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Prosaic, insufficiently-budgeted reworking of Heinlein's "Glory Road"
Other than the obviously older Rutger Hauer as a clue, I was astounded to find that this film was from 1996, it has such an 80s feel. And the uniformly egregious songs had a bad-80s feel as well.
The genesis of this film seems evident: someone wanted to make a film of Heinlein's "Glory Road", discovered the rights to that work were too expensive, and had a lackey write a screenplay with many similarities but which could be filmed in LA and environs.
Rutger Hauer plays it straight and generally classes things up, but the film tends to bog down when he is not around. Andrea Roth is decorative and tries hard, but she is no Empress of the Twenty Universes.
Even for a fantasy work, there are too many inconsistencies and plot conveniences for the film to be enjoyable for me. I am willing to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, but not to have sloppy plot devices hang disbelief by the neck until dead.
If you want a good cross-dimensional story, go read "Glory Road". Then hope, as I do, that someone who understands the appeal of that story can get their hands on a budget sufficient to do a worthy film version of it.
Alien Trespass (2009)
Loving tribute to 1950s scifi, somewhat hampered by its very sincerity
Let's be clear right from the start -- "Alien Trespass" is not a spoof. Nor is it a parody, satire, sendup, lampoon, or pastiche. It may be presented as a spoof and most ticket buyers will likely go in expecting one, and the makers of the film may even have set out to produce a spoof.
But what they achieved instead is a meticulous recreation of a film from the 1950s, earnest and straightforward. The period detail is truly impressive, with costuming, sets, and locations all note-perfect. Even the casting is to be commended, especially for the younger actors -- it is actually difficult to find actors who can convincingly portray people outside their era, but these folks do a great job. There are a few minor anachronisms, but overall the period recreation is staggering, right down to the feel of the film stock and even the lighting.
The film's accuracy is actually its greatest problem, in terms of success. Instead of the "Airplane" type treatment many will expect, the film instead gives us just what it pretends to: a film made in the 50s but only recently unearthed. But this means it has only the camp factor inherent in those films; the audience with which I shared the preview screening wanted it to be a spoof, laughed at some parts, but the things they were laughing about were accurately rendered from that time -- they were laughing at period "quaintnesses" only gently exaggerated. The film is too straight-faced and sincere to get the average viewer laughing.
I am surprised this movie got made, but near-astounded that it is getting a theatrical release. The production values are high, and Eric McCormack has some name draw, but I am still not sure how they sold it for distribution.
Let's put it this way: If you know who Wade Williams is, if you and your friends trade dialogue from "Forbidden Planet" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still", or if you ever saw the original Blob in an actual theater, this movie will give you a warm feeling and a nostalgic smile as a love letter to the movies from that time. Just about everyone else, I am afraid, will feel perplexed and disappointed.
I enjoyed "Alien Trespass", and I feel like they made it just for me. But really, how many of me are there out there?
The Lost World (1960)
Brassy, overblown Irwin Allen version of a classic tale
I picked up this film on impulse, based on 3 things: a love of the original Arthur Conan Doyle story, a fondness for Michael Rennie, and Saturday afternoon nostalgia for movies like this.
Unfortunately, my child's memory of this film does not do well by me as an adult, for watching it again is a letdown on all three points.
Irwin Allen is Irwin Allen; "brassy" and "overblown" are part of his job description. Making the exploration party bigger makes for more character conflict, but also reduces the feeling of being but a few people in an alien land. Throwing a woman into the mix, that's Hollywood -- but I don't think Doyle would ever forgive him for the poodle... Nor do I.
Allen's biggest offense, however, is against the character of Lord John Roxton, here portrayed by Michael Rennie. In the book Roxton is an upright fellow who would never let a comrade down, a man who values courage and keeping of promises. (He sets up a pre-expedition test for young Malone, to see how he would react in the face of difficulty.) He is a man of strong convictions: "There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human right and justice, or you never feel clean again." Rennie is a marvelous actor who does his best with the part, but Doyle's adventurer is in Allen's hands done poor service. In the book, the guide Gomez's motive for revenge is that Roxton had killed his brother, a bandit slaver. In the movie, however, Gomez wants Roxton destroyed because his brother died on a previous expedition to the plateau when Roxton failed to join the party due to a dalliance with a woman. Rather than a heroic figure who helped end slavery in the region, Roxton is characterized as a dissipate playboy. This constitutes for me an unforgivable liberty with the original work.
All of the other actors try hard, but the characters have been reduced to the thinnest of cardboard. Claude Rains is fairly effective as Professor Challenger, though he seems to be uncomfortable with some of the physical demands of the role. Others who seem uncomfortable are the iguanas who are rightfully annoyed at being forced to parade about with horns and plates glued upon them. (Or forced to fight one another -- having an iguana fight a cayman was surely not P.C. even then!) Cheesy special effects and unlikely action are all part of the parcel, and I can accept those. What I find hard to accept is such a cavalier disregard for the elements which make the story an enduring classic.
I bought this on impulse; I wish now I had just rented it. Or, better yet, just left this movie in the realm of memory where it is richer and better served.
America's Most Haunted Town (2001)
Fun ghost stories from locals, boring psychic, crappy photo "evidence"
The popularity of the "Ghosthunters" show has seen many more of these videos hitting the market: documentaries on supposedly-true hauntings. This particular video also serves to advertise a particular psychic, and some of the sites featured.
The interviewed locals have some fun stories to tell. But so do many locals in many other older towns across America; whether this town deserves the "most haunted" label is highly debatable and largely advertising spin.
