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, July 25, 2015

Review: Homefront


Jason Statham stars as a former undercover DEA agent, who needs to relocate after a recent drug bust reveals his identity. Moved to his deceased wife’s hometown with his young daughter, things heat up early when said daughter fights back against a bully. Sure, the little prick deserved it, but daddy has taught daughter how to defend herself, and we ain’t talking about wedgies or a round of cyber-bullying. This earns him the ire of redneck hellcat Kate Bosworth (!) and her deadbeat husband, who are none too happy when the school and even sheriff Clancy Brown don’t want to do a whole lot about it. So drug-addicted Bosworth instead turns to her drug-dealing brother Gator (Oscar nominee James Franco!) to scare Statham outta town. And that’s when Franco (who has the sheriff on his payroll, by the way) and his trashy girlfriend Winona Ryder (!!) uncover Statham’s true identity, through a mutual acquaintance. That acquaintance would be biker/gangster Chuck Zito, the man Statham incarcerates at the beginning of the film. And that’s when shit starts getting real, as Zito blames Statham for the death of his son and is set on orchestrating some payback. Frank Grillo plays a hired thug underling of Zito, whom Ryder turns to when Statham’s true identity surfaces. Omar Benson Miller and Rachel LeFevre play the only genuinely friendly people in town, whilst Pruitt Taylor Vince has a cameo as a sleazy man who leaks Statham’s identity to Ryder.

 

Although the stunt casting isn’t always effective, this 2013 Jason Statham vehicle from eclectic director Gary Fleder (“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”, “Don’t Say A Word”, “Runaway Jury”, “Impostor”) is one of the star’s best and most entertaining efforts to date, albeit not by a huge margin. It’s actually scripted by the one and only Sylvester Stallone who gave it to his “Expendables” co-star Statham when age had gotten the better of the former “Rambo”. Apparently it was originally conceived as a “Rambo” entry (and by the way, Stallone is apparently doing another “Rambo” film soon anyway!), and one of the best things about the film is just how ‘old-school action movie’ it feels. It’s a bit lumpy in the casting department, but I’ve gotta say, this one’s a bit of 80s/90s action fun. Less a “Rambo” film, in terms of plot it reminds me of some of the films Steven Seagal came out with after his career crapped out in 1994. Think “Fire Down Below”, “The Patrior”, or even middling Van Damme flicks like “Nowhere to Run” or “Desert Heat” (Now that I think of it, Chuck Norris made this ‘new arrival cleans up corrupt redneck town’ kinda thing his trademark too, didn’t he?). But it’s better than those films in terms of quality. Or maybe I was just in a nostalgic mood. I mean, I grew up on 80s and 90s action movies.

 

It’s certainly a very pretty film to look at, with great scenery and nice lighting. It’s very, very pretty for an action film, so full credit to cinematographer Theo van de Sande (“Little Nicky”, “Blade”, “Grown Ups”) for that. It’s a more than watchable, refreshingly retro film. It’s nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before, sure, but it might be something you haven’t seen in a while. In fact, the only thing about it that really isn’t retro (aside from some of the cast) is the brevity of the action scenes. Statham and Frank Grillo having an MMA fight in a redneck swamp is amusing stuff, but too brief. The camerawork is a little too indicative of modern action films in these scenes, but Statham sure does impress as one helluva brutal fucker nonetheless. In fact, despite whatever accent he’s making a half-arsed non-attempt at once again, he’s quite good here, and better company than he was in “Blitz” and “Safe”. He’s certainly believable as a man with a violent past and violent impulses that he tries his best to suppress to provide a stable life for his daughter.

 

The one who probably impressed me most here, though, was surprisingly Kate Bosworth. It might take you a while to recognise her here, she’s gone full-on ‘white trash mother in denial about her dickhead bully son’. I mean, this is Taryn Manning/Bijou Phillips territory, not something you’d think the chick from “Blue Crush” would be up for. It’s not quite Charlize Theron in “Monster”, but nonetheless, the usually lightweight Bosworth is startling, her best-ever performance as this nasty, bitter hellcat of a woman. James Franco, however, is a mixed bag here as the chief heavy. He immediately commands attention as a violent guy named Gator Bodine. Yeah, gotta have a guy named Gator in something like this. Is he subtle? Hell no, but his lively performance is nonetheless pretty good. I just didn’t buy him as a believable threat to Jason Statham specifically. It felt like there needed to be a Vinnie Jones or even Sylvester Stallone himself to provide the muscle and physical intimidation towards Statham (Josh Brolin, Kiefer Sutherland, or even Josh Holloway are other names I can think of who would’ve been amazing). I think underrated action star Scott Adkins would’ve been absolutely ideal. So while there’s nothing wrong with Franco’s performance- he’s a talented guy when it’s his wont- he’s just not the right fit here, when so many others would’ve been. And then we come to Winona Ryder. Yes, Winona Ryder and James Franco are in a Jason Statham movie scripted by Rocky Balboa. Ryder plays the white trash love interest of Franco here, despite being visibly much older than him. 7 years older, in fact, which may not sound like a lot, but as good as Ms. Ryder looks for her age (or any age), the difference is clear and distracting. Natasha Lyonne or Tara Reid would’ve been much more effective and believable casting, and surely not terribly expensive either. More than that, I just didn’t understand why she was cast in this role and why she agreed to such a role. It’s really sad how things have panned out for her, and if you thought it was harsh that she was playing the ‘old’ ballerina in “Black Swan”, here she’s in a film from Millennium films (the new Golan/Globus), scripted by Sly Stallone, and getting rear-ended by James Franco. Her performance here is terrible, and her role is depressingly demeaning. She and Franco really are the only problems I have with this film, and she’s much more of a problem than he is.

