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The Sicilian

Cimino does "epic" again - with predictably awful results
Cimno obviously hadn't learned from "Heaven's Gate", which isn't the disaster it's made out to be, just too long and too caught up in its subplots. "The Sicilian" copies the mistakes, but this time around it doesn't even have the beauty or breath of "Heaven's Gate". Nor its good actors. Christopher Lambert is a disaster in the title role. He tries to get by on his good looks and roguish twinkle in the eye, but his charisma is non-existent and it's hard to believe him as a folk hero who can move the masses. Helena Sukova is also a disappointment. Terrence Stamp's performance is hard to measure fairly, due to a poor dubbing job inflicted on him in post production. Only John Torturro as his usual nervous self is worth the money, as is Joss Ackland as the don of dons in Sicily.

Apart from the acting problems, this film is also spectacularly dull. Cimino stretches a repetitious, drawn-out story over almost two and a half hours, when 90 minutes and some judicious editing would have served him better here. Because things shuffle on at a snail's pace and many scenes seem completely superfluous (also known as the "Heaven's Gate" syndrome), the viewer quickly loses interest. Which in turn is a problem with this densely plotted and at times confusing film. There are so many betrayals, broken deals and secret alliances, that at some point the viewer is bound to be confused, especially if he's trying to keep up interest in a movie that doesn't deserve it. Seriously, give "Heaven's Gate" a try instead of this. You might lose an additional hour of your life, but you'll be awarded with a flawed epic instead of this epic failure.

The Woods

Lucky McKee's homage to "Suspiria"
Within the first minutes of "The Woods" one can see that director Lucky McKee and writer David Ross are horror film geeks that came of age in the video age of the 80s and feasted their eyes on films like Dario Argento's "Suspiria" and Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" series. This is a Suspiria remake in anything but name, crossed with some wood demons and Bruce Campbell to fight them. The picture is beautifully helmed and McKee's compositions are often quite effective and moody, even if the overbearing influence of Argento's masterpiece sometimes works against "The Woods". It's influence is so blatant because Ross recycles not only the basic plot, but even detailed plot points such as the drugged drinks. McKee follows suit by having numerous visual references to that film, even copying whole shots. This can become a distraction for fans who are very familiar with "Suspiria" though McKee gives it enough of a spin for the film to not look like a lame rip off and more like an inspired "let's do it like in the good old days" romp. The film has some pacing problems, though, most of which are linked to the heavy foreshadowing. When a girl tells new arrival Heather a spooky myth about the boarding school deep in the woods she has just arrived in, the avid viewer pretty much knows the secret of the place, the main villain's motivations and secrets and can easily map out the proceedings from there. The second third of the film suffers from this predictability. "The Woods" does pick up some steam towards the hour mark with the reappearance of Heather's parents and the first words spoken by a formerly silent Bruce Campbell, who plays to his adoring cult following once more here. The finale is a bit of a let down, though, even if the involvement of the titular woods is fun to see (thanks also to some convincing CGI, not the second-rate crap that often destroys the atmosphere in these small-budgeted movies). It's pretty much by the numbers, though it is enormous fun to see Bruce "Don't Call Me Ash" Campbell wield an axe and split some witch bitch open.

"The Woods" certainly isn't the most innovative movie of the world - especially not if you have seen "Suspiria" - but it is very well made and has some really efficient sequences, despite the absence of anything truly scary. Considering the poor quality of the horror genre in general, this is a small delight for genre fans.

Mylène Farmer: Pourvu qu'elles soient douces (Libertine II)

Probably the best of Farmer's mini epics
The longest and certainly most ambitious music video Mylene Farmer created with Laurent Boutonnat, this one is a direct sequel to the video to "Libertine" (1986), which marked the first highly celebrated collaboration of the two. While that video broke new ground with its unprecedented sex and violence (specifically the full frontal nudity of the lead singer!), this is like any sequel: More of the same (well, almost, this time another girl goes full frontal), but bigger and bolder. So instead of nine minutes, this is almost twice as long, has longer dialogue scenes in the beginning and the end and features higher production values. This video looks like it took the budget of what most french art-house movies used at around the time. The results are undeniably impressive: The battle scenes at the end are fabulously staged, rather graphic and look like straight out of a feature film. The song itself, like its predecessor, is somewhat of a scandal to conservative ears, it's basically an ode to butt cheeks with the implied notion of eroticism revolving around them, either through caning (like in the video) or anal sex, as implied in the video as well. As usual, Farmer does bare her behind, too. But don't let the R-rated sex and violence scare you off, this is the most persuasive argument for music video as an art form, not merely a ploy to sell product. Like all her collaborations with Boutonnat until 1990, including "Tristana" and "Désenchantée", this is highly recommended for the way it promoted what music videos could do.


