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La règle du jeu

Decadence, Love and the Unmoored Nobility
Renoir made a tight little romantic, or rather anti-romantic, comedy. And an angst-ridden, oversensitive, pre-WW2 French Bourgeosie, afraid of its own shadow, saw their worst character flaws fully illuminated exaggerated and satirized. Renoir, being an extremely smart man with keen observational skills and an open mind, simple condensed what he saw into a brilliant, multilinear film and poked fun at himself and each of the ludicrous but oh so human characters he invented. Misinterpreting the film as an attack on upper middle class culture of mid-20th century France, the film was very severely criticized, banned, and, inevitably, recognized as a masterpiece. How French.

Renoir's remarkably light character study of the pre-World War II French upper class entertainingly and humorously lampoons Western ideas of liberty, gentility, idleness and - the big game itself - love. Love, in this film doesn't REALLY have any fixed rules and is shown to consist of everything from a hormonal imbalance to self-loathing and apathetic contempt to an emotion of such power and purity that it could legitimately require the ultimate sacrifice. The concept of liberty, which is sort of an understated backdrop in this film, could be poignantly mistaken for decadence and self-indulgence. And as one might predict, only the least decadent characters (the servants) appear to have goals and some semblance of self-concepts.

Renoir's masterfully written and directed piece was filmed and is set in a time where the vestiges of pre-capitalist "high culture" still had a strong influence on social mobility in France, so 21st century globalists in particular may find the stark and very overtly illusory distinctions between his lordship, his Austrian noblewoman wife and his servants to be quaint but perhaps a little alien. Set against the medium of decadence and directionlessness manifested in spurious and meaningless love/lust/sex/desire the film presents us with a cabaret of likable yet mostly despicable and extremely well-acted archetypes.

La Règle du Jeu presents a tangled web of relationships of every kind set against a social gathering at a country manor presided over by Marcel Dalio's sympathetic (and pathetic) but rather hollow lordship and his exotic lady, an Austrian noble played by Nora Gregor. Renoir himself plays the older Octave, who appears to be the only person at the party who has set himself out of the "the game" - friend to all lover of none. But even this laudable status inevitably breaks down in the tumult of rampaging aimlessness concentrated by the big party. The serving staff, though perhaps more honest and direct about themselves, are an obliquely angled mirror of the bourgeouis house guests in virtually every way. A few cross-class relationships will stick with you and are worth paying special attention to - the extremely condescending ones between the lord and his new domestic (memorably played by Julien Carette) and the lady and her chambermaid (Paulette Dubost) come to mind. In both cases, the servants have the upper hand in nearly every way, but they earn that position by subtly disguising their own wills as sound decision making by their "superiors".

La Règle du Jeu is a beautiful film. The audience is bombarded with continuous action, a very attractive and memorable cast that is in constant motion, gorgeous settings, and extremely well-choreographed and often very long continuous shots in which three or four plots are introduced, climax and close in the space of a few minutes. It deserves its reputation as a great film.

The Dark Past

Competent Update of Blind Alley - An Intelligent Noir
A psychology professor (Lee J Cobb) plies his trade on a psychotic prison escapee (William Holden) whose gang has invaded his home during a dinner with friends. The cat and mouse battle of nerves takes place on the fearless and disaffected professor's battleground both in the physical and mental sense - taking place in his home and in the realm of the mind. Dr. Collins is doing more than stalling for time to keep his family and friends alive. He is manipulating the weak-minded criminal. Collins is offering the killer Al Walker an unlikely chance to change his ways and a very likely illusory opportunity to return to sanity. Meanwhile, the tension mounts... consistently... throughout the film.

In this Columbia noir, Director Rudolph Maté stays extremely close to the original production of Blind Alley (directed by Charles Vidor), with some scenes so closely developed that you could very easily lose them in the earlier film. Neither film is really typical of the noir genre. Both are dark, humorless, set pieces based on a very theatrical script and some very solid dramatic acting, particularly from Cobb and Holden. Nina Foch lends strong and sensitive support as the woman who loves Holden.

Of the two, The Dark Past is the more polished film, but given the dates of production neither that nor the darker values of Blind Alley should come as any surprise.

A very solid film, which, contrary to the opinions of some reviewers, has held its entertainment value very well.


Wolverine Does Leon (The Professional) Surprisingly Well
With strong support from Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen, Hugh Jackman successfully pulls off a sensitive portrayal of a declining hero and his somewhat self-imposed alienation, decorated with the usual Marvel studios CGI action sequences. While the CGI sequences were as protracted as they usually are in contemporary pop culture movies, they did not detract from the film's strong emotional content and were more integrated into every level of the story than they are in most comic book adaptations.

The Wolverine, Logan, (Jackman) may reach an heretofore unrealized peace with himself and his world through his newfound relationship with a young girl who may be his daughter Laura (Keen). However, Laura is being hunted by the same evil that has hunted Logan throughout most of his life, and his Logan's other real connection to humanity, Charles Xavier (Stewart), needs more help than he can give. The most dangerous mind in the world (Xavier) teamed up with one of the most dangerous men in the world (Logan) might seem like an undefeatable juggernaut, but for many reasons, neither of these superhero legends are what they used to be. As the story unfolds, Logan's powerful defense mechanisms are challenged in ways that have, in previous adventures, been his undoing; aspects of Laura's personality and history leave the value of the central adventure wide-open to question; and Xavier's loss of the ability to control his incredible mental powers threaten to expose everything.

It really is not clear what will happen in this film until it actually does.

Thoroughly entertaining, well-acted, well-paced and surprisingly touching, Logan is one of the best films I have seen from this genre.

