Wednesday, November 26, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''UNDERWORLD" (2003-British-German-Hungerian-U.S.)

Synthesize elements from famous film franchises like "The Crow," "The Matrix," and "Blade" to forge a bullet-riddled, revisionist vampires-vs.-werewolves urban war epic, and you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect from the exciting, new, fantasy chiller "Underworld" (*** out of ****) starring "Pearl Harbor" beauty Kate Beckinsale. This supercharged but synthetic British horror thriller with R-rated heaps of blood & gore and a touch of Shakespeare plays fast and loose with vampire lore. Not only do the vamps refrain from shape shifting into bats, but also these pale-faced bloodsuckers can stare at their reflections in the mirror! Were that not enough these fangsters don't have to shack up for the day in their caskets. On the other hand, rookie director Len Wiseman and stuntman-turned-scenarist Danny McBride adhere to the lycanthrope legend with no radical departures.

Action-packed from the outset, this darkly-lensed, tragic melodrama laid in a rain swept contemporary setting provides enough different things along the way with a couple of major plot revelations to boost "Underworld" above its formulaic origins. For example, the vampires load their automatic weapons with silver nitrate slugs, while the werewolves pack cartridges filled with ultra-violet light to literally let daylight through their sworn enemies. The special effects sequences that depict the transformation from man into werewolf look super cool, and the sight of these scary creatures hauling butt on the walls in pursuit of their prey make for vivid, memorable images. One especially clever scene shows a werewolf as he uses his bodily powers to pop the bullets out of his wounds!

Although it runs a little over two hours, "Underworld" maintains enough momentum in its melodramatic narrative and features strong enough villains that it entertains you without giving you nightmares. Surprisingly, though it looks like it should have descended from a graphic novel, "Underworld" boasts no previous source material aside from an original story penned by black stuntman-turned-actor Kevin Grevioux, former "Stargate" art director Wiseman, and McBride himself. When the bullets aren't thudding noisily in your ears, "Underworld" features a deafening, industrial-strength, orchestral soundtrack written by ex-Tangerine Dreamer Paul Haslinger with songs written by David Bowie and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciate. Get ready to rock out!

Kate Beckinsale plays a super-sexy leather-clad vampire warrior named Selene who cannot kill enough werewolves to satisfy her thirst for vengeance. Vampires and werewolves have been fighting a no-holds-barred civil war for centuries, and the vampires finally appear to have gotten the upper hand over the Lycans. According to Selene, these hideous Lycans wiped out her entire family and would have killed her too had it not been for vampire elder Viktor (Bill Nighy of "Hitler's S.S.: Portrait in Evil") who saved her life and turned her into a vampire. Meanwhile, as Viktor rests in his tomb, his hand-picked protégé Craven (Shane Brolly of "Impostor") appears to have turned traitor to his own kind. Secretly, Kraven has been negotiating a truce behind the scenes with the Lycans who are trying to develop a serum which will enable Lycans and vampires to mate.

Naturally, when Selene awakens Viktor and reveals Kraven's insidious plot, all hell breaks loose. Furthermore, it doesn't help matters that the apparently whipped Lycans are far from whipped as Selene learns in an opening shoot-out in a subway tunnel. No, human society doesn't know about the millennium war happening right under their noses, because the vampires and werewolves conceal themselves so well. In fact, the vampires maintain their own blood bank, so they don't have to bleed humans dry. Once a rebellious Selene resurrects Viktor to punish the treacherous Kraven, the action really slams into high gear.

Despite Kraven's assurances to the contrary that the werewolves have been eliminated as a threat, Selene sets out to convince Viktor that the werewolves are staging a comeback. Nothing can stop our hardnosed heroine from proving her point, even if she must turn against her own breed. Apparently, the Lycans have found a human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman of "Duets") who can assimilate both vampire and werewolf DNA so as to reproduce. Complications arise when Michael saves Selene's life, and she finds herself attracted to him. In "Underworld,"

Director Len Wiseman, who served as art director not only on the theatrical "Stargate" but also "Independence Day," makes the most of his threadbare $20-million production so that "Underworld" can compete with the films that inspired it. Set amid gloomy, Gothic castles where the elitist vampires huddle in their fight against evil, "Underworld" stresses adrenaline-laced action with just enough time out for the exposition to keep audiences on track about who's who. While the characters aren't as substantial as they could be, each shows a different side as the plot approaches its climax. Selene changes from a mindless werewolf killer from the get-go when she learns the truth about her family and the heroic vampire who saved her from sure death. Tucked away in the flashbacks is another story that revolves around the villainous Viktor that explains his hatred of all things Lycan.

Surprisingly, for a British-produced movie, "Underworld" ignores sex, nudity, and romance in favor of bloodletting and mutilation. Although it cannot compare with "The Crow," "The Matrix," and "Blade," "Underworld"manages nevertheless to carve out a niche of its own, if only because it is a British production. The fact that the Brits were able to produce their own variation on these popular, special effects laden spectacles is reason enough to watch it. Unfortunately, like the vampires here who refuse to countenance interspecies breeding, nearly 90 per cent of American film critics have staked out this well-made thriller because they feel it offers nothing new and lacks the polished production values of those other film franchises. Truth is that getting a large scale action film like "Underworld" made in England by Englishmen amounts to something like a miracle.

While it doesn't look as polished as "The Crow," "The Matrix," or "Blade," "Underworld" still ranks a good horror thriller that you can sink your teeth into and enjoy for its vitality.


