Month: October 2011

Real Steel

2011

Touchstone Pictures

 Directed by Shawn Levy

Produced by Susan Montford and Don Murphy

Screenplay by John Gatins

Story by Dan Gilroy

Based on “Steel” by Richard Matheson

Ever since I first saw the trailers for this movie I have refused to call it by its actual name of REAL STEEL.  Far as I was concerned this was “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie” and now that I’ve actually seen it, I think it deserves that title even more.  Because that’s just what it is; robots rockin’ and sockin’.  Wrapped around the epic ‘bot battles is a heartwarming story of a father and son reconnecting and without the story, the movie wouldn’t nowhere be near as much fun as it is.

It’s twenty minutes into the future and human boxing has been replaced by robot boxing.  Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) stays in the game thanks to the underground illegal robot boxing arenas.  He buys robots on the black market.  Robots who usually lose.  On the run from men who owes a lot of money to, Charlie is informed that his ex-girlfriend has died, leaving behind her 11 year old son, Max (Dakota Goyo).  Charlie has absolutely no interest in being a father so he makes a deal with Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn).  Marvin wants to go away to Italy with Aunt Debra (Hope Davis) for a final fling as a couple before settling down to raise Max.  For $100,000 Charlie agrees to sign away all legal claim to Max and take care of the boy for three months.  Neither Charlie or Max is happy about the arraignment and caught in the middle of their mutual antagonism is Charlie’s long suffering girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly).  She’s had with fixing the busted up robots Charlie keeps bringing home.  And the final straw is when Charlie badly mishandles the controls of a Japanese fighting robot named Noisy Boy.  Noisy Boy gets trashed in a fight, leaving them all broke as Charlie spent his $50,000 advance buying the robot.

But things change when Charlie and Max find an entire working robot in a junkyard while foraging for replacement parts to repair Noisy Boy.  The found robot, named Atom is a sparring robot.  He can take a lot of punishment but he can’t dish it out.  Taking parts for Noisy Boy and another robot, Charlie and Max upgrade Atom and take him on the road where Atom proceeds to take the robot boxing world by surprise when he wins match after match.  In the process attracting the attention of genius robot designer Mashido (Karl Yune) and Farra Lemcova, the brains and money behind Zeus, undisputed champion of The World Robot Boxing League.  Atom is becoming too popular too fast and so a unique challenge is proposed.  One that may destroy the bond that has been forged between not only between father and son but between boy and robot as well.

Don’t let that last line throw you.  You don’t have to have seen a lot of boxing movies to tell how REAL STEEL is going to end up.  Or think this is going to be a heavy emotional trip.  Every single beat REAL STEEL hits goes all the way back to 1931’s “The Champ”.  That’s not to say that REAL STEEL doesn’t have fun with boxing movies tropes.

I especially enjoyed the choreography of the robot fighters as well as their distinctive visuals.  In the “Transformers” movies it’s impossible for me to tell the robots apart or understand what’s going on in the fight scenes.  Not so in REAL STEEL.  The great Sugar Ray Leonard was the boxing consultant for the movie and it shows.  Even though these are CGI/animatronic seven foot tall, thousand pound robots, they move with the fluid grace and realism of human boxers.  It’s exhilarating to watch.

So should you see REAL STEEL?  Absolutely.  It’s a fun movie and Hugh Jackman is always good in whatever movie he’s in (yes, even “Australia”) while Evangeline Lilly surprised me.  I only know her from “Lost” but judging from this movie, she’s got a nice career ahead of her.  Dakota Goyo plays one of those hyper-intelligent movie kids that usually gets on my nerves.  You know the type; they’re not really kids at all but small adults.  However, in this movie it kinda works as Max is a kid who has been forced by circumstances to grow up before his time while Charlie has simply grown older.  Not necessarily ‘up’.  There are a couple of amusing scenes where Charlie and Max appear to have switched roles as child and adult.

I usually don’t hope for sequels but I am hoping for a REAL STEEL sequel.  And maybe they’ll go ahead and call it REAL STEEL II: ROCK ‘EM SOCK ‘EM ROBOTS.  That would be nice.

