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, June 27, 2015

Review: Switchback


We open with a babysitter answering a knock at the door by a grinning dork (Brent Hinkley). After he leaves, the babysitter is almost immediately killed by a masked murderer, and the toddler she was in charge of being whisked away. End scene. R. Lee Ermey plays a Texas sheriff hoping to be re-elected, when it appears a murderer has hit his town. His political rival, by the way, is the Chief of Police, played by a smarmy William Fichtner, always looking to get one over on the sheriff for last minute political points scoring. Anyway, grim-faced FBI agent Dennis Quaid comes to town to inform the sheriff that this is a serial killer they are looking for, one he’s personally been after for years. However, there’s something a little too intense about Quaid’s pursuit here, and a call from his superior indeed lets us know that all may not be well with him. Meanwhile, separate from all this we meet medical school dropout Jared Leto, a hitchhiker who accepts a lift from strapping, cowboy hat-sporting, Cadillac driving Danny Glover. The driver is a genial, talkative ex-railroad worker, but something about him seems not quite right. Perhaps it’s the nudie pics all over the car’s interior, or perhaps he seems just a tad too friendly to be genuine. And what’s the deal with secretive Leto dropping out of med school? Where is he headed? Is one of these two men the killer?

 

Although it has its flaws and didn’t do much at the box-office, this directorial debut by writer/director Jeb Stuart (co-writer of “Die Hard” and “The Fugitive”) is a really interesting killer-thriller. It’s one of those films where you can probably guess the killer, but unlike most, it proves not to be a problem, because you’re never 100% sure that you’re not falling for a red herring (until the killer is revealed pretty early anyway), and the film plays as much like a character study (of four main characters) as a killer thriller anyway. It’s kind of like the later “Outside Ozona”, with its evil killer and sleepy town setting, but obviously much more successful than that film.

 

The backdrop of hick politics between R. Lee Ermey’s tough ‘ol sheriff and William Fichtner’s typically oily a-hole opponent (the latter is perfectly cast) is fun, too. It also contains perhaps one of the last good performances of Danny Glover’s career, before his ill-fitting dentures started to call too much attention to themselves and he started to choose wonky projects. He immediately steals the film here from everyone else. In fact, it’s one of his very best performances, as a guy who the more genial and happy he seems, the more intimidating and unsettling he is. But the question is, does that necessarily make him a serial killer? Or just a cheerful creep with nudie pics on the interior of his car? The fact that Glover seems so obviously creepy has you constantly doubting your suspicions throughout. That, and some questions regarding even Dennis Quaid’s character really do keep you guessing throughout in this twisty story. How twisty? Former drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey plays one of the only guys in the film you know is unlikely to be the killer. How often does Ermey get to play a good guy? Hell, how often does he get to play a role where he’s not shouting profane insults at someone? The best thing is that he’s genuinely good in the role, he’s not just phoning in his performance in this stock role. I must make particular mention of the opening scene, which is pretty perfect with Brent Hinkley as basically a psycho Howdy Doody. Also notable is the stunning widescreen cinematography by Oliver Wood (“Die Hard 2”, “Safe House”), with particularly good use of wintry locations (Texas, Utah, and New Mexico specifically).

 

It takes a while to get going and both Dennis Quaid and Jared Leto are perhaps a tad too transparently cast (though Quaid’s performance is solid as ever), but it’s hardly slow and never boring. It’s actually pretty nifty stuff, and is definitely worth seeing for Glover’s excellent performance. One of the better serial killer flicks of the late 90s, if you ask me. It’s a real shame Stuart has rarely worked in the industry since, because he does a pretty decent job here in both of the capacities he’s working in. I mean, this is better than earlier screenwriting efforts of his like “Leviathan” and the awful “Just Cause”, and his direction is really solid. What happened?

 

Rating: B-

 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: The Legend of Hercules


Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) is wife to the ruthless King Amphytrion (Scott Adkins!), but is visited late at night by the god Zeus in wind form (!) and the result of their wild and windy night is a baby. Although his name is to be Hercules, he is given the name Alcides by the King, and the boy grows into a man played by Kellan Lutz. Detested by King Amphytrion and half-brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), he loves the princess Hebe (Gaia Weiss), whom the King sets up with Iphicles, because the King is a dickhead. He then sends Hercules on pretty much of a suicide mission as far away from the kingdom as possible. After the mission fails spectacularly, Hercules and his buddy-in-arms Sotiris (Liam McIntyre) are sold into slavery and trained as gladiatorial warriors by crusty old Lucius (Kenneth Cranham). No twelve labours to overcome here, folks (Well, maybe the lion, but that’s just one). Jonathon Schaech turns up as a grungy-looking Egyptian warrior named Tarak, and Rade Serbedzija has a small role as Chiron, the film’s resident wizened old good guy (because Patrick Stewart, Sir Ben Kingsley, or Malcolm McDowell would exceed the film’s smallish budget, presumably).

