> Volume 2 > Number 43

Volume 2, Number 43

This Week's Reviews:  Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Lucky Numbers.

This Week's Omissions:  Girl on the Bridge, The Little Vampire, Love's Labour's Lost.

Video Reviews:  Titanic.

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

(Dir: Joe Berlinger, Starring Jeffrey Donovan, Kim Director, Erica Leerhsen, Stephen Barker Turner, Tristine Skylar, and Lanny Flaherty)



Last summer, film goers were divided into two factions, the Blair Witch Projects fans and the Blair Witch Project denouncers.   Though, most film enthusiasts saw the film as a grand experience in psychological horror filmmaking working with the digital video revolution, others found it to be boring and its filming to be intolerable. That was then, back in the days when people could disagree on something like The Blair Witch Project.  Today, we have an entirely different story: who can hate Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 more.

Remember Child's Play 2A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 2: Freddy's RevengeHalloween 3: Season of the Witch?   The Exorcist 2: The Heretic?  There's a list of poor horror sequels as long as the filmography of Gene Hackman, and it does not seem to cease.

The Blair Witch Project could have been a great cinematic success story, at least for us on the pro-BWP side.  The film, along with its countless mythology films, has created an entirely fictitious history on celluloid.  If Blair Witch creators Haxan Films had let the film stand alone, or had the first two television documentaries serve as sequels, there would have never been a bane to the existence of the Blair Witch mythology.

But fine creations sometimes spawn bastard children, and this is certainly the Oliver Twist of the Blair Witch franchise.  Book of Shadows takes every piece of documentation, and perhaps even respectability, out of the Blair Witch story and steps on it.  Then they put it through a meat-grinder.  And for the fun of it, jam it down the throats of every unsuspecting bystander in the theatre.

Book of Shadows may have even known that it was horrible -- it's certainly apparent to everyone else -- but does not flinch in trying to keep everything serious.  The tone of this film is that it is a very important film.   I sometimes respect bad films that are made like bad films (i.e. Bats, The Omega Code), they are campy for the sake of campiness and never try to be more than they actually are.  This film oversteps everything that was in front of it, and then keeps on going aimlessly into the night.

Like the original, the film documents people scared in the woods of Maryland.  The big difference is that the woods part for this film is merely the first thirty-minutes, leaving the rest of the film in a warehouse that looks more like a bad haunted house at an amusement park than an actual backwoods residence (the film's writer also wrote House on Haunted Hill, which I guess explains the inauspicious setting).  The man that lives in this house is Jeffrey Donovan, a renegade eBay auction seller.  His capitalist idea of the month is to take people hiking through the territory that was seen in The Blair Witch Project (yes, they do discount the first film as being a hoax on a theatre screen).

Now, what type of bad film would it be without varied characters with shady pasts (did I say shady?  Oh, yes, very shady).  There had to have been some interesting development meetings that actually thought people would be interested in a Goth, a witch (oh, sorry, the politically correct term is "Wicca"), a pregnant lady, and an author (cringe).

One might think that over the course of development and production someone might have noticed what a horrible idea for a film this was and made them start from scratch, but that just wasn't in the cards.  Instead, we get this crass commercialism driven sequel that would feel happy to sit with the likes of the Friday the 13th series.  It is time that Artisan or Haxan or someone hire a guy called the crap checker.  He can work with the fact checker, running over scripts looking for what's good, bad, and ugly (both factually and on the beloved scale of crappiness).   When they would finish with the script, the fact checker would get ready to check something else while the crap checker would shred the manuscript if it failed the test.   Think of the films we would be freed of.  Roger Ebert can harp on the A-rating and I'll harp on the crap checker.

What hurts more than anything, though, is the man behind the camera for this film.  I've loved the works of Joe Berlinger when he was with Dan Sinofsky.  These guys could make a damn fine documentary, ranging from the touchingly lurid Brother's Keeper to the thought-provokingly persuasive Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.  His style, that of a documentarian, might have worked well with the storytelling technique in The Blair Witch Project, which is meant to look like a documentary.  This film is created like any other film, and his style seems lost in the mess.  The only time he captures the essence of the first film (or his own earlier films, for that matter) is in the opening of the film, where there's a montage of scenes showing the impact of The Blair Witch Project to the town of Burkettsville, Maryland.