Unfortunately, the psychic/photographer investigative team fall far short of convincing me. And as for the photo evidence... Well, part of the reason "professional" (which, all too often, means publicity-seeking) ghost investigators like to use "orb" photos as evidence of spiritual presence is that orb photos are so very easy to get! I have a camera that gets flash orbs 20% of the time, in all sorts of settings -- I had to buy another camera so I wouldn't spend all my time Photoshopping the dust blobs out! (Ironic, isn't it -- far from faking an orb photo, I have to use a computer to remove the darn blemishes.)
In fact, the breathy psychic is so credulous about the videos that she disproves her point -- the "spirits flying in from everywhere" are so obviously dust particles streaming past a light that I think even true believers would find it hard to swallow.
When the locals are telling their stories this video is as interesting as any travelogue about a small town can be. Whenever the investigators are on the screen (with "orbs" in photos conveniently circled in still frames), it is time to reach for the fast forward.
Overall, I give this video a miss.
Incident at Loch Ness (2004)
Stop reading this right now, and go and watch the film!
I'm serious. If you have gotten this far, you have probably already read too many reviews.
This film is best experienced cold, with no presumptions or prior information. I very much enjoy sharing this film with others, but I have to conceal what that night's showing will be to keep them from looking it up ahead of time.
Go watch the film as virgin as you can be. Then come back and discuss it.
(p.s. -- It is not essential to be familiar with Werner Herzog's body of work before seeing this film. But it sure helps.)
We're No Angels (1955)
Charming mix of clever dialog and actors at the top of their form
I don't usually go in for "me-too" here, preferring to post only when I have something distinctive to add. But this is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I will add my voice to the overwhelmingly-positive reviews.
They just don't come much better than this, and watching the film again (as I have just done, as Christmas is approaching) is a blend of delight and a bit of wistfulness that these fine actors are no longer with us. Each is at the top of his game, and they so obviously enjoy working together that it adds to the energy of the film. The dialog is memorable and witty, but I have seen the stage play and it is these particular actors who have made the words timeless. We are fortunate that they had a chance to come together on this film. The ending is the only sour note, but in the perspective of the 50s it makes sense.
This is a film to be enjoyed more upon each return visit, and sharing it with those who have not yet seen it is a great delight. The DVD release is crisp and colorful. Buy it. Share it.
Dracula: The Series (1990)
Don't dismiss this as just a kid's series! Worth the watching.
"Dracula: The Series" had all the elements of a forgettable kid's series, but was saved from that crowded ghetto by lush locations (Luxembourg), clever writing, and the wonderful presence of Geordie Johnson as the title character.
Handsome, confident, and typically with a slight smile playing about his lips, Johnson brings a nice interpretation to the role. Rather than the tortured and sometimes wimpy psycho-studies we have too-often been subjected to in the vampire realm, Johnson's Dracula delights in being eternal and powerful -- he embraces his condition with relish. His Dracula is believably aristocratic and beguiling, while still being ruthless.
Like any serial involving valiant hunters after evil, this show requires a certain suspension of disbelief. A multi-billionaire businessman as well as a vampire, Dracula could quickly snuff out his pursuers, either supernaturally or, far easier, just by arranging an "accident". But like all serials the foes have to continue so the stories can continue.
The series at first focuses more on the children, even attempting to develop the older brother as a teen heartthrob, and tries to be topical by having Dracula listening to hip-hop and ska (and even making a Milli Vanilli joke). But it seems the show's producers quickly realized the appeal of Johnson, and began tailoring the show more to his talents.
The scripts start moving away from the precocious younger brother and the teen angst of the older kids, to more mature themes -- later scripts are versions of "Casablanca" and "Pygmalion", and there is actually some very interesting examination of what it would be like to be immortal. A definite plus is the continuing character provided by Geraint Wyn Davies (later to be a vampire again in "Forever Knight", likely partly due to this role). Davies' Klaus has a lively maniacal presence, and a very memorable Frank-Gorshin-as-The-Riddler laugh.
The show could easily have devolved into camp, but somehow never quite starts down that slippery slope. Johnson is especially to be credited for delivering his character's lines in such a way as to keep them from sounding tongue-in-cheek -- he comes off rather as being eternally amused by life, and in fact values his opponents as a tool against boredom. The closest the show ever comes to being corny or self-mocking is in the final episode, a "clips show" recapping the entire series. (The production had obviously received word that the show was being canceled, as this show serves as a final episode.)
"Dracula: The Series" is a worthy addition to the vampire genre and deserves a look from anyone interested in the tradition. There are a few scenes which make as valid a commentary on the vampire state as other, more "serious" works; the writing is clever and surprisingly complex. It should not be overlooked because of being perceived only as a series for children.
Like a Sufi tale, it has layers
I purely love movies which sharply polarize the viewers! These are the films which consistently make worthwhile viewing -- regardless of how we feel about the film, there are enough people with opposing viewpoints that we can consider for a fresh insight on things...
"Teknolust" is this process, in small. To some, it seems dull, to others, thoughtful. Some find it obvious and crudely drawn, others see it as a symbolic metaphor. Some belabor the obvious scientific inconsistencies, while others focus on the human side of things.
