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Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Gay cowboys eating pudding
WARNING! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS NUMEROUS SPOILERS!
"Catwoman." "Xandau." "The Apple." "Pootie Tang." What do all of these films have in common? They're all about as entertaining as "Brokeback Mountain", a lead balloon of a message movie undone by its own good intentions and its own sense of cinematic entitlement.
Based on the short story by Annie Proulx, "Brokeback" concerns two ranch-hands, the improbably named Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), who meet as young men while both are sheep-herding on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain. The two develop a close relationship, culminating in a fumbling night of intimacy during a cold snap. After their job ends, the two part ways, each marrying a woman and fathering children: Jack marries well-to-do rodeo girl Lureen (Anne Hathaway) while Ennis marries down-to-earth Alma (Michelle Williams). Both men, however, continue to hold onto their memories of Brokeback, until the day they finally meet again and begin a secret relationship thinly disguised as a series of fishing trips. The film chronicles the two men as their secret slowly destroys their marriages and threatens to consume them from within. Much angst ensues.
"Brokeback" is a film of substitutions: a collection of mannerisms substituting for characterization, a series of landscape shots substituting for direction, an assemblage of country-fried aphorisms substituting for a script, rampant and unrestrained melodrama substituting for human emotion. The largest share of the blame for the film lies with director Ang Lee, a man who could probably make very vivid wilderness films but who rarely knows what to do with the humans caught in his frame. Lee's direction is ridiculously dull and ponderous, each scene moving with a slow, aimless gait into the next with no forward momentum or dramatic pull. To be sure, some of Lee's footage is gorgeous even while its lack of realism proves distracting: the moon over Wyoming is always big and full, the top of the mountain is always pristine, and the small towns of the film are always picture-perfect in aping what Lee believes they should look like. Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty's script doesn't help matters at all. The words don't so much advance the "plot", for lack of a better word, as much as they intermittently nudge it down a lazy river.
But that doesn't leave the actors in the clear. Much attention has been paid to the two male leads, especially Ledger, for their performances, but the praise comes not so much from the performances themselves as from what they represent. Like Charlize Theron in "Monster", few critics believed Ledger was capable of performing such a role, while both men are seen as "bold" or "daring" for playing ostensibly gay men. The caliber of the performances no longer matters at this point: the quickest way to an Oscar nomination is to play gay, handicapped, or a prostitute. But the praise is misplaced. Certainly, both men are giving heartfelt performances, and both fully believe in the film, but Ledger decides to mumble most of his words to the point of making half of his lines unintelligible, while Gyllenhaal comes off simply as trying to act too much. He's endearingly artificial. The only characters who appear as natural, genuine human beings are the two female leads. Williams has a few very difficult, emotionally raw scenes that she pulls off remarkably well. Hathaway is better-than-expected as a woman who decides to drown her marital ennui in a Tammy Faye-esquire swirl of bleached hair, gaudy jewelry, and taloned fingernails.
The argument has been advanced, and never more enthusiastically than by the producers of the film, that this is not a "gay cowboy movie", but a "universal" love story. But this is not a "gay" movie. Jack and Ennis never identify as gay or consider themselves to be gay men. None of the lead actors are gay. None of the main talent behind the scenes is gay. This is a film by, to, and packaged for self-gratifying heterosexuals, brimming with a well-intentioned but ultimately patronizing, stultifying view of gays and their relationships that typifies the Hollywood penchant for sacrificing structure, story, and quality in order to advance a viewpoint that the filmmakers have little (if any) familiarity with. I should point out at this time that I am a gay man, but the attitude presented in Brokeback insults me. Jack and Ennis' relationship is presented as the purest of all the relationships between all of the characters of the film, despite the fact that the word "love" never escapes their lips once during the film. Anyone who criticizes them for any reason is automatically a bigot, even as the two men's selfishness not only brings misery and unhappiness to both their families, but ultimately proves to be their undoing. Jack, while desperately seeking the constant companionship Ennis denies him, is gay-bashed to death, graphically, with a tire iron to his face. Sadly, it is the only appropriate end for this antiquated, "Children's Hour"-style take on those quaint little homosexuals. On the other hand, given the amount of effort everyone involved in the film has put into making all of these characters so uniformly miserable, a happy ending would have been ludicrously fake.
