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 15, 2015

Review: Forty Thousand Horsemen


A story showcasing the inimitable Aussie Light horsemen battling in the Middle East during WWI. We also have a story involving Aussie soldier Grant Taylor falling for Betty Bryant, a French girl in ‘blackface’ pretending to be the son of an Arab sheik (Albert Winn) in order to hide from the Germans who killed her wine merchant father. Yep. Oh, and the Turks are set to attack at some point in all of this. Chips Rafferty plays one of Taylor’s comrades and best mates, with Pat Twohill as the other one. Apparently ex-pat Aussie actor Michael Pate is in here somewhere too in three (!) bit roles, two as Arabs, one as a Sikh cop.

 

The same year that “Citizen Kane” was released, this 1941 Australian war film (completed in 1940, however) from director/co-writer Charles Chauvel was also released. A WWI film, it was one of the films that gave a boost to the iconic Chips Rafferty’s career, and not only does it start off with ‘Advance Australia Fair’ (Our current national anthem, to you non-Aussies) but the music score quickly morphs into ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and back again. Basically, it’s as bloody Australian as you could get back in 1941. Seen all these decades later, some of the music score by Lindley Evans and some of the bit part acting belongs more in the silent era than the 1940s (The characterisations of Germans and Turks is pretty cartoony to say the least). However, we really didn’t have much of an industry back in the 40s (even though our “The Story of the Kelly Gang” is routinely regarded as the first-ever motion picture ever made), and this one holds up a helluva lot better than say “Jedda” (also directed by Aussie cinema pioneer Chauvel), which came out some 15 or so years later. It’s also not a whole lot inferior to other war films of the period made in the US and UK.

 

The film definitely gets across the knockabout, two-up playing, Aussie ‘Digger’ (or ANZAC) spirit thing, clichéd as I personally find that image all these years later. It’s definitely true of its time, and does a fairly good job as well at showing the difference between the rather jocular Aussies and more stiff upper-lip Brits. For me it was interesting to look at from a cultural perspective, looking at how we presented our own image of ourselves at that time in history (The 1910s or so) from a 1940s perspective. Whatever your feelings on the ‘Aussie Digger’ image, it sure has proven durable all these years. That’s why I’m reluctant to call something like this dated, because that term seems to suggest something so out-of-date that it is now useless. I don’t feel that way about this film, it still has quite a bit of cultural/historical value so long as you contextualise it, and don’t much mind the blatant propaganda of it all.

 

It’s also just really nice to see an Aussie film giving it a go at delivering the kind of war film the Yanks and Poms have always been so good at, and Chauvel doesn’t fail at it, despite obviously lesser funds. I was especially amused that Chauvel doesn’t shy away from presenting our soldiers as ratbags, and not always saintly. Not only is that likely accurate, but it’s just bloody funny watching our boys nick stuff from the Poms. There’s some really nice B&W shots of the horsemen all riding on the beach. I doubt the budget allowed for all 40,000 of them, mind you, though I didn’t count, either. Under the circumstances, the battle footage is pretty decent, though whether or not it’s stolen from something else I cannot say. Also, whilst some of the music score has clearly got a cheesy silent movie vibe (However the use of title cards/written narration was likely more indicative of a low-budget than anything else), the more anthemic (which is a word, thank you very much Microsoft Word. You’re wrong!) parts are certainly good. Meanwhile, despite essentially playing the ‘best mate’ role, Rafferty continually steals scenes with his slightly goofy, knockabout Aussie persona. It’s not hard to see why he became a star, he was a true character, and an iconic one that is put to perfect use in this kind of thing. In fact, among the principals, the only dud is leading lady Betty Bryant, who is pretty putrid. The use of blackface by her character wasn’t offensive to me, because her character was French trying to pass herself off as a Turk, but what did bother me was that she was wholly unconvincing at being male, which was also part of her ruse.

 

“Gallipoli” it ain’t (nor is it the equal of “The Lighthorsemen”, for that matter), but it’s not trying to be. It’s a good B-movie and a taste of things to come for the rising Chips Rafferty (in only his third feature film). Some crude editing and musical choices, but a pretty enjoyable yarn overall. Definitely one for historians of Aussie cinema and war movies too. I’m not the most patriotic person in the world to be honest, but this film definitely deserves to be much more well-known in my opinion. The screenplay is by Elsa Chauvel, from a story by the director and E.V. Timms.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Broken Arrow (1950)


Set in the 1870s, this is the true account of the attempted truce between whites and Native Americans. Ex-cavalryman Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart) wants an end to the bloodshed, and decides to approach the feared Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler), even trying to learn their language and customs. Others see him as a traitor or at least foolhardy, with Will Geer playing a bitter rancher who will have none of it. He gains support from long-time friend Arthur Hunnicut, however. But Cochise is wary and will not be an easy man to sway. Debra Paget plays an Indian girl whom Tom falls for, which may or may not help his cause much. Jay Silverheels plays Cochise’s harsh dissenter Geronimo, with Iron Eyes Cody also turning up as an Apache.