The Astral Factor

If X-Files and Miami Vice went back in time and did a crossover on Acid
...the result would be The Astral Factor. The word "Factor" in the title of any vaguely sci-fi film should tell you all you need to know about the quality (or lack thereof) you are about to be subjected to. This plot-heavy film maintains the feeling of a 1970s TV detective show centered around a constantly distracted (and highly over-acted) hero police lieutenant (Robert Foxworth) in pursuit of an escaped strangler (Roger Sands) who is apparently using astral projection, among various other paranormal methods to kill people who remind him of his mother (who he murdered long ago).

The victims are all B-list glamour girls and aging starlets (Elke Sommer provides a typically campy performance and is one of the film's few bright spots), giving the film a predictable luridity characteristic of the decade in which it was made.

The film is riddled with irritating cliches, huge ridiculous 1970s detective cars, pretty women who are trying to portray being strangled by an unseen force, mediocre special effects, and completely unnecessary subplots (the lieutenant's absurd but cute romance with his codependent alcoholic girlfriend).

Although it doesn't break through the fourth wall at any time, it is impossible to imagine that the film-makers took it very seriously. You shouldn't either.

The Last Mile

Somewhat Predictable Death Row Drama
The Last Mile, based on a popular John Wexley play of its time (1932), features an ensemble of death row inmates. Though the film does a good deal of effective characterization, we only really get to know two of the condemned - the innocent Dick Walters (Howard Phillips) and the "Killer" Mears (Preston Foster) - his neighbor in the cell block. The rest of the characters are archetypes of one kind or another, allowing the somewhat heavy-handed theatrical script some needed economy as the film builds quite slowly to a strong climax.

Mears stages a breakout and Walters has no choice but to get caught up in it, along with all of the other inmates. The warden, who has generally been, according to the prisoners, a decent guy, doesn't see that he has any choice about how to handle the situation.

The film is oddly introduced by a written introduction that makes a case against the death penalty based, apparently, on religious morality. With the exception of the juxtaposition of Killer Mears and our innocent protagonist Mr. Walters, it is not at all clear how this bit of moralism enhances the film nor how the film supports the political viewpoint of its author.

Theatrical scripts and sets do not always translate perfectly into film. The 1932 film of this play exemplifies the problem. Most of the camera work sticks to the point of view of a play's audience and the film mostly occurs in a very stark, statically shot prison block set. This effectively places the audience in the monotony of the prison experience throughout the film's action-less first half, but the effect only serves to accentuate the story's limitations so that, by the time the plot begins to accelerate, at least some of the audience has made up its mind about what will happen, how, and why. It is, however, worth sticking around to see how it does or doesn't play out.


Solidly Entertaining Suspense Set in the Late 19th Century
This film centers around three people. We have retired constable Rough who is an affable and brilliant middle-aged gentleman haunted by one of his career's unsolved cases - the murder of Alice Barlow. And we have the relatively recently married and well-to-do Mallens, who have just moved into the house next door to the one where Mrs. Barlow was killed. Bella Mallen (Diana Wynyard) turns in a wonderful and sympathetic performance as a woman who is being driven to her wit's end by her obsessive, controlling and deceitful husband Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook). The very first time Rough sees Paul, he becomes convinced that Paul is not who he says he is, and as the story unfolds, Paul Mallen's identity, his secrets and his intentions charge the film with powerful psychological distress and a Hitchcockian feeling of suspense.

The behavior of Mrs. Mallens' gas light is the very clever device that eventually allows the film's central mystery to begin to unravel - hopefully before it is too late

This film exhibits some truly startlingly well-created and detailed Victorian interiors, relatively typical but quite competent camera-work for its time, very strong performances - especially by Wynyard and Frank Pettingill (Rough) and a solid theatrical script. Gas Light was adapted from Patrick Hamilton's stage play of the same name, and it definitely retains some of the feel of a theatrical set piece. Well-directed by the talented if not prolific Thorold Dickinson (Queen of Spades, Secret People), I would recommend this over the more well-known and soapier American remake of 1944.


Solidly Entertaining Suspense Set in the Late 19th Century
This film centers around three people. We have retired constable Rough who is an affable and brilliant middle-aged gentleman haunted by one of his career's unsolved cases - the murder of Alice Barlow. And we have the relatively recently married and well-to-do Mallens, who have just moved into the house next door to the one where Mrs. Barlow was killed. Bella Mallen (Diana Wynyard) turns in a wonderful and sympathetic performance as a woman who is being driven to her wit's end by her obsessive, controlling and deceitful husband Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook). The very first time Rough sees Paul, he becomes convinced that Paul is not who he says he is, and as the story unfolds, Paul Mallen's identity, his secrets and his intentions charge the film with powerful psychological distress and a Hitchcockian feeling of suspense.

The behavior of Mrs. Mallens' gas light is the very clever device that eventually allows the film's central mystery to begin to unravel - hopefully before it is too late

This film exhibits some truly startlingly well-created and detailed Victorian interiors, relatively typical but quite competent camera-work for its time, very strong performances - especially by Wynyard and Frank Pettingill (Rough) and a solid theatrical script. Gas Light was adapted from Patrick Hamilton's stage play of the same name, and it definitely retains some of the feel of a theatrical set piece. Well-directed by the talented if not prolific Thorold Dickinson (Queen of Spades, Secret People), I would recommend this over the more well-known and soapier American remake of 1944.


Effectively Creepy Almost Until the Finish
Well-filmed, well-scripted and mostly well-acted, this supernatural mystery thriller action film by Tasmanian director Don Sharp tells the story of the culmination of a family feud which appears to date back to Medieval times in s small English town. The film starts out with a front end loader demolishing a cemetary while members of the Whitlock family, led by Lon Chaney Jr., protest. The demolition opens the grave of a powerful witch (Vanessa Whitlock - Yvette Rees) who had been buried alive 300 years ago. And guess what, she's not quite dead, and she's decided to gather her descendants into a new coven to finally carry out the extermination of their mortal enemies, the Laniers.

