Monday, December 28, 2009

Review – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

After The Hound of the Baskervilles turned out to be a success, 20th Century Fox pushed another Rathbone/Bruce picture through production. Though this isn’t as good as the first one, it’s still reasonably entertaining. Indeed, my only big gripe about this is that it establishes the practice of making Holmes stories that aren’t based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Fortunately it isn’t a bad plot. Holmes concerns himself with the protection of a young lady targeted for murder, apparently neglecting to guard a valuable gem from being stolen en route to the Tower of London. Mildly amusing

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review – Extract

After Office Space and Idiocracy, I was looking forward to the latest from Mike Judge. Thus this dumb little farce was a real disappointment. Jason Bateman heads a cast of sitcom veterans in a comedy of errors that plays like the worst parts of Office Space – the dull relationship stuff – blown up into a movie. I guess maybe it’s got a good joke or two, but for the most part it’s just awful. Wish I’d skipped it

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review – Alice (2009)

The SyFy-fied reheat of The Wizard of Oz worked okay. Maybe we could do the same thing with Alice in Wonderland. Or on the other hand, maybe not. In the producers’ defense, they applied the same formula used for Tin Man: take a classic, relocate it to a sci fi fantasy environment, twist things around a bit, mix in some cheap special effects, and hope the audience will sit through two nights’ worth. Part of the reason this one fails is that the source story is already bizarre and confusing enough, so making it even stranger doesn’t help. They got more stars and semi-stars, but they aren’t put to good use. The result is a muddled mess rather than a clever riff. See if desperate

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review – Elmer Gantry

Given the reputation of Sinclair Lewis’s famous tale – particularly how frequently it was cited during the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart sex scandals – I was expecting something far harsher than this. To be sure, Burt Lancaster plays the title character as what he is: a con man, a hypocrite and a scoundrel exploiting the simple religious faith of country folk to turn a quick buck. But there’s a basic goodness to the character as well – not to mention a moral redemption in the end – that has no match in the Gantries of the airwaves. Overall it’s a little over-long, but it’s still much more multi-dimensional – and thus much better – than I thought it was going to be. Mildly amusing

Review – The Detonator

The Romanian crime boss in this movie spouts one of the strangest aphorisms I’ve ever heard: “If you deal with the devil, you’re going to get shit on your shoes.” For some reason that got me to thinking about a Quikie-Mart managed by Satan. You go in, get your jumbo Squishee and a Slim Jim, but before the Beastmaster gives you your change, he comes out from behind the counter and drops a satanic turd on your new Nikes. Actually, that might have made for a better – or at the very least shorter – motion picture. What we get instead is a dreadful excuse for an action movie about a rogue agent trying to protect the widow of a mob accountant from predicable plots to silence her. They got Wesley Snipes for the lead (no doubt at least in part because his tax troubles left him in need of cash), but that does little to overcome the usual level of quality one expects from movies whose credits feature a lot of names that end in “escu.” When it comes to film-making, Romania is the Kansas of Europe. See if desperate

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review – The Ape

Boris Karloff is sort of a mad scientist Boo Radley in this odd picture from 1940. The townspeople distrust him, and local kids throw rocks at his house. But he’s actually trying to help a wheelchair-bound woman by working on a serum to cure her paralysis. Unfortunately, his experiments require “donations” from the locals, which he obtains by masquerading as an escaped circus gorilla. Not exactly Karloff’s finest moment. See if desperate

Review – Bedlam

Val Lewton’s presence in the producer’s chair helps make this low-budget Boris Karloff picture into something that’s actually worth a look. An actress runs afoul of the head of the Bedlam insane asylum by suggesting reforms in the patients’ treatment, so he convinces her benefactor to have her committed. Some of the scenes of patient abuse inside the asylum are downright creepy, all done with the same eerie lighting and imply-rather-than-show technique employed to such good effect in Cat People. It’s a corny as any other movie made in the 1940s, but it’s chilling and thought-provoking at the same time. Worth seeing

