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Category Archives: Reviews of Older Films

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Ten Word or Less Review – Naked alien woman conquers the world!

Of all the old school tools the contemporary, incorporated Hollywood machine has rooted out of the sci-fi/fantasy filmmaking process, next to matte paintings and model work I think I may miss cocaine the most.  As Rick James was fond of saying “Cocaine is a Hell of a drug.”  As directors and storytellers dreamed up unparalleled ideas of gargantuan stupidity, in this case Texas Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper and Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, all the blow they snorted through their rolled up Benjamins made them impervious to any suggestion that what they were making may be less than the greatest movie ever made.  Such thinking is the only way to explain movies like Zardoz, The Keep and the film we’re here to talk about now, Lifeforce.

Lifeforce easily belongs among those classic ranks of the great, mind boggling sci-fi fiascoes.  It begins with a group of astronauts flying towards Haley’s Comet hoping to study the once in a lifetime cosmic event.  As they approach, their instruments detect the presence of another ship orbiting the comet.  A gargantuan space vessel that looks like a funky weed growing in your back yard that Round Up couldn’t dispatch, they enter the ship through a portal which can only be described as an enormous space anus.  Within the space anus they find a dead race of humanoid bat creatures as well as a perfectly preserved hot, naked chick.  There are also two naked dudes too.  With me so far?  Thinking this is certainly worth ogling, I mean ‘researching’, the astronauts take the naked people back to their space shuttle.  Cut to a month later.  The shuttle approaches Earth and when intercepted, it’s found with its crew dead and the shuttle’s insides burned up, except for the three hot naked people.  Still in their tubes and sound asleep, the recovery crew begin to ogle, I mean ‘examine’ the hot, frozen space chick, and promptly decide to take her back to Earth for ‘researching.’  Anyone still here?

Once planet side, the naked, alien space babe wakes up and promptly sucks the life out of an unlucky schlep who’s too curious for his own good.  When she does this it’s like watching a death scene from a Highlander movie.  Lights flash.  Lightning strikes.  Spooky blue smoke starts flying around.  A smoldering corpse with bug eyes is all that’s left.  You figure after this happens once someone would just shoot naked alien space babe and be done with it but once a hypnotic blue light emanates from her naughty, below the belt bits all bets are off.  The smoldering corpse gets up and tries to suck the life out of the next dummy.  One of the astronauts turns up in an escape pod and recounts a story just about the dimmest viewer could have figured out by now.  The naked space babe stays naked for a while longer but then she starts to jump into other peoples bodies and becomes decidedly less naked and things become a little less exciting but still wildly senseless.  The kind of senseless only drug fueled minds can make heads or tales out of.

What else happens in this thing?  Patrick Stewart appears as a doctor and his head melts.  After buzzing around the country trying to figure shit out our protagonists head back to London to find the whole city in flames with life sucking zombies running wild.  The astronaut has an Argento inspired wet dream with the naked alien space babe.  The movie copies the end of the first Star Trek movie except the two people being warped up in the great blue light are naked.  I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot.  Lifeforce really leaves you in a stupor.  It’s $25 million bucks of dope fueled wackness.

Hollywood only wants to make $200 million sci-fi bonanzas, most of which play like cinematic Valium.  If just once they gave someone that much money and an equally proportional amount of nose candy to go along with it, I’m sure a movie of unparalleled awesomeness could come into being.  A movie with rampant nudity, exploding dinosaurs, time travel via toaster and an all Funkadelic soundtrack.  It would star Keanu Reaves as Jesus Christ Jr., Gary Busey as the Nazi Pope, Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken III and Dolph Lundgren as himself.  And he would appear in the movie riding a flying shark that has the voice of Leonard Nimoy.  Of course none of this, or anything like it, will come to pass.  The powers that be will simply smear white face paint on Johnny Depp and call it fun.  And that will never be as fun as movies like Lifeforce.   Thanks Mitch.  After seeing this every movie forever will somehow seem inferior.

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Ten Word or Less Review – It certainly does suck.

I was only 3 when The Black Hole came out and I can only guess at why I didn’t grow up watching it at least in 10 or 15 times when I was a kid.  It was Disney, it was science fiction, I should have had the movie memorized by the time I was 9.  Well thank God that didn’t happen.  I’ve managed to scrub away more than a few lousy movies from my childhood memory and The Black Hole would certainly be something to make a point to forget about as quickly as possible once adolescence faded from view.  Maybe I did watch it as a kid and even then could tell what a lump of movie it was.

It was 1979 and every major studio had Star Wars fever on the brain.  They still do.  The age of the Star Wars knock off was about to go full tilt boogie and a struggling Disney studio stepped up with this massive $20 million production.  The Black Hole promised deep space adventure with floating robots, laser guns, monolithic spaceships, more robots with more laser guns, and then another robot equipped with two deadly veg-o-matics for arms as well as laser guns.  That’s a big promise.  What wound up on the screen was a turgid science fiction effort executed with all the pizzazz and excitement of an Amish funeral.  It’s a dull and laborsome movie which tries to marry the heady science fiction cinema of the era with the whiz bang factor audiences were looking for in the wake of experiencing lightsabers and Death Stars.  It winds up doing both types of film horribly wrong.

At the time of its release Black Hole’s languid pacing was probably less of the crippling issue that it is now.  The first Star Trek movie came out the same year and while equally slow paced it was much more successful.  Hole sports extremely ambitious special effects utilizing advanced motion capture model techniques, scores of matte paintings and impressive miniature work.  On the big screens of yesteryear it probably all felt epic and novel enough to not warrant too much fuss.  But no amount of visual pompousness could disguise the rickety screenplay which feels like a half-baked first draft someone rushed through the typewriter to make a deadline.  Characters and their motivations are at best poorly thought out and at worst totally senseless.  And director Gary Nelson, called up from the minor leagues of TV work to helm the most expensive movie Disney had made to date, shows no skill for visual showmanship.  Disney may have made it a point to liberally rip off Star Wars in certain places but they siphoned off none of the excitement.

