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, October 3, 2015

Review: Darkman

Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Peyton Westlake, a dedicated scientist and loving boyfriend to lawyer Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), whom he has just popped the question to. Westlake is aiming to perfect an artificial skin for burns victims, but when Julie stumbles upon criminal information about her rich contractor boss Strack (Colin Friels), Strack sends mobster Durant (Larry Drake) and his goons to find Julie and the incriminating documents. Instead, they find Westlake (well, they are in his lab after all), and after beating the snot out of him, they blow his lab up, sending Westlake’s body sky high (in a moment I used to rewind and watch over and over as a young man. Sick, I was). But Westlake is not dead and somehow finds himself at doctor Jenny Agutter’s hospital with burns covering the majority of his body. The doctors use experimental treatment that fixes his massive pain, but also gives him super-strength and some uncontrollable anger issues. Fleeing the hospital, Westlake holes up in an abandoned warehouse and goes to work on fixing his face with his own artificial skin. It works, though unfortunately it only lasts about 90 minutes. However, this is enough for him to adopt various disguises and infiltrate the evildoers in order to exact his revenge.


Some might call this 1990 film from Sam Raimi (“Evil Dead”, “Evil Dead II”, “A Simple Plan”) a dry run for his superhero series of “Spider Man” films, but that’s not quite accurate. For starters, this is a much more enjoyable film than any of those films (and an original creation I might add), if a tad overrated by some. I remember enjoying this one when I was a pre-teen and, although having not seen this in at least a decade, it holds up pretty well as I write this 25 years after it was originally released (I feel fucking old, by the way). Even some of the poor projection work could be chalked up to intentional 50s/60s-ish touches by Raimi. Try looking at some of the films Hitchcock made in the late 50s and into the 60s, for instance (“Marnie” in particular suffers from it). I’m also not convinced Raimi was working with a particularly big budget anyway, so some of the less-than-stellar FX work is forgivable, though it’s pretty hard not to notice it.


In terms of cinematography, production design, and music score, however, the film is absolutely top-notch, and the makeup is pretty good too. Danny Elfman (“Batman”, anyone?) is the perfect guy for this kind of material and delivers a bloody good job here to go with his work for Tim Burton. The best way to describe the film is probably a mixture of “Dick Tracy”, “Batman”, “Phantom of the Opera”, and “The Invisible Man” (Indeed, Raimi envisioned this as a mixture of superhero film and Universal horror film homage. It certainly looks like such a blend). Raimi’s the perfect director for this schlocky material, making his pedestrian and ‘safe’ “Spider Man” films all the more disappointing, really. He brings a lot of excitement, energy, and visual panache to this that the arachnid superhero series really could’ve used a lot more of.


The other two big assets here are the performances by an effectively anguished Liam Neeson and dastardly Larry Drake. Neeson is instantly likeable here in the all-important title role, which I think might’ve been the first film I saw him in. Entirely sympathetic and with great presence, the film would be so poorer without him. I have no idea how Larry Drake manages to be so good here and hasn’t managed to match it in any other project (aside from maybe “L.A. Law”), but he’s a perfect cartoony villain, in the “Dick Tracy” mould, except “Dick Tracy” (released the same year) absolutely sucked on all levels. Drake’s collection of severed fingers is wonderfully sick and twisted.


Frances McDormand is an actress I tend to find overrated (Loved her in “Almost Famous”, however), and although her role isn’t much here, she does it quite well. Meanwhile, look out for small appearances by a twitching and bugged-out Ted Raimi as a goon, the late great Julius Harris as a gravedigger, and the similarly late great Prof. Toru Tanaka in the Asian restaurant scene. Hell, even Jenny Agutter turns up briefly as a doctor, and seems to have found the fountain of youth. She didn’t seem to age at all between 1981 and 1990. Bruce Campbell fans will have to wait for his obligatory cameo, as it comes right at the end, credited as ‘Final Shemp’, for “Evil Dead” fans.


The one black spot in terms of casting is the oddball decision to cast Aussie actor Colin Friels in the role of the slick, corporate (secondary) villain role. I’m not a huge fan of Friels to begin with, but he’s far too rugged and blokey to be playing a slick yuppie schmuck, he’s badly miscast and ineffectual. He’s not remotely threatening at all. What the hell did Raimi see in Friels that made him think he could do this role? Anthony LaPaglia, fine, I could see him doing it. Even Jack Thompson could have a crack at it, but Friels? No way, and it hurts the film quite a bit. If one looks at Friels’ subsequent lack of American film work (“Class Action” had him in corporate mode again the next year), it proves quite telling, really. They just didn’t know what to do with him. The other problem with Friels, is the way his character is signalled as a villain from his very first shot. He may as well be wearing a sign or a twirly moustache, which is no fault of Friels’.


