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.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Review: The Train

Set during the tail-end of WWII, Paul Scofield plays German Colonel Von Waldheim, who has orders to seize all art in the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, so they can be taken to Germany for the Fuhrer. Suzanne Flon plays the museum curator who works with the Resistance to stop this from happening. Their plan is to convince French station manager Labiche (Burt Lancaster!) to delay the train transporting the artwork. Labiche (given the task of driving the train by the Nazis) is part of the Resistance but actually wants to destroy the train, not really seeing the importance in saving art during a war. Michel Simon plays the cranky, hulking train engineer Papa Boule, who tries to help the Resistance before Labiche is given the train driving gig. Jeanne Moreau plays a sour-looking hotel owner whom Labiche encounters during the course of the mission.


Popular with critics and train enthusiasts, this 1964 John Frankenheimer (“The Birdman of Alcatraz”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Seven Days in May”) film has a great look, thanks to the exemplary, shadowy B&W cinematography by Jean Tournier (“The Day of the Jackal”, “Moonraker”) and Walter Wottitz (“The Longest Day”). It’s a wonderfully grimy, sweaty, gritty-looking film. The film also boasts a terrific, if not terribly subtle music score by Maurice Jarre (“Lawrence of Arabia”, “A Passage to India”).


However, if you ask me, the only reason why critics love this film yet frowned upon the similar “The Monuments Men” decades later, is that this one is an American film told from a French and German POV, whereas the later film is an American film told from an American POV. I actually think this is the weaker film to be honest, because although Jarre tries to liven things up, this is one extremely sluggish, slow-moving film. It’s only after 45 minutes that I found myself starting to get drawn into the story and characters, and it’s at this point that the action starts to kick in, finally. The second half is infinitely more interesting and exciting, even if one wonders just how plausible the plan being carried out here would be.


I still think the film is best left to the trainspotters among you, but I can’t deny the excellent score, and wonderfully gritty, textured photography. There’s some interesting casting on show, too, even if the characters themselves didn’t quite pull me in (at least not in the first half). Whatever Burt Lancaster (clearly) lacks in ‘French-ness’, he makes up for in presence and star quality. He doesn’t even attempt a French accent, but he doesn’t sound German, either, so at least you can tell he’s not one of the Nazis. Jeanne Moreau has such a naturally downturned mouth that it must be quite painful for her to smile. She fits in perfectly here and works well with Lancaster. They are both, however, acted off the screen by veteran Paul Scofield, who walks off with the film. He’s the only one to truly give the music score and cinematography a run for their money. Look out for a small turn by the extraordinary Michel Simon as the hulking, grumpy, grease-covered train driver/engineer Papa Boule. He’s truly something.


It’s an amazingly gritty, dirty, yet somehow beautiful-looking film, but a seriously lethargic pace really brings this one down. It’s OK, but terribly overrated, certainly not the exciting action movie critics seem to be convinced of. The Oscar nominated screenplay is by Franklin Coen (“This Island Earth”) and Frank Davis (“The Indian Fighter”), from a book by Rose Valland. Others are credited by some sources as having worked on the script (Walter Bernstein, for instance), but only Coen and Davis were included on the Oscar ballot.


Rating: C+

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: Project Almanac

Teen Jonny Weston wants to get into MIT, and indeed gets his wish…but hasn’t got the funds to support his scholastic pursuits. Messing around with an old video camera of his late scientist father’s, Weston temporarily forgets his troubles when he views something startling on a recording of his 7th birthday. He sees a figure in the background of a frame or two that looks very familiar: Himself. No, not his 7 year-old self but himself as he is now. How in the hell can this be possible? He shows this to his two best friends (Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner) and sister (Virginia Gardner), but they aren’t as convinced as he is. However, when they stumble upon his father’s blueprints for a ‘temporal relocation device’ (A time machine, to the dummies out there- I kid, sit down!), they realise that Weston’s dad (who died on Weston’s 7th birthday in a car accident) had been working on a time machine for the US military under the code name ‘Project Almanac’. So, what are three science nerds and a kid sister to do with such information? Follow the blueprints to construct at time machine, of course! They even steal hydrogen canisters in aid of their scientific endeavour. Soon, even Weston’s high school hottie crush Sofia Black D’Elia is joining them, when she catches them using her car battery to power the machine. At first they experiment on a smaller scale, using a toy car and the like, but you know they’re gonna end up sending themselves through time. At first it’s all fun and games, as they win the lottery and use the time machine to succeed academically in school. However, after an awkward moment with D’Elia, Weston wants to change something, and so he goes back in time…on his own. That’s when things get super-complicated. Gary Grubbs is amusing as their demanding science teacher.


