Film Review: Escape From Hell (dir by Danny Carrales)

The 2000 film, Escape From Hell, tells the story of two doctors.

Dr. Marissa Holloway (Emily Jo Tisdale) believes that there is a Heaven and that there is a Hell and that, at the end of your life, you go to one of them.  The film lets us know, early on, that she’s right by letting us into the mind of a good but irreligious family man who is on the verge of death.  At first, the man sees himself heading into a shining light but then, suddenly, he’s plunging into flames!  That’s right.  The good man who loved his family and helped people out and who never did anything wrong to anyone still went straight to Hell.

Dr. Eric Robinson (Daniel Kruse) doesn’t believe that there’s an afterlife.  He believes that everyone who says that they’ve seen either a light or a glimpse of Hell was suffering from a hallucination.  He’s hostile to Marissa’s beliefs.  Could it have something to do with his difficult relationship with his estranged father?  Who knows?

Together, Dr. Holloway and Dr. Robinson solves crimes!

No, actually, they don’t.  Instead, they star in a low-budget, evangelically-themed remake of Flatliners.  After his father dies, Dr. Robinson is more determined than ever to prove that there’s no afterlife so he decides that the smartest thing to do would be to die for a few minutes and then be brought back to life by another doctor.  Like I said, it’s basically Flatliners all over again.  The main difference, of course, is that Flatliners imagined a New Agey afterlife with no God while Escape From Hell leaves little doubt that there’s a Heaven and a Hell and just about everyone’s going to the second place.

Dr. Robinson does originally go to Heaven and it’s a nice-looking meadow.  (Apparently, he just gets to skip Purgatory so lucky him.)  However, the doctor is soon informed that he doesn’t belong in Heaven so bang!  It’s down to Hell that he goes.  Hell is essentially a rocky place with constantly burning fires.  The whole place is tinted red and looks like something you might expect to find in an old video game.  Unfortunately, Dr. Robinson doesn’t get to talk to the five people you meet in Heaven but he does get to talk to a handful of people in Hell, the majority of whom are confused as to why they’re down there but who also realize that they somehow massively screwed up and will never get a chance to escape.  One of the people that Robinson meets turns out to be a demon.  There’s a lot of really cheap CGI that looks kind of silly but, at the same time, still possesses a certain low-rent charm.

While Dr. Robinson is learning about the afterlife, his colleagues are trying to bring him back to life.  If they don’t bring him back quickly enough, Robinson, much like Franklin Delano Roosevelt will be stuck in Hell in forever!

(I should admit that we don’t actually see FDR in Hell.  I just assume he’s down there.)

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, I have a weakness for achingly sincere films that feature primitive CGI.  It’s easy to make fun of movies like Escape from Hell but I tend to view them as being examples of outsider art.  Yes, it’s a flawed film that was apparently made by people who weren’t really sure what they were doing but that’s actually the film’s charm.  The bad acting, the melodramatic dialogue, the cheap CGI, the extremely literal definitions of Hell and Heaven, and the final message that almost everyone on the planet is destined to suffer eternal torment; all of it contributes to make a film unlike almost any other (except, of course, for the original Flatliners)  It’s silly, preachy, and entertaining in its own bizarre way.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of the school prayer advocate who says that children who don’t want to pray can, “Simpy lower their heads and think about how they’ve got it all figured out.”  It may not be good but it’s always watchable in its own twisted way.

Film Review: Peter: The Redemption (dir by Leif Bristow)

I have two main thoughts on the 2016 religious film, Peter: The Redemption.

First off, John Rhys-Davies is a treasure.  The veteran actor plays the role of Peter, the rock of the Church.  The film focuses on Peter’s final days, locked away in a Roman prison and suffering torture at the hand of the Romans.  He’s told repeatedly that all he has to do to win his freedom (and his life) is to publicly renounce his beliefs and confess that the Christians were behind the plot to set Rome on fire.  While Peter waits for death, he is haunted by memories of the night that he denied knowing Jesus.  He feels that he is not worthy to be crucified.  He worries if he’s done enough to atone for his mistakes.  Rhys-Davies gives a powerful performance, capturing both Peter’s anguish and his inner strength.  This is probably one of the best performances that you’ll ever find in a low-budget religious film.

