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Lechuguilla (pronounced Lech-ah-GEE-ah) [caver]
I write film scripts and IMDb film reviews.
The Raven (2012)
Poe's Last Days
A madman commits grizzly murders using techniques and strategies devised by Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack), as expressed in his published writings. Poe himself becomes a suspect, as Detective Fields (Luke Evans) tells Poe: "your imagination is the inspiration of a horrendous crime". To which Poe responds: "Is imagination now a felony?" The story is set in Baltimore during the mid-nineteenth century.
The plot consists of the police reacting to various murders, and trying to catch the killer in different settings that include a masked ball and the tunnels of Baltimore. This is very much a whodunit movie, with clues sent by the killer to Poe and Detective Fields. Although the killer is present in mundane scenes, the suspect pool is fuzzy and not well defined.
Poe is, of course, the central character, a person who sees himself as a literary intellectual. But he's arrogant; he's much impressed with his mental capacities; and he resents criticism. He's also very much infatuated with a young woman named Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve). With the exception of Emily, those around Poe don't much like him.
The film excels at mystery. Tension is high in those scenes wherein the cops are in close proximity to the unknown killer. There is some gore, but I would not place this film in the horror genre. One problem with the plot is that the killer's identity is revealed too soon, followed by a way too strung out, anticlimactic ending.
Visuals are appropriately dark and dreary, so much so that it's hard to identify characters in some scenes. Colors are highly muted and lighting is low contrast. Production design and costumes seem authentic for the story's era. Background music is eerie at times but also somewhat manipulative. John Cusack gives a really fine performance as Poe. Other performances are acceptable.
The point of this fictional film is a rendering of the famous poet's last days. In the process, viewers are offered a standard whodunit story. "The Raven" seems more Sherlock Holmes than Poe. But that's okay with me, as I am very fond of murder mysteries.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Vivid, Violent, And Vacuous
Horror of horrors describes its popular reputation. The images are vivid. The action is violent. And the characters are vacuous. Whatever a viewer thinks of this film, he or she is not likely to forget it.
Five youthful hippies driving through rural Texas in a van get more than they bargained for when they encounter a bizarre looking hitchhiker near a slaughterhouse. From this point on, van occupants' luck goes from bad to worse. The first-half plot, during daytime, trends somewhat dull, though some scenes foreshadow what is to come in the second half.
As dusk settles in, the horror action heats up, peaking in the dead of night. Indeed, the scariest scenes are those that take place outdoors in the dark. One sequence in particular is frightening; two characters trudge through thick brush with just a flashlight. Suddenly upon them is the face of a maniacal man with a buzzing chainsaw. The lighting on the man's face, and the suddenness with which he attacks, creates a bogeyman straight out of a child's nightmare.
But what is the point of the movie? Apparently there is none, apart from provoking sheer fright. Those sequences that are most disturbing could be condensed into about twenty to thirty minutes. Much of the rest of the plot is filler, to extend the runtime so as to ensure a full-length movie.
That's not the only problem. The story tells us nothing about the characters, either the five hippies or the villains. What's their history; what is their motivation? We don't know. They're all arbitrary, vacuously unimportant, in the script's quest for terror.
Cast and acting are largely irrelevant. Marilyn Burns gives a good performance, but she has more opportunity to act than the others. Performances of the villains are all outrageously hammy; they act like they've got mad cow disease. Visuals trend grainy. Sound effects are good. Interior sets are appropriate for the genre and could be described as garbage Gothic.
Being a work of fiction, the story is not very imaginative. But it is simple and straightforward, absent any subtext to interfere with the vividly clean images of horror and violent action. I guess that's what viewers most want in this film genre. And the film delivers.
What A Cinematic Fossil
It's a super-dated fluff story about an ambitious advertising man named Rock Hunter (Tony Randall) who finds a way to climb the corporate ladder with the help of a bleach-blonde bimbo with big lips named Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield). She coos and squeals, and poses in front of a camera, on her way up Hollywood's stardom ladder. I have seen silent-era films that had more depth, entertainment value, heart, and contemporary relevance than this atrocity.
Characters are as shallow as they are silly, as superficial as they are stereotyped. The only thematic message is contained in the film's title. And guess how the film defines "success"; materialistic values, here we come. Aside from this odious theme, there is no message. Viewers back in 1957 must have been easy to please and free from the burdens of critical thinking to enjoy such a nothing movie.
