Two highly suspect (Polish) pasts

“Ida,” Oscar-winning best foreign-language filmida

DVD $17.99 at Amazon

[Rating: 2.3/5]

Pros: cinematography, saxophonist

Cons: lack of character development even with startling revelation about title character’s past

I had not heard of the movie “Ida” before it received the Academy Award for best foreign-language film (which should have gone to “Timbuktu”). If I’d known that it was another confrontation with the holocaust, I’d have been less surprised by the Academy choice… and perhaps somewhat less critical of the short, somewhat opaque, black-and-white, 1.37:1-aspect movie that is now streaming on Netflix. I guess that writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski, who studied at Oxford was hailed for the thriller “The Woman on the Fifth Floor,” which starred Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but I have seen neither it nor his documentaries for British tv.

 

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an orphan/novitiate aged 17 or 18 who is scheduled to take final vows as a nun in a small Polish convent. The mother superior orders her to visit her only living relative, Wanda (Agata Kulesza) an alcoholic former prosecutor for the communist government since having been part of the underground resistance to the Nazis. The time is not specified, but must be the late-1950s (or very early 1960s).

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Wanda informs her niece that she is a Jew, whose parents named her Ida Lebenstein. The two women go to the farm where the Lebensteins (including Wanda’s young son) were sheltered… until they weren’t. The confrontation with the members of the family that are still on the farm than belonged to the Lebensteins are fraught, and there is a bland romantic encounter with a saxophonist whom Wanda picked up hitchhiking (personable Dawid Ogrodnik), but Wanda’s motivations (past and present) remain pretty enigmatic, and I have no idea what Anna/Ida thinks about anything she learns or does. That is Trzebuchowska is pretty but blank-faced. Lack of previous acting experience is not always a positive thing!

The bleak interiors and exteriors were artfully shot by Łukasz Żał. The lack of specificity about when the events are supposedly occurring is matched by opaqueness of motivations for both of the women on a road trip to the past of Polish/Roman Catholic complicity with Nazi genocide.

 

BIKINI SPRING BREAK Delivers Plenty of T&A, But Is No Fun Whatsoever

BIKINI SPRING BREAK

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See it at Amazon 

(1/5) ugh

Pros: Attractive female eye candy along with lots and lots of bare breasts

Cons: That’s literally all the film has going for it.

While primarily known for their horror and sci-fi films (Sharknado 1 and 2 and Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus among them) and so-called “mockbusters” which are patterned after major-release Hollywood films, in recent years production company The Asylum has branched out into making teen sex comedies, and why not. Considering the minimal amounts of creativity and talent (to say nothing of money) that goes into the typical Asylum film, this genre seems a good bet for them – after all, technical quality and acting ability don’t much matter in the standard sex comedy so long as a maximum amount of skin and rowdiness is put on display. Which leads to 2012’s Bikini Spring Break, as terrible a movie as could be imaginable. The film follows the world’s smallest and most moronic community college marching band (all five members of it) as they attempt to make their way cross-country to attend a national competition. Upon reaching Florida, the band’s bus breaks down, forcing the downright idiotic five women traveling in it to come up with some rather outlandish ideas of how to raise money to make sure they arrive at the competition on time…most of which revolve around taking off their shirts.

wanna see
Wanna see any of these women topless? If so, you’re in luck.

A made-for-video production apparently written and directed by a gang of horny fourteen-year-olds (actual guilty parties: writer/director Jared Cohn and co-writer Naomi L. Selfman) and tailor-made for late-night cable airings, Bikini Spring Break takes a minor story detail from the American Pie series (“…one time, at band camp…”) and turns it into a puerile mess of a film that heaps on the cliches and rowdiness but can’t for even a second be described as entertaining. OK, I’m lying – I may have chuckled twice, but by most any standard, this script is just jaw-dropping and populated by one of the worst gatherings of characters I’ve ever seen in a film that saw any kind of release. Frankly, I’m astonished that anyone would agree to star in this bomb: the five young women at the center of the picture are (literally) fleshed out as stereotypical bimbos completely oblivious to anything happening around them. Their sole purpose in the film is to periodically disrobe for a series of completely gratuitous – and fetishistically-photographed – scenes complimented by a soundtrack of lousy alternative rock.

locker room scene
What would a sex comedy be without a locker room scene? Probably a better movie.

Events such as a Jell-o wrestling match, bikini car wash, mechanical bull-ride, and wet T-shirt contest are photographed in slow-motion, with the camera pointed almost exclusively on the frequently bouncing breasts of any females in sight, thus providing any teenage boys in the audience with exactly what they’d want to see. It doesn’t speak well for anyone involved in this production however – Bikini Spring Break is about the most immature film one could ever hope to see, having precisely no connection with reality or – imagine this – good taste. As if the scenario itself isn’t bad enough (and let’s be clear, this film has plot holes that could swallow the galaxy), Cohn and Selfman’s script is loaded with soul-crushingly awful dialogue and unnecessary profanity. The constant bickering between the main characters, overbearing hysterics, “hip” exclamations (“FML” and “OMG” prove these writers are on top of modern culture), and supposed humor (the main running gag deals with one girl’s poorly-endowed boyfriend who’s belittled as being gay at every opportunity) quickly become tiresome, leaving a viewer with little to sustain interest.

unfunny
No one can get between Zoe and “Charlie the Euphonium.”

It’s pretty sad to see Robert Carradine (best known for his role in Revenge of the Nerds) reduced to acting in this film to collect a paycheck. Sleepwalking through the role of the band director, Carradine’s line delivery is atrocious and he seems wholly uninterested in the proceedings. Sorry to say, the females in the film (Rachel Alice playing the perpetually oblivious Alice, Virginia Petrucci as the clumsy Zoe, Samantha Stewart as the “leader” of the group, Jamie Noel and Erin O’Brien as the pair of relatively minor characters whose main job it is to complain about anything and everything, and Erika Duke as an obnoxiously cheerful girl trying to “ban” spring break) are probably worse. To be honest, I’d almost have to say that some of these folks have potential as actresses if they were given proper roles, but Bikini Spring Break is hardly flattering in its portrayal of their characters. This almost seems like a film it’d be difficult to move on from in terms of developing an acting career, which is perhaps the most unfortunate thing about it.

