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A History of Violence (2005)
A History Of Cronenberg..........
There are very few filmmakers that I trust. I count David Cronenberg amongst them, which is good because in his latest film, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, it is required. On the surface the film seems to be fairly ordinary. The storyline is pretty much by the numbers, there are no great twists or revelations. To many, it may be an easy film to dismiss as just another violent action film. I suppose it helps to have a knowledge of Cronenberg's past films: SCANNERS, THE FLY, DEAD RINGERS, CRASH (not the recent Oscar winner), NAKED LUNCH, SPIDER. All these previous projects act as a kind of mission statement and give some insight to what Cronenberg is attempting to say with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. In this one film, he brings into play many of his past themes: violence, sex, death, identity, hidden lives, troubled interpersonal relationships, the decay of morality, the attempt to retain morality even after it has proved to be a chimera.
Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a peaceful family man. He owns a small diner in a small town in Indiana. One day two men enter the diner intent on robbing Tom, when the smoke clears, nothing will be the same for him or his family again. Not soon after a slick mobster with one dead eye walks into the same diner claiming to know Tom, to have a dark connection to him. Stall's wife Edie (Maria Bello) believes that the strange man is mistaken, that there is no possible way that Tom could have ever known this person. She supports him fully, but even she falters in her own mind. Tom's son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), is in many ways effected by the events. A cycle has started; at one point, after a showdown with the mobsters, Tom looks at his son and it seems clear that it was only a matter of time before Jack would be born into violence. The events that follow shed light on the mystery and so I will stop here. The plot outline is deliberately brief; to give too much information away would be to undercut the effect of the film. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is Cronenberg's critique on the specifically American love of violence and death. Being a Canadian, he can view it with a certain closeness, but still be able to stand back and look at the whole picture. I think his observations are spot on.
The focus, as the title suggests, is violence and in the film it is always sudden. It almost always is though. Whether unexpected like the Kennedy assassination or as inevitable as a beach front landing during WWII, there is always that one moment when force is applied to the human body resulting in injury or death. Once that happens, everything has changed. Like blood sprayed across one of Edward Hopper's more idyllic paintings, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE both engages the audience in the gruesome acts, then repels them. In one scene where a character is shot in the top of the head, everything leading up to that point is choreographed in an "action movie" style. Where Cronenberg differs from many directors is that following the initial moment, there is a scene of the same man struggling to suck air through a mouth and jaw ruined by the exit wound. We, as the audience, have watched the thrill of the violence, but Cronenberg also makes us view the very real aftermath, he forces us to watch that character die.
The performances are another thing that brings a certain edge to the story. Viggo Mortensen brings with him the heroic stature of the LORD OF THE RINGS films, something that Cronenberg then toys with. Maria Bello brings strength to Edie, but also vulnerability as she faces a situation, and inward desires, that she cannot understand. Bello is fastly becoming one of my favorite actresses, between this film, AUTO FOCUS, and Permanent MIDNIGHT she has become one of the more underrated female leads working today. Ed Harris is always great and here is no exception. He does quite a lot with the small part of the mobster in creating menace and backstory. The standout, however, would have to be William Hurt, who shows up in the third act and simply dominates the story. Again, with brief screen time, Hurt creates a wonderfully oily, posturing, and completely incompetent villain. It is one of the most organically strange characters in recent memory. It could be stated that both Harris and Hurt are over the top, becoming almost caricatures, but I believe that was the intent of Cronenberg. The contrast between Tom Stall and these looming figures is pointed. Much like the setting of peaceful rural Indiana serves well as a backdrop for moments of shocking brutality. The juxtaposition of the two extremes is what Cronenberg wants to emphasize.
There is much first rate work behind the camera as well. The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky is understated though sharp, capturing all the nuances of Cronenberg's vision. Composer Howard Shore's music plays on the Americana of the setting, but slowly introduces darker undercurrents suggesting that all is not what it seems. The screenplay, adapted By Josh Olson from a graphic novel, while fairly mainstream in its construction, offers the perfect framework for Cronenberg's dark sensibilities. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE seems to be a film that people with either "get" or dismiss. It is lumped together under the "action/thriller" category, but remains neither. It is instead a study of the elements that make up such a genre. Very rarely do action films deal with the consequences of violence, how it effects those whose lives that it touches. David Cronenberg has always been a challenging presence in film and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE is no exception. His message is more subtle this time around, but that in no way lessens its impact. 10/10
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Great Oddball Stuff From The Master Of Cheese..........
