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The Witch (2015)
American as apple pie
2 June 2018
THE WITCH is a haunting little opus in which film maker Robert Eggers reaches back into the folklore and living history of the United States to produce a story that's going to stick with you awhile. In this tale, a 17th century Puritan father breaks with his pilgrim forebears over Christian doctrine and leads his family out into an unforgiving section of wilderness which seemingly is also occupied by a blood cult of Wiccans. Things do not go well. That's all I'm going to tell you. But here there be mastery. No jump scares, no blood sloshed from here to creation, no zombies. Just good story telling, an outstanding cast, and some imagery that will have you up staring at the ceiling until two in the morning. That's what the good spook stories do. Best of all, THE WITCH is a bold reach into the grab bag of unique grand guignols that life in this section of the Americas is. It is American as apple pie. And it's going to scare the crap out of you. Enjoy.
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Get Out (I) (2017)
Oh yes. That's what I'm talking about.
6 February 2018
GET OUT is outstanding. By now you've heard the premise, a young black photographer decides to spend a weekend with his white lover's family for the first time . What he encounters is to be expected, and also unexpected beyond the beyond. Jordan Peele really gets the horror film, and all its comedic potential. that's all i'm gonna say. You've got to watch this one.
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The Babadook (2014)
It's quieter today.
6 May 2015
THE BABADOOK isn't for everyone, but it's a special film, one that in its own quiet way seeks to address certain realities via tropes of the horror film. Jennifer Kent is an ambitious director who tips her hat to some of the greats in the genre, Mamoulian, Melies, Bava, Whale, Kubrick. THE BABADOOK is a bold foray into psychological horror, repressed intimacy of women,single parenting, social isolation, child abuse, in a neat little package that she probably managed to crank out for under a million dollars. The movie lags in one moment where the script falls into the trap of explaining something the viewer has had time to figure out. But that doesn't drive the momentum of the piece, which leaves the viewer lots of room to draw their own conclusions as to which reality the characters actually are functioning within. The close of the story is open ended, but not in the over-used "something's gonna go on jumping out the bushes and getting you" standard that has been beaten to death in the ghost story/horror film this last ten years. Again, I think this is a special movie, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Jennifer Kent does next. She is a breath of fresh air compared to many of the so-called film makers who dominate the western film industry, and particularly the horror film. THE BABADOOK is a rare treat, filled with fine pointed grace and craft.
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It isn't what it is.
28 April 2012
Aside from a starring vehicle for Claude Rains, there's not much to be found here. Especially obnoxious is the soundtrack, which unbelievably includes a section wherein Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony actually has lyrics written for it and is performed as an opera. That's Hollywood. Oh,and there's an actor who plays Liszt in this film, who apparently is on hand as an advocate for the misunderstood Eric Claudin (The Phantom). The whole thing is pretty silly, and about the best thing that can be said for it is that this effort makes all the more clear why the 1925 version with Lon Chaney Sr. is such an important film. Universal might have been trying to revive the horror film at this point in its history, but this work is a prime example of why the horror genre very often descends into bad slapstick.
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The Wolfman (2010)
Ambitious remake
3 March 2012
The odds are that if you're reading this, you're an admirer of the 1940 original. If that's so, you're looking to see how it honors the classic. I think THE WOLFMAN succeeds admirably in that regard, plus it seems to me that most of the people who were associated with this wanted to do a little more than simply re-polish a story that they're aware most of their viewers have seen dozens of times. You know that story, Larry Talbot of the Talbot family of Lanwelly has returned to his ancestral village after the death of his older brother and finds himself overtaken by the regional curse of the werewolf. This remake has its tongue very firmly in cheek as Benicio Del Toro assumes the Lon Chaney Jr. role, but employs many of the mannerisms and the quiet threat we see in Oliver Reed in Hammer's THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. Part of that film's sub story, the idea that the Talbot clan has been close kin to gypsies for generations finds its way into this film. Fans of the horror genre will see a number of Hammer pastiches in here that I think they'll enjoy.

Anthony Hopkins is along for the ride as Sir John Talbot, and his own predatory traits are something he can barely keep under his skin, as you'll see several times during the movie. Other reviewers here have commented on the demented qualities of Van Helsing that Hopkins suggested in Coppola's Dracula, and the directors have given him room to flesh out John Talbot's character in this version of the Wolfman. It's a good idea, really. People familiar with the great Claude Raine's penchant for scene hogging can't help but notice the way Raines occasionally lapses into "Look at me, I am acting" mode in the original, especially when he's reciting the old "Even a man who is pure at heart---" etc doggerel for Larry in that scene with Lon Chaney Jr. Hopkins here at least is given some room to move Talbot's character away from the single dimension Raines was allowed to explore, and the place he takes it to looks like fun.

The same can be said for Emily Blunt, who becomes more than an appendage to her father's antique shop and a decoration for the arms of Patrick Knowles and Larry Talbot in this film. Blunt's version of Gwen Conliffe is a woman who seems to have her own reasons for doing everything, so it is unsurprising she can find the strength to take care of business in the classic Universal horror style in this version.

Hugo Weaving is also in this film as Inspector Frederick Abberline, late of London and the investigation into the Whitechapel murders. How's that for a liberty from the original. And Geraldine Chaplin gets to do at least one grisly walk on and has a couple of other interesting moments in the film as Maleva, Maria Ouspenskaya's character from the original film.

