Cinemax Friday: Sworn to Justice (1997, directed by Paul Maslak)


Janna (Cynthia Rothrock) is a psychologist who is also a martial arts expert.  One night, she comes home to discover that her sister and her nephew have been murdered and that the killers are still in the house!  Though Janna manages to fight off the attackers, she also gets a nasty bump to the head.  Weeks later, after she’s gotten out of the hospital and she’s ready to get back to work, she discovers that she now has ESP!

All Janna has to do is touch someone or hold something in her hand and she has visions of the past and sometimes the present.  (She has those special ESP powers that do whatever needs to be done at the moment.)  When she finds her sister’s brooch, she flashes back to the night of the attack and sees the faces of the men who attacked her sister.  Using her newfound power, Janna sets out to get revenge.

But even as she tracks down the thugs who killed her sister, Janna still does not know the identity of the person who ordered the hit.  She just knows that he’s known as “The Man.”  Could he have something to do with the arrogant cop killer (Brad Dourif!) for whom Janna is serving as an expert defense witness?  Or could The Man by the publisher (Kurt McKinny) with whom Janna is having a steamy affair?  (This was a late night Cinemax film, after all.)  Or could it be the detective (Tony Lo Bianco) who is supposed to be investigating her sister’s death?

As far as Cynthia Rothrock martial arts films are concerned, Sworn to Justice is pretty good.  Rothrock was not only a force to be reckoned with in fight scenes but, as this film shows, she was a likable actress, too.  For the most part, she’s able to hold her own even when acting opposite seasoned scene stealers like Brad Dourif, Tony Lo Bianco, Mako, and even Walter Koenig, who plays Janna’s mentor with an outrageous German accent.  While the film’s fight scenes are just as good as you would expect from a Cynthia Rothrock fick, the ESP twist adds just the right amount of weirdness to keep Sworn to Justice from coming across as just another low-budget martial arts film.  The film doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Even while she’s getting revenge for their deaths, Janna never seems to be that broken up over the deaths of her sister and her nephew.  At worse, she’s seems to be annoyed by the inconvenience of it all.  It’s just something else that she has to find the time to deal with.

There are a few scenes that are so darkly lit that it’s almost impossible to see what’s happening but then there are other scenes, like the one where Janna shows off her favorite martial arts moves to her new boyfriend, that work surprisingly well.  This is a 90s production all the way, which means a saxophone-scored sex scenes and synthesizer-scored action scenes.  Sworn to Justice is a good Cynthia Rothrock film, even if most audiences will end up figuring out the identity of The Man long before she does.

 

Horror Film Review: Eyes of Laura Mars (dir by Irvin Kershner)


The Eyes of Laura Mars opens with Barbra Streisand singing the theme song, letting us know that we’re about to see one of the most 70s films ever made.

Laura Mars (played by a super intense Faye Dunaway) is a fashion photographer who is known for the way that her work mixes sex with violence.  Some people say that she’s a genius and those people have arranged for the publication of a book of her work.  (The book, naturally, is called The Eyes of Laura Mars.)  Some people think that Laura’s work is going to lead to the downfall of civilization.  And then one person thinks that anyone associated with Laura should die.

And that’s exactly what starts to happen.

Laura has visions of her friends being murdered.  Some people believe that makes her a suspect.  Some people think that she’s just going crazy from the pressure.  John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones), the detective assigned to her case, thinks that Laura is a damaged soul, just like him.  Neville and Laura soon find themselves falling in love, which would be more believable if Dunaway and Jones had even the least amount of chemistry.  Watching them kiss is like watching two bricks being smashed together.

There’s plenty of suspects, each one of them more a 70s cliché than the other.  There’s Donald (Rene Auberjonois), Laura’s flamboyant friend.  There’s Michael (Raul Julia), Laura’s sleazy ex-husband who is having an affair with the gallery of the manager that’s showing Laura’s photographs.  And then there’s Laura’s shift-eyed driver, Tommy.  Tommy has a criminal record and carries a switchblade and he always seem to be hiding something but, to be honest, the main reason Tommy might be the murderer is because he’s played by Brad Dourif.

