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Blogs HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (2005) (***1/2)

Studio Ghibli is the true master of current animation. That's solely due to the greatness of director Hayao Miyazaki. He keeps saying that he's going to retire, but that would only make the world a dreary place. I felt both his PRINCESS MONONOKE and SPIRITED AWAY were the best films of their respective years of release.

Sophie (voiced young by Emily Mortimer, LOVELY & AMAZING and old by Jean Simmons, SPARTACUS) is a young, quiet hat maker, who doesn't think she is pretty. One day she has a run in with the greedy Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT), who turns Sophie into an old woman. The next day Sophie leaves her hat shop and ends up on a wizard's moving castle. The wizard is Howl (Christian Bale, BATMAN BEGINS), a handsome and charming young man who can turn into a giant monstrous bird.

Blogs WOLFEN (1981) (***)

This thriller/horror flick is more than your typical werewolf movie. Rich industrialist Christopher van der Veer (Max M. Brown, only film performance) and his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo, MANHATTAN) are savagely murdered. Gritty detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney, TOM JONES) is assigned the case.

Helping him is forensic scientist Whittington (Gregory Hines, WHITE NIGHTS) and Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora, HEAT), an investigator for a security company that guards wealthy individuals. When strange wolf hairs show up on the victims, Dewey makes the leap that Native American activist Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos, STAND & DELIEVER) might be involved in some supernatural way.

Blogs WILD STRAWBERRIES (1959) (****)

This film is one of the most deceptively deep motion pictures I've ever seen. By the end of the film, I knew the main character more deeply than I know acquaintances in real life.

Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is a widower who over time has isolated himself from people and become quite cold, because he finds the world too critical. He is being given an honorary degree from his old university and must travel there to accept it.

After having a strange dream about death, he decides to drive to the event instead of taking the train. His dedicated housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT) doesn't like the change in plans, but Isak's daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin, CRIES AND WHISPERS) decides to ride along with him even though she does not like him because he is cold and distant like her husband/his son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand).

Blogs VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) (***)

This 1960 sci-fi/horror flick is a unique take on the classic alien invasion/ possessed child tale. One day in a small town in England all the citizens just faint on the spot. Scientist Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders, ALL ABOUT EVE) was talking to his soldier brother-in-law Alan Bernard (Michael Gwynn, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) at the time. Alan brings in the military and discovers that any living thing that crosses a certain point entering the village faints on the spot.

Then as mysteriously as it started it ends with everyone waking up. No one is hurt, but strangely 12 women in town are now pregnant. After the mothers give birth, the town discovers the strangeness of the children, which all have dark eyes, bleach blonde hair and are developing at an unusually fast rate.

Blogs THEM! (1954) (***1/2)

This film is why 1950s B-movie sci-fi is so great. This film was the first of the big bug series of flicks that infested the decade. Though it's clearly a B-movie, it doesn't act like one, because it plays its material straight and with a natural tone.

Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) discovers a 5-year-old girl (Sandy Descher, THE PRODIGAL) wandering alone in the desert in a daze. The side of her trailer has been bashed in and so has the side of the general store. After an officer is killed, FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness, TV's GUNSMOKE) is assigned the case and calls in scientists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon, 1954's THE COMMAND). What they discover is that the atomic bomb testing in the desert has mutated the ants in the region to 9 feet. So the film's heroes must destroy the mutant ants, but what will they do when the bugs reach Los Angeles?

Blogs SWING TIME (1936) (****)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are the perfect duo. They have instant likeability. They both light up the screen. Their chemistry together is magic in an effortless way. They both have great comedic timing. Oh yeah, and they dance better than any two people in the world.

John “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire) is a dancer and a gambler, whose current dance troupe doesn’t want him to get married and leave them. So they make him late for his wedding to rich girl, Margaret Watson (Betty Furness, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION). Once Lucky arrives after all the guests have left, Margaret’s father Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS) wants to throttle him at first, but consents to letting Lucky marry his daughter if the young man can go to the city and make $25,000.