There are a few "American Werewolf in London" moments in here for the fans of the lycanthrope on film, some lovely CGI imagery of the beast loping over the rooftops. Blood and gore abounds, and nowhere is this at its more over the top best then in the scenes where Talbot has been arrested and subjected to the torture of the early psychiatric practice of days gone by. All I'm going to tell you is that some folks get what they're asking for.

So all told, THE WOLFMAN is a worthy romping remake. It's not a carbon copy of the original, nor should we want it to be, and in it's own sweet twisted way is a loving tribute to the evolution of cinematic werewolfery over the last seventy years. Try it on.
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Orphan (2009)
25 February 2012
It took me three years to finally spend some time with ORPHAN, which at least on the surface looked like another demon child/Bad Seed knockoff. I stumbled across it in the library a week ago, bit, and was more than pleasantly surprised. ORPHAN rates as one of the better offerings I've seen in the thriller/horror genre in quite some time, and it has a wicked little twist that keeps its viewer guessing. It's a bit of a slow starter, but give this one time. It has a very fine cast, Vera Farmiga holds the lead down beautifully as the recovering alcoholic Kate and Peter Saarsgaard is also very good as her husband John, who fills the boyfriend/husband without a clue (tradition in classic horror) quite ably. Best of all is Isabelle Fuhrman as the monstrous Esther. This is a very fine piece of work and I don't want to give anything away. Trust me when I say this is very satisfying time spent.
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The Messenger (I) (2009)
Restrained and ambitious
7 August 2010
THE MESSENGER is by far and away one of the best works of art that addresses the deep tragedy behind the current U.S. war in the Middle East that I've seen. THE MESSENGER is an attempt by Director Oren Moverman and screen writer Alessandro Camon to place themselves between the ears of two career soldiers who serve a vital place in U.S. Army Special Services, Casualty Notification teams who inform the families of soldiers that their family member has been killed in battle. As someone who remembers full well the devastating feeling you got in your insides when you saw these teams turn up at the quarters of friends and their families when my own father was serving in Vietnam in the late 1960s, I found the film an important effort.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a Iraqi war veteran recovering from a battlefield wound who is reassigned to a State Department and United States Army Casualty Notification team, which is led by Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Montgomery is also facing an impending breakup with his girlfriend Kelly (Jena Malone), who is playing him off against a wealthy, established suitor. When he is assigned to Stone's team, he is at first resentful. The military decorum which is demanded of the Casualty Notification Team is very exacting, with learned routines that come from a spit and polish military professionalism that requires a distance that is extremely difficult to attain.

What follows is a series of well connected vignettes, in which the younger soldier is asked to stride this nether world between the jaundiced, dry-drunk outlook of the seasoned bearer of bad news, Captain Stone. Stone is a bitter man with some frustrated ambitions of his own, which are revealed late in the film. Obsessed with sexual victories and teeter tottering between professional sobriety and complete emotional collapse, Stone is far from a steady colleague mentor. Encounters between he and Montgomery go into emotional roller coaster as each man learns to accept the other on his own terms while acting out an extremely trying professional military role.

In short time, Montgomery comes into contact with the widow of a soldier who sparks his interest, and becomes torn between professionalism and attraction to the young widow Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton). Montgomery is forced to grow into himself, despite his outward cynicism, and in short time begins to mentor his mentor, Captain Stone. The story has an open ending, with Montgomery seeking to be part of the life of widow Olivia as she is seeking to reestablish herself in New Orleans. No morals are offered, and this is the true strength of the work as a whole. There isn't much humor to be found here, but watch for the scene where a bender fried Montgomery and Stone attend the wedding reception of the woman who has broken Montgomery's heart. The lampoon of upper middle class phoniness is priceless.

The beauty of THE MESSENGER is that it does not fall into the usual pro war or antiwar camps that film making in an era like our own are usually so encumbered with. The film makers are ambitious and restrained. I have no idea whether the plot line is itself "contrived" as some here have argued, which I have to say is a rather ridiculous critique given that movies are rarely anything but "contrived", and this is particularly true of the genre we call the war film. Some who have written here seem to believe that the film discredits the "professionalism" of those who do the work of Stone and Montgomery, as though "professionalism" were itself some sort of fetish that protects one from emotional or mental illness generated by both war time trauma and the mystique of military culture. Such are the times in which we live, ideological blather is rampant.

THE MESSENGER is important because, in the words of that great Vietnam war era politician, the late President Lyndon Baines Johnson, it is art, it shows us who we are, not who we say we are, not who we think we are, but who we are as a people, and as a political culture. At various moments, it is clunky. But it is an early effort to give some true definition about what the debacle in Iraq has done to our culture, and to the people who are expected to do the dirty work of the empire's war machine. It is a rare gem in mainstream contemporary U.S. film making.
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A really nice try
23 April 2010
WENDY AND LUCY works for me because it portrays without too much melodrama the complexity of the lives of people who become unexpectedly indigent. Wendy in the film is a young woman of about 20 who leaves her home in Indiannapolis in dreams of making some serious money in the Alaska canneries. Her traveling partner is a young mongrel named Lucy. By the time Wendy has reached southern Oregon in her used Honda, funds are running low and the car is in terminal state. What money Wendy has must be used for the ferry to SE Alaska, so she occasionally indulges in petty theft in order to make her money go further. When she is held for several hours on a shoplifting charge, her dog, tethered to the front of the store in which Wendy was apprehended, either wanders away or is picked up by a concerned bystander. Wendy is assisted by an older man in her search for Lucy, a likely retiree who now makes ends meet working a security guard job that calls for 12 hours of sentry work a day. In the end, things work out for both Wendy and Lucy in an unsatisfying sort of way if you need happy endings. But the piece works, and it has a carefully structured atmosphere.