 

No, not the shitty John Travolta/Christian Slater action dud from the mid-90s. Directed by Delmer Daves (“Destination Tokyo”, “Jubal”, “3:10 to Yuma”), this 1950 western does a better job than most (if not all) other westerns about White/Native American relations. Personally, I’m not a fan of these sorts of films, mostly because even the good ones still have not aged well, and this is no exception.

 

The film deserves credit for creating a pretty 3D Native American character in Cochise, but the rest is pretty formulaic western stuff that I could take or leave, to be honest. Jimmy Stewart’s romance with Indian girl Debra Paget was particularly tedious (Not to mention seriously creepy. Stewart was 41 at the time, and Paget was only 15 at the start of shooting!). It didn’t seem all that different to every other film of this sort, though I’ll accept that it may have been one of the first. It’s not a bad film, just clichéd and full of stereotypes, even the character of Cochise was not immune to this at times. It could also have stood to run another ten minutes or so, I believe. For instance, it was interesting to see Will Geer essentially playing a villain here, but he’s not in the film enough to make it count.

 

Jimmy Stewart is rock-solid as always, and the late Jeff Chandler (a Silver Fox if ever there was one) deserves credit for being a white man playing a Native American and getting away with it, not seeming remotely silly or racially offensive. It’s a serious-minded portrayal, and although I’m not sure his Oscar nomination was warranted, he’s a lot better than he could well have been. I still feel uneasy about whites playing Native American characters in general, however. It’s a hard lump to swallow. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wanted to see Tonto (that is, actor Jay Silverheels) play Geronimo, here’s your movie (Well, one of two films, apparently, but you know what I mean). Silverheels is actually quite good in an intense, Wes Studi kind of performance…that goes against everything I’ve always imagined Geronimo to be. But it’s Cochise’s movie, not Geronimo’s. Or more precisely, it’s Cochise and the Jimmy Stewart character’s movie. Along with the character of Cochise, by far the best thing about the film is the really strong music score by Hugo W. Friedhofer (“The Best Years of Our Lives”, “Enchantment”, “An Affair to Remember”).

 

An OK, serious-minded western based on fact that tries (and largely succeeds) to represent a 3D Native American character, but nonetheless relies on a pretty simple, formulaic story that you’ve seen too many times since to really excuse. One of the first of its type (and apparently pretty true to the real history), but that doesn’t make it any more entertaining. This one’s just watchable, the good performances certainly help. If you’re into this sort of thing, you might want to bump the score up a bit. The screenplay is credited to Michael Blankfort (“The Caine Mutiny”), based on a novel by Elliott Arnold (who also wrote the book for “Deep in My Heart”). However, the blacklisted Albert Maltz (“Destination Tokyo”, “The Beguiled”) worked on the film, and was not originally given credit (He was one of the Hollywood Ten).

 

Rating: C+

Friday, August 14, 2015

Review: Sabotage (2014)


Arnold Schwarzenegger and an ugly neck tattoo plays ‘Breacher’, a DEA agent and head of an elite team, who has deep personal scars from his past. He and his team aren’t remotely squeaky clean and not above taking drug money for their own personal gain. Breacher’s team start turning up dead one-by-one in elaborately gory ways, and their latest haul of ‘acquired’ drug money is gone too. His team are played by Mireille Enos, Sam Worthington (as ‘Monster’, the surly, goateed husband of trashy crackhead Enos), Terrence Howard, Josh Holloway, Joe Manganiello, and Max Martini. Olivia Williams and Harold Perrineau Jr. play a pair of homicide detectives none-too impressed with Breacher’s motley bunch of scumbag agents. Martin Donovan briefly turns up as Breacher’s superior.

 

Although the names David Ayer (whose best directorial efforts are “End of Watch” and the excellent “Fury”) and Skip Woods (uninspired efforts like “Swordfish”, “The A-Team”, “A Good Day to Die Hard”, “X Men Origins: Wolverine”) haven’t always instilled confidence in me, this 2014 action/mystery from the director and his co-writer (who apparently has very little of his material in the final product. I won’t comment on that, tempting as it is) certainly isn’t boring. It is also, along with the even better “Fury”, one of the more stable-looking Ayer films, in terms of camerawork.

 

Although I have serious misgivings about a lesbian sex scene being rudely interrupted, the opening sequence to the film is pretty exciting stuff, though Mireille Enos is instantly amateurish and distractingly silly. Arnold looks old, tired, and not in the best physical shape. However, make no mistake, the guy could still probably kick your arse with one arm tied behind his back. I’d say it’s his best performance since “End of Days”, though the pain and sadness to his character was handled better in that underrated film. It’s interesting to see him in a slightly different, rather seedy role. He’s also surrounded by an interesting group of actors, if not all of them necessarily accomplished (I’m looking at you, Sam Worthington. Dude still can’t do a convincing and consistent Yank accent. Nice Jim ‘The Anvil’ Neidhart goatee, however). The standout is unquestionably Joe Manganiello, who oozes badass charisma throughout that simply can’t be taught. I’d never thought much of him before this, but he might just have something and you can’t take your eyes off him here. It’s a shame Harold Perrineau Jr. is once again wasted in a cop sidekick role, though I’m sure he and Josh Holloway had fun reminiscing about “Lost”. I just think Perrineau is a better actor than his career has thus far shown evidence of. The similarly talented Olivia Williams does the best she can with a rather dull role, but her Yank accent isn’t much good either, and she and Arnold have anti-chemistry leading to a very awkward semi-romantic subplot.