 

Every year seems to bring us a pair of films (*cough*) coincidentally (*cough*) about the same basic thing. In 1998 it was asteroid disaster movies (“Deep Impact”, which was solid, “Armageddon” which was flippant, overblown, and stupid), in 2013 it was White House terrorism films (“White House Down”, which was terrific, and “Olympus Has Fallen”, which was…not), etc. Well, 2014 saw two “Hercules” films. One got a theatrical release and starred The Rock. This is the other one, directed by former somebody Renny Harlin (“A Nightmare on Elm St. 4: The Dream Master”, “Die Hard 2”, “Cliffhanger”), and starring a “Twilight” alum (Kellan Lutz), a chick who got killed in the first couple of seasons of “Game of Thrones” (Roxanne McKee), one of the guys from the “Spartacus” TV franchise (Aussie beefcake Liam McIntyre), a direct-to-DVD martial arts star (the awesome Scott Adkins), and a few veterans and has-beens (Jonathon Schaech, Rade Serbedzija, and Kenneth Cranham). The result is a crushing bore, with puny-looking Lutz appallingly miscast in a film where he is clearly dwarfed by his father, played by Scott Adkins. Even some of the women in the film look like they could kick this guy’s arse.

 

The whole thing is an unconvincing and unsuccessful hodgepodge of “Gladiator”, the “Spartacus” TV franchise, and “300”, not once does it come across as anything remotely related to Hercules. It’s really insulting to have Hercules engage in gladiatorial combat (Spartacus, sure. But Hercules?), and even though he’s good at it, Kenneth Cranham really ought to be doing more than ripping off the late Oliver Reed in “Gladiator”. He’s the best actor in the film (though Liam Garrigan isn’t bad as Commodus…er…Iphicles), but he should be given he’s by far the most experienced, and this is far from his best day on the job. The casting of resident Eastern European bad guy Serbedzija in what is essentially a Greek legend mixed with Roman epic (think about that!), just screams of budget limitations. Although he’s not as laughable as you might expect, Jonathon Schaech similarly screams of ‘Who do we want?...um…OK, now who can we afford?...Uh, who will return our calls?...Um, who owes us a favour? Let’s go with that guy!’ Full credit to Schaech for not phoning it in, and in fact, several of the actors at least manage to spit their dialogue out without choking on it. Scott Adkins, for instance, even though this is far from the best use of his talents. He’s a touch above a “Spartacus” actor, but this just isn’t his bag, really. I’d be pissed if I were him, though, he gets listed in the credits behind Kellan Lutz, the Three Amigos of Crapdom from Millennium Films (Boaz Davidson, Danny Lerner, and Les Weldon), Renny Harlin’s own producer credit, the Executive Producers, the DOP, and then the other technical credits. Holy crap, it’s not like Adkins is a nobody for cryin’ out loud, and he’s done plenty of work for Millennium too. Bastards. Aside from the woefully inadequate Lutz, the only real dud in the cast is predictably McIntyre. He seems like a really nice guy from what I can gather, but he’s one of the worst actors from the “Spartacus” series, and predictably delivers all of his dialogue in that fake-arse wannabe Shakespearean manner that just sounds so silly coming from guys with giant six-packs and boofy footballer voices.

 

I feel really sorry for Mr. Harlin, whose “Cliffhanger” and “Die Hard 2” were certainly enjoyable blockbuster entertainments. I’d like to see him take on an “Expendables” film at some point, it’s certainly his strong suit. He’s made some duds in his time (“Cutthroat Island” will hang around his neck for eternity), but there’s nothing he can do with a shit script from serial offender Sean Hood (“Cube 2: Hypercube”, “Halloween: Resurrection”) and Daniel Giat, a horribly miscast lead actor in Kellan Lutz, and special FX delivered to you by the year 1991. I mean, is Hercules meant to be a Highlander? Because I’m pretty sure we see ‘The Quickening’ at one point. That lion sure looks awfully light on its feet, poor CGI there. But “Cutthroat Island” proved that even a big-budget doesn’t necessarily result in a good Renny Harlin film, so the FX aren’t entirely to blame (And the film shockingly had a $70 million budget anyway, if you believe what you read. Where’d the money go? Abdominal exercise equipment for all cast and crew?).

 

I think the script is the bigger problem here, it’s woefully inadequate and derivative. This just isn’t up to snuff and you know you’re in for a chore as soon as you find out that it’s from both Millennium Films and Summit Entertainment. Yikes. Even Disney didn’t get the legend this insultingly wrong. This is piss-poor, badly scripted, and cut-rate. It probably deserved to be shoved on TV screens as a TV series rather than a film, which I have loftier expectations for. On TV it might’ve at least appealed to the “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” crowd. There’s no mention of Jupiter’s cock at any point, though. One can be thankful for that one small difference.

 

For the most part, this is more boring than truly incompetent, I mean, this ain’t the Lou Ferrigno flicks, let’s just remember that (Seriously, those flicks were hilariously bad and even cheaper). I don’t necessarily care that the film fucks around with the Hercules myth per se (this one’s more of an origin story), it’s more the fact that it has chosen to do so while ripping off a bunch of stories that aren’t remotely Greek mythology-based. Shoddy stuff, unless all you want is Lutz’s abs. Even then, his abs get upstaged by most everyone else’s.

 

Rating: D+

Review: Gone Girl


Nick (Ben Affleck) comes home one night to find signs of a struggle (traces of blood included) and his author wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing. Cops Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit investigate, with the latter firmly and cynically believing that Nick has likely killed his wife. Both Nick and Amy are writers, and both currently out of work. Amy is kind of a celebrity, having been the inspiration for a series of children’s books about ‘Amazing’ Amy, written by her parents. So with Amy being such a beloved and known figure, there’s intense media scrutiny (largely in the form of a Nancy Grace-like TV host played by Missi Pyle) largely pointed at Nick. And as unsavoury details of their supposed marital problems surface (through Amy’s diary, documenting an abusive husband and unhappy marriage), Nick looks guilty as hell. He maintains his innocence however, and stays with his twin sister (played by Carrie Coon), who learns a few things about her brother that even someone as close as she didn’t know. Neil Patrick Harris and Scoot McNairy turn up as two of Amy’s ex-boyfriends (Harris a high school sweetheart), whilst Sela Ward is another TV host whom Nick turns to for a bit of good PR, and Tyler Perry plays Nick’s flashy lawyer. And that’s about all the plot synopsis you’re gonna get out of me. Believe me, you’ll thank me later.

