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 22, 2015

Review: Happy-Go-Lucky


Sally Hawkins is the aptly named Poppy, an irrepressibly cheerful, working class 30 year-old single woman who lives in a flat with her best mate and doesn’t take anything remotely seriously, innit. Poppy, a primary school teacher, has decided to learn how to drive, after her bicycle is stolen, innit. Her instructor is Scott (Eddie Marsan, brilliant) a no-nonsense, taciturn grump who is about to experience his own personal hell with a woman who has no notion of personal space/privacy, never stops giggling and teasing him, and has a serious inability to focus on the task at hand about 99% of the time. Their sessions can’t end soon enough for Scott, innit. Meanwhile, we see Poppy at work dealing with a troubled student, having flamenco lessons with an hilariously passionate teacher (Karina Fernandez), and having a strange encounter with an unpredictable homeless man that shows for all her irritating qualities, Poppy really does care. Innit. 

 

INNIT?

 

I’ve put off watching this 2008 Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies”, “Vera Drake”) film for years because of my complete intolerance for Sally Hawkins. This was the film that really broke her, and from the trailers it looked like a truly excruciating experience. The fact that I found “Secrets and Lies” insufferable didn’t help (Brenda Blethyn does for me what Hawkins does, pretty much). Perhaps several years of having to put up with Ms. Hawkins (who was fine in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”) has softened the blow somewhat, but this turned out not to be quite as excruciating as I had been expecting (Apparently the original cut was over 2 ½ hours, so thank heavens it was shorn down a bit!).

 

Having said that, Hawkins (who gets quite the showcase here for her caricatured cockney schtick, innit) and the character of Poppy are still very hard to take, and I get the feeling that Mr. Leigh thought far more highly of Poppy than I did. Moreso than Hawkins’ actual portrayal of the character, I actually detested Poppy throughout. Neither she nor writer-director Leigh seem to understand that there is something very, very wrong with Poppy, who seems to break out into a case of the giggles on every occasion, warranted or not. That’s incredibly annoying after about five minutes. With two hours to go. Good-hearted and positive to the end as she certainly is, Poppy simply has absolutely no self-awareness whatsoever, and thrusts her perennial good cheer onto others where it may or may not be proper or even remotely helpful. She’s also got an extreme case of ADHD, and for someone apparently wanting to learn to drive, these two major character malfunctions had me completely onside with Eddie Marsan’s gruff, explosive driving instructor throughout. Given the way the film ultimately pans out, I don’t think this was the desired response. In fact, Scott becomes quite unlikeable and unstable towards the end…and I still think he was in the right for the most part (He’s a wee bit racist, so I can’t say I was entirely on board with the guy).

 

I have no problem with the film’s message of positivity. It’s good to keep on smiling and having a laugh when you can. That’s a good thing a lot of the time, so long as you’re not a giggling twit about it. What I have a serious problem with is Poppy forcing her attitude of positivity on other people at all times. Look, Poppy, you self-absorbed, bubble-brained twat: Sometimes life is a vicious, sick and twisted sonofabitch, and laughing about it doesn’t always help. It may work for you, but it’s no good forcing other people to see things the way you do, especially when you don’t know just how shit their day was or what their circumstances are. Poppy’s refusal to see this and mind her own damn business every once in a while, make her an insensitive pest. And we’re being asked to spend about two hours with this woman. At least the driving instructor is getting paid for the ordeal. I’m sorry, but innately positive and cheery people who can’t understand why everyone isn’t like them piss me off. Besides, just ‘coz someone’s not an insipid, giggly bobble-head all the time doesn’t mean they aren’t perfectly content in life.

 

I do have to admit, however, that there’s a really marvellous scene between Poppy and a sad, weird homeless guy. It shows that Poppy clearly has a big heart, even if she has no sense of self-awareness…or any kind of awareness, really. In fact, there are exactly three scenes in the entire film where Poppy isn’t a complete tit. They show her to be sensible and empathetic. They are the best scenes in the film (aside from the very funny cameo by Karina Fernandez as the one person who might actually benefit from some of what Poppy has) and stand out like a sore thumb because the rest of the time, she’s an excruciating tit of a woman. It seems to be the tale of two Poppy’s, really, which is just poor filmmaking. The Poppy who is attentive, empathetic, and intuitive in one scene can’t possibly be the self-absorbed, bubble-headed knob of the rest of the film.

 

I can’t deny that some of the scenes with Poppy trying to get at Marsan are amusing and not just because of the wonderfully taciturn Marsan. Marsan has one especially hilarious bit talking about the Washington monument, which I won’t spoil, and an absolutely priceless reaction shot when Poppy tells him she’s a primary school teacher. But one feels like the dynamic going on here is like a two hour episode of “Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em”, except Frank Spencer was always loveable and that show was often painfully hilarious (one of the best sitcoms ever made). This film is frequently aggravating, and pretty damn thin. I really wouldn’t mind this film so much were Leigh not so firmly in Poppy’s favour. He makes people like the Marsan character out to be the problem, when really the problem is Poppy and her lack of self-awareness and the feelings and personal space of others. We’re supposed to think that Poppy would be so much lesser if she lost her sunny qualities, but Leigh doesn’t realise how far he and Hawkins have overpitched things to the point where the racist, angry instructor is more sympathetic. Leigh eventually shows that Scott has a darker side that is indeed problematic, but by then one isn’t sure if it’s not Poppy’s fault for driving him fucking volcanically insane in the first place. I mean, this woman does NOT belong behind the wheel of a car if she can’t focus her attention on any one thing for more than two seconds. She needs medication, immediately. I also don’t think the film ends as well as it could have to be honest. It almost leaves one feeling like the whole thing was pointless.

