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, September 5, 2015

Review: Ragtime


A sprawling look at New York in the early 1900s, with an eventual focus on African-American piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard Rollins Jr.), who arrives on the doorstep of a white couple (rigid James Olson and the warm-hearted Mary Steenburgen) to reconcile with his beloved Sarah (Debbie Allen), whom the couple have taken in, along with her baby. Apparently Coalhouse abandoned them, but he claims he did so because he needed to go away and make money to support them. Unfortunately the reunion is to be short-lived due to tragedy. Coalhouse is already incensed that some racist white firemen (led by Kenneth McMillan) have vandalised his car and there isn’t a damn thing he can do about it, so that this latest tragedy sends him right over the edge and he takes drastic measures to demand compensation for the vandalising of his car or else! This involves Coalhouse and his newly formed band of brothers holing themselves up in a local library building and claim to have rigged the place with explosives. This brings him to the attention of the NY Police Commissioner (James Cagney!). Meanwhile, we are treated to a bunch of side characters and stories such as an ambitious chorus girl (Elizabeth McGovern) and an immigrant early filmmaker (Mandy Patinkin). Brad Dourif plays Steenburgen’s painfully shy younger brother, who pines for McGovern and ends up donning blackface (mostly to disguise himself, mind you) to join Coalhouse’s gang. Jeff Daniels is the half-hearted cop who really doesn’t want to help Coalhouse out, Donald O’Connor plays a choreographer, Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison are among Coalhouse’s gang, Moses Gunn plays a respected black elder called in to calm Coalhouse and his men down, and Robert Joy appears early as McGovern’s murderous rich husband. That’s a young-ish Fran Drescher screaming like a banshee in a foreign tongue to Patinkin at one point.

 

There’s some worthy and interesting stuff in this 1981 film from Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Hair”, “Amadeus”) and screenwriter Michael Weller (“Hair”, “Lost Angels”), but it does not add up to an entirely worthy film. The parts are good enough to make it worth watching, sure, but they aren’t enough to make it a great film. Most people seem to agree that the film, an adaptation of the much-loved E.L. Doctorow (“Welcome to Hard Times”, “Billy Bathgate”) novel is unfocussed. That’s a massive understatement. However, as someone who hasn’t read the novel, I have to disagree with most in saying that the parts I enjoyed most were those that focussed mostly on the plight of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (the late Howard Rollins Jr., who was Oscar-nominated for the part) For me, the rest of the film was extraneous, unfocussed and uneven. I just didn’t think a lot of the supporting characters were very necessary or helpful to the success of the picture overall. It is almost exclusively because of Coalhouse’s narrative that the film (narrowly) gets an above par rating from me.

 

Yes, Mary Steenburgen and more briefly Robert Joy (doing his best Dan Duryea) are well-cast, and yes an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern gives a good performance (possibly her best-ever) and gets good and naked at times, which is lovely. I also though veteran character actor Kenneth McMillan came close to stealing the entire film in a choice, bullying racist part. You’ll remember him for sure. Mandy Patinkin was also fine, if yet Inigo Montoya once again has a rather impenetrable accent. Meanwhile, Moses Gunn steals his big scene, one of the best in the film. In fact, he’s the one person who does walk off with the film. An amazing talent of quiet power and dignity. But all of these scenes with other characters felt like the film was undecided between being a slice-of-life period drama and a racial tension-thriller, and because the latter managed to focus almost exclusively on one main character and allowed me to gravitate towards them, I felt the Coalhouse stuff was more resonant. Contrived and slightly overdone, sure, but still the most memorable thing. It could’ve resonated even more without the other stuff, which breaks the tension attempting to be built up in the Coalhouse scenes. It takes forever to really get going with the Coalhouse story. I also have to say that the performance by James Olson (Yes, Arnold’s commanding officer in the underrated “Commando”) is too flat and colourless for such an important role, and a bit underwhelming. As for Jimmy Cagney, his farewell performance is good but it’s not the kind of film you’ll want to watch just to see him. He’s barely got a glorified cameo (and is clearly reading cue cards, I might add. It’s not even subtle). Still, it’s Jimmy Fucking Cagney, and I love the fact that he basically plays the most powerful man in New York.

 

If this were more focussed and plot-driven rather than attempting to cover way too much ground, this could’ve been a winner. As is it’s an interesting and fairly entertaining film with some good performances, fine moments, and a racial tension story begging to be fleshed out. Still worth a look (and it doesn’t deserve to have been so forgotten about in the years since as it has been), just not a masterpiece and far too sprawling and unfocussed. Fun to play spot the star, though, including Fran Drescher, Samuel L. Jackson, and the inimitable Jimmy Cagney in both his return and farewell film performance. Excellent music score by Randy Newman (“Toy Story”, “Three Amigos!”), easily his best work to date.

 

Rating: B-

Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: Deadfall (2013)


Set in the wintry wilderness, Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde are a possibly too close brother and sister who have just pulled off a casino robbery and are headed for the Canadian border. Unfortunately, a car accident gets in the way of those plans, and Bana is subsequently forced to kill an investigating state trooper. Bana then suggests they split up, with Bana laying low in a cabin trying to stay hidden from investigating cops. Wilde hitches a ride with Charlie Hunnam, a recent parolee (and Olympic Silver medallist boxer!) headed home for Thanksgiving, who has already gotten himself in enough trouble to send him back to the slammer if it catches up with him. Poor Hunnam has no idea what he’s in for, nor do his estranged parents Kris Kristofferson (apparently unforgiving of his son’s misdeeds) and Sissy Spacek (a peacemaker), the former a retired lawman himself, whose house is near the border. Treat Williams plays the chief of police whose misogynistic treatment of young officer Kata Mara is bad enough without the fact that he’s also her prick of a father.

