"That's a nice-a donut."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Released in 1941, smack in the middle of what is widely considered the Golden Age of Hollywood, it is rather easy to understand why a movie like Sullivan's Travels might be relatively overlooked today (or especially why it was largely ignored by critics and the Academy at the time). After all, it was up against classics like Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, Suspicion, and How Green Was My Valley. It even has to compete for attention with another of director Preston Sturges' comedies from that year, The Lady Eve. But it is a fine film - a very layered film that is at times a satire, a comedy, a buddy picture, an adventure, and a sad drama. Though some of the aspects will work for some people more than others.

For some folks, this might very well be viewed as a precursor to more modern movies like The Hard Way, where an actor inhabits the world that he will soon be filming (in that case, the actor played by Michael J. Fox hangs out with a police detective for a couple weeks) and learns valuable life lessons. John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is not an actor though, but a director. Sully has previously made a couple successful comedies (and of course that is what the studio heads want from him again) but this time he is more interested in creating a drama. He wants to film the struggles of the poor, but knows nothing about that, so he sets off from his high life and embarks on a journey dressed up as a homeless man. He is looking to find "trouble," to experience more of the human suffering and actual real-life experiences that he could never begin to find living as a successful director in Hollywood. During his journey he meets an attractive aspiring actress (Veronica Lake) and she sort of becomes his sidekick. But he ultimately finds much more trouble than he ever imagined he would find.

The first two-thirds of the film are quite different from the final act, filled with many genuine moments of humanity as well as hilarity. Some of it is slap stick, and some of it biting social commentary on the nature of Hollywood. I especially liked how, no matter how hard he tried, Sully kept ended up back in town. The interplay between Lake and McCrea are the best parts of the movie, by far. Lake certainly deserved her immense popularity at the time.

Eventually the movie becomes a rather dark drama. Though with all the trouble Sully gets into in that very different final act, he never wavers from his purpose; he wants to make a movie that matters and that will affect people. Some (well, many) of the plot points are a bit too convenient, as the loose ends all get tied together nicely. But it's a fun tale, with a story that still holds up reasonably well today. It may not have as strong technical merits as its peers such as Kane or Falcon, but still belongs on anyone’s must-see list of classic films.

The Verdict: B+.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Poseidon (2006)

Wolfgang Peterson proved his mettle at deftly creating cinematic adventures on the sea with his classic German WWII submarine epic Das Boot, and then later his summer popcorn ride The Perfect Storm. He's also cleverly manned several other good action movies including Air Force One and In the Line of Fire. But with Poseidon, a remake of the popular 1970s disaster film The Poseidon Adventure, he returns to the water. It's a mixed result, as it is quite solid from an action-adventure perspective, but rather mediocre otherwise.

The story itself is pretty basic: a cruise line is hit by a gigantic "rogue wave" that quickly forms somewhere in the middle of the ocean, the ship is battered and eventually flipped upside down, and then a small group of passengers tries to makes their way to safety and out of the ship amidst a barrage of dangerous hazards and setbacks. Some claustrophobic scenes in the bowels of the ship are well filmed and help to increase the tension of the impending doom, as the water slowly rises after them. The group is a fairly motley crew, with someone for just about every demographic. Kurt Russell plays a former firefighter and ex-NYC mayor; his young daughter (Emmy Rossum) is there with her boyfriend (Mike Vogel); Richard Dreyfuss is a gay architect; Josh Lucas; and then there is an attractive stowaway (Mia Maestro), a woman and her young child. A few other familiar faces round out the cast including Andre Braugher (of TV show Homicide) who plays a ship captain, Freddy Rodriguez (of Six Feet Under) as a kitchen worker, and Kevin Dillon (of Entourage) as a gambler.

The movie doesn't waste much time on character development - both to its credit and to its disservice - and part of that means that the lesser supporting characters are simply there and given no background or character whatsoever. I wasn't even sure of most of the people's names. Peterson tries to follow the Michael Bay / Armaggedon model of success, especially with Kurt Russell in the Bruce Willis role as the hard-nosed, never-smiles father who is overly protective of his daughter and doesn't care too much for her boyfriend. (Want to guess whether or not they reconcile by the end?) As in Armaggedon, Poseidon also has some unusually odd lapses in logic, including the fact that not everything in the boat is actually upside once the disaster strikes - such as stairs, some doors, etc. There are some moments of utter unbelievability as well.