 

The seriously off-putting main character keeps one at arm’s length throughout. It’s a love it or not film, clearly. I’m in the latter camp, but not quite as firmly as I was expecting. I can see why some people love it, but believe me, the rest of us hate you so much. I didn’t hate the film though, even if I’m a million miles away from liking it. Oh, and I fucking hate the expression ‘Happy Go-Lucky’, and can barely tolerate most people fitting that description. If you’re a fan of films like “Shirley Valentine” and “Educating Rita”, and love actresses like Julie Walters and Brenda Blethyn, you’ll likely enjoy what Leigh and Hawkins supply here. I loathe this kind of thing, so I was surprised to find I was able to stomach this. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

 

Rating: C

Friday, August 21, 2015

Review: The Valley of Decision


Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s, Greer Garson plays a young Irish woman who gets hired as a maid working for steel mill owner Donald Crisp. Her embittered, wheelchair-bound father (Lionel Barrymore) is enraged, blaming his former employer Crisp for a workplace accident years ago that left him in his current state. Nonetheless, Garson soon finds herself accepted by the family, and is particularly noticed by Peck, though their romance is tentative due to their class difference. Labour disputes form an important subplot, with Preston Foster playing a dull would-be suitor for Garson, who is also the union head looking to compromise before things get out of hand. Gladys Cooper plays Peck’s mother, who is quite fond of Garson, and Jessica Tandy is a friend of Peck’s family, who would like to be much more than friends with Peck. Peck’s siblings (who are far less interested in the family mill than he) are played by the scheming Dan Duryea, and the bratty but far more likeable Marsha Hunt and the somewhat reckless Marshall Thompson. Reginald Owen plays a moustachioed Scotsman co-worker at the mill, while a young Dean Stockwell makes his debut film appearance as Peck’s son, and looks about 7 years old at the time.

 

Directed by Tay Garnett (“Bataan”, “The Fireball”), this 1945 drama hasn’t been too horribly damaged by the passage of time. The story is basic, but the sense of time and place are well-captured, with Greer Garson and Gregory Peck pretty easy to take to in the lead roles. There’s also fine support from Jessica Tandy (Miss Daisy used to be British- who knew?), a colourful Reginald Owen, and Gladys Cooper. Garson was the only one among the cast to earn an Oscar nomination, but I think Peck (in just his third film, not that you can tell from his sturdy performance) and Cooper deserved nods too. Lionel Barrymore is entertaining in a hammy performance, but is slightly hampered by his one-dimensional role. He’s light-years ahead of Preston Foster, however, who is a total block of wood. It’s a shame that the usually fantastically slimy Dan Duryea’s character never allows him to truly cut loose. The character really ought to be the villain of the piece, but he’s just not on screen enough. It’s left to Tandy and her Bette Davis-esque ice-water veins to supply the odiousness here.

 

This is no “Little Foxes”, but it’s pretty decent nonetheless. It’s not a great film (though I could see it being someone’s favourite film), but a solid one, even if the dual narration is weirdly inconsistent and an ill-fit. Definitely recommended for Greer Garson fans, and probably Gregory Peck fans too. The screenplay is by John Meehan (“Boys Town”, “The Painted Veil”) and Sonya Levien (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Oklahoma!”), from a Marcia Davenport (“East Side, West Side”) novel.

 

Rating: B-

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: Gravity


Sandra Bullock stars as rookie astronaut Ryan Stone, who is guided by the laidback attitude of more experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). They are performing a fairly simple repair on the Hubble telescope when Mission Control sends word of a Russian satellite being hit and a shitload of debris is hurtling in their direction. They are unable to do anything about it before the shuttle is struck. They find themselves drifting through space before Kowalski manages to tether himself to Stone, and they soon discover their shuttle is damaged and the crew dead. They are all alone in the vast emptiness of space. And that’s just the beginning, folks.

 

An extremely simple but extremely effectively told story, this 2013 space-drama from director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) is a real winner, easily one of the best of the year. In fact, there’s only one false moment in the entire film, an ill-advised moment with Sandra Bullock: Master Animal Impressionist, that is a bizarre and unfortunate anomaly in an otherwise completely convincing film.

 

I was super-critical of Bullock’s Best Actress Oscar win for “The Blind Side”, one of the weakest Oscar winning performances of all-time and a borderline crap film to boot. This performance right here is the one she deserved a damn Oscar for, so it’s a shame she didn’t get it (She’s probably better than Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine”, but Blanchett had her first Oscar stolen by Gwyneth Paltrow and was owed one. And was bloody good, too). She’s immediately right here, and a very relatable presence on screen, managing to keep from being upstaged by some very impressive visuals. Some might quibble that her apparently able astronaut seems a bit too panicky and prone to making mistakes, but I actually forgot all that after a while and just went with it. Besides, she’s meant to be a rookie on her first space mission, and this isn’t a documentary, so of course things are going to be heightened. You have to accept that before watching a fictional film on almost any subject, really.

