Tag Archives: 3-star

The Legend of Hell House (1973), directed by John Hough

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The Legend of Hell House, like the novel on which it is based, Hell House, was written by Richard Matheson. Watching it, you feel as though it almost had to be. It seems more like a companion piece than a work in its own right. The body of the story is there, but the connective tissue is missing. The individual parts aren’t so much scenes as vignettes, each of which imparts another important plot point. I suppose for that reason it’s comprehensible without having read the book, but it’ll probably leave viewers who haven’t feeling as though they missed something.

This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a terribly good one either. It is, however, different, unusual. And all of a piece. Because each scene is, really, equally important, it doesn’t build the way a narrative should. On the other hand, if the peaks are missing, so, too, are the troughs. It comes at you like a truck on a flat highway moving at a steady 45 mph. Relative to other traffic, that isn’t very fast. But if you’re standing still…

The story, of course, is the same, relocated to England. A dying rich man hires three investigators to settle the question of survival after death in the only place he knows where such an answer might be found: Hell House, a haunted mansion that has already defeated the efforts of two previous teams to solve its mysteries. The team consists of physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and physical medium Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowall). Accompanying Dr. Barrett is his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt).

The primary team members are all professionals, all experienced in dealing with hauntings. This helped make the book atypical in that fear wasn’t driving the characters. It’s the same thing here, but now it’s just another part of the overall tonal flatness of the film. Oh, there’s some yelling and there’s some screaming, but it’s all just bumps in the road. This isn’t a scary movie. It’s ominous, from beginning to end.

Matheson unfortunately kept his ending more or less intact. I thought it was simplistic in the book; it’s sillier here, although it has some nice special effects as one of the team members gets pushed around. The special effects, in fact, are good throughout.

The actors do well across the board and the movie is well-made. The real reason to see it, though, is for a taste of something different.

Robocop (2014), directed by José Padilha

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Joel Kinnaman is rather bland in the title role of this science fiction actioner, but it rises slightly above average on the performances of Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, and Samuel L. Jackson.  Keaton (the greedy head of a company seeking to crack the U.S. market for robotic law enforcement) orders Oldman (his chief scientist) to rebuild good cop Kinnamen after he is ripped apart by a car bomb explosion devised by a gang of gun-runners.  Despite wired-in safeguards, Kinnaman proceeds to solve his own near-murder, leading him to uncover high-level corruption.  Jackson, meanwhile, as the host of a futuristic “news” program, provides intermittent commentary.  Basically substitutes savvy veteran acting for the novelty of the original’s effects, if anything losing a point in its skin-deep portrayal of the star’s emotional turmoil.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

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First of all, allow me to clear away some distractions. The movie, for one thing. I never read this book as a kid, but I’ve seen the movie a time or two. The movie is better. I don’t think the filmmakers were concerned about redefining the fairy tale for modern audiences the way Baum was. But more importantly, they took an episodic story and gave it much greater unity, which brought with it a satisfying narrative arc. I was disappointed with the Wicked Witch episode in the book, but only because it was just another peak in the overall cardiogram of the narrative.

I also found Baum’s intent, which he spells out in the Introduction, quite puzzling. He seems to feel about classic fairy tales much the way Dr. Wertham felt about comic books: that they were much too violent for children. Yet at least they were up front about it. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is chock full of violence and horror. The fates of the Scarecrow (before Dorothy saves him) and the Tin Woodman (before she meets him) are terrifying. Does it really matter that they are treated so matter-of-factly? I’m not sure, but that may make it worse.

And then I had to go and read the Afterword in my edition, by a man named Peter Glassman. Among the book’s many virtues, Glassman writes, is that the “capitalist ideal of the free market is in evidence when the Wizard tells Dorothy, ‘You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return.'” Of course, I had already noted the quid pro quo nature of Oz, but seeing it presented as a virtue was too much. I happen to believe that “capitalist ideal” is an oxymoron. It’s the capitalist ideal that has Dorothy starting the book on a farm in Kansas where everything, even the grass — even her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry — is gray. It’s a place where only a child can find a reason to laugh.

The truth is, I liked the book. I didn’t love it, though. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it ain’t. I especially enjoyed the characters of Dorothy’s companions: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who each want something they think they lack, but who, of course, already possess it. The way Baum dovetails this with the Wizard and his “gifts” is simply brilliant (and it’s far superior to what we find in the film).

