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The Forbidden Chapter (2006)
Frightening, Powerful, and Hopeless
I saw this at Cinequest, the San Jose Film Festival in March of 2006. The story is about a middle-aged detective, beaten down by life and bureaucracy, until he seems just barely able to pull himself through each day. He's also a drug addict, smoking something, but I'm not sure if it's hash or opium. He's investigating a series of murders of prostitutes in the slums of Tehran? The movie is in Farsi, with English subtitles, so I didn't catch all the details.
What makes this movie different from the other 100 serial killer of prostitutes being pursued by a burnt out detective movies you've seen is it's presentation of the physical and cultural deterioration of Iran. The rain-soaked scenes in the ancient alleyways look like something out of Blade Runner, except this isn't some sci-fi fantasy, but modern reality. There's a religious school that figures in the story and the rituals that these disciples engage in are truly frightening, particularly the lengths they go to for self-punishment and repentance.
It's relentless in its portrayal of corruption and cynicism at the higher levels of society, even as those at the lower depths literally give their lives for their piety. Not all those in power want the killings to stop because they're "cleaning up the city".
This movie is chilling in its portrait of a culture deconstructed by religious fundamentalism and it will make you despair of being able to reason with those fundamentalists at the heart of the Islamic Jihad.
The Hamiltons (2006)
Efficiently captures the spirit of 70s and 80s horror
I saw this film at Cinequest, the San Jose Film Festival, in March of 2006. The Hamiltons is a movie with writing and directing credit going to "The Butcher Brothers". I think this is a name we will be seeing more from in the future. They've managed to put together a good old-fashioned scare fest, with some very powerful shocks along the way, all while using very basic gore and makeup effects.
The movie is about a group of grown siblings, whose parents have died, who are living together as a family unit, trying to be a "normal" suburban family. But they have a terrible secret. Part of that secret is that they abduct and kill people (mostly lovely young women). The rest of the secret is what keeps us involved throughout the mayhem that follows.
They've managed to create an atmosphere similar to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, without being quite so gruesome or so unrelenting. Mixed among the powerful killing and torture scenes are scenes of banal domestic dysfunction. They are obviously big horror fans and sprinkle the movie with references to the movies genre fans love.
My only complaint is that they overindulge in camera tricks. Some of the tricks are very effective. In the pre-credit scene a woman is killed, but the violence occurs in a series of extremely rapid cuts (I'm guessing maybe 3 per second) which keeps us from quite seeing what's happening. This allows our bloody imaginations to do much of the work and keeps us from noticing how simple the make-up effects are. I would like to have seen them use this technique again, but instead they went on to try every camera trick they could think of.
The youngest brother is camcording much of the family action, he says for a school project. This gives the directors an excuse to have many square-cropped, bouncy scenes, with jagged edges around the objects and low resolution. Other scenes are grainy with a shot-on-videotape-in-poor-lighting look. Much of the movie is in high-resolution, beautiful 35mm. Then, even more distractingly, they start mixing up the resolution and cropping mattes, so that we get a high resolution square shot, supposedly from the camcorder, so the actor can look good in close up. There's a couple of scenes where the shot alternates between two actors in dialog and one of them is shot in the grainy tape-look format while the other one is in high-res 35mm. Nearly all of the violent scenes are augmented? by quick-motion, tracers, vibrating cameras, or something else to add impact not present in the action itself. I'm sure they had fun playing all these camera games. The problem is that it draws us out of the story. I spent much of the movie's time thinking about such things, instead of wondering what they were going to do to those poor girls next. There are a few soundtrack scares, but they don't overdo this.
If it ever gets released, I'll want to see it again. The camera tricks do not make the movie unwatchable, they're just distracting. It's a much better movie than a lot of low-budget horror and it left me with the kind of feeling I get from the old 70s and 80s slashers, but it's not as graphic.
The Milpitas Monster (1976)
Unless you know someone involved, skip it!
