Thursday, February 28, 2008

I'M FROM HOLLYWOOD (1989) d. Lynn Margulies & Joe Orr

Written by Mark Nelson

It's 1981. I'm 7 years old, and take a look at my hometown newspaper after school one day. On the front page is a picture of Andy Kaufman wrestling a woman in the lobby of my local three-screen movie theater. HUH? What was the funny guy from TAXI doing in my small NH town? According to the accompanying article, he'd gone to see SUPERMAN II there, and decided upon an impromptu wrestling match in the theater's lobby afterward. I was ticked off when I read this, as I'd had my father take me to see SUPERMAN II there the night before Kaufman showed up. If I'd waited a day, I could've seen (maybe even MET) Andy Kaufman. It's something I've always remembered, as Kauf's appearance in my tiny, out-of-the-way town has always mystified me.

Cut to a decade or so later, and I come across I'M FROM HOLLYWOOD on Comedy Central. Suddenly the bizarre woman-wrestling incident at my hometown theater so many years earlier made sense. This documentary revealed Andy Kaufman: Comedian to also be Andy Kaufman: Wrestling Heel. I watched I'M FROM HOLLYWOOD whenever it showed up on Comedy Central, which for a while was often. I just couldn't get enough of Kaufman's villain put-on being taken so seriously by the wrestling fans of Memphis, Tennessee. Like so much of Kaufman's living satire, his actions seemed pretty genuine to the casual or unsuspecting observer. For those in the know, however, Kaufman's put-ons were hilarious in their deadpan devotion to his deep-cover prankery.

I'M FROM HOLLYWOOD presents the full saga of Andy Kaufman's numerous early-80s run-ins with Memphis wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler, both in the ring and on local TV programs (this saga is perhaps best known for the LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN appearance by the dueling duo, in which a fight broke out on-air). Interspersed throughout the verbal and physical smack-downs are interviews with Kaufman's friends and colleagues (including Marilu Henner and Robin Williams) conducted after his death, giving their memories of this strange period of is career in mock bewilderment. That they were willing to posthumously continue the joke Kaufman had started years earlier is a testament to their friendship and sense of humor.

I'M FROM HOLLYWOOD was co-directed by Lynne Margulies (aka Lynnie Legend), Kaufman's girlfriend during the later part of his life. She provides a video introduction the piece, and is joined by Kaufman partner-in-crime Bob Zmuda for a funny and fascinating audio commentary, which continues over footage of full matches between Kaufman and Lawler, viewable separately from the film as bonus features. The commentary is a surprisingly candid recounting of the whole wrestling period of Kaufman's career. This is one of the few times I've heard Kaufman insiders publicly expose the mechanics behind his madness.

The only beef I have with the otherwise-wonderful disc is that at times the video is marred by a stuttered-motion effect when people are moving horizontally across the screen. I've confirmed with Legend House that this was an authoring error on the initial run of the disc, and that future pressings will be corrected. This was a bit distracting at times, but I was honestly so happy to have this that I was able to over look the anomaly for the most part.

I'M FROM HOLLYWOOD is highly recommended for fans of Andy Kaufman, performance art, absurdist and anarchic comedy, rabble rousing, pro wrestling, and name-calling. You know who you are.


Written by Mark Nelson

Some of my favorite movie-house memories are of seeing odd, strange, and rare film prints unspool after the Witching Hour, screened by my college film society and in the hipper theaters of Boston. These screenings brought me old favorites, long-read-about obscurities, and things that no sane programmer would run in the more respectable 7 & 9PM showings. Euro-horror, mondo-documentaries, 60s counterculture epics...all were given their due on the big screen, devoured by an audience of cinemaniacs hungry for something different.

Long after the respectable film-goers were home and safely home in their beds, the late-night cinematic thrill-seekers would emerge C.H.U.D.-like from the dark corners of the city, to converge upon the flickering forbidden images of the Midnight Show.

Sadly, it seems that the tradition of the Midnight Movie has evolved into something different these days, with films like ERASERHEAD and WILD IN THE STREETS being passed over for popular mainstream blockbusters of the 80s and 90s, the audiences more interested in a nostalgia trip back to 10 years ago, filled with the thrill of laughing at old clothes and hairstyles, lacking the cinematic curiosity and adventurousness that caused a generation of Midnighters to expand their horizons by the light of a flickering screen.

So it is perhaps quite appropriate at this time that we see MIDNIGHT MOVIES: FROM THE MARGIN TO THE MAINSTREAM, as both a fascinating look at the phenomenon, as well as somewhat of an epitaph for it as well. MIDNIGHT MOVIES chronicles not only the histories of the films that made their initial mark via Midnight showings (EL TOPO, ERASERHEAD, PINK FLAMINGOS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, THE HARDER THEY COME), but also talks to the theater owners and distribution men who made sure audiences got to see these things in the first place. That MIDNIGHT MOVIES focuses more on the distribution and exhibition of the films, rather than their production histories (though that is covered with some amusing anecdotes from the original filmmakers as well) sets this doc apart from other cult movie examinations, and in my mind gives it a leg up on the competition. MIDNIGHT MOVIES takes you from that first screening on EL TOPO in NYC, to the genesis of the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW phenomenon and beyond. Interviewed are Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, John Waters, Richard O'Brien, Perry Henzell, along with clips of their infamous works.