 

This is an enjoyably retro action film, the only thing missing is that if this were a Van Damme film from the 90s, he’d screw the school teacher for sure at some point. Maybe screenwriter Stallone feels icky about writing sex scenes for anyone other than himself, I dunno. If you like 80s/90s action and can get around some of the casting mistakes, this one’s a pretty decent Jason Statham film and Kate Bosworth makes you really do a double-take here. Warts and all I kinda liked it, though this is a very mild recommendation certainly. Typically good Mark Isham (“The Hitcher”, “Point Break”, “The Cooler”) score is a nice addition.

 

Rating: B-

Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!


After saving L.A. and New York in previous adventures, Fin (Ian Ziering) is back to save Florida and Washington from shark-infested tornadoes. After saving the American President (Mark Cuban!) from almost certain sharknado-y death, Fin attempts to get to Universal Studios Orlando to meet up with his pregnant wife (Tara Reid) and her overprotective mother (Bo Derek!). Fin’s daughter (Ryan Newman) is also at another part of the park. On the way he runs into old friend Nova (Cassie Cserbo, from the first “Sharknado”) and her nerdy storm-chaser friend (played by a wired-looking Frankie Muniz!). Things progressively get worse as sharknadoes hit all over the east coast of the U.S., even causing havoc during a certain big sporting event. It appears that things are destined to culminate in- wait for it- a sharkicane!- And the solution to saving the day involves Fin calling upon the expertise and hardware of former NASA bigwig and estranged father Gil (The Hoff!!- And yes, that second exclamation point is earned!). It’s Sharknadoes in space, baby! Mark McGrath is back as Martin Brody, Conservative attention-seeker Ann Coulter plays the VP (!), Kim Richards (from bad publicity and rehab) plays a Universal employee, WWE’s Chris Jericho plays another Universal employee, Robert Klein plays the NY mayor (!), Michael Winslow (!) is still alive and working for NASA, Penn and Teller (!) play a couple of Gil’s ex-NASA buddies, Ne-Yo, Christopher Judge (with hair!) and Lou Ferrigno (!) are Secret Service agents, and we also get a slew of cameos by people playing themselves (Hoda, Kathie Lee, Matt Lauer, Al Roker- again, Michelle Bachman, Jackie Collins) or not (Harvey Levin, Lorenzo Lamas, George R.R. Martin, Anthony Weiner, Kendra Wilkinson, Holly Madison, Ray J, Cindy Margolis, former WWE Diva Maryse Oullet Mizanin, former “Mythbusters” guy Grant Imahara, Maria Menounos, among others).

 

Although I think it’s kind of missing the point, this is clearly the best “Sharknado” film so far. It’s bizarre that none of the films (nor any SyFy film for that matter) seem to be made by anyone who actually understands what a so-bad-it’s-funny film is, but I can’t deny that this is clearly the most interesting and entertaining film in the series thus far. Yes, the CGI FX are still appalling in a way that isn’t as fun as bad ‘practical’ FX can provide, but I actually kind of enjoyed this one. I think the thing with these films is that they’re not movies at all. Not good movies, not bad movies, not cheesy movies, not ‘so bad it’s funny’ or ‘so bad it’s good’ (A label that makes no sense to me). Nope. What they are is pop culture events, meant to generate ratings and post-“Sharknado” social media buzz. You watch them because you want to be a part of what everyone’s talking about. Director Anthony C. Ferrante and writer Thunder Levin (the people behind all three) don’t really care if they’ve made good, bad, cheesy, or indifferent films. That’s just not what these films are about. Personally, I think that’s the wrong approach to take. These films could be bad movie ‘classics’, but SyFy have no idea what a ‘So bad it’s funny’ film really is, and so what you end up with are three films that aren’t as fun as they should be.

 

However, like I said, this one’s by far the best and most enjoyable. The plot is insane, but rather engaging in its own dopey way. The opening James Bond gun barrel sequence-inspired title design is truly genius stuff. It’s also a quick starter, which is for the best, really. Best of all, unlike the second film where the cameos came so thick and fast and poorly done that I missed Wil Wheaton so I had to re-watch the damn thing, several of the cast members actually stand out this time and not always for bad reasons. Series star Ian Ziering still refuses to play to his strengths as an actor by eschewing all Steve Sanders-like qualities to play stoic hero here. I get that you don’t want to condescend to the material, but his performance is actually rather bland. Hamming it up actually would’ve been the better option. However, he and the typically abysmal Tara Reid are really the only dud notes here. Cassie Cserbo still has that constant bitchy look on her face, but not only does she display one helluva sexy body in a swimsuit at one point (she’s a 10, sorry Bo Derek!), but her performance is genuinely decent. I like that her character has turned into a “Mad Max”-esque bad arse here. It’s an enjoyable performance in a film that really shouldn’t have good performances, but at least she’s fun. Even more fun are the perfectly cast Frankie Muniz and more briefly Mark Cuban. Cuban is clearly having a whale of a time here, and casting Conservative pundit Ann Coulter as his VP was an inspired choice. We all want to see Coulter eaten by a shark, yes even people on her own side of the political fence. You also get to see her surf down a water-filled flight of stairs on a portrait of George Washington! Seriously, I can stop watching movies now. I’ve seen it all. Bo Derek is also cute casting, and Robert Klein is such priceless casting you wish he were in more of the film. Meanwhile, given the amount of “Celebrity Apprentice” alum who appear in these things (this time it’s Lou Ferrigno, Ziering, Penn Gillette, Mark McGrath, and Lorenzo Lamas) I hope they get Donald Trump himself for the next one, given he clearly won’t be President anytime soon. It has to happen! The Hoff is here, as inevitable a piece of casting as possible. He looks like hell, and seems as though he feels above the material. This is the guy who made “Baywatch Nights” and was filmed in a drunken stupor by his kids. Lighten up, Hoff-meister! You were born for “Sharknado 3”. His casting still works, though, because he’s such a ridiculous human being and only half realises it.