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is notorious in the "biz" for being shot in two days. This may be apocryphal, although I don't know because I wasn't there. The fact that it's a Roger Corman "quickie" that is actually good makes it all the more legendary. Corman is renown for making fast cheap exploitation pictures, but in recent years he has become a veritable icon in the world of independent film. He made movies his way, outside of the constraints the Hollywood system (although he would often copy successful formulas from industry projects). He has also launched the careers of countless well known actors and directors (Joe Dante, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola have all given him small parts in their films). If you average it out Corman has been involved, in some capacity, with about seven film projects per year, for the last fifty-one years. Being prolific does not necessarily equal greatness however and very few of his films have gained critical or financial success. In his respective field he moves what is known as quantity, but every once in a while things come together and something great emerges. This is the case with 1960's THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.
The story opens on a "skid row" flower shop that is barely making the rent. The store is run by Gravis Mushnik (Mel Welles) who is at wit's end with his incompetent employee, Seymour Krelboyne (Jonathan Haze), who can't seem to even cut flowers right. Audrey (Jackie Joseph) is the only other person who works at the shop and Seymour spends most of his time silently pining for her. One day Burson Fouch (Dick Miller) walks in, orders flowers, and begins to eat them in the middle of the store (he adds salt, of course). Now this is a guy who has probably been tossed out of every other flower shop for thirty miles around, but Mushnik tolerates him (mainly because he's buying) and it is Fouch that offers up some sage advice. What they need is a gimmick, something to draw in the high-paying customers. Seymour sheepishly states that he has been growing an exotic plant at home. Mushnik demands a success or Seymour will lose his job. The plant, which he names Audrey Jr., becomes the talk of the town and the cash comes rolling in. There's only one problem: the botanical beast must be fed human blood in order to survive......
THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was meant to be a pseudo-sequel to the Roger Corman picture A BUCKET OF BLOOD (which also starred Dick Miller), but that idea was abandoned (or I fail to see the connection). What Corman, along with his screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, has created, is a strange and fast paced black comedy. They get a lot of help from the actors who have great comedic timing, especially during scenes in the flower shop where everyone is talking over the other person. The writing for these scenes is sharp, but the cast really pulls it off (considering that most of the sequences were done in one take). The characters are another asset: there is the flower eater, a perpetually grief stricken old woman, and two coppers who exchange tragic dialogue in "Dragnet"-esque monotone (Cop#1: "My son just died."/Cop#2: "Those are the breaks. Let's role."/Cop#1: "Ok."). There is also Seymour's factitious disordered mother (played by Myrtle Vail) whose eyes light up when her son brings her a nerve tonic that is "ninety-eight percent alcohol." When Seymour brings Audrey over to the house, his mother prepares not "health food" but food prepared with health care products (epsom salts, caster oil, etc.). There is also Dr. Farb (John Shaner), a dentist who "extracts" revenge on deadbeat customers. And, of course, Jack Nicholson in an early (and oft mentioned) role as a masochistic dental patient. The fact that Corman and Griffith throw just about everything into the mix (the plant having hypnotic powers for example), and that they still manage to pull the whole thing off walks a thin line between skill and luck.
Although the fact that there was a Broadway musical based on Corman's project is well known, I'll quickly retread it here. When the stage production became a hit, the story was recreated for the screen by Frank Oz in 1986. These large scale productions lose some of the oddball humor of the original though, and some of the best things are missing (the mother, the cops, the cheesy production values). The reinterpretations do fail to fully capture the manic seat-of-your-pants energy of Corman's film, but they are fun in they're own right. THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is a film about a talking plant who eats people, but somehow the cast and crew elevate the material above camp, above cult, above inspired, to masterpiece....Alright, maybe not that far but it's still pretty good. 8/10
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Weird And Effective.........
