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.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: Zoltan- Hound of Dracula/Dracula’s Dog


An excavating Romanian army accidentally unleash Dracula’s hound Zoltan, who in turn revives manservant Veidt Schmidt (Reggie Nalder). After an unsuccessful attempt at reviving their master, they venture to the US to indoctrinate the last remaining Dracula heir, family man Michael Drake (Michael Pataki). Drake is currently on a camping trip with his wife, kids, and their dogs. Meanwhile, Romanian police inspector and vampire expert Inspector Branco (Oscar winner Jose Ferrer!) investigates the dead bodies left back at the tomb when Schmidt and Zoltan made their escape, and quickly heads to the US to hopefully warn Drake of what is to come.

 

AKA “Dracula’s Dog”. Yeah, both titles are equally awful, aren’t they? There’s an interesting idea in this 1978 horror offering from director/producer Albert Band (father of Charles and director of Full Moon’s “Doctor Mordrid”) and writer/co-producer Frank Ray Perilli (“Laserblast”, the curious “Little Cigars”) with Dracula essentially infiltrating or invading a typical American nuclear family. Unfortunately, most of the film is concerned with a fucking vampire-dog who is only tangentially related to the family and who pretty much single-handedly reduces the film to a curio at best. The film barely does anything with Pataki’s dual role, at the end of the day. Presumably because Pataki makes for a craptacular Dracula.

 

Sure, it’s entirely watchable (amazingly), but not in the way likely intended. Pretty poorly made, it’s one of a kind for sure, but there are elements here that suggest it could’ve been something a little less ricockulous. Certainly character actor Jose Ferrer does his best to not look down on the material, in a rock-solid Van Helsing-esque characterisation. His refusal to put on even the hint of an accent, however, leads to confusing when he tells Pataki they come from the same country. One almost thinks he’s talking about the United States. Speaking of ricockulous, though, early on we see a tombstone that reads: ‘Mikhail Dracula’. OK, so it’s perhaps geographically plausible, but no less stupid. ‘Count Igor Dracula’, meanwhile, just gives me a freakin’ headache. Igor (or is it Eye-gor?) of course was a character in “Young Frankenstein”, spoofing the kind of servile imp character from Universal Studios’ “Frankenstein” films.

 

But back to the dogs. If you ask me, the German Shepherds in this are scarier than Zoltan, especially before they join the undead. The little Scrappy-Doo vampire dog to go along with Scooby-esque Zoltan doesn’t help, either. Zoltan is the runt of the litter, the red-headed stepchild of the Dracula family. Well, you know what I mean. He’s also the most hesitant, wimpy vampire-dog you’re ever likely to see. The worst thing about Zoltan, though, is that he has fangs. Think about it. He’s a canine. Why have they given him special vampire fangs? They’re awfully cheap-looking too, which is surprising given Band looks to have chosen the cheapest location possible to make the film (Romania?), so surely he could afford better makeup/FX, right? Shockingly, Stan Winston (“Aliens”, “Predator”, “Pumpkinhead”) gets credited with FX and makeup creation in the film. Why, Stan? Why? I certainly hope Winston’s contribution wasn’t shining a torch into the dog’s eyes to make him look more evil (read: Stupid).

 

The 70s pop-like score by Andrew Belling is particularly awful and inappropriate, belonging rather to a 70s cop show than something like this. The camerawork by Bruce Logan (“Big Bad Mama”, “Crazy Mama”, “Jackson County Jail”), meanwhile, provides some of the best and worst moments in the film. There’s some nice fog, but for the most part it has a dreary, 4:30 PM look to it, whilst at other times it’s too brightly lit at times when it supposed to be dark or the lights are meant to be turned off. Then again, there’s a surprisingly good scene where Pataki and Ferrer are in a small cabin besieged by Zoltan outside where the camerawork and sound FX make Zoltan seem almost “Cujo”-esque. This is followed by a pretty decent “Cujo”-esque scene involving Pataki struggling to put up the roof of his car whilst Zoltan and his blood-sucking minions are nearly descending upon him. It’s clearly not a film for animal lovers, and probably not anyone else either, really.

 

Pataki isn’t bad as the Judd Hirsch/Roy Scheider-esque family man, but his cameo at the beginning as Dracula is terribly unconvincing (Also, what kind of idiot goes camping with two dogs and a seemingly newborn baby in tow?). Much more believably evil is the instantly recognisable, peculiar-looking Reggie Nalder. Poor fella, like Michael “The Hills Have Eyes” Berryman, his looks ensured a career of monsters and ghoulies. Cast essentially in the Renfield role, Nalder would’ve been a much better Dracula, and certainly more menacing than Zoltan.

 

This film does contain elements that aren’t awful, but with a terrible central idea and a pathetic title character, it was never going to work. It is however something to see if you’re morbidly curious. Or curiously morbid.

