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Jerzon M. Vargas
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'You can't make chicken salad out of chicken s***.'
'You can't make chicken salad out of chicken s***.'

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Bruno Mattei's RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR (1984, 97 min.) on Amazon Prime for the first time.

From the director of "Hell of the Living Dead" and the writer of "Troll 2" and "Zombi 3" (who also moonlighted as this feature's uncredited co-director) comes a ridiculously cheap and schlocky-as-all-heck Italian take on post-apocalyptic dystopia filtered through mid-80's exploitation cinema production values (i.e. redressed sets from Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time In America"). "Rats: Night of Terror" takes place in the year 2275 (2015 + 225 years "after the bomb"), when a gang of clothes-coordinated youths with names like 'Taurus' (Massimo Vani), 'Video' (Gianni Franco) and 'Chocolate' (Geretta Geretta) decide to spend a night in a warehouse-like building in an abandoned city after discovering food supplies, artificial vegetation, fruits and a water-filtering system. Never mind that mutilated corpses and vestiges of rodent activity are all over the place. Pretty soon the group starts separating and, you guessed it, the first couple that gets naked and has sex is attacked by killer sentient rats. Rats that apparently rape their female human victims (don't ask!), have a great sense of timing (they pop out of a human victim's mouth at just the right moment) and coordinate chewing the tires of the gang's early 1980's motorcycles (!) to keep them from escaping. There's a long night of terror ahead for these human survivors, which is made more difficult by the battle for control of the group between leader Kurt (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua) and defiant Duke (Henry Luciani).

Everything about "Rats: Night of Terror" reeks of the worst aspects of Italian horror cinema in the mid-80's (the complete opposite of t1984's "Wild Beasts"), particularly the absence of any noteworthy gory special effect or 'money shot' except the very last image, an homage-of-sorts to the original "Planet of the Apes" that comes across as so intensely stupid it almost (but not quite) redeems the boredom of the 95 minutes that preceded it. I'm all for giving unknown actors a break, but this is a feature in which there isn't a single likable performer or anyone within shooting range of giving a decent performance besides the rats. And despite what the poster image below might indicate, the poor creatures used for this production (a) aren't terrifying and (b) many of them end up burned alive on-camera for our so-called amusement. For some reason unbeknownst to me Cindy Leadbetter's Diana becomes the focus of the narrative despite giving no better or worse a performance than, for example, Moune Duvivier's Lilith (whose wacky goth vampire outfit stands out). A couple of things exploding (tank and bike props) and the sight of human body parts here and there notwithstanding, "Rats: Night of Terror" easily ranks among the least enjoyable, stupidest and worse Italian horror movies I've seen in a long time. A-fucking-void, a complete waste of celluloid, abandoned movie sets and actors whose talent belong to onboard entertainment in leisure cruises.
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DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE! (1980, 94 min.) on CONtv for the first time.

For a horror genre in which a cornerstone remains the identity of the killer remaining a mystery until the very end (to milk as much make-believe tension as possible without spending any real money on production), a surprising number of early 80's slashers show the killer out in the open doing his thing: "Don't Go In The House," "The Slumber Party Massacre," "Silent Night, Deadly Night," etc. Add to the pile this super sleazy and nasty low-budget 1980 slasher that, fittingly, doesn't have anything to do with its title. As "Don't Answer the Phone!" gets underway a nurse coming home from work is brutally murdered and raped by Kirk Smith (Nicholas Worth), whom we soon learn is a disturbed Vietnam veteran that moonlights as a photographer. Kirk has murdered/raped five Los Angeles women in the past month (including the nurse), and detectives McCabe and Hatcher (James Westmoreland and Ben Frank, respectively) are on the case. For unknown reasons Kirk has a thing for Dr. Lindsay Gale (Flo Lawrence), a therapist with a radio call-in show to which the disturbed veteran calls regularly pretending to be a Hispanic man. Kirk even follows his sixth victim straight from the clinic where the young woman had just seen Dr. Gale. This latest vic's death (unseen but very disturbing for the 'daddy issues' hinted at when Smith breaks into her home) prompts the LAPD to form a task force to catch the serial murderer/rapist. Cue the hilarious 'task force working' montage (followed a few scenes later by an equally pointless 'find the pimp' montage), including McCabe and Hatcher having fun with a man claiming to be clairvoyant. McCabe and Dr. Gale get into an argument when the former tries to get the latter to release her murdered patient's medical records. Meanwhile Kirk Smith has his deadly way with yet another victim, Sue Ellen from Indiana (Pamela Jean Bryant), followed by an encounter with a prostitute that the disturbed man makes sure to strangle to death while on the phone with Dr. Gale on her radio show. As the circle begins to tighten around Kirk, though, not even the police detail tasked with protecting her can ensure that the therapist and the obsessed murdering rapist won't meet face to face.