127 minutes

PG-13

The Ides of March

2011

Columbia Pictures

Directed by George Clooney

Produced by George Clooney, Brian Heslov and Brian Oliver

Screenplay by George Clooney and Brian Heslov

Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimo

A movie like THE IDES OF MARCH couldn’t have come along at a better time.  What with the country being so politically divided and the various political parties at each others throats, a political thriller is undoubtedly a topical one.  But it’s not fair to call THE IDES OF MARCH a thriller.  It’s more of a character piece, examining the flaws of our political system.  Flaws that make it just about impossible for an honest man to remain honest if he wants to get to where he believes he needs to go to do the most good.  And how good can the intentions of a good man be when he betrays everything he believes in to achieve those intentions?

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is The Junior Campaign Manager for presidential candidate Govenor Mike Morris (George Clooney).  Under the guidance of Senior Campaign Manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Stephen is clearly the real star of the campaign and it’s obvious he’s got a brilliant future ahead of him.  In fact, he’s considered to be so valuable a resource that the rival Senior Campaign Manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) wants to hire Stephen for his team.  Paul wants to make use of Stephen before he becomes cynical and corrupt like Tom and Paul.

Stephen turns him down but decides not to tell his boss.  A decision that will bite him very badly in the ass later on.  Along with his decision to cover up the affair one of his interns (Evan Rachel Wood) had with Governor Morris.  Both of these decisions drive the second half of the movie which ends up the only way that it possibly could, given the nature of the arena Stephen has chosen to play in.

THE IDES OF MARCH is one of those movies I point at when people complain that movies for adults aren’t being made anymore.  It’s a movie that carefully examines why people get into politics and why it changes them.  It’s almost as if no matter how honorable a man or woman is when they start their political career, the machinery changes them.  And not for the better.

This movie has one of the best ensemble casts I’ve seen in recent movies.  Besides Gosling, Clooney, Hoffman and Giamatti there’s Marisa Tomei as a reporter for The New York Times and Jeffrey Wright as a Senator whose endorsement is hotly sought as it is vital to the success of both campaigns.  Everybody’s simply terrific in their roles and Ryan Gosling especially gives off vibes that at times reminded me of Mickey Rourke and at others of Steve McQueen.

So should you see THE IDES OF MARCH?  I would certainly say yes.  It’s a mature movie.  And when I say ‘mature’ I don’t mean just because the movie has a sex scene and the “F” word is used.  I mean that it’s mature because of the issues at stake.  The moral and emotional values that are tested and broken.  The relationships that go in directions that are not expected.  And at the end of it, Stephen Meyers is left with what he worked so hard for and only himself to decide if it was worth it.

101 Minutes

Rated R

Mary Reilly

1996
TriStar

Directed by Stephen Frears
Produced by Norma Heyman, Nancy Graham Tanen and Ned Tanen
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
Based on the novel by Valerie Martin

I’ve never been much impressed by Julia Roberts in terms of her looks as she resembles her brother Eric Roberts way too much for my tastes. As an actress she also never did much for me although I’ll freely admit that I have to pretend there’s something in my eye if I’m watching her death scene in “Steel Magnolias” with other people.  And I thought the notion of Tess Ocean in “Ocean’s Twelve” being a dead ringer for Julia Roberts was a pretty funny one since this meant that Julia Roberts ended up playing a character that was playing that character’s idea of Julia Roberts. She must have a terrific sense of humor since she took the chance to poke fun at her own media image of herself in that convoluted role.

So given how I feel about Julia Roberts, why did I watch MARY REILLY?  Well, since John Malkovitch was co-starring and the movie was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” I was intrigued enough to give it a look and was pleasantly surprised that I ended up enjoying it a helluva lot more than I thought I would.

Mary Reilly (Julia Roberts) is a slim whisper of an Irish lass who was placed “in service” by her mother who had no other choice if Mary was to get away from her horrific father (Michael Gambon). This model specimen of manhood would lock Mary in a closet under the stairs and throw in a bag of rats to keep her company whenever he got drunk. The rats would eventually chew their way out of the bag and then start chewing on Mary. Mary eventually comes to the household of a notable Edinburgh physician who is intrigued by the scars on her neck and wrists, souvenirs of her battles with the rats. They have conversations about her father and the nature of his evil.  They debate about if evil is inherent in man’s nature and the purpose of evil in the world and indeed, does it have a necessary purpose in the scheme of things. These conversations are remarkable on two levels. First; given the rigid class structure of England in the 19th Century the very notion that a doctor, a gentleman, a man of education and learning would even discuss such matters with a maid is more shocking and disturbing than if they were having sexual relations. And second, the doctor happens to be Henry Jekyll (John Malkovitch)…who employs a frighteningly brutal man named Edward Hyde (John Malkovitch) as his assistant…

Right from the start we know more about what is going on than Mary Reilly since we know that Henry Jekyll is shooting up with his homebrewed funky cold medina and going out at night doin’ all kinds of wild thangs as Edward Hyde.