“Evil Dead” fans might find this far too tame for their liking, but this is a different beast. It’s a fun superhero-esque yarn, that is enhanced by the energetic direction by Raimi, camp villainy by Larry Drake, and the spot-on, empathetic work by Liam Neeson in the lead. Technologically it hasn’t aged brilliantly, but on an entertainment level, it still holds relatively strong. Definitely worth a look if you initially missed it. Based on a story by the director, the screenplay is by Daniel Goldin, Joshua Goldin (who both wrote “Out on a Limb” with Matthew Broderick), Chuck Pfarrer (“Navy SEALS”, “Barb Wire”, “Hard Target”), brother Ivan Raimi (“Army of Darkness”), and the director himself.


Rating: B-

Review: Killers

An emotionless, meticulous Japanese serial killer (Kazuki Kitamura) records his misdeeds and posts the videos online where they are viewed by a brooding Indonesian journalist (Oka Antara) in a troubled marriage. Although a loving father, the Indonesian man seems to have a dark side too, and soon he is committing his own acts of violence, albeit with different motives (He is pretty much forced into killing someone, though he seems to find afterwards that he liked it). And then Kitamura decides to introduce himself to Antara online, after viewing Antara’s own grisly video, and a strange, twisted relationship begins between the two men as Kitamura sees himself the teacher to Antara’s pupil. Meanwhile, the seemingly sociopathic Kitamura is also experiencing some kind of feelings for a friendly flower shop girl. He wouldn’t hurt her, would he?


Co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel, from a screenplay by Tjahjanto and Takuji Ushiyama, this 2014 Japanese killer-thriller (produced by Gareth Huw Evans, of “The Raid”) suffers from a couple of narrative issues, but is otherwise a good film. It’s really dark, creepy and bleak stuff that some may not want to go along with. However, if you can stomach it, I think it’s really interesting and effective. The world on show here is one rife with creeps and killers in hiding. It’s actually more frightening than a lot of horror films I’ve seen.


Pretty boy Kazuki Kitamura has a good line in emotionless, sociopathic, Patrick Bateman-esque serial killer that is the best thing in the film. Co-star Oka Antara plays the more complex role of a guy not quite as far on the journey to serial killer just yet. The relationship between the two resembles “Copycat” at times. It’s a great, “Dexter”-ish idea for a film, albeit without the dark humour of that (mostly) terrific TV series.


I found the geography of the whole thing a bit confusing for a while. I couldn’t work out whether or not the Japanese guy was in Indonesia as well (for the most part, no he isn’t), because for the most part he’s only an online presence. I guess I was meant to just accept that the Internet is a global thing that makes people feel more closely connected, but I still think a little more clarity was needed. So it took a while for me to find my bearings there I must say.
I also think the last quarter takes a bit of a downward turn by trying to create some sympathy for one of the main characters, who by this point has fallen way too far to be redeemed in any way whatsoever. Maybe it was an attempt at giving us a ray of sunshine out of the abyss, but the Antara character has already gone so far down into that abyss that it just doesn’t seem to spring organically from the story or character. Still, it’s a really interesting, extremely creepy film that isn’t easily shaken from you afterwards.


Rating: B-

Friday, October 2, 2015

Review: Way of the Dragon (AKA Return of the Dragon)

Bruce Lee travels to Rome to help out a cousin (Nora Miao) whose restaurant is currently being harassed by the local mafia (led by Jon T. Benn) who want them to sell. After Lee manages to take down Benn’s two henchmen (martial artists Robert Wall and Hwang Ing-shik), an American fighter (Chuck Norris!) is called in to take Lee out. Ping Ou Wei plays Mr. Ho, the slimy interpreter for mafia don Benn.


I guess Bruce Lee figured he could direct just as well as Lo Wei, but this 1972 martial arts film from the actor-writer-director-arse-kicker isn’t up to the standard of his two efforts with Lo Wei, “The Big Boss” and (his best film) “Fist of Fury”. This one is a bit better than the silly “Enter the Dragon” (directed by Robert Clouse), but really only comes alive in the action scenes. Silly sound FX or not, you really can’t get much better than Bruce Lee taking out practically a dozen guys with a pair of nunchuks. Nunchuks, people! So it’s not really a good movie, but it’s got some iconic action. The practically non-stop action finale is particularly landmark for its time, and not just because it features the Roman Coliseum. It still holds up well today, the film itself perhaps not so much. I’m not sure why the fuck there’s all that zooming in and out on a kitten, but the sight of Chuck Norris playing the Robin Williams of martial arts fighters is really something. Dude is mucho hairy. It’s also one of the few times you’ll see Mr. Norris being made humbled and vulnerable and playing a villain, so enjoy!


