Tag Archives: 2-star

Eden (2012), directed by Megan Griffiths

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Human trafficking crime drama — about Eden (Jamie Chung), an 18 year old Korean-American girl who is kidnapped and forced into prostitution by a corrupt lawman (Beau Bridges) and his young crack-smoking assistant (Matt O’Leary) — confuses intelligence and resourcefulness with selfish opportunism, squandering all the sympathy we have for the girl immediately following her abduction.  Based on the lies of a woman named Chong Kim, whose story evidently was taken at face value by the filmmakers and only later shown to be fantasy when it was investigated by Breaking Out, an anti-trafficking non-profit organization.  The movie, however, retains the “based on a true story” title which, ironically, is more accurate here than in some other cases, as Kim appears to share the same vile personality traits as Eden.  For those who think making us hate inherently hateful people is an accomplishment.  Also known as Abduction of Eden.

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The Man From Planet X (1951), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

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Sally Fields’ mom (Margaret Field) sees an alien on the Scottish moors and is told by her astronomer father to have a hot drink and go to bed.  The pasty-faced alien — yes, dad, there really is an alien and I really did see it — turns out to be a spotter for a race of beings whose world, swiftly approaching Earth, is dying.  The nearby townspeople scurry off to lock their doors and the Constable admits that even if the men wanted to help defeat the alien, their “lasses wouldn’t let them.”  So it’s up to an intrepid American reporter to win the day for humanity.  With lots of fog and absolutely no atmosphere.  Bland.

Lucy (2014), directed by Luc Besson

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Based on an idea that amuses neuroscientists — that human beings use only ten percent of their brain — this violent fantasy follows Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, a student forced by a Korean drug lord (Choi Min-sik) to carry a new narcotic in her abdomen that, when it is accidentally released into her system, begins to awaken the supposedly dormant 90% of her gray matter.  Along with her ever-increasing powers of the mind comes the knowledge that she will soon die if she doesn’t get more of the drug, a mission the drug lord is determined to thwart.  Besson includes a few funny metaphorical asides by way of cuts to the animal kingdom, which, along with the gun-play and car crashes, are meant to divert us from the absurdity of the characters and story.  Morgan Freeman, for instance, plays a scientist whose childish daydreams of expanded brain-use are treated as respectable scientific theories; meanwhile, Lucy’s incredible new intelligence includes a convenient black hole in the area of her battle with the drug lord.  Lucy’s self-absorption is understandable, but her amoral anarchism is not.  For mavens of mayhem only.

The Running Man (1982) by Stephen King

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Stephen King has said that he wrote The Running Man in a week. He didn’t mention whether it was during his sleep.

I’ve only read two of his Richard Bachman books (the other was Rage) and neither is good. This one, at least, isn’t as offensively bad as his first. It’s just silly, pointlessly angry, and full of cardboard.

Set in 2025, when white men are still called “honkeys” and people still ask if you can “dig it,” the story follows Ben Richards, an out of work revolutionary whose wife is a prostitute and whose 18-month-old baby is dying from pneumonia. Desperately needing money to buy medicine for the little tyke, Richards applies as a contestant for a popular game show called “The Running Man.” The show is a way of ridding society of some of its more undesirable elements. Contestants are given a 12-hour head start (if they live long enough, they can go anywhere in the world), then pursued by merciless Hunters. Every hour they stay alive nets them a hundred bucks, which in this society is a lot of dough. But the game, as Richards discovers, is rigged. Each contestant must record two 10-minute video clips a day and post them to the Games office, where the postmarks are used to locate the runner.

It’s unclear how or why “The Running Man” is a popular show. Though frowned upon, it isn’t against the rules for the runner to take out innocent bystanders. In our present age of reality shows, a stray anti-homosexual comment by a reality star can start a firestorm of controversy — let alone the murder of a cop or a civilian. Here, killing a cop is worth another hundred bucks. King, mired in the late sixties/early seventies, takes the hippie hatred of cops to a new level: everyone hates them, deriving entertainment from their deaths. Why anyone would want to be a cop in this society is another matter. The whole milieu is contradictory and self-serving.

