KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Strong Brutal Violence, including a Rape

Directed by: Tim Metcalfe

Written by: Tim Metcalfe

(based on the book KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER by Carl Panzram)

Starring: James Woods, Robert Sean Leonard, Ellen Greene, Cara Buono, Robert John Burke, Richard Riehle, Harold Gould, John Bedford Lloyd, Jeffrey DeMunn & Steve Forrest

From 1920 to 1929, Carl Panzram killed (at least) 21 people and raped countless more. This psychopath told his gruesome life story in his own words in the autobiography KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER, which has since been verified by historians and criminologists. Panzram’s life story is fascinating as he was a monster who was in and out of torture-filled prisons and had a colorful history of leaving mayhem in his wake. His story seems perfectly built for a dark drama. This is precisely what director/screenwriter Tim Metcalfe thought because KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER attempts to detail Panzram’s violent history and his odd friendship with prison guard Henry Lesser. Unfortunately, it falters under cheap production values and artistic liberties that seem to push an unnecessary agenda.

In 1928, Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard) starts working as a prison guard at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. On his first day, Henry meets inmate Carl Panzram (James Woods) who’s serving a sentence for burglary. Henry watches as Carl is subjected to brutal abuse from the other guards. Feeling sorry for this lost soul, Lesser befriends Panzram and convinces him to write his life story. Much to Lesser’s horror and fascination, he soon realizes that Carl is a meticulous serial killer who’s murdered 21 people and committed other heinous acts. Panzram wants to die as soon as possible and Lesser is strangely not okay with this. The two at-odds men engage in a very weird friendship as a possible day of execution draws near.

KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER had loads of potential to be a phenomenal true-crime drama about a uniquely evil serial killer who has been mostly forgotten to the sands of time and overshadowed by more famous monsters. However, KILLER encounters many problems from start to finish. The first of these comes in the clearly low-budget production values. It’s obvious that a big studio might not want to pour millions of dollars into a disturbing true story like this one, but the bland filmmaking on the same level of many mediocre made-for-TV movies. There’s almost nothing visually appealing about this film and many scenes are just plain ugly to look at.

On a positive note, the flashbacks to Panzram’s life are executed in an almost documentary-like fashion with old clips and black-and-white footage. This is about as cinematically compelling as the material gets and it consumes about 20 minutes of screen time. Another strong quality is James Woods’ performance as Carl Panzram. Though this film deliberately attempts to turn this inhuman killing machine into a sympathetic monster, Woods salvages whatever he can from this material and recites Panzram’s actual words in many scenes (the flashbacks are directly ripped right out of his autobiography). He’s scary in certain scenes, vicious in others, and even occasionally funny. Though Woods may not have the muscular build of Panzram, his face sort of resembles this real-life killer. Also, Woods seems right at home playing this scumbag because James Woods plays scumbags like nobody else.

Sadly, the good acting mainly lies in Woods’ Panzram. Robert Sean Leonard is wooden as Henry Lesser. His character mostly puzzles over how a sane man can commit such evil actions, while also trying to convince Panzram to avoid the death penalty. Leonard has no on-screen charisma and the film dedicates far too much of its time to his musings. The only other performances of note are Richard Riehle as an over-the-top warden, John Bedford Lloyd as briefly glimpsed psychiatrist Karl Menninger, and Steve Forrest as “Spud” Charles Casey.

KILLER’s main problems result from Metcalfe taking drastic artistic liberties by swapping real-life events for the sake of pushing a preachy agenda. You see, Panzram was far from a sympathetic psycho. He made no apologies for any of his crimes and confessed to sexually abusing countless children (something that the film decided to leave out for the sake of making him seem more “likable”). The way that KILLER portrays Panzram and Lesser’s friendship is exaggerated to say the least and strongly attempts to push an anti-death penalty/prison reform message. This message might have been more appropriate in a movie that didn’t revolve around a vicious monster. To boot, dialogue-filled scenes get very melodramatic and soap opera-y, especially in the dull-as-dirt final third.

KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER had lots of potential to be a compelling look at true evil and friendship in seemingly impossible places. If properly executed, this story could be one of the best true-crime films ever made, because Panzram’s life is morbidly fascinating and the material is ripe to be executed in a grand way. However, this low-budget effort suffers from poor acting (except for Woods) and writing that was purposely twisted to manipulate the viewer. Those who want to discover the story of Panzram are better off reading Panzram’s autobiography, listening to THE LAST PODCAST ON THE LEFT’s stellar three-part episode on him, or doing both of those things. Sadly, I cannot recommend watching KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER as this is a disappointing missed opportunity.