Review – Before I Hang

Once again the folks in front of and behind the camera for The Man They Could Not Hang and The Man with Nine Lives team up to spin a gripping yarn about a mad scientist who cheats death. This time around the fresh twist is that the good doctor (Boris Karloff) injects himself with a serum made in part from the blood of a brutal killer. So now every time he becomes upset he’s overcome with the desire to strangle whomever is in the room with him. If you like movies in this vein, this is a fine example. Otherwise it’s a bit dull. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review – The Black Room

Boris Karloff plays twins in this clever thriller from 1935. The older (by a minute or two) brother inherits the family barony, but he turns out to be a killer, a rapist and a general, all-around jerk. Years earlier his younger brother fled in order to avoid a family curse that says he’ll kill his sibling by throwing him into a pit in a chamber in the family castle called the Black Room. But after younger sib is lured back, older sib appears to break the curse by murdering first. It’s a scheme with potential: win back the support of his rebellious people by pretending to be his kindly younger brother. Unfortunately he just can’t seem to give up his jackass ways, and he swiftly ends up right back in trouble again. This picture hits Karloff right at the perfect point in his career. The production doesn’t suffer from too many of the technical weaknesses of the early talkies, and he isn’t playing the mad scientist role into which he got typecast later in his career. Though nobody is likely to walk away from this thinking, “wow, what a brilliant movie,” it manages to be reasonably entertaining. Mildly amusing

Review – The Cold

Let’s go in search of a good horror movie. Okay, start with the crappiest film stock available. Nah, you’re off to a cold start. Speaking of starts, let’s do the opening credits with names printed on cards. Getting colder. Next let’s use some lame premise about rich people tormenting stupid gold-diggers by offering a million dollar prize (which probably seemed like more money back in 1984 than it does now) to whomever can last the longest in a hotel full of evil practical jokes. Colder. For the cast, hire men whose only qualification is the ability to vaguely remember lines, and hire women who don’t even have to be that skilled as long as they’re willing to take their clothes off over and over again. Colder. Make-up effects that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school play. Colder still. An almost completely absent plot. Icy. If your idea of a scary haunted house is one of those buzzer-intensive ride-through trailers at cheap carnivals, then this is likely to be your idea of a good horror movie. See if desperate

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review – A Dandy in Aspic

Despite sporting one of the worst titles in Hollywood history, this actually turns out to be a decent spy picture. Laurence Harvey brings his Manchurian Candidate intensity to the role of a Soviet double agent spying on British intelligence. Angered over a trio of recent deaths in the field, the Brits assign our hero to assassinate the Russian they think is responsible, who turns out to be himself (though the guy they tell him to kill is actually just his contact). That should give you some idea of how convoluted things become. Personally, I like convoluted spy movies from the Cold War, so I got a kick out of this. Mildly amusing

Review – Circus of Horrors

Women with attractive bodies and scarred faces, beware! The former plastic surgeon who runs this circus will repair your face, making you as beautiful as Helen of Troy. But the price will be high. Apparently the good doctor has abandonment issues, because he arranges “accidents” for any woman who decides to bust her deal to perform in the circus in exchange for a repair job. This turns into one of those easy-to-swallow pictures in which the bad guys are so charming and the good guys are so annoying that the audience isn’t really being called upon to cheer for anyone. Rather we can just sit back and watch as the whole evil scheme unravels. Mildly amusing

Review – Beyond Sherwood Forest

Odd title, considering most of the movie takes place in exactly the place we’re supposed to be beyond. The rest of it is set in some kind of bizarre alternate world of darkness. This is the first time I think I’ve ever seen a movie that featured a were-dragon, so that part was at least novel. The rest, however, was the same blend of mindless revisionism – such as the legendary Robin / Little John stick fight this time taking place between Robin and Maid Marian – we’ve come to expect from the SyFy channel. Mildly amusing

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review - Fairy Tale: A True Story