This movie is something of a landmark, being the first(?) feature-length production to be shot entirely in digital 24P. The sharp visuals are the result of this. (No technical stuff, but 24P is a step toward making digital video more "film-like". It is interesting to note that the director still chose to keep, and exaggerate, the "digital feel" for the production.) Tilda Swinton is definitely a draw -- one of my favorite actresses, utterly fearless, and it is delightful to see her with so much to work with. LOVED her interpretive dance -- sheer fun! Upon considering the reviews which felt the acting to be hopelessly wooden, I can see where they are coming from. But it may well be that this was a deliberate approach by the director -- doesn't Rosetta tell Ruby to be "more robotic" on her web portal, as she is starting to appear "too real"? The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the slightly detached acting was yet another mechanism to make us question what is real and what is only presented to us.
The movie features many wry little jokes -- I love that Rosetta's geneticist associate is named "Crick" (Crick & Watson & Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering DNA) -- and I suspect that further viewings will reveal more. Lots of little questions, too -- like why does Agent Hopper have little adhesive bandages on his face, in different places during the movie? Does he have a disease? There are also some interesting questions raised about our reality in a digital world. How many copies are we removed from the original? At what point does copy degradation set in? (The copy center employee who is fascinated by skewed, imperfect copies is a brilliant concept for a character.) For many people, daily and digital lives are overlapping. What would it be like if they blended, with just as much casual copying and exchanging of information? (A virus is essentially an information packet.) Is "real" reality ultimately more desirable than digital "reality"?
I look forward to watching Teknolust again. With an open mind. And a touch of dream. And some friends, to discuss it with afterward.
White Noise (2005)
Muddled, with heavily telegraphed "jump" scares -- rather tedious!
Too bad some nice sound design, visuals and editing were wasted on this rather pedestrian horror film which borrows heavily from the most successful horror films of the last few years.
This yawner features big plot holes, many loose ends, and police who seem oddly uninterested in a fellow who keeps turning up around peculiar incidents...
And however much someone may like Michael Keaton, it is difficult to watch endless scenes of him squinting in concentration. I could hear the director saying, "OK, now -- listen *really* hard, Michael!"
As for how the movie deals with the "real" phenomenon of EVP -- Hollywood, pure Hollywood (and not the good side of Hollywood).
Even if you park your reasoning faculties at the door, this one isn't good for much except for a few (heavily-telegraphed) starts.
Steel Frontier (1995)
Mad Max ripoff meets spaghetti western meets bikers-terrorize-a-town
It's another one of those universes where they drive around so they can find gas so they can -- drive around some more.
No-goodniks take over a town. Mysterious stranger shows up, takes on the no-goodniks. We've seen it all before, in a variety of places, including some bits which seem to be lifted directly from a book series I could name. "Deathriders", yeah, right.
*Lots* of car chases, explosions, crashes, fights; improbable gunplay, improbable futuristic gadgets, improbable dialogue.
I'll hand it to them -- they went to a lot of trouble to set up the "society". They also tried to throw in a bit of thoughtfulness amongst the havoc. And for a virtually unknown movie, the havoc is pretty major -- lots of stunts and pyrotechnics.
It isn't perfectly awful, but this viewer finds it mighty tedious.
I'm not sure why they set these things in a post-Apocalyptic world, as there are obviously already enough ruined buildings to go around (in this case, in the California desert).
Bo Svenson goes through much of the movie looking pained, with good reason. Poor Brion James tries hard, but...
The constant barrage of explosions, gunfire, and cussin' would make this a good choice if you wanted to annoy your next door neighbors late at night.
Back onto the trade stack it goes.
I started to trade it off, but I had to keep it because I feared people wouldn't believe my description of it!
This movie sashays between an attempt at modern noir, an homage to film noir, and a parody of film noir.
I like Michael Biehn, but unfortunately his voice-over narration comes off rather flat. Some of the noir dialogue just falls on the floor and lies there -- I had to rewind to believe that I actually heard the line: "That was the thing that would send me into the darkness, squinting at clues."
Nick Cage's character is certainly a standout. I think the excesses of the character are supposed to be funny. However, Cage not only takes Eddie over the top but down the other side -- he chews up the scenery, digests it, and poops it out right there in front of you. For some reason he seems to think the character should always be on the edge of having a seizure. The cumulative effect for me is to flinch from the thought of ever again seeing him in a film. Really. Like aversion therapy. Say "Nick Cage" and I will think of him drooling and choose another film.
And the film suddenly veers off into an Italian James Bond rip-off! I thought for a moment they had gotten reels mixed up with another movie... In a stylish secret lair (behind a billiard parlor) we meet Angus Scrimm (the Tall Man from "Phantasm") as "Dr. Lyme", the man obsessed with diamonds. Crystals are everywhere, his female henchmen are decked out in big blobby crystal jewelry, the furniture is designed with crystalline angles. He comes complete with a Dr. No suit, a Sidney Greenstreet growl, and -- get this! -- a metal arm with a sharp shiny lobster-claw hand! No fooling. My jaw dropped. At least he wasn't stroking a cat.
Throw in Charlie Sheen as a suave pool hustler, and Mickey Dolenz and Clarence Williams III (!) as sidekicks, and you have quite a stew. Peter Fonda looks like he is thinking about his shopping list. James Coburn (the primary reason I picked up the film) definitely classes things up, but we don't see enough of him.
This film isn't quite a train wreck, but it is something of a demolition derby. Between a bus, a sportscar, a taxi, and a motorcycle. And a kid on a tricycle.
I'm going to hang onto it for a while, just to share Angus Scrimm's scene with people. And to prove I didn't dream it.
Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)
Obviously a matter of taste -- I find it a waste!
I really wanted to like this -- certainly the theme is near and dear and I don't mind broad humor.
But I found this a painfully tedious waste of a talented cast. Right about the time one of the characters says "This film must be destroyed" I reached for the fast forward... Needless slapstick and endless labored jokes about provincial Transylvanians.