But that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the movie as this isn’t meant to be an out-and-out horror movie, even though there are some outstanding horrific moments and we never see the transformation from Hyde to Jekyll until near the end. No, this is more of a psychological horror film with a really weird and disturbing romantic triangle being formed between Mary, Jekyll and Hyde. This movie is a great example of what I think is meant by Gothic horror with some unusual sets, such as Dr. Jekyll’s lab, which can only be reached by a walkway suspended from chains over what might as well be a black bottomless pit. Jekyll’s house seems forever dark and claustrophobic and most of the scenes take place either at night or in darkened, shadowed rooms. Mary and Dr. Jekyll form a creepy bond as he relies more and more on her and in a strange way, Mary becomes an accomplice in the dark and terrifying deeds of Edward Hyde as she takes messages back and forth from Dr. Jekyll to Mrs. Farraday (Glenn Close) the madam of the bawdy house where Hyde commits some really despicable acts that Jekyll gladly pays to hush up.

I really liked the performances of Julia Roberts and John Malkovitch here. Julia Roberts manages to disappear into the character of Mary Reilly and conveys a lot of strength and vulnerability. We can see how she’s attracted both to Henry Jekyll’s intelligence, gentleness and compassion but also to Edward Hyde’s brutality and raw sexuality. John Malkovitch makes an interesting choice in how to play Jekyll/Hyde. He plays Jekyll as an older man, with gray hair and a scruffy mustache, slightly on the heavy side, slow and deliberate. Edward Hyde is thin as a scalpel, fast as a bullwhip, clean shaven, young and virile with a flowing mane of thick black hair. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took his inspiration from Jack Palance, who played the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a memorable 1968 Dan Curtis production in a similar manner.

The strength of MARY REILLY comes from us seeing major events from the classic Jekyll and Hyde story distilled through the eyes and sensibilities of Mary and the rest of the house staff and it’s really interesting to watch such a well-known story unfold through the eyes of secondary characters. The footman Bradshaw (Michael Sheen) speculates that Hyde might be Jekyll’s illegitimate son and at one point he even says in frustration; “Doesn’t anybody besides me notice they look quite a bit alike?” And the butler Mr. Poole (George Cole) is obviously jealous of the growing relationship between his master and Mary and that colors his treatment not only of her but also of Dr. Jekyll.

So should you see MARY REILLY? I’d say yes. It’s by far the most unusual version of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that I’ve seen in terms of the way the subject matter is handled. It’s got murder and mayhem but it’s focused on character and atmosphere instead of special effects. The acting by John Malkovitch and Julia Roberts is remarkably strong and powerful. This could be one of the few horror movies that guys can watch with their wives or girlfriends and due to the subject matter and acting be considered wonderfully sensitive and yet have their bloodlust satisfied. Enjoy.

Rated R
108 minutes

BiTD Basement of Horrors!

It’s become a tradition–around Halloween, The Boys Outta Brooklyn always discuss horror films you might not have considered when planning your movie marathons for the spookiest holiday of all. And during the past seven years we’ve build up a graveyard full of spooktacular episodes focusing on the creepy and the ooky as well as the mysterious and kooky. Here’s a complete listing of the horror themed episodes of BETTER IN THE DARK. Maybe you’ve listened to some or all of ‘em of them before. But if you haven’t, here they go. Bounce on over to the BiTD Fan Page Episode Archive and get to clickin’! 

EPISODE #5: Once again with more enthusiasm than facts (although we’re getting better), Tom and Derrick spend an hour looking at George Romero’s DEAD series. From NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to LAND OF THE DEAD we examine the entire canon, including the remakes. Plus, the guys from Brooklyn tackle the eternal question of “Canada–what gives?”

EPISODE #12: What Made Haddonfield Famous–The Halloween Series
The Guys Outta Brooklyn unleash almost 90 minutes of filmic goodness. Join Thomas and Derrick as they go through the entire eight-film cycle, from the John Carpenter classic to the dumb-ass sight of Busta Rhymes kung fu-ing Michael Meyers. No film goes unmentioned or unpunished!