 

Not to be confused with the appalling Nic Cage crime flick from the mid-90s, this Stefan Ruzowitzky (a music video graduate) thriller was released in Australia in 2013. It’s more reminiscent of the underrated “Switchback” and other films about sleepy small towns unawares that they are set to be descended upon by criminal elements. Scripted by Zach Dean, the film suffers from character inconsistency and an unfortunate structure that is at least 85% set-up, leaving it with almost nowhere much to go and even less time to get there. If the ratio was closer to 50-50, it’d definitely be better than it is. As is, it’s just watchable.

 

The character played by Olivia Wilde just doesn’t make much sense. In the early scenes with Eric Bana, she gives off a dopey, naïve and trashy Juliette Lewis vibe that simply doesn’t gel with her later more intelligent and seemingly considerably less redneck. It’s like two completely different characters, and not just because she’s putting on a ruse to ingratiate herself with others. I think part of the problem is that Wilde (whom I normally like) seems too innately smart to play what is an archetypal Juliette Lewis/Jennifer Tilly role. The rest is just really bad screenwriting or poor direction of an actress. Since Mr. Dean is a first-timer…yeah. Better luck next time, buddy. Eric Bana isn’t exactly perfect casting (nor do he and Wilde seem like brother and sister at all, though part of that seems intentionally insinuating), but is certainly more convincing and gives the best performance in the film. At least he’s interesting and unusual casting, without being miscast like Wilde.

 

Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek, and Kate Mara are all well-cast, with Kristofferson in particular saying a lot without saying much at all and Mara very appealing. As for Charlie Hunnam, he’s fine, but his character seems to have less depth the longer the film goes on, strangely enough. He’s also the biggest dumbfuck recent parolee in cinematic history, screwing himself over within mere hours after his release. What an idiot. Treat Williams has the R. Lee Ermey role, and is quite clearly not R. Lee Ermey. ‘nuff said there. His character treats Mara horribly and in a sexist manner. He’s also her dad. Funny stuff, admittedly.

 

I liked the film’s set-up, with Hunnam’s ne’er do well colliding with the rest of this plot. But like I said, it’s almost all set-up and no payoff. The film’s biggest asset is its harshness. Not only is it harshly violent at times, but the harsh, wintry weather conditions are excellently used. How the hell can anyone see a damn thing in that snow? It’s seemingly all-enveloping. Kudos to Christian Bale’s favourite cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (“Terminator: Salvation”) for making things look absolutely beautiful, given the obviously harsh conditions.

 

A watchable but ultimately disappointing thriller that has a terrific look and harsh vibe, but a troubling screenplay with character inconsistencies and not much of anything beyond the plot set-up. It could’ve used a re-write or two for sure.

 

Rating: C+

Review: Planes: Fire and Rescue


Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook) receives the devastating news that he has broken parts inside of him (a shonky gearbox) that are too outdated to replace. His racing career over because he can’t risk going to top speeds, Dusty is at a loss to what to do with himself now. However, a fiery mishap later and he decides to join the fire and rescue crew as a water-dumping plane. Ed Harris provides the voice of Blade Ranger, the veteran plane of the fire and rescue crew, whilst old favourites Chug (voiced by Brad Garrett), Skipper (voiced by Stacy Keach), and Dottie (voiced by Teri Hatcher) make small return appearances.

 

Unlike the animated “Doc Hollywood” rip-off “Cars”, Disney’s “Planes” pretty much told its own original story, albeit a clichéd one. It was no world-beater but it was nice and looked terrific. Unfortunately, this 2014 sequel from director Bobs Gannaway (“Leroy and Stitch”) and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard (who wrote “Planes”) is a pretty big disappointment. Opening the world up to show all kinds of different vehicles is fun for a while and also has an exciting climax, and offers up some prettily-rendered animated scenery. The film seems inspired by all the trucks and other vehicles guys like myself played with as kids, and in that sense is a little akin to “Toy Story”. In theory, it’s a nifty idea for a film that should provide a lot of entertainment for boys both young and young at heart. In fact, instead of feeling like you’re watching someone play with their toys, the film seems on the verge of getting closer to the experience of actually playing with the toys yourself. I was feeling like a kid again. I also liked the idea that Dusty is made up of parts that are no longer available, meaning he can’t race anymore. It’s a cute twist on an old staple of sports films.

 

However, after a while, one realises there’s not much plot here, there’s too many characters (who don’t really pop like in the earlier film), too many songs on the soundtrack, and it’s all extremely sluggish. For a film about emergency vehicles, the latter is pretty ironic. I just didn’t get into this one as much as the first, I’m afraid despite the potential. The voice work, for the most part is also a disappointment, though Ed Harris is put to good use (until his character becomes a mixture of the characters in the first film voiced by Stacy Keach and John Cleese) and Hal Holbrook is a joy to hear when used here as an elderly fire truck named Mayday. The rest are pretty dull and blend together, I’m afraid (Yes, even Jerry Stiller and the late Anne Meara as retired RVs. Fred Willard in particular is badly wasted, as is Stacy Keach who was put to such good use in the first film.

 

The fire and rescue scenes in the latter stages are a major high point in the film, and some of the background animation is really, really nice. However, after about 30-40 minutes, my interest in the story was already seriously waning. With half the characters and a few more impressive voice actors, this would’ve been a lot better. As is, it’s on par with “Cars”, which although not a bad place to be (hey, it’s better than “Turbo”!), is certainly disappointing. Kids will probably like it, if they can handle the sluggish pacing.

 

Rating: C+

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Review: 22 Jump Street


Same as last time, except they’re posing as college students to stop a drug dealer. Hey, don’t blame me, the characters themselves talk non-stop about this being the same damn film, and it’s true. Wyatt Russell plays a dim star football player who has an awkward relationship…or something with Channing Tatum’s Jenko, but might also be the culprit. Amber Stevens is the pretty college girl that Jonah Hill’s nerdy Schmidt falls for. Peter Stormare phones it in as a crook. Ice Cube is still angry. Yadda Yadda.