On the other hand, while the interchangeability of their various adventures might be good for very young readers (since it doesn’t require of them much in the way of memory or reasoning), it isn’t so good for adults. I can appreciate Baum’s desire to avoid the overt moralizing of classic fairy tales, but it’s as if, when he made that decision, he threw out unity along with it, thinking, perhaps, that structure itself is inherently moralistic. It would explain why Dorothy’s quest to the Emerald City doesn’t in fact conclude in the Emerald City. This kind of book doesn’t conclude, it ends. And where and when it ends is but a matter of authorial whim.

Oz is a fast read, but not a particularly light one. Part of this is that Baum’s style isn’t as airy as he might have wished it to be. His grim description of Kansas sets a tone even the wonders of Oz can’t entirely lift. Fortunately, that has its compensations. Regardless of Baum’s intent, it’s the book’s darkness that makes it compelling. This book naturally shows up on lists of fantasy books, but does it also show up on lists of dark fantasy? It should. Loneliness, abandonment, dismemberment, slavery, deception — it’s a cornucopia of the horrible. In the movie, the Wizard is known as the “Great and Powerful”; in the book, he is the “Great and Terrible.” It’s a distinction that applies to the stories, as well.

Carrie x 4

Carrie“I’ve heard rumblings about a Carrie remake….Who knows if it will happen? The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not Casablanca, or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book.” – Stephen King, as quoted in Entertainment Weekly, May 2011

Of course, King knows why, and the 2013 remake, directed by Kimberly Peirce, didn’t disappoint: after recouping its $30M budget, it went on to make an additional $50M worldwide. But he was right to question the remake’s necessity. Brian De Palma’s 1976 original is one of the best horror films ever made. And since, as King points out, it already tops the book, what remained to be done?

In fact, the book is an effective pot-boiler, but nothing more. In this sense, it was a perfect candidate for adaptation. That is, by someone who understands the implications of adapting a book like this. Brian De Palma did. But the producers of the remake, who evidently let it be known that the new script would be “more faithful” to the novel, clearly did not. It isn’t the kind of novel one should be “faithful” to; it is the kind of novel one should use as a springboard to something better.

And what is “more faithful” anyway? The new film begins with Carrie’s birth. Just as in the book, Carrie’s mom, Margaret, gives birth all by herself: she doesn’t hold with modern medicine and she certainly has no friends. On top of that, I think she’s still hoping the baby will turn out to be some weird tumor she can toss in the garbage along with the sin that produced it. But, no, it’s a baby, all right, and though she tries to kill it, she can’t bring herself to do it.

Carrie1976Now, in the book, the police find her hours later, exhausted, and with little Carrie at her breast. It was a battle, one that Margaret lost. In the movie, she goes soft on the little thing and cuddles her. It is the beginning of a strange new element in the story: Margaret’s “love” for Carrie. I suppose the Lord of Faithful Adaptations giveth with one hand, only to taketh away with the other.

It does, however, tell you what you need to know about the remake’s definition of “faithful”: if a scene in the book is violent, it will try to include it.

To its detriment, it reproduces the vengeful side of Carrie’s personality. One of the reasons the original works so well is that De Palma (and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen) tossed most of that aside and focused on the girl, not the avenging angel. I enjoy watching Clint Eastwood wipe out the bad guys in all those “man with no name” movies, but that’s because the bad guys are evil and they are adults. As King has one of Carrie’s classmates point out in the book, we aren’t dealing with adults here, we’re dealing with kids. (She repeats this several times.) One or two of these kids might be evil, but the rest are just…kids. What this means is that, while we might sympathize with what Carrie thinks she would like to do to them, we can’t sympathize with her actually doing it. (I saw a question in a Goodreads group about Carrie: “did you cheer her on?” Good Lord, I hope not. She kills scores of kids, the great crime of most of whom was probably nothing more than that they ignored her.) It’s a subtlety that is lost on Peirce; consequently, we never feel for Carrie the way we did in the original film.

