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Two Shades of Blue (1999)
Excellent performance in routine thriller
When I rented this movie, I was pretty confident of two things beforehand: (1) Marlee Matlin would be excellent. (2) The movie wouldn't be. I was not surprised on either count.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the movie itself; it's just your standard run-of-the-mill thriller, with the usual plot twists (some more predictable than others) and double-crosses. However, Marlee Matlin is as magnetic a presence as ever; for example, in the "phone sex" scene, just watching her facial expressions is more erotic than any amount of nudity. (Not that the nudity in other scenes is unwelcome...)
One thing struck me as odd regarding the VHS release (I haven't seen the DVD version): Considering that the movie stars the screen's most prominent deaf actress and revolves around a telephone-relay service for the hearing-impaired...WHY is there no closed-captioning on the video? I know that this isn't a major label distributing the movie, but you'd think they'd spring for captioning on this one.
Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)
Avoid the DVD, track down the tape
Just a note of warning: The Retromedia DVD of "Shriek of the Mutilated" is missing one of the highlights of the movie...the use of the '70s syntho-pop instrumental hit "Popcorn" during the party scene early in the movie. I assume Retromedia couldn't get the music rights, so they dubbed in some unremarkable new background music. There also appear to be some cuts in the dialogue (for instance, when the St. Claires arrive at the party, Retromedia has removed a student's sarcastic remark about their presence). In its original form, this movie is a hysterical classic of bizarre filmmaking...so track down the out-of-print Lightning Video VHS release if you can.
Scream 2 (1997)
In the sequel to "Scream," screenwriter Kevin Williamson appears to have been so preoccupied with dropping clever film references and staging "cool" murder scenes that he forgot to add logic into the mix. Rather than discuss all the implausibilities in the movie, I'll just use the first murder as an example.
"Scream 2" opens at a screening of "Stab," the hugely successful movie based on the events of the first film. Here's my first problem with the premise: While I can buy the idea of there being a movie-within-the-movie based on the supposed "real-life" murders of the first film, I cannot believe that it would be marketed with such gimmicks as glow-in-the-dark knives and costumes based on the killer's. Would any studio market a film about Columbine by selling tie-in trenchcoats and toy guns? At screenings of "Summer of Sam," were audiences cheering at the re-creations of real-life murders? (Actually, considering the number of sick and/or tactless people out there, I probably shouldn't have asked that last question.)
The first victim (who, we later learn, was deliberately targeted and not chosen randomly) enters a men's room. Both urinals are occupied, so he goes into an empty stall. He hears some bizarre whispering in the next stall, and puts his ear to the divider to hear better. Suddenly, the killer plunges a knife through the divider and into his head.
1. Since the killer was obviously already in the stall before the victim entered, how did the killer know his victim was coming into the restroom? (Keep in mind, the killer had this guy specifically targeted, and wasn't simply waiting for whoever happened to come into the stall.)
2. How did the killer know that both urinals would still be in use when the victim entered, forcing the victim into the stall?
3. How did the killer know somebody else wouldn't take the stall first?
4. Okay, I can accept the killer "knowing" that the victim would put his ear to the wall to listen in (human nature being what it is)...but how did he know the exact point on the wall where his victim's head was? Why didn't the knife emerge, say, in front of the victim's face, or an inch above his head?
5. Since the killer seems to have counted on both urinals being occupied when the victim entered, how could he be sure that everyone else would leave while the victim was still in the stall?
And that's only the first murder...sadly, the rest of the movie is no more plausible.
Cat in the Cage (1978)
Even the cat can't act...
Lured in by an intriguing title and cover art, along with the presence of a couple of my favorite cult actresses (Sybil Danning and Colleen Camp), I watched this tape...and was sorely disappointed.
This exceptionally muddled thriller focuses on a young man who is convinced that his new stepmother (Sybil Danning), who had been his late mother's nurse, had actually murdered his mother in order to take her place.