Blogs THE STEPFATHER (1987) (**)

This horror/thriller starts out fairly well, but spirals into cliché and cheese toward the end.

Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn, TV’s LOST) has murdered his family and started a new life with a new wife Susan (Shelley Hack, TROLL) and new teenage daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen, D.C. CAB). Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen, GONE IN 60 SECONDS) is the brother of Jerry’s last wife and has begun a tireless crusade to find Jerry and kill him. Susan has been in a lot of trouble since her real father died. Jerry desperately wants to have the perfect family, but when things go awry he snaps.

O’Quinn’s performance is very good even toward the end when he’s given cheesy lines to say that just don’t work. He develops a killer that is tormented and trying not to be a killer. But at one point the film abandons this characterization for a more typical psycho killer mode. This is where the film unravels and shows its warts.

Blogs SEX: THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY (1999) (***)

This documentary follows the strange yet fascinating story of Annabel Chong (whose real name is Grace), who became internationally known for having sex with 251 men in a 10-hour straight session.

The film shows her as a complex and deeply tormented person, who one of her former teachers describes as an introvert pretending to be an extrovert. She claims she got into porn because she likes sex a lot, which is probably a half-truth. Her main reasoning seems to be as a form of rebellion against an oppressive and conservative upbringing in Singapore and London. She likes to shock.

Another layer of her psyche has her engaging in sex acts that demean and are demeaning. She justifies all her actions as a statement of feminist rebellion against the double standard that women should not enjoy sex and should not have multiple partners when for men society says the opposite.

Blogs NINE 1/2 WEEKS (1986) (**1/2)

Adrian Lyne is a director that isn’t afraid to tackle sexuality on the screen. I’m not a fan of his FLASHDANCE, but that image of Jennifer Beals (or her body double) being splashed with water has become an iconic erotic image. FATAL ATTRACTION is one of the better “From Hell” thrillers being the definitive affair from hell. He dealt with infidelity unsuccessfully in INDECENT PROPOSAL (but it still had people thinking) and successfully in UNFAITHFUL. Lyne dealt with a weird sexuality in JACOB’S LADDER as well as in his best film LOLITA.

However, NINE 1/2 WEEKS was his first real foray into sexuality. Several of the film’s sex scenes have become iconic and parodied over and over again. Elizabeth (Kim Basinger, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) is a conservative divorcee, who is shy about sexuality until she meets John (Mickey Rourke, DINER).

Blogs LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) (***)

This Technicolor noir begins with writer Dick Harland (Cornel Wilde, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH) returning to his family cabin after serving two years in prison. His lawyer and friend Glen Robie (Ray Collins, THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER) then tells the story of what happened to lead to this point.

On the way to Robie’s house in New Mexico, Dick meets Ellen Beret (Gene Tierney, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR), who along with her cousin/ adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain, 1950’s CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN) and mother (Mary Philips, 1932’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS), is also going to Robie’s house. There her family has gone to spread the ashes of their dead father. Ellen is engaged to DA Russell Quinton (Vincent Price, LAURA), but that doesn’t stop Ellen from falling in love with Dick and marrying him within days. Oh, did I mention that Dick looks like her father. Yep, this picture gets Freudian.

Blogs THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) (***)

Jack Nicholson reteamed with his FIVE EASY PIECES director Bob Rafelson for this strange ode to brothers. David Staebler (Nicholson) is a depressed and skeptical late night radio DJ, who broadcasts his "true" tales of woe. One day he gets a call to come to Atlantic City from his big brother Jason (Bruce Dern, DIGGSTOWN).

When he arrives, David discovers that his brother is in jail and wrapped up with mobsters including Lewis (Scatman Crothers, THE SHINING). After Jason is bailed out, he tells David that he has a great deal for building their own casino/hotel on their own private island in Hawaii. David is of course skeptical right from the start. However, Jason has two devoted followers his girl Sally (Ellen Burstyn, ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE) and his younger girl Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson, only film performance), who dreams of being Miss America.

