Saturday, July 31, 2010

Today is Elke Sommer Day!

Today, we celebrate Elke Sommer, a German actress who was the very definition of Teutonic Beauty (and, to a lesser extent, big hair) during the 1960s and 1970s. This post has links to places you should visit in accordance with the spirit of the day (although it's mostly an excuse to post more pictures of Elke Sommer).

Elke Sommer Biographical Data:
At The Official Elke Sommer Website
At Internet Movie Database
At Cult Sirens
At Vintage Culture (with lots of pictures)

At Watching the Detectives
Elke Sommer at the Cinema Steve Blogs
Articles at Terror Titans
Articles at Watching the Detectives

To the left is a picture of Elke Sommer as she appears today--or, rather, as she appeared on my birthday of last year. Below, we have a picture of Sommer as she appeared in 1974, the year she made "Lisa and the Devil". It may be one of the few pictures of her that even the woman-hating Imam Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi might be able to gaze upon without having a fit. (Okay... maybe not.)

Saturday Scream Queen: Elke Sommer

This post is both part of the usual Saturday Scream Queen series, but it is also part of "Elke Sommer Day."

German actress Elke Sommer was at the height of her beauty and fame during the 1960s and 1970s. During those two decades, she appeared in over sixty films that spanned almost ever genre. By the mid-1980s, Sommer semi-retired from acting to focus on a career in the area of her first love--painting--but she continues to appear in movies and television shows to this very day.

Some of Sommer's best roles were in historical dramas and Italian fantasy films, but she was at her greatest when she at her greatest in the two horror films she made for director Mario Bava. Perhaps more-so than any other director, Bava allowed both Sommer's beauty and acting talent to shine through.

Two movies from one source: 'Lisa and the Devil' and 'House of Exorcism'

One of the DVDs included in the "Mario Bava Collection, Vol. 2" contains two different versions of the same movie. (It can also be had as a stand-alone from

The first version is "Lisa and the Devil", which was a film that director Bava was given a completely free hand on after the commerical success of "Baron Blood." According to a number of sources, it was the film the he always wanted to make, the perfect expression of his vision through the craft he had spent decades honing.

And it was a tremendous flop.

"Lisa and the Devil" was such a such dud that it was only ever released theatrically in Spain, the country in which it was filmed--and then only in a single theater. No distributor was interested in picking it up, despite everyone who saw it at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival thinking it was an artistic masterpiece.

Two years after the failure of "Lisa and the Devil," producer Alfredo Leone set about to salvage his investment by re-editing it and adding scenes that gave the film an all-new exorcism plot in the hopes of riding the success of the "The Exorcist" (which was the first official blockbuster, ever). The revised film was released under the title "The House of Exorcism."

And it became an international box office hit.

"The House of Exorcism" has been described by some critics as a butchered version of as masterpiece. However, these same critics have a tendency to discuss Mario Bava with lots of hyperbole and using the word "genius" almost as frequently as "the" when writing about him. I am hesitant to trust any critic who describes Bava as a genius, so I am hesitant to take their word for the craptacular nature of Leone's re-cut. The more films from Bava I watch, the more I admire his command of cinematography and the visual language of film, but the overall packages that make up his movies are lacking. Most Bava films I've seen have tended toward the slap-dash and incoherent story-wise, as if he was putting together the films primarily to show off imagery. And, frankly, his movies too often call attention to the fact that he's doing something cool with the camera... he's too often doing things to just show off technique instead of doing things that serve the story for me to consider him a genius.

Here are review both "Lisa and the Devil" and "The House of Exorcism". The rating assigned at the top of this post is an average of the rating of the two films with some consideration for highly interesting commentary tracks.

As always, I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the Comments section. I'm interested in what others think about Bava's films in general, or these two films specifically.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Sylvia Koscina, Alessio Orano, and Alida Valli
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When Lisa (Sommer) is separated from her tour group and lost in the old section of Toledo, she is invited to spend the night on the large, walled estate of a reclusive noble woman (Valli). But who is the mustachioed stranger who is oddly familiar to Lisa, but who keeps calling her by the wrong name? Is it more than coincidence that Lisa crossed paths the household's only servant, Leandro (Savalas), just when she lost her way? And why do people start dying in the house? And why don't they stay dead?

So many questions will come to mind while you're watching "Lisa and the Devil." The answers to some of them seem to come into focus as the film progresses--Lisa has clearly been drawn into some bizarre haunting or the supernatural climax of some greater evil--but whatever starts to make sense is thrown into question by a "shock ending", which, like most shock endings doesn't really work because it's not quite supported by everything that led up to it. (It's a little better than most of them, but I think the film could have done without it, even if I can see how it harkens back to the beginning of the film and the image of the devil carrying off the sinful dead.)

This is a gorgeous-looking film that's well-acted and, although a bit slowly paced, is one that will engage your imagination and curiosity as it unfolds. It's also a movie that's surprisingly classical and literate in nature--it reminds me of the Edgar Ulmer's Karloff/Lugosi film "The Black Cat" from the 1930s, and it's full of references to classical art--and full of visual hints and clues that are never spelled out through any form of exposition. Watch the introduction of the Lehars and their driver... you know EXACTLY what's going on in that relationship even though nothing is said. It's a scene that's perfectly staged and acted. The same is true of the scene where Max (Alessio Orano) prepares to rape the unconscious Lisa. I think that's probably one of the creepiest bits of film I've ever seen.)

The film's imagery and pacing gives it a dreamlike quality that is highly effective here. From the moment Lisa "crosses the threshhold", every event, every image we see seems possessed with a deeper, hidden meaning and that a secret story is unfolding below and behind the surface. The broken watches, the odd clocks, the white rose, the blind mistress of the house, the servant who seems to be the one truly in control, Lisa herself... all of these things seem to be images that stand for something other than what is obvious. It's a very cool sensation, and it's one that Bava successfully maintains for most of the film. He doesn't even ruin the mood anywhere with the expected garish color gels or painfully overdone camera flourishes... part of this might be because he didn't serve as his own cinematographer on most of the film but it might also be that those critics who have described this film as Bava's masterpiece are not being hyperbolic. I'm still not convinced he was the genius some like to make him out to be, but I do think there is greatness present in this film. I also think that it was ahead of its time. If this film had been made and released twenty years later. in the 1990s when the direct-to-video market was flourishing, I think it would have been a huge hit. It is a movie that had no place in the 1970s film market, despite its excellence. (The "shock ending" after the film's main action has concluded is also a sign that the world was not ready for this movie. I can't say for sure that this was the first movie that was structured liked this, but it's definitely one of the earliest.)

By the way, the film also contains some of the sexiest non-nudity you're ever going to see in a slasher-film style death scene. Sylvia Koscina, who is remarkable for her habit of getting nude in movies, actually stays covered up here, but watch for scene where she gets bludgeoned to death by the red-robed killer. I'm sure you'll agree that she's ten times more gorgeous there than if she'd actually been flashing her boobs... and it's another instance of Bava getting something exactly right.

