Friday, October 31, 2008
Richard Burton plays a priest who is assigned by the Vatican to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) in Washington D.C. Little Regan (Linda Blair) is now a teenager who is receiving treatment from a therapist played by Louise Fletcher. During a session, with Burton in attendance, the priest becomes aware that the demon is, apparently, still deep inside Blair and the girl is in danger. He goes to Africa to hook up with the boy, now grown, that Merrin exorcised years before. [The flashbacks of Merrin exorcising this child are contradicted by the recent Exorcist: The Beginning.] Then there's a mad dash back to Washington for reasons that are never made entirely clear. While Exorcist II is not an awful film, it's one that pretty much wastes its potential. It's understandable that Boorman and company didn't want to do a simple retread of the first picture, but there's too much rushing around to little point in this sequel. Regan never really seems in any great danger, and the motives of the demon Pazuzu, who possesses her, are never made clear. The picture isn't boring, and there is some striking photography, but it just doesn't seem to add up to much in the long run. There's a well-done, chilling fall from a cliff, but the climax is just messy instead of exciting. Burton has a couple of good scenes acting with veteran Paul Henreid (as a Cardinal), and is generally okay, if a little preoccupied at times. Linda Blair just isn't much of an actress, and looks ludicrous trying to come on all sexy in the climactic sequence. Louise Fletcher, playing a role very different from the cruel nurse of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that netted her an Oscar, emerges as an attractive and appealing presence. Kitty Winn, who is given a much bigger role in this than she had in The Exorcist, is excellent, although it isn't readily apparent why her Sharon goes nutso at the end. The business with the strobing machine that puts people in trances is silly and unconvincing, and all those close ups of locusts rushing through the sky, while striking, make you think you're seeing a remake of The Beginning of the End with its giant grasshoppers. Regan is supposed to be one of the “good locusts” that evil is trying to wipe out, but this development isn't remotely moving.
Verdict: At least it's nice to look at. **1/2.
Verdict: The movie has its moments but the book is better. **1/2.
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING. (2004). Director: Renny Harlin. NOTE: We are reviewing this more recent film to accompany our critiques of the first three Exorcist films.
In 1949 Cairo a younger Father Merrin (Stellen Skarsgard), who has temporarily given up the cloth due to events of WW 2, investigates the archaeological dig of a church that has been built over a temple of human sacrifice – where sinister things, of course, begin to happen. This is a classy production, well-directed by Harlin, and strikingly photographed by Vittorio Storaro (witness that stunning pulled-back shot of the crosses during the prologue), but despite some exciting moments and powerful images (a dead baby pulled from its mother's womb covered in bugs), it's almost a complete misfire. For one thing, there's too much going on in the screenplay, which incorporates native uprisings, sandstorms, and even Nazis without a clear focus on anything. The actual exorcism, which isn't that well-staged (and looks as silly as ever), is dragged in for the final moments, giving the picture no real climax or pay off. The derivative flashback, showing how Merrin had to choose ten people for the Nazis to kill (a couple of little children are shot in the head to persuade Merrin to choose), overpowers the rest of the story, which seems trivial in comparison. The fixation on hyenas (which tear one poor boy apart in an effective if disturbing sequence) remind one less of The Exorcist and more of The Omen trilogy. Add to all this the fact that Skarsgard is a somewhat bland leading man in this and you have a film that is somewhat boring even at its busiest. Ben Cross shows up for about two minutes in bookending sequences and is completely wasted (he would have been much better as the lead). A lot of hard work and talent went into this; it's a shame it was all for nothing.