If I had one complaint about the presentation of MIDNIGHT MOVIES on DVD, it would be the lack of additional interview clips as a supplement to the main feature. Surely there were more anecdotes and stories the filmmakers captured from this gathering of icons that would be interesting to hear.

I had a blast with MIDNIGHT MOVIES: FROM THE MARGIN TO THE MAINSTREAM. It was nice to see the unsung heroes of underground cinema get their moment in the spotlight, and it made me more than a tad nostalgic for those late-night big-screen walks on the wild side.

EYE OF THE BEAST (2007) d. Gary Yates

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Giant monster movies have been a staple of the horror genre since the 1930s when KING KONG spread stamping ruin across the screen. During the 1950s and 1960s, murderous monsters of every shape, size and description savaged towns, cities and continents for every reason imaginable. Whether they were classics like THEM or less impressive efforts like THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, giant monster movies started making their way to drive-ins and then Saturday afternoon or late night television. It is there that cult classics like THE GIANT MANTIS and FROM HELL IT CAME would leave their indelible mark on the minds of horror film lovers forever. EYE OF THE BEAST, part of Genius Products’ “Maneater Series” and originally airing on the Sci-Fi Network, feels very much like one of those flawed but fun favorites of old.

EYE OF THE BEAST is the story of a small, Canadian fishing village named “Fell’s Island” and the horror that lurks beneath the surface of the lake. Marine Biologist Dan Leland, played by James Van Der Beek, is sent to Fell’s Island to determine why the fishing stocks are in such steep decline. Before long, Dan teams up with local fisheries officer Katrina Tomas, played by Alexandra Castillo, and as people start to disappear, body parts are found and boats are broken into matchsticks, the legend of Fell’s Island appears to be true.

Taken as just a drama, EYE OF THE BEAST has a story with some surprisingly complex conflicts intertwined into its monster movie premise. There is strife between the white local fishermen and their Indian counterparts. In addition, Dan Leland’s character becomes the focus of hostility as he is viewed as a potential threat to the deteriorating fishing industry. Dan is at odds with the reputation-conscious heads of his Science Department NORA, who are not interested in “tales about sea monsters”. Finally, Officer Katrina Tomas has her own demons buried deep within her memory which come forth even as her affection for Dan grows. All of these conflicts make the story a great deal more interesting than one would have expected from a low-budget “giant squid movie”. However, just like the monster flicks of old, EYE OF THE BEAST is more about the characters than it is about the monster and the archetypes created, some very similar to the characters in JAWS, are the real focus of the film. Another wise choice the film makers exercised was to insure that citizens either disappeared at the hand of the monster and/or we got to see it in action every now and then, keeping the premise upper most in the viewers’ minds. It is at the end of the film during the climactic battle with The Beast that mistakes are made.

Whether it was a function of a lack of funds or poor film-making skills or subscribing to the misbegotten philosophies of modern camerawork/editing or all the above, what should have been the pinnacle of the film was incomprehensible. All the final battle scenes were shot too dark, too close, were shot on the back of a leaping kangaroo and were edited too rapidly. The argument might be made that since the budget was low and special effects had to be used “judiciously”, the only way to make the battle scene work was to “cover up” the inherent visual weaknesses. If that is the case, I present Exhibit A: THE BERMUDA DEPTHS. I can’t imagine that TV movie had much more of a budget than EYE OF THE BEAST, and yet the battles with the giant turtle in that film were easily seen. Hell, all of that film was easily perceived, because people still knew how to shoot scenes back in the late 1970s. It may also be said that part of the experience of watching a giant monster movie, or any horror film of yore on an old TV in the 1960s was the reality that the film was going to look like crap. That may be so, but it doesn’t have to be that way now. There is no reason that I had to replay the final battle of EYE OF THE BEAST five times to get a sense of some of what was happening. With today’s technology, it should have been a slam dunk.

Like the rest of the “Maneater Series” so far, the extras menu of EYE OF THE BEAST is empty. Of all that series, a commentary about making a “giant squid movie” was a must. It simply can’t cost that much money to have the director rattle off a few lines in an interview or to author a commentary that would help to explain some of the triumphs and travails of making a monster movie. Listen to me folks; engender some cheap good will among the consumer and stick in some baubles other than trailers. Trailers make you feel like you’re getting the hard sell. A small but fun set of extras makes the viewer feel like the film was an “enterprise”, not a “tourist trap”.

Overall, EYE OF THE BEAST was a surprisingly enjoyable viewing experience. Maybe it helped that I went in with low expectations and maybe it helped even more that the way had been paved by the many “drive-in classics” I have endured over my life. If you go in with a light heart, a beer in one hand and a fillet-o-fish sandwich in the other, you too will probably enjoy EYE OF THE BEAST.

P2 (2007) d. Franck Khalfoun

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The setting of a film will often determine the nature of the characters’ interactions with each other and their surroundings. For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, there were a variety of interior and exterior sets running the gamut from mundane to moody to malevolent, each causing the character to react to their environment and eliciting a visceral response from the viewer. However, in Hitchcock’s ROPE, the exceedingly simple settings forced the onus of conflict to be initiated and maintained by the characters alone, creating a very different type of film, despite the premise of murder being the link between the two. In P2, the simple setting and small number of the characters establishes a compelling conflict that makes for a tense horror/thriller for the balance of the film until P2 veers off into another genre, to its detriment.

