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The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.17
460 used & new from $6.29

2.0 out of 5 stars The Crazy Train, March 23, 2016
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This review is from: The Girl on the Train (Hardcover)
It’s hard to be objective about a novel that strives so determinedly (and successfully) to make its characters as unlikable as those in Paula Hawkins’ bestselling mystery, “The Girl On the Train”. With not one, but three, unreliable narrators jumping back and forth in time offering first-person perspectives on unfolding events, the book chronicles the intertwined stories of sad-sack drunkard, Rachel, the titular girl on the train; Megan, the secretive blonde half of a seemingly perfect couple Rachel spies on from the train; and Anna, a hard-edged suburbanite who envisions herself as the perfect wife and mother.

The central mystery begins when one of the women goes missing.

The main narrative, necessarily, comes from Rachel, still wallowing in booze and self-pity years after her husband left her for the younger, prettier Anna. In fact, Anna, the usurper, and Rachel’s ex-husband are still living in the same house that once belonged to Rachel. Having lost her job due to drunkenness, Rachel still takes the train each day from the suburbs into London, not only to make her sober-minded roommate think she’s still gainfully employed, but also to keep an eye on her ex and the woman occupying her old home; the train just happens to pass right by the place. A few doors down lives a beautiful young couple whom Rachel also watches, becoming a little too fascinated by their lives lived largely out in the back yard and through open windows. Although Rachel nicknames them Jess and Jason and envies what she perceives to be their idyllic wedded bliss, it soon becomes apparent that appearances are deceiving, especially after she witnesses a shocking act that shakes up her vicarious fantasy life. But, did she, in fact, see what she thought she saw? Rachel’s reality is blurred from heavy drinking which often results in blackouts; her problems are compounded by her stalking of not only her ex-husband, Tom, and his increasingly agitated wife, but of Scott and Megan, the real-life “lovebirds” Rachel knows as Jess and Jason. What follows is a harrowing, sometimes confusing yarn that allows for no “good guys” and sees Rachel making one misstep after another after another until finally, I lost patience with her to the point that I found it difficult to finish the book. A main character doesn’t necessarily have to be likable, or even relatable, to maintain a good story but they should offer up something—sympathy, grudging admiration, even hatred—to keep the reader hooked in to that character, to want to know what happens to him or her. Rachel used up what sympathy I had for her very quickly, and while I didn’t like her at all, I didn’t dislike her enough by the end to care what happened to her. By the time she finally rallies from her downtrodden hangdog state, it was too little, too late; I simply didn’t care. However, being very familiar with the behavior of alcoholics, I did find Rachel’s behavior to be believable (for the most part), if tiring.

The character of Megan was more interesting, and perhaps, more sympathetic. With dark secrets in both her past and present, Megan is a well-structured character who is damaged and self-destructive, not a nice woman but not someone who is intentionally cruel. Her own missteps, more dramatic than Rachel’s (at least early on), are poignant and truly heartbreaking, and while the character of Rachel is the protagonist of the story, it is Megan who really drives it.

Anna, the third voice in “Girl On the Train”, is probably the least developed of the three narrators. Presented as a vain, calculating homewrecker whose deeds are doubling back on her, Anna is something of a narcissist, who is, understandably, at the end of her rope with Rachel and her attendant drama. Anna considers herself to be clear-headed and sane compared to the other female characters in the novel, although her narcissism precludes her from seeing that she’s as deluded as they are.

The problem I found with having three narrators is that their voices begin to seem strangely similar as one chapter featuring Anna flows into the next chapter, narrated by Rachel, and so on. If Rachel isn’t on a drunken binge, it’s difficult to separate her musings from those of Anna; in more than one instance, I found myself thumbing back to the beginning of a chapter to see if it was titled “Rachel”, “Anna” or “Megan”.

The men in the story are also difficult to separate in some instances, and even more sketchily written than Anna. Tom, Anna’s husband and Rachel’s ex, is very much like Scott, Megan’s husband, and neither seems to be all that distinctive. There’s also a shady psychiatrist on hand who doesn’t seem to balk at bedding his patients, and a couple of cops who never come to life, existing merely as words on a page. Of course, they’re an awkward necessity in moving the story forward (and in offending Rachel).

Also awkward is the fact that characters narrate events in the present, often simultaneously with a different character in the following chapter, while another character narrates events from months, or years, earlier. Again, it’s a necessity in moving the story forward (and in tying up all the loose ends) but it feels awkward. The solution to the mystery, when it comes, isn’t surprising but it is serviceable and doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.

As trying as I often felt “The Girl On the Train” to be, it does offer up some suspense, and isn’t altogether horrible. Paula Hawkins writes well and I hope she’ll up her game on her next literary outing.