Verdict: Unfortunate. **.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
A flight to a planet dubbed "earth 2" just outside our solar system, where mankind hopes to have a new beginning, is beset with tension and problems. Dr. Steven Thomas (John Cairney) discovers that his wife (Linda Marlowe) has a serious pancreatic condition, but the stern Captain Ralston (Bill Williams) refuses to turn back so that she can receive medical treatment. This leads to tragic consequences and some dramatic incidents, including what the captain perceives as mutiny. This short, low-budget British production is like a TV show, but Harry Spalding's script and some intense performances make it more interesting than you might imagine. There are no real effects or BEMs [Bug-eyed monsters] or any other trappings of 50s/60s sci fi, but the story and its confrontations sustain interest. There's an android whose head is attached to a life support block, and two couples are kept in suspended animation. John Cairney, who also played Hercules' little friend Hylas in Jason and the Argonauts, is fine and has a bigger role than the nominal lead, former second lead Bill Williams, who isn't bad as Ralston.
Verdict: There have been worse star treks than this one. **1/2.
Based on the mini-series by Darwyn Cooke, this is one of many alternate "takes" on the heroes of the Justice League of America (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman etc.; the last two are pictured confronting one another). This takes place in the fifties, when in our real world Justice League of America comic books first began being published. The government has become paranoid about and suspicious of super-beings, and into this atmosphere drops J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter (actually a martian cop). J'onzz disguises himself as an Earth police officer, but although he makes some officials nervous (Superman reminds them that he is an alien, too), the real problem is a grotesque super-powerful being called The Centre, which is determined to completely exterminate the human race. Superman, Wonder Woman, The Batman, The Flash have active roles, while Ray (Atom) Palmer puts in an appearance, and Hal Jordan becomes Green Lantern for the first time. (There are also appearances by the Blackhawks, Ace of the Challengers of the Unknown, Larry Trainor -- Negative Man of Doom Patrol -- Green Arrow, and others.)
Frankly, if you haven't read the mini-series, this animated feature is pretty confusing and a mite dull at first, but eventually it begins to coalesce into a recognizable (if still confusing) storyline. In the impressively rendered climax, The Centre materializes as a humongous floating island with tentacles and orifices from which come forth hideous monstrosities. The efforts of the super-heroes to destroy this formidable creature before it can destroy the earth are dramatic and even, at times, thrilling. But make no mistake, this is for super-hero/comic book fans -- albeit of all ages -- only.
Verdict: Watch out for that Centre. ***.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Verdict: Okay as intro to Grant. **1/2.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Monday, October 6, 2008
In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Wil Haygood. Knopf.
Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr. Gary Fishgall. Scribner.
Sammy Davis Jr. was far more than just one fifth of “The Rat Pack,” which both of these fine biographies make clear. Starting as a child in the days of vaudeville he worked his way up to become a top club entertainer, Broadway star, movie actor, and TV host. While he was more successful at some things than at others, he always gave 200% and was a literal bundle of talent. Sammy could sing, emote, play the drums, dance (including classic tap-dancing), and do dead-on impressions of a host of celebrities (not just saying the lines most associated with them but singing). These books both detail Sammy's hungry early years when he traveled with his father and “uncle” as part of the Will Mastin Trio. His relationship with Frank Sinatra is analyzed, as well as his relationships with JFK (a bitter disappointment) and Richard Nixon (a bitter disillusionment). Both books do an excellent job of unveiling the demons that drove Sammy, and why he made the decisions – and many mistakes – that he did. His affect on and interaction with the black civil rights movement and its leaders also comes in for scrutiny. Haygood's book perhaps places its subject more in the context of the times as they pertained to black Americans, providing some fascinating details about the attitudes of, and toward, black Americans during the different periods of Sammy's career. On the other hand, Fishgall provides much more information on Sammy's army career, making the point that in all likelihood he would have been segregated from white soldiers and many of the things he wrote about his Army experiences in his memoirs have to be taken with a grain of salt. Haygood provides a highly interesting look at the writing of said memoirs, Yes I Can, although he seems to take Sammy's clearly ghost-written book Hollywood in a Suitcase at face value (Fishgall reveals that the book was actually written by Simon Regan). Sammy was a fascinating, influential character with a fascinating life. These books are both recommended for adult readers.
Verdict: Good stuff. ***1/2 each.
NOTE: For teen readers I immodestly recommend my own I Can Do Anything: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, currently available on ebay.
GARY COOPER: AMERICAN HERO. Jeffrey Meyers. William Morrow. 1998.