30 seconds of poorly-filmed sex and a few make-out sessions is not enough to call yourself a "bold" or "courageous" film. The fact that this is essentially a Harlequin-style doomed romance that happens to feature two men in the leading roles doesn't excuse the horde of clichés marching across the screen. Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I firmly believe that just because you want your movie to be important doesn't mean you have to make it skull-crushingly boring.
On an episode of South Park, Eric Cartman states that all independent cinema consists of is "gay cowboys eating pudding." Leave it to Hollywood to prove him right. 3 out of 10.
Bloody Mallory (2002)
French for "bloody entertaining"
A deliciously campy combination of the wild Japanese action film "Versus", the comedic gore of the "Evil Dead" series, and the supernatural girl power of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", "Bloody Mallory" is a stylish, self-aware, deliriously entertaining action/horror/comedy hybrid from France.
Mallory (Olivia Bonamy) is a highly-trained government agent specializing in combating the supernatural. Her back-up team consists of Talking Tina (Thylda Bares), a mute girl with telepathic abilities, and Vena Cava (Jeffrey Ribier), a drag queen with an affinity for guns and explosives. When Pope Heironymus I (Laurent Spielvogel) is kidnapped by demonic operatives, it's up to Mallory and her team to recover him and stop a nefarious plot for world domination. Joined by the kickboxing priest Father Carras (Adria Collado), the team faces off against vampires, succubi, ghouls, fallen angels, and other assorted nasties in their madcap mission.
Director and co-writer Julien Magnat has created a unique film that borrows liberally from established action and horror franchises without resorting to cheap imitation or sycophantic flattery. Mixing established folklore with his own, Magnat has managed to created a realistic yet perfectly ridiculous universe in the absolute best sense of the word. Everything is over-the-top, yet nothing is so absurd as to be boring or trite. What helps matters is the fact that Magnat is consciously aiming for a feverishly campy aesthetic and realizes just how bizarre his creation may appear.
The performances are all quite good, especially given the potential for the hammy, half-hearted B-movie acting that this film could be associated with. Bonamy is perfectly believable as Mallory, a good balance of world-weary warrior and vulnerable heroine. Valentina Vargas, appearing as Lady Valentine, is delightfully seductive and icy in equal measures. The most enjoyable performance, however, comes from Ribier as the scene-stealing Vena Cava, delivering the most amusing lines and memorable moments, all in huge platform boots and an electric blue wig.
The only downfalls in the film are fairly major, but they do not impact the enjoyment of the film as much as would be expected. Magant had an admittedly low budget, and some of the special effects (including one monster effect) are very low-tech bordering on cheesy. The fight sequences, while exciting, lack the flash and panache of similar films such as "Blade", although they usually avoid the hyper-cutting edits typical of many modern action films. Finally, many of the scenes in the first part of the film are filmed very darkly, but this is more of an objection to what is perhaps a stylistic choice and not necessarily a reflection of the overall film.
For a film with such a small pedigree, it's amazing how enjoyable it is. A B-movie with aspirations to greatness, "Bloody Mallory" doesn't fail to amuse. Highly recommended for fans of humorous, absurdist action films. 8 out of 10.
Kitten with a computer-generated whip
One of the most enduring and popular superheores of the modern age is Batman, and one of the most enduring and popular females in his universe is that of Catwoman. As in the comics, the character of the Catwoman has evolved thanks to the portrayal of numerous actresses, from the sexy cat-burglar on the "Batman" television show, to the tortured soul expertly played by Michelle Pfeiffer in "Batman Returns." Now, "Catwoman" has her own film. Unfortunately, it's about as appealing as a lump in the litter box.
Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) is a timid art designer at Hedare Cosmetics, answering to the imperious George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and his icy ex-supermodel wife Laurel (Sharon Stone). Hedare is ready to release a new cosmetic line called Beau-line, which promises dire and disfiguring effects if the wearer stops using it. When Patience discovers this secret, she is killed by Hedare's goons and brought back to life by the spirit of the Catwoman. Now imbued with fantastic agility and cat-like senses, Patience sets out to stop Hedare's plans, all the while dogged by handsome detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), and having to decide if she is a hero or a criminal.
Advance reviews of the movie were dreadful, and for the most part, they're right. The movie is flawed at the most basic level, and the filmmakers have decided to reject the standard Catwoman character of Selena Kyle and make an altogether new character with the same name who is in no way related to the Batman universe. Previous screen incarnations of Catwoman relied on basic acrobatics and undeniable sex appeal to have their way. By giving this new Catwoman fantastic powers, the basic nature of the character is altered, making her just another action hero in a silly costume. She is no longer the ultimate femme fatale, the one adversary Batman could never bring himself to finish off. She's simply a fashion disaster with a whip and high kicks.
