand filmmaking. I still don't "get" Barton Fink, I'm still pondering Dellamorte Dellamore and Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and that's all well and good. But those films were INTERESTING. You get the idea that something is happening, something worth understanding.
With Prospero's Books, you get the idea that a director has been amusing himself at your expense. Critics and snobs praise movies in this vein: "a daring, multi-layered approach to filmmaking. A film for people who like to be challenged by movies." This translates to: "It was boring, I have no clue what it's about, but it had naked people and was artily directed, so it must be good."
Well, I'm a fan of all kinds of movies, from foreign films to Wayne's World, and am therefore unafraid to say it: the emperor's buck naked, folks. Don't rent this unless you want to be frustrated and bored. If you want to see a stunning, creative approach to Shakespeare, rent "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" or "Romeo+Juliet."
Pitch Black (2000)
Oops -- WOW! -- Oops.
Pitch Black opens with a long, slo-mo shot of a spaceship gliding by the camera. Oops #1: obvious Star Wars rip-off. It then presents us with a most improbable crash scene, in which the force of the landing blows out the ship's windshield but leaves the pilot remarkably unscathed. Oops #2. The crash scene is edited with MTV-on-Speed cuts, which are both impossible to follow and headache-inducing. Oops #3. By the time the spaceship actually touched down, I was regretting losing $4 on this movie.
Fortunately, things pick up speed in the middle. The visuals are gorgeous -- our heroes are on a planet with three suns, and the scenes are filmed in gorgeous washed-out blue and gold tones. The deceptively calm surface of the planet serves as a backdrop for introducing and fleshing out characters, who are all given more depth than your average cheap sci-fi cast. The tension climaxes with a gorgeous triple eclipse and the awakening of the underground dwellers of the planet, who look like a cross between Ridley Scott's Alien and a hammerhead shark. As the characters scurried around huddling behind their meager and failing light sources, bickering with each other, the suspense was thick enough that it was hard to breathe.
Unfortunately, the last half hour abandons any notion of story arc or plot in favor of killing of characters at random and twisting the plot in improbable directions. The most interesting character, Vin Diesel's hulking homicidal maniac, is reduced to arm-wrestling the aliens and spouting Batman and Robin quality dialog. By the last twist and the by-the-numbers ending, I was disappointed in the movie again.
Out of the movie's two hours, the middle hour is great and the surrounding hour is average to horrid. 50% is generally an F, but for the great visuals I'll give it a C.
Can't Hardly Wait (1998)
Will you enjoy this movie?
First, if you're over 30, you're right out. You're too far out from high school to take this movie seriously.
Now, there are two types of people under 30. The first category are the teen-movie lovers -- those who laughed out loud at American Pie, boogied to 10 Things I Hate About You, and even misted up at the unlikely finale of She's All That. It doesn't matter that some of the dialog is campy, the events don't make too much sense, the sentiments aren't profound, and sometimes the hijinks don't resemble anything that ever happened in any high school anywhere. The movies are good fun, a nice reminder of a simpler time.
For these people (myself one of them), Can't Hardly Wait is great. It's funny, it's got Seth Green, a personal hero, and it has great intertwining plot lines held together by photogenic actors and actresses. Bug-eyed Ethan Embry is at his best here, as is Melissa Joan Hart as a yearbook-obsessed kook and little Charlie Korsmo, all grown up, as the resident geek who finds fame lip-synching "Paradise City." All of the stock characters are represented -- the jock, the nerds, the beautiful cheerleader, the shallow "best friends," the white wanna-be homeboys -- but, as in American Pie, are given enough human dimension that they're plausible and fun to watch. The movie's entertaining from start to finish, refreshingly irony and angst-free, and the ending is cute as can be.
The other type of people under 30 are those who take their movie-watching very seriously. They don't have time for fun, silly movies, and they viciously rip them apart because they aren't perfect. They hated American Pie because it had semen humor, they loathed 10 Things because it "blasphemed" Shakespeare, and they wouldn't think of buying a ticket to a movie called "She's All That." That sort of person should avoid this movie like the plague. If it's playing at a party, leave the room, you're only going to spoil it for the people born *with* a sense of humor.
So, all you category-one youngsters, enjoy Can't Hardly Wait. All you category-twos -- lighten up, start slow (maybe Breakfast Club), and sooner or later you'll learn to enjoy life.