P2 is the story of workaholic Angela Bridges, played by Rachel Nichols and her attempts to extricate herself from the office on Christmas Eve. As “Murphy’s Law” asserts itself and one bad thing after another happens, Angela’s problems are immeasurably increased when it becomes obvious that her predicament has been partly created by a calculating stalker bent on controlling her. Before long, Angela is in a fight for her freedom, trapped in the firm’s parking garage and with only her feisty resolve capable of saving her life.

P2 begins patiently, as we watch Angela’s day descend into the abyss with increasing speed, causing the viewer to feel that delicious sense of inevitable approaching disaster. Rachel Nichols portrays Angela’s character in a complex vein. We feel sorry for with her terrible plight and yet, Angela’s corporate coldness and brusque bitchiness make her a somewhat unsympathetic character. When the bottom drops out and she is fully in the clutches of Wes Bentley’s character Thomas, the character interplay between the two and the intensifying drama played out in scene after scene is the strength of the film. Wes Bentley gives just as complex a performance as Miss Nichols does. Thomas is alternately the pathetic loner, the manipulative sicko and the violent psychopath. Thomas’s machinations swap between wooing Angela, gently bullying her and violently terrorizing her and the interaction between the create forceful conflict. Coupled with some very impressive camera work that draws forth every last drop of dynamism from the commonplace nature of a parking garage and the patient pacing of this film, P2 was a gripping and unpredictable movie for roughly three-quarters of its length. After carefully crafting a film where setting, characters and story were sinuously woven together, director Franck Khalfoun or The Suits pulling the purse strings or both allowed this fine film to end on a sour note.

Any film that tries to emulate potentially realistic occurrences, despite being a work of fiction, must maintain its sense of logic. One level on which P2 began to go wrong was when Thomas begins to threaten Angela’s life in earnest. To so meticulously have created his menagerie where Angela could be confined, only to throw it away by trying to kill her derails the story’s forward progress. I can hear my colleagues now saying “not everything has to make sense”, but in this case, it does! Why would bland, everyday Thomas want lovely, stylish Angela so much, only to destroy her? If he was that much a maniac, it is unlikely he would have maintained his camouflage for long in his job in the firm. The other problem was that P2 devolved into an action film towards its latter stages. This shift of style shatters the wonderfully uncomfortable yet palpable relationship that had been forged between the characters and it was done simply to bring some “bangs and flashes” into P2. The disappointment on my face must have been obvious by the time Angela and Thomas had their “car duel” in the parking garage. If it sounds funny, it is, but that is the problem. P2 had developed such a serious, sinister and sadistic tone by then, that to chuck it away for the sake of ramping up the adrenaline response was a real shame. Had the director, writers and producers taken a lesson from Hitchcock’s ROPE, they might have noted that a film doesn’t have to end with car crashes, eye gouges and flames to be powerful.

P2 has an impressive collection of extras that will delight anyone interested in digging beneath the surface of this film and movie-making in general. In addition to commentaries by the director and other crew, there is a featurette called “A New Level of Fear: The Making of P2”, a short feature called “Designing Terror”, where P2 special effects designers discuss the tricks of their trade and “Tension Nouveau” which is a profile of director Franck Khalfoun. For a film that was not a box office smash, nor a modern classic, this is a remarkable array of goodies that will illuminate the darker corners of this film’s past.

Choosing a simple yet forbidding setting like a parking garage and putting two capable actors to the test in a taut and grueling story was the reason why P2 was a very worthwhile viewing experience for the balance of its run. It is too bad it didn’t stay that way. It is never obvious why a film gets hijacked and runs off into the tall grass on its own, but I always feel an overwhelming sense of ennui when that happens. It reminds me of when I would be listening to the radio as a youth and just as my favorite song was coming to its closing bars, the DJ would start talking over the music. We like our satisfaction to be complete, and although that can’t happen in life all the time, it would have been nice had it been the case with P2.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

HALLOWED GROUND (2007) d. David Benullo

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Vince Lombardi once said that an offensive line’s success was dependant on them working as a team and not getting off the blocks “like a typewriter”. Putting together a successful feature film is a little like that for it is essential for everyone in the cast and on the crew to do their job well or the end result can be flawed or even a failure. HALLOWED GROUND, written and directed by David Benullo and starring Jaimie Alexander, is an example of a film that has A LOT of strong components, but just enough technical flaws to ruin an otherwise impressive effort.

HALLOWED GROUND is the story of troubled drifter Liz Chambers who is stranded in the town of Hope, a place of dastardly deeds over a century ago. It is not long before history repeats itself and Liz must do battle with malevolent minions of a preternatural preacher cloaking themselves in “faith” and doing “God’s Work” in their town. Souls and skins are at stake in a town where even the cornfields hold dire menace.

At first, it seemed like HALLOWED GROUND was going to be a tired “scarecrow come to life as an unstoppable slasher” film, but it took a pleasant left turn and invoked the Power of Pictures like THE WICKER MAN. Soon, the story was the tried but true “town of miserable creeps against the unaware newcomer” and from that point the story became a lot of fun. Added to the excitement was an evil soul that can swap bodies, which provided from some predictable but still enjoyable plot twists. Jaimie Alexander’s character Liz was plucky and tough but not invincible and unbelievable. Liz’s escapes from dire peril are managed by good fortune as much as by hard work. Ethan Phillips of STAR TREK: VOYAGER fame added a small but sinister performance and the other actors do their jobs efficiently. It was in the nuts and bolts of HALLOWED GROUND that things went terribly wrong.

