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Writers Richard Levinson and William Link wrote some great scripts in
the sixties and seventies, including some for Hitchcock. A
psychological thriller that first aired in 1979, "Murder By Natural
Causes", is arguably Levinson and Link's best work. With twist upon
twist upon twist, and subtle dialogue clues scattered throughout the
plot, it's a film that fans of suspense thrillers need to see, as an
example of superior script writing.
Forty-something and wealthy entertainer Arthur Sinclair (Hal Holbrook) wows audiences with his mental telepathy skills as he seemingly reads peoples minds. Allison (Katharine Ross) is his attractive thirty-something wife, a person with a roving eye and a desire for riches. What kind of story do you think this setup suggests? Can you guess how the film ends? Don't bet on it.
The film could easily be transformed into a stage play since most scenes take place indoors on sets. Production design is adequate. Intermittent background music is at times spooky, and there are a couple of scenes wherein the music is reminiscent of the shower scene in Hitchcock's "Psycho", shrieking and shrill. Good editing keeps the plot flowing nicely for the most part, though the middle Act trends a bit talky in a couple of scenes. Color cinematography is adequate. Casting and acting cannot be improved upon.
All film elements come together perfectly in that final sequence when a character walks in the front door of Aruthur's big house. The dialogue here is entrancing. Camera movement is faultless. And that final scene where the camera moves in close to a character's eyes is breathtakingly dramatic. It's one of the great final sequences in film history.
It's too bad this film never received a theatrical release. It is far better and more entertaining than most major Hollywood thrillers of the last fifty years that I have seen. The film won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best television film of 1980. One might even assert that "Murder By Natural Causes" is the best TV movie ever made. I probably would not argue with that assessment.
This low budget, outdoor thriller tells the story of a physically
strong but emotionally damaged young desert tracker named Ben (Jeremy
Irvine) who accompanies an arrogant client named Madec (Michael
Douglas) on a hunt to shoot bighorn sheep in the desert wilderness of
the American southwest.
Madec is your typical corporate villain who reminds me of J.R. Ewing in his swagger and lack of ethics. With Ben as passenger, Madec drives his 6-wheel drive, obnoxious looking Mercedes SUV, with monster wheels, and complete with microwave, out across the desert. When Madec creates a problem on the hunt, Ben must decide how to handle the situation, which propels the plot through most of the film.
The interesting theme here of stalking human prey reminds me of the classic 1932 movie "The Most Dangerous Game", with a similar theme and villain.
The script of "Beyond The Reach" has some problems. The middle Act is repetitive and way too strung out. The film's ending is disappointing; it looks tacked on, a climax borrowed from a different movie. And throughout the film, plot holes render a somewhat unrealistic story.
Cinematography is acceptable. A wide-angle lens captures the expansiveness and loneliness of the desert. The one production design worthy of comment is the old prospector's desert hideout, kind of neat with its string of light bulbs and that old-fashioned music.
"Beyond The Reach" is a reasonably good film about a young man who becomes prey to a modern human villain more dangerous than any animal in the wilds. The ruggedly beautiful landscape renders interesting visuals. And though the script is imperfect, it's good enough to merit at least one viewing, especially for viewers who enjoy outdoor thrillers.
From start to finish, it's a satire on American history and TV
documentaries. The real history is deliberately twisted to show viewers
what America might have been like today if the South had won the Civil
War. Fake historians recite fake commentaries; fake visuals show action
that never occurred or is taken out of context; actors act out
characters that never lived. Even the commercial breaks are fictional
and presume that slave life is part of America in the twenty-first
I thought the commercials were funny and clever. Examples include a TV sitcom called "Leave It To Beulah", about a Black maid in a White household. Another commercial advertises "The Shackle", an electronic product put on slaves so that their owners know where they are, at all times. The funniest, though, is "The Slave Shopping Network", where two bubble-headed White ladies advertise Black people for sale; the commercial is funny because it is so outrageous.
The history lesson, however, I found boring. Structured like a documentary, its visual images and its various commentaries go on and on in excruciating detail. I'm just not that much of a history buff to spend all that time trying to digest a history that never happened. Further, the viewer really has to know the real history in order to know which characters, scenes, and legacies are bogus, since this false history is a twisted version of real history. In particular, I found the "John Ambrose Fauntroy" character annoying.