Great fights, OK movie as director Lee fails to really distinguish himself much as a director, and it looks a bit cheap and tacky. There’s some awkward comedy at the outset that just stretches things out too much, and seems more Jackie Chan’s game than Mr. Lee’s, though he plays it relatively well. In fact, aside from technical cheapness, the film’s biggest flaw is its glacial pacing. It takes forever to get off the ground, though interpreter Mr. Ho sure is the swishiest henchman I ever did see (It’s a poor stereotype, but too silly to really be offensive), providing occasional non-PC amusement. Meanwhile, why are there so many non-Italians in 1970s Rome? I’m pretty sure one of the henchman is Bob Seger, for cryin’ out loud. But when the film is in action mode, there are no complaints. Lee is quite clearly in a class of his own in this regard, I’ve always preferred him to the more clownish Jackie Chan. I can never really get invested in Chan’s fights because they’re all feats of acrobatics and stunt work for the sake of spectacle and comedy. Lee is bad freaking arse, and means business. His fights seem brutal and impactful. At one point he appears to snap a guy’s neck using only his goddamn feet. Daaaaamn! As an actor, he’s more of an icon and physical presence, but what physical presence! He may not be my favourite martial arts star, but there’d be no Van Damme, Seagal, Adkins, or Michael Jai White without Master Lee leading the way. Leading lady Nora Miao is a cutie too and a pretty decent actress. Mr. Norris is thankfully kept silent, which is for the best really. Terrific music score by Joseph Koo (apparently cribbing from Ennio Morricone’s score from “Once Upon a Time in the West” occasionally) adds to the fun.


OK, so Lee’s not a great director and only slightly better as a screenwriter, but when this film is in action mode it delivers. It’s just a shame that those moments are only very occasionally forthcoming, though the Rome locales look spectacular. The all-action finale is particularly special, and if you’re a fan you clearly don’t need any incentive, you already own the film. For me, I prefer “Fist of Fury”, or non-Lee martial arts films like “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”, “One-Armed Boxer vs. Flying Guillotine”, and “Riki-Oh”. But Lee made so few films that I really do think even his lesser ones are worth remembering for their good moments. Beware: No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture, but some leather couches got the holy fuck beaten out of them. I mean, daaaaammmn!.


Rating: C+

Review: The Shadow

We begin in Tibet in the 1920s, where a black-hearted warlord (played by that wonderful Asian actor Alec Baldwin) who is taught by Tibetan monks to turn his frown upside down. Or something like that. Anyway, cut to years later in New York, and that same rogue is now called Lamont Cranston. He now spends his nights fighting crime as the mysterious, mind-controlling vigilante known as ‘The Shadow’. However, ‘The Shadow’ is about to meet his match in the form of Shiwan Khan (John Lone), who like his ancestor Genghis Khan, is hell-bent on ruling (and presumably enslaving) the world. This plan seems to involve Shiwan Khan getting into the head of a top nuclear physicist (Sir Ian McKellen) to construct a nuclear device for him. Penelope Ann Miller plays McKellen’s daughter, Margo Lane, whose help Cranston/Shadow enlists. Tim Curry plays a slimy, lascivious scientist in cahoots with Khan, and who has designs on Margo. Joseph Maher and Max Wright turn up as museum curators, Ethan Phillips is a museum security guard, Peter Boyle is Cranston’s loyal cab driver, and Jonathan Winters is the police commissioner.


I can remember thinking this 1994 Russell Mulcahy (“Razorback”, “Highlander”, “Ricochet”) superhero/comic book movie was a tad too cheesy when I first saw it on a plane as a teenager, and that impression pretty much holds true at age 35. However, it does now have the added interest of seeming like a dry run for Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” when you think about it. The hero’s backstory and even the film’s villain have similarities with “Batman Begins”. You’d think former music video director Mulcahy would be perfectly suited to this genre, and indeed it does mostly look terrific, as you’d expect from the director of “Razorback”. However, there’s something a little too lightweight about the treatment and Mulcahy never quite gets the tone right. The film seems to uncomfortably try to pass itself off as something akin to “Batman” (which the character actually predates), “Dick Tracy” or “The Rocketeer” when for all money it seems like “Batman Returns” should’ve been the stronger influence on this. So the film just doesn’t quite come off at the end of the day.


