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Better than most of the sequels, but still unnecessary.
When I read that John Carpenter was working on a new "Halloween" film, it seemed like both good news and bad news. On one hand, it seemed like if anyone could finally bring something new to the "Halloween" saga, it was the man who started it all. On the other hand, it seemed doubtful that even Carpenter could breathe new life into such a stale, beating-a-dead-horse franchise after all these years.

It is very much the case that this new "Halloween" comes closer than any of the previous sequels to matching the original film's vision. The new film is a direct sequel to the original, and all the convolutions and contrivances of the other follow-ups have been jettisoned; i.e., Laurie is no longer Michael's sister. (This last point was particularly refreshing to this reviewer, as John Carpenter himself has said that he came up with it just to have some reason to keep the story going in "Halloween II." Carpenter was already so tired of Michael that when pressed into doing a third entry, he tried to abandon the slasher formula altogether and turn the series into an anthology. The result was the criminally underrated "Halloween III: Season of the Witch.")

The problem here is that, even with a clean slate, there just isn't anywhere new to go. We've seen all of this before, many times over. Apart from a few nice touches and clever homages to the original film, 2018's "Halloween" is little more than a paint-by-numbers affair. As fun as it is to see a new entry in this franchise that so closely honors its source, you could get the same feelings by just watching the original film and enjoying it again.

The Founder

A uniquely American "success" story
One thing that never fails to fascinate me is learning how small ideas become big ones. The stray thought of a writer that inspires a bestselling novel. The chance meeting between two young musicians that ultimately spawns gold records and sold-out tours. The "a-ha!" moment that turns a seemingly impossible dream into reality.

One such story is the story depicted in this film. In 1954, Ray Kroc was a struggling restaurant- supply salesman peddling a machine that could make up to five milkshakes at once. Kroc became curious when a small restaurant in southern California placed an order for six of the machines – what kind of business needed to produce 30 milkshakes at once? Intrigued, Kroc paid a visit to the restaurant, an innovative yet unassuming hamburger stand named after its owners, the brothers McDonald. The rest, as they say, is history.

"The Founder" gives us the meat (pardon the pun) of the McDonald's story, posing some thought-provoking questions along the way. Is success measured merely by a profit margin or the pride and effort a man puts into his work? The film pulls us in different directions, casting differing lights on that question as the story unfolds. In the first half, we want to root for Kroc, the scrappy but hapless salesman who dreams of a better life for himself and his long-suffering wife. We admire his drive as he pushes those around him to understand what makes a McDonald's restaurant different, and at the same time tries to convince the McDonald brothers that their well-intentioned but snail-paced attention to detail is actually holding them back. But by the second half, we realize that we have witnessed the creation of a monster, as do the brothers when they discover that Kroc has essentially stolen their name even as he made it a household name.

The key to "The Founder" is Michael Keaton's terrific performance as Ray Kroc, the shake- machine salesman who gradually becomes more of a snake-oil salesman. Yet as the credits roll, the viewer looks back to the beginning of the film and realizes that Keaton was hinting at it all along. In the title role, Keaton is not so much a wolf in sheep's clothing as a sheep who can become a wolf given the right opportunity. The killing blow comes at the very end, when a series of title cards reveals what ultimately became of the people depicted in the film in real life. It's unnerving to say the least, and may even change one's perspective on the entire story.

Credit must also be extended to Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, who play Dick and Mac McDonald, respectively. These actors manage to flesh out two supporting but essential characters. In less capable hands, these roles may have been relegated to mere footnotes in the story, as the real McDonald brothers ultimately became.

To be clear, "The Founder" is not a perfect film by any means. The narrative particularly loses steam when we are introduced to Joan Smith, the ambitious, energetic young woman who will ultimately become Kroc's wife. While it's still an important part of the story, it feels shoehorned in, as if screenwriter Robert D. Siegel left it out of an earlier draft and then scrambled to write it back in later.

But for all its faults, "The Founder" is still a very good film that tells a uniquely American story. It's recipe, if you will, blends one part Horatio Alger with a dash of Norman Rockwell and a good measure of Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" mixed in. And despite the fact that it necessarily contains a massive amount of product placement, you won't feel hungry for burgers or fries by the time it's done.

Lights Out

Not quite a masterpiece, but genuinely frightening
As any seasoned fan of fright flicks will tell you, the downside of loving horror is that after a while nothing scares you anymore. You feel like you've seen it all. You roll your eyes when someone goes into the creepy old attic to investigate that strange noise. You're barely even startled when they the medicine cabinet and then when they shut it someone else is in the mirror. When they start walking backwards you just know that someone is going to suddenly appear behind them. Ho-hum.

What sets Lights Out apart is that you know things like these are going to happen, and it still scares the life out of you. And scare you way more than anything else you've seen lately. You might not think a movie built around a concept as simple as our natural fear of the dark could be so frightening, but this one is.

(How frightening, you ask? Normally when I sit at my desk and write on my Mac I like to have the lights off. Not tonight - all the lights in this room are burning bright!)

That said, it isn't just mirrors and lights that make this film such an intense experience - it's the characters.

Anyone who has sat through a slasher film learns quickly that if you don't care about the characters, you don't really care if they get cut to pieces. In fact more than once you've probably rooted for them to die – the stupid jock, the cheating girlfriend, the snooty preppie. They're cardboard characters and there's no love lost when they finally bite the dust; there's no investment.

That is definitely not the case in Lights Out. These characters are genuine, flesh-and-blood people; people you've probably met at some point in your life. At its core, this is the story of a troubled family that is one step away from coming apart at the seams. In that regard it reminds me of Stephen King's The Shining (i.e. the novel, not the Kubrick film.) Both works center on families plagued by the all-too-real problems that touch all of us in one way or another during our lives. In King's novel it was alcoholism, while in Lights Out it's mental illness.

That's another thing that elevates this film above the rest. Thematically, there's a lot going on underneath the surface: guilt, unresolved trauma, selfishness, alienation, using people to hurt others, poor communication, the stigma of mental illness. This is what really gets under your skin, and all the elements come together in a hurricane of fear in the final act.

To be sure, the film is not perfect. After a promising first reel, the story struggles a bit to find its footing. The editing seems a bit jerky; I got the feeling there were scenes left on the cutting room floor that would've made the narrative flow better. That's why, as much as I enjoyed the movie, I settled on a 7/10 rating. Even so, these flaws are forgotten once the film really gets moving.

Put another way, Lights Out is like a freight train. It starts off a bit slow, gradually picks up momentum, and then suddenly it's barreling away at full speed. Before you know it, you're holding on for dear life; you know what's up ahead at that next bend in the tracks, but you're powerless to stop it. And worst of all, it's coming at you so darn FAST.