Oh look!
Oh look – a wet T-shirt contest.  Unfunny to the point of being painful to watch, no one over the age of fifteen would have any interest in this film.

The one and only saving grace in this film is that it features topless nude scenes from a variety of generally attractive actresses. Every one of the main female characters gets naked at some point, and the camera lingers over their bare bods for minutes at a time. If a viewer enters this film for the sole purpose of attaining some masturbatory material, Bikini Spring Break won’t disappoint, but anyone expecting any kind of decent movie should find something better to do than waste 87 minutes on this P.o.S. It’s shocking that something this reprehensible and pervasively, mind-numbingly dumb would be produced in the first place, and while this film satisfies on a certain, purely lascivious level, it’s not fun at all.

There’s simply gotta be a better use of a potential viewer’s time out there. The seedy side of the internet, for one.

doh!

disc deets
No extras on the widescreen DVD from Asylum Home Entertainment.

blood & guts bobby
0/10 : It’s harmless sure, but I’m not sure I’d call this fun.

smack talk
7/10 : Plenty of profanity thrown in for no reason whatsoever.

fap factor fap fap fap
9/10 : Mesmerized by bare titties? If so, this is the movie for you.

whack attack
3/10 : Even the copious nudity can’t do much to improve this pathetic excuse for a movie.

GI JOE
“…So this camera could change our lives forever? Do you want me to attach it to my euphonium?”

Trailer: (Warning! Not suitable for intellectuals)

Decoding Satellite Imagery on Science Channel’s WHAT ON EARTH?

WHAT ON EARTH? on Science Channel

Science Channel Website 

(3.5/5) decent

Pros: More science and evidence than is common for this type of speculative documentary; fine presentation

Cons: Recycling of topics from other shows; no real answers provided

Filling the void left when shows such as America Declassified (which hasn’t returned following its first season in 2013-14) and The Unexplained Files aren’t delivering new episodes, Science Channel’s new series What on Earth? (which premiered on February 10, 2015) continues to explore the realms of the unknown. Though it traverses much the same realm of conjecture as History Channel’s trendsetting Ancient Aliens, What on Earth? would seem to have significantly more credibility than the typical program of this nature. In recent times, a large number of surveillance and observation satellites have been launched into orbit, many of which have the goal of surveying and mapping areas of the globe which previously had been largely undocumented. During the course of this survey process, various anomalies of one sort or another have been uncovered and photographed and What on Earth? focuses its attention on these frequently strange but indisputably authentic images in an attempt to promote thought about what they actually are depicting.

ruins of El Dorado?
Could these ruins, revealed from space, be the remnants of the legendary El Dorado?

Set up like the typical television documentary, this program features a familiar mixture of archival footage, an inquisitive, omnipresent narration (provided by Steven Kearney), expert analysis from a veritable “who’s who” of persons who regularly appear in these sorts of programs, and actual evidence and documentation; in this case, the satellite images themselves. The straight-forward presentation of this “hard evidence” is easily the show’s main draw, and there’s no denying that the topics discussed during this program (which are examined on both a macroscopic and microscopic level) would be fascinating for those interested in science and the world around them. The show’s debut episode featured a variety of stories, covering topics ranging from the so-called “band of Holes” which snakes through the Peruvian Andes to an image which seems to show a humongous tsunami heading towards Hong Kong. Also discussed is an extremely shadowy submarine base in China, a huge Florida sinkhole which contains several-thousand-year-old human and animal remains, and a lake in Iraq that appeared blood red when photographed from space. As is about the norm in programming like this, What on Earth? doesn’t so much try and explain everything, or indeed, anything. Instead, the goal seems to be to make a viewer aware of some interesting phenomena and various hypotheses surrounding them so that he can do some additional research on his own if desired.

sandy island
Sandy Island, off the coast of Australia, as seen from Google Earth’s satellite. Strange thing is, shortly after this photo appeared, the island, originally documented by Captain Cook, vanished completely.

While this show’s level-headed presentation may be its best characteristic, I also really like the fact that What on Earth? doesn’t draw things out to a ridiculous level. A significant problem in shows like UFO Conspiracies, The Unexplained Files, and even Dark Matters: Twisted but True is that individual segments are stretched out to the point that each episode only features the examination of two or three separate topics. What on Earth? only devotes about ten minutes of screen time to each subject it discusses, so the program is able to cover significantly more topics per episode. I’m a fan of this approach since, at a certain point, there’s really nothing more to be said about any single thing. I’d rather a show of this nature move on and cover something else than beat a dead horse for a half hour just to satisfy time requirements or an established format.

USS THRESHER
One of the strange, obscure stories that popped up in the series’ first episode was the tale of the USS Thresher, which sank under mysterious circumstances in 1963.

On the downside, it seems like this is another program on an educational channel that’s recycling topics that have been discussed previously elsewhere. In relation to this debut episode, the “Band of Holes” had been covered previously (several times) on Ancient Aliens and the topic of so-called “red rain” had been the subject of an episode of The Unexplained Files. This repetition of material is somewhat frustrating: considering that I believe that the same audience would be interested in most if not all programs dealing with these sorts of unknown phenomena, since nothing significant is added to the discussion here, it seems mostly pointless that What on Earth? would cover the same topics as have been dealt with in other shows. You’d think (especially given that a new “unsolved mystery” type program seems to pop up every other week anymore) that these programs would want to stick out from the crowd and have some element of distinction to them, but I guess the producers are more content to stick to tried and true subject matter. If it works for Hollywood….

area 51
What would a speculative documentary be without some good conspiracy theory to mix things up?

All in all, What on Earth? does exactly what it sets out to do I suppose, a well-executed television documentary that remains compelling even if it does seem to talk about the same sorts of things as any number of vaguely similar shows. My favorite aspect of shows like this are the esoteric anecdotes that one inevitably gets while watching, and this new Science Channel series certainly provides a few of them per episode. In my opinion, What on Earth? doesn’t think far enough outside the box to be truly outstanding, but there’s more than enough food for thought here to please viewers who would watch a show like this in the first place. The fact that the program is based on actual evidence is a definite plus, and I’d urge interested parties to check it out if they get a chance.

many evidence

THE KILLERS ARE COMING! PROM NIGHT

PROM NIGHT

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See it at Amazon 

(2.5/5) meh

Pros: Film has its moments…along with plenty of  DISCO MADNESS!

