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Fern Hill (2005)
admirable attempt at a coming of age drama
This film shows just how far the "faith-based" film has come. Four 13-year old friends venture into the Rockies in search of one friend's missing father, who was lost years before while flying his airplane. Of course, there are realizations about friendship and life. Yup, it riffs heavily (and shamelessly) on STAND BY ME, even to the point of one of the characters observing that their adventure is similar to the movie. The movie also suffers from some weak writing and acting, giving it an uneven feel. Despite these factors, the film does have some powerful moments, like one of the boys pulling a gun on his mom's abusive boyfriend and ordering him out of their single-wide, or a later scene by a river, when the same boy and the boy whose father they're looking for discuss their absent fathers. There's also some great cinematography of blue Colorado skies, mountain meadows, and craggy slopes--definitely one of the film's strengths. While it lacks the punch of STAND BY ME or other such films, FERN HILL is go for one go-round.
potential cult film
This Aussie flick from the early 80s never found the audience it deserved. Marketed in the US to coat-tail on the success of the then-popular HALLOWEEN and other slasher flicks, SNAPSHOT(or THE NIGHT AFTER HALLOWEEN)is hardly in the same league. In fact, SNAPSHOT bears more of a resemblance to the sleazy, psycho-sexual exploitation flicks of guys like Harry Novak and Barry Mahon than John Carpenter and Wes Craven. The story, about a Melborne hairdresser who falls into the world of modeling with unexpected consequences, seems to parallel the set-up of many a grind house flick. Take a fresh young thing, put her in the unfamiliar environs of the big city, and watch while an assortment of predators, pimps, pervs, and pornographers have their way with her. What is almost never in question in those flicks is the innocence of the fresh young thing, or the corruption of those using her. SNAPSHOT takes that convention and twists it with no small amount of sadistic glee. The movie is rather slow-moving by today's standards, being essentially a grimy character study, but it leaves many tantalizing possibilities for the intelligent viewer. Nobody is what they seem, from the seemingly innocent Angela, to her weepy boyfriend Daryl, to Angela's too-cool-for-everything friend Madeline. Virtually everyone Angela encounters wants a piece of her sexually, commercially, psychologically. In fact, the only seemingly benign character she encounters, the kooky photographer Linsey, makes no demands on her whatsoever. He simply smooths out the sheets on a bed previously occupied by some transient acquaintance's and invites Angela to stay in his communal studio/crash pad, a domicile occupied by various helpers, hangers-on, and sex partners (it's interesting to note the mural on the brick facade prominently displays the title, "Paradise") The movie's packed to the gills with great characters, from the eccentric Linsey (who shoots dead animals in his spare time), to Madeline's pervy, film producer husband, to a bizarre nightclub performer who looks like a refugee from a community theater production of CABARET. The final scene has Angela acting on her initial wish to depart the country and start over, although one may feel that, given what has just happened prior, her reaction indicates a serious emotional disconnect. And given who is helping her, the outcome may be nothing like Angela anticipated.
Creepy kid killers
DEVIL TIMES FIVE suffers from barely-competent direction and editing so bad, you wonder if it was done by trained simians. What could have been a genuinely chilling movie about child psychotics victimizing a group of unsuspecting adults is sabotaged by some glaring continuity problems, most noticeably a minor character who is played by one actor in outdoor scenes and an entirely different actor in indoor scenes and Leif Garrett's famous goldy locks being natural in some scenes and a wig in others. Psycho children are scary, but we don't get any back stories to heighten our horror. Maybe that was the point. This flick has some pretty nihilistic adults, spouting soap opera exposition about failed marriages, infidelities, and non-committed relationships. It may be like trying to polish a cow pie, but it might be observed that the adults and their trashy grown-up "games" are a revolting counterpoint to the homicidal "games" of the junior wackos. Both are disgusting, but the adults and their "games" are socially sanctioned. I just wish some details were followed up on. Leif Garrett is shown engaging in some behavior that may have been filmed to establish a split personality element that the director abandoned or didn't explore. I won't detail what it is, but it's something that, given the theme of the movie and the fact that a pubescent boy is doing it, still serves to give viewers the creeps.
