About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: The Bannen Way

Mark Gantt stars as Neal Bannen, a bit of a con artist and gambler (and ladies man) who is torn between a cop father (Michael Ironside) and a mobster uncle (Robert Forster). The latter wants Neal to retrieve a mysterious box stolen from him, in exchange for helping Neal out with the gambling debt he owes to another mobster (Ski Carr). Standing in Neal’s way are the three female assassins (including Autumn Reeser and Brianne Davis) hired by Michael Lerner, yet another mobster who holds the box. Also causing problems for Neal is a sexy thief (Vanessa Marcil), who may or may not be a double-crosser.

Directed by Jesse Warren, this 2010 film is actually a feature length version of what was formerly a web series (16 episodes now strung together to run barely 90 minutes) created by Warren and star Mark Gantt. The good news is that I could easily see this working as a legit TV series. The bad news comes in two parts; 1) It’s not a TV series I’d watch, and 2) I review feature films, and as a feature film this...isn’t. Oh sure, it’s shot in the Tony Scott/“Smokin’ Aces” ‘hyper-slick’ style, but that’s just artifice. Meanwhile, it’s also not terribly entertaining, at least not to me. I will say that the seams don’t show the film’s web origins, but the material just isn’t cinematic. It’s TV material. Bland TV material. And yet, it’s not a TV show either, not in the usual definition of the term. Having said that, it would work better as a TV show than “Angel of Death” would have, I’ll give it that. And kudos to Warren and Gantt for being savvy enough to find another outlet for their project, even if that project wasn’t terribly interesting to me personally. I admire (at least in principle) their smarts for finding another way in.

If anything, it plays like a movie-length pilot episode for a TV series that never got picked up. So I guess it at least manages to avoid looking like a stitch-job. It’s not awful, it’s just not my kind of thing, and seriously lacking in anything to distinguish it from just about any other caper-ish TV show out there. Fans of “Leverage”, “Covert Affairs”, “The Glades”, “Burn Notice” might get more out of this than I did (those shows might be different but they all blend together for me), but I never got into it, despite some interesting faces in the cast (notably Marcil, Ironside, and Lerner).

I guess it’s kinda watchable and seamless, and certainly quick-paced, but bland overall. The main character played with a bit of roguish charm by Gantt (i.e. He’s not as wooden as the guy from “Burn Notice”) is a major issue. This character lacks any depth or quirks whatsoever. I never quite got who or what he was even meant to be. He just needed a little more definition. I mean, was he a thief? A con artist? I was never quite sure, except that his dad was a cop and his uncle a mobster. That’s not enough, especially given the film’s title references the main character. Maybe Gantt might prove enjoyable elsewhere, but here, he comes up a bit short. Weird, given he co-wrote it. When we come across an Asian female assassin chucking a stiletto into the back of a guy’s head like a shuriken, it had me wishing the whole thing was about her. Even Gantt’s associates lack any definition whatsoever. I got the feeling that if this actually were a TV series, we’d see these people weekly, and get to know them, but here, we barely get glimpses of them.

The film is also painfully lacking in the villain department. Not only do we get a trio of lame female assassins (somewhere between “Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill”) that include Autumn Reeser as a fully clothed stripper/assassin named nicknamed Jail Bait (she even has sex fully-clothed!), but our lead villain, Ski Carr looks like Lou Bega. Yeah, the “Mambo #5” guy. Oh. So. Intimidating. I was expecting him to break out into song at any time. Or reveal his henchmen to be Snow and Icy Blu (A gold star to anyone who gets those references). Robert Forster, as the main character’s untrustworthy mobster uncle mightn’t be doing anything different than usual (he looks old and bored out of his mind, though), but he is the better villain of the two. Sometimes the standard Forster performance fits the bill, even if he’s a pretty lazy actor. Unfortunately, he isn’t in the film enough to make up the difference. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but for once, I wanted more Robert Forster. It’s a shame that Michael Ironside is cast as the main character’s hard-ass cop father, because there’s a guy who knows how to play an entertaining villain. He’s good here, but it’s an uninteresting role, and he would’ve been much better in the Forster or Carr roles. Mind you, I’m surprised Gantt constantly disappoints his dad. If your dad was a ‘Scanner’, would you want to disappoint him? I don’t want my brain sucked dry, Pops!

The film does have two bright spots in the cast, though. Vanessa Marcil might bring a TV-vibe to proceedings (well, she is a TV actress), and mightn’t be the most versatile actress, but she does her thing quite well here. I’ve always kinda liked her, and she’s hot, which always helps. The other standout is Michael Lerner, who absolutely walks off with the whole thing. In addition to still looking like Roger Ebert (ala “Godzilla”), he’s hilariously sleazy as a former Rabbi turned pervert mobster. Priceless stuff.