Episode #17: Hunting In A Black Cemetery For A Haunted Phantasm Before Dawn
Join the Boys From Brooklyn as they discuss with more enthusiasm than facts six of their favorite horror films. From the classic-but-near-forgotten PHANTASM to the insanely wrong-headed (in the positive sense) CEMETARY MAN we’re sure to turn you onto something that’s perfect for your tastes. Also, Tom and Derrick talk about the charms of both versions of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. It’s a gruesome grab bag of cinematic chillers, so what are you waiting for?

EPISODE #43: The Sleepy Wicker Man Under The Stairs On The Descent To Hell’s Cell
Join Derrick and Tom as they discuss such underground classics as the British pagan thriller THE WICKER MAN, the African-American economic scare story THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, the very literal comedic horror tale HIGHWAY TO HELL and other treats to trick you into screaming! Plus Thomas imitates Gilbert Gottfried, the Guys discuss movies to make you claustrophobic, and we ponder the fate of Patrick Bergin.

EPISODE #59: BLACK GLOVES ARE FOR MURDER: THE GIALLO STYLINGS OF DARIO ARGENTO
The Guys Outta Brooklyn go continental as we examine a quintet of giallo films by the man who helped originate the genre, Dario Argento! From the insanely plotted but compelling TENEBRAE to the insanely plotted and craptacular TRAUMA to the clip show love letter DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?, Tom and Derrick examine the handiwork of this seminal Italian director. Plus Tom gets an excuse to trot out another accent, how the Three Mothers trilogy is like Kill Bill and a word from our sponsor, The Argento Decapomatic! You know it’s all like a dream brought on by too much Ziti Fra Diablo, so get to clicking!

EPISODE #61: TRIUMVERATE OF PASSION AND TERROR–THE FILMS OF CLIVE BARKER
Tom and Derrick team up with Des Reddick, host of Dread Media as they discuss the unique cinematic vision of Clive Barker! Join the trio as they examine HELLRAISER, NIGHTBREED and LORD OF ILLUSION, as well as a number of other films based on the writer’s work. Plus far too many references to baboon butt, teaching our Junior Correspondent how to properly punch his dad, and how Jennifer Rubin ended up on the poster of Nightbreed! It’s a damn sight better than murdering the world, so get to clicking!

EPISODE #67: BEHIND THE DUEL OF MARY LOU, THE LITTLE GIRL WHO BURNT SATAN’S CLAW
Derrick chooses three films from the 70′s including one of Steven Spielberg’s first and a creepy guignol tale featuring a young Jodie Foster, and Tom chooses such gems as a high school ghost story and a ‘documentary’ that follows an aspiring serial killer as he plans his night of grue! It’s a six-pack of sinister ideas–plus some suggestions for a second feature to make those choices even more fun–so get to clicking!

EPISODE #72: TRANSPORTING MR. ROMERO
It started out as a simple episode examining the career of George Romero by looking at some non-zombie movies in his canon. But before it’s done, the Boys Outta Brooklyn will find themselves engaging in the first–and maybe last–edition of Better In The Dark Fight Night, featuring a selection of action movie stars…and Tom Savini. Plus Derrick tells us why Wes Craven deserves a daily kick in the ass, Tom has fun with public domain blaxploitation films, and gratuitous Kristen Bell. After all, it wouldn’t be an authentic BiTD episode without gratuitous Kristen Bell, right?

EPISODE #81: WHAT MADE SPRINGWOOD FAMOUS: THE NIGHTMARE SERIES
In an episode three years in the making, Derrick does for Freddy Krueger what Tom did for Michael Myers and examines the entire NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET ouvre, from the absolutely classic first entry through the rather…goofy end to the attempts to recreate the series in WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE and the monster rally FREDDY VS. JASON! Along the way, The Guys Outta Brooklyn discuss the importance of Robert Englund in creating this horror icon, how Wes Craven attempted to kill the franchise repeatedly, and how the films, as bad as they got never lost money. Plus…we find a connection between the series and the ultra-obscure Adam Sandler vehicle The Unsinkable Shecky Moscowitz and address a great disservice done to Curtis Mayfield. Every town has an Elm Street so get to clickin’!