It's clear that Halle Berry wants to make an impression in her role as Catwoman. She has big stilettos to fill, from the sexy Julie Newmar to the exotic Eartha Kitt, not to mention the previously-mentioned Pfeiffer's electrifying turn. Berry relies heavily on Kitt's mannerisms and Newmar's attitude, but it's obvious that she's just copying the moves. Berry is a decent actress but lacks self-confidence, and while her heart may be in the right place, everything else in the film is working against her.
The film's director, French music video helmer Pitof, wants to make a stylish, sexy film, and he almost succeeds. There are times when the film does have a giddily campy feel, much like the "Charlie's Angels" films, but a massive amount of obvious computer-generated work distracts heavily from the seamless look Pitof strives for. Even Catwoman's whip is mostly CGI. The script is equal parts camp and action, but it's never comfortable in either and mostly comes off as ludicrous and pieced together by committee: a series of scenes that were strung together with little forethought. There are a number of embarrassing performances as well, not least of which is the normally-hilarious Alex Borstein, stuck in the role of Frumpy Best Friend. Frances Conroy and Lambert Wilson also seem to be phoning in their performances, as well.
The movie is prevented from being a total disaster by Sharon Stone. Stone's Laurel Hedare is a beautifully manipulative and ambitious woman, hateful of the world for the fact that she must age and make way for a new spokesmodel for her husband's company. Stone also seems to be the only one who realizes exactly what kind of film she signed up for and was determined to camp the hell out of it. In a sea of relatively earnest performances, Stone is a beacon of delightfully vicious melodrama that makes a painful film at least marginally watchable.
Halle Berry deserved a better film. Catwoman deserved a better film. Anyone who's ever picked up a comic book deserved a better film. Fans of Catwoman would be advised to skip this film entirely and hunt down old episodes of the "Batman" TV show or watch "Batman Returns" instead. Meow? Yeah, whatever, kitty. 3 out of 10.
It has a beat, but you can't dance to it
At one point in time, perhaps in a simpler era, musicals were popular. Most of them had laughable plots held together only by a series of elaborate production numbers, and few possessed any sense of logic. Still, they were at once a guaranteed box office. But it could not last, and eventually the form died a slow death. In 1980, a series of famously bad films tried to reignite the genre, including "Can't Stop The Music" and "The Apple." They would not succeed, and musicals would be considered a dead art form until "Moulin Rouge!" and "Chicago" appeared 20 years later. Perhaps the most enduring of this 1980 trilogy, and certainly the one with the best music, is "Xanadu", a ridiculous, nonsensical misfire of epic proportions.
Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) is a struggling artist, working in a studio where he must reproduce large versions of album cover art to the letter. He feels stifled until a seemingly chance encounter with a mysterious roller-skating girl named Kira (Olivia Newton-John). In his search to find Kira, Sonny crosses paths with Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), who was once a promising musician. Kira convinces both of them to open a club to express their mutual artistic desires, suggesting the name "Xanadu." But Kira is much more than she seems, and Sonny is slowly falling in love with her. Much choreography and 1980s synthesizer work ensues.
Few things go right with "Xanadu", but it's worth mentioning the few good parts of an otherwise spectacularly flat film. Newton-John is not a great actress, but she is a fine singer, and when she's allowed to sing, you can almost forget the nonsense that comes out of her mouth when she's speaking. The Electric Light Orchestra also contributed to the soundtrack, and their pompous bombast is perfectly suited to the proceedings at hand, in some ways making the ludicrous seem logical. Gene Kelly is also, as always, in a pleasing form, always coming out better than the people around him but never seeming as if he has to try hard to do it.
Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about why this movie is such a failure. First, the story and script are laughable. The plot is virtually non-existent, a bare bones arc with no discernible antagonist to add any drama. You get the feeling that the whole "plot" thing was improvised only to make an actual film and not a video concept album. Even within the music moments, very little makes sense: many of the numbers start out simply silly and soon escalate into sheer lunacy like a game of Telephone. On top of that, there are few characters aside from the main three, and even the main characters are poorly fleshed out. Their actions all feel synthetic and programmed and not at all like real people.