Disney used its struggling coffers to assemble a mostly decent and capable cast of solid actors but subsequently had them do little but walk around large sets next to floating R2-D2s.  Robert Forester, Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine shuffle through trying not to be upstaged by all the floating robots but they have no help from anything on the page.  Forester plays commanding and dull.  Perkins and Borgnine are great actors but they can’t wad through this flaccid spectacle with any rhythm.  Their characters make stupid decisions in order for the plot to move forward and one can’t help but feel happy for Perkins when he pointlessly meets his demise via the evil robot’s veg-o-matic appendage.  Lucky bastard got to go home before everyone else.  The forgotten Joseph Bottoms just plain sucks.  Some producer makes him yelp a Han Solo inspired ‘yee ha!’ as he saves his chums from robot doom.  Yvette Mimieux has nothing to do but communicate, via ESP, with floating robot VINCENT, the extremely blatant R2-D2 ripoff.  Don’t get me started on how ESP between a robot and a human is supposed to work.

Maximilian Schell gets to preen and speechify as best he can in mad scientist mode but as the movie slowly gives way to special effects and laser fights his character becomes dumb and then dumber.  The movie is so dramatically misguided that it doesn’t even give one of our diligent space heroes a chance to smack him around.  He’s crushed by his stadium sized flatscreen TV and then as his ship falls into the black hole he winds up in his own personal Hell.  His final fate is the one part of the movie which feels a little creepy and of the time.  I’m sure a few kids felt sufficiently freaked out as they watched his nefarious scientist become entombed in his own evil robot, forced to overlook his personal Hell within the black hole.  It’s as if Ken Russell or John Boreman showed up to direct things for one day and then bolted when they realized the rest of the film was a dud.

There’s not a lot of nostalgia out there for The Black Hole, but apparently there’s just enough that Disney wants to remake it and enough to make me feel odd about never having seeing it.  This is actually one case where a remake is fine by me.  You couldn’t do much worse but I’m sure someone will try.  With Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) on tap to make it I have a feeling that should it materialize the audience will once again find itself drawn into a big, dumb movie that emulates its title by sucking everything around it into lifeless void and squashing it out of existence.  Isn’t that something to look forward to?

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1956_JUBALJubal (1956) – Great western featuring Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger.  Steiger in particular lassos the movie and makes it his own as a manipulative cattlehand out to undermine Ford’s straitlaced and righteous hero.  His line about bringing the loose, unscrupulous wife of Borgnine his wood had me in stitches.   Though it’s very much it’s own movie time looks to have put it aside because of it’s similarities with undisputed western classic Shane, which came out three years before.  Criterion has seen fit to unbury it and show it off in a fine transfer.  Classic western fans should seek out.

 

 

 

bigwedBig Wednesday (1978) – John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) follows in the footsteps of buddy George Lucas and tries to make his own American Graffiti styled young adult drama.  Set against the big waves of southern California three friends (Gary Busey, William Katt and Jan-Michael Vincent) deal with the generational changes of the 60’s and 70’s.  Some go to Vietnam, some dodge, others fall into a bottle.  The love for the time and place is palpable, the cinematography is spot on and the surfing footage is great.  Sadly, Milius’ screenplay lacks the strong character the story really needs and as an overall work of drama it’s kind of tepid.  Still, if you can’t get enough surfing in your life, or you want to appreciate Point Break on a whole new level, check it out.  Watch it and learn that Gary Busey never played another role again.

 

basketball_diariesBasketball Diaries (1995) – One of the films that helped put future superstar DiCaprio on the acting map.  Diaries is an adaptation of Jim Carroll’s seminal work of the same name.  It documents his ball playing days in high school and two bit hooliganism he gets into with his Brooklyn buddies.  As high school winds down he falls into hard drugs, squalor and petty crime.  His poetry saves him.  It’s not bad at all but it’s wears the cloak of 90’s indie cinema heavy and much of the drug abuse drama stylings have since been surpassed by superior films.  If your a DiCaprio devotee and want to see his first steps into great performances, this is a good starting point.  Also showed the world that Mark Wahlberg might be more than a hokey, white raper wearing his pants around his knees.

 

 

ozgreatOz: The Great and Powerful (2013) – Mediocre and dull is more like it.  A thin script, a miscast lead actor and a cavalcade of special effects make up this piece of ‘family’ entertainment.  Director Sam Raimi is in neutered and neutral mode all the way.  He peppers a few of his signature cinematic quirks about the place but in the end it’s still depressing to see a master of schlock and mayhem peddle this kind of tepid family movie nonsense.  Someone force him make a $7 million dollar horror movie.  Please.

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Ten Word or Less Review: The Wars of the Oz Rings

Besides Krull, I’m not sure there’s an 80’s fantasy film more derivative of its ancestors and influences than Willow.  While George Lucas may claim this movie as an original idea, that would be kind of like me writing a word for word duplicate screenplay of The Shining, renaming it Motel Hell and then passing it off as my own creation and calling myself a genius because of the effort.  Willow is Lucas’s transparent, pent up desire to make Lord of the Rings and combine it with the archetype story structure of Star Wars, as well as a few other choice myths and movies.  And the really weird thing is that while the movie doesn’t have many original marbles rolling around, it’s managed to hold up against the harsh, erosive barbs of time.  At the spry young age of 25, Willow is still an enjoyable, if sometimes senseless and goofy, adventure romp that’s easy to appreciate for its old fashioned vibes.