Not only is the relationship between Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane a bit of a rip-off of Bruce Wayne/Vicki Vale, but you’d swear Cranston’s bachelor pad was directly stolen off the set of Tim Burton’s “Batman”. All the phony-eyed hypnotism stuff is just too silly and doesn’t mesh with the rest (The character started off in radio serials, and probably played a lot better there and subsequently on the printed page). I mean, one scene of someone being hypnotised to shoot someone is right out of “The Naked Gun!” for cryin’ out loud. Could no one see that? It’s almost a direct steal. Hell, you could argue that the characters played by Penelope Ann Miller and Sir Ian McKellen are straight out of “Top Secret!”. What in the world is goin’ on here? I will say, though, that there’s one scene involving the hypnotism stuff that is at least interesting to ponder: The villain has hypnotised the entire city to ignore the fact that he has constructed a huge evil lair. Yes, it’s kinda stupid given you’d feel its presence if you bumped into it, but still it’s kind of a cool idea actually. It’s a shame more isn’t done with that, actually.


There’s something fascinating here with the title character and his dark, rogue past, but that stuff seems to be de-emphasised (I will confess to not being acquainted with the character, so perhaps the stuff I’m complaining about actually comes from the previous incarnations, but that doesn’t make that stuff interesting). Ironic given I’m not a fan of the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy (nor the more ‘realistic’ comic book films of recent years in general, for that matter), but this is definitely the one film in this genre crying out to be darker. I mean, I wouldn’t say Lamont Cranston was a villain who turns into a superhero, but he’s certainly a selfish rogue turned superhero, which is rather unusual in cinematic superheroes.


The film does have its positives, as it looks pretty terrific and it’s not a boring film, just a lumpy and unsuccessful one.  The cinematography by Stephen H. Burum (“Rumble Fish”, “The Untouchables”) is as good as you’d expect in a Mulcahy film. In fact, aside from some dodgy FX (indicative of being an early-mid 90s films. That period has dated faster than seemingly any period in cinematic history in terms of FX), the film looks terrific, nice and shadowy as befits its title character and world. The production design is excellent, the film being a mixture of Asian mysticism and film noir that was pretty fresh at the time. Ace composer Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen”, “Planet of the Apes”, “The Blue Max”, “Star Trek: First Contact”), meanwhile does a typically excellent job, not too far from Danny Elfman (“Batman”) territory without quite ripping him off.


Alec Baldwin seemed to be trying to pass himself off as a romantic leading man for a while there, and to be honest I actually prefer him in that lane than the sleazy villains he also often played, before settling into the terrific character actor he has now become. Playing the somewhat ant-hero Lamont Cranston is a really good fit for him as it allows him to play a the protagonist without being Dudley Do-Right. He’s not an actor really known for his voice, like a Tim Curry for instance (or Orson Welles, who narrated a radio version in the 30s), but he does good work here nonetheless and tries his best with the vocal stuff. Meanwhile, the makeup here used for Cranston’s alter-ego amusingly makes Alec look like a cross between William and Daniel Baldwin. It’s the damndest thing (There’s a touch of Liam Neeson in Sam Raimi’s underrated “Darkman”, too). I’m not a Penelope Ann Miller fan, but she has the right look and vibe here as the leading lady. She certainly fits right into this 20s/30s-era world. Peter Boyle is good fun too, as Moe, one of Cranston’s loyal helpers.


Unfortunately, John Lone just doesn’t cut it as the film’s main villain, Shiwan Khan. I’ve never quite figured out why filmmakers kept casting Lone in films. He did alright in the title role of “Iceman”, but otherwise, he’s incredibly bland as an actor. As a villain, he lacks any menace or panache whatsoever, and in a film that sees Tim Curry (not to mention James Hong) go begging as a secondary slimeball picking up sloppy seconds, that’s criminal. Whatever ‘it’ is, Lone didn’t have enough of it, and that’s completely obvious here. I’ve never been a fan of fish-out-of-water deals where ancient or alien beings turn up in modern settings, as it often leads to lame comedy. This isn’t the worst example of such a thing, but nonetheless Shiwan Khan is forgettable and non-threatening. He’s one of the biggest flaws in the film, as he is completely uninspired and you keep waiting for Christopher Lambert to come along and lop his head off with a sword. By the way, listen to Lone in this, dear reader and tell me he’s not basing his vocal intonations on co-star James Hong. It’s uncanny! The film has a giant supporting cast, but aside from Boyle, none of them really stick around long enough to make much of an impression, though in Tim Curry’s case it’s certainly not through lack of trying. Jonathan Winters is supposed to be a comic genius. Here he’s about as subtle an actor as Don Rickles. Not a compliment. Stop trying so damn hard, dude! I’m convinced that Ethan Phillips has based his performance as a museum security guard on Paul Marco’s dopey Officer Kelton from Edward D. Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. I just can’t work out why he’s doing it. The other thing that struck me during his one scene in the film was how much of a shame it was that Mulcahy didn’t find more for the talented Joseph Maher (the Brit alcoholic with the dog on an episode of TV’s “Seinfeld”) and Max Wright (of TV’s beloved-by-me “ALF”) to do. But you could say the same thing of Sir Ian McKellen, James Hong (excellent, but underused), Al Leong (the Fu Machu-esque henchman in a zillion action films), and Toshishiro Obata (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”). You can say that of Andre Gregory most of all, given the bum role of a superhero switchboard operator! Honestly, I’ve seen all-star disaster movies that have given their cast meatier roles than this film does. Look out for the hideous, outdated end theme by Taylor Dayne of all people (who knew she was still around in 1994?), and penned by the one and only Jim Fucking Steinman of “Rocky Horror” fame.