My other thought is that you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen Stephen Baldwin plays the Emperor Nero.  Baldwin plays Nero as being something of a wannabe hipster, desperately trying to convince everyone that he’s more interesting than he actually is and dreaming of rebuilding Rome in his own image.  Baldwin’s Nero is a crazy conspiracy theorist, the type who often seem to be struggling to follow his own line of thought.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in Baldwin’s performance as Nero but, interestingly, his interpretation of the role is probably fairly close to being historically correct.  By the account of most of the Roman historians who lived through and actually managed to survive his reign, Nero considered himself to be an artist and an intellectual and his dream was to be as acclaimed as a performer as he was an emperor.  It’s been said that Nero was killed as much for his artistic pretensions as his administrative mistakes and that his final words were, “What an artist dies within me!,” and one can certainly believe that while watching Baldwin’s performance.

Unfortunately, Peter: The Redemption gets distracted by a subplot involving the blossoming relationship between a servant in Nero’s court and one of Peter’s guards.  It’s the same basic story as Quo Vadis?, just told in a lot less time and on a much smaller budget.  To be honest, I kind of liked the film’s low-rent version of Rome.  Rome is usually presented as being this glamorous and impressive city but most historians of the era tend to emphasize the fact that the streets of Rome were often dirty and the walls were covered with frequently obscene graffiti.  (In fact, graffiti was the main form of political protest in the Roman Empire.)  No wonder Nero wanted to burn the place down.

Anyway, Peter: The Redemption is okay.  It tells its story effectively enough and the performance of John Rhys Davies elevates every scene in which he appears.  The film gets bogged down whenever it concentrates on the romance in Nero’s court but Baldwin and Rhys Davies keep things watchable.

Film Review: Esther and the King (dir by Raoul Walsh)

The 1960 Italian-American co-production, Esther and the King, opens in ancient Persia.  King Ahasuerus (Richard Egan) has just returned from conquering Egypt and he is angered to discover that his wife, Vashti (Daneila Rocca), has been cheating on him with not just his main advisor, Haman (Sergio Fantoni), but also with the entire palace guard as well.  After the Queen shows her further displeasure with the King by doing a topless dance in front of the entire royal court, the King banishes her from his life.

Since the king now needs a new wife, every attractive woman in the land is dragged off to the palace so that she can audition for the role.  Among those forcibly recruited is the strong-willed Esther (Joan Collins), who was previously engaged to a rebel named Simon (Rick Battaglia).  What the king doesn’t know is that Esther is both Jewish and the cousin of Mordecai (Denis O’Dea), who has recently offended Haman by refusing to bow down before him.  Haman and his wife (Rosalba Neri) are now plotting to execute all of the Jews is Persia.  Despite her love for Simon, Esther remains in the competition to become the Queen so that she can save her people….

There are a few things that you immediately notice about Esther and the King.

First off, it’s an extremely loose adaptation of the story of Esther, one that is designed to make the King out to be a far more sympathetic figure than he actually was.  Whereas the King actually banished his wife after refused to attend a banquet where the drunken King wanted her to pose naked, Esther and the King presents the King as being the wronged party as his wife is literally cheating with every available man in the kingdom.  (Ironically, the film actually presents the King as being forced to banish his wife after she removes her top during a banquet whereas, in actuality, it was her refusal to do so that led to be her being exiled.)  The film also adds in considerably more battles and a lot more court intrigue as all of the king’s potential wives compete for his attention.  And, of course, then there’s Esther’s fiancee, Simon, who does not appear anywhere in the original text.

The other thing that you immediately notice about Esther and the King is that ancient Persia apparently looked a lot like ancient Rome.  That’s not surprising when you consider that this was an Italian co-production and that Esther and the King is as much of an old school peplum film as a biblical adaptation.  This is a biblical adaptation that is as concerned with sword fights and banquets as it is with prayer and religion.

Regardless of whether it’s historically accurate or not, it’s an entertaining film.  Admittedly, Richard Egan is a bit of a stiff as the King and Joan Collins really doesn’t bring much beyond beauty to the role of Esther.  But the sets are properly ornate and the costume are to die for.  Mario Bava was the film’s cinematographer (and some sites credit him as being the film’s co-director as well) and Esther and the King is gorgeous to look at.  This is one of those historical epics where almost everything feels appropriately big, from the palaces to the emotions to the melodrama.  The supporting cast is largely made up of Italian actors who all appear to be having a great time playing up the drama of it all.  Sergio Fantoni is wonderfully hissable as the evil Haman.  (Boo!  Haman!  Boo!)  Rosabla Neri also has some memorably manipulative moments as Zeresh, the wife of Haman (boo!)  For those of us who like big and not necessarily historical accurate epics about the ancient world, Esther and the King is a lot of fun.

