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Lechuguilla (pronounced Lech-ah-GEE-ah) [caver]
I write film scripts and IMDb film reviews.
Grim And Pointless
The real life evil of convicted killer Henry Lee Lucas has been well documented elsewhere. This film is a semi-fictional account, based on Lucas' "confessions" ... for what they're worth. In the film, Henry lives with his ex-prison buddy Otis, and Otis' sister Becky, played well by Tracy Arnold. The setting is Chicago. The historical time period is unclear.
Most, though not all, of the murders take place off screen, mercifully. It's still, at times, a grizzly affair. Much of the film is like a diary, in that we see Henry, Otis, and Becky engaged in slow, lengthy, pointless conversations, amid drab surroundings. Oh it's grim.
This is supposed to be a character study. But there is no arc. Henry's robotic life is so monomaniacal as to preclude dramatic variation or change. What little substantive material there is could have been presented in thirty minutes.
The film's pace is slow. Scenes are very, very drawn-out. Screen time is consumed with characters eating grim meals, playing cheap cards, and driving around in a rundown old car. It's as if the scene on page 62 of the script could have been switched with the scene on page 16, and viewers would never know the difference. It's all just an unending grim ... sameness.
The film's images are grainy. Lighting is subdued. Music is appropriately eerie and creepy, but manipulative.
Real-life serial killers are too diverse in backgrounds and personalities for this film to offer any generalized insight. And the film conveys little understanding of Lucas himself. Sometimes a film that is grim can be entertaining or insightful. This one isn't. It's just pointless.
Eyes in the Night (1942)
Friday And Maclain Make A Fine Detective Pair
The title derives from the main character, an elderly detective named Duncan Maclain (Edward Arnold) who is blind. Yet, together with his seeing-eye dog, Friday, and a human sidekick, Maclain investigates a murder and unmasks the villain.
The story's underlying premise is weak and time-bound, having little relevance post WWII. But the antics of Friday the dog, combined with Arnold's fine and at times hammy performance, compensates for the weak story. That dog is something else. More than merely posing with human-like expressions, and responding to human chatter, he fetches shoes and guns, uses doorknobs to open doors, and improvises a clever way to escape a basement.
I would have liked the film more if it had been a whodunit. As is, there's not a lot of mystery or suspense. The villain is identified in the first half. The ending is a bit of a disappointment.
Although the source material is a novel, the script and visuals compare to a stage play, with most scenes set indoors and containing quite a bit of dialogue. But some of the banter is fresh and interesting, like when blind Maclian tells the butler Hansen: "And Hansen, turn out the light, will you; I think I'll read awhile".
Sets are a bit cheap looking, composed mostly of drab wood with minimal artifacts. Lighting trends dark. One long scene near the end is filmed in total blackness. Of course, that's consistent with a great theme, that of being able to perceive without physical sight. The intermittent background music is dreary and nondescript. A topnotch cast, including wonderful Mantan Moreland helps the production. Overall acting is fine, especially that of Edward Arnold.
It's not a terrific film. Yet despite a weak story premise and a lack of mystery, "Eyes In The Night" has enough going for it to make it enjoyable, not the least of which is that dog. The film will appeal especially to viewers who like detective stories of the 1940s.
Uninteresting And Dull
Generic 1960s spy story about an American "security agent" named Michael Donovan (Gene Barry) who goes to London to meet an important professional contact. But when Donovan arrives he finds that his contact has been murdered. What follows is kidnapping, falling in love, and danger in dealing with high level thugs. The visuals are a bit dreary and the plot seems muddled.
The main problem here is the script. There are too many characters and too many villains. It's hard to tell who is doing what to whom. And I could not figure out the motivation of the villains. Further, none of the characters are interesting. They're all cold, impersonal, and have little to no sense of humanity or individuality. They're just stick figures inserted into the script in service to a contrived story. Who are these people? Do we care about them? I don't.