The son's animosity towards his new family member is shared by his pet cat, who constantly hisses and spits in Sybil's presence. At least, that's what the filmmakers would have us believe...in fact, it's clear that the cat's hissing and growling are dubbed-in sound effects (the cat's mouth is closed the whole time!). Nothing in the cat's body language suggests hostility (no arched back, no fur standing on end)...at times, it even seems affectionate towards its supposed nemesis. Even when Sybil is "attacked" by the cat, it's obvious that she's simply holding the indifferent animal up to her face. Now, it's perfectly understandable if the film's budget didn't allow for an animal trainer, but it really shouldn't be too hard to get a cat angry.
The rest of the performances are little better than the cat's. Sybil Danning has proven capable of delivering memorable performances elsewhere, but her shrill, forced hysterics in this movie are simply embarrassing. Frank DeKova, as Danning's wealthy, easy-going husband, fares the best, but has too little to do before being taken out of the picture. Likewise, the talented Colleen Camp is given nothing to work with in her role as the stepson's concerned girlfriend.
One final note: One major plot point, the fact that the main character has a brother, is not even mentioned until well over an hour into the movie! Advice to aspiring screenwriters: If you're going to spring a plot twist, you need to lay the foundation much earlier in the movie (just a subtle, casual mention would do) so that it doesn't just seem to come out of nowhere.
Benjamin Smoke (2000)
Absorbing portrait of a man who should have been famous
I was lucky enough to see Benjamin sing in concert once (playing Caiaphas in a production of "Jesus Christ Superstar"), and was struck by his craggy, Tom Waits-like vocal delivery, as well as his cadaverous but flamboyant stage persona. Now, thanks to the documentary "Benjamin Smoke," I've got a more fully rounded picture of this enigmatic performer. Virtually unknown outside his hometown (although his music did inspire Patti Smith to write a song about him), Benjamin deserved to be a bigger star. Hopefully, this film will introduce more people across the country (and even around the world) to both the man and his music.
The filmmakers spent several months (years?) just hanging out with Benjamin. They let him talk about whatever he wanted, and he held nothing back, freely discussing his numerous addictions, his HIV-positive status, his mother's reaction to his homosexuality...and he tells all these stories with an easy-going charm and wit.
While I hope people from all over the world will seek out and watch this movie, I do feel a twinge of pity for viewers outside Atlanta. They'll never experience the heady feeling of connectedness that I got from attending the premiere at the Lefont Plaza theater...located directly across the street from the apartment building where Benjamin lived out his last months, next door to the diner where the filmmakers recorded a conversation with the band, and just down the street from the club where Benjamin played his final concert. After leaving the theater, I made a point of visiting all of these sites and soaking up the atmosphere of Benjamin history.
An Almost Perfect Affair (1979)
When the subplot's more interesting than the story...
It's usually not a good sign when the supposed subplot of a movie is far more engrossing than the main storyline. Such is the case with "An Almost Perfect Affair," a romantic comedy about the brief encounter of a struggling young independent filmmaker from America (Keith Carradine) and a successful Italian producer's wife (Monica Vitti), set against the backdrop of the Cannes Film Festival. Although Carradine and Vitti do make an appealing couple, their romance is never as interesting as the scenes regarding Carradine's efforts to get his film shown.
Fortunately, those scenes are entertaining enough to make the movie worth seeing in its own right. Dick Anthony Williams is a scene-stealer as an enthusiastic blaxploitation filmmaker who appoints himself as Carradine's partner and shows him the ropes of marketing, hype, and self-promotion.
And speaking of self-promotion, another highlight of the film is a brief quasi-documentary interlude (filmed at the Cannes Festival itself as it happened) with notorious sex kitten Edy Williams pitching a self-scripted vehicle for herself. I wonder why that picture never got made...?
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Fine acting, poor history
I highly recommend "The Life of Emile Zola" for the brilliant performances of Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, and Joseph Schildkraut. (Although I still must admit I'm surprised by Schildkraut's Oscar victory...although he certainly does a good job as Alfred Dreyfus, the role doesn't really give him much opportunity to demonstrate his talents. Dreyfus is not shown in any depth; his role consists almost entirely of protesting his innocence and languishing in prison.)