Film Review: Alexander (dir by Oliver Stone)

Before I really get into talking about Oliver Stone’s 2004 film, Alexander, I should acknowledge that there’s about four different version of Alexander floating around.

There’s the widely ridiculed theatrical version, which was released in 2004 and which got terrible reviews in the United States, though it was apparently a bit more popular in Europe.  This version of Alexander was a notorious box office bomb and Oliver Stone’s career has never quite recovered from it.  Though Stone’s still making movies, it’s been a while since he’s really been taken as seriously as you might expect a two-time Oscar winner to be taken.  The box office and critical failure of Alexander is a big reason for that.

There’s also the Director’s Cut of Alexander, which is slightly shorter than the version that was released into theaters and which apparently emphasizes the action scenes more than the original film did.  For an Oscar-winning director to release a director’s cut that’s actually shorter than the version that he originally sent into theaters is rare and it shows that the film’s subject matter was one that Stone was still trying to figure out how to deal with.

There is also the “Final Unrated Cut,” which lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes and which Stone described as being the Cecil B. DeMille-version of the story.  At the time the Final Unrated Cut was released in 2007, Stone announced that he had put everything back into the movie and that we were finally able to see the version of the story that he wanted to tell.

However, Stone apparently still left some stuff out because, in 2009, we got the Final Cut, which goes on for 206 minutes and which, once again, apparently includes everything that Stone wanted to put in the original cut of the film.  The Final Cut has actually received some positive reviews from critic who were not impressed by the previous three versions of Alexander.

For the record, I saw the Director’s Cut.  This is the second of the Alexanders, the one that runs 167 minutes.  Some day, I’ll watch the four hour version and I’ll compare the two films.  But for now, I’m reviewing the 167-minute version of Alexander.

Anyway, Alexander is a biopic of Alexander The Great, the Macedonian ruler who took over a good deal of the known world before mysteriously dying at the age of 32.  The film jumps back and forth in time, from an elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins, going about as overboard as one can go while playing an ancient Greek historian) narrating the story of Alexander’s life to Alexander (Colin Farrell) conquering his enemies to scenes of Alexander’s mother (Angelina Jolie) and one-eyed father (Val Kilmer) shaping Alexander’s outlook on the world.  Along the way, we discover that Alexander was driven to succeed and forever lived in the shadow of his father.  We also discover that he may have been in love with his general, Hephaistion (Jared Leto), even though he married Roxane (Rosario Dawson, who gets to do an elaborate dance).  We also discover that no battle in the ancient world could begin before Alexander gave a long speech and that all of the Macedonians spoke with thick Irish accents.  Stone has said that the Irish accents were meant to signify that the Macedonians were working-class.  Other people say that, because Colin Farrell’s accent was so thick, the rest of the cast had to imitate him so he wouldn’t sound out-of-place.

And here’s the thing — yes, Alexander is a big, messy film that is often incoherent.  Yes, the cast is full of talented actors, every single one of which has been thoroughly miscast.  Yes, it’s next to impossible to keep track of who is fighting who and yes, it’s distracting as Hell that all of the Macedonians have Irish accents and that Angelina Jolie uses an Eastern European accent that’s so thick that it almost becomes a parody of itself.  All of these things are true and yet, I was never bored with the director’s cut.  The sets were huge, the costumes were beautiful, and the cast was eccentric enough to be interesting.  Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, and Anthony Hopkins all go overboard, chewing every piece of scenery that they can get their hands on.  Colin Farrell alternates between being determined and being wild-eyed.  Jared Leto allows his piercing stare to do most of his acting.  Even Christopher Plummer shows up, playing Aristole with a North Atlantic accent.  No one appears to be acting in the same film and strangely, it works.  The ancient world was chaotic and the combination of everyone’s different acting styles with Stone’s frantic direction actually manages to capture some of that chaos.