The film's visuals and sound compare favorably to real documentaries. Background music is appropriate. Casting is generally acceptable, but the narrative suffers from some overacting. The cast is very large, consistent with a long drawn-out historical drama, showing lots of different people from different historical periods.
Even though the South lost on the battleground, its values seem to be still embraced by many Americans; that, I think, is the theme of this film. I just wish the satire could have been presented more succinctly and with less confusion. "C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America" is built on a clever premise. It will be most appreciated by viewers with a thorough knowledge of the real American history.
This low-budget film from 1965 is set in the distant future of 1975. It
tells the story of an American spacecraft with four people on-board
that crash lands on Mars. There's a kind of twist at the end that
renders this synopsis somewhat incorrect. The story actually has a
theme to it, which relates to the passage of time. And there are a
couple of references to "The Wizard Of Oz".
But overall, it's a slow moving boring affair that tests the viewer's patience. The character named Charlie, second in command, looks like a high school dropout who joined a circus. Much of the dialogue has each crew member informing another crew member of technical information that all four should have known about long before they ever left Earth. All this talky exposition is for the benefit of the viewer, of course. The woman, named Dorothy, whimpers: "Steve, what are we going to do now?" Responds Steve: "We'll have to run for it" ... a crew of real knowledgeable astronauts there.
On Mars, lots of screen time is spent just wandering around their surroundings, making stupid comments and asking dumb questions. In these sequences, the dialogue occurs while the camera is quite some distance from the characters, giving the impression that the visuals were shot first, with the dialogue superimposed in post edit.
Later, they encounter live beings, sort of. And the wizard finally makes an appearance well into the second half. When he does, he speaks in English, conveniently, and his voice has an echo chamber quality to it. He launches into a laughable, loquacious monologue that goes on for a tortuous four minutes. It's one of the more humorous parts of the film.
Special effects look cheap, though I did find the reddish, pink colors marginally convincing, given this is the red planet. Casting and acting are poor. Dialogue is awful. Scientific credibility is nonexistent. At least the script made an effort to create some thematic heft. And for me that's what saved "The Wizard Of Mars" from being a total cinematic disaster.
One thing I am quite clear on is that Scientology ain't no religion. In
their teachings I see no heart, no soul, no humanity, no softness. All
I see is technique. Gurus are rewarded with power and money.
The movement was founded by a science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard, who enshrined his 1950s self-help fad, called "Dianetics", into a self-proclaimed religion that he renamed "Scientology". Fast-forward sixty years and Hubbard's "religion" has morphed into a billion-dollar business headed by an allegedly manipulative, controlling madman, surrounded by star celebrities and a hoard of brainwashed, but wealthy, individuals who should know better.
The purpose of this pretentious clique seems to be to turn every member into a cash dispensing zombie, incapable of critical thought, and existing to service the financial and cheer-leading demands of its arrogant, elitist leaders, pied pipers of deception and delusion. One of the scariest segments shows a huge audience of followers giving a thunderous, standing ovation to their leader as he spouts out his victory over the IRS.
The only difference between these followers and those of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple is that these people are not destitute or uneducated. But they still have willingly forfeited their independence, some too weak ever to escape the group's dogmatic belief system.
I felt a bit sorry for John Travolta as presented here. He comes across as a person who has been blackmailed into silence by the "church", to preserve his public image. He can't leave or speak out. Tom Cruise is much scarier. He comes across as pompous, certain, and invincible. His obvious power to influence and control is frightening.
Technical quality of this documentary, comprised largely of contemporary interviews and archival footage, is very good, though I could have wished for screen information, like names and places, to be in bigger letters. For example, I had to squint to see the names of people being interviewed. Music is appropriately low-key.
One thing this program tacitly pounds away at is the gullibility of insecure people who will believe almost anything pushed by a charismatic messenger. "Going Clear" offers an enlightening exposure of an organization that seems to meet all the criteria of a cult. I just hope the endgame here is not another tragedy comparable to that of Jim Jones and the Peoples' Temple. Heaven only knows about private Scientology tragedies that may lie hidden from public view.
The story is set mostly in Arizona near an old gold mine. The owner is
being threatened and wants Chan's help. It's a good premise but the
story is dull and unconvincing. There are not enough suspects to make
the puzzle interesting. The killer here is easier to figure out than in
most Chan stories. There was one surprise toward the end but it only
contributed to the story's implausibility.