Rees and Chaney, though their roles are fairly modest in terms of screen time, drive most of the tension in this creepy little story. Chaney is menacing, Rees is just plain cold evil. Most of the action focuses on their would-be victims, the Laniers.

The sets, decent - if simple - characterization, and the clever use of plot devices to retain an element of mystery and to grow suspense are what sustained my interest throughout the first 3/4ths of this film. I don't write spoilers, so suffice to say that the last 1/4 of the film, as it transforms into an action-oriented thriller, is where I started to lose interest. Still, the film was worthwhile enough to affect my dreams. I watched it in two sittings and slept between them. I dreamt an ending for this film which would have, I am convinced, been much better - though a lot more disturbing - than the one the film settled for.

Bottom line - a fun one, but don't expect too much!

Inner Sanctum

A Few Tricks and Some Blood Up Its Sleeves
Lew Landers - perhaps one of the more diversified of early Hollywood's hyper-prolific B-film-factory directors, brought together a cast of relative unknowns and talented aging stars into a stylish, fairly suspenseful, and tightly plotted noir offering. Landers typically directed between 7 and 9 films per year in the 1940s and early 1950s, but in 1948, when Inner Sanctum was released, this was one of only three films from him.

The great Fritz Lieber opens the film by demonstrating his clairvoyance to a rather silly but pretty young woman on a train and then offering her a warning. Lieber then launches into the story and we are guided into the action of this very strangely misnamed film. Inner Sanctum tells the story of a despicable and completely unsympathetic murderer (Charles Russell) whose dirty deed is, in part, witnessed by an energetic youth (Dan Belding). The somewhat energetic young boy isn't quite sure what he has seen, and the killer seems to think he is home free after driving through a flooded country and hitching a ride to a local boarding house. Unfortunately for him, paranoia, the kid, and a smart pretty young lady are waiting for him there.

With the apparent exception of Russell's character the film makes good use of the moral ambiguity of most noir films, and gives the genre a few unique spins. Like most femme fatales, Mary Beth Hughes' character is a lot smarter than her male counterpart, and she certainly dresses and plays the part, but she isn't really a femme fatale in the usual sense. The use of the young Dan Belding (who gives one of the best performances of the film) as the killer's primary nemesis and, very possibly, his next victim, gives the film a fairly unique edge, and the trapped, claustrophobic feeling of the boarding house and the flooded river land around it, which may have been a simple plot device designed to save the production budget, help to sustain the suspense.

No spoilers here, but I will say that the film has a few tricks up its sleeves which are worth sticking around for. Also notable for the unusual casting of the great Lee Patrick in the role of the uncharacteristically typical 30-something mom of Belding's character.

Fata Morgana

A Structure Inside of Herzog's Heart
"I sense a structure inside my heart, but it's not the same as yours" ~ Director Werner Herzog on Fata Morgana

One should not enter into the world presented by Fata Morgana without some sense of what to expect. However, beyond stating that this is a film by Werner Herzog, it is almost impossible to discuss the film using categories that are typically applied in discussions of film. Some say that this is the masterpiece of Herzog's early films. I can agree with this but only for two implicitly connected reasons. The first reason is my love for Herzog and his art. The second is that this is easily the most HERZOG film of his early films. Herzog himself has said that the film makes sense and has coherence only if you forget about logic and anything academic that you may have learned about film.

So let's discuss the narratives. There is no real story unless you interpret the film as an impressionistic telling of the Popul Vuh (one of the few surviving Mayan origin myths), which is updated into the modern age in three parts. The narrative starts with numerous very beautiful and entrancing images of barren, alien-looking landscapes and extremely illusory and vivid mirages. It then becomes increasingly concerned with people and built environments as we move from the amorphous, sensual and primordial world of the creation into the allegedly civilized, and clearly ridiculous, "Golden Age" presumably something like what we have today. Some people see this transition as irony, cynicism, darkness, etc. While it is important that each viewer intepret the film in their own way, i can see nothing in Herzog that is not pure celebrative and eye-opening exuberance concerning a full range of experience - death, love, myth, beauty and all of the illusions that drive so much of human life. There are numerous other narratives that can be found upon repeated examinations of the film, especially if you review the Herzog collection's version with Herzog's deeply personal, journalistic commentary.

Now, on to the film itself. Like many of Herzog's film, Fata Morgana is breathtakingly beautiful,. Like almost all of Herzog's films, Fata Morgana expresses something about Herzog's view of life, of people and of the earth - all of which are subjects that Herzog loves very deeply. Herzog shot the film in some of the most extraterrestrial landscapes on earth, with his very unique sense of the surreality of everyday life, and, as usual, no special effects whatsoever. The film utilizes illusion and mesmerizing images and sound to loosen the viewer's interest in narrative itself and then proceeds to deconstruct narratives explicitly while showing the utter lunacy of more familiar imagery. The film's soundtrack also defies even Herzog's own tendencies and the trope of avant garde cinema, juxtaposing opera, Asian folk music and (of all things) Leonard Cohen.

This film is a must-see for Herzog fans and those interested in history of film as a pure art form all its own. The film is much more subtle than Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, but these later films clearly owe Fata Morgana an enormous debt.

Evil Dead

Fairly Good Remake - Necessarily Different from the Original
I approached the Fede Alvares remake of Evil Dead with both trepidation and curiosity. My concerns were simple - Who could possibly improve on a Sam Raimi film? How can you call it Evil Dead without Bruce Campbell?

My concerns began to evaporate when I noticed Raimi's involvement in the opening credits and were completely dispelled when I realized that the new film shared only the most fundamental plot structure with the original. Both films are about friends in a cabin in the woods fighting a mysterious, purely evil, and incomprehensible force triggered by a mysterious ancient book. Otherwise, the films are only vaguely connected.

So this answered my first question - about remaking a Raimi film. You don't, you simply do something new on the same foundation.