Although adopting the “Chronicle” hand-held camera visual style irks more than it works (I’m a poet, y’all!), this 2015 time-travel teen film from director Dean Israelite and screenwriters Jason Pagan & Andrew Stark succeeds where the overrated “Looper” failed miserably. It doesn’t always check out, but there’s a lot less issues I had with this film’s time-travel conceit than with “Looper”. I have absolutely no idea why the reviews for this film have been so poor, I think it’s a real winner.


We start with a very funny opening scene as our hero (played by Jonny Weston) hopes to get into MIT by showing his skills before the camera. The experiment doesn’t go well. As usual for this sort of thing, the premise is irresistible, and mixing in a somewhat standard high school plot was an interesting move, too, even if I’m worried about Allen Evangelista’s intelligence and scholastic aptitude given he’s still stuck in high school. Does he think this is a time-travel spin-off from “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”? Anyway, add in a widowed family deal and you’ve got a film from the “Chronicle” era of filmmaking that comes from someone who clearly grew up on Steven Spielberg and early Robert Zemeckis, with a little Joe Dante (think “Explorers”). Good, I grew up on a similar diet.


It’s the kind of film that’s smart enough to know that the time machine has clearly already been built, a bit of logic that a lot of time-travel films tend to fuck up. So you can forgive if not all of the logic holds water and a few butterflies probably get stepped on. Besides, time travel isn’t real, so at some point all this nit-picking seems rather stupid. If the movie is good, you won’t notice as much. I noticed every damn problem with “Looper” because it was a terrible, terrible film. Ditto “A Sound of Thunder”, which was even worse. Here the only thing that really stuck out like a sore thumb was the stupidity of them filming themselves with a handheld camera stealing hydrogen. The handheld camera storytelling device is necessary for the ending to work, but it does clearly have its downside in terms of credibility. But overall, this film deserves credit for being current, futuristic, and nostalgic all at once. Now that’s impressive.


“Looper” was a film that stupidly gave us two versions of the same character meeting one another in a diner and conversing. This film also has a character meeting another version of themselves, but is smart enough to know that such a thing is incredibly complex and shows that there’s a danger inherent in such a meeting. It was quite clever, I thought, how this film dealt with that dilemma and name-dropping the “Terminator” movies and “Timecop” to boot. Basically, you can seemingly exist on what appears to be the same plane of existence as another version of yourself, but it’s actually a different timeline, and you have to be careful that the two versions of you don’t directly intersect. OK, I’ll buy that, much as I can make sense of it.


I also must commend the filmmakers for giving us very believable and relatable teen characters. Their ambitions are pretty relatable- win the lottery, buy a fast car, maybe stop your dad from dying. That latter one is never really acted upon, but perhaps it’s a bit too ‘icky’ and would’ve been a bit on the nose. Like “Chronicle”, this is pretty much what I’d expect typical teenagers to do in this kind of fantastical situation. Although lead actor Jonny Weston looks more Calvin Klein than science nerd, I was definitely impressed with actresses Virginia Gardner and (especially) Sofia Black D’Elia. Gardner is way too hot to be playing someone who is rarely seen on camera in the film, but hopefully we’ll see more of her in subsequent films. Her character won my heart (so long as I could go back in time to when I was a teenager, or else that’d be really creepy) the moment she noted that she’d like to go back in time to go to the premiere of the original “Star Wars” film. Me too, let’s make it a date! What? Cecily Strong-lookalike D’Elia (who had a role on the American version of “Skins” if I recall), meanwhile, has the charisma, stunning good looks and star quality that you just can’t teach. She’s so impressively charismatic that you find yourself unable to look at anyone else when she’s on screen. Performance-wise she blows everyone else off the screen, though Evangelista (old or not) has no problem convincing you that he’s a geek.


I really don’t know what everyone’s problem is with this film. If it weren’t for the credibility questions raised by the use of handheld cameras, I’d have no problems at all with this film. It works as both an intelligent time-travel film and likeable teen movie. I found it fascinating, believable on its own fantastical level, and highly entertaining. A really pleasant surprise and both Sofia Black D’Elia and first-time director Israelite are ones to watch. 