The Driver's Seat
The Driver's Seat
DVD ~ Ian Bannen
Price: $4.76
23 used & new from $0.56

3.0 out of 5 stars Dark and Dangerous Liasons, March 19, 2016
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This review is from: The Driver's Seat (DVD)
There was a time in recent history when Elizabeth Taylor was considered the ultimate movie star. Talented, scandalous and ravishingly beautiful, Taylor made a number of fine films during her storied career, culminating in her Oscar-winning performance as in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”? It’s hard to know whether the studios stopped providing acceptable scripts for a maturing actress or if she simply wanted to branch out into artier, edgier material more commonly found in European cinema. Whatever the case, Elizabeth Taylor, from the late 1960’s to the mid-70’s, found herself headlining a series of eye-popping oddities and overwrought psychodramas, none of which were stranger than Italian director, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s 1974 head-scratcher, “The Driver’s Seat”. Based on Muriel Spark’s novella of the same name, “The Driver’s Seat” is a wildly bizarre concoction that presents Taylor, in psychedelically gaudy attire and hair styled in a wind tunnel, as she drifts from one implausible encounter to the next as she searches for a man who is “her type” (which is code for a man deranged enough to agree to kill her). The main character, Lise, lives in a northern European city and has had enough of life; angry and combative, she’s exhaustively disagreeable and immeasurably sad. She has a vaguely defined job and lives in a building run by a landlady who scorns her. Hopping on a plane to warmer climes, Lise winds up in what is, possibly, Rome, or maybe Naples. It’s hard to discern because there are no clear landmarks; with all that beauty and history abounding in the region, director Griffi doesn’t bother to expound on the surroundings much, preferring to keep his camera trained on Lise and her rapidly shrinking view of the world as she marches resolutely forward on her desperate journey towards death. This isn’t the first film where a main character has presented a morbid obsession with his/her own violent death, although I can’t remember one so drenched in eroticism. At least, that seems like the idea Griffi was trying to get across in the film, and yet the film isn’t erotic whatsoever. With Taylor’s combative Lise constantly finding herself on the verge of getting arrested, raped, kidnapped, blown apart by a bomb, and nearly raped again, it’s like watching a train wreck in the making, thereby obliterating any erotic punch the director may have intended. (The film also jumps back and forth in time, apparently discombobulating some viewers. I don’t really understand this because certain TV drama’s—“How To Get Away With Murder” immediately comes to mind—do this regularly and no one seems to mind).

Lise, herself, has been characterized as an anti-heroine and, as played by Taylor, it’s an apt description. Glamorous and beautifully mad, Lise is such an angry, abrasive personality that you want to detest her, yet Taylor imbues her with such humanity that you also hope she’ll somehow pull herself together and give up on her insane and grandiose plan. Along the way, she meets (among others) a spookily grinning Englishman (Ian Bannen) who is on a macrobiotic diet and must orgasm every day without fail; an elderly female traveler (Mona Washbourne) who (very intuitively) wants to introduce Lise to her nephew (Guido Mannari); a savior who turns into an abductor (Maxence Mailfort); and Andy Warhol (as an English lord!). Yet, despite an interesting and eclectic cast, the movie clearly belongs to Taylor; you simply can’t take your eyes off her. She’s loud and often obnoxious, bitter but also bitterly funny, yet with Taylor playing her, Lise, for the most part, maintains a certain elegance and class that only disappears in the film’s final moments when she finally believes she’s found “her type” and demands that he “Kill me! KILL ME!!!” Her loud, rough voice reminded me, incongruously, of a scene in the hilarious Meryl Streep/Goldie Hawn comedy, “Death Becomes Her”, when their characters were shouting much the same dialogue. Once that flashed into my mind, the entire spell “The Driver’s Seat” had cast over me suddenly dissipated, and I realized how much better this project could have been in the hands of a capable director.

What did strike me about this film is how much the events surrounding the characters remind me of those in our own present day. Terrorist bombings, heightened airport security, the building anxiety and underlying sense of danger, all are perfectly highlighted in this movie as being a part of the European landscape circa 1974 (and yet not in the U.S. until 30 years later). Lise’s own mental anguish and fragmentation could also be viewed as a mirror of societal dismemberment, both then and now, although that might be giving the film more gravitas than it deserves.

The Cheezy Flicks DVD is absolutely terrible, obviously taken from an old print complete with dirt, scratches, overlighting, the works, and it’s unlikely that this interesting failure of a film will ever be restored. However, for the low price listed on amazon, it’s worth checking out.