Things get chaotic very quickly though, and once that happens it is literally a non-stop action and dramatic thriller piece until the very end. At a very breezy hour and a half, the decision was obviously made to favor the intense action and set pieces over a longer, but more character-driven drama. So if you don't mind a rather mindless popcorn movie that spans the emotions with excitement, humor, terror and tragedy, Poseidon might be right up your alley. But if you are looking for good character development so that you will actually care or empathize with any of the tragedies that befall anyone on screen, you'll likely be disappointed.

The Verdict: C+.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Passenger (1975)

Legendary Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni never made films to appease wide masses of people. His works are uncompromising, aesthetically and artistically pleasing, complex, abstract character studies. None of the pieces ever seem to fit entirely together, and none of the resolutions are simple or obvious. Surely many essays could be written trying to analyze each of his films. And this much is obvious: if he were to come of age in America today, with his same artistic vision, he likely wouldn't be able to set foot anywhere near La La Land. Back in the 1960s and 70s he was a very hot name in the art film world, and his mystique even attracted Jack Nicholson in the prime of his career in The Passenger.

Jack is David Locke, a reporter on assignment somewhere in North Africa working on a documentary about a group of revolutionaries and the government they are fighting. Upon returning to his hotel one day he finds one of his fellow guests dead. In a spur of the moment decision, he switches clothes with the dead man (named Robertson), as well as any identifying information including passports and the man's appointment book. From there he is dealt a variety of surprises as he attempts to become this other person. He meets an alluring young girl (Maria Schneider), who joins him in his journey. And he also learns that Robertson was an illegal arms dealer.

Their journey is fun for a while and leads to many questions and pondering about what the new Robertson will do next. There is very little in the way of dialogue, as Antonioni relies heavily on moderately long takes and imagery to tell the story. The scenes with Rachel, Locke's old wife, manage to slow an already leisurely pace down even more.

The story could have gone in many exciting or thought provoking directions, but instead ends with a whimper. There is a technically impressive shot at the end - it is one long take where the camera slowly moves and wanders before finally revealing Locke/Robertson's fate. It is a very vague scene that is surely open to much interpretation. And in that sense, it is fine. But after all this, the payoff is almost worthless. If the ending had been better, or simply been more exhilarating, the final product would have been markedly better. What remains is something similar to most of Antonioni's films: despite a solid premise and smartly shot scenes with fine acting, it is just too trying. It asks for so much patience, yet gives so little back other than stark metaphors and ruminations. It will leave you thinking and wondering what just happened, and for some people that will be just fine, but it just isn't enough.

Some synopses of the film have actually stooped to calling it a thriller - don't believe that for a second, for if you do you'll be sorely disappointed. It's not even particularly very much of a drama, but rather fits comfortably in that off-kilter category of "existentialism" of obscure movies that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If anything, give it a look to see one of the master's, Nicholson, at work during his creative peak of the early-to-mid 70s.

The Verdict: C+.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Indie writer-director Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale has a very Wes Anderson-ish vibe to it. Perhaps not incidentally, the two worked together on Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Anderson also served as a producer on Squid. It is a very personal and intimate examination of a divorce and its impact on a family of four, oftentimes disturbing and, yes, funny.

The story is set in Brooklyn, New York in the mid-1980s, where Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a university professor of English and accomplished author, though he's been having problems getting his newest work published. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) is an up-and-coming writer herself and, perhaps in part due to the difference in their recent fortunes, they soon decide to get a divorce. Part of Bernard's problem is that he is too arrogant and snobby; he is an intellectual and considers people who don't read good literature or watch good movies to be "philistines" ("that's minor Dickens" he says with contempt when told what someone is reading). While Joan is just generally unable to be entirely faithful, and also has problems with saying the wrong things at the wrong times. The kids - older Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger Frank (Owen Kline) - seem to take it well at first but jealously and tension get in the way and they inevitably take sides. Frank is a momma's boy and Walt is a reflection of his father, and neither in a particularly good way.

The esoteric title refers to an exhibit at the natural history museum, where Walt's mom would take him when he was younger. The Squid and the Whale represents the ugly side of life that he couldn't face alone, and by the end he is ready to face it (or, at least he hopes that he is).

Baumbach effectively uses close shots and handheld cameras to create an intimate environment, showcasing the intricate, and rather complex, relationships between each of the family members. The film doesn't really side with either parent - which is a good thing. Both of them have serious character flaws, but have positive traits as well. The children ultimately come off as victims though, perhaps more so than they should be. There is plenty of blame to go around, but nobody wants to look in the mirror. One very startling, but effective, subplot involves Walt entering a talent contest. He plays a very recognizable popular song but passes it off as his own; his parents have become completely clueless and helpless, unwitting accomplices in his charade.