Blogs KISS ME DEADLY (1955) (****)

This deceptive film-noir/crime yarn brings gumshoe Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker, PATHS OF GLORY) into a murder mystery that involves some pretty shady characters. The tale starts out as a fairly competent detective tale, but that is all just set up for the stellar ending that is totally unexpected and quite powerful. When most films of this nature have their hard-boiled detectives soften up by the end of the film, this flick does the exact opposite to startling and thrilling extents.

The events of the film begin when Mike picks up Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) by the lonely roadside. Then when Christina gets murdered and Mike almost loses his life along with her, he is determined to discover what he can get out of the deal for himself. This is where he enlists the female skills of his long-suffering girl/partner Velda (Maxine Cooper, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?).

Blogs STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) (****)

George Lucas has gone to the dark side of the STAR WARS franchise and made a great film. All the naysayers need to shut up. All the fans have something to rejoice about. It’s not only the best film in the prequel trilogy; it’s better than RETURN OF THE JEDI.

The story, as we know, is how Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, SHATTERED GLASS) falls to the Dark Side of the Force and becomes Darth Vader. The film starts with Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, TRAINSPOTTING) on a mission to rescue Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, SLEEPY HOLLOW) from the Sith Lord General Grievous. Anakin later learns that his wife Padmé (Natalie Portman, CLOSER) is pregnant and he begins to have dreams of her death while giving birth. Plagued by the death of his mother, Anakin is tormented with his seeming powerlessness to stop his loved ones from dying.

Blogs UNDERTOW (2004) (***1/2)

David Gordon Green is a young director whose work is subtle and surprisingly deep. I love his films GEORGE WASHINGTON and ALL THE REAL GIRLS. His new film UNDERTOW is a far more mainstream film for the underrated director whose work reminds me of Terence Malick (THE THIN RED LINE), who actually produced this film.

Due to setting and story, UNDERTOW reminded me a lot of Charles Laughton’s brilliant cult classic NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Chris Munn (Jamie Bell, BILLY ELLIOT) is a teen who is confused about the world like most teens are. However, he is being isolated from a good portion of the world by his father John (Dermot Mulroney, ABOUT SCHMIDT), who is greatly depressed over the death of his wife. Also a part of this small family unit is 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan, SIMON BIRCH), who is a strange child who eats paint and mud and then throws up. He’s a smart kid who reads a lot, but is not emotionally mature enough to handle the hardships of life.

Blogs DARKNESS (2004) (*1/2)

This film falls into the tried and true warning — filmgoers beware of films released in the theaters in January, because they are often crud. Dimension tried to trick people and release this film last Christmas, but it smells like its right from the January dumping ground. Considering the film was made in 2002 and stat around for two years doesn’t build confidence as well.

Now I’ll admit that the film started out promising, especially with some great cinematography and production design. Teen Regina (Anna Paquin, FINDING FORRESTER) and her family have moved from the States to a European country where even electricians speak perfect English. Her father Mark (Iain Glen, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER) has had another episode and is becoming more and more angry. Regina’s little brother Paul (Stephan Enquist, film debut) begins to have bruises on his neck and starts drawing those cliché kids’ horror film drawings that creep people out. Well, they creep Regina out — her mother Maria (Lena Olin, MYSTERY MEN) is one of those movie moms who can’t see the bruises or unhinged husband before her eyes until it suits the plot. But we know something is up when the shadows under Paul’s bed keep stealing his colored pencils. I hate it when that happens.

Blogs CRIMINAL (2004) (***)

It seems to me this is the quickest remake of all time. The original Argentinean film NINE QUEENS (unseen by me) was released in 2000. With the original barely off the new release shelves at Blockbuster, we get the U.S. remake by first time director Gregory Jacobs, who has worked with Steven Soderbergh on several films as second unit director and producer.

The story begins with con man Richard Gaddis (John C. Reilly, CHICAGO) scoping out a casino for a new con man to take as a partner. He discovers and ingeniously helps out newbie Rodrigo, aka Brian (Diego Luna, OPEN RANGE). The two end up involved in a currency scam for six figures.