When Sean Connery appeared in the third 007 thriller "Goldfinger" in 1964, the James Bond film franchise had won audiences over with its surefire formula of combining girls and gadgets with epic international criminal intrigue. James Bond always tangled with megalomaniacal villains whose larger-than-life ambitions dwarfed the skulduggery of commonplace lawbreakers. Each Bond adventure emerged as an event decked out with stunts galore and often a chart-topping title tune. The "Casino Royale" title tune is instantly forgettable. The formula served the series well as the last Pierce Brosnan 007 thriller "Die Another Day" amassed more than $400-million-plus at the box office in 2002.

Fearful that they couldn't top themselves again and fresh out of imaginative ideas, the Bond producers decided to start from scratch, like George Lucas did—with far greater credibility than he is given—with "Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace." Not only did the 007 producers send Pierce Brosnan packing, but they also trashed their tried-and-true formula. Anybody remember the new Coke? Well, Sony and Columbia Pictures, which bought out United Artists—the distributor of the previous 20 Bond pictures—have unveiled the new Bond. If you look at the money that "Casino Royale" has generated and you read the critics, the new Bond and the actor impersonating him—Daniel Craig of the first "Tomb Raider" movie—are performing better than anybody could have surmised.

Most new Bonds amount to underachievers, such as "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) and "Live and Lie Die" (1973), and Bonds that forsake the formula usually crash and burn. Aside from its earnings and its widespread critical support, "Casino Royale" is barely a Bond opus. Neither M's secretary—Miss Moneypenny—nor Bond's gadget supplying guy—Q, show up in the 21st 007 thriller. The producers have dispensed with risqué names for the heroines and the villainesses, and the stunts are largely low-tech. The clever one-liners that our globe-trotting hero spouts and the larger-than-life villains are both conspicuously absent.

Instead, "Casino Royale" (* out of ****) qualifies as a prequel, showing how James Bond acquired his license to kill before he became the polished practitioner of seduction and sadism in the earlier 007 outings. No, the new Bond is set in the here and now rather than the yonder of yesteryear. Actually, the black & white opening sequence is supposed to take place before the first Bond movie "Dr. No" and then the remainder of the movie—in color—occurs after "Die Another Day." Along the way, the filmmakers have cherry picked only bits and pieces from the 1953 Ian Fleming original novel where the redoubtable, double-0 agent made his debut.

Suffice it to say that "Casino Royale" establishes James Bond's lethal credentials and shows him gambling with a crafty criminal genius in a high-stakes poker game. Compared with previous Bonds, "Casino Royale" is about neither the next plot to take over the world nor a devious scheme to mastermind the perfect crime. James Bond earns his license to kill status in the opening black & white sequences that lack any kind of excitement and seem rather like a picnic for him. He beats a guy up in a public restroom and outsmarts an opponent who holds him at gunpoint with an empty weapon. Afterward, Bond makes a buffoon of himself by shooting dead a couple of people at a foreign embassy and getting caught on a surveillance camera in the act of killing! Of course, M (Judi Dench of the Brosnan Bonds) is predictably furious. "In the old days, if an agent did something that embarrassing, he'd at least have the good sense to defect." Later, British Intelligence learns that Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen of "King Arthur"), who bankrolls terrorists, has got to win big at the gambling tables at Casino Royale or face death from one of his savage, machete-wielding African clients. M sends Bond to beat Le Chiffre at cards, and the British Treasury assigns Vesper Lynd (Parisian actress Eva Green of "Kingdom of Heaven") to see that 007 doesn't blow the big bucks.

"GoldenEye" director Martin Campbell is back calling the shots on Bond 21. He must have forgotten, however, what makes a good Bond. First, "Casino Royale" clocks in at 144 tedious minutes, the longest Bond on record—longer than Peter Hunt's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." Second, there are lengthy stretches where nothing extraordinary happens. The color opening set piece where Bond and a black villain cavort around a construction site as if they had wings on their ankles grows tiresome but looks spectacular. Later, a white-knuckled fight in a motel stairwell goes on ad-nauseam. The chief villain is appropriately ruthless, but he doesn't do anything to make you genuinely hate him. He does whip Bond into a frenzy in one scene, but that's small potatoes compared with other Bond bad guys. Actually, the secondary villains pose more of a threat than Le Chiffre and his clowns. Most, "Casino Royale" is humdrum and humorless in its efforts to be realistic.

The Robert Wade and Neal Purvis screenplay offers few surprises (especially if you've perused the Ian Fleming novel) and the movie serves up two false endings before an explosive but hardly exciting finale in urban renewal in the exotic city of Venice. The only thing that differentiates Le Chiffre is his ability to shed a bloody tear or two. Daniel Craig plays James Bond as a hopelessly straightforward and tight-lipped, blue-collar thug with muscles. He resembles a cross-between of Steve McQueen of "Bullitt" and Yoda from "Star Wars." He is tough and rugged but lacks charisma. Furthermore, he has to rely on others to get him out of tight spots. Indeed, if it weren't for Vesper Lynd, Bond would never have accomplished his mission—bittersweet as it turns out.

"Casino Royale" ranks as an uninspired but ambitious stab to make over one of the most successful franchises in film history. As a traditional, old-school Bond fan, "Casino Royale" left me neither shaken nor stirred.


The novelty of director David Slade's vampire movie "30 Days of Night" (*** out of ****)is its unique Alaskan setting. The opening titles reveal that Barrow is the northernmost town in the United States, with some 80 miles of road less wilderness separating it from its nearest neighbors. Moreover, once a month every year during the winter, the sun doesn't shine on Barrow. Anybody that knows anything about vampires knows that they only come out at night to prey. Cleverly, "30 Days of Night" exploits this bit of vampire lore for maximum impact, and the clueless citizens of Barrow line up like a buffet for these atheist bloodsuckers. Scenarists Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie, and Brian Nelson drew their blood-curdling screenplay for this ghoulish, often gruesome, exercise in nihilism from the 2004 graphic IDW novel series by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. Moviegoers who love their horror chillers basted in blood and gore will relish this taut tale of terror. Although the basic plot doesn't depart drastically from the standard vampire movie formula, the "30 Days" vampires differ from the Bela Lugosi/Christopher Lee variety. The "30 Days" vampires don't shape-shift into either wolves or bats. They dress in conventional clothes, bare jagged shark-like teeth rather than the dual canine fangs, and they feed on their victims like sharks rending flesh in a frenzy. Further, they defy gravity and bounce around like circus acrobats, and two of them boast enough strength to flip an SUV. They deploy their razor-sharp, talon-like fingernails to slash open gullets before they feast on the wounded. Finally, only the leader of these vampires can speak, and his accent is so thick and guttural that subtitles are necessary to translate his words.