The Oregon town Wendy is stuck in is itself depressed as a result of the closure of the local mill, and its streets are deserted and depressed. Every scene in the film speaks of isolation, and a bottomless sadness visited upon the working poor that political culture in the United States has yet to find expression for.

Is it great film making? Maybe not. But WENDY AND LUCY is intrepid and strong film making, and in just bare human terms, is a fairly accurate depiction of what it's like to be down and out in the United States. As someone who was long term homeless right around the time I was Lucy's age, or 32 years ago when life in this country was nowhere so difficult for the working poor as it is today, I genuinely appreciate the careful effort of the film makers not to indulge in mawkish portrayals, and the attempt to understand that life on the terms of the person who gets caught up in it, unexpectedly. Lucy is not always the most admirable person, her decision making skills are pretty lousy atmoments, her priorities are often skewed. In the end, she does what is maybe the right thing for what may be the wrong reasons. But the portrayal of her character is wrenchingly human and beautiful. Full marks, ladies and gentlemen.
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Humid with a high chance of rain
29 January 2010
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a challenging work, in that it is based on a novel written by author Richard Yates back in the early 1960s. It is interesting that the film version appears now. The movie is intriguing and worthy, almost a poetic exposition of some of the sociological observations of the late C. Wright Mills, so it's not an easy cruise. But it's very good, a bold piece from director Sam Mendes.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett are Frank and April Wheeler, an upper middle class Long Island couple whose marriage has gone sour as the dreams of a life in the arts or pursuit of life of mind have succumbed to the career realities of mortgage payments, children and upper class mobility. The setting is a relatively prosperous Long Island suburb during the 1950s.

Frank Wheeler is a junior level executive for a business machine company, and spends many of his lunch hours drinking and commiserating with friends. The tension between he and April leads him to dalliances with secretaries, and the audience is witness to a manipulative trist he has with a 19 year old receptionist who falls under his "charm". April spends most of her days caught in the domestic trap that all too many women knew in the mid-1950s, housework and daydreaming about days gone by. At the beginning of the film, we see her performing in a community theater play that is poorly received by the audience, and she remains frustrated by the abandonment of her theater dreams.

Bored and alienated by middle class suburbia and the quiet presumption imposed by neighbors caught in a similar bind, Frank and April decide they're going to sell the house and move their lives with their two children over to France. And, as fate would have it, this dream emerges at the exact same time that the company Frank works for decides that he's a bright new idea man, and offers him a big promotion. Frank is now caught between his undefined personal dreams and the possibilities of real material advancement. April, who knows desperately that she wants something much different then the life of a suburban housewife, but, who like most women of that era, rarely is allowed time or space to develop her ideas about who she is, clings wildly to the escape plan. Frank is a stormy individual caught in the casual lies most men from the professional classes in that era were bought into, and he frequently takes advantage of the enhanced isolation that is driving April nuts through engaging in abusive tirades.

The film becomes deep tragedy over an unwanted pregnancy before its end, but along the way, some rather penetrating commentary on the Wheeler's situation by the son of a neighbor who has been struggling with mental illness lights up the Wheeler's reality better than either of the protagonists can, burdened as they are by the deceptions of careerism, extramarital dalliances, and parenting roles that neither of them really seem to want. The atmosphere of the piece, then, is like a high summer day on Long Island, humid with a high chance of rain. The viewer knows that some sort of cloudburst is going to come, and there's not much surprise when one of life's lethal downpours arrives and reshapes the lives of the central characters. All the same, Winslett and DiCaprio and their supporting cast carry this difficult piece quite ably. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a keeper.
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11 August 2009
Six upper middle class jerks attempt to meet for dinner on a number of occasions and find themselves caught up in many a farce. In "The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie", the everyday becomes entangled with dream at every turn. The reality of the drug running foreign ambassador comes into direct conflict with the guerrilla forces his domestic policies engender, the gardener monseigneur of the church ends up taking confession from his parents' murderer while the culprit is on his deathbed, the cocktail party hosted by a general breaks down into a small battle in his dining room, a sexually frustrated couple are forced to elude their company and couple out in the garden, an afternoon luncheon is turned into an audit of fratricidal confession from a young army lieutenant. At every crossroads, the pretentious "civility" of professional society finds itself disrupted by the casual violence and mayhem that underscores their class privilege. Bunuel's use of the nightmare tells the audience what the bourgeoisie knows very well: they know what a bunch of casual gangsters they actually are, and sleep will not let them hide from themselves. And none of the charm of the bourgeoisie will be enough to break them away from their ongoing isolation from themselves and nature, expressed very cleanly by Bunuel's repeated image of the six professionals, in semi-formal dress, walking down a country road in the middle of nowhere. And it's all very funny, in an unfunny sort of way.