 

I questioned co-writer and star Jonah Hill’s apparent fandom of the classic 80s TV series “21 Jump Street” with the 2012 big-screen version. It really had nothing at all to do with the TV show outside of the premise, which it then went on to use for comedic purposes. If thought of as “Superbad 2”, the film provided a few laughs, I suppose. But I was disappointed. Well, here’s the 2014 sequel from returning co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, “The Lego Movie”), and it has even less connection with the TV show, with really only cameos (post-credits at that) by series stars Richard Grieco (who only joined the show towards the end) and Dustin Nguyen (merely seen on a poster, so does it really count?). It’s an even lesser film than its predecessor, as even the laughs this time are precious few.

 

We get off to a great start admittedly with a voiceover stating ‘Previously on “21 Jump Street”’, but it’s pretty much downhill from there. Firstly we get Channing Tatum attempting a comically bad Hispanic accent whilst undercover. Problem is, like Hugh Grant mangling a Mafioso accent in “Mickey Blue Eyes”, it’s painful and awkward instead of funny. Nick Offerman delivers a clever monologue as the Deputy Police Chief, talking about reviving ‘Jump Street’ that works on more than one-level. Unfortunately it’s a ‘We’re funny ‘coz we’re blatantly admitting this is a rehash’ joke that gets less funny with each ever-so slight variation on it. And the whole goddamn film is full of pretty much nothing but variations on this one gag. They even attend basically the same classes as last time except they’re college classes instead of high school classes. Worst of all, Ice Cube (otherwise the best thing in the film) even admits it’s the same case. Pointing out that you’re a sequel is only funny once, after that it’s desperate and annoying. They even go on another lame drug trip. So lazy and so Jonah Hill, though the screenplay this time didn’t have his hands on it, it was written by Michael Bacall (who co-scripted the excellent “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and sadly, the first film), Rodney Rothman (“Grudge Match”), and Oren Uziel. It’s a bit of a slog to get through this, to be honest. I did, however like Tatum’s line about how they should go join the Secret Service and go to the White House. Funny. Even funnier is the identity of Amber Stevens’ father, something I should’ve seen coming but didn’t. The best joke in the entire film is Tatum’s delayed reaction to it, including a microwave ding sound. But this mixture of rehashing the original with a rehash of Jonah Hill’s brand of stoner comedy isn’t particularly funny. Even Tatum looks bored this time out and I don’t blame him with the writers giving him a lame, archaic gay joke-storyline that they can’t even fully commit themselves to, turning it into an awkward bro-mance when it’s clear early on that they intended it to be more than that. If you’re gonna go for homophobic humour, well don’t, but certainly don’t half-arse it. Wyatt Russell (Yes, Kurt’s son) tries his best, but the subplot is awkward, half-arsed and ultimately pointless. Don’t even get me started on the seriously awkward and just plain unfunny prison sex jokes with returning Rob Riggle and Dave Franco, which when you think about their roles in the previous film, is actually quite sinister in addition to being seriously homophobic. Mr. Hill, apparently a supporter of the gay community sure has a lot of black marks against him on and off screen, making one question his sincere apology in recent times over using a homophobic slur. He really, really needs to be careful about stuff like that or he’ll lose some of his audience through what I assume is really just carelessness and a lazy attitude. Meanwhile, Amber Stevens is astonishingly pretty, but I’m worried about her lack of scholastic aptitude as she’s seemingly been stuck in college for a decade. One for the “Greek” fans. Queen Latifah gets nothing to do as her mother, but she gets one cute line referencing a particular album by one of her co-stars here. Yes, that one.

 

I have to say that once the initial prime suspect proves rather unlikely, it becomes immediately obvious who the guilty party is. And just like last time, the film is capped off by a fucking terrible dubstep version of the theme song that still kicks arse in its original form, damn it. The end credits give us a slew of trailers for subsequent sequels, presumably to make sure they don’t ever have to make any of them. The only funny ones are “Sunday School”, with Seth Rogen in for Hill, and “Jump Street: Generations”, with Richard Grieco, and Dustin Nguyen on the poster.

 

Even lazier than last time, with even spottier humour, and practically no connection to the TV show. This isn’t awful, but it’s an awfully mediocre film that might even underwhelm Jonah Hill fans. Anyone who defends this cheap rehash (admitted rehash or not) should be ashamed of themselves. These people are disrespecting you by delivering such a lazy product.  

 

Rating: C

Review: Pompeii


Kit Harrington plays Milo, captured by the Romans in 79AD and as a slave, is forced to compete in the gladiatorial arena. He falls for Cassia (Emily Browning), betrothed to the ruthless Roman Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). All three find themselves in Pompeii (which Corvus is interested in taking over) for a typical gladiatorial spectacle, but the city of Pompeii seems doomed to meet an Earth-shattering fate. Literally. Did I mention that Corvus is the meanie who wiped out Milo’s family when the latter was a kid? Well, he did (Or at least his henchman did, on Corvus’ orders). Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Milo’s African gladiator buddy Atticus (!), whilst Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris play Cassia’s parents, rulers of Pompeii who are nonetheless too weakly positioned to stand up to Corvus.

 

If this 2014 film from director Paul W. S. Anderson (whose “Resident Evil” and “Death Race” were a tad underrated, but whose “Three Musketeers” got what it deserved) wasn’t so concerned with ripping off other films and stopped trying to tell someone else’s story, we might’ve had something here. The big moment, when it comes, is a lot of schlocky fun. The climax is clearly the best thing in the entire film, and the closest this film gets to telling its own damn story, albeit with a small helping of Irwin Allen disaster movie schlock. It’s enough to keep the film ever so slightly out of the below par range, and slightly in the mediocre range. The rest is a fairly lifeless, unexciting hodgepodge of “Gladiator” (which itself ripped off “Spartacus” at times), “A Knight’s Tale”, and TV’s “Game of Thrones”, with that show’s co-star Kit Harington moping his way through the film unimpressively as a combo of Jon Snow and “Spartacus” as filtered through the late Heath Ledger.

