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Take two ordinary men who have no previous film credits for acting, directing, or writing, put them in charge of all three tasks, and the result is likely to be as shapeless and self-indulgent as "Straightman." This low-budget movie is a real disappointment -- so much so that I begin to suspect the glowing reviews were written by friends of the cast. It's a shame, too, because there is potential here for a good indie movie. It begins with a good premise, the working-class Chicago backdrop is interesting, and there is a sense that the film might be semi-autobiographical.
This film's main problem is that the director, who also co-stars, apparently has no distance from the material. An objective eye would have edited the tiresome and repetitious improvisation. As it is, the two men talk on and on and on. Scenes are too long, and footage that should have been cut is treated as sacrosanct. The drama goes from feeling fresh to feeling forced as each of the lead actors has to pile on dramatic moments. While the actors do not stink, they are not noticeably talented, either; so they cannot sustain the drama, and ultimately their time on screen feels undeserved.
Midnight Mass (2003)
Rock-bottom rotten. A promising premise (reminiscent of stories in "Under the Fang") and a somewhat creative opening few minutes -- tracking a vampire apocalypse from the point-of-view of TV news clips -- are red herrings in this presumably straight-to-video release.
Wherever the dividing line is between "low-budget" and "indie", this movie is well on the losing side. The acting is entirely amateur and ranges from the sub-par (for example, the goth youth collaborators) to the merely dull (alcoholic hero Father Joe) to the whopping ludicrous (Marvin Schwartz as a Catholic priest-turned-vampire). The direction as such is incomprehensible. A dreadful, rambling script is partially credited to horror author F. Paul Wilson, who also briefly appears.
Don't be misled by the colorful video box! This trash is impossible to watch in its entirety, and not worth the wear on your DVD player.
Shanghai Knights (2003)
Another sequel in a long history of film sequels (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop 2, Legally Blonde 2) that borrow the main ingredients but miss whatever elusive quality made the original enjoyable in the first place. "Shanghai Noon" was unexpectedly charming fluff, but this follow-up weighs a ton. Even the leading actors seem to feel it. Did the three-year interim between films really age them? Jackie Chan is less spry than ever before, and Owen Wilson's anachronistic delivery lacks the sparkle that made it funny the first time around. A seriously misguided effort was made to enliven the proceedings with a silly and obvious music score. One can only hope that whoever was responsible for the music has been punished along with the writers and director.
The Big House (2001)
"The Big House": Small Film, Small Cell, Big Themes
Winner of the 2001 Australian Film Institute Awards for Best Short Fiction Film, this brief but powerful drama about prison sex and intimacy is well worth a view. Homoerotic without being pornographic, touching but not sentimental, it shows the love that unexpectedly develops between a young prison inmate and an older "lifer."
Many people will no doubt be turned off by the idea of a physical relationship between the two, but I was impressed that such a short film (24 minutes) could believably convey a sense of a bartered relationship between two nominally heterosexual men, a pairing that begins as bleak exploitation and turns into something more. That the film captures their tender feelings while still keeping a strong eye on the dangers and sordidness of their imprisonment, with moments of humor and terror to boot, is a tribute to a good script, fine directing (by Rachel Ward, to my surprise) and to the equally fine acting, especially the terrific performance by Tony Martin as the older con.
For the record, American viewers may have occasional trouble deciphering the dialogue, as the "down-under" accents are a bit thick at times.
But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)
Further Proof That Gay Audiences Will Buy Anything
Someday, gay cinema will grow up. In the meantime gay women and men are so hungry for representation, so starved to see themselves on the silver screen, that even junk like this is welcomed.
Comparisons to John Waters' films are inevitable because "But I'm a Cheerleader" is low budget, gay-friendly, and rife with poor acting. The concept is indeed fertile: if any movement is ripe for skewering it's the "convert-a-homosexual" movement. Unfortunately the execution is overstated and witless. The targets have been satirized so often there is little bite left in rehashing the same simple stereotypes. Making the "straights" so preposterously anachronistic further sanitizes the potential for humor. The fable is meant to be contemporary, but the well-meaning bad guys are right out of a 1950's nightmare of conformity that barely existed even in the 1950's. All the girls in pink, all the boys in blue? Well, if nothing else, it's easy to follow.