 

Rating: D-

Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: The Great White Hope

James Earl Jones plays the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion (called Jack Jefferson here, but it’s basically the real-life Jack Johnson), who nonetheless finds himself largely hated and vilified by a great many white people, and not just because his romantic companion is a white woman (played by Jane Alexander). His detractors (including Hal Holbrook, Robert Webber, and an especially racist R.G. Armstrong) are meanwhile determined to find the ‘Great White Hope’ who can finally defeat Jefferson and restore ‘order’. When Jefferson keeps knocking ‘em down, they decide to use even lowlier methods to bring him down. Moses Gunn plays an African-American who basically calls Jefferson out for being a traitor to his race, during a big celebration among his people.


Directed by Martin Ritt (The excellent “Hud”, “Edge of the City”, and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, the awful misfire “The Outrage”), and scripted by Howard Sackler (who worked on the scripts for the first two “Jaws” films), this 1970 screen version of Sackler’s stage play is an interesting, if not always successful experience. A fictionalised account of America’s first African-American heavyweight boxing champ, the film seems to have its own struggle between the somewhat straightforward, even clichéd account and James Earl Jones’ dynamic yet clearly very theatrical performance. Either the story seems too small or Jones’ performance is too big for cinema (it was his first major film role, perhaps tellingly), and it makes the film occasionally a bit awkward and lumpy. That said, you can never take your eyes off Jones, and his voice, as always, commands attention too. As does his somewhat intimidating bald head. Seriously, it’s almost as if they wanted Johnson (or Jack Jefferson, as he is called here) to come off as far from a Sidney Poitier-type as possible, to heighten the tensions on screen between the character and the white (mostly bigoted) characters. The fact that Jones (or Jefferson) also rarely stops smiling, even in the face of hardship and persecution, also likely gets under their skin, intentional on his part no doubt. Jones (who earned an Oscar nomination) does really well in capturing the mixture between the smiling exterior and the simmering rage beneath.


As memorable as Jones is, however, I think it’s the highly underrated Jane Alexander (like Jones, repeating her stage performance) who quietly steals the show in her Academy Award nominated debut performance. It’s a tricky role, but Alexander is brilliant, and it’s a shame that she’s not as well-known as several of the other actresses who emerged out of the late 60s and early 70s (Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, etc) .


The film seems to lose its way once Jefferson is forced to flee the US (and things get bogged down for too long), and truth be told, it might just be that Jefferson/Johnson’s story is not one especially needed to be told in cinema. That is, it’s pretty clichéd and predictable. To be fair, though, most of the similar stories probably came out after this one (“The Hurricane” and “Ali”, for instance), but I still felt like I had seen all of this before. I also have to disagree with critic Leonard Maltin in regards to the ending, which I found quite powerful.


It’s a lumpy film, probably not an especially successful one, but it’s memorable, interesting, a must for fans of the two leads. Rock-solid smaller turns by Hal Holbrook, Robert Webber, Beah Richards (as Jefferson’s worried mother), R.G. Armstrong, and Moses Gunn, too. Worth a look, whatever you might make of it.

 

Rating: B-

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Thomas Horn is Oskar, a 9 year-old boy who was once tested for Asperger’s but the results were ‘inconclusive’. There is no doubt, however, that he is socially awkward. Oskar’s jeweller father (Tom Hanks) always seems to have time for his son and the two play all sorts of brain-teasing games and such (ranging from oxymoron sparring sessions to amateur sleuthing expeditions). His father ‘gets’ him, trying to give him the stimulation and attention he needs. When Oskar’s father dies in one of the 9/11/01 attacks on the Twin Towers, the boy is devastated, as is his mother (Sandra Bullock). About a year later, Oskar accidentally happens upon a key amongst some of his father’s things. The key was in an envelope with ‘Black’ written on the front of it. Being a bright boy, Oskar assumes that because the word begins with a capital, it must be a name. Certain that this is yet another of his late father’s tests laid out for him, Oskar decides to embark on a journey of New York to visit all the people with the last name Black, and hopefully find the lock that the key belongs to (He does not inform his grief-paralysed mother of this expedition, by the way). Not easy when you’re extremely shy and awkward around people. At one point, Oskar (who carries a heavy and unnecessary burden only revealed at the climax) is joined by the mute old man (82 year-old Max von Sydow) who is renting a room in his grandmother’s apartment. But who is he? John Goodman plays the affable doorman to the building where Oskar lives, Viola Davis plays one of the (forgive the pun) Blacks, whom Oskar happens upon at a really crappy time in her life. Jeffrey Wright plays Davis’ ex, and Zoe Caldwell rounds out the cast as Oskar’s grandmother.