EPISODE #88: DIRECTOR’S COURT–THE CASE OF ROGER CORMAN
The latest edition of Better In The Dark brings an icon of Drive-In Cinema before the docket! Tom and Derrick examine the influence American original Roger Corman had on Hollywood as both a director and a producer in a career that spans five decades. From his Poe adaptations to the long list of creative types he influenced to the series of giant animal movies that prowl the fringes of Syfy, Corman entire life is put under the microscope. Plus Tom and Derrick mourn Gary Coleman, who you should never patronize a business run by Klaus Kinski, and why a certain film should’ve been renamed MURDER HYUNDAIS! You’ve never lost money listening to us, so get to clicking!

Episode #90: WHO CAN SHANK THE STRANGE CORRUPTION OF THE GRIM PRAIRIE SAUNA (Special Guest–Des Reddick)
It’s time for this year’s iteration of a Better In The Dark tradition, as Tom and Derrick once again provide you with suggestions for Obscure Horror Films to light up your Halloween festivities. This year, however, they welcome the Patriarch of the First Family of BITD (and host of Dread Media), Des Reddick, to join in. The results are an international six pack of horror flicks ranging from the Finish period piece SAUNA to the New Zealand (pretending to be Nebraska) should’ve been a period piece STRANGE BEHAVIOR to the Spanish chiller WHO COULD KILL A CHILD. Plus zombie chickens! Tom Cruise sitting around in his underwear! The world’s most unscary home invaders! Everything goes better with monkeys, so get to clicking!

Episode #116: The Company of Beguiled Wittering Magic Shadows Must Die (Guest: Desmond Reddick)

The Boys Outta Brooklyn once more sit down with their Brother From the North, Des “Dread Media” Reddick, to discuss another six-pack of Obscure Horror Films designed to spice up your Halloween marathons! Tom, Derrick, and Des put the spotlight on werewolves and maniacs, with films set in the Old West, Feudal Japan, a fairy tale forest, and a British boarding school. Plus, oysters, monkeys, and most importantly, The Werewolf Break! You know one of us is a beast, so get to clicking!

Episode #118: Gatekeepers of Childhood Nightmares – The American Horror Host Tradition (Guest: Lord Blood Rah)

The Guys Outta Brooklyn return to their upbringing when they welcome modern-day horror movie host Lord Blood Rah to discuss the origins, history, and resurgence of the American Horror Movie Host tradition! Of course, this being a guest host episode of Better in the Dark, it soon morphs into a freewheeling discussion of the state of horror movies in general. It’s almost two hours of fun and frights in the BITD manner! Plus, the forgotten blaxploitation mummy epic, why Dr. Frankenstein always has the upper hand when other mad scientists host tea parties, and why it might be a good thing that Guillermo del Toro isn’t adapting Lovecraft. It’s time to cut up that giant ameba, so get to clicking!

Episode #129. Director’s Court – Tim Burton

The Boys Outta Brooklyn reconvene Director’s Court to pass judgement on Tim Burton. Tom and Derrick cover the man’s entire career, and try to figure out if he is still blazing new trails or relying on the same old tropes. Plus, Derrick knows the value of Johnny Depp to moviegoers, why the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka may be a demented serial killer, and, for the first time ever, our subject may get his revenge. You know Spectre is really swell, so get to clicking!

Episode #130. The Gentleman with Blood in His Teeth – A Celebration of Christopher Lee

The Boys Outta Brooklyn raise their glasses to honor the great Christopher Lee! Join Tom and Derrick as they explain why this is one of the most remarkable actors they’ve ever discussed, and not just because of his defining horror film roles! If that’s not enough, they struggle to explain the plot of one of Lee’s weirdest films, the insane Scream and Scream Again! Plus, Tom sings heavy metal, Derrick suspects the word “Huguenots” is dirty, and writing talk. You know the world will hear from us again, so get to clicking!

Episode #138. And Soon May The Header Man Skin? With Special Guest Desmond Reddick!

Tom and Derrick once more team-up with Dread Media’s own Des Reddick to pick a bunch of horror films you may not have heard of! From the bleak coming of (twisted) age story, The Reflecting Skin, to not one but two iterations of the atmospheric psychological thriller, And Soon the Darkness, the Guys Outta Brooklyn (and Vancouver) serves up an hour and a half of conversation and movie recommendations for your Halloween festivals. Plus, the debut of Clemens’ Peelers, and the new film rating Ebola! There are too many pretty parts, so get to clicking!