Cathy Moriarty plays the founder of "True Directions," but her lackluster performance seems more like your typical Mary Woronov star turn. RuPaul was clearly cast with an eye towards irony (he is out of drag here), but his limitations as an actor overshadow the joke. Other cast members have likewise been seen elsewhere to better advantage. Only the two young romantic (female) leads are appealing, yet even when triumphant they remain inexplicably bland and one-dimensional. It's one thing to show lead characters with the life sucked out of them by a conservative society, another to weigh down the film with their lifelessness.
"But I'm a Cheerleader" should have been hilarious. It's too bad that the filmmakers approached the material with a kindergartener's point of view. The resulting film is so dull it gives "camp" a bad name.
The Last of Sheila (1973)
A Personal Reflection On "The Last Of Sheila"
In 1973, at age 17, I walked into a movie multiplex (three theaters under one roof) in a neighboring city with little more on my mind than to kill a couple of hours before an appointment. I'd never heard of "The Last of Sheila" and therefore had no preconceived notions about it, but the starting time was right. I then had the rare and happy experience of seeing a movie I knew absolutely nothing about -- and loving it.
I subsequently dragged my friends to see it and was even inspired to host a "game" of my own (similar to the movie's central event) in my small home town. Granted, central Illinois is not as glamorous as the south of France, but we made do.
So the other night (many miles away and nearly 30 years later) when I saw the videotape at the neighborhood rental store I was almost reluctant to rent it and risk ruining a good memory. Would the movie hold up?
I have to say that while no longer quite so passionate about "The Last of Sheila" (or anything, for that matter), I'd still recommend it.
"The Last of Sheila" is, first of all, wonderfully of its period. The cast includes Richard Benjamin (Portnoy's Complaint), Dyan Cannon (The Love Machine), James Coburn (In Like Flint), Joan Hackett (Support Your Local Sheriff), James Mason (The Mackintosh Man), Ian McShane (Pussycat, Pussycat I Love You), and Raquel Welch (Myra Breckinridge). Add an early Bette Midler hit song and you have a quintessential early 1970's experience!
The screenplay is by film actor Anthony Perkins and musical theater lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. Combine the sophisticated intricacy of Sondheim's song lyrics with Perkins' long association with macabre cinema and you have the tone of "Sheila": witty, complex, dark and ironic.
I remember a magazine article from the time about Sondheim's passion for games and how it influenced the screenplay. This movie is like a game the viewer can play -- but don't expect to win. This is a fun, fast moving murder mystery with lots of clues and lots of red herrings, and its perhaps best just to sit back and pay attention to the scenery and bon mots.
One can forgive some lapses (personally, I cringe when Raquel opens her mouth) as overall the film is so interesting.
Conversely, I have to put in a plug for the lovely and vulnerable Joan Hackett, who is virtually unknown today but who is one of my favorite actresses from the era. If you've never seen her work, I recommend this film as well as "Will Penny" and "Support Your Local Sheriff." As Leonard Maltin says "Hackett had a special quality - along the lines of a Jean Arthur or Margaret Sullavan - that was simultaneously truthful and enchanting."
Umpteen Weddings and... a wonderful little/big movie.
I loved the 1975 French movie "Cousin, Cousine" (roughly pronounced 'koo-ZAN koo-ZEEN', for the non-francophiles). It was a very funny, very sexy and "tres French" movie.
So I rolled my eyes when I heard of this American remake, especially when I learned that Ted Danson would play the male lead. Nothing against Mr. Danson's abilities, but I assumed the casting of a television star -- "Cheers" was still going strong on NBC at the time -- meant that bigger names had identified this film as a stinker and were staying away.
I was happily surprised when this remake turned out to be as funny, warm and romantic (if a tad less sexy) than the original. In fact, it's nearly the same movie, and in this case that's a good thing. Thankfully Paramount didn't feel the need to alter too much.
Like "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (which came after), most of the action in this movie takes place at various ritual gatherings of family and friends. Danson and Isabella Rossellini play cousins by marriage who are each saddled with attractive but less than desirable mates: hilarious performances by Sean Young and William L. Petersen.
In fact, everyone is good in this movie. It should have led to better movie parts for Mr. Danson, but unfortunately it wasn't a financial success. Lloyd Bridges as a family patriarch is a revelation. Again, if the film had done better at the box office, he might have earned an academy award nomination.