When John Carpenter made THE FOG, he knew that much of the film would be taking place at night, so he carefully lit scenes so that they “looked dark” but so that you could SEE what was happening. William Friedkin’s THE EXCORCIST was similarly lit with skill and forethought. When the scenes of HALLOWED GROUND take place in full sunlight, they may be a little overexposed at times, but at least I can SEE what is happening. Once the action goes indoors or shifts to night, the film becomes visually incomprehensible and that was INFURIATING because I wanted this film to work by then. Unlike most of its contemporaries that utilize herky-jerky camera work and horrendously composed close-ups, HALLOWED GROUND didn’t have too much of that nonsense, so its chances of success were higher, but not if the cinematographer can’t correctly light and shoot “atmospheric” scenes. Someone needs to explain to the film makers of today that there is a BIG difference between mood and darkness.

Added to these visual flaws were problems with the audio mix which could have either been the film or dvd sound mixer. During regular speech, the audio was a little weak, but it could be heard. Once people started whispering or talking low for dramatic effect, I had to smash down the “volume up” key on my remote or engage the subtitling key. Some may point to my declining hearing as the culprit, but to prove my point, I popped in superbly mixed dvd like Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA and realized I could hear everything in that film. Clearly, the person at the controls of the audio in one of the stages of production didn’t know their job or was asleep at the wheel. If you can’t see a film properly, nor can it be heard as it should be, a film isn’t going to work no matter how good the story is or how good the performances are.

Like so many direct-to-dvd movies out there today, the extras menu is as empty as my cat’s stomach after she has just coughed up a hairball. When you take into account the technical problems and the bareness of the extras menu, this film screams “cheap” and not in a good way. An interview with comely Jaimie Alexander would have been a nice addition or since David Benullo was writer and director, it is likely that he had some interesting things to say in a comentary. Maybe the producers didn’t want him to spill the beans.

Just as Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers wouldn’t win a championship until they solved their teamwork issues, films like HALLOWED GROUND can’t be the successes they should have been without all the production pieces being put in their rightful places. Hollywood is remake-mad right now, why doesn’t someone remake this film with exactly the same story, the same cast and the same direction, but with some money behind the nuts and bolts? What you would have is a horror movie that might make back its investment and be a worthwhile trip to the theater, but I suppose we can’t expect The Suits to do something like that. Taking money away from their new ivory backscratchers would be money wasted in their small, pig-like eyes.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

THE EROTICIST (1972) d. Lucio Fulci

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

There is a fascinating difference between the average American sex comedy and a sex comedy made in Europe. While there was the occasionally subtle or complex American offering, most followed the rule of three S’s; make it straightforward, simple and stupid. European erotic escapades were just that, whimsical farces layered with social or political commentary that made them not just deeper than their mundane American cousins, but a lot better too. THE EROTICIST (aka THE SENATOR LIKES WOMEN) was directed and co-written by the infamous Lucio Fulci, and like some his westerns, this film has a lot going for it.

THE EROTICIST is the story of Senator Giancinto Puppis and his attempts to become President of Italy. During the complicated Parliamentary election process, it becomes clear that Senator Puppis is embroiled in a sex scandal due to his penchant for grasping the buttocks of women. Before long, the Senator’s rise to power becomes enmeshed in the inveigling for influence of the Italian Police, the Military, the Clergy and the Mafia. Player’s hands wash others’ hands while scratching backs and slipping on kid gloves and after a while it is evident that no one is pure anymore in the filthy game of politics.

Taken just as a sex charade, THE EROTICIST is funny in and of itself. Watching Senator Puppis, played by Lando Buzzanca, with his sweating face and bulging eyes as he tries in vain to stop himself from groping the women around him is wonderfully tongue in cheek. Underneath the fa├žade of sex comedy is a biting political satire where not one icon of Italian society is safe. There are the ludicrous machinations of all manner of clerics, who labor to fuel the rise of their hand-crafted candidate, while at the same time are thoroughly in bed with murderous gangsters “canonizing” the potentially uncomfortable witnesses to “perversion”. While all this is occurring, the police and the army smell “coup d’etat” and can’t keep their fingers out of the dirty pie. Lust for power, lust for privilege and lust for money are portrayed as far more serious sins than the lust for women in this smart, silly and sardonic morality play. Each character is a fabulously funny archetype and their unpleasant grotesqueness is reminiscent of medieval cartoon figures carved in their perversity on Monastic cornices and friezes.

Added to the razor sharp story and finely honed performances, THE EROTICIST is a feast for the eyes as well. The sumptuous interior sets and picturesque exteriors, beautifully restored by Severin Films are replete with bright colors, crisp lines, cunning camera angles and superb cinematography. Even the timelessly elegant fashion styles of the rich and powerful were considered carefully when this film was shot, so that watching it more than 35 years later; this film does not feel dated. Rather it is the opposite, since the cynical eye of this movie is just as relevant now. Leaders today have learned nothing from the scandals of yesteryear and the abuses of power that were so brilliantly mocked in THE EROTICIST are still taking place.