***No Spoilers Now, Read On.*** Six people have been invited to spend one night in a haunted house (don't worry it gets better). If they do, they will each receive ten-thousand US dollars. The house is rented, and the event orchestrated by, the eccentric kagillionare Frederick Loren (Vincent Price). Or is it, in fact, his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart)? The film keeps you guessing at the true purpose of the gathering and who is behind it. Those who accept Loren's invitation are: Lance Schroeder (Richard Long), a test-pilot, or racecar driver (I forget, something masculine and dangerous though); Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), a "pretty" young thing who must provide for her family; Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), a drunk, who has murky familial ties to the true owners of the house; Ruth Bridger (Julie Mitchum) is a society page columnist who is known to over imbibe on games of chance; Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) has a particular interest in the psychology of hysteria (dark humors in the bile and what not) and views the event not just as a payday, but as an opportunity to gain insight into his area of study. They all need the money, for some reason or another, and willfully follow Loren into the imposingly Gothic house. He explains, over drinks, the rules of the night and that the doors will be locked at midnight.....from the outside! Nobody can get in or out, the windows being barred like a prison or.....a tomb! Anyway, they get a guided tour of the mansion from Pritchard who points out interesting features like the ceiling that drips blood, the pit filled with flesh dissolving acid in the wine cellar, and the spacious breakfast nook. Before everyone retires to their respective rooms, Loren presents them each with a "party favor": a small coffin containing a handgun. As the night proceeds, strange and unexplainable things occur, causing the guests to grow suspicious of one another and their hosts. The bumps in the night draw successively closer and then, out in the hallway, there is a scream........
***Be Warned, (Mild) Spoilers Start Here.*** THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL starts out as a standard "haunted house" picture until we realize that the only "ghouls" in this creaky old mansion are the people themselves. Greed, lust and betrayal are no match for ephemeral specters. However, the film never addresses whether the house is really haunted or not. Strange things do happen which defy explanation. The apparition outside of the second floor window or the rope that moves of its own volition would seem laborious to fake even for seasoned snake-oil peddlers like the Lorens. Could it be that they don't know or that perhaps they don't care, preferring another layer of confusion to mask their intentions? I have a feeling that director William Castle put these scenes in to keep people guessing, or confused, or scared, but ultimately entertained. Castle is infamous as the guy who put buzzers in the seats at movie theaters to shock people during THE TINGLER (1959) and at the end of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL he reportedly hung a plastic skeleton from wires, sending it dancing above the audience (it was a simpler time then, when mild electrical shocks did not result in angry lawsuits). Castle was renown for such gimmicks and would become the unofficial inspiration for 1993's Matinée (which features a great performance by John Goodman). In THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, the cast and crew never take the story too seriously and the film has a kind of tongue-in-cheek camp charm. Yeah, there's holes in the plot and stuff that doesn't make sense, but it's got Vincent Price and vats of acid. What more could you want? 7/10
White Zombie (1932)
Explore The Origins Of "The Living Dead"..........
A couple of years ago I saw the 1931 version of Dracula as part of a live performance for the new musical score composed by Philip Glass. Even in this refined setting, the film was met by laughter from the audience during several sections. This seemed rather odd to me, but I suppose older horror films cannot help but lose some of their initial impact over time. The black and white photography and performance techniques became antiquated, hence humorous to some. As time went on, filmmakers begin to spoof the broad overacting and dramatic music of the vintage horror picture. It is impossible today to view a film like WHITE ZOMBIE and fully understand the impact it may have had in 1932. It does, however, escape (for the most part anyway) the mirthful reactions described above.