Mark of the Witch (1970)
interesting regional rarity
This film, while not a classic, avoids being a schlockfest for several reasons. The script, about a 17th century English witch being summoned back from the dead by a spell and inhabiting the body of a college co-ed, is a cut above. It's all opinion, but the acting is uniformly good, considering the usual stock of talent that populates these films. The filmmakers must have raided the best of the local collegiate theater majors and community theater talent, because the actors all give competent performances. The low budget enhances the film in some ways. The prologue, showing the hanging of the titular witch, is an effective montage of tight shots of the witch's and executioners' feet walking through muddy sludge to the gallows and the aforementioned characters' faces as the execution transpires. The film then cuts to the opening titles, shown over silent footage of windy autumnal Dallas streets as a singer performs a witch's "rune" acapella. It's an unsettling performance that creates some much-needed atmosphere and, hopefully, gives one an inkling of what will follow. I'm not a filmmaker, but the style exhibited in these opening moments made me hope that what I was about to watch would be, at least, competent and, at most, a great lost film. MARK OF THE WITCH is not a lost classic, but it is an effectively made little horror flick, made on the cheap by people who show not a little raw talent. Some will be disappointed that it's not a train wreck of bad acting and threadbare production values, while others will rue the fact that the movie isn't packed with blood and gore. What MARK OF THE WITCH is is a movie that moves toward it's ending methodically at a pace more in keeping with early 70s TV movies than modern slashers. But that's a good thing. Just train yourself to wait for the payoff.
Silent Night, Holy Night (1976)
praise be for the bargain bin!
Recently, I discovered a VHS copy of this forgotten animated Christmas program in the bargain bin of my local discount retailer (Roses)and I must say that, while the viewing quality was not great (I had to use my tracking buttons frequently just to watch the thing), watching this fossil brought back many fond memories. "Silent Night, Holy Night" is the kind of thing that local stations used to put on to fill up broadcast time between pro wrestling and the nightly news (In fact, I remember seeing it late one Saturday afternoon during the Christmas season 25 or more years ago). I've never seen it since, which almost made me believe I'd imagined it. Back in those pre-cable days, I'd hope something like this would come on, and sometimes I'd be surprised by this, or an animated version of "A Christmas Carol", or "The Stableboy's Christmas". Glad to find this!
She-Man: A Story of Fixation (1967)
early low rent effort from Bob Clark
This early effort from Bob Clark trods the hoary old boards of the sexploitation flick by bookending the actual film with pseudo-authoritative commentary by an MD that purports to give information to dispel myths and educate the audience about the pressing issues portrayed in the film. Yeah right. People really need a 70 minute PSA about the dangers of malevolent transvestites who blackmail people into indentured servant-hood and forced cross-dressing. Something else this movie has in common with the sexploitation flicks of old is the sheer cheesiness of the sets: the same wood-paneled room is used again and again for an office, a bedroom, and a "gender reassignment" room, where the hapless victims are alternately shaved, plucked, made up, or bound with ace bandages, depending on which gender they are to become. Necessity is the mother of invention!
A Christmas Without Snow (1980)
above average holiday flick
This seemingly forgotten telefilm is far and away better that the current crop of yuletide dreck being offered by the likes of the Hallmark Channel and various others. A Christmas Without Snow offers a great cast, intelligent writing, and characters we care about. As other reviews have stated, Michael Learned plays a divorcée starting over in San Francisco who, in an attempt to find some stability, joins a church choir which is about to attempt an ambitious mounting of Handel's Messiah. John Houseman is the no-nonsense director who demands perfection from his choir. As the choir progresses toward its performance of the musical masterpiece, we gain insight into the lives and personalities of various members. What other reviewers have missed is the sense of community among the diverse parishioners/choir members, something that reflects positively on the traditional Christian church. In almost vignette-type fashion, we get to know these people, their loves, hopes, hurts, and see them rally together to tackle the Messiah and also the various problems they encounter as a church and as individuals. There are no quick fixes, no tidy happy endings. Yet these people have each other and the satisfaction of working hard at their endeavors. There's support, there's love, and there's a lot that is healthy and thriving and growing. Intelligent and life-affirming without being syrupy. Recommended.
