Saturday, December 16, 2023

#2,940. Darkroom (1989) - Thrillers of the '80s and '90s


After years away, Janet (Jill Pierce) has returned home for what she hopes will be a quiet weekend with her family. Joined eventually by her boyfriend, professional photographer Steve (Jeff Arbaugh), Janet enjoys the time she spends with her widowed mom Nora (Elizabeth Ince), her grandfather (John O’Connor), younger sister Cindy (Sara Lee Wade), and cousins Perry (Aarin Tiech) and Mark (Allen Lieberman). The only one missing from this little reunion is her sister Paula (Abigail Lenz), a free-spirit who has been dating George (Timothy Hicks), a local outcast who lives in a trailer by the river.

When Paula doesn’t return home that first night, Janet, Steve, and Cindy assure a worried Nora that they will stop by George’s trailer and bring her back. Instead, they find Paula’s lifeless, blood-soaked body tied to George’s bed, kicking off a chain of events in which more than one person in this normally peaceful community will meet a grisly end.

Produced by low-budget master Nico Mastorakis and directed by Terrence O’Hara, 1989’s Darkroom features moments that harken back to the slashers of the decade’s early years. The opening sequence, in which a young couple is butchered in their home with an ax, certainly gives off slasher vibes, and there’s a scene involving a car and a machete that would have been at home in any Friday the 13th movie.

Ultimately, though, Darkroom is more a mystery / thriller, with plenty of red herrings to keep us guessing, for the better part of an hour, as to which of its character is the actual killer. The story also crosses from time to time into dark territory, and because we grow to like Janet’s family, we feel the loss whenever something terrible happens to them.

Shot primarily on a remote orange grove in Southern California, Darkroom also successfully conveys its characters’ feelings of isolation, especially when they are unable to report Paula’s death because the phones are out, and the nearest town is 20 miles away.

The film occasionally suffers from some of the weaknesses you’re likely to find in many low-budget movies, including performances that range from very good (Jeff Arbaugh is particularly strong) to borderline terrible. And when it came time to finally reveal of the killer’s identity, I had already figured it out. Though to be fair, I only put two-and-two together about 3-4 minutes before the movie itself spilled the beans, and there were moments when I was convinced that two other characters, ultimately innocent, were committing these murders. So, as a mystery, Darkroom works (even if said reveal shines a light on some gaping plot holes that are never satisfied).

Where Darkroom really impressed me, though, was in the last act. The movie continues a full half-hour after the killer’s identity is divulged, and these last scenes are among the film’s most intense, and most heartbreaking. So even if Darkroom isn’t perfect (and it certainly isn’t), it’s far from a total loss, and is worth a watch.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Saturday, December 9, 2023

#2,939. Busting (1974) - Elliott Gould in the 1970's Triple Feature


Director Peter Hyams has been on my radar for some time. It’s an admiration that stretches back to 1984, when our next-door neighbor took my brother and I to see 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Being kids, neither of us understood it, but our neighbor explained the complexities of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its new sequel, how both related the story of a superior alien race helping earth along its evolutionary path. He told it all in such a way that he had me jonesing to finally sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey in its entirety (which I did, not long after, and I loved it).

Over the next few decades, I would stumble upon more of Hyams’ movies. Outland. Capricorn One. Films I wanted to see before I even knew he had directed them. And yet, when his name flashed on the screen, I was even more excited to watch them. Not all of Hyams’ movies resonated with me. I thought 1997’s The Relic was interesting but flawed, as was 2005’s The Sound of Thunder. But he did turn out what, for me, was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s best film: Timecop.

Hyams made his big-screen directorial debut with the 1974 action / crime / comedy Busting, about a couple of Los Angeles vice squad detectives trying to make a difference. I had never seen this movie before today, but now rank it as one of Peter Hyams’ absolute best.

Also written by Hyams, Busting stars Elliott Gould and Robert Blake as Keneely and Farrel (respectively), two wise-ass vice detectives who, as the movie opens, are following a high-end prostitute (played by Cornelia Sharpe) as she makes her rounds. Posing as a potential John, Keneely busts her. But it turns out this hooker has some friends in very high places, and is back on the street the next day.