It's not just Mario Bava who is perhaps as good as he ever was in this film. Elke Sommer gives a great performance as Lisa, who may or may not be the ghost or reincarnation of Elena, a woman who brought doom upon a household some 100 years prior to the beginning of the film. I don't think I've never seen Sommer look so beautiful or be so convincing in a role. Telly Savalas is even better as the enigmatic Lehandro who is both servant and puppetmaster in the dreamworld that this film's characters exist in. I think Savalas probably gave the best performance of his career in this film; particularly impressive is the way he delivers some very lyrical stretches of dialogue that sound completely natural as he speaks them.

"Lisa and the Devil" is every bit the masterpiece it has been cracked up to be. The DVD release included as part of the "Mario Bava Collection Vol. 2" is the first release of the film that's been fully restored to the state that Bava intended it to be seen.

The House of Exorcism (1975)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Robert Alda, and Carmen Silva
Directors: Mickey Lion (aka Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone)
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After a young tourist (Sommer) is possessed and forced to live out horrors with her inner demons, a priest (Alda) undertakes the dangerous task to driving the evil from her soul.

If one doesn't try to apply story logic to this film, one can admire the relative seamlessness with which Leone's new sequences blend with Bava's original film. (Except for the bit in the antique shop. The owner changes completely in appearance from one shot to the next, and then changes back again at the end of the film; the original actor was plainly not available, and I guess Leone thought no one would notice.)

However, one cannot admire the way he gutted the artistry from "Lisa and the Devil". I understand what he did and why he did it. I understand that he is in the film industry and that he was in the business of making product that people wanted, but I still think it was a shame that the 1970s film audiences weren't ready for something as good as "Lisa and the Devil".

One also cannot describe "The House of Exorcism" as a good movie, no matter how generous one wants to be. It is completely incoherent storywise, and it wanders fairly aimlessly through its 94 minutes of running time. Although the acting is good--Sommer and Robert Alda both do fabulous jobs in the cheesy, overblown priest vs. possessing spirit scenes--it is being squandered on empty nonsense.

As I said earlier, the action in the mansion has been transferred to Lisa's soul eventhough it doesn't make sense as being treated as such. To make matters worse, while "Lisa and the Devil" ended in a strange and inscrutible way, this version just sort of stumbles and falls on its face at the end with no real resolution to Lisa's possession, nor any clear explation to why the priest things that exorcising demons in the house will cure her. (Yes, at the very end, Leone decides not to give us blow-by-blows on everything that's happening.)

Watching this film and "Lisa and the Devil" in close proximity to one another will give you some insight in how just a few cuts, rearranged scenes, and a few additional scenes can change one movie into something completely different. The transformation of a beautiful, mysterious ghost story into a sloppy, third-rate horror flick with a completely different storyline is an astonishing sight to behold, whether you're interested in the craft of filmmaking or just a lover of movies.

If you decide to check out "Lisa and the Devil"/"The House of Exorcism", make sure you take the time to watch "The House of Exorcism" a second time while listening to the commentary track by Alfred Leone and Elke Sommer. Leone's discussion of how and why the recut version of the film came to be is absolutely fascinating. (Actually, you might just want to skip straight to watching it with the commentary. You won't be missing much, because everything good you've already witnessed in "Lisa and the Devil".)

'A Shot in the Dark' is best Pink Panther film

A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Starring: Peter Sellars, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, and Burt Kwouk
Director: Blake Edwards
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a murder takes place at the home of the rich and powerful Mr. Ballon (Sanders), the worst police detective in France, Inspector Clouseau (Sellars), is accidentally assigned to the case. He immediately ignores the most obvious suspect--the beautiful, curvecious blonde maid Marie (Sommer), who was found with the murder weapon in her hand--and continues to let his hormones guide him instead of the clues even as more bodies pile up around her.

"A Shot in the Dark" is the second movie in the "Pink Panther" series, but the first film where the formula, supporting cast, and wild slapstick antics of Sellers' Clouseau character that will become the hallmark of the series are fully present. Although often overlooked by fans of the "Pink Panther" series due to the unusual title, " it is also the very best of the entries.

Sellers is amazingly hilarious as Clouseau, and the routines he performs here are among the funniest of the entire series--only the battles between Clouseau and his overzealous man-servant and martial arts sparring partner Kato will leave viewers in stitches. The film is made all the more amusing by the fact that it not only serves as an outlet for Sellers' antics, but that is also works as a spoof of the traditional murder mystery, complete with a screwball "drawing room revelation" scene).

Typically when reviewing this film, one cites the billiards scene or the nudist colony scene (both of which are top-notch examples of Sellers' comic genius), but my favorite part of the entire movie remains the opening sequence, where we view the outside of a large house, and through the windows see a host of characters sneaking from room to room (and from bed to bed), turning the lights on and off... until we hear gunfire and the screen goes black.

This opening is both funny and engaging, and it is one of the best title sequences of any movie I've seen. The Henry Mancini-penned song "Shadows of Paris" underscores its the mood perfectly, particularly in the light of what follows.

This is a film that lovers of well-made comedies and spoofs should get lots of kicks out of.

Friday, July 30, 2010

'Invisible Strangler' is not worth spotting

Invisible Strangler (aka "The Astral Factor")
(1976, re-released in 1984)

Starring: Robert Foxworth, Mark Slade, Elke Sommer, Stefanie Powers, Frank Ashmore, and Marianna Hill
Director: John Florea
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A serial killer who targets beautiful women celebrities (Ashmore) learns how to make himself invisible using methods from Mew Age books on psychic powers. After escape from the insane asylum, he sets about stalking and killing women he had previously failed to kill.

"Invisible Strangler" is a mediocre crime drama and a complete failure as a horror movie. Yes, an invisible killer can be disconcerting--and its used to great effect in the scene where he stalks and kills his first victim (played by Sue Lyon) after escaping from the asylum--but most of the murders take too long to happen and when they do, they are hardly worth the wait because they are unartfully and badly staged.

The film might have been a little less dull if the number of victims had been cut down, or if the filmmakers had spent more time with the main victim, played by Elke Sommer, and a little less time on ones the audience has no emotional investment in whatsoever. Or better yet, if one or two victims should have been left out entirely, the film would have been more concentrated and far more watchable.

I also think the film could have been stronger if more had been done with the head detective's girlfriend. While I can't imagine anyone feeling out of sorts over watching Stefanie Powers walking around with no pants on, I think everyone can agree that it would have been so much better if her character had served a purpose other than just walking around with no pants on.

A poor script with very little character development, weak acting, weak cinematography and weaker directing makes "Invisible Strangler" makes the film barely worth watching, despite an interesting idea at its core and a couple of nice moments.

