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.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: The Rescuers Down Under

In the Australian Outback…ish, a young boy (voiced by Norwegian-born Adam Ryen) is kidnapped by a nasty poacher (voiced by George C. Scott, who I believe is 1/100th Aboriginal- just checking to see if you’re awake!), after falling into a trap set by the hunter hoping to nab wild animals. Since the boy prevented him from killing the prized giant eagle (in Australia?) he was really after, he decides to keep the boy prisoner, in hopes of him leading him to the eagle’s nest. When an Aussie mouse (at least we do have those here) learns of this, he sends out the call for help, eventually picked up by the Rescue Aid Society, who deploy intrepid mice ‘rescuers’ Bernard (voiced by an intentionally timid Bob Newhart) and Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) to do the job. They are aided in their quest by albatross Wilbur (voiced by John Candy) and a local mouse adventurer Jake (voiced by Tristan Rogers, who is at least Australian). Frank Welker provides the voice of the hunter’s companion, Joanna the Goanna.


I’ve always wanted to see the 1977 original “The Rescuers” from Disney, but it doesn’t seem to get much airplay, but I did recently catch up with this 1990 sequel directed by Hendel Butoy (who was an animator on “The Great Mouse Detective”) and Mike Gabriel (who later co-directed the appalling 1995 Disney film “Pocahontas”). Although it’s about as Australian as a shrimp on the barbie (which for you foreigners is to say not bloody Australian at all! We don’t eat ‘shrimp’ we eat prawns!), it’s a surprisingly very entertaining and cute film for the whole family. It’s said to be the least successful film during the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance’ (which I guess started with “The Little Mermaid”), but I think that’s a trifle unfair. It’s a completely different film to any of the others (which were musicals, really), and box-office doesn’t always equate to quality.


With the implementation of computer technology, the film looks different to Disney animated films before it, and unlike later efforts like “Treasure Planet”, I didn’t notice the seams here. It looks really terrific for 1990, actually. It’s a shame that the film’s young protagonist and the evil villain are voiced by non-Australian voice actors (Norwegian-born Adam Ryen and the inimitable George C. Scott, respectively), but most of the sights and sounds are at least fairly Australian…ish. The wildlife is mostly spot-on (The frilled-neck lizard- no, not the goanna- is the wrong colour and why there’s an eagle instead of an emu or at least magpie I don’t know), though some of the landscape looks an awful lot like Monument Valley, not outback Australia, and it is noticeable.


The best asset here is the terrific music score by composer Bruce Broughton (“Silverado”, “The Monster Squad”, “Tombstone”), who treats this like it’s any other movie, not just an animated kids movie. Although the lack of Aussie accents is disconcerting (some are merely British accents, which would be fine for a film set in the 40s perhaps), you can’t complain about the title characters who aren’t meant to be Australian. Bernard and Bianca are absolutely adorable, as voiced by the perfectly cast Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. Gabor’s Hungarian accent is just perfect darlink. Even better, however, is the scene-stealing voice work of the late, great John Candy as an albatross, the Rescuers’ mode of transport to Australia. I’ll even forgive Candy for saying ‘Cowabunga!’ at one point (Really?). God I miss John Candy, don’t you? He’s immediately good fun here. Meanwhile, Australian or not, George C. Scott’s gruff voice is perfect for the role of the evil hunter, not too dissimilar from subsequent large-jawed, barrel-chested Disney villains (The big game hunter in “Tarzan” especially). He also sounds like he’s having a hoot and a half in the role. I liked the cute mouse secret society/communication deal, it’s like a similar scene in the underrated “The AristoCats”, only with a lot less ear-bleeding for yours truly.


It’s a real shame that this Disney effort isn’t remotely ‘dinky di’, because there really isn’t anything else wrong with this film. Maybe it’s a bit too short for so many characters and the ending is a tad rushed, but those are more minor flaws than the lack of cultural authenticity. I have no idea whatsoever why it failed to do anything at the box-office. It’s a lovely and entertaining film, more entertaining than some later Disney efforts (“Pocahontas”, “Treasure Planet”, “Hercules”, and “Lilo & Stitch” spring to mind). I think it’s one of the more entertaining Disney animated films post-1961 and pre-“Aladdin” at the very least. The screenplay comes courtesy of Jim Cox (“Oliver & Co.”, “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest”), Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”, co-director of “Over the Hedge”), Byron Simpson (whose only other writing credits are a few episodes of a “Timon and Pumbaa” TV series), and Joe Ranft (“Beauty and the Beast”, “Toy Story”).


Rating: B-

Review: Death Wish II

After an attack on his wife and daughter enraged him to the point of vigilantism, architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) has relocated from NY to LA, and shacked up with radio personality Geri (Jill Ireland). His daughter Carol (Robin Sherwood) has never really recovered mentally/emotionally from her ordeal. Meanwhile, a bunch of street punks (Laurence Fishburne among them) are up to no good, and having already nicked Paul’s wallet, they see his address and decide to pay a visit. They brutally rape his maid, and when Kersey arrives home with Carol, they knock him out, kidnap Carol, rape her too, and then she has finally lost the will to live and kills herself. Time for Kersey to do what he does best, skulk about on the streets at night to catch and kill every one of these creeps, and maybe take out a couple of unrelated crims and lowlifes along the way for good measure. Meanwhile, he keeps Geri in the dark about his moonlighting habits, but NY cop Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) has turned up in LA looking for him. Charles Cyphers plays an orderly, Anthony Franciosa is the Police Commissioner, and J.D. Cannon briefly appears as the New York DA.