Director Victor Halprin's telling of this tale is often cited as the genesis of the "zombie picture." There is some debate about this, but WHITE ZOMBIE is certainly one of the early films to deal with the Haitian legend of "the dead that walk." The story revolves around a young couple who have traveled through Haiti to meet with their friend and benefactor Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), at whose villa they plan to be married. He has designs on the young bride, Madeleine (Madge Bellamy), and enlists the help of Murder Legendre (the name kind of says it all) played by Bela Lugosi. After the wedding, Legendre performs some "witchcraft" rituals and Madeleine falls into a death-like state. Believing that she has in fact died, the newly minted groom (John Harron) spirals into a drunken maelstrom, eventually seeking out the learned missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) to help solve the mystery. All paths seem to lead back to Legendre as the plot thickens and Beaumont's true motives are discovered.
It is fascinating to watch these type of films, some of which, like WHITE ZOMBIE age well with time. This is partly due to the fact that it has been largely forgotten in the wake of the more successful Universal horror flicks. The main drawn here will be the performance by Lugosi. He essentially "vamps" his role in Dracula, but manages to fashion a fairly distinct and unsettling screen presence. It would be roles like this however that would lead to his rigid typecasting; as time went on, he was all but discarded by the film industry (see ED WOOD  for his later years). Halprin's direction focuses on atmosphere and gloom. He is well paired with cinematographer Arthur Martinelli and together they create a suitably shadow-laden backdrop for this macabre story. WHITE ZOMBIE is ambitious in camera angles and editing. At one point there is a diagonal wipe edit, which stops midscreen to reveal the actions of two separate characters. This type of effect is effortless to achieve now, but must have been laborious in 1932. Observe also the unusually large transitional set of the plantation interior, or the framing of Lugosi though the ornate stone work during certain shots. These small details help set WHITE ZOMBIE apart by creating a realistic environment and aid in visually representing the pathology of the characters.
Since the 30's there has been countless movies about killer zombies run amuck. The concept predominantly became fodder for B-grade schlock productions. The genre would experience something of a renaissance in 1968 with George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD which created quite a stir at the time and resulted in zombies becoming, once again, fashionable. The Haitian setting of WHITE ZOMBIE would also be revisited in THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) and the "undead" as a means of cheap labor subtext would be exploited for darkly comedic effect in the underrated HBO film CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991). In recent years, there has been such a boom of these "living dead" productions that it is hard to keep track of them all. WHITE ZOMBIE, as an early example of this current trend, but should be seen as more than just a footnote in the ever growing history of film. It is not a great movie, like Dracula, but will prove to be of interest to film buffs at least. It has more to offer, though, and I hope that it will continue to be rediscovered by successive generations. 7/10
The Bat (1959)
Tepid Mystery Yarn..........
THE BAT (1959) will probably seem, by today's standards, somewhat tame. Yes, there is a deranged killer who wears a glove barbed with razors, but he does not hack through his victims as is seen in recent times. In fact, he kind of bungles about like a clumsy spider trying not to scare away the flies. He begins to stalk a woman mystery writer, Cornelia van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead), who has, of course, rented the spookiest dang house in the county. She is joined by her spunky housekeeper (Lenita Lane) who plays much of the comic relief in the film. There is also the chauffeur (John Sutton), the doctor (Vincent Price) and the cop (Gavin Gordon) who enter and exit scenes at a rapid pace. We are told that there has recently been a spate of crimes involving (the aforementioned) murderous fiend known as "The Bat." We also learn that a recently deceased bank owner has hidden $1,000,000 in the creaky old mansion. This prompts the cast to run from room to room searching for the loot. All the while "The Bat" lurks in the shadows and everyone becomes a suspect as the story becomes increasingly convoluted.
THE BAT has such a jumbled "who's-on-first" type of pace that it inadvertently proves that nobody in the entire film could possibly be the killer. I watched it anyway, though not really caring too much about the outcome, and when the secret was revealed I was nonplussed. THE BAT is also a classic example of the "red herring" mystery. It is meant to keep you guessing, but leaves little time for the viewer to actually think about what's going on. The story throws out so many clues (like each character showing up with a bump on the head when a bump on the head would solve the case) that the whole thing feels staged. That could also be because THE BAT is based on a play by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart (the earliest screen version being 1915). It could also be that looking at this film now, forty-six years after it was made, reveals how complex films have become. Take the contemporary example of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, it's the same type of story, the more recent film simply has more intricate twists and turns. The outcome is just as illogical, but it is the style that keeps the viewer's attention averted. This is what THE BAT attempts to do in a somewhat more limited way. It is not an altogether bad flick: the female leads are strong and it has just enough atmosphere to keep you from changing the channel. But whether watching it now, or comparing it to other productions from the same time period, THE BAT remains an average film. 5/10
La marche de l'empereur (2005)
A Beautiful Film.......