Cons: The horror movie tricks and treats are a long time coming

Made in Canada and released in 1980, just a few months after the original Friday the 13th, Prom Night is yet another horror flick based around a date or prominent event. While playing a tag-like game in an abandoned building, a young girl named Robin Hammond is accidentally forced from a second story window and falls to her death. The four children who witnessed the accident immediately take an oath of secrecy to hide their involvement, police pick up a convicted sex offender they believe is responsible, and the incident is all but forgotten…or is it? Six years later, as the date of their high school prom approaches, the now-teenaged kids involved in Robin’s death are being harassed by an unknown stalker. Could it be that the “disfigured, schizophrenic psychotic” who was convicted of the crime, sent to a nearby asylum, and recently escaped has come back to clear his name? Has the super skeezy school janitor finally lost his marbles and become a pervert murderer? Or is there someone else out there who wants to avenge the young girl’s death?

who could it be?
Who could this ax-wielding maniac be?

Considering the familiarity of the material, it’s somewhat inexplicable that Prom Night has achieved and maintained a substantial amount of popularity since its production. Written by William Gray from a story by Robert Guza, Jr., this film includes virtually every slasher film cliché imaginable. When Gray’s script introduces a character who, much like Halloween’s Dr. Sam Loomis, has a vested interest in the escaped mental patient or a Carrie-like revenge plot that’s ready to play out at the prom, it’s pretty clear that not a whole lot of genuine inspiration or creativity went into this thing. Try as he might, director Paul Lynch can’t do much to add vitality to an excruciatingly talky script that devotes way too much time to pointless and inconsequential character development. To make matters worse, Gray’s choppy script can’t even stay focused long enough to build any single character up as being entirely relatable or even remotely interesting.

lots of drama
A viewer will be in for a lot of typical high school drama in getting to the film’s “big payoff” moments.

By far the worst of the issues is that Prom Night delivers nary a single moment of legitimate action or suspense for more than two-thirds of it run time. A viewer of this film has to sit through an hour of buildup before there’s any serious threat of murder and even once the kill scenes are primed, set, and ready, Lynch interrupts the action for an extended disco dancing routine. Hell, the entire last thirty minutes of this picture pulsates to the beat of a never-ending string of faux-disco hits (made exclusively for the film by composer Paul Zaza), which can either be viewed as a good or a bad thing depending on one’s tolerance for bad music. It also should be pointed out that while most other slashers of the early ‘80s went the “bigger is better” route and featured body counts in the double digits, the number of kills in Prom Night can be counted on one hand.

yes that's leslie
Yes, that’s Leslie Nielsen of Airplane! fame doing the hustle.

It’s a good thing then that director Lynch makes sure that at least some of the murders here are memorable: a slow-motion throat slashing in which Robert C. New’s camera focuses not on the gaping wound and pumping blood, but rather the distressed eyes of the victim is actually very effective at conveying the horror of the situation. Another rather brutal sequence finds a young woman being stabbed repeatedly in the chest and throat after her sex games are interrupted (remember kids – have sex and you die!). Other than these two moments however, Prom Night plays by the book and is relatively bland, delivering an extended scene in which an ax-wielding prowler chases down a hysterical teen and a decapitation that may as well have been pulled straight out of Friday the 13th. Oh, and there’s also a vehicle somersaulting down a cliff and exploding. Can’t forget that. Gore effects are adequately done but fleeting, and the element of the film that may be the most shocking is the sheer number of boom mics clearly visible in the final cut. I counted at least six instances in the first twenty minutes or so where this occurs and there seems to have been almost no effort made to correct this problem – the mic just sits onscreen for minutes at a time. Frankly, this is completely inexcusable and points to the amateurish nature of this production as a whole.

rutrow
Rutrow!: post-coital activity of an unfortunate variety.

Jamie Lee Curtis stars as the film’s main character Kim Hammond, the most popular girl in the school and Robin’s older sister. This was Curtis’ third horror role (following Halloween and The Fog, both made for director John Carpenter), and she’s believable enough as a hot to trot teenager getting ready for her prom date with boyfriend Nick (played by Casey Stevens), who’s one of the kids semi-responsible for Robin’s death. Par for the course in these sorts of films, these lead actors do all right when they’re tearing it up on the dance floor, but can’t for the life of them inject any sort of emotionality into the more dramatic moments. Particularly strained and laughable is a scene in which Nick comes close to telling Kim the whole story about her sister’s death – watch as Stevens contorts his face to convey his “inner torment!.” Leslie Nielsen meanwhile walks the straight and narrow for a change as the school principal and Kim’s father, Michael Tough plays Kim’s brother, and Mary Beth Rubens, Eddie Benton, and Joy Thompson are the promiscuous girls and obvious murder victims. I’ve got to give credit to David Mucci (playing the school’s chain-smoking tough guy), Sheldon Rybowski (as a would-be ladies man named “Slick” who tools around picking up women in his van), and Robert A. Silverman (the hilariously stereotypical pervert janitor) for making the most of their goofy minor roles: it’s them and not the leads who ultimately add a sense of fun to the proceedings.

i bet
I bet there, bud. I bet.

Even if it’d be easy to trash director Lynch’s handling of this film, he does manage to create a few standout moments. I liked the way in which a handful of rather ambiguous flashback sequences tell the story of how Robin’s death was pinned on a sex offender with no connection to the case. It would have been easy to spell this out for the viewer but instead, Lynch and Grey insist that the viewer put the pieces together for himself, which is commendable: I’m always a fan of making the viewer use his brain. Additionally, scenes in which the raspy-voiced killer phones and threatens his intended victims have a definite creepiness about them, especially due to their use of a jagged editing scheme, and the lengthy aforementioned “DISCO MADNESS” scene boasts nice choreography and photography (seems someone watched Saturday Night Fever a time or three). Sad to say, I’d almost be more comfortable with calling this dance sequence the true climax of the film since Prom Night is a definite letdown in the horror department. Despite its many problems and shortcomings however, similar to a film like Sleepaway Camp, I think most horror fans would want to see Prom Night just to say that they did. It’s not a perfect film by a longshot, but I’d give it a slight recommendation.