Bunuel's masterpiece holds up well, almost forty years after its release. Here's a farce that demonstrates just how far a "satirist" like Sasha Baron Cohen ("Borat") really has to go before he has anything substantial to say with farce or film.
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The Gray Man (2007)
Ambitious and riveting
4 August 2009
"The Gray Man" is an important addition to the horror genre. Director Scott Flynn chose to tell the story of Albert Fish, a serial murderer who is believed to have murdered and cannibalized several young children in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the environs of New York City. Fish worked as a handyman and painter in most of the neighborhoods he lived in, and was seen for the most part as a relatively inoffensive and grandfatherly individual by many people. In reality, he is said to have possessed a raging sociopathic pattern that knew its roots in the harsh treatment he received in state orphanages run by religious fanatics in the upper boroughs of the city. Flynn's film gives the viewer a slight background of Fish's character so that even the most offended audience member can understand Fish's motivation. The man remains genuinely creepy in depiction, however, simply due to the deep horror of life that true degeneracy, or "evil", if you must, rarely has a loud "telegraph". Albert Fish is scary because he looks like the earnest, hard working sort of character who you'd hire to repair your furnace.

"The Gray Man" is also a significant work in horror, because it puts to rest the idea that a grisly tale must rely upon grisly depiction in order to unsettle the viewer. Director Flynn has wisely chosen not to graphically re-create the murders, and does not bother with lurid presentations of children being dissected or disposed of as meat. It might seem ridiculous that I would even have to point this out, but anyone who knows contemporary horror understands how little credit all too many Gothic film makers lend the imagination of their public anymore. I don't want to belabor the point, suffice it to say that "The Gray Man" puts films like "Saw" and "Hostel" to shame. Very few things in this life are as terrifying as a child murderer, Flynn and his cast put this true story across without much reliance on the sensational. Why, they even rely on a few little tricks like "atmosphere" here. Imagine that.

Leading the cast is veteran actor Patrick Bauchau, who brings the character of Albert Fish himself a terrifying but not entirely unlikeable quality. His work in this film is a delicately balanced affair that is more effective than that of Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs". Hopkin's performance in that work is outstanding, of course, but it is relatively melodramatic and over- the- top compared to the craft and restraint Bauchau offers here.. Following Bauchau up as the intrepid Missing Persons investigator Will King is Jack Conley, whose world weary demeanor I found very welcome in this age of celluloid depictions of lantern jawed law enforcement officials who always know what to do. Conley's King is a man unsure in his surety, a gumshoe who's likable for the same reasons we like Jake Gittes in "Chinatown" and Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon". He's sort of an anti-bureaucratic bureaucrat.

The other supporting cast members are quite good, most notably the perpetually bemused children of Albert Fish, Gertrude and Albert Jr., who know him alternately as both solid family man and abusive personality. The roles are handled by Mollie Milligan and Silas Mitchell. Jillian Armaneni is powerful as the mother of Grace Budd, the victim of Fish whose disappearance finally put investigators on his trail, and Lexi Ainsworth is very fine as Grace herself. Ben Hall holds his own as Grace's brother Albert, and character actor Bill Flynn has an appearance as the notorious Dr. Frederick Wertham (yes, he of the controversial 1950s anti- comic book crusade) who was a defense witness at the Fish trial as Fish and his crew pleaded insanity.

As for accuracy, who knows? So much has been written about the case that, now, seventy five years after the events themselves, it's even more difficult to separate the folklore from the reality of the moment. Albert Fish has entered that realm of real-life bogeymen with a distinction known by few, so the scuttlebutt will continue to blossom. Be that as it may, "The Gray Man" is a finely crafted, ambitious and riveting horror film, one of the few in the contemporary samples from the genre that is worthy of the time it takes to view it.
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Watchmen (2009)
Possibly the worst super hero film ever made
4 August 2009
"The Watchmen" is a cover of Alan Moore's graphic novel from the 1980s. The story is set against an alternative time line in the United States where Richard Nixon is perennially re-elected, the United States wins the war in Vietnam, and the presence of super-heroes generates public controversy. The characters of the now long-forgotten Charlton Comics universe like the Blue Beetle (Night Owl) and the Question (Rorshach) among many others, are given new names and some extended play in Alan Moore's story.

The Watchmen's world is threatened by the nuclear terrors of the Cold War, and the main defense the United States has left is in the hands of super gladiators like the psychotic soldier of fortune, the Comedian, and the formerly human but now wholly reconstituted Dr. Manhattan, whose self-recreation through Hydrogen fusion makes him near God-like in essence. The streets of New York are guarded by a skeezy street executioner named Rorshach, who defies federal injunctions against vigilantes, and who is one of the more engaging characters in the story. The premise of the novel is pretty silly, and Alan Moore himself calls the work one of his early efforts to write the "last super hero story".

Zach Snyder is an ambitious young man, but ambition of the sort that makes movies out of graphic novels like "Watchmen" isn't necessarily the same as genius, which is about what it would take to put something as convoluted as "Watchmen" on the screen. The sub-narrative of the piece, the comic book within the comic book "Tales from the Black Freighter" is essential to "Watchmen", and without it, the storyline loses much of its satirical edge.