 

This well-intentioned, watchable adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel by director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”, “The Reader”) and writer Eric Roth (Oscar winner for “Forrest Gump”) doesn’t quite come off. It nearly gets there, though, as there’s a terrific story in here somewhere about a borderline Asperger’s suffering child (an excellent Thomas Horn, in a difficult, and deliberately not always ingratiating performance) dealing with grief and the loss of his beloved father in one of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01. That’s an interesting and unique idea for a film. It’s just a shame that the film chooses to tell this potentially moving and fascinating story in a way that is quite implausible, with young Horn being allowed to go out and about on this epic journey seemingly without his still-grieving mother (a thankless Sandra Bullock) giving much of a crap. The film tries to clear that up towards the end, but I still didn’t buy it. In fact, much like Horn himself, I kinda wished Bullock was the one who perished, so that Hanks (who is perfectly, if somewhat manipulatively, cast) could stick around to help his son through the grieving process, and you could still have the grand adventure plotline, except Max von Sydow’s character would be replaced by Hanks too. Veteran Swedish actor von Sydow is excellent in the mute role (not as easy as you’d think for an actor), but the character is a little underdone and unnecessary, if you ask me (Not to mention that you’ll figure out who he is long before the kid does). Still, it was about damn time von Sydow got nominated for another Oscar (the film itself was also somewhat controversially nominated for Best Picture), and this is hardly his worst film.

 

But look, this film isn’t such an offensive use of 9/11/01 as I was dreading. Yes, it ultimately doesn’t reach the heights it clearly wants to, but it’s not an unworkable concept. Daldry and Roth (or perhaps the author, I haven’t read the book) simply haven’t found the right way to tell it. Combining a very real tragedy with a somewhat fanciful narrative was always going to be a bit lumpy, but ultimately it’s just let down by the implausibility of a young 9 year-old boy with social awkwardness going on this journey and meeting so many people. The wheels almost completely fall off towards the end when Jeffrey Wright reappears. You’ll know what I mean when you see it, though Wright’s performance is one of his best-ever (The phenomenally overrated Viola Davis is quite nice, too).

 

I also felt that the film dealt with the Bullock character in a very manipulative way, and although I have no problem with manipulation if done right, it bugged me here. Bullock’s character ends up being somewhat short-changed and not for any particularly good reason. It tries to make a point of paying respect to the often thankless task of being a mother, but it doesn’t quite come off, like the film itself. Truth be told, the film also short-changes the von Sydow character at the end, too.

 

I enjoyed a lot of this film, and young Thomas Horn makes an excellent acting debut in a very difficult role. I mean, this kid was found by Daldry as a contestant on TV’s “Jeopardy” for cryin’ out loud! I just didn’t quite buy it at the end of the day, if that makes any sense. It’ll definitely have you talking, though, amidst a sea of films you’ll forget about almost instantaneously.

 

Rating: C+

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review: War Horse


Beginning just before WWI in Devonshire, we meet struggling farmer Peter Mullan, his wife Emily Watson, and son Jeremy Irvine as they struggle to pay landlord David Thewlis. Yes, the farm is in threat of foreclosure. Gee, haven’t heard that one before. One day, the ne’er-do-well Mullan decides to buy a horse at auction, much to the displeasure of Watson, though Irvine vows to find a use for the animal on the farm. A bond soon forms between boy and horse, the latter now named Joey. Unfortunately, once the war breaks out, their union is broken in the name of Britain, as Joey is rounded up, and poor Irvine is too young to fight in the war. Joey is then in the care of kindly army Captain Tom Hiddleston, whilst Irvine is back at home hoping to one day ride him again. Or something like that. Benedict Crumblebum...er...Cumberbatch plays another officer, as do Eddie Marsan and Liam Cunningham, whilst Niels Arestrup is a French grandfather whose granddaughter takes in the horse at one point.

 

Steven Spielberg has been responsible for some of the greatest entertainments in cinematic history; “Jaws”, “ET”, and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” alone are cinematic milestones as far as I’m concerned. And yet in 2011, the man went 0-2 with two deathly dull and old-fashioned films, the animated “The Adventures of Tintin”, and now this hoary old thing. Has Mr. Blockbuster lost his touch? Well, both films were popular at the box-office and most critics, but in my opinion, yes Spielberg has indeed lost his touch. In fact, this one’s even worse than “Tintin”. About the only good thing I can say about it is that at least the horses are real, unlike the pathetic stage version. Those horse puppets just look absurd, though I’m not a regular theatre-goer anyway.