 

For me, the two most impressive aspects of the film are the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and the incredible visual FX. Almost everything here is a visual effect, and at no moment does it fail to convince. In fact, I was so impressed and so fooled, that I initially wanted to credit Lubezki’s work more than the FX team, citing in my notes that it was the best cinematography of 2013. In hindsight, most of what I was seeing was due to the FX department, but it’s still undoubtedly the best-looking film of 2013, no matter who you credit. It’s remarkably crisp-looking, and one of the few films I’m genuinely sad I didn’t see on the big-screen, this one probably demands it to get full appreciation (I still wouldn’t opt for 3D, though. You know the drill with me by now). The sustained opening shot is pretty astonishing I have to say, and shot composition (whether what we’re seeing is digital or ‘real’) and camera movement is truly amazing throughout. I particularly thought the shots from ‘inside’ Bullock’s space suit were really nifty and unique. Hell, I didn’t even mind the use of lens flares for once. Some of it comes from the glare derived from lights or stars or something, not just flares/sunspots for the sake of being ‘cool’. In fact, the film’s look might even be considered awe-inspiring. And CGI or not, this would not have been a simple film to map out and make. I’m sure space nerds will be apoplectic at times, pointing out technical flubs and impossibilities, but to a film nerd like me, I bought this big-time (And so did Buzz Aldrin, apparently, so take his word for it. He’s actually been up there).

 

I also must credit Cuaron for getting us off and running within 15 minutes or so, the film doesn’t waste time setting things up and never gets bogged down. It’s also a film that puts you in the mind of space travellers and what it must be like for them up there, especially seeing Earth from a distance. If I were an astronaut, seeing Earth from a distance like that would get me thinking about humanity, Earth, my place in it, maybe even God. I have no doubt it would be a transformative, and certainly introspective experience (possibly existential). Can you imagine what it must’ve been like to be the first person to see Earth from space? Or to see anything beyond Earth? I bet a lot of people would’ve loved to have been that person. The film doesn’t get as spiritual as “Contact”, but the element is there, and even an agnostic atheist like me has to say it’s quite beautifully done. You’ll know what I mean when you see the film. This, by the way, was a film I really had no interest in seeing, and boy do I feel glad I did see it. I do wish parents would stop naming their daughters Ryan, though. My name is NOT unisex! Stop doing that to my name, damn it! Even Clooney’s character points it out in the film, and if Clooney says it’s a boy’s name, then that should damn well be the end of it!

 

Excellent camerawork + wholly convincing CGI + two charismatic stars= Hell yes. In a way, this is a stunning piece of artwork, visually. Yes, artwork. The performances and gripping story also deserve praise, and if Bullock’s panicky character is a problem, it’s the only problem the film really has. It’s the best performance of her career, unquestionably, and Clooney’s cool and assured performance is an asset here, instead of being too self-satisfied and arrogant as he can be otherwise (I want to punch him in the balls on those Nespresso ads. Am I the only one?). This in my opinion is the best film ever made about space exploration, at least the best outside of the sci-fi genre. It also gets in, does its job, and gets out before outstaying its welcome, which is much appreciated. Brilliant cameo by Marvin the Martian, too, and the actor employed to voice mission control, is both ominously and amusingly chosen (I’ll say no more on that). Cuaron wrote the screenplay with son Jonas.

 

Rating: B

Review: One Hundred and One Dalmatians


Dalmatian Pongo (voiced by Rod Taylor) tries to set his struggling songwriter master up with a woman, who has her own female Dalmatian named Purdita (voiced by Cate Bauer), and it’s a match made in heaven, not just for their respective owners, but for the dogs, too. Soon, fifteen Dalmatian pups are born, and while their masters are struggling to keep up with their finances, they refuse the interest of one Cruella De Vil (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson), who wants to buy the puppies for obviously nefarious purposes. Undeterred, Cruella has her two bungling minions kidnap the pups (minus their parents), throwing them with a larger litter of pups she has already acquired. It’s up to Pongo and Purdita to come to the puppies’ rescue and stop Cruella from turning them into a fur coat!

 

Continuing my look at Disney animated films throughout the years, this was the first time I had actually seen this 1961 film directors Clyde Geronimi (“Peter Pan”, “Lady and the Tramp”), Hamilton S. Luske (“Pinocchio”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “Peter Pan”), and Wolfgang Reitherman (“Sleeping Beauty”, “The AristoCats”). It’s not top echelon Disney animated fare (“Pinocchio”, “Peter Pan”, “Robin Hood”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Jungle Book”), but it earns a healthy spot on the second tier (“Aladdin”, “The Lion King”, “The AristoCats”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), possibly even leading that secondary pack of films. Similarly, the film’s chief villainess Cruella De Vil isn’t the all-time great Disney villain of a Captain Hook, Maleficent, or Wicked Queen, but she’s not far behind, and the only thing that pulls her back is the scant amount of screen time she gets. She’s otherwise a marvellous villain, and her car is the most brilliantly Satanic-looking thing I’ve ever seen. She also sports the biggest fur coat in the history of fur coats. I also really liked the very 60s opening titles design, it’s more the sort of thing you’d get in a Blake Edwards comedy than a Disney animated film, and it sets things apart from the pack.

 