If there’s one huge flaw with the film, it’s that the film never explains why Laura is suddenly having visions.  Obviously, the film is trying to suggest that Laura and the murderer share some sort of psychic connection but why?  (I was hoping the film would reveal that Dunaway had an evil twin or something like that but no.)  The other huge problem that I had is that one of the more likable characters in the film is murdered while dressed as Laura, specifically as a way to distract the killer.  So, that kind of makes that murder all Laura’s fault but no one ever points that out.

Personally, I think this film missed a huge opportunity by not having Andy Warhol play one of the suspects.  I mean, how can you make a movie about a pretentious fashion photographer in the 70s without arranging for a cameo from Andy Warhol?

The other missed opportunity is that the script was written by John Carpenter but he wasn’t invited to direct the movie.  I suppose that makes sense when you consider that Carpenter actually sold his script before he was hired to direct Halloween.  (Both Halloween and The Eyes of Laura Mars came out in the same year, 1978.)  That said, Carpenter would have directed with more of a sense of humor.  Director Irvin Kershner takes a plodding and humorless approach to the material.  When you’ve got a film featuring Faye Dunaway flaring her nostrils and Tommy Lee Jones talking about how sad his childhood was, you need a director who is going to fully embrace the insanity of it all.

With the glamorous background and the unseen killer, The Eyes of Laura Mars was obviously meant to be an American giallo.  Occasionally, it succeeds but again, it’s hard not to feel that an Italian director would have had a bit more fun with the material.  In the end The Eyes of Laura Mars is an interesting misfire but a misfire nonetheless.

We All Float Down Here: Graveyard Shift (1990, directed by Ralph S. Singleton)


The old textile mill has a problem.  The people who work there keep dying, especially the ones who work the night shift.  The mill has another problem.  It’s become infested with rats.  Just stepping into the mill means you’re running the risk of having a rat fall through the ceiling and land on your head.  The evil mill foreman, Warwick (Stephen Macht), puts together a cleanup crew to work overnight and take care of the infestation.  Idealistic drifter John Hall (David Andrews) is hired to help and soon discovers that there’s something even bigger than a rat living underneath the mill.  Unfortunately, by the time that John makes his discovery, almost everyone else is dead and Warwick, having had an Apocalypse Now-style breakdown, is painting his face with muck and trying to kill whoever’s left.

This is a weak film adaptation of a throw-away Stephen King short story.  That the film itself is clearly not meant to taken seriously doesn’t make it any better.  The only thing that this film has to recommend it is Brad Dourif, who has an extended cameo as a crazy exterminator named Tucker Cleveland.  Cleveland knows everything about how rats have been weaponized over the years and he will be more than happy to explain every detail.  It’s too bad that Dourif does not have a bigger role because the movie is lot less entertaining when he’s not around.  If you do watch Graveyard Shift, stick around for the end credits so you can hear the theme song that is made up of samples of dialogue from the movie.

New Orleans Film Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (dir by Werner Herzog)


“Do you think fish dream?”

— Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Happy Mardi Gras!

Since today is not only Fat Tuesday but also rapidly coming to a close, I think it’s time for me to share one final New Orleans film review.  Admittedly, though this film takes place and was filmed in New Orleans, it doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras scenes.  However, it does feature a lead performance that is perhaps as bizarre as anything that you’re likely to see in the French Quarter tonight.  Of course, I’m talking about Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.

Whenever I mention this movie to anyone, it only takes a few minutes before they get around to saying, “What was the deal with the iguanas?”  Everyone remembers the two iguanas who would randomly show up throughout the movie.  At one point, they were sitting in a coffee table while Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and Sgt. Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) were watching a house across the street.  When McDonagh demanded to know why the iguanas were on his coffee table, Pruit replied, “There ain’t no iguanas.”  McDonagh looked down at them and grinned.  This was followed by several hand-held close-ups of the iguanas, looking around inquisitively while McDonagh kept giving them the side eye.

