Ha ha!

You just never know what he'll review next!

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Burl reviews Body Snatchers! (1993)


Once again, it’s the actual Burl and not an amazing facsimile, ha ha! Really, I promise; but after reviewing yet another adaptation of the sturdy and always-relevant Jack Finney story about drifting moss from outer space that absorbs people and recreates them as emotionless simulacra, I can understand your doubts! This time the director behind it all, somewhat surprisingly, is the auteur behind Fear City, Abel Ferrara, and, reflecting the streamlined approach, his version is called simply Body Snatchers!

The Don Siegel picture was set in a small town, and Philip Kaufman’s excellent remake, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, took place in the big city, but this one is laid on an army base, which turns out to be an extremely apt location even if the movie doesn’t exploit it to its full potential! On the other hand, if they’d pushed the dehumanization inherent to the military too much, it might have seemed preachy or at least overbaked, so maybe Ferrara and his screenwriters (including Stuart Gordon, who was originally supposed to direct it, I believe) got it right!

We join a non-military family as they arrive at the base: dad works for the EPA, and is not a supercilious bureaucrat like the EPA guy in Ghostbusters, but a shaggy ex-hippie type; mom, or rather, stepmom, is played by Meg Tilly from Psycho II and Impulse (and who's particularly effective once she turns counterfeit); and there’s a teenage daughter who’s more or less the main character; and then there’s a little guy too, maybe five years old, played by one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen! Ha ha, he’s really terrific! Ferrara must have liked him too, because he used the young chap again in his next picture, the Madonna vs. Harvey Keitel one that I've seen, and completely forgotten, called Dangerous Games!

Anyway, one guy on the base who sure hasn’t been taken over yet is the post’s chain-smoking doctor, played with much nervousness by Forest Whitaker from Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai! On the other hand, R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket is the commanding officer, and there’s no discerning that guy from a pod version, is there, ha ha! Billy Wirth from The Lost Boys plays a sympathetic soldier who becomes a co-hero along with the girl!

As always when I see little kids in horror movies, I dreaded what might happen to the little brother; and indeed one of the most effective scenes in the early part of the picture has him becoming heartbreakingly alarmed when every other kid in his classroom has made the exact same finger painting! You can see it in the eyes of this fine little actor: the dawning awareness that his own very different painting has made him an object of suspicion and maybe even of attack from his zomboid classmates!

While it’s no House By the Cemetery, my worst fears for the young character were indeed realized, though his part in the tale is wrapped up with the goofiest plummeting effect since Link, so that eased my anguish a bit! Of course there are no happy endings in the pod stories, but this version does present a little bit of payback before the inevitable! Ferrara keeps it all moving quickly, and orchestrates a few decently suspenseful or suitably gross spaghetti sequences, and thanks to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who shot The Ring and Pumpkinhead, the picture looks pretty good too! It’s not up to the standards set by the first two cinematic adaptations, but it doesn’t embarrass them either; and it’s better than The Puppet Masters, and almost certainly better than the more recent official adaptation of the Finney story, simply called The Invasion, which I’ve not seen and currently have no plans to! I think three solid versions is enough for me, and so I give this one, Body Snatchers, three solid versions!

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Burl reviews My Science Project! (1985)


By all the brain wizards, it’s Burl, here to review another of the many science lad pictures that came out in the years 1985 through 1986! If you cast your net wide, you can see just how many of them there were: you’ve got Back to the Future, Explorers, Weird Science, Real Genius, The Manhattan Project, Deadly Friend, The Wizard of Science, proto-examples like WarGames, fringe constituents like Flight of the Navigator and D.A.R.Y.L., and then of course today’s entry, My Science Project!

The picture opens with a nice flashback sequence set in the 1950s, showing a plus-fours-sporting Dwight Eisenhower - played by an actor called Robert Beer, who also played Eisenhower in The Right Stuff, and in fact only ever played Eisenhower in every movie he ever appeared in - being shown a UFO, and ordering it dismantled and buried! Thirty years later, grease-stained high school gearhead John Stockwell, who played a grease-stained high school gearhead in Christine, must come up with a project to satisfy his mad hippie science teacher played appealingly by Dennis Hopper from Black Widow! Crawling around in a junkyard, Stockwell comes across a piece of the UFO, and from there it’s the dimwitted greaseball, his bookish tagalong semi-sweetie, an unsavory, finger-gloved best friend played by Fisher Stevens from The Burning, and an intolerable glasses nerd called Sherman, all trying to prevent the device, or gizmo, or whatnot, from opening up a time portal and causing life on earth to become an interdimensional four-vector crossways of simultaneous overlapping gravitomagnetic streams of spacetime! Ha ha!

In theory this sounds interesting, but in practice we get lots of blue-light optical effects, sparking batteries, and a high school invaded by cavemen, conquistadors, Viet Cong soldiers, and a dinosaur, and not much pondering on the larger implications! The trick effects, in particular the dinosaur, are well done, and the desert-town setting is visually appealing and occasionally atmospheric! But the picture is narratively chonky and tonally muddled in a way that usually indicates either bad direction or studio mutilation, or both! Given that the director was a first-timer, and his only feature credit after this was the Whoopi-dinosaur buddy-cop amscray Theodore Rex (which indicates at least that he knew the best part of his debut was the T-Rex), one is tempted to blame him; but Touchstone Pictures was, I believe, known to “touch” their pictures quite a lot before releasing them! Ha ha!