Here’s one superhero re-boot one would genuinely like to see, instead of doing “Spider Man” for the 10th time. This one’s just too lumpy and uncertain in tone, has some pretty dated FX and spends too much time trying to be like everyone else. There’s something here, but it never really pulls it all together into a solid whole, nor does it forge its own clear identity. Still, it’s better than “Dick Tracy” and “The Phantom”, right? The screenplay is by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”, “War of the Worlds”, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”), based on a character created by Walter B. Gibson.


Rating: C+

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: Smokin’ Aces

Coke-snorting Vegas magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven, in his sleazy, blurry-eyed element) gets so involved in the criminal underworld that he starts to think he’s a big man, and decides to sell some important information. Naturally, the mob ain’t too happy and put a $1 million bounty on Buddy’s head, with all manner of weirdos (notably the Tremors, a band of feral-looking psychos clearly inspired by “Mad Max 2” and “Romper Stomper”, one of them played by Chris Pine), professional killers (including emotionless Nestor Carbonell, and master-of-disguise Tommy Flanagan), and wannabe tough guys coming out to rub the little weasel out and collect the dough. Ryan Reynolds (surprisingly effective) and Ray Liotta are a couple of FBI guys trying to stop the fit hitting the shans, with Andy Garcia playing their unconvincingly Southern-accented boss. R&B singer Alicia Keys makes her solid acting debut as a Pam Grier-inspired hit-woman, with a startlingly tough-looking Taraji P. Henson (from “Hustle & Flow”) as her lesbian sidekick. Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, and Martin Henderson play bail bondsmen who aren’t as smart as they think, with Henderson having a seriously weird side-trip to Hicksville USA. Jason Bateman is hysterically funny as a perverted, coked-up lawyer in a terrific cameo.


2006 Joe Carnahan (the gritty “Narc”) B-movie might be just another Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie/John Woo wannabe (albeit a fun one) if it weren’t for my having a sneaking suspicion that the director and presumably everyone else, played it for satire of the whole QT-wannabe genre (or the John Woo school of dopey action movie filmmaking. I really do suspect that this film is a parody of Woo’s awful OTT work on “Mi2”, but I may be alone on that).  At least, I hope it’s meant to be ludicrously funny- I mean, it’s basically 90 minutes of over-the-top characterisations and a ridiculously violent climax. And really, Ben Affleck as a tough bail bondsman? Who can take that seriously? Anyway, it’s certainly not boring, often visually dynamic, with one action sequence in particular (involving Henson and Keys) that contains the damndest gunshot I’ve ever seen.


The cast is a mixed bag, with a few lame characters (notably Henderson and the bizarro Three Tremors) that could’ve been excised, but Reynolds and Liotta are solid, Piven is perfectly cast, and Bateman’s cameo is absolutely hilarious. Funny cameo by a karate-kicking kid with ADHD, too.


Think of it as “Pulp Fiction” meets “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, and just sit back and relax, because it’s all in fun, and without that nasty aftertaste QT sometimes leaves (notably with Uma OD’ing in “Pulp Fiction”- no, I haven’t gotten over it yet, and I never will. It’s overrated, I tells ‘ya!). It’s fun just to work out who you think will make it out alive, or who (if anyone) will kill the sleazy, bleary-eyed sonofabitch Israel. The screenplay by the director, has some clever twists and turns, especially towards the end. I have no idea why people hate this film so much, it’s dumb fun, yet not just the mindless action film you might expect (The action really only comes after the midway point).


Rating: B-

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

Whilst King Leonidas is off battling the Persians with his 300 men, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapelton) and his own Greek army take to the seas to battle Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his fierce navy general Artemisia (Eva Green) on a different front. Lena Headey, David Wenham, and Andrew Tiernan reprise their roles as Queen Gorgo, Dilios, and treacherous hunch-backed Ephialtes, respectively. Aussie Callan Murphy and “Spartacus” TV actor Peter Mensah also have roles.