The iguanas show up a second time, after McDonagh has tricked one gangster into killing another gangster.  “Shoot him again,” McDonagh demands, “his soul’s still dancing!”  Herzog pans over to show us that, indeed, the man’s soul is still dancing next to his corpse.  After the soul gets shot down, an iguana wanders across the floor.

What do the iguanas represent?  Some people think that they actually are meant to be hallucinations.  As the result of a back injury that he received saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh has permanent back problems and this has led to him getting hooked on drugs.  The perpetually high McDonagh sees and does a lot of bizarre things over the course of this movie.  Perhaps the iguanas are just a part of his addiction.

Myself, I think the iguanas represent the fact that, no matter what McDonagh and anyone else in New Orleans does over the course of the film, the randomness of nature is going win out in the end.  After all, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with Katrina, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how helpless modern society is in the face of nature’s whims.  The film takes places in neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the flooding.  Every corner of the film is full of physical, emotional, and mental debris.  McDonagh pops pills and snorts cocaine in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control but ultimately, the iguanas are going to show up regardless of how much control he thinks he has.  Just as how Klaus Kinski, at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, couldn’t keep the monkeys off of his raft, Terrence McDonagh can’t keep the iguanas off of his coffee table.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans apparently started life as a reboot of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant.  The script (which was credited to William M. Finkelstein) is full of moments that mirror scenes from Ferrara’s film.  Once again, the protagonist is a corrupt police lieutenant who spends almost the entire film fucked up on drugs and whose only friend is a prostitute.  Again, there’s a disturbing scene in which the lieutenant harasses a young woman in a parking lot.  Again, the lieutenant has gambling debts and again, the lieutenant has to solve a horrifying crime.

While promoting his film, Herzog always said that 1) he had never seen Bad Lieutenant and 2) he didn’t even know who Abel Ferrara was.  Judging from the way Herzog directs the film, which is the complete opposite of the approach that Ferrara took to similar material, I’m inclined to believe Herzog.  Whereas Ferrara’s film was a grim and humorless plunge into the depths of Hell, Herzog takes an almost satirical approach to the story.  The running joke throughout Herzog’s film is that the bad lieutenant gets results precisely because he is so thoroughly messed up and incompetent.  The final part of Herzog’s film features so many sudden twists and turns that it’s hard not to conclude that Herzog is poking fun at how American crime films always have to wrap everything up within the final fifteen minutes, regardless of how messy or convoluted their plots may be.  Whereas Ferrara’s film featured Harvey Keitel naked and bellowing in soul-searing pain, Herzog gives us Nicolas Cage grinning, laughing, and apparently having a ball.

This has got to be one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances.  He yells.  He bulges his eyes.  He grins maniacally at the strangest moments.  He interrogates a suspect while taking hits off a joint.  Because his character has a bad back, Cage moves stiffly, carrying himself almost as if he were a living Golem.  McDonagh may have his demons but, at the same time, he also seems to be having a blast every time we see him.  Wisely, Herzog also allows the character some quieter moments.  When the lieutenant talks about how he used to imagine there was pirate treasure buried in his back yard or when he and an ex-con sit in front of a gigantic fish tank, Cage gets a chance to show that there actually is something going on underneath all of McDonagh’s bluster.  This not only one of Cage’s most over the top performances but also one of his best.

Herzog not only gets the best out of Cage but also the best out of New Orleans.  He may not make New Orleans look beautiful but he still captures the atmosphere that has made New Orleans one of the most legendary cities in the world.  Cage, Herzog, and New Orleans make for a great combination.

A Movie A Day #117: Shadow Hours (2000, directed by Isaac H. Eaton)


Straight from the direct-to-video graveyard comes this journey through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles.  Michael Holloway (Balthazar Getty) used to drink every hour and snort cocaine every night.  That was the past.  Now, he is clean and sober.  Michael is married to Chloe (Rebecca Gayheart) and they have a baby on the way.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Michael gets a job working the night shift at a 24-hour gas station.  Most of his customers are the scum of the Earth until, one night, Stuart Chappell (Peter Weller) steps into the station.  Stuart claims to be a writer and he hires Michael to accompany him on an exploration of the dark side of L.A.  They start with strip bars and then eventually move on to fight clubs and BDSM parlors.  Everywhere they go, Stuart is recognized but everyone knows him by a different name.  Soon, Michael is not only drinking and doing drugs again but he is also the prime suspect in a murder.