Often regarded as one of the worst sequels of all-time, if not one of the worst films of any kind of all-time, this 1982 follow-up to the 1974 vigilante hit from returning director Michael Winner (whose “Lawman” and “The Mechanic” were at least decent, but the rest…yikes!) has very few redeeming features at all. I wasn’t a fan of the original really (I prefer my revenge films to be much less serious-minded and much less rape-y), and this is definitely a cheapjack cash-grab if ever I’ve seen one. Being a Golan-Globus flick is a surprise to no one here (they kept Mr. Bronson, Michael Dudikoff, and Chuck Norris employed through the 80s), the Israeli duo taking over the franchise from the slightly less dubious Dino De Laurentiis (hey, at least he has “Barbarella”, “Serpico” and “The Dead Zone” to his otherwise mostly crummy producing/distribution credits!), who produced the first one. The only thing this one holds over the original is that at least Charles Bronson mostly sticks to the specific bastards who have wronged him, something I found hard to accept about the first film (I suppose it helps that he actually witnesses the attackers mid-rape this time out, though). That’s not nearly enough of a difference to make for a good film, however.


There’s the potentially interesting story strand of Bronson’s daughter’s struggles to overcome the attack in the first film, dealt with early on. Unfortunately, it has been horrendously handled here and is merely used to give Bronson more reason to be angry and vengeful. Actress Robin Sherwood acts like the character is intellectually disabled, not just traumatised. It’s just too silly to behold. Come to think of it, I could use the ‘intellectually disabled’ to describe leading lady Jill Ireland’s acting talents, or lack thereof. But that would be mean (For the record, I’m physically disabled, so if you’re thinking I’m merely being offensive to the disabled, think again there, little buddy!). At any rate, she’s her usual ‘odd duck’ self, facially immobile, and completely out of her depth. Also, what in the hell is going on with the music score, allegedly by Jimmy Page? Yes, Jimmy Freakin’ Page is credited with the music score and it’s appalling. I mean, not only does it appear to my ears at least, that Page has only worked on the rock parts of the score, but the whole thing is just dreadfully silly and far too strident. It’s obnoxious beyond belief, and easily one of the worst and loudest music scores of all-time. The end credits claim ‘Music Arranged and Conducted by’ David Whitaker (“Lawman”, “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde”, “Vampire Circus”), so my guess is that Page only does the intro and outro music, and Whitaker does the rest. They both deserve a public shaming, if you ask me (As does Winner himself for apparently choosing next door neighbour Page over the producers’ choice, Isaac Hayes. Hayes would’ve been much more appropriate).


It’s the screenplay by David Engelbach (who went on to pen the arm wrestling ‘classic’ “Over the Top”) and direction by Winner that are the real problems here, however. It’s cheap, lazy, and crude in both departments. These attackers aren’t remotely threatening at all, they are written and performed in as much of a cartoony fashion as the bozos in “Last House on the Left”. They are simple-minded punks who are about as threatening as Fat Albert and his gang. The first 15 minutes or so are ridiculously overstuffed with not just depravity, but stupid and overdone depravity. Look, the first film wasn’t a favourite of mine, but it wasn’t incompetently made. Winner has made some terrible films, but not all of his films are without merit (“Lawman” is particularly underrated), but he just delivers simplistic trash here. No effort whatsoever is made to give us anything beyond the most obvious and rudimentary plotting and characterisation. It’s a product, an ugly, tedious and stupid product meant to cash in on the success of its predecessor. Yes, it’s a sequel, but it didn’t have to be this cheap.


There’s some nice city landscape shots, but that just makes it shit with a few nice backgrounds. It’s still shit, and lead actor Bronson gives zero effort whatsoever. Vincent Gardenia surprisingly enough doesn’t phone it in like you might expect, but Anthony Franciosa certainly does. However, with the simplistic roles he and Winner regular J.D. Cannon have (being credited merely as ‘New York DA’ and ‘LA Police Commissioner’, respectively), can you really blame them? Perhaps not, but I can certainly sit in judgement of one Laurence ‘Larry’ Fishburne, who really ought to be ashamed of his participation in this. He was probably a starving young actor at the time, but he shouldn’t have made this film, and his performance is laughably bad. The notoriously cool actor is so very uncool here, dressed like a reject from Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ video.


Fans of the original might see something here, but for anyone who wasn’t a fan, this is clearly simplistic garbage and not even entertaining garbage. It’s cynical cash-grabbing at its absolute worst, the finale is especially evident of this (Including a really foul final line that just isn’t appropriate in tone for a film about rapists).