 

What I liked about the cast is that usually in a whodunit-style film (and this is basically the cop movie version of “Ten Little Indians”) I can pick the culprit because the actor in question just seems to stand out like a sore thumb or the character seems rather thankless to be played by such a familiar face (therefore, their one purpose is to be the guilty party). Here we’ve got lots of familiar faces, some very well-known, and several of them rather unreliable or untrustworthy based on previous characters they may have played. I was able to guess the guilty before they were revealed, but not because it was obvious way too early (aside from one aspect that is almost immediately apparent), that part of the film is actually pretty tight due to the well thought out casting for the most part (It’s a shame they don’t get much to play with in terms of character, however. I hear director Ayer’s original cut was closer to 3 hours long!). It was merely that enough of the prime suspects had been rubbed out early that I was able to pick it (And even then, there was one other person whom I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were involved). This is how you effectively conceal villains, folks. I wasn’t fooled ultimately, but I can see many others being fooled for sure.

 

The film is actually really gory, but I have to say, it doesn’t seem appropriate for this kind of film. The guilty person (or persons) in question just don’t seem like the type to absolutely fillet people as they do in some cases here. The squibs are just too much like paint, though I suspect CGI might’ve been used. Whatever the method, it doesn’t convince. The film is a tad more confusing than need be, with one supporting character (a rogue former member of the team) not being adequately explained, and one supposed murder plays out too much like a stupid accident that I can’t understand how it was really murder. It’s also a very, very silly scene (You’ll know it when you see it, it stands out like a sore thumb). The action is solid when it comes, but it doesn’t come often enough and the pace starts to drop somewhere in the middle a bit. It’s not boring, but there’s definitely a noticeable drop in the energy level.

 

Better than “Escape Plan” and “The Last Stand”, this latter day Arnold film isn’t boring in the slightest, and is refreshingly dark and grim for the Austrian star. It actually reminds me of the kind of harsh, violent stuff Walter Hill used to come up with (the underrated “Extreme Prejudice” in particular), albeit not as good. However, the gore is beyond belief for this kind of film, and Mireille Enos gives a ridiculously hammy performance that just pulls this back a peg. It’s a shame, the film could’ve been better if it just calmed down a tad (Then again, it’s also a shame it flopped so badly in the US and was released direct-to-DVD in Australia. It’s hardly “Raw Deal”!). As is, it’s very watchable, and a hair above Arnie’s “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan”, whilst dragging behind “The Expendables 2 & 3”.

 

Rating: C+

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: Skin Trade


Dolph Lundgren plays a cop who kills the son of Serbian human trafficking crime lord  Ron Perlman in a shootout. As retaliation, Perlman has Lundgren’s wife and daughter killed, and Lundgren is left comatose. When he wakes up, Lundgren has revenge on his mind, eventually tracking Perlman down in Thailand. Getting in his way, however, is a local cop (Tony Jaa), who is after Perlman for his own reasons. Eventually they begrudgingly decide to come together to bring the sex slave ring down. Celina Jade turns up as a sexy club worker/police informant (of Jaa’s) who runs afoul of Perlman. Michael Jai White plays a bespectacled FBI agent sent to stop Lundgren from going down that dark path, Peter Weller is the angry police captain, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has a cameo as a corrupt Thai government official.

 

***** SPOILER WARNING ***** I will be discussing the action scenes in this film, and thus revealing the allegiances of the cast/characters, so best save this review for after you’ve seen the film. Once again a poor waste of Tony Jaa’s talents and not the B-grade version of “The Expendables” the cast might suggest, this 2014 action-drama is poorly written and not as much fun as it should’ve been. It’s certainly nowhere near the semi-hype it seemed to amass online prior to release. I was disappointed. Co-written by leading man Dolph Lundgren (who also co-produced) and directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham (writer-director of the transgender martial arts film “Beautiful Boxer”), it reminded me of “Escape Plan”, in that both films are OK but simply not the kind of film its cast should’ve been making nor the film their audience would really be looking forward to seeing. I understand Mr. Lundgren was very much interested in the sex slave/trade issue, but this is a cop drama with social issues, not a martial arts film. Tony Jaa, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and Michael Jai White needn’t have bothered turning up in this, their participation feels inorganic and tacked on.

 

The film’s biggest asset is actually its complete stupidity, which is rather charming. It’s so silly and trashy that you wish it were even more so. I mean, for the most part it plays like a Chuck Norris cop flick or an early Steven Seagal film but with less martial arts (and terrible pacing). Take for instance the patented ‘cop and his family are targeted for termination by the bad guys’ scene, which is an absolutely hilarious, poor imitation of “Hard to Kill”. It even involves a fucking rocket launcher! The young lady playing Lundgren’s daughter, by the way, is a shocker. The opening scene with a young girl drugged and prepared for sex slavery, is right out of a trashy Charles Bronson film circa 1986. So it’s a very old-school film using a very serious subject as fodder for a cheesy exploitation/action film, which I am cool with. Unfortunately, Lundgren has apparently seen “Eastern Promises” and has given us the B/C-grade version of it, minus the Naomi Watts character and with some “Hard to Kill”, “Taken”, and “Exit Wounds” thrown into the mix. That’s too much for one film to deal with, and certainly lacking in originality (I’ve read Lundgren wrote the script before “Taken” was released, but I’m not necessarily just gonna take Ivan Drago’s word for it). A Serbian-accented Ron Perlman is clearly playing Armin Mueller-Stahl’s character in “Eastern Promises”.

