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, August 8, 2015

Review: Sink the Bismarck!


A WWII film dramatising the sinking of the powerful German battleship The Bismarck. Kenneth More plays the no-nonsense, rigid Captain Jonathan Shepard, newly assigned as Director of Naval Operations. On the opposing side of things is Nazi Admiral Lutjens (Karel Stepanek), proud and ruthless. Dana Wynter plays a WREN 2nd Officer, whilst smaller roles are filled out by Geoffrey Keen (A.C.N.S.), Sir Michael Hordern (as the Commander of the King George V), Maurice Denham (as Commander Richards), and Esmond Knight (as the Captain of the HMS Prince of Wales), who actually served on the HMS Prince of Wales during this real-life incident, though much of the film is devoted to War Room strategy. Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow appears as himself to lend authenticity and gravity to the events.

 

Based on a book by C.S. Forester (“The African Queen”), this 1960 fact-based film from director Lewis Gilbert (“You Only Live Twice”, “Damn the Defiant!” and “Alfie”) and screenwriter Edmund H. North (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “Damn the Defiant!”, “Patton”) is one of the best films of its type. Neither docudrama nor melodramatic, fans of this kind of thing (and all you military/history buffs out there) will enjoy it even more than I did.

 

At the centre is a masterclass in subtlety and understatement from Kenneth More, who navigates the tricky balance of being emotionless whilst letting the audience know that when this is all over, this guy’s probably gonna have a ‘moment’. More’s a most underrated British actor, though there isn’t a bad performance in the entire film actually. I particularly liked the work of Karel Stepanek, who really does command attention as the Bismark’s commanding officer, Admiral Lutjens. He’s absolutely spot-on as the fiercely patriotic Nazi, with a portrait of Hitler in the background of his scenes, a nice touch too. Dana Wynter, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated actresses of the 50s and 60s, and also one of the most beautiful women to have ever graced the screen. Here the camera seems to want to take her out to dinner, bring her back home and make sweet love to her. Or maybe that’s just me…but, damn that’s a helluva woman right there. As the only woman in the film, I felt compelled to not only prove yet again that I need to get out more often, but her presence in the film definitely adds something, she’s terrific in her scenes opposite More. Her character and involvement in the plot is really interesting, actually, she’s not just the ‘token female’, she’s playing a credible officer and valuable assistant to More.

 

Perhaps the most interesting additions to the cast are Edward R. Murrow and Esmond Knight. Yes, that’s the real Murrow, the infamous American journalist and broadcaster lending authenticity and authority playing himself during these real-life events. As this was my first exposure to Mr. Murrow, I must say that while David Strathhairn in “Good Night and Good Luck” wasn’t much of a physical resemblance, he did a good job with the voice and persona of the man. You’d think that since Esmond Knight was actually involved in the real sinking of the Bismarck, that he’d get a good role here. As fine as he is, his role in the film is surprisingly small. I just thought you’d surely take advantage of someone who was not only really there, but can act, too. However, Geoffrey Keen offers up yet another fine, if thankless effort, and Sir Michael Hordern- an even better actor than Keen- is in typically excellent form, a most valued British character actor. In fact the only casting misstep is a minor vocal one, as the person doing Winston Churchill’s voice does a pretty poor imitation I must say. Fans of great British character actors will have a field day here, as the film is full of them in supporting roles (Maurice Denham, Jack Gwillim, etc.) and brief bits (Bernard Lee, Robert Brown, David Hemmings, Michael Ripper, Ian Hendry, etc.)

 

One of the film’s best assets is that although it’s not quite docudrama, it does have an authentic look and feel to it, not just through Murrow’s casting, but the use of newsreel footage and stock footage is the best I’ve ever seen in a film. Stock footage is almost always obvious, but here it’s pretty seamless and really impressive. Also deserving of a mention is the B&W cinematography by DOP Christopher Challis (“The Red Shoes”, “Damn the Defiant!”), which is very good indeed.

 

This is very well-done, and if you’re a fan of this sort of film, it’s a must-see because it’s one of the best of its type. Kenneth More is terrific, and well backed-up by both Karel Stepanek and the stunningly beautiful Dana Wynter.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Sex Tape


Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz play a once hot-and-heavy couple whose sex life has taken a back seat in the more recent years of their marriage in favour of work and child raising. However, they get an inspired idea to ship the kids off to Grandma’s for the night so they can get their groove on…and film it! Supposedly comedic hilarity comes about when Segel ignores his wife’s request to delete it the next day, proud of his efforts with the horizontal mambo. Unfortunately Segel, who likes to give iPads with his own personally selected music choices on them to friends and family, has accidentally uploaded the footage to every…single…person who owns one of the iPads. It’s now a race to locate each of the iPads before anyone sees it. However, they hit a snag, though you’ll need to see the film to find out what that is. Rob Lowe turns up as Diaz’s rich nebbish boss, Rob Corddry (Is there a less funny person more pervasive in cinematic comedies today?) plays a friend of the randy couple, and Jack Black turns up briefly as an internet porn company owner.