Grade: C

SCARY MOVIE 2 (2001)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual and Gross Humor, Graphic Language and some Drug Content

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Directed by: Keenen Ivory Wayans

Written by: Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Alyson Fouse, Greg Grabianski, Dave Polsky, Michael Anthony Snowden & Craig Wayans

Starring: Anna Faris, Regina Hall, Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Chris Masterson, Kathleen Robertson, David Cross, James Woods, Tim Curry, Tori Spelling & Chris Elliot

2000’s SCARY MOVIE was such a hit at the box office that the studio immediately greenlit a sequel. Usually when something like this happens in the Hollywood scene, one can expect a shameless cash-in on the first film with significantly less effort put into it. This is especially true of spoof films. As enjoyable as the later entries were, THE NAKED GUN had a significant drop off in quality after the first film. However, the Wayans brothers pulled off a seemingly impossible task in their second SCARY outing. SCARY MOVIE 2 is actually well-rounded, more focused, and far funnier than its predecessor. Part of this might come from mainly lampooning a legitimately bad horror flick this time around (1999’s THE HAUNTING remake), but this sequel also seems to be more creative in its ridiculous laughs.

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Cindy Campbell and most of her friends somehow survived the massacre from the first film, even though some of them clearly died. Their troubles are far from over as a shady college professor tricks them into participating in a questionable experiment at a decrepit mansion. Aside from the college kids and their professor, the population of this mansion also includes a creepy butler, the professor’s idiotic assistant, and a few pissed off ghosts. If Cindy and her friends wish to survive the night, they must find a way to beat all of the supernatural threats that this haunted mansion throws at them. As you might expect, crazy and crude shenanigans ensue.

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One quality that immediately sticks out about SCARY MOVIE 2 is the level of talent from the supporting cast members. Most notably, Tim Curry appears in a rather thankless role as the college professor. Though he gets a couple of chuckles, the Wayans brothers should be ashamed for not fully utilizing Curry’s comedic chops. However, the rest of the big names make up for that mistake. David Cross is hilarious as the professor’s assistant. Confined to a wheelchair, Cross’s running gag is that he can “do it himself!” with every little task. Chris Elliot might be the funniest damn thing in this whole film as the butler. Sporting a particularly nasty-looking prosthetic hand, he milks what might have been a tired gag for everything that it’s worth. Each new bit of Elliot’s pay-off is funnier than the last and one scene had me cracking up. On an arguably better level than Elliot’s butler is James Woods’s priest who’s sadly only seen in the first 10 minutes (which mercilessly spoofs THE EXORCIST). His straight-faced delivery of such over-the-top material provided some of the funniest moments for me. Nearly everyone from the first film returns, including Anna Faris, Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans, and they all pull their weight as well.

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Much like the first film, SCARY MOVIE 2 jumps from set-piece to set-piece. The key difference is that there’s actual consistency and an even flow in this sequel. Instead of including scenes purely for the hell of it, almost everything ties back into the plot. Speaking of which, aside from one oddly placed CHARLIE’S ANGELS moment, this second film sticks to parodying horror films without too many pop culture references thrown in the mix. Everything from more modern fare at the time (including WHAT LIES BENEATH, HOLLOW MAN, and HANNIBAL) to old-school classics (THE EXORCIST, POLTERGEIST, AMITYVILLE HORROR and THE CHANGELING) are comedic targets. The humor somehow gets even crasser than the first film (with more bodily fluids, sex jokes, and frequent profanity), but works far better this time around. While the first film felt like it was trying too hard to gross you out, SCARY MOVIE 2 does everything purely for ridiculous laughs. A couple of stand-out moments include a clown doll that goes from predator to victim in 30 seconds and a cussing parrot. Again, this is all juvenile and immature, but also very funny….at least, to me.

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SCARY MOVIE 2 relies on a lot of stupid humor. The basic plotline mainly serves as an excuse for haunting hijinks and crude over-the-top gags. It’s far from a perfect horror-comedy or the best spoof out there. That being said, it’s definitely enjoyable all the same and serves as a light-hearted romp that’s perfect for the October season. For my money, this is by far the best SCARY MOVIE in the franchise!