Stylistically, the film is a mess, as well. While there are quite a few interesting things to look at, scenes are framed poorly and many drawn out too long. Color schemes and design are often headache-inducing, and Newton-John herself seems like she's been made-up and dressed by a vindictive drag queen. Of particular note is a section that envisions a swing band and a rock band battling it out, each with their own dancers. Both sets look to have been designed by someone who once read articles about Glenn Miller and Kiss in the local daily paper. While the point of the number may be the groups' artificiality, it comes off as laughably over-the-top to the point of actual mental anguish. Let's not even get into the Disney-lite animated sequence by Don Bluth.
The most ridiculous part of "Xanadu" is its name. "Xanadu" is the name of a "pleasure dome" in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium dream poem "Kubla Khan." The poem itself is not pleasant, talking of the decadence, corruption, and depravity that Kubla Khan perpetuates at Xanadu. When Kira suggests the name and quotes the first lines of the poem, it's an odd moment that is highly incongruous with the surrounding emptiness of the film, but it feels especially false when you think that if the three main characters combined their intelligences, you doubt any of them would have even a clue about who Samuel Taylor Coleridge was.
Yes, "Xanadu" is an incoherent film. Yes, it has one of the most boring romantic subplots in ages. Yes, the music is still infectious. This film is recommended only for audiences who are eager consumers of high camp cinema (and you know who you are) or people who just can't get enough of Olivia Newton-John on roller skates. 3 out of 10.
A technical marvel that overshadows itself
The 1930s saw the rise of "pulp": melodramatic, fantastical serialized fantasies that were part speculative fiction, part romance, and part cheese.
"Flash Gordon" is a prime example, a story of manly men, stylized females, and lots of technology that goes bleep and bloop. The "Indiana Jones" trilogy harkened pack to the pulp action days, but it always kept itself in check, never become too ridiculous or too wrapped up in itself to forget its characters. The film "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" attempts to do something similar, and while the results are dazzling to behold, the substance underneath is lacking.
Set in the late 1930s as visualized by speculative fiction writers of the 1910s, the film opens with a case of missing scientists, a hot story that ace reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is following. While investigating her latest lead, her home town of New York is devastated by an army of giant robots. Eager to uncover the source of the attack, Polly teams up with Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law), a fighter pilot of extraordinary ability, and leader of a squadron of elite engineers and pilots that deal with fantastical problems...like giant robots. With the help of whiz-kid inventor Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and the steely, sexy Capt. Fransesca "Frankie" Cook (Angelina Jolie), Polly and Joe must stop the robot's creator, mad villain Totenkopf (played by video footage of Sir Lawrence Olivier) and his mysterious servant (Bai Ling), from destroying the planet.
The film is significant in that it was filmed almost entirely with blue/green screen effects: the actors are superimposed upon computer-generated backgrounds and landscapes. This is a mixed blessing with the film. Director Kerry Conran is able to take his characters anywhere he likes, create backgrounds and scenarios as fantastical as he desires. To be sure, the setting is quite impressive, but also quite distracting. The viewer is constantly aware of the nature of the effects, and there are certain times (such as the initial attack on New York) that the concept fails to satisfy the needs of the film. The film's aesthetic, though, is quite pleasing and reminiscent of its inspiration. The robots mirror the designs of pulp comics and movies, and the entire film is shot in a romanticized palette that exists in the area between color and monochrome.
The film has as many virtues as it does flaws. For the most part, the actors are well up to the task of portraying pulp heroes. Jude Law is a dashing and debonair hero, and Angelina Jolie is always a marvel to watch whenever she plays a tough-as-nails heroine, even though she appears far too late in the film and leaves all too quickly. Bai Ling also does much with a role that has no lines, conveying an elegant menace whenever she's on the screen. However, Gwyneth Paltrow is woefully miscast. Her wan, non-committal demeanor does not translate well to the ratcheted-up drama of pulp comics, and during the scenes of the New York attack, it is painfully clear that she has had little experience in dealing with green screen effects. There is also precious little chemistry between Law and Paltrow, which is unfortunate, since at least half the movie is focused solely on their two characters. This is coupled with a lifeless script by director Conran that offers little insight to any of the characters beyond the surface. Granted, this is part and parcel of the pulp tradition, but that's no reason not to create three-dimensional characters.
