This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Interview with Ariana Richards

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Ariana Richards, who is best known for playing Lex in the classic film Jurassic Park (1993). In recent years, she has also made her a name for herself as an artist. Her work can be viewed on the website Gallery Ariana.

1. Ariana, I’m going start by asking you a question I’m sure you’ve been asked numerous times. What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?

A-Yes, I’ve been asked that before, but I have so many good memories. I still remember when I first met Steven. I was on my way to Disneyland with my mom & sister. We were about to leave the house when my agent called saying Steven would like to meet with me. He was just so friendly and easygoing when I walked into his office. By the end, he was asking, “Are you busy this summer, Ariana?” Of course I said no and he said you got the job. He was great, warm and enthusiastic. When I’d get a scene just right, Steven would leap out of his director’s chair and give me a hug. We’ve stayed in touch and have become friends. I’m happy to see him whenever possible. He sends me a Xmas gift each year.

2. You briefly reprised Lex in the first Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). What was that like?

A- I got to have a cameo with Joseph (Mazzello, who played Tim). It was really great that they wanted to bring the kids back and be a part of Jurassic. Coming to the set again with Steven, Jeff Goldblum, and Joe, just felt natural. It was kind of like I’d never left.

3. You acted in other films and TV shows both before and after Jurassic Park. Do you have any fond memories of any of those?

A-Oh, yeah. I started acting at 6. I’ve been in over 20 films and have had some wonderful experiences. I’ve filmed in the highlands of Scotland for The Princess Stallion. I’ve worked with Neil Simon on stage in LA for Jake’s Women. Angus, which was a coming of age story, was a memorable one. I’ve gotten opportunities to do some interesting films. There’s also Tremors (laughs), It has a huge cult following. Apparently this year is the movie’s 25th anniversary.

4. Are there any actors, actresses or directors you’d like to work with?

A-There are so many talented people out there in the business. I’d have to take time for a complete answer. I’ve worked with some great directors. Steven Spielberg, obviously. I also liked working with Mark Haber, who directed Princess Stallion, as well as Neil Simon. I worked with actors such as Kathy Bates, Alan Alda and Helen Hunt. It would be great to work with J. J. Abrams. Of course, if I had the chance to work with Steven again, it would be hard to say no (laughs).

5. Is there a specific genre you are a fan of?

A-I like a lot of different genres of films. I’ve done quite a bit of sci-fi, obviously (laughs). But I like dramas, comedies. I’m not so much a fan of horror as the other genres. I also like period pieces because they pose the additional challenge of taking place in a different time.

6. You have also dabbled in music with the album First Love and later recording a cover version of “The Prayer.” What was it like doing something like that?

A-I enjoyed doing my music. I love singing. After Jurassic, I was approached to do a CD in Japan. It was a total blast, the recording and studio experience. I guess I have an appreciation for many forms of art (laughs).

7. In recent years, you’ve made your mark as an accomplished artist. You are also a descendant of Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli. Would you say that that was what inspired you to become a painter yourself?

A-Definitely! The fact that art was already was in my blood. My maternal grandmother was also a professional artist, an oil painter. She gave me training and lessons when I was 10. All of my formalized education started at age 12. Then I continued on with art training and with a tutor who was a teacher for the Disney artists. After a degree program in Fine Art and Drama with Skidmore College, I did quite a bit of art training with a mentoring program, where I learned many things that I could have never learned in school. It got me inspired and it took off from there. On a movie set, I’d often have my sketchbook, jotting down ideas. After Jurassic, I wanted to boil down my emotional experience filming that movie, and painted “Raptor Vision”, a watercolor self portrait of the jello scene.

8. You’ve done a variety of paintings, including people and landscapes. Do you have a preference as to what you like to paint?

A-I would say, if I had to choose, I really enjoy portraits of people. I enjoy the process of getting to know people & collaborating on a vision with them. It’s kind of like being a director in a way, expressing their essence on canvas. I get to know their personalities. It’s especially nice when they receive their portraits and they tell me their reaction.

9. Do you ever fancy the notion of acting in the future?

A-Absolutely. I’ve always loved acting. If the right role comes along, I would certainly take it. I haven’t really been looking around for acting roles recently, though, because I’ve been focused on my art career. But if something comes my way, I’d be happy to look at it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Agony Booth review: Valentine (2001)

I once stated that Valentine was the worst slasher movie ever made. My latest Agony Booth work explains why I think that.
Although movies like Psycho and the films of Dario Argento are often credited as the genesis of the slasher film, the horror subgenre as we know it came to life with John Carpenter’s Halloween. The success of that film led to a slew of imitators for the following decade. But this oversaturation of slashers (and their by-the-numbers plots) led to them all but dying out by the end of the ‘80s.