Grade: B

HERCULES (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

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Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker

Written by: Ron Clements, John Musker & Barry Johnson

Voices of: Tate Donovan, Josh Keaton, Danny DeVito, James Woods, Susan Egan, Rip Torn, Bobcat Goldthwait & Matt Frewer

It happened. I had been on such a good streak for a while and I finally stumbled across some misguided nostalgia from my childhood yet again. I vaguely remember seeing HERCULES at the drive-in. I was six years-old at the time, Disney movies were pretty much the only films that I was able to see on the big screen. At the time, I loved this film. This was on repeat at my house after it hit its VHS release. Having watched this Disney take on mythology for the first time in a solid decade, I can safely say that I really don’t like this film anymore. I’ve heard people complain about HERCULES for Disneyfying Greek mythology or misrepresenting certain parts of the legend of Hercules. Neither of those are my complaints with this movie, instead my problems with Disney’s version of HERCULES stem from it feeling far too rushed with little to no character development, the dusty pop culture references, and interchangeable musical numbers. 1997’s HERCULES is a big mixed bag.

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Zeus and Hera have given birth to a new Greek god named Hercules. The baby has immeasurable strength and is loved by every god on Mount Olympus. However, the ruler of the underworld, Hades, decides to kill Hercules in order to secure an evil future plan for the control of Mount Olympus. The assassination attempt goes sour and Hercules winds up as a Demi-God. As an awkward misfit with superhuman strength, the teenage Hercules discovers his true identity and trains under the guidance of Phil to become a hero. Hoping that his good deeds will eventually earn him a place back in Mount Olympus, Hercules winds up falling for frequent damsel-in-distress Meg and draws the attention of Hades, who is more than a little pissed to find that Hercules is still alive.

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The biggest problems with HERCULES become apparent in the first five minutes of running time. We are introduced to the Muses who sing a gospel themed tune prologue about titans and gods. The song is forgettable and forced. The pacing of the prologue feels overly rushed and doesn’t give the viewer enough time to gander at the images being presented on the screen. It doesn’t get much better from that point, because the Muses reappear to sing more gospel tunes about Hercules’s progress throughout. Even when the Muses aren’t part of a musical number, the songs from Hercules (the best of the bunch, but only okay), Phil (way too forced) and Meg (a simplistic song about being in love) are pretty mediocre for the most part. The pacing of this film is messy. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram all of the Hercules story into the space of 90 minutes while focusing too much on pop culture references.

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Since the script feels like it’s rushing by way too fast, this doesn’t exactly leave much room for character development. We get the whole conflict of a teenage Hercules in the space of 5 minutes and it’s mainly played up as a tired joke. I couldn’t feel much for Hercules, because he’s simply the bland hero. While Meg definitely has more attitude than your typical helpless damsel in distress, she’s not exactly likable and you might wonder what Hercules sees in her. Meanwhile, Danny DeVito is simply shouting his lines as Phil. James Woods’s Hades is the only character in HERCULES that I actually liked. The casting decision was pretty genius and he plays the God of the Underworld as a slick, slimy jerk with deadly intentions. He’s simply a blast to watch, but his moments (much like everything else in this film) pass by far too quickly. Though Hades is a solid villain, his two demon sidekicks, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwait) and Panic (Matt Frewer), perform a tired slapstick routine for the entire movie.

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If there’s anything that I can honestly praise in HERCULES, aside from James Woods playing Hades, it would be the animation style itself. The songs might be forced. The characters might be bland. The movie might move at a pace that’s too fast for its own good. In spite of all of these things, 1997’s HERCULES looks cool. There’s a combination of CGI and traditional animation on display. It blends together quite well, especially in a sequence when Hercules faces off against a many-headed Hydra. The odd animation style is creative and I liked it a lot. It’s really a pit that it’s being wasted on such a mediocre script.

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HERCULES has two qualities that could possibly make it worth recommending to certain people. You have James Woods playing Hades. That would sell me on morbid curiosity alone. The animation is really unlike anything that Disney has done before or since. It’s a very odd look and I enjoyed the visuals a lot. However, that doesn’t nearly make up for bland characters, shaky pacing, and forced musical numbers. I didn’t like HERCULES, but not because it put an overly Disney spin on Greek mythology. Instead, it’s simply because I found the film to be a mixed bag with two good qualities and a lot of bad ones. Overall, HERCULES is on the lower end of Disney’s animated spectrum (not including direct-to-video sequels, of course).