It is becoming increasingly rare to find nature documentaries shown on the big screens of corporate-owned American theaters. And judging by the scant few people in attendance at a Saturday night showing of THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, I can see why. With the draw of so many garish productions offering the viewer an escape from the real world, films that actually do show the complexities and beauty of that world are marginalized. It would seem to me that the decision to release a US version of the french film LA MARCHE DE L'EMPEREUR (with different narration, performed here by Morgan Freeman, and a new musical score by Alex Wurman) was based on the success of the animated film MADAGASCAR, which features plucky talking penguins. I'm sure that this was not the sole reason, but I would guess it played a part in the minds of the distributors who were looking for a return on their investment. What MARCH OF THE PENGUINS shows, however, is that even without the power of speech, the emperor penguins in this film are intelligent and complex. It should also help reinforce the truism that animals do not have to talk or sing to be interesting.
THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS follows the intricate and grueling migration rituals of emperor penguins as they cross the vast extent of the polar ice sheet to mate. Literally thousands make the miles long trip in a single-file formation. Having completed the voyage, we then see the busy process of choosing a partner and how the fertilized egg is exchanged to the males so that the females can make the return trek to feed. They will not return to the starved male penguins for about four months. In that time the eggs have hatched and the chicks take their first look out at the Arctic landscape. This frigid environment is unforgiving and not all the young penguins survive. The film handles these scenes gently. There is an inherent sadness in the idea that the world is hardest on those that can bear it the least, but it is, and the filmmakers do not sidestep the reality of the situation. The babies that do survive, frolic and prance about as the camera lovingly follows them in their antics. They grow strong, amidst peril, and ultimately return to the ocean to begin the cycle anew. This material will be familiar to avid readers of National Geographic magazine (the motion picture arm of which helped produce this film), or those who watch nature films on a regular basis. Actually, THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS doesn't really offer any fresh or groundbreaking insight into the study of these animals. It is, however, one of the few films that captures, in such a stunningly picturesque way, the full scope of their journey.
In what must have been a harrowing ordeal in itself, the film crew coexists with the penguins in the harshest conditions (with temperatures falling to seventy degrees below zero and exacerbated by viscously high winds). The director, Luc Jacque, who also acts as cinematographer along with Jerome Maison, seems to have a deep respect and fascination for these animals. These feelings come through as his camera lingers on the birds, at times in close-up, capturing only colors and graceful movement. These delicate moments are well accented by Wurman's lovely music. The aerial shots of a huddled black mass of male penguins against the stark white landscape are striking and relay the enormity of the adaptive gathering. One detraction is that the narration often tries too hard to graft the equivalent human emotions onto the actions of the penguins. They may feel emotion, but it is different from the way that we do; there are parallels in the behavior that can be drawn, but Jordan Robert's script (reportedly a vast improvement over the surreal french version), which is mostly informative, does becomes heavy-handed at times. That aside, THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS is a wonderful alternative to the daily grind of hyperactive theatrical outings which ignore the unique characteristics of the creatures that we share this planet with. 8/10
Just As Bad After All These Years, But I'm Not Sure If That's Good Or Not...........
I was about thirteen, or so, when I first saw UHF on that crazy thing called "videotape." It was a more innocent time then, when words like "spatula" and "fish" were funny. When the music of novelty act "Weird Al" Yankovic seemed fresh and original. Lamentably, those days are gone now. It is impossible to view UFH and obtain the same reaction as I had then. Seeing it now only brings me to the conclusion that it is an uneven comedy with some amusing gags thrown in.