The new Evil Dead is much more of a straightforward horror film and the differences go way beyond the disturbing addition of a crack addict as a central character. Most of the central characters aren't even likable, let alone funny. So much for my question about replacing Bruce Campbell. Again - you don't.

In 1981, Sam Raimi, his brother, an aspiring actor (Campbell) and a group of non-actors and amateur film makers made a horror classic with almost no budget and a great deal of debt. It took more than a decade for them to recoup the costs of this near-instant cult classic though the film was viewed as a "break-through". More recently, as one of Hollywood's most respected directors and producers, Raimi gave young Uruguayan writer / director Fede Alvares a shot at creatively re- imagining the film that made Raimi a contender.

The acting is better than that of the original (which should be no surprise since there were really only two actors in the Raimi film), the effects are more sophisticated, but cleverly reminiscent of the Raimi tradition of clever simplicity, and the film, like the original delivers a few good scares despite its ridiculous premise.

Shot for about $17,000,000 (which is not much these days), the Alvares re-do netted a 300% profit before it left theaters. Profitability has very little to do with quality these days, but I say good for them!

The new Evil Dead is worthy and a credit to the original.

Iron Man Three

Pulp for Genre Purists
Iron Man 3 is more of a moving comic than a motion picture. Even the cinematography is reminiscent of old-time comic book panels. The story is light years from any reality we participate in. Like the best comics, it alludes to various aspects of history and reality cleverly but without yielding to the oppression of the everyday. Iron Man 3 is not entirely consistent with the rest of the franchise, however. Iron Man's various armor configurations appear to be a lot less resilient and functional than in the previous films (a bit like the difference between the creature in Alien and those of Aliens).

Tony Stark is experiencing a great deal of apparently justifiable paranoia. He is also suffering from crippling anxiety attacks and nightmares. At one point, he is diagnosed by the most likable, heroic, and memorable character in the film - pre-teen Harley Keener (played by Ty Simpkins) - as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stark is facing a shadowy, almost invisible, enemy, who is apparently hidden in plain sight. Having lost what would appear to be a decisive battle, Stark must rely on his wits, his own unreliable technology, and a series of unlikely heroes - a young boy (Simpkins), the alcoholic mother of a dead soldier, a media operator with a good internet connection - to prevail. Of course, Pepper (Paltrow), his AI Jarvis (Paul Bettany) and War Machine/Iron Patriot/Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) also come in handy.

The plot is extremely predictable, but it moves along and successfully relies on escapism, awe-inspiring effects, and entertainment value.

With their respective talents, Paltrow, Downey and Pearce didn't even need to try. Paltrow and Pearce do, however, and really make the film worth watching. Downey never seems as fully engaged with this script as he has in previous comic book films. All the same, Iron Man 3 is a lot of fun and will appeal to those in search of the insane action, dysfunctional myopia of the main character and the tongue-in-cheek, slightly smarter-than-average dialog that characterize this franchise.

Låt den rätte komma in

See the Right One
Oskar is a smart, if somewhat desensitized young teen from a broken home. Persecuted by his peers, he presents stoicism to the world and inwardly fantasizes about killing his persecutors as he becomes increasingly alienated from his parents. Kåre Hedebrant breathes a great depth into Oskar, creating a highly sympathetic, entirely believable and yet quite edgy protagonist.

When a strange little girl, Elli (Lina Leandersson) bonds with him by announcing, out of nowhere, that they can not be friends, an intense Platonic love story begins. Elli, who may not be entirely human, and Oskar, a perennial victim, learn to defend each other in the only ways they can and in ways only they can.

The story is quite touching, but, unsurprisingly, will leave you wondering how something so 'off' could be so delightfully moving. With a budget around $4,000,000.00, veteran director Alfredson has clearly gotten a great deal of art out of comparatively few resources.

Adapted from a John Ajvide Lindqvist novel, Let the Right One In is a movie worth seeing at least once. It features exceptionally good acting, superb character development, straightforward but appropriate cinematography, and a memorably twisted love story. Accept no big-budget low quality imitations. This is the one you need to see.

Les Misérables

Justice vs. the Law
Jean Valjean (Frederick March) steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's children and is sent to prison for ten years. Prison degrades him and he completes his term a broken and, possibly insane, man. While in prison, one of the guards, Javert (Charles Laughton), takes note of Val jean's remarkable strength. Javert is more obviously unstable - he is obsessed with the rigid enforcement of the law, in denial of his past (his parents were criminals. Confused, depressed, and very fearful, Valjean ventures into his parole with questionable intentions. But he is soon taken in by a very kindly Bishop who bends the truth in order to protect Jean from himself and the police. Explaining himself, the priest tells Jean that 'Life is to give, not to take'. This single act, and the priest's words, set Valjean upon a path of service and honor which requires him to reinvent himself. In Act 2, we meet him in the person of Mssr. Madeline, a successful and well-loved businessman who is being asked to run for mayor in the small town he has done so much for. Complicating matters, Javert has been appointed to head the local constabulary.

Through all three parts of this epic story, Valjean is pursued by his former captor, whether by circumstance or obsessive intent. This is the central conflict of the story, but the depth and elements of the conflict truly hinge upon a non-participant third-party. Valjean/Madeline meets Cosette, a good-hearted but more-or-less orphan child whose plight reminds him of his sister's children and deeply touches his heart. He reunites Cosette and her mother, giving them both a good home for the mother's final weeks. After she passes, he essentially adopts Cosette. The love that develops between Cosette and Jean, that of a father and daughter, saves them both. Perhaps this love will eventually save the incorrigible and obsessed Javert.