In the end, "Sky Captain" is more a novelty than a film: an extended sequence of special effect demonstrations strung together by a few random snippets of dialogue. To be sure, the effects are spectacular and innovative, but as the film soldiers on and the ridiculous science quotient of the film rises, they become wearying and repetitive, making the flaws of the film even more apparent. With a better script and a better female lead, this film could've been the Next Big Thing in genre cinema. As it is, it's just really, really pretty. 6 out of 10.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)
Macho women with guns vs. mediocrity
Film adaptations of video games have a decidedly mixed life. On the one hand, they are commercially viable with a built-in audience. On the other, they are often lifeless, barely more than live action versions of the games, less films than advertisements. Occasionally, as in "Tomb Raider", a fantastic lead can overcome the video game-to-file curse. Sometimes, the movie separates itself from the game enough to stand on its own, as in "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." The first "Resident Evil" had both of these: only a passing resemblance to the wildly popular game series and a dynamic lead in Milla Jovovich. The success of the movie spawned a sequel, and as in the video game world, so often, the sequel is an overly-hyped, rushed-to-production mess like "Resident Evil: Apocalypse."
The film begins roughly where the first one left off. Alice (Jovovich) is one of the only survivors of the first movie, having fought her way thought legions of undead when the nefarious Umbrella Corporation's experimental T-virus infected hundreds of people. When Umbrella tries to investigate the events of the first movie, they unwittingly release the T-virus into the streets of Raccoon City, turning the populace into slavering zombies hungry for human flesh. Umbrella shuts the city down to contain the virus, and Alice must fight her way out with the help of mini-skirted cop Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), a small team of elite soldiers, and a trash-talking common citizen (Mike Epps). Along the way are obstacles like undead beasts with huge tongues and a giant mutant named Nemesis.
This film is a massive mess of teenage game-boy dreams. The plot is thin and the characters by and large thread bare. Most come and go so quickly that you never even get to know their names before they become a zombie snack. The actors try their best, though, and Jovovich is always a treat to watch in action. Guillory is also quite effective in her role as Butt-Kicking Babe #2, making a rather crowd-pleasing entrance. Epps provides the film's few intentionally funny moments, while there also fine performances by Oded Fehr and Zack Ward as two of the soldiers accompanying Alice. Of all the featured players, only Thomas Kretschmann, as Umbrella's laughably clichéd Eurotrash representative, comes off as particularly mediocre.
But all the girls-on-zombie action in the world can't save this film from itself. The film has the quick-cut action scenes and loud, forced nu-metal soundtrack of a straight-to-video release but the effects budget of a minor studio release. Indeed, hardly a scene goes by that isn't punctuated with deafening explosions. Director Alexander Witt, taking over for video-game-to-film director Paul Anderson (who wrote the screenplay), has made a cold, hard film lacking any of the (relative) depth or humanity of the first film. Sure, this film may be based on a video game, but that's no reason to turn the characters into automatons. In addition, the film ends with a bizarre and seemingly arbitrary sequence that will leave most viewers to bang their heads in frustration...and, of course, opening the door WIDE open for a third film.
What could've been a more action-oriented follow-up to a fine video-game adaptation has become an incoherent and numb series of shoot-em-up action, a film so ridiculously conceived that it thinks nothing of sending its main characters through a graveyard during a zombie assault. Granted, it's immensely enjoyable to watch the female leads getting their action hero on, but both Jovovich and Guillory (and indeed the whole cast) deserve a better vehicle for their acrobatics. Skip the theatre and just wait for the DVD so you can go right to the good parts. 5 out of 10.
A heavenly balance of sharp wit, sweet heart, and fine performances
Films that question the religious status quo almost inevitably bring controversy. Modern teen comedies, with the exception of such atypical fare as "Mean Girls", almost inevitably reek of mediocrity. So what happens when you combine the two into one? You get "Saved!", a funny, sweet comedy that, while it does have a flaw or two, is a welcome dose of reality into two genres of film that have become increasingly fantastical.
It's the senior year of high school for Mary (Jena Malone), a student at the Baptist high school American Eagle. Mary's in good standing with the Christian Jewels, run by Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore), who seems to be the most popular girl because she's the most vocal about her devotion to Jesus. When Mary's boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) confesses that he thinks he might be gay, Mary is determined to save his soul, and decides to have sex with him, since she believes that Jesus will forgive her for it. When her plan backfires, Dean finds himself shipped off to Mercy House, a place for "wayward" teens, and Mary finds herself pregnant. Spurned by her former friends and branded a sinner, Mary must turn to the school's outcasts for help and support, primarily bad girl Cassandra (Eva Amurri), a gothic, punky Jewish girl who's been kicked out of every other school in town, and Roland (Macaulay Culkin), Hilary Faye's atheist, wheelchair-bound brother. To complicate matters, Mary begins a flirtation with Patrick (Patrick Fugit), a skateboard missionary and son to the school's Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan), and Hilary Faye is determined to win Patrick for herself.