One of the few saving graces that gives "Don't Answer the Phone!" a modicum of personality is that it's set in the sleazy L.A. porn scene at a time when New York City was the epicenter of exploitation cinema. Nothing like seeing "Porky's" own Chuck Mitchell as a sleazy magazine editor buying the pictures of the victims that Kirk terrorizes before dispatching. And hey, could a movie in which the Kevin James-lookalike slasher pumps himself up with WWF-type catchphrases and motivational speeches while shirtless really be that bad? Eh, yes it can. Writer/director/producer Robert Hammer (who never went on to do anything else after this flick) can't get a hold of the picture's tone, alternating between Troma-level sophomoric humor (the detectives raiding a brothel resulting in Johns jumping out of windows... uh?!), by-the-book police procedural (and all the boring details that entails) and grindhouse exploitation tropes (Kirk knife fighting with the pimp of the prostitute he just murdered). Worse, every actor in the cast is really, really bad and unconvincing in their roles. Nicholas Worth gets a pass for being asked to look and act like a psychopath, but the actors playing the two detectives and the therapist Kirk is after are way out of their limited depth. The script manages to get Westmoreland and Lawrence into a romantic relationship (after the former talks one of the latter's suicidal patients off a ledge, "Dirty Harry" style) the movie doesn't need or want, let alone support. Byron Allred's electronic music is painful to listen to, and not even the sight of L.A. movie marquees at night (for the likes of "Alien" and "The Main Event") can make James L. Carter's cinematography feel any more dingy and dark than it already is. If sky-high misogyny and over-the-top sleaze seem like an adequate substitute for a slasher light on gore and without a moment in which a character not answering the phone is an integral part of the plot, then "Don't Answer the Phone!" might be worth a look. Me? I already own Lucio Fulci's "The New York Ripper," so thanks but no thanks. :-)
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Alan Clarke's TO ENCOURAGE THE OTHERS (1972, 105 min.) at NYC Anthology Film Archives' "The Elephant In the Room: The Films of Alan Clarke" Retrospective for the first time.

Like a college film class in which a movie being analyzed and dissected for class is constantly paused, rewound and rewatched, "To Encourage the Others" sacrifices the comfort of a simple A-to-B-to-C storyline for the cinematic deconstruction of a miscarriage of justice that took 45 years (26 after this made-for-TV movie was made and aired) to posthumously correct. Using a variety of techniques (voice-over narration, stock footage, 16mm stock for outdoor scenes, videotape for courtroom/indoor ones, etc.) and a cast of uniformly great actors that disappear into their collective effort, director Alan Clarke and screenwriter David Yallop (author of the exhaustively-researched book on which this BBC made-for-TV movie was based on) go to great pains to re-enact, then break into easy-to-grasp montages, the events from November 2 of 1952. On that evening Derek Bentley (Charles Bolton) and his 16-year-old partner-in-crime Christopher Craig (Billy Hamon) attempted to burglarize an warehouse. In the police commotion that followed during a tense standoff between the youths and the authorities, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax (Michael Sheard) and Police Constable Sidney Miles (Christopher Coll) were both shot. While Fairfax got off with only a shoulder wound, Miles died from a head wound. The guilt of Bentley and Craig is never in doubt, nor do Clarke and Yallop try to pass these youths as saints that don't deserve punishment for their crimes. But as the conflicting eyewitness testimony, interviews with forensic experts and the evidence itself shows (all presented in nauseating, almost professorial dry detail), there is no clear evidence whether the fatal shot that ended Constable Miles' life was fired by Christopher Craig. It's a mute point since Craig was 16-year-old, and thus ineligible for the death penalty. Derek Bentley was 19, though. Despite evidence of Bentley's diminished mental capacity and not being the one who pulled the trigger, Britain's "joint enterprise" law allows the clearly-biased Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard (Roland Culver) and prosecutor Christmas Humphreys (Philip Stone) to pursue a death sentence against the 19-year-old accused.