 

Not all of the celebrity goings on comes off here. I think Chris Jericho is on screen for way too long for someone who offers up so little entertainment. Jericho’s been one of the stalwarts in WWE for a long time and is usually great value, but he honestly gets nothing interesting or funny to say or do here, through no fault of his actual performance. Also, seeing Jerry Springer get eaten is about as relevant as…whatever that show Springer does now for the WWE Network. Also, Jedward? Do Americans even know who Jedward are? I wish I didn’t know who they are. Anyway, they have cameos too and have a song on the soundtrack.

 

The special FX are slightly improved from the previous films, as the destruction is fun to watch. The CGI sharks, however, still look really, really bad and not in a fun Edward D. Wood Jr. kind of way. The finale is really something to see. It involves sharks in space, disgraced politician Anthony Weiner as a NASA director (LOTS of phallic imagery), Tara Reid seemingly playing the role of a ventriloquist and the dummy (Her dialogue seems to come from somewhere else, i.e. Post production), and a purple laser chainsaw. Yes, a chainsaw that is also a laser, and it’s freaking purple. It’s capped off by the most insane birth scene ever that makes NO SENSE at ALL. Was she even that close to having the baby? It was brilliant, at any rate. A thousand eternities in hell for whoever decided to give us super sped-up end credits where you can’t read a damn thing.

 

 

The best film in the series thus far, yet also the biggest failure if they’re trying to make a bad film. This one’s actually average, not bad at all. Best see it as a cultural event, not a film per se. It’s highly watchable, and several of the guest stars are genuinely amusing, as is the plot. Shame about the FX, though.

 

Rating: C

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review: Nebraska


Bruce Dern is a taciturn, hard-drinking old coot who thinks he’s just won a million dollars but doesn’t see the fine print on the Sweepstakes notice. He’s headed to Lincoln, Nebraska from Montana to get his million dollars goddamn it. His well-meaning, long-suffering son (Will Forte) tries to convince dad that it’s all a scam, but the stubborn, ornery man will have none of it. So he decides the best thing he can do is drive his father (who has never been much good to him) to the company HQ so that he doesn’t wander off aimlessly on his own. Thus begins the most awkward and uncommunicative road trip of the year. Along the way they stop off at dad’s former neighbourhood, where everyone in the small-town quickly hears of his ‘winnings’ and tries to take their piece from the gullible old man. Meanwhile, Forte begins to learn about his old man and just what made him the way he is. June Squibb plays Dern’s outspoken wife, a sharp-tongued opposite to the rather anti-social Dern, and also far more observant. Rance Howard plays Dern’s older brother, Bob Odenkirk is Forte’s older brother, and Stacy Keach is the small-town jerk who thinks Dern still owes him money from a long time ago and plans on collecting now that Dern is supposedly rich.

 

I found the previous Alexander Payne film “The Descendants” incredibly overrated and extremely disappointing. It was real sitcom/TV drama stuff unworthy of the praise and accolades it earned. Payne (whose “About Schmidt” was terrific, and both “Sideways” and “Election” were solid) gets back in my good graces with this 2013 flick, scripted by Bob Nelson (whose only real prior credit of note was 4 episodes of a late 90s sitcom with Magic Johnson and Tyra Banks!). It’s not quite on the level of “About Schmidt”, but not far behind. It’s beautifully made and acted, and clearly one of the ten best films of a pretty darn good year. Like the characters played by Oscar nominees Bruce Dern (in his best performance since his previous Oscar nom in 1978’s “Coming Home”) and June Squibb (as a very different wife from the one in “About Schmidt”), it’s ornery, taciturn, hilarious, and kinda beautiful.

 

I’m not real keen on the plot being anchored on a million dollar sweepstakes deal, which sounds silly and old hat. However, there’s a whole lot more substance to this than was in “The Decendants”, and a few less clichés in the plot too. The ornery bunch of small-town characters are also really terrific, in a sour kinda way. The mixture of old-school ‘A Paramount Release’ logo (from the 50s and 60s) and Midwestern setting lensed in beautiful B&W by Phedon Papamichael (“Identity” and the bright spot of “The Descendants”) might trick you into thinking you’re watching a 70s Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show” will spring to mind, most likely) or Robert Altman movie, until you see that Bruce Dern sure as shit does look old and a whole lot heftier than he did in the 70s. It might at first seem odd to shoot the Midwest countryside in B&W, but it’s a taciturn film about taciturn people, so colour would be pretty inappropriate I think. This one’s grey & grey, really, and that suits the film perfectly. The harshness of everyone and everything here has its own kind of beauty.

 

Bruce Dern is his usual Dern self here (I’m one of the few who loved Jim Carrey’s dead-on impersonation at the Oscars, by the way), perfectly ornery and from interviews I’ve read of his over the years, I’m not even sure he’s acting. Matthew McConaughey probably deserved his Oscar, but Dern’s in great form here, so it’s a shame it had to be released the same year as “Dallas Buyers Club”. It’s one of his best roles and most artistically-minded films ever. The wonderful thing about Dern is that everything he says comes across as annoyed and serious…even when he’s actually joking. If you ask me, a film with someone stuck in a car with Bruce Dern on a long trip has endless comedic possibilities. His reaction to seeing Mt. Rushmore is priceless, and if I’m being honest, close to my own views on sight-seeing in general. OK, we’ve seen it…moving on. 40 years from now, if I make it that far, I’m gonna be this guy, I think.