What could have been a heavy-handed, laborious treatise on faith (similar to Mel Gibson's gorefest "The Passion Of The Christ") is instead diffused by the some very funny dialog by writer/director Brian Dannelly (and co-writer Michael Urban) and a cast of standout performances. While Malone is quite good in her role, it's the supporting cast that stands out. Amurri's Cassandra is by far the most endearing character on screen, and the actress (who's a dead ringer for mother Susan Sarandon) is fantastic. Culkin, as well, does some of his best work in years, never playing Roland with any self-pity. Moore, however, demonstrates that she's much more than another teen idol, and besides watching her gleefully trash her own goody-goody image with Hilary Faye's unabashed religious opportunism, her rendition of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" (which opens the film) is remarkably moving without being saccharine.
The film does have its share of problems, however minor those may be. The film gets off to a shaky start, and it takes a while for the tone to set in. The opening scenes are played in a fairly dramatic key, and the comedy aspects, while present early on, don't take hold on the viewer until a little later. Additionally, Dannelly defaults to a few teen movie archetypes -- such as the whole film leading up to the prom -- that should have been avoided in such an original movie. That the whole thing doesn't liquefy into syrup is admirable, however, but the ending seems too pat, too perfect given the film's timbre.
Some controversy has been raised by many Christians who feel offended by the mocking tone of the film. To be sure, there is quite a good deal of ammunition lobbed at fundamentalist Christianity, but that's the entire point. The film seeks to affirm faith while showing disdain for the more radical fringes of the religion. The film's message is that following all the rules of a religion won't make you a better person if your heart isn't in it, as demonstrated by Hilary Faye, who believes that moral superiority lies in following the letter of the law but not the spirit. As one character says, "Why would god make us all so different if he wanted us to be the same?"
There may be many places where "Saved!" may not be very popular or play well. This is a shame, because the film is filled with no small amount of heart, and some very real, flawed characters who act like real humans and not like teen movie cardboard cut-outs. To miss this film is to miss some of the best performances of the year, and to miss a film that isn't afraid to ask questions of its viewers. 8 out of 10.
The Stepford Wives (2004)
Welcome to Stepford, population: Camp, POTENTIAL SPOILERS HEREIN!
WARNING! POSSIBLE SPOILERS HEREIN!
In 1975, Ira Levin's book "The Stepford Wives" was made into a film. The movie, like the book, was a horror/science-fiction treatise on the women's movement about an idyllic little town where the men turned their feminist wives into subservient June Cleaver clones. In retrospect, the movie was both chilling in its premise and amazingly campy in its execution, like much of Levin's work ("Rosemary's Baby", "Sliver"). The new adaptation of Levin's book (since it's not exactly a remake of the 1975 film) decides to jettison the horror aspect and go straight for the camp factor. In this it succeeds, but the film is wildly uneven at times and often feels as if it has itself been a victim of the Stepford machinery.
Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) is the powerful and respected head of the EBS television network. When a disgruntled contestant on one of her reality shows goes on a shooting spree, Joanna is fired to avoid damaging lawsuits. Her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) decides that the family needs a new start and moves to the small gated community of Stepford, Connecticut. Soon Joanna finds that all of the women in Stepford are smiling, well-groomed, and live only to serve their husbands, who spend all of THEIR time at the Stepford Men's Association. The Stepford women even wear their best dresses to aerobics class, where all their exercises mimic household chores, and to the book club, where they discuss books on decorating. The only others who find the situation bizarre are Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart), and soon the three are trying to get to the bottom of Stepford's secrets.
As might be expected, the best performances of the film come from the Stepford wives themselves. Kidman is always a pleasure to watch on screen, and Midler has some of the best one-liners in the film even though she's playing a character she's played a dozen times over. Bart steals nearly every scene he's in as the only Stepford wife who's a gay man (and quite the little flamer to boot). Glenn Close is hilarious as Claire Wellington, the town's matron, and Faith Hill has some very amusing moments in her brief screen time. The men, however, don't come off nearly as well. Broderick is woefully miscast, and he never seems to bring any spark to his milquetoast of a husband. Christopher Walken, as the leader of the Men's Association, doesn't even appear to be trying, and his appearance in a supposed-to-be-retro-campy commercial for Stepford is painful.