The visuals are drab. Indoor scenes are too dark. Outdoor scenes trend repetitive, with too many camera shots of those English double decker buses, subway trains, and expensive cars. Characters spend a lot of time talking shop while imbibing expensive liquors. The film tries to be worldly and sophisticated. However, "Subterfuge" is no James Bond movie. And Gene Barry is no Sean Connery.
Casting and acting are not very good. Gene Barry may be debonair but his persona and acting are boring. Joan Collins may be glamorous but in this film she shows why she never won any major acting awards. The rest of the cast is perfunctory and dull.
My impression is that the producers were trying to cash in on all the international intrigue that was such a hot film topic in the 1960s. But "Subterfuge" lacks suspense and mystery. Characters are cold and impersonal. Performances are lackluster. There are some good spy films out there. This is not one of them.
Walking with Dinosaurs (1999)
Magnificent Historical Perspective
One of the best documentaries I have ever seen, this BBC series uses a combination of Computer Generated Images (CGIs), animatronics, realistic sound effects, an intelligent script, and effective narrative transitions to tell the story of the rise and fall of the majestic creatures that lived during the Mesozoic Era. The program is educational, entertaining, and breathtakingly realistic.
Though the focus is on the dinosaurs, the program puts them into their natural habitat, and thus we learn also about the vegetation, the climate, changes in the continental land masses, and smaller life forms of that era. Background music, combined with ominous images, conveys a hauntingly terminus message, accompanied by poignancy and sadness.
Maybe some of the technical detail about the dinosaurs is a bit speculative or not quite in line with more recent information. Our knowledge about them continues to ... evolve. But these minor imperfections are overwhelmed by the program's terrific presentation of such a grand sense of historical perspective.
Dinosaurs lived for over a hundred million years. Their extinction was not their fault; they did nothing wrong. By comparison, humans, thus far, rate barely a one sentence footnote in a multiple volume encyclopedia of Earth's history. And I doubt that we will be so fortunate as to be around for even one million years.
My only disappointment is that the dino's demise only covers a few minutes of the final episode. I would like to have seen more information presented, and more time spent, on the likely causes of the K-T extinction event, specifically from the Chixculub crater impact and the volcanic eruptions from the Deccan Traps.
Breathtaking in historical coverage and brilliantly produced, "Walking With Dinosaurs" is a program that everyone needs to see. I hope viewers will watch all of the episodes and thus can appreciate the diversity and grandeur of such magnificent creatures. If nothing else this program's geologic time-scale puts our little egocentric lives and petty political squabbles into proper perspective, showing how irrelevant we are in the grand scheme of things.
Ladder 49 (2004)
A Tribute To Firemen
This film functions basically as a tribute to firemen. We watch a youngish fireman named Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) get trapped in a burning building. Flashbacks to his earlier days as a newbie fireman alternate with scenes of entrapment. The story touches on themes of courage, love, devotion, and life-threatening risks. Why would a young man risk his life and his family's well being to save strangers?
But while the underlying story premise is noble, the Hollywood script trends trite and exaggerated. Characters are too photogenic (except for John Travolta), and too stereotyped. These people are squeaky-clean, two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts, rendering them of little interest to me. There's lots of predictable camaraderie and male bonding of macho men. In the non-fire scenes dialogue is talky and has a soap-opera feel.
Working fires are way too exaggerated. You'd think that every fireman deals with explosions, collapsing buildings, injuries and deaths every day. Each fire becomes a huge ordeal. In reality most fires are rather routine and not especially dangerous to firemen lives. The background music during these fire scenes is overly dramatic, annoying, and highly manipulative of viewer emotions.
Casting is okay except for John Travolta. Why is he in this film? I would have preferred a less well-known, older actor in the role of captain. Acting is acceptable. But acting isn't really necessary in the fire action segments. What is indeed necessary are "suitable", so to speak, costumes. And they're okay here, though they look a little too non-protective relative to the fire gear I have seen in videos of real-life fires. Of course viewers want to see actors' faces, and they can't do that if the actors are so encased in fire-protective gear. Cinematography and visual effects are unremarkable but acceptable.