The Reflecting Skin3

Better In The Dark #116

 

Episode 116: THE COMPANY OF BEGUILED WITTERING MAGIC SHADOWS MUST DIE (Special Guest: Des Reddick!)

It’s October, which means The Boys Outta Brooklyn once more sits down with their Brother From The North, Des ‘Dread Media’ Reddick to discuss another six pack of Obscure Horror Films designed to spice up your Halloween marathons! Tom, Derrick and Des put the spotlight on werewolves and maniacs, with films set in the Old West, Feudal Japan, a fairy tale forest, and a British boarding school. Plus oysters, monkeys, and most importantly…The Werewolf Break! You know one of us is a beast, so get to clicking!

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House On Haunted Hill

1959
Warner Home Video

Produced and Directed by William Castle
Written by Robb White

Sooner or later I get asked the question: “Derrick, what’s your favorite horror movie?” and the answer I give is one that never fails to get the same reaction. The questioner’s eyes open wide and the corners of their mouths turn down a bit. “Really?” they’ll say. “Isn’t that movie kinda…well…corny?” Well, maybe so but then I recall the old saying about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. And HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is a treasure of mine. Maybe it’s because I have fond memories of watching the movie along with my parents and my sisters every time it was shown on Channel 9 here in New York during the 70’s. When I first started to try to write stories when I was around ten I must have rewritten HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL a hundred times. Maybe it’s because the story ends on a plot twist that to an impressionable young writer such as I was at the time was nothing short of brilliance. As an adult I’ve long ago stopped trying to analyze why I like something. It’s just enough that I watch it and it’s a ritual that every Halloween I watch HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

Eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) has invited five people to stay the night in a genuine haunted house. It’s haunted because seven people were murdered there some years ago and supposedly their ghosts still walk the halls, wreaking vengeance on any foolish enough to stay the night. Loren is willing to risk staying the night along with his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) and he’ll give the other five $10,000 apiece if they will also stay.

It’s an equally eccentric bunch Loren has invited. Lance Schroeder (Richard Long) is a test pilot who wants to test his nerve. Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) is a secretary supporting her family and she honestly needs the money more than the others. Watson Pritchard’s (Elisha Cook) family used to own the house and Watson himself is the only human being to have ever survived a night in the house. It’s doubtful that his sanity has survived. Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal) is a psychiatrist who wants to test his theories on hysteria and shock. Ruth Bridges (Julie Mitchum) is a nationally syndicated columnist who needs the money to cover her gambling debts and keep herself out of the gossip columns. Everybody is locked inside at midnight and can’t leave until 8AM the next morning. Loren passes out .45 automatics as ‘party favors’ and that’s when things start happening.

Blood drips from the ceiling. There’s a severed head that keeps disappearing and re-appearing in the most inappropriate places. There are secret passages, a vat of acid in the basement. Ghostly women float in mid-air outside the barred windows while horrendous lightning storms shake the house. The ghosts appear to be focusing their attention on Nora who despite her steady, dependable exterior is swiftly driven to near madness. But is it really something supernatural at work here or does the source of the house’s evil have a human cause?

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is great fun to watch if you approach it in the right spirit. Sure it was filmed on the cheap and the special effects aren’t exactly special. But there’s that wonderful Vincent Price performance and both Carolyn Craig and Carol Ohmart are no Fay Wray but they’re terrific screamers in their own right. And at 75 minutes the movie doesn’t waste your time. It’s all plot with just enough characterization so that we know who’s doing what and why. And HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL has one of the most blood-freezing scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Nora Manning is trying to find a secret door in a room down in the wine cellar. She bends down briefly, stands up, turns and is face to face with a hideous old woman, claw like hands outstretched, her jagged teeth bared. Nora screams and jumps back and the old woman doesn’t run out of the room. She floats. It doesn’t sound very blood-freezing when you read it but I guarantee that if anybody you know has seen HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL they remember that scene if they don’t remember any other.

So should you see HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL? I certainly recommend it. And there’s a double sided DVD available that has not only this version but also the 1999 remake as well which I also recommend. I don’t like it as much as the original which will always have a special place in my diseased heart but it’s worth seeing.