The film’s strongest asset is definitely the animation. It’s a vibrantly coloured and beautiful-looking film, it’s one of the best-looking animated films of the pre-CG era by far. I think Disney have tried to recapture this angular, sharp look in some of their more recent output (“Hercules”, “Pocahontas”), but have failed miserably at matching this. I must also commend our Rod Taylor for trying on an English accent, though he comes closer to Cary Grant or Ray Milland than say, David Niven. He certainly doesn’t sound like himself, so I give him credit for trying something different and not sounding like his usual self. I do think that the title dogs all blend together, somewhat, the film would’ve benefitted from a few distinct personalities. That said, at least the Disney animation team have made them look far cuter than real Dalmatians tend to be. I’m much more of a pug person myself (I also like Labradors and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, in case anyone gives a damn). However, as was the case in the later “Pocahontas”, Disney portrays pugs as snooty. Pugs are not in any way snooty. They are the friendliest dogs you could possibly find, as well as probably the dirtiest, to be honest. A little bit of research might’ve helped, guys. Another thing that really grated on me was the constant barking and howling. I know it’s a film about dogs, but it actually got really annoying after a while (If you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what I’m talking about). I also think the film suffers a bit in the midsection when the action drifts away from the title characters and Cruella onto other characters one found tedious (And annoying, due to the constant howling in this section). Also, as much as I’ve heard explanations for how my maths is wrong here, I swear there’s actually 116 Dalmatians in the film, not 101. There’s a scene where one of the dogs explains that there’s a group of ‘99 of us all together’, and then attention goes towards the original 15 puppies who only joined the 99 after being stolen. The dog says ‘We never counted them’. Therefore, those 15 puppies CAN’T be among the 99, because they were never counted. Either they never included them in the count of 99, or they never bothered to count how many of them there are (We know it’s fifteen). So, add the two parents and you get 116 Dalmatians! But later, when they are counted, the count ends at 101! Where are the missing 15 at the end of the film? It’s a conspiracy I tells ‘ya! C-O-N…spiracy! In order for the maths to be correct, there needs to be 84 stolen puppies, plus the 15 and their owners. That’s not how it is explained in the film.

 

It’s a lovely film and better than most Disney animated films that came after it. I wish I had seen it much sooner. However, it could’ve been even better with more Cruella and the puppies, and less of the other characters who frankly aren’t terribly necessary. The screenplay is by Bill Peet (“Fantasia”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “Peter Pan”), from a novel by Dodie Smith.

 

Rating: B-

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review: Judge Dredd


Set in a hellish future where America is divided into the post-apocalyptic wastelands and the more pleasant-looking city areas known as Mega Cities. Law and order is tasked to Judges, who are like detectives, law enforcers, and judicial figures all wrapped into one. The title character (played by Sly Stallone) is one of the most respected and feared of all Judges. However, when some conspiratorial forces see the freeing of a psycho former Judge named Rico (Armand Assante), Rico sees Judge Dredd framed for murder. Found guilty, Dredd receives some mercy from the Chief Judge (Max von Sydow), and instead of being sentenced to death, he’s merely banished to the wastelands. Do we think Dredd is gonna find his way back and exact some of his tough justice on Rico and whoever is behind him? Diane Lane plays a relatively inexperienced Judge, Jurgen Prochnow is another Chief Judge, Rob Schneider plays a petty crook who finds himself having to align himself with Dredd (and vice versa) when they’re both about to become dinner for cannibals led by Scott Wilson. Mitchell Ryan plays a news reader, whilst Joan Chen plays Prochnow’s mistress, and Maurice Roeves plays Andre Gregory in “Demolition Man”.

 

The story goes that director Danny Cannon (“Phoenix”, “I Still Know What You Did When You Did What You Done Do”) had constant battles with star Sly Stallone over the direction they wanted to take this 1995 big-screen version of the comic book. Apparently Sly mostly won out, and the screenplay by veteran action movie scribe Steven E. de Souza and William Wisher (the latter of whom co-wrote “The Terminator” and “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”) more closely reflects the action/comedy Stallone wanted to make (“Demolition Man 2” no doubt), than the darker and more satirical film the director and screenwriters envisioned (Judge Dredd after all, has always been a satirical jab at rigid, violent “Dirty Harry” vigilante law enforcement). Apparently there were rewrites to make the film even more comedic. So, with that all said, how did the film turn out? I liked it a whole lot better the first time when it was called “Demolition Man”, and commercially this one was a giant flop.

 

It’s not just the fact that star Stallone takes off his helmet as Dredd (a big no-no for comic fans), I can see why that change was made. The problem is that it is completely obvious that this is a somewhat grim story (British too, I might add) taken in an inappropriately ‘Steven E. de Souza’ direction. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Mr. de Souza has contributed to some of my favourite action films (“Commando”, “Die Hard”, “The Running Man”). But de Souza and Wisher have tried to graft the Judge Dredd character onto not just the tongue-in-cheek world of a de Souza film (which different from the satire of the comics, it’s important to say), but there’s also a helluva lot of Stallone’s previous (and excellent) “Demolition Man” here (Not written by de Souza but definitely an action-comedy). It’s almost as if no one had any faith in the source material so they’ve tried to attach it to previous hits. It doesn’t work, but I don’t hate it as much as a lot of others do.

 

We start off well, however, with the absolutely masterful decision to use James Earl Jones as the opening crawl narrator. It’s one of the best things in the film and it should’ve ended right there. Meanwhile, the dusty brown exteriors at least seem to have their inspiration in the comics. In fact, from a production design POV, it’s awesome and still holds up well today in that regard. But boy is there a lot of “Demolition Man”, “Blade Runner” (the visuals, whether I like them or not, are clearly ripped off from the popular Ridley Scott film), and “Robocop” (Yes, the Dredd comic came first. So what?) in this. It’s the same thing that would also sink another 1995 film, “Virtuosity”, which also blatantly stole from “Demolition Man”. I mean, there’s a scene between Armand Assante (as this film’s Wesley Snipes) and Jurgen Prochnow where he turns up at the latter’s living quarters that is unquestionably stolen from “Demolition Man”. The best thing in the whole film is the damn fine music score by Alan Silvestri (“Flight of the Navigator”, “Predator”, “Young Guns II”, “Forrest Gump”), that gives the film a bit more professionalism than it might deserve. It’s almost bloody majestic.

