My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
Satanic Panic (2019)
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
I’m a big believer that however ridiculous the story of a film might be, the characters must feel real within the circumstances of the world created. For example, a movie like Crank with Jason Statham is totally absurd but everyone involved behaves as if that world created is their reality. If it’s not real, it’s not funny and if it’s not real, it’s not scary either. This is the mistake most satires make and it’s the one that ultimately prevents Satanic Panic from being successful.
From the beginning, I didn’t believe a single character in this movie. From the pizza take-out workers to the female protagonist to the crazy satanists, everyone performs with a slight wink at the camera, something made even worse by a self-conscious script. Every line feels written. Every word feels acted. Perhaps some viewers wouldn’t notice or mind this style but I’ve never taken a liking to this kind of cinema. It’s a shame too because the film is filled with great potential, evident in several promising scenes: Jerry O’Connell’s hilarious cameo, the “killdo”, the cooked organ monster. These elements are super creative and deserved more attention but beyond never grounding itself, the film also tries to jam-pack too much into it’s 80-something minute runtime. It would have benefited from focusing on the best ideas, instead of this frantic approach that doesn’t do justice to its strengths.
The film does improve in the middle as soon as actress Ruby Modine enters the narrative. She’s the only performance I believed and the scene where they’re trying to kill her with the doll ritual shows what this movie could have been. It’s scary, funny, and for that brief moment I was on the edge of my seat. It’s a taste of what you normally get in a Dallas Sonnier-produced picture and this is an odd addition to his filmography. Sadly the movie derails after that, especially in its forced climax when it seems evident the writers/filmmaker did not know how to wrap up their story.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to enjoy in Satanic Panic from fun gory effects to some great comedic moments. It just doesn’t work as a whole movie.
Watched on Shudder.
Running on Empty (1988)
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
This Sidney Lumet picture begins strong, establishing this family trying to survive on the run. Near the middle of the movie, it starts to derail and lose focus.
While following the River Phoenix character and seeing the movie’s world through his eyes, the film can almost do no wrong. However, the perspective starts to shift towards the mother, played by Christine Lahti, in what ends up being the film’s weakest sequence and turning point. Fellow revolutionary Gus shows up and is supposed to be romantic/sexual competition for Judd Hirsch but the casting is all wrong. The filmmakers should have chosen an actor who embodied the attractive, romantic fantasy of the revolution. Imagine if Robert Redford (far fetched I know) had played the role? This would have provided a true rival for Hirsch’s idealist intellectual.
But the real problem here, as mentioned before, is the shifting perspective. Suddenly, I found myself asking, “Whose story is this really?” And if the goal was an ambitious portrait of the entire family in a state of evolution, the Judd Hirsch character gets short-changed. The actor is terrific in his scenes but the writers don’t give him an arch! He goes from being a dictator to a saint and I never believed the transition.
From the middle onward, the movie makes all kinds of mistakes, even small storytelling errors like how does the mother know to find Phoenix practicing at school or how does he believably sneak away to try out at Juilliard. These things might not bother some viewers but they bugged the hell out of me as the film became more and more disjointed after such a strong first half. It all goes back to script and editing (the final stage of writing) and I can’t help but wonder if there were several interconnecting scenes left on the cutting room floor or even thrown in the writer’s waste basket.
Final thought: am I the only one who ponders what kind of actor River Phoenix would be today if he hadn’t died? Every time I see him in a movie, I am blown away by this authenticity and vulnerability. I think he would be our best and his early death still saddens me.
Watched on Criterion Channel.
Lake Consequence (1993)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
I was pleasantly surprised by this erotic film. It features two very under-appreciated actors, Billy Zane and Joan Severance, both of whom deliver nuanced performances. It has a smart script that doesn’t go astray more than once or twice. And it’s strikingly shot by cinematographer Harris Savides who would go on to bigger and better films such as The Game and Zodiac with David Fincher.
All of this adds up to a memorable movie and not what I expected from an early 90s entry in the steamy genre. I will admit, I’m a sucker for this era. From the pacing to the look and feel of 80s/90s cinema, I feel more at home with the pictures from this period than any other.
Yes, the movie has plenty of sex but it doesn’t feel forced. Like I always tell fellow writers and filmmakers, action needs to come from character (not writer) motivation. Great action movies never feature chase sequences or fight scenes for no reason; they are always earned through the characters and their journey. That principle is in play in this film, not with action but intimacy. It’s natural and therefore truly erotic.
There may be something more at work here that requires further investigation: could the work of director Rafael Eisemann or more importantly writer Zalman King (who was known for scripting and directing other erotic films) be ripe for re-appreciation? Could they be the “auteurs of eroticism”? Perhaps I’ll find out.
Watched on Rarefilmm.com
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
This sci-fi fantasy is worth watching for just the visuals. I find these landscapes and sets more striking than the ones in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Especially the inventive set design, which according to Wikipedia had to constantly be redone because of script and schedule changes, is to credit for some iconic sequences like the giant spider web and the moving castle.
But what this movie doesn’t have in common with Star Wars, the Tolkien trilogy, or Willow is memorable characters and chemistry between those characters. For all his Errol Flynn-like physicality, Ken Marshall does not have leading man charisma. Ironically, the film features later star Liam Neeson in an early supporting role. If only the filmmakers could have foreseen, like the destination of that moving castle, that he would emerge as a major action star years later. He would have brought both the grit and charisma the role needed. It doesn’t help Marshall that Lysette Anthony is a mediocre love interest. She definitely doesn’t inspire the loss of life to save her…
No one in this movie gives a bad performance. There’s just a lack of on-screen magic that feels necessary for this type of film to work. The one major exception is Bernard Bresslaw as Rell the Cyclops. His character is infinitely watchable and the movie lights up whenever he’s on screen.
Overall, this was a fun watch and instead of remaking classics of the 80s, someone should take a stab at doing better with this material.
Watched on HBO Max.