This was the first time in a long time that I have been genuinely scared by a horror film. Last year's It Follows was a creepy good time, but its scares were, well, more of a creeping terror. If that film was a firecracker, Lights Out is an M80, just waiting for you to light the fuse. Even if you think you've seen it all when it comes to horror, you'll want to see this one.

The Shining

Best viewed as an adaptation, not a translation
Just watched "The Shining" again for the first time in years and I still don't know what to think. The first time I viewed it, 20+ years ago now, I utterly hated it because I literally had just got done reading the book earlier that same day. A few years later, after reading about it in John McCarty's excellent book "The Modern Horror Film," I gave it another shot and found I enjoyed it much more. McCarty says the film is best viewed as an adaptation, not a translation, of King's novel. This is true.

There is no denying that the film is magnificently crafted. The cinematography is graceful and beautiful, and the production design is to die for. Every time I see the film I'm still astonished that the entire hotel was built on a soundstage.

Where the film suffers is the casting. Jack Nicholson seems like he's on the edge of madness right from the beginning. He's great in the later part of the film once the madness has fully taken hold of his character, but in the first part of the film I can't help but wonder, "Why would anyone in their right mind think it would be a good idea to leave this guy in charge of a hotel in the middle of nowhere for six months?" And Shelley Duval just spends the whole movie seeming like she's on the verge of fainting. Granted, that may not be her fault so much as the script's, which turns her character into a rag doll that is seemingly afraid of everything.

Just my $.02.

Superman Returns

Starts off strong, then plummets faster than a speeding bullet.
As Richard Donner's original "Superman" is my all-time favorite film (and since Donner's touch was missing from the rest of the series,) I was delighted when I heard Warner was doing a new entry in the series that would build upon the mythology of the earlier films. If nothing else, Bryan Singer would at least be able to do better with the legend than Richard Lester had, right?

However, the problem with "Superman Returns" isn't that it doesn't build on Donner's vision; for the most part, it does. The problem with this film is that it is so dull. It is way, way too long and the climax is ridiculously drawn out.

Visually, the film is a treat. The colors are rich and the effects are spectacular. (Though I must admit I personally didn't care for the "modern vintage" style that IMHO is too reminiscent of Burton's "Batman" films and has been overused ever since.) And the performances are great. Brandon Routh does his best trying to channel the late, great Christopher Reeve and yet put his own stamp on the role. Kevin Spacey is a trip as Lex Luthor - like Routh, he reminds you of his predecessor (in this case, the excellent Gene Hackman) and yet brings his own menace to the role.

There are a number of nitpicky things I could complain about that differ from (or outright contradict) the continuity of the original films, but those don't really pertain to whether or not "Superman Returns" is a good film. Being as it was nearly 30 years after the original film, it's understandable that not everything was going to match. Times and tastes have changed. And I can live with Singer's touches a lot more than I could Lester's, who really seemed to have no idea what Superman was all about.

No, what keeps this one from truly soaring is that it's just not very entertaining. It starts off well, don't get me wrong. The first half-hour is great. But it seems like once Superman returns, the air starts to leak out of the balloon. All the pieces are there, but they just don't come together. The confrontation between Superman and Luthor is downright anticlimactic; it's just a sped-up, more violent redux of the scene where the two of them meet in the original. It doesn't carry any weight. **SPOILER** And the whole thing with Lois's son turning out to be fathered by you-know-who just seems to complicate things and doesn't really go anywhere. The scene where Superman repeats to Jason what Jor-El said to him before putting him in the rocket just seems discomforting - so, Superman is going to work out a visitation schedule? What is going on here? (And isn't it just a little creepy that Supes would sneak into Lois's house? He's Superman, not Batman.)

Alas, "Superman Returns" isn't the franchise-resurrecting gem I hoped it would be, and I really can't blame Warner for deciding to just start over as they did with the "Batman" series. It's not quite a bad film, it's just not very good. I hesitate to call it mediocre; perhaps "underwhelming" is a better choice of words. Just as "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" was unable to catch lightning in a bottle again, this follow-up comes up quite short, and we will never truly know how great the original Superman film series could have been.


A novel idea but not so well executed
When I saw an online trailer for "Unfriended" earlier this year, I was intrigued. For one thing, it looked like a very compelling idea for a modern horror film. The other reason it caught my attention was that I had a similar idea for a story 10 or so years ago, which I started but never finished. But enough about my lack of motivation.

The best horror stories/novels/films tap into our primal fears and exploit them. Take "A Nightmare on Elm Street," which plays upon the common childhood dread of going to sleep and never waking up. In a more modern vein, anyone who's ever been on the Internet can tell you of at least one experience where they were annoyed, unnerved, or downright frightened by an online encounter where they weren't quite sure who they were really communicating with. We all want to feel safe in our own homes, but in our increasingly tech-oriented society, predators can reach out and touch someone no matter how many locks you have on your doors.

"Unfriended" takes this to the next level. A group of high school kids, seemingly safe and sound in their suburban homes, are having a Skype chat that is joined by an uninvited (and unknown) outside party, identified only by a generic avatar. At first the interloper is written off as a glitch or a tech-savvy troll, until he/she claims to be another member of this circle of friends named Laura. Thing is, Laura killed herself a year earlier after a humiliating video of her was uploaded to YouTube, unleashing a dam burst of cyberbullying.

From here the narrative begins gathering steam, as it becomes disturbingly apparent that whomever "Laura" really is, he/she knows all of the characters' dirty little secrets. Even worse, no amount of rebooting or mouse clicking can get rid of her. She keeps popping up on Facebook and in text messages, tormenting the characters and even turning them against each other. (And anyone who has ever attended school can attest to how quickly allies can turn into enemies.) "Laura's" reign of terror culminates in a "truth or dare" style party game where the loser will die... but anyone who survives may just wish they were dead anyway, having been forced to reveal their deepest, darkest transgressions to their closest friends. And once one of the "contestants" in this macabre game disconnects from the chat, you know it's not going to end well.

One thing the movie does well is playing up the modern-day tension of suddenly losing contact with someone we've been communicating with online. We've all been there, texting back and forth with someone who abruptly stops responding. You begin to speculate, "Did I do something wrong? Did I say the wrong thing?" And if the silence continues, you begin to think, "Did something happen to them?" And it always seems like that's the moment when you lose your wi-fi connection or your battery dies. But what if the communication breakdown wasn't due to a technical failure, but rather due to a malicious, vengeful spirit?