"Ladder 49" isn't a bad film. It's got characters that many viewers would care about and dramatic action sequences. But the film seems aimed specifically at viewers who love to engage in hero worship. Both the characters and the fire action come across as unrealistic and contrived. For some viewers, however, that might not be a problem.
Baby Face Nelson (1957)
Semi-factual, this film skims through the life of gangster Baby Face Nelson (Mickey Rooney), from the time he emerges from prison on parole, in 1933, through various subsequent hold-ups with his gang members. They're constantly on the run and being chased by G-men, right up to the end.
The plot trends superficial. And though Nelson and his girlfriend, Sue (Carolyn Jones), are clearly characterized, members of his infamous gang are hardly more than stick figures in the background, despite a great supporting cast.
If this was supposed to have been a biography, a narrator describing the places, times, and key people would have helped to put the story in perspective and aided in the flow of events. As is, the film seems like just one more fictional gangster film, lacking in true-life credibility. And so I don't really see the film's point. On the other hand, it's possible, even likely, that filmmakers in the 1950s were prohibited from telling a true-life story in a believable way.
B&W cinematography gives the film a noir feel, with high-contrast lighting. Too much makeup, combined with the lighting, makes Carolyn Jones' face look slightly bizarre. I never did see Baby Face Nelson. All I saw was Mickey Rooney trying to act the role. Aside from his miscasting, the cast is great. Acting overall is fine, and Carolyn Jones' performance is quite good. The mostly jazz score is okay but a bit overbearing at times.
This might have been a better film if 1950s Hollywood had not taken such a straitjacket approach to crime story telling, and if the production had had a bigger budget. The main problem here is a generic script that treats the lead character as just another gangster, his gang as stereotyped sidekicks, and events as contrived. The film downplays Nelson's historical reality. There are some very good films about real-life gangsters. "Baby Face Nelson" isn't one of them.
Voyage of the Yes (1973)
Adventure Film With Thematic Depth
It's a shame the story premise here was not developed to its full potential. Two youthful dudes head out to sea in a small boat, bound for Hawaii. The skipper is Cal (Desi Arnaz Jr.); his mate is Orlando (Mike Evans). Cal is White; Orlando is Black. Cal can't find anyone else to make the trip with him, so Orlando, who is running away from a bad situation, volunteers. Given the era in which the film was made, it's not surprising that some of the script deals with the issue of race. Claustrophobic quarters over time forces the two to confront their differences.
But mostly this is a story about the dreams of youth. Themes include self-reliance, self-confidence, facing unexpected problems, and in the process learning about oneself. On their journey the two encounter a shark, a storm, and become drastically off-course with no water or food.
Some of the technology is a bit dated, like the tape recorder and the survival radio. Casting is fine. Acting is better than what I would have predicted. Cinematography is acceptable. Production design is unimportant given that most of the plot takes place in open water on the small boat. I really like the Simon and Garfunkel music, consistent with a naturalistic vision.
"Voyage Of The Yes" is an outdoor adventure film with thematic depth. And though the plot is somewhat attenuated, it's a good film to watch when one has wanderlust and is ready to sail the waters to far-off ports-of-call, or to see how two individuals with different backgrounds interact.
The Trap (1946)
Script And Lighting Render Below Average Film
"I am convinced the murderer is in this room", says Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to the myriad suspects gathered together in a big two-story beach house at Malibu. His comment reassures us that this film will be as gripping as other Chan films. Alas, Chan's comment belies the implied promise, as "The Trap" disappoints in multiple ways.
I counted no fewer than thirteen suspects, way too many for a viable whodunit. Most of these suspects are women who look too much alike. It took me several replays of the first-half plot to connect names with faces. These characters are poorly introduced and about half of them should have been deleted from the script. One female, named Clementine, exists apparently only to scream; her hysterical response to minor events is annoying.
The ending is a big disappointment. Although I correctly picked the killer from the suspect pool, the reveal occurs outside at night. The scene is photographed so darkly that the only way I could identify this person was to listen to the dialogue, which tells the person's name. And it seems to be by luck that Chan solves the case, as he does not announce any clues as to the killer's identity. The motivation of the murderer is far-fetched, to say the least.
