Monthly Archives: April 2010

Experiment

 

It’s a tough sell to describe any film from 1962 as “frightening” to an audience today.  We live, after all, in a movie world of three-dimensional buckets of gore — not to mention terrorism in real life.  So how about I just call Experiment in Terror “effective and creepy”?  It’s definitely that, in no small measure thanks to an unlikely director and a musical genius.

Blake Edwards, whom most people associate with comedy (the Pink Panther films), made just one excursion into the realm of suspense, but it was a doozy.   Experiment stars Lee Remick as unfortunate bank teller Kelly Sherwood, targeted by asthmatic menace “Red” Lynch (Ross Martin) to steal $100,000 from the bank where she works.  Lynch, to prod Kelly along, embarks on a systematic terror campaign, including the abduction of her younger sister.

Edwards filmed the movie in black-and-white and his use of light and shadow is masterful;  San Francisco at night never looked eerier.  Bit by bit, Edwards reveals his villain to the audience — first shadows, then a closeup of a mouth, then a profile — as Lynch gradually escalates his threats against Kelly.

Aiding and abetting all of this is a hair-raising musical score courtesy of Henry Mancini.  Mancini’s music is creepy and crawly, like footsteps slowly advancing up the basement stairs, making their way toward you in the dark.     Grade:  A

 

Director:  Blake Edwards  Cast:  Lee Remick, Glenn Ford, Ross Martin, Stefanie Powers, Roy Poole, Ned Glass  Release:  1962

 

Experiment small1  Experiment small2

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Fright1

 

Lots of movies try to mix humor with horror, but not very many of them get the recipe right.  Fright Night, from 1985, is an exception.  Chris Sarandon oozes menace and charm as the vampire next door, and veteran Roddy McDowall is a hoot as a TV horror-movie host turned reluctant Van Helsing.

 

Fright2

 

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Cube

 

Cube is one of those little films you stumble upon while channel surfing at 1 a.m., fully intending to switch stations after watching for a few minutes.  Or maybe just a few more minutes … hey wait — this movie is intriguing.

Six disparate characters — including a doctor, a cop, a math whiz, and an autistic young man — wake up inside a gigantic Rubik’s Cube, with no idea how they got there and, more to the point, how to get the hell out.  The solution involves a lot of math, but for the number-challenged among us, that doesn’t detract from the fun. It turns out that our panicky protagonists are not in just one block, but in a master cube composed of thousands of interlocking rooms, many of them equipped with deadly booby-traps.

Cube gets a bit scrambled when the script calls for the characters to interact with each other, rather than the maze, because they aren’t written with much depth.  And the conclusion will probably leave some viewers dissatisfied.  But the ending isn’t really that important.  It’s a bit like solving a crossword puzzle and leaving a few blank squares.  It’s enjoyable getting to the end, even if the puzzle’s not 100 percent complete.       Grade:  B

 

Director:  Vincenzo Natali  Cast:  Julian Richings, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Wayne Robson  Release:  1998

 

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Woods1

 

Tiger Woods is a genius.  Tiger Woods is stupid.  Cable talk-show hosts keep asking guests to comment on Tiger Woods, and most of them say we should just leave him alone.  Well … this is what happens when you make millions off such a wholesome image.

Joy Behar made a good point the other night:  When are the media going to ask Tiger’s wife, Elin, how well she knew this philandering guy before she married him?  Could it be that she knew a lot?  (Same question for Sandra Bullock.)

 

Woods2

 

*****

 

Qatar2     Qatar

 

A low-level diplomat from Qatar tries to sneak a smoke in an airplane bathroom … and the FBI is summoned.  Isn’t this the kind of “crime” committed every day in junior high schools?

 

*****

 

Bieber

 

About a month ago, I was watching Jimmy Kimmel’s show when he did a segment about a little girl who was infatuated with a teen pop star.  Kimmel arranged to have the pop star surprise the precocious tot with a visit on the show.  It was cute.  End of story, I thought.

Some time later, I noticed the pop star’s name, Justin Bieber, in the newspaper.  Then he showed up in Newsweek.  And in Time.  And in Entertainment Weekly.  And on Chelsea Handler’s TV show.  Now I see that the kid is slated to appear on Saturday Night Live.  Who the hell IS this kid?  God, I must be old.


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Date Night

 

How do you take a great concept, two hot stars, lots of money … and then produce something as abysmally bad as Date Night?  I don’t know the answer to that one.

Wait, I do know the answer:  It’s called a lousy, cliche-ridden script.  I keep harping on this Hollywood deficiency, but of course my whining doesn’t matter, and neither would yours.  The Tinseltown suits are confident that gullible moviegoers will turn out in droves if they can just keep feeding them a) awesome special effects, b) the right celebrities, or c) a plot that sounds good on paper and can be explained in two sentences or less.

Still, I had high hopes for Date Night, in which Steve Carell and Tina Fey play an ordinary suburban couple inadvertently tossed into criminal mischief on their weekly night out, and all of this playing out against the perfect background — Manhattan after dark.  This is territory that Martin Scorsese mined to perfection in After Hours, and that Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis stumbled through amusingly in The Out of Towners.