Another good thing about "Unfriended" is the terrific acting by the young cast. I never got the sense that the people on screen were anything but a group of typical 21st century teens with raging hormones, which definitely helps with the "immersive" feel necessary in any movie. This is especially impressive when you consider that all of this was done with one actor on the set being fed lines as he/she stared into the camera, imagining they were online with five friends.

Unfortunately, "Unfriended" never quite lives up to its potential. As much as it wants to be different from other horror films, it commits the same sins seen in many of them. Even with a running time of less than 90 minutes, the story still seems overlong. And there's the repetitive nature of the premise - like its spiritual predecessor, "The Blair Witch Project," "Unfriended" eventually turns into a bad MTV reality show with kids screaming at each other in a barrage of "f-bombs" that would make Eddie Murphy wince.

Further, the nature of the story makes it difficult to like many of the characters. As any horror fan can tell you, an essential element of this type of film is making the audience feel a connection to the potential victims. If we don't care what happens to them, there's no real sense of loss once they kick off. (Take just about any entry in the "Friday the 13th" series and you'll see what I mean.) The problem here is that the more we get to know these people (as "Laura" compels them to confess their lies and utter betrayals to one another,) the less we like them. By the final reel, I was starting to feel like all of these brats deserved what was coming to them. Apparently the filmmakers knew this too, since the film's second half relies more and more on blasts of music and "startle" moments the further it goes.

"Unfriended" is not a bad film, but it could've been better. As novel and fresh as the story starts out, it just can't seem to escape many of the same traps that trip up other entries in the genre. It's definitely worth a look, but it's also one of those films where the trailer seems more entertaining than the film itself.

It Follows

The best I've seen in a while, very well-constructed.
As a jaded horror fan, I wasn't sure what to expect from "It Follows." I heard it was scary, some even saying it was the scariest ever. But it seems like every few years some new film comes out and gets the same lip service, only to prove either uninteresting, unoriginal, or just plain irritating ("Blair Witch Project," anyone?) So I was relieved when "It Follows" had me right from the beginning, and downright delighted when it followed through on the promise shown in its first few minutes. Indeed, it reminded me of George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead." Not because there are any zombies or shopping malls, but because it's a low-budget yet well-crafted, inventive film that delivers the goods while sneaking in some social commentary.

For starters, let's talk about the characters. One of the most common flaws in fright flicks is that the viewer never feels much attachment to the protagonists, so there's no real sense of loss when they're in danger or even when they die. We've all sat through movies where we don't care if the characters get killed, or even worse, we wind up rooting for them to get killed. That is not the case here. The film takes what could've been very stock, clichéd characters and fleshes them out, and the young cast does an excellent job of bringing them to life. As the story went on it was as if I could see a little of myself in each of them.

Second, the film's premise carefully builds and then reinforces a haunting sense of dread, another vital ingredient missing from so many entries in this genre. I felt it when I read Stephen King's "'Salem's Lot" and the first time I saw Romero's "Dawn." Those works, like "It Follows," give the reader/viewer a troubling uneasiness... that awful feeling (like you have in dreams) that while you can run, you can't hide. As one character puts it, "All you can do is buy yourself some time." In King's novel, it was knowing that every night, the town's (human) population was getting smaller and smaller, while the number of vampires was getting bigger and bigger. In Romero's film, it was the constant threat of the zombies; no matter where you go, no matter how much you barricade the door, you never know when you'll look up and see a flesh-hungry walking corpse ready to make you its lunch. And in "It Follows"... well, I won't say anything. Just see the film and you'll know what I mean.

Another noteworthy aspect of this film is that it manages to seem fresh even though it's not that original. There are elements of John Carpenter's "Halloween," Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," and Gore Verbinski's "The Ring." (I include the names of the directors not to sound pretentious, but to differentiate them from the remakes and diluted sequels that followed them. At least for the first two - I've never seen either the Japanese film "Ringu," of which Verbinski's film is a remake, nor "The Ring Two.") It's arguable (and doubtless is being argued on a web forum somewhere at this very moment) that we've seen all this before, and yet "It Follows" doesn't at all seem like another by-the-numbers horror movie. It's well-crafted and polished, with extraordinary attention to detail in virtually every shot. (One thing I'm still trying to figure out is when exactly is the story supposed to take place? Again, see the movie and you'll see what I mean.)

Finally, there's the social commentary sprinkled throughout the movie. It reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," in that the commentary here is both subtle and non-judgmental. This isn't a slasher flick where the vices of teenagers and young adults equal a death sentence. It's just part of who these people are. They're decent kids who have a drink or a smoke now and then; who doesn't at that age? And as for the dangers of premarital sex... again, just see the movie.

If you're a horror fan, "It Follows" is a must-see. And if you're one of those who doesn't like horror because it seems like once you've seen one, you've seen them all, you should really give this one a look as well. It may seem familiar at first, but trust me, you haven't seen this one before.

Superman II

An adequate "sequel" that makes you wonder what might have been...
First of all, I should state that it was hard for me to assign a star-based rating for this film, as IMHO this isn't really a film. It is, however, the closest we will ever come to a true film version of Richard Donner's vision of "Superman II."

When I was a kid, I adored the theatrical "Superman II." It was the first movie I ever purchased on VHS with my own money (and when you're 11 years old, $19.95 doesn't come easily!) I thought it was much better than the first "Superman," which I found boring until the title character finally appeared on screen. It wasn't until years later, when I viewed both films in college, that I realized how infinitely superior the original "Superman" really was. It was like the first film was a classic novel, while the second was a cheap knock-off you'd find in the checkout lane at a grocery store.

Even though it's been nearly a decade since it was released, I had never seen the restored "Donner cut" until today. It just didn't seem like a piecemeal restoration could ever do justice to Donner's original vision, even with Donner himself overseeing the project. But after viewing the original 1978 film today, I decided to bite the speeding bullet and watch the restoration. It was fun, and I'd rather have it than nothing at all, but at the end of the day it just makes me wonder how good the film (and indeed the subsequent entries in the franchise) could've been, if only there hadn't been so many egos involved 30+ years ago.

It was only appropriate that this "film" is dedicated to the memory of the late, great Christopher Reeve. His performances in this project are fantastic. My favorite was the scene where he tells Jor-El he wants to spend his life with Lois. Reeve may have been a more polished actor when he redid the scenes for the theatrical release, but his heart is much more evident in this version. And yet he never came close to overacting. Further, say what you will about the late Marlon Brando, but his performances here are very good as well. The man had an enormous ego, but he was still a great actor.

Indeed, pretty much all of the acting in the "film" is excellent. If anything takes away from the viewer's enjoyment it's the jarring insertion of obvious modern-day FX scenes at certain points. I know, I know... it was the only way to make this movie since Donner never got to film everything he intended to. It just makes you shake your head and wonder what might have been.

"Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" can never be what us "Superfans" were hoping for, but it's nonetheless a great companion piece to the first film.

The Lone Ranger

Another embarrassment to a legendary hero
Ever since the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels TV series went out of production, Hollywood just doesn't seem able to figure out what to do with The Lone Ranger. First we had the snooze- inducing dud "The Legend of the Lone Ranger," widely considered to be one of the biggest flops of all time. Then there was the god-awful TV movie that aired on The WB in 2003, which attempted to turn the character into a cross between James Bond and Jackie Chan. And now this.

Seriously, this version of "The Lone Ranger" comes across as two different movies thrown together. There's the semi-serious story of the wet-behind-the-ears lawyer who wants to bring civilized law to the wild frontier, only to find a very harsh reality ruled by big money and the point of a gun. And then there's the utter farce built around Johnny Depp's portrayal of Tonto, which has all the cinematic integrity of a "Police Academy" sequel. Unfortunately, this latter movie has far more influence on the final product.

I'll admit, it's the 21st century, and today's moviegoers are jaded and cynical. If the character were portrayed as he was originally created, straight as an arrow and stiff as a board, the movie would bomb. But this movie goes way too far in the opposite direction, turning the character into a perpetually flustered pansy. Just when you think you can actually like him, we get another shot of Depp's Tonto making some stupid one-liner or some other cheap attempt at humor that ruins the moment. As if all that weren't bad enough, the script is hopelessly disjointed, jumping all over the place; leaving plot holes big enough to drive a freight train through.

I will grudgingly admit that I enjoyed the movie overall, if only because of the great action pieces and the occasional piece of true Western flavor that survived the script revisions and the obviously studio-supervised editing. But at the end of the day, this was yet another embarrassment to a great American hero, one I fear is doomed to never be properly portrayed again.

Salem's Lot

Leaves a "Lot" to be desired...
Stephen King's "'Salem's Lot" is my all-time favorite book, and I remember being thrilled back in 2003 when I read that a new TV movie adaptation was being made. While I have always liked the original mini-series directed by Tobe Hooper, I felt that it lost much of the subtext in King's novel and turned it into just another vampire tale. This was understandable, of course, since it was made for network TV in the late 1970s. What it lost in subtext, however, was made up for by high production values and some hair-raising scares.

The producers of this new adaptation apparently had similar feelings, and tried to infuse their version with more of the novel's underlying themes. However, they got a bit carried away with that end of it, and the resulting film suffers greatly as a result. This "'Salem's Lot" comes off like an ambitious high school student's English term paper written the night before it was due; i.e. there are a few good ideas here and there, but they get lost along the way only to be hastily revisited towards the end.

The main problem here is the hokey, overwrought dialogue. The first 2/3 of the film contains far too much talk about "the evil found in small towns." King's novel generates excellent, fluid prose out of these ruminations; the film turns it into so much mumbo-jumbo that will quickly have you rolling your eyes. And because the characters seem to spend so much time talking about it, there's little opportunity for the audience to see it. In fact, it almost seems like the story gets in the way of the film's themes, rather than expressing them. By the time we do get to a good point in the story, it's crammed in so tightly that it's hard to tell what is going on.

The muddled characters are another drawback. Too often the protagonists of the story are unnecessarily antagonistic towards each other, so that there never seems to be any bond between them. In the second half of the film, it seems unnatural that they are all joining together to hunt down vampires, since they don't really seem to like each other very much.

And then there's Straker. He is supposed to be Barlow's servant, as Renfield was to Dracula; but here he just seems like some sort of weirdo, and it doesn't even seem like he and Barlow have anything to do with each other. It's almost like they're roommates, both living in the same creepy old house, but only out of convenience. The best characterization is that of Barlow, but unfortunately he also has the least screen time of all the leads.

Rob Lowe is bland and uninteresting in the crucial lead role of Ben Mears. He just seems to sleepwalk through his performance, which is surprising since I read he aggressively pursued the role. Watching the film I got the impression that he didn't seem that interested in the project. (Maybe he had jet lag from traveling to Australia?) The rest of the cast is so-so. The one actor who really got my attention was Dan Byrd as Mark Petrie. He seemed far more nuanced then just about anyone else on screen. Rutger Hauer was an excellent choice for Barlow, but as mentioned above, he doesn't get much chance to demonstrate it.

Additionally, there are many parts of the story that just don't make sense. Why does Straker need to drown Ralphie Glick before taking him to Barlow? Why do the vampires all fly up after being killed? How is Eva Prunier involved with bringing Straker and Barlow to the town? Why does Royce McDougall cough like he has a chest cold when he is becoming a vampire? Why exactly does Susan go to the Marsten House by herself? Why would Ben think that's where she went when he can't find her? Is Father Callahan supposed to be possessed by Barlow when he kills Matt Burke? And why in the world does he go to Detroit, of all places?!

This rendering of "'Salem's Lot" has a few nice touches, particularly in the final reel. Unfortunately, they are few and far between for the majority of the film. The producers seem to have forgotten that, at the end of the day, this is supposed to be a horror film. Hooper's adaptation emphasized that end of it, with plenty of scares and atmosphere, but discarded most of the novel's underlying themes. This version, on the other hand, seems to sacrifice scares in favor of focusing on the themes. Perhaps another set of filmmakers will someday bring the best of both these visions together and make a truly effective film version of Stephen King's excellent novel.

Halloween II

If you thought the first one was bad...
I was one of the eight or so people on the planet who actually liked Rob Zombie's redo of "Halloween" when it came out two years ago, and I was hoping to see more of what made that entry so good in this follow-up. Instead, however, Zombie seems to have done in the sequel what a lot of people said he did wrong in the first one. "Halloween II" or "H2" is quite simply a piece of undercooked, overproduced and barely coherent trash.

In one respect, the film brings to mind another cult horror sequel, George Romero's "Day of the Dead." As in that movie, there's seemingly no one to root for in "Halloween 2." Everyone here is a foul-mouthed, unpleasant cad who uses the f-word more than a drunken sailor. Granted, as in "Day", these characters have lived through hell and don't have a lot to be happy about, but if the audience doesn't care if a character lives or dies (or even worse, WANTS them to die) then you don't have much of a horror movie. Take a look at our "heroes" this time around - seemingly Sheriff Brackett, his daughter Annie, and of course Laurie Strode, who is living with them now. Annie has turned into a finger-wagging health nut, Laurie is a vegetarian who complains about the sheriff eating "rotting flesh" (i.e. pepperoni) on his pizza, and the sheriff himself is... well, just kinda dumb, like a sitcom dad.

And then there's Dr. Loomis, who just goes all wrong this time. It's not even worth getting into.

