Horror Film Review: Jacob’s Ladder (dir by Adrian Lyne)


The 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder asks the question, “Who is Jacob Singer?”

Is Jacob (played by Tim Robbins), a soldier serving in Vietnam who has just been severely wounded in an enemy attack and who is now barely clinging to life in a helicopter?

Is Jacob a withdrawn postal worker who lives in 1970s New York with his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), and who is haunted by horrifying visions of faceless, vibrating figures and viscous demons?  This Jacob is haunted by ill-defined past incidents.  Whenever he gets depressed, Jezzie is quick to demand that he snap out of it and that he stop thinking about anything other than the present day.  This Jacob can only watch as all of his old friends either sink into paranoia or die.  He hears rumors that they all may have been part of some sort of experiment involving LSD.  He’s sure that he served in the army but when he attempts to hire an attorney, he’s informed that the army has no record of him ever having served in combat and that they say he was discharged for psychological reasons.

Or is Jacob the husband of Sarah (Patricia Kalember) and the father of Gabe (Macaulay Culkin — yes, that Culkin)?  This is the Jacob who occasionally wakes up in bed with his wife and tells her that he’s been having the weirdest dream, one where he was living with “that crazy woman” from the post office, Jezebel?

Which one of these three realities is the truth for Jacob?  At times, Jacob himself doesn’t even seem to be sure.  Perhaps the one thing that you can be sure about in this movie is that whenever Jacob closes his eyes, he’s going to reopen them and discover that he’s in a different time and place.  Jacob spends almost the entire film trying to work out what’s happening in the present, what’s happening in the past, and what’s just happening in his head.

And, to be honest, it all gets a bit pretentious at times.  The film’s script has a lot on its mind.  In fact, it might have a little bit too much going on.  No sooner have you soaked in what the film has to say about denial and acceptance than you’re suddenly getting a crash course in MK-ULTRA and other mind-control conspiracy theories.  Whenever Jacob isn’t seeing demons and faceless apparitions, he’s being kidnapped by government agents.  There’s so much going on that this film can get a bit exhausting.

Fortunately, the film itself is such a triumph of style that it doesn’t matter that the script is a bit of a mess.  Director Adrian Lyne does a great job bringing Jacob’s nightmarish world to life.  Jacob seems to live in a world where the skies are permanently overcast and the streets are always wet after a recent storm.  When Jacob makes the mistake of walking down a subway tunnel, Lyne frames it as if Jacob is literally following a tunnel into Hell.  When a subway train rushes by Jacob, we catch disturbing glimpses of featureless faces facing the windows.  When Jacob sees a demon at a party, Lynne films the moment so that, just like Jacob, it takes us a few minutes to realize what we’re seeing.  And when Jacob is kidnapped and taken to a Hellish hospital, the scene is nightmarish in its intensity.

Tim Robbins gives a great performance as the emotionally withdrawn and haunted Jacob.  (In fact, he’s so good that it makes it all the more sad that he really hasn’t had a decent role since he won an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River.)  He’s matched by Elizabeth Pena, who constantly keeps you wondering if Jezzie truly cares about Jacob or if she’s just another part of the conspiracy that seems to have taken over his life.

Jacob’s Ladder is an intensely effective, if somewhat messy, horror film.  Apparently, like almost every other horror film released in the 20th century, it’s currently being remade, with the remake due to released on February 9th.  Just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Playing Catch-Up: Autumn in New York, Griffin & Phoenix, Harry & Son, The Life of David Gale


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Autumn in New York
  • Released: 2000
  • Directed by Joan Chen
  • Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessy, J.K. Simmons, Sam Trammell, Mary Beth Hurt

Richard Gere is Will, a fabulously wealthy New Yorker, who has had many girlfriends but who has never been able to find the one.  He owns a restaurant and appears on the cover of New York Magazine.  He loves food because, according to him, “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.”

Winona Ryder is Charlotte, a hat designer who is always happy and cheerful and full of life.  She’s the type who dresses up like Emily Dickinson for Christmas and recites poetry to children, though you get the feeling that, if they ever somehow met in real life, Emily would probably get annoyed with Charlotte fairly quickly.  Actually, Charlotte might soon get to meet  Emily because she has one of those rare diseases that kills you in a year while still allowing you to look healthy and beautiful.

One night, Will and Charlotte meet and, together, they solve crimes!

No, actually, they fall in love.  This is one of those films where a young woman teaches an old man how to live again but then promptly dies so it’s not like he actually has to make a huge commitment or anything.  The film does, at least, acknowledge that Will is a lot older than Charlotte but it still doesn’t make it any less weird that Charlotte would want to spend her last year on Earth dealing with a self-centered, emotionally remote man who is old enough to be her father.  (To be honest, when it was revealed that Charlotte was the daughter of a woman who Will had previously dated, I was briefly worried that Autumn in New York was going to take an even stranger turn….)

