The Keep

The Keep is currently available on instant Netflix.

The Keep (1983) – Rated R

“Director Michael Mann’s visual artistry is highlighted in this 1983 horror outing starring Jürgen Prochnow as Capt. Klaus Woermann, whose German soldiers are slain by an ancient spirit after they commandeer a Romanian castle during World War II. Jewish scholar Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) is forced to investigate and wants to unleash the demon to decimate the Nazis, but an enigmatic wanderer (Scott Glenn) intends to keep the evil contained.”

“Why are the small stones on the outside and the large stones here on the interior? It’s constructed… backwards. This place was not constructed to keep something… out. “

I have a terrible soft spot for Nazi villains, particularly in the horror genre. Ian McKellan is fabulous as the tutor in Apt Pupil. Dead Snow is a riotous Nazi Zombiefest. I love Peter Cushing in Shock Waves. The military horror movie, The Outpost is quite good. Gregory Peck is fun as Dr. Mengele in The Boys from Brazil. I have even been known to watch The Madmen of Mandoras aka the shorter, better version of They Saved Hitler’s Brain!

I love The Keep. The Keep is a complete mess. The Keep is a terrific horror movie. The Keep is a terrible horror movie.

Michael Mann is an incredibly stylish director. After The Keep, he would start Miami Vice (1984), change Miami for Chicago and make Crime Story (1986), make the first Hannibal Lecter film (Manhunter, 1986), and make the best film about the French and Indian War (The Last of the Mohicans, 1992). He launched the careers of Dennis Farina, William Peterson, James Belushi, and Robert Prosky – and that was just from his film Thief.

Mann assembles a nice cast here. Jurgen Prochnow is good here in what is essentially a retread of his good German soldier from Das Boot. Gabriel Byrne is the flipside and pretty nasty as the villainous Major Kaempffer. The always excellent Ian McKellen plays Jewish historian Dr. Theodore Cuza. Scott Glenn is the mysterious stranger. Alberta Watson plays Eva Cuza, Theodore’s daughter.

Mann wrote the screenplay himself from F. Paul Wilson’s 1981 novel. I would love to see Mann’s original cut which was reportedly three and a half hours long. The Netflix version runs 95 minutes (96 listed on imdb) and is a choppy, incomprehensible mess.

The special effects run a wide gamut. There are great atmospheric effects such as the wall crosses and fog. The castle setting is absolutely wonderful. The climactic light show looks awful – as if this were from the early days of CGI. The device looks like a flashlight with fins attached.

The score is fantastic and done by Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream did some marvelous soundtracks in the late 70s and early 80s, notably for Sorcerer, Risky Business, Mann’s Thief and The Keep.

Final scorecard: marvelous atmosphere, good story, great location, nice acting (mostly), and wonderful score marred by incomprehensible plot, choppy editing, some poor special effects, and some sub-par acting.

The good news is that The Keep is available on instant Netflix even though it has never received a U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray release. Mann has disowned the film and squashed any release. The bad news is that the visual quality is pretty terrible, almost as if Netflix had copied it from an old VHS tape.

Ghost Ship – Don’t Get on That Boat Week!

Sometimes it seems too easy to do a particular week on a genre or a particular star or director. This week is Don’t Get on That Boat! week. Ghost Ship is currently available on instant Netflix.

Ghost Ship

PASS: Ghost Ship (2002) – Rated R for strong violence, gore, language and sexuality.

“Dispatched to recover a long-lost passenger ship found floating lifeless on the Bering Sea, the crew of the Arctic Warrior salvage tug soon becomes trapped inside the mysterious vessel — which they quickly realize is far from abandoned. But just who — or what — is on board remains to be seen. Gabriel Byrne, Isaiah Washington and Julianna Margulies lead the cast in this high-seas horror film directed by Steve Beck.”

“Congratulations. You found a boat. In the middle of the ocean of all places.”

*Sniff* What’s that I smell? It smells good yet rotten at the same time. Yes indeed it smells like wasted potential.

The idea of a cursed or haunted ship is a good one all by itself. Watching the first scene in the movie, while heavy-handed, is very entertaining. Later flashbacks to events surrounding the first scene gave me the impression that the movie might have been much better if it had been about the original cruise and not the salvor’s voyage.

The story is written by Mark Hanlon and the screenplay is written by Mark Hanlon and John Pogue. The story is a good one with a fair number of really nice touches. The dialogue is almost jaw-droppingly awful. I’d quote some to show you but sadly this comes from the school of ‘let’s show how hip we are by dropping profanity in every other sentence’ screenwriting.

The cast is pretty good for a horror movie. Gabriel Byrne is largely wasted as the salvage captain. Julianna Margulies capably plays the tough heroine. Bizarrely out of place is Isaiah Washington whose character doesn’t seem to fit in at all with the rest of the crew. Ron Eldard, Desmond Harrington and Alex Dimitriades round out the crew.