Worse yet, Snyder lacks all sense of the actual history and the bankruptcy of most mass culture that Moore satirizes so effectively in so much of his work. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ridiculous montage of establishing shots which Snyder created at the beginning of the film which are backed by an extended version of Bob Dylan's "The Times, they are a'changin'". As a film maker, Snyder seems obsessed and mystified by the violent excess in U.S. history, which is always a sign of someone who essentially has nothing new to say. Snyder attempts to make up for this shortcoming in his understanding by graphically depicting scenes of violence which are only alluded to in the storyline of Moore's novel itself. And it doesn't help, because, as Malcolm X once said, you can put kittens in the oven but that isn't going to turn them into biscuits.

Hence, what we've got here is three and a half hours of mediocre acting, people most of whom I'm sure are quite gifted in other settings leaping around in spandex costumes and delivering dialogue in a manner that makes the late Jack Webb look like Kenneth Branagh. Hell, as little as half an hour of this sort of thing can be exhausting, but it's funny if you know how, and William Dozier and Adam West proved that pretty conclusively 40 years ago with their farce "Batman". Unfortunately, the oh-so-serious Mr. Snyder chose to play it ultra-straight, and in that way lies disaster. Some comic books are better off staying comic books. In the words of Carlos Castaneda's fictional Yaqui Brujo Don Juan, why should a crow be anything but a crow?
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Shutter (II) (2004)
Now that's what I'm talking about.
11 July 2009
Every once in awhile, a film maker who wants to do something new with the horror film can get hold of a budget and produce something that generates some genuine chills. SHUTTER, directed by Thai directors Parkpoom Wingpoom and Banjong Pisanthanakun, is that kind of effort. Not a splash of gore more than what's needed, not one more ghost jumping out of the scenery then is absolutely necessary, and just enough psychological twist to keep the viewer hooked.

Tun and Jane are coming home from a drunken party when they appear to have hit a pedestrian on the dark road. Tun persuades Jane that they should flee the scene, and from there, the good times roll. Tun is a photography major, and in short time, spectral images begin to appear in his finished photographs. Jane is the first of the pair to encounter a vengeful spirit named Natre in Tun's studio one afternoon, and it takes a good deal of probing Tun's less than savory past that brings the whole story of what is happening to the surface. The closing images of the film, which explain a troublesome crick Tun has developed in his neck, are some of the more haunting efforts I've come across in the last few rounds of cinematic terror I've looked into. This is a very tidy work, the creative team on the movie knew what they wanted to do from start to finish.

There are a few predictable moments in the story, but nothing that weakens the pace or atmosphere with this production crew worked so hard to create. SHUTTER is a very fine piece of work.
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Not bad at all
2 May 2009
THE LOST PATROL is set in Mesopotamia, or what would be what we call modern Iraq, in the year 1917. Britain, along with several other world powers, is making its move to carve up the pieces of the broken Ottoman Empire. The lost patrol in this story is a group of British enlisted men, who've gotten separated from the main body of their regiment, and are in complete disarray due to the death from sniper fire of their patrol leader, which we see at the start of the film. The patrol has found some small sanctuary in the discovery of a small oasis, which contains an abandoned mosque. In attempting to hold ground, they are routinely eliminated by the Arab population of the region through the action of snipers, leaving only their Sergeant (McLaglen) to be rescued when the rest of the column finds the patrol location at the close of the film.

The plot of the film is built around the trauma of battle fatigue, and the exhaustion of men sent to fight a war in a culture that is not their own. I was pleasantly surprised to find in viewing this film that John Ford strove to keep the portrayal of the racist current and cultural supremacy ideas that always exist among invading armies to a minimum, and instead chose to focus on the contradictions in the lives of these men so far away from their homes in England. Given the anti-Arab characterizations of our own era, THE LOST PATROL seems positively evolved by comparison. Victor McLaglen leads the cast, with able support from Reginald Denny as a mercenary, Wallace Ford as a displaced vaudevillian, and Boris Karloff as a religious fanatic. Among the many fine supporting cast members is Alan Hale Sr. in an almost invisible part, but for the few seconds he's on, he's really on.

Like many others, I'd heard from the very first review I'd seen of this film written by Denis Gifford in his biography of Boris Karloff "The Man, the Monster, the Movies" (1973) that Karloff is way over the top in his portrayal. I don't think so, but that may have more to do with the edition that is available on DVD then anything else. Perhaps there are prints of this film that contain footage not available on the disc I was able to lay my hands on.

Still, I think if anything, that Karloff seems to be overplaying it because many of his co-stars are actually under-playing the situation. In fact, the delivery of their lines seems somewhat glib and typical of the 1930s war film delivery and macho super white man characterization that rose to the fore between and after the two world wars. Some have said Karloff's portrayal of the religious fanatic who goes completely over the edge is anti-Christian, I think the actuality of combat fatigue and isolation has created far stranger emotional and mental disorders than Karloff attempted to re-create in this film. In my opinion, his performance, while far from stellar, is one of the stronger ones in this movie. Given Karloff's love of Joseph Conrad's novels and "Heart of Darkness" in particular, I believe he was trying to explore the mostly unrecognized nuttiness of the European invader and "civilizer" through the character of the religious fanatic Sanders. But that's just an opinion.

THE LOST PATROL is an interesting period piece, and for admirers of the work of John Ford, I believe it's a must see. It's not bad at all, indeed, much better than I expected it to be, considering the portrayal of non-white people in most western films of the period.
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Vertigo (1958)
Midge is going to be bringing Scotty crayons for a long time
10 August 2008
Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO is one of the greatest suspense films ever made. The director was at the top of his form with this work, which highlights intimate obsession bordering on necrophilia, which is a theme unusual in the time and place this movie was produced ( a U.S. studio in the late 1950s),but also Hitchock's amazingly ghoulish humor.