On the positive side, the films features some pretty shots of New York and there is actually a pretty nice subplot, in which Will tries to connect with the daughter (Vera Farmiga) that he never knew he had.  Maybe if Farmiga and Ryder had switched roles, Autumn in New York would have worked out better.

  • Griffin & Phoenix
  • Released: 2006
  • Directed by Ed Stone
  • Starring Dermot Mulroney, Amanda Peet, Blair Brown, and Sarah Paulson

His name is Henry Griffin (Dermot Mulroney).

Her name is Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet).

Because they both have highly symbolic last names, we know that they’re meant to be together.

They both have cancer.  They’ve both been given a year to live.  Of course, they don’t realize that when they first meet and fall in love.  In fact, when Phoenix comes across several books that Griffin has purchased about dealing with being terminally ill, she assumes that Griffin bought them to try to fool her into falling in love with him.  Once they realize that they only have a year to be together, Griffin and Phoenix set out to make every moment count…

It’s a sweet-natured and unabashedly sentimental movie but, unfortunately, Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet have little romantic chemistry and the film is never quite as successful at inspiring tears as it should be.  When Mulroney finally allows himself to get mad and deals with his anger by vandalizing a bunch of cars, it’s not a cathartic moment.  Instead, you just find yourself wondering how Mulroney could so easily get away with destroying a stranger’s windshield in broad daylight.

  • Harry & Son
  • Released: 1986
  • Directed by Paul Newman
  • Starring Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Judith Ivey, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Borowitz, Maury Chaykin, Joanne Woodward

Morgan Freeman makes an early film appearance in Harry & Son, though his role is a tiny one.  He plays a factory foreman named Siemanowski who, in quick order, gets angry with and then fires a new employee named Howard Keach (Robby Benson).  Howard is the son in Harry & Son and he’s such an annoying character that you’re happy when Freeman shows up and starts yelling at the little twit.  As I said, Freeman’s role is a small one.  Freeman’s only on screen for a few minutes.  But, in that time, he calls Howard an idiot and it’s hard not to feel that he has a point.

Of course, the problem is that we’re not supposed to view Howard as being an idiot.  Instead, we’re supposed to be on Howard’s side.  Howard has ambitions to be the next Ernest Hemingway.  However, his blue-collar father, Harry (Paul Newman, who also directed), demands that Howard get a job.  Maybe, like us, he realizes how silly Howard looks whenever he gets hunched over his typewriter.  (Robby Benson tries to pull off these “deep thought” facial expressions that simply have to be seen to be believed.)  There’s actually two problems with Howard.  First off, we never believe that he could possibly come up with anything worth reading.  Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Paul Newman could ever be the father of such an annoying little creep.

Harry, of course, has problems of his own.  He’s just lost his construction job.  He’s having to deal with the fact that he’s getting older.  Fortunately, his son introduces him to a nymphomaniac (Judith Ivey).  Eventually, it all ends with moments of triumph and tragedy, as these things often do.

As always, Newman is believable as a blue-collar guy who believes in hard work and cold beer.  The film actually gets off to a good start, with Newman using a wrecking ball to take down an old building.  But then Robby Benson shows up, hunched over that typewriter, and the film just becomes unbearable.  At least Morgan Freeman’s around to yell at the annoying little jerk.

  • The Life of David Gale
  • Released: 2003
  • Directed by Alan Parker
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Matt Craven, Jim Beaver, Melissa McCarthy

For the record, while I won’t shed any tears whenever Dzhokahr Tsarnaev is finally executed, I’m against the death penalty.  I think that once we accept the idea that the state has the right to execute people, it becomes a lot easier to accept the idea that the state has the right to do a lot of other things.  Plus, there’s always the danger of innocent people being sent to die.  The Life of David Gale also claims to be against the death penalty but it’s so obnoxious and self-righteous that I doubt it changed anyone’s mind.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.  He used to be a nationally renowned activist against the death penalty.  But then he was arrested for and convicted of the murder of another activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) and now David Gale is sitting on death row himself.  With his execution approaching, journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is convinced that Gale was framed and she finds herself racing against time to prevent Texas from executing an innocent man…

There’s a lot of things wrong with The Life of David Gale.  First off, it was made during the Bush administration, so the whole film is basically just a hate letter to the state of Texas.  Never have I heard so many inauthentic accents in one film.  Secondly, only in a truly bad movie, can someone have a name like Bitsey Bloom.  Third, the whole film ends with this big twist that makes absolutely no sense and which nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at the TV.