Frustrated, the two cops launch an informal investigation, and discover that Carl Rizzo (Allen Garfield), a well-respected councilman, is actually the area’s top crime boss. Dabbling in everything from strip clubs to narcotics, and with the police in his back pocket, Rizzo feels invincible. Of course, that only makes Keneely and Farrel more anxious than ever to take him down.

Gould and Blake shine as the perfectly matched detectives, two guys who are good at their job, yet never seem to take it seriously, and seldom play by the rules. While busting the prostitute played by Sharpe in her apartment, they ask for her appointment book. When she pretends not to have one, they begin a “search”, by breaking up the place, shattering lamps and pushing books onto the floor until she coughs it up. It’s a funny scene, made doubly so by the two stars, who play off each other wonderfully.

More than a comedy, however, Busting works as a thrilling crime drama, and has some truly spectacular action sequences. While searching the residence of one of Rizzo’s known accomplices, Keneely and Farrel happen upon a drug swap. Shots are fired, and a chase ensues, which eventually makes its way to a crowded farmer’s market. As terrified patrons hide behind vegetable stands and counters, the two detectives play a game of cat and mouse with the three criminals, all five with their guns drawn, firing at anything that moves. It is a tense scene, made doubly so by Hyams’ crisp direction.

Along with the two leads, Allen Garfield is at his absolute best as the slimy Rizzo, a guy so incredibly confident that you can’t help but admire him a little, and well-known character actors like Sid Haig (as Rizzo’s top henchman), Michael Lerner (as the proprietor of an adult book store / brothel), and Antonio Fargas (as a crossdresser in a gay bar) also shine in brief but memorable roles.

A movie that strikes the perfect balance between comedy and drama, with plenty of thrills thrown into the mix, Busting is one of my favorite cinematic discoveries in years.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, December 2, 2023

#2,938. Get Over It (2001) - Kirsten Dunst Film Festival


High school athlete Berke Landers (Ben Foster) discovers his longtime girlfriend Allison (Melissa Sagemiller) has fallen in love with drama student Bentley Scrumfeld (Shane West). So, Berke decides to try out for the school play, hoping to land the lead in an upcoming musical production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If he succeeds, he will star opposite Allison and, if all goes well, win her back.

There’s one problem, though: Berke can neither sing nor act!

To help him prepare, he turns to Kelly Woods (Kirsten Dunst), the younger sister of his best friend Felix (Colin Hanks). Kelly does what she can to assist Berke, all the while harboring a secret crush on him.

Will Berke win back the woman of his dreams, or should he just Get Over It?

Director Tommy O’Haver’s Get Over It has an amazingly strong cast. Along with those already mentioned, there’s Martin Short, who is very funny as Dr. Desmond Forrest Oates, the frantic director of the upcoming play. Short gets some of the film’s biggest laughs (especially towards the end, while watching his opus as he sits with the audience). Swoosie Kurtz and Ed Begley Jr. are also good as Berke’s far-too-supportive parents, and future superstars Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, and Carmen Electra turn up in supporting roles.

Get Over It also features real-life musicians Sisqo (as Dennis, one of Berke’s friends), Vitamin C (as herself), and Coolio (as himself).

Even with such a stellar cast, Ben Foster stands out as Berke, displaying a certain charm as a romantic lead while also getting some laughs of his own. But it isn’t long before you’ll want to slap the hell out of his character for not realizing Kelly is the right girl for him, and Kirsten Dunst is the reason why.

I always felt that Dunst, especially during this time period, was an underappreciated actress. She achieved a level of fame (and rightly so) playing Mary Jane in Sam Raimi’s Spider Man trilogy, but was also great in Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Marie Antionette. In Get Over It, her Kelly is such a sweetheart that you develop a crush on her almost immediately, and you can’t understand why Berke doesn't. Granted, it’s his best friend’s kid sister, but still…

Get Over It is a stylishly directed romantic comedy with some great songs (Dunst herself gets in on the act, making her big-screen singing debut with “Dream Of Me”) and genuine laughs. But even with so many talented individuals surrounding her, it's Kirsten Dunst who steals the show.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10