There’s not much need to say that the story of Willow sounds a shade familiar to these ears.  Willow introduces us to the land of the Nelwyns, little people who like to farm, live in little houses underground, smoke while having festivals and flirt with breaking copyright laws.  Unsuccessful Nelwyn farmer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) dreams of leaving behind his provincial way of life and becoming a powerful wizard.  Detecting a few shades of that annoying teenager who had to go to Toshi Station to pick up power converters?  One morning Willow’s young children wonder off by the river and find a Daikini baby in a basket.  A Daikini is a normal sized person wish isn’t trademarked in any way shape or form.  This little red headed tyke is the scourge of the Evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh).  Yes, the Evil is capitalized as that’s her real first name.  She’s a tyrannical ruler who wants the baby destroyed before it grows up and starts wanting its own credit card.  We’ve seen Bavmorda in movies past, usually wielding a broomstick and controlling an army of flying monkeys.  This baby though is a prophesized baby, in fantasy there is no other kind, who will grow up to destroy Bavmorda and free the land from her iron grip and insane interest rates.

After a pack of Bavmorda’s dogs tear apart Willow’s village looking for the baby, he admits to finding the child, as well as swindling cash from the village pension fund.  No one hears the second confession so his head remains attached to his torso.  To make everyone safe, Willow and a group of fellow villagers, a fellowship one might call it, take off for the land of Daikinies in the hopes of finding a willing soul to take the baby off their unqualified hands.  Their first and only choice?  Val Kilmer’s Han Martigan.  I mean Mad Solo.  I mean Madmartigan.  Madmartigan, besides missing a space to separate his first and last name, is a devil may care warrior who looks like he smokes meth.  He’s also locked in a cage for reasons that we can only guess relate to the missing space in his name and IRS tax returns.  Despite the fact he looks like a white trash cannibal, Willow hands off his cuddly and easily marketable little princess to the mad warrior and hopes for the best.  It’s at this point we should realize Willow is a two-bit selfish idiot and stop watching, but we don’t.  It doesn’t take long for the story to correct course.  Before he knows it, Willow has been bestowed with the baby again and given two small sidekicks, C-3PO and R2-D2 turned into Lilliputians, to help lead him through the forest to the wise wizard who knows how to fix everything.  Instead of finding Alec Guinness in a cloak he finds a talking rat.  This is taking way too long.  Basically it’s just like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz and a bunch of other movies all got thrown together and switched up enough so that the Tolkien estate, or anyone else for that matter, wouldn’t be able to file a lawsuit.

So Willow is silly and cloned from too many other sources to count but it’s still fun.  The primary reason Willow remains watchable is the frisky performance of the one and only Wicket himself, Warwick Davis.  Hate on old man Lucas all you want but he almost single-handedly kept little people actors employed throughout the 1980’s.  He’s not like that schmuck Peter Jackson who had to go and use tricks and special effects to make easily employed regular actors take the place of prime little people career opportunities.  But I digress.  Davis is a plucky and lively actor who shows more interest, depth and range than most actors tasked with headlining special effects films of the now.  He’d has easily made a better Green Lantern than Ryan Reynolds.  And he’s equally backed up by a spirited and wound up Val Kilmer, who had not quite reached the heights of Mt. Asshole that he would one day scale.  This was when Kilmer was being primed to become an outright leading man, something he would achieve for a stint, then piss away because starring in films with 50 Cent is so much better than being in movies people actually see.

The rest of the cast is pretty perfunctory.  The future Ex Mrs. Kilmer, Joanna Whaley, had most of the logic of her part cut out.  She’s the daughter of the evil witch and within the film she becomes good because Kilmer’s character spouts some romantic hogwash at her while he’s tripping balls.  It was an opportunity to turn the damsel in distress part on its head but the effort got lost in the writing and editing.  Apparently Lucas and his lackeys didn’t want anyone getting the idea a girl could be in a movie like this and escape marriage or perhaps think for herself some.  Jean March’s evil witch is evil because, well, she’s evil.  She wears an iron cross on her head and she wants to kill a baby, so she’s like Mel Gibson on the weekend.  Fantasy movies aren’t great places to look for motivation so let’s move on.  The guy who got thrown into the airplane propellers in Raiders is here playing a sort of Darth Vader except his mask is a skull.  The Predator would have loved to face off with this asshole.  He dies in the end so he’s no ones father as far as we’re concerned here and the crossover opportunity is squandered.

Ron Howard was recruited to direct Willow and it still stands as one of the best movies he’s ever made.  I’d watch this a dozen times before I sleep through Frost/Nixon again.  Ron and George make a nice working partnership as neither one worries too much about what makes sense or if something comes across as dopey.  This was the 80’s so dopey was par for the course when it came to fantasy movies and if things move fast enough no one besides assholes like me really notice anyway.  Lucas though never let dopey go.  See the Star Wars prequels.  Need a two-headed dragon?  Have Willow strike a troll with his wand and shout a senseless spell.  How does that make a dragon?  What does the evil queen turn an invading army into for defying her?  Pigs.  That part’s just weird in that left field sense that movies like this specialize in.  It’s not Krull’s flying, fire horses but it’s close.  And how do the people in the castle not notice the pig army being turned back into people?  And then digging holes big enough to hide horses in?  Why didn’t they just go make bacon out of them?  Howard keeps things light and breezy and just kind of glosses over these more asinine elements in his screenplay.  He’s got nice, old school special effects backing him and some actors with actual zip to make it work.  And having one of the most badass adventure film scores ever composed, thank you Mr. Horner, certainly makes it all go down smooth.  This music played over movie previews for a decade.  But Howard’s real ace in the hole is that red coiffed baby.

Ladies, you may not realize it but Willow may be the best date movie you can ever watch with a man.  Why?  Howard drops in so many perfectly timed cute baby reaction shots that are poised to steal your heart and make you smile that you’d have to be one jaded, soulless, baby hating mother fucker not to find them at least a little adorable.  Just watch this and see what he does when that baby flashes its mug.  Does he smile or cringe?  When the movie is over ask him, “What did you think of that cute baby?”  “I hated that damn baby!”  No second date for that loser.  He’s a baby hater!  How many films can help you determine if your guy is a well rounded dude with father potential or an intolerant baby hater?  Not many is the answer.  So you’re welcome ladies.  Don’t ever complain about fantasy movies again.