 

Even if you take the use of the outdated word ‘tape’ to mean anything recorded, there’s still the distinct stench of ‘stale comedy’ to this 2014 so-called comedy from director Jake Kasdan (the entertaining spoof “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”, the flat “Bad Teacher”, with a miscast Cameron Diaz). It makes no sense to do a film on this subject in 2014. Movies rarely contain any nudity anymore, let alone mainstream movies, and although there is indeed a teeny bit of cheeky nudity in this one (and surprisingly, it’s mostly not from Jason Segel), it’s done in such a manner that one is highly suspicious as to whether body doubles were used. Yes, even the scene where Diaz is walking away from the camera and we see her arse, side boob and face, I wasn’t entirely certain it was really her. It’s at enough of a distance that you can’t see her face clearly and Robert Rodriguez proved in “Machete” that you can use CGI trickery to get around a pesky no-nudity clause. Ms. Diaz claims it was her real body on show, but given that we see a supposed sex montage between her and Segel in the first three minutes of the film and they are both fully-clothed during most of it…yeah, my arse it’s your real arse, honey. Hell, we even get a scene where Diaz bares her chest for Segel with her back to the camera and it’s clearly a fake fucking back because her side boob is way too large to be Ms. Diaz’s real side boob. She uses a fake ‘back double’? Really? So yeah, Diaz is lying for whatever reason (By the way, countless four-letter words are apparently fine by Diaz, which is interesting. I’m fine with them too, mind you, I’m just pointing out her interesting standards). For a film that opens with seven minutes of basically just two people having sex, this thing at best ought to have been called “Body Doubles”, if not “No-Nudity Clause”.

 

But the sex tape itself is an even bigger problem for me. Forget that sex tapes are passé, really, I’ll overlook that one for the sake of giving the film a chance. No, the real problem here is that the film just isn’t allowed to be nearly raunchy enough to portray on screen what it is meant to portray on screen. We live in a society where violence on screen is perfectly fine, but apparently cinematic sex is dirty (Messed up morals if ever I’ve heard them). Why would you make this film in such a sexually conservative climate? The opening sex scene is proof of my point alone, as a happily married couple in a film called “Sex Tape” have sex with no nudity showing at all. Which brings me to the ‘sex tape’. Not only is there no nudity at all shown in this tape (Why would anyone watch a sex tape with no nudity?), but the camerawork is impossible to achieve without a third person being involved for some of it. Lame, and blatantly obvious. Why am I making such a big deal about all of this? Because the film is called “Sex Tape” and is about the recording of two people in love supposedly having sex played by two actors clearly being too careful not to show any ‘icky’ stuff, that’s why. Why would a woman cover herself up with a bedsheet in bed with her own damn husband? No one does that! The film completely fails to do its damn job, and that’s why I’m angry more than anything. Outside of that, it’s also just a really poorly done, lame-brained film with very few laughs.

 

The film’s best joke is Rob Lowe’s casting as a supposedly straight-arrow guy in a film called “Sex Tape”. Clever, though his very casting also reminds you that sex tapes are yesterday’s news. Still, there’s a few chortles here and there, especially Lowe’s array of artwork, which is hilarious. Unfortunately, his character and performance don’t seem all that far removed from what he did back in 1992’s “Wayne’s World”, furthering the film’s outdated feel. There’s also a seriously ill-advised scene of Lowe and Diaz doing coke that just doesn’t belong. Even under these extreme circumstances, her character would not do that. Then again, this is the same film where she and Segel break into the HQ of an internet porn company in the middle of the night, so perhaps I’m giving them too much credit. Still, even if this film were hilarious, I couldn’t forgive a film that has its characters anxiety-ridden about a sex tape, but laughing off cocaine usage. That’s just messed-up on all levels and makes me suspicious of everyone involved in making the film. The latter is a serious issue, the former is embarrassing, but trivial.

 

There’s something really ‘off’ about Jason Segel in this. He seems to be doing all of his scenes as though he’s interacting with a tennis ball instead of Diaz, as though his scene partner is Jar-Jar Binks. Problem is, his eye-line is way off and it’s distracting. It doesn’t help that he and Diaz create the most boring romantic screen couple since Woody and Diane in “Manhattan Murder Mystery”. The film spends more time being a mopey film about the stagnant sex life that comes from being married than it does being a comedy about a fucking sex tape. Did you know that it’s boring to be married and have kids? ‘Coz that’s the only note this film has to play. “Parenthood” had this beat back in 1989 for cryin’ out loud. Hell, the sex tape deal isn’t all that far removed from 1985’s “European Vacation” the more one thinks about it. This is so boring and stupid that it should star Adam Sandler, not Jason Segel. The idiotically unrealistic children in the film certainly seem like leftovers from a Sandler film.

 

The title promises something sexy and maybe dirty, but instead it’s alternately awkward, boring, and coy. And not very funny to boot. The screenplay is by Segel, his pal Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets”, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), and Kate Angelo (“The Back-Up Plan”), none of whom seem to have watched a sex tape before.