Strong performances aside, though, I do have some problems with the film. It strikes me as very odd that a film that makes such a big deal about "the truth" is so hesitant at actually depicting it. One of the key issues of the Dreyfus affair, anti-semitism, is never even brought up. The only reference to Dreyfus' Judaism is a passing glimpse on his personnel papers. The filmmakers' reluctance to address such an important part of the story does a disservice to history.
To Paris with Love (1955)
A promising premise poorly executed
"To Paris with Love" starts off with a good premise for a romantic comedy: a middle-aged widower and his 20-year-old son both decide to play matchmaker for each other, but each one soon finds himself falling for the woman he'd picked out for the other. Unfortunately, the potential of this idea is never realized. The story and direction are bland, and there's no perceptible chemistry between the couples in any of their permutations. The charm of Alec Guinness provides some appealing moments (particularly in one sequence where he attempts to impress his young lady friend by retrieving a lost shuttlecock), but too often, the script is just too flat for even Guinness to liven up.
Enjoyable caper movie
An interesting blend of Western and Indian filmmaking, "Shalimar" (a.k.a. "The Deadly Thief," the title under which I saw it) is a light, undemanding piece of entertainment. Director Krishna Shah demonstrates a great deal of visual flair (particularly during the final jewel-theft sequence, which I can't describe more fully for fear of giving it away). The entire cast is appealing, especially Rex Harrison as the suave, manipulative host, and John Saxon as a mute master thief. The movie's weak point, in terms of plausibility, is the miscasting of the gifted but ungainly Sylvia Miles as a tightrope walker/acrobat. (The cuts to her stunt double during the action sequences are among the most obvious, unconvincing substitutions I've ever seen.) However, the vivacious Miles has such fun with the role that this flaw can be overlooked.
Carry on Behind (1975)
Not the gang's shining moment...
By 1975, the "Carry On" formula was starting to wear thin. "Carry On Behind," although amusing, pales in comparison to most of the series' earlier entries. The performers try gamely, but a lot of the humor seems tired. In particular, the running gags about Professor Vooshka's fractured English wear very thin after a while, despite Elke Sommer's vivacious delivery of those gags.
Pretentious, masturbatory claptrap
Writer/director/producer/star Eric Schaeffer bears the full responsibility for this ego trip, in which he plays a taxi driver who wins the heart of a supermodel. Now, the "average-joe-romances-star" theme has been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself...but what sets this movie apart from others in the same vein (e.g., "Notting Hill") is that Schaeffer's "average joe," cabbie Michael Shivers, is the most relentlessly unappealing romantic lead I can recall ever seeing on screen. From the first minute of the film, where he's needlessly busting the chops of some hapless delivery guy, Michael is immediately unlikeable. More than anything else, Michael resembles Joe Spinell's character (another cab driver) in the B-movie "The Last Horror Film": an unpleasant loser with delusions of grandeur, fixated on a glamorous celebrity. The main difference is that Spinell was able to make you feel just a tiny bit of sympathy for his character, creepy as he was.
Schaeffer would have you believe that Michael wins her over because he's a great romantic (but his extravagant gestures are only laughable), an insightful, moving poet (but his words are over-florid, leaden chunks of purple prose), and a fantastic lover (but Schaeffer's love scenes, especially the first one, more closely resemble rape scenes). That's three strikes, Schaeffer...you're out.
Final Justice (1985)
I've seen it un-MSTed...
I notice from the comments that most of the people discussing this movie are basing their remarks on the MST3K airing. That's fair enough (that is, after all, how it got its widest exposure), but, having had the misfortune of seeing "Final Justice" in its original form, I'd just like to share a few thoughts and comments on the uncut version.