Rating: D

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Review: Twisted

The serial killer film is perhaps the trickiest of films to get right. A comedy doesn’t have to be gut-bustingly hilarious all the way through in order to work well (“The Blues Brothers”, for instance, also functions as a musical), and a horror film doesn’t have to scare you within an inch of your life in order to be effective (“Child’s Play” is one of my all-time favourite horror flicks, but I hardly cower behind my couch watching it). But in the case (no pun intended) of a serial killer film, if you can work out who the killer is early on, then you find yourself twiddling your thumbs as the characters try to catch up to you. The best example I’ve seen of a killer thriller that was almost impossible to guess the killer would be the underrated Christopher Lambert film “Knight Moves”. You’d have to be extremely savvy to work out whodunit there. If it also happens to fail to engage you with its characters or filmmaking and so on, then it’s even more unlikely that the film will come up smelling roses.


Welcome one and all to “Twisted”, an Ashley Judd thriller so appallingly transparent that I managed to guess who the killer was before the movie even started! What’s worse is how silly and frankly quite boring it is as well.


Judd, seriously troubled over the deaths of her parents long ago, is a San Francisco Homicide Inspector, who picks men up in bars (Good bars? Eh? Eh? See what I did there?) and frequently blacks out. As you do. When the bodies of some of her gentleman callers start turning up after a night Judd can’t seem to remember, alarm bells start sounding. Not that Superintendent (and legal guardian) Samuel L. Jackson actually takes her off the case…no, then we’d have no movie. Hmm, now there’s a thought... Anyway, Andy Garcia plays Judd’s smitten partner, seedy-looking Mark Pellegrino her lingering ex, Titus Welliver plays an A-hole cop, Leland Orser a snitch, and David Strathairn appears to be on a major dose of sedatives as the police shrink.


This is a shockingly scripted waste of time from the usually daring director Phillip Kaufman (director of the definitive version of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”). Surely this is a new record in inept screenwriting, the real culprit being writer Sarah Thorp. The whole enterprise doesn’t even get off the ground, and Ashley’s just not right for this Angelina Jolie-ish role. She seems too nice and huggable to be a hard-drinking, emotionally bruised, ball-breaking slut (But then again, I’ve never actually met her…) Garcia and Strathairn, meanwhile, look entirely embarrassed (Bad day at the track, David?) and the film contains Sam Jackson’s worst-ever performance, too (And not in a so-bad-it’s-good way). Yes, even worse than “The Spirit”, “Unthinkable”, and “Arena”. And is it just me, or is Leland Orser contractually obligated to appear in every serial killer film made in Hollywood? (“Se7en”, “Knight Moves”, “Saw”, “Resurrection”). Only Camryn Manheim, in a lively cameo, does anything remotely interesting, playing a somewhat enthusiastic forensics expert.


Easily one of the worst films of its type in recent decades. Fails in the most fundamental areas for this type of film, never once getting off the ground. A four-year old could write something more clever than this script.


Rating: F

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: Bataan

Based loosely on fact and based partly on “The Lost Patrol” (cribbing footage from it at times too), this WWII film features Robert Taylor as the leader of a multi-racial band of soldiers facing insurmountable odds against the Japanese in a situation not too dissimilar from “The Alamo”. Lloyd Nolan is the irritable corporal whom Taylor may or may not recognise from a previous military engagement. Thomas Mitchell is the veteran separated from his unit and joining up with Taylor’s band of soldiers. Robert Walker is the young and naïve Navy musician who may be in over his head. Also in this ragtag platoon that ominously number thirteen are Desi Arnaz as a private, George Murphy as an air force pilot who is to play a key part in events if he can get his downed plane repaired, Roque Espiritu as the resident Phillipino soldier, Kenneth Spencer (quite good) as the token black soldier, and Lee Bowman as an inexperienced captain who was in charge until the more battle-hardened Taylor showed up.


Pretty well-received war flick from 1943, directed by Tay Garnett (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “The Fireball”, “The Valley of Decision”) and scripted by Robert D. Andrews (“The Walking Dead”, “Before I Hang”). I wasn’t as enamoured with it, finding it cheap-looking, stage-bound and visually unconvincing. The action scenes get much praise elsewhere, but I could never get past the cheap look in order to find the action effective.


That’s not to say that the B&W cinematography is a problem. It looks like an A-grade cinematographer is working on a B-grade assignment at best. Indeed, in addition to the excellent Bronislau Kaper (“Gaslight”, “Song of Love”, “Them!”, “Mutiny on the Bounty”) music score and some good performances, the cinematography by Sidney Wagner (“Dragon Seed”, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) is one of the strongest assets of the film. Wagner’s pretty much polishing a turd, not that the film itself is a turd, just the whole thing looks so obviously set-bound that Wagner deserves credit for trying to class it up. I do, however, feel that the overreliance on close-ups was a little too obvious an attempt at hiding the budget.