Characters are shallow and generally uninteresting. Way too much time is spent on the drunk who stumbles around the swimming pool. This character isn't really needed anyway and my impression is that he functions mostly as filler; the film contains a lot of filler, despite the short runtime.
Outdoor visuals do not look much like Arizona. The mine-shafts add a spooky quality. But film lighting renders the tunnels too bright to be convincingly subterranean. Overall lighting is generally too dark. Production design is predictably minimal and cheap.
As bug-eyed Birmingham Brown, Mantan Moreland is always a welcome addition to the cast. But Victor Sen Yung doesn't add much as Number Two Son. And Roland Winters is dreadful as Charlie Chan. Winters just doesn't have the Chan persona that Warner Oland or Sidney Toler had.
With minimal mystery and suspense, few suspects, and a dull Charlie Chan actor, "The Golden Eye" is below average for this series. Only hard core Charlie Chan movie fans will find much appeal in this film.
The premise is simple. Five generic college students arrive at an
inconspicuous cabin in the woods for a few days of vacation.
Unbeknownst to them, the cabin and the surrounding woods are home to
evil beings that are dormant ... that is, until the kids find an old
book and tape recorder filled with zombie gibberish. The story is set
mostly during one night. Dense fog obscures one's vision outside the
The first-half plot isn't bad. The camera takes the POV of unseen entities, darting here and there. And the kids spend a lot of time exploring the cabin and its cellar, waiting and listening, as eerie sounds put them on guard that something isn't quite right. The music, too, adds to the sinister atmosphere.
But if the first half conveys a pleasantly spooky atmosphere because of what we do not see, the second half's plot plummets to stupidity because of what we do see. No longer hidden, the evil makes itself visible, in the form of nightmarish images and gratuitous gore. The film thus loses its suspense and mystery.
The second-half plot trends repetitive as the same fate befalls one kid after another. And the gore continues to escalate. Nearing the film's merciful end, I started getting a headache, as the gore got progressively more annoying.
The film has no thematic depth. And since the underlying premise presumes a supernatural explanation, we can't apply logic to any story element. Acting is largely irrelevant. The credibility of the film thus lies mostly in sound effects and special effects, which are nicely crafted but over-used. I would have enjoyed the film more if the zombies, or whatever they're called, had been less visible and if the gore factor had been hugely reduced.
Will we ever solve the mysteries of the JFK assassination to everyone's
satisfaction? No, I don't think so. LBJ's Warren Commission (WC), with
cheer-leading from the mainstream press, tried to sell the public on
the Oswald-as-lone-gunman idea. After a brief, national acceptance, the
public began to question the WC conclusions. Ever since, the public's
collective belief that Oswald acted alone, as measured by opinion
polls, has been trending steadily downward.
The general impression is that the WC did not set out to find the truth. Instead, they set out to build a case that Oswald acted alone, a man who had long since been silenced by Jack Ruby. The WC built their lone-gunman case by cherry-picking those bits of information that would fit their predetermined conclusions. But an excess of bizarre coincidences, torturous logic, and massive inconsistencies of every sort in every facet of this multifaceted case overwhelm officialdom's weak arguments, and make the mainstream press look sheepishly beholden to Washington insiders.
The script's arguments for a conspiracy are compelling. Unfortunately, Stone's script tells the story from Jim Garrison's POV. Garrison's case against Clay Shaw was tenuous, at best. Result: officialdom and the press ... pounce. That Shaw may not have had a proved link to the assassination, however, does not in any way, plug up the massive holes in the conclusions of the Warren Commission. So a conspiracy is still a possibility, sans Garrison's theories. As a result, we're back where we started, with a silly lone-gunman theory, and some vague "conspiracy". What a mess!
As cinema, Stone's film is brilliant. The plot is gripping, riveting, mesmerizing. With an all-star cast, there's not a weak link in the bunch. Lighting is stylized and at times 1940's noirish. The dignified and profound musical score by John Williams enhances a tone of mystery and intrigue.
Editing is terrific. An enormous amount of information is telegraphed in the well-over three-hour production, information that could not have been included without split second cuts. As a result, the film's pace oscillates nicely between casual and rapid-fire.
A message film that persuasively demolishes the WC conclusions yet suffers from a too-literal belief in the Jim Garrison narrative, leaves us with a lot to think about. To a person with an open mind, the "mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma", as David Ferrie called it, is just as deep, just as profound now as it was fifty years ago. It probably always will remain such ... the stuff of legend.
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.
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.
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