 

The film is also just clunkily done, in terms of plot. And I’m not just talking about the ‘surprise’ villain who is about as surprising as the one in “Exit Wounds”. It feels like it has three or four first acts in the first 40 minutes alone, and there’s way too much cross-cutting between locales (Thailand, and Vancouver masquerading as New Jersey). What ends up suffering in this first half (aside from pacing) is the action, especially of the martial arts variety. The first 40 minutes or so just don’t deliver the goods and might alienate martial arts fans to the point that they turn it off. Although an initial Lundgren-Jaa fight is avoided, we do get to see Jaa running at Lundgren who is approaching him on a motorbike, with Jaa trying to pull him off the bike. It’s a truly insane stunt. The film finally wakes up in the second half, though, starting with a terrific sawdust-filled fight between Jaa and Lundgren where some couches clearly got the holy fuck pounded out of them. Lundgren’s obviously not where he once was (He looks great for 57, though!), so some concessions have had to be made, but Jaa is truly impressive in flight. Like I said, the film’s silliness is its greatest asset. I mean, Jaa and Lundgren are essentially on the same side here, but nah, fuck it- let’s try to kill each other over semantics! Intentional or not, it’s bloody amusing in a film that seems to want to take itself too seriously, hammering home a message that isn’t as new as Lundgren seems to think. The Jaa vs. Michael Jai White fight is ridiculous fun, with White looking just as imposing and dominant as ever, though for once he has comes off second best here. Seriously, the guy’s normally as unbeatable in a fight as all of Steven Seagal’s characters. Jaa also has a moment that seems to defy explanation as he is standing next to a truck and takes out a guy who is ON the truck with a spin kick. How the fuck did he do that? The man is truly incredible, it’s just a shame that the film doesn’t afford him enough opportunities to prove it. So yes, the second half is undoubtedly better than the first, enough to bump it up to a watchable rating.

 

This film simply isn’t a very good showcase for its cast. Lead actor Lundgren is merely OK but looks in good shape, Jaa gets to speak English (and handles it better than I expected) but is given lame one-liners like ‘Negotiation is…over’. He’s got the second-biggest role here, but the man is better than the film deserves and I’m getting sick of having to say that. I’m not a “Fast and the Furious” fan, but I hope that franchise (and “SPL II”) utilises his great talents a little better than most of his recent output. Ron Perlman and Peter Weller are genuinely talented (and legit) actors, but this film doesn’t really offer any proof of that. Perlman is imposing physically but has surprisingly little screen time for someone playing the main villain. Peter Weller plays the angry, tough police boss effortlessly, or at least seemingly. He’s such an underrated and sadly underutilised actor. Most wasted of all here is B-grade martial arts villain Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa who has a mere cameo as a sleazy Cambodian politician keeping Perlman in hiding in the second half. He’s like Juan Fernandez or Billy Drago to Perlman’s Henry Silva or William Smith, to get back to the Chuck Norris connection. Michael Jai White, like Scott Adkins is a charismatic guy, capable of putting in solid performances too, and is also an impressive cinematic arse-kicker. Watch almost any other action film he’s been in for proof of this (“Blood and Bone” or particularly “Undisputed II: Last Man Standing” with Adkins, a superlative martial arts film), because he doesn’t get much screen time here. It is amusing, however, whenever he does get a scant few moments to spin kick someone’s arse, because he does so while wearing the nerdiest glasses this side of Steve Urkel. It’s a helluva thing to see, folks.

 

The film’s best asset by far is the local Thai scenery and cinematography by Ben Nott (“Daybreakers”, “Predestination”). The ending is surprisingly ballsy I must say, and the best thing about the script. It’s not a closed book at all, and I liked that, it doesn’t even look like it was just tacked-on to allow a sequel, either. It’s a bit of a kick in the guts, so to speak.

 

This isn’t a bad film, just really clunky and not as good (or at least not as much fun) as it should’ve been. It’s frustratingly uneven. Lundgren co-scripted with Aussie Gabriel Dowrick (mostly known as an editor), Steven Elder (a veteran TV actor making his screenwriting debut), and an uncredited John Hyams (director of the startling “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”). The misuse of Tony Jaa continues… 

 

Rating: C+

Review: Soylent Green


Charlton Heston plays a NY cop in 2022, which is typically overpopulated, and processed food is all that is available to the masses, manufactured by The Soylent Corporation. Heston is investigating the death of Joseph Cotten, the head of Soylent, who has been murdered in his apartment. His superiors think it’s just a case of petty theft turned wrong (and given Cotten was rich enough to afford ‘real’ food, it’s not implausible), but Heston is adamant there’s more to the story. And boy is there ever! Edward G. Robinson plays Heston’s elderly assistant, Brock Peters plays Heston’s boss, Chuck Connors plays Cotten’s thug bodyguard, Roy Jenson an assassin, Whit Bissell is a politician with connections to Soylent, Leigh Taylor-Young is Heston’s love interest, and Lincoln Kilpatrick and Dick Van Patten have cameos as a preacher and…well, I can’t even describe Van Patten’s role. Just see the movie, trust me.

