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BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT THE GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN (2006) (***1/2)

Much press has been given to this film saying that it just might be the funniest movie ever made. Oh, it’s funny all right, but not the funniest ever.

In the film, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (TV’s DA ALI G SHOW) plays his naïve Kazakhstani reporter character Borat Sagdiyev. He has been commissioned by his government to travel to the U.S. and make a documentary about its culture for the benefit of his nation. Accompanying him is his overweight producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian, S.W.A.T.).

Cohen’s style of comedy is guerilla style like CANDID CAMERA with more savage smarts and a mean streak. Andy Kaufman is smiling in comic heaven right now. Some of the episodes are staged, but mostly Cohen as Borat just ambushes unsuspecting people.

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MASTERS OF HORROR: IMPRINT (2006) (***)

I don’t usually review TV series, but this MASTERS OF HORROR episode presents a new twist, because I was rejected from Showtime and then released direct-to-video. MASTERS OF HORROR is an anthology series where a different horror director makes a new one-hour film for each episode. At first when I heard that Showtime had decided to not air Takashi Miike’s IMPRINT due to its content, I smelled a publicity stunt. Trust me, it wasn’t a publicity stunt, only Showtime preventing a flood of angry letters from swamping their network.

Miike is notorious for pushing the boundaries of horror. For Asian Extreme cinema he works at the most extreme. Knowing that something got this film “banned” from pay cable, I was morbidly waiting for the moment to come. A scene of prolonged torture is bad, but it doesn’t even compare to the shocking moments to follow.

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AEON FLUX (2005) (***)

First I must admit that I only have a passing knowledge of the animated series for which this was based on. I can’t make comparisons, because I don’t know how it stacks up to the original. I’ve read some opinions online from fans and it seems to present a watered down version of a complex character. As a novice, I will only judge the live-action film rendition as it is. It isn’t anything new, but it works as a slick, fun popcorn flick.

A plague was wiped out most of the humans on the planet. Now 400 years in the future, all the surviving humans live in a high-tech city where everything is run by the Goodchild corporation. The world outside the city walls has been taken over by wilderness. The citizens sacrifice complete freedom for complete security. Many people just disappear with no reason and the corporation is to blame.

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FLUSHED AWAY (2006) (***)

FLUSHED AWAY is the latest collaboration between DreamWorks and Aardman, the studio that created WALLACE & GROMIT, however this is the first time Aardman has made a CG feature, having used clay stop-motion animation in the past.

Roddy (Hugh Jackman, X-MEN series) is a posh pet rat that lives in Kensington. One day while his owners are away, a fat, disgusting sewer rat named, Sid (Shame Richie) comes bubbling up from the kitchen sink. Events transpire which lead to Roddy getting flushed down the toilet. Now in the sewer, Roddy discovers an entire city of rats. In an effort to get back home, he teams with the cockney boat captain Rita (Kate Winslet, TITANIC), who Roddy accidentally creates a great deal of trouble for with the gangster The Toad (Ian McKellen, GODS & MONSTERS) and his rat thugs Spike (Andy Serkis, KING KONG) and Whitey (Bill Nighy, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST). As Roddy and Rita make their way to the above world, The Frog sends assassins after them to recover a stolen item that is key to his devilish master plan. At one point he has to call in the services of his French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno, THE PROFESSIONAL) and his kung-fu henchmen to hunt down his missing power cable.

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THE QUEEN (2006) (****)

Set primarily during the week between Princess Diana’s death and her funeral, this intimate portrait follows the differing reactions of Queen Elizabeth II and her subjects to the tragic event. Helen Mirren (GOSFORD PARK), playing The Queen, gives a simply remarkable performance that will be hard to top come awards season. However, her stellar performance does not overshadow the wonderful work of her co-star Michael Sheen (UNDERWORLD series), who plays the newly elected prime minister Tony Blair.

After the tragic death of Diana, the United Kingdom went into shock. Blair quickly made a statement calling Diana the People’s Princess while The Queen opted to keep the matter private, because Diana was no longer a royal. The unprecedented situation posed difficult questions in regards to what traditions to keep and which ones to bend. Prince Philip (James Cromwell, BABE) and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms, I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD) steadfastly wanted to follow precedent while Diana’s former husband Prince Charles (Alex Jennings, BRIDGET JONES: EDGE OF REASON) understands that the celebrity-obsessed Britons want more than stoic tradition in this time of grief. At first, Blair agrees with his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory, CASANOVA) that the royal obsession with formal tradition seems far out of touch with the modern society.