As the last day of sunlight fades over Barrow, Alaska, North Slope Borough Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett of "Sin City") encounters 'strange' things. First, Eben and his deputy discover a pit of melted down cell phones. Second, they learn that vandals have destroyed a helicopter for no apparent reason. Third, a knife-wielding maniac has savagely slaughtered an entire kennel of sled-dogs. No, the dogs die off-screen, only the human die on screen. Meanwhile, Eben's estranged wife Stella (Melissa George of "Turistas") is scrambling to get out of Barrow before the airport shuts down. She works for the state fire marshal, and she's finishing up her inspection of the Barrow facility. While she is driving through the snow-swept landscape to the airport, a man steering a snow-plow collides with her when his brakes lock up. You'll chuckle at the folks who jump in their seats at this scene. Unhappily, Stella finds herself stranded in Barrow for 30 days with a man that she doesn't want to see.

Eben arrests an unkempt ruffian at the local diner, the Stranger (Ben Foster of "3:10 to Yuma"), for threatening the cashier. Suddenly, the lights go dark, the phones go dead, and the Internet goes down. The creepy Stranger warns Eben that bad things are in store for Barrow. Everywhere, blurry figures erupt from the shadows. They pounce without warning on the unsuspecting. They haul their victims out of sight in seconds as if sharks had seized them and dragged them underwater. Eben and Stella gather a small group of people, and they hide—Anne Frank style—in the attic of a boarded-up house while the vampires storm Barrow. Eventually, Eben learns the hard way about thetwo ways to slay these bloodsuckers. You can either lop their heads off with an axe or obliterate their noggins with a shotgun. Again, these vampires aren't the traditional variety. Similarly, "30 Days" doesn't qualify as a run-of-the-mill vampire movie.

Aside from one reference to Bela Lugosi, the "30 Days" characters know nothing about vampires. They never discuss the merits of wooden stakes over crosses or vials of holy water versus the use of garlic. Mirrors never play a part in any conversation. These animalistic vampires enter wherever they please without awaiting an invitation like the Bela Lugosi/Christopher Lee variety. These seemingly invincible fangsters follow their leader Marlow (Danny Huston of "The Kingdom") without question. The high point of "30 Days"--or low point depending on your opinion--occurs when our heroes scavenge for food and medical supplies in a supermarket. A little girl (newcomer Abbey-May Wakefield) with a five o'clock shadow of dried blood on her jowls and a devilish glint in her black eyes lurks on the premises. She spots the small band of survivors. Like a suicidal, banzai-screaming Japanese soldier, she attacks them with her shark teeth bared, screaming for their blood.

"Hard Candy" helmer David Slade takes his sinister subject matter pretty seriously. The R-rated violence is appropriately grim, sometimes even horrendous, with no shortage of blood spilled. The squeamish should avoid "30 Days." The performances are low-key, with Josh Harnett looking believably resilient for a change. Melissa George plays Stella with convincing grit. Slade shuns the use of comic relief to lighten things up when events turn truly nasty as the number of good guys dwindles during the 30 days of darkness. In many ways, Slade's horror opus resembles a B-western. The terrain is stark, rugged and inhospitable. The enigmatic night creatures invade Barrow, ostensibly from a ship anchored in the Arctic ice, and they behave like sadistic Apaches who want to annihilate everybody and destroy everything. In other words, they amount to memorable, menacing malefactors. The hero's strategy to defeat the fangsters is the last thing that you'd expect, but the showdown between Marlow and Eben looks straight out of a western. Although the story takes place in an Alaskan pipeline community, the filmmakers staged the mayhem on location in New Zealand. "30 Days of Night" ranks as an above-average, white-knuckled, full-fanged vampire epic that goes for the jugular.


British director Alan Parker depicts the traumatic ordeal of an American citizen seized for drugs in a Middle Eastern country whose laws make an example of him for the ills visited on them by U.S. Foreign policy in “The Midnight Express,” (**** out of ****) one of the most powerful and important films of 1978, starring Brad Davis and John Hurt. According to the film’s closing credits, on May 18, 1978, “Midnight Express” was shown to an audience of world press at the Cannes Film Festival . . . 43 days later, the United States and Turkey entered into formal negotiations for the exchange of prisoners. Initially, the Turkish government tried to prevent the film from being produced. Indeed, even after the “Midnight Express” came out, the Turkish government banned the film from being shown in theatres.

Based on a bestselling autobiographical account by Billy Hayes, a tourist arrested in 1970 for trying to smuggle hash out of Turkey, the film traces Billy’s descent into the hellish oblivion of Turkey’s penal system and his miraculous escape. Not surprisingly, “Midnight Express” stretched the truth and even Billy Hayes has admitted that the filmmakers took advantage of dramatic license to heighten the dramatic impact of the material. As directed by Alan Parker and scripted by Oliver Stone, “Midnight Express” indicts Turkish law for its cruel, inhuman treatment of prisoners and celebrates Hayes’ courage and will to survive. Billy expresses the film’s theme: “the quality of mercy is measured in a society by its sense of justice.