 

The first part of the film is unendurably twee potato farmer crap, kind of like “Lassie” with a horse. I kept waiting for the horribly disfigured Leprechaun to turn up and club everyone’s kneecaps. And why is Bilbo now played by Peter Mullen? Not even a mutton-chopped David Thewlis could save this (he’s good, though), certainly not the dull Jeremy Irvine, and Emily Watson is surprisingly terrible playing a one-dimensional weepie cliché that seemed more like a parody of a stereotype to me (Mullen isn’t much better). She also gets one extremely unglamorous close-up that really did remind me of a sack of potatoes. Why would you do that to the poor woman, Steven? Meanwhile, every time Irvine opens his mouth in this, all I could hear was Samwise Gamgee, and believe me, Sean Astin’s Irish accent wasn’t exactly stellar. A real Irishman might’ve made something a lot less twee than this (not that this was set in Ireland. It’s actually set in England, but someone forgot to tell Spielberg and the actors this, it seems), but Spielberg completely botches it. I get the boy and his horse connection for Spielberg (though Irvine’s odd performance will give you “Equus”-inspired nightmares), but I liked this a whole lot better when the horse was an alien who made Drew Barrymore scream.

 

After that opening section, one realises this film is going to be an episodic film where the horse is actually the main character, travelling from owner to owner like an equine Forrest Gump crossed with Simpson and his Donkey (a WWI Australian story that has become legend). And boy is that a stupid idea, though I should confess at this point that I hate horses and don’t much care for British farm life stories, either. This isn’t a timeless story, it’s an antiquated one, and boring beyond belief. The opening 40 minutes felt like two hours at least. Tom Hiddleston gives an excellent performance in a rare good guy role, but this film took way too long to go nowhere interesting. It’s full of clichés and nothing about it is remotely subtle, including one of the least impressive music scores by John Williams (“Jaws”, “Star Wars”, “Superman”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), who ought to be embarrassed by his work here. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (“Schindler’s List”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Minority Report”) continue the heavy-handedness of the film by framing the Germans in ominous shadows and shot compositions that are a teeny bit racist (And don’t get me started on that wannabe “Gone With the Wind” finale. What the hell was that?). If it were a WWII film, I could almost forgive such a thing, but WWI? Not so much. And then there’s the scene where the horse volunteers to get a harness put on it. Yes, the horse is an enlisted man, folks. Corny as fuck. So clichéd was it, that when Benedict Cumberbatch and his ridiculously pompous voice came along as a stiff upper-lipped Brit officer I kept wondering when he was going to order the horse to go marching UP and DOWN the SQUARE! He’s a boring and silly actor and it’s a really bad sign in a drama when you’re thinking about Monty Python, folks because those sketches are what, 40-50 years old at least now? I know this is a WWI-set film, but there’s a difference between being set in the past and being antiquated.

 

I know a lot of people liked this film, but I found it useless. Horses to me have zero personality and have no right being the main protagonist of a film unless it’s a movie version of “Mr. Ed”. That might be fun. Loved that damn show. Spielberg even botches the few spots of CGI in the film, as horses gallop past gunfire. The CGI was obviously necessary, but it’s definitely not top-shelf stuff, though thankfully only briefly used.

 

I said earlier that the film is episodic, but if not, then it’s extremely unfocussed because you simply cannot expect us to be invested in a film where the horse is the character we’re meant to relate to. You need humans to latch on to, in order to get around the horse’s lack of charisma (Look at the classic “The Yearling”, about a boy and his deer, but the deer wasn’t a camera hog, the boy was the main character). I don’t care what the title says, a horse should not be the main character. One horse looks the same as the next if it’s the same colour, for starters (And there were 14 ‘Joeys’ used in the film, to further prove my point). I literally got confused between horses at certain points. The same cannot be said of humans, unless you’re ignorant, and it meant that a supposedly sad moment between two horses was rendered ineffective for me because I couldn’t identify either of them.

 

I’m sorry, but there’s nowhere near 2 ½ hours worth of material in this nonsense, and it’s C-grade radio serial material at best. It’s an extended Guinness commercial, more like it. Despite my hating the potato farmer crap, the film would’ve at least been tighter if it had focused on the scenes in Ireland, and moved to the scenes with Hiddleston, and then returned to the farm scenes again. Instead we get an extended and seriously dull pit stop in France for God knows what reason.

 

The dirty battle scenes, when we get to them are well-done and mostly free of shaky-cam, but when it takes 90 minutes to get to the good stuff, and that 90 minutes has been unendurable crap, it’s just not good enough. Maybe they should’ve started the film during the war and have the kid and horse introduced to each other there and forgotten all the potato farmer crap and Emily Watson’s unflattering face. There are way too many close-ups in this, especially those given to the horse. Yes, the horse. Horses are no more expressive than Bruce the Shark, and he was mechanical for Christ’s sake, Steven! I couldn’t get over how heavy-handed the camerawork was here in purely dramatic scenes. The finale (the “Gone With the Wind” thing I referred to earlier) is so schmaltzy I nearly vomited. And I normally love schmaltz.