Scotty Fergusen (Jimmy Stewart) is a private investigator who is recently retired from the city police force over an incident on the job that resulted in the death of a colleague and a pronounced fear of heights in Fergusen. Scotty is financially independent and has some support in the friendship of his confidant and former fiancé' Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). His life and what's left of his emotional stability begin to be challenged when he is contracted by wealthy shipping magnate Gavin Elster (Tom Elmore) to track the doings of his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has developed an obsession with the history of a tragic ancestor that now borders on the fantastic and suicidal. Or so Scotty is led to believe. What follows from the investigation is a star-crossed romance which assumes a surreal and sometimes folkloric dimension from the get-go, and which culminates in a post-mortem fantasy that will immolate not only Scotty, but the fortunes of working girl Judy Barton (Kim Novak in an interesting role within a role).

If you've not seen this film, I will only tell you that Hitchcock demonstrates the truth of his masterful reputation as a movie maker through a precipitous wrap-up that left me crying I was laughing so hard, but I'm pretty twisted. All I'm going tell you is that I can't believe he got away with that back in 1958, and that in whatever realm the creatures of imagination reside, Midge is going to be bringing Scotty crayons to play with for a long time.

By far and away, this one easily rates for me as one of the best films overall ever made, and if you like classic suspense film from the greats, this is one you can't miss. Here is one more good example of why special effects by themselves do not a solid motion picture make, which is a sad reality lost on all too many filmmakers and their audiences these days.
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Well intentioned, but no cigar.
29 July 2008
The struggle for independence in Ireland is a difficult thing to portray on screen, given the tendency of popular art to fall into romantic depictions of any revolutionary conflict. In that respect, 1996's MICHAEL COLLINS is as guilty as any previous effort I'm aware of. This work, which begins with the Easter Rising of 1916, attempts to retell the story of the emergence of the Irish Free State after 700 years of British occupation, and the internecine conflict which arose between the factions which supported Michael Collins and those of the Irish Republican Army, headed by Eamon de Valera. The goal of the film makers is very ambitious and falls short. To credit this group of actors, led by Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Julia Roberts and Alan Rickman, characterizations remain consistent through much of this story. For my own part, I'd like to have seen a little more on the efforts of James Conally and his struggle to build an independent working class leadership in Ireland, which could have addressed some of the more glaring contradictions that de Valera and Collins eventually found themselves shooting it out over. But no one can do everything, right? The independence struggle in Ireland is a long, hard story to tell, and in 100 plus years of world cinema, it has remained difficult for mainstream film makers to address details that could curtail some of the folklore and romance attached to revolutionary struggle. This romantic tendency drags the whole of the piece down, despite the intentions of director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME). But, all in all, the errors made by Jordan are no worse then the almost cliché excesses in classic works like John Ford's THE INFORMER. The sad thing is that 60 years after Ford's effort, popular portrayals of Ireland's history remain stuck in that sort of bog. But, all things in time, I guess.
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Here's to Buk, here's to Dullaghan
10 July 2008
Nothing explains Bukowski like Bukowski himself, and that's why this film works. This memoir keeps his voice at the center, alongside some tough minded commentary by his wife Linda Lee Bukowski and his publisher John Martin at Black Sparrow Press. His daughter Marina also appears briefly,as do a number of his former girlfriends. As a long time admirer of his cleanness of line on the page,and contempt for long winded abstraction in poetry, I think this film of John Dullaghan's rings true as a work convinced of the worthiness of its subject. Bukowski was one of the best poets of the 20th century, though if you troll through the much esteemed halls of poetry even now, you'll see the same pretentious farts scoring him downward. That's the way of it. Bukowski was his own poet, his own voice, his own reference. What a hustle, What a game. Here's to Bukowski, here's to Director John Dullaghan. Let the spoonfed tend to the spoonfed.
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Snow Cake (2006)
10 July 2008
An unhappy man (Alan Rickman) just out of prison for a crime of passion stops and gives a young hitchhiker (Emily Hampshire) a ride. His guest, a lovely and outgoing young woman, is killed in a car accident that overturns the vehicle and leaves the driver without a scratch. He is pulled into the life and community of the young woman's mother, an autistic adult (Sijourney Weaver). This is the premise behind SNOWCAKE, and the result, in the words of the film's central character, is dazalious. An extraordinary film, from beginning to end. The late AlanRickman shines like a diamond, as does Sigourney Weaver, possibly her best work. Carrie Anne Moss is beautiful. The supporting cast is outstanding. A loving and generous offering from the entire production company, one that holds up well ten years after its release. Dazalious.
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It's a keeper.
10 June 2008
CAROL'S JOURNEY is set against the background of the Spanish Civil War, which, for those who aren't familiar, was a civil war that occurred because rightist forces in Spain could not deal with the idea of a republican government under which proportional representation was a feature. The Spanish Republic was led by liberals or progressives who were willing to work with labor parties and socialists, and the civil war was led by "dissenters" who had a problem with the idea of Spain breaking away from its semi-feudal past.