Blood and Black Lace (2-Disc Limited Special Edition Steelbook) [Blu-ray + DVD]
Blood and Black Lace (2-Disc Limited Special Edition Steelbook) [Blu-ray + DVD]
DVD ~ Cameron Mitchell
Price: $34.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Blood and Black Lace" Steelbook Blu-Ray, January 26, 2016
With the steelbook release continually delayed on amazon, I finally ordered directly from Arrow Films in the U.K. First of all, I was delighted to discover that, by ordering directly from the distributor, I was able to purchase the film for around $23 USD, as opposed to the original $49.99 (or thereabouts) advertised on amazon. The shipping cost came to an additional $3.99 (from the U.K. to the U.S.!!) so the total for my order was around $27. Also, the blu-ray disc works on both Region A and B players, which includes the U.S.

The steelbook, itself, is a sleekly perverse little work of art, as is the film inside. I've always considered Mario Bavs's "Blood and Black Lace" to be the high point of the giallo genre (along with "Bird With the Crystal Plumage" and a couple of others) and this restoration of the film is superlative. The vivid primary colors are both dazzling and lurid, accentuating the glamorous decadence of the characters and settings while driving home the horror and extreme violence of the acts committed by the masked, gloved killer. Carlo Rustichelli's jazzy and sensually menacing score, an integral part of the film, has never sounded better than on this restoration. Previous DVD incarnations of this film have also had problems with the sound, which has sometimes seemed discordant; also, in the English dubbed versions, the actor's dialogue was completely out of synch with their lip movements, which I found jarringly irritating. I haven't checked out the English language version on this steelbook, as I have been pleased with the English-subtitled, Italian language option on this new disc.

Anyone reading this review is, doubtless, familiar with the premise of "Blood and Black Lace" but, in a nutshell, it's an ultra-stylish, beautifully filmed predecessor of the slasher films that later dominated movie screens. A group of gorgeous models at a fashion house in Rome are stalked and viciously murdered by a mysterious, creepy looking sadist. The ineffective police inspector suggests that it is the work of a sex maniac but, considering the fact that everyone connected with the fashion house seems to have his or her own deep, dark secrets, the killer may have other motives. There's really not much more to it than that. As a murder mystery, I think the film works fairly well, although star, Cameron Mitchell, with his boxer-like demeanor and Hollywood pedigree, seems a little out of place in a fashion house (and among the international cast) and, therefore, stands out as a fairly obvious suspect, whether the suspicion is warranted or not. Not that the clueless lead detective (Thomas Reiner, in the type of role that would become a staple of most giallo films) noticed. Eva Bartok, playing the owner of the fashion house, is very good and brings a certain degree of vulnerability to an, otherwise, not-so-sympathetic character. The rest of the cast includes Dante di Paolo (once married to Rosemary Clooney), Lea Krugher, Mary Arden and Ariana Gorini.

The graphic violence (for the time period) is effectively revolting, and there are some genuine scares in the film, particularly when one of the characters finds herself in a large, empty antiques warehouse with someone lurking in the shadows.

The blu-ray disc has a number of extras, including an informative 25 page booklet, interviews with Lamberto Bava, Dario Argento, Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani (among others) discussing "Blood and Black Lace" and other films in the giallo genre, a panel discussion of the film and a short giallo called "Yellow", from filmmaker Ryan Haysom.

I highly recommend this steelbook to fans of Bava and the giallo genre, and of this film, in particular. And, if you enjoy thrillers yet have somehow managed never to see this gem from the sixties, it's well worth checking it out. It's a classic of the genre.

Dressed to Kill (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Dressed to Kill (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Michael Caine
Price: $26.19
27 used & new from $17.69

10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Second Coming of An Essential Screwball Thriller, September 13, 2015
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When Brian DePalma's thriller, "Dressed to Kill" first opened in 1980, it was condemned by some reviewers and feminist groups as nothing more than a bloody, misogynistic stew of soft-core porn and damsel-in-distress horror. With no small thanks to Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s estimable film critic at the time, “Dressed to Kill”, DePalma’s most prurient Hitchcock nod to date, became a box office hit with a reputation that has only grown in the ensuing years. This new Criterion release signals that the film is finally getting the attention some fans feel it justly deserves. The initial Criterion Blu-Ray pressing of “Dressed to Kill” encountered some serious problems, but I’m happy to report they’ve been corrected in the second pressing, which was made available to the public on September 8, 2014. Please note: if you plan on purchasing the Criterion edition of “Dressed to Kill”, make certain that you have the second pressing. Unfortunately, the only way to determine this for sure is located on the disc itself, which has the words “second pressing”, easily missed, among a string of other words in tiny print. At any rate, the movie looks great now, with the sensuously muted interiors of the characters’ fantasy lives a stark contrast to the messy, sometimes deadly, sharp coldness of reality. The extras on the Criterion release include new interviews with Nancy Allen, Pino Donaggio and film producer George Litto, a 2001 documentary on the making of the film, a chat with DePalma and Noah Baumbach and a fascinating critical essay by Michael Koresky. If you have not seen the film and aren’t familiar with everything that happens, do not watch/read the extra material before watching it because there are spoilers galore.