"Cousins" is a large-cast movie that leaves one feeling good without ignoring the pain in life. It's "wedding as microcosm" and everyone has a part to play. It's unusual to see a movie with so many age groups represented, and everyone equal. It's not a teen film, but neither is it an anti-teen film. It's a film about the swirl of life. Babies are born, old people die, couples form and break-up... and all observed from a slightly removed point of view, so that we see ourselves and also see that we shouldn't always take ourselves too seriously.
Don't let your preconceptions keep you away from "Cousins." It's a wonderful little/big movie.
Session 9 (2001)
A Palpable And Progressive Sense Of Dread
A truly frightening movie about what happens when a down-on-their-luck work crew bids to remove asbestos from an abandoned asylum for the insane.
***Highly recommended, despite plot holes and an occasional lack of clarity in the telling. There is superb acting all around, with an especially notable performance by Scottish actor Peter Mullan ("My Name is Joe") as the head of the demolition crew. Kudos, too, for effective music and cinematography, and for a brilliant location find.
There is a palpable and progressive sense of dread in "Session 9." The suspense is often unbearable. It might have become a horror classic if not for a couple of major "if only's" -- the biggest being that more clarification is needed. We are left with loose ends and too many questions (although some obfuscation may be intentional, the lack seems more a result of weakness in direction and writing).
It's disappointing when clues and elements that have been dangled before us are abandoned rather than resolved. It's even more frustrating to watch the credits roll and not know what has happened. A "Turn of the Screw" type of question (e.g., ghosts or neuroses?) can be interesting, but one has to have confidence that the filmmaker is intentionally offering us these options and not just communicating his ideas badly.
There are humorous gaffes. Much ado is made over the deadline these men work under, but as the film progresses they spend less and less time working. Again, this could have been intentional (like Jack's writing failure in "The Shining"), but since it is not addressed it, too, seems sloppy. But these are minor points.
Be warned that despite being a mood piece, "Session 9" contains at least one over-the-top graphic scene of violence. In what is essentially a psychological horror story, this may turn off the people who otherwise would most appreciate this film. Likewise, I suspect that horror fans who require a lot of action to sustain their interest may not relish the long wait for "something to happen."
However, if you can give yourself over to the realm of the imagination, this film will definitely unsettle you.
It's My Party (1996)
It's My Sanctimonious Party and I'll Die If I Want To
Admittedly it has been several years since I saw "It's My Party", but the thought of renting the video to refresh my memory causes me to shudder, so relying on faded impressions as my guide, I'll add my voice to the small chorus of commentors who warn you away from this movie.
"It's My Party" is about a gay man with an AIDS-related condition who knows he only has a few days before his brain goes. He therefore throws himself a farewell/suicide party.
The large number of attendees include family members, an ex-lover (Gregory Harrison), and friends both gay and straight. Sharp-tongued "fag hag" Charlene (Margaret Cho) is among the latter, but if you expect humor from Ms. Cho or anyone else, you're in for a disappointment.
In fact, given the comic caliber of the cast (which includes Lee Grant, George Segal, and Bronson Pinchot), the resulting glum-fest seems intentionally perverse. Humor is desperately needed, but this film is too P.C. to recognize anyone's solemn self-involvement. There's something terribly earnest and icky about the whole enterprise. If it had been about any other disease, it probably wouldn't have felt half as condescending. However well intentioned these film makers were, the result is a movie that makes you want to take a hot shower when it's over.
The Time Machine (2002)
The Good, The Bad, And The Eloi
The new "Time Machine" retains its Edwardian time period and much of its familiar plot, but has been transported from London to New York City. The time traveler's name is now Alexander Hartdegen (there's a limerick in there somewhere), a part well-played by Guy Pearce, who, befitting his genius character, looks a bit drawn here.
One fateful night, absent-minded scientist Alex nearly forgets an important date with Emma, his hoped-for fiancé-to-be. Beautiful Sienna Guillory makes an impressive though brief appearance as Emma. She lights up the screen with her presence (her resemblance to Jessica Lange is so strong, she could be her daughter).
Unexpected events upset Alex's plans and set him to work creating a time machine and after four or five self-denying years of intensive labor, he succeeds. It's a nicely designed contraption, too, one that puts its own stamp on the archetypal "spinning" design from the 1960 film. It looks right, like it actually might work. Suspension of disbelief is further aided by several early allusions to Alex's brilliance (for example, a humorous reference is made to an unknown Albert Einstein needing his advice).