Even without knowing a thing about the Derek Bentley case prior to seeing "To Encourage the Others" (made 20 years after the events its depicts), It's obvious from the moment the told-in-chronological-order movie starts where things are headed. This is an angry movie, but one that channels its anger toward a methodical pursuit of facts to support its arguments a miscarriage of justice was perpetrated by a law system with a judicial thumb in its scales to favor state-sanctioned revenge. Revenge against the perpetrator old-enough to be executed that didn't do anything but shout 'Let him have it, Chris,' not the one young-enough to avoid a death sentence despite a higher likelihood he was the shooter. It really helps that Roland Culver and Philip Stone play Lord Goddard and Humphreys, respectively, as arrogant men so sure of their infallibility they don't even bother to hide their contempt for the youths they're passing judgement on. Arthur Lovegrove and Carmel McSharry make an impression as Derek Bentley's too-stunned-to-react parents, and Charles Bolton portrays Derek as a youth that's neither completely retarded or a bloodthirsty chap. Alan Clarke doesn't have his typical rebel character that stands alone against the system oppressing him, but in "To Encourage the Others" he doesn't need one. Great Britain's justice system's checks and balances designed to prevent someone like Derek Bentley from slipping through its cracks failed miserable. Clarke and company are just making sure that, by using their own words (via court transcripts), those that decided that a life should end prematurely for a crime the accused wasn't guilty of shall be forever remembered in shame. Highly recommended, one of Alan Clarke's lesser-known works whose build-up and tense-as-hell denouement pack as strong a punch as "Scum" and "Elephant."
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UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (2003, 113 min.) on DVD for the first time.

Frances Mayes (Diane Lane, playing a fictitious version of the author of the memoir the movie's based on), a San Francisco-based author and literature professor that reviews books to make ends meet, isn't having a good couple of months. Her writer husband Tom (never shown except from the back in an old photograph) leaves her for another woman, and because Frances was supporting hubby while he struggled to write his book she owes Tom $200,000 in alimony. Forced to sell the home she's been building for years and living in a cramped apartment for struggling professionals (complete with mopping lawyer across her paper-thin wall), Frances eventually jumps at the chance to go on an Italian vacation when her married girlfriends (Kate Walsh and Sandra Oh, playing lesbian lovers a couple of years before they became doctors in "Grey's Anatomy") decide to trade their coach tickets for a first-class upgrade. The fact Patti (Oh, excellent but underutilized) is pregnant also helps. Once in Italy Frances is seduced by the charm of the small town of Cortona, then jumps at the chance to buy an old Italian villa named 'Bramasole' from an old lady that is willing to sell it to her due to a heavenly sign (aka poop from a pigeon). It takes a long time and a lot of moral support from local lawyer Martini (Vincent Riotta), but eventually Frances and a crew of local workers (Roberto Nobile's Placido and his crew of Polish immigrants) start turning the mostly dilapidated Bramasole into a livable home. As Frances start getting to know her neighbors and befriend quirky locals like Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), she eventually has an affair with attractive Marcello (Raoul Bova) that rekindles the literary juices that have been dormant for a long time. With an about-to-pop Patti (who was dumped by her significant other) tagging along with Frances after the former moves in with her, wacky and romantic hijinks ensue. But is Marcello the key to the Frances finding true happiness in her new Tuscan digs?

A more apt title for "Under the Tuscan Sun" (or this year's "Paris Can Wait": https://plus.google.com/114656828393049850554/posts/Ab4KeMMFg44) would be "It's Good To Be Diane Lane." The unspoken fuel powering the wish fulfillment fantasy in this Audrey Wells-directed picture is that an attractive, wealthy (Frances' home clearly fetched a lot more than the $200K she owed her ex) and intelligent white woman is at the core of its based-on-real-events narrative for the mostly female audience to imagine themselves in the lead's place. Lane, who has aged into a fine actress (but was still in her middle-aged prime in 2003), is up to the task of being a mainstream American audience's idea of an approachable, likable presence we can all relate to. The production pushes its luck by occasionally turning into broad stereotypical comedy at the expense of spouses (men and women) behaving badly, immigrants being goofy (Valentine Pelka and Sasa Vulicevic), or diving into overwrought clichés about young lovers (Pawel Szajda's Polish worker and Giulia Steigerwalt's Italian sweetheart Chiara) overcoming societal obstacles... all for Frances' down-to-Earth wisdom to either solve or deal with the problem at hand in the most friendly manner possible. Other than the filmmakers showing how much they love Federico Fellini movies (Katherine's character being a dead ringer for Anita Ekberg's Sylvia character from "La Dolce Vita," name dropping references to "Nights of Cabiria," etc.), "Under the Tuscan Sun" exists in its own happy and safe bubble of 'PG-13' romantic entanglements for which Bramasole plays host to American dreams of a foreign land a single woman can easily set new roots at and blossom. A complex and expensive task in real life, but a pleasant distraction for the couple of hours we get to hang out with Diane Lane. :-) Recommended with reservations.
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SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED (1974, 86 min.) on Amazon Prime for the first time.