First off, it must be admitted that the original version is slightly more coherent than the MST3K broadcast, owing primarily to an expository scene between Rossano Brazzi and Venantino Venantini (I COULD use the characters' names instead of the actors', but I just love typing the words "Venantino Venantini"), explaining why Venantini's fugitive character can't just leave Malta right away. (It's not a very CONVINCING plot point, but at least the filmmakers tried to cover it.) Whether this scene was cut just for time or because it didn't provide much fodder for riffs, I don't know.
Another plot point missing in the original: The stripper's betrayal of Venantino Venantini to Joe Don Baker, seemingly unmotivated in the MST3K version, is explained by an earlier, extremely unpleasant scene in which Venantini rapes her in the shower. While this does give her a motive for turning against him, the whole scenario is just really...icky. (There's no other word for it.)
Some of the MST-worthy moments (the perpetual truncated shouts of "Son of a--" and the "deja vu" shooting of the sheriff) were purely the result of the edited-for-TV print they worked with, and were absent from the original movie.
One scene I wish had made it into the MST3K version: Before entering the bar to question some people, Joe Don asks the Maltese policewoman accompanying him to stay outside, because "they see that uniform, they won't cooperate." However, Joe Don himself is wearing his ridiculous cowboy-slash-sheriff outfit, complete with shiny badge! I can't imagine why they passed on that great opportunity to make fun of him...
One final observation on the original, uncut version of "Final Justice": Why, oh why, did they feel the need to put Venantino Venantini's naked butt up on the screen?
Double Jeopardy (1999)
Absurd script, partially redeemed by cast
I knew, going into this movie, that plausibility was not at the top of the filmmakers' priority list. The first time I saw the trailer, my reaction was "Double jeopardy doesn't work that way!" Still, I was unprepared for just HOW unlikely and unbelievable the plot developments were. Most of them have already been discussed by some of the other viewers who have posted here, so I'll just do a brief enumeration of some of the ones that stuck out in my mind (and this is far from a complete list):
1. Most obviously, the film's ridiculous misinterpretation of the double jeopardy laws...this might have been acceptable if it was just Libby's misunderstanding of how it works, but the movie has not one but TWO ex-lawyers presenting it as correct! (I guess that's why they're EX-lawyers...)
2. The idea that an insurance company wouldn't at least look into Libby's story, especially on a $2 million policy.
3. Libby has a car dealer run a credit check on another character's social security number, while impersonating that character. The credit check turns up that person's last known address, but not that she's been dead for three years.
4. Travis leaves his prisoner alone in the car with one hand free, and the keys in the ignition.
5. Nobody on the ferry notices as Libby noisily bumps into several of the cars around her, not even when she knocks one of them overboard. However, when HER car goes over, everyone comes running.
6. Libby fails to notice that the youth she's following in the cemetery is not only considerably older than her son would be, but is also carrying a beer.
7. After knocking Libby out, Nick doesn't bother to make sure she's dead before dumping her in a potentially-escapable coffin and leaving her. (Shades of Dr. Evil & Austin Powers!)
8. After going to so much trouble with his evil plans, Nick casually (if vaguely) confesses to someone he barely knows.
And those are just a few of the errors and plot holes. However, the movie is far from a complete disaster. Beresford's direction moves the proceedings along smoothly, no matter how far-fetched they are, and the performances of Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones are highly entertaining.
I wouldn't say this movie was worth the effort of renting or going to the theater, but if it comes on cable or if a friend picks up the tape (which is how I saw it), it could make for enjoyable escapist viewing.
Summer of Sam (1999)
Flawed film, great ensemble performances
As he often does, Spike Lee has crafted a movie containing moments of brilliance, offset by moments of self-indulgent excess. The "Son of Sam" murders are graphically violent, but well-filmed (particularly in the case of the victim who tried in vain to shield herself with a book)...which would be an admirable achievement, if this were based on fiction and not fact. These are young people who really died, and it disturbs me that the cinematography and editing of their murders was more involving than the tragedy of their fates. The victims remain anonymous...even the closing credits offer no more identification than "Woman in Car," "Woman Victim," etc. (And with so many of them, these vague descriptions don't even help the viewer distinguish which actress played which victim!) Donna Lauria, Christine Freund, Virginia Voskerichian, Alexander Esau, Valentina Suriani, and Stacy Moskowitz, as well as the survivors of Berkowitz' attacks, all deserve better than that.