 

Even if the film were meant to be a full-on traditional Roman epic from start to finish without that fiery climax, it’s still so uninspiring and plagiaristic that it constantly reminds you that this sort of thing was done so much better in the 50s and 60s. But the story of Pompeii is indeed meant to be a bit different from your “Fall of the Roman Empire”, “Ben-Hur”, or “Spartacus” films, so it’s distressingly disappointing that Anderson and his team of (way too many) screenwriters are so hell-bent on making it all look so samey (and do a poor, cut-rate job of it) so that when we get to that big disaster movie difference…one no longer really cares.

 

As I said, Kit Harington doesn’t cut it as a leading man here. He only plays one note, the sullen black sheep (or in this case, orphan) determined to prove himself, which served him well enough on “Game of Thrones”. Here? It gets old fast. He’s boring and unpersuasive. Aussie actress Emily Browning is no better. Her one facial expression is ‘duck face’, making her look an awful lot like an underfed Gemma Arterton who just realised she forgot to eat this morning before the camera started rolling. A flagrantly miscast Kiefer Sutherland as the villain doesn’t help, either. He’s really not comfortable doing this kind of thing, and all he offers is an impressively imperious sneer. That’s not nearly enough, he’s generic at best, and I expect more from an actor of his calibre. The pathetic waste of Jared Harris as Browning’s father just points to the fact that the very eyebrow-arching, Claude Rains-esque Harris ought to have played the villain. Hell, Kiefer’s dad Donald could even show him how it’s done (Then again, Donald has been unimpressive in the “Hunger Games” films). Kiefer’s just not a period piece kinda guy, and that’s fine (He made a damn underrated Athos in “The Three Musketeers”, mind you). The only one here who manages to inject any life or interest is the perfectly solid Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and unfortunately he’s playing a horrible ethnic stereotype. He’s got the Woody Strode/Djimon Hounsou role of the African slave/gladiator. Named Atticus, I shit you not. See, ‘coz he’s black. Get it? Oh go read a book, people (No, not “Go Set a Watchman”, that piece of crap should never have been released and I’m still not 100% convinced Harper Lee wrote all of it herself. Read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Good film, great book). One of these days someone is going to make one of these Ancient Rome films from the POV of the African slave, who otherwise has played a minor role in such tales. Seriously, it’s begging to be done. Until then, we get the standard ‘doomed black sidekick’ character, and although he clearly steals the film with his badass demeanour, ‘Triple A’ isn’t in the film anywhere near as much as you’d like and can’t save the film on his own.

 

The gladiator action is, like the film as a whole, well-shot, but sadly too bloodless to resonate. It’s a good-looking film with nice scenery and production design. The music score by Clinton Shorter (“District 9”, “Contraband”, “2 Guns”) is perfectly solid too. However, these are prerequisites, you expect a film of this nature (even one with a disaster movie bent that this one is supposed to have) to get those things right.

 

A flat and mostly boring film up until the volcanic finale, which frankly isn’t worth the endurance test. It’s nondescript, when it actually had a chance to stand out from the crowd. A film about an impending volcanic eruption shouldn’t be this lethargic, and should be a lot more fun. Mr. Harington, at least at this stage in his career, clearly can’t carry a film on his own, especially not when he’s given such a Herculean task as trying to save this mediocre effort. Damn good finale, though. Not good enough, Mr. Anderson, not good enough in the slightest (Is it weird to wish this thing were written and directed by Roland Emmerich? Hell, Wolfgang Petersen would’ve at least livened things up). The plagiaristic screenplay is by the team of Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler (the overblown “Batman Forever”, the failed “My Name is Modesty”), Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”, “The Young Victoria”, the unfairly maligned “The Tourist”), and Michael Robert Johnson (“Sherlock Holmes”).

 

Rating: C

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: Maggie


Set in a near-future US where a virus called Necroambulism has slowly turned the infected into zombies. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a loving father who brings his infected daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) back home to their Midwest farm. He is warned that Maggie only has mere weeks left before she is completely turned, and he is given advice on what to do when the time comes. The local sheriff says that when the time comes, she will need to go into ‘quarantine’ like the rest, whilst a doctor/friend says he has three options; 1) Take her to quarantine immediately, 2) Give her exactly what the doctors give her in quarantine (said to be very painful) but allowing her to die at home, and 3) End it now and quickly (a bullet to the head). Schwarzenegger tries his best to prolong any kind of finality, seemingly unable to kill his own daughter, but even more strongly refusing to let the doctors do it. This is his daughter, changing or not. This will be his family’s loss, and he wants it to happen on his terms as best he can manage it. He tries to create a sense of normalcy for the time being, which his current wife (Joely Richardson) valiantly tries to support him in, to great strain on her nerves (She obviously cares for young Maggie, but is understandably frightened of her).

 

Although the combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and zombies might sound like classic stuff, I can actually understand why this 2015 flick from director Henry Hobson (a credits designer of all things, in his directorial debut) bypassed cinemas in Australia. Arnold isn’t the star he used to be, for one thing. Action movies (which this film isn’t, mind you) have moved on without him. And then you watch the film and realise that it’s a rather arty, brooding, rather morose drama…with zombies. Starring Arnold freakin’ Schwarzenegger. However, it’s because I’ve seen the film that I can honestly say that I believe the reason why this film was released direct-to-DVD in Australia and flopped in the US is more to do with how difficult it is to market the film, rather than its quality. I actually liked the film. Yes, there’s way too many arty shots of Arnie standing contemplatively in a field, and yes I did question why what happened at the end didn’t happen earlier if it were a viable option. However, I really dug just how different this film was, not just for a zombie movie, but for an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The closest approximation I can come up with is John Hillcoat’s “The Road”.