Like every disposable exploitation picture worth its weight in fool's gold, "Shriek of the Mutilated's" best attribute is its hand-drawn poster artwork (see below). Everything after that is just the pits, a zero-budget take on the Yeti/Big Foot legend that eventually reveals itself to be a violent 'R' rated "Scooby-Doo" live-action cartoon for drive-in customers with no desire to watch the movies they paid money to see (i.e. horny teenagers with cars). Unlike most disposable horror movies from this era that stretch a thin story to its breaking point, at least "Shriek" is overflowing with characters, plot developments and story. It's just that none of them are any damn good, or the plot twist as shocking as advertised (big surprise). A group of four college students played by non-actors way too old to be going to school (naturally) are talked by their Yeti-obsessed professor, Doctor Ernst Prell (Alan Brock), into going on a field trip to distant Boot Island to follow up on clues of the creature's latest sighting. One of these students, Keith Henshaw (Michael Harris), is wined and dined by Dr. Prell with a special dish named "gin sung" that has to be asked for by name (like, you know, the secret menu at In-N-Out). The other students (played by no-name actors not worth mentioning or remembering) attend an off-campus party where they run into Spencer Ste. Clair (Tom Grail), a former associate of Prell's that goes nuts when he finds out his former teacher is taking another expedition of students in search of Big Foot. Partly because of the booze and partly because he's been driven mad, Spencer rambles in front of an embarrassed crowd about how his life is in shambles and his former schoolmates are dead because of Prell. Alas, when Spencer and his girlfriend leave the party and go to their apartment they wind up killing each other... the former by slicing her neck and the latter by throwing a plugged-in toaster into the bathtub where Spencer has fallen asleep washing blood off his clothes. It'd all be horrifying and scary if, you know, it was shot or edited in anything resembling a motion picture. BTW, how can someone scream at the top of their lungs when her throat is cut? And then live for several minutes, long enough to have the presence of mind to grab a toaster, plug it and toss it into a tub before dying? Answer: 'cause. :-P

Once Dr. Prell, Keith and the rest of the students (including Jennifer Stock of "Bloodsucking Freaks" fame playing Keith's girlfriend) arrive at Boot Island (aka Upstate New York's Croton-on-Hudson) they meet the doctor's friend, Dr. Karl Werner (Tawm Ellis, a dead ringer for John Carpenter), and his stereotype-dialed-to-11 mute Indian assistant, Laughing Crow (Ivan Agar). After Dr. Werner fills them in on the Yeti's latest sighting the group breaks into smaller hunting parties the day after, and "Shriek of the Mutilated" plays the ages-old game of dispatching one character at a time until only one (or two?) are left to discover the horrifying secret about Big Foot, Boot Island and Dr. Prell. Can't say more about this one without spoiling it, other than (a) it follows the popular trends in horror from the early 70's and (b) the offensive stereotyping of secondary characters doesn't stop with the Native American. Laughing Crow, meet African King Ochiboda (the fuck??!!). You know you're watching a no-budget flick when the public domain music playing as the students are running through the woods (particularly Darcy Brown's Lynn and her humongous glasses) reminds you of Bugs Bunny and classic Walt Disney animation. I swear I even heard music from The Archers' "Tales of Hoffman" thrown in at one point. I had a couple of good laughs at the absurdity of it all, especially when someone is knocked unconscious by the human leg of one of the Yeti's early victims. Alas, not even an ending that traffics on early 70's chestnuts (vast conspiracies, ham radio, etc.) can save this one from the forgettable. Avoid, a complete waste of 85 minutes of your valuable time (as any film in which none of the actors have an IMDB picture should).
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Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! (2017, 121 min.) in theaters for the first time.

It's not a good sign for a $35+ million arthouse movie starring big name actors (Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, etc.) when it's more fun to talk about and dissect "Mother!" than to experience it as a movie. Or when, by being just her usual comedic quirky self, Kristen Wiig shows up out of nowhere deep into the third act and establishes her disposable character in two minutes' worth of on-screen time... which is more than some above-the-line players do with many more scenes. I know I've read and debated the movie endlessly since I've seen it (sometimes defending, other times bashing it), but have no desire whatsoever to ever see it again... even though I don't hate "Mother!" and kind of dig it. It's one of those once-is-enough viewings where rewatching a movie dilutes its power going in knowing what to expect, like "Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer." Then again, when one enters the realm of Darren Aronofsky's cinematic artistry it's a risk that the style and the execution of his lofty ideas (especially dealing with religion and/or spirituality) will overwhelm a movie's most basic goals. You know, engaging an audience, creating relatable characters (let alone likable ones) or telling a story with visuals/dialogue that don't require reading between the lines to actually grasp at the text AND subtext for the subject-to-interpretation allegories it presents as actual entertainment to become understandable. It takes until 47 minutes into "Mother!" for Aronofsky to cut to an outside establishing shot of the house where Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, playing a married couple, have been living and arguing with uninvited guests. It's an artificial-as-hell shot, a mix of soft CGI and green screen, that does little for the audience except provide momentary visual relief from the director's mise-en-scène of focusing of Lawrence's perpetually-frowning face with a handheld camera as his go-to shot. Enjoy this first panoramic view of "Mother!'s" house, because it's a long time before we see another one... and there are less than five throughout its two hour running time! Sigh. :-(