Oliver Stone apparently spent years trying to bring his vision of Alexander’s life to the big screen.  Watching the film, it’s a classic example of a director becoming so obsessed with a story that they ultimately forgot why they wanted to tell it in the first place.  Stone tosses everything he can at the cinematic wall, just to see what will stick.  Is Alexander a tyrant or a misunderstood humanist?  Is he a murderer or a noble warrior?  Is he in love with Hephaistion or has his borderline incestuous relationship with his mother left him incapable of trusting anyone enough to love them?  The film doesn’t seem to know who Alexander actually was but it’s so desperate to try to find an answer among all of the endless battle scenes and lengthy speeches that it becomes undeniably compelling to watch.  If nothing else, Alexander gives us the rare chance to see an Oliver Stone film in which Stone himself doesn’t seem to quite know what point it is that he’s trying to make.

Alexander is a mess but there’s something fascinating about its chaos.  It’s a beautiful wreck and, as with all wrecks, it’s impossible to look away.

The International Lens: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (dir by Werner Herzog)

Once upon a time, in 19th century Germany, there was a young man who was known as Kaspar Hauser.

No one was really sure what Kaspar’s original name was or where he even came from.  He was found, in 1828, wandering the streets of Nuremberg.  He carried an unsigned letter with him, one that said that he was 16 yeas old, from the Bavarian border, and that he had been raised by someone who taught him how to read and write and about “the Christian religion.”  The note also stated that the boy had never been allowed to step out of the house before being taken and abandoned in Nuremberg.  He carried a second letter, which was supposedly from his mother and stated that the boy’s name was Kaspar and that his father had been in the Cavalry.  Some people who saw the two letters felt that they had both been written in the same handwriting, leading to speculation that Kaspar may written the letters himself.

When he was first found, it was believed that Kaspar could barely speak.  He knew the word for “Horses!” and he often repeated the phrase, “My father was cavalryman!”  As time progressed, Kaspar’s vocabulary expanded and he said that his earliest memories were of being locked away in a room.  His meals were brought to him by someone who always wore a mask.  Some people felt that Kaspar may have been the kidnapped child of a nobleman or an unacknowledged member of the royal family.  Others felt that he was a charlatan and that he was faking the entire thing.  Briefly, Kaspar was a celebrity as people from around the world wondered who he was and where he had come from.

In 1828, he was found with a cut on his forehead.  He said that he was attacked by a mysterious stranger who announced, before cutting him, “You have to die!”  The stranger was never found and there was even some speculation that Hauser had cut himself.  In 1830, he was found with another wound on his forehead, this time claiming that he had been grazed by a bullet after a gun accidentally went off.  Again, some felt that Hauser was intentionally injuring himself for the attention while others felt that the people who had held him prisoner were again trying to kill him.

Hauser was found wounded one last time, in 1833.  This time, he was found with a deep cut to his chest.  He claimed that he had, again, been attacked by a mysterious stranger.  A note was found where Hauser claimed that he had been attacked, a cryptic letter that claimed that the attacker was the same man who had previously cut Hauser’s head.  By this point, there was a lot more skepticism about Hauser and his stories and it was generally assumed that he had stabbed himself and injured himself worse than he ha intended.  It’s said that when Hauser died of his wounds, his last words were, “I didn’t do it to myself.”  Assuming that Hauser was born when the note from his mother claimed that he was, Kaspar Hauser was 21 when he died.

The mystery of Kaspar Hauser is an intriguing one and it’s one that’s explored in Werner Herzog’s 1974 film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.  The film sticks fairly closely to the known facts of Hauser’s life.  For instance, Herzog does not show us the final attack on Hauser.  Instead, he just has Hauser tell us about the attack, leaving it to us to decide whether or not Kaspar is telling the truth.  At the same time, the film starts with footage of Kaspar being held in a small room.  We watch as a dark-clad stranger carries Hauser to Nuremberg and, after showing him how to walk, then abandons him on the streets of the city.  Herzog accepts Hauser’s claim that he was raised in a locked room but he leaves it to us to decide why Hauser was in that room and why he was eventually abandoned in Nuremberg.

Kaspar Hauser is played by an actor named Bruno S.  Bruno S. was a nonprofessional and he was 42 year-old when he played the 16 year-old Hauser.  And yet, Bruno S. has such an unconventional screen presence that he seems perfect for the role.  With his wide-eyed stare and his tentative movements, Bruno S. is poignantly believable as someone who is discovering the world for the same time.  As the film progresses, Hauser develops a sharp and cynical wit, all of which Bruno S. captures perfectly.