This is a fine biography of the late actor from his beginnings in the silent film industry to his painful death by cancer many decades later. The portrait that emerges in this book is less of an American “hero” than a fairly conservative (if not rockbound) icon who lived life the way he wanted to (including numerous affairs which negatively affected his wife and daughter) then later regretted his actions and found Catholicism. Even Cooper didn't think he was much of an actor, although Meyers analyzes his distinct if limited abilities with aplomb, and several of his colleagues offer testament to his deceptive “genius.” Cooper was a star of extremely limited range, but he got better as he got older and played characters who were closer in line with the real Gary Cooper. His best performances were in High Noon, The Naked Edge (his final film), and Ten North Frederick, in which he played a middle-aged man in love with a much younger woman (a situation he was not exactly unfamiliar with). Meyers goes into Cooper's affair with Patricia Neal with depth, although some readers may wish for more details on other, less important affairs, not to mention his youthful relationships with actor Anderson Lawler and other gay males [or the true reasons for his hatred of Cary Grant]. Meyers does not neglect Cooper's films, thank goodness, and perceptively examines both their strengths and weaknesses and how (and whether or not) they advanced Cooper's art. Meyers also goes into Ernest Hemingway's friendship with, and jealousy, of, the handsome actor, as well as Cooper's relationship with HUAC.
Verdict: This is an intelligent, well-written biography. ***1/2.
A young French girl, Melanie, plays a piece at an competition that is extremely important to her. Unfortunately, one of the judges, a well-known concert pianist named Ariane (Catherine Frot) , gives an autograph to someone during the middle of this recital and distracts Melanie, insuring that she loses the competition. It is made clear from something that happens immediately afterward -- Melanie almost slams the piano lid down on another student's fingers -- that this is a young lady with some psychological issues. Years later Melanie, now played by Deborah Francois, winds up becoming nanny, assistant and "page turner" to Ariane herself. There is no denying that in its own quiet way The Page Turner builds up a surprising amount of suspense, as you wonder when and if Melanie will screw up one of Ariane's concerts by failing to turn a page of the piano score at the right time, giving the woman, who suffers from stage fright, some kind of nervous breakdown. A sub-plot has Melanie bringing out lesbian feelings in Ariane, although it is suggested that Melanie has no similar feelings for Ariane and is only trying to ruin her marriage. The trouble with The Page Turner, despite the fact that it's well-acted and absorbing for the most part, is that the characterizations are on the thin side, and it never quite comes to grips with some of the aspects of its storyline. A few reviewers found the movie misogynous. In its suggestion that "coming out" can "ruin" a person's life you could also say that the movie is a bit [perhaps unintentionally] homophobic as well. While this is a far cry from a gay love story, it's ridiculous to assume that Ariane's life is over because she's acknowledged her romantic and sexual feelings for another (even if woefully unworthy) woman. The ending is unsatisying on many different levels and one could argue that ultimately The Page Turner is just a French version of all those deranged evil baby sitter movies-of-the-week, when it could have been a whole lot more.
Verdict: Flawed but unusual suspenser in the quiet mode. **1/2.
Friday, October 3, 2008
"I'll never call my mother-in-law an old crow again!"
A gargantuan bird from outer space with an anti-matter shield shows up on Earth where it attacks planes, lifts cars and trains off of the ground, pops screaming parachutists into its mouth, and knocks over skyscrapers. Not good. Pilot Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow), scientist Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday). Lt. General Considine (Morris Ankrum) and Dr. Karol Noymann (the bizarre Edgar Barrier) team up to destroy "the big bird." As it has some horrific elements and good sequences, this might have amounted to an outstanding monster movie had the FX department come up with a monster (pictured) that didn't look as stupid as the one in The Giant Claw. The actors are more than competent, considering. SHAMELESS PLUG. You can read more about this movie in my new book Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies. Available at amazon.com and at the publisher's website.
Verdict: Despite its deficiencies, this pic is a lot of fun. ***.
Verdict: High-energy action. ***.