So it’s not a great picture, but it’s occasionally fun, particularly when Dennis Hopper is on screen! There’s a supporting cast of familiar faces too, like Barry Corbin from This House Possessed, playing Stockwell’s dad; Ann Wedgeworth from No Small Affair playing his new stepmom; Richard Masur from The Thing as a tough-guy detective; small roles for Robert DoQui from Cloak & Dagger and Jackson Bostwick from The Prey; and of course Michael Berryman from Deadly Blessing, again playing a mutant! For these worthies, and for some nice trick effects, and for a premise that might have been squandered, but at least had promise, and for the featured appearance of a cherry GTO, I give My Science Project a grade of one and a half laughing stewbums!

Monday 23 November 2020

Burl reviews Kongo! (1932)

Ha ha and houndstooth, it’s Burl, here to review a bit of pre-code nastiness that plays like Freaks meets Island of Lost Souls meets The Most Dangerous Game! It’s not quite the firecracker that combo makes it sound like - ha ha, it’s too stagey for that - but it frequently comes close! Anyway, it’s lurid, and the name of the picture is Kongo!

It’s a remake of West of Zanzibar, the Lon Chaney silent jungle extravaganza in which he plays a stratospherically nasty jungle kingpin known alternately as Flint and Dead Legs! Like The Penalty, which it strongly resembles, it was an opportunity for Chaney to play a paraplegic who never lets his disability get in the way of his psychotically sadistic behavior! But for the talkie version the filmmakers went for Walter Huston, both because he had already played the part of Dead Legs on stage, and because Chaney was, after all, dead! Huston is not quite as spectacularly demonstrative in the physical aspects of the part, but he does a fine job of crawling around on the floor, lifting himself into his wheelchair, or pulling himself up a knotted rope to his grimy roost in the ceiling!

I’ll back up a bit and give you the plot! Somewhere in deepest Africa, the crippled Flint has set up his palace of torment, where he keeps various sad-sacks in his thrall and from which he manipulates the local people by baffling their minds with parlour tricks! (Needless to say the movie is packed with colonialist racism, with the idea that the indigenous population would be so easily fooled and controlled being only the beginning of it!) His ragtag bunch includes a Portuguese firecracker played by Lupe Velez, a pair of dumbbells who wait on him, and eventually, as part of a long-game revenge plan later echoed in Oldboy, the convent-raised daughter of the man who originally caused his disability with a flurry of kicks to the back! This daughter, Ann, has been brought up in circumstances of absolute purity, and then at Flint’s behest is lured first into servitude in a Zanzibar brothel, and then to Flint’s compound where she is debased and diseased and kept prisoner!

Into this hellish situation stumbles a junkie doctor, Kingsland, whose addiction to some kind of jungle root is cured with swamp leeches! He becomes determined to rescue Ann (who is very well played by Virginia Bruce, it ought to be said), but matters are complicated by the arrival of her ostensible dad, who is also Flint’s greatest enemy and the real object of his vengeance plan! Certain native burial customs further heat up the situation, and a man called Fuzzy plays his part as well! Redemption and escape are in the cards, but hardly guaranteed!

Ha ha, this is a compelling picture if not the feel-good frivolity of the year! I suppose during the depression, before the Production Code came in anyway, movies could opt either to lift the spirits of audiences by presenting happy fantasies, or else make the real-life situation seem easier by presenting a twisted, corrupt, horrific vision of hell on earth! That’s the route taken by Kongo, ha ha! And while it certainly betrays its roots as a stage production, and doesn’t manage to convincingly present its jungle setting, the movie whips up a bleak atmosphere rarely matched in Hollywood and gets plenty of additional power from Huston’s relentlessly mean performance!

Kongo is imperfect, but still a little jungle horror gem, and I recommend giving it a look if you think you can take it! I give the picture three raggedy chimpanzee sidekicks!

Saturday 21 November 2020

Burl reviews Congo! (1995)


Burl here, going ape again! And believe me, the movie I’m reviewing today has a lot of ape in it! Gorilla after gorilla in fact, whole swarms of them! No, we’re not talking about Greystoke or Gorillas in the Mist, and we’ve already talked about Link! No, the picture in question is Congo, the monkey mash from the mid-90s that I recall seeing in the theater and even reviewing! My old review is around somewhere, but this one is all new, ha ha, and is moreover based on a very recent re-viewing of the picture!

There’s trouble in Africa! Colonialindustrialists are searching for rare purity diamonds with which to power their lasers, but their expedition is interrupted by simian viciousness of some kind! Meanwhile a vanilla primatologist and his lily-livered pal are planning to return their pet talking ape to the wild, and they are joined by the lady from the tech company who wants to find both the diamonds and her missing ex-fiancé who was on the original diamond quest! It’s a rather charmingly old-fashioned set up, straight out of Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold, gussied up with 90s technology!