As all con films go, the double crossing is rampant and no one can trust anyone. Even Richard’s hotel manager sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal, SECRETARY) gets wrapped up in the proceedings. The more we come to know Richard the less we like him, because he has no scruples. He’ll con anyone it seems. Rodrigo quickly becomes sympathetic and we hope so hard that he doesn’t loose his shirt in the deal.

Blogs BLADE TRINITY (2004) (*)

BLADE TRINITY, or How I Killed This Franchise. That’s my title for it. Wesley Snipes got royally ticked off about how his role got diminished in this film to make room for the younger stars. He has every right to be ticked about this colossal disaster.

However, everyone else has the right to be ticked at Snipes for not even dialing in a performance, but faxing in something from the Ashton Krutcher School of Acting. The premise was so promising. The vampires want to get Blade off their backs so they start a PR campaign to get the cops to believe he's a psycho. Led by Danica Talos (Parker Posey, BEST IN SHOW), the vampires discover the hibernating Dracula, know called Drake (Dominic Purcell, EQUILIBRIUM), in of all places Iraq. They want to use his pure DNA to make them day-walkers like Blade.

Blogs BIRTH (2004) (**1/2)

There were two films dealing with reincarnation in 2004 — this film and P.S. BIRTH is more dramatic while P.S. works more as a romantic comedy. Though BIRTH has a more artful approach, P.S. works better.

In BIRTH, Anna (Nicole Kidman, THE HOURS) is in a depressive state over the death of her husband, Sean. She has finally decided to remarry a wealthy businessman named Joseph (Danny Huston, SILVER CITY). Then during a birthday party for Anna’s mother Eleanor (Lauren Bacall, TO HAVE AND TO HOLD), a young boy named Sean (Cameron Bright, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT) enters the apartment and declares that he is the reincarnation of Anna’s husband Sean.

At first Anna just kicks the boy out. Then he comes back and they quiz him like all people in these movie type positions do. In a great scene at the theater, Anna has an epiphany that young Sean is really Sean. The young Sean insists that Anna not marry Joseph and tries to tear them apart. Anna tries to find solace in friends Clifford (Peter Stormare, FARGO) and Clara (Anne Heche, SIX DAYS AND SEVEN NIGHTS).

Blogs ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (2005) (***)

I really love the original John Carpenter film, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. So when I heard they were remaking it I wasn’t confident of its success. Then when it was given a January release date I was even less hopeful. However, director Jean-François Richet (ALL ABOUT LOVE) has made a more psychological version of the story, but with a lot less iconic cool.

Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke, TRAINING DAY) is a cocky cop who struggles with decisions in his past that leads to the death of his partners. He has been assigned to the rundown precinct 13, which is set for closure. It’s New Year’s Eve and it’s just him, veteran cop Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy, ROMEO + JULIET) and sexoholic secretary Iris Ferry (Drea de Matteo, TV’s SOPRANOS). A snowstorm is raging outside, which leads a prison transport to have to stop for the night at the station. On the bus is legendary drug dealer Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, THE MATRIX), who has been recently arrested for killing a cop who works for Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne, GHOST SHIP).

Blogs THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON (2004) (***1/2)

This movie to me is everything Michael Douglas’ FALLING DOWN wanted to be, if it wasn’t jammed into a police thriller format, which indirectly justified and glorified the vigilante’s actions.

Based on true events, this film chronicles the not-so-bright Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn, MYSTIC RIVER), who ended up attempting to hijack a commuter plane and force the crew to fly it into the White House. Bicke has a hard-time holding down a job, because he has an almost juvenile sense of moral superiority to the injustices around him. He has been separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts, 21 GRAMS) for nearly two years and she wants to have little to do with him, despite his belief that they will get back together. His only friend is black mechanic Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle, HOTEL RWANDA), who probably pities Sam more than likes him. Sam has taken a new job selling office furniture, but he has a problem with the system that demands the bending of the truth and complete obedience (he has to shave his moustache).