With all due respect to DePalma’s cinematic infatuation with Hitchcock, “Dressed to Kill” also incorporates many of the tropes of giallo cinema, that ultra-stylish blend of sex, violence and crime popularized by Italian filmmakers of the 70’s and 80’s. I think it’s important to point out that some of those giallos trod a much finer line regarding the treatment of women than “Dressed to Kill” ever does (particularly Lamberto Bava’s dreadful “Blade In the Dark”, which simply reconstructs the more violent elements of DePalma’s oeuvre and regurgitates them in a distasteful display of genuine misogyny). “Dressed to Kill” is also often cited as a horror film, although I think that’s a misnomer; yes, it’s scary and there’s a scene that was considered quite gory at the time, but it plays out more as a suspenseful mystery (even though the killer’s identity won’t come as a surprise to alert viewers).

For anyone still not familiar with the (rather dubious) plotline, “Dressed to Kill” is a story of murder and madness, and of multiples: multiple blondes, multiple personalities, multiple camera angles and multiple screens. The venerable Michael Caine is on hand as kindly, uptight Dr. Elliott, a successful Manhattan psychiatrist who loses one patient to a vicious murderer who may turn out to be another of his patients. Angie Dickinson, famous at the time as TV’s “Police Woman”, plays a suburban housewife so distracted by her disappointments and desires that she mislays or loses everything. Locked in an unsatisfying marriage, Dickinson’s Kate Miller is the essence of perfectly coiffed, well-to-do desperation. Her pent-up sexuality has her so rigid that she seems ever on the verge of exploding out of her own skin; she’s stretched out so tight with longing in Dr. Elliott’s office that she actually propositions him. Indeed, when a stranger finally picks her up (much to her relief) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (actually shot in Philadelphia) and whisks her away in a taxi, Kate’s long-repressed explosion comes roaring out in shrieks of ecstasy when the stranger sprawls her out on the back seat and gives her a quick overhaul. Once they arrive at the man’s apartment building, he practically has to lift her out of the taxi, she’s so discombobulated by the release she’s been denied for so long. That whole taxi ride is a funny sequence that comes after a long, winding, intense cat-and-mouse seduction/chase through the museum. Kate flirts with the man and then drops her glove in confusion when he walks away; while Kate and the stranger take turns pursuing one another to the haunting strains of Pino Donaggio’s swirling score, Kate’s lost glove becomes the Hitchcockian MacGuffin of the scene. Interestingly enough, by the time the lost glove leads her into the arms of the stranger, now waiting in the taxi, she has already lost her other glove, which ends up in the hands of someone with far darker impulses. In short order, Kate also manages to lose her panties (in the back of the taxi) and her wedding ring (in the stranger’s apartment). In fact, she’d have fared better if she’d simply let the ring go altogether, especially after she snoops through the sleeping stranger’s desk and discovers a letter from the health department informing him that he’s contracted a venereal disease. Kate’s mortified, panicked elevator ride from the apartment down to the lobby comes to an abrupt halt when she realizes that the ring is not on her finger. Back up she goes and it is not the handsome, venereal-diseased stranger waiting for her when the elevator doors open. In a shocker of a scene (maybe less so today, given the horrors unfolding on even network TV shows), Kate is sliced and diced by an Amazonian, razor-wielding blonde dressed up in a dark trenchcoat, sunglasses and black gloves (all nods to the giallo genre). At this point, we meet blonde, high-end escort, Liz Blake (charmingly played by Nancy Allen) who spots the killer, in a convex mirror, wielding a bloody razor in a corner of the elevator. When homicide cop Dennis Franz appears about to pin the murder on her, Liz hooks up with Kate’s teen-age son, Peter, a technical whiz-kid who’s already been doing some investigating on his own. Trying to solve the crime before Liz is arrested (or killed, since it appears that the murderer is now hot on her tail) they make a great duo, coming across as a sort of smutty Nancy Drew and nerd-hero Hardy Boy.