Each main actor gets his or her own long monologue, no doubt a selling point to lure in the principal performers. I didn't like the way Tony Randall breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to viewers, corn pone savoir-faire straight from Hollywood. Script dialogue lacks subtext. And the plot flows straight from point A to point Z with nary a zigzag to interfere with viewers' minimal comprehension skills.
Background music is standard 1950's nondescript. Casting is acceptable except for Tony Randall, a mouse who couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag, much less able to take on the rigors of cold, in-house corporate politics. The one really fine performance is from reliable Joan Blondell, as companion to dimwit Rita Marlowe. Joan Blondell and a few funny lines save this antique from being a total cinematic misdemeanor.
Apparently aimed at an audience of giggly 16-year-old females, this popcorn and candy flick is pure diversionary fluff, and embarrassingly dated, a time capsule of horrid mainstream American pop culture during the stodgy Eisenhower era. No wonder juveniles back then were driven into delinquency.
Deal With The Devil
Based on an infamous real-life case, "Karla" tells the story of a woman named Karla Homolka (Laura Prepon) who gets involved with an upwardly mobile and superficially charming Paul Bernardo (Misha Collins), a man who evaded arrest as the real-life "Scarborough Rapist". In the film, the two hunt down several young girls who are eventually murdered, either by Karla or by Paul. The attacks took place, and the movie is set, in Ontario, Canada, near Toronto. The time period is the early 1990s.
What I find annoying here is the script's POV and plot structure. The entire film is told from Homolka's point of view which, not surprisingly, minimizes her involvement in the various crimes, and to some extent paints her as something of an abused victim of Bernardo. Further, the awful crimes are told in flashback, as she relates them to a prison psychiatrist. These in-house prison scenes are dull and slow. Though Homolka no doubt bears a lot of responsibility for what happened, the real devil here is Paul Bernardo. And the script should have been a straightforward rendering of the murders wherein both Karla and Paul were present.
Casting and acting are fine. Photography contains a lot of side lighting, which casts a gloomy mood over many scenes. Some of the music is eerie and ominous, which foreshadows oncoming dreadful actions.
There was at least one attempt to ban this film, which would have amounted to censorship. Many viewers hate this movie because they feel like it's an attempt to capitalize on human suffering. But many crime films are based on true-life murders and other non-fiction tragedies.
The appropriate audience for this film would be viewers who are interested in true crime, and who can look dispassionately on the people involved, including villains. I'm glad I saw "Karla" because it is based on a real-life case, but I don't think I want to watch it again.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Through The Mississippi Darkness
In 1964 three Civil Rights workers were murdered in rural Mississippi by Southern White racists. This film tells the story of the follow-up investigation by two FBI guys named Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Ward (Willem Dafoe). Although the triple murder is based on a real-life case, script plot points are mostly fictional.
The Anderson and Ward characters are fictional. And it's unfortunate that the writers here portray the FBI as the good guys, which is a distortion of the historical reality. The Mrs. Pell character (Frances McDormand), also is fictional and distracts from the case. While the inclusion of some fiction can be acceptable in real-life stories, since such films are not intended as documentaries, "Mississippi Burning" deviates too much from the historical truth, and that's my main criticism of the film.
Some have argued that the film is biased because it presents a stereotyped view that all Mississippi Blacks were victims and all Mississippi Whites were villainous. But that's pretty much the way it was back then. Even now, I'm not sure a lot has changed since 1964, though villainy may be more subtle now. Because of the heavy political overtones, some viewers will necessarily be put off by the film's overall message.
The visuals are the real strength of the film. Detailed prod design, period costumes, and the casting of local, non-professional actors make the film come alive with a sense of realism. Much of the plot takes place at night, thematically appropriate given that evil redneck thugs terrorized an entire race of people and caused untold suffering.
Casting is appropriate, with the possible exception of Willem Dafoe, an actor with an annoying voice. Cinematography is quite good. Colors are highly muted; lighting is fairly low, with night scenes quite dark.