However, they were revived in 1996 with the release of Wes Craven’s Scream. One reason that film became noteworthy was for how it poked fun at the conventions of slasher movies (such as the “have sex and die” rule), even though many of the characters in the film proved as shallow as those in previous entries in the genre. But just like Halloween, Scream brought about too many sequels and a sea of imitators.

Valentine, released in 2001, is easily one of the worst films released as part of the Scream-inspired slasher renaissance of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s (I know that’s saying a lot, and I’ll explain shortly). It was directed by Jamie Blanks, who had success previously with the routine but watchable slasher Urban Legend.

We start the film in 1988 at a junior high school Valentine’s Day dance. A nerdish boy named Jeremy Melton, who looks a bit like the preteen version of Stephen King, goes around asking some of his female classmates to dance. He first approaches Shelley, who tells him, “In your dreams.” The second girl, Lily, simply goes “Ewww!” Next, a girl named Paige declares that she’d rather be boiled alive. Another girl, Kate, somewhat breaks this rejection streak by telling him, “Maybe later.”

Finally, Jeremy comes across the slightly chubby Dorothy and asks her to dance. Cut to the two of them making out underneath the bleachers. Their fun is soon interrupted by a group of guys who cruelly point out that the overweight girl is getting some action. Suddenly, Dorothy claims that Jeremy assaulted her.

And as if the Stephen King parallel weren’t already strong enough, the guys dump a bowl of punch on Jeremy’s head a la Carrie (I think; he’s completely dry in the next shot) before they begin beating him up, causing him to develop a nosebleed. Meanwhile, a random kid, who shall remain unidentified for the rest of the movie, looks on while wearing a Cupid mask.

Cut to 13 years later. Shelley (now played by Katherine Heigl) is a medical student on a date with a guy named Jason who’s clearly a jerk, because he constantly refers to himself in the third person. Eventually, Shelley excuses herself to go do something more exciting, namely hang out at the morgue to brush up for her upcoming exams.

It must be near Valentine’s Day again, because Shelley discovers she’s received a creepy valentine reading, “The journey of love is an arduous trek / My love grows for you as you bleed from your neck”. And yet, this doesn’t stop her from continuing to stay in a morgue, all by herself, in the middle of the night. As she’s about to make an incision into a corpse, the corpse’s stomach suddenly moves, freaking her out. Shelley bolts out of there and is soon followed by a guy wearing a Cupid mask.

Why the killer in this movie wears a Cupid mask is anyone’s guess, since the movie never bothers to establish any sort of connection between the killer and the kid in 1988 who was looking on passively while Jeremy got beaten up. Obviously, they had to come up with some sort of mask because the killer in Scream had a memorable mask.

Shelley makes it to a room full of corpses in body bags, and proves she’s as stupid as her assailant by hiding in one of them. Not surprisingly, the killer, with his nose bleeding through the mask, finds her and slashes her throat, thus ending Heigl’s brief cameo appearance.

In the next scene, the grown-up Paige and Kate (Denise Richards and Marley Shelton) are doing a bit of speed dating. Kate’s conversation with an annoying guy is interrupted by Paige, who reveals that Kate’s off-limits because she’s in a serious relationship, but Paige is available (with friends like these...).

Afterward, they’re informed of Shelley’s death. Cut to her funeral, where Paige and Kate meet up with Lily (Jessica Cauffiel) and Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw). Much is made of how Paige, because she’s played by Denise Richards, is wearing a low cut dress to a funeral that shows off her cleavage.

The four women are questioned about the murder by police detective Vaughn, who says he’ll be interrogating that Jason guy that Shelley was on a date with before her murder. Afterward, Kate meets up with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Adam Carr (David Boreanaz). After he drives off, Paige expresses doubts that Adam can overcome his alcohol problem. Kate replies, “He’s not a drunk. He’s a borderline addictive personality who happens to like alcohol a lot,” which makes just about as much sense as saying that Jeffrey Dahmer just happened to like different kinds of meat.

Dorothy returns home and gets a creepy valentine of her own, which reads, “Roses are red / Violets are blue / They’ll need dental records to identify you”. As she brushes this off, we learn Dorothy comes from a rich family with a huge house and a maid, and her dad has a foreign bride who, like all stepmoms of rich girls in movies, is even younger than she is.