The acting in “Dressed to Kill” is fine and doesn’t interfere with DePalma’s bombastic directional flair. Angie Dickinson, who doesn’t look much different than she did in her westerns with John Wayne 20 years earlier, is glamorous, understated and believably hemmed-in as Kate Miller. She’s also very likeable (especially in her scenes with her teen-age son) and vulnerable (in almost all her other scenes). Michael Caine’s subtle humor in his portrayal of Dr. Elliott is balanced by the fleeting fear projected by his growing suspicions that things have gone seriously awry with one of his his patients. At times, Elliott appears almost as uptight and repressed as Kate Miller, evidenced by his quick, tight, pained expressions when he’s put on the spot, both by two of the blondes in the story, and by the aggressive cop. As Liz Blake, Nancy Allen, looks like a kewpie doll and uses that to her advantage. I liked her in two other DePalma films, as the head mean girl in “Carrie” and as the dim but sweet-natured doomed girl in “Blow-Out”, although here she’s both nice and smart, and her All-American know-how and good looks, combined with her kinkier aspects, add a layer of naughty allure that titillates her clients and adds to her growing business portfolio. Wisely, DePalma portrays the situation between Liz and young Peter as an innocent, sibling-type relationship. That pairing really works, and Keith Gordon plays Peter with a sincere, brainy sweetness that’s never cloying yet never feels false. This isn’t a tear-jerking melodrama, it’s an erotic thriller after all, and the young actor keeps this in mind and doesn’t overdo the grief-stricken son shtick while assaying his role. As the rude and crude cop, Marino, Dennis Franz is funny and offensive to everyone in the movie, and he commands your attention in every scene he’s in. “Dressed to Kill” was filmed before Franz was a well-known star but his screen presence is striking, his performance broad and amusing.

Finally, criticism of the plot of “Dressed to Kill” and it’s numerous, WTF meanderings is almost beside the point. Yes, it is filled with profound lapses in logic. With everyone running hither and yon, various blondes chasing around nighttime Manhattan carrying lethal weapons or trying to avoid them; coincidences and foreknowledge that defies credibility; gum-chomping, smart-mouth cops; immediately-available cabbies (in New York!) and an ending cribbed from one of DePalma’s own films, there is no reason this movie should work. It’s like the dark version of a screwball comedy, but a screwball thriller, that does eventually succeed because of the audacious, high-flying theatrics of Brian DePalma and his swooning camera techniques that generate suspense and unease; Pino Donaggio’s seductive use of music that lulls, woos and jolts viewers; and the fun, energetic cast who never take things too seriously, which would have been a fatal mistake with this film. “Dressed to Kill” is DePalma as Pop Artist: it’s an eye-popping color palette of imagery, sex and dread, suffused with all the alliterations we’ve come to expect from the man.

Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson
Queer Saint: The Cultured Life of Peter Watson
by Jeremy Dronfield
Edition: Hardcover
18 used & new from $22.76

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Wanderer, September 10, 2015
It's a shame that British art patron and inveterate traveler, Peter Watson, has become barely more than a footnote in the art history of 20th Century Britain. Through his influence and direct efforts, some of the greatest artists and authors of our time emerged during a time of rapid change and growth in both the art world and the world at large. Born to a successful, nouveau riche businessman and his beautiful wife, Watson, raised in a privileged household, was educated in fine schools and learned early to appreciate fine things. However, it wasn't until he reached adulthood that he developed a deep appreciation and understanding of art, immersing himself in European culture while enthusiastically exploring his own homosexuality, as he blazed a trail across the continent, with stopovers ranging from the boy bars of late-Weimar Germany to the highest echelons of Parisian society. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Christopher Isherwood and George Orwell, to name a few, Peter Watson amassed (and eventually lost) a fine collection of great art, fostering the new, young talent he'd developed a taste for. "Queer Saint" is a fascinating portrait of a restless, troubled spirit who loved high art and low men (though usually not past "the honeymoon" phase of the relationship) and was remarkably insightful when he stated his preference to love and care for certain types of men, rather than to be loved and nourished, himself. From reading the book, one wonders if Watson may have suffered from a certain predisposition towards ADHD, which could help explain his nomadic tendencies, as well as his seeming inability to maintain intimate relationships for any length of time. The exception to his romantic indifference was a young American named Denham Fouts, a beautiful, drug-addicted hustler who, nevertheless, apparently managed to collect a string of well-connected lovers and admirers in his brief 34 years (chief among them, Peter Watson). Watson's on again/off again relationship with Fouts turns into a harrowing co-dependency that cost Watson thousands of pounds and forever after clouded his view of other potential lovers. That Fouts (as well as other disreputable users in Watson's circle) is treated so even-handedly by the authors is admirable, and probably more than he deserves.

For me, the least successful portions of the book have to do with Watson's friendship with the lovesick Cecil Beaton, who, it seems, takes years to finally accept the fact that Peter is never going to reciprocate his feelings, either physically or emotionally. Page after page after page of this temperamental infatuation finally slow the otherwise breezy read to a crawl. A few paragraphs would have sufficed but, by the time Peter took up with Denny Fouts, I was at my wit's end with Cecil and almost welcomed Denny's entrance.

It's not spoiling anything to say that, for all his generosity and popularity, Peter Watson came to a bad end in the bathtub of his London flat. While the authors point the finger at another on/off lover, wannabe sculptor and nomadic boatsman, Norman Fowler, it's hard to disagree with the coroner's findings and say with any absolute certainty that Watson's death was anything other than an unfortunate accident. Still, the authors supply us with evidence to suggest that maybe Fowler wasn't exactly forthcoming with authorities investigating the death. Even more tantalizing is Peter Watson's past history with the secretive and covert MI5, and his strange, unexplained disappearance for a few days prior to his death; the fact that his MI5 file vanished only further muddles the coroner's findings.

