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Pitch Black (2000)
Predictable marooned-in-space entry
"Pitch Black" is an undistinguished entry into the "marooned in space" genre. A very mixed group of space travelers (including a psychopathic convict and a family of devout Muslims) crash land on a barren planet, only to find they are not alone. The planet is inhabited by man-eating monsters (did someone say Alien). One good thing is that the monsters are photophobic and can't come out into the light. Another good thing is that the planet has three suns and is always in light (the monsters dwell bat-like in caves). But then comes a major problem: the travelers learn that every 22 years, the planet gets thrown into a total eclipse (of all three suns no less). And guess what! This is the 22nd year! Uh-oh. This could be a neat and scary premise, but director David Twohy hasn't figured out a good way to film scenes in the dark. The monsters look like they could be terrifying, if only you could see them better. There is the predictable one-by-one reduction of main characters, but because of the darkness, you can't even be sure which character has been eliminated. None of this is helped by the awful performance of Radha Mitchell as the spaceship's tough commander (there seems to be a genre trend toward female spaceship commanders). Mitchell showed she could act in "High Art," so we will charitably assume that she was just miscast here. She seems about as tough as a val-girl at the mall. Directors seem to think that if you just take any actress and dress her in a tank top and let her curse a lot, she will turn into macho-woman. Not here. The saving asset of this movie is Vin Diesel as the mysterious psycho convict, Riddick. Diesel adds welcome depth to the character, and imbues him with an impressive Darth Vader voice. There are also hints of a back story on Riddick that seems to be more interesting than this movie. Perhaps we will find out.
10 for content, 6 for form
Fred A. Leuchter Jr. is an execution consultant, i.e. he advises states on how to put criminals to death humanely ("I am not against capital punishment, I am against capital torture"). The first part of the film has the nerdy Leuchter recounting his career in garrulous fashion and propounding the pros and cons of various methods of execution (for the record, he favors the electric chair, but only if it is designed by him). Already we are firmly planted in the Errol Morris landscape of blooming eccentrics, complete with the odd quirks, such as Leuchter's daily consumption of 40 cups of coffee. But midway through, the film has a shocking surprise in store for us. It turns out that Leuchter had been hired as an expert witness by a Canadian Holocaust denyer who was on trial for spreading hate propaganda. Leuchter travels to Auschwitz intent on proving that no gassings could have occurred there. He returns with flimsy evidence to that effect, and although his infamous report is never admitted in the trial, Leuchter finds himself a hero of Holocaust revisionists and a hot ticket on the Neo-Nazi talk circuit. Morris does little more than point the camera at Leuchter and let him talk -- giving him enough rope to hang himself (a fitting metaphor in this case). You don't know whether to laugh at this nerdy little jerk or to be horrified. The subject is full of irony and dark fascination, but Morris's style is not as diverting as in his previous films, and he has trouble bringing it to feature length. Merely finding an eccentric character and pointing the camera at him is not enough, no matter how strange he is. What is missing are the typical Morris cinematic flourishes that we saw in "The Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control," much better films. There are some bits of interest, outside of Leuchter's talking head, but not enough. I liked Morris's use of old home movies, some videotape of Leuchter in Auschwitz, and offscreen interviews with Mrs. Leuchter, his wife of short duration (the trip to Auschwitz was also made to serve as their honeymoon). The movie is worth seeing for its incredible subject matter, but it is not up to Morris's high standard of filmmaking. The best Morris-style film of the year was not made by Morris at all -- it was S. R. Bindler's magnificent "Hands on a Hard Body." Go out and rent that one while you wait for Mr. Death to visit your video store.
Man on the Moon (1999)
Jim Carrey's sensational performance as Andy Kaufman is at the heart of "Man on the Moon." In fact, it's the whole movie, which doesn't amount to much more than re-creations of Kaufman's greatest hits. Kaufman's offstage life is not as compellingly presented. Those who were hoping that the movie would shed some light on this most eccentric of performers will be disappointed. Still, the movie is well worth seeing for Carrey's uncanny impersonation (some have said "channeling") of Kaufman. When he imitates Elvis, he's not just imitating Elvis -- he's imitating Kaufman imitating Elvis. And his portrayal of "Tony Clifton," Kaufman's obnoxious alter ego, is a comic masterpiece. So, you will be greatly entertained, but still clueless as to what made Kaufman tick.
Better than I expected
The original "Henry" was a great slasher film that aimed higher than the genre: it examined the psyche of the serial killer, so that the movie was more than just scary, it was genuinely disturbing. The movie's effectiveness could be credited to the masterful performance by John Rooker in the title role (in a less skittish world, he would have been Oscar nominated) and by the no nonsense direction of John McNaughton, which included one of the most chilling closing shots of all time. I happened to come across the present sequel in Blockbusters and, noting that it had a different actor in the title role and a different director (as well as an almost non-existent theatrical release), I checked it out with low expectations. Well, I was surprised. The movie is much better than it has a right to be. It copies the tone and content of the original pretty closely (including ultra-graphic gore), but at least it gets it right. And Neil Giuntono gives a perfectly good performance as Henry (like Rooker, he effectively underplays the role). The lower working class milieu that Henry finds himself a part of is as vividly captured as it is unsympathetic. If you liked the original "Henry," or if you're a fan of the psycho-killer genre, this sequel is definitely worth checking out. If you're not into this kind of movie (even when well done), then obviously you should pass.
one of the year's 10 best
I don't want to scare anyone away with the "D" word, so let's just say that this non-fiction gem is one of the year's best movies and worth begging your video store manager to stock. Using a no-frills action-and-interview technique, director S. R. Bindler follows the fate of 23 Texans who enter a bizarre annual promotional contest run by the local Nissan dealer. The contestants are to stand around a blue pickup truck, with one hand touching it at all times, and the last one left standing (70-80 hours later) wins the truck. Yes, I did say this was non-fiction! Fortunately for Bindler (or perhaps through his expert handling of them) the contestants turn out to be a colorful cross section, and you soon find yourself picking favorites and even rooting for them! The film manages as much suspense as any sporting event, with a lot more curiosity. Also, some profound themes start creeping in. This movie is sure to invite comparisons with those of Errol Morris, due to the eccentricity of its subject, and those who like Morris's work will surely like this. But Bindler deserves credit for forging his own less flashy style, and for giving us this one-of-a-kind, unforgettable experience.