Please check back tomorrow when this blog takes part in "Elke Sommer Day" by placing the Saturday Scream Queens spotlight on Ms. Sommer, and reviews of a movie she made for Mario Bava that died a horrible box office death, and the film it reincarnated as.

Nancy Drew turns into a manipulative beech

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939)
Starring: Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas, John Litel, Louise Carter, Vera Lewis and Frank Orth
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Teen detective Nancy Drew (Granville) swings into action when she comes to the conclusion that someone is trying to drive two little old ladies (Carner and Lewis) from their home by terrorizing them. The murder of their driver ups the stakes significantly, particularly since Police Captain Tweedy (Orth) becomes convinced the sisters killed him.

"Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase" is the fourth and final mystery film based on the popular juvenile mysteries for girls. Like the previous installments, I have the sense that the characters here aren't behaving at all like the ones in the books--Nancy Drew is supposed to be the living embodiment of charm, poise and self-possession, as well as being so smart and skilled that she can run circles around any adult and take on any challenge in order to solve a mystery and bring culprit's to justice. But that's not at all the character we have here, nor in other three films in the series.

The Nancy Drew in this film succeeds by being manipulative and deceitful... and by having a strange ability to convince her friend Ted (Frankie Thomas) to do anything she asks. Although by the end of this movie, during which she ends up getting Ted humiliated in front of much of the town because he ends up women's clothing, gets him fired from his summer job, and gets him dragged off to jail for evidence tampering, I can only assume that Nancy must be a "friend with benefits" (and she must be REALLY good at delivering those benefits) if he is to continue to put up with her and the trouble she gets him into. Nancy may be having fun and solving crimes, but Ted seems to be the one paying the price.

In fact, by the end of this film, the only thing that will keep Ted out of jail for real is the probable fact that Captain Tweedy (Frank Orth) is so inept that Nancy's father Carson (John Litle) probably has 90% of his practice built around suing him and the police department for defamation of character and wrongful imprisonment and that Ted will walk for that reason alone.

Like "Nancy Drew: Trouble Shooter", the film immediately preceding this one in the series, watching it evoked memories of reading juvenile mysteries back when I was a kid. The last half-hour in particular felt very much like the climax of those books. However, if they had plots as simplistic as this--what we have here is essentially a mystery with only one viable suspect--I like to think I wouldn't have enjoyed them as much.

Still, the film's old-fashioned charm, excellent performances by everyone in the cast--with Granville and Thomas being especially good--and an exciting conclusion makes it very fun to watch. (It also provides a window into life in America 70 years ago... a place where icemen delivered ice for literal "ice boxes" in homes, for example. Ted's summer job as an iceman plays a prominent part in the storyline.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tectonic Tuesday: Elke Sommer

As regular readers know, the Tectonic Tuesdays posts are devoted to spreading the wisdom of Imam of imams Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, who in April of 2010 revealed that, "Many women who do not dress modestly ... spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes."

While I believe its important that the world is made aware of the Allah-inspired warning of Imam Slammy (as he is known to his friends), I have grown concerned that maybe my efforts are counter-productive. Is it possible that attempts to spread awareness of a threat to humanity might actually be contributing to the problem? Is the Tectonic Tuesdays series merely increasing the threat that immodest women post to the world by calling attention to them, much like Al Gore flying riding in his private jet to global warming speaking gigs increases the threat of global warming?

After all, when an oh-so-clever college student organized Boobquake--where women from all walks of life engaged in immodest behavior to show that Imam Slammy was wrong--she instead proved him right by causing an earthquake to strike Taiwan on April 26!

This week's Case Study is going to be a test in itself. This coming Saturday is Elke Sommer Day on my various blogs. If this post, in addition to the Sommer-centric posts later this week, triggers an earthquake this weekend, I may have to reevaluate my efforts on behalf of the most holy Imam Slammy.

Thirteenth Case Study: Elke Sommer

Born in 1940, German actress Elke Sommer (real name Else Schletz-Ho... and, no, I am not making that up) first threatened the world in the early 1960s when she appeared in dramas and sex comedies, such as "Love, the Italian Way", "Sweet Ecstacy" and "Why Bother to Knock." What followed were earthquakes in 1962 that rattled Utah (part of the United States of America) and the northern Iranian province of Qazvin where over 12,000 people died.

Although she semi-retired from acting in the mid-1980s, Sommer has made over 100 film and television appearances, spanning almost every conceivable genre. What has united nearly all her diverse film appearance were bountiful displays of cleavage and naked flesh, often times wearing nothing at all, such as when she appeared in "A Shot in the Dark" (1964) and "Lisa and the Devil" (1974). There can be little doubt that Sommer's serial immodesty caused earthquakes in the American states of Illinois, Indiana, and Washington in 1968, as well as the Tokachi-oki Earthquake in Japan that claimed over 200 lives.

And it's all because of the immodesty of Elke Sommer (aka Else Schletz-Ho).

Why is it called 'Day of the Ax'?

Day of the Ax (2005)
Starring: Dustin Ardine, Janet Robbins, and Suzi Lorraine
Director: Ryan Cavalline
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

When a pair of psychotic brothers aren't killing travelers, they're abducting young women and forcing them to have babies. (I think.)

"Day of the Ax" is a dull, sloppily plotted slasher flick with bad gore effects. The actors are all decent enough, but the script they are working with was so bad that I'm sure even Ed Wood Jr. would have been declined to work with it.

Skip it. It's not worth your time. But if you decide to check it out, can you explain to me why the movie is called "Day of the Ax" when the killers prefer using hammers?

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 31 is Elke Sommer Day!

Saturday, July 31 is Elke Sommer Day. Why? Because I have declared it so!

On that day, I will be posting reviews of movies that were graced with her genre-spanning beauty and talent, here and on several other of the blogs that make up Cinema Steve. If you have a blog and wish to take part in Elke Sommer Day with a post of your own, please send me the link, and I'll post it here. (Send your email to

Otherwise, please come back for the celebration of one of the 1960s most beautiful starlets.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Complete 'Scream' Series

I like reading articles by people who know more than I. I like publishing them even better. So, I am delighted to represent a guest article by Ross Tipograph, who knows far more about slasher moves and celebrated "Scream" movie series than I, so he is far more capable of writing an overview of the series than I could have done.

Ross has written articles and reviews for a number of different blogs, but he is primarily known for writing about Halloween costumes at Click on the link to check them out.

(By the way, while Ross may be the first "guest blogger" here, he need not be the last. If you would like me to host something you've written, feel free to get in touch.)

In an effort to really dig deep into this series’ bloodstream, it seems a movie-by-movie reviewing is in order. Join us on a wild ride into the tongue-in-cheek world of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson.