I've heard that this move was put together by a bunch of high-school students. As a high-school art or theatre project it's not too bad. Unless you lived near milpitas in the seventies or knew someone involved in the making of the movie, this is pretty awful. Most of the actors are clearly not actors, but locals who volunteered. Bob Wilkins (the original host of Creature Features on KTVU in Oakland appears, but only for about a minute). Some of the monster effects are done with stop motion animation and some with a man in a monster suit and each works okay on it's own, but there is no continuity between the two. Watching without dialog, you'd assume that the movie had 2 monsters. I guess the most unsupportable aspect is that even the main characters, who I assume are the kids behind the movie, cannot even pretend to act. These kids must have been involved in theater in some way to want to do this project, but they display zero believable emotion in front of the camera.
Haiku Tunnel (2001)
Close enough to real life to accent the absurdity
Anyone who has worked in a corporate office will recognize characters and events in this movie which will make you laugh out loud and wince at the same time. For example there's a one-day orientation class which is totally mind numbing. This movie also contains the best depiction yet of SysAdmin support for the computers, although it is only in two brief scenes. As an IT support professional, I'd like all my users to watch this movie just for these two scenes. The same weekend, I watched Way Downtown which makes similar points about the drudgery of office work, but had far fewer laugh-out-loud moments. I've never worked as a temp, but I've had several temps work on my team and have observed the changes in attitude and behavior that occur when one of them makes the transition to "perm" and Josh compresses that evolution into just his first week of work. Highly recommended.
Shock! Shock! Shock! (1987)
Worst Movie I've ever been able to get through
I have run across one or two movies worse than this, but they were so abrasive that I couldn't sit through them. This one, while horrible, is saved by a 60 minute running time and nothing too unpleasant on the screen. In its 60 minutes it runs through at least 6 different genres. There is no nudity, no believable action, and puppet-show level special effects. I think that it was an intentional spoof, as the acting is about at the level of Pearl and her sidekicks from the Mystery Science Theatre, and I refuse to believe anyone could achieve that while trying to seriously act. This film is only for those viewers so jaded by everything else out there that they want something "different". This is not like anything you've seen before, I sincerely hope. It might also serve as inspiration for some aspiring film-maker as I think any 12 year old with their parent's video camera could produce something better.
Pieces of April (2003)
This feels like a real life experience
When we finished watching this movie on DVD, my wife said "I haven't had that much fun watching a movie in a long time". That seems like an odd comment given the depressing nature of much of the action in this movie, but the situations and characters were so recognizable, that it was almost like watching a home movie. It's this feeling of immediacy and realism that make this movie work, and in this regard I think the Digital Video medium helps. It really could be a home movie. The apartment building is scary, but also completely believable. The set design and art direction superbly realize a particular style of life. Even though we spend much of the movie in the apartment, watching as April prepares for her family's visit, we can feel the horror of her family when they pull up in front of the building and realize that this sleazy location is where their daughter/sister is living. We spend much of the movie anticipating this clash between the reality of the family and the reality of April, yet when it happens it still carries great weight. April starts as a character who seems not to have experienced much growth in her entire life up until now, but who in the course of this movie does show growth. I can't think of anyone I would not recommend this movie to.
For nostalgia value only
This movie was filmed largely in Six Flags over Georgia in 1986. Anyone who visited that park near that time will probably find it quite nostalgic. For the rest of us, it's a very long hour and a half. The main problem is that the movie makers couldn't seem to decide whether they were making a comedy or a thriller. There are elements that could be part of a better film in either genre, but because the tone is so inconsistent, it fails in both regards. This is a movie that had some very good ideas. When you hear some of the clever lines, or see the situations that are set up, you can imagine those reading the script being quite excited about its possibilities. None of these setups are ever taken through to the payoff. I guess this movie is a good example of how difficult it is to make even good ideas pay off in a movie.
All the Kind Strangers (1974)
Creepy, but family safe
This is just a made-for-TV movie, but it is creepy fun. It is also the rare scary movie that you can safely watch with your kids, without traumatizing them. In fact the movie carries quite a strong family values message. There is no explicit gory violence, so those who watch movies looking for that would be disappointed. The thrills here are mostly of the anticipatory kind. I think kids from about 8 to 14 will find much in this movie that they can identify with and that will make them uneasy about how they would react in the situation. There is very good work from Stacy Keach and John Savage and a young Robbie Benson is as good as he ever gets.