Carol is a 12 year old girl from New York City who has returned to Spain with her mother Aurora, to live with Aurora's family and attempt to be a little closer to Carol's father, who is an aeronautic volunteer for the Republic. Within a few months of their arrival, Carol's mother dies, and Carol finds herself having to make a new life with her grandfather and her aunt, uncle and cousins. Her closest acquaintances are a group of street kids, most worthy a kid named Tomiche who knows the ins and outs of survival in wartime and whose father also is a supporter of the new Spanish republic. The storyline basically follows what occurs through preadolescent love and the months following the victory of the reaction (Franco's followers).

The film, as many others have commented here, often falls into the clichés that follow films that attempt to engage with a child's view of wartime. But for those familiar with the details of this chapter of history, CAROL'S JOURNEY resonates in a special way, and is worthy on a number of levels. Definitely worth the hour and a half it takes to breathe this one in.
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wretched fare
3 June 2008
THE FRIGHTENERS is a film with a paper thin plot about a ghost busting detective in pursuit of a malevolent and murderous spirit, and his love affair with a woman widowed by this "evil". The film seeks to save itself through extensive special effects because its creators did not know what to do with a cast with leads as stellar as Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado and cameos as lively as that of R. Lee Ermey. Ermey offers up a ghostly lampoon of his FULL METAL JACKET character Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann that makes the only three minutes of this film worth watching, which is unfortunate since it's almost two hours long. It's been long commented that the horror film done badly becomes comedy and vice versa, but rarely that a different kind of vision produces comedic horror, often done brilliantly by directors like Whale, Polanski, Corman, Hitchock, Romero, and Hooper. THE FRIGHTENERS, however, is neither frightening or funny, but it is a loud excursion into the mundane with a hackish script that might work well for Saturday morning cartoons, but is exhausting fare for most people over twelve years of age, or anyone who doesn't find the nightly news terrifying. I couldn't believe how wretched this film is.
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an ambitious and worthy work
24 April 2008
Jake Heke is a man of rapid cunning who is good with his fists, and very little else. He lives with his common-law wife Beth, and the two of them have four children whom they have raised in a Maori ghetto in Auckland, New Zealand. Alienated from a caste-ridden tribal life, Beth and Jake have little else to fall back on except fly by night jobs and a pack of alcoholic friends. Beth and their children pay the price of living with Jake and Beth's domestic hell in the way of physical and emotional abuse as well as rape. ONCE WERE WARRIORS doesn't exactly proclaim there to be no exit from such a reality, but given everything the protagonists of this film go through, it's remarkable there is even the open-ended resolution that is suggested before the credits roll. The work itself is a densely packed drama with a remarkable cast headed by Rena Owen as Beth Heke and Temuera Morrison (he of later Boba Fett STAR WARS fame)as the ill-matched common-law mates Beth and Jake. Mamaengora Kerr-Bell portrays their sensitive and tragic daughter Gracie with a delicacy that makes the viewer wonder why we've seen so little else of Ms. Kerr-Bell in the 13 years since this film first appeared. ONCE WERE WARRIORS is the urban and shaded reflection of 2002's WHALE RIDER,and as such the former film is a far more graphic and dismal interpretation of the traumas faced by some displaced Maori families in New Zealand. It's not an easy film to watch, but it's careful, ambitious and well deserves all the good things other viewers have been saying about it here.
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A forthright exploration of what an adult world at war looks like to children
30 June 2007
Director Guillermo Del Toro's film PAN'S LABYRINTH is one of the most thoughtful fantasy/horror pictures that has been brought to mass (or mainstream audiences) in many years. The work is a sort of cross between THE NEVER ENDING STORY and Gunther Grass' Hitlerite Germany storyline THE TIN DRUM. Though there is little to find here in the way of original storyline or exploration of fantastic themes, it is a forthright exploration of what an adult world at war looks like to children, and deserves the continued attention of those film lovers who have a special hankering for the Gothic genre.

The work is set against the background of Franco's Spain, which is in the process of consolidating a fascist victory over the Republican government that was defeated in 1939. The year is 1944, and Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a precocious 12 year old girl with a passion for fantasy literature, is the step-daughter of a military specialist, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who has married her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil). Ofelia is isolated, and has an ally in the head of the housekeeping staff in Vidal's compound, a woman named Mercedes (Maribel Verdu).

Captain Vidal has been sent to the countryside in Spain in order to shut down the partisan resistance which is still waging guerrilla warfare in the mountains, and the arrival of his adapted family is the note the film begins on. Ofelia's mother Carmen is experiencing a difficult pregnancy with Vidal's child, and looks to her daughter for the little stability and support she is able to attain living in a military compound. Ofelia's main comfort is in the world of dreams and nightmare she is able to create for herself, an activity that is frowned upon by her mother and condemned by her rigid-spit-and polish step father. She also some support from Mercedes, who is a sort of socialist "fellow traveler" and supporter of the guerrilla resistance hidden inside the Captain's household. Ofelia's world of personal folklore leads her into a fantasy relationship with a mystical faun (Doug Jones) who, in her thinking, patterns for her a quest and boon she must endure in order to reclaim her status as a princess in the realm of the fantastic, and thereby save her mother and unborn brother. And it is her life, both within the bounds of imagination and the strictures of the real world, that makes up the bulk of this story, which can only end in madness and death.