All this makes for some dark humor, though not nearly as comical as Anderson's repertoire. There is plenty of raunchy language, and it is ultimately perhaps too emotionally honest to be anything you really want to watch again. Though it is helped by plenty of terrific performances, especially Eisenberg as Walt. In the end, Baumbach's autobiographical creation is definitely not an upbeat movie by any means, but it is an entertaining and often mesmerizing look at the effects of a failed marriage on a family.

The Verdict: B-.

Friday, May 12, 2006

North Country (2005)

Director Niki Caro followed up her critically acclaimed Kiwi film Whale Rider with her first studio picture, North Country. This was a rather interesting project to choose next, as they are very different films. The former is a small, personal coming-of-age tale of a young girl in a New Zealand tribe. While North Country is a fictionalized version of a true story about one of the first major sexual harassment cases in the United States. One thing that is common between them, though, is a strong female lead character.

In the cold, hockey-obsessed North Country of Minnesota that character is Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron). She takes her teenage son and leaves her abusive husband, and through her friend Glory (Frances McDormand) eventually finds work at the local iron mines. It's a very dirty job - a man's job. Or at least that is what the male (and even some of the female) workers would have you believe. Most of them are not happy that they have to work with women (which had been established after a previous legal decision), and in fact they often show their disdain by treating Josey and the others very poorly. They call them names, touch them, write obscene messages, and other things that most of us would agree are very vulgar and inappropriate. Caro makes peculiar use of intermittent flashforwards throughout the course of the film, showing brief courtroom scenes after various incidents. Eventually Josey manages to talk lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) into taking up her case. She doesn't care about any monetary settlement, she just wants the women at the mine to be treated fairly and properly, without being harassed.

The closing scenes, providing the resolution, are rather unfulfilling. Of course, since it's based on a true story, most viewers will likely be able to surmise the end result of the story, but it still could have been less predictable. Other than the occasional, interwoven courtroom scenes in the first two-thirds, it's basically just a paint-by-numbers law story. It helps that the acting is good; Theron is amazingly strong in these unglamorous roles. And the large cast of supporting characters and extras all do well, though the management of the mining company is filled with cliches and caricatures. The costume design is especially good - something that is often overlooked in films set in more modern times.

The one lesson that Caro seems to want the viewer to take away from the story though isn't just that the men of the mining company were bad, but that ...all men are bad. Pretty much no one escapes unscathed in this. The mining men are all outrageous jerks, Josey's dad is a jerk, men in the local bar are jerks, the lawyer is only taking her case for the fame, even her son is a bratty bastard jerk. By the end, you'll feel guilty by association just from watching it (of course, whether that was the intent is a whole other issue). Combine this with too much sappiness, and a final courtroom scene that is a bit unbelievable in the context of the entire movie that preceded it, and you have a movie that is solid, but should have been better.

The Verdict: C+.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Dazed and Confused (1993)

"It was the last day of school of 1976. It's a night they would never forget... if they could remember." The tagline for Dazed and Confused immediately calls to mind any number of lightweight skin flicks of teenage debauchery and outlandish hijinks. One might think of Meatballs, or Dude, Where's My Car, or perhaps American Pie. I too had this mindset the first time I saw the movie. And so director Richard Linklater's first noteworthy release is made even more amazing by the fact that it is nothing like that. Well, sort of. There is plenty of hijinks and teenage inebriation, yet there is also a very warm heart at the center of this thoughtful look at several groups of young people and the dog-eat-dog world of high school.

As the tagline suggests, it is the last day of school in May 1976. While some students will be graduating, plenty of others are involved in the unofficial initiation into high school. And so we follow several upperclassman who will soon be seniors, as they haze some select kids who will be incoming freshman. For the boys it's pretty simple: they get beat with homemade paddles, by those who might charitably be described as bullies ("I hate that guy"). The girls though are put through a sinister afternoon of being yelled at and belittled, smeared with food, and then put through a car wash to clean off. Meanwhile, pretty much everyone who is anyone is thinking partying that night.

