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1953 reviews in total 
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Videodrome (1983)
Typical Cronenberg, Clinical and Full of Ick, 2 November 2014

"Icky" pretty much sums up this David Cronenberg freak fest about a small-time TV executive who will stop at nothing to get ratings for his obscure and grassroots network.

James Woods is the exec, and he gives a very good, very grounded performance in a movie that more often feels like a fever dream than a coherent narrative. In typical Cronenberg fashion, the film blends queasy horror with deadpan black humor to mostly good effect, which means the film always stays just this side of taking itself too seriously, a key ingredient in a story that's going to be this out there. But on the other hand, also in typical Cronenberg fashion, the film feels clinical and abstract, more about ideas than about characters or plot, which makes it difficult to become fully engaged in it.

I will say that the film is fairly prophetic in its thesis that consumers of mass media will crave stronger and stronger depravity as they become desensitized to the material available to them. It made me think of the horror movie trend, and how just the idea of a masked stalker picking off teens was a scary enough idea even if we never saw the gory results in full detail, whereas now the youth market doesn't seem to think a movie is scary enough unless we see people killed with all the grisly detail of an autopsy.

Grade: B-

Better Than the Movie It's an Offspring Of, 29 October 2014

"The Burning" is one of the legion of "Friday the 13th" rip-offs that came out in the 80s and, like many of its fellow imitators, makes a better movie than the one it's borrowing from.

"The Burning" has a nearly identical premise to the "Friday" series: some camp kids are responsible for the death of someone, and that someone comes back years later to seek his revenge by picking off an unlucky bunch of counselors and campers one by one. "The Burning" brings nothing original to the party, but it's just a better made movie than "Friday the 13th." A very young Jason Alexander is in the cast (I find him to be intolerable whenever he's playing anyone other than George Costanza on "Seinfeld") as is an even younger Fisher Stevens. There's some gore courtesy of the same guy who did the gore effects in "Friday the 13th," but they don't overwhelm the film the way gore effects do in what passes today for horror films.

"The Burning" does as much as you can expect a generic slasher film to do: it keeps you mildly engaged for 90 minutes.

Grade: B-

"Friday the 13th" Meets "Lord of the Flies", 28 October 2014

Welcome to camp Arawak, the surliest summer camp in history.

We're in "Lord of the Flies" territory here, where it's every man for himself and the atmosphere always feels like it's one step away from boiling over into outright gang warfare. A homoerotic softball game nearly becomes a rumble, while a world-weary female counselor named Meg ("M.E.G." she specifies when she's introduced, as if there is any other way to spell "Meg") and her evil, ubiquitous henchman, a camper called Judy, make life hell for the girls. Though to be honest it's hard to tell the campers from the counselors, since most everyone looks like they're thirty years old, and all of them look like actors who didn't get cast in "Fame," except for the male counselors, who all look like they COULD be cast in a gay porno.

"Sleepaway Camp" is a bad movie lover's delight, a film that can be fully enjoyed both as a bad movie and as a cult classic that relative to other movies in its genre displays a moderate amount of creativity. It's got a reputation as having one of the most shocking twist endings in horror movie history, and I will say I did not see the twist coming at all. It's not a scary movie at all, and I'm not even sure it was really trying to be. For that reason, though it's clearly modeled after "Friday the 13th," it's not really a rival to that movie, as it has a completely different tone and sensibility. It also happens to be a much better film than any of the "Friday the 13th" movies.

Grade: B-

The Search for Primitive Man, 26 October 2014

Wacko movie from perennially wacko director Ken Russell about an academic (William Hurt in his first film role) who becomes obsessed with contacting his own primitive self and uses a combination of hallucinogenic drugs and sensory deprivation tanks to do so.

The premise is a pretty interesting one, but it doesn't make much sense as handled by Russell, and what starts out as a fairly unsettling film becomes laughable when Hurt literally transforms into a sort of werewolf and goes running around a zoo punching animals in the face. I couldn't tell if we were supposed to find this funny or not, because Russell brings the same exaggerated tone to everything he does. Hurt is pretty good, despite the mumbo jumbo the script gives him to recite, while no one else in the cast (which includes Bob Balaban and Blair Brown) makes much of an impression.

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: one for its jangling score by John Corigliano and the other for its jangling sound design.

Grade: B-

Sci-Fi That Feels Smart Whether or Not It Actually Is, 25 October 2014

The science behind "The Andromeda Strain" may be a big crock of hooey, but the people who made it do a good job of at least making it seem credible, which goes a long way toward making the film much more effective as a sci-fi thriller than others of its type.

Robert Wise was a good, solid director. He had a distinctly mainstream sensibility as a filmmaker, but his mainstream films were always especially assured and intelligent. He does a great job keeping this talky sci-fi film moving, and it's really creepy, especially in this age when the media is just waiting to pounce on the THE BIG ONE, the deadly virus that's going to emerge and wipe out humanity. The ending to "The Andromeda Strain" is a bit easy -- the virus just evolves to become harmless and floats away in a big cloud -- and comes as a bit of a let down after all of the work the film does to create just an atmosphere of tense dread up to that point. But the rest of the movie is good enough that the limp ending doesn't make the rest of the film feel like a waste of time.

"The Andromeda Strain" was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Art Direction (long-time Wise collaborator Boris Leven and William Tuntke) and Best Film Editing (Stuart Gilmore and John W. Holmes), both of which were strongly deserved.

Grade: A-

Phantasm (1979)
Cult Classic Works Overtime to Earn Its Weird Card, 21 October 2014

I can see the appeal of this cult classic, but I was mostly resistant to its charms.