Hauser is another Herzog protagonist who, because he’s on the outside of regular society, has developed the ability to see the world in a way that no one else can.  While he lays dying, Hauser has visions of nomadic Berbers in the Sahara Desert.  Why?  Why not?  That’s the enigma of Kaspar Hauser.  As in all of his best films, Herzog embraces the questions without trying to manufacture answers and the end result is a haunting film about one of Germany’s most enduring historical mysteries.

The International Lens: Gomorrah (dir by Matteo Garrone)

In the suburbs of Naples, a group of middle aged men are gunned down while relaxing at a tanning salon.  The 2008 Italian film, Gomorrah, opens with that shocking act of violence and, though we don’t ever learn much about the men who have just been killed or even why they were killed, we spend the next 137 minutes watching the ramifications of those murders.

The poorest neighborhoods of Naples have been plunged into violence as two rival clans of the Camorra go to war.  (The Camorra is like the Mafia but even more violent.)  We’re never quite sure who has gone to war with who or who is winning the war.  For the most part, we’re usually not even sure who is allied with who.  The details of the war are not as important as the people who are caught up in it.

For instance, there’s a 13 year-old boy named Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) who desperately wants to join one the clan-affiliated gangs.  Toto has a job delivering groceries and, after he proves that he can be trusted by delivering a package of misplaced drugs to the gang, he allowed to join.  Of course, he also has to help his new friends murder one of the people to whom he delivers groceries.

And then there’s Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who looks like  quiet accountant but who has one of the most dangerous jobs around.  He’s the guy who has to deliver money to the families of all of the clan members who have been arrested or killed.  Having that money is dangerous, even for someone who doesn’t appear to have a violent bone in his body.  One thing that Gomorrah quickly establishes is that, when it comes to the Camorra, there is no honor.  Everything that we’ve been led to believe about organized crime having any sort of code is a lie.  Everyone is a target, even the ones who appear to just be timid bankers.

Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo)) is a tailor who takes a job training Chinese garment workers.  Because the Chinese workers are directly competing with the Camorra-owned factories, Pasquale soon discovers that his life is in danger.  He even has to hide in the trunk of a car so that he can be safely smuggled into work each night.  It’s a dangerous world but Pasquale’s story does conclude with one of the film’s best and most darkly humorous moments.

Franco (Toni Servillo) works in waste management, hauling away people’s garbage and then secretly dumping it where it won’t be discovered until long after it’s poisoned the soil.  Franco’s business may be funded by criminals and he may be destroying the Earth but Franco still very proud of himself.  He’s the type of hard worker who built Italy’s economy.  Without him, Italy would be dependent upon other countries for its survival.  Franco is the type of man who makes Italy and therefore Europe great.

And finally, there’s Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two teenage morons who love Scarface and who think that they’re destined to become master criminals just like Tony Montana.  Hoping to impress the clans, they commit a series of progressively violent crimes.  Even as the Camorra plots a violent retribution for the two of them, the two teens are too busy playing on the beach, stripping down to their underwear and firing off rifles, to understand.  It’s easy to dismiss these two as just being idiots who are in over their heads but what else is there for them?  They live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Europe,  There are no economic opportunities.  There’s no chance for any sort of advancement.  They’re trapped, prisoners of both their birth and their circumstances.  They can either try to be gangsters or they can just be passive observers.  Either way, there’s a good chance they’ll get caught in the crossfire.  When the choice is between being a victim and victimizer, is it such a shock that the two of them would want to be the latter?

Gomorrah is a gritty crime film, shot in a documentary-style with a largely nonprofessional cast and featuring scenes of sudden and shocking violence.  Unlike most mafia movies (though the Camorra is not the same as the Mafia that we know here in the United States), Gomorrah is barely concerned with the mobsters.  Instead, its focus is on those who have to live around them, the indirect victims of their nonstop vendettas.  The film understands that its audience is probably full of people like Marco and Ciro, people who can quote Scarface but who have no understanding of the actual damage that has been done by organized crime.  Gomorrah sets out to correct the record and it does a pretty good job of it.

Gomorrah is a harrowing but effective film, one that shows how poverty breeds crime and crime, for the most part, just breeds more poverty.  To its credit, the film doesn’t offer up any easy solutions.  Instead, it just asks us to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening all around.