Through all the chaos, a number of distinct (but sometimes intermixing) groups emerge: the sociological intellectuals, the conceited jocks, the sluts, the doomed freshman, the stoners, the perpetual seniors, as well as the square authority figures. Two of the freshmen are sort of the center of the movie. Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) tries to elude his fate of being paddled, and then later spends the night partying with some of the seniors who just beat him. Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) is invited into the female clique and then goes out on the town, trying to fit in with a few of her tormentors. Their tales, as well as football quarterback Randall "Pink" Floyd's (Jason London) struggle with whether or not to sign a pledge that he is morally against for the football coach, are the main storylines in the film. Although much of it is just one long freeform night of partying, it is much more structured than Linklater's films prior to this such as Slacker or How to Learn to Plow.

The movie moves nonstop, taking full advantage of the low budget but very effective ensemble casting. Many of the young actors would soon rise to fame including Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Ben Affleck. McConaughey is especially memorable as an aging stoner who still parties and has one of the better lines: "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."

The amazing feat is that while Dazed is often very funny and is filled with careless minded partying, it manages to be smart and have a number of interesting comments on youth and society. It is sort of an updated, hipper version of Lucas' American Graffiti, and with more drugs. Of course, the interesting thing about that comparison is that both movies were set about 15-20 years before they were made. Almost everyone will have someone in the movie to relate to. So, if you are put off by the marketing or the movie poster, give it a shot. And be sure to "see it with a bud."

The Verdict: A-.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Add Memoirs of a Geisha to the list of movies where the quality of how it looks doesn't match the quality of the story. It's beautiful looking, there's no doubt about that, but it's also a very uneven and surprisingly uninteresting tale. From Oscar-nominated director Rob Marshall (of Chicago), it is adapted from the popular novel by Arthur Golden and chronicles the life of a young girl in Japan and her subsequent rise to become one of the most desired geishas ever.

Young Chiyo is taken from her desolate fishing village and sold into a geisha house at nine years old. She is subjected to mistreatment and abuse by the owner of the house, as well as by a geisha named Hatsumomo (Li Gong) who recognizes Chiyo's (Ziyi Zhang) potential and becomes combative. However she eventually captures the eye of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), one of Hatsumomo's rivals, who takes Chiyo under her wing and teaches her how to become a skilled geisha. Chiyo is renamed Sayuri as she ascends into the geishahood and bidding soon begins to take her most valuable prize (her virginity). Soon after, Japan enters the war and Sayuri must deal with a radically different lifestyle.

In what should have been a fascinating movie, the story ends up being a bit of a bore, no thanks in part to some severe pacing issues and unusual choices of what scenes to concentrate on. For instance, there is an inexplicable jump from soon after she becomes a full geisha to the very different final act. Not nearly enough time is spent on her time as a geisha, while way too much time is spent on miserable post-war life. That may also be true in the book (I haven't read it), but the shift is so abrupt that it feels as if entire scenes are missing. An opportunity is missed to showcase how Sayuri dealt with the more sophisticated and prominent lifestyle that her success afforded her. I wanted to see more of things like the all-too-brief killer scene where Mameha tells her that "you cannot call yourself a true geisha until you can stop a man in his tracks with a single look." With just a quick look and a smile she then makes a man fall off his bike and crash.

The movie does look very nice though. The art and set direction is absolutely fantastic, with beautiful landscapes and intricately woven cityscapes and interior sets, not to mention the exquisite costume design. The acting is also commendable.

Sayuri's key moment comes early on after she is sold into the servanthood as a young girl - she meets the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a noble gentleman who treats her with respect - something that was missing from her dealings with other people. She falls for him and vows to dedicate her life to becoming a better geisha in order to attract him. Unfortunately, by the end, I didn't even care what the end result of their relationship was. Those who have read and enjoyed the novel may have a better time.

The Verdict: C.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Based on author C.S. Lewis' classic collection of The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy novels, Walden Media clearly hoped to capitalize on the enormous success of the similarly beloved Lord of the Rings film adaptations with the first Chronicles story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Director Andrew Adamson (who worked on Shrek and its sequel) and the filmmakers took advantage of the modest "big" budget to craft a solid family adventure. It doesn't come very close to matching the scope or artistry in Peter Jackson's trilogy, but should please fans of the books or those who are just looking for a more wholesome epic without bloody violence or any racy dialogue.

Set in London during the early stages of World War II, four children are sent to live with their aunt and uncle in a large home in the countryside. Bored one day, they play hide-n-seek and the youngest kid Lucy (Georgie Henley) stumbles upon a magical wardrobe. Inside, and out the back of the wardrobe leads her to the fantastic wintry land known as Narnia. There she meets Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), a kind faun (sort of a half-human, half-deer) and just has the time of her life. Note the word "time" in that last sentence; when she returns back to the house through the wardrobe, she very quickly realizes that time has stopped in her absence. Nobody even knew she was gone. Her sister and two brothers don't believe her at first, but they eventually all end up in Narnia, and that is where the fun begins.