Rating: B

Review: Second Chance

Robert Mitchum stars as a talented boxer facing the dregs and minor leaguers somewhere in South America. He has lost his nerve, too scared to really give it 110% with his fists because of an unfortunate incident a while back when he accidentally killed an opponent with a deadly punch. Linda Darnell plays a former gangster’s moll targeted for a hit by her ex because she’s agreed to testify against him. Bodyguard Jack Palance has been sent to rub her out, but he’s actually smitten with her himself. Darnell, however, develops romantic feelings for Mitchum and vice versa. This does not sit well with creepy Palance.


Alarmingly shoddy given its talented cast and competent director in Rudolph Mate (“The Far Horizons”, “The Violent Men”, “Miracle in the Rain”), this 1953 crime/romance is a surprising dud. The quality of the print I saw was so poor that one suspects this one has been long forgotten, and frankly it deserves to be. Appallingly cheap, right down to the music score by the usually reliable Roy Webb (“Cat People”, “Bedlam”, “Notorious”) that sounds like something out of the silent era.


Skull-faced Jack Palance is immediately unsettling, but he’s unable to save this one where he spends most of his time walking around and chasing after leading lady Linda Darnell. When he gets a chance to speak, he gives it all he’s got and I reckon he was a better actor at this stage of his career than his tired late-career performances. Darnell is average, to be charitable, whilst the normally reliable Robert Mitchum is surprisingly uninteresting. He’s phoning it in here, like Burt Lancaster in “Rope of Sand” giving this the barest of minimum effort. It’s the worst performance I’ve ever seen him give. Supporting performances are extremely variable.


This is a hack-job, agonisingly slow, with Darnell and Mitchum (who have anti-chemistry together) playing two of cinema’s oldest clichés: Good-hearted people running from or trying to get past previous mistakes. Snore. Lousy back-projection at the cable car climax, which is otherwise the only decent moment in the film, though it is robbed of suspense by my complete lack of giving a fuck. I can’t for the life of me work out what possible use 3D would have for this story.


This isn’t even fit to be the arse-end of a B-movie double-bill. Palance is positively Satanic-looking as the villain, and breathes the only life into this boring cheapie. The screenplay is by Oscar Millard (“Dead Ringer”, “No Highway in the Sky”) and Sydney Boehm (“The Big Heat”, “Mystery Street”, “Violent Saturday”), from the story by D.M. Marshman, Jr (co-writer of “Sunset Blvd”). It was quite a box-office success, so perhaps I’m the one missing out here.


Rating: D+

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review: Mozart and the Whale

Josh Hartnett plays a taxi driver with a bit of a numbers fixation and who has Asperger’s Syndrome. This hasn’t stopped him from doing his job, nor from starting up a support group for people who have issues with fitting into ‘mainstream’ society, and are thus somewhat lonely. That’s not to say that Hartnett is free of his own social awkwardness, especially when he meets a pretty young woman who turns up to one of his meetings. Played by Radha Mitchell, she’s abrasive, sometimes flat-out rude, and Hartnett (who has a problem with making eye contact) clearly has a thing for her. It’s the most socially awkward ‘meet cute’ in cinematic history. The film follows their attempt at having a romantic relationship, just like any other couple. Other members of the group are played by John Carroll Lynch, Erica Leehrsen, Rusty Schwimmer, Allen Evangelista, and (a truly terrible) Sheila Kelley. Gary Cole turns up briefly as a potential employer for Hartnett.


Anyone who has any experience with or has encountered people somewhere along the Autism or Asperger’s spectrum can attest to the wide variety of behaviours. No two cases appear to be alike. Some you wouldn’t even detect anything different about, at least not unless you become close to them over a period of time. Others are pretty close to Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man”. So making a film about characters who have Asperger’s is a tricky thing, because while the film is apparently loosely inspired by a real-life couple, the behaviour on display in the film isn’t necessarily going to ring true to everyone who watches it. I’ve worked for a couple of years alongside someone who has Autism and Asperger’s (who, like Dustin Hoffman, did not particularly like to be touched and was more fond of asking questions than being asked them for some reason), as well as someone who has a very mild form of the latter, but you wouldn’t even suspect it at first meeting. So while I’m no expert on the subject, let me say that when I tell you that this 2005 romance from director Petter Naess (a Norwegian in his first American effort) and screenwriter Ron Bass (“Rain Man”, the cornball “Dangerous Minds”) did not resonate as realistic to me, it’s not just because the characters weren’t behaving closely to what I’ve known through my limited experience with people who have Asperger’s. I was well aware going in that my understanding of Asperger’s and Autism wasn’t anywhere near good enough to make such a judgement. No, what bothered me was the fact that actors Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell (and the supporting cast of ‘crazies’ who seem like leftovers from “The Dream Team”) never once made their characters’ behaviour seem anything other than actors trying doggedly to act ‘quirky’. I never bought these as characters at any point in the film. It was all phony and actory. It proved so distracting and annoying that I spent the entire film at arm’s length, which is a shame, because a love story involving two characters with behavioural disabilities is an extremely worthy one.