Les Miserables is written with extremely powerful characterization, from a deeply Catholic/Christian perspective, though it is not an evangelical work. Although none of the characters are stereotypes, archetypes, or caricatures, the central conflict is not one of men, but rather one of faith. Javert perfectly represents faith in the laws of men, the Bishop reflects the laws of his god, and Valjean must resolve the inevitable conflicts between the two both internally and externally. The ethics of Les Miserables is, in contrast to the opinion of one popular review, far from 'situational.' It would be much better described as 'subtle', complex, and very carefully considered. The simple message is that law is no substitute for justice.

Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is probably my favorite novel of all time. While leaving whole episodes of this massive tome out, the unfortunately short-lived Richard Boleslawski's 1935 film captures more than just the essence and spirit of the book and is not a Reader's Digest condensation or a "Cliff Notes" version. The W.P. Lipscomb script is perfectly economical and Boleslawski wisely relied on Gregg Tolland's spectacular camera work to tell more of the story than the dialog. Despite the difficulty of distilling a 1000+ page, relatively dense French novel into a film of slightly over 1.5 hours, the director made the camera responsible for conveying a great deal of information about the story and the characters . The casting is also quite perfect. March and Laughton are tremendous in what may be the apex of their collaborative efforts. I was also impressed by the performances in a few of the minor roles - Cedric Hardwicke (the Bishop) and Frances Drake (Eponine) especially.

All considered, this film should appeal to those who appreciate mature, intelligent, morality plays spiced up with a bit of adventure, and those who are looking for a good film version of the classic novel.

La horde

Much better than it deserved to be
Not recommended for fans of typical zombie films.

Recommended for those who have been waiting for an independent horror film which does not simply make fun of the genre.

A team of angry Parisian police officers vow revenge against a gang lead by two Nigerian brothers who have recently killed a friend of theirs. They lead a seemingly suicidal, unsanctioned, raid on the gang's compound and are almost immediately captured. As the torture, interrogation, and killing of police slowly reaches an apex, it becomes apparent that the cops and gangsters should probably be the least of each other's worries. Inexplicably, zombies are destroying civilization, and Paris is burning. Don't be fooled by the complete absurdity of this premise. The Horde, though redolent with the usual genre-defining campiness and cliché, is not a self-parody, and does not bother to explain itself.

Aside from Mr. Romero's more serious efforts, I have rarely seen a zombie film which was created with the level of TLC that went into The Horde. Most of the characters actually have their own personalities and the acting is good. The script is, though predictable, a lot less absurd than the usual horror film, and never insults your intelligence. Though the film is not utterly humorless, it stops well short of comedy, and carries its plot admirably. The visual effects and choreography are excellent. Claude Perron's fight scenes are especially entertaining.

Julien Donkey-Boy

Somewhat reflexive presentation about schizophrenia
Do not expect to be entertained, and do not expect to be overwhelmed by the aesthetic of this film. Julien Donkey Boy is no more beautiful than its subject. Harmony Korine, in directing and writing this film, has done exactly what he set out to do - he has created a concentrated dose of family life with schizophrenia. In saying that the experience is concentrated, what I mean is that the film uses exaggeration rather liberally in order to condense its somewhat impossibly defined subject matter. Although there are certainly interwoven story arcs for the main characters, there is no central plot, no linearity, no unfragmented reality. The film itself, therefore, is just a little unhinged.

One of my older sisters was schizophrenic. You would have to condense a couple decades worth of her psychotic episodes into a couple of hours to get anywhere near the level of constant distress that is depicted in this film. I most closely related to the character of Pearl, Julien's pregnant sister, but recognized aspects of my own family in all of the characters. What I am trying to say is that there is certainly some truth to what this movie says and the archetypal characters portrayed, its truth may be hard to recognize if you haven't lived through it.

Living with a schizophrenic will bring out and amplify your own nature - and if you are open to it, you will be a better person. It is also, however, fairly easy to allow the experience to overwhelm you. People who have never been exposed to schizophrenia in any but a superficial way will find most of the film's characters and vignettes very difficult to believe. I am pretty sure Korine knew this going in.

Korine has portrayed schizophrenia in a sensitive and truthful, but nevertheless utterly disturbing and somewhat unrealistically condensed way. Every directorial decision is meant to create a sense of realism. The method is very effective, and the film is essentially successful. Julien intentionally and clearly positions its audience as voyeurs, using hand-held photography almost exclusively and allowing character- development (the bulk of the film) to dictate the pace and rhythm of every scene. All of the acting is superb, and although there are very few feel-good moments in this film, it may be somewhat cathartic for folks like me, and somewhat (painfully) enlightening for those who grew up in less dysfunctional, or more-traditionally dysfunctional, families.


Not the Standard B Movie Fare
Mindwarp is a relatively early effort by Steve Barnett (Director) and Henry Dominic (writer). Barnett is chiefly known for post-production work, which, surprisingly, is not a major feature of Mindwarp. His few directorial efforts have been limited to fairly dubious material like Scanner Cop II. Dominic has done some more high-profile writing in recent years, including Terminator III. Given this team's background in sci-fi, and the timing of the film (1992), it should not be surprising that Mindwarp blends plot-heavy cyberpunk, horror, and hardcore sci-fi. What is, perhaps, surprising, is how well it does so with an obviously low budget.

Several years before the Matrix began shooting, Mindwarp presented the story of Judy, a smart, precocious but sheltered young 'in-worlder' who wants to experience real life, rather than simply plugging into the seemingly utopian synthetic fantasy world she can access through a serial port in the back of her neck. She just has the feeling that there must be something more to life. Of course, she has no idea what might await in the "deadlands". Most of the film follows her adventures in captivity among subterranean cult of mutant land-fill denizens and the struggle she shares with hero Bruce Campbell as they try to free themselves from the evil grip of the cult leader, Scrimm. Despite the straightforward action, however, Mindwarp is anything but a straightforward story.