So yes, Willow is kind of dumb and sort of senseless and Lord of the Rings eventually got made and kind of kicked Willow to the curb, but if Willow has one real advantage over Rings it’s that it’s not 12 hours long.  Not being 12 hours long is a real plus when it’s Saturday night and you’re tired and you want to watch something in the fantasy genre and not feel like a complete dope for doing so.  And once again, you’re welcome ladies.  Now go forth, watch some 80’s fantasy and then make some babies.

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Ten Word or Less Review – Worst movie ever isn’t worst movie ever.

Hollywood is a perpetually pregnant animal.  A mother that produces an endless supply of pups for the world to gawk at, admire and make goo goo noises over.  Like most mothers it loves its pups and gives varying amounts of affection to each.  Some pups get more love than others but she generally wants them all to grow up, do well and make bank.  But every once in a while a bastard pup is born, and the Hollywood mother hates it.  For reasons varied and far the mother shuns this bad pup, kicking it in the face and away from the rest of the litter so that the jackals of the press can devour the abomination and keep whatever contaminates it away from the rest of the pack.  This happened as recently as last year with the maligned John Carter.  Mother Disney allowed the press to speculate the film straight into the cinematic grave as a misguided disaster no one should ever attempt to repeat.  Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was another example of a film being attacked by the dogs of entertainment reporting before anyone had seen frame one.  Why?

What these films share in common are typically runaway budgets and out of control egos.  Their makers have gone rogue, abandoned the chain of command and indulge in every whim no matter how far fetched.  The most storied example of this in the modern era is Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s epic anti-western which was conceived to be nothing less than the greatest movie ever made and became the poster child for a cinematic age at deaths door.  Upon winning Oscars for his classic The Deer Hunter, Cimino was given the means, the money and the discretion to make Heaven’s Gate in any manner he saw fit.  What was supposed to be a star studded,  award winning, $20 million epic masterpiece became a career killing monstrosity with a budget that topped out at $44 million.  To spend that much money in 1980, on an effects free western no less, was a recipe not for just disaster, but the apocalypse.  To provide some perspective, the effects laden adventure classic The Empire Strikes Back came out the same year with a cost $32 million.  With that very high budget it created an entire galaxy far, far away.  Spaceships, monsters and entire worlds were created.  For the $44 million Cimino recklessly spent he gave the studio lots of wooden sets rebuilt again and again, actors riding around on horses and lots of cocaine.

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With the dye cast and the infamy of Heaven’s Gate already secured, the movie was eventually delivered to an icy reception of cynical, voracious critics whose knives were sharpened to a fine point.  Cimino’s endeavor came in at a run time of just over 3 1/2 hours, pared down from his original length of over 5.  Half way through the screening when intermission hit it was clear to many that Gate would not be spared.  This limping animal of a movie would not escape the wrath which had been built up against it.  The screening was a disaster, reviewers were scathing and catty and the film ran for just a week.  It was pulled from distribution and re-edited down to a more manageable 2 1/2 hour length.  This did nothing to save it.  When the jackals were done with the carcass of Heaven’s Gate it had earned less than $4 million and was loudly lambasted as the worst film ever made.  It was held up as an example why the director driven age of the 70’s had to end.  Directorial indulgence had run amok and produced this massive waste of time and money which could never be allowed to happen again.  The age of corporate filmmaking was on its way.

For years Heaven’s Gate sat there, a poster boy for wretched excess and ego gone insane.  It’s reputation fermenting like bad cheese until a funny thing happened.  People started looking at Heaven’s Gate again, divorced from of all the baggage and cynicism and thought to themselves, this isn’t that bad.  Some revisionist have even gone so far as to rip the label of disaster of its maligned brow and relabel it a masterpiece.  It’s reached a level of stature at this point that Criterion, long the savior of foreign film glories and obscure masterpieces, has gone so far to release a shiny new Blu-Ray remastering of this long hated epic.  And after years of procrastinating, I finally sat down with this storied disaster.  What I found isn’t the worst movie ever made, nor the best.  As is the case when too many people are making too many declarative statements in an attempt to have themselves heard, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

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The plot built into this nefarious movie is a simple one.  Using the events of the Johnson County War as a reference for fiction, Cimino constructs what sounds like a fairly standard western.  It’s 1890, America is expanding west and the wealthy fat cats of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association decide it’s their right to take the land belonging to the largely Russian/German/Slavic immigrants of Johnson County.  Painting the immigrants as anarchists and thieves, the Association gets government approval to create a death list of 125 people, essentially all the men in Johnson County, who are targeted for assassination by a band of hired mercenaries.  In the middle of all this is Jim, (Kris Kristorferson) the town Marshall with old ties to the money men plotting the downfall of his town and little way to stop the impending slaughter.  Jim routinely shacks up with Ella (Isabelle Huppert), the bordello madam he comes to learn is also on the death list.  Also involved is Nate (Christoper Walken), a hired hand of the Association who kills for money, and also shacks up with Ella when Jim isn’t around.  It’a all very ripe fodder for a melodramatic western and on paper it looks and sounds promising, but Cimino isn’t terribly interested in this story and he takes eternities to slowly dole the narrative out.

Gate is indulgent and bloated and much too long.  It has almost no narrative tension and could easily have been a straight ahead romance flavored western that a more traditional storyteller could have delivered without so much fuss.  Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann could have churned out a classic with this idea easily.  To demonstrate the prolonged nature of everything, the romantic triangle that holds up the plot isn’t even fully known to the audience until the movie is half over.  But despite the endlessly prolonged story, Gate is an immaculate film to simply look at and admire for the craft on display.