I didn't know before watching this that writer/director Aronofsky and star Jennifer Lawrence are an item. It shouldn't really matter, but seeing Lawrence barefoot throughout the entire movie and the story becoming some sort of cinematic martyrdom test for her character to endure (I can't recall a scene where Lawrence's smile isn't masking repressed feelings of anger and despair) its par for the course for a filmmaker that put Rachel Weisz ("The Fountain") and Natalie Portman ("Black Swan") through the same dramatic ordeal. Despite coming across as a paralyzed-by-inaction nag of an older hubby (a creative type too concerned with making nice with strangers than understand the self-doubts of his much-younger wife), Javier Bardem is actually the character around which "Mother!" revolves when Aronofsky finally reveals all its cards. It just happens that the attention and focus of the director is on his muse's reactions to her carefully-arranged world falling apart, which provides home invasion horror frights (the type that actually makes an audience feel as uncomfortable watching as the character experiencing the loss of control) comparable to those of an actual horror movie. The final act of "Mother!" is almost worth the price of (matinee) admission and the slow burn of its first two thirds (which are made a little more bearable by Pfeiffer's vamp act and Harris' clueless dope persona), with Aronofsky going for broke letting his freak flag fly in as entertaining a fashion (i.e. not at all) as his budget will allow. My personal opinion (and likely the wrong one as I've seen many other better readings of "Mother!'s" true meaning): like David Fincher's "The Game," this is a allegory about the hurt and passion that filmmakers go through and put themselves, their stars and their civilian families through the agony of creating beautiful art... only for the final product to be thrown to masses of people that mindlessly consume/devour it without much thought or concern for the very real people that they hurt when they don't allow them to have a moment's privacy. Then the process repeats itself, always the same but a little bit different (aka the movie's final shot).

By necessity this interpretation means Bardem represents Aronofsky, which would make the director of "Noah" and "Requiem For A Dream" a tiny step removed from the king of douche bag directors full of themselves, M. Night Shyamalan. And at least Shyamalan gives his fictitious characters real names instead of highfalutin titles like 'Damsel' (Amanda Chiu), 'Aesthete' (Alex Bisping), 'Plunderer' (Anton Koval) and my personal favorite, 'Whoremonger' (Genti Bejko). :-D "Mother!" is worth seeing, if only to laugh at how many mindless mainstream movies Aronofsky will be forced to direct as penitence for saddling Paramount with this current box office flop, potential cult-classic-in-the-making. I'd say rent it, but this production's madness is best experienced on the big screen... and time is running out for this one to make room for the mindless stuff this movie is (subtlety) criticizing, but is bound to make more money.
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Ted Wilde's SPEEDY (1928, 85 min.) in 35mm at New York City's Film Forum for the first time.

My first Harold Lloyd movie, which is ironically the silent era star's final motion picture before he transitioned to talkies. Perpetual optimist and diehard New York Yankees fan Harold "Speedy" Swift (Lloyd, excellent) can't seem to hold on to a job for long, even though the love from his sweetheart Jane Dillon (Ann Christy) isn't dependent on income. Whether working at a soda shop or driving a taxi cab, Speedy keeps getting into all kinds of wacky hijinks that eventually result in his firing. It's worth it to Speedy for the people he occasionally runs into, like idol Babe Ruth (playing himself) on his way to Yankee Stadium, and for the knowledge tomorrow will bring another job. He even spends what little money he has on Jane during a weekend trip to Coney Island that, despite the usual parade of people angry at Speedy (and the dirtying of his brand new suit), brings the couple closer together. They even get to take home a stray dog that becomes attached to Speedy. Alas, a bit of good luck spotting a newspaper article alerts Speedy to prevent Jane's father Pop Dillon (Burt Woodruff), driver of the city's last remaining horse-drawn public transportation car, from selling his line to rich industrialist W.S. Wilton (Byron Douglas) for a small fraction of what it's actually worth. When Wilton and his hired muscle start playing dirty trying to get Pop's car to stop running for 24 hrs., Speedy asks help from the neighborhood old timers that use the vehicle as their nighttime gambling/drinking spot after hours. With their assistance Speedy fends off Wilton's goons, but that momentary victory doesn't prevent the bad guys from stealing Pop's car later on. With the clock ticking to his girlfriend's father's financial well being (and his chances to marry Jane), can Speedy find Pop's horse-drawn car and return it to its line before it's too late? Hey, does Harold Lloyd wear glasses? :-P