Briefly, American tourist Billy (Brad Davis of “Querelle”) tries to smuggle $200 worth of hashish out of Turkey. The authorities catch him, however, during a routine search before he boards a commercial airliner, arrest him, and sentence him to prison. This sequence is pretty harrowing stuff. Six months later, Billy stands trial and receives a three-year sentence. The prison that they stick him in is a version of Hell on earth. With only 53 days left of his sentence, Billy learns to his horror that the authorities have scheduled a new trial for him. The sentence this time is life imprisonment commuted to 30 years. During his incarceration, Hayes befriends an Englishman, Max (John Hurt of “Heaven’s Gate”), and a fellow American, psychotic Jimmy Booth (Randy Quaid of “The Last Detail”), and contends with one of the cinema’s most sadistic villains, Hamidou (Paul L. Smith of “Red Sonja”), who loves to wield a paddle and beat the daylights out of unruly convicts. Undoubtedly, “Midnight Express” ranks Smith’s most memorable role. You’ll never forget the scene when the barrel-chested Hamidou marches out with a chubby little child clutching each hand to inflict torture on an unfortunate inmate. He snaps his head one way to remove the sweat from his brow and starts swinging with a vengeance. Imagine Bud Spencer of “Trinity” fame in a foul mood and you will get the picture.

Parker and Stone have reconstructed the events of Hayes’ book so they follow a logical progression. Otherwise, apart from two scenes, the film generally keeps the book intact. Those scenes include the movie’s ending, which differs drastically from the book’s ending. And there is a brutal fight scene in which a prison informer is killed and his tongue bitten out. Another slight difference is that the book had no central villain, but the film provides the sadistic guard Hamidou who beats prisoners on the feet with a two-by-four. Credit director Parker with vigorous, imaginative direction. There is not one bad minute in this exciting film. To enhance the realism of the action, Parker has shot it in semi-documentary style with occasional narration. The editing also deserves mention; much of the film had to be lensed outside of Turkey, and the filmmakers have smoothly integrated shots of Turkey with location shots made on the island of Malta.

One of the best surprises in “Midnight Express” is Giorgio Moroder’s electrifying music. He captures effectively the atmosphere of the film and the hostile Turkish setting. His use of pulsating music during an early chase when Billy tries to elude his captors exemplifies his great talent. “The Midnight Express” is not a film for the squeamish; the language is harsh and the content is frank with some homosexuality. One of the most depressing scenes occurs when Billy’s girlfriend visits him in prison. A thick glass wall separates them. Billy begs her to press her breasts again the glass and he masturbates with one hand on the glass where her breast is flattened out and the other . . . while she cries in despair and humiliation. The finale when Billy tangles with the evil Hamidou will have you on the edge of your seat. Oliver Stone of "Scarface" and "Platoon" fame won an Oscar for this superb script. If it has a fault, it may be that it is too reactionary and paints a biased view of Turkey. However, one that “The Midnight Express” makes painfully clear: when you’re busted over there, you are in for the hassle of your life.

FILM REVIEW OF "DRACULA A.D. 1972" (1972-British)

Veteran British television director Alan Gibson's "Dracula A.D. 1972" qualifies as one of the least appetizing entries in the Hammer Studios series about Bram Stoker's immortal bloodsucker. Actually, this represented the first time since Terence Fisher's memorable "Horror of Dracula" (1958) that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing fought each other as mortal enemies. They would reprise the same roles a few years later in the final Hammer Dracula: "The Satanic Rites of Dracula." Further, it was the second-to-last Dracula for Hammer in which Lee performed as the infamous fangster. For the record, "Dracula A.D. 1972" was the seventh Hammer Dracula.

The exciting prologue from 1872 prepares you for something vastly different than what the rest of this disappointing horror flick yields. Eternal rivals Count Dracula and his nemesis Professor Lawrence Van Helsing are literally at each other's throats atop a runaway carriage in London's Hyde Park for a vigorous opening scene that makes everything else look comparatively anticlimactic. The carriage crashes, and Dracula emerges hugging half of a wooden wheel with its shattered spokes embedded in his chest. Of course, Christopher Lee has to grip this broken wheel against his body, but the imagery is striking enough in its own way to pass muster. The Count expires and so does his opponent Van Helsing. However, one of Dracula's disciples snatches the Count's ring and scoops some of the vampire's ashes into a vial for safe-keeping.

Don Houghton's screenplay hurtles the action ahead a hundred years to swinging London in 1972. We meet a smarmy young man, Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame of "No Blade of Grass"), who loves to raise hell with a group of hippies that crash parties and drive the British police with their antics. Alucard happens to be the descendant of one of Dracula's servants. Now, Alucard has the Count's ring and a vial of his dehydrated blood. Alucard chooses the sight of a desecrated church to arrange a black mass. He invites his trendy friends, among them Laura (super sexy Carolina Munro of "The Spy Who Loved Me"), Gayner (Marsha Hunt), and Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham) to attend this black mass because it offers them something different. Not surprisingly, they resurrect the Count, and the evil bloodsucker sets his eyes on Jessica. Meanwhile, after Laura's body is discovered drained of blood, Scotland Yard Inspector Murray (Michael Coles of "Doctor Who and the Dalkes") solicits help from Van Helsing's modern day offspring Lorrimar (Peter Cushing). Dracula wants to exact revenge on Van Helsing by taking the latter's granddaughter as his bride. Lorrimar tracks down Alucard; they fight in his Chelsea apartment, and the young vampire drowns in a tub of water. Remember, running water is just as lethal to vampires as sunlight and crucifix. Van Helsing finds Dracula in the deserted church with his daughter awaiting the Count. Van Helsing and Dracula tangle. Van Helsing flings Holy Water into Dracula's face. The vampire falls into an open gravesite with a stake awaiting him and he decomposes again.