The Almost Guys (2004)
Best comedy caper film since "Raizing Arizona"
It's tempting to compare this movie to Repo Man, just because the set-up is similar, but in the spirit of its comedy it's closer to Raizing Arizona. I'd love to see this movie again (I just saw it last night). I hope it makes it to DVD. A lot of the humor derives from the expectations characters have of each other based on stereotypes, Italians belong to the Mafia, Asians all know martial arts, Irish men are toughs, etc. Once the other characters fall into believing those stereotypes, the film has great fun showing us the real characters behind the stereotypes. Sometimes these characters are trying to live up to the expectations, sometimes they are frustrated by being pigeon-holed, but in every case they are aware of the expectations and how they fail to match up. One of the best examples of this is a character called "Bigger". Watch for it. Other than Robert Culp, I hadn't heard of any of these actors before but I'll be watching for them again. Even the relatively minor roles are played by very talented actors. I'll particularly be watching for Eric Fleming, James Edson, Shawnee Smith, Tae-joon Lee, Peter Allas and Pietro Arspella.
If most of Ed Byrne's work is superior to this, as another commenter has suggested, I need to start digging up his performances. I found this to be a very funny movie and the audience I was with had at least a dozen group explosions of laughter. I found the humor to be similar to that of the "Friends" TV show, if that show had been R-Rated. I think the effectiveness of the film derives from the fact that so many characters and situations are recognizable from ordinary life as lived by the rest of us. Then the film takes just that extra step or two toward absurdity that makes you appreciate the inherent absurdity in the "ordinary" situation it grew out of. The impromptu jig John dances as he's listening to a voice mail message from someone he's taken revenge on will lift your spirits. How I wish I could dance that step. ***Spoiler Alert*** You should not go to this movie expecting to see Veronika Zemanova acting. John Davies' obsession with her is limited to downloading and printing various clothed and unclothed photos of her from the internet and decorating his apartment with them. He's right though in saying of Georgina Chapman that "if you squint just right. . .".
Hank Williams First Nation (2005)
Real characters from a community you probably don't know
There's a joke or two about "Indian time" in this movie, but in reality, the whole movie moves in "Indian time". Conversations are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Altman's overlapping dialog. Here a character speaks and the other characters pause for a couple of seconds thinking about what's been said before making the next comment. It's all very unhurried and laconic. For example, at one point we here on the radio, "So that's your forecast . . . It's cold today . . It'll be cold tomorrow . . . It'll probably get colder after that. But this here's February, so what'd you expect?" The music is terrific, but I don't think any actual Hank Williams' songs are used. Everyone talks about playing Hank Williams, but somehow it never seems to happen on camera. All of the characters in this film are so real, that by the end you feel like you've spent a week getting to know your cousin's neighbors in a town you've never visited before. You should also be aware that the quest to visit Hank Williams' grave is not really the centerpiece of the movie. The movie mostly takes place in the Cree Nation community it starts in. The quest is mostly there to give the locals something to talk about. I was deeply moved, to the point of tears, by this movie.
Villa paranoia (2004)
Great movie! Unlike anything I've seen
This movie grabbed me with the incredible opening sequence which tricked me into a complete reversal of perspective, so I was hooked by the time the title came on. The theme of this movie is that everyone is acting, trying to re-invent themselves, but not in a tricky way like Identity or the Usual Suspects, but in the way we all try to make whatever banal life we find ourselves in a little more interesting. The scenes in the chicken warehouses are spectacular. At one point Jorgen (who owns the chicken farm) attends a seminar in laughing, where he's the worst student. His discomfort at this lets you see the depth of his yearning to change himself. The movie made me wonder about the hidden mysteries that lie behind the surface of the most commonplace people I see every day. There's not a lot of plot here. Guessing the old man's secret is pretty easy, but the fascination lies in trying to guess what all the other characters will do when they figure it out. This movie appealed to me in the same way that Sideways did, although the characters couldn't be more dissimilar.