ARGGGH!

disc deets
Special edition Blu-ray from the always reliable Synapse Films includes a commentary track with director Lynch and screenwriter Gray, a 25-minute making-of featurette, nine minutes of additional scenes (added for TV broadcast) and outtakes, as well as a still gallery and collection of trailers. The film is presented in an outstanding anamorphic widescreen version with optional English subtitles – a top-notch home video package. I should also point out that viewers should avoid the Alliance Atlantis print of the film (which occasionally pops up on cable) at all costs – the print is so dark as to be almost unintelligible.

blood & guts
4/10 : Slow-going for most of its run-time, then releases a handful of fairly low-key but decent kill scenes in its last half hour. Moderate gore, including a decapitation by ax.  Minor drug content.

smack talk
3/10 : I noticed one f-bomb, but these teens keep it mostly clean.

fap factor
3/10 : A pair of sex scenes with just a hint of topless nudity.

whack attack
6/10 : Has its admirers for sure, though for my money, there are much better ’80s horror flicks out there.

GI JOE
“Lieutenant, you’re asking me to comment on a catatonic schizophrenic who was disfigured and institutionalized six years ago.”

Trailer:

The Stranger You Seek – Amanda Kyle Williams gives us something different

The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams

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See it at Amazon 

(3/5)

Pros: a few things that make this book different from the rest

Cons: the ending was not the best

I read a whole lot of thrillers.  And I frequently complain about how they all start to sound alike after a while.  How I long for something “different” within the genre.  Well, I have to say that The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams does bring some new items to the table.  That’s not to say that I loved the book.  In the end, it was just “ok”.  But, still, I have to give credit where it’s due, for having the guts to take some different turns.

It’s your basic “serial killer has town in fear” story.  In this case, men and women are turning up dead, in some cases, horribly beaten.  And in all cases, left in humiliating poses.  The police haven’t a clue.  Literally.

They ask Keye Street to help.  She’s an ex-officer – lost her job due to alcoholism a few years back.  But she’s still the best profiler around, so they call on her when they need her.  Despite the fact that this case triggers her emotionally, she sticks with it, even when the hunter becomes the hunted.

So – I said this book was “different”.  Let me give some reasons why.  First of all we have a very flawed main character with a complicated past that still haunts her to this day, affecting every aspect of her life.

There’s another character in the story who sustained a traumatic brain injury, completely altering his personality… I found this character to be fascinating.

Our killer enjoys blogging, on a knife-fantasy site.  This type of site is definitely a new one, for me.  And while the writings are graphic (as is the level of violence in this book) I still found it a fascinating glimpse into something that was certainly different, for me.

Keye’s other job – when she’s not helping the police – leads her to a variety of “interesting” folks, some of which added some nice humor to the story.

So, yes, The Stranger You Seek has some nice qualities to it, some things that make it just a bit different from the norm.  But a story still needs to be exciting, and the ending needs to be satisfying.  And this is where the book fails.  The ending was horrid.  I’m all for twists and surprises, but not ones that make absolutely no sense.  And, worse, leave a whole bunch of unanswered questions.

So, in the end, The Stranger You Seek is just an “ok” thriller.  Some good points, some bad points.  Read it, but don’t look for that awesome ending.

Another Winning Soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross: GONE GIRL OST

GONE GIRL: SOUNDTRACK FROM THE MOTION PICTURE by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

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See it at Amazon 

(4/5) cool

Pros: Works extremely well as an atmospheric dark ambient album

Cons: Overlong – the final handful of tracks here are forgettable

Though it’s perhaps one of the most polarizing projects in the repertoire of Trent Reznor, the 2008 release Ghosts I-IV (from Reznor’s main musical project Nine Inch Nails) is likely to be regarded as one of the most important of his career. By the late 2000s, I had all but lost interest in NiN, a band whose earlier albums up to and including 1999’s The Fragile I had enjoyed immensely. Reznor seemed to hit a bit of a creative brick wall on 2005’s With Teeth, and even subsequent album Year Zero didn’t do much to restore my faith in the artist’s ability. It almost seemed to me around this time that Nine Inch Nails, a band I had once regarded as primarily being a studio group due to Reznor’s production brilliance, became more for me a band that put on a good live show. Ghosts went in a completely different direction from what NiN had previously been about however, and revitalized the project as far as I’m concerned.

ghosts
This Ghosts artwork seems appropriate considering how the album sounds.

While Reznor frequently dabbled with instrumental work on his previous releases (I might even be inclined to label a few of his vocal-less tracks as some of his best), Ghosts was a true behemoth: a double album of dark ambient music which led directly to working with collaborator Atticus Ross on a series of film scores for director David Fincher. For my money, the soundtracks Reznor and Ross produced for 2010’s The Social Network and 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were some of the best material that Reznor had worked on in years – much more exciting than anything his How to Destroy Angels side project was doing, and better than the music heard on 2013’s uneven Hesitation Marks, his “return” album as Nine Inch Nails.

gone girl poster

The latest Reznor/Ross soundtrack collaboration was produced for the 2014 film Gone Girl, an unsettling drama which follows a man’s life after his wife disappears, and the collective musical sensibilities and talents of the composers seem a good match for this type of material. Reznor, after all, had been dealing with themes of loss, frustration, and despair for years in his work as Nine Inch Nails, and Ross had been in the studio for the last several of those albums prior to the soundtrack collaborations. While I was prepared for the underlying sense of tension and mystery that pervades and indeed pulses throughout the Gone Girl soundtrack, I was a little surprised by the fact that the less downright bleak tracks here fall in line nicely with the minimalistic ambient music that Brian Eno had pioneered in the early 1970s and Aphex Twin had made in the early ‘90s as part of his Selected Ambient Works series. In the end, the Reznor/Ross soundtrack is not only impressive as a compliment to the motion picture it came from, but a satisfying album of music in its own right.