 

Rating: D+

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Review: 12 Years a Slave


The true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American and a ‘free man’ (with a wife and kids, too) from New York who is abducted, transported to the South, and sold into slavery. At first he’s the property of plantation owner Benedict Cumberbatch, who is somewhat well-meaning and kinder than most. Unfortunately, he is constantly picked on by nasty foreman Paul Dano (Why is it always the foreman who is a brutal prick in these kinds of stories?), so Cumberbatch has him sold elsewhere for fear that Dano will kill him otherwise (or maybe it’s vice versa?). Sadly, his new master, played by Michael Fassbender is a cruel and brutal man, who has a thing for one of his female slaves (Lupita Nyong'o), which makes his wife (Sarah Paulson) jealous and spiteful. Really, really spiteful. Will Solomon ever regain his freedom and see his family again? Michael K. Williams plays another slave, Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader, and Alfre Woodard plays a slave turned kept woman of her owner (!), thus enjoying more privilege and position than most at the time. Brad Pitt has a cameo near the end as a free-thinking, humane carpenter.

 

Although I whole-heartedly enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (his best film to date), I have to say that for me, after watching the TV miniseries “Roots”, I feel like any other media representation of the horrors of African slavery pales in comparison to that shattering experience. I know QT isn’t a fan of it (for completely ridiculous reasons that you can read about online if you wish), but I was drained, horrified, compelled, and in many ways felt enlightened by that landmark TV series. It may not have been a true story in the sense that Alex Haley tried to stamp a personal historical connection to it that has been since debunked, but as a representation of slavery through several generations, I reckon (from my not terribly informed POV) it’s still tough to beat. Brit director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) and screenwriter John Ridley (head writer on “The Wanda Sykes Show”, he also wrote the story “Three Kings” was based on) give us another supposedly true account of slavery, based on the book by Solomon Northup, and indeed I hear that its basis in fact holds up pretty well. It’s also a fairly solid film. It is not, however “Roots”. It’s also not one of the stronger Best Picture Oscar winners, though to be fair, it’s not fucking “Crash”, either. So just be aware that this review won’t be the strongest recommendation you’ll ever read, but I can’t give it a poor score, either.

 

I knew this film wasn’t going to teach me anything new, the moment we got the whole ‘tell no one you can read or write’ deal. That one’s straight out of “Mandingo” for cryin’ out loud (Sarah Paulson’s wife shows similarities at times to Susan George’s character in “Mandingo” too, albeit subtler). Well, at least that’s one good thing I can say about this film, it’s better than “Mandingo”. So is going to the dentist. “Roots” said it all, whilst films like the underrated “Skin Game” and “Django Unchained” found a different way to say things. But McQueen seems to think that simply basing things on a true account gives him and Ridley the right to give us something we’ve seen countless times before. They kinda get away with it, but not nearly as much as you dearly want them to.

 

As cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt (“Shame”) gets the easiest job in the world here, just point at that absolutely gorgeous scenery and shoot. It’s an extremely well-shot film that pointedly contrasts the beautiful landscape with the brutal, savage, and disgusting inhumanity on display throughout. Be warned, folks, the first whipping occurs 15 minutes in and it’s about 100 minutes left on the clock. Fun doesn’t exist in this dojo. While I don’t think McQueen deserved to win Best Director, nor the film Best Picture (Of the nominees, it should’ve been “Gravity”, but “Saving Mr. Banks” was my favourite film of 2013), but I’m not going to complain about Lupita Nyong'o winning Best Supporting Actress. Dame Judi Dench won an Oscar with less screen time, and Nyong’o towers over a cast that does not deliver a single bad performance. She’s absolutely heartbreaking, and she did not win simply because of the on-screen torture her character endures. That’s a gross and unfair simplification made by some. I was a little worried about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance just judging it from the trailers where he sounds like an Uncle Remus stereotype. What a misleading trailer then, because although I don’t think he was robbed of an Oscar (Matthew McConaughey deserved his win, with Bruce Dern in close second for me), he’s better than expected and quite solid. I just think others in the cast out-do him, like Nyong’o, and a surprisingly brilliant Paul Dano. I had massive problems with Dano in the otherwise fine “There Willl Be Blood”, but here cast as a slimy racist moron, he’s perfect. It’s the kind of part that if made in the 40s, would’ve gone to Dan Duryea. This guy’s a racist scumbag, but hardly a thinker. I mean, if you’re gonna be a racist scumbag, it’s probably a good idea if you’re bigger and stronger than the intended target of your racism, or else you’re asking for an arse kicking at some point. What an idiot. Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender impresses too, and he immediately makes an impression as the worst kind of slave master, the kind who justifies his brutality through scripture. This is the kind of performance that could’ve gone horribly wrong if Fassbender were any lesser an actor. His refusal to ham it up- to the point of almost underplaying the part- is commendable. Less is indeed more, he ain’t no James Mason resting his feet on black children in “Mandingo” whilst butchering a Southern accent, that’s for damn sure. It’s a nicely modulated performance. Paul Giamatti is terrific in a role that strangely enough isn’t too far removed from a character he played in a certain Tim Burton movie. I also enjoyed the brief but excellent work by Michael K. Williams and Alfre Woodard in a most interesting role, whilst Garrett Dillahunt also plays his role well. There’s nothing wrong with Brad Pitt’s performance towards the end, but his presence, casting, and facial hair are regrettable, taking one out of the film momentarily at precisely the wrong time. Next to the horribly insistent music score by Hans Zimmer (“Gladiator”, “Inception”, “Man of Steel”) and the overall sense of déjà vu, Pitt’s presence (meant to secure funding and put butts in seats, no doubt) here is one of the biggest problems in the film.