The Stranger (1946)
Not one of the master's greats, but gripping drama.
Although this is not one of Orson Welles' masterpieces, it's a very well made film that holds up well. It's an espionage thriller concerning the hunting of Nazi war criminals in the quiet New England town of Harper, Connecticut. It's not a thriller of the modern type with lots of gunfire, explosions, and car chases to hold one's interest. Instead, it depends for tension on drawing us into the various characters' (justified) paranoia. It includes terrific performances by Orson Welles, Loretta Young, and Edward G. Robinson that justify the time spent on their own. In addition it has many of the Welles signature touches like strange camera angles and bright faces emerging from deep black shadows. There is a small detail in the beginning of the movie which had me anticipating an entirely different ending than what was supplied. Without that one detail, the ending would have been fairly predictable, but because that detail was highlighted the way it was, the movie managed to surprise me with the ending. This was another of Welles favorite tricks, to give us something insignificant in the beginning of a movie to influence our expectations of the rest of the movie.
Little Cigars (1973)
Seems like a rough draft with no target audience
This movie doesn't fit neatly into any category. It has elements of comedy, including slapstick, puns, sexual innuendo, and "witty" lines, but also contains foul language, brutal murders, robberies and assaults. Added to this lack of focus is terrible pacing. Some of this is the fault of the editor as he holds to long on a close-up of a character who has just said a "funny" line, but those extended pauses for laughs are present even when the scene does not cut away. I suppose the humor of the movie was supposed to derive from the surprise of seeing little people who are as nasty and cruel as everyone else. Even in 1972, this would not have surprised many people. This would probably have been a lot funnier if made a few years after the Wizard of Oz. The plot is nothing more than a series of "capers" that demonstrate the many clever ways you can smuggle a bunch of midgets into an establishment you are planning to rob. There's no indication of how or why this group of con artists suddenly become brutal armed robbers. There is nothing of the con artist subtlety in their later capers. What dramatic tension there is comes from trying to decide if Cleo (Angel Tompkins) really cares for Slick, or is just stringing him along. Since neither of these characters is sympathetic, it's hard to care to much about this.
To Walk with Lions (1999)
Not really for kids
I enjoyed this film very much. My granddaughter who is 12 couldn't get through it. Because it is about George Adamson, of Born Free fame, you may be tempted to get this as a movie for the family to watch together. It's real appeal is to those of us past a certain age where we begin to think about the end of life as much as about the beginning. Richard Harris is incredible in this film as a man who refuses to let the changes time has wrought on his part of Africa or his body make him compromise any of his principles. This film will make you believe he has a spiritual connection to the lions, that lions are closer to humans than we'd like to admit. George Adamson is a much more interesting character in this movie than in the Born Free movies. The photography of Africa is spectacular, the scenes of poaching heartbreaking. This is a grown up movie about grown up issues, but it is not an unrelenting downer. It will probably inspire you to do something a little more important with the time you have left.
One Way Out (1996)
I suppose at some level this is a poor man's Bonnie and Clyde, except there is absolutely no plot. Man gets out of prison and returns home to find the local baddies have stolen the homestead from his mentally challenged brother, so he, the brother, the friend and a stripper plan to get revenge with a big bank heist. They pick up another girl along the way, who's engaged to the county sheriff. I think the main reason she is added is that the stripper is too ugly to provide any skin interest. The bank heist never happens. In fact, nothing ever happens, until the requisite bad ending they all come to. The acting is all conducted at the level of screeching and no character rings true for even one scene. The audio of the DVD I watched had been transferred so poorly that even the music (which is supposed to be the high point of this movie) was distorted beyond enjoyment. The packaging makes a lot of Michael Ironside appearing in the film, but he's in it for about 10 minutes. Avoid this at all costs. Destroy as many copies of it as you can.
Professional remake of a cheesy 50s movie.