Overall, this is tolerable, but with central characters lacking definition and distinction, and a non-cinematic feel, this never really satisfies. At least it moves fast.

Rating: C+

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review: Misery

James Caan stars as schlock novelist Paul Sheldon who has a car crash out in the snow and slippery ice. He awakens in the care of nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who claims to be Sheldon’s ‘Number 1 fan’. It’s not long, though, before Paul realises that Annie has several screws loose, and she might not be helping him so much as imprisoning him. Meanwhile, Paul’s publisher (Lauren Bacall) gets worried and contacts the local sheriff (Richard Farnsworth). Frances Sternhagen plays Farnsworth’s wife, and J.T. Walsh plays a local patrolman investigating the crash scene once Paul’s car is recovered.

This Rob Reiner (“When Harry Met Sally...”, “A Few Good Men”) directed, William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the the Sundance Kid”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Princess Bride”) scripted adaptation of the Stephen King (“Cujo”, “Carrie”, “Stand By Me”) psycho-thriller is not the most original or profound motion picture you’ll ever see. It is however, one of the very best examples of its chosen field of study. There are a few clichéd moments here and there (especially with one character basically playing the Scatman Crothers role from “The Shining”), but if you don’t find this film gripping and thoroughly entertaining, I seriously have to question whether you even know what entertainment is.

James Caan is perfectly fine as the trapped, injured writer (Caan doesn’t seem perhaps to be the ‘intellectual’ type, but his novels are schlock), even if I would’ve chosen someone a little more ingratiating (Caan, in the film and otherwise, seems a bit prickly at times) to the audience, like a Richard Dreyfuss, but perhaps Dreyfuss would’ve just reminded one of the permanently injured guy he played in “Whose Life is it Anyway?”. However, it’s Oscar-winner Kathy Bates you’ll remember here. Her Annie Wilkes is one of the greatest female performances in the history of cinema, perhaps one of the best regardless of gender. Scary, funny, personable, psychotic, folksy, delusional- she plays the whole damn gamut and makes it 100% believable. She isn’t a one-dimensional nutjob, this is a very, very sad and disturbed woman with many layers. However, the shot of her watching daytime TV, eating, and drinking coke from the bottle just about says it all about that character in just that one shot. Bates really is a remarkable actress, when one looks at her body of work.

Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen are a lot of fun as the countrified sheriff (a cliché, perhaps) and his acerbic wife, and the late J.T. Walsh has an amusing cameo as the least reassuring police officer you’re ever likely to come across. This guy has no PR skills whatsoever. Nice to see screen legend Lauren Bacall too, in a brief but enjoyable cameo role.

Reiner does a great job here, but I especially like the use of close-ups that Reiner and his cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (“Blood Simple”, “When Harry Met Sally...”) adopt throughout the film. It makes things even more claustrophobic and inescapable, but also wonderfully captures the many faces of the remarkable Kathy Bates.

It’s high-concept, formulaic stuff, but when it’s done well, it’s done well. This is terrific, tense genre filmmaking, and you get the sense that this story might be like a personal nightmare for King, which adds to the fun. It’s bad enough that Caan has been left helpless in the evil clutches of his ‘Number 1 fan’, she’s also a fan of the books that he’s come to resent as having taken over his career. Priceless stuff. By the way, if you don’t flinch during the hobbling scene, you aren’t human. I’m a paraplegic and even I could really feel the pain just watching the scene. Easily one of the best films from a Stephen King story, and certainly one of the most accessible.

Rating: A

Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: Battle: Los Angeles

 An alien attack has descended upon LA, with Staff Sergeant Aaron Eckhart leading his Marines to Santa Monica to rescue some civilians (Michael Pena and veterinarian Bridget Moynahan among them) from an area that is set to be bombed. They find themselves under heavy fire from the clearly superior alien force. Michelle Rodriguez plays a tough ‘Tech Sergeant’...or something, whilst the rest of the cast is ethnically diverse, yet strangely interchangeable.

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman (“Darkness Falls”, “The Killing Room”) and written by Chris Bertolini (“The General’s Daughter” from 1999 being just about his only other credit), this is one of two alien invasion movies that came out around the same time. “Skyline” beat it to the punch by coming out in 2010, whilst this one was released in early 2011. “Skyline” was roasted in most quarters, but I actually thought it was a solid B-movie, despite some iffy FX. “Battle: LA” earned slightly better reviews, but I honestly think it takes a minimalist approach to such an extreme that it’s something and nothing at the same time. It’s a complete and utter failure on every conceivable level, but particularly on the level of entertainment.