I couldn't ask for a better movie-going experience (the complete opposite of "Effects" at Brooklyn's Alamo Drafthouse) than seeing "Speedy" in a packed screening with people either new to the movie or veterans that could still laugh at its pitch-perfect comedic timing and physically demanding stunt work, all set to a live piano performance by musician Steve Steiner. Can't say if this is Lloyd at his prime (haven't seen "Safety Last!" and its iconic hanging-from-a-tower-clock scene), but for a late 1920's production the amount of gags, stunts and location shooting in Manhattan (just around the corner from Film Forum's Houston St. neighborhood) is staggering. The filmmakers and Harold Lloyd (who hired them to work on his production company) made a conscious and very typical-for-the-time decision to allow "Speedy" to work as a series of standalone vignettes linked by the unifying plot of Wilton trying to get his hands on Pop Dillon's line. The result is something that feels like four or five separate mini-movies with individual beginnings, middles and endings, but all of which keep a consistently wild and entertaining pace. I personally loved the taxi segment where Speedy keeps losing customers and/or fees (mistaking civilian passengers for feds, making poor Babe Ruth see his life flash before his eyes, etc.), although the climactic horse-drawn race across Downtown Manhattan (complete with a cameo by Washington Square Park's iconic Arch) is every bit its equal. And for my money the thugs vs. oldies street battle in "Speedy" is a lot more impressive and entertaining than the totality of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York." ;-) The bits with Lloyd and Ann Chisty (who looks cute but isn't given much to do) at Coney Island are fun, but play second fiddle to the footage of the location at its absolute prime as New Yorkers' elite playground by the sea (a far cry from where we see it 25 years later in "Little Fugitive"). For all the energy and effort that went into staging its entertaining set-pieces, what I take from watching "Speedy" is admiration for how a tall and lanky performer like Harold Lloyd could milk his white toast lovable loser persona for every ounce of comedic worth he can muster. Highly recommended, and a sign that I have to incorporate more of the man's work in my cinematic diet. :-)
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AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017, 111 min.) in theaters for the first time.

So I'm sitting in the theater watching "American Assassin" when, as it usually happens with movies that don't hold my attention, my thoughts start drifting toward the review that I'd be writing later in the day. You know, what angle to start the review with, which positives to emphasize (if any), how to present its negatives in as constructive a manner as possible, etc. Early on I latch onto lead actor Dylan O'Brien (Thomas in the movie adaptations of the "Maze Runner" young adult novels, MTV's "Teen Wolf"), and how little screen presence his Mitch Rapp character projects despite the plot revolving around his all-consuming thirst for revenge against Muslim terrorists after his fiancée Katrina (Charlotte Vega) is shot dead in front of him at a Spaniard beach. Despite key supporting characters like CIA boss Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) and hardened secret op trainer Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) constantly referring to Mitch's (lack of?) progress and inability to not make things personal, we're constantly told and reminded what an awesome killing-machine-in-the-making Rapp is becoming because, frankly, if I wasn't told this I wouldn't deduct it from O'Brien's bland performance. As I was trying to keep track of the story (international spy agencies pursuing black market plutonium and Iranian buyers trying to turn it into a nuclear bomb for nefarious purposes) a light bulb went on in my head. 'Dylan O'Brien's performance as Mitch Rapp is so generic and whitebread bland he's in danger of turning into Taylor Kitsch at any moment.' Boom, nailed it! THE line of the review, I had it. Less than a minute after, though, the movie introduces 'Ghost,' a rogue former CIA operative trained by Stan Hurley (dramatic conflict ahead!) that is now working for the bad guys and helping arrange the elements needed to turn the missing plutonium into a dirty nuclear bomb. And just as I started thinking this new white guy is just as bland and personality-challenged as Dylan O'Brien, it dawned on me that 'Ghost' is played by... drumroll, Taylor effin Kitsch. 'YOU SONS OF BITCHES!' I yelled out loud in the mostly empty theater, half jokingly and half pissed off at the realization my creative double-slam of O'Brien and Kitsch wouldn't work now that the genuine article had showed up to put Dylan's generic pretty boy good looks in its proper place. :-P