Now, a primary theme of the movie (as in the first one) is that Laurie is Michael's sister, which he knows but she doesn't. While I never cared for this storyline in the original "Halloween" series (to me it seemed like a cheap gimmick thought up to give Michael a reason to keep coming back), I thought it held some promise in the remake. In Michael's mind, Laurie is his last hope of getting his family back to the way it was. But Michael's attempt at getting her back (by slaughtering everyone she cares about) has essentially turned her into the type of cynical, jaded person he was trying to get away from. Thus, Laurie has started to become more like Michael, and now the two have a sort of telepathic bond (similar to the one between Michael and Jamie in "Halloween 5"). Unfortunately, with the film's frenzied editing, all this gets lost in the shuffle. Apparently it doesn't bother Laurie that she just starts throwing up for no reason, which the audience knows is because Michael is eating a raw dead animal. We just jump to the next scene and move on.

Cheap tricks like that are why "Halloween II" is a big mess. Zombie had good intentions for this sequel just like he did for the first film. But this time, he's gotten overwhelmed with startle scares, incredible lapses in logic, and all the other tired genre staples we've seen in a million other slasher films. On the way home from the theater, my wife said to me, "Maybe you should just try to enjoy the scares and not look for anything deep." But the whole point of remaking "Halloween" was to add something deeper to it; if there isn't anything new, why do we even need these remakes? Why don't we just watch the originals that did it so well when the genre was still fresh? And why doesn't Hollywood try to do something new, instead of giving us the same old same old with a new coat of gloss and seizure-inducing editing?

If you thought the first "Halloween" was bad, you will absolutely hate "Halloween II." Trust me.


Way, WAY better than I expected
I'm not a big fan of the recent trend of remaking all the classic horror films of the '70s and '80s, but I decided to go see the new "Halloween" anyway, if for no other reason than I'd never seen any of the original films in a theater. (That, and I figured they couldn't do much worse than the god-awful "Halloween: Resurrection", the most recent entry before this remake.) IMHO the original "Halloween" is one of the greatest horror films ever, and certainly the best "slasher" movie (unless you count Hitchcock's "Psycho", but that's another topic.) I really expected to be let down, even though I haven't seen any of Rob Zombie's other movies.

For the first five minutes, I thought, "Great, they took this classic American slasher flick and turned it into a white trash festival." But once Michael started talking (which he never does in the original film) something clicked, and I was hooked. The new film takes the Michael Meyers "mythos" (if you will) and fleshes it out, giving the audience a frightening insight to the true horror that exists all around us before eviscerating us with the shocks and gore we really paid to see.

The movie loses some of its momentum when it jumps to the present day, when too often it reverts back to simply restaging some of the trend-setting scenes from its predecessor - Laurie staring out the window at school and seeing the weirdo in the coveralls and the white mask staring at her, only to vanish seconds later. But hold on, friends - just when you think you know what's coming, the new "Halloween" veers off on its own course, and from then on all bets are off.

One of the most significant updates to the "Halloween" legend is the development of Dr. Loomis, the Van Helsing to Meyers' Dracula. The original Loomis (played memorably by the late Donald Pleasance, who kept returning for sequel after sequel despite his age and - in later years - ill health) was little more than John Carpenter's answer to Captain Ahab. Each film saw him trying to convince another group of skeptical law enforcement officers of the imminent slaughter, never to be believed until the bodies started piling up. The new film's Loomis, however, is a more complex character; he's not the selfless hero the old Loomis was, but he's not quite a villain either, as long as one can forgive him for giving up on Michael to turn his experiences into a cottage industry of "true crime" books and public speaking engagements. When Loomis and Michael are reunited later on, there's more going on then can be seen in a first viewing.

Zombie's "Halloween" succeeds on all fronts. It brings modern touches to a format that had long since fallen into cliché without changing it so much that it becomes unrecognizable. It manages to restore the menace and dread of the iconic Michael Meyers character in an era when masked psychopaths usually prompt the audience to laugh rather than gasp. Most importantly, it delivers the goods horror fans demand but includes enough depth and subtext to make it more than just cinematic junk food.

In short, I was pleasantly surprised with this new version of "Halloween". Like Zach Snyder's redo of "Dawn of the Dead", the 2007 "Halloween" could never replace its predecessor, but does make for a very admirable companion piece to a horror classic, blending the old and the new into an entertaining and thought-provoking fright film.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Not that good, but not that bad either
I'm more of a casual "Star Wars" fan, which is probably why I don't think of Ep I as the train wreck that more hardcore fans see it as. In fact, I think the movie was going to be disappointing to most simply because it was so anticipated; when you stand outside a movie theater for hours, days or even weeks waiting to see a movie, I don't see how that movie can possibly meet your expectations.

Yes, Jar Jar's antics get old fast, and it's hard to accept that this whiny little kid is supposed to be the same character as Darth Vader, but overall this is a fun, watchable film. The action starts almost immediately (and there's plenty of it); there's suspense, mystery and treachery all about; and we finally get to see many of the things that were only talked about in the original trilogy. Liam Neeson is particularly enjoyable in his role, and it's a real shame that they didn't include his character in the next two films.

What I really thinks hurts the movie is that it's missing most of the beloved characters from the first trilogy that made up the heart of that series. Combine that with the fact that we already know what's going to happen in the big picture, and the film loses a lot of the emotional attachment that made the originals so fun to watch. You don't have as much invested in the characters, so you don't care that much if they live or die (the same factor that makes a lot of slasher films so lame).

And, like all the "Star Wars" movies, there's a big loss in the translation from big screen to small screen. I remember being on the edge of my seat during the pod race scene when I saw this in the theater, but on a TV screen it's just not as exciting. The same goes for the climactic space battle. These movies were meant to be seen in theaters, and watching them at home makes their flaws a lot more noticeable.

In conclusion, I feel that watching "Phantom Menace" is like going to a football game where you don't follow either of the teams. It's still fun to watch the show, but it's not the experience that watching your favorite team is.

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Great visuals undermined by weak script, acting
I hadn't seen this one since it was first released to theaters back in '02, and it didn't seem as good as I remembered it. In the theaters I liked it enough to see it twice, but on a TV screen Ep II's flaws are more evident.

What really brings this film down is the flat dialog and sub-par acting through most of it. It's really noticeable in the first half hour; the dialog is mumbo-jumbo, the kind of lines that you'd expect from one of those old '40s serials that the "Star Wars" saga was modeled after. You'd think that by now, however, screenwriters would know how to put a little humanity into the the script.

Even worse is the acting; Christensen and McGregor say their lines as if they were merely rehearsing the scenes and didn't know the cameras were rolling. Natalie Portman tries to add depth to her character, but there's only so much she can do with such a cardboard script.