The filmmakers seem to understand the illness in general, but the actors have taking it all over the top to the point where Hartnett seems a cocked-headed gesture away from muttering ‘Definitely not my underwear…’ (this from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the excellent “Rain Man”, where the remarkable Dustin Hoffman made all the tics and behaviours seem completely organic) Yes, sometimes people with Asperger’s will be so socially awkward that they take things too literally, but the example of breaking records shown in the film is silly and insulting, especially given Radha Mitchell’s character is clearly not severely autistic like a “Rain Man”-type. The film shows that people with such social awkwardness will occasionally talk too loudly in public (which is true), but the film and actress Mitchell (who is better than this film allows her to be) completely overdo it. I just wasn’t buying the loud outbursts, not because it didn’t register with the examples I’ve come across over the years, but because the film simply didn’t make me believe it. It seemed like a put-on by Mitchell, given her behaviour the rest of the time was (forgive the awful term) ‘normal’. I hate that term, being physically disabled myself, but I trust you know what I mean in using it, and my obvious non-malicious intent. I know it’s bizarre to use the term ‘inconsistent’ in regards to someone with an intellectual/behavioural disability (I really don’t think of Autism or Asperger’s as an intellectual disability, it seems more behavioural), but I just didn’t buy the behaviour as realistic. A lot of the time she just came across as a flaky girl who yelled occasionally. I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was meant to think.


The best I can say for Mr. Hartnett here is that it could’ve been worse, Jeremy Davies could’ve had the role. And don’t even get me started on the cackling, overweight woman played by Rusty Schwimmer, who doesn’t seem impaired in anyway, so much as just silly and acting ‘off’. She’s just being kooky for the sake of really bad comedy. The film shows that these people can live normal, independent lives, hold jobs etc. (Something I already knew, of course!), and I liked that. I also thought there was at least one brilliant idea in the film: You think it’s bad when your partner rearranges your living space? Try being in that situation when you have Asperger’s. That was hilarious.


There’s some worthy stuff here, in theory. The ingredients are there, but the execution is a bit of a disaster. Remove the supporting cast of ‘comedy kooks’ and you’ve got a significantly improved film, but still a far from flawless one, given the too ‘affected’ central performances. This indie romcom just isn’t any good, and treats Asperger’s as a ‘quirk’ to differentiate the film from all the other indie romcoms out there. I admire the idea, frown upon the result. I’d be fascinated to know what those with closer association to people with such disorders or illness make of this film.


Rating: C

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: Calvary


Brendan Gleeson stars as a priest in a small Irish community, who has just heard the confession of an unseen man who claims to have been the victim of sexual abuse by a priest long ago. The man now sees it as his mission to carry out revenge by killing a priest. However, killing a bad priest would merely rob the world of a bad priest whom no one will miss. Instead he wants to make more of an impact by killing Gleeson, who has done no real harm to anyone. With apparently only one week to live, we follow Gleeson in his interactions with locals, as well as reconnecting with his recently suicidal daughter Kelly Reilly. Meanwhile, he’s also looking out for whoever might be his maker yet-to-meet. Chris O’Dowd plays a loutish husband and local butcher, Aidan Gillen is an antagonistic, cynical atheist doctor, Dylan Moran is a rich man with seemingly no joy left in his life after his family left him, and M. Emmet Walsh plays a cranky old writer.


Not to be confused with the similarly spelled ‘cavalry’, the title of this 2014 film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh actually refers to the hill on which Jesus was crucified. Taken to the context of this film’s story, I guess the priest played by Brendan Gleeson is meant to be the ‘one good’ priest in the somewhat tainted Catholic Church of late. It is the second film from McDonagh, whose debut was the interesting and amusing “The Guard”. This one’s a little more serious and perhaps not quite as strong, but is still an interesting effort. The McDonagh’s are clearly a talented family, with brother Martin made the terrific “In Bruges” and the underrated “Seven Psychopaths”.