The International Lens: The Vanishing (dir by George Sluizer)

A man named Rex (Gene Bervoets) is driving through France with his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege).  They’re from the Netherlands and they’re taking their first vacation together.  Saskia tells Rex about a strange recurring dream that she’s been having, one where she’s floating through space and she’s on the verge of colliding with someone else.  When Rex fails to take her dream seriously, they have a brief argument.  It’s the type of argument that every couple has had at one time or another.  At the time, it’s serious.  Afterwards, it’s something that you laugh about.

When they pull over at a rest stop, Saskia goes into a gas station.  She says that she’s only going inside for a few minutes, just so she can pick up two drinks.  She should be right back.

She never returns.  Rex searches the entire rest area but no one can remember seeing where she might have gone off to.  It’s as if she’s vanished off the face of the Earth.

This is how the 1988 Dutch film, The Vanishing, begins.  The opening is creepy enough.  What’s amazing is that things only get creepier as the story progresses.

Three years pass by.  Saskia is never found.  Despite the fact that Rex is now dating Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus) and makes it a point to only refer to Saskia as having been a “friend,” he remains obsessed with her disappearance.  He continues, for instance, to pay to put up missing posters of her.

Walking through the city, a French chemistry professor named Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and a friend of his see one of the posters.  Raymond’s friend says that Rex should just give up.  If Saskia hasn’t been found yet, she’ll never be found.  Raymond asks his friend how he would feel if it had been someone close to him who had disappeared.  Raymond sympathizes with Rex and wonders who could have abducted Saskia.

Of course, Raymond already knows the answer.  As we see in flashback, Raymond is the one who kidnapped Saskia.  Raymond Leomorne is a friendly, calm, and always reasonable family man.  Once, while he and his family were enjoying a weekend afteroon, he even dove into a river to save a girl from drowning.  Raymond, however, has always know that there was something different about him.  When he was a child, he once jumped off a balcony just for the experience.  Everyone assumed that he had fallen off the balcony because, after all, only a crazy person would actually jump.  And Raymond has always been as normal as normal can be….

There’s been a lot of films made about the banality of evil but none capture the concept quite as perfectly as The Vanishing.  Even after he reveals the truth about what he’s done, Raymond remains a remarkably reasonable, friendly, and mild fellow.  He discusses committing murder in the same tone that someone would use while discussing doing yard work.  If anything, the obsessive Rex seems more outwardly unstable than Raymond.  While Raymond cheerfully acknowledges that he is a sociopath, Rex insists that he’s not still in love with Saskia.  Of course, everyone in the film knows better.  Rex remains obsessed with not only Saskia but also the manner of her death.  He says that he’s living in the present but he spends his time continually trying to recreate the past.

When Raymond starts sending Rex postcards in which he offers to show him, step-by-step, what happened to Saskia, Rex agrees to meet with him.  The majority of the film is simply Rex and Raymond talking to each other while driving through the night.  What makes these deceptively low-key scenes especially disturbing is that Raymond doesn’t carry a gun or any other weapon.  Rex could probably subdue him at any minute and take him to the police.  Even after Rex has his answers, he continues to listen to Raymond.  He continues to passively allow Raymond to control every minute of their story, all so he can try to recreate the day the Saskia vanished and hopefully find a different ending to their trip.  It all leads to a shocking final twist and one of the most haunting finales in cinematic history.

The Vanishing is a horror film that’s effective specifically because it doesn’t takes place in a fantasy world or feature any imaginary monsters.  It takes place in the real world and its monster is all too real.  It plays out with the power of a nightmare.  Much like Saskia’s dream about being in the egg, The Vanishing moves like an unstoppable force of dread.  It’s a frightening film but it’s also not one that you can look away from.

Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986, directed by Jerry Paris)

Police Academy 3 opens with a state in the middle of a fiscal crisis.  Money has to be saved somewhere and the governor (Ed Nelson) has decided that it’s not necessary for the state to have two police academies.  I am not sure why the governor would be the one to make that determination since the previous two Police Academy films established that the academies are run by the city but I guess I should remember that I’m watching a Police Academy film and not ask too many questions.

Which academy is going to be closed down?  Will it be the academy run by Commandant Lassard (George Gaynes) or the one run by Commandant Mauser (Art Metrano, returning from the second film)?  Mauser is willing to use any dirty, under-handed trick to keep his academy open.  Meanwhile, Lassard has his most recent graduating class returning to instruct his latest batch of recruits.  Can Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg) and Michael Winslow’s human sound effects machine save the academy?