SCREAM (1996)
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, with Henry Winkler, and Drew Barrymore.
Dir: Wes Craven
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Na├»ve high-schooler Sidney Prescott (Campbell) lost her mother one year ago in a vicious murder. Now, in her senior year, it seems the killer is back to finish the game he started. Sidney’s boyfriend (Ulrich), friends (McGowan, Lillard, Kennedy), a plucky TV report (Cox) and a goofy town cop (Arquette) lend support / body count.

As every avid horror fan knows, “Scream” reinvigorated the entire genre from the joke that it became in the late ‘80s and completely left for dead in the early ‘90s. Kevin Williamson’s script made horror hip again, and the legendary Craven’s direction, with the great actors’ performances, pulled it all together.

It’s a balancing act – part dark comedy, part spoof of the horror genre, part genuine terror. The in-movie jokes range from Freddy Krueger to Michael Myers to Craven himself. The masterpiece horror scenes are set in a high school bathroom, to a teenage girl’s bedroom, to a giant bloodbath of a Friday night kegger. It’s artistic, it’s revolutionary, it’s the first piece of the “Scream” puzzle.

SCREAM 2 (1997)
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O’Connell, Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Liev Schreiber
Dir: Wes Craven
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Sidney, Gale, and Dewey (the trio of Campbell, Arquette, Cox) are back, along with survivor Randy (Kennedy), a whole new slew of classmates. This time, Sidney’s in college, and the murders have started again. Meanwhile, a movie version of Sidney’s troubles in “Scream” has now been released, making her life a living Hell.

The irony has reached a new level – a movie based on the goings-on in the original “Scream” movie has now been made and released in the world of “Scream 2,” and it’s called Stab. Some say screenwriter Williamson is a hack, I say he’s a genius. The routine opening murder scene takes place at a Stab screening, and the tone is set from there.

What’s interesting is how Sidney is now a stronger, darker version of what we saw before. Campbell is great as the new Sidney, who channels her traumatized emotions into theatrical school performances, who hates airheaded sorority girls and has a sweetheart new boyfriend (O’Connell), and who can still outsmart the killer, or in this case, the killers. It’s a fantastic sequel – but nothing can match the original’s groundbreaking nature.

SCREAM 3 (2000)
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Patrick Dempsey, Jenny McCarthy, Emily Mortimer, Parker Posey, Patrick Warburton, Lance Henriksen, and Liev Schreiber
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Our main trilogy trio is back, but no longer in the sleepy town of Woodsboro or on Sidney’s northeast college campus – they’ve moved to Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world. Working with the LAPD, they hone in on the new killer’s whereabouts and source of his threats, while a whole new slew of serial murders occur on the set of the third Stab movie, currently in production…

This is the ultimate tongue-in-cheek gift to movie fans – “Scream 3” takes place on the set of Stab 3, the newest sequel in a line of a horror sequels. This is the only “Scream” movie that I can enjoyably say breaks through the horror-dark comedy bubble that holds the first two movies and is seriously just a big ensemble comedy with some great horror moments. As you can imagine, the movie jokes are innumerable, and the supporting characters (especially Posey) are unforgettable.

I love “Scream 3” so much just on entertainment factor alone and my respect for the risks the filmmakers are taking to keep this series a real trilogy – which they totally succeed in doing. Many, however, disagree, saying this movie took the subtle comedy level way over the top, and how this one pales in comparison to the dark and chilling first two in the series. I don’t mind. I think, if you really love this series enough, and you have an appetite for great movie in-jokes, this is a total riot.

SCREAM 4 (2011)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Neve Campbell, Courney Cox, David Arquette, Hayden Panettiere, Adam Brody, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, Mary McDonnell
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: (N/A) – Releases April 15, 2011

It’s been ten years since Sidney (Campbell) has been free of any serial killings. She has written a successful book on her life and works as a guidance counselor at Woodsboro High, where it all began. Apparently though, a killer strikes again, with Jill Kessler (Emma Roberts), who is Sidney’s young cousin, and Jill’s friends (Panettiere, Culkin) as the main target. Dewey and Gale (Arquette & Cox) are back, too, plus help from two new cops (Brody & Shelton).

No one has any idea how this will turn out. The original director-writer team of Craven and Williamson are luckily in charge, plus help from “Scream 3” scribe Ehren Kruger, but who knows what’s happening on the set. I believe it is the most anticipated horror sequel in production, so naturally, everything is hush-hush. The introduction of a new, younger cast does not bode well for the lives of our thirtysomething returning trio. On a side note: Roberts and Panettiere are both Teen-Beat fodder, which does not bode well for their performances….

Come April 15, 2011, the new trilogy begins. That’s right, folks, Scream 5 and Scream 6 are on the slate as well – supposedly Williamson has a whole new bag of tricks up his sleeve. Fingers crossed.

Ross Tipograph is a film buff and Emerson College screenwriting major. He writes about Halloween costumes over at

April 15, 2011 has come and gone. Click here for a review of "Scream 4"!

Saturday Scream Queen: Parker Posey

Although perhaps best know for her roles in Christopher Guest's many mocumentaries, Parker Posey has graced a number of thrillers and horror films with her exceptional talent and beauty. From her supporting roles in "Scream 3", "The Eye" and "Blade: Trinity", to her starring turn in the promising pilot for the ultimately stillborn USA Network series "Frankenstein," Posey has shown herself equally at home with the comic and the creepy.

Posey most recently been focusing on comedy (such as her starring turns in the short-lived sit-com "The Return of Jezebel James" and "Spring Breakdown"), but she will star along-side Bruce Dern in the 2011 thriller "Inside Out."

Can another horror movie be far behind?

Friday, July 23, 2010

'Stop Me Before I Kill!'' is flawed but watchable

Stop Me Before I Kill! (aka "The Full Treatment") (1960)
Starring: Ronald Lewis, Claude Dauphin, and Diane Cilento
Director: Val Guest
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A race car driver, Alan Colby (Lewis), recovering from a near-fatal car accident finds himself possessed by nearly uncontrollable urges to murder his wife (Cilento) whenever they are intimate. She convinces him to seek the help of a psychiatrist (Dauphin), but things go from bad to worse when the good doctor proves to have agendas beyond helping his patient recover.

"Stop Me Before I Kill!" (a far weaker title than the original, "The Full Treatment"), has the makings of an excellent psychological thriller, with a cast of characters who each seem simple enough on the surface, but who also each have enough murkiness in their backgrounds that they may be driven by motivations more sinister than the obvious. While it offers some clever twists, it ultimately the film ends up where you expect it to, but enough doubt is thrown on the outcome along the way that the film is still enjoyable.

However, a couple of key missteps keep it from being as good as it could have been.

First of all, the film is a bit too scattered as far as its point of view goes. While most of the film, correctly, is focused around our main protagonist--Alan, the strangely unhinged accident survivor--and events unfold as seen from his point of view, a couple of parts are focused around his well-meaning fiance. While the second of these isn't that damaging to the overall film, especially since it is part of the final confrontation between the film's main characters, the first one is feels like a detour from the rest of the movie that needed to be handled very differently.