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FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006) (***1/2)

If Clint Eastwood had never acted and only directed, he’d still have made a huge impact on the landscape of cinema. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS is the largest canvas he has painted on, delivering a thought-provoking and touching examination of what makes a hero.

The film deconstructs the iconic photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. It happened at a time during WWII when support for the war was waning and money was running out to fund it. So the government called on the surviving men in the photograph to come home and tour the country, pushing the sale of war bonds to the public. The three survivors were John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, CRASH), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, HACKERS) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, SMOKE SIGNALS).

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THE DEPARTED (2006) (****)

Martin Scorsese is one of the all time greats and even when he’s working at half his game he still makes better films than 90% of the filmmakers working today. This film represents his most successful film since CASINO. He is the master of the crime drama and proves it once again.

Taking only the core themes from the Chinese film, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (KINGDOM OF HEAVEN) craft a cat and mouse drama that takes on the stature of epic tragedy in the end. Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) and Bill Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio, THE AVIATOR) were both born in the same poor neighborhood in Boston. However, they took different paths to the police academy.

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LITTLE CHILDREN (2006) (****)

Todd Field’s IN THE BEDROOM was a masterfully observed piece that took a too often seen turn in the final act, however it was executed wonderfully even if it was a bit disappointing. For his second film, the story is again well observed and the ending is a grand accomplishment of writing. If you have seen the trailer for this film, you’ll have a completely wrong opinion about the film’s tone. The trailer makes it seem like a dark affair thriller, but in reality, the best description is to call it a more sardonic version of the AMERICAN BEAUTY themes.

Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) has a graduate degree in literature and never imagined she’d be a stay-at-home mom, taking trips to the park on a daily basis. She loathes the catty chatter of the three other women who frequent the park. They live by strictly regimented schedules, which drives Sarah mad even though she puts up with it. Then the “prom king” Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson, HARD CANDY), a stay-at-home dad who comes to the park from time to time, returns.

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CAT PEOPLE (1982) (***1/2)

Writer/director Paul Schrader has always dealt with the line between sex and violence and how they cross. So who better to remake the 1942 sexually charged CAT PEOPLE? Basing the film on DeWitt Bodeen’s original book, adapted by Alan Ormsby, Schrader makes some interesting changes from the original film version, making the resulting film more visceral and a bit more daring thematically.

Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski, PARIS, TEXAS) was raised an orphan. She is finally found by her brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell, CLOCKWORK ORANGE), who invites her to come live with him in New Orleans. Right from the start, we see that Paul has an unhealthy attraction to his sister. Turns out they are descendents of the cat people, who transform into cats when they have sex with non-cat people and can only turn back after they have killed. When a prostitute is found murdered and Paul in the form of a black leopard is locked in the hotel room, animal control officers Oliver Yates (John Heard, BIG), Alice Perrin (Annette O’Toole, TV’s SMALLVILLE) and Joe Creigh (Ed Begley Jr., BEST IN SHOW) are called in. As Irena starts to believe that her brother is the leopard and that she may be one too, she begins a romance with Oliver, who used to be Alice’s lover. As Irena gets closer to Oliver and learns more about her past, the more frightened she gets.

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FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965) (BOMB)

Cult films fall into two categories — 1) quirky films that a rabid fan based feel are truly underrated or 2) films that are bad for various reasons that take on an inspiring quality. FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! is the quintessential definition of the latter.

Russ Meyer is the unchallenged king of sexploitation films. One could easily say that PUSSYCAT is his masterpiece. The pulp material drips with sex and violence, but still manages to contain a juvenile innocence. The story goes like this — a gang of badass go-go dancer have left town to go racing in the desert. Varla (Tura Satana, IRMA LA DOUCE) is the leader of the threesome. The large breasted woman is clad in black and never smiles. She’d kill a man just for looking at her the wrong way. Rosie (Haji, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) is her devoted girlfriend, who’d do anything for Varla. Billie (Lori Williams, IT’S A BIKINI WORLD) is sex-craved, wild, cocky and very irresponsible.