If the viewer pays very close attention, there is one quick scene near the middle wherein one particular suspect is separate from the others; that person is the killer, whose action at that time does connect to a significant plot event. Aside from which, I don't think there is any way to figure out the killer's identity through logic.
The B&W cinematography is poor. Multiple important scenes take place either at night or in dark spaces. The lighting is so bad I found it hard to impossible to figure out what action was taking place.
On the plus side, the film has the wonderful Mantan Moreland and a Chan son who does not intrude into the plot as much as in other films. "The Trap" is not one of the better Charlie Chan movies, due to a poor script and poor lighting. But I can think of one or two others that are worse.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Leave it to Spielberg to trivialize such a profound topic. The big draw is the dinosaurs. Yet they appear in only about 15 minutes of the film's 120-minute plot. Mostly what we have here are banal humans, and even an obnoxious character named Dennis (Wayne Knight), engaged in trite conversations, and exposition contrived to bring viewers up to speed. At the film's worst, viewers and the two lead "scientists" are treated to what is literally a cartoon on the relationship between mosquitoes and dinosaur DNA. The film talks down to its audience.
And there is no intrinsic need for those two kids. They are added to draw in viewers from across all age ranges. "Jurassic Park" is a popcorn flick that's pop-culture friendly. At least it's not as bad as Spielberg's "Jaws", a kiddie movie lacking in thematic depth.
The only character in "Jurassic Park" that acts like an adult is Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). He conveys a skeptical view of the intent of the Park's creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), when Malcolm says ... "Gee, the lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, staggers me". He further critiques Hammond: "You packaged (your discovery), slapped it on a plastic lunch-box and now you're selling it ... What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world". So there is a bit of depth to the film, if only in passing.
By far the best element is the visual effects, truly spectacular. The dinosaurs look realistic and believable. These visuals are enhanced by sound effects accompanied by a subtle echo. Which, when combined with the rain forest background, create a faraway feel, consistent with the historical remoteness of the Mesozoic era in which the dinosaurs lived.
Casting is acceptable. Acting trends a bit overblown. Production and art design are almost as good as the special effects. But I did not like the overbearing and manipulative background music.
With a huge budget and a famous director, this Hollywood blockbuster aims at a mass audience. Though the visual effects are spectacular, the script gives us a childish story, with childish characters, that I find mildly insulting to the study of such a fascinatingly alien era in Earth's history.
House of Mystery (1934)
Invitation To A Curse
An obnoxious archaeologist insults the locals in Asia and has to flee, but not before grabbing a hoard of Asian treasures as he scurries back to the U.S. His investors back home want part of the fortune that he brings back with him. So he invites them all to his two-story mansion, but informs them that an Asian "curse" befalls those in possession of the fortune. His proposition is that the investors stay in his house for awhile and see for themselves what happens.
It's a silly story concept. But it does offer a neat little puzzle for whodunit fans to solve. The plot involves a séance, some incense, and tom-tom drums. There are multiple plot holes, at least one of which is revealed by means of dialogue. The solution to the puzzle includes a psychological concept called "conditioned response". But the application of it to this story is not very credible.
Characters are poorly developed, which is not surprising, given the short runtime. There are eight or so suspects, none very interesting, apart from a grouchy old woman lording over her henpecked husband. The insurance salesman is a bit annoying. The cops are rather nondescript and bumbling. I could have wished for a Charlie Chan.
In the version I watched, sound quality was not very good, and neither was the B&W cinematography. The visuals tended to be unnecessarily dark and somewhat blurry, probably a result of inferior technology in the 1930s. Casting is okay. But acting is exaggerated, also likely resulting from an era just emerging from silent films.
Aside from poor visuals and sound, which we might expect for that era, the main problem is a not very credible story premise, compounded by poor characterization. Even so, the film might still appeal to viewers who like animated puzzles, which is what a whodunit film really is.