Second, the creepy psychiatrist gets way too creepy, way too fast. He is so strange and unpleasant from the very outset that there is never any question in the minds of viewers that he is a Bad Guy. Partway through the movie, as he gains the trust of the protagonist, a little bit of doubt about whether we've misjudged him begins to creep in, but even before we're done second-guessing ourselves, the film proves that we were right all along: Not only is a he a Bad Guy, but he's a Very Bad Guy.

The film, which director Guest co-wrote the script for, would have been much better served if the psychiatrist had come across more likable early on, and then taken on a little bit of shadow and sinisterness as Alex grows increasingly paranoid and obviously nuts. It would have helped the film's overall "just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you"-vibe. It would also have strengthened the what-is-now a fairly half-hearted effort to make the wife look like she is out to get Alex, too. Her background hints that she may have reasons, but the way the film is structured never quite makes it believable that she may have it in for him. And in films like this, it's important that at one or more points in the story, the protagonist appears to be all alone and beset by enemies on all sides.

Fairly typical of the thrillers and dramas that were Hammer's bread-and-butter before the studio discovered full-color monsters and babes in flimsy nightgowns, "Stop Me Before I Kill Again!" is not necessarily a film I would go out of my way to seek out, but it's a bit of non-offensive filler in "Icons of Suspense," the multi-film DVD collection of Hammer's black-and-white co-productions with Columbia Pictures.

'Red Eye' soars into the unfriendly skies

Red Eye (2005)
Starring: Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

With this 2005 chiller, Wes Craven proved that he still canmake movies that aren't self-referential, toungue-in-cheek horror efforts. With "Red Eye", Craven instead brought us a film that stands up to comparison with some of Alfred Hitchcock's best efforts.

The majority of the film tales place in the cramped confines of a red-eye flight from Texas to Florida, as hotel manager Lisa (McAdams) is heading back home. She ends up seated to a charming young named Jackson (Murphy). It turns out that the meeting was anything but chance--Jackson has been watching Lisa for weeks, and he is about to force her to make a cell-call to make her assistant switch the room of a US government official staying at her hotel so assassins can kill him. Lisa is given a choice: Cooperate or have her own father be the murder victim.

"Red Eye" doesn't break any new ground, but it does what it does extremely well. The tension never lets up from the moment Jackson's true nature is first revealed, and the excellent performances by McAdams and Murphy are so engaging that the viewer's attention is never allowed to wander for a second.

If you love thrillers of the Hitchcockian variety, "Red Eye" is a must-see. It also proves that Wes Craven can still direct films aside from goofy, self-referential horror flicks.

Please check tomorrow for a special post featuring an overview of Craven's famous "Scream" series.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

'Shutter' director didn't know when to quit

Shutter (2008)
Starring: Joshua Jackson, Rachel Taylor, and Megumi Okina
Director: Masayuki Ochiai
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A fashion photographer (Jackson) and his wife (Taylor) are on a working honeymoon in Japan when his past literally comes back to haunt him. The ghost of a woman he dated years earlier (Okina) starts appearing in photos he takes and manifesting in increasingly threatening ways.

"Shutter" is for most of its running time a fairly decent ghost movie that is a nice cross-pollination between Western and Eastern ideas about the what, why, and how of hauntings and vengeful spirits. Unfortunately, it starts to break down as the story builds to the Great Reveal when the girlfriend is shown to have been dead for several years yet no-one has checked on her... despite the fact her front door has been standing open for all that time.

(I suppose one could argue that the ghost has been wandering around the house and neighborhood so no one knew she was dead. But does that mean she also went and got a job at another firm after she had died? What about friends and family? The way the discovery of Megumi's corpse was handled in the film was such an extreme example of bad writing that I've knocked off a whole point on the ratings scale.)

In all other aspects, the film is very well done. The filmmakers make a particularly excellent use of sound throughout the movie, using it to enhance suspense in subtle ways as well as during the film's few "Boo!"-type moments. The lighting and cinematography is likewise very well done. The script is also well-written, and I was particularly happy to see they did more with the denouement than the now-expected "let's toss in one more scare." (In fact, what you THINK is the denouement is actually the beginning of the film's true ending.)

The acting is all-around decent, although I would have liked to have seen a slightly more sympathetic and charming actor playing Ben Shaw, the photographer who is the focus of the ghost's attention. Joshua Jackson has a villainous air about hm that never quite allows the viewer to be on his side. If the actor playing Ben had been just a little more charismatic, the sense of horror and dread in this film would have been ar stronger, particularly at the end.

"Shutter" is worth seeing if you enjoy ghost movies, so long as you can accept an annoying instance of no one thinking a particular sequence through. It's high on creepiness but low on blood, so gore hounds should stay away. (Oh, and if you're sick of the whole "isn't long black hair really creepy?!?" standard in these sorts of movies, you'll be glad to hear that we DON'T have that particular trope to sit through here. We got the pale, barefooted ghost chick, but at least her hair isn't everywhere!)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

'Lost Voyage' should stay lost

Lost Voyage (2001)
Starring: Judd Nelson, Janet Gunn, Scarlett Chorvat, and Lance Henrickson
Director: Christian McIntire
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In "Lost Voyage", a cruise ship that mysteriously dissapeared in the Bermuda Triangle over 25 years ago just as mysteriously reappears in perfect condition, but seemingly completely devoid of life.

Television tabloid reporter Dana Elway (Gunn) convinces paranormal investigator Aaron Roberts (Nelson) to join her and a camera crew on a salvage expedition headed by the sinister David Shaw (Henrickson). Everyone on the expedition has hidden agendas and dark secrets, but whatever caused the ship to both vanish and reappear is still onboard, and that mysterious presence starts to exploit these secrets, destroying the expedition members one by one.

"Lost Voyage" follows the pattern of countless haunted house movies, adding no twist other than placing the action onboard an abandoned cruise ship. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad movie, just average. There are other factors that insure its low rating.

While the actors turn in fairly decent performances (Gunn and her sharkish, slutty assistant that is after her job, Scarlet Chorvat, are particularly good), but they are hampered by a script that is so full of characters doing stupid things because the plot would fall apart if they didn't that is was impossible to keep count. This is either the laziest haunted house script produced since the turn of the century, or it was actually a tale of people so dumb they deserved to die just to preserve the integrity of the human genepool.