That said, the performances of the ensemble cast are consistently excellent, with Adrien Brody a standout as the young man whose punk lifestyle makes him a suspect in the eyes of his friends.
The "vigilante squad" subplot is interesting...although it's not spelled out explicitly, it seems clear to me that these guys are not so much interested in catching the killer as they are in using the murders as an excuse to harass anyone they don't like. A fascinating depiction of mob hysteria.
Carry on Emmannuelle (1978)
The series' last gasp
The final installment of the long-running "Carry On" series (until the "comeback" film _Carry On Columbus_ (qv), 14 years later) is, sadly, one of the weakest in the series. It winds up becoming one of the softcore sex movies it tries to spoof. On the bright side, Kenneth Williams, as Emmannuelle's emasculated husband, manages to get off a few good lines, and makes the most of even the subpar gags. Williams saves the movie from being a total loss, while also serving as a bittersweet reminder of the series' better days.
Carry on Henry (1971)
One of the gang's best
An outstanding spoof of historical costume dramas, "Carry On Henry" is one of the best, if not THE best, of the Carry On series. Sid James is in great form as the frustrated King Henry VIII, with fine support from Kenneth Williams & Terry Scott as the schemers Cromwell & Wolsey, Joan Sims as the buxom, garlic-addicted queen, Charles Hawtrey as her unlikely paramour, and Barbara Windsor as the giggly maiden pursued by the king. The performers are all at their best, the script is packed with clever gags, and the production values could compete with any "serious" period piece of the time. Highly recommended to both fans and newcomers to the series.
Carry on Spying (1964)
Fine entry in the series
One of the more consistently amusing "Carry On" movies, "Carry On Spying" drops the gang squarely in the world of James Bond a world they immediately proceed to turn on its ear.
Noteworthy as the "Carry On" debut of series regular Barbara Windsor, playing a secret agent trainee who makes great use of her perky sexuality (a typical attribute of Windsor's characters) and her intelligence.
The other series regulars (Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, etc.) are at the top of their game. Among the supporting players, Judith Furse is a standout as the intimidating evil mastermind Dr. Crow. Playing the role straight-faced, Furse's sinister, man-like villainess would fit right into a genuine Bond film.
Highly recommended to fans of the series, and a good starting point for those who've never seen a "Carry On" before.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Lesser Kubrick is still high above most pictures
"Eyes Wide Shut" is not Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece. However, while it suffers by comparison to Kubrick's past works, it is still one of the most intriguing, challenging pictures of the year.
I can understand how many viewers might not have the patience to contemplate Kubrick's ambiguous tale, and might dismiss it as a disjointed assemblage of chance encounters and unconnected events. However, if you're in the mood for a movie you need to interpret for yourself, rather than having the message spelled out for you, you should give it a try.
My personal interpretation of William Harford's enigmatic night on the town stems from the title of the Schnitzler story it's based on, "Traumnovelle" ("Dream Novel"). I think of Harford's journey as being like a dream, with all of the occurrences influenced by his own subconscious mind. He is led into numerous encounters with temptation, but something always occurs to prevent him actually following through. This might seem like absurd coincidence, but if you think of it as a "Dream Movie," it can be seen as a manifestation of his own conscience, conjuring up obstacles to prevent him violating his moral code.
Is my interpretation the one Kubrick had in mind? Who knows? But any movie that proves so thought-provoking is one I have to recommend.
Carry on Up the Jungle (1970)
Not the gang's best, but good...
The Carry On Gang get up to their usual monkey business, this time spoofing the Tarzan movies. This isn't their best effort...the script tries to fit in too many jungle cliches for its short running time, leading to a rather disjointed mishmosh of storylines. However, there are still many funny lines, and the Carry On regulars and semi-regulars (especially Frankie Howerd as the fussy professor) are in fine form. All in all, a very amusing way to spend 90 minutes.