Seriously, though, try to keep track of how many times Kennedy remarks that Mitch's test scores are "off the scale" or Hurley warns Rapp to "don't make it personal." Don't make a drinking game out of how many times Rapp disobeys orders, saves the day, is chewed off for being insubordinate... and does the same thing all over. "American Assassin" doesn't trust its audience will buy O'Brien as a Jason Bourne-type terrorist-killing warrior driven by emotion rather than cold calculated intellect... and they'd be right. A small army of screenwriters (including a pass by Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz), director Michael Cuesta (a bunch of Season 1 episodes of "Dexter") and stunt/fight choreographers work extra hard making sure either stuff blows up real good and/or action scenes are on par with the more grounded-in-reality narrative of Vince Flynn's original novels. If everything was taken lightly and jokingly in "The Hitman's Bodyguard," the complete opposite is true about "American Assassin." Everything's sober, humorless and so dead serious you barely have time to contemplate the timeline between Mitch being captured after he infiltrates a terrorist cell and when the CIA needs him and Hurley on the field does not make any sense whatsoever. For what little it's worth, Michael Keaton phoning his mentor-without-patience performance is strong-enough to compensate for the double barrel of blandness coming from O'Brien and Kitsch. The scenes where Stan is tortured alternate between unbearable (fingernail removal equals 'OUCH!') and fun (ear chewing) because Keaton commits. And even though it doesn't match the scale of 2002's "The Sum Of All Fears," the climactic nuclear explosion at the end of "American Assassin" manages to be as exciting to watch as it is a scary reminder of current events. Other than the realization Sanaa Lathan is old enough to play government authority figures (remember when she was just a girl in love in 2000's "Love & Basketball"? :'( ), this sad excuse for Donald Trump supporters to imagine themselves as terrorist killing instruments of rightful justice is only worth seeing to watch Taylor Kitsch and Dylan O'Brien achieve combined peak whitebread blandness. Pass.
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Paul Bartel's DEATH RACE 2000 (1975, 80 min.) on CONtv for the first time.

It figures that Roger Corman would take advantage of the hype for then-upcoming "futuristic" 1975 sports movie "Rollerball" to deliver his own version of the same basic premise (an oppressive regime uses a gladiator-style sport to quench the population's thirst for bloodshed) for a fraction of what MGM spent in theirs. What I wasn't counting on when I took "Death Race 2000" for a spin was the surprisingly large amount of wit sprinkled throughout the otherwise predictable-but-still-amusing dystopian future tropes. Credit must go to director Paul Bartel ("Eating Raoul") for sneaking throwaway semi-intellectual gags (mostly involving digs at the French) and subversive humor (a hardcore fan making the ultimate sacrifice for her favorite racing star) into the parade of blood, tits and sped-up racing footage that Corman wanted when he bought the rights to Ib Melchior's "The Racer." And even though they don't share a scene together, seeing Mary Woronov in the cast makes this another Bartel-Woronov team-up to add to the pile ("Chopping Mall," etc.). In the year 2000 (duh!) the United States is a totalitarian regime ruled by the rarely-seen-in-person Mr. President (Sandy McCallum) after the "World Crash of 1979" brings martial law into the land. It's time for the annual Transcontinental Road Race, in which it's not enough for any of the five two-people racing teams (a driver and a co-pilot) to reach the New Los Angeles finish line in first place. The team that racks up the most point by killing civilians (preferably babies and/or senior citizens that are worth more points) wins, and hungry perennial runner-up "Machine Gun" Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone) is gunning for legendary returning racing legend Frankenstein (David Carradine). Alas, besides the dirty tricks racers play against one another to win they must all contend with a Resistance group led by American Revolutionary leader Thomas Paine's descendant, Thomasina (Harriet Medin), trying to sabotage the race from within by taking advantage of Mrs. Paine's granddaughter Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth) being assigned as Frankenstein's co-pilot. May the best man/woman (whether racing on the road or trying to impede the race) win, since only the future of the republic is at stake.

Whether intentional or a byproduct of its relatively small budget, "Death Race 2000" is always aware of how silly and ridiculous its premise is. Even better, both the actors and filmmakers seem to be having a ton of fun playing larger-than-life archetypes that just happen to have peculiar names, drive funny-looking cars and wear outrageous racing clothes... unless the scene demands for nude group massage sessions in which the characters arguing with one another happen to be topless chicks. So what if the blood looks like buckets of red paint and the racing scenes are two steps behind Disney's years-old "The Love Bug"? When Frankenstein gets even with a group of physicians trying to take advantage of "Euthanasia Day" (a crowd-pleasing scene that also informs us about the lead character's code of ethics), Joe Viterbo takes his frustrations at being on Frankenstein's shadow on co-pilot Myra (Louisa Moritz) and/or Calamity Jane (Woronov) tries to get even with Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins, playing such a cartoony Nazi it wouldn't offend anyone with a sense of humor... which means half the country will find it offensive :-( ) for running over her co-pilot, "Death Race 2000" gets more entertainment mileage from its fictitious dystopia than "Rollerball" could ever dream of. Heck, when I think of movies and/or media inspired by Corman's movie (the "Twisted Metal" car combat and "Grand Theft Auto" sandbox videogames, "The Purge" series, "The Running Man," etc.) the similarities are mostly in tone and not taking themselves so seriously as to not have fun. I mean, how can you not enjoy an about-to-become-a-huge-star pre-"Rocky" Sly Stallone writing his own dialogue and still coming across as a lovable meathead? Or reading the credits and realizing the quality filmmakers (future director Lewis Teague, "Silence of the Lambs" cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, etc.) that came from this low-budget production? "Death Race 2000" is a gift that keeps on giving, especially when the faux sportscasters narrating the race (Carle Bensen's thinly-veiled parody of Howard Cosell, Don Steele's so-annoying-it's-endearing Junior Bruce, etc.) become social correspondents narrating the nuptials of Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein. God bless America, Roger Corman and Paul Batel, indeed. :-) Highly recommended.
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FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN (2001, 106 min.) on Hulu for the first time.

