Neither especially well-crafted nor completely inept, Death of a Snowman is less interesting as a film than as an artifact. You might hope that a low-budget crime drama shot in and around Johannesburg, South Africa, during the apartheid years would deal explicitly with political conditions in the segregated country. Instead — perhaps because of government censorship or fears of political reprisals — Death of a Snowman has only the whiff of racial tension about it, as whites and blacks doubt, disbelieve and double-cross one another from start to finish.
Director Anthony Balch, known both as a collaborator on film projects with William S. Burroughs and as a shrewd cinema programmer and distributor, made this cheesy but imaginative and good-natured horror show on a shoestring. Swinging singles Jason (Robin Askwith) and Judy (Phoebe Shaw, credited as Vanessa Shaw) take a holiday at an old, vaguely threatening English manor. By the time they figure out that the other houseguests have been lobotomized, it’s too late — creepy Dr. Christian Storm (Michael Gough — I know him from Trog) and matriarch Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock) are holding them captive in a weird kind of research laboratory with security provided by Daft Punk. Storm apparently wants to turn the poor kids into mindless sex slaves and only Frederick, a sympathetic dwarf servant, may be able to bust them out before that happens — assuming the mysterious, shambling mud monster doesn’t do them in first. Too bad Balch really blows his load in the film’s very first scene, prematurely debuting his pièce de résistance — a Rolls Royce with pop-out machete blades that serves as a mobile decapitation machine, right down to the sacks positioned to catch the heads as they roll off the bodies while the limo tears up the English countryside. Meanwhile, the goings-on inside the house are pretty rote — but there’s a wee bit of nudity to spice up the first half and the film’s cheerfully ludicrous attitude goes a long way. And complaining about the film’s cheap stereotypes would likely be missing the point.
Elite Entertainment released a nice version of this on DVD back in 1999; it’s now out of print.
Note: Since I wrote this review, Horror Hospital has been reissued on DVD by Dark Sky Films.
Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can’t even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille’s really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety.
Chicago 10, a documentary about the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and subsequent jury trial of eight protester defendants, is a bracing combination of archival footage and contemporary animation. The archival sections speak for themselves — the colorful footage of groovy, loose-lipped protesters with a flair for the theatrics filling Lincoln Park is not only historic, but can be interestingly contrasted against the less colorful demonstrations of today — but the interspersed animated sequences are something unusual. Working from stranger-than-fiction transcripts of the (sadly unphotographed) courtroom proceedings, writer/director Brett Morgan has assembled an all-star cast of character actors (Hank Azaria, Dylan Baker, Nick Nolte, etc.) to portray that world-class cast of characters (including Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale), animated in a rotoscoped style reminiscent of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
This loosely autobiographical quasi-coming-of-age tale from Garth Jennings, half of music-video production team Hammer & Tongs and the director of the unwieldy but fitfully amusing Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature, is crammed tight with every kid-pic cliché you can imagine. It starts with the unlikely friendship of imaginative loner Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and village tough Lee Carter (Will Poulter), then quickly becomes one of those movies about the making of a bad movie — the titular “Son of Rambow,” which is inspired by a bootleg videotape of First Blood shot by Lee at the local cinema. While Will has been raised in a straight-laced religious sect that forbids TV and movies, Lee is almost his polar opposite – a rambunctious (though soft-hearted) bully given to petty larceny who nonetheless wields a primitive VHS camcorder in the hope of winning a filmmaking contest by leveraging the limited materials available to him.
Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 World War II adventure is probably most notable for
inspiring a new Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Its three-disc DVD release, from Severin Cinema, is a
surprisingly deluxe affair tied to the Tarantino remake, with Q.T.
himself showing up to interview Castellari and put the
film in some perspective (it was never released theatrically in the
U.S., so Tarantino discovered it on a TV screening). Some
extensive making-of features and a CD of soundtrack music (the third disc) round
out the package.
Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal)
Charlie Wilson’s War is a rare thing—a funny political film, a sexy
history lesson. Director Mike Nichols brings a light comic touch to the
story of the Democratic Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) with a thing for
the ladies and a soft spot for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Julia
Roberts plays the wealthy conservative socialite who convinces Wilson
to orchestrate the covert diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars
to the Afghan rebels in the years following the Soviet invasion in
1979. Neither Hanks nor Roberts is particularly convincing as a Texas
politico, but that’s OK. The film crackles whenever Philip Seymour
Hoffman, playing CIA agent Gust Avrakotos, comes on screen, ripping
mischievously through his sardonic dialogue and bringing everyone
else’s game up a notch. Adapted from a book by the late George Crile,
Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay strongly suggests that
the Congressional failure to help rebuild Afghanistan’s decimated
post-war infrastructure helped make that country an eventual hotbed of
terrorist activity. But what sticks is the criticism of U.S. politics
as essentially a popularity contest, driven by friendships, favors, and
fickle public opinion—a system prone to leave jobs unfinished as they
become unfashionable. Originally published in the White Plains Times.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Charlie Wilson’s War (Widescreen)
Easy Living (Universal)
Sturges began his career at Paramount in 1937 by writing this
Depression-era-New-York comedy about a wealthy industrialist (Edward
Arnold) known as The Bull of Broad Street, his unhappy son (Ray
Milland) who leaves home to work as a busboy at an automat, and working
girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), whose life changes after a
crazy-expensive fur coat chucked off the roof of a Manhattan apartment
building lands on her head. (She turns around, angrily, and demands,
“What’s the big deal anyway?” The turbaned dude behind her
responds, deadpan, “Kismet.” It’s that kind of screenplay.) Turns out
the coat is a powerful status symbol, and Mary soon learns that nothing
attracts wealth as powerfully as, well, more wealth. The no-frills slapstick of director Mitchell
Leisen (an accomplished art director and costume designer) is no substitute for the elegance that Sturges
would later develop helming his own material, but it’s fairly well-tuned for this sophisticated, breezily entertaining farce of
misunderstood identities. And Jean Arthur is terrific. I’m not sure how
good the DVD looks, but it’s got to be better than my VHS copy, which
was recorded from Showtime almost 20 years ago.
Buy it from Amazon.com: Easy Living (Universal Cinema Classics)
If you can imagine a cinematic
cross-breed implicating David Lynch, P.T. Anderson, and Saturday
Night Live in its interspecies couplings, you’ll be on the way to
understanding what Richard Kelly – the moody auteur whose major achievements to date are the brooding metaphysical horror-comedy
Donnie Darko and the screenplay for Domino – has wrought with his
satiric science-fiction opus, Southland Tales. It’s a rambling, baffling, multi-story yarn about a movie star (Duane Johnson, still
better known as The Rock), a porn star (Sarah Michelle Gellar, still
better known as Buffy), a couple of soldiers recently returned from
Iraq (Seann William Scott and Justin Timberlake), and a 2008
presidential bid by the Eliot/Frost ticket (Kelly dots his
screenplay with well-known quotes from both T.S. Eliot and Robert
Frost), running against Democrats (ha!) Clinton and Lieberman. The
Internet and interstate travel are both under government-mandated
lockdown, the U.S. Army has invaded Syria (and god knows where else),
and a rift in the space/time continuum has opened near Lake Mead.