While the opening sequence is almost a reason to recommend this film, the rest of the film doesn’t measure up. It’s not that the film is particularly bad (except the dialogue), it just isn’t very good either.

People Watch: Look for Karl Urban (Bones on the new Star Trek movie) as a crew member and Emily Browning (Violet from Lemony Snicket) as a young passenger.

Christmas week – Enemy of the State

Besides taking place during the holidays (thus qualifying it for Christmas week status), Enemy of the State definitely knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

Enemy of the State

WATCH: Enemy of the State (1998) – Rated R for adult content, graphic language and violence.

“Hotshot Washington lawyer Robert Dean (Will Smith) becomes a victim of high-tech identity theft when a hacker slips an incriminating video into his pocket. Soon, a rogue National Security agent (Jon Voight) sets out to recover the tape — and destroy Dean. Tony Scott directs this breakneck political thriller that co-stars Gene Hackman as an intelligence expert who comes to Dean’s aid.”

Tony Scott directed this tense thriller shortly after Will Smith came off Independence Day. Normally I find that his fast pace and jump cuts detract from the film but in this case they serve the story well. One of the background storylines in this movie is an upcoming vote on a bill that sounds a lot like a portion of The Patriot Act even though this film predates that by many years.

Will Smith is his usual likeable everyman self and Jon Voight is appropriately sinister as a man with an agenda. Gene Hackman does a marvelous update to his character from The Conversation (a very similar film) and steals every scene he is in. The cast is filled with easily recognized character actors giving good performances, many of whom aren’t credited for some reason. Jamie Kennedy and Seth Green play a funny pair of agent/analysts. Jason Robards lends some weight with a brief role as a Senator.

The film is very good but flawed. While the breakneck pacing keeps one from questioning some of the logic holes, the initial killing seems very far-fetched (far too public). The climax comes across as lazy and contrived since it is essentially the same climax as his earlier movie True Romance. Thankfully Tony Scott doesn’t overuse his odd angle  and color-shifted (or bleached) cinematography here – it only gets annoying a bit during a tunnel chase.

The theme of ubiquitous surveillance is wonderfully handled though credit should be given to the aforementioned The Conversation (1974) and The Anderson Tapes (1971) for breaking ground. Overall this is a highly enjoyable film that handles the subject matter in a fun instead of preachy manner. I also love one particular dialogue exchange.

Robert Dean: What the hell is happening?

Brill: I blew up the building.

Robert Dean: Why?

Brill: Because you made a phone call.

People Watch: Look for Tom Sizemore as a mob boss, Jack Black as an analyst, and Gabriel Byrne as an agent.

Excalibur

Netflix currently has Excalibur available on instant play.

Excalibur

WATCH: Excalibur (1981) – Rated R

“Visionary director John Boorman serves up a lush interpretation of Thomas Malory’s classic novel Le Morte d’Arthur. Boorman weaves a rich tapestry that includes humble squire Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone; the Round Table’s righteous birth and ultimate decline; Guenevere and Lancelot’s adultery; the changing balance of power between crafty magician Merlin and wicked sorceress Morgana; and the valiant quest for the Holy Grail.”

While I love this film, I do feel it should be called King Arthur’s Greatest Hits. The film moves swiftly from section to section of the Arthurian mythos. It really needs a well-funded miniseries to do it justice or perhaps a multi-film series a la Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thankfully as an adult fantasy, Excalibur is cheerfully unabashedly R-rated. This was back before all the bean-counters insisted that everything be rated PG-13 (witness the emasculation of Conan as he moves from Barbarian to Destroyer or John McClane not being able to use his Yippie-Kay-Yay quote).

The scenery, shot mostly in Ireland, is gorgeous. Showing the land growing more and more physically beautiful as Arthur is in his prime and more and more bleak after Lancelot’s betrayal is handled wonderfully by Boorman. There is an especially beautiful waterfall scene during Lancelot’s introduction. The Lady in the Lake scenes are marvelous as are any scenes with Merlin. The green backlighting of most forest shots gives everything an eerie lush glow. Set design and costuming are wonderful as well though an early scene of a knight in full armor having sex with a woman just looks terribly painful and detracts from the purpose of the scene.

John Boorman’s presents a triple-tiered cast here. The leads Nigel Terry (Arthur), Cherie Lunghi (Guinevere), and Nicholas Clay (Lancelot) are all serviceable in their parts but seem a bit plain. The supporting actors are wonderful especially Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgana and feature very early performances from famous actors (unknown at the time). The third-tier of the cast is Boorman’s own family. Boorman’s son Charley plays boy Mordred and his daughter Katrine plays Igrayne (how do you direct your daughter during a nude scene?).

Almost everything in this film works well. The action sequences are rousing. Orff’s Carmina Burana is an inspired choice of music for this film and is used more than once in it. All aspects of this film that should be beautiful are beautiful and those that should be bleak are bleak. This is probably the lushest fantasy film prior to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and is highly recommended.

People Watch: Wow huge before they were stars here – check out Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Gawain and Gabrial Byrne as Uther Pendragon.