It’s not that I especially minded the film’s single-minded, pro-American approach so much. Most of these films are centred in the US, and it makes sense as they are a superpower who might well be the last best hope in a situation such as an alien invasion. I’m fine with that, even though I still say there’s an ethnocentrism and egotism in some respects. However, focusing solely on LA and not really giving us any information as to how large this invasion is, just reminds me of the Chuck Norris movie “Invasion USA” where the villains wanted to take over America...but never got out of Miami. Oh well, at least this is called “Battle: Los Angeles”, not “Battle: USA”, but surely the aliens had larger plans? Believe me, though, the film has many, many more problems than this, and I’m not referring to the odd fact that a film in 2011 begins with Tupac’s self-indulgent hot mess, ‘California Love’ (Really? In 2011, we’re still listening to that? Cool bass, but really?).

The biggest, self-defeating, cataclysmic problem with the film is that it has absolutely no clarity whatsoever. No clarity of story, character, or action. It’s a whole lotta stuff going on that adds up to absolute zero, especially if audience investment was the aim. The opening scenes in particular, for me, were far too vague in setting up the premise of the film. Even worse, however, are the cinematography by Lukas Ettlin and the action. This is one of the most incompetently shot and staged films I’ve ever seen in my 32 years on this Earth (and I’ve seen “Cloverfield”, people!). It’s way too busy with zooms, pans, cutting, and a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. And this was just for a scene involving two dudes in a room talking. Stop it, Mr. Ettlin! Unfortunately, Mr. Ettlin does not stop, as there’s a scene where a dude is visiting someone at the cemetery and the camera is hiding behind a tombstone and wobbling like an old fart with Parkinson’s. Were the Japanese about to sneak attack or something? No, it was to add ‘realism’ and ‘drama’. Fuck off. I get the feeling that modern filmmakers think all sci-fi and action fans are also fans of first-person shooter games. They make me, and lots of others physically ill. Movies are movies. Learn it. Live it. Love it. This is such a nauseating film to look at, I got no visual pleasure from it whatsoever. And then there’s the dreaded Colour Filter Syndrome rearing its ugly head. Thankfully it’s really only in one scene, but it’s incompetent and stupidly done; There’s a bunch of tiny fires all over the ground, so the sky and everything else is bathed in yellow. Yeah, like it would be in real life.

But the characterisation is just as bad. I mean, the opening ten minutes give us about 20 names and faces, that we’re going to need to keep track of throughout the rest of the film. Liebesman and Bertolini fail to realise that giving us the peoples’ names and an introductory scene doesn’t really mean we come to know them and relate to them, or care about what happens to them. There’s too many of them, and we’re being thrown into the deep end. Even a film as overpopulated as “Armageddon” paid a little more attention to its characters and cast the film with actors who at least stood out, visually. This film has a couple of reasonably well-known faces and names (Bridget Moynahan and Michael Pena among them), but not enough to make up for the lack of clarity in character (let alone depth) or cinematography (The one possible exception is Michelle Rodriguez. In a way, her typecasting works because you know who and what she’ll play and so you don’t need any set-up for her character or much depth). A lot of the faces and characters just blend together. When some of the characters die, we don’t care, because we don’t really know the characters enough to care. One character is referred to by Eckhart (who, due to his experience in “The Core” is at least a reasonably acceptable hero) as having been brave, but since this was just a guy who turned up in a few scenes, said some stuff and died...I can’t relate this statement to any truth or falsehood. By the time Bridget Moynahan turns up it’s beyond way too late to be introducing characters. Meanwhile, just because the film is called “Battle: Los Angeles”, that doesn’t mean it has to focus almost exclusively on the military (though “Aliens” is a brilliant example of such an approach). Spielberg made a severely underrated movie called “War of the Worlds” and it focused almost entirely on one suburban family. Perhaps the strategy adopted here was similar to “Black Hawk Down”, where you were meant to have a visceral, in-your-face experience where it didn’t matter so much that things were often chaotic and the characters were 2D at best. The problem is, “Black Hawk Down” perfected this style, and also it was a film about a real battle. This film is just badly shot (it seems like Ettlin is deliberately trying to obscure the action and the aliens at every opportunity), and is about battling aliens, and so it’s a little harder to relate (Especially if you’re not in the mood for hoo-rah, USA! USA! USA! One-dimensional, Bruckheimer-esque pro-American military nonsense). If you want to look at an alien invasion film that comes really close to being realistic without forgetting about character depth, once again, look at Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”.

The aliens are a problem too. You never get a clear or convincing picture of what they are, how they got here, and how they operate. As I said, the camera never manages to focus in on them, and if it is by choice, it’s not a good one. It’s all well and good to take the “Jaws” slow reveal approach, but don’t do that for the entire film, surely. Perhaps it was a budgetary restriction like with the ineffectual “Monsters”, but more likely, it’s stylistic. At times they look like robots, alarmingly like ED-209, which suggests the solution is simple- build an army of Robocops to do the job. So are they alien robots or robots built by aliens? Do robots exist and generate independently? Not on this Earth they don’t, so some explanation would be necessary. But then at other times they look more like Xenomorphs that simply have a metallic look about them, with a touch of “Predator” about them. Despite the vagueness to their design, they still look somewhat identifiable to us, which is always my problem with aliens. If aliens really existed, I think they’d look completely foreign to anything our imaginations can conjure up, so I’m almost always going to be somewhat disappointed by Hollywood representations of them (As I said in my “Skyline” review, I also think they’d destroy us in an instant, therefore the movie would be over instantaneously, so don’t ever ask me to write an alien invasion movie!).