There’s nothing new here story-wise, but the script is not the problem, nor are the performances. Robert Taylor isn’t my favourite movie star, but he’s well-cast and surprisingly good here in a strong, sturdy performance. Alongside his shockingly hardened turn in “The Last Hunt”, this is his best performance by a long shot. A pre-“Strangers on a Train” Robert Walker looks shockingly young and really does show promise playing a naïve and eventually scared Navy kid who means well, but has no idea what he’s in the middle of. Desi Arnaz is one of many entertainers who turned up in war films of the 40s and 50s, and is neither Frank Sinatra nor is he the worst. Thomas Mitchell is always good value and is fine here, but one has to wonder how lax the military were during WWII that a guy his age and his (out of) shape could possibly end up fighting in a war. By far the standout here is Lloyd Nolan, in a John Cassavetes-ish performance circa “The Dirty Dozen”, playing the most interesting and complex character in the film. He’s unpredictable, seemingly hiding something, and just shy of being a selfish prick. He’s the one you’re gonna remember here more than anyone else.


A watchable WWII film, but due to its cheap production values, I was never truly drawn in to the story. The artifice was all too apparent to me, it looked like play acting and although I understand we’re talking about 1943 filmmaking, I couldn’t quite suspend disbelief. Subsequent WWII stories, even those from the same era, hold up a lot more successfully than this one. It’s much better than the overrated “Story of G.I. Joe”, however. Interesting ending manages to find a way to be heroic/patriotic yet downbeat at the same time.


Rating: C+

Review: The Picture Show Man

Set in Australia in the 20s with John Meillon as the title character, a low-rent travelling showman who tries to bring the magic of motion pictures to small country towns. Harold Hopkins plays Meillon’s son and cohort, with John Ewart (who won an AFI award for this) the piano player they pick up along the way, after Texan rival Rod Taylor pinches Meillon’s previous piano man (a perfect but underused Garry McDonald). Taylor is also a richer and more successful picture show man than Meillon. Jeanie Drynan plays a young woman whom Ewart sweet talks, whilst Tony Barry plays a copper.


Not the Aussie classic about 20s-era movie making that I was hoping for, this 1977 film from director John Power (best known for the mini-series “The Dirtwater Dynasty” and “The Tommyknockers”) and screenwriter Joan Long (“Caddie”, producer of “Puberty Blues”) has good performances but a story that isn’t nearly as interesting as it could’ve been. I mean you’ve got a really interesting period in Australian entertainment history, a bonafide home-grown international star coming home in Rod Taylor, and the lead actor is the late John Meillon, as Aussie as a beer ad. This seemed like it was a sure-fire winner in the making. A larrikin version of “The Magic Box” (a brilliant all-star British film about cinematic pioneer William Friese-Greene), perhaps. Hell, it’s even based on a true story (Lyle Penn and his father, apparently). It never quite makes the grade.


Some have accused the film of meandering, but I don’t think that’s quite the problem. The problem I think is that it doesn’t just want to be about early Aussie cinema, it has other things on its mind and those things aren’t as interesting. Let’s face it, the John Meillon character is one-part picture show man, one-part vaudeville entertainer, and two-parts con man. That’s fine, except it’s just not as interesting or appealing to me specifically. I also think the film could’ve used a whole lot more Rod Taylor. The rivalry between his character and Meillon’s ends up not being anywhere near as important as you initially assume it will. Sure, Taylor deserves credit for putting his name and marquee value here, helping his local industry, but there’s just not much of a role for him. So I wouldn’t call the film meandering, just uneven and not always as fascinating as it could’ve been had it focussed more on the nostalgia for early Australian cinema.


Meillon is absolutely ideal, he was born to play this role, I think. Terrific support from John Ewart and Jeannie Drynan as well. Worth a look for the curious, but prepare to be a bit disappointed. Corny title song sung by star Meillon sounds an awful lot like something Grahame Bond or Brian Cadd would come up with, but definitely suits the film.


Rating: C+

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: Somebody Up There Likes Me

The story of Rocky Barbella, AKA Rocky Graziano (Paul Newman, in the film that really made him, yet was originally slated for James Dean), a former NY hoodlum, occasional tenant in several correctional facilities, and army deserter, turned middleweight boxer. Rocky’s dad (Harold J. Stone) was a former boxer who gave his career up to be with Rocky’s mother (Eileen Heckart), and as a result became an embittered, bullying loser who mistreats both mother and son. Sal Mineo (who looks about 12 compared to Newman and was actually 17 at the time) and Steve McQueen appear as Rocky’s hoodlum neighbourhood pals, whilst Robert Loggia is a crim who sees a boxer in Rocky, Everett Sloane becomes Rocky’s trainer, and Pier Angeli is Rocky’s love interest.