 

Horse lovers will enjoy this, no doubt about it. I hated it. It was well-mounted but interminably and insufferably twee, and completely heavy-handed to boot. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel by Lee Hall and the normally very fine Richard Curtis (the latter being the director of the very fine “Love Actually” and the underrated “Boat That Rocked”), this may very well be the worst Best Picture Oscar nominee of all-time, in a year full of underwhelming Oscar nominees. But hey, everyone else loves this film (and the play won a Tony Award to boot), so what do I know? I’m just the guy who didn’t like “Red Dog”, and hated this one even more.

 

Rating: D-

Review: ET: The Extra Terrestrial


After government goons scare of its family, a small alien is left behind on Earth, all alone. A young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) finds the alien and treats it like a pet, naming it ET. A bond is formed, as the boy also introduces the alien to his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), and adorable younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore). Dee Wallace Stone plays the kids’ recently separated mother, whilst Peter Coyote plays a government agent looking for ET, C. Thomas Howell plays a friend of Michael’s, and a young Erika Eleniak plays one of Elliott’s classmates.

 

A rare case of movie magic, this 1982 family classic is not only the second-best film from Steven Spielberg after “Jaws”, but one of the very best movies ever made. It’s certainly one of the best family films alongside “Pinocchio”, “The NeverEnding Story”, and “The Goonies”. Things start brilliantly with one of the best John Williams (“Jaws”, “Star Wars”, “Superman”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) scores ever, which is both exciting and heart-warming like the film itself. Williams deservedly earned an Oscar for the score which also shares with “Star Wars” the fact that you can listen to the score on its own after having seen the movie and replay it in your head. That won’t work as well for “Raiders”, “Jaws”, or “Superman”, however.

 

We also get interesting POV shots from ET’s (or a child’s) level, making the adults, especially the government agents that much more sinister-looking. Early on in particular, we rarely see faces, and the whole thing is shot by cinematographer Allan Daviau (Spielberg’s “The Colour Purple” and “Empire of the Sun”) with nicely captured shadows and fog. Daviau very much deserved his Oscar nomination here. For a simply ‘boy and his alien’ movie, it sure is beautiful to look at. Lit by torches and seen in shadow, it gets across the message that humans (especially adults) are the real aliens, the real ones to mistrust. We also early on only get fleeting glimpses of the alien, a Spielberg trademark from “Jaws”...that he somehow forgot about when making the disappointing FX-fest “Jurassic Park”.

 

Early in his career in particular, divorced/broken families were a Spielberg staple (it even surfaced rather wonderfully in his underrated 2005 version of “War of the Worlds” with Tom Cruise as the douchiest divorced dad ever), but for me this is his best depiction. The family depicted here feels totally real. Hell, even ET feels a separation from his own family. Henry Thomas is terrific as Elliott, it’s hardly his fault that Drew Barrymore and a puppet end up stealing the show. He deserved a much better career, and proved himself here to be an intelligent, effective, and affecting child actor. Without him, the film simply wouldn’t be the same, cute alien or not. It’s Thomas’ Elliott that makes you believe, and one feels there’s a lot of Spielberg as a boy in Elliott too. It’s also great to hear words like ‘douchebag’ and ‘penis breath’ here. Kids swear. Deal with it, folks. Drew Barrymore, as I said, is a scene-stealing cutie. She has this smile where you can just see how she managed to get all that booze and drugs at such a young age. How could you say no to that face? It seemed like it took forever for Barrymore to go from teen skank to adorable and accomplished adult movie star, but it seemed like she went from “ET” to “Poison Ivy” in a millisecond. We can laugh at the cheeky monkey now because she got her act together, and just look at her now. All grown up and a good actress. But this is pretty much where it all started and you could already tell she was something special. Meanwhile, Dee Wallace Stone, the perfect all-American mother of the late 70s and early 80s (the underrated “Cujo”, for instance), is spot-on as always, graduating from working with Joe Dante (who himself gave us the anarchic, maniacal ‘bad’ side to “ET” with “Gremlins”) to Dante’s sort-of mentor, Spielberg. I especially loved her trying not to laugh at the term ‘penis breath’. Admittedly, it’s hard not to laugh when it comes from the adorable and consistently hilarious Drew Barrymore. Wallace is a big part of the reason why the family dynamics here seem so authentic and identifiable. She could easily be your mother. But, hell, even the furniture seems perfect and real. So does ET himself. He’s a real character, and I think this character is one of the three main reasons why we still look for signs of intelligent life to this very day (The moon landing being another reason, and the third reason is one of Spielberg’s other otherworldly films, “Close Encounters”). CGI can be effective at times, but if this were to be remade today with CGI, it would lose just about everything. How do I know? Because in the 2002 DVD release, Spielberg pulled a George Lucas and decided to add CGI ‘enhancements’ to the film, ranging from removing guns and replacing them with walkie-talkies (which I actually don’t have a problem with because I never noticed the guns), to giving ET some movie Botox, if you will. He apparently realised he cocked things up years later, and made the original version available (unlike George Lucas), but I’ve thus far only got the 2002 version and I must say the CGI is noticeable and irritating. The movie was finished, released, and loved. Why change it? It looks wrong, because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of this very 1982 (yet timeless) film. It permanently stains the film as a result. This is the only flaw with the entire film, but because it’s not really a flaw (and if you’ve got the more recent DVD release, it’s also no longer present), I’ll not further venture into a diatribe. You’re on notice, though, Mr. Spielberg. But back to ET him/itself. He’s a seemingly very real character. And even with a few CGI enhancements, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s right there on the screen interacting with Elliott (or Henry Thomas, if you will). You lose that connection and authenticity with entire CGI characters, unless the motion-capture is very, very good. OK, so I probably ended up going on a rant after all. My bad.