 

Like “End of Days”, Arnie’s trying to genuinely act in this one, and like that film he acquits himself well. It’s definitely his best performance since returning to movies, and possibly his best performance to date. He’s actually quite pensive and sensitive in this, and if he looks noticeably older and seems tired, it’s appropriate for his character and the very grave situation he is in. Abigail Breslin is quite good too in a role that could easily have become silly. Joely Richardson, meanwhile, gives her best performance in years as a very nervous and conflicted character.

 

Scripted by the uber-pretentiously named John Scott 3 (Yep, you read that correctly), it’s a sad film, a harrowing and dour film that will certainly divide people. It could’ve gone so horribly wrong and been subject to jeers and laughter because it dares to take its fantastical subject very seriously, but not in a mopey, wet-mouthed tweeny-bop sparkly emo vampire way. It’s actually quite a brave film, if you ask me, with a really interesting solemnity to it. The tone is visualised by the film’s overall bleak look captured by cinematographer Lukas Ettlin (atoning for his sins with the awful and incompetently shot “Battle: Los Angeles”). It’s not quite as atmospheric as “The Road”, but there’s some really amazing shots of grey Midwestern scenery. I just wish that there were a few less of those arty shots. We get the point pretty damn quickly, thanks.

 

Arnold produced the film, so I hope he didn’t lose money on it, because I think it’s a pretty worthy film. It definitely deserves to be more widely seen, and I was shocked- shocked!, that Lionsgate were the ones who released it. They have such a good track record in releasing horror-themed films, don’t they? Most of you have probably never even heard of it. But that’s the way it is today, films get lost or hushed away in the corner (or Direct to-DVD/VOD) when it’s not so easy to properly categorise them. Although more horrific in some ways than many horror films you’ll see, this is more drama than horror or action movie.

 

I hope Mr. Hobson doesn’t become another Kerry Conran (the underrated “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”) or John Patrick Kelley (“The Locusts”, also underrated) and actually gets to continue directing films after this rather unpopular but underrated film. It won’t be for everyone, but I enjoyed its uniqueness and ambition. Give it a go if you can find it, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.

 

Rating: B-

Monday, August 31, 2015

Review: The Wreck of the Mary Deare


Charlton Heston is a salvage boat captain who boards the supposedly derelict ship during one helluva storm. After some searching he comes across a weathered and distressed-looking man, who claims to be first officer Gideon Patch (Gary Cooper). Apparently the captain of the ship died, and the rest of the crew have long abandoned ship. Patch is sketchy on the details and claims he’ll tell all at a court of inquiry, but in the meantime Heston will just have to trust him. This is especially so when Heston struggles to get back aboard his own vessel and must instead travel aboard the Mary Deare with a possibly unstable Patch. Richard Harris plays the antagonistic second mate on the Mary Deare, who will testify against Patch, Ben Wright is Heston’s first mate, Alexander Knox is the insurance investigator, Peter Illing is the untrustworthy owner of the ship, whilst Cecil Parker, Michael Redgrave, and Emlyn Williams play the various judicial figures in the second half. Virginia McKenna has a small role as the daughter of the dead captain, whom Patch goes to in order to help clear his name.

 

Although it’s definitely a film of two very different halves, this 1959 film from director Michael Anderson (“Around the World in 80 Days”, “Operation Crossbow”, “The Quiller Memorandum”) and screenwriter Eric Ambler (“The Magic Box”, “Lease of Life”, “A Night to Remember”) never fails to entertain. It may be lumpy, and the music score by George Duning (“From Here to Eternity”, “3:10 to Yuma”) is overly insistent, but it’s well-acted across the board, and not remotely dull. Charlton Heston is ideally cast, and Gary Cooper has one of his best-ever acting showcases as the troubled sea captain. Ill at the time, he looks appropriately weathered and haunted. Heston’s role is the obviously less complicated one and more action-oriented (though far more of a lead role than Cooper’s), but that’s his strongest suit as an actor anyway. Richard Harris isn’t remotely subtle, but he steals his every scene, and Alexander Knox, Emlyn Williams, and Cecil Parker do what they do best filling out their minor character parts with class. Poor Ben Wright has no idea what accent he’s attempting as Heston’s First Mate. It wavers from France to Ireland to its presumably intended Scottish. Whoops. Virginia McKenna performs her thankless role ably, but this is a man’s picture through and through.

 

It’s an interestingly dark, dank-looking film in the first half, with pretty decent stormy seas action, I bet it wasn’t a fun shoot. The sweaty, steamy interiors of the ship’s underbelly are all pretty convincing. In fact, everything convinces- the interiors, the rough seas, the personal drama etc. Well, maybe not the projection work, but that’s minimal.

 

There’s nothing seamless about the film’s narrative, but I enjoyed both halves of this film. I mean, how can you complain about a film that gives you Gary Cooper and Chuck Heston in the first half, and Cecil Parker and a white-haired Emlyn Williams joining them in the second half? It’s well-acted, pretty convincing and rather underrated I believe. Maybe it’s time for a re-appraisal here.

 

Rating: B-

Review: The Protector 2


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Kham (Tony Jaa) finds himself in all manner of trouble when his elephant goes missing. You see, someone tried to buy Kham’s elephant, but Kham refused. However, the interested buyer soon turns up dead, and the dead man’s martial arts enthusiast nieces (!) assume Kham to be the killer. It’s actually gangster RZA behind the killing, and his chief enforcer known only as No. 2 (Marrese Crump) kills one of the girls, beats up Kham and takes him and the surviving niece away to meet LC (RZA). There he is given the task of killing a politician, or both the girl and his beloved elephant will be killed.