 

You can pinpoint the exact moment that this film’s quality starts to plummet: Sylvester Stallone walks on screen and opens his mouth to speak. He walks like Robocop (Why? He’s entirely human!), and talks like he’s doing a bad vocal impersonation of William Shatner as Robocop (except that would be hilarious). Even his posture is ridiculous, with his chest stuck out and his hands on his hips. Does he think all comic book characters are “Superman”? It’s one of Stallone’s worst performances, giving a camp vibe that is counterproductive to the grim story, or at least, what would be a grim story if Stallone hadn’t insisted on action-comedy, and had the film’s worldview (not the visuals, just the portrayal of this world) not been cribbed from “Demolition Man” and the like. I get the feeling that Stallone (who had never heard of the character or comic at the time, importantly), thought that a comic book movie should be more like the 60s’ “Batman” TV show (fun, don’t get me wrong) than a grim comic book, which is what it really ought to have been. As a result, the film is really, really awkward and unsatisfying. And why the fuck does Stallone have blue eyes here?

 

Rob Schneider isn’t someone I’d normally associate with being funny, despite being a comedian (I’ve seen “Big Stan”, as much proof as anyone could need). However, even I have to admit that some of his annoying sidekick schtick is OK, even though it’s also kinda wrong for what this film should’ve been. Take his scenes on their own, and one has to admit Schneider’s not too bad. His job, like it or not, was to be annoying comedy relief and occasionally he succeeds. Slightly. It’s quite an interesting line-up of actors, actually, but most are pretty poorly wasted or not at their best to say the least. Diane Lane is a good actress, but not good enough to not seem totally out of place in something like this. Although this might be one of his better performances, Jurgen Prochnow contributes to one of the least surprising ‘surprises’ of the 1990s, whilst Armand Assante is a little overripe but in a boring way. He’s basically Wesley Snipes, only he’s so not even close to Wesley Snipes in effect (Snipes was the highlight of “Demolition Man”). Joan Chen is sign #4 that you’re in a bad movie from the 80s and 90s (Prochnow is sign #3 in case you were wondering), and gets absolutely nothing to work with here. Her role is terribly underwritten. Max von Sydow gives the film’s best performance by far, and is so much better than the film itself. The film is unworthy of the respect the great von Sydow affords it.

 

This isn’t the worst Stallone film by a longshot (“Assassins” means it’s not even his worst of 1995!), but it barely sneaks its way out of a truly bad score into just ‘blah’ territory (And believe me, I’m one of only a handful who don’t actively hate the thing). It’s creatively bankrupt, wrongly pitched for buddy movie humour, and not directed with much muscle or excitement by Mr. Cannon. Ridiculously anachronistic end theme by The Cure, who were under the impression it was 1985, not 1995 (or the 22nd Century even). Wow, let it go guys, it’s over. The screenplay is based not only on the comic, but a story by Wisher and Michael De Luca (“A Nightmare on Elm St. 5: The Dream Child”, “In the Mouth of Madness”).

 

Rating: C

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review: Wagons East!


A bunch of people from the western town of Prosperity are fed up with the robbing and violence of the Wild West, and decide they want to go East. They enlist the services of hard-drinkin’ wagon master James Harlow (John Candy) to take them there. Harlow, in addition to being a grumpy drunk, harbours a dark secret from his past that is slowly revealed. Richard Lewis plays a Louisiana surgeon (!), John C. McGinley is a flamboyantly gay bookseller, William Sanderson basically plays ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Russell Means is your standard Native American stereotype, Robert Picardo is a meek banker (think the kinds of roles Elisha Cook Jr., Karl Swenson, and John Qualen used to play), Gailard Sartain is a rich railroad tycoon, and Ed Lauter is a hired gunman named Slade, but you can call him Wile E. Coyote.

 

Although Michael Moore’s “Canadian Bacon” was released after it, this 1994 western-comedy from hack director Peter Markle (“Youngblood”, “El Diablo”) was the last film of loveable comedian/actor John Candy. He died during the shoot at a far too young age, and the film was completed with stand-ins and the occasional insertion of existing shots into other scenes. In addition to being a third-rate, wannabe “Blazing Saddles” (you’d swear it should have C-grade Scream Queen Linnea Quigley in here somewhere playing a whore), it’s a profoundly sad, depressing experience that no one really could’ve foreseen (Although, according to his friend Catherine O’Hara, Candy really didn’t want to head to Mexico and do the film). I also find it sadly ironic that this was the final Carolco film to be released by Tri-Star, and based on the version I recently saw on TV (my second time watching the film, I might add. I’m not a masochist, I just wanted to finally review it), it would appear that Lionsgate now own the film. Lionsgate have released some good films here and there, but also have a reputation for poorly treating their films, whilst the original incarnation of Carolco is long-defunct (Thanks a lot, “Cutthroat Island”!), and Tri-Star have had pretty sporadic involvement in the film industry ever since this film, really. So it seems kind of fitting that all three have found themselves attached to this lousy bomb, now.

 

Scripted by Matthew Carlson (occasional writer of “Malcolm in the Middle” and story editor on my favourite TV show “The Wonder Years”) from a story by Jerry Abrahamson (his only credit), it’s not an embarrassingly bad film, just entirely unfunny (save for one line of dialogue), boring, and sad for obvious off-screen reasons. The music score by Michael Small (“Klute”, “Jaws: The Revenge”, “Mobsters”), although plagiaristic, is far and away the best and only good thing in the entire film. Otherwise, every minute of this tired, tired film tells you that the only reason it was ultimately released is so that the studio could get their money back. I’d be surprised if that happened, though.