The sad thing is that I like just about everybody in the cast. Geena Davis looks cute in her Vampirella outfit (and provides the film's only dramatic tension as we watch for her to pop out of her navel-deep decolletage) but only appears in a few brief scenes. Jeffrey Jones is always fun but had trouble keeping his accent in line. Ironically, the Frankenstein's Monsters looks better than in many another production.
For me, it feels rather like a 60's monster nudie-cutie, without the nudity.
I hope everyone had a nice vacation shooting on location in Yugoslavia.
Orgy of the Dead (1965)
It grows on you. Like fungus. And the DVD is gorgeous!
Add this film to the "Looks Better On DVD Than It Has Any Right To" list. The recent DVD release reveals far better original material than the old VHS showed. We get to see every droplet in the swirling fog, every quiver of the dancers' flesh. We get to see just how dead Criswell's pan is. Every flaw is brilliantly illuminated. How can this old low-budget stuff end up looking better than many a modern film?
Sure, this movie is slow, tedious, repetitious and ultimately pointless. But it grows on you. Like fungus. It has an odd sincerity, in its utter badness. Somehow, nobody seems to really understand that they are making a bad movie -- the secret of the charm of the Ed Wood universe.
I have not only the new DVD, but also the full (including dialogue) soundtrack CD which I have listened to many times. I admit to a strange, childish pleasure to be typing away at work while listening to dialogue like, "A pussy cat was born to be whupped!"
Would-be indie filmmakers should take inspiration from this film, as it is proof that no matter how bad the dreck put to film may be, it can see distribution and perhaps even a profit. And, filmmaking lets you hang out with naked babes.
I'm working on the sequel now. Watch for it.
Surprisingly faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" -- deserves better attention!
Dracula is a major presence in our house (along with his relatives the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, zombies, ...) I cannot claim to have seen all of the many films which are descendants of Bram Stoker's original work -- the "Dracula" name has been applied to everything from sex farce to psychological allegory, and some of it is pure trash. But we have seen more than our share of not only Dracula movies but also vampire movies in general, as well as any number of play adaptations.
It seems that most Dracula movies are not adaptations of the book, but rather adaptations of previous movies. Admittedly, the book is devilishly hard to stage/film, as it is structured as a series of excerpts from journals, difficult to weave into a consistent narrative flow. But one often gets the impression that the directors (or screenwriters!) of some of the films haven't bothered to read Stoker's novel, contenting themselves with merely screening some previous efforts.
So it is always with some trepidation we watch a new "Dracula" film, bracing ourselves for yet another schlock assault with only passing connection to the original. (Not that we are against schlock per se -- only when it masquerades to deceive.) Frankly, the cover art and copy of "Dracula's Curse" didn't give us much hope of quality.
Thus, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it is a well-appointed, thoughtful, and reasonably faithful version of Bram Stoker's book. Obviously, the production team had not only read the book but understood it, and labored to bring it to the screen as accurately as possible. In this, it stands head and shoulders above most "true to the novel" versions, including Coppola's (don't get me started on *that* one...)
The film does strike several sour notes -- the flying effects are in my opinion quite overused, and in fact unnecessary -- and at several points is at odds with tradition. (Vampiric insensitivity to sunlight will jar most people.) But many of these "traditions" are actually creations of earlier films, as careful reading of the novel will show. The ending is also rather rushed, as though the production was running out of money and could not afford the chase across Europe to save Mina.
The multinational cast does take a bit of getting used to, with as many accents as there are actors. But even this is true to the spirit of Stoker, who inserted an "exotic" American and the European Van Helsing into his story to lend it an international flavor.
Some of the casting plays against movie convention; Dracula (Patrick Bergin) in particular is at odds with what many people expect of the bloodsucking count. He looks far more authentically Romanian than any other Dracula we have seen (like a cross between Robert Goulet, Harvey Keitel, and Lech Walesa). Unfortunately, as the "aged" Dracula he looks distractingly like Scots comic actor Billy Connolly. But he has appropriate menace as well as some regal bearing, and is closer to Stoker's description than most.
The film is set in the present day, but by clever and deft scripting allows whole sections to feel as though they are set during Stoker's time. The locations and settings are sumptuous; the film makes very effective use of Budapest scenery to set the mood. Great care was obviously taken to achieve interesting camera angles.
And more of Stoker's dialogue is present than in perhaps any other version of the story, including the Louis Jourdan mini-series.
For someone who has only seen other "Dracula" movies, this one may seem slow and overstated. But to anyone who has read the book and enjoyed it, this movie is a refreshing attempt to bring Bram Stoker's original vision to the screen. Rather than rely on gratuitous gore and nudity, this production builds on mood and a fluid sensuality. Just as Stoker intended.
Geisha Girl (1952)
Schizophrenic little travelogue, filmed in occupied Japan
This movie is not so much entertaining as it is mystifying. For whom was this film intended? How did it get made, and why?
The plot: Japanese gangster types (with suggestions that they are backed by communists) have developed little pills, each of which is more powerful than an atomic bomb. They intend to demonstrate the power of the pills, then hold the world for ransom. Enter two G.I.s on leave who bumble into the plot. Add a airline stewardess drafted to play spy (!), a geisha house, and a mesmerist, and you have what was intended to be a wacky comedy, but instead comes off rather like a propaganda film for cultural tolerance.
Large parts of the film are given over to sympathetic views of Japanese artistic traditions, with extensive stage performances. When the G.I.s make lascivious assumptions about the geishas, their host is careful to point out that Americans have the wrong idea about geishas, and explains their years of training to become perfect entertainers.