The extras menu of THE EROTICIST is small but splendid. A 42 minute featurette “A History of Censorship” with the star of film, Lando Buzzanca, cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi and makeup artist Gianneto De Rossi abounds with interviews on more than just the subject of censorship. It is a frank look back at Italy, Italian cinema and the film making process that will delight any serious movie lover. THE EROTICIST can be watched in Italian with or without English subtitles, depending on your language skills. More than anything, the chance to see a supremely colorful film shown in its correct aspect ratio is the real prize of THE EROTICIST.

Americans never really got it when it came to sex comedies, and we still don’t today. In a fun film like EUROTRIP, there are some lip-smackingly salacious scenes, but as is all too often the case, a romance and tender-heartedness has to eclipse the plot. European sex comedies were about more than sex and they rarely devolved into an unwanted romance. They applied coat after coat of thinly veiled critique until what emerged was something akin the theatre on the Big Screen. The promise of naughtiness may have brought you to see the movie, but watching a film like THE EROTICIST left you a bit savvier by the end. There aren’t many American sex comedies that can say they did that.

Friday, February 22, 2008

FURNACE (2006) d. William Butler

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It is hard work making a genre film today. Most of the great ideas have been used and reused over the years and establishing new story and filming trends requires ingenuity and intellect. Following the trends can be done effectively, but treading that thin ice requires a dexterity that is impossibly agile. Instead of paying homage to the pathfinders, most films just look derivative if they’re lucky. When you’re trying to do too much AND following the plow horse down the furrow, a whole lot of potential is not going to come to fruition.

FURNACE is the story of Detective Michael Turner played by Michael Pare, a cop haunted by the past, who stumbles upon unexplainable deaths at Blackgate Prison. As guards and inmates meet grisly ends, Turner teams up with prison psychologist Dr. Ashley Carter, played by Jenny McShane, to unravel twisted threads and ghastly secrets buried in the old wing of the prison. As the ashes of the history are sifted, guards on the take, simmering prison tensions and specters of bygone days bent on revenge bring Blackgate Prison to the very brink of Hell on Earth.

When it concentrates on being a ghost story wrapped in a somewhat tired and threadbare external tale of molestation and murder, FURNACE has some redeeming moments. The combination of ghosts pursuing the denizens of a prison who can’t escape their fates recalls some of the best elements of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE RING. Just as the characters in both of those fine forerunners could not run from The Reaper, the incarcerated and emancipated of Blackgate Prison stumble about like folks straying in quicksand. Just as a dreamer can’t elude the sinister shadow overtaking them when their legs turn to lead, the unfortunates of FURNACE not only can’t escape the two ghostly beings scything through the prison populace, they must mine through murky mysteries in the heart of evil itself, the furnace room. Like a Greek Tragedy from which you can’t turn away, the malevolence that you can’t avoid is a powerful story idea. Coupled with a cast that are mostly adults, screen veterans like Michael Pare and Tom Sizemore, who can give workmanlike performances, FURNACE had the potential to be a solid if unsophisticated and unsurprising addition to the modern horror canon. Unfortunately, there are too many weaknesses and overly mined trends that allow this film to sink into the mire.

One of the blood-lusting ghosts in FURNACE is that of a child terribly wronged long ago. The evil child-villain was a wonderful icon once upon a time, but it has run its course and it is time to retire it to the pasture where it has earned its rest. In addition, overly gloomy photography goes beyond atmosphere and just makes this film hard to see at times, so that between the herky-jerky “creatures”, the darkling corridors and the low lighting even when it’s an exterior set, it is a chore to grasp what is happening visually. Just as the evil child has outlived its day, so has the music video style of feature film camera work gone to the well once too often. Take the nag out behind the barn and put it out of its misery! The overly muddy scenes keep this old but enjoyable story idea from being successful. Instead of suspense being patiently but inexorably developed, it is frustration that rears its disappointed head. Finally, the trend that should sink into the LaBrea Tar Pits is the “rapper turned actor” used simply to market a film to a “wider audience”. Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins is following in the footsteps of “rap artists” who have morphed into thespians like Busta Rhymes, DMX and Ludacris, but none of these people are actors. All they add to a film is name recognition needed to push the product. While the producers and some of the “actors” like Ja Rule are taking home a paycheck, painting by numbers does not create “grocer goodwill” with the movie consumer. It is better to find capable young actors who don’t command a big paycheck so you can use that saved cash to market your film in a more inventive manner, one that allows the film product to be of higher quality and the film viewer to feel truly satisfied.

Added to these weaknesses is a stable of extraneous story superfluities that detract from the story instead of adding to it. The subplot of Michael Pare’s character’s tragic past is horribly underdeveloped and seems more of a pretext for inserting an unneeded and just as undeveloped romance with Jenny McShane’s Dr. Carter. Neither story line adds anything to the film and takes away exceedingly precious time and energy from the central story elements. In addition, Tom Sizemore’s “crooked guard dealing drugs” story and the resultant prison riot stemming from his malevolent machinations feels like a last minute attempt to graft ATTICA to THE RING and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Just as any hiker wants to make sure they’ve got a map that can guide them through the twists of a trail system, a film story has to guide the viewer around the corners so that they don’t feel like you’ve been dumped into the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. By the end of FURNACE, you’re in that Labyrinth, and instead of a pleasingly simple yarn with some back story that fits the tale like a glove, what emerges is a pizza with too many toppings, colloquially known as a “mess”.