 

June Squibb is excellent as Dern’s very blunt wife, a real salt of the earth woman if ever there was one. Unlike “About Schmidt” she actually gets to stick around in this one and makes every moment count. She’s almost cuddly in that grandmotherly way…until she starts berating Dern or lifting her dress at one very choice moment that may on its own have earned her an Oscar nomination. She comes very, very close to stealing the film from Dern. There’s solid support from comedians Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, as well as smaller gems from Stacy Keach (who, like Dern has packed on the pounds, but unlike Dern was never that thin to begin with) and Rance Howard. Forte is a completely useless comedian (one of the all-time worst “SNL” comedians) but proves low-key drama might be a better fit for him, and the long-faced actor plays off very well against the crotchety Dern. Odenkirk is pretty good as the slightly more successful brother, too. Stacy Keach, meanwhile, is always good value as an old acquaintance of Dern’s with a score to settle. He gets one of the funniest moments in the film, immediately hilarious singing ‘In the Ghetto’ at karaoke, really, really badly. Rance Howard, Ron’s dad, has one of his best parts as Dern’s brother, who is just as incommunicative, but not quite as grouchy.

 

If you love Bruce Dern, this movie’s for you. It’s a prickly sonofabitch about a prickly sonofabitch. Quite unsentimental, occasionally hilarious, and extremely well-acted and well-shot. If you can get past the sweepstakes nonsense, this one’s a real winner with genuine character. It seems to be about real people, albeit people seemingly stuck in an earlier time perhaps (Indeed, some of the cast are non-professionals from the Midwest).

 

Rating: B

Review: A Bridge Too Far


WWII story about the Allies attempting to wrap up the war quickly by landing paratroopers in Holland to capture several bridges leading to Germany, and supposedly being easy pickings from there. For several reasons shown over the next nearly three hours, this plan didn’t work out quite so smoothly. Dirk Bogarde plays Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning, heading the operation, Sean Connery plays the British General leading the paratroopers (despite his hatred of flying!), Sir Anthony Hopkins is the Lt. Col. leading paratroopers at the bridge in the town of Arnhem, and Gene Hackman plays a frequently disgruntled Polish Maj. General also taking part in the mission. In smaller roles we have Sir Michael Caine (as a smart-arse Brit Lt. Colonel), Edward Fox (in a colourful turn as a British Lt. General), Elliott Gould (who shouts a lot as an American Colonel), James Caan (as a tough bastard American Sergeant), Denholm Elliott (as an RAF officer, he served in the RAF in real-life too), Jeremy Kemp (basically in the kind of top brass role Harry Andrews and Trevor Howard often played), Robert Redford (as a cool-headed American Major), Ryan O’Neal (as an American Brig. General!), Arthur Hill (as the medical officer who has a tense encounter with Caan), Lord Laurence Olivier & Liv Ullman (as a doctor and volunteer running a hospital of-sorts), and that’s Alun Armstrong as a Scottish soldier holding a chicken. Seriously, the guy hasn’t aged a bit. He’s always been middle-aged! Representing the Germans are Maximilian Schell and Hardy Kruger as a Lt. General and Maj. General, respectively.

 

Director Sir Richard Attenborough (whose “Gandhi” was incredible) and screenwriter William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “All the President’s Men”, “Harper”, “Misery”) strike out with this horribly choppy, underdone yet bloated all-star WWII effort. All those stars, pretty much all of them gone to waste in a film that can’t find the time to settle on any of them long enough for the audience to latch onto any of them, really. There’s so many characters that even a film that runs nearly three hours long finds itself constantly cutting from one to the next to the next, and it results in frankly no one really caring about anyone or anything because few have time to stand out. It gets genuinely annoying after a while, especially when Attenborough is still introducing stars/characters after 110 minutes like the characters played by Lord Laurence Olivier and Liv Ullman (Olivier gives one of his subtler latter-day performances despite yet again fiddling about with an accent. Why did he do that so often late in his career? He was never any good at it!).

 

Sean Connery probably registers closest to being an actual character, and his rugged charisma also manages to shine through. His scenes are the only ones that have any sense of urgency, tension or danger about them. Edward Fox, Dirk Bogarde, and more briefly Arthur Hill and Jeremy Kemp also bring their working boots, no matter how much screen time they get (James Caan is the only other American than Hill to really try his best here and is quite decent). Fox and Kemp bring a real old-school British war movie vibe to their performances that I enjoyed, and Bogarde probably towers over all, even though his character seems less important in the second half. But the majority are forgettable (Hardy Kruger and Maximilian Schell needn’t have bothered given how tiny their roles are, which pisses me off as both are terrific talents), whilst some are even worse. These being Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Sir Michael Caine, Elliott Gould, and especially an embarrassing Gene Hackman in one of his least convincing performances ever. O’Neal is simply miscast and out of his depth in a role calling for gravitas and authority, whilst Redford, Caine, and Gould never for a second seem anything other than stunt casting and in Gould’s case, probably a ‘guest star’ role. Caine and Redford can barely contain their ‘doing this for money’ motives here. As for Gene Hackman, accents are absolutely, positively not his thing. Cast as a Polish general, he looks embarrassed and given how comically awful his accent is (just wait ‘til you hear how he pronounces ‘Germans’!), I don’t blame him. In a role that should’ve gone to Charles Bronson, Hackman’s impossible to take seriously, a rare miss from a usually terrific actor (He seems to save bad performances for William Goldman scripts, as he was later terrible in “Absolute Power”, that had a terrible script too). You really know Hackman has done something terrible when you have a scene with Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, and Ryan O’Neal, and the only thing you’re noticing is Hackman’s shit accent. It probably pips James Coburn’s Australian accent in “The Great Escape” in the annals of bad movie accents (Coburn at least hit the mark every now and then…sort of). It’s obvious what the problem is here, and the solution would’ve been to have just focussed on one of the several missions the film presents here.