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Taken apart from the whole, there are sequences which dazzle the eye and the spirit.  You could lift these moments out of the film, show them to an audience and arouse no end of curiosity for the rest of the picture.  The opening Harvard graduate sequence is amazing.  The massive hordes of people Cimino moves through his fake towns are impressive.  A sequence set in Heaven’s Gate, the title a reference to the town hall of Johnson County, involving a roller skating fiddle player could be watched effortlessly, again and again.  The movie’s downfall is simply Cimino’s inability to see the forest through the trees, and the blow.  He seems so adamant to make each sequence a full, living, breathing work of art that he all but forgets that he has a narrative he should be tending to.  The first 110 minutes of Gate, its entire gorgeous first half, is little more than a first act.  It’s 30-40 minutes of story, if that, padded out with voluptuous cinematography and editorial razzmatazz.  This endless feeling of procrastinating no doubt led to so many venomous responses in 1980.

Cimino’s obsession with everything but the story extends into his cast and screenplay as well.  No one member of the cast can be pointed at or singled out for being particularly great or terrible, they’re all a mild shade of grey, playing implied characters and half formed parts.  It feels like an attempt to transcend the good guy/bad guy dynamic but the screenplay doesn’t get very far with it.  The sheer size of the movie overwhelms the characters and were left with a population of people we’re vaguely interested in, but not concerned about.  Aside from Krisofferson, Huppert and Walken, Cimino fills his movie with a whose who of known character actors, old and new at the time.  John Hurt, Brad Douriff, Sam Waterson, Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke and Joseph Cotton all show up to be swallowed by the scenery.  These supporting characters too often feel superfluous and malformed as characters.  A better screenplay should have been written to better utilize the massive amount of talent walking around.  Instead we get John Hurt playing regretful and drunken in every scene, Mickey Rourke covered in grime, a look he adopted for real later in life, Sam Waterson being two dimensionally evil and Jeff Bridges just kind of there.

This may all sound arduous to some and overly dull, maybe it is, but terrible it’s not.  Gate establishes some sense of momentum in it’s back half and you can see Cimino always striving to make something truly astounding.  It’s obvious he wants his film mentioned in the same breath as Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven or Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  And by shooting over 1 million feet of film he purposefully surpassed the madness that was Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.  But the filmmaker and his movie are a victim of unchecked arrogance, ambition and unforgiving circumstance.  The wrecklessness he displayed, the lack of discipline and contempt for structure all clearly helped court the disaster which fell upon him.  The God’s of Hollywood will tolerate much, but the epic wasting of money because of unchecked ego is the fastest way to find yourself under a bus, where Cimino quickly found himself.  He would direct just four more films, all failures, over the next 16 years.

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Under few conditions would a film like Heaven’s Gate ever have been successful.  To languorous, not enough happening.  But things were compounded to the level of epic fail by a press that smelled blood and a studio that was furious.  The world outside had radically changed as well.  The quiet and observed age of 70’s age filmmaking was quickly passing into history as blockbuster mentality quickly took hold.  Once the studios learned they could make hundreds of millions of dollars instead of tens of millions, all bets were off.  There was no audience for this type of movie anymore, they were all being swept into a galaxy far, far away.

Free of lingering resentment and biased opinions, Heaven’s Gate is now free to exist as simply a movie.  It will always carry it’s sordid history with it but no one should hold that against it at this far removed juncture.  It’s an immaculately designed piece of movie making which has few rivals in regards to appearance and presentation.  It’s hamstrung by stodgy plotting and a run time which is grossly overlong, but such sins seem minor compared to the routine wrecks modern audiences willingly submit themselves to.  Calling Heaven’s Gate the worst film ever is folly because in comparison there have been scores of movies released in just the last two months which far exceed it in terms of negligence and decrepitude.  I think a far more suitable label for it would be ‘The Most Talked About Boring Movie Ever Made.”

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total recall

Reasons why the old Total Recall kicks the shit out of the new Total Recall

1 – Blood and Guts – The old Total Recall is one of the last examples of the old studio approved, non-PC, screw PG-13, action movie aesthetic.  Innocent bystanders are mercilessly mowed down by gunfire.  Blood flies everywhere when people get shot.  Arnold uses one of these poor saps as a ketchup spurting human shield.  Eyes bulge out, arms are ripped off and one guy gets a big metal rod through his brain.  SO COOL!  If Schwarzenegger helped create and typify this reckless, fuck all attitude he equally helped to bring about its end the very next year when his Terminator character started shooting people in the knee.  Anyway, the new Recall has Colin Farrell shooting lots of robots and when the occasional human get shot, they fall down like a kids toy having its battery yanked out.  Utterly fucking hopeless.

2 – Michael Ironside – Or as he should be known, Ironside the Amazing.  This beloved, granite chinned character actor didn’t have Arnold’s muscles but his glare looked like it could make Mr. Universe’s head explode.  Ironside is all smoldering rage and hatred and his painful demise is classic.  “See you at the party Victor!”  In the new movie his and Sharon Stone’s part have been melded together in the form of Kate Beckinsale who winds up doing a wit free T-1000 impersonation.  Speaking of which.

3 – Sharon Stone – Stone pretty much laid the groundwork for her few successful movie roles right here.  She’s hot sex and sadistic violence wrapped up in a pretty blonde fantasy package.  She pouts and flirts and with the flick of a switch kicks Arnold in the balls with unabashed glee, twice!  Her bullet through the head demise is all the more stunning when we watch husband Ironside find her dead on the floor.  Consider that a divorce indeed.

4 – Mars and aliens – The Mars setting really lets the old version move to somewhere fun and the alien aspect gives it an unorthodox story element.  The use of models and matte paintings to create the monolithic alien humidifier still looks pretty good too.  The new movie stays Earthbound, devising an even more nonsensical plot about England and Australia being the only places inhabitable on Earth.  The two locations are connected by a huge subway tube that goes through the Earth’s core.  It mostly feels like an excuse for lots of big CGI.  The cityscapes are cool looking and very convincing but once again the creative team is trying to make everything look and feel like Blade Runner.  The future it seems must always contain lots of neon lights and rain.