Reznor and Ross at work
Reznor (left) and Ross at work in the studio.

Strictly instrumental, the Gone Girl soundtrack features two dozen tracks. The majority of these fall in the two to four minute range: brief musical passages presumably designed to accompany specific scenes in the film. If there’s one thing I could say about the album it’s that the majority of tracks here are rather incidental and seem to revolve around a single theme or motif. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact it’s precisely what one would expect from a film soundtrack. Film music is most often designed to inconspicuously create mood or atmosphere, but the downside to this (as might be expected) is that the Gone Girl soundtrack only contains a handful of tracks that I would categorize as being more “complete” pieces of music. One such piece is “Technically Missing,” a driving track around the album’s halfway point which may as well have been an instrumental outtake from a NiN album. Other than this, it seems that the album alternates between shorter tracks that are comparatively more or less obviously dark in terms of their sound.

gloomy

A gloomy mood is established right off the bat in album opener “What Have We Done To Each Other?,” a piece which throbs under an unsettling choir of airy high-pitched tones and fleeting melody. The track escapes it new agey trappings however by sounding very rich, with a lonely trumpet occasionally sounding out under the louder background ambiance. Reznor has claimed that one of the goals of this album was to create a sense of discontent in tracks that were generally pleasant, and he certainly achieves this on second track “Sugar Storm,” in which bright, fluffy keyboard melodies are joined with jarring sound effects and sunny but slightly ominous background chords. A more haunting keyboard part takes center stage in “Empty Places,” in which the solitary melody is accompanied by quietly tinkling bells and a throbbing bass, “With Suspicion” eventually builds to a loud and crackly climax that recalls vintage NiN recordings, and fifth track “Just Like You” is a serene piano-based number that may be one of the most genuinely beautiful and upbeat tracks here.

dark

With heartbeat-like rhythms pushing them forward, “Clue One” and “Two” are perhaps the most sinister offerings, mostly because there’s a sense of inevitability to them that suggests they’re leading a listener towards something truly unfortunate and maybe even horrible . A more calming pair of tracks in piano number “Background Noise” and synth-driven “Procedural” is followed-up by one in “Something Disposable” that jangles the listener’s nerves with its almost Indian-sounding melody and seemingly random noise accents. “The Way He Looks at Me” and “Perpetual” exist as noisy experiments that utilize a rather familiar Reznor sound palette, and the album concludes with the eerily peaceful “At Risk.”

Reznor and Ross
Though the partnership between Reznor and Ross has been successful thus far,  I’m most interested to see what happens if they branch out a bit in the future.

Honestly, the only significant problem I had with this release was that down the stretch, the Gone Girl soundtrack loses steam. Part of this may simply be due to the fact that it’s a fairly long album at nearly an hour and a half in length, and requires some patience and stamina on the part of the listener. Still, the inclusion of several reprise tracks doesn’t help matters at all and actually makes the album’s last quarter mostly insignificant and unremarkable. That said, the music of Reznor and Ross positively succeeds at creating a sense of unease and maybe even dread in its listener. It’s worth bearing in mind that it isn’t a genuine Nine Inch Nails album and shouldn’t really be approached as such: those whose tastes tend to fall in line with more pop-oriented material might just be bored to tears by this. As an dark ambient work however, Gone Girl’s soundtrack is by and large outstanding: one of my favorites of 2014 and something I’d have no problem recommending.

Sample:

Excruciating story of poverty early in the Pax Tokugawa

Miike’s remake in color of “Harakiri”

hara-kiri

Blu-ray at Amazon  for $14.99

(3/5)

Pros: actors

Cons: trying to improve on a perfect movie

I think that Mike Takashi’s 3-D color 2011 “Hara-Kiri” is a pointless remake of Kobayashi Masaki’s very great (1962 b&w) version of Takiguchi Yasuhiko’s novel Ibun rônin-ki. I was surprised that it was shorter than the original (128:133 minutes). Both have prolonged scenes of immobile samurai talking, before the final explosion of violence. I thought that Eita was excellent as Motome, the son-in-law raised by Hanshirô (Ichikawa Ebizô, who is good, but not as coiled or as charismatic as Nakadai Tatsuya in Kobayashi’s version). (Ishihama Akira was also very impressive as the gentle teacher, a samurai who had no experience of battle.)

The basic story is excruciating, but IMO Kobayashi’s movie did not seem also to be excruciatingly, boringly slow. In Kobayashi’s version, Hanshirô is shot after the retainers cannot handle him, and the shogun praises the House of Li for its handling of the ronin suicides. Kobayashi aimed to show the hollowness of the “code of honor,” about which Miike seems more equivocal, though certainly he also shows the suffering of the former warrior elite with the coming of peace (the pax Togukawa that began a decade before the farthest reach of flashbacks in the movie, though there are allusions to Hanshirô fighting in the decisive 1600 Battle of Sekigahara).

Hara-kiri2Sakamoto’ Ryuichi provided a strong musical score (as is his wont; Kobayashi had the services of Takemitsu Toru). And Kita Nobuyasu’s cinematography is as good as for Miike’s previous movie, the 2010 “13 Assassins” (Jûsan-nin no shikaku).

Both versions are harrowing (as was the “Human Conditions” trilogy with Nakadai directed by Kobayahsi). I prefer“Samurai Rebellion” (“Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu”, 1967), in which Kobayashi directed Nakadai and Mifune Toshiro in an adaptation of another novel by  Takiguchi Yasuhiko (and with one of Takemitsu’s best movie scores).

Another Hit-or-Miss, Glorified Corgan Solo Release: MONUMENTS TO AN ELEGY by Smashing Pumpkins

MONUMENTS TO AN ELEGY by Smashing Pumpkins

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See it at Amazon 

(3/5) decent

Pros: Thankfully short and, for the most part, it’s musically satisfying

Cons: Disjointed feel; lyrics are sketchy at best and sometimes awful

A few months ago, I stumbled across an article entitled “A Brief History of Billy Corgan Losing his Goddamn Mind” that listed off (in a semi-serious, humorous manner) various pieces of evidence that suggest that the frontman/lead singer/songwriter of Smashing Pumpkins has indeed lost contact with reality in recent years. To be honest, anyone who’s followed the Pumpkins over any period of time may have questioned Corgan’s sanity long ago.

