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Frontiere(s) (2007)

Director: Xavier Gens
Starring: Karina Testa, Aurlien Wiik, Patrick Legardes, David Saracino
Unrated Running time: 108 minutes
Released by Lionsgate

FRONTIER(S) begins in Paris, where riots have broken out following the election of a neo-nazi Prime Minister. A group of thieves, all of Middle-Eastern/Muslim heritage, are trying to flee the city after a heist goes sour. The group splits up, and two of the crooks find a country hotel to hide out in. The hotel is owned by the Von Geisler family, a weird bunch who greet the pair of fugitives with a little too much enthusiasm. Most people would have found a less freakish place to hole up, but a pair of hot-to-trot ladies persuade the two criminals to hang around for awhile. After summoning the rest of their crew to meet them at the Von Geisler's pad, they discover that the oddball family is planning to eat them.

That's right. The Von Geisler's are cannibalistic nazis who are running a butcher shop/breeding farm and the fugitives are on the menu.

FRONTIER(S) is another entry in France's ultra-violent "New Wave of Horror." While it's definitely violent and horrific, it's not nearly as good as its peers (INSIDE, MARTYRS, THEM, etc). The biggest problem here is the way it is shot and edited. There's lots of quickly cut shaky cam scenes that render action scenes very difficult to process. Not only is it hard on the eyes, the story is essentially a mishmash of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, HOSTEL, and some of the more recent torture-porn films popular during that era. Gens is also going for some kind of commentary on the political climate of France, but isn't able to make it gel with the rest of the movie. It also doesn't help matters that the protagonists (the robbers and their friends) are incredibly dumb and unlikeable. There's nobody to sympathize with.

It's grimy and gross, but isn't as scary or upsetting as it tries to be. FRONTIER(S) has little to offer aside from special effects and gore.

2 out of 5.

Sugar Cookies (1973)

Director: Theodore Gershuny
Starring: Mary Woronov, Lynn Lowry,
Unrated Running time: 89 minutes
Released by Troma

Fresh out of Yale, future Troma mastermind Lloyd Kaufman and one-day Hollywood titan Oliver Stone teamed up to produce this sexploitation flick that owes a substantial creative debt to Hitchcock's Vertigo. In Sugar Cookies, Lynn Lowry plays a porn starlet who is murdered by a demented adult film producer named Max Pavel (George Shannon). This doesn't sit well with the icy, manipulative Camila (Mary Woronov) - Max's sometime sexual partner and, coincidentally, a lover of the murdered actress. Camila vows revenge, and after holding a porno casting call, meets Julia, who looks identical to Max's victim. Camila immediately befriends the double (Lowry again), and begins playing all kinds of sordid sexual mind games with the naive Julia. Once Camila is satisfied that Julia's head is sufficiently screwed up, she turns the innocent actress into a weapon of vengeance.

While not especially erotic, Sugar Cookies conjures a uniquely sleazy vibe; wall-to-wall nakedness and perverse characters captured against the backdrop of early 70's New York in all its unclean glory. Director Ted Gershuny (Silent Night, Bloody Night) has an interesting eye for visuals, but drops the ball when it comes to the film's pacing. A couple of unnecessary subplots (featuring Monique Van Vooren and Warhol star Ondine) slow the film to a crawl, and almost seem like they came from another movie. No matter - the film gets back on track and manages to generate some honest-to-god suspense for the final scene. Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul, Death Race 2000, and more genre films than you can count) is always interesting to watch, and her performance here is no exception. Lynn Lowry is a little overdone, but fits in well with the low-rent, trashy tone of the film. Associate producer Stone pops up in a bit part, Lloyd Kaufman plays a lawyer, and Gershuny casts himself in a scene - completely nude and having simulated sex with an equally nude actress. Pretty ballsy move considering he was married to star Mary Woronov at the time. Oh, the joys of being a director!

A little too sleazy to be a suspense film, a little too much story to be sexploitation - Sugar Cookies kind of meanders around in a genre by itself. It's not a masterpiece, but is pretty effective when compared to what passes for "erotic thrillers" these days. Viewers who enjoy skin flicks from a hairier time will find a lot to love here. If nothing else it's an interesting historical artifact - where the paths of Troma, Oliver Stone, and some Warhol alumni intersected in a less hygenic time and place.

3 out of 5.