Dorothy’s new boyfriend Campbell (Daniel Cosgrove) shows up. Apparently, he’s got some internet startup company that’s fallen on hard times (topical!), and he’s been kicked out of his apartment and needs a place to stay, so Dorothy has the maid set him up in one of the guest bedrooms.

Next, we see Kate taking a shower in her apartment (alas, we don’t see any nudity in this movie, despite being an R-rated slasher). She hears a noise, and with shampoo still in her hair, puts on a towel and goes out to investigate. Her water then goes out, prompting a pointless bit where she dunks her head in the (hopefully clean) toilet to rinse the shampoo out of her hair.

Still wrapped in a towel, Kate goes out of her apartment and finds the elevator door being jammed by a Cupid mask. Then comes our next red herring as her creepy neighbor Gary accosts her with awesome pickup lines such as, “You look great, Kate. How about a date, Kate? You could be my mate, Kate.”

She replies with the equally lame, “You’re scary, Gary.”

Meanwhile, we learn Lily and Paige are roommates, and they receive a box of chocolates with a valentine saying, “You are what you eat”, signed by “JM”. Lily takes a bite of chocolate and finds it crawling with maggots. This leads to the two of them going over all the “JM”s they know, until Paige offhandedly suggests that it could be nerdy Jeremy Melton from junior high.

Instead of going to the police, we next see all four girls head to an art exhibit put on by Lily’s boyfriend Max. At the exhibit, the girls briefly compare creepy valentine notes before spotting that Jason guy from the movie’s first scene, but of course, he’s another red herring. Dorothy meets Campbell’s ex Ruthie, who calls Campbell a con man, bitchily telling Dorothy that he’s only using her for her money before thankfully leaving.

Everyone checks out Max’s exhibit, which is a maze of video walls showing random “sexy” video clips (and providing the only nudity in the film). While in the maze, Max tries to get it on with Lily, but she gets disgusted when it turns out Max invited his female assistant to join them.

Lily storms off, but gets lost in the maze. Once there’s conveniently no one else around, the killer appears. Like clockwork, his nose bleeds as he kills Lily, this time shooting her full of arrows. Because he’s Cupid, remember? Lily’s body falls over a railing and plunges into a dumpster a few floors below. The best part is how none of her friends notice she’s missing for the rest of the film, with only a few cursory mentions that she was supposed to go to LA for business the next day (so I guess they’re fine with her not saying goodbye?).

The three remaining girls are questioned by Detective Vaughn, who shows them an unsympathetic condolence card sent to Shelley’s parents, also signed by “JM”. Dorothy immediately knows that Jeremy from junior high is responsible for the creepy valentines. When Vaughn asks her how she knows this, she repeats her lie that Jeremy attacked her at the dance. It turns out that because of Dorothy’s accusations, Jeremy eventually got sent to reform school, and then ended up in a mental institution, and now he’s been released.

Once outside, Dorothy comes clean with both Kate and Paige, saying that Jeremy was the only boy who even looked at her back then, and she completely made up the story about him attacking her. So, just because one girl made up a story about him, he’s now killing off all the girls at school who rejected him? Why not take out his anger on the boys who beat him up? This stupid plot point is the foundation of this stupid screenplay.

The three girls and the detective try to figure out where Jeremy is now, with the suggestion that he could be someone already in their lives. Another red herring is dropped when Paige points out that Dorothy has only known Campbell for a month and doesn’t even know his last name.

Det. Vaughn then proves to be as useless as most detectives in slasher films when he asks to talk to Paige alone, and then starts going on about the “sexual tension” between them, even though he looks old enough to be her dad. Paige replies by asking him to take his hand off her thigh and put it “up your ass” (which is where they found the script, I’m told).

The next scene shows the killer adding another notch to his belt by killing Kate’s creepy neighbor Gary. He does this by bashing him in the head with a hot iron after finding Gary in Kate’s apartment, rummaging through her underwear and even trying some of it on. Gary is never mentioned again and there’s literally no point to this, other than adding in more sleazy behavior.

Later, Dorothy is preparing for a Valentine’s Day party at her house. Campbell soon becomes the next victim when he goes down to the basement to re-light the furnace, and gets an axe to his back. Oh, and this is just after he makes a phone call revealing he’s a con man after all, for whatever that’s worth.

But the party must go on, and all the girls soon show up at Dorothy’s house. Paige meets up again with that annoying guy from speed dating, and in another pointless scene, he attempts to seduce her by getting naked in front of her. She retaliates by tying him up and pouring hot candle wax between his legs.