With a cast featuring B Movie legends Bruce Campbell and Angus Scrimm (Phantasm)you might expect Mindwarp to be an archetypal B film. Not only does Mindwarp exceed the B film standard but it also manages to entertain on more levels than most of Bruce Campbell's films do - no mean feat. Unlike many films in which he appears, Campbell does not dominate the screen throughout the film and does not have many opportunities to utter any of his hallmark clichés. Instead, we have Marta Martin (AKA Marta Alicia) in her second major role. Martin plays the immature yet very headstrong Judy very well, and would subsequently land many returning roles on popular TV shows. Their nemesis, Angus Scrimm, as of 2010, is 84 years old and still acting. He plays essentially the same role he has had countless times - a big, menacing, old, creep. Only a few other actors have speaking roles in this fairly intelligent mutant gruntfest.

Recommended for Sci-Fi and Cyberpunk fans.

Death Machine

Off-beat or just 'off'. Doesn't matter - great fun!
This horror/psycho thriller/sci fi story pits a hard-nosed, naive and ethical businesswoman against the existing power structure at a very large defense contractor, Chaank Industries. What Hayden Cale (Ely Puget) does not know is that, underlying most of what she knows as Chaank Industries, is a murderous maniac - Jack Dante. Dante is played by the remarkable, under-rated, Brad Dourif (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Eyes of Laura Mars, Blue Velvet, Dune, Wild Blue Yonder, Lord of the Rings, etc etc). Dante will do ANYTHING to avoid having his sick little world disturbed... anything. The plot and characters are a string of clichés, but the movie does not take itself very seriously, and what results is a campy, intelligent, self-parody. Direct homages are paid to off-beat directors who frequently use comedy to liven up sci fi and horror stories - There are major supporting characters named Sam Raimi, John Carpenter and Scott Ridley.

Dourif, the deft pacing of the film, and the cleverly written script make this predictable farce thoroughly enjoyable. Richard Brake makes a very good impression in a support role, and lead Puget is charismatic and manages to play her role laudably straight as a counterpoint to Dourif's utterly bizarre behavior.

Death Machine was Stephen Norrington's directorial debut. Norrington has done and continues to do a lot of visual effects and robotics work on major releases which require substantial, cutting edge, effects. He also directed the decent but disappointing League of Extraordinary Gentlement and is now working on a re-make of The Crow.

White Pongo

I got through it - what do I win?
Sam Newfield, director of White Pongo, had a long and productive career, spanning from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s. Averaging 3-4 films per year (a total of 7 in 1951), he apparently did not have a great deal of time to waste with art, script refinement, and cinematography. His most well-known films achieve a relatively high rating here on IMDb (4), and are all within the horror genre (e.g. Dead Men Walk), but he did occasionally branch out into Sci-Fi (Lost Continent) and made a decent number of respectable war and western films in the last ten years of his career. Although I have not seen many of Newfield's films, and remember even fewer, I am willing to wager that White Pongo is fairly representative of the lot.

There are essentially two weakly developed plots. First - an expedition of upper crust white guys and a beautiful young woman are out in the jungle searching for a missing link (an albino gorilla whose only truly distinguishing characteristic is bad costuming). Since this plot had been done several times previously in equally bad films and the excellent King Kong, the screenwriter included a rather over-dramatic romantic quadrangle between the young lady, a privileged jerk to whom she is apparently betrothed, a decent young laborer, and - of course - the albino gorilla. Raymond Schrock, who had been writing for film since the teens gets the only credit I can give anybody in the production team for giving the actors something reasonable to work with. Schrock is an interesting character. Most of the films he was involved with are very obscure and difficult to find, but those which remain in the light seem to rate pretty highly here on IMDb. Sadly, White Pongo was made within the last five years of his career. and, in terms of plot, it's a very predictable, unoriginal, mess.

The cinematography is fairly standard for the jungle adventure genre as it stood in the middle of the 20th century. In other words, it is quite limited by available technology and set problems. The directing exemplifies the term "pedestrian", and the acting, though uninspired, is not nearly as bad as might be expected from the largely unknown cast. Those interested in the history of African American participation in film may be interested to see activist actor Joel Fluellen playing an unfortunate stereotype "Mumbo Jumbo" in this film, and will appreciate the irony that the only two 'ethnic' actors in this film (Fluellen and Al Eban) outlasted the rest of the cast. Fluellen appeared in some fairly good roles in Oscar and Grammy nominated films late in his career.

Best viewed with the aid of intoxicants and friends with good senses of humor. Otherwise - to be avoided.

Il pianeta degli uomini spenti

Solid Early '60s Italian Hard Sci-Fi
The appearance of Claude Rains is not the only surprise in Anthony Dawson's Il pianeta degli uomini spenti (A.K.A. Battle of the Worlds). Rains plays an eccentric, reclusive, contemptuous elderly scientist who leads a powerful research team. Professor Benson is the best, and he has little patience for lesser minds. His only link to humanity seems to be Eve (Maya Brent), his assistant. Her coming of age, the insubordination of one of the younger members of his research team, and the impending arrival of an enormous and mysterious space object - The Outsider - combine to challenge "the old man's" carefully-constructed self concept, his arrogance, and, ultimately, the continuation of life on earth.

Ultimately, this is one of Italy's best and most serious sci-fi films, and one of the better early '60s sci-fi films to come out of Europe. The relatively primitive (but creative) effects coupled with the very serious and dramatic tone of the dialog may be difficult for most American viewers. Giorgio Giovannini's soundtrack is jarring and intense. And the excellent, but sometimes surreal, Marcello Masciocchi cinematography won't help the average viewer enjoy this film. The international cast (mostly Americans) does very well.

Given the film's dubious pedigree and silly cliché title, I can certainly understand why some reviewers felt compelled to use the words "cheesy" and "spaghetti" in their reviews. I am tempted to point out that macaroni and cheese is a very tasty dish, but I will refrain. Approach this film with an open mind and you might just be able to get something more than guilty pleasure from it.