The chief problem with "Dracula A.D. 1972" is that we don't get enough of Lee as the Count, though we do get considerably more of Cushing as Van Helsing. Furthermore, scenarist Don Houghton keeps Dracula confined to the ramshackle church and never allows the vampire to venture out into the city. Despite its low budget, "Dracula A.D. 1972" could have been a lot better. The scene where the contemporary Van Helsing has to jot down Alucard and spell it backwards to get Dracula seems almost laughable. You'd think that he'd know about this backwards spelling trick. Unless you are afraid of horror movies, this one will make you yawn. Occasionally, Gibson presents us with a superb close-up of Dracula with his bared fangs and blood-shot eyes, but this is about as scary as this chiller gets, and that isn't saying much.


Before comedian Jim Carrey came along with to tickle us with his elastic-faced antics, there was Joe E. Brown. This hilarious 1936 vehicle "Earthworm Tractors" (**** out of ****) shows Brown in top comic form as Alexander Botts, a boastful character in the stories of author William Hazlett Upson, who touts himself as 'a natural born salesman and master mechanic.' Born in 1891, William Hazlett Upson worked as a service mechanic and trouble-shooter for Holt Caterpillar Tractor Company. In 1923, Upson started writing short stories. In 1927, the nationally published general interest magazine "Saturday Evening Post" published his first yarn about caterpillar tractor salesman Alexander Botts. Upson wrote his stories in the form of letters and memos between Botts and his boss. Alexander Botts wants to marry pretty Sally Blair (Carol Hughes of "D.O.A."), but he faces stiff competition from broad-shouldered Emmet McManus (brawny Dick Foran of "The Petrified Desert") who drives a nice car. Botts demonstrates the latest product that he sells. This gadget is a pipe that you blow into that sends a little cork up a string and attaches itself to a hook. Grandiosely, he describes this contraption as "a little novelty that opens the pores, clears the eyes, takes the mind off business worries, and last but not least brings laughter back into the life of the working man."

Predictably, Sally's father (Olin Howland of "The Paleface") is appalled and contemptuously calls him a 'peddler.' Emmet laughs uproariously, too. Sally refuses to wed a salesman who sells frivolous items. Together, they scan the pages of a magazine to find something 'big, important, and worthwhile' for him to push, and Botts settles eventually on selling bulldozers for the Earthworm Caterpillar Company. He hopes that Sally will delay any trips to the altar until he can prove that he can sell these bulldozers.

Back in his hotel room, equipped with a phone, Botts types out a letter to the Earthworm Tractor Company and the boss, H.J. Russell (Charles Wilson of "The Mayor of Hell") likes the letter. "It shows the kind of nerve it takes to make sales," proclaims Russell and he sends George Healey (Gene Lockhart of "Northern Pursuit") t0 meet him in Cypress City, Mississippi, to demonstrate the Earthworm Tractor. When Healey meets Botts, he suspects that Botts isn't everything that he has stacked himself up to be as a mechanic. Healey only wants him to demonstrate the Earthworm to a Mr. Jackson, but he guzzles a bottle of what appears to be whiskey but turns out to be shoe polish and winds up sick. Cheerfully, Botts takes his place to make the sale. Healey has told him to look up a Mr. Jackson, but of course, Botts gets Jackson mixed up with Johnson and heads off to sell Johnson. In town, Botts helps a damsel-in-distress, Mabel Johnson (June Travis of "Circus Girl"), who has gotten her convertible sedan stuck in the mud. Botts wraps a rope around her bumper, around a nearby light pole and ties it off to a taxi. The results are hysterical. The back end of the cab is pulled off. The light pole crashes through the glass doors at the bank, but Mabel's car is freed from the mud. Botts tells one and all that the Earthworm Tractor Company will pay for all the damages.

Mabel gives Botts a lift to see her father, cantankerous Sam Johnson (the irrepressible Guy Kibbee of "Babbitt"), who suffers from a hearing loss problem and constantly reprimands his one employee for watching the clock. Johnson hates all things automotive, because he brought a truck and got it stuck in a swamp where it's still sets. Botts comes up with a stratagem to entice Johnson to buy his tractor when he offers to pull Johnson's truck out of the bog with an Earthworm tractor. Johnson and Botts ride to the railway depot in Johnson's horse and wagon. Botts and he climb aboard the Earthworm and Botts—who has never driven a bulldozer—promptly demolishes everything in sight at the depot and then takes the Earthworm down to the swamp. Again, he destroys Johnson's truck. However, in the process of all the mayhem, Botts convinces Mr. Jackson—the man that he was supposed to see—into buying six Earthworms. Before news of the sale reaches Russell, Russell has fired Healey and Botts, but he rehires Botts.

This is only the first half of this wonderfully funny movie. Ray Enright never wastes a moment. When Joe E. Brown doesn't have you in stitches, then Guy Kibbee has you laughing until you want to burst.


Watching "Quest for Fire" director Jean-Jacques Annaud's World War II spectacle "Enemy at the Gates" reminded me of the "Sgt. Rock" comic books that I used to peruse as an adolescent when I was growing up in Mississippi during the Cold War years of the 1960s. Those fiendishly duplicitous Nazis in "Sgt Rock" always set up ingenious ambushes, concealing themselves in places where the unsuspecting American G.I.s would least expect to spot them, such as either disabled tanks or the rubble of fallen buildings. "Enemy at the Gates" keeps that Nazi skullduggery intact. Although French director Annaud, whose credits include "Seven Years in Tibet" and "In the Name of the Rose," condemns the Nazi, he goes to heavy-handed lengths near the end to rekindle our antipathy to National Socialism. You'll know the scene when you see it. I hate movie critics would give away too much of a movie plot.