Well, true-ish, anyway. Back in the early days of photography, a couple of pre-teen English girls took a series of photos that appeared to show them posing with fairies. The pictures caused quite an uproar, particularly when experts could find no trickery in the negatives and Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole) published them as authentic. A scene late in the picture shows an evil journalist discovering how the real photos were actually made, but he’s swiftly put to flight by the magical special effects of the fantasy movie world. Normally I would have expected to see Steven Spielberg’s name somewhere on such a production, though if his name was in the credits I missed it. Though the idea here is clearly to celebrate the beautiful simplicity of childhood’s beliefs, it left me wondering if there would be a sequel in which some guy from Nigeria really does transfer millions of dollars to people who respond to his email. Verdict: mildly amusing

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review – Brotherhood of Death

It must have been really tough for black guys who served in Vietnam to return home and have to deal with open, brutal racism back home. Though this exploitation picture is by no means a serious consideration of the situation, it is nonetheless emotionally gratifying. Our three heroes avoid a Klan plot to lynch them by enlisting in the Army. In Vietnam they become experts in guerilla warfare. And when they get back to their small, Southern hometown, at first they try to avoid trouble. But after a couple of killings and a graphic rape scene (which cost the picture a rating point), they whip out the old combat training and go to work on the bed-sheet-wearing moron brigade. This isn’t exactly a contender for an Academy Award in screenwriting, acting, cinematography or editing. But it is nice to see the Ku Kluxers met with a response more direct and effective than the usual, liberal “can’t we all just get along” stuff. Mildly amusing

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review - The Fantastic Mr. Fox

What a treat it was to go out to a movie and have it not suck for a change. I was particularly taken with the animation. Sure, it’s choppy throughout and awkward in spots. But it’s funny how even as stiff as it can be, it still has a thousand times more warmth and personality than the most elaborate, expensive, dead-eyed computer version of reality. Sadly, somewhere around act three the plot loses focus. They’ve done a wonderful job with the modern update of the battle between psychotic farmers, a clever fox and his woodland pals. But they run out of clever plot twists after awhile, and they start adding new elements that prolong the running time more than advancing the story or developing the characters. Still, the whole thing is so endearing that it’s easy to forgive a few minor miscues. Worth seeing

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review – Arabian Nights (2000)

As cheap miniseries versions of classic stories go, this one actually isn’t too bad. It includes the bracket, the tales everyone expects (Ali Baba and Aladdin) and three or four of the lesser-known entries. And though nobody in the cast is especially famous, some of the faces are at least recognizable. The effects are mediocre (especially the flying carpet that seems to be more of a hovering carpet), but they’re adequate to the task. The only thing that displeased me about this actually had nothing to do with the movie itself. The SyFy channel seriously needs to make sure that when it’s showing a miniseries that it shows both halves. I actually had to get the disc from Netflix just so I could find out how it ended. Grrr. Mildly amusing

Review – Beowulf (1999)

First the Abrams Star Trek and now this thing. This just isn’t my week for “retrofits” of classic tales. This one drags everyone’s favorite Geat kicking and screaming into a nebulous, Beyond Thunderdome-y future or alternative reality in which humanity doesn’t have cars or firearms but still possesses loudspeakers and crimping irons. A platinum blonde Christopher Lambert plays the hero, doing battle first with a sometimes-invisible, Alien-looking monster and then its boobs-blurred-out-for-SyFy mother. This was almost enough to make me want the Neil Gaiman version back. Almost. See if desperate

Review – Doctor Faustus

I think if this was actually a stage production of Christopher Marlowe’s version of this tale, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it isn’t a live performance. It’s a movie. And as a movie it sucks. Marlowe isn’t Shakespeare, as the deadly dullness of this should-be-entertaining tale attests. And though Richard Burton and a largely silent Elizabeth Taylor head the cast, most everyone else appears to be a stage actor. Watching the dreary doctor get dragged off to Hell in the end has some minor entertainment value, if only because it meant the movie was finally drawing to a conclusion. The rest of the picture is strange and poorly-assembled. See if desperate