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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.

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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.

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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).

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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?

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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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THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004) (***1/2)

This film is much sadder than I thought it would be, but that’s not a bad thing. Director Wes Anderson has tackled wayward father figures in his films RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS and returns to the same area again in this movie.

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, LOST IN TRANSLATION) is a legendary marine documentarian, who hasn’t been working in top form for quite some time. He’s depressed with his diminishing status and morose over the recent death of his longtime partner and best friend Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel, DICK TRACY). Then Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, BOTTLE ROCKET) comes into his life and claims to be his son. Steve takes to Ned quickly, because it brings back to his life some of the adoration that he misses.

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LEMONY SNICKET'S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004) (***1/2)

I loved the world in which this tale takes place so much that it whipped me up in the film, enjoying the ride immensely. Many children's tales are dark, but this one has a subversive streak running through it.

The film follows the travels of the Baudelaire children after their parents die in a mysterious fire. The oldest Violet (Emily Browning, GHOST SHIP) is a brilliant inventor. The next child, Klaus (Liam Aiken, ROAD TO PERDITION) is an incessant reader with a photographic memory. The youngest is baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman, TV’s GENERAL HOSPITAL), who talks a special baby speak and has a talent for biting through almost anything.

The children are first given to a distant relative — the wanna-be actor Count Olaf (Jim Carrey, THE TRUMAN SHOW), who only wants them for their fortune. Through the kids’ smarts and a bit of luck, they get away from the Count and move in with reptile-loving Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly, MRS. BROWN) and then to their paranoid Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep, ADAPTATION).

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WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) (**)

As I go to the invaluable IMDB.com to get information on writing this review, the first thing I see is the User Comment — Great opening and ending — lousy middle. This gentleman has summed up my thoughts exactly.

The film begins with Jill Johnson (Carol Kane, TV’s TAXI) going to the house of Mr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Carmen Argenziano, GONE IN 60 SECONDS, & Rutanya Alda, THE REF) to babysit their children. The terror of her night begins when she gets a phone call stating, “Why haven’t you checked the children?” It’s a classic set-up that has a great twist, which I will leave a mystery for those few who do not know it. There is a bit of a conceit that the film hangs on to make the opening work that may bother some, but the tension is so good it is forgivable.

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SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992) (**)

Oh this all-female twist on FATAL ATTRACTION is a paint-by-numbers thriller. Well, it’s a thriller in name only because it very rarely chills at all.

Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda, A SIMPLE PLAN) has recently broken up with her fiancée Sam Rawson (Steven Weber, TV’s WINGS). She puts an ad in the paper and receives a call from the mousy Hedy Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY). Soon enough we see that Hedy isn’t as mousy and soft-spoken as she first appeared and it becomes “creepier and creepier” when she starts to take on the look and personality of Allison.

The film follows the formula for this kind of film to the T. There’s a cute pet, so you know what will happen to it. There’s a convenient gay neighbor so you know what will happen to him. Everyone shows up on cue and the contrivances crammed into the film for the plot to move forward are explained away with total lameness. Skilled writing isn’t this film’s strong point.

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THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939) (****)

On many best films of all time lists, this film inevitably makes an appearance. In the 2002 Sight & Sound poll (the definitive poll of critics and filmmakers every 10 years), the film was listed at #3, only behind Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE and Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO. Is the film great? Yes. One of the best of all time? Well that can always be up for debate.

Part of the film’s power relies on the knowledge of the viewer going in. You need to know the film was made in 1939 just as the Nazis were knocking on France’s door. You also have to know a little bit about French society as well. Director Jean Renoir claims in a note at the beginning of the film that the production is not a social commentary, but that’s as much of a lie as any lie perpetrated by the characters in the film.