 

This is a solidly made film that might prove rather enlightening and engrossing for those to whom this material is quite fresh. For me, the only fresh aspect here is that Solomon Northup started out as a free man, abducted and sold into slavery. That gives us an interesting new beginning, but it’s merely a new entry point into a story we’ve seen thousands of times before. Since “Roots” already did this infinitely better, my interest here was a tad limited. Yes, this one’s more brutal than the TV medium allowed “Roots” to be, but “Mandingo” threw all kinds of sex and violence at us and where did that get the film? This is a nobler film than that one (and there is indeed the argument that stories of great injustices like slavery, the holocaust etc., should be retold so they are never forgotten. I get that, I really do), but being harsh and true aren’t enough to make this one truly resonate for me as a film. Others may disagree, especially if you’re strangely not a fan of “Roots”.

 

Rating: B-

Review: The Informant!


Supposedly based on a true story, a moustachioed and nerdy Matt Damon plays a mild-mannered biochemist and VP at an Illinois agricultural company specialising in adding lysine to its products. One day he discovers a mole in the company who is selling them out to the Japanese. So the FBI are called in, and Damon tries to help them out. He also tells the FBI (represented by Scott Bakula and a wasted Joel McHale) that the company is involved in price-fixing, and soon they have him acting as an informant/spy for them against his own company. However, one soon starts to question Damon’s motives in all of this, and possibly even more than his motives. Melanie Lynskey is Damon’s wife, while Clancy Brown has a small role as one of Damon’s superiors.

 

Although Matt Damon gives a commendable and interestingly milquetoast performance in the lead, I simply never got on the wavelength of this 2009 film from aloof director Steven Soderbergh (“sex, lies, and videotape”, “Ocean’s Eleven”) and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion”, another Soderbergh film that left me cold). Based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald, it’s a film about a meek guy with a seriously uninteresting occupation, who engages in criminal activities that are similarly dry and uninteresting. Price-fixing? Wire-tapping? Corn? ZZZZzzzzz. And why in the hell is there so much dodgy stuff going on in such a boring, harmless industry? Stupid.

 

Damon’s seemingly irrelevant narration, meanwhile is a corny and unfunny joke, not to mention infuriating given one could really use a helpful narrator to wade through all this business-related stuff that largely went over my head. This results in a film that fails to draw you into its story, despite the lead character himself being quite fascinating the more you get to know him. The film gets better as the bullshit façade of Matt Damon’s character starts to slip, but even then you can’t help feeling that a) “Catch Me If You Can” did this better, and b) There was a better way to tell this story without it being so dry and confusing in the first half. The crimes committed are boring, the guy committing them is fascinating. Soderbergh and Burns seem to have missed this, and also seem to be so amused with themselves that they’ve forgotten to tell the story in a way that helps draw us in as well. Also, for a film supposedly set in the early 90s, it looks and sounds like it’s taking place in the 60s. Yes, this means we get an hilariously jaunty Marvin Hamlisch (“The Sting”, “The Way We Were”) score, but it also has you seriously confused about when and where the hell we are in time. I was already largely confused about what the hell the story was all about, at least in the first half.

 

Damon’s good, and Scott Bakula gives one of his best performances…but what does that say? No, this one did nothing much for me at all (I’m sure Soderbergh fans will adore it), and Soderbergh’s refusal to invite the audience along for the ride is seriously annoying and counter-productive. I don’t want to be spoon-fed, but Soderbergh and Burns do themselves a disservice by making this so damn difficult to get into. But what do you expect from a filmmaker who gives us the following disclaimer at the start: ‘While this motion picture is based on real events, certain incidents and characters are composites, and dialog has been dramatized. So there’. That’s the equivalent of saying ‘We read the true story and then made our own story up…‘coz.’

 

Rating: C   

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: Plymouth Adventure


The story of the Mayflower’s voyage to America in 1620 as hard-bitten, frankly disagreeable old sea captain Spencer Tracy transports pilgrims to the New World (i.e. Plymouth Rock). One such pilgrim is puritan Gene Tierney, whom Tracy drunkenly tries to make it with at one point. Van Johnson plays a simple carpenter aboard the ship, with Leo Genn (as William Bradford, future Governor and Tierney’s husband), John Dehner (who as Gilbert Winslow, narrates the film), and Barry Jones (as William Brewster, who comes aboard with somewhat of a radical reputation- and a printing press) amongst the more notable pilgrims. Lloyd Bridges plays Tracy’s bullying first-mate.