 

Alright, so the element of surprise is gone with this 1973 sci-fi flick from Richard Fleischer (“Fantastic Voyage”, “Barabbas”, “The Vikings”, and the infamous “Mandingo”) and screenwriter Stanley R. Greenberg (“Skyjacked” with Charlton Heston), thanks to “The Simpsons”. We all know what Soylent Green really is by now. However, this film has more than a twist ending going for it. In fact, I’d argue that the big twist is easy enough to predict without being a “Simpsons” fan from the moment you hear the words ‘waste disposal’ in practically the first ten minutes. And yet, it doesn’t ruin one’s enjoyment of the film, at least not for me. Hell, transparent or not, it’s still an interesting and audacious twist, and only really slightly lessens the film’s effectiveness. Adapted from a novel by Harry Harrison, I think it’s actually one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the 70s and certainly better than Heston’s “The Omega Man”.

 

The film starts interestingly with an effective view of historical human innovation leading up to the film’s ‘futuristic’ worldview of 2022. Yes, we’re very close to reaching that year as I write this in 2015. Pretty scary, all things spoiler-y considered. The scene where a book from 2015-2019 has Edward G. Robinson lamenting that books ‘had paper once’ is quite creepy watched by me in 2015. It’s not far from the reality we have already now! It’s an interestingly bleak future worldview, and the film looks terrific too, even if at times it feels like the future was designed on the distant memories of someone of the 70s era. Good-looking or not, the occasional 70s elements turning up are probably the only flaw here for me. It’s a little limited in imagination, in that sense, though it still manages to create an interesting futuristic urban nightmare visage.

 

You can see what the theme is here, a fear of processed foods wiping out organic foods. It’s a clever idea on an issue that still hits home today, really. We still live in a society that tends to promote organic foods whilst most of us, especially below the upper class tend to consume more (affordable) processed junk instead (Guilty as charged right here).

 

Chuck Heston is in fine form as the futuristic cop who is like a less robotic Deckard from “Blade Runner” (or at least, could be a cop in that film’s futuristic world). Personally, given the futuristic-yet-70s vibe of the film, I think James Coburn would’ve been an even better choice for the lead. He’s much more at home playing the 70s lover man than the super-serious Heston (even a laidback James Garner might’ve been interesting in the part). But it’s Heston we have, and it’s one of his best roles of the 70s for sure, he does a very fine job with it. Less interesting is leading lady Leigh Taylor-Young, who is pretty stiff. There’s a reason why no one talks about her anymore. A really good and obvious reason.

 

Although he’s not in the film much, character actor Whit Bissell is fine as always in what in the 80s and 90s might’ve been called the Ronny Cox role. It’s a shame the role is so small, because when you think about it, he’s basically the central villain, not something Bissell normally got to play (if ever). Chuck Connors is appropriately cast mainly for intimidating physical presence, whilst for once Joseph Cotten’s positively suicidal demeanour works well for his cameo here. He seemed awfully depressed (and glassy-eyed) at this point in his career. On a good day, he was one of the most underrated actors of all-time, but the 70s and early 80s didn’t see many good days for him. Dick Van Patten, meanwhile has never been creepier than in his cameo here. Special mention must go to Edward G. Robinson and Brock Peters. This, the last ever film appearance by the great Robinson is not among his finest roles, but he does an excellent job with it. I can’t decide whether his last scene is a brilliant way to go out on a top career or positively ridiculous. Maybe both, but either way it sure is the damndest thing, and ominously the last scene Robinson ever filmed. Brock Peters and his frankly magnificent, deep voice is always good to see and hear, even if he’s playing the John Shaft of the dystopian future society. Or at least the ‘angry black police boss’ of the dystopian future society. Really nice, shadowy, low-level lighting by Richard H. Kline (“The Andromeda Strain”, “Mandingo”, “Body Heat”) deserves singling out, too.

 

An interesting and underrated sci-fi film that deals with issues that are still somewhat relevant to today, actually. Like “Silent Running”, it’s a sci-fi film with a social conscience. Some will find it heavy-handed, sure, but certainly interesting. That said, it could’ve been a true classic if it had found a way to tell its story without spilling the lentils and soya beans too early. That and perhaps not designing its future society based on a then-current (but now outdated) model. As is, though, it’s definitely worth a look. Don’t pay too much attention to its mediocre reputation (though its box-office was fine). I think it’s time for a re-appraisal of this one, it’s been the butt of jokes for far too long already.

 

Rating: B-

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: Insomnia (2002)

RIP Robin Williams. A year on and it still hurts...
 
 
***** SPOILER WARNING ***** Although this film is more character study than whodunit, those who don’t want the killer’s identity revealed may want to skip this review, as I make it pretty clear who it is. But then, so does the film about halfway in. Anyway. So turn back now ye weary travellers if spoilers not what ye be seeking. Arrrrrr. No, I have no idea why I’m talking like a pirate. It’s not weird, right?