 

Candy, one of the most loveable screen icons of the 80s and early 90s, looks unhealthy and unhappy in this. In hindsight we all know why, but to see one of the world’s most affable screen presences playing a rather grumpy, drunk, and troubled character at a time when he was probably in that kind of shape off-screen too, makes this a very uncomfortable experience. It’s the kind of role that in a straight western, used to be played by the likes of Edmond O’Brien and Thomas Mitchell, and doesn’t do Candy any favours at all. We all know Candy had his vices and demons like most comedians, but watching this film is like watching one of cinema’s nicest and most affable personalities die before your very eyes. It’s even sadder knowing Candy was contractually obligated to make this piece of crap. Meanwhile, everything wrong with this film (outside of off-screen issues that couldn’t be helped) can probably be summed up in two words: Richard Lewis. Sure, Gailard Sartain (the fat guy from the “Ernest” movies) is also a clear sign you’re watching a terrible comedy, but Lewis is a total red freaking flag of terrible, uninspired comedy ensuing. Has anyone ever found this guy remotely funny? And no fuckin’ way is he credible as someone from St. Louis. How stupid is that? Sartain, by the way, is caught playing with toy trains, a direct steal from the much funnier “Spaceballs”, with Dark Helmet caught playing with action figures. If Ellen Greene’s role weren’t originally offered to Madeline Kahn but she turned it down ‘coz it’s a shit script, I’d be shocked. Ed Lauter’s a talented character actor, but giving him a role inspired by Kirk Douglas in “Cactus Jack” and Slim Pickens in…every role Slim Pickens ever played, just isn’t a good fit for him. Although I’ve got serious problems with the mincing gay stereotype, John C. McGinley at least manages to show versatility in playing effeminate and macho in the very same character. It’s the one interesting thing about the film, and he gets the one brilliant line of dialogue in the film (‘Happy Valentine’s Day!’).

 

A depressing swan song for one of the genuine nice guys of comedy, this western spoof is witless, unenjoyable, and unnecessary. John Candy didn’t want to make it, I suggest you don’t watch it.

 

Rating: D

Review: All is Lost


Robert Redford runs into serious trouble when his yacht hits a shipping container that was floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean, causing considerable damage. He manages a quick fix, but it’s obvious that this will only be temporary and he’s gonna need every bit of inner strength he has to keep from losing all hope as things worsen.

 

More “Cast Away” than “The Life of Pi”, this 2013 film from writer-director J. C. Chandor isn’t as good as either of those two films (or Chandor’s own previous film “Margin Call”), but if you like Robert Redford and don’t mind minimalist, dialogue-free films about harrowing subjects, this is pretty well-done. I have misgivings about the film’s rather confusing ending, and I think some back-story on the main character would’ve helped make the film even better, but it’s still a pretty good film.

 

Full-credit to Robert Redford here, he’s always been known as more of a movie star than actor, but at age 77 he hasn’t aged gracefully and seems willing to accept that, rather than try and pretty himself up in the makeup chair. He also apparently did most of his own stunts, which is just plain insane. If ever you’ve felt the same as me about Redford’s merely OK acting talents, this film proves that he’s more than just a movie star. I mean, he’s the whole show here for the film’s roughly two hours. You have to be a pretty damn commanding screen presence and talented actor to keep an invested solely on you and your character’s plight for that amount of time. Yes, I the film could’ve been even better with more character depth, but Redford does remarkably well with what little he is given.

 

The film’s other great asset is the cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and underwater cinematographer Peter Zuccarini (the latter  underwhelmed me with his underwater work on the otherwise lovely-looking “Turistas”). The fact that this film garnered no nomination for cinematography is a true travesty. It looks beautiful, and since the film is pretty minimalist on dialogue and camera, it’s up to Chandor and the cinematographers to tell the story visually just as much as Redford’s facial expressions do their part. It’s an absolutely terrific employment of handheld camerawork, some of the best I’ve ever seen. It gets you in close, but without too much shaking. Some is necessary of course, given the turbulence of life on the sea.

 

I must admit that I think the title chosen and opening voiceover narration are a bit of a mistake, but so is the frankly confusing ending (In which the audience seems invited to interpret it for themselves. I’m not sure this is the right film for ambiguity to be honest). This is quite harrowing stuff and won’t be for everyone, but it’s a sometimes frightening and even claustrophobic film that has been stunningly shot and well-acted. I personally prefer “Cast Away”, as this film doesn’t do anything that film didn’t already do better. Yes, one’s on an island and the other out at sea, but they are the same basic concept, just one is more minimalist than the other. A more conclusive ending and a little more character depth, though, and this one might’ve actually given “Cast Away” a serious run for its money. It’s a beautiful-looking film (aside from one shonky bit of green screen), and definitely recommended to Redford fans.

 

Rating: B-

Monday, August 17, 2015

Review: Bound


Lesbian ex-con handywoman Corky (Gina Gershon) and gangster’s moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly) make eye contact one day in an elevator with the latter’s low-level mobster lover Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). It seems like lust at first sight, and soon Violet is asking Corky (renovating the apartment next door) over for simple tasks that are clearly just a way to see her again. They quickly become lovers, and before long Violet has ideas about leaving the violent Caesar for her new love. Or is she just using her as an excuse to flee? Anyhoo, Violet and Corky conspire to screw Caesar out of $2 million of mob money Caesar is currently holding for Mafioso Mickey (John P. Ryan, in his last big-screen role), an extremely violent man, who nonetheless has a soft spot for Violet. Unfortunately, when Caesar realises the money is missing, he doesn’t flee like Corky and Violet had anticipated. Thinking that the money has been switched by Johnnie (Christopher Meloni), son of Mickey’s boss Gino (Richard C. Sarafian), as part of some kind of plan by Johnnie (who hates Caesar) to leave him holding an empty bag (oh, so close!), Caesar decides to confront father and son. This doesn’t go well, being that both Caesar and Meloni are trigger-happy idiots and the latter can’t help but mouth off. Will our two Sapphic lovers manage to pull off their plan? Will Caesar realise he’s been left a patsy by his beloved who wants to leave him for another woman? Or will he lose his fingers and most of his brains down the sink like that poor chap Mickey beat the fuck out of in the bathroom?