 

The film looks good, and perhaps the best asset overall is the music score by John Addison (“The Entertainer”, “Torn Curtain”), which is excellent. It’s a shame that the film is somewhat dramatically inert, because the action/war scenes are really well-done. It has one of the best parachuting scenes you’ll ever see, and some of the action here is among the best in cinematic history in terms of staging and attractive cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth (“Hell Drivers”, “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Cabaret”, “Superman”). You’ve seen other war films where the action takes place in the streets I’m sure, but it’s especially well-done here. It must’ve been frightening to be a civilian at the time. It certainly contains the best war footage of any film up to its time. So the film certainly isn’t a dud, just a disappointment. You want to like it, but it’s just not good enough to warrant that. Needing to be shorn of about half of its stars/characters, this is just a game of ‘spot the star’.

 

Choppy, bloated, and ineffective. The action is terrific, but not enough. I bet it’s Terrence Malick’s favourite war film, his “The Thin Red Line” suffered similar problems, though at least in this one you can actually spot all of the stars and it’s not a pretentious dick of a film like Malick’s film was. I’ll give Attenborough that one. A pretty major miscalculation from talented people who should’ve known better. It’s a little better than “The Battle of Britain” and “Midway”, but not much. There’s a good 110 minute war movie in here, but instead it has been stretched to almost 180 for no benefit. 

 

Rating: C+

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review: My Reputation


Barbara Stanwyck (Best actress to never win an Oscar?) is raising two precocious boys on her own after the recent death of her husband. In walks army man George Brent into her life, and soon they are seeing each other while the boys are away at boarding school. This is apparently scandalous, even to Stanwyck’s status-obsessed mother (Lucile Watson) because apparently widows are meant to become dried up old prunes who are never allowed to be with anyone else, let alone so soon after her husband’s death. The heart wants what it wants, even if Stanwyck’s reputation suffers as a result. Jerome Cowan plays a sleaze who wants to be more than just friends with Stanwyck, while Eve Arden is her supportive best friend.

 

The strength and ability of Barbara Stanwyck as an actress successfully navigates this 1946 drama from director Curtis Bernhardt (“Sirocco”, “Beau Brummel”) through some murky waters. To be honest, it has aged a bit, and it has two obstacles in its way. The first is a giant block of wood in leading man George Brent, he’s pretty mediocre. The other is a plot that sees something scandalous in a widow moving on with her life rather quickly. It results in one rather oddball scene where Stanwyck has to tearfully justify her actions to her own kids. The kids are awfully unbelievable, acting ten years older than they are and frankly it’s none of their goddamn business. The scene would be truly demeaning if not for the fact that Stanwyck plays it so well. So I was at least able to appreciate the film for the time in which it was made. I’ll give it some leeway there, then especially given the film doesn’t appear to hold the view that Ms. Stanwyck need be single and miserable for the rest of her life. It’s lumpy and bumpy, but thankfully the film ultimately sides with her character. The obstacle of Mr. Brent, however, is a little harder to get around. He just won’t do, and no justification for his mediocrity.

 

Thank God for Barbara Stanwyck, surely the most underrated actress of her era (and possibly the most versatile). She’s absolutely pitch-perfect here and makes the whole film worthwhile, even if the material has dated. She was never the star of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford status, but I reckon you could argue that she was a better, more naturalistic actress than those two (though Davis sure is hard to beat). I like Stanwyck in some of her more villainous roles, but I liked seeing her in something more sympathetic like this. She was never the virginal-type, and her strength and steeliness as an actress help keep her character in this (and the film itself) from turning into a hopeless weepie. She may not get much support from Mr. Brent (whose character comes across as a condescending dick in 2015), but is well backed-up by a perfectly horrible Lucile Watson, wonderfully sleazy Jerome Cowan, and well-meaning Eve Arden.

 

It’s a solid, if somewhat lumpy film that would be far lesser without the talented Stanwyck keeping it afloat. It’s definitely worthwhile for Stanwyck fans. Based on a Clare Jaynes, novel, the screenplay is by Catherine Turney (“No Man of Her Own”, also with Stanwyck).

 

Rating: B-

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Last Vegas


Four lifelong friends get together for the Vegas wedding of Billy (Michael Douglas), to his considerably younger bride-to-be (or at least, they’re around for the bachelor party). Morgan Freeman is Archie, who uses the opportunity to escape his domestic life being babied by his well-meaning family after recent health issues. Mild-mannered retiree Sam (Kevin Kline), meanwhile, is afforded the opportunity by his wife (Joanna Gleason, nice to see her on screen again) to have a ‘hall pass’ for the weekend, to maybe help revive their recently unexciting marriage. And then there’s cranky widow Paddy (Robert De Niro), who practically has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the event, due to some past bad blood between he and Billy, that has never been properly resolved. Mary Steenburgen plays a third-rate Vegas singer who inevitably causes yet another problem between Paddy and Billy. Jerry Ferrara plays a young schmuck who antagonises the guys, Roger Bart plays a drag queen, and Romany Malco plays the hotel employee looking after the guys, but would much rather be looking after 50 Cent, rumoured to be partying at the hotel.

 

This 2013 all-star bit of fluff from director Jon Turtletaub (“Cool Runnings”, “National Treasure”) and screenwriter Dan Fogelman (“Cars”, AKA “Doc Hollywood: The Animated Movie”) is nothing special, but far from the worst film of this type. It’s more “Grumpy Old Men” or “Space Cowboys” than “The Hangover” for geriatrics that you might be expecting, but being that I strongly dislike “The Hangover” series, I was fine with that.