 

There’s so many memorable moments in this, unforgettable ones in most cases. All I have to say is ‘Ouch!’, right? Whose heart didn’t melt at that moment? Mine still does, every damn time. I especially loved that both Thomas and MacNaughton seem practically paralysed by fear when they first see “ET”. Also, a cynic might have a theory about why ET is filmed amongst a closet full of toys at one point, but I loved the scene. For starters, I had a felt ET doll myself as a kid. The scene where Elliott actually shows ET his toy collection is so cute, especially if you were a collector of ‘action figures’ as a kid. The frog dissection scene is an hilarious classic, but ET getting drunk is even funnier. Yes, an alien gets drunk in a Steven Spielberg family film, kicking cans at one brilliantly funny point. And Spielberg gets away with it! Movie magic, folks. And for some reason, ET dressed in a Flannie is somehow absolutely hilarious to me. I don’t know why, it just is. The funniest moment in the film, however, is when ET sees MacNaughton’s ‘knife to the head’ Halloween costume and tries to heal him. Brilliant. I also loved that Yoda costume. Seriously, I want one. Yes I am 33, and don’t really celebrate Halloween, what’s your damn point? Meanwhile, there’s a reason why I always smile upon seeing the “Amblin Entertainment” logo; It represents one of the most joyous moments in cinematic history. If you don’t love this movie, you just plain suck, OK? Seriously, you suck. Someone needs to inform you of this.

 

Once the camera shows us more of the government agents than their lower halves, they look like Neil Armstrong for some bizarre reason. Nonetheless, they cut a sinister visage. And it’s at this point that the waterworks, start folks. For many, like “Bambi”, this film will be a child’s first encounter with death, or at least, the possibility of death. Is it manipulative? Yup, but as far as I’m concerned, if it works, it works and it was worth it. That’s the case here. I hope someone kicked Spielberg hard in the nuts for whatever he did to make Drew Barrymore cry, though. You sick bastard! I love this movie so much that I don’t even mind Spielberg faking us out at this point. Part of the reason is because he follows the potentially intense moment up with an hilarious moment where someone just won’t shut up.

 

Everyone loves the ‘I’ll be right here’ moment, but for me, it’s the hug that is simply one of the most beautiful moments in cinematic history. There’s so much love and sensitivity in this film. I mean, in reality, Elliott would get out his dad’s shotgun and shoot the creepy alien bugger on sight. That’s why real life sometimes sucks, and movies are magic. The film is ultimately about childhood and innocence. It seems clear to me that Elliott and the government scientist played by (the not especially accomplished) Peter Coyote are the younger/elder version of one another in a way. Coyote’s scientist used to be a youthful dreamer like Elliott. Hell, it’s a bit of a “Peter Pan” thing when you think about it (Probably best not to think about it, though, lest one recall Spielberg’s underwhelming “Hook”).

 

Y’know what? I’m gonna come right out and say it: This is basically a perfect movie, one of the rare ones. Often imitated (J.J. Abrams completely failed to capture any childlike wonder or fun in his overrated semi-Spielberg tribute “Super 8”. He got the lens flares right, though...this film overdoses on them), never bettered, partly because no one gets the combination of child-like awe and genuine storytelling genius like Spielberg. He may be Mr. Blockbuster, but when he’s on target, he’s unbeatable. I just wish her were on target more often these days (“Tintin” and “War Horse” sucked, OK?). Yes, the film is a bit scary at times, but it’s not so intense that it will be too much for children. It’s a wonderful family movie.