One funny segment has Ben helped out by what passes for the book’s only really sympathetic character, Bradley, a young black man and gang-member who tells him how the upper classes are systematically polluting the poor workforce with toxic air which they themselves are able to filter out with nose-plugs. No mouth-breathers over the poverty line, I suppose. And no one smart enough to realize that murdering your workforce is probably a bad idea, unless you want to do the work yourself. I don’t think King ever tells us the name of Bradley’s gang, but we can figure it out from the way they get all their information: they’re the dreaded and feared Library Gang. (Bradley’s mom is a hoot. She has no trouble pronouncing “carcinogens,” but “pooberty” gives her fits.)

This is a race for Ben’s life (and the life of his daughter); it should be exciting. Like Rage, though, King substitutes an amorphous anger for anything truly stirring. That might work for teenagers, but adults can see through it all too easily. Ben’s own anger is so self-defeating, for example, that he tends to get himself fired for insubordination rather than sucking it up to (a) keep his wife off the streets and (b) provide for his daughter. We’re not supposed to hold him accountable for this, though, because he’s a “righteous” man (another favorite word of King’s that actually doesn’t appear here so far as I can remember). He fights for justice, if not the American way.

It all leads to a comic book ending, with lots of blood and wet, hanging entrails. If that’s your thing, you may get a kick out of it.

To paraphrase King himself, two examples of the humorless thudding tract school of horror writing are his own Rage and The Running Man.

Seeking Justice (2011), directed by Roger Donaldson

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Distraught after the brutal rape of his wife, English teacher Will Gerard (Nicolas Cage) accepts the offer of Simon (Guy Pearce), a mysterious man who tells him his organization will take care of the rapist in exchange for a simple favor at a later date.  Will, clearly more familiar with Shakespeare than the movies, is shocked six months later to learn that Simon wants him to kill a man.  Screenwriter Robert Tannen strings together one cliche after another (Simon’s organization turns out to be unbelievably high, wide, and deep; Will magically acquires superhuman resourcefulness; and so on), finally closing the loop with a predictable showdown in an abandoned mall.  Cage makes it watchable, but can’t make it worth watching.

Gattaca (1997), directed by Andrew Niccol

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Gattaca has a few nice moments. They pop up every now and again to remind you how silly the rest of the movie is. Take its message. It isn’t the usual science fiction pablum of how humanity is superior to any given alien race. No, this is a story about genetic engineering. So, instead, we discover that humanity is superior even to its modified self. Or at least just as good. It tells us we could be Beethoven, too, if we only worked hard enough.

Ethan Hawke plays our hero, Vincent Freeman. (Subtle, isn’t it?) He’s dreamed of going into space since he was a kid, despite the fact that his parents had him the old fashioned way and the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation only accepts genetically modified applicants. Like his younger brother, Anton — if the latter had any interests other than proving to Vincent why their parents didn’t make the same mistake twice. Vincent knows he can’t get into Gattaca unless he can pass for a “Valid.” So he makes a deal with one to swap identities.

That isn’t easy, genetically speaking. Jerome (Jude Law), the Valid who becomes Vincent’s “borrowed ladder,” has to provide blood, hair, and urine to fool Gattaca’s testing equipment. Vincent has to make sure he doesn’t slip up and leave any untoward traces of his real identity lying around. So he clips and scrubs his body religiously. But not enough. When the director of Gattaca is murdered, one of Vincent’s eyelashes gets swept up by the CSI team. The cops don’t know where he is, but Vincent instantly becomes suspect number one.

This is really the problem with Gattaca: there’s too much going on. Vincent and his brother; Jerome, who has serious problems of his own, which is why he agreed to be a ladder in the first place; Vincent’s career; a murder investigation; and, of course, the usual love story. Uma Thurman is Irene, a Valid who isn’t quite valid enough to ever get picked for a really good mission. One of the good scenes has Irene presenting Vincent with a strand of her hair so that he can check out her vitals, as it were. But he gives it to the wind instead: he doesn’t care.