Younger brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) makes a big mistake and leaves the group to search for the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who he believes will make him the heir to the royal throne. So Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), and Lucy go off on an adventure to save him. Along their magical journey they meet many talking animals, life-threatening danger, and the lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) who may be the key to saving the kingdom from the witch's evil clutches. There are several Christian religious themes in the movie. Fortunately for the most part they sit in the background and won't be noticeable to many people, but at least one (involving Aslan) is very easy to spot.

The story stumbles a bit in the last act, with a battle sequence that is unnecessarily long and a confrontation between Aslan and the White Witch that is way too melodramatic. And, despite the fact that it's a fantasy, I couldn't help but feel that the kids accepted Narnia too quickly and got too unrealistically attached to a few of the characters they meet. Perhaps it's a needless and minor point, but there wasn't enough shock to their systems for being in such a foreign and absurd environment.

But the child actors all do a fine job. And amazingly they all have somewhat similar facial features, which is really rather rare in cinema for people who are supposed to be related. I also especially liked the comic relief and playful banter provided by Beaver and Mrs. Beaver - certainly much of the credit for that goes to the voice actors (Ray Winstone and Dawn French). Their act is of a long-married couple who bicker constantly yet care the world for one another, yet it somehow isn't thrown in just for comic effect, as their interplay is also important to the quest as well.

Some of the visual effects are rather uneven, with some creations being very impressive and seamless into the picture, and others being obvious computer-generated renderings, with the worst being almost cartoon-y. But by then end, I had a good time, and am certainly curious to see the results of the followup, Prince Caspian, if and whenever that shall be. At its best, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe provides some wonderful magical moments, inspired by great childhood fantasies and daydreams. All in all it's a pretty fun movie.

The Verdict: B.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

High Tension (2003)

It's rather perplexing that Lions Gate managed to botch the U.S. theatrical release of French horror thriller High Tension so badly. In case you don't recall (and judging by the horrendous box office, you surely don't), most of the movie was poorly dubbed into English, was edited down for an R rating, and the marketing wasn't handled well at all. It's a real shame because director Alexandre Aja's movie is one of the purest and best horror movies in years. However LG has since seen fit to rectify its mistake and earlier this year released a fine DVD that includes both the English dubbing and the original French language tracks.

The movie opens with a dream. Marie (Cecile De France) is bloodied and being chased by a madman. It is an ominous and very cryptic opening, but she awakes and we then follow her and Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) - two law students headed to Alex's family's farmhouse for the weekend to study. They arrive late at night and are only there for a very short time, after settling into bed, when the insanity begins. A crazed bloodthirsty killer (Philippe Nahon) arrives at the house and immediately starts murdering Alex's family. And with very gruesome and violent methods. He captures Alex and ties her up and the rest of the movie is a creepy mad dash, with Marie on the chase trying to save her.

The film is marred some by a very puzzling ending. It's obviously not an entirely original idea, but it will likely have you scratching your head quite a bit. I mean, it ends up turning much of what we have previously seen on its head. In a way, Aja's twist is a cop-out. Many people will be disappointed by it, and I was at first too. That said, it doesn't ruin the movie; it's wild enough that it will encourage repeat viewings and much discussion and reminiscence. In fact, after much thought I'm not sure the movie would have quite been as memorable if it had a more conventional finish.

Aja does make good on the promise of the title. Once the scary music and, soon enough, the blood-curdling deaths begin, it is an emotionally tense thriller that calls to mind many of the great horror films. There are only very brief pauses in the action here and there. De France is masterful as Marie - coupled with the other fine pieces such as the direction, editing, and intense music, we are living her nightmare right with her. A bathroom hiding scene rivals the brilliant scene in Peter Weir's Witness. There is plenty of violence, and some of it is a tad gory, but not overtly so and it didn't need to be either; the atmosphere and high tension are more than enough. It's almost everything you want in a true horror movie.

The Verdict: B+.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Walk the Line (2005)

Walk the Line, from director James Mangold, is the biographical story of famed singer Johnny Cash. It follows more or less the same structure and pattern as the previous year's Ray about Ray Charles starring Jaime Foxx. That is to say it shows a sketch of a turbulent event from his childhood, then moves on to show the trying early days in his budding music career, followed by his success and high points, and then a slow vicious cycle of self-destruction and temporary reprieves. And, of course, it ends on a positive note.