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INFERNO (1980) (**)

This loose sequel to Dario Argento’s SUSPIRA takes the flaws of the first film and expands them. Where SUSPIRA gave us an underdeveloped main character, INFERNO barely gives us a main character. I was 40 minutes into the film before I knew who was the protagonist. The film is a prime example of style taking front seat to story.

Director Argento brings back the vibrant color scheme of SUSPIRA, but drops the fairy tale qualities that made the first film interesting. The film begins with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS) reading about the Three Sisters, who are all evil witches. She soon suspects that her apartment complex in New York City is home to the coven of one of the witches. She writes to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey, JUST ONE OF THE GUYS), who is studying in Rome, about investigating the coven located there. Accidentally leaving his sister’s letter behind in class, his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) follows Rose’s clues to deadly ends. When Paul goes to visit Rose in NYC, he discovers a host of strange people living in her building and next door, who all could be involved in the Three Sisters mystery.

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MARTIN (1977) (***1/2)

George A. Romero is best known for his landmark zombie films such as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD. In MARTIN, the master of horror tackles vampires in an original and fascinating way.

We first meet Martin Madahas (John Amplas, DAY OF THE DEAD) as he rides the train — where he methodically sneaks into a woman’s sleeping car, drugs her, unclothes her, slits her wrists, drinks her blood then stages the scene to look like a suicide. Arriving at his stop, Martin meets his older cousin Tada Cuda (Lincoln Maazel, only film performance), who calls the teenager a nosferatu (or vampire) and promises to save his soul then kill him. Martin goes to stay with the superstitious Cuda and his granddaughter Christina (Christine Forrest, CREEPSHOW), who doesn’t believe like her grandfather that Martin is descended from a long line of vampires in the family, but in reality needs mental help not an exorcism.

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PANDORA’S BOX (1929) (****)

This silent masterpiece presents interesting questions when one watches it. How was this subject matter received in 1929 when it was first released? How has the meaning and sympathies changed or not changed? Despite lacking any nudity, why does this film still retain such a high erotic appeal?

In its time, the film was received with great controversy for its frankness toward its scandalous material. Star Louise Brooks’ sexual abandon and provocative allure must have been shocking in its day. Part of its erotic charge still remains for two reasons — 1) despite being benign by today’s standards we have a clear sense when watching this silent film that its trying to get away with something naughty and 2) Louise Brooks, who grabs one’s attention from the first frame and will not let go, which is exactly what her character is supposed to be. Brooks plays Lulu, a freewheeling flapper who uses her sexuality to move upward in the world. She’s a party girl, who likes having a good time and above all — having sex.

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A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961) (****)

Based on the award-winning play from Lorraine Hansberry, this film version keeps the setting of the play fairly confined to the characters’ small apartment and allows an active camera and the sheer power of the performances to overcome its inherent staginess.

The story chronicles the lives of the Younger family as they await the arrival of the life insurance check owed them after the death of the family patriarch. Matriarch Lena (Claudia McNeil, SIMPLY HEAVENLY) is in charge of the money, which her son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) wants desperately so he can open up a liquor store. Walter Lee tries to convince his tired wife Ruth (Ruby Dee, DO THE RIGHT THING) to help him persuade his mother to give him the money, but she doesn’t want to get involved in that fight. Part of the money has already been promised to Walter Lee’s younger sister Beneatha (Diana Sands, TV’s DR. KILDARE), who is studying to be a doctor. Walter Lee desperately wants a chance to make something of himself, leaving his job as a chauffeur behind and giving his young son Travis (Stephen Perry, THE SOUND AND THE FURY) a reason to look up to him.

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TWO FOR THE MONEY (2005) (***)

This gambling tale is at its best when it is simply watching the way the world of sports betting works. Brandon Lang (Mathew McConaughey, AMISTAD) is a Division 1 college football quarterback clearly heading pro until a bad knee injury sidelines his dreams of the lavish life. While trying out for any team that will let him, Lang works in Las Vegas as a 900 number recorder. When one day he gets a shot at the sports line, he injects his own picks, which average an 80% accuracy. After which he gets a call from Walter Abrams (Al Pacino, THE GODFATHER), who runs one of the hottest sports picking services in the U.S.

Their business is legal because they do not take bets; only advise betters on whom to bet on. Lang’s talent at picking winners is unmatched, so Abrams lavishes the young man with money and a beautiful apartment while training him to become a salesman. In the process, Abrams transforms the non-cursing, non-betting Lang into a sports car driving, cocky persona named John Anthony. Abrams looks at Lang as the son he never had often including him in outings with his wife Toni Morrow (Rene Russo, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR) and ultimately building his business around the young man.