A tentative step for Aldrich that becomes a stumble.
Aldrich's first Technicolor picture, as well as the first star-driven one, sees him feeling towards future greatness, but stumbling along the way. "Apache", produced by Lancaster himself, never overcomes the terrible casting of the title character. Six foot tall, blue-eyed and Nordic looking, Lancaster is about the most unrealistic Indian ever, and the terrible wig they equipped him with does not help much either. Watching him and Jean Peters in their make up is almost akin to watching minstrels in black-face. Lancaster can show off his great physicality and athletic skill but to very little avail. The story is often clumsy and suffers from severe pacing problems and at times incongruous editing. Clearly, Aldrich and his collaborators were not ready yet for the bigger things to come in the future, but the jump in sophistication from this rather crude picture to "Vera Cruz" later in the same year is still rather astonishing. "Apache" is a very minor genre entry, perfectly watchable but without any lasting contribution to the Western, even given its unusually (certainly at the time) friendly portrayal of the American Indian. Aldrich and Lancaster would reunite and return to the themes presented here with much bigger success later in their careers for "Ulzana's Raid."

Hour of the Gun

Sturges gets it right the second time!
This is the quasi-sequel to Sturges' "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and it improves on that film in every way. The Panavision widescreen gives it a more epic scope than "O.K.", and in the ten years between the two films Sturges has also much improved his mise-en-scene. Whereas "O.K." was often unassuming at best and plain dull at worst in its framing (additionally hindered by some obvious studio shots presenting the outdoors), Sturges gets the most out of his shots here. The sequence in which Virgil Earp is gunned down in a dark street is one example. Thankfully enough the dreadful "singing cowboy" songs of "O.K." are nowhere to be heard, instead we have one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores...and that says something. Acting is also a touch better than in the predecessor. While the Lancaster-Douglas team of "O.K." was indeed that - o.k. - it was bogged down by the repetitious dialogue they were given. Garner and Robards, both somewhat underestimated actors, give fine performances here. And while Robert Ryan as the villainous Ike Clanton is not given much to work with, he makes a reasonable impact as the scheming cattle baron and thief. Finally, and most importantly, the timing of the film is much better than "O.K." which was simply a chore to go through and a bore when one got there. "Hour of the Gun" alternates politics (both sides of the conflict getting the law on their sides, in itself a truthful and interesting account of law and order in the Wild West) and action scenes with Wyatt and comrades pursuing the attackers of his brothers. The depiction of Earp's vigilantism is relatively realistic though the claim of the film to "tell it as it happened" is of course somewhat over-exaggerated, especially concerning the fate of Ike Clanton.

As far as westerns from the end of the golden age of that genre go, "Hour of the Gun" does not rank among the very best, but is a minor treasure nonetheless, a very worthwhile film that tells the events after the famous showdown at the O.K. Corral, and does a very good job of doing so.

Il cartaio

Another step in Argento's downhill slide
Boy, whatever happened to Dario Argento? He always was wacky, something that crept into all of his films, but during the prime of his career he was also innovative, stylish and unpredictable. Almost all observers think of Argento's golden era ranging from "Profondo Rosso" to "Opera", or from the mid-1970's to the late 1980's. When entering the 90's he suddenly seemed to have lost interest in the fancy set pieces and stylish flourishes that made his name. Which would be fine if the viewer were rewarded with other things, such as good acting, reasonable dialogue and a script that makes sense. These three things have largely been absent throughout Argento's career, but the aforementioned strengths always compensated.

No such luck with "The Card Player." A specific style is completely missing, this film looks for the most part like a made-for-TV thriller. It also shows Argento's musical collaborator Simonetti erring again, this time by including some truly dreadful techno music (which almost destroys whatever tension the climax has). Set pieces are also absent, with even the more interesting moments like Remo's chase through the back streets coming of as mundane. Acting is typically mediocre-to-dreadful: The main actors are better than usual, also because both were not dubbed in post-production, but their roles are stock characters without much in the way of originality or interest. Character motivation and background is badly integrated or merely stated. Supporting actors are almost universally dreadful, hamming it up in the worst possible ways. Also absent is Argento's trademark gore, though this is far from the worst problem. Actually, Argento manages to stir up some dread without a splash of blood in a sequence in which a victim of the card player almost escapes which is caught by the web cam used for his transmission.