It’s a nice moment; yet it demonstrates how superficial all of this is. If Vincent were truly a Valid, it would mean something that Irene’s “defects” are of no concern to him. But he’s not. He’s even more defective than she is. So of course he doesn’t mind. Why should he? That she doesn’t know any of this only means that his romantic gesture is little more than a lie — to Irene, and to us.

The movie is slow-going and the Gattaca sets are wide and pretty, which fooled a lot of people into thinking this was a serious movie with serious themes. But there’s not a bit of it that stands up to serious thought.

Sphinx (1979) by Robin Cook

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Perhaps this was Robin Cook’s thinking:

“Egypt” = Sphinx
“Sphinx” = riddle
“Riddle” = mystery
Sphinx = mystery in Egypt.

In any case, no sphinx figures into the plot of this novel, but it is an Egyptological mystery/thriller.

Young, beautiful Egyptologist Erica Baron, while on a sort of working vacation in Egypt, unexpectedly gets taken into the confidence of a black market antiquities dealer. The dealer shows her a fabulous statue of Seti I, a New Kingdom Pharoah who ruled shortly after Tutankhamen, that doesn’t officially exist and which hints at still more treasure from an undiscovered tomb. When the dealer is murdered and the statue stolen, Erica finds herself drawn into a world of black market intrigue and treasure hunting.

This is Cook’s followup to Coma. For both, he chooses a female protagonist, then undercuts her authority by hinging the plot on her physical beauty. In Coma, the heroine was only able to pursue her research into strange coma cases at a Boston hospital because her boss had the hots for her. Here, Erica remains alive not because of her decision-making skills (extremely poor), fighting prowess (she has none), or her academic credentials (which actually make her more of a threat), but simply because not one but two men find her irresistibly attractive. (The total number is, in fact, four, but one of the other two men wants her to leave Egypt and the other is merely a lackey.) And so, with each new turn of the plot, instead of heading toward increasing excitement, the story explores new avenues of absurdity.

The lure is Ancient Egypt, but this isn’t like a Dan Brown novel, in which art and architecture take center stage. For Cook, its all merely an exotic backdrop for…well, Cook can’t really decide what it’s for. Romance? The black market? A treasure hunt? It’s all three. Sphinx is a prime example of the pejorative definition of “bestseller”: shallow, titillating, and superficially exciting.

The titillating part (this was published in 1979) is Erica herself, and her romantic relationships. You might think that because this is set in the land of the great pyramids, the fact that Erica finds herself at the apex of a romantic triangle is thematically or metaphorically significant, but I can tell you that Cook doesn’t operate on that level. No, he sticks to the basics, giving Erica a choice between a tough ladies man and a sensitive intellectual. Almost forgotten in all this is her doctor boyfriend, who gets to say what we’re all thinking — darling, you’re an Egyptologist, not a super-spy — but who then proves what an ass he is by denigrating Erica’s professional aspirations. During the course of the book, Erica has an opportunity to sleep with all three, but I’m thinking you only need one guess to figure out which one she picks.

Cooks opens the book with a quotation from Herodotus: “Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works that defy description.” Because this novel barely describes any of these wonders (real or imagined), I will close this review with another quotation, this one from one of Herodotus’ critics, substituting only the proper name: “Though we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of Cook having been in Egypt, it must be said that his narrative bears little witness to it.”

King Kong (1932) by Delos W. Lovelace

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A great deal happens to a script in its passage to film, but little of that finds its way onto the pages of Delos W. Lovelace’s “novelization” of King Kong, which must have been produced not from the film but from the screenplay; it was published in 1932, the year before the release of the film.  Sticking to the basics, Lovelace contents himself with broad characterizations, spare descriptions, and furious action.  The terrific cover was painted by Frank Frazetta for this 1976 Ace edition, and it’s infinitely more evocative than anything Lovelace provides.