The story is fairly thin and functions mostly as a clothesline to pin jokes on. "Weird Al" plays George Newman, a day dreaming half-wit, who inherits a failing television station from his uncle. He is helped along by his friend, and fellow dunce, Bob (David Bowe), as well as the mixed bag of oddballs who work at the station: There is Pamela Finklestein (Fran Dresher), the abrasive news "broad"; Noodles (Billy Barty) the dwarfish cameraman; Philo (Anthony Geary) the station's engineer who also hosts a science show and explains how to "make plutonium from common household items", amongst other things. George also enlists his neighbor, Kuni (Gedde Watanabe), for the gameshow 'Wheel of Fish', and who verbally assaults the contestants when they lose. There is also a subplot involving George's long suffering (how long depends on the length of time she has been dating George) girlfriend Teri (Victoria Jackson). When George decides to turn over 'Uncle Nutsy's Clubhouse' to the spastic janitor, Stanley Spadowski (Michael Richards), the show becomes a smash hit in the ratings. This raises the ire of the local network affiliate headed by requisite lout R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy). Wackiness ensue as R.J. orders the kidnapping of Stanley during a desperate fundraiser to save George's station from ruin. Will George triumph over adversity, or will the big/evil network seize his assets and drive him to suicide? I will personally send $.37 (US) to anyone who cannot answer this question correctly.
The outcome is of little importance anyway, it's about the jokes. The humor in UHF ranges from painfully obvious to sophomoric. There are few real laughs in the film and most of those are from the quick asides or transitional material. A good example of this is the 'Wild Kingdom'-esquire program where Raul Hernandez (Trinidad Silva) shakes the ant farms and teaches poodles how to fly. There is still something funny about throwing dogs out of a window (I can't explain it) and these scenes are helped along by Silva's delivery. The 'Conan the Librarian' sketch and the GANDHI spoof are both funny (if on-the-nose), accented by Monty Python type bloodshed. The overlong RAMBO sequence near the end has its few fleeting moments as well. In fact the jokes seem to work best when they do not involve Yankovic at all. His performance here conjures about as much humor as watching someone have a seizure in a public place. I still have a special space in my heart for "Weird Al", but he is hard to take for an extended period of time. This is not helped by the flat camera work. The director, Jay Levey, seems to just turn the camera on, leaving the room afterward, perhaps for noon cocktails at the catering truck.
But enough talk; it would seem nearly impossible to write a "serious" review of UHF. The film has achieved somewhat of a cult following and the DVD presentation is lavish. I figure this is because there will always be fourteen year old boys (and girls, though less of them) who will like UHF. "Weird Al" is still out there doing his thing, which means that this film will be perpetually rediscovered. Looking back, I don't find as many things as funny as I once did, but if UHF is on I'll watch it. It will also remind me of a time when I didn't demand so much from a movie; when stupid charm and ridiculous characters were enough. Those were the days I guess. 5/10
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
It Has Moments of Interest..........
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is a slow, lumbering film that is elevated by inventive photographic techniques and a strong performance by Vincent Price. As the film opens we are told that the world has basically ended, that a plague has swept all the lands. The bad news is that the quickly spreading germ cloud turns the exposed people into vampires. We meet, whom the film suggests, is the only survivor on earth, a Dr. Robert Morgan (Price). Now Morgan has taken it upon himself to rid the planet of as many vampires as he can. He goes out during the day to track and stake the long-toothed badies, discarding them into a large fire pit. Morgan also collects garlic, crosses, and mirrors for the defense of his decaying home. It is revealed, through a stylishly book ended flashback, that Robert was a scientist who lost his wife and daughter in the madness and even now, three years later, he is haunted by the fact that he was not able to save them. Morgan is immune to the disease, although he seems to combat morbid self-pity more than the forces of darkness. One day he is shocked when he finds a woman (Franca Bettoia) out alone in the daylight. I'll stop here only to say that the situation may not be what it seems and that Morgan may discover that he is not, in fact, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH!