The worst part of this film, however, is a really dull script with lots of implausible plot holes the size of Sicily and an equally dull murderer with a non-existent motive. After so many giallos it is kind of hard to expect fresh tricks, but Argento also makes a terrible job here to disguise the killer. I had the correct killer identified before the ten-minute mark. And this despite a last-minute script change that changed the killer as the first choice was seen as "too obvious". How this is possible is beyond me, as even the character they chose couldn't be more obvious if he had a sign "I'm the secret psychopathic killer" around his neck. Subsequently, any possible tension is completely absent. All that's left is to focus on the flaws which are too many to mention. While never truly dreadful, "The Card Player" is something worse: deadly dull.

The Shield: Wins and Losses
Episode 0, Season 6

Not unmissable, but a nice addition
This 15-minute "season six prequel" was produced to give "The Shield" fans something to hang on to during season breaks and to promote the show on the internet.

It shows the immediate aftermath of the season 5 finale (SPOILERS if you haven't watched up until this point): Vic fights for an official police ceremony for the burial of Lem, but is denied. Instead, Lem gets a small private ceremony. Vic tries to make good on his promise to find the killer(s) of Lem by trying to unearth the whereabouts of Salvadoran crime lord Guardo Lima, hereby intervening in an investigation of Dutch. This ongoing storyline is inter-cut with flashbacks to two years prior, where we see Lem competing in an arm wrestling contest that, despite being injured on the job the same day, he wins for "The Barn".

This mini-episode plays as both a look into the frustration of Vic after the murder of his friend and a nice reminder of why Lem's character was such an important part of the show. His dedication and loyalty, even against better instincts, is perfectly captured in the arm-wrestling storyline. As usual, acting and production is top notch.

This mini-episode is featured as a bonus item on the season five box set and serious "The Shield" fans are encouraged to seek this out.


Nothing short of a miracle
In the time and age of cookie-cutter-CGI "comedies" featuring talking animals and supposedly cool pop culture comments, the magic of what animation can really achieve is often forgotten. Only Pixar reminds us continually of the wonderful opportunities animation has in its storytelling, both in its visuals and its characters. Yet I can think of no animation film outside of Pixar classics such as "Toy Story" 1 & 2 or "Monsters. Inc." that takes you from laughing to crying to the place in between - and in 3 minutes nonetheless.

"Kiwi!" shows how it's done. For starters, its title (and single) character is silent - no silly one-liners here. And yet, he is a fully developed character and the fact that he gets characterized simply via mimic and gestures is one of the many wonderful things the creator has achieved. We know everything we kneed to know about kiwi - his dream and what it means to him. The animation is simple but distinct. Kiwi's big expressive eyes endear him to the viewer as does his resourcefulness in his preparations. The animation's clarity adds to the overall effect and the theme music is great also.

One should not talk about details of the story for fear of spoiling the experience. Again, it's a simple one, almost fable-like. It uses its diminutive bird protagonist to say something profound about the human condition - how far one would go to achieve one's dreams. By the time a tear shows in Kiwi's eyes - there will be tears welling up in yours as well.

It might sound like hyperbole, but it really isn't. Go to YouTube and see this - it is three minutes of animation perfection.


"The Shield", Kiwi-Style...and without the good guys
This is what "The Shield" would look like if there were only Vic Mackeys on a very bad day and no detectives Wymms or Wagenbach around to uphold moral standards. In this little Aussie thriller cops are at the center of everything, but what cops they are: Everybody, really everybody, in Melbourne's police force seems to be corrupt or willing to break the laws. In one of its strong scenes you can see how even young and idealistic cops are drawn into this behavior, with corruption being like a contagious virus carried over from the older, more crooked cops. Even nominal heroine JJ Wilson (Belinda McClory,The Matrix's Switch) is only marginally better then the rest and in the single most intense scene of the film she nearly suffocates a suspect. She draws the line, however, when the case of a child murderer leads into the police force as well...

"Redball" packs a punch with its "Seven"-styled title sequence but quickly loses its way a bit through too many vignettes showing dirty cops doing bad things. Unlike "The Shield" there is virtually no character development and the audience does not come around to care for most of the secondary policemen characters. This is not helped by some substandard acting from the Aussie actors portraying them. Only Wilson and John Brumpton as her partner give memorable performances. A good soundtrack and some arresting visuals cannot compensate for the shortcomings of a film that is too meandering in its structure (despite the short running time), has no characters we care about and is more dull than edgy in its unrelenting portrayal of crooked cops. While watchable if you're tired of "gooody-two-shoes" heroes, it falls short of having anything meaningful to say about these less-than-likable characters and thus sinks like the body in the river which numerous cops ignore as not to bother with the paperwork. A Redball - an important breakthrough in a big case - this movie ain't.