 

Al Pacino and Martin Donovan are LA detectives under investigation by IA over evidence planting, the latter of whom is contemplating cutting a deal. They find themselves in a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. Already an insomniac, Pacino is thrown for a loop by the 24 hour sunlight of Alaska. They think they have the killer (believed to be an author, played by Robin Williams) trapped one day, but the seriously thick fog sees him getting away and tragedy striking as a cop is mistakenly killed instead. Pacino, seemingly unsure of whether the stray bullet came from him or not (he thinks he shot the killer, but he most likely didn’t), tampers with the evidence to shift the blame off of him and onto the killer. And that’s when the killer starts messing with Pacino, calling him at all hours. A weird kind of relationship begins between the two, with the killer knowing he has Pacino somewhat in a tight spot as he knows Pacino has tampered with evidence to clear his name (in a shooting that is clearly an accident, mind you). He even tries to convince Pacino to shift the blame for the girl’s murder onto her supposedly abusive boyfriend and away from him. But has he sucked Pacino in nearly as much as he thinks? Is this guy even the killer? Hillary Swank is the eager beaver young Alaskan cop, Katharine Isabelle and Jonathan Jackson are the best friend and boyfriend of the deceased, Paul Dooley and Nicky Katt are cops, and Maura Tierney plays a local hotel manager who befriends Pacino and Donovan.

 

A remake of a 1997 Norwegian film, this 2002 crime-thriller from Christopher Nolan (“Memento”, “The Prestige”, “The Dark Knight”, “Inception”) is really atmospheric stuff. Al Pacino has one of his finest hours in decades here, with a nicely modulated performance. He’s mostly pretty low-key and appropriately zombified in appearance, perfect casting really. He yells once or twice, but because he’s so relatively quiet the rest of the time, it works, and comes off as less typical ‘Shouty Al’ and more a character authentically acting out in the moment. It’s a terrific, weary performance that anchors the film.

 

The late Robin Williams, meanwhile, gives us one of his two great villainous turns here, the other being the seriously creepy “One Hour Photo”. He’s not on screen nearly as much in this one, but it’s just so amazing that someone so ebullient, warm-hearted and good-natured could be so effectively emotionless and sociopathic here. Robin Williams, ladies and gentlemen. Versatile actor, great comedian, complex human being, sorely and tragically missed. His characterisation is meek yet cunning and quietly creepy.

 

Hillary Swank has never really managed to capitalise on her one-two punch of Oscar wins for “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby”, and this role certainly wasn’t anything noteworthy. However, she is nonetheless perfectly (and convincingly) sweet and naïve, but also capable of playing ultimately a very competent cop. I hope Ms. Swank once again finds interesting roles to play, she certainly has the talent, even if she does have her limits (playing a femme fatale in the awful “Black Dahlia” was a tragic mistake). Nicky Katt also has a fun small role as an irritable local cop who doesn’t like the big city boys moving in on his territory. Meanwhile, what the hell ever became of Jonathan Jackson? He was shaping up to almost be somebody around this time and then…I dunno, it’s been a long time since I last recall seeing him. He’s believably troubled here.

 

Another character in the film is Alaska itself. The later horror flick “30 Days of Night” certainly made good use of its bizarro weather patterns. This is probably the best work to date from Nolan’s usual go-to cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception”). Sure, the scenery does a lot of the work, but Pfister deserves credit for capturing it and using it to great effect. I could never live in Alaska. The cold and snow would be bad enough, but I couldn’t deal with perpetual daylight. That would surely fuck you up six ways to Sunday. What does an insomniac do in such a circumstance then? Move somewhere else, I’d suggest.

 

Wonderfully atmospheric, well-acted, and engrossing, it’s probably Nolan’s second best behind “Memento”, and just ahead of “Inception”. I really can’t fault this one. If you’re like me and enjoy a good killer-thriller, this is definitely a must, it’s one of the best. The screenplay is by debutant Hillary Seitz (who later co-wrote the appallingly silly “Eagle Eye”), from the earlier film. Apparently Nolan wrote the final draft of the film himself, however.

 

Rating: B

Review: Parents


Set in the 50s where the Laemle family have just moved into a new suburb. Young Michael (Bryan Madorsky) is a pint-sized, fussy eater, displeasing his man’s man father (Randy Quaid) to no end. When he inquires to mother (Mary Beth Hurt) as to where the ‘leftovers’ come from if they eat ‘leftovers’ every night, he doesn’t get a straight answer. Then late one night he spies his parents engaging in some kind of weirdo feeding ritual with bloody slabs of meat. Could Michael’s All-American parents be cannibals feasting on human flesh? Sandy Dennis plays a blowsy school psychologist who worries about the boy, and Deborah Rush plays the mother of Michael’s one ally, a local girl (Juno Mills-Cockell).

 

The directorial debut of actor Bob Balaban (Who played Russell Dalrymple, the NBC bigwig on “Seinfeld” as well as countless film credits), and also his best-known film as a director, this seriously black comedy is like a horror movie directed by John Waters (“Polyester”, “Hairspray”), but less kinky perhaps. It certainly shares his warped view of American suburbia, taking place (vaguely) in the 50s, albeit a hyperreal depiction of the 50s. Some of Balaban’s rather avant-garde visual flourishes are a tad unnecessary, but he does a pretty OK job here, though young Bryan Madorsky is a dud in essentially the lead role. He’s awfully small-looking and has no idea how to project his voice, which is really not good for a chief protagonist. He doesn’t really register on screen, and it’s no surprise that he didn’t have a career after this.