The Hardy Boys (1969)
Saturday morning rockers produced some great tunes
Back in the late sixties,enterprising rock music executives used children's shows as springboards for promoting pop and rock records, broadening the appeal of the music to an ever-younger audience. The Archies were the first and most successful example, but there were other, lesser entries that produced excellent, if not successful, records. Such is the case of the Hardy Boys, one of numerous efforts that coat-tailed in on the Archies'success. Filmation, something of an animation sausage factory in the 70s (and the Archies' production company as well), produced the show. Despite the trivia claim, Don Kirshner had nothing to do with the Hardys, although the powers that be did use live musicians in promotions and to perform live. Bill Traut and Jim Golden of Dunwich Productions acted as musical supervisors and producers of the records. The Hardys produced two albums and three singles, all to negligible notice. This is not to say they were bad; the records are good compared to some of the other offerings from Saturday morning groups, especially the second Lp,"Wheels", which boasts some some of the best country/blues/pop hybrids ever put on wax by cartoon characters. Speaking of cartoon characters, the show itself wasn't that great; it was produced on the cheap and shows its seams 36 years later. Camera zooms and quick cuts create a sense of movement where there is none, a necessity when one is limited by time and money to use limited cell animation. Some of the voice over actors affect grating accents--the actor voicing Chubby Morton is particularly annoying--and it often is hard to differentiate between different character's voices, giving the impression the same guy is doing all the voice-overs. Still, the "videos" for the songs are jewels of late sixties kitsch, with lots of pulsating, psychedelic backgrounds, shifting designs, quick cuts, spinning frames, etc. High art it ain't, but surely a pleasant, although rather dated, diversion.
Der Schneemann (1944)
brings back fond memories
Years ago, this whimsical short cartoon played heavily on "The Mr. Bill Show", Asheville, North Carolina's locally broadcast "kiddie" show that aired mornings all through the week. Local celebrity Bill Norwood would host a live-action segment that included kid-related news (i.e. school closings), safety tips, weather, and cartoons, usually ancient black and white numbers like "Snowman in July". Many fondly remember the pretty story of the snowman who longs to see the summer and accomplishes this dream by hibernating in the refrigerator of an empty house, even though the fulfillment of his wish means his inevitable demise. Apparently, WLOS, the local station that originally ran the cartoon, got an earful from wistful viewers, because they run it on Thanksgiving day, right after broadcasting footage of the Asheville Christmas parade. How interesting to see all the sight gags that went over my head as a kid, like the way the snowman's derriere breaks off when he rises from his winter sleep in the fridge. Undaunted, he simply reduced the temperature in the icebox, then sits back down to re-attach his backside. Or the way a summer rose caresses the snowman's nose as he smells it, the flower's petals briefly forming fingers. Certainly, it stands toe-to-toe with other offerings from Disney, Warner Brothers, and all the other animation outfits of the time. What surprised me was to learn that this gentle story was the product of the Nazi propaganda machine, an attempt by the SS to create product to compete with Disney. Too bad such talent was subverted for such an evil cause.
Sometimes Aunt Martha makes dreadful movies
**potential spoilers**Despite the relegation of this film to the horror section of my local independent video store, this film is more of a warped gay psychodrama with some knife murders thrown in for good effect. Paul and Stanley are the lovers in question who flee Baltimore for a Miami suburb after a jewel theft gone horribly wrong. To complete their charade, Paul poses as Stanley's Aunt Martha, complete with dime store wig and the best that Lane Bryant has to offer. If there's anything dreadful, it's the sick relationship between Stanley and Paul, a freaky pseudo-incestuous dynamic that suggests the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother (in addition to Paul's donning the Aunt Martha get-up to off Stanley's potential female conquests). Paul alternately scolds and babys Stanley, who willingly plays along. This bizarre fantasy world is definitely one of the more fascinating aspects of this movie, which has as many holes swiss cheese. A middle-aged junkie shows up midway through the movie and encroaches on the domestic bliss of the two, either to snag the stolen jewels for himself or to blackmail Paul in to giving him a crash pad in exchange for not revealing his true identity. It's not clear. What is clear is that, as Paul's psychosis grows more lethal, the movie drifts further and further out to sea. Thrown in some more murders, a still-born baby delivered by Stanley via Cesarean, a corpse in a trunk dumped in a river, and a deranged finale in an old movie studio, and you have one brain-boiler of a movie!