The other major problem with this entry in the series is that it tries to do too much; since Anakin was such a good little kid in the first film but had to be turned into Darth Vader in the third, Lucas tries to cram in most of his "turn to the Dark Side" in this volume, and it just comes off as forced. Plus they also had to fit in the major part of the big conspiracy that results in the downfall of the Republic, but there's so much going on that, frankly, it's hard to tell what's going on. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor can a government ruling "thousands and thousands of solar systems" completely fall apart in seven hours of screen time. I'm at the point now where I'm reading the novelizations of the films and then watching the films just to try to understand everything that's happening on-screen.

The film finally picks up once the great "Clone War" gets underway. Lucas and his staff deserve kudos for some of the most fantastic scenes ever committed to film, and here it actually made more sense to have it all CGI - the logistics of trying to keep that large of a cast and crew all on the same page would have been too much for even Cecil B. DeMille. Stuff like this is why mega screens were made.

Unfortunately the film as a whole is too flawed to make up for the fun and excitement of the final half hour. I know most "SW" fans will think I'm crazy for saying it, but overall I have to say I enjoyed "Phantom Menace" more than this one.

Silent Hill

Who greenlit this?
Two words: it SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKED! The plot was nearly impossible to follow and made no sense. I've played the first game and I had no clue what was going on whatsoever. I wanted to like this movie so much, but I could tell in the first five minutes it was going to be horrible. They just jumped right into the story; there's no chance for you to get to know the characters or even get your bearings.

The problem with "Silent Hill" wasn't a lack of imagination; the problem is the filmmakers just jump right into the story and don't give you an explanation to what is going on. The characters are bland and the script is dull. I like the "Resident Evil" movies although they're clearly not meant to be artistic or even good; yet compared to this one "Resident Evil" was "Citizen Kane." What really amazes me is that Hollywood execs can't seem to figure out why movie ticket sales are in a slump. They give us incomprehensible dreck like this and expect us to lap it up. Not me, thank you.

"Silent Hill" is a terrible, terrible film. I wouldn't see it again if I could get in free. In fact, I wouldn't see it again if they payed me.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Embarrassingly bad
I tried to keep an open mind while watching this one. After all, many people think "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" is the best in the series and I didn't like it; so I hoped that, with many people saying "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" was the worst, I would find I disagree with the majority on the latter film also.

No can do. From its opening scene on the desert planet, I could tell this one was going to go downhill fast. And boy, was I right. But I stuck it out, because I've been on a sci-fi kick lately and decided it was finally time to get caught up on all the "Trek" films I had never seen (i.e. the fourth, fifth and sixth entries).

First of all, the script seems like something a junior high student would write. The characters are paper-thin, with the exception of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, who turn their act into a sort of high-brow Three Stooges impression at times. The plot makes virtually no sense, jumping around between set pieces like a poorly contrived Roger Moore Bond film. Apparently they got halfway through it and then realized they had to have a more definite villain as well, so they threw in some idiot Klingon who would come along and pick a fight with Kirk just to throw his weight around.

Further, why would Starfleet decide that Kirk was the only person in their ranks who could possibly handle the hostage situation? What was that meeting like? "Oh my God, some clown in a white robe and a bunch of sunburned hermits have taken three people hostage on a planet in the middle of nowhere! Well let's see, we have starships and spacedocks all over the place that could easily handle this, but let's drag Kirk out on this one!" And not only do they insist on sending him, but they also make him take a substandard ship that doesn't even have working transporters. Not to mention that it has a skeleton crew. I think what happened was Paramount felt they were spending enough on "The Next Generation" and didn't want to spend any more money than they absolutely had to on this "old school" film.

Nothing else about this premise rings true, either. A middle-aged Uhura doing a striptease to help ambush the bad guys? The 23rd Century and they don't have flashbangs? And the finale is just ridiculous. Apparently what happened was the top FX guys were already doing other movies, so Paramount tried to do the FX on their own and they were so bad they cut them out of the final film. There's a lot of other things they could have cut out of this one as well.

Finally, there's the pitiful attempts at humor. Apparently after "Voyage Home" it was decided that they could make anything work as long as they stuck some one-liners in. Sure, that works. Ask the James Bond producers.

This was hardly the worst movie I've ever seen, but it was just so inane. It had "Shatner Vanity Project" written all over it. Yet another reason why I'm leaning towards thinking "Next Generation" is the superior Trek series.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Too jarring for my taste
Many people, both "Trek" fans and the general public, consider "The Voyage Home" to be the best "Star Trek" film with the original cast, if not the best "Trek" film period. I disagree. However, I do not feel that "Voyage Home" is necessarily a bad film; merely that I did not enjoy it.

There's something about playing the "Trek" set-up for laughs that just doesn't sit well with me. I agree that "The Search for Spock" bordered on space opera and that many critics found that film too serious, but IMHO the producers went too far in the opposite direction for the follow-up. I don't see what is gained by putting these characters in a present-day setting. This "fish out of water" premise worked on the TV series (particularly in "The City On the Edge of Forever"), but it wears thin on such a grand scale. I found the most interesting character in the piece to be Gillian, the scientist who cares more for the whales than anything else. She could be seen as an analogy for those of us who hope that the future will bring a civilization in which the quest for money is not our primary concern.

Further, many feel that the true appeal of the original series was the interplay between the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy; so it makes sense that the producers would try to mine the possibilities of having Kirk try to explain 20th Century Earthling behavior to Spock as they go along on their bizarre journey. But to me, this just doesn't ring true.

It has been said of science fiction that it concentrates too much on technology and effects and too little on character. Perhaps the producers of this entry were trying to change that with this one. But to this viewer, the experiment just didn't work. I have no qualms with those who like the film, I'm just saying I don't.

Death Hunt

Well done action/adventure
With a lurid title like "Death Hunt" and lead actors like Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, it would be easy to dismiss this film as just another shoot-'em-up run through the mill to capitalize on the marquee names (particularly Bronson). To do so, however, would be to overlook a well-made gem of an adventure film.

The problem, of course, with most films of this ilk is that they offer a minimum set-up and characters and then set the guns a-blazin'. Not so here. The premise is established well, with Bronson as the noble loner and Marvin as the gruff, weary Canadian Mountie. The themes and plot devices are familiar, to be sure - the sense of honor, the anti-hero, the wet behind the ears rookie lawman, even a little bit of a love story.