 

One of the best modern noirs, this 1996 Sapphic crime flick marked the entry point of the Wachowskis, Andy and Lana, who was formerly Larry. Yep. The brothers are now brother and sister. Ain’t Hollywood a helluva town? They who would go on to the popular sci-fi flick “The Matrix”…and sadly nothing else worth mentioning since. But they hit it out of the park with this bold, violent, sexy, and darkly funny directorial debut. Two really good films is two really good films more than some filmmakers achieve in their careers, at least. It’s also probably the best film from Summit Entertainment, now best known for the “Twilight” rot. I’m not a fan of its flashback structure, but otherwise the film is spot-on and perfectly cast.

 

Gina Gershon gets sexy lesbian handywoman and ex-con on a cellular level, but even more enjoyable here are Jennifer Tilly and especially Joe Pantoliano. Tilly, like Gershon has never been better in my opinion, nor hotter. The brilliant thing about her is that she’s an actress known for playing ditzes and bimbos, but here she’s playing a character smarter than she acts. And Tilly herself is smarter than she might appear. Her poker career didn’t seem to last a helluva long time, but dummies don’t play as well as her, believe me. Poor Joey Pants’ character is an unlikeable, violent bastard, but also a total moron and the biggest patsy ever. He just can’t see it coming. The writer-directors and Mr. Pantoliano are to be commended for actually making you worried for his character at certain points. He’s basically a scumbag villain, albeit an idiot on his way to being duped. The supporting cast is excellent too, with the underrated John P. Ryan in particular playing an interestingly shaded character. Seemingly even more violent than Pantoliano, he nonetheless shows the fondness and kindness towards Tilly that Pantoliano neglects to (But unlike Gershon, he gets no love in return from her). Christopher Meloni has probably never been better, playing an even dumber guy than Pantoliano, his final moment and line are especially hilarious. If this were done in the 40s (minus the Sapphic angle, of course), the Meloni character would undoubtedly be played by a young Lee Marvin or Dan Duryea, to Gloria Grahame in the Tilly part, and Richard Widmark in for Pantoliano. The characters are updates of classic noir staples, really.

 

Another standout in the film is the dialogue, the film is full of great lines. Tilly gets what I consider one of the greatest lines in the history of cinema during one wonderfully steamy scene with Gershon where she remarks ‘I’m feeling a little curious myself’. Gershon’s post-coital ‘I can see again!’ is another hopefully tongue-in-cheek (or perhaps tongue…no, nevermind) line that tickled my fancy. The film actually gets much of its tension (sexual and otherwise) from the dialogue. Yes, things become tense once the plot  mechanics are turning and things can blow up in their faces at any moment. However, this is one of those films where mere dialogue scenes have you on edge due to the mere threat of possible violence.

 

The film is also a great showcase for the Wachowski’s on visual and aural levels as well. Do they show off a tad too much? Sure (the blood and white paint shot is just a touch precious), but it’s their first film and calling card, you’ve gotta show ‘em what you’ve got. The sound design in particular is brilliant in ratcheting up the tension. And given the film has a modest amount of locations to work with, I think a visually dynamic approach is quite welcome. You can tell the Wachowski’s (who wrote 1995’s dreary “Assassins”, but let’s pardon them for that) are not only born stylists, but big fans of The Coen Brothers’ debut “Blood Simple”. Both are obvious with every frame. There’s a particularly brilliant shot of leaky pipes during a scene between Tilly and Gershon that isn’t the slightest bit suggestive <cough>. It’s an exceptionally well-shot film, with dynamic (yet mostly subtly so) camerawork by Bill Pope (Sam Raimi’s “Darkman”, “The Matrix”) throughout. The sex of course, is splendiferous, with the Wachowski’s apparently consulting Susie Bright on getting the ‘action’ just right. However, the film is much more than masturbatory material. In fact, if that’s all you want, you’ll be dry after 20 minutes or so, as the plot truly takes over. Still, what a glorious, wondrous 20 minutes they are. But more so than the sex that the film is notorious for, it’s a brutal and occasionally nastily violent film. Even in 2014 there’s a scene or two where you’ll find yourself wincing a bit.

 

This is B-noir done by A-grade level filmmakers showing us what they’ve got right out of the blocks, and armed with a wicked, coal-black sense of humour. Funny, sexy, violent, stylish, and terrifically acted, here’s a pervy movie you can watch and love, and defend the artistic merits of. A really fun, if somewhat nasty film that still isn’t as well-known as it should be.

 

Rating: B

Review: The Mexican


Brad Pitt plays Jerry. Jerry’s kind of an idiot. Employed by mobster Bernie (Bob Balaban), Jerry is sent to Mexico on a mission to find and retrieve the title antique handgun, much sought after. Jerry’s girlfriend Samantha (Julia Roberts) is pretty pissed off that Jerry (who, as I’ve said, is an idiot) would rather go gallivanting across Mexico than head to Vegas with her, with Jerry figuring it’ll be a quick job and he can meet up with Samantha afterwards. Unfortunately, the job proves anything but quick or easy. Meanwhile, a fed-up Samantha has decided to leave Jerry and head to Vegas on her own, but hitman Leroy (James Gandolfini) proves a roadblock, kidnapping Samantha in the hopes of getting Jerry to hand the gun over to his employer. Leroy, however, proves to be the very reason for never judging a book by its cover. He’s a gruff guy initially resistant to conversation, but slowly Samantha starts to wear down his armour to find he’s not such a bad guy…aside from all the brutal and efficient killing. He also has a secret: He’s gay! Gene Hackman turns up late as Bernie’s boss, recently released from prison. J.K. Simmons plays another criminal associate, and David Krumholtz proves to be the least convincing Mexican since Charlton Heston.