Director Frank Oz and screenwriter Paul Rudnick have both done fine work in their careers, and they make a valiant effort to film a dark satirical comedy, but they're just not quite up to the task. Oz's direction is quite static, and there are times in the film when it's clear that the cast wasn't being cooperative (rumors of on-set fighting ran rampant during production). Rudnick is a master of campy, zingy one-liners, and while the movie is filled with several genuinely funny moments and lines, there is little connecting them. It's as if he was so concerned with filling the script with jokes that he forgot a plot or character development. Characters come and go too quickly for us to become invested in them, and Kidman and Broderick have no chemistry to speak of. There are also several inconsistencies with how the wives are presented, which are never resolved or explained, although the movie's brisk pace and re-shot ending suggest that such details may have existed at one time. Additionally, the film tends to alternate between campy farce and techno-thriller, as if Oz and Rudnick were never sure of which end to play.
Despite all these drawbacks, the film is still watchable and entertaining with more than one moment of drop-dead humor. Enough moments, in fact, that it almost makes up for the disappointingly predictable ending. In addition, the opening credit sequence is brilliant, a montage of near-fetishistic scenes of 1950's housewives dancing in absurdly futuristic kitchens. Worth a trip to the theatre or video store, for sure, but make sure you've got a high tolerance for camp. 6 out of 10.
Would you care for some 20-sided dice with your cheese?
You've seen this movie before. Don't lie, of course you have. You take a lone hero with a sword. Set him up against a dark sorcerer with monstrous servants. Make him run around a mythical backdrop searching for props to defeat said sorcerer whilst picking up a small party of comrades. For good measure, throw in a mysterious witch, concubines, a deposed noble, and lots of dry ice. This movie was made countless times in the 80's with slight variations: maybe it was "Conan The Barbarian", "Deathstalker", or "Red Sonja." There was probably a role-playing game tie-in. This grand tradition is continued into the new millennium by the laughably bad, Roger Corman-financed "epic" film "Barbarian."
In a land overcome by a dark, sorcerous tyrant named Munkar (Martin Kove), the people's last hope for liberation is a swordsman named Kane (Michael O'Hearn). Conscripted by a Witch (Yevdokiya Germanova) to collect some mystic artifacts needed to overthrow Munkar and in return win the hand of Princess Gretchen (Irina Grigoryeva), Kane battles stock villains while collecting his traveling companions. Furry and cute but indescribably annoying sidekick Wooby (Yuri Danilchenko)? Check. Hot amazon babe Gilda (Svetlana Metinka)? Check. Brooding, disaffected solider jealous of Kane's manly jaw and pectoral development Zigrid (Aleksandr Dyachenko)? Check. So where is Brigitte Nielsen in all of this mess?
This film has so many things wrong with it that it truly boggles the mind. One of the most noticeable flaws is the cast. The film was shot on location in the Ukraine, and presumably to keep down the budget, all but two speaking roles were filled by local Russian actors whose voices were then later dubbed over by uncredited American actors, often quite poorly. The producers try to hide this fact by placing all non-Russian names in the cast (including non-speaking extras) in the opening credits. Another major flaw is the design of the film, or lack thereof. The costumes and props, including weapons and armor, were culled from at least 20 different time periods and regions, from Bronze Age Greece to 15th-century Italy. Often, the film looked like little more than a second-rate Renaissance festival, complete with the amount of slipshod authenticity that generally accompanies it. That's to say nothing of the stultifying script and ridiculous story, which seems to be either a continuation or a rip-off of "Deathstalker" (and there are even clips from that film in this one), and the poorly choreographed, sloppily edited fight scenes.
Most of the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of one John O'Halloran, who wrote, edited, and directed the film (sometimes under the pseudonym of Henry Crum). The film plays out with all the clumsiness of an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module from 1985, with O'Halloran being the awkward Dungeon Master who takes himself far too seriously. Characters appear and disappear with a randomness and lack of motive, but with perfect timing, that mimics a night spent rolling dice and comparing saving throws. In this case, the game goes on for far too long, the plot becomes far too ridiculous, and when the players get tired, the DM wraps the ending up with far too much haste and too little closure.