This movie is one of 5 "Creature Features" made by HBO in 2001. The idea was to take a cheesy 1950s movie and remake it with better special effects. Stan Winston, the famous effects master, was one of the producers of this show. Not having seen the original, I don't know how this does as a remake, but it's a lot of fun on its own. A husband-wife team running a fake mermaid show at a carnival in Ireland are approached by a customer who seems crazy. He's very disappointed that the mermaid isn't real. They take him home to discover that he has in a tank in his house a real mermaid. The husband hatches a plot to steal the mermaid and take her to America to earn a fortune. The mermaid is convincing and beautiful, not to mention topless. The camera-work aboard ship is masterful. It evokes the claustrophobic closeness of a sailing ship below decks with close shots, tight framing and proximity of actors. There is also a subtle camera movement throughout these scenes evoking the sense of sea swells. I know this is an old trick, but I've rarely seen it done so well. There were long passages when I forgot it was happening, yet it contributed to the underlying reality of the movie space throughout. There are only a couple of surprises in the movie and both of them are homages to earlier great horror movies. I don't want to ruin it by giving them away, but you'll recognize them when you see them. There's not a lot of gore, by today's standards, but what there is is quite convincing. I don't think you'd want to let a sensitive 12-year-old see this movie. Also the mermaids are not portrayed as kindly creatures as they are in most movies.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
If everything is pre-destined, what is the point of effort?
I hadn't seen this movie for years, but remembered it fondly without really remembering what I liked about it. On re-watching it, I realized that this is truly a great film, dealing with a lot more than just the old who decides who is insane question. One of the major themes is that even though humanity has developed far superior technology by 2035, it's being run by the same incompetent bureaucracy we've had since the time of Caesar. In one scene, when Bruce Willis has been returned to his own time after finding the information he was sent to find, his superiors are behaving so bizarrely that he begins to believe, and the audience along with him, that maybe he really is insane and the entire future world is just a hallucination. This movie plays fair by the rule that nothing in the past can be changed, and most of the action takes place in the past of 1990 or 1996. Bruce is sent back not to prevent the spread of the virus, but just to retrieve a sample of it so that scientists in the future can develop a cure for it. The cinematography is a tour-de-force of point of view work. When Willis is first admitted to the mental institution, drugged up and disoriented in time, no shot is fully perpendicular, no composition balanced. Brad Pitt is a wonder as one of the mental ward patients. He's completely manic and full of energy. He's the first clue in the movie as to why it might be called 12 monkeys. My test of a good movie is always whether I want to see it again. This is especially true of a Chinese-puzzle movie like this. Once you know how it ends, is there any interest in watching again. In this case the answer is certainly. Willis says to Madeleine Stowe while they're watching "Vertigo" that visiting the past is like watching an old movie. You can't change the way it comes out, but you notice different details. This movie is so rich in details and ideas that it will stand up to many viewings.
Satan's School for Girls (1973)
Milder than the title would suggest.
Don't be fooled by the title or the sanguine cover art. This is a moderately suspenseful movie that probably wouldn't make a 10-year-old lose any sleep. As a result, it's not a bad "spooky" movie to watch with the family. Although it's unrated, it would be at most PG for some mild violence. The only people who might be offended by this would be those who find the whole concept of witches and devil worshipers offensive and they probably aren't looking at this comment anyway. It's also not a particularly outstanding film and the main attraction, I think is the chance to see Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd pre-Charlie's Angels. I doubt I'll remember anything about this movie a year from now.
The Monster Maker (1944)
Not worth the time
No one in this movie has very much to do. This is probably the longest 65 minutes I've ever spent watching a movie. The makeup effects on the pianist with macromeglia are pretty good, but that's the only thing that keeps this from being rate a 1. The doctor's assistant goes through extreme mood swings from passivity to hysteria in seconds and then seems to forget where she was in the next scene. The director assembled a lot of the right ingredients for a mad-doctor movie, but somehow forgot the skeleton of a story to hang them on. Unless you know someone in the cast or crew, I wouldn't recommend even sampling this one.