 

In a fair and just world, Tony Jaa and Scott Adkins would be the biggest action stars on the planet. Jaa made a helluva splash initially with the straightforward martial-arts flick “Ong-Bak”, whilst Adkins has the looks, fighting skills, charisma, and acting ability to stand out from the pack. Whilst it seems like it may be too late for this stardom to happen, at least one can rejoice in the news that Adkins is making “Undisputed 4”, as well as previously turning up as a bad arse henchman in “The Expendables 2”. I’m definitely excited to see where Yuri Boyka takes us next. Mr. Jaa’s career trajectory, however, is far more troubling because aside from “Ong-Bak”, his status as a second-tier action star is possibly even under threat. It’s great to see his stint in the monastery was only brief, but he’s just choosing poor project after poor project. There was the disappointing “Ong-Bak 2” and “The Protector”, as well as the supposedly self-indulgent mess of “Ong-Bak 3” (which was apparently what drove him to the monastery in the first place), and a supporting role in a Dolph Lundgren flick (“Skin Trade”) that proved he could at least speak some English, but was hardly the film to get him noticed. He has a role in the latest “Fast and the Furious” film, but if “The Expendables 2” didn’t lift Adkins out of the B/C-grade action movie market, I doubt seeing Jaa in a car-based ensemble flick will see much of an improvement in his status.

 

Unlike Adkins, though, I think Jaa himself is mostly to blame here for his own situation, and this 2013 sequel from director Prachya Pinkaew (“Ong-Bak”, “The Protector”) and screenwriter Eakasit Thairatana is a prime example. Once again, the supremely talented martial artist has chosen an inferior product that fails to show him in the best light. I mean, his elephant gets stolen again? Didn’t we already see this movie? At one point, someone remarks: ‘Is it an elephant or a kitten? Why do you keep losing them?’ Amen, brother. A-fuckin’ men. It’s such a silly idea for an action film to be based around in the first place, let alone two damn films. I mean, is Tony Jaa the new Sabu? Geez, change his character’s name from Kham to Mowgli and be done with it. Sadly, the comparisons to the first film don’t end there. Every problem I had with that film is here again tenfold. When two martial arts teenagers and some dirt bike-riding young hooligans turn up you wonder if Jaa isn’t subbing for an injured Jackie Chan in one of his lame, comedically-oriented chop-socky flicks. Only the stunt-work saved the bike-riding nonsense from being truly eye-rolling. The amazing thing is, this whole sequence in the film goes on so long it goes from fun to boring to tedious to somehow wonderfully, overly-indulgent. It may be the longest action sequence of the last 30 years or so that I’ve seen.

 

But there is no shaking the feeling that this is a Jackie Chan flick minus the irritating silent movie facial contorting. Jaa should be well above this piffle, and at least last time out we got Jon Foo and Lateef Crowder strutting their stuff against Jaa. There’s slim pickings this time. We get an enjoyably brutal but strangely bloodless fight between Jaa and a huge African-American dude (newcomer Marrese Crump, possibly the 8th, 9th, and 10th Wonders of the World) but even then the fucking Mothra twins really needed to bugger right off. They are cloying and cutesy additions where no such nonsense was needed, let alone beneficial. The big climactic fight between Jaa and Crump is even worse. Set on electrified train tracks, it’s just plain dopey.

 

The performances are pretty awful, as are most in Chan’s Eastern made (but often Western-set) 90s flicks for that matter. Chief among the offenders is hippity hop icon and martial arts fanboy RZA, who is completely out of his depth as the main villain. Acting seems completely foreign to him, and sadly it’s a large role. As for femme fatale Yayaying Rhatha Phongam as the supposedly lethal No. 20, I found it hard to get past her outfit to be honest. I like a good female martial artist, but that red fetish outfit takes a genuinely sexy lady and makes her look completely unsexy. It’s horribly unflattering on her body, I’m afraid, and a real distraction of the worst kind.

 

Cheap, wrongheaded attempt to transplant Jaa onto a subpar 90s Jackie Chan action flick with muted violence, poor production values and not much fun. I guess if you like 90s Jackie Chan flicks but would prefer it if they had less comedy, this might be your thing. I was bored, and even the flame-set three-way fight is rendered lame due to cheap CGI. Mr. Jaa, you are an amazing talent, but you really need to be more careful with your career choices, my friend. This just won’t do.

 

Rating: C

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: The Cardinal


Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) is a young Catholic priest who, throughout the years must contend with tests of his faith from both external matters (racism in the American South, the rise of Nazism in Austria), and those more close to home. Chief among the latter is his wayward sister (Carol Lynley) who wants to marry a nice Jewish boy (John Saxon!). When her family disapproves (despite Saxon offering to convert to Catholicism) and Tryon finds out she has also had pre-marital sex to boot, Lynley loses her faith, leaves home and takes up with a slimy nightclub act (Jose Duval), before things take an even worse turn that will rock the then Father Fermoyle’s faith to its core. Dorothy Gish and Cameron Prud’homme play Fermoyle’s parents, Burgess Meredith is a frail priest, John Huston and Raf Vallone play Fermoyle’s Catholic mentors, Ossie Davis is an African-American priest looking for Vatican assistance with some local rednecks who destroyed his church, Joseph Meinrad plays real-life Austrian Cardinal Innitzer, and Romy Schneider plays a pretty Austrian student Fermoyle meets whilst taking temporary leave from his duties after a crisis of conscience. In smaller turns we have Arthur Hunnicutt as a redneck sheriff, Patrick O’Neal as a racist bully, and Cecil Kellaway in a cameo as a monsignor.

 

Boasting one of the biggest casts ever assembled, one assumes that if you were a known actor in 1963 and didn’t appear in this film, director Otto Preminger (“River of No Return”, “Anatomy of a Murder”, “Exodus”) clearly didn’t like you. Ghastly overlong, this film is unfortunately not so much a serious epic about a religious figure, but a soap opera of the 1960s variety, in the worst possible way. There’s an awful lot that could’ve and should’ve been cut here (It’s almost three hours long!), and Preminger owes absolutely everything to his excellent supporting cast. However, not even all of the heavyweights in town could cover up the charismatic black hole at the centre of this film: Tom Tryon.