Most disappointing, for me, was the book’s inattention to atmosphere. Lovelace gives us the fog surrounding Skull Island, he gives us the ancient fantastic wall, he gives us the altar on which Ann Darrow is to be wedded to Kong, and he gives us the jungle with all its wonders waiting to be discovered; what he doesn’t give us is any sense that he appreciates the rich vein of awe and mystery and horror that lies within these details. He’s turned the novelist’s page into the two-dimensional surface of the movie screen.

So I’m trashing this book, right? I don’t mean to. It is what it is. And that is a competent, if superficial, narrative of the people and events of the King Kong story (which is a story I’m assuming all of you know). On the other hand, I’m not recommending it, either. Why would anyone read this? Why did I?

I’ll tell you why. To provide this sidebar to what I’m going to do next: watch the three King Kong movies.

I’m going in.

Suddenly (2013), directed by Uwe Boll

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Dumb remake of a smart B-movie about a small group of killers who take a family hostage in order to use their house as a sniper’s nest for killing the President.  All the strengths of the original are missing here, things like a good script, believable characters, strong acting, and a plausible plot.  Ray Liotta plays one of the film’s many stereotypes, an alcoholic war veteran.  Dominic Purcell is the wooden leader of the bad guys.  Cole Corker plays a school-skipping teenager who gets to listen to his grandpa comparing kidnapping and assassination with once having been stuck in a white-out.  It’s all directed by a man best known for his adaptation of BloodRayne and a host of other video games.

Tommy (1975), directed by Ken Russell

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I find it difficult to reconcile this film with a kind and loving God. My mistake, really; I mean, I watched it sober and drug-free.

When I was in high school, I was part of a triumvirate in which each of us had a clear favorite in rock music. For me, it was the Beatles, for another Led Zeppelin, and for the third, The Who. I credit the third, Samantha, for “giving” me The Who, along with endless hours of enjoyment. This enjoyment included Tommy, their “rock opera,” though even then it was spotty entertainment. The songs I liked best — “1921,” “Sally Simpson,” “Pinball Wizard” — I liked very much and still do, but most of the rest depended a great deal on the operatic “concept,” which was much more persuasive in the abstract. Ken Russell has shown that adding visuals to the music does nothing to improve its eloquence.

Perhaps it isn’t a fair test. The Ken Russell visual is a surreal, flamboyant thing. In one scene late in the film, Ann-Margaret, who plays Tommy’s mother, rolls around on the floor while first a thick column of soap suds then a mighty stream of liquid chocolate flows out of a television set and washes over her. I suppose it’s all a metaphor for the selfishness and greed that have sullied her soul, but it goes on forever, and anyway, the last time she was truly clean was during the Overture. It is, in a word, excessive, a condition that afflicts the entire film.

Still, given the source material, you’d think that there’d be some good music. In fact, there’s surprisingly little. Russell made the decision to have his actors sing and that took care of that. Far and away the best few minutes of the film are during “Pinball Wizard,” when, in a casting masterstroke, Elton John sings the song wearing mile-high boots and over-size glasses. Mr. Russell, meet Mr. John. The two of you were made for each other.

For those who don’t know, Tommy relates the fall and rise of a young deaf, dumb, and blind boy who bedevils his parents until he brings them fame and fortune as a pinball champion. Shortly thereafter, he is miraculously cured, becoming a sort of guru to thousands; his teaching method involves eye-shades, ear-plugs, and “you know where to put the cork,” as well as endless Pinball machines. Tommy, however, wasn’t born lacking his senses. He loses them one night when he goes into shock after witnessing his step-father kill his biological father, a soldier everyone thought had died in the war. The story is absurd, of course, but it has a certain pathos because Tommy, unlike his family, is a genuinely decent fellow.

In addition to Elton John, the movie features Eric Clapton as a preacher whose cult worships Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner as the “Acid Queen,” a prostitute who tries to free Tommy with an iron maiden that injects LSD, and Jack Nicholson, who plays the doctor who diagnoses Tommy’s affliction as psychosomatic but would rather be jumping his mom. Oh, and Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, a slimy pedophile who molests Tommy.

Sound like your kind of movie? Go for it, if it does. In outline, the story actually works. It’s the phantasmagoria surrounding it that I didn’t care for.