Of course, the main problem with the film is that we’re asked to sympathize with a character played by Kevin Spacey.  Even before Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sleazy perv, he was never a particularly sympathetic or really even that versatile of an actor.  (Both American Beauty and House of Cards tried to disguise this fact by surrounding him with cartoonish caricatures.)  Spacey’s so snarky and condescending as Gale that, even if he is innocent of murder, it’s hard not to feel that maybe David Gale should be executed for crimes against likability.

Horror Film Review: Happy Birthday To Me (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


“John will never eat shish kebab again!” announces the poster for the 1981 Canadian slasher film, Happy Birthday To Me.  

Happy Birthday To Me is famous for three things.  One of those things is the poster above, which was apparently so controversial that it actually led to the film being banned in some countries.  That said, it’s a brilliant poster, one that probably belongs in the Film Poster Hall of Fame.  If I had been alive and old enough to sneak into the movies in 1981, that poster would have drawn me into the theater.

The other interesting thing about the poster is that no one in the movie is named John.  There is a shish kebab scene, of course.  But it happens to a guy named Steven, not to anyone named John.  Of course, the poster also says that Steven likes to ride a motorcycle but, in the movie, the motorcycle rider is a pervy French-Canadian named Etienne.  Maybe the film’s producers feared that American audiences would not be willing to watch a movie featuring a character named Etienne.  (They were probably right, by the way.  Happy Birthday To Me came out decades before Degrassi: The Next Generation taught America that it has nothing to fear from the Canadians.)

As for what else Happy Birthday To Me is famous for — well, first of all, there’s the actual shish kebab scene itself.  As cringe-inducing as it may appear to be on the poster, it’s even more disturbing in the actual film.  Interestingly enough, there’s not a lot of blood in the scene.  In fact, it’s one of the few scenes in Happy Birthday To Me to not be drenched in blood.  However, there is a lot of gagging and gurgling and the sounds are all the more disturbing because they’re taking place off-camera.  Making it even more unsettling is that Steven (played by Matt Craven, who has since become a distinguished character actor) is one of the few likable characters in the movie.  In a movie full of snobs, pervs, and weirdos, Steven is the guy who is always encouraging people to stop fighting, make love, and gamble.

Finally, Happy Birthday To Me is famous for not making a damn bit of sense.

Actually, to be fair, the movie does make sense up until the final ten minutes or so.  Up until that point, it’s simply been a well-made slasher film, albeit an above average example of the genre.  There’s a killer on the loose, killing students at Crawford Academy.  All of the victims are members of the Top Ten, an exclusive clique of rich and spoiled teens.  (Interestingly enough, not every member of the Top Ten is killed.  In fact, some of the people who you are sure are due to be killed somehow manage to survive.)  One member of the Top Ten, Ginny (Melissa Sue Anderson), should be excited about her upcoming birthday party but instead, she is haunted by flashbacks to a car accident and the brain surgery that she was forced to undergo afterward.  (Footage of actual brain surgery was used in the film.)  Her father (Lawrence Dane) is clueless.  Her therapist (Glenn Ford) insists that Ginny needs to move on with her life.  But Ginny can’t escape the feeling that something is not right, especially when all of her friends start to disappear.

As I said, it all makes sense up until the final ten minutes or so of the film.  That’s when the film produces a twist that is so out-of-nowhere and nonsensical that you cannot help but admire the film’s audacity.  I’m not going to spoil the twist, other than to say that it makes no sense and I absolutely loved it.  From what I’ve read, it appears that the twist ending was almost literally made up on the spot and it’s just so weird that it elevates the entire movie.

Of the many slasher films that came out in the early 1980s, Happy Birthday To Me is one of the best.  It’s a classic that need not ever be remade.  (I doubt any remake could match the audacity of the original’s finale.)  Nicely acted, intelligently directed, and batshit insane when it needed to be, Happy Birthday To Me is an October essential!

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: A Few Good Men (dir by Rob Reiner)


A_Few_Good_Men_poster

So, late Saturday night, I turned over to TCM’s 31 Days Of Oscar and I was watching the 1992 best picture nominee, A Few Good Men, and I noticed that not only was there only one woman in the entire film but she was also portrayed as being humorless and overwhelmed.  While all of the male characters were allowed to speak in quippy one liners and all had at least one memorable personality trait, Lt. Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) didn’t get to do much beyond frown and struggle to keep up.

“Hmmmm…” I wondered, “why is it that the only woman in the film is portrayed as basically being a humorless scold?”  Then I remembered that A Few Good Men was written by Aaron Sorkin and it all made sense.  As I’ve discussed on this site before, Aaron Sorkin has no idea how to write woman and that’s certainly evident in A Few Good Men.  Joanne (who goes by the masculine Jo) is the one character who doesn’t get to say anything funny or wise.  Instead, she mostly serves to repeat platitudes and to be ridiculed (both subtly and not-so subtly) by her male colleagues.  You can tell that Sorkin was so busy patting himself on the back for making Jo into a professional that he never actually got around to actually giving her any personality.  As a result, there’s really not much for her to do, other than occasionally scowling and giving Tom Cruise a “that’s not funny” look.