Nicely made cyberpunk short
This very independent short film from Denmark takes place in an earth where environmental disasters have made air unbreathable. Three people in environmental suits are the only characters. Two shared a linked breathing tube, and one of them is apparently dying. They are stalked by a third, with an independent breathing apparatus - but why?

All this and more is conveyed in just a few minutes and without any dialog whatsoever. The superb setting and cinematography, solid acting and your imagination do the rest.

This is an excellent short science fiction film. I will look out for directors Jens Raunkjær Christensen and Jonas Drotner Mouritsen in the future.

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The Long Ships

Long Ships, Tall Tales, and Big Bells
The entertaining if somewhat protracted interest in spectacular pseudo- and quasi-classical myths, legends, histories and fantasies has been a healthy undercurrent in popular film from right around the time when Jack Cardiff's The Long Ships was released. While more of a Viking romp set in 'ye olden tymes' than a grand classical spectacle like Jason and Argonauts, The Long Ships has just enough class to keep you entertained and just enough spoof to make you chuckle. Forget history, ignore reality, and enjoy.

Richard Widmark, surprisingly, makes for a convincing Viking adventurer. Rolfe (Widmark) is an extremely ambiguous character around which the entire story revolves. Is he a pathological liar, a loyal son, a dreamer, or a visionary? Perhaps he is all of the above. Rolfe loses his ship and crew in a maelstrom somewhere in the lands of the Moors. He tells stories for spare change in a Moorish market and catches the ear of one of the local ruler's guards when he tells a story concerning a solid gold bell the size of three tall men.

The ruler - Aly Mansur - is played by the always excellent Sidney Poitier. Mansur is obsessed with the symbols of wealth and power and has been seeking this very same bell for years. His wife, played by the beautiful and talented Rosanna Schiaffino, is his more rational half. She plays an important role in the development of all three of the central characters. Claiming that he was just telling a story, Rolfe finally escapes Mansur's torture by making a spectacular dive from the ruler's prison tower into the sea. Apparently, he then swims home to Scandinavia, arriving at his home town only to find that his father has been made destitute by the king's wheeling and dealing.

So he makes his pitch and recruits the aid of his naive younger brother, a new crew, and a hostage (the king's maiden daughter) to steal the king's best ship and pursue the mythical bell. For the sake of brevity, I'll stop my description of the plot here, though I could easily go on for several pages without a spoiler. A lot happens.

Director Cardiff was well known for his cinematography (winning several awards, including a pair of Oscars). Although The Long Ships was not one of his more memorable efforts, the camera work is solid. The special effects, even for its time, however, are nothing special. Some of the maritime scenes are, frankly, not very good. And unfortunately, the editor chose to use the same scenes twice in order to save a few pennies.

Widmark shows his versatility nicely here. While playing shady characters is no stretch for this great actor, he manages to play up the comedic elements of the story - which are plenty - without losing Rolfe's dangerous ambiguity, upon which the entire story turns. The supporting cast is generally very good. And the stunt team should be legendary. The Long Ships incorporates a surprising amount of wild slapstick silliness into its highly choreographed fight scenes. I imagine that the film resulted in many bruised backs, sore shins and twisted ankles.

Although replete with violence, most of the gore remains implied, and The Long Ships succeeds as a goofy adventure primarily for young and young-old boys.

Beowulf & Grendel

The sweeping Viking epic gets refreshed
Shot in Iceland by Icelandic director Sturla Gunnarsson, Beowulf and Grendel pulls off just enough historicism to entertain while remaining readily accessible to modern mainstream audiences. What Gunnarsson's film lacks in linguistic authenticity (modern epithets and speech dominate Canadian Andrew Rai Berzins' screenplay) and commitment to the original legend, is readily made up for by the film's remarkable sets, fantastic (and sometimes jarring) costumes and prosthetic work, and the picture-perfect Icelandic landscape in which it was filmed.

Gunnarsson keeps the pace about as steady as the original poem and its more recent popular reworking "Grendel" (by John Gardner), from which the screenplay draws about equally. In other words, Beowulf and Grendel, though action-oriented - should not be sold as a mainstream modern action film. Instead, it is a somewhat faithful retelling of a great story blending themes of prejudice, xenophobia, heroism, and cycles of violence.

As a young troll, Grendel witnesses the death of his father at the hands of a Danish raiding party lead by King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård), but his life is spared by the king, who is the only member of the party aware of the Grendel's existence. As an adult, Grendel (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) exacts his revenge, massacring most of Hrothgar's men and harassing his village. Beowulf, ably played by Gerard Butler, is a stoic and thoughtful hero who brings a small army of Norse warriors to assist Hrothgar's people by slaying Grendel. The troll, however, isn't interested in fighting with those who have done no wrong to him and his kin. And as Beowulf tries to bring the inevitable confrontation to fruition, his understanding of his opponent changes subtly and importantly - exposing the film's central paradox.

Whether you know the old story or not, Beowulf and Grendel will entertain you on more levels than the simple action of the story can convey. Many of the fantastic elements of the original story are downplayed or completely removed, and the sympathy between the primary adversaries is amplified - mainly through interactions between the key characters - Beowulf, Grendel and Selma, the young and beautiful outcast witch (Sarah Polley). Grendel is depicted as an extremely big man with a furrowed forehead, clearly emphasizing his kinship with us and affectively challenging the Danes' animosity toward him. Through Selma, Beowulf must come to understand his enemy before deciding what he must do. But the die has been cast, and the film elicits a powerful fatalism which also helps to keep the tensions of the central theme vital.

With the exception of Sarah Polley - who gives an uncharacteristically uneven performance - the acting is superb. Sigurdsson and Butler were especially impressive, and Skarsgard never disappoints.