So why the D- instead of an F?  Well, as archaic as film ratings may be, I keep a close eye on what gets what and try to never give an F to a film with one or two high points in an otherwise horrible mess.  That is the case with this film as composer Carter Burwell creates yet another terrific score.  Why this man has never been given the respect he deserves and has been left to films like this is beyond me.

I can only envision the meetings Burwell had with Berlinger in creating the score for this film.  There's a genius thinking of a masterpiece on one side of the table, a genius on the other side thinking of an all-out mess.  Berlinger's film is indebted to Burwell in more ways than I can count to.   If some hack had done the music, Berlinger would have on his hands the blood of cinema gone awry with nothing to hold up for it.  At least now he can say that the composer he hired was good.

For Berlinger to think this would be a fine first feature film is an insult to all his fans out here in docu-watching land.  Errol Morris has never spit in our faces, why did Joe?  At one point Erica, the Wicca reflects the Wicca mantra "do not harm, because whatever you do will come back to you three fold." Now, my calculations show that more than 1.5 million people saw Book of Shadows over the weekend.  Congratulations Joe Berlinger, you have a very long period of bad luck ahead of you.


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Lucky Numbers

(Dir: Nora Ephron, Starring John Travolta, Lisa Kudrow, Tim Roth, Ed O'Neill, Michael Rapaport, Bill Pullman, Daryl Mitchell, Michael Moore, Tayley Richmond, Michael Weston, Colin Mochrie, Dawn McMillan, Emmy Laybourne, and Lisa Boyle)



In April 1980, a Pittsburgh television station went under fire for a scandal to win money from the Pennsylvania State Lottery.  That crime, which sent many people to jail, was brought to the screen in 1987 film The Squeeze, centering on the small time crook that came up with the idea as played by Michael Keaton.   Now, 20 years after the scandal and 13 years after the film incarnation, Nora Ephron, everyone's favorite fuzzy-filmmaker, brings it to the screen again.

Lucky Numbers is not necessarily a straight re-telling of the story, which had so many people involved and more planning that would have made Ephron's film last three hours. Instead, it is about a weatherman that decides to use lottery money to get out of the debt a warm winter has brought to his snow mobile company.  Is this completely true to the story? Of course not.  This is more of a farce version, with the setting changed from 1980 Pittsburgh to 1988 Harrisburg (where the lottery was moved to following the scandal).

And Nora Ephron has no problem with trying to rewrite the story, her problem is that she did not make it more interesting.  As I sat down and read some of the news coverage of the scandal, I thought of what a great film that could have been made out of this.  A serious tone to the story, told in a very adult manner -- kind of like Michael Mann's The Insider.  Consider what type of film would have been made of the story told there in a black comedy form.

At one point in the film, a character lets someone die from an asthmatic attack instead of handing them their inhaler.  That scene is played for laughs, what if the scene in The Insider in which Jeffrey Wigand's family leaves him was played for laughs?  Would there have cuts to Happy Days?   Would it have been remotely funny?

That is the case with Lucky Numbers. Ephron and screenwriter Adam Resnick do not care what they are brining to the screen, there is much more interest on their part in making the characters repulsive and strongly unappealing.   These are people that might make good friends with those characters in The Way of the Gun -- by the end of the film, you couldn't care less if they survived the two hour trek.

Ephron has made a career creating all-out fluff.   Most of her films are made with intuitiveness of stack of old newspapers.   Admittedly, some of her films have been enjoyable fluff, but never anything that someone might write home about.

John Travolta has been on a slow road to career death -- again.  This is not a great performance, not that he ever could have been considered a great performer before now.  His smarmy character is the only one that might have been played for some compassion, and there is none there.  I could not have considered any of his mishaps to be unmerited, nor would I have been too disturbed if they had really happened to Travolta.  He plays a hero like a sad Captain Hook.

And this is not to say that no one is capable of creating characters that would have worked.  In fact, I would have really expected Tom Roth or Lisa Kudrow to save the horrid screenplay, but neither of them give performances on their own that make things work.  Roth recently proved his skills as a director with The War Zone.  I might have loved him in Reservoir Dogs, Little Odessa, Pulp Fiction, and many other films, but I would much rather see him remain behind the camera based upon this last year for Roth.

I seriously think that Nora Ephron has no earthly idea how to set-up a camera.  Look, you're not making a Truffaut film, these people are not interesting when you hold a shot on them a little longer then expected.  She does this, and instead created boredom.  These people seem to be filmed by a camera sitting way too close in their laps.  I don't want to know these people.  I don't want to get this close to them.