But in contrast other Japanese are portrayed as bumbling buffoons -- the gangsters are silly rather than threatening (played very large, even to the point of eyepatches), the cops are of the Keystone variety, and the mesmerist looks like the inspiration for Johnny Carson's "Great Karnak".
This film really feels like it was made with the army's blessing (uniformed soldiers appear as actors, with their army rank given in the credits) and was designed to be shown to the troops stationed overseas. On the one hand, the film preaches respect for Japanese culture and art. On the other hand, Japanese are shown as non-threatening and not to be taken seriously.
And parts of the film look like they were designed to be filmed in 3-D!
Truly, an odd little film. It gives a glimpse of early-50's occupied Japan (even to the point of a woman turning her face away from Americans she passes on the street) but the comedy relief is weak and overall the film makes one's thumb itch for the fast forward. I wouldn't go far out of my way to see it (nor did I -- just happened upon it and back it goes on the trade stack) but if you stumble across it you might give it a spin.
Comic Book: The Movie (2004)
We were there for the filming, yet are still ambivalent about the film... But the extras make it worthwhile!
POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
My wife and I have been to San Diego Comic Con quite a few times, including the year this movie was "filmed". We were, in fact, in the audience for the final scenes. So we were particularly interested in finally seeing this movie.
Mark Hamill, an avowed comic book fan, has been a constant presence at SDCC for years. We met him there when he was promoting the release of his own comic book, and have heard him speak several times. His love of the genre is obviously genuine.
And he intended this "mockumentary" to be "a love letter to all this" (his words). Whether he succeeded is arguable; looking at the other comments, it is clear people are sharply divided. I will say this does not strike me as a movie you will enjoy unless you are in on the joke, can recognize the players, and have some insight into the comics world. (In one scene, Mark's character asks if he can take a seat at a table already occupied by 3 people. One of them refuses, saying, "Move along, son." The scene would be meaningless unless you recognize the man speaking as David Prowse, who played Hamill's father in the Star Wars movies. And the 2 others at the table are also actors from the series.)
Perhaps it would have been better if Mark had not played the lead himself -- even with a beard and eye-magnifying nerd glasses, it proved impossible (for us at least) to disassociate Don Swan from Mark Hamill. When Swan is interacting with the celebs making cameo appearances, we always thought, "These people are hanging out with Mark Hamill, who is pretending to be a nerd." (To Mr. Hamill's credit, he obviously considers himself a nerd as great as any other. He does not poke mean fun at comic book fans; he certainly presents types, but I'm here to tell ya those types exist...) Because of this, it is hard to feel for Don Swan as a character.
Something else which served to keep me distanced from the film was the camera work. Mark's Swan character is being followed about by a camera crew throughout the film. But the camera crew is also being filmed... The POV shifts abruptly between the two cameras. The first time it happens it is quite jarring; after that it is merely dizzying. This directorial/editing decision made it very difficult for me to ever become immersed in the film.
For anyone who has ever attended a comic book convention there is certainly a familiarity factor at work. This is especially strong for those who have been to the Comic Con: "Hey -- I've shopped at that booth, talked to that person, sat by that pillar..." (Though the film never gives a true impression of just how big the Con is, nor how crowded it becomes -- most of the scenes were obviously done early on in the con when relatively few people are in attendance. Later on the scenes would have been impossible to shoot, with 50,000 people about.)
Mark gathered together some friends who just happen to be some of the greatest voice talent in the business. Everybody tries hard, but excellence in voice talent does not necessarily translate into screen presence, and all too often we found ourselves watching past the actors to see if anyone we knew was walking past.
So appreciation of the movie itself is a matter of personal taste, and how it impacts upon you. The extras, however, are a gem which can be appreciated by anyone!
Mr. Hamill has sometimes been the target of criticism for, after early screen success, having to "stoop to voice-over work" on cartoons. I have heard him speak on this subject, and he is not defensive but rather amazed that anyone could hold such a view. When doing voice-overs, you don't have to do makeup, go on location, answer 5 a.m. calls, worry about your appearance -- as one of the voice talents says, "they can't see you get old or fat!", a valuable thing in age-ist, image-conscious Hollywood.
And however we may feel about the movie itself, Mark will always have a special place in our hearts for drawing together an amazing group of voice actors to appear in it. As mentioned above, we were there on hand for the filming of the final scenes -- the Con let Mark schedule one of the rooms for filming, and the production needed crowd extras. So we were there until early in the morning (condensing inward as the crowded room slowly emptied over the course of the shoot).
To keep us in place, entertained, and rewarded for the long hours, Mark got the actors from the film to do a panel on, well, themselves. And a grand collection of talent they were -- dozens of memorable cartoon voices, represented by the people on that stage. They had great fun, and shared it with us. Though many of them had worked together, it was the first time this group had been together in one place, and they were obviously having a wonderful time simply being there, and being in the presence of their idol Gary Owens (who made it all look easy, and gave a cold reading which proved again why he is considered the Grand Old Man of voice talent.) Quite a bit of this session is on the Bonus disk, though sadly not all -- I recall other wonderful moments as the folks went through their repertoire of voices, as well as trying to do each other's. Still, we are overjoyed to have on disk a record of that night, and that collection of talent.
Watch the movie and decide for yourself, but treasure the extra material and share it with anyone who has ever watched a cartoon.
The Ballad of Bering Strait (2003)
Thoughtful, humanist documentary.