 

I was considerably less fine with the not-so age appropriate casting. Kevin Kline was 66 years-old at the time here, but had I not looked that up I would’ve assumed he was in his late 50s. He just doesn’t seem old enough to hang out with the rest of these guys, even though he’s only a few years younger than Michael Douglas. Dude has got good genes, it has to be said, not to mention an innate brightness and vitality that suggests someone younger. Someone on set seems to have realised Kline doesn’t look his age, and they’ve given him grey/white hair to make him look older. Yeah…nice try, but no. He’s still about ten years younger than Morgan Freeman, and more importantly, looks it. These four guys, great stars and all, just don’t look the same age, and based on the prologue, they really ought to be cast closer together in age (Then again this is a film that has them starting out at what looks like age 11 at the youngest and cutting to ‘58 years later’. Do the math, even Douglas would be pushing it to be that old, let alone Kline!). It’s actually quite distracting, though I have the benefit of knowing how old Freeman and Robert De Niro are (Had to look up the other two, admittedly). Others may be less distracted, though I still think someone who looks and is more age appropriate would’ve been better (Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, etc.) As for the performances themselves, well they’re a mixed bag. Freeman is by far the most impressive, he glides through this like he’s having the time of his life and easily walks off with the entire thing. He’s a lot of fun to watch. Kline, despite looking too young, is as affable as ever, and given the somewhat sleazy mission his character is on, it’s a smart thing to cast a guy who is difficult to hate. I mean, this is the guy who played two of the biggest jerks in the history of comedic cinema in “A Fish Called Wanda” and “I Love You to Death”, and yet…you couldn’t help finding him somewhat charming at the same time. Only Kevin Kline could get away with something like that, let alone the line he has here after turning down sex with a hot younger woman. I won’t spoil it, but it’s funny (Best line goes to Freeman, though, and I will spoil it: (In reference to Douglas’ bride-to-be) ‘Billy, I have a haemorrhoid that’s almost 32!’). He has a good bit here where they are all trying to be intimidating mob guys, and Kline is comically unconvincing.

 

After Freeman and Kline, the next best performer is rather surprisingly Mary Steenburgen. I’ve never been the biggest fan of hers, and I initially thought her too sweet, demure, and Southern-sounding to convince as a Vegas singer, but…damn it, her winning personality more than makes up for whatever initial misgivings one might have about her. I would’ve cast someone closer to a Sheree North or Ann-Margaret type (not sure who that would be, though. Melanie Griffith, probably, but she’s a much lesser actress. Susan Sarandon or Jennifer Coolidge, perhaps?), but she’ll do. Michael Douglas is absolutely perfectly cast as the guy getting married to someone half his age (at least), but he actually doesn’t have that much screen time, which is a shame. He’s a helluva lot better company than Robert De Niro, however. Playing the sourpuss of the quartet, he gets nothing amusing to do or say and gives yet another of his all-too frequent pay check-cashing performances. He brings up the rear, here I’m afraid, and after good work in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”, it’s really disappointing, though this is much lighter material I guess. Both his character and performance are boring, though I’m guessing his ability to pull in a favour with 50 Cent (whom he appeared with in the terrible cop flick “Freelancers”) helped the director quite a bit. Quite an amusing use of Jerry Ferrara as a young jerk who isn’t as tough as he thinks, but if Romany Malco is under the impression that he’s hilarious here, he’s alone in that belief. It’s an old joke, but Roger Bart’s first appearance works here because he’s quite simply the ugliest drag queen in cinematic history (And I’ve seen Divine and Terence Stamp).

 

One benefit of hiring these specific four main stars is that they each have very different personalities and bring very different baggage with them. Unfortunately, none of them brought along a good script. This is neither the best nor worst of its type, but it’s nice and sometimes nice is almost enough. Is it a good movie? Nope, but these are great stars having fun. That carries this film further than some films with less interesting stars at least. You’d have to be a curmudgeon to actively hate this one, but it certainly should’ve been better.

 

Rating: C+

Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: The Fourth Wish


John Meillon stars as a hard-working and loving single dad who has looked after his son (Robert Bettles) after his wife (Robyn Nevin) walked out on them years ago. Bettles has leukaemia and is given only several months to live. Not wanting to dwell on the negative for his son’s sake, Meillon decides to keep positive by promising to grant Bettles three wishes. One of these wishes involves getting a dog, which proves a hassle for Meillon and his landlord, whilst the other wishes you’ll need to find out for yourself. Michael Craig, Anne Haddy, and Norman Yemm all play doctors, whilst Brian James turns up as a lawyer Meillon turns to for help with the situation with his landlord.

 

Although it’s a tear-jerker if ever I’ve seen one, this 1976 Don Chaffey (Disney’s uneven “Pete’s Dragon”) film for most of its length is surprisingly not too sad or depressing. This is mostly because the character wonderfully played by an AFI award-winning John Meillon is putting on a brave face for his terminally ill son, and tries to keep things as positive as possible. The sadness is going to come, of course, but I was struck by how long it took to get there. That’s not a criticism, by the way, but an observation. I wouldn’t exactly say this was a sickly sweet “Patch Adams” deal, but it’s certainly not 100 minutes of torturous sorrow and sadness. Scripted by co-star Michael Craig (the long-time “G.P.” actor playing a doctor in the film) it’s really a family movie, if anything and quite solid stuff.