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THE NAVIGATOR (1924) (****)

In this silent classic, Buster Keaton plays spoiled millionaire’s son Rollo Treadway, who wants to marry snobby rich girl Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire, SHERLOCK, JR.) He plans the wedding and books a cruise for their honeymoon. All he has to do now is ask her. However, she denies him. So, saddened Rollo heads out on the cruise by himself. Through some mishaps Rollo and Betsy both end up on a steamship that is set adrift in the ocean.

Most of the humor of the film comes from the two rich kids being completely helpless on the ship. The gags are often character based and flow nicely. Besides Keaton’s impeccable comic timing, this film shows off McGuire’s skills as well.

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LOS OLVIDADOS (1952) (****)

Wow is this film good. I’m just discovering Luis Buñuel’s work and I’m quickly becoming a fan. This film, (also known as THE YOUNG AND THE DAMNED) made in 1950 and released in the U.S. in 1952, takes a look at young street gangs in Mexico City. This film came in a period of Buñuel’s career after he was kicked out of the European scene for making a film deemed sacrilegious and the beginning of his work in Mexico.

The gritty black and white photography and the 1950s setting made me think of those “educational” films of the period that warned kids off drugs or sex. The film’s theme of street gangs adds to the comparison. However, Buñuel is too good of a director to make a preachy piece of propaganda. He was never shy to court controversy in the name of brutal realism and this film doesn’t shy away from the real hardships of ghetto life.

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ICHI THE KILLER (2001) (***1/2)

Not since IRREVERSIBLE have I had such a hard time coming to a decision about what I really think about a film. This movie shocks with sex and violence, but unlike the gut-wrenching reality of the violence in IRREVERSIBLE this film is like Quentin Tarantino on acid.

A yakuza (gang) war breaks out after the boss of the Anjo gang goes missing (i.e. killed). His sadomasochistic second-in-command Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano, THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI) sets out to find the truth no matter who he has to torture or kill. What we soon discover is that renegade yakuza Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto, DEAD OR ALIVE 2) is controlling sociopath killer Ichi (Nao Omori, DOLLS), driving him to wipe out the yakuza. Other key characters include yakuza boss Suzuki (Susumu Terajima, CASSHERN), sadomasochistic opportunist Karen (Paulyn Sun, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE), former cop/ current yakuza gunman Kaneko (Hiroyuki “Sabo” Tanaka) and Takeshi (Hiroshi Kobyashi), a young boy saved from bullies by Ichi.

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HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992) (****)

Gabe (Woody Allen, ANNIE HALL) and Judy Roth (Mia Farrow, ROSEMARY’S BABY) are shocked when their best friends Sally (Judy Davis, THE REF) and Jack (Sydney Pollack, TOOTSIE) announce that they are separating. This news opens up doubts and old wounds in Gabe and Judy’s marriage.

Jack and Sally say they mutually want to see other people, but she doesn’t know that he has already been seeing aerobics teacher Sam (Lysette Anthony, KRULL). So, Judy sets up Sally with her co-worker Michael Gates (Liam Neeson, SCHINDLER’S LIST), who she is really infatuated with. Meanwhile, Gabe becomes intrigued by his 20-year-old writing student Rain (Juliette Lewis, WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?).

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HOUSE OF WAX (1953) (***1/2)

Prof. Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price, LAURA) is a slightly-off wax sculptor who desperately resists the urging of his partner Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts, TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES) to put a house of horrors in their wax museum. After Jarrod resists, Burke decides to set fire to the museum and collect the insurance.

Jarrod is presumed to have died in the fire, but he reemerges in a wheelchair with burnt hands to start a new museum that now includes a house of horrors. So who is the scarred man that stalks the night? The mysterious murderer sets his sights on Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk, TV’s THE RED BUTTONS SHOW), who witnesses him killing her socialite friend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones, 1956’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH).

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GALLIPOLI (1981) (***)

This interesting look at the infamous World War I battle at Gallipoli in Turkey is unlike any “war” film I’ve ever seen before. The actually fighting doesn’t start until almost an hour and a half into the film. The film takes its time establishing the characters before it thrusts them into the war.

Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee, EMMA’S WAR) is a young track star who desperately wants to fight for his country, but is at first turned down for being too young. He meets up with drifter Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson, MAD MAX), who at first doesn’t want to have anything to do with the war, however his best mates Billy (Robert Grubb, MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME), Barney (Tim McKenzie, WITH PREJUDICE) and Snowy (David Argue, THE COCA-COLA KID) want to join the adventure. The film chronicles the young men’s journey and actual struggle to join the army, which is led by the British on a suicide mission.

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CREEPSHOW (1982) (**1/2)

Anthology films are so hard to judge, because you want to recommend the strong segments and disregard the weaker ones. Inspired by the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s, this film was written by Stephen King and directed by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD master George A. Romero. The film is comprised of five tales of phobia, bookended by a story of a father who takes his son’s CREEPSHOW comic away.

The first tale is “Father’s Day,” which tells the tale of Sylvia Grantham (Carrie Nye, TV’s THE GUIDING LIGHT) who has a twisted relationship with her now dead father. This segment has an early performance from Ed Harris (APOLLO 13) who has a run-in with a tombstone.

The second segment has a country bumpkin named Jordy Verrill (King) discovering a meteorite that contains a strange substance. The third and best segment — “Something to Tide You Over” — has Richard Vickers (Leslie Nielsen, NAKED GUN) seeking revenge on Harry Wentworth (Ted Danson, TV’s CHEERS), who is having an affair with Richard’s wife. Richard’s revenge has a twisted inspiration to it. It’s hard to remember that Nielsen started out in drama and is very good at it. His latter years of being typecasted as a slapstick man hide his talent as a bona fide actor.

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THE BROOD (1979) (***1/2)

Often written off as exploitation trash, I beg to differ. You have to look deeper and listen to what the characters are going through to understand the underlying meaning of the film. Director David Cronenberg is known for his gross-out moments. I mean he made THE FLY remake and this film has its gross moments as well. However, I feel they work and add to the creepiness of this film because they sum up at the end of the film.

Frank Carveth (Art Hindle, PORKY’S) is a caring father toward his 5-year-old daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds, THE DEAD ZONE). His wife Nola (Samantha Eggar, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE) is at a psychiatric institute under the care of the menacing Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed, GLADIATOR). Frank is worried about his daughter visiting his wife when he discovers bruises on the little girl. Raglan’s methods are called Psycho-Plasmics, where Raglan plays the person the patient has issues with and helps them rid them of their rage, which often creates bumps on their skin. Nola has some major issues with her divorced parents Juliana (Nuala Fitzgerald, CIRCLE OF TWO) and Barton Kelly (Henry Beckman, I LOVE YOU TO DEATH).

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THE BIRDS (1963) (***1/2)

Hey, guess what? I love another Alfred Hitchcock film. Every Hitchcock film I have seen before, I would want to see again. The master’s follow-up to PSYCHO isn’t as good as its predecessor, but it’s still a delightful thriller that has genuine scares and tension.

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren, MARNIE) is a beautiful socialite who has a meet-cute moment with lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor, GIANT) in a pet store. She pretends to be a worker there and Mitch plays along even though he knows exactly whom she is. She’s known as a practical joker and he doesn’t like her public persona. As a way to prove him wrong and impress him, Melanie finds out where he lives and plans to buy two love birds for his 11-year-old sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK), whose birthday is that weekend.

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THE BEYOND (1981) (**)

Lucio Fulci, along with his elder Mario Bava (who he worked for) and his contemporary Dario Argento, are the trilogy of Italian horror legends. Fulci and Argento are best known for their gory horrors flicks. They took the gore of George A. Romero’s zombie movies to the extreme. I’ve seen two films each from Fulci and Argento. I like Argento, who makes gory horror with stories that remind me of Hitchcock and DePalma. I have not liked Fulci. Where Argento wants to scary you; Fulci wants to repulse you. Gore for gore sake in horror films is pointless and exploitative. When it’s done right it’s frightening.