 

Scripted by Christopher Hawthorne, it’s not always on target (largely because Madorsky is so unengaging at the centre), and frankly not as amusing as it really ought to be. However I think it’s an interesting, slightly underrated film, and Randy Quaid is excellent in a performance more low-key and subtle than you might expect. With nerdy glasses, an intimidating size and somewhat sneering voice, he’s perfectly cast and undeniably creepy. The man can be a helluva talent when he’s not fleeing to Canada and making crazy pseudo-documentaries about actors being targeted for assassination (Look up ‘Star Whackers’ kids, it’s fun reading). Mary Beth Hurt isn’t my favourite actress to say the least, but she’s spot-on as a woman capable of being a cheery, all-American mum, but weird enough that she might conceivably be hiding something sinister. Poor Sandy Dennis, meanwhile, looks like she kept on drinking after “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” wrapped up in the 60s, she looks and acts rather sloshed in her small role here (She is Method trained, so I could be right about that).

 

Definitely one for the Randy Quaid fans, he’s in great form here, if not quite as wild-eyed and boisterous as you might expect. Another asset is the genuinely unnerving, ambient-sounding score by occasional David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (“Blue Velvet”, “Lost Highway”, TV’s “Twin Peaks”) and Jonathan Elias (“Children of the Corn”, “Vamp”, “Two-Moon Junction”). Uneven and slightly uncomfortable to watch at times as a red meat eater, this is an occasionally amusing and interesting black comedy that won’t be for all tastes. It could’ve been even better if the script were funnier or if it pushed the envelope more with its cannibalistic subject matter. A better child actor in the lead would’ve also helped greatly.

 

Rating: C+

Monday, August 10, 2015

Review: 47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves plays Kai, who has grown up among samurai, despite not actually being one of them, and knowing that he will never be fully accepted. When an evil rival lord (Tadanobu Asano, the piercing and pain-obsessed star of “Ichi the Killer”) and his witch cohort (Rinko Kikuchi) use sorcery to cause Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) to attack the rival lord, Lord Asano is publically disgraced and forced by the Shogun (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to commit seppuku (ritualistic suicide). Lord Asano’s samurai are subsequently stripped of their honour and title, now deemed to be Ronin, or samurai without a master. When the rival lord orders Asano’s lovely daughter Mika (Ko Shibasaki) to marry him, Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) decides to band his former samurai brethren together to seek revenge on their enemy for the death of their master. This despite being warned by The Shogun not to do so. He asks Kai (who has been sold into slavery in what looks like a Feudal Japan version of Thunderdome) to be an integral part of this plan. Kai and Oishi, by the way, are both in love with Mika, and Mika with Kai, though theirs is a love that shall never be. Or something. Clyde Kusatsu turns up briefly as a drunk, whilst Gedde Watanabe also has a small role.

 

This movie was supposed to be terrible. That it isn’t, and is in fact kinda watchable, will have me in therapy for years, believe me. This supernaturally-tinged 2013 samurai flick from debut director Carl Rinsch isn’t exactly good (and presumably nothing like any of the six previous versions of the story, one directed by Kenji Mizoguchi), and the CGI elements are completely unnecessary, but this is an OK, workman-like job. It certainly doesn’t show evidence of the rumoured studio interference impacting the film negatively (It was shot in 2011!), nor does former commercials director Rinsch disgrace himself at the helm. It’s also a very pretty film, it has to be said, and the music score by Ilan Eshkeri (“Stardust”) is decent, too.

 

Keanu Reeves, though unmemorable, isn’t the laughing stock you’re likely expecting. Likewise, the battle/action sequences aren’t splendiferous, but they are at least classically shot by cinematographer John Mathieson (“Gladiator”, “Hannibal”, “Brighton Rock”), instead of shaking everything to buggery. Stoic Hiroyuki Sanada might not be the most expressive actor in the world, but he’s bloody perfect here. You wish the film were more about him, though to be fair, Reeves’ character isn’t as central as I was expecting, either. Of the rest, the casting of Long Duk Dong (AKA actor Gedde Watanabe) was a tad distracting for me, but the only weak link is Rinko Kikuchi as the evil witch/sorceress. She’s not terrible, but sounds like she’s learnt her lines phonetically. I liked her Medusa-like hair, however.

 

I don’t know who the person doing the opening narration is, but they half-arse it, and it tells us stuff we’ve already been shown anyway. What the hell? Credit where it’s due, the ending is ballsy for a Hollywood film, too. It’s a lumpy film (It’s probably a subject best handled by the Japanese themselves) and not a terribly good one, but it’s tolerable and I promise you that it’s better than you’re expecting. Is that a recommendation? Nope, but it’s a lot more positive than I was expecting to be. How the hell did this not suck? The screenplay is by Chris Morgan (“Cellular”, “Wanted”, “Fast Five”) and Hossein Amini (“Drive”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”), from a story by Walter Hamada (executive producer of “The Conjuring”) and Morgan.