So what's good about this film? One thing, and his name is Michael O'Hearn. O'Hearn seems to be about the only person in this train wreck possessing anything resembling acting ability. He's not good by any stretch, at least good enough to get his own syndicated action series, but he far outshines the rest of the cast. In addition, he is pretty. So very, very pretty. One of the most successful fitness models in the world, and winner of several bodybuilding championships, O'Hearn has the awe-inducing physical presence to make you briefly forget about the schlock he's surrounded with. He's also got just enough stage combat ability to make some of the fights vaguely entertaining. He even makes some of the cheesy one-liners he's forced to say sound cool, and that takes talent.
Fans of low-budget (or no-budget) sword-and-sorcery fare like "Barbarian Queen" or "Ator" will relish this film in all of its ludicrous beauty. Virtually everyone else will be more compelled to watch the opening credits lovingly worship O'Hearn's form, then promptly return the film to wherever they rented it from. And fans of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" will seek out this film at all costs for their next Bad Movie Night showing. 3 out of 10.
La venganza del sexo (1969)
A curiously entertaining film, despite several flaws
Something Weird Video has made a name for itself by resurrecting forgotten exploitation films from the 50's, 60's, 70's and releasing them in restored prints for a modern audience. More than simply b-movies, these films are the most outrageous of the bunch, with one of the most interesting being "The Curious Dr. Humpp," released in its native Argentina under its original title "La Venganza Del Sexo" ("The Vengeance Of Sex"). Part science-fiction, part adult film, part morality tale, this is certainly a curious film that is surprisingly entertaining despite several rather distracting flaws.
In the middle of the night, a hideous monster has been kidnapping people engaged in amorous activities, including a couple making out in a park, a lesbian couple, a quartet of hippie orgiasts, a nymphomaniac, a young man exiting a gay bar, and the beautiful stripper Rachel (Gloria Prat). Ambitious reporter George (Ricardo Bauleo) suspects something the authorities do not, and soon he is investigating the estate of the curious Dr. Humpp (Aldo Barbero) himself. Here he finds the doctor engaged in mad experiments and guided by a disembodied brain kept active in an electrically charged solution. Dr. Humpp believes the secret to eternal life lies in the chemicals produced by the body during sex, and he's been using it to keep himself alive. George is captured, and he must find a way out with Rachel before they become slaves to the doctor's whims.
The film's premise is absurd, yet somehow it manages to sustain itself well given the film's tone and feel. The visuals certainly help, but not in the way you'd expect. While the cast, particularly the leads, are all quite attractive, it's the way the picture is filmed and not the flesh that makes it exciting. Writer/director Emilio Vieyra films the entire picture in a very lovely chiaroscuro that heightens and deepens the black-and-white imagery to levels of art. The direction itself is above average, with a few scenes -- most notably the oddly poetic image of Dr. Humpp's monstrous servant serenading Rachel with a lute -- being quite memorable.
Where the film falls apart has nothing to do with the director, the stars, or even the picture itself. When the film was picked up by an American distrbutor, over 17 minutes of sex-and-nudity footage was inserted into the film not only to pad the length, but to ostensibly heighten the adult-film quotient. These scenes add the lesbians, the hippie orgiasts, and the nymphomaniac to the cast, as well as some highly erotic sexual imagery added during a telepathic copulation between Prat and Bauleo (as part of one of the doctor's experiments). While the scenes fit well in that they aren't too far off from the original's look to be distracting, they often add unnecessary sex to a film that's more interested in other things, such as the ramifications of the doctor's work and the societal attitudes toward sex.
In addition to the scenes being extraneous, they often have the side effect of being unintentionally funny, which also distracts from the main thread of the film. The hippies, in particular, are quite humorous, especially with the exaggerated voice over work common of many erotic films of the time. The entire film has a serviceable, if not above average, English dub (the original was in Spanish) that works more often than it doesn't, at least in terms of language. To the American distributor's credit, the additional scenes are added quite well, and the dub is used quite skillfully to explain their presence.
Despite these flaws, the film is visually entertaining, which is one of the best things one can say about b-movies of this caliber. Definitely one of the finer entries in Something Weird's catalog, alongside classics like "Satan In High Heels" and "Mantis In Lace", and definitely one for b-movie and vintage exploitation enthusiasts. Others may not find as much to enjoy, and for those, I suggest you get in the front row with the robots and start your mocking. So, something for everybody. 6 out of 10.