An even greater flaw in the film is the digital effects. The film takes place aboard a ship adrift in a storm. The characters are delivered to it by a cargo helicopter. The ship, the waves, and particularly the helicopter are so badly done that one finds oneself longing for the days when models would have been used for those shots. Even the cheapest B-movies with their planes dangling oddly on wires looked more real that the computer animated helicopter in "Lost Voyage." The obvious fakeness of the establishing shots of the ship, and just about any other digital effect in the movie, drag it down something fierce. (Although, while harping on the digital effects, I have to congratulate the sound crew. There is a very impressive use of sound throughout, especially wind and rain effects. The lighting crew also does a decent job, with many scenes appearing to be lit realistically with ambient lighting. These exceptional technical aspects don't make up for the film's other problems, however.

Despite some nice (if pedestrian) chills, I think even the biggest fans of haunted house movies will walk away dissapointed from this one. It's better if "Lost Voyage" stays missing.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Anita Ekberg, Miss Sweden 1950

They don't come much more picture perfect than Anita Ekberg. After earning the Miss Sweden title in 1950, she came to the United States. She first worked as a model, but then spent five years under contract to Universal Pictures in parts that demanded little more of her than to be gorgeous to look at. She returned to Europe, and by the late 1950s, her career had taken off, and she spent the next 30 years appearing in everything from sword-and-sandal fantasy flicks, horror films, comedies, and murder mysteries.

Abbott and Costello vs the Alien Amazons!

Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (aka "Rocket and Roll") (1953)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Mari Blanchard, Robert Paige, Horace McMohan, and Anita Ekberg
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When two workmen (Abbott and Costello) accidentally launch with an experimental space rocket, they think they end up on Mars. The truth is, they end up places far stranger than Mars... New Orleans during Mardi Gras and then Venus, a planet governed by immortal Amazons.

As my summary above states, Abbott and Costello never get to Mars in this film, despite the intentions of the builders of the top secret rocket and the movie's title. Instead, they move through a thin plot that is stretched to the breaking point to fill the movie's 77-minute running time, and every joke is beaten to death, particularly during the New Orleans segment. Things pick up a bit when the action moves to Venus (where Costello is made King), but it's only a slight improvement. I'm not even sure if it's the distraction of all the scantily clad beauty queens that tricked me into thinking the film got better.

This is one of the weakest Abbott & Costello pictures, and everyone but truly hardcore fans of their work should probably not bother with it.

Roles are reversed in 'Elseworlds'

Catwoman: Guardian of Gotham, Books 1 and 2 (DC Comics, 1999)
Writer: Doug Moench
Artists: Jim Balent and Kim DeMulder
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"Catwoman: Guardian of Gotham" was a two-volume series published in DC's "prestige format" in 1999. It appeared under the "Elseworlds" umbrella, where characters are twisted and changed into something other than what readers are used to seeing them as. (I don't know if DC is still doing these, but from what little I know about what's been going on in the DC Universe in recent years, it ALL sounds like an Elseworlds series.)

In this one, it's Catwoman who is Gotham City's biggest superhero. She's allied with Commissioner Jim Gorden, she battles versions of the Joker, Two-Face, Killer Croc... all the usual suspects. Oh, and then there's the mystery Bat-man, a homicidal criminal the likes of which Gotham has never seen. Will Catwoman be able to capture him? Or will she be the one laying dead by the end of the night?

"Catwoman: Guardian of Gotham" is a fast-moving tale of gritty superhero action. If you liked the violent psycho-phase of the Batman titles, you'll probably enjoy this little alternate reality story. Doug Moench is in top-form writing-wise and there is plenty of entertaining stuff here. The romantic attraction between Bruce Wayne/Selina Kyle that's been present in the Batman series since "Batman" #1 in the 1940s is used to greater effect than I think it's been anywhere outside the "Long Halloween" graphic novel.

Similarly, Jim Balent turns in some great pencils. His redesign of Catwoman's costume (which I think is the fourth or fifth one that did during his years drawing the character) is excellent and in keeping with the look of the rest of the "re-envisioned" Gotham City. The costume of the evil Bat-man is also a great and appropriately, insanely horrific. On the downside, Balent was well into his "breasts must be at least the size of the woman's head" phase. (But it's not as bad as his work on his self-published "Tarot" series... where breasts are at least TWICE the size of the head.)

The end result is a book that's entertaining and worth reading if you're a Batman or Catwoman fan--especially as the characters were portrayed in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it's not a "classic," so, despite the upscale and long-lasting format it was originally presented in, I doubt it's easy to find a decade after its publication. Should you come across this two-issue series at a flea-market, comic book convention, or on eBay, I recommend grabbing your copies.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

'Totem' has good ideas, bad execution

Totem (1999)
Starring: Marissa Tait, Tyler Anderson, Alicia Lagano, Jason Faunt, Eric W. Edwards and Sacha Spencer
Director: David DeCoteau (as Martin Tate)
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A dark, arcane force draws six teenagers to a remote cabin where they discover that some of them are fated to be sacrificed in order to unleash murderous demons upon the world, while others are fated to perform the sacrifices. But who are the victims and who are killers? And what does the mysterious, vaguely totem-pole like sculpture in the nearby cemetery have to do with anything?

"Totem" is a film with a supremely creepy premise at its heart, and it sets up the story nicely, but then it quickly goes off the rails.

The problems start with the cast. They seem to have been hired first and foremost for their good looks with any actual acting talent being entirely secondary. Even allowing for the wooden, shallow acting that is so very common in the minor Full Moon efforts like this one, what we have here is still pretty weak. The only members of the cast I didn't want to send back to community theater or to full-time modeling were Marissa Tait and Alicia Lagano. They also happen to be the only two who have had substantial acting careers since this movie--although I suppose Jason Faunt's 44-episode run as a Power Ranger counts. The other three cast members have very limited or no other film or TV credits to their names. (Hmmm... three to do the killing, three to die... maybe there IS more to this movie than one might think!)

As if a lack of talent wasn't bad enough, whether or not the actors in question were appropriate for the role they were cast also appears to have been entirely secondary. It's the only explanation for Tyler Anderson being cast as a Native American who looks more Eastern European or Italian than Native American--and whose accent is more Euro-trashy/Eastern European than anything that ever came off a Reservation anywhere in North America--yet somehow the other characters in the film can TELL he's Native American by just looking at him. (There MUST have been someone in that book of modeling agency headshots this cast was derived form who looked more convincingly Native American. I've no idea why they would've gone with Tyler, unless he was related to someone who invested money in the production.)

The acting in this film is so bland, and the performers and their characters so interchangeable that I doubt you will remember who did what to whom five even as the end credits start to roll.

The bad acting might not be entirely the fault of the actors, however. They didn't have much of a script to work with, and they are portraying characters whose development extends to "and then he does this because the plot says so... and does that because the plot says so. This Benjamin Carr-penned effort was so lazily written that not only does every character sound alike because no care was taken to give them personality through their dialogue, and the back story for the demonic critters motivating the action has to explained in a lame-ass dream sequence that may or may not have been included because the producers said, "we've got this footage of rampaging Vikings... work it into the picture somehow."