Although I wouldn’t say Paul Newman entirely convinces as boxer Rocky Graziano, it’s still fascinating to watch a still emerging (and soon to be great) actor/movie star still kinda raw and figuring it all out. Don’t get me wrong, Newman’s performance is still pretty good (and an actor doesn’t always have to completely disappear into the character), but I’ve always felt that Newman, like Robert De Niro, was one of the few ‘method’ actors who I could never see the wheels spinning while they were acting. Well, I could see them spinning at times here, and I also don’t think Newman’s tough guy Italian-American Noo Yawk accent was terribly convincing, either. However, while he’s not perfect casting, he gives it a damn good go, and although you never quite believe he truly is the character, he’s certainly interesting to watch. He perfectly conveys the strong anti-authority delinquent side of Rocky, as that’s kinda Newman’s wheelhouse and so he ultimately makes his casting work that way. You can certainly tell that he, Sal Mineo, and debutant Steve McQueen had ‘it’, even in this, that’s for sure.


Otherwise, this 1956 biopic (based on Graziano’s autobiography) from director Robert Wise (“West Side Story”, “The Body Snatcher”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (“Sweet Smell of Success”, “West Side Story”, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) is pretty standard yet solid stuff, with one major flaw (Well, aside from the fucking awful Perry Como title song. Let’s not even go there). I think it’s been horribly cut by editor Albert Akst (“Brigadoon”). It’s not episodic, just really poorly edited I think, which is surprising given Wise’s own background in editing films. Even more surprising? Akst earned an Oscar nomination for this. Wow. The other flaw, a minor one, is the surprisingly bad music score by Bronislau Kaper. Kaper’s work is normally top-notch and a highlight (“Bataan”, “Them!”, “The Scapegoat”), but here he just sounds like he’s banging on random keys on the piano for some scenes, like a four year-old.


Newman is pretty enjoyable in the lead (if too pretty and thin, albeit in good shape), but for me the standouts are an immediately impactful Howard J. Stone in the best performance of his I’ve seen (in only his third film), and the always excellent Everett Sloane (one of cinema’s most underappreciated character actors and one of the best), with able back-up by Eileen Heckart (who says a lot with just her face alone), a well-cast Sal Mineo, and it’s very interesting to see a young…ish Robert Loggia in his film debut. He doesn’t have a lot of scenes, but it still amazes me based on this that it took so long for him to become an in-demand character actor. I mean, his most fruitful period was the 1980s for cryin’ out loud, where he made several films a year. As for Stone (who played a wildly different character in another boxing movie from this period, the excellent “The Harder They Fall”), I think he was robbed of an Oscar nomination here. He’s that impressive as Rocky’s brutish, but ultimately pathetic and insecure father. Pier Angeli is probably the weak link in the cast and even she’s OK, actually.


The film’s depiction of working class hoodlum life here is pretty good and somewhat reminiscent of what Martin Scorsese would do in some of his films. It doesn’t surprise me given his background that Graziano made a success of things as a boxer, what surprises me is that he didn’t get killed in a street fight or something along the way. In fact, Graziano had such a colourful life that, at least in this film, the boxing stuff is the least interesting material (The final bout is pretty well-staged, though).


This isn’t a great biopic, nor is it a great boxing movie. Nothing earth-shattering and pretty poorly edited, the film is still worth seeing for the acting. Newman’s performance may not be great, but it definitely shows evidence of a great actor (and great movie star) coming along nicely. The terrific supporting cast helps enormously, and it’s an easy watch even if like me, you’re not a boxing fan. It’s worth it just to see Newman palling around with later rival McQueen on screen, decades before their competitiveness reached its zenith in “The Towering Inferno”.


Rating: B-

Review: God’s Pocket

Set in the late 70s, the title refers to a working-class town in Philly full of petty crims and the like. God’s Pocket, my arse it seems. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a small-time crook who along with a butcher pal (John Turturro) pulls off a heist…of a meat truck. Meanwhile, Hoffman’s dipshit moron son (Caleb Landry Jones) mouths off to an elderly African-American co-worker one too many times while working construction, and ends up a little bit dead for it. His mother (Christina Hendricks) is overcome with grief and sorrow, and demands that husband Hoffman find out how this happened, even though the other construction workers band together to call it an accident. She feels there’s more to it than that, but no one seems to want to help…because they know the deceased was a major knob who deserved his fate. Also turning up in town is washed-up journalist Richard Jenkins, who earns the entire close-knit community’s ire for writing a story about the incident and getting it all wrong. Now he comes back to get the real scoop, but they already hate the guy for writing about ‘God’s Pocket’ without being what they consider a local (Nor is Hoffman really, as he wasn’t born locally) and painting them as lowlifes, crims, and thugs. He goes to interview Hendricks and…well, have you seen Hendricks’ cleavage? Then you probably know what happens next. Seriously, best cleavage in the business bar none (Oh, if only Russ Meyer were still alive…). Eddie Marsan plays a local mortician who isn’t particularly impressed when Hoffman loses the money set aside for the funeral…gambling on a ‘sure thing’ that proves anything but. Hoffman ends up having to put his son’s body in the back of the truck, which doesn’t go well when he tries to sell the truck.  Veteran actress Joyce Van Patten has a choice cameo as Turturro’s Aunt, who may be old but I certainly wouldn’t mess with her.
The directorial debut of actor John Slattery (TV’s apparently brilliant “Mad Men”) and one of the last screen appearances by the late and extraordinarily talented Philip Seymour Hoffman is an interesting, downbeat film from 2014 based on a Pete Dexter (“The Paperboy”) novel. It’s a small film, and some might consider it a bit slight, but it reminded me a lot of the films of the 70s, actually. Films like “Bloodbrothers”, “Five Easy Pieces”, and “Blue Collar” all came to mind for me, as well as the more recent “Mystic River” and early Scorsese. It’s the kind of thing you could imagine Keitel, De Niro or Nicholson in back in the 70s. And yet, it’s got its own thing going on as well. For starters, it has a dark sense of humour, especially whenever Eddie Marsan is around. This guy was born to play a mortician and he gets all of the laughs as a man purely interested in the bottom dollar and nothing else. Richard Jenkins is also brilliant as a sleazy, boozing hack journo with just a bit of humanity to him. There’s also sturdy support from John Turturro and a memorable role for Joyce Van Patten, in the kind of part that in the 70s would’ve gone to Shelley Winters for sure.
Co-producer Hoffman, of course is a sturdy anchor for the whole thing. He looks in absolutely horrid shape, but let’s just assume it’s the character, who is kind of a wreck really. Co-written by Slattery himself along with Alex Metcalf, it’s a shame this one has such a low-profile, it’s solid, melancholic stuff. The film may be a bit slight and downbeat, and some may find the tone wavers too jarringly for their liking (Critics have found it off-putting). I get that, but it’s never boring and the cast is terrific. I kinda liked it.
Damn it Phil…why? WHY??
Rating: B-