It sounds like the perfect high-concept Hollywood plotline: eager, appealing, talented Russian teenagers dream of making it big in music -- but their chosen genre is American-style bluegrass and country. They learn their chops in Russia, then travel to the US and play at the Grand Ole Opry, to great acclaim and instant fame, "rubles to riches".
Were life a movie, that's the way it would work. But this movie is a life, many lives in fact, and things aren't so simple...
The band "Bering Strait" works for years to attain their dream of recording at Nashville, strive to stand out and be thought of as more than a novelty act ("Hey look -- a Russian playin' a banjo!"), try to be patient in the face of obstacles. Basically, just like any band anywhere. And ultimately that is what this documentary is about -- strip away the Russian accents, and these kids are facing the same problem aspiring bands anywhere have had. They have to balance schooling with career, deal with parents who love them but really wish they had chosen a more stable profession, agonize over letting a band member go. These are the universals of the music world.
Watching this film makes one wonder how *any* group makes it in music. As a recording exec points out, there are "hundreds of thousands" of talented musicians waiting for a chance, and the odds are very poor for them getting it... Even Bering Strait, with their hook of being foreign, have to weather years of promises and the storms of the recording industry.
Though the stress *is* a bit more exaggerated for them -- due to visa restrictions they cannot do any work in the U.S. other than music, not even flipping burgers, so periods where they are not working are especially frustrating. They feel helpless, powerless, isolated and homesick. (In an ironic twist on stereotypes, the urbanite Russian teenagers end up spending most of their time in America on a farm.) Their manager, producer, etc. are shown as folks who genuinely care for them, and in fact are putting themselves at risk for the band's sake, but the band themselves feel tossed about by fate.
Ironically, the music the band aspires to sounds (to this non-country-tuned ear) indistinguishable from any other top 40 country songs. The band is talented, the singers have lovely voices, but they seem to be willing to trade distinctiveness for success. Only when they perform a traditional Russian piece in a bluegrass arrangement do they stand out and show some pizazz.
(The film shows American reactions to their music: "Did they sound Russian?" Amusingly, one woman thinks they sound "too Yankee". And watching good ol' boys in a Nashville bar trying to pronounce Russian names is alone worth seeing the film.)
Watching this film, one is left with a sense of the basic decency of people everywhere. Nationalities are set aside as the common thread of human experience works through. (You don't have to speak Russian to understand the concern on the faces of the kids' parents as they contemplate their futures.) Even the sometimes harsh recording business is seen as being peopled with good folk who have troubles of their own. And the kids, though sometimes anxious and depressed, never descend into sullen attitude. (Though whether this is a product of their Russian background or the ambience of country music is unclear -- how would a rock band have fared, under the same circumstances?) And even everyday southern Americans, where the stereotype might suggest otherwise, are depicted as being open-minded to the idea of Russians playing country music.
Anyone who dreams of making it in music should see this film, as should anyone who knows them.
Most of the film is in English, with occasional subtitles.
Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein (1999)
Clever concept bogs down in endless gay jokes.
The first half of this film works pretty well for me, though I thought there was waaaay too much of Barry Feterman as the foul-mouthed Bernie Stein. Not that he didn't act the role capably, but there was so much more of him than the plot required that one started to wonder if he had been an investor in the film, and demanded extra screen time...
The musical numbers are fun, and Guggenheim tries hard as the "King". But once the monster's sexual confusion "comes up", the film devolves into an endless string of gerbil and "hershey highway" jokes. I'm not sure if these are intended as gay camp or gay bashing, but either way the film devotes far too much time to them, and not enough to the potential of an "assembled" rock star.
Many elements of this film work, and it looks pretty good for a low-budget production. But somewhere along the way the concept loses steam and chugs along slowly, relying on a very low grade of humor.
Free Enterprise (1998)
Viewers are sharply divided, but film is dead-on funny.
It has been my experience that, when any film generates so much reaction and that reaction is so sharply polarized, you simply have to see it for yourself.
The details of this film have been covered elsewhere. But in examining this film, I feel there are still some areas upon which we might expand.
1) Free Enterprise is as much about Los Angeles and a particular culture as it is about Star Trek and its fans. LA is simply full of guys just like Mark and Robert -- lower-to-middle level in the film industry, always hoping to get the chance to make the film they've always wanted to. They love film, but are struggling to maintain that affection in the face of the hard realities of the film biz (having seen far too many associates become jaded and bitter.) They hang out in cafes and all-night restaurants, and bars take the place of the living rooms they don't have because their apartments are too small. Most of them have unpublished manuscripts and screenplays, their conversation is dialogue, and they automatically pepper it with pop culture and film references new and old. In the case of Free Enterprise their focus is Star Trek and SF films, but it could just as easily be Hitchcock, James Bond or (for the coming generation) Kevin Smith. This film perfectly captures these guys, a dead-on representation of those living and working in the midst of The Dream Factory. Sure, the folks in the film are "prettier" than some might expect, but that's show biz -- movies are a glossed-up version of reality.
2) Speaking of expectations, much of the reaction to this film seems to orbit around not the film itself, but rather around how folks think the film addresses the stereotype of the Star Trek fan. Which shows that everyone needs to take another look at that stereotype as they hold it. So, Mark and Robert are not the fanboy extremists given such colorful treatment in "Trekkies" (which came out about the same time as FE, got much wider release, and actually kept some people away from FE because they assumed it was more of the same.) Our boys don't wear Star Fleet uniforms (well, not as adults), they aren't unusually shaped, they date... So some people label the characters as "unrealistic". I say, re-examine your own assumptions. Life is a continuum -- people do not always gravitate to extreme poles.