The Last Horror Film (1982)
Great performance by Spinell...
I had put off seeing this for a long time because, although an admirer of Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro, I am NOT a fan of gore. When the only video store in my area with a copy told me they would be closing, I finally gave in and rented it, knowing it may very well be my last chance. I was pleasantly surprised to see how little gore there was (and what WAS there was either too brief to really disturb me, or was obviously "movie-within-movie" fake), and by the cleverness of the script. The brilliant performance by Joe Spinell, however, came as no surprise. Playing an obsessed fan and would-be director, Spinell was both pathetic and sympathetic. I found myself feeling sorry for this desperate loser, even as I dreaded what he might do.
The Cannes Film Festival setting makes this a must-see for movie buffs, who will enjoy going frame-by-frame through the montages of movie posters and marquees.
Apocalypse Pooh (1987)
If you can find it, watch it!
An obscure but brilliant match-up of Winnie the Pooh cartoons and dialogue from "Apocalypse Now." The Pooh characters and Coppola's characters make some surprisingly well-suited pairs, such as a frantic Piglet mouthing Dennis Hopper's rants, or the casting of Rabbit as the machinist who is "wound too tight for the jungle." The filmmakers even reversed the technique for the Col. Kurtz character, combining footage of Brando with dialogue from Eeyore. And then there's that great closing line: "Oh bother...oh bother..."
The tape I saw also featured two similar combinations of wholesome animation and twisted cinema: "Blue Peanuts," with the Charles Schulz characters mouthing dialogue from "Blue Velvet" (Snoopy as Dennis Hopper...incredible!), and a "music video" of the Archies performing The Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen."
One True Thing (1998)
Award-worthy, but the category's all wrong...
At the risk of being beaten severely by outraged fans, I have to say that Meryl Streep did not deserve her Best Actress Oscar nomination for this movie. It's not that she didn't do a fine job (she WAS incredible)...but hers is actually a supporting role in the story of her daughter. Not only does Renee Zellweger have more screen time than Streep, but Zellweger's character grows and changes through the course of the story in ways that Streep's does not. (Streep's performance is not a matter of character development so much as revealing existing but hidden aspects of the character.) I wonder whether Meryl Streep might have actually won had she been nominated in the more appropriate category of Best Supporting Actress.
Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy (1976)
Watch it for Tim Carey...
In general, this movie an unremarkable exploitation comedy (not to mention rather tame by sexploitation standards--despite the presence of such B-movie queens as Uschi Digard and Dyanne Thorne, nudity is kept to a minimum). However, the gonzo performance of Timothy Carey as the lame-jacketed thug Vincent rises above the rest of the movie and makes the whole thing worthwhile. It appears that Carey was given free rein in his scenes, improvising outlandish speeches and such bizarre actions as clucking like a chicken. Indeed, if you look at some of the other performers onscreen during Carey's big moments, you'll see genuine confusion (and perhaps even a little fear) on their faces. Carey was known as an eccentric and difficult actor to direct...apparently, in this case, the director decided just to stay out of Carey's way.
A delightful irony...
Overall, "McQ" is an unremarkable movie--competent but nothing special, despite strong performances from John Wayne, Al Lettieri and Colleen Dewhurst. However, there is one great irony in the story that I can't resist pointing out. At one point, McQ (Wayne) robs a drug dealer and gives the dope to a junkie informant (Dewhurst). Now, I don't mean that he simply OFFERS it to her for information...he actually GIVES it to her, and even helps her prepare it. Soon afterwards, McQ learns that some dirty cops are stealing seized drugs from impound, and he's outraged. It never occurs to him that he's done essentially the same thing!
You can tell that Wayne, director John Sturges, and writer Lawrence Roman were trying for a "maverick, rule-breaking cop" in the Dirty Harry tradition...but none of them seem to realize that McQ crosses the line from "maverick" to "corrupt."