The House on Skull Mountain (1974)

Director: Ron Honthaner
Starring: Victor French, Janee Michelle, Mike Evans, Jean Durand
Rated PG Running time: 95 minutes
Released by 20th Century Fox

Bankrolled by Atlanta-area businessmen ("Chocolate Chip and Pinto Productions") and released theatrically by Twentieth Century Fox, House on Skull Mountain is one of the more mediocre releases in Fox's "Midnite Movies" series. When a wealthy black lady named Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie) passes away, her heirs are summoned to the deceased's home, perched atop ominous Skull Mountain. Vying for the inheritance are friendly church lady Christian Harriet (Xernona Clayton), the attractive and sophisticated Lorena (Janee Michelle), jive-talking Phillippe (Mike Evans - "Lionel" from The Jeffersons), and Pauline's white great-grandson, Dr. Andrew Cunningham (Victor French of Highway to Heaven and Little House on the Prairie). Before the will can be read, the heirs start getting killed in mysterious circumstances. Could it be the angry ghost of the voodoo-practicing Pauline? Or maybe the obnoxious Phillippe? How about the shifty-eyed butler, Tomas (Jean Durand), who secretly holds voodoo rituals in the mansion's cellar?

You'd have to be an idiot not to realize who the killer is very early in the film (hint - it's the character whose eyes dart around suspiciously following a murder), so Skull Mountain fails to generate even Scooby-Doo levels of suspense. It looks and feels like a TV-movie, not surprising since director Ron Honthaner was a producer for the show Gunsmoke, and features no gore, nudity, or bad language. It's competently made, but dull beyond all belief. Only recommended if you are dying to hear Lionel Jefferson use the word "honky".

2 out of 5.


Lethal Dose (2003)

aka LD-50: Lethal Dose

Director: Simon De Selva
Starring: Katherine Towne, Melanie Brown, Tom Hardy, Ross McCall
Rated R Running time: 97 minutes
Released by First Look Pictures

You are a member of LD-50, a top secret animal rights group that isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. Your group engages in meticulously planned raids on animal testing facilities, liberating furry creatures from the clutches of heartless scientists. You operate under the cover of darkness. You communicate with secret codes to protect your identity. One of your members got caught on a previous mission, and you've discovered that he is being used as a lab rat in order to get his sentence reduced. You reunite the group in order to free your martyred friend. You break into the laboratory, a cavernous facility that no one in your group is familiar with. There is great danger of being caught, so your next move must be carefully planned. Recognizing the perils you face, and being the crack team of outlaw animal-rights activists that you are, there is one thing that you must do to accomplish your mission:

Sit around with the team and get high.

That's right, gentle reader. This group, in the midst of the very illegal, very dangerous mission, opts to smoke a fatty before they go wandering around the maze-like facility. It was at this point that I realized that the makers of Lethal Dose don't really intend for you to take their film all that seriously. And even though they spent the first act of the film on characterization, you shouldn't, either. The film degenerates into standard Sci-Fi Channel fare, but with a little gore tossed here and there to keep things interesting. The characters spend much of the film wandering around in the dark while being pursued by a Lawnmower Man-inspired killer. It seems that the experiment that the captured activist is the guinea pig for is a project which attempts to seperate the human soul from the body. Yikes. It's a good thing one of the members is a yoga buff. Tibetan Yoga of Death, no less. What does yoga have to do with anything, you ask? Well, it features prominently in the film's grand finale - in a scene that brings to mind the word "silly".

There is a Spice Girl in this film, if that sort of thing floats your boat. The main point of interest is the appearance of a young Tom Hardy, in a role he probably wants to forget.

Cavite (2005)

Director: Neill Dela Llana, Ian Gamazon
Starring: Ian Gamazon
Unrated Running time: 80 minutes
Released by Magnolia Home Entertainment

Who would have thought that a film featuring little more than a man wandering the streets while talking on a cellphone could be so damned fascinating? Alex (Ian Gamazon), a thirtysomething American of Filipino heritage, returns to his homeland after his fathers death. While he waits for his mother to pick him up from the airport, he receives a call from someone claiming to have kidnapped his family. To prove he is not lying, the caller directs Alex to an envelope which has been placed in his luggage. Alex opens the envelope and finds photographs of his mother and his sister, bound and beaten. There is only one way for Alex to ensure their safety, the caller says, and that is to do everything that he is told.

The plot of Cavite is about as bare-bones as they come, yet grows into something much more complex, raising questions about identity, heritage, and religion. I cannot say much more about the story without giving away too much information; part of the film's magic is the way the story evolves from a one-note thriller into a genuinely thought-provoking story about a man being forced to make a choice you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.

Two men - one working the camera, and the other in front of it - have created a film which is intelligent, atmospheric, and a thousand times more absorbing than any thriller Hollywood has put out in years. Amazingly, they accomplished this with no money and almost no crew. Shot hit-and-run style in the Philippines, Cavite is DIY film making at its finest. The almost documentary approach to filming and the hypnotic use of traditional music create a claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere that the Philippine Tourism Authority is sure to disapprove of. Dela Llana and Gamazon have created a tight, cliche-free thriller of which I cannot say enough nice things about. This film deserves to be seen - especially by anyone who thinks that it takes a lot of money to make a truly remarkable film.