I wasn’t overly fussed with the first “300” from director Zack Snyder (whose “Watchmen” and “Man of Steel” I enjoyed immensely), it was all artifice. Wonderful artifice, but completely hollow. As someone who loves the way Hollywood used to make historical epics, it just wasn’t my bag. Now comes this 2014 film with some events running concurrently with the first film. Co-written by Snyder along with Kurt Johnstad (“300”, “Act of Valour”), but directed by Noam Murro (a music video graduate), it’s based on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller (“300”, “Sin City”), though apparently in-name only.


For me, this was like a half-step up from TV’s “Spartacus” franchise, and that’s fine if you like this sort of hyperreal kind of thing. I’m not even sure if it’s a better or worse film than the first film, but because you can get this sort of thing on TV now, I felt like it was a much worse experience than the first film. Frankly, I found it bloody boring, with Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton making zero impression whatsoever in the lead. He doesn’t even ham it up like Gerard Butler in the first film, he’s dull and uncharismatic, and no better at handling this kind of dialogue than anyone from the “Spartacus” shows. Lena Headey at one point talks about stroking cocks, and whilst no mention of Jupiter is made, it’s still far too reminiscent of “Spartacus”, though at least Headey manages to handle this sort of dialogue relatively well. She’s been better though, as has Eva Green in the film’s sole semi-interesting performance. She’s better than anyone on the “Spartacus” TV shows, that’s for sure. She was better in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”, though. And more naked. Green has the greatest breastplate of all-time here, I have to say. I can see what they were going for in the sex scene between Green and Stapleton, but once again, it’s nothing you can’t get on “Spartacus”.


The only real positives this time out for me are that there’s a bit more colour to the film’s stylised palette, and the music score by Junkie XL is thankfully far more traditional than the annoying, anachronistic rock score of the original. Some of the gory imagery is undeniably awesome, but because a lot of it looks so artificial, you’re not drawn in. The quality of the acting and screenwriting does not help, either.


Because this is the kind of stuff one can now get on TV, because it was already done in “300”, and because it’s not how I like my historical epics to be done, I felt this was entirely irrelevant and useless. I mean, we even get “Spartacus” mainstay Peter Mensah in a small role for chrissakes. Because this is meant to be a film and not a TV show, it’s even more disappointing. Good music score, though, and the best thing in the entire film is Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ playing over the end credits (though it’s far from my favourite Sabbath song, I might add), a lovely surprise. How can a film this bloody be so bloody boring?


Rating: C

Review: The Travelling Executioner

Stacy Keach stars as the title character, a former prison inmate now working for The Man, who travels from town to town in the early 1900s with a portable electrocution device to carry out the government’s executions. Seemingly more of a huckster than an instrument of the law, Keach nonetheless seems to take pride in his work, and tries to calmly take his ‘customers’ on their final journey to ‘the fields of Ambrosia’. His latest assignment is executing Marianna Hill and her fellow immigrant brother (Stefan Gierasch). The latter goes smoothly, however legalities see Hill gaining a temporary stalling in her execution. In the meantime, Keach starts to develop romantic feelings for her, and he also takes up an apprentice in young Bud Cort. M. Emmet Walsh plays the sleazy-looking prison warden and Charles Tyner plays a local yokel.


A terrific, colourful performance by Stacy Keach can’t even come close to saving this 1970 nonsense from director Jack Smight (“No Way to Treat a Lady”, “Harper”) and screenwriter Garrie Bateson (whose only other work appears to be teleplays for episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Mission: Impossible”). Indicative of the worst in 70s filmmaking, the decade was just as known for exciting and emerging filmmakers as it was for annoying, pretentious pieces of shit like this.


The title is unseemly and the tone is weirdly light-hearted (or at least black comedy), it’s all kind of off-putting, really. It’s a mess. He’s not quite Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry” (seemingly one of the film’s inspirations), but Keach tries really, really hard. He’s much, much better than the film deserves. He kinda made me feel something in his final speech, but the contrived manner of how he gets to this place prevents the moment from truly working. It’s a positively stupid, contrived finale.


There’s some interesting names and faces here, but the least interesting ones (the incredibly boring Marianna Hill in particular, and a young Bud Cort) are given the most screen time. We’re supposed to see something in Hill that might make us (and the lead character) want to spare her, but she’s a woefully uninteresting actress playing a decidedly unsympathetic character. Meanwhile, my favourite film composer Jerry Goldsmith (“The Omen”, “Chinatown”, “Star Trek: First Contact”) delivers what may be his worst-ever score. No, it’s not an awful score, it’s just that this is the one time where I’ve felt he was phoning it in. It’s nondescript.