Shadow Hours is a dumb but entertaining vision of Los Angeles as Hades.  It has loads of atmosphere but it’s all taken from other movies, a hint of Taxi Driver there and a pinch of 8mm here.  The film’s main weakness is that it stars Balthazar Getty, who, as an actor, has the least sympathetic screen presence this side of Edward Furlong.  Even if Getty was playing a paraplegic veteran who had devoted his life to finding good homes for stray puppies, he would still come across as unlikable.  Make him a loser who spend most of the movie lying to his pregnant wife and it is impossible to care what happens to Michael.  The film’s main strength is that it also stars Peter Weller, who is pitch perfect as the mysterious Stuart, who might be the Devil.  If the whole movie had just been Peter Weller going to bars and fight clubs and hanging out with Lydia Lunch, Shadow Hours would have been a B masterpiece.  It’s too bad he had to take an oil heir with him.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Halloween II (dir by Rob Zombie)


halloween2009

The thing about praising Rob Zombie’s Halloween is that you’re then contractually obligated to talk about the 2009 sequel, Halloween II.  While I certainly don’t have any trouble defending the first film, Halloween II is about as big a mess as I’ve ever seen.

Much like the sequel to the original film, Halloween II opens with Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) being stalked in the hospital by her murderous older brother, Michael (Tyler Mane).  And the hospital scenes are actually pretty good.  Zombie makes good use of Nights in White Satin and the scenes of Michael chasing Laurie are genuinely suspenseful.

However, the film then jumps a year into the future and it’s all kind of annoying.  Halloween II follows three separate storylines, all of which converge at the rushed conclusion.

My favorite storyline dealt with Dr. Loomis (again played by the brilliant Malcolm McDowell).  Loomis has written a book about Michael and is now traveling the country, promoting himself as a true crime expert and dealing with people who think that he’s exploiting the whole tragedy for a quick buck.  McDowell is perfect in these scenes, playing Dr. Loomis as a pompous man who secretly knows that he’s a fraud.  “I was as much a victim as anyone,” he occasionally sputters.  Perhaps the highlight of the film comes when he’s interviewed by a rather sarcastic Chris Hardwick and finds himself being ridiculed by Weird Al Yankovic (playing himself).

The second storyline features Annie (Danielle Harris) and Laurie struggling to get on with their lives.  Laurie is now living with Annie and her father (Brad Dourif).  As opposed to the virginal Laurie of the first Halloween, this Laurie is pissed off and out of control.  On the one hand, I think Zombie deserves some credit for trying to deal with the PTSD that would obviously be the result of surviving being attacked by Michael Myers.  On the other hand, to say that Laurie is never not pissed off would be an understatement.  Scout Taylor-Compton does a good job playing her but, in Halloween II, a little Laurie Strode goes a long way.  You can only watch someone rage at the world for so long before it starts to get boring.

And the third storyline, not surprisingly, is Michael still trying to track down and kill his sister.  Michael continually sees visions of his dead mother (Sheri Moon Zombie), occasionally accompanied by a white horse, telling him, “It’s time.”  (Eventually, Laurie starts to see the same thing.)  Usually, if you come across someone online criticizing Halloween II, one of the first things that they’ll mention will be that white horse.  To be honest, the white horse didn’t both me.  I actually appreciated the surreal touch of Sheri Moon Zombie and a white horse appearing out of nowhere.  But still, as opposed to first film, Michael is just boring in this film.  The first film was memorable because it took the time to explore why Michael became who he became.  In Halloween II, Michael’s just another killer in a mask.  Leslie Vernon would have kicked his ass.

So, no, Halloween II does not really work.  The story is too messy and, with the exception of Dr. Loomis, none of the characters are particularly interesting.  I still stand by my claim that Rob Zombie is an underrated director but Halloween II is a definite misfire.

The Daily Horror Grindhouse: Halloween (dir by Rob Zombie)


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Is Rob Zombie a good filmmaker?