You Stupid Man

rom com tosh with irritating characters
Seeing that this got a theatrical release nowhere around the globe, it only serves as a reminder of were the careers of those talent-free ladies Denise Richards and Milla Jovovich went. It also is a particular grating kind of movie, the kind that think they are smart, funny and original while being poor in every aspect. Full blame can go to Brian Burns, who wrote and directed this potboiler. His script takes a quite unoriginal situation and goes exactly nowhere with it. The situations develop completely without any inner logic, besides that of a desperate scriptwriter. Characters are thinner than cardboard cutouts, behave stupid and without any real motivation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the inclusion of Mrs. Richards. We don't believe her relationship with David Krumholtz's character for one minute and the way she is brought back into play after the one-hour mark is particularly pitiful. Why would anyone fall for a egocentric, self-obsessed, arrogant b**ch like this in the first place, much less a second time? Especially after having supposedly found his..erm...true love? And if any of these things aren't enough to completely sink this movie, than the central couple is. The coupling of Krumholtz and Jovovich is only slightly more believable or developed than the Richards-one, but it is to no avail. There is no chemistry, no spark, nothing that we might loosely accept as a credible couple. Worse, these two central characters are particularly annoying and irritating, doing annoying and irritating things the viewer finally has no interest in, whatsoever.

Overall, a very poor showing. Even die-hard rom-com fans might want to pass on this one, as there are dozens of movie made with more skill or more charm.

Castle Freak

Surprisingly good
I really didn't expect much when I picked this movie up, considering its pedigree (a Full Moon low-budget picture shot in Italy). What a pleasure then that this turned out much better than expected. Good use is made of the Italian locations, especially the castle, and Stuart Gordon uses many cool angles to keep things interesting. Reputation has him as an over-the-top-gore director, but this doesn't do him full justice. He is also good in building atmosphere, and this is "Castle Freak"'s biggest asset. The gore is relatively minimal, and instead of indulging us with gore, he goes for a dark and tragic atmosphere, convincingly combining a traumatized family and a mistreated, misunderstood monster in the "Frankenstein"-tradition. This means that despite reuniting the Gordon-Combs-Crampton triumvirate "Re-Animator"-Fans should beware: this one is played strictly as drama/tragedy with not a single laugh in sight. The screenplay is well-developed with convincing characters and reasonably good dialogue. Nothing that is Academy Award-material, but who'd expect that from a movie called "Castle Freak"? Acting is also spot on, especially Jeffrey Combs in a straight man role (for once). While it would go to far to call this a lost genre classic, it deserves to be seen by more people than probably did. If you're a genre fan, give "Castle Freak" a chance. It might just win you over, like it did with me.


Sex and Violence in Paradise
The first theatrical film of Dave "Deprave" Cronenberg is also an excellent introduction into the themes he tapped into his entire career, mostly his fascination with - and understanding of - 'body horror'. This tale about parasites turning people into sex-crazy maniacs pushes all the buttons of being uncomfortable with one's own body. And for all the admirers of latter-day Cronenberg (where his work got more subtle than this blood'n'carnage effort), the weirdness starts right here. Several scenes in here will leave you rather uncomfortable, some would not go by censors today. This is subversive and intelligent film-making at its very best, as Cronenberg punches big, bloody holes through the ideas of free love and the sexual revolution. Like the excellent "The Brood" four years later, "Shivers" is a film from its time and about its time (in satiric manner), but it's off-beat humor, sentimentality-free nastiness and intelligent themes give it a timeless quality. This should also make you forget that dialogue and performances in this micro-budget effort are of the varying quality. The effects work is astonishingly good though and gore fans will be in for a treat. Oh, and there's gratuitous nudity, too. "If this movie doesn't make you scream or squirm, go and see a psychiatrist! Fast!" urges the amusing trailer. Boy, they got that one right. With its uncomfortable truths about completely unrestrained sexual desire which Cronenberg allows to play out without softening the blows (neither the young and innocent, nor the elderly get spared, resulting in some rather unpleasant sequences), "Shivers" still packs an amazing punch today. It's certainly not for everyone, but if you are bored with the lifeless, anemic "scare-by-the-numbers" frights of most modern teen-oriented horror films and are looking for some real, truly frightening images look no further than the early work of David Cronenberg. It'll give you the shivers.