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: The Wooden Horse

POWs held by the Nazis in Stalag Luft III during WWII decide to stage an escape via the unique plan of using a gymnastics vaulting horse to disguise the tunnel-digging. Leo Genn and Anthony Steel play the leaders of the escape, with Anthony M. Dawson, Michael Goodliffe, and David Tomlinson among the other prisoners. Peter Finch plays a wounded Aussie soldier in one scene.


A smaller-scale dry run for “The Great Escape” (and based on a true incident in the very same POW camp!, this Jack Lee (“A Town Like Alice”, “Robbery Under Arms”) POW escape film from 1950 isn’t too bad. Some scenes are alarmingly similar to the later John Sturges classic, and the film obviously comes up short in the comparison. In fact, the film’s best scenes are towards the end, after the escape attempt. Even then the film has to contend with a frankly very wooden (pardon the pun) Anthony Steel. He’s the weak link in quite a sturdy cast, with character actor Leo Genn acquitting himself rather well in a lead role, and Australia’s own Peter Finch has an enjoyable cameo where he actually gets to play an Aussie (I’m convinced he’s bunging the accent on a bit, Finch’s natural accent even then was surely more English-sounding than ‘ocker’). Fans of British character actors will have fun spotting the likes of a young David Tomlinson, as well as Michael Goodliffe and Anthony M. Dawson among others.


I do have to admit though, that the POWs in this film seem much less well-fed and clean than those in “The Great Escape”, it’s certainly a grittier film. The B&W cinematography by C.M. Pennington-Richards (“A Christmas Carol”, “Forbidden Cargo”) is superlative, lending the film a starkness and harshness. Scripted by Eric Williams (who was actually one of the real-life escapees, the one played by Leo Genn in the film) from his own novel, it’s a very watchable and certainly good-looking film, it’s just that “The Great Escape” would do this so much grander and so much better. That film’s a masterpiece of screen entertainment, this one’s pretty minor. The barminess of the central premise (though it’s also rather clever and based on truth) might be enough to keep you interested, especially if you like British B-films of this period.


Rating: C+

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: The Departed

Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon play two Irish-American Boston boys who grow up to be cops. However, whilst Damon was mentored from an early age by mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) to become his inside man, DiCaprio gets picked by Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen) and verbally abusive Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) to be their own inside man into Costello’s gang. Both DiCaprio and Damon are looking for moles inside the two organisations, i.e. each other. Vera Farmiga plays a police shrink who becomes romantically involved with Damon, whilst also professionally seeing DiCaprio. Alec Baldwin plays Damon’s immediate superior on the force, who is oblivious to Damon’s true allegiances and (get this) puts Damon in charge of investigating…himself, basically. Ray Winstone plays Costello’s rough and tough right-hand man, whilst Anthony Anderson is a cop who graduated at the same time as DiCaprio.


Entertaining, but not one of the better films from director Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “Goodfellas”, “Hugo”), this 2006 cops vs. crooks flick is never dull but suffers from contrivances, and an unsatisfactory romantic element. Scripted by William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”, “Body of Lies”, “Edge of Darkness”), the film is actually a remake of “Infernal Affairs”, and is thus completely unnecessary, much like Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear”, though this film is at least better than that one.