Almost 34 years after a meteor stroke Earth and unleashed an infestation of invisible alien forms known as Phantoms that suck the Gaia spirit (aka soul) of every living being they absorb (and infect those that it touches), Doctor Aki Ross (Ming-Na Wen) keeps getting a persistent dream about her interactions with alien beings in a desolate planet about to be ravaged by a giant explosion. It's the year 2065, and the remaining humans are living in "barrier cities" surrounded by energy fields to keep Phantoms at bay. From her observation post in outer space, Dr. Ross spots an important clue about a potential way to fight back against the Phantoms. Once she gets down to retrieve it, though, her path crosses with that of a team of "Deep Eyes" operatives (basically Earth-stationed space marines) led by Aki's former lover, Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin). Returning to their home base of Barrier City #42, aka Old New York City, an infection threatens to kill Gray before Aki saves his life at the very last moment. With mentor and colleague Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) by her side, Aki tries to convince the leadership council that collecting eight spirits (of which they've already collected five) will provide humans with a way to defeat the Phantoms once and for all. Not what General Hein (James Woods), a military leader privately obsessed with revenge against the aliens for taking away his wife and small child, wants to hear. Hein wants to use the space orbiting Zeus cannon to wipe out the Phantoms from within Earth's core, which Aki and Dr. Sid warn will destroy the planet's ecosystem-reconstructing Gaia spirit. The leadership council is tilted toward trying the scientist's method when Aki, in a desperate gambit, reveals that she's carrying a Phantom infection within her that Dr. Sid has been able to contain using already-captured spirits to build an immunity defense mechanism. Time is running out for Gray, his squadron and the scientists to find the remaining spirits before it's too late, but not before Gen. Hein tries to sabotage their mission in order to exercise his option to fire the Zeus cannon. As Aki's broken-into-segments dreams about aliens becomes clearer, she and Gray (who came to share the former's vision when he was put under to save her ex's life) travel to the last remaining location where the final spirit awaits to be retrieved.

I'll confess to not being familiar enough with eastern storytelling motifs for me to fully absorb the messages that "FF: The Spirits Within" tries to convey with its then-cutting edge visuals. It's clear there is a pro-environment, anti-military vibe throughout its narrative, one that tilts more heavily toward fantasy and science fiction than you'd expect from the creators of family-friendly role playing games. Judged solely for the parade of pretty pictures that it delivered 16 years ago (the first realistic all-CG movie ever made, and an expensive one at that), today those visuals barely pass muster as PlayStation 3 era cutscenes. That's the risk writer/co-director/producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and Japanese videogame maker Square (producers of of the "Final Fantasy" RPG franchise) gambled with when they placed all their bets on this production relying on technology as its primary selling point. As far as story and character development, well, there's little here that hasn't already been experienced in dozens of disposable post-"Star Wars" science fiction flicks. The works of James Cameron (particularly "Aliens") seem to be a particularly strong influence on Sakaguchi, right down to the Deep Eyes operatives (voiced by the likes of Ving Rhames and Steve Buscemi) constantly speaking in Hudson-like one-liners and snappy banter. Unlike those movies' kick-ass female protagonist, though, Dr. Aki is a very shallow and one-dimensional central figure on which to build a world savior narrative. Think "Prometheus'" Elizabeth Shaw character, only even more bland and vanilla. We should care and tag along with the core group of heroes because we're on their side, not because Gen. Hein comes across as the biggest a-hole in the world (a James Woods specialty). Some exceptional voice-over acting (particularly from Baldwin, Sutherland, Keith David and the aforementioned Woods) and a handful of gorgeous images here and there notwithstanding, "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" belongs in the pile of forgotten trivia questions explaining the early aughts' merger of Square with Enix ("Dragon Warrior" series). Not a terrible movie, just a generic and forgettable one.
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