Authors Adrian Clark and Jeremy Dronfield have done an outstanding job recreating not only Peter Watson's notable life but a specific time period and place in 20th Century history. Excellent job!

Siberia: Season 1 [DVD]
Siberia: Season 1 [DVD]
DVD ~ Siberia
Price: $19.99
16 used & new from $10.16

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Survivor" in Siberia, September 7, 2015
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This review is from: Siberia: Season 1 [DVD] (DVD)
It's too bad that this excellent faux reality-show-gone-wrong ended after only 11 episodes. While it probably didn't have the legs to go for a complete second season, it certainly would have benefited from another couple of episodes to smooth out the rough edges of the series' abrupt cancellation. The victim of being dumped into a morbidly horrific time slot (made worse by being switched to an even worse one), "Siberia" provides an interesting and entertaining take on those god-awful reality shows that have cluttered up the airwaves these past 10+ years, particularly CBS' long-running "Survivor". Initially, the series features 16 contestants and a handful of cameramen being dropped off somewhere in the Siberian wilderness. The goal: the last person(s) able to tough out the Siberian winter will win $500,000. The smarmy host, Jonathan, sticks around long enough to send the first two contestants packing, while another mysteriously dies in what is deemed "an accident". Given the choice of continuing on with the game or forfeiting the cash and returning to civilization, most of the cast opts to keep on playing the game. Soon, however, the game degenerates into something else: with strange lights flashing across the sky, people experience missing time, petty arguments and flirtations among the group turn into violent confrontations, contestants are injured, or simply vanish, and unsettling incidents occur, seeming to suggest that someone--or something--is lurking in the woods watching them. Then, overnight, a summer evening evolves into a snowy, winter morning, and panic begins to settle over the cast. Part of the group sets out towards a mysterious beacon flashing in the distance, while the other half remains behind. Mystery piles upon mystery as more castmates vanish and more deaths occur.

It's a fun, clever idea creator, Matthew Arnold, and NBC had, doing this spooky take-off on "Survivor", and many of the "contestants" are just as shady and unlikable as those on a genuine TV reality show: that most of these mostly unknown actors can actually make you see past their various manipulations and care what happens to their characters is impressive. Some of them turn out to be redeemable, some not, but I found them all to be interestingly developed and performed versions of the stereotypical castmembers of actual reality shows.

The shaky, often dizzying camerawork, so typical of the genre, is ever-present here, yet a certain suspension of disbelief must be maintained during scenes that would have been impossible, or at least implausible, for a real cameraman to capture. It's a nit-picky observation, and certainly nothing that hampers the enjoyment of the show.

The last episode ends on a note suggesting that the creator had high hopes for a second season of "Siberia". Sadly, we get no closure from this exciting, short-lived, well-executed show that maintains your interest and keeps you invested in its characters. Definitely worth purchasing!

Europa (The Criterion Collection)
Europa (The Criterion Collection)
DVD ~ Jean-Marc Barr
Price: $27.06
18 used & new from $14.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The High Price of Neutrality, September 6, 2015
"You will now listen to my voice," intones Max von Sydow as the opening shot of railroad tracks slowly disappearing beneath a moving train leads us down the rabbit hole of "Europa". Lulled by the soothing voice of hypnotist/narrator von Sydow, we're suddenly conjoined with young Leopold Kessler, an American AWOL pacifist, who's seeking a second chance at redemption by helping Germany's defeated citizens at the end of World War II. With an impossible, demanding uncle supervising him, Kessler begins working as a night conductor for the Zentropa Railway, taking him from one bombed-out city to the next. Along the way, his naivete and pacificism gradually erode via his continued exposure to newfound connections. Lars von Trier's 1991 film (released in the U.S. as "Zentropa") could be construed as, more or less, a tarted up morality tale, a film noir married to European postmodernism, but it is, more than anything, an indictment of remaining neutral and passive in the face of evil and injustice. Death abounds in “Europa”, and as Kessler goes about his duties aboard the night train, he becomes involved with a gorgeously leonine German heiress and her nearly destitute family, a cagey U.S. army colonel and some initially innocuous German citizens with ulterior motives. Before he knows it, poor Kessler, the naif, is being played by both sides for all he's worth but his moral intertia prevents his realizing how deep a hole is being dug for him (although in his passivity, he's complicit, too, and not without blame).