Anyway, the aristocratic Nazi Major Konig (Ed Harris of "Stepmom") dispatched to kill our heroic Red Army sniper disguises a department store mannequin in a gray Wehrmacht uniform with a rifle. Talk about symbolism!? Weren't the Wehrmacht supposed to be the good guys, and the Nazis the evil villains? Although this large-scale, $80 million, World War II epic glorifies the marksmanship of real-life Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law of "Cold Mountain") who bagged 300 Germans, Annaud condemns the Soviet ideology that Vassili defended. At the same time, no matter how magnificent the set design, costume design, and overall production of the film remains, "Enemy at the Gates" is painfully predictable, though far better than its American counterpart "Saving Private Ryan." Indeed, while both films feature snipers, "Enemy" achieves far greater realism and far less sentimental loquacity than Steven Spielberg's highly-overrated D-Day saga. Nevertheless, "Saving Private Ryan" and "Enemy at the Gates" both celebrate the supremacy of the individual.

Anybody that marches into "Enemy at the Gates" with the impression that the Nazis will triumph is hopelessly naïve, so Annaud's cinematic strategy of making this movie into a cat-and-mouse duel between sympathetic snipers falters in the last half-hour when the Nazi foe unveils his murderous colors. Ultimately, "Enemy" shares more in common ideologically with director Howard Hawk's patriotic 1941 film biography about World War I Tennessee sharpshooter Alvin York in "Sergeant York." York captured hundreds of German troops single-handedly by using his sniping skills in World War I. Warner Brothers produced "Sergeant York" during the tumultuous days of 1941 to drum up patriotism among Americans and give them somebody to emulate. Similarly, Vassili rise to prominence as a Red Army war hero occurs when a young Communist political officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes of "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love") suggests the way to inspire morale during among the infantry is to reinvent Vassili Zaitsev as a hero for the army to worship. One of the problems about being a film critic and film lover is that you spot some things that nobody else would care about, like Danilov's "Battleship Potemkin" eyewear. Real cute, Jean-Jacques.

Anybody that has read anything about the brutal battle of Stalingrad in 1942 knows that it emerges as one of the savage battles of all time. Imagine Dante's "Inferno" as the genuine article, and you have a fair idea how devastating the fighting was. "Enemy's" opening scenes show literally thousands of young Soviet troops piling aboard filthy railroad cattle cars and freighted to the war-ravaged city on the Volga where most would die. As "Enemy" unfolds, our protagonist, young Vassili Zaitsev, finds himself among scores of comrades as their officers issue rifles to every other soldier while those soldiers-in-between receive a mere magazine clip of bullets. Basically, the Soviets hurled more men into combat than they had rifles to arm! Sounds rather anti-Soviet to me. If an individual survived, he had to participate in the gory art of battlefield salvage. In other words, taking rifles off the dead! Anyway, Vassili charges off courageously into the fray with a fistful of bullets and bides his time until he can acquire a rifle. ("Enemy" loves to flashback to childhood memories of Vassili in the snowy Urals lining up a wolf in the cross-hairs as it attacks a staked out horse. The outcome of this flashback is pretty predictable, too.) Meanwhile, Soviet officers gun down without qualm any infantrymen that retreat from the Nazi horde. Neither side emerges from "Enemy" as white-washed as the American G.I.s in "Saving Private Ryan." The Soviets aren't quite as diabolical as the Nazis. After all, remember who won World War II. When we first meet Comrade Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins of "The Long Good Friday"), he forces a high-ranking Soviet general to commit suicide because he cannot repel the Nazi invaders. Usually, this scene appears in only Nazi war movies where suicide is deemed the simple way out.

Basically, "Enemy" chronicles not only the cat-and-mouse showdown between Nazi Major Konig and Vassili, but also a love triangle with Vassili, Danilov, and a beautiful Jewish girl, Tanya (Rachel Weisz of "The Mummy") whose parents died at the hands of the Nazis. Indeed, Annaud manages successfully to blow soap bubbles amid bullets. Imagine "Jules and Jim" in Stalingrad and you know what to expect. The outcome is a predictable as who survives the duel, but Annaud gives it the kind of noble gravity that it requires to rupture your tear ducts.

Guys who like war movies where you can see authentic vintage bombers dropping loads on the battleground, especially the Junkers 87, aka "Stuka" dive-bombers, will love this war movie despite its romantic interludes. Had Annaud gone against the grain on certain plot elements and characters, "Enemy at the Gates" might have qualified as a contemporary classic.


As the latest entry in the video game inspired action movie genre, "Doom" (* out of ****) more than lives up to its nihilistic promise. Nothing about director Andrzej Bartkowski's tame science fiction thriller proves either original or exciting. Basically, the monsters amount to genetically mutated humanoids that not only appear ghoulish (what glimpses we catch of them) but also whose skeletal carcasses are covered with raspberry jam-like gore. In other words, the people that made "Doom" settled for lowest common denominator chills. Exotic alien predators don't prowl this mediocre melodrama that ranks as an all new career low for former WWE wrestling champ Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson. Okay, these monsters might frighten those under age twelve or women dragged to this drivel on a date, but blood & terror gorehounds will yawn at these murderous, run-of-the-mill fiends. For the record, these carnivores consist of either ancient Martians or zombies.

Nevertheless, "Doom" rightly deserved its R-rating for the amounts of blood, gore, and mayhem that saturate its occasionally atmospheric but wholly predictable plot. No, this dull, formulaic movie won't induce nightmares. Based on the popular first-person shooter video game where players assume the identity of an armed psychopath on a shooting spree, "Doom" recycles material from better movies, such as the "Resident Evil" epics, "Alien," (1979) and "Stargate"(1994). The best of the few surprises in "Doom" occurs as a twist near the end but it may alienate fans who revere the Rock.