 

Failed 2001 attempt by director Gore Verbinski (“Gothika”, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, “Rango”) to take two of the world’s biggest movie stars (Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts) and generate…something of interest at least to cover up the fact that the screenplay by J.H. Wyman is nothing new. Unfortunately, he’s not playing to his biggest strengths as an actor and she’s completely charmless, instantaneously shrill, and seemingly in a constantly foul mood. It’s up to a scene-stealing and frankly brilliant James Gandolfini to keep the audience awake here (though to be fair the film did do relatively OK box-office), and the man can’t quite work miracles. That’s because the other big problem the film has is one of tone. It’s either not funny enough or not serious enough, and you just never get into it.

 

It’s also not very original and quite frequently pretty boring, especially whenever we cut to Pitt (i.e. The main plot!). He’s in dumb arse mode here, and as was the case in the later “Burn After Reading”, I don’t think it’s a particularly interesting or wise use of his talents. It’s a good-looking film, as you’d expect from Verbinski and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“The Crow”, all of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, “Sweeney Todd”), but for a comedy there’s not a single laugh in it, and the main stars aren’t interesting enough to care about. Why does Julia Roberts look so damn miserable in every film since the year 2000? Has she lost her passion for acting? Every time she smiles on screen now it looks incredibly forced. Am I the only one noticing this?

 

The Morricone-esque music score by Alan Silvestri (“Flight of the Navigator”, “Young Guns II”, “Forrest Gump”) is pretty good and miles ahead of his wannabe Morricone score for “The Quick and the Dead”, where it was laughable and called needless attention to itself in serious scenes. Here, it actually adds life to an otherwise pretty enervated film, as does J.K. Simmons in one of his better performances in my opinion. There’s also a solid cameo from Gene Hackman, but by then the film is nearly over. I do miss seeing Hackman on screen these days, though. It’s not an awful film, just a misfired, overlong, and instantly forgettable one.

 

Rating: C

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review: Halloween III: Season of the Witch


A man enters a hospital and kills a patient. He then douses himself in petrol and lights himself on fire. When the police chalks things up to drug-fuelled lunacy, doctor Tom Atkins says ‘Drugs, my fat arse’ (well OK, not those exact words) and along with the murdered patient’s daughter (Stacey Nelkin), conducts his own investigation. The end up in a rather suspicious small town that seems to be overseen by a local toy company currently running annoying ads for Silver Shamrock Halloween masks. Just what are they up to? Joshua Miller can be seen early on as one of Atkins’ kids, whilst Dan O’Herlihy is the Silver Shamrock owner Conal Cochran.

 

Although not as bad as “A Nightmare on Elm St. 2: Freddy’s Revenge” or “Friday the 13th VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan”, this 1982 film from writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace (who directed the underrated miniseries “IT”) is crass, stupid, and not scary. The film comes from the same producers (though this time John Carpenter and Debra Hill are among them) and cinematographer (Dean Cundey) as “Halloween”, whilst the writer-director is also a Carpenter crony, and the synth score is by Carpenter and Alan Howarth (who frequently collaborated with Carpenter), presumably more of the latter on show than the former. However, make no mistake, this is a rip-off, a cheap stain on the original “Halloween” film.

 

The real problem here is that it’s all so incredibly boring. Although the basic premise has a kernel of promise, it’s still very basic and unenjoyable in execution. Not much really happens in the film, certainly nothing of interest. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” it ain’t (though the ending certainly suggests that it wants to be a 50s ‘Red scare’ film. In 1982. Wow). I enjoyed “IT”, but Wallace shows no real aptitude for making a scary or thrilling film here. It’s pretty dreary stuff, and although the evil plan has a nasty and shocking element to it, the screenplay doesn’t really make much sense of it, at the end of the day. What was the end game here? (Apparently writer Nigel Kneale of “Quatermass” fame wrote the original script before leaving over creative differences and having his script re-written by Wallace and refusing credit. Perhaps there was more explanation in his script than what we’re left with). It’s also a cynical attempt at continuing the series without its villain, nor having Carpenter at the helm. Nice try, but no. Apparently it was Carpenter’s own idea to continue the series with an anthology series of films under the “Halloween” name, but I bet Carpenter himself could’ve come up with something more inventive and interesting than what Wallace has churned out, albeit with Carpenter’s name attached as producer (Along with Dino De Laurentiis, I might add. His attachment to this says it all, really).

 

Cundey’s lighting is expert as always, and the synth score is actually the best thing in the whole film. Tom Atkins (who was also featured in Carpenter’s “The Fog”) is a decent enough leading man, but the only truly accomplished performance here is by Dan O’Herlihy as the avuncular villain, and neither of them can save the film. Probably the most violent of the series, but it’s the silly type of gore, you can’t take it terribly seriously.

 

Of all the films about sleeper agents/assassins (and that’s really what this is), this is by far the dumbest and certainly the most boring. Good-looking, but terrible. Meanwhile, after ten minutes, you’ll never want to hear that fucking shamrock jingle ever again. Kill. Fuck. Die.

 

Rating: D-