(“C’mon,” Tom says at one point, “that one was pretty good.”  You tell her, Aaron Tom.)

A Few Good Men, of course, is the film where Tom Cruise yells, “I want the truth!” and then Jack Nicholson yells back, “You can’t handle the truth!”  At that point in the film, I was totally on Nicholson’s side and I was kinda hoping that the scene would conclude with Cruise staring down at the floor, struggling to find the perfect come back.  However, this is an Aaron Sorkin script which means that the big bad military guy is never going to have a legitimate point and that the film’s hero is always going to have the perfect comeback.  Fortunately, the scene took place in a courtroom so there was a wise judge present and he was able to let us know that, even if he seemed to be making the better point, Nicholson was still in the wrong.

As for the rest of the film, it’s a courtroom drama.  At Guantanamo Bay, a marine (Michael DeLorenzo) has died as the result of a hazing.  Two other marines (Wolfgang Bodison and James Marshall) have been accused of the murder.  Daniel Kafee (Tom Cruise), Joanne Galloyway (Demi Moore), and Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack) have been assigned to defend them.  Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) is prosecuting them.  Kafee thinks that the hazing was ordered by Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) and Lt. Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland).

We know that Kendrick’s a bad guy because he speaks in a Southern accent and is religious, which is pretty much the mark of the devil in an Aaron Sorkin script.  We know that Jessup is evil because he’s played by Jack Nicholson.  For that matter, we also know that Kafee is cocky, arrogant, and has father issues.  Why?  Because he’s played by Tom Cruise, of course.  And, while we’re at it, we know that Sam is going to be full of common sense wisdom because he’s played by Kevin Pollack…

What I’m saying here is that there’s absolutely nothing surprising about A Few Good Men.  It may pretend to be about big issues of national security but, ultimately, it’s a very slick and somewhat hollow Hollywood production.  This, after all, is a Rob Reiner film and that, above all else, means that it’s going to be a very conventional and very calculated crowd pleaser.

Which isn’t to say that A Few Good Men wasn’t enjoyable.  I love courtroom dramas and, with the exception of Demi Moore, all of the actors do a good job.  (And, in Demi’s defense, it’s not as if she had much to work with.  It’s not her fault that Sorkin hates women.)  A Few Good Men is entertaining without being particularly memorable.

Shattered Politics #92: White House Down (dir by Roland Emmerich)


White_House_Down_poster_with_billing_block

To say that the 2012 film White House Down is stupid is probably unnecessary.  After all, the film was directed by Roland Emmerich and Emmerich specializes in making stupid films.

And, in many ways, White House Down is prototypical Emmerich film, a long and self-important collection of mayhem and heavy-handed pontification.  In the case of this film, liberal President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is pushing for a treaty that will magically bring about world police.  Naturally, a bunch of evil right-wingers (including characters played, somewhat inevitably, by James Woods and Richard Jenkins) don’t want world peace so they hire a bunch of mercenaries who attack the White House.  It’s all a part of a plot to force Sawyer to launch a nuclear attack on Iran because … well, why not?  Fortunately, aspiring secret service agent (and kick-ass combat veteran) John Cale (Channing Tatum) is there to work with the President and save the country.

And, since Emmerich is from the bigger is always better school of filmmaking, many familiar landmarks are blown up and it takes the film well over two hours to tell its simplistic story.  To be honest, if your action movie can’t get the job done in under two hours, then you’re going to have problems.  Once a viewer has spent two hours watching one movie, it’s inevitable that he or she will start to question the film’s logic.  If the film’s clever enough, all lapses and inconsistencies can be forgiving.  If the film is White House Down, it’s a lot less easy to be forgiving.

Of course, from a political point of view, Emmerich tries to have it both ways.  For anti-government types like me, it’s always fun to watch Washington D.C. blow up.  For those on the right, White House Down presents a situation that can only be solved by heroes with guns.  And, of course, Democrats can view White House Down as wish fulfillment, an alternative timeline where Barack Obama actually is as sincere and effective as they wish him to be.

In fact, if anything saves White House Down, it’s the chemistry between Foxx and Tatum.  Wisely, neither one of them appears to be taking the film that seriously and both of them seem to be having a lot of fun blowing things up.  Channing Tatum, in particular, deserves some sort of award.  How many bad films have been made tolerable by Tatum’s willingness to laugh at himself?  I’ve lost count but White House Down definitely benefits from his presence.  He and Foxx make Emmerich’s style of filmmaking as tolerable as it will ever be.