Blogs ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER’S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2004) (**1/2)

Is this the best version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical that could have been brought to the screen? Pretty much. But I still cannot whole heartily recommend it, because the source material is weak. No matter how popular it is it’s still a one-note production.

The story is simple enough — The Phantom (Gerard Butler, DEAR FRANKIE) lurks in the opera house composing in seclusion. He becomes infatuated by the new young star Christine (Emmy Rossum, MYSTIC RIVER), who is in love with her childhood sweetheart Raoul (Patrick Wilson, ANGELS IN AMERICA).

First off Butler doesn’t really have the voice for the Phantom. He’s a great singer, but I think he needs extreme pipes to make the role work. Rossum is amazing and Wilson is good for what his role calls for. All their performances are good, but the material is still weak.

Blogs THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (2005) (***1/2)

From actor/director Mike Binder (directed INDIAN SUMMER) comes this bittersweet comedy that has the same tone as a film like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.

Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen, THE ICE STORM) is at rock bottom. Her husband has up and left her. She has begun drinking excessively. Her four daughters can’t stand her. Her oldest Hadley (Alicia Witt, URBAN LEGEND) hates her and Terry has a habit of saying the absolute wrong thing at every moment with her. Her next child Andy (Erika Christensen, TRAFFIC) has graduated from high school and does not want to go to college much to the dismay of her mother. High school senior Emily (Keri Russell, TV’s FELICITY) wants to study dance, but Terry can’t let something so unpractical happen. Her youngest Lavender, nicknamed Popeye, is your typical confused teen who has a crush on a boy who doesn’t seem to notice her.

Blogs KUNG FU HUSTLE (2005) (***1/2)

The feel of this film is like if Quentin Tarantino directed the Looney Tunes characters in a version of the kung fu flick, FIVE DEADLY VENOMS.

Sing (Stephen Chow, SHAOLIN SOCCER) is a low-rung hustler who dreams of becoming a member of the feared Axe Gang, which is run by Brother Sum (Kwok Kuen Chan). Sing and his sidekick (Chi Chung Lam) come to the poor neighborhood of Pig Sty Alley where they pretend to be members of the Axe Gang, but get run out of town by the unusually skilled kung fu fighters who have settled there.

But when the real Axe Gang shows up, a war between the Gang and the fighters of Pig Sty Alley begins. Once we see what happened to Sing when he tried to be the good guy as a kid we understand why he wants to join the bad guys. Before too long Brother Sum is sending the top assassins in the world to Pig Sty Alley much to the annoyance of the chain-smoking landlady (Qiu Yuen) and her meek-seeming husband (Wah Yuen).

Blogs SUSPECT ZERO (2004) (***)

Here is a perfect example of a trailer ruining the surprises of this film. If you haven’t seen or don’t remember the trailer don’t watch it if you’re interested in seeing this flick.

Tom Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN) is an FBI agent that has been assigned to a new post for reasons we are unclear about at first. Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley, SEXY BEAST) is a disturbed killer who may have psychic abilities. When Tom starts receiving messages from Benjamin regarding missing people and a body appears, Tom is teamed with his old partner Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss, THE MATRIX), who also happens to be Tom’s ex. As the investigation plays out, we begin to learn more and more about the motivations of Benjamin and who he hunts. But how is the case affecting Tom mentally?

Blogs PRIMER (2004) (***1/2)

After having watched this film once through and then rewatching parts again, I still can’t say for certain that I know exactly what, when and how things happened in this ingenious indie sci-fi film.

This film made waves at Sundance because it was filmed for $7,000, but it doesn’t look like it was made for $7,000. Shane Carruth wrote, directed, starred, produced, composed, shot and edited the film. He plays young engineer Aaron, who along with some friends work on patenting new inventions in his garage so they can get rich and dump their day jobs. Aaron and Abe (David Sullivan, also a production assistant on the film) are working on a device that ends up being a time machine.

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