Meanwhile, Dorothy is angry because Campbell disappeared, while Kate is angered because Adam has started drinking again. And as if this party wasn’t fun enough, Ruthie arrives and gets bitchy about Campbell again. She continues to prove she’s unworthy of sympathy by sneaking into Dorothy’s bedroom for no apparent reason and going through her belongings.

Ruthie is then surprised by the killer entering the room, dragging the body of the maid behind him. Ruthie races downstairs to a sauna, where she hides under a bench (and discovers Campbell’s body in the process). She sees the killer pass by and thinks herself safe, but naturally, he suddenly rematerializes to throw her though a shower door before putting her out of our misery by thrusting her neck onto one of the glass shards.

At long last, Kate gets word that Lily never arrived in LA. She calls Det. Vaughn, who says he’ll be there shortly.

Paige then decides that this is a great time to get in Dorothy’s hot tub all by herself and, sure enough, we get Denise Richards in a bikini, but again, no nudity. The killer shows up and throws the plexiglas cover over the hot tub, trapping Paige inside, making you think he’s going to drown her. But then he starts drilling holes in the cover, and you think he’s going to stab her with the drill. However, he finally just throws the drill in the water, electrocuting her. Geez, pick a murder method and stick with it.

This causes the power to go out in Dorothy’s house, which makes all the guests leave in a remarkably calm and orderly fashion. I guess there’s a better party, or movie, down the road.

Meanwhile, Dorothy and Kate argue again over who Jeremy might be. Dorothy thinks it could be Adam, leading to the most inane in-joke of the movie when Kate says, “He’s no angel, but he’s not a killer.” Dorothy eventually goes off on a rant about how the other four girls were always smarter and prettier and more popular than her in junior high, and she was always “the fat one”. She then angrily darts off.

Realizing that Det. Vaughn hasn’t showed up yet, Kate goes outside to call him. She hears his phone ringing and follows the sound to a nearby pond, where Vaughn’s severed head pops up. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Kate frantically goes back into the darkened empty house to look for Paige and Dorothy. Not surprisingly, she finds nothing but dead bodies (oddly, it doesn’t look like the killer murdered the guy that Paige tied up and poured candle wax on, which is a shame, as he could have been doing us another favor).

Adam suddenly pops up in a drunken state and asks to dance. Kate obliges, but then decides he must be the killer, so she knees him in the junk and bashes him in the head with a champagne bottle. She manages to find a gun in an easy-to-break-into case. But Kate loses her weapon when the killer, wearing the stupid mask again, causes both of them to tumble down a staircase. Kate quickly regains consciousness before the killer arises, only to be shot dead by Adam.

Kate apologizes to Adam as she embraces him. He then takes off the Cupid mask, revealing dead Dorothy.

With the police en route, Adam takes an oh-so-serious tone, saying that Dorothy must have bottled up all her anger over the years. Kate tells Adam she loves him as he holds her in his arms. And then the movie ends with Adam’s nose bleeding and dripping onto Kate’s face. (And, no, dimwitted Kate doesn’t notice that a guy is bleeding all over her.)

So, Adam was the killer, I guess. But why was Dorothy wearing the mask? Did he knock Dorothy out, put the slasher mask and black suit on her, and then throw her down the stairs? Or were they working together the whole time? I have no clue, and I don’t think the movie does, either.

As I noted, this film is one of the worst of the post-Scream cash-ins. However, this is not because of its lousy acting, unsympathetic characters, scares we can see coming a mile away, or its lame attempts at irony (if you go back, you’ll notice the girls’ initial reactions to Jeremy somewhat mimic their fates at the end of the film).

No, this movie is bottom of the barrel for me because it’s supposedly based on the novel of the same name by Tom Savage. That book, which I read a few years after seeing the film, had a much more original setup and an interesting, unexpected plot twist at the end. Alas, the only thing the movie has in common with the book is the title.

But even this much disregard for the source material didn’t have to mean a death sentence for the movie—all that The Spy Who Loved Me had in common with Ian Fleming’s novel is the title and the fact that James Bond is in it, and that movie was pretty damn good. What killed Valentine for me was the fact that it made no attempt to be entertaining. Jamie Blanks apparently thought seeing Marley Shelton in a towel and Denise Richards in a bikini would be enough to keep viewers interested. But it isn’t enough, because the characters and situations are so dull and stupid.

One of the most successful slasher film series was the Friday the 13th series. Pretty much all the characters in those movies are dull or stupid, too, but that series, for the most part, was not boring. The same cannot be said for Valentine.

The most frustrating aspect of this film, though, is that the novel was the perfect template for a film which, in more competent hands, could have become a memorable shocker for Valentine’s Day.