As I mentioned above, Price is (mostly) effective in the lead role. During the present day scenes, he is convincingly worn-down and harried. However, during the flashbacks, he struggles somewhat to paint a portrait of the normal family man; the writing here is not the best, and Price's persona as an unctuous villain counteract these scenes. I kept expecting the Morgan character to kill his wife and child, burn down the house and then flee to Mexico, where he would kill some Mexicans, then burn down some churches. Typecasting in movies was much worse during the first half of film's history and Price became known for his darker roles as time filtered out much of his other work. It would be into the "other work" category that THE LAST MAN ON EARTH would heavily fall. The story is a hybrid of science fiction and horror elements which, however, never really finds a workable balance on screen. The film is overlong and many of the sequences become static or pointless as the events slowly progress towards the increasingly surreal conclusion.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is mostly overlooked in favor of Price's more straightforward genre work (THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE FLY, various adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories) and the story fails to be either good enough, or bad enough, to be memorable. It is worth viewing if one wants to glimpse the origins of films like THE OMEGA MAN, LIFEFORCE, or 28 DAYS LATER; although there are several screen versions of this same story that predate the 64' incarnation. It is also a fine example of that postwar "altered world" genre that film historians are always on about and which, they contend, reflect the fears of an impending nuclear threat that was prevalent at the time. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH will be useful as trivia (or as an erudite reference) at least. It should also prove mildly engaging if you happen to catch it on late-night television and are not expecting too much anyway. 6/10
Swamp Women (1956)
Oh Yeah, It's Bad..........
SWAMP WOMEN opens and closes with profuse thanks to the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana for help in making this film. If any of the people who are mentioned actually saw SWAMP WOMEN they may have insisted that the filmmakers thank Florida instead. The truth is, there seems to be few shots set in New Orleans; the rest of the film takes place in unidentifiable swampland (and various swimming pools). The basic story involves a gang of women, hidden diamonds and, of course, catfights. The woman in this film (after having cut the legs off their jeans) roll around in mud, water, and dirt, often times going from one to the other in the same scene. When their limbs are not entangled in heated female rage, the women sit around and talk, or sometimes dock a boat. It's all about the "bling" for these girls, so when they become stranded ashore they "boat-jack" two young lovers who are out admiring the fettering malaria-infested bayou locales. The girlfriend gets eaten by a shark (or something) along the way, but they keep her hunky boyfriend (Mike "Touch" Conners) tied up as an insurance policy. Considering all four of the girls are sweet on this guy, being a hostage does not seem like such a bad gig. Anyway, the plot of SWAMP WOMEN floats along like a flip-flop caught in the "lazy river" ride at your local waterpark. Towards the end, I just kind of advanced through most of the scenes unless there seemed to be some integral plot revelation (catfight) that could not be overlooked. Some stuff happened, I think, and then the film ended.
SWAMP WOMEN was produced and directed by B-movie maestro Roger Corman, which explains quite a lot. He is of course famous for giving just about everyone in Hollywood their "big break." It is true that he has fostered (or exploited) many young filmmakers and actors; the list would be far reaching and hard to compile. However, as a director, he seems to be only as good as the material he is given. Now this is the same guy who directed THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, which is considered a classic in the "cheapie" genre, but was based on an inventive and outlandishly bizarre screenplay by Charles Griffith. Corman does not seem to be a director who interprets a writer's work, but simply puts to film every page he has in hand. Here, working with a script by David Stern, Corman fashions a no-budget fetish fest. SWAMP WOMEN lacks any style, vision or logic. Yes, I know, the film was a financially anemic early effort by Corman, but c'mon, the integration of different shooting locations and the obvious stock footage is embarrassing at best. I'm also fairly certain that they killed an actual rattlesnake in the making of SWAMP WOMEN. If this is true, then, as viewed through the looking glass of time, that snake's brave and noble sacrifice was ultimately in vain. 1/10
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
An Important Film About An Often Ignored Subject.......