The disaster that is Date Night is not the fault of Carell and Fey.  In fact, the two stars are the only reason to keep watching the stupid thing.  To their immense credit, Carell and Fey somehow retain our sympathies through ridiculous plot twists, childish dialogue, and obligatory car chases.  Aside from its stars, I could come up with just one reason to recommend Date Night:  There are few, if any, special effects.      Grade:  D+

 

Director:  Shawn Levy  Cast:  Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Mark Wahlberg, James Franco, Kristen Wiig, William Fichtner, Mila Kunis, Ray Liotta, Gal Gadot  Release:  2010

 

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Whip It big

 

I’m tempted to think the reason I wasn’t bowled over by Drew Barrymore’s comedy, Whip It, is because I don’t belong to the film’s target audience (young, female).  I’m tempted — but that wouldn’t quite be true, and that’s because of a little gem that came out of Hollywood in 1992, another movie that wouldn’t seem to have someone like me in mind.

Whip It is the story of a small-town teenager named Bliss (Ellen Page) who joins a professional, all-female sports league and, in the process, grows up and finds greater understanding of friends and family.  The whole women’s sports-league thing is a close cousin to Penny Marshall’s superior A League of Their Own, a film Whip It resembles in tone, if not execution.

Both films rely on a colorful supporting cast.  League’s Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna are replaced here by Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, and Bliss’s other teammates.  Tom Hanks, the grouchy but lovable baseball manager in League, is represented here by Andrew Wilson as the coach of the “Hurl Scouts,” a female roller derby squad.  But the characters in Whip It are paper-thin; Wilson, for example, is no Hanks.

If derby names like “Babe Ruthless” and “Eva Destruction” are enough to whet your comedy whistle, then maybe Whip It will satisfy you.  It’s a feel-good movie, an amusing enough way to spend two hours.  But for me, this was done much better back in 1992.         Grade:  C+

 

Director:  Drew Barrymore  Cast:  Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Alia Shawkat, Andrew Wilson  Release:  2009


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Bad

 

How much you like Nicolas Cage could well determine how much you like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Cage, to me, is always a very watchable actor.  His characters, however, aren’t always particularly likable.  That’s the case in Lieutenant, director Werner Herzog’s cop drama that’s heavy on irony, but otherwise a fairly standard cop drama. 

Cage’s Detective Terence McDonagh suffers a job-related injury, becomes addicted to pain-killing drugs and, in his quest to pay off debts, score drugs, and solve homicides, begins to find life in The Big Easy anything but.

McDonagh’s descent can’t be blamed entirely on drugs.  Among his other vices, this bad lieutenant enjoys power-play sex with the girlfriend of a small-time dealer — and forcing the poor guy to watch at gunpoint.  When a local underworld figure comes gunning for him, McDonagh doesn’t think twice about endangering his own family members.  But he does have a soft spot for pet dogs and fish.

Herzog loves irony, and the director seems to be aiming a big wink at his audience. But it’s not enough to camouflage what is, for the most part, just a routine police movie.      Grade:  B-

 

Director:  Werner Herzog  Cast:  Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Xzibit, Shawn Hatosy, Denzel Whitaker, Katie Chonacas  Release:  2009

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Adventure

 

Adventureland is a good example of what happens when you untether talented artists from the shackles of Hollywood junk-meisters.

Greg Mottola wrote and directed this film, which is based on one summer in his youth when he worked at an amusement park.  Mottola previously helmed the cookie-cutter, Judd Apatow-produced Superbad.  Star Jesse Eisenberg went on from this picture to act in Zombieland  — yet another trifling mediocrity.  Kristen Stewart, currently starring in the Twilight films … well, I haven’t seen them, so I’ll withhold judgment in her case.

But in Adventureland, Mottola has written a sweet and funny slice-of-life, with Eisenberg and Stewart sparkling in the lead roles.  That’s the good news.  The bad news?  Superbad went on to earn $170 million worldwide, while Adventureland garnered a mere $16 million domestically.  That’s a shame, because Adventureland has just as many laughs as the Apatow-produced dross; the difference is that Mottola’s latest film has a heart.

It’s the characters that count in this movie, and not just Eisenberg and Stewart.  Bill Hader, Margarita Levieva, and Martin Starr contribute comic highlights and, refreshingly, seem like actual human beings.  The same can be said for Ryan Reynolds as the story’s main villain.  Reynolds’s carousing mechanic comes off more sad and pathetic than malevolent.           Grade:  B+

 

Director:  Greg Mottola  Cast:  Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Margarita Levieva, Ryan Reynolds, Sue O’Malley, Jack Gilpin, Wendie Malick  Release:  2009

 

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strangelove1

 

1964 was quite the year for doomsday aficionados.  Moviegoers had their choice of two ways to witness the end of the world:  They could bite their nails off watching the bombs fall in Fail-Safe, or sit back and laugh about it with Dr. Strangelove.  See Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy starring the great Peter Sellers for free by going here.

 

Strangelove2

 

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by Ira Levin

Rosemary

 

Were I to publish a bestselling suspense novel and then have Hollywood come calling, I can’t think of a better director for the project than Roman Polanski.  I recently finished Robert Harris’s The Ghost, and Polanski’s film version of that political thriller was superb.

Ditto for Rosemary’s Baby, which Polanski filmed back in 1968.  But the greatness of the film is as much a testament to Levin as it is to Polanski.  With an economy of words and an atmosphere of middle-class ordinariness, Levin injects a wallop of horror that still resonates 43 years after his novel was published.

Jaws made some people think twice about swimming in the ocean, and Psycho compelled others to lock the bathroom door before showering.  I wonder: Did birthrates drop when this book came out?

 

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