Noisy, rambunctious, darkly shadowed, sporadically profane, but entirely idiotic, "Doom" follows a squad of macho U.S. Marines dispatched to the planet Mars. Their orders call for them to contain a security breach at a privately owned research institute and retrieve top secret company records. Some exposition is required to bring non-video gamers up to speed about this intergalactic gobbledygook set in the year 2046. According to freshman scenarist David Callaham and co-writer Wesley ("Cape Fear") Strick's cliché-riddled screenplay, archeologists uncovered a portal in the Nevada desert that enabled them to travel through space to the Red Planet with minimal ill effects. Sounds like "Stargate," right? Mysteriously, super humanoid creatures have begun to kill scientists in the underground labs. The institute issues a distress call that activates a Rapid Response Team led by Sarge (the Rock), a combat-seasoned Marine with Semper Fi tattooed across his back, and his crackerjack commandos.

Unlike the sexually diverse Marines in James Cameron's classic "Aliens," the "Doom" Marines are all red-blooded males with nicknames that encapsulate their one-dimensional characters. Among Sarge's troops is a God-fearing but profane grunt who craves crosses into his forearm with a razor-sharp knife when he takes the Lord's name in vain. Another Marine appears to have been modeled on the Jesse Ventura character from "Predator," because he lugs around an electric-powered Gatling gun that can turn anything into a sieve. John Grimm (Karl Urban who played Eomer in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) constitutes the most reluctant RRT team member. It seems that he once lived on Mars with his archaeologist parents and has nightmares about the experience. The trip back to Mars gives Grim a chance to re-establish contact with his estranged twin sister Samantha (Rosamund Pike of "Die Another Day") who guides Sarge and his men through the treacherous confines of the facility. Although Mars serves as the setting for "Doom," "Cradle 2 the Grave" director Bartkowski only provides us with fleeting glimpses of the planet's bleak, barren surface.

Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson gives his least charismatic performance as the hard-as-nails Sarge. He utters no clever one-liners and plays Sarge with a straight face. Meaning, the Sarge character is about as lively as a cadaver. Richard Brake of "Death Machine" takes top honors as one of Sarge's low-life jarheads who gets his comeuppance in the least likely place. Poor Rosamund Pike alternates between being a heady scientist and helpless damsel-in-distress. As it turns out, we learn that the researchers on Mars have discovered the 24th chromosome that endows humans with supernatural strength. About the worst that these monsters do is cough up large sausage-shaped worms that bore into the victims' neck, similar to the squirming critter in the "Hidden" films that entered its victims' ears and drove them psychotic. The much touted first-person shooter scene has been far over-hyped and lasts for about five minutes. This first-person shooter scene like many of the stalking scenes in the claustrophobic institute suffer from a shortage of suspense and tension. Bartkowski keeps the lights turned low on his bargain basement monstrosities and his efforts to make them intimidating rarely yield results. Altogether, "Doom" is filled with so much gloom that the plot generates few thrills and chills and emerges as just another standard-issue, testosterone-laced, mutant monster hunt.


The silent 1922 epic movie "Down to the Sea in Ships" looks more like a documentary about the whaling business and the religious practices of Quakers than a nail-biting melodrama about a young man who desperately wants to wed his childhood sweetheart. Today, director Elmer Clifton's seafaring saga is primarily remembered as "It" actress Clara Bow's theatrical film debut at age seventeen. The Whaling Film Corporation produced this vintage adventure and they lensed it on location at New Bedford, Massachusetts. Of course, by the time that "Down to the Sea in Ships" was produced, the whaling industry in America was on the decline because oil pumped out of the ground had replaced whale oil in most instances.

The authenticity of several sequences at sea is noted in the opening screen credits which praises the work of both cameramen A.G. Penrod and Paul H. Allen "who, in small boats, stood by their cameras at the risk of their lives to photograph the fighting whales." Literally, "Down to the Sea in Ships" reenacts the practices of New England whalers. Fans of "Flipper" may not enjoy the scene where the hero harpoons a dolphin, and the animal enthusiasts may regard the whale harvesting techniques are barbaric. Unfortunately, restored though the film is, it looks terrible and can be a real chore to watch for those that aren't accustomed to silent cinema. Moreover, you have to pause to read some of the lengthy title cards, some of which contain allusions to Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." However, on the whole, "Down to the Sea in Ships" proves to be a rewarding experience, more for its realistic depiction of religion and whale fishing than its melodrama.

"Down to the Sea in Ships" takes place in mid-19th century New Bedford. Thomas Allan Dexter (Raymond McKee) loves Patience Morgan (Marguerite Courtot) but her devout father, whaling ship-owner William Morgan (William Walcott), forbids her to marry any man that isn't a whaler. Early in the film we learn during a Quaker worship service that anybody that marries anyone that is not a Quaker is expelled and ostracized. A college graduate, Dexter refuses to let a little thing like not having served as sea aboard a whaling ship to prevent him from having Patience. Meanwhile, Jake Finner (Patrick Hartigan) and Samuel Siggs (Jack Baston) scheme to undermine Morgan's business. First, Siggs masquerades as a Quaker so that Morgan will hire him as an accountant, while Finner signs onto Morgan's whaling ship so that he can steal it. At the same time, Siggs sees the hand of Patience with her father's approval which is almost assured because Siggs has great references. You see, old man Morgan's son perished in a whaling accident and he wants grand children so he compels Patience against her will to betroth herself to the villainous Siggs. Siggs fears Dexter and Finner drugs the young suitor and shanghais him for the voyage. As it turns out, this works out to Dexter's advantage.