Apparently “Predator” co-star Shane Black (writer of “Lethal Weapon”) did uncredited work on this script. Smart man that Mr. Black, I wouldn’t want an on-screen credit, either. Oh, and one final piece of amusing information: At one point Michelle Rodriguez makes a crack about Eckhart only having one facial expression. Really? Really, Ms. Rodriguez? Have you looked in the mirror lately, sweetie?

In the end, this film is appallingly made. None of it resonates on any level, it just washes over you. It started, it ended, I didn’t give a crap.

Rating: D

Review: Skyline

Eric Balfour and girlfriend Scottie Thompson (Really? That’s a girl’s name now?) are in LA for a party held by their friend-turned-success Donald Faison (Yes, the guy from “Scrubs”). In the early hours of the next morning, however, they are awoken by great beams of light shining out of the sky. After staring too long, Balfour starts to go all zombie-like, before being pulled away just in time. Apparently there has been an alien invasion, as giant ships hover the sky, and bodies are being sucked up into the sky. Our central couple, Faison, and several others from around the apartment building (including roles for TV actors David Zayas and Brittany Daniel) have to stick together and formulate a plan as now alien robot thingies start hunting for more bodies.

This 2010 alien invasion flick from The Brothers Strause (whose “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” wasn’t terrible) has gotten an absolute caning from critics. Maybe I’ve lost my touch, but I actually kinda liked it. Sure, the FX are clearly of a 1996 standard (i.e. Not bad, but not good enough), but pretty much everything else worked for me here. In fact, this film does right what “Monsters” attempted to do and failed (Then again, critics loved that one whilst I was indifferent to it, so perhaps it is just me). Certainly it’s “Cloverfield” done right. It’s not on the level of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds”, but it’s a decent B-movie that really only suffers from a bit too much ambition. It tries for “ID4” spectacle, but despite $10 million spent on FX, the stealth bombers etc. just aren’t up to snuff. Some smoke and dark cinematography occasionally come close to hiding the mediocre FX, but not quite. That’s a shame, because it otherwise works rather well on smaller-scale scenes (It has a fast pace for starters). It would be an even better film if its aims and budget were similar. Mind you unlike “Monsters” and “Cloverfield”, at least this one gives us plenty of aliens. I appreciated the aliens in this, because not only did there look to be different species amongst them, but for the most part they are a mixture of animal and robot yet not in any clearly identifiable way. They don’t really look like anything. It always pisses me off about alien movies, when you can see a clear influence. Why should aliens be made to look so recognisable to things that exist on our planet? Obviously, it’s hard not to given our limited imaginations, but still, I appreciate the effort here. Rob Bottin’s work in “The Thing” for me is the yardstick (despite being a mediocre film), because although they worked out that it was replicating humans and animals, in its purest form (when that guy’s chest explodes) it was indescribable and unrelated to anything on Earth.

I also think the characters, stock or not, are more interesting than in either of those aforementioned films (which is good given this is almost a one-set film with lots of characters talking away, rather than predominantly action and spectacle). The weird thing is, most critics of this film like the FX more than anything else in the film. They must be blind. When you add the mediocre FX to what are essentially a bunch of mostly TV actors, it does make one think that this could easily be found on the small screen (Even Spielberg has “Falling Skies” on his résumé).

I also would like to rake cinematographer Michael Watson over the coals. He does his best in hiding the rough FX, but why is the sky green at times here? Because Watson is a dick, that’s why. It looks alien before the aliens even turn up. And yes, if filmmakers keep doing it, I’ll keep complaining about it. It’s unnatural and stupid.

But overall I liked this, so sue me. What more were people expecting from this film? It’s perfectly OK if you ask me (much better than the highly-touted and stupid “District 9”), especially considering the filmmakers had no major studio help at all (By design. They cited studio interference as a problem on “AvP: Requiem”).

The screenplay by Joshua Cordes and Liam O’Donnell, has earned some ire for cribbing from every sci-fi film under the sun, but I honestly only noticed a couple of steals, and so what? It’s an alien invasion movie, the only real room for ingenuity is if they actually film the story the way it would really happen. That is, we’d all be dead in a millisecond (No, Team America will not save the day, nor will The Fresh Prince and that guy Meg Ryan didn’t want to marry). And that would make for a short film, unfortunately.

Rating: B-