3) I have several times seen Robert Burnett and Mark Altman "perform" in person, and I can assure you that the "semi-autobiographical" characters in the film are in no way an exaggeration -- they are just as witty off-the-cuff as their characters are in the script, just as reference-saturated, just as opinionated. Think of the screenplay as excerpts drawn from a constantly-running tape recorder present when they are together with friends: the "greatest moments". Trust me, the characters in the film are dead on -- these guys talk like that.
4) Far from being the poor example of indie production some have labeled it, I feel FE *very* successfully overcomes low-budget considerations. Excellent use of practical lighting, imaginative usage of sets (and re-dressing of sets), and the LA-is-our-whole-world feel all add up to a veritable handbook for the low-budget director. (The excellent commentary track supports how carefully thought out these elements were, especially the discussion of overcoming lens restrictions.)
5) FE is also very successful for having overcome a very shaky release, to enjoy new life on DVD. Partly this is due to word-of-mouth, and partly it's due to the excellent usage the producers made of the DVD format. The alternate "reference" track is great fun, and the commentary track is one of the best out there. I think the longest break in the discussion is 8 seconds -- the rest of the time the guys are falling over each other to reveal details in the rich background they have created. It would be a crime to watch this film without also watching the commentary.
6) Many have pointed at the love story as the weakest element in PE, and I must say I agree with reservations. Right off, I'll say that I often feel that love stories are "spliced into" films -- you can almost hear someone say: "It won't sell unless there's a love story in it". And there's a bit of that here. But the love story does serve to help us examine the bonds between the guys; their group unity is challenged, their stability threatened.
-- POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD --
Some folks feel that Claire is "too pretty" to be a comic book fan -- again, with the stereotypes! -- and that her character is unrealistic. The only main problem I have with the Robert-Claire relationship is when she takes him back, saying, "I don't care about all your negatives, I love you because you will risk everything to achieve your dream!" (This is the point where my wife and I always turn to each other and chorus, 'Fantasy Alert'!) Well, actually, Robert does not risk everything to achieve his dream of making a movie -- he in fact screws off and gives up and relies on the charity of his friends to keep him afloat, and no sensible Claire would dream of putting up with him. So this bit must be chalked up to "Happy Hollywood Ending" and the fact that this is Mark & Robert's movie and if they want to indulge in a bit of wish fulfillment then they can do so.
My wife and I "discovered" this film for our friends, and have turned so many people on to it that we could fill a theater. Most folks have been *very* enthusiastic about it (their most common response: "Why haven't I seen this before?"). We have watched it going on 2 dozen times, and it just keeps getting better for us. Partly because we know these guys, these types, know the LA settings and atmosphere. But mostly just because it is a very well made, heartfelt, and entertaining production.
I have to say a word here about Shatner. Back to stereotypes, and assumptions... I have to admit that I, like much of the world, had come to believe that William Shatner was egocentric, vain, and condescending to his fans. And in my defense, a case can be made for each of those points. (See "Meeting of Minds" for some indication of how genuinely clueless he is regarding why his costars might resent him.) But Free Enterprise turned my (our) head around -- Shatner's willingness to lampoon himself shows a whole new side of the man. His admonition to "tear me down!" (view the commentary track) shows a sincere desire to examine the nature of hero worship and stardom (as does his appearance in the film in the first place), and his "it was then I realized that I'm not Captain Kirk" monologue is actually quite touching. One comes away with a new respect for the man as an actor, and as a man.
I can see why some people might not find Free Enterprise to their taste. But for those who do frequent this kind of restaurant, it is mighty tasty indeed.
Kaze no tani no Naushika (1984)
THE film to challenge people's assumptions about anime.
I saw the dubbed version years ago and, even in that form, was taken by the imaginative visuals, interesting storyline, and worthwhile characters. I was also impressed by the fact the lead character was a strong young woman, who was a "warrior" yet whose greatest strength lay in her compassion (rather than striving to become a female Rambo.)
I tracked down a copy of the VHS and sent it to my young nieces, pleased with a "kid's" movie which provided a positive role model without being dumb. The movie captivated them as well -- they wore the tape out, and it started them on a lifelong interest in anime. It was they who sent me the uncut subtitled version years later, completing the circle.
Nausicaa is decent science fiction, often breath-taking animation, and unusually *human* characters, and every time I see it I am glad I returned. Everyone should give it a chance, especially those who have written off anime as "round eyed kids and lots of explosions".
Stranger in Our House (1978)
Carefully misrepresented 70's made-for-TV -- a time capsule!
This film is a case of careful repackaging -- and the case is the key, as the cover art of the DVD has no relation at all to the film, and *nowhere* on the case does it reveal that the film was made in 1977! An obvious attempt to fool Wes Craven fans, and capitalize on the names of Linda Blair and popular children's author Lois Duncan.
Wes is learning his chops on this one, along the "seductive stranger disrupts happy family" plotline, and turns in a competent if ultimately rather pedestrian flick.
Linda Blair completists will enjoy this as an early indication of the womanly curves which she was later to display more fully to the world. Unfortunately, she is called upon to spend much of the movie acting like a whiny 8-year-old. Fran Drescher also shows up, displaying some atrocious acting but curves of her own (she spends much of the movie in short-shorts).
Definitely 70's, in tone and atmosphere. Anyone wishing to be transported back to that time will find this the vehicle. Anyone looking for Wes Craven horror may well feel cheated.