We start off in startling manner as a confession involving some unsavoury details and a death threat against Brendan Gleeson’s priest character are delivered by an unseen voice. Gleeson, as is often the case is absolutely awesome here, it’s his broad shoulders the film is carried upon (His character obviously carries a lot of non-physical weight around too, being in such an important position in the community). There’s really not much plot to speak of, just Gleeson (as a rather pragmatic and sensible priest who knows the horrible sins his church- or persons involved with it- has committed) interacting with several eccentric characters, with the spectre of impending death lurking in the background as something of a subplot, more than the main plot. In a way, it’s like “I Confess”, except Irish and the murder hasn’t been committed yet. It’s not terribly difficult to work out who the wannabe murderer is, I worked it out from the person in question’s first moment (Perhaps Gleeson’s character knows right away, too). However, the journey makes up for the predictability of the destination, I think.


McDonagh deserves credit for tackling some really serious, weighty stuff here whilst trying to also have a bit of a laugh. A very, very bleak laugh. Chris O’Dowd, somewhat cast against type as a lout, is very sleazy, but very funny. Meanwhile, there’s a very funny conversation between Gleeson and a troubled young man who either wants to kill himself…or join the army. Comedian Dylan Moran is hilarious as a lonely rich man and overall giant wanker, reminding me a bit of the late Dudley Moore. It’s always great to see veteran American character actor M. Emmet Walsh on screen as one of the locals, even if he doesn’t attempt to hide his accent. I guess McDonagh just really wanted to work with the guy and didn’t bother to instruct him to use an Irish brogue. Still, he’s terrific company. Although his hedonistic atheist cynic character is a little bit of a cheap shot at non-believers, Aiden Gillen (the best thing on “Game of Thrones”) is rock-solid too as a cynic who seems to be purposely trying to provoke Gleeson with grim stories. Why does Gillen always look like the cat that swallowed the canary? I swear, he’s hiding something sinister, folks. Or maybe he really is a cat and he really has swallowed a fucking canary. I’m onto you, Littlefinger! Look out for a startling scene between Gleeson and his own son Domhnall (the only scene the latter has in the entire film) as a creepy young murderer named Freddie.


The film’s rather scant plot and relaxed attitude to plot progression/pacing won’t be to everyone’s liking, but this is another solid effort from the team of writer/director McDonagh and lead actor Gleeson. Well-acted across the board by an interesting cast (especially Gleeson and Moran), but perhaps it’s a film with more interesting parts than adding up to a completely successful whole. It certainly can’t be accused of being boring with this cast, though. Lovely Irish scenery, too, though I bet it’s a shit boring place to live unless you’re a drinker or fond of site-seeing (Sorry, Irish people, it’s not your country, it’s me).


Rating: B-

Review: Circus World

John Wayne plays a rootin’, tootin’ three-ring circus owner who takes his struggling wild west-themed show all over Europe. Claudia Cardinale is the 18 year-old young woman he has raised as her foster father (but who is her real father?), and she’s also a part of the circus troupe. Her former highwire artist mother (Rita Hayworth) left years ago after a stunt gone wrong that resulted in her husband dying. Unfortunately, a huge disaster sees most of the circus equipment destroyed. Wayne is undeterred, he tries to get things rebuilt and have the show go on ahead. Meanwhile, he knows Hayworth (whom he has unresolved feelings for) is supposed to be somewhere in Germany. Lloyd Nolan plays Wayne’s veteran right-hand businessman, with John Smith the young up-start who might just be Wayne’s successor one day. Richard Conte plays the highwire clown brother of the deceased, who is still tortured by the memories and the pain, but decides to join Wayne’s circus anyway, with his young niece (Katharyna).


I haven’t seen “The Greatest Show on Earth” in decades, so I can’t make a fair comparison (I remember really liking Jimmy Stewart, but I always like Jimmy), but this 1964 circus movie from director Henry Hathaway (“Shepherd of the Hills”, “Kiss of Death”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”) is pretty enjoyable stuff. It’s kind of interesting that while heir apparent to the western throne Clint Eastwood was in Spain filming “A Fistful of Dollars” for Sergio Leone, Duke and Hathaway were in Spain the same year making a circus movie. John Wayne and ‘circus owner’ didn’t initially register with me, and while they’ve obviously had to tie a wild west theme to his show, he nonetheless has undeniable presence and star power. And y’know what? He eventually won me over, and is likeably laidback here and in good spirits.