With a more serious approach and a tighter focus, this might’ve been an interesting look at the inner workings of those who carry out the State’s harsh justice. Unfortunately, what we get is aimless, rambling, weird, and pretentious in the extreme. With this subject matter and strange approach, and with character actor Keach taking the lead in a cast that also features flavours of the month Marianna Hill and Bud Cort, you can see why no one ever talks about this one. You can also see why no one wanted to talk about it on original release, either. It’s weird enough that it might have a handful of defenders, I suppose.


Rating: D+

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Night Tide

Dennis Hopper is a sailor on leave hanging around Venice Beach when he catches sight of pretty Linda Lawson in a jazz bar. He awkwardly tries to chat her up, but after a strange woman (The singularly named Cameron, an occultist in real-life apparently) speaking a foreign language approaches them (in a scene right out of “Cat People”), Lawson excuses herself and leaves abruptly. Hopper follows after her and after talking a bit, she agrees to see him again the next day for breakfast. Turns out she’s part of a carny attraction pretending to be a mermaid. However, after chatting to some locals (including Luana Anders), Hopper learns that there are sinister rumours about Lawson, including the deaths of two previous suitors. Lawson herself, meanwhile, tells him something even crazier…she’s a REAL mermaid! Gavin Muir plays the drunken ‘Captain’ who runs the mermaid sideshow gimmick, claiming to have rescued the orphan as a young girl from Mykonos.


Moody, but not entirely successful oddity from 1961 that has admirable elements, but doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. Written and directed by debutant Curtis Harrington (who went on to direct “What’s the Matter With Helen?”, and “Killer Bees”), this one has undeniably interesting mood, atmosphere, and lovely cinematography (predominantly) by ace cameraman Floyd Crosby (“Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “Comedy of Terrors”). It’s nice, noir-ish stuff with interesting beachside scenery, at times it felt like a Val Lewton chiller. In fact, I felt like I was watching “Cat People” crossed with “The She Creature”, but less horror-oriented (It’s more quietly eerie mood piece than creature feature, aside from one brief nightmare sequence and a title taken from Edgar Allen Poe).


It’s just that the performances are mostly negligible, and the story is a bit lacking in, well…stuff. It plays like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” uncomfortably stretched to feature length (Indeed, Harrington based it on a short story he wrote). It’s an interesting idea for a film, it just hasn’t had much meat added to its bones to entirely get it up to snuff. The look is the most cinematic thing about it.


The AIP-esque music score by David Raksin (“Laura”, “The Bad and the Beautiful”) is awfully cheap-sounding, and inappropriately jazzy. Most of the acting is seriously stiff, even Hopper at times, though he shows a somewhat interesting sensitivity on occasion as well. I’m pretty sure he was stoned throughout filming, it certainly seems that way for the most part. Linda Lawson fares best as the maybe-sorta-kinda mermaid, though her disappearing accent after 45 minutes is just weird. What the hell happened there?


It’s not a good film, but it makes for an interesting curio, if you’re somewhat patient and forgiving. This one’s definitely got something…it just doesn’t quite add up to a worthwhile film on the whole outside of pure curiosity. Although Harrington later claimed Crosby shot most of the film, the credits still list Vilis Lapenieks (“Cisco Pike”, “Planet of Blood”) as sole cinematographer here.


Rating: C+

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review: Cocoon

Inhabitants of a Florida retirement home (Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, and Hume Cronyn) experience a rejuvenation when (breaking and) entering a nearby pool next door. Have they found the fountain of youth? The house is being rented by Brian Dennehy, who along with several others (including Tahnee Welch and Tyrone Power Jr.) have hired Steve Guttenberg’s boat to sail out and pick up what look like giant shells or pods. It’s not long before Guttenberg realises that Dennehy and company are actually aliens, on a retrieval mission to take their cocooned brethren back home, after having been left behind on a previous voyage. They are storing the cocoons at the bottom of the very same pool the old-timers are frequenting, and Dennehy is not at all happy when he learns of these trespassers, especially now that word of the pool has spread through the entire home. Jessica Tandy plays Cronyn’s wife, worried that Cronyn might slip back into his old amorous ways, Jack Gilford is the one sceptic among them who is not interested in feeling young again, whilst Maureen Stapleton and Gwen Verdon play other inhabitants of the retirement home. Linda Harrison and Barret Oliver play Brimley’s daughter and grandson, respectively, and Clint Howard turns up as a male nurse/orderly.