 

Poor Tom Tryon, the guy just never had a chance here. He’s just not up to the challenge of such a big, meaty role as this. Although he had appeared on several TV shows, Preminger must’ve thought he had uncovered the next big thing in movies with Tryon. It didn’t go well. Apparently Preminger was positively monstrous towards Tryon during filming (possibly taking out frustration for not hiring the right actor, on Tryon instead of himself), resulting in the actor losing interest in the profession and later finding more success as an author. There are two things readily apparent in just the opening ten minutes of this film; 1) Raf Vallone has no hair, and 2) Tom Tryon has absolutely no business being in the acting profession. Perhaps in a smaller, less demanding role he might’ve proved competent at least, but here, there’s an awful lot of Christopher Reeve in Mr. Tryon, and sadly only one of these men managed to find the iconic role of “Superman” that fit like a glove (He also had some charisma, unlike Tryon). His very casting here is an act of extreme cruelty by Preminger. Every other actor in this film is better than him. Yes, even John Saxon in a useless role…and a bow tie! Seriously, he looks creepy. Hell, Monty Clift (who had admittedly died by this point) would’ve nailed this role for sure, though given his fragility perhaps keeping Clift as far away from Preminger as possible would’ve been for the best (Though given how great an actor Clift was, maybe Preminger would’ve left him the hell alone).

 

Thankfully, Preminger has surrounded the wooden Tryon with one helluva supporting cast, even if several are wasted. Without question the main standouts are Burgess Meredith (who was robbed of an Oscar nomination in my opinion) and John Huston, the director being in his first acting assignment and knocking it out of the park with apparent ease, and earning an Oscar nomination for his work. Meredith excels in a plum role as a frail, well-respected priest that is surely among his finest-ever turns. He and Huston have a short but wonderful scene together that simply wouldn’t have been as special were any lesser talents/stars involved. There’s a whole lotta Hollywood in that scene and it’s a prime example of what I mean about the supporting cast being the whole show here. There’s also a really interesting role for a young, and as usual wonderful, Ossie Davis as an African-American priest. In fact, his subplot is the most interesting section of the film (mostly because it’s less of a soap opera), even if some of the casting seems a tad off. A young-ish Murray Hamilton manages to surprise in a rare good guy role, but western veteran Chill Wills is the last person I’d expect in this film, cast as a hick monsignor. Slightly more palatable is fellow western veteran Arthur Hunnicutt, mainly because he’s not playing a religious figure but a local sheriff. Less effective is Patrick O’Neal, who I just plain never bought as a racist cracker bully. Cast John Cassavetes in the role and you’ve got yourself a deal, though. Romy Schneider is OK as Tryon’s potential love interest I suppose, but it’s only in her second set of scenes that things get really fascinating.

 

Next to the subplot with Ossie Davis, the section on Tryon’s dealings with the Nazis is probably the film’s strongest. It features an excellent turn by Joseph Meinrad as a hopelessly naïve Austrian Cardinal who thinks it’s his duty to support Hitler. Tryon is sent by his superiors to get Meinrad to state it as a personal opinion, not representative of the Catholic Church’s view. However, this section is also a reminder that this film is full of far too weighty subject matter to have been treated in such lightweight fashion. The stuff dealing with Tryon’s tests of faith in his situation with sister Carol Lynley is really soapy, corny stuff, though the aforementioned Saxon (in spite of the bow tie) and uber-creepy Jose Duval try their best. I just found the material in these scenes too superficial and small-fry, taking up too much time that could’ve been put to better use beefing up the more interesting parts of the film. Meanwhile, how could Preminger take a bonafide acting legend in Dorothy Gish (granted, the lesser Gish) and waste her in the staggeringly passive, miniscule role of Tryon’s mother? Inexcusable. Veteran British character actor Cecil Kellaway gets scant screen time too, but certainly maximises his minutes in inimitable scene-stealing fashion.

 

Far too long and far too superficial, this film was never going to be the classic its director might’ve envisioned, especially with a lead actor way out of his depth. It is solely through several members of its mammoth supporting cast (Burgess Meredith taking top honours) that this one manages to be at least tolerable, if seriously uneven. This one’s just not very good, I’m afraid, though it’s certainly not starved for lovely scenery and architecture. The screenplay is by Robert Dozier (John Frankenheimer’s “The Young Stranger”), from a novel by Henry Morton Robinson.

 

Rating: C+

Review: The Big Chill


A group of friends- late 60s activists- come together for the funeral of one of their brethren. They then spend the weekend together at the country home of married couple Kevin Kline and Glenn Close, reminiscing, lamenting the current state of their lives, arguing, rekindling romances, etc. They also eventually acknowledge the obvious, that their old friend has killed himself, and that most of them hadn’t stayed in touch with him and vice versa. Also spending the weekend is the girlfriend of the deceased (Meg Tilly). Tom Berenger is the TV star who seems almost embarrassed of his fame, JoBeth Williams is the unhappily married woman Berenger is clearly pining for. William Hurt plays a former radio shrink now floundering with a drug problem and a large helping of glib cynicism and aimlessness. Jeff Goldblum plays the trashy journalist and serial flirt. Mary Kay Place is the single woman hearing the ticking (biological) clock.

 

Although critics tend to prefer John Sayles’ earlier “Return of the Secaucus Seven”, this 1983 Lawrence Kasdan (“Body Heat”, “Silverado”, “I Love You to Death”) film appears to be everybody else’s favourite ‘reunion’ movie. The soundtrack certainly touched a nerve, particularly with baby-boomers, and is probably one of the top 5 film soundtracks of all-time. As for me? I’ve never seen the Sayles film, but I’m not as enamoured with this film as many, I’m afraid. It does, however, grow on you on repeated viewings, I’ve found, as the basic set-up is pretty irresistible and at age 35, maybe I’m starting to really come around on this one. As for the soundtrack, I like it but prefer the soundtracks for “Forrest Gump”, “Shaft”, “The Blues Brothers”, “Stand By Me”, and almost anything by Ennio Morricone.