That’s the question that every horror fan has to ask themselves at some point.  Needless to say, Zombie has a huge following and no one can doubt his love for the genre.  And yet, despite that, it seems that Zombie’s detractors will always be as outspoken as his fans.  His fans point out that Zombie makes movies that literally feel as if they’re filmed nightmares and that, as a committed horror fan, he’s willing to go further in his quest to shock you than most mainstream filmmakers.  His detractors, meanwhile, tend to see Zombie as an excessive filmmaker who often uses an abundance of style to cover for a weak narrative.

Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle when it comes to Zombie.  I think, as a storyteller, Rob Zombie does occasionally struggle to maintain a coherent narrative but, at the same time, I think his strengths as a director ultimately overcome his weaknesses.  As a visual filmmaker, he’s a lot stronger than he’s often given credit for and I don’t think anyone would criticize the way that he uses music in his films.  He may not be the strongest director of actors but he’s got a good eye for casting and he’s given work to some of our best character actors (Sid Haig, Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, William Forsythe, and the late Karen Black, just to name a few).  If his films are extremely graphic and bloody … well, that’s the current state of horror.  If anything, I would argue that Zombie deserves credit for unapologetically embracing the mantle of being a 21st century grindhouse filmmaker.

That said, Rob Zombie’s films rarely seem to be as good on a second viewing as they were during the first.  He’s one of those directors who comes at you strong that, to a certain extent, his films almost beat you into submission.  During the first viewing of one of Zombie’s films, it’s not unusual to be overwhelmed by all the style and the music and the gore and the over-the-top characterizations.  Even if you don’t like the film itself, it definitely makes an impression on you.  It’s only on repeat viewing that you might start to notice that Zombie’s narratives are often rather clumsily slapped together.  Several times, Zombie’s visual style seems to dictate the story as opposed to the other way around.

That was certainly the case with his 2007 remake of Halloween.  While the film follows the same basic plot as John Carpenter’s original, it also spent a lot more time delving into the past of Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch as a child, Tyler Mane as an adult).  It was obvious that Zombie was far more interested in Michael than in any of his victims.  (Carpenter took the exact opposite approach, developing the characters of Annie, Laurie, and Linda and allowing Michael to remain a cipher.)  As a result, the first half of the film deals with Michael and his dysfunctional childhood while only the second half features Michael escaping and returning to Haddonfield.  Laurie, Annie, and Lynda are well-played by Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, and Kristina Klebe but ultimately, they all remain rather generic.

The first time I saw Rob Zombie’s Halloween, I thought it was one of the most disturbing films that I had ever seen.  I should clarify that I mean that in a good way.  Zombie’s Michael was truly terrifying but, at the same time, Zombie portrayed him as a kid who never had a chance.  Whereas Carpenter’s Michael started the film as a fresh-faced little boy dressed up like a clown and holding a bloody knife, Zombie’s Michael is born into a world of chaos and darkness.  With his dysfunctional childhood, it was hard not to feel that Michael never had a chance.  Feeling abandoned by both his family and, eventually, his therapist, Michael retreated into a world of pure anger and hate.  Whereas John Carpenter’s Michael rarely seemed to be angry (instead he was just relentless), Zombie’s Michael is rage personified.

Unfortunately, Zombie’s Halloween spends so much time on Michael and his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, perfectly cast) that it doesn’t leave much time for the night he came home.  Essentially, the entirety of Carpenter’s original film is crammed into the film’s second half and, on repeat viewings, you can’t ignore how incredibly rushed it all feels.  It’s obvious that Zombie’s heart was in the first half of the film.  In the second half, he’s just going through the slasher movie motions.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween is definitely a flawed film.  John Carpenter’s original remains the superior Halloween but, to be honest, I don’t think Rob Zombie would deny that.  Zombie set out not to replace Carpenter’s Halloween but to tell a different version of the same story.  When Zombie’s Halloween works, it really works.  Flawed as it may be, Halloween proves that Rob Zombie is a talented filmmaker, albeit one with room to grow.

As for Halloween II … well, we’ll talk about that later…