 

You won’t find too many positive reviews out there for it, but this 1952 Clarence Brown (“The Yearling”, “Song of Love”) film is a really easy watch, especially if you like sea-faring films. Spencer Tracy doesn’t exactly give a career best performance but is certainly in fantastically cranky form, even if his 11th hour transformation into a good guy is far too quick and jarring. I mean, this is a guy who hates everyone, doesn’t give a fuck, and even tries to make it with the leading lady, not exactly with her consent. He’s a bit of a louse for much of the film, and probably not worthy of sympathy to be honest. There’s a real sorrow, bitterness, and despair here that’s interesting, particularly in Tracy’s solid performance.

 

The film also boasts easily the best performance (and role) of pale-eyed character actor John Dehner’s career. What a voice he has, as narrator of the film. I must say, though that Gene Tierney is forgettable and her relationship with Tracy makes no sense. It’s like there’s a couple of scenes missing that explain the relationship and her later actions. However, Leo Genn proves that although he’s a poor man’s James Mason, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a poor man’s James Mason. A very sturdy performance from him. Although Van Johnson all but disappears at the climax, he’s well-cast here as essentially the film’s most likeable and relatable character. He has a sincerity and decency to him, albeit with a touch of bitterness that makes him stand out from most secondary leads in this sort of thing. Perhaps the most entertaining performance is given by a seedy Lloyd Bridges, who makes for an amusing, bare-chested bully boy. Barry Jones rounds out the mostly fine cast with a lively little turn.

 

The idea of Tracy shipping poor people to a new land and quickly encountering changes in those plans is a bit similar to the later “Voyage of the Damned”, based on another event in history, though this is obviously the lesser of the two films. Still, this story of The Mayflower is an important one in American history and a pretty irresistible one, really. This film’s biggest strength is in the action department. As a seafaring adventure, the film is definitely well-done, with a pretty good display of stormy seas very well-shot in Technicolour by William Daniels (“Camille”, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “Winchester ‘73”). I was really pleasantly surprised at how good the FX/action scenes were in this, really convincing (And Oscar-winning, to boot). The film definitely gets across how arduous sea travel is, how easy it is to fall ill etc. I can’t speak to how accurate this is historically (I’ve read that the depiction of the Captain is scandalously inaccurate, though), but I can certainly say that it’s not stuffy or dull, as it’s more of a seafaring adventure than historical drama. Some of the period costuming looks a tad goofy, though.

 

This is a good, if imperfect film, but the story isn’t bad and the FX and action are top-notch. There’s a strong music score by Miklos Rozsa (“Double Indemnity”, “Spellbound”, “The Asphalt Jungle”) as well, incorporating ‘Green Sleeves’ if I’m not mistaken. Based on an Ernest Gebler (“Hoffman”) novel, the screenplay is by Helen Deutsch (“National Velvet”, “Valley of the Dolls”).

 

Rating: B-

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Review: 20 Feet From Stardom


Somewhat similar to “Standing in the Shadow of Motown”, this 2013 documentary from director Morgan Neville attempts to give spotlight and due respect to unsung heroes of the music world, backup singers. It’s a very impressive film with some great stories to tell and some incredible music- and musicians.

 

Among the backup talents on show here, you’ll probably immediately recognise the name and face of Darlene Love, who rather ironically is best known for playing Danny Glover’s backup (i.e. Wife) in “Lethal Weapon”. She’s the main focus of the film, and certainly has the most commanding physical (if not vocal) presence. I genuinely had no idea that Miss Love (and her group The Blossoms) sang back-up on ‘The Monster Mash’ and ‘Da Do Ron Ron’, among many other hits. You’ve gotta feel for this woman, had producer/murderer Phil Spector not screwed her over, she could’ve been a whole lot more than a backup singer. Instead he used her voice and put other artists’ names on the records.

 

Also on show here are Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, the former having been the one to record the backing vocals for the Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Gimme Shelter’, and the latter being the one playing that part on tour with The Stones for the last few decades. Fischer can definitely sing (her career downfall was more her lack of persistence and determination in pursuing a solo career), but Merry Clayton is- pardon my French- fucking brilliant. It’s great to be able to put a name and face to that piercing vocal (to some rather coarse lyrics, I might add), and her story of the recording at 2AM with curlers in her hair is hilarious, possibly making you change the way you hear the song from now on. She also tells a fascinating story about singing backup for the redneck anthem ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. There’s a LOT more going on in that song than simply the redneck pride lyrical content with Clayton singing in defiance. Clayton unquestionably should’ve been a star by now, she’s like Aretha and Janis all in one. Sadly, she only made a few albums of her own and it didn’t pan out. That’s pretty much everyone’s story here, and it’s unfortunate. Perhaps all the good songs were saved for the people for whom these women were singing backup for. It’s like “Idol”, a lot of those people can sing, but do they have the songs to make it in the biz? For 99.99% of them, no. I must say, though, that I’m a bit surprised that Claudia Linnear never made it big in the industry as a solo artist. In addition to her vocals, she had a marketable look too. So yes, perhaps it really is about getting the right songs. Or maybe it’s about timing.