Finally, the ending here has got to be among the worst on any Full Moon production, save that of "Huntress: Spirit of the Night". Perhaps in the hands of someone competent, or at the end of a script that had actually been taken through more than one draft, the sick sort of romantic vibe I think they were going for might have worked. Here, it just feels like a bit of randomness tacked onto the end of a half-developed story. It's feels almost as forced and pointless as the presence of the totem critters.

Speaking of the critters... once again we have a Charles Band production where the neigh-obligatory puppet creatures feel as if they've been forced into a story where they don't belong. The immortal, imprisoned demons lurking at the heart of the story have the ability to manipulate the film's characters by altering their thoughts and perceptions, and they can animate their corpses after they're dead, so there is no reason for them to be flapping around and generally looking like cheap-jack prop puppets. Yes... this is the beginning of the point where Band continued to produce movies with Tiny Terrors in them, but didn't even have the budget to make them look as convincing at the original Ghoulies.

(That said, the totem puppets are better than many of their fellow on-the-cheap Tiny Terrors from Band's productions of the past decade. They're even better animated than the Blood Dolls from the film of the same title and the same year as this one, even if "Blood Dolls" was a far better movie overall.)

There is two moments in the film that saves it from a Two Rating (and the honor of being featured on my Movies to Die Before Seeing blog). The first is the point where Alicia Lagano's character is revealed as the psycho we pretty much knew her to be--it's not surprising, but it is one of the better-handled moments in the film--and the sudden and very startling death of Robert and its aftermath. While I suspect Robert's surprise death primarily arose from sloppy writing more than anything else. But, whatever the way it came about, it worked.

Tectonic Tuesday: Lexa Doig

Here's this week's proof that the great Imam Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi ("Slammy" to his friends) was speaking truth straight from Allah when he said: "Many women who do not dress modestly ... spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes."

Twelfth Case Study: Lexa Doig

Canadian actress Lexa Doig first threatened terra firma when she starred as the low-cut top and tight trousers-wearing "avatar" of a spaceship computer on the science fiction TV series "Andromeda" from 2000 - 2005. The strongest earthquake in over 150 years struck the town of Baku in Azerbaijan, killing 26, in the year that Doig first displayed her immodesty on the small screen.

Doig upped her threat-level in 2001, when she was not only appearing in "Andromeda," but also had a major role in the sci-fi thriller "Jason X." She ran around in tight pants and a tank-top, supposedly fighting a cybernetic monster, but actually bringing about the 2001 earthquakes in New York and Washington States.

Since 2007, Doig has been focusing more on her children than her acting career, and what roles she has played have involved her appearing fairly modestly dressed... but she can reemerge as a full-blown threat at any moment. After all, in 2009, when Sci-Fi Channel aired "Fireball", which features Doig in a starring role, Los Angeles was rocked by an earthquake.

And it was all because of the immodesty of Lexa Doig.

By the way, it's not just Imam Slammy who is fighting the good fight against immodest women from that bastion of concern for global peace, harmony, and security that is Iran. On July 18, Rueters reported in this article that Iranian prosecutors want to crack down on earthquake-causing immodest women. Their efforts will also spare their holy men from an experience like this:

Monday, July 19, 2010

July 31 is Elke Sommer Day!

I am declaring July 31 "Elke Sommer Day"!

Why? Well, for no reason other than I'm going to be posting reviews of a few of her movies, and she's going to be that week's "Saturday Scream Queen" at Terror Titans. Plus, anyone who filled a bikini like she did SHOULD to have a day named after them!

If there is anyone else out there who would like to post something for Elke Sommer Day, I will be happy to link to it from a post at Cinema Steve! She has made over 100 movies, in just about every genre, so there are plenty of things to write about and/or review! (If you want to send me links to older pieces you have written, I can spotlight those, too. I can even host your articles on one of my blogs, if you like. Email me your links or submissions to

At any rate, several of my review blogs on July 31 will be bright and Sommer-y. Please come by for a look!

'Jason X' is fresh air for tired slasher series

Jason X (2001)
Starring: Lexa Doig, Kane Hodder and Lisa Ryder
Director: Jim Isaac
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Jason is the mad killer from the "Friday the 13th" movie series. He started out as the crazed mongoloid son of an even crazier mother, but over the series he morphed into a demon-animated, industructable murder machine.

As "Jason X" opens, the unstoppable killing machine has been captured by the US Army, and a sexy woman scientist (Doig) is trying to find a way to destroy Jason once and for all... but with no luck. Naturally, Jason escapes confinement and starts killing everyone in the base. He and the scientist get trapped in an experimental cryogentic suspended animation chamber, and there they stay until recovered centuries later by a group of teenagers on an archeology class outing to Old Earth.

After the scientist and Jason are revived onboard a spaceship, Jason--of course--goes on a killing rampage, and along the way receives nanite-created cybernetic enhancement. Who will be left standing after the final, far-future confrontation between Jason and the scientist in the tight tanktop?

This is by far the most entertaining "Jason" movie since the two original films, and it's a far more fun "re-imagining" than the lame remake from last year. The script actually has a number of unexpected twists--it's been a loooong time since anyone bothered putting a real plot into a Jason/Friday the 13th movie--the dialogue sharp and witty, and the murders are mostly quite creative and often take advantage of the sci-fi setting. There are even some inside jokes that will inspire gales of laughter among those who have seen lots of films in the mad slasher genre. (The dvd is particularly amusing with its "jump to a death" feature.)

By the way, this is also the only "Friday the 13th" sequel that I have in my personal collection of movies, because it's the only one that has continued to entertain on repeat viewings.

What is the deadly secret of the 13th guest?

The Thirteenth Guest (aka "Lady Beware") (1932)
Starring: Lyle Talbot, Ginger Rogers, and J. Farrell MacDonald
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Marie (Rogers), the young heiress to the Morgan fortune, is found mysteriously electrocuted in the family manor that has remained sealed since her father died during a dinner party 13 years prior, Police Captain Ryan (MacDonald) calls upon the assistance of playboy criminologist Phil Winston (Talbot) to help solve the baffling murder. Before Winston can even begin to investigate, the mystery takes an even stranger turn: The dead girl turns up alive and in police custody for car theft... and soon there's a second dead body at the old Morgan place.

"The Thirteenth Guest" is a pretty good little mystery movie for most of its running time. The three lead actors all give decent performances that are in line with what is to be expected from one of these "who-dunnit in the dark, old house" mysteries, and the murderer had a fairly clever set-up with which to commit the murder. There are also just enough plausible suspects and clever plot-twists make it real mystery film.

Unfortunately, for every clever twist there's a plot logic-hole that a truck could be driven through. Equally unfortunate is the presence of a truly lame comic relief character. And I won't even dignify the idiotic mask and cape they have the murderer prance around in with comment. (Hang on... did I just comment on the idiotic mask and cape? Curses!)