5 – Mutants! – How can you amputate this part of Recall?  Psychic, bug eyed mutants.  Mutants with steaks for a face.  Creepy, grasshopper-arm mutant.  The three tittied hooker!  And Kuato.  How does one top Kuato?  A babyman, prophet living in the chest cavity of another man?  Someone was so damn high.  The new Recall doesn’t even try to mimic or one up this aspect.  It just puts a bored looking Bill Nighy in a trench coat and says he’s important.  Fuck that.  The three tittied woman does make a fun if pointless cameo.

6 – Ahnuld – Absurd sci-fi stories are often best when they’re headed by equally absurd and/or charismatic actors.  Arnold is the perfect leading man for a ridiculous movie like this and TR goes out of its way to make him look silly.  He wears a turban for 10 minutes, pulls a tracking device out of his skull through his nose, briefly wears a dress and nearly has his head explode through atmospheric decompression.  If Arnold is a living cartoon TR does it’s best to prove that.  Colin Farrell by comparison has no such luck.  I like Farrell as an actor and he can do tweaked as well as anyone.  So to see him reduced to a Jason Bourne clone who runs, looks panicked and punches people is a waste of everyone’s time.  This Recall clearly cost too much to have a wacky maniac at its center.

7 – Paul Verhoven – If you had to condense all these things that make the old TR great into two words you simply say Paul Verhoven.  This mad Dutch nut was at his twisted peak when Recall came around.  He turned what could be a standard issue action piece into a sick, slick joyride.  He’s a director who is simply not afraid to swing his dick around in the middle of a cocktail party.  By comparison new Recall director Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Bored) has had his movie manhood removed and thus delivers a film which reflects as much.  His Recall all joyless, cold, CGI craftsmanship.  And while that may impress some, the CGI is top-tier and impressively detailed, every other aspect of his story is bloodless and boring.  There’s not a memorable thing about it aside form how expensive it all looks.  It’s basically a $125 million X-Box game.

8 – The Little Things – A dwarf hooker stabbing a guy in the gut.  Ronny Cox killing his goldfish.  Screaming prosthetic Arnold heads.  An old woman screaming “Fuck you you asshole!”.  Innocent bystanders being sucked into the atmosphere of Mars.  CGI skeletons.  Bad Arnold revealing himself to be an evil dickhead to good Arnold.  “Get your ass to Mars” and mouse guts.

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Open your mind and Merry Christmas!

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No Blade of Grass (1970) – This movie is pretty damn weird.  Think The Walking Dead without zombies and cast with British actors.  Wait.  The Walking Dead is cast with British actors.  Never mind.  So this virus begins killing all the wheat on the planet which leads to global collapse but the British keep on drinking tea, eating rare meat and thinking God and Queen will save their asses.  When it’s clear God and Queen are totally useless we watch a London family take off for the hills of Scotland where an Uncle will supposedly take them in on his unaffected farm.  As soon as they leave the city they’re in Mad Max territory.  Biker gangs, rapist, once good folk doing awful things to survive.  Where does all this leather come from so quickly?

Director Cornel Wilde has a bold, unflinching concept to work with but his effort here makes him look like a hack.  His movie Naked Prey from just a few years before seemed to indicate otherwise.  Every scene that strikes a tone of genuine shock or skill is bookeneded by weird moments which can only be described as tone deaf in its Britishness.  A mother and daughter are raped at the hands of a passing motorcycle gang who then kill their attackers.  Afterwards the event is merely mentioned in passing embarrassment, as if it was some kind of social faux paux made at a dinner party.  I guess it’s a British thing.  “Sorry about that rape business dear, keep calm and carry on.”  Wilde lathers on heavy-handed moments of eco-preaching, constantly cutting away to moments of toxic sludge pouring into rivers or industrial stacks billowing black smoke into the atmosphere.  The graceless and blunt editing, as well as some bizarre moments of foreshadowing  help nothing at all.  His intentions are good but his methods are as subtle as a fork in the eye.  Impossible not to watch but impossible to like.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the non-staged child birth scene.  Ugh.

 

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Danger: Diabolik (1968) – This movie is almost as weird as the one above.  This time it’s a 1960’s Italian comic book movie.  Diabolik is a piece of cult goofiness which shares the same rarefied air as its over worshiped cousin, Barbarella.  Stylistically it’s an Italian answer to the swinging 60’s incarnation of Batman.  Who asked Italy to do such a thing.  So who is Diabolik (John Phillip Law)?  Imagine if Robin Hood dressed like a ninja but instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor he keeps his plunder because it turns on his girlfriend.  Why does Diabolik steal $10 million?  So he and his babe can have a shag on it.  Take that Woody and Demi.  He also lives in a really psychedelic underground liar with secret entrances, a car elevator and a giant rotating bed.

This could have been a lot of fun, and for a few scattered moments it is, but the filmmakers relish the fact that Diabolik the character is a dick.  We’re supposed to root for him of course because he’s an anti-authority figure who laughs in the face of the system which control the rest of the world.  He constantly mocks those who wish to stop him and gets away with anything and everything he wants.  At one point he pretty much snaps his fingers and blows up every tax establishment in the country.  But Diabolik is nothing more than a jerk who steals things and shags his gal pal.  He’s more Alain Delon than Austin Powers.  Though Austin Powers and Diabolik would surely have attended the same parties.  I guess that flew with the hip kids back in the day but now it just seems shallow and pretentious.  Despite the overall lackluster nature of it you can see this movie popping up all over pop culture.  The Wachowski kids clearly loved this thing.  I’m pretty sure the stoicism of The Matrix was born here.  The Beastie Boys video for Body Movin’ is basically made up of footage from this movie.  And Mission: Impossible III hijacks some of Diabolik’s clever gags for stealing stuff.  Sitting here thinking on it it seems more fun now than it was when we all watched it.  Weird.