But the former art critic and medical student Fucli seems obsessed with melting and torn human flesh. He also has something with eyes popping out or poked in. I think his place in cinema history comes from the fact that his imagery is unforgettable. But the bad car wreck that I saw last week is unforgettable too and that isn’t art.

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Nik Phelps performs with Frederick Hodges

NIK PHELPS PERFORMS HIS SCORE FOR WINGS!!!! SUNDAY, MAY 15th at the
DARKROOM

If you missed it at the Balboa Theatre, in Point Arena or on our performance
tour of Scotland, you have one more chance to see and hear Nik and pianist
Frederick Hodges perform Nik's score to the 1926 Academy Award winning film
WINGS.

WINGS, staring Clara Bow, Buddy Rodgers & Richard Arlen, is still as strong
an anti-war film as it was when it was originally made, with exceptional
acting by a superb cast.

Dr. Hal Robbins will MC the evening, giving us all an added treat with his
remarkable and witty store of knowledge.

ONE PERFORMANCE ONLY!!! 8:00 P.M.

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April Hwy. clean-up

COME CLEAN THE HIGHWAY WITH NIK & NANCY -- Spring is here so let's take to
the highway to do something for Mother Nature (and ourselves too!!!
Sunday, April 24th. We meet at our house at 9:00 AM for brunch, watch the
safety film and then take to the highway for a couple of hours of good clean
fun!!! Be sure to save time afterward for the Bar-B-Que in our beautiful
back yard and even stick around for the evening film. Be sure to wear long
pants and good walking shoes. Questions??? meeting address???? call Nancy
at 415/ 681-3189

Blogs

THE HITCHER (1986) (***)

Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell, SOUL MAN) is a college-aged drive away driver going from Chicago to San Diego. Late one night he picks up a hitchhiker named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer, BLADE RUNNER). Soon enough he realizes that he has picked up a sick killer.

Through quick thinking, Jim gets away and this begins Ryder’s torment of Jim, taunting him and making his life a living hell. Jim finds an ally in diner waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY), though the world seems against him.

This cat and mouse tale is tense and fast moving. As the situation gets tenser for Jim, the film carries the same feelings to the audience with ease. Hauer is a perfect choice for the twisted sadomasochistic villain. Some of the film’s scares are classic moments. You won’t forget the French fries or what happens to Nash.

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THE WOODSMAN (2004) (****)

It’s hard to say out of the five actors (Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Don Cheadle and Johnny Depp) who got nominated for the Oscar, which one I’d drop, but it seems a shame that Kevin Bacon did not get nominated for what is his best performance ever. This smart and even-handed look at a pedophile is human and haunting.

Walter (Bacon, FLATLINERS) has just been released from a 12-year prison sentence for molesting girls aged 10-14. He gets a job at a lumberyard, where he meets tough and forward gal, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, WHAT’S COOKING?). However, lumberyard secretary Mary-Kay (Eve, BARBERSHOP) is very leery of the new guy. Walter’s brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt, MISS CONGENIALITY) visits him, but his sister refuses to. Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def, upcoming HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY) pays Walter visits as well, talking down to him like he is the scum of the Earth.

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VERA DRAKE (2004) (****)

Though this film deals with abortion, it’s not about abortion. The film is a character study about a woman who does illegal and possibly dangerous abortions for all the right reasons.

This character is Vera Drake, played amazingly by Oscar-nominee Imelda Staunton (MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING). Director Mike Leigh (SECRETS & LIES) skillfully crafts this tale, which sets up Vera’s life and family before thrusting the drama of the story upon the audience. Stan (Phil Davis, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY) is her devoted blue-collar husband. Sid (Daniel Mays, ALL OR NOTHING) is Vera’s son, a tailor by day, wanna-be player by night. Ethel (Alex Kelly, ALL OR NOTHING) is Vera’s mousy daughter.

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