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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.