 

Having not read the Gillian Flynn novel, I came to this 2014 David Fincher (“Se7en”, “Zodiac”, “The Social Network”) not knowing what to expect, except that it looked like Ben Affleck was kinda playing real-life sleazebag killer Scott Peterson. However, there’s a lot more going on here than that, as this is indeed a work of fiction, and a damn good, twisty yarn I must say.

 

Fincher got on my bad side early on here with opening titles that are too small and disappear way too quickly to read. So a big fuck you to Mr. Fincher there. I also have to say that at first, something didn’t seem quite right with Rosamund Pike’s casting. Ms. Pike just didn’t seem believable as an author, certainly not the kind of author she’s meant to portray in the film. She seems too frigid and refined to play the rather pretentious, cynical-sounding diary writer, let alone ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’s too…British for that, if that makes any sense. I’m not sure who I’d have cast as Amy, to be honest (Amy Adams, perhaps? Charlize Theron would’ve been interesting too, but perhaps not sweet enough to pull off that aspect of her), and the longer the film goes on and the more we learn about Amy, a funny thing happened…Pike grew into the role. I still don’t get the Oscar nomination at all, and I believe she’s the weakest link in a very fine cast, but she gets a lot better the longer the film goes on. And ‘Amazing’ Amy sure is a fascinating, multi-layered character, that’s undeniable, and whilst I didn’t buy Pike’s delivery of it, the narration itself is interesting. How much of what we are hearing is reliable? That’s a question one asks quite a lot in this film.

 

The film (scripted by Flynn herself) starts out rather interestingly off-kilter. Everyone who knows Amy doesn’t seem quite worried enough about her disappearance, but not in any overt way, either. Ben Affleck’s character in particular seems cold and glib and pretty much pointing the finger at himself. It’s a feeling that something is not quite right just beneath the surface, and the film keeps taking twists and turns throughout to continually throw you off-kilter, which I loved (It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling anything. I can’t even really discuss the themes of the film, to be honest). It’s a nicely ambiguous film for the most part.

 

Ben Affleck can be George Clooney levels of smug at times, but that mixed with his handsome good looks and undeniable charm make him absolutely perfect for this kind of douchebag role. It’s one of his best performances to date, partly because he’s so damn hard to read. However, for me the film is stolen by the trio of Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, and Carrie Coon (The Nancy Grace parody is excellent too, and pretty blatant. Fucking loathe that woman, seriously. Sorry, but it’s true, she’s awful. Just look at the misinformed story she did on the WWE and death of Ultimate Warrior, for proof). Dickens plays a total cliché- the cynical cop- but plays it absolutely brilliantly, making her otherwise functionary scenes perk up considerably. She might just be the standout here. I can’t say I remember seeing Carrie Coon on screen before, but I’m certainly not going to forget her anytime soon now. Playing Affleck’s loyal sister, she’s really wonderful. In fact, their relationship is one of the most interesting things about the entire film. A lot of people cite Neil Patrick Harris as being miscast in this. Perhaps there’s something in the book that warrants this assertion, but based solely on the film, I think he’s terrific. He plays Amy’s loser ex-boyfriend as if Barney from “How I Met Your Mother” had no self-esteem and was kind of a creepy stalker (and with a touch of Artie Ziff from “The Simpsons” added for good measure). It’s a genuinely skin-crawling performance because Harris really is giving the character a lot of Barney…but with an underpinning of pathetic loser who may or may not be a psycho to boot. In smaller turns, Tyler Perry is perfect as a media savvy lawyer, and Scoot McNairy has a terrific cameo as one of Amy’s ex’s. Sela Ward, meanwhile, looks a bit less botox-y than the last time I saw her (as is Pike for that matter), which is good to see.

 

Mr. Fincher and cinematographer  Jeff Cronenweth (Fincher’s “The Social Network”) give us nice, low-level lighting throughout, and the film is thankfully not as filter-obsessed as other Fincher films. Fincher, on the evidence of one shot here, also appears to be a big fan of “Night of the Hunter”. If you’ve seen that film, you won’t miss the shot here.

 

A terrific yarn that keeps you guessing throughout, and casts Ben Affleck to perfection, whilst the supporting cast are also excellent. A fascinating mystery and a dark, deeply cynical film (right up to a frankly depressing ending), though I can’t speak to how it stacks up against the book. Whatever one might make of it, it’ll sure get you talking about it afterwards, which is never a bad thing in my view.

 

Rating: B

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: The Four Dragons


Set in Malaysia in 1881, the film concerns four orphans who as adults (played by Michael Chin, David Bao, Robin Ho, and Kuan Fei Jun) are working for a mining operation. Unfortunately, the operation is run by a greedy bastard who plots to kill them and hire cheaper labour instead. Our heroes don’t take kindly to this and plan their revenge. Lots of poorly animated blood ensues.