The projection work is appalling, but the circus acts are quite fun and pretty impressive. Yes, there’s clearly some trickery involved in the lion taming scene, but it’s still John Wayne taming a freakin’ lion in a movie. How awesome is that? Aside from the projection work (the rest of the film looks terrific), Claudia Cardinale is the only other thing that’ll stand out like a sore thumb. The poor gal tries her best, but dressed like Calamity Jane, she simply doesn’t belong here at all. She’s doing her damndest, but she’s speaking in her second language to begin with. Full marks, however, for Cardinale showing the greatest display of cleavage this side of Russ Meyer, in the final scene. That sure is a lotta booby right there. John Smith, meanwhile, leaves about as much of a memorable impression as his name. He’s not awful, he’s just…John Smith. I also wish the lovely Kay Walsh were given more to say and do.


Look, there’s not very much that’s seriously wrong here, so long as you know what you’re getting. It’s a basic circus movie plot, but it works. There’s certainly never a dull moment. There’s too much going on for that, and the obvious fun Duke is having, proves to be quite infectious. Lloyd Nolan is terrific back-up in a very Arthur O’Connell part, whilst Richard Conte gives an interestingly glum performance, something that is well within his narrow wheelhouse. Playing a highwire clown, he’s genuinely good. The actress playing his niece however (credited solely as Katharyna), is atrocious. High-wire acts really do seem insane to me. Even when you’re hooked up to a seemingly invisible wire and whatnot, it’s still incredibly brave to do that with lions on the ground ready to pounce on fresh meat. Even the usually annoying Rita Hayworth is interestingly cast here in a melodramatic but not very glamorous character part. She’s OK. I don’t know what long-serving Brit character actor Miles Malleson was doing here in a John Wayne film, but he’s always a delight. His is a one-scene role basically, but as a shameless tabloid newspaper man, he’s more than solid. Pretty spectacular and convincing Big Top fire climax, I have to say. Ludicrous, of course, but well-done aside from the dodgy projection work in some parts. I highly doubt Wayne did his own stunts here, it’d be incredibly irresponsible of him given he was approaching the twilight of his career/life.


This is clearly a big, expensive spectacle of a movie, and enjoyable on that level. Wayne being in a relaxed mood and some fine supporting actors help you forget some of the lumps. Surprisingly fun, and certainly better than its reputation. The screenplay is by Ben Hecht (“Notorious”, “Strangers on a Train”), Julian Halevy, and James Edward Grant (“The Alamo”), from a story by Philip Yordan (“The Harder They Fall”, “El Cid”, “The Fall of the Roman Empire”) and Nicholas Ray (director of “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Johnny Guitar”). A lot of big names (it was Hecht’s last, also) for what is just a bit of showy fun, but it’s well-done.


Rating: B-

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: The Cassandra Crossing

Lou Castel is one of several terrorists who bust into the WHO building in Geneva. After a beaker is shattered during all the gunfire, Castel becomes exposed to a deadly virus as he makes his escape. He boards a train headed to Stockholm, putting all of the passengers at risk of exposure. Further complicating matters for the passengers is U.S. Colonel Burt Lancaster, who reveals to WHO doctor Ingrid Thulin, that the U.S. are responsible for the virus due to a top secret and illegal experiment. The people on board the train start getting sick, but Lancaster tries to avoid panic and at the same time keep things hush-hush, whilst Thulin is more concerned for the passengers on board. Chief among those passengers, however, is an experienced neurosurgeon played by an assured Richard Harris who may be the key to everyone’s survival. The title refers to a crossing (or bridge) the train is headed for, a crossing that may not be in good enough condition for the train to safely cross. Not that Lancaster informs the passengers of this, of course. Sophia Loren plays Harris’ ex-wife, a novelist on board the train. Lee Strasberg turns up as an elderly pickpocket and Holocaust survivor, John Philip Law is Lancaster’s aide, O.J. Simpson plays a mysterious priest, Ava Gardner is the wealthy wife of an arms dealer, Martin Sheen is Gardner’s drug-addicted plaything (!), Lionel Stander is the train conductor, and Alida Valli is a granny on board with her granddaughter.