There are so many apes, they can be divided into subcategories! We have our hero ape, Amy, who wears a contraption that turns her hand signals into spoken speech; and then there’s a group of regular mountain gorillas; and of course there are the mutant white apes, straight out of White Pongo, but uglier, who are the real plot drivers here! By the end there are seemingly dozens of pongos, all warty-faced, jumping on the secondary characters like they were luggage! But speaking of human characters, the leads are not the most interesting bunch of people! The scientist fellow makes little to no impression, his buddy is a darn pest, and the tech company lady, although played by the good actor Laura Linney, doesn’t fare much better! Linney never really gets a handle on her character, because there isn’t much to get a handle on, ha ha! She must at different points be a cynical executive and a die-hard romantic, a hardy adventuress and a humourless scold, a tough Linda Hamilton type and a damsel in distress; and so it’s a wonder to me that Linney could pull together anything at all!

The cast gets more interesting as you go down the billing! Ernie Hudson from Ghostbusters is particularly good as the gentleman scoundrel safari leader; Tim Curry from The Hunt for Red October does a double ham on rye; and Joe Don Baker from Joysticks gets to kill a TV with a golf club! And, ha ha, there’s more! Bruce Campbell from Army of Darkness shows up at the very beginning, not proving as resilient here as he is in the Evil Dead pictures! And a parade of familiar faces follows: Joe Pantoliano from The Mean Season and Delroy Lindo from The Core show up in quick succession, and sprinkled throughout are appearances from Peter Jason of Prince of Darkness; James Karen from Time Walker; John Hawkes from Future-Kill; and even Jimmy Buffett of Jurassic World fame! Ha ha, the Buff plays an airplane pilot who bails out of his craft and we never see him again! I’ll bet you could make a whole other movie just about his adventures after landing in the jungle in a country in civil war into which he has flown illegally! Buff On the Run, we could call it, or War On Buffett! Ha ha!

But really it’s about ape action, and there’s a lot of it towards the end! The gnarly-faced ‘rillas make jolly adversaries, and it’s almost sad to see them falling into lava by the properly Edgar Rice Burroughs/ H. Rider Haggard erupting-volcano climax! The movie is a slick studio product, dumb as a bag of hammers, curiously old-fashioned, and largely enjoyable! And if you like fake apes, this is your movie! It’s got a lot of ‘em, pretty well done but maybe just a notch below the best Rick Baker work! Anyway, I give Congo two sesame cakes! Ha ha, put down my sesame cake!

Tuesday 10 November 2020

Burl reviews North By Northwest! (1959)


Hi, I’m Roger Thornhill! Ha ha, no, I’m Burl, but I feel like Roger Thornhill after my recent viewing of North By Northwest! Yes, it’s a comfy old favourite, a highly rewatchable thrill-omedy-omance, and always pretty fun! There’s not much more to it than that, other than some romantic scenes that go on a bit too long for young new viewers of Hitchcock; but by garr it’s a pleasantly airy jaunt! It feels a bit silly to review it, because everyone’s seen it and everyone more or less likes it!

It’s a curious warm-up for Psycho, ha ha! Our main character, played by the one and only Cary Grant, is a happy-go-lucky Madison Avenue man who gets mistaken for a government spy called George Kaplan! Immediately he is wrapped in a web of intrigue: kidnapped and assaulted with a gun and a car and a bourbon by nefarious bad guy James Mason, whom we know from ffolkes and Bigger Than Life; his dapper, Smithers-type minion Martin Landau, an actor we recollect from his appearance in Without Warning; and two sinister, hatched-faced sub-minions! Poor perplexed Thornhill is soon accused of a United Nations murder, and he flees to Chicago on a cross-country train! On board he meets an almost psychotically flirtatious blonde beauty played by Eva Marie Saint from The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, whose extreme willingness to shelter an accused murderer arouses only mild additional bewilderment in Thornhill!

Leo G. Carroll from Tarantula is meanwhile a government spymaster who knows what’s going on, but is initially pleased to hear that Thornhill is believed to be Kaplan, who is not a real person but a fictional CIA confabulation! Ha ha, I think the movie could have waited on this revelation and presented it as a twist going into the third act, instead of revealing it in the first, but that’s just one Burl’s opinion! Anyway, with crop duster cornfield chases and hotel room duplicities and the finale in that fantastic modern house apparently perched near the top of Mount Rushmore, we barely notice!

Ha ha, there is so much window dressing to love about this movie - the great Saul Bass titles, the fantastic Bernard Herrman score, the clever Ernest Lehman script, and of course Hitch’s confident direction and the suspense scenes he pulls off with typical wizardry - that we don’t quite mind realizing later that it’s pretty much all window dressing! However, aside from the romantic longeurs mentioned earlier, it’s a top-flight Hollywood entertainment, attractive and shiny, gripping and funny; and when it’s over, it’s over - ha ha, until the next time! It’s far from my favourite Hitchcock picture, but it’s like a gooseberry you keep under your armpit: always there for you! I give North By Northwest three complaints of dan-druff!