 

Apparently there was an earlier TV version of this story, but I came to it fresh (and some 40 or so years after the fact) and try as I might, Meillon at least had me on the verge of tears by the end here. It might just be the finest performance he ever gave, much as I loved him in “Crocodile Dundee”. He’s truly excellent and heartfelt as a dad who one senses wasn’t necessarily cut out to be a dad, but circumstances forced him to become responsible for the both of them. And then when you see the wife/mother who left them (a quite startling Robyn Nevin as a not very maternal or well-adjusted person at all), well you’re just thankful that he indeed ended up being the responsible parent. He dearly loves his son and he’s gonna do his damndest to see that whatever time the boy has left on this Earth involves all of his wishes coming true. It’d be a bit more believable (i.e. less manipulative) if Meillon were more upfront with people about his situation. You’ll be screaming at the TV at times for him to just tell ‘em the kid’s dying for crying out loud, when obstacles stand in his way.

 

What a lovely, if ultimately sad story, it’s like “Kramer vs. Kramer” mixed with “Terms of Endearment”, and starring an ocker Aussie. I’m not the biggest fan of children at the best of times to be honest, but if there’s one thing I’ll never understand about this world, it’s that children need to suffer, get sick, and/or die. I’ll never get my head around it, it’s just wrong. You’d have to be made of stone not to be at least slightly affected by this one. Yes it’s clichéd and not especially original, but it’s (crucially) played with sincerity, persuasiveness, and as upbeat as humanly possible under the circumstances. It works, holding up relatively well after all these years too.

 

Familiar faces from Aussie TV are all over the place here (Craig from “G.P.”, Brian James from “Prisoner”, Anne Haddy from “Prisoner” and of course “Neighbours”, and the only recently passed Norman Yemm from just about every Aussie TV show in history) and add a bit of prestige to this simple but effective film. It’s no “Mask”, but it’ll do.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Last Man Standing


Bruce Willis is John Smith, a grim-faced stranger of few words who drifts into the tiny, dusty Texas town of Jericho during the Prohibition era. He just wants to lay low, but finds himself stuck in a turf war between Italian-American (Ned Eisenberg & Michael Imperioli) and Irish-American (David Patrick Kelly, R.D. Call, and Patrick Kilpatrick) gangsters who each want him to help wipe out the other gang. After realising that the local sheriff (Bruce Dern) is on the take and doesn’t give a crap who does what to whom, Smith decides to play both gangs against each other and make a pretty penny for himself. Endless gunfire ensues. Christopher Walken plays Kelly’s scarred, gun-happy henchman named Hickey. Karina Lombard plays the woman Kelly is crazy about, whilst Leslie Mann is a hooker, Alexandra Powers is a hooker connected to Eisenberg, William Sanderson is the local bartender, and Ken Jenkins is a US Marshal.

 

Writer-director Walter Hill (“48HRS”, “Streets of Fire”, “Crossroads”) swings and wildly misses with this dreary, monotonous 1996 re-tread of “Yojimbo” (or if you prefer, “A Fistful of Dollars”). It’s basically 100 minutes of shooting, and Bruce Willis’ attempt at a hard-boiled narration is as miserable and monotonous as his performance as a whole because the narration leaves him with nothing to really act out and Willis doesn’t even try. Why give us narration that gives us insight in the character? That’s what acting is for! He’d fare much better a decade later with “Sin City”, whereas here the narration is badly written and phony. Speaking of monotonous, the cinematography by Lloyd Ahern (Hill’s “Trespass” and “Geronimo: An American Legend”) is brown, dusty, and boring.

 

David Patrick Kelly is OK, but unable to hold up the villainous end of things on his own. Ned Eisenberg and Michael Imperioli are rather unthreatening and clichéd, with even Willis’ character admitting that these guys are a long way from the ‘real thing’. OK, so why should I care? Christopher Walken is a giant disappointment in the kind of much-hyped psycho role you think he’d effortlessly nail. Unfortunately, for some reason he has chosen to adopt a monotonous, sub-Eastwood rasp that robs him of everything that makes him Christopher Walken, and therefore everything that makes him interesting. Everyone talks his character up throughout the film, and it’s just Christopher Walken with a sore throat. It’s a flat, lethargic performance from a usually dynamic, quirky actor. None of the women on show here, meanwhile, make any impression whatsoever, with Leslie Mann basically playing a skinny Jennifer Tilly (Hey, I could’ve called her a skinny whore, I thought I’d be nice).

 

Bruce Dern is the one bright spot in the cast, giving a nice, irritable performance as the only interesting character in the film. Sure, character actor William Sanderson is fine as the bartender, but what can you really do in that clichéd role? More so than any previous version of this story, there’s really very little story here. The shots start firing around the 11 minute mark, and they barely take a breather throughout. Willis fires two guns, of course, being that this is an action film from the mid-90s, when everyone was a lousy shot. The one truly commendable asset is the kick-arse Ry Cooder (“Streets of Fire”, “The Long Riders”) score, and it is truly kick-arse.

 

Aside from the stretch that prohibition-era Italian mobsters and Irish mobsters would both be occupying the same dead-beat wild west town, I have no problems with blending a western with prohibition-era stuff. The problem is that Hill has botched it. It’s drearily one-note, unconvincing, and completely unengaging. Willis gives a bored, wannabe Eastwood performance here, and has mostly been giving this same tedious performance ever since. No fun at all.

 

Rating: D

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: Mulan (1998)


With the Huns invading China, the Emperor (voiced by Pat Morita!) calls for one male in each family to join China’s army to help fight the Huns (who are led by Shan-Yu, voiced by that great Asian actor…Miguel Ferrer). When her aging father (voiced by Soon-Tek Oh) is called, daughter Mulan (voiced by Ming Na) dresses like and impersonates a man and joins the army to spare her father. Once told by a matchmaker that she will never bring honour to her family, Mulan attempts to do just that. Eddie Murphy provides the voice of Mulan’s tiny dragon companion Mushu, and James Hong is the voice of Chi Fu, a scheming viceroy to Mulan’s brave, stoic army captain Shang (voiced by B.D. Wong).