Carrie 2002It isn’t for lack of trying on the part of the actors. While I certainly wouldn’t put Chloë Grace Moretz in Sissy Spacek’s league, she does well in the title role, and some of her scenes with Ansel Elgort, as Tommy Ross, the boy who takes Carrie to the prom, are quite sweet. But this is another thing De Palma had going for him: a killer cast: Piper Laurie (who, King said, “really got her teeth into the bad-mom thing”), William Katt (the embodiment of the All-American boy), Amy Irving, Nancy Allen (much more believable than Portia Doubleday as the girl who can “take her pick” of prom dates), and John Travolta (who does something extraordinary, playing both parts of his bad boy role, coming across as bad, yes, but also as a boy).

In 2002, television got into the act with its own Carrie adaptation. This one stars Angela Bettis as Carrie. (You might remember her as another eponymous character, from another film released the same year — May.)

The oddest thing about this adaptation, which in other respects is probably as good as the 2013 remake, is the ending: Carrie doesn’t die. Why? Because the film was originally intended as a pilot for a TV series. I don’t consider this a spoiler, because it’s really nothing more than a tacked-on ending setting up a series that, thankfully, never happened. According to the Stephen King Wiki, it was supposed to be about how Carrie moves to Florida to “help others with telekinetic problems.”

Carrie2013The reason to watch this one, if you like King’s book, is that it is the only adaptation to try to recreate the novel’s documentary approach. It begins with Sue Snell — the girl who convinces her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom — being interrogated by the police. This is a couple of weeks after the disaster. Other interrogations follow periodically throughout the movie.

The other reason to see it is that it is also the only adaptation to depict the devastation that Carrie wreaks upon the town at the end. The other movies show what she does to the school and a gas station, but as any reader of the book knows, Carrie didn’t stop there. Neither does this movie.

These two elements more or less cancel out a bizarre twist at the end that was also probably dictated by the proposed series, but which I won’t reveal, other than to say that it manages to walk Carrie’s character right down the middle of the road, between “innocent” schoolgirl and vengeful spirit.

Book: ♦♦♦
1976 Film: ♦♦♦♦♦
2002 Telefilm: ♦♦½
2013 Film: ♦♦½

While I agree with Stephen King, I think that it can be said that De Palma’s Carrie is definitely one of the Casablancas of horror film.

Noah (2014), directed by Darren Aronofsky

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Modern take on Noah and the story of the Ark — meaning some good video game violence, nondescript references to a “Creator,” and an evolutionary spin on life.  The Bible has little enough to say about Noah, but Aronofsky and crew rewrite the story anyway, turning God into a riddle-master and Noah (Russell Crowe) into a conflicted angel of vengeance who ultimately clashes with his own sons.  Some good ideas along the way, though, particularly having to do with the building of the Ark and the manner in which it is populated with birds, beasts, and creeping things. Several Watchers — fallen angels who, in this version, are rock-encrusted giants — help Noah with his project.  Tubal-cain, leading an army of evildoers (that’s us, antediluvian style), provides an external threat.  Crowe is a grave and formidable Noah and Anthony Hopkins has an amusing turn as a berry-craving Methuselah.  Enjoyable, but as a magical action movie, not a Biblical epic.

Congo (1980) by Michael Crichton

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Congo isn’t Michael Crichton’s best work, but it’s good, and it’s good in that special Crichton way — heavily researched, fast-paced, tense, and exciting — that makes it better than most books of its kind. It’s about an expedition into the African rainforest, to the Lost City of Zinj, where apes or ape-like creatures brutally kill anyone who comes near. If it had stuck to that premise all the way to the end, I’d probably be giving this an extra star. But Crichton goes off on a tangent at the last minute that, while interesting in itself, is still a tangent. Think of the effect on Jurassic Park if at the end someone started talking about the military application of dinosaurs and then went off to do something about it. Like that.

The characters are simply drawn but effective. The boss is an overzealous woman, a computer genius, looking for a particular kind of diamond mine, but the leader is an experienced mercenary-type, with knowledge of both the jungle and the politics of getting into it. Along for the ride are a primatologist and his talking gorilla, Amy.

Amy, of course, has a limited vocabulary and speaks in sign language. A character like this is a risky proposition with me (this is why I’ve never read Next), but I quickly grew to like her. Oh, she’s a bit too intelligent, but Crichton does a good job of keeping her on the rails with basic, believable behavior.