FURNACE has a small extras menu that also suffers from quality control issues. There are three cast interviews with Danny Trejo, Ja Rule and Tom Sizemore, each about fifteen minutes in length. The overly simplistic stock questions lettered across the screen don’t really plumb any depths and two of the three interviews suffer from audio problems. The six alternate scenes were mildly interesting, but the most fun to be had in the extras menu came from one of the four trailers in the “vault”. I found myself wishing I had watched CROC instead after viewing that wonderfully silly trailer. Despite the weak offerings of the extras menu, at least there was something, which is not often the case. Putting together a few tidbits always makes me feel that the film makers weren’t just going through the motions.

FURNACE was not a bad experience, but a missed opportunity. There were times when I enjoyed the crimson lighting, the flickering flames and the sense of inevitable peril. Too often, I felt like chances were wasted, leaving an end product that could have been so much better but whose bright promise faded like the cold ashes of a fire long extinguished.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

THE SEXPERTS (1965) d. Jerald Intrator aka J. Nehemiah

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The late 1960s are often held up as a time of vast changes in the art, science, culture and politics of the United States. Often, it is the hidden agenda of the historian or essayist who makes this claim, for the entire decade was a time of immense transformation, especially in film. Pioneers like Russ Meyer and Dave Friedman pushed boundary after boundary in the early 1960s, setting the stage for the explosion of exploitation cinema that erupted between the years 1963-1978. THE SEXPERTS: TOUCHED BY TEMPATION is an example of a film that grew out of the rapidly changing mores and tastes of filmgoers, so that exploitation cinema of the mid-1960s could rewrite the appetites of movie lovers for years to come.

THE SEXPERTS is the story of three men who sit down to plan out a film about two starry-eyed beauties hungry to get into the “film business”. A director, producer and writer (very possibly William Mishkin, J. Nehemiah and Charles Ross who created THE SEXPERTS), discuss the story and characters of the “morality tale” they wish to tell about “Liz and Connie”. Liz Adams and Connie Mason are two young lovelies who are willing to try just about anything to become “movie stars”. As casting calls, screen tests, producer parties, beach house stay-overs and apartment orgies ensue it becomes increasingly obvious that Liz will do anything asked of her, while Connie has reservations about the seamy side of cinema. Each girl has to make choices that will determine their future in “the business”.

Like its nudist-film cousin, HIDEOUT IN THE SUN, the nudie-cutie THE SEXPERTS was a mid-60s effort to bring babes and boobs to the Big Screen, while simultaneously lifting a few dollars out of the film buff’s pocket. THE SEXPERTS has many things going for it that patrons of the 60s would have enjoyed and even more to enjoy from a completely different perspective today. The seedy tale of “the good girl & the bad girl” is always a winner no matter what the vehicle, and unlike most of the actresses in THE SEXPERTS’ relative THE SEXPLOITERS, leading actresses Lana Lynn and Rusty Allen are supremely attractive girls. Poured into elegant, form-fitting dresses of the day, carefully coiffed and cantilevered, these girls are a perfect counterpoint to the dorky and loathsome “film makers” who are deciding their “fate” as they arrange them like pieces on a chess board. As Dave Friedman once said, most actresses of exploitation film looked like “dog meat”, but these two dolls must have brought forth quite a few sweaty foreheads in 1965, and their loveliness is still palpable today. What might have been missed by the moviegoer then but can be appreciated so very well now are the marvelously filmed scenes of Greenwich Village, Manhattan and the Long Island beaches. Coupled with a delightful lounge-lizard score, those supremely feminine dress fashions and all the little snapshots of mid-60s life and culture that each crisply filmed black & white frame so beautifully preserves, THE SEXPERTS operates on a pair of levels. It is another marvelous trip back to the past guided by Retro-Seduction, and it is a nudie-cutie film that still has its eggs in the right basket. While not the tour de force of a film like THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, THE SEXPERTS is in an entirely different echelon when compared to later offerings by producers like Harry Novak and Dick Randall, and for that let us be glad.

THE SEXPERTS does have its “flaws”. Some people might be put off by the dubbed conversation of the film makers and the voice over narration track that is substituted for character dialogue. In the liner notes by Michael Bowen, he described the audio issues as giving THE SEXPERTS ‘an unfinished feel that sacrifices a degree of ambience” and he is probably right. There is something about that narration track that reminds me strongly of the narrator spiels of the SPEED RACER episodes I used to devour as a boy, so it worked for me and did not detract from the visual cornucopia that is offered throughout. The other flaw has to do with the “caliber” of the visuals offered in the extras.

As has been the case with most of the Retro-Seduction offerings, SEXPERTS is a 2-disc set that includes a rich haul of extras, such as bonus SEXPERTS color scenes, television spots starring Audrey Campbell (a minor star in THE SEXPERTS), a bevy of trailers, Michael Bowen’s outstanding liner notes and NAUGHTY NUDES ’65, a sizable selection of 1960s nudie loops that do show Friedman’s feared Fidos and Fifis. After the allure of Lana Lynn and Rusty Allen, the NAUGHTY NUDES of ’65 settles on the stomach like Bromo-Seltzer. It is probably a good idea to watch NAUGHTY NUDES first and then move on to the feature film, kind of like when you used to bolt your green beans before savoring the cherry pie at dinner.