So into the past Alex rushes, with barely a beta-test or concern. And when he again hooks up with Emma for their date, does she notice any change in him? After so long a time (on his part only) of sleep deprived obsession, mightn't she have said "Darling, you've aged five years overnight!"
Alas, Alex soon discovers that destiny cannot be altered (for some reason this revelation provoked audience laughter, though I thought it was handled skillfully enough). Dejected, he journeys into the far future, stopping once or twice to explore mankind's progress. In the film's first of many unintentionally comic missteps, he leaves his machine unattended in an improbably empty urban space, where no one interferes with it. No thief, vandal or policeman gives this big, expensive-looking curiosity a second glance in New York?
It's during Alex's initial excursion into a near-future Manhattan that we enter Truly Heinous territory. Alex visits the New York Public Library and meets Vox, a holographic librarian (a miscast Orlando Jones). When Alex asks this talking "encyclopedia of all the world's knowledge" about time travel, Vox scoffs at the concept as nothing but fiction, citing H.G. Wells' famous book and the 1960 movie. Vox claims to be tortured by never forgetting anything. Indeed, when he ultra-improbably meets Alex 800,000 years in the future, he recalls their previous conversation but does he mention that ol' H.G. was uncannily prescient?
The film continues to lose its bearings as tens of thousands of years pass. Rivers form, mountains erode, yet when we arrive in the year 802,701, words chiseled into 20th Century NYC stonework are still clearly legible! Apparently, humanity has not changed all that much, either. For one thing, their background music sounds like the "Lion King" soundtrack (and I thought the faux-tribal music in "Return of the Jedi" was embarrassing).
Alex soon meets one-half of humanity's descendants, the Eloi, including beautiful Mara (Samantha Mumba) and her young son, who speak English. This seems ludicrous even after we learn that virtual Vox continues to hold court in the nearby NYPL ruins (that is one amazing computer warranty!).
In the 1960 movie, the Eloi were appropriately weak and passive, like effete teenagers. Blonde and blandly good-looking, they reflected fears of the future based on the dominant youth culture of the time. The new Eloi also reflect popular culture. With their tribal tattoos and glistening dark skin, they are like fiercely beautiful MTV rockers. Yet despite prominent muscles, they remain inexplicably defenseless against the evil Morlocks.
Alex and Mara bond just in time for her to be carried off (in daylight?) by the flesh-eating Morlocks. Alex heroically follows into no-man's land, where he encounters the Über-Morlock (Jeremy Irons). In a rush of exposition, the telepathic Ü.M. explains how Man became two races, but the scene is totally confusing, and at this point both Mr. Irons and the plot become superfluous.
Strangely, actors Yancey Arias and Philip Bosco are also prominently billed, yet neither, as far as I could discern, appear in the movie. Perhaps their deleted scenes contained material that might have helped hold the film together? Spoiler Alert It's absurd to quibble by this point (spoilers ahead!), but the film loses all remaining vestiges of credibility in the final minutes. For example, Ü.M. warns that without his powers there would be no control over the Morlocks, who would otherwise quickly exhaust their food supply (people). Nevertheless, Alex dispatches him -- and we must pray, all remaining Morlocks -- by causing his machine to meltdown. How did Alex know how to destroy his machine, what would happen when he did, and that all the Morlocks were in range? And how lucky he and his Eloi friends were to so narrowly escape the blast radius! Also, the overall time concepts lacked sense. Alex changes the destiny of Mara and the Eloi so why was it impossible for him to change his own destiny?
There are some excellent visuals in "The Time Machine," and nice special effects. Turn of the century New York is very pretty, as is the hanging cliff-village of the future. The best effect is too brief and involves Earth's moon breaking apart. Later, when we see the partially disintegrated moon and its detritus in an orbital ring around the Earth, it's very cool.
Unfortunately, there's not enough of this, and not enough creativity or playfulness in the time-travel itself. In a movie largely dependent on special effects, that's the stuff that should have been enlarged upon. There's a great money shot showing the growth of a technological Earth, but it comes too soon. The small, changing details as seen from the time traveler's point of view were much more effective.