Solaris

2002

20th Century Fox

Written and Directed by Steven Soderberg

Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem

I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch SOLARIS as it had been so long since I read the Stanislaw Lem novel that I remembered little of the plot and I’ve never seen the 1972 version directed by Andrei Tartakovsky.  But by the time it was finished I was highly impressed.  Here’s a science fiction movie that doesn’t have bug-eyed aliens trying to eat us or conquer us.  There’s no babble of technospeak to make us think the characters are smarter than us.  There’s no laser gun battles or huge action sequences.  Like “Gattaca” or “EXistenZ” the movie qualifies as genuine science fiction, telling a thoughtful, mature, intelligent story about the nature of love and humanity.  But it does it in such a spooky, unnerving fashion that SOLARIS could almost qualify as a haunted house movie in space.  Think of “2001: A Space Odyssey” crossed with “The Shining” That’s how I would sum up SOLARIS to someone who’s never seen it.

Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychologist who appears to be successful but the emptiness of his life is almost more than he can stand.  He is snapped out of his depression by a cryptic message from his best friend Dr. Gibarian (Ulrich Tuker) who is part of a scientific team conducting research on a space station orbiting the distant planet Solaris.  The scientists have stopped answering all transmissions and a security team dispatched to find out what happened simply disappeared shortly after arriving on the station.  The only clue as to what is going on is the message to Chris in which Gibarian begs him to come to Solaris.

Chris goes and finds that Gibarian along with most of the team is dead.  There are only two survivors: Dr. Helen Gordon (Viola Davis) who is paranoid and hostile.  Snow (Jeremy Davis) is more laid back and even seems maddeningly cheerful about the situation.  He’s got what I think is one of the most chilling lines in the movie: “I could tell you what’s happened here but I don’t think that would tell you what’s happened here.”  Chris finds trails of blood that start nowhere and end nowhere.  And there’s a little boy with large, serene eyes prowling around the station.  A little boy who has no business being there.  And soon, Chris discovers for himself the frightening secret of Solaris when he is visited by his hauntingly beautiful wife Rheya who committed suicide several years ago after a bitter argument with Chris.

Gordon and Snow have had their own visitors as well.  Gordon refuses to tell who came to see her but it terrified her so much that she has created a weapon that can destroy these apparitions.  But are they apparitions?  They can be touched.  They laugh and cry.  They appear to be completely and totally human.  So much so that Chris falls in love with Rheya all over again and clutches at this chance to save her.  Gordon is equally determined to destroy whatever it is Rheya may be.  The battle in this movie is between ideas and emotions, not massive space fleets but it’s no less exciting to watch.

The movie looks as if it could be taking place in the same universe as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” especially the scenes on the space station which quickly takes on a really creepy life of its own.  There are scenes where Chris is walking through the station and can dimly hear laughter or faint weeping or soft moans coming from the further reaches of the station.  There’s a blood freezing moment where he wakes up and sees Rheya talking with the little boy.  He turns his head and there’s yet another Rheya sitting nearby.  And Gibarian comes back to talk to Chris.  Chris demands to know what Solaris wants and the apparition of Gibarian asks: “why do you assume that it has to want something?”

It’s this refusal on the part of writer/director Steve Soderberg to attribute any kind of human motive or behavior to the actions of Solaris that makes the movie.  Surely there has to be some reason why Solaris is creating these exact replicas but the reason is never explained to us or to Chris Kelvin.  Solaris is this gigantic ball of living matter whose intelligence is so far above human that trying to comprehend its motives might drive a man insane and indeed, by the end of the movie, you may be wondering if the last few scenes are indeed real or taking place in Chris Kelvin’s shattered mind.  The last fifteen minutes or so will most definitely make you think if you’ve found the previous hour and thirty minutes intriguing.

The acting is outstanding here, especially George Clooney.  He’s one of the most likeable actors working in film today and here he creates a character that is extremely vulnerable and believable.  This isn’t a chest-beating man of action but a professional explorer of the labyrinth of the human mind who finds himself caught in his own emotional and psychological maze and has no idea how to get out.  Jeremy Davis is a lot of fun as he gives his character all of these strange quirks and ways of phrasing his sentences that are quite entertaining and even creepy.  And this is the first movie I recall seeing Viola Davis in and was highly impressed with what I saw.  Miss Davis is one of those handful of actors who are excellent even if the movie they’re in is crappy.  Thankfully, SOLARIS isn’t one of those movies which makes it all the better.

SOLARIS is the real deal.  It’s not an action or horror movie in sci-fi drag.  It deals with issues of life, death, the human heart and the nature of reality in such an intelligently adult manner that I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  If you haven’t seen it I strongly urge you to do so.

PG-13

99 minutes