This ain't the '90s
It ain’t the ’90s anymore.

I was a huge fan of the Pumpkins in the late ‘90s, but quickly lost interest when the classic band lineup (Corgan along with Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, James Iha on guitar and D’arcy Wretzky on bass) dissolved and Corgan initiated a increasingly confusing number of side and solo projects. Then there was the “reformation” of the Pumpkins in the late 2000s – which wasn’t so much a reformation of the band as its restructuring as a(nother) glorified Corgan solo project in which he was joined by a revolving door of “here one day, gone the next” collaborators – and the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project in which Corgan proclaimed he was releasing (for free) an ongoing series of songs to prove that traditional albums were dead. A year or so into the project, Corgan decided to abandon that format…and release a standard album of music.

But hey, it’s hard to argue with genius right?

And it would be hard to argue with Corgan if his newer music was anywhere as good as it had been in the ‘90s, when the Pumpkins were alternative rock darlings, pumping out a string of critically and commercially successful albums. Recently, any music from Corgan has been spotty at best: admittedly I haven’t much paid attention to any of his releases post-2000 until the release of Monuments to an Elegy in late 2014. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the more pop-oriented Monuments as an album isn’t awful. Billy Corgan is nothing if not supremely talented and creative. Here, he’s proven that he can still craft excellent guitar-driven songs but perhaps most importantly, Corgan music today still sounds like the Corgan music of old – considering his very distinctive, whiny vocals, it’d be almost unimaginable if this weren’t the case.

there was a time
There was a time when Smashing Pumpkins (pictured here in their classic lineup) were synonymous with quality…

Unfortunately, his lyrics are almost laughably bad at times. A fleeting relationship with singer Jessica Simpson doesn’t really seem that far-fetched when one hears “Anti-Hero,” Monuments‘s closing track. Sounding like moody, late ‘90s alt rock with lyrics that remind me of something a teenager would have scrawled on the back of a three-ring binder (“never been kissed by a girl like you / all I wanna, wanna do / love me babeh / love me true / oooo” – are you kidding?), the track is jaw-droppingly infantile – and plain shocking coming from a middle-aged man who’s written some downright classic songs over the years.

smashing pumpkins in 2015
Smashing Pumpkins today. You may say this is just a picture of Billy, and there’s a reason for that.

The whole of Monuments to an Elegy is almost suggestive of the singer/songwriter responsible for it being in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The album’s second single “One and All” finds Corgan repeating the stanza “we are / we are so young” so many times that it seems he’s trying to convince himself that the line is true. And then there’s “Run2me,” about as corny and optimistic an electro-infused track as could be imaginable and “Being Beige,” the album’s very awkward first single which finds the singer choking up as he delivers the opening lines. At its best, Monuments unleashes the loud and hazy guitar rock that has always not only the hallmark but also the strongpoint of the Pumpkins sound. Once it gets going, the aforementioned “Beige” is actually pretty good, and the less abrasive “Drum + Fife” and poppy synthpop track “Dorian” are very listenable if not agreeable.

billy

Even with Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee pounding on the skins though, Monuments never achieves any sort of consistency – it plays like a haphazard collection of more or less disconnected songs. Of course, in 2015, this is largely the norm: do any artists make genuine “albums” anymore? Considering the effortless flow and near perfect craftsmanship exhibited on earlier Pumpkins records like 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or 1993’s Siamese Dream (my personal favorite) however, it’s difficult to believe that a halfass release like Monuments comes from the same band. And the fact is that it doesn’t: the Smashing Pumpkins in 2015 aren’t the Pumpkins that made the classic albums from the ‘90s even if Corgan is still behind the wheel.

scratching my head...

The crowd that grew up listening to Smashing Pumpkins is still looking for music that speaks to them today though they’re older and presumably wiser. Corgan doesn’t much seem to care – it’s frankly inexplicable to me that the music here not only seems to have been written from the perspective of a teenager in an appeal to a younger crowd, but actually seems to reflect the fact that Corgan is getting worse as a songwriter over the years instead of better. Monuments to an Elegy simply doesn’t provide enough material that would appeal to the more mature crowd that I believe would be interested in it in the first place. Ultimately, though it’s not completely abysmal, it is generally forgettable and I would hardly give it much of a recommendation.

Suck Wall! REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

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See it at Amazon 

(3.5/5) decent

Pros: Stuntwork is pretty astounding; nice use of real locations
Cons: Ending seems flat; potential problems with the Chiun character

Made in 1985 as the first installment of a series based on The Destroyer novels by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins has to be one of best, consistently overlooked mindless action films from the ‘80s. The plot here centers around a former NYC policeman named Sam Makin who is recruited by a secret organization known as CURE who, after faking Makin’s death, rechristen him as the titular character (named after – you ready for this – a company who manufactures bedpans). CURE’s goal is to stamp out government corruption and this mainly involves taking down a manufacturer that is wasting government funds on weapons systems that are at best defective and quite possibly completely inoperable. Before that operation can proceed however, Williams must learn his craft from a “Korean master” named Chiun, thereby providing the film’s mandatory and nearly feature-long training sequence.

Remo and Chiun
Remo and Chiun: not quite Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san.

Christopher Wood’s script presents a mixture of the typically outrageous ‘80s action film story with a comic book mentality and plenty of goofball humor. The majority of the film deals with the interaction between Williams and Chiun: as might be expected, Chiun initially believes that training the very rough-around-the-edges Williams is a hopeless proposition and obviously, a major point of the script is to show that anything can be attained through hard work and perseverance. While the training sequence provides moments of dry wit and Three Stooges physical comedy, the familiar routine is a bit dull and nothing if not entirely predictable. Thankfully, Wood peppers the film with a handful of downright awe-inspiring action sequences that effectively break up the monotony and provide definitive highlight moments.

crazy thing is
The crazy thing is, it seems like this was actually filmed at height on the huge scaffolding surrounding the Statue of Liberty. Note the Manhattan skyline in the background.