"Where does it come from, all this hatred (toward Blacks)", asks one character. It comes from the reality that the South never recovered from the Civil War. And all that resentment expressed in 1964 to some extent still exists, some 25 years after "Mississippi Burning" was made, and a half-century after the event upon which the film is based. Many Southern Whites just cannot let go of the past. Perhaps they never will ...
The Dark Hour (1936)
The Body In The Library
A quick run-through of most of the plot suggests that this whodunit film might be an Agatha Christie creation, as complicated as the story is. There are five to seven suspects, depending on whom you count. And the murder occurs in the library of a large house. But though the underlying premise is okay, "The Dark Hour" is no Agatha Christie creation. Two brothers live together along with their various servants. A couple of other suspects live close by, together with a retired detective. A building fire figures prominently in the plot.
It took two viewings to make sense out of the story. In the end it does all come together, though there is some conveniently coincidental timing in certain plot points. The main reason to watch the film is the ending. My guess as to the identity of the murderer was dead wrong. So the ending was a pleasant surprise, and I was able to go back and see the subtle clues that I missed. Near the end a major twist further adds to the film's enjoyment. Spine-tingling suspense erupts near the climax as an unknown person shines a flashlight into a darkened bedroom, and then fires a shot.
Almost all the scenes take place on indoor sets, implying that this was a low-budget film. Production design is minimal. I'm constantly amazed at how old houses back in those days were built with such high ceilings, making rooms look cavernous. B&W lighting has a slight noir effect. The camera is largely static. Very little music occurs during the film, but I like the score during the opening credits. Sound tends to be scratchy and overall sound quality is poor, which makes dialogue hard to understand in a few spots. Acting is acceptable, my favorite performance being the actor who plays blustery Mr. Bernard.
It's not the best whodunit out there by any means. The script could have been improved to enhance clarity. And production values are weak. Still, it's not a bad movie. The final twenty minutes or so are quite good, and render "The Dark Hour" worth at least a one-time viewing.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
HBO Is The Hero Here
Congrats to HBO for having the guts to produce a script which mainstream studios refused to consider. "Behind The Candelabra" gives us a story about Liberace's personal life, from the POV of his one time lover, "blond Adonis" Scott Thorson. The plot spans some ten years, from 1977 to Liberace's death in 1987.
Aside from his public persona, Liberace (Michael Douglas) comes across as egotistical, daring, self-absorbed, and to some extent old-fashioned in his values and beliefs. Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) comes across as passive, a tad lazy, and lacking in foresight and intellect. The plot's first half presents us with a love story. In the second half, reality sets in. One gets the feeling that though there may have been love between the two, Scott is just one more object for Liberace to collect, which was easy for him given his wealth. That kind of material relationship speaks poorly of both men.
This film has a big cast, and some well-known names. Rob Lowe is terrific as a humorously bizarre plastic surgeon. Debbie Reynolds, as Lee's elderly mother, is so good that she is unrecognizable. Nearly all of the actors give fine performances. Michael Douglas especially deserves credit given that Liberace's mannerisms and image are so well known.
Lavish custom costumes, detailed and elaborate production design, tons of subtle and not-so-subtle makeup all combine to add enormously to the story's credibility, as does the cinematography. Interior lighting makes Liberace's on-stage performances come alive. Music is, not unexpectedly, what Liberace liked, to some extent stuffy and old-fashioned.
I was never a Liberace fan. But he was a much-beloved entertainer and talented pianist, who had a long show business career. That the Hollywood studios turned this script down tells us a great deal about Hollywood. The real hero in this film is not a character so much as it is HBO. Maybe there is hope that quality films can still be made, despite cowardly industry insiders.
What a great premise: 1960s hero and arch villain both frozen, then unfrozen after thirty years to resume their global fight for power. A satire of the James Bond series, "Austin Powers ..." (played by Mike Myers) is a real disappointment. I laughed a couple of times. Otherwise, I endured the crude gags, stilted gimmicks, and the repellent character of Powers, with that grimaced smile and those ugly teeth.
The problem here is the writing. The script just isn't funny. The humor is all forced. And there's a lot of missed opportunities. For example, Austin opens up a laptop, a device that wasn't available in the 1960s. Yet, he has no problem using it to chatter with Number Two (Robert Wagner). What an ideal setup for some laughs about changes in technology. But no; the script passes over this opportunity for some real comparisons to the 60s. Instead, we get way too much time spent on Porky's style bathroom "humor" that has nothing to do with cultural changes.