Grade: C

CASINO (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, Drug Use and Some Sexuality

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, James Woods

The problem with putting directors up on pedestals is that we automatically expect something great from them. Sometimes they will go above and beyond to deliver a film that ranks among their best work ever. If I had to pick three films by Martin Scorsese that I would call his best work ever, they would be GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, and HUGO. All three are different, but they all showcase the love this man has for filmmaking and just how brilliant he can be at it. Then something like CASINO comes along.

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This film came a mere five years after GOODFELLAS (which many hail as the number one gangster movie of all-time). CASINO came at a bad time. It was still on the heels of GOODFELLAS and some would probably consider it to be a bit of a sequel to that film. This would be a fair assumption, because a few of the actors from that film appear here and it rife with everything from the voice overs to the style. Even some of the soundtrack choices and the basic set-up of the movie are the same. It should also be mentioned that the same two writers who penned GOODFELLAS, also wrote CASINO and it shows. Does this make CASINO a bad movie? Absolutely not. It just makes it a poorly timed movie. It may be considered GOODFELLAS-Lite, but it’s still a phenomenal piece of work any way you slice it.

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Mostly based on a true story, CASINO takes place from the 70’s to the early 80’s, detailing events that took place in a mob controlled casino. Sam is a successful sports handicapper and has been somewhat awarded for his efforts by a head position at a luxurious casino. In the confines of this building, a huge scamming operation is taking place. The mob is paying off the cops to look the other way, while they skim a bit off the top of the casino’s earnings. It’s a bit of a foolproof plan, but in the world of crime, one should always know better. Things begin to get shaky when a mob enforcer (and childhood friend of Sam) named Nicky is sent to protect Sam’s casino. Nicky’s violent temper begins to earn some unwanted attention. From there on, Sam finds love, Nicky’s temper brings down a world of hurt upon both of their reputations, and the intricately executed plan begins to fall to pieces in front of their very eyes.

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If you were to watch CASINO in a double feature with GOODFELLAS, I’m willing to bet that the similarities would be uncanny. There are a few big differences in terms of the scale though. While GOODFELLAS was set over a period of decades, CASINO is placed within a space of about a single decade. Somehow, the film is packed with three full hours worth of material and GOODFELLAS was about 40 minutes less. Instead of two voice overs (much like in that other film), we are treated to not one, not two, but four different narrations that coincide with each other. Surprisingly, this technique pays off. We get both Sam and Nicky’s perspectives on the same situations, which makes for some slight laughs and steadily mounting tension as their friendship falls apart too.

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Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci have shown in the past that they could play off each other as gangsters and their roles here are pretty similar to their roles in GOODFELLAS (not to keep comparing the two). De Niro is a calm, collected guy, but can also turn violent in the right situation, while Pesci is a psycho with a bad temper. The real standout here is Sharon Stone though. She was so aggravating as a hooker turned love interest turned back into pretty much a hooker that I was actually grinding my teeth at one point. I wanted to jump into my TV screen and end her. That’s how well she played the part of her character. James Woods also shows up as a slimy ex-pimp of Stone’s character and is appropriately scummy.

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As far as the violence itself goes, the MPAA originally gave CASINO the dreaded NC-17 rating and some cuts were made to the gore. After watching this, I can safely say it’s very graphic and pretty disturbing throughout. I wasn’t expecting it to be as dark and gory as it wound up being, but this was a brutal movie (e.g. the final scenes with Pesci). The mark of a truly great film is that the viewer wants it to continue on, even after it’s done. This has happened to me on some occasions (namely THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) and it also happened with CASINO. I wanted the film to keep going, even as it neared the three-hour mark.

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One might say that Scorsese was ripping off himself with this film, but to hammer the point that the movies are similar and different entities is that both films are based on real events regarding the mafia in two different locations. It’s crazy how the fall from grace can be so alike, even though the time period and mobsters themselves are different. Scorsese may have also single-handedly turned me off of visiting Las Vegas ever again (for fear of running into the mafia, which realistically could still have a hold in certain operations there). CASINO isn’t up there on the same level as GOODFELLAS, but it comes very close.

Grade: A

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