Director George P. Cosmatos (“Cobra”, “Tombstone”) and his co-writers Robert Katz (“La Pelle”, “Kamikaze ‘89”) and Tom Mankiewicz (“Diamonds are Forever”, “Live and Let Die”, “Ladyhawke”) have come up with one of the best 70s disaster movies with this 1976 flick about a deadly virus and a train full of passengers. It’s not quite as much fun as “The Poseidon Adventure”, but it’s at least the equal of “The Towering Inferno”. Plot-wise, the film is still rather relevant when you think about it in this rather anxious era of Bird/Swine Flu/Ebola. It can be quite unnerving at times, just how relevant it still is.


The characters do tend to conform to stock disaster movie cliché with Lee Strasberg as the eccentric old man, Ava Gardner in for Gloria Swanson in “Airport”, OJ Simpson as…OJ Simpson, playing a priest who may not really be a priest. There’s even a stupid folk/hippie band on board! However, instead of a Chuck Heston or Burt Lancaster, our lead is the rather eccentric Irishman Richard Harris, and Burt Lancaster plays a secondary part instead. None of these count as flaws, though. You accept them as part of the genre, and the premise is a bit more interesting than any of the “Airport” films say, even the best one “Airport 77”. It takes itself a bit more seriously than most of these sorts of films, if not quite as serious-minded as the excellent “Voyage of the Damned”. It also comes to a well-staged, really quite horrifying finale that you won’t easily forget anytime soon.


Aside from a horribly wooden Ingrid Thulin, there isn’t a bad performance in the film. The standouts are certainly Richard Harris, Martin Sheen, and Burt Lancaster, though. Harris and Lancaster don’t give career best performances or anything, but their personalities and screen presence enrich the film in ways others simply couldn’t touch. It’s a good, heroic role for Harris to play, and Lancaster’s character is interestingly shaded. He’s not quite a black-hearted villain, though he certainly comes across as cold and harsh. Sheen’s toyboy with a dark secret is a tad goofy at times, and I’d love to ask him one day just what he thought about playing this part opposite Ava Gardner. But he’s damn good fun as a not very likeable young stud, who doesn’t turn into a hero, but becomes a little less selfish under a crisis situation. Lou Castel should’ve played a Bond villain henchman at some point in his career if you ask me. Here as the infected passenger, he gets sick and stays that way until his final moment. It’s not much of a showcase for him really, but he does what he can. Faring far worse is John Phillip Law, who as an attaché stands and talks, and occasionally sits and talks. He even answers the telephone at one point. He’s pretty good at that. As for OJ Simpson (in a role turned down by James Coburn!), either he’s an appalling actor or he’s deliberately going for laughs in his role. He was in “The Naked Gun” films and pretty much acted his way out of a murder conviction (the first time at least), so I’ll go with the latter. Sophia Loren is good company, and although by this point she was starting to lose her youthful good looks (And that’s no insult, it happens to us all!), she looks absolutely stunning in a black lace negligee. DAMN!


Although the bulk of the film takes place on a train, the scenery captured by cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri (“La Traviata”, “Hitler: The Last Ten Days”) is actually really lovely. Perhaps best of all is the infectious but oddball, slightly Eurotrash music score by the one and only Jerry Goldsmith (“Planet of the Apes”, “The Omen”, “Star Trek: First Contact”). Probably my favourite film composer, Goldsmith is an asset to any film, and that’s certainly the case here.


One of the best and least dated of the 70s disaster films, this one’s not as silly as most, and is both underrated and under seen. And if you’ve ever wanted to hear screen legend Sophia Loren say ‘shit’, here’s your film.


Rating: B+

Review: The Raid 2

After the events of the first film, cop Rama (Iko Uwais) is tackling the big-time gangsters in this outing. Working with IA, Rama is assigned the task of serving a contrived prison sentence to get close to Uco (Arifin Putra, smooth but volatile), hoping to get a gig as hired muscle for Uco’s powerful kingpin father Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). The idea is to ferret out the bad eggs in the police department in cahoots with the crims. Thrown into the mix are a rival gangster named Bejo (Alex Abbad, as quirky as his rival is stoic), and a Japanese mob. Yayan Ruhian turns up as an expert killer who longs to patch things up with his estranged kids. In between hacking limbs and kicking arse, that is.