 

This 2008 film from debut director C.L. Hor (who has directed two films since) and co-screenwriter Kam Leong Chow (also a first-timer) is apparently the first martial arts film from Malaysia. Also known as “Kinte”, it frankly isn’t up to snuff, I’m afraid. A very stylised film, and at first that’s kinda fun with opening credits design like something out of “300” (Not to mention the nu-metal soundtrack which is much less fun). There’s also impressive sound design early on, rhythmically matching the action on screen.

 

Unfortunately, the fun wears off about ten minutes into the film, as the stylised look of the film actually takes the fun out of all of the martial arts sequences. Blood is rendered in a cartoony/graphic novel animated fashion that takes you out of what is going on in the film, as it is clearly not there on screen with the actors, it’s animated. The mixture of that comic book style and live-action is jarring and distancing, which is a shame because the plot has elements of “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”, my favourite martial arts film of all-time. And why hire four real-life martial artists and then obscure their prowess with shadowy or tinted cinematography? They’re not actors, so what exactly are they being hired for then?

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice-looking film, but it never draws you in dramatically in the slightest. It’s pretty useless as a film, to be honest. None of the characters pop at all, I could barely tell them apart. We’re told the four main players have distinct personalities, but those distinct personalities are never for a moment shown on screen. Don’t tell, SHOW for cryin’ out loud! It’s rule number one in cinematic storytelling, isn’t it? Sadly, this is 80% tell, and the majority of the 20% show is ruined by pretty but counter-productive artistic flourishes.

 

Sorry, but Malaysia’s first martial arts film is unlikely to become a much-loved classic of the genre. It’s pretty awful, actually, and it left me bitterly disappointed.

 

Rating: C-

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Wild Rovers


Aging cowboy William Holden and his younger associate Ryan O’Neal start to become jaded with a life working for rancher Karl Malden that sees them working for a long time and frankly not getting much out of it. They feel that they are wasting their lives. The younger man gets to thinking about earning some quick cash…by robbing a bank! Holden will take bank teller James Olson to the bank at night to get them some cash, while O’Neal will hold up at Olson’s home with his family as hostages. The robbery goes swimmingly, but a problem arises when Malden hears about the robbery. See, Malden normally wouldn’t wish ill against two men who had been working for him, except that some of the money they stole belonged to him! So he and his sons (a young Joe Don Baker and Tom Skerritt) head out in search of the two robbers. Sam Gilman plays a disagreeable sheep herder, Rachel Roberts is a madam, and Moses Gunn is an old buddy of Holden’s.

 

Apparently the 106 minute version of this 1971 western is a choppy mess, and the 136 minute Director’s Cut is a vast improvement. Being that Australia and the US vary in terms of NTSC/PAL and this sees a difference in running times, it’s not always easy to tell what version of a film I’m watching. Here it’s especially perplexing, because although there was no intermission in the version I saw, and it didn’t run 136 minutes, it still ran too much longer than 106 minutes to possibly be the shorter version, and at least some of the material said to be cut was indeed in the version I saw (The only thing I seem to be missing is the overture and intermission, and who gives a fuck about that?). So I’m gonna go ahead and say that I saw the Director’s Cut, and funnily enough, I found it a choppy mess. And that’s a shame, because aside from the awful and amateurish editing, there’s not a whole lot wrong here in this one from writer-director Blake Edwards.

 

Right off the bat, my favourite film score composer Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen”, “Planet of the Apes”) starts us off with a terrific Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven”) imitation. William Holden, meanwhile is a lot more laidback and likeable here than in “The Wild Bunch”, which is good because it’s a different kind of western, and no one would ever confuse Blake Edwards for Sam Peckinpah. Tom Skerritt makes a solid account of himself as the wayward, short-fused son of Karl Malden, and the troubled Rachel Roberts has a hoot an’ a half in a scene-stealing, completely over-the-top performance as a madam. Moses Gunn is also quite memorable in a scene that Gaylord Focker probably saw as a boy (You’ll know what I mean when you see it). Co-lead Ryan O’Neal is merely OK (therefore one of his best performances), but old pro Karl Malden is as sturdy as ever under the very choppy circumstances. It’s also been wonderfully shot by cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop (“The Days of Wine and Roses”, “The Cincinnati Kid”).

 

Unfortunately, the choppy editing really does a major disservice. The cutting between Malden’s family and the Holden/O’Neal partnership is really sloppy and detrimental to the narrative. It takes an hour (too long) to tie the two narrative strands together. Character motivation is also a failure here. I get why O’Neal wants to rob a bank, but there is nothing in the Holden character to suggest that he would ever want to be a part of this. It’s badly done, and if I was indeed watching the Director’s Cut, more’s the shame. The last 40 minutes sees a complete shift in tone to something more Peckinpah-ish, even using slow-mo. It’s jarringly done, and when the ending comes you feel like the whole film has been pointless and senseless. But this is already a film that gives us a potentially interesting antagonist played by Sam Gilman…and pretty much has him disappear before anything can really be done with that story strand.

 

This isn’t a stinker, but the truly shoddy editing makes it hard for me to see this one as underrated. The scenery (some of the best you’ll ever see in a motion picture), cast, and music score are all praiseworthy, however. A disappointing, if watchable mixed bag, reminding me of similar feelings I had about Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”.

 

Rating: C+

Review: 20,000 Years in Sing Sing


Spencer Tracy stars as a cocky hoodlum arriving at New York’s Sing Sing prison for a 5-30 stretch, though he thinks he and his slick lawyer Louis Calhern can buy his way into preferential treatment. Unfortunately for them, the Warden (Arthur Byron) is entirely incorruptible and is hell-bent on reforming the young punk whether he likes it or not. Bette Davis plays Tracy’s girlfriend on the outside, whilst Lyle Talbot plays another prisoner.