 

We start off well, with parts of an uncredited Kevin Costner’s body as the deceased, accompanied by the second-best version of ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye (CCR fan right here, folks. The best song on the whole soundtrack is CCR’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’). Since the basic story is well, basic, it’s the cast and characters that are key here, and there’s several standouts for me. Jeff Goldblum has always been a favourite of mine, and he easily walks off with the whole film here with a bizarre combination of awkwardness and ladies’ man charisma that astonishingly works for him (whether it works for his character or not, you’ll have to discover for yourself) as an actor. He’s hilarious here without even saying or doing anything, in fact there isn’t one moment in the film with him that wasn’t hilarious to me. I’m also convinced he’s an alien, and not just because he played one in “Earth Girls Are Easy”. He’s simply not of this Earth, and fascinating to watch. Meg Tilly, I must confess is not my favourite Tilly (That would be the inimitable Ms. Jennifer Tilly), but she’s a really underrated actress with a sweet presence on screen. It really works for her here because she has the tricky role of the outsider, who was romantically involved with the deceased but not known to any of the other characters in the film. Casting someone so instantaneously appealing and ingratiating as Tilly is very clever of Kasdan. You’ll really like her here. The other big standout for me, especially watching the film again recently is the perfectly cast Tom Berenger. He plays a Tom Selleck-esque TV star, but gives him a somewhat reticent, uncomfortable Paul Newman vibe…except that Berenger’s character doesn’t mind signing autographs (Read the Paul Newman biography from a few years back. He used to loathe signing autographs for the most part). He gets two of my favourite moments in the film; Firstly, a small moment where Mary Kay Place tells him he has ‘good genes’…and he looks down to his, well…jeans. The second one is my favourite moment in the entire film where he tries to do one of his own stunts to get William Hurt out of a jam with the cops. It goes brilliantly wrong. He also has terrific chemistry with JoBeth Williams, a seriously underrated actress who really has something here. She’s beautiful, but also warm and lovely on screen. Hollywood owes her a damn apology for not giving her enough to do over the years. They actually seem like a real-life couple here, they just seem to belong together.

 

Mary Kay Place seems perfectly cast here. I don’t know why, but she just feels right for a film about a group of middle-aged friends reuniting. Maybe it’s because she seems relatable, if not remarkable or as charismatic as some of the others. It’s a solid performance from her. Kevin Kline is perfectly acceptable in essentially the lead role, but the character doesn’t allow the naturally affable Kline to play to do much of interest. Perhaps I just prefer Kline in comedic settings, but he just didn’t grab me here. Also, what the fuck was with that half-arsed Southern drawl?

 

Of the cast here, there are two actors whom I have always had a hard time liking, William Hurt, and especially Glenn Close. With Hurt, I will concede that I’ve liked some of his work (“Body Heat” and “I Love You to Death”, both Kasdan films I might add). For the most part I find him a cold and aloof actor, and there are moments where that held true here too. However, it’s undeniable that he is perfect casting for his troubled character here. His coldness and aloofness actually fit this character. He also gets off some nice glib lines throughout, and has one of the best scenes in the entire film when he is finally unable to contain his emotions and he lashes out at everyone with cynical putdowns. This guy’s not a happy camper. I have much more of a problem with Glenn Close, who is simply miscast as someone seemingly meant to be warm-hearted, not to mention a mother. At one point she even says she’s sick of being a ‘good girl’. Close might be absolutely lovely in real-life, but look at her subsequent roles in “Fatal Attraction” (bunny-boiler), “The Paper” (humourless ball-breaker), “101 Dalmatians” (Freakin’ Cruella De Vil!), and TV’s “Damages” (Another ball-breaking bitch). She’s just plain wrong for the part of someone apparently meant to be a ‘good girl’. It may not have been apparent at the time, but it has subsequently been proven true, I think. Cast co-star JoBeth Williams in the part, and you have an immediately stronger film (Christine Lahti would’ve been perfect). With Close, there’s a pretty big blemish on the film, and since she seems unconvincing as someone who has heard of ‘Ain’t too Proud to Beg’ let alone someone who would dance to it, she ruins for me a moment that many consider an all-time classic. That she was the only cast member nominated for an Oscar here is truly head-scratching (Actually I know why she got it, she has a scene where she’s naked and crying. Oooh, how brave. All I kept thinking was, why couldn’t it be Williams naked? Did I mention that Jeff Goldblum’s character was my favourite?). Having said that, on the whole, this cast of characters and actors are all interestingly diverse, yet also believable as a group of old friends. Are any of these actors at the top of their game in this film? Place and Tilly certainly, but Kline is better in comedies, Goldblum in “The Fly”, Hurt in “Body Heat”, and Tom Berenger was brilliantly frightening in “Platoon”. But aside from Close, they all work together very well as a unit, and that is key. I also have to say that it was probably a wise decision to cut all of Kevin Costner’s scenes as the deceased friend (in flashbacks, apparently). Could the character have lived up to the hype? I doubt it. Don’t worry though, Costner’s career didn’t suffer for it, in fact he stole the show in Kasdan’s later “Silverado”, and 1987’s “The Untouchables” is a masterpiece in my opinion.

 

My complaints about this film are pretty minor, aside from Close’s miscasting. I’m just not a fan of this film as many of you out there are. I get it, but I don’t get it, if you know what I mean. But you can’t dislike this film. It’s an irresistible premise that taps into something in all adults, just some more strongly than others I suppose. I like it, but I don’t love it. The screenplay was written by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek (“Men Don’t Leave”, the remake of “Sabrina”), but I bet there was quite a bit of improvising going on. It must’ve been a fun shoot. It’s worth seeing the film just for the moment when a funeral arrangement of a certain Rolling Stones song then turns into the song proper, creating something truly beautiful.

 

Rating: B-