 

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Altered States (1980) – Now this movie is completely fucking weird.  Scratch that.  It’s batshit crazy.  Ken Russell, a filmmaker I’ve never followed, was known to make disturbing, nutzoid movies and States doesn’t disappoint.  I have no doubt David’s Lynch and Cronenberg love this and make their families watch it every Christmas.  Riddled with buggy montages, a mind bender story and a nerve racking film score, States stars William Hurt as a scientist working in the field of….something.  He basically believes that the all of human experience is locked away in our genetic code, a massive hard drive for our evolutionary memory.  Using sensory deprivation in cahoots with some whacked out, Mexican-Indian, spirit bending shrooms, Hurt’s scientist believes we can experience our primordial being while in a hypnotic state, then going so far as to believe we can actually physically manifest our earliest selves.  What’s all that mean?  Well, at one point Hurt takes some serious trippy dope, locks himself in a black box and emerges as a Pleistocene era humanoid who runs amok.  And it just gets weirder from there.

The physical effects on display here are uniquely impressive and while yes, States is goofy as all Hell on paper, it’s director and performers are completely convinced of its legitimacy as a story.  Russell channels into that place where only the truly cracked dare to go, unleashing phantasms of nightmarish imagery and religious symbolism as Hurt trips fantastic on his quest to know the origin of it all.  If you want to get an idea of what you’re in for simply do a google image search for ‘altered states movie’ and take a peek.  If that image of a 7 eyed goat doesn’t pull you in, nothing will.

The Exorcist III (1990)- The mostly forgotten but underrated second sequel to the scariest movie ever is surprisingly decent.  It may not have little girls vomiting pea soup but how can you be that down on a movie which has dream sequence featuring Fabio and Patrick Ewing?  It shows a lot of signs of studio tinkering in its second half but there’s some genuine creepy in this movie.  The writing and direction from original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty isn’t bad either.  There’s a funny speech about a carp in a tub and I’m pretty sure an ill priest said ‘May the Schwartz be with you.”  George C. Scott shows that getting old and turning to horror movies for work doesn’t always have to be embarrassing.  Infinitely better than expected but one hopes that a restored version with a less haphazard finale materializes.  It’s probably a pretty great movie.

Children of the Corn (1984) – One of those mild and middling 80’s horror efforts which has half a dozen sequels no one has ever watched.  A bunch of holy rolling kids kill their parents under the guidance of a creepy little fuck who worships a corn lurking demon.  Liberal minded adults Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton ride through town and figure out these little bastards are in need of a severe whuppin’ and a college education.  They kill the evil demon in the corn and take all the kids to a blue state where they can get decent public education and apply for financial aid when its time to go to college.  Not very good but definitely contributes to the widely held belief that within every ginger kid is a creepy psycho waiting to get out.

Basic Instinct 2 (2006) –  14 years after Paul Verhoven flashed a spotlight between Sharon Stone’s legs, Stone and some misguided producers got the idea that the world wanted to look up her dress again. So Stone and company honor Verhoven’s perverse masterpiece by slapping together a sequel/retread so dull that even the steady stream of hard core sex is mind numbing.  Watching people hump in this movie would be like watching luggage screw, a dry, leathery rubbing sound is produced and little else.  Stone vamps around the screen in full on schlock mode, turning her once Machiavellian writer Catherine Tramell into a dick craving Cruella de Vil.  Juxtaposed against Stone’s ham sandwich performance is dry British dullard David Morrissey, doing his damnedest to be the dullest and dumbest human ever.  David Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling try to give the movie an air of British respectability in costarring roles but they don’t seem to realize or acknowledge they’re shuffling through the worst kind of Hollywood shit.  It’s easy to turn a blind eye when you’re being well paid.  The lesson here?  When the only person who wants to return for a sequel to a 14 year old murder and sex romp is the actress whose has since started to look like a tanned purse with legs, don’t make the movie.  This little nugget says it all.  In 1992 Basic Instinct made $117 million.  In 2006 Part 2 made less than $6 million.

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Ten Word or Less Review – Scarface gets old.

Brian De Palma, the hack bastard of all hack bastards, can make wretched cinema like few others.  Not content to just make a bad flick, he takes resounding dumps right on screen which soil your brain for life.  His list of failures is massive and his output over the past 20 years has been consistently awful.  Even in his so called heyday he made unmitigated shit like The Fury and Body Double.  Even classics like Dressed to Kill annoy me endlessly.  But even a dogs ass catches a ray of sunlight some days and on occasion De Palma stumbles into a decent movie despite his dogged attempt to make a big celluloid stink.  The Untouchables is classic movie escapism of the highest order.  Blow Out is a shockingly grand achievement.  And after missing it time and time again, Carlito’s Way turns out to be a pretty decent entry in the modern gangster genre.  It’s perhaps the last time the sun shone on De Palma’s tuches.

Carlito feels like a pseudo apology to the world for that wretchedly misconstrued piece of pop-art dogshit that was Scarface.  An epic joke of overindulgence, vulgarity and lunacy, Scarface has spent decades being idolized by society’s zero class, moron, wanna-be-a-thug population.  If you know someone with a Scarface poster on their wall get better friends.  It stands as an overriding example of how legions of people can watch something and completely miss the point.  Looking to delve back into the crime genre and avoid any dunderheaded interpretations, De Palma and star Al Pacino go back to the gangster well and craft a story of lost opportunity around an aging hood.  After 5 years in the clink, Carlito Brigante is sprung from the joint because of the diligence of his lawyer (Sean Penn).  Back on the street and facing middle age, he plans wholeheartedly to walk a straight line and retire to the sunset, but just a few hours into freedom there’s a gun in his hand and dead people at his feet.  We know Carlito is doomed, it’s simply a matter of us caring one way or the other.  The viewer has to simply cross his fingers and hope De Palma’s arch, overreaching tendencies don’t derail the effort.