 

Although it seems awfully lumpy now, this 1933 prison flick from director Michael Curtiz (“The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”, “Casablanca”, “King Creole”) is well-shot and the acting keeps it from sinking. Louis Calhern in particular steals his every scene, the slippery bastard, and you wish he were in much more of the film.

 

The film is ultimately not very convincing, it only barely holds up over 70 years later, but the script is the problem here, everyone else does their damn best. So blame the quartet of Courtney Terrett (“Castle on the Hudson”), Robert Lord (“Little Caesar”, “Hard to Handle”), Wilson Mizner (“One Way Passage”, “Hard to Handle”), and Brown Holmes (“I Am a Fugitive on the Chain Gang”). Or perhaps former Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes, on whose (presumably biased) book the film is based. Lawes was still warden at the time of filming apparently (and allowed interiors and exteriors to actually be shot at Sing Sing), and no doubt wanted to present a good picture of prison wardens, but the film goes way too far. The warden (rather well-played by Arthur Byron) allows prisoners out to visit sick/dying loved ones, with merely the prisoner’s word of honour (as a criminal?) that he’ll return. What. The. Fuck. It gets worse, though. ***** SPOILER WARNING ***** Spencer Tracy allegedly kills someone while on leave, but the warden is vindicated in letting him out for the day simply because he returns? He’s still an alleged fucking murderer! Yes, the audience knows he didn’t actually do it, but no one else knows it. Vindicated my arse. ***** END SPOILER ***** So obviously, things don’t really hold up so well all these years later, with prison seemingly being run like a home for wayward young boys rather than hardened crims.

 

Thankfully the cinematography and acting come up a winner. The film is rather well-shot in B&W by Barney McGill (“Hard to Handle”, “Charlie Chan in Shanghai”), prison bars and shadows are always a pretty sight to me. The lighting is really nice without being so artistic that it seems phony. Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, and Louis Calhern hadn’t quite hit their strides as actors by 1933, but all three do fine jobs here. Spencer Tracy’s role seems more of a Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson part to me (and indeed, Cagney was the original choice but unavailable at the time due to a legal dispute with Warners), but once you get past the ‘Hey…why, I oughtta…!’ voice Tracy is putting on, he proves to be good as always. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him underperform as an actor. He looks shockingly young, too, playing this pugnacious hoodlum who thinks he’s a bigshot tough guy. Even more so than in 1937’s “Kid Galahad”, if you’ve never thought it possible that Bette Davis was once young and attractive, watch this film. Like the aforementioned film, this isn’t the best use of Davis, but she gives a good performance nonetheless. However, Louis Calhern easily walks off with this film as one of his patented villains with an outward veneer of respectability. Look for a very young Lyle Talbot playing a smart prisoner. It’s a shame Talbot will forever be remembered for his participation in “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, because he shows himself to be pretty damn good here I must say.

 

Time hasn’t been terribly kind to this prison film, and its depiction of the grandfatherly relationship between prisoner and warden just doesn’t wash anymore, but this is a good-looking film with several solid performances, and a one-time pairing of two great stars in Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis. So you have to see it at least once. It’s watchable, but lumpy.

 

Rating: C+

Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is recruited by shadowy William Harper (Kevin Costner) to work for the CIA, investigating global terrorist numbers fiddling. In order to do his job properly he will need to lie to everyone he knows, including the lovely med student Cathy (Keira Knightley) who helped him with his rehab when Ryan was an injured marine, and whom he has subsequently been romancing. Skipping ahead some time and Ryan and Cathy are now engaged, when Ryan uncovers a possible Russian-hatched plot to tank the US economy. Ryan is sent into the field, Russia specifically, to check out the prime suspect, Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Meanwhile, Cathy is starting to wonder just what it is her husband-to-be really does for a living.

 

I was never a fan of the two Harrison Ford ‘Jack Ryan’ films, though I liked “The Hunt for Red October” (with Alec Baldwin) and I think “The Sum of All Fears” (with Ben Affleck) is the best of the lot, an opinion likely shared by no one. This 2014 film from director/co-star Kenneth Branagh (“Dead Again”, “Hamlet”, “Thor”) isn’t the winner “The Sum of All Fears” was, but it’s definitely a more enjoyable film than “Patriot Games”, not to mention Branagh’s previous Hollywood directorial assignment “Thor”. Call it a minor recommendation, as at around 100 minutes, it’s too short to properly fit everything in. It results in director Branagh not being as effective as he should’ve been as the chief villain because there’s not enough time. That’s a shame because there’s nothing wrong with his performance, he deserves credit for not hamming it up.

 

The other problem with the film is that you’ll find yourself ticking off all the influences on the film (TV’s “Homeland” and “24”, the “Bourne” and Bond film franchises, etc.) throughout. The shaky camerawork by Haris Zambarloukos (Branagh’s “Sleuth” and “Thor”) and irritating music score by Patrick Doyle (“Henry V”, “Dead Again”, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) really do remind one of the “Bourne” films. Original it ain’t, and in fact at times it feels like the pilot for a Jack Ryan TV series, if possibly a bit better than that. The fact that the character of Jack Ryan has been pretty much rebooted really helps star Chris Pine. I don’t find him terribly likeable on screen 9 times out of 10, but at least I wasn’t comparing him to the other guys in this franchise. 10 minutes and you’ve accepted this as its own beast for the most part. Pine even shows some vulnerability not really tapped into previously here and I very much appreciated it. Pine’s (or Ryan’s) lack of ego and lack of assuredness this time out is really appealing here. This guy’s barely keeping from shitting his pants, as a novice would. I really liked seeing this character in his early stages working for the CIA. His reaction to his first kill is believably nervous and scared.