One such sequence finds Williams climbing on and through Coney Island’s famous Ferris Wheel, dodging incoming baskets and support wires as a way to test his mettle and overcome his fear of heights. Filmed in a way which really emphasizes the mind-blowing stunt work that had to be pulled off to complete the scene, even this impressive moment pales in comparison to another action set piece in which Williams encounters a gang of thugs on Liberty Island. In real-life 1985, a massive renovation project on the Statue of Liberty was ongoing, so the structure was surrounded by a tall scaffold. Needless to say, the film’s pursuit sequence that takes place in this criss-crossing maze of metal is nerve-wracking and exciting. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is that, unlike any number of Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris vehicles from the period, Remo Williams doesn’t rely on over-the-top violence or plentiful explosions to keep a viewer interested. Director Guy Hamilton (who cut his teeth directing four Bond films from the ‘60s and ‘70s) simply emphasizes the impending peril that the main character is facing. His very assured handling of the material seems very old school (particularly compared to the loud and overblown action cinema of the post-Michael Bay era) yet is entirely effective: I certainly wish more of today’s directors would subscribe to his methodology in making this kind of film.

Stuntwork
Stuntwork in the film is pretty outstanding – as is the replica Lady Liberty set.

Though he’s not quite the person I might have expected to play a role like this, Fred Ward (of Tremors fame) is actually very believable in the lead. It’s immediately apparent that the actor does many of his own stunts, which adds significantly to the viewing experience: I actually could buy Ward as a bad ass who could pull off these acrobatic parkour moves while ripping off one-liners at every opportunity. The script doesn’t allow for much genuine character development, but being entirely realistic or indeed logical isn’t remotely the point of this picture in the first place: it’s more or less a comic-book come to life. Playing Chiun we have obviously Caucasian actor Joel Grey. Depending on one’s perspective, Grey’s portrayal could either be taken as being quite humorous or completely offensive – the Chiun character is extremely stereotypical across the board, but listening to a painfully white dude deliver his interpretation of an “Asian accent” may be the icing on the cake. In 1985, being politically correct wasn’t much of an issue (particularly when dealing with Asians – I’m not so sure a character named – or like – “Long Duk Dong” would fly in 2015), and I guess today’s viewers can either choose to chuckle at the absurdity of the whole thing or find something else to watch. Regardless, there’s a nice rapport between Ward and Grey, especially when the two start exchanging wise cracks with one another. Ultimately, the chemistry between this duo benefits the picture since the story mostly revolves around them.

grey and ward
Grey and Ward have a nice rapport with one another – this picture sums up their interaction during the early parts of the film.

Smaller roles here are occupied by the likes of A. Wilford Brimley (under-utilized as the mastermind of CURE who spends the entire film pecking on a very primitive computer), J.A. Preston (as the streetwise CURE agent who is Williams’s only partner), Kate Mulgrew (an Army major investigating the corruption claims), and Charles Cioffi as a shady businessman who’s the main villain of the piece. I found it refreshing that a romantic relationship between Mulgrew and Ward’s characters never quite materialized even if the film’s somewhat goofy climax left the door open for one. Andrew Laszlo’s photography is outstanding with Craig Safan’s soundtrack adding punctuation to the more attention-grabbing moments, and the film makes exquisite use of authentic NYC locations. I was completely astonished by the fact that downtown Manhattan is visible in the background of many shots – particularly those filmed on the scaffold surrounding Lady Liberty. Amazing that some of these scenes could be pulled off and again, I really commend the stunt personnel who worked on this film.

on the coney island ferris wheel
Needless to say, Remo Williams didn’t find its audience at the box office, and the planned sequels and TV show never materialized. This is somewhat of a shame considering how decent this first film is – much better than any of the various, completely asinine flicks of the era starring the likes of Ah-nold Schwarzenegger (Commando or Raw Deal in particular), Chuck Norris, or Michael Dudikoff. Maybe Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins didn’t pack enough pyrotechnics or bullet-riddled bodies into its run time (the title character leaves many of his “victims” alive and the ending is admittedly flat), but whatever the case is, this genuinely fun movie is well worth rediscovering some three decades after its release. This is what the ‘80s were all about, and while this may not be a masterpiece of cinema, it’s indisputably entertaining.

fred's hand signals

disc deets
MGM’s DVD version is, unfortunately and rather inexplicably, in full screen version only with no accompanying bonus features.

blood & guts
3/10 : Some violence and chopsocky; just a bit of blood

smack talk
3/10 : Occasional minor profanity

fap factor
1/10 : Fleeting sexual references, but not even a bit of romance – which is a actually a good thing

whack attack
6/10 : Though imperfect, this is a definite step above the usual moronic ’80s action vehicle

GI JOE
“If I’m the best you could find, you’re in pretty deep shit, pal.”

Enter Jason Voorhees: FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2

FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2

Pick Your Poison at Amazon 

(3.5/5) decent

Pros: Jason! More technically adequate than the crude first film; satisfying as an ’80s slasher

Cons: Cast is a mixed bag at best; complete lack of original ideas

Picking up more or less right where the previous year’s seminal Friday the 13th left off (to the point where it begins with the sole survivor of that film being stalked by an unknown prowler), 1981’s Part 2 of the series plays like a slightly more accomplished version of the first film. Some five years after the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake, whose nickname of “Camp Blood” is becoming more and more appropriate, another group of summer camp counselors is headed out to the area to receive instruction for the upcoming season. Things go along pretty well at first, with the prospective counselors taking part in the typical tomfoolery one would expect from a group of rowdy -and horny – young people. Soon it becomes apparent however that the legend of Jason Voorhees, the young boy who drowned at the camp in 1958, may be true after all since one by one, the counselors are bumped off a hulking madman. This sets up an ending which recreates that of the original film – with a few twists thrown in to spice things up.

yes
What is this – Jason as some sort of demented “farmer in the dell” with his burlap sack, overalls, and pitchfork?