Conducting Dario Argento's 'Opera'

For Opera Lovers Only
For fans of "Opera", this is an interesting and fairly extensive look at the ideas behind the film and its making. The most interesting comments are from Daria Nicolodi, probably because she is the only one critical of maestro Argento (and is completely right about the "swiss nonsense"). Argento's comments don't fare quite as well, simply because he seems to talk about a better movie than the one he ended up with. He talks extensively about his ideas, many of whom you will probably not get while watching "Opera". A comment on AIDS? I'm not sure about this. Also, his comments are relentlessly downbeat, as he reflects on a particularly depressing time of his life. Actor Urbano Barberini is the one with whose comments you have the most fun, as he obviously prefers the immoral aspects of the story. Not very surprisingly, (though still somewhat of a disappointment) main actress Christina Marsillach is nowhere to be seen, as her relationship with Argento was notoriously bad. Also of interest is the explanation of the fantastic swirling shots during the climax.

Nochnoy dozor

From Russia with Loads of Monsters
"Night Watch" is one of the most expensive Russian film production ever and enjoyed in it's home country the best movie start of all time (15 million US $ in its first month), but is it any good? Yes and no. First of all, let me say that this is a special effects film and even though for a Russian production this has a comparatively huge budget for CGI and makeup f/x, the results are decidedly mixed. Most of it is OK, with single drops into the ridiculous. The direction by former ad director Bekmambetov is stylish enough, without forgetting to portray the grittiness of Russian life circumstances. The actors are competent, though leading man Konstantin Khabensky is lacking in the charisma department. The story ultimately is the measurement of what is good and bad about "Night Watch" and it does contain both. The novels, on which this film is based, are pretty complex, making this the first in a trilogy, with "Day Watch" and "Dusk Watch" to come. The presented battle between good and evil supernatural beings is reminiscent of other genre efforts, but unlike, say "Underworld", "Night Watch" takes its elements seriously. This is a mixed blessing. On one hand you have a real mythology underlying events instead of a starting point for subway machine gun battles of longhairs, on the other there is no humor in the picture and the reverent and dead serious tone in spite of the bizarre events is sometimes overdone and a little laughable. The idea of supernatural police forces observing and checking each other is a nice one, as are numerous quirky little ideas, but overall there are two lame stereotypes for every good and fresh idea. Most disappointing is the double climax letdown. The 'grudge' storyline is extremely well built up with lots of suspense but ends with a whimper instead of a bang. The climax of the 'kid' storyline is muddled as well, but does offer a nice full circle resolution to one aspect of the story and features an interesting cliffhanger.

Overall, the shortcomings are (just slightly) outweighed by a fresh, different and decidedly un-Hollywood take on fantasy movie standards. This is an interesting and worthy effort, though strictly for fans of the fantasy/mystery genre.


Ninth Street

A rich film full of ideas and minor flaws
9th Street is a movie you are unlikely to stumble over. It did not get a theatrical release and your local Blockbuster is sure to not have it. If you DO stumble over it, though, give it a try.

Kevin Willmott is a screenwriter and director, an instructor at the University of Kansas and generally a nice guy. His movie has a lot of personal stories to tell and is a film rich in ideas, though they do not all work out.

Willmott models 9th Street after the Jazz music that once made the title-supplying location great. That means the movie has a ramshackle, loose and improvised rythm to it. The main idea is old stuff vs. new stuff and an elegiac look at the glory days of the Jazz Age. There is more, much more in fact, but that is up to the viewer to discover.

As I mentioned, there are some minor flaws. It's greatest strength, the ideas who go all over the place, do not add up at all ends and the violent tone of the conclusion was a bit too much of a turn from the mostly light tone established before.

Martin Sheen's role is basically a cameo and was done as a favor to Queen Bey (who plays the bartender). At least his participation ensured that this movie was distributed. It is a shame that movies like 9th Street that go against the grain are buried like if you stumble over it, be sure to give it a try.

The Dark Half

A murky movie on a murkier disc
If you have read The Dark Half as I did in my teens when I loved Stephen King's books, you'll be seriously disappointed by this movie. King gets away with a lot of browraising stuff in the novel - the half absorbed twin including the remains in the brain, the sparrows etc. - but it just doesn't translate to the screen. What seemed, well, semi-plausible in the novel looks just plain silly on the screen. Things aren't helped by George Romero's static, unimaginative style either. Many shots feel like they are right out of a TV movie of the week rather than a cinema release. Timothy Hutton's dual role gives him the opportunity to shed his nice guy image though he hams it up a bit too much as the psycho redneck killer George Stark.

The biggest problem I had while watching this movie, was that the DVD only offered a fullscreen format. Hel-looo, anybody there? If I buy a bloody DVD I want to see a movie in the format it was intended to be seen. This gave the movie even more of a boring TV-ish feel than before. Only for people who are seriously interested in King adaptations.

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