Scream 3 (2000)
A fitting goodbye to a great series.
Scream was a great, great horror flick. It took the cliches that horror movie fans have been enjoying (and bemoaning) for years and twisted them back on themselves, for the first time making a horror movie that acknowledged the existence of horror movies and their fans. Scream 2 was less of a thrill; it had some great scenes and set pieces, but faltered in the denoument, giving us a laughable finale instead of a scary one.
Scream 3 gets back to what made Scream great. What sets this series apart is the intelligence factor, and Scream 3 doesn't dissapoint. Plots get turned around and eat their own tails, everyone's a suspect, and in the end the answer is both completely obvious and impossible to predict. It dovetails perfectly into the first two, expanding the mythos without cheating the audience.
The director and screenwriter are savvy enough to realize that just hearing some guy's distorted voice over the phone isn't that scary anymore, so they look elsewhere for suspense and scares, and find plenty of both. There are great scenes involving Sidney Prescott's supposed mental problems, they're both frightening and make perfect sense -- wouldn't you be a little ding-y if all your friends were killed by a series of psychopaths?
I won't say anything about the plot, because the less you know, the better. Just make sure you've seen the first two before you go in, or you'll be completely lost. I'm sure non-horror fans won't like this one (witness the critical beating it's been given), but anyone who's looking for a good scare will find it here.
The Road to Wellville (1994)
The Road to Nowhere would be more accurate. . .
Not funny, not coherent, not worth watching. The Road to Wellville doesn't make any sort of sense -- it flits back and forth between three equally nonsensical plotlines, and, after about six hours, ends. It does feature a great deal of nudity, but that's hardly an excuse for wasting precious natural resources like John Cusak, Anthony Hopkins, and Dana Carvey.
If you want to see Cusak in a comedy, rent Grosse Point Blank. If you want loads of gratuitous nudity, rent Beach Babes from Beyond. There is no excuse whatsoever for watching this film -- it's time out of my life I can never have back.
Idle Hands (1999)
Stupid and Gory and Highly Entertaining.
From a first-time director who has obviously seen Dead Alive, Evil Dead 1-3, and far too many Cheech & Chong movies comes Idle Hands, a movie that wears these and various other influences on its blood-soaked sleeve.
The lack of originality shouldn't stop a true horror fan, though. You could do a lot worse than this silly story about a boy and his demon-possessed right hand. There's a good deal of backhanded irony that make this a lot of fun to watch -- the main character, Anton, uses his asthma inhaler as a marijuana pipe, for example, and in one scene he meets the girl of his dreams, who fawns all over him even though he's covered in blood and twitching maniacally.
The hero of the movie, however, is the always-great Seth Green as a stoner-turned-zombie with a bottle stuck through his head. Stoner comedy can sometimes be hard to sit through, but the laughs come fast and furious here.
Don't expect this movie to make much sense in retrospect. Don't expect it to have a serious commentary on the fleeting aspect of modern life. Don't expect it to make you a better person.
DO expect a certain amount of visual style, some very bloody killings (comical in their excess, like Dead Alive), a cameo by The Offspring covering "I Wanna Be Sedated," and to laugh until you fall off the couch (especially if you've been smoking what everyone in this movie smokes). If that's your idea of a good time -- and why shouldn't it be? Enjoy. You can rent Citizen Kane some other time.
Prepare yourself for discussions and dissensions.
This is a movie not without faults -- the dialog at the beginning is stilted, William H. Macy's performance is not without its weak spots -- but in spite of those quibbles, is a compelling, intriguing film.
The movie centers on the relationship between a student and a professor at an unnamed university. She goes to him for extra help in his class (but she may be just trying to set him up for a sexual harrassment lawsuit). He tries to help her with her studies (but may be trying to dominate and have innappropriate relations with her at the same time). As the relationship turns into a struggle, the viewer finds him/herself switching sides early and often. The tension in the film becomes the viewer's tension; during the final scenes you'll barely breathe.
The tagline is right -- whatever side you choose, you're wrong. I've seen this movie lambasted as being anti-feminist, lauded for being pro-feminist, hated for being anti-establishment, pro-establishment, racist, sexist, etc. In reality, it is all and none of these things. Oleanna is a mirror that forces us to examine and discuss our own convictions. That it accomplishes this while still being an exciting film makes it worth seeing more than once.