But back to the beginning... Early in his life Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) showed signs of being into music, but the death of his brother who he was very close to would haunt him. It would provide the angst and motivation for much of his work in his career. A gig in the military, and then as a door-to-door salesman didn't do much for him, until he one day begged Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) to give him a chance and hear his band. The rest, as they say, is history. Amidst his ups and downs, he goes through one marriage (Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian), and strives for years to woo fellow singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). He also succumbs to a pill addiction and struggles to deal with his unforgiving and hard-nosed father.

Witherspoon won the recent Best Actress Oscar for her work and is very good - she is thoroughly commanding as June. Her Southern charm and demeanor is just what the role needed. Phoenix is also good, but never fully takes control of his role, as Reese does. The music is also good, and the duet scenes with June and John are some of the highlights.

The problem is that the music is not integrated well enough with the story; it simply ends up being just another piece in the pattern. They set up some event in Johnny's life where he has trouble or something bad happens, then we see the effects of this. Then he is shown recovering, then playing music, then something else bad happens. Repeat. Mangold tries to tell too many stories, rarely settling in and getting into a groove of just focusing on a few particular aspects of Cash's story. And the part of the movies that it does focus on the most is Johnny's addiction to pills, which could have been a fine story on its own, but yet is never given the full attention that it deserved in order to make it really stand out.

Some of the other famous names that June and John play with are fun and interesting - like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. But the movies seems to go out of its way to point out to us that these are in fact famous people. Elvis! Jerry Lee! Orbison! Instead of a wink, it's a full-on nudge. While this is a minor point, it goes hand in hand with the main weakness of the film - it is just trying to do too many things. I would have been perfectly fine had the film been strictly on Cash's famous Folsom Prison concert. Unfortunately that is relegated to near the end, and is only a brief diversion in this wayward journey.

The Verdict: C+.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Unhinged (1982)

The 1970s were a golden age for the horror genre. Amidst a wave of excitement and clamor for horror and slasher movies, a multitude of cheap knock-offs and unoriginal duds were produced in the latter part of the decade and into the early 1980s. Very few of them even approached the level of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, or Dawn of the Dead, among other classics. One of these pale imitations was director Don Gronquist's Unhinged. It is a movie that was notoriously banned in the United Kingdom for many years.

There isn't a whole lot to the plot of the movie. Three young college-aged women (Laurel Munson, Sara Ansley, Barbara Lusch) are heading out on a weekend-getaway road trip. In a heavy thunderstorm they get in an accident and wake up later in a big old house. A kind, passing motorist had found them and took them to safety. It is a strange house though; there is no phone, and two women live there: an old lady in a wheelchair and her spinster daughter. (The stranglehold that the old lady has on her daughter makes the relationship between Agnes and Principal Skinner on The Simpsons seem perfectly normal.) After a day of recuperating and waiting for the storm to pass, one of the women heads off to make the two-mile walk into the nearby town to call their parents. And that begins a tense, nerve-racking time in the big old house for the other young women.

It is curious, and rather shocking today that the movie was banned in some places, given that the movie is actually rather tame by current standards. There is some brief nudity and a couple spots of bloody violence, but nothing outrageous until the closing minutes. What is outrageous though is the acting, which ranges from borderline acceptable to absolutely horrible. The variation is sometimes by the same actors, and sometimes within the same scene. Though certainly part of that blame can go to the uneven script, of which the dialogue is a very weak link. But it's hard to get past the overall poor actors, with their very poor characterizations.

To its credit, Gronquist and the filmmakers have lofty expectations. In a brief television interview that is included as a DVD extra, the director makes explicit reference to its renowned predecessors The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. And there are a very few, brief moments when the movie good. The music is a key element in the movie; in fact, just about all of the suspense up until the final act comes courtesy of the well-timed music cues and ongoing beats. These brief suspense scenes are definitely the high points of the film, but are over with sooner than you can blink. Then we are back to the dullness. To its discredit, Unhinged doesn't belong in the same breath as those movies. It arrived in the tail end of the first real wave of horror movies (with the second wave currently underway), among similar movies that are generally throwaway, teen exploitation trash, with very little in the way of artistic promise (think: Friday the 13th). And it even ends up below most of that junk. Without the relatively good (though highly unoriginal) twist at the very end, this would be near the bottom of the barrel.

The Verdict: D.


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