When I watched Police Academy 3 this weekend, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered.  Maybe it’s because I watched it immediately after the first two films and my senses were dulled but Police Academy 3 turned out to be an amiable and enjoyably stupid comedy. It helped that two of the new recruits were played by Tim Kazurinsky and Bobcat Goldthwait.  Returning to the roles that they first played in the second movie, Kazurinsky and Goldthwait make for a good comedic team.  As for the rest of the Police Academy regulars, they all do their usual comedy bits like pros and without any fuss.  It’s predictable and sometimes, funny.

Police Academy 3 was the first Police Academy film to have a PG-rating and, as a result, the jokes were still as juvenile and crude as the first two movies but, at the same time, Police Academy 3 seems to have made peace with the fact that it’s target audience was a bunch of adolescent boys dropped off at the theater by their mothers.  Mauser is still regularly humiliated but no one gets a blow job while standing in front of a podium.  This is a Police Academy for the entire family, assuming that your family is easily amused and not too demanding.

Police Academy 3 is a dumb movie and the recurring joke about policemen accidentally entering the Blue Oyster Bar is even less funny the third time that it’s used.  There’s also a Japanese recruit who only seems to be included because, back in the 80s, American films were obsessed with making fun of Japan.  Despite all that, Police Academy 3 is still not as bad as the usual Police Academy sequel.

But what about Police Academy 4?  Check in tomorrow to find out if it’s also better than I initially remembered.

(It’s not.)

The International Lens: The American Friend (dir by Wim Wenders)

The 1977 German film, The American Friend, tells the story of two men.

Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) is an American.  He’s also a very wealthy criminal.  He wears a cowboy hat almost everywhere he goes and always tends to be a little bit too forceful when he talks to people.  Because he’s wealthy, he is tolerated by high society but everyone seems to view him with a bit of suspicion.  And perhaps they should because Ripley actually has a pretty good scheme going.  Working with an artist named Derwatt (director Nicholas Ray), Ripley sells forged paintings.  He goes to auctions and bids on these paintings, artificially driving up the price.  When Ripley isn’t selling forged paintings, he’s traveling around the world and speaking into his tape recorder.  He’s an existential cowboy, one who doesn’t appear to have any morals but who is still capable of exclaiming, “I’m confused!” with real anguish in his voice.

Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) is a German art restorer and picture framer who has a beautiful wife, two children, and a lovely shop.  He also has leukemia and is obsessed not only with his impending death but also his fear that he’s going to end his life without really doing anything memorable.  When Jonathan meets Ripley at an art auction, he refuses to shake Ripley’s hand because he knows about Ripley’s shady reputation.  Ripley is offended but slightly forgiving when he learns, from a mutual acquaintance, that Jonathan has been sick.

Back at his mansion, Ripley receives a message from a French gangster named Minot (Gerard Blain).  Minot wants Ripley to murder a rival gangster for him.  Ripley, however, tells Minot that he should contact Jonathan and offer him the contract.  Ripley then spreads a rumor that Jonathan’s illness has gotten worse and that both his doctor and his family are keeping the truth from him.  Now believing that he’s on the verge of dying and desperate to make some money so that his family won’t be helpless after he’s gone, Jonathan is far more open to accepting Minot’s unexpected offer to become a hired gun.

To his shock, Jonathan is able to carry out the murder.  However, Minot is not content to just have Jonathan kill one man.  Minot is concerned about the activities of an American gangster (played by director Sam Fuller) and he expects Jonathan to keep killing for him.  Meanwhile, Ripley, feeling a bit conflicted over his part in Jonathan’s new career, take it upon himself to help Jonathan out in his latest assignment.  And so, on odd friendship is born….

The American Friend is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game (which, itself, is a sequel to oft-filmed The Talented Mr. Ripley).  In Highsmith’s novels, Ripley was always portrayed as being suave, well-spoken, and never suffering from self-doubt.  Dennis Hopper plays Ripley as a cowboy who appears to be in the throes of an existential crisis.  It’s quite the opposite of the literary Ripley but it works perfectly in the world created by The American Friend.  At times, there’s something almost child-like about Hopper’s Ripley.  As played by Hopper, Ripley is an unintentional force of destruction, one who targets Jonathan on an impulse and then, just as impulsively, decides to help him out.  It’s one of Hopper’s best and most multi-layered performances.