After a few fascinating and ambitious (if unwieldy) epic-scale dramatic pictures (“The Aviator” and “Gangs of New York”), Scorsese returns to potentially safer gangster territory for this profane cops-and-crims picture. Despite a hell of an ensemble cast and interesting Boston flavour, the film never quite makes it to the big leagues, and is frankly overrated. This is mostly because the HK crime flick “Infernal Affairs” is pretty standard issue material beneath this great man’s talents. It could also have lost the extremely contrived subplot involving Farmiga’s character, that isn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of the film. I’ve seen the film twice now, and the Farmiga character is indeed the film’s biggest problem. I have no idea what the two composite characters from the original that this character is based on are like, but Scorsese should’ve seen that the character just doesn’t work here. It’s a contrivance and she is portrayed as unrealistically unprofessional. On my second viewing, the notion that Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters being unaware of one another seemed less of a contrivance, but not quite enough for me to give him a pass on it. Scorsese and Monahan try to cover over some of the more unlikely things in the film like that, but it can’t be denied that the Farmiga character is a big gaping wound left wide open. And filled with disgusting puss and blood. There’s just no reason beyond contrivance, for there to be a love triangle in this story. It isn’t necessary and it isn’t welcome. The relationship between Farmiga and DiCaprio just doesn’t convince.


So the film isn’t great. It’s no “Goodfellas”. It does, however have the ingredients for a potentially great film, and there’s still lots of things to enjoy here. In fact, I may have enjoyed it more the second time around. The biggest reason to see the film if you haven’t already is quite simply Jack. This isn’t the subtle Jack Nicholson of “About Schmidt”, not in the slightest. This is Jack being Jack in a Martin Scorsese cops and crooks film, and he’s quite simply bloody marvellous. His opening narration is terrific, and so long as you can tolerate and appreciate Jack being Jack, then you’ll love him here. Some might be surprised to see Nicholson in this role, but De Niro is too identified as Italian, and Robert Duvall wouldn’t be brutal or menacing enough. So Nicholson was the right choice. There’s few things more dicey than a negotiation involving opponents with machine guns, and speaking languages that require a translator. You need to watch and listen, ‘coz you’re getting the words on a delay. Add Jack Nicholson to the mix, as a man with little sense of tact and a whole lotta unpredictability, and boy is it a recipe for tension and potential violence. So in that sense, Jack is pitch-perfect casting. Scorsese deals with Catholicism in a lot of his films, so it’s interesting that he uses the Jack Nicholson character here to espouse some very negative views about Catholic priests (It’s hard to blame him, to be honest. I’m sure a lot of Catholics are dissatisfied with their Church on the child sex abuse issue).


I didn’t find Leonardo DiCaprio terribly convincing here on first viewing, he seemed a little too baby-faced. But I’ve softened somewhat on second viewing. He’s OK, I guess, but much better in the same year’s “Blood Diamond”. Much more effective is a perfectly cast Matt Damon, who plays the polar opposite of Leonardo DiCaprio here. It’s interesting to see these two guys from a psychological perspective, one a cop pretending to be a crook, the other a cop who really is a crook. But there’s no doubt that Damon is much more fun to watch. Both are attempting to keep up facades, but Damon’s the more fascinating one here because he’s juggling several balls in the air, trying to keep everything straight. He’s a hot-shot, charismatic cop on the take, and feeling the pressure from both sides. It’s interesting that Scorsese has given both DiCaprio and Damon father figures here, with Martin Sheen providing a much more stable and moral paternal figure for DiCaprio than Nicholson does for Damon, who has been under Nicholson’s wing for a very long time. There’s also fine support from Ray Winstone and Alec Baldwin here, among others. Winstone may not convince as a Bostonite, but he does convince as a man with whom not to fuck. He’s one helluva scary man. Baldwin is rock-solid as one of the cops, and his accent is a bit more believable than whatever he was trying for in “Outside Providence”. I thought Mark Wahlberg was a strange choice to be the only one in this film to receive an Oscar nomination. However, I can’t deny that this is one of his best and funniest performances ever. He makes for a very funny prick, and watching him and Damon go toe-to-toe with their duelling Boston-accented tough guy schtick, is one of the film’s highlights for sure.


One of the biggest talking points about the film is its ending. Ridiculous, audacious, kind of brilliant- it’s really something. It’s a shame that plot contrivances and the need for a female love interest get in the way here. Although I wish Scorsese wouldn’t do remakes, this is a solid and entertaining film that could’ve been even more if the screenplay were pared down a bit and smartened up. This film could’ve and should’ve been excellent (it’s a pretty weak Best Picture Oscar winner), that it still manages to be quite good is somewhat mindboggling, really.

Rating: B-

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Ten years after the events of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, the Simian virus has seen ape dominance become so strong that the few human survivors are forced to enter ape encampment in the woods to ask leader Caesar (a motion capture performance by Andy Serkis) for access to a hydroelectric dam within ape territory that will provide power for the relatively few surviving humans. Of these humans, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is the most peace-minded, along with his girlfriend (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Caesar, although deeply distrustful of humans, senses that Malcolm may be different from the rest, and reluctantly agrees to the request. After all, any kind of resistance might lead to conflict and the loss of life on both sides. However, a few bad eggs on both sides of the human-ape equation (including ape-hating militant Gary Oldman and Toby Kebbel’s treacherous militant ape Koba) threaten to put a dampener on this ceasefire situation.