For twenty-something guys raised on Vivid Girls and other ridiculously crafted “actresses” of the modern age, THE SEXPERTS may seem quaint and out of date. For anyone yearning for a glimpse of the past other than the sterile news reels we see over and over again on The History Channel, THE SEXPERTS is a wonderful slice of vanished Americana during a time when life was changing faster than we knew. By the end of the 60s, Drive-In theaters were starting their decline, the once-mighty American car was ready to be unseated by foreign competitors and our faith in our leaders was going to receive a savaging we still haven’t been able to assuage. THE SEXPERTS is a naughty-but-nice look at a time when all things seemed possible, even an American Dream filled with sexiness that still seemed as sweet as the girl next door.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

HATCHET (2007) d. Adam Green

Reviewed by Simon Oakland

Guy goes to Mardi Gras to forget longtime girlfriend, goes on a ghost tour through the bayou and runs up against your typical, run-of-the-mill, southern, backwoods, inbred, serial killer.

HATCHET has a lot of good things going for it, but indecision on the filmmakers part about which direction to take the movie ultimately dooms it to failure. Despite marketing it as "Old School American Horror", it's far too modern day "tongue-in-cheek" in it's sensibilities to be considered a true throwback to '80s slasher films. In fact, for roughly the first half of it's running time it's a fairly successful road trip comedy, and I was kind of into it, but when the killer finally makes an appearance and the red stuff really begins flowing it only served to run the train off the tracks (so to speak). Yes, the gore was impressive (albeit over the top) but the killer was far too generic/derivative (Inbred backwoods mutant man: Gee, I've never seen THAT before!) to be either scary or interesting. Plus, the immortality of Victor Crowley is completely unbelievable, even by "old school" slasher standards. By the time the credits rolled I was left disappointed, unfulfilled and a tad bit angry at the direction it went (south) after a promising first half. Too bad. It had such potential. As much of a horror fanatic as I am, I feel HATCHET would have played a lot better with those elements removed, and if writer/director Adam Green stuck strictly to the comedy which he so obviously has a much firmer grasp of.

But anyways, if you want to see some fairly spectacular gore, a fantastic cameo by Tony Todd as Reverend Zombie, and Mercedes McNab (Harmony of Buffy/Angel fame) topless, check it out. Those are about the only three reasons I could ever see myself watching HATCHET a second time for.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

THE HOUSE OF USHER (2006) d. Hayley Cloake

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When a film maker produces a new project, they must carefully balance style and substance, for going too far in either direction can end in ruin. Too much style and not enough substance can finish up like Dario Argento’s INFERNO, which looks spectacular, but suffers from a weak story and weaker acting. Too much substance and not enough style kept THE LAST MAN ON EARTH from being as great a film as it could have been. The story concept was superb and Vincent Price was marvelous as always, but the film could have looked so much better. THE HOUSE OF USHER certainly wins a few style points on occasion and it tries hard to bring in some substance at the end, but there is never a successful marriage of the two and the focus on style cripples the final product.

THE HOUSE OF USHER, based on the Edgar Allen Poe short story of a similar name, is the story of Jill Michaelson and her ties to the Usher family. Jill returns to the embrace of her former lover, Roderick Usher, upon learning of the death of his twin sister and Jill’s best friend Madeline. Once back in the Usher fold, Jill begins unraveling the twisted threads of the Usher curse and before long becomes enmeshed in its clinging cords. Despite urgings to escape before it is too late, Jill must unearth all she can of the buried secrets of the Usher ancestry and face the skeletons in their crypt.

There are many things to like about this film despite its many weaknesses. When the camera work is well lit, there are many beautiful, atmospheric and compelling establishing shots of the Massachusetts interiors and exteriors that are truly sincere and there are some moody scenes that have much impact. Izabella Miko, who plays Jill, is the most engaging and effective star of a Gothic-inspired film in a long time. Her elegant demeanor and smoldering sophistication, despite her youthful appearance, are deeply reminiscent of Euro-beauties of a bygone age. In today’s world of crass and cutesy dimwits, Izabella Miko’s winsome vulnerability and incredibly emotive aura make her a rose in a field of actress dandelions. Miss Miko’s fine performance coupled with some occasionally good camera work and mixed with an eerie soundtrack produce a stylish feel to THE HOUSE OF USHER that almost makes a viewer forget its weaknesses, but not quite.

Too many of the film’s sequences are shot so dark as to be ineffective. Instead of developing mood and mystery, they engender frustration and the frequent query, “What am I looking at”? The pace of this film starts out as being patient, then slows down to ponderous, steps it up to plodding and then leaps forward like an evil pixie at the end. There is nothing wrong with a slow pace if the payoff is worthwhile, but the end of the film does not live up to the slow rising action that seemed to be preparing for a more shocking climax. In addition, Austin Nichols’ performance as Roderick is uneven. He gets the dark, brooding part right, but is unable to sell himself as a degenerate, diseased descendant of a familial curse until his rapid character development during the hasty denouement, and by then it is too late. Mr. Nichols’ exchanges with Miss Miko have the right chemistry but their delivery of their lines is even harder to hear than a Steven Seagal-Edward James Olmos whisper competition. I often had to engage the subtitle function to be sure of what was being said. Finally, Beth Grant as Mrs. Thatcher looks menacing and that appearance fits the established style of the film but her performance is uninspired and doesn’t raise the level of suspense as it should.