 

Another artist on display here is young Judith Hill, and you’d think the exposure of having worked with Michael Jackson on his ill-fated last tour, plus her obvious vocal talents, and her cute looks would combine to create a star sensation. But so far that doesn’t appear to have happened. It’s with her that I must bear one gripe, and director Neville shares blame here too. She and the film itself basically throw our own Kylie Minogue under the bus, by suggesting that Hill was so embarrassed with having to sing backup to mediocre talent that she wore wigs to disguise herself. I’m not a Kylie fan (but like Madonna, I respect her ability to adapt over the years), and she’s never been labelled a good singer, so much as a great bit of corporate packaging, but Kylie has been a huge success in Australia and the UK for a reason, quite clearly, and for a very long time. She’s not had sustained US success, but she’s no hack, either, and I found it highly inappropriate and offensive. In fact, it made me like Hill just a little bit less, though Neville has edited things rather suspiciously.

 

It’s great to hear big stars like Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder putting over these talented but unheralded women for their vital contributions to the music industry as well. They’re clearly fans of these women, and now so am I. I also had no idea the late Luther Vandross (a bigger deal in the US than here in Australia where his only big hits were duets with Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson) was originally a backup singer for David Bowie…and was a much, much bigger dude at the time. There’s not a whole lot to say here except it’s fascinating, one of the ten best films of 2013, and you really need to see it. It’s even better than “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”.  

 

Rating: B

Review: Who Dares Wins (AKA The Final Option)


An anti-nuke demonstration in London turns ugly and a protester is killed. The Brit secret services learn that a militant wing of the anti-nuke movement is planning an act of terrorism at any time now, and they send SAS man Lewis Collins to go undercover and infiltrate the group before it’s too late. The married (with a kid) Collins attempts to get close to their leader (played by Judy Davis), with the cover story that he’s a disgruntled former SAS man who has seen the light. She hires him as security for the group, and before long they are even living together. Ingrid Pitt plays a particularly militant member of the group, Kenneth Griffith plays a communist priest, Maurice Roeves plays Maj. Steele (essentially the Harry Andrews part in this kind of thing as the guy in charge of whipping recruits into shape). Turning up more briefly are Patrick Allen (as a Police Commissioner), Edward Woodward (SAS Commander Powell), Richard Widmark (U.S. Secretary of State), and Robert Webber (an American General). Paul Freeman has a cameo at the end as a Brit politician.

 

More commonly known as “The Final Option”, this 1982 Ian Sharp (A TV director who made the brilliantly titled “Pride and Extreme Prejudice”) thriller about the British SAS was the first non-Australian feature film for Aussie actress Judy Davis. More than anything, however, it was seemingly meant to catapult Brit TV actor Lewis Collins (of TV’s “The Professionals”) into stardom and possibly one day the role of 007. Very loosely based on a real-life incident, the film failed miserably with critics in particular, and it’s not all that hard to see why. One can also see why the role of Bond never came Collins’ way (And indeed he was rumoured to have tested for the part in the early 80s). He is charisma-deficient in the extreme, to say the least, and a big part of why this film doesn’t work. I’m guessing producer Euan Lloyd (“Catlow”, “The Wild Geese”, “The Sea Wolves”) saw the next Richard Burton or Robert Powell in Mr. Collins, but a charisma-deficient version of Pierce Brosnan would be closer to the mark. He leaves a huge black hole at the centre with his singularly uninteresting performance.

 

Things don’t start off horribly, with Judy Davis seen early as a strident anti-nuke protester, something that is definitely in her wheelhouse. She’s certainly more appropriately cast here than in the subsequent “A Passage to India”, Oscar-nomination be damned. She was horribly miscast in that film, and this film makes my case perfectly: Soft and frail she ain’t. However, the film’s depiction of strident activists-turned terrorists is laughably absurd and it’s no surprise that Davis later spoke out against the film (She read the script though, right? And filmed the movie? Uh-huh). Personally I think it’s too stupid to be offensive. I mean, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Davis’ American-themed avant-garde meets early 80s synth-pop club/stage performance. WTF? Unfortunately, it gets even worse for her and I’m not talking about her unconvincing American accent. The climax has her looking absolutely ridiculous with a messy punk hairdo, a dinner dress, and a machine gun she rather uncomfortably hoists. She still had a career after this, folks, a pretty big one. Amazing.

 

There are elements here that are somewhat interesting, but the story is just plain silly in execution, with Davis’ character being one of the biggest morons in cinematic history. Even when she finds out that Collins has been lying to her, she still wants to involve him in the cause. Bloody hell. Kenneth Griffith (the only person who seemingly realises how incredibly stupid this all is) turns up as a Communist bishop who claims that ‘Jesus was a militant radical!’. Oh boy. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s jarringly comical for a film that, whilst certainly spectacularly silly (Skinheads who attend rallies for liberal hippie causes? REALLY?), takes itself disastrously seriously. What in the hell was screenwriter Reginal Rose (“12 Angry Men”, “The Wild Geese”, “The Sea Wolves”, “Whose Life is it, Anyway?”) smoking when he wrote this? The only believable thing in the whole film is Ingrid Pitt having a high old time as one of the more gung-ho revolutionaries. Subtle she ain’t, but you really do believe she’d kill a kid, she’s just got that icy-veined vibe about her. Veterans Richard Widmark and Robert Webber aren’t around until the final stretch in what amount to ‘guest star’ roles, or glorified cameos. Widmark tries his best, but the role is too tiny and too late in arriving.