For me, books like this always come with a subtext: the arrogance and destructiveness of mankind. I’m not sure I’d like them if they didn’t. They’d probably come off as too touchy-feely if the heroes didn’t manage somehow to turn romance into rape. It happened in The Lost World, it happened in King Kong, and it happens here, too. But like I say, that’s okay. It validates my view of human nature.

Naturally, since this is a Crichton book, it’s packed with entertaining information about technology and other subjects including, in this case, African history (mostly from the white explorer’s point of view) — the bits about cannibalism are fascinating — and corporate espionage. The latter because the expedition is funded by a company that wants to find a certain kind of diamond mine, which the Germans and the Japanese are also hot to claim.

If anyone knows of a writer with a style like Crichton’s, I wish you’d tell me. I really miss him.

Catwoman (2004), directed by Pitof

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When I bought issue #1 of a DC comic called Starfire back in 1976, it cost me 30 cents. Only a few days ago I stumbled upon a comics shop and noticed the price of a new comic book in 2014: $3.99. This, of course, is nerd pricing, not kid pricing. If it were just a matter of inflation, that comic book would have cost a buck twenty-five.

I don’t know what it means to our society that comic books have gone from a kid’s pastime to a nerd’s passion, but I know that any moviemaker that doesn’t understand that is just asking for trouble. The makers of Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, weren’t just clueless; they put on miniskirts and f-me shoes and went for a nighttime stroll down Rue Violeur.

You see, Catwoman isn’t about the Catwoman. Selina Kyle exists, but in the past. This Catwoman is named Patience Phillips. She doesn’t prowl the streets of Gotham, either, and Batman is never mentioned. How she becomes Catwoman — well, that rewrites 60 years of history. No longer a woman with criminal tendencies, she is a supernatural creature with spidey powers.

If you invite it, sometimes you get it. This movie got it from critics, audiences, and the box office. Before long, its name was being bandied about in the same breath as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Manos: The Hands of Fate, as one of the worst movies ever made. Nerd fury — the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.

I saw this movie on the big screen when it first came out and I just re-watched it on TV. My opinion hasn’t changed in the last 10 years. It ain’t bad.

I admit I shouldn’t like it, but that’s due to a personal bias against obvious CGI, not because it screws with a beloved comic book character. Not that I don’t get the latter: I’ve also seen the Vampirella movie (which, evidently, this movie’s critics haven’t). But this, this isn’t a movie based on a comic book; it’s a comic book movie. It’s simple, stylized, and overwrought. Add in Halle Berry in a push-up bra and you have a movie made for the originally intended audience of comic books, and with about as much redeeming value.

But entertainment value counts, when it isn’t weighed down with a lot of pretentiousness or greed. Catwoman isn’t weighed down by much, other than the squirm-inducing inclusion of a politically correct gay character (very minor) and a basketball scene that’s about as convincing as a blue sunrise. Most of the rest floats on the screen like an empty thought balloon. The part of your brain Catwoman wants is prelingual.

What is it about? What does it matter? It’s about Catwoman. A new Catwoman, one that oddly enough won’t appeal to today’s comic book fans, but just might appeal to those of an earlier era.

And Then There Were None (1945), directed by René Clair

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♦♦♦

The first filmed adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, though featuring a variation of the ending that Christie herself altered for a stage production two years earlier. Otherwise, the premise and the bulk of the story remain the same, as ten people trapped on an island are accused of various crimes and then picked off one by one by an unidentified member of their own party. If Christie neglected to include much humor in the novel, Clair rectifies that shortcoming and then some, playing out the mystery in almost farcical terms. It works, thanks less to the script than the cast, which includes Walter Huston as the alcoholic Dr. Armstrong and Richard Haydn as the unfairly mistrusted manservant Rogers. Nothing terribly remarkable, but a genial film nonetheless.

And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie

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Disparate group of ten people are lured to an isolated island and killed off one by one by their mysterious host who, they realize, is one of them.  One of the best-selling books of all time, its genius lies in combining the premise with murders that follow the lyrics of a well-known children’s rhyme.  That, and Christie’s scrupulous integrity.  What it lacks is atmosphere or humor:  it’s clever, but it isn’t emotionally engaging.  Rated as a novel; add an extra star if you’re just interested in the puzzle.