Similarly, Morgan's granddaughter Dot Morgan (Clara Bow) has a crush on Jimmie (James Thurfler), the cabin boy. Dot disguises herself as a boy and sneaks aboard the ship, only to be discovered by Jimmie after the vessel has gone to sea. Unbelievably, Dot remains hidden below deck in a cloth covered box until the evil Finner finds her. Finner kills the captain and takes over the ship, but Dexter recovers the ship from Finner and imprisons him. The whalers catch a whale and Dexter is instrumental in harpooning the beast and bringing it back. The scene where Dexter's boat capsizes after the whale attacks it is fabulous stuff, especially when the real-life shark swims into view and menaces the men as they scramble back into their boat. Eventually, the sailors exhaust the whale and return to the ship with it.

Film historians and film buffs will enjoy this glimpse of the past. The film covers the themes of man versus man, man versus society, women versus society and their confining role in society. For the record, this version of "Down to the Sea in Ships" has nothing to do with 20th Century-Fox's 1949 whaling saga starring Richard Widmark, Dean Stockwell and Lionel Barrymore.

Interestingly, director Elmer Clifton worked as an assistant director to the famed D.W. Griffith on "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." One of his more notorious films that he helmed was the 1937 cautionary movie "Assassin of Youth," also known under the title "Marihuana!"


Scary films—like nightmares—shun logic. After all, what else would you expect from movies about vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, mutated creatures, and sadistic maniacs?

Searching for logic in a scary movie is like skinny dipping in quicksand.

If the vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, creatures, and madmen defy logic, their victims fare no better. Folks in horror movies behave foolishly. When they confront horror, they freeze in their footsteps and belt out a blood-curdling screams. Or they flee in the wrong direction, fall down, and sprain an ankle. Even if the girl doesn't sprain her ankle, she will run in a circle and collide with the villain. If the victims reach their car, they must crank up their jalopy repeatedly before the engine finally turns over, just as the monster or killer looms large in their rearview mirror. Indeed, the only reason that the engine doesn't fire-up the first time out is that it would make it too easy for the victims to escape.

Alas, horror movie villains are as unreal as they are undead, and their victims qualify as the least resourceful humans on earth. Now, keeping this in mind, do you watch scary movies to see the victims apply cold, hard logic to an illogical crisis while keeping a cool head under pressure? Anybody that goes to horror movies hoping that the villain will be realistic or that the victims won't do idiotic things clearly doesn't know much about horror movies and life-in-general. Some moviegoers love to berate the victims for their crazy behavior. If you saw a vampire, werewolf, zombie, mutated creature, or homicidal maniac, you'd probably freeze-up and howl, too. If logic has no place in horror movies, neither does realism. People ridicule creature-features routinely because Godzilla doesn't look like the genuine article. Has anybody seen a radioactive prehistoric monster? Werewolves aren't real, so how can they look genuine? Basically, criticizing horror movies for lapses in logic or lack of realism makes no sense. Criticizing horror movies as a type of movie makes better sense, and people who hate horror movies have no right to single out horror movies that abuse logic and defy realism.

The French horror movie "High Tension" (***1/2 out of ****) definitely gives both logic and realism the axe. As the best and bloodiest horror chiller since "Saw," "High Tension" qualifies as a ghastly valentine for gorehounds. First, "High Tension" narrowly avoided an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, but the MPAA must have been in a generous mood when they gave this nerve-jangler an R-rating. You'll see more blood and gore on display here than those recent remakes of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "House of Wax," or nail-biters like "Bogyman." Second, director Alexandre Aja doesn't waste time with a lot of cheap false alarms to make the hair rise on the back of our necks. He is too busy showing a homicidal maniac killing people to indulge in those moments designed to make you jump when he can plunge you up to your neck into a blood-soaked situation.

Just for the record, don't see this movie if you are the squeamish. "High Tension" will scare the puke out of you. Aja doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting violence. The scene where the maniac breaks out a huge buzz saw that resembles something firefighters wield to free people trapped in cars illustrates this idea. The villain approaches a stalled-out car that his victim has flagged down on a deserted road. As the driver frantically cranks the vehicle, the maniac smashes the windshield then mangles the driver with this hideous weapon, turning the interior of the car into a bloodbath. In some horror circles, gorehounds call these movies splatter movies instead of slasher movies.

Actually, "High Tension" combines slasher with splatter for a bloodbath of a life-time. Plot wise, "High Tension" concerns two female college students in contemporary France who spend a weekend in the country to catch up on their school work. Marie (Cecile De France of "Around the World in 80 Days") and Alex (Maiween Le Besco of "The Fifth Element") cruise into remote Southern France where Alex's family live on an isolated farm house. No sooner has everybody turned in for the evening than a homicidal madman (Philippe Nahon of "Irreversible") barges into their house. This one-man home invasion army slashes the father, jams his head in the rails of the staircase, and decapitates the breadwinner with a piece of furniture. This madman opens the wife's throat from ear to ear like a watermelon and pursues the little boy into a cornfield with a shotgun. He shackles poor Alex in chains, gags her, and prowls the rest of the house in vain to find anybody else. Miraculously, Marie avoids detection in scenes of heart-stopping suspense. The maniac tools around in a rusty old truck like the monster drove in the "Jeepers Creepers" movies and sticks Alex in the back. At the last second, unbeknownst to the killer, Marie scrambles aboard with Alex. Marie resolves to save her best friend.

Before it's all over with, "High Tension" evokes chilling memories of the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Compared with "Friday the Thirteen's" Jason or "Halloween's" Michael Myers, the maniac her make them look like pansies. Although the first hour or so of "High Tension" is a brutally straight-forward exercise in stomach-churning terror, the last half-hour takes a bizarre 180 degree spin reminiscent of the Brad Pitt movie "Fight Club." Already, Aja has been tapped to helm the remake of "The Hills Have Eyes." If you're looking for a movie that will make you scream and wet your pants at the same time, look no farther than "High Tension."