 

Tedious, woefully unconvincing and seriously lame, a lot of talented people (and Lewis Collins) cocked up big-time here. What was everyone involved thinking? Only the underrated Ingrid Pitt emerges unscathed. Terrible waste of Edward Woodward and Patrick Allen in mere cameos, and what was with that end-scene cameo by Paul Freeman? Oh I know the (absurdly right-wing) point being made, I just mean why hire such a well-known face for a 30 second role at the end? Weird. Stupid film, and super-duper right-wing to boot (Ronald Reagan loved the film, apparently). Horribly dated, irritating 80s synth score by Roy Budd (“Get Carter”, “The Stone Killer”, “The Wild Geese”, “Wild Geese II”) is the arsenic icing on the turd cake.

 

Rating: D+

Monday, August 3, 2015

Review: Stand Up Guys


Al Pacino is Val, a con who is released after just under 30 years behind bars for a fatally botched armed robbery, and greeted by his old buddy Doc (Christopher Walken), who was also involved in the robbery but Val never ratted him or anyone else out. Doc is as docile and reticent (he spends his days watching TV and painting, mostly) as Val is hyper and horny, but Val wants to party and screw like crazy and Doc hasn’t the energy or the heart to argue or tell him to slow down. There’s a reason for that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. So it’s off to nightclubs and whorehouses (run by Lucy Punch, which doesn’t sound like any brothel I’d frequent. Wait…I mean…anyway) they go as Val has a whole lotta hell-raising to catch up on, clearly ignoring the fact that his body is not quite working at full-speed anymore. At one point they even spring former getaway driver Hirsch (Alan Arkin, natch) out of the old folks’ home to let the old guy live a little too (He wants to go to the brothel as well!). But it’s not all fun and games, Doc has been ordered by gangster Mark Margolis to rub Val out. You see, the gangster’s son was killed in the botched robbery Val was put in prison for, and is putting all kinds of pressure on Doc. Julianna Margulies plays an ER nurse (yep) and Arkin’s daughter, Kathryn Winnick plays a hooker, and Addison Timlin plays Doc’s favourite diner waitress, whose real identity won’t be too hard for smart viewers to ascertain.

 

Although it got a wide US release in 2013, this comedy-drama was made in 2012, and seems to have only surfaced in Australia on cable in early 2015, after bypassing theatres altogether here (The presence of Lionsgate and about four other companies explains a whole helluva lot). It’s not the greatest thing any of the principal actors have ever turned up in, but this film from director Fisher Stevens (yes, the goofy inventor from the “Short Circuit” films is a director now) and first-time screenwriter Noah Haidle still gets by on the charms of its stars. For some, that’ll be enough, and for me…it’s better than nothing, and hey it sure beats the shit out of “Jack & Jill” and those irritating cawfee ads Pacino has been turning up in recently. God I hate those things. And the way Pacino pronounces cawwwwwfee. It’s coffee, you tit.

 

Christopher Walken is especially impressive here. For some reason, the guy seems to get better with age, and yet, he’s always been fun to watch, hasn’t he? It seems that way, but lately in films like this and “Performance” (AKA “A Late Quartet”) his dramatic chops have become particularly impressive in this. He’s no longer just that oddball actor with the most idiosyncratic dialogue delivery of anyone not named Jeff Goldblum. He’s a really fantastic dramatic character actor (and a fine comedic one when called upon), maybe the key to him seeming to improve with age is simply life experience or depth. It’s ostensibly a comedy, but you really know Walken and Pacino are pros when they can make you feel something in such a silly assignment as this. The film really has something interesting and affecting here about mortality, in amongst the silliness and clichés.

 

Pacino and I don’t always get along, but he made some fantastic films in the 70s and 80s, before ‘Shouty Al’ seemed to take over even in otherwise terrific films like “Heat”. He’s genuinely funny at times here, he seems so wired that you’d swear he just got off the set of “Scarface” if y’know what I mean. But for once, hyper Al actually works in favour of the film, and he also brings a sense of weariness to the role that actually touches you. I have no idea why Pacino and Walken paraphrase the signature line from “They Live”, but I bet Rowdy Roddy Piper will be moved to tears when he hears about it. I honestly couldn’t believe my ears when I heard it. Viagra jokes are usually awful and cheap, but the one here isn’t too bad, and a scene in a diner reminded me of at least two different Pacino films (You should instinctively know which two). It’s a real shame Arkin doesn’t get to stick around long, because his brief work is terrific. However, the difference is made up by memorable work from the underrated Mark Margolis (who has been around forever and always solid, but really only got notice from “Breaking Bad”) and an actress named Addison Timlin, whom I’ve never seen before and I really, really want to see in every movie ever made from now on. She’s got something, and I need it real bad. She seems…lovely. Y’know? Julianna Margulies, meanwhile, branches out by playing an ER nurse. Thank you, I’m here all week. Try the lobster.