 

Nothing new story-wise of course, but pretty entertaining and interesting stuff. The relatively minor league financial investigating that Ryan does for much of the film, however, does seem awfully small fry. I get why it has to be this way and things eventually get bigger, but it’s not quite as thrilling as it could’ve been. The early chopper crash, however, is really well-done mostly in close-up and quite frightening. I admired the approach, though, in continuing the modern day setting for this stuff. Most people didn’t seem ready for “The Sum of All Fears” when it came out, and although this one flopped, I don’t think it had anything to do with any resistance to real-life geopolitics. As a fan of the aforementioned film, I’m glad they stuck with a modern setting, personally. Meanwhile, I always like seeing Keira Knightley on screen. She gets on women’s nerves because they’re petty and jealous. She’s not remotely an Anne Archer-type here, but given the reboot approach, that’s fine. She’s sweet, charismatic and just terrific to have around. Bloody incandescent, actually. It’s a shame that the film jumps ahead 10 years after the initial meeting between Pine and Knightley, but I understand why. Gotta keep the thing on the move. Still, something gets lost there, I think. The whole ‘husband keeping a secret life from his wife’ deal is as old as the hills, but it’s done well here.

 

Kevin Costner (who in his heyday could’ve easily played Ryan in one of the earlier films, indeed he was offered “The Hunt for Red October” but decided to win an Oscar instead) is an undeniable star, if Captain Grumpy Pants at times throughout his career. Essentially playing the elder statesman of the CIA here, he’s absolutely terrific. Heavy-set Nonso Anozie scores briefly as the film’s Bond henchman, a Ugandan assassin with an outwardly cheerful disposition. You’ll remember him. The rarely seen (these days) Mikhail Baryshnikov does rock-solid uncredited work too as a Russian villain. That was a nice surprise, I thought.

 

This one’s just OK, bordering on being more than that. It never quite establishes its own identity- it’s a little Bond, a little “Mission Impossible”, some Jason Bourne, a bit of Jack Bauer. Good performances help a great deal (especially Costner and Branagh himself), brevity does a disservice to some of the good work, though. And what’s with the useless cameos by David Paymer and David Hayman? A real shame there. Based on characters created by Tom Clancy, the screenplay is by Adam Cozad (a first-timer) and David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”, “Panic Room”, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”).

 

Rating: B-

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street


The hedonistic life and times of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), from his beginnings as an ambitious wannabe Wall Street player to his enjoyment of a wealthy lifestyle of sex, drugs, and financial crime…and then the inevitable hard crash as his criminal ways catch up with him. Jonah Hill plays Belfort’s shiny-teeth sporting cohort Donnie, Matthew McConaughey plays Belfort’s soulless mentor, Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie play Belfort’s first and second wives, Jean Dujardin plays a Swiss banker, Joanna Lumley is Robbie’s rich Aunt, Rob Reiner plays Jordan’s dad, Kyle Chandler plays a straight-arrow FBI man trying to bring Jordan down, Spike Jonze plays an early employer, and current Fox News ‘expert’ and former cop Bo Dietl amazingly plays himself, as he was Jordan’s own P.I. during this period.

 

Wrong-headed, unpleasant, but often just plain tedious 2013 film may well be the worst film to date from the respected Martin Scorsese (who has made excellent films like “Raging Bull”, “Goodfellas”, “Shine a Light”, “Hugo”, etc.) Taking the true story of Jordan Belfort (who also inspired the much better, fictionalised “Boiler Room”), Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) treat this disgraceful jerk of a human being like he’s just a “Ferris Bueller”-style young scallywag skipping school, and by the film’s end one gets the feeling that Scorsese wholeheartedly sides with Jordan. It’s disgraceful. He’s a heartless and criminal businessman, a shameless womaniser, an even more shameless drug abuser, and all-round giant knob. What the hell was Scorsese thinking here? Some might be glad to see Scorsese tackling rather adult material for the first time in a while, but it’s not done well at all. There is absolutely nothing admirable about Jordan, at least not the Jordan in this part of his life. There is nothing about his story to take lightly or treat in a jocular, and pretty much celebratory way. And there was very little of interest for me, perhaps most importantly of all. For starters, I’m mathematically-challenged and not terribly knowledgeable about the finance industry, to be honest. I don’t care to gain much more knowledge about it, really. I couldn’t tell whether Scorsese was going for comedy or not here, but there was one thing I did know for sure: I didn’t care.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays things pretty well here, but he’s playing a smug scumbag who only gets worse. He openly brags about all of the drugs he consumes. Why? I genuinely don’t get it, and don’t care to. Jordan’s constant bragging narration sways the film too far in the direction of glorifying him, a real miscalculation the film never recovers from. Meanwhile, I like swearing, probably more than most if I’m honest, but even for me there is way too much swearing in this. It’s not credible to be using profanity so many times in one sentence, especially in the corporate world where most are presumably educated enough to have a decent vocabulary so as to know the appropriate place for and appropriate frequency of swear words. Unfortunately, Scorsese (perhaps dictated by Belfort’s text) treats all of this as a juvenile lark, not to mention it’s repetitive and far too long at around three hours. It’s really immature if you ask me, but not in any interesting or entertaining way. Scorsese should be especially ashamed of himself for the dwarf-tossing scene. If these jerks really did get up to so much shenanigans at work, Scorsese failed to convince me of it. As for the supposed humour, the only slightly funny moment in the entire film comes when DiCaprio and Hill are rendered spastic by taking too many drugs, and even then I didn’t remotely believe it actually happened to the real Belfort (And don’t even get me started on the unconvincingly mammoth amount of cocaine used in the film).