I don't think I've said too much here, but having noted all this, it should also be observed that, despite the graphic quality of the violence in this film, PAN'S LABYRINTH remains an interesting and compelling chunk of film. The overall message of the work is sweet in its essence, and lacks the world-weariness of much of the junk that passes for mainstream entertainment in these here United States. If you haven't seen it yet, it's definitely a "ringer" for the fantasy film audience.
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One of the best of the best
15 September 2006
BLAZING SADDLES is one of the best satires ever. Mel Brooks, who himself is probably the last of the great slapstick comics, offered up this satire of the western film over thirty years ago, but it ages well. Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little), black as the night, is sent to rescue the town of Rock Ridge, which sits in the path of the incoming railroad (of course), which in its turn is overseen by the biggest crooks in the county. But that's okay, because Rock Ridge is lived in by the most bigoted and inbred community in the country. Sheriff Bart is assisted in this task by the reformed drunk gunfighter The Waco Kid, played by Gene Wilder.

The genius of BLAZING SADDLES can be seen in Brooks and his co-writers taking the actual history of the settlement of much of the United States, and making everyone laugh at some of the stupidities that have governed us for most of our existence as a country. No one is spared by this group of satirists (Richard Pryor contributed to the screenplay), the ax swings every direction. And thirty years after its release, the work remains screamingly funny. Every John Wayne-Garry Cooper-Randolph Scott cliché is up for grabs. If you've seen it before, watch it again. And again. And again. You'd do it for Randolph Scott.
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Missing (1982)
The Earlier 9/11
12 September 2006
Costa Govras' political thriller MISSING remains one of the strongest and least preachy works done about the Chilean Coup d'etat of 1973. The coup, which occurred on the 11th of September of that year, was widely endorsed by the political elite of Chile, with some quiet infrastructural support from the U.S. State Department. The Secretary of State at that time, one Henry Kissinger, asserted to the Nixon cabinet that "he saw no reason to allow any country to go communist due to the ignorance of its people", and that the Chilean economy should be "made to scream". Hence, every support was given to the supporters of General Augusto Pinochet, and the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was deposed and defeated within days.

Govras chose as background for his film the actual diaries of Charles Horman, a lefty artist type who was living with his wife Beth in Chile. Horman had apparently picked up the unfortunate habit of inquiring into some dangerous affairs in a rather loud way. Isolated in every sense from any "live" political current, his disappearance and murder were relatively easy to accomplish, even though he was a United States citizen. The actor John Shea portrays Charles Horman as a naive sort, and there is no reason to assume this was an inaccurate depiction. Most citizens of the United States overseas are sheltered from the skulduggery of realpolitik, and most cling to some rather dangerous illusions about how far their rights as citizens actually extend. U.S. citizens in Lebanon who had to pay for their removal from that combat front last summer have learned this the hard way recently.

Jack Lemmon is stellar as Charles' father Ed Horman, who made the trip to Chile under the impression that he had rights his government felt bound to respect, and who discovered otherwise. And Cissy Spacek is never anything less than full marks as Beth Horman.

MISSING accomplishes what few political dramas do. It asks its viewer to consider the human dimensions and costs of an imperial political reality, and it portrays with a deadly earnestness what these ideas do to people caught up in the sway of such notions. There are no monsters in MISSING, just people who are doing their jobs and following orders. And therein lies the horror, one which all too many of our fellow citizens have yet to come to grips with. It is a rare feat among political films, an actual work of art. But don't be surprised if you need a stiff drink after viewing it. That's how I felt when I first saw this work after its release in 1982, and it still has that effect upon me today.
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Masters of Horror: Jenifer (2005)
Season 1, Episode 4
An inside joke
4 September 2006
Warning: Spoilers
JENIFER is actor Steven Weber's interpretation of a story that appeared in the 63rd issue of Warren Magazine's CREEPY back in 1974. JENIFER was written by fantasy author Bruce Jones, illustrated by graphic artist Bernie Wrightson, and is thought of as one of the high water marks in the latter period of Archie Goodwin's stewardship of that horror magazine. Given that the actor only had eight pages of illustrated text to work off of, I thought his teleplay was remarkable, and in some respects strengthened what other folks who've commented here have observed is a predictable storyline. Steven Weber is fairly strong as Jim, the story teller, and Carrie Allen is suitably both repulsive and succubus-ively attractive as the "freak" Jennifer.

Jim is an off-duty cop who kills a man who is attempting to behead Jenifer at the beginning of the story. "Freak" that she is, Jim's only option in the long run is to take her home to the family. After Jenifer eats the family cat, Jim's wife and son leave him. Then she eats the little girl next door. Then she eats the owner of a freak show that Jim has hired to abduct her. Jim then decides he has to get out of town. Why can't he literally cut her loose? Well, she's good in bed. Doesn't matter what she looks like. Jim forsakes his career, moves to the bush, takes a job sweeping up a general store, and is fairly content with his crap job and alcohol and decent sex until Jenifer eats the son of his new employer. He decides to decapitate her himself, and is shot by the next poor penis-dominated hero-a noble hunter who happens upon Jim and Jenifer in the woods- who will take in Jenifer. And so it goes.

As a film in the MASTERS OF HORROR series, JENIFER's strengths consist of a fairly solid screenplay from lead actor Steven Weber, and the direction of gore film favorite Dario Argento. Warren magazine fan boys such as myself will also be pleased with this rendition of an old favorite from CREEPY magazine before that periodical really began to fade. But in fairness to other viewers, JENIFER is probably an inside joke.
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