I enjoyed the previous “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, but at no point did I buy into the CGI/motion capture deal at all. It was clearly all a computer creation, the eyes of the apes (as usual with CGI) the dead giveaway, and no amount of motion capture emoting from Andy Serkis was going to sell me that this was real and those creatures were genuinely occupying the same physical space as everything else on screen. The Tim Burton “Planet of the Apes” with actors in makeup was much more convincing (and even that film can’t quite measure up to the 1968 original overall), so I was a bit letdown with the result in “Rise”. And yet the film was still entertaining in spite of all that, as the story itself was interesting. Hell, I haven’t outright disliked any of the “Apes” films to date actually. Now comes the 2014 sequel directed by the previously dubious Matt Reeves (the terrible “Cloverfield”, the useless remake “Let Me In”, TV’s “Felicity”), and it’s pretty much as good as the previous film in every respect except the FX. And that’s a good thing. This time, I bought the CGI/motion capture/Andy Serkis performance in a pretty big way. I’m not sure how or why there’s such an obvious improvement in just a few short years, but it’s this aspect that ultimately has this being one of the rare few sequels to be (marginally) better than their predecessor. Yes, I still prefer Rick Baker’s brilliant makeup in the Burton film (the high-point in Baker’s overrated career), not to mention the still effective makeup in the 1968 film, but here the CGI apes seem weighty enough and their faces look less computerised than last time so that they pass well-enough for real. That baby ape in particular is the cutest thing I ever done seen, and looks so real that you’d swear that at the very least it was a puppet, not a computer image. That baby ape damn nearly steals the whole film, I tell you. The facial expressions here are a massive improvement, and watching the apes communicate with one another you’d have to think the inspiration was the way the deaf communicate via sign language. A stand-off early on between humans and apes is a testament to how convincing the CGI is because it proves an extremely tense moment. That wouldn’t be nearly the case if you spotted phony apes. I did wonder about apes standing upright on horseback, but you can’t deny it makes for a cool visual. Even with an amber filter, apes charging on horseback firing automatic rifles is a helluva sight, albeit a tad silly. Some really striking imagery, undoubtedly. Weta and FX supervisor Joe Letteri deserve credit, but I think part of the success here is to do with the darker palette on show here in the production design by James Chinlund and cinematography by Michael Seresin (“World War Zed”- Yes, Zed, “Pain & Gain”). The forest in which most of the film takes place is wonderfully dank without being murky or ugly except in one or two night scenes. The sets are terrific and will remind you a bit of the Burton film with just how well-designed and thought out they are.


Andy Serkis definitely deserves to be singled out this time, with the FX certainly doing their part, Serkis completes the whole through an amazing physical acting performance. Eyes are the pitfall of almost any CG creation, but because WETA get it right here, they combine with Serkis to create some astoundingly real facial expressions throughout. He’s every bit a character in this film that the humans are, and frankly, much more interesting. Some of them even seem further on the evolutionary scale than some of the humans to be honest, which is frankly hilarious. Some of the human-ape interaction here is actually pretty clever and interesting. The apes were the one element that failed in the previous film, but here they’re the best thing by far, at least as a group, though Caesar is one imposing, yet multi-dimensional mofo.


The humans aren’t nearly as interesting, and I’ll never be accused of being a Keri Russell fan (“Felicity” herself), but amazingly the film still manages to work. That’s how terrific the apes are in this. Well, as I said, as a group. Even the apes, fascinating as they are to watch, aren’t as fleshed out and distinct as individual characters as they could be (aside from Caesar of course). There’s something potentially fascinating with Caesar’s son (who gives an incredibly expressive performance, but isn’t in the film enough) falling under the spell of a more militant ape, but it’s underdeveloped. Oddly enough, the strongest human personality comes from essentially the human villain played by Gary Oldman. He’s not a good man, but he’s surprisingly more multi-dimensional than the more heroic Jason Clarke. Go figure. One of the film’s strongest assets is undoubtedly the excellent music score by Michael Giacchino (“Up”, “Super 8”, “Star Trek”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”), who is clearly incorporating some of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic, oddball score from the 1968 original. I know I haven’t seen every 2014 film at this point, but this music score will take a helluva lot to beat. Some will find the ape dialogue a tad corny, but those who do clearly haven’t seen the original cycle of “Apes” films and probably aren’t the right audience for this one, either. “Apes” fans take it as a given that the apes will have stilted caveman speech, and thankfully for the most part they communicate with one another in a manner that is subtitled for us non-knuckle draggers. So I’m not going to criticise screenwriters Mark Bomback (“Die Hard 4.0”, “Unstoppable”, “The Wolverine”), Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (scribes of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”) for that.


This is a strong film and superior to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, especially on the visual FX front. It’d be an even better film if the apes and the humans had more distinct personalities. Still, I enjoyed this more than I was expecting to and can’t wait for the next one. It’s a good yarn (a better version of the underrated “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”, really), pretty convincingly rendered on screen. Easily the best film of Reeves’ mediocre career to date, so let’s hope he keeps on this path in subsequent endeavours.


Rating: B-