The good parts outweigh the bad parts--but only barely--in "The Thirteenth Guest." It's not a film I recommend you rush out to find a copy of, but if you're looking around for a little something to round out a "home film-festival" selection of mystery movies, this might be what you're looking for. Just don't make it the main attraction.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Lysette Anthony

By the late 1980s, British actress Lysette Anthony looked like she was on her way to being a major star. She certainly had the looks, she had the talent and the discipline--having acted since the age of 10 in her parents' theatre company and seeming equally at home in fantasy films like "Krull", comedies like "Without a Clue", and chillers like "Dead Cold"--it's one of those quirks of the movie business that her career seemed to stall in the late 1990s.

Anthony's lack of roles might have been that she found herself type-cast as a sweet British maiden, something even a nude layout for Playboy couldn't shake. It might also have been that she was in two financial disasters in a row--the horror comedies "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" and "Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde". Or she may simply have chosen to focus on her family, as so many actresses do.

Whatever the reason, Anthony did give us some fun times with "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" and "Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde" (box-office failures aside), and she is returning to film next year in a major fashion, co-starring with Christopher Lee, Michael Madsen and Bai Ling.

Friday, July 16, 2010

'Inception' is most unusual action film ever

Inception (2010)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, and Marion Cotillard
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A corporate espionage expert, Dom (DiCaprio), specializing in stealing ideas straight from the minds of targets is hired to enter the dreams of the heir-apparent of a massive energy company (Murphy) and plant an idea that he should break it up and sell of the pieces. With a team of similarly talented experts, he enters the dreamscape... but the job is complicated by unexpected resistance generated both from the mind of the target and from dark secrets lurking within Dom's own subconscious.

I don't like to use absolutes when writing reviews, partly because I have not seen every movie ever made, and partly because too many reviewers look like morons when they declare multiple films in the same year as "the best movie ever" or even just "best movie of the year."

However, I am going to make an exception with "Inception." This is, without question, the most unusual and unexpected action movie ever made.

First, it is a near-perfect fusion of the standard Heist Movie with an almost Gibson-esque futuristic setting where mega-corporations operate almost as independent nations, and technology has broken down the barriers between mind and machine in almost unimaginable ways. Nolan wisely stayed away from "cyberware," but almost every other element is here, and he handles those elements with a level of skill and effectiveness that has rarely been seen. (Nolan also stays away from cliches like "evil corporations will always double-cross you" and "it was a simple job gone wrong," which elevates the movie even further.)

Second, the film asks viewers to follow the action and story threads through the "real world" and five different dreamscapes. Not only that, but while following the story lines, the viewers need to be introduced to the "physics" of existing within the dreamworlds and juggle almost as many complexities as the characters when they undertake their "grand heist" by creating and penetrating a dream within a dream within a dream. With completely different worlds interacting with and impacting upon each other--the team at one point is operating on four different dream-levels after the mission "goes bad"--this is a film that could easily have either collapsed into chaos or gotten bogged down in unnecessary exposition. Neither happens here, because the parts of the film are so specifically thought out and the plot so carefully constructed that it all turns and spins like the works in a perfectly made Swiss watch; and because Nolan trusts in the intelligence of his audience to understand the unusual setting with just one purely expository scene, and some dashes of additional explanation between characters as the film progresses. (Ellen Page plays a character who is new to the profession, so she functions in many ways as the "proxy" for the viewer, allowing for things to be explained without it appearing out of place and heavy-handed. And even so, Nolan chooses more often to "show, not tell," an approach that more filmmakers need to develop.)

Third, the film has some fantastic fight scenes and exceptionally well-staged chase scenes. It's actually astonishing to me that no element of a spectacular, extended Zero-Gravity action sequence in a hotel corridor was not used in any of the previews and television ads for the film. Believe, the scenes of Paris exploding around DiCaprio and Page, and the image of a city street and buildings folding up at a 90-degree angle are nothing compared to to the truly exciting visuals and action sequences in the film.

Along with the action is the fact that everything is perfectly timed, like that Swiss watch I mentioned above. There is not a single piece of padding anywhere, no unnecessary or redundant scenes, no establishing shots that go on for too long... everything here is timed perfectly for maximum suspense and maximum excitement. I often get impatient with a film when it hits the 85-minute mark, but this one runs almost two-and-a-half hours, and I barely noticed the time pass. There was always something going on, and it was all important and relevant. In fact, this is one of those very rare films in this genre that sets out to be more intelligent and thought-provoking than the average action film or crime drama where I never had the sense that the writer/director was trying to show me how clever he thought he was... then again, Nolan didn't have to, because "Inception" actually is as clever and well-wrought as he probably thinks it is.

Finally, the actors are all very good in their roles. I'm not saying that anyone up there gets to have a Marlon Brando "Stellaaaaaaa!" moment, but the entire cast gives performances that are believable and suitable for the roles they're playing. Every character comes across as extremely intelligent and creative, just like I would expect someone who engages in manipulating the dreams of others would have to be, but also cold enough that they would violate those very private places without compunction. Only Ellen Page's character doesn't have that cold edge to her, yet even her character is ultimately enamored with the chance to build worlds from scratch and not terribly concerned with the impact on the group's target. The characters are all likable--even Cillian Murphy has a chance to play a likable character, something I have never seen him do before--and they are all portrayed by actors whose performances all seem absolutely real and believable. Heck, this film even gives me cause to reconsider whether Leonardo DiCaprio has any talent or not... this is the first film I've seen him in where I didn't feel like he hired just for his pretty face.

Fourth, there's the nearly perfect score by Hans Zimmer. It's been a while since I've seen a film where the soundtrack music so perfectly complimented and heightened the action and suspense as it did here. The beginning of the third act, where the team has scant minutes to escape from three different dreamworlds, or be lost for what will seem like decades in a mental limbo, wouldn't have been nearly as exciting as it was with that music. And, most of the time, you won't even notice it's there, because it is so well done. Zimmer's contribution here in on the level of what Bernard Hermann did for Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest".

This is probably another hyperbole I should stay away from, but, with this being the fifth film in a row from Nolan that I have been able to find very few faults with, I think he may this generation's Alfred Hitchcock. He seems to have a perfect eye for pacing suspense films, for getting just the right performances out of the actors, and for bringing every tool at his disposal to bear in order to shape a fantastic movie. Of course, it's not a judgement that one can really make without the sort of hindsight that we have on the likes of Hitchcock, but there is no doubt in my mind that Nolan is an extremely talented filmmaker, and that someone will be writing long retrospectives about a grand career seventy years from.

I said last week in my review of "Predators" that it would be remembered as one of the best action films this summer. I think "Inception" will be counted among the best movies of the year, period. Hell, it may even end up being one of the best of the decade when it comes time to look back. At any rate, I don't think it's going to be successfully imitated any time soon, nor do I think it's going to be matched.

See it. You won't regret it.