All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

LOST SOULS

F

“What’s wrong, Father?” Maya Larkin (Winona Ryder) inquires of a priest played by Brian Reddy about halfway through this new would-be apocalyptic thriller. Father Frank, you see, has wandered into her room looking decidedly grim and worried, having just learned of the death of one of their anti-Satan associates. But by this point the movie has become so absurd and tedious that you almost expect the cleric to reply, “You mean besides the script?”

It’s hardly surprising that the release of the second feature from actress Meg Ryan’s production company (the first was the dismal 1995 farce “French Kiss”) was so long delayed; “Lost Souls” has been on the shelf so many months that it threatened to become one of the ever-more numerous “Lost Movies.” But it’s even more peculiar that it should be released almost immediately after the awful “Bless the Child,” with which it shares a multitude of plot elements. Indeed, the flick could easily be retitled “Bless the Lapsed Catholic Writer Whose Speciality Is Serial Killers and Who’s About to Become the Antichrist.”

The screenplay by Pierce Gardner, a hopelessly contrived and often incoherent hodgepodge blending together not only elements of “Child” but of “Stigmata,” “End of Days” and “Rosemary’s Baby” as well, focuses on author Peter Kelson (Ben Chaplin), who specializes in penning pseudo-intellectual tomes concerning mass murderers in which, being a decided unbeliever despite the fact that his uncle (Philip Baker Hall) is a priest, he denies the existence of, as he says in a phrase Donald Pleasence might once have intoned, Pure Evil. Kelson is, however, soon confronted by Larkin, a young woman who was apparently once possessed as a child and who now works alongside exorcist Father Lareaux (John Hurt), who’s fallen afoul of Vatican authorities (a theme typical in such flicks). She and the good father have just conducted a failed exorcism on a killer ensconced in a psychiatrist hospital–an exercise that has nearly devastated the cleric–and the winsome gal does some research on her own indicating that Kelson will be the devil’s next target, indeed the linchpin of a demonic plot to initiate the last of days. Before long Peter and Myra are working together to uncover the truth about the author’s past and foil Satan’s dastardly plan.

From a theological perspective “Lost Souls” is blasphemous mumbo-jumbo, an amalgam of crackpot religious themes devoid of any serious understanding of Catholic doctrine or practice. But, more significant in the present context, it’s also an absolutely terrible movie, sloppily constructed and poorly executed. It marks the first helming attempt of master DP Janusz Kaminski, whose work on “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” was so impressive. As a director, he shows himself a fine cinematographer: he knows how to frame shots and composes some sequences nicely, uses a palette of dark-hued browns and reds to give the images the desired melancholy effect, and occasionally does intriguing things with light and shade. But he exhibits no sense of pacing–many sequences run on far too long, and others seem curiously attenuated (at one point Maya and Peter watch serial killer John Diehl, who’s inexplicably gotten free of the hospital and tracked them down, go into convulsions, apparently being transformed into a beast, and in the next shot the two are in their SUV driving down a road without any explanation of what’s transpired in the meantime). Nor does he succeed in imposing any sense of logic or credibility on the choppy plot. Kaminski doesn’t demonstrate any skill in dealing with actors, either. Ryder is generically nervous as the religious Nancy Drew figure, and Chaplin is as colorless as most of the settings. But the leads admittedly pale in awfulness beside two old pros, Hurt and Hall, who are forced to leer and mug shamelessly in their nutty clerical roles. Their ridiculous portrayals of priests–like that of poor Ian Holm in “Stigmata” or Rod Steiger in “End of Days”–might be construed as grounds for excommunication. Happily Christianity is a faith of forgiveness.

“Lost Souls” concludes with a somber twist that has the virtue of avoiding the obligatory upbeat ending required of virtually all pictures nowadays (a need which apparently even extended to the decision to tack on a happy close to the recent reissue of “The Exorcist”). But apart from that major miscalculation, the lengthened version of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic emphatically proves that there is a way of pulling off this kind of mystical-religious claptrap successfully onscreen. That still-potent screamer certainly points up everything that’s wrong with this feeble, pointless imitation, which is being released on Friday the 13th but will surely have exited multiplexes well before Halloween.

THE LADIES MAN

F

Tim Meadows enters the contest for worst feature ever made from a “Saturday Night Live” sketch with this simultaneously vulgar and boring tale about Leon Phelps, the dense, smarmy radio-TV host who lisps out gross recollections of his supposed sexual prowess and obnoxious advice to listeners. The recurrent television segments featuring the character, at about five minutes or so, were already grotesquely overextended; running nearly an hour and a half, this padded bigscreen version, in which the title dope loses his job and comes to the realization that his ex-producer Julie (Karyn Parsons) is his true love, seems to drag on for an eternity. It’s also completely laughless: the so-called jokes represent nothing but a string of crudities and moronic non-sequiturs. When even the wonderful Eugene Levy can’t wring the slightest smile out of a turn as Phelps’ odious station manager, you know the picture’s in deep trouble.

It’s clear, therefore, that “The Ladies Man” is a putrid mess. But the category in which it’s vying for recognition is fiercely competitive. Can it emerge victorious in the face of the stomach-churning creepiness of Molly Shannon’s “Superstar” or the grisly redundancies of “A Night at the Roxbury” with Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan? Certainly it tries by flogging the same miserable situations endlessly, in imitation of the latter, and by providing Ferrell (again) with a monologue as disgusting as anything in the former. And to top things off, it inserts a Busby Berkeley-style musical number for Ferrell and a male chorus that one could only wish were a literal show-stopper. It’s undeniable that “The Ladies Man” is awful: at one point Phelps ruefully declares that his life sucks, and one can only add that his movie does, too.

But “Superstar” and “Roxbury” also stank up the screen relentlessly. Which to declare the victor as worst SNL picture ever made? Happily, an outside event intrudes to decide the matter. A supremely oblivious and inconsiderate woman in the row behind the reviewer takes several calls on her cell phone during the screening, and the interruption provided by her babbling proves more a respite than an annoyance. Only in the case of one of the lousiest movies of all time could the abomination which is a telephone conversation in a crowded theatre have a salutary effect. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner: Meadows’ sniggering atrocity takes the crown by a whisker.

But remember, there are other lousy SNL skits still lurking out there, all threatening to become appalling features. Be afraid, be very afraid.