 

Rating: C+

Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


Several vignettes set in the seedy, noirish Basin City. Dwight (Josh Brolin) gets involved with a sexy former flame (Eva Green) who tells him her husband (Marton Csokas, bland as usual) is abusive. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a cocky gambler who just won’t quit trying to beat corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe, Satanically glowering), who doesn’t like to lose. Stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) has her own beef with the evil Senator, who previously killed her guardian angel Hartigan (Bruce Willis, as kind of a ghost), and has bloody revenge in mind…that is, when she’s not three sheets to the wind. Also turning up from time to time is hulking brute Marv, who has his own troubles, but later lends Dwight a hand in taking down another hulking brute, the seemingly indestructible Manute (Dennis Haysbert), Green’s henchman. Jude Ciccolella plays Roark’s chief advisor, Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven are cops (the former of whom gets ensnared by Green, the latter of whom is apparently the character Michael Madsen previously played, but you can’t tell), Rosario Dawson is back as tough streetwalker Gail, while Jamie Cheung fills in for the apparently pregnant Devon Aoki as samurai Miho, and Ray Liotta and Lady Gaga have small roles as a volatile and philandering businessman and waitress, respectively. Stacy Keach and Christopher Lloyd have memorable cameos as a grotesque mob boss and junkie doctor, respectively.

 

It’s been a long wait (plans for a sequel date back to the first film’s theatrical release in 2005!), and this 2014 follow-up to “Sin City” from Robert Rodriguez (“Once Upon a Time in Mexico”, “Machete”) and Frank Miller (creator of the graphic novel series) is certainly an inferior product. The stories are uneven, and the freshness is obviously gone. The return appearances by Mickey Rourke and Jessica Alba are unwelcome, and since Willis’ character died last time out, bringing him back adds absolutely nothing to the film. I can see a storyline reason for it, but I still think it’s a mistake. Alba’s the bigger problem, though. She’s not very convincing, doesn’t perform the most important duty of her character’s occupation, and her storyline with Powers Boothe’s Roark is one storyline too many. It belongs in its own film, as here it is far too short to work.

 

However, there’s still quite a bit to like here, even if it’s not as good as the first film and Jessica Alba still plays a stripper who frustratingly never strips (And unlike “Machete”, Rodriguez doesn’t give us CGI nudity, which is a shame) in a city called Sin City for cryin’ out loud. Aside from an astoundingly evil Powers Boothe reprising his role as Senator Roark (who interacts with several characters throughout), the standouts this time are some of the newcomers; Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Stacy Keach, Christopher Lloyd, and Dennis Haysbert (in the role previously played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan). Brolin, playing the part previously essayed by Clive Owen (but for a story set before the character had plastic surgery to look like Owen), is spot-on and once again reminds me of Nick Nolte. He may even be superior to Owen in the role of Dwight, actually. Dennis Haysbert gets a helluva physically imposing introduction…but unfortunately, after the enjoyable build-up he gets pummelled in an instant by Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s Marvin shares good chemistry with Brolin’s Dwight, but it’s barely utilised and he really shouldn’t be here. Truth be told, the short nature of the stories doesn’t help Haysbert, either. Although he gets completely upstaged by Boothe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt fits into this noir world rather nicely. This is easily Eva Green’s best-ever performance as the film’s main supplier of on-screen nudity (Oh if only the rumoured Salma Hayek were cast...Green looks nice, but Hayek? Yowzers!). She was quite simply born for film noir femme fatale roles, I believe. The show is almost stolen in one mere cameo scene by the great Stacy Keach. It’s an absolutely brilliant cameo, though Keach might be awfully hard to recognise under what appears to be the most flamboyant makeup job since Dom DeLuise played Pizza the Hutt in “Spaceballs”. His unmistakable voice and scar on his lip are dead giveaways, though. Bravo there, Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Keach, that was such a wonderful and bizarro surprise. Although he only gets one scene too, the all-too rarely seen Christopher Lloyd is interesting casting as a drug-addicted ‘doctor’ who tends to Gordon-Levitt’s wounds. It’s really nice to see Doc Brown, and he plays the scene for all it’s worth. But it’s Keach, Green, and especially Boothe (he’s so good at being bad!) you’ll remember most vividly in this.

 

In small turns, a well-cast Ray Liotta, a funny and sleazy Jeremy Piven, and the always wonderful Rosario Dawson (the one returnee I didn’t mind seeing) are all solid. However, as much as I didn’t mind Lady Gaga turning up in “Machete Kills”, I take exception to her being here. She’s fine, I just reject her on principle this time out. Also, nice try Mr. Rodriguez, but just because they’re both Asian, doesn’t mean you can fool us into believing former “Real World” hottie Jamie Cheung and Devon Aoki are the same person. Uh-uh. 

 

Overall, this is just a hair below a recommendation, but that’s still quite a comedown from the very fine original. There’s still a lot to like here, but a lot feels redundant and disappointing overall, to be honest. It wasn’t worth the wait, and the likes of Rutger Hauer, Elijah Wood, and Nick Stahl are sorely missed here (Their characters all died last time, sure, but still...)

 

Rating: C+