THE HOUSE OF USHER has a small extras menu that includes some deleted scenes. More importantly, the commentary by director Hayley Cloake is quite interesting and her anecdotes lay bare the dark heart of this film and its inspiration from distant Poe relative, producer/writer Boyd Hancock. What might have been even more appealing would have been some deeper delving into the sets of this film. All the interiors and exteriors were shot in Danvers, Newburyport and Rowley, Massachusetts and while mentioned in the commentary, a short feature on that subject might have been advisable. In addition, since the director even mentions the old-world appeal of Polish-born Izabella Miko, an interview with such a mesmeric young actress may have also been a good idea.

In the end, THE HOUSE OF USHER has its heart in the right place and tries very hard to succeed at updating a story that has been made into a movie uncountable times, but by going for style over substance, it is unable to deliver on its promise. It is a worthy cautionary tale for film makers to study. Just as a painting must be more than glitzy color, just as a novel must be more than word-smithing and just as a fine meal must be more than plate composition, a film must be more than strong establishing shots and one impressive performance. Substance must equal style, or the end result is potential unrealized.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

HACK! (2007) d. Matt Flynn

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Whether you are a scientist or an artist, creating a hybrid takes a great deal of vision, skill and intelligence. Hybridized crops have revolutionized agriculture, while hybridized music has set new trends. Sometimes though, there are some species that just can’t be combined. There is no way to cross a billy goat and an owl and expect you’re going to get a hoot nanny. Marrying the best elements of serious horror satires like SCREAM with sophomoric spoofs like SCARY MOVIE would be an ambitious undertaking. There are some projects though that no amount of ambition can accomplish.

HACK is the story of Emily and her college class mates, who blithely head off to a remote island to study wildlife as part of a “school field trip”. While “studying”, they meet amateur film makers Vincent and Mary Shelley King, who welcome the coeds to their eccentric island home and begin to weave them into their movie making designs. Before long, students begin to disappear and suspicion grows as it becomes obvious that the Kings want to do more than just create films.

HACK works hard to bring together two seemingly related subgenres of horror films that just can’t be successfully grafted. HACK starts out trying to be more like SCREAM in its slightly more “serious” satirizing of the horror genre. All the characters are obvious stereotypes, there are blatant references to better films and film makers and the attempt to make the characters unsympathetic so that their demise will be that much more pleasurable is painfully apparent. This strategy backfires though, for some of the characters and much of their dialogue is so immensely irritating that the viewer’s connection to the story is stretched to being tenuous at best. When the plot begins to twist and a somewhat more sophisticated form of ludicrous humor begins to unfold, it is too late and the damage has been done. In the end, it is unfortunate for there are some enjoyable performances by Danica McKellar as Emily and William Forsythe as Willy. There are some intentionally ridiculous death scenes and outlandish comedic moments that create a smirk and some equally deliberate plot devices that are worth a chuckle. After a rocky start that was reminiscent of the putrescent SAW films, which sadly are referenced, there is some reasonably good camera work on occasion, and some nicely done sets/exteriors. Gabrielle Richens is magnificent eye candy and even Danica McKellar gets into the act, putting on the sex appeal after spending most of the film as the archetypal geeky student. For fans of THE WONDER YEARS, I am sure that they will enjoy seeing “Winnie” strut her stuff. All of these laudable efforts keep HACK from being a disaster, but they are not enough to cancel the force of inertia. Once this film began its downward spiral, gobs of energy keep the ship from descending into the Black Hole, but no amount of power can help it to escape the gravity whirlpool, and HACK is destined to remain in a fixed orbit, far below the lofty aspirations that it may have set for itself. In the end, I don’t think it was a lack of effort and carefully spent cash. Some projects can’t be made to work no matter how hard you try.

As is too often the case today, this dvd is another bare bones offering. In addition to Ms. McKellar and Mr. Forsythe, this film’s cast includes Juliet Landau (yes, Martin’s daughter) and Burt Young, so that it stands to reason that some cast interviews would have been advisable. Director Matt Flynn also produced HACK and wrote the script. A commentary with the man at the helm would have also been nice, and even better would have been a commentary with Matt and producer/actor Sean Kanan or Danica McKellar. Hell, just a stills gallery of Gabrielle Richens’ best glamour pinups should have been a consideration, but there was nothing to be had. As has been said before, an entertaining extras menu can often soften the heart of the most caustic critic. When there is a pedigree to a film like HACK, an extras menu with irresistible goodies becomes a moral imperative. Is it that expensive? If so, better financing needs to be arranged.

In a world filled with super cheap, direct to dvd movies that have more in common with a sewer pipe than they do a feature film, HACK is a more carefully crafted specimen, but it is not high cinema, nor is it lightning in a bottle created under the most unique of circumstances. HACK’s humor will probably appeal to some and its ham-handed referencing of better films may seem witty to others, but it is not SCREAM, and it probably never tried to be. It will probably end up being one of those films that takes its place on a rental shelf, finds its way to the bargain bin and finally enters the last journey of being traded from owner to owner through used dvd stores or used on-line sites, never quite knowing what it means to be real.