It's a dark story, its nihilism kept in check by the calm steadiness of the unseen narrator; but, as photographed by cinematographer Henning Bendtsen, nihilism in the movies has seldom looked this ravishing. Though filmed in gorgeous black and white, vivid colors seep into the frame as blood flows from a severed artery, a bullet lies accusingly on the floor of a train car, a world-weary glamour girl infuses her drab surroundings with life by turning on her charms. Actors in the foreground sometimes play against oversized imagery projected on back screens, creating an extra layer of unreality that preys on young Kessler's mind (as well as the viewer's). The villains in "Europa" are, ostensibly, the "Werewolves", the unrepentant Nazis who refuse to acknowledge that they've lost the war; their equally dangerous enemies string them up under cover of night, leaving their bodies swinging from light poles as the train passes through moonlit villages. However, there is no one innocent in "Europa", not even the children, (who are as capable of murder as their adult counterparts) and certainly not Kessler, whose maddening passivity foments the seeds of his own destruction. The Germany here is presented as a dark and dangerous place where no sunlight dares intrude. The mood and atmosphere seem to be authentic recreations but the "Europa" of the movie, with its crumbling, darkened ruins still belching fire and smoke, the shabbiness and desolation of even the most genteel households, seems like the very center of hell: a highly stylized, ultra-cinematic vision of hell, to be sure, but one which still recalls the horrors of a particular time and place in history. The most blatant horrors of the war (and the film) are briefly glimpsed when Kessler leaves the confines of the sleeping car and finds himself moving through a cattle car of emaciated concentration camp victims still clad in their striped uniforms, grim reminders of a past not yet dead, a past that eventually manages to drag Kessler, himself, down into a roiling river of rage and desperation that comes to late to save him.

What’s interesting about the acting in “Europa” is that it never feels intrusive, never interferes with the bigger picture that von Trier is focused on presenting. Jean-Marc Barr plays young Kessler with a bland niceness that is perfectly expressive of his pacifism; he also has the personality of a toaster oven and his overanxiousness to please his unbearable uncle is grating. When the light bulb finally does flash in his head, his pure deer-in-the-headlights panic is so genuine that you’re tempted to feel sorry for him, even though he’s been such a shlub through most of the film. As Kat, the film’s femme fatale, Barbara Sukowa overshadows Barr in every way: she’s a lush, full-figured, shady dame with secrets and a foreign accent, befurred, bejeweled and sporting a sensuous mane of big hair that, in itself, could house a treasure trove of secret weapons. Warhol-staple and horror film standby, Udo Kier, does a nice turn as Kat’s insolent, gay brother, and Eddie Constantine (the famous Lemmy Caution, himself) proudly resurfaces as Colonel Harris, the American military man who’s sharper than he lets on. By far, the most noxious character in the film is Uncle Kessler, who seems like he should be on hand for comedic relief but, as if to upend expectations, is truly a despicable, drunken thug with no redeemable (comic or otherwise) qualities. Jorgen Reenberg does an excellent job in bringing this amazingly unlikable character to life.

The general plot of "Europa" could have been lifted from a Hollywood noir potboiler from the fifties but in the hands of von Trier, it's potboiler elevated to high art; through his ingenious (and ruthless) manipulation of the audience as passive observer, unflinching assessment of recent history and audacious utilization of cinematic imagery, von Trier has left an indelible mark on movies that I don’t think he’s come close to matching since.

The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun
The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun
by Sebastien Japrisot
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from $2.30

5.0 out of 5 stars Secrets of the Lady In the Car, September 5, 2015
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Once known as “the Graham Greene of France”, the late author Sebastien Japrisot left behind an impressive, if not terribly lengthy, body of work (mostly consisting of crime fiction) when he died in 2003. “The Lady In the Car With Glasses and a Gun”, originally published in France in 1966 as “La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil”, is a fine example of Japrisot’s quirky, psychologically complex storytelling that fuses the moral ambiguity of noir with a postmodern sensibility involving multiple narrators, any (or all) of whose reliability is questionable. In “Lady In the Car”, as in other of his novels, Japrisot presents us with a physically and psychologically damaged lead character, in this case Miss Dany Longo, to whom we are introduced as she writhes in agony on the grimy floor of a service station restroom. What led to her predicament is as much as mystery to her as it is to the reader: trying to piece together the increasingly Kafaesque chain of events that led to her predicament, she tools around the south of France in someone else’s Thunderbird, with one eye on the road, the other over her shoulder. Meanwhile, as police search for a killer, Dany crosses paths with various individuals who may, or may not, want her dead.

Japrisot cleverly ratchets up the tension by teasing the reader with strategically placed red herrings and by allowing (read: urging) us to misread certain character motivations. “Lady In the Car” is one of Japrisot’s best mysteries and, as expertly translated by Helen Weaver, loses none of the punch of its original language. It’s a literate, satisfying, suspenseful, head-scratching page-turner that plays fair without being obvious.