I guess you can’t blame Welsh writer/director/editor Gareth Edwards too much for getting overly ambitious in this sequel to the top-notch martial arts/action-thriller “The Raid”. For this 2014 film, he’s basically inspired by more epic-scale cops-and-crims pics, particularly from Hong Kong, as well as a touch of Francis Ford Coppola. Unfortunately, the problem is “The Raid” worked because of its no-frills, hard and fast, violent nature. It was a blast and a half. This sequel is slow, drawn-out, and far too unwieldy. At times, it’s frankly rather boring. A film like this really ought not go for close to 2 ½ hours, especially when you’re mostly working with martial arts guys, rather than top-drawer actors and a script that’s as old as the hills. This was a massive disappointment to me, albeit punctuated by moments of undeniable pure awesomeness.


Sure, nothing tops the first film’s awesome three-way ‘boss fight’ (the best of its type of all-time, in my view), but when this film is good…oh boy. The prison fight is completely ricockulous, but because the film had been drowning in talk up to that point, I couldn’t help but enjoy the respite. Even better is a later fight in the prison yard (and in the mud, I might add), which is fucking epic stuff in the best sense. The film is almost worth seeing just for this set piece alone. Meanwhile, Edwards kinda shot himself in the foot last time by killing off actor/fight choreographer/bad arse Yayan Ruhian. So what’s the solution? Bring him back inexplicably, in a completely different role. And he’s in fine form. This guy is such a bad arse that he carries a machete whilst taking down a bunch of thugs…and waits until the last guy before he bothers using it, relying on his fists and feet the rest of the time. He also doesn’t bother running when said last guy starts to run away. He’s such a bad arse that he knows he doesn’t need to run, just briskly walking after him. Bad. Arse. His character is a fascinatingly layered one, too. A sad man doing bad things for even worse people, you can never quite sympathise with nor entirely hate him. There’s clearly a lifetime of sorrow and regret in his performance…and then he just goes and beats the fuck out of about 10-15 guys in the film’s second-best action set piece. Goddamn, that Mr. Ruhian. He’s my new hero. Unfortunately, just as you’re really starting to enjoy this scene-stealing turn, well…let’s just say that his character is a minor cog in the wheel that is this film’s plot. In fact, his character’s role in the film’s overall plot ends up seeming rather pointless. Thoroughly enjoyable for sure, but still pointless.


Somewhat making up for Mr. Ruhian’s absence is a fantastic cross-cutting between a guy beating brains in with a baseball bat (and sometimes even using the ball), a chick mowing people down on a train with two freaking hammers, and another group targeting a guy in a grassy field. It’s a bravura set piece, with the sound of the baseball bat hitting flesh unforgettable. The 2 on 1 between Uwais, the baseball guy, and the hammer chick in a confined space is pretty terrific too. So there’s definitely some great stuff in this for action fans. There’s also a really terrific performance (by far the best in the film) by Brandon Lee-lookalike Arifin Putra, who also speaks pretty perfect English. Make this guy an international star already! I was actually surprised to find that he’s a German-born Indonesian (with a German father), because he doesn’t look remotely like any of the other Indonesians in the cast. Lead actor Iko Uwais is coming along nicely as a thespian, he’s clearly got something, but he can’t save a film on his own. His character this time out just isn’t interesting enough to carry a film of this length, especially given the story is so unwieldy that his character seems to get lost in the shuffle for periods of time. He’s the main character!


The camerawork by Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono is better this time out, not nearly as shaky. In fact, some of it is truly inventive, making things look even more brutal and impactful. However, whoever was responsible for filming the fight in the car should be raked across the coals (Edwards apparently did the action choreography, with stars Uwais and Ruhian doing the fight choreography). It’s lame, but only because the overhead camerawork reveals the artificiality of it all. The car has no roof, or else the shot would be impossible. Besides, Jon Foo already did it better in “Bangkok Revenge”. The resulting freeway chase screams of a director doing something simply because he has the money and freedom to, whether it’s worthwhile or not. The long, gory fight in a kitchen would’ve been even more fun if not (yet again) for the obviously fake set-up of a kitchen far too spacious to be realistic. No commercial kitchen would be that roomy, even when empty. Still, that sure is a lot of blood being spilt. Wow.


Even with the rather hackneyed plot (which cribs quite a bit from “Eastern Promises” and “Only God Forgives”, the latter of which also seems to have inspired some of the set design) there’s probably a really good 85-90 minute movie in here somewhere. Unfortunately, someone thought they were the second coming of Sergio Leone meets Wong Kar-Wai and has tried to make a big crime epic. It doesn’t work, but there are masterful moments of action here and there, and look out for Arifin Putra in the future. That guy’s got something.  


Rating: C+