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MADAME CURIE (1943) (****)

This wonderful biography is able to make science as exciting as anything in a thriller. In the process, it tells a geeky love story like no other.

Marie Sklodowska (Greer Garson, MRS. MINIVER) was born in Poland and went to Paris to study mathematics and physics. Her professor Jean Perot (Albert Bassermann, THE RED SHOES) asks scientist Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon, FORBIDDEN PLANET) if his top student can work in his lab. Pierre agrees, but is reluctant when he discovers that Marie is a woman. He feels women and love are not conducive to science. However, it doesn’t take long for Marie’s brilliance and beauty to make Pierre whistle a different tune. Pierre’s eventual proposal is so formal and awkward that you have to laugh. I wonder if Liam Neeson saw this film before making KINSEY — the similarities between Pigeon’s performance and Neeson’s are striking.

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THE LAST DETAIL (1973) (****)

This slice-of-life character piece slyly looks at the hypocrisy and injustice that the working man has to endure and how he does so. Navy seamen Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson, FIVE EASY PIECES) and Mate “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young, 1973’s THE CLONES) have been assigned the duty to take court-martialed Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) to prison.

At first Buddusky and Mule plan to get Meadows to prison ASAP and then take the rest of the time allotted for their duty to party on their own. However, the naïve and inexperienced Meadows gets to them and they decide they need to show the kid a good time before he’s locked away for eight years. Buddusky gets Meadows drunk, high and laid and in the process makes Meadows stronger and more assertive.

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THE FOG (2005) (**)

With the original John Carpenter version unseen by me, I cannot compare the new version with the first one. With horror movies hot, every old horror film is ripe for a remake with the benefit of new fangled visual effects. But all the CG mist in the world could save this tepid horror rehash that panders to it core teen audience.

Set in a small Oregon fishing town where the ghosts of the founding father still lurk with their killer fog, Elizabeth Williams (Maggie Grace, TV’s LOST) tries to unravel the mystery before the whole town is killed. She has just returned to town after some time away and rekindles her romance with fisherman Nick Castle (Tom Welling, TV’s SMALLVILLE). After his second in command Spooner (DeRay Davis, SCARY MOVIE 4) takes the boat out at night and is attacked by the fog, Elizabeth and Nick discover that old heirlooms that have been washing up on the beach may help them uncover the dark secrets of the town’s past. Other key characters include indie radio host Stevie Wayne (Selma Blair, HELLBOY), mayor Tom Malone (Kenneth Welsh, FOUR BROTHERS), drunken Father Robert Malone (Adrian Hough, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND), Elizabeth’s snobby mother Kathy (Sara Botsford, JUMPIN' JACK FLASH) and the eerie homeless man Machen (R. Nelson Brown, TAKEN).

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CHICKEN LITTLE (2005) (**)

I have a soft spot for animation, which makes me go into animated films with more hope that they are good then any other kind of film. Director Mark Dindal previously made the underrated CATS DON’T DANCE and the thoroughly entertaining THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE. But even Dindal was unable to save CHICKEN LITTLE. However, the film itself is proof that he is not to blame, because the movie feels like a victim of too many cooks stirring the pot. The film never organically flows from one part to the next and suffers mostly from a lack of a consistent tone.

The story chronicles the aftermath of Chicken Little’s infamous “the sky is falling” affair. Chicken Little (Zach Braff, GARDEN STATE) has been under a great deal of ridicule since the event and has lost the respect and support of his father Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN). So with the help of his friends Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack, IN & OUT), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn, HAPPY, TEXAS) and Fish Out of Water, Chicken Little sets out to win his father’s respect by joining the baseball team. However, when the threat of an alien invasion becomes a reality, Chicken Little struggles with whether he should tell his dad or not.

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BLACK SUNDAY (1961) (***1/2)

Mario Bava is the father of Italian horror. His BAY OF BLOOD was a total twisted treat and BLOOD & BLACK LACE is like getting a mystery and a film noir rolled into one film. BLACK SUNDAY, or as it was known in Italy THE MASK OF SATAN, was Bava’s first film as a director.