 

This is such a lovely, sweet and humanistic film,. And this is from the same guy who later made aliens seem truly terrifying in “War of the Worlds”. So please don’t let anyone tell you that this film is simple, empty popcorn fare. It’s a beautiful work of art that just so happens to be an amazing piece of family entertainment. The two need not be thought of as separate categories never to be uttered in the same sentence. When a film like this is done practically flawlessly, I believe it has every bit of artistic worth that the Mona Freakin’ Lisa does. And it makes me feel a whole lot happier than looking at that uppity broad does. The screenplay is by Melissa Mathison (“The Black Stallion”, and the former Mrs. Harrison Ford) from a story by Spielberg himself.

 

Rating: A+

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review: The Last Hard Men


Set in the early 20th century (with nice attention to detail), no-good bandit James Coburn and his motley crew escape from prison, with Coburn hoping to settle a score with old nemesis, aging lawman Charlton Heston (who arrested him and killed his wife a while back). Barbara Hershey is Heston’s daughter, who is kidnapped by Coburn, with some of the nastier elements in his gang (which includes Jorge Rivero, Larry Wilcox- who just plain looks like a creep, the always unscrupulous Robert Donner, and Thalmus Rasulala) threatening to do some very unsavoury things to her. Christopher Mitchum plays Hershey’s boyfriend, who has different ideas to Heston as to how to get her back. Soft-spoken Michael Parks plays the local sheriff, as the days of the Wild West start to give way to modernisation and civilisation.

 

Imperfect but unfairly maligned 1976 Andrew V. McLaglen (“The Rare Breed”, “Chisum”, “The Wild Geese”) B-western is pretty violent (though not nearly as nasty as Leonard Maltin would have you believe, he’s way off base here), but well-acted for the most part. Coburn has never been this nasty before and Heston is very solid in a surprisingly age-appropriate role). It’s watchable, I just wish Coburn’s men were given more character depth, and Parks written out of the film altogether. Although he tends to get the best reviews of the film, I found Parks’ performance typically method and self-conscious for the eccentric actor. He was a constant and needless distraction. The screenplay is by Guerdon Trueblood (“The Savage Bees”, which also co-starred Parks alongside Ben Johnson and James ‘Roscoe P. Coltrane’ Best), from the Brian Garfield (not surprisingly the author of “Death Wish”) novel.

 

I can see what they were trying to do here, a sort of last, ugly stand for the Wild West (similar to Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”), but I’m not sure they achieved it. Worth a gander, though, if you like the cast, and can handle the uglier side of the Wild West.

 

Rating: C+

Review: Beat the Devil


Bogey is a soldier of fortune in Italy, in league with a motley crew of untrustworthy-types (fat Robert Morley, gaunt Marco Tulli, Hitler-loving rat-like Ivor Barnard, and shifty Peter Lorre, as a German-accented, possibly Chilean man, named O’Hara!) who get mixed up with a daffy British couple (priggish Edward Underdown and his seriously loopy wife, compulsive liar Jennifer Jones) whilst waiting for a ship to East Africa (to prospect for Uranium). Gina Lollobrigida is Bogey’s wife who hooks up with Underdown whilst Jones falls for Bogey. Needless to say, no one is trustworthy, and no one is who they say they are at just about every moment in the film. Future Bond co-star Bernard Lee (that’s M to you and me) turns up memorably at the end in a small but pivotal role.

 

Interesting but overrated 1954 John Huston (“The Misfits”, “The Asphalt Jungle”) film is a semi-spoof, not-so much of “The Maltese Falcon” and film noir specifically, as I was expecting, but the general outline of characters Bogey made famous and perhaps intercontinental-set films like “Casablanca” and “Sirocco” rather than the shadowy noir stuff. Well, sort of. I was expecting a more obvious noir spoof, especially when Morley is clearly intended to be parodying Sidney Greenstreet and “Maltese Falcon” co-star Lorre is essentially sending himself up (something he seemed increasingly happy to do in the latter stages of his career).

 

But it’s also not really that funny, more of a light-hearted romp than an outright comedy. On that level, it mostly works- Bogey is fine, Morley is superlative (when wasn’t he?), and Barnard and Lorre steal their every scene (which sadly aren’t as many as one would like). But Lollobrigida is given little to do except be herself (I could take or leave her), and Jones...is just odd. And not in a good way. She’s completely incapable of making her strange role work, even when dyed blonde. Meanwhile, the usually reliable cinematographer Oswald Morris (“Lolita”, “The Hill”, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”) shoots it all in a stark B&W that is completely against the style of 40s noir...so I really don’t see this as a noir parody at all.

 

Still, it’s all entirely watchable, even if I prefer noir films to the likes of “Casablanca” or “Sirocco”. See it for Morley in particular, and enjoy Lorre and Barnard when they’re given a moment or two to shine (Lorre gets the best speech in the film, lamenting about the concept of ‘time’). The screenplay is by Huston and the one and only Truman Capote (“In Cold Blood”), from a James Helvick novel. Helvick, AKA Claud Cockburn apparently wrote most of the screenplay himself, however before leaving the project).