 

1998 Disney animated film is superior to the terrible “Pocahontas”, but in addition to a female protagonist, the film shares the earlier film’s ill-fit of Disney animated family fun and serious historical story (or in this case, based on Chinese legend). Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, there’s some things to like here, but I’d still favour seeing the live-action “Hua Mulan”. At least that film doesn’t have a talking dragon sidekick voiced by Eddie Murphy.

 

First things first, the angular animation suits this film’s Asian flavour much better than it served “Pocahontas” or “Hercules”. It’s a good-looking and very pretty film, no doubt about it. Mulan herself isn’t all that attractive to be honest, but I kinda like that she looks ‘normal’ and not too Disney-ised (or Americanised, perhaps). The film also has an excellent, Academy Award nominated music score by the one and only Jerry Goldsmith (“A Patch of Blue”, “Planet of the Apes”, “The Omen”). The film’s big song, ‘Reflection’ is also one of the best Disney songs as far as I’m concerned, even if I loathe everything else Xtina Aguilera has ever done. On an irrelevant trivia note, most of the songs were co-written by Matthew Wilder, who you may remember from his 80s one-hit wonder ‘Break My Stride’. Awesome song that one (Less awesome is Stevie Wonder losing credibility collaborating with 98 Degrees on a song. It sucks).

 

We also get terrific voice work by the late Pat Morita and the excellent George Takei particularly standing out as a ghostly ancestor. James Hong is also good as always, even though his work is the most racially stereotyped in the entire film. For some reason I found that detail hilarious. I’m not overly keen on all the American-accented English used throughout the film, but at least they aren’t all phony Asian accents, and most of the cast at the very least is Asian or Asian-American. I could see what Eddie Murphy and Disney were trying to achieve, another Robin Williams in “Aladdin” situation, but he stands out like a sore thumb here. He doesn’t remotely fit in, and isn’t particularly amusing.

 

One advantage this film has over the later “Hua Mulan” is that it’s easier to swallow the gender deception here than in a live-action film. She’s a bit more convincing in disguise here, at least physically. And credit where it’s due, the film does manage to tell quite a bit of the legend, just with a much lighter touch, probably unavoidable. But like “Hercules”, I still can’t help but think that Disney animation just isn’t the right format for a story that simply isn’t for kids. The biggest problem is that the title character never quite pulls you in here in this sanitised version. She just isn’t afforded enough depth to truly resonate with viewers.

 

It’s not a bad film, and it’s a lot better than I was expecting, but I’d watch “Hua Mulan” instead. The Asian setting gives the film a difference to the Disney norm to an extent, but overall this is a near-miss. It’s almost a good film. Almost. The screenplay is by Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Rita Hsiao (“Toy Story 2”), Phil LaZebnik (“Pocahontas”), Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”, “The Croods”), and Raymond Singer.

 

Rating: C+

Review: The African Queen


Set in 1914, Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a prim and proper British missionary in East Africa with her brother, played by Robert Morley. WWI has broken out and it’s getting unsafe to stay, but Rose and her brother insist. Unfortunately, before long the Germans turn up and in a scuffle, Morley is killed. Humphrey Bogart plays Charlie, the grubby-looking but well-meaning Canadian steamboat captain who delivers supplies to Rose and her brother. When he turns up and learns what has happened, he kindly offers to help bury the brother and then get Rose to safety. Thus begins a trip along the river between two complete and utter opposites.

 

Long before Robert Zemeckis gave us “Romancing the Stone” in 1984, John Huston (“The Misfits”, “The Maltese Falcon”, “The Asphalt Jungle”) gave us this grand romantic adventure from 1951. Based on a book by C.S. Forester (“Sink the Bismarck!”), it’s a classic romance story, but with enough other stuff to keep the boys interested too. It is somewhat of a war movie after all, when you get right down to it. It’s grand, classic Hollywood entertainment containing something for everyone.

 

Humphrey Bogart won an Oscar here in one of his best-ever performances. I’m not normally a Katharine Hepburn fan, but this Oscar-nominated turn is easily one of her least irritating performances, even if she never sounds English so much as New England. No matter the accent (and Bogey doesn’t even try a Canadian accent), she’s pitch-perfect casting as the rather prim and proper spinster. She and Bogey make for an excellent romantic pairing, perhaps one of the finest in cinematic history. However, even a staunch non-drinker like me finds the scene where Hepburn faints at the very sight of alcohol to be awfully silly. The rest of the romantic odd couple pairing, is excellent, though. In fact, the only problem I have with the whole film (aside from a bit of dodgy projection work), is that the noisy motor of the boat means that both Bogey and Hepburn have to shout a lot of their dialogue. But any flaws are minor and frankly a bit petty.

 

The action is also pretty well-staged for 1951 I must say. It’s a shame inimitable British character actor Robert Morley doesn’t get many scenes as Hepburn’s brother (a bit of a stretch in casting I might add), and in fact the role doesn’t play to his normally pompous, comedic strengths. He is, however as solid as ever and does what he can. It’s certainly interesting to see him in such a different role.

 

This isn’t the masterpiece many claim it to be, but it’s very good entertainment with great stars, terrific scenery captured by Jack Cardiff (“Black Narcissus”, “The Vikings”), and a little something for everyone. The Oscar-nominated screenplay is by Huston, James Agee (“The Night of the Hunter”), John Collier (“The War Lord”, “I Am a Camera”), and with dialogue by Peter Viertel, who would later write about the experience in White Hunter Black Heart (Later turned into the underrated Clint Eastwood movie).

 

Rating: B