The DVD transfer is jumpy and twitchy, and at some points the sound sync is off. "Special Features" are simple filmographies.
For Y'ur Height Only (1981)
Sometimes I feel like a pusher: I take an obscure film and introduce innocent people to it. For free. Then smile and laugh when they come crawling back to me for another fix.
"For Your Height Only" is the drug which has addicted many on first exposure. And no matter how many times one has seen it, the craving grows...
The DVD is out of print (and the price is heading steadily up), but worth keeping an eye out for since you will want a format which won't wear out during multiple sharings with new "customers". DVD is also nice to have for quick reverses to confirm, "Did I just see that?"
The movie is worth owning for the "Butt Slap of Death" scene alone.
Only one thing could make this film funnier: Weng Weng's voice dubbed into a deep baritone. Maybe I'll tackle it someday... (Actually, WW's own speaking voice was said to be very rich. The dub makes him rather squeaky. And as has been mentioned, the gangsters are dubbed in Aussie versions of 20's American gangsters... marvelous!)
Several sources claim there is a sequel to this film ("The Impossible Kid"), and perhaps even two ("Agent 00"). Tracking these down have become the Holy Grail of my film collecting. (Some other aliases for the sequel may be "The Impossible Kid of Kung Fu", "The Incredible Kung Fu Kid", and "007&1/2: Nothing is Impossible".)
Good things come in small packages!
Xian si jue (1983)
A great intro to the wonderful world of kung fu film!
Beautiful, confusing, chaotic. Motivations hard for us westerners to understand. (The great combat is fought not for riches or territory, but only for honor.) Gleefully bends the laws of physics, and plays with your reason in the finest HK (Hong Kong) tradition.
I have shared this film with folks who had not previously experienced HK film, and they were instantly captivated. Or should I say captured. By the Ninjas.
Because -- this film's certainly got the Ninjas! Surf Ninjas! Sand Ninjas! Exploding Ninjas! Tree Ninjas! Flying Ninjas! Roof Ninjas! Giant Ninjas! Kite Ninjas! Naked Girl Ninjas! (Oh, that long-haired Naked Fu...)
Just as with life, every time things quiet down in this film, you may be sure the Ninjas will pop up to keep things lively.
Watch this and be captured. You have been warned.
Rats - Notte di terrore (1984)
There are far too many movies which fail to give us someone in the film to sympathize/empathize with, whether through ineptness on the part of the director & actors, or because the characters are so vile/empty/cardboard/venal/pointless/useless that one doesn't want to admit they are the same species as ourselves.
The only sympathetic characters for me in "Notte di Terrore" were the rats who, far from being menacing, were in fact huddled miserably together, busily trying to clean from themselves the black goop with which they had been coated in a clumsy attempt to make them look menacing. As for the human characters -- I simply could not wait for all of them to be dead! If these were the survivors who were supposed to repopulate the planet -- let the rats have the whole damn world.
Not only do the rats have to suffer being gooped up, they have the further indignity of being repeatedly tossed at bad actors. And Italian animal rights laws evidently being looser, many rats are obviously injured or killed for the sake of action effects, including several which are clearly burned alive. Would that they could have given their lives for a more worthy film.
I hope this movie isn't intercepted by some alien civilization out there, because it would serve to convince them of the need to exterminate the human race. For the good of the universe.
The Smokers (2000)
Dark, despairing, with no balancing light. Difficult to see to the end!
There's not many movies where I seriously consider not seeing it all the way through. I watch 5-12 movies a week, new releases and classics, and typically I see them all through to the bitter end.
But 20 minutes into "The Smokers" I was fighting a most uncharacteristic urge to hit the Stop button.
And 30 minutes into the film I found myself in great sympathy of those animals who gnaw their legs off to escape a trap.
I picked up the film on spec because it had some good people involved with it. And I cannot hold them at fault for my discomfort -- all of the actors do their best with the material. (Thora Birch is a standout as the younger sister.)
But it is the material itself which is at the root of my desire to flee. What was (I believe) intended as a trenchant commentary on power, empowerment, and male-female relations instead struck me as a mean-spirited, dark and ultimately pointless exercise.
Perhaps if I were more familiar with the subjects of the film -- rich, bored, disaffected boarding school girls -- it would be more poignant for me. But I'm not a rich, bored, disaffected boarding school girl (nor do I think I ever shall be), just a film enthusiast with the ability to empathize with characters on screen if given half a chance. I ended up not caring two squirts what happened to any of these characters, and the vague message of the movie regarding the validity of the culture which produces rich, bored, disaffected etc. -- one of the characters tells her little sister "I don't want you to end up like mom" -- was insufficient reason to care about the film itself.
This film obviously comes from a very personal space, as many films which are written and directed by the same person do. Just as obviously, the director had it in the back of her mind that this film become a cult favorite -- the wild makeup is otherwise largely pointless.
An ardent feminist might claim that the source of my discomfort comes from receiving the barbs directed at self-serving men. To which I say pish. *And* tosh. The characters are empty on both sides of the sexual divide. I am a feminist (a humanist!) myself, and I feel this movie makes no contribution to insight regarding the opposite sex, and is in fact so confused and hostile that it can actually cause greater problems. My wife felt the same way.
Midway through the film, my wife and I debated whether or not to see it through; we decided to reach the bitter end, to see if *any* redemption was offered. But we also discussed what movie we should watch afterward, to take the taste of "The Smokers" out of our mouths. Something cheerier, like "Apocalypse Now".
And I found myself thinking of Kurtz's penned message: "Drop the bombs. Exterminate them all."
The horror. The horror...