When it became apparent, in 1994, that genocide was impending in the African nation of Rwanda, much of the west deemed the people of that impoverished country "unworthy" of aid or resources. On the part of the United States, Rwanda was low on the list of priorities; fresh from the Bosnia conflict, and interventions in Haiti and Somalia, the US did not want to risk involvement there. A small unit of UN peacekeepers were deployed, but suffered under heavy restrictions. They were given little money and outdated equipment. When Rwandan president Habyarimana's plane was shot down in April, the dam broke and Hutu flooded the streets out for blood. The minority Tutsi were considered the enemy and were targeted by roadblocks and constant radio broadcasts calling for their extermination. Moderate Hutu also came under the blade of the machete (the preferred weapon of the masses). What started as essentially a social conflict, or what most thought a prelude to civil war, erupted into chaotic slaughter amongst a poor and uneducated populous. Bodies lay strewn in the streets, in the houses and rivers. Even before the violence reached its apex, and the term genocide became unavoidable, the world powers seemed to have forgotten Rwanda and left the country to burn.
It is in the city of Kigali, during this period, that the film HOTEL RWANDA takes place. It focuses on the real life story of the manager of a five-star resort named Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who has found himself integrated into the "style" of the west. He procures fine cigars and expensive whiskey for his foreign visitors and for the military elite who frequent the hotel. He is a Hutu married to a Tutsi woman, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), their children being of mixed blood. When the violence of April 1994 reaches his doorstep, he does everything he can to save his family, but finds himself a part of something larger. As the situation worsens, and the UN forces diminish, Paul uses his money, limited resources, and social contacts to protect the hundreds of people who sought the hotel as a refuge. He quickly realizes that there will be no intervention; the scenes involving Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), the frustrated UN peacekeeper, are pointed as he explains to Paul that the world does not care about him or his country. It is hard to deny that elements of racism played a part in the decisions of world powers and Paul feels betrayed by the false prophet of the west. In one of the most poignant scenes, Paul watches as foreign nationals are evacuated from the hotel. A busload of white faces pulls away, and with them the security forces, leaving the defenseless group of Africans to meet their fate. But events leave little time for self reflection, as there are almost hourly threats against the hotel and the people inside. Eventually the payoffs and bribes no longer work and Paul is left only with words, which he uses to play on the fears of men like General Bizimungu (Fana Mokoena), creating a sense of power he does not really have. After words fail, only hope remains.
Don Cheadle, who plays Paul Rusesabagina, is truly memorable. It is an important performance, and rare, where the actor ceases and only the character remains. Observe the scene when, having returned with supplies, Paul is overcome by what he has viewed on the roads. Cheadle is mesmerizing here, but he is just as nuanced in the smaller moments which makes his breakdown all the more effective and real. He does not falter for a moment. Sophie Okonedo is just as good; she is strong and avoids the "woman in peril" clichés so prevalent in film. It is Nick Nolte who reminds us here that he can be an actor of great depth when given the opportunity, and the entire supporting cast helps immensely. HOTEL RWANDA marks a departure for director Terry George, who is from Northern Ireland, and has worked almost exclusively with Jim Sheridan on stories about that region. Here he creates tension without gimmicks and allows the characters to develop. He puts a human face to the abstract bloodshed of Rwanda during the massacres, but avoids preaching or over sentimentalizing the harrowing subject matter. The cinematography, production design and music help George in recreating the time and place. HOTEL RWANDA seems effortless in its portrayal of the events, but these are, in fact, the hardest films to make.
It was difficult for me to imagine a film about the genocide in Rwanda as having a PG-13 rating. In a way it is good because the film will reach a wider audience and shed light upon a recent atrocity which was ignored at the time and has been largely forgotten since. Having seen various documentaries on the subject, read participant's accounts and seen chilling photographs of rivers choked with corpses, the true scale of violence was staggering. HOTEL RWANDA does not quite capture the brutality and horror of the events where mobs of people used sharpened car parts and bicycle handles to kill Tutsi as well as Hutu "traitors." It instead chooses to focus on the personal story of Paul and his efforts. He is a brave man who saved the lives of many through his efforts, although chance seems to have played a large part. The film should also help us look ahead to the events in the Darfur region of the Sudan where many of the same things are happening today and which has been obscured by other world events. The message of HOTEL RWANDA seems to be that something like this can happen at anytime, in anyplace, and that each instance is as worthy of our attention as the next. I hope this film will continue to have an impact but in the long term it is people, not films, that will make a difference. 10/10