Dennis Hopper is equally matched by the great Bruno Ganz, who plays Jonathan as being a gentle soul who is as shocked as anyone to discover that he’s capable of murder.  Though he is morally offended by Ripley’s reputation, he still can’t help but try to help Ripley out when Ripley unexpectedly shows up at his shop.  Even towards the end of the film, Jonathan seems to be so happy to finally be doing something unexpected with his life that his joy is almost infectious.  You’re happy for him, even though you know things probably won’t turn out well for him.

As directed by Wim Wenders, The American Friend is a perfect mix of existential angst and film noir homage.  While there’s undoubtedly a political subtext to the film — one gets the feeling that Ripley’s destructive friendship with Jonathan is meant to represent the way that America views Europe — The American Friend works best as an homage to the glorious B-movies of the 40s and 50s.  (It’s probably not a coincidence that both Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller have prominent supporting roles.)  There’s a sequence on a train that’s the equal to Hitchcock at his best and the story’s conclusion will stick with you long after the film ends.

Sadly, most of the principle members of the cast are no longer with us.  All of them are at their best in The American Friend and Wim Wenders gives them all a terrific showcase in which to display their talent.  The American Friend is definitely a film worth tracking down.

Film Review: The Boy With Green Hair (dir by Joseph Losey)

Who is Peter Fry (played by a 12 year-old Dean Stockwell), the young boy at the center of the 1948 film, The Boy With Green Hair?

When we first meet him, Peter is a nearly mute child who has had all of his hair shaved off and who refuses to talk about either one of his parents.  He’s mysteriously shown up in a small town and it’s only after a kindly psychologist (played by Robert Ryan) speaks with him that we discover that Peter is an orphan.  Both of his parents are dead, victims of the Second World War.  Fortunately, a retired actor named Gramps (Pat O’Brien) is willing to adopt Peter and raise him as his own.  Gramps has all sorts of stories about the times that he performed in Europe.  The film hints that Gramps might be a damn liar but he’s well-meaning, nonetheless.

Peter starts to attend school and slowly, but surely, he comes out of his shell.  Soon, he appears to be just another carefree child and his hair even grows back.  But then, one day, he sees a poster featuring other war orphans, children like him who have lost their families to war.  When Peter overhears adults talking about how the world may go to war again and how there are now even bigger and more destructive bombs that can be dropped on America’s enemies, Peter start to get upset.  What’s the point of going to school and preparing for the future if there’s not going to be any future?

One night, Peter goes to sleep.  When he wakes up in the morning, he discovers that his hair has turned green!

Why has Peter’s hair turned green?  It’s hard to say but the town is remarkably unsympathetic.  It’s perhaps understandable that Peter’s classmates would make fun of him because they’re children and children are the worst about not being able to handle change.  But not even the adults seem to be able to handle Peter having green hair!  They want to shave his head again!

With even kindly old Gramps prepared to take away Peter’s green hair, Peter flees into the woods.  There’s where he runs into the spirits of all the children who have either died or been orphaned by war.  They have a message for Peter….

The Boy With Green Hair is both an antiwar parable and a plea for tolerance.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the entire film but, considering that it was made at a time when the world was still in ruins and people were still getting used to living in the shadow of the atomic bomb, it’s perhaps understandable that the film would be a bit heavy-handed.  It was, after all, made during a heavy-handed time.  That said, the film actually works better as a parable about racism than as a pacifist statement.  It’s kind of hard to see how Peter having green hair could convince people to pursue world peace but the way that Peter is ostracized for being different from everyone else is something to which many viewers could undoubtedly relate.

There’s some weird padding in the film.  For instance, there’s a weird musical number involving Gramps that comes out of nowhere.  Still, one can see why the film made an impression on some viewers.  Dean Stockwell gives a sympathetic and, most importantly, naturalistic performance as Peter and the film’s message is a sincere one.  One could easily imagine and also easily dread the prospect of this film being remade with Peter’s hair turning green over climate change.  I’m a little surprised that hasn’t happened yet, especially considering the amount of coverage that was once given to Greta Thunberg, whose pronouncements and fame have made her a somewhat angrier version of the boy with green hair.  Hopefully, a remake won’t ever happen, as the original film works just fine as it is.  Not everything has to be remade.