 

This one flopped originally, and even Bogey was suspicious of its admirers, but nonetheless it has become a cult favourite. I was ultimately a bit disappointed, but perhaps I just don’t get it and came into it in the wrong frame of mind. I was expecting lots of shadowy American interiors, and hilarious digs at Phillip Marlowe etc., and I got lots of scenic Italian exteriors and a loopy Jennifer Jones instead.

 

Rating: B-

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Review: The Double


When a US senator is assassinated, the FBI believe a supposedly dead Soviet spy named Cassius to be the culprit. Richard Gere plays a retired CIA agent brought out of the cold by former colleague Martin Sheen to be paired with nerdy FBI agent Topher Grace in order to hunt the culprit down. But Gere says it can’t be Cassius, because he was on the case some twenty odd years ago. Odette Yustman (now Annable) plays Grace’s pretty young wife, Chris Marquette plays a co-worker of Grace’s, whilst Tamer Hassan and Stephen Moyer play no-good Russkies, the latter imprisoned.

 

This 2011 directorial debut by screenwriter Michael Brandt ironically has one of the worst screenplays I’ve come across in ages, by Brandt and Derek Haas (who both worked on the scripts for “Wanted” and the superior remake of “3:10 to Yuma”). It doesn’t even begin to work. For much of the film’s length, you feel like this is a crappy direct-do-DVD Steven Seagal spy-actioner, except with Richard Gere in the Seagal role. You’d swear this really was one of Seagal’s unused scripts (a sequel to “Shadow Man” or “The Foreigner”, perhaps?), only Brandt isn’t as much of a show-off director as the dorks Seagal tends to work with. Even Topher Grace’s character starts out like the typical latter-day Seagal sidekick (Matthew Davis in “Into the Sun”, for instance), and Stephen Moyer plays the kind of role I could see C-grade bad guy Andrew Divoff in. Tamer Hassan, meanwhile, turns up in a whole lot of C-grade action movies, so you could definitely see Seagal sliding on in here.

 

It’s certainly not very original, and it’s definitely not a good fit for Gere at all, as he becomes even more miscast the longer the film goes on. What in the hell are he, Martin Sheen, and Topher Grace doing in this? Well, in the case of Sheen the answer is ‘not much’.

 

The film’s big twist (which in the version I saw was revealed at around the 40 minute mark, but for others it seems to have been less than that, which is odd) is so incredibly transparent that I felt as though the film’s second big twist was merely tacked-on so that they can rationalise the transparency of the earlier twist. ‘See, that wasn’t really the twist!’. Nice try, but big twist or not, you spend the next thirty or so minutes twiddling your thumbs and waiting for one of the main character’s to catch on to what we already know. That just can’t be excused. Like “The Resident”, revealing such a twist (apparently it’s even revealed in the trailer- I’m still not buying it, though) really adds nothing, except a touch of self-loathing with one of the characters in this case. Big deal, that’s just not enough, and it kinda short changes at least two of the main performances as a result. Without wanting to spoil too much myself, let’s just say that the good in revealing the twist is far outweighed by the bad, and just seems like a botch-job.

 

And then when the second big twist comes...it actually doesn’t make any sense, despite being pretty predictable too (Especially if you look at the damn title). At first I thought the second twist was pretty cool, but play the film back over in your mind and then tell me there aren’t enormous gaping holes in logic. It simply doesn’t hold up, they’ve just tacked it on, really. Not only that, but there’s a lot of unanswered questions in the end, as well as a bad taste in one’s mouth. What is the point of it all? I couldn’t see one, and that’s a big problem. There’s certainly no heroes, and I’m not even sure they chose the best character to end the film with. One could say that they’re deliberately giving us an unhappy ending but I believe that about as much as I believe that the identity of Cassius was so unimportant to the story that it doesn’t matter we find out the answer before the hour mark. Yeah, nice try. Brandt and Haas probably think they’re a lot cleverer than they actually are, and they’ve definitely watched “No Way Out” a few too many times. Meanwhile, would an FBI man and a CIA guy be talking about spy stuff in front of the FBI guy’s wife? Nope. That’s just stupid screenwriting.

 

Odette Annable (formerly Yustman) looks beautiful, and I keep waiting for the talented Chris Marquette (the best thing in the film) to find the right role, but otherwise, this is an awful film trying to pass for something better simply by a few decent names. I ain’t buying it. Often an actor won’t know if a film is going to be shit or not just by reading the script. I refuse to believe that the actors involved here could’ve thought this crap was going to work. How did it ever see the light of day? This is a seriously stupid film lacking any energy or suspense whatsoever, even if it does have a second ace up its sleeve.

 

Rating: C-