 

Is this movie any good? No, not really, but there are moments. All three stars are on their game and make a good team, even if Alan Arkin gets pulled out of the game very quickly here. They are fun to watch, even in something disposable like this. Seeing Walken and Pacino share the screen really is something to witness, especially if you’re a fan. An undercurrent of sadness here helps, too, as does the fantastic 70s funk/soul soundtrack (Including ‘When Something is Wrong With My Baby’). I need to buy the CD, it’s more memorable than the film itself. Jon Bon Jovi gets credited with songs, but I swear the only one I heard was at the end credits, the rest was all soul/funk music. Neither the best nor worst film of its type.

 

Rating: C+

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Review: Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead


“Adventures in Babysitting” combines with “Working Girl” and “Throw Momma From the Train” as high school senior (Christina Applegate) is forced to grow up after the elderly harridan babysitter hired by mum while she goes on holidays for a couple of months, ends up carking it. Did I mention she was in charge of five siblings for the whole summer? Oh well, they’ve still got all the cash mum left for the babysitter to run things, right? Nope, the old hag had it on her, and someone had the bright idea of getting rid of the body. Hence, eldest daughter Applegate must get a job, though lucky for her, instead of the secretary job she was applying for, Applegate makes such a good impression on knock-off fashion manufacturer Joanna Cassidy that Cassidy hires her as her executive administrative assistant. Applegate’s phony resumé certainly helped, though. She also earns the bitch scorn of co-worker Jayne Brook, and the amorous advances of Cassidy’s sleazy sometimes suitor John Getz (in his element), unawares that he’s hitting on a teenager. Well, possibly unawares. But how long can Applegate continue to fool everyone? Well, with her siblings pilfering the ‘petty cash’ from work, it might not be too long. Josh Charles plays the nice guy fast food vendor who is sweet on Applegate (guess who his sister is?), whilst the kids are played by Keith Coogan (an irresponsible, head-banging moron), the wonderful Danielle Harris, the late Christopher Pettiet, and Robert Hy Gorman.

 

Something possessed me to see this 1991 comedy from Stephen Herek (“Critters”, “The Mighty Ducks”, “The Three Musketeers”) and writers Neil Landau and Tara Ison in cinemas on original release, but re-watching it in 2015…what the hell was wrong with me back then? Oh, it’s not a bad film, hell it’s not even the worst film I’ve ever seen in cinemas (In order of badness: “Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey”, “Highlander III”, and “Rudyard Kipling’s Lame Arse Live-Action Jungle Book”). But it’s…not much of anything, really.

 

The title animation is cute and “Looney Tunes”-ish, and the performances by Joanna Cassidy, Danielle Harris (as the morbid youngest daughter), and John Getz are rock-solid. Cassidy has this thing where she’s nice but also clearly demanding, which is hard to pull off. Playing it mostly straight, she pulls it off. The amusing thing about Getz is that while he probably knows he’s a jerk, he ends up shocked to learn just how big a jerk he is. He’s a giant toolbag and the best thing in the film. Even Keith Coogan, despite being way too old to need babysitting (he was in 1987’s “Adventures in Babysitting” already), at least proves his versatility by playing a geek in the former film and a metal-head stoner here. I do have to pick up on one technical flaw, though: There’s no way he’d have a Samantha Fox poster in his bedroom in 1991. Samantha Fox was a big deal around 1985-1988 at the very latest. I know, because I was 11 in 1991 and she was well gone into obscurity by the time puberty set in for me, though obviously I’ve re-discovered her in the years since (And certainly knew of her when I was a kid in the mid-80s, just too young to really be interested in her). A young David Duchovny makes for an amusing yuppie schmuck…even though he’s just the ‘inventory clerk’. Less effective is the entirely miscast Jayne Brook as Applegate’s mean-faced rival. Brook looks decidedly unhappy to be in the film and is clearly not the bitchy-type. Her every scene is forced and unfunny.

 

There’s a funny gag involving car-stealing drag queens made up to look like movie stars, I got a laugh at. Applegate’s dementedly upbeat boss at Clown Dog is amusing too. Anyone that upbeat needs to be punched on the nose. The rest…formula Happy Meal movie product stuff. I also didn’t buy the premise at all. Why would any loving mother leave their five children for two whole months, let alone in the care of one 80+ year-old woman? It’s ridiculous, and sadly not only does the cranky old bird get written out of the film in less than 20 minutes (why should we care that she dies, then?), but in those 20 minutes, the actress playing her (Eda Reiss Merin, who had a small role in “Ghostbusters”) proves to be no Anne Ramsey, and Herek sure as shit ain’t no Danny DeVito. The fact that the title character has such scant time in a film that runs for around about two (many) hours, is just stupefying to me.

 

Christina Applegate plays it mostly straight here and probably saw this film as her big step away from Kelly Bundy. I’ve never been a fan of her and she probably should’ve played more to her ditzy strengths. If she was trying to boost her career, this wasn’t the right film. It’s not a bad film, just a bland, taste-free assembly line product. It’s mild at best, but there’s a few nice performances and an OK rock/hair metal soundtrack that for some reason includes Boom Crash Opera’s ‘The Best Thing’. What the hell?

 

Rating: C