 

It has clearly been overpitched, with even the actors encouraged to go (too far) for broke, even DiCaprio at times. Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill is probably the worst offender, with his overly mannered and irritating performance. Considering the phony white teeth and histrionics, he comes off like a fat John Turturro (And I’m pretty sure it was intentional) and drove me nuts. It was such an annoying put-on, a disgraceful character who never convinces as an actual human being. Matthew McConaughey is lively and clearly enjoying himself, but his cameo performance didn’t do much for me. It was weird and came across as phony. The best performance by far comes from Aussie soap actress Margot Robbie, who bares all (admittedly not in close-up) and delivers a convincing Noo Yawk accent. It’s not a great role in a seriously non-feminist film, but she really is impressive here. Kyle Chandler is well-cast as a boy scout-like cop, but the role reminded me too much of Hanratty from “Catch Me If You Can”, and Jordan Belfort ain’t no Frank Abignale Jr., even though they’re both played by the same actor.

 

Look, Scorsese might’ve come closer to pulling this off if the film were an hour shorter and the emphasis on drugs and debauchery lessened quite considerably. However, even then the comic tone of the film offends me. This is not a funny story. It is not something to be taken light-heartedly at all. At times too stupid and phony to be offensive, Scorsese swings wildly and completely misses here by taking unpleasant characters and behaviour, and quite clearly endorsing it for reasons that I don’t even care to know. At least “Boiler Room” was smart enough to know Belfort and his like were not good guys at all (though the Belfort substitute was seen as misguided more than anything), but this film takes forever to get there and still doesn’t seem to seriously condemn the sleazy bastard. Scorsese creates the “Caligula” of Wall Street (sadly intentional, from what I’ve read), and if that’s true to life, I wasn’t buying it as such. It seemed wildly overpitched, and far too long for something so immature and repetitive (And boy is it ever repetitive after the first 45 minutes or so). Above all, it’s a crushing bore with absolutely no redeeming characters, or even interesting ones. Marty, you’ve really disappointed me here. I expect this kind of shit from De Palma, but you? You should be above this empty display of criminal excess (both the excess engaged by the characters and the excess in film length, I mean). No, I seriously disliked this one.   

 

Rating: D+

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Review: Frailty


On a stormy night in Texas, Matthew McConaughey (chillingly deadpan) walks into FBI man Powers Boothe’s office claiming to know the identity of a long-sought serial killer known as the ‘God’s Hand Killer’. In fact, he says it’s his brother. He then proceeds to tell the cynical but obliging agent a story that goes back to his childhood in the 70s, as we see young Fenton Meiks (Matt O’Leary), his younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) and their calm, hard-working and decent, widowed father Bill Paxton living what seems a fairly normal, happy existence in ‘Bible Belt’ country. But one night, everything changes. Dad wakes up the kids to tell them of a vision he just had. He saw God...and God wants him and the kids to kill ‘Demons’ for him. The kids go back to bed, not really knowing what to think, and with young Fenton hoping everything will go back to normal. No such luck, a little while later Dad says he’s got a list of ‘Demons’ that God has given to him, and that they must set about killing them. Adam, the youngest of the Meiks clan, blindly accepts what his father tells him- he’s Dad, after all, and he’s never let them down before. Fenton, however, thinks his father has cracked and wants no part of it. He thinks Dad isn’t killing ‘Demons’, but real people, whilst Dad tries to explain the difference (Demons hide their true identity), as he is convinced that this is what God wants. Has Dad really lost his mind? Is he an evil murderer? Or is this really God’s will, and if so, what the hell kinda vengeful, blood-thirsty freak does that make the almighty, then? Character actor Luke Askew (a veteran of many westerns) plays the local sheriff, in a small part.

 

It’s a surprise and great shame to me that character actor Bill Paxton (best known for highly entertaining, wonderfully over-the-top performances in “Aliens”, “Weird Science”, “Near Dark”, and “True Lies” as well as more ‘straight’ ones in “Apollo 13”, “A Simple Plan” and “Nightcrawler”) hasn’t directed very many films thus far, nor has he re-visited the horror genre as director. Why is it a surprise and a great shame? Because he hit it out of the park the first time with this 2002 feature-length directorial debut, it’s truly outstanding (even though it wasn’t a box-office hit, which probably explains Paxton’s reluctance to continue directing). As much a Southern Gothic melodrama (not to mention a psychological thriller-drama) as it is a horror film, I actually think it’s one of the best and most underrated horror films of the last 20 years and one of the best directorial debuts of all-time.