A boy and his older brother begin to investigate some strange goings on at a forbidding funeral parlor and uncover a bizarre plot being masterminded by aliens (I guess) to send dead humans into another dimension to be used as food by a race of red-robed dwarfs. How's that for a plot summary? And watching the film is about as weird as reading what it's about. It's a shame the movie isn't more competent in the directing and acting departments, because the raw material of a really good dark comedy is there. But the movie feels shoddy and slap dash, and it's never really scary, though it's occasionally a little creepy.

A twist ending does manage to leave an impression even if it's a little cliché (though maybe back in 1979 it hadn't yet been used to death), while a twist to the twist ending leaves the audience with a final shock but doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the context of the movie.

Grade: C+

Would the Real Werewolf Please Step Forward?, 21 October 2014

"Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory" surprised me by actually being kind of a good movie, with a nice creepy atmosphere reminiscent of the classic Hammer films of old.

I say it surprised me because it was part of a 50 movie DVD collection I bought for $15 and which contains mostly lamentable movies copied to DVD with the worst quality imaginable. But as I've been working my way through them, I every so often come across one that's half-way decent, and this film was one of those. It's part monster movie, part murder mystery. A new teacher arrives at a school for troubled young women around the same time that mysterious and brutal deaths begin occurring on school grounds. There are far more characters than such a short film needs, but they're introduced to be nothing more than suspects and distractions, filling time with plot until the true lycanthrope is revealed at the film's end. I do have to say that the identify of the werewolf did truly surprise me, and happened to be the last character I suspected, so in that sense the movie delivered quite nicely on its murder mystery promise.

The film looks like it was made for about $3, which it probably was, and you'll have to make do with dubbing, at least if you see the same copy I did. But the low budget actually helps a bit to add to the atmosphere, especially the eerie black and white photography.

Make no mistake -- this is still very much a bargain bin movie, and there are a thousand films I would recommend before this one, but if you happen to come across it know that it's not a waste of your time.

Grade: B-

Zardoz (1974)
Cult Classic Status Does Not Make It an Under-appreciated Masterpiece, 21 October 2014

"Zardoz" is proof that even a good director can make terrible movies if he's given too much creative control.

That's the only conceivable cause I can attribute to "Zardoz" being nearly unwatchable. No one had the guts to tell its writer/producer/director John Boorman that he was concocting a nonsensical piece of garbage.

Proponents of the film work themselves into a sweat trying to convince the world that "Zardoz" is actually a profound experience that you have to be special enough to "get," but what a load. This is just a bad film, entertainingly so for a while, but then just tiresome. After a certain point, things were just happening on the screen that seemed to have no relation to other things happening on the screen and I was zoning out thinking about what I had to do at work the next day.

Not all cult classics are overlooked masterpieces.

Grade: F

Faces (1968/I)
Did I Admire It? Yes. Did I Enjoy It? Not So Much, 21 October 2014

A slice of life from Cassavetes that captures the breaking point of a couple's marriage.

I feel like watching a Cassavetes movie about once every ten years. That's about how long it takes me to recover from the last one. His films are exhausting, and I find myself admiring them more than I ever love them. I certainly felt that way during "Faces." There's no denying the skill of the actors or Cassavetes' merciless brand of filmmaking (I can't even begin to imagine what audiences at the time made of this film, which came out in a year when "Oliver!" won the Best Picture Academy Award), but I grew pretty tired of it before it was over.

John Marley plays the male half of the married couple and probably gives the film's most memorable performance. Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' long-time wife, plays one of his mistresses and isn't given a chance to display the acting chops she would use several years later to such devastating effect in "A Woman Under the Influence." Lynn Carlin (Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress) plays the cheated-on wife who does some cheating of her own with Seymour Cassell (Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor). And Cassavetes himself filled out the film's triumvirate of Oscar nominations with a nod for Best Original Story and Screenplay.

While I can't say I necessarily enjoyed "Faces," I will say it did a marvelous job of capturing that sense of middle-age malaise that hits men and women when they start to think of their lives as half over rather than half begun and a desperate need to feel needed begins to take hold.

Grade: B+

Becket (1964)
A Consummately Respectable (and Entertaining) Costume Drama, 20 October 2014

A very solid, engaging historical costume drama about Henry II (Peter O'Toole) and his friendship with Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), a man who Henry assumed would be his tool but who instead imposed his own principles against the king's wishes and died for it.

It seems that since its release in 1964, this film has been raked over the coals for its historical inaccuracy. To which I say, anyone turning to a Hollywood version of history for facts deserves what he gets. Instead, it takes the historical premise and makes a juicy character study of it. Burton and O'Toole are in top form, and watching them butt stubborn head against stubborn head for two hours is entertaining enough to make up for any bad grade assigned to the film for its factual flaws. O'Toole especially is tremendous, giving an endlessly fascinating performance as a king who's perfectly capable of deeply loving a friend even as he calls for that friend's destruction.

"Becket" is the sort of respectable prestige film made to win Academy Awards, and though it won only one in 1964, for Best Adapted Screenplay (Edward Anhalt), it was nominated for 11 others, tying the nomination tally of that year's best picture winner, "My Fair Lady." Its nominations included Best Picture (Hal B. Wallis), Best Director (Peter Glenville), Best Actor (Richard Burton), Best Actor (Peter O'Toole), Best Supporting Actor (John Gielgud, for what feels like about two minutes of screen time), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound.

Of course, 1964 is the year of "Dr. Strangelove," which blows both "Becket" and "My Fair Lady" out of the water, and which predictably won 0 Academy Awards.

Grade: A

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