Spasmo [Blu-ray]
Spasmo [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Suzy Kendall
Price: $18.99
18 used & new from $12.63

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Lame-O, September 5, 2015
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This review is from: Spasmo [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
"Spasmo", Umberto Lenzi's 1974 giallo misfire, is chock full of beautiful people, lush cinematography, gorgeous Italian locations and missed opportunities. Anyone remotely familiar with this genre of filmmaking knows that plot often takes a backseat to the more exploitative elements of sex and (sometimes graphic) violence. In the hands of more capable directors, this is not always a hindrance. Both Dario Argento and Mario Bava, just to name two, have blended plot inconsistencies (a charitable description) with potent imagery to create memorable, and sometimes classic, examples of the giallo. Not so, "Spasmo". Featuring lovely Suzy Kendall (briefly the giallo queen du jour), handsome leading man, Robert Hoffman, a weirdly interesting storyline and Ennio Morricone's haunting score, all the pieces were in place for director Lenzi to have cranked out a serviceable, if not exactly formidable, entertainment. Yet, that didn't happen and, unfortunately, it's more than mere plot inconsistencies that sink Lenzi's film. With precious little of the sex or bloodshed that most giallos traditionally rely on, the central "mystery" of this story is too convoluted to hold up under the weight of all the histrionics of its lead characters, their fervent comings and goings that, ultimately, add up to very little.

In "Spasmo", we have someone running around the stunningly photographed Italian coast stabbing store mannequins and leaving them lying around to be discovered by the area's disparate citizenry. At the same time, wealthy young Christian (Hoffman), out for a stroll with some young lass, comes across the unconscious Ms. Kendall, who has been unceremoniously deposited on a local beach. She awakens with no apparent memory of what's happened to her and then speeds away in (I think) Christian's car. Instantly smitten, Christian wastes no time in dumping his current companion and hurries off to woo this mystery woman. There's a romance, of sorts, although that really doesn't stop our hero from bedding down with another mysterious woman, who appears to be the wife of a local tenant. But, are any of these people who they claim to be? There's a lot of chasing around, people seemingly die and come back to life, more slashed mannequins pop up, Christian becomes bug-eyed and fears that he's going mad while Suzy Kendall moans, "I'm not a strong woman..."

If all this sounds interesting, it isn't. It's an absolute bore. And that's Lenzi's (and the film's) downfall. You can put together a giallo that doesn't make a lick of sense but if you don't include the vital genre ingredients, you'd better have an intelligent script, a lot of action or something that moves the story along. Otherwise, you end up with a torpid time waster like "Spasmo".

The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House
DVD ~ Boris Karloff
16 used & new from $11.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fun Dark House, July 15, 2015
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This review is from: The Old Dark House (DVD)
I've had this film in my collection for several years and, at least twice a year, I have to pull it down from the shelves, turn off the lights and watch it again. While today's jaded audiences (myself included) won't consider it scary, "The Old Dark House" is an enormously fun, splendidly atmospheric classic from Universal's Golden Age of Horror. James Whale's literate, intelligent direction and the witty, fast-paced script propel the solid cast through a dark and stormy night filled with romance and danger in a rambling old house in the Welsh countryside.

Based on J.B. Priestly's novel, "Benighted", "The Old Dark House" features Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart as a married couple who, along with bachelor Melvyn Douglas, seek shelter from a fierce storm at an isolated mansion. The occupants of the house--the Femms--are odd ducks whose various eccentricities and secrets are unveiled as the movie progresses. No sooner have the travelers ensconced themselves in the Femm's abode then another couple (played by Charles Laughton and Lilian Bond) shows up, and things quickly get out of hand, first with the Femm's mute and drunken brute of a butler, and then with some other family members that the Femm's have wisely kept out of sight.

At a brisk 71 minutes long, there is not a wasted moment in "The Old Dark House"--Whale and his screenwriters move the action breezily from one scene to the next but, despite its short running time, the movie never shortchanges the viewer. The acting is topnotch, with standouts being Boris Karloff as Morgan, the menacing, inebriated, seriously horny butler; Charles Laughton, delightful as a gregariously bloviating millionaire; and Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorius in "Bride of Frankenstein") spot on and hilarious as the prissy, hand-wringing (and appropriately named) Horace Femm. Gloria Stuart, who made James Cameron's "Titanic" at age 87, appears here to good avail in one of her earlier screen efforts; lanky, blonde and sexy, her character makes a splendid foil for Karloff's Morgan and his persistent, increasingly savage advances.

The DVD itself is not exactly pristine, but its restoration from an old print discovered in the 1960's in the Universal vaults is practically a miracle considering that it was once thought lost and had been unseen since it played in theaters. Happily, this little gem of a movie is once again available to new generations of movie lovers.

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