I had seen most of this film on cable and thought I understood it. Recently I rented it so I could finally see the first half hour and my feelings about it changed. Seeing the film from start to finish, I realized I had misjudged the intentions of the Marvin character. I thought the character was just another "honorable to the point of dishonorable" hero, when in fact he's a conflicted man. During the film, you can see that he knows he's as much responsible for what has happened, and he's not so much interested in "doing the right thing" as he is in covering his own rear end.

I was surprised to see in the beginning that the film is set in 1931; it seems much like a Western. But then you realize that this was still a very isolated area and that, unlike the southwest, civilization hadn't quite caught up with this part of the world yet - particularly with lawmen like Marvin on duty.

"Death Hunt" delivers all the goods. There is plenty of action and excitement, yet also a lot of substance as the story unfolds. It's a notch above most films of its kind. I enjoyed it so much that I'm considering adding it to my own DVD library, and I'd also like to learn more about the real story that it is based on.


Beautiful... and horrific
I never thought a film about nuclear war could be more moving than "The Day After" or "Threads". Now that I've viewed "Testament", I know I was wrong.

Frankly, I thought the film would seem mild in comparison with the former two, which are very graphic and horrific. In fact, it was even more disturbing and difficult to watch. Several times I considered shutting the film off, thinking "What good is it doing me to watch this depressing movie?" But each time I convinced myself to stick it out, and I'm glad I did.

I don't know what it was; the strength of Jane Alexander's performance, the combined performances by the younger actors playing her children, the excellent and artistic (yet remarkably matter-of-fact) cinematography, the haunting beauty of James Horner's score, or all of the above, but "Testament" just got into me and tore my very soul apart. There's no graphic "ground zero" scenes like in the other two films, just the story of a family struggling to survive, trying to stay hopeful beyond all hope.

The scene that I think will stick with me forever is the shot of Jane Alexander tearing apart bedsheets. That's all I'll say about this scene for now since I don't want to give anything away, but watch the film and you'll know what I'm talking about.

As other reviews have alluded to, "The Day After" and "Testament" both came out around the same time, yet "Testament" is far less known and remembered among the two films, even though most consider it the better of the two. I think the reason for this is that "The Day After" was presented on television, while "Testament", though originally made for public television, was instead released to theaters. With a movie like this, I think it's easier to just watch it on TV than to bring yourself to actually go out to a theater to experience this type of film.

"Testament" is one of those films like "The Hours". It's beautiful, breathtaking, unforgettable... and so heartrending I'm not sure I can ever bring myself to watch it again. But if you haven't seen it, you should. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Kissing Jessica Stein

Cute, cuddly, and very charming!
What can I say - I LOVED "Kissing Jessica Stein"! It was cute, funny, charming, heart-tugging, warm, everything a good romantic comedy should be. As a guy who has had a string of bad luck myself in the dating field, I could really relate to this movie, especially to the title character.

Jessica Stein is a newspaper copy editor in NYC who is 28 and feeling the pressure of still being single, especially when her brother gets engaged. After the obligatory montage of blind dates where Jessica meets up with clod after clod (my favorite is the would-be writer who keeps using the wrong words in his jingo), the sexless single girl happens to spot a personal ad that quotes one of her favorite poems. Which is great, until she spots that the ad is a "Women Seeking Women" entry. But then, after another disastrous blind date, our heroine decides she has nothing left to lose and arranges to meet with Helen, the girl who placed the ad. An art gallery manager, Helen is not really a lesbian either; it's merely that her relationships with men are primarily sexual, and she wants to get some emotional content in her life.

This film is not a "belly-laugh" comedy (although there were a few lines that had me almost on the floor), but rather a gentle, more subtle type of comedy. Most of the laughs come from Jessica's neuroses as she tries to start a relationship with Helen. Jessica is like a younger, female Woody Allen; only a lot easier to watch. And while the movie is enjoyable from start to finish, the screen just sparkles when Jessica and Helen are together. They are what makes the film. (It doesn't hurt that the actresses playing them had been developing their roles for quite a while in a stage play version of the story.)

Yes, there are scenes of Jessica and Helen kissing - but not to fear, ladies. These scenes are not about exploitation or titillation, they are as normal as watching a guy kiss a girl in any other film.

(**POSSIBLE SPOILER**) The only real problem with the film is how conveniently everything is wrapped up at the end, but with a "feel-good" movie like this, well, who wouldn't want a happy ending? (**END SPOILER**)

I would recommend this movie to anyone. I'm even thinking about buying it, and I'm very particular about which movies I actually want to own. And, guys, if you're looking for porn, DON'T rent this. Instead, go back to the little closed-off room in the back of the video store. "Kissing Jessica Stein" is not about sex, it's about romance and love.

Die Another Day

Good shake-up of the Bond formula
SPOILER ALERT: Although I try to not reveal too much, I also like to write reviews as if I'm talking with someone who has already seen the film; so if you haven't, you may wish to skip my two cents altogether.

Frankly, I was worried from what I had heard about the latest series entry; I try not to read reviews or articles about a film before I see it, but I had heard snippets that the new Bond was another "paint-by-the-numbers". Being a fan of the Ian Fleming novels that the film series is based on, I had my concerns that, once again, the integrity of the Bond character would be left in shreds.

However, this film shook things up by having Bond being captured by his enemy and not only not immediately escaping with the help of some tricky gadget, but by being imprisoned in a torture camp for quite some time! Obviously the film's new producers are willing to take a few chances; you'd never have seen Roger Moore's Bond or even Sean Connery's Bond go through something like this. Heck, not even Timothy Dalton's tough, "dour" Bond, who was the closest the films ever had to a truly faithful interpretation of the character, would have made it through that.

And then they go even further by having Bond get "decommissioned", if you will, only to desert MI6 once again (shades of "License to Kill") to carry out a vendetta. After that, the film for the most part returns to the regular formula, with a few slick updates.

The film's main weak point is a weak first half, between Bond's return to the West and before he gets to Iceland. At that point, it starts to pick up steam like nobody's business and takes on more of a roller-coaster feel. The action is great.

Nonetheless, this entry has a bit of a tired feel to it, and it doesn't help that the film has a few "throwback" bits to the early Bonds made before 1970. In addition, the villain is yet another borderline-psychotic megalomaniac; and the concept of the bad guy using a satellite to cause destruction on Earth was borrowed from "GoldenEye" and "Diamonds are Forever." This film definitely could have used an injection of the freshness that was so prevalent in "GoldenEye." Furthermore, while the film is not generally predictable, the identity of Bond's "betrayer" will be quickly recognized by anyone willing to think about the film and not just sit back and be spoon-fed by it.

But perhaps I'm being too harsh. I really enjoyed this one; it blends enough of the old elements with new ones to be new yet as familiar as an old friend.

And it was certainly better than "Tomorrow Never Dies." You can bet your diamond-filled bullet on that one.