Coming off an Oscar win for Scent of a Woman, Carlito firmly entrenched Pacino in the worn down, middle aged Tyrannosaurus of a man  he so magnificently played for about a decade.  Between Woman, Carlito, Heat, Any Given Sunday and Insomnia Pacino had a very admirable run of material in which he excelled.  Devil’s Advocate was a magnificent piece of showing off.  For Pacino, Carlito is a hypothesis of what happened had Tony Montana not snorted a mound a blow and shown those gunmen his little friend.  He instead jumped out the window and got old.  Where there was bravado and bluster, there’s now calm and a semblance of wisdom.  Carlito really does want nothing more to get out, but like Pacino famously uttered three years earlier in his derided Godfather III, they keep pulling him back in.  He adds a graceful narration to things which give the movie an occasional calmed spirit it uses to its advantage.

Pacino is ably backed up by a solid supporting cast headlined by Sean Penn as his curly headed, Jewish lawyer.  Penn does excellent supporting work here, portraying an inherently weak and scheming type.  It flew in the face of the grim, macho persona Penn had catered to till then and it’s a fine example of the diversity he’s capable of when he wants to reach for it.  Also surprising in a typical girlfriend part is Penelope Ann Miller.  I never gave Miller much credit for screen presence and her subsequent vanishing from the movie landscape as the 90’s wore on seemed to validate the thought, but she holds her own and proves a solid presence against the always intimidating Pacino.  She’s clearly too young for the part and it’s an underwritten role but she makes it work for what it is.  Luis Guzman is also here playing Luis Guzman.  As far as I know Luis Guzman has never not played Luis Guzman.

Now we come to the De Palma factor.  The big BD can make the greatest actor in the greatest scenario look like a second rate hack if he gives into his unchecked, Hitchcock worshiping instincts.  The man rarely found a cinematic situation he couldn’t over direct in a heartbeat.  And while he’s working at an elevated, melodramatic level he stays just on this side of bearable.  He at times flirts with turning Carlito into grandiose visual excess but Pacino keeps the thing anchored and respectable.  Having a decent screenplay and a dedicated leading man help to no end when your director seems adamant about turning his movie into delirious, soap opera popcorn.

For me and De Palma it’s been a long, bumpy road.  Some nice ups punctuated with major downs.  I don’t have much left of his resume left to pick over.  A few lesser efforts that even his worshipers seem to make little fuss over.  I doubt I’ll get to them.  It’s nice to leave things on a decent note.  From now on when Carlito plays on cable I’ll be inclined to stay on the channel and enjoy the ride.  But with my luck I’ll just happen across Mission to Mars or Snake Eyes again.  Why does anyone watch Mission to Mars?

April Fools Day (1986) – This ‘too straight faced for its own good’ horror film tries to separate itself from the pack of what then roamed the cinematic horror movie landscape.  Instead of falling into the killer with a gimmick and a quip genre that defined the age, Fools eagerly tries to carve itself out a place in the history of trickster cinema.  A group of college chums head off to an isolated mansion for a weekend of booze and sex with their best friend Muffy hosting   After a lot of setup one nincompoop after another wonders off into a dark corner and never returns.  It’s a notch above the decade’s trashier efforts but despite the attempt to be different the overall result is not much more than a lackluster slasher effort with a twist ending most people should spot a long way off.  Sometimes taking the high road gets you nowhere.

Nightbreed (1990) – A wild idea with lots of potential gone unbelievably wrong.  Clive Barker’s ambitious monsterfest surely inspired the adoration of Guillermo Del Toro as the creatures from this film would be right at home in a Hellboy flick.  The makeup effects are almost worth the effort to sit through an otherwise completely incomprehensible serving of monster schlock.  Craig Scheffer plays Boone, a guy suffering wild nightmares filled with ghastly beasts of all kinds.  Boone visits a shrink played with surprising sense of creepy by David Cronenberg.  The shrink convinces Boone he’s killed dozens of people in his sleep.  Boone takes off for a cemetery where all the creatures of his dreams live underground.  He’s killed by the police but comes back to life and becomes one of the monsters.  The shrink wants into the land of monsters where Boone has gone.  There’s a worried girlfriend who wants Boone to be human again.  Freaks galore wonder the landscape.  It goes on and on and on and on and on.

Each and every scene of this mess feels as if crucial information has been sliced away, leading the movie to feel like a haphazardly designed jigsaw puzzle with it’s pieces jammed together whether they fit or not.  Example, the cemetery where all the monsters and freaks live is just there.  It takes no effort to get to or enter.  You just drive there and walk in and there’s the freaks.  It’s well documented that Barker had to edit out about 25 minutes of material to make the studio happy.  Maybe that 25 minutes makes all the difference in the world.  Maybe the movie would still be junk.  I’d bet a few bucks the truth lies somewhere in between.  It’s an interesting mess as it is and those fond of creature effects should love it but if you wait around for it to make sense, you’ll wait in vane.

The Innkeepers (2011) – Director Ti West is an admirable student of the less is more horror film.  His 2009 effort The House of the Devil wasn’t all flash and gore and morons walking into death.  It was a slow burner horror effort that unfortunately culminated in a goof ending that made the slow journey getting there feel like a bit of a waste.  The Innkeepers feels similar.  It’s a textbook haunted house effort that is made with just enough finesse and skill to provide some restrained scares, but its final beats skewer the overall effort.

Two hotel employees (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) wind down their tenure at a grand old hotel about to shutter its doors forever.  With just a random guest or two,  the duo pursue their quest to find a ghost in the hotel.  Of course there is one and as demanded by such movies, it’s a meanie of a spirit.  When I say Innkeepers is textbook I kid not a bit.  West has the spooky movie playbook in his lap and he follows it step by step.  Creepy noises, ominous hallways, all slowly building into the occasional gotcha moment.  It’s routine, sort of a Shining Jr., but it works well enough even though West doesn’t kick or shake the wheels of the ghost genre.  He strips it down to its barest essentials and lays it out which would be fine, but then he dumbs up things at the last second.  To reach his mandated ending of doom West has to wade into stupid waters. His dodged refusal to shake things up or try something new screws up his movie in the last lap and the otherwise solid effort wilts in the end.  If a decent, old fashioned scare is what you want, and you don’t mind the clunker finale, Innkeepers is decent October viewing.