 

Paxton’s direction, working in conjunction with top cinematographer Bill Butler (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Grease”, “Child’s Play”) is really amazing for a first-timer. The film has a really nice, look to it, as both Paxton and Butler have a nice eye and feel for Southern Gothic imagery. The shot composition and use of light in the film is truly first-rate stuff, and I just love a good foggy, forest/burial ground area. Honestly, back in 2002, I hadn’t seen anything like this film in years (“Heavenly Creatures” meets “Night of the Hunter” is the closest approximation I can come up with). I’m not sure if Paxton or writer Brent Hanley (who sadly hasn’t scripted a feature film since) have read much Stephen King, but with the mixture of coming-of-age tale and horror, the story has echoes of King throughout (“IT” and to some extent “Stand By Me” come to mind). With the somewhat stylised look of the film, Paxton has clearly learnt from the directors he has previously worked with like Sam Raimi (“A Simple Plan”) and Kathryn Bigelow (“Near Dark”), but also manages to make the film his own. Paxton obviously knows the importance of a good music score for such a film and Brian Tyler (“AVP: Requiem”, “Law Abiding Citizen”, “The Expendables”) definitely delivers with a damn good music score. So ominous and evocative you’d swear it was the inimitable Danny Elfman (“Batman”, “Beetlejuice”, “Planet of the Apes”) doing the gig.

 

However, for me it is the characters and Paxton’s absolutely first-rate lead performance that are the strongest aspects of this film. His ‘Dad’ (never given a real name) is one of the scariest villains of the last 20 years, mostly because of how atypical he is for a villain. 99.99% of the character is a loving, decent, hard-working dad who cares and provides for his kids. It’s just that extra tiny fraction of a percentage that is completely and totally messed-up...or is he? He seems pretty normal, and quite credible, even when talking about seemingly batshit insane stuff. Fenton and Adam’s childhood had apparently been totally normal until that dreaded night, so there’s nothing in Dad’s behaviour beforehand to suggest anything other than an honest, loving and decent man who is of rational thought and state of mind. And that makes him all the scarier, because this is a seemingly good man who is doing some very, very bad things, and roping his kids into the misdeeds as well. I love Bill Paxton in most of those films I listed at the outset, but in addition to his directorial skills, he gives one of his all-time best performances here, and should’ve been Oscar-nominated in my view. He could easily have tapped into the intense, nervy and neurotic schtick he used so wonderfully well in “Aliens”, but instead he plays this role as chillingly realistic and down-to-earth as possible. The scene where he matter-of-factly explains to Sumpter the difference between killing people (wrong) and killing demons (God’s will), is chilling in Paxton’s seeming sincerity and rationality whilst also seeming batshit insane via his words. A tricky thing to do and Paxton succeeds. It’s a pitch-perfect performance (backed up by the rest of the cast, especially the two youngsters in very complex roles), and the right approach to adopt, as the most normal and identifiable is sometimes the most frightening. You don’t think there are Bible-bashers out there with a few screws loose and murder on their mind? It happens. Charlie Manson may be crazier than a loon, but he’s not half as frightening as dear ‘ol Dad, who at worst, is possessed by something he cannot control (Or would it be worse if he were actually telling the truth? Think about that). Ordinarily, I’d argue in favour of the Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” approach to acting crazy. I’ll argue to my dying day that his performance was crucial because it’s hard to believe a nice, normal guy slowly going mad. When it’s someone who already seems predisposed to unlikeable or unstable behaviour, it’s much more believable to me. This film is the exception, because it’s absolutely crucial for Dad to appear predominantly normal in order for the film’s ambiguity to come off and keep you guessing the whole way whether he’s nuts or truly a righteous man seeing holy visions. In few other respects than the murders is Paxton’s dad a bad or evil man. Sure, his punishment of hole digging for rebellious O’Leary seems a bit harsh, but I reckon it’s only a slightly more extreme form of discipline than what many others from that part of the US (if not in every country) have endured in their own disciplinarian upbringings (Not to mention that O’Leary kinda makes it harder on himself). But when you add in the murders, and a later form of punishment Paxton administers on O’Leary (also ordered by God, apparently), it’s very hard to see that loving, caring, ‘normal’ dad in there. And it’s the ‘normality’ in Paxton’s filmmaking that is really the key too, because the film plays with normality versus stylised atmosphere to brilliant effect. Once the murders begin, we’re steeped in Southern Gothic, stylised visuals, which are awesome. But it would be nothing without the reality of the setting, the characters, and so forth. Combined they keep us guessing for the most part (if not the whole way) as to whether Paxton is evil, delusional, or truly doing God’s work. There’s certainly some very strong suggestion by the end about this, but it’s still somewhat left to interpretation (Just because we’re seeing what we’re seeing doesn’t mean it’s an accurate representation of what is really going on. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean), and that proves to be a wise choice. Hey, you don’t wanna piss those Christians off by painting them as outright loony murderers, or you’ll lose some box-office and garner some bad press! Besides, it makes for fun post-film discussion. The visuals and atmosphere suggest a kind of bad dream, even. Some people guessed the ending on first viewing. I didn’t, but I can see how they did now, though it isn’t a problem. In fact, knowing what I know now puts everyone and everything in a new light, given the source of the information we’re getting. It certainly plays fair, as you’ll realise in subsequent viewings. I will admit that the twist ending goes on maybe one scene too long (and makes at least one minor character look like a moron, though you could find rationale for his behaviour depending on how literally you interpret the ending), but that is honestly the only (slight) flaw I can find with this otherwise really impressive film.

 

In a genre that has seen too many hacks in the last twenty years, here’s a real filmmaker, and amazingly, it’s Chet from “Weird Science”. Who woulda thunk it? Absolutely, positively recommended if you haven’t already caught this one.

 

Rating: B