The Day After

A shattering, utterly horrifying movie experience
A lot of negative ink has been given over the years to "The Day After". People say it is either too harsh, or too soft. People say it is too "sentimental" and is just a soap opera hiding behind a disaster film front. They say it is "unrealistic".

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I frankly feel that the vast majority of such comments are unfair. This film's producers, especially director Nicholas Meyer, were attempting to show something that had really never been shown before: an honest, realistic depiction of an actual nuclear attack, presenting both the immediate horror of the moment of impact, and also the devastating aftermath, as the survivors try to live normal lives that can never again exist. Before this film, most references to nuclear war in popular film was limited to how such a war would create mutant monsters.

I feel strongly that "The Day After" succeeds in the two goals of the producers described above. The "ground zero" scenes are unforgettable. I am reminded of the first time I saw the film. During its initial airing in 1983, I was not allowed to watch it (I was only 7 at the time), though I did get to see it when it was re-aired in 1988. I was not fully aware of what really happened in nuclear warfare; I just thought that the bomb produced a hell of an explosion, and that was it. Needless to say, I was shocked to see people being incinerated in the blink of an eye, and being consumed by rolling walls of flame. Trust me, once you see these scenes you will NEVER forget them. And as for one of the chief criticisms of the film - that some of the "bomb footage" is actually taken from 1950's government films of nuclear tests, well, what do you expect? Nuclear holocausts are not an everyday occurrence. Granted, an even better depiction of nuclear destruction is seen in "Terminator 2", but "The Day After" was made for TV almost a full decade before "T2", and had neither that film's technology nor budget. And the notion that these scenes do not show enough is to me simply ridiculous. I saw MORE than enough in this film to convince me that nuclear war is the worst invention man ever came up with.

Furthermore, the aftermath depicted in the film also gets the point across. Life after such a disaster would not be worth living. As in Stephen King's "The Stand", the persons killed in the disaster are the lucky ones, not the survivors. Those who live through the explosion try to keep life going, but they soon either succumb to radiation sickness, or, as depicted by the farmers trying to figure out how to grow crops in hopelessly contaminated soil, realize that life will be limited to however long you can live on canned food.

One final note I wish to respond to is the criticism that the film is like a "disease-of-the-week" film, because it centers around regular-joe characters. Those who make comments like these are missing the point. The filmmakers were trying to say that, while it is the politicians and military leaders who call the shots, it is the regular people who will suffer the consequences of their governments' decisions. Take the scene where the President gives a radio address. The President, who is at least partially responsible for this mess, is safe, secure and comfortable in a bunker somewhere; the lowly commoners he was supposed to "protect" listen to him speak in a shattered land, their lives, their property, everything around them eternally ruined. Anyone who wishes to see anything crueller than this must be sadist in my opinion.

That said, the film is not perfect, either. It tries to present too many characters and thus carries too many subplots. Also, while it is understandable that the story should be set up before the bomb drops, the film takes a bit too long to get going.

In closing, "The Day After" has a message. Some people may not agree with the message, others (like myself) think it is one of the most important messages that can be sent in a world where none of us seem able to get along with our fellow man. View the film for yourself and see what you think.

The China Syndrome

Nerve-wracking nuclear nightmare
I rented "The China Syndrome" recently mainly because I read that it was this film that inspired ABC to make "The Day After". "Syndrome", however, is more of a thriller than a drama. The film is quite political, but I agree strongly with its message - nuclear power, though extremely efficient, is far too dangerous for common use. The risks are simply too high. Hopefully, the persons in charge of real nuclear plants are far more responsible and ethical than those depicted in the film. However, given that the real-life near-disaster at Three Mile Island happened mere months after this film was released puts that in question. (In fairness, that case was probably more one of incompetence than of corruption.)

"Syndrome" is not just critical of nuclear power, but also of modern news media, similar in vein to "Network", only much more serious. Being a print journalist myself, I am quite familiar with how people perceive the media; but it was a little frightening to see that even in the '70's TV news was already selling out. When Jane Fonda's character tries to convince her boss to let her do real news instead of fluff, she is advised not to try the change, as "research" finds that people prefer a pretty girl to do fluff, not hard news.

What truly makes the film memorable, however, is the incredible suspense generated in its final third. During this period, the viewer is constantly fearing for the lives of the protagonists, whether the danger is coming from hired thugs or the potential meltdown of the nuclear plant. And that very last scene - I won't give it away, of course - but it will keep you guessing.

On a final note, I did get a distinct feel watching the film that it seemed at times more like a TV movie than a true theatrical film. This could be, however, due more to the fact that the rental tape I was watching was quite old, and not formatted to fit TV screens the way videos and DVDs are today.

The Last House on the Left

Depraved garbage
Don't get me wrong - I LOVE good horror films. Problem is, this piece of utter trash is NOT good by any stretch of the imagination. It's very difficult to believe that Wes Craven, who built a career comeback out of using restraint in his films (re: "Scream") made this. This film is little more than an excuse to show depraved and sickening acts of cruelty, with absolutely no artistic value. (Now "The Accused" has a graphic rape scene, too, but that film was trying to make a statement about our society.)

I can't imagine how anyone can consider this film to be entertaining. What kind of sicko enjoys watching graphic images of undressed teenage girls being raped? This film is best suited for people who like watching violent pornography but are too ashamed to go to an adult video store. If you want to see a GOOD horror film, try "Dawn of the Dead" or something. This thing is just utter crap, and if I could I'd sue Craven to get back the lousy 2 bucks I paid for the rental - yes, that's how BAD it is.

In the Mouth of Madness

Books really can take you anywhere...
A clever thriller that went virtually unnoticed during its theatrical release, "In the Mouth of Madness" features an intriguing premise, some genuine shocks and top-notch performances from its cast, especially Neill and Prochnow.

Neill plays a slimy investigator who seems to thrive on bringing down fraudulent insurance claims. He is very skeptical, then, when he is asked to find a bestselling author who seems to have quite literally dropped off the face of the earth. Horror writer Sutter Cane (sound like any real-life bestselling horror authors?), whose books are so vivid they have caused some readers to actually go insane, has vanished along with the manuscript for his new novel. When Neill goes after him, he finds himself trapped in one of Cane's fictional towns, and then the real fun begins.

Like Wes Craven's "Nightmare on Elm Street", this film works because it is able to bend the line between fantasy and reality; at some points the viewer is left uncertain whether the events of the film aren't just all in Neill's imagination. And the idea of a horror author being so popular that bookstores that sell out of his new releases are scenes of riots doesn't seem that far-fetched; after all, Stephen King's works are bestsellers as soon as they can be published.

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