Directed by Steve Miner from a script by Ron Kurz, Friday the 13th Part 2 is most notable for being the film which actually introduced the masked killer Jason Voorhees (who in this film, wears a burlap sack over his head, not his trademark hockey mask) into the lexicon of the series, thereby setting up a seemingly endless number of additional sequels. What’s sometimes overlooked with regard to Part 2 is that Miner’s handling of the all-too-familiar (if not virtually identical) material proved that he was a significantly more inspired and talented film maker than Sean S. Cunningham, creator of the franchise who was at the helm for the first film. Cunningham’s original Friday was nothing if not extremely crude, yet it was entirely effective at creating an atmosphere of dread and a sense of unease in the viewer. Miner’s film (photographed by Peter Stein) goes a step further by actually being comparably accomplished in terms of its technical aspects.

actually fairly tense
Crazy farmer or not, the film actually has some effectively tense stalking and/or pursuit sequences.

The film is loaded with voyeuristic camera angles, giving the viewer the perspective of the film’s villain/murderer as he stalks his prey. I could almost be led to believe that director Miner had some knowledge of the hideously gory Italian horror movies of the 1970s: one pursuit sequence reminded me of a superbly-executed scene from 1973’s Torso in which a half-naked young woman is pursued through a swamp by a shadowy masked man. The corresponding scene in Miner’s film starts off with the appearance of an almost spectral hooded figure and continues with a somewhat jarring chase through a particularly lush section of forest. Another pursuit leading up to the film’s climax makes nice use of shadow to build tension, and I really liked a scene in which Jason appears almost phantom-like from the darkened corner of a shot set-up to violently attack a young man as he roots around in a cabin. Harry Manfredini (who also scored the first film) turns in another outstanding soundtrack, with pizzicato strings and the famous “ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha” sound effectively ratcheting up the suspense when appropriate.

Amy Steel
This film’s main character of Ginny (played by Amy Steel) is arguably the best heroine of the entire series.

All the technique in the world wouldn’t amount to much if this film didn’t deliver as a vintage ‘80s slasher flick. Though it’s lost a lot of its punch over the years (as is true of many films of this era, casualties of the “overkill” method that most modern genre directors employ to satisfy an increasingly bloodthirsty audience), I’d say Part 2 delivers in this respect. A viewer can expect assorted stabbings and throat slashings, an ice pick to the temple, claw hammer to the skull, and even a pair of bodies impaled with a spear while in the act of lovemaking (a method of execution borrowed from Mario Bava’s Italian-made Bay of Blood). Without giving anything away, I’ll say that my favorite kill involves one unfortunate youngster taking a machete to the face, then bouncing down a flight of stairs – you’ll know it when you see it.

surprise

What’s perhaps most surprising about this film is that this (along with most of the other Friday the 13th films) was in danger of receiving an ‘X’ rating when released due to strong violence and had to be edited down to get the ‘R’. While even rather harmless when compared to the likes of 1980’s X-rated (for violence) Maniac, viewed today, Part 2 looks like Sesame Street alongside most modern horror films or even a remarkably gory non-horror picture like Django Unchained – it blows my mind that this studio-backed Tarantino picture passed with an ‘R’ while numerous comparably less violent or downright incendiary indie films often wind up facing the wrath of the MPAA. That’s the politics of the movie biz for ya!

imagine
Can you imagine how this scene would be filmed today?

Even if Part 2 is an improvement in terms of its technical qualities, there’s no denying that many of the actors in the film are sketchy at best. Amy Steel as the obvious heroine of the picture does a fine job (remember – she’s a psychology student; this helps explain the climax), but some of the lesser players are downright awful. The likes of Marta Kober and Bill Randolph (as the mandatory promiscuous couple), Russell Todd and Stu Charno (the jokers of the bunch), Tom McBride (the boy in a wheelchair), and Kristen Baker (who provides the film’s shimmering moment of gratuitous frontal nudity) are little more than anonymous cannon fodder ready to be slaughtered. It’s funny when watching some of these classic slasher flicks that a viewer winds up rooting for the “villain”: the sooner he kills these kids, the faster it is that we no longer have to be annoyed by them and their pointless subplots. Friday the 13th Part 2 is not even close to being the worst in the series with regard to having thoroughly unlikable characters served up as murder victims, but it’s bad enough anyway.

oh look
Oh look – it’s another group of characters no one cares about.

As history turned out, Friday the 13th Part 2 made a small fortune on a minimal investment for Paramount Pictures (the magic of the slasher film!), paving the way for Parts 3,4,5,6,7,8, and beyond. It’s alarming noticing how downright tame this film is compared to modern bloodbath horror, a fact which speaks volumes about the level of desensitization that has taken place in the three-plus decades since the film’s release, but there’s no denying the role that Part 2 had in building up unstoppable killer Jason Vorhees as an iconic, instantly recognized figure. While most “respectable” critics dismiss these films straight away, at their best – and Part 2 is certainly one of the better Friday the 13th sequels – these films provide exactly what a viewer would want, and thus, are perfect popcorn flicks.

… just remember … Jason’s out there …
some of the best acting in the film

disc deets
There are a ton of different Friday the 13th packages available, including several multi-film packs (including the 5-disc “Ultimate Collection” version I have and a newer “Complete Collection” Blu-ray), and various standalone discs. One would think, considering the popularity of the series, the money the studio has made from this franchise, and the sheer number of different home video releases, that Paramount would put some effort into these packages, but that by and large doesn’t seem to be the case. An “ideal” home video release of Part 2 (which in my mind would include the much-discussed deleted scenes and some supplemental featurettes directly related to this series entry) doesn’t truly exist. The so-called “deluxe edition” (which includes various featurettes relating to the series in general) is probably the best stand-alone disc to pick up if you don’t get a multi-film pack.

blood & guts
7/10 : Sure, there are quite a few sometimes brutal kill scenes in this flick, but the actual level of gore is fairly low – especially compared to what one would encounter in today’s horror cinema.

smack talk
4/10 : A handful of cuss words and maybe one f-bomb

fap factor this I can fap to
6/10 : Rowdy teens getting frisky, one sex scene, assorted innuendo, and a huzzah moment of full-frontal nudity from a female skinny-dipper

whack attack
7/10 : One of the better entries in the series, with accomplished technique making up for an utter lack of originality.

GI JOE
“Five years. Five long years he’s been dormant. And he’s hungry. Jason’s out there…”

A COLLECTIVE OF TOP REVIEWERS