The only films that Ephron has ever dealt with that might deserve acclaim and attention were her screenplays for When Harry Met Sally..., Heartburn, and Silkwood.  This film is nothing like those films, where only the first one failed to deal with serious issues.  In fact, Silkwood is one of the best films of the 1980's, dealing with the nuclear power plant whistle blower Karen Silkwood.   Wait a second, Silkwood's about a whistle blower, The Insider's about a whistle blower; both are good films.  Give this woman a typewriter and a whistle blower story to write for Michael Mann and we might have a great film.  Just don't let her direct.


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Video Review:  According to the Movie Review Querie Engine, there are 243 reviews of Titanic, making it the seventh most reviewed title on the net. Make this the 244th.


(Dir: James Cameron, Starring Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Zane, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, Lewis Abernathy, Nicholas Cascone, Danny Nucci, Jason Barry, Ewan Stewart, Ioan Gruffudd, Jonny Phillips, and Mark Lindsay Chapman)



Who says that Hollywood is completely unable to make a film worthy of recognition in the love story, soap opera genre (one can note that of my top ten list from last year, Hamlet was the closest thing to a Hollywood film). Everyone knows that Hollywood's claim to fame is that it can make the best special effects films and the guy that can probably be blamed for that in the eighties and early nineties is James Cameron, who brought us True Lies, both Terminators and Aliens. He evidently has started changing his ways to venture making a beautifully made little romantic piece, but of course Cameron can't make a film without doing some damage so of all the stories he could choose from, it was the story of the HRS Titanic that interested him.

Since I have never been a real historian on the Titanic sinking, I walked into Titanic with very little information about the disaster (though since then I have seen two pieces that I thoroughly recommend viewing after seeing Titanic: the first film treatment of the story called A Night to Remember and the absolutely terrific A&E documentary called Titanic: Death of a Dream, both are better then this recent film) and I must admit that I loved it. Titanic is easily one of the top twenty films I have seen so far this year and probably the best disaster film made in some thirty years.

Titanic is the sweeping story of the reminiscences of a 101 year old survivor, Rose DeWitt Bukater (Stuart in the present, Winslet in 1912), of the sinking as she tells the story of her four day love affair on the boat to her grand daughter and a group of men exploring the remnants of the boat for a diamond that she had worn that fateful night on April 14, 1912. She tells about her stay in the first class area of the Titanic with her demanding mother (Fisher) and seemingly unloving fiancé (Zane). As she stands on the stern of the boat getting ready to jump into the icy waters below to get away from this life, she is stopped by a young third class drifter, Jack Dawson (DiCaprio), and in the process they fall in love.

From there on the film meticulously shows the day-by-day workings of the ship and the secret the two must keep from her fiancé. While the audience knows exactly what's going to happen in the last hour thanks to a computer piece on the sinking early in the film, you can't help but still feel as if there is some loop hole, some little way that things will change. It takes a very good film to do that.

The special effects are immeasurable and Cameron's sweeping direction is a piece of art.  The film looks stunning with art direction and costume design that deserves countless accolades.  There are countless moments in the film in which the eye is left in wonder, throwing the story to the backseat.

DiCaprio, who has been battered time and again by me for being a one hit wonder in his acting (that one hit being What's Eating Gilbert Grape?), has finally redeemed himself to where he is almost as much a surprise respected actor by me as Mark Wahlberg (thanks to Boogie Nights). Winslet is very good, even better than her star making turn in Sense and Sensibility, but still unable to defeat her great teen co-murderess in the New Zealand modern day classic Heavenly Creatures.

Kathy Bates really deserves a best supporting actress nomination for her portrayal of the famous "Unsinkable" Molly Brown and could have been a major contender but the audience is not nearly given enough of her (luckily you can go out and rent the Debbie Reynolds classic The Unsinkable Molly Brown and get her complete story). Also, the film would have been far better if it had been more about what went through the mind of Captain E.J. Smith (Hill).  The scenes in which Smith is shown struggling with what is happening is grand to see, but barely there.

However the film's biggest mistake is in its ending.  The film has the chance for a really dramatic ending and passes on it for another one of those conventional Hollywood endings. This is not necessarily to say that the ending does not work at all, but it could have been better.

Still, Titanic is a notable film for what it shows.  Even if the love story could have been better, the film is still a grand experience.  To believably see the Titanic in all its glory is testament to why we watch films.



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Reviews by:
David Perry