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March 23rd, 2007

VIDEO STORE GUY

by Steven Anderson

arch-02.jpgARCHANGEL
**

DVD
Directed by Jon Jones; Written by Robert Harris
Starring Daniel Craig, Yekaterina Rednikova,
Gabriel Macht
Produced by Christopher Hall
NR, 124 mins, 2006

The new James Bond, Daniel Craig, advances with great care and judiciousness into the opening of the Soviet society– probably a lot more open than they would like to be. What “Archangel” puts on display for us is a former Oxford historian in Moscow for a conference on the recently-opened Soviet archives. A former Soviet Secret Police officer presents our historian with a once in a lifetime offer–secret files from Stalin’s office, buried in Lavrenty Beria’s front yard. But this being Russia, it’s not going to be anywhere near so easy as shuffling over to Beria’s house with a shovel in hand–no sir. Our historian’s going to have to face down the Soviet underworld to find out the secrets that Josef Stalin took to his grave.

It sounds brutally cool, doesn’t it? It’s just too bad that this movie has all the pace of cold borscht running uphill in a Siberian winter. In other words, it’s slow. Painfully slow. All in all, though “Archangel” isn’t an unpleasant movie, and if you’ve got the patience for a great payoff, then this is just what you need.

sam-04.jpgSAMARITAN
*

DVD
Directed by Kimball Carr; Written by Kimball Carr
Starring Johnny Alonzo, J. Michael Hunter, Kelley Davis, Humberto Gettys
Produced by Richard S. Marten, Josh Levy, Kimball Carr, Ethan E. Marten
NR, 19 mins, 2006

A movie that starts off with a quote from Einstein, especially a quote like “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one,” clearly has an agenda. And that agenda isn’t too likely to make much sense. But whether it leaves us mystified or merely confused depends on the execution, and “Samaritan” will prove that even a fantastic execution can’t salvage a lousy plot.

The source of all that confusion is the tale of an armed robbery, stopped by your standard class-X mysterious stranger type. John Ramsey, our veteran detective, is left to pick up the pieces. And as Ramsey moves closer to discovering the purpose and story behind Victor, our mysterious stranger, what he’s going to discover will prove more frightening than anything he’s previously encountered.

The back of the box, and the making-of featurette included with the movie, will go to great lengths of self-congratulation to describe the “direct to hard disk High Definition capture” and “bleeding edge technology” it uses to do this capturing and such. But it’s a crying shame that all these spectacular effects and pioneering techniques were used to capture a story that’s neither rational or interesting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The picture does seem unusually sharp and clear. There are some nifty effects here, like things moving in shadows without corresponding movement around characters. But in their rush to develop “tomorrow’s production paradigm” (again another frothy quote from the back of the box), they seem to have forgotten to bother with the little things.

Like a plot, and character development.

By the end, it’s still fairly up in the air as to what exactly Victor was. The best explanation we get is that “it’s not a man,” from the homeless guy doing the armed robbing. Angel? Demon? Alien? Some kind of being from a parallel universe? A human from the far-flung future, perhaps? Basically, “Samaritan” is little more than a demo reel, showing off production techniques at the expense of actually making a movie. In fact, “Samaritan” by itself might best be described as the first twenty minutes of a particularly interesting movie. By itself, its rushed and disjointed major plot elements are introduced and forgotten, almost like a grade-schooler’s short fiction. But put into a larger framework, given more time to operate, given more room to grow, “Samaritan” might well have been something really impressive, and watchable.

All in all, “Samaritan” gives us solid evidence that bells and whistles by themselves do not a movie make. While it could have easily been expanded into an excellent film, by itself, it just can’t stand up.

norliss-04.jpgTHE NORLISS TAPES
***

DVD
Directed by Dan Curtis; Written by Dan Curtis
Starring Roy Thinnes, Don Porter, Angie Dickinson,
Claude Akins
Produced by Dan Curtis
NR, 72 mins, 2006

Another movie Anchor Bay dug up out of the “Long Forgotten” section of the archives, “The Norliss Tapes” is an interesting mix of events that lead up to a surprisingly satisifying conclusion, though not without its clear and present faults. Paranormal investigator David Norliss is out investigating psychic phenomena and other assorted supernatural hoaxes. A sort of a modern day “In Search Of…”,or even “Fact or Fiction”, Norliss has amassed hours upon hours of cassette tapes detailing his findings. And when David Norliss mysteriously vanishes one day, all that remains behind are his tapes. What Norliss’ tapes reveal are an altogether alarming story of a woman attacked by her husband’s corpse, and the events surrounding this particular attack. It sounds really ambitious, especially for a movie with a seventy two minute runtime. The fact that this movie easily predates any of the standard paranormal investigation plotlines (“The X-Files”, “Millenium”, and their like) by a good twenty years or more is nothing short of astonishing– “The Norliss Tapes” comes to us from the depths of 1973. If anything, the movie’s pedigree suggests that we’ve got a winner on our hands. Though every jot and tittle of this movie looks incredibly dated–velvet curtains? Light sconces that look like candles? A gun case in the living room stocked to the gunnels with rifles? Lapels so wide you could hang-glide with them?–it’s still got enough compression in its metaphorical cylinders to keep a movie running.

All in all, “The Norliss Tapes” wasn’t a bad resurrection for Anchor Bay to work on. Though it’s got some clear flaws and faults to it, it still has more than a few virtues left. If you can stomach the troubles–or if you’d like a good, albeit unintentional, laugh–then you won’t have a problem in the world with “The Norliss Tapes.”

jej-02.jpgTHE READING ROOM
***

DVD
Directed by Georg Stanford-Brown
Written by Randy Feldman
Starring James Earl Jones, Joanna Cassidy, Georg
Stanford-Brown, Tim Reid
Produced by Albert T. Dickerson III, Jeff Kloss
NR, 87 mins, 2006

I once read a Dilbert comic–a critic says a movie has “powerful performances”, and Dogbert translates: “It’s a downer. Someone probably gets a disease and loses the farm.” I expected that out of “The Reading Room”. Gladly, I was disappointed. Which isn’t to say that Dilbert’s description is too far away from “The Reading Room”– indeed, someone got a disease within the first five minutes and died, leaving her widower husband a challenge. Notably, build a reading room–like a free library that you can’t check anything out of– in a depressed urban area near their home, using their personal library as the stock. In a way, “The Reading Room” is actually different from one of those standard urban dramas. While it begins much the same way–bad neighborhood, gangs, all the things we’ve come to expect– it rapidly evolves into a series of puzzles – how to get people in, how to keep people in, how to protect the building, even how to survive an incursion by the local and surprisingly sinister church.

All in all, “The Reading Room” is a real surprise. Its almost expected level of schmaltz has been notably toned down and the emphasis on problem solving is a welcome feature. “The Reading Room” should easily prove to be solid family fare, and inspirational besides.

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