Melvin and Howard (1980)
One of the most neglected
I just noticed that "Melvin and Howard" registered a mere 6.6 on the IMDb rating scale. Don't you believe it! This is a great American movie. Director Demme and writer Goldman take a footnote to history -- a contested Howard Hughes will that named Melvin Dummar, a milkman who once loaned him a quarter, as one of his heirs -- and turn that slight material into a wry meditation on the American Dream. Or more specifically, the thin line that separates the American Dream from pure hell. Demme has a great eye for people like Dummar, a dreamer whose clock for realizing his dreams is winding down. The performances are terrific, especially Paul Le Mat as Dummar (whatever happened to Le Mat?) and Mary Steenburgen who won an Oscar for playing his wife. Jason Robards does one of his patented cameos playing a real life character (his Howard Hughes makes a neat hat trick with his Oscar winning performances as Dashiell Hammett and Ben Bradley.) Watch for the real-life Melvin Dummar as the counterman in the bus station where Steenburgen makes a sandwich for her daughter. This is a small but knowing and winning movie. It definitely gets my vote for "Milkman of the Month"!
This Kevin Smith dud may be the least funny comedy ever made. (It didn't register a single laugh at the showing I caught, and you're not going to find yourself quoting any lines from it to your friends.) The "good vs. evil" plot, which is far-fetched even by fantasy standards, has to do with two fallen angels who are attempting to re-gain heaven through a portal in New Jersey. If they succeed, they will cause the end of all reality -- and they can only be stopped by this woman who works in an Illinois abortion clinic and who has been selected for this mission by God. All of the theological background to this story is presented in endless expository dialogue, which when delivered by Alan Rickman, in a great performance as God's announcing angel, is riveting; but when delivered by the likes of Chris Rock and Salma Hayak, neither of whom shows any talent for acting, turns into boring drivel that you will find difficut to stay awake through, let alone understand (it didn't even sound like the actors understood what they were saying). Two good performances by Matt Damon and Ben Afleck, who do what they can to energize this boring mess, are totally wasted. (You're supposed to find it hilarious to hear two angels talking dude-talk.) ASIDE TO KEVIN SMITH: The Jay and Silent Bob act, after 4 movies, is really tired. Grow up and get past it.
Still the greatest
Nosferatu was made in 1922, and if there's been a better vampire movie in the last 77 years, I haven't seen it. Don't be put off by the fact that it's silent. If anything, that only adds to the creepy atmosphere (hearing Dracula speak would have made him less scarey). The image of Max Schreck, as Count Dracula, rising from his coffin or climbing out of the hold of his death ship, is still sensational. Even his shadow is terrifying, as brilliantly used by director Murnau. The scene of his demise is haunting. Some of the narrative scenes between Dracula appearances are a bit melodramatic, but they don't detract enough to keep this from being the classic vampire movie. Horror buffs, you can keep your special effects. Believe me, if you haven't seen Max Schreck as Dracula, you ain't seen nothing!
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
Acting 10, movie 5
This re-make is worth seeing for the amazing performance by Peter O'Toole in the title role. He is the equal of Robert Donat who won an Oscar for the original version (beating out Clark Gable's Rhett Butler, no less). Unfortunately, in order to see this performance, you're going to have to sit through some of the worst songs ever written for the screen (yes, it's a musical re-make -- bad decision, but musicals were big in the post-"Sound of Music" 60's). The songs sabotage this touching story of a quiet English schoolmaster through the years. But O'Toole is amazing; it may be his best performance on film. He does an especially good job of "aging" his character, and with a minimum of makeup. Petula Clark is surprisingly good as the extroverted wife who brings Chips out of his shell, and Sian Phillips is unforgettable as Ursula Mossbank, an eccentric friend, even if the character seems to belong in a different movie. This is an ideal movie to watch on videotape. Savor the performances and fast forward through those wretched songs!
Bachelor in Paradise (1961)
Hope vehicle is not great but has some rewards
This is the most sophisticated of the later Bob Hope comedies, which may seem like faint praise. But "Bachelor in Paradise" is a mildly enjoyable satire of suburban mores in the late 50's-early 60's. Hope is well cast as author A. J. Niles, who is doing undercover research in an upscale tract community for his book on sex in suburbia. The husbands mistakenly think that Hope is romancing their wives while they're away at work, and soon all hell breaks loose. The movie starts smartly before degenerating into a more typical sex farce. But there are rewards to be had along the way: Lana Turner, as Hope's real love interest, looks especially glamorous; Paula Prentiss shows her marvelous comedic flair in a supporting role; the 60's suburban sets are terrific; Agnes Moorehead does a funny cameo as a flaming red-headed judge who makes Judy seem demure; and there's a nice Henry Mancini score -- especially the catchy title tune (which made Ann-Margret a star when she sang it at the Oscars). This is defnitely not a first rate comedy, but it is now fun to watch as a period piece. Unfortunately, the video released by MGM wreaks havoc with the Cinemascope compositions. Letterboxing was definitely called for, or at least some judicious panning-and-scanning.