Several of the film's critics appear to have been distracted by the historical inaccuracies - especially language and clothing. Remarkably, many of the critics who panned or nearly panned the film upon its release made comparisons to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. While the Holy Grail is a masterpieces of historical absurdism, let's be clear about the comparison. There is none. First, Beowulf and Grendel is not funny - at all. Second, it is a much more fantastic and allegoric fable than most of the Arthurian legends, and, unlike those legends, probably has no basis in fact. Instead, like most good fables, Beowulf and Grendel tells us something about the truth - not the facts - while keeping us engaged and entertained. Anachronism is forgivable in a timeless story.

Guest in the House

Anne Baxter comes for a visit
Many IMDb luminaries have written very good analyses of this movie and its relationship to Ms. Baxter's Oscar-Winning performance in All About Eve. And surely, at least in hindsight, Guest in the House is one of the vehicles that delivered Baxter to what many consider to be her masterwork. Since I am not an expert on Ms. Baxter or All About Eve, I do not wish to contribute either negatively or positively to that discussion. Instead, I will review Guest in the House (AKA Satan in Skirts) as an example of what it historically was - a disturbing, suspenseful and unusual film noir.

Baxter's character - Evelyn Heath - is, of course, the central element in this single-set piece. Ms Heath is a pretty young thing whose grace, beauty and charm thinly mask the truth. In fact, Ms. Heath is a manipulative, emotionally unbalanced sociopath. Unlike most noir film's the nature of the protagonist is revealed to the audience in the first few scenes as she enters the House Proctor with Fiancé Doctor Dan (Scott McKay) and immediately sets her sights on the older, married, artist and head of the household - Douglas (Ralph Bellamy). Evelyn allegedly has a heart condition and is engaged to Dan - a hard working doctor. Dan has set her up in the family home to rest and recuperate. So it's not hard to imagine why the rest of the family does not expect a thing, even after Evelyn encourages Dan to depart for the remainder of the summer and begins subtly sowing the seeds of suspicion and jealousy around her prey.

The Proctor family begins unraveling with the puritanical servants (nicely played by Margaret Hamilton and Percy Kilbride) and young Lee (Connie Laird) - who are the most vulnerable characters. As the accusations begin, each character falls under Evelyn's diabolical enchantment - with the exception of Aunt Martha (Alice MacMahon), Douglas's world-weary spinster of a sister.

If this all sounds atypical for noir - it should. John Brahm's parlor play A Guest in The House, is not a run-of-the-mill noir in most respects. The film is dark only in the figurative sense, most of the plot is transparent, the lines of good and evil are clearly defined, and there is neither a car nor a murder weapon anywhere in sight. Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that the entire film takes place in one set - a large house on the rocky coast of New England. But in intensity, fatalism and theme, A Guest in the House is entirely film noir. There are two significant noir ingredients which also appear, but I won't given them away so that I can avoid presenting a spoiler.

Journeyman Director John (or Hans) Brahm is probably best known to American audiences for having directed the well-regarded Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last". His long and modestly prolific career (35 years and somewhat fewer features) could be characterized as wandering or - more positively - diverse. He dabbled in religion (Our The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima), Psychological Horror (The Lodger), pulp action (Hotrods to Hell) and even Westerns (Face to Face), yet managed to bring a respectable quality to all of his efforts. That quality is present in A Guest in the House. And the director deserves some praise for pulling off a film which successfully challenges the experimental boundaries of what was, at the time of its production, a very popular genre.

The cast is superb and the casting is perfect. The film is well- directed, although at times the pace is a little difficult. And the story-line is interesting but disturbing enough to put off many if not most. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for its good, though not very memorable, score.

Despite my respect for this film, however, I can only modestly promote it. Most audiences will not have the patience to endure the entire film and will fail to recognize the transparency of the plot as an important departure from its genre. Keep this warning in mind if you decide to give it a go. The ending is well worth the wait and may not be what you expect.

Half a Sinner

Entertaining Romantic Noir Farce
Part film noir, part mystery, part thriller, part adventure and all comic romance, Half a Sinner is a 1940 charmer which is worth seeing.

Fred Jackson (screenwriter) and Al Christie (Director/Producer) teamed up in 1940 to bring a clever Dalton Trumbo story about a schoolteacher on the run to the screen. Both Jackson and Christie had been successfully making films since 1912 - including a great deal of B and B+ comedies such as 1937's Wells Fargo. Christie's experience shows in this well-directed and well-shot melange of genres, but unfortunately, Jackson appears to have had some difficulty working with Trumbo's material. At home in comedy, Jackson appears to have grafted most of the film's humorous elements onto characters Larry Cameron (John King) and Mrs Breckeridge (Constance Collier). Collier (Rope, The Perils of Penelope) is as superb as usual, but King is monotonous and awkward.

The plot, and Angel's charismatic performance and likable character are what make this film fun and worth a look.

Miss Gladden is a mid-twenties school teacher who fears becoming an old maid. Her solution to this is to go seek adventure in the local park. Doesn't sound promising, but her good looks attract the unwanted attention of a thug. Panicking, Miss Gladden (Angel) drives off in the thug's sedan - which, of course, had been previously stolen and has a body rolled up in a rug in the backseat. Miss Gladden is oblivious about all of this. Pursued doggedly by a motorcycle cop and some fairly inept gangsters, Miss Gladden eventually picks up a man (King) in the street who claims car trouble. Car trouble indeed. Noticing the body, Larry Cameron remarks that he is also in the game. What game? Well, that becomes the mystery which makes the movie worth watching so you won't get it out of me. Many viewers will figure it out about halfway through, and most will continue watching anyway just to see how the truth is eventually revealed.

Halfway a Sinner is a fun little romp. Suspension of disbelief is most definitely required - but it is facilitated by Heather Angel's superb performance, strong Trumbo storyline, and the good humor (not laugh-out- loud comedy) of the film.

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