Basing the film loosely on Nikolai Gogol’s THE VIY, he weaves a tale of a royal vampire witch who plots to come back from the grave to seek revenge on the descendants of her brother who killed her. The opening sequence, like many other scenes in the film, is a textbook example of classic black & white, horror mood and tone. However, Bava began to ramp up the gore and sexuality that would become staples of later horror cinema. In the opening, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele, TV’s DARK SHADOWS) and her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominci, INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION) are killed with iron maiden masks by Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani, THE LEOPARD) for being an adulterers as well as vampire witches. Even in black & white, the moment the spikes inside the mask are driven into the princess’ face, we cringe.

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ALLEGRO NON TROPPO (1977) (****)

Thirty-seven years after Disney unveiled their masterpiece FANTASIA, the animation master from Italy Bruno Bozetto set out to satirize the famed piece of animated art.

A real life presenter (Maurizio Micheli) introduces the film as a truly revolutionary experiment in animation, after which he receives a phone call telling him that the whole thing has been done before by some guy named Pisney. Undeterred, the presenter soldiers on introducing the audience to the fat, cigar-chomping orchestra master (Nestor Garay), the orchestra consisting of only old women who may not even know how to play their instruments and the animator (Maurizio Nichetti), who has been chained to a wall for the past five years.

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THE PROPOSITION (2006) (***1/2)

THE PROPOSITION is a dirty, filthy, bloody Western set in the wilds of the Australian outback. Outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, MEMENTO) is captured by the new lawman Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone, SEXY BEAST) and given a proposition — kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston, THE CONSTANT GARDENER) by Christmas and he will spare his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson, TV’s MCLEOD’S DAUGHTERS) from the hangman’s noose.

As Charlie heads out on his bloody mission, we begin to see how difficult and demanding Capt. Stanley’s job is. He wants to civilize the outback, living his own life with his prim and proper wife, Martha (Emily Watson, BREAKING THE WAVES), like he never left England. However, the harsh climate and bitter conflict between the native Aborigines and the white settlers make civilization near impossible. Capt. Stanley isn’t a brutal colonialist, which we see clearly when he has to deal with the harsh request of the town’s richest citizen Eden Fletcher (David Wenham, LORD OF THE RINGS). In the wild, looking for his brother, Charlie runs upon grizzled and racist bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt, THE ELEPHANT MAN), who is also looking for Arthur.

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HARD CANDY (2006) (***1/2)

This edgy thriller presents us with two characters for which our sympathies during the course of the film will flip flop. The fact that Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson, ANGELS IN AMERICA) is a pedophile and 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) is a torturing sociopath makes that a disturbing affair.

Jeff has picked up Hayley in a chat room. She sets up a face-to-face meeting at a coffee shop and before too long she has gotten herself invited to his house. He prepares a drink for her, which she refuses because she’s been taught never to take a drink that she hasn’t seen prepared. It’s good advice and Jeff should have heeded it. Hayley has drugged Jeff and tied him to a chair, taunting him with her search for evidence of his crimes, which may even include murder.

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THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960) (****)

Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning foreign language feature tells a straight-forward and brutal tale of rape, murder and revenge then in the last scene presents us with the vast theological and metaphysical questions that the story brings up. Bergman doesn’t try to present pat answers to these questions — only presents the tough questions.

Tore (Max von Sydow, THE EXORCIST) is a wealthy Christian living in Sweden during the Middle Ages. He and his wife Mareta (Birgitta Valberg, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT) dote over their beautiful, virginal daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), which creates vicious jealousy in their secretly pagan foster child Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE), who is pregnant out of wedlock. Karin is given the task of traveling to the nearest church to deliver candles and asks if Ingeri may accompany her.

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THEY LIVE (1988) (***)

Horror legend John Carpenter moves into a more sci-fi thriller realm with this smart and goofy alien/mind control tale.

Nada (played by pro-wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) is a drifter who rolls into a new city and gets a job at a construction site. There he meets Frank (Keith David, PLATOON), who invites him to a homeless shelter where he can get a good meal. That night the police raid the shantytown where the soup kitchen is held. Nada finds the whole incident strange, especially when he stumbles upon a box of sunglasses hidden inside the nearby church. But when he puts on the glasses, he is shocked to see the world he never knew existed — all billboards and magazines are really just subliminal messages and half the people walking the streets are really hideous looking aliens.

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