Although nice and an OK-to-good motion picture, this 1985 Ron Howard (“Night Shift”, “Parenthood”, “Backdraft”, “Rush”)  mixture of geriatric buddy movie and alien flick could’ve been even better if it aimed a little higher than lightweight comedy. Scripted by Tom Benedek (with only “The Adventures of Pinocchio” in 1996 and one other credit to his name) from a novel by David Saperstein, it’s a cute idea for a film. However, make no mistake, if it weren’t for the geriatric cast, this plot would be fodder for a sex comedy.


I was particularly disappointed with the lack of awe afforded towards the aliens. I mean, goddamn, they’re aliens- look a bit awestruck, will ‘ya? That was really annoying and disappointing, especially since the aliens are actually pretty interesting (at least on paper). Brian Dennehy is particularly well-cast as their leader of-sorts, because early on we don’t know if they are benevolent or malevolent, Dennehy as an actor can go either way effortlessly. He offers suggestions of both in the one scene here, which shows just how talented and versatile he is. It’s just a shame that Howard and Benedek are more interested in the geriatric buddy movie stuff, which although enjoyable, is far less ambitious. For a film with such a goofy premise and for a film featuring aliens, it strangely lacks imagination.


The Oscar-winning FX are also horribly dated here, probably the film’s biggest problem. In fact, aside from the spaceship, I don’t think they’re remotely acceptable for 1985, either (Rick Baker, Greg Cannom, and ILM amazingly feature in the credits, though Baker was merely a consultant), and it boggles the mind that they won an Oscar. More than acceptable, however, is the cast of geriatric actors. I’m not sure Don Ameche deserved an Oscar for this (a Thank You award?), but it’s nice to see Hume Cronyn and real-life wife Jessica Tandy as a couple, and Jack Gilford makes more of his sceptic character than a lesser talent might’ve been able to. He gets the film’s best dramatic moment in a conversation with Dennehy. All of the actors and characters amongst the older set here are interesting and distinct from one another. Best of all is the wonderfully grumpy, stubborn Wilford Brimley. I hear he’s not an overly ‘fan friendly’ person in real-life, but he sure is a treasure on screen. He brings depth and down-home sincerity to his role that the film very much benefits from. Steve Guttenberg is OK, but the stunningly beautiful Tahnee Welch (daughter of you-know-who), Tyrone Power Jr., and “Planet of the Apes” actress Linda Harrison (who doesn’t look to have aged much between 1968 and 1985) are all a bit bland. That’s “NeverEnding Story” lead Barret Oliver as Brimley’s grandson, by the way. Oh, and look out for Don Ameche’s dinner jacket in one scene, it’s the most godawful thing I’ve ever seen.


No masterpiece, this is disappointingly safe entertainment. However, entertainment it still is, mainly because these guys are such good company. Check it out. It’s nice. You’ll like it. Then you’ll forget about it. The excellent, John Williams-ish score by the late James Horner (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, “Aliens”, “Braveheart”) is the best thing in the film. 


Rating: B-

Review: Locke

Tom Hardy plays a construction engineer and family man driving from Birmingham to London. We follow him on the long drive as he makes and answers several phone calls (hands free, of course) throughout dealing with both professional and personal crises all at once. And yes, that’s all the plot synopsis you’ll get out of me. You’ll thank me for being vague later.


What at first sounds like “Buried” in a moving car (shot in less than two weeks to boot!), this 2014 film from writer/director Steven Knight (writer of “Eastern Promises”, writer-director of the unusual Jason Statham flick “Hummingbird”) is not that kind of film at all, really. It’s not a gimmicky thriller at all, but a rather sad drama, and not a plot or action-heavy film. Much more internal than “Buried”, this is a one-man acting exercise and Tom Hardy is more than up to the task. There’s something rather moving about it. This guy has fucked up and he’s desperately trying to patch everything up, whilst also dealing with a tense work situation. Hardy really needed to bring it here, because it’s not a film with a whole lot going on, his performance really is just about everything, and he’s terrific.


I don’t think it’s as great as a lot of other people seem to think, but it’s a solid film and only slightly contrived that all of this stuff is happening to Hardy on the one night. Eliminate the calls to the wife (which, although important, aren’t entirely realistic) and the film would be even better. It’s certainly not boring, and for some reason, there’s a kind of soothing quality to Hardy’s chosen Welsh accent here that is appealing. It might get annoying if you had to hear it all day long, though (he borders on sounding patronising once or twice I must admit).


I suppose you could argue that the film could’ve gone longer and told more of its story, but I rather like the ending. It’s a good film, if not the film I was expecting, and not a film for everyone. Certainly a must for Tom Hardy fans though, he’s terrific here in a real showcase for his acting talents.


Rating: B-