The film is certainly colorful, as was the style for much of the latter half of the 1960s. Cinematography dazzles with flashy, glitzy, glittering visuals. But for what purpose? Probably the best element is the music. At least they brought back a couple of pop songs from the 60s. And the score is quite reminiscent of the earlier era.
Casting is what it is. If you like Mike Myers, you'll no doubt like the film, since "Austin Powers ..." is basically a Mike Myers vehicle. Otherwise, the casting is largely irrelevant. Performances, beyond Myers' silliness, are neither good nor bad, since they're all exaggerated.
I had hoped for humor that was more natural, more organic, and some clever comparisons to the 1960s. I got neither. This film is a blunt, in-your-face cinematic example of shallow, puerile, trashy insignificance that I suppose Mike Myers has become known for. Too bad.
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
That Sneering Joviality
It could have been a story from The Twilight Zone. A small Southern town comes alive each hundred years to get even for the Civil War. Unfortunately, the subtext for "Two Thousand Maniacs" is in-your-face hateful. Back in 1964 the premise probably was considered amusing. Now, however, it seems dated and is in very poor taste.
There's a lot of sneering joviality in this film. The stupid, bloodthirsty townsfolk are bullies who get a lot of enjoyment out of inflicting pain. There are no heroes here, only villains. And the script plotting is weak. Just when you think the movie is ending, it's not. It revs back up with a slight "twist" and keeps going. This happens several times.
Aside from a substandard theme and plot, the film's direction is poor. Among the worst scenes are those wherein cast extras stand around in the background watching; they look wooden and manipulated, the result of an unimaginative Director who doesn't seem to know how to set up a scene.
The town is called "Pleasant Valley"; a more apt name would be "Amateur-ville", due to the acting. Actors recite their lines about as effectively as high school thespians. Prod values are cheap looking. And the sound is terrible. There's a subtle and unwanted echo on interior sets that makes some of the dialogue muffled and hard to understand. Color cinematography is adequate; images are clear and appropriately lit.
A carnival-like tone drains suspense from a story that could have been interestingly thematic and eerie, if the script had been written, and the production directed, by Twilight Zone writer and host Rod Serling. Instead, what we get with "Two Thousand Maniacs" is a hateful plot, lacking suspense and mystery, in a film largely devoid of cinematic professionalism. Marketing the film in the Horror genre refocus the production to a friendlier niche audience, which explains its cult status.
Motel Hell (1980)
Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) runs Motel Hello. But the decrepit red neon sign out front sputters the "O" in "Hello", so as to read "Motel Hell", an apt description for strangers passing through this rural area. Farmer Vincent also has a sideline business; he tends a pig farm and garden. He also sets traps for creatures that enter his domain. But the good farmer and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), who lives with him at the motel, are righteous people. We know this because their TV is constantly tuned to a preacher who tells listeners to send money. What would overnighters possibly have to fear from such noble souls as Vincent and Ida?
As a comedy-horror film "Motel Hell" is better than most I have seen. It's got humor. In one segment, the driver of a van carrying a bunch of hippie musicians announces to his passengers: "Oh man, this rent's too heavy; we better find a place to crash". Within seconds the van wheels into a bear trap that sends the van tumbling into a ravine where it crashes.
But the film has some problems. A twenty-something character named Terry, who stays with Vincent and Ida is so annoyingly helpless and gullible as to be not the least bit credible. And although Nancy Parsons makes an ideal Ida, Rory Calhoun looks too much like an actor to be a credible farmer. And his false teeth are visually annoying.
A low-budget film, "Motel Hell" projects grainy visuals, though that doesn't necessarily hurt the overall tone. Many scenes occur at night and there is a distinct fog present, something of a cliché for horror films.
One of the great visual images of this film comes near the end, when, in dim lighting, someone wearing a large pig head attacks another character. The pig- head person laughs maniacally, creating a creepy atmosphere. Had this sequence come earlier in the plot and in a non-comedic whodunit horror film, the creep factor would have been exponentially higher.
The film doesn't take itself